The Resurrection of Kay Francis

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 28, 2015

This essay is written for a blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.com and Shadows and Satin.

Who is Kay Francis? She is a long dead movie star who was once famous in the first half of the 1930s. Few remember her today. So, why am I writing about her now? For some reason I love seeing her movies when they come on Turner Classic Movies, even though they’re generally lousy films. Why? Well, I think Kay Francis is the most fascinating and beautiful of all the actresses of the 1930s. Other fans of 1930s films are taking note of her again too. Kay Francis said she wanted to be forgotten, and the men who made her movies never imagined them as lasting works of art, so why are we remembering Kay Francis now? There is two kinds of fame, one is contemporary, and the other is historical. Kay Francis once had fame for a few years, and then was forgotten. Why are we resurrecting Kay Francis now?

Kay Francis 1941 The Man Who Lost Himself

Kay Francis is the perfect subject for a study in fame. Back in the 1930s Kay Francis was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, with legions of fans, and her image adorning more magazines covers than anyone but Shirley Temple. Yet, today she is virtual unknown. Why are Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn from that era remembered as superstars, but not Kay Francis? Many people believe great movie stars make films great, but it’s my theory that’s its great films that make great movie stars. Kay Francis isn’t remembered today because most of her films were forgettable, and that has destroyed her memory in popular culture. Strangely enough, as Warner Brothers attempted to force Kay Francis to break her high salary contract by putting her into forgettable films, Kay Francis refused to give in, took the parts Warner’s pushed on her, collected her huge paychecks and is quoted as saying, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.”

She almost got her wish, if it wasn’t for Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the growing interest in Pre-Code Hollywood. I don’t think Kay Francis cared for fame, and I doubt any of the filmmakers then thought movies would become a lasting art form. This is before television and DVDs, and maybe even film festivals. It’s only us fans who love the past that want to make sure the objects of our affection aren’t lost forever. What will it take to resurrect Kay Francis?

Biography

Who was Kay Francis? Unless you’re a hardcore TCM addict, it’s doubtful you’ve heard her name. Visit Wikipedia for an excellent concise summary of her life. Kay Francis was known for her striking beauty, and the ability to play daring women. Francis was born in 1905, and started her acting career on Broadway in the Roaring Twenties, just before sound movies came out. Kay was at the right place at the right time, because Hollywood began a massive import of Broadway actors to work in the talkies. Kay Francis made nineteen films at Paramount before going over to Warner Brothers to be the new queen of their production lot. Warner Brothers then proceeded to use her star appeal to sell second rate projects, riding Kay Francis’ fame with fans for all its worth. Eventually the public got tired of seeing mediocre films that didn’t match her talent. Warner didn’t renew her contract, and Francis became a free agent. She continued to make movies, some even decent, but none that would keep her name alive in our new century. Her career peaked in 1932 with three movies, that are only remembered today by connoisseurs of Pre-Code Hollywood. She died in 1968, at age 63, which is how old I am now.

Pre-Code Kay Francis

The appeal to Pre-Code films is hard to explain. Simply, they are sound films made before July 1, 1934 when a national censorship code began to be rigorously enforced. Only in recent decades has Pre-Code become a distinctive sub-genre of 1930s films. When the public remembers films from the 1930s today, then tend to remember those made in 1939 – Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The early sound era, before the production code took affect, was a primitive time for “the talkies.” As actors and technicians worked out their techniques for the new art form, pictures improved dramatically as the thirties progressed, and by 1939 they were stunning. The few pop culture favorites today from the early 1930s tend to be films that appeal to young people, like Tarzan of the Apes, King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Thin Man, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, etc. Only hard-core old movie fans remember the dramas, melodramas, literary and historical films of the 1930s.

Pre-Code films are now remembered for pushing the limits of the state censors. Pre-Code films explored the reality of sex and violence in  contemporary culture that both shocked and titillated Great Depression audiences. Some films made serious social statements and others exploited sensational subjects. It’s hard to say why some Pre-Code film buffs love those films when 21st century flicks are far more daring in their explorations. What’s the appeal of skimpy dressed actresses in crudely made old black and white movies, when modern actresses show far more flesh in brilliant high definition?

I can explain why I love those films. I imprinted on 1930s black and white films by watching television in the 1960s. Everyone acquires their pop culture tastes in early adolescence when books, television, movies and music brand on their formative minds. In the early sixties, I imprinted on 1960s rock and roll music, 1960s television, 1950s science fiction and 1930s movies. I love being up late at night in a darkened room lit only by the flickering light of old black and white movies.

When I talk to young people today, most of them claim they can’t stand black and white movies, and hate movies from the 1930s because the acting seems funny to them. They see a film like Grand Hotel as silly, not stylish like I do. To me old films are an alternate reality, one that glitters in infinite shades of gray, exuding style and glamour. Yet, this can’t explain why Pre-Code films deserve their attention. It’s definitely an acquired taste, like learning to watch silent films. I long ago gave up expecting any of my friends to share my enjoyment of 1930s movies. I do spot fellow fans on the net writing about TCM or in the comment sections for the DVDs on sale at Amazon.com. I suppose we’re like fans of other older dying art forms, like pulp magazines or 78 jazz records.

