Serial Killer Fiction and Why We Watch It

            For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching crime shows—Law & Order with its spin-offs, CSI, Castle, Bones, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and all the rest. My dad studied criminal justice in college, which probably had something to do with the frequency with which these shorts of shows were playing in the background of my early life. On top of these, we watched a lot of true crime as well. Through it all, one type of criminal has always held my attention, inspiring a fascination that I find half as disturbing as the crimes themselves—serial killers.

            Serial killers are horrific. They are defined by the pleasure they take in the fear, pain, humiliation, and ultimately death of others. A person with that sort of psychology not only kills, but often kills in a way that is truly sick, truly cruel, truly awful to consider. However much the drama of television and restraints of polite society might tone down the evil to a level viewers can handle, it does not erase the terrible nature of what these people do.

            Over the years, I periodically come back to TV shows and movies centered around serial killers. Most recently, I found myself caught up in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, which is still quite an active case with online amateurs, even if it has stagnated with the actual police.

            Every time I return to something like this, I ask myself why I find it so fascinating. Some critics write as if people find pleasure in the gore, the violence, the sheer disturbing nature of what is done. I can grasp on an intellectual level that this might be the case, but I don’t understand it on a gut level. I have never been able to derive pleasure from negative emotions or situations—I don’t even understand the thrill of a rollercoaster, much less how something that horrific could be pleasing to someone in their right mind.

            For years I thought maybe it was the desire to understand evil. I don’t believe in the naïve vision of the world that says people are basically good and want to do the right thing. A lot of people don’t. Rather than shield our eyes to this reality, it would be better for us to understand evil, so that we know how to stop it, to restrain it, even to prevent it—to whatever degree that’s possible.

            So I told myself that’s probably what it was. I was interested in how their minds worked, what drove them to become so disturbed, and to commit such depraved acts. More than that, what let them do it with so little apparent guilt, with so much composure afterwards? The cold-bloodedness with which some of these guys discuss their crimes in prison interviews is chilling.

            But you can only watch so many of these movies and TV shows, only imbibe so many true crime documentaries, only read so much on the internet before you begin to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s not terribly complex, once you figure it out. There’s a bitterness, a feeling of humiliation rooted in some childhood trauma. There’s an alienation from the world, a lack of empathy. They strike out to feel powerful, to feel in control, to feel like other people don’t matter. That, at any rate, is the basic story with most of them.

            Another explanation I’ve considered is that I like to see justice done. Human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Even the serial killers often know quite well that what they are doing is wrong. In part, that’s where the thrill comes from. At any rate, when we see injustice, when we see the world go off-kilter, we like to see it made right. We like to see the culprit caught and punished.

            I like this explanation. Seeing them be captured is what most movies with serial killers are about, more or less. But it also explains my response and the response of others to seeing a killer get away with it—solve the puzzle. There are people dedicated to figuring out who the Zodiac is because the Zodiac can’t be allowed to do what he does and get away with it. We need to prove that there is justice in the world by making it happen. That, and solving puzzles is fun. Which could be an explanation in itself.

            But that’s something you can get from any cop show, with any kind of crime. Why serial killers? Why people that hunt people? There are plenty of terrible crimes out there that take as many lives, that are just as calloused, that are just much of a menace to society. Really, things like organized crime are much worse in terms of the damage they do. An insightful point was made in the Zodiac movie that more people die every year driving in LA than the Zodiac killed across his entire known career. Serial killers are scarier than other things, and devastating to individuals and families, but they are still pretty small scale compared to other injustices in the world.

            And perhaps that’s the answer. Maybe serial killers are fascinating because they are so much more terrifying. For so long I bought the “I want to understand their minds” explanation that it never occurred to me that I might view them exactly as what they are often called—monsters. I wouldn’t use that language. To call them that would be to dehumanize them, to create distance, and so to erase the terrifying insight that people can be truly evil. It would be to hand-wave away the fact that injustice often comes from us, not from distant, abstract institutions or the nature of the universe, but from our own choices.

