Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

No Sanctuary, No Renewal

My penchant for dystopias won out over what many would suggest is good sense and I rewatched Logan’s Run for the first time since the 1970s this weekend. Dystopias, of course, are the antonyms to the religio-political utopias that seemed possible to dreamers of the Enlightenment. Since those optimistic times power structures in society have grown ossified and privilege has been entrapped in enclaves of excess wealth, both religious and secular. Seeing the film as a teenager I am certain I missed the savage social commentary in Logan’s Run. Despite its weaknesses, the movie still carries an unexpected punch, given subsequent developments. The premise, for those unfamiliar, is that in the twenty-third century life is ease and hedonism until you reach thirty. To control overpopulation those losing the bloom of youth are euthanized in a religious ceremony to be “renewed.” Logan discovers there is no renewal and, the mythology fractured beyond repair, begins his eponymous run.

In a society just beginning to come to the realization that population trends were leading toward the elderly outnumbering the young, film-makers and novelists were trying to predict where human nature might lead. Movies like Soylent Green, Rollerball, and even The Stepford Wives dealt with issues of potential population pressures. One thing they share in common: the prognosis isn’t positive. 1984 came and went, and savvy politicians learned that control may easily be blended with religious sensibilities. Hot-button issues that have little to do with government (defining marriage, deciding which gender has the right of self-determination, declaring biologists in default of creationist fantasies) easily deflect attention from the serious issues of ensuring a healthy economy and providing reasonable care for those who are actually now alive. Spending too much time gazing into the future can be counterproductive.

Logan heard rumors of a place called “sanctuary” where the aging are free from the draconian enforcements of society. He takes his lady (dystopias are nothing without a love interest) and flees to discover this idealistic place. There is no sanctuary. Outside the safe, hermetically sealed domes of society is a ruined civilization. It is a world full of possibilities, but practically devoid of people. Finding only one survivor, the only option is to convince the police state he fled that all of this is a lie. Religions too, often rely on offers of sanctuary. Some who believe may find it while others will not. Logan’s Run (now being remade) may not have been the most convincing dystopia, but in bringing ethic and myth together in a world of unheard suffering, it may have read the pulse of society better than several of its more fondly received exemplars.