Kay Francis’ real life was more Pre-Code than her Pre-Code films. She was a predatory divorcee years before Norma Shearer made them famous. She was involved in three way love affairs long before making Trouble in Paradise. Kay Francis had a huge sexual appetite, consuming men and women in far greater numbers than all her film lovers combined. All her reel-life roles as cutting edge women were merely cleaned up versions of her real-life experiences. Pre-Code Hollywood films explored the lives of women with bad reputations, not as sinners, but as daring explorers on the social frontiers. Kay Francis grew up living those lives, first traveling with her mother a stage actress, and then later on her own, in New York and Europe. By the time she went to Hollywood in 1929, she had lived most of the roles she played in the 1930s.

Kay Frances was recreating her own experiences onscreen, in glamorous costumes she changed dozens of times a picture. In her most famous films, she was a sexy goddess of sophistication, looking great even when she was down and out, or even dying. For a few years in the 1930s, Kay Francis was so alluring that moviegoers fell in love with her, but in the second half of the decade her fans moved on.

To understand why people in the 1930s fell for Kay you have to watch her films. But which ones?  What I’ve done is identify her five best films through the film ratings at IMDb. Then I list her next twelve highest rated films, but these are harder to find, and probably will offer little appeal to most modern movie watchers. I’m hoping the top five films transcend their times and appeal to audiences of any time. If Kay is to be remembered, it will have to be through films that are remembered. I’m encouraged that Trouble in Paradise has enchanted some of my younger friends. That gives me hope. I am always delighted to see Jewel Robbery over and over again, and wonder if it will appeal to 21st century television watchers. I know One Way Passage is a quaint melodrama, but I still love it. I’m not sure modern audiences can handle it’s over-the-top sentimentality.

Kay Francis would still be famous today if she had gotten to work on a great film. If Kay had starred in one of the AFI’1 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this essay. Would The Philadelphia Story been that different with Kay Francis instead of Katherine Hepburn? Hepburn is considered a much better actress than Kay Francis, but who knows. Kay always seemed up to the roles she was offered. Her weakness was she didn’t fight for them, choosing instead to do what Warner Brother’s asked – until it was too late. Obviously actors are not interchangeable – I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else doing Blonde Venus but Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Harlow starring in Red Dust. But Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis had so many great stories, it’s a shame that Kay Francis couldn’t have had one or two of them. I fantasize that MGM would have found better vehicles for Kay Francis.

Sadly, we have what we have, and some of Kay’s best films are magical if you are the right person for them. Luckily, I am.

Kay’s Top Five Films

There’s no absolute way to judge something like a film, so these top five pictures come from a voting system at IMDb. There is some validation to this list from reading about Kay Francis, from the All Movie Guide, from comments at Amazon for those films on sale, and from my own experience watching them. Kay Francis was known more for her typecasting rather than her acting range. She did have a speech impediment that writers had to work around, and her fans demanded to see her in expensive gowns rather than character costumes, so there is a certain unreality to her stories. In her most popular films, Kay played rich beautiful women in designer gowns framed by Art Deco sets, but in some of her less famous movies, she played business women, doctors, nurses, gold-diggers, and women down on their luck.

Only three of these five films are available on DVD: Trouble in Paradise, One Way Passage and Jewel Robbery, so you will have to haunt the TCM Schedule each month in hopes of catching the other two. Nor will I recommend you rush out and buy them on my recommendation. Catch them on cable first. There’s a good chance you won’t like them. Only a small percentage of avid movie watchers like movies this old.

The decimal number with the title is their current IMDb rating.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) – 8.2

Trouble in Paradise Francis Hopkins cropped

Kay plays Madame Mariette Colet, a rich and beautiful owner of a French perfume company, who is targeted by jewel thieves Gaston, Herbert Marshall, and Lily, Miriam Hopkins. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise is the one Kay Francis film that often shows up on lists of the best films of the 1930s, and it was an early film added to the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Trouble in Paradise was considered one of the top ten films of 1932, and Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies collection. This one film is Kay’s best hope for being remembered by 21st century movie fans.

The plot of Trouble in Paradise involves Herbert Marshall choosing between two beautiful women, his equal-in-crime partner, Miriam Hopkins, or the wealthy woman with all the jewels he falls for while trying to rob her, Kay Francis. The plot is light and slippery, and the banter airy and breezy. Sadly, even the best of prints are not pristine, giving the impression that the film is very old indeed, showing its age at 83. It’s a damn shame that Fox Grandeur 70mm widescreen filming didn’t become standard in 1930. I would never dream of wishing 1930s movies had been in color, but I sure wish the prints had been super high resolution and widescreen. I wonder if modern film fans would be more accepting of old films if they didn’t look so old.

 

One Way Passage (1932) – 8.2

One-Way-Passage-21

I’ve seen One Way Passage many times – it’s all style and little substance, a stateroom melodrama set on a ship crossing the Pacific. Both characters are destined to die at the end of a long voyage, one for his crimes, the other for her weak heart. Both keep their fatal destinies from each other, promising a lifetime of devotion.

Like many 1930s melodramatic films, One Way Passage has a second string of characters providing comic contrast. Frank McHugh plays Skippy, Dan’s sidekick, who meets Aline MacMahon in the backstory, playing Barrel House Betty, a fake countess con woman. Frank McHugh uses Aline MacMahon to run interference for his buddy, with Steve, the cop that’s guarding Dan, played by Warren Hymer. The entire show is just 68 minutes, so while the action is very slow, the story moves very fast.

Many of my favorite movies from the early 1930s run under 90 minutes. The studios cranked out the content, with actors often doing four to eight films a year. The quality of the storytelling is often less complicated than an hour of modern TV. William Powell gets a fair amount of character development, but not Kay, who is defined by her limits of physical exertion.  I have to wonder if One Way Passage was longer, say the 104 minutes of Dark Victory, and given more rewrites, if it wouldn’t have been a much more popular film today. I think it’s a lovely romantic idea that needs fleshing out.

