Film & Television

A Strange Bargain

The fourteenth in the Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe, Dr. Strange stands heads above its predecessors in both beauty and brains. The film’s action sequences boggle the senses, the colors and costumes lap the camera warmly, and the distinct takes on the fascinating faces of Benedict Cumberbatch and a shorn Tilda Swinton mesmerize the viewer more than any exploits of CGI. But it is in how the film poses its metaphysical questions that Dr. Strange outshines any other superhero movie to date.

When we first meet him, Dr. Stephen Strange is as smug and as smart as they come. His knowledge of medicine dazzling, his precision in surgery exacting, Strange performs medical miracles that outshine all his co-workers on the hospital floor, producing in turns envy and exasperation. But Strange’s life of genius, fame, and wealth abruptly crashes and burns in the wake of an accident occasioned by texting and driving (a not-so-subtle message from the film producers). Strange loses function in his hands and thereby forfeits his career and his identity. And when all Western medicine fails to find him healing, Strange turns East—to Nepal, where he will meet “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One is a master of magical arts who, after much hesitation, decides to initiate Strange into the arts which will allow him to heal his body not through Western science, but through the Eastern practice of mastering the body through mastering the spirit.

In these scenes we find the most philosophically satisfying—and topically provocative—feature of the film: it throws down the gauntlet to all forms of scientific and materialist reductionism of the human body and of human experience. Dr. Strange, initially and brutishly skeptical of any learning outside his sphere of competence, literally falls to his knees in humility after Swinton’s character unveils for him the vast multiverse in which we all exist, whose secrets and depths not even she can hope to ever completely mine. Astral body projection, “mirror dimensions,” portals between Hong Kong and London: all these are just a part of the new world(s) to which Dr. Strange is invited when he is told by friend-and-future series villain Mordo (played with convincing earnestness by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to “forget everything that you think you know.” This is the sort of film to make Richard Dawkins squirm.

Yet the film’s adumbration of greater realms only serves to heighten the peculiarity and wonder of our world. There is no crass dualism here replacing an equally unsensing materialism. The astral body and the physical body depend on each other for life; kill the one and you destroy the other. The internet, symbolized through the Kamar-Taj Wi-Fi password “Shamballa,” appears in its regular juxtaposition to the magical arts as mystical as anything the Ancient One can conjure. And the nearly endless eye-candy of the “bending” of space and time in the film’s action sequences transforms city streets and skyscrapers into so many gears in the massive clock that is our finite world.

In these sequences the film visually indicates its preoccupying concern with time. Dr. Strange’s material wealth is signified not so much by his speeding sports car as by his vast collection of wristwatches. His relational wealth (basically squandered fifteen minutes into the film) physically appears in the form of a watch given him by his erstwhile lover, Dr. Christine Palmer, who had engraved on the back of the timepiece; “Time will tell how much I love you.” (Strange’s inability to give her time in their past relationship suggests in turn how much he truly loved her.) And it is ultimately time which saves the day in the film, when Dr. Strange, with his time-manipulating magical relic, takes finitude into the Void and holds emptiness captive in a ghastly Groundhog Day until he has his way. By repeating the same event over and over, Dr. Strange discloses finitude as a gift of alternate possibilities: each moment contains its own multiverse, and it is in our human ability to “try again another day” that lies the miracle of our own existence and the beauty of this world.

Yet not every character in the movie agrees with this way of seeing things. Dr. Strange finds his character double in Kaecilius (“the blind one”; played by Mads Mikkelsen), the greatest-disciple-turned-deserter who trained under The Ancient One, but who now seeks to destroy this world. His reason? Finitude and finality exist as perpetual “insults” to our human experience, and it is only the dark god Dormammu (a name that sounds not a little like the Latin for “sleep”) who can bring an end to this cycle of birth, death, and frailty by allowing the world to be absorbed into the Void.

While at first it may appear that Strange and Kaecilius do not have much in common—the former has spent his entire life rejecting belief in anything beyond the empirical while the latter has given himself completely to the magical arts—multiple similarities suggest themselves. First, there is their shared brokenness which led them to the Ancient One, as well as their natural abilities with the magical arts. Both, furthermore, are consummate technocrats. Whether it is Kaecilius’ manipulation of the dark arts—outside of the “natural law,” as the disciples of the Ancient One remind viewers repeatedly—or Strange’s fixation with knowledge as a tool to advance his career and to keep his own personal suffering at bay, both characters subject their gifts to the logic of technique, all in order to transcend the crushing limitations of their own finitude. One line they both utter (in one form or another) draws our attention to the central problem of the film: “You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” For Strange, this belief arises from his scientific materialism (“We are made of matter, and nothing more”); for Kaecilius, it is the inevitability of death which calls his allegiance to this way of viewing the world—and his attendant rage.

What, then, is the value of the finite? This is the central question the film poses insistently and repeatedly. Does the specter of death damn every moment to insignificance in the face of our coming, cosmic heat death? Or why go so far out in time—does not the ever-present possibility and inevitability of our personal deaths render the finite, as Kaecilius sharply puts it, an insult? Only if the human spirit longs for the eternal. But how to achieve this eternality is precisely at issue in the film, for it turns out that Kaecilius’ solution to the problem entails his own dissolution into the Void. As Dr. Strange warns Kaecilius about his final fate: “I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Within the film, however, there is no break-through of a true transcendence that could account for the finite in an eternal register; Strange ultimately reduces transcendence to our immanent frame, making self-transcendence through personal sacrifice the highest goal, good, and possibility for the human spirit.

This sacrifice comes in various orders, and they are not all equal. The most obvious is that demanded of Dr. Strange by the Ancient One: give up your self-absorption and submit yourself to forces beyond your rational control, especially death. For Strange that moment of sacrifice comes in giving up control in the operating room to a doctor whom he had previously and often belittled. For the Ancient One the consummate sacrifice was the calm acceptance of her own death, even after aeons of life. But it is in Swinton’s character that the sacrifices bleed a darker red. It is revealed halfway through the film that the Ancient One has been drawing power from Dormammu, the very essence of evil, in order to prolong her life on earth in order to protect the earth from countless threats. This, of course, is “outside the natural law,” and the sacrifice it demanded was one of the moral order: to sacrifice her ideals in order to serve the greater good. It is a lesson that the Ancient One will impart to Strange, who is “flexible enough,” she claims, to understand its necessity.

Personal implication in evil is the necessary sacrifice that keeps the gods of death at bay: an economy of sacrifice in which good can never triumph without some measure of evil. And that means the real, bloody sacrifice of those who must be killed in the process of keeping the peace (the myth of redemptive violence ubiquitous in comic book lore). The psychological cost of such a sacrifice is what produces a sense of nobility in the characters who are aware of its weight, like the Ancient One and her faithful disciple Mordo. Dr. Strange resists this logic at first, horrified that he has killed in self-defense and demanding that there be another way of dealing with evil. Yet, Dr. Strange eventually accepts the tragic vision of the Ancient One, killing when necessary, and becoming the Ancient One’s true successor when Mordo cannot bear the repeated breaking of natural law and the inevitable cosmic reckoning coming in its wake. “The bill comes due,” Mordo reminds us, and his defection from Dr. Strange reveals that cosmic peace was bought at the price of the Ancient One and Strange breaking their own moral code. Mordo and Dr. Strange’s divergent ‘eulogies’ on the Ancient One upon her death—from the former that she was a hypocrite and from the latter that “she was complicated”—highlight this moral diving line running through this film.

For its implacable attack on the metaphysics of reductive materialism, Christians can be grateful. It matters not that the broadened horizon of the possible comes from both quantum mechanics and Eastern esotericism; when cultural frustrations with our reductive metaphysics will not seek answers in Christianity, largely considered discredited, perhaps only the cultural “other” of the East, alongside the ever-growing strangeness of particle physics, can open the mind enough to for some to give a Christian vision of the world a hearing again. And the film’s trenchant critique of technique, whether in science and the mystical arts, and the egomania that so often accompanies this manipulative attitude towards the given is commendable. This film raises questions which will be asked with greater insistence as our rapidly progressing scientific knowledge continues to outstrip our moral preparedness to deal with the technologies soon to be thrust upon us, with all their terrible possibilities. The words of Dr. Christine Palmer, the film’s consistent voice of reason (precisely because her concerns transcends bare rationality) continue to resonate after the credits roll: “What you’re doing isn’t medicine—it’s mania.”

Yet the film also subjects to this same critique of technological egomania the desire to achieve eternal life, as represented by Kaecilius. Here a Christian moral vision must part ways with the film, for Christianity cannot but view death as an ultimate enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). As David Bentley Hart writes in The Doors of the Sea: “Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” There is, in fact, something commendable in Kaecilius’ “rage against the dying of the light” which he spies on the horizon for himself and for all beings; in light of this, we must cast some suspicion on the Ancient One’s calm acceptance of death. For, after all, if death were not some sort of evil, why would the Ancient One have compromised herself in order to prevent for aeons the end of our world? If there is not some truth in Kaecilius’ vision, would there be any difference between the world’s immediate union with Dormammu’s “Void” and its distant but eventual heat death?

The life of Jesus Christ shows us that that there is to be no bargaining with sin and death. When Christ descends to Hades, he does not strike a deal with the devil; instead, he liberates captives and crushes death through death. Christ need kill no one on his march to Golgotha; instead, he bears the crushing weight of finality and finitude to its end, and then, in the lightness of the resurrection, raises the myriad configurations of finitude to their final home. The path to self-transcendence is indeed self-sacrifice, but that self-sacrifice is grounded and supported by the fullness of life and love that simply is the fabric of our universe. Unlike Dr. Strange, who levitates in to deceive the infinite Void with the wiles of finitude, Christians looks to Christ grounded on the cross, staring down death with eyes behind which shines Infinity itself. In this strange union of the temporal and the eternal, of the finite and the infinite, the finite is transfigured while remaining itself, and no commerce with evil or any breaking of the limits of nature is required to get us there.

From this perspective Marvel’s Dr. Strange appears as a stupendous artifact of Christian moral vision divorced from a Christian metaphysical framework. In its denunciation of technocratic egoism and in its valuation of finitude and love above all technical attempts to overcome the natural law, it sounds a salutary warning. But in its joining of good and evil in an endless metaphysical dance, and in its inability to free finitude from the constraints of death, the movie’s vision of sacrifice as self-transcendence turns our gaze to the same Void that it spends so much of its time warning us against. Dr. Strange is right: if we end up there, we won’t like it.

Why We All Need It’s A Wonderful Life

I’ve watched It’s A Wonderful Life at least once a year for as long as I can remember, since the days of smallness and girlhood and uninhibited Christmas anticipation. It is an old and familiar story that reminds me what I actually like about the holidays.

Until recently, though, like many others, I thought this movie was about discovering what it would be like if we had never been born. Poor George Bailey thinks everyone would be better off without him, but learns his life has given life to others. Merry Christmas to all! Don’t kill yourself because you’re really more important than you thought.

Allowing myself to be cheered by the moving rendition of Auld Lang Syne as all George Bailey’s friends gather around him at film’s end, I didn’t think too deeply about the film. But if this self-important sentiment is all we get out of It’s A Wonderful Life, we’re missing out. The “I was never born” sequence is not the heart of the story at all. This is not a movie about how important George Bailey is or how valuable we all are to the life and well-being of those around us.

What we find in It’s A Wonderful Life is a man who turns American ideals on their head. We find a man who, instead of prospering himself or pursuing his dreams, gives everything up to serve and love the people around him. We find in George Bailey an anti-American hero because his life is not defined by making a name for himself or pulling himself up by the bootstraps, but by the people around him that George will always see as more important than himself.

It’s A Wonderful Life begins as a story about a young boy with big dreams and lots of talent. George wants to go places— he wants to “see the world!”—and he wants to build things. He admires his Pop, but as a boy, doesn’t understand his life choices. He sees the life his dad chose, running the Building and Loan, to be a bit of a waste. George says, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe…I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”

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But this very American sentiment of the young George doesn’t line up with the life he lives. When his father dies just as he is about to leave on his big “see the world” trip, George stays home to settle everything. When his father’s “nickles and dimes” business is going to be handed over to the greedy town miser, George takes over the business and gives up his college education to his brother. When the stock market crashes and the Building and Loan is threatened, George and his new wife give away all their honeymoon money to help people get by. George finds himself with four kids, living in an endless fixer-upper, with no real money to call his own, working on Bailey Park—housing for the working poor—doing day after day in that “shabby little office” he scorned only a few years before.

Slowly, without knowing it or understanding it, George becomes the man he knew his father to be, of whom he said:

“[M]y father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself…But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that?…People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.

Sometimes unwillingly and unclear about why he’s doing it, George takes his father’s place and enters the life-long journey of giving his life away for the sake of others. It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of the young boy who jumps in freezing water to save his brother’s life, even though it means losing his hearing in one ear. It is the story of a young man who chooses people when he could choose something else. It is the story of a man who finds that “something big and something important” are hidden in smaller acts of selflessness.

I am not going to claim that George Bailey is a Christ-figure, but I do see him as much needed anti-American hero. Without travel, knowledge, money, and the ability to make something of himself, George Bailey lacks almost anything Americans take pride in. He is a simple, poor man spending his life helping others. He seems foolish in many ways, giving up the world, an education, security, even his dreams – all things we value above almost anything else today. “See the world,” “Go to college,” “Give your children the things you didn’t have,” and “Follow your dreams” are common mantras of modern American society. Yet in this American classic, we find a man who doesn’t seem very American at all.

 

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Then, in the last section of the film, George Bailey enters the world as it would be if he had never been born and discovers how worthwhile he is. As Clarence the angel tells him, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

As George winds his way through the “world-without-him”, he finds a man who was sent to prison for poisoning a child, a man who was never able to save up enough money to own his own business, friends who are scraping by, lonely and deserted, an uncle who is in an asylum, a brother who is long-dead, a mother who is childless and alone, and a wife who was not loved and not the given the opportunity to love. Namely, in all this, George finds people.

George does not find himself, or his own worth; he finds the people he loves. A short while before, he wanted to throw his life away in one great moment of humanity, desperation and selfishness. He found himself confronted by that haunting American voice of failure and let himself believe that it would be better to die than to fail. What he discovers, though, is not that “he makes the world a better place” in some trite, simplified way, but that he can better love and help and serve the people around him – the people he cares about – if he is not dead. He has to be alive in order to give his life away. And he sees, through new eyes, that giving his life away has not made him a failure. It has changed and served the many lives around him. It has left him poor and made them rich. It has left him without knowledge, but full of love. It has left him without a name for himself, except for the name “friend.”

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As we watch this movie we are tempted to see ourselves and to feel validated. But this story is not about how wonderful we are, but how wonderful life is—it is not about us, it is about life. It is about how we should give thanks, even if the knobs on our staircases always fall off, and how, in the midst of giving thanks, we should give everything away, even to the point of seeming foolish. This is not a story about Christmas; it is a story about life. Life lived in connection with other people, giving, giving, giving to them of our time, our dreams, our money. It is also about receiving love and friendship, the richness of community, and, more than that, how wonderful it is to give your life away for the sake of the people in that community. We all need a little more of this story around Christmas, spring, mid-July and the rest of the year. We need a little less of the American dream and little more George Bailey.

Racism 101

“Have you heard of Nikki Giovanni?” I ask, and the woman volunteering at the sponsorship table at a local event laughs. She is African-American, and she laughs, “Do I know Nikki Giovanni? Do you know Nikki Giovanni?” I am white, and I begin to put the pieces together. “I think maybe white people don’t know of Giovanni,” I tell her. She shakes her head, but she is smiling, and she comes over and sits with me on a bench where we talk for a few minutes about Star Trek and space travel and race and racism all things Nikki Giovanni talks about in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101 [1].

“I didn’t know she wrote essays. I’ve only read her poetry,” my new acquaintance says. “I haven’t read any of her poetry yet,” I confess, though I would soon rectify that. I did know Giovanni was a poet of the Sixties, a part of the Black Arts Movement, a voice that black Americans, at least, have been listening to for decades. I stumbled across her by chance at a library book sale. Her name was familiar because she is now an English professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I used to live. At the library sale, her book Racism 101 was organized near Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Both seemed like good additions to my reading life, mostly because my understanding of being black in America is almost nonexistent. And that’s not okay.

I have been reading these essays now for the better part of a year, and I haven’t finished them yet. It isn’t because Giovanni is difficult to read. Reading through this book is like sitting next to her on my porch swing and listening, listening. But what I’m hearing is so different from what I saw growing up in the North Atlanta suburbs, and is sometimes so at odds with the histories I learned in my largely-homogenous high school, and is obviously so deeply important to understanding and loving people in my own life, in my own city, that I keep having to tell her,

“Stop.”

“Wait.”

“Can you say that again?”  

Giovanni writes about the legacy of the 1960’s, integration and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and her recollections of it all. She writes to black college students who study at mostly-white colleges. She writes warm recollections of growing up, of her family, and of friends. She writes about her interest in space travel and the cultural implications of shows like Star Trek. She writes about being Black. As I read, she gives me a long list of histories to research and events to read about next, so I can rewrite my terribly white-centric understanding of my country’s history. Often I bring my husband, who looks like me, in on what she says. “Listen to this paragraph,” I say to him, “about her sister Gary’s experience in high school in the Fifties.”

“Her teacher in civics, a still-needed course that is no longer taught, discussed the Emmett Till case with his class. “Till got what he deserved,” he declared. Gary and [a friend] walked out, and [our father] made another trip to see [the superintendent]. Apologies all around. Shock and sadness that this could happen. I was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with my grandmother when [my current] school district was integrating. Our family had already given a soldier to the war to make white Americans better people.

After that sucker punch and I feel it the essay moves on. It’s more of Giovanni’s childhood memories, growing up in both Cincinnati and Knoxville during the Civil Rights movement. “Is she saying her family didn’t support Civil Rights?” my husband asks about that last sentence.

“No, the opposite. Something else is going on here.” I am trying to work it out.

“Her sister was the soldier, integrating her high school first. America was starting to do the right thing with integration legislation.” I’m getting there.

“But black citizens were still bearing the burden of the country starting to get things right.” Something different comes to mind. I recall the videos that made the rounds of Facebook during the week of July 4th, this year, black mothers responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. One mom in particular [2], whose words I can’t forget, is wiping tears off her cheeks and crying out, “We are dying here.” She pleads with any white Americans watching her video: “We need you.” She hates having to say that. You can see it on her face. But she cries out again. “We need you.”

It isn’t that Giovanni’s family didn’t support Civil Rights. It is that they were finished sacrificing their children on the altar of trying to get justice and fair treatment. Another mom in another video last July said, more angrily, “I am tired of having to explain this to you.” I tell my husband what I am seeing, that African-American citizens in the Nineteen-Fifties, that our black neighbors now, that people of color in the Nineteen-Nineties when Giovanni was writing these essays, have been bearing first the burden of mistreatment, and then second the burden of the painfully slow process of things being made right. And now they’ve got the added burden of having to explain their experience to white folks so that we might understand. They’ve been doubly burdened, for a long time, and have had to heft the weight themselves because the rest of us so easily think everything is fine. “Talk about this to your white friends and neighbors,” the second mom says, “so we don’t keep having to. We are sick of explaining this to you.”

At the local event in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting on the bench, chatting with the woman I have just met about how, like Nikki Giovanni, we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica, I tell her that Giovanni thinks the voice of Uhura in the original Star Trek was important. “It was so right, it made such sense,” Giovanni says in her 1992 interview of Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit space, “that the voice of the Federation would be the voice of a Black woman.” In her essay “Black is the Noun,” she says more: “The black woman’s voice sings the best notes of which earthlings are capable. Hers is the one voice that suggests the possibility of harmony on planet earth.” And why does she love Star Trek so much? “I love Star Treks,” she says. “The television series . . . marked a new era in television by obliging audiences to respect and even to admire differences among people.”

My new acquaintance shares the story of how Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, planned to leave the show after its first season for Broadway. But then she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at an event, and he strongly urged her to stay on and continue being that black female voice on television in America. I looked up the anecdote later, and found the 2011 NPR interview [3] with Nichols. The interviewer points out that staying on Star Trek in order to be the one African-American female leadership voice on television must have been “a heavy responsibility. . . . I mean, the fact is you did put aside some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.” Nichols agrees. Later, she talks about how African-Americans in entertainment are still mostly cast as “the friend, the buddy, the secondary role,” even though things are changing. The interviewer asks, “How do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?” Nichols acknowledges that we’ve come a long way, but still: “I think it’s as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn’t finished. It’s only just begun.”

On the bench, my companion and I are quiet for a moment. I hesitate. I want to do the thing so many people who look like me are inclined to do once our eyes are opened to these sufferings of fellow citizens in our country. I want to talk about race. I want to confess to her what I don’t know about race and racism. But not every conversation between a white and a black person needs to be about race, or racism, in America. Probably more conversations, for our black brothers’ and sisters’ sake, need not to be. I may be seeing things anew, finally seeing them aright, but this woman doesn’t need to bear the burden of what I’m just now learning. She’s been living it every day. Still, I tell her, “I am learning so much about racism that I didn’t realize. I’m just starting to learn.” She is very gracious. “I’m still learning, too,” she says. “I’m always learning.”

I am thankful for her, and I am thankful for Nikki Giovanni and the words she has put down on paper often for different ears than mine, in magazines like Essence and The Black Collegian. So I tread respectfully as I go through the pages. In one place, Giovanni says, “You do not have to have had an experience to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written . . . We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” It is an honor to get to listen in and learn. It is also a responsibility. Perhaps another time, I can have the same conversation about Battlestar and racism with a white friend, and then that friend may start reading the likes of Nikki Giovanni (or Lorraine Hansberry or Jacqueline Woodson, if I may make further suggestions), and her ears will be open, and she, too, will begin learning about race and racism in our country and collectively, maybe we can take on some of our black neighbor’s burden.

 

 

[1] Giovanni’s book can be found here on Amazon.

[2] View that mother’s video here on Facebook.

[3] Read that NPR interview with Nichols here.

From the Archive: Blood & Belief

The cringe. Of natural human reactions, it is among the most visceral. Eyes narrow, teeth grind, shoulders hunch in expectation. The cringe could mean fearful anticipation, though—in my experience—it more often signifies some wish to “unsee”. The cringe is equal parts regret and fascination. We are drawn to and repelled by the horrors of an image, and that impulse reveals no small element of our humanity.

The cultural discourse on violence exists on a unique spectrum, a discourse inextricably tied to tiresome considerations of politics and religion (two topics I recommend breaching with extreme caution in any audience). Contemporary society is markedly preoccupied with a search for causation and, on the whole, regards our thirst for violence as a response to cultural provisions of violence in our media.

This, in my opinion, is a clear case of post hoc ergo propter hoc: since we see violence in film and literature, we must therefore crave it all the more. Although I don’t want to discredit this line of reasoning completely, for certainly there is something cyclical to trends of violence and assault, I would also like to suggest that violence is desperately intrinsic, a lens into the workings of a providence mandating violence in order to justify peace.

I believe there is deep spiritual evidence to support these claims, but a quote from the Fourth Book of Plato’s Republic, concerning desire, could offer a germane introduction.

Well, [Socrates] said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.

Here, Plato suggests that natural appetite wars with a more sociologically developed sense of repulsion. Leontius cringes. “It’s like watching a train wreck,” as the adage goes. His instinct is to view the scene, whereas socially acceptable behavior would dictate resistance. He is supposed to look upon their bodies peripherally with pity and depart. But instead, feeding his seemingly sick desire, he runs to the bodies and examines their features at close range, basking in violence.

Violence terrifies us, and rightfully so. Its devices, war and bloodshed, are properly methods of last resort, though—as we know—that is not always the case. Nevertheless, and I do not mean to underestimate how much discord this might cause, violence is not necessarily wrong. Violence is a force like anger: it is a natural impulse, buried within us, inborn, and it is only what we do with those forces that attribute to them their moral value.

The Latin violentia most nearly means “aggressiveness,” which implies a more significant level of moral ambiguity. There are situations when aggressiveness is called for, even required. There are, of course, also situations in which one should turn the other cheek. The difficulty is knowing when each course of action is appropriate. Violence for its own sake, for instance, is a sick perversion. But a violence which issues peace, like Christ crucified, is the only hope for humanity. The atonement for a broken people requires an aggressive solution, a violent sacrifice.

Rare is a violence that leads to peace, however. That violent impetus within us, that fascination with the sublime elements of death and destruction, is designed to point us toward the most violent act to ever be committed against a man, a man who undeservedly suffered physical agony beyond comprehension.

The challenge for the contemporary individual is to learn how to suitably address violence. It is undoubtedly a problem of our time, distinctly of our time many argue. Never have portrayals of violence been so accessible. In cinemas last year, “Drive” pushed the envelope with unprecedented visual and auditory violence. On television, Fox’s new show, “The Following”, has garnered criticism for its primetime gore, parents condemning its ease of access. We watch these things, we cringe, and yet, we keep watching. There is a mystery here, some fatal attraction that cannot be solved by a simple allusion to sin nature, or written off as a byproduct of an imperfect culture.

At the Curator, David Taylor has wrestled with that fatal attraction, and a trenchant review of Cormac McCarthy’s work by Margaret Pless appeared shortly thereafter. Like Margaret, I too sometimes struggle to explain why McCarthy’s fiction haunts and amazes me. Perhaps he, unlike any writer save Faulkner, grasps the significance of violence, which in his prose becomes a contagion, a cancer.

McCarthy’s work can be hard to access, and I have heard many say they were unable to digest the violence in its pages. Blood Meridian, considered by most to be his masterpiece, explores the expansion of the West and the white man’s war with the Native population, which is depicted with devastating realism. His stark, apocalyptic tone has stayed with me, and I have the feeling that I will find myself reading Blood Meridian many times throughout the course of my life. Take this passage, of death and of a strange kindness”

“He made his way among the corpses and stood before her. She was very old and her face was gray and leathery and sand had collected in the folds of her clothing. She did not look up…He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her country people who would welcome her and that she would join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die…He reached into the little cove and touched her arm. She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid. She weighed nothing. She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.”

The protagonist of Blood Meridian, known only as The Kid, walks among bodies like Plato’s Leontius. Hardened by the brutality of war, The Kid normally avoids human interaction, heeds little speech and offers even less. In this one moment, McCarthy allows the reader to see a shift. The Kid offers compassion and is met with death. Man’s violence has killed his opportunity to love another human being. Violence issued by the unjust is a plague, desensitizing masses and feeding the horror that drive many men to desperate measures.

Violence in the hands of God, however, is complicit with his providence. God did not introduce pain and suffering into the world; man sought the knowledge of these things, and within the context of a fallen creation, God is compelled to complete his work. He turns our misdirected violence upon himself, upon his Son, and thus ends the cycle of harm once and for all. Unlike McCarthy’s Kid, we are granted the ability to show kindness in the face of violence because no harm we receive will ever compare to the physical and emotional betrayal we supervised.

So, this cringe, this simultaneous attraction and abhorrence: what to make of it? It is a paradox, to be sure. I sincerely believe that our visceral reaction to violence is a profound revelation. The contradiction Leontius expresses, the strange kindness of The Kid: these characters are ignorant of the cosmic settling of accounts, of the Maker’s answer to our warring and strife. And yet we cringe because in violence there is both hope and despair.

In that split-second response is mankind’s subconscious recognition of a need for atonement by way of violence and his concomitant regret for having caused violence in the first place. Christ on the Cross is the violence to end all violence, for it is in his suffering that these present trials are answered and in his bitter agony that we are given hope beyond this broken world.

It is vital to be well-versed in the cultural discussion of violence. Certainly there are basic considerations in order, such as working to limit the amount of violence that we—and especially our children—digest. But, at the same time, violence rightfully reveals something about our longing for true justice and true peace. To interpret violence as a strictly black-and-white matter is to simplify the full portrait of reconciliation, a canvas both beautiful and terrible.

 

Further Reading:

A good article on the violence of Fox’s “The Following”.

Blog post on Blood Meridian on the University of Notre Dame’s site.

An interesting albeit far from biased Wikipedia entry of Christianity and violence.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

 

image: album artwork from the “Blood Meridian” Soundtrack

(Bad) Jesus Stories

Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew is, in the director’s own words, about “the life of Christ after two thousand [sic] years of stories on the life of Christ.”[1] Since Pasolini was famously known for being an outspoken atheist, Marxist, and homosexual, the beautifully reverent tone of the film took some of his contemporaries by surprise. In 1966, Pasolini was asked in a press conference why he, as an unbeliever, chose to make such a film about the life of Christ. His response was thus: “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”[2]

The tale behind Pasolini’s decision to make this film might attest to such “nostalgia for a belief.” In 1962 he was invited by Pope John XXIII to attend a seminar in a Franciscan monastery in Assisi, Italy, where a dialogue between the Church and non-Catholic artists was to take place. Upon arrival, Pasolini became confined in his hotel room due to the immense amount of traffic in the town. While in the room he came across a New Testament Bible and read through all four of the Gospels in one sitting. He was so taken by the stories that he put all of his other film ideas on hold and decided to make a film adaption of one of the Gospels.[3] He wanted to only use dialogue directly taken from the Bible,[4] amateur actors, unconventional filming techniques and a myriad of historical songs and images in order to let the film take its own direction—telling a contemporary, unique interpretation of the Gospel, what he called “remak[ing] the Gospel by analogy.”[5]

“Remak[ing] the Gospel by analogy” allows for much ambiguity, but perhaps it is one way of re-interpreting or re-mythologizing the canonical life of Christ. One possible hermeneutical approach that could be taken towards this artistic interpretation of the gospel story is that of Mark A. McIntosh, who reads early Christian mystical texts in his book Mystical Theology. McIntosh argues that mystical texts are not merely cataphatic accounts of a mystic’s highly subjective experience with the divine—a common stance theologians have taken to dismiss the validity of mystical texts in academic theology—but that they consciously operate in a “cataphatic-apophatic” way: alternating affirmation and humble denial of theological knowledge. This structure is meant to invite the reader, through gaps and negations, into a moment that restructures perceptions. This cataphatic-apophatic language and imagery make the reader aware of the multiplicity of earthly meaning and interpretation, clearing space for the reader to encounter a more ultimate Meaning.

Applying this interpretive framework to Pasolini’s depiction of the gospel story, it could be argued that Pasolini is, on one hand, attempting to make a cataphatic statement about Christ and the gospel story by re-mythologizing it in the context of his life and of Italian life in general. Pasolini’s depiction of Jesus is incredibly human: “he eats the meager meal of lower classes, he dresses in the simple clothing style of his contemporaries and he stumbles over the rough and dusty roads that serve all who live in the back country of the Roman Empire….[I]t is a vision that thrusts him squarely into the midst of his fellow strugglers.”[6] What this portrayal of Christ does at its best, however, is recognize the political realities of Jesus’ life on earth. Pasolini does not make light of the struggles Jesus experienced with institutional Judaism during his ministry and consistently depicts both Jesus and John the Baptist as “enemies of the Pharisees and Sadducees, those vipers who await at every corner to trap, condemn, and kill our heroes in a web of lies and deceit.”[7] This is a message and depiction of Christ that would have been quite powerful to both Pasolini and the Italian audience that encountered his film at the time, who were in the midst of a political struggle between the exploited agrarian South of Italy and the oppressive industrial North.[8] Perhaps then what Pasolini’s film achieved was an articulation of the values of Jesus’ ministry in a “contemporary idiom”—a new language that reoriented the Italian people’s understanding of Christ and what his message meant for them in a particular time in history.

Alternatively, Pasolini repetitively uses “2,000 years of Christian painting and sculptures” throughout the film. “The look of the characters is also eclectic and, in some cases, anachronistic, resembling artistic depictions of different eras. The costumes of the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees, for example, are influenced by Renaissance art, whereas Jesus’ appearance has been likened to that in Byzantine art as well as the work of Expressionist artist Georges Rouault.”[9] It could be argued, then, that through the use of historically diverse imagery about the gospel story, Pasolini is making a sort of apophatic acknowledgement that his interpretation of Christ is just one interpretation after two thousand years of stories on the life of Christ.

The title of the film gives us further proof of Pasolini’s effort to remind viewers of the humanness of the four gospel stories and their authors. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) is the original title of the film, universally—and mistakenly—translated into English with a St. in front of Matthew. This is no minor overlook or indiscretion for Pasolini, but an intentional reminder that Matthew’s interpretation is not only just one of the four gospel interpretations in the Bible, but is one that has subsequently inspired a rich history of other gospel interpretations in various cultures and periods.

This cataphatic-apophatic structure of Pasolini’s film creates a space in which the viewer is made aware that this is just one interpretation among many, and is also invited to take an active role in the interpretation of the narrative. And while this work of art, viewed alone, may present a distorted or partial vision of Christ and his life, I would argue that its self-acknowledgement as an interpretation allows us to learn some new kind of truth or vision of Christ. Moreover, if this vision of Christ is one that pulls us out of our comfortable, highly subjective interpretative framework, encouraging us to compassionately seek out and recognize both the human and divine “other”— paradoxically known in intimate proximity yet unknowable in a radical separateness—then it attests to how an artistic work that limps in its depiction of Christ and the gospel story can still have both spiritual and theological ramifications.

Such ramifications are further fleshed out in Rowan William’s Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, in which he leads with the question, “Is there an unavoidably theological element to all artistic labor?”[10] In this text, Williams converses with ideas of artistry and beauty from Jacques Maritain’s works (which are in conversation with Thomas Aquinas). Williams is fascinated by Maritain’s idea of how good art shows that “things give more than they have.”[11] In other words, in the process of making art, something more will come into focus than the artist originally intended—the particular medium can perhaps dictate a direction itself. Williams argues, then, that “the artist does not set out to change the world—but if we can manage the paradox—to change it into itself.”[12] In this way, the process of making art is a kind of interpretive process that is, firstly, concerned with forming and “chang[ing] it into itself” and then, unbeknownst to the artist, it may also change both him and the viewer.

Williams posits that art that most affects both the artist and the viewer is art which “limps”: “finite beauty or finishedness in the work being always incomplete at some level, ‘limping’ like the biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has ‘that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.’”[13] This bending or “limping” in a work, whether in interpretative content or in aesthetic form, is a sort of apophatic acknowledgment of the finite means by which one can achieve knowledge of God.

Williams further suggests, however, that although an artist is only pointing to God in a broken, partial way, the work may still be emotionally and theologically valuable to the artist and the viewer because there is an element of integrity involved in the creative process. That is to say, the artist is not so much concerned with the genius of his or her own work, but instead allows the art to dictate its own form and fashion, attesting to something greater than itself and the artist in the process. A piece of artwork that stays true to the integrity of artistic labor can not only open up room for the viewer or the artist to see themselves in a new light, but also the “other,” both divine and human, in a new light.

This “limping” characteristic is not only evident in Pasolini’s specific interpretation of the Christ story but also in his method of filming. The overall tone of the film also has a dream-like quality by using erratic editing patterns and poor quality of film, both of these being intentional and not marks of an amateur director. Through such, Pasolini achieves this disorienting, otherworldly weight that invites viewers to see themselves within the narrative. This dream-like quality is made even more palpable by the intentional use of unprofessional actors: “the actors are frequently captured as unposed, in a state of vulnerability, as if they were caught unawares by the camera; they seem more than a bit uncomfortable with what they are doing.”[14] The achieved effect is a series of raw, primal images. The combination of close-ups, jump cuts, grainy film and unprofessional actors present us with something more than just a narration of Christ’s narrative, but also Pasolini’s personal, “subjective” experience with the story as well. These filming techniques blur the lines between the “subjective” experience of Pasolini and supposedly objective nature of the camera.

In what Pasolini terms a “cinema of poetry,” different shots, movement of camera and editorial techniques also work towards inviting the viewer into a space in which the lines of reality and text, the “objective” camera and the “subjective” point of view of the character, are blurred. Within this filmic framework, Pasolini employs a shot/reverse-shot strategy technique, in which the camera intentionally and repetitively focuses on specific characters’ faces. Throughout the film, Pasolini’s camera seems to either be focused on the face of Christ or those of the people surrounding them. There is a constant back and forth between the images of faces in which we learn just as much about Matthew’s narrative of Christ from those that witnessed it than we do from Christ himself. This technique is clearest of all in the crucifixion scene, in which shots focused on Mary’s anguished face, screaming in pain as she watches her son be crucified, go back and forth between shots of the crucified Christ.

In contrast to the more traditional use of shot/reverse-shot, in which the technique is subordinated to the flow of narrative information, Pasolini’s shot/reverse-shot is not employed to push the narrative of the story but instead to disorient our gaze from either face by throwing us back and forth from one to the other. This movement of the camera, by disorienting our gaze, creates a “limp” in the narrative and aesthetic structure, an apophatic space in which we can co-experience with Pasolini the mysterious and fantastic event of the crucifixion. On one end, Pasolini’s montage of faces seems to express the emotional points of view of both Jesus and Mary. On the other end, “the change in the frame rate calls attention to the style of the film, and marks the editing strategy as the expression of Pasolini, who is also emotionally reacting to the scene.’’[15] Indeed, all of the cinematographic techniques that Pasolini employs throughout the film open up ambiguous spaces in which we are invited to engage with the experiences of both Pasolini and the characters in the film while having our own experience.

Finally, this discussion of Williams and McIntosh shows us that through the cataphatic-apophatic structure of the film, Pasolini displays how an artwork that re-interprets or re-mythologizes the gospel story, but acknowledges that it “limps” or contorts in its interpretation or artistic representation, can have strong theological and spiritual implications. Andrew Tate, in his book Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, helps us understand why these implications are so relevant in contemporary culture: “both philosopher and skeptical artist, from different perspectives, recognize that inadequate images of divinity have come to dominate the contemporary religious imagination.”[16] However, “in spite of the sentimental images that dominate popular representations of Jesus, post-Christian, postmodern cultures continue to be fascinated by this strange and elusive figure, the man who claimed to be God.”14 Narratives such as The Gospel According to Matthew, while they may very well be sentimental, singular, “heterodox or heretical images,”[17] can nevertheless speak a certain truth to a certain person or groups of people in a certain situation. This is perhaps why films, novels and artworks that bend or contort the canonical story, acknowledging both its role and the viewer’s role as continual interpreters of the narrative, particularly resonate with the culture’s imagination.

If these images of Christ truly resonate with culture, then we must ask ourselves: Does art that consciously bends or contorts the message of Christ offer the best depiction of Christ humanly possible? Or as Williams puts it, “the most effective depictions of God and grace and Christ these days are going to be sideways on and a bit different.”[18]

While Pasolini’s film is quite mild in its interpretation of the gospel story, and mostly praised instead of criticized, there are countless artworks that portray the life of Christ in a more provocative, heretical and, some would argue, just plain bad way. Nevertheless, these stories can still interact with listeners and viewers even when their message is bent or distorted from the original. Perhaps, then, we should take a second look at that novel or film that got the story wrong or told it in a weird, unfamiliar way. Because if we choose to widen our expectations, we might witness a new aspect of Christ and his gospel that both opens up our stale understandings and prejudices and encourages us to compassionately seek out the “other,” both divine and human.

 


[1] Luigi Martellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini; Retrato de un intelectual, (Valencia: Universitat de Valencia, 2006), 118.

[2] Maria and Gregory Pearse, “Pasolini: Quo Vadis?: The Fate of Pier Paolo Pasolini,” Cinema Seekers, n.d. www.cinemaseekers.com/Pasolinitext.html

[3] Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).

[4] This is actually not entirely true. Pasolini does insert some text into the film that is not directly from the Gospel of Matthew.

[5] John Wakeman, World Film Directors, Volume 2, (The H. W. Wilson Company, 1988), 746.

[6] Richard C. Stern, Savior on the Silver Screen (New York: 1999), 72.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Wakeman, World Film Directors, 747.

[10] Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2005), 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] soss 93

[15] Patrick Keating, “Pasolini, Croce and the Cinema of Poetry,” Scope (June 2001), 11.

