A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus that allowed me to voice some ideas about the role of escapist media in contemporary spiritual life. Evidently this post struck a chord with a good deal of people as I have been receiving a lot of traffic from people kind enough to link to me. While I cannot address all of the points raised by people, I can address a few of the comments that caught my eye. Thank you all for your attention and I am delighted that you enjoyed the read!
0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories
Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.
While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text. As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.
This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.
As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.
Videovista have my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed California Noir action movie Drive.
As someone whose first instinct is invariably to distrust received opinions and critical consensuses, I was somewhat disappointed to find myself in the position of absolutely adoring Drive. I adore the way it looks, I adore the way it is paced, I adore the characters and I adore the film’s wider themes. While there are a number of different ways of approaching the film, I see it as effectively a retelling of Pinocchio… the story of how a puppet became a real boy:
The reason the driver operates by a very simple set of rules is because he is effectively a simpleton who possesses no desires or dreams of his own. As the driver’s shambling employer and best friend Shannon explains, he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and does whatever is asked of him without complaining or asking questions. The driver’s lack of interior life is also reflected in his general demeanour as most questions asked of him result in little response beyond an impassive smile and an evasive answer. As blissful as it may seem, this state of perfect psychological simplicity is interrupted when the driver offers to help his next-door neighbour with her shopping.
Another question I explore in my review is the issue of narratives that effectively use female characters as catalysts for the emotional transformation of their male protagonists. Indeed, one of the strangest things about Drive is our willingness to accept on faith that a character such as the Driver might exist. The reason we accept the idea of an emotionally stunted driving-machine is because we are already familiar with the idea that all men are stunted children who only ever grow up (i.e. stop chronically masturbating, doing bong hits and getting into fights at sporting events) once the calming hand of a female presence is laid on their arm. In the second half of my review I explore the issue of whether this view is actually sexist:
Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness tells the story of a white man who goes mad in the jungle while the Africans quietly get on with their lives. In other words, it is the supposedly superior white man who loses his mind in the jungle and not the supposedly inferior Africans. Similarly, while it seems fair to observe that Irene is a simplistic character, her two character traits easily outdistance the subhuman imbecility of the white man at the centre of the film. Drive is the story of a character becoming human while the woman who prompts this transition remains noble, human and complete throughout. In fact, Drive could almost be read as the story of an innocent woman who becomes embroiled in a tug-of-love between the criminal she married and the handsome weirdo who lives next door.
Regardless of how you interpret it, I consider Drive to be one of the best films of 2011 and one of my ten favourite films of all time.
0. TBR! TBR!
Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:
- A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
- An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
- A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
- A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets
As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.
FilmJuice have my review of Monte Hellman’s powerfully existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two Lane Blacktop is a film about a pair of twenty-somethings who support themselves by moving from town to town and participating in drag races. This pair are so complete adrift in the world that they possess neither home nor name, all they have is their car and the open road. In fact, the pair are so emotionally detached that it barely registers when an attractive young woman decides to join them on their aimless journey. One day, the pair run into a middle-aged fantasist and challenge him to a long distance race. Sensing some element of menace from the youngsters, the fantasist agrees but is puzzled to discover that the young people have no interest in actually winning the race:
At one point the middle-aged man is driving along and spots the youngsters having breakfast in a diner. Annoyed that they seem to be taking his challenge so lightly, the old man pulls over and confronts them, angrily asking “Are we still racing?” but no answer is forthcoming. Increasingly ill at ease with this strange relationship, the older man convinces the young girl to travel with him and he takes off while the other two are racing a local. With steel in their eyes, the pair take off after the older man but rather than confront him about cheating or stealing their girl, their annoyance seems to come from the fact that he moved the relationship from one of mutual cooperation to one of competition. As the older man drives off alone, he begins to weave lies about how he won the car from the younger men using his customised muscle car.
The middle-aged man spends the entire film telling lies because he cannot cope with the hollowness of the existence he experiences on the road. Too old and too set in his ways to come to terms with life’s lack of meaning, he spins lies to make sense of his life and that of the youngsters while the youngsters just keep on moving from town to town without ever asking for or receiving any answers.
Released by Masters of Cinema with a bevy of essays and documentaries designed to bolster its status as an overlooked classic of 1960s counterculture, Two-Lane Blacktop captures the beauty and alienation of a life lived outside of traditional culture in a way that Easy Rider never quite managed.
Futurismic have my forty-sixth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning’.
This column took me quite a while to write as I struggled to put my finger on precisely what it was that annoyed me about Skyrim. Initially, I thought it might be the bleak nature of the setting that reduces life to a series of to-do lists and selfish ambitions with easily quantifiable outcomes. However, while I am no Randian and tend to think that this vision of life is to be rejected rather than embraced, I simply could not fault it. I mean… life is ultimately about jumping through hoops until we die, right? Then I began to reflect upon the game’s lack of narrative and how playing it felt a lot like playing World of Warcraft without engaging with the social realities of guilds and pick-up groups. This was more promising as Skyrim is indeed a nightmare of pointless grind hidden by the tiniest narrative fig leaf imaginable. Then it occurred to me: if life really is nothing more than grind, why should we seek to immerse ourselves in fantasy realms that are similarly bleak and mechanistic? Skyrim‘s real problem is that it is an escapist fantasy that denies the possibility of escape:
While all video games ultimately reduce down to mechanical feedback loops and branching decision trees, most game designers soften the impact of their mechanical reductionism by hiding it behind a series of dramatic conceits that place the events of the game within a particular context which, though meaningless in mechanical terms, will provide the players with a context through which to understand their in-game actions, a context that will allow them to connect on an emotional level with the plots and characters of the game.
As usual, when faced with the bleakness of the world, I turned to Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for advice. The great sage’s advice to me was clear and unambiguous, when confronted by the horrors of existence and the feeling of bottomless dread that can only come from the realisation that we are truly and hopelessly free, the only possible solution is to laugh and launch into a nice little musical number as searching for the meaning of life is really nothing more than a quest for the most psychologically convenient form of self-delusion available.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
The context of this line is slightly peculiar but, for the moment, we can interpret it as being existential in nature: It is a demand for explanation. Where were you? Where am I? Who am I? Teasingly, Malick provides an initial answer in the form of a voice-over. There are, we are told, two paths in life: a path of Grace and a path of Nature. The path of Grace, the voice-over explains, is fearless, rewarding and free from self-doubt and self-awareness. It is a path that one walks seemingly without being aware that one is walking a path. Tellingly, Malick neither tightens his question nor the concept of Grace that he offers as a potential solution. Nor does he ever bother to explain what the path of Nature might entail. One way of reading this hand-waving is by assuming that Malick is challenging his audience: What is Grace? What is Nature? How do you walk these paths? How does walking these paths answer the fundamental existential questions of being? All will be revealed in the film that follows. However, I will argue that Malick’s evasiveness is the entire point of the film. In life, answers are fleeting and all attempts to seek clear answers are doomed to end merely in more questions. Tree of Life suggests that no matter which type of cheese (be it ‘happiness’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Grace’ or ‘union with the Godhead’) we seek, life will always be a maze.