FilmJuice have my review of Mathew Chapman’s jaw-droppingly awful The Ledge.
The fact that The Ledge got made at all offers an interesting insight into the difference between British and American attitudes towards religion. For example, despite having an official state church and being an ostensibly Christian nation, British society is now so profoundly secularised that atheism is now our cultural default. In other words, when you meet someone new you do not automatically assume that they are a Christian. Instead, you assume that they are either an atheist, an agnostic or sufficiently non-religious that you do not need to worry about offending Christian sensibilities in casual conversation. In fact, British society is now so profoundly secularised that many intelligent atheists are becoming annoyed at the shrill combativeness of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, thereby creating a market for books that embrace a less confrontational form of atheistic thought. America, on the other hand, is still a de facto Christian nation. This is evident from the fact that politicians tend to speak in explicitly Christian terms while even the more outlandish Christian beliefs are seen as serious moral positions. Simply stated, no British person would think to make a film like The Ledge because British public discourse has effectively banished the more outlandish Christian beliefs meaning that the confrontational attitude of the New Atheists comes across as bullying and uncouth.
Even more problematic is the fact that The Ledge is not the film it purports to be:
Despite ostensibly resembling a thriller, The Ledge is actually quite a talky and slow-paced film constructed around a series of set pieces in which characters deliver extended speeches for and against a belief in God. Given that Chapman places so much emphasis on these speeches it seems safe to assume that The Ledge is intended to be a film about ideas. Unfortunately, Chapman’s attempt to make a film about the clash between atheism and religion fails on two levels: Firstly, none of the ideas contained in The Ledge are particularly new or profound. In fact, the characters of Gavin and Joe are so unsympathetic and intellectually stilted that it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman has just as little insight into atheism as he does into religious fundamentalism. Instead of providing us with well-rounded characters and thought-provoking ideas, Chapman delivers banal caricatures filled with nothing more than hot air. Secondly, despite bloating the film’s running time and draining the thriller elements of all urgency and tension, the polemical aspects of the film are so poorly integrated into the plot that they seem more like a distraction than a primary focus. Look beyond the PR guff about ideas and The Ledge reveals itself to be little more than a squalid melodrama about a traditional love triangle.
Even more problematic is that, once you strip away all the God-talk, The Ledge is revealed to be a deeply misogynistic piece of filmmaking. At the heart of the film is a confrontation between two individuals who are so convinced of their moral and psychological superiority that they feel utterly entitled to the love of a beautiful woman. Indeed, while Joe dominates Shana by dragging her to a series of increasingly repressive churches, Gavin dominates her using mind games designed to make her fall in love with him. The Ledge is a profoundly misogynistic film because both forms of domination not only succeed but also go completely unchallenged by a director who refuses us all access to Shana’s thoughts and feelings. Denied both agency and meaningful self-expression, the character of Shana is nothing more than an empty vessel for the desires of selfish and hateful men. Time and again, Shana is given the opportunity to speak up for herself but instead Tyler simply stares impassively into the camera like a beautiful doll whose sole purpose in life is to be owned by an alpha male.
The Ledge is easily one of the worst films I have seen this year. Now that the scars have begun to heal on the viewing experience, I am almost tempted to say that the film is ‘so bad it’s good’ but then I think about the scene in which the atheist crows about getting Liv Tyler’s character to masturbate while thinking about him and I’m reminded that this is nothing more than a dull and misogynistic piece of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
It has become something of a critical cliché to end a review or an essay with a phrase such as “…and find out something about what it means to be human”. The elevation of this simple characterisation of a piece’s themes and ideas into a full-blown cliché is partly a reflection of its over-use by unimaginative critics and partly a reflection of the sheer number of works of art that attempt to engage with issues of personal identity. Indeed, the crisis of identity is perhaps the central recurring theme behind all of modern literature. However, despite all of the books, films and plays devoted to excavating conceptions of the self, surprisingly little headway has been made. We are still alienated from our deepest desires. We are still trapped between the need to be social creatures and the desire to be true to ourselves. We are still fundamentally estranged from each other’s subjectivities.
