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.

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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.

Witchcraft and Individual Freedom

Distinctly Modern Magic

 

Sometimes we have a habit of thinking of magic as a throwback to an earlier time, a period when people didn’t exactly understand the way the world worked. Even a cursory study of the history of witchcraft, astrology, “high magic,” and related arts, however, should quickly disabuse us of this idea. Magical ways of thinking about and interacting with the world did not go away with the Enlightenment, but only changed to match the times. Certain practices became less common, others more. Some explanations for the way magic worked fell by the wayside, and others became more important.

Michael Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe is merely an overview of the topic, with truly modern magic occupying only a chapter, or perhaps a chapter and a half if you draw the lines more loosely. But even in this short space, Bailey finds room to suggest ways in which much modern magic is not merely a holdover from a bygone era, but a uniquely modern creature. One way he does this is by drawing attention to the way some have attempted to remove the stigma of participating in magical practices. In the past, he says:

“The labels of magician, sorcerer, and especially witch were assigned to individuals, whether by powerful religious or secular authorities acting through legal courts, or by neighbors acting through equally effective systems of village gossip and community opinion. Many people, indeed most, engaged in actions that some others might well have considered magical, but few judged their own personal practices to be magic, at least not in the sense that magic was transgressive or illicit.”[1]

That is, in the past people may have engaged in a little hocus-pocus, but they would hardly have accepted the label “witch.”

We throw around words like “countercultural” pretty easily today, as if that meant very little, but in many societies being countercultural was a far costlier choice than in our own. We enshrine individual freedom as one of the central tenets of our society—people should be free to believe what they want, to do what they want, to be who they want, so long as it does not directly harm another individual. Both right and left have accepted this basic idea for some time, though of course they apply it very differently, with the right embracing more economic freedom, the left more social and cultural freedom, and libertarians trying to get the best of both worlds.

In societies where social, cultural, economic, and even religious freedom were simply not on the menu, where there were no popular elections with competing parties dividing people into contrasting ideologies, the idea that one would differ significantly from one’s neighbor by choice was a bit strange. Your livelihood was, to one degree or another, dependent on finding a way to belong. If you failed to do so, you generally lacked the mobility necessary to pick up and move on to another place where you had some hope of starting over.

Bailey connects the emergence of individual freedom with new trends in magic and superstition:

“In the modern West, however, with its stress on individual freedom (and, critically, freedom from legal punishment for performing previously illicit forms of magic), certain people began to prove very willing if not eager to take on the title of magician, and later also of witch, in no small part because these titles and practices associated with them have been considered to transgress limits imposed by the structures of modern society. Yet in the very act of transgressing and to some extent attempting to transform these limits, these individuals actually behave in a very modern, at times perhaps postmodern, fashion.”[2]

Consider what it takes to sustain a society where individual freedom is important. You have to not only create the political and religious structures that allow for individual freedom, you also have to pass that value on. You have to tell stories about the courageous individual, bravely standing up against the villainous society which seeks to restrain him. To keep a liberal society going, we have to tell stories of the marginalized confronting the powerful, and being in the right. The witch is by definition marginal, a ready-made hero of a society that values individual choice and self-definition.

 

Witch Trials and Liberal Storytelling

 

There are a number of ways modern magical practices and traditions, especially Wicca, embody a distinctly liberal ethos. I hope to examine several of them more fully when we reach that part of this study. For now, however, I want to draw attention to one of the more interesting ways in which witchcraft lends itself to the “brave individual vs. the world” narrative: the witch trials.

If there’s anything we know about witches, other than brooms, hats, and cauldrons, it’s that the Church loved to burn them. The middle ages was one long slog of random women tied to stakes and set on fire, maybe because their neighbors didn’t like them, and maybe because Judge Claude Frollo is repressed and doesn’t know how to deal with it. We all know that millions of women were killed this way. It was practically a holocaust. More specifically, it was a male-driven holocaust perpetrated mostly against women.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in almost every detail. To begin with, rather than millions of people killed, the European witch trials probably claimed less than 100,000 lives, spread across the entire continent, and over three centuries.[3] More likely, the number was actually between forty and fifty thousand.[4]  Moreover, the witch trials were not a medieval phenomenon, but an early modern one. The worst half century was from 1580 to 1630, well after both the Reformation had ended the monopoly of Roman Catholic religious power, and after the Scientific Revolution had already begun.[5] Also, while the trials were certainly directed more often at women, on average 25 percent of the accused were men, though in pockets like Normandy the number might actually be 75 percent, or over 90 percent in Iceland.[6] Furthermore, it was not the Roman Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition that drove these trials. Trials, conviction, and execution were all far more common in places where centralized church or state government had less influence, not where they had more.[7] In fact, Spain, home of the famous Inquisition, executed far fewer witches than almost any other country in Europe, with Italy not far behind. This number, for the curious, is a mere 300 in the century from 1560 to 1660, the height of European witch trials.[8]

Fifty thousand spread across three centuries, for the curious, is about 167 people a year. This was spread across the kingdoms of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the patchwork quilt of Italian city-states and the realms of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland, and other assorted European nations. Massive hunts were not the norm, but the exception. Rather than burnings in every village for the entire course of the middle ages, we ought to imagine sporadic and isolated events spread unevenly over a very large area.

