Advertising Standards Authority, ASA, charismatics, Equippers Church, evangelicals, His Right to Say It, Jesus heals cancer, morality police, Napier, New Zealand, Noam Chomsky, offensive, Robert Faurisson
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against a church billboard which read “Jesus Heals Cancer”. The billboard was erected by the charismatic-evangelical Equippers’ Church in Napier:
The Complaints Board of the ASA ruled that ”the statement was provocative enough to be likely to cause serious offence to those people who were dealing with, or knew people who were dealing with, cancer.” The Board added that “the public nature of the billboard was likely to cause widespread offence in the light of generally prevailing community standards.” Furthermore, the Board ruled that the church billboard was in breach of the provision in the Code of Ethics which required “Truthful presentation”, and that “the advertisement was likely to deceive or mislead people.” Although the Board accepted that the church believed that Jesus could heal people from cancer, it ruled that the church’s claim to cure cancer was not substantiated. Contrary to some media headlines, the Board did not go so far as to rule explicitly that Jesus could not cure cancer, but in ruling that the billboard was “likely to deceive or mislead people” implied that the claim was untrue.
What is the ASA? The ASA is merely a private society, its membership comprised of various media and advertising entities. Now, given the propensity of commercial advertisers to tell lies, exaggerate, and annoy the public, just to make a buck, generally speaking it is a good thing that advertisers have got together to self-regulate.
But it’s another thing altogether to issue pronouncements on a local church’s misguided but honestly intended billboard. Who the hell do the ASA board members think they are? Do they think they are New Zealand’s Morality Police, pronouncing on any words they discover littering the landscape? On this occasion, the ASA has stepped way over the line. An organisation that is intended to self-regulate the advertising industry should simply be ignored when it makes pompous pronouncements on a local church’s billboard. If the Equippers’ Church weren’t such pious charismatic evangelicals, they should probably just tell the ASA where to go.
But is it offensive to cancer sufferers in the neighbourhood? Of course. However, silencing an honest (albeit deluded) church’s proclamation sets a dangerous precedent. Who will be the next minority group to be silenced because their views or behaviour don’t agree with New Zealand’s pragmatic yet passionless middle-class values? While I personally consider that there is as much chance of Jesus healing somebody from cancer as there is for the Earth to start spinning in the other direction, if we don’t defend the right of the ignorant, the atavistic, and even the despicable to peddle their absurd views, we support a system which denies freedom of speech to those minorities who most need it.
As Noam Chomsky said, in defending a famous French holocaust denier’s right to express his denial of the Jewish holocaust (despite Chomsky’s opinion that holocaust denial was quite incorrect, and the holocaust marked a terrible period in human history): “It is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended.”
Fortunately, the ASA has no authority to enforce the rulings which they freely promulgate. So, the Equippers’ Church can decide for themselves whether they will use the same billboard again, or whether a different message might be a more persuasive evangelistic tool.
In what was an almost inevitable development, fundamentalist Catholic Arthur Skinner, of the reactionary Catholic Action group, has vandalised the Christmas billboard erected earlier this week by St Matthew in the City, Auckland, New Zealand. Taking a pair of scissors to the billboard to reveal another picture below, Skinner has made it appear as if the Virgin Mary is expressing shock at various animals proceeding forth from her eternally intact vagina:
Arthur Skinner’s unusual alteration to the Christmas billboard appears to be unintentional, rather than a work of artistic creativity. TV3 reports Skinner ranting, “Everyone knows instinctively, you don’t muck around with God’s mother. This is devil’s work. This is luciferian. The attack on the blessed virgin.” Stuff reports that Skinner called church vicar Glynn Cardy the day he cut the poster to tell him he would “roast slowly in hell” for the billboard.
As Eric commented in respect of a similar rant by Family First’s Bob McCoskrie against St Matthew’s 2009 Christmas billboard,
There is a long-standing tradition in Christianity to immediately condemn any connection between Jesus and sexual activity of any kind. Whether this is due to a perceived need to defend the ludicrous doctrine of the virgin birth from critique (is the NT wrong?) or simply another aspect of the long historical tradition that claims the elevated, the divine, or the righteous are not subject to the same bodily weaknesses and urges that the rest of us are endlessly plagued with (for Deane’s thoughts on this, see here and here), remains an open question.
Continuing an earlier discussion of the cultural and religious hopes placed on technologies, a few thoughts inspired by a recent re-reading of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1983 short-story collection The Sentinel, which contains stories written from 1946 to 1979:
Outside of the clear and simple pleasure of watching a master doing what he does best (and my criticisms here aside, Clarke was a master of hard science fiction, undoubtedly one of the all-time greats), what strikes the reader (at least this reader) about this early collection is Clarke’s persistent tendency to overestimate both the significance of new technological developments and the pace of scientific advancement. Even the simplest developments hold the power to alter the world fundamentally, and almost always for the better.
To take but a single example, in the gripping and disquieting story ‘Rescue Party’, the development of the helicopter brings about the end of almost all the great cities, which seems laughable decades later (indeed, when faced daily with the average automobile driver’s lack of skill and discretion, the thought of the helicopter as ‘universal transportation’ is enough to cause nightmares). Since the story was written in 1946, urbanisation has continued apace and more and more rural land is dedicated to massive farming and ranching operations built on the model of heavy industry, with all of the environmental and social costs that this threatens. Far from the rural idyll that the helicopter brings to the Earth in ‘Rescue Party’, the helicopter remains of limited use and did little or nothing to curb the explosive growth of the cities which began with the Industrial Revolution and has continued with only a few and rather minor counter-trends, and these are confined largely to the Anglo-European world and the wealthier of its colonies.
Viewed from the vantage point of Clarke’s eternal post-World War II optimism, the future for scientific development is bright. Clarke simply assumes for the sake of these stories that the exploration of space would continue and that progress towards the planets was inevitable. It would also be accomplished by very little conflict and even less bloodshed. The solar system was as ripe for exploration and colonisation as the New World was centuries earlier. On this point, for all of his vision, Clarke was perpetually blinded by his British colonial ideologies, whether he was aware of them or not. This is crystal clear in the story ‘Songs of the Distant Earth’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Breaking Strain’), which re-enacts the British encounter with the South Pacific in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which subtly but unmistakably reinforces the myth of history as progress.
This, it turns out, is a symptom of a larger problem with the stories in The Sentinal. At the same time that he is making huge, counter-intuitive leaps about the effects of new technologies, Clarke’s view of culture and history is strangely anaemic. This particular blindness, in which Clarke is by no means alone among science-fiction writers, is coupled with a curious lack of imagination in the cultural and social sphere. For he is unable to imagine a world that is fundamentally different from our own, or at least the world as Clake saw it from the former British colony of Sri Lanka, where he spent much of his life. The Sentinel‘s stories exist in a future that looks a good like the present. The sense of cultural, political, and economic inertia present in these stories is stunning. Clarke imagines little political upheaval and fails to anticipate developments such as the end of the Soviet Union only two decades after the last story here was written.
Clarke’s tendency towards prophetic hyperbole is thus rooted in his failure to understand that technology is at least partially cultural. Clarke’s failure, then, beside his blind belief in the inherent value of technological development, is his inability (or his simple refusal) to understand that technology, quite removed from its scientific side, is also immersed in human culture, which influences and even determines its use and reception. Given that the Clarke who wrote The Sentinel – and Clarke was a complex, sometimes contradictory man wrote or co-wrote literally hundreds of books and stories which do not add up to a fully coherent ideology of philosophy of history – can not imagine a world without the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, consumer capitalism, and an independent mass media, his view of technology was similarly limited.
