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.
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.
- Frame capture from The Proposition (2006)
In honour of the wide New Zealand release of the excellent Australian film Balibo this week, I am going to re-publish the following piece, which originally ran in August of last year, at the end of Dunedin’s International Film Festival. This is also the first episode in the ongoing (and marginally popular) series ‘Cinema as Exorcism’, more of which can be found here, here, and here). Balibo tells the story of a number of Australian (and one kiwi) journalists who get caught up in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1979 and tells that story with a keen eye for both detailed realism and for the ways in which the most important lessons about national identity are often learned far away from home. If you want to support the existence of tightly-crafted, t0ugh-minded, politically and socially relevant cinema, go and see Balibo, even if its portrait of journalism as relevant social action, sadly, appears badly dated.
Inspired by two very good Australian films that screened down here at the International Film Festival, this is the first of what will (hopefully) be a series of posts dealing with film and various aspects of spectrality (and thanks to Deane for this last word).
These two very different films hammer home something that has been increasingly clear in the past few years: Australia, as a nation, is attempting through the cinema to shed the shackles of its national ghosts, or at least bring these spectres into the full, harsh light of day. This is more than simple katharsis, it seems, bridging over into some more elemental; expiation maybe, even exorcism. Australia – or at least Australian art, as the Australian government seems to be committed to continuing its long history of criminal behaviour – is engaged in a collective exorcism. This is true, I suppose, of only those people who make these films or the people who choose to see them instead of Transformers. Perhaps this needs a further clarification, as this exorcism is largely confined to the ghosts of Australia’s European past. The long plight of the Aboriginal peoples is still largely consigned to the darkness, or is subject to well-meaning but ultimately hollow official attempts at apology. Something like Philip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence, for all its striving nobility, simply doesn’t pack the emotional punch and the raw sense of wrongness that characterises the film-as-exorcism.
Jonathan auf der Heide’s remarkable debut Van Diemen’s Land recounts the story – such as it is – of eight convicts who escaped from the brutal penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania in 1822. Of these eight men, only one, an Irish thief named Alexander Pearce, would be found a number of weeks later, claiming to have killed and eaten a number of his fellow prisoners to survive. The authorities were loath to believe Pearce, choosing to believe instead that Pearce was covering for his friends still at large. It muddied the water considerably when Pearce escaped again a few years later and was found with human flesh in his pockets, despite the fact that he still had other things to eat. He was hanged. Almost two hundred years later, the filmmakers take Pearce at his word, taking us with the group as they are slowly whittled down by hunger, by malice, and by the sheer fact that they were all city-dwellers in the wilds of an unforgiving, uncaring island. Eschewing the temptation to hammer the scant source material into a standard narrative form, the film instead evokes something of the experience of the men involved: the days bleed into another endlessly; the men themselves remain largely indistinguishable; the world is reduced eventually to an endless tract of damp forest; the bursts of violence are sudden, messy, and uncomfortably brutal. It is an unsettling vision of the world, made all the more alien by Pearce’s Gaelic voiceover. This is harsh, essential humanity at its very worst, the long, sad plight of imperfect men placed into an inhuman situation by circumstance and by the ambitions of others. This is, the film makes very explicit, what made Australia, and by extension the whole of the British Empire; it was built on the suffering of untold hundreds of men like Pearce, sent to the ends of the Earth for the heinous crime of stealing six pairs of shoes. Pearce is neither villain nor hero. In the film, he simply is, and the film confronts the audience with his image, his voice, and his ghost, perhaps hoping that it will simply fade away now that its eternal bloodlust has been dramatised and made clear for all to see.
