The Shadow Over Cleveland: Donald Trump as Supernatural Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Supernatural Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Horror as Bullshit, Bullshit as Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

The Year in Books, January-June: Nonfiction

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

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

puts on sunglasses and dons his Laurence Fishburne voice…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2448580Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

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

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

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

567590Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

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

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

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

127232On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

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

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

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

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

2638701Violence, Slavoj Zizek

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

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

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

plops book on your desk

Have fun, son.

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

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

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

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

11623The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

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)

A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych (introduction)

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If there is an archetype wholly original to the 20th and now 21st centuries (if anything can ever claim to be wholly original), it’s that of the sympathetic serial killer. The serial killer himself (and occasionally herself) has existed in the popular imagination since time immemorial in the supernatural forms of bloodthirsty spirits or monsters or witches, and in human form for the last several hundred years at least. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that serial killer chic truly clawed its way into the public consciousness. It hasn’t shown any signs of leaving since.

Serial killers are attractive, even if we claim their deeds are not (and in the cases of particularly compelling killers, even that moral caveat tends to grow thinner and thinner). With some comes the allure of the sensual—they’re suave, they’re beautiful, they’re cultured, as if nature has decided it must compensate for these outer dwellers’ deficiency of manners in that one vital area by granting them impeccable taste elsewhere. With others comes the allure of understanding—we are attracted to them because we think we know their plight and their emotions, because we view these killers themselves as victims of larger forces, the great black hand of Social Injustice or Abusive Parents or Past Trauma forcing them to walk a presdestinate path of mayhem.

And there’s a subtler, ultimately more primal and powerful force at work behind each of these variants on a theme, the same force that’s at work in any piece of art but especially the art of the fantastic and the horrific. We’re attracted to these killers because we are, in a sense, the killers. Each serial murderer represents at some level the anxieties of his (or her) age, the demons and discontents and deadly flaws made manifest in a wash of crimson fluid. The artistic serial killer is society writ large, the avatar of what we wish to do but cannot find the strength to carry out or of what we do not wish to do but are too weak to avoid. The metaphors of mutilated bodies and the perverse consumption of flesh are, for their sheer visceral power, perhaps the best way we have of expressing the effects of society upon our art and upon ourselves. Just ask Christ.

*   *   *   *   *

It’s always a loser’s game to declare anything The Most or The Best and so on and so forth, but it’s undeniable that, of the multitude of murderers the past century’s art has given us, three of the most compelling and widely known are Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter  (and yes, I’m aware that the former has actually been around since the mid-19th century; I’m coming to that). The members of this triptych are fairly representative of the serial killer archetype’s numerous facets, each formed under wildly different sorts of pressures and operating for unique personal and societal reasons. And each of these facets is in turn made up of further facets, different portrayals and interpretations ranging, in at least one case, across the centuries.

  • Sweeney Todd has been the antagonist and dubious protagonist of penny dreadful novels, black-and-white horror films, comics, and stage plays since 1846; the most famous of his selves, the face I’ll be devoting the most attention to over the course of this series, is the one forged by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his 1979 magnum opus of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and its 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton.
  • Patrick Bateman has been the subject of a novel, a film, and a stage musical; these variants are closer together in spirit and theme than the veritable sea of demon barbers, but I’ll still be focusing largely on a single one of them, the original Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.
  • And the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter, himself a patron of the arts, has been featured in four novels, five films, a television series, and a fan parody musical. Of these, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs is the most immediately compelling and certainly the most famous, and has the distinction of having influenced most serial killers on the screen since its 1991 release date. However, it’s neither this famous depiction nor Thomas Harris’ literary creation that is the most fulfilling portrait of Lecter. Rather, it’s Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller-penned and Mads Mikkelsen-performed incarnation of the Doctor, in all his alien glory, that I’ll be examining throughout the course of this series.

Each of the killers is of a piece with his brothers in at least one notable way. Both Sweeney Todd and Patrick Bateman are themselves victims as much as their hapless targets. Bateman and Lecter are both responsible for increasingly intricate murder tableaux as a means of fulfillment. Both Lecter and Todd are obsessed at some level with the idea of a hungry deity. Lecter ultimately stands apart from his companions in depravity for a number of reasons which will be explored, but each of the three can be seen as a stage in a progression.

Todd represents the violence of justice run amok. Bateman represents violence as a means of escape. Lecter represents violence for its own sake, or for the sake of aesthetics—two alternatives which, as Oscar Wilde so memorably points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, are largely the same thing.

And each of the three can be seen as society’s diagnosing its own ills, whether the ill is classism, capitalism, or posthumanism.

If we can be so bold as to even slap such labels on the problem. It is perhaps the supreme horror of Hannibal Lecter that he maintains no such diagnosis will ever solve the ultimate problem.

