The First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time As Farce: The dialog of Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion

When Marx wrote that history repeated itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” he was pointing toward a parodic structure to history wherein the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This was a phenomenon which Bataille later captured with almost the same grace but even more breadth when he declared, ” each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”

Consider then two 2022 films: Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion: a Knives Out mystery. The first film was a nihilistic genre cross between psychological thriller and slasher, directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe based on a story by Kristen Roupenian (of Cat Person fame). It centers upon a clique of rich kids who decide to occupy the mansion of the groups pseudo-leader David’s parents empty mansion on the eve of a hurricane to throw a party. Inter-personal conflict and long-simmering grievances are exacerbated by isolation and disaster until they fall into a Hobbsean war of all against all. Before I go any farther with my analysis though I think it behooves to mention me that both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are films that depend heavily on one or more twists – so please consider this your warning that there are spoilers below.

In Glass Onion, written and directed by Riaan Johnson the consulting detective Benoit Blanc is called into action via another mysterious invitation which lands him at an annual private party held by billionaire (and thinly veiled Elon Musk stand-in) Miles Bron at his private island mansion during the early days of the COVID pandemic. However conflicts over a partner pushed out of the company and a dangerous new product cause the guests to reveal the emptiness of their self-professed friendship beside the naked desire to gain and retain power.

But of course we’ve seen this story before. When it was called Lord of the Flies. It really is a pity that the pedagogy surrounding this book has often been so shabby that people believe Golding’s novel was some sort of comment on universal human nature when it was quite clearly a commentary on the specific cruelty and viciousness of the public school attending classes. Likewise both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are laser focused in their critique specifically of Bourgeois culture in the opening decades of the 21st century. In Bodies Bodies Bodies, much as with Lord of the Flies, this is accomplished by showing how the children of the powerful have been raised to be vicious little monsters. In Glass Onion, rather, the ruling class are attacked directly rather than via their progeny – with the lot of Bourgeois strivers on display being consistently stupid while possessing grandiose belief in their own genius, self-centered backstabbers who present a façade of tight, lasting friendship. Both films expose the contradictions at the heart of the Bourgeois in precisely the same way as Lord of the Flies: isolation and a disaster.

Dividing the bourgeois off from the majority of their exploited subjects, forcing them to fend for themselves, and then introducing the stress of uncertainty brought about by a shipwreck, a hurricane or a global pandemic allows for the surfacing of the fault-lines between their contradictions.

Of course, for all that they might share central thematic and story-structure bones neither Glass Onion nor Bodies Bodies Bodies is reducible to just a rehash of Lord of the Flies. Bodies Bodies Bodies, for instance, sees social dynamics as being far more fluid within our group of rich assholes than Lord of the Flies. Rather than a rigid hierarchy of ins and outs that forms to recreate the oppressed class from within the body of the oppressor the subjects of Bodies Bodies Bodies fall apart completely with alliances shifting as people die and the storm outside worsens. There is a hint of such alliances with the rapid murder of Greg (a veterinarian who everyone stupidly mistakes for a veteran) and the expulsion of working class Bee into the storm shortly thereafter but Bee’s reintegration by Sophie and then the later turn of Sophie and Bee into mutual distrust shortly before the final reveal complexifies this relationship and points back to a fluid social milieu. Meanwhile the political situation of Glass Onion is much more static – there’s Blanc and Andi against everyone else. But, of course, everyone else is “Sucking on Miles’ golden titties,” so the political dynamic becomes far more despotic. The party-goers are either with Miles or against him.

These represent, then, three different views of power among the ruling class. Lord of the Flies proposes that, isolated from their victims and in crisis, the ruling class will produce a novel category of exploitation in order to reproduce extant hierarchies. Bodies Bodies Bodies says the ruling class will descend into the hell of Hobbes, any sense of alliance consumed under paranoia and distrust far too dysfunctional to allow for the reproduction of extant hierarcies. Glass Onion almost splits the difference, saying that a crisis will cause the ruling class to split either based on an expectation that loyalty to the existing hierarchy will set their course or that doing so will cause them to go down with the ship. Here alliance is possible but atomized personal survival trumps the construction of any sort of substantial hierarchy. In Bodies Bodies Bodies friendship is a battleground upon which every rich shithead battles every other rich shithead to become the lord of all the shitheads. In Glass Onion friendship is contingent on maintenance of a position in a pecking order but the idea of a cohesive group isn’t treated as a fiction. It’s somewhat unsurprising that when the “disruptors (shitheads)” finally turn on Miles they do so all together.

There’s also some significant differences in quality of performance between these films. No offense to Pete Davidson but David’s corpse is a far worse antagonist than Edward Norton’s Miles. And Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are far stronger as protagonists than Amanda Stenberg and Maria Bakalova. Give them a few years to mature perhaps.

That being said the return of Benoit Blanc, now elaborated into an aging gay man who suffers from depression when he’s not able to put himself into risky situations involving murder and deception and the introduction of his ally in his latest case, Andi, played by Monae with Mona Lisa-like subtlety, both serve to elevate Glass Onion which would otherwise have suffered for its blunt edges compared to the meaner Bodies Bodies Bodies.

Now I should note that blunt edges and meanness are relative here. Bodies Bodies Bodies has nothing but disgust for the offspring of the ruling class. They are, one and all, mean-spirited, backstabbing, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid. There’s not a moment of sympathy or compassion to be had for any of them. When we finlly get the reveal of the actual circumstances of David’s death all we can do is laugh. Because what these awful people did to each other is precisely what they were always going to do. It’s just that the crisis heightened the stakes from social death to actual death.

On the other hand some compassion can be conjured for the Disruptors/Shitheads. Particularly for Whiskey via the recontextualization of her activities in the flashback sequence. But similar dribbles of humanity are allowed for Duke via his delightful mother and Dave Bautista’s continued capacity to deliver an emotionally subtle performance despite looking like a meat-tank and via the misgivings and sense of being trapped that both Claire and Lionel demonstrate. Even Birdie is allowed a bit of sympathy as it becomes evident that, despite her unexamined prejudices, she mostly suffers from being very stupid and incurious – the sort of person who thought a notorious sweatshop was just somewhere with a powerful reputation for manufacturing sweat pants. But this is where generic markers become significant because Bodies Bodies Bodies is a tragedy and Glass Onion is a farce. Specifically I mean that Bodies Bodies Bodies is a story in which our protagonists are their own undoing via the action of their own character crossed with the fickle hand of fate. In Bodies Bodies Bodies all the death and mayhem would have been fully avoidable if only the protagonists were to stop and think for a second – to talk to each other without the words being simply another category of weapon. They undo themselves and are fully undone. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in the stupidity of its cast. True to its name, no effort is made to conceal Miles’ stupidity. We may hear Lionel talk abut Miles’ brilliance, we might hear Miles brag about what a special little boy he is at length, but Benoit unravels his murder mystery game in under a minute and his malapropisms and nonsense neologisms (“inbreathiate” lol) are so egregious as to immediately undercut the idea that this man is anything other than a fraud. In fact, while Bodies Bodies Bodies creates an atmosphere of paranoia so pervasive as to leave you guessing until the literal last minute as to the identity of the killer Glass Onion lives up to its name by repeatedly reminding the audience that, while it may look as if there are layers of complexity, the core is always visible. Of course Bodies Bodies Bodies cheats by concealing the key evidence (the video of David’s drunken accidental death via failed tik tok stunt) for the final twist while Glass Onion establishes itself firmly within the generic construction of the cozy mystery and plays very fairly with the audience. Glass Onion’s trick is to show you Miles, to tell you Miles has the strongest motive for the murder, to demonstrate that Miles has no alibi and in fact to situate Miles at the scene of the crime via Duke’s comments but then to have Miles and his hangers on spend the whole movie talking piss about how brilliant Miles is. Glass Onion plays the mystery straight, makes it as easy as a “child’s puzzle” puzzle-box invitation and then enthusiastically encourages the audience to over-think and chase obvious red herrings because, well, it couldn’t be that simple, could it? When Blanc realizes he’s been playing 4D chess against a pigeon his own combination of ironic humor and frustration is intended as a reflection of the audience.

And so the history of Lord of the Flies inspired critiques of the ruling class proceeds first as tragedy and then as farce. Both films seek to strip the ruling class naked of their propaganda and to reveal there’s nothing special about the rich. In this regard farce becomes a stronger tool than tragedy. The victims of Bodies Bodies Bodies are constrained to die by their own fundamental moral vacuity. It doesn’t matter that they’re also stupid. It is unimportant that the emperor wears no clothes. After all these are just the children of the emperor anyhow and all we’re seeing is how these otherwise unremarkable life-failures (fail to) learn how to navigate the cut-throat social politics of their class. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in displaying the nakedness of the Disruptors/Shitheads. Even the pilot of the yacht is able to outplay them with wordplay (as it takes Lionel nearly half the film to figure out what was meant by calling Miles’ glass dock a pieceashite) and they are ultimately compelled to abandon Miles when Blanc and Andi demonstrate that Miles has no power beyond what he can con from his more talented peers. Miles, the leader of the Disruptors, is shown to be the dumbest, most foolhardy, most venal and vulgar of the lot of them.

It takes him mere seconds after discovering that Duke has possible leverage over him for him to murder Duke but even then he does it incompetently, literally handing Duke the poisoned drink in plain sight. Miles is still undone by his tragic flaws – the Mona Lisa burns with his mansion because he arrogantly decided to install a backdoor to let him circumvent the agreed-upon safety measures the Louvre required – but because Miles is so obviously the villain of the piece from the first moment we see him this doesn’t invite any sense of the tragic. Instead we laugh at his farcical undoing and clap as Andi and Blanc deliver justice to him. But of course this is also one place where Bodies Bodies Bodies may be slightly stronger than Glass Onion. The tragic former piece cannot imagine justice coming for the ruling class. When they undo themselves it isn’t justice – it’s just the outcome of their own flawed and monstrous nature. But Glass Onion entertains the fantasy that justice might be visited upon the powerful – it envisions a world were a man who is Elon Musk in all but name might actually face the legal consequences for his many transgressions. It’s a pleasant fantasy and an appropriate ending to a farcical movie. But perhaps, although I would be as loath to universalize the bellum omnium contra omnes of Bodies Bodies Bodies beyond the bounds of the ruling class as I am to generalize the reproduction of exploitation beyond the British ruling class of Lord of the Flies, it is more honest and unflinching about how the Bourgeois will end than Glass Onion.

I don’t know. I would like to believe the fantasy of justice Riaan Johnson penned. I’m just not sure I can. It’s an easier pill to swallow than the undiluted bile of Bodies Bodies Bodies. But this makes it, perhaps, easier to recuperate than the former. Which is a better tool to explore the ruling class in this moment? Farce or tragedy? Pessimism or fantasy? In the end I’m unsure. But it’s at least heartwarming to see these conversations occurring across film.

The Polymorphous Perversity of Hellraiser (2022)

One of the chief thematic touchpoints of the fifth Scream film, released this year under the title Scream, is the concept of the requel.

This is a format of horror cinema that exists between the reboot and the sequel. According to the film-buff victims and killers of Scream this generally involves a handoff between legacy characters and a new generation, an exploration of the life-long impact of traumatic events on the protagonists and, in general, a contention with the consequences of horrific circumstances.

Key examples of the requel that have arisen recently include the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween / Kills / Ends trilogy. However there is an element of the requel that Scream somewhat elided and, in exploring how Hellraiser fits into its respective series, it’s an important one: the requel often is an admission of the diminishing quality of sequels. I mean I think nobody needs persuasion that Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers wasn’t a good movie and while I have a personal fondness for the camp of Jason X it is also not exactly a piece of cinema that operates at the same level as the original two Friday the 13th movies. The requel format usually resolves this problem by ignoring that the middle movies exist. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a direct sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The films between 1986 and 2017 just aren’t relevant. Likewise the recent Halloween trilogy picks up from Halloween in much the same way that the previous requel attempt (H20 & Resurrection) did from Halloween 2.

