Posts tagged ‘murder’

the word is now a virus: Pontypool

Pontypool is in one way a simple satire with a single didactic message: English-speaking media is turning citizens into empty-headed and desperately violent zombies, and the only way to save yourself is to excise the language entirely. Metaphorical tumor and healthy flesh must be sacrificed together, and refuge is to be found in the less id-baiting vocabulary of Lacan’s French.

Why Lacan? The seemingly random words that punctured each person with this verbal infection made me think of his famous near-koan, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”

Horror is at its most effective, though, when it has some solid conceptual underpinnings, remains faithful to them, and – most importantly – allows the audience to ignore them completely. Fortunately, as the Spoony One pointed out (getting us interested enough to rent it), Pontypool has another showy concept up its sleeve: it’s practically a radio play, relying on audience imagination for the first two acts.

This leads to the film’s most common criticism, that it cheaps out on showing the horror that a viewer presumably expects to see based on the cover art. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I love zombie flicks, but they’re samey in their special effects and “shocking” gore notes. They’re almost comforting that way, like a bedtime story you’ve heard read a hundred times…assuming your father was Jeffrey Dahmer. If a character on a crackly phone line describes an undead mob converging on a victim, I’ve got the mental image in place by the fourth word. If that mob is dog-piling on a family’s car while imitating windshield-wiper blades…I’ve got to work a little harder for it, and when the visual finally clicks…hoo boy. There’s no filmed scene that could ever match up.

Another benefit of this limitation is that it puts us inside the media body that in a typical horror flick would conveniently contextualise the mayhem with an explanation of the source, and provide an arrow toward the survivors’ solution if not the solution itself. Here, they desperately try to put together disparate reports into a coherent story to tell (because it has to be a story to be news, not just isolated facts), while debating whether they should be repeating any of it on air. Is it true, is it a prank, is it in fact life-and-death real and could get them fined for accidentally broadcasting the inappropriate reality of madness and death?

The virus, and the film, move on understanding. Currently unknown English words (although ones pertaining to love and hate, most beloved hot-buttons of infotainment, are early favorites) carry a new sort of virus, one that takes hold in the ephemeral moment when someone not just hears the word but understands it. (It’s reasonable to suspect that this will not be one of evolution’s fortunate mutations, as a successful word virus would be more like William S. Burrow’s conception of the written word as a symbiotic virus that made speech possible, not one that invariably led to its host eating all other potential hosts and then exploding.) What then? If Burroughs is right, we can’t halt our internal vocalisation, and that inevitably spills out verbally, possibly carrying the fatal virus and delivering that letter to anyone near you, or listening at home.

The film plays with the fuzzy dividing line between signal and noise. They broadcast a clear signal, but the words on it are difficult. The small town listening thrives on gossip and speculation, and fuelling this will only lead to the station’s censure, right or wrong. Give them only the boring but comprehensible signal, none of the primal and artistic noise. But the new dj, like all in his profession, thrives on attention, negative as much or more than positive. Words are not only his livelihood, they are his joy, leaping straight from his fluidly rhizoid brain to his lips, layering grains of exact truth with rhythm and melodrama. Facts and speculations fling themselves into the de-sanctified studio too quickly to be comprehended, let alone judge. As the dj states in the film’s opening monologue about a lost cat named “Honey”:

Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assasination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other.

These details seemed related because the JFK assassination and its aftermath happened live on television. It was a seemingly direct experience, just filtered through media’s commercial imperatives. It became a story, and in a story, everything should connect, but where was the author?

A foreign doctor seemingly at the centre of the disturbances appears right on cue. They want him to explain what’s going on, he wants to explain what’s going on, they give him a microphone, and…they keep getting distracted. The speed of incoming fragments makes them feel urgent, even though they only give information we already know (something contagious is making people behave incomprehensibly), while the doctor is offering solid intel on how the affected act, and how to hide from them. But noise is news; noise gets priority.

The story of the happening has to be plucked from noise. Here’s where the writing and acting are particularly strong, with characters speaking in elliptical, semi-conscious prestidigitation, trying to verbally camouflage their own fears and secrets. Early on, the show’s producer defends specific townspeople who are precariously recovering alcoholics just trying to hold onto their jobs; later, she seeks refuge in the dj’s bottle of Glenfiddich and refers to being continually drunk at the end of her marriage. Ah…so her earlier words were partly about herself, and partly a feint away from “I’m an alcoholic and your jokes about drunks are painful.”