The other film that leads me in this direction is Robert Connolly’s Balibo, based again on historical incident and on the lives of real people. The film tells of six Australian journalists (one of whom was a New Zealander) on the ground during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The film is structured almost as a mystery, following the journey of Roger East, played as both a lion in winter and as a faded revolutionary by a superb Anthony LaPaglia, as he follows the trail of five younger colleagues, who witnessed the early days of the invasion. In stunningly recreated period detail, we see these hapless young men struggle to capture evidence that would prove to the world that Indonesia was ramping up an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation that had only recently gained its freedom from Portugal. They paid for this dream with their lives, and the film spares us very little of their terror and the ignominy of their final moments in a deserted cinder-block house. The film is as much about Australia turning a blind eye to the invasion (in which as many as 183,000 people were killed) as it is about the invasion itself. At the end of Balibo, East is captured when the invasion begins in earnest. He chants a desperate mantra – ‘I’m an Australian, I’m an Australian’ – trying to save himself from execution. He fails and is gunned down unceremoniously. He fails also to convince the audience that his nationality can (and should) save him, and Connolly leaves little doubt that some of the responsibility for the invasion should be laid at the feet of Australia and its opportunistic foreign policy. The final images, triumphant archival footage from East Timor’s eventual independence from Indonesia in 1999, do little to erase the feeling that this film, like Van Diemen’s Land, is grappling with the ghosts of colonial guilt and with Australia’s uneasy relationship with its past. The film opens with a title card that is rare in that it is so unequivocal: ‘This is a true story’. Not ‘Based on true events’ or ‘Inspired by actual events’, but a blunt assertion of historical truth, making this even more of a punch to the gut, even purer an act of exorcism.
Tracing this trend a few years into the past, John Hillcoat’s painfully brilliant Aussie Western The Proposition, released in 2006, is perhaps the paradigmatic case of this kind of filmmaking. Less an Unforgiven-like deconstruction of the tropes of the genre, Hillcoat’s film is more of an evisceration of every shred of dignity from the frontier. With a script by Bad Seed singer Nick Cave (who provides the score along with Warren Ellis, the violinist from Dirty Three), the film mines an almost biblical vein of filth and violence on the borderlands of nineteenth century British civility. The film closes on an image of two bearded, filthy Irish immigrants sitting in the sands just outside a displaced, genteel English house at the edge of the Outback, staring out into the future. The psychotic Arthur Burns (played with a sociopathic refinement by Danny Huston) is dying slowly, facing the endless nothingness. Arthur asks his younger brother Charlie (played by a gauntly intense Guy Pearce) the question that has plagued every modern person since Hamlet: ‘What are you going to do now?’ Charlie, having killed Arthur in a futile bid to save the life of their angelic younger brother, is left to face the future forever trapped between savagery and civilisation. That the brothers end the film staring away from the English house and into the wilds speaks of a profound emptiness and a deep unease at the core of Australia’s sense of its own European history. Incidentally, walking out of the theatre after seeing The Proposition, I overheard the best impromptu film review ever: a young woman behind me turned to her friend and said in a shaky voice, ‘I thought I was going to vomit the whole time that was playing’. This is elemental, haunted, and resonant filmmaking. This is expiation.
Australia’s spiritual and geographic neighbour New Zealand really hasn’t delved into its own past in quite this fashion – save for a few brilliant exceptions like Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983) – and I suspect New Zealand’s puritan underbelly and its continued reverence for both the British Empire and for its own (small) part in that Empire will prevent this from happening. While there are kiwi films that are willing to admit that New Zealand society is underpinned by an almost impenetrable darkness – see Brad McGann’s 2004 In My Father’s Den for an outstanding example of this – and even films that dramatise and make visible this dark core – see Robert Sarkies’ 2006 Out of the Blue, arguably the best film ever made in this country – there is little evidence that the wholesale historical exorcism that we see in Australian film is anywhere close to the surface.
This is a shame; we need to do this, and soon.
The only thing perhaps that we can change is the past and we do it all the time.
From the Foreword to Edward Conze’s lovely translation of and commentary on The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra, originally published as Buddhist Wisdom in 1958 (pp. xxiii- xxx):
‘There was a time when wisdom was prized more highly than anything else … Contemporary religious movements are equally unhelpful. Intent on extreme simplification, they take pride in discarding the intellectual content of religion. Whether we look to Billy Graham and Moral Rearmament, or, farther east, to Krishnamurti and the Shin-shu of Japan, the demands made on our intellect and comprehension are reduced to a minimum … Generally speaking it would be difficult to find anything as remote from the interests of the present day as the contents of this book. This in itself may recommend it to some of those for whom it is intended’.
