The Blood Cries Out to Me from the Ground

joshI’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular episode of VeggieTales.

For those who aren’t familiar, VeggieTales is a computer-animated children’s video series that originally ran from 1993-2000 (it’s gone through a number of iterations since). The premise is simple, if a bit bizarre to think about if one didn’t grow up with it: anthropomorphic vegetables and fruits get together to retell Bible stories to a young audience, with various skits and songs throughout. Lessons are learned, laughs are had. Fin. The series was something of a staple for a certain generation of us who grew up evangelical, and it’s actually not at all bad. It’s often quite funny, and unlike a lot of lesser religious children’s media it’s genuinely concerned with storytelling in addition to didacticism. And while it is overtly religious, many of the moral lessons it imparts are universal enough that kids growing up secular can learn a thing or two from it as well.

But then there’s “Josh and the Big Wall.”

This particular episode is, as the title implies, the vegetables’ retelling of the story of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho. The Israelites are played by most of the main vegetable characters (Joshua himself by Larry the Cucumber); the citizens of Jericho by the villainous, eminently mockable French Peas. When the Israelites attempt to enter the city—they explain to the Peas that God has given them the land, so there’s really no other option—they are rebuffed by a torrent of hurled slushies. Several minutes of further slapstick and such ensue before, inevitably, the troops rally around Jericho and the walls are brought down by a divine force. The Peas—no worse for wear after the collapse of their city besides a little bit of dust peppering their faces—turn and run. The Israelites have won their first victory in the conquest of Canaan. The End.

All in all a fairly innocuous, fairly amusing retelling of the Biblical story. Right?

That’s what my memories of it were for the last decade or so, anyway. It’s been about that long since I’ve actively watched a VeggieTales episode, so my recollections of it aren’t exactly sharp. It’s all sort of faded away into a vaguely pleasant melange of scenes and gags in the back of my mind, my fondness for it remaining despite my departure from the church.

But recently, for no particular reason that I can figure out, I started turning over “Josh and the Big Wall” in my mind again. And to my dismay, I realized:

This is an absolutely horrific way to tell a Bible story. To anyone, but especially to children.

* * * * *

In order for this essay to continue, there are a couple of basic premises we’re going to have to agree on.

1.) The Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the later books of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua is an attempted genocide against the inhabitants of that land in order to make way for God’s chosen people.

2.) This genocide mandated the killing not just of fighting men, but of women, children, and infants. Virgin women were spared to be raped.

Note that I’m not passing any moral judgment on the conquest of Canaan in stating these two premises. I’m not interested in writing a post about whether or not the acts described in these books are unconscionable atrocities—full disclosure, that is what I think (divine command morality can quite frankly go fuck itself), but there’s a whole literature devoted to just that point and I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything new there. So, Christian readers of this essay, I’m not asking you to accept my opinion that the Old Testament describes immoral, unforgivable acts of genocide mandated by God. But if this essay is going to be of any value to you, you’re going to have to accept that the premises above are both true.

It shouldn’t be hard, honestly. Those premises are pretty literal, neutral interpretations of what the Old Testament has to say on the matter. I’ll restrict my citations here to two, one for each premise:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded. that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

—Deuteronomy 20:16-18

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. [. . .] And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. [. . .] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

—Numbers 31:7, 9, 14-18 (ESV)

There isn’t really any getting around these passages. Not that evangelicals necessarily feel the need to! A good portion of the apologetics field is devoted to explaining how these acts are perfectly morally justified because of x reasons.

Again, I want to reiterate: I’m not here to combat those apologetics. But I do find it interesting that many evangelicals, though they’re perfectly happy to explain why these killings and rapes weren’t really wrong, are probably made profoundly uncomfortable by referring to them as a genocide. I’m sure a fair number of my Christian readers felt an initial urge to disagree with the two premises I listed above specifically because of that word.

Why is that?

* * * * *

Christian media really likes to erase certain terrible Biblical things from its consciousness.

It’s right there in that VeggieTales episode, where the complete slaughter of Jericho is turned into a food fight that ends with the losers simply running off into the distance. It’s there in innumerable retellings of Noah’s Ark, which are full of smiling animals and lovely talk of God’s promise with the rainbow and show no pictures of floating corpses. It’s there in the ways Christians love to tell their kids these Bible stories and mine them for examples of positive lessons—look how good God is, look at what can happen if we obey him, etc.—without ever dwelling on the darker side that’s plainly there in the actual Biblical text.

And I think that as Christians, parents should stop and think about the consequences of doing this.

I do not think that these are stories that should be told to children. And I think that when they are told to believers for the first time, it needs to be in a way that respects the full weight and consequence of the Biblical texts themselves. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of erasure of troubling things from our perception of the Bible repeats itself.

One Bible story that definitely isn’t told to children is that of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges. I’ll quote the relevant portion in full here:

 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

—Judges 11:29-40 (ESV)

The first thing that needs to be accepted about this story is that God lets it happen. One could argue that His hands were tied in this situation because Jephthah had already made a binding oath, but that’s a flimsy reading for a number of reasons. First of all, God is conceived of as absolutely sovereign; if He does not wish something to happen, that something cannot happen. Second, God is conceived of as absolutely just; in this situation, it doesn’t take an ethical genius to work out that, if someone must die in this instance, it would be more just for the father to be wiped out for making a flippant oath than his innocent daughter to be wiped out for no wrong of her own. Third, and most obvious, we already know of at least one previous time in which God explicitly prevented the killing of an innocent child despite a divine command: the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. If God had truly wished for Jephthah’s daughter to be spared, He would have made it so. He did not. This is not an instance of a hand-wringing God; the burnt offering of the girl is endorsed by Him.

The above, rather laboriously made point is simply a necessary prologue to my real point, which is this: the text does not gloss over the horror of this situation. That’s the key to its power. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is pretty remarkably similar to a Greek tragedy; an inevitable doom awaits one of its key players, and she willingly embraces it knowing that there is no other option. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s beautiful precisely because of its willingness to recognize its own consequences. This nameless girl will never share her bed with a man, a man she may very well have loved when he came into her life. She will never bear children. She will never comfort her father in his old age, or be comforted by her own daughter in turn. She is a candle snuffed out, and she embraces this dying of the light because she knows there is no other choice.

These are the implications, fully present in the text, of a single death ordained by God. Now think back to the Canaanite genocide.

An invading force has been ravaging the surrounding land, killing left and right. The inhabitants of the city are terrified. They have heard that a supernatural force impossible to beat lends this invader strength, and now that supernatural force has commanded that this city’s people are next.

This is their home. It has been since before they can remember. And so, the men go out and fight. They tremble with fear, they shake as they move into battle position, but they have to give their families a chance. They are brave for their wives, for their children, and they all bleed out on the sand, throats torn out, limbs removed, heads severed.

The mothers do their best to crawl into the corners of their homes, to squeeze into shadows with their babies in their arms so that these terrifying strangers will pass over them. It does no good. Infants are torn from blankets and smashed against stones, their blood so inconceivably great a torrent from such small bodies. Little children, wailing, with no comprehension of what has swooped down upon them, are stabbed and strangled and torn to pieces. Young girls, no more than twelve, are led away by men two times their age to strange tents where unspeakable things will happen to them.

The invaders move on to the next city.

I hate to repeat myself again, but I want to emphasize: I am not passing moral judgment here. This is simply, if you believe the story, what would have happened.

This is what happened at Jericho. It’s what happened at dozens of other cities throughout the region. It’s what happened to the Amalekites centuries later when they had committed no crime except to descend from a city that had refused to let the Israelites through generations before. And all this pales in comparison to the watery deluge that sent everyone on earth to a screaming, choking grave, from infants to the oldest of men and women.

This is what God commanded.

And if you choose to look away from these implications—to simply brush past all of the human pain, terror, and anguish that are the direct results of stories whose main theme is usually distilled to a variant on “Trust in God to achieve great victory”—you are robbing the Biblical story of something that’s inextricably a part of it.

Now, the stories as I’ve summarized them in the above paragraphs can’t be told to children, I’m sure many of you are thinking. I agree. They can’t. But I also maintain that to teach children the sanitized versions that evangelicals have all grown up with—the smiling animals, the rousing songs of victory at Jericho, the amusing vegetables launching frozen drinks at each other—is an obscenity.

Whether or not you believe that what happened to the Canaanites was morally justified, there’s no denying that it was a terrible thing. Terrible in its classical sense: Awesome. Fearful. Horrifying to behold. Someone may believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary; they will probably also readily admit that the scale and horror of the destruction were sobering and unfathomable. They’d have to be a completely emotionless shell not to. They’d also have to be a complete nut to show their child a picture of a smiling atomic bomb as it merrily laid waste to thousands of invisible, unnamed Japanese citizens, or to act as though the explosion was nothing more than a scary noise that caused the residents of Hiroshima to flee to the next town with no harm done.

* * * * *

When the movie Noah was released, one of the chief criticisms directed at it by evangelicals was an objection to what was perceived as a certain sordid quality. People in the film are shown clambering over each other to reach high ground, clinging to rocks in piles to avoid succumbing to the watery depths. Noah himself almost kills an innocent baby. This is immoral, was the cry. There is no excuse for this darkness.

Now, those objectors are in a sense right. These events are lurid and sordid and tragic and horrifying. And they’re the exact kind of thing that would have happened on an immense scale during the stories of the Old Testament, over and over and over again. But because our culture has been fed the sanitized versions of these stories since childhood, a good portion of us are unable to emotionally come to terms with the fact that these terrors are part and parcel of what God commands to his people.