I think it’s important to look at this element because while Hellraiser could easily be viewed as a straightforward reboot I think it makes nearly as much sense to consider it in light of the requel. I say this not so much because of any connections of plot or lore but rather because of the way this film, sometimes deftly and sometimes less so, is in dialogue with Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. We cannot possibly call this a reboot of Hellraiser 2. That film was far too tied, at the plot and character level, to the original Hellraiser. But we also cannot deny both that nothing within this film would preclude the events of Hellraiser 2 from happening – the recasting and redesign of the Hell’s Priest and the creation of a host of entirely new Cenobites to accompany her more than accommodate the deaths of the Doug Bradly iteration of the character and his associated compatriots (RIP Butterball you were too beautiful for this earth) – and this movie is exploring many of the same questions as Hellraiser 2: where do Cenobites come from? How do they come and for whom?

In order to explore this theme we’re introduced to Riley, a struggling multi-addict who is attempting recovery, played with exceptional depth and sensitivity by Odessa A’zion. Riley is having a rough go of it. She’s been clean for a while but she’s had trouble finding a job. She lives with her brother, his boyfriend and their roommate and none of them quite approve of her current boyfriend, Trevor, who she met in her 12 step program. These misgivings prove founded as Trevor seduces Riley into both aiding him in a crime (stealing the unknown contents of a safe that appears to be abandoned) and into sliding off the wagon. The contents of the safe: the Lament Configuration.

There is a change to the puzzle box in this outing and this change represents one of the largest structural weaknesses of the film. In this version solving the box will expose a hidden blade. The Cenobites will take whoever is cut by this blade, not necessarily whoever solves the box. This creates a tension from the statement in Hellraiser 2 that, “It is not hands that call us. It is desire.” At its silliest this leads to a scene late in the film in which a Cenobite is cut by the box and is ripped apart by its fellows but it also leads to several of Riley’s room mates being taken, or threatened, by the Cenobites despite not having expressed any desires that might have called the Cenobites to begin with.

A lot of this is a script problem. There is a ghost of a solution to this issue within the film through the depiction of Riley’s conflicting desire. There’s a scene when she’s been kicked out of her brother’s apartment. Preparing to drive into the night she packs all her things into a car and she discovers some pills. She opens the bottle, almost eats them then throws them on the ground. After a beat she then crouches down, picks the pills back up from between the cobblestones and eats them all. What does Riley want here? She wants to be rid of her addiction. She wants to throw away her pills. She also wants very much to take them. Riley isn’t a unified arrow of desire; her libidinal investments shoot off in all directions and at all times. If people are packets of conflicting desire then sure anyone might desire to call the Cenobites.

But the other characters are insufficiently fleshed out to carry this message home. Riley’s brother Matt has a hint of this same conflicted desire – he kicks his fuck-up sister out of his home and then almost immediately goes running into the night looking for her on the premonition she’s come to harm – but he dies far too quickly (off-screen) for us to ever really know him well enough to understand the conflicts within his heart the way the story would require. If we’d seen some contact between Matt and the Hell’s Priest (played with wonderful aplomb by the exceptional Jamie Clayton in one of the most inspired recasting choices I’ve ever seen) we might have been able to buy that Matt’s desires called the Cenobites to him. Instead he’s just the poor sucker who got poked by the wrong knife.

Eventually it transpires that Riley, Matt, Trevor and all the rest are dancing on the strings of the demented occultist Roland Voight – a disappointing downgrade from Phillip Channard or, especially, Frank Cotton. Voight previously solved the final configuration of the puzzlebox and was rewarded a wish by the Cenobites. For baffling and poorly explained reasons he chose “sensation” (who would ask Cenobites for that gift if others were available) and the Cenobites responded by creating an instrument that winds his nerve fibers around cranks at random intervals, allowing him to persist in everlasting torment. Voight has some buyer’s remorse.

Honestly Voight represents the other manifestation of the weakness in the script of this film. His plot makes little sense and only works, at all, because of the direct intercession of the Hell’s Priest and / or the accidental miss of a knife to Riley’s hand. Furthermore, his Cenobite-trap home makes for a beautiful baroque set but also leads to some of the silliest slasher antics of a movie that is desperately trying not to be just another slasher. Finally Goran Višnjić simply doesn’t deliver a performance that is even in the same genre as those of A’Zion and Clayton. They’re going for subtlety and depth; he’s chewing the sets. A protagonist as good as Riley deserved a better villain than Voight. But at least this film understands what all Hellraiser movies barring the first two failed to: the Cenobites aren’t the villains of the piece. As a result the Cenobites are a delight. Their motivations may be muddied with the business with the knife in the box but what we get as a result is a host of terrible angels: truly inscrutable cosmic horrors who can do anything, appear anywhere, shape reality to their whims and are entirely inhuman. The creature design in this film is top-notch. I’ve mentioned that Jamie Clayton is excellent in her performance as the Hell’s Priest but she also looks absolutely stunning. A perfect reimagining of the iconic monster. The new Cenobtes are equally delightful to behold.

That being said it does seem strange the extent to which this film shies away from gore considering its subject matter. Scenes of explicit gore are used sparingly and this combined with the slow-burn pacing, the dramatic characterization of the protagonist and the angelic design of the Cenobites leaves this film feeling almost staid. For better and worse this is not Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. What we end up with is an imbalanced movie. It is far better than the vast majority of Hellraiser movies. I’d even hazard to call it the third-best in the franchise. But with two of the best performances in the franchise and the beautiful reimagining of the Cenobites it shows potential to have been so much better than third-best.

Unfortunately David Goyer was twenty years past the point in his career where he might have been up to the task of writing the script this film needed and the film was marred by an underwhelming villain. However this lopsided story of the tangled contradiction of desire remains a better movie than Hellraisers 3 through 10 and clearly demonstrates how jettisoning the chaff of poor quality sequels can still breathe new life into tired franchises. And, honestly, the only one of these franchise requels to have served better as a stand-alone film was Scream 2022. So perhaps we should be a little satisfied with an okay film featuring two excellent performances when it could have been so much worse.

Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of my most anticipated movies of 2022. It almost beat out Crimes of the Future for the title of the film that got my pandemic-anxious backside back in cinema seats and the only reason I ended up waiting for the digital release was because it got very few screens in PEI (one) and the only showing was not at a time I could readily get to. Perhaps this is for the best because, although Everything Everywhere All at Once is far better than other multiverse-themed media I’ve seen this year, it would have been a let-down compared to my level of anticipation of it.

Now, I do want to be fair, this movie is well put-together. We get a good performance from Michelle Yeoh as the protagonist, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant struggling to keep her laundry business afloat as her family drifts apart. I should note that this is far from her best performance; she evinced neither the scenery-chewing glory of her turn on Star Trek Discovery nor the under-stated dignity that fuel her excellent performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny or the various dramatic roles she performed throughout the first decade of the 2000s. However Yeoh is a talented performer and even when not delivering her best work she is still very talented – if slightly up-staged by the delightful and unexpected range demonstrated by Ke Huy Quan as Waymond and the deranged scenery chewing of Jamie Lee Curtis who is very much on her A-Game here.

The Daniels deliver the exact kind of fast-cut music-video affected dadaist absurdity we would expect of them in a manner that delivers some excellent costuming and blocking and some perfectly passable set construction and Paul Rogers shows some excellent editing with an especial nod to the inventiveness of scene transitions in the second half and to an excellent rapid-fire montage at the climax of the film.

There are problems at the script level. Particularly the resolution of Evelyn’s material problems in our principal continuity are entirely subsumed into her cathartic revelation regarding her relationships. It seems somewhat pat the extent to which the conflict surrounding her tax bills just kind of smooth away in the conclusion just because our protagonist experienced a revelation concerning inter-general trauma and empathy. And these problems cannot be eased out regardless of how many strong performances are delivered and no matter how clever the editing.

Furthermore Stephanie Hsu seemed unable to deliver the emotional weight necessary for her role as Joy. It’s publicly known that the role was originally written for Akwafina but that she was unable to fill it due to a scheduling conflict – perhaps the expectation was that the role would be played funnier? But what we get is a rather dry and straightforward read of a character who should be anything else. Ultimately this may come back to problems with the script.

Now looking at what story the script is trying to tell what we see is a use of the multiverse to set up a conflict between two different existentialist perspectives: absurdity and ambiguity. Evelyn must learn to differentiate the absurd from the ambiguous such that she can save Joy from self-annihilation which is said to be intrinsic to a true appreciation of the absurdity of existence. Because alpha-Joy discovers the absurdity of a life in which any possible set of conditions might apply, which takes on any possible permutation of options, she becomes despondent, seeing what Kierkegaard would call the “levelling scythe” of dialectics collapsing into oneness. And it’s not surprising to see other critics using Kierkegaard in order to situate Evelyn’s arc as being one of identifying the need for a leap of faith but I personally think Beauvoir is a better lens here. Consider, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” This statement from The Ethics of Ambiguity, more than anything else I’ve ever seen, sums up the core conflict of the film. Joy believes that existence is absurd. Evelyn discovers it’s truly more ambiguous – that in each moment one can attempt to build a meaning via one’s community. And I think it’s important that the resolution doesn’t just involve the oedipal triangle of Evelyn, Joy and Waymond but a broader community that includes customers at the laundromat, extended family and even Deirdre Beaubeirdre, an IRS inspector and antagonist to Evelyn who contains unexpected depths. I like that they made this choice because if this film had collapsed everything down to “family is meaning in the face of the absurd,” it would have been a far weaker movie.

However I do think that this film suffers both from too great an attempt at subtlety and nuance and also from the intrinsic limitations of the multiverse as a storytelling model. Specifically I don’t think many people, even in the art-film audience, are likely to care enough about nearly century-old internal disputes among existentialists to particularly identify Kierkegaard here, Camus there, Beauvoir here. And, honestly, I think that the Daniels interpretation of absurdity is also lacking. I have seen other critics suggest that they would have been better off if they’d read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or some other anti-natalist literature when fleshing out Joy’s character but, honestly, it’d probably be helpful if it had been clear they’d even read and understood The Myth of Sisyphus. Expecting an antagonist informed by Ligotti might be a stretch when dealing with scriptwriters who seem to have missed key points of Camus’ work considering how heavily Joy leans on Camus for her ideology.

Part of the problem here is the multiverse and, gosh, but if there’s a concept I’d like Hollywood to forget quickly that is it.

First off let’s be clear that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really the one preferred by physicists, cosmologists or philosophers of science. Multiverses are not a provable part of our reality sufficiently to make them an inevitability in art – part of a material basis to contend with. In fact, prior to Michael Moorcock, they weren’t really part of the genre fiction landscape much at all and only really achieved prominence when DC realized they could use the concept to lampshade continuity errors within their catalog of comic stories. And so we must treat multiverses not as an emergent property of fiction but rather as a deliberate narrative conceit.

Multiverses invite reflexive passivity in that, like we saw in the inferior Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s very easy to tease out a demand that you be satisfied with your lot in this universe because of the inevitable progression of an invisible hand composed of the aggregate decisions of history. By showing us the infinity of possibilities and then insisting upon a root universe to tether the audience to the multiverse actually constrains freedom. We can’t have the liberation of Beauvoir’s ethics within ambiguity because everything is purely deterministic.

This determinism is a problem in Everything Everywhere All At Once which posits every minor decision a person makes causes a bifurcation of reality. In this universe you had always already made that choice. The universe becomes clockwork – and that lack of agency is not something that arises in the debate between Joy’s absurdism and Evelyn’s ambiguity. Both seem resigned that they are slaves to the past.

