Daniel Saunders

Daniel Saunders is a recent transplant from the Midwest to Pasadena, California. View his creative portfolio at danieltsaunders.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @dothedan.

Metal’s Romantic Rebellion

The spirit we know as the Romantic has, from its beginnings in the backwaters of eighteenth-century Germany, taken many forms: within its folds can be found the sublime melodies of Beethoven, the passionate verses of Byron, the organic dialectic of Hegel, the pastoral ballads of Wordsworth, the mystical landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, the Gothic blackness of Wuthering Heights, the eerie fables of Washington Irving, the tortured yearnings of Wagner—to name its most popular expressions. At first, there would seem to be little uniting these disparate elements under a single name, and yet the deeper one delves, the clearer the common threads become.

At its heart, Romanticism is rebellion. Not rebellion for its own sake, but rebellion against an enemy all Romantics have deemed the most heretical to life itself: a tidy, rational, scientific, logical, fully knowable, and closed universe; that is, any overly rigid system, which forfeits passion, authenticity, creativity, originality, and mystery for spiritual death. Rebellion fueled Romanticism from the beginning, when a small but vocal group of Protestant German intellectuals, artists, and theologians rose up against the rational principles of the great Enlightenment project, whose expositors were mostly French and mostly atheists or deists (a lukewarm position possibly more heinous in Romantic eyes than atheism). The Enlightenment philosophes had seen themselves as the culmination of history; where before there was darkness, ignorance, irrationality, now there was light, tolerance, reason. Thinkers as different as Newton, Spinoza, Diderot, and Kant, like the Greeks before them, all saw the universe as a cosmos, a rationally ordered system which could be fully explained and understood and whose eternal laws ought to be applied to everyone at all times. Every discoverable question can be articulated; every question has a discoverable answer. The book is closed and the story all but written. Against this towering fortress the Romantic movement hurled itself with the force of a siege engine.

Abbey among Oak Trees Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) oil on canvas Current location: Alte National Galerie

Abbey Among Oak Trees , Caspar David Friedrich, (1774–1840), oil on canvas, current location: Alte National Galerie

Hundreds of years later, that fortress lies half in ruins, having sparred with a host of other enemies, and Romanticism, in many ways, has been reduced to a set of clichés: the ideal of the suffering artist, who is driven to madness by an original, almost demonic, genius; a dual view of Nature, both as uncorrupted, idyllic Eden and terrifying, pagan power; unbounded passion, emotionalism, and unconsummated love. These ideas suffuse our movies, our literature, and our imaginations. But the authentic, rebellious spirit of Romanticism lives on today, often in unexpected places.

If Romantic creativity finds its spark in antagonism to neat, ordered, too-rational, even bourgeois environments, then it has found one of its most fruitful expressions in that often cliché-ridden genre of music beloved of adolescent boys, tattooed muscle heads, faux-Satanists, aficionados of technique, and normal people alike: heavy metal. Music, along with poetry, have always been the art forms most conducive to Romantic expression, for a simple reason. These arts generally embody everything the Enlightenment sought to liberate itself from: intuition over rationality, mystery over explanation, transcendence over materialism. The poet or musician stands as antitype to the scientist, Dionysus against Apollo, as that authority which can rightfully speak for and direct humanity. As Blake puts it: “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.” And metal, at least in its fringe sub-genres, has always been one of the most extreme forms of music, seeking to stretch what is inherent in the art to its limits. Metal takes the rebellious and anti-scientific core of Romanticism, channels it through amplifiers, and turns it against the kinds of modern fortifications that approximate the intellectual hubris of the Enlightenment.

That the Romantic spirit animates metal is evidenced by Beethoven’s chugging bass lines, virtuosic treble runs, aggressive chord progressions, and minor-key sonorities, which reappear in the albums of Megadeth, Slayer, and Death. The Gothic tropes of the macabre, the grotesque, and the weird inform possibly every metal band’s album art, stage presentation, and general appearance, but perhaps most particularly those bands with a penchant for theatrics, from Immortal to Rob Zombie. And then there is Blake—who, as the poet Michael Robbins points out in an essay on poetry and metal for Harper’s, is the best untapped resource for aspiring metal lyricists, as in this passage from Milton:

The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man:
This is a false Body, an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit, a Selfhood which must be put off and annihilated alway.

The lyrics in The Ark Work, the latest album by experimental black metal band Liturgy, attempt the same sentiment, even with an outright reference to Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—although these words fail at attaining the status of what we might call good poetry (as is the case with most metal lyrics, although the words aren’t usually the point):

The doors of perception will open and close
Hope will exist in a problematic relationship with reason
Libidinal energy will whirl round like a rattle rattling
Hearts will be stopped bones will shatter shattering

Liturgy is a contentious band; the often heavy-handed, sophomoric, and esoteric ideas of their frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix—who has penned a manifesto entitled “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”—have caused backlash among both mainstream listeners and traditional black metal diehards. But behind the outer pretensions of the band, the essence of their music is Romantic. Black metal, for Hunt-Hendrix, is not the calcified, anti-Christian, nihilistic expression historically associated with the sub-genre. It is rather a protest against prevailing systems and forms of knowledge, an openness to experiencing more than what is immediately evident or logically expressible.

