Category Archives: Film Reviews

Why Horror?: Film Review

Recently I created a music-themed survey for my friends and family on Facebook, and I began it by answering all of the questions myself.  The last question on the survey was, which song would you say best sums up who you are?  For my part, after a bit of mental seesawing, I finally arrived at Tool’s Forty-Six & 2. If you don’t know the song, it deals with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow.  Very simply, in Jungian psychology, our shadow is our (mostly) hidden dark side, those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we don’t like to face, as well as a personal repository for all the social stigmas and taboos we must process in order to be a functional member of society. In the song, Maynard expresses his desire to boldly face down his shadow, to move through it and past it in order to fully become who he is.

This is a concept I am fully invested in, and for me at least, the horror genre has long been my preferred route through my own shadow. Which is why I am not only a fan of the genre, but also fascinated by the psychology of horror fans generally. What exactly is it about horror that attracts its true fans? Are such people well-adjusted or not? How do horror fans stack up against non-fans when it comes to life coping skills? In the documentary film Why Horror? (directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay), the film’s subject, Tal Zimerman, sets out to answer some of those questions, and for the most part, he does so quite spectacularly.

Zimerman begins his examination of horror by peering into its history, beginning with religious iconography. Having grown up in a small Southern town, I am certainly aware of the human monstrosity and violence that permeates Christianity. This is the religion whose central symbol is a guy nailed to a tree after all, and whose holy book describes, among other atrocities, a dude getting a tent stake nailed through his head, a young woman being gang raped and then ripped to pieces (with her father’s approval no less), God causing disobedient followers to devour their own children, God causing bears to maul forty-two boys because they teased a bald guy, God giving his blessing to Moses and his followers to murder all the Midianites they’d conquered, including the little boys, and to save all the virginal young girls for themselves . . .

Are you detecting a trend here? Not to make this political, but I know Westerners tend to believe that Christianity is less gruesome than Islam; however, anyone who’s read the Bible beyond just the popular passages knows that’s absolute hokum. It’s fitting, then, that Zimmerman starts with Christianity, because so much of its history is absolutely glutted with blood and brutality. Not just what’s chronicled in their sacred text, but all the historical violence wreaked upon others in the name of furthering the faith: the Crusades, the witch burnings, the religious conversion at sword-point, and of course the many and varied tortures and murders committed by the Holy Inquisition during its roughly three hundred year reign of terror. Modern Christianity may be a kinder, gentler incarnation, but I think there is something about all of that murder and mayhem ingrained in our collective psyches, and that has surely had an effect on our appreciation for horror. Of course, the irony is that Christians these days will more often than not condemn the appreciation of fictional horror even as they downplay or whitewash their own religion’s abominable history of actual bloodshed and persecution. You gotta love the irony.

The cultural transition from religious to secular horror is embodied for Zimerman in William Hogarth’s famous print series The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pieces depict the evolution of viciousness in human beings, starting with school children tormenting animals and ending with a hanged man’s corpse being dissected by medical students. He notes here that, contrary to the popular opinion that constant exposure to fictional violence desensitizes people and makes them bloodthirsty and heartless, he himself is rather humbled by horror. It constantly reminds him of his own mortality, and is therefore an incitement to always be a good person. In that sense, the entire horror genre serves as a kind of memento mori for Zimerman, and by extrapolation, for many others as well. I think he’s definitely onto something there, as most of the real horror fans that I’ve met have been gentle and benevolent souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . because, well, the fly might be one of us after all.

By contrast, Zimerman posits that most Americans actually go out of their way to avoid death, that they have an unhealthy relationship with it, making them ill-equipped to deal with their own mortality. I’m not so sure about this. Americans love their cinematic violence. They may not go whole hog with it like some of us, but bloody action films and thrillers remain quite popular, and anyway the horror genre itself has now moved into the mainstream. I do think that by and large other cultures may have a more sophisticated relationship with death than we do. Zimmerman does too, and his touchstone for this is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, an annual celebration of the dead that, unlike its American analog of Halloween, is not about fear but rather respect for the dead. In Mexico, death is viewed not as something to be afraid of; it is instead a divine mystery that should inspire awe and reverence. I have to say, given the rising levels of violence taking place in our southern neighbor these days, this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nevertheless, it is something to be admired, I agree.