In fact, art’s lack of progress has been so complete that one might well be tempted to conclude that art — whether it be literary, dramatic, cinematic or figurative — simply lacks the capacity to generate the kind of robust truths that stand up to close intellectual scrutiny. After all, if one does not turn to interpretative dance when one wants to discern the nature of a neutron star, why should we turn to poetry when we want to discover who we are?
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson’s extended essay Absence of Mind – The Dispelling of Inwardness From The Modern Myth of The Self is an attempt to address this very question. Robinson feels that the rise and rise of scientific conceptions of the self have resulted in a general impoverishment of discourse surrounding human nature. An impoverishment that has left us alienated not only from the many ancient and richly metaphysical traditions embodied by the arts, philosophy, and religion, but also from ourselves and our willingness to trust our own insights into who we are and what we want.
Unfortunately, rather than clearly defenestrating these shrunken visions of humanity and providing a sustained and rigorous argument in favour of a richly metaphysical conception of the self, Robinson provides us with a one hundred and thirty page-long howl of entitlement. Robinson is sloppy in her choice of targets, meretricious in her engagement with science and vacuous in her proclamations. Absence of Mind is a book that fizzles with anger at the idea that scientists refuse to take Robinson’s private intuitions into account when formulating their theories but when the time comes for Robinson to articulate a reason — any reason — as to why they should, she remains oddly silent. Absence of Mind is a book written with little insight and with little to say.
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John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one of the most ferociously Godless films ever made.
In one early scene Conan discusses theology with his companion Subotei the archer. Conan speaks fondly of his warrior god Crom, stressing his power and roundly mocking his friend’s simple-minded animism (“Crom laughs at your four winds. Laughs from his mountain”). Subotei listens politely to Conan’s tirade and then points out that Conan’s god may well be powerful but in order to wield his power from his mountain he must walk beneath the sky, thereby making himself subject to Subotei’s divine winds and sky. This suggestion that organised religion is arguably inferior to a pantheistic respect for nature sets the tone for a script that relentlessly takes pot-shots at the idea of a divinely ordered universe.
Indeed, the film’s main bad guys are the leaders of an aggressively expanding snake cult. A cult that reveals itself to be little more than a retirement home for ageing barbarian raiders. Raiders who have figured out that, rather than riding around the landscape threatening people into giving up their goods, it is much easier to simply set up a temple and wait for people to surrender their money of their own accord. Not content with suggesting organised religion is nothing but a rogue’s retirement fund, Conan the Barbarian also goes out of its way to mock the icons of real world religions. For example, we have the infamous scene in which Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. But rather than allowing himself to die and for god to resurrect him like Jesus or Aslan, Conan refuses to accept his fate and so he eats a vulture and then gets his friends to make a pact with dark forces in order to bring him back from the dead. Similarly, the ‘Riddle of Steel’ comes across as a mockery of a Zen koan as not only is there an answer but the answer is that the source of all power in the world is not steel or magic or the gods but humanity.
Even when Conan does pray to Crom he admits that he has no tongue for it and his prayer is less an act of supplication or veneration but a threat and an ultimatum : Grant me victory or to hell with you! Of course, Conan is granted his revenge but Crom’s presence is conspicuously absent from the battle. Crom, much like all non-existent deities, is evidently the kind of god who helps those who help themselves.
This sense of godlessness is arguably also present in the source material for Conan the Barbarian, the writings of Robert E. Howard and so it is delightful to see the same muscular atheism appear in a film featuring another of Howard’s creations : Solomon Kane. Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane addresses the issue of God’s apparent absence head-on by asking whether, in a world where God does not exist but the Devil clearly does, is it ever possible for humanity to achieve redemption?
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