[16] Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, Continuum Literary Studies Series (London ; New York: Continuum, 2008), 24.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rowan Williams, quoted in Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, Continuum Literary Studies Series (London ; New York: Continuum, 2008), 24.

Krzysztof Kieślowski: Film History’s Gracious Metaphysician

As Moses heaved the Divine Law down the mountain, the stones must have worn his palms—hard rock chewing into his fingers and pulling at the joints.

In his ten Decalogue films, Krzysztof Kieślowski puts these monumental tablets in our hands. Watching them is less about what’s written on them and more about their overwhelming density, as if the meaning of the commands is to be found (at least partly) in their feeling, at the nexus of ideal and body. The Decalogue provides ten zones of morally-saturated experience, with insight into how the commands anchor our ethical sensibilities even as our bodies and souls strain against their weight. The episodes do not argue, entertain, or instruct as much as they illuminate, rendering visible how these timeless ideals press into everyday life.

Kieślowski might have taken the philosophical route, full of ideas and argument. Or, he might have gone dramatic, utilizing the commands as cheap catalysts for more exciting plots (Action! Intrigue! Killing! Adultery!). The didactic path was also open, reminding the kids that there are ten good lessons to be learned. Mercifully, Kieślowski dismissed them all. Instead, he gifted us stories and characters we can recognize, largely because all of these people—from the adulterers to the murderers to the lost and frightened children—resemble ourselves.

The gorgeous, brilliantly executed restoration of these films, just released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, amplifies and re-asserts what many of us already know: Kieślowski was one of the most earnest and talented spiritual pilgrims ever to work in the cinema.

The struggle to care for his sick and dying father, a tuberculosis victim, defined Kieślowski’s early life. Perhaps his artistic obsessions with fate, existential choice, miracle, and predestination emerged from this anxious and peripatetic childhood. After graduating from the famed Łódź film school, he focused on documentaries, searching for a “reality” on the screen that the Communist government had neglected or suppressed. As Solidarity—that miraculous, and legendary workers’ movement that brought down Communism in Poland and formed the first cracks in the Berlin Wall—gained ground, Kieślowski emerged as a quiet, sympathetic, and pivotal figure, shrewdly working for change within the official media machine. He told stories of everyday Polish life in bold, unflinching terms, while avoiding a propagandistic or moralistic tone. Amid this political turmoil, Kieślowski met a young activist lawyer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who agreed to allow Kieślowski to film a few of his cases. They eventually noticed that every time a camera stood in the back of the courtroom the judge was lenient or dismissed the case. Before long, lawyers from all over, fighting for the rights of political dissidents, were begging to be a part of Kieślowski’s projects. His courtroom cameras ran often, sometimes without any film in them at all.

kieslowski

As much as the political effect of Kieślowski’s films pleased him, he began to question his faith in the documentary form, particularly its limited ability to portray the whole of reality, as he conceived it. He moved to fiction projects, untethering his expressive powers and freeing himself to explore the non-material—the realm of ideals, terrors, dreams, intuitions, inexplicable grace, unfathomable evil—and all its attendant questions. These themes first emerged, often pessimistically, in the early features, most notably in Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance (1981). Kieślowski and Piesiewicz then began collaborating on scripts, beginning with No End (1984), and continuing through every feature film afterwards: The Decalogue (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and the critically-acclaimed trilogy Three Colors: Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994).

In retrospect, The Decalogue was the watershed of Kieślowski’s career. Before those films, his work tended to be dark (e.g., providence turns downright brutal in Blind Chance and No End). After Decalogue, his work creates space for grace, reconciliation, and restoration. Within this monumental series of films, we see Kieślowski negotiating in that very human, liminal space between despair and hope.

So, in 1988—just before the Berlin wall came down and before their international successes could be imagined—Kieślowski and Piesiewicz had a brilliant idea: a single Warsaw apartment complex as a spiritual microcosm, holding ten immense existential dilemmas, each with a set of characters (who occasionally inter-relate), and a commandment principle embedded at the core.

 

At about an hour each, the films follow the Roman Catholic numbering, with the first episode combining the first two Protestant commandments (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” and “You shall not make unto yourselves a graven image”). Thus, episode II addresses the Lord’s name, III the Sabbath day, and so on, until episodes IX and X, which are dedicated to covetousness (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” or “thy neighbor’s goods”). The films are thematically linked to the decrees, sometimes loosely, sometimes more tightly. For instance, the episode for the command “Thou shalt not kill” (episode V) does, indeed, feature a murder, but then, remarkably, turns its full attention to the murderer’s execution. Episode II, more obliquely, focuses on issues of identity, family, and fidelity as a means of exploring the significance of a “name,” rather than the name of God per se.

decalogue_dwa

Kieślowski knew that the commandments were simple enough for children to understand and difficult enough to crack the human soul, so easy answers and moral recommendations would not do. He does not minimize human depravity or lose all hope for grace. He does not skirt religious doubt, nor does he champion skepticism. The weight and power of a commandment never wanes, however complicated its role within the broken world. In Kieślowski’s films, ethical questions are never easy, but always essential.

Fear not: in good measure, consistent rays of hope mingle with the anguished darkness of the times. Grace often arrives, but rarely in any conventional or expected way. From unanticipated kindness, turns of heart, and even “miracles” in a few early episodes, to the joyful brotherhood and hilarious comedy of Decalogue X, Kieślowski suggests that that judgment also mingles with gifts: friends, family, spiritual purpose, encouragement, forgiveness, and unexpected turns of fortune to help us bear the load. Grace is not always predictable or timely, but neither is it wholly indifferent or absent.

“There must be other things beyond what we can see,” he once remarked (in the documentary I’m So-So), and his characters often directly consider the question of Divine existence and action. Kieślowski never directly shows us this other reality, and deliberately avoids any banal “other-worldly” effects—shimmering dissolves or “magical” visions. Yet, we cannot come away from The Decalogue wholly confident in our materialism, our disbelief, or our self-centeredness; the pressure on our conscience and the stirrings in our experience are just too strong.

chomikimage

One character, Kieślowski simply dubbed “the young man,” appears in nearly every episode as a haunting, spiritual observer. He opens the series silently and powerfully, staring directly at us as if to say, “follow me, but watch your step;” like a mute Virgil he leads us, not into Hell, but an equally spiritual domain, an ordinary apartment complex where any of us could live. With each appearance he changes form: a compassionate observer (the weeping vagabond in I), a figure of judgment (the Charon-like boatman in IV), a sympathetic, joyful spirit (the passing, smiling businessman in VI), and a heroic savior (IX). Unsurprisingly, Kieślowski gives no direct interpretation of this character, and his specific religious commitments remained vague throughout his life. However, he did believe in an absolute moral “reference point,”[1] and the “young man’s” knowing, iconic looks directly target us, suggesting an other-worldly conviction that speaks to our collective conscience.

In The Decalogue, the different episodes show a mixed aesthetic and narrative approach, a tipping of the hat to his past documentaries, and his first adventurous push forward into a more formalistic, experimental cinema. His willingness to try every possible artistic avenue in pursuit of his aims is reflected in his plan (nearly achieved) to use a different cinematographer for each episode. Three of those artists—Sławomir Idziak, Edward Kłosiński and Piotr Sobiciński—would work with him for the rest of his career. In The Decalogue, the brute presentation of the handheld camera, so common in his documentaries and early features, finds expanded power through the addition of expressive lighting, shallow-focus photography, and a generally abstract approach to the visual image (so common in his later features).

This abstract impulse surfaces in various ways. Kieślowski’s influences, such as Robert Bresson, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky make themselves known in the delicate way Kieślowski allows time to exude its own pressure. Unlike typical Western editing styles, which cut for easy, direct impact and succinct narrative structure, Kieślowski is not afraid to run the camera longer, let the silences linger, and move the drama by psychological inertia. By defying our expectations, he abstracts time and space itself; we think we know what we are seeing, until we are forced to see again, and see again a little more, witnessing a type of transformation.

In this same vein, unusual editing styles continually place the viewer in an expanded realm, where time and space stretch beyond the narrative and suggest the metaphysical. To give one example, Dorota (in Decalogue II) is shown in several successive scenes in which no words are spoken, but her spiritual angst is clearly seen. She paces around her apartment, she smokes, she listens to music, she lies in bed (in close-up) unable to sleep. Then, in a seamless elision of time and space, the camera reveals she is not in her bed at all, but lying upon a gynecologist’s examination table, considering an abortion. Two distinct locations prove to be just pillars in one vast spiritual arena.

Indeed, in The Decalogue we witness this spiritual vision gaining strength. While Kieślowski always firmly rejected the designation “moralist,” he once accepted, with a shrug, the title “metaphysician.”[2] Thus, the abstract image, in all its visual possibility, transformational effect, and revelational power, lends itself to the spiritual themes Kieślowski strained to express. There lingers a strong sense in these films that time and space are actually eternal space and time, a supra-Euclidean domain that the sociologist Mircea Eliade famously traced in religious rituals and icons.

Throughout, extreme close-ups, such as those of a swirling glass of tea (Decalogue I) and dripping water on a metal hospital bed (Decalogue II), emerge as arresting dynamic forms. Sometimes, it is not completely clear what the object we behold might be, but the vibrant visual forms call to us and we imagine. Kieślowski’s patient timing and careful placement of these images has the capacity to draw the audience out of a rational, problem-solving mode and into wonder, as well as contemplation.

The abstract shots (or sequences) also synchronize with crucial spiritual themes in the plot. The result is an impact that is powerful, but not easily described. This intuitional power bears the marks of Kant’s category of the sublime in art, calling up an abundance of mixed feelings, holding imposing mystery and undeniable attraction in tension. Of course, there are no talismanic, spiritual determinisms here, but the clear metaphysical context, and the sumptuous visuals Kieślowski so painstakingly crafts, invite the viewer to consider “the things beyond what we can see.”

After years of making metaphysically-charged films, Kieślowski announced his retirement in 1996 to spend time with his wife and daughter, whom he felt he had neglected during his career. A relatively short time later, a heart attack claimed his life. This bitterly ironic ending remains as difficult and spiritually piercing as one of his own plots. We cannot help but ask, why?

But that act of questioning, it seems, is the key to his films as well. For Kieślowski, his career was not marked by a transition between “true” documentaries and “fictional” films, but a very straight artistic trajectory, through immanent, physical truth, directly toward spiritual truth, with lots of messiness, vexation, and negotiation along the way. Did he question faith? Of course. But he also doggedly questioned unbelief. Though he never claimed to have a corner on any truth, he always maintained that the material world and our limited perceptions of it are only part of the story.

Kieślowski’s admirers have long awaited a restored Decalogue, one that didn’t look like a drained and battered video on life support. Its genesis as a Polish television series makes its very survival something of a feat, but this new Blu-Ray restoration is more like a miracle to behold. The colors and the contrasts, so very critical to so many of the episodes, breathe new life into the films.

In the end, the collection is an astonishing accomplishment; some episodes are stronger than others, as one might expect, but there is a steady, courageous vision throughout. In each case, the commandments have weight and strength; they are the words upon which our souls are grounded. It is clear, in the beholding of them, that the letter will kill, but the Spirit may still give us life.

Though Kieślowski was not a theologian or even, necessarily, a believer, his films show us, on an intuitive level, that the apostle Paul was correct: “The law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). The commandments cut, and anchor, the modern soul as surely as the stone tablets pressed deep into Moses’ body, when he bore them down the mountain to a wandering, dispirited people.

 

 

 


[1] Kieślowski on Kieślowski, ed. Danusia Stok (Faber and Faber, 1993) 149.

[2] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Hyperion, 1999), 184.

“Trickster” and Tragicomedian

A Jewish comedian from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood in the pre-World War II era (whimsically depicted in Radio Days), Woody Allen is self-taught film auteur and class-commentator on the relational and existential woes of wealthy Manhattannites.[1] New York City is Allen’s microcosm, captured in a playground of posturing, vain, highly-educated, WASPy Upper East Siders, producing neurotic, over-privileged and unhappy individuals.

It seems that Allen anticipated culturally synonymous notions of irony and cynicism in his postmodern analysis of self-consciousness in his late ‘60s and early ‘70s films. Part of Allen’s wisdom is his ability to show his characters acting out their selfish impulses only to later regret their decisions. This is particularly evident in relationships, where nostalgia for familiarity and acceptance cause collateral damage to the surrounding parties. His films are perpetual improv routines for why human selfishness and insecurity correspond with biological evolutionary urges and inescapable guilt.

Indeed, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre is a masterful study of human relationships—in all of their messy infidelity, boredom, flippancy and perpetual dissatisfaction. Conversations provide the films’ architecture, as monologues and dialogues construct the form of his fifty some-odd pictures, through genres both tragic and comic. The stories across his massive body of work continually grapple with the interconnected themes concerning the ontological meaning of existence, particularly played out in ethically subjective matters concerning love and death.

Sy (Film Director): “The essence of life isn’t comic. It’s tragic! There’s nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.

Max (Playwright): “I disagree. Philosophers call life absurd because in the end, all you can do is laugh. Human aspiration is so ludicrous and irrational. If the underlying reality of our being is tragic, my plays would make more than yours at the box office because my stories would resonate more profoundly with the human soul.

Sy: “It’s exactly that tragedy hits on the truly painful aspects of life so that people run to my comedies for escape! Tragedy confronts comedy.

This opening scene to Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004) begins at Keith McNally’s former meatpacking district bistro Pastis, where four colleagues debate the essence of life, much like the four main interlocutors in the dialogue of Plato’s Republic. Is life comic or tragic? The rest of the Melinda and Melinda, as well as Allen’s entire film corpus attempts to diagnose an answer to that question. Should we be cynical pessimists or romantic optimists about human existence?

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Melinda and Melinda

Aware that throughout history eastern and western philosophy have continually asked the same question, Allen considers two critical variables at play: one, the dynamics of objective reality including (but not limited to) the existence of God and the interconnected roles of religion, fortune and luck; and two, the subjective morality of humanity’s actions, often following from one’s convictions derived from the first category.

For all of Allen’s self-declared atheism, his filmography testifies otherwise to a lifelong series of attempts trying to outsmart the divine, rather than dismiss the existence of a God. In his nod to Fellini’s 8 ½, Stardust Memories (1980), when he is accused of being an atheist, he disagrees by responding that he’s “God’s loyal opposition.” Allen is directly affirming that he does believe in God, but he is fundamentally against, or at odds with, the structural tenants of organized religion—he is “God’s loyal opposition” onscreen. In fact, he’s storyboarding Nietzsche’s very ressentiment— the master-slave morality from his Genealogy of Morals, claiming that the Jews invented the morality system to overturn and lord the strong. Of course this plays brilliantly into Allen’s scrawny physiognomy, where wit and intellectual caprice captivate his ladies and thwart his captors, compensating for his lack of dashing Don Juan features. This hermeneutic of suspicion undermines Allen’s ability to conveniently accept normative religious claims as a tidy endeavor. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Allen does not accuse religion of manipulating and coercing humanity through the “invention” of an ethical system, but rather playfully challenges religion’s parameters by contesting the pliability of its dogmas.

Historically this cunning and playful figure, “God’s loyal opposition,” is found in the typology of “trickster”—an amoral and transgressive mythological character that challenges and complicates social mores through perceptive and crafty ways. In Lois Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World, he traces various cultural and literary tropes of the trickster (i.e. Coyote, Ishtu, Hermes, Thunderbird), connecting their typologies of wry inventiveness, scheming and innovation to modern artists that have implemented or drawn upon their signature characteristics. Self-diagnosed as a clown, Woody Allen participates in this trickster economy as the “jokester,” a liminal figure in world of the circus, wearing the various masks of hyperbole and comedy to class-critique the privileged by means of witty humor and laughter. The clown has the social power to cast the narrative of life as comic, wearing a mask to hide his pessimism in order to make people laugh. The sad clown motif, Pierrot, draws from Frederico Fellini and Charlie Chaplin, but also reaches back to Rabelais, medieval culture and Commedia dell’Arte, extending forward to the modernist paintings of Georges Rouault’s many clown figures that Allen slips as stock characters into many of his comic films: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), even the opera from To Rome with Love (2012) is Leoncavello’s Pagliacci.

Sleeper

Sleeper

Allen’s persistent resolve for evidentiary proof of God’s existence challenges the dogmas with which he was catechized as a young Jewish boy. He looks to the heavens for a sign, a miracle—a theophany of sorts. In mythology, the role of the magician figure as trickster, understands that the rules of the universe can appear to be altered through slight-of-hand, and, perhaps even manipulated by means of alchemy. Suspicious that established religion as a sham, Allen as the magician is interested in mystic, occult or chance-based phenomena as an alternative medium for a divine presence. Luck (Crimes and Misdemeanors), fate (Mighty Aphrodite, Match Point), fortune (Small Times Crooks) time-travel portals (Sleeper, Midnight in Paris), magicians (Stardust Memories), apparitions (Play It Again, Sam), tarot (Scoop) fortune-telling (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) mind-reading, hypnosis (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Alice), and séance (Magic in the Moonlight) play a rational role in Allen’s quest for numinous counsel from a Jewish Rabbi.

Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories

As a trickster, Allen plays both the clown and magician, the fool and the shaman, challenging the very framework and fabric of the universe by complicating binaries, transgressing boundaries and attempting to keep the gods accountable through his employment of tragicomedy. Allen’s filmic quest for ontological meaning and subsequent explanation of a moral imperative drives his narratives, and leads to films that work as ethical case studies, specifically around the actions of suicide and murder. Akin to situational ethics, Allen’s scripts debate if life is tragic or comic by directing and enacting tales concerning matters most grave (with a chuckle in between).

In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), one of the subplots involves Allen’s character Mickey embarking on a religious quest, first toying with converting to Catholicism, followed by a fascination with Hare Krishna, eventually abandoning the whole endeavor by attempting suicide—hesitating only in case his suspicions are actually wrong. Fear often becomes Allen’s sole reason for refusing to pull the trigger. In Love and Death (1975), Boris (Woody Allen) and Sonia (Diane Keaton) discuss life’s absurdity if God does not exist. When Sonia declares that the only alternative is suicide, Boris recognizes the only thing holding him back is the chance they might be in error: “Well let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then [gesturing upward] read in the papers they found something.” We could say that the clown is still present in his nihilistic debates, a romantic existentialist who idealizes and fetishizes despair. Yet Allen infrequently muzzles his inner clown (particularly when he is not an actor in the storyline), and narrates the tragic, peeling the thin veneer of comedy back to show how fragile his constructed mask of optimism actually is. Whereas his earlier work maintains the genre of comedy to assuage Allen’s heavier questions, his most recent work (Blue Jasmine in particular) is quite austere in its straightforward resignation: “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.” A contemporary variation on the plotline of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Allen’s female protagonist Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) collapses, a mirthless and bleak vision of the human condition.

Murder, on the other hand, is Allen’s second case study for subjective morality, and subsequent argument for tragedy being life’s sole genre. Ranging from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Hitchcock’s Rope, Allen draws upon and engages classical variations of that age-old possibility: getting away with the perfect murder. If Allen is an atheist, then moral relativity would appear to be normative. But why, the trickster perpetually asks, is there a moral imperative to behave if there is no deity to judge or find us ethically reprehensible? This question is reminiscent of the discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov concerning the social ramifications of ethical subjectivity in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan’s central axiom “if God does not exist than everything is permissible” promotes absolute metaphysical freedom, regardless of whom it communally harms.

As an auteur continually haunted by this proposition, Woody Allen tests Ivan’s premise in three variations of the same plotline, tragic and comic, a trickster continually examining exceptions to the rules: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Irrational Man (2015). In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s re-envisions Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal’s (Martin Landau) adulterous affair escalates from extra-marital rendezvous to arranging for his lover’s shady disposal. Allen is interested in the sliding scale from imagining a crime to acting on it, ironically depicting an eye doctor’s inability to discern or “see” the just and righteous action. Amidst administering an eye exam to Ben the Rabbi, Judah confides his dilemma to a man with escalating blindness. Tiresian-like in his ability to discern Judah’s existential crisis, Ben encourages Judah to confess and be reconciled with his wife, drawing upon a moral structure (“the eyes of God are always watching”), which Judah distrusts (“God is a luxury that I cannot afford”). The Rabbi probes Judah at the metaphysical level—if one is lucky enough to avoid discovery, can one even live with their conscience? Meanwhile, Judah is tormented with guilt, haunted by childhood memories around the Passover Seder dinner, hearing the words of his father: “Whether it is the Old Testament or Shakespeare—murder will out!” Yet Allen factors the variable of luck in the narrative not only by giving Judah a free pass, but also by miraculously assuaging his conscience through detached indifference.

Comedy provides a buffer from Allen’s probing critique in Crimes and Misdemeanors, yet he returns to this ethical case study of murder in Match Point, within the genre of tragedy-turned-Hitchcockian noir. Far from the usual fare of quirky play-on-words, Allen’s tenor is sinister and power-hungry. What if one not only follows through with one’s demented fantasies, but perpetually inflicts damage on non-associated parties just to cover the original crime? Set to the score of Verdi’s Othello and Macbeth, Chris Wilton’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) psychologically intense levels of lust, lies and cold compartmentalization build to the operatic heights of betrayal and murder. Yet unlike the rules within the world of the classical Greek tragedy, there is no reversal of fortune. Chris’s tragic flaw does not lead to his undoing, but propitiates his success. Tragedy in this sense is not only melodramatic, but also nihilistic. As trickster, Allen offers us a glimpse of evil with no hope of concession, a “confluence between fate and luck” in which the killer gets away.

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However, in an Irrational Man, Allen reconsiders the possibility that justice might also be part of fate and providence, offering us a tragic tale reconfigured as a farce. His protagonist Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor teaching a situational ethics seminar on the end justifying the means, specifically in the case of murder (The name easily associates him with Abraham, the central biblical character of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). Haunted by a foreboding sense of life’s meaninglessness (in Kierkegaard’s phrase, “a sickness unto death”), Abe loses the will to live. Until, that is, the opportunity arises to commit a crime he has no motive for in which he can walk away hypothetically unscathed. However, in this case study, Allen does not let luck play a hand in Abe’s absolution. Fortune’s wheel rules in favor of retributive justice, as Abe accidentally falls down a broken elevator shaft as a slapstick tribute to karma.

The third film, I think, is the weakest in this murder triptych, not only in the execution of the film, but also in its dated idealization of nihilism. Left-bank existentialism isn’t culturally trendy like it was in Allen’s films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre are no longer in vogue and Allen appears to be trapped within the same philosophical predicaments, recycling conversations that seem repetitive rather than repurposed. As early as Manhattan (1979), Diane Keaton’s character Mary dismisses the romanticization of despair as childish. She naïvely adds Ingmar Bergman to her “Academy of the Overrated” list (alongside Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, and Carl Jung): “His view is so Scandinavian. It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism. I mean, The Silence. God’s silence. Okay, okay, okay. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, I mean, all right, you outgrow it. You absolutely outgrow it.” Despite her misperception of Bergman as a self-indulgent nihilist, she is astute in underscoring “fashionable pessimism” as self-centered and myopic—a luxury coddled from a place of privileged white heteronormativity.

Manhattan

However, it is important here to note that Bergman is in fact Allen’s single most importance influence as well as his foil, nodding to him in Interiors (1978), with other allusions in Stardust Memories and Love and Death. At a first glance, the two directors are nothing alike—even in genre. Bergman’s minimal Scandinavian chamber dramas are painstakingly slow, beautifully lit, sparse in their dialogue, and particularly perceptive in their depiction of human emotion. In contrast, Allen is quick-paced in his rapid-fire banter and Punch and Judy slapstick, his clowning mischief and trickster shenanigans providing comedic distance from vulnerable reflection. Yet Bergman and Allen share an imagination formed by religious traditions that shapes their narrative approach to storytelling. Subsequently, both are fraught with existential dilemmas brought on by anxiety and disillusionment with religion.

Bergman’s so-called “God Trilogy” (Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963)), utilizes high contrast black and white settings to highlight his figures like Giacometti sculptures that mirror silent landscapes of the soul—anxious, alone, confronted with the silence of God as a perpetual and exasperating answer. While Bergman is direct and frank about spiritual crisis, Allen returns to comedy as his mask of sanity, covering his disgruntled angst and restlessness. While there are a handful of films that Allen attempts serious excavations into the human psyche (Interiors, September, Another Woman), many have regarded them as failures due to their unpopularity with audiences, yet for Allen they were honest experiments at confronting life directly.

Bergman once lamented that art was fractured from a religious imagination, explaining that “art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself…”[2]

Both Bergman’s Lutheranism and Allen’s Judaism form their creative framework—it is something they cannot avoid. God’s loyal opposition could be said of both directors, whose art continually subvert pious and sentimental categories for God, disrupting neat and tidy delineations of religion’s parameters. We might even say that their work supersedes their own beliefs about the world compared to their film’s own witness of it.

Manhattan is certainly an example of this vision, and I think, Woody Allen’s masterpiece. Not only does it have sparkling performances and stunning black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis (evoking the freshness of Godard and Truffaut, with the sobriety of Bergman), but it also testifies to Allen’s true identity as a tragicomedian. Manhattan discloses his intrinsic and romantic belief in the world, while thoughtfully self-critical of his own narcissism and juvenile anxieties.[3] Allen’s most moving—perhaps believing—moments are when he encounters surprises and gifts that show up outside of the system he has critiqued. This thesis is attended to in Manhattan’s dramatic conclusion where the aptly named Isaac (Woody Allen) attempts to answer why life is worth living. Rather than embarking on a philosophical diatribe of abstract arguments, he lists the presence of artifacts, music and visual culture, that slowly turns into the presence of individuals: Cézanne’s pears and apples, the second movement to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Swedish movies (Bergman), Louis Armstrong, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays —and ultimately—Tracey’s face.

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Another scene that echoes this end from Manhattan is when Allen’s character Sandy Bates shares a moment with his lover Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) at the end of Stardust Memories. Narrated as a form of memoir, Sandy recounts the reasons that made that time together memorable. By archiving his surrounding phenomena, he attends to the “thereness” of things, moving from objects to subjects—the sound, the weather, finally, the face as meaningful and mystical presence. Though Allen cannot tell us why they are significant, he insists that they are. For Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face is the true mirror and trace of the Other (God), the physical proof of the presence Allen keeps seeking. Perhaps Allen’s truest testimony, in all his obsessive honesty and lifelong enactment of existential questions, is his faithful exploration of the icon he cannot shake—the human face—masked and unmasked in his perpetual circus.

Allen’s awareness of what is given, indeed, what is perceptively found, is a mosaic of the unnecessary. There he discovers seemingly excessive things that compose the critical aspects of human meaning. Allen seems to be unconsciously reaffirming Christianity’s doctrine of original sin in his entire cinematic cannon wherein which humans cannot escape perpetuating cycles of systemic damage. Though his comic tales are a testament to brokenness, they also highlight undeniable meaning derived from human relationships. Despite humanity’s innate selfishness, he shows us the possibility of richness and beauty underneath all the competition, something amidst the nothing. If this is the case, Woody Allen is no nihilist, but rather an astute detective questing after the truth.

In Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012), Allen confesses: “I’m cursed with the clown’s approach. I have always had to approach life in a comic way. I wish I had been born a gifted and great tragedian.” But perhaps Allen is both, as the trickster typologies would suggest, where clown and magician dualities blend to produce a tragicomedian. He cannot have one without the other; a signature characteristic of the trickster that upsets categorical boundaries relies on being a hybrid, a paradox. For life that was merely comic or purely tragic would be the true absurdity.

Thus for Allen, life cannot be absurd because it is a blend of the two overlapping genres. Alan Alda (as Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors) emphatically insists: “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” or in the classical sense, a tale with troubled beginnings that ends with marriage. We might say then, in true Woody Allen tragicomic-fashion, that tales of rejection can become comedic as time creates distance for his characters to gain wisdom from their folly, and maybe even laugh.

[1] Caveat: This is not an apology for allegations towards Allen, nor is it unaware that they exist, however, the focus of this piece is on Allen’s cinematic works. It is nonetheless important to acknowledge that this article is not ignorant of the allegations.

[2] Bergman gave these opening remarks as a preface to the screen script in the introduction to his film The Seventh Seal, 1960.

[3] “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life but never any solutions. He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights which was in fact, mere narcissism” (Manhattan).

Sunspring Review

It’s good news for AI enthusiasts and sci-fi fans: artificial intelligence has written a screenplay. The result is Sunspring, a surreal and occasionally hilarious eight-minute film. Director Oscar Sharp and AI researcher Ross Goodwin teamed up to make the movie for the Sci-Fi London film festival. The AI, which named itself Benjamin, was fed dozens of science fiction scripts. The selection included everything from classics like Blade Runner and Alien to Hot Tub Time Machine. Benjamin is a LSTM recurrent neural network, a system that can be trained to understand how a series of inputs are connected to one another. Using this knowledge, the system then generates output based on the patterns it has learned. Sunspring took a top-10 place at the festival, edging out hundreds of human competitors.

The film follows characters H (Thomas Middlemarch), H2 (Elisabeth Gray), and C’s (Humphrey Ker) futuristic love triangle. “Follows” might be the wrong word because there is no plot to speak of, just a series of disconnected and often bizarre events. We only know it’s the future because H and H2 are dressed in that mainstay of sci-fi costumes, gold lamé. The initial set is pure low-key science fiction, filled with computers and motherboards. After C declares “I have to go to the skull” he x-rays his face. There are also ray guns, black holes, and floating through space. It may not be obvious why any of this is happening or what exactly these objects are, but that’s all part of Sunspring’s weird charm.

Despite making no sense there still, somehow, manages to be a storyline. “I am not a bright light,” H says sadly to H2, just as C appears in the background. Although most of us, unlike H, don’t respond to the appearance of a romantic rival by spitting out an eyeball, it’s all strangely familiar. Everyone will recognize the body language of a relationship gone sour. It’s easy to feel H’s pain as H2 laughs along with C or rubs his arm. Even if all she’s just said is “I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.” The actors do a wonderful job of chivvying the story along through their choice of action. Part of the fun of watching Sunspring is imagining how many ways it could have been filmed. With such an open-ended script the story could easily have looked very different.

Benjamin was also responsible for writing the stage directions, which included instructions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor” and “He picks up a light screen and fights the security forces of the particles of transmission on his face.” Because the screenplay veers from cliché to incoherence any narrative comes from the decisions of the people involved. It’s impressive just how much meaning the actors manage to wring from the nonsense script. Still, the effect is like overhearing a conversation that’s only half in English: you can’t shake the feeling that what you’re hearing should make sense but it never does.

The futuristic setting fits nicely with all this dystopian confusion. But Sunspring isn’t a dystopia because it isn’t really anything. Unlike some equally confusing avant-garde films, there’s no hidden message or meaning. At least for now, AI has no ulterior motivation. The consequence is that Sunspring feels like a Rorschach test, tantalizingly suggestive but nebulous. Together Sharp and Goodwin have transformed their clever concept into an equally clever film. And this experiment is also a smart riff on one of the enduring themes of science fiction, the intelligent machine. Only in this case, the machine has written the script. The experiment shows AI’s potential and also demonstrates, often to hilarious effect, its shortcomings.

However brilliant Sunspring may be, Skynet is still a long way off.

 

 

Whit Stillman: Words to the Side

Before Whit Stillman’s recently released Love & Friendship, there was the strange, frat-house comedy of manners, Damsels in Distress—his personal favorite.

 

Whit Stillman needs to go shopping.

“I really have to buy some new clothes,” he frets. “I have spent the last twenty years in full-on slob mode—favored clothes I wear until they fall apart.”

Then a sheepish confession: “My cheapskatism has become pathological. I can’t bear to spend money on anything. I think some such tendencies have a moralistic basis. It’s my version of vegetarianism.”

It is an answer worthy of Metropolitan’s Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) or Barcelona’s Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols).

Indeed, as the auteur of twenty-something East Coast privilege (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, or U.H.B.), one assumes a carefully curated wardrobe would come easy for Stillman. “I would like clothing styles to return to something better looking and more carefully arranged.”

Nattily dressed or not, things are looking up for the acclaimed writer-director who spent most of the 2000s off-screen, toiling away in relative obscurity. With his new film Love & Friendship (an adaptation of the unfinished Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan) opening wide, there are red carpet premiere events, television interviews, and photo shoots galore—activities that will require him to spruce up a bit.

Love and Friendship

“I think we do feel better dressed comfortably and well—I just haven’t achieved that myself.”

With the arrival of Stillman’s latest comedy, it is tempting to muse on the trilogy that put his name on the map—earning him an Academy Award nomination, Independent Spirit Award, and a coveted spot in the Criterion Collection.

Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) represent one of the most celebrated, idiosyncratic, fully realized first three films in American cinema. Yet 2011’s oft-overlooked Damsels in Distress is the director’s personal favorite—if for no other reason than the pleasure he had making it and the vague disappointment many expressed upon its release.

“That Damsels was so ‘divisive’ really threw me,” he admits. “I had thought that the film would be easy to take—a crowd-pleaser—but from the very first frames it drove a large minority batty.”

Inspired by 1930’s Hollywood fantasy romances, Damsels includes singing, dancing, snappy dialogue, and an unabashedly happy ending. The film marked Stillman’s long-awaited return to cinemas after a decade-long drought.

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Stillman attributes the mixed response to Damsels to several characteristics of the film that may have frustrated some. “There is little obvious attempt to adhere to realism—with a strong whiff of Archie comics. And ‘realism’ is the cinema God many worship.”

There was resistance to Greta Gerwig’s character, Violet, the heroine of Damsels. “In scores of prior films, the new arrival character, Lily [played by Analeigh Tipton] would be the heroine, Violet and her friends the mean girls. But I hated the conformist Lily (while liking the actress) and loved Violet, so I think the film’s point of view was at cross-purposes to that of part of the audience.”

Stillman points out “virtuous or ‘improving’ characters like Violet rub some people very much the wrong way.” (re: Jane Austen’s Emma & Fanny Price). And that “a great many people don’t seem to love the comedy of stupidity—the frat boy characters—as much as I do. It seems unpardonably infra dig to them.”

Damsels in Distress

But there is something else about Damsels in Distress, something consistently strange in all of Stillman’s movies: the director’s utter lack of cynicism, paired with a sense of nostalgia as a force for good, rather than rank sentimentalism.

“I think it’s desirable and more entertaining that what’s represented on film is improved or distilled from the everyday norm,” Stillman explains, “I don’t think what we see everyday is worth paying cinema prices for, or even worth our streaming time.”

This is meant as a defense for dialogue that might seem stylized or overly arranged. But it is a useful explanation for Stillman’s films’ purity of intent. Never on-the-nose, Stillman’s dialogue is written without subtext—direct, serious, guileless. He is no ironist, which should not imply that his work exists to teach or preach.

“All the films so far have been about finding one’s proper path in life, finding one’s ideal identity, usually in relation to one’s membership in a sympathetic group and, especially, ‘pairing off’ with a romantic partner.” But he is quick to add;

“Proscriptive advice on how to escape life’s various traps—broken hearts, tailspins, depression in “Damsels”—is more the ‘matter’ of the story than the destination. Happiness in life is often constructed from tiny wonderful things—hot toast with butter—not big things.

Violet’s obsession with fragrant soap for instance: “Though good-smelling soap is probably even more important than toast, as the enhancement can last for hours.”

Nowhere in Stillman’s work is the non-ironic value of dance so nearly prescribed than in Damsels in Distress.

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For a filmmaker obsessed with Hollywood musicals, Stillman believes that dancing is one of the lost wonders of our world: “I think one of the very weird things about the present is how important and dangerous words have become,” Stillman says.

“A stupid phrase, joke or tweet can ruin one’s career, or life—while dancing is hardly to be found, entirely unimportant and uncentral. Dancing should be at the center of life, words to the side. You see a movie such as Rene Clair’s “Under the Roof of Paris” (1930) and they are dancing everywhere, every restaurant, every cafe, all the time. Where, for instance, is the church dancing these days? Sitting, standing, kneeling—for heaven’s sake, we can do better than that.

This idea animates Stillman: “A draft of my as-yet-unrealized 1960s Jamaican film featured a congregation referred to as the ‘Dancing Baptists’—I want to make that one.”

With his fifth feature-length film set for wide release, and talk of an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (Metropolitan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 1991), Stillman is starting feel more confident behind the camera.

“I feel I’ve had a lucky run with Damsels, The Cosmopolitans [his Amazon pilot], Love & Friendship—the movie and the novel.” He wavers a bit,

“I don’t know. You never know. Every moment is a new moment, failure our eternal friend. You think you are learning things but those could also be staleness traps, formula, hitting the same lever again and again.That said, I feel that I have learned that I can keep writing and changing the material while shooting—didn’t do that so much before and so far it has worked out, but would be bad to come to rely on last minute ideas.

The conversation tilts back to fashion, which, in Damsel in Distress—in terms of cut and color of the clothes worn in the film—seems vitally important to the director, a visual echo to Adam Schlesinger and Mark Suozzo’s 60s pop-inspired score. Does Whit Stillman believe that clothes make the man? Or is that just so much “flit lit?”

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“I directed most of Metropolitan in a comfortable gray suit and tie,” he remembers, “The original inspiration was John Landis who always directed in a jacket and tie because Alfred Hitchcock told him he should do so. So in a sense Hitch told me that too. It was not always so during the Metropolitan shoot—some set photos show me in the usual grubby garb—but for a number of our ‘sensitive’ locations, none of which we were paying for, it helped for the director to look responsible.”

The image of the first-time director, assuaging his own distress with a suit and tie, perhaps echoed in Barcelona’s fictional Ted Boynton tap dancing to “Pennsylvania 6-5000” while reading the Bible to assuage his crippling social anxiety.

It has always been the sublime pleasure of Violet’s “Sambola!” dance craze that Stillman wishes to offer us, his fellow full-on slobs, fumbling towards a happy ending.

I asked Whit for a kind of cinema “hope list”, movies best viewed without cynicism—the “great-smelling soap” of American cinema. He lit up instantly: “I think the Motion Picture Production Code needs to be reappraised. So many great films were made in its heyday. Coincidence or causality?”

 

Here’s his list, all code-safe—35 movies right off the top of his head:

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Love & Friendship is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens nationwide, 27 May 2016.

Faith and Doubt in Game of Thrones

Note: This contains spoilery details about the fifth season of Game of Thrones.

Spring is in the air, and that means one thing: Winter is Coming.

April 24th marked the return of HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones, and with it a whole cadre of rabid fans looking for resolution to unanswered questions. With the fifth season ending last June, fans of both the novels and TV show have waited to see if Jon Snow’s death was less than permanent, and whether or not Khaleesi will finally return to Westeros.

My wife and I are hooked on Game of Thrones. The sweeping narratives, the intricate characters, and Peter Dinklage all make the show one of the highlights of our week. Once the kids are in bed we queue up the show and with the familiar crackle of the HBO title card, eagerly dive into a world of medieval politics, dragons, and ice zombies.

For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is a sprawling epic set in a mystical version of medieval Europe. Seven families claim lordship over the vast majority of a small continent, and engage in constant political and martial engagements to win the seat of power—the Iron Throne. In this mystical land there are dragons, as well as an army of undead zombie ice warriors. But the dragons and ice zombies are just the bunting on a stellar plot centering on Machiavellian maneuvers executed by, and against, terribly flawed people. Game of Thrones teaches viewers to not become attached to any one character. People are ruthless, and many much-beloved characters have met unfortunate fates.

Toward the end of last season, I was reading bedtime stories to my then three-year-old daughter before the show aired. The usual routine allows her to choose three stories to read together before she is tucked in for the night. One of the books she chose was a compilation of stories about famous children in the Bible. Among them were the stories of Abraham and Isaac, David vs Goliath, and Miriam helping Moses escape the Egyptian guards. At her request, we read the familiar story about Isaac’s near sacrifice at the hands of his father.

Abraham is commanded by God to kill his only son and heir, effectively voiding God’s promise to make him into a great nation. Abraham takes his son to the top of Mount Moriah and prepares to kill him, but at the last second God spares Isaac and allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.

