Category Archives: Movies

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Colorful States

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Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?

Mysterium Tremendum

HistoryHorrorFor those of us accustomed to ancient things, horror movies are remarkably new. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are scarce or even easy to understand. While it is beginning to erode, the academic derision of popular culture has long avoided the decidedly low brow genre of horror. It doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is an insightful attempt to make some order out of a century of monsters and mayhem. Beginning at the stage when “horror film” was still just a demonic gleam in some vampire’s eye, Dixon points out that from the very earliest experiments with movies “horror” was a popular trope. It seems only natural that the idea of a full-length scary movie would be the expected development. What happened in Universal Studios in the 1930s is that business began making money out of monsters. Where there’s money, there be monsters.

Dixon takes us through the early days into the tired era in the 1950s when life was, apparently just so darned good that people weren’t really thinking about monsters. (Dixon’s analysis is a bit more sophisticated than that.) Horror films matured in the 1960’s and spun out of control in the ‘80s. His book continues up to the first decade of our current century. There’s obviously a lot that can be said about this, but what caught my attention, naturally, was how quickly religion entered the discussion. Those of us who approach horror with an open mind know that religion is its next-door neighbor. Indeed, one of the nihilistic aspects of the proliferation of horror movies since the 1980’s has been the lessening of this getting to know the neighbors. Horror, as Dixon notes, seems to have devolved to brutality and cruelty with no real message.

I’ve never been a fan of gore. I’ve watched my share of slashers, I suppose, but they’re not my favorites. Horror can—in the best of its offerings—be very profound. Indeed, it can even inspire thoughts not so terribly far from those generally classed as religious. For what is worship if not carefully managed horror? The concept of the holy as mysterium tremendum underscores this dynamic. Part of this connection is the appeal to emotion. Horror movies make you feel something, and that is a large part of their appeal. They can be more, however. A smart horror movie will feed your brain rather than just having zombies eat it. Academics, eventually, will catch up with it. Dixon starts to show the way.

Let Us Prey

ProjectedFearsI grew up with horror films. Not that my mother encouraged or approved this behavior, but I was a kid with a lot of phobias. With no father around to protect us from what dangers might lurk out there, I tried to learn how to cope by watching others face monsters. That innocent childhood pass-time, like most simple pleasures, disappeared into the adult world of analyzing and being serious and making money. Then it came back. After a series of unsuccessful relationships the old rejection phobias led me back to my beloved monsters. I suspect that’s why I like reading about horror films so much—it’s an exercise in self-understanding. Kendall R. Phillips’ Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture is a pleasant Saturday afternoon’s viewing, but for adult monster boomers like myself. Phillips admits up front that academic respectability is hard to come by for horror movies, but that is starting to change. We are beginning to read the script.

Phillips walks the reader not only through the ten movies he’s selected, but also through what was happening in American culture at the time. The horror movie proper is not yet a century old, having begun with Universal’s 1931 monster pair of Dracula and Frankenstein. Phillips shows that what scares a culture changes over time. Indeed, one gets the sense that it is horror movies that lead us in our fears. Highlighting ten culturally significant films, this book guides us through the highs and lows of the last century. The last entry in the book dates from 1999, nicely encapsulating what made us afraid during a most remarkable and, if we’re honest, a most messed up century. Clearly those who purvey horror will have their own choices for significant entries. Phillips does an admirable job of justifying his choices: Dracula, The Thing from Another World, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, and The Sixth Sense. Each reflects its age, and each impacted its culture.

It should come as no surprise that religious elements—both in culture and in the movies—are up for discussion here. Consciously or not, religion deals with our fears and frequently moves us into the realm of horror. Now that we’ve entered a new era—much has happened already this millennium—the nature of our fears has been changing. To assess cultural impact we need some distance. Books like this help us to understand ourselves, but only after sufficient time has passed. I am confident, however, that when future analysts look back on this insane time that they will find unexpected answers to questions we can only begin to utter. We stare at the monster in the room with us, paralyzed and unable to scream. Or even text. And they will note that religion played a role in our nightmares even as we expected technology to save us.

Mature Monsters

When I first began this blog, generally focused on religion, I felt the need to justify posts about monsters. Now, some seven years and several books later, I have come to assume monsters and religion are close kin. Many scholars who explore monsters are those in that amorphous field of “religious studies” who’ve come to realize that terror and the sacred are not far apart. In fact, the Bible contains many stories that could be understood as horror, if taken literally. When my wife sent me a story in The Guardian, “Guillermo del Toro: ‘I love monsters the way people worship holy images’” I once again found the connection reinforced. In the article by Jordan Riefe, del Toro comes more than once to religious themes as he describes his fascination with the macabre. Here’s a guy about my age who’s not afraid to admit that he likes the scary stuff and has, indeed, become famous for it.

Feejee_mermaidI have to admit that Guillermo del Toro has a way of pressing my buttons. I’ve watched a number of his films and they can be scary even with subtitles to read. Perhaps the reason is that del Toro understands implicitly the tie between religious thinking and the monstrous. An invisible man of infinite power whose revealed will comes in contradictions is certainly a source of fear. So is a child who wears a burlap sack painted like a mask over his head. Known for his fear-inducing creatures, del Toro was raised a Mexican Catholic. He ties this upbringing with monsters in this story. Riefe records him as saying, “I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.” In a mythical world where perfection rests only with divinity and people are told to be perfect, monsters are certain to emerge.

Until quite recently horror was considered a lowbrow genre by academics. As such it wasn’t really worthy of exploration. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that scholars of religion—the new lowbrow—were among the first to take their disfigured friends seriously. Science tells us there are no monsters. We live in a rational world with evolution taking logical steps—if unguided—to more efficient means of survival. That doesn’t stop us from lowering the shades as night draws on. The monsters may be in our heads, but we might also find them in our souls. When we’re informed that such souls are nothing more than imagination we have a very good reason to be afraid indeed.

Spirit of Equality

A few weekends back I watched the new Ghostbusters in the theater. Since tuition bills loom larger than life, it takes a powerful draw to get me to spend the money to see a movie in its natural setting. As my regular readers know, I loved it. Critics have tended to, well, criticize the movie, largely for its main drawing feature—the female leads. A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.

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Ghostbusters, in all three cinematic presentations, is for laughs. Sometimes classified as supernatural comedy, the film is meant as humor while, admittedly, leaving the door creaking open for some serious thought about the implications. In a reductionistic world there’s no room for ghosts. It’s not possible to say, scientifically, what they might be. From the perspective of traditional belief, however, ghosts are the lost spirits of the departed. Traditional Christian theology places the dead squarely in Heaven or Hell, and they shouldn’t be wandering around down here. That hasn’t stopped people from reporting ghosts. They’ve been recorded almost as long as there has been writing. Today “Ghosthunters,” arms defiantly crossed, use “science” to try to prove the entities exist. This is lightyears from the traditional seance. A ghost under a microscope isn’t very scary.

One of the reasons I found the new Ghostbusters so compelling is that it managed to tiptoe that line between science and spirit that is so rare in the real world. The women, downgraded though they are in the story, are academics. They know, and experience, the dangers of taking haunting seriously. The movie is seriously funny. Like most truly funny efforts, there is a great deal of truth hidden in the humor. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is one of the scenes that plays on its own loop in my head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” he says before he drives off toward Downtown. Women, in the film, have a healthy respect for the departed. Not exactly afraid, but not exactly unafraid, they handle ghosts as persons. This may be one of the points Dickey is making in his article. To understand a human one must be human. Spiritualist or Ghostbuster, women have always been superior guides to what is truly important. If only men could learn to listen.