Some things are so personal, and inexplicable, that they’re difficult to put into words. Not only that, but they often involve other people and I try not to comment on those who actually know me in person. Still, having just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time, I feel I must. One of the people I admire most was a high school teacher. Although I never really said as much to him directly, he is one of the most formative people in my life. He served, and was shot up in Vietnam as a youth. His outlook on life, one that I’ve tried to emulate especially when my petty foibles overwhelm me, is an inspiration. I’m sure that he doesn’t know it, but every time I think of Vietnam he’s always in my mind.
Never a fan of war movies—I’m baffled that anyone can think of war as anything other than pure barbarism—I generally can’t watch them. Apocalypse Now, however, was widely discussed when I was in high school. It was released in 1979, just four years after the war had ended. It illustrates well the fog of war, and the Doors have been seeping in my head ever since the movie faded to black. When my wife and I began renting movies—VHS, of course—we made a list of must-see titles. First, partially for alphabetic reasons, was Apocalypse Now. That it took us almost two decades to get to it says something about the nature of life. And also my fear of war movies. Still, I knew I needed to see it. I figure that unless someone is even more behind the times than me, nearly forty years is safe from spoiler alerts.
The idea, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is that Colonel Kurtz has gone insane and Captain Willard has been called in to assassinate him. As he makes his way upriver Willard finds out that Kurtz is treated like a god. He has a cult following and does appear to have lost touch with reality. In the climatic scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death as a cow is being hacked to death outside as a sacrifice. Ending with Conrad’s original words, “the horror, the horror,” an ambiguity lingers over what a people will do once their god has been killed. In fact, language of people being gods occurs early in the film as well, bookending this concept. The truth, of course, is that there are no gods here at all. I can’t guess what Conrad would’ve thought of this adaptation of his story. I know that when I saw it my thoughts returned to one man whose impact on my life continues in ways unexpected and deeply hidden.
Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.
The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.
The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.
Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.
It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.
I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.
Posted in Books, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged and Invented Modern Horror, Conquered Hollywood, H P Lovecraft, horror movies, How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Jason Zinoman, Shock Value