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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
What’s in the box?
REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
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.
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 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.
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.
I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.
So let’s dig in.
The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.
I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.
There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.
During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.
This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.
In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.
A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.
There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.
The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.
Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.
Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.
Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.
There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.
The Neoliberal Matrix
Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.
Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.
This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.
There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.
The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them. “Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.
Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.
And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.
But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.
The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.
Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.
There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.
There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?
In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.
Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.
On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.
After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)
This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.
Patriarchy and Societies of Control
In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.
The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.
The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.
In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.
The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.
Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.
And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.
Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.
Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.
The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.
This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.
This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.
The four Scream movies contain both the best movies in the slasher genre and represent the most consistently good movies in the slasher genre. As with a lot of auteurial projects part of what allowed this consistence in quality in Scream is the involvement of a consistent team as Wes Craven directed all four, Kevin Williamson wrote three of four, Patrick Lussier edited three of four, Peter Deming was director of photography for three out of four and Marco Beltrami provided the score for all four films, On the other side of the camera, quite unusually for a slasher franchise, the lead cast remained consistent across the four movies with Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Roger L. Jackson and David Arquette reprising their roles in every successive film. In short these movies aren’t excellent because Craven was a singular genius but because a central core of creative workers came together to make something good and kept doing so. I say this because I will be treating the scream movies as very specifically auteurial throughout this review and I want to avoid a reductive conclusion that this is something that can be collapsed just to Craven or even to Craven and Williamson.
The scream series also charts the arc of satire at the end of its life in Hollywood. This wasn’t intentional – Scream didn’t kill satire, it was rather the last great flourishing of it. After all, the shattering of the American self-image of the 1990s in 2001 effectively forbade Hollywood from ever doing something as introspective as Scream again.
Scream: The rules of horror and the unexamined
The subject of satire in the initial Scream movie is reasonably evident. The Scream team were not being subtle in what is, effectively a reasonably straightforward criticism of the slasher genre. It’s become somewhat commonplace to read Scream as being largely a filmic equivalent to Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Having the kids of Scream being aware of slasher cinema in specific to the point where Randy is able to declare the rules: “you can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs, and never (ever, under any circumstances) say “I’ll be right back”.” But it’s interesting the extent to which Randy’s rules for survival elide the role of the final girl considering the extent to which the text of scream becomes an interrogation of that trope in particular. Scream is gesturing desperately toward this absence, telling us, look the kids in this movie, watching these movies, missed something.
And so, of course the killer is somebody close to the final girl. Of course she’s been pre-selected to be the final girl not because she followed some byzantine rules of horror but because the killer wanted to hurt her, in particular. The idea of the slasher killer as a moral arbiter is shown to be a bald lie by Scream as Billy lashes out at Sidney and her friends for his mother’s departure. Casey and Steven didn’t break any slasher movie rules. Nor was anything about Casey’s presentation in the opening sequence indicative of any kind of moral failing. She’s making popcorn for a quiet night in for goodness sakes. Principal Himbry is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tatum is getting a beer, yes, for one of the killers, because he asked her to do so in order to present the opportunity to murder her. Kenny is also just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, as Clover suggests, the killers of Scream are boy-children whose all-too-oedipal (Clover points out, of Craven, that, “at least some horror filmmakers read Freud,”) sexual hang-ups inform their crimes. Billy is mad because Sidney’s promiscuous mother seduced his father. Stu is along for the ride because of a fawning libidinal investment in Billy’s approval. Also in line with Clover’s assessment of the formal elements of the slasher genre, the boys use a knife. Right up until they don’t. It’s an interesting, and regularly repeated, characteristic that the final stand-offs of Scream films almost always involve a handgun entering into what has, until then, been a knife fight.
But, of course, all this problematizes Clover’s thesis a bit. After all, “In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction,” but the only person who is killed for a sexual transgression is Maureen Prescott, murdered off-screen before the action of the film has ever begun. But this is not so much a contradiction as it is a filmic way of under-lining what Clover gets at a little bit later, “always the main ones, die—plot after plot develops the motive—because they are female. Just as Norman Bates’s oedipal psychosis is such that only female victims will do, so Michael’s sexual anger toward his sister (in the Halloween series) drives him to kill her—and after her a string of sister surrogates.”
This fits the nature of the killings depicted well. Scream carefully balances male and female on-screen killings. Of six victims, three are men and three are women. But as I mentioned above, of the men, only Steven is deliberately targeted by the killers. An he is only targeted because of his relationship to their principal target, Casey. He’s killed so that they can terrify her before they kill her.
And so this brings us full-circle back to Sidney, the final girl, and how her specific abjection is deployed by Scream. Clover says that the final girl is, “abject terror personified, ” and this tracks for this poor girl who is pinballed between possible suspects across the film, uncertain and increasingly afraid as her friends die for her to discover. There is a ritualistic element at play. Much as Steven is killed explicitly to frighten Casey, every death by the hand of the Ghostface killers is orchestrated explicitly to frighten Sidney. It’s not enough for them to kill her, they need her to suffer.
