How The X-Men And Matthew McConaughey Helped Me Accept My Mortality

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I’ve been an atheist for about five years. It didn’t happen all at once. I spent years being unsure. I spent many years searching, reading, researching, and thinking before I came to the conclusion that there is absolutely no evidence of an omnipotent God and plenty to contradict the existence or divinity of Jesus Christ. I won’t get into what all went into that because that’s not what this post is about. What I want to do with this post is give an answer to a question that has bugged me for most of my life:

If there is God and no afterlife, what comfort can be found in knowing that you and I only get 80 years of life (give or take a decode or three) no matter what?

I tried thinking that the best we can do is do good and be good to ourselves and others and enjoy what we have. That’s a nice thought, but it’s really not all that comforting. It’s like decorating tips for a house that’s on fire. I’m all for being good and doing good and being an all-around nice person to other people, but that’s not helping me get over this thing where one day I die and cease to exist. I like existing.

I tried thinking of technological answers to our mortality problem. Cryonics offers hope that they might be able to freeze you and bring you back in a cloned body. The problem with this is that it requires that your current body (or at least head) are in good enough shape when you die that cryonics is even an option and even assuming everything works right, you’re still trapped in a human body which can be destroyed any number of ways, many of which are simply unavoidable. One day you might be able to upload your consciousness into a computer, but is that really you or just an artificial intelligence that thinks it’s you? I’m thinking it’s the latter. If you uploaded your consciousness into a computer, but you were still walking around after that, you wouldn’t say that computer was you would you?

I was stuck. Without God, no theological answer was likely to help. Philosophy on being a good person wasn’t helping. Technology isn’t there yet for serious life extension and even when it is, it’s only life extension, not something more. For a while, I stopped searching and did my best to accept the words of Jackie Greene, “We walk through life and we live and die/We do our best to not ask why.” I listened to music. I read books and comic books. I watched television and movies. And recently, the confluence of my media consumption resulted in a slight epiphany.

Sam Harris is a noted atheist and one of the faces of the so-called ‘New Atheist Movement’, a term that even Harris dislikes. I’ve read most of his books and attended one of his lectures. I’ve written about his books on this site before. While The End of Faith helped inform my already atheist views, his books Free Will and Waking Up have had significant impact on my life and the way I think about some things.

In Free Will Harris argues that free will is an illusion. He argues that our every decision is a result of our genetics, our past experiences, and luck. I approached the book disagreeing with the premise, but the more I read, the more it made sense. And then there was the following passage from the book:

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime – by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

As a writer of fiction, this passage entirely freaked me out. When I’m creating a character for a screenplay or a novel, I figure out who she is by making up her family, her upbringing, and her past experiences. Each of these informs me as to what sort of character I’m working with and results in my often knowing what a given character is going to do simply because of who they are. The way he’s talking about how we humans operate is the same way three-dimensional characters operate. This was one piece of the puzzle.

I also recently watched the first season of the HBO crime drama, True Detective. One of the main characters played by Matthew McConaughey is a burned out detective with a penchant for nihilistic atheist monologues. Among many of the great scenes in the show is this:

In the above clip he talks about M-Theory, which I knew (and still know) almost nothing about. The important part for the purposes of this article is that while you and I experience reality as linear time, that’s not all there is to reality. What we experience as time is just one big thing if viewed from beyond our third dimension. This is a difficult thing to fully grasp, but it’s nearly impossible to comprehend if free will exists. How can it all be seen from another dimension if we all can choose to do anything we want? Without free will, this makes a bit more sense.

This was the second piece of the puzzle.

The latest piece was the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar (also starring Matthew McConaughey). There is a lot that happens in Interstellar, but the relevant part for my purposes is that they attempt to show the universe outside the third dimension in one particular bedroom. It looked like this.

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The room had many books in it. So it’s not an accident that it looks like a bunch of books. I don’t know the reasoning behind this particular plot device, but it helped me visualize the concept of being outside of time and brought me back again to fictional storytelling.

With these pieces I added one final piece. I’ve been collecting Marvel Comics since I was twelve. I have thousands of comics starring the X-Men. I often reread them. From the perspective of the X-Men if they were real, they’d be experiencing time linearly. The X-Men of 1963 would have no knowledge that Magneto would one day be an ally. Of course, I can read their entire history at any point that I like. In this way I stand outside of time when it comes to the Marvel Universe. The X-Men are not dead or alive. They are both and neither because it depends on what point in time I choose to focus.