Album artwork for Liturgy's The Ark Work

Album artwork for Liturgy’s The Ark Work

This broadly Romantic intellectual framework is less a product of pure, disembodied reason and more an amalgamation of many factors derived from first-hand experience. As anyone who has been to a metal concert, or any rock concert, can testify, experiencing music live is tactile and visceral. The throng of bodies, the stench and sting of sweat, the assault on eardrums—all of the senses converge to point to something that could never be expressed in words alone. This intuitive, experiential knowledge implies that the world we have built with language and reason is at least partially artificial. Beyond what we can understand, analyze, and speak about, there exists a plane of reality—not some other-world of Platonic forms, but the world itself in its fullness—the very essence of which is creativity, mystery, and life. According to Schopenhauer, “the composer reveals to us the intimate essence of the world; he is the interpreter of the profoundest wisdom, speaking a language which reason cannot understand.” Descartes seems to be missing something from his lofty and mentally isolated chair.

Deafheaven concert

In the Romantic context, all of this was first and most forcefully articulated by the obscure figure of J. G. Hamann, who was, according to Isaiah Berlin, “the most passionate, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment.” Hamann—one of whose many self-styled epithets was the incredibly metal “The Magus of the North”—lived and wrote in the East Prussian city of Königsberg at the same time as Kant, and was Kant’s nemesis in most matters philosophical, habitual, and temperamental. “Do either nothing or everything; the mediocre, the moderate, is repellent to me: I prefer an extreme,” said Hamann. Berlin places Hamann as the originator of a long line of rebellious, poetic iconoclasts that includes Blake, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and D. H. Lawrence, forerunners of a sensibility that would later be called existential. Hamann’s greatest enemies were those like Kant and the utilitarian Helvétius, who in their devotion to scientific reasoning as the panacea for all human curiosity, sufferings, and longings betrayed a “total blindness to man’s inner life, or the abysses of which Augustine and Pascal, Dante and Luther wrote” (Berlin, The Magus of the North).

Metal is well acquainted with those abysses. It soaks in them and pours them back out in torrents of sonic energy, howling yelps, and distorted guitars, forming tools to use in the dismantling of a particularly sterile form of Enlightenment rationality. And when that Socratic process of breaking down is not just self-serving or anarchic, when it is directed toward the creation of something new, it can often open up pathways to the transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sunbather and New Bermuda, the most recent two albums by black metal-meets-shoegaze band Deafheaven. It is difficult to listen to Deafheaven and not be moved, even if you are not a metal fan. They encompass both the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, the full range of human passions which was every Romantic’s duty to express. Although the lyrics again fall short of the eloquence of poetry, lines like “A multiverse of fuchsia/And violet surrenders to blackness now” are fully realized and transformed by the music itself, a perfect harmony of content and form.

When listening to this music, I feel I am in the realm of things apprehended intuitively. Words are slippery things. Like tricks of light at the edge of vision, they disappear when you try to look too closely at them. But the fundamental intellectual agnosticism in Romanticism and metal is not a purely negative posture; at its core is a desire to strip away extraneous ideas, false ideas, idolatrous ideas, the ideas of those who would try to live your life for you. When this happens, the real work of positive self-knowledge, self-determination, even of faith, begins. Hamann again, against the pat systems of stuffy Frenchmen: “Do not forget, for the sake of the cogito, the noble sum.”

Tasting Wonder

“Every real thing is a joy, if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and tongue to taste it.” — The Supper of the Lamb

I remember the cooking that defined my childhood. It wasn’t anything too extraordinary, but to me, nothing rivaled it. The reviving heartiness of Mom’s casserole and Sunday pot roast, the ecstasy of Dad’s grilled cheese, the comfort of Grandma’s desserts—these dishes forever left their mark on my unformed palate and soul.

I suspect many feel the same way. Our various cuisines, informed by family traditions, ethnic backgrounds, and the particularities of time and locale, form as much a part of our identities as our places of origin. Recalling these earliest experiences of food brings us back to a particular feeling, primal and vital, that is intimately bound up with childhood—a sense of wonder at an undiscovered world, full of new possibilities. It brings us back; or, rather, the past expresses itself again in the present. In such moments, I feel the immediacy of existence here and now, senses reanimated by memory.

Chef’s Table, a new Netflix-produced series from David Gelb (the man behind the 2011 hit Jiro Dreams of Sushi), elegantly captures this mood at the nexus of memory, creativity, and food. Unlike other food shows, Chef’s Table does not involve competitions, recipe demonstrations, or reality-TV drama. Instead, each episode of the series immerses us in the world of one chef, some internationally acclaimed, others in the early stages of their careers, but all captivating: Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana in Modena), Dan Barber (Blue Hill in New York City), Francis Mallmann (Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires), Niki Nakayama (N/Naka in Los Angeles), Ben Shewry (Attica in Melbourne), and Magnus Nilsson (Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden). Breathtaking cinematography and dynamic music—notably Max Richter’s dazzling recomposition, or re-expression, of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—complement intimate vignettes of work and personal life. What emerges is not a confusion of egotistical personalities, but a unified portrait of artistic endeavor, a kind of phenomenology of creativity.

