Movie Theaters, Transcendence, and Experiencing Black Widow: Navigating a Crisis of Meaning, Personhood and Free Will

Fun fact (for me). I have logged 1173 watches since last stepping foot in a theater. For context on the time frame, theaters officially closed here in October 2020 after a brief attempt at reopening following the first wave. With restrictions finally lifting yesterday (that would be Saturday) I was able to celebrate my return home with an early morning showing (first of the day).

With that many watches under my belt it might be fair to wonder, why is being able to go to the theater again actually that big of a deal. It’s not like I haven’t had access to films. And to spend any time online underscores the existence of certain sentiments that suggest for many that theaters are now officially old news. And yet buying my ticket, getting into my car, sitting in a room with others, sitting with the credits and dialoguing with a friend, all of these things still seemed to hold some value. For me it is at least in part the investment. When I invest my time, energy and money into seeing a film the experience feels more important, more valuable. For me, it helps moves it from content to consume (which quickly translates to 1173 watches) to art to be appreciated. There is another aspect to this though, one that revolves around the power of story. The ability to be immersed in a narrative without distraction, to be transported into a story that has the power to transorm and to reveal Truth that would otherwise remain hidden.

I know. This all sounds overdramatic. Even melodramatic. To spend any time with history though is to find at least a hint of validity to the witness of my experience. For as long as humans have existed we have been telling stories as a way to make sense of this world, to find meaning, and to imagine (not create) transcendent “Truths” about our reality. Until recently these stories have been shared and experienced together. There is something about this sense of connectedness that makes story sacred, which is why I think I have always seen film and the theater as a sort of religious experiece. Pattern this after the same feelings that emerge from online Church services and it shouldn’t be surprising that certain feelings might emerge from stepping back into that sanctuary. Questions still abound about whether or not “theater”attendence might go the way of “Church” attendance in the gripping vice of this modern age, but for the moment it feels the way I previously put it- like coming home.

With Black Widow being the story to mark my return home, there is a personal story that I think can help accentuate both what I’ve expressed above along with detailing my specific thoughts on the film itself, which (spoiler alert), likely catapulted itself into one of my all time favorite Marvel films. For as much as there is to say about the strength of the story itself, on a purely technical level the film is ridiculously well edited (not only in the flow and pacing, but in incorporating these flashbacks and character lines so seamlessly), smartly written, and perfectly cast (Pugh steals the show). It’s easy at this point to speak of these films in terms of the “Marvel formula”, but to reduce the film to such a critique is, in my mind, to miss the uniqueness and ingenuity of the stand alone story. The beauty of Black Widow’s story getting its own treatment is that its distinctive tones and style and sensibilities are given the freedom to tell its story as part of the whole.

My story starts with a previous day’s conversation with an association (I’ll leave them anonymous). This conversation reflects an ongoing thread of questions and concerns that I personally have been working through over the last number of years surrounding the big questions in life, such as meaning, purpose, the existence (or not) of free will, and moral responsibility. These are questions that for me have only been heightened by the Pandemic. In this conversation from last night I found myself parsing through some of this stuff with someone whom I share much in common, but also with whom I happen to see the world and our place in it very differently. One of the topics we spent some time with was the subject of “free will” and whether its possible absence in rational terms (a renewed commitment that runs through much of current popular science) bears any weight on our ability to experience this world in meaningful ways. One interesting aspect of the larger discussion that is worth noting here, using definitive treatments such as Sam Harris’ “Final Thoughts on Free Will”, Pinker’s much heralded treatment on the power and worth of enlightenment era values, progressive ideals and human exceptionalism (The Better Angels of our Nature), and Harari’s equally embraced “Sapiens” led trilogy as easy focal points, is the larger framework through which to understand the discusson.

