God Will Cut You Down

grit-51Watching the Coen brothers’ rendition of True Grit is akin to watching something Shakespeare might have written, had Shakespeare been born in 19th-century America. There’s always a level of unreality to the dialogue in the Coens’ films, but True Grit is unique in just how bizarre its characters’ speech is. There is perhaps no better example of this than a jibe Rooster Cogburn, the drunken, grizzled U. S. marshal, makes at the expense of the foppish Texas Ranger LaBouef:

I’m struck that LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly severed his tongue, and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.

The marshal scoffs at his companion’s highfalutin speech, yet he himself talks in a manner far above that of a redneck, near-illiterate Wild-West gunslinger; “severed,” “cease,” and “spills the banks” are not common turns of phrase in such circles. This commingling of high and low speech is the basis of another joke earlier in the film; Mattie Ross irritably informs Rooster, who’s attempted to leave her high and dry while he and LaBeouf seek out Tom Chaney:

And ‘futile’, Marshal Cogburn, ‘pursuit would be futile’? It’s not spelled ‘f-u-d-e-l.’

The world of the film’s script is one of blatant unreality. No matter a character’s education or station, they are capable of spouting verbiage that carries more poetic lilt in one line than most screenplays do in their entire text. They will likely as not, however, do so in a manner that’s as rife with vernacular turns of phrase and grammatical errors as Rooster’s correspondence with Mattie is rife with misspellings.

A large portion of this off-kilter speech originates not with the Coens but with Charles Portis, the author of the novel on which True Grit is based. Nonetheless, only the Coens could have pulled it off in a film setting with the kind of richness it deserves. Witness by comparison the 1969 True Grit film; it’s a decent Western for another cinematic day and age, but Portis’ words are as flat and clumsy in the mouths of its actors as one of Rooster’s corn dodgers. Whenever one of those absurdly elegant sentences is read, that’s what it feels like—a line reading and nothing more. When the actors in the 2010 True Grit speak their lines, it’s as though torrents of verbiage flow from their mouths. Their frontier poetry is electric, full of texture, and if we don’t always grasp the individual syllables—particularly from Jeff Bridges’ slurring Rooster—we always have a firm hold on the meaning.

When the film was released in 2010, it received overwhelming critical acclaim, but the consensus seemed to be that it just wasn’t a Coens film. Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, put it thus:

What strikes me is that I’m describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That’s a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career. It’s a loving one. Their craftsmanship is a wonder. [. . .] But this isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky.

I find this sentiment more than a little puzzling. I opened this piece with observations on the film’s dialogue because it’s the most obvious sign that True Grit is anything but a straight genre exercise. There are very few films period whose scripts walk a similar tightrope between the vernacular and the poetic, much less Western films. But it’s more than just the words the characters say. What makes True Grit a Coens film is the even narrower tightrope it navigates: that of tone. The aura of the film is a mix of the heroic and the banal, the noble and the farcical, that is the signature of its makers’ oeuvre.

Joel and Ethan Coen are often painted as cynics whose creations feature characters for the purposes of pointing and laughing rather than empathizing. This holds true for a few of their films—Barton Fink is filled with a loathing for its protagonist that becomes more and more obvious as its story unfolds, and when I recently revisited Burn After Reading I was exhausted from the sheer contempt it holds for its entire cast. But more often than not it’s a reductive claim.

It’s more accurate to say that the brothers make films whose worlds point and laugh at their inhabitants but whose stories ultimately admire their characters’ refusal to give up in their struggles, futile or undignified as they may be. The titular folk singer of Inside Llewyn Davis spends the entirety of the film in a Sisyphean fight to break out of his rut, one that’s as funny as it is heartbreakingly cruel; but the movie ends on an astonishing note of empathy for its reluctant hero, who vents his demons in a song and—just maybe—opens up the possibility of breaking the cycle. The Big Lebowski takes an unholy amount of delight in hammering the junior Lebowski with break-ins, injuries, burnt cars, and dead friends, but in the end the Dude abides, taking it easy for all us sinners. The Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! is as far from meaningful as it’s possible to get, but when Eddie Mannix thunders to disgraced star Baird Whitlock about the sacredness of their business, you can see the Coens mean it as much as he does.

