Thoughts on a Movie I Haven’t Seen

My extreme antipathy towards Rian Johnson left me with no interest in seeing Knives Out, much as I love good mystery stories. I still haven’t seen it, but I have learned the solution from someone who did, and, having confirmed it by a perusal of Wikipedia, I am about to say something about it. Though take it with a grain of salt.

Needless to say, SPOILERS, and spoilers of a mystery, which is worse. However, quite frankly the solution is so stupid that I don’t think it matters.




So, the solution, described by wikipedia, is this:

Unknown to Blanc, after the party, [Christopher Plummer]s nurse, Marta Cabrera, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication and could not find the antidote, leaving Harlan minutes to live. To protect Marta, Harlan gave her instructions to create a false alibi to avoid suspicion over his death; he then slit his own throat. Marta carried out Harlan’s instructions, but Harlan’s elderly mother saw her and mistook her for Ransom.

…After Ransom learned at the party that Harlan was leaving everything to Marta, he swapped the contents of Marta’s medication vials and stole the antidote so she would kill Harlan with an overdose of morphine, making her ineligible to claim the inheritance by the slayer rule. However, Marta actually administered the correct medicine without reading the labels, recognizing it by the weight and viscosity of the fluid, and is therefore innocent of Harlan’s death. After the death was reported as a suicide, Ransom anonymously hired Blanc to discover Marta’s guilt. Fran later saw Ransom stealing Marta’s medical case to hide the fact that the contents of the vials had been switched, and sent him the blackmail note.

So, the trained nurse couldn’t recognize the symptoms of a massive morphine overdose? Neither she nor the old man himself realized that he was wide-awake, perfectly lucid, and mentally alert enough to be able to concoct a complicated plot in the space of a few minutes, despite supposedly getting a lethal overdose of a sedative? In fact, the old man was so convinced that he had mere minutes to live that he cut his own throat some five minutes after getting what he thought was a massive overdose of tranquilizer, enough to kill him within mere minutes?

If he had gotten that level of an overdose, it would have hit him hard straight away and probably left him all-but incapacitated at once, if it didn’t actually put him straight to sleep. He certainly wouldn’t be coming up with elaborate false alibis or cutting his own throat minutes later. It’s a narcotic; you would feel it if you got that much all at once, you wouldn’t be fully functional until the timer runs out like in a video game.

I’ve heard the film compared with the works of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie would have tanned your hide for this. Her solutions were sometimes a little wonky, requiring luck and split-second timing, but they didn’t turn on people simply forgetting how drugs work to the extent that they kill themselves over it. In one of her stories, this would have been the unworkable fake solution disqualified by requiring totally unreasonable behavior on all sides. I can just picture Poirot: “Does a man who has just been given 20 ccs of morphine concoct an elaborate alibi for his nurse and then calmly cut his own throat? Would he even remain conscious long enough to learn that a mistake had been made? And does a trained nurse mistake a wide-awake man who is calmly conversing with her for a man who has just been lethally drugged with a narcotic? No, no! C’est impossible!” 

Why didn’t the grandson just mix the two instead of swapping completely? Blend in an amount of morphine to the medication, and the same result ensues, only without the stupid element of the man coolly and deliberately cutting his own throat because both he and his nurse thinks he’s been given enough morphine to knock out an elephant, and still believe it after five minutes of intense, lucid concentration? Even if they find the mixture, it would be all-but impossible to pin the blame on any one person, and she would still come under suspicion either for incompetence or murder (but you could easily arrange for the mixture to be covered up somehow).

Actually – again, speaking without having seen the film – wouldn’t that make for a better story? She legitimately did kill him, and the detective has to prove it wasn’t her fault?

Or if you wanted this particular set up, just have the medication be something that wouldn’t affect his mind, like the ever-handy digitalin. See, that’s the worst part of this sort of thing; it would be so incredibly easy to avoid this problem with just a little bit of thought. You can have everything the same (though the suicide angle still seems wonky to me), only without the glaring gap in logic. But they didn’t care enough to even do that, apparently.

You know, with so many people praising the film, I thought perhaps that meant that Rian Johnson actually could write a decent story, just couldn’t do Star Wars. But, no; at least as far as the solution goes, this film shows the same level of blind stupidity as The Last Jedi: an inability to think things through or give people logical motivations or reactions. Characters just do what they are told because they’re told to do it because he doesn’t know how to get his desired effects otherwise.

If he doesn’t start to improve, his oeuvre is going to be a treasure trove of “don’t do this” examples for future writers if nothing else.

The World We Live In

It is, I find, fatally easy to forget what kind of world we live in, especially today. We’ve got all our gadgets, our (relatively) ordered society, and all the rest of it, so that it becomes only natural to fall into a kind of trance assuming that everything just kind of works and that’s all there is to it. We think of things like Religion as mere classifications of people: this group believes this, that group believes that. And we only rarely go any further. In any case, the main point is how those beliefs practically affect themselves and the world around them: not the truth or falsehood of those claims.

