I don’t know why more people writing about the Barbie and Oppenheimer double feature don’t mention Aristotle.
That probably sounds pretentious. However, since the New York Times just featured an op ed criticizing the new football kickoff rules by invoking the Greek sensation of ataraxia (sublime contentedness), I probably have license to Go Greek in my little blog post. (Plus I ranted about it the other day, and my people said “go for it!”) I saw Oppenheimer last week, and all I could think about was Aristotle: Pity and Terror, the essence of tragedy. Barbie is about the world turned upside-down in a different way, where the absurd takes center stage, and the Lord of Misrule becomes in charge: comedy at its core.
So let’s go back to high school, basic Aristotle, basic Shakespeare, too, and talk about these movies in terms of how they fit the definitions. Plus, this is a double-movie review. A twofer!
Quantum Storytelling from Christopher Nolen
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of this tale of pity and terror, was the physicist whose pioneering research at Berkeley led him to be chosen to spearhead the Manhattan Project that developed of the atomic bomb. After World War II, he parted ways with some of his colleagues on whether to use atomic power and diplomacy or whether to develop the hydrogen bomb. He ended up losing his security clearance during the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, in part, because of political maneuvering by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. Strauss was later turned down for a cabinet post. That’s the history; that’s the story.
I’ve been futzing about for a few days, trying to decide whether to write a post that centers on Aristotle, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” My big hang-up is frankly … audience. How much are y’all going to balk if you read the word Aristotle in the first sentence? And yet I can’t write my film review without mentioning him. So I’ve been stuck between the urge to get these ideas out and the knowledge that we’re living in a time of anti-intellectualism.
It’s like a seesaw effect. We don’t even know what we think about smarts. There are constant little tests nestled in among Corgi pictures on the interwebs that tell you to “solve this puzzle and your IQ is 180.” Which anybody with some kind of education knows is patently false because that’s not how IQ works and nobody has IQs over 170 except that little kid they found in Nepal once. (OK, I checked the Internet; there are a few people now with IQs over 170. But not because they can do some little puzzle.)
Meanwhile, we don’t even care if people learn how to write anymore because we have ChatGPT and other tools coming that will just write stuff for us. As if Chat knows. I think of ChatGPT as like a rather stupid, random World Book Encyclopedia. If you happen to go to the right page and copy the right bits word for word (or verbatim–we used to use that word in a business context until we were told people didn’t know what it meant, so we had to replace it with “word for word” because people can’t learn what words mean anymore)… If you go to the right page and plagiarize it, you might just get away with it. But what if you have to combine things? And if you’re not learning because all you ever do is copy things other people wrote, then you just wander through school and come out as dumb as you started.
The oud, the chant, the guzheng, and the morin khuur. There aren’t many stories of medieval bards out on the Silk Road, but there must have been. Even the conquerors appreciated art and music. The cities of Baghdad, Samarkand, Constantinople, and Hangzhou were considered the happening places to be back in the day. Marco Polo weaves music in and out of his stories of Cathay and of Alaoudin.
When any one of them opened his eyes, saw this delightful spot, and heard the delicious music and songs, he really believed himself in the state of blessedness.
Marco Polo, “On the Old Man of the Mountain”
Here’s a quick spin through some medieval instruments, with their links (sorry in advance if you run into a Youtube ad, but wait for the music!)
The lute came out of Persia, an instrument with a neck, strings, and a rounded bowl for good sound. The Arabs called their version the oud. Apparently, it belongs to a class of instruments called chordophones, whose sound comes from vibrating strings. The singer Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–1040) was known for his expertise.