Billy justifies this as wanting Sidney to feel an abandonment like his. As if her friends abandoning her into death will balance the pain of her mother’s loss. But it’s ultimately not revenge. Sidney didn’t do anything to hurt Billy even by accident – she fingers Cotton Weary as her mother’s killer, letting him off the hook for his original revenge-murder. And, of course, this film, in particular, seeks to absolve the audience. Billy and Stu don’t kill because they watch scary movies. They kill because they’re awful, sexually frustrated, mean little boys who don’t have a functioning conscience between them. They kill because they’re sexist assholes who see the girls and women in their lives as playthings. It’s fun when she screams. Billy’s selfish desire to torture Sidney is what anoints her as the final girl rather than any choice she or her friends make. This, again does the interesting dance of revealing Clover’s argument precisely by problematizing it. Clover argues that “The gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance, her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the “active investigating gaze” normally reserved for males and punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer, even tracking him to his forest hut or his underground labyrinth, and then at him, therewith bringing him, often for the first time, into our vision as well.”
And some of this does ring true in Sidney. She’s reluctant, at first, to have sex with Billy. But then she relents and sleeps with him at a party. She isn’t apart from other girls. She’s popular and well-liked by her peers; her main apartness is, rather, that her mother died and she was a key witness at the trial of the man accused of her killing. Sidney doesn’t engage in anywhere near as much ‘active investigation’ in this film as she does in the sequels or as Emma does in the sadly below-par Scream TV series. In fact, she spends most of the run-time trying to avoid the killer as much as possible. She flees her home and stays with a friend. She attends a party with lots of people at it. She sticks close to her boyfriend. Scream deliberately accentuates the femininity of its final girl. In fact the investigative character of the final girl is forked off into Gail Weathers, who does most of the actual detective work throughout, being honest, the entire quadrilogy. And, of course, Gail is also a final girl. It’s almost as if Scream intentionally divides the tangled sexual depiction of the final girl between these two women: the arch-femme Sidney and the tomboyish, investigative, Gail and shows us how these two elements together allow a final girl to be the survivor. But again this difference from Clover’s thesis serves, within the medium of satire, to emphasize the same point. Scream is a movie about the connection between sex and death in the popular consciousness that is perfectly aware of what it is saying. But it plays a careful bit of legerdemain in the establishment of Randy’s very incomplete rules being presented to us with all seriousness while in the background the story shows us just how much Randy missed. And in this duplication of the final girl and these responses to abjection, Scream hammers home far more about her construction within horror than they could have with Sidney alone.
Turning the camera: Scream 2 and the horror audience
In Scream, the opening sequence serves to skewer the slasher genre expectation of the killer as moral arbiter. It presented us a genre-aware victim who had done nothing wrong within the context of the genre she was within. In Scream 2 the action opens in a movie theater. The victims are again a young couple, a man and a woman on a date. The film is Stab – an in-universe cinematization of the events of the first movie but Stab is not as self-aware a horror so instead of situating Casey getting ready for a quiet night in, it situates her in the shower. Phil has dragged Maureen out to the movie on opening night and people are excited. Ghost face masks and rubber knives are in abundance in the audience in something of an explicit callback to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Maureen isn’t happy about this state of affairs though – the attempts of Stab to place sex and death so explicitly close at the start through the inserted nudity of Casey-the-character is upsetting her. It’s just too sexist. She insists that Phil buy her a snack to make up for dragging her into this mess. Ghostface dispatches Phil in a bathroom stall and then joins Maureen at her seat. As the Ghostface-the-character murders Casey on the screen, Ghostface begins stabbing Maureen. She staggers up from her seat and stumbles to the front of the theater but nobody helps her; nobody really even notices her. She climbs up in front of the screen and presents her very real wounds to an audience who slowly begin to realize that this woman is dying in front of them. She dies as the title card pops up for Stab. The audience is indicted.
The conflict at the heart of Scream 2 is largely about how horror stories are disseminated to audiences and how the audiences use them. Gale has been making hay over the exoneration of Cotton Weary and has been trying to force a confrontation between Cotton and Sidney – it’ll be good for her career. Meanwhile the events of the first film have spawned Stab – the first of many films-within-films that the Scream series presents. These two threads – the non-fiction recounting and the fictionalization create a matrix of notoriety that the new Ghostface killers exploit. Audiences are no help. Randy’s rules for a sequel are that there will be more deaths an that the kills will be more elaborate. And both of these rules play true but it doesn’t help the audience. If we treat Randy as being our principal stand-in for the audience, well, Randy doesn’t make it out alive.
Between the deaths of Phil and Maureen first and of Randy in the second act of the film, the audience of the horror movie is subject to a more complete evisceration than the sequel as a filmic concept. The main bit of critical heavy-lifting this satire does is to gesture in the direction of its divided final girl. Sidney and Gail have a much more involved, and complicated, relationship in this than in the first film. Gail remains the investigator, the digger, while Sidney would prefer to withdraw. These instincts, between retreat and attack, are positioned in complete contradiction at the start of the film where Sidney decks Gail over ambushing her with Cotton. But in the final conflict this dialectic has been resolved with Sidney and Gail shooting Mickey repeatedly in concert. The final girl is shown, in a moment of cathartic release, to no longer be divided against herself. This is something Clover nearly anticipates as her treatment of Craven’s early cites sources that describe specific forms of familial dialectics as being an “obsession” of Craven’s. But resolving this divided final girl and a wink in the direction of sequels having unique rules compared to the pure cinema that establishes slasher franchises do little to advance a discourse about horror movies qua horror movies. Instead we get a killer who is a reporter, we get a killer who is a film critic – we get people whose role is to talk about horror stories. And these killers are juxtaposed against the actual reporter, the actual final girl. Scream 2 thus hints at themes more thoroughly explored in the superior two movies that follow it. No. The principal target of Scream 2 is the reception of horror stories. It’s a film about how we, as a public, respond to stories of abjection.