Each episode of Chef’s Table offers a penetrating look at not only the person of each chef, but also at his or her distinct philosophy and underlying attitude toward food. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that food qua food, although essential (these are chefs, after all), is not the real subject of the series. It might be more accurate to say that the series uncovers each chef’s underlying attitude and orientation toward the artistic process, toward the act of creation itself. And while each chef surely has a distinct style, a particular interpretation of the problem of creation, there remains a remarkable unity among them in the conception of that problem: “How do I effect transformation? How do I make one thing another? How do I make the past present? How do I change the other through my act of giving?”

Dan Barber | Blue Hill at Stone Barns

For Dan Barber, an early proponent of the farm-to-table movement, the answer lies in the holism and simplicity of nature. Barber argues that the most naturally, ethically sourced foods—the greens that you can grow in your own backyard, the vegetables that Barber grows at his restaurant’s accompanying farm—are also the best-tasting foods. Local ingredients combat commercial agriculture’s sterilizing effect on food, which tends to strip away valuable nutrients. Intentionality and care make a particular food something to be considered, experienced in its full, true essence, rather than merely consumed. With enough work and education, with a constant questioning of our conventionally held attitudes and assumptions, one can build a virtuous cycle of sustainability, taste, and pleasure. Barber acts as a kind of Socratic guide and facilitator, opening people up to the possibility of a transformative encounter with a new way of eating and being.

Magnus Nilsson | Fäviken

Magnus Nilsson—head chef at Fäviken, a combined restaurant and lodge in an extremely remote region of Sweden—approaches cooking in a similar fashion. The staff at Fäviken, according to its website, “do things as they have always been done at Jämtland mountain farms.” As at Blue Hill, ingredients are sourced locally from the surrounding farmland. Traditional methods add layers of history and communal richness to the food. Because of the region’s harsh winter climate, the restaurant relies on ingenuity to maintain its localized vision; foods harvested in summer and autumn can be stored or preserved for months at a time, a process that brings out new tastes and qualities in them. Nilsson himself fishes for the selections of the day, and the menu varies depending on what he catches. All these factors work together to draw attention to the slow cycles of the seasons, of nature, against the noisy, breakneck cycles of the technological world. The place has a feel almost of a monastery. Secluded, perched high above the concerns of everyday life, it offers clarity and solace from the chaotic din below. People come here to be changed, renewed.

For these chefs and others in the series, a sort of cosmic unity, a harmony within oneself and with the world, forms the telos that principally guides their craft. Order and symmetry grace their dishes as well as their method. Food is merely the stuff, the means of this endeavor, not the form. The stuff might as well be pigment and canvas, or sounds and instruments. The more basic element, common to all artists, is the formal, physical reordering of that stuff into something else. By this process of transformation, new ideas, experiences, and possibilities emerge. What was once obscured is made visible; truth exists in the uncovering. And yet food is unique after all. It is meant not merely to be looked at or thought on, but ingested, literally made a part of us. Dan Barber’s dishes—whether simple, like radishes and other greens pinned onto a wooden display, or more complex, like humanely-raised veal wrapped in kohlrabi and coriander flowers—transform everyday ingredients into semi-sacramental objects, capable of reorienting us toward a new way of participating in the world. A carrot is no longer just a carrot, a mundane vegetable that, if we’re honest, is not terribly exciting. A carrot becomes something more, something that invites us to ponder, as one food critic put it, the “carrot-ness of carrot,” the depth behind the ordinary.

But a darker, more volatile strain of creativity also appears in Chef’s Table, one that comes nearer to Isaiah Berlin’s description of eighteenth-century German Romanticism:

“Creation was a most ineffable, indescribable, unanalyzable personal act, by which a human being laid his stamp on nature, allowed his will to soar, spoke his word, uttered that which was within him and which would not brook any kind of obstacle.

The chef in this conception is less a skilled master capable of dazzling transformations than a mad genius stricken by fate, doomed to suffer and create. The pursuit of art can be a curse, depriving one of family and friends. But one must pursue it. One cannot live in a world where one cannot create.

Francis Mallmann | Patagonia Sur

This Romantic spirit shows itself most fully in Francis Mallmann, an international chef based in Argentine Patagonia. A fitting epigraph by Blake welcomes us to his Instagram page: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” Mallmann is easily one of the less likable personalities on the series; while other chefs at least attempt to balance their work with families and spouses, Mallmann has a decidedly more pessimistic view of human relationships. His romantic partner, with whom he has an infant daughter, lives in another country, and he visits them a few days a month, because familiarity breeds contempt. A lifelong friend has developed other interests, and so Mallmann coolly decides he has no reason to speak with him anymore, because life is too short not to act on your own desires. But beneath his libertine, Nietzschean surface lies a powerful creative force fascinating to witness.

Francis Mallman

Mallmann occasionally entertains guests at his island cabin in Patagonia. To get there, one must travel hours by car, then an hour by boat, to the middle of a lake surrounded by the mountains that border Chile. Here, at the end of the world, Mallmann captures the essence of the land in his simple, rustic approach to cooking. Inspired by gaucho practice, he sears giant racks of meat over open wood fires and smolders vegetables in large pits. He utilizes the elements themselves—growing up, he says, “our house was ruled by fire”—creating a multi-sensory experience that puts the diner in the midst of nature. This carefully crafted mise-en-scène is an exhilarating, intoxicating brew. Mallmann plays the master of ceremonies expertly, leading guests to their own rapturous and solitary heights. After coming back down from the ascent, however, it is hard not to feel strangely empty. Freedom can be an alienating road.