I honestly think this fatalism represents a limit of the multiverse as a narrative conceit. If you introduce this arborescent pattern of decisions fanning out from some root such as a subjective sense of self you’ll end up with a fatalistic story. And this fatalism is at odds with a Beauvoirian read. Evelyn wants to tell Joy that we can win meaning out of the immediacy of our lives, that we can fight for the people we love and bring them back from the edge except she says this from a position of absolute inability to truly act. She must become aware that every decision she might have made has, in fact, been made and that the consequences of the same are fully mapped out. She must commit fully to a view of a multiverse of clockwork just to get the the point of being able to contend with Joy.

Pretty bleak.

Beauvoir built her ethic around an expectation that freedom, true radical freedom, wasn’t just something that could be achieved. It was, in fact, an emergent property of the world. Every person is, at all times, a font of infinite potential. But this is what a multiverse movie misses – that font of potential doesn’t arise out of failure. It simply arises. What a person can do is either recognize that freedom and foster growth of that recognition in others or succumb to a kind of mystification that obscures freedom via the antinomies of action.

This is the thorn this film gets caught upon and it leaves us with something that is, unsurprisingly, similar to a music video: stylish, surely. Well performed too. But ultimately empty and a little trite. That this is probably the best we could expect from the multiverse as a form should hopefully be sufficient to put a nail in the coffin of this narrative conceit but I won’t hold my breath.

Mad God and Cosmic Ecstasy

“The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.”
—-Georges Bataille – the Solar Anus

Mad God (2022) is a metatextual myth. The story goes that Phil Tippett, a master of practical special effects whose innovations include the AT-AT Imperial Walker, ED-209 and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and his team spent 30 years, off and on, creating Mad God as a passion project – that it was a matter of grave artistic doubt for Tippett, who often expressed anxiety over CGI and what it might do to his career. It is a mythic origin story – built around an heroic figure who, charismatically leading a cohort of allies, overcame both physical trials and psychological tortures to achieve a grand ambition. We can imagine Tippett Odysseus. Simultaneously we have a work that immediately situates itself within the mythic through the immediate citation of Leviticus 26,

“If you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me I will act against you in wrathful hostility. I, for my part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.

You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.

I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands and I will head your carcasses upon your lifeless idols.

I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors.

I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle it shall be appalled by it.

And you I will scatter among the nations and I will unsheath the sword against you.

Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.”

Now it should be noted that this particular version of the biblical quote has been somewhat modified against any contemporary translation – particularly the line “I will destroy your cult places…” is generally quite different in most translations from what is written here. And, of course, when one quotes a significant work of myth but then manipulates the quote it raises the question of why the quote was manipulated and to what ends.

And this brings us comfortably to the question of what Mad God is trying to communicate. The script gives us few clues – most of the dialog in this movie is either complete garbled nonsense or it is grunts and chuckles. Further frustrating straightforward interpretation the quote from Leviticus is effectively the only legible text more complex than a clock face which arises in the film. When we see printed objects like maps and scrolls they are principally covered in illegible glyphs. The maps, in particular, decompose as they are read as if to tell us that these signposts exist only to draw us deeper into the labyrinth. Mad God is best treated as a attempt to communicate something that is ultimately incommunicable. In Inner Experience Georges Bataille said,

“I must admit today that these states of communication were only rarely accessible to me.

I was far from knowing what I see clearly today, that anguish is linked to them. I couldn’t understand at the time that a trip which I had been greatly looking forward to had only brought me uneasiness, that everything had been hostile for me, beings and things, but above aIl men, whose empty lives in remote villages I was obliged to see – empty to the point of diminishing him who perceives them – at the same time that I saw a self-assured and malevolent reality.”

For Bataille the ability to articulate the incommunicable depends upon an experience of anguish or ecstasy – sense must be pushed to the limit of what can be experienced in order to recognize experience qua experience. Mad God takes this to heart and as such an attempt to communicate its incommunicable substance depends on the infliction of agony. But as we cannot ourselves be directly subject to the agonies of Mad God we must pass those agonies onto a protagonist. This then is the role of our protagonist – the Assassin.

At first it seems like the role of the Assassin is to bear witness to agony. Their pod escapes the fire of guns and they emerge to see a small scene of cruelty – a reminder of the destructiveness which is eating – as a creature in bandages emerges from a hole to capture and consume a smaller creature only to be caught in turn and dismembered by a larger and more ferocious creature.

The Assassin slips away from this scene of personal, immediate, cruelty and descends to a factory where featureless workers toil and are annihilated in the construction of flat-faced monoliths. This factory scene is one of the most fascinating in the film for how it lays bare the violence at the heart of material relations. The workers are fashioned, ultimately, of the shit of captive and tortured giants. They toil and they die. Sometimes these deaths seem explicitly suicidal as workers throw themselves into fiery pits. Other times they die because the system of production they’re enmeshed in finds no value in their lives. They are faceless labour resources.

They have management both in the form of torturous foremen and distant and incomprehensible management. The directions of management comes across as the disjointed elements of a rotting face and the babble of a pre-verbal infant. The workers, too, engage in acts of brutality, cutting at the flesh of livestock whose bodies serve some part in the abstract and alienating factory processes around them. The assassin is not here as a liberator though and descends further through a series of tunnels and then to the place where they must plant their bomb. But the assassin is captured and the bomb never detonates. Of course every labyrinth has minotaur at its center. The scene pans out to show us that the heart of this labyrinth is littered with stacks of un-exploded bombs. This assassin is not the first to try and pace a bomb here. And none have ever succeeded.

It’s interesting to consider the clarity with which this film tells us that this is a labyrinth designed never to be exited. Of course that was the purpose of the labyrinth of Minos – and without Ariadne Theseus would never have escaped. There is no Ariadne in Mad God; the Assassin’s map always disintegrates upon them reaching a new plateau of this underworld.

But this is ultimately not a story about the Assassin, it’s a story about the machinery of an alien and hostile god. And so, after the Assassin is taken by our minotaur, they end up in a surgery where they are vivisected without sedation. I’m going to offer a word of caution here that my tastes run dark and I tend to see the humour in a lot of pretty horrifying stuff in horror cinema. The Thing is low-key really funny. The surgery sequence of Mad God was up in the top-three most difficult to watch sequences of film I’ve ever seen along with the opening scene of Begotten and Salò (just… like… all of Salò) it represents a clinical reduction of a person to just a pile of stuff. We actually get to see the Assassin dismembered twice. First presented as a shadow-play for an audience somewhere within the cosmology of the film and then second intimately, as we watch a surgeon and a nurse empty the Assassin of everything. And I do really mean everything from uncertain organs, to books, piles of blood-soaked coins to even a fish. Eventually, the last thing cut out of the Assassin is a screaming worm-like infant who is escorted down a series of impossible corridors (we are still within the inescapable labyrinth) by a nurse, one of a very small number of human actors who appear on-screen.

But before our nurse travels down this endless industrial corridor we learn more about where the Assassin comes from. A figure called the Last Man in the credits, another of the very small set of human actors in this film is elsewhere, dressed in the robes of a Cardinal. He receives the map the Assassin uses from three witches and verifies its contents before sending the Assassin down into the maelstrom of war and his eventual demise in the labyrinth below. This scene confirms something that was hinted at before – that this Assassin is but one of many sent below. None have succeeded. But the attire of the Last Man and the way the film frames him as being in collaboration with the terrible god of this labyrinthine underworld asserts a sort of cyclical predestination. The experience of the Assassin bearing witness to all this cruelty becomes a cog in the machinery of the terrible factory and its monstrous outputs.

It is essential that Mad God is filmed mostly with puppets. In this regard Ligotti has his finger on the pulse, saying puppets,

“are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet masters will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, although never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in
the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.”

And this is central to the intensity of the horror Mad God produces. The semi-distance that filming Mad God with puppets gives us is far closer than it would be if this were just another CGI, or even hand-drawn, cartoon. And certainly it would be impossible to film Mad God and its visions of excess in such an explicit manner if it were all filmed with human actors. No. The horror of Mad God intrinsically depends upon the subjects being puppets. They could be nothing else. The horror of Mad God is explicitly a horror of the puppet. These creatures are being moved; regardless of the threats against disobedience in the Leviticus quote disobedience isn’t an option. The motives of the god of Mad God, inscrutable and alien though they are, cannot be overcome by the subjects within it. They are all, every one of them, puppets.

And so it is a puppet that takes the screaming infant-thing extracted from the Assassin and it is to a puppet it is delivered. This puppet, a leering and gnome like figure who seems warmly amused by the suffering of its various experimental subject may be an avatar of the god of Mad God or may be, like the Last Man, one of its servants. This is left ambiguous in the film. But he is as happy as he is violent. He keeps a vivarium full of beautiful, psychedelic, plants and colourful little creatures then releases a predator to consume one while its mate looks on in horror. This amuses him for a moment.

When he turns his attention to the screaming infant it’s to mash it with a macerator and collect its pulp. This is forged into an ingot which is crushed and dispersed into the cosmos where each grain of dust from the infant-worm inside the Assassin becomes a monolith just like the ones from the factory sequence. These monoliths become seeds, bringing life to barren worlds and with life the same cycles of creation and destruction that were witnessed by the Assassin throughout their descent.

“When they arrive at the salon of Princess Guermantes, the destruction of the puppets is completed,” Bataille said, referencing Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Bataille’s fortuitous deployment of the puppet here is in service of an argument that communication principally exists to determine the measure of the unknown. Language creates fences of the known that set a boundary against the unknown: that which cannot be spoken of.

But Bataille believes that artistic communication, poetic communication in particular, has some access to the unknown, saying of Proust, “The charm of Proust’s style is due ta a sort of prolonged exhaustion in which develops that which the dissolving progression of time (death) leaves open.” This idea of death as a dissolving progression of time is echoed in the way that Mad God handles time. Frankly this movie defies chronology. An extended sequence during the vivisection of the Assassin can be read as tapping into the memory the Assassin had of crossing a battlefield before their descent proper. However these memories include moments the Assassin would not have been privy to and they may, in fact, be a reification of the fact another Assassin has already been sent down into the labyrinth. The bombs of the Assassins never detonate in part because their detonators are tied to clocks and clocks, in the cosmology of Mad God, are fickle things that operate under no discernable logic. Time itself is so fluid that one might die twice, or never, just as space is so fluid that the monoliths are both the dust of a crushed ingot smelted from the fluid of a dead infant and also the product of demonic factory labour.

“The infant may cry, if things went right. But time will dry its eyes; time will take care of it. Time will take care of everyone until there are none of us to take care of,” Ligotti says. He would likely disagree with Bataille’s view of an eternal return in endless cycles of creation and destruction. Mad God, here, takes Bataille’s side and time certainly does not take care of anyone at all. In fact time is fundamentally fickle and openly antagonistic. Clocks will tick to the last second and then turn back; ages will pass in moments; time will stand still and allow a second of agony to stretch into an eternity. The dust of the wailing infant sparks entire cycles of solar economy on disparate worlds.

In a vignette of one of these worlds of strife anarchist rebels struggle for freedom. But we know that the god of Mad God brooks no freedom in whatever its design is. What, ultimately, is the purpose of this vast, punitive, theater of cruelty? Some other critics have suggested that the world of Mad God represents a world of the fall after the Tower of Babel. But this disregards the distortion of Leviticus. This is not the God of the Christians but rather something adjacent, something more raw. And we have the tools to see what this god wants and it’s nothing more than unbridled creation. That creation is fueled by cruelty and destruction because, per the first lesson of the Assassin, everything kills to eat. There is something of the pessimistic despair of Ligotti about the universe of Mad God. The avatars of the god the Gnome and the Alchemist are unfeeling and willfully cruel monsters. They have the best interests of nobody at heart and all of the creation we see is part of a gigantic mechanism of torture. But this mechanism is the motor of creation. It takes a desolate universe of rocks moving in arcs through space and fills it with strife. This, then, answers the question of why a god would threaten punishment for disobedience to a populace entirely unable to disobey its all-encompassing will. It is because this god’s will is to upend the predictability of existence, to introduce the chaos of an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.

“Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.

Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.

Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form,” Bataille tells us and this would appear to be the purpose of the Mad God. The final image of the film is of a bird springing forth from a clock, a moment of rotation becoming a phallic penetration. It shouts, “coo coo, coo coo.” And, on one hand, this is a delightful joke. This mad work of creation is certainly coo coo. But it’s also a reminder that we live in a maddening creation devoid of perfection. These cycles are unending and mechanistic but liberation lives within them. The anarchist rebels who fight on a distant world come about as much through the cruel cycle as the arbitrary and nonsensical directions of the factory manager.

This mad cycle also speaks back to the metamyth of the film’s creation. Tippett saw his entire career possibly razed by the advent of CGI only to cycle back into creation 30 years later when the limits of that technology were realized and when new technologies provided the ground for Tippett and his team to realize their artistic vision.

Mad God is an unrivalled work of perverse creativity and, through all its brutality, manages to become almost hopeful. This film is amor fati fully realized. It discovers freedom in the clockwork of an insane god and the possibility of liberation through conflict. If the Assassin fails, if they are ultimately just cogs in a god’s machine, it is in service of the explosion of anarchic life, in all its beauty and cruelty, throughout the cosmos. And that is beauty enough to celebrate.

Crimes of the Future: Living a life as art

In the early minutes of Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg) we learn that people have changed. Pain nearly doesn’t exist; a few people still experience it in their sleep. And people have begun manifesting novel organs of unclear purpose. This is a situation of great concern to the governments of the world.

But it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t entirely true. Saul Tenser’s (Viggo Mortensen) life appears to be one of almost unending agony as he lurches, coughs and gags through a constant pain that he dismisses with neutral language: blockage, thickness, interruption.

Saul has a bed that is supposed to respond to his body, prevent the true pain he experiences in sleep from disrupting his sleep cycles too badly but it doesn’t work well. He has a “breakfaster chair” that is supposed to help him in eating and digesting the pureed foods he chokes down but nothing seems a greater agony to him than the act of trying to eat. And, of course, nobody seems to manifest novel organs as rapidly as Saul.

Saul is an artist. His performance very much calls to mind the work of Ron Athey. He gestates novel organs. When he feels they are ready within him his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), tattoos them still within him. They then perform an operation in which the tattooed organs will be excised by Caprice, using a modified autopsy bed to perform this biopsy. The tattooed organ is then presented to the audience.

Immediately the question of artistic authority is raised. While Saul and Caprice insist they are equal partners it becomes evident to people that they talk to that Caprice is the one doing what we might generally consider art. She acts upon Saul’s body by marking his flesh, cutting it open and presenting his marks to the world. Prone to portentous speeches, Caprice believes that the body, as a thing, is a void of meaning. By marking Saul’s body with ink she injects meaning into these bizarre growths he produces.

But Caprice and Saul both argue back that Saul is an artist because it is he who creates the organs to be marked. The question of will arises. Do these organs come about because Saul wills them? They seem to be the source of his agonies. But is this a conscious act of production that wills these organs into existence? Is it Saul or his body that desires these things? Is Saul, in fact, his body?

Saul and Caprice are both enmeshed in a world of performance artists. Saul attends a performance in which a dancer with his eyes and mouth sewn shut and prosthetic ears grafted across the entirety of his body presents himself. He thinks the performance is fine; but everyone agrees it’s not up to the quality of Saul’s work. The ears are artificial. That Saul grows the organs within him matters.

Caprice also has her own artistic interests. She seems to feel trapped in Saul’s shadow. He’s the great Saul Tenser. She is merely his partner. She has her own friends whose art is more akin to Orlan than to Athey. Her friend Odile (Denise Capezza) isn’t interested in the mortification of Saul’s performance, there is no agony there. But she wants her body to be a canvas upon which she can create. She shapes her appearance so that she can be a work of art just the same.

Of course this is no different from the ear-dancer. He felt no pain as the needle slid through his eyelids and sealed them. He, too, took conscious control over the shape of his being. So why does this hierarchy exist? Why do the various people who populate Crimes of the Future seem to believe there’s something more artistic in growing into something different than in choosing to become it? What role does will play here and how must we define it?

In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life Ron Athey cut open the back of his assistant, Divinity P. Fudge, and dabbed at the wounds with paper towel. He hoisted these blood-soaked rags up above the audience and presented the gay blood that so many assumed to be intrinsically tainted by AIDS. The press was unkind. But there is an interesting dynamic at play here between Athey, the person cutting and Fudge who was cut. The assumption, even of the receptive corners of the artistic world, was that Athey, wielding the knife, was the artist and Fudge was something of a canvas or an ink-pot for his work.

And yet Divinity P. Fudge got up there and exposed himself, his body became marked. The wounds kissed paper like mouths and left their marks. In a later scene of Crimes of the Future Saul is invited to join an “inner beauty pageant,” an underground celebration of novel organs. He has a zipper installed in his abdomen to allow easier access to his innards. Caprice unzips him and kisses the incision as if he were Christ. The same dynamic exists between Tenser and Caprice as existed between Athey and Fudge. One acts, the other is acted upon but the will to become art exists in the interplay between both. And it is in this inter-subjective act of communion that we find a thread to begin leading us out of the tangle of unanswered questions Crimes of the Future presents.

Biopolitics

“The excess of biopower appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive. This formidable extension of biopower … will put it beyond all human sovereignty.”

— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, March 17, 1976

Governments have become very concerned about novel organs. As a response to concerns that these novel organs represent an advent of something inhuman they have sought to discipline these bodies, to bring these bodies away from Foucault’s excess of biopower and back within the realm of the sovereign state. The National Organ Registry, a secretive bureaucratic organization, has been founded to excise and to mark novel organs. The two bureaucrats who serve here are both big fans of Saul and Caprice. Wippet (Don McKellar) is a pervert who adores these new organs. He’s joined the National Organ Registry because he sees them as sources of constant beauty. Timlin (Kristin Stewart, in what should be a career-defining performance) covets Caprice’s talent. She is less beholden to the beauty of the organ and, instead, wants to mark them, give them a state’s meaning, bring them within discipline. She lusts after Saul nevertheless. Finally state power is represented by Cope (Welket Bungué) – a police officer who sees a political threat in the evolution of subjects away from humanity. Within these three we see very different approaches to how a state might want to bring these unruly organs under control be that through the revelation and celebration of their beauty, their disciplining via the act of sorting and marking or the more absolute discipline of state violence. There is also corporate interference. Two women who appear to work for the corporation responsible for Saul’s assistive devices lurk throughout the film and work to keep the simmering boil of the future contained in a capitalist now. While they clearly do not serve the state and its disciplinary functions they, nevertheless, collaborate with it.

Of course this government is divided against itself. There is no body of the king that all these people extend from, no real central will. Instead Wippet works to undermine his own agency out of his infatuation for neo-organs while Timlin undermines her supervisor in order to better serve state power. Cope is distant and ineffective. The corporate assassins are close and brutally effective.

What these people who think like states all see, what Saul and Caprice are too bound up in their art to consider, is that these neo-organs are a crisis of the human. There is a real fear of the Ship of Theseus at play here. How many organs can grow within a person and have them still be a human?

In the inciting moments of the film a little boy plays by the seaside. His mother calls to him, disapproving, and tells him not to eat anything he finds. Anything. He doesn’t respond to her.

Later the boy eats a plastic garbage pail in the bathroom and she smothers him with a pillow. Later, still, his grieving father is eating a bar of purple material that looks something like a chocolate bar. He leaves it lying around and another man picks it up and eats it. He dies immediately. Contrary to Caprice’s belief that the body is without intrinsic meaning this man, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), believes that there is a very definite purpose within the transformation of the body. He is a cell leader in a revolutionary faction called evolutionists who, prompted by the advent of neo-organs, have taken it upon themselves to reshape the digestive system. They have become plastic-eaters. But the food they eat is toxic to anyone who has not undergone the surgery. Except for his son Bracken who, in some fit of Lamarckian impossibility, has been born with neo-organs that allow him to, naturally, eat plastics. But only that. His mother was convinced he was an inhuman monster, kidnapped and killed him because she hated her own son as an inhuman product of her estranged husband’s obsessions.

In Crimes of the Future the body and its configuration have become a deeply charged political question. States wish to preserve command over the granting of life and the form it will take for the public, in aggregate. As such the random deviation of the body and its deliberate shaping are effectively synonymous. It doesn’t matter that Bracken was born able to eat plastic while Lang gave himself the quality. Both are equally monstrous to a state whose principal concern is not how people can eat plastic but that they might. A mother rejects her own child, murders him, because she cannot tolerate such difference and the bile she projects at Lang is just as vicious. She blames him, and his transformative desires, for precipitating her murder of her son.

Lang wants to reveal the truth of his son’s transformation to the world and begs Saul to use his autopsy table to reveal the truth. Saul eventually, reluctantly, agrees. Caprice seems eager to do it and discover definitively whether the body has intrinsic meaning. When they cut the boy open they discover that he has already been thoroughly marked by Timlin who has filled the child-corpse with tattooed organs in a plagiaristic homage to Caprice’s tattoo work. Any intrinsic meaning the body might have is over-coded by the demands of the state.

“All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: too breed man, to mark him in his flesh,” Deleuze and Guattari say in Anit-Oedipus. They say this marking of the flesh exists to form man “within the debtor-creditor relation, which on both sides turns out to be a matter of memory – a memory straining toward the future.” The state fears that people might become inhuman because to do so might set people outside the bounds of debt and alliance that tie them back to the state and grant its power. The absolute biopower of a body to become different from itself is the ultimate threat to the ability of the state to discipline a body. As Deleuze says, “We do not even know what a body is capable of,” and Foucault points out that discipline begins, in part, in the barracks and the careful systematization of bodies to individual, almost atomic, movements. To discipline a body is to sort, carefully, what it can do. This anarchic metastasis threatens that disciplinary power. If a body has intrinsic meaning: if it is, of its own volition, trying to become something new and different then it cannot be governed.

The corporate assassins kill Lang but Saul abandons any pretext of cooperation with the state in light of this. He goes home and eats the purple chocolate as Caprice films him. The film ends with a look of ecstasy on his face as, for the first time in the film, he eats without excruciating agony. We don’t know if he will live or die but he is becoming something other than what he was.

Will toward art

We must not forget in all this talk of power and revolution, of states and revolting bodies, that Saul and Caprice are first and foremost artists. Our initial question is not about whether a state can, or even should, govern the potentials of a body but rather whether a body has the will to become an artwork without the conscious intention to become art of some ego behind the body. Must a body be governed to become a body of art or can art conjure itself?

We are presented with arguments both for and against this. The ear-dancer fails to make art of himself by conscious effort while Saul creates his art effortlessly. But Saul’s art is overcoded with Caprice’s tattoos and Odile has been successful creating of herself an artwork through conscious will.

It seems as if, within Crimes of the Future, will is distinct from conscious direction. A body may have direction but lack will. It may have will but lack direction. It may lack both – like Bracken’s unfortunate corpse – or it may contain both – like Saul in the moment when he eats the plastic bar.

Art demands both. Saul, containing the will toward art, and Caprice, holding a direction, make an excellent collaborative team precisely because they are able to thread this needle together. The question of whether Athey or Fudge was the true artist is a wrong question. Both are essential to the process.

