Friday, May 25, 2007

Zombie Halitosis

"We laugh because it's true." Whenever I hear this old saw, I want to quote Pilate and say, "What's truth?" (Preferably in a jersey accent, Marvin Dorfler-style, like, "What is this stuff, the 'truth', anyway? Somebody want to fill me in?")

That's a big question. What is truth? Is it an idea? Does it exist in some objective, transcendent form? Is it bad for your teeth? Perish forbid anyone would ever need a truth canal.

Which makes me think about zombies, this whole truth question. Bear with me a second.

George A Romero is obsessed with zombies. Look at his films. The flesheating ghoulhordes infest his stories. They are predators on the heroines and heroes, literally, when they catch them, consuming their flesh.

There's some truth to that kind of relationship. You don't exactly date someone if their whole aim is to chew off the muscle from your shoulder. You know where this kind of person is coming from; they just want to kill you and eat you. Okay.

So, why are these stories so entertaining? Isn't it interesting that the whole zombiemonster genre is so resurgent these days, that it doesn't seem like anything is entertaining anymore unless a zombie shows up?

Maybe we laugh because it's true; maybe we are entertained because there's something valid there.

Maybe, maybe not.

If there is some truth to zombies, what kind of truth is it? Does it mean that we believe zombies are trying to eat our flesh? Or, on the other hand, does it mean that we believe humanity has no real, natural predator?

Zombies are a pure, predatory mob: they exist to literally consume humanity while a living, conscious person is still running around. (Makes you wonder what they'll do when they run out of people.)

Yet we all know there's no such thing as zombies. That's the truth of the matter, the national consensus, right? (Granted, in Haiti, Africa and South America, the zuvembie is a major player in folklore.)

I wonder. If we think there is no predator out there, what kind of position does that put the human in? It does give us more time to think, and what we think about is some kind of search for truth, in some form or other, sublimated, obsessional, sociopathic, what have you, and what do we think about? How can I find better entertainment. What more do we want, when there's no hunter, no hunted, other than to be entertained?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cosmic Halitosis

I'm a sucker for science-fiction, in all its myriad expressions, not least of all when it tackles spiritual themes: I think the genre is specially outfitted to be the ideal sounding board for spiritual inquiry. Take as exemplar Robert A Heinlein's famous Mohammed-as-Martian novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.

In this terrific story, he proposes not so much the second coming of Christ as the arrival of another in a series of holy prophets; Valentine Michael Smith, first human born on what we call the planet Mars, is the latest "Mohammedan" to visit our planet, which is to say that, like the prophet Mohammed, this is not the manifestation of the son of God, as Christ was, but rather one of the sons of God, a line of (apparently) masculine prophets with news for the world.

You should read the book. Heinlein very seriously takes on human belief in its most profound dimensions, and delivers a very sober appraisal. His satire is fiendishly subtle, as if the author wishes to provoke the less-openminded of his readers into an intellectual wrestling match, one at which they will invariably find themselves outflanked and outmanuevered. So be it, this is the privilege of the artist: he is presenting his view. Personally, I find it an important one.

Valentine Michael Smith, over the course of the novel, reaches a key understanding of our race. In doing so, he grasps a conclusion that I found to be intensely Christian. He is talking to his dearest friend and "water brother", Jubal Harshaw, about the optimism with which he embarked his project of a new church. Having believed that eventually all humans would come around to his side, Smith reaches this conclusion: "Humans aren't Martians."

He continues, "I made this mistake again and again -corrected myself... and still made it. What works for Martians does not necessarily work for humans. Oh, the conceptual logic which can be stated only in Martian does work for both races. The logic is invariant..." (here, Smith is talking about love) "but the data are different. So the results are different.

"I couldn't see why, when people were hungry, some of them didn't volunteer to be butchered so the rest could eat... on Mars this is obvious -and an honor. I couldn't understand why babies were so prized. On Mars our two little girls would be dumped outdoors, to live or die -and nine out of ten die their first season. My logic was right but I misread the data: here babies do not compete but adults do; on Mars adults never compete, they've been weeded out as babies. But one way or another, competing and weeding takes place... or a race goes downhill."

Smith reaches his key understanding of humanity: "But whether or not I was wrong in trying to take the competition out at both ends, I have lately begun to grok that the human race won't let me, no matter what."

What he "groks" -a Martian term undefinable in human terms, but roughly meaning to shed philosophical inhibition- is a rare insight, one that Heinlein achieves at the end of great striving through the mysteries of our race. Valentine Michael Smith realises that humanity doesn't want to be saved; the human race wishes to go on being human, not to live against its own instincts. What's crucial, though, is that Smith doesn't then proceed to give up all hope. No, instead he flies into the face of this brutal insight, and strives, as he feels all people should, against morbid reality.

At the end, his friend gives him good advice: "If you've got the truth, you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn't prove it. Show people."

