Annihilation, Buddhism, and How Stories Speak

A week or two back I went to see Annihilation with my father. It was a strange and interesting movie, and the further I watched, the stranger and more interesting it got. I came out of the theater already preparing to write a post trying to understand what it meant.

Before I could, a friend of mine popped up on Facebook chat and we had a conversation about it. I take this as one piece of evidence that talking with actual people is a really good thing, not just reading articles made for a general audience and frozen in time, incapable of response. That conversation drew my attention away from the question of what Annihilation meant, and towards the question of how we can understand what stories mean in general.

Before we can get there, though, I have to show you how I came to one possible understanding of what this story meant.


Buddhism and Annihilation


The whole idea, or at least a major one, of classical education is that teaches you to look to the classics. If work, or a piece of art, or a practice, or a set of beliefs took hold of an entire civilization and lasted for a thousand years, drawing generation after generation back to it, then there must be something in it worth learning about. My classical education, for many good reasons, has been focused on Western classics. While I wouldn’t have it otherwise, I do think it’s healthy for a well-rounded individual in the modern West to familiarize himself with Eastern classics as well.

I have found the Tao Te Ching and the tradition it represents pretty interesting, but Buddhism has been, for me, a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that Buddhism comes in some pretty extremely different varieties, and melds more or less well with other philosophies, ethical systems, and traditions of worship.

Here is what I think I understand, arranged in what I hope will be a helpful way, and relevant to understanding this story.

All things are impermanent. We are, for example, a temporary collection of molecules arranged in a particular fashion which will fade away. To live, we depend on a whole ecosystem of bacteria which do not share our DNA, and seem to have a mind of their own, but which cannot live without us. Our life is also sustained by what we take in, and what we put out becomes the basis for other forms of life. Nothing in this world is permanent, and the exact boundaries between one thing and another are an illusion. This is called anicca and it is one the three marks of existence.

Buddhism also holds that there is no permanent self—no soul that survives this body. Our own being, our self-consciousness, like our belief that other objects in the world are particular and separate from one another, is an illusion. We are a temporary collection of attributes which will one day cease to exist. This is called anatta, and it is another of the three marks of existence.

Despite the illusory nature of ourselves and of everything that exists, we find ourselves desiring these things, and desiring to keep them. Because they are constantly changing or being destroyed, we are filled with a particular kind of pain or frustration, a sort of suffering rooted in the fact that we can never be satisfied. This is called dukkha and is the third of the three marks of existence.

The goal of the Buddhist path is to escape dukkha and achieve liberation, known as moksha. This liberation from dukkha is achieved when you reach nirvana. Contrary to the way we sometimes use this word in the west, nirvana is not a state of ultimate bliss. It literally means “blowing out” or “quenching.” You achieve it not by reaching permanence, nor precisely by learning to love what you have when you have it, but more by ceasing to desire altogether.

When you achieve nirvana, you no longer have an attachment to this world, or to yourself. You escape the trap of reincarnation, and, like a candle, are “blown out.” You escape existence. You are annihilated.


Annihilation and Buddhism


I don’t think I understand Buddhism perfectly, and I certainly am not capable of capturing all the different varieties in a single explanation. I do think that this is a fair summary, however, of a basic form of Buddhism, at least as a Westerner might understand it.

Going into Annihilation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It starts as a love story, as a story about soldiers and what they sacrifice to protect us. But the moment we enter the Shimmer, it becomes something else entirely.

The Shimmer is an alien force, something that came out of the sky in a meteor and spread to encompass some semi-tropical area on the Gulf coast. Its boundary shimmers, like some kaleidoscopic rainbow, or like the surface of a patch of motor oil. The inside is full of life, but life of a very strange kind.

Our first real introduction life inside the Shimmer is the discovery of a creeper along a dock leading to a boathouse. Its leaves and flowers are from a dozen different kinds of plants, but they all share the same vine. Somehow, multiple species exist on the same plant. Slightly later in the scene, our adventurers are attacked by a strange white alligator. When they kill it, they find the structure of its mouth and teeth are sharklike. Again, we find multiple species existing in a single creature.

A little later, we see a terrifying video left by one of the previous expeditions. A man’s insides were squirming, quite literally. His companions cut him open, and we see his intestines coiling like a snake. That which was supposed to be a non-sentient part of him, a mere organ, but organ on which he depended, had come alive. It had a life and motion of its own. Slightly later, we find the room where this was done. The man’s body has grown into two halves and crept up the wall. He is no longer alive in an animal sense, but he has become some combination of vines and colorful fungal growth, with an empty center.

Eventually, an explanation is given. The Shimmer scrambles signals—not just radio signals, but DNA as well. The boundaries between one species and another are impermanent. The Shimmer mixes their fundamental structure, their being, and causes them to grow and change into something else. We even see flowery shrubs that have grown to resemble the outlines of human beings.

The boundaries between one thing and another are impermanent and illusory. This is anicca.

Over the rest of the movie, each of the other members of the expedition are killed. Two are slaughtered by a bearlike lifeform that lives in the jungle, and it takes one of their dying screams into itself, becoming the sound by which it is recognized. But these deaths are less interesting in themselves than in how they lead to the deaths of the others.

First, the death of a physicist named Josie, who keeps her arms covered for most of the movie. She used to cut herself, and the scars now line the entirety of her forearms. After her companion’s scream is stolen by the bear, she makes the decision that she would rather go out on her own terms. She doesn’t want the only thing that remains of her when she dies to be a primal scream, an ugly thing, a thing of terror and despair. She wants to leave something of beauty in the world when she goes.

As she explains this to our protagonist, small shoots emerge from the cuts on her arms, buds tipping each one. As she walks away, still speaking, branches are sprouting everywhere. We know what is happening, and we can’t stop her. She turns a corner, and when we catch up, she has become one of the flowery shrubs in the shape of a human. Out of the crowd we see, we don’t even know which one she is.

The last living companion is a psychologist named Ventress who has picked the members of every previous expedition. She is dying of cancer, and that is part of why she decided to join this mission, and of why she chose to keep going once the others began to die. When our protagonist, Lena, catches up with her, she is inside a lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer, the place where the meteor fell and created this world.

The lighthouse is important. It is a place, quite literally, of enlightenment. When Lena enters, we see the sun shining through the hole where the meteor entered, and it is pointing to a black abyss where the meteor continued on its way. In the lighthouse, Lena sees a charred corpse sitting cross-legged in what, given what has gone before, immediately struck me as a Buddha-pose. There is a camera pointed at it. Lena begins to watch.

Her husband, Kane, who appeared at her house at the beginning of the movie after a long absence, is talking about the Shimmer’s effect on him. He takes a white phosphorous grenade, adopts the Buddha pose, and immolates himself. Then a second Kane appears from behind the camera, apparently dumbstruck by what he has just witnessed. It is unclear which of them, if either, was actually the real Kane. The one who died appeared to have Kane’s memories, but the one who lived acted as if he was shocked to see a second Kane.

Finally, Lena enters the black hole, the empty path of the meteor. When she descends, there is no rock at the center, no tangible object from which the Shimmer radiates. There is a platform, and a series of tunnels going in all directions. Standing on the platform is Ventress. After a brief conversation, during which Ventress expresses her belief that the Shimmer will come to encompass the entire world, and we do know it’s spreading, she vomits forth a stream of light, and then she dissolves into it. I say a stream, but it becomes a mixture of streaming light and glowing orbs.

What happens next is striking. The light gathers into something like an eye, into which Lena gazes. We star directly into it, and it looks, as my friend said, like a mandala. Then a drop of Lena’s blood enters the mandala, and suddenly it takes on a humanoid shape. The surface of the being is one vast mirror. Lena shoots it, but this has no permanent effect. It appears to chase Lena up into the lighthouse, where she confronts it.

Each move Lena makes is matched by the mirror-creature. She treats this like it’s a mere tactic of the being, and tries to run away. It’s more like a fixed law, as the thing imitates her even in her running, and ends up pressing her to the door with the same motions by which she attempts to open it. Crushed by the weight of the creature, Lena faints. She falls backwards, and the mirror-being falls with exactly the same motions, and lands just as she lands. Lena was freed from the creature’s weight not by fighting it, but by accepting the rules by which it functioned—willingly or not.

When she comes to, she engages the mirror creature in a dance. This results in her grabbing a white phosphorous grenade. She puts it in the creature’s hand and pulls the pin. Their hands joined, it at first appears that she will stay there and die with it. At the last moment, she runs. Behind her, we see the mirror being standing in place. A change ripples across it, and it becomes Lena, standing sad and alone as her twin departs.