The best example of this cruelty overcome by affection is Fargo. Even those who have never seen the film are familiar with its broad satire on the Midwest—the thickheaded goodnaturedness of its inhabitants provides constant comic fodder throughout the movie’s runtime. More than that, Joel and Ethan take active glee in wresting control away from characters who are determined that things go exactly according to their plans, particularly would-be criminal mastermind Jerry Lundegaard and his bumbling pair of kidnappers-for-hire. But the film possesses a genuine respect for its heroine, pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson. More than that, it refuses to poke fun at her Midwestern sense of decency in the way it does with others’.

There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

You get the sense that, even if the Coens don’t really believe this sentiment themselves, they want to.

True Grit is in many ways a stunningly cruel piece of cinema. The drab browns and yellows of its vegetation and the frequent drifts of snow that waft through its frames set the tone for its Wild West—elegiac, cold, and harsh. Attempted sentimentality constantly has the rug pulled from underneath its feet. Rooster caps off a dying man’s pious anticipation of walking the streets of glory with the advice not to go looking for his killer. At a public hanging, the two white men present are allowed to finish their speeches; when the lone Indian begins his, a hood is placed over his head and the lever is pulled. The undertaker in charge of Mattie’s father idly tells her that if she’d like to spend the night in a coffin, “it would be alright.” Hardly a maudlin or sugary moment is allowed to exist before being brutally cut short.

More than any of these little moments, though, it’s the central journey of Mattie Ross that often feels as though it’s actively punishing its heroine. Mattie opens the film coming into town to collect her dead father. When she attempts to recruit men to come with her and go after after his killer, Tom Chaney, she is met not just with rejection but contempt; LaBeouf makes crude sexual comments and Rooster steals her money before giving her the slip. Shortly after this, there’s a sequence that initially plays out like a standard heroic-Hollywood moment; Mattie, undeterred by the roaring river standing between her and the two lawmen, urges her horse through the water while Carter Burwell’s strings swell. As soon as she gets to shore, LaBeouf snatches her from her horse and spanks her; ultimately, she has to be rescued by Rooster.

When Mattie does get to Chaney, she finds to her vexation that he fails to recognize he has done anything wrong and greets her like an old friend. She manages to shoot him in the short ribs only after he instructs her in how to cock her gun properly; when she tries to fire a second time, the gun fails and Chaney takes her away. When our hero finally manages to bag her man, the recoil of the gun sends her sprawling backward into a pit filled with rattlesnakes. She loses an arm for her trouble, and Rooster rides her horse to death getting her to the doctor.

Nor is even this the last time the film twists the knife. A quarter-century after her arm is removed, Mattie, a spinster after all these years, receives a letter from Rooster asking her to visit him. She makes the journey. She arrives a few days after the ex-marshal dies of “night hoss.” All she can do is bury him.

The above three paragraphs read like nothing so much as a 19th-century book of Job. In isolation, this flat description makes it seem as though the Coens have an overwhelming amount of sadistic disregard for their protagonist. But what’s remarkable about True Grit is how much the opposite is true.

Ethan, in a 2010 interview, says of Mattie that she’s “a pill [. . .] but there is something deeply admirable about her in the book that we were drawn to.” And while the film portrays her in constant states of indignity or frustration, the viewer never feels a directorial delight in Mattie’s suffering. In many ways, she’s a fierier, more Old-Testament version of Marge Gunderson. She is hell-bent on judgment by violence, and will not see anything less for Tom Chaney than death—specifically for his murder of her father, not the state senator he shot under the name Chelmsford—but this bloodthirst comes not from any personal inclination toward violence but from a deeply ingrained sense of decency and justice. Just as the world of Fargo belies Marge’s conviction that a day can be truly beautiful, the world Mattie inhabits frequently punishes her for her unwavering principles, and works its hardest to show her that life is not as simple as what’s fair and what’s not. She never wavers, however, and if that’s a kind of blindness, it’s a blindness that the Coens respect, not the kind of arrogance or stupidity that draws their ire in characters such as Barton Fink or Burn After Reading‘s Linda Litzke.