All of this led to a dream I had recently. In the dream, the technology to upload your consciousness into a computer had been achieved. Not only that, but when you upload your consciousness into the computer, the memories that are in your mind are hazy are crystal clear in the computer. In fact, they are so full of sensory input that accessing a memory would feel exactly like you were experiencing it. I awoke briefly wondering if that were exactly what was happening.

If there is God and no afterlife, what comfort can be found in knowing that you and I only get 80 years give or take a decade or three of life no matter what?

The comfort I’ve found is in knowing that everything I’ve done, everything I’m doing, and everything I will do is all happening at once and will always happen. Every loved one exists forever living, loving, and feeling every bit of life. The comfort is in knowing that we’re an eternal part of a picture that is reality.

– Jack Cameron

An Open Letter From Sekovia to Joss Whedon

Much has been made of Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but little has been said about the country where most of the film takes place. It’s almost as if people are pretending it doesn’t really exist.

– Jack Cameron

Here is an open letter from the Office of Public Affairs in Sekovia:
Sekovia

TRANSCRIPT:

From: Office of Public Affairs
Republic of Sekovia

To: Joss Whedon
Marvel
Disney

Dear Mr. Whedon,

The following is an open letter protesting the portrayal of our country and our countrymen in your American movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. As you know, when we agreed to allow you to film in our beautiful country, we asked that you accurately show our culture, our heritage, and our people. Now that we’ve seen your film, we feel that we were duped.

Despite the long and hard fought history of Sekovia, you treat our nation as if it were some amalgamation of any given Eastern European country. Borat gave more character to Kazakhstan. The only time someone actually talks about our country in your film, she says, “It’s nowhere special but on the way to everywhere special.” Nowhere special? How can you say that about a country that boasts the eight tallest arch in Eastern Europe? Did we not repel invasions from nearby Latveria, not once, not twice, but three times? Does Sekovia not rival Madripoor in underground fighting syndicates? Nowhere special? Sekovia is very special indeed, Mr. Whedon.

It is clear that you made this film specifically to shame the Sekovian people. People will walk away from your film not knowing one true thing about Sekovia but thinking we harbor terrorists and possibly have a gigantic crater where one of our largest towns used to be.

We do not know why you have chosen to attack us in such a fashion, but rest assured that your slights against our country and our people will not be ignored.

I have spoken with our esteemed leader and he has instructed that no movie house in all of Sekovia will screen your movie. Furthermore any future film permits will not be granted.

Sincerely,

Ex Machina Movie Review

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Artificial intelligence is a genuinely fascinating topic. If we were able to create a true AI, would this make us less special? Would they, and more importantly should they be considered every bit as human as you and me? Being self-aware and knowing how we tend to treat machines, would they kill us all? If we create true AI, what responsibilities do we have towards those creations? These are questions that are asked and answered to some degree in every AI movie, where it’s Blade Runner, Terminator, Short Circuit, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Chappie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina or any dozen other movies. How these movies go about tackling these questions is what determines the quality of the movie.

In Ex Machina, we have a deranged billionaire genius named Nathan played with clear delight by Oscar Isaac who has invited a hapless employee named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) to see his newest creation, an artificial intelligence that has the basic appearance of a human (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s job is to determine if the AI called Ava is truly self-aware or simply pantomiming awareness.

What follows is a series of conversations and scenarios in which we learn significantly more about each of the characters. If you’re looking for a big blockbuster action movie, Ex Machina isn’t it. This movie is more philosophical than anything else.

Initially I thought it was a very well put together movie with some good acting that essentially said nothing about artificial intelligence that I didn’t already get from Blade Runner. As my girlfriend and I talked about the movie she pointed out that there was an entirely different aspect of the movie that I was missing.

As a movie about artificial intelligence very little original or new happens in Ex Machina. But by making the robot female and her inquisitors/captors male, Ex Machina becomes an interesting study on the objectification of women. In Ex Machina the female lead is literally an object. Her value as an individual is being judged by two men. If she fails, she’s likely to be destroyed and recycled like a broken computer. What must Ava say or do to continue to survive? What is she willing to do?