The immolation of the being is strange. It is not consumed. It does not panic. It thoughtfully approaches some creepers on the wall and touches them, deliberately spreading the fire. Then it turns and descends the tunnel to the hollow beneath, to the emptiness. There it sits on the platform and adapts something like a Buddha pose. The fire spreads, and both the being and the lighthouse are consumed. By some strange subterranean connections, these are connected to other things in the Shimmer as well, and every unearthly thing Lena can see is also consumed. We soon learn that the Shimmer is gone entirely.

Back in the real world, a scientist in a hazmat suit is asking Lena questions. Earlier in the movie Ventress had stated that they weren’t sure whether the phenomenon was religious or alien or something else. Responding to her story, the scientist confidently declares that the thing must be, in fact, alien. He asks Lena what it wants. She says it wants nothing. But he points out that it has destroyed everything it touched. She says know, it didn’t destroy things, it changed them. But it had attacked her. No, it had only mirrored her—she had attacked it. He asks if it’s dead. That doesn’t seem to be an appropriate category.

From the moment Josie chooses to become one shrub in the Shimmer among all the rest, I began to wonder if this story was Buddhist. She escapes the horror of reality by escaping existence. Ventress also seems to reach both a literal and metaphorical enlightenment when she accepts her own annihilation. At the center of the phenomenon is nothing, because nothing truly exists. Everything is only a temporary state of things, an illusion. The key to escaping the pain, the anger, the loss that everyone in the movie feels seems to be accepting this.

The path to moksha, to escaping dukkha, is the path that leads to nirvana—to annihilation.


How Stories Speak


I laid out a far briefer version of this to my friend, who responded by saying that she didn’t think the Shimmer was supposed to be a good thing. Sure, it was beautiful, but look how sick and twisted so much of it was. There was a rot at the heart of all that life.

I understand that perspective. Looking at the raw effects of the Shimmer, it’s terrible. I could never write a story where this was a good thing. But I didn’t write this story.

Lena escaped, unlike the first two members of the expedition, and unlike seemingly every other expedition before. She did this by learning to play by the rules of the Shimmer. Josie escaped the fate of the other members, and came to a place she could accept, by letting the Shimmer do what it does, and becoming a part of it. Ventress found enlightenment at the emptiness in the center of the Shimmer’s source.

Those most at peace are those who learned to play by the Shimmer’s rules—to accept anicca, the fact that the distinctions between things are illusory and all existence is impermanent. They achieved peace by letting go of their desire to escape, to survive, to fix things—at least, for the most part.

When asked how she survived where others had not, Lena is uncertain, but says that maybe she had something to do, some reason to come back, where others did not. This reason does not appear to be defeating the Shimmer as saving the world. She could have died doing that, and besides, that attitude is adopted by the scientist interrogating her, who comes across as overly aggressing and overly simplistic in his thinking. The one who has seen it all and survived, the one we have sympathy for, rejects his perspective.

Neither does her reason seem to be to see her husband, Kane. He is alive, and she greets him, but she says, “You’re not Kane, are you?” Perhaps this is the double, and the “real” Kane is dead. But he replies, “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” She doesn’t respond, and it doesn’t seem to matter. They embrace as if they were Kane and Lena. They do not see one another as threats, as opposed forces. And then we see the reason why.

In each of their eyes, floating in their iris, is a small, circular Shimmer.

Their experience has changed the way they perceive the world, and who they are. The terrible things they have done to each other no longer matter. They no longer care. They have accepted the impermanence of things and let go of their desire for it to be otherwise. They have accepted life as it is.

There is another concept in Buddhism, though I’m not sure it’s universal. This is the idea of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved moksha, or come right to the edge of it, but refuses to cross into complete annihilation. Instead, they go back in order to teach the rest of the world the way to moksha. We must all escape suffering, escape our illusions. We must all embrace annihilation. That, at any rate, is my understanding of it.

It struck me in having this conversation that what I cited as evidence for my reading was telling—who seems to be happy? Who survives? The answer is, those who follow the rules. You are rewarded for proper behavior.

I think this is something of a general principle in storytelling. Stories communicate ideas not just by straight up telling you, but by showing you different kinds of behavior, and outcomes of that behavior.

This is often both far more primitive and far more complex than simply having a moral—the wrong or right things the characters do aren’t simply moral, but involve virtues like prudence, wisdom, decisiveness, or willingness to accept reality as well. The good or bad that happens to them isn’t simply the work of angels or the work of demons either—disasters may come from an enemy, but may also come from our own foolish behavior, or from the vicissitudes of life. Stories don’t just tell us how to be the good guy and how to be the bad guy, they just lay out a picture of what life is like by portraying the results different behaviors get.

This simply how stories work, and not a statement that all stories that do this have a good idea of what behaviors really do lead to what outcomes. We often notice that movies have unrealistic outcomes, and we can tell a mere daydream fantasy when it rewards someone simply for existing, and in spirt of their terrible character flaws which out to result in disaster. We also know when we’re watching propaganda, because there is no complexity in outcomes and all good things result from the good guys’ behavior and all bad things result from bad guys’ behavior. This is the grammar of storytelling, and it doesn’t ensure that the content will be correct.

This is why I look at Annihilation and see it as sort of a vindication of what seems like a pretty harsh Buddhist take on the world. Those who accept that existence is suffering find peace, and find it by either going out of existence, or by no longer being attached to it and returning to spread these truths. By the rules of the story, that is the perspective that is rewarded. That is what it encourages the viewer to accept


Other Readings


There are several other ways to read this story, and even though I think mine is pretty valid, I don’t think it’s anywhere near complete without several of these others to flesh things out.

Derek Rishmawy points out here that Annihilation does a very good job of capturing the truly Other. Often sci-fi movies portray aliens as something pretty relatable—they have the same desires we do, the same fears, the same motives for their actions. Often, they even resemble us physically. Annihilation truly captured the idea of the entirely Other, of an entity that was not humanoid in appearance, or even really personal in existence. The Shimmer is more of an ecosystem, and it is neither good nor bad in our categories.

I think this something very important for us to capture. We live in a very humanist age, when everything is measured in terms of man and what man can do. In Scripture, however, we find encounters with God that are terrifying, that defy our understanding of what the world is like. We realize in these encounters that we are not the center of the universe, not the measure of all things. Ultimate Reality will not bend to our will. Reality has to be confronted, accepted, and adapted to. Stories like Annihilation do a good job of portraying this sort of encounter.

Here Sonny Bunch looks at the movie in terms of body horror, among other things. I clearly trend towards the philosophical end of movie analysis, but this is something important as well. How do stories provoke unsettling and horrific feelings? In some cases, by doing freaky things to the human body. This teaches us something about how we think and feel as humans, and something about the world we live in when we’re doing that.

In this article, Film Crit Hulk spends time talking about the distinction made in the movie between self-destructing, which all of us do to some extent, and suicide. He grapples with issues of self-harm and suicidal thought, and with the pain of changes in life, and takes us through how the movie processes this. I’m not sure if this is in tension with my reading, or merely adds depth to it.

Here are two philosophical readings. One of them looks at the movie through a Nietzschean perspective, seeing the Shimmer as the circumstance that creates a new ubermensch, or a pair of them, and Adam and Eve that are the next step in evolution beyond Homo Sapiens as we know it. The other reads the movie in terms of existentialism and the inherent limits of science when it comes to tell us how to actually live. I commend that portion of the article in particular.

This last article struck me with an intriguing thought, an important qualification to this whole review. I interpreted this story in terms of Buddhism, but that author was quite capable of tackling some of the same issues about the nature of our temporary existence and how that squares with our desires, and did so in Western terms.

The West and the East have, to a certain extent, been very isolated from one another for a long time. Most of what Westerners know of Eastern philosophy is filtered through Westerners trying to grapple with it while using Western categories. There is certain to be misunderstanding. This also means that a Westerner is quite capable of grappling with things in what seem like Eastern terms to other Westerners, but may just be variations of Hegel or Nietzsche, or some other Western philosopher that resembles our picture of what the East is like.

So whether my reading of this movie as Buddhist is right is an entirely different question from whether the Buddhism I think I know is actually Buddhism, or whether that was what the director intended as he adapted it from the novel he drew it out of.