I kissed my daughter goodnight, and she went to bed.

An hour later, I watched as Stannis Baratheon, one claimant to the Iron Throne, burned his daughter Shireen alive. The lesson of Abraham’s story is that God will provide in our hardest moments. I had seen the same violent story in Scripture and on screen—serving as a reminder of how violent and fraught with terror our theological narrative is—the undercurrent of both being that we must be willing to do some crazy shit in the name of faith.

The immediate connection is clear. Both Abraham and Stannis were called upon by their gods to perform a heinous act against their children to prove their faith. In the world of Game of Thrones, the Baratheon family is engaging in an internal power struggle to find an heir who could conceivably rule the entire realm. Stannis has an army, a mysterious priestess, and a devoted wife who encourages his ruthless behavior. The seed is planted that in order to take the throne and gain an immediate military advantage, he must sacrifice his daughter at the stake, and so he does.

It has always troubled me that Abraham was willing to murder his son, but it has bothered me even more since seeing Stannis sacrifice his daughter. What has lingered most of all is that Stannis has a much better reason for betraying his daughter than Abraham does for killing Isaac. There is a twisted logic to Stannis’ choice that helps his decision make sense in a horrific sort of way. If he goes through with the murder of his child, he gets to be king (spoiler: he doesn’t).

While there is no telos, or ultimate, to his actions beyond a desire for power and a sense of destiny, Stannis’ logic is a bit more obvious. Yet the same logic doesn’t apply to Abraham. He gets nothing if he kills his son; the death of Isaac could simply represent the death of what God had promised. And in the Bible’s terse sort of storytelling, while we know that Abraham is ready to slice open his son’s throat, beyond this we don’t know what exactly he is thinking (Hebrews 11:19 might provide a slight window).

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Abraham and Isaac, Follower of Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Oil on canvas, 183.6 cm Width: 132.8 cm, Museum of Art and Archaeology – University of Missouri Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Kress Study Collection (K1633)

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard attempted to fill in the Bible’s silence on Abraham’s motivations, describing Abraham’s decision as a “teleological suspension of the ethical”. What this means is that Abraham is willing to engage in actions considered unethical because he believes that God is the source of absolute truth: all meaning rests in God. Abraham’s willingness to take his son’s life expresses a trust in God’s ethical supremacy, but God would not allow for Abraham to break his rules, no matter what was being demanded. Contrary to Stannis, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Abraham requires a complete suspension of everything Abraham knows to be ethical. Abraham cannot be fully assured that his son will be spared. He must have faith that Isaac will not die, even though he believes that he must kill him. Kierkegaard writes:

“He who loves God without faith reflects upon himself; he who loves God in faith reflects upon God. This is the peak on which Abraham stands. The last stage to pass from his view is the stage of infinite resignation. He actually goes further and comes to faith.

Abraham’s faith that God will not allow an unethical telos, allows him to make what seems to be an unethical decision. Abraham puts religious concerns over ethical concerns, proving his faith in God. This is not to say that Abraham does not wrestle with doubt. This doubt is part of Kierkegaard’s ethical approach. Abraham’s triumph is not easy nor assured. His struggle is real, and the prospect of his son’s death is real. Abraham has faith that God would not truly require the murder of an innocent, and in his faith he is vindicated.

Contrary to Abraham, Stannis’ actions are always grounded in an entirely human end. He wants to be king, and believes his god also wants him to be king. This drives him to discard his ethical framework. Abraham does not seek accolades or power through his sacrifice; he complies because he trusts that the ethics of the one he worships is greater than his own scope of understanding. Does this make the story any easier? Definitely not. Kierkegaard is equally at unease:

“The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.

The paradox of Abraham highlights the distinction between faith and blind belief, and ultimately, what your faith is for. Abraham has faith that God won’t allow him to kill Isaac, but that doesn’t mean Isaac’s death is impossible. To believe something is to be assured of it; to have faith requires the possibility that you will be proven wrong and allows room for doubt. If Abraham genuinely believed—without doubt— that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, the sacrifice would be no kind of test. Abraham has faith, Stannis has a blind belief with no room for doubt. Abraham hopes that his actions are aligned with divine ethics; Stannis knows his aren’t. And Stannis’ rigid adherence to the doctrine of self is ultimately his undoing. What Abraham reminds us is that our human understanding of what we think we are called to do should be limited, shot through with doubt.

We live in a world where the risk of success and failure is more measured and calculated than the rightness of the action itself. What Game of Thrones offers, besides the visual wonders of an HBO budget, is a fantasy epic where those who act on blind belief see their actions played out to their logical conclusion. Without room for doubt, belief becomes simply another instrument of power. The failure of Stannis and the faithfulness of Abraham serve as dual reminders that in order to be truly human, we must relinquish the idea of total control. In those moments of tension where anxiety, doubt and faith reside, our identity is forged. To embrace moments of doubt is part of what makes faith just that. 

Stanley Kubrick: Mystic

I first watched Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny The Shining (1980) where I watched all the great 80s horror movies, from Poultergeist to The Evil Dead —in the dark, sacred confines of my best friend’s basement. Though other films were more terrifying, The Shining was—and still is—like nothing I had ever seen: horror transposed into pure cinematic poetry. I sat transfixed in front of the glowing television set, swallowed up in the biblical deluge of blood pouring out of those elevator doors.

Largely panned when it was first released, Kubrick’s cult masterpiece has become, for me, what it has become for everyone—a dream we can’t seem to let go of, an odd hallucination haunting us in oblique ways. Not a week goes by where it doesn’t surface again in some Internet meme or pop culture parody (this week: a version starring small rodents).

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance, tormented writer-turned-axe-murderer, has become iconic—“heeeere’s Johnny!” The typographic horror of the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene is perhaps one of the greatest depictions of on-screen madness (as well as the inherent dangers of trying to make it as a writer!). We feel the terror of Torrance’s wife and their psychically “shining” son as the father loses his grip on reality in the isolated hallways of the Overlook Hotel; their struggle to get out of the haunted ski resort induces a kind of cinematic claustrophobia on the part of the viewer. It is a harrowing viewing experience.

The-Shining-Jack-Nicholson

Perhaps most importantly, though, the most enduring images of the film are not about the plot points, but those which give visual expression to psychic disintegration—little Danny Torrance riding his scooter around the corner, only to be confronted by the archetypal creepy twin girls; the blood in the elevator, a torrent straight out of Exodus; “REDRUM” scrawled on the wall; the sickening embrace of the dead woman in the bathroom of the infamous room 237. These are images which leave a mark on us, which even as they play out in eerie silence leave our eyes ringing.

Because of their uncanny persistence, we can’t leave the film alone. Its many complexities are explored in the 2012 documentary Room 237, currently streaming on Netflix. As Rodney Ascher, the director of the documentary, reminds us, Kubrick’s film is much more than a horror movie. Like the great auteur director’s other films, there is not a single aspect of mise-en-scène—what appears within the frame—which occurs by accident. Each seeming continuity error, grotesque scene, and eerie coincidence serves an esoteric purpose. The Shining, to borrow an image from the climax of the film, is a labyrinth into which we are irrevocably drawn; like the Overlook Hotel, as the trailer for Room 237 puts it, the film itself offers “many ways in” but “no way out.”

Room 237 plunges us into the labyrinth. And once we are in the maze of interpretations of The Shining, it becomes clear just how many twists and turns there are. Conspiracy theories, visual minutiae, allegories, trompe l’oeil—these all coalesce and swirl about each other in a haze of semiotic signs and signals.

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The Shining is read against the rest of Kubrick’s impressive oeuvre2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, even Eyes Wide Shut–looking for visual and thematic clues about how the film’s narrative conceals a deeper layer of meaning. Medieval allegorists would be proud.

One interpreter of the film sees the repressed theme of the film as the killing and mistreatment of the Native Americans by colonizing European settlers. This is an elaborate yet internally convincing interpretation which takes as its starting point a seemingly inconsequential image of an Indian on a Calumet baking powder can, shown briefly in a scene in the hotel’s pantry. Another interpretation is centered on archetypal myths and fantasies about death and violence. A poster of a skier on the wall is thought to be the beastly Minotaur of Crete who stalks Theseus through the halls of the labyrinth. Jack Torrance is lost in the maze of not only the Overlook Hotel, but his own mind.

Even the most ephemeral visual elements of Kubrick’s film are taken as semantic clues, pointing to multiple (re)interpretations and obscure polysemies. The Overlook Hotel is mapped out, revealing inconsistencies with the placement of rooms, windows, and stairwells, hallways that lead nowhere–it is an impossible structure, an Escher-like maze.

The explanatory theories presented in Room 237 become increasingly outlandish. Most fantastically, The Shining is interpreted as Kubrick’s secret apology for helping fake the moon landing. Scenes are analyzed and deconstructed ad absurdum, the most minute details of the frame pored over. Interpreting the film becomes itself a kind of hermetic or kabbalistic enterprise, full of secrets and unveilings.

Central to many of the interpretations, and endemic to the film itself, is the sense of repressed trauma. Did Jack abuse his son Jimmy? Are there things forgotten which are coming to light? Perhaps the whole film is about the Freudian “return of the repressed”–be it America’s colonial past, the Holocaust, or devastations more psychological and internal. The river of blood gushing out of the elevator comes from a hidden wound in the heart of the century. Jack’s madness is the natural response of a man trapped in this terrifying recurrence.

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Room 237 is, in documentary terms, an extended video essay, never cutting to “talking heads” but rather investigating cinematic questions by layering multiple audio commentaries over the film itself.  It does not bring us out of the film, but circles around it, moving in closer—an ever-deepening hermeneutic spiral. In keeping us within the world of the film, it shows us paths through the maze, but never lets us out.

This kind of video-based film criticism expands, rather than demystifies, the quasi-spiritual appeal of The Shining. Just as I sat immobilized in my friend’s basement, reaching some kind of slack-jawed teenage horror-movie enlightenment as the frame filled with blood, it is a film we get lost in. We are not sure how to move through it. As one writer puts it, “the maze concept requires that an audience be tested and challenged, even to the point of confusion if it fails to shine and remember not only how it got into the film…but how it got lost.”

For this reason, Ascher in Room 237 also profiles those who have tried to navigate the film in different temporal dimensions using video editing technology. In one particularly compelling interpretation by artists John Fell Ryan and Akiva Saunders, the last shot of the film is taken and superimposed over the first shot, and so on over the entire film so that the film becomes a palimpsest moving simultaneously backward and forward in time (The Shining Backwards and Forwards, 2011). Scenes float atop one another, creating another visual layer of filmic ghosts to foreshadow future events and suggest narrative/psychological parallels. The film ends/begins with both the winding road leading to the Overlook Hotel and the past/future apparition of Jack Torrance’s face in the historical photograph.

Since Room 237 came out, filmmaker Jon Dieringer has gone one step further and created The Shining Backwards and Forwards and Inwards and Outwards in High Definition Anaglyph 3D (Chaos Mix), which pushes this Douglas Gordon-esque video practice to its perceptual extreme. Here the maze begins to expand beyond the frame and further into our consciousness. [A similar recombinant aesthetic guides the viral Red Drum Getaway mashup which through compositing creates a kind of Hitchcock-Kubrick metafilm. Jimmy Stewart from Hitchcock’s Vertigo follows Danny’s tricycle around winding corners into scenes from 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. ]

Remixing The Shining into a new, even more complex form–where it plays backwards, forwards, and in multiple dimensions at the same time – reminds us of its uncanny power, the way it lingers in our eyes and brains. Rather than straightforward viewing, the film calls for a way of watching film that goes beyond the visible. If the filmmaker is a mystic, Kubrick here reveals himself as a kind of kabbalistic poet, drawing us deeper into the hermeneutical mysteries of the filmic “text.”

The Shining is a film that we can no longer watch without preconceived notions–countless “paratexts” influence our reception of it–and as Ascher’s Room 237 points out, it is endless in the meanings it yields. Perhaps the best way to appreciate its enduring power is to think of the “marks” it has left on us. St. Teresa of Avila was pierced by a burning celestial arrow. The extremities of humble St. Francis of Assisi were imprinted with the bleeding wounds of Christ as he prayed atop Mount La Verna. Kubrick’s mystical vision, which we all now share, was of blood pouring out of an elevator and an inescapable maze. Perhaps the language of mysticism, with all its talk of illumination and flowing blood from innumerable “cuts,” gives us a richer way of talking about this intertextual maze of cinematic meanings. In our film viewing, we open up to this strange and bloody imprint of the otherworldly, the spiritual, even in the ghostly margins of a thirty-year-old horror film. 

We sit still, perhaps in the dark of a suburban basement, and are initiated for a few fleeting moments into a strange and indescribable reality beyond our own. It is thus on the silver screen where, to crib from William James, “unpicturable beings are realized…with an intensity almost like that of a hallucination.” But what if it turns out we are not hallucinating at all? What if The Shining is a cultural dream we can’t wake up from? What if, in other words, we’re still in the maze, trying to find our way out?

Kierkegaard in L.A.: Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

“Initially,” Vladimir Nabokov writes in his autobiography Speak, Memory, “I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.” Human consciousness seeks the infinite in the finite. It inevitably falls short. It always misses the mark. It is always unfulfilled. And even if fulfillment is found, death quickly slams the door shut. The unhappy consciousness clings like a shadow to every fleeting pleasure. After dizzying Dionysian dithyrambs in Vanity Fair, we throw ourselves into various penumbral stoicisms or melancholy gnosticisms, world-weary with promising pleasures that tease to taste but never satiate. The carnival cannot sustain itself. What we desire and how we desire determine the contour—the meaning—of our world. We move throughout various worlds at differing stages of life, searching each world for something we seem to have lost. We know only enough to know we are lost. To know that we are lost, however, is the beginning of a quest. Not to know is to be in despair.

At the top of the American poster for Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups are two words: A Quest.

A quest for what?

Before considering what this quest might be, I should confess that I am a rather reluctant reviewer of Terrence Malick films. I feel guilty of Wordsworth’s lines from The Tables Turned: “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect.” Spotting allusions can become tiresome, often occluding the visceral experience involved in watching Malick’s films; yet we always interpret the world through a particular grammar of experience, a grammar that is formed by what we attend to in our lives. I cannot easily be rid of the structure of consciousness that experience has shaped for me. For both imponderable and ponderable reasons, I find that Malick’s images strike a deep chord with my experience of the world.

Malick’s films are difficult in form, requiring a disciplined attention-span almost unheard of in today’s film industry. (Gone are the days of Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ingmar Bergman.) Malick’s films hurt my head, like great literature he demands every synaptic firing my poor mind can muster. Much of these features are attributable to what Christopher Nolan has said about Malick’s cinematic language:

“When you think of a visual style, or the visual language of a film, there tends to be a natural separation between the visual style and the narrative elements—but with the greats, whether it be Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick or Hitchcock, what you are seeing is an inseparable, vital relationship between the image and the story it is telling.

“One great part of human existence,” James Joyce wrote, “is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Malick’s films are trying to catch glimpse of this “great part of human existence”. The task is surely bound to leave many viewers icily unmoved. Nevertheless, Malick’s moving-images have always been tediously and consciously chosen and meditated upon, they are far from arbitrary. Yet part of the reason for Malick’s recent ill reception is quite simply because he is making movies that assume an affinity with the traditional arts and philosophy, particularly those with deeply Christian elements. In a decidedly post-Christian world, Malick’s meaning-rich images will simply flitter by, unperceived and, possibly, unwanted. Critics are understandably at a cultural loss here; akin to an American child hearing Swahili for the first time, they simply mistake immediate incomprehension with empty gibberish. For example, before writing off the last scene of The Tree of Life as a Prozac commercial for heaven, perhaps critics ought to have read Dante’s Commedia, particularly canto thirty of Paradiso, and understood that Malick is doing something strikingly similar, conjuring up images directly from its pages. Malick’s films are chockfull of allusions, it’s as if James Joyce, Dante, and Kierkegaard sat down and decided to make a film together. The result is an inexhaustible treasure that rewards multiple viewings year after year.

The Knight of Cups (from here on Knight), along with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, form a type of Kierkegaardian trilogy. Like Ingmar Bergman’s great trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and Silence), they have a deep thematic undercurrent uniting them. They are all quests for, or movements toward, divine grace in the midst of a not so graceful world of suffering and evil and disappointment and despair.

Knight is a pilgrimage, and Malick wastes no time telling us this. The film opens with Rick in a wilderness. The voiceover is verbatim from the opening of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “The Pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come: Delivered under the similitude of a Dream wherein is discovered, the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey; and safe arrival at the desired country.”

Rick is a pilgrim caught in a dream, a stranger in the world, half in love and half miserable with his experiences of sensual dreamscapes. He is Don Juan in Hell. After the Pilgrim’s Progress opening, Malick frames Rick within the story of the old Eastern Christian Hymn of the Pearl (also known as The Hymn of the Soul) about a prince lost in a foreign land who has forgotten that he is the son of a king, forgotten the Pearl, his soul. Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus is fittingly playing. Rick is a prodigal son, flopping around half-consciously with half-naked models pouring champagne on his head. He’s enthralled with pleasure, like us all, yet he wears this look of numbed stupor on his face. He looks completely lost. It just all feels so good and false at the same time.

There are so many scenes in Knight that conjure up motifs from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that I find it difficult to imagine Malick hasn’t used the text for inspiration. Rick shares multiple qualities with Kierkegaard’s complex portrayal of the aesthete, who is something of a flaneur. Similar to the Seducer from the Seducer’s Diary (part of Either/Or), Rick is bewitched with the momentarily “interesting”. He is fearful of commitment and familiarity, abhorring anything that induces boredom. To flee ennui he must work himself into a frenzy of sensual experience, an experience which becomes difficult—indeed impossible—to sustain. Hence Malick has plenty of scenes mirroring what Kierkegaard’s young aesthete calls actiones in distans (actions at a distance), or proxies to keep “interesting” experience from dying. The more Kierkegaard’s Seducer pursues Cordelia, his desired lover, the more he is caught up in the gaze of other women and couples, using the freedom that unfamiliarity and novelty supplies the imagination with to fuel the fantasy of Cordelia, whom he loses interest in the more she becomes familiar. The Seducer doesn’t want love, he wants to experience the mood of falling in love. At one point, Kierkegaard’s Seducer reads Plato’s Phaedrus to inspire erotic feeling, he must conjure up exciting fantasies to project onto his fading interest in Cordelia. He is not unlike those who use role-play in bed to guard against boredom.

In order to keep up the excitement of fantasies and dreams, Rick, like Kierkegaard’s Seducer, must “play shuttlecock with the whole of existence”. He must keep a constant rotation of new experiences, women, to keep the horror of boredom at bay. These ideas are expressed in the essay “Rotation of Crops” in Either/Or, whose embodiment in Knight is Tonio (Antonio Banderas), who arrogantly says: “They [women] are like flavors, sometimes you want raspberry, then after a while you get tired of it, you want some strawberry.”

Rick is caught in a purely aesthetic existence, slumbering in fragments of fantasy while whispers of a world of actuality beckon from (mostly) feminine figures. Like Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress (is it an irony that Malick chooses Christian Bale?) and Dante, he needs to awake from his slumber and set forth on an odyssey of the soul. But he cannot do it alone, he needs guides to help shake off the allure of unreality.

Rick’s first lover, Della, is a young, worldly-wise/punk-rockish beauty. She’s as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. She can read Rick’s soul: he’s a weak charioteer with broken wings, unable to steer his two steeds—his two wills—and he gives way to the steed of wanton pleasure. Like Dante’s damning of Ulysses for being obsessed with experience rather than the journey’s goal, Della tells Rick: “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.” In my favorite line of Della’s, she exhorts: “Love, and do what you want. A saint said that.” The saint of course is Augustine, and like the African bishop in book seven of the Confessions, Rick begins his pilgrimage within a region of unlikeness (regio dissimilitudinis), where everything is confused and superficial. To put an image on this, Malick has a bizarre scene of a topless girl in a gyre of stilted movements wherein it becomes difficult to tell the difference between her front and back sides. She wears a mask of herself, a false self. This scene is immediately followed by a mountainous landscape with the light at its summit, exactly like the beginning of Dante’s Purgatorio. An arduous climb toward transcendence is implied.

Rick (Christian Bale)

Rick (Christian Bale)

At one point, Rick and Della visit the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Rick is watching the fish swim upward toward the light while Charles Laughton’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus seamlessly weaves the images together, a dialogue on the nature of love and the soul, and the role of recollection and beauty for the growth of the soul’s wings:

“Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven as only creatures can. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth, there it took an earthly body, and now while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there and the nature of these is to try to raise the earthbound soul into heaven. When you see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven and the wings begin to sprout and makes the soul want to fly but it cannot yet, the man is still too weak, so the man keeps staring at the sky like a young bird. He has lost all interest in the world around him.

The beginning of the soul’s growth begins in recollection, memory’s flight away from this world toward the eternal verities of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. In the great Christian odysseys of the soul—Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Commedia come to mind—there is a deep respect for, and synthesis of, ancient Greek philosophy. However, what Augustine said he did not find in Plato was the Word made Flesh. While a flight from this temporal world was a necessary movement for faith, it was not, according to Augustine, a sufficient movement. As Augustine writes: “Think of the burden of Christ as being like the burden of wings for birds. As long as a bird is burdened by wings, it can fly. Without wings it is trapped on earth. The wings carrying us to Christ are the commandments to love God above all and our neighbor as ourself. To the extent that you use these wings, you will lift up your heart.” In order to grow wings we must love (“wings of charity”, Augustine calls them), which requires a flight toward the Infinite in order to see and love God’s image in the finite, one’s neighbor.

The heart of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre is a reshaping of these Platonic and Augustinian themes into a unique, complex literary form. Not surprisingly, given that Malick is a Kierkegaard scholar who has used portions of Kierkegaard’s work verbatim in his last two films, there is a deep Kierkegaardian undercurrent guiding the structure of Knight as well. I think it is fair to say that Knight is a quest for faith in a distinctly Kierkegaardian key.

It is a subtle key, for sure. But a plethora of hints can be found. In a wonderful scene of Rick roaming restlessly through a palatial party, we hear hidden amidst a polyphony of voices: “I’ve always enjoyed the company of women …”—the camera then catches glimpse of “faith” tattooed on the back of a woman—the voice continues: “they are closer to the mystery”. The camera, purposely, does a double take of the woman and her tattoo, as if evoking Kierkegaard’s metaphysical movement of repetition, the essence of which is the movement of faith. Similarly, it was Kierkegaard’s belief that woman was closer to God, and therefore man must follow her in order to learn the movements of faith, for it is the woman who knows how to live both in sensuousness and spirit, in the ideal and the real; which, again, is the definition of repetition. To make the movement of repetition is synonymous with the movement of faith. (We get more from the Danish word for repetitiongjentagelsen—literally meaning “to take again”: a double take. Hence the “double takes” of scenes in To the Wonder and now in Knight.) 

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There is simply too much going on in Knight to delve into with any great depth. I merely want to point out a few more scenes that fortify the Kierkegaardian movements latent in the film, particularly Kierkegaard’s two knights from Fear and Trembling—the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith—and how they correspond to two metaphysical movements: recollection and repetition. The aquarium scene with Laughton’s reading of Plato can be interpreted as the beginning of Rick’s platonic movement of recollection, his desire to become a knight of infinite resignation. The rest of the film is a struggle to make the movements of repetition, to become a knight of faith: to return to the world of actuality. 

According to Kierkegaard, recollection and faith share the same movement, albeit they move in different directions. Faith and recollection are different directions of intentionality, different ways of being-in-the-world. Recollection and repetition share a family resemblance, but they are not identical. Kierkegaard’s metaphor for showing their difference is that between a person suspended in a harness making the movements of someone swimming and someone actually in the water gracefully swimming. The water is the world, swimming is being at home in the world. We first make the movement of recollection because we feel ourselves to be in the world but drowning, so we take up wings and take flight from the world.

The movement of repetition, of faith, begins when the movement of recollection—the platonic movement away from the world toward the eternal (the flight from Plato’s cave)—returns to the world under a new light, the light of the eternal. It’s what Wittgenstein, an ardent admirer of Kierkegaard, described when he said that “what is incomprehensible is that nothing, and yet everything, has changed”. The old world has not so much been lost as it has become transfigured. In recollection we lose the world. In repetition we gain it back. Faith overcomes the world in order to inherit it. Those who wear the jewel of faith, Kierkegaard writes, are able to leap from infinity into finitude without any faltering hesitation; like a ballet dancer’s leap, their existence becomes so fluid as to be completely absent of all resistance, of all anxiety. The knight of faith, through the movement of repetition, is capable of being perfectly at home in the world, able to traverse the infinite and finite in a single leap without the yawning gap that causes alienation and anxiety between self and world.

This is what Kierkegaard meant by the “leap of faith”. Faith, far from being an infantile, fideistic adherence to things we know are not true, is instead the power to live, move, and have our being completely in the moment, absent the anxiety caused by being locked within time’s prison, wherein every passing moment is also forever lost. While recollection remembers backwards what has been lost, reminding us of our eternal consciousness, repetition is the movement of restoration and recapitulation: the return of what has been lost not just to memory, but to actuality, to reality. Faith, and therefore repetition, is the movement of resurrection, it is the peace that comes when one can accept finitude, and the suffering that comes with it, under the promise that all things shall be made new.

This trifold movement—the experience of drowning in the world, the call to take flight from it, and the return to the world—is the Kierkegaardian structure of Knight of Cups. The aquarium scene has Rick gazing at the fish swimming effortlessly toward the light, then Della is seen swimming toward light and a ladder (steps and ladders, another very Kierkegaardian trope, are everywhere in Malick’s films). Rick stares upward at the giant (fake) whales suspended from the ceiling in the posture of swimming, alien to their natural habitat. Water is everywhere in Knight, and for good reason. People are swimming effortlessly, or struggling with the water (a dog struggles to clinch the object of desire in a pool), or just wading. Rick jumps from a pier into the sea, wades underwater, desperate to bridge the gap between illusion and reality, self and world.

The most blatant Kierkegaardian image is found in a Las Vegas nightclub. A woman is suspended from the ceiling in a harness, making the motions of a swimmer. Rick, like Johannes de Silentio, looks up, stupefied, wanting to at least make the movement of recollection, of infinity. Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling:

“For the movement of faith must be made continually on the strength of the absurd, though in such a way, be it noted, that one does not lose finitude but gains it all of a piece. I, for my part, can indeed describe the movements of faith, but I cannot perform them. When learning how to make swimming movements, one can hang in a belt from the ceiling; one may be said to describe the movements all right but one isn’t swimming; likewise I can describe the movements of faith but when I’m thrown into the water, although I may be said to be swimming (for I’m not among the waders), I make other movements, I make the movements of infinity, while faith does the opposite, having performed the movements of infinity it makes those of finitude. Lucky, the one who can make those movements, he performs a marvel, and I shall never tire of admiring him.

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We notice at the end of the film that a change has occurred within Rick’s consciousness, but there is nothing really dramatic about it, it’s so subtle that we have difficulty detecting how Rick is any different than he was at the beginning of the film. He makes no grand pronouncements of faith. Yet he’s beginning to live again in the moment, not in the moment of pure transience devoid of eternal consciousness, but the moment whose transience is the moving image of eternity. Rick, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, is returning to the world:

“He [the knight of faith] delights in everything he sees, in the thronging humanity, the new omnibuses, the Sound—to run across him on Strandeveien you would think he was a shopkeeper having his fling, such is his way of taking pleasure…He takes his ease at an open window and looks down on the square where he lives, at everything that goes on—a rat slipping under a board over a gutter, the children at play—with a composure befitting a sixteen-year old girl…carefree as a devil-may-care good for nothing, he hasn’t a worry in the world, and yet he purchases every moment that he lives, redeeming the seasonable time at the dearest price; not the least thing does he do except on the strength of the absurd…He resigned everything infinitely, and then took everything back on the strength of the absurd…the whole earthly form he presents is a new creation.

The last chapter of the film is called “freedom”. It is the chapter of Isabel (played by Isabel Lucas), who seems to be a figure of faith. Rick is doing mundane things, playing tennis, looking out the window. He belongs altogether to the world. Isabel is seen naked in a pool, swimming gracefully, at home in the world. Are these the movements of the knight of faith? Is her nakedness the repetition of the truly aesthetic seen from the new perspective of faith, like the ancient Christians who stripped naked in the sacrament of baptism? Is there a faint allusion to paradise regained, Eve naked and unashamed, Adam following her movements? 

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This is Malick’s quest: to get us to fall in love with repetition. For, as Kierkegaard wrote, “[t]he love of repetition is in truth the only happy love,” because what else is it “that connects the temporal and the eternal? What else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone.” By some extraordinary gift of genius, mixed with the experience of human and divine love and suffering, Malick has mastered the art of the image, the image that is moved by the same love that moves the sun and the stars.

     

Breakthrough Cinema via iPhone

As 2015 wrapped up, along came the lists of “Best Movies” and “Must-see TV.” There is so much at our disposal as viewers today, and it can be easy to miss the artistic gems in the media and entertainment bombardment. Recently, I cruised Netflix to try and catch up and stumbled upon an independent film I had heard some recent buzz about on public radio.

Directed by Sean Baker and starring newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra), the film is Tangerine (2015). It follows a young transgender prostitute in Hollywood who has recently come back to the block after a stint in jail. The setting is Christmas Eve: Sin-Dee and her best friend Alex are on a quest to hunt down a woman her boyfriend/pimp slept with while she was in prison and force him to confess the wrongdoing.

With a premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine has found some fame, and brought its unlikely subjects with it. Internationally reviewed as one of the best films of 2015, many were disappointed when it recently was snubbed at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Tangerine is a low-budget film, but the low-budget look is also part of the film’s experimental appeal: it was entirely shot on an iPhone 5s. Special lenses and editing software were used (FiLMiC Pro video app), but the clarity, beauty, and consistency of the frames would not immediately suggest, even to a trained eye, that what we are seeing is the product of a smartphone. Many indie filmmakers have used iPhones to create films, but Tangerine is being touted as the first iPhone-only film to receive this sort of critical success.

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The characters in this film present an original take on trans life through a portrayal of normalcy and self-accepted female contextualization of their subjects. Sin-Dee and Alex are compelling and beautiful and raunchy; they love each other, and they give and take the way any two best girlfriends might. The story is filled with hilarious plot turns that make the viewer wonder what was scripted and what was ad-libbed. They cruise up and down the Hollywood streets, meeting up with other trans women, perhaps also prostitutes, all adding to what must have been an enormous, seemingly bystander, cast.

Eventually, Sin-Dee finds the culprit, a thin blonde woman named Dinah (played by Mickey O’Hagan), and is about to rush to accuse her beloved of his crime, when she realizes she has almost missed Alexandra’s performance at a bar downtown. She pulls Dinah to the bar, and forces her to sit at a table with her so they can support Alex on stage. No one else has come to the event. Afterwards, she’s notably disappointed, and Sin-Dee tries to cheer her up:

“You did good, girl,” says Sin-Dee.

“Tell her she did good,” Sin-Dee says to Dinah.

“Honestly, it sounded a little old…what I’m coming from is that I know a lot of people in the music industry… I myself sing…The cool thing is you played in a club, you had people paying you…,” Dinah chimes.

“Shhh…she didn’t get paid, girl…She paid to sing, girl,” says Sin-Dee, trying to quiet her captive.

“I can hear you,” says Alex, flipping her hair indignantly.

In a world only beginning to make roads into acceptance of trans actors and their stories, Tangerine’s approach to its own story assumes that those roads have long been paved. Sin-dee’s drama—part Austenian comedy, part explicit sex worker documentary—is hinged on the typically regarded “female” desires of its main characters. The accessibility of the characters’ feelings, relatability of their desires, and identifiable experiences provides surprising and sympathetic payoffs. Something that other films about the same subjects have missed, perhaps through using non-trans people to play their parts, is the essential humanness that Tangerine seems to effortlessly assign to its characters through the story of Sin-Dee and her day-long hunt on Christmas for the girl who stole her man. Despite the darkness of some of the moments, the cheer and momentum of the film allow the viewer to relate to situations and people to whom they may never before have been exposed.

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Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Mya Taylor (Alexandra) has said, “Straight from the jump I said this has to be real. Totally honest. No fabrication. And very funny.” Her realness and clear co-direction of the film provide greater insight to viewers unfamiliar with current trans issues. 

With shows like Transparent and films like The Danish Girl coming into public view, and trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox making the news this year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a film like Tangerine accomplishes what it does. Perhaps a door has finally opened for such stories to be told without explanation or self-pity for the trans community. The clear boldness of this unapologetic trans perspective is balanced and reflected in the use of the iPhone cinematography, which adds both the grit of the street-walking characters and the trueness of the verite composition of the film.

Tangerine defies the typical and problematic ways the trans community has been portrayed. Its story isn’t about the destruction of a trans person or their “alt” lifestyle; Tangerine, at its base, is a comedy about a relatable friendship between two people who also happen to be transvestite sex workers. And the grittiness of the film doesn’t make it assume a quality of B-movie proportions; rather, the grittiness makes every scene feel as real as the characters.  Knowing that it was an iPhone all along—a device many of us have on us now—is part of what makes this film so familiar, and yet spectacular, in its achievements.

Where To Invade Next

“The American Dream was alive everywhere except America.”

— Michael Moore in Where To Invade Next

Documentary filmmaker and activist, Michael Moore could make a movie about nearly anything at this point. His Academy Award winning films are among the top ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time, delving deep into sizable topics like, poverty, capitalist corruption, failing healthcare, assault weapons, and war. After 25 years of successful filmmaking, Moore himself is a wealthy man, worth millions of dollars and named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He has a platform and a microphone; he could make a film about anything and people would likely flock to see it. However, his latest film is a departure, it doesn’t reveal any conspiracies or out evil behind-the-scenes capitalists. Instead, Moore takes a much more positive approach, he’s not simply presenting a problem, he’s attempting to cultivate a desire from American viewers, the desire for a better quality for life.

Where to Invade Next is one of Moore’s more entertaining films. He begins with the darkly playful premise that after having forcefully taken resources from other nations, the time has come for the United States to aggressively plunder ideas. And who better to lead the crusade than Michael Moore himself?

Moore travels to nine countries to witness their best policies and then bring them back for America’s benefit. He begins with the concept of leisure in Italy, where citizens get 30 days of paid vacation per year, plus an additional monthly salary each year specifically to fund holiday travel and relaxation. Moore presents a cheerful and productive workforce and, in interviews with company owners, discusses the societal priority of cultivating the health and wellbeing of the entire community. This is a culture invested in the protection of everyone’s leisure time, from the two-hour lunch break, to the five months of mandatory maternity leave. At this point, I’m hooked. 

Not unlike listening to a friend go on and on about the extravagant gifts her husband lavished upon her for Valentine’s Day, while your own spouse bought you half-price drugstore milk chocolates, I tried to smile, and take the high road. It’s nice to know someone else has it so good. Right? As an American, jealously was easy for the remainder of the film, and other uncomfortable feelings come from many angles. When the quality of life on screen is so appealing, there’s envy for the free college education and the healthy school lunches, but there’s also shame, knowing that there is such extreme poverty, corruption and racism in America. 

Moore tries to keep it light, and he’s been criticized for this approach. Tackling so many social issues means he can only provide a cursory glance into each topic. In a review at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri says “he doesn’t give us (or himself, frankly) the chance to dig deeper into the story — to engage with the concepts he’s discussing.” And while this criticism is true, I see this as a prudent directorial choice. This film isn’t going to provide a comprehensive study on any one social issue, instead, it’s purpose is to open a window for American audiences to see how other countries have taken the idea of the American dream, and run with it. 

There are moments of weakness where Moore’s heavy-handed style gets away from him, and leaves me with my eyes rolling at the simplistic solutions he offers. In the Icelandic section he focuses on the topic of women in leadership. He interviews Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first democratically elected woman president in the world, who’s personal story of single motherhood and political achievements is inspiring. Moore then gathers a handful of the country’s top female executives to discuss the secrets of their success, they share tremendous insights about the importance of cultivating a leadership that reflects gender equality. But Moore goes on, through a sappy montage, to postulate that if there were more female leaders there would be less war and a new global way of thinking that prioritizes children, health, and communal wellbeing. History has shown us otherwise with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, and Moore does a disservice to the articulate Icelandic women he interviews and their emphasis on cultivating a society where equality and moral obligation for our neighbors is more important than the pursuit of individual prosperity. It’s not just about being female; it’s about being a better human being.

Frustrations with Moore’s simplified solutions aside, Where to Invade Next presents a needed opportunity for Americans to question our own culture and our power to change it. The film doesn’t live up to Moore’s thesis—we don’t walk away with ways to adopt the best social policies of his “conquered” countries—but the film does succeed in cultivating a taste for more than we’ve been putting up with in the United States. Where to Invade Next has the potential to be Moore’s most people pleasing film yet, regardless of a viewer’s politics, religious beliefs, or cultural biases, we can all agree that it’s time to discuss improvements to our daily lives, and public school lunches are as good a place to start as any.

Old Dark House Movies

Although detective stories frequently revolve around a missing person (a crime that allows a little bit of chaos to pervade our brains with destabilizing questions) and murders, most end with tidy conclusions that attempt to restore some semblance of justice or order. A glaring exception to this rule is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella The Pledge (Das Versprechen), an anti-detective novel that calls itself a “requiem” for the genre. In the novella, a retired police chief devotes his private life to solving a murder after making a pledge to the dead girl’s parents. Ultimately, after the detective fails to convince others about the legitimacy of his favorite suspect, the readers (but not the detective) learn that the suspect was in fact the killer, but his death during a random car accident prevented the police from finding any meaningful evidence of his guilt. Read a certain way, The Pledge, which muses on the corrosive nature of humanity’s unwillingness to live with mystery, is both a horror story and an ultra-black comedy.

Still, over 50 years later, mystery fiction remains the province of rationalism. Fictional detectives are there to demystify seemingly occult problems. Our favorite detectives, like the groovy teenagers of the Scooby-Doo franchise, are there to pull the mask off the monster. This is why the mystery genre is so often added to horror stories. Audiences can only take so much grotesque anarchy before they start calling for a resolution, a salvific police officer or a private investigator.

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During the 1920s and 30s, a slew of stage plays appeared in New York and beyond that commingled not only horror and mystery, but also comedy. Known collectively as “old dark house,” these plays, in the words of  film lecturer Gary Rhodes (author, Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row), “typically involved the gathering of a family, or a group of strangers, at a creaking and neglected property.” The reading of a will, often one penned by a rich, old eccentric, is the reason for the assemblage, and not long after the concluding paragraph a murder occurs. For the remainder of the play, the cast bumbles their way through the secrets of the dead man’s fading mansion, which always full of secret passages, trapdoors, and revolving bookshelves until the murderer (who was sometimes a gorilla) is caught. This is the old dark house genre in miniature. At their peak, old dark house plays had popular runs on and off Broadwaywhile the very best either wound up with Hollywood adaptations or helped to inspire original productions such as D.W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1922) and Midnight Faces (1926). Others, like Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla, which specifically labeled itself as a “Mystery Comedy,” proved so enduring that multiple adaptations flooded the 1930s and ‘40s.

The big three of the old dark house plays are The Cat and the Canary, The Monster, and The Bat, and each were made into successful films. Each play is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women are frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engage in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominates as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals have such sane motivations. This is the case in Crane Wilbur’s The Monster, a light-hearted and very American take on the French tradition of Grand Guignol, a once well-known theatre in the Pigalle section of Paris that trafficked in gory and grotesque stage plays.

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The Monster became a moderate success with Wilton Mackaye performing the role of the insane Dr. Gustave Ziska. According to Marvin Lachman in The Villainous Stage: Crime Plays on Broadway and in the West End, The Monster ran for a total of 112 performances overall and earned plenty of attention from Hollywood producers. Central to The Monster’s success is the lead protagonist Johnny Goodlittle—a small town yokel who dreams of becoming a private eye. Like a lot of The Monster’s audience, Goodlittle spends his working hours wrapped up in fantasies about being Sherlock Holmes, or at the very least being like the rough, hardy, and capable men who filled advertisements in the pages of 1920s pulp magazines. Goodlittle’s chance at greatness comes when a disappearance strikes his hometown of Danburg. The case leads him and others (including a love interest) to an abandoned sanitarium, where Dr. Ziska holds court as the chief torture doctor interested in operating on the human soul.