            But I think that’s a mistake, too. The serial killer movies often do dehumanize them, however interested in getting you inside their minds they pretend to be. They are not interested in letting you understand how they justify themselves, just in showing you how sick they really are.

            And really, the nature of these serial killers is that they are people who have dehumanized themselves. What that kind of pathology means is that you no longer feel what healthy people feel, and no longer act how healthy people act. The people around you are no longer human beings, but objects to be used and manipulated, and ultimately discarded. You have separated yourself from the human race.

            So a serial killer movie is, in a very real sense, a monster movie. A threat comes from outside, one that is entirely negative and more deadly than anything we face in daily life. The hero tracks it down and puts a stop to it, rescuing someone—perhaps a damsel in distress, or perhaps a city or a nation gripped by terror. It’s classic. Beowulf, St. George, Dracula, James Bond—it’s one of Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots.” Jordan Peterson could explain it easily—chaos invades the hero’s world, and he has to rise up and defeat it.

            In other contexts, I certainly enjoy these kinds of movies. I think they have a very basic, very broad appeal across time and across large sections of humanity. It even fits in a specific variation on that theme, one very popular in our culture—the sharp-minded detective who defeats the criminal by discovering a clue in his one mistake. Serial killer stories are Sherlock Holmes with a darker, grislier antagonist.

            Of course, there is another explanation, one final possibility among all the other attempts to explain an obsession. What a serial killer does is kill. These are stories filled with death, with lives cut short. In our plush and comfortable lives in modern America, it can be easy to ignore our limited time on this earth. It can be easy to think we have everything and always will, or at least enough that our biggest worry is that we want more, not that we will starve.

            In that world, a serial killer story is a memento mori. The killer is death, stalking us. We are reminded that everything passes, that everything dies, that everything fades from memory. It is inevitable. There’s a way of dwelling on this that’s morbid, but it’s also something that can focus your priorities, that can remind you to live in the moment in the best way possible. And it can drive you to look beyond death, to look beyond the veil of this world and ask what deeper reality lies behind it. A story like that can shake us out of our petty discontent and drive us to pursue what is good while we still have time.

            Each of these explanations is good in its own way. They all capture a facet of what might be attractive, what might be fascinating in such a gruesome sort of tale. But none of them quite explains everything. And that, I think, is significant.

            Sometimes people have a tendency to seek a single, simple explanation for things. We are trained to think logically, or at least to aspire to think logically. We want to see a chain of reasoning that is sound. But if the logic works, that implies an inevitability to the course of events. But perhaps the fact that we got here is not inevitable.

            I don’t want to dive into the deeper mysteries of predestination. I am speaking here purely from a human level, from a perspective trapped inside of time, inside of cause and effect. Perhaps sometimes we love a certain kind of story not for any particular reason, but simply because we do. Perhaps we love it because we were exposed to it, we spent time with it, and we learned to find that things in it that made spending that time worthwhile.

            Perhaps the activity came first, the habit of watching, then came the fascination, and something like a justification for it only came later.

            Stories are not something that exist suspended in thin air. We pick them up from being around people. We are told them, or we are shown them. Perhaps I am fascinated by these stories, and return to them again and again, for the simple reason that I was raised with them. That explanation can sound so shallow and simple, but perhaps it’s more insightful about the way people actually work than all the other explanations I can offer. Habit shapes heart, practice shapes theory, action shapes reason.

            And community introduces us to habits.

            A few months ago, my parents dug out a box of my grandmother’s old books. They were mostly Stephen King, including first editions of some of the novels that made him famous. As I began to read them, I felt an instant connection with the world he painted, despite never having set foot in them. The darkness was familiar, the kind of evil, and the way people responded. It was haunting.

            This was the woman that raised my father, and he became fascinated by a certain sort of confrontation between good and evil. Caught up in that, he watched a certain sort of show, one that my mother learned to enjoy as well. Raised in that home, I too became caught up in that drama.

