Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Brain Dead

I’ve been thinking about brains (is there any more existential thing to do?). Reading a book this week about the mind (see Thursday’s post) probably has something to do with it. And also having finished a book on zombies maybe contributes as well. You see, I find it strange when scientists assume that we can figure out all the answers with our limited brains. Although we are endlessly fascinated by them, neuroscientists have long noted that they do have weaknesses—they (brains) are easily fooled, and, for those who find no room for the mysterious in the universe, we’ve made up gods to keep us company. We know that relative brain size—relative to body mass, that is—is a large factor in intelligence, but we seem not to imagine the possibility of larger brains than those we carry around. I suppose it’s not without reason that alien brains are disproportionately larger than our own, according to the standard image of the “grays.” We don’t like to think there’s something smarter than us hanging around. It’s a frightening thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.35.48 AMOn the more earthy side, brains have been the usual fare for zombies in one sub-division of the zombie movie neighborhood. George Romero gave us flesh eating as a paradigm, but eventually zombies settled on brains. This was on my mind as I finished the epic Strangers in the Land that Stant Litore kindly sent me in Kindle form. I’d read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on my own, and the author wanted me to read more. Litore’s zombies are more in the canonical Romero sector—they eat flesh and their bite conveys zombiehood. Strangers in the Land takes its base story from the book of Judges. Only Deborah becomes a zombie slayer. Brains aren’t eaten here, but they must be destroyed for a zombie to—what? Redie? Full of colorfully drawn characters, the story rambles through the countryside of ancient Israel, plagued with zombies. It is the brain that keeps a zombie going.

While I have to stand by my recurring assessment that the zombie is a hard sell in novelistic form (here goes my mind again! Reading a book gives your brain too much time to focus on the utter impossibility of bodies missing organs or vital tissue to move, or “live,” even with a brain) Litore is onto an interesting idea here. Looking at it metaphorically (as surely he intends it) helps. Perhaps I just miss the lumbering revenants of Return of the Living Dead calling out “Brains! Brains!” The Bible, however, is endlessly open to reinterpretation. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was post-biblical. This current installment moves us into the realm of reception history. I’ve been researching reception history and the undead for a few months now. I have some conclusions to share in an academic paper a few months down the road, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out brains. Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is a movie that once again brings monsters and religion together in the cinema. Since I’m generally late seeing movies, I won’t worry too much about spoilers here, but in case you’re even later than me here’s the gist of it: giant monsters from outer space (properly an interplanetary portal) are emerging from the Pacific Ocean to take over the earth. These radioactive, dinosaur-like aliens are called Kaiju. Although they can be taken down with conventional weapons, the most effective fighting tool is the Jaeger, a colossal robot piloted by two humans acting as the two hemispheres of the brain. These humans must “drift”—share their brains—in order to control these massive machines in unison. Lots of action and destruction, of course, ensue. We later find out that dinosaurs were an earlier invasion of these same aliens, but that our environmental degradation has made the atmosphere much better for them, and this time they’re back for good.

The resistance is led by a mysterious marshal named Stacker Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is the festival celebrating either the giving of the Torah (Jewish) or the giving of the Holy Spirit (Christian). In either case, it is a holiday celebrating God’s plan for humanity. As Pentecost leads his beleaguered and shrinking army of jaegers against the Kaiju, scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb disagree about how to conquer the beasts. Gottlieb swears, “Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God,” while advocating the predictive elements based on the statistics of the attacks. Science and religion have come to an uneasy truce here. As Geiszler seeks a Kaiju brain to drift, he observes some of the masses in Tokyo praying to the fallen beasts. A blackmarket dealer in Kaiju remains explains that they believe the Kaiju have been sent by God. Pentecost unwittingly concurs when he declares it is time to end the apocalypse.

Pacific Rim, like most Guillermo del Toro films, is a complex movie. There is also more than a sprinkling of H. P. Lovecraft here. The worship of the Kaiju keyed me in to the fact that these were the old gods, come to earth, under the sea, from space. As the first category 5 Kaiju swims past the camera, I couldn’t help but think of Cthulhu. Although Kaiju is Japanese for “monster,” it even sounds like his sacred name. We fear that which is larger, stronger, and unknown to us. When that fear becomes reverence we are on the brink of worship, and our monsters have become our deities.