John Vervaeke, a studied cognitive and social scientist with a specialized interest in Psychology does a good job of outlining what this is in his series “Awakening From the Meaning Crisis” (available on Youtube). What he underscores is the ebb and flow of history (recognizing that while we might be processing new information in the modern age in light of ongoing scientific and historical study and technological progress, larger movements that define interest in things like free will versus determinism, socialism versus free market capitalism/libertarianism, the death or rise of interest in God/deism versus theism/Aristotarianism versus Platonism, demonsrate an ebb and flow that recognizes that everything old always becomes new again depending on our context), noting that new information about our world and new advancements in genetics and technology don’t change the questions, they merely recontextualize them into a modern age. This is what allows him to find worth in exploring the current study of cognitive science through the lens of a neo-Platonist view (which for the record provides a convenient way to attend for Transcendent Truths and realities by placing them out there, removed from our historical reality but free to be brought in and applied to it). To set this into the larger context of our most recent history, if one of the problems with Modernism was its tendency to narrow “Truth” into one way of knowing (rational reason and knowledge based systems), Post Modernism critiqued Modernism’s narrowed lens by employing forms of relativism in response. In many ways this reflects what Vervaeke describes as a meaning crisis, caught in the cross hairs of these two seemingly competing perspectives. Thus the rise of scientists writing popular level books attempting to reintegrate elements of romanticism into the sciences with the goal, as Vervaeke puts it, of getting people to fall in love with “reality”. By this he means finding meaning in our experience of reality along with a willingness to make room for other ways of knowing. The pushback on this recontextualized scientific “renaisssance” into a modern age is that such a blurring of lines (between philosophical concern and the scientific practice) can inhibit the ability of the sciences to do their work, but nevertheless the current trajectory seems to make a case for the legitimacy of this long history of wrestling with meaning and meaning making systems in light of the human experience. We need a way to tell stories that help us to experience some level of transcendence, which in the proper use of the word is what allow us to imagine governing “Truths” operating within our experience of the everyday in life giving ways. Transcendence by nature is a revelatory process that requires trust in irrational beliefs about this world and who we are (which by nature is employed by way of the past and the future) even if that irrational belief is (or can be) at the same time examined using logic and reason to shape its function in the here and now.

Here then is the central problem that informs the meaning crisis. One of the outcomes of the Post Modern experiment is a tendency towards reductive reasoning. For example, one of the critiques it makes of Modernism is that it’s emphasis on singular ways of knowing over other ways of knowing and experiencing this world leads to reductive forms of reasoning (that philsophical and theological assumptions are irrational on one side, and that Modernity and Enlightenment era rationality is necessarily nihilistic on the other). Vervaeke makes the argument that the present age needs to push back on these reductive tendencies by allowing room for multiple ways of knowing. He resists the common rhetoric that rationality is necessarily nihilistic and argues for an approach that upholds the existence of foundational knowledge (the idea that there is Truth there to know and aquire) while employing a narrative of emergence to attend for the kind of knowledge that comes from human experience (or human nature). Thus it is our experience of this world that forms our sense of meaning, and even if free will does not exist, and the narratives we build and create and hold to are essentially lies in the most rational sense of the word, they bear weight as Truth via the lived in experience of it.

The problem emerges from the upholding of these foundational Truths that inform and motivate our experiences, and this problem becomes evident the minute we attach our experiences to an imagined future and attach this to a degree of moral responsibility. If meaning is attached to our experience of this world then it is by nature limited to these experiences. The minute we step away from experiences to try and attend for meaning in this world according to a foundational Truth we are speaking of ontological Truths. And these Truths must be imposed through irrational leaps in our reasoning. Apply this to visions of imagined futures intended to generate hope, a basic human need, and we have created (imagined) and culturally conditioned Truths (such as the notion of memory, or this idea that we live on in the hearts of others. Or the generational argument that says we live on in our offspring. Or the narrative of “Progress” that sees our present value in the light of the long game of human and technological advancement). These are narratives that we buy into in order to convince ourselves that what we do in the here and now matters. But in a purely rational sense they are not true. They are worldviews that we adopt via these foundational Truths that we accept in order to then be free to formulate a narrative that gives us the illusion of meaning, thus justifying the meaning making processes that inform our societies and our lives.