It’s impossible to obtain the Bible’s full beauty without the horrific, the tragic, the awesome, the terrible. God is a fearful combination of love and wrath. “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal,” as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life puts it; that sentence itself is a microcosm of the Book of Job, probably the most stunning poem ever written. The power of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, is found in its paradoxes. A constant concern for the vulnerable juxtaposed with the divine order of the slaughter of infants. The tenderness of God’s still, small voice paired with with the desolation of the Ten Plagues. The healing power of the prophets alongside a massacre of young men by bears who tear them to pieces. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Whether or not we think these latter events were morally justified, they give us pause. They trouble us. They are the parts of the Bible that are ultimately the most moving, even as they disturb their readers.

Christians need to recognize the power of this paradox. They need to embrace it, and respect it. And part of doing so is realizing when the time is right to expose the next generation to the full weight of that power. Showing them only one side will not do. Infantilizing what the Bible itself is careful to depict as fearful won’t either.

If we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—atheists and believers both—we need to accept it for what it is, and to pass it on as such. And only when those it’s passed on to are ready to accept it in their turn.

Skeletal Rot: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the Bungling of Structure

beauty_and_the_beast_ver2There’s a separate grammar to movie musicals than there is to stage musicals—at least, there is to the type of movie musical that Disney makes. Classic stage musicals are pervaded with song. Many of them are almost/entirely sung-through—Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.—and even those that aren’t will have musical numbers peppered liberally throughout their runtime. In this type of musical, songs are the default mode of expression—not every song will be as important as every other, simply because there are so many of them present. They’re not events in and of themselves, though some of them will contain events.

The musical format of the Disney Renaissance film, by contrast, weighs its songs carefully. Of the three animated musicals that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated on prior to Ashman’s death—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin—none has more than half a dozen songs, reprises included. This scarcity in and of itself would amplify the impact that each song has, but it’s not the only thing that does. Every single song in Menken and Ashman’s animated collaborations is designed to crystallize a specific emotion or theme that’s crucial to its film’s narrative. In Les Miserables, when a character sings it is because music is their default mode of expression; in a Disney Renaissance musical, when a character sings we had better pay attention, because something important is happening.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll confine examples to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast:

  • “Belle”—the opening number. It establishes perfectly not only its titular character’s nature and desires but the circumstances that render her unable (as of yet) to attain her desires and that will later enable Gaston to stir up a mob against the Beast.
  • “Gaston”—what the former track does for its titular character this one does for its own, and then some. Its initial appearance firmly cements our impressions of Gaston and shows us just how enamored of him the town is; its reprise, following shortly thereafter, sets off his transformation from boor to outright villain.
  • “Be Our Guest”—an explosion of color and kinetic motion that transforms the castle from solely foreboding to a place that has the potential to be wondrous and cause happiness.
  • “Something There”—basically the crucial song of the entire movie, as it ultimately has to convince the audience that Belle and the Beast are organically moving from adversaries to friends.
  • “Beauty and the Beast”—is almost equally crucial in that it has to give the final push from friendship to something more.
  • “The Mob Song”—brings the themes of bigotry and, well, mob rule firmly to the fore and completes Gaston’s transformation into a villain.

Sure, it’s pedantic of me to lay out what anyone who’s seen the film already knows, but my point is this: every single emotional and thematic beat that builds to the climax of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is embedded in a song. It’s possible to remove any number of songs from a sung-through musical and still have its narrative as a whole stay upright. If you remove any single song from Beauty and the Beast, IT CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL NARRATIVE.

Why am I hammering so heavily on this point? Because the fact that those half-dozen songs are the emotional and thematic skeleton of Beauty and the Beast means that there’s only a very certain way in which that film can proceed. Events have to unfold in a certain order across a certain timespan in order to match the emotional/thematic journey; if they don’t, the film’s narrative body doesn’t match its skeleton, which is a painful place to be in.

Fortunately for all involved, the narrative totality of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast hangs on its musical skeleton pretty damn near perfectly. It’s compact and it’s balanced, progressing events just enough in between musical beats that we feel we’ve undergone a complete emotional journey without having had our time wasted. However, that’s a really tough tightrope to walk successfully, and any deviations, no matter how slight, risk sending the film tumbling from on high.

So when I heard that the live-action Beauty and the Beast would be using the Menken-Ashman songs, I got nervous. Because there are really only two possible outcomes once you’ve committed to that creative decision. Either you follow basically to the letter the path of the 1991 film—in which case, why are you making a new movie at all? or you start to drift further and further away from your skeleton—which doesn’t feel good and can leave you falling limply all over the ground.

I kept shaking my head the deeper into the movie I got, because the 2017 Beauty and the Beast has absolutely no idea what to do with its story beats. It already has a very narrowly defined path to walk in order to keep the beats that the songs encapsulate maximally effective, but it can’t walk that path because it’s trying to simultaneously ape its source material in order to trigger audience nostalgia AND to be its own thing. And rather than take a look at how important, how fucking crucial, the narrative structure of its source material is, and realize it has to either confine itself solely to that structure or drastically rethink how it’s going to approach this remake, the film makes the worst possible compromise and tries to be “its own thing” by stretching its namesake’s 84 minutes to 129 and trying to shove additional material into that extra space.

Now, even just shoving simple filler in between song-beats would be enough to collapse the movie. Those songs depend on a very precise rhythm in order to be effective, and interrupting that rhythm with longer lengths of time dilutes its power just as much as if you were to take your favorite pop song and insert random blank spaces between every few drumbeats. But what Beauty and the Beast does is even more disruptive than that. Rather than simply injecting blank spaces into a pre-existing drum track, it starts running its own track on the off-beat, to fully complete this strained metaphor. It starts duplicating beats that have already been covered in the original narrative structure, or it starts throwing in new beats without encoding them in songs. And it’s just. Disastrous.

We’ve already seen (well, we’re supposed to have seen—more often than not the remake is shockingly incompetent when it comes to eliciting the same feelings as its source material) everything we need to know about the relationship between Belle and the townspeople in “Belle” the song—that emotional beat has been hit, and it’s time to move on. Instead, the 2017 film inserts an additional scene of her teaching a little girl to read, only to have her laundry upset by angry neighbors. This is immediately followed by another duplicate beat in which Gaston is in general a boor about this matter of uppity women’s book-larnin’, which already occurred immediately following “Belle.” Indeed, Gaston is the source of subsequent redundant beats throughout the film—where the animated movie establishes his slide into scheming villain with the end of the “Gaston” reprise, this one makes the frankly baffling decision to have him delay this moment to follow Maurice into the woods to look for Belle, then again repeat his being a boor about Belle, only this time with Maurice. We then, finally, get the moment of his slide from buffoonery to villainy when he ties Maurice to a tree and leaves him for dead, but wait! Maurice escapes and returns to the village, so his rejection by the townspeople for being crazy can happen again and Gaston’s turn to wickedness can also happen again when he turns his reluctant father-in-law over to the madhouse.

There is so little purpose to these repeated beats that it’s frankly baffling that they made it into the screenplay—until we remember that the film needs something to cut to in the midst of new Belle/Beast material. The problem is, not only can the film not come up with anything better to do to fill this space than to repeat itself over and over, the new Belle/Beast material is equally as disastrous because it can’t inject itself properly into the original narrative skeleton established by the 1991 musical’s songs. The biggest addition to the B/B story is a long scene in which the two of them travel to Paris via enchanted book so they can come to the realization that each has suffered the childhood loss of a mother. This is intended to further strengthen their relationship, but it’s a jarringly false note for a number of reasons.

First is that the enchanted book itself, which appeared nowhere in the animated film, is also nowhere in this film except the one scene in which it’s featured, and it’s so clearly a clumsy bit of handwaving by a screenwriter who couldn’t find an organic way to work the information about Our Couple’s mothers into the script that it’s frankly insulting. More important, however, the emotional payoff of that information is nonexistent. “Belle” the song features no information about the loss of Belle’s mother being an important part of her character; she is defined by her love of learning and adventure and by the opposition to her surroundings that this causes. The film doesn’t alter the song to include her absent mother as something that’s been important to her, and it doesn’t add a new song to cover that information either. Not that the latter would have been all that great either, because then we’d have yet another instance of a redundant beat—we’ve already defined Belle’s character, why are we doing so again?

Indeed, inserting a new song to cover an emotional beat is something that the film does later on, when the Beast has a long and angsty soliloquy after he lets Belle leave the castle. The instinct here on the filmmakers’ part is closer to correct, because they’ve at least recognized that the connection between emotion/theme and music is important. But it still falls flat, because it’s interrupting the carefully established rhythm set by the 1991 movie. As the animated film rushes to its climax, its rhythm increases pace, with the “Mob Song” following close on the heels of “Beauty and the Beast” to ratchet up tension in the viewer. The Beast’s anguish is communicated through a single roar because there’s no time for anything more—not only would his launching into a song be a more overblown way of saying what can be communicated through a wordless scream, it would stop the film’s escalating pace dead in the water. The 2017 film chooses to have the overblown monologue for drama’s sake, and in the process achieves completely the opposite of what it wants to.