Massimo Bottura | Osteria Francescana

Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 miles away in the ancient city of Modena, Italy, Massimo Bottura pursues his craft with a very different kind of vision. At his restaurant Osteria Francescana, currently ranked second in the world, Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” finds application in a culinary milieu. The “it” in this case refers to the traditional Italian cuisine that Bottura grew up eating, the tortellini and lasagna dishes of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The youngest of a large family, Bottura remembers hiding under the kitchen table as a boy, seeking haven from his raucous older brothers. From this uncommon vantage point he discovered a new world. He would watch through a haze of flour as his grandmother hand-rolled tortellini for the family meal; at opportune moments he would even pilfer bits of the pasta, relishing the taste heightened by mischief and discovery. This dish impressed itself on Bottura so strongly that he has named it his “life plate.”

Bottura Sampler

Although Bottura has earned a reputation for avant-garde, often “irreverent” takes on traditional dishes in his insatiable desire to “make it new,” the image of the child under the table—a memory fusing taste, curiosity, culture, and family—signifies the primary feeling he wishes to impart to patrons of his restaurant. While Mallmann’s wild sophistication often obscures this childlike simplicity, in Bottura it shines forth with joy. His goal is to lead a person back to the spark of wonder that comes on the verge of the unexplored, to the startling shock of surprise at the familiar and unexpected placed side by side. (One of his signature dishes, “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano,” incorporates five different ages and textures of Emilia-Romagna’s ubiquitous cheese. Alas, I cannot speak for its taste, but its charming presentation alone aroused my imagination.) In the end, Chef’s Table communicates this most persuasively: the mysterious and playful interrelation of senses, emotions, and memories which elevates eating from dull routine to sacred ritual.

Hope in the Wasteland

There is a tendency in many pop culture stories to mistake complexity for sophistication. The more plot twists and turns, the better; the more tangled the narrative, the more likely we are to find some kernel of meaning in one of its many strands. It is thus refreshing when a story dares to remember the virtue and pleasure of simplicity. In contrast to the bloated mess that constitutes much Hollywood action and superhero fare, Mad Max: Fury Road follows the simplest and most mythic story of all—what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey.” It’s a story director George Miller has told many times—through films as different from the Mad Max series as Babe and Happy Feet—but it’s one that perhaps will always be inexplicably compelling, due in large part to its primordial roots. Its essence is the arc that defines all journeys since there have been people to journey: setting out, the challenge, transformation, the return. It is, according to  T.S. Eliot’s resonant phrase, “to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is a high-ranking official in the service of the Citadel, a stronghold ruled by the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and set up as an oasis-prison against the scorched Wasteland that covers the earth. Joe keeps the underclass in place by restricting access to the world’s most precious resource, water. At the beginning of the film, Furiosa goes rogue, setting off across the desert in the colossal War Rig in hopes of liberating her precious cargo—Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, whom he keeps as slaves for breeding heirs. Joe sets off in pursuit of Furiosa with his full army of monstrous cars and mutant War Boys (who are something like a cross between orcs and Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Mephisto)—one of whom, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), has taken (Mad) Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) along for the ride as his human “blood bag.” The ensuing two hours are essentially an escalation of this chase, which hardly ever slows down and eventually results in Max and Nux joining Furiosa’s side to fight off Joe.

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The world Miller gives us is a stunning realization of a singular vision, a curious and indeed mad offspring of action, horror, and arthouse sensibilities. The aesthetic is entrancing, and more than slightly menacing—an eclectic mix of heavy metal, steampunk, and Terry Gilliam-level bizarre (I was reminded more than once of Brazil), all delivered at a breakneck pace. It is like looking at a Hieronymus Bosch painting if the artist had lived in the oil and water-parched twenty-first century. Here, the veneer of civilization has been stripped away by nuclear fallout, forcing the remnant of humanity back into primitive, mythic forms, which manifest themselves in more than just character and place names. Symbols loom large. Characters flee or welcome Death, seek Redemption. The script may be light, and the story simple, but one feels the psychological depth of the world. Every character, every car, every detail has a weight that suggests a unique backstory, which the film mercifully refuses to expound. I was reminded of literary critic Erich Auerbach’s description of the terse, seemingly bare prose of the Old Testament as compared to the highly descriptive verse of Homer’s Odyssey:

The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [the Odyssey’s] fully externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings . . . on the other hand [in the Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings.

One mythic expression of humanity that we find in this sparse but deep world is Immortan Joe’s hyper-masculine society, which celebrates death, slavery, and the cult of the warrior. It is a return to a kind of Viking paganism channeled through the divinity of the V8 engine. Cars roam the Wasteland like skiffs on the sea, in search of pillage and the glory of eternal life in a chrome Valhalla, achieved through self-sacrifice in battle. Exhibitions of testosterone are raised to the level of the parodic. Set against this, there is the feminine resistance of Furiosa, the Five Wives, and a possibly apocryphal Eden known as the “Green Place,” which is populated by the Vuvalini, an elderly and resourceful matriarchal clan.