Mickey craves the notoriety of being the source of abjection. He wants to be caught and to go to trial so that he can be at the center of the circus. He wants the audience to look at him. And yet he isn’t satisfied with fictionalized versions of abjection. That’s why he has to collapse the artifice of the Stab premiere by killing two people for real there. Mickey knows that the audience has an affective response to true abjection that differs from a cathartic response to fictionalized abjection. He is unsatisfied with this real / unreal divide between fiction and history so, just as Sidney and Gail undergo a dialectic unification to complete the picture of the final girl so too does Mickey try to collapse the dialectic of the audience response to horror and to real-world cruelty. But the unity of these two elements is the final cruelty to the audience. Because, when push came to shove, the audience couldn’t tell real abjection from a simulation of it. Maureen dies in front of a theater full of people and the deafening silence of their slow realization is a final condemnation. There is an interesting twist here though because you would think this would reposition the slasher killer as a moral arbiter, but it doesn’t. Much like in the first film, Ghostface murders based on their own selfish desires and not based on any personal transgression of a victim. Randy wasn’t in the opening night audience for Stab. While he may stand in for an audience he is not the audience being indicted and yet he is the audience who is cut up. There’s this tension at the heart of Scream 2 which is never fully resolved. Mickey wants to say that audiences of horror movies are a problem and much of the film agrees with him. But he doesn’t get the final say. Instead he’s removed from the discourse when Mrs. Loomis wounds him and attempts to reinsert a familial conflict dialectic such as the one Clover calls out in her response to The Hills Have Eyes.
Hollywood, exploitation and the fake in Scream 3
Scream 3 contains one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema. Sidney has wandered onto the soundstage for Stab 3. This is actually the soundstage for Scream only with the camera pulled back far enough to reveal its artifice. She encounters the specter of her dead mother, who has been haunting her throughout the first act of the film, and she encounters Ghostface, back again.
Sidney flees Ghostface across the set and operates instinctively as if the geography of her home would map onto the set. Only it’s all fake and none of the doors open onto the right rooms. She escapes the set/house/memory and is found by Dewy and the police. They find no sign of the killer. The film never lands fully on an answer as to whether the killer chased her or whether it was all a figment of her imagination.
Set, as it is, on the set of the filming of Stab 3, Scream 3 is a film that revels in picking at the real / fake boundary that Scream 2 gestured toward. In an hilarious cameo, Carrie Fisher appears playing a receptionist who is regularly mistaken for Carrie Fisher. Gale is followed, throughout nearly the whole film, by Jennifer Jolie – an actress playing Gale in Stab 3. The second kill-scene in Scream 3 involves an actress complaining to the director that she is only in two scenes before her character becomes the victim of the second kill-scene in Stab 3. Her death is her second scene. The film is actively hostile to the idea of the fake and the real and wants to collapse reality and simulation into each other. This is used to good effect considering that Scream 3 picks up the feminist thread of the first film by approaching the original sin of the Scream universe as being Hollywood sexual exploitation of starlets. Possibly the single most damning scene of the Scream trilogy is when Gale interrogates producer John Milton:
Consider that Harvey Weinstein was the executive producer. Milton gets his throat perfunctorily slit not long after this scene.
If Scream wanted to interrogate the construction of the horror movie and Scream 2 wanted to look at how it communicated with an audience then Scream 3 is aimed squarely and viciously at the institution of the film studio. I prefer Scream 3 to Scream 2 precisely because it has such a singular and intense focus. Scream 2 is a bit of a messy affair, it’s uncertain whether it’s a critique of the audience or whether it’s a dialectical interrogation of the relationships between subjects from the first film. Scream 3 points back at Hollywood and roars “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.”
As such its collapse of the real and the simulation serves the purpose of arguing that there’s no simulation; it’s all real. The fictional abjection of the final girl at the hands of the slasher killer is born out of a system of exploitation that produces its very own forms of abjection. Maureen Prescott is reframed not as a dead mother, a pre-film victim, but as a previous final girl: one who survived the all-too-real horror of being treated as a sexual commodity by wealthy and powerful men. In the final confrontation, Roman returns to the Freudian well saying, “And who’s our hero? The sole survivor, the one who bravely faced down the psychopath and fucked her with her own knife. You’re gonna pay for the life you stole from me Sid. For the mother, and for the family, and for the stardom, and for, goddammit, everything you had that should’ve been mine!” But Sidney rejects his familial psychodrama and stabs him, incapacitating him until he pops up to die in a hail of gunfire when Gail and Dewey finally arrive.