The same thing happens in a slighter, non-musical manner at the film’s emotional climax, when the Beast lies dying, the rose loses its last petal, and the castle’s servants transform fully into inanimate objects. There’s a fine balance to be maintained here—if you’re going to show the servants losing themselves, you have to do so quickly before cutting back to the dying Beast in order to maintain urgency. Instead, in a microcosm of the problem that cripples its entire narrative structure, the film chooses to give each of the key servants a dying monologue of sorts as he or she slowly becomes inanimate. It’s an artificial way of increasing “drama” and adding “difference” from the source material that serves to completely undermine the emotion it’s trying to convey. The same kind of microcosm can be found in numerous instances within the modified Menken-Ashman songs, which are subjected to added dance breaks and dramatic tempo changes for no real reason other than creating more spectacle. All these modifications end up doing is, Simmons-like, beating a cowbell out of time in order to disrupt a carefully established sequence of building events.

There are many other things wrong with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast. Its singing is pitch-shifted to hell and back; its aesthetic is a pretty unbearably ugly attempt to combine the gorgeous Gothic animation of the 1991 film with a modern, “realistic” look; it exchanges Howard Ashman’s lyrics for inferior replacements for no discernible reason; its screenplay is on a line-to-line basis a godawful travesty that’s maybe 1% subtext; the way it chooses to kill off Gaston transforms the moment from a death rooted in the character’s nature to a needless deus ex machina. And of course there’s the remarkably and frankly appallingly cynical decision on Disney’s part to take a character who is coded with negative gay stereotypes, claim they’re making him their FIRST OPENLY GAY CHARACTER in order to gather clicks, and then reduce the only instant of his actually being openly gay to a literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the midst of the film’s conclusion, thus simultaneously rendering that character a case of shitty representation and for all intents and purposes not really representation at all.

But for me the single biggest problem for the film, the one that completely undoes its ability to function as a successful narrative, is its inability to understand successful rhythm. On a moment-to-moment basis, it robs scenes of their dramatic potential and drags songs down to no real purpose; when viewed as a totality, it takes what was a perfectly structured movie musical and turns it to boneless sludge.

Films of 2016, Ranked

All told, I’ve seen 31 of the movies given a non-festival release in 2016, 21 of them in the theatre. It was a wretched year for blockbusters, but full of wonderful indie films. A24 in particular dominated the field, with The Witch, Moonlight, Green Room, and The Lobster all flying under their banner. It is a reflection of the general mood of 2016 that the best of these releases tend to be far more dour than those of 2015; my top ten in particular aren’t exactly a bastion of cheerfulness. Capsule reviews for each film are below.

The Great

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THE WITCH – An overwhelming air of perversion pervades a movie that’s simultaneously one of the most unnerving horror films ever made, an incredibly well-researched period piece, and a scathing indictment of the truly evil Puritan God as well as his occult counterparts. I woke up screaming the night after I first saw it, and its unholy power hasn’t faded much with time. It feels deeply, viscerally *wrong* in the act of watching, an experience I’ve never quite had with any other representative of its genre. (★★★★½)

JACKIE – String ostinatos yawn steadily downward in the sonic equivalent of Dali’s clocks, ushering in a bottomless nightmare. The feverish vertigo of loss, the panic-stricken numbness of grief and displacement, swirl around and around with no sign of dissipation. Portman’s performance and Mica Levi’s hellish score are the twin pillars that hold this moldering dream upright, and neither a framing device too many nor a bum line here and there can even think of weakening that support. The ending shows superficial signs of resolution, but the audience knows the deeper truth. There’s no escape from this, and there never will be. (★★★★½)

MOONLIGHT – An indigo-tinged odyssey of pain, identity, and the possibility of healing set to hypnotic strings, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film is a titanic achievement for both black and LGBT cinema and a highlight of A24’s already towering filmography. Every single performer in it deserves a nomination, and Jenkins is the natural frontrunner for Best Director—this had better be the year that #OscarsSoWhite is broken. (★★★★½)

13TH – Absolutely required viewing. A more accessible version of Michelle Alexander’s monumental book THE NEW JIM CROW, this documentary calmly and devastatingly deconstructs the war on drugs and exposes the United States penal system for what it really is: a new form of slavery and disenfranchisement for the black population. (★★★★★)

LEMONADE – If the universe were just, this thing would be in the running for about half a dozen different Oscars. The best album of the year by a country mile is equaled by a film that’s at once a hell of a lot of fun and a stunning meditation on grief in the black community. Never knew I’d be counting an extended Beyonce music video as one of the greatest movies of the decade, but here we are. (★★★★½)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – I spent the first twenty minutes of my viewing wondering what the fuss was about and the next two hours absolutely riveted. A raw, aching portrait of the spiral of grief that’s made all the more wrenching by the contrast its frequent moments of humor provide. Casey Affleck is a rightful lock for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars—his performance is at once subdued and titanic in its effect. (★★★★½)

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – A fount of constant visual imagination and emotional power. My issues with its mostly whitewashed voice cast aside, there’s no arguing with either the spectacle and beauty of Laika’s stop-motion or the poignancy that pervades the movie’s thematic and human core. (★★★★½)

GREEN ROOM – Almost like a snuff film in its incredibly disquieting sense of realism—nothing in this film is predictable, and yet things play out exactly the way we know they would in real life. Probably *the* exploitation thriller for our times, what with its exploration of the banality of evil and the seething mass of ugliness that lies beneath neo-fascism’s veneer of respectability. (★★★★½)

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – What begins as a Twilight Zone-esque look at the irony of a doomsday prepper who could in fact be right in his paranoia ultimately transforms into a remarkable parable of escaping abuse and empowering oneself to fight monsters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ripley and MacGyver in one. Give John Goodman a statue. (★★★★½)

The Very Good

201602

THE LOBSTER – A near-perfect and shockingly cruel first half gives way to an overlong and thematically muddled second half that’s redeemed by Lea Seydoux’s imperious presence—as a satire on relationships in the internet age it’s sharp, mean-spirited, and hysterical, but when it turns to skewering loners as if to grant both sides equal time, its target becomes ill-defined and its goals unclear. Nonetheless, its twisted humor, nerve-rattling score, and anxious performances gel to form the closest we’re likely to come to Wes Anderson on a Schopenhauer kick. (★★★★)

FENCES – It’s essentially a film-of-the-play rather than a piece of cinema in its own right, and it stretches things out a good twenty minutes longer than it should. But hoo boy, the performances. Washington and Davis deliver absolutely titanic renditions of their Tony-award winning characters, spouting August Wilson’s dialogue in a rapid-fire vernacular poetry that’s dense and exhilarating. The longer the film runs, the more both characters simultaneously stretch to larger-than-life proportions and collapse in on themselves. (★★★★)

LA LA LAND – Damien Chazelle, you crazy bastard, you somehow got a studio to hand you $30 million to make this. (It’s not the life-changing musical of our time everyone says it is—Chazelle is misguided in his villainization of new art forms over the old, and there are startlingly few songs, of which only “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is truly memorable. But good God is it pretty. Especially the ending, which is just *unreal*.) (★★★★)

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – In an inversion of THE LOBSTER, two relatively lackluster if moderately enjoyable acts give way to one of the greatest sequences of sustained action in recent memory, replete with some of the most beautiful digital imagery ever to hit the big screen. Riz Ahmed is the best of us. CG Tarkin is and will always be an aesthetic and ethical abomination of the highest order. (★★★★)

ARRIVAL – Ted Chiang is one of the masters of his field, but I was worried that a big-screen adaptation of a short story that features linguistics as a key element would be impossible to render cinematic. I needn’t have worried. Amy Adams continues to turn in excellent, understated work, while the cinematography, sound design, and score are at once chilly and intimate. Would that this were the baseline for popcorn SF movies. (★★★★½)

THE REVENANT – There is no way in hell Alejandro Inarritu should have gotten a second Best Director Oscar for this over George Miller and MAD MAX. No way. I am still bitter. (It’s quite good, though, up until the non sequitur of an ending, even if its director is disturbingly fixated on brutalizing his characters at the expense of all else. Certainly the handsomest movie on this list, thanks to Lubezki salvaging Inarritu’s movie from his more ignoble impulses.) (★★★★)

VOYAGE OF TIME: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE – Maybe Terrence has decided to stop embarrassing his fans and make good movies again. This cut, at forty minutes compared to the 90-minute 35mm cut that will eventually be released, inevitably feels truncated, but is a welcome return to the well of nature-as-divinity that produced such breathtaking results in THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE. (★★★★)

The Good

201603

DON’T BREATHE – The screenplay is clumsy, there’s no greater thematic depth to be had, and there are couple of (fortunately brief) moments where the film crosses the line from enjoyably creepy to repugnantly exploitative. But the cumulative effect of these things can’t outweigh the sheer *fun* to be had as Fede Alvarez gleefully explores the premise of a home invasion whose perpetrators quickly realize they’re in over their heads. (★★★★)

HAIL, CAESAR! – Second-tier Coen Brothers, to be sure, but as a love letter to Old Hollywood it’s a delight, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and Carter Burwell’s gloriously pompous score anchoring a whirlwind of famous faces doing their best to out-ham each other (first place goes to Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners who’s forced to work with a cowboy song-and-dance man). (★★★½)

THE INVITATION – If one holds to the Hitchcockian tenet that suspense is not the bang but the anticipation of the bang, this film is somewhat of a masterclass. (★★★½)

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT – This one wants to be profound but winds up merely intriguing. No more white Jesuses, please, but Ewan MacGregor does a great job in his dual role as the Savior and his tempter. Stop comparing this to Malick just because Lubezki’s the DP. (★★★½)

THE NEON DEMON – Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but what entrancing sound and fury. Worth picking up on Blu-Ray just for the pretty colors, ice-cold synth score, and pederast Keanu Reeves. (★★★)