Crimes of the Future envisions art as a becoming rather than a being. It exists not in the paint affixed to canvas but in the act of affixing the paint. The art exists between the hand holding the brush and the canvas upon which the marks are presented. It is a suspended moment of transition.

Crimes of the Future sits at the precipice off the Outside. The state fights back against the advent of the new weakly, in a disorganized manner, and is ultimately ineffective at doing anything more meaningful than defacing a child’s corpse. Capital, too, attempts to forestall the future albeit with a bit more savagery but no more success. They kill one rebel but untold hundreds more exist. The future cannot be forestalled. The artistry of Crimes of the Future exists in describing the fluid process of becoming. It’s irrelevant whether Saul will become a plastic eater or a corpse. The fixity of being is to be denied. Instead what is significant is the process of change whereby he is no longer what he once was.

We must all undergo becoming.

We must all change to be no longer what we once were.

In doing so we may live our lives as art.

Holding on: Generosity, greed and death in The Green Knight

Þenne tas he hym stryþe to stryke,
And frounsez boþe lyppe and browe;
No meruayle þaȝ hym myslyke
Þat hoped of no rescowe.
He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre 
With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek

The Green Knight is a 2021 filmic adaptation of the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written and directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel.

The film starts with young Gawain as a squire who aspires to become a knight in the service of an elderly King Arthur. At Christmastime a terrifying giant knight with the face of the Green Man arrives at court and invites anyone brave enough to engage him in a game of traded blows. Gawain takes up the gauntlet and cuts his head off, against the warning of Arthur that this is only a game. Of course Arthur, in giving the warning, also gives Gawain Excalibur which, in a departure from the poem, is the instrument of the beheading.

The knight then retrieves his head and says that he will see Gawain in precisely one year to return the blow given. He leaves behind a magical axe, which causes moss and grass to grow wherever it is laid, as a token and departs. From here the story charts Gawain’s quest to reach the Green Chapel by the following Christmas in order to keep his appointment.

This is a dense film that plays quite a lot about the relationship of Christianity and a kind of idealized green man paganism and treating it as a theological text first and foremost is an attractive prospect. After all the Green Knight himself is realized as a god-like figure and this is a film that is very concerned with cycles of death and rebirth which makes for fertile ground to explore how Christians and Pagan might differ with regard to their treatment of theological matters.

And yet, this is not anywhere near a complete-enough picture to capture what I think this film is really attempting to accomplish. Rather The Green Knight is quite focused on a dialectic of geed and generosity and with how that relates to death.

As such I think it’s important to concentrate on a four specific moments within the film. First we should look at what precipitates Gawain’s first great loss. Traveling across a battlefield he encounters a chatty scavenger who engages him in conversation. Gawain, focused on his quest, doesn’t want much from the scavenger except directions to the Green Chapel and he makes that clear. The scavenger directs him to a forested area along a stream and asks for consideration. Gawain is, at first, reluctant to give the scavenger anything but after some wheedling from the scavenger gives him a small quantity of money.

The scavenger then arranges an ambush where he steals Gawain’s axe, his horse, his armor, his magic belt (gifted by his witch-mother who serves as something of a stand-in for Morgana in the film) and his money. The scavenger shatters his shield, illuminated with an icon of the Virgin Mother and when Gawain protests that he was merely looking for the Green Chapel the scavenger tells him he is already within it. The forest is the Green Chapel. But the scavenger also scolds Gawain that he brought this misfortune upon himself because he was insufficiently generous.

Gawain, bound, has a vision of his own death in the woods before he is mysteriously free and sets off on his journey again.

The next episode of significance is when he encounters the ghost Saint Winifred who complains she has lost her head at the bottom of a nearby pond. Gawain dives into the pond and retrieves her skull without any thought of compensation and has another vision before surfacing to find the ghost departed but the magic axe returned.

The next piece of this puzzle arrives when Gawain is at the home of the Lord and Lady who reside near the Green Chapel. The lady interrogates Gawain as to why the Green Knight is green rather than some other colour and he brushes it off saying that, perhaps, the Green Knight is an alien, “not of this world.”

The lady replies with what is probably the longest monologue in the film, saying:

We deck our halls with it and dye our linens.
But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can.
When it blooms beneath our skin, we bleed it out.
And when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down, we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back.
It does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire.
Pull it out by the roots one day and then next, there it is, creeping in around the edges.
Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green.
Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb.
Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too.
When you go, your footprints will fill with grass.
Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues.
This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it.
 
Your skin, your bones.
Your virtue.
And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this… this hue?

Green, in the lady’s cosmology, is not passionate but it is infinitely giving. It spreads over everything, filling up the spaces that red cannot permanently occupy. And the lady, too, is generous, returning to Gawain his magical green sash, which his mother and the lady, both, promise will protect him from any harm. (She also compels him to ejaculate as a price for her gift. It’s filmed ambiguously but seems reasonably clear she is masturbating him. And remember that green is what spreads when ardor fades.)

There is an ambiguous unity between death and renewal in the Lady’s speech and we should see this as being encoded in the gift of the sash. Green comes after death. Life creeps back in on footprints and tombstones. The gifted sash, fertilized by a moment of passion that fades into embarrassment and shame, is preservative. He cannot die while he’s wearing it. But this at odds with the cosmological significance of green in the film that exists in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Finally there is Gawain’s vision at the Green Chapel.

This is the moment that will most confound anyone who has read the poem since it is invented nearly whole-cloth. After sitting vigil overnight at the chapel facing the inert form of the Green Knight, Christmas arrives and the knight prepares to return Gawain’s blow. Gawain flinches twice and then flees the chapel, initiating an extended montage. He finds his horse and rides back to Camelot. The king dies and names Gawain his heir. Gawain has a bastard son who he takes from his lover Essel, leaving her coin in recompense. He marries for politics but won’t allow his bride to remove the green sash he still wears. His son dies in a war. He is abandoned by everyone he ever knew as they one-by-one exit his life (possibly into death, at least into time) alone on his throne he removes the sash from around his waist and his head falls off.

He is back in the chapel.

Now we need to back-track a moment to piece out the significance of this final vision in a film full of visions. When Gawain was staying at the manor of the Lord and Lady the Lord compelled Gawain into a game. The lord will go out hunting and give a gift to Gawain of whatever he wins in his hunt while Gawain will remain in the house with the Lady. And anything Gawain wins at the home will be given to the Lord. Gawain is dutiful in returning all these gifts, a book, a kiss. But not the sash.

It’s his already after all. His mother gave it to him.

And the sash will keep him from death. So he keeps it. This is the same moral failing he engaged when he refused to compensate the scavenger sufficiently earlier in the film.

But the vision shows him the error of his ways, so Gawain takes the sash off and, now devoid of protection against death, he is ready to face his death. The knight crouches beside him and says, “now, off with your head.” And the film ends.

Of course, we know in the poem that Gawain is given a small cut to remind him of his failure on the third day of the bargain with the lord. He is praised for his virtue above all knights despite this failing and returns to Camelot in high esteem. The green sash is taken up by the other knights of the round table.

But we don’t get that closure here. This is in part because of how paganism is foregrounded in the film but we need to actually look that paganism in the face a bit now because, of course, it’s all a Christian idea of what paganism is. It’s easy to treat the godlike Green Knight as a pagan god because of how Christianity is deployed contra him within the text of the film but this is eliding that the Green Man motif appears most prominently in medieval churches. We should not fall into Frazer’s universalism in saying an English Green Man is functionally equivalent to Osiris just because two cultures realized that annual plant cycles are effective representations of death and rebirth nor should we have such a closed view of Christianity as to foreclose rebirth as a Christian concept just because only Jesus is seen doing so in the Bible.

The Green Knight is a movie about annual cycles, surely. That the action starts at Christmas and ends at the subsequent Christmas is too obvious a tell for anyone to miss. However I question that it’s a particularly pagan film. The axe that so clearly symbolizes death and rebirth is returned after Gawain engages in an act of generosity with no expectation of reciprocation for a Catholic saint. This is an explicitly Christian act of virtue. Furthermore, the most obviously anti-Christian figure in the film, the Scavenger, is hardly triumphant. He might succeed in taking from Gawain, he may play the iconoclast, but Gawain rises again immediately in a vision that explicitly ties death to a symbolic rebirth into the quest, now stripped of the armor of arrogance and more capable of engaging his quest with Christian humility. Ultimately iconoclasts were also Christians after all. Devout ones at that.

Rather I think it’s best to look at this film not as a clash between religions but as an exploration of the relationship between holding on and letting go. This is a movie in which a man receives gifts and loses them, receives more gifts and loses them again. This is a movie where a man struggles to hold onto his own life in the face of the knowledge that his own actions have authored his death and who learns that he cannot begin to properly live until he learns to let it go.

In The Gift of Death, Derrida traces an idea of the gift of life as being also, inevitably, a gift of death. To be given a life is to be given a death. However he complicates this by demonstrating that, within a largely Heideggerian frame, a death cannot be given nor taken. The uniqueness and irreplaceability of the being who dies is such that every being has their own death which is a fundamental factor of being. The gift of the sash is a threat of a hollow life because it promises something that cannot be given – a specific death at a specific time. The sash is the promise that the gift of Gawain’s death will be deferred.

This extinguishing of an irreplaceable being is at odds with death as part of an infinitely recurring cycle, which thus creates a tension within the film between the obvious textual references to rebirth, particularly in the use of Saint Winifred as a fulcrum in the action of the film, and the unresolved threat of the extinction of Gawain’s uniqueness. Gawain is a man who must come to recognize his own death as a part of his being and how that will lead to the end of the irreplaceable Gawain but he must hold this in a simultaneous superposition to the idea that death is a fundamental part of a life without which life is incomplete.

Other people have pointed to the fact that Winifred appearing as a specter is at odds with Catholic theology since ghosts are generally seen as being within purgatory – somewhere you would never expect to see a saint. However this is ignoring that Winifred is a saint of resurrection. Her head was restored to her by Saint Beuno and she returned from death. In this film Beuno is replaced by Gawain but it doesn’t change that the restoration of the head occurs and that doing so dispels the ghost of Saint Winifred. Because a ghost cannot be someone restored to life.

As Derrida continues to explore death and gifts he turns to Kierkegaard and the Knight of Faith – he who has given himself wholly over to God. And for Kierkegaard this was a most precarious position. In fact, writing in the guise of Johannes de Silentio, he proposed exactly two Knights of Faith had ever existed – Abraham and the Virgin Mary. But one of the markers of the Knight of Faith is supreme anxiety – Kierkegaard argues that a Knight of Faith may not be even certain that they are one and that the condition of being such is entirely inexpressible.

“To be sure, Mary bore the child wondrously, but she nevertheless did it ‘after the manner of women,’ and such a time is one of anxiety, distress and paradox. The angel was indeed a ministering spirit, but he was not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her. Has any woman been as infringed upon, as Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?”

Derrida describes the Knight of Faith as one who has given themself over entirely to one person, who shows absolute and total loyalty. But this has to be read in the terms of Kierkegaard’s uncertainty and anxiety. And so, at last, we can say that The Green Knight is not a film interrogating Christianity from outside it. Gawain is the most faithful of knights. But faith is a sword as two-edged as Excalibur, with which he strikes the head from the Green Knight. He is confronted with constant tests of loyalty. To his quest, to his mother, to his hosts, to God, to the Knight. But to be a Knight of Faith means a singular loyalty before all others. This, ultimately, is Christian faith.