Indeed it does. Thank you, Professor Conze.
While doing some research for a lecture on Holocaust films (which included a minor Holocaust film festival at my house, including Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard, without a doubt one of the toughest 31 minutes in the history of cinema), I’ve been pondering the question as to why people still insist that the Holocaust is so impossible to understand, when on so many levels, it is a fully explicable episode in the history of modern Europe, a history that remains haunted by it past and by the irrationality and brutality that all our talk of progress has failed to eliminate from the cultural landscape.
Omer Bartov, in his excellent study Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), gets to the heart of the reasons for this disconnect, when he argues, if implicitly, that we are still beholden to the myth of progress, still blinded by the view of history that insists on seeing an ongoing process of growth and development (both moral and scientific) rather than embracing the chaos that is the hallmark of all authentic human history. What Bartov argues so clearly here that the Holocaust was a part and parcel of rationalisation and modernity, not an anomalous eruption of the irrational, bur a simple surfacing of fact that modernisation and rationalisation have no necessary moral value, either good or evil. A few excerpts:
War, slaughter, and genocide, are of course as old as human civilization itself. Industrial killing, however, is a much newer phenomenon, not only in that its main precondition was the industrialization of human society, but also in the sense that this process of industrialization came to be associated with progress and improvement, hope and optimism, liberty and democracy, science and the rule of law. Industrial killing was not the dark side of modernity, some aberration of a generally salutary process, rather it was and is inherent to it, a perpetual potential of precisely the same energies and ideas, technologies and ideologies, that have brought about the ‘great transformation’ of humanity. But precisely because modernity means to many of us progress and improvement, we cannot easily come to terms with the idea that it also means mass annihilation. We see genocide as a throwback to another, premodern, barbarous past, a perversion, an error, an accident. All evidence to the contrary, we repeatedly believe that this time, in this war, it will finally be stamped out and eradicated, never to reappear again. (p. 4)
It would seem that our main difficulty in confronting the Holocaust is due not only to the immense scale of the killing, nor even the manner in which it was carried out, but also to the way in which it combined the most primitive human brutality, hatred, and prejudice, with the most modern achievements in science, technology, organization, and administration. It is not the brutal SS man with his truncheon whom we cannot comprehend; we have seen likes throughout history. It is the commander of a killing squad with a Ph.D. in law from a distinguished university in charge of organizing mass shootings of naked women and children whose figure frightens us. It is not the disease and famine in the ghettos, reminiscent perhaps of ancient sieges, but the systematic transportation, selection, dispossession, killing, and distribution of requisitioned personal effects that leaves us uncomprehending, not of the facts but their implications for our own society and for human psychology. Not only the ‘scientific’ killing and its bureaucratic administration; not only the sadism; but rather that incredible mixture of detachment and brutality, distance and cruelty, pleasure and indifference. Hence the genocide of the Jews, its causes, and its context, must be seen as part and parcel of a phase in European civilization that blended modernity and premodernity into an often dangerously explosive mixture (though, of course, also a highly creative one, not only in the science of murder) (p. 67).
The Holocaust can therefore be seen as the culmination (but neither the beginning nor the end) of a process begun the late eighteenth century and still continuing, whose first paroxysm of violence was the Great War, and whose subsequent repercussions can be seen among the millions of victims of the post-1945 era. It is characterized by the missile-wielding religious fanatic, or the cool-headed scientist directing a slave colony of rocket builders, the brutal guard with a given quota of bodies to be disposed of on a daily basis, and the official busy with his schedule of trains bringing anonymous masses of passengers to destinations from which they never return. It is also characterized by two types of professionals essential to the fabric of modernity – the physician and the lawyer (67).