Themes of fertility and renewed life are clear symbols opposing Joe’s brute violence and dehumanization. There has been much ado about the film being a kind of “feminist manifesto,” one reviewer even going so far as to call it a dystopian tale of reproductive rights. Boiling the film down to this point misses the mark. It has no overarching theoretical agenda, feminist or otherwise—despite its overturning a host of sexist tropes, refusing to objectify or ogle its female characters, and giving the lead to Furiosa (Max is literally out of the driver’s seat for most of the film). It simply believes in, and shows, a true equality and solidarity of the sexes, and professes the desirability of a society built on life, equality, and justice rather than on death, slavery, and oppression. This better society is one containing all kinds of people: cripples, freaks, and lunatics—the kind of rabble Flannery O’Connor envisioned would inherit the kingdom of heaven. And this society, the film argues, is one that women may have a better shot at initiating in the post-apocalypse.

The relationship between the sexes, typified by Furiosa and Max, is one that exists in a side-by-side, outward-facing posture oriented toward the world of action. For most of the film, as Max tells us in an opening monologue, these characters are concerned only with survival; they are reduced to fight or flight mode, unable to think about anything else except escaping their ordeal alive. Max is driven by his basic animal instinct to continue existing, an occupation which is necessarily focused on the present. He shuns hope, calling it a mistake, and adds that “if you can’t fix what is broken, you’ll go insane.” But at Max’s transformative turning point he finds himself yoked to Furiosa’s hope for a new life and better world. Together they decide on an improbable plan—return to the Citadel, cutting off Joe in the Wasteland. The film suggests that hope is only possible through the combined strength of both Max and Furiosa, an expectation of real change rather than an empty, self-gratifying wish.

In this view, Immortan Joe and the War Boys are the victims of a kind of cruel and excessive nostalgia, one which desperately clutches at what it cannot hold and hopes in a false ideal; Joe’s relentless quest to assert and reclaim his “property” is his own form of spiritual enslavement. By contrast, Max and Furiosa, even the War Boy Nux, are turned relentlessly toward the future and the possibility of building life again—indeed, of being redeemed. Although Furiosa’s home has been lost, she is committed not to giving herself over to grief but to finding a new one. This unsentimental posture is one that allows for real and meaningful self-sacrifice—and for Nux, a final righting of the twisted and empty self-sacrifice practiced by the War Boys.

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Transformation is both experienced and effected by the heroes. It reflects the spirit of the film, which is not glory or revenge, but revolution. In the final analysis, Fury Road is closer kin to Sergei Eisenstein’s October than to the standard vendettas of the action genre. A theme that Snowpiercer rendered pretentious and silly is here harnessed into something immediate and forceful. Violence, while seemingly necessary to overthrow corrupted order, is never gratuitous, always purposeful and defensive on the part of the heroes. When Nux breaks into the War Rig and Furiosa attempts to kill him, one of the Wives protests: “That’s an unnecessary kill!” But violence is also the way of the old gods, the primitive human neurosis, a dehumanizing act that is fueled by the death wish. The film’s ambivalence about revolutionary violence is striking, given the culture of a genre where seemingly no thought is given to the cause and effect of such acts. Miller has said that his interest stems from his time in a trauma ward (he’s a former doctor), where he witnessed “the aftermath of all kinds of violence.” Fury Road offers no final view on whether or not violence may undermine the goals of revolution, equality, or hope. But the fact that this ambivalence is consciously in the background, pleading to be acknowledged, is rare for an action film.

Fury Road recalls Eisenstein in another way as well. By far the most gratifying element of the film is not its story, its characters, or its politics, but its cinematic coherence. This applies to how Miller shoots action sequences—they are lucid, elegant, not disorienting—in addition to the film as a whole. Miller reveals himself yet again as a student of a more visually expressive and inventive tradition of filmmaking, one which diverges from the more discursive, script-heavy norm in contemporary American cinema. Miller’s tradition traces its lineage from silent film to contemporary masters like David Lynch and Terrence Malick, in which an image, a gesture, or a camera movement has a suggestive meaning and intuitive sense. The structure of images, sounds, story, and edits come together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts, working with a rhythm close to poetry or music. The simplicity of Fury Road’s story allows an even greater freedom in telling it in an inventive way, and the cinematic telling in turn draws out the story’s mythological undertones. As in Eisenstein, the film’s overall flow, its montage, follows its own inherent logic and makes possible the “multiplicity of meanings” Auerbach attributed to the style of the Old Testament epic. Apart from the action thrills on the film’s surface, it is this factor, the harmony of form and content, that makes Fury Road a genuinely compelling work of art.

It Follows: A Parable of Original Sin

There is a lot of space in David Robert Mitchell’s brilliant horror film, It Follows—scenes of empty idleness set between heart-pounding action sequences, interludes of silence between the screams. On a formal level, this downtime heightens the anxiety we feel as viewers and enhances our terror when the payoffs finally come. The camera lingers on a suburban street, rustling tree branches, school hallways, attempting to lull us into a stupor, but in our gut we can never shake the nagging feeling that something very wrong is approaching.