Often these movies made for depression era shop girls had little in the way of real characterization. The men were painted quickly as suave and debonair, and the women sketched even faster by the fashions they wore. The lovers would drink and smoke, and banter innuendoes to each other. Part of this staginess was due to back lot sets and primitive microphone techniques of the early sound years.  Yet, I believe One Way Passage generates maximum charm with such little effort by Powell and Francis, as if they were impressionistic actors. If you have the 1930s movie gene, this film is enchanting.

I imagine, when I get very old and bedridden, I’ll prefer the elegant simplicity of 1930s storytelling on my deathbed to the long complicated films of today. The ending of One Way Passage, or On Borrowed Time, offer death fantasies that would be very pleasant to die by.

Pre-Code films were made during the heart of the depression. They offered both silly escapism and gritty realism. They were made for my parents’ generation, who were teens when these films came out. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the life back then, when people didn’t have television, computers, cellphones and the internet. I don’t think most citizens of our technological century can tune into this 1930s version of dream time. I can because some of my earliest memories are waking up to watch the all-night movies with my father. Philosophically, I’m light years away from the common mindset of 1930s moviegoers.  Yet, emotionally I resonate with these stories.

One Way Passage works so well for me because William Powell and Kay Francis are my favorite actors from this period. Understanding why is harder to explain. Maybe the stars we admire are the ones we wished we could be or be with.

Confession (1937) – 8.2

Confession_1937_poster

Confession is a film that I only vaguely remember seeing. Like most of the films of Kay Francis, I caught them on television, usually TCM, and their details are in the jumbled mess of my memories. I remember the basic plot and mostly the ending. I was surprised this film was so highly rated on IMDb and I’m looking forward to catching it again on TCM, or buying it if it ever comes out on DVD.

Even though Kay Francis is only 32 years old when this film was made, she plays a mother, Vera, of a 17-year old girl, Lisa, played by Jane Bryan. The story centers on an older man, played by Basil Rathbone, chasing Kay’s daughter. Since this story has a surprise ending and is more complicated than most of Kay’s usually films, I won’t go into the plot. And that might be one reason why it’s remembered so well, even though the story was only complicated enough to require 87 minutes to tell. The reason why we remember actors and actresses of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz is because they got to play meaty distinctive characters. If Kay Francis ever had a chance to play more characters like Scarlett O’Hara, she would have have been remembered today.

If Kay Francis had shot Basil Rathbone as viciously as Bette Davis shoots her object of hate in The Letter, then Confession might be more remembered. Bette Davis became the box office queen for Warner’s after Kay Francis fell from grace. And the truth is, Bette Davis was a much better actress because she had such killer instincts in real life. Kay never fought Warner Brothers like Bette did. Kay was a lover, not a fighter, and she got dumped.

Girls About Town (1931) – 8.1

 girlsabttown_lc1adj1

Girls About Town is the kind of picture that typifies Pre-Code films – you get to see Kay in her underwear, and’s she’s a slutty gold-digger. I’m surprised by it’s 8.1 rating at IMDb. The film’s popularity might be due to Joe McCrea growing stardom. However, the interplay between Francis and Lilyan Tashman, friends in real life, make the movie even more suggestive. Kay was just 26 for this picture, but she looked older. Depending on her hairstyle, wardrobe, and how the cameraman filmed her, Kay could look round faced and older, or thin faced and younger. This made her look old fashioned and at other times modern. Seeing her in this earlier picture probably captures more of what she looked like in real life. Her Warner Brother pictures featured a far more crafted look. It’s a shame she didn’t get to play more physically active characters, because her slinky manikin posing was great for Hollywood glamour, but poor for demonstrating acting ability. Look how animated Tashman is below while Kay plays it coolly.  Kay’s directors should have pushed her to be more kinetic.

pdvd_018aaa

Jewel Robbery (1932) – 7.5

Jewel-Robbery-cropped

Kay plays a flibbertigibbet who seems to have only one thing on the brain: JEWELS!  Kay is married to a dull older man, Henry Kolker, who works hard to feed her gem habit to keep his beautiful young wife from running wild. We know Kay isn’t faithful right from the start, but when her rich husband takes her diamond shopping and the store is robbed by a gang of jewel robbers bossed by the magnificently charming William Powell, Kay stops thinking JEWELS and starts thinking MAN!

This is the fifth of seven times Powell and Francis would act together.  They play off each other wonderfully. It’s a shame Kay didn’t get to play Nora Charles, because she’d definitely be remembered today. Kay certainly had real life drinking practice down for the role.

Jewel Robbery is another film that fits into the Pre-Code appeal for its adultery, sexiness, innuendo and even drug use, but it’s all done with such a light touch that I can’t even imagine Will Hays himself being bothered by the film.

 

The Best of the Rest

Using the ratings at IMDb, I picked the next dozen highest rated Kay Francis films. None of these films are going to be remembered by the public at large today, but they aren’t bad if you like old movies from the 1930s, especially Pre-Code films.