Oddly enough, Bartov makes a point similar to one I’ve made elsewhere about the ways in which we react to suicide bombing in the contemporary world – not that suicide bombings are on any level equivalent to the Holocaust. It is not too much to suggest that the horror that people feel when faced with modern violence is perhaps largely due to a simple and sustained failure to grasp the fact that modernity is not morally on the side of the angels (at least not necessarily). Additionally, like so many before him, Bartov makes the failures of representing the Holocaust into a moral issue:
Western representations of the Holocaust fail to recognize that this extreme instance of industrial killing was generated by a society, economic system, and civilization of which our contemporary society is a direct continuation. In other words, we can note a powerful reluctance to admit that industrial killing is very much a product of modernity … while the Holocaust belongs both its past and its future – our present – and can therefore not be marginalized as an aberration representative only of itself, at the same time, it must not be contextualised to the extent that it becomes part of a general history of progress or degeneration, heroism or atrocity. The centrality of the Holocaust for the human experience of modernity has been recognized even by those who seek to deny that it had ever happened … There may perhaps not be any lessons to be learned from the genocide of the Jews; but, all the same, we must know that killing goes on, and even if we are safe from it today, we may become its victims tomorrow. This is not a memory, not even a history, for the murder is in our midst and our passivity will be our nemesis (pp. 9-11).
Others have made a similar point, though too many of them insist that the proper response to the Holocaust is a reverential silence. Siegfried Krakauer, in his classic book The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), argues that the cinema, whose relationship to reality he perceives is more chemical than interpretive – something that many critics Bazin among them, have long insisted – is a mirror for the realities of human history:
The mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves. As such, they beckon the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality. In experiencing the … litter of tortured human bodies in the film made of the Nazi concentration camps, we redeem horror from its invisibility behind the veils of panic and imagination. And this experience is liberating in as much as it removes a most powerful taboo. Perhaps Perseus’ greatest achievement was not to cut off Medusa’s head but to overcome his fears and look at its reflection in the shield. And was it not precisely this feat which permitted him to behead the monster? (p. 206)
So what does all of this mean? It remains an open question, though we must not neglect the fact that so many of the things that shock us about the modern, rationalised world should not be, in the end, all that surprising.
Though I do prefer to be more long-winded than this, I had to share something I discovered while researching a new class on world religions in film. For your viewing pleasure, the earliest surviving – and very short – film depicting Jews in New York City, A Gesture Fight in Hester Street (1903), which most likely is a filmed sketch from a vaudeville performance.
Compare these two with Mel Gibson’s Caiaphas in The Passion of the Christ and despair at humanity’s inability to learn a single damned thing from the past.
Continuing my series on cinema and/as exorcism (see more here, here, and here), some thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in recent memory (though I don’t want to waste many thoughts on such a facile and deluded piece of rubbish) …
I would give a synopsis of the plot, but I don’t need to if you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, Glory, Seven Years in Tibet, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Children of Huang Shi, or any other film where a white European character stumbles into a culture of noble but blinkered primitives and then proceeds to save them not only from his (and it is always his) fellow Europeans, but also from themselves. In Avatar, the protagonist is an ex Marine named Jake, who is sent to a lush planet called Pandora to help run the Na’vi people (essentially three metre tall humanoids with better abs) off of their sacred land so a nameless company can harvest the minerals that lie beneath it. This is that same story, again, though done without any of the subversive gestures that distinguished the recent District 9, which shares a good few plot elements with all of these films but manages to be something other than the standard Orientalist bullshit. From the opening generic tribal drumming, Avatar confirms every last sentence of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.
Argument one: Avatar is the most astonishingly racist film since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps worse even than 300. The film’s noble savages, the Na’vi – many of whom, though they are computer generated motion captures of real actors, are played by non-white actors – are an amalgam of all the noble savage clichés dating back centuries. They are in touch with nature. They believe, in fact, that their planet, Pandora, is one he living organism (Pandora’s bookshops must sell a lot of James Lovelock). They are violent but admirable. They like to hold hands and dance. They are sexually ambiguous. but still sexually appealing. They are superstitious and reliant on magic and all sorts of often brutal rites of passage. These may be noble savages in the film, but they are still savages and the film treats them as savages, as lesser people.
From the costume and character design, the Na’vi are evidently supposed to represent a smattering of oppressed indigenous peoples on Earth, from New Zealand Maori to the Navajo of the American southwest, but in blending all of these cultures into one, the film is guilty of doing exactly what it thinks it is condemning. That each of the cultures that Cameron borrows from the create the Na’vi are vibrant and complete in their own right simply does not matter. What matters is that they aren’t European and thus are an open resource to plunder when trying to define Europe over and against what it is not. This is Orientalism par excellence.