Nothing happened to me.

I happened.

(to be continued)

I see everything: “10 Cloverfield Lane” review

10c_oversized-1-sht_imax-700x1020 ✦ ½ of five

Cloverfield is perhaps the ur-example of a wonderful idea executed in disappointing fashion. There have been few movie concepts as immediately compelling as “Blair Witch during a kaiju attack”, and the movie gets a lot of mileage from that phrase, but in the end its characters and acting fall short, and both its beginning and ending shouldn’t be part of the story it’s telling. Couple this with the fact that we’re never given a proper justification for why the hell the cameraman is lugging around a heavy rig to film the chaos surrounding him and it’s a movie that, while effective, is ultimately unsuccessful.

The out-of-nowhere spin-off (or not) 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, presents us with nearly no expectations—no buildup, no gripping high concept pitch, no real information apart from its title—and excels at what it does. Its ending has the same problems as that of its predecessor, but on the whole it’s a better movie than anyone had any right to expect from a loose Cloverfield sequel, and indeed one of the best movies of the year so far.

The biggest of Cloverfield‘s flaws that 10 Cloverfield Lane corrects is its characters. The fresh-faced yuppies that populate the former film are shallow and poorly acted, and unlike the trio of The Blair Witch Project, who are helpless and ineffectual but very much real people, we never get the sense that these characters had lives of their own before the events of the movie destroyed them. 10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, runs on its players. All three are performed impressively, but John Goodman’s Howard, a paranoid survivalist who drags the other two down into his bunker due to what he claims is a biological attack up above, is far and away the reason to see the film. The plot revolves around him—is he crazy? Is he right about what’s happened? Or even worse, is he both? The depths Goodman imbues the character with render it nail-bitingly hard to tell—he’s sweet one minute, terrifying the next, and it grows increasingly difficult to determine if he’s simply emotionally unstable or genuinely unhinged. It’s unlikely he’ll be recognized at the Oscars once they roll around, but the performance more than merits a nomination, and is yet another reminder that Goodman is one of our finest character actors.

Howard’s possible abductee and definite obsession, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle follows Mad Max‘s Furiosa and Star Wars‘ Rey as yet another excellent female protagonist in recent genre filmmaking. She’s terrified, paranoid, and out of her depth, but incredibly resourceful and intelligent despite her circumstances. The film is intensely aware of her femininity—she is the only woman in a small space otherwise populated by Howard and his young assistant Emmett, and this dynamic quickly becomes unsettling. Howard vacillates between understanding and tenderness and a frightening possessiveness and desire for power, while Emmett finds himself falling for this beautiful newcomer. The clashes that inevitably result from this are deeply disquieting, taking an already latent fear of being watched to new heights. Michelle attempts to turn this tension to her advantage, and never becomes an object in the eyes of the film despite the male gaze that surrounds her. While the film’s scenario doesn’t allow it to pass the Bechdel test with particular flair, its protagonist is the latest in a string of strong feminist heroes, and it’s beautiful to behold.

There’s political subtext hard at work throughout the first Cloverfield—it’s basically 9/11: The Movie with an amphibious monster thrown in, and as a look at Ground Zero from an on-the-scene perspective it’s undeniably powerful. 10 Cloverfield Lane follows up on that taking of the nation’s pulse in as nuanced a look at conspiracy culture as is reasonable in a franchise that opens with said amphibious monster attacking New York. Howard, with all his X-Files rambling about government conspiracies and possible alien invasions, could easily be seen as a broad critique of Glenn Beck and his survivalist ilk, but the film refuses to allow us to take a smug moral or intellectual high ground over its most interesting character. After all, something is out there, and whether or not Howard is crazy doesn’t particularly alter that. The film’s final ten minutes, which show us more of the outside than I’m very happy with, puncture this ambiguity, but the political zeitgeist of today’s paranoiac society is still excellently captured in Howard and his bunker. Which is scarier, ultimately: the fact that fascists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are running for office, or the possibility that their insane screeds are in fact correct? And can we really blame those who don’t trust the government when it’s now common knowledge that the NSA has run roughshod over America’s civil liberties? As a fan of Occam’s Razor and an opponent of bigotry, I don’t particularly entertain the latter possibility in most cases, but the fact is that distrust of the government simply can’t be written off as the clearer absurdity that it once was.

In the moment, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane never feels political. It’s a tightly written, excellently directed character-based suspense potboiler, one that improves on its predecessor in nearly every area while maintaining its overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. I’d rather see a dozen more small-budget, well-crafted flicks like this than another tentpole in the same vein, and hopefully Bad Robot will ensure that we get them in the years to come. Its tenuous franchise ties notwithstanding (it was an original script that got the Cloverfield label slapped onto it), the film is a highly impressive work of science fiction, especially as Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut. If this is any indication, Bad Robot’s future Portal movie is in good hands.