Thus it is not something we can argue for on purely rational means. This might sound harmless (let us believe our lies of romantic relationships for example. After all, who actually wants to experience romance via the science of it. We don’t want to justify love as a biologically and socially constructed reality, we simply want to live and experience it as true, and only then bring in the reasoned nature of how love works on a scientific level to make it stronger or better or to make sense of why it didn’t work). But where it really matters is when we are dealing with relationships that result in harm to others. Or perhaps even more complicated is when we are thinking about issues like environmental concern that have a more embedded and future oriented lens. In a purely Naturalistic sense one can make the argument that we are able to care about the environment when it either inhibits our experience of the world or when we associate it with the suffering of others, because human awareness has evolved the capacity to respond to these realities in actualized ways (in the same manner that we have evolved to respond to sex, given that no other species cares about consent). The flipside of this is that Naturalism can make the opposite case by rational means as well. To apply false or romanticized ideals to the human species is to resist what is imbedded in our nature. Scientists have been arguing back and forth between these two ideas for a long time, vascilating between human survival and human thriving based on the fact that we appear to be able to make decisions that have direct impact on the world around us in ways other creatures don’t. Therfore the assumption is that we are responsible for the environmental crisis simply based on the idea that we caused it. This is of course different than saying we are driven to attend to an environmental crisis simply because it is in our nature to do so. Most often though, when it comes to our reasoning, these issues and these viewpoints get conflated, disguising and confusing the actual basis for the rational argument being made and often sold as an apologetic (and often with religous like fervor).

Now don’t get me wrong, I beileve in the need for environmental concern, I’m only challenging the ways we reason towards it. Of relevance to the discussion with my association mentioned above is the inconsistency that then comes from this sort of reasoning explained above. This is especially pertinant when we begin to allow for the Truth that free will is an illusion, that it doesn’t actually exist. This means that that efforts to uphold notions of individual liberty are in fact imposing an irrational asumption onto the logic in an ontological fashion. If all ideas of personhood are culturally imposed and created, and if the will is imposed onto this only as a means of fostering and upholding these meaning making narratives that we imagine for ourselves in order to exist in this world with some sense of purpose, then how and where do we justify matters of moral responsibility for the future? This is the dilemma. Especially when we begin to consider how memory works and how easy it is to manipulate. True liberty says, as long as we are not causing and inhibiting the suffering or death of another we are good and we will proper as a society when we are free to do what we will. But our notions of “goodness”, or our measure of goodness, tends to reach much beyond merely existing together as inherently good individuals with a freely constructed sense of personhood (whatever that means in the first place). What makes this more convoluted is the basic fact about how social formation and evolution works. While free will is an illusion, the actions of a few still hold the power to shape the whole by way of coercion and manipulation of our human nature. This is how social change occurs. I’m thinking of Nicholas Christakis’ work on the capacity of humanity towards goodness We don’t need people to be willfully free to be good, we just need systems which “cause” others to live in ways that allign with our working definition of “goodness”, however that arrives. We will however still judge people for being good or bad. We will still demonize sides according to where we see our moral responsibility towards this goodness. We do so irrationally of course, but it is so embedded in our culturally formed narratives that we don’t question it (which is precisely how someone like Foucault can make such a strong case for the absence of true Morality and will within our Leftist positions, a position he gladly upholds).