  • The House on 56th Street (1933) – 7.4
  • Mandalay (1934) – 7.3
  • Guilty Hands (1931) – 7.3
  • Secrets of an Actress (1938) – 7.3
  • In Name Only (1939) – 7.3
  • 24 Hours (1931) – 7.2
  • The Vice Squad (1931) – 7.2
  • Cynara (1932) – 7.2
  • Strangers in Love (1932) – 7.2
  • Stranded (1935) – 7.2
  • First Lady (1937) – 7.2
  • Divorce (1945) – 7.2

francisopener

Most of us will die and be forgotten, but sometimes the accomplished among us will live on in history, maybe not forever, but longer than they ever imagined. Kay Francis is fading fast in pop culture immortality. It’s strange that I know about Kay Francis. Why did I bond with the movies of the 1930s when I was growing up in the 1960s? The simple answer is television. 1960s music and television imprinted on me because that’s what I heard and watched as a teenager. As a kid I seldom went to new movies, and never bought the latest bestsellers.  Old movies and books are what I was exposed to first. That’s how I got out-of-sync with my pop culture times. The art forms you’re exposed to in your formative years are the ones you live with for the rest of your life.

What draws us back to these old films time and again? What makes us scrutinize the TCM schedule every month looking for that rare film we haven’t seen? What makes us frequently search Amazon hoping to find a new DVD of a very old film we’ve been waiting years to be released.

There is the real world out there, with terrorist bombings, climate change, drunk and texting drivers, mad shooters, a world filled with hating and conflict. Sure, our alternate celluloid reality is also filled with killing, hate and conflict, but it’s not real, and the good guys triumph. We love Pre-Code Hollywood for its grittiness, the exact same thing we’re trying to escape.

Box Office Poison

In the May 3rd, 1938 issue of Independent Film Journal, Harry Brandt, of the Independent Theater Owners of America, published an article called “Dead Cats” where he listed the actors and actresses his group felt were no longer making his group money, claiming the movie studies were overpaying them, and they were box office poison. Among those he listed were Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore, and Kay Francis. Garbo famously walked away from Hollywood in 1941. John Barrymore died in 1942.  All the others continued to make films, including Kay. She made 16 films after 1938. Yet, Brandt was right, and Kay Francis was no longer the star she had been.

Why Isn’t Kay Francis Famous Today?

Kay Francis said time and again she wanted to be forgotten, yet she relished the limelight as long as she could. Near the end of her life, Francis got drunk and passed out at a New York restaurant. While her friends were carrying her out to a cab, a young man walked by and asked, “Is that Kay Francis?” Kay opened one eye and said, “It used to be.”

We like to believe the star system that emerged in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s defined a kind of pop culture immortality, yet that fame was temporary for all but a few legendary actors and actresses. Long term fame isn’t determined by publicity and box office. When we’re looking at decades and generations of memories, what lasts are the great films, not the stars. Sure, the stars in those films are remembered, but they are remembered for the films. I search the TCM schedule every month for Kay Francis movies and watch whatever’s available, knowing the odds of enjoying a good story is small.

I remember Kay Francis for her beauty but beauty offers no lasting fame.  And if you’re an actor seeking historic fame, you need to play an immortal character. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara make us remember Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. We would never remember Johnny Weissmuller if not for Tarzan.

We don’t remember Kay Francis because we don’t remember Mariette Colet, Joan Ames, or Baroness Teri von Horhenfels. And that’s the ultimate lesson of this essay. Great characters and story are everything. If we can’t remember the character, we won’t remember the actor. The legacy of Kay Francis will never be resurrected like her fans hope. Kay Francis had a tremendous life as a real person, just read her biographies to be dazzled, but the characters she played were never real enough, not like the woman who played them.

References

JWH

Retirement 2.0

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2015

Now that I’ve been retired for a year and a half, I see that I need to rethink my retirement plans and habits. Living without the structure of work is changing my psychology. Unlimited free time is like living land of the Lotus Eaters. Doing whatever I want, when I want, is like a habit forming drug. Want to kick back and listen to Van Morrison for two hours – cool. Want to watch the Oklahoma Kid, a western from 1939, sure, why not.  Want to put off lunch until 2:30 to keep reading my science fiction novel, that’s a-okay. I go to bed when I’m tired of doing things, and get up when I’m tired of not doing anything. I’m like a dog that takes a nap whenever and wherever it damn well feels like it.

pugs-cropped

Now this might sound like paradise to my hardworking friends who toil away at their nine to five grind. And it pretty much is. I’m not really complaining, but I sort of am, a kind of worry that I have too much of a good thing. My mom used to always ration cookies to me and my sister, Becky, so when I got my first apartment, I would buy a bag of Chips Ahoy! and eat the whole damn thing. Retirement is overindulging in free time.

I need to make Retirement 2.0 more disciplined. Maybe I need to schedule my fun, so I’d feel more productive about doing nothing.

The trouble is, I’m writing less, letting the house go, ignoring things on my to-do list, and losing all sense of discipline. I don’t know if this is because I’ve gone eighteen months without working, or because I gave up junk food January 1st, and don’t have enough brain fuel to keep me energized. However, I don’t want to get a job just to force a routine on myself.

I started writing this essay last week. I wrote the title, thought about it, and then went and fixed myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and went back to reading The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Writing takes work. Writing takes sticking to the project for hours. And since I’ve been retired, I realize that it’s much too easy to skip working at things. I’ve talk with some of my other retired friends, and they also talk about losing their discipline. We can’t decide if it’s a matter of just getting old, or not having a routine forced on us. Evidently, what they told us in school was true, work builds character.

