Posts tagged ‘good and evil’

Silo of traumatic kernels: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

The Nostalgia Critic’s Bum Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sums up this film (and much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre) so well almost no other review is necessary: Seriously, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ looked great, but GOD was it stupid.

The overarching plot is pretty dire and derivative, even among the  ‘adolescent from the real world stumbles into fantasyland where he becomes Messiah-with-a-sword for the land’s darling anthropomorphic inhabitants’ genre. There are, however, a lot of nice touches underneath that made the film intermittently fascinating. For instance, Alice brings the fearsome bandersnatch over to her side by simply returning the eye taken from it in an earlier battle, one in which they’d been on opposite sides and the bandersnatch had given her a bad injury just beginning to fester. There’s no bargaining, no ‘I’ll return this if you let me get at that magic sword you’re guarding,’ only simple decency toward a dangerous enemy. After a night’s contemplation, the beast comes to the decision to disinfect her wound and hand over the key to the swordcase, and later helps her escape and partners up in battle. It wasn’t Hollywood ‘clever’ of Alice to make that gesture rather than using it as leverage, but it was quietly genuine and made for a real connection between the two.

This film also aces the Bechdel test, offering a variety of female characters who usually interact with each other in arguing about the right way to rescue Underland from the sociopathic Red Queen. Many of them are fairly complicated characters, as well, particularly the nominal white hats (some of them literally in white hats). The White Queen, for instance, has taken a mysterious but seemingly regretted vow to never hurt a living thing and swans about in an exaggerated Disney Princess posture – but she takes great glee in mixing up embiggening and ensmallening potions out of noxious or dead ingredients (which Alice, good sheltered daughter that she is, drinks down without hesitation even after seeking how they’re made). There’s a lingering worry that Underland will not fare much better under this differently-insane ruler, beautiful white dress or no.

Speaking of dress, Burton does a wonderful and almost subtle thing with the progression of Alice’s clothing. It is first a mark of her inability to truly fit into heteronormative standards, when her mother remarks in horror that she’s sneakily refused to wear her corset or stockings, items that make running or sweating difficult and uncomfortable.  She must improvise as she shrinks and grows, her pretty dress always an impractical inconvenience, progressing from a child’s pastel frills to a more punk-style red dress, to a tunic and trousers reminiscent of 1970s’ Maude, and finally into a suit of armor, coming to literally wear the pants in a gesture toward her future as a merchant businesswoman.

Still, that particular ending managed to be both anachronistic and out of date. A young woman choosing to guide her own future via a high-flying career hasn’t been cutting-edge feminism in generations, and no 19th-century lord would have taken on a female apprentice, no matter how much guilt he felt for not supporting her recently deceased father. And no person of any time period would choose a business heir immediately after she’d humiliated his son by publicly refusing his marriage proposal, alienated his bitter and domineering wife, and demonstrated a level head by literally running away from a decision, falling down a hole and knocking herself unconscious, and performing a pee-pee dance as dramatic punctuation to several condescending pronouncements to her various elders.

There’s also the awkward and quickly dumped romantic element with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, something that was initially almost sweetly rueful despite its perfunctory arrival: “You’re always either too small or too tall for me” nicely encapsulates the difficult adjustments of a first serious love affair. Once they are the same size, however, I was quickly reminded of Alan Kirby‘s tenants of digimodernist aesthetics in terms of modern ‘epic’ films, the “foregrounding of children’s experiences” and specifically “an elision of the question of reproduction; sexualized love may be permitted, but in sublimated form”. (Digimodernism, 2009, p 127; I’d really hoped to find something more on this in his blog to link to specifically, as I’d love it if he’d expand on this idea more…particularly if he had any ideas where the re-sexualisation of these works in online fandom would fit in to this aesthetic, or as resistance against the aesthetic, or what have you…but there ya go.)