There’s an interesting arc in Sidney’s story. She tries to put the events of Scream behind her in Scream 2 but she fails and becomes a recluse despite the promise of a dialectical unity with Gail proposed by the conclusion. The third film ends instead with Sidney rejecting the position as final girl. She denies Roman’s deliberate application of narrative convention to her life and situates him as being another pathetic psycho. Scream is unique in how pathetic Ghostface is. You don’t ever root for the killer like you would Jason or Freddy in some of their outings. Ghostface pops up like a demented jack-in-the-box from beneath window sills and it’s honestly always very funny but that’s as far as “funny” goes for Ghostface who doesn’t quip. Ghostface only ever threatens. And when the latest Ghostface is inevitably revealed they’re shown in all their petty humanity. This becomes the final collapse of the artificial and the real. Ghostface is always just a person in a mask with a knife. No zombie killers. No unstoppable madmen. No ghost rippers. Just an asshole with a chip on their shoulder, a hatred of women and some serious mommy issues.
Scream 4 and the desire for the final girl
There’s an interesting shift of focus in Scream 4. It is the only entry in the series filmed after September 11, 2001 and the only entry to exist in a Hollywood that had otherwise abandoned satire. I mentioned at the top that the American film industry became reflexively incapable of the sort of introspection necessary for satire and this is largely true. It’s difficult to prove an absence but, between 2001 and 2010, the most famous explicit satires in cinema were almost exclusively foreign films. Within Hollywood there was the insufferable parody Idiocracy, which sometimes is mischaracterized as a satire (and Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods would bravely tread the exact same ground as Scream but absent any of the feminist text that made the earlier film a stand-out in what is otherwise a very clear Whedon-pastiche) but more straightforward satirical films like Get Out and Knives Out were still many years away and, honestly, the genre has never fully recovered.
This means that Scream 4 occupies a strange place as a piece of critical work. A surface read suggests a fair bit of cultural anxiety concerning social media and an always-online culture that’s hungry for fame but this is where that auteurial character I mentioned at the top becomes critical. Because this is the same team that created the three previous Scream movies and, as a cohesive team, they recognized the ground they’d already tread and used this new focus on the online subject to circle back around and interrogate the final girl from a new direction asking, “why would somebody want to be a final girl?”
This film is set ten years after Scream 3 and a full 25 years since the first Scream. Sidney and Gail are now middle aged and have lived the sorts of complete lives that final girls are usually denied. Gail’s married. Sidney has her own book out. Everybody has moved on. Except that Ghostface begins stalking Sidney’s young cousin and murdering a new batch of media-aware teenagers. What we get is possibly the most meta-fictional film in the series yet. As with Scream 2, the opening kill helps establish this well as the first kill is shown to be a fake-out, the opening sequence to Stab 6. The scene cuts to Chloe and Rachel (in a delightful pair of cameos by Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) debating the merits of the movie which Rachel derides, saying, “It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, post- modern meta-shit is over. Stick a fork in 1996 already.” As Rachel sits down on the couch, Chloe stabs her in the gut, snarling that she never shuts up. It’s the opening to Stab 7, which is being watched by the actual first victims of Scream 4. The film-criticism aspect of Scream 4 is, on the surface, a little perfunctory. It’s not happy about the remakes that filled the Hollywood horror scene during the first decade of the 2000s. Sidney eventually nails this to a wall when she says, “don’t fuck with the original,” in the final stand-off with the latest Ghostface. However there is a far more interesting critical thread in Scream 4 in its treatment of the final girl. Because this latest iteration of Ghostface wants to be the final girl.
Since we are reading the Scream series largely as a reification of Clover’s work let’s return again to the description Clover provides of the final girl in full:
Scream 4 looks at this and says, “why in the world would anybody want to be this badly enough to kill for it?” And this is a fascinating question. But I think it deserves a moment to step back from it and look at how this target of satire varies from what’s come before in the Scream series. Scream films always previously targeted an institution: the horror film, the audience, the studio. This time though the target isn’t an institution. The new Ghostface isn’t a stand-in for Twitter. Rather the film is interrogating a form of individual subjectivity. It is almost as if Hollywood still wasn’t ready to look at itself in the mirror, nor even at the audience it created. Instead it had to look at this one person and ask, why is she like this?
Scream 4 is still a satire and it is a good movie but this is a fundamental difference from the previous films in the franchise and this marked difference is significant – one very much of a piece with the failure of Hollywood to create satire in the 21st century. Even this satire is compromised by an unwillingness to focus its fury on an institution. Eventually it seems to land on a fundamental failure of recognition. Sidney has been through some shit. Across the three previous attempts on her life, Sidney has been stabbed and bludgeoned she’s been shot and she’s been betrayed by people she loved. She’s become a recluse and then managed to come through the other side. But all Jill can see is Sidney is Famous. She has a book, an annoying publicist, rich friends, a personal story that eclipses the family story. Her mom is Maureen Prescott’s sister but the only person anyone cares about is Sidney because Sidney survived.