ZOOTOPIA – Predictable and somewhat stale, but this gets *huge* points for a surprisingly (for a billion-dollar kids’ flick, anyway) well-executed exploration of culturally-ingrained racism and white privilege, even if the metaphor of predators and prey falls apart once looked at too closely. (★★★½)

PATTON OSWALT: TALKING FOR CLAPPING – The hilarity is dampened somewhat by the viewer’s knowledge that Michelle McNamara died on the day of its release, but Oswalt’s melange of pop culture riffs and relationship stories remains a welcome break from the outside world for an hour. (★★★★)

STAR TREK BEYOND – Diverting fun, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses that brings—a welcome return to form after the cynical nadir that was INTO DARKNESS, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of Abrams’ original reboot. Definite plusses include McCoy’s finally being reinstated to the main-character status he held in the Original Series and the introduction of Jayleh to the crew. RIP, Anton. (★★★)

The Mixed

201604

AUDRIE & DAISY – This doc’s narrow focus is to its detriment—its subject, the sexual assault of the titular girls, is horrifying, but it doesn’t build enough of a case for such events’ everyday occurrence for the sheer scale of the problem to truly hit home. (★★★)

KNIGHT OF CUPS – Malick’s latest narrative movies are everything that people wrongly complain THE TREE OF LIFE is—absent of characters and emotion, full of buzzword-laden narration that tries to generate meaning out of endless banalities, concerned almost entirely with author rather than audience. I would say at least watch it for Imogen Poots, but we have GREEN ROOM for that. (★★½)

SECRETS OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – As a peek into the pre-production of the biggest cinematic event of our generation, it’s interesting enough. As a documentary on how the film was actually made, it’s an abject failure. (★★★)

The Godawful

201605

DEADPOOL – About 30% of the jokes are funny, but these land amidst a morass of middle-school level humor that’s even more teeth-gritting due to how “edgy” it thinks it is. What’s most annoying is the way it follows the Marvel formula to the letter while trying to distract the viewer from this by mocking itself; rather than actually trying to be genuinely subversive or innovative, it relies on misdirection to convince you that it is those things. (★★)

BLAIR WITCH – One of those sequels that not only spectacularly ignores all that was effective about its predecessor but actually manages to damage the original with its incredibly stupid storytelling choices. Useful as a means of illustrating by contrast just how ingenious THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT truly is. (★½)

RISEN – I don’t know what I expected, really. The one emotion I felt other than overwhelming annoyance at the level of condescension being thrown my way was a fair bit of sympathy for Tom Felton, who’s been reduced from one of the highest-grossing film series of all time to this. (★)

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – At once overstuffed and empty, full to bursting with plotlines but never endeavoring to *mean* anything substantial. Even Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell can’t rescue what’s at once the ugliest and the worst-structured movie of the year, a drab, dim slog that’s near-completely void of humanity and succeeds in sucking almost all the emotional and visual magic out of a film universe that was already a mere shadow of its source material. And we have four more of these to look forward to? (★)

BEST PICTURE: Robert Eggers and A24, The Witch

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Travis Knight and Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Ava Duvernay and Netflix, 13th

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, Jackie/Viola Davis, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: August Wilson, Fences

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: James Laxton, Moonlight/Linus Sandgren, La La Land

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Mark Korven, The Witch/Mica Levi, Jackie

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Beyonce, “All Night”, Lemonade

BEST EDITING: Stefan Grube, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Industrial Light and Magic, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND DESIGN/MIXING/EDITING: Sylvain Bellemare and Pierre-Jules Audet, Arrival

BEST ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Wasco and Austin Gorg, La La Land

BEST MAKEUP/HAIRSTYLING/COSTUMING: Erin Benach, Erin Ayanian, and Shandra Page-Edwars, The Neon Demon

Obituary for 2016

We didn’t beat 2016. There will be no victory marches, no celebratory gatherings, no cheering in the streets. Or rather, there will be all these things—the New Year will be celebrated, appropriateness be damned—but they will be hollow, and we will know that they are even as we pantomime them and wait for the ball to drop and for this year to just end.

You would think we’d have learned by now. If nothing else, this year has been a spectacular lesson in allowing our smug assurances to blow up in our faces. We knew there was no way enough British citizens could be taken in by thinly veiled white nationalist bluster to leave the EU, and then they did. We got our Clinton victory parties ready, secure in the knowledge that surely an admitted sexual assaultant could never win the White House, and then he did. We tweeted photos of Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt, confident that Carrie Fisher would never let something as trivial as a heart attack at age sixty take her down, and then she did.

The internet has done its best to trivialize the idea that there’s been something worse about 2016 than other years within our lifetimes—churned out memes, created hashtags, and rendered the phrase “God damn it, 2016,” a near-reflexive response to negative occurrences. But the year won’t be transformed into something banal despite our best efforts to normalize it. There is a tangible weight that humanity has carried on its shoulders for the last twelve months, and whether it’s unique to this year or 2016 simply happened to be the breaking point for the majority of us as we realized where exactly humanity currently stands is ultimately academic. It is there, and it is heavy.

It’s the weight of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s corpses as they’re slowly lowered into the ground, leaving their loved ones and their communities doubled over with an anger that’s slowly eating them apart; the weight of even a silent protest at a football game being too much a disruption of the white world to be tolerated by those who pride themselves on never seeing color.

It’s the weight of every single brick that’s been displaced from its fellows in Aleppo, every single mother who has no child left to bury and every single child who has no parent to bury them once they run out of places to hide. It’s the weight of reading last messages thrust into the void by people who are utterly powerless, who know their last screams to a world that could stop this will very likely accomplish nothing.

It’s the weight of staring numbly at our television screens and our cell phones as we watch neo-fascists and white nationalists across the globe thrust themselves into positions of power; the weight of witnessing the concept of satire die before our eyes as with each tweet, each appointment, each new unutterable thing uttered, these bigots and tinpot dictators render themselves immune to parody and yet go on grabbing power.

It’s the weight of each trans man and woman being told they are a danger to society and can’t be trusted to do so much as use a public restroom without preying on children.

It’s the weight of all the melted ice that’s slowly washing over our coasts, of the frozen water drenching protesters who ask that if we’re going to continue killing the planet, can we at least avoid desecrating yet more native graves to do so?

It’s the weight of watching our heroes slowly being taken away from us. David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, Richard Adams, Kenny Baker, George Martin, Anton Yelchin, and on and on and on. With each last breath taken, another chip is dashed from this multilith we call “culture”. We have stopped being able to see the world in the new ways these people would have seen it; we have lost poets, and titans, and artists, and with each of them humanity has lost a means of expressing itself. Leonard Cohen will never write a song that cuts Donald Trump down to size. We will never see Alan Rickman give us a new way to interpret a character from Shakespeare. Anton Yelchin will never shoot his directorial debut. Untold numbers of screenplays will never be shaped and molded by the same mind who rewrote her own lines for The Empire Strikes Back.

Perhaps most of all, it’s the weight of watching the concept of truth slowly disintegrate. It’s the weight of knowing that expert consensus is only worth something to those who would have agreed with that consensus beforehand. Facts are only facts if they align with the narrative that makes us the most comfortable. A public figure can say one thing and his followers will swallow it; he can deny it fifteen minutes later and they’ll swallow that too. There is no such thing as facts anymore, someone said toward the end of this cesspool of a year; and while this was decried, those of us who decried it did so knowing that our protests would be futile.

There have been some brief moments of respite. Good art was made. Bob Dylan took home a Nobel Prize. The murderer of Philando Castile was actually indicted, the first time such a thing has happened in Minnesota in over three decades. The DAPL was delayed, for now. But as Jenny Lewis wrote, the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap. When we look back on 2016, we won’t think of the times we came up for air. We’ll think of all the time we spent underwater, our lungs like stones as they filled with rancid fluid.

If there’s one thing we must take away from this year—this flaming conglomerate of rubble and refuse, this shit-stained rictus grin, this idiot god of destruction—it’s that passivity is not an option. The universe does not bend toward justice. There is no cosmic balance striving to restore order, no transcendent being who’s going to work things out according exactly to their plan. There is no one and nothing that gives a single damn about this moisture-flecked hunk of rock except its inhabitants. We had best start acting like it.

Because, while 2016 has been uniquely awful, it is not some sort of anomaly. It’s a harbinger, not the main event. We cannot afford to let ourselves relax once December 31st fades away. We can no longer indulge in the luxury that is passivity.

Love everyone around you. Actively love them. Hold your friends close to you, and spend more time with them than you can afford. There’s no guarantee that they’ll make it through the next year any more than there is that you will.

Fight for causes you believe in. Advocate, put time in, spend what you can spare, whether you’re battling for good art or social justice or the existence of truth in the face of meaninglessness.

Never tell yourself that someone else can solve this problem, or create this work of art, or help these people, or speak this truth to power. Because, as 2016 has taught us, “someone else”—that vague formulation, that abstract notion of others that never once latches onto actual individuals—can’t and won’t. It’s up to us. Those of us who are privileged with the ability to be complacent have the power to make or break the world through our decision whether or not to exercise that privilege.

2016 will soon be dead. We will not have killed it. It will destroy itself in one final blaze of ignobility, smothering us in the detritus. We are Ozymandias, and we have looked upon our works and despaired. But low and level sands, if they have left us half-sunk, do not yet stretch far away. And if we choose not to wallow in our despair—if we choose to take action—we may yet stave off the incursion of that infinite, silent desert.

And so, good-bye, 2016, you festering mass of putrescence, you blistered carcass, you sadistic, inbred court jester. You have conquered, and your avatars have been given power to roam the earth for a time. And there’s no guarantee that this will not remain the state of affairs. But it’s my dearest hope that in bringing humanity this low, all you’ve ultimately done is somehow taught us how to keep our feet once we’ve regained them.