            There are all sorts of good reasons to watch this kind of show, but the real reason may simply be that, for those of us who do, these stories are in our blood.

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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.

Black Panther and Living in Perspectives

I saw Black Panther about a week and a half ago, so this review is a long time coming. I was almost going to let it slide, but my brother has been inspiring in the last few days, so I finally mustered my limited after-school energy to put into words what I got out of the movie.

Especially because what I got out of it was, I think, a lesson worth learning.

Before I get into the meat, it’s worth noting that while this is certainly a good Marvel movie, and a successful Marvel movie. It’s still a Marvel movie. The action varies between meh and pretty alright, witty banter does a good job of entertaining while occasionally undercutting the gravity of the scene, we have a love interest that… exists, a dopey sidekick that becomes heroic, a really-bad bad guy and a somewhat-sympathetic bad guy, the trademark shiny Marvel visual aesthetic, the obligatory mid/post-credit scenes, and the equally obligatory sense of being “socially conscious.” It feels like you’ve been here before.

But director Ryan Coogler takes that and makes it better–he takes the obligatory tropes of the MCU and makes you forgot, from time to time, that that’s what they are.

Going into Black Panther, expected something highly politically charged. On the one side, everyone was proclaiming this a great victory for Black America, the first true Black superhero. (Conveniently forgetting about Blade, my favorite Wesley Snipes role and first unwitting introduction to Guillermo del Toro.) Also, his name was “Black Panther” it was about an African country being the best country on the planet. On the other hand were snarky but intriguing memes about Wakanda being a technologically modern monarchist nation that values its cultures and traditions so much that takes on an isolationist foreign policy and tightly controls its borders. So, whether explicitly SJW or a stealth alt-right hit, I was expecting interesting politics.

The politics was the least interesting part. Isolationism vs. colonialism vs. “nice foreign intervention” was definitely a theme, it took a back seat to the intrigue surrounding the throne and T’Chaka’s legacy. Whatever agenda the filmmakers had in that department, that didn’t seem to be where their heart was.

Their heart was in the characters.

In partisan era, in an age where we are exposed to the raw, indelicately stated views of those very different from us, we tend to reduce our understanding of the world to “that which is clearly right” and “that which is clearly wrong.” We rush to treating our neighbors like they are either morons or evil because their perspective is different from our own.

Now, right and wrong clearly exist. Sometimes they’re even fairly straightforward. But human beings are not simple creatures. They’re rarely orcs or idiots.

One question often discussed by certain friends of mine who maintain the secret, nefarious habit of writing stories is just how stories shape us. Many of us were told growing up that stories change the world, that they shape how people think. With stories, we can transform, or even save, our culture. For some of us, this became a slightly more sophisticated version of “every story has to have a moral.” In other words, tell us what to believe, and tell us why the other guys are orcs or idiots.

That was not Ryan Coogler’s goal.

Some folks in my newsfeed were outraged by the way slavery and colonialism played such a big role in the backstory and general milieu of Black Panther. They took it as Black people blaming all their problems on Whites, and demonization of all White folks. Given Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe, I highly doubt that’s a good reading.

I also think it’s a bad reading because Coogler did not make a story about White people. He made a story about Black people. Black Panther was an early and important Black superhero, and his coming into the MCU really is in the context of a push for more representation of Black folks both in front of and behind the camera. This was billed as an opportunity for people to speak to the mainstream whose opportunity to do so is usually limited and filtered through a business world that doesn’t quite belong to them.

Granting that context, the place of colonialism and slavery in the background is not a slap in the face to anybody. It’s a fact of African history, and a fact of Black American history. You complain about the uses that history is sometimes put to, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that it’s acknowledged. That is the world these characters live in because it simply is the real world for a lot of people.

If that doesn’t bug you, and it shouldn’t, you get to see something really fantastic. Ryan Coogler and his excellent cast paint the audience a series of portraits, of characters who have radically different points of view. And then we get to live in them.

