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It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.

Frank Kermode

And now for the next instalment of the ongoing if irregular series on cinema and/as exorcism (and further proof that I am incapable of writing anything of reasonable length, even on a weblog) …

A Promotional Image from the film 2012

Roland Emmerich’s newest disaster film 2012, is many things.  Taken as a simple story, it tells the tale of what might happen if the disaster of 2012, the one predicted by the Mayan calendar, brings about the end of the world, an end that comes through the massive shifting of the earth’s crust, which is somehow related to the alignment of the planets.  As a piece of storytelling, it is monumentally stupid and filled to the brim with plot holes large enough to sail an ark through (if you don’t believe me, re-read that last sentence).  It is also lazily written, bafflingly paced, and at least half an hour too long.  It is a dramatic and narrative sinkhole where a number of decent actors – Danny Glover, Amanda Peet, John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Thandie Newton (here saddled with a naff, unconvincing American accent) – go to die for more than two hours in dark rooms all over the world.  There is also no denying that it is a visual feast, a thrilling compilation of some of the very best large-scale CGI ever rendered.  As a spectacular piece of moderately entertaining cinema, it goes one more step towards proving Guy Debord’s theory that spectacle is becoming all, that the spectacle will soon be, if it is not already, the sole remaining element in contemporary culture.  It also offered this viewer the guilty pleasure of watching Los Angeles and Las Vegas, two of the worst cities on earth, crumble to dust.

An International Poster for 2012

All aesthetic matters aside, as a cultural document and as a virtual catalogue of Orientalist stereotypes, the film is almost perversely fascinating.  We get the wise old Tibetan lama telling his student that the end of things is not all that bad, and then he surprises us all by producing the keys to an old pickup so the apprentice can escape.  Good ol’ lama!  So clever he is, just like those Mayans, who had it all figured out way before we, with all our fancy science, ever did!  We see the devout – and vaguely feminine – but still stridently technological modern Indian man who dies with a crushing dignity with his family in his arms, his saviours from America having failed to pick him up on their way to the secret giant arcs built in the Chinese hinterlands.  At the very end of the film, we are left with the image of the earth’s survivors – mostly wealthy, white, powerful Europeans, of course – sailing in giant arks towards Africa, where, given how profoundly dull all of these people are, will probably build strip malls and Red Lobster franchises.  Due to the massive geological upheavals, there is a new mountain range in the south of the African continent, to which our heroes are heading.  In a final Orientalist master-stroke, this mountain range, before any of the Europeans ever see it, has already been given a European name.

One of the reasons 2012 is so fascinating, and ultimately so worrying, is that how we imagine our end is an important element of who we are as a culture, as the literary theorist Frank Kermode reminds us in his classic study, The Sense of an Ending (1967). Kermode argues compellingly that every human culture needs visions of the end of things and that they are a necessary element in how we seek to find and maintain narratives that make the world coherent and thus liveable.  Kermode writes,

[C]risis, however facile the conception, is inescapably a central element in our endeavours towards making sense of the world.  It seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relationship to it.  The time in not free, it is the slave of a mythical end.  We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.[1]

We in the twenty-first century have a number of crises to choose from, from climate change to overpopulation to the very real possibility of a global conflict over dwindling resources, a number of which are poised to, perhaps inevitably, lead to the end of life as we know it.  The seemingly endless cinematic drive to show us just how these ends might be met is in itself very interesting, as is the fact that such representations appear more frequently as the threat of real-world destruction grows more prominent.  No wonder we have Emmerich, who threatens us with the end of the world not only in 2012 but also in Independence Day (1996), his dismal New York-set English-language remake of Godzilla (1998), and The Day after Tomorrow (2004), to serenade us as we march towards the end that people for all time have thought lies just around the next corner.

On top of all this, in important ways, 2012 offers a fascinating case study of the depths in which modern, even ostensibly secular cultures remain indebted to the Bible, and to its vision of the end of days.  One of the biblical traditions’ greatest legacies, still readily accessible through such works as 2012, is that it has solidified and given form to that apocalyptic imagination that we still seems to haunt us.  Literature, in the form of the modern novel, from which the narrative feature film is a direct descendant, has taken over from the biblical imagination to some degree, but many if not all of the images of the end that we see today (at least in the European and American contexts) are deeply rooted in the Bible’s vision of apocalypse.  There is even an interesting and even necessary historical linkage between the two.  Kermode notes that there is a crucial point of historical contact between the decline of Christianity’s earthly authority in modernity and the rise of the novel: ‘It is worth remembering that the rise of what we call literary fiction happened at a time when the revealed, authenticated account of the beginning was losing its authority’.[2] Fiction, then, is crucial to our own self-understanding as modern people living in modern cultures.  Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, his maddening account of the rise of the modern subject, in fact establishes the absolute importance of literary language for modernity:

It may be said in a sense that ‘literature’, as it was constituted and so designated on the threshold of the modern age, manifests, at a time when it was least expected, the reappearance of the living being of language … literature achieved autonomous existence, and separated itself from all other language with a deep scission, only by forming a sort of ‘counter-discourse’, and by finding its way back from the representative or signifying function of language to this raw being that had been forgotten since the sixteenth century … Through literature, the being of language shines once more on the frontiers of Western culture – and at its centre – for it is what has been most foreign to that culture since the sixteenth century; but it has also, since this same century, been at the very centre of what Western culture has overlain.  This is why literature is appearing more and more as that which much be thought; but equally, and for the same reason, as that which can never, in any circumstance, be thought in accordance with a theory of signification.[3]

Literary fiction then becomes an important site for examining the complexities of the relationship between modernity and the religious, the ways in which modernity both receives and mutates the different elements of its religious inheritance.  However, precisely describing any relationship between the religious and the literary is a difficult task, as Franco Moretti acknowledges:

Virtually all book historians agree that the publication of fiction developed, throughout Western Europe, at the expense of devotion.  This said, one major question must still be answered:  did the novel replace devotional literature because it was a fundamentally secular form – or because it was a religion under a new guise?  If the former, we have a genuine opposition, and the novel opens a truly new phase of European culture; if the latter, we have a case of historical transformism, where the novel supports the long duration of symbolic conventions.[4]

An International Poster for 2012

To a scholar of religion, two sequences in 2012 are of particular interest: in one, we see on television a mass of people being crushed by a massive stone statue of Jesus as Rio de Jeneiro’s O Cristo Redentor tumbles to the ground, broken from its hillside eyrie by an earthquake; in the second, we get to see St Peter’s Basilica – which for some reason is given the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – collapse and crush thousands of people gathered in the Vatican City for desperate prayer.  In a nice, subtle touch (and this in a film where subtlety is the enemy), the first cracks in the dome of St Peter’s separate God’s finger from Adam’s, pointing to depths that this film doesn’t even begin to address.

Even in this deadly, apocalyptic mayhem – in which the audience is treated with almost perverse regularity to the sight of thousands upon thousands of little digital people falling into massive rents in the Earth’s crust, being crushed by falling cars and buildings, drowned, impaled, etc., etc. – not one of the characters, not even Lama Profundity, stops to ask any of the questions that I imagine most people would be asking in such a situation: What is humanity?  What is civilisation?  Can people make sense of a world in which they are separated from their traditions and their hopes, as the crack in Michelangelo’s fresco seems to imply?  Do we in some sense deserve this sort of treatment?  Can there be any meaning in any of this?

In 2012, do the people either in front of the camera or behind it ever wonder about any of these things?  No, they do not.  What is perhaps the most singular disturbing thing about 2012 is just how banal and superficial it makes the literal end of the world.  It offers no existential or religious insights, and does not even consider the idea that such events could lead to a real crisis of meaning.  It doesn’t even seem to give the people who survive it any pause for thought.  The world ends because it ends, because it is necessary to the spectacle of the thing.  Despite its lame, ultimately callow conclusions – that humanity must work together to survive, that the home is love, not location – 2012 is perhaps the single most nihilistic film in recent memory.  It is enough to make one nostalgic for the cinematic world of even a decade ago, when in October 1999 David Fincher was able to offer an honest, challenging look at nihilism in his visionary take on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.  In this sense, the quiet, gradual end of things that appears in Douglas Coupland’s new novel Generation A is far more chilling and far more plausible than the one so vividly visualised by Emmerich and his cohorts.

2012 does nothing to exorcise the demons of the apocalypse that seem to still posses us all.  Its vision of the end of things is both utterly implausible and repellently appropriate for the times.  The world may indeed come to an end someday, it tells us, but it really won’t matter all that much.  By stripping the end of the world of its weight and by refusing to consider its meaning, the film (and so many others like it) give us new spectres to fear in the long moments when we’re alone and afraid in the dark.  What is gives us most of all is the fear that indifference is the new fall-back response, even to our own ignominious finale.

When this world ends, the film suggests (though I am sure it doesn’t intend to), no one in their right mind is going to miss it.

[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 94.

[2] Kermode, Ending, 67.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, translator unknown (London: Routledge Classics, 1966), 48-49.

[4] Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (London:Verso, 1998),  169, note 30.