The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom we could blame this violation were it to happen to us. We had the potential within us all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and its has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave-sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.

 

 

The Shadow Over Cleveland: Donald Trump as Supernatural Horror

sI’m not necessarily of the opinion that Donald J. Trump is some eldritch entity come from out of space and time with the explicit purpose of destroying humanity in both its existence and its sanity.

I’m just saying: do you have any better explanations?

1. Welcome to Whose Vote Is It Anyway?, Where Everything Is Made Up and the Facts Don’t Matter

The most revolting thing about Donald Trump is not his contempt for minorities. It is not his contempt for women. It is not his contempt for “losers”. Rather, it’s his contempt for the truth.

Don’t make the mistake of reading my meaning here as: Donald Trump is a liar. Were he a liar, the problem would not be nearly so insidious as it is, and he would not classify as a supernatural horror. No, the problem is much worse than that: Trump is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a bullshitter.

Harry G. Frankfurt, in his remarkable essay On Bullshit, lays out the crucial difference between the liar and the bullshitter after several pages of playful, deliberately pompous semantic banter on what, exactly, the nature of the term bullshit is. In short:

“Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an efficient lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

“On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well.

“[. . .] What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies represent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” (Frankfurt 51-4)

Thus, the liar still has a vested interest in knowing the truth. The truth is as essential to him as it is to the truth-teller, if not moreso; because if the liar does not know the precise truth of any given situation, he cannot effectively craft a lie to turn that situation to his advantage. The bullshitter, on the other hand, has no such stake in truths, facts, or their inversions. He simply does not care either way whether what he says is or is not the case, so long as what he says benefits his ends.

There are multiple levels to the insidious nature of this state of affairs. The first is that it is almost impossible to take anything the bullshitter says at face value. We know what a known truth-teller says is likely to be true, and we know what a known liar says is likely to be false, which means we can listen to their statements with a relative degree of confidence. In the case of the bullshitter, however, we must actively tear the true from the false again and again in order to make any sense out of his statements; and even then, we do not know if what is apparently true is in fact false as far as the bullshitter is concerned (i.e. he is making a factual statement that he believes to be incorrect).

The second is that, with a large enough preponderance of bullshit, the very nature of truth itself is called into question. In what meaningful sense can we say that something is true when to the bullshitter it may as well be false, or say that something is false when to the bullshitter it may as well be the case? It simply does not matter either to him or to his followers, who have reached a point where the only thing that matters is whether or not a given statement fits into the narrative that will best benefit them.

When I say that Donald Trump is the consummate bullshitter, you’ll perhaps realize the depth of our problem.

After the Dallas shooting that left five police officers and their killer dead, Trump claimed repeatedly—first in an interview on Fox News and then at a rally in Indiana—that “some people” had called for a moment of silence for Micah X. Johnson, the deceased shooter. When Sam Clovis, a Trump policy advisor, was asked by ABC to comment on this assertion, he replied that he had not personally witnessed any such thing—and then immediately spoke from the other side of his mouth, saying:

“I’ve seen moments where I’ve seen in some of these demonstrations, I’ve seen there’s a reverence paid to the shooter that is really startling. I think that is—when you have a person who purposefully and with intent murders five police officers, that’s terrible, and I don’t think you should celebrate that in any way shape or form.”

In one breath, he denied any personal knowledge of reverence of Johnson and followed this denial with an assertion that he had in fact seen this reverence paid. For the record, ABC was able to find exactly one instance of a man calling for a moment of silence for Johnson, on his social media account. The rest of these “some people” at “some of these demonstrations” simply don’t exist.

Then there’s the recent fiasco with Trump’s wife Melania and her plagiarized speech. The aide who apparently wrote the speech has come forward to apologize for the plagiarism, but the Trump campaign has still refused to acknowledge that said plagiarism has even taken place. Instead, if has offered six contradictory excuses for the remarkable similarity to Michelle Obama’s earlier address, including a smear campaign by Hillary Clinton, the fact that Michelle Obama did not invent the English language, the fact that 93% of the speech was original, shared values between the two women, and a conspiracy in which Michelle Obama actually plagiarized My Little Pony first. For all Trump cares, all of these examples may be true or false simultaneously. Each fits his narrative so each is vomited forth.

I highlight these specific examples due to their recency, but they’re hardly the most heinous examples of bullshittery Trump and his campaign have practiced. He claimed John McCain was not a hero due to being captured, then denied saying so, then took responsibility for the claim again in a recent interview alongside Mike Pence. He proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, then reversed his position, then reversed that reversal. He has continued to insist that he saw footage of Muslims celebrating when the Twin Towers went down, despite the fact that no such footage exists. He claimed that white-on-white murder only accounts for 16% of white homicide, while black-on-white murder accounts for 81%; in fact nearly the exact inverse is true, 82% vs. 15%. And so on, and so on.

His response to being called out on these extravagant examples of bullshittery has remained constant: disregard any concern for truth or falsehood. “Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people. . .” he said to Bill O’Reilly when asked about his spreading of the above false murder statistic. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos: “People maybe call me out, but they turn out to be wrong, also. And many of the things I’ve said—and I think just about all of them—they may have been controversial at one point, George, but they’re not controversial in the end, because people start to say, you know, Trump’s actually right.” No umbrage is taken at the suggestion that he’s a liar, no serious attempt is made to prove the truth of his assertions. Because who really gives a shit? Certainly not the people voting for him.

What we have, then, is a man who possesses absolutely no distinction between truth and falsehood within his mind. If, in the moment, it benefits him, it’s true. If, in a later moment, it does not, it becomes false.

Insist, if you must, upon Hillary Clinton’s being a cold, calculating deceiver. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll even assume you’re completely right in this analysis of her character. Her deceit is an order of magnitude less dangerous than Trump’s bullshittery, and certainly less horrifying. At least for Clinton, there remains an objective reality somewhere that bolsters up a scaffolding of lies. There’s no bottom to the reality that Trump occupies—if it can even be labeled a reality at all.

2. A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Supernatural Horror

We’ve established, then, that Donald J. Trump is a bullshitter of the highest order, a man for whom truth not only is not useful or something to be respected but might as well not exist at all. What are the horrific implications? Before we can delve into them, we need some context on the nature of horror itself.

While I don’t agree on much of anything with S. T. Joshi, the man is admirably thorough and rigorous in his analysis of the horrific. In his book Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction, Joshi attempts to present a workable definition of what, exactly, horror is as a literary genre as well as a philosophical concept.

“[I]n addition to (and perhaps above and beyond) its suggestion of a perception of fear (stemming either from personal danger or from danger to another) and a feeling of disgust and revulsion, [horror] carries with it the idea of the contemplation of something appalling and dreadful. This last component may, indeed, allow for the genre of horror to exist at all, since the sentiment goes beyond the immediate apprehension of bodily harm (which is fear) and points toward the witnessing of some phenomenon that the human mind, whether perceiving immediate danger or not, both fails to comprehend and finds somehow wrong in a moral or metaphysical sense.” (Joshi 9)

So far, so good. But what, precisely, qualifies as one of these phenomena that revolt and appall the human mind in some special, wrong way? What is it that makes a particular evil horrific in a way that others, while they may shock and upset us, are not? Joshi elaborates:

“There is an undeniable sense of fear in witnessing the depredations of a mass-murderer, or even in sensing that the murderer may come after oneself; there is also a sense of fear in witnessing extreme aberrations of the human mind [. . .] but the fear here evoked is not a metaphysical fear, because there is no sense in which our understanding of the universe is jeopardised. But if we were forced to believe in the actual existence of a vampire or a werewolf, our whole conception of the universe would seem to be fatally erroneous, and this would occur all apart from any terrors evoked by physical mayhem or even by the vagaries of a diseased mind.” (Joshi 9)

Thus it could just as well be said that the roots of supernatural horror lie in uncertainty. As Joshi goes on to point out, the supernatural and its manifestations cannot be considered horrific in a pre-Enlightenment context, when most of the systems of the universe were based in a largely supernatural understanding. Rules were rules, theology included—in fact, theological systems are just as rigorous, in many aspects, as scientific ones. It’s only after the banishment of the supernatural from scientific discourse that it becomes something horrifying; when it begins to rip its way back into a material world that has long since discarded it. These supernatural manifestations are no longer part of an ordered system that can be treated logically; they are inherently illogical and irrational, and therefore an offense to our conception of the way things work.

That is the crucial difference between our terror at the idea of being mauled by a wolf and our horror at the idea of being mauled by a werewolf. Were I to have my throat torn out by the teeth of the former, it would be a terrifying experience, but it would do nothing to violate my idea of how the universe works. This wolf was born, and is killing me to eat me, and will die afterward and be mourned by its children, just as I was born, have killed and eaten things, and am dying now to be mourned by my family. A werewolf, on the other hand, has no business existing, much less eating me. Something that should not be is offering me irrefutable proof that it is in fact very much a being.

It’s worth quoting at length here a passage from Stephen King’s horror novel It:

“There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: ‘Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.’ You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” (King 411-2)

Horror, then, is a matter of violation, of disorder raping order. Of a universe in which regard for the facts is thrown to the wind, of monsters taking the desperate plea “It isn’t real” and hurling it back in the faces of those who recite it as a mantra. As H. P. Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Edwin Baird: “Only a cynic can create horror—for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.”