At the end he unmistakably fulfills the prophet role, though more in the vein, I would argue, of Christ than of Mohammed -of Buddha, Blavatsky, Crowley or whomever: Smith believes, in the end, that there is a state of grace all around us that must be recognised. His fateful choice to put his life in the hands of that grace is a distinctly beautiful one, one that goes contrary to our socialised tendencies yet arrives from the core of being.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Trilogy Triumph

Face it, we live in an age of film trilogies. As sequels become more profitable, the chance of seeing tri-sectioned movie arcs increases. This summer is the true barometer, given that we have four trilogies coming to a head; starting with Spider Man, we are soon to see the third iterations of Shrek, Bourne and Pirates of the Caribbean. Audiences know and adore the characters in these films so much that they increase exponentially with each outing. So, there must be something super appealing about trilogies, right?

Kevin Smith, in his sequel to Clerks, argues that there is only one trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy; all others, we gather, can kiss his kiester. Which begs the question: what other trilogies are there? Let's see, we have Lord of the Rings, Spider Man, The Godfather, The Matrix, Shrek... any others? For argument's sake, we'll leave out Kieslowski's Three Colours, since it so far above and beyond anything else that it is de facto greatest of them all. Out of the trilogies listed, which one succeeds in being the one that stands above the rest?

I believe Sam Raimi, with his Spidey movies, has created the best.

If you're still reading, let's look at the points of variance first (to be followed by points of congruence):

Unlike Return of the Jedi, Matrix Revolutions or Godfather 3, Spider Man 3 doesn't totally suck air through the open wound of its own epic inadequacies;

Unlike Return of the King, Raimi has not betrayed his source material and bent the film into a shape that only somewhat resembles its origins.

(Since I have seen neither Shrek the Third, Bourne Ultimatum or At World's End, I cannot say how Spidey departs from these three, other than to speculate that it is probably a more mature work than Shrek, less needlessly violent than Bourne, and less bloated and exhausting than Pirates.)

As for points of congruence, we can safely say that, like Star Wars, the shining moment of the Spidey trilogy is the second film, and;

like Return of the King, Shrek, Bourne and Caribbean, character and dramatic tones are beautifully consistent, creating the sense the all three movies flow together seamlessly.

Okay, so what makes Spidey the best? I would argue that it's all in how it ends. (Beware! If you haven't seen it yet, I'm about to spoil a plot point at the end of Spider Man 3.)

First, let's look at how the other trilogies end:

In Return of the Jedi, Luke has taken up his father's mantle as a jedi. Unfortunately, as we see in the first three episodes, this victory is spoiled by the fact that Anakin doesn't turn out to have been such a great jedi after all, and the jedi order is so incompetent that maybe the universe is a better place without it: Luke's ascendance is pyrhhic at best;

In Matrix Revolutions, we learn that Neo will probably return in the future. Sadly, this goes contrary to the stated goal of the trilogy, which is to upend all our conceptions of a messiah. Whoops, turns out Neo exactly fulfills our conceptions of a messiah! Profound failure on the part of the Wachowski's;

In Return of the King, the great threat to Middle Earth turns out to be a big eye that can't stop itself from falling down! Peter Jackson renders Sauron into such a silly and anti-climactic villain, I found myself giggling when I should have been cheering. If only he had stuck with Eomer's grandslam takedown of the Witch King; now, that was climactic. Also, Tolkien explicitly painted Frodo's decision at Mount Doom as a hero's failure; Jackson manages to undermine this essential part of the story as well, turning the final moment between Frodo and Gollum into a wrestling match;

Godfather 3 fails on so many levels, I won't insult one of our finest directors by trotting out his greatest failure. Suffice to say, the third part sucks in every conceivable way.

How do Bourne, Shrek and Pirates end? We will see, and perhaps I will eat my words, but I don't think so. Because the end of Spidey gives us a totally unexpected resolution.

What stands out for me as being so great about the end of Spidey is the fact that he forgives the villain, the man, in fact, who murdered his uncle. This kind of maturity (brought by Raimi, incidentally, rather than taken from the source material) is so absent from popular entertainment, the decision to go this way is nothing short of subversive. It is also truly heroic.

Out of all the trilogies, I found Peter Parker's decision totally satisfying. It comes at such great cost, too, part of what makes it so consistent with the series. At the end of the first movie, he rejects Mary Jane because of his responsibility to the greater good; here, again, he sacrifices his own deep desire for vengeance for the sake of greater good. This decision, having been reached at the end of a long night of the soul, may ultimately undo his romance with the girl of his dreams. When they are dancing together at the end of the film, there is a sense of tragedy; we do not know if MJ can take the same step and forgive Peter for the grievous wrongs he has committed against her (culminating when he physically strikes her down out of pique). What's more, we don't know if they are really meant to be together. When MJ is coerced into breaking up with Peter, her supposedly concocted reasons are actually quite valid, and I found myself wishing that they wouldn't get back together, for the sake of their separate happiness.

Nevertheless, Peter Parker is a hero at the end, because of his sacrifice. Perhaps for no better reason than that -the outstanding uniqueness of Sam Raimi's vision- I believe Spidey's is the best trilogy.