Finally, the strongest alternate reading I found doesn’t have a blog post to go with it, but came from my friend’s perception of the film: it’s about cancer. It begins with Lena introducing a class to cancer cells, a topic they will be exploring throughout the semester. In a conversation between Lena and Kane about whether God makes mistakes, she talks about how aging and death is a disease, and if our cells were slightly altered, we would be immortal. That, I believe it is implied, is more or less what cancer—something thriving too much in a body that can’t take it. Ventress has cancer, and the Shimmer certainly seems analogous to a cancer, and everything in it seems cancerous.

The cancer reading has a lot going for it, and certainly seems more explicit and intentional than some of the others. I don’t quite know how to square it with my own view, or whether a deeper exploration of that reading will destroy mine entirely. That’s one reason I think this is a good film—it’s saying a lot, and it will take multiple viewings to really get a grip on it.

In some ways, I think that’s what the point of a story is. It’s not just to teach you what the right path is, but to lead you back to reality and make you think about it. Stories are the breath we take, the moment of silence where the rest of life is set aside, where we are asked to look at reality as if it were something else, something separate from us. They help us to process what it means to be.

That’s why I think stories in general are valuable, and that’s why I think Annihilation in particular is one worth watching, whether or not the portrait it paints is one I ultimately believe is an accurate description of reality. It speaks to us about what life is like, and we get the chance to compare that to our own experience. We get to know life better and more deeply than we did before.


Representative Movies by Genre

A friend of mine posed this question: If you were creating a film appreciation class and wanted your students to get a good grasp of what kind of movies there are, and to see the most representative movies in those genres, what would you pick?

This is my attempt to answer that question. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and I clearly don’t spend much time in certain genres. If you’ve got a better suggestion for some of these, or new categories to add, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Romantic Comedy – Ten Things I Hate About You
  2. Buddy Cop – Lethal Weapon
  3. Action – Die Hard (Although John Wick is pretty awesome.)
  4. Action Adventure – Raiders of the Lost Ark
  5. Space Fantasy – Star Wars (A New Hope)
  6. Hard Sci-Fi – Contact (Or 2001: A Space Odyssey. How does one define this genre in film, anyways?)
  7. War – Saving Private Ryan (Patton, Dunkirk, and Hacksaw Ridge are all also good, but either lean more biopic or are just too new.)
  8. Crime Thriller – Silence of the Lambs
  9. Courtroom Drama/Legal Thriller – A Few Good Men
  10. Epic Fantasy – Lord of the Rings (Whole trilogy.)
  11. Sword and Sorcery – Conan the Barbarian (The Ahnold edition.)
  12. Sword and Sandals – Gladiator
  13. Family Drama – Big Fish
  14. Western – Tombstone (I’d add Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, and McClintock, and Lonesome Dove, but Tombstone is pretty good if you have to pick one.)
  15. Period Piece – Lawrence of Arabia (Or Gangs of New York? Ever After? Master and Commander? Every Jane Austen adaptation ever? A period piece should really be about the period, not merely set in it, in which case something like Ever After fails, but I wanted to mention it somewhere. This one is hard for me.)
  16. Alien Invasion – Independence Day. (Because I’m a 90’s kid.)
  17. Slasher – Halloween (Psycho, if you think it fits the bill, would be better. Because Hitchcock.)
  18. Supernatural Horror – The Exorcist
  19. Creature Feature – Alien (Netflix uses this category, and I find it a useful place to put monster movies I can’t quite categorize otherwise.
  20. Sports Movie – Chariots of Fire (Or Remember the Titans. Rocky is a red herring, though.)
  21. Biopic – The Social Network (Lawrence of Arabia also fits this bill, and Forrest Gump if a fictional biopic counts.)
  22. Documentary – Exit Through the Gift Shop (Finding General Tso, Blackfish, and, I hear, Helvetica are all good.)
  23. Spy Film – From Russia with Love (The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Munich, Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears, The Man from UNCLE, and Casino Royale are all very worth watching.)
  24. Disaster Movie – Titanic or Day After Tomorrow
  25. Action Comedy – Rush Hour (And everything else Jackie Chan did before he got older and more serious.)
  26. Parody – Blazing Saddles (of westerns) or Ghostbusters (of supernatural horror, especially the streak of Exorcist-like movies that were popular up until then.)


Well, there you have it. There are a lot more good movies worth watching in each category, but this is at least a rough intro to the genres.

Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night. After @jenningsaxfl voiced his disappointment, and @GKRaptorton said this was as expected, I rose to its defense. They asked for a review. Here it is, relatively spoiler-free, and short. By my standards.


I went into Wonder Woman expecting two things: feminism and cheap action thrills.

Given the superhero in question, and the current cultural climate, I expected Wonder Woman to be a story about girl power and the flaws inherent in mankind (males), who would of course have been ruining the world in the absence of sensible warrior-queen leadership. That’s not what I got at all.

This is not to say WW is not feminist in the sense of being something else. How could an Amazon heroine be anything but? It’s simply that the movie is just not that concerned with those themes. Instead, the differences between a woman-only and a male-dominated society is mostly played for laughs as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot’s Diana get to know one another in the context of their two subsequent fish-out-of-water experiences. Even when she proved more capable in combat than any of the men in the “world of men,” it was not used to make a point about women being equally capable, but just like another super-powered human in a world of mere mortals.

So the first thing I began to notice was the degree to which it wasn’t feminist. The second was the way it played to my Mummy-loving heart.

A bit of context: I realize The Mummy is not the best film ever created, and it’s certainly not deep, but it’s easily one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of exploring strange worlds, of high adventure with a competent crew of odd individuals, played as much for self-deprecating humor as it is for the thrill of chase scenes and shootouts. I haven’t seen a lot that hits those notes and does it well since The Mummy. It’s kind of my gold standard for this sort of thing, I’d given up expecting something in the twenty-teens to give me that.

Wonder Woman did. Themyscira was a strange, interesting place. The architecture was very Greek, and the climate was very Mediterranean, which I suppose was to be expected, but it felt like somebody actually enjoyed creating that world. The Amazons have a weird semi-mythic, semi-scifi flair to their civilization, besides the weirdness of being women-only, that made it absolutely fascinating to try and figure out.

Then you throw in Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. In many ways, he’s just the Chris Pine we’re used to. But Chris Pine is exactly the sort of heroic yet self-deprecatingly humorous presence that can capture something like what Brendan Fraser did in The Mummy. He goes through his fish-out-of-water tale, which I find to be pretty fresh. It doesn’t go for a lot of obvious jokes, and the ones it goes for are played pretty well.

Now Diana is really interesting to me. She’s got this thirst to see combat and to be a hero that I can very much relate to, having, y’know, been a kid once. What’s interesting is the way that’s played as maybe unhealthy, but more importantly, naïve. This kid does not understand what war is. She does not know what it means, what it costs, the ugliness of death and destruction, the darkness in humanity it exposes. She has never seen the darkness of humanity. She naively believes that all war can be ascribed to the influence of Ares, and that when he is killed, war will end. She believes mankind is basically good.

Now I don’t want to go into detail, but this is the heart of the movie. It’s not about girl power, though there are powerful girls. It’s not about dudes being sleezeballs. It’s about the darkness in humanity, the sin nature, and Diana’s coming to grips with its existence. It’s not played how you might expect—she doesn’t lose her ideals the moment she hears about dead civilians, or the first time she sees cowardly generals, or the first time she’s exposed to the horrors of WWI’s trench warfare and killing technology. Remember, she has Ares to blame for that. Or so she thinks.

But beyond the confrontation with what a Christian would call sin nature, there is the question of what to do about that. Wonder Woman has godlike powers, and the nature of the story allows her to do things for humanity no one else can. When she finally does realize what humans are, she has to decide what to do about it. That’s where this movie gets even more theological.

Now I’m going to back away from spoilers. I also got pretty deep into the themes of the movie, which really come out in the latter half, even if the groundwork is well-laid for it early on.

The first half consists of a lot more Mummy-style high adventure. London is as strange and foreign a world as Themyscira, and Diana has her own fish-out-of-water story to go through. There’s a ragtag band of scoundrels to be assembled, including a Scottish sniper with PTSD, an American Indian smuggler, and a lovable Middle-Eastern rogue who is the Lando of this feature, but with Benny from The Mummy’s hat. This movie’s got fights in alleys, sneaking into fancy German castles and scary German munitions factories, undercover dances at galas, aerial combat, ridiculous low-tier villains, a respectable boss, explosions, good fight choreography—it’s just a fantastic adventure.