In a final insult, the Na’vi’s beliefs about their planet being a living organism are given endorsement in the film only when these beliefs are proven scientifically. This is the evolutionary narrative of history – out of darkness and into light, ironically, an idea that is deeply rooted in Christianity – in a nutshell. The Na’vi religion is nothing more than primitive science, an accident of insight that needs European systems of valuation for its legitimacy. This is, at the very best, a backhanded compliment and at worst an absolute repudiation of what the film intends. Final thought: if the humans – as one of the generic corporate faces notes – have nothing to offer the Na’vi, then why does Jake, the sympathetic white human Marine, become the long-awaited saviour of the Na’vi? Why tell the story from his standpoint at all? Why not make Neytiri, the main Na’vi figure, the film’s centre? Why not allow the Na’vi to fulfill their own prophecies? Why not allow them to save themselves? Why force them to end the film in a cold-hearted fashion, sending most of the humans home ‘to a dying world’? Why not grant them the courage of their own ecological convictions and allow them to take a hand in saving the Earth?
Argument two: to say that Avatar is ideologically inconsistent is to make a molehill out of a mountain. This is the perfect film for our times, when Barack Obama can make a speech defending a policy of perpetual war while accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, when there is endlessly debate about climate change that touches on everything except the actual problems behind the crisis (the market is not the solution, people; it is the problem). This is a film that appears to want to be an endorsement of peace but that ends in a fierce and very bloody battle for territory and resources that the audience is supposed to get behind. In a similar fashion, Avatar makes every gesture possible towards valuing nature and the Na’vi are shown – over and over and over again – being ecologically minded and treating Pandora’s animal life with respect; however, in the film’s climactic orgy of violence, Pandora’s Gaia analogue sends all manner of creatures to their deaths in the name of preserving the Na’vi, who are thus obviously the most important creatures on the planet.
This is a major Hollywood studio film – and I do know that Cameron is actually Canadian – that is trying hard to say something genuine about ecology and capitalism but doesn’t know how to say anything that hasn’t been said for the last four or five hundred years. Perhaps, more worryingly, it cannot, given that it is also one of the most expensive films ever made and it will need to recoup its costs largely in the international market, and thus cannot do anything but pander to the lowest worldwide common denominator. This is a deeply confused film that reflects in every surface the convoluted and confused nature of our culture. It is everything that it believes that it is not. We deserve this film, though I wish I could say with any confidence that we deserve better.
Argument three: Avatar is the ultimate in Orientalist fantasy. When Jake opens his eyes at the end of the film, having defeated the Europeans and sent them packing and having fully, literally become one of the Na’vi, he is living out the dreams of every white neo-pagan, Druid, or Wiccan out there who wants to truly recover a past that is, for the most part, a Romantic fantasy that has no roots in history. Unlike Wikus in District 9, who also becomes an oppressed alien but takes up arms against the oppressors because he is a selfish git largely concerned with saving his own ass (a fact that the film is smart enough to admit), Jake is a classic Hollywood hero who is able to be both coloniser and colonised at once. He is a coloniser without the need for guilt or any serious reflection on what he has done (he is instrumental in destroying the Na’vi’s village) but he is also colonised in that he can take part in a fantasy culture where everything is sunshine, simplicity, and sacredness. Jake is liberal guilt made flesh. In all of this, Cameron is ideologically at least the equal of the great Orientalist novelists, from Rudyard Kipling to Joseph Conrad, though these two have the distinct advantage of having been able to actually write.
The film, on a technological level, is a game-changer, as they like to say. As a narrative and as an example of the colonial gaze, there is nothing in Avatar that is any different, or any better, than eighteenth-century missionary and colonial writings about Egypt or India. This does nothing to exorcise the demons of colonialism or imperialism; indeed, it is a wholehearted embrace of both of these things cloaked in the shell of a protest against them.