First off, take a look at T’Challa. T’Challa has inherited a kingdom from his father. He wants to rule it well, and to honor that legacy. That legacy involves long ages of Wakanda concealing itself from the world, hiding in secret while the rest of the planet descends into turmoil. T’Challa exists to protect his people.

His friend W’kabi takes a slightly different view. He guards the borders of Wakanda, and is therefore key in keeping it both safe and secret. But W’kabi sees what goes on in the outside world, and wants to see Wakand take a more active role in righting wrongs.

Enter “Killmonger,” AKA Eric Stevens—AKA N’Jadaka. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, in poverty and violence, in antagonism with the police and with the White America they seem to represent, in the world criss-crossed with scars of America’s rough racial past and its tense and uncertain present. But Killmonger is actually T’Challa’s cousin. He returns to Wakanda to claim the throne and implement something far more radical than W’kabi’s vision of increased intervention–he wants to reverse the colonization narrative, to lead an uprising and conquer that colonizing nations, to use violence liberate the oppressed everywhere, and to oppress their oppressors.

This opens a gap between T’Challa’s understanding of the world, and the way it actually is. This gap is represented by Zuri and by the spirit of T’Challa’s departed father, T’Chaka. T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu was sent as a secret agent to the United States. Seeing the plight of Black Americans at the time, he conspired with a black market arms dealer to steal Wakandan vibranium, and began to plot what sounds like a terrorist attack. When T’Chaka confronts him, begins to arrest him, and then N’Jobu attacks Zuri, forcing T’Chaka to kill him. T’Chaka and Zuri flee, leaving  behind N’Jobu’s body, as well his son–young N’Jadaka/Killmonger.

T’Chaka acted in the best interests of his country. He did his job, but it left his brother dead. Worst of all, he left behind an orphan. T’Challa has to struggle with this legacy–his father’s way of defending Wakanda came at a terrible cost, the cost of making a child fatherless, and of that child, now grown, coming back for revenge.

T’Challa and T’Chaka’s perspectives are painted very sympathetically, but so is Killmonger’s. He is responding to a very real grievance, and he is doing so in a way that he hopes will prevent others from enduring what he did. Killmonger is trying to save the world, every bit as much as all the other Marvel characters–except T’Challa.

In the background, we have been informed of the Jabari tribe, a group of Wakandans who refused to adopt the new technology and retreated into the mountains to maintain older, more traditional ways. T’Challa is almost killed, but his exiled friends find him deep in these mountains, being tended by the Jabari tribe and their leader, M’Baku. M’Baku, previously quite menacing, turns out to be friendly and helpful. After a few scenes, we begin to like the guy. He even shows up in the end in a classic here-comes-Han style unexpected rescue scene.

This odd for a group that is basically something between the Benedict Option and the Amish of the MCU. So, brief recap, the anti-technology, ultra-traditionalists are sympathetic, the conquer-the-world-to-save-it villain is sympathetic, and fabulously wealthy and advanced isolationists are sympathetic. Also, good buddy W’kabi, who strikes something of a balance–though a lopsided one–between Killmonger and T’Chaka/Zuri.

Caught between them all is T’Challa. By the end of the movie, Killmonger’s death scene leads us to sympathize with him more, not less. Yet the fact that Killmonger had to be defeated says a lot. T’Challa decidedly rejected his father’s path, but his love for both Zuri and his father remains clear. W’kabi looks like he might be descending into villainy, but there is a last-minute restraint which indicates that he has not so far gone that he is beyond redemption. M’Baku and the Jabari end up heroes.

There is obviously a clear good guy/bad guy divide in the conflict itself, but nobody (well, except the arms dealer) is completely unsympathetic. And that’s the value of what Coogler did.

One of the great virtues of storytelling, one of the most powerful things it can do to shape us, is not to highlight who the orcs and the idiots are, or to tell us exactly what to believe. It’s that it can make us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes–it can make us live life from someone else’s perspective.