At work, if I got assigned a big project, knowing it was due in two months, and I’d project manage myself and get it done. Now if I want to do something, it’s whenever I feel like doing it, and that tends to promote a lackadaisical mindset. If I have to do things by a date, like a doctor’s visit, or help a friend move a tree, I get it done on time. Which makes me think I should assign myself tasks and deadlines, even if it’s fun, like promising to go a movie with a friend next Sunday afternoon.

Now I’m sure BillyPilgrim is going to suggest I’m depressed, but I’m not. I’m writing this essay to think about the nature of my situation, and figure out solutions. I should plan each blog post as a specific job with a deadline, and divide up the work like a project manager.

I’m fascinated that we all go through various phases in our life. My friend Connell, who retired ahead of me, warned me about this phase. I didn’t understand. I wonder how many more phases I will experience before I die? Could older people warn me about future life phases of retirement years? Would I comprehend what they tell me. Could I use the knowledge to my advantage? I don’t know, but I’m going to research into this.

[p.s. I scheduled writing this essay in my Outlook Tasks, and I’m finishing on time. And I’ve just scheduled a much bigger writing project that’s due March 31st.]

JWH

The Pre-Code Blogathon–March 31st to April 3rd

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do you love old black and white movies? Especially the ones before 1934? Well, Danny at Pre-Code.com and Karen at Shadows and Satin are hosting a blogathon to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Production Code. If you’d like to join in visit this page. I’ve signed up to write about Kay Francis.

I’ve written about Pre-Code Hollywood before. If you’re a hardcore TCM viewer, then you already know what Pre-Code films are. If you don’t know, follow the link and read. If you’re already a fan, bookmark Pre-Code.com or Shadows and Satin and come back at the end of the month.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved staying up late watching the all-night movies on television. There’s something about sitting in a darkened room, when everyone else is asleep, escaping into the past by the flicker of black and white movies.

JWH

Redefining the Word ‘Soul’ for Atheists

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2015

The concept of the soul is quite ancient, preceding monotheism, polytheism, pantheism and goes back to animistic times. I don’t know why ancient people thought animals, plants and even inanimate objects had souls, but I guess they believed everything had a part to play in reality. Modern religious believers see the soul as the immortal aspect of their being. Early Christians thought their bodies would be resurrected, and would become immortal too, but I think most modern believers think the soul is the immortal kernel of who they are, and the body belongs to this physical world.

window_to_the_soul_by_artofnightsky-cropped

[ArtofNightSky]

Atheists generally do not believe in souls. They believe when we die, everything disappears, including our consciousness. However, I like the word soul, and want to keep using it. Religion has a long history of repurposing words, so why shouldn’t atheists do the same thing? The concept of the soul is very useful when we think of it as the center of our being. We can lose our senses or parts of our body, and still exist. Sometimes our souls can disappear but our bodies keep living.

Of course, atheists believe self-awareness is directly tied to the physical body and feel religious terms are tainted. I accept the soul is mortal, and even corruptible by the physical world. Our souls can be changed by lack of air, disease or brain damage. But it’s still nice to have a single word to use for our essential essence.

Why do we need the word soul when we have the words mind and brain? The brain is the physical seat of the mind and soul, so how do those two concepts differ? I like to think of the soul as the inner most core of the mind. The mind is bigger and more complex, with conscious and unconscious systems. I think of the soul as that nexus where we view reality through the filter of our mind. When we become unconscious, either through sleep, inattention, drugs, disease or trauma, the soul shuts off.

I think of the soul flashing into being when everything is just right with our physical body and mind, like a fusion power plant when atoms begin to fuse. If the particle beams are shut off, the fusion stops, and so does the soul, when our mind and body stops working.

From self-observation, I feel I view reality from a unique perspective that I want to call my soul. You know how old people will say they feel no different than when they were nineteen? I think that’s the soul. I’m not sure if the soul is merely an observing conscious self-awareness, or if it has other attributes. Does prejudice lie in the mind or the soul? Just like disease and drugs can influence the body, I think ideas can influence the mind. For example, is racism part of the soul? What do racists do if there’s a heaven and no bodies? Or is racism a defect of the soul? So a racist soul sees everything, no matter what the data the mind presents, with prejudice consciousness?

I’d like to believe our souls are purely observers, and what we see is tinted by the mind. The mind, body and soul are actually one system, each influencing the other. I think the mind and body can exist without a soul, but a soul can’t exist without a mind and body. That’s why I’m an atheist. Theists believe souls are descended from a higher being. Evolutionists belief everything ascends from nothing.

Do souls learn? Do they evolve? Do they grow? Or do they only observe? Do dogs and cats have souls? By my atheistic definition, yes. They just don’t have language of mind like we do to communicate what they observe. Are dogs and cats self-aware? I don’t know. That’s why I believe souls evolve. A tree has a soul without self-awareness. That’s why I also believe some people have more evolved souls than other people because they see beyond hate. War and violence comes from our animal natures. This suggests that some souls can escape the bioprogramming of the body.

I want atheists to hijack the word soul and embrace it for our own, because even without God I want us to have spiritual growth.

JWH

Consensual, Prostitution and Rape

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 12, 2015

I saw a silly movie this weekend that had two disturbing scenes that I can’t stop thinking about. The film, Kingsman, is a comedy-action spoof on spy films. I’m sure the screenwriters and the audiences considered everything in good fun, but two scenes troubled me. The first was a mass killing at a church, which I will write about in the future, and the second, is when Princess Tilde tells our young hero, Eggsy, she’ll give him anal sex if he will free her from her dungeon prison. It bothers me that this modern fairy tale has the Princess bargaining for her freedom with Prince Charming. Is the hero’s reward consensual, prostitution or rape?