To be fair, I’ll throw in a few positives: everything in the film from the production design to the intricately imagined and convincingly rendered worlds, looks amazing (even in two dimensions, as we down here at the ends of the Earth still don’t have a 3-D theatre) and the climactic battle is a stunning achievement in editing, effects, and pacing. Finally, Zoe Saldana as a nine-foot tall Smurf? Still hot as all hell.
And now for a fascinating example of the recent reception history of a religious figure …
St Matthew in the City, a progressive Anglican church in Auckland (the biggest city – not that this is saying a whole lot – in New Zealand), is planning to erect a controversial billboard to raise awareness of the ‘Christ’ part of Christmas and to provoke discussion about the holiday and its meaning. The billboard shows Mary and Joseph in bed and makes a cheeky, glancing reference to the Virgin Birth:
The billboard, before it has even made its first public appearance on the street, is being roundly decried by Family First New Zealand, a conservative Evangelical group in the mode of the American Focus on the Family. Family First’s Bob McCoskrie had this to say about the advertisement:
The church can have its debate on the virgin birth and its spiritual significance inside the church building, but to confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary … The church has failed to recognise that public billboards are exposed to all of the public including children and families who may be offended by the material.
The assertion that children could possibly be offended by the material is simply nonsensical, especially in a heavily secularised (and often illiterate and anti-intellectual) place like New Zealand, where a fair percentage of the people who see the billboard will be rather likely not to even understand what it is referring to. If this really is offensive, than all the better, as being offended is tantamount to having to think seriously about something. On an incidental note, the consequences of this last sentiment – that advertising that offends should not be allowed – are vast when we consider that there are people out there, me for instance, who find mediocrity of any kind offensive.
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. We saw similar tendencies in reactions to the rubbish novel and film The Da Vinci Code and to the brilliant novel and film The Last Temptation of Christ. Despite all of the ballyhoo to the contrary, I want to suggest that these negative reactions were related more to the idea of a sexual Jesus (which Martin Scorcese’s film showed in some detail) than to any of these texts’ other criticisms of the churches.
In a final note, the billboard, by a mainline Christian church, is in some ways far more subversive, and certainly far more intelligent, than the recent advertising campaign by the New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign, which raised $20,000 from donations to place advertisements on a number of public buses that read ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. That this is a cliched and seriously tired sentiment (though one that still applies most to a certain breed of Calvinist) need pass by without mention. That they feel the need to add the word ‘probably’ reveals either that they are deliberately trying to tone down their message or are simply unsure of themselves makes them both bad provocateurs and bad atheists. This kind of waffling undermines the whole of the campaign. True atheism needs to be both bold, unequivocal, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, historically aware. The billboard, on the other hand, is thought-provoking, even to someone who has already in this post declared the idea of virgin birth as ‘ludicrous’. It also has the distinct advantage of actually being funny – I love the wistful look in Mary’s eyes as she gazes heavenward and thinks what are most likely very impure thoughts about her God – and of using humour to a far more serious purpose than a knee-jerk appeal to a bland and poorly understood atheism – without God, are we completely free from any obligation as moral agents, free to simply enjoy our lives, or (to employ a much-used and ultimately meaningless word) are we finally free to be happy?
Thanks to Stuff.co.nz for the image and the quotations (without their permission, of course, this is the Internet).
Children of Men, Fall, Heaven, Jesus Camp, Spirited Away, Spring, Summer, Sunshine, The Dark Knight, The New World, The Passion of the Christ, The Proposition, There Will Be Blood, Winter... and Spring
As it seems that every other film critic or keeper of a weblog that deals with film is compiling a ‘best of’ list as the end of the Noughties approaches at speed, I feel compelled to offer one of my own (which might mean I am conformist at heart, but I hope not). In no particular order and in full recognition of the futility of the exercise, eleven of the best films from the last ten years that touch on matters of religion or the religious:
Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007): Working from an unusually thoughtful script by the novelist Alex Garland (who in The Tesseract gives us a compelling distillation of the fractures of the contemporary world), Boyle gives us another science fiction meditation on the possible end of the world. The film is also a haunting allegory for the deep darknesses that still exist out there waiting for us to find, whether that darkness is the relentless, uncaring power of nature or the madness of believing one to be uniquely chosen by the divine for a mission of extreme violence. At the same time, it is possibly the most taut, visceral and simply exciting film on this list.