I noted at the beginning that Black Panther is definitely a Marvel movie, but in a very real way it is a notch above most of the rest. Rarely in the MCU have I felt like the hero has, by the end, not just become stronger, but also wiser. I have often felt that they have become what I can only call “more socially conscious,” but I rarely come away with the impression that they are more compassionate. Here, I did.

If there’s a moral to the story of Black Panther, it’s not really about isolation or race in America or colonialism. It’s about the value of actually considering another perspective. Like T’Challa, we don’t have to come away in the end having adopted the views of our enemy, just to prove how understanding we are. But we should understand where they’re coming from, what good may be found in their view of the world, and we should acknowledge it.

Of course, that sort of charity and compassion is exactly what you would expect from a reactionary, monarchist paradise. 😉

Go see Black Panther.

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.

The Amber Spyglass

Trying to comment on The Amber Spyglass is a bit problematic, because many of the things in it which are worth talking about belong in a discussion of the series as a whole. And so, I’m going to do that, and this post will be short and sweet.

  • In terms of pure literary skill, the other two were better. As Pullman deals increasingly with his philosophical themes, the characters are allowed to make odd and sometimes downright nonsensical decisions. He still hops perspectives, and there is the odd turn of phrase that reaches just beyond where his prose can actually take us. It’s still an interesting book to read, but it relies somewhat on the steam of the previous books to carry it through.
  • Lyra is still weirdly more childish around Will, who is still fairly bossy.
  • We get a solid look of the Church (at last), and I found it very disappointing. For all Pullman’s talk about patience and understanding (especially at the end), he has very little of either for the Church. Christians are simply stupid, cowardly, rabid, and devious. Perhaps he is simplifying to make a point, but in so doing he builds something of a straw man. Then again, I’m one of the people being critiqued, so I’m a bit biased.
  • There is a last-minute attempt to humanize Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and it defies everything we know about them. Asriel’s prolonged and explicit indifference towards his daughter and Coulter’s outright cruelty are sprinkled with fairy dust and become a very extreme form of self-sacrifice.
  • Iorek makes a series of stupid decisions, which take the sting out of his moment of doubt. I still respect him more than some of the other characters. He has a practical bent that I’m sure Pullman finds too simple, but I think in reality is often more perceptive than, say, Mary Malone’s philosophizing.
  • The ending is a bit flat. In a series full of last-minute rescues and miraculous little chances, the final predicament is… out of character. He’s trying to make the point that life is really hard, and that adds value to it, but I’m not sure the rest of the book is half as pessimistic as the ending. There are too many moments of grace for such a conundrum to fit. Then again, that conundrum is balanced by another sort of hope, and maybe Pullman thinks that is compensation.

Despite all this, The Amber Spyglass was compelling. Pullman throws together vastly different worlds and people, investing all sorts of moments with extraordinary importance. He loves the pageant of life, and it shows. He also displays very real fears, and portrays them equally as well. At the end of the day, wonder and sympathy can carry a story past a load of faults. And in that sense, Pullman did well.

YOLO

I have about three different, very thoughtful, important-sounding posts on back order. But this one seems more relevant right now, so here it is.

Life’s a story. God is a story teller, and he made all of us and the world we live in. I’m going to treat that as a given. But think about stories. How many were all smiles and cheerfulness and no bad thing ever happened? What’s that? No story ever? At least, not one that ever had much to offer to the world. No, our favorite characters live through pain and get their butts kicked and sometimes even die. Then they overcome their obstacle, or whoop the bad guy’s butt, or wake up after a vacation in the afterlife. Go, fight, die, overcome. Gethsemane, Golgotha, Resurrection Day.

Second, and maybe it’s just because I’m a guy, but I feel like just about everybody in this world needs a war to fight. You’ve got to have something to live for, something to die for. You’ve got to have something that makes you embrace the pain and push on through it, because the result is worth it.