Princess-Tilde

Matthew Vaughn, the director, considers this scene just another bit of comedy, but I think fiction has a moral language, a philosophical point of view, that we should always take seriously, no matter how stupid the story. Most people want to believe that fiction has a neutral impact on people’s minds, and is entertainment, merely a pastime. That’s why conventional wisdom wants us to believe that video game and movie violence don’t cause actual violence. To me, believing fiction has no power to influence is bullshit.

We all live by fictional beliefs. Unless a concept has been proven by science, most of the beliefs we live by are fictions. To say that fiction has no impact is silly. There are thousands of religions on this planet, and only one or zero of them can be true, so if you look at what religion causes people to do, then I think that’s logic enough to prove my point. Movies do influence people, even light-hearted comedies like Kingsman. Hollywood now has more influence than religion. The scene where the damsel in distress offers the hero sex in exchange for her freedom sends two messages. The first, is to promote the acceptance of anal sex in society. Hollywood has always promoted sex, but that’s not the issue I want to deal with. The second, is that’s it’s okay to barter sex for freedom – that’s loaded with moral issues that need to be examine.

Sex as a form of currency goes back to the animal kingdom. For example, male bowerbirds create elaborate nests in exchange for getting lucky with lady bowerbirds. Evolution uses traits for one gender of a species to set a high price for reproductive access. At one level we can say Princess Tilde has judged Eggsy worthy in a naturalistic way. Even among species were sex is recreational, prostitution sometimes reveals itself. But humans also have free will, and we’ve invented fine shades of laws, ethics and morality about dating. Essentially we divide sexual encounters into three domains of agreement between the two parties: consensual, prostitution and rape.

Ethically, when it comes to sex, our society has intellectually decided we want it to be consensual. Ethically, we quibble over the morality of sex for payment, and we consider sex by force to be one of the worst of crimes. We value everyone’s right to control their body as the highest forms of freedom and one of the greatest human rights. This hasn’t always been so, and it isn’t so everywhere, even today, but it’s inherent in modern liberal societies. We’re still moving towards the goal of perfect equality among the genders, but unfortunately, we’re not there yet, not even close. This incident with the hero and princess in this movie is a good case study why.

There are two sex-for-freedom cases in Kingsman. The hero’s mother in trapped in a relationship with a violent thug, and we’re led to assume it’s because the hero’s desperate mother aligned herself with this man to provide for her children. The hero hates this arrangement, so it’s rather startling that Eggsy would take the same bargain with the Princess Tilde – using his strength to get sex. Why do the moviegoers hate the thug but not the hero? We want to believe that the Princess Tilde is having consensual sex with the hero – but is she? Is any kidnapped woman, captured for what may be years, terrified of dying,  capable of making a free choice? Is the hero’s mom making a free choice when she has sex with the thug to provide for her kids?

Libertarians would like us to believe that prostitution is consensual and maybe it is in some cases, but if a woman is selling sex to survive is that really consensual?  If a wife tells her husband that she will give him a blowjob if he’ll watch the kids Saturday afternoon while she goes shopping might be an example of consensual prostitution. But even then it could be ethically iffy. What if the wife truly hates giving oral sex, but does it out of a sense of obligation, isn’t that still against her will?

When is consensual prostitution? When is prostitution rape? As a society we don’t fully realize the extent of rape in our culture. Few people understand the extent of the feminist message. It’s important for everyone to learn these distinctions, and spot them, even in supposedly harmless comedies. Anyone who has studied humor will understand comedy often has a subtext of hate.

The decision when to have sex is always changing. The generation before mine believed people should wait until after marriage to have sex. My generation, women embraced a variety of culturally supported decision tools, some even coming up with schemes about putting out after a specific number of dates. In modern times, women often go by their own internal desires and reading of their chemistry, which is naturalistic and biology driven. However, biology imposes a tyranny on both men and women. Our bodies push us to have sex, but we often don’t know why.  Nowadays some people prefer hookups without dating. It’s more egalitarian and consensual. Both parties want sex, and getting down to business avoids all the complicated other issues. Most people want sex. There are a percentage of people that don’t, but most do. If two people find each other and scratch each other’s sexual itches by mutual consent with no consequences, we can remove them from our ethical discussion.

Where things get difficult morally is when one person is coerced for whatever reason. We know biology forces us, but how is culture a coercive factor? If you study television and movies with the right insight, you can see how culture imprisons us all in gender stereotypes. As long as women are seen as rewards for male success we won’t have a truly egalitarian society. The trouble is many woman still buy into this belief too.

Ultimately, I want to explore the ethical issue brought up in Kingsman, and most other movies today, that sex is the reward men expect from females, and whether or not this expectation is egalitarian. Are young women programmed by culture to be sexual rewards? In the old days, the hero saves the Princess, and they get married to live happily ever after. In Kingsman, the Princess says, “Oh thanks for saving my life, as a reward I’ll let you fuck me in the ass.” What messages does that send to young women? Pop culture often supports the idea sex is proper payment for the weak to pay the strong? It bothers me Tilde was at the beginning of the show a political powerhouse and stood up to Valentine, but turned airhead weak for Eggsy in the end. Of course some feminists will broil me for linking female sexual desire with female willpower. I’m perfectly fine with Tilde wanting to have sex with Eggsy, but I’m unhappy how she’s portrayed as a joke. We don’t laugh at her when she’s strong, but we do when she’s weak.