There are some fantastic highlights in Why Horror?—the interviews with directors George Romero and John Carpenter, the segment on J-Horror (which is actually rooted in Japanese kabuki and noh theater), an animated mini-history of the genre in cinema—but no part of the film lagged or failed to capture my full attention. In fact, my only real complaint is that, other than the J-Horror bit, it really didn’t spend much time on monsters or the supernatural side of the genre, both of which I prefer to Zimerman’s obvious slasher obsession. It does get into monsters a wee bit, including one of my all-time faves, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, and how that particular monster’s story came into being. An entirely plausible theory about monsters is put forth here—they are said to be a projection of our dark side (our shadow, if you will) in symbolic form, which is then usually destroyed, much to the relief and satisfaction of filmgoers. Well, some filmgoers anyway. Me? I like when the monster triumphs. 🙂

Grade: A-

When Monsters Are Born: ‘Carrie’, ‘Firestarter’ & ‘Silent Hill’

birthofevilbanner

The birth of evil is always a tragedy, and the most heartbreaking tragedy of all is when the most innocent become the most monstrous.  It’s tragic because we know, even when we don’t witness it firsthand, that the path that led there was one of horrendous pain.  That is the case in three fantastic horror stories, two of which began as novels and one as a video game but have all since been made into films.  I speak, of course, of the Stephen King works Carrie and Firestarter, and the original Silent Hill film, all of which feature young girls who have become corrupted by the physical and mental tortures and unthinkable betrayals that they are subjected to.

I have discussed before that I think Stephen King’s early work is his strongest both horror-wise and writing-wise.  One reason I think this is so is that there’s a kind of desperation that undergirds those early novels, and this probably arose from being a still struggling author raising a young family.  Once he became the most popular writer in the known universe, the desperation pretty much fizzled out.  Nothing wrong with that–it’s probably the best trajectory the King of Horror could’ve taken, but it also means the nature of his work was bound to change.  It certainly did, sometimes for the better (his imagination was able to fully blossom, and thus it ultimately gave fruit to what I consider to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series) and sometimes for the worse.  In addition to losing touch with that desperation that made his early work so compelling, he exchanged the raw, elemental power that drove it for a more complex and convoluted spiritual world, the dark side of which is ruled by a being with nearly as much invented mythology as the devil himself, and the light side of which has an Eternal Champion to give both Moorcock’s creation and Jesus Christ a run for their money, and that ain’t a bad legacy for any writer.  Not.  At.  All.

But with Carrie, King captured lightning in a bottle, and it’s easy to understand why it was this novel that broke him into the published author camp.  Talk about desperation!  It’s practically stitched into the very being of Carrie White, a weird, awkward, repressed adolescent girl who is an innocent in nearly every respect.  Having only recently entered puberty (quite late), she is horrified to learn that her body naturally bleeds, and this ignorance leads to the infamous scene in the girl’s locker room where she is taunted and tormented by the other girls in her class.  The interesting thing about Carrie is that it contains no otherworldly beings, no ghosts or haunted houses, no murderous psychopaths.  None of the usual antagonists or tropes of your standard horror fiction are to be found here.  Yes, there is a supernatural element in the form of Carrie’s powers, but they aren’t external to Carrie.  And there are the kids and Carrie’s mother whose cruelty pushes her over the edge, but they are nothing out of the ordinary.