Once Alice and the Hatter are the same size, their connection fizzes into flat lemonade, becoming generic, sexless Wuv. Any remotely realistic complexity is immediately jettisoned, despite it being exactly the messy aspect of adulthood a 19-year-old first defined as a marriage-ready almost-woman should thematically be facing and beginning to control. The somewhat positive adult-becoming of beginning a career instead becomes a retreat from Underland’s potential for adult sexuality (and the mixed blessing of a devoted and creative paramour with the face of Johnny Depp but mercury-warped sanity and gametes) to the safe protection of a substitute father-figure standing between her and the big dangerous world – even after she’s slain a skyscraper-sized monster!

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The Road: Quest for Sugar Bombs

The world of 2009’s The Road is by definition one without meaning: an unspecified cataclysm has radically altered the earth, leaving is sunless and all but lifeless.  Plants and the lifeforms directly dependent on them are long dead; the more adaptable end of the food chain has dwindled to a few brutal survivors consuming the last scraps of nourishment, (primarily, each other).

Humanity, as individuals and a species, is over.  The father and son that move furtively through this world – hoping for a semblance of normality to be found on the coast – often encounter the bodies of those who, like the boy’s mother, have chosen suicide over a brief existence snuffed out by starvation or roving gangs of cannibal rapists.

And yet this very bleakness creates lives of portentous significance, as if meaning had not been removed but distilled and grown omnipresent.  It’s a world that will leave obsessive players of Fallout 3 with a constant sense of déjà vu and, perhaps, a more profound depression.  By way of a inspiration-source grandfather paradox, the film feels like a serious business version of the game because Fallout 3’s distinctive aesthetic is extensively cribbed from the Cormac McCarthy novel the film is based on.

Many of the father’s choices, particularly when to press on exploring in the face of clear warnings, are agonising after months of leisure time spent in the Capitol Wasteland.  Skulls on poles? Inbred cannibals!  Well preserved antebellum house? Andale cannibals! Ruined church? Giant green mutant cannibals! And put out that fire before the raiders and feral ghouls are fighting to keep your slaughtered corpse as a nutritious trophy!

But – obviously – there’s no handy stashes of ammo and instant Salisbury Steaks, no safe havens, no stimpacks.  The Capitol Wasteland is a veritable land of milk and honey, compared to the road these two are on.  The two settings do, however, seem to have a very similar karma engine, the weight of moral choices composited by an all-seeing, objective force.

Much like the same year’s A Serious Man, the characters – and audience – have two contextualising options.  1) God exists and is testing them to extremes even Job could not imagine, and they will be quickly punished for succumbing to sin or despair.  Or, 2) There is no god, no punishment, and thus no meaning to their suffering, only empty chance – a more terrifying prospect than being subject to a vengeful god.

This continues a theme from another Cormac McCarthy-based film, No Country For Old Men, in which the callousness of fate is embodied in the single-minded contract killer Anton Chigurh.  It’s an identity he consciously embodies, chancing the lives of most he comes in contact with on a coin toss, which his victim must call.  This is an iron-clad principle, to him, that he is less a person than an instrument of morality – after all, the accumulation of many small choices made good or evil actions their habit, and evil (spanning a very broad spectrum of profound and petty impulses) is what brought them into contact with him.  The only explanation he offers is to one victim, a cocky hired gun who fails to carry off a hit on Chigurh: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

The father is a survivalist – one who had stockpiled several years’ worth of non-perishables and whose first impulse, noting a fiery riot in the small hours, was to begin filling every sink and tub with tap water – who follows the rules that will allow him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Keep moving.  Search every cranny for nutrition.  Avoid all other humans.

He does, however, allow a space for a larger meaning, for and because of the son born soon after the cataclysm.  Of the boy, he says, “the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”  He tells the boy stories from the old world of courage and justice, when he isn’t walking his son through the proper way to commit suicide with one of their two remaining bullets, when the time comes.  Later, when the father has hardened past what little morality he once possessed, he calls the boy not the word but his god – a totem rather than person.