But there’s one last element I want to mention, and that’s the romance. I kind of expected there to very pointedly not be one, because Diana’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. That’s not what happened. Nor is there some sort of role reversal where instead of the girl always being the damsel, the guy is always being the damsel. Nor is she put off by his having her back in battle. She respects it and thanks him for it.

This is actually a love story, absent of any tortured gender politics that might have been inserted. There is some mild battle-of-the-sexes stuff, but it’s in the context of two people who fall in love in a very traditional way, with very traditional iconography. And it’s not shallow, either. There’s humor to cultural gap between them, but there’s also a lot of humanity to her soon-to-be-crushed idealism and his deeply scarred knowledge of the horrors of war and of human nature, but his willingness to keep fighting despite that. They have a common mission, not just in the literal movie sense, but in the sense of the kind of people they are. They are, dare I say it, helpers meet for each other. A complementary pair. And it’s moving, and tender, and also features mad suicidal dashes through no-man’s land. I like it.

So there you have it. This movie was far less political and far deeper than I expected. It was also a lively adventure in strange places with fun characters, theologically interesting, and rounded out with a dash of good old-fashioned romance. It is what Marvel wishes it could be, and what I never thought DC would become. Thanks to this movie, I am actually going to walk into Justice League with a smile on my face.

And if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.

The Count and the Camera (Part One)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fantastic book, well worth reading in its own right, and doubly significant in light of the way it introduced the vampire to the popular culture. I recently listened through a series of lectures on the novel given by Corey Olsen, otherwise known as the Tolkien Professor. In the course, he first takes the listener through the book itself, and then through five film incarnations of the infamous count’s reign of terror. In each telling we see wildly different takes on vampirism, Dracula’s character and motivations, the significance of Christian imagery, and the characters of erstwhile victims as presented in the original novel.

Here is a quick refresher on the plot of the novel. Clerk Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a reclusive count buy property in England. While there, he discovers that the count is a monstrous bloodsucking fiend, and he is held hostage for over a month until making a miraculous escape. Meanwhile, in England, Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, corresponds with her friend, Lucy. Lucy is proposed to three times in one day. Her first two suitors are an insane asylum doctor, John Seward, and an adventurer from Texas, Quincy Morris. She accepts the proposal of the third, Arthur Holmwood, soon to inherit the title of Lord Godalming. Into this mess comes Dracula, who drains Lucy of blood over the course of weeks, killing her and turning her into a vampire. Dutch renaissance man Abraham Van Helsing correctly diagnoses the cause and drags the three suitors and the recently recovered Jonathan Harker into a hunt for the count. Soon Mina is bitten by the vampire, but they drive him back to Transylvania, where our heroes pursue him back to the castle and dispatch him, thus redeeming our damsel in distress.

Keep all this in mind, because the film guys are going to take that plot and go nuts with it.

Bela Lugosi: The Definitive Dracula

The 1931 Dracula is the version every American is born knowing, even if they’ve never seen it. Do you imagine Dracula as a tall man in a suit and cape with a high collar? You can thank Universal Pictures. That weird accent you associate with Dracula? One hundred percent pure Bela Lugosi. Is the Dracula in your head clean-shaven? Don’t thank Bram Stoker, thank director Tod Browning and the 1931 Dracula.

And this version of Dracula is definitive for a good reason. From start to finish, this movie is nonstop tension and chilling atmosphere. All the chief actors got their start on the stage, and they have a presence that doesn’t depend on camera angles, multiple takes, and a well-done cut to captivate audiences. Aware of this, and relying on it, the director allows the camera to linger on each character, soaking up their every expression, their every stance, their every movement. Lines are delivered with an unhurried deliberateness that draws the audience in, and the occasional pause allows the characters to size each other up.

One scene in particular highlights this—a heart-stopping battle between Van Helsing and Dracula. Where later movies are quick to give us hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, or special effects, both budget and artistry pushed the 1931 version towards a far different scene. Dracula’s hypnotic powers play a major part in this adaptation. When he discovers that Van Helsing is quite aware of what he is, they engage in verbal sparring before Dracula simply tries to tame him with psychic power. The viewer watches, spellbound, as the doctor tries to resist with nothing more than his will. Such an unseen struggle relies heavily on the skill of the actors, and both these men deliver.

Of course, neither this scene nor the rest of the movie would be half so tense if it were not for the score that backs it. Behind Dracula’s every glowing-eyed gaze, behind every attempt to resist him, behind the battles of will and the trips to crypts in castles and in Carfax abbey—behind it all lies the steady thrum of strings, the inevitable piercing high notes that sound as if a scream had become a refrain in a song of horror. At times, the score is so powerful it seems like we are watching an early music video instead of an early movie. Yet, as overwhelming as that eerie tune is, it only adds to the overall tension of film.

The story is, oddly enough, a far less interesting one than in either the novel or in most other Dracula adaptations. Based on a stage play that was itself a reworking of Stoker’s own stage version, it has cut out many of the characters and most of the locations. It is Renfield, rather than Harker, who visits Castle Dracula. Arthur and Quincy are gone, Lucy’s part is reduced, and Mina is Dr. Seward’s daughter. The narrative is thus simplified, and in some ways does not make a whole lot of sense. Very little is added in the way of themes or iconography, and much that was in the book is muted. Yet despite all this, the film still succeeds as a film.

In the clearing away of the story, we may have lost the complex portraits of the characters and their journeys that existed in the novel, but we are given instead something else very worth having. That haunting tableau of Castle Dracula, with the silent emergence of the count and his brides from their tombs, and the slow procession towards the upper world—we have time for that. We lose travel notes and discussions of science, folklore, and theology—but we gain Renfield’s long introduction to the broken ruin, and the count’s lines delivered in such a lingering, strange, powerful, and ultimately iconic fashion.

“I do not drink…wine.”

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

I… am Dracula.”

And indeed, he is Dracula. Everything this movie does have is presented with such care, cultivating a mood of rising tension, of creeping horror, that the images haunt your memory long after you have forgotten the plot. And in so doing, it’s fantastic. Watching this, from the silent stares to the slow advances, it’s no wonder it struck a chord with pop culture, and no wonder Bela Lugosi became known as the master—the definitive Hollywood Count Dracula.

The Horror of Dracula: The Hunt for Christopher Lee

This movie is absurdly cool—but cool in a very 1950’s way.

Nosferatu and Lugosi gave us Dracula on the silver screen in a time when movies—and talkies—were becoming a very big thing. Lugosi’s version of the count in particular took pop culture by storm, inspiring Universal to make five more movies featuring the caped creeper over the next twenty years. By the time Hammer Films decided to try their hand at the tale, the vampire was no longer new to movie-going audiences and Dracula himself was a household name. There was a risk the whole thing was going stale. If they were going to be successful, they would have to adopt very different tactics.

And they did.

The movie begins in a manner far closer to the novel than either the 1931 version or Nosferatu. It is actually Jonathan Harker who goes to meet the count, and we are told this in a voiceover of his diary—the same epistolary format as the book. But things quickly turn in another direction. Jonathan is not here to help Dracula with real estate matters, but to organize his library. He is, it seems, a renowned librarian. Dracula himself is a dashing Christopher Lee, without any of Lugosi’s affectations, who welcomes Jonathan in a business-like manner to a very clean and well-kept castle. He leads him up to his room, and departs.

Then comes the reveal. As Jonathan scribbles away in his diary, the voiceover informs us that this is all an elaborate ruse. He is here to infiltrate Dracula’s castle and, “forever end this man’s reign of terror.” Cut to a caped Christopher Lee billowing down the pathway outside. Like he owns the place. Darth Vader, eat your heart out.

So Jonathan is apparently a man on a mission, a genuine vampire hunter. This was not a profession that existed in the previous major films, and I’m tempted to think this one invented it. Harker has no personal stakes in this struggle that we know of, but plenty of stakes for Dracula and his bride. (puns) As he sets about exploring the villain’s lair, there is an encounter with a bride of Dracula—parallel to the encounter with three of them in the book—but it results in Jonathan’s own vampirization. Yes, our protagonist is down halfway through the movie. Now you know they’re serious. Just like Hitchcock. This, by the way, includes the all-time best surprised Dracula face, and the fact that it’s not a meme disgusts me.