Point three, and more obscure. Chesterton (that’s G.K.) talks about how the most magical things in life are the everyday things. Watch a sunset. Listen to cicadas. Sit on the porch with your friends. Read a poem. Hug a brother. Call your mom. Pet a kitten. Kingdoms rise and fall, movements dwindle or transform, and all the high-falutin’ philosophies of an era will be replaced eventually. But this world, and the people in it, is going to live forever. You’re a step closer to God’s mind when you watch the rhythms of life instead of treating every cultural crisis like the apocalypse. It’s the simple things that make life worth living. Be a simple kind of man.

One final thing to tack on before I wrap this up. There’s a stupid acronym floating around the interwebs these days: YOLO. Well, as annoying as it is, the phrase is true: you only live once. You only live once, and you are not the master of your fate, you are not the captain of your soul. You’re a character in a story, and all you know is what’s been revealed to you. This sounds like hopeless powerlessness, but it’s the very opposite. Stonewall Jackson once commented that God had determined when and where he would die, and nothing was going to change that, so he might as well walk headlong into the battle and get the job done. He was right. When you know God is in charge, it frees you to do what needs to be done and leave the rest up to him. You can plant and water, but God makes the plant bear fruit.

So God tells us to rejoice in suffering. Seems hard, but honestly it’s just a matter of perspective. We are in a story, and the suffering is what happens before the victory. You’ve got something worth going through hell for, so keep on going. It’s the little moments in life that are important, and this hard striving to hold it together when you’d rather not is something you’ll never feel again in quite the same way. Savor it. And your Father is in control, so keep driving through the pain and trust him to take care of what needs doing.

Easier said than done? True. But it doesn’t get easier by not trying. Might as well, right? You only live once, and God is control.

Whedon, Nolan, House, and Hope for the World

This past year or so I’ve been up to my neck in Joss Whedon. Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Avengers, references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Must be the company I keep. After a while, you start to notice patterns in a guy’s work, start to work out what he believes about the world.

Hanging out with the same folks that got me into Whedon, I’ve also watched a lot of Christopher Nolan. He is a far better writer and director, with films like Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Memento, and the Prestige under his belt. I began to notice as well that while he takes himself far more seriously than Whedon, they hold certain things in common.

By now it’s obvious that I’m going somewhere with this, and I’ll just show you my hand. When I watched the House series finally, the theme clicked into place across that series and both bodies of work. All of them take a certain view of death, the meaning of life, and how we are to live in response to it.

House has always struggled with death, firmly believing that there is nothing after. Life, he believes, is meaningless and ends in meaninglessness. We’re just, as the now aging adage attests, ugly bags of mostly water. In the final episode this is brought into startling clarity. But his response is interesting: he keeps on living. In every episode, from the first to the very last, we are told never to give up. Objectively, life may have no purpose, but it’s still worth living, still worth giving a little bit of our own purpose.

To keep it short, we’ll stick with Whedon’s Buffyverse. In both Buffy and in Angel we are told, pretty explicitly, that this world is hell. Buffy knows that in contrast with the peace of death, life is not worth living. Angel has seen that there’s a little bit of hell in every person, some amount of darkness that they infect the world with. We’re trapped in a world of pain and darkness. But Whedon is one step above House, and a bit more theatrical. He insists not merely on keeping on living, but on fighting the evil, again and again, with every apocalypse, even if there is no final victory. And he expects his heroes, and heroines, to do so in epic style.

Christopher Nolan, sticking to film, is much more cinematic, and therefore requires a slightly different form of analysis. But take a while and you’ll notice the same thing. The Joker, in Dark Knight, is right that everyone has some amount of evil in them. Yes, a hardened criminal may find it in himself to throw a detonator overboard, but that won’t stop Gotham’s great hope from going evil, or the whole city from blaming Batman. In Inception and Memento, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The world is hell, keep on moving, do the best you can.