He also imagines that governments will continue to fund science for the sake of science, though he does realise that at least some of the motivation behind the golden age of space exploration was political and military. This prediction, which is never made explicit but is present in each and every story in the collection, has also failed to materialise, largely given the limited resources governments now give to pure science and the ever more persistent demand that science and technological development serve some kind of purpose – usually economic – rather than serving the interests of disinterested knowledge. Clarke fails to anticipate the cultural and economic forces that have brought space exploration to a near standstill or limited it to uninspiring and wasteful projects like the International Space Station. According to the timeline Clarke imagines in 2001, and in the story ‘The Sentinel’, which provided the kernel of the larger novel, there was to be permanent bases on the moon in place by the mid 1990s. Instead, the Apollo programme has been relegated to a footnote in Cold War history ripe for re-appropriation in popular culture texts like Michael Bay’s jingoistic, neo-fascist film Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Given Clarke’s often dismissive attitude towards organised religion – see Childhood’s End and The Fountains of Paradise for examples – his failure to acknowledge the failures of scientific prophecy is all the more striking. It also highlights the similarities between placing one’s hopes in the next step in scientific development and placing one’s hopes in the great coming of a saviour figure – as in Christianity, messianic Judaism, some forms of Buddhism, and countless other traditions – who will interrupt the course of history and bring about a new and better world. Over the course of The Sentinel, Clarke simply ignores the marginal predictive value of his persistent overestimation of the power and significance of incremental scientific developments. When one prophecy fails, he simply moves on to another tale of the partial redemption of the world by a new technology while never addressing the previous failure (it is worth noting that he did get some things – many things, in fact – right, including his invention of the concept of the geosynchronous communications satellite).
By simply ignoring the failures of his prophetic imagination, Clarke reminds me irresistibly of those Christians who have been convinced that the apocalypse was just around the corner (just as the gospels claim that Jesus promised some two millennia ago), despite the fact that this prophecy has been failing over and over again for centuries. The fact that technology has failed time and again to live up to its promises, like so many religious prophecies, that it has failed to bring about greater social and economic equity, something we were promised would happen with the arrival of the printing press, the steam engine, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, photography, the cinema radio, television, the personal computer, and, most recently, the Internet (or Web 2.0, which was to save us – again – from the inequities of the earlier technologies), is in itself interesting.
What is more interesting, at least in the context of religious prophecy, is how immune this belief in technological salvation is to historical realities and the complexity of human culture. This points to a persistence of belief that is structurally very similar to the continued rationalisations of failed religious prophecy. Even if Hal Lindsey’s identification of events in the 1970s and 1980s with the events of the Book of Revelation failed to accurately predict the beginnings of the end of times, this does not stop millions of people from believing precisely the same thing about more recent world events.
This is not a coincidence, of course, given how the structures of the Christian narrative of history persist and are transformed in the narratives of modernity, particularly in secular eschatologies like those of classical Marxism, the National Socialists, and all of those people that believe that technology is going to save us. The real question I have here is how to begin to think more rationally about the true capabilities of science and technology, especially when the potential of both is limited so clearly and so persistently by economics and politics. If someone like Arthur C. Clarke can get things so clearly wrong, why do we persist in waiting for the next technology, the one that is going to save us? Why do we continue on as if this were an inevitable fact? I think some of this might be because most people, like Clarke, and unable to imagine a world that is truly, fundamentally different from our own.
In practical, this-worldly terms, if we are waiting for the arrival of that magical machine that will save us from all of our follies (many of them, of course, technological, like the internal-combustion engine) without coupling this with a serious and sustained effort to change the cultures that surround this anticipation and make it bear the burden of a dark and difficult future, we would be just as well to be waiting for Jesus (or Maitreya, the Buddha of the future in many schools of Mahayana Buddhist thought), who is coming along soon.
Any day now …
In the hours leading up All Hallow’s Even, I have a few recommendations for anyone looking to curl up with a truly frightening film tomorrow night. In no particular order, here we have two really scary recent films to keep you up all night …
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2010): What is most horrifying about this film is the what it suggests about the utter bankruptcy of a postmodern imagination rooted in reference and remix rather than in telling stories. Zack Snyder’s slickly pretty parable about a nubile young woman, Babydoll (a hyper-sexualised Emily Browning), who creates elaborate fantasy worlds to escape the appalling conditions of the 1960s-era mental hospital in which she is imprisoned is truly chilling, though it was intended to be a story of the empowering potential of the imagination. The film unintentionally pulls back the curtain on the hollowness of genre filmmaking uncoupled from any sense of history or any awareness of the real world of flesh-and-blood human beings.
Snyder, a visual stylist of the first order, has repeatedly shown in his adaptations of other people’s work that he can unearth the dark heart of a text but lacks either the talent or the intelligence (or both) to do anything with its subtext. In his solid, scary, but completely unnecessary remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie horror masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, Snyder evacuates the film’s setting, a suburban shopping mall, of all of its social criticism and its larger meaning. It becomes a backdrop for the film’s action, not part of its story. Romero made pointed criticisms of consumer capitalist culture by comparing the drooling hordes of zombies with shoppers in a mall, a sad, poignant, and utterly damning portrayal of normality as a world of the living dead. In his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, Synder captures all of Miller’s unfortunate fascistic tendencies but does nothing but make them live, breath, and bleed in visceral slow-motion. With Watchmen, adapted from Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ epoch-making alternative history comic book series (1986 -1987), Snyder faithfully captures and even amplifies the profound ugliness of Moore’s New York, but, unlike Moore (who has quite rightly disavowed the film), Snyder simply maroons us in this morass of grime and neo-noir pastiche. Moore turned the tale of ordinary people playing at superheroes into a potent and cutting critique of 1980s excess as the flipside of 1960s idealism. Synder just lets the ugliness speak for itself. Robbed of its context, not surprisingly, it has nothing to say.
Sucker Punch performs a similar trick, but this time it is even worse. Synder, working from his own script for the first time, gives us an utterly self-insulated and self-referential world; when Babydoll creates a series of elaborate fantasy worlds as a way to escape the very real horror of her situation, Synder is unable to give her anything to work with outside of noise and furious action (some of it, admittedly, staged quite beautifully). She imagines first a burlesque club as a stable first layer of fantasy and then a sequence of other, more fantastical secondary levels of disassociation, featuring giant samurai robots, zombie soldiers, dragons, and futuristic trains guarded by faceless automatons. In other words, the worlds that Babydoll creates in the 1960s are a pastiche of films, television shows, and comic books that she cannot have seen, given that they all appear on the cultural scene considerably later. What can we make of this? Is Snyder saying that all fan-boy culture is the creation of disturbed minds that create elaborate alternative worlds as a way of dealing with – or not dealing with – the cruel, senseless, and violent world outside the mind? It would be comforting to believe this, but, given that the film is itself masturbatory genre-fan pornography, a melding of the extreme sexualisation of young women in Japanese manga with the spectacle of contemporary fantasy film and the dense visual dazzle of big-budget science fiction cinema (though without any of the ideas that make films like Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Sector 9 so memorable), it is difficult to give the film this much credit.
Synder’s world, then, is just another layer of unreality, and the audience is trapped in revolving worlds of noisy, hollow fantasy, just as Babydoll is. This is Debord’s nightmare of the spectacle taken to its horrific logical end. Worse than this, there is a moral hole at the very centre of Sucker Punch that is truly appalling, especially given that its director and many of its cast members have painted it as a feminist work. Most viewers do not have to escape from anything as bad as Babydoll does. In the film’s single scariest moment, Synder takes us into a filthy room with a solitary mattress on the floor and reveals the the hospital is witness to the serial rape of its young female inmates at the hands of a slovenly orderly. That Synder takes the silly, superficial Sucker Punch to levels of human depravity as dark and despicable as this is truly horrifying.
Margin Call (J. C. Chandor, 2011): This one is a bit unfair, I must admit, given that I am performing the lazy, reactionary critic’s move of writing about a film I’ve not actually seen (see almost any orthodox Christian critique of Martin Scorcese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ for an example). I can only ask you to cut me some slack; I live in Dunedin, where mid-level films like this arrive rather later than for most, if we get to see them at the cinema at all. This criticism is not so much about the film, in any event, but the larger discursive structure that surrounds it. Judging by the beautifully-cut trailer for the financial thriller Margin Call, the true horror is that, faced with another in a long line of financial crises, we are still being sold the myth that such crises are surprising, that they are the work of a few unscrupulous people working dishonestly, that they are preventable. As the slovenly rockstar philosopher and recent al-Jazeera correspondent Slavoj Žižek writes in his incisive First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009):
The only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was an unpredictable surprise which hit the markets out of the blue. (p. 9)
For anyone in the know, this crisis, an inevitable result of a system that is based on exploitation and the faultiest of logic, was not a surprise. Its collapse is not the work of a few (though many of the people in charge are indeed rather despicable), but the result of attempting to create a necessary and infinite growth in a material and human field of finite resources. In short, the system fails because it has to, because it cannot not fail. That this mythology (and this is myth in the formal sense of the word as well as in its more commonplace pejorative sense) is still being repackaged and foisted upon as entertainment is something that will keep me up all night.