So, the horror of Carrie isn’t something alien which invades the girl’s tranquil and otherwise normal world.  No, the real horror of the story is that we have been given a front row seat to the birth of evil in its most terrible incarnation.  We are, in effect, watching the character we have come to empathize with the most transform before our very eyes into the monster.  Carrie White has nothing but good intentions and the purest heart in the beginning, but by the end of the story, under the weight of the final degradation she is forced to endure, she has become a cyclone of violence and hatred who murders her classmates and finally her own mother, acts for which she can never be redeemed.  And she isn’t.  Instead, she dies from the stab wounds inflicted on her by her mother, or alternately, in the Brian Di Palma film, from a combination of the stab wound and suicide (by psychically destroying her house with her still inside of it).  However, King does offer a note of hope in the novel in the form of another little girl whose mother sees her daughter’s abilities as a gift rather than a curse from God.  Incidentally, there is no such hope offered in the Di Palma film, which fits the bleakness trend of late seventies cinema to a T.

But Stephen King wasn’t finished with this theme, for he would go on to pen Firestarter a few years later, a novel which in some ways takes the concept even farther than Carrie did.  (Douglas Clegg, whose Goat Dance I reviewed recently, also owes a little something to Firestarter with his novel Dark of the Eye–more on that when I give it a proper review of its own.)  The focal character, Charlie McGee, a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities, is even more of an innocent than Carrie White.  Here, however, there are external malignant forces at work in the form of the Shop and especially the hit man John Rainbird.  But these evils are not where Firestarter‘s ultimate horror lies.  Once again, what is most horrific about the story isn’t the evil which already exists but the evil that emerges from Charlie herself, and again the path that led there is one of suffering.  The ultimate irony of the story is one similar to that inherent in the relationship between Carrie and her mother: Margaret White sees in her daughter an abomination, and through her maltreatment of Carrie, contributes to making the girl into exactly that.  Likewise, the secret government agency that fears Charlie is the very agency which eventually turns her into something to be feared.

It is a difficult scene to get through when Charlie, dealing with the death of her father and learning of her betrayal at the hands of Rainbird and the Shop, turns her power up to ten and destroys everyone and everything in her path.  But King again supplies a tincture of hope here, because Charlie is perhaps still young enough to recover from her murderous turn and live a normal life, and there may be redemption in exposing the Shop’s atrocities to the world, as Charlie ultimately does.  But because Charlie has become cynical of the media, she only trusts one publication to get the story straight.  She will never again be fully innocent; she has become corrupted by her experience, wizened to the ways of the world.

There are several contenders for the inheritor of King’s birth of evil motif, but perhaps none is as powerful–or as dark–as Silent Hill.  I can’t speak much for the game because I have never played it, and I’m also aware that it differs significantly from the film.  It is the film which most interests me anyway, because it more than any other fully embraces the concept of the good girl gone monstrous.  Alessa Gillespie was once a normal little girl who was ostracized by other children for being born out of wedlock, became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the school janitor who targeted her because she was isolated and disliked, and then, as with Carrie and Charlie, suffered a final degradation which corrupted her, blackened her soul, and hers is by far the worst: she is burned alive and survives.  In the process her soul divides into two parts, Dark Alessa and Sharon.  Sharon is of course adopted by the movie’s heroine, Rose, but winds up back in the town, drawn in by Dark Alessa, who needs a worthy vessel in order to be able to enter the only place in Silent Hill that is forbidden to her in her dark form: a church sanctuary.  It is Rose who winds up becoming the vessel, however, and when Alessa finally is able to show up in the sanctuary both in body and spirit, she too, as with King’s young girls, succumbs to a mass slaughter of those who tormented her in a scene that would give Clive Barker’s Cenobites pause, or maybe send them running in terror.  And again, as with Carrie and Firestarter, it’s also a terribly sad scene because it makes explicit how much the girl was twisted and corrupted by her experiences. You shed tears watching the darkly beautiful scene unfold, for you know that, while you are horrified by the slaughter, you are also disturbingly satisfied by it on some level.  These people got what they deserved, no?