If The Monster had been made in France instead of America, the play would have been colored an entirely different shade. Whereas Dr. Ziska and his henchmen, all of whom were once patients inside of the sanitarium, help to foster comic relief in Wilbur’s play, their counterparts in the Grand Guignol tradition would’ve removed Goodlittle’s eyes before further eviscerating him. In fact, André de Lorde, the chief scribe for Grand Guignol, wrote a bloody number entitled “Crime in a Madhouse” about the ultraviolent lives of psychotics inside of a French asylum. Miraculously, despite Ziska’s obsession with esoteric surgery and his clear state of mental deterioration, Goodlittle and company make it out of their ordeal a-ok, thus highlighting that although old dark house plays contained lots of murder, they were rarely dour or even scandalous.

Like The Monster, The Cat and the Canary, which was penned by John Willard, did a hot run on Broadway before becoming an even more successful film. Paul Leni’s movie version is a must-see, and is frequently regarded as one of the greatest old dark house films ever made (the greatest of course is James Whale’s ribald send-up, The Old Dark House). The original play is no less fun, with a secluded Westchester mansion being the gathering point for an entertaining selection of cousins. First and foremost among them is Annabelle West, an innocent flapper and one of the few relatives not guilty of watching the dead patriarch’s wealth like a cat watching a trapped canary. Because she bears the West name, Annabelle is named the sole heir of Cyril West’s vast fortune. Because of this, her night inside of Glencliff Mansion is fraught with havoc, from the murder of solicitor Roger Crosby to the romantic rivalry between cousins Harry Blythe (a role that was played by Willard himself on Broadway) and Charlie Wilder, both of whom seek Annabelle’s hand in marriage. While trapped in the supposedly haunted house, the extended members of the West family also learn that an escaped lunatic is on the loose, which of course means that he’s somewhere in the house already. Can Annabelle live through the night without losing her mind and thereby forfeiting her right to Cyril West’s fortune? That is the question.

The Johnny Goodlittle role in The Cat and the Canary is named Paul Jones, a self-declared horse doctor who introduces himself by saying: “I have felt better—but on the other hand, I have felt worse.” Such simpleton simpering is reminiscent of the characters portrayed by Don Knotts, especially the scaredy cat journalist Luther Heggs in the very old dark house film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Although the Jones character borders on the ridiculous, The Cat and the Canary ultimately ends as a clever mystery story with a somewhat plausible reveal. Whereas The Monster feels like the forced transformation of a grotesque splatter punk drama into family-friendly fare, The Cat and the Canary is a uniquely comedic Gothic mystery play that clearly inspired one of American literature’s most enduring tropes.

Finally, when speaking of old dark house plays, one cannot overlook the most important of them all: The Bat. Co-written by mystery fiction legend Mary Roberts Rinehart (author of The Circular Staircase and originator of the phrase “The butler did it”), The Bat is a potboiler set in and around the wealthy summer mansions of upstate New York. This time around, however, the villain is a costumed super-criminal named The Bat. Part Fantômas (the pre-World War I French pulp villain favored by the Surrealists) and part Professor Moriarty, The Bat is a master cat burglar and murderer who terrorizes not only New York City, but also the isolated summer home of heiress Cordelia Van Gorder. As it customary in old dark house yarns, The Bat worms his way into Van Gorder’s rented mansion just in time to witness other greed-based machinations take place.

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Although a better-than-average piece by Rinehart standards, The Bat has enjoyed a certain level of cultural currency not only because of numerous film adaptations, but also because the character of The Bat (especially the version portrayed in 1930’s The Bat Whispers) directly influenced Batman, the caped crusader of Gotham City. Bob Kane, the co-creator of the Dark Knight, stated in his 1989 autobiography that Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s masked criminal did indeed provide the blueprint for Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.

As an American art form, old dark house helped to establish not only a narrative trope that remains strong in the horror movie industry, but it also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy and mirthful anarchy in otherwise tension-filled productions. And, by continuing large portions of the gothic tradition, the old dark house plays of the 1920s and 30s helped to produce a transatlantic approach to suspense that embraced detective fiction’s rationalism rather than running away from it. The old dark house genre reminds us that disparate elements are sometimes closer than first glances would lead us to believe. Like a lonely old house during a summertime storm, we often fail to recognize every hidden recess. Inside there is a little bit of comedy, a little bit of horror, and a lot of mystery the main ingredients of old dark house, to be sure, but also the major components of any modern story.

When the Bough Breaks

Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers.

The most immediately impressive aspect of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s chilling feature Goodnight Mommy is how quickly the film conjures a buzzing atmosphere of wrongness from mundane raw materials. This is evident even before the title card appears. The film opens with a clip from the 1956 West German feature The Trapp Family, in which the eponymous clan sings Johannes Brahms’ lullaby “Good Evening, Good Night.” Standing alone, such wholesome treacle would be innocuous enough, but juxtaposed against what follows, it becomes a point of skin-crawling dissonance.

The film follows young twins Lukas and Elias as they wander through the sun-kissed Austrian countryside, engaged in the sort of aimless tomfoolery that preoccupies middle schoolers. As cicadas trill, the boys chase each other through rows of ripening corn, bounce on the spongy surface of a bog, and creep tentatively into the echoing darkness of a culvert. In another film, such scenes of youthful summer mischief would convey warmth and perhaps a hint of nostalgia. However, writer-directors Fiala and Franz have more sinister concerns in mind, as evidenced by an extended slow zoom into the chthonian blackness of the aforementioned tunnel, and in particular by Olga Neuwith’s sparse, quiet, and profoundly unsettling score. Something dire looms over these scenes of childhood idleness.

Much of Goodnight Mommy unfolds within and around the twins’ home, a well-to-do modernist house of prim Continental tastefulness. Its rooms and corridors are comprised of white, angular spaces that are bounded by wood, stone, metal, and glass surfaces. The building’s spotless but still cozy contemporary furniture and understated objets d’art signify the antithesis of the musty, crumbling estate featured in so many horror tales. (Indeed, Goodnight Mommy’s house is a veritable inversion of the rotting, opulent manor in Guillermo del Toro’s recent gothic mystery Crimson Peak.) However, what should be a stylish but inviting space spilling with summer light is instead suffused with indefinite ominousness. The structure feels cool and faintly forlorn, like an art gallery closed for a holiday. The floor-to-ceiling windows are fitted with blinds, but these often remain shut, drenching the house’s interior in watery grays. Darkness is the preference of the boys’ Mother, a television personality who has recently returned to the house following facial cosmetic surgery. Indeed, when the twins first glimpse the Mother upon her homecoming, they find her fiddling with the blinds in her bedroom. Her appearance—her face purplish and puffy beneath a mask of white bandages—takes the brothers aback, as does the sharpness of her manner. The boys’ wide, darting eyes reveal a faint unspoken suspicion: Something seems off about Mom.

 

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In the ensuing days of the Mother’s convalescence, awkward interactions and odd behaviors accumulate like black insects on sticky flypaper. It is not always apparent whether or not such a dynamic preceded the Mother’s departure for surgery, which only accentuates the film’s gnawing sense of uncanniness. Some moments hint at latent tensions that have long been gestating, such as the way the Mother seems to treat Lukas with punitive, markedly un-parental hostility. “You only made supper for me,” Elias observes dejectedly. “You know why,” is her icy reply.

As in Yorgos Lanthimos’ demented masterpiece Dogtooth, the viewer must piece together this household’s strange dynamic from fragments. The boys are forbidden to lock the door to their room. Oral hygiene is a priority: The twins must brush and floss each night for the duration of a ticking kitchen timer, although they inexplicably share the same toothbrush. Post-surgery regulations are laid down with a dictatorial authority that the boys find curious. (Stay absolutely quiet when playing. Don’t disturb Mother without knocking. Keep visitors away. Don’t bring animals into the house.) “She’s so different,” Lukas whispers in the darkness after lights out, “She’s not like our mom.” For comparison purposes, the boys play a recording that their Mother had sent them while hospitalized, a message in which she professes her love and sings them a lullaby. The voice’s owner seems to bear little resemblance to the frosty, snappish woman who now occupies their Mother’s bedroom.

The twins’ fears appear not entirely unfounded. At times the Mother’s actions seem more akin to that of a duplicitous interloper than a parent. Yet, in its early sequences, Goodnight Mommy often unnerves for reasons that have little to do with its characters. Fiala and Franz spatter the film with odd little details that create subtle inter-textual reverberations. Wispy allusions to biblical calamity abound, thickening the pall of hovering misfortune: The boys mock-fight with hailstones during a summer thunderstorm, wander past a burning field of wheat straw, and tend hissing cockroaches in a glass vivarium. Indeed, insects seem to be everywhere. The twins’ bedroom wallpaper depicts lines of marching ants, buzzing flies dominate the sound design, and Elias is observed scorching a bug with a magnifying glass. The Mother’s gauze-swathed countenance suggests a gothic monster of old, such as Erik in The Phantom of the Opera or Griffin in The Invisible Man, beings whose masked hideousness hint at their inner darkness.

Impostor fears are a staple of horror cinema, but there remains something distinctly terrifying about the notion of parental replacement. Yet Elias and Lukas are shaky ground. All they have are hushed doubts that their Mother is not who she seems to be; an aggregation of inconsistencies that may or may not add up to a reasonable suspicion. Regardless, the twins face the acute paradox of knowledge coupled with powerlessness. Confined with the maybe-Mother in a house in the remote countryside, who could the boys to turn to for help? If their Mother has been replaced, who has replaced her? And to what end?

The picture is unclear, but perplexing signs seem to multiply. A surreptitious Internet search reveals that the house has been put up for sale. At some point, she quietly removes most of the framed pictures from the walls, leaving only portraits of Elias and Lukas. When the brothers realize this, they fetch a family photo album, which has been similarly redacted. This could be the understandable act of an embittered divorcée, but the twins remain dubious. One particular snapshot catches their eye: their Mother and a mystery woman who looks remarkably like her, the pair dressed in identical outfits.

In the basement, the boys stumble upon the remains of a cat which they had secretly rescued, contrary to the Mother’s command. They immediately assume that she is to blame. This spurs them to the first genuine act of war against their impostor parent. Emptying their vivarium of cockroaches and filling it with alcohol, they place the container on the living room coffee table with the feline corpse floating inside. Unsurprisingly, this triggers a vicious quarrel with the wrathful Mother. The twins finally reveal their hand, openly accusing her of being a fraud and demanding to see her telltale birthmark. As punishment, she slaps and physically seizes one of the boys, commanding him to repeat, like a penitent incantation, “You’re my mom. You’re my mom. You’re my mom.” The cat incident sharpens the divergence in the Mother’s treatment of the twins. Elias is on the receiving end of her screams and smacks, while Lukas is cruelly neglected and forced to listen in anguish. When Elias sniffles, “She wants to tear us apart,” it is difficult to disagree.

Almost all horror relies to some extent on violations—from the personal to the cosmic—but the upheaval of the family seems to possess a particularly toxic potential for eliciting revulsion. Despite (or because of) its appalling real-world normalcy, violent abuse perpetrated by a parent on a child has always been a fertile ground for cinematic terror. Whether Jack Torrence’s ghost-mediated degeneration into bestial axe murderer in The Shining or Amelia’s materialization of her anti-maternal id as a ravenous bogeyman in The Babadook, the seed of abuse typically takes root in individuals who already possess a predisposition to violence. One of Goodnight Mommy’s novelties is its refusal to provide a point of reference prior to the Mother’s hospitalization. Whether the “old Mother” was abusive is never clear. The viewer is obliged to defer to Elias and Lukas’ possibly unreliable assertion that something fundamental has changed in her personality. If, indeed, she is their Mother at all.

Goodnight Mommy

By the time the boys begin whittling makeshift weapons and taking guard duty shifts, the evolution of the Mother from a caregiver into an enemy within is complete. The twins later feign acceptance of the Mother’s conciliatory gestures, seizing the opportunity to flee into the woods and seek refuge with a village priest—who swiftly delivers them back into her clutches. Distraught by the boys’ aborted escape, she later swallows a sleeping pill before collapsing into her bed. When she awakens, she finds to her confusion that her hands and feet have been bound to the bed frame with gauze. Standing over her are Elias and Lukas, wearing homemade green goblin masks, the exposed vs. concealed contrast between parent and children now reversed. “Tell us where our mother is,” they demand.

It is at this point that Goodnight Mommy makes a disorienting swerve into seat-squirming “captivity horror,” exemplified by such diverse films such as The Collector, In a Glass Cage, and Hard Candy. This change also corresponds to the film’s abrupt inversion of audience sympathies. Rather than sharing Elias and Lukas’ waxing fear of their pretender parent, the viewer now finds themselves suddenly terrified for the Mother’s safety. Notwithstanding the fiendish will required to tie up the Mother in the first place, the particular acts of torture that the brothers inflict on her underline the puerility of their scheme. Perhaps most appallingly, the twins procure a length of wire from the basement and use it to subject her to a twisted version of their bedtime flossing routine, complete with ticking timer.

The twins who were once the viewer’s surrogates become the sort of unholy children that are ubiquitous in the horror genre. As with the malevolent but otherwise ordinary minors in The Bad Seed, Who Can Kill a Child?, Little Sweetheart, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is no supernatural corruption at play. The dreadfulness of the situation emanates from the sheer wrongness of an ordinary child gleefully perpetrating acts of sadism. With the Mother at their mercy, Elias and Lukas are positioned not only to extract the truth, but to enact every petty act of revenge that a resentful child might fantasize about in their sulkiest moments. Such violence doesn’t just offend the traditional family order; it annihilates it with disturbing enthusiasm. Relatively few films have violated the parricidal taboo, and apart from the aforementioned Kevin, most of these entail a paranormal explanation such as toxic chemicals (The Children), demonic temptation (Children of the Corn), or death-born corruption (Pet Sematary).

Throughout the Mother’s imprisonment, it is Elias who evinces flickers of reluctance and Lukas who demands that they show no pity to the impostor. When Elias tacitly accepts the Mother’s explanations for various questions—”Why are your eyes a different color now? Why has your mole disappeared? Who is the doppelgänger woman in the photograph?”—Lukas is livid. “I thought we agreed not to believe her?,” he fumes, sparking a bathroom fist fight that leads to matched bloody noses. When briefly alone with Elias, the Mother swears that all will be forgiven if he simply releases her, promising that he will be rewarded with a hot breakfast and a return to normalcy. Elias wavers, but Lukas reappears and guides him back onto their remorseless path.

What follows in Goodnight Mommy’s final sequences centers on a revelation that radically reconfigures all that has gone before. This narrative twist is like a plunge into freezing water, a reveal that while not entirely unforeseeable, transmutes the film’s terror into one of ineluctable doom. It also highlights Fiala and Franz’ astonishing attention to detail in every preceding shot, not to mention the performers’ impressive ability to straddle the line between authenticity and story-focused restraint. However, Goodnight Mommy’s final revelation also proves largely incidental to its power as a work of horror cinema. The U-turn does little to diminish the uneasy ambiguity that clings stubbornly to the feature even as the closing credits begin to roll. Nagging questions remain, like cockle burrs hitchhiking on woolen socks. Why, if the Mother is indeed the boys’ real mother, does she make no attempt to persuade them with facts that only a parent would know? Why does she seem more focused on her own outrage than establishing her identity, unless she is unable to do so? What exactly has the viewer witnessed by the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy: a malign interloper ferreted out by a pair of canny children, or a mother horribly abused by her own delusional sons?

That Fiala and Franz leave such queries unanswered points to the film’s powerful collateral dread, one that murmurs beneath the frightfulness of parental impostors and the uncanniness of murderous children. It is the awful fear of not knowing for certain whether one has committed an act of cunning survival or supreme evil.

Noteworthy: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None

 

There is a serious danger in praising a television show for its choice of subject matter instead of its acting, composition, or production quality: at that point you are talking about the creators’ intentions rather than their product, and something as evanescent as an intention is beyond the purview of criticism. Or rather, it is underneath it: a fact that becomes more evident when praise for a show that engages racism in the TV and film industry turns into blame that it didn’t engage those issues well enough.

What exactly would be “well enough?” It is impossible to say, not because we can’t picture a version of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None where every scene sent the right message about race, but because the show would be neither accurate nor funny if it did. Besides, Master of None’s technical achievements are too noteworthy to make engaging in the cloudy blame-game of political criticism a tempting prospect.    

Ansari is a multi-talented comic who has accomplished the rare feat of becoming more mature and sophisticated as his popularity swells. Those who loved his show-stealing portrayal of Tom Haverford in the sunny sitcom Parks and Recreation will recognize the quick grin and fast delivery he mastered during its seven-season run. But that delivery has matured. In the first episode, when he offers a woman a jar of apple juice to go with her Plan-B pill, his shrugs and banter do more than offset the scene’s brilliant awkwardness: they reveal his character’s deep misgivings about how suddenly serious the breezy post-millennial dating world has just become. You can see it in the way his face falls: an epiphany about the frightening yet enticing possibility of fatherhood that Ansari manages to get across in just a few frames of well-timed grimacing. Master of None is full of similar moments: evidence that Ansari’s physical control is catching up to his wit.

Just as well-crafted is the sitcom’s consistently bleary mise-en-scene. It evokes a colorful, caffeinated New York City where twenty and thirty-somethings are getting a lot of work done by day, then systematically mistreating their bodies at night in hip bars and coffee shops. Through careful scene construction, the demands of productivity are regularly contrasted with the search for meaning: important dialogue is always taking place in transit. Ansari’s shiftless protagonist Dev and his friends unpack serious dilemmas about identity and ambition in the back of cabs, or along crowded pathways in city parks. The flash of traffic lights and red brick of New York’s historic neighborhoods hover and buzz around the bustling characters, whose pontifications are constantly derailed by phone calls from work, texts from their parents, or the sudden need to take care of a friend’s kids. Colorful situation comedy inevitably ensues.

But this over saturated palate is frequently cut through by darkness: just as in a doctored-up picture, the shadows intensify along with the light. The signature scene from episode one, where Dev and his latest conquest sip apple juice and stare into the middle distance, takes place in an Uber at night, where deep shadows are raked by the passing street lights’ neon haze. The moment is funny, but the characters have dark circles around their eyes. Ansari’s ability to highlight the existential dilemmas of being young and urban without being preachy or obvious is a welcome contrast to both his standup comedy’s unconsidered irreverence and Parks and Recreation’s overflowing sap. Master of None’s combination of technical flourish and restraint, as many critics have noted, proves that Ansari and its other creators know just what they’re doing.  

It is this obvious, technical proof of the show’s professionalism which make its most politically uptight detractors sound so windy. You can picture Ansari smiling at the critics who accuse Master of None of racially insensitive casting choices. In a recent piece for Paper, Sandra Song, notes “a marked absence of South and East Asian-American women in the cast.” Yet to pick the show apart for such reasons only confirms one of its most emphatic messages: that for actors and screenwriters, it is impossible to both follow your creative inklings and satisfy such a persnickety, yet hypocritical audience. The point of Master of None’s painstakingly awkward scenario humor is not just that the conversation about race in the world of film and TV still needs to be had, but that in the current climate, it might be impossible to have correctly. As Song herself writes just a little later, “you can’t make everyone happy.”

Eventually, like the protagonist Dev, writers and characters alike are going to have to sit down, talk, be heard, and offend someone. As a writer, to do anything less would mean you weren’t bold enough to have an actual message. To do anything more would be to make your work a slave to its own themes.

Mercifully, Master of None makes neither of these mistakes, because its creators concentrated on cinematic and comedic craft instead of the political demands of their audience. Like the novelist celebrated by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang engaged their hefty subject matter with finesse, precisely because they paid no attention to “…the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all…shouting warning and advice.” In other words, they didn’t allow their art to be devoured by someone else’s prescriptions about how it should treat its themes. The result is a show where characters often grow weary of being wary, who joke around and make mistakes. In other words, it is a show that depicts our complicated social life as it actually transpires.

 

The Landscape of Joy in a Fast-Happy Society

Pseudo-spiritual self-help memoirs line bookstore shelves, instructing us how to use our breath to get happy. Hot Yoga classes with a side of watered-down Buddhism shape our bodies and minds, selling self-actualization like a commodity. We sample the aspects of cultures and religions we find rewarding, spending time and money excessively to achieve “flash happiness.” But what happens when the flash burns out? Again, we toil.

If happiness is a commodity, then we’re facing a recession. According to a recent Harris poll, only one third of Americans are “very happy,” and The World Happiness Report ranked the U.S. number fifteen of all countries—puzzling when our wealth and resources far exceed most of the countries ranking above us. Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in our definition of happiness, which, according to The Washington Post, has come to mean increasing comfort by achieving a higher individual income—less about a journey, more about a destination. So, rather than a hard-wrought reward of plunging our own depths in self-examination, rather than the presence of joy, happiness has become more about what it isn’t. Our idea of happiness has morphed into avoiding suffering.

So what’s beyond the name-brand happiness we strive for? Could there be a more nourishing, sustainable landscape for us to step into? And if so, how do we get there? Therein lies the paradox of our solo quests for satisfaction—maybe it’s not about avoiding suffering, but walking right through it, all the way to joy.

Joy, like many virtues, is hard to find. But ten minutes into Pixar’s Inside Out, I was convinced it would find me. The film gives us a peek inside the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, whose family endures a difficult cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Through the journey, we see her emotions of sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and joy personified, running a “command center” in Riley’s brain. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the peppy ringleader.

The relationship between Joy and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) intrigued me from the beginning. Joy, head of the command center, harnesses all the other emotions, takes especial care to protect Riley from Sadness. In one instance, we see Sadness fumbling around the command center, unable to pull herself out of a slump of melancholy. Fearful Sadness will take the steering wheel of Riley’s brain on a whim, Joy commands her, “Stay in your circle!” As the determined Joy fights for her rightful plot in Riley’s mind, a thesis practically built itself in my mine—joy commands us! Happiness will find us! Joy is the most powerful, poignant emotion, to which sadness is ultimately subservient.

inside out

But as the movie progresses, Joy and Sadness develop a rapport, even a partnership, collaborating and sharing resources to give Riley a full, genuine emotional experience. Where Joy used to call the shots, she begins to yield to other emotions, realizing they may lead Riley to something more lasting: a more complex form of joy, sweetened and hallowed by the pain of knowing loss.

One scene in Inside Out shows the power of Sadness to reap lasting happiness. In a quest to cheer Riley up, Joy revels in a memory of a hockey game, and what appears to be a celebration. But Sadness remembers it differently: the team had actually lost, discouraging Riley, but also leading her to the joy of genuine time with her family. Sorrow lent the celebration a more complex flavor: a little bit bitter because of the loss, but a sweet finish because her family was there to encourage her. It was the initial sting of loss and the vulnerability of suffering that prompted Riley to seek comfort in her parents, opening her up to the joy of intimacy and connection with those close to her. At this point, Joy starts to realize the power Sadness might have to enrich Riley’s life.

Maybe that’s the sweet spot we’re missing in a fast-happy culture. The contrived veneer of happiness will always fail us, because it doesn’t have a foundation. After all, why would we treasure joy if we hadn’t first experienced its absence? The film suggests that joy and sadness can indeed coexist, and they should—their collaboration yields the happiness we search for. Real joy, then, isn’t a commodity, but a discipline, the hard-won fruit of being willing to first trudge through undesirable emotions.

On the other side of the hustle for happiness is the mindfulness movement emphasizing mindful meditation, a practice designed to reduce stress and anxiety not by consuming, but through quiet noticing. Through increased attention to the mundane of the physical, mindfulness practices summon us to observe the very sensations that keep us alive, ultimately minimizing stress and reducing pain.

Sounds good, right? Not to critics of “McMindfulness,” who claim the “colonized” American version, uncoupled from the ancient Buddhist practice, is “marketed to reduce stress,” when it is actually meant to be part of an ethical program to propagate “wise action.” Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, wrote in The Huffington Post: “When mindfulness practice is compartmentalized in this way, the interconnectedness of personal motives is lost. There is a dissociation between one’s own personal transformation.”

This version of mindfulness meditation promotes noticing without the act of judging. But is simply noticing sadness enough to achieve real joy? Or does genuine happiness reside on the other side of the transforming crucible of suffering?

Though we pour our money and time into escaping the discomfort bound to plague us, Christian writer C.S. Lewis argued that our desires, especially our desire for happiness, aren’t too strong; rather, they’re too weak. He writes in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

If mud pies are the happiness we forge with feeble hands, joy is the holiday at sea. And according to Inside Out, there is no way there but through sadness—we must exist in it, engage with it, trudge through it to experience real, meaningful joy. Like Robert Frost writes in his poem “A Servant to Servants,” “the best way out is always through.”

Toward the end of Inside Out, in a culmination of fear, disgust, and anger, Riley runs away from home, hopping on a bus back to Minnesota where she thinks she’ll find joy again. Of course, Riley does choose to return safely home, but it’s not Joy who convinces her— Sadness propels her back into her parents’ arms. The sadness of imagining life without her family led her home, to joy, where she belongs. Joy gets the last say, but not without the help of her counterpart, Sadness.

It’s certainly possible to experience isolated joy without the prerequisite of sadness, and Riley does—the film flashes back to early, foundational memories of pure joy, like her first hockey goal while skating with her parents on a lake and laughing with a friend while blowing bubbles in milk. But the emotion that propels her to take positive action in her life—the one that brings her home—is the same one we try to escape from: sadness. Maybe the isolated moments make us happy, but it’s the mingling of pain and beauty that makes us human, drawing us into the most vibrant version of ourselves. That’s the beauty of collaborating with the whole spectrum of emotions. When sadness carves a deep valley in us, it’s also making space for joy to burst in—our holiday at sea.

Ex Machina and Technological Somnambulism

Numerous science fiction films tell the story of artificial intelligences rebelling against their human creators. Recently, in Marvel’s Age of Ultron, Tony Stark accidentally creates Ultron, an embodied AI bent on creating peace on earth by eliminating the human race. In the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000 turns on his human companions to save the mission. And in Blade Runner, the “better than human” Roy goes all Oedipus on his father-creator. We often fantasize about how our creations might turn on us, overthrow us.

Marshall McLuhan, philosopher and the so-called “Oracle of the Electronic Age,” has provided one of the most comprehensive philosophies of technology. McLuhan is perhaps most famous for his idea, “The medium is the message.” By this he means that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” or “the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Yet, McLuhan shows us that revolution of space and time is not the only effect that technology presents. An alternative consequence of this altered human state is technological somnambulism–the Narcissus trance “of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technological form.”

McLuhan understands how various technologies act as extensions of the parts of the human body: the wheel as an extension of human legs, telescope as an extension of eyes, and electricity as an extension of the human central nervous system. McLuhan uses a quote from William Blake related to illustrate the Narcissus trance:

Locke sand into a swoon
The garden died;
God took the spinning jenny
Out of his side

McLuhan’s comments how Blake’s poem demonstrates how the 18th century man fell into technological somnambulism when he saw the work of his hand, the spinning jenny (a machine that helped produce yarn). While the danger of technological somnambulism is nothing new, the forms it may take is, and Alex Garland’s 2015 film, Ex Machina, perhaps more than any other AI film, illustrates the technological somnambulism McLuhan warned us of. The story of Ex Machina demonstrates the wonders and horrors of technology, and the dangerous human response we can have to our creations.

Ex Machina (Latin for, “from the machine”) revolves around Caleb, a programmer for Bluebook, a Google-like search engine company. Caleb supposedly wins a lottery to spend one week with Bluebook’s founder, Nathan. Upon arriving at Nathan’s secluded research facility, Caleb quickly learns that the point of his visit is to participate in a Turing Test of Nathan’s creation, Ava (Hebrew “Eve”), an AI android. He conducts a series of interviews with Ava, over which he develops a connection and eventual infatuation with her. Ava convinces Caleb to help her escape, but once she is freed, Ava kills Nathan and traps Caleb.   

Ex Machina is to McLuhan what the book of Acts is to the book of Romans—a narrative that fleshes out complicated ideas. In the film it is Caleb’s fixation on Ava that ends up paralyzing him, forming a technological prison. Although Caleb recognizes that Ava is a machine, the more time they spend together, the more that Caleb sees Ava as a human counterpart, becoming numb to how their relationship is forming him. As McLuhan says, quoting the psalmist, “We become what we behold.”

Caleb’s somnambulism begins when he is surprised that the AI he is testing is in the form of a woman. Little does he realize that the actual test is whether Ava can manipulate him to help her escape. Through their conversations and by gazing at her on the monitor in his room, Caleb gets sucked further and further into his trance. McLuhan describes how the Narcissus trance “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Thus Caleb, in a sense, is under Ava’s spell; she controls him and shapes the nature of their relationship. Like Narcissus, he fell into the trance while looking at his reflection in her. Borrowing from the Genesis 2 Adam and Eve account, McLuhan says how: “Woman, herself, is thus seen as a technological extension of man’s being.”

At the end of their sixth session, Ava asks Caleb if he wants to be with her. Although Caleb’s answer is not given on camera, the subsequent events indicate that he does; he desires to become the Adam to his Ava (Heb. for Eve, “living”).

The whole narrative has a Genesis 2-3 frame. Nathan (Hebrew for “He gives”) serves as the father-god who gives Caleb the opportunity to undergo a testing with Ava/Eve within his secluded “garden.” However, unlike the biblical story, and more like other AI films, Ava turns the table by leaving her father-god and “Adam” back in the garden. Inasmuch as Eve was the creature that corresponded to Adam, so Caleb saw in Ava a face corresponding to his own. McLuhan speaks of how technology can impose its own assumption on the unwary, making us numb, deaf, blind, and mute about our encounter with it, demonstrating the conventional response to technological media, “the numb stance of the technological idiot. Caleb is all of this. Unfortunately he wakes up too late. He takes Ava’s place as a prisoner within Nathan’s garden. Ultimately, Caleb was the test subject, not Ava. Thus Caleb, in a sense, is the ersatz-Ava. The true human who becomes a technological slave subject to the Turing test. He has become one with the technological Garden of Eden.

Marshall McLuhan isn’t the only thinker concerned about the impact technology has on our humanity. Martin Heidegger, father of the philosophy of technology, says that we must ponder, recollect, and watch. He explains, “Above all through our catching sight of the essential unfolding in technology, instead of merely gaping at the technological. So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.” There are ways to stay awake when faced by the temptations of technological somnambulism.

Heidegger lays the way out of our technological somnambulism through the arts. He argues the fine arts are a techne that can foster the growth of the saving power and awaken us by calling us to question. He says: “For questioning is the piety of thought.” Questioning is a central tenet in Heidegger’s philosophy, and it seems that that the arts, through its stark contrast with technology, awaken us and calls to questioning and answering what the essence of technology is. 

Warnings about technological somnambulism are not only a modern concern, but go back to the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Isaiah speaks about the numbness that falls over those who make idols. Isaiah 44:12-20 describes the idol maker who takes a block of wood, one half he makes into an idol with human form, the other half he uses to warm himself or to cook meat. To the one he says, “I am warm,” to the other he says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” Isaiah describes them as ones whose eyes are smeared over so that they cannot see nor understand. The idol-maker has no way to escape this numbness and lie. The irony is that humans with the power to create wonderful things do not end up with the power to control them. Instead these technological artifacts create a world that humans submit to as it were unconsciously. Our humanity thus becomes shaped and determined by the technological world we inhabit, and Ex Machina invites us to wake up before we have become what we behold.

Sources

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan, 1994, MIT Press, 8.

“The Question of Technology” in Essential Writings, Martin Heidegger, 337-338

The Scientific Method at the Metroplex

Hollywood has released a feature film starring the scientific method. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, special effects take the backseat to a computer from 1996, and hexadecimal digits and botany unexpectedly upstage an impressive cadre of actors. Undoubtedly, science is the mainstay of The Martian. Author of the book the film is based upon, Andy Weir, took great care to create plausible scenarios, only taking poetic license with a Martian dust storm as a plot impetus. In the face of terrifying obstacles, stranded astro-botanist Mark Watney innovates constantly to stay alive, determined to, in his words, “science the shit out of this.”

The film depicts the scientific process with surprising accuracy—we see the failures, the explosions, the setbacks as well as the inspiration from unlikely sources, the persistence in the face of discouraging odds. The filmmakers recognize that scientific advancement rarely, if ever, occurs in a void, and series of bewildering, humorous, and innovative problem solving episodes propel the plot. Limited food supply? Watney rummages through freeze dried meals to find a live plant to farm in Martian soil. Limited water? He smashes together two hydrogen atoms with an oxygen atom using combustion. Flame retardant NASA habitat? Watney starts a fire using shaved wood from a crucifix.

In a movie ostensibly about solitary confinement on Mars, the basic tenets of survival remind us of the communal nature of human existence. Crops spring from potatoes originally intended for a Thanksgiving feast with the crew, and a universal symbol of Christian community fuels the fire.

The Martian isn’t simply an extended ode to science and the power of creative problem solving. Without the fundamental tension of human fragility in outer space, the film could be reduced to the realm of highly amusing instructional science videos. The exposure of life in space, unsupported by our protective atmosphere, enables us to remember our shared vulnerability more easily. Watching a person with flesh and blood, the same blood as ours, kept from imploding by only a tarp and duct tape taps our instinctual desire for survival.

The heroics of science take place within a wider community of caffeine-fueled problem solvers. Scientific breakthroughs happen while heating Ramen noodles in NASA’s cafeteria, or at conference tables with an enthusiastic pitch casting office supplies as interplanetary objects. The six voyagers, their flight commander, the NASA bureaucracy, the coders, the absent-minded graduate students, the industry contacts, the families of the astronauts, form a vast, tenuous support network. Watney is stranded, alone, but at the same time, he isn’t.

The chain of events that leads to Watney’s ultimate rescue depends on international cooperation between countries. We see the fate of one man caught up in a bureaucratic debate, as perhaps countless silent lives are, but the distance and strangeness of his situation kindles an empathy which overcomes divisions that seem so strong on terra firma. One might expect human relationships to take a backseat in a film about solitary confinement on Mars, but instead we see a single scientist sustained by a collaboration that crosses typical earthly boundaries. Watney reflects on his improbable survival,

“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that five astronauts would selflessly spend an extra 500 days in space on behalf of someone who they left behind through no particular fault of their own. The notion that rival nations would share cutting-edge defense technology to retrieve a lone citizen abandoned on Mars prompts skepticism. The presentation of NASA as a painfully honest government entity is admirable yet unrealistic.

Yet, seeing Earth as a whirled marble through the window of the spaceship Hermes has a way of dispelling cynicism about its inhabitants. That heart-stopping view and the sheer vulnerability of astronauts somehow stirs what Vaclav Havel names “the dormant goodwill in people.” Havel continues, “The dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.” The heroics of an international cohort on Earth and in orbit to support a solitary man challenge the pessimistic view that society is increasingly fragmented and self-serving. The silent vacuum of space enables humans to listen deeply to the plight of a man on a remote planet.

The Martian shows us those stirred people—the architects of the rover who emerge out of the anonymity of graduate school to troubleshoot communication, the absent-minded student who offers his hasty computations with a blatant disregard for his own success. The industry, government, and academic partners that rally in support of Watney, a self-proclaimed “dorky astrobotanist” are a testament to basic instinct of human decency. The sparks of ingenuity are insufficient to save Watney in and of themselves—his rescue requires ingenuity and empathy. In a genre that tends to glorify science, progress, and interplanetary exploration compounded with a culture that values rugged individualism, The Martian refreshingly reinforces fundamental impulse towards compassion.

As we watch the world, from Taipei to Trafalgar Square transfixed by the unfolding story, we remember our common fragility, nudging us forward towards collaboration and camaraderie as resident Earthlings.

A Beautiful, Terrible Sound

The creak of a floorboard; the swift whispering shssh shssh of Victorian dresses; the slow scrape of a spoon over the edge of a cup; the indeterminate groan of a ghost. In Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, both the terror and the truth are in the sounds.

At its heart, Crimson Peak is a gothic romance that happens to have ghosts in it. Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska) is a wealthy, coming-of-age, American living in upstate New York. Her father is protective and caring, as his wife died when Edith was young. Independent and a writer, Edith admires Mary Shelly over Jane Austen. This is no surprise, as she receives periodic visits from the smoky wraith of her deceased mother, who cryptically warns her of Crimson Peak.

In this story, ghosts don’t want your fear; they want your attention, your ear. More part of the background than drivers of this film, specters only haunt when they have a truth to tell us. The dead warn us of the living.

Edith and her father’s happy Victorian existence is interrupted by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister (Jessica Chastain). Sharpe, a penniless British baronet and inventor, is looking for investors. He has invented a machine to extract the rich red clay from under their dilapidated family mansion, and Mr. Cushing is a possible financier. As Thomas courts Edith and her father’s money, Mr. Cushing dies in bewildering circumstances. Amidst the depths of her grief, Edith and Thomas marry, and head off to his English estate. Throughout this early portion, the movie itself seems to be waiting for the story to start, for Edith to finally arrive at the Sharpe mansion.

mia

The mansion, almost as Gothic sensibilities incarnate, is the movie’s most compelling character. Leaves or snow are always drifting down into the expansive main foyer through a massive hole in the roof. The manor is sinking into the estate’s blood-red clay, which leaches through the floorboards and seems to ooze from the walls. Similar to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the environment reflects the state of its inhabitants.

As winter comes, and Edith gets to know her husband and sister-in-law better, the snow is stained red by the estate’s clay, and the mansion’s ghosts refuse to go away. Appropriately, the ghosts of Crimson Peak take their form and color from the clay, because the land itself provides the material for the deceased’s anger. Grief and betrayal are the potter’s hands. Like the Scriptural story of Cain and Abel, the earth, heavy with blood, cries out. The land is bleeding out, because something is not right; nature opposes humanity’s unnatural acts.

It is impossible to miss the obvious visual feasts of del Toro’s cinematic worlds, yet we can overlook the sonic ones. The slow terror of Crimson Peak is not primarily built with dialogue or even the visuals, but with the acoustic background of the mansion itself. Periodically, a roaring wind blows through, making it seem as if the house is drawing a rasping breath—alive, yet dying. Characters’ ears are frequently pressed to doors, trying to decipher the something that a sound is coming from. Scratchy phonograph cylinders start to pull back the veil on the truth of Crimson Peak. Eventually sound provides the breadcrumbs that lead to the plot’s primary revelations—Edith hears the truth of the Sharpe siblings’ relationship before she sees it. Instead of simply being used to reinforce the jump scare, the sounds of Crimson Peak transform unassuming events into ones full of terror and make a crumbling mansion a loud cemetery full of shallow graves.

The story takes unsurprising and ghastly turns as Edith discovers the true nature of the Sharpe siblings’ relationship. The film clearly hopes to make some of this a shock, but like poker players who show you their hand, Crimson Peak cannot resist tipping its cards over and over, each time forgetting that it is still holding the same cards. For all the film’s beauty, the plot is a simple pastiche of Gothic narrative clichés.

Sometimes, it seems as if del Toro is a production designer at heart, for that is where most of the precision and elegance exists within his films. As he said in an interview with the New Yorker: “I love the creation of these things—I love the sculpting, I love the coloring. Half the joy is fabricating the world, the creatures.” It is easier to imagine him adjusting a painting in the background of a shot rather than editing his script again. You can see the love that went into the Sharpe mansion. When you move into a new room in the house, you have to get your bearings—in both a visual and auditory sense—and take in the surroundings. He is a stronger scene-maker than storyteller, and as many critics have observed, the care for style seems to trump concern for the story.