The second half of the film shifts to Van Helsing. Van Helsing, like Jonathan, is a more or less professional vampire hunter, who has studied with some of the greatest authorities in Europe on the matter. He explains this to Arthur while donning his shnazzy suit jacket. Everybody in this movie has a shnazzy suit with a shnazzy jacket. Arthur was somewhat skeptical, but confronted with Jonathan’s diary and the oh-so-impressive monologue of the world’s most confident, most British Van Helsing, he has to relent.

The sheer, respectable, professional, 1950’s coolness of Harker and Van Helsing is of course matched by Christopher Lee for the remainder of the film. He has no more speaking lines, instead electing to run around in his cape, brooding and looking remarkably youthful in comparison to the middle-aged monster hunters. The sexual reading of vampirism starts bleeding in here, with Dracula’s victims looking both excited and terrified as they throw open their windows and await the coming of their tall, dark, and handsome visitor. After transformation, the ladies also adopt a far saucier countenance than the blank-eyed victims of Lugosi’s era.

Again, this film is decidedly 1950’s. You can see this in the competent, take-charge menfolk, in the somewhat mindless and helpless women around them, and in the dangerousness of the handsome youth who comes around to turn their quiet domestic scene on its head. But you can also see it in the way religious elements are handled.

The novel constantly contrasted the Eucharist with Dracula’s anti-communion, and Christ’s self-sacrifice and giving of life with Dracula’s parasitic feeding on the life of others. On the one hand we have a holy resurrection, on the other an unholy, eternal un-death. This movie keeps the imagery of the cross and its ability to repel the vampire, but robs of it of its distinctly Christian meaning. We are explicitly told that it strength comes not from being a depiction of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, but from the fact that it is a symbol of the generic, “power of good over evil.” In a very 1950’s way, Christian imagery is kept as a cultural symbol of goodness, but robbed of any specific religious content. Because, of course, if we paid too much attention to specifics—say, the difference between a Protestant cross and a Catholic crucifix—then we might have sectarian conflict. And we can’t have that. If we have that, the commies win.

Speaking of crosses and crucifixes, the ending of this movie is just as cool as everything that goes before. Van Helsing has a showdown with Dracula in serious fight scene reminiscent of early action movies. The central portion of the climax was actually so horrific that it was cut from most releases, and only re-inserted later. The final shots are also filled with significance, but I’m not quite sure what said significant shots signify. Let’s just say you can’t do certain things with the set and the camera and not mean something by it.

A few things are notably different from the book: no Quincy, Seward, or Renfield. Harker and Holmwood swap wives. Also, Lucy is Mina’s sister. Everything is in Germany, or maybe Austria. Even the Romanian location uses its German name. There is one vampire bride, not three, and her relationship to Dracula is a bit more ambiguous. Dracula never transforms, and is probably a freak of nature rather than a freak of supernature. Nobody weeps, and everyone is cool.

Overall, this was a very fun spin on the Dracula tale. It was far less interesting than Nosferatu, and far less iconic than Lugosi. It spawned eight sequels, six starring Christopher Lee, and is exactly the kind of 1950’s horror movie that would. Pop some popcorn, grab a coke, and watch this one with your good buddies or your spouse. Just don’t go in expecting something deep. All it wants to be is cool, and it succeeds.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Metal Twilight

Do not take your kids to see this. Maybe don’t take yourself. For decades academics have insisted that Dracula is all about sex, and Francis Ford Coppola is the man who set out to prove them right.

The premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—a wildly inaccurate title if ever there was one—is that Dracula’s entire vampiric existence is motivated by the loss of his one true love, the princess Elisabeta. In life he was a warrior for the cross, who set out against overwhelming odds to face the might of an invading Turkish army. He succeeds, but his enemies trick Elisabeta into believing that Dracula has died, and she plunges to her death from the castle walls into the river far below. Upon learning this, the count renounces God and politely informs some priests that he will rise from the grave with all the powers of darkness to avenge his lost love. They are understandably taken aback. As is Winona Ryder when she finds out that she is Elisabeta reincarnate, and Dracula has come all the way from Transylvania just for her.

Before I kick this puppy, let me say some nice things about it. The cast is fantastic. Dracula is Gary Oldman at his best—and Gary Oldman has to be at his best here. He plays old Dracula, young Dracula, three kinds of monster Dracula, good Dracula (kinda), in love Dracula (definitely), distraught Dracula, arrogant Dracula, and angry Dracula. Every Dracula in the book. Opposite him is Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, very pointedly hunting down a cannibal the year after he played the iconic Hannibal the Cannibal. Winona Ryder, playing opposite the count in a very different sense, is Mina/Elisabeta. Cary Elwes makes a delightfully punchable Arthur, and Keanu Reaves is a terrible but amusing Jonathan Harker. The cast is great, and this was the only one that messed with the pictures of the characters I had in my head.

In addition to an awesome cast, this movie was finely crafted. Francis Ford Coppola paid extraordinary attention to all sorts of visual minutiae. One cut brings us from a woodcut of Dracula dining on his enemies to Dracula waiting for Mina at a fancy restaurant. Another has Dracula rise dramatically from the grave just before Lucy flies down the steps in the same screen-space shouting, “I love him!” Over the course of the movie, Mina’s dress and hairstyle slowly change to more closely resemble Elisabeta’s from the flashbacks, and her seduction by Dracula is intercut with her fiancée falling into the river below Dracula’s castle. The attention to detail is stunning—from the opening flashback to the closing Christological imagery. A+, Francis.

But when I compare this to Twilight, I’m not joking. Dracula is, in this movie, quite the heartthrob. The central thread is a tragic love story, from the frenzied despair of the count’s renunciation of God, to the struggle between his desire to be reunited with his love and his fear of condemning her to an eternity of torment. Mina too is caught between her love of the monstrous count and the life she chose before he came along, before he made her realize who she was. Dracula is driven by the agony of love lost, and his entire performance is charged with both bestial sexuality and a more tender, human passion. If only Gary Oldman could sparkle.

That bestial sexuality absolutely destroyed the other characters. For the only time on this list, every major character from the book is present in the film adaptation, but most are unrecognizable. Lucy has become an innuendo-dropping, constantly topless sex kitten, absolutely delighted by the range of men fawning over her. While she adores Quincy’s big… knife (not my joke), she apparently prefers Arthur’s wallet. The three suitors are all apparently there just for her skankiness, and any trace of their honorable character or respect for Lucy as a person is entirely removed. Mina, by the way, wishes she could be more like Lucy, and have all the boys fawning over her. She is, in fact, deeply disappointed with her Jonathan, who insists on waiting until their wedding night. What a shmuck.

You might expect Van Helsing to bring more of an adult presence and sense of restraint to these randy young folks. You would be wrong. Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing is something of a dirty old man, though a more defining trait is his cold-heartedness. He does not care about Lucy, feeling free to belittle her after her death, and shows no compunction about needlessly distressing Mina. A grandfatherly figure in the book, here he is more monstrous than the vampire he hunts. Which is, one suspects, exactly the point. This adaptation is designed to humanize Dracula, and what better way than by making his chief antagonist as unsympathetic as possible? Those with a keen eye, by the way, will find what appears to be Hopkins in another unsympathetic role earlier in the film.

By that standard—rendering Dracula sympathetic—does this movie work? I’m not sure. In some ways, most definitely. Gary Oldman lends a whole lot of complexity and nuance to the character, and the film definitely puts the tragic love story up front. That defines the count far more than his vampirism. However, his vampirism, because it is sexual, is far more rapey than in other adaptations. One might object that Lucy clearly appeared willing, but this doesn’t help. Even ignoring his psychic whammy powers, that only turns the apparent rape into a very creepy liaison with a woman who is most definitely not Elisabeta. And judging by his harem back at the castle, Dracula apparently thinks nothing of regularly sleeping around on his beloved, and this continues well after he realizes who Mina is. Are we supposed to think his love is as powerful as he pretends? His faithlessness cheapens his character, and Mina’s own flakiness when it comes to her two lovers doesn’t make me want to root for her either. If that makes me stodgy and old-fashioned… I don’t really have a problem with that. Rape’s not cool, and neither is sleeping around on your lady.

Overall, I was fascinated, repulsed, and ultimately disappointed. Francis Ford Coppola made an excellent film, but one that gutted the characters of all the chivalry and virtue they possessed in the book. His project—making us sympathize with Dracula—is interesting, but could have been done in a far less slimy way. I feel like I got the same sort of mixed messages one gets from watching Fight Club. Maybe the lesson wasn’t supposed to be “love justifies being a dirtbag,” but it sure feels like that’s what we came away with. So overall, much respect, but no thanks.