What does all of this have to do with Black Widow? Well, it struck me as I was sitting there experiencing this film in a transcendent fashion that the film’s themes were basically reshashing these arguments above that I had had the previous day. Of course it’s packaged in a familiar and tired American-Russian narratve (let’s be honest, history has demostrated that there will always be a representative hero and a villain in these stories, and it is usually in a Nationalistic sense), but at its root is this ever present battle between socialism (usually represented as commumism) and capitalism (libertarian free market Western American idealism). Here we have a family that is represented as a point of crisis when Natasha faces the seeming futility of the fact that this family that once framed her sense of meaning was imagined and therefore not true. This is paralled with the vision of these “Black Widows” for whom free will does not exist and who function within the realm of social control. The answer to this problem comes in Scarlet Johanson’s “Widow” character’s allegiance to freeing these Widows, an act that is celebrated in a moment when she declares them free to now go and choose who they will become. This becomes the highest value, the thing to which she sacrifices herself for and works to bring about. This is what makes her a hero, the embodiment of “goodness”. This comes to a crucial point of contention though when the false sense of “family” is reemployed as meaningful simply on the basis of their experience of it. It does not need to actually be true or representative of an embodied or given seense of the “will”, it merely needs to be experienced (seemingly as a positive) in order to hold its meaning. This of course flows back into the question of the “system” that informs the world for the rest of the Widows. It is said at one point that the system holds value becuase it is more effecient at accomplishing what appears to be shared goals. Of coure the one controlling the Widows is demonstrated as the villain and the monster, but what is unclear in this narrative is why he is a monster (okay, they frame his obvious monstrosity clearly in present terms, but why his theory itself is inately bad is unclear). If there is no such thing as personhood, on what grounds does Johanson’s Widow assume its authority in terms of this moral responsbility towards it (that which then holds the power to judge one as the villain and the other as the hero). She seemingly liberates the Widows to become precisely what culture and experience and circumstance will then shape them to be, just within a different worldview. This to me is what makes this film compelling on an intellectual and thematic level. These are questions it raises, and in some way it never answers them. It simply frames it within the familiar hero and villian narrative. This becomes most notable in the post credit sequence where we get a call back to the moral ambiguity present in Johansons character’s death in Infiinity War and Endgame, which not surprisingly comes within a narrative built around the idea of personal sacrifice.

Also not ironic was the trailer that preceded this film for the upcoming film Free Guy.

While this is only going off the trailer, it is nevertheless compelling to consider a guy living in a “fake’ and “constructed” reality (a game world) who finds himself questioning the meaning of his life and existence in light of none of it actually being real. The answer afforded to him by another character in the film is, “we’re here talking right now, right? That certainly feels like it means something.” But how is this meaning framed? The trailer insists that this meaning is derived from an existence in which three things are subseqently true and able to be taken for granted:

1. The World is inevitably going to end, along with consciousness and life

2. Free Guy can save the world by expressing his freedom to do so (the world needs a hero)

3. Thus meaning is derived from the enacting of this free will, a socially constructed idea that then leads to a better world for all.

Did you catch how we move from Past (the assumption of an essential Truth) to Future (the saving of this world for an assumed future) to the Present (this gives us a way of rationalizing and living meaningful lives). All based on a meaningless construction (the virtual game) and the creation of free will over and against the games control over him (kissing the girl… which as they say the game is not designed to do).

This way of experiencing and understanding the world, which I would argue is highly inconsisent in its rationality and its application, is prevelant in both the romanticizing of popular science and in its expression within popular culture, and its limitations often go untended and taken for granted, even under the guise of strident intellectualism, epecially where it feels the need to deconstruct ideas like religion as human constructions which make certain claims about the presence of ontological Truth through irrational means. Thus we have the one side making reductionist claims about religion’s lack of rationality while refusing to attend for their own imposition of foundational and irrationally imposed Truths, and the other side making reductonist claims about non-religious views of the world as operating as necessary Nihilists, even as it imposes its own rationalist claims about religious Truths at the expense of other ways of knowing. And this polarization plays out within both religious and non-religious ideological divides too.

I’m reminded of Brian Greene’s book Until the End of Time, where Greene submits,

“Physics is really good at giving insight into what stuff is made of and the fundamental Laws, the particles that come together… that’s only one story though. So then the chemist comes along and builds on that the story of how this- particles come together into molecular systems. The Biologist comes along and tells another story, which is how those complex chemicals that can come together into living systems. But then you really need to keep on going. You need the story that comes from the neuroscientist and the psychologist that allows us to undertand how our brains allow us to engage with the world and to feel and think and understand the world. We need the story that comes from philosophy that begins to address the big questions that a brain like ours is able to start to think about. We need the theological story as well, the kind of stories.. that helps illuminate for some people why we are here and what might be some ultimate meaning or purpose to our existence. Its only through the amalgam of all these stories that we get the fullest picture of reality.”

