SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - On the Value of Humans
A surprisingly controversial argument
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, no hermeticism required.
Computers can make us feel pretty dumb. Especially those show-off-y AI computers that put lifelong chess masters to shame or solve impossible calculations in seconds. Yeah, we get it, you’re not just any old computer, you’re a supercomputer.
AI might seem dauntingly advanced, but the distinction of artificial intelligence is key. I’m not about to devolve into poetry about the absence of love in a computer’s hardware — I’ll leave that to Kraftwerk. It’s much simpler than that; sure, AI can do the math we invented better than we ever will, but can it navigate a crowded sidewalk without having to play that awkward game of chicken? Take that, computers.
That’s basically what Hans Moravec meant in what’s come to be known as Moravec’s Paradox. As we often do, humans took for granted the seemingly simple things we do like catching a ball, interacting with others, and paying attention to things worth paying attention to (instead of becoming fixated on the shape of your steering wheel while driving). It’s the most fundamental part of what makes us living beings that makes the A in AI so apparent. The things evolution has been perfecting in us for millions of years are more complex than we give credit for and that’s the whole point of the paradox. Moravec characterized this as the kind of mistake a champion athlete makes when assuming an exercise is inherently easy only because it’s easy for him.
We focus a lot on what humans as a species do badly and what we as individuals do badly. Humans Being Bad is the plot of most movies, the core of most news, and the spirit behind most political views, and that’s fair enough — we are pretty bad, pretty regularly and we’re trying to figure that out. But like the athlete unable to realize what comes to him with ease due to his skill, we ignore how utterly and totally miraculous it is that we are what we are — infinitely complex, evolutionarily unparalleled, and mostly insane, talking animals who built an entire world on top of another world and yet still, the whole earth isn’t even constantly on fire (yes, Australia. But still, this is prison-camp-full-of-animals-that-genetically-and-morally-shouldn’t-exist, Australia). That in itself is a constant victory and it’s worth celebrating that we have thoughts, sometimes good ones, and haven’t done extinction to ourselves.
NOTE: (Were you hoping for an ominous little “Yet,” there? Because that’s dangerously trite of you and I won’t do it).
Let me give fair warning — Au Hasard Balthazar is an art movie through and through. Black and white, foreign language, low-budget, old and sad. You are not a degenerate for not having watched this movie or not wanting to. That being said, you will be a degenerate for skipping my analysis of what makes it the kind of movie that film-masochist-types like me have been flagellating ourselves with for over 4 decades.
How do you get (normal) people to watch a 1.5-hour film with minimal dialogue, minimal action besides intermittent abuse, and a donkey for a protagonist? You show them their lives reflected back to them through that donkey, obviously. At least, that’s probably close to what Robert Bresson was thinking when he made this movie.
Donkeys are simple animals, there’s not a whole lot you can do with them. The market for donkey racing, donkey fur coats, or pedigree donkey shows isn’t huge. Bresson’s donkey, Balthazar, is no different. What makes him so unique and compelling of a protagonist is the way we watch life happen to and around him — the way that this side-character to horses, this plain donkey, trots into and out of the lives around him, showing us the banality, the absurdity, the connectedness and universality of suffering in the human experience. I feel what you feel. We are here alone, together.
There are theories about Balthazar being a representation of Christ’s life and there are strong allusions to this. Balthazar can be seen as Christ himself, bearing the burden of man’s flawed nature — his cruelty, his greed, his fear, his solipsism. A flock of white sheep surrounds Balthazar in the final scene, mirroring the transcendence of Christ from the ultimate embodiment of human suffering into Christ the figure of purity and redemption.
It’s this purely human experience of suffering and overcoming that has made Au Hasard Balthazar the kind of movie whose immensity you should punish yourself with at least once.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.