Stay tuned for a very different take on vampirism, and a very different kind of sympathetic portrayal. Nosferatu, Dracula 2000, and Shadow of the Vampire will be dealt with in Part Two.

True Grit

Last night I watched the old John Wayne version of True Grit. Living among people who do not much appreciate John Wayne, westerns, or the sort of culture that does appreciate such things, it was somewhat refreshing. I think westerns can sometimes get tagged as a form of storytelling that doesn’t have much to it, and isn’t worth paying a lot of attention to. I disagree with that point of view, and this movie reminded me why.

True Grit is, partly, a coming of age story. Before diving into the story itself, I want to dwell on that a minute. The basic idea of coming of age stories is that of taking a sheltered individual—a child—and introducing them to the world, and watching them learn to cope with it. As such, coming of age stories are a good way to make a statement about what the world is like and what it takes to get along in it. Harry Potter dealt with good and evil, life and death, love and hate, the structure of power and authority, the nature of celebrity, disillusionment with one’s heroes, self-reflection, and becoming a hero one’s self. A whole worldview. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga deals with many of the same themes, as well as religion and science, reason, childhood, and changing the world. True Grit lacks the range of either, but it’s in the same genre, and it may help to watch the movie in that context.

A second thing to keep in mind while watching True Grit is the theme of dignity. Lately I’ve had several opportunities to discuss the concepts of human dignity and the nature of honor and shame with quite a few people. American culture in general does not tend to set a lot of store by those ideals, but movies like True Grit, and the sort of people that spawn such a culture, cannot be understood without them.

Simply put, the idea is that people should be treated with respect. There is an inherent dignity in being human, something grounded—if you ask a Christian—in the image of God. And when people enter into society, that idea of dignity, of honor, takes on a new depth. A man who keeps his word, who gets the job done, who does not turn away in the face of danger, such a man is honorable. On the other hand, a man who lies, cheats, steals, betrays, and who shows no respect for others is not himself honorable. While simple humanity is worthy of a certain level respect, honor can most definitely be won or lost.

True Grit starts with Mattie Ross’s father going into town to trade horses. He brings with him a man named Tom Chaney, whom Mattie does not trust. Mattie’s father fed Tom Chaney when he was hungry, put a roof over his head, and, it seems, has also given him a job. But while in town, Tom gets drunk, accuses someone of cheating at cards, and when Mr. Ross takes him out into the street, shoots his benefactor. After killing him, Tom Chaney steals his money and his horse and takes off for Indian Territory. A traitor has killed a good man.

At this point in the movie we know that Mattie is a short-haired, outspoken bookkeeper at the family farm, whose opinion her father always valued. She comes into town to retrieve his body, with no visible signs of anguish. She finds that the whole town, including the coroner she came to see, has gathered at the town square to watch a hanging. She goes to watch it with another hired hand, and learns that the judge is up there on the scaffold, watching the hanging out of “a sense of duty.” Mattie comments that we cannot know what is in a man’s heart. The hangman, we also learn, is a Yankee, and will not hang a Union veteran.

Early on, we are introduced to this picture of human justice. The town delights in a hanging. The judge says one thing, but something very different may be in his heart—he may take joy in the macabre event, rather than appear there out of a sense of duty. Even the hangman’s justice is not even, applied to men he fought against, but not those he favors. Society, in short, may get it right from time to time, but is subject to flaws and a certain delight in the pain of others. Do not trust soceity’s justice.

This idea is doubled down on as Mattie goes to the sheriff and sees the nonchalant approach he has taken to finding her father’s killer. Then we are introduced to Rooster Cogburn, a deputy US Marshall known for bringing more outlaws in dead than alive. We meet him in a court of law, and it certainly looks like his quick trigger-finger takes out men with less than just cause. But the judge does not seem to care. As Cogburn comments later, he was a good hanging judge. That is, until the lawyers came in and messed things up for everybody.

But Cogburn is the man Mattie wants. She has heard that he has grit, and she wants a man with grit. This fact does not change when she discovers he is drunk, filthy, malodorous, and perhaps a little prone to gambling.

Into this picture comes the slick-haired, fine-speaking, good-looking Texas Ranger, La Boeuf. Mattie does not think much of him, and we quickly learn that he is after Tom Chaney as well, though by another name and for another offense. La Boeuf tries to hire Cogburn out from under Mattie, but she will not hear it. She wants Tom Chaney hanged in Arkansas for her father’s murder, not in Texas for a dog and a no-name Senator.

Mark that. Mattie wants justice done for her father. He was a good man, and she loved him, so his killer must hang. But she doesn’t just want the killer to die any old place. This isn’t mere angry vengeance. In fact, Mattie seems rather calm about it. No, she wants the murderer taken in and brought before a court of law, and then she wants him hanged, for the crime of killing her father. It’s important that it be clear what he is being hanged for. Again, look at this through the lens of dignity or respect. Her father’s death deserves recognition as an evil act, and deserves justice. So Tom Chaney cannot hang in Texas, for some other crime.

Another big theme playing out in this story is that Mattie is a girl in a man’s world. Her short hair, her outspoken demeanor, and her habit of getting things done, all these mark her out as unfeminine. She is a woman who does not know her place. But she will not be treated with the lack of respect the world gives her. In reacquiring her father’s things, she deals with a horse-trader, gives him more than a little trouble, and ends up getting the better part of the deal. In doing so, she establishes herself, despite her youth and sex, as a force to be reckoned with in this world.

When Cogburn and La Boeuf do team up and go riding towards Indian Country, they are unimpressed by the young girl, and try to leave her behind. But when they convince someone to take her back to town, she punches the man across the face, rides off on her horse, and fords the river upstream of the ferry the two lawmen are using. She meets them on the other side, insists that she is coming, and they race off, presumable to outrun her.

The next part I find interesting. When she catches up with them, La Boeuf ambushes her, pins her on the ground, and begins spanking her with a switch ripped from a nearby bush. Spanking, particularly of women, seems to crop up a lot in these old John Wayne westerns. I have a feeling a nice, juicy essay could be written on that, but it would take more watching and thinking than I’ve done.

But what’s important to note in this context is that spanking is something you do to bad children. La Boeuf is treating Mattie as a misbehaving child. But when he mocks her struggling, she is quick to point out that she is not hurt by the whuppin, only angry, and her actions when he lets her go do line up with this story. But while he has her down and is spanking her, she shouts to Cogburn, asking if he’s going to sit by and watch as this man treats her in this undignified manner. Cogburn says he won’t, and tells La Boeuf to stop. La Boeuf refuses, and Cogburn says La Boeuf enjoying it too much. (Again with enjoying others’ pain.) Anyways, Cogburn points a gun at La Boeuf, and convinces him to let the girl go. So, on they ride, deeper into Indian Territory, away from civilization.

“Civilization.” That’s another thing to factor in. Mattie has proven that she can deal with rough men, that she can maintain her dignity in a world that wants to cheat or spank her. But she is civilized, and these men do not live in civilization. Once they get going, she is quick to ask whether they are going to stop for dinner. Cogburn laughs, and tells her that many a dinner will pass unnoticed before this journey is over. Mattie must adapt, and on they go.

I want to set dignity and civilization side by side for a minute. Americans historically have set a lot of store by hygiene, as well as education, and other marks of civilization. To Mattie, Cogburn’s stench and filthy habitations are undignified, unworthy of a civilized person. On the other hand, a man who forgoes dinner to get the job done, a man who will rough it in a hundred other ways until the mission is complete, such a man is worthy of respect. Civilization has a certain dignity to it, but there are circumstances where it means a lot more to bypass the norms of civilization.

The trio reaches a cabin and smoke out two outlaws hiding inside. One is suffering from a leg wound. Cogburn uses this as leverage to uncover the whereabouts of Lucky Ned Pepper, the man Tom Chaney is riding with. (Lucky Ned Pepper is a young Robert Duvall. I did not know Robert Duvalls could be young.) But the wounded man’s companion takes a knife to his friend, whom Cogburn quickly avenges with a shot of his revolver.

As the informant lies dying, he makes two interesting comments. First, referring to his murderer, he says, “He never played me false til he killed me.” He defends the honor of the man who killed him to two complete strangers. This man was his friend, and rode with him a long time, dealing honestly, and therefore honorably, with him. Second, he tells the trio about his circuit-riding Methodist preacher brother down in Austin. He asks them, after he has died, first to bury him, and then to sell his things and send the money down to his brother. These are both questions of dignity. A human body should not be left to rot in the open, and a man should do right by his kin, even if they did not get along well. Pay close attention to the treatment of bodies in this movie.