You see, we as the reader/viewer, have followed the trajectories of these characters from young innocents to raging, hateful monsters (albeit somewhat obliquely in Alessa’s case), and we have grown with them.  Charlie’s monstrosity may be temporary, and that’s some consolation.  Carrie dies, so she no longer poses a threat to anyone.  Ah, but Alessa . . . she becomes queen of her own little dark corner of hell.  The good part of her, Sharon, exists but is still trapped in Silent Hill (along with Rose) by film’s end.  And we are right there with them, left to contemplate how we have arrived at this point, how we have come to identity with the monster.  Mourning the fact that we too, somewhere along the way, have lost our innocence.  We too have loosed evil at some point in our lives, and once it’s out there in the world, wreaking havoc, there is no way to take it back.  In fact, one of the functions of horror fiction is to remind us of that.  So be good to your fellow man, folks, lest you give birth to monsters.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

Shirley Temple: Our Little Girl Is Gone

Shirley Temple (enhanced)

It’s hard to be an uncloseted fan of Shirley Temple these days if you’re a middle aged man.  Yet, I have long proclaimed my fandom before all and sundry to the four corners of the Earth, and I am too old and stubborn to stop now.  My mother, another longtime fan, is really the one who instilled in me a love for the young actress, singer and dancer, and I have seen almost all of her films, including the notorious “Baby Burlesque” shorts that launched her career.  And so her death was a truly sad mile marker for me.  But I don’t want to talk about my own connections to the 1930s-era child star.  What I wish to do instead is outline what I think made Temple so special, and to do so we will need a bit of a history lesson.

To be sure, one can see even in Temple’s earliest work that she had that je ne sais quoi as the French say, that glimmer of something that one cannot quite put his finger on but nevertheless recognizes as a facet of greatness.  It was with this quality that the little girl managed a nearly impossible feat: taming the monster that was the Great Depression for many of her contemporary fans.  Now that we are in the 1930s, let us slip back even further in time: a few decades before Shirley Temple arrived on the scene, a peculiar but brilliant Victorian polymath–a mathematician, author, college professor and accomplished photographer, among other things–by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a self-confessed admirer of young girls, penned a poem for a beloved 5-year-old of his acquaintance named Beatrice, in which he wrote: 

For I think, if a grim wild beast
      Were to come from his charnel-cave,
From his jungle-home in the East–
      Stealthily creeping with bated breath,
      Stealthily creeping with eyes of death–
He would all forget his dream of the feast,
      And crouch at her feet a slave.

These lines perfectly sum up how a great many Victorians looked upon children.  It is difficult for modern folks, with all of their cynicism and paranoia about child sexual abuse, to understand the Victorian Cult of the Child and what it was about.  What it was really was an idea whose time had come, an essential stage of the Great Movement towards a more humane understanding and treatment of children.  This admiration ultimately stemmed from the fact that children were idealized in the Victorian mindset, seen as possessors of a quality of spiritual innocence that, once lost, could never be regained in this life (and only if one lived a morally upright life, meaning a life that adhered to Christian values, could one be assured of regaining this magical property in the next world).  As such, childhood and children themselves were almost worshiped, but this often had detrimental effects on real children, who were more often than not unable to live up to the moral standard imposed on them.   More on this another time.

Anyway, there can be no doubt that one of the manifestations of this Victorian idealization of children was the inevitable fetishization of children’s–especially girls’–perceived sexual innocence, and indeed whenever we encounter descriptions or discussions of the rampant problem of child prostitution in Victorian England, France and America during the time, we almost always see it framed not as a matter of physical or psychological harm but as a matter of spiritual harm, a corruption of children’s innate connection to Divine Perfection.  Unfortunately, this is where the origins of our modern understanding of the moral lives of children still lies to an embarrassingly large degree.  Despite our improved understanding of children’s brains, kids themselves have had a hard time shaking off this quaint moral yoke, and even now almost every morality movement of any persuasion has as at the bottom of its manifesto a famously effective thought-terminating cliché, that chronically reconstituted but undying refrain “Think of the children!