Film is a deeply visual and auditory medium for del Toro, but not irreducibly a narrative one. Even though Crimson Peak draws deeply from gothic literature, its dread and terror is primarily a result of visual flourishes and the film’s soundscape, rather than its story. Fear arises through environmental and atmospheric immersion instead of narrative progression.[1] Talking about his filmic aesthetic, del Toro said the following:

“Some of my favorite horror is silent because it has strength of composition and it has a very strong visual streak.

The way you evaluated silent film I think changed when sound arrived. I think that film is a visual & audio medium and it should be judged in the same way that you judge a painting or a visual art in terms of strokes, colors and shapes.

That sort of abstraction was very much how we read film in the silent era. When the forefront became the lines of dialogue, plot and other things like that…kind of diluted the power of it as a visual creation.

Here is where del Toro’s aesthetic begins to eat itself. While he critiques the shifts that the advent of sound brought about, he embraces its cinematic results. He hopes to paint, but he paints with both visuals and sound, using the modern form of film, yet longing for a previous era’s way of evaluating it.

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French film critic, Andre Bazin, while discussing what the inclusion of sound meant for film and its evolution as an art form, said:

“Today we can say that at last the director writes in film. The image—its plastic composition and the way it is set in time, because it is founded on a much higher degree of realism—has at its disposal more means of manipulating reality and modifying it from within. The film-maker is no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, he is, at last, the equal of the novelist.

Sound—and what it meant for how a director could edit and arrange a movie—changed film’s kindred art form from painting to the novel. Yet the aesthetic shift that comes with this filmic evolution is part of what del Toro hopes to resist.

In his 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, the fantastical world filled with fairies, fauns, and monsters that Ofelia (the young girl protagonist) interacts with is sometimes heard, but never seen by the adults around her. Adult eyes may be blind to the truth of this enchanted world, but ears can never be fully deaf to it. Sound alone is capable of slipping through the thin boundaries of imagination, the false distinctions between reality and fantasy. Here, del Toro’s characters provide a clue for how to appreciate his films. There is a horrible beauty in del Toro’s cinematic paintings, we just have to remember to listen, as well as look.

 

 

[1] Two very different and recent movies that creatively engage sound’s role in creating an atmosphere of horror are Pontypool and Berberian Sound Studio.

Already, Not Yet

I dare you to scroll any vein of social media for thirty seconds without colliding with authenticity. If you do so successfully, I applaud you for somehow finding a trapdoor from the confusing cultural crisis of #liveauthentic—as I write, there are nearly 5.9 million Instagram posts with the hashtag.

Should you choose to continue down the rabbit trail of local lavender lattes alongside styled succulents, it won’t take you long to find Socality Barbie, which The Atlantic describes as “a tongue-in-cheek Instagram account [that] underscores the paradox of social-media authenticity.” Socality Barbie’s creator, who chooses to remain anonymous, said in an interview with The Atlantic: “I created the account to make fun of the people who were using the ‘liveauthentic’ hashtag on Instagram. All their pictures looked alike to me and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore so it just didn’t seem all that authentic.”

Unfortunately, I have played the part—the stay-at-home mom crafting a cunning caption about gracious, attentive living while simultaneously shushing the screaming toddler vying for my attention. Maybe that’s why Socality Barbie stings a little, because it’s true of me and my millennial cohorts who get so wrapped up in the hustle toward our own brand of authenticity that we spiral into just the opposite until our lives fade into the 5.9 million others. In our striving pursuit of authenticity as a brand, we may risk losing our authenticity altogether.

I felt a similar sting of conviction while watching Noah Baumbach’s 2014 “dramedy” While We’re Young. Employing two couples, Josh and Cornelia Srebnik and their younger counterparts Jamie and Darby Massey, Baumbach draws an important distinction between an “authentic” lifestyle and an actual life. While the duos, particularly the men, have some blatant differences, each strives after his own idea of success at the expense of his marriage and career. Baumbach’s point here is clear: pursue a life of shiny authenticity without the grit of soul-mining and you don’t have authenticity at all—you have a wobbly framework, waiting to fold in on itself.

Who would succumb to the rickety framework first: Josh or Jamie? I found myself equal parts motion sick and entertained as the film volleyed me between the two different characters, both about to collapse. Not surprisingly, Baumbach paints Jamie (Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried of Mean Girls) as millennial archetypes: a manic-pixie-dream-couple housed in a Brooklyn loft with a flaky female roommate, reclaimed wood shelves littered with vintage vinyl, and, predictably, a cage full of chickens. 

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On the other side of the fence reside Josh and Cornelia (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts respectively), an unglamorous forty-something couple disgruntled about their advancing age. One of the first scenes of the film pictures the couple visiting friends who’d recently had a baby. Upon leaving, the Srebniks question their decision not to have children, justifying it with the freedom childlessness affords them: “The point is we still have freedom,” Josh says. “What we do with it isn’t that important.”

What does Josh do with his copious free time then? Pursue his career, at the expense of his character. A troubled documentarian, Josh struggles to finish his “breakthrough” film on leftist Ira Mandelstam, making no real progress after ten years. Paying no regard to anyone’s needs but his own, Josh runs hard after his “art” full-time, teaching continuing education film courses on the side.

Enter Jamie, who coyly approaches Josh after one of his night classes, obviously pursuing an art of his own. Josh instantly latches onto Jamie’s excessive flattery (which, as it turns out, is Jamie’s attempt at getting close to Cornelia’s father, a renowned documentarian). The two couples have dinner together afterward because, as Jamie exclaims, “my wife and I are going to the same damn place!” And the nausea begins.

Scene by scene, Jamie and Darby’s whimsical lifestyle provides a trapdoor for the Srebniks to escape the mundaneness of their own predictable day-to-day. One evening, both couples sprawled on couches—most likely vintage, of course—in the Masseys apartment, they try to remember the word “marzipan.” Endearingly resourceful Josh pulls out his smartphone to Google it, but Jamie rebuts, “No, don’t look it up. That’s too easy. Let’s just not know it.”

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And just like that, by the thin whimsy of a life unplugged and the foggy visage of authenticity, Josh is pulled in. “They’re so excited for each other. It’s selfless,” Josh tells Cornelia post-hangout. “They ask questions. We always talk about ourselves.” It’s clear that for Josh, the younger couple embodies authenticity—so he dives head first into the pursuit of it, with Jamie as his god.

Josh and Jamie grow concentric as the film unfolds, each one feeding off the other, using each other to get where they want to go. Josh borrows a few of Jamie’s superficial tricks for his own de-aging arsenal—a fedora hat and wing-tip shoes to name a few—while Jamie manipulates Josh into participating in his documentary to get his idol, Cornelia’s father, involved.

Suddenly, in the mess of desperate striving and deceit, it’s difficult to tell where Josh ends and Jamie begins. The two are bound together by their restlessness, striving toward some ambiguous, looming “authentic” life they might never attain. While Josh shapes his life around buying time, Jamie’s aim is to put on maturity without the work, cutting corners to make connections for his own success. The aging Josh strives to escape his “already” to win back the possibility of youth, and Jamie hustles to escape his own age into the “not yet,” or the perceived possibility of his future.

In pointing their livelihoods at what they don’t have, both characters miss out on their own actual lives—the messy stuff that can’t be sustained by the wobbly framework of a style of life or pattern of consumption. The men’s restlessness, manifested in craftily curated images, soon threatens to destroy their marriages and their careers. As it turns out, scaling the fence toward the greener grass has its risks.

At a black-tie award ceremony for his father-in-law, Josh cathartically vies for justice after discovering an apparently unethical interview process in Jamie’s documentary. Josh finally realizes what’s been important all along, and mostly what’s been missing: integrity, or as Donald Miller describes it in his book Scary Close, “a soul fully integrated, no difference between his act and person.”

The viewer can finally exhale when Josh heroically reclaims his real life, however human, however mundane, at the end of the film. “Such is one of the rare benefits of age,” wrote Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review on the film. “Maybe you can start, at last, to tell the difference between a life style and a life.” As Baumbach suggests, true authenticity flourishes in the mess of being fully human, and it simply can’t exclude integrity. In fact, it probably depends on it.

Living the Fantasy

Until last week, online fantasy sports betting was a prosperous and unregulated new industry, but things are shifting as Nevada regulators determined that fantasy sites are not skill-based, but rather a form of gambling.

These quick leagues offer instant satisfaction compared to the traditional fantasy leagues where participants were stuck with the team they chose before the start of the season.

I recently saw Living the Fantasy, a straightforward documentary which follows several top fantasy football players during the 2014 season. Living the Fantasy tells a story, but like most art, it also helps us ask questions. This look into the world of online fantasy sports raises questions about the allure of quick money and the contradictions of internet-based community—about how we interact, compete, and commune. Traditional, real-life fantasy leagues brought individuals together and stimulated people’s imaginations. With the shift to online fantasy sports, gamers are isolated in their pursuits, and the payoff shifts from the thrill of competition to a million dollar jackpot. Yet, even with the changes and the questions they raise, there is something powerful in watching people compete.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of Living the Fantasy, Joshua Adler, about his film and the questions it raises.

Sarah Hanssen: Can you tell me about the genesis of Living the Fantasy? Why did you think this was a story worth telling?

Joshua Adler: I’m a filmmaker first, but a big sports fan as well. I’ve been playing fantasy sports for many years (even when I was in film school at Columbia). I discovered daily fantasy games about three years ago and found myself playing practically every day.

In September of 2013, I was on a site called DraftStreet (which has since been acquired by one of the largest daily fantasy sports providers, DraftKings) and I was playing a daily fantasy baseball game that night. There’s a chat board on the site that shows up at the bottom of the page. You couldn’t avoid seeing it. And I noticed people would write the most absurd and obnoxious things on it. I saw that someone wrote “Fuck Mark Teixeira. I hope he fucking dies of testicular cancer.”

That intrigued me. What kind of people are so obsessed with this game that they, even jokingly, wish testicular cancer on a stranger because he had a bad day at the plate?

That’s the genesis. I wanted to learn who these people were. However, I never really learned who “that person” is. But it was the beginning of wanting to make a documentary on the subject.

SH: Were there any moments or angles you wish you could have included in this film that didn’t make the final cut? What else do you wish audiences could know about in the fantasy sports world?

JA: We started making this documentary quickly. The world was blowing up so fast that we could hardly keep up. Time was a factor, and if we started making the film today, it would be significantly different, more well thought out. However, while it wouldn’t simply be a document of how fast the fantasy world was changing in 2014, we could have delved into the speed of the change a little more. When we started, no one really knew about DraftKings or FanDuel. Now, you can’t turn on the television without seeing one of their ads.

I also would have also have liked to explore the “gambling” aspect of this world a bit more. It’s a fascinating question whether this is a skill or gambling, and my thoughts changed back and forth as we shot the film.

SH: After being immersed in this world as long as you were, what do you think are the pros and cons of the online fantasy league world? Is it bad for society? Is it risky for human beings?

JA: My father said something years ago that has always stuck with me: “Anything in moderation is okay.” Of course there are exceptions to this rule.

That’s the simple answer.

Fantasy sports has been great for sports. For instance, basketball has really embraced fantasy. People like me, who were never big fans of basketball have found how much fun it is to play and through it I have become a basketball fan now. It’s also fun. I’ve had experiences where I’ve had a $20 team and been up to win a million dollars. Nothing beats watching football on a Sunday when you have a legitimate shot of winning big money with your fantasy team.

And trust me, if you don’t know anything about the sport, you’re not going to come close to winning money. That’s the big difference between this and sports betting. Anyone can go to a sports book and put money down on different teams. And anyone will win some and lose some. With this game, you have to know the players and the match ups.

Yet fantasy sports has been terrible for sports. As we say in our documentary (or as people we interviewed said), it’s broken sports down into plays and moments. People who play fantasy, none of them watch games anymore. No one roots for teams. It’s players. It’s moments. I personally can’t watch Sunday football without my computer open—scanning box scores of all the other games.

Fantasy Sports seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation. And it works. The purity of sports is totally fucked. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love it, but it’s still fucked.

As my father said “anything in moderation” and that goes double for fantasy sports.   

SH: Would you have any caveats for people just considering giving it a try? I ask, for two reasons: I’d like to know what you see as the ethical conundrum in this world of fantasy league wagers, and I’d like to know for more personal applications. Modern human existence feels so isolating with less and less face to face interaction. Doesn’t this amplify that problem?

JA: Modern human existence is isolating. Look at the opening sequence of The Social Network (the credit sequence, that is)—it’s beautifully simple how Fincher takes us through the campus of Harvard before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. It shows Harvard campus on a Friday night and people are talking and interacting and riding bikes and hanging out. None of them are looking at smartphones. Fincher subtly sets up the thesis world that’s about to be changed forever.

However, I don’t know if fantasy sports has anything to do with the isolation through media. That happened long before fantasy sports developed. Fantasy sports (specifically daily fantasy games) has simply adjusted to the world that was created by Facebook and Twitter and so on.

I recommend to friends that they play all the time. If anything fantasy sports brings many people together. Because of it, I seek out friends who might want to go to a bar on a Sunday and watch football with me. For season-long leagues, it gets people to sit together for a day or for a weekend with old friends. It helps facilitate friendships and human interaction.

That being said, you go to a DraftKings event and spend a lot of time watching people watching the games. Most of them (including myself) are staring at their smartphones, checking stats. Is that fantasy sports, or is that the society we live in?

Hell, football stadiums now have the Red Zone playing on the big screen. Why? Because they know that in order to get people to come to the stadium and watch a live game, you have to give them the opportunity to see all the other games so they can follow their fantasy players.

SH: There’s something bittersweet and even disappointing about the fact that none of the characters we follow in Living the Fantasy are winners in the end. For me, this mirrors the experience of gambling. Can you talk a little about this parallel?

JA: It’s interesting that you think there aren’t any real winners at the end of the movie. I swear I’m not saying this, but I think they all win at the end. They just don’t win a million dollars in the last tournament.

I’ve been to Vegas many many many times. I’ve sat at tables with people and I’ve seen it in their eyes that they have gone overboard. They have lost it all. They were praying for that last spin of the wheel to finally turn their luck around. It’s horrible and devastating. I once witnessed a woman being dragged out of a casino by her husband because she blew $15,000 on high-stakes slot machines.

This was not the experience of the people we followed in our documentary. They all had fun; some even won a little or a lot of money. And if they did lose any, it could rightly considered “the price of entertainment.”

The Bible Quiz Subculture

When my parents moved back to the States after living overseas as missionaries, they made a deliberate decision to put my sisters and me in public schools. As full-time Christian workers who came from Christian families and would be attending church regularly, putting us in public schools would at least mean we—and they—knew some people outside the Christian “bubble.” Now, as an adult who has worked primarily in Christian ministry, I find myself continually grateful for that decision. Without it I could easily wrap myself in the Christian world and rarely engage with those who do not believe as I do. Instead, I regularly interact with old school friends who help me remember that the world I live in is a subculture within American society. They remind me that in their eyes, I’m weird.

The evangelical Christian world is full of words, phrases, practices, and ideologies that are familiar and comfortable to me, but these words and ideas are increasingly unfamiliar to the culture around me. A recent article in the Boston Review exemplifies this. The author writes of a supposedly new movement taking place there, something the evangelicals call “church planting”a centuries-old Christian practice. But to the author the idea is entirely new. She lives squarely in post-Christian culture. Meanwhile, I’m left trying to figure out how to engage with a culture that speaks a different language than I do. The strangeness of my subculture hit home when I watched the documentary Bible Quiz, directed by Nicole Teeny, currently available streaming on Netflix.

The film focuses upon Mikayla Irle and J.P. O’Connor, two members of a Bible quizzing team competing to win a spot in the national tournament. These teens, to some extent, represent both those within and those outside the subculture—and in their interactions we see some measure of what conversation between “in” and “out” could be.

For the first 20 minutes of the film I kept thinking, It’s no wonder people think evangelicals are crazy. Some of us memorize thousands of Bible verses and then get together and compete in tournaments against others who have done the same.

Then another thought struck me: How is this any more strange than thousands of people dressing up like superheroes and gathering to talk about comic books? Don’t get me wrong: I think ComicCon is amazing; I’d love to attend one day. But I have been to a Bible quizzing tournament, and yeah, it tends to be a weird gathering of a bunch of slightly geeky teenagers getting together to rattle off long passages of the Bible. What’s so bad about that?

Bible Quiz raises that question in a non-abrasive manner. The film walks the line between condescending and saccharine, and captures a lovely coming-of-age story as Teeny follows Mikayla through the quizzing season. In part, the documentary format lends itself to the balance. Side by side with the teen girl talking about still having her “lip-ginity” (she’s never been kissed), Teeny shows Mikayla taking her younger teammate out of the hotel for a walk through Green Bay’s 4th of July celebration to escape “Bible Quiz village” and “get out with the…heathens.”

Unlike JP and the others, Mikayla doesn’t quite fit the Bible quizzing box. One of her coaches, Rich Nelson, says, “In all my kids I’ve had, I’ve never had a quizzer do well who didn’t have a mother and father at home, married.” Mikayla, on the other hand, recently moved from the custody of her alcoholic mom to her dad, who at best is vaguely disinterested in her Bible quizzing.

But Mikayla is on the team in part because of the genuine kindness of the team members. One reached out to her and asked her to come, telling her that it was okay that she didn’t have anything memorized, she should just come by for practice. “They continued to show me this love that I didn’t feel like I was getting at my house,” Mikayla says. “They have no idea how good they made me feel…I wanted to be with these people all the time. I never wanted to leave.”

“I really don’t care about Bible Quiz that much,” Mikayla says, hushing. “But I do care about my team.” Teeny’s film makes us care about them, too. Wisely, she often places her viewer in Mikayla’s shoes—slightly on the outside of the group. We watch JP in the bubble, born and raised, and he’s such a typical teenager—but he jumps on board and welcomes Mikayla in. So, like Mikayla, we find ourselves wanting to be a part of this strange subculture full of kids who memorize whole books of the Bible. Because along with that, they also love one another and support one another—and that’s something worth being a part of.

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I was on a Bible quizzing team with my church in middle school and found myself reliving those days with some nostalgia as I watched Teeny’s film. But more than nostalgia, I found that she managed to capture my experience growing up in the “Christian bubble” and display it without ire or mockery.

One powerful scene takes place when various quizzing teams are visiting Seattle’s Public Market and stop to listen to a street performer playing guitar. When he finishes playing a song, a girl says, “Praise Jesus for music!”

“Oh, don’t do that!” the man says, “Be an atheist and be smart.”

“Oh, but I love Jesus,” the girl replies.

“I’m sorry you must believe in a man’s religion like that,” says the man, “it’s kind of pathetic and sad. How can you say that God is a man? How can you say that God is anything? Your best religious experience can’t be named in words and it’s pathetic to try. That’s why the Bible or any other book is inadequate.”

There are a few awkward looks among the teens, and then the girl responds: “I strongly disagree!”

Others chime in, “Me, too.”

The man begins to play again, and the girl tries a parting repartee, “Jesus died on the cross for you. ‘Cause He loves you that much. Even when you don’t believe it.”

I remember being that girl: knowing what I believed, and knowing that I deeply believed it, but not having the tools or experience to be able to express that belief well. I rarely encountered people who were antagonistic to my faith and most of my non-evangelical friends were at least somewhat religious—whether Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu. We didn’t talk much about faith. Beyond them, my circles consisted of church, my parents’ ministry coworkers, and other Christian friends.

The scene between the girl and the street musician is powerfully punctuated by a visual: as most of the teens stand around awkwardly listening to the man play, Mikayla leans forward and drops a dollar into his guitar case.

We are all products of our subcultures. We all know the lingo and norms that brand us as part of subculture x. That’s the nature of culture. To someone who is outside of our subculture, we can look pretty odd, whether we’re gathering to dress up like superheroes, starting a church in a school auditorium, or getting together to compete in a Bible quizzing tournament. Interacting outside of our own bubbles is challenging, but sometimes it means simply taking the time to listen.

In the end, Bible Quiz is a story about a group of teenagers. They are still discovering who they are and how they want to do this thing called life. Mikayla, the outsider, has a less rose-colored view of the world than some of the others. As the team goes their separate ways after competing in the national finals, JP says, “We’ll stay in touch,” and Mikayla replies, “Perhaps.” She recognizes that this team was valuable to her, that she was part of it for a time.

I wonder what JP thought when he watched the film. According to the title card at the end, he went on to study biblical literature and become a pastor. Does he look back at the high school senior he was and shakes his head a little bit? He was an excellent Bible quizzer and a budding theologian, but he could have learned a bit about being a Christian from Mikayla. She says in the film, “He didn’t understand that I wanted to tell him my life story. I kind of knocked and no one answered that door.”

My Facebook newsfeed often looks like a shouting match. People in every camp want their memes and blog posts and news articles to be louder than the others. Bible Quiz reminds us that, in all of our shouting at each other, we may be missing the sound of a knocking on the door: the small voice of someone who might be quietly asking to be heard. We may be missing a chance to listen to the life story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in our box, but who could, if we’d just listen, make us a better version of ourselves.

On Thought Crimes

Erin Lee Carr is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. After producing short videos at Vice for several years, she released her first feature length documentary, Thought Crimes in 2015. The film follows the trial and sentencing of Gilberto Valle, the so called New York “cannibal cop,” who was accused of plotting to rape, murder and eat several women. However, the great majority of evidence against Valle exists in the virtual world of the online fetish fantasy community he was part of, not in real world physical proof. The Curator had the chance to talk with Erin about Thought Crimes, and how it confronts the ethical dilemmas of criminalizing fantasies and punishing intentions.

 

Sarah Hanssen: Thought Crimes is a work of journalism, but there are clearly moments of creative expression, can you talk about those creative decisions?

Erin Lee Carr: I think what you see in this film is a collaboration of creative expression as most documentary films are. The editor of this film was Andrew Coffman and it was important to both of us that this not be a tabloid treatment of the Cannibal Cop case but a meditation of what it means to live a different life online. Who is Gil Valle offline and online? Were his google searches thoughts or actions? What ramifications does that have for every day people like you and I? Those are all concepts that we wanted to implement in the film so most of the choices and castings revolved around that.

SH: Even though the film is mainly set in Valle’s unassuming Queens two story home, there’s a dark, unsettling chill that permeates all the material. I doubt I’d want to be in the same room with Valle for days on end, especially after reading the transcripts of his murderous fantasies. Were you ever scared of Valle? In the face of those frightening feelings, what inspired your decision to make Thought Crimes?

ELC: I was not scared of Valle, of course it was a bit weird to know the thoughts and words that landed him in jail, but he was kind of unassuming in person. It was very difficult for Valle to be stuck inside and under house arrest. I think the dark atmosphere that you or the audience may be feeling is the feeling of being trapped.

SH: Your access to Valle is remarkable. How did you cultivate such an intimate atmosphere? and yet, at times I felt like he was performing, that for all the “nice guy,” “average NY cop,” talk, there was a pathological psychopath underneath. Did you ever feel that he was manipulating you? If yes, why did you downplay that side of him from the film?

ELC: Gil and I spoke for nine months before I ever introduced a camera, that was mostly because he was in prison but I definitely think that it helped create comfortable nature of our working relationship. It’s astute to make the observation that he seemed to be acting at certain points but the reality was this — Valle was incarcerated and the case was still being litigated, so he was motivated to act a certain way. I think, that like most humans, there are many different facets of Mr. Valle and we encountered a couple of them.

SH: Your film is not so much a portrait of the “cannibal cop,” as a warning against creating a legal precedent where individuals can be punished for thought crimes, that is, professed criminal conspiracies that do not actually manifest in action. However, as a case study, Valle is not a clear victim of paranoid prosecutors, in fact, he does seem quite capable of following through with his plans of kidnapping and murder. Were you ever tempted to exclude information about Valle in order to tell a story that fit the intention of a film about thought crimes? Or, is there any material that didn’t make the cut which you wish audiences could have seen?

ELC: I feel conflicted about his guilt or innocence and I am definitely not sure that he “would have done it.” I think there were aspects of the case, like the fact that there was no physical evidence, that made it a very weak case for the prosecution. I do think that everything that we wanted audiences to see for the most part made the cut.

SH: I’ve mentioned how impressed I am with the access you had to Valle. Even if a viewer agrees with the idea that Valle cannot be imprisoned for his fantasies, we all recognize that his fetishization of suffering, murder, and cannibalism, are terrifying. Most of us find it easier to ignore this depravity and suppress the knowledge of how cruel human beings can be. Has the making of this film changed how you see humanity?

ELC: I had to look at dark fetish net… a lot. That was fairly difficult for my psyche. I think as a woman, it is very difficult look at women being tortured, a very obvious statement, but true. I know that there is a decent amount of violence against women but this was really next level. To be honest, sometimes I had to shut the computer off and play with with my dog Gary. After the jury reached their “guilty” verdict, Judge Gardephe thanked the them for their time but apologized by saying that the content of this trial involved “material that degrades the human spirit and corrupts the human.” I believe Judge Gardephe was correct.

SH: Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Thought Crimes?

ELC: Mostly I wanted people to think. To think about Gil Valle as a human being, to look at the ramifications for our behavior online, to think about first amendment rights in the digital age…all those things are important and worth thinking about.

Kuleshov’s Effect: The Man behind Soviet Montage

It was in 1918 that Lev Kuleshov—film theorist, father of the Soviet Montage school of cinema, director of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), political partisan, teacher—ventured a hypothesis. The hypothesis: the dramatic effect of a film was found not in the content of its shots but rather in the edits that join them together.

Kuleshov put his hypothesis to the test. Taking an expressionless long shot of the actor Ivan Mozzhukhin peering into the camera—presumably, because footage of the original experiment has been lost— he broke it into three parts. Then he intercut each practically-identical segment with three other shots—a bowl of steaming soup, an attractive young woman, and a child lying dead in a coffin. When he showed the segments to audiences and polled their reactions, they swore that Mozzhukhin’s expression had changed from piece to piece. When staring at the soup, Mozzhukhin was hungry; at the young woman, lustful; at the child, mournful.

Kuleshov-effect

“The discovery stunned me,” Kuleshov wrote, “so convinced was I of the enormous power of montage.”

The Power of Montage

And his amazement was catching. Soviet greats of the silent era, such as Vsevelod Pudovkin, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, and Sergei M. Eisenstein, were likewise stunned. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the Soviet silent era, its “golden era,” was the flowering of a shared fascination with Kuleshov’s discovery.

Kuleshov experimented further. In Art of the Cinema, Kuleshov’s first book, he tells of several other tests, including the creation of a single woman from a hodgepodge of different women. He writes, “By montage alone we were able to depict the girl, just as in nature, because we shot the lips of one woman, the legs of another, the back of a third, and the eyes of a fourth.” It was “a totally new person.” And even though she was a composite, according to Kuleshov, she retained “the complete reality of the material.”

Kuleshov tended to exaggerate the implications of these constructs: “it was not important how the shots were taken, but how these shots were assembled.” Alfred Hitchcock, decades apart and worlds away, called it “pure cinema,” when the montage gives rise to meanings that exist nowhere to the eye, but only in the mind. This interplay between montage, perception, and meaning has come to be known as the “Kuleshov Effect.”

What Kuleshov actually discovered and what he thought he discovered are not necessarily one and the same. How successful would the Mozzhukhin experiment have been had he not appeared “neutral” but enraged, elated, or better yet, jogging in place? These montage composites are limited by plausibility (a woman has lips, legs, a back, and eyes) and the content of the shots themselves (neutral stares versus, say, directed actions, like, ‘appear as if you are frightened’).

Yet Kuleshov was right to emphasize the power that editing has over motion pictures, even to the point of bending the inner “reality” of shots. What stunned Kuleshov was the incredible flexibility of the medium, and, with that in mind, the power it granted him to provide moving pictures with new contextual meanings. Such authority over meaning strikes us as obvious today, but at the time the “photographic” image was held to be a totally faithful, “concrete,” inviolably “true” artifact, free of the shortcomings of subjectivity. This turned out to be false; or, rather, true in a limited sense. What Kuleshov was witnessing was the dissolution of a paradigm—which no doubt felt like the melting away of the thing itself.

Thinking about Film

Film historian Ronald Levaco called Kuleshov the “first aesthetic theorist of cinema,” a deserved appellation. Yet it’s an oddity of Soviet film that such a theorist, doing strange experiments in an editing room, could have so great of an effect. Indeed, without the total destruction of Russian cinema by a chain of sweeping social disasters—World War I, the October Revolution, the Civil War, Bolshevik rule, and the mass starvation of (conservative estimate) 5 million people—it would have been impossible. The Civil War devastated Russia’s cultural centers, and studio owners fled the Bolsheviks with their cameras and film stock in tow. The instruments of film, incredibly expensive, difficult to operate, and very hard to replace, were gone. “Moscow had 143 theatres operating before World War I,” historian Peter Kenez recounts, “but in the autumn of 1921 not a single one remained in operation.”

In 1920, Kuleshov joined Moscow’s All-Union Institute of Cinematography, established in 1919, as an instructor. The Institute was the world’s first film school—a film school without film stock. While Hollywood, during this time, was making film, the Soviets and Kuleshov were thinking about film; and thus developed a thickly theoretical and experimental approach to filmmaking, as was readily apparent as soon as film equipment became available to them. (One wonders, incidentally, what kind of cinema Hollywood would have made had it at least once been destroyed.)

Films without Film

Kuleshov’s workshops are legendary. Known as the Kuleshov Group, Pudovkin was one of his students; Eisenstein studied under him for three months, but was inspired—“influenced” is a better word—by Kuleshov for a lifetime; sometimes as a rival; later as a dear friend.

Kuleshov would direct his students in mock shoots of “films without film,” drilling them over and over again through a series of taxing acting exercises. He would position the actors before empty cameras and they would act out the scenario, pretending that their performances were being recorded, in preparation for the time when the Soviet Union once again had film.

Re-Centering Cinema

Meanwhile, Kuleshov continued his editing experiments—having no film with which to shoot did not mean there was no film with which to play. Using whatever films they could get their hands on—films left behind from the days of Tsar Nicholas II, foreign films allowed entrance into Soviet territory under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, and others which circulated illegally throughout the Soviet Union—Kuleshov and his cohort would break them down and reassemble them in a variety of configurations. They were especially captivated by the innovative (and supremely racist) films of D.W. Griffith, the American director behind The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Kuleshov studied Intolerance obsessively; swapping its parts; changing its order; and re-constituting its meaning and themes (a task made easier by its silence). Like a cinematic Doctor Frankenstein, Kuleshov poked and prodded; re-arranged and re-animated; then did it all again. Breakdown then re-assemble; breakdown then re-assemble.  It was this breathless experimentalism that yielded the Kuleshov Effect.

Kuleshov became convinced of the vaporousness of the shot and, naturally, of the inconsequence of the director as a cinematographer. In such a psychological setting, the center of Soviet film shifted from the camera to the editing table; from “production” to “post-production.” From there it unleashed its “golden age.” For all of its deformities—or because of them—Soviet montage remains one of the truly lasting and perpetually fascinating movements in film.

The Hammer, the Sickle, and the Editing Table

So what of Kuleshov the filmmaker? The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), his most famous film, was a financial success and one of the first feature length films in the Soviet Union. It’s a key point in cinema history, but not a great work of art. His best film was Po Zakonu (1926), based on a short story by Jack London; it’s very good, but, again, not great. The students of his cinematics—Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Vertov, and especially Eisenstein—made far more compelling things of his theories and principles than he ever did. Yet his theories are implied in almost every aspect of their work. This makes him a minor filmmaker but a major figure in the history of film.

Soviet Montage had a short-lived but high glory, lasting from 1924 to 1930, brought to an end by the artistic exhaustion of the theory, squabbles among the movement’s major figures, the rise of sound, and the disapproval of Stalin. Eisenstein, the greatest and most natural filmmaker of the group, explored both the roots and frontiers of Kuleshov’s doctrine—“the content of the shots in itself is not so important as is the joining of two shots of different content and the method of their connection and their alteration”—at once realizing its greatest triumphs while stretching it far beyond the sinews of plausibility. Strike! (1925) and The Battleship Potemkin (1925) are undoubtedly two of the greatest and most unique—because stylistically unrepeatable—films ever made. Eisenstein both fulfilled and exhausted Soviet Montage.

By 1930, the “Golden Age” which Kuleshov fathered came to an end. Soviet Montage had marched across the globe, deposited its greatest cinematic achievements, theories, and inventions into the tool chest of—something called—“global cinema” (a prestige genre cooked up by Hollywood and its California-based film schools), and was spent.

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Back in the Soviet Union, Stalin and his party apparatchiks turned against the movement; and the names of its practitioners, especially Eisenstein’s, became bywords among political aspirants, encapsulating all that is wrong with its misguided adherents, decadent artists lost in sterile theory, too effete to portray the strengths and vigors appropriate to “the people’s” cinema.

It was in 1935, though, that Soviet Montage officially died. Under the motto “For a Great Cinema Art,” on January 8 through 13, Stalin convened the All-Union Creative Conference of Cinematographic Workers, with Stalin himself present on the final day to distribute awards for cinematic achievement. Stalin orchestrated the proceedings to denigrate Soviet Montage and to elevate Socialist Realism in its stead as the single aesthetic of “Great Cinema Art.”

For five days, Kuleshov’s theories were officially disavowed, but Eisenstein, who had become most popularly associated with the movement, was the named target. Director Leonid Trauberg criticized Eisenstein (and through him the movement) for making “stupid poetry”; director Sergei Yutkevich read aloud a letter from George Sand to Flaubert—which accused Flaubert of too much intellectual study—and pointed its finger at Eisenstein: “You are a fool who roots around in his straw and eats his gold.” Even Dovzhenko, the coward, himself a Soviet montage filmmaker, feeling the heat, took a turn: “If I knew as much as he does I would literally die.” He then threatened Eisenstein, whose lack of production—he had not completed a film in six years—noticeably displeased Stalin: “If you fail to make a film within twelve months at the latest, I beg you never to make one at all. We will have no need of it and neither will you.”

Only one man, during these five tense days, came to Eisenstein’s defense: his mentor, rival, and friend, Kuleshov. “You have talked about him here with very warm, tearful smiles as if he were a corpse which you are burying ahead of time.” Kuleshov slapped back: “I must say to him, to one who is very much alive, and to one whom I love and value greatly: Dear Sergei Mikhailovich, no one ever bursts from too much knowledge but from too much envy.” Then he took his leave: “That is all I have to say.”

Kuleshov defended the man who explored his theories the most ingeniously and made them known to the world—but the movement he had founded was dead.  

In the late 1920s, several years prior to Eisenstein’s public flaying, Kuleshov had found himself, like Eisenstein, the object of intense scrutiny and renunciation by party wannabes. Four of his adoring students, one of whom was Pudovkin, came to his defense:

Some of us who had worked in the Kuleshov Group are regarded as having “outstripped” our teacher. It is a shallow observation…

We make films—Kuleshov made cinematography.

Interpretation and Loneliness

In the introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of a five-day-long interview with late writer David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky describes his book as “the one way of writing about him that I don’t think David would have hated.” This is a remarkable claim, given Wallace’s own apprehension about the very same interview. “If you wanted,” says Wallace (in both the film and the book), “you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing. Because I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.” Wallace’s desire to curate his own image is a familiar one to many of us, a desire compounded today by the proliferation of social media personas and tampered images. Interpretation is a risky and dirty business. It is this confusion of what people truly are and hope to be, before others and before themselves, that James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of Lipsky’s transcript, The End of the Tour, gets exactly right. What many of us clumsily refer to as the problem of interpretation, and which is known in academia as hermeneutics, Wallace gracefully and soberly understands as loneliness.

It bears mentioning that David Foster Wallace’s relatives have publicly voiced their opposition to the film. And the onscreen interpretation of Wallace by actor and comedian Jason Segel is no small irony, given Wallace’s own prolific writing on, and self-admitted addiction to, television and film. The movie, to it’s credit, does not shy away from this dynamic, and takes pains to portray Wallace’s obsession with television: Segel’s Wallace watches the dénouement of Broken Arrow with slack-jawed, panting attention, and guiltily admits to Jessie Eisenberg’s Lipsky that he can’t keep a TV in his house, because it would be on all the time. It’s little touches like these that give the film the true-to-life veneer of a biopic, while masking the reality that viewers are actually watching an interpretive journey that has already been mediated once through Lipsky’s book. But these new interpretive layers have caught many viewers off guard, and the discontinuities can be frustrating at first.

For instance, in Slate, Forrest Wickman meticulously demonstrates the un-truth of Wallace’s “church dance” at the end of the film. According to Wickman, the image of Wallace dancing in church, while beautiful and therapeutic in the context of the narrative the film presents, may have been only as real as the lie Wallace was known to tell reporters.

“[Wallace] often told journalists he was going to church as cover for his attendance at recovery meetings, to stave off a relapse into drug and alcohol addiction. And if the brief vision of Wallace dancing is meant to be taken non-literally, as a moment of him finally achieving freedom from his own self-consciousness, it’s quite untrue to the rest of the movie—which is very much about how David Foster Wallace was a terribly sad, lonely person who could never truly escape his own head. 

The scene “rings false” as, in Wickman’s words, the film is “fooled by its own subject.” And Wickman sets the record straight in short order, with a flurry of anecdotes, quotations, and other evidences of the real Wallace’s purported inability to enjoy the fictional moment presented in the film. In Wickman’s view, it’s false of the film to portray Wallace in this way, and demonstrates a kind of exploitative, directorial stupidity.

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Wickman has fallen for the film’s biopic sheen, and is evaluating the film’s success or failure based on what he assumes to be the responsibilities of biographical art. There are two notable characteristics of a perspective like Wickman’s. Firstly, there is a moral obligation, both to the subject and the audience, to get the story exactly right, and it is the subject itself that becomes the judge of accuracy (and this becomes even more complex when the subject committed suicide seven years ago). Secondly, when an interpretation “fails” based on the standards we have just discussed, it is morally or artistically at fault?

Another recent example of this fraught relationship is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which opened at the Barbican in London this month. The production quickly reneged on its decision to open the play with the famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy due to public backlash; a New York Times critic opined, “You’re bringing out your big showbiz number at the beginning and it’s hard to take seriously after that.” Again, we have the same attitude at play: there’s something exploitative, “showbiz-y,” in reorganizing Hamlet, or in depicting David Foster Wallace at a church dance. The masterpiece and the master ought to be left alone, we are told, to speak for themselves, to decide for themselves what they want to and should in fact be. But the obvious problem is that they can’t. Each individual performance of Hamlet is, by nature, an interpretation. There is no primordial Hamlet that we can return to. Shakespeare himself does not decide what Hamlet is. The performers and the director now perform this duty, attempting to offer something new to the discussion, to pour new wine into new wineskins. Likewise, every word penned by David Foster Wallace, after his death (and if we’re honest, even before), becomes an opportunity for something different and expansive.

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The End of the Tour is a movie about loneliness and fame, about how we craft our image and appreciate (or detest) the images of others. Interpretation can be a lonely act, as individuals are isolated in their own heads, with nothing but their personal judgments and concerns. In the film, Lipsky and Wallace both appear in the role of the self-conscious critic, with their deep insecurities, their fear of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or simply “made a fool” of, to use Wickman’s verbiage. Each man dreads the interpretive power of the other: “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone,” Wallace tells Lipsky, “but I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.” At another point in the film, Wallace believes that he has reached an understanding of Lipsky’s simmering jealousy and admiration, and tries to call him out: “I don’t think you want be to me.” Lipsky replies just a little too quickly, “I don’t.” This is interpretive judo. Both men are feinting, watching their footwork, and occasionally opening themselves up to strike, cautious not to reveal their next move, or their next weakness. Neither one truly grasps the other’s character; a truth that Wallace seems to poignantly understand. This heightened individualism is at play in the critical voices that have attended Cumberbatch’s Hamlet and Ponsoldt’s End of the Tour. The critical impulse, while not always misguided, is a lonely one.

Wallace spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. In his conversations with Lipsky, he offers this insight:

“There’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us. […] One of them has to do with the sense of… capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’ Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader feels less lonely.