The fourth character in Ex Machina is Kyoko played by Sonoya Mizuno. She plays Nathan’s silent servant, again reinforcing a subservient female role. The two females in Ex Machina are introduced to us as servant and object. Nathan effectively owns them both. If Caleb or anyone else were to run away with Ava, would that be kidnapping or stealing? The best sci-fi makes us ask profound and uncomfortable questions. From that perspective, Ex Machina is an incredible success.

Ava is a machine that behaves like a female human. The disturbing thing is how difficult it is to figure out if Caleb and Nathan are treating her like a machine or like a woman because what the movie makes clear is that regardless of the answer, she is treated as less than a man.

This isn’t the first time that writer Alex Garland got me thinking about things. His screenplay for Never Let Me Go was phenomenal. Ex Machina marks the first time Garland has directed. Given the performances, the script, and the flawless special effects, I’m definitely interested in what he does next.

Ex Machina is a quiet masterpiece. It’s simultaneously seductive and challenging. It’s a movie that stays with you long after you’re done watching it.

Jack Cameron

Movie Review: Furious 7

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After my little experiment in February where I watched all six Fast & Furious movies back to back, I decided I had to see Furious 7 in the theaters. Before seeing these movies, I thought they were big dumb action movies. Now that I’ve seen all seven, I have to say that Furious 7 is the biggest and dumbest of them all.

It’s taken seven movies but I’ve finally realized what’s really going on in the Fast & Furious franchise. I’ve been in twenty-six car accidents. (I was the passenger in twenty-one of them.)  Some of the accidents I went to the hospital. Some I didn’t have a scratch. When it comes to the Fast & Furious franchise, the car wrecks are spectacular and undoubtedly fatal…for normal humans. But the stars of the Furious 7 are not normal humans. They are functionally immortal. Even those who appear to die seem to reappear. In Furious 7 an entire parking garage falls on a character who later seems completely uninjured. And then I thought about it. In all of these movies, not once has someone lopped off the head of a main character. I believe this is because many of the characters in Fast & Furious are in fact Highlanders.

Most of them are completely unaware of what they truly are. There have been hints, but Furious 7 is where it becomes clear. Furious 7’s plot is basically that Jason Statham is hunting down the crew because a bad guy from a previous movie was his little brother. Kurt Russell shows up doing his best Nick Fury impression and offers to help them find Statham using a device that is basically the machine from the TV show Person of Interest. Of course there’s a catch. They must rescue a beautiful hacker first before they can use the machine. Not that they really need the device to find Statham since he’s relentlessly chasing them across the globe.

It’s okay though. One shouldn’t think too much about the silliness involved in a Fast & Furious movie. Anyone who saw the trailer for this and thought they’d be getting a thinking man’s car chase movie hasn’t been paying attention. There isn’t a twelve year old alive that will be confused by anything that happens in Furious 7. But they might not catch the Highlander references (which I admit may be only in my head, but are entirely possible).

Thinking of them as Highlanders who simply don’t know that they should be lopping off each other’s heads, the entire series suddenly seems more realistic. In Furious 7 they drive cars out of planes, off cliffs, and through 100 story skyscrapers. No mortal would do all of these things without at minimum serious medical assistance, but a Highlander can do it with ease and no worries. I know what you’re thinking, “But some of them have died.”  Sure. But that just means those people weren’t Highlanders. Then again, they’ve had people fake their deaths in this series before. So maybe they’re not dead at all.

Speaking of dead, the real life death of Paul Walker is addressed in the film with an almost surprising amount of emotion though it relies on your knowledge of his death for that emotional impact. If they spent half as much time with character work as they did filling random scenes with women in bikinis, this moment would have been devastating.

Furious 7 has already broken box office records. So expect Furious 8 within the next year or two. It’s too bad though, because this is a perfect note to end the big silly series. I mean unless they want to officially reveal the whole Highlander thing.
– Jack Cameron

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Gays

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I remember the first time I saw two men kiss. I was about 14-years-old. It was on a cable access channel. I was completely repulsed. Watching these two men on the television screen I felt physically ill. It went contrary to just about everything I had encountered in my life at that time. There were no gay people in my life that I was aware of. The gay characters on television shows always talked funny and would make insinuations, but they’d never kiss. In the late 1980s, you could call someone a ‘fag’ and no one cared or called you a bigot. Being gay or ‘queer’ as the adults around me would say was abnormal.