Here we are whisked back to the Great Depression, the dawn of the Child Star and the revitalization of a concept that had largely fallen out of favor with the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis, which revealed children–albeit via notoriously fuzzy thinking–to be a seething cauldron of sexual weirdness that could be carried on into their adult lives.  Why, then, did Americans embrace the Victorian concept of the Sainted Child during the 1930s?  To me it is no mystery: both individuals and societies tend to swing conservative during bad times, likely owing to a chain of cognitive biases like the ambiguity effect (when facing the unknown, people tend to opt for the known), anchorism (overemphasizing an initial understanding of an issue and under-assessing new information) and of course risk compensation.  And there was comfort and hope in the old idea of children holding the keys to the kingdom inside them, a generation that could possibly bring about the rebirth of Paradise under the right conditions, if only they could be shielded from those worldly evils which had surely instigated this new economic Fall of Man.

To put this in perspective, we should note that the economy had had recessions and depressions before, but nothing like the Great Depression.  Although we have experienced a lesser depression (and seen a predictable rise in conservatism as a result), we have been largely isolated from the effects of our own depression in ways those who lived through the big one were not.

But throughout the majority of this horrific event, beginning in 1932, Shirley Temple was our nation’s fearless cheerleader, a pint-sized purveyor of America’s promise and a visible icon of the state of spiritual innocence we longed to return to.  Now, this calls for a bit of clarification, as there may be a tendency here to conclude that Temple was only a symbol and nothing more, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of her story knows otherwise.  For one thing, even as a child she was a certified genius, and we have the tests to prove it.  She was tested during the filming of Stowaway (she would’ve been around age eight at the time) and was found to possess an IQ of 155.  In comparison, physicist Richard Feynman, who was unquestionably a scientific genius, tested at 125!  So Temple wasn’t just a cute, curly-haired moppet; she was also brilliant.  And of course multitalented, which geniuses tend to be.

Despite the image of wholesome sweetness and innocence she projected, Temple was noted for her extreme professionalism, her polished performances and her maturity on set; and moreover, she seemed to be aware of the great weight she held as America’s darling, a true superstar who, whatever your opinion of her, did carry the financially strapped 20th Century Fox on her tiny back through the bulk of the Depression years and kept it from bankruptcy while other studios were falling down around them.

We cannot neglect to point out either that, even though she was young enough to deflect any serious accusations of promoting racial miscegenation, Temple shared the first on-screen dance with a black male partner (in The Little Colonel)–popular tap dancer extraordinaire Bill “Bojangles” Robinson–and therefore can be credited with breaking an important racial barrier on top of everything else.  As a matter of fact, the chemistry between Temple and Robinson was so natural that the two played opposite each other in no less than four films, and the little girl is reputed to have been in tune with Robinson to a degree that she could mimic his tap moves just by hearing them!

In this light we cannot doubt that Temple was an important figure of the time, and at that point everyone–well, everyone with a heart–was a fan, including grown men.  President Franklin Roosevelt spoke for an entire generation when he said, “As long as we have Shirley Temple, we’ll be alright.”  Perhaps there was a subtle sexual element to many men’s fascination with her, but again, I think it is foolish and simplistic to suggest such things amounted to outright conscious lust.

Of course, there were bound to be some men who did feel that way, but that would’ve been true regardless of the prevailing zeitgeist.  At any rate, anyone who suggested such a thing overtly was quickly derided, like critic Graham Greene when he wrote “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”  Greene’s attempt to demystify the relationship between adult male fans and the little girl star, although noble, aside from coming off as snarky and demeaning to Temple, fails to grasp the complexity of what was actually occurring.  After all, the majority of Temple’s roles depicted her as a little ball of sunshine who cracked the stone-like hearts of stodgy, stoic men and let the light of love inside, forever changing them.  In effect, the films of Shirley Temple were a new manifestation of the Victorian Cult of the Child; what was different was that the concept was now writ larger than life on the silver screen and so came packaged with all of the additional magic of cinema.