Through this fraught childhood, the son begins to grow into something part Messiah, part masthead of the first – and perhaps only – generation of this new world, and just a smidgen of an ordinary pre-adolescent, needing to detach from the suffocating love of his parent in order to become his own person.  Never knowing plenty, his impulse is to share their limited supplies with the few not immediately murderous individuals they meet, potentially turning them to allies and the human company he desperately craves.  He is quickly more in tune with the new order than his father, picking up subtle signals – like the categorised pile of worn clothes in the Andale house of cannibals – that his father misses entirely in his dreaming of the old society.  For instance, in a nearly wordless scene, his father finds possibly the last can of Coca-Cola in existence and tells his son to have it as a treat.  The son tries to hide his revulsion at the strange liquid and insists the father have it.  No, children love soda, drink it and let me enjoy watching you enjoy it, his father’s fragile joy insists back.  It’s uncomfortably obvious they are living in the same world less and less.

The narrative of their course through the new wilderness may be an indictment of human nature and the lawless chaos underlying existence.  Or it may be a world in which its God, with a peculiar deity’s-eye view, has shown the mercy of removing all distractions so that humanity may clearly perceive its will and be judged on their responses.  Efficiently, immoral choices bring sinners into contact with each other (a sort of Anton Chigurh à deux) to mutually enact punishments.  Father and son are twice cornered among cannibals, and twice escape through coincidences bordering on divine intervention.  They nearly die of starvation, but stumble onto a huge cache of food in a hidden fallout shelter.  Suddenly, they are the richest people in the wasteland.

Here is where the father and son’s paths begin to metaphysically diverge.  The son wants to give thanks, to express his gratitude somehow to the people who left the food behind.  He also wants his father to stay out of what little privacy he has, after the father roots through his pockets and lays out his treasures – one of which is an arrowhead, something that catches the father’s attention.  Perhaps he is sadly mulling over happier apocalyptic scenarios he’d prepared for, once in which western humans could have re-learned the old skills.  But there are no more animals to hunt, no more living wood to make into bows…

They hear searching noises above their hideaway, and the boy wants to meet them, to see if they really could have something so mystical as a dog with them.  The father (sensibly) refuses, and decides they need to move in immediately.  Unfortunately, he decides to move on with as much of the supplies inside the shelter as they can stuff onto a cart, making them a slow-moving, indefensible target.  He has been abandoning the markers of good memories – a picture, his wedding ring – and trying to fully move into the new world, but without that old identity he is little better than the cannibals they flee.

The only possible strategy, both logistically and morally, is the eat their fill and leave, taking only what they can carry.  Both of their previous escapes hinged on speed, abandoning baggage of supplies and memories.  It’s like a tougher version of the Israelites’ manna from heaven during their 40 years in another wasteland, raising a generation of fighters untainted by the mental servitude of slavery and unquestioningly following the will of a very involved god.  Instead of maggots infesting their hoarded sustenance, the two are set upon by thieves and killers.  Two dying men are put in their path, offering opportunities to divest themselves of their dangerous hoard while acting in defiance of the immoral bleakness surrounding.  The father refuses, while the son is agonised with a need to do that right thing.

The first, an old man, offers something like a lesson.  When the father speaks of what it would be like to be the last man on earth, the old man responds only, “How would he know?”  A man’s awareness of the world is limited to his own skull at the best of times, and often not even that.  The worst atrocities and tragedies in this film come from characters who feel they have grasped the scope of the universe – everything is dying and no behaviour will be punished or stopped by some authority – and so they commit suicide or cannibalise their neighbours.

This is the only sort of world in which moral decisions truly matter,  one in which a person must continually chose between foolhardy generosity or faith solely for the benefit of a theoretical immortal soul (and seemingly being rewarded for such with a few more days’ existence) and one’s life.  No one will come after them who might offer the shoeless old man a spare pair of boots like the pair hanging off the back of their wagon, for instance.  Unlike the beggar on a busy city street who might inspire a guilty twinge, the father and son are his only chance.  The stakes are unimaginably high, but at least the moral choices are clear.

The father passes his personal moral horizon when he punishes a thief who stripped them of all their worldly goods (making the exact mistake the father did, allowing them to catch up), but left the boy unharmed.  He steals more unneeded wealth, every stitch of clothes, and leaves him to die of exposure.  The son passes this test, eventually convincing his father (too late) to return the clothes, and even leaves some food as well.  Soon after, they find a live beetle – a sign that, as the old man said, they didn’t truly know life would never return to earth – and the father is fatally wounded by an arrow.  Suddenly, the arrowhead his son carried hadn’t been a cruel reminder but a fair warning of the end of the path he’d set foot on.