Besides these two things, the dying man tells Cogburn that Ned Pepper and his gang will return to this very cabin later on that night. Knowing he is dying, he chooses to do the right thing, and help the lawmen in their pursuit of justice. There is nothing that can be gained from that action, at least not this side of the grave. It’s just what a man ought to do. Of course, the criminal he is helping track down is a man he rode with, so take that however you will. But the theme of a dying man doing what is right with no thought for himself, in his last living moments—that theme will return.

They set a trap for Ned Pepper. As they wait, Cogburn tells Mattie all about his earlier life. He fought for the South in the War, with Quantrill. (Quantrill, and everybody in that area, had a bad reputation during the Civil War. Because the border states did not divide cleanly, it was more like a feud between gangs of outlaws than ordinary warfare, and the men who fought there gained the reputation of outlaws.) He also stole money from a bank, which he insists was not stealing, since he didn’t harm anybody, just a cutthroat corporation. Mattie begs to differ. Again, the definition of stealing is framed as a question of interpersonal relationships and honor, not simply the law. At any rate, after the War, Cogburn married and settled down in southern Illinois, but his wife left him and took his son, who never liked him much anyways. And so Cogburn went and became a lawman.

Pay attention to the way Cogburn talks about his wife. He clearly has a distaste for her, and learns from her a general distrust of women. But he talks about her as a force to be reckoned with, someone with a mind of her own, more than capable of making the decision to leave him, as foolish as he might think her reasons were. The world of the western, and this western in particular, may seem to dwell on “manly” virtues, but there is often found here a degree of agency and respect towards women that I find lacking in less apparently male-oriented genres. But maybe my love for the Mattie Rosses of the genre just blind me to its faults in that department.

Now, this paints Cogburn as a little more aimless and world-weary, a man who has a reason to drink like he does, and not much reason to act like a civilized man. Whatever “grit” he has, he earned it through hard times. And so, as civilized people—like bankers and lawyers—would have it, he’s not a man worthy of much respect. We’ll see whether that’s a good assessment by the end of the movie.

The trap does not go off as planned. Ned Pepper escapes, but Tom Chaney almost does not. One of the other outlaws turns back to save him, but gets wounded. Chaney shoves him off the horse, rides after the other outlaws, and never looks back. When Mattie points out this despicable way of acting, Cogburn comments that, “Looking back is a bad habit.” Doing the right thing is all well and good, he seems to say, but he is aware of the world in a way she is not. This is the sort of place where life can end in the blink of an eye, at the pull of the trigger. If you want to live, you may have to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe this doesn’t excuse Chaney, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The trio rides with all the dead bodies and the newly acquired horses to a little trading post, McAlester’s. They leave the bodies to be buried, with dignity, and Mattie reminds Cogburn to do the right thing by their informant. After a little badgering, the worn-out old man keeps his word, sells the dead man’s things, and has the money sent to that Methodist preacher down in Austin. Then Cogburn tries to convince Mattie to stay behind while he corners Ned Pepper, but again she refuses. So off they ride once more.

This entire time Cogburn and La Boeuf have been bantering back and forth, mocking one another over this and that. Generally, Cogburn has the upper hand on this foppish, big-mouthed Texan riding his tiny horse. But finally Cogburn loses his dignity as he drinks himself to the point of falling off his own horse, and he declares that they will make camp there and attack Pepper the next day. Rebuked by La Boeuf and Mattie, he puts away his flask and sobers up.

The next morning Cogburn is ornery towards his companions, risking a fire La Boeuf would not, and berating Mattie for wanting to wash the sleep off. La Boeuf urges him to cool it, and tells Mattie there is a river downhill, through the trees. She heads that way, trips, and spills down the slope and onto the riverbank, where Tom Chaney is standing, alone, watering the horses.

Here there is a confrontation of wills. Chaney does not take the little “bookkeeper” seriously. Indeed, watching that little girl handle her father’s massive hand-cannon, it’s hard for the audience to, either. But he runs his big mouth too long, acts a little too stubborn, and she plugs him in the short ribs. At the sound of that shot, Cogburn and La Boeuf come running, but not before Ned Pepper and the gang show up and whisk Mattie and their wounded companion away.

Here is the low point of the story, where all seems lost. Ned Pepper shouts out a treaty with Cogburn, agreeing to let Mattie live, and leave her and Chaney behind, if Cogburn and La Boeuf ride off and mislead a band of marshalls that Cogburn claims are heading that way. When it appears Cogburn has agreed, Mattie loses her cool, insulting him and declaring that he has no grit. Over the course of the movie, his dignity before this civilized girl has been continually called into question, but she trusted his abilities on the frontier. And now, when it counted most, he failed her.

It is worth pausing for a moment to note how quickly Ned Pepper comes to respect Mattie. He is a ruthless outlaw, and not too intelligent, but when she speaks to him, he answers. He talks to her like an equal, not like a child. Earlier we saw Cogburn and La Boeuf treat her with this same level of respect, but she had to earn it. Keep in mind, this is the world of the western, the world of John Wayne and the man’s man. But Mattie Ross is worthy of respect, the movie wants us to believe, and this is a world that will treat her with respect, so long as she stands up and acts worthy of it.

Ned Pepper and the gang leave the hideout, which means Mattie is alone with an armed Tom Chaney. He has been left with orders not to harm her, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of following those orders. So once more she pretends to cooperate, then catches her captor off-guard, this time with a ladle full of boiling water. There is a brief scuffle, and it looks like Mattie is going to be overpowered, but La Boeuf returns just in time. He steers Chaney at gunpoint to safer spot, and creeps up with Mattie to the top of a nearby rock to watch Cogburn confront Ned Pepper’s gang in the valley below.

From this point forward, keep the themes of honor and grit in mind. Mattie doubts drunk, old Rooster Cogburn, but he returned to save her. And now he stares down four armed outlaws across a plain with no one at his back. He offers to let two of them go, and to let the other two, whom he does want, come quietly. They refuse, pointing out the odds. He waves off the odds. Then they make a bad mistake. They call Rooster Cogburn a one-eyed fat man.

“FILL YOUR HANDS YOU SONOFABITCH!” he shouts, and the battle is on. Rooster charges across that plain, and the four outlaws draw their guns and rush him. Fire is exchanged, Rooster comes out unscathed, several outlaws attempt to flee, and then Rooster’s horse is shot such that it pins his leg to the ground, trapping him. But just as Ned Pepper creeps up from behind to take him out while he’s still unarmed, La Boeuf take a long shot from the promontory and kills the outlaw. (The new version gave this one-on-four charge much more emphasis, even accentuating Cogburn’s mention of a previous such encounter in an earlier conversation with Mattie.)

Meanwhile, Tom Chaney has picked up a rock. He creeps up behind La Boeuf and cracks him on the head with it, knocking him out cold. Then Mattie shoots Chaney with her father’s hand cannon again, and the recoil sends her flying back into a deep, dark snake pit with bones at the bottom. Mattie finds her arm broken, and within easy reach of a rattlesnake. (This was the most spine-tingingly terrifying part of the movie.) Chaney crawls to the edge of the pit, bearing Mattie’s father’s gun, which she had dropped, and mocks her as she grows more and more terrified. Then a gunshot rings out, and Chaney drops dead. Cogburn has come to the rescue.

He rappels down into the snake pit, but on the way, Mattie provokes a rattlesnake into biting her. (I have no idea why she decided to hit the thing with a branch. There was no surer way to make it angry.) Cogburn blows its head off and prepares to help Mattie climb back out. Mattie makes him take her father’s gun from Tom Chaney’s corpse, which has fallen into the snake pit. After that, she tries to convince him to take back a gold piece that Chaney has, which also belonged to her father, and is filled with both worth and meaning. He has no patience for this. Her life is not worth this gold piece, even if there is some significance attached to it.

Looking up, he comments that it’s a pity La Boeuf was dead. His presence would make this climb a lot easier. La Boeuf pokes his bloody head over the mouth of the cave and announces that he is not dead yet. The wounded Texas Ranger mounts a horse and gives the rope a tug, pulling Mattie and Cogburn to freedom. But when they reach La Boeuf, they find him dead in the saddle. “Texican,” Rooster comments, “Saved my neck twice. Once after he was dead.” Once again, a dying man does the right thing with his last breath. He’s not long for this world, but he’ll do right by the people in it.