It’s hard to describe, because I myself can only catch glimpses of another perspective. Habits of thought are extremely difficult to fight, and we all default to much the same assumptions: modernism (we assume ourselves at a higher level than the past), materialism (again, we assume the practical, material effects of any given idea or practice are the main point), and liberalism (we are suspicious of any kind of human authority). This applies whether you call yourself Conservative or Liberal, and it is a rare person indeed who is legitimately emancipated from it (again, speaking as someone who can only step out of it with conscious effort).

But the truth is this: we live in a world where God took flesh and lived among us as a Man: a Man in history, living a certain amount of years before us, in a place we know, at a fairly well-documented time of history. Consider, as you go about your day, that this world of ours, now filled with cars and computers and concrete, is the very same one in which Christ lived and walked and taught. We live in a world where Miracles have indeed taken place (and, I see no reason to doubt, continue to do so).

Jesus is not a ‘lifestyle choice.’ He is not simply one choice among many, nor is His Church merely one among many. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; He is the Lord, and there is no other.

We live, in short, in the time of fulfillment. Our age is the one in which God has revealed Himself to Man, and our only options are either to accept Him or reject Him. We do not live in the time of questions or doubts or plurality of religion, when man is searching for God. We live in a time when God has come to man and established His Church upon Earth.

It’s hard to convey the full impact of this. Basically, the supernatural is at work openly in our world; it is baked into its very structure. It is no more of a question – actually considerably less of one – than that gravity is at work. We live in a world of miracles, fulfilled prophecies (and prophecies still to be fulfilled), and authorities, amid unseen supernatural beings. If you believe in Christ, I don’t see how you can disbelieve in this or consider the ‘supernatural elements’ of Religion somehow less important than the material ones.

In any case, it is healthy to try to recall, when we pray, that we are speaking to a real Person who hears us, and at any time to consider the fact that this is the world in which God lived among us as a Man.

It is a sobering thought.

Gunga Din at ‘The Everyman’

A new ‘Everyman’ post went up yesterday, talking about Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din and what it reveals about both his perspective and ours:

Now, you cannot think sense about morality unless you get this idea of principles clear, and you cannot get it clear until you can identify what is and is not an equivalent case.

The respective views of Mr. Kipling and a modern college student on the subject of the Indian peoples, for instance, is not an equivalent case, for they were raised in completely different intellectual climates. Kipling’s point of view was never seriously presented to the college student as something he ought to believe; if it was presented at all, it was as a historical relic that has been supplanted. The reason the modern college student doesn’t think as Kipling did is not because he is that much more enlightened than Kipling, but because it was never a serious option for him to do so. He may as well be proud of the fact that he never owned a slave or mistreated a horse. Likewise, Kipling never seriously encountered a perspective that we would recognize as Progressive, and certainly wasn’t raised to one (though he was likely to be much the more independent thinker of the two, but we’ll discount that for now).

I am not here saying that Kipling’s Imperialism and the modern’s Progressivism are morally equivalent; that’s as may be. I am saying that they are socially equivalent. What we would call racist sentiments was as common in Kipling’s day as progressive sentiment is in ours. In both cases they are more or less the accepted, cultured view among the educated classes. And both have their ‘Other:’ the people who, in the common view, are ‘lesser than us.’ For the Imperialist it was the native population; for the Progressive, it is (among others) the Imperialist.

And herein lies the equivalent case; not how each regards Indian people, but how each regards their particular ‘Other.’ Stripped of their respective idioms, this is what is being said on each side:

The modern says, “This man is of this type and therefore he is of no account.”

Kipling says, “This man is of this type, but nevertheless is of more account than I.”

Read the rest here.

Two Philosophers, Two Critics

I’ve heard it said (though I can’t know remember from whom) that there are two kinds of philosophers; those who try to explain why a thing is so and those who try to explain that it is so. Aristotle, for instance, took it as a rule that the common understanding of mankind is itself a fact that must be taken into account. St. Thomas bent much of his huge intellect to seeking answers to difficulties raise by faith. On the other hand, David Hume provided a philosophy that no one, including himself, could actually live by and didn’t bother trying (not that this itself doesn’t have value: pointing out where difficulties lie is a legitimate contribution, even if your own answers won’t wash), while much of what is call ‘philosophy’ today consists largely in trying to convince people that their own lying eyes (and brains) are not to be trusted.

The same thing applies to critics. There are the kind who explain why something is good or why it is bad and the kind who try to explain that it is good. A critic of the first type will take a film like, say, Star Wars and explain to you the elements that make it good. A critic of the second type will take a film like The Last Jedi and explain to you why you should appreciate it despite its manifest repugnancy.

The thing is, though the former critic provides the real value, the latter tends to have more influence. This is because they tend to couch their views in context of a larger ideological framework: they talk, for instance, about how a given movie “asks hard questions about society” or the like (jumping off of yesterday’s post, an article I read about Brutalism enthused about its connection to the ‘working classes’), implying or outright stating that this is what the ‘right’ kind of person would like. Those for whom being the ‘right’ kind of person is important, therefore, pay attention, and since they tend to be the ones who are most interested in gaining power and influence, they elevate these latter critics as the arbiters of public taste.