His murderer is punished as well for taking potshots at those unfortunate enough to pass underneath, killed by a wild flare the father shot into his window.  This narrative’s god is very efficient.  Even the cannibals, for all they are currently well fed, aren’t really so well off.  They will also die horribly, sooner rather than later, either at the hands of their hungry compatriots or of some postapocalyptic Creuzfelt-Jakob disease.

After his father’s slow death, the son encounters an armed veteran on the shore and, following his father’s rules, initially holds him back at gunpoint.  The veteran and his family are both somewhat creepy and too good to be true, but the son chooses to trust that they want him to join their group.  If there is a god, the boy is being rewarded for his faith with temporary safety and the “good people” he and his father came to the coast hoping to find.  If this world is only meaningless chaos, the boy was raped and/or eaten soon after the fade to black.

It all depends on the road you want to follow.

the lone ranger and tonto fistfight on Pandora: Avatar

Avatar is an extremely pretty and well-meaning film that suffers from the same core problem that plagued Drag Me To Hell, another mostly enjoyable 2009 film: both were written in the early/mid-90s, a different cultural epoch for both the horror and fantasy genres.  Drag Me To Hell was somewhat disappointing because the marketing:

Poster: Drag Me To Hell

had me ready for a fierce woman battling the forces of darkness for possession of her soul when the main character was, in fact, maybe 3% fierce at most.  And that was only to battle mud and a gross but inanimate opponent.  The remaining 97%, she was pathetically likable and personality-free, hiring others to fight and die on her behalf.  Around Army of Darkness‘s release, it would have been enough to have a non-Final Girl female protagonist, but in the post-Whedon era, that’s retrograde and (worse) dull.

Avatar immediately suffers from plot and thematic parallels to environmental films of the previous decade (Dances With Wolves, Ferngully: The Last Rainforst, Pocahontas) that didn’t age well, or weren’t fine cinema (or aimed at adults) to begin with.  These films were rooted in a less sophisticated conception of post-imperialist theory, little more than a generational update on cowboys and indians that allowed little white boys to join the bows and arrows brigade (as the leader, as was appropriate to their majority status).  This genre illuminated the inhumane actions of historical oppressors and modern land developers while leaving the oppressed as voiceless and objectified as Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din.

The script has been somewhat updated from its original form to become a heavy-handed allegory for the last several years of US and UK military action.  I agree with Miles Antwiler that this is a very valid massage that shouldn’t be dismissed solely out of cynicism, but here the execution is mis-aimed and even childish, refusing to risk losing audience sympathy in any small aspect.  The planet Pandora and the Na’vi living on it are initially presented as pants-crappingly terrifying to a large settlement of hardened former-Marine mercenaries, but the only evidence of their deadly nature is a few ineffective arrows stuck in a futuristic Hummer’s tires.

In this allegory, the Na’vi represent real people in occupied areas who’ve resorted to guerilla tactics, blurring the line between combatants and civilians for the uniformed soldiers charged with pacifying those areas.  Unfortunately, James Cameron is unwilling to bring any level of subtlety to the simplistic morality at play or challenge the audience by having the Na’vi assault even valid military targets on screen, let alone exploiting vulnerable civilian areas with terrifying, showy attacks designed to drive the humans off-planet.  This is an insult to all oppressed people, whose cultures are twisted by the dirty, dehumanizing tactics required to resist an overwhelming force.  That is the unique tragedy of occupation.  The Na’vi suffer massive loss of life and significant habitat destruction, but this could be caused by fires, floods, earthquakes, etc – disasters a mystical culture “living in harmony with nature” would be expected to encounter from time to time.  Occupied nations suffer this destruction along with the wholesale loss or perversion of a cultural identity, whether their citizens capitulate or resist.