In It Follows, this space reflects a suburban idleness that inheres in the film’s adolescent characters. It Follows pays its respects to the genre’s greats—particularly John Carpenter, whose influence can be detected in the film’s languorous cinematography and eerily beautiful synth score. And like the classic slasher flicks of the 1980s, the film is a microcosm of teenage life, especially the reigning concern of that life: the wonder and terror of being awakened to sexual desire, and the moral consequences of acting on that desire. The culturally dead space of suburbia acts as a pressure cooker. With no outlet of release, these desires sit and smolder, warping themselves into grotesque forms.

it-follows

The kids in It Follows are not the sex-crazed youths of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, chomping at the bit to fornicate as soon as their parents are out of town. (Still, following a horror trope, parents are mostly absent, lending a surreal atmosphere to characters’ actions.) They appear mature for their age, their casual sexual decisions formed by free wills which have weighed potential outcomes. Still, they cannot escape the consequences of “it,” the film’s amorphous, zombie-like bogeyman. “It” becomes visible to you, and only you, after you have slept with someone who has been cursed; “it” hunts you down unless you sleep with someone else and pass the curse along. If it gets to you before that happens, it goes back down the line, terrorizing previous links in the chain.

This gimmick is perhaps typical for a horror movie, and yet it highlights horror’s obsession with promiscuity in a novel way. Horror is a child of the Id. Part of the horror of horror stories resides in the unveiling of the unknown, of fears, anxieties, and inclinations that normally lie submerged in the unconscious. Sexual desire is one such inclination—indeed, one of the most powerful and mysterious. Horror’s almost psychoanalytical interest in the dark side of sex is thus pertinent and fitting to one of its aims, which is to unearth the disturbing realities that hide in the darkness.

Often, horror offers a curiously puritanical (and perhaps sadistic) take on uncontrolled sexual desire, with the bogeyman exacting ruthless judgment on those who have trespassed the established moral code. Those who die first are usually the most shameless offenders. But It Follows, like all good horror, is more than a simple morality play. It is more than a tale of adolescent sexual anxiety, or a simple analogy for STDs. It points to something deeper, of which sexual desire is only a part and fitting representation. Good horror—as opposed to purely titillating, shock-value horror—is concerned with the metaphysical reality of good and evil, of right and wrong moral trajectories. As such, horror inevitably ends up touching on that article of faith known as sin, whose source is traced to the very core of human nature.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that source is articulated in the doctrine of original sin. While there is usually agreement among theologians on the existence of such a spiritual reality—that Adam and Eve’s primordial fall caused humanity to be born into a state of sinful proclivity and estrangement from God—the specifics of its exact nature and transmission have always been disputed. In Augustine’s somewhat infamous account, for instance, original sin is passed down physically in the act of procreation; our malformed nature is not a psychological or spiritual cloud hovering over us, but an actual infection transmitted from the souls of our infected parents.

This view, stemming from Augustine’s Neoplatonism, regards the body and the sexual act as inherently compromised, closer to evil and nothingness on the chain of being because of their corporeal nature. Due in part to its philosophical and historical baggage, few today can follow Augustine all the way. (Although Freud himself posited a biological basis for the human neurosis, the psychoanalytic version of original sin.) It Follows, however, dares the attempt. The film’s bogeyman is not merely an arbitrator of divine punishment, but a symbol of the curse that stains us all. It is telling that “it” cannot truly be avoided. Characters can outrun it for a time, but it always catches up with the cursed, bearing the wages of sin. If the film imagines that curse, and its consequences, through a seemingly medieval view of sex, it is only because sex offers the best metaphor for the real essence of original sin—namely, desire.

Beneath the superficial particulars of Augustine’s account of original sin lies a robust understanding of human waywardness. What really matters for Augustine is not sin’s transmission through the sexual act, but the underlying inclination toward lust specifically and sin generally—an inclination known as concupiscence, or “hurtful desire.” An impulse which even after baptism remains as “a certain affection of an evil quality,” a residue like languor after sickness. At its most basic, concupiscence is non-sexual; it conveys a strong, fervent longing and sensual appetite for things and persons in place of God. It is love disordered, a privation of good, a kind of spiritual libido. As Aquinas, following Augustine puts it, concupiscence is not “actual lust,” but “habitual lust,” the natural diseased state of humanity after the Fall. Distorted sexual desire is only its most immediate physical realization. Our hearts are wounded and restless, searching for cures in all the wrong places.

If concupiscence exists at the root of the human condition, then It Follows offers a parable of its nature, in heightened form. We all have inherited the inclination to sin, the desire to fill our empty spaces with lesser goods in place of the highest good. We attempt to alleviate our longing through objects. Adam’s curse touches us all, and to our horror, we are not free from the inescapable dominion of death, the always-present companion of concupiscence.

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In It Follows, the freedom the parentless, teenage characters exercise is a trap. This false freedom, a symbol of societal permissiveness, only mires them deeper within themselves, and within the destructive world of errant desires. Here, we are in a psychic realm similar to that outlined in Dante’s Inferno, where exaggerated desires become their own form of torment, leading to spiritual death. Concupiscence becomes bent inward and feeds on itself; the violence inherent in its definition—a “harmful desire”—refracts outward as well, adding the threat of sexual violence to the menace surrounding “it.”