And so Jill tries to engineer becoming the final girl because she sees this woman forced into a direct confrontation with death, this woman who arises with strength in the face of abjection and fails to realize how fundamentally awful that would be. She sets up cameras everywhere so she can re-live being the killer, so that she can see the victims die again and again but she never seems to apprehend fully the character of her actions because she has stars in her eyes. Ultimately this is the concern that arises about social media: not the collective experience of Twitter mobs or Facebook Nazis but rather the idea that subjects would subject themselves and others to all manner of awful things for the chance to be famous. The real / unreal divide that Scream 3 worked so hard to collapse is already destroyed and everybody lives in this hyperreal space where the fundamental materiality of the signifier is already manifest. Sidney’s command not to fuck with the original serves a double purpose, first to take a shot at the remakes that Craven, at the very least, hated remakes. His back catalog was not well served by that period. But there’s another purpose there in reifying a kind of authentic experience. Sidney is famous for events that were out of her control and that she never wanted to happen. She survived three separate mass killers – that’s not something anyone should want. Attempting to engineer the circumstances where one becomes a final girl isn’t just monstrous because of all the killing along the way. It’s also monstrous because it fails to recognize the facticity of being the final girl. Sidney’s life isn’t an identity somebody can try on like a shirt. It’s dependent on 25 years of being through the meat grinder of life. And, at the end of things, Scream 4 says this is something that can’t be reproduced as a packaged identity.
The Scream series was the last great flourishing of satire in Hollywood before the rise of Jordan Peele as a film maker. Across their four films they managed to come full circle, interrogating the slasher killer – final girl relationship, the role of the audience and how tragedy is communicated, the exploitation of Hollywood in the creation of horror films and a dialectic collapse of the final girl into the slasher killer in the finale. In their attempt to pick apart the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s they managed, instead, to create the greatest series of slasher films yet. The scream series are a testament to the collaborative efforts of a committed team with a clear vision, something to say and the will to say it.
It is perhaps a little bit surprising that one of the best films of 2021 is a Canadian low-budget horror movie in which a girl struggling to handle her parents’ slowly crumbling marriage befriends an imprisoned cosmic horror who looks straight out of a GWAR video.
This movie is very much a low-budget affair for better and for worse. The sound balancing is just painful. When I was watching this movie I couldn’t find my TV remote, which my daughter had dropped under the couch, and had to run over to the TV a dozen times to adjust the volume between whisper-quiet dialog scenes and cacophonous sound during action scenes. However this minor frustration was eclipsed by the sheer joy of watching a genre movie which was, by necessity, principally using practical effects. This film is absolutely brimming with wild and unique creature designs and every single one of them is either a puppet or a dude in a rubber suit and a ton of make up and it’s amazing. There is CGI in the movie but it revels in its fakeness. There’s no need for a photo-realistic integration of digital effects into a film when you literally have a robot shaped like a tank full of corpses spraying blood all over the title character in the midst of a fight. Psycho Goreman (PG for short) is a character whose whole schtick depends on him being out of place – a weird intrusion into the mundane lives of the protagonists – and so making the effects seem like weird intrusions doesn’t harm the movie. It makes it better. I honestly cannot praise the special effects team of this film highly enough. Psycho Goreman is a feast for (perverted) eyes.
This is also an incredibly funny movie. There’s a running joke throughout the film that PG is commanded by Mimi, the little girl who, as a result of a series of misadventures controls him, to explain some aspect of his history. The story will cut away to a depiction of his time as a galactic conqueror, replete with high-concept cosmic fantasy battles with a very Heavy Metal meets Gwar look only to cut back almost immediately as the children lose interest in the story and change the subject. This is a movie that delights in containing a vast back-story for its title character that you will never be fully satisfied by. The tease is the joke.
The humour of Psycho Goreman is a central strength. Matthew Ninaber and Steven Vlahos, collaborating on PG’s performance, have excellent comedic timing in this film. In an early scene, Mimi brings PG some magazines to keep him occupied while she and her brother are at school. She apologizes she wasn’t able to get him some porn and says at least she got him some fashion magazines with “hunky boys.” PG bellows, “I do not care for hunky boys,” glances at the magazine and then amends himself, “Or do I?” And the delivery is simply exquisite. In another scene Mimi tries to introduce PG to her parents and to reassure them about her terrifying new friend but PG keeps contradicting Mimi, telling her parents that they should worry, they should be afraid, he doesn’t mean well.
Ninaber and Vlahos’s performance here is a standout. Generally this movie is about as well acted as you’d expect of a low-budget film with a cast of unknown actors half of whom are children. The mumbly dialog delivery of Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey isn’t exactly improved by the poor audio quality although their under-stated performance of a couple at the edge of their relationship attempting to keep up appearances for the sake of their children includes good physical performances. In general, with the exception of the standout line delivery of Vlahos, weak dialog with good physical performance, is effectively the best possible summary for the performances in this film which remains a visual treat from beginning to end.
Psycho Goreman also succeeds by being a film that has something to say about its genre and that does so well, with a clarity in the articulation of theme and a care for how the often bizarre characterizations in the film lean into what it’s trying to say. Psycho Goreman starts from the standard cosmic horror idea that the universe is vast and humanity is insignificant. PG and the other denizens of Gygax occupy a cosmos that exists outside the bounds of time and of regular space. Their vast powers seem at once both technological, magical and biological in character in part because it constantly seems as if the words for their being escape us. Contemplating the relationship of Gygax and its creatures to earth brings to mind Bataille’s struggles in Inner Experience when he said, “Perhaps, for I can henceforth not conceive of my life, if not pinned to the extreme limit of the ‘possible.'” Bataille suggests imagining the extreme limit of possibility would require a superhuman intelligence and it seems as if Gygax exists if anything somewhere beyond that limit, in the outside that escapes a direct description.