As a teenager I went to church. It was a Quaker church and I have to say I never once remember even a mention of gay people while I was there. Still, I was aware that most Christians felt that gay acts were a sin. This did not make them bad people. They were simply sinners who were not following the ways of Christ. Eventually, they’d find the Truth, the Light, and the Way and they’d stop being gay.

It wasn’t until I was seventeen that my thoughts on being gay changed. I got a phone call from an acquaintance. I didn’t really know him very well, but he had my number and knew I had a car. He needed a ride. I’m ashamed to say I honestly do not remember his name. He asked me to pick him up a few blocks from his house.

Fifteen minutes later I found him walking down the street. Stumbling. His shirt and face were bloody. I asked if he wanted me to take him to the hospital but he refused. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had chosen tonight to tell his father that he was gay. His father’s response was to beat the shit out of his own son and kick him out of the house.

I took him back to my parents’ place and let them know my friend was spending the night. He and I talked most of the night. I kept thinking that there was no possible excuse for what his father had done. No act, set of words, or confession could possibly make it okay for a father to beat his son bloody. And the idea that such an event could happen simply because his son was physically attracted to other boys was absurd.

That night before we went to sleep, he kissed me. I didn’t want him to and it solidified my feelings that I was most definitely a heterosexual, but I after what his father had done to him, the last thing I was going to do was add another rejection.

The next morning he called his parents’ house. His mother pleaded with him to come home. He asked me to take him. I asked if he was sure. He said that he was. Over the next year or so, I’d see him every now and then and we’d talk, but he never came over again and we did not become good friends.

The truth was I had many gay and bisexual friends as a teen. I just didn’t know it. I was completely oblivious for much of my high school existence. When I learned they were, it wasn’t a big deal to me because of my experience with that acquaintance.

When I was 19, my parents split up. My mom moved in with a female coworker. When her mother, my grandmother was in the hospital, her entire side of the family was there, but only one person could go in to visit at a time. When my mom went in, relatives asked me if my mom was a lesbian. I said, “Y’know, my whole life I’ve not known much about my mother’s sex life and I intend to keep it that way. If you want to know about it, ask her.”

These days some of my favorite people are same sex couples. I’ve lost count how many I know because it simply doesn’t matter. When I saw those two men kissing on that cable access show, I thought my repulsion was due to some fundamental wrongness with gay culture. I know now that it was simply my reacting to something that was entirely foreign to me.

I used to think that the term ‘homophobe’ wasn’t correct. Anti-gay people weren’t afraid of gay people. They just thought their lifestyle was wrong and shouldn’t be condoned. I was incorrect. Homophobe is exactly the right term. It’s the same as any bigoted response. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand and so they condemn it or try to shut it out. It’s homophobia.

Homophobia isn’t religious, though many nest their homophobia in religion. Jesus never mentions homosexuality. And sure, you can find passages in various holy books that condemn homosexuality, but in those very same books you’ll find that they condone slavery. Our moral compass has evolved since pre-industrial times. One cannot condemn an entire culture using ancient books as their sole justification.

If you find yourself unable to let go of your homophobia, I’m going to suggest you do something very difficult and very rewarding: Get to know gay people. You’ll find that they’re just people who talk and laugh and smile and love the same as the rest of us. They’re just people. Like you and me.

I know for some that request is an impossibility. There are people out there like that father who beat his son for saying he was gay. On a deep core level these people know that being gay is wrong. Our holy books say so. For those people, I want to say that the best way exemplify religion is not to condemn others, but to live your own life in accordance with your beliefs. The most powerful weapon in a Christian’s arsenal is forgiveness.

– Jack Cameron

Me and My Dad

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Me & My Dad 1988

My Dad is very important to me. My entire life he has been the moral center of my life. I learned right and wrong from my Dad. I have my Dad’s name. I have his voice. I do not have his values. Despite my upbringing, we have distinctly different moral compasses. This is due in no small part to the fact that he’s a Born Again Christian and I’m an atheist. I’m a former Believer but thanks to my parents, I was encouraged to think for myself.

A few years ago I wrote a book called Ruin Your Life. It was a tongue-in-cheek guidebook on bad behavior. I gave a copy to my Dad because he’s my Dad. When I came by the following week he handed the copy back to me and politely asked that I remove the book from his house. I knew that the book wasn’t going to be his cup of tea. I had no idea he was going to treat it like a brick of cocaine.