Na’vi culture is somehow unstained by many years of humanity’s strip-mining and attempted infiltration, a miraculously preserved playland that welcomes and seduces interlopers who should by all rights be shot on sight and have their bodies left in some horrible state as a message to others.  (Corporal Sully is spared exactly this fate by godly intervention; there’s no mention if the scientists who had previously spent enough time with the tribe to learn their language and make lifelong friendships had a similar divine dispensation.)

That culture is visually stunning and fulfils every wish a daydreaming suburban white boy could have, but dull, far more suited to a children’s direct-to-video cartoon.  There’s no ideological flaws to add depth and personality to the people as a whole, nothing that individuals can rail against and thus create their own character arc separate from that of the outsiders observing them.  One interesting possibility avoided is the question raised by the Na’vi’s uniform physical perfection – where are the weak or disabled natives?  Nature, which the Na’vi are so in tune with, is a great lover of congenital oddities and offers many misadventures that can permanently injure even those who don’t regularly plummet several hundred metres for lols.  Is there a 300-esque Spartan cliff with generations of rejected infant corpses at the foot of it?  Even a much more palatable scenario, such as the obvious fetishism of athletic ability verging on a fascistic requirement, could have made for an interesting knot when Sully’s real-body disability was revealed.

There is one interesting, even nuanced allegory running through the film, illuminating the human (and possibly filmmakers’) neurotic mass psyche.  The avatars referenced in the title – genetically engineered hybrid bodies remotely inhabited by humans – are only the tip of the body-horror iceberg.  The bad military humans also (literally) step into bigger, stronger versions of their ordinary bodies, mechanical exoskeletons that stand, move, and fight just as a meat-body would.

These robotic extensions don’t even provide a faster or more stable method of locomotion or even come with a jet-pack for independent short flights.  They even use the same weapons as human soldiers, large handguns and combat knives.  Their ridiculous, redundant design is highlighted when the hoo-rah Colonel Quaritch conspicuously meets with the newest recruit while bench-pressing a gigantic load, warns the recruit that any physical softness will get a person killed on Pandora, and then immediately hops into a protective exoskeleton that will face the dangerous world for him.

Even the supermodel natives of Pandora aren’t satisfied with their ubermensch physicality, using an organic USB connector to hijack the bodies of larger creatures.  The only individual in the film truly pushing his own body to its physical limits, refusing assistance, is the injured marine who’s lost the use of his legs.  Even he gives up this effort as soon as he’s able to sometimes inhabit a fully functional body.  Eventually he abandons his broken, neglected body entirely, his mystical transfer into the better, non-disabled abomination of corporate science symbolising his rejection of tarnished humanity and birth as a truly whole spirit.  Ideologically, it’s pretty gross, taken on face value.

On a deeper level, though, it could be only species-wide self-disgust and childish rage against the generational slowness of evolution; humans want to be physically more from the bones out and lack the creativity to fully utilise technology for anything but destruction and the extension of what already exists.  This conceptual thread is particularly appealing because the solution it offers is not to retreat intosopophoric Na’vi connectivity, as they suffer the same neurosis.  It’s the sole dissonant note in the final triumphant chorus.

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?

Midichlorian-free: The Men Who Stare At Goats

ewan mcgregor tries to make his skull pop out his eye sockets

As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right?  Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?

Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head.  And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs.  So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.

Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility.  It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes.  This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.

The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.

Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s.  Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated.  Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of.  Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.

Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers.  The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster.  It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way.  Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.

There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire.  Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity.  Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life.  Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being.  Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage.  It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.

The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training.  They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority.  There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage.  After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.

Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy.  He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based.  Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue.  He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.

These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai.  They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent.  The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves.  Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).

The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur).  Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall.  Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious.  (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?)  Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.

the men who stare at goats

He, She, and it: Antichrist

Antichrist - Eden

Antichrist is not an enjoyable experience, but it does make a small and permanent place in your brain afterward.  Lars von Trier wrote the script in the middle of a profound depression, and I’d comfortably wager much of the audience response splits between those who’ve gone through depression or intense mourning and those who’ve yet to have the pleasure.