At one point in the film—after Jay, the film’s central character, has had sex with her older boyfriend Hugh for the first time—she reminisces about her girlhood fantasies: “I had this image of myself, holding hands with a really cute guy, driving along some pretty road. It was never about going anywhere really. It’s having some sort of freedom I guess.” That aimless freedom and innocence are compromised in the film’s dark web of distorted desires. Minutes later, Hugh drugs her and ties her up in an abandoned building, where he forces her to witness the “it” that has been following him and that now follows her. Even though their sex was consensual, Hugh’s use of Jay to protect himself from “it” is in essence an act of violence against her, since he acts from the depths of concupiscence.

Similar echoes of sexual assault mark the film. At first, Jay’s friends have a hard time believing her story or that anything is wrong—“It’s not what she thinks, ok?” When Jay sleeps with an older guy named Greg to pass on the curse, “it” takes the form of Greg’s mother and rapes him. When Jay and her friends try to destroy “it” at the end of the film, “it” appears as Jay’s father. This is the hell where concupiscence reigns. Love, the outward-facing posture of desire deferred, is impossible; when sexual acts are entirely for oneself, desire is sharpened into a brutal weapon, a figure which stalks the cursed unto death. If there is a link, perhaps subconscious, between the teens’ actions and the terror of “it,” it is this: that the world of sexual permissiveness exists on the same plane as the world of sexual violence.

It Follows is a nightmare showing what happens to fallen human desire when it is given the space and opportunity to fester, growing into something truly monstrous. The film goes beyond black and white moralism (“teenagers shouldn’t have sex”) and offers a broader look at the essence of morality: errant desire is fundamental to the human condition, but what might it look like to live a life with desires that are properly ordered? Can we wake up to knowledge of ourselves, avoiding destruction? Or will we fall into darkness, fearing “it” around every corner?

Leviathan: When Power Forfeits Law

Much has already been made of the politics of Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s acclaimed film that touches on corrupt authority, rule of law (or lack thereof), and bureaucratic impotence in a small Russian village on the Barents Sea. Kolya is a hot-tempered, proud man of impulse and rural vulgarity, prone to drink, shout, and shoot before thinking. He is married to Lilya, young and emotionally distant, and is father to Roma, a problematic teenager from an earlier marriage. The film opens amidst Kolya’s vicious legal dispute with the local mayor, Vadim, a small time ruffian who runs the town like his personal fiefdom, complete with bodyguards and black SUVs. The mayor covets Kolya’s business and property—the house Kolya built with his own hands, on his family’s land—and he will get it, with the presumption of King David desiring and acquiring Bathsheba. Kolya can either lie down or fight; he chooses the latter, with the help of his lawyer friend from Moscow, Dmitri.

Zvyagintsev has come under some flak for an unflattering portrayal of a Russia that the West has been predisposed to view unfavorably. Much of the aggressive and authoritarian nature of Russian politics is at odds with the liberal outlook that broadly informs the West. The blatant corruption that appears to extend even to the least significant levels of society in Leviathan is often elevated, through its regularity and sheer audacity, to farce. Some of the funniest scenes are of institutional ineptitude, of authorities casually side-stepping the law to get what they want. In an early scene, a magistrate speed-reads an absurdly long declaration in a tiny courtroom, informing Kolya and his wife that, alas, there is nothing to be done about their property, that the mayor’s claim on it is, in fact, legal. Later, drunk and worked up by his victory, Mayor Vadim decides to pay Kolya a visit at the property that will soon be his. He does this because he can, to rub salt in Kolya’s wound, and teach him a lesson about authority. Kolya, of course, has been drinking too, and the confrontation quickly becomes a tottering, sputtering competition of one-upmanship, each man trying to establish the greater manhood, in true juvenile fashion.

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Zvyagintsev has noted in an interview that Leviathan was partly inspired by St. Augustine’s concept of rule of law as articulated in City of God. According to Augustine, when the state refuses the strictures of the law, it becomes no better than a gang of thieves—or, in Zvyagintsev’s phrase, “eternal and omnipotent Russian cronyism.” Leviathan certainly works as a political fable by dramatizing the dubious, kleptocratic ruling style that has been associated with modern Russia and the plight of those oppressed by it. In a scene of high spirit and humor midway through the film, Kolya and his friends bring vodka and guns into the mountains. Their targets: portraits of Russia’s twentieth century leaders. Elsewhere, the framed visage of Vladimir Putin provides the only ornamentation in Mayor Vadim’s office, silently blessing the extortion and brute lawlessness that occurs behind closed institutional doors. Authority may be petty, bureaucracy a farce, but the powers of the world appear always to prevail, rebuffing the challenges of the weak with disheartening tenacity.