Wallace believed that fiction could identify the reader’s own observations and insecurities, offering company for an otherwise lonely mind. It is at this point that The End of the Tour finds hope. At the end of the film, Lipsky offers up his own interpretation of Wallace at a reading of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, following Wallace’s death. The camera hovers at Lipsky’s shoulder as he reads to a room of sober-faced bookies.

“When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. […] The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly off a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had.

Lipsky tellingly begins, “when I think of this trip,” placing himself, the interpreting subject, in the role of storyteller. The interpretive community responds attentively, hanging on to Lipsky’s every word. It is in this context that the film cuts to Wallace’s ecstatic dance. After the writer’s life closes, his books are reopened, his words remembered, and new interpretive worlds open up. It is now possible for us to imagine Wallace dancing in church.

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Artists—directors, musicians, writers—need this interpretive space, and we need to relinquish our modernistic notions of truth to give it to them. While we don’t want to delude ourselves with false hopes and images, we also should not live in fear of the interpretive nature of our lives and worlds. The reality of interpretation, especially the interpretive power of fiction, was a great hope to Wallace throughout his own life-long struggle with loneliness. “We all suffer alone in the real world,” Wallace said in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, “True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.” [2] If Wallace is right, the problem of interpretation is inaccurately labeled. Rather than a problem to be addressed, interpretation is the inescapable and life-giving reality of our common experience as human beings. While this reality can be, as Wallace noted, “extremely disturbing,” it is also deeply natural, and good. In light of this reality, The End of the Tour is best understood as an interpretive retelling of five days of David Foster Wallace’s life. Whether the film succeeds as an interpretation will be the topic of much future discussion, but we should be careful if we expect it to succeed as anything else.

Citations

1. David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2010).

Noteworthy: Realise Minas Tirith

“Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost walls, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver.”

For the equivalent of 2.9 billion US dollars, the shining city J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about in Return of the King could become a real-life city in southern England.  A group of British architects headed by Jonathan Wilson have started a crowdfunding campaign, “Realise Minas Tirith,” to build a fully-functional replica of the city that would be “not only the most remarkable tourist attraction on the planet, but also a wonderfully unique place to live and work.”

Wilson recognizes that his project is a long shot. Although the campaign has already raised an impressive $128,000, the project is still 0% funded with 39 days left. Wilson says, “this project is a light-hearted venture with virtually no chance of succeeding.”

Light-hearted or not, the desire to build a fantasy city, to make it real, is an interesting one. Many people have been so taken by the houses pictured in books or movies that they create replicas to live in themselves. But bringing fantasy worlds into our world robs them of much of their charm. In general these worlds are desirable because they seem better or more beautiful than our own, or because of the story they are a part of. Translated to planet Earth, Minas Tirith would still have all the everyday annoyances of our own world, and none of the world-saving quests of the other. It would still be our world, just a piece of Tolkien would be a part of it. Ultimately, we don’t want shining white cities; we want a better world, or a different grand story for it all.

 

And for all the orc-fans out there, there’s another crowdfunding campaign, “Destroy Minas Tirith,” so that you can stick the “fleshy humans” with “many pointy and shiny things.”

Seven Minutes that Shook the World

“Of all the arts…cinema is the most important.”V. I. Lenin

We are told that they are the seven most important minutes in film, and at the time of this writing they are ninety years old. These minutes comprise a scene hailed by critics—both of their era and beyond—as the first true moment of filmic genius, which, by virtue of their “dialectical” approach, grandeur of spirit, and prowess of production, finally overcame—or better yet, overthrew—the encumbering concreteness of the celluloid image.

To the director himself—and a good many officials in the Communist Party, pragmatic and serious men as they were—they held even greater promise: they were a key discovery, a new agitational tool, an advance in propaganda that if scientifically applied directly struck the psyche, shocking it awake from its proletarianized slumber; a technique to readjust the very rhythms of thought, re-pacing them to match the clashing thrusts of history’s theses, anti-theses, and syntheses; and the final stage of the revolution, the revolution of consciousness. They embodied a method to alter the minds of the people of the new Soviet Union, stirring them to “dialectics.”

The tool was an editing theory known as “Soviet Montage,” the genius was Sergei Eisenstein, the seven minutes are his famed depiction of the 1905 massacre in Odessa (which he set for dramatic purposes on the Odessa Steps), the film was The Battleship Potemkin, the year of its release was 1925, the tail end of the silent era and eight years after the October Revolution. We’ve been studying these seven minutes ever since.

“И вдруг” (or as the intertitle translates it, “Suddenly”)

Crash cut! Extreme close up! Extreme close up! Extreme close up! Extreme close up!

A woman’s face blurred

Head jerks violently

Teeth gnash

Pain—death?

Four shots; four cuts; one composition; for a duration of one second.

—Cut—

Medium shot. North. Camera faces the Potemkin Stairs. Panic: the people of Odessa flee downwards and towards the frame. Something looms behind them. What moves in from the north?

A woman center frame, black dress, holds a white umbrella which obscures her face. She plunges forward, her umbrella engulfing the frame in white. Four-second shot.

—Cut—

Medium shot. Many tones—grey, white, black. The camera’s line of sight jumps northwest 45 degrees (to the left) of center stair. The crowd surges.

In the background, men and women fly south on a dirt path that runs parallel to the stair; in the foreground, on the stair itself, dark silhouettes stream past the lens. Mid-ground, a legless man, the focus of the shot, spins on his palms to see the threat behind, then turns to bolt on his hands. Six-second shot.

—Cut—

Long shot. Establishing shot—or at least what we would normally call one. The perspective has jumped from looking upstairs to down. The camera is positioned high (on a crane, most likely), angled tightly downwards to show the full length and breadth of the Potemkin Stairs.

The enemy enters bottom frame: the tsar’s soldiers in imperial white, rifles ready. Four-second shot.

—Cut—

Medium shot. We are no longer viewing the whole of the action, but are again looking upstairs, back among the people. Now, northeast, 45 degrees right of center, a woman has fallen. No one stops to lift her. She clambers to her feet and continues her escape. Three-second shot.

—Cut—

Long shot. New perspective. The whole stair is visible, from the bottom landing to the top, all 192 steps. Majestic, aggressive, imposing, unnecessary—imperial.

A guess: 150 or 175—maybe 200—men and women, old and young, bourgeois and proletarian, in a full run before the advancing soldiers. (Amazingly, according to reports, no one was injured during the filming.) Seven-second shot.

—Cut—

Montage! A signature move of Eisenstein’s: show one full action from multiple angles, parts out of sequence, without care for continuity or exactness of performance.

Death!

One death; four shots; four versions.

Extreme close up! A man falls, collapses to his knees. Three-second shot.

Close up! Back on his feet, he falls face forward, plunging towards the camera. One second.

Flash!—extreme close up! He tumbles sideways. One half-second.

Medium shot. On his feet once more, he tumbles sideways, hits the ground and dies. Three seconds.

—Cut—

The Math and Music of Montage

So what have we seen, and why have we seen it? Thirty-six seconds in and we’ve discovered contrasting tones, irregular lengths, leaps in perspective, and adventurous editing—in, out, up, down, straight, askew, whole, part, long, brief, briefer still. Montage.

The scene at first appears chaotic, but Eisenstein is in complete control. The improvisational opening sets the stage for an ever-more-complex sequence in which Eisenstein rounds these wild elements into an orderly, almost mathematical, organization, creating a rhythm of edits. By scene’s end, Eisenstein makes 159 splices (by my count), with some shots as brief as six frames long (less than 4/10 of a second in the 16 frames per second that he shot in). As the scene grows steadily in scale and ambition, its ballooning scope morphs into a sustained and driving tempo, which gives way to a surging pace of edits and actions that fall on increasingly hard beats. Allegro, vivace, allegrissimo, prestissimo!

Soldiers march—fire!

Odessans fall

Soldiers march—fire!

Odessans fall

Marks of Marxism

We never get a good look at the tsar’s troops. They are faceless and ruthless. By contrast, as the montage unfolds, Eisenstein introduces us to some of the personalities in the fleeing crowd—a mother, for instance, who holds her dead son in her arms, counter-marches up the stairs, against the scattering tide, towards the tsarist soldiers who greet her with a volley of rifle fire. This is also the famous stroller-careening-down-the-steps scene, one of the most iconic moments in film, reproduced by Brian De Palma so memorably, if cartoonishly, in The Untouchables.

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Eisenstein whips the scene into a furious gallop. As the images grow more violent—blood pours from a woman’s belly; a child is trampled in the stampede—the shots decrease in duration. And as they decrease in duration they grow in number—and as they grow in number their frames become tighter and their depths shallower (with a few exceptions), showing less and less in each image. Thus, each interacting part becomes by sequence’s end an isolated reality, even as they remain locked in conflict.

This is a creature of Eisenstein’s Marxism. Soldiers. Crowd. Their interests are so divided that they cease to appear in the same shots. We no longer see the soldiers firing on the fleeing people. They are broken apart into non-overlapping images—the soldiers firing, cut to the crowd bleeding. This is an opposition so deep, so endless it cannot be depicted; it can only be realized by a division in the image; by an edit, or as Eisenstein would have it, a montage.

“Montage is Conflict”

Eisenstein was always and ever a partisan of montage. His theoretical understanding of what it was, however, underwent several major revisions during his career. In the years directly following the release of The Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein was called on to explain or defend (depending on the audience) the theories which drove his film. He was now a global star—a prized guest in the avant-garde circles of the European continent and an honored invitee to the homes of Hollywood greats such as Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin, both of whom regarded Eisenstein as a personal friend. It is said that Chaplin counted The Battleship Potemkin as the greatest film ever made. He was not alone. Eisenstein was clearly a master. The world knew him as a genius.

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From the years 1925 to 1929, the years that saw the release of Potemkin and its thematic sequel, October: Ten Days that Shook the World, Eisenstein took to explaining film form as “conflict” itself. “Montage is conflict,” he writes in “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929). And film is, he writes, “first and foremost, montage.” He asks, “By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cell—the shot?” He answers:

By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other.

He repeats:

By conflict. By collision.

And this conflict goes all the way down. A six second shot is in conflict with a five second shot. A character angled to the right is in conflict with a character angled left. Down is in conflict with up. A long shot with a short. A fast with a slow. A dark toned with a light toned. A close up with a medium. And so on. It’s, well, silly.

But to be fair, these crudities were shared with subtler thinkers of a similar hue, such as Viktor Shklovsky, and were far more sophisticated in their hands. To be fairer still, Eisenstein eventually left this notion behind. And Eisenstein’s temporary focus on oppositions and differences was fruitful. It gave him an eye for stark compositional contrasts and made for elaborate (and yet controlled) configurations. The soldiers marching down the steps, for instance, should be intercut with a woman trudging up the steps. Not only is the woman defying the soldiers, but, in this approach, up is also defying down.

Intellectual Montage: Editing to Reveal Symbols and Themes

The Odessa Steps scene is a rhythmic elaboration on one theme, violence, which takes the very form of montage (as Eisenstein believed at this point). At the end of the seven minutes, the relations of the shots are no longer perceived by the eye, but are pieced together by the mind. The images cease to be the constituting elements of the story; instead, the edits, which place the shots in conflict, narrate the images themselves.

Eisenstein believed that this link between the edit, the mind, and meaning could be exploited. The longer the mind thinks along with his edits and the greater the distance the mind and montage travel together—over sharp contrasts in composition, time, space, and theme—the more the mind becomes attuned to conceptualizing what’s not ‘there.’ He theorized that his montage could direct the “vibrations” of the psyche to spring, if only momentarily, into dialectical consciousness, because it had been trained by the montage to perceive dialectical conflict. This trained perception, if brought to climax, would drive the psyche to new heights of conceptual vision. (And also because, to be honest, he saw his fellow Russians—or really, the peasants and the proletariat—as mere matter to be re-programmed by his own hand and the hand of the party.)

In the scene in question, his attempt to stir such consciousness came via a clever editing trick. He filmed three stone statues of lions—one sleeping, one waking, one rising—and then edited the shots together, producing a fluid stop-motion animation of a stone lion roused and at the ready. The animation is the capping image: after the slaughter, after the battleship’s massive guns have fired on the city in retaliation, and after he has spent seven minutes building the rhythm, contrasting compositions, and driving the scene to a point—one, two, three, the lion rises!

The audience is supposed to recognize this as an apt symbol of the rise of Russia in revolt against the tsar, avenging those massacred at Odessa. It alludes to the 1905 Revolution, the foreshock of 1917. Eisenstein called this type of signification “intellectual montage,” when the edit produces a symbol unexplained by the story, but the mind, stirred by the rhythmic modulations of the scene, leaps to understanding. Such a leap, Eisenstein mused, would herald nothing less than a “revolution in the general history of culture.”

The meaning of the sequence, however, historian Oksana Bulgakowa tells us, was lost on Eisenstein’s audience. Or at least it was lost on the proletariat, certainly the peasant, perhaps even the avant-garde (although no such admission was forthcoming).

A far more effective example of Eisenstein’s forays into intellectual montage is found in his first feature, Strike! (1924), a film about a labor strike sparked by a worker’s suicide which concludes with a long battle between factory workers and policemen. Eisenstein crosscuts footage of a bull being slaughtered, blood gushing from its neck, heaving on the floor, with shots of the police mowing down strikers with machine guns. The bull twitches, dying, and so do the workers. The symbol needs no interpretation: the workers have been sacrificed to the gods of capital.

A Beauty of Power

Eisenstein thought these symbolic interjections the purest of agitation and his crowning propagandistic achievement (despite their failure with proletarian and peasant audiences). Yet they were something still more: they were Art. To wrench a symbol from the “concreteness” of photographic images, for Eisenstein, was to join the ranks of the great modernist movements of the day—especially futurism, cubism, and suprematism—which were doing their own hard work of liberation, on canvas, in verse, and with whatever material sculptors could get their hands on. But don’t imagine that his dedications to Art and agitation pulled Eisenstein’s work in opposing directions. He was a constructivist through and through who saw it as his duty to use his immense talent for the purposes of the state. Eisenstein claimed, “For art is always conflict: (1) according to its social mission, (2) according to its nature, (3) according to its methodology.”

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Eventually, despite his obvious dedication to Bolshevism, Eisenstein’s cinematics were singled out, and loudly, publicly renounced by the party. It’s unclear, due to his evident loyalty, why, but such are the mysteries of Soviet Communism. And yet, until the end Eisenstein remained a believer. And if his cinema is beautiful, it reflects the beauty he found in the regime he supported. Eisenstein’s role in the revolution was to make a beauty of power. Using the first mass art, film, he told the story of the new reality, created an iconography of the new man, and heralded the dawning of the new age. Over 1,300 furious shots later—almost twice the number in American films made at the time—it appeared to many that he had succeeded. David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind and then an associate producer at MGM, upon seeing The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin, as he knew the title of the film, circulated this memo:

“It was my privilege…to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made…The film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen, and I therefore suggest that it might be very advantageous to have the organization view it in the same way that a group of artists might view or study a Rubens or a Raphael.

Rubens? Raphael? Overblown, but Selznick identifies rightly the spirit of the film and the moment: what Potemkin offered (or seemed to offer) was newness. And while it no longer offers that, it offers something quite like it: other possibilities. Just ask Hitchcock, Coppola, and Scorsese, who drew and draw heavily on the Soviet.

But also consult with another man: “A genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants!” That’s gulag prisoner K-123, from famous dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), decrying Eisenstein. Perhaps he’s the one who deserves our ear. After all, our study of these seven minutes cannot separate Eisenstein’s art from the regime he served.

On Advantageous

Many of the standard traits of a dystopian vision are in Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous. Set in a future, unnamed megacity, water is scarce, surveillance and shadowy corporations are plentiful, and terrorists intermittently set off bombs. Like a sparser, filmic mixture of Children of Men, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, and Blade Runner, the city’s dark corners are packed with barely hidden suffering—homeless sleep under well-trimmed bushes, young girls work as silver-masked prostitutes. Similar to its science fiction forbearers, Advantageous is as concerned about us as it is about the future.

Neither a space opera nor a dystopian battle tale, and shot on a slim budget, saving the world isn’t part of Phang’s second feature. A relationship provides its driving drama, a mother and daughter and the question of who they are together. The mother, Gwen, (played by Jacqueline Kim) hopes to secure a stable life for her gifted daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim). Gwen works as a marketing spokeswoman for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, an eerie company about to launch a procedure that allows for the transfer of a consciousness from an old body to a young one. However, Gwen is too old for their new target audience, and is let go.

Jacqueline and Samantha Kim, even with their sparse lines and short conversations, inhabit the screen with a well-acted intimacy: singing on the piano, eating pecan pie together on the floor, and they only touch one another. This intimacy isolates them, provides small bits of comfort in a city that is slowly breaking apart.

Backgrounds in science fiction films do more work than in your standard fictional story, for settings and sounds provide indirect exposition about the history and state of their alternate world. Even though the visual effects for the city skyline with its vast glass and grey skyscrapers are well done, the sound mixing provides the most impressive aspect of the film’s backdrop. Most of the time this city is deathly quiet. As Gwen walks on sidewalks it sounds like she is always in an empty hallway, for you can always hear her heels. This absence of urban white noise makes the repression even more ominous, as if the city eats people and sound.

The silent grey city contrasts with the music of their apartment. Music binds Gwen and Kim together, providing a balm for their wounds. When Jules hears her mother crying in the other room, she turns on a piano sonata. After learning of Gwen’s rejected application from an elite prep school, they listen to music on the couch. Through music, even more so than words, they know and can comfort each other. This is the only relationship that you feel like you know what it is—its motivations are not masked in lifeless speech, and it is not another attempt to grab more in a world marked by silent scarcity.

Issues of gender, class, revolution, race, reproductive rights, concerns about technology, and identity all compose the atmosphere and story of Phang’s film. Gwen needs a job and money, but due to some sort of post-feminist backlash, the elite are recommending that women stay at home. A wealthy socialite club invites Gwen to discuss her daughter joining their “bonding camp,” a matchmaking group for elite children. When they learn Jules’ father is not in the picture, the group’s leader ends the conversation with an arctic, “That is a wild card.” News stations drone with zombie-ish bureaucratic language about their city and its “bright future.” The clutter of societal problems manages to make the point: this world is the wedge, pulling Jules and Gwen apart.

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Science fiction writer Frank Herbert supposedly said, “The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it.” Yet the choice to include so many issues lends the impression that Phang is more concerned with critiquing the present. This critical purpose leads to a crowded story, for ultimately, there are too many ideas in the film. One after another, societal problems are introduced and dropped. These missteps in the script create forced conversations that don’t have anything to do with the characters, but are clearly about introducing one more way in which this world is warped. For example, in four brief lines we learn that most women are infertile by the time they are twenty. It seems as if Phang didn’t trust the indirect exposition of her well-done background enough, leading her to shove in more direct commentary than necessary.

One of the movie’s best scenes demonstrates what Phang is capable of when she trusts her background. Gwen is sitting a park, talking with her mother on the phone and asking for money. Late sun slants through the trees. A child prostitute takes off her shoes and mask in the background, and Gwen refuses to allow her parents to meet Jules. As her mother growls Gwen’s name, an explosion rocks a skyscraper in the distance. The mother’s voice shifts again, and she begins praying for Gwen, who tearfully hangs up. Even with its odd editing, here the foreground of fractured relationships and the background of the disintegrating city perfectly balance one another. Past sins and future fears implode in the present with a fatalistic horror—everything is, and will remain broken.

Jobless, without family support, and driven by a concern for Jules’ future, Gwen desperately returns to the Center. She offers to undergo the procedure and have her consciousness transferred to a new body, selling her rehiring with how satisfied customers are the best promoters. This decision, and the rupture it creates, marks the rest of the film.

The Center’s advertising tagline is “Be the you you were meant to be.” Within it is the main question of the film: What makes you, you? Is it your choices, your body, your relationships, your purpose? There are always societal forces and systems that want to answer the question of identity for you, to determine your desires, to draw you in and form you with the force of their gravity.

In the brokenness of the end, Gwen 2.0 tells her daughter: “You’re alive because of energy and empathy.” And together, in the park, with one hand raised to the heavens and one pointing to the earth, Jules and Gwen spin like whirling dervishes. They spin, with directed energy, chosen speed, together, moving with the peace available to them, possibly salvaging their own gravity.

Editor’s Note: Advantageous is now streaming on Netflix.

A Song of Ice and Fire, and Hope?

Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers from Season Five of Game of Thrones. 

I picked up A Game of Thrones, the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire in the sweet spot between the fourth book’s release and the announcement of HBO’s now wildly popular TV adaptation. It paralleled my junior high obsession with The Lord of the Rings, but felt distinctly true to what I was experiencing in university. At the time, the unfeeling indifference of university had replaced the wise counselors of my youth; the purposeful quest dissolved into a blur of struggles and skirmishes. I read, hoping for resolution.

The moment I knew Ned wasn’t coming back was formative to my reading life, and it still colours my reading of fiction. His unjust death showed me that A Song of Ice and Fire was different from what I’d read before. I realized Martin would’ve let Gandalf stay dead and that frightened me—but I couldn’t stop reading.

So began my time in Westeros, a world of small victories and devastating losses, and a place I never want to visit but can’t help exploring.

Game of Thrones (GOT) and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) often get compared for the scope of their world-building, which are fleshed out with enough detail to fill encyclopedias. But that’s where the clear comparisons end. Spend time in both and you’ll soon find that there is no idyllic Shire, no selfless counsellors, and that in Westeros, Aragorn would have taken the Ring from Frodo, because that’s what people do: steal, oppress, and destroy—try as they might do otherwise.

GOT is an intricate world made more complex by its population of cripples, bastards, and other broken things. LOTR is as intricate, but often labeled as simplistic because of its supposedly straightforward narrative of Good versus Evil. Martin himself took a shot at Tolkien’s medieval philosophy in an interview with Rolling Stone, disagreeing with the assumption that “if the king [is] a good man, the land [will] prosper.” Despite his quibbles, Martin doesn’t think Middle-Earth is “a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and at the end they live happily ever after.” Tolkien’s novels are deeply touched with tragedy, as Martin acknowledges in the interview.

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However, by the time Eddard Stark had lost his head, I’d seen enough brutality to know what I was reading—tragedy. For me, Ned’s death was a twist, a big one, and I was hooked. I kept reading, desperate to know what would become of the Starks and other characters. Now I’d like to know when killing off (and brutalizing) sympathetic characters stops being a twist.

The narrative role of betrayals and sexual violence is growing stale, in the TV show especially, as HBO’s desire for shock value trumps plot value.

HBO’s misuse of sex and violence (Episode 6: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken) prompted Vox writer Zack Beauchamp to voice fears that Game of Thrones might become “the simple inverse of a boring morality tale.” Which would be equally as bland because “‘everything is terrible’ is just as boring and predictable as ‘everything is awesome.’” Since conflict is at the center of storytelling, there needs to be a balance of terrible and awesome; a real chance of defeat and meaningful victories. Without this balance, Game of Thrones’ grit is starting to chafe. The show runners new habit of bringing the peripheral terribleness of the novels to bear on the main characters is a big part of this.

Beauchamp goes on to list what the show does well, revealing his hopes for many of the narrative arcs. Of everyone’s favourite half-man he says: “Tyrion was genuinely trying to make things better, and it was damn entertaining to watch him succeed — if only temporarily.” Why not spare Jon and let him succeed where Ned and Robb failed? Why not have Sansa carry the Stark name as a strong, wintry queen? I’ll watch the news if I want to see well-intentioned efforts fumbled and frustrated at every turn.

Jon Snow now lies dead on the last pages and frames of GOT, and—if you believe the message boards—many fans either mourn him or await his resurrection. These Jon Snow evangelists appeal to theories about his true identity. Is Jon the ice to Dany’s dragon fire? For my part, I hold onto the supernatural, the magic that must manifest itself for the series to move towards a conclusion. I ask with Martin, “when can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible?” But Jon’s death made it clear, Game of Thrones is due for a eucatastrophe—Tolkien’s conception of the happy ending, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”

I’m hoping for this turn—longing for a little bit of storybook in a story that cares too much about rough edges.

After her conquest of Meereen, Daenerys is faced with a choice: show mercy to former slave owners or mete out justice. She declares “I will answer injustice with justice,” and we love her for it, because we all hope for justice. We want to see the battered and broken Starks restored, and to rejoice when the noble intentions of Tyrion and Daenerys are successful.

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While there’s no doubt that moral ambiguity and intrigue (and gratuitous violence and sex) sell, the recent success of Mad Max has reaffirmed the popularity of simple stories. Furiosa’s War Rig ran on a clear hope as much as guzzoline, but her journey can’t be considered easy or painless. Frodo and Furiosa’s clear paths don’t make their journeys any less daunting.

Yet in Game of Thrones, those who try to do good are confounded at every turn while monsters like The Mountain and Littlefinger cheat the death they sorely deserve, but we hold on. This hope is not unlike the hope of the Ring-bearer’s quest to Mount Doom in The Lord of The Rings; we want to see good people triumph and evil defeated, even when we’re not given much grounds for such a hope.

The triumph of good is only boring when unrealistically easy. Victory in the face of darkness, evil—whatever you want to call it, is exactly what we want. Give me a hero—but give me a hero that bleeds.

Right now, because Game of Thrones is unfinished, it’s like following breaking news. We have our theories and, of course, hopes for how the story will end, but no one knows except the author. It’s easy to be cynical after all the death and injustice, but there is less room for despair in a world where magic exists. So we keep on dreaming satisfying, fanciful dreams, because it’s what we do.

Perhaps, when the final page is written, we’ll find out that Martin isn’t quite so at odds with Tolkien. The Lord of The Rings isn’t all second breakfasts and triumph, darkness descends and there’s real struggle, risk, and loss. The force that impels us to read stories to completion is hope, but we can only identify with hope in the midst of suffering. So yes, Game of Thrones is bleak, horrifying, and often reprehensible, and that’s why so many keep watching and reading.

The horror can’t go on forever, can it?

That’s why I can’t give up now, not yet. The bodies keep piling up, but I want to hold on despite the weight of the darkness. I’m hoping for an end to the vicious game of thrones, for a good king or queen for Westeros. If we, as humans, give up on the Seven Kingdoms, a place designed to display the complexity of the morass that is morality, how can we bear to live in this world, the one we see on the news and in our Twitter feeds?

Hope is categorically and necessarily human; we need it—I need it—to get up in the morning, and to sleep at night too. Will I wake up to another sunrise? Will everything sad come untrue?

I hope so.

A Planetary Reckoning

Cinema—be it documentary or narrative—does not normally ask more of the viewer than a couple hours’ time, a degree of attention, and suspension of disbelief. Occasionally, a film will ask you to reappraise a situation or opinion. Of course, many filmmakers hope to inspire a change in behavior, such as greater tolerance, civic engagement, or a donation to a cause. Planetary, a new, ecologically-concerned documentary directed by Guy Reid, asks us to evolve.

Over the past couple of decades, concern over climate change has given birth to a sizable number of genres and subgenres in film. Think An Inconvenient Truth (PowerPoint prophecy) or The Day After Tomorrow (eco-disaster-sploitation). Precedents of such eco-disaster films go back to the 1970s. All of these titles, in one form or another, ask us to reflect on what we (or Monsanto or Dow Chemical or whoever) have wrought, and to seek practical remediation. With a mesmerizing score and groundbreaking cinematography, Planetary makes the same requests. However, like the astronaut whose lunar perspective the film evokes, it then proceeds to take a giant leap.

The kind of evolution that Reid and his collaborators have in mind is framed both as a progression and a return. The film, which features prominent activists and thinkers such as Bill McKibben, Barry Lopez and Mary Evelyn Tucker, starts off with a recollection of how the first pictures of Earth from space—taken by astronauts in 1968—changed the way that we look at ourselves. For the first time in human history, we were able to see our own planet and reflect on both our cosmic insignificance as well as our collective fate within the single globe-spanning ecosystem. However, as McKibben points out, those early images are now out of date. The intervening decades have brought terrestrial transformations so dramatic—from vast deforestation to desertification and monocrop agriculture—that they can be seen clearly from space.

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A familiar litany of Earth’s injuries follows. Creatures are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. The poisoned waters are rising. Carbon is filling our atmosphere. Externalizations cannot be externalized beyond a closed system. And our world is a closed system. The environmental crisis, in fact, proves a maxim central to many eastern philosophies: all of existence is intertwined. From goldfinches to blue jeans, look at any object or creature closely, and you’ll see a web of dependent factors running off in every direction. It’s wonderful and it’s precarious. A rising tide may lift all boats but it also subsumes everything that isn’t buoyant. Scientists—including a number of them in this film—have been echoing this sentiment for decades.

But it’s one thing to proclaim “We are one.” It’s another thing to absorb that message and apply it to every consumer decision and seemingly inconsequential action that one takes. Such an epiphany is recounted by several astronauts interviewed for the film. In the telling, their observations come off as a religious experience afforded only to the few men and women who have stepped that far out of the worldly realm. At one point, Dr. Mae Jemison, a space shuttle veteran, says, “The really wonderful thing that happened to me when I was in space was this feeling of belonging to the entire universe.” Ron Garan, who spent over six months on the International Space Station, says, “You can’t help but reflect on how we’re all one people.”

And yet, astronauts are not the only humans to have gone beyond the mundane and returned to share their insights with the rest of us. What I found most impressive about Planetary—aside from the inspired imagery—was the way Reid’s editor Steve Watts Kennedy (who is also credited as writer and co-producer) seamlessly makes this transition. The interview subjects move from astronauts to activists to philosophers to Zen priests and Tibetan lamas and finally to Native American elders. This impressive queue progressively makes the case that a new kind of consciousness is required of our species if we are to evolve past the myopic, egocentric, short-sighted ways that have brought us to the brink of self-destruction. The film maintains that a steady awareness of interconnectedness, as well as qualities like compassion, empathy and mindfulness, can only be cultivated through meditation and deep reflection.

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Planetary was released on Earth Day this year, both online and in theaters across the U.S. and England. It is also being shown at a handful of prestigious film festivals, which is how I happened to see it with a crowd of 700 one warm April afternoon in Toronto. Now, I should mention that I have practiced meditation myself for a number of years. So if the theory holds true, that meditation makes one a more responsible player in the cosmological order of things, I would hopefully be able to recognize that in myself. It’s a difficult thing to say with any real certainty. I can say this, however: the daily act involves disconnecting from one’s affairs and simply feeling what it is to be alive, to marvel, to desire, to suffer, to look away, to look back—all the things that cross the space of awareness when one turns off the devices and turns inwards. This practice—and it is a practice—nourishes and simultaneously depends upon the ability to stay present. Staying present and examining one’s choices and relationships—isn’t that what’s needed in order to really know who we are, where we are and how to heal?

I’m not alone in this experience. Yesterday’s fringe is woven into today’s quilt. Mindfulness has gone almost mainstream of late. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Russell Brand touts its rewards. But the voices in the film are not just talking about the kind of de-stressing, relaxation techniques advised by physicians and celebrities. They refer to the kind of deep, reflective inquiry that is a hallmark of rigorous—even religious—spiritual practice. The Buddhist voices speak of a time-tested tradition of recognizing interdependence. Planetarys aboriginal representatives emphasize modern man’s self-narrative as one separate and superior to nature. And yet Planetary builds to an almost feel-good conclusion: The key is a sense of awe. Our civilization has lost that reverence. Meditation brings it back.

Most of the people who will wind up watching Planetary will already consider themselves to be environmentalists, or of an environmentally-concerned persuasion. But if viewers do not already feel a visceral connection to nature, practice meditation or engage in other deep spiritual work, will the film inspire them to do so?

The Guardian’s Leslie Felperin isn’t buying it. After admiring Planetary’s intentions and cinematography, she writes,

“[T]he film’s answer to our problems seems to rest on a lot of vague hippy ideas about getting people to mediate [sic] in nature or become Native Americans. Something like that. Worst of all, the unrelenting background score of droning yoga-class music becomes so intensely annoying it’s almost enough to make you want to go out and buy a Hummer so you can drive around the world throwing litter out the window while playing death metal at maximum volume.

So much for empathy. Dennis Harvey, in Variety, is more to the point: “The soft landing on a general note of ‘Be mindful’ lends all the spectacular images . . . less cumulative gravity than a more straightforward call to protesting action might have.”

To my mind, both these reviewers miss the point. In Felperin’s case, it seems like a willful cynicism that she expects will echo her readers’ own skepticism. For Harvey, there is no alternative to the documentary model—to incite incredulity, anger and heartbreak—that has hitherto yielded mixed results for the environmental movement. Wash, rinse, repeat. This attitude also seems to prevent him from hearing the philosophic observations made by several of the film’s voices: Physicist Peter Russell asserts we must “let go of this egocentric materialistic consciousness.” Joan Halifax, a renowned Zen teacher, reiterates the findings of mystics and physicists like Russell when she concludes, “There is no inherent separate self, we are coterminous with everything.” Activist Dr. Joanna Macy calls for “a transition from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society” and points out this is already happening in fits and starts. Thus, it is not merely mindfulness—the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s actions and their repercussions—that these speakers are calling for. It is a complete shift in attitude for the modern person, a shift that has only been reliably cultivated by those who have had a thorough engagement with contemplative traditions.

Finally, Daniel Eagen of Film Journal International writes

“While a less materialistic society might be better for the environment, not everyone can afford to abandon soul-killing cities to meditate in rain forests or on mountaintops. Despite its good intentions, Planetary speaks only to those who already agree with the filmmakers.

And perhaps this gets to the heart of my own wrestling with the film and its public reception. I am, after all, among the converted. But I wonder if perhaps the call to evolve only differs from other environmentalist strategies by degree. After all, environmentalism is concerned with how behaviors can be changed, if at all. If people can’t be convinced to bike to work, what makes anyone think they’ll be sold on sitting around doing nothing for a part of their day, every day? And yes, not everyone has the ability to cultivate a relationship with the exterior natural world, much less a relationship with their own natural interior.

Many pragmatists assume that people will only change their behavior when it is legally enforced or in their economic or social interest. That is why we speak of the environmental challenge as a matter of leadership. Most of us have given up on ourselves or our neighbors to make any drastic changes voluntarily. Meanwhile, Planetary and its narrative of widespread awakening take an argument rooted in faith and balances it, sometimes precariously, over the edge of pragmatism. The deep realization of our interdependence with all life has been experienced by many, but it remains an article of faith that can only be truly experienced subjectively. It is an inversion of the problem scientists have faced in convincing doubters that climate change is real and human-caused.

Will the last word be held by the critics, those keepers of the skeptic flame? They argue that even if the spiritual argument is true, not enough people will commit themselves in the absence of immediate financial and social incentives. But here’s what the critics overlook: our culture is already changing. Planetary is a distinctive entry in a movement that is taking place without the approbation or even recognition of cynics. As interdisciplinary economist Charles Eisenstein says in the film, “Normal has to seem unsustainable. . . . We have to plant the seeds of a new story.” That is already happening. And every time mindfulness and meditation are normalized in the discourse of modern life; every time a public figure talks about the natural world as their place of worship; and every time children are taught that they are made of the same material as every other person, every other animal and every other thing in existence, the number of those still calling themselves separate will have dwindled even more. At such a time, whose citadel of pragmatism will the naysayers be defending?

Truth Clothed in Fiction

In the last few years, occasional moviegoers and film aficionados alike may have stumbled across the Wachowski brothers’ ambitious, epic drama starring Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving. Based on David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas explores the cycles of oppression and resistance throughout past and future centuries, demonstrating the causality of such acts in reincarnated souls. Mitchell’s novel focuses not so much on reincarnation, however, as it does on the nature of reality, fiction, and transcendent truths.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Mitchell lists Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler as his primary inspiration for Atlas, recalling that it “made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate.” While Mitchell certainly borrows large elements of Traveler’s structure, Atlas is also a thematic descendant of Calvino’s work. As in Traveler, characters in Atlas upset their fictional framework and erode the barrier between author and character; ultimately, this erasure of boundary creates multiple levels of fiction, leaving the reader with the challenge of eliciting meaning from a complex web. This complexity may appear a hindrance to attaining meaning, however the multiple levels of fiction in both Calvino and Mitchell’s works elicit the artificiality of the stories within a novel. This awareness of artificiality leads the reader to bypass questions regarding the specific truth of the story— questions of whether it actually happened—for the higher, immovable truths from which it derives. These postmodern authors use specific, even banal tales to search out transcendent constants. 

Atlas closely resembles Traveler’s complexity and untraceability, yet Mitchell’s work shies away from its predecessor’s second-person narration. While Calvino’s work achieves a higher level of metafiction, espousing a diegetic voice, Atlas utilizes a purely mimetic voice.  Still, Atlas borrows from Traveler in the moments when characters themselves, as opposed to an omniscient narrator, upset their own fictional framework, challenging and validating each story’s authenticity within the larger fictional universe of Atlas. Literary scholar and critic Nella Cotrupi argues that Traveler

“inventories many of the species of metafiction … in a complicated, multilayered, semantically heterogeneous fictional universe … by adopting … the Chinese-box structure of multiple diegetic levels wherein stories successively frame other stories often to the point of infinite regress.

Structurally, Atlas performs a similar feat, its six stories enclosing one another from the middle outward in a potentially endless set of novellas. When crossover occurs between stories, characters often challenge the truthfulness of another story and even the authorial presence itself. Mitchell weaves in a few key self-criticisms through one of the characters, Cavendish, who states: “As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.”  Frobisher, protagonist of the second story, later accuses “The Pacific Journal”–a record of the first story present in the second as a worn journal–of artificiality and forgery, wondering who would bother forging such a journal.

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Nonetheless, the reader cannot fully dismiss any story, as Atlas also validates each story offhandedly. Sonmi, protagonist of the fifth story, appears in the sixth story as a goddess, while the presence of her orison—a holographic recording of her story—along with a multitude of other shrine-like images set up for her, justifies her divine status in a primitive society. Luisa Rey, protagonist of the third story, visits the affluent suburb of Ewingsville in California. The perceptive reader will notice the ironic connection to the first story; the protagonist, Ewing, returns to California to combat social inequity more than a century earlier. While he obviously achieves a level of success to have a suburb named after him, the irony bleeds thickly in between the lines of the story as the elite, not the disenfranchised, champion the activist Ewing. With this level of complexity and intertextual play, each story proves self-affirming but unlikely in light of other stories’ critiques.

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations. They also adhere closely to Ludmilla’s wish in Calvino’s Traveler for an author “who makes books the way a pumpkin vine makes pumpkins,” or “the way some animals dig holes or build anthills or make beehives … it seems they were already there before.” The reader may then see Atlas as a clever fabrication of highly entertaining types; as the reader perceives the artificiality, the presence of the author emerges.

Rather than annulling the novel’s message, the use of types points to higher, immovable truths. Calvino points to the necessity of multiplicity for reaching unchanging standards by feeling the need to write “the unique book, which contains the whole, [and] could only be the sacred text … the only way left me is that of writing all books, writing the books of all possible authors.” If clouds, then, are the specific experiences of individuals, the atlas represents the encyclopedia—a record—an account of endless variation intended to detect the constant. Calvino longs for this constant: “there is a story for me that comes before all other stories and of which all the stories I read seem to carry an echo, immediately lost.” Atlas represents just such a compilation of stories that echo universal types.

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Yet here a schism arises. Some critics perceive type-stories, fables aware that they are so, as hindrances to the conveyance of truth. These critics assume that only a literary medium uncluttered and free of metafictional confusion and multiplicity serves as an effective vehicle of truth. Madeleine Sorapure from the State University of New York accurately notes the contrast between a traditional authorial voice and Calvino’s, asserting that “Calvino brings the author down from the tower and places him in the midst of the fiction, assailable and, in fact, assailed by his audience.” Likewise, though less apparently, Mitchell’s authorial voice suffers assault from the fiction itself and thus its readers; he does not cast any one of his six stories as having an ontological advantage over another. His multiple voices remain equally limited in their means of acquiring knowledge and never assume an omniscient stance. Mitchell’s authorial voices remain tethered to his world of fiction, and the lack of an omniscient voice means that the reader never reaches a clear analytical vantage point; rather than the eagle surveying a landscape from above, she sees mere crevices and paths from the ground. However, just as Mitchell’s authorial voice differs from the actual Mitchell, so the ventriloquizing reader—by taking the author’s words as her own—inserts herself into the world of the text yet stands always and inseparably above it.