3. Horror as Bullshit, Bullshit as Horror

Thomas Ligotti, in his philosophical work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, writes:

“In experiencing the uncanny, there is a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave. An offense against our world-conception or self-conception has been committed. Of course, our internal authority may itself be in the wrong, perhaps because it is a fabrication of consciousness based on a body of laws that are written only within us and not a detector of what is right or wrong in any real sense, since nothing really is right or wrong in any real sense. That we might be wrong about something being wrong would in itself be wrong according to our internal authority, which would then send out a signal of the uncanny concerning its own wrongness that would be returned to it for another round of signaling on the principle that everything it knows is wrong, which is to say that Something is always wrong. For the welfare of our functioning, however, we are insured against the adverse effects of an ever-cycling signal of uncanny wrongness by our inability to recognize it, although it might be going on all the time, thus accounting for our uneasiness about Something.” (Ligotti 85-6)

It is my contention that the reason there is such a diabolical tinge to our fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump is precisely because of our awareness, conscious or no, that he represents a profound offense against our conception of reality.

The previous archetype of the Crooked Politician was Richard Nixon, a man almost universally reviled as a liar and a crook. Nixon, too, was feared and hated with incredible zeal by those who stood against him, because he, like Trump, represented a paradigm shift in the way his constituents viewed politicians. It had always been a matter of course to lambast politicians as corrupt and dishonest, but to see such traits exhibited at such an unprecedented scale upon so high a pedestal was earth-shaking. It redefined the people’s perception of the President, and the public’s relationship to politics.

But Nixon, for all his crimes, has not become a figure of supernatural horror. Not that artists and journalists haven’t tried to paint him as such—Philip K. Dick even went so far as to portray Nixon as the Antichrist himself in his Gnostic science-fiction VALIS trilogy. But the Antichrist is not a horrific spectre for the reason given above—he remains part of a logical, ordered system, comprising the whole universe and containing truth at its base. The truth is occluded, hidden, in Gnostic theology, but that renders it even more precious—Nixon’s Antichrist in Dick’s trilogy is the Father of Lies, existing solely to obscure what is true, but that truth still exists and is worth fighting for.

Trump offers no such assurances. It is impossible to confront him on the matter of truths and falsehoods, because they simply aren’t part of his conception of existence. When he opens his mouth, what pours forth could be a speech, it could be his confession to the murder of John F. Kennedy, it could be the lyrics to “November Rain”. There is absolutely no meaningful difference. His words exist neither to bring forth nor to obscure the truth, because the truth, for him, does not exist. There is only Trump, and what Trump wants, and those who stand in Trump’s way.

In his very existence, then, Trump represents a violation of our orderly conception of the universe, the conception that says there is ground beneath our feet and there are four lights not five and two plus two is four. Trump could insist that we stand upon nothing but air tomorrow, and his followers would swallow it. He could assert that two plus two is in fact fifty-nine and be greeted with cheers. And the next day he could reverse both those positions, claiming he never took either, and this too would be accepted.

It is not enough for Trump to destroy our existence. And he will, mind you—never forget that. If he takes office he will destroy the existence of whichever country punctures his thin-skinned hide enough that he decides to bomb it into oblivion, he will destroy the existence of the minorities that he depends upon as scapegoats, he will destroy the existence of those who operate within the economy that he will shatter into unsalvageable shards. But these won’t be the worst evils he wreaks.

The worst evil he will wreak—that he has already wrought—is to forever and always eradicate truth and falsehood as meaningful ideas in the mind of the public. They were under attack long before his ascendancy—bullshit has always been with us—but Trump is the eldritch abomination that has put their heads beneath his beak and crunched down. There is no going back from this point on, no restoring our conception of the universe to its prior state. Public discourse is being reshaped into an arena from which emerge no truths or lies, only what is useful to a certain narrative and what is not. There are those who continue to fight for the value of Truth as a concept, but the sound and fury of the shrieking hordes that Trump has loosed upon the world drown this call out with ease.

And there we have it. Trump, in his monumental bullshittery and insidious disregard for the truth as meaningful, is indistinguishable from any number of other Lovecraftian entities who desire to strip humanity of its sanity, its surety, its confidence that if nothing else facts are facts and lies are lies.

The difference is—unlike those other supernatural horrors? He’s won.

The Power of Story: SF/F and the Beauty of Diversity

In the face of tragedy, our first impulse is always to find some meaningful way to respond. All too often, these responses end up being knee-jerk screams into the void that are useless at best and actively cause harm and hurt at worst. We allow our lack of understanding, our swirling emotions, our confusion and fear and anger, to take possession of our lips, our fingers, our keyboards, and pour themselves out.

I don’t have much that’s valuable to offer in the wake of the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, or the shooting in Dallas, or the attack on the Pulse club in Orlando, or any of the other tragedies that occur over and over again on American soil. I’m a white, cis, mostly straight, middle-class male, and no matter how much I read the words and listen to the stories of women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color, I will never understand what it’s like to live their lives for the span of even five minutes, let alone every day. Any advice I have to give is ultimately presumptuous, any insights on the situation hopelessly removed. So rather than comment on this madness directly, I want to write something about stories.

The guiding star in my literary tastes since the age of fourteen has been Jonathan Strahan’s annual anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I discovered it when I was first falling into SF/F fandom, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s been the single greatest influence on my writing in the last six years—most of the authors who are most influential to my style, including Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kij Johnson, and Catherynne M. Valente, are writers whose stories I first read within its pages. Just as important as its guidance on my writing, if not moreso, has been its guidance on my mindset.

Prior to my exposure to the series, my SF/F reading had been composed entirely of novels written by and for white males. The first tale from Strahan’s anthology to burn itself into my brain was Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”, the story of a black professor living in the midst of World War II. The story is a remarkable example of racist genre fiction of the past being reclaimed by progressivism—it takes the shoggoth, a creature invented by the obscenely racist H. P. Lovecraft, and turns it into a metaphor for the enslavement of black men and women by whites. At the time, I wasn’t at all aware of this subversion—Lovecraft was completely unknown to me—but the story was nevertheless singularly powerful. Not only was it written beautifully, its dual remove from my perspective—a female author and a black protagonist—rendered it a learning experience. Here was a character whose mindset I would never be able to assume, whose experiences were entirely removed from mine, but who I could grow to understand better, if not to understand on the deepest level, through the power of story and imagery.

This kind of story is far from unusual for The Best SF/F of the Year—Strahan goes out of his way each year to select stories by people of all races, background, and orientations, writing from places that come from their singular experiences. My first exposures to feminist and LGBTQ fiction, to stories that dealt with Islamic culture, that bent boundaries of race and sex and gender, all came within its pages. And there was a period in which I wanted to resist some of these exposures—I was a conservative evangelical at the time I first picked up the series, and remained so until the age of sixteen—but I couldn’t. The stories were too beautiful, too fascinating, too true to look away from. They were humanity reflected and refracted in all its glittering, shifting facets. My awareness of all the possibilities our species has to offer itself grew and grew.

I have grown so, so tired of a certain kind of creatively bankrupt fiction over the last few years. An exemplar of that sort of fiction is the tale of the middle-aged white academic who dwells obsessively upon his sexual prowess and the sexual attractiveness of his students, and once he is caught with one of them (or worse, betrayed by one of them) feels nothing but righteous indignation that anyone could question his right to sex. My objection to this sort of story is not first and foremost a moral one, although that certainly is a major part of it. It’s first and foremost that this sort of story is so damned boring.

Everyone knows the agonies of the white male. They’re unavoidable. All of his problems, his confusions, his prejudices, have been laid out on the page or on the screen over and over and over and over again ad nauseum. Not to say that talented people haven’t written about them in the last several decades—I dearly love a great deal of Philip Roth’s work, and early to mid-period Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors—but even they can’t relieve the tedium from a perspective that becomes more and more solipsistic and facile with each reiteration. It’s enough to make one lose their faith in literature.

But every time I feel this way, I can return to SF/F and find myself renewed. I can tear through the latest volume of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, drinking in story after story written from a unique perspective. I can immerse myself in the behemoth Dhalgren, written by a gay black man in the 1970s and containing within its pages an entire apocalyptic dream-world informed by his gayness and his blackness. I can examine the minute, perfect gems that are the short stories of Caitlin R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente, stories that take traditional concepts of gender and love and twist them into Mobius strips. I can watch Ex Machina and ponder a riveting thriller that becomes superlative because of its insights into feminism and the male gaze; or lose myself in the roller-coaster ride of The Force Awakens, an adventure that is incredibly enriched by its eschewing of the white Chosen One in favor of a woman, a black man, and a Latino man; or be riveted by Mad Max and its transcendent madness of women’s liberation and intricate violence. I can return to genre fiction again and again and remain confident that I will be exposed to new perspectives, and learn from them, and be better for it. And the literature will be better for it too.

There have been attempts to hijack this celebration of diversity. Most recently, a neo-fascist group of fans, led by the odious Theodore Beale/Vox Day (who among other things believes that black people are subhuman and that feminists deserve to be burned by acid), attempted to burn down the Hugo Awards with cries that they had allowed politics to infest the nomination process and had robbed SF/F of what makes it so much fun. These attempts to regress genre fiction back to some Golden Age of pre-political white man’s paradise are so monumentally off the mark that they would be laughable were they not so potentially damaging. The best SF/F—the kind that has endured—has always been political. Bradbury’s presentation of Mars as second Eden destroyed by the stupidity of American jingoism. Delany and Le Guin and Tiptree’s refusal to play by the rules of gender. Butler’s withering critiques of racism. Gaiman’s constant push to expose his readers to LGBT culture. And had these authors not been political, their work would have been utterly neutered. Instead, they dared to show us perspectives we were not comfortable with, and decades later, they’re still vital presences.