Meanwhile, Temple herself seemed impenetrable to darkness, including the sexual variety.  When she was twelve, for example, and was visiting MGM studios (probably there to discuss the role of Dorothy for the upcoming The Wizard of Oz film, a role she obviously didn’t get), producer Arthur Freed exposed himself to her, and Temple, with her famous poise and cheeriness, reacted probably the best way anyone could react to a person who clearly meant to feed on her shock: she laughed at him and joked, “Mr. Freed, I thought you were a producer, not an exhibitor.”  I can see in my mind’s eye Freed deflating–in more ways than one–in embarrassment at such a quip before tossing the girl out of his office, which is precisely what happened.  Could it be that Temple lost what would arguably have been the biggest role of her life because she giggled at Arthur Freed’s goober?  Perhaps, but even if that is true, it is still Shirley Temple who comes across as the winner here, because that story alone is worth ten Wizard of Oz‘s.

In this light we can better understand why so many people, including adult males, fell in love with her at the time.  She was a distraction from the horrors of the Depression certainly, but more than that, her mere existence was an active force against them, and like Beatrice’s “grim wild beast”, the hell-hounds of Poverty and Want, of Cynicism and Despair, seemed to kneel before her while she pranced, curtsied and smiled in movie theaters across the nation.

Even after Hollywood no longer had any use for the child star and all but abandoned her, she rebranded herself before rebranding was a thing, making a new life for herself in the world of politics.  I cannot say I agreed much with her political views, although she is of that generation of politicians who, whatever their political stripe, still possessed enough character and respectability to be likable and persuasive. There aren’t many conservatives I respect these days, but Shirley Temple Black was one of them.  Needless to say, they are becoming fewer by the day as most of them belong to my grandparents’ generation (Temple was born the same year as my maternal grandfather, actually: 1928).  And after all is said and done, neither Shirley Temple the child superstar nor Shirley Temple Black the wife, mother, author and politician ever fell below the horizon the way many child stars of later years did.  It seems she was the closest thing we Americans have ever had to royalty, and right to the end our favorite Little Princess lived a pretty charmed life.

RIP Shirley Temple Black

Cloud Atlas: A Moral, Philosophical & Political Examination

The 2012 sci-fi film Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, was nothing if not polarizing.  As such I decided to forgo viewing the film when it was released and wait a few months until it came out on DVD or cable.  Which is unfortunate on one level because the film was gorgeous and I would’ve liked to have seen it unfold on the big screen.  Even so, I am convinced I made the right decision, having finally caught this epic mindfuck (and I mean that in a good way) of a movie on HBO yesterday, well over a year after it’s theatrical release and many months after it hit DVD.

The plot, such as it is, follows six story lines that are both metaphorically and literally (the film jumps back and forth liberally between all six threads as it unfolds) woven together.  At the heart of this cinematic hydra is the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a modern classical masterpiece composed by one of the characters in one of the story lines, which serves as a kind of MacGuffin to anchor all of the metaphysical/philosophical stuff, but in truth it is probably extraneous.  Even so, it is not insignificant that it is a work of art.  But then, all the best MacGuffins are in one way or another.  What matters most here is the driving notion that everything is connected and that one act in the past, be it good or bad, will echo through time and space for decades, centuries, perhaps even eons—basically, it’s the butterfly effect composed as a moral outline.  The film also seems to take reincarnation as a given, which I think is probably the real gripe of many Western critics who disliked the film, even if they were smart enough not to air their ethnocentrism openly in their reviews.  Americans especially just seem to have a hard time readily accepting another culture’s religious assumptions as a backdrop to a story, even though we regularly impose ours into our media with nary a complaint from outsiders.

Needless to say, I think the film is brilliant.  Yes, it was often confusing, but that is not in this case a hindrance to its enjoyment.  Indeed, as Roger Ebert attested with regard to another such film—the haunting political thriller Syriana—such deliberate mystification and uncertainty can sometimes serve a symbolic purpose.  I think that is the case here, at least  initially.  Yet, I have seen the film only once and I still do not feel like my mind was overtaxed by the experience or that the story was somehow lacking because of its complexity and unconventional nature, largely, I think, because I also do not subscribe to that other Western conceit that there is some ideal emotional formula that all good fiction—be it in film, book, television show, or whatever medium—must adhere to before it can be deemed a success.