That, or anyone would hit the bottle during a painful divorce or “conversationalist” zombie siege, and it has nothing to do with her comment before. Is Honey the lost cat, and the dj’s broadcast about her, at the epicentre of the outbreak, or is it just a coincidence that the animal’s name is in the “love” circle of seemingly infected words? It appears to line up, strung together by adequate coincidences, to produce meaning, but are you convinced? What’s your criteria for being convinced; do you even know? Meanwhile, doom is close…so they tell you.

My impression: the dj and producer are carriers, Typhoid Marys, able to fight off the disease themselves but also infecting every poor soul who hears them. They are both depressed, both regularly self-medicating, and unable to meaningfully connect with others. They both want to – the dj’s handmade Valentine’s Day cards for his coworkers, the producer’s fatal phone calls to her distant children – but are only hearing others through a thick filter of helpless gloom, distorting their meaning. Their well-meaning attempts to warn listeners – not-so-incidentally skyrocketing their own profile in the process – are spreading the disease to everyone who tunes in from as far away as the UK via a BBC simulcast. Their dissociated thinking can save them, but trying to pass the trick on to others is impossible as even they don’t truly know

Where did the virus come from; did the mysterious doctor create it or just study its rapid development? It’s inconceivable in any case, right? Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who wants to put Grandpa in front of a death panel, and Dick Cheney personally orchestrated September 11 2001 to justify his imperialist war machine. Desecrating a holy text is a Christian act; that potential desecration justifies violent demonstrations against uninvolved parties. How have sections of societies been infected with these illogical ideas?

Frankly, the world would be better off with the conversationalist zombies.

Also: I have no idea what to make of the dadaist stinger after the credits, but if it were a movie I would buy the dvd and every scrap of related merchandise.

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Vorlons and cylons and Jacob: Lost Season 6

drowning in symbolism

Lost Season 6: Ab Aeterno

I always prefer questions to answers (while demanding the answers that will ruin my fun).  Lost hasn’t been nearly as much fun since it switched from world-building mode to a self-conscious endgame, too often combining glaringly on-the-nose dialogue with half-hearted jungle-walking scenes to pad out time between those revelations. The multi-layered storytelling (providing us with either an alternative reality to be crushed or an extended happier-ending epilogue to the entire series) is a fascinating device – I keep forgetting how amazing it is to have a major network show with an unexplained non-linear structure! – but the stories it tells are (possibly by necessity) more like bullet-point references to well worn tropes.

Depending on where the season heads, Ab Aeterno was either a refreshing break from that trend or the worst example of this tell-don’t-show headache. Concerning the ethical seduction of Richard Alpert, the episode is (possibly) filtered through the point of view of an uneducated 19th-century Catholic who’s recently lost his beloved wife and been condemned to death for the murder of the doctor who refused to save her – so Heaven, Hell, and the (im)possibility of redemption weight heavily on his mind. Both men offer him a version of salvation: Smokey releasing the starving man from his chains and bringing a vision of his lost wife, Jacob providing the immortal Purgatory that will give him time to redeem himself, or at least delay entering the fires of wife-less Hell.

It’s quite simple here: the Man in Black is sexy, persuasive Evil and the Man in White is remote, dissociated Good. Jacob keeps Smokey locked on the island – the metaphorical cork in the bottle – to protect the world.

Even this simple paradigm is a bit complicated: Jacob is a strange Good, bringing an endless stream of unsuspecting mortals to the island to be slaughtered in a vague effort to make Smokey see good in them (just before he rips them limb from limb, dying in agony and bewildered terror?). Their deaths are their own fault, he reasons, because they had to choose the mysterious right path on their own, without any intervention from him. This seems like the logic of a very old god, angered when individuals don’t chose against their own survival without compelling, or any, reason to do so.

Smokey, on the other hand, is much more basic. After releasing Richardo, he feeds him roasted boar, likely from the same menacing beast that feasted on the dead slaves chained next to him. There’s a clear message about life’s brutality there, an understanding and warning of what humans and gods will or must do when trapped. There may be a greater purpose to uphold or face punishment, but without the Cliff Notes, people have to make decisions based on the little information they’ve got.