In the interpretation that makes sense to me, much of the film comes down to the struggle between the Lacanian/Zizekian Symbolic and the Real.  The Real in this definition (as least what I’ve grasped of it) is impenetrable, only perceived as chaos.  We experience it as traumatic kernels hiding within the symbolic order – think of a basic life definition, which this film plays with like a feral cat with a dead mouse: Man and Woman.  Individuals with male genitalia are Men, defined by a set of attributes and (more importantly) their lack of another set of attributes that have been assigned to those with female genitalia, who are Women because they lack the male-assigned attributes.

These gendered definitions usually work well enough, as most people don’t encounter many others who don’t make the effort to fit them.  But picture their discomfort and even disgust at meeting a male or female transvestite, or outright horror if they were to learn someone they were close to had been born of the opposite gender or hermaphroditic.  Hello, traumatic kernel.

The general response – the psychologically healthy one, you could argue – to one of these kernels is to either reject them out of hand as something perverse and thus unworthy of attention, or to examine the sense of disquiet and eventually incorporate the disturbing thing into a more complicated definition of life’s essential truths.  Neither approach gets a person closer to the Real, of course, but the Real is made of madness and should be avoided.  That space is left blank on purpose, as the form tells us.

The fact that the laws of physics we experience on Earth seem to be consistent across as much of the universe as we’ve been able to observe convinces me that there’s probably some overarching logic or meaning to the universe (thank you, Carl Sagan).  What that meaning might be, no human has any hope of grasping.  It’s too big, and too impersonal, and frankly as terrifying as it is comforting.  So, for my own sanity, I generally stop at ‘there’s some order out there.’

The film, like nearly all organised religions since a breed of sociopathic prehistoric apes lost some body hair, takes on reproduction and death, two forces in human existence that shred the boundaries between the relatively comfortable Symbolic order and the Real.  It seems that whoever can take those living nightmares and trap them in a logical order will win the big prize, but no one’s claimed it yet.  The Antichrist of the title, a couple’s very young son, escapes from his crib and falls to his death while his parents are distracted with passionate lovemaking, plunging the two of them into intolerable torment.  Sex and Death, Freud’s chocolate and peanut butter, in beautiful slow-motion.

He seeks to escape his grief by focusing on that of his wife.  He’s a medication-hating psychiatrist, the embodiment of order imposed upon the chaos of human experience.  She’s younger and an academic, already half driven mad by her own intense study of witch hunts.  Her grief is mostly insanity, directly staring into the Real, and her guilt doesn’t allow her to contextualise that ugliness back into the Symbolic’s order without some crushing punishment.  She’s probably wise to accept her doctor’s deadening medication, providing the only reprieve possible, but accepts her husband’s judgement that he can fix her with words, instead.

Her state of mind was familiar to me.  When I was a teenager, my only sibling committed suicide.  Already struggling with many of the same issues that drove him to it, I was simultaneously thrust into a terrifying adult world in which anyone can die at any time and suddenly expected to live up to every family expectation in order to make up for his death – my resounding success in every area (and production of grandchildren) would make his suicide, and the inherent rebuke to their parenting, symbolically nullified.

By which I’m saying, people respond to grief with varying levels of insanity, and I believe the way that Death is removed from ordinary life in the modern world, something to be shoved aside and spoken of in hushed, almost ashamed tones, has only made those responses crazier.

He looks for ways to bring her away from the terror of loss and the absence of any mental safety by imposing a Symbolic order, represented by a pyramid of words – at the top will be her true fear, which he will force her to confront, and then, badda bing, she’ll be back in the orderly land with him.  It’s quite likely he’s aware on some level that this is an impossible task, and hopes it’ll be a lifelong quest that keeps him safely in the role of carer, not grieving father.

She confesses her nightmares of their rustic cabin and the woods surrounding it, so he takes her there.  Even as he sees the harshness she justifiably fears (a beautiful deer which turns to reveal a malformed, stillborn fawn still half-trapped inside, a fox consuming itself which informs him that “chaos reigns”), he insists more stridently on his sense of order, seeing her as the chaos she confronts.