And now for two recommendations for those of you interested in actual horror films …
The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980): This film, which I first saw with my older brother when I was about twelve, still scares the pants off of me. The infinitely sad, haunting, and edge-of-your-seat tense story of a grieving widower (played by the great George C. Scott) who moves into a giant old house to try to put his life back together after the death of his family, this is one for those of you who think that the spooky séance scene cannot be scary after being done so many times. There are images in this film (the well, the well!) that can give me the chills just sitting here typing this.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011): After their quietly devastating collaboration on Shotgun Stories (2007), director Nichols and lead Michael Shannon (so good as a disturbed evangelical Christian in Boardwalk Empire) reunite for this chilling and infinitely unsettling story of a man haunted by visions of a coming apocalyptic storm. This one sets out to shake you and does it with infinite care and control rather than with jump-scares or people in silly masks. This is the psychological thriller as existential horror film, an interrogation of the idea of sanity in a world that is seemingly spiralling ever closer to irrevocable madness that is on par with Lars von Trier’s Melanchlia, which asks similar questions, though in a far more global and economic context (see more on that here) than Take Shelter‘s intimate portrait of the disintegration of a single Midwestern American family. The last fifteen seconds of Take Shelter are scarier and more deeply disquieting than any ten recent horror-classic remakes or anything in the thousands of pages of the Twilight Saga.
Sleep well, my friends …
Picking up where I left off, and continuing our exploration of cinema and/as exorcism – see also here (on Australian film), here (on District 9), here (on 2012), here (on the wretched Avatar), and here (on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) - I want to branch out in new territory here and discuss the ways Lars von Trier’s utterly brilliant but utterly nihilistic new film Melancholia is being sold to the American public, a collective audience notorious – but not of course universal – for its dislike of moral ambiguity or philosophical complexity.
Melancholia is von Trier’s best film, and by a long chalk. It is also the most purely entertaining science-fiction defence of a nihilistic worldview since Kurt Vonnegut’s incomparable 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. While I have heard some (though not many) critics and fans pan the film for being too accessible and for lacking the blunt controversy of something like his 2009 film Antichrist, Melancholia succeeds in my book as no other von Trier film for no other reason that von Trier steps back from his usual strategy of rubbing the audience’s face in the depravity of humanity and simply allows the film to quietly and calmly make its points, letting the film’s preternatural stillness and its deliberate pacing tell the story far more effectively than the melodramatic mode of many of his previous films. Melancholia, in the simplest terms, is the first von Trier film I have ever watched without feeling the need for a shower immediately afterwards. The ability for a film to make the viewer feel literally, physically soiled is of course the mark of a true cinematic talent, and here von Trier, with his talent for evoking mood and tension to the point where it becomes palpable, can be counted among the ranks of such directors as Paul Schrader and John Hillcoat. It is, however, infinitely refreshing to see someone as gifted as von Trier working in a different, less confrontational, and more formally Romantic mode.
For all its almost gentle touch, the film presents a view of the world – no, of the universe itself – that is bleaker and more final than anything in von Trier’s oeuvre. Even films as stark and forbidding as Breaking the Waves or Antichrist are shot through with something resembling hope. In Waves, Bess’ unshakable goodness and belief in love anchor a film suspended over an abyss, an abyss that von Trier, then a recent convert to Catholicism, chooses to ignore with his final – and in my mind, completely misguided – image attesting to the literal truth of Bess’ salvation. Even the end of the determinedly repellent Antichrist offers a kind of redemption when the male protagonist, known only as He, leaves a metaphoric wilderness, having rejected his cold psychologist’s view of the world. (For a pdf of an intriguing scholarly article by Gitte Buch-Hansen offering a positive reading of the film from a feminist biblical studies perspective, follow this link; for two very good discussions of the film from a religious studies perspective by S. Brent Plate, see Religion Dispatches here and here.)
Melancholia first appears to be a riff on a theme that appears from time to time in science fiction, the collision of the Earth with another planet, but I think there is more to be learned in placing it next to the history of texts – again, most of them from sci-fi, which trace the impact of the discovery of previously unknown planets. The best-known – and simply the best – of these stories is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story ‘Nightfall’, which first appeared in a 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In Asimov’s spare and ultimately devastating tale, the greatest scientific minds of a complex society on the planet of Lagash discover on the very eve of its destruction that its society is doomed by the eclipse of one of its suns by a previously hidden planet, an alignment of celestial bodies that happens only once every 2049 years. Thrown into total darkness, unknown on the planet, which is lit by no less than six suns, the people of Lagash are driven to madness and to set massive fires to provide the heat and light that they simply cannot exist without, especially given that most of the population does not know that this is a temporary situation. In the story, an intrepid band of scientists discovers the coming of the darkness, something that has been long predicted by the Cultists, Lagash’s dominant religious tradition, but are unable to convince the population to prepare for it. Here we find not only the classic sci-fi conception of religion as bad science and poorly remembered history, but also a potent allegory for the futility of scientific knowledge when dealing with a fearful and undereducated public. ‘Nightfall’ ends on a fittingly bleak note as Lagash’s society again, faced with the enormity of darkness and the devastating and sudden revelation of its own ignorance – the astronomers, working only in daylight, believed that the universe contained only six suns, but the darkness reveals that there are millions, quite unseating Lagash as the centre point of the observable world, a repeat of the Copernican revolution taking place in seconds rather than centuries – sets fire to itself and all that it has built over more than two millennia.
There are other, simpler entries into this rather obscure sub-category of sci-fi, including Philp Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s classic 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, made into a space opera-style film of the same name by Rudolph Maté in 1951. In both, the Earth encounters not one but two rogue bodies in space, one of which destroys the Earth, though a small band of intrepid scientists and travellers manage to escape destruction and take up life on one of the new worlds, Bronson Beta, which shows clear signs of previous inhabitants. While Wylie and Balmer’s slim pot-boiler of a novel has become largely neglected, Maté’s film is better-remembered both for its Oscar-winning special effects – including a still-stunning vision of the flooding of New York City – and for its wildly uneven tone, veering from melodrama to cheesy whimsy from one scene to the next with little rhyme or reason. This is probably most obvious in the closing scene, played to rapturous, triumphant music and with blissful happiness from our intrepid astronauts, who are overcome with an uncomplicated joy when safely landed on the Technicolor wonder of Beta, despite the fact that billions of people have been obliterated and they are the only human survivors (this being the 1950s, they are apple-cheeked, white, healthy, and Christian survivors). The final image says it all, really.
Interestingly enough, there is another film this year, Another Earth, which grapples with the existential questions raised by the discovery of an unknown world, this time an exact duplicate of Earth which may or may not have duplicate versions of each every person living, though this need not detain us here for long. Where Another Earth ends on a New Age-tinged moment of self-realisation, and thus a note of hope, though not one so strident as that which concludes When Worlds Collide, von Trier’s Melancholia ends on an even bleaker note than Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’. In ‘Nightfall’, at least, the reader is free to assume that the people of Lagash will rebuild, though this is tinged with the near-certainly that all of that newly built world will turn to ashes on that fateful night some 2000 years in the future. Melancholia ends with the irrevocable and inescapable end of the Earth, smashed into rubble by the far larger planet Melancholia.