Whether I’ll love or loathe this episode will depend on whether the Candidates ultimately take the Babylon 5 route and reject choosing between the powerful beings in favor of writing their own meanings on the blank canvas of the universe, or if it ends like the poor Battlestar Gallactica victims, frantically playing a rigged game in hopes they’d be rewarded with their bare lives. If it is (sigh) the latter, I’m joining Team Smokey, even if it does destroy the world (…more than we already have), solely because he’s got a much better grasp of free will, seeking to break the game rather than simply play it.

half a bottle of wine...thanks?

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.

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?

Supes and Bats in Bowling Shirts: Dexter’s Dark Avenger

the Dark Defender

the Dark Defender

Dexter, Season 2

Dexter’s season one self-image begins with the smug self-loathing of a monster, aware that only his conditioning allows him any place in society outside a jail cell. Confronted with two like-minded sociopaths he was unable to force into his mold, he began to see himself as a different and better breed of monster, one who may someday be able to genuinely connect with others as he is. He sees the crowd of curious onlookers as cheering fans, with Deb at his side, smiling and sharing in his applause:

Everyone else would probably thank me if they knew I was the one who drained [the ice truck killer] of his life. Deep down, I’m pretty sure they’d appreciate a lot of my work. This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight, my shadow self embraced.

While this is a mixed sign in terms of real progress – retreating into fantasy rather than approaching the issues that the second season will stagger through – the immediate effect is to question the modern heroic archetype: the vigilante superhero.

The show does suffer the requisite sophomore slump, abandoning some of the best first-season elements while deepening the concept’s reach and mythology. While the first season mined and transcended a pulpy beach novel, the second too often lived down to the potboiler source material. One plot thread is painfully predictable: OMG Crazy Hot Girl Is The Only One Who Understands Me And Thus We Must Fuck, which segues into OMG Crazy Hot Chick Is Crazy And Hot, In The Sense That She’s Really Into Emotionally Strategic Arson!

Urgh. Even Dexter’s long delayed leap into sexual puberty can’t justify the stretching of this from its one-episode premise through three-quarters of the short season.

A larger issue was the too-convenient resolution of Dexter’s various cliffhangers. Too often, he is a cipher serving only to bring together the awkward thesis and antithesis that independently resolve his crisis. The long-awaited confrontation with Rita about the real reason her abusive ex-husband was found with a heroin needle sticking from his arm (leading to his re-incarceration and fatal shanking) is derailed after Dexter has been forced to confess – when Rita conveniently jumps to the conclusion he must be an addict himself, apparently forgiving him. This leads Dexter to Narcotics Anon, where he is presented with the season arcs of aforementioned batshit insane hot chick and the addiction filter through which to explore his compulsions. The investigation into the Bay Harbor Butcher (ie Dexter) and the personal persecution of Sgt Doakes crash together, leaving Doakes the top suspect with Dexter’s blood sample trophies in his trunk. Doakes again, stashed in a remote cabin that’s about to be found by the FBI’s great white hunter – not to mention made a connection with Dex and nearly convinced him to turn himself in – is found and spontaneously killed by Batshit Crazy Hot Chick. Who then ties off her own loose end by very publicly demonstrating her insanity and fleeing the country, to be killed by Dexter at his leisure.

Dexter’s contribution to his crises and moral quandaries is little more than ethically facile mopping up. Following the insane woman’s version of the NA programme, he spends months attempting to quit his addiction – allowing Rita, Doakes, and Batshit Crazy Woman to believe he is struggling with heroin – and delve into his shadowed past, particularly the grimier aspects of his formerly sainted foster father. He reaches a breaking point when Doakes witnesses him murdering, and Doakes’ sickened reaction forces him to put together two memories he’d previously managed to keep separate: his father’s horror at witnessing Dexter happily dismember a victim picked according to “Harry’s code” and his father’s suicide soon after.

Dexter’s guilt and misery evaporate soon after when he realises God must approve of his actions, having rescued him from capture via a complicated spiderweb of contrivances; sadly, Dexter lacks to self-awareness to consider the possibility of showrunners sparing his viewers from having to make a real judgement on his actions and their own complicity in his actions, their attention literally continuing his existence.