Brian Greene

I do love this interconnected picture so much. But I’m also puzzled by Greene’s larger argument. He begins with the notion of life as ultimately beholden to the process of disorder and disintegration. We are nothing more than particles bent towards death, and yet his book is essentially Biblical in nature, arguing for things like given meaning and moral responsibility even as he suggests that all morality tales regarding an impositional Truth are a fabrication, lies that we tell ourselves to create meaning and give value to this existence. And yet he upholds something similar to ontological Truth. The “divine nature” that he locates is humanity itself, something driven not by free will but by the Laws of Nature. And it is by learning how to fall in love with reality that he locates meaning in our experience of it. The fact that we can look up at the universe and be in awe of it is enough to call us to willfully and joyfully live in this world in a meaningful way.

At the same time, his entire moral foundation is driven by a value and focus of “eternity” as a breaking free of a limiting perspective of the long view of the future. This despite the insistence that order itself is a temporary and arbitrary gift and that the consciousness this enables will end in the not so distant future. Further, he cannot attend for differing experiences of this world in the present, only a call to trust in its inherant worth (why? simply because). That and, along with most others which argue this position of living free in a world where true freedom does not actually exist, the fact that any meaning we gain from this freedom is also dependent on our experience is something he continualy sidesteps along the way (even while acknowledging that he gets these questions quite often).

I’m reminded of another film I watched this week called Black Conflux, a film that uses a picture of two rivers in Newfoundland converging at a naturally derived point and producing something that is at once random and emergent and distinct. This is a metaphor/allegory for the film’s two main characters, a young woman dealing with a world dominated by men that oppresses her sex and a slightly older man who oppressess woman out of insecurity and uncertianty that flows from his own upbringing. The question the film raises is, if these two characters randomly happen to meet, to what end does this change their trajectory, and further, how much control did either character have over their trajectory up to this point. Further yet, how much control does either character actually have over their future. It’s a startling question that arrives wtih a fair degree of force, one that challenges much of our assumed narratives surrounding free will, meaning, and future imagination.

It’s so curious to me the plethora of books that are releasing that are feeling such a strong need to turn science into narrative and narrative into the idealizing/romanticizing of this existence (Underland by Robert MacFarlane and Work: A Deep History by James Suzman come to mind). Writing their own Bibles so to speak. As someone who believes in God, I find them inspiring. But I can’t help but observe how quickly the rationality of their arguments fall apart when it comes to the necessary impositions of foundational forms of Truth. In some ways it reminds me that as humans we all share the same needs and questions and struggles and wonderings. It provokes me as well to give greater attention to why it is that I hold faith in theological interest and callings and the presuppositions that flow from that. Its compelling to me to see how Greene fits that in to his own argument, however hesitantly, as the final piece of that story he paints, one that then looks back on the larger story he paints with a slightly different perspective in tow. This seems to me to be a more apt way of seeing the story of Black Widow. It is only by standing on an accepted and predetermined vision of the future built on a given definition of “goodness” and “Truth” that we can look back on history (which places us in the present with a sense of meaning and purpose and promise) and make sense of both the human condition and individual worth with a sense of confidence in its given meaning. Yes, we can locate this by observing human language and human nature and human tendencies, and we can experience this goodness without our knolwedge of it, but it is only by recognizing that our meaning comes from outside of ourselves, a worth that is afforded to us by an other, only then are we truly able to rationalize our experiences as inherently meaningful in a rational way. We are free to give of ourselves, to sacrifice our experience of this world for the sake of another precisely becuase goodness itself is not dependant on our experience, nor are we beholden to creating it first for it to be made true in our lives through our experience of it. Subsequently, and perhaps most importantly, we can do away with narratives of heroes and villains and make the experience of this world in its penchant for good and evil (defined by and given from outside of ourselves) the main point of concern. We are freed from having to become a Widow, and instead our meaning is inherent because of our relationship to an other. Which is where maybe there is worth in repeating what I said above:

The true beauty of Black Widow’s story getting its own treatment is that its distinctive tones and style and sensibilities are given the freedom to tell its story as part of the whole.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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