What is most interesting – in this reporter’s opinion, at least – is how thorough, and ultimately how brutal, Melancholia‘s social critique really is. The film is essentially a character study of two sisters, the melancholic Justine (very nicely played by Kirsten Dunst) and the resolutely ordinary Claire (a surprising turn from Antichrist‘s Her, Charlotte Gainsbourg). Each of the sisters gets a half of the film named after her, though, really, this is Justine’s story, and her perspective is the one the film champions in the end. After a stunning Prologue of ultra-slow-motion images that comprise a series of vignettes of the end of the world, set very appropriately to Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’, the film’s narrative begins with the lavish and increasingly uncomfortable spectacle of Justine’s wedding reception, celebrating her marriage to the increasingly baffled Michael. Von Trier stages this sequence, much of which is riotously if uncomfortably funny, as a piece of social-realist cinema, not unlike many of his other films. Shot on an isolated but extremely luxurious golf resort in Sweden but set in an unidentified Anglo-American no-place, the first half of the film shows us Justine’s increasingly futile attempts to play the part of the happy bride that everyone around her (with the exception of the sisters’ acidic mother) expects her to play. Justine commits the unpardonable sin of failing to pretend to be happy and satisfied and instead ends up rejecting not only Michael but her family and her smarmy boss, who has come to the wedding to offer her a promotion.
Claire’s section of the film is set months later as she struggles to care for the borderline catatonic Justine, who has come to live with her at the resort, and to prepare for the arrival of the rogue planet Melancholia, which experts tell everyone will miss the Earth and cause minimal damage. As it becomes ever clearer that the planets will collide and that everyone and everything on Earth is doomed to a violent death, Justine emerges as the sanest of the characters. Her reaction to the news of the destruction of the Earth is as much indifference as it is anything else. While Claire fears for her son Leo and begins to fall apart psychologically, Justine has the one truly rational reaction in the film, that of resignation. For Justine, the end of a world which is facile, inauthentic and meaningless is nothing to mourn.
That the film takes Justine’s side is, of course, debatable, but I will lay out my case here: Justine works in advertising and is thus implicated in selling the world of wealth and privilege that she despises to a public that cannot afford it. In this role, she becomes a representative of a consumer society that defines itself through a lie that it does not ultimately believe is possible. Justine is the only one the film (again, aside from her mother) who is not buying what she herself is selling. Everyone at the wedding is clearly invested in the mythos of comfort and happiness that such events of conspicuous consumption both celebrate and make normative, but Justine, try as she might, is unable to invest herself in the role that she and others have laid out for her. Claire’s husband, John, the owner of the resort, is angry and bitterly disappointed in Justine, not because she is in genuine distress, but because she is a failed consumer, because she does not participate in the wedding passively, but questions its meaning at every turn, perverting the gathering with her unpredictability and her lateness, profaning such familiar ritual elements as the cutting of the cake and the reception dinner.
Ultimately, Justine is the film’s voice of reason and, oddly enough, its conscience. Her rejection of the trappings of bourgeois respectability – and what is more bourgeois that golf? – is the film’s rejection of these trappings, especially the ever-more-pervasive discourse on ‘happiness’. Indeed, the film is a coherent argument on the futility of the dream of happiness as an ineffective and ultimately hopeless strategy for keeping the problems of the world at bay. In von Trier’s nihilistic universe, Justine’s choice to simply reject her role in a system of value and morality is the most rational choice and would be the most ethical one if the film had any real interest in right or wrong. It is Justine who understands the world and the place of people within it and her heroism lies in the simple, honest, straightforward rejection of all of it.
As the film draws to its inevitable conclusion (the Prologue leaves no doubt as to what is going to happen), Justine is also the only one to show any true selflessness, distracting and comforting Leo with the task of finding and carving a set of ‘magic’ tree branches that she says will protect them from Melancholia. Claire, who has bought into the fantasies that Justine makes her living selling, struggles against her fate and rails against the absolute meaninglessness that it reveals. She is also unable to offer any comfort to her son and thus abdicates her final responsibility to the sister she has been unable to convince of the value of the life of luxury which she has built and in which she is has invested so much of herself.
In the end, then, given the utter finality of its situation, Melancholia is as damning a critique of contemporary Anglo-American-European values as can be imagined and as thorough a skewering of the consumer mythos of a never-defined ‘happiness’ lying just around the corner as has been committed to celluloid for years. It is an articulate, clear-eyed, historically and culturally astute fable for a world and a closed system of value that is in the process of perhaps inevitable and irreversible decay. A world as hollow and as lacking in conviction as this, the film intimates, is better destroyed, echoing again von Trier’s fondness for Nietzsche, to whom Antichrist is also deeply indebted. To this world, literally nothing is preferable.
Melancholia‘s marketing, on the other hand, does everything it can to soft-sell the film, to exorcise it of its very real demons. The marketing scheme chosen for the film is ingenious, consistent, and systematic. In short, it runs something like this: Melancholia is a metaphorical film about depression. Though this is a perfectly defensible interpretation, this is also the safest and most palatable way possible to read the film and its allegorical structure. In the press kit issued for the film, both the studio’s voice and that of von Trier emphasise that Justine has the measure of the world only in a state of crisis, something the film nullifies by setting the first half of the film at a time when much of the world is unaware of the coming of Melancholia. In a short promotional video released via the Apple Trailers site, Dunst underlines this, saying: ‘Justine is a very sensitive, creative human being that felt things maybe sometimes more than other people. To me, her relationship with the planet turns into almost her being a representation of the planet’.
This gesture, to dull the edge of genuine (and almost always systematic) social criticisms by accusing the critic of insanity, is, of course, a common strategy in the mainstream media when dealing with acts of violence – often labelled selectively as ‘terrorism’, though rarely when such acts are committed by anyone other than a Muslim – whose political or economic subtext is uncomfortable.
While it is easy enough to understand why the film’s distributors would be interested in reading the film’s allegorical construction in the narrowest, most private, and thus least threatening manner, we, as viewers and critics, need not feel the same compulsion, given that we have no financial stake in the film itself.
For, lurking not far outside of this metaphorical reading of the film is a far more radical critique of contemporary Western societies. As the film draws to its conclusion, it becomes apparent that it is not only the ludicrously elaborate and costly wedding reception that is hollow and ultimately empty; it is the whole of Claire’s bourgeois world. When Claire invites Justine to wait out the end on the patio overlooking the golf course with a glass of good wine and some classical music, Justine’s refusal of this idea as ‘shit’ is more than a simple symptom of her state of mind, it is rather something more, an admission of the futility of Claire’s entire life and the entire world of privilege and taste that it represents.
Claire’s husband John, a stock von Trier character, the resolutely rational man who is utterly unable to make any sort of the sense of the world around him, which makes him something of a personification of Max Weber’s ‘iron cage of rationalisation’, takes the only route that his character could possibly take: he commits a sad and sordid suicide in the stables, even robbing his wife and child of the painless poison that Claire was relying on as a last resort.
In the end, all that Claire, Justine, and Leo are left with are the sort of simple, intuitive magical lies that people tell their children. In the indelible final image, as Melancholia looms ever larger in the background and begins to quite literally devour the Earth, we are left with the image of three lonely people sheltering under a tripod of dead tree branches, helpless in the face of the meaningless destruction of a meaningless existence.
It is in this final moment – and in the diegetic world of Melancholia, this is an absolutely final moment, the end of life in the universe – that von Trier makes his kindest gesture to date, that he allows the three last people on Earth to hold hands, to face the end together, even if it means less than nothing for them to do so.
Abraham, Akedah, bekorot, Binding of Isaac, Chad Sapieha, child sacrifice, Edmund McMillen, firstborn, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Genesis 22, Globe and Mail, Indie Game, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice, Sarah, Seder Olam Rabbah
As I was perusing The Globe and Mail, this game review sort of leapt out at me:
In playing The Binding of Isaac, the latest effort from Super Meat Boy mastermind Edmund McMillen, one can’t help but wonder whether the award-winning game designer wasn’t somehow using his creation to cathartically deal with some serious mommy and religion issues.
This inexpensive downloadable game, which is currently available for $5 for Macs and PCs through Steam, begins with a boy named Isaac and his mother enjoying their lives together in their home. Then the mom, a fan of “Christian broadcasts,” begins hearing the voice of God, who commands her to strip Isaac of his possessions (including his GameBoy and pants), lock him in his room, and, eventually, to kill him. Isaac discovers his mom is coming to murder him and flees through a hatch into the cellar. This is where players take control.
… The Binding of Isaac is a creepy, gory, and challenging play that’s as much an homage to games of years past as it is a distinctly modern experience. It’s also an overt indictment of mindless religious zealotry (see: the story in the Hebrew Bible from which the game takes its name) and the impact it may have on children raised by those who practice it. Indeed, poor little Isaac turns one of the most sympathetic video game characters in recent years.