This is served well both by the weirdness of the special effects and by the running gag of PG’s interrupted attempts to explain his back-story. We only ever get access to fragments of Gygax. The sense is that it’s too big, too strange. Everything within it is an intrusion into what we see as reality – it is, quite formally, Weird in the Fisherian sense of the word.
There is a conflict central to Gygax and it is a conflict central to Mimi’s family as well – that is the division between order and chaos. Chaos and order are both shown as multi-faceted. Chaos is the infinite creativity that Mimi brings to the invention of, “Crazy Ball,” but it is also Greg’s slovenly and entropic detachment from the maintenance of the household. Chaos is a creative energy and a destructive energy simultaneously. It is present in equal measure when Greg destroys the microwave trying to cook chicken breasts in it and when Greg remarks, when encountering PG’s lair, “this television won’t stop bleeding.”
Order is also shown as multi-faceted. It is the authoritarian dominance of the templars. Pandora is no more compassionate than PG. The main difference is that Pandora’s extreme violence is carefully motivated by a desire for obedience whereas PG sees his destruction as a form of art. He freezes one of his victims upon the precipice of death, the extreme limit of life, constantly cycling him through a cycle of agony and annihilation not because the man disobeyed him but just because he thought it would be beautiful. When one of the children nudges the victim who topples over and shatters, his disconnected mouth wheezing “thank you,” PG rages that they destroyed his masterpiece. In contrast, Pandora kills and tortures not for the sake of aesthetics but for utilitarian reasons: to create a disguise, to extract information, to create an ally, to keep allies in line. Pandora is worshipful and demands others worship, but in her piety she reveals the authoritarianism of the priest. In demanding obedience to her gods she demands obedience to herself. In his telling PG began his existence as her slave and absolutely nothing about Pandora suggests that her interpretation of order would be anything but welcoming of absolute mastery over all others. But on the other hand, order is necessary to keep the family household afloat. Susan is the one who makes sure bills are paid, meals are edible and people who need medical attention get it. She’s the one who keeps on top of chores and prevents everything from just falling apart. Likewise Luke’s loyalty and sense of responsibility to his family is a hallmark of order compared to Mimi’s, “champions don’t eat broccoli,” attitude.
This order / chaos conflict seems to almost fall within the rubric of Blake with PG standing in for Satan and Pandora for the angel of Blake’s memorable fantasy. Of course the thesis of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is that religions have failed by proposing a divide between a damnable body with its energies and a divine soul with its reason:
the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Blake established Milton’s Lucifer as the great satanic protagonist, the divine mover from whom all activity was begun. But he also presented this as a necessary reaction to the transcendent dominance of order and stasis over the world. The Marriage of Heaven and hell sees the moment of revelation, in which the unity of order and chaos becomes evident as an eschatological one, an apocalypse. “
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite and holy
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
And, of course, PG does bring the apocalypse. Finally freed of all bonds, even freed of his dependence on the Gem of Praxidike by the power of friendship, he immediately incites the end of days. Even for hunky boys. Except not for Mimi’s family, because she’s his friend and he promised.
And this then gives us the sly subversion of cosmic horror which Psycho Goreman contains. Because, yes, the universe is vast and unknowable. Yes, beings exist that are so far beyond the limits of human experience that they fall away. And yes, they are engaged in a grand Manichean conflict that will inevitably end with an eschaton but for all that there’s this family at the heart and the silly, unimportant and trivial things they do: their games and songs, their conflicts and friendships fundamentally matter.
This isn’t some sort of reconciliation with order. There is no grand plan for Mimi and her family. She and Luke find the gem by accident, they awaken PG by accident. When PG transforms their friend Alastair into a giant shambling brain creature who communicates via touch-telepathy it isn’t because it’s part of some grand plan. It’s just this crazy thing that happens, arbitrary and absurd. There is no reconciliation with higher meaning here. Mimi snaps a crucifix over her knee in the build-up to the climax. The moment is organic, unbidden. It’s unclear even that Pandora’s gods are the same as the Christian God. But that doesn’t matter because they stand in for the same thing and that apocalypse of a frozen eternity under a white boot is rejected in favour of the more satanic apocalypse of PG’s liberation.
On love, Sartre says, “While I am attempting to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is attempting to free himself from mine,” this helps to encapsulates the dynamic that exists between Mimi and PG for the majority of the film. PG would like to be free of Mimi’s control while Mimi is just as trapped by the power she commands over PG. If she slips and he is able to take back the gem she knows a terrible revenge will be visited upon her. Mimi, more than anybody else in the movie has seen what PG is and chosen not to flinch away from it. For Sartre, love is the act of projects that put a subject, “into direct connection with the Other’s freedom.” Sartre characterizes this as a conflict, “precisely because I exist by means of the Other’s freedom, I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom.”