The most profound marker of the directors’ affection for their heroine is that they ultimately do let her have her way. In both Portis’ novel and the 1969 film, Mattie fails to kill Tom Chaney. She fires at him and is flung back into the snake pit; he leans over the edge to taunt her, at which point Rooster disposes of him. It’s a death that’s anticlimactic, cruel, and the precise opposite of catharsis. If the Coens truly felt any sort of contempt for Mattie, they would have kept it this way. But in a change that is crucial to the ultimate tone of their True Grit, they let Mattie have her justice. She looks her man dead in the eyes, grins, and cries, “Stand up, Tom Chaney!” And as the realization of what’s to come dawns in Chaney’s expression, she pulls the trigger. Over the cliff he goes.

Mattie still plunges into the pit of snakes and loses her arm. Her victory is not easy, and cannot simply be handed to her without consequence. But she still gets a split second of unequivocal triumph before she takes that fall. Blind belief in justice is perhaps deserving of punishment, the film says. But in the case of someone like Mattie—a girl who is capable, intelligent, and determined to get her job done—it is also deserving of reward.

The 2010 rendition, then, is a cruel film that never fully descends into sadism. It’s a heroic quest that never allows its main character more than a few isolated moments of heroism. It’s a movie that walks a constant knife’s-edge of philosophy and tone, and a lesser director would have turned it to the mush that the 1969 film all too often is. But to Joel and Ethan, this kind of juggling is second nature.

True Grit is often overlooked in discussions of the Coens’ 21st-century output. It doesn’t possess the raw intensity of No Country for Old Men, the personal investment of A Serious Man, or the forlorn majesty of Inside Llewyn Davis, true. But besides the latter film, it’s my favorite of their movies, and I maintain that attempts to exclude it from the conversation on the basis that it “isn’t a Coens movie” are fundamentally misguided. Not only is it a Coens movie through and through, it could only ever have been that.

A genre picture it may be, but merely a “straight genre exercise”? Not on your life. (Stand up, Roger Ebert.)

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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.

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 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.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)

Those crunching noises pervading the air (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

mrs-lovett-s-meat-pies-sweeney-todd-27715526-457-700Meat. There’s something off-putting about the word, even in isolation. Even for those of us whose diet consists largely of that fibrous, succulent substance, the monosyllable carries with it a faint connotation of revulsion. It bears a host of sensory associations: the dull thud of a freshly-cut hunk of flesh connecting with the butcher’s table. The smell of burning fat. The unyielding, spongy texture, the feeling of resistance to being ground apart by our teeth.

What’s even worse is when the word is juxtaposed with connotations of consciousness. Human meat. Meat-puppets. The meat of the brain. And so on and so forth. Shivers.

The realization that all we ultimately are is thinking meat, a mass of living tissue that just happened to stumble upon consciousness or the illusion of consciousness, is an intensely disquieting one. (Indeed, horror author Thomas Ligotti went so far as to base a book upon the subject; those of you who see the phrase “thinking meat” and feel the urge to read on, I encourage you to buy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror.) So disquieting, in fact, that only one of our resident killers really addresses it in his myth. Sweeney Todd uses the political as a way of shifting the horror of cannibalism up a level—in its universe, the horrific thing is that humans have made other humans into meat due to the nature of the society in which they find themselves trapped. American Psycho is more willing to address the fact that humanity is nothing but a bundle of reactions and routines rather than a unified self, but again passes this off on a societal cause. In the world of Hannibal, however, the horror is philosophical—we are all thinking meat, and we are all on the menu.

* * * * *

For what’s the sound of the world out there? Those crunching noises pervading the air? It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?

spring_gala_sweeney_invite-9-25x5-75-v51The cannibalistic orgy that forms the second act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins as a nihilst’s alternative to Marxism. Todd, in his initial attempt to murder Judge Turpin, is a one-man proletariat rising up against a microcosm of the bourgeoisie, wreaking just revenge for the indignities and injustices wrought upon him. Even once the mark has escaped and the barber’s “Epiphany” has begun, he phrases his outpourings in Marxist language:

They all deserve to die,

Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why?

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,

There are two kinds of men and only two—

There’s the one staying put in his proper place

And the one with his foot in the other one’s face,

Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!