It is, in short, an essential play for fans of avant-garde interactive entertainment, and perhaps the best downloadable indie game of 2011.
- Chad Sapieha, “Review: Avant-garde indie game The Binding of Isaac inspired by Zelda, the Bible”, Globe and Mail Blog, 14 October 2011
The version of the Akedah (“Binding” of Isaac) in Genesis 22, of course has Isaac’s father Abraham hearing divine voices, whereas Isaac’s mother (Sarah) doesn’t have a very prominent role. The to-be-Israelite god, Yahweh commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, which he obediently proceeds to do, until Yahweh stops him on the grounds it was just a test. Sarah has more of a role in Seder Olam Rabbah, where Satan tells her that Isaac had actually been sacrificed by Abraham, and the news of it kills her. But, Sarah doesn’t take an active part in trying to sacrifice Isaac, as in Edmund McMillen’s game version of the Akedah.
As Francesca Stavrakopoulou explores in her book, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities (2004), child sacrifice was once a regular part of the worship of Yahweh in Judah, and is still a “live issue” in the writing of the biblical texts in the Persian period. After all, if your god guarantees you will produce many children, only for the sacrifice of a single firstborn child, then it’s a good deal, right? And yet, child sacrifice gets such a bad rap.
Another graffiti attack on a Church billboard has left the rather bizarre message “Well this sucks: John 3:16″.
I assume that this means that the Graffiti commentator thought that the content of John 3:16 sucked, or else they thought Jesus thought John 3:16 sucked. The latter makes the most sense of this cryptic message.
However this raises the second question: does this mean Jesus thought that it sucks that God gave his son (ie. him), or that is sucks that we will have eternal life? Either way the fact that Jesus is the one saying that John 3:16 sucks means that he was not really down with this plan. Surely, the only possible explanation of this piece of exegesis is that the graffiti commentator has a theology that claims that Jesus was an unwilling sacrifice who did not want us to have eternal life?
Continuing an ongoing series of images (see here, here, and here) of the haunted, unofficial language of the modern, rationalised city, inspired to some extent by the work French philosopher Michel de Certeau, we have here a Polaroid image (taken with an early 1960s Poloroid Land Camera) from Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, snapped some time in 2008:
Recent conversations over coffee with Deane and the beginnings of a new research project (on science fiction genre convention across cultures and Christian imagery in the Japanese anime film Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone) has me thinking a good deal about metaphor and other figures of speech.
This has coincided with a mild (and growing) obsession with the great indie rock band The Mountain Goats, the pen name of the singer and songwriter John Darnielle and whoever he happens to be working with. Darnielle’s massive output has included such masterpieces as Tallahassee (a 2003 concept album about divorce), The Sunset Tree (2005), and the recent The Life Of The World To Come (2009), a fascinating slice of reception history that features 12 songs inspired by individual verses from the canonical Bible (The Mountain Goats website can be found here).
One of the things that makes The Mountain Goats such a pleasure to listen to is the fact that, not unlike writers like the philosopher/cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, the novelist Chuck Palahniuk, and the great theologian/existentialist/madman Søren Kierkegaard, Darnielle relies almost exclusively on indirect forms of communication, approaching and constructing his worlds of meaning from every conceivable angle, no matter how oblique. For your pleasure, pondering, and perhaps confusion, a few of The Mountain Goats’ greatest (or most evocative) leaps in both language and logic.
From ‘Old College Try’ (Tallahassee), Darnielle manages to weave an oddly romantic metaphor out of a series of random images that would not be out of place in a Murakami Haruki novel:
… From the entrance to the exit/ Is longer than it looks from where we stand
I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet/ Things will shortly get completely out of hand
I can feel it in the rotten air tonight/ In the tips of my fingers
In the skin on my face/ In the weak last gasp of the evening’s dying light
In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place
Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell
Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell
I will walk down to the end with you/ If you will come all the way down with me
Again, in ‘Broom People’ (The Sunset Tree), Darnielle builds a love song out what T. S. Eliot so memorably called (in The Waste Land) ‘a heap of broken images’, though Eliot would never have used such charmingly domestic visuals:
’36 Hudson in the garage/ All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,
Dishes in the kitchen sink/ New straw for the old broom,
Friends who don’t have a clue/ Well-meaning teachers,
But down in your arms,
In your arms, I am a wild creature.
Floor two foot high with newspapers/ White carpet thick with pet hair,
Half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer/ Fresh fuel for the sodium flares,
I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook,
But in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook.
From Heretic Pride (2008), we have ‘Sax Rohmer #1′, which is about something lovely, though I have no idea what that might be. (any suggestions from our readers would be welcome here). The final figure/image is a keeper, something J. G. Ballard does half as well with ten times as many words in his novel Crash:
Fog lifts from the harbour/ Dawn goes down today
An agent crests the shadows/ Of a nearby alleyway
Piles of broken bricks/ Signposts on the path
Every moment points toward/ The aftermath
Sailors straggle back/ From their nights out on the town
Hopeless urchins from the city/ Gather around
Spies from imperial China/ Wash in with the tide
Every battle heads toward/ Surrender on both sides
And I am coming home to you/ With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming home to you/ If it’s the last thing that I do
Bells ring in the tower/ Wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up/ On a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere/ And a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward/ Its own sad end
Ships loosed from their moorings/ Capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch a while/ And then move on
And an agent crests the shadows/ And I head in her direction
All roads lead toward/ The same blocked intersection …
‘Up the Wolves’ (The Sunset Tree) features one of the strangest, and most oddly stirring, calls to arms I’ve ever heard:
… Were going to commandeer the local airwaves/ To tell the neighbours what’s been going on.
And they will shake their heads and wag their bony fingers/ In all the wrong directions,
And by daybreak we’ll be gone/ I’m going to get myself in fighting trim,
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I’m going to bribe the officials.
I’m going to kill all the judges.
It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.
Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome/ But there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home.
And finally, from the immortal ‘No Children’ (Tallahassee), simply one of the finest and most frankly brutal break-up songs in recent memory, one which uses a descriptive language that is so oddly naked that it seems to hide its meaning in plain sight:
I hope that our few remaining friends/ Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a failsafe plot/ To piss off the dumb few who forgave us
I hope the fences we mended/ Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit/ I hope it’s already too late
And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here/ Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town …
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/ I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises/ We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever/ I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do/ I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line/ You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out/ You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die/ I hope we both die …
(Thanks to the exhaustive fansite/archive themountaingoats.net for help on some of the more obscure passages).
And that is precisely what the metropolitan denizen teaches himself to do: he lives, not in the real world, but in a shadow world projected around him at every moment by means of paper and celluloid and adroitly manipulated lights: a world in which he is insulated by glass, cellophane, pliofilm from the mortifications of living. In short, a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims.
Lewis Mumford 
Continuing on with the ongoing Cinema as Exorcism series (more here, here, here, and here), with a look at the dynamics of modernity and magic in a (very slightly) older film, Tom Tykwer’s 2006 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The film does not so much as exorcise as bring to the surface the dark, magical underbelly of the Enlightenment, the inadmissable but undeniable presence of enchantments in the form of forms of logic that exist underneath, behind, and all around conventional calculations of value, exchange and utility. These enchantments, these dark magics, are represented as a profound source of threat. Such enchantments must be understood as a potent and potential source of danger, something the sociologist Max Weber, the father of the theory of rationalisation, or as he also called it, ‘the disenchantment of the world’, recognised in his own lifetime in the volatile atmosphere of German society at the end of the First World War.