This is the world that I desire to live in.

The future of humanity does not lie with insularity. It does not lie with colorblindness, or cover-ups, or willful insistence on the comfort of the familiar. It lies with the people who embrace the existence of our species not as a monolithic whole but a variegated, scintillating, ever-shifting sea of different lenses with which to view the beautiful, horrifying, awe-inspiring universe in which we all live. Who open themselves to all the differences their black and brown and Asian and bi and gay and trans and Muslim and pagan and etc. etc. etc. brothers and sisters have to offer, and embrace their own differences as integral to who they are, to what makes them beautiful people. Who enshrine these differences in stories, in books and music and film and video games and art.

Hate can’t extinguish this beauty. It will do its utter damnedest. It will break black bodies on the curb, it will gun down people in gay clubs, it will slander and bully and scream. But even as it does these things, it is slowly, slowly dying. It will never, ever entirely go away—”Our prefrontal lobe is too small, our adrenal glands too big,” in the words of a man not otherwise known overmuch for his celebration of diversity—but it will die and die and die, growing smaller and smaller. Those who espouse it will grow more and more shrill, more and more piteous.

And those of us who do our parts to kill it will live. We will spread love, and spread beauty, and make art, and share experiences, and eventually we will die. And we will have left a better world behind us.

Bigotry is many things—hateful, vicious, ignorant—but above all it is boring. And diversity is exhilarating. I thank the universe every day that I was able to discover this through the SF/F community. My deepest wish is that that exhilaration will be humanity’s defining legacy.

 

Beauty is the only thing: “The Neon Demon” review

the-neon-demon-poster ✦ of five

The phrase “style over substance” is pretty well bankrupt when it comes to art. In dealing with aesthetic mediums, style and substance are inextricable—the substance of Shakespeare would be nothing without the words with which he wrought that substance, the meaning of Under the Skin would be nonexistent without its choices in cinematography, to name but two examples. The people who have no patience with a film unless it’s plain and simple in its meaning—who would strip away all artistic artifice and just get to the point already—are the worst kind of critic.

In light of all that, I don’t want to write The Neon Demon off for being slight, because its artistic elements are second to none—its cinematography and score are easily the best of 2016 thus far. However, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that those artistic elements aren’t there for anything—or rather, they’re there for something, but that something is so slight and indeed banal that the grandiosity of the manner in which director Nicolas Winding Refn chooses to convey it is almost humorously arrogant. It’s there right from the opening credits, in which the initials NWR are prominently emblazoned below every title card—The Neon Demon is a work of art, but it’s also an ego trip, one in which the director’s ambitions exceed his profundity.

Refn wants the world of his film to be a sort of Mulholland Dr. for the new decade, a nightmarish hellscape that tears down the world of fame and glamour, but he possesses neither Lynch’s sense of humor nor sense of humanity. Mulholland Dr. is certainly ambitious in its goals, but it balances this with a midnight-movie atmosphere of schlock and absurdity that restrains its director’s artistic vision from becoming an Oh-So-Serious sermon. It also absolutely depends on its cast, especially Naomi Watts and her ability to perform a gradual slide from Stepford-wife-perfect caricature to damaged, embittered wreck. The Neon Demon, on the other hand, has absolutely no sense of humor about its increasingly absurd take on the world of modeling—its overlap with Hannibal in terms of subject matter and cannibalism-as-metaphor serves only to emphasize how important the black humor of the television show is and how much it’s missed here.

Worse than that, however, is its decision to spend its entire runtime with each of the characters in a relatively static, emotionless state. Elle Fanning is a truly gifted actress, which is why it’s so painful to say that her character, the protagonist Jesse, could have been played by anyone—the same goes for Abbey Lee, who was arresting in her supporting role in Mad Max: Fury Road and is utterly wasted here. Through a self-important screenplay and what I can only assume is Refn’s direction, these two and nearly all of the other performers are trapped into giving flat line readings and static smiles for nearly two hours. A breakdown from this sterility into something more human, or the inverse, would have made this stilted quality mean something emotionally—as is it’s simply dull. A movie that’s about the damaging effects of the fashion industry can’t begin with its characters at the same point they are when they reach the end, but that’s exactly what Refn does.

The only exceptions to the above are Keanu Reeves, who breaks type as an over-the-top shitheel who runs the motel Jesse stays at and is clearly very much enjoying himself, and Jena Malone, whose smile-plastered makeup designer does indeed mirror Mulholland Dr. in her gradual unraveling. They are bright spots in an otherwise joyless exercise of smashing the audience over the head with the rather banal thematic statement “The fashion industry will chew you up and spit you out,” this metaphor eventually turning literal in unintentionally comedic fashion. (I will note that more movies should feature lovingly shot necrophilia—the obnoxious people who’d spent the entirety of my showing talking to each other walked right out of the movie.)

All this said, I can’t give the movie anything less than a three-of-five rating, because while it’s undeniably arrogant and egomaniacal to pull out all the aesthetic stops on such a slight screenplay, pull them Refn does, and it’s glorious. Nathasha Braier’s cinematography delivers everything that the movie’s title promises, bathing each frame in frozen blasts of harsh blues and reds—one early sequence turns the film into a flipbook, colored strobes against a black background recreating and obliterating the characters’ visages frame by frame, and is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This pulsing frigidity is matched by Cliff Martinez’ synthesizer score, reminiscent of It Follows‘ soundtrack—simultaneously lush and dead, rich and completely artificial, it fully commits to sonically communicating everything Refn wanted to say with his screenplay. Art direction, production design, and costuming are, naturally, second to none.

The overwhelmingly good and the disappointingly bad collide to form a whole that’s by turns compelling and vapid, repulsive in ways both intentional and unintentional. One could argue that that’s the point—the film’s very shallowness is a reflection of its thematic concerns—but where American Psycho recognizes, expertly utilizes, and ultimately undermines its narrator’s banality, The Neon Demon is fully convinced of its own deep importance. What we’re left with is a mediocre screenplay filmed with artistic perfection, populated with actresses who at times elevate their material but are often directed into a corner.

I can’t write off The Neon Demon, nor can I give it a fully negative review, because it is one of the most visually and aurally engrossing movies of 2016. I only wish those arresting qualities had been placed within an equally arresting context. As is, it’s a tale told by an egomaniac, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—but what entrancing sound and fury.

We dance alone: “The Lobster” review

the_lobster_poster_quad ✦ of five

There is a fine line between genuine whimsy and self-conscious attempts at oddness. For example, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, while a thoroughly enjoyable and gorgeous film, falls too close to the latter for me to truly love it—at times it is delightfully offbeat, but one can always sense the hand of the writer behind the characters’ speech. In trying so hard to break the mold, it becomes trapped in its own sort of stiffness.

At its most successful, Yorgos Lanthimos’ screenplay for The Lobster is full of the kind of whimsy that is as real as it is bizarre—its oddness is a natural consequence of the world it depicts. At its worst, the sentences begin to crack, and through these cracks we can see Lanthimos’ desire to keep his audience on the back foot, to play an escalating game with their expectations. It doesn’t by any means ruin the film, but it does take what could have been an unqualified masterpiece and wrap a tangle of barbed wire around its ankle just before it hits the finish line.

The Lobster is at its most successful during the first half of its runtime, which is the half that was pitched in its trailer—an unnamed man (Colin Farrell in a performance that somehow manages to be engaging while at the same time remaining completely one-note) has been left by his wife, and by the laws of the land must travel to a hotel where singles find new partners. He has forty-five days to complete this task, after which he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing—though he can extend his stay by hunting and capturing members of a renegade community of loners who live in the nearby forest.

This first hour of the film skewers a relatively easy target—our cultural obsession with escaping single status—but does so in increasingly funny, increasingly cruel fashion. Deadpan satire escalates into shocking levels of violence, and Lanthimos has no intention of letting the viewers escape. Shots linger, and linger, and linger, until the mood has passed from uneasy laughter to discomfort to a burning desire to turn away from the screen. This dispassionate examination of cruelty is matched by the actors’ performances, all of which are as if Siri has taken control of a number of human slaves, and by the cinematography, which takes the vibrant green of Ireland and tamps it down to a beautiful but desolate palette of greys and washed-out yellows and browns. None of what is going on is remotely subtle, but it doesn’t really have to be; at this point, Lathimos is interested not in a philosophical examination but a brutal mockery of dating culture, and he tears into his victim with flair.

Once the film switches focus from the Kafkaesque hell of the hotel to the wider world, however, this sadism loses focus and the film begins to lose its bite. Most of the second half is spent among the refugee loners in the forest, and while Lea Seydoux is a welcome (and frightening) presence as their leader, she can’t save the screenplay from falling into a muddle. Lanthimos’ depiction of the loner conclave seems to be an attempt at evenhandedness, but this sort of seeing both sides is incompatible with the broad polemic that constitutes The Lobster‘s first act. The loners are painted in strokes far too broad to be taken seriously as part of a social critique, which is what Lanthimos apparently wants his film to be; attempting to depict both sides of the equation as equally absurd cuts the legs out from under the caricature of the hotel and renders the loners’ conclave a bit of a bore to sit through at times. Depicting the wider world further dilutes the satire; taken on its own as an absurdist parable, the hotel can remain unquestioned, but when a worldwide culture that runs on the same principles surfaces it’s almost impossible to not begin asking logistical questions, which is the last thing one wants to be doing in the midst of such an enterprise.