This month my second book, 15 Minute Stories was published. It’s a collection of the short stories I wrote in January on this site with illustrations by Ossaín Ávila Cárdenas. I told my Dad about it this weekend. He asked if it was ‘R rated’ material. I explained that it was whatever was in my head that day and that it wasn’t all suitable for children. He expressed no interest in having a copy. This did not surprise me. I hadn’t planned or expected that I’d be giving him a copy of it any more than I plan or expect that he’ll read this.

When I tell people about my Dad’s lack of interest in my writing, they tend to think that such behavior reflects bad on my Dad. Why doesn’t he just smile, take the books, and be done with it? I know that it’s because he doesn’t want to lie to me and I can appreciate that.

However, I’d be lying myself if I said I didn’t care. I’ve been thinking about it and I wonder if I’m ever going to write a book that my Dad would be proud of. I’m not one of those people who spends their whole life trying to get their Dad to be proud of them. I know that he loves me and that’s really enough.

A few years ago he had a medical condition that put him in the hospital for the summer. There was a very real chance he could die. I visited him every day. We talked more than we ever have in my adult life. You know those things you’ve always wanted to say to your Dad? I’ve already said them. We’ve had those final talks that so many people don’t get and I’m aware of how supremely lucky I was to have that opportunity and for my Dad to recover the way he did.

Still, it’d be nice to create something he liked. I’m not sure what story that would be or what form it would take. I rarely write fiction with the thought that I should try not to be offensive. I go where the characters and story take me.

Is there a story I need to tell that would suit my Dad’s taste? I doubt it. My Dad likes books, but I’ve never seen him read a novel. At one point I asked him if I could write his biography, but there is much in his past that he does not want to revisit or recount. It’s too bad because he has some great stories from those days, few of them aren’t ‘R rated.’

– Jack Cameron

18 Movies in 18 Days: Furious 6

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What started out as a franchise about car racing thieves has now morphed into a live action version of Grand Theft Auto. After everything I’ve said about the previous movies, this one is actually hard to review.

Dwayne Johnson recruits the old crew to go to Europe in search of Liddy where they find she’s hooked up with a crew of bad guys who are out to get a McGuffin, but it turns out that Liddy has no memory and is now a bad guy. She’s so bad she shoots Vin Diesel, but it’s okay because his body is made out of Nerf.

The crew realizes that this all ties back to the bad guy from the fourth movie who is in prison in Los Angeles. Rather than have Dwayne Johnson, who is a government agent, go and beat the information out of him (which is what Johnson does to another informant), they come up with this stupid plan to have Brian turn himself in for 24 hours.

Furious 6 goes out of its way to tie the other movies into this one. They show flashbacks during the opening credits and the final scene is a twist on the scene from Tokyo Drift which we now know takes place after Fast & Furious 4,5 and 6 despite being the third movie. I’m not sure why they go to all the trouble for that because it’s clear throughout the franchise that they basically just do what they want regardless of character or continuity.

The final battle takes place on and near a plane that is trying to take off literally for 13 minutes. Some people have said that the runway would have to be between 13 and 25 miles for that to work. Others insist that there’s some scrap of realism. I don’t know why. From the outset, the Fast & Furious movies made it clear they took place outside of reality.

In the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, a character goes on a rant and says, “We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry that’s just throwing in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12 year old boys. And not even the smart 12 year olds. The stupid ones.”  This quote was in my head throughout the entirety of my watching of the Fast & Furious movies this past week because it’s incredibly clear that stupid 12-year-old boys are exactly who this franchise is targeting.

Directly after watching Furious 6, I decided I needed to watch a character driven action movie with cars that doesn’t openly insult my intelligence. So I watched Ronin. In Furious 6, Dom is shot in the upper chest. He yanks out the bullet, puts a Band-Aid on it and is good to go. In Ronin, Robert Deniro gets hit with a bullet ricochet in the gut and ends up helping his buddy surgically remove the bullet. Deniro passes out and is injured the rest of the movie. It’s not just about being realistic. By having actions have consequences, Ronin has more character and plot than six Fast & Furious movies.

Furious is available to purchase at this link, but really, you should purchase Ronin at this link.