The Film’s the Thing

BibleFilmIn the context of teaching, I often described how movies portrayed the Bible. There is an aspect of this that may go overlooked since the Bible is, in the nicest possible way, inert. That is, the Bible frequently functions as a character in movies. In a minor, or supporting role perhaps, but clearly it has an impact on what the other characters do or say. The story wouldn’t be the same without it. So it was that I finally got around to reading The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum. This is a collection of 11 academic essays about the Bible in various cinematic guises. A number of the essays focused on Jesus, being the most obvious biblical character to star in movies; he had another one this past summer. The collection, however, is wide-ranging in its biblical characters.

More interesting to me, and this is just a personal preference, is the way that the Bible shows up in movies. Those who decry the study of sacred writ seem to be in denial concerning just how deeply embedded in our national psyche the Good Book is. As the various contributors to this volume show, the Bible appears in ways both subtle and overt in many films. Like it or not, the stories represented in the Bible are classics, and many film-makers find a rich source of material here (when they’re not busy making sequels). The Bible is, to a large extent, who we are.

That’s not to deny a religious pluralism to the United States. We are diverse and that is one of our strongest assets. Still, even though our founders were primarily deists, and not evangelical Christians, their culture was pervaded by the Bible. A large difference between then and now is that, although they weren’t “Bible believers” our founders knew their Bible. In a sense that is almost incomprehensible today, they realized that you don’t have to believe it to see its value. The Bible does have some good things to say. Even now when I get overwhelmed, I can still find some balancing sanity in parts of Sacred Writ. It’s not all about killing your enemies or keeping women silent in the churches. It is a very human document. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we keep coming back, as a society, to the Bible. Anything that is so momentous is bound to find its way into our movies and our other art forms. How we take that is, of course, a matter of personal taste.

Final Final Frontier?

Over the past several months my wife and I have been making our way through the Stars. Not really Trekkies or Jediists, we both came of age during the early days of Star Trek and the dawning of the original Star Wars. Both franchises have continued to grow and have become cultural markers in their own rights. We have survived all the episodes of Star Wars I through III, and have made it, so far through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. As we switched off the DVD player, we mused that we hadn’t seen this particular installment (with good reason) since we had originally watched it together shortly after it came out. It has its moments, but it just doesn’t measure up to what Kirk and Spock can usually muster. Watching it as a somewhat jaded critic of space movies, however, its religious elements simply couldn’t be ignored. After all, this is the episode where they find God, then shoot him in the face.

Opening with Sybok, the emotional Vulcan messiah, with a tacked-on identity as Spock’s brother, healing his first convert, the movie follows a typical kind of progression of a boy and his god. The town on Nimbus III (every Trinity watcher surely caught that reference) is named Paradise. Some wag painted the Miltonesque “Lost” after the town name on the gate through which Sybok rides like Jesus entering Jerusalem. Hijacking the Enterprise turns out to be remarkably easy, even with Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, and Kirk in the shuttlecraft. And soon we’re off to the Great Barrier, which, as it turns out, is just a bunch of colored lights.

When God appears, he takes the shape of a typical Terran, white beard and everything. When Sybok questions him he briefly turns Vulcan, but we get the sense that God is whoever you want him to be. He is definitely masculine, and he has anger issues. His Eden is a barren rock, and he feels trapped and requires a starship to get about. We are forced to conclude that this is no deity after all and life is but a dream.

Despite its many disappointments, Star Trek V is a theologically aware movie. Its conclusion of science trumping the need for the divine leaves us with three old men around a campfire waiting to die. A trinity in its own right, but one where the only hymn to be mustered is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And God lies dead at the center of the galaxy.