In a key moment, she tells him that the acorns constantly raining down on the tin roof make her unbearably sad, because an oak tree only needs one of these in a hundred years to germinate in order to propagate itself.  The abundance of acorns, except for that one in a billion, exist solely to be consumed by other life, by the other ones in a billion that were able to go from potential to actual.  It’s obvious she sees her son, and herself, as those extraneous acorns.  In my experience, the only way to get through this state of mind – which is not inaccurate, just impossible to sustain while retaining sanity – is to stay away from sharp things while looking at the chaos until it loses all meaning, until the inadequate descriptive words allow the Symbolic to mercifully creep up over it.

Her husband, instead, tells her that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, and tries to make her accept nature by walking in the tall grass outside the cabin.  His desperate need to save his shattered wife and unacknowledged bruised ego (after all, as the older and more educated partner, he’s right, she should listen and accept his view) merge into a disastrous effort to force order onto grief, even as he loses his own grip.

Unfortunately, it soon comes out that she had started to lose her sanity several months before their son’s death, in that cabin, confronting the Real more distantly: the hysteria that drove entire communities to torture and murder their own neighbors.  She began with the assertion that it was “gynocide,” the killing of women, the attempt to destroy subversive femininity via the symbolic murder of these real women and leave behind only the cowed and controlled.  In isolation, with only her pre-verbal son and these images for company, her view began to shift – if these men were evil, because humanity is at its dark heart a nasty brutal thing, are not woman, as human beings, equally evil?  In that sense, didn’t those tortured women deserve death, as things equally evil to the men putting them to death?

Thus we get our second example of why it’s a Very Bad Thing to try to contextualise the harsh chaos of the Real into a neat philosophical context.  Logic is just as brutal, in its own way, as nature.

For instance, it might be logical to move from this discussion of the sad but sane-ish chapters to the brutal one Antichrist is infamous for by defining the maiming and murder as the abandonment of the Symbolic order for the immediate physical experience, a closer approximation of the Real.  I’d argue, however, that the torture and murder only go deeper into the Symbolic order, to the depths of the human soul that believe in sacrifice to appease forces beyond their control.

Destroying part, perhaps the best part, of what a person valued was a way to let destructive chaos into the small area of imposed order in the hopes that this would fill some cosmic chaos quota, and leave the rest of the life untouched.  When this impulse provokes more psychopathic impulses, like the torture or ritual murder of a chosen victim, the meaning behind it was more direct, simply an attempt to provoke a reaction from the indifferent beyond by violating the consciously and unconsciously held rules: look what we’ve done, respond to us, even if it’s to fry us all with lightening.  Don’t withhold meaning any longer.

This new level begins as she seems to have turned a corner, begun to reconstruct a sense of life and her place in it that keeps the terror of reality at bay.  He turns spiteful, from lack of control over this breakthrough and from the fear that he’ll now have to face his own grief, and viciously attacks her with words.  This escalates quickly, from forced sexual intercourse (her on him, as many of their sexual encounters have been throughout the grieving process) to torture, to attempted murder and actual murder.  They visit horrors on each other, and hers in particular spiral as each act, so terrible and transgressive it must force a response from the powers that be and end her torment, provokes nothing.  No punishment and thus no meaning falls from the sky or crawls up from the earth.

In the end, all reproductive possibilities brutally destroyed in both, there is only survival.  The final scene, his vision of a crowd of faceless women streaming past him to Eden, has been decried as misogyny, of admittance that she was right, that women are evil and will return to a primal horror that lives in their base souls if men push too close.  Putting aside the question of big-E Evil, I think it’s more interesting that this is his vision, women like his wife who he can not only not save but now not even comprehend simple facial expressions.

He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to penetrating the human psyche, a grief-stricken father who felt confident he could not only understand but fix his wife’s internal workings.  Here, he emerges as a broken person who has walked into and – barely – out of his own and his wife’s hearts of darkness.  The truly crushing realisation: he has gained no understanding of deeper truths, only new grief, and has lost the ordered structure that gave life any meaning at all.

I want to believe (in God)

The premier pic that says it all.

The premier pic that says it all.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe
2008

It’s 1995, and I’m watching X-Files with my parents, while my dad (who was one of the five people watching from the very first episode) explains the backstory. Three years later, it’s a half-dozen college students crowded around a 10-inch dorm room tv, and I’m the one explaining where Scully got her implant and why Mulder’s so funny about his father. In 2002, I’m watching the finale on mute while talking on the phone and looking up Buffy trivia online.