Psycho Goreman takes this theoretical statement and renders it text as Mimi must ultimately grant PG his freedom in order to save her family from Pandora, an act precipitated after her mother renounces Pandora’s gifts to protect Mimi from her. In each of these pairings: Susan’s protection of Mimi, Mimi’s freeing of PG and PG’s promise not to kill Mimi’s family we see two aspects: first – an affirmation of the freedom of the Other and second a willingness to step into danger thereby. The negotiation of love between Mimi and PG certainly is one of conflict and it’s one that follows a steady progression from mastery and toward mutual recognition and freedom.
Psycho Goreman presents an absurd and unlikely apocalypse in which one family, alone, is spared because of love, because Mimi recognized PG’s being, saw him as he was, and said he was free. In these acts of love and these recognitions of freedom we climb out of the void and create being, as Sartre proposes our being is constructed in the look of the other. This is something Bataille and Sartre agree on. Bataille says, “This infinite improbability from which I come is beneath me like a void: my presence above this void is like the exercise of a fragile power, as if this void demanded the challenge that I myself bring it, I – that is to say the infinite, painful improbability of an irreplaceable being which I am.” In both these cases being suspends itself above an absolute void, a limit of knowledge that cannot be breached. Psycho Goreman proposes vast Manichean conflicts arise beyond that void but when these conflicts enter into being, when their weirdness intrudes upon the world, even they fall sway to the bonds of mutual recognition upon which we build each other.
Before I spend too many words praising Addams Family 2 – which I will be doing – I want to start by referring back to the last time the Addams Family was a main subject of this blog. I have been relatively consistent since my writing of that piece in situating the creative rights of artists to make use of old media over that of firms to continue to profit off their purchased ownership of them. I persist that Adult Wednesday Addams was sufficiently transformative that, even within the bounds of copyright law as conceived, it should constitute IP protected parody. This film is a product of MGM’s ownership claim which I do think is harmful to a franchise venerable enough (Charles Addams having died over 30 years ago) that it really should be public domain. With that said, The Addams Family 2 is a remarkably good family film and the things they do with Wednesday, in particular, as a character are interesting. This film presents a favorable counter-point to the failings of The Mitchells vs the Machines and in light of my criticism of the latter for the ways in which it reinforced patriarchy and demanded that children must recognize parental hardship in the face of mistreatment I think it’s valuable to show how this film, through the use of a lighter touch and a different family dynamic managed to use the same premise: father arranges a road trip in a bid to connect to his increasingly distant daughter, to much better effect.
The fascinating thing is the extent to which these two movies mirror each other. There is, as mentioned above, a very similar inciting incident. Wednesday is increasingly distant from her family, whose foibles have become terribly irritating to her. Gomez is anxious that his daughter is acting aloof and impulsively decides to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip. Meanwhile a tech billionaire has devised a new product which works poorly and Wednesday holds the key. His interactions with the family drive the a-plot of the movie and provide an action frame upon which to hang an exploration of a father-daughter dynamic. This is all hauntingly familiar to anyone who has watched The Mitchells vs the Machines. There are, however, two very significant differences between these films and they are the sources of the strength of the Addams Family 2 over the older film. The first is that The Addams Family 2 uses a much lighter touch with the conflict between Wednesday and Gomez and a much healthier relationship dynamic between Gomez and his wife than the triangle formed by Katie, Rick and Linda in The Mitchells vs the Machines.
Unlike Katie and Rick, there’s nothing really wrong in the relationship between Wednesday and Gomez. He’s a loving and doting father who still sees Wednesday as his little girl. Wednesday sees the impulsive, passionate, affectionate Gomez as embarrassing and cloying. Like Rick, Gomez has to learn to trust his daughter to make good decisions for herself but Wednesday doesn’t need to come to any sort of cathartic understanding of Gomez’s perspective. She just has to come to accept that heredity isn’t a straight jacket and that she doesn’t have to renounce her family ties to create her own identity. This understanding on her part is sufficient to resolve her conflict with Gomez and restore the family to harmony. Morticia, meanwhile, is not caught in the middle. She acts as a confidant and helper to both Wednesday and Gomez, giving Wednesday an important plot MacGuffin that serves to cement her place in the family but also talking through parenting strategies with Gomez and, in fact, sharing agency over his mistakes.
It’s unsurprising that any modern configuration of the Addams Family has Morticia and Gomez being the sort of couple who talk through their fears together and who come to mutually agreed parameters with how to act that they both follow through on, but it is refreshing in comparison to Rick’s boorish anachronism. And this changed dynamic helps to drive home that Wednesday’s parents truly love her unconditionally and want the best for her. If they fail it’s because they’ve not calibrated how ready she is to decide, for herself, what is best.
The other significant difference is the handling of the villain. In Mitchells vs the Machines I was always very dissatisfied with the easy way Mark Bowman is let off the hook. Although his decision to discard PAL was the inciting moment of the a-plot action, he is quickly eclipsed as the villain. He regrets easily and at the end of the film has learned the error of his ways.
There’s no such kindness given to Cyrus Strange. He’s a rotter through and through. In the initial moments of the film Wednesday, at a school science fair, devises a machine to transplant animal traits into humans. The example provided is transferring the ability to solve Rubik’s cubes from her pet octopus into her oafish uncle Fester. Strange, played with airs of Steve Jobs and Tony Stark in equal measures, witnesses the demo and immediately tries to con Wednesday into giving her invention to him. She refuses, claiming it’s built around a “family secret.”