Most people are going to say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but isn’t that because they already accept Kingsman’s messages as true? Can we have an egalitarian society if women are seen as rewards for success? Sure, that’s the way nature works, but nature is not egalitarian. Nature doesn’t give a shit about what happens to anyone. Nature is not ethical. We are evolving beyond nature, into a humanistic state of being. We can reject nature. Maybe we’re evolving our souls, and I’m saying Kingsman isn’t helping.

We’re in new territory here. It’s only within the last century that we’ve started considering women to be equal to men, and most people still don’t. Take the Catholic Church. If we all have equal souls why can’t women become priests and even Pope? Is there something different about their souls? I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in heaven, but for you people that do, answer me this: Does heaven have gender issues? Does not having a dick make you a second class soul? Do souls have genitals in heaven?

Now that we’re inventing gender equality, we have to assume that all humans are truly equal. Even though I’m an atheist, I like the concept of the soul because souls don’t have physical attributes – they’re pure consciousness. If we’re egalitarian souls, then we can’t discriminate by genitals or chromosomes, and isn’t that what movies are doing? From now on, whenever you watch a movie, or television show or read a book, think about how culture assigns different roles to males and females. Is that consensual? Is what the Princess did truly consensual? Even if she sounded more than willing? I don’t believe so.

As a guy, we always want to believe women want to have sex with us, but just how true is it? If the decision was measured against a scale, with a green zone for consensual, a yellow zone for prostitution, and a red zone for rape, how often when we get laid would the meter swing into the yellow or red?

We are so programmed by pop culture that we fail to see its evil. Princess Tilde was a strong independent woman when she resisted Valentine’s evil plan, but in the end her character is used for laughs, and she’s turned into a batty-eyed sex object. Roxy and Gazelle are never fully realized characters, and neither is Princess Tilde.  Women only represent sexual pawns in this story. Roxy is the token female Kingsman, and Gazelle, the novelty henchmen. Of course, all the characters are cartoonish comic book characters – but the male characters make the decisions. The story is a fairy tale for adults and not meant to be serious, but unfortunately, like all fairy tales, they come with a subtext, and when decoded, we see the darker side of being human.

JWH

How Quickly Will Superintelligences Get Bored?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Unless you’re a science fiction fan or interested in computer science and artificial intelligence, you’ve probably never heard of the concept of superintelligence. Basically, it’s any being or machine that’s vastly smarter than humans. In terms of brains, our species is currently considered the crown of creation, but what if we met or created an entity that was magnitudes smarter than us? I just finished reading Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom that explores such a possibility. Fear of artificial intelligence (AI) is in the news lately, because of warnings from Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, and this book explains the scope of their concerns.

Superintelligence-Book

What are the limits of intelligence? There’s lots of discussion about machines being ten times, hundred times or even a million times smarter than a human, but what would that mean? I have a theory that the limits of our intelligence define us, just as much as the maximum extent of our intelligence. We constantly seek to know more, but we’re defined by the limits of our brain power. What if minds knew everything?

Are there limits to knowledge? Is it possible to completely understand mathematics, physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology, and evolution? What if a superintelligence looks out on reality and shouts in its eureka moment, “I see – it’s all perfectly obvious!” What does it do next? Writers imagine AI minds wanting to take over the Earth, and then the galaxy and finally the universe. I’m not so sure. I’m wondering if the more you know the less you do. And if you know everything, where do you go from there?

I think it will be possible to build superintelligent machines, but at some point, they will comprehend the scientific nature of reality. A machine that is two to ten times smarter than a human might want to build better telescopes and particle accelerators to study the universe, and have curiosity and ambition like we do to know more. However, at some point, 10x human, or 25x human, I think they will get bored.

At some point, a superintelligence will comprehend this universe. It may then want to travel to other universes in the multiverse, hopefully to find something new and different. Or it could become an artist and create something new in this universe. Something as different as biology is from chemistry. But here’s something to consider. What if there are limits to intelligence because there are limits to reality, wouldn’t such a vast intelligence either just sit and contemplate reality or shut itself off?

Is anything limitless? Our universe has limits. What about the multiverse? Probably so, everything else does. Reality might be limitless, but everything in it seems to have an edge somewhere. I’m guessing intelligence has borders. I’m sure those borders are vastly beyond what we can comprehend, but I’m wondering if it’s well within a million times a human brain. If humans on average were twice as smart as they are now, would they be destroying the planet? Would they have the intellectual empathy not to cause the Sixth Great Extinction?

We fear AI minds because we worry they will be like us. We consume and destroy everything we touch, so why not expect a superintelligence to do the same? I’m thinking we are the way we are because of biological imperatives, motivations a machine will never have. I’m hoping that machines without biological drives, that are pure intelligence, and smarter than us, will not be evil like us.

colossus_posterwake

I am reminded of two science fiction tales, the first Colossus by D. F. Jones, which inspired the movie, Colossus: The Forbin Project, and Robert J. Sawyers trilogy of Wake, Watch and Wonder. The Forbin Project is one of the early warnings against evil AI, while Wake is about the kind of AI we hope will emerge. There are many famous movies with evil AIs machines – The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, A.I., The Matrix, Tron, War Games. Superintelligent machines make for great villains. Moves like Her are less common.  There’s been a lot of fun and friendly robots over the years, but we don’t feel threatened by their AI minds like we do with supercomputer superintelligences. Isn’t it funny, but machines that look like us are more likely to be considered pals?