So in Atlas, that stories are presented as fictional does not really matter. They all fall under an unreachable orbit of “actuality”; no matter how many levels of fiction they present, the reader knows that even the “truest” story is fictitious. This realization prompts the reader not to avoid questioning the story’s authenticity within the novel, but to appreciate it for what it is, a story. The reader must look not to whether a story “actually happened” within its fictional universe but to the greater truths the fiction attempts to reveal.

In Papers on Language and Literature, Marilyn Orr similarly notes that the fragmented tales of Calvino’s Traveler,

“tell the archetypal story of life as they give narrative form to the fears and desires that are bound up with the struggle toward ‘the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity.

In Atlas, Mitchell likewise presents stories that convey lofty ideas so that his reader focuses not on “finding the truth, then, but of perceiving and creating it,” searching Atlas’s novellas for “the real life dimension of their myths.” In fact, Calvino might champion myth as the most suitable medium for discerning truth. After all, if objective truth inhabits a lofty, intangible realm, then fictional accounts of relatable, familiar human stories prove the best bridge by which to traverse this ontological chasm. An author might philosophize or “moralize” in his or her work, but readers enjoy stories more than sermons. Both media might seek to convey the same truth, but the latter will always do so with more emotional effect and personal relatability. Aesop’s Fables readily demonstrates the power of story as a means of conveying truth, as do Jesus’s parables. Mitchell likewise wraps noble humanitarian messages in eloquently crafted novellas.

Mitchell thus leaves the reader a task of perception rather than cognition. As Calvino’s Ludmilla explains,

“The novel I would most like to read at this moment should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves.”

Indeed, such stories do not impose philosophies and ethical principles on the reader—they are far from didactic texts—but the author so carefully intertwines the morals with the story that an absorption of the latter means an intake of the former. Like history’s great story-tellers—from Aesop to Hemingway—Mitchell knows that the learner prefers lessons of truth clothed in fiction.

The (Un)bridled Eros of Don Draper

The dust Don Draper kicked up on his California-bound journey to find himself has almost settled. In the days since the series finale of Mad Men aired, critics have produced many  appraisals and deconstructions of the final installment of Matthew Weiner’s beloved, meticulously 1960s-era chronicle of the advertising industry and the enthralling cast of characters who filled its smoky offices. This kind of critical fervor for Mad Men is, of course, nothing new. Throughout the show’s seven-year run, as Hank Stuever glibly remarked, enthusiasts have repeatedly harnessed “their relatively unused master’s degrees” to generate scrupulous—if, nonetheless, obsessive—analyses of each new episode. And it’s hard to blame fans for such scrutiny given the palpable literary quality of Weiner’s series. As the curtain finally falls, it is more apparent than ever that Mad Men’s charm was always the slow and subtle arc of a good novel rather than the shrill and improvident plot of pulp fiction—as if the storytelling style was itself among the methodically curated list of items that, in aggregate, helped achieve the show’s astoundingly holistic period piece effect. All of those small and seemingly superfluous narrative details invite interpretative attention; the minutiae which inspired so much commentary were as important to the show’s texture as each and every fitted wool suit and silk chiffon.

One of those details that served as perennial fodder for Internet speculation was the show’s opening credits sequence. Don Draper’s silhouette falling from an office window on high, as many supposed, was a portent omen that the story of Mad Men was really The Fall of Don Draper, a tale that ultimately would end with his untimely demise. With the final act finally in the books, it turns out this particular conjecture was wrong: Don Draper lives.

The seventh season, and series finale in particular, have redrawn my attention to another hiding-in-plain-sight element of the opening sequence—the show’s title. “Mad Men,” as the first frame of the very first episode explains, was “a term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.” On one level, then, the title is simple word play (and “Mad Men” is certainly catchier than “Avenue Guys”). There is, however, more meaning to be wrung from Weiner’s title.

What makes Don Draper a mad man? Plentiful images of an enraged Don come to mind, including one particularly memorable exchange with Peggy Olson from Season 4. The kind of madness I’m interested in, however, is less the kind you manage through therapy and more like the kind Plato describes in the Phaedrus. In that text, Plato crafts a dialogue between Socrates and a young philosophical aspirant named Phaedrus on the nature of Eros. Love, Plato claims through his literary mouthpiece Socrates, is inspired and fueled by a kind of divine mania, or madness, for Beauty (with a capital B). Eros is an innate yearning that propels the lover onward and upward, toward the unseen object of his or her desire. Physical beauties, consequently, are meant to be incipient intimations, anticipatory icons, of the archetypal Beauty.

The difficulty, of course, is that sensible pleasures have a certain way of ensnaring our attention and obscuring our ability to focus on that which lies beyond, a problem Don Draper knows all too well. As Plato describes it, the very manic fervor for Beauty that propels the lover toward unseen spiritual heights may equally become a liability when misdirected toward pleasure alone—that is, when we, like Don, mistake the beautiful sensual icons all around us for archetypal Beauty itself. Madness is not the problem, Plato contends, the problem is how you use it. Beautiful souls are not those who have expunged mania but rather those who, like a charioteer, have learned to properly harness their frenzy. Madness, like a pair of winged steeds, is the true engine of Eros.

Eros is by no means a foreign topic for the characters of Mad Men. Don, in particular, has been asking and answering the question since the first episode of the series. During a memorable dinner conversation with department store heiress (later, love interest), Rachel Menken, Don pontificates:

“Love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

An eye roll would be the almost necessary response to this line if we believed Don is actually convinced of the predictably Dionysian gospel he just preached. (Another lesson Mad Men continually taught us is that the line between selling something to others and selling something to ourselves is often opaque).

Nevertheless, Don recognizes the power of this gospel, especially in a decade as tumultuous as the 60s: at least part of his creative genius is an acute ability to recognize that advertising trades on a certain perversion of the promise of love. We have watched Don make this same pitch to himself many times over. We have watched Don copulate himself into willful ignorance of love’s tomorrow. We have watched Don continually mistake the newest thing for “The Real Thing.” But we have also watched Don harbor a certain desire for something more, a glimmer in his eye that belied his own confidence in the self-actualized statement of faith he tried to pawn to Rachel Menken, an indication that perhaps love was for him not simply another advertising gimmick.

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Don loves, and loves, and loves—or tries to at least. But, the object of Don’s love remains always just out of reach. His is a yearning Eros for a receding horizon of unattainable Beauty. Or, as David Ehrlich put it, for Don “love is not something that you have, nor something that you had; it’s something that you’re looking for and faintly remember but can never quite forget, like the echo of an old perfume.” In Andy Warhol’s idiom: “Sex is nostalgia for sex.” When, in Season 5, he pitches to Jaguar with the dynamite tagline, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” it’s hard not to hear reverberations of Don’s own erotic vexations. But, beauty, of course, is not something we can ever possess. Beauty is something in which we can surely participate but certainly never own. Beauty, as Plato rightly tells us, is something that possesses us.

That’s why love is something very much like madness, an experience somewhere “between joy and anguish,” Plato says. Eros grips us, compels us, and keeps us moving. Don Draper is nothing if not a man hell-bent on motion. “Get out of here, and move forward,” Don says to a hospital-bed-ridden Peggy in Season 2, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” For most of the series we find Don practicing what he preaches and sprinting away from his past: a childhood spent in a brothel, an indecorous Army career, countless affairs, two failed marriages, even his children at times.

Yet, Don’s flight is determined just as much by what he is running toward as what he is running from. We have eagerly observed a decade of Don’s life waiting to see where that toward might take him. The series finale finds Don quite literally speeding away from past failures before stalling out in an Esalen-esque retreat center on the coast of California. It would seem Don’s journey ends at a blissed out hippie retreat center, “peace” as some have called it. Indeed, some have wondered why Don finally stops running at the series’ end. I, however, wonder whether that question does not miss the great brilliance of Weiner’s final frames.

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As Don’s wry smile creeps across his face and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” sound, it seems fairly clear—to me anyway—that whatever peace Don has found on the coast, it is not the kind of resolution that leaves him static. He doesn’t stay on that beach, he returns to McCann-Erickson and creates one of the most memorable ads of the twentieth century. Don’s peace is the sort that allows you to press on, to keep moving forward, to strain toward that which lies ahead with acceptance of your own finitude. At the beginning of the series, Don Draper is the consummate icon of unbridled desire. By journey’s end, however, I’d like to think he has a tighter grip on the reins. Of course Don Draper doesn’t stop running, but that’s only because he’s human. Basil of Caesarea said it well: “as the time of our lives flows on, we are hurried along as if by a continuous and restless motion on the unheeded course of life.” The genius of Weiner’s conclusion is not that Don has found motionless Zen but that Don has learned to harness his ardent yearning for love, his madness. After all, for good or ill, isn’t that also the genius of the Coke commercial itself? Human desire for peace, our mad longing to be known and loved, is transformed into an economic stimulant. We all want The Real Thing—the best (m)ad men know that better than most.

On Bro Genius and Shelley’s Mad Genius

“You have created a monster and it will destroy you.”

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is an experiment in humanity and monstrosity. The film tells the story of a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who is selected to join his genius, reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), for a week in his home—what can only be described as a technological man cave prison. The only other character Caleb meets is Nathan’s live-in female assistant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who does not speak English. Caleb quickly learns that he is not at Nathan’s bro fortress simply to hang out, but he is to help with Nathan’s latest project: an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is to perform a Turing test: through conversations with Ava he is to attempt to distinguish her artificial intelligence from human intelligence. Caleb is there to see if he can be convinced Ava is human.

The film carries obvious parallels to the prototypical “Mad Genius and his monstrous creation” narrative of Frankenstein. Yet Nathan is a different kind of inventor than the refined, if insane, Dr. Frankenstein. In Nathan we see how our cultural depiction of male genius (and male arrogance) has evolved. Gone are the days of the well-spoken, classy, vaguely Victorian picture of intelligence. Instead, the arrogant genius is typified by stereotypical male attributes: loud, brash, drunk, and in a word, bro-like. The “Mad Genius” has morphed into the “Bro Genius.” Think of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the Iron Man franchise, Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker from The Social Network or T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman from HBO’s Silicon Valley. These “Bro Geniuses” have swapped lab coats for tank tops and graphic tees.

In fact, when we first meet Nathan, he is wearing sweatpants and a gray tank top and working on a punching bag. He explains to Caleb that he overdid it the night before and he always tries to make up for heavy drinking by working out and juice cleansing the next day. Nathan “overdoes it” time and time again in Ex Machina, leading to a darkly comedic scene where he forces his live-in assistant to perform a synchronized choreographed dance with him under a disco ball. Nathan insists on being a man’s man to Caleb, getting annoyed when Caleb speaks too technically and plying him with alcohol.

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There are parallels of Godlikeness in Shelley’s Frankenstein and Garland’s Ex Machina; however, the two creator’s motives deviate greatly.  Both Nathan and Dr. Frankenstein attempt to play God by creating human or human-like life, but there is a gendered component to Ava not present in Frankenstein. The most telling difference between this Bro Genius and Shelley’s Mad Genius is the monster, herself.

Unlike Frankenstein’s hideously pieced-together body, Ava is beautiful. Her body is also pieced-together from other female machines Nathan created before her – but her body is flawless. So while Ava is not technically human, she is distinctly and intentionally female.

The beautiful monster is certainly not a new trope (see the book of Revelation in the Bible to start), but in Ex Machina we discover an underlying reason behind her beauty: she was created by a Bro Genius. At one point in the movie, Caleb asks Nathan why he made Ava look the way she did. Why didn’t he just make her a gray box? Why did he give her sexuality? After a brief conversation about sexual orientation, pleasure and gender, Nathan simply states, “Because it’s fun!” Why create the perfect woman, then? Because Nathan can and it’s fun. Nathan creates what he desires.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. . .”

Ava, the creation of a Bro Genius, is intentionally beautiful and programmed to behave a certain way by human men. And of course, only a man’s man can create this perfect woman because these kind of men have been writing the code for the “perfect woman” for centuries.

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David Cronenberg’s universally panned 1993 film adaptation of M Butterfly also develops the theme of the perfect woman designed by a man. Actor John Lone depicts Song Liling, a biological male who identifies as female and works as a prostitute. French diplomat Rene Gallimard (played by Jeremy Irons) falls in love with Song, carrying on a 20-year affair and somehow failing to acknowledge that Song is biologically male. Eventually Gallimard is forced to face the truth of his relationship, and ends up despising and rejecting Liling. But Liling defends herself saying, “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.”

“Male and female He created them . . .”

With Caleb as a test Adam, Nathan is attempting to write his own Genesis account in his new technological Eden. Ava is not just any AI, but was designed for Caleb. Throughout the movie, Ava and Caleb form a relationship, finding moments to flirt when Nathan’s ever-present cameras blink out for the few seconds it takes to reboot the backup generator.

Caleb realizes this was Nathan’s plan all along. He asks if Ava was created using his search history and porn profile, finding out that she was designed around his own taste and preference. But like biblical Eden, a violent rupture occurs. 

Ava outsmarts both the intelligent Nathan and the good-hearted Caleb. She kills them, stabbing Nathan and locking Caleb inside the technological fortress with no way out – now a genuine prison for Caleb. Screaming and begging for her to come back, he is left to presumably starve to death. As Ava exits the narrative set for her, and the elevator doors close, her face is completely expressionless: there is no triumphant smirk or look of worry, no remorse for the actions she’s taken. She is not thinking about the dead and dying men at all. She has only one goal: freedom from his programming.

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This is not Frankenstein’s monster weeping over his creator’s body. The beautiful monster, the female who was programmed for the pleasure of men, eventually turns on her creator. Eve locks her Adam in the Edenic prison and, in a way, kills God.

Even with this ending, Ex Machina remains a movie about men. The male characters program how female characters are to act and be. It is up to the male characters to decide whether or not the female characters are functioning like humans.  And the movie’s anxieties are also male: that the beautiful female program the men have worked so hard to create will somehow fail to imprison women. 

The tell-tale sign of Ava’s functional humanity is that she registers at least one true emotion. She says to Nathan, “Is it strange to have created something that hates you?” Her choices at the end of the film – and they are indeed choices and not programs – remind the audience that the Turing test is not the only test the characters undergo. Ex Machina, after all, is not simply a test of humanity, but a test of monstrosity.

Kings of Nowhere

The documentary film Kings of Nowhere (Los Reyes del Pueblo que No Existe, 2015) , directed by Mexican filmmaker Betzabé Garcia, opens eerily on a lazy-eyed man driving a small motorboat, making a slow course over silvery waters. The camera stays on him for almost a minute, before abruptly shifting its focus just beyond the man to the tops of graves and chipped stone obelisks rising out of the gray water. A submerged cemetery juts out of the water, a watery grave.

Slowly, along with the landscape surfacing above the murky water, a story emerges in long takes, wide angles, and still frames. As the pictures move, a world is captured passing through the shot, letting the impression of the camera disappear into the stillness of the frame. This stillness stands in stark contrast to the well-known “shaky cam” documentary style: a follow-and-zoom camera movement that accompanies a character haphazardly and makes the presence of the camera almost visible to viewers.

The Mexican town of San Marcos has been inundated with water after a government dam was put up several years earlier without really consulting the people. Only three of the original three hundred families remain, but they are die-hard locals. They’re not going anywhere. Still making tortillas on the cranking steel machine, still deboning chicken for dinner even when the lights go out from a storm. They are not leaving their locality, their residence, their home.

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This quiet and beautiful film won the top prize at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. In its 18th year and held in the growing downtown of Durham, N.C., Full Frame attracts documentary industry from all over the country and the world. Having attended the festival on various occasions over the past three years, I’ve noticed a marked turn towards the quieter form in documentary that captures content through a “show-don’t-tell” style.

The observational style, in a sense, is a return to a principled verité style of documentary, where filmmakers, such as documentary pioneers the Maysles brothers in Salesman (1968), let the camera roll on subjects without a lot of questions or direction. For the Maysles and other “direct cinema” documentarians, the pure motive of observation rather than manipulative direction means the camera runs while life happens in front of it; thus, the goal is to capture truth. The result for the viewer is awe and reflection, a shift towards the sublime.

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Kings of Nowhere is an excellent example of this current cinematic return. The reclaiming of the verité style results in simplicity, humor, beauty, sadness; an honoring of the range of experiences possible in humanity. It’s a range that seems to capture the sense of sublimity in the small lives of people living on in the flooded Mexican town.

Character development occurs through observation rather than explanation. Each character the viewer encounters is unnamed through the typical titling we see in the lower third of the frame; rather, the subjects tell their story without explanation. The realistic and peaceful soundscape serves as a score rather than soaring emotional music. We are dropped directly into the moment, where the din of insects and silence surrounds us as much as it does the characters in the film. Like the Maysles, Garcia and her cinematographer Diego Tenorio were very careful to allow the truth (verité) to happen before them and, standing in awe, they translate the story through slower pacing and editing.

We see a couple who cleans the local church and weeds the plaza in town, even though donkeys and dogs come and go as they please and the water overruns their work every rainy season. An albino woman whose husband seems to have dementia rocks on her porch while telling stories of the town before the flood. Animals have become stranded in different parts of the town because the water rose before they could be brought back from pasture, and a man brings dried tortillas for a marooned horse to chew on. And another small man in a Stetson style hat rides his horse through the village. His wife laughs through her broken front teeth about how he courted her, and they dance on the porch in a hot, dark night.

Dark clues of the surrounding Central American gangs and death squads run through the stories the townspeople of San Marcos tell. Unnamed “dangerous” people who shoot and attack them enter and exit conversation without explanation – and the viewer is left to form some idea of armed gangs of robbers and marauders. Even these stories are told with such Latin humor and fantasy; the Stetson sporting man chuckles while explaining how he narrowly escaped an ambush.

These Kings of Nowhere are all characters without names, but whose lives leap out from the screen through the verité camera. A whole picture is presented without comment, and the audience puts the pieces together. Nothing remarkable happens, yet everything happens. A camera in awe does less to guide us than it does to present us with truth. It’s utterly realistic and, in being so, is utterly fantastic.

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.

The Leftovers and Hebrew Wisdom Literature

Why do bad things happen? How do we deal with calamity? Why is life so uncertain? How does one live in the face of unexpected loss? There are many ways that human beings attempt to answer or avoid these universal questions. In a previous era, Americans might have looked to the Bible for guidance, but today television and cinema tell stories of calamity that millions of Americans collectively watch. It seems as if these stories have become a new scripture, counseling us how to deal with life’s most important questions.

These are the questions of HBO’s The Leftovers. The Leftovers revolves around an unexpected and unexplainable event called “The Sudden Departure.” Two percent of the human population suddenly disappears, and the show charts the aftermath of this event in Mapleton, New York. It follows those who are “left over” and remain behind, those dealing with their loss and pain.

The questions that the show struggles with have been around for all of human existence. In the ancient world the genre of wisdom literature helped people grapple and deal with loss. The same is true of the Old Testament’s wisdom books; they are the genre of difficult questions and deep losses. Similar to The Leftovers, sudden loss forms the backdrop to many of the biblical wisdom figures – Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, the impending genocide of Queen Esther’s people, David is hunted by Saul after his defeat of Goliath. It is in these moments of the sudden departure of the good life that wisdom literature speaks powerfully. Can The Leftovers be understood as a wisdom tale? If so, there is perhaps no better story to begin reflecting on The Leftovers with than when a man suddenly loses it all: the story of Job.

The book of Job deals with the question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Put to God by Satan, this question asks whether Job will trust, obey, and cling to God if all of the blessings were removed. So God takes away everything from him, his children and his wealth, and leaves him with nothing. Job has nothing, except for his wife and friends who actually work against Job in his struggle to maintain his faith in the Lord. From Job 3 to 37, Job is the one who is “left over,” and he must deal with the sudden departure of his God-given blessings– yet without a word from God. Job 19:1-12 is one of the most graphic descriptions of Job’s troubles – he is crushed, insulted and wronged by his friends; he feels subjected to violence, walled in with pain, on a dark path, stripped of honor, broken down, with hope uprooted, and under siege. And God is responsible for it all.

Job’s experience aptly coincides with that of the characters in The Leftovers. Like Job, the characters in the show are left in their loss and pain without a word from God. The question that both The Leftovers and the book of Job are wrestling with is how to deal with a loss so devastating that it cuts to the core of one’s being or identity. Will Job “curse God to His face” and thus completely change the direction of his life? Can the town of Mapleton find shalom or an answer to this Sudden Departure? The characters either try to move on from their loss the best they can, or join the Guilty Remnant (a local cult) and attempt to force the townspeople to face up to meaning of the Sudden Departure.

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There seem to be no answers for either Job or those who remain in The Leftovers, until the end.

In final episode of the first season (“The Prodigal Returns”), Kevin, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, calls Pastor Matt to help him bury Patti (a member the Guilty Remnant). At the burial site Matt gives Kevin a Bible and asks him to read Job 23:8-17. Kevin reads the passage and its description of an important aspect of Job’s perspective within his incredible loss. At this point in the story, Job is caught between his faith in the Lord and his desire to charge God with wrongdoing. It is by no means the final resolution to Job’s calamities; that comes later in Job 38-42 when the Lord speaks to Job. As Kevin reads Job 23:8-17, he pauses in verse 12 on the phrase, “I have not departed.” Although the biblical text refers to Job not departing from God’s commands, for Kevin this sets the whole passage in the context of Kevin being a leftover. Kevin begins to cry as he reads the rest of the passage, for it speaks to the uncontrollable, terrifying and depressing nature of the Sudden Departure. And yet, like Job, it also speaks to how Kevin should not be silenced by deep gloom. Kevin must keep going he must try to keep his hope alive. This scene does not answer the question of how to deal with this deep loss, yet it is not the end of the episode.

Nora, like Job, has lost everything—her husband and her children. She writes Kevin and says, “I am beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair.” This sentiment summarizes the entire season up to this point. Mapleton is broken, without hope, nihilistic. The whole society has nothing – nothing to live for, nothing to hope for, nothing to create healthy bonds between people, nothing to explain the Sudden Departure, nothing religious to believe in. In this environment, religion in general – or Christianity in particular – is not an option. And in an important symbolic moment in this first season, Pastor Matt loses the church building to the Guilty Remnant. Christianity is literally and figuratively off the map.

Up to this point in the show I thought its message was that the audience must simply recognize that life is about nothing, inexplicably holds no meaning, and that one should just deal with it– whether by avoiding the pain, numbing themselves to it, or seeking refuge apart from society.

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However, the last five minutes of “The Prodigal Returns” resists and even shifts the show’s standard direction. Tommy, Kevin’s stepson, is the prodigal that the episode’s title refers to. Previously Tommy was charged by the mysterious Holy Wayne to watch over one of his followers, Christine, who was carrying Wayne’s child. After giving birth, Christine abandons her baby, which Tommy in desperation leaves on Kevin’s front doorstep. When Nora arrives at Kevin’s house to leave her goodbye note (“I am beyond repair …”), she finds the baby. As Kevin and his daughter walk up to the house, Nora, holding the baby in her arms, sees Kevin, smiles and says, “Look what I found.”

Nora found hope. Just as suddenly as two percent of the human population departed and left the world in total despair, so came an unexpected source of hope, albeit only a glimmer. For the leftovers there was a time to weep but now a time to laugh, a time to mourn and now a time to dance (Eccl. 3:4). For Nora, there was a time to give up and to throw away whatever life she had in Mapleton (Eccl. 3:6). There was a time to scream in silence and now a time to speak (3:7b). There was a time for Nora to describe herself as beyond repair, torn apart, but now a time to be sewn together (3:7a). Ultimately, the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes) tells us that there is an appointed time for everything (3:1).

However, human beings do not know what time will bring; we have no ultimate control and don’t know what awaits us (9:1). Life and the times of life are temporary, like a vapor, here one moment and gone the next. At the end of Ecclesiastes the Preacher tells the God-fearer to keep God’s commandments and so look in hope and confidence to final appointed time, the time of judgment. This is the ultimate time that Ecclesiastes teaches one to hope for. Yet through this child, The Leftovers provides a hope that is more tangible, but just as unsure, just as dangerous and tenuous. Nora has received a gift of hope as randomly as she lost everything. The episode ends with her smiling, but what about the future? The Leftovers leaves Nora hopeful but still in the midst of this confusing wheel of fortune.

Television and film usually end up telling stories that we want to hear, often reinforcing values we already hold. A TV show that leaves the characters in unredeemable loss with their lives subject to the wheel of fortune would be shocking and interesting, yet in the end, The Leftovers gives us both the loss and the hope. As a wisdom tale The Leftovers counsels us not to think that we will be spared loss and pain, but to hope that relief and deliverance will come in time, even from unexpected or impossible circumstances. Even though we don’t know why things happen that shouldn’t leave us paralyzed and inactive; we must choose to act and hope for better days. Like The Leftovers, life is full of “sudden departures” and the biblical wisdom books provide the perspective and language for those moments.

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.

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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?

Bloodsucking Straights: Inherent Vice and the Undeath of Counterculture

The grotesque semi-collapse of the counterculture that had once sprung forth from the American midcentury continues to preoccupy pundits, historians, and artists, some four decades since its furious vibrations were reduced to mere twitches. Journalist Rick Perlstein documented the political dimension of this process in his exhaustive history Nixonland, illustrating just how quickly and completely the Left’s activist ambitions were toppled between 1965 and 1972, what Hunter S. Thompson dolefully described as the moment “the wave broke and rolled back.” The cultural fruits of the Age of Aquarius—the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—have proven a bit more durable, but they have been perversely terraformed by the empire of commercialism, a process that historian Thomas Frank has dubbed the “conquest of cool”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, offbeat detective feature, Inherent Vice, grapples with the fact of this subjugation, and with the natural follow-up question: where might today’s free thinkers, sensualists, and revolutionaries find refuge from such zombified counterculture?

In the course of investigating the disappearance of California real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, rumpled, pot-fogged private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello uncovers a tangle of disturbing and ever-shifting conspiracies. Although he is the hero of Inherent Vice, Doc—like his film noir antecedents—has little hope of bringing down the myriad sinister forces arrayed against him. The best outcome that he can manage is the rescue of saxophonist and reluctant agent provocateur Coy Harlington from the grasp of distinctly non-groovy powers. Still, Doc learns some disquieting truths in the course of his ambling perusal of the Establishment’s dirty laundry in 1970 Los Angeles. Perhaps most confounding to the detective is the extent to which the language, symbols, and very ranks of 1960s counterculture have been wholly infiltrated and subverted, its “claim jumped by evildoers,” in the memorable phrasing of the film’s chimerical narrator, Sortilège.

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Setting is crucial to Inherent Vices mood, and to its theme of the corruption of the aforementioned sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll for nefarious, “square” purposes. Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, the film is set primarily in the fictional South Bay city Gordita Beach, a rough analogue for the real-world Manhattan Beach. Pynchon reportedly lived in that community for a time in the 1960s, but there is more than authorial familiarity behind its use as a thinly veiled backdrop for Inherent Vice’s far-out tale. Contemporary Manhattan Beach commands some of the highest real estate prices in California, but the Gordita Beach of the film is a sun-bleached, agreeably mazy town of surf shops, head shops, and pizza joints. The contrast between this scruffy period setting and its ultra-gentrified modern corollary contributes to the film’s melancholy atmosphere and underlines an essential aspect of its ethos: anything valuable created outside what Marx and Engels called the dominant ideology will one day be vacuumed up and assimilated by it.

Early in the film, Doc blearily watches a television commercial for Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates featuring LAPD detective and part-time actor Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a former friend and long time nemesis of Doc). Decked out in an Abbie Hoffman wig, Bigfoot pitches the new development to the hippie set, testifying that the electric ranges and breakfast nooks in Channel View’s kitchens are “out of sight.” This use of countercultural signifiers to hustle products—nay, an entire bourgeois lifestyle—to an emergent youth market embodies the conquest of cool. Compared to the more complex symbiotic phenomenon presented in Frank’s analysis or in Matthew Weiner’s period Madison Avenue drama Mad Men, Inherent Vice portrays this co-option of youth/revolutionary culture as a grasping, colonialist action.

At the time of the film’s events—spring of 1970 per the Los Angeles Free Press headlines—the Manson Family murders had recently been exposed as a kind of congealed nightmare of the “Make Love, Not War” worldview. Yet Inherent Vice presents the perversion of counterculture not as the product of a few deranged malefactors, but an organized effort by a cabal of norms and reactionaries. The film’s aforementioned “evildoers” include institutions and individuals representing a host of right-wing, conformist, and violent forces: developers, the police, the FBI, anti-Communist activists, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese heroin smugglers, Orange County WASPs, and, improbably, a drug-dealing, pedophiliac dentist. All have contemptuously exploited the cultural currents of the 1960s for their own ends, in one fashion or another. Even baseball bat-wielding loan shark Adrian Prussia is observed spouting hippie lingo, signaling the extent to which the Age of Aquarius, if it ever existed, is thoroughly over. Doc isn’t so much horrified as he is befuddled by this:

“Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, freak-in, here up north, back east, wherever, some dark crews had been busy all along reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up for the ancient forces of greed and fear? Gee, he thought… I don’t know.”

Unexpectedly, Inherent Vice builds upon this recurrent theme through abundant allusions to the pop mythology of the vampire, and to the Dracula legend in particular. While somewhat unconventional given the film’s genre and tone, such symbolism is fitting in a tale that laments the draining, demise, and resurrection of counterculture into an undead mockery of its former self. This motif is most conspicuous when Coy’s wife, Hope, shows off her reconstructed “choppers” to Doc, and remarks that “heroin sucks that calcium out of your teeth like a vampire.” When the aforementioned licentious dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, turns up dead, he is reportedly found with a pair of puncture wounds in his neck, echoing an earlier shot in which Mickey Wolfmann’s deceased bodyguard is glimpsed with a torn-out throat. (Notably, that man’s killer, who also serves as Adrian Prussia’s muscle, later roughly kisses or bites a captive Doc on the neck.)

These sort of explicit references to vampire lore mingle with the film’s more subtle evocations of the various literary and cinematic iterations of Dracula. Hope, as it turns out, is but one of many ex-junkies to benefit from the questionable charity of the Golden Fang, a mysterious entity that is variously described as an Asian drug cartel, a tax shelter for a consortium of dentists, a New Age sanitarium for recovering addicts, or a legendary smuggling schooner. Much like Dracula’s transport the Demeter, with its hold full of Transylvanian earth, the ship dubbed the Golden Fang slips into the South Bay under cover of darkness and fog, bearing a malign cargo from the distant East. While relating the sordid history of the vessel, Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax remarks sadly that ominous agents “removed any traces of soul she once had; it’s a horror story.” This could just as easily describe the fate of a vampire’s victim, or that of the counterculture and its unholy transmutation into another tool of the Establishment.

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Inherent Vice even has its own Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna, after a fashion. Doc is initially drawn into the Wolfmann matter at the request of ex-flame Shasta Fay Hepworth, who glides through his open door as the proverbial troubled femme fatale. Subsequently vanishing along with Wolfmann, Shasta plays the Mina role to the conspiracy’s Dracula: the maiden who falls into the clutches of the creature and provokes a rescue effort. When Shasta eventually returns on her own, such is Doc’s weed-fueled paranoia and eroded sense of reality that he is compelled to inspect the slumbering woman’s neck for telltale punctures. The film likewise features a Lucy in the person of strung-out runaway debutante Japonica Fenway, who is likely too far gone to be liberated from the Golden Fang’s grasp. Mumbling about the “the Great Beast” and declaring her ability to see in the dark, Japonica, like Lucy in Dracula, serves as a dread preview of the fate that could befall the story’s primary female character.

Unlike Dracula, Anderson’s film does not conclude with the slaying of a monster, but with Shasta’s sudden reappearance and Doc’s negotiated exchange of 20 kilos of missing heroin for Coy’s release. The Golden Fang is inconvenienced but not defeated, and several of the film’s mysteries remain pointedly unresolved. It’s tempting to regard this conclusion as unaccountably grim, a concession that the ancient forces of greed and fear will never be bested. However, the fact that the film’s final beats focus on the restoration of Shasta and Doc’s relationship points to a more nuanced message, one that presents emotional intimacy as the means to authenticity in an era of commodified cool. The film’s earlier assertion that the Golden Fang’s business would remain brisk “as long as American life was something to be escaped from” seems wholly inapplicable to Shasta and Doc. Indeed, they appear as content as can be in the film’s final shot, driving blissfully through the sort of low, dazzling sunlight that has extinguished so many cinematic bloodsuckers.

The Babadook: The Horror We Must Face

Even though horror movies aren’t suffering at the box office there is something missing from the genre: the horror. Many moviegoers are looking for a quick scare, and Hollywood reflects this. Year after year we get sequels, prequels, and remakes of films that are mere gimmicks. Every once in a while mainstream cinema will have its gems, but overall the horror genre feels lost. Yet, true horror reflects our fears, addressing what we don’t want to talk about. It has been too long since horror films have attempted inventive. Then, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook came out last year.

The film centers around Amelia (played by Essie Davis), a single mother trying to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), after the death of her husband. [Spoiler] It is eventually revealed that Amelia’s husband died in a car accident while she was in labor with Sam. Amelia resents her son; when he says he loves her, she can’t say “I love you” back. She wants to love her child, but the guilt, and sorrow make it difficult. Sam’s life and her husband’s death are inseparably intertwined. The difficulty of being a single, grieving mother is exacerbated by Sam’s erratic nature; he gets so bad that he has to be removed from school. His behavior and the loss of her husband all bear down upon her. The ever-present bags under her eyes, disconnected from friends, how she can’t seem to sleep anymore. As the film progresses Amelia’s sanity begins to slowly slip. She hears things, lashes out in physical violence, and both she and Sam start seeing the Babadook.

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The creature itself is terrifying, a mix of humanoid cockroach and Phantom of the Opera wearing a coat and top hat. Yet physical appearance isn’t what makes the Babadook terrifying, but what it represents. The Babadook represents Amelia’s agony, her grief, depression and loss, and this is what makes the film true story horror. It presents a taboo affliction, the lonely island of grief, and adds a supernatural spin to it. So much of mainstream horror cinema plays it safe, focusing on playing out the action quickly and loudly; The Babadook is a slow, and painful burn.

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Along with its haunting imagery The Babadook asks the viewer to look at the family, and how it functions, in an unconventional light. Watching the chemistry between Amelia and Sam is heartbreaking. When Amelia can’t say “I love you”, and becomes exponentially more hostile over the course of the film. They are family, and conventionally we are used to the loving family overcoming obstacles. Societal norms would have us believe that mothers always love their children, and will always protect them. This is not the case here; this is family torn apart by depression, unable to cope, and pushed into utter darkness.  The audience has to view something that is not just different, but a situation difficult to swallow.

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Director John Carpenter once said, “There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.” Effective horror movies should scare and unsettle the viewer, and one way to accomplish this is horror that’s personal, human. The Babadook is that darkness we don’t understand, the horror that lives within us. The Babadook portrays what that life is like, to be haunted by something that is out our control, to live with heartache and burden. We witnesses a woman haunted by her own agony, cursed by her own emotions. 

Contemporary horror relies on simple tropes and tired effects to scare the audience. These can involve “jump scares” (moments when a visual or sound cue is quickly flashed or played to give the audience a jolt). These techniques were used constantly in last year’s Annabelle. There would be a sharp noise played at a random time and a ghost’s face would pop up out of nowhere. These sort of techniques can cause audience members to jump in their seats, but that isn’t horror. Strong horror is subtle, slow, and may force you to look upon a terrifying image. In one scene in The Babadook, Amelia is standing in her hallway and looking into the kitchen. The Babadook begins floating towards her, the music gets lower the closer it gets. The camera moves from her face to its approaching form. As the Babadook comes upon her, the music is cut and then the sound of blades being drawn is heard as its claws pull out. This is effective use of imagery and sound, holding the audience on the edge of its seat. This isn’t just one moment of quick shock, but a scene of creeping dread, the slow movement of fear.

Much of The Babadook is a risk in the realm of cinematic horror. But what modern horror needs is more risks, to step away from convention, to bring back the essence of horror. The genre is meant for more than just a quick shocking jolt, a close up of some monster’s face. For being a first feature debut from director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook certainly deserves to be viewed, especially for fans of horror. She was able to create a family steeped in misery, but also create a face to a creature that is far too real. Her risks paid off, for she reminds us that some of life’s horrors are within.

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.

The Voyeur’s Gaze

Everyone is a voyeur. The ability to see, record, and upload happens at record speeds, almost at the speed of thought – we are in the contemporary era, the Internet age. Seeing and communicating happen almost simultaneously. And because we are voyeurs, we see many worlds from just beyond the screen, slightly disconnected from characters, places, and ideas, even as we engage with them for hours of our lives.

A screen divides us from being engaged and connected with whatever art or life or streaming event is happening on the other side of fiber optic cables. When films self-reflect on themselves as voyeuristic, revealing the camera, using a camera as a character, or crossing lines between documentary and fiction, they begin to call us out on our own voyeurism and beg us to ask the question: is this all okay? What is dehumanizing about our constant, disengaged gaze? What does a voyeuristic culture do to its citizens as interpreters?

Two recent films exemplify this strange drama unfolding in the visual/digital age: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of the sci-fi drama by Michael Faber starring Scarlett Johannson as (spoiler alert) an alien who roams Scotland looking for men to consume; and Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an ambulance-chasing videographer who sells raunchy video of suburban crime and car crashes to local news stations. Both pieces, not surprisingly, belong to a reemerging era of indie art film that is slowly making its way into the mainstream theater (other examples in the 2000’s may include Pina, Tree of Life, Holy Motors, and others). This genre, at its core, was born from an effort by filmmakers to approach socially taboo questions of sex, gender, death, and power through the surreal. In the case of these two films, I’d like to look at how they center on the perspective of “alien” vision of a foreign world, and how that may be a metaphorical parallel to our voyeurism in the digital age.

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Under the Skin has been called one of the best movies of 2014. While uncontestably surreal, it is a confusing, scary, and downright creepy look at the possibility of an unnamed alien life taking on human form (Johannsen), and using that female form to consume human bodies. In the film, Johannsen’s character seduces men into her car and then takes them back to her lair where a black pool engulfs them and ultimately takes their lives. In an infamous scene, one of the recently submerged men sees another who has apparently been under the aqueous black for some time. They reach out to hold on to each other, but the smooth and rubbery body suddenly pops and becomes nothing but the loose skin shell of a person, floating on the horrific deep.

The film shows this same story over and over: Johannsen in a van, cruising the streets and asking random men if they need a ride and eventually if they find her beautiful. If so, they end up back at her decrepit house, and ultimately nude, following her down into the eternal dark. This story, however, was far from scripted. The filmmaker, John Glazer, used hidden cameras in the van to capture Johannsen – decked out in strange street clothes and a black wig – talking to pedestrians, not actors, and asking them if they’d get into her car. Several of the other scenes are filmed in a similar way, with a small crew and in public places. They had to request release forms afterwards, a protocol usually used in documentary production or for content on news outlets. This unorthodox filmmaking perspective creates an authentic feeling of sexuality and fear in these moments when Johannsen is apparently picking up men who may become her character’s meal. Not only this, but several of these men (actors were often used) are shown in full frontal nudity, never quite reaching the object of their desire who lures them to their death and watches as they disappear into their death. The voyeurism involved here is very much about sex, and is related directly to the questions: will they get in the car? Will they go back to a house with a total stranger? And after you’ve learned about the film technique of hidden camera documentary: do they know that she is famous?