I re-lived all of this recently when we came to possess the entire X-Files run and blew through them in a month. The husband and I compared the memories it brought up, mine aging along with the show, his scattershot as they were caught in nonlinear UK airings. We agreed that if anything captured the gestalt of the mid- and late-90s, it was X-Files: the paranoia and suspicion that came with the communication explosion of the internet’s unattractive adolescent years, along with the righteous attitude that us ordinary people had the right, even responsibility, to investigate our power structures.

The show followed to arc of the times. First, the excitement and cost of venturing where unquestioning citizens feared to tread, all new information tempered by the loss of safety, health, and loved ones. Next, the winking postmodern self-parodies that deconstruct the patterns and the show’s intensely loyal audience, interspersed with straight episodes that expect to be taken as seriously as the first season’s. Finally, the disintegration of intellectual irony and recreational scepticism as religious terrorism took the nation’s focus, with the alien and government conspiracies all but replaced by po-faced explorations of evil and demonic possession. This last era was marked by a switch in characters, adding in the straightforward and unimaginative Doggett as the new sceptic (lacking even Scully’s religious faith) and the less individual, believer in woo-woo, Reyes. I quite like both characters, particularly compared to the tired, reluctant performances of the former leads, but the fact remains that neither had the same rigorous, researched imagination of Mulder or the intellectual background of Scully. It could have worked quite well, but as an honest spinoff: CSI: X-Files.

The second X-Files movie picks up where the series left Mulder and Scully: the grinding misery of conspiracy chewtoys, driven into a half-hearted relationship by inertia and a lack of other options. In an effort to be edgy and deep, these characters suffered the inevitable losses of all non-investigatory aspects of their lives, with even miracles introduced only to punish them by their removal. Both look old and tired (Duchovny now a dead ringer for Gary Shandling), and their interactions, even their pillow talk, betray only decades of bottled up resentment and disappointment in their present lives. When Scully threatens to end the relationship throughout the film, there’s no tension – why should we be pulling for this lifeless codependent slog to continue?

Mulder and Scully don’t want to be together and they don’t want to investigate for the FBI, only getting pulled in by the tug of a half-remembered youthful passion. As the director is not named Bergman, it’s painful to watch, almost guilt-inducing – as if the audience is forcing an elderly, arthritic showpony to limp through its old routine.

The plot is also reminiscent of later X-Files episodes, focusing on good v evil with only passing references to aliens or conspiracies, but also barely glancing across a potentially rich Dr Frankenstein-esque Monster Of The Week. There’s a lack of both set-ups and resolutions, while more time is spent on far-fetched and weak morality plays. Plays with little to ponder because, as far as any characters with extensive dialogue are concerned, God’s existence and activity in earthly matters are both a given.

Scully is possibly affronting God, or at least her be-collared bosses, by using stem cells to treat a deathly ill boy in a Catholic hospital? The dying, altar boy raping, defrocked priest is possibly having visions, possibly with one of his former victims as a conduit, because the victim (now dying of cancer himself) is gay-married to the Russian (always Russian in this show) kidnapper and organ harvester? And is it the organ harvesting, child raping, stem cell treatment, the use of Google, or gay marriage that is most affronting to God, possibly causing Him to send punitive visions? And Scully’s ending her relationship with Mulder because he’s pursuing the case she persuaded him to take on? But it’s all ok because they end up in a rowboat in the tropics?

And there’s a two-headed Frankenstein dog? And a late-arriving Skinner wraps up Mulder’s case in three minutes and has a wee cuddle with him in the snow, the most genuine emotional connection in this entire beast?

And the ultimate moral of the story: people should put some damn chains on their tires during a Vancouver West Virginia blizzard, which would make so much of this plot not happen.

…I miss Doggett and Reyes.

Who, if Chris Carter writes another movie, will be miserably married in Mexico and have had three kids, all of whom were abducted and brutally murdered, on sequential Christmases. So…let’s hope he doesn’t.