Tykwer’s Perfume is based on the German-language novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind. Süskind’s novel, his first, has been highly influential and wildly popular since its publication in 1985 and is widely considered as part of the always de facto canon of magical realism. The film seems at first to be an absolute departure for Tykwer, who is perhaps best known for his two related fairly tales about the transcendent, even supernatural power of love, Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998) and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior, 2000). The brilliance of these two collaborations with the actress Franka Potenta aside, Tykwer’s best film is likely Heaven (2002), a near mystical, quasi-Christian take on the redemptive power of love, written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz for a planned trilogy of Kieslowski-directed films, offered to Tykwer after Kieslowski’s death in 1996. Against the studied Romanticism of his other works, Perfume is violent, confrontational, even disturbing. It is a rich and finely textured allegory that seeks to examine from within the hidden, dark enchantments of modernity. The narrative undermines any easy account of modern history as the triumphant march out of darkness and into the light of perennial truth. The film is not strictly about modernity as such, it focuses its metaphoric gaze on Enlightenment rationalism, a crucial element in the development of the forms of modern self-understanding embodied in evolutionary narratives. Perfume represents nothing less than a fictional account of that which is unthought, forgotten or simply ignored by modern narratives of progress and by unilinear theories of rationalisation.
The narrative itself is deceptively simple: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan in eighteenth-century France, gifted, like Palahniuk’s Rant Casey, with a supernaturally keen sense of smell, discovers upon reaching maturity that he has no scent of his own, which renders him unlovable and even sub-human. After years of toil as a near slave in a leather tannery, he trains as a perfumer and learns the technological mastery of the world of scent. Yearning to be loved as others are loved, he comes rationally, even scientifically, to a way to enchant the world into loving him. He creates, from the scents of virgin girls he has murdered, a perfume so sublimely beautiful that it holds the power to enchant the whole world into loving him. Upon succeeding, he discovers that his triumph is hollow and commits a strangely beatific act of suicide. Metaphorically, Grenouille, the titular murderer, is an abominable outgrowth of the rationalising tendencies of modern thought, a monster whose dark magic reaches its full potential only when it is augmented by his technical training and the growing body of scientific knowledge that characterised the age in which he lived. In Enlightenment France, Grenouille is seen as an abomination; indeed, the people who encounter Grenouille and his crimes simply cannot grasp his motives or come to grips with his very existence. However, the film presents Grenouille not so much as an anomaly but as a fully explicable and natural outgrowth of rationalisation.
The film features an extensive voice-over from an anonymous and wryly amused narrator (the great John Hurt), who sets the scene of Grenouille’s birth at the heart of Europe:
In eighteenth-century France, there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and notorious personages of his time. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and, if his name has been forgotten today, it is for the sole reason that his entire ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history: to the fleeting realm of scent … In the period of which we speak there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city’s fish market. It was here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. 
From his earliest days, his knowledge of this hidden world sets him apart from the other children in the foetid, overcrowded orphanage where he is raised by the coldly rational Madame Gaillard, who treats Grenouille, and all the other children, as nothing more than sources of income. Grenouille, with his supernatural sense of smell, has access to levels of the world that other people do not. The film casts Grenouille’s extraordinary ability in terms of language:
By the age of five, Jean-Baptiste still could not talk, but he had been born with a talent that made him unique among mankind. It was not that the other children hated him. They felt unnerved by him. Increasingly, he became aware that his phenomenal sense of smell was a gift that had been given to him and him alone. When Jean-Baptiste did finally learn to speak, he soon found that everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulating within himself.
Grenouille lives, then, outside of the world of conventional language, though he does so because of his gifts, not because of his own will. He survives the orphanage and years as an abused tannery apprentice and grows into a gaunt, silent and scarred young man. Confronted for the first time with the wider world of Paris (outside of the orphanage and the tannery) and the staggering wealth of scents the city has to offer, Grenouille begins his own version of the task of world mastery that is taking place at the same time in salons, laboratories and lecture halls in other, more privileged parts of the city. Tykwer only rarely shows this world. Grenouille serves as the primary guide within the structure of the film itself, forcing the viewer to contemplate the world largely from his perspective. Part of this identification comes through Tykwer’s attempts to emulate the world of scent in a visual medium. He does this with jump cuts and vivid close-up shots of the things that Grenouille is able to smell, images which both focus attention on their particularity and isolate them from their context. As Grenouille enters Paris, the camera dissects the city into discrete, disconnected images, breaking the world down to its constituent elements – powdered wigs, cracking oysters, fabric, bread, mud, sewage, high-born women in carriages, horses. Confronting the confusion and majesty of Paris with a growing hunger, Grenouille seeks understanding and order by breaking things apart, by removing them from the totality of smells and reifying each of these elements in the desire of possession and mastery.
This is true of people as well as inanimate objects and animals. On this first visit to the city, when the film implicitly connects Grenouille to the emerging project of modern science and its hunger for new knowledge, Grenouille also commits his first murder. Visually, the film depicts Grenouille’s fragmentation of the world, and by implication that of emerging modern science, as an act of violence and dismemberment. The camera and the editing break down Grenouille’s victims long before he does, reducing them to fleeting glimpses of a naked shoulder, a vein pulsing on a slender throat, red hair flowing in the wind. Grenouille catches the intoxicating smell of a redheaded young woman carrying plums and follows her into a dark courtyard where he, perhaps unintentionally, kills her. Intentional or not, Grenouille doesn’t appear to care that she is dead, only that her unique smell is dissipating rapidly as her body cools. He drinks up her scent as it fades, stripping her naked and exploring her body with his nose. He cups his hands to hold onto her scent, but he cannot posses it and it fades, igniting within him to fierce desire to permanently possess scent.
It is telling to note one of the narrative’s harshest criticisms of modernity comes across in the fact that Grenouille must enter mainstream society to fully exploit his perverse need for world mastery, not shy away from it; Grenouille must embrace the emerging bourgeois world to fully realise his aims. Shortly after his first murder, Grenouille insinuates himself into the laboratory of faded perfumer Giuseppe Baldini by sheer persistence and demands that Baldini teach him: ‘I have to learn how to keep smell!’ Because of his gifted nose, Grenouille’s facility with perfume is nothing short of magical. Testing a perfume that Grenouille improvises for him, Baldini is transported to an enchanted garden, where a buxom young woman whispers, ‘I love you’ into his enraptured ear. In the novel, Süskind explicitly makes this connection: ‘It was not a scent that made things smell better, not some sachet, not some toiletry. It was something completely new, capable of creating a new world, a magical, rich world’. 
Grenouille, who is often treated as little more than human capital, comes to work as an apprentice for Baldini. Working late in the basement laboratory, Baldini imparts a piece of perfumer’s lore to his new apprentice:
Baldini: Now, pay careful attention to what I tell you. Just like a musical chord, a perfume chord contains four essences, notes carefully selected for their harmonic affinity. Each perfume contains three chords: the head, the heart and the base, necessitating twelve notes in all … Mind you, the ancient Egyptians believed that one can only create a truly original perfume by adding an extra note, one final essence that will bring out and dominate the others. Legend has it that an amphora was once found in a pharaoh’s tomb and when it was opened a perfume was released after all those thousands of years, a perfume of such subtle beauty and yet such power that for one single moment every person on Earth believed they were in paradise. Twelve essences could be identified, but the thirteenth, the vital one, could never be determined.
Grenouille: Why not?
Baldini: Why not? What do you mean, why not? Because it’s a legend, numbskull.
Grenouille: What’s a legend?
Baldini: Never mind.
It says a great deal about the film’s take on modernity and positivistic science that Grenouille confuses this legend with historical fact and later turns to this story for a model when he begins his murderous final act of creation. It likewise says a good deal that it is this mistake that allows him to be so successful when creating his masterpiece, a perfume containing the scents of thirteen virgins. Grenouille is either not aware of or simply ignores the implicit distinction in Baldini’s story between the technical accuracy of the perfumer’s art and the Egyptian story, which is clearly not to be taken as the same level of truth. Grenouille has no need for modern epistemological distinction. Nonetheless, with this syncretism of scientific and mythological ways of knowing, Grenouille is able to replicate the story of the legend, even though it was probably never true in the first place. If we are to pause here briefly to consider Grenouille’s metaphoric role in European modernity, it is worth suggesting that he is not unlike the alchemist in his application of rational methods for supernatural aims. Alchemy perhaps played a greater role in the history of modern science than the subtraction stories are willing to admit, as Louis Dupré notes:
Too often the cosmology of the early modern age continues to be viewed as a prehistory of the scientific revolution, as if there had been nothing between the Aristotelian picture and the mechanistic one. Such a view overlooks a prolonged attempt to understand the universe through chemistry rather than through the laws of mechanics. Until the end of the seventeenth century alchemy developed side by side with mechanical physics as an alternative science. 