And this is a fundamentally anxious position. Of course Gawain is plagued by visions of his death, and of the hollow life he might lead if he turns away from the focus of his faith. This final vision is not an ambiguous possible other-future but a representation of Gawain’s own anxiety surrounding his life-toward-faith. The Lady asks him after her monolog, “You’ll do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honorable man? Just like that?” and Gawain just says, “Yes.” I don’t think we necessarily need to doubt his correctness. By devoting himself entirely to his troth to the Knight, by devoting himself entirely to faith, he does, in fact change, just like that. “I’m ready now,” Gawain says to the Green Knight and, in that moment, after an entire film of people telling him that he is not a knight, the Green Knight replies, “Well done, my brave knight.”

Gawain is a faithful knight in the poems and this film does want to interrogate his faith. But I don’t believe it wants to interrogate Christianity; it wants to interrogate the faith of Gawain and the fundamental anxiety of being faithful. His various tests of faith either succeed or fail but they succeed best, such as when he recovers Saint Winifred’s skull, when he embraces his faith. Meeting the Green Knight in a chapel on Christmas day is a Christian act and it’s a test that he succeeds in after fear and trembling. As such The Green Knight is a triumph not of paganism but of a sincere and internal Christian faith I think Kierkegaard would recognize – it is the story of how it feels to become faithful.

Dune: Realism and the metaphorical register

I’ve an ambivalent opinion of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

I’ve said before that I find it weakest during the scenes of massive space crafts hovering over landscapes. This isn’t an issue with shot composition. Villeneuve brings a photographer’s eye to every frame of this expansive film and he cannot be faulted on these grounds. Rather the reason why I struggle with these more spectacular moments of Dune is precisely tied to why I like other parts of the film. In short it’s a matter of realism.

There’s an overarching tendency within blockbuster cinema to demand verisimilitude. We call a blockbuster good in part if it makes us feel like the events of the film are really happening. We don’t want to be reminded of the artifice behind it all. And this creates a very powerful tension in Dune. The film is very good at bringing verisimilitude – at bringing a vulgar sort of realism – to its broad, expansive spectacle shots. By comparison every actor excepting one is pushes aggressively against any sort of verisimilitude in their performances. These performances are Dune’s strong-suit. Because verisimilitude in Science Fiction is death.

Science Fiction has always had the potential to be the great literature of the now. Certainly this was the case during the origins of science fiction. Frankenstein didn’t imagine a future where men could reanimate the dead – it spoke to the anxiety of the scientific and industrial revolutions ongoing during the early 1800s. The important part of Frankenstein’s title is it’s subtitle: A Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was not the Prometheus of tomorrow but rather of the now of the moment it was published. Frankenstein is a book that uses its speculative elements in a metaphorical register to speak to the responsibility of scientists and engineers to socialize their creations. The creature, like any piece of technology, is a moral tabula rasa. What shapes him is how he is used (and abused). Victor Frankenstein’s abandonment of him is a sin of carelessness far more than fear or disgust. That the action of the story is framed upon a doomed sailing expedition where the party, pursuing discovery, have carelessly become trapped in the ice acts to demonstrate this metaphoric register. Frankenstein, like all good science fiction, thus becomes a palimpsest. There are words displayed on the page but this is not where the principal meaning of the text resides.

This is not to say that science fiction should be allegorical. We do not pursue a metaphorical mode to create a one-to-one substitution of objects. Aslan being Jesus is not even approaching this metaphorical mode of fiction. Instead the purpose of the employment of a pervasive metaphoric register is to fold into a text meaning upon meaning upon meaning. The danger of careless discovery pervades Frankenstein but so does a read of nature as cold, cruel and unfeeling. The creature haunts wind-swept mountains and arctic ice. As well as being a piece of technology it is a subject who experiences a cold and indifferent world. The creature is also a product of disrespect to the dead, a theft from the gods. Thus Frankenstein is Prometheus. Meaning, in a great work of science fiction, is a monad from which, as Deleuze describes it, “everything is drawn out of it, and nothing goes out or comes in from the outside.”

This overabundance of meaning is the value of a metaphoric register. There must be an infinity of folds within it containing more and more meaning: lines and lines of text written atop one another such that only the uppermost level can be read directly but which contains, folded under, everything else: the entire moment of time in which it is created. The surface text is a barrier that obscures the full interior while still being a part of the interior, folded over. A great science fiction it creates an inexhaustible text from which nothing escapes, nothing more can go in (it is already fully pregnant with meaning) and from which everything can be draw out.

And this returns us to Villeneuve’s Dune and why it is best when it shows the least spectacle.

Verisimilitude aggressively pushes against inexhaustibility. The realist mode says, “this thing stands for only one thing – the space ship hovering above this plain is simply that – a space ship.” Instead of folding the entirety of now into the text, realism seeks to create a representation of the future that stands only for the surface of the future. Spectacle isn’t exactly a hollowing out. It’s, “an outside without an inside.” Realist spectacle can show us anything as long as what it shows us is as exactly that thing as it might possibly be. Ultimately these attempts to construct a verisimilitudinous future are the construction of a facade – something with doors and windows but no interior – holes but no void. And as Laozi reminds us it is the void that is,

“Empty yet structured,
It moves, inexhaustibly giving.”

Studiolio de Fransisco I

This monadic dialectic – a palimpsest where meaning collides and an inexhaustible, inescapable void – is something Deleuze captures handily in his reference to the Studiolio de Fransisco I. Deleuze describes this as a first out-flowing of the baroque: a hidden room where the prince could hide, conduct research, and store his precious objects – a bank vault and a laboratory both and (fitting for our purposes) one dedicated to Prometheus.

But this then lets us situate our metaphoric register as a baroque mode. The baroque was, to the people who first coined the term, a state of absurd complexity; much like a palimpsest which can thus become the template for the baroque within text.

And the thing is that this is something that Villeneuve does quite well in Dune whenever big space ships are absent from the scene. Much of his film consists of two people having a conversation in which far more is said than what is said.

REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
I hold at your neck the gom jabbar.
A poison needle. Instant death.
This test is simple. Remove your
hand from the box, and you die.
PAUL
What’s in the box?
REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
Pain.

What’s most interesting about the Gom Jabbar scene is what is changed and excluded from the initial text. Rather than the perspective remaining on Paul reciting the Litany Against Fear in his mind we cut back and forth between Paul inside and Jessica, standing guard outside, unsure if her son is dead. Meanwhile the Reverend Mother’s description of the purpose of the test is winnowed down. Rather than explaining the eugenic project of separating men from beasts to Paul she simply tells him an animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg and asks him directly what he would do.

This elision of some of the book’s more expository elements combined with the rigidly formal blocking of the scene creates a remarkable transformation in the text. Certainly the eugenicist project of the Bene Gesserit has not been removed. But rather than make the divide between “man” and “animal” obvious and then deliberately place Paul on the side of “man” this text moves the question far more into the register of metaphor. An animal would do this – what would you do? Paul’s internality is far more constrained than in the text of the book from which it is based. And, thanks in part at least to Villeneuve’s excellent direction of people, the performances delivered by Chalamet and Rampling are enigmatic and withdrawn.

This combination of rigid blocking and enigmatic delivery is even more obvious in the scenes of the Herald of the Change and it is obvious that Benjamin Clémentine understood perfectly how to deliver an unreal performance that contained within it inexhaustibility. I do hope to see far more from this actor going forward. In this scene, especially, we, as an audience, get a sense of the monumental and the portentous from subtleties of gesture and inflection.

This scene, and the later scene where we are introduced to the Sardukar suggest a ritualized way of life and a very other sort of subjectivity on display on the screen. We can see the fifty thousand years of religion and politics we are supposed to feel under the skin of Dune here in this scene. It is a palimpsest.

In all of these scenes, and in fact in nearly any scene in this film involving its human characters who aren’t named Duncan Idaho, it seems like the direction received was to avoid a naturalistic performance in favour of this reserved, enigmatic ritualism.

But what use is inexhaustibility and what does that have to do with science fiction as the literature of the modern? Well, this is why I am of mixed opinions of Villeneuve’s Dune. Because whenever we cut away from the interactions between people in favour of their vehicles and of the worms the movie returns to being a normal spectacle-driven blockbuster – a carefully painted facade – no longer an interior without an exterior but rather an outside that opens onto other outsides. By trying to imagine what a real space ship or a real ornithopter would be like the film opens up too much. It stops trying to be deep black water and becomes instead a window into a possible imagined future.

And this is all rather useless for doing that thing which Science Fiction is best suited for as a literature, which is to point toward the present. Dune is ultimately a story about how the weight of history invades the present. Fremen war with imperial nobles because of the history of the Zensunni wanderers. The wanderers are in the vast beyond of space because of the vast religious upheavals of early space travel. Paul’s prescient power arises from a more perfect understanding of the past. Dune, as a film, thus is in a perfect position to reflect on the present moment as it was formed through its historical antecedents. There is none of that in a hyper-stylized gleaming chrome torus hovering above a desert. You can pack so much more into the riot of Sardukar ritual and the twist at the end of a herald’s smile.

The purpose of science fiction is to make a monad of the present, to encapsulate it all and fold it baroquely into itself such that we make of the present an origami doll like E. Gaff in Blade Runner. While the folds may produce the shape of a rocket, a robot or a giant worm, what matters is that they contain within them everything of their moment. Science fiction explodes into the future because the future is the only space big enough to hold everything in the present, no matter how tight the folds. Simply put the spaceship isn’t the point of science fiction. It’s merely what it looks like all folded up. This is how The Player of Games manages to be a space opera, a spy thriller, a story about a board game tournament, an essay on the relationship between linguistics and ontology and an anarchist political tract all at once. Banks, a master of Science Fiction, has folded all these late 20th century concerns together into the board of Azad. This is likewise how more recent experts of science fiction such as Leckie, Rajaniemi and Muir go about the construction of their stories. Ancillary Justice, The Fractal Prince and Harrow the Ninth occupy the monadic position that Banks achieves so deftly and that Villeneuve almost achieves in Dune whenever he isn’t endeavoring to show us beautiful photographs of shapes in space. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a through-line of The Player of Games, The Fractal Prince, Ancillary Justice, Harrow the Ninth and Villeneuve’s Dune are ontological questions where we are invited to ask how the protagonists experiences the world and what gives shape to that experience. This becomes a method for drawing forth metaphor from the inexhaustible void at the heart of these great works of art.

Ultimately this creates a paradox. Science fiction tells us something real best when it is least interested in a verisimilitudinous sort of realism. Within cinema this is what sets apart great works of science fiction like The Matrix Reloaded from the mass-produced dross of empty spectacle. Science fiction can best do what it must by reveling in its artifice and refusing to be realistic.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) hates America

There’s a scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Lila, a sheltered city girl whose minimal script development leads us to believe is troubled but who may also be a victim of her sister’s emotional abuse more than anything else, confronts Richter, a coal-rolling gun-toting mechanic who is deeply anxious about the pernicious influence of invasive species why he’s such a nihilist and he acts very confused by the question.

She clarifies that his fume-spewing truck is hastening the climate apocalypse and he diverts this with a paean about how he doesn’t like being told what to do. Of course this isn’t an answer at all. But this is because asking Richter why he’s nihilistic, in the context of this film, is somewhat akin to asking a fish why it is wet.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre hates all its characters, except perhaps Leatherface, so completely that they can’t help but be nihilistic. They exist only to die. This creates a problem of sympathy. You have none for any character except the man who wanders around wearing the recently sliced off face of his dead guardian and silently murdering every person he encounters with brutal efficiency. While watching the film I struggled to even gather what these sketches of American failure were named. I never caught Ruth’s name at all prior to her death, nor Richter’s. I figured out Dante’s name 30 seconds before Leatherface began killing him. As is often the case in Texas Chainsaw movies the deaths of our protagonists tend to be drawn out affairs that focus on the total abjection of the subject and this is definitely the case here even if this is realised principally via a tendency for apparently dead characters to come back to life long enough to move the plot forward slightly before fully expiring.