The hints at superhero traits offered in the first season are laid out without subtlety. One local graphic artist has literally made a comic hero of the Bay Harbor Butcher: the Dark Avenger. (Dexter is fascinated by the image but only notes that dark leather would be completely impractical for Miami.) He enters the season thinking that ordinary people would cheer him on and indeed they do, as an abstract concept. When a face – Sgt Doakes’ – is put to the killer, the acclaim disappears.

As Dexter-the-killer, he exposes the childish morality of superheroes who get the bad guys without killing them. Batman and Superman are condoned by the police in their world, delivering criminals to Headquarter’s front door – although you have to wonder how their cases ever went to trial. Much like Dexter, their verdict of ‘guilty’ is the only law. The criminals who have to die for plotty goodness or the satisfaction of a network’s moral code generally cause their own doom, usually by refusing to grab the hand of the person who’s been whaling the life – nearly – out of them for the past several minutes and plunging to their comic-book death.

The show itself resolves the irresolvable in a similar slight of hand, having Lila (a self-deluding murderer-by-arson who seeks out vulnerable new victims) do the dirty work of killing Doakes (a self-confessed monster who admits to isolating himself for others’ safety). Dexter’s ‘code’ remains intact through others’ actions; while Doakes got a raw deal at the end, his obsessive bullying directly led there.

Dexter’s backstory riffs on two of the oldest comic book heroes, recognisable in any part of the world with any access to visual media. He is a superman hiding in plain sight – like Clark Kent, he is physically and intellectually stronger than most; like Bruce Wayne, he builds his ‘true’ persona with technological preparation and stringent training. His motivations…they are something of a different story, but not from a distant shelf. The motivations of the hero and the serial murderer may only be chapters of the same book.

The foundling is raised by a foster father who knows his beloved son is not like other children, who instils a rigid code and the need to hide his difference above all else. Ostensibly on the side of the angels – he wants his strange son to have something of a normal life, unmolested by authority, while using his abilities to make the world a better, safer place – the impotent father conditions him into a black-and-white worldview to further his own agenda. Isolated from other influences – to keep the dangerous secret of his difference secret, of course – the son sees his father as the ultimate, unquestioned authority and is kept from developing an independent personality and the ability to truly take responsibility for his own actions. When the father has died and the son begins a long-delayed maturation process, he’s initially faced with an either/or: continue following the father’s law to the letter, or reject all morality in favour of showy self destruction.

Or: the boy is orphaned by a gruesome murder that will haunt his psyche through adulthood. As a nemesis could later observe,  he had a bad day, and everything changed – he became a vicious freak, avenging that long-ago trauma on present individuals who are innocent of that crime, if not others. Only a personally enforced code keeps him morally separate from those he hunts.

Unlike Clark or Bruce, Dexter actively reminds himself that he is a monster – usually forcing himself into an emotionless archetype he doesn’t actually fit – despite his code. Those other American heroes cling to their codes as the thing that makes them the opposite of the criminals they use violence and intimidation to apprehend. Dexter knows he would still kill without the veneer of justice. The abilities and the need to use them precede any thirst for justice.

Would Bats and Supes do the same in a more realistic world? Where society – or at least its legal system – demanded that only the police force, with its flawed systems of oversight and restraint, use physical force to “protect” society and remove its worst elements?

in the blood

Myrin / Jar City

Myrin / Jar City

Mýrin (Jar City)

2006

Unusual for noir, this atmospheric film opens with a good death: comfortably medicated in a hospital bed, surrounded by family to sooth fears, and finally buried with respect. Unfortunately, the deceased is a five-year-old girl, struck down by a rare heredity condition. Her grief-stricken father, Örn, applies on the eve of her death to work in Iceland’s massive genetic research database, but is he driven to fight similar diseases in her memory, or desperate to prove his DNA is not the cause of her suffering?

Elsewhere, an old man named Holsborg dies badly: bludgeoned with an ashtray and left to rot, despised by those who knew him, child pornography still glowing on his monitor. The only possible witness – a pilot, one of his long-suffering neighbors who despised the old man for the stench of his unit that filtered through the entire building – displays no regret that he was too drunk to recall anything about the shady character he saw outside the man’s apartment. Erlendur, the senior detective, finds only one useful clue (and sole hint of the man’s humanity) amid the squalor: a Holga photograph of a child’s gravestone, buried in 1974.