This inferior second act aside, The Lobster is a film very much worth watching. Even as its screenplay begins to lose control of itself, the performances and camerawork remain a treat to watch, and the surreal hellscape of its first act is more than worth the price of admission. At ninety minutes, Lanthimos’ film could have been a masterpiece. At its current 118-minute runtime, it is merely a very good movie, but it’s a very good movie that no major studio would have the courage to release. That A24 continues to take risks with projects such as this is nothing short of a blessing.

The Year in Books, January-June: Nonfiction

The best of the nonfiction that I read in the first half of this year. For a broader introduction and for the best and worst of the fiction I read, see here.

22478The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes

puts on sunglasses and dons his Laurence Fishburne voice…

What if I told you that, despite existing for 100,000-250,000 years, humans were not actually conscious until roughly 3,000 years ago?

What if I told you that, if you take a closer look at ancient literature such as the Iliad and the earliest books of the Old Testament, you’ll notice none of the characters are actually capable of introspection or making decisions?

What if I told you that, until incredibly recently on an evolutionary timescale, we heard the hallucinatory “voice of the gods” every time we had to choose between one option or another, rather than weighing within ourselves what the best course of action was—because our “selves” as such did not exist?

Jaynes is a bit of a crackpot, and his hypothesis has quite a few holes in it—in fact, I spent much of this semester writing a paper on certain inconsistencies in his analysis of the Iliad. That said, his hypothesis—that humans were basically preconscious schizophrenics hallucinating decisions as divine commands due to the inability of one hemisphere of their brains to perceive the other—is compelling, disturbing, and almost certainly at least partially true, though certainly not entirely. More than that, even if he were completely wrong his book would be a joy to read. It’s a marvel of interdisciplinary studies, mixing cognitive science with philosophy, literary analysis, and anthropology in a manner that’s consistently engaging despite the volume’s rather dry title.

Like the best creation myths, Origin has the virtue of seeming completely true in the moment even if it has its flaws. And again like those myths, there’s also in all probability more than a kernel of actual truth present.

28248046Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, Philip Sandifer

Thanks to the depredations of the Rabid Puppies, this book never stood a chance of being nominated for a Hugo for Best Related Work. It’s a pity, as no other work of nonfiction published in 2015-16 so artfully sums up the state of the SF/F community as a result of the chaos Theodore Beale/Vox Day and his cronies wreaked upon the Hugo Awards.

The titular essay is the chief reason to buy the book. Originally published on Sandifer’s blog in the immediate aftermath of the realization that the Hugos had been gamed by a group of neo-fascist dudebros, it provides a comprehensive overview of the various factions involved in the fray—Sad and Rabid Puppies, the neoreactionary movement, etc. etc.—before using their gaming of the system as a launching pad to discuss the broader problems of right-wing extremism in the SF/F community. It’s as fine a polemic as I’ve ever read, expertly researched and devastatingly styled. The good news is the rest of the collection is just as high in quality. Whether the topic is the feminist roots of Ex Machina, the shared ties of True Detective and Hannibal, the strange history of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, or the occult themes of Doctor Who, Sandifer wields a combination of erudition and enthusiasm that’s hard to resist. And lest you think the whole book is a one-sided affair, another centerpiece is a transcript of Sandifer’s sitting down with Beale/Day himself and debating literature. A fun time was most definitely not had by all.

2448580Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

When I was in high school, the extremely right-wing history curriculum barely mentioned the Black Panther Party. When it did, it was in the context of terrorism, equating the Party to the Ku Klux Klan. While I’ve become a far more progressive person in the years since I left this kind of “education” behind, I had never bothered to re-educate myself on the Panthers. And so, when I stumbled upon a memoir by the founder of the group himself, I decided I needed to read it.

Newton’s book, part autobiography and part manifesto, is completely engrossing. His political arguments are occasionally painted in broad strokes, but are never anything less than cool, articulate, and clearly thought-out, and while I differ with him on points—the Party’s reliance on guns chief among them—he never commands anything less than respect for the manner in which he makes them. The larger part of the book, the story of his wrongful accusation of the murder of a police officer and subsequent trial, is the stuff of Hollywood courtroom drama, but Newton has too much respect for himself and for his audience to exploit the situation for a cheap emotional payoff. His relation of events is as dispassionate as his philosophical musings, and the book is much better for it.

The titular revolutionary suicide—actively sacrificing oneself for a cause—is contrasted by Newton with reactionary suicide—allowing the system to grind one’s soul into oblivion. While I can’t agree with the Panthers’ reliance on firearms, neither can I disagree with Newton’s ardent desire to die fighting for something meaningful rather than letting himself be broken on the wheel of racism. Their current image among a vast number of white Americans as a hate group is nothing short of character assassination; would that more of us would bother to read the words of their leader himself.

567590Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

I did not know until after I had read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that Dillard was only 29 years old when it received the Pulitzer Prize. Her authorial voice is so assured and mature that one gets the impression of a much older woman.

Then again, her subject could inject maturity into anyone’s voice. Dillard paints the Nature (with an intentional capital-N) that surrounds her home near the titular creek as an avatar of the deity in whose image it’s created—capricious and loving, cruel and beautiful, in equal measure, with no explanations given for the contradiction if they even exist. The book is a sort of naturalist’s Book of Job, the majesty of Dillard’s surroundings forming its own theodicy. These philosophical musings are balanced by the concrete detail in which she paints her universe—the anatomy and behavior of the animals that live in congress with her, the subtle intricacies of the ecology that dominates the area. It’s these tiny bits of reality that stay embedded in the reader’s head. The problem of evil as told by parasitic wasps. The shine of Tinker creek even beneath a starless sky. The horrifying fertility of praying mantises, the male continuing to thrust even after he’s been decapitated.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book that I honestly don’t know how to classify. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part popular science book, part philosophical treatise, part prayer. Whatever section of the bookstore shelf it belongs on, its quality can’t be argued with. It’s probably, along with Malick’s The Tree of Life, my favorite work of religious poetry in the last hundred years.

127232On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Like Slavoj Zizek, Arendt doesn’t make arguments so much as free-associate. Thus this book is less an argument about revolution and more a series of observations on the subject, using the American and French revolutions as its anchors as it leaps from insight to insight.

There are, however, two central points that keep recurring: 1.) the American Revolution was the first revolution to deserve the name, as it was the first to involve a group of citizenry actively trying to change the system of government under which they were ruled rather than simply exchange a bad ruler for a good one; 2.) the American revolution succeeded because it was shaped by the guiding hand of elites and intellectuals rather than the popular masses. It’s the latter that I found the most interesting, especially when taken in tandem with Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites (below), which argues that this sort of meritocratic thinking is exactly what leads to the collapse of societies. In the wake of the financial crisis, Hayes’ position would certainly seem convincing; but with the rise of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist populism, so would Arendt’s. It remains to be seen which thinker will be more applicable to the future of America. Not that I particularly welcome either outcome.

27502War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Tied with The End of the Affair and The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the bleakest read of the year so far. Hedges, a foreign correspondent who has witnessed firsthand the devastation of war-torn countries, makes the case that war is ultimately the defining force behind our culture. It’s not just war, though, but the desperate need for tribalism to tell us who we can trust and who must be exterminated. In this age of neo-fascism, it’s sadly more relevant than ever.

2638701Violence, Slavoj Zizek

Like the other Zizek books I read this year, this one is hard to summarize, his characteristic enthusiasm and free-association taking him on tangents and sub-tangents with lightning velocity. What it lacks in coherence, though, it makes up for in wit and in flashes of brilliance as its author attempts to tackle his subject. How do we define violence, how does it affect us, and what aspects of it do we fail to notice even as they insidiously warp the fabric of society?

10199960Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine

Men and women are inherently different, you say? Science has demonstrated that there are biological discrepancies that can’t be reconciled?

plops book on your desk

Have fun, son.

649031A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, John Michael Greer

The first half of the book could have been happily written by any atheist—it dismantles argument after argument for a monotheistic deity, exposing inconsistencies both in thinking and morality. However, where Greer goes from there is far more interesting. Every single one of these arguments, he demonstrates, becomes remarkably tighter if we jettison the assumption of a single God and instead turn to the titular world full of gods: a polytheistic universe. As a defense of theism it’s more compelling than any monotheistic work on the subject I’ve read, and even if I still don’t believe it it’s a fascinating book.

12121640God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic

Zizek’s side, largely composed of essays that were compiled into The Puppet and the Dwarf, is utter genius, taking fundamental assumptions of Christianity and turning them on their heads with mingled wit and empathy—his insight that Dostoevsky’s “If there is no God everything is permitted” should instead be rendered “If there is a God everything is permitted” deserves an entire book of its own. Gunjevic’s contributions are less inspired but not without merit.

11623The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

As these are indeed unabridged journals, there’s quite a bit of tedious filler present—today Ted and I ate with such-and-such a person, she was wearing such-and-such a dress, etc. That said, the amounts of penetrating insight and assured prose composition on display here are not only extremely compelling but downright intimidating, especially when you consider that the stuff composed when Plath was seventeen is just as good as the stuff she wrote a few years prior to her death.

16030649Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes

As is the case with Hedges’ book, Elites is sadly more relevant than ever in the midst of the violent populism that currently engulfs America. Hayes methodically picks apart the underlying assumptions behind the belief that a meritocracy is the “fairest” system of government, demonstrates how America’s has failed, and then—most chillingly—shows how perhaps the worst consequence of our failed elites is that populist movements now show a distrust of any sort of expert knowledge. With climate change speeding up all around us, that’s a problem that could ultimately be fatal.