There are differences, of course. Nolan is actually a bit more despairing, and he’s honestly more concerned with truth and subjectivity than he is with the meaning of life. House is just as much about whether people can change as whether this world is hell. Whedon doesn’t always care much about the literal truth of materialism and life after death as he does about despair, heroism, and redemption. But they all do have the common theme that the world ought to make us despair, but we can’t just give up.

As a Christian this is both frustrating and heartening. I’ll start with the heartening part. Despite the utter meaninglessness of the universes these men create, they refuse to live like it has no meaning. They are determined to struggle on, even half-heartedly, because they recognize that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. There is a reason to live, even if they don’t know what it is.

But it’s frustrating, because they never come to an answer. They tell us to fight, but their reasons are vague and empty. It’s all passion, emotion, and attachment to our dreams, with no concrete answers. This is because if they gave those concrete answers, if they were consistent, Firefly would end in a bitter Mal dying alone in despair somewhere in deep space. If Nolan was consistent, there would be no third Batman. If House was consistent, he would have overdosed on pain killers long ago.

You can see this tension in the way their heroes live. In the Buffyverse, nine out of ten times there is a romance, it will end in death or betrayal. And if it ends peacefully, the death and betrayal comes later. In House, every character careens from cold, cruel self-interest that cuts their neighbors, to a tough sort of love because if they have no friends, what is left to live for? And Nolan’s world is just dark.

This is not to say they don’t have heartwarming moments, or grand scenes of self-sacrifice. All of them do. But they can’t account for it. The heroes do this because they know it’s right, but according to their own view of the world, it’s not. There is no meaning in life, and without meaning, there’s no point in living one way and not the other.

I am frustrated because I am a Christian. These are skilled men who have done a lot to shape the world of entertainment, and they’re incapable of giving answers to the questions they have to ask. As a Christian, I know these answers. There is a God, not just a vague deity, but a Father better than the absentees of House’s world. He created a world that was perfect. Then, by our choice, all the pain entered into it that Angel sees, all the hypocrisy House points out, all the cruelty of the world that Nolan scripts.

But here’s the other side: Whedon is right. This hell still is worth fighting for. Not only that, but it has already been fought for. The ultimate apocalypse has already occurred. The hero did die, and saw the other side, and now he’s back. But unlike Buffy, he didn’t bring a demon with him. And unlike House, his return is not an ending. Unlike Nolan’s heroes, the victory he earned is real.

But purpose is more than past plot, it points towards an ending. It points at the happiness that Whedon pictures in every romance while it lasts, and that House ends with in so many hopeful episodes. According to the Gospel, Christ’s victory is spreading, making itself known, developing in this world. Eventually, death itself will die, and with it all the pain that sin brought into the universe.

And what is our purpose? What is the drive that keeps us going despite the pain? It’s that God is worth glorifying, and we’re built to do it. It’s that God’s creation is worth enjoying, and that’s what we’re made for. On a grand scheme, that’s enough. But on an individual level, the beauty of the Christian hope is that we all have a specific purpose. We have our own gifts to glorify God with, our own pleasures we take in his creation. We not only have purpose in general, we have specific, personal meanings.

But this leads to a different life than House’s self-interested dissolution and partying. We’re not just after our own pleasure. Drugs and sex with every woman we can get our hands on is not only a distraction, it begins to be wearying and painful. It loses meaning. But, as every hero shows in a moment of truth, self-sacrifice does give meaning. Living for others, for God’s own creations through which he is glorified, that is our code of conduct. That is how we live.

I have nothing but respect for the wonder and excitement and crazed insanity with which Joss Whedon crafts his worlds. I hope one day to achieve the tension and heartwarming moments of hope and humor House is capable of. One day I want to rock the writing world like Nolan rocks the box office. But all of them miss the Gospel. All of them ask the questions they cannot answer. The hope of a Christian artist is to be as good as the pagans, and better, but to offer a hope they can never match.

And, in my case, to pray these guys come to Christ. A Christian Joss Whedon could change the world. I hope one day he does.