31 January 2010
The Invention of Lying
Here's a link to the wikipedia article, though let this be a 'spoiler' warning before you click it.
Anyway, the movie is very funny. It is also gutsy, because it is an implicit philosophical argument of a sort that would be extremely unpopular in the U.S. were it a tad more explicit. The movie protrays a society much like the contemporary northeastern US within an alternative universe in which humans have never lied, never created any fiction for that matter, and don't even have words to explain the possibility of doing so. Their movies are filmed lectures about dramatic events from the past, and indeed we catch a quick reference to an upcoming film that will be called "The Invention of the Fork."
The protagonist of "The Invention of Lying" evidently has some neurological quirk that makes him different from everybody else, in that he can "say something that isn't," as he puts it at one point, trying to explain it to a friend.
That protagonist, Mark Bellison, played by Gervais, is surprised to discover this difference about himself, and for the most part he uses it benignly. He does con a bank out of some money -- but that is presented as due to desperate circumstances. Later he helps a homeless man, and offers his mother consolation on her deathbed.
Here we get to the crux of the matter. There is no evidence in this film that any sort of religion existed prior to the "invention of lying." His dying mother is expressing the predominant view of this alternate world's human species when she tells him how frightened she is at the imminent prospect of entering "a giant everything of nothingness." Gervais makes her final moments comfortable by telling her that she is going to a wonderful place where all the people she has loved and lost over her lifetime are waiting for her -- a place without pain or want.
It is important to the philosophical weight of this movie that the reason that he starts telling stories about the nice place we all go to after death is a benevolent one, told by a guy with whom we can't help but sympathize. Yet it is still a lie. And one with unexpected consequences.
Unbeknownst to Mark Bellison, the doctor and a handful of hospital staffers are behind him, listening to this conversation. They hear all these things about the life after this one, and since there is no concept of "saying what isn't" in their world, they believe it. They want to tell people this wonderful news. Word spreads, and soon the protagonist is a prophet. Everybody wants to know more.
One incidental oddity that struck me is that their world has a history to it very much like our own. From various references one gathers that there was a "black plague" that took place in the 14th century, and that the use of terms such as "14th century" or "1st century" for that matter, mean pretty much to them what they mean to us. But why, in a world without religion, would the "1st century" be called that? Why would a count have begun then?
Another less-incidental oddity (it may be considered part of the film's message) is that the ability to lie is connected to an ability to consider the subjective aspect of other people. Mark and his love interest (Anna, played by Jennifer Garner) have an idyllic moment in a public park, which turns into his effort to explain to her that people are not solely what they seem -- that, for example, the overweight fellow lying on the grass to their left may not be the lazy loser he seems, but may be "the world's greatest poet," who gets his inspiration in this way.
Over time, Anna grasps the seeing-beyond-the-surface part of Marks' message, although she never does really grasp the 'lying' thing. So: are those two memes closely connected, or not?
There's something else that sticks with me. At some point soon after his first lie, Mark decides to help a homeless man -- a guy who has been sitting on the street with a sign that says, "I don't understand why I'm in the street and you have homes." This fellow is played by Michael Patrick Gough according to imdb. Mark takes him into the bank, says something to the clerk (we can't overhear this bit) and the clerk hands the homeless guy a large chunk of money.
Leter, we see a homeless man again. The shot comes and goes so quickly that I'm not sure whether it was the same guy, and/or the same sign (though another wordy sign was involved). What is the message there? That lying doesn't realy solve social problems? Or does this imply also that money doesn't really solve social probelms, and that even if the money had been given honestly the original homeless guy may have difficulties, such as an expensive addiction, that would have put him back on the street anyway?
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.