The setup for this instalment of Texas Chainsaw is that Leatherface disappeared after the events of the first film. OG final girl Sally Hardesty became a Texas Marshall and spent the intervening years hunting for the killer but unsuccessfully. As one character points out, it’s hard to catch somebody when you don’t know what they looked like and Leatherface wears a mask.

Our protagonists blunder into this hunt in the form of a car-full of enterprising urban investors who have worked with a bank to purchase (almost) all of a ghost town in rural Texas with the idea of creating a millennial outpost of Austin where they can create a kind of liberal utopia.

They are stopped by a creepy sheriff who encourages them to be respectful of the locals and of course promise to do so. There’s a sense of racial tension around the scene as Dante appears to be the leader of the thrust to gentrify the ghost town and he is also black. The sheriff eases up on his, “y’all best move along” act when Melody, the emotionally abusive older sister, speaks up to mention she was originally from the region.

Things devolve when the gang arrive in town and discover a tattered Confederate battle flag hanging outside a dilapidated orphenage. Dante insists it has to come down because it would upset the investors and he rushes into the supposedly abandoned building to find that the proprietor is still living there: a very frail old woman. Also a resident is one final charge of hers who she insists requires special care and who cannot possibly handle the world outside.

The protagonists argue with the woman over the flag in the process of which she says some remarkably racist things and the situation devolves to the point where the police are called to remove her. Dante is quite certain he owns the building and that she was supposed to be gone already. She insists it was merely a mix-up with the bank and that she still has the deed. The stress of the altercation causes the old woman to have a heart attack and the police drag her out without her oxygen tank to take her to the closest hospital. Her last charge goes with her. She dies en-route thus reigniting Leatherface’s blood lust.

It should be obvious by this point that we shouldn’t like any of these people. The locals suck. The old woman (apparently named Mrs. Mc) is a racist old piece of crap. Luther is the worst possible example of a good ol’ boy. The police are racist, hostile to outsiders but also quite willing to drag an ailing woman out of her home without her medical equipment because somebody with the backing of a bank said so. The city liberals may be remarkably devoid of racism and sexism but they reek of un-earned self-righteousness. They are an invasive gentrifying force collaborating with a bank to push out the poor hicks left behind by American decline in order to create a party-town for Austinites who want to LARP small-town life. They assume they own the orphanage when it transpires Mrs. Mc is right and she remains the rightful owner and they act upon that assumed ownership with arrogant self-assuredness.

A line from the trailer involves a bunch of people on a party bus photographing Leatherface as he revs his chainsaw. One of them says, “Try anything and you’re cancelled bro.” It stirred up a lot of discourse on Twitter for how fucking cringe the line is. And it’s not any better in context. Except, like every single line of dialog in this film it serves a singular purpose: to make you hate all these people.

This movie attempts to create a microcosm of American culture in the town of Harlow and then to show every single person within that microcosm as being beneath contempt. There’s not a single person worthy of even the slightest ounce of sympathy.

This is good because they will receive none. Over the course of the film Leatherface kills them all. Leatherface, who never speaks a line, is the only one we see experience a sincere emotion other than anger or fear when he grieves the death of Mrs. Mc. The fact that he then cuts off her face to wear as a mask is neither here nor there. The gaze of the camera allows us to sympathise with him before allowing him to terrorise and dispatch the police and Ruth. This movie seems all over the place because it displays such obvious contempt for the racism, insularity and ignorance of our hicks in the very same scene that it shows us the arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy of our urban liberals. But when Sally re-enters the scene it tips its hand and this scattered opening with its uniformly detestable and largely forgettable protagonists becomes clear.

By the time Sally discovers Leatherface is back almost everyone is dead. Only Mel and Lila remain. Sally traps them at gunpoint and uses them as bait to draw Leatherface out. She confronts him demanding recognition but she doesn’t get it. Leatherface doesn’t remember her even as she’s devoted her whole life to hunting him down. He impales her with a chainsaw. It is a cutting rebuke for how recent Halloween films have used Laurie Strode. There’s no redemption to be found in a cathartic exorcism of trauma here. It’s just another avenue for cruelty.

The kills in this movie are uniformly excellent. There’s a flat physicality that this movie successfully inherits from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Being murdered hurts. And we see many people suffer extremes of abjection that never spill over into farce. Some people run and die. Some people fight and die. Some people scream and cower and die. Some people never even see death coming. But, uniformly, when death comes, it sucks. The kills aren’t the sort of ironic nods of Jason’s later ventures nor are they the almost farcical theatrics of the Scream series. They’re brutal, beautifully executed, and drive home that each one is the ending of something that is better off gone.

The bus massacre is particularly well-executed as Leatherface cuts his way through a massive crowd of people who scream and ineffectually try to run from him as he cuts them down one by one with his saw. It reminded me most of the Darth Vader corridor murder from Rogue One – or rather the Darth Vader horror movie that some Star Wars fans wished could follow from that scene. Here it is. An implacable man in a mask, wielding a technologically augmented blade, cutting down a host of confined victims who are entirely unable to protect themselves. Bon appetite.

Leatherface has been powered up a bit in this, able to shrug off multiple stab wounds, shotgun blasts and even a taste of his own saw. He is also strong enough to bring a moving bus to a stop… somehow. He’s also a silent implacable killer. It may be the case that Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees have their origin from him but it is equally true that this iteration of him is influenced by contemporary portrayals of Michael and Jason. Leatherface isn’t a crazy guy in a mask (well he is but he isn’t only a crazy guy in a mask) he is an unstoppable force of annihilation.

After Leatherface kills Sally there is a final confrontation in which Mel and Lila attempt to put him to rest. They almost seem to succeed but this turns out to be a fake-out and the movie ends with Leatherface cutting Mel’s head off and swing it wildly around with his chainsaw as Lila, facing backward out the sunroof of a moving car screams to her vehicular death. Nobody survives.

Nobody deserves to survive.

In the end, Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks at this microcosm of America it constructs and says the only thing to do is to chop it to bits with a chainsaw. America deserves the abjection experienced in the slow deaths of Dante, Mel and Lila but abjection is not redemptive as it is in much of the slasher genre. There’s no redemption here. There is harrowing and there is the grave.

The Synecdoche of Prisoners of the Ghostland

undefined

The best way to describe the experience of watching Prisoners of the Ghostland is to imagine trying to watch Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, The Last Temptation of Christ and Yojimbo simultaneously on one TV set such that the images and sounds of all three rise and fall in a strange discordant melody.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a 2021 film starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella and directed by Sion Sono in his first release outside of the Japanese market. Some people have referred to it as Sono’s English language debut but that’s somewhat deceptive as a full appreciation for the script of Prisoners of the Ghostland would depend largely on an understanding of English, Japanese and Mandarin. The film includes substantial dialog in all three of these languages and no subtitles were furnished at least in the version I watched. Considering some elements of the production I suspect this to be intentional.

Sono is a name that is likely at least familiar to people in the horror scene as his previous works like Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Cold Fish have attracted significant critical attention. Sono’s work fits very much into the auteur / small-group collaborator mold with their hallmark being a surrealist sort of dream logic: particularly a regular breaking of classical convention regarding unity of place and unity of time. This is certainly the case in Prisoners of the Ghostland but in general what’s striking about this film is its fundamental incompleteness.

Now this might be a strange thing to say about a movie with the complicated and stunning props, practical sets, costumes and action direction of this movie. The entire thing is a maximalist feast for the eyes as every frame drips with artistry. Blocking is, much like in Dune, quite formal but where Dune provided a very operatic blocking this one is more akin to a Dionysian ritual as characters crowd the frame. Choruses cluster around the the coryphaeus like anxious birds, workers haul ropes, roaring and grunting in the background. Cowboys and samurai surround Hero and Yasujiro weapons creating an inward-pointing circle. Every scene is a cacophony of sight and sound as characters speak, chant, shout over each other and snarl like animalistic beasts – often such that the various languages of the film can become garbled and indistinct until you realize the madness has settled into a comprehensible chant. “It stopped. Short. Never to go again when the old man died.”

Every manner undertaken by every person excepting our five principals (Hero, Bernice, Psycho, Governor and Yasujiro) is deeply ritualistic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with as much chanting, even Koyannisquatsi pales compared to this one, and the only films I’ve seen with more time spent on dancing were musical theatre. But even with all this… stuff… people, dialog, dance, swordfights, Nicolas Cage making funny faces (come on you knew he was going to do that), the movie feels like a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

It seems as if this entire lush film was itself a vast synecdoche for some grander story in which its myriad elements become metaphorical referents to… something else. Something outside. As I’ve hinted at before, this film is orgiastic. I don’t mean in some sort of vulgar sense of “containing orgies” which is perhaps good considering how this film problematizes a triangular formation between sex, power and exploitation. Sono conjures such discomfort from the brush of a red-gloved hand on a child’s head that I’m unsure I’d want to see an actual orgy from him. This movie is one of the most libidinally charged works of art I’ve ever seen. Everything is fully sexual.

But, no, this movie is orgiastic in that it plays out its actors in the process of a vast expenditure of jouissance. The chanting, rhymes, choruses and dancing all serve to bring forth a sense of frenzy in the film that bubbles maniacally beneath even its quietest moments. This is a slow burn of a movie. Prior to the climax it deploys violence carefully, in micro-doses. We are allowed to know that Hero and Yasujiro are strong fighters but we see remarkably little of them fighting – especially Hero. Early fight scenes are tinged by a strange reluctance for Yasujiro wherein it seems the death that surrounds him is as much part of the vast life-ritual this film comprises as the dance and chanting. On many occasions other men will attempt to lay the swordsman low without any apparent motive or warning. In one scene a drunken swordsman calls Yasujiro out to fight in the street. An entire gang joins him. The man has no prior history with Yasujiro and the dialog is in Japanese and remains closed to an English speaking audience – a remarkable choice for a pivotal character moment in a putatively English language film. In another scene Yasujiro is called upon to demonstrate his prowess by killing another of the Governor’s men, as a threat to Hero, he does so efficiently and with minimal fuss like he’s taking out the garbage or washing the dishes. The men he fights seem like furies in a frenzy in comparison.

This is all very Dionysian. The camera treats swordfights as every bit as ritualized as dancing and as chants. There is as much menace in memories of women slowly throwing balls up and down as in the samurai’s sword and as much of the rite in his blade as in the chants of the titular prisoners. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche starts by picking at what Dionysos should be taken to mean in the arts, saying of his name, “here spoke—people said to themselves with misgivings—something like a mystic and almost mænadic soul, which, undecided whether it should disclose or conceal itself, stammers with an effort and capriciously as in a strange tongue,” and there is, in this film, an indecision about disclosure. We are brought to understand that Hero suffers under an overabundance of guilt. There was a robbery that went wrong and people died.

Nietzsche situates the birth of the tragic chorus in Dionysos and via Chimera this film includes just that. Chimera is one of the leaders of the titular prisoners who seem to have coalesced around her and Enoch. These are portentous names. Enoch presents as a preacher. He is a bespectacled man with a book he always carries with him, like a holy text. Enoch, of course, was a very holy man, one who walked into Heaven alive.

Chimera is a wildcard among the prisoners. She walk about the place dressed in funeral robes with a haughty air of a queen or a priestess. She speaks exclusively in Mandarin but she is followed by a chorus who translate everything she says into English. Their voices are slightly discordant and this sometimes muddies all but the most perfunctory of questions: “你看什么 – what did you see? 你看什么 – what did you see?” (你看什么? perhaps better translates to “what are you looking at?” and in the moment of the question Hero is lost in reverie of a vision received in a dream. This collapse of temporalities is common in this film. He is looking at / he did see / he will see all at once.) A chimera is a creature composed of many animals, like a coryphaeus surrounded by her choir, but a chimera is also a monster. Bellerophon heroically killed one. Things didn’t go too well for him afterward though.