At this moment, the framing of Burton’s film adaptation is particularly interesting. Todd, as the final lines of this verse are sung, stares at himself in a shattered mirror, smiles, and then turns on his heel, catching Mrs. Lovett’s eye. He has seen something in his own image, and it’s sparked a change in his thinking:

No, we all deserve to die,

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief,

For the rest of us death will be a relief,

We all deserve to die!

The third-person “they” has become the first-person “we”, and in a rhetorical flourish not present in the 1979 cast recording—Sondheim, who originally simply repeated “Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why,” had altered the lyric by the time of the 2005 Broadway revival, and the change remains in the film—Todd numbers himself and his companion among the damned. In the film, he goes so far as to seize her throat, thrust her into his barber’s chair, and bring his razor to her neck.

Looking into his own reflection has given Todd his true epiphany, though it’s one that his Benjamin Barker person-suit tries to shove down throughout the rest of Act II: he is beyond repair, the jagged fragments of his glass-face reflecting the irredeemable pieces of his soul. In a world where so much damage has been inflicted upon the lower classes by the upper class, there is no such thing as a chance at redemption, a rising of the proletariat and an abolition of injustice. All he can hope to achieve is to drag his oppressors screaming into hell along with him, putting his fellow sufferers out of their misery on the way.

It’s immediately after this that the central metaphor of Sondheim’s incarnation of Todd makes its appearance: hide the evidence of Todd’s various revenges and mercy killings by grinding them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Notably, it’s not Todd who has the idea, but Lovett herself. She’s the businessperson of the two, the practical mind that brings Todd’s grand schemes down to earth; she’s also, despite her suffering condition, a cog in the vast mechanical beast that is Industry, a victim who is unable to escape turning to her oppressors’ methods in order to survive. Thus it’s an avatar of capitalism, lower class notwithstanding, who spawns the notion of a very literal symbol for society’s horror: humans ground from thinking beings into meat, providing sustenance for the humans who will themselves undergo the same process. Only this time, it will be the poor rather than the privileged who dictate who gets eaten when.

Magnanimously, Todd and Lovett conclude the jewel of black comedy that is “A Little Priest”, a grocery list of sorts that covers the various professions the pie shop will prepare, with these lines:

Todd: Have charity toward the world, my pet!

Lovett: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

Todd: We’ll take the customers that we can get!

Lovett: Highborn and low, my love!

Todd: We’ll not discriminate great from small,

No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,

And to anyone at all!

Equal-opportunity cannibalism. Rich and poor alike will be butchered, rich and poor alike will eat.

However, Mrs. Lovett isn’t on board with Todd’s nihilistic vision. In many ways, she’s the ultimate villain of the play. Rather than bringing down the upper class, she dreams of joining it, regaling the barber with her visions of the two of them living well-to-do in a cottage by the sea and having rich friends over for dinner. Chopping up the rich and poor alike is not a way for her to prove some ideological point; it’s a means of advancement, a way for her to rise from the ranks of the lower classes and replace the members of the upper class with whom she and Todd dispose. She’s representative of the self-perpetuating lie of what we would call the American Dream were the play to take place on Yankee soil; there are no poor, merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as the quote attributed to Steinbeck goes. Mrs. Lovett sees all the oppression and suffering wrought upon the poor by an unjust system, and rather than bringing the system down by any means necessary merely wishes to advance far enough up its ladder that she can’t be hurt by it anymore. Fittingly, she suffers perhaps the ultimate poetic death of the musical—burned to death, a shrieking pile of raw sinew and bone, by her own oven.

As horrific as Sondheim’s vision of industrial hell is, it doesn’t descend to the posthumanist depths that Hannibal takes us to. Nowhere does it attempt to grapple with the philosophical question of whether human beings are actually thinking meat, fit for the grinder even in our most idyllic state. Rather, it presents us with a universe in which the reduction of humanity to stuffing for a greasy crust is exactly what it seems like: conscious intelligences being ground into flesh and sinew by the injustices of an industrial, class-based society. The horror is that selves are becoming nothing but the flesh they inhabit, not that there never were any selves to begin with. American Psycho takes us one step further: we have become soulless bags of meat, but societal causes are still to blame.

(to be continued)