Fear always works: “Zootopia” review

c55463169023e916571b0361c592cd6c0f630904 of five

I wish I could still love Frozen.

When I saw it in the theatre, I was so excited. To have such a strong feminist ending to a Disney Princess movie of all things was beyond wonderful, and whether you like it or not “Let It Go” is the dictionary example for catchy tune. But the more I thought about it, and the more it exploded across the globe, the less pleased with it I was. Its worst offense has to be its lyrics—especially when compared to the work of  previous Disney stalwarts such as Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, the wordplay of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez is cringingly substandard. Beyond that, the movie is the bearer of decidedly mixed messages. Elsa finally chooses to abandon responsibilities and repressed guilt thrust upon her and…this is a bad thing? The movie is undeniably a huge leap forward for Disney princess films, but as a piece of art it’s left me feeling wanting.

It was with this mindset that I walked into the theatre to see Zootopia, and the result was pleasant surprise. Here is a movie that engages with a nuanced sociopolitical issue at far greater length and with far greater coherency than Frozen does, and while it doesn’t pack a whole lot of surprises, it’s certainly a less flawed film than its predecessor. It’s by no means one of the great films of 2016, but it’s fun and engaging and packs a powerful moral lesson, which I’ll take from mainstream children’s entertainment.

The setup is simple enough—in this universe, the world is populated entirely by animals, and while predators and prey have ostensibly long since settled their differences, there’s still an underlying fear and mistrust present on both sides. Enter Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who spent the entirety of her childhood being cajoled by her nervous parents into staying on the carrot farm. She finally attends the city of Zootopia’s police academy and is made the first rabbit police officer in history, but is crestfallen to be assigned to the position of meter-maid rather than given any serious duties. Things take a turn when she encounters a fox hustler called Nick Wilde, who seems to confirm all the prejudices against foxes Judy’s parents have long held despite her best intentions. When multiple predators are kidnapped and Judy is assigned to the case at the last minute, she and Nick are forced to work together to find answers. A friendship ensues, but will societal pressures crush it?zootopia_nickwilde_and_judy_hopps_4_by_jd1680a-d9n0jt1

If there’s one thing Zootopia isn’t, it’s subtle, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an incredibly deft handling of racial issues, especially for a children’s film (and, for all its cartoonishness, somehow less absurd than Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq). This is a movie that passes beyond simple moral trusims such as “racism is bad” and chooses to focus very firmly on white (prey) privilege and the moral bankruptcy of color-blindness. Judy views herself as perfectly free of prejudice, and certainly appears more enlightened than her family in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, but ultimately has to come to terms with the fact that she still, at some level, harbors deep-seated discriminatory tendencies against predators in general and Nick in particular. Nick himself is initially presented as matching Judy’s negative stereotype—he’s a conman, a “thug”—but not only does he prove to be far more complex than his character would at first suggest, he rightly points out to Judy that when all of society views you as a criminal, it’s hard not to end up going along.

Spoilers from here on out, but you’ll see them coming.

There are flaws in the movie’s socioplitical outlook, and they’re present largely in how it deals with sexism. Judy is an obvious analogy for a woman who finds it impossible to advance due to sexist stereotypes and misogynistic co-workers, and this bit of metaphor is, again, unsubtle but well-executed. The problem comes with the reveal of the film’s ultimate villain: an obfuscatingly meek sheep assistant mayor who is using predators as a common enemy to unite the workers of the world. There’s a bit of feminism and a bit of Marxism mixed in here, but they just don’t gel, first because so little time is given to the assistant mayor’s character and her position and second because, well, in a movie that’s so pleasingly progressive, this bit of apparent anti-feminist backlash is bizarre. One could read it as a critique of first-wave feminism specifically, along with its lack of intersectionality, but not enough time is devoted to the subject for any coherent position to emerge. It’s also the only twist in a movie that’s otherwise incredibly predictable in terms of story; this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the flick, but it is one aspect in which Frozen is undeniably superior.

Also dismaying are the times the movie sinks into indulgent pop-culture references. There’s a Godfather homage about midway through that, while funny, diverts the film’s pacing and calls too much attention to itself; more obnoxious, if far more subtle, are the movie’s references to Frozen, which again pull the viewer out of the film. It’s not by any means a crippling tactic, but it’s used just enough that it grows tiresome.

These problems notwithstanding, Zootopia is easily the best Disney Animation film in years, and unfortunately its political message won’t fade into irrelevance anytime soon. Take your kids to it and start a conversation, go see it yourself for the lush animation and the excellent vocal performances. And if any foxes approach you on the way into the theatre, give ’em a wave.