But there is a point here, and it holds a nigh Campbellian mythic stature: it is the idea that there are two major unconscious forces in the vasty cosmos.  One is cyclical, the other diasporic, and neither of these forces is inherently moral, but within them moral or immoral actions have grave consequences because they will be repeated over and over again or exponentially enhanced, respectively.  Likewise, there is within these great dumb movements conscious forces which can take advantage of them to some degree for their own ends.

Thus, you have entities which gravitate to either movement.  In the case of the cyclical, because it is an innately conservative force, you see throughout time repetitions of the oppressive establishment, here slyly represented most often by Hugo Weaving, who has already been imprinted upon the collective consciousness as an avatar (in the form of Agent Smith) of the same in the Matrix film series.  There are nods to other famous film and book oppressors as well, such as the amusingly Ratchet-esque Nurse Noakes.  On the opposite end are those who stand for the elementally progressive force of outward dispersion, which is to say a breakout from the cycle, represented here by the various incarnations of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Doona Bae.  Note that when I say conservative and progressive here, I do not refer to any political ideologies so designated but only to the nature of the forces themselves.  To be sure, if you consider it carefully you will see that that which is cyclical cannot be ultimately progressive and that which is progressive cannot be ultimately cyclical, or these terms would lose all meaning.

That being said, it is the case that those most often served by the unchanging nature of cycles are agents of the iron hand, and thus it is little surprise that the same types of people are inevitably behind the movements to maintain the status quo.  There is inside all of us a natural-born resignation to the cyclical because parts of nature itself is cyclical.  Rituals can be comforting and most of us need them in some form; the trick is not to let our rituals, even if they are in service of the sacred, become sacred in themselves, because once they do, then anything, including other people, can be sacrificed in the name of maintaining this order.  Ideals then become more important than thinking, feeling beings. In the same vein most of us require change on occasion, and change too can be creative or destructive.  The most oppressive of governments are often tolerated by their subjects because these states, as horrible as they are, at least maintain the comfort of order, whereas revolutions can lead to the worst forms of instability and even outright destruction.  Or they can lead to something approaching utopia.  But it’s always a gamble which way it will go, and it never goes smoothly, does it?  The key to everything lies in understanding and reinforcing balance; if I have a mantra, that is it.

Within nature itself this balance already exists.  Indeed, it cannot be escaped, although it can be manipulated.  But one must understand that to manipulate it is not to destroy it but merely to change its shape, and its shape is dichotomous, or rather approximately dichotomous.  You may consider the yin-yang symbol as the simplest and most easily discerned model for reality, but in truth there is no easy division between good and evil, or between light and dark, or between the realms of mind and body, or anything else.  All of it is a continuum.  Humanity is no different, whether in the universe as a whole (consensus reality) or in the microcosm of our own selves, for we do not exist in a vacuum and all we say and do has consequences not only for ourselves but for those around us.

Here is where the philosophy of political conservatism breaks down, because it assumes that everyone and everything can be viewed as independent, and therefore individual responsibility is seen as quite literal.  Yet political conservatism is ultimately hypocritical by design, for any legally sanctioned power beyond the individual—whether accorded to the state, to an army or to the owner of a corporation—can then only be justified if one ignores the principle of independent responsibility.  To the conservative, the concept of harm is one-dimensional and shortsighted; it is merely that which can be measured directly and immediately.  This position does have value, particularly in the realm of law.  If we punished everyone for all the harm they generated, directly and indirectly, then every human being’s life would be nothing but a series of endless court cases.  Therefore, harm in the legal sense must be interpreted somewhat conservatively if the courts are to operate effectively.  This does not, however, mean that indirect harm isn’t real or important, and therein lies the flaw in the pure conservative philosophy.  Actions have consequences not only for those directly impacted by them but ultimately for everyone who shares this physical continuum we call a world; ergo, a truly moral political philosophy must take this fact into account, and this is what, in my estimation, justifies the use of the state as a tool to serve the greater good.

Of course, it must be remembered that the greater good is in some sense subjective, and therefore democracy best serves the overarching moral philosophy of the day.  This is not ideal, but it is inevitable in a genuine democracy; it is thus incumbent upon all of us who would do so to make our moral arguments through appealing to those things we all share, more or less, via the marketplace of ideas.