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Unconventional Resurrection

GospelLivingDeadWith talk of resurrection in the air, it seems natural to turn to zombies. In this internet age the monster of choice seems to change from day to day, but since the turn of the millennium zombies have been a contender for popular favorites. In a world where many of us feel zombified by our work, this is no surprise. Late capitalist power structures drain the life, leaving only the shell. In a situation where zombies appear so frequently, it is difficult to keep current. I bought Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead shortly after it was published. Subtitled George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, it saves itself from too my obsolescence by taking the narrative from Romero’s movies, and one remake, thus leaving room for the many other zombie movies to come and go. While it does make reference to 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, most of the discussion stays pretty close to Romero, taking the reader through his quaternity of movies in the genre.

Roughly paralleling Romero’s oeuvre with Dante’s Inferno, Paffenroth treats the movies theologically. Not surprisingly, sin and ethics play a large part in his analysis. The undead, after all, are not un-spiritual. As I read along, however, I often thought how a western Pennsylvania connection gives some insight into what Romero is trying to do. Perhaps we are in danger of over-reading without the context (what biblical scholars call isogesis, but which post-modernists call simply reading). For example, some of the place names are given a theological significance in Gospel of the Living Dead that some of us who grew up in the area recognize as just another town. This always comes home to me when watching Night of the Living Dead. The posse out to hunt zombies always reminds me of people I knew in high school. After all, the first day of buck season was a local holiday.

Still, I have trouble seeing Romero agreeing with the dialogue revolving around sin. Yes, his first two movies were as much social criticism as they were horror. The Vietnam War and consumerism were true evils to be cast in parables and shown to the public. Zombies were prophets. Paffenroth suggests that zombies will never become mainstream commodities, but time has shown that even zombies can be bought out. World War Z was a Hollywood extravaganza. The Walking Dead is hardly the domain of outcasts and pariahs. Romero’s monsters were, alas, not more powerful than capitalism. Even zombies can be purchased. Zombies and vampires can indeed earn money, and resurrection itself comes with a price.

Overboard

NotWantedOnTheVoyageThe story of Noah has long fascinated me. The world of early Genesis is so mysterious and compelling—a mythical time when all the action seemed to be taking place in just one bit of the world, and events were always momentous. Noah, the new Adam ten generations on, stood out as the prototypical good guy. The sort of fellow you’d like living next door. An everyday hero. The movie Noah, however, introduced a dark and brooding ark captain whose unyielding devotion to his own concept of righteousness led to a tormented journey over the flood. I wonder if Darren Aronofsky read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. Recommended to me by one of my students, this novel was difficult for me to categorize. At first I thought it might be a funny story—despite the tragic overtones, there is much in the flood story that suggests humor—but no, it was more serious than that. Noah was cast in a primeval, post-Christian world where elements of the twentieth century were freely available, while others were not. And more troubling, Noah was not at all a nice guy. Indeed, he is one of the best written antagonists I’ve encountered. You shudder when he enters the room.

Apart from Noah, however, the novel explores the premise that Yaweh [sic] sent the flood as a final, dying act. Old, feeble, yet the creator of everything, the deity is ready to give it all up as the absentee landlord who has no idea what’s happening on earth. The reader feels little sympathy for the divine. Like humanity, he set something in motion he has no hope of controlling, yet which he can destroy. As he is about to die, unbeknownst to all humans, he sends the flood. Noah, six-hundred years old and senile, oversees his ark with an iron hand. His religion has made him cruel, and I was frequently left wondering whether those who survived were more fortunate than those who did not. As a fantasy the story works, with well drawn characters and a devious plot. The problem comes in trying to reconcile it with a Bible story all too well known. In the end we’re left wondering if the flood does really ever end, and, if so, does anything turn out okay.

Known for his dark, conflicted characters, Findley adds a macabre dash of the improbable to an already unbelievable story. Mrs. Noyes, aka Mrs. Noah, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. Her son Ham, cursed in the biblical version, is clearly the best son, but one his father dislikes by reason of his love for science. Part morality play, part farce, Not Wanted on the Voyage can be a disturbing novel, rather like the movie Noah. That’s not to suggest there’s no message here. I see it as a cautionary tale of a misplaced faith taken too far. Instead of pleading to save humanity, Noah seems only to glad to let all but his own be wiped out. His sons disappoint him, and the one daughter-in-law he appreciates disappoints him in the end. Perhaps this is what destructions are all about. Does any flood really have a happy ending?