To continue the metaphor, in much the same way that Grenouille is a forgotten product of rationalisation, alchemy is part of the unthought and often ignored inheritances in positivist science. For Baldini, Grenouille’s abilities are uncanny, even worrisome, something he is willing to overlook with the floods of money coming into his shop as customers arrive in droves to buy Grenouille’s creations. For Baldini, his new apprentice’s strangeness is defused somewhat when Grenouille learns the techniques and the operational language of perfuming, bringing his knowledge and his skill under the comforting umbrella of known registers of utilitarian language. Süskind notes this connection explicitly in the novel: ‘The more Grenouille mastered the tricks and tools of the trade, the better he was able to express himself in conventional language of perfumery – and the less his master feared and suspected him’.  If Baldini feels more at ease the more that Grenouille learns, he is being greatly deceived. Grenouille, under the respectable language of the perfumer, is growing ever more powerful, ever closer to the realisation of his dream to capture scent. In an intriguing parallel with the novels of Chuck Palahniuk operational language becomes a shield for Grenouille’s uncanny abilities and his unsettling aims.
Trading the formulas for one hundred new perfumes for his freedom, Grenouille departs for a journeyman’s post in the Provençal town of Grasse, which Baldini calls ‘the Rome of scents, the promised land of perfume’. On the way, he is distracted for no less than seven years, living a base, animalistic existence hidden away in a cave in the mountains, revelling in the cold, clean, scentless air but equally horrified to discover that he has no scent of his own, that he is, as others have long suspected, something less than fully human. The narrator tells of the new desire this opens up within Grenouille’s heart:
For the first time in his life, Grenouille realized that he had no smell of his own. He realized that all his life, he’d been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist. By the first light of next morning, Grenouille had a new plan; he must continue his journey to Grasse. There he would teach the world not only that he existed, that he was someone, but that he was exceptional.
Arriving finally in Grasse, Grenouille takes a post as a journeyman perfumer and expands his repertoire beyond what Baldini was able to teach him. He also continues his experiments in his free time, first trying to capture the scent of a reluctant living prostitute then resorting to simply killing women so he will have bodies to experiment with. Grenouille’s experimentation is relentless, passionless and rigorously scientific. After several failed attempts, he finally strikes upon a complex method involving cold enfleurage, digestion, lavage, and distillation that renders the scent of the woman into a single tiny flask. Having robbed these women forcibly of their essence, Grenouille leaves a series of corpses, stripped naked and shorn, for the people and authorities of Grasse to find. In Grenouille’s reign of terror, undertaken in the interests of world mastery and in the selfish needs of Grenouille to perfect himself, the narrative finds its metaphorical centre.
Grenouille’s application of the scientific method in the interests of possessing ‘all the smells in the world’ is what allows his magic, and his perversion, to fully flower. Without the equipment and techniques of the perfumer, Grenouille would be condemned to the fleeting sensations of the scent of the living, accessible to him only via his gifts. Wendy Faris underlines Grenouille’s conjunction of magic and science, which, as we have seen, also manifests itself in the discourses of reenchantment: ‘Grenouille’s perfuming abilities resemble those of an experimental chemist of genius, so that in addition to the magical powers of its narrative mode, the novel also takes on a quasi-scientific aura, intimately connected to the concrete worlds of natural and constructed chemical compounds’.  Grenouille’s perfuming skills bring the reification of the individual inherent in disenchantment and the rise of modern capitalism sharply into focus; the women Grenouille harvests are human capital, literally liquid assets in his quest to manufacture an identity for himself and in his relentless pursuit of the sublime beauty of his thirteen-note masterpiece. In an extended sequence, Tykwer underlines this connection visually. Tykwer intercuts sensuous images of Grenouille’s flasks, bottles, and experimentation with blackly comical images of the discovery of the bodies of the murdered women, drawing an explicit visual parallel between the act of manufacture and the act of destruction.
In Grasse, Grenouille meets his only formidable opponent, the wealthy merchant Antoine Richis, whose sublimely beautiful daughter, Laura, Grenouille needs as the thirteenth and crowning note of his perfume. Richis is a deeply rational and practical man, like Grenouille a child of the Enlightenment. The two are opposites and antagonists; however, they also represent the two sides of the dialectic of enchantment and Enlightenment. When the town council meets to try to decide what to do about the murders, Richis calls for a rational approach to the seemingly irrational horror in their midst:
We have to put ourselves inside the mind of this man. Each of his victims had an especial beauty. We know he doesn’t want their virginity so it seems to me it’s their beauty itself that he wants, almost as if he’s trying to gather something. His ambitions are those of a collector … Whatever it is, I fear he won’t stop killing until his collection is complete.
For Richis, who suspects early on that Laura is a necessary part of Grenouille’s collection, Grenouille’s threat is greater than mere murder; the killings are inexplicable, unreasonable even in the deranged logic of murder. Grenouille attacks conventional structures of knowledge and value by not sexually violating his victims and by following an inexplicable but undeniable logic of his very own. His violation of his victims is symbolic at the same time it is literal, an act of extreme violence, especially considering Baldini’s assertion, which Grenouille takes to heart, that ‘the soul of beings is their scent’. Richis is blinded by his understanding of modernity, which only allows him to understand Grenouille by one standard of truth and logic. The town council refuses to listen to Richis’ sobering and rational call, opting instead to fall back on the divine language of the Catholic Church, which Richis, as an Enlightened man, is visibly sceptical of. Tykwer stages here a very brief debate between science and religion:
Judge: This man is a demon, a phantom who cannot be fought by human means. Now, I insist that we call upon our bishop to excommunicate him.
Richis: What good would that do?
Judge: Have you no faith at all in the power our Holy Mother Church?
Richis: This is not a matter of faith. There’s a murderer out there and we must catch him by using our God-given wits.
Judge: I say until we submit to Mother Church, these killings will not cease.
Tykwer plays the following scenes as a perverse comedy and a mockery of both the council and the Church to even slow Grenouille down. The bishop stands up in his cathedral in front of the town and declares Grenouille’s excommunication with all the vigour the corpulent churchman can muster. The scene is intercut with Grenouille, not in the least bothered by his communication, if he is even aware of it, deliberately mixing his perfume from his twelve tiny flasks of oil, awaiting its crowning thirteenth note in the scent of Laura Richis, which he soon has, despite Richis’ best efforts to thwart him using clever ruses that are no match for Grenouille’s supernatural abilities. Grenouille is caught the next morning as he finishes his perfume over an open flame and is taken back to Grasse for interrogation and execution. As Grenouille is tortured, Richis strives in vain to understand his reasoning. Their meeting is a clash of different epistemologies in which there is no exchange or dialogue between sides. The Janus face of Enlightenment rationalism is here brought into sharp focus as is becomes clear that both men are equally rational, equally methodical. The divide between the two remains nonetheless absolute, their positions utterly irreconcilable by any common discourse, what Jean-François Lyotard calls a differend:
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter? Why?
Grenouille: I needed her.
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter?
Grenouille: I just needed her.
Grenouille is sentenced to a horrific death in the public square. Dressed in blue velvet finery, Grenouille is led to his punishment in front of the entire town. He, through his dark magic, retains the position of power. During the scenes on the platform, Tykwer accentuates the strange and monstrous aspect of Grenouille by placing him dead centre in the frame. A rare composition in contemporary cinema, such an image has an intensely alienating effect (see Figure 1). With a light application of his perfume, Grenouille faces the crowds with equanimity and a wry smile. The executioner is the first to fall under the spell of Grenouille’s perfume, shouting, ‘This man is innocent!’ Spreading the scent with a wave of his handkerchief, the crowd takes up this call. The bishop falls to his knees, declaring, enraptured, ‘This is no man, this is an angel’. Even Richis, the last to fall under the spell, lays down his sword and asks for Grenouille’s forgiveness as the crowd degenerates into a massive and undifferentiated orgy. Soon everyone is naked, or near to it. The coupling is indiscriminate, men with women, women with women, old with young, bishops with prostitutes. Grenouille has brought about with his technique and his magic a perverse flowering of communitas. In his final appearances he possesses a power and an authority, however artificially generated, to control the desires and actions of all those around him. The ambivalent relationship of modernity to enchantment is embodied in these simple narrative and visual moments; unable to stop Grenouille’s killing spree nor understand his motives, the secular and ecclesiastic authorities of the day end their relationship with Grenouille by falling under his spell, by embracing against their will everything they claim to be against.