In that light we can better understand the recent conservative backlash against science.  At one time science may have served conservatism because it appeared that all things and all peoples were independent.  The entire science of taxonomy is founded on this notion, and all sorts of iffy political worldviews were once justified on the back of science, such as Social Darwinism.  The latter is even openly expressed in the film in the motto of Tom Hanks’ earliest incarnation Dr. Henry Goose: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”  However, this boils down to early misconceptions of how nature works.  In recent years we have learned not only that species aren’t always easily divisible but that the entire progress of nature (the process of evolution by natural selection, for example) is a continuum.  More importantly, it is progressive only in the sense that it is in a constant state of motion; humans hold no special place from the perspective of nature—if nature can be said to have a perspective—and if we were unable to adapt to our environment then we could be crushed under her heels just as easily as any other species.  Furthermore, though we are currently the reigning champions of the earth, we could easily lose that status under the right conditions and become just another species living by instinct, losing our faculty for rationality.  Cloud Atlas reminds us of this uncomfortable fact in its post-apocalyptic scenario, in which much of humanity has regressed to superstitious atavism (as is often the case in post-apocalyptic stories), including a clan of vicious cannibals.

The film does have some weaknesses.  The choice to show reincarnation, even if you accept it as merely metaphorical, by having the same actors perform these assorted roles results in some at times head-shaking makeup jobs, although to be fair the more outlandish ones are often played for humor, as in the case of Hanks’ Scottish thug-cum-author Dermot Hoggins and the decidedly unfeminine Hugo Weaving in drag as the aforementioned Nurse Noakes.  And it tends to lessen the confusion, I suppose.  Or maybe it enhances it.  I suppose that might depend on your penchant for investing emotionally in faces.  Or something.  Bottom line, it was sometimes an unwelcome distraction.   The story can also seem relentlessly dark, though it does manage to end on a hopeful note.  This wasn’t necessary to convey the story’s power but it was a wise choice, just as it was in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  In an epic of this magnitude, one that could just as easily have ended after the execution of Sonmi-451, say, why not end on the positive?  For, although humans and humanity in the larger sense are bound to go through periods of darkness, I believe we prefer to seek the light, whatever that may be for us.  And the choice to show Hanks as an old man surrounded by a gaggle of happy grandchildren certainly doesn’t take anything away from the film, so why not?

Also, though I myself do not consider this a detriment per se, it should be noted that this is a quintessentially Eastern film in terms of its philosophical approach, which, as I pointed out earlier, will put off many Americans who are disturbed by the idea of reincarnation.  For my money, the fact that the most oppressive of all the various societies shown herein is set in Asia, where social collectivism is more traditionally valued than it is in the West, is not lost me, nor is the fact that one member of the most oppressed group of people in this world—genetically engineered “fabricants” born and bred for slavery and service to mankind—ultimately becomes the most important revolutionary in it, as well as the patron saint of the post-apocalyptic one that falls chronologically last in the series of story lines.

What makes Cloud Atlas so special then is that it is no less than a distillation of all of the  abstruse forces that lie in eternal conflict around us: little guy versus the establishment, freedom versus oppression of all sorts, order versus chaos, knowledge versus faith, hope versus self-destruction, even determinism versus free will (at one point—while sharing a joint no less—one of the characters asks another, “Do you ever feel the universe is against you?”)  All of these big ideas could never really be solidified into a hard and fast plot, hence the experimental structure, which moves so quickly between the film’s various threads that it becomes aptly impressionistic.  The original novel’s author David Mitchell has called the film’s structure “a sort of pointillist mosaic” actually, which is as accurate a description as any.  However you choose to describe it, this is clearly not a Hollywood film, despite its relatively large budget.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I am exceedingly happy this isn’t just another Hollywood sci-fi action adventure film, all bells and whistles and no soul.  This is one of those movies I will enjoy watching again and again, noticing the little things I missed before, and proud to be a member of the species that produced such a magnificent work of art.