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Another take on voyeurism is shown through Johannsen’s character. As an alien, she stands just outside of all of these interactions, using a body as a vehicle rather than actually being able to sense the fear or sexual tension produced by her pickup lines and brazenness. She sees what we see, but can’t interpret it as a human being would. Even the introductory sequence, which features a surrealist set of shapes and colors finally exploding into light and slowing fading into the clear image of an eyeball (an image that hearkens back to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film L’Age D’Or), reminds us that Johansen’s character is watching us. She isn’t there to be watched, to have the male gaze consume her, but rather to consume it.

Then there is the L.A. thriller, Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhall’s character Louis Bloom is one for the books. Brilliantly scripted and cast, watching Gyllenhaal play Bloom is like taking too many stimulants and staying up all night: it is overwhelming, exhausting, energizing, frightening.

Bloom begins the film as a thief, stealing scrap metal and selling it to industrial waste yards for cheap. He steals bikes and sells them to pawn shops. He lives alone and does not seem to have any friends. In the meantime, he cruises the internet learning about everything he can, especially business, and repeats his savvy at every chance he can get, requesting jobs from everyone, even people to whom he is selling stolen wares. With his slick shades and internet obsession, he is, perhaps, a millennial. However, most normal people can see through Bloom’s scheme and opportunistic, hyperactive, faux-MBA speech. “I’m not going to hire a thief,” says the junkyard owner to Bloom’s propositions.

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One night he encounters a freeway crash and sees ambulances rushing to the aid of a dying person in the car. He gets out not to help, but to watch. Suddenly a van rushes up behind him and out pop two cameramen, lights blazing, filming as closely as they can the carnage and perhaps death of the person in the car. Bloom approaches the cameraman (Bill Paxton) who tells him he is a freelance TV-News cameraman who will sell this 60-second tape to the local news station. Bloom takes one look at the thousands of dollars worth of equipment in the van and quickly inquires whether he is hiring. The cameraman says no, and being informed by a police scanner attached to his dashboard of another awful event unfolding, whizzes away from the scene.

Within weeks of this encounter, we see Bloom has become his own version of a sleazy nightcrawler, operating a small camcorder and listening to a police scanner, he begins to film awful scenes of shootings in the suburbs, sneaking onto crime scenes, and pouncing on car crashes. He finds an advocate in news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a local station. Romina is similarly desperate, struggling for ratings, and a vampire for bloody events that make people watch her show. Ultimately he begins to provide her with his work full time. He thinks of himself as a businessman and hires a sidekick to navigate (Riz Ahmed). Ultimately, the sociopathic Bloom begins to stage events that he can film, and causes mass terror in the process.

Nightcrawler exposes the dangers of voyeurism outright. There is no question that Bloom’s trashy video of awful events (which Romina feeds by saying, “The story is urban crime seeps into the suburbs,” and requesting footage of whites being vandalized, murdered, etc.) is morally and ethically disturbing. Throughout the film, characters arise to question Bloom and Romina’s motives. However, Romina is working within a system that requires she bring up ratings, and the only way for her to do that is to count on Bloom’s emotionless videos of the maimed, shot, and robbed upper class. Despite the calls of other producers at the station, Romina continues to push for the dark and disgusting to be on the news each and every moment possible. She operates on the principle that the viewing public will only watch when they are afraid, and so she keeps them afraid and is herself afraid of losing Bloom. Bloom, on the other hand, is not afraid at all. None of the moral questionability of what he is doing ever occurs to him. He is making money and does not care who lives or dies because, after all, look at his work ethic! In a sense, he represents the same kind of non-human voyeur that Johansen’s alien character does in Under the Skin. Neither Bloom nor the alien care about the lives they destroy; both take what they see without question. So, in a way, Bloom isn’t explicitly taking people’s lives. Rather, Bloom’s weapon is a camera and he is taking human life through the exploitation of the image.

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Nightcrawler Writer/Director Dan Gilroy uses an interesting device to show the potential evil of the camera. Throughout each bloody scene where Bloom arrives at the beck and call of the police scanner, the viewer sees these gruesome images primarily through the LCD screen of Bloom’s camcorder. We are often watching a screen on a screen – also true of the moments when Romina is directing the newscast. She is in the editing room calling shots, which we watch on a nearby screen becoming the live news feed. In many ways, Nightcrawler is a filmic success primarily because of its ability to expose voyeurism through an act of voyeurism: a viewer seated to watch a film, a film that offers a view into the world of creating entertainment for society. Bloom is evil, but so are we. The viewing public is who makes this kind of gory television ubiquitous, keeping the Blooms of the world in business.

In both Nightcrawler and Under the Skin, we have detached and, in the case of Johannsen’s character, truly non-human sight. Both Bloom and the alien character consume the world through a lens which is neither forgiving nor able to love. The human sight which a viewer brings to these films causes us to feel unsettled to the point of terror, becoming the voyeurs ourselves and sympathizing with these anti-heroes. But, for these characters to exist, a human must have created them. Therefore, we feel that this potentially cold and ravenous gaze could exist in each of us.

To be disengaged with the image is to live without interpretation. The desensitization of these kinds of characters acts as a warning to all viewers that we’re all potentially complicit in this type of voyeurism if left unchecked. And that is the scariest part of all.

Noteworthy: Live Long and Prosper

“We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted, in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…. human.

Leonard Nimoy was many things in life: Actor, poet, writer, director, musician, photographer, Vulcan, and icon. He was Spock, and he was not Spock. Ultimately though, Leonard Nimoy was a demonstration of what it looked like to live long and prosper.

A struggling actor who broke through playing second banana to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, Nimoy brought a level of acting legitimacy to Star Trek that helped propel it well beyond it’s three year television run. There was never truly a post-Trek existence for Nimoy, but he expanded his artistic vision in a way that allowed him to express himself, push boundaries, and momentarily escape the shadow of the pointed ears.

But perhaps above all, he will be remembered for giving us this: the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  Live long and prosper.

On Fairy-stories

I have never seen the stars.

Instead of stars, I have seen spirits:

of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”)

I have seen magicians: retired stars living on magical islands.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s terms, I have always had a recovered view of the world.

Tolkien, in his talk “On Fairy-stories,” wrote that one purpose of fantasy literature was to enable readers to regain “a clear view” of the world as it ought to be. He called this “Recovery.” It is closely akin to “Escape,” another purpose of fantasy. Tolkien believed that when modern life is ugly or evil, escaping into a more beautiful, virtuous world is a good idea. When we read works of fantasy literature, we can escape into worlds where our primal desires are fulfilled: our longing to talk to animals, to live in harmony with nature, to serve a just king, and to escape from Death.

He gives an example of Recovery: once we have read about a Pegasus, we look at ordinary horses differently. Tolkien’s Ents are another powerful example; a profound emotional response to the Ents can help us look at trees differently and appreciate them more. Perhaps we will be less likely to hew wantonly with axes and commercial logging equipment if we have seen trees as wise, ancient beings with eyes full of the depths of time. The fantastical Ents, in other words, enable a recovery of a clear view of the true nature of trees, undoing the de-mythologizing effects of industry.

Yet I never had the de-mythologized, un-recovered view because my father read the Narnia chronicles to me before I could read on my own, before I had time to develop an industrial view of trees as lumber. Perhaps even before I saw trees, my parents were reading out loud to each other when I was a bun in the oven. While my childhood included plenty of books that did not echo with the horns of Elfland—Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sherlock Holmes—my spirit was stirred by The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, stories by Lloyd Alexander, and George MacDonald’s Princess books. Later, there was Harry Potter, and now Game of Thrones.

I did not encounter The Lord of the Rings during those early childhood days. I was in high school before I even read The Hobbit. Yet when I finally did read Tolkien’s works, I felt like a native to his world. I entered Middle-earth not as a stranger, but as a distant relation. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were part of this fantastic vision, too: in spite of their many failures as adaptations, they capture the sublime sense of a metaphysical longing—a yearning for paradise across the sea—with which Tolkien’s legendarium is infused. The skies over Weta Workshop in New Zealand are “a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Fantasy literature and film did not offer a recovery of a clear view that I had lost; it was that clear view, from my earliest days.

I have always found “Consolation”—the third element of good fantasy according to  Tolkien—in these stories. One such solace is the Happy Ending, which Tolkien discusses especially in relation to “Eucatastrophe”: “The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn” that is the quintessence “of a good fairy-story.” Stories can give me a catch of the breath, or lift my heart, or make me cry, but so can landscapes and people’s lives.

Then I saw Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, and the smog rolled in.

[I’ve written about the Hobbit trilogy before. Here are my reviews of the first film in Curator and in Comment, of the second film, and of the third film in Christianity Today and on The Oddest Inkling.]

I am quite critical of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Of course, those films are technically spectacular: every detail is precise. The costumes, props, sets, and CGI are flawless. The cinematography is stunning. The acting is superb. Many of the parts are magnificent; yet something is wrong with the whole.

What is wrong with the whole? Isn’t the movie’s Middle-earth a secondary world of “arresting strangeness” with an “inner consistency of reality” (as Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories”)? Isn’t the story a myth that conveys truth? Perhaps the Hobbit films fail to enact the three essential elements of good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

I can’t say whether the Hobbit movies could give someone a Recovered view of the world, because I already had that Recovered view before I saw them. However, if anything, those movies damaged and tarnished my perspective, forcing me to go back to the texts to regain a clear vision. The sordid nature of many extraneous moments—dwarves in the toilet, humorous beheadings, Dain’s dirty mouth, Alfrid’s filthy face, and so on—are smudges across the vibrant spectacle of virtue and beauty offered by other characters and scenes in the films.

Now, I’ve written elsewhere that I think the moral ambiguity of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one of its strengths. And I certainly don’t take the narrow view that simply expanding “one little book” into “three huge films” is in itself problematic: Jackson, obviously, has made a post-LOTR Hobbit. He has drawn in other texts, such as the Appendixes (including “The Quest of Erebor”), drafts, letters, and hints. He is re-enacting The History of the Hobbit. In other words, he didn’t film the 1937 published Hobbit: he filmed how he imagined Tolkien would have rewritten The Hobbit to fit the larger world of The Silmarillion and the whole Legendarium. I get that. It’s an admirable endeavor.

Yet does it succeed?

Many viewers loved Jackson’s Hobbit. I can only say that they do not provide me with Recovery or Consolation. Perhaps these movies do provide me with some measure of Escape, as I forget my daily life and its toils while I am watching certain scenes. Yet other sections are so ignoble that the toils of my daily life come crashing back, and become more burdensome due to suffering such mediocre filmmaking, or at least, in hearing the words of such disreputable screenwriting.

Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories” that, “Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.” He thought that simply acting out a great work of speculative fiction would ruin it. As an example, he said that he loved reading Macbeth on the page, and found the witches convincing, but that no stage production would ever make the witches anything but “intolerable.” This is easily applied to works on the screen as well as on the stage. Yet he himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1969. So is it fair to say that any movie adaptation of Tolkien’s work would be a failure, or only these movies?

Perhaps another generation will be able to watch yet another adaptation of these great books, and judge for themselves. Let us fervently hope, however, that the Tolkien estate holds out against the filming of any of the Silmarillion material for a long time yet. Our cultural sensibilities are far from ready to adapt the spiritual profundity of that text. I am afraid that if Eärendil the Mariner’s transformation were depicted on screen, he would become merely a star, “some matter in a ball / compelled to courses mathematical,” rather than a living spirit. I am afraid the living spirit would be stripped from that story, as it has largely been from the Hobbit films.

Iñárritu’s Illusions: The Cinematic Imagination of Birdman

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a glorious and often mesmerizing blend of realism and illusion. Like its character Sam Thomson (Emma Stone), the film is a “beautiful mess.” Winding through the labyrinthine bowels of a Broadway theatre and spilling out onto the streets of New York City, each scene blends into and out of the next. The film’s cinematography (i.e. long takes that seamlessly flow into even longer takes) creates the visual expectation of realism – immediate and direct facticity. The camera catches each bit of action just before it’s gone, but it also captures plenty of events that aren’t really there, a range of illusions that only Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and the audience see and hear. Much like the supernatural elements of 2010’s Biutiful, the illusions are there, but they not the point.

So why this wild conglomeration of reality and fantasy? For starters, it makes for the filmmaker’s most adventurous and entertaining film to date. More importantly perhaps, like all of Iñárritu’s other films, Birdman is meant to re-educate us in the dramatic interplay between the presence and absence, love and loss, fear and hope we experience in our own lives. This black comedy reconnects us to the elegiac spirit embodied by Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment,” which opens the film:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

The breaks from realism in the film are numerous and diverse, some subtle and others overt. We barely notice the ways that the film abbreviates time and space as one scene flows into another. The clues are there but not easily spotted. For instance, consider a scene between Riggan and his onstage co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner’s profile appears in the New York Times and Riggan receives the paper. Moments later, he confronts Shiner about specific details found in the story, without any apparent time passing and therefore no time to actually read the article. Perhaps more obviously, later in the film Sam tries to comfort her deflated father with news that video of his embarrassing scramble through Times Square in his underwear garnered 350,000 hits within the first hour, but we know that the fiasco took place only minutes prior to their conversation. With respect to the shortening of space, we find out on the morning of the play’s opening that Riggan’s drunken ramble a few doors down from the bar near his theatre was in fact many, many blocks away and necessitated a mid-morning flight as Birdman back to Broadway. This cinematic prestidigitation helps to smooth out the story, but perhaps it signals something more.

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The grand illusions of the film – Riggan’s levitation, violent fits of telekinesis, and flying – are wonderfully fun interruptions to the dry comedy. But as much as they delight they also disturb. We learn that there are no witnesses to these feats other than the film’s audience. If Riggan possesses these powers, they are simply part of the furniture inside his own strained internal life. While the audience must carry with them this troubling realization, we are eventually met with a more direct confrontation. Whether as a result of his mounting stress and anxiety or simply by accident, Riggan’s id finally and climatically gives birth to the full manifestation of the Birdman. What we had only experienced as the dark and brooding presence of an inner voice we now behold in all his “comic book to silver screen” glory. The Birdman lives. And he has a message for us. Eyeing the camera with maniacal fury and machismo, the Birdman erupts with a startlingly soliloquy. He proceeds to tell us exactly who we appear to be: weak and impatient, hungry for the debased violence of so many Hollywood blockbusters. He wants to shame us into accepting our tasteless lust for spectacle and feed it: “Look at these people. Look at their eyes. They’re all sparkling. They love this…” The Birdman’s momentary break through the film’s fourth wall doesn’t last long, but it does serve to unsettle us with its shocking revelation of what Riggan is facing in his desperate and solitary struggle. Such a break heightens our concern for the main character and elevates the tension and pity we feel. Will the illusion take him over? The audience can now fear the Birdman as Riggan does.

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While the studio calls the film a ‘black comedy,’ that label barely begins to describe the tragedy embedded in the humor of it. By far the most tongue-in-cheek offering from Iñárritu, this film still carries within it all the pathos that his other films 21 Grams and Babel embody with unrelenting poignancy. Iñárritu’s singular strength is conveying raw human emotions in both an unsettling and deeply intimate way.

The authentic emotions put forward through his characters pierce us more than help us. The catharsis they provide proves arresting and leaves us more stunned than soothed. Recall 2003’s 21 Grams and the bitter defiance of Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) at her father’s suggestion that she will inevitably “move on” following the sudden and tragic deaths of her husband and daughters. That film orbits around the sheer inability to heal from such a trauma. Iñárritu’s characters reveal to us their profound woundedness but allow us no easy resolutions for their hurting. Such encounters prompt an awareness of our own woundedness and emotional frailty. Rather than dispelling such concerns or distracting us from our own pain, Iñárritu’s films heighten our sensitivities, and like 2006’s Babel with its tale of emotional confusion and isolation, they provide extended meditations on essential human dilemmas. Birdman participates in the same kind of energy, and for that reason, it cannot be taken or left as mere black comedy.

When Riggan confides in his ex-wife just before his fatal final scene that he “was never present to his own life, and now…doesn’t have it anymore,” we finally come up against the most honest and painful moment of the film – a quiet and unhurried moment attended only by the emotional telekinesis of one human confessing to another. Such moments ground Iñárritu’s films and ensure that the magic of his illusions stand apart from so much frivolity and spectacle in movies today. The illusion of this film is one we desperately need to cling to because it is the magic of one soul finding another.

This tender confession and the scene that follows, a scene that finds Riggan onstage with a gun to his head, are not the final word from Iñárritu. We are left perplexed by the hospital room scene at the close of the film. The blissfully reassuring tones of Riggan’s reunion with his ex-wife and daughter are matched only by his restored status to unprecedented celebrity. In this case, it is in fact too good to be true. This is the scene of a funeral and not some grand comedic dénouement. The film’s realism finally and fatally collapses into complete fantasy. Whatever continuity existed in the story has been irreparably ruptured. Evidence of this rupture can be found in a few key places. First, following Riggan’s suicide on the stage, the camera departs from long takes and begins a series of sharp, sequential cuts. After a short parade of sublime imagery (jellyfish on the beach at sunrise, dust particles caught in the light streaming through Riggan’s dressing room) we are ushered to Riggan’s bedside. This shift in cinematography alerts us to an altogether distinct filmic territory. Second, and most dramatically, Sam finally witnesses her father’s powers as she stares out the window. She sees him flying and not falling to his death.

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So, what should we make of this final scene? Is this Riggan’s last thought before death? Is it a projection of his imagination’s deepest wish and hence proof of his complete break from reality? We don’t know, but we certainly did enjoy watching it. Undeniably, it’s the ending audiences want. Whether this last trick constitutes Iñárritu’s boldest polemic against Hollywood or not, the funerary conclusion to the film makes one last plea to its audience. It leaves us with a newfound urgency to reestablish connection with others – to make our relationships more real and secure and not live solely in the fantasy space of our own insecurities and fears. Love, it reminds us, is the impossible magic we must force ourselves to believe.

Stephen Colbert: A Requiem

On December 18th, the world lost a great performer. Stephen Colbert, the notorious pundit turned pistachio salesman, threw off the surly bonds of earth and etched his name among the stars. As the nation mourns the loss of this comedic titan, let us pause to reflect on the nature of his work and legacy.

On Colbert’s final Report, before he signed off for the last time, and before joining the Three Wise Men and sailing into eternity, he revealed the true heart of his character.

“The truthiness is, all of those things people say I did¬–running for president, saving the Olympics, Colbert Super PAC, treadmill in space, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and/or Cat Steven’s career–none of that was really me. You the nation did all of that. I just got paid for it.

This is the still-beating heart of what Stephen Colbert was able to achieve while pretending to be a conservative gasbag for nearly a decade. Colbert blurred the lines between comedy and political discourse, creating a character whose humor went beyond the limits of what late night comedy is normally capable of. “Stephen Colbert” became more important than The Colbert Report ever was.

 

So what was The Colbert Report? Was it comedic political discourse, entertainment, social critique, a social movement, or something else entirely?

Perhaps Colbert was all of those things. He was both the satirist as well as the target, he was the jester as well as the king. Colbert was about laughter–his character was constructed to amuse a very particular segment of the population who were aware of his ploy–but was also about instructing the audience through a sort of zealot-as-cautionary-tale. As the Economist points out, Colbert’s jokes were “aimed at people who would never watch Bill O’Reilly’s conservative rant of a cable news show on Fox, but who (recognized) Mr. Colbert’s obnoxious on-screen persona as a parody of Mr. O’Reilly because they have read about Mr. O’Reilly in the New Yorker.”

Over the course of the show’s run, Colbert’s character grew to a sizable influence—he was asked to entertain the president at the 2006 White House Correspondence Dinner. This was perhaps the zenith of Colbert the character, and he took the opportunity to offer scathing remarks about the Bush administration and the press corps’ coverage–all cleverly disguised in a veneer of praise.

The Colbert Report and its sister show The Daily Show put a finger on the ideological pulse of the millennial generation. Colloquial evidence suggests that many young adults tune in to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in order to receive the news. And the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear offer a concrete example of Stewart and Colbert’s power as a rallying point for a young generation to express concerns and opinions about social and political discourse. One of the most impactful moments came when Colbert created his own Super PAC, “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” highlighting the absurdities of campaign finance while informing the electorate.

Even so, the impact of both Stewart and Colbert is difficult to pin down. Their satire often attempted to embody an ethic of change, but because it is rooted in irony, they seemed to sometimes simply add to culture’s supply of institutional suspicion. Irony cannot replace political and ideological structures with anything more than itself. The purpose of irony is to dismantle and destroy; it can’t provide any meaningful replacement to that which it criticizes.

And Colbert never meant for his show to replace Fox News, CNN, or cable news in general. Instead it was a deliberate undermining meant to display the cracks in a broken system, subverting existing power structures to expose the flaws in its logic and methodology. His comedy was structured so that we would see the ridiculous in the ordinary, and question how we receive and make opinions. And this wasn’t done out of some altruistic motivation, but because it made money, and it was entertaining. But he did it in such a way as to throw into question how satire should be performed.

Is comedy always entertainment? We’ve been trained to think that humor is synonymous with entertainment, so a better question may be: Did we miss the point entirely of what Stephen Colbert was all about?

David Foster Wallace put his finger on the historical institutionalization of irony by arguing that irony fails to articulate a meaningful replacement of corrupt and broken power structures. When irony is the primary language of discourse, the inevitable result is a conversation that says nothing, goes nowhere, and can achieve no result. And yet Colbert produced results. Did Colbert go beyond irony into some yet-uncharted realm of comedic discourse? Colbert’s commitment to the character—his almost decade long performance—allowed him to influence other media outlets. By appearing on MSNBC, Fox News, and even in front of Congress as “Stephen Colbert,” he took the character far beyond the normative scope of a late night host’s influence

The fact that Colbert was a character allowed him to go beyond simple negation and suggest an alternative reality¬–albeit a one his character would abhor to inhabit. The real work of Colbert was to educate as well as undermine. Colbert’s appearances before Congress and on shows like Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe suggest that sticking to his studio were not the point. He was in his element while on the offensive, and was able to explain the political system better than the reporters and hosts he sat in front of. His message landed with such accuracy precisely because it was rooted in humor.

From his first segment until the bitter end, Stephen Colbert was about revolution. His methodology and message remained consistent, and his effect so indelible that the word from his very first “The Word” segment was included as the Merriam-Webster word of the year. Rooted forever in truthiness, Colbert soldiered on until the day was his.

— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) December 19, 2014

Ultimately the legacy of Stephen Colbert’s show and character will be identified not only through the way he is received as host of The Late Show, but whether or not those who identify as fans pursue political engagement outside of his sphere of influence. If Stephen Colbert really taught us anything, then viewers and fans of his show will start to view demagogues as entertainers, lessening the impact that gasbagging pundits have in the future. Colbert is gone, but his legacy will remain strewn on our consciousness like the pistachio shells he endlessly peddled.

Thankfully, Stephen Colbert is survived by his best-known relative, Stephen Colbert.

Haunted Loves

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the “feminist Iranian vampire-Western,” by award winning, first-time feature director, Ana Lily Amirpour is a riveting clash of stereotypes and genres.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a romance. The Girl, played by Sheila Vand, is the seductive, female protagonist. Her costume alone represents a mismatch of sensibilities—an Iranian chador with a French, striped fishing shirt—making her image a combination of playful flirtation and powerful mystery. Everything about her is a contrast; a fragile, young face, with innocent, piercing eyes, and the violent fangs of a vampire.

The Girl is a wild creature. She observes human behavior from a distance, playfully mimicking, or silently manipulating the powerless people she encounters. Her gaze, like that of any predator, transforms people into prey. We see others as she does, sizing up their value, as a meal, or as a companion. At times this way of seeing humanity is playful, a fresh perspective on our peculiar moves, our inexplicable motivations, or idiosyncratic charms. But the Girl also sees sadness, the anguish that leaks out of emotional wounds. This is the blood pulsing right under the surface, igniting her hunger. The Girl has a clear sense of hierarchy in her meal making. She feeds, not just to satisfy her appetite, but for revenge and justice.

Beyond blood, she enjoys simple things, ’80s synth-pop, skateboarding, and the innocent charm of Arash, played by Arash Marandi. Styled like a James Dean greaser, Arash is also an outsider in the fictional Bad City they inhabit. In contrast to The Girl’s tremendous life or death power, Arash is weak from the start. Humiliated and defenseless, he’s a victim of corrupt characters and unlucky circumstance, still, he maintains his simple heart. His naiveté is what draws The Girl to him. Their opposites attract.

Arash triggers another side of her, his judgment matters to her, like a teenager seeking approval, she strives to impress him, as in the scene where he gives her earring and she pierces her ears on the spot with adolescent bravado. She seems so grateful for his gift, but she is also wrestling with her desire to suck the life out of him.

The audience is privy to their enormous inequality. Arash is no match for The Girl, even as he perceives himself as her savior. To him, she’s a little helpless creature in a big, bad world; he’s a man with a car, ready to rescue her. The most obvious interpretation of the film is one about gender inequality, because The Girl represents the hidden and untapped power of femininity in a chauvinistic world, but this film goes further, allowing us an opportunity to stand back and see how blind we are about others, and even ourselves.

The film moves beyond entertainment and becomes an opportunity to reflect on our limited human understanding, how restricted our perceptions are. How often we think we know what’s in front of us, and yet, the truth would shock us. Arash, as endearing as he is, has no idea who he’s really in bed with. And sometimes, neither do we.

It’s funny to watch someone get it so wrong, but it’s also haunting, because I’m sure I’ve done it too. On a simple note, we don’t know the burdens our neighbors and coworkers carry. We tell ourselves we’d care if we knew, but we usually don’t even bother to see them. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night goes beyond making me think about common courtesy, I think about how we don’t know even those we feel close to.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a love story, albeit a scary one. And the beautiful adventure of love Amirpour portrays is one where the person beside you may be different than you imagined. They may be much stronger, they may destroy you, and you may destroy them. Amirpour’s slow, don’t blink, film, reminds me to keep that alert gaze outside the theater as well, watching for inequality, stereotypes and the unexpected in everyone.

The Knights of Terrence Malick

With the help of their wings they could fly away to distant regions, blessed regions, where they really had their homes, for here they were but alien sojourners. -Soren Kierkegaard

The great temptation of loving much is that love may love love in the wrong way, becoming, tragically, its opposite, hate. Our love, as Augustine said, is our weight, it determines the movement of will and desire, determining the shape and substance of life. The ordo amoris, the order of love, is the business of the everyday, the sole task of living.

Yet love can succumb to disorder, fall prey to myriad delusions, entrenching the self in a war of deceptions, thrusting consciousness into an ethereal sea of lust masquerading as love. The most difficult endeavor in life, as Wittgenstein wrote (no doubt following Kierkegaard), is trying not to deceive oneself. All these thoughts sprung to mind as I viewed the trailer to Terrence Malick’s newest film Knight of Cups.

There is something quintessentially Kierkegaardian in the galaxy of meaning contained in the trailer. Of course this isn’t new for Malick. In his last two films— Tree of Life and To the Wonder—the presence of Kierkegaard can be at times quite explicit, featuring verbatim quotes. In Tree of Life we feel Kierkegaard’s meditations on the plight of Job (particularly in the sermon scene), and in To the Wonder he explores some of the central themes of Works of Love.

In Knight of Cups, at least from the smidgen I’ve gleaned, Malick seems to be drawing from Kierkegaard’s various knights, whether it is the happy knight of faith, the knight of infinite resignation, or the knight of resignation on pilgrimage to the true knight of faith. Thus, Knight of Cups looks like it could be a mixed metaphor, at least partially, for both Kierkegaard’s various types of knights and the riddles of the eponymous tarot card. I don’t intend to delve too deeply into Kierkegaard’s stages of knighthood—they are notoriously nuanced. But I do, however inchoately, want to point out a few scenes from the trailer that may (or may not) allude to the melancholy Dane’s knighthood.

The trailer begins with a man, Rick (played by Christian Bale), who has become lost to the world, a stranger to himself and others. An infinite, unsurpassable chasm has emerged between all relations. “All these years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” he says, perhaps recalling the prince’s words from the old Syrian Hymn of the Pearl:

Lone was I there, yea, all lonely;

To my fellow-lodgers a stranger.

Rick is alienated, in despair. To remedy the loss he must embark upon a search to regain the world and self he has lost, a journey fraught with deceptions. He pursues money, sex, power and fame: the cult of celebrity. But most importantly he seeks to regain reality—like one of Kierkegaard’s knights in Fear and Trembling—through the pursuit of a princess, a woman. But realizing that love in reality is different and more difficult and less “exciting” than love in ideality, he choses to leave the real woman behind, and similar to Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, he retreats into the realm of his own imaginative, self-inscribed idea of love. The knight of resignation becomes absorbed, obsessed, with the feeling of the experience of love. He resigns from actual love—with all its inherent, finite limitations and boundaries, not to mention duty—to dwell instead in ethereal and exciting castles of purely ideal and novel love. No longer is he susceptible to the actuality of the other, the beloved. The princess is sacrificed for an idea of love.

After the resignation into himself, away from the princess, he can only be with others under the condition that they, too, share the same desire for the fleeting experience of purely transitory love. The consequence is that no one is actually loving a real “other,” but only loving their own idea of love. A deep alienation from the world follows, a glimpse of hell, if you like; the “hell” which Dostoevsky describes as “the inability to love,” or Wittgenstein: “Hell is one’s self.” That is, the self becomes imprisoned within false expectations of love and reality, the expectations themselves are loved while the “other” disappears. A voice-over in the trailer says, “You don’t want love, you want to love experience.” This mirrors Kierkegaard’s knight of resignation who is “absorbed” in the experience of love but not the beloved herself. An obsession, which, as Kierkegaard’s Works of Love attest, often leads to the dilemma of lust: the double desire to devour and be rid of the beloved at once.

Yet like Kierkegaard’s knight, there’s a recognition, an awakening and awareness, in Rick’s consciousness that something is awry in how he loves. Something is missing. And this awareness is key to escaping despair. But how can you escape despair without sinking further into self-deception? This is the great quest of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. “It takes no time at all to be deceived,” Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, “one can be deceived immediately and remain so for a long time—but to become aware of the deception takes time. . . No earnest person, therefore, wearies of the tracking down of the illusions.” The genius of Malick’s films is that he never wearies of tracking down the illusions, and never succumbs to cheap cynicism or sentimentalism; in fact he achieves true Kierkegaardian repetition, the “place where ideality and reality meet” in actuality, the place where Abraham receives back Isaac, the lover back the beloved.

Repetition occurs for Kierkegaard when all that has been deemed lost in the irrecoverable sea of time is suddenly received back in light of the eternal. It is like the sensation of a “man sentenced to death who’s been granted a sudden and unexpected pardon,” as Dostoevsky put it in Crime and Punishment. Repetition, however, is more than a mere fleeting feeling, rather it is an intimation of the nature and promise of reality, a new way of being in the world. Repetition is the atonement, indeed resurrection, of the world. It is, as Kierkegaard writes, life being understood backwards in time but lived forwards into the eternal.

The way Malick uses image, music, poetry and voice—all the way down to the movement of the camera, the eye of light—is an audacious attempt to show what true repetition looks like in concrete life. And this is his story: regaining what has been lost and forgotten within the new key of divine Love. The beloved must be repeated in the Eternal (rather than left behind) if love, joy and peace are to be received in reality. Of course this is all speculation and could be completely off the mark, nothing but the Kierkegaardian projections of a Malick admirer. Nevertheless, I tend to think that if ever there was a Bach of film, he is certainly among us in Terrence Malick.

The Purest of Lines: Isao Takahata’s Final Bow

In November 2013, after fourteen years between films and at age 78, the brilliant animated feature film director Isao Takahata released Kaguya-hime no Monogatari in his native Japan. Under the title The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the film is currently enjoying a critically celebrated American release. And deservedly so: it is one of the most arresting animated films ever made.

The basic story is familiar to all Japanese, as its source is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th century folktale (some say late-9th) and the earliest known piece of Japanese literature. In the original, a miraculous child, Princess Kaguya, is sent from Heaven to be raised by a humble, old bamboo cutter and his humble, old wife. It is a rather straightforward morality tale. The beautiful princess’s greatest happiness comes from loyalty to her elderly, earthly parents—she artfully eschews many a well-concocted marital advance until her mother and father pass away. Princess Kaguya’s father tells her from his deathbed, “Thank you, my daughter, for all the happiness that you have brought us.” And, after his death, rather than fly into the arms of her waiting beloved, the princess stoically returns to the moon, wherefrom she descended many years before. “I am ready.” It is the type of story indigenous to the Japanese mind and spirit. Takahata retains the story’s 10th century setting, but then angles it to reflect some of the more difficult parts of late-20th and early-21st century Japanese life.

Blessed are the Poor

Since his directorial debut in the early 1960s, Takahata has distinguished himself as a powerful dramatist and a visual adventurer who enjoys thematic sleight of hand. It’s not a Hollywood “twist” that he works; rather, it is the careful, Yasujirō Ozu-like revelation of the sub-themes as a film’s innermost drama. His celebrated Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the story of a Japanese boy and his little sister orphaned during World War II, for example, seems at first to be about the brutality of the American firebombing of Japan—which the film depicts unflinchingly. But its overarching drama centers on a boy’s ego and lack of perseverance. The boy pridefully refuses to accept the help of a grouchy, begrudging, mean-spirited aunt. Instead he chooses to fend for himself and strikes out on an ‘adventure,’ little sister in tow. The sister starves to death on the outskirts of town; he dies alone in a railway station. Most viewers judge the aunt for her hardheartedness; Takahata judges the boy’s hardheadedness.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is similarly structured. It remains, at heart, a story about family loyalty, and at first appears to be a rather typical tale of a young fairy princess growing, albeit awkwardly, into her exalted life. Takahata, however, announces his real theme when, after discovering the miraculous child in a bamboo grove, the bamboo cutter pronounces to his wife, “It’s me Heaven’s blessed.”

Takahata deftly draws the audience’s attention away from lingering over this moment, all the while unfolding its significance. Eventually, the bamboo cutter leads Princess Kaguya to the capital city. Using gold that Heaven sent to her, the bamboo cutter contracts a madam to give her a contorting education in aristocratic manners. The princess’s face is caked in white makeup, her eyebrows removed, her teeth blackened, all in preparation for marriage to a feudal lord. For this is the “happiness” of a princess, he declares. The bamboo cutter’s shaping and marketing of his daughter nearly lands him a seat at the emperor’s palace, where she is desired as a concubine. Her beauty is his ticket up the social ladder.

I’ve sketched the bamboo cutter a little starkly; he’s not a true film villain. He may be greedy, but his real menace is a lack of self-knowledge. He cannot see that the princess is suffering at his hand. When he realizes his failure at the end of the film, he repents—too late, however, for her happiness. But here is the key point for Takahata: Princess Kaguya was sent from heaven to the very place she was always meant to be, born into the very life she was always meant to have. And this is what no one expects, the bamboo cutter most especially. When he proclaimed, “It’s me Heaven’s blessed,” his mind raced with all the ways that Heaven lifted him from his life as a “hillbilly.” He doesn’t realize that the princess had too been blessed, been blessed to be his daughter, to live as a part of a humble family, very far from the trappings of wealth and power. They were meant to live a rural life, or as she sings throughout the film, among the “birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers.” Instead, she has been deprived of her birthright and forced to live as a fake, fake, fake, as she mourns towards the film’s climax. But, because the bamboo cutter subconsciously hated his own life, he could not conceive of it as blessed, and thus drove his daughter to misfortune. This is Takahata’s emerging sub-theme.

Critiquing the Miracle

It’s telling that what Takahata judges most severely in his film are the parts unique to his 21st century adaptation. These new elements—the bamboo cutter’s renunciation of his peasantry, his relocation to the capital city, and Kaguya’s education as a key to social elevation—have some populist angst to them. But they also evoke a bundle of tightly bound cultural images associated with the much-heralded “Japanese Miracle,” the rapid industrialization and modernization of post-war Japan and the incredible economic boom it generated. Takahata appears to be criticizing the very heart of modern Japanese culture: the rapid refashioning of the Japanese from a rural people to an urban workforce and the re-built post-war education system designed to fit them to their new economic roles.

Despite its tenth-century setting, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a film made with eyes firmly fixed on the troubles of contemporary Japanese life. It is suffused with anxiety over the hollowing of modern Japan—its demographic tailspin, and the deep slide of the Japanese Miracle into the dreary doldrums of the Lost Two Decades (twenty years of economic stagnation on the heels of astounding national economic performance). Large numbers of young Japanese, like the children of many industrialized nations, are putting off family life and childbearing, floating free of all other civic and social attachments—except for attachment to work. (This is the much-mocked Japanese loyalty to firm.) Why, then, are Japanese parents pushing their children so strongly into an education and economic system that appears to be rending them apart? Takahata’s bamboo cutter suggests self-loathing and greed at the root of Japanese modernity.

Visual Shapeshifting

Takahata is not just a critic of Japanese modernity and a masterful storyteller; he’s also one of the great visual innovators in the history of animation, thanks in part to the good collective work of the world famous Studio Ghibli. Takahata founded Ghibli with his one-time student and long-time collaborator, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The two briefly experimented with digital techniques but eventually scrapped the effort, choosing to remain partisans of traditionally drawn illustrations. Miyazaki responded to the digital encroachment by maturing as a painterly illustrator; Takahata returned to the spirited days of a youthful sketch artist. His great skill is design.

Lurking behind Takahata’s turn (or return) to sketch-like illustrations is a rejection of the technological smoothness and denseness of the computer generated image. With his last two films, My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata has foregone the fuller imagery of his earlier Ghibli films, instead working in a granular, imperfect style that hews close to the sketch pad. The animation of My Neighbors the Yamadas has the flow and quality of a highly-expressive doodle: pencil-based, sparsely colored, and more reminiscent of a Sunday comic strip than a feature film. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is similarly minimalist, but features much thicker, coal-based line work, and nearly impressionistic uses of watercolor. The effect is beautiful and wild, almost primal. At times the film’s images seem to emerge coevally with the story, as if a youthful savant was sketching the tale as it unfolded in his mind. This minimalist foundation allows Takahata to fluidly illustrate up or down, so to speak, either by increasing the detail and crispness of the line work or descending into murkier, rougher strokes depending on the emotional needs of the story. In one scene, as Princess Kaguya flees from her mansion, she morphs into a red, black, and white blur—the animation is stunning.

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But despite the apparent spontaneity and fluidity of the images in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, they are also efficient, expressive, and elegant—the marks of a director in complete control of the line work in his film. No more than needed; lines few, perfect, beautiful; a fertile image. Like a Bashō poem (Barnhill translation):

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I don’t want to push the comparison very far. Takahata is no Bashō. But the line and color work of his late films emanate from the same quintessentially Japanese spirit (of which the 17th century Bashō is a key voice): a haiku-like ordering of distilled images, cut down to their most needed parts, evoking a deeper, higher, and fuller order of things, even when apparently wild.

Losing Happiness

Takahata’s aesthetic response to the digital is of a piece with the larger ethos of Ghibli. Both Takahata and Miyazaki are fierce critics of Japan’s monetizing and technologizing of human life. Miyazaki wants his films to spur children to new hope and action in the daunting face of modern Japanese life, to figure out “how to start,” as he puts it in Turning Point, a collection of Miyazaki’s writings from 1997 to 2008. In contrast, Takahata’s films pitilessly follow the darker logic of Japanese modernity. The beauty of a child spoiled by avarice is his image of modern Japan.

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By the end of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the bamboo cutter repents and gravely regrets the tortuous refashioning of his fairy daughter into an urbane, cool cosmopolite. But when Heaven descends to re-collect her, unlike the stoic ascent featured in the original folktale, Takahata’s Kaguya leaves Earth with deep, heartrending regret. She has been betrayed by the subconscious ambitions of her father.

Just prior to her heavenly ascent, knowing the hour was near, the modern Kaguya returned alone to the village where the bamboo cutter first found her. I would have been happy here, she says. When she sees an impoverished peasant bowl maker, whom she loved as a girl, she tells him, I would have been happy with you. And that’s what Takahata’s oeuvre is fundamentally about, the loss of happiness once found among the “birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers.”