As Grenouille stands on the scaffolding, all of the forces of early modern French society are unable to do anything but fall under the enchantment of his mastery, born half from his inexplicable sense of smell and half from rational techniques. What Grenouille represents is the forgotten magic that underlies modernity, the hidden agency of ancient, animalistic elements buried within the structure of European modernity, forgotten but always present. Grenouille, however, feels no satisfaction as he stands above the crowd, a master of the world. Grenouille is, if anything, both disgusted and regretful. In one of the few moments in which Tykwer allows Grenouille some remorse, some ordinary humanity (something Süskind never does in the novel), watching the sea of naked townspeople, Grenouille has flashbacks to his first killing, the girl with the basket of plums. As the whole of the city writhes naked at his feet, caught up in his manufactured reenchantment, the film re-enacts the scene of the murder but shows the plum girl reacting to Grenouille very differently as he approaches her openly. She welcomes him, embraces him, kisses him, returns his singular affection. Grenouille imagines the scene as it could have gone if he were fully human. Grenouille weeps at the thought of her dead, at the thought of the lost opportunity for a living exchange with a living woman rather than his one-sided violation.
Instead of facing up to Grenouille and what he represents, the people of Grasse look away and arrest another man, Grenouille’s former employer, who is hanged for Grenouille’s crimes, thus balancing the scales of justice and the demand for an exchange for the murdered girls in terms that they are able to understand. The march of order and history has been restored and Grenouille, forgotten in the emerging triumphalist narratives of modernity, is left out of the history books:
The people of Grasse awoke to a terrible hangover. For many of them, the experience was so ghastly, so completely inexplicable and incompatible with their morals that they literally erased it from their memories. The town council was in session by the afternoon and an order was passed to the police lieutenant to immediately begin fresh investigations into the murders. The following day, Dominique Druer was arrested, since it was in his backyard that the clothes and hair of all the victims had been found. After fourteen hours of torture, Druer confessed to everything. With that, the case was closed.
That Grenouille is forgotten only further underlines his historical power, in that he works in a threatening symbolic register and cannot be captured in language. His regret, and the ever-present narrator, follow him back to Paris:
By then, Grenouille was already halfway back to Paris. He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the Pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new messiah. He could do all this and more if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death; the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it, he thought. To hell with the world, with the perfume, with himself. On the twenty-fifth of June, 1766, around eleven o’clock at night, Grenouille entered the city through the Porte d’Orléans and like a sleepwalker, his olfactory memories drew him back to the place where he was born.
Grenouille, still dressed in his finery, sees a group of ragged, dirty people huddled around a fire. He upends the bottle of perfume on his head, drawing the attention of the gathered crowd as he is suffused with a warm glowing light. Two women approach him and cry, ‘An angel’ and, ‘I love you’. The crowd falls upon him and literally devours him. There is nothing but a pile of clothes left, and these are stolen by a group of poor children. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille fades into the mists of history, the dark side of Enlightenment and modern science forgotten save for the fragments of finery he briefly wore as the master of the world. Reenchantment is necessarily, as we have argued in conceptual terms, a fleeting, ephemeral, if forever renewed phenomenon not unlike Grenouille and the scraps of his enchantment he leaves behind after his death.
These final images are deeply ambiguous, if not deeply perverse. The narrator finishes his tale in a matter of fact manner: ‘Within no time, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared from the face of the Earth. When they had finished, they felt a virginal glow of happiness. For the first time in their lives, they believed they done something purely out of love’. It is possible to read this final scene in a number of ways. That Grenouille is identified on at least two occasions as an angel, as a figure from traditional Christian cosmology, is highly significant if we return our attention to the concept of religious modernity. In this context, it is possible to interpret the deeply ambivalent ending of Perfume in a different way. What Grenouille, as an angel, represents is the destructive, monstrous aspects of the religious productions of modernity, a murderous hybrid of the religious, the magical and the scientific. This fusion of differing epistemologies can take violent forms, exemplified today in various forms of religious fundamentalism. Similarly, as Faris notes:
In magical realist texts irruptions of magic sometimes constitute the surfacing of buried religious traditions, which speak independently of particular themes and styles. In Perfume, for example, the magical quality of Grenouille’s perfuming abilities transmits a trace of pre-Enlightenment belief in magical powers of enchantment, which operates within the satiric narrative that condemns the beginnings of the scientific age and its culmination in Nazi experimental atrocities, and yet it is not entirely defined by it. 
It is more than this, however. Grenouille is not a trace or a survival, he is a production of modernity and the processes of rationalisation. Jean-Baptiste’s Christian name implicates him both as a significant religious figure and also the one who comes before something greater, in this case both the French Revolution and modernity as a whole. In Perfume, it is a magically endowed, coldly rational and utterly vicious killer of virgins who prepares the way for the modern era, which, the story suggests, is forever haunted by the dark enchantments that lie forgotten in its history by those things it produces and then seeks to forget.
 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961), 546.
 Perfume, DVD. All quotations and screen captures are the work of the author.
 Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, trans. by J. E. Woods (New York: Penguin, 1987), 90.
 Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 52.
 Süskind, Perfume, 96.
 Wendy B. Faris, Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative (Nashville, AB: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004), 74.
 Faris, Ordinary, 70.
To celebrate James Crossley’s kind inclusion of The Dunedin School among those few weblogs that exhibit a ‘far higher level of political sophistication and learned interaction with a wider array of scholarship in the humanities than other blogs’, I wish to continue our exemplary critical work by providing our fine readers with two sophisticated, tasteful religious jokes (sadly, I didn’t write these – we all know that most academics do not have a sense of humour):
1) Adapted from a joke by Adam McFarlane in Esquire magazine (June 2007, page 44)
There are four country churches in a small Scottish town … a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a Methodist church, and a Catholic church. Each church is overrun with pesky squirrels.
One day, the Presbyterian church calls a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels, who are, as has been noted, pesky. After much prayer and consideration (and the employment of some well-loved if dubious logic), the leaders of the church determine that the squirrels are predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with God’s divine will (especially given that it favours them – the clergy, not the squirrels).
In the Baptist church the squirrels take up habitation in the baptistery. The deacons meet and decide to put a cover on the baptistery and drown the squirrels in it. The squirrels escape somehow and the next week, there are twice as many of them.
The Methodists get together and decide that they are simply not in a position to harm any of God’s creations, even if they are rodents. At least they are not papists, they reason. So they humanely trap the squirrels (who are, as has been noted, pesky) and set them free a few miles outside of town. Alas, three days later, the squirrels come back, as do many pesky things at the end of three days.
But the Catholic priests come up with a most effective solution. They baptise the squirrels and register them as members of the church. Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter.
2) From Mark Z. Danielewski’s visionary novel House of Leaves
The seven dwarves went to the Vatican and when the Pope answered the door, Dopey stepped forward: ‘Your Excellency’, he said, ‘I wonder if you could tell me if there are any dwarf nuns in Rome?’
‘No, Dopey, there aren’t’, the Pope replied.
Behind Dopey, the six dwarves started to titter.
‘Well, are there any dwarf nuns in Italy?’ Dopey persisted.
‘No, none in Italy’, the Pope answered a little more sternly.
A few of the dwarves now began to laugh more openly.
Well, are there any dwarf nuns in Europe?’
This time the Pope was much more firm. ‘Dopey, there are no dwarf nuns in Europe’.
By this point, all the dwarves were laughing aloud and rolling around on the ground.
‘Pope’, Dopey demanded, ‘Are there any dwarf nuns in the whole world?’
‘No, Dopey’, the Pope snapped, ‘there are no dwarf nuns anywhere in the world’.
Whereupon the six dwarves started jumping up and down and chanting, ‘Dopey fucked a penguin! Dopey fucked a penguin!’