This seems to shatter Mattie. Cogburn puts her on her favorite horse, one that she had bought earlier after tormenting that poor horse-trader. She tells him they can’t leave, they need to bury La Boeuf. Cogburn insists that her snakebite is more important. Yes, the dead should be treated with dignity, but the life of the living is worth more. He mounts up behind her, and she says he can’t do that, her horse won’t take it. He replies that this is the only horse they have. Then they ride hard.

Eventually, the horse begins to flag. Mattie tells him to ride slower, he’s killing it. Instead, he rides harder, until the horse dies under them. That horse was not worth Mattie’s life. Then he picks the wounded girl up and carries her. He will exhaust himself to save that girl’s life. He goes until they reach Ned Pepper and his gang down by a riverside. He does not stop to collect them, and the reward that will follow, but holds them at gunpoint until he can steal their carriage and put Mattie in it. Their capture is not worth Mattie’s life. Then he drives off as fast as he can, back to McAlester’s.

Cogburn sees that Mattie is taken care of, then goes back to Arkansas, to the same old filthy back room he has been living in, to drink and play poker with Chen Lee and the cat. While there, Mattie’s lawyer comes to inform him that despite her grave illness, she still managed to conduct her affairs. She sends Cogburn payment for his services, with an additional sum as thanks for saving her life. Displaying her usual business acumen, she insists that he sign a receipt. Cogburn then asks the lawyer if he is a betting man, and bets all his money, and the cat, on Mattie’s recovery.

In the final scene, a restored Mattie and a sober Cogburn walk up a snow-laden hill to her father’s grave. She has done right by him at last. Now she points out to Cogburn the layout of this little family cemetery, where her mother will be buried, where her siblings and their families will buried, and where she will be buried. She tells Cogburn that she wants him to be buried next to her, where her husband and children should go. He does not have family, but over the course of the journey, he has become family to her. He accepts. Then she gives him her father’s gun, a touching gesture, honoring the old lawman. (That’s a lot of what honor/dignity/respect is about—who is in and who is out, who you associate with and who you don’t. And in the end, who’s family.)

Cogburn mounts his horse and prepares to leave, making a comment about how that horse could jump a high fence. Mattie quips that someone his age should not be riding fast, much less jumping fences. He laughs, tells her to visit this “fat old man,” and then spurs the horse downhill and over the fence.

True Grit paints a landscape where honor means something, but where the world is quick to rob you of your dignity and your life. The law is not as trustworthy as could be wished, and every scrap of justice has to be fought for. It’s a world of dark civilization and dangerous wilderness.

But in this world, a little girl is not confined by her age or sex to the margins of society. If she will behave worthy of respect, if she earns respect, then the world is forced to treat her with respect. The horse trader knows she is a force to be reckoned with, La Boeuf knows she has earned her spurs, Ned Pepper speaks to her in a way he does not speak to some of his fellow outlaws, and the grizzled old Rooster Cogburn would be honored to be laid to rest beside her. She starts out keeping the books, and ends keeping justice, and maintaining her own dignity in a world eager to take it from her.

But this is also a movie about grit, about that world that would rob things from you, and the sort of man it takes to confront it. Rooster Cogburn is an old, drunk has-been, quick to the trigger, and in imminent danger of prosecution. He’s fat, smelly, and one-eyed. But when the time comes for action, he’ll ride down four men on his own. He’ll do what’s right, and not what’s easy. He knows his priorities, and he’ll make the sacrifices necessary to get the job done, and to save his friend. In short, a man who endures hardship and indignity to do his duty, that’s a man with grit, and grit covers a multitude of faults.

This is the world painted by True Grit, the world Mattie Ross comes of age in. It’s not the same world, with the same concerns, as in Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. It’s older, rougher, more personal, and depending on where you call home, far more American, far more familiar. It does not display the range, and perhaps not the depth, of such long sagas, but in its short space, it communicates quite a lot. And that’s why I find it a world worth spending time in, a world worthy of study. It could certainly stand a lot more attention than I have given it here, and it’s far from the only western worth watching.

To Disney, Or Not To Disney?

I grew up on Disney. The Lion King, especially. And the Jungle Book, definitely. Mulan and Aladdin as well. And Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Goofy Movie and The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid and The Black Cauldron and– I should stop now. I could go on. I have seen almost every Disney animated feature since Snow White, including several poorly done sequels. I loved them. Disney movies, together old myths and coming-of-age fantasy novels, were my bread and butter.

But in the world of Reformed Christianity, and especially in the sectors where we skip out on public schooling in favor of Christian education, Disney is not always welcome. Those movies, so it is said, promote rebellion, self-centeredness, and following one’s heart. Rather than one’s head or one’s authority figures, I assume. Furthermore, Disney creates unrealistic expectations regarding romance, dreaming big, and happy endings. Such things are not good.

I was becoming acquainted with this view at about the same time as I was switching from cartoons and kids shows to action movies, crime dramas, and psychological thrillers. I was not very motivated to explore what was being said. Instead, I shrugged and went back to conducting Ode to Joy as John McClane shoved terrorists out windows. Years went by, I became a college kid, and watched enough Quentin Tarantino to last a lifetime. It was painful.

So here I am, having come full circle. I want to reconnect with my storytelling roots. I want a little nostalgia, and some lightheartedness. I am tired of exploring the grey areas and dealing with twist endings and reminding myself that I have to be careful what movies I recommend to people. Give me family friendly, give me good guys and bad guys, give me a Disney classic.

So, as I began this journey back through the long-untrod paths of my childhood, I figured, why not put that old disapproving notion to the test? Why not see if these movies were as bad as they say? I want to look at their problems, and at their redeeming values, and I want to lay it out here for your consideration. So, over the next good while, I will be both reviewing and re-viewing Disney movies. And this, dear friend, is your invitation to join me on that noble quest.

So come on down,
Stop on by,
Hop a carpet and fly…
…cause we’re starting with a lamp, a street rat, and another Arabian night.

A Twofer: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and xXx

I was planning on mentioning xXx already, but this weekend I got the chance to see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and since both reviews are short, I combined them.

Hansel Und Gretel

A lot of movies these days, even blockbusters, try to have some sort of thought-provoking twist to justify the action. Even less pretentious flicks tend to have a message, and classic action movies usually deal with more themes than “gun go bang, car go boom.” So when I saw this movie advertized, with its twist on a classic fairy tale, its rising star, and the sheer potential of the world it was set in, I naturally assumed there would be something of significance beyond full auto crossbows.

I was wrong. Hansel and Gretel is exactly what it claims to be–a movie about little kids that grow up and kill witches. They have plenty of opportunities to try for fairly serious drama or ask semi-deep questions, but don’t. Instead, they make witches splode. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad action movie at all. A little too heavy on the blood and guts, a brief shot of nudity, enough swearing to get the R rating (which I wasn’t aware of going in), and no deeper significance, but still pretty fast paced with some awesome fights and shots purely for the cool factor. The only real change effected by the end of the movie is that the title characters are a little more BA, which is pretty cool, I guess. So, yeah. I won’t say you shouldn’t go see it, but honestly I would rather my own nine bucks had gone elsewhere.


Have you ever watched Hoodwinked? Remember Triple G? If not, stop what you’re doing and go watch that particular piece of awesome. At any rate, this was the Vin Diesel movie that inspired that reference. I never spent money on this one, and for which I am happy. It was not as action-movie good as Hansel and Gretel, the villain was past Bond-level crazy, and the characters were pretty lame. But it did try to go for a message.

It made the interesting point that folks like Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage (incidentally, I like the obvious punny casting alternative), who see it as their mission in life to stick it to the man or whatever, don’t rely want the mainstream society they mock to be destroyed. They need the establishment to exist in order to fight against it. Reminds me of how one man compared sinners raging against God to a child sitting in his father’s lap and slapping him in the face. It’s only by the father’s goodwill that the child can insult him like that.

Incidentally, the Netflix version claims to be PG-13, but it’s actually the R version. Not that it should matter. Honestly, that one observation is all the movie was worth.

Mediocre Movies

I guess you have to have movies like those two. Something cheaper to offset the good, deep movies. But you know what? I get more fun out of escaping to deep worlds than to this “okay” stuff. Heck, I get more fun out of stuff so bad it doesn’t need rifftrax. Give me good, give me hilariously bad, but meh is meh. And nobody likes meh.