However Pugsley, Gomez and Morticia attend the science fair too, despite Wednesday’s admonitions for them to stay away, and between Pugsley’s pyromaniacal reconfiguration of another student’s baking soda volcano and Gomez and Morticia’s PDAs they manage to both destroy the venue and mortify their daughter.
Gomez then proposes a road trip to bring the family back into harmony and as they are leaving they’re confronted by a lawyer claiming that Wednesday is not, in fact, an Addams but has been switched in the hospital – a danger later made more plausible when Fester admits that he snuck into the hospital on the night Wednesday was born and upset all the babies, a situation he resolved by juggling said newborns. He says he’s mostly sure he put all the babies back where they went. Gomez and Morticia aren’t particularly interested in discussing their anxieties about being hounded by a lawyer seeking a paternity test with their aloof daughter but she overhears them discussing the issue and goes on a quest to discover the truth of her parentage.
Of course it’s all a con. Strange heard about the disruption at the hospital and used it as a basis to supplant Wednesday’s family in the belief it would gain him access to her technology. Although his aesthetics – black turtlenecks and holographic displays – point to the stereotypical billionaire-entrepreneur-inventor character, Strange is more of a Dr. Moreau. His great plot is to create human-animal hybrids to staff militaries and call centers. That’s right, the evil plot of the villain of this movie is to try and do the thing from Sorry to Bother You. He fakes a DNA test and tries to persuade Wednesday that she is really his long-lost daughter. This goes poorly for him and by the end of the movie Strange has been transformed so that his appearance corresponds to the ugliness of his heart. His lies are exposed and he is killed by Uncle Fester, now transformed into a tentacular kaiju by the side-effects of Wednesday’s treatment. None of this is ground-breaking to anybody who has paid attention to the themes of the Addams Family in the last (checks calendar) 57 years. The Addams Family are strange but loving. The beauty of their hearts becomes revelatory despite their outward strangeness while their enemies all start quite mundane but their own inward monstrosity slowly is revealed through the awful ways they treat the lovable oddballs of the cast. This works as well with the animated characters today as it did during both the Julia / Huston / Lloyd / Ricci movies and the original TV show. The gloss of tech billionaire helps to drive home the mundanity of Strange and makes the revelation of his monstrosity thus that bit more poignant.
The funny thing about the Addams Family movie is how low-stakes it all kind of seems. Wednesday is always so obviously an Addams. It’s present in the steampunk lab she sets up in the science fair and her “tremble brief mortals” monologuing about her experiment. It is deployed in a moment of legitimate humour when, in an effort to hide her from the lawyer, the Gomez enrolls Wednesday in a Texas child beauty pageant. Another girl in the group politely asks Wednesday what her talent is and Wednesday reveals that it’s min reading before promptly and horrifically invading the other girl’s mind, sending her screaming from the room in abject terror.
Later, during the same sequence, Wednesday is in the midst of the other girls on stage but, ignorant of the expected dance moves and blocking she keeps getting shoved around by the other girls until, at the moment of the climax of the musical number, she reveals a dagger secreted in her boot and cuts a rope backstage, spilling buckets of *ahem* red paint on each of the other girls in a delightfully deranged callout to Carrie.
In general the movie subverts the expectation of conflict. In one scene Wednesday commands Lurch to show a gang of bikers what his cold dead hands can do. He sings a disco number and ultimately replicates one of the best scenes from Tangled (only better because I Will Survive is a bop whereas I’ve Got a Dream is one of the Disney Princess line’s weakest songs.) In a later scene Lurch is sent into conflict with a bruiser in the employ of Strange but the villain’s thug immediately changes sides – it transpires that he was previously Lurch’s room mate at the asylum Gomez retrieved Lurch from and they’re quite fond of each other. In fact this show delights in setting up conflict and then giving us a moment of harmony instead as much as it does in setting up something mundane and pleasant – a science fair, a marriage proposal, a beauty pageant, and so on – only to transform it into absolute carnage. There is a winking kind of edge to the humour in this film which, at its best, manifests like the Carrie homage and, at its worst, is pretty much bog-standard weed jokes trading off the stunt-casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin It. Which really isn’t all that bad when you get right down to it.
I wouldn’t say that Addams Family 2 is without flaws. Some of the fine details of the beauty pageant scene will almost certainly have reasonable critical readings that will point to some issues with perspective and power relations in the United States and the use of a vial containing a drop of blood from every member of the Addams Family as both a metaphor for the bonds of family and as a literal tool to save Fester from the unintended consequence of Wednesday’s hubris is a bit overly treacly for a movie that generally slashes away the maudlin with a riot of camp excess. However what we end up with, though imperfect, remains one of the better realizations of a non-toxic family comedy about a daughter growing up and a father struggling to come to terms with this. Wednesday is a freak. And so are her family. And their freakishness is not the same as hers and it bugs her. She doesn’t like PDAs and REALLY doesn’t want a hug.
But what makes it good is that, while Wednesday learns it may occasionally, rarely, be OK to give her freakish dad a hug because she loves him and cares for his feelings, she doesn’t have to be like her parents. She can be other than them. And being different, being other, doesn’t invalidate the bonds between them.