Children of Men (Afonso Cuaron, 2006): This is the most chilling and most believable of any of the dystopian futures we have seen in a century that seems to be revelling in the fact that it may or may not have much of a future. The quick glimpses we get of the religious reactions – hopelessness, self-flagellation – to a potentially world-ending crisis are telling and perfectly in line with what could happen. This is stunning science fiction at the same time that it is a deeply felt and well-considered meditation on the way we live now, and the ways we may not live in the future (it is also the only film on this list whose DVD special features include a documentary starring Slavoj Žižek rambling on about the sorry sate of the world, which makes it worth a rental even if for no other reason). In the end, chilling as it may be, the film’s only fault is that it may be too hopeful, too firm in its affirmation of the human capacity for good.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): This is a bluntly subversive film, an argument in narrative form that American capitalism and American Christianity are two sides of the same corrupt coin. Told in the from of a character study of the most deeply and convincingly misanthropic figure in contemporary popular culture, Anderson’s best film to date tells the story of the intertwining of the religious and the economic that can be read as a condemnation of the Prosperity Gospel movement or as a critique of violence perpetrated in the name of profit that is given a slickly religious gloss. or even as a repudiation of the whole language of family values. Regardless of how you look at, this is strong stuff, the kind of challenging, socially aware cinema that we can never have enough of.
Heaven (Tom Tykwer, 2002): Working from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, originally intended as part of another trilogy for Kieslowski, sho gave us the lovely Trois Colours, the great German director Tom Tykwer turns this simple tale of two damaged people in love and on the run into something altogether remarkable. It resonates with biblical and Christian themes and language and offers a very strange and very effective kind of aesthetic redemption to its protagonists, both of whom are murderers. At the same time, this is no simple religious parable or morality play; there is so much going on here below the surface of what seems to be a very simple story that it is almost staggering. The second script in the series, L’Enfer, a bitter tale about the hell of other people, was made into a film in 2005 by Danis Tanovic. The third, dealing with the theme of Purgatory, sadly, remains unfilmed.
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008): This might seem like a stretch, but bear with me for a moment or two. When the butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, Batman’s playboy alter-ego, that some men – the Joker in this case – just want to watch the world burn, he nails the character of religiously-motivated violence in the contemporary world, which is more performative and symbolic than strategic or tactical. In the final analysis, this is a startling depiction of the deep irrationalities and the dark magics that underlie the surface of the rationalised modern world. It is also a striking visualisation of the things that modern societies must do to combat these forces. On this front, see also Tykwer’s brilliant 2006 adaptation of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and to a lesser extent Nolan’s own 2006 film The Prestige.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Though it does branch over into Orientalist fantasy on occasion, this retelling of the seminal American story of the colonial captain John Smith and his relationship with an Algonquin girl, usually given the name Pocahontas, is a distillation of Malick’s decades-long meditation on modernity and its deeply destructive relationship with nature. This bears as little resemblance as possible to the deplorable Disney film dealing with the same story. In The New World, he does this primarily through a comparison, never forced, between the enchanted world of the Algonquin and one that is being violently disenchanted, and this with the help of the church that we see the British colonists building in their mudpit of a town, built for the film a few kilometres from the site of the historical Jamestown, first settled in the early seventeenth century. It is also one of the most visually stunning films on this list, even if cannot compare with Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, arguably the single most beautiful movie in the history of movies. For the curious, I’ve written more on Malick here.
Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006): The only documentary to make this list, Jesus Camp, and one which is a little suspect in its own implicit claims towards objectivity, Jesus Camp, like no other film, gives us a window into the world of fundamentalist Christianity (and I know this is an unpopular term in the academy, but here it fits like a glove) in the United States. That the film renders this world as one that is alien and largely incomprehensible to much of the world beyond the American heartland is only to its credit. These people are out there, and there are more of them than we might care to think.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003): This is, I do realise, a cliché, and a film that seems to go out of its way to pander to Western preconceptions about Buddhism, but it is also a lovely little piece of work, a gentle but powerful parable about the weight of suffering and delusion that so many of us seem to carry with us. It also features the single best cinematic use of a cat in recent memory. See it as a double feature with Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron, which is just as much a parable and perhaps even more a Buddhist film than Spring, though in a far more subtle manner.