The action takes place in the cruellest last-winter month, a time that can only be endured while the promise of spring’s new life seems ever farther away instead of mere weeks. It’s appropriate for a film that turns around the ambiguity of new life, the pure innocence and potential an infant represents set against both the hypocritical social mores that condemn the female desire that conceives them and the chance the infant’s life could be painful and brief.

The chance inherent to recombinant DNA reproduction becomes a morality play, the sins of the father literally passing on to the son. In a society that cleaves without irony to the virgin/whore complex, arrest and prosecution for rape is very difficult; one flirtatious young woman left badly beaten is treated terribly by a bent cop, who refuses to pursue her case and destroys the only evidence. A mother allows her grown son to believe he is the product of rape instead of adultery, because to admit that she made the wrong decision when isolated, lonely, and teetering into alcoholism would destroy her family. Both encounters produce children who carry a DNA mutation that can cause fatal brain tumors, both leading to the death of beloved young daughters. Sex itself becomes an enemy, as if the children they produced could have been separated from that process somehow, and thus been healthy.

Holsborg is not killed for raping a woman but for passing his self-destructive DNA on to his daughter and granddaughter, both referred to as “angels” – women too young to be caught in the virgin/whore trap. His murderer loathes himself not as the biological child of a rapist but as a carrier of this dead-end genetic material. Where the clear-headed response would be to get a vasectomy, he executes the gene – himself and Holsborg – as punishment for the “murders” of his daughter and half-sister.

With one exception, the mothers here experience only heartbreak. Their children are the result of rape, adultery, or prostitution; they die cruelly young or grow into degenerate criminals. Next to this, the film presents three father figures, easily sorted into good, bad, and ugly.

The bad father is Holsborg, obviously, a feckless criminal who fathers offspring thoughtlessly and sometimes forcibly. The hidden picture of his daughter’s grave hints at a sense of loss, or at least sentimentality, toward the child he knew of, but he certainly provided no support. And while learning of another child when the grown man has broken into your house to threaten your life isn’t likely to provoke a Hallmark moment, he proves to be exactly the monster his son expects, albeit an aged and broken-down grotesque. The son, Örn, is the ugly father figure, who has been twisted by grief and comes to an end his daughter surely would not have wanted.

The good father, however, is the best dad since Atticus Finch (albeit from a very different culture). As the film begins, the detective Erlendur has lost his grown daughter to drug addition and prostitution. The photos he still displays show she was once his angel, young and innocent, but is now just a weapon for criminals to taunt him with. There’s a certain comfortable savagery in his nature, expressed in the way he rips into his dietary staple (boiled sheep heads, an Icelandic delicacy), but little else slips past his impenetrable iciness. He reflects some of nature’s harshness, tearing down his cocky and incompetent young partner, who will either learn and grow into the role or be forced out of police work entirely. The team of police is a microcosm of the nature’s grand experiment: what will thrive and reproduce, and what will die on the vine?

As a father, he manages to provide both tough and unconditional love. He refuses to fund his daughter’s drug habit even when she confesses that she’s pregnant with no idea who the father may be. But once she’s decided to get clean and asked to move back in with him to have and raise the baby, he repeatedly rescues her without judgement. He is the ultimate protector, strong enough to beat any monster – first, the brutal serial killer who insults her, then her own addiction and the young thugs sent to collect her debt, and finally negotiating a payment plan with her dealer. Instead of simply escalating the violence, he ends it – refusing to respond to taunts and give her enemies that power and, after he’s broken one of the thugs’ legs and left him crippled in a stairwell, calling an ambulance and putting a pillow under his shattered knee while they wait together for it to arrive. While the viewer expects her to end as a victim by the third act, he instead creates a truly safe space for her.

When the resolution of the case has finally broken his heart, Erlendur turns to his daughter for comfort and understanding, letting them both be more fully human. He lets her in to his fallible side, to admit to both of them that he is not always strong and not always right, while she steps into the responsible role she’ll need to move from sheltered daughter to adult and parent. Far from Jar City’s raw genetic material, this damaged mother and this damaged child will survive and thrive, by chance and a father’s love.

Erlunder and Eva

Erlunder and Eva