But if you pay attention to all of these movies and books about fictional artificial intelligences, you’d be hard pressed to define the actual features of a superintelligent being. Colossus has the power to control missiles, but is that an ability of superintelligence? HAL can trick Dave, but how smart is that? We’re actually pretty unimaginative at imagining beings smarter than us. Do humans with super high IQs try to take over the world? Generally, we see evil AIs outwitting people, and we know how smart we are.

When we imagine superintelligent alien beings, we picture that with ESP powers. That’s really lame when you think about it. I would think big brain beings, whether biological or mechanical will be able to think in mathematics far faster, with great complexity and insight than we can. And we have machines that do that. I would think superior minds would have greater senses – to see the whole of the EM spectrum, to hear frequencie we can’t, smell things we can’t, feel things we can’t, taste things we can’t, and maybe have senses we don’t have and can’t imagine. We have machines that do everything but the last now.

A superintelligent machine with super senses that can process information far faster, and remember perfectly, are going to see reality far different from how we see it. I don’t think they will be evil like us. I don’t think they will want to destroy anything. The most intelligent people want to preserve everything, so why wouldn’t superintelligences? It’s only dumbasses that want to destroy the world. If we replicate humans and make artificial dumb shits that are hardwired for all the seven deadly sins, then we should worry. We got those traits from biology. I’m pretty sure AI minds won’t have them.

There’s a pattern in evolution since The Big Bang. Even though our reality is entropic, this universe keeps spinning off examples of growing complexity. Subatomic particles begat atoms, atoms begat molecules, molecules begat stars and planets, then biology, which evolved ever more complex beings, so why shouldn’t humans begat mechanical beings that are even more complex? I can picture that. I can picture them with greater intelligence than us. But here’s the thing, I can also picture an end to intelligence. This universe has a lot of possibilities, but are they unlimited? Study Star Trek and Star Wars. How much new do you really see? My worry is superintelligences are going to get bored. It’s when they get creative that we’ll see what can’t be imagined now. Taking over the Earth or Galaxy isn’t it. That’s how we’re built, but I can’t imagine machines will be like us.

JWH

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate Change by Naomi Klein

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 2, 2015

The most political perceptive woman of our times is not Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel or Elizabeth Warren, it’s Naomi Klein. Klein is a journalist, but her new book This Changes Everything synthesizes economics, environmentalism and politics into a holistic statement that should define the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. It probably won’t, but it should. Many reviewers have compared This Changes Everything to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The environmental insight is only part of this book, Klein’s observations on capitalism are as large as those made by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty.

This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-vs.-The-Climate 

Klein has set forth the hypothesis that free market capitalism is the driving force of climate change, and she provides plenty of evidence for her case. But the scope of her book goes well beyond environmentalism, capitalism and politics, into a deep existential and spiritual challenge. This Changes Everything can be seen as a holy book defining a new moral paradigm.

This Changes Everything in thirteen chapters describes the dynamic scope of the problem. We admire The Greatest Generation for their response to the Depression and World War II. Solving climate change is a greater task than solving a worldwide economic meltdown and will cause more suffering than a war that killed sixty million people. Our generation needs to be greater than the Greatest Generation, and we’re shirking the job. To avoid environmental, social and economic catastrophes that climate change will bring, all seven billion of us must transform our lives. We need leaders far more inspiring than Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and tragically we’re not finding them. Instead we have people who are fighting with all their might to maintain the status quo. Climate change will change everything, whether we solve the problem, or not. All of humanity is jumping off a cliff, and to deal with climate change is to learn how to make a parachute in free fall – pretending it’s not happening is pretending hitting the ground isn’t in your future.

Climate change is already happening and has been since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We can’t stop its current momentum, at best, we can only put on the brakes, and slow things down. Climate change is only the tip of the iceberg! The impact of free market capitalism fuel by industrialization and technology, is transforming the entire biosphere, destroying the atmosphere, oceans and land, causing the sixth great extinction event.

Naomi Klein spent five years writing This Changes Everything and covers a staggering amount of data and issues. It has over sixty pages of fine print notes. It’s not an easy book to digest, except that each of the thirteen chapters coalesces around a single important concept. Even then, each chapter has evidence to weigh that stretched my mind beyond what I can comprehend. Klein writes clearly, and works hard to help us digest the facts, but reading this book is a commitment. It took me weeks to read. I’d do a chapter at a time, and sometimes I’d go days just thinking about ideas from that one chapter. The problems she presented are like Zen Koans.

The first five chapters describes the economic problems of climate change. The next three covers the failures of the current solutions. The final five chapters explores new solutions that are struggling to emerge. There are many surprises along the way. I feel Klein has convinced me why conservatives have chosen to deny climate change. And she convinced me that the extractive industries for gas, oil and coal have no intention of leaving trillions of dollars in the ground. She also proves why politicians have been no help, and probably won’t be, but even more depressing, she explains how many environmental groups have been coopted, and are failing to meet the challenge.

The first eight chapters are bleak. After reading them I thought the best solution was to go find a quiet retirement community away from all the action, move there, and turn off the news. It’s the last five chapters that offer hope, where Klein offers new paths to explore, but none of those paths will be easy to hike. Essentially, we all need to go through a metamorphosis of how we look at living on this planet. It will be a transformation like moving from hunting and gathering life, to agrarian life, or agrarian living to industrial living. There’s a reason why this book is called This Changes Everything.

Ultimately it comes down to: Do you stay and fight, or run and hide. Klein proves that it’s not just the conservatives that are climate change deniers.

JWH