Mixed up in this is the spirit of infidelity that St. John Henry Newman spoke about; the desire to feel that you have broken from the shackles of the commonplace, that you see through what others admire and admire what they are too dense to understand, and the angry wish to say that you admire a thing just because you know that those whom you despise think it’s junk. The whole reason why the works praised by critics tend to be so very ugly and unpleasant is precisely so that few people will admire them and those that do can enjoy the sensation of being in rebellion and with it sense of partaking exceptional wisdom.

At least, that is how I see these things.

Some thoughts from ‘The Infidelity of the Future’

Today at lunch I refreshed my mind by reading St. John Henry Newman’s sermon The Infidelity of the Future. Some of his main points, with brief thoughts:

*The great evil of our time is the Spirit of Infidelity itself.
Has it never struck you as odd that we consider terms like ‘unorthodox’ or ‘unconventional’ to be complimentary, rather than, at best, merely descriptive? It seems to me that one of the basic assumptions of our age is that any established system is, for that very reason, a bad system that ought to be attacked (which, of course, is one reason why we often go to such lengths to pretend that old structures and standards are still the norm). We celebrate people simply for rebelling against established modes, even when those modes were objectively better than their rebellion, simply because we delight in disobedience (well, at least when it isn’t directed against ourselves). Such is the world in which we live.

*Christianity has never, before the present age, encountered a simply irreligious society.
For most of its history, Christian evangelism has been directed at converting people from belief in false gods to belief in the True One. It would be misleading to say that today it is about converting people from non-belief, since I don’t think there is any such thing. Rather, the peculiar feature of today’s superstitions and false religions is that they are mostly materialistic or at least atheistic: where the ancients said ‘fate’, they say ‘social influences’ or ‘genetic determinism’, and what the ancients attributed to the gods, the modern attributes to something like history or evolution. This means the first step is often convincing people that there is a God and that He is concerned about us; very few people today – in or out of the Church – really believe that.

*Evangelization does not primarily come through argument, but by the ecclesiastical spirit; by living the Gospel.
This isn’t to say that argument is irrelevant or that Catholics shouldn’t know their faith, but that the important part of calling others to Christ does not happen through argument, as if God were an intellectual proposition. Ultimately, He calls whom He wills and He works the conversions of hearts. Our part is to model and preach what we believe

St. Cardinal Newman, of course, puts all this a lot better than I do, so I encourage you to go and read his sermon. And whether you do or not, pray!

The Ordinary King

In a far-off land, there lived young prince. He was very forward thinking in his views, having read much and mixed much among the common people, whom he loved dearly. He swore that, when he became king, he would make their welfare and their happiness his first priority.

In the meantime, he thought less and less of the nobles and courtiers he had to spend his days with, thinking them haughty, arrogant, and vain. He came to despise the pomp and show of court, and even to think less of his own father, the king. Again, he swore that when he became king he would put a stop to all that nonsense, or at least reign it in a good deal. As is the way of things, the more time went on and the more he thought on these things, the more radical he became in his views.

In due course, the old king died, and the prince ascended the throne. The very first thing he did was to reduce his coronation from a fine, expensive spectacle at the cathedral to a quiet ceremony in the palace chapel. In his first address to the people, he assured them that the days of autocratic, exploitative rule was over: “For I am but a man; a common, ordinary man like any other, and I shall act like it.”

He was as good as his word, riding a common horse, wearing common clothes, and eschewing his retinue. The money that would have been spent on all this went to doing good among the poor and destitute. And though the nobles grumbled, the king was happy and well-loved by the people.

One day, while the king was on his daily ride, he came across two men quarreling. Stopping his horse, he inquired as to the issue. He learned that they were brothers, and the elder had denied their father’s dying wishes and disinherited his brother, who had a young wife and child.

“This is intolerable!” said the king. “I order you sir, to render your brother his due inheritance.”

The hard-bitten farmer leaned back and fixed his eyes on the king.

“You order me, do ye?” he said. “Ye go about ridin’ an ordinary horse, with not but a common man’s clothes on yer back. You even announced at yer coronation that ye were naught but an ordinary man. Well, I don’t give a straw for what an ordinary man tells me to do.”

Sunday Thoughts

In addition to being one of the great philosophical minds of human history, St. Thomas Aquinas was also a mystic who experienced visions and ecstasies while in prayer. Near the end of his life, while still working on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, he was granted a vision of Christ. When he came out of it, he vowed never to write another word, as he said that compared with the reality he had seen, “all my writing is as straw.”

This is something we would do well to keep in mind; there is an unbridgeable gap between what a thing is and what can be said about it. Whether we’re talking philosophical or scientific or written descriptions, they always and necessarily can only convey an approximation of the thing. The most obvious instance of this is that no description of a beautiful object could ever convey its beauty to someone who did not already have an idea of beauty. But in the same way, even the most complete, perfect scientific description of a thing; a picture that takes in every natural law and accounts for every factual observation (assuming such a thing is possible) could contain the complete nature of even a single stone.

Words can suggest something of what what a thing is, but only to an extent, and like the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park, it has to be completed by what we ourselves bring to it. In the end, real things cannot be formularized; they can only be encountered.

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”