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In this political sense, it doesn’t take much work to see Leviathan as an ironic comment on Thomas Hobbes’s treatise of the same name. In Hobbes, the absolutist state is the titular beast—“upon earth there is not his like” (Job 41:33 KJV)—a sovereign, idealistic savior of humankind in its deplorable natural condition. It is self-evidently above reproach, even above the law. What Hobbes forgets, and what Zvyagintsev is eager to point out, is that Leviathan’s grandeur and strength is essentially a sham. Behind all states and sovereigns lie fallible, corruptible, human individuals, who make the dream of a perfect society all but impossible by their very humanness. The great beast, which is meant for protection, becomes a decaying carcass, an oppressive weight that stifles the individual voice. The egregiousness of its instantiation in Russia only shows its inherent deficiency as a political theory.

Politics aside, Leviathan’s true concerns are universal and spiritual. The ambiguity of Leviathan’s title serves it well; this is just as much a retelling of the biblical story of Job as it is a political tale. Like Job, Kolya finds himself the involuntary butt of a cosmic joke. In addition to losing his house and living, he has his family to contend with (or rather Kolya’s family has to contend with him). Kolya’s relationship with his wife is not warm. This is as much, if not more, due to Kolya’s temper and unpredictability as whatever faults Lilya may have. But it is clear that strong feeling exists between the two, which brings even more pain when their marriage takes a dark turn. Kolya’s friends aren’t terribly supportive, his son doesn’t fully understand him; little by little, calamities are heaped upon Kolya’s head. He is a man deprived of everything, a pitiful nothing tossed about in a ruthless world.

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The catch is that, in Zvyagintsev’s telling, we are afforded no behind-the-scenes look at a God who, directing and sustaining Job in his sufferings, puts things right in the end. God appears to be absent, or at least silent. The artful, agnostic lawyer friend Dmitri, who at first shows promise in fighting the system but in the end brings only destruction, lays it out unequivocally: “I only believe in facts.” The situation is worsened by the outright hypocrisy of religious types. A priest indulges in lavish meals and ostentatious appearances, while Mayor Vadim betrays no hint of cognitive dissonance in admonishing his young son, “Remember, God sees all.” The glaring irony here is that Vadim, and authority itself, doesn’t really believe it.

Not all are Pharisees, however. Late in the film, when Kolya is at his low point, we meet another priest, perhaps the one truly artless character we have encountered. Unlike other characters, he is the only one who makes no pretensions to power and who lives in an almost naïve renunciation of it. In response to Kolya’s melodramatic demand for divine answers to his suffering, this priest relates the story of Job. Humans may be nothing compared to Leviathan, but Leviathan is nothing compared to the might of God. Who are we, then, to stand against him? With all the simple directness of Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima, this priest reminds Kolya that, in the end, God rewarded Job’s faithfulness and perseverance with a long life and large family. “Isn’t that a myth?” retorts Kolya. The priest, unaware that he is walking into a punch line, responds, “No, it’s in Bible.” Kolya may be unconvinced, but this interaction points to an understanding of power that goes beyond the cycle of oppression perpetuated by worldly authority. Here, Zvyagintsev joins a long tradition of Russian art that boldly takes on the complexities of humanity’s spiritual condition in a fallen world.

Kolya is the only character in the film who cries, “Why, Lord?” He may not see God, but he is the only one who calls on God in the hope that he will hear, who acknowledges—even confesses—the potential power of God’s strength. For Augustine, confession is an act of belief, one that goes beyond fact or proof. It is the outpouring of the understanding that, as creatures, we hold no power in any real sense of the word; what analogous power we do hold is contingent upon Power itself. Paradoxically, only by assenting to the limitation implied in this proposition are the self and state able to attain true freedom, breaking out of the cycle of tyranny and oppression that defines life in a world governed solely by the will to power. Denying this limitation does not obscure the divine source of power. It merely transfers that divinity from God to self.

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The confessional attitude could not be more different than that of Dmitri the lawyer, or Mayor Vadim. Vadim is anxious, uncertain that things will work out in his favor. He attempts to receive solace from his priest friend, but the one thing he cannot do is confess—either that he has done anything wrong or that God is watching him. This priest is not too concerned to hear his confession anyway. “All power comes from God,” the priest says disingenuously, without any thought as to what that might really mean. “As long as it suits Him, fear not.” “And so, it suits Him?” replies Vadim, fidgeting and fearful, like a cornered animal.

In Leviathan, earthly powers—which include institutional religion—trample the weak. There is never a doubt of their victory; such has it always been, and such might it ever be. But there is just enough in Leviathan to hint at a crack in the system, a brief glimmer of light that is enough to keep the downtrodden—which in spiritual terms, extends to all who bear the yoke of the world—fighting for authentic truth, justice, and love. These are the true measures of righteous law. Zvyagintsev does not let Mayor Vadim get away with his hypocrisy without cutting to a close-up shot of an icon of Christ in the illuminated church. The icon’s silent, harsh eyes accuse: “I never knew you.”

The film begins and ends with extended shots of the sea, gray-blue waves crashing against the rocks as the Philip Glass soundtrack invariably drones on. The images and sounds suggest the chaos of the human predicament set against the permanent dominion of the strong. But how permanent are these powers, really? These bookend shots point to some power more permanent than the film’s temporal (and literal) frame. None can pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, nor tie down its tongue with a rope; yet even this beast, in all its mighty power, must in the end yield to the law that restrains it, the power that made it.