At this point we might ask whether Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy with the way it deploys both the formal trappings of Greek tragedy and so much allusion to tragic and divine figures. The initial reaction might be to say no. Hero wins! The prisoners are freed! Bernice shoots the governor! Hero slays Yashujiro! But let’s return to Nietzsche and how he, in the frame of the Dionysian, defines tragedy.

Tragedy is, “The highest art in the yea-saying to life.” Nietzsche describes how the flourishing of a situation of over-abundance, of jouissance, gives birth to the need for the Dionysian. Largely fueled by his frustration surrounding the limitations of Wagner, Nietzsche proposes a new flourishing of the Dionysian within music – and this as a new flourishing of tragedy. This moment has yet to come – tragedy remains trapped at the periphery of the arts. Sometimes it is allowed to bleed back in but at best we simply get anti-heroes. And half these are afforded a reprieve from any truly tragic ends, allowed to retire and enjoy a time of peace after the conclusion of their trials. Most everything is tragicomedic these days. But all this seems to propose that Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy. But if that is so it’s certainly not an ordinary one.

The value of tragedy is in its ability to capture the entirety of the human experience; and this entirety includes measures of triumph, abjection and nothingness. The standard format of tragedy as we generally receive it now is a work that orders these elements of the human condition in precisely this pattern. First MacBeth succeeds then he suffers then he dies.

But Prisoners of the Ghostland lurks at the boundary between life and death. The eponymous prisoners are trapped in their zone not by the guns and swords of the Governor but by some quirk of metaphysics – you cannot leave.

Patrolling the border is Psycho, Hero’s one-time partner in crime. Psycho is either a ghost escaped from hell or a man scarred and mutated by a nuclear accident. He may ultimately be both. He materializes and disappears in haze and blinding light. He seems very real until he vanishes. It seems as if Psycho and his followers are the wardens keeping the prisoners in but if they are then their motives are as obscure as the as the way in which they’re persuaded to stand aside.

The first time Hero meets Psycho at the border he is attempting to return to the Governor with Bernice.

She’s lost her voice due to the trauma she’s suffered and this presents a problem for Hero as the Governor has given him only five days to collect Bernice and return with her. He’s wearing a suit covered in bombs and they will explode if he’s late. But her voice can unlock two extra days to return and he desperately needs the time.

The bombs are at his throat (and will explode if he attempts to take the suit off), his arms (and will explode if the sensors in the suit detect that he intends to strike a woman), and his testicles (and will explode if he becomes aroused.)

Hero nearly sets off one of the bombs on his arm in a moment of frustrated pique that Bernice won’t speak but he is able to rein in the impulse to violence fast enough to avoid losing the arm. Soon after the still non-verbal Bernice indicates she’s thirsty and he gives her water. She drinks greedily, taking in too much, and the water begins flowing in rivulets down her chin and neck. Hero becomes aroused (this movie is very libidinal and almost every movement in the film is already invested with a sexualized charge) and the warning on his suit chimes. He leaps away from Bernice but his erection proves harder to subdue than his anger. One of the bombs at his testicles explodes, cleanly severing it, Hero raises it up in his hand and then collapses at the precipice of death.

He has an incomplete vision and returns to encounter Psycho. In his vision we see that partway through a bank robbery Psycho decided, seemingly without reason, that he would rather commit a massacre. Hero fought him and the brawl spilled out into the street but not before Psycho killed several people including a child. In the street police were waiting and Hero tried to surrender but Psycho decided to fight the cops. Hero ran and the police shot wildly into the crowd, killing several bystanders including Bernice’s mother. Bernice was wounded and was selected by the Governor to be one of his “granddaughters” in this moment. Hero discovers that the guilt he’s been feeling is not for having killed but rather for having survived as innocent people died in his stead.

After Hero returns from his vision Psycho’s followers try to separate Hero from Bernice and in the chaos of the melee the suit misinterprets his attempts to protect Bernice as an intent to strike her. The moment the bomb on his arm explodes Psycho shoots it off and Hero is still injured but not as badly as he might have been. It’s actually quite unclear from the action whether Hero’s wound is made better or aggravated by what Psycho does and while he doesn’t lose the limb he does lose use of the hand on it.

This moment of excess pain pushes Hero into the completion of his vision and he returns with a sense of purpose he didn’t have before. He returns to the Ghostland settlement and rallies the Prisoners. He returns to the boundary and he confronts Psycho – and they reconcile – Psycho forgives Hero for fleeing and Hero seems to absolve Psycho for his misdeeds in light of the misfortune he’s suffered since. Psycho permits the Prisoners to leave the Ghostland and departs, clearing the path for Hero and Bernice to return to the Governor.

Now it’s very unclear in this movie precisely where the boundary between life and death is. While it does seem on the balance that the prisoners were living people trapped in a strange situation there is an equal textual argument that they are ghosts and dead already.

With this in mind it’s not entirely clear during Hero’s two near-death ecstatic experiences whether he’s actually alive and suffering abjection or dead and suffering damnation. The line between abjection and damnation is as blurred as the line between life and death.

Hero is half a martyr. Two half-deaths to equal a whole. Loss of one arm. Loss of one testicle. Rendered half a man. But he replaces his wounded hand with a very phallic metal cylinder out of which his crushed and pulpy hand extrudes obscenely and which is topped by a sword. While not every sword in every movie should be interpreted as a penis this one almost certainly should be.

We find then in Hero this collapse of all things in life inward toward him – he experiences oblivion and returns – twice. He experiences abjection, suffering two symbolic injuries that stand in for a division of the man. He then experiences triumph. As such this film contains that same complete experience that a tragedy provides, “the same thing in a deceptive form,” without tragicomic blunting. Prisoners of the Ghostland is not a classical Greek tragedy but with its wild Dionysian excess and with the completeness of being of its protagonist it may as well be.

But this raises the question of why one would go to the trouble of inverting a tragedy? Why would one go about creating a tragic story – not a tragicomedic one – and then allow its Hero to prevail? To what end?

The other prison in Prisoners of the Ghostland is called Samurai Town.

A few plot summaries refer to Samurai Town as being in Japan but I find the textual basis for this weak at best. Samurai Town contains many Japanese people but they’re all caught in a strangely anachronistic Western gaze of Japan. Bits and pieces of the Western idea of Japanese identity – the Samurai, the Geisha-as-prostitute, smartphone photography and modern cars – all collide in Samurai Town along with a bizarre infusion of the Wild West. There are cowboys who can posse up behind a Sherriff and there are Samurai variously deferential to or homicidal toward Yashujiro. The ruler, the Governor, is like a fetish version of an Antebellum plantation owner. Most, if not all, of the subjects of Samurai Town appear to be his slaves or his enablers. Bernice starts the movie fleeing Samurai Town and into the Ghostland. Hero’s rescue is a recovery of a run-away slave. The Governor doesn’t just demand obedience, he demands familial love and ritualistic centrality. When he drives his sedan down the street it’s slow enough that a crowd of women can surround the black car, walking and clapping as they call out, “Governor,” over and over. Every element of his interaction with the public is ritualized. Clapping is mandatory.

And so this movie is certainly staking a position on a discourse of exploitation and subjectification and it is one that is situated in the historicity of American exploitation of Japan. However Governor’s exploitation extends beyond the construction and subjugation of a racial other and into misogyny – the women in Samurai Town are all his explicit property. They may be his prostitutes or they may be his “granddaughters” but this simply means those women who he’s taken the most perverse interest in. The Governor seems desperate to break the incest taboo but so incapable he has to create slave-relatives in order to fulfill this perverse desire.

The Governor also exploits the men around him in hierarchies of dominance. He forces Hero into the bomb suit and sets boundaries about what Hero can do to Bernice, his property. Her opinion on the matter is not considered by the Governor, just his right of ownership. He also keeps one of Yashujiro’s children as one of his grand-daughters and yet Yashujiro seems resigned to this exploitation. His position is infinitely precarious; the Governor takes no efforts at all to protect Yashujiro from the regular attempts on his life he experiences. But despite his precarity, Yashujiro seems at peace with the situation. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about all the killing. It is never clear why he stands for any of it.

Hero does not return to rescue Bernice but to deliver her. Once in Samurai Town and in the face of her “Grandfather” Bernice suddenly knows how to fight with a sword and with a gun. She cuts a bloody path through the Governor’s bodyguards and guns him down. What Bernice does isn’t just revenge though; it’s a signal for a total desertion. One of the Governor’s other prisoners, Susie, helps Bernice and is wounded in the process. Bernice takes her aside and guides her to remind herself that she is not a prisoner. None of them are, the second they choose not to be. Before he dies, the other women the Governor exploited break into his house, steal all his shit, and call him a looser. The prisoners in Samurai Town and the Ghostland alike are free in the moment they choose to be.

Hero’s half-martyrdom allows him to be Bernice’s psychopomp. With him able to navigate the boundary between life and death he can help guide her to her life of liberation. He achieves his liberation from his guilt and grief and the revelation of that liberation helps him show others the path to freedom. But just as Hero could not force Bernice to speak, she had to find her own voice, so too Hero cannot give Bernice her revenge. He can just guide her to where she can take it for herself.

In short this inverted tragedy does what Kill Bill set out to do but, where Tarantino and his team failed, Sion Sono and his team succeeded. What is somewhat more ambiguous then is the way Hero’s fight with Yashujiro unfolds.

Dramatically, Yashujiro is far too much Chekov’s gun not to be fired. An entire movie is set up establishing he is a master swordsman, the greatest killer available to the Governor. It’s unclear why Yashujiro consents to serve this awful little pervert. Certainly he could easily dispatch the Governor. It’s not like the Sheriff or his men pose any threat. Hero, who is Yashujiro’s equal in combat, dispatches half the constabulary in the first thirty seconds of the melee. But where Bernice peels off to help Susie and then hunt down the Governor, Hero stays and fights with Yashujiro.

It’s a gorgeous fight. Well blocked, well lit, well performed. Tak Sakaguchi has such wonderful poise. Every movement is deliberate, every emotion controlled. It’s never really clear what Yashujiro wants except possibly to be left alone for just a minute. Perhaps he is not much more than a death drive – a man who seeks silence, killing and the possibility of oblivion. He dies beautifully and seems at peace with it.

There’s this vastness within Prisoners of the Ghostland. Samurai Town stands in for the way America exploits other countries, how it feels to be perceived via an orientalist gaze. It stands in for how men objectify the people around them, enforce hierarchies of dominance along lines of gender, race and status. It stands in for how a creeping fear for the other can create a situation of much greater actual disorder than that caused by the chaos you try to keep out and it stands in for a chance to have a samurai and a mad max clone enter a life or death battle against a posse of cowboys. Figures like Hero and Governor are given declarative names that assigns them a function in the world more than an identity. Hero is the agent of change. Governor the agent of control. When change brings revelation, control is swept away. Every character and every action unfolds and unfolds into an overabundance of meaning, an overabundance of desire, an overabundance of life. This film is the revitalization of the Dionysian in the form of the tragic but it is a tragedy that postulates that it isn’t enough for our hero to triumph, suffer and die. He must return reborn with new ecstatic energy to point in the direction of universal freedom.

Taoism, Buddhism and Dasein – Monk Comes Down the Mountain

undefined

In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.

Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.

I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.

In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.

This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.

Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.

In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.

Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.

He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.

She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.

The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.

He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.

Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”

Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.

This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”

It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.

In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “

The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.

On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.

The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.

He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.

Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.

It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust smoothed.
It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.

The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.

There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”

This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.

Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.

Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.