The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005): With the possible exception of the very different The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hilcoat’s Old Testament inflected story of the Australian Outback in the middle of the nineteenth century is the finest Western of the decade. Working from a script by bad seed Nick Cave, the film takes on a veneer of biblical darkness and inhabits a moral universe that owes far more to the logic of the book of Job than to the myths of civilising European colonialism. At the end of the film, when two men, one barbaric and dying, the other alive and vaguely more civilised, sit facing the future, the film suggests that this is the heart of where we are now, and that heart lies in large part informed by the bloody stories of our past, both biblical and colonial. For further reflections on the film and its place in contemporary Australian cinema, I’ve written more elsewhere on this site.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): Miyazaki is one of our great filmmakers, a fiercely original voice and a deeply moral commentator on the world at large. A classic story of a haunted amusement park and a paean to the complex spirit world of the Japanese religions, this is amusing, touching, terrifying and intellectually engaging all at the same time.
The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2006): Another dystopian film that suggests that the modern city with all its cleanliness, order and impeccable taste, just might be hell (and I had such fond memories of Oslo, which this film has truly interrupted). This little Norwegian gem is one of the few really original visions of the afterlife that we’ve seen in years and it is one of the most blackly comic films in a decade full of pitch-dark humour. It is also a stirring demand that we all become bothersome to those things that require bothering (rationalisation, commodification, etc.).
And the worst (and this one was easy): The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004): Gibson’s infamous film is riddled with problems. It is historically inaccurate (Jesus and Pilate conversing in Latin rather than Greek (the language that two men in their traditional positions would have had in common), the executioner’s nails being driven through the palms and not the wrists, etc., etc.), which is really only a problem given that the filmmakers made such a big noise about being historically accurate. It is brutally, cruelly sadistic and in its cruelty becomes deeply suspect on a theological level, given that it transforms the suffering of Jesus into an endurance test that no man (not even a white guy with digitally-altered brown eyes and a prosthetic hook nose) could have survived such torture for so long, essentially denying the messianic figure the divinity that has so long defined Christianity’s theological understanding of its own textual history. This is a Braveheart version of Jesus that avoids deeper questions and goes for the dubious pleasures of reveling in the torture, though crucifixion was absolutely a form of torture, something the film actually gets right. Despite removing the vaunted ‘blood libel’ from the Gospel of Matthew from the finished film (though they did shoot it), it is also rabidly anti-Semitic as well as being deeply misogynistic – Satan takes the form of a woman who we often see stalking unseen among the Jewish crowds. It makes the Roman authorities into enlightened and sympathetic humanists while at the same time transforming the occupied Semitic peoples of Jerusalem into a vacuous rabble that is violent, backwards, bloodthirsty and in need of some civilising. If this isn’t what a colleague here at Otago calls ‘a theology of empire’, and a thinly-veiled defence of the American occupation of Iraq, I don’t know what is. It is also guilty of the most grievous of all cinematic sins in that it is flat-out boring and at least an hour too long.
Perhaps even more so than Jesus Camp, the film is a crystallisation of all that is perverse and troubling about Evangelical Christianity in the United States in the twenty-first century. That it became the rallying point of an election and that any criticism of the film was labelled anti-Christian regardless of its source or motivation, made the very existence of the film deeply disturbing. It was shot in part in Matera (in the region of Basilicata), the same Italian city as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece Il vangelo secondo Matteo, but the two films could not be more different. That this, still by far the best film about Jesus ever made, was made by an atheist who portrayed Satan as a Catholic priest, says something very interesting about the place of the story of the Gospels in Western culture. If you’ve not seen Pasolini’s take on Jesus as a socialist revolutionary, you should.
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.
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.
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.
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’. 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.
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.
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.
 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 94.
 Kermode, Ending, 67.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, translator unknown (London: Routledge Classics, 1966), 48-49.
 Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (London:Verso, 1998), 169, note 30.