This is not to say that the witch trials were not a serious miscarriage of justice, or to minimize the suffering inflicted many no doubt innocent people. There is, however, a rather large gap between our picture of what happened, and what actually did happen. This ought to make us curious. Where did our picture come from?

Weirdly enough, the first group to really embrace this notion of the European witch trials was the Nazi party:

“By the mid-twentieth century, the notion that medieval and early modern witches had actually been practitioners of a pre-Christian, pagan religion…had gained considerable credence. The Nazi leadership decided that witches would make useful symbols of northern European völkisch culture, in opposition to essentially Mediterranean Christianity, which was, moreover, rooted in Judaism.”[9]

As the Third Reich expanded, the SS’s “Special Witch Unit” went through records of witch trails in various regions, hoping to use them for propaganda purposes. [10] The Nazi brand of feminism—wherein Aryan women were decidedly superior to the men of other races—even adopted a line common to later feminist takes on witchcraft, proclaiming that it was an assault on Aryan womanhood by degenerate Christian men.[11] The Nazi’s conception of a witch-holocaust was expressed in the 1935 pamphlet Der christliche Hexenwahn, or “The Christian Witch-Craze.” A year before, another leader of the German pagan movement, Mathilde Ludendorff, printed Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen, “Christian Cruelty to German Women,” which claimed that approximately nine million women had been killed throughout the witch hunts.[12]

None of this is to suggest any sort of moral equivalence between Nazis and people who have a similar understanding of the witch hunts. To claim that because, say, Wiccans share certain beliefs about history with Nazis, that they must be similarly monstrous and wicked is patently ridiculous. Such smear tactics have no place in any sort of civil discussion, whether they are directed marginalized or at mainstream religious, ethnic, or political groups.

But there may be a reason liberal narratives of the witch hunts and the Nazi narratives are so similar. These two disparate movements had a common enemy—the Christian Church. A unified Christian Church, even in the loosest sense, can compete with the Aryan race for German loyalty, as it did in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. It can also present itself to individuals as an entity demanding moral and behavioral conformity. In either case, it is convenient to believe that the Christian Church perpetrated a massive slaughter of either fiercely independent women or of noble Aryan pagans when at the height of its power.

Every movement needs heroes, and a good hero will often breed a movement. Looking back to the exaggerated tale of nine million women slaughtered in a holocaust of superstition and prejudice, especially if one believes these women were carrying on an ancient pagan faith, it is easy to see what makes identifying with them attractive. They seemed to have a spirit of independence and courage, as well as a connection to something more ancient and apparently more good than the currently prevailing religion. If we, as a society, teach our children to value these things, is it any wonder a number of them will grow up to claim the label “witch?”

As always, it is a mistake to assume that facts automatically lead to beliefs. Often the version of history we select is driven more by which stories express our values than which has the most evidence behind it. If Christians want to win hearts, we should aim to shape hearts, not just convey information. And we should also learn to pay attention to myths and storytelling tropes, at least as much as we do to actual history.

 

 

Update: I recently began another nonfiction project offline, with an eye towards publication. While I will continue the History of Witchery project, the other has priority, and new posts will likely be more spaced out than they were in June.


[1] Bailey, pg. 216.

[2] Bailey, 216.

[3] Bailey, 176.

[4] Bailey, 175.

[5] Bailey, 143.

[6] Bailey, 149.

[7] Bailey, 161-170, but especially 162.

[8] Bailey, 165.

[9] Bailey, 236.

[10] Bailey, 236.

[11] Bailey, 237.

[12] Bailey, 238.

Passengers and Hope

I spent the last week in Kansas City, and had the good fortune to see the movie Passengers. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and came out of the theater feeling quite moved. I hardly expected that going in, not being especially taken by the trailers, and having had my expectations lowered by the mixed reviews. Seeing that my experience was so very different than many others’, I felt obligated to offer an explanation for just why I think Passengers was an objectively good movie. And I do think that. In fact, I’m about ready to call it one of my all-time favorites.

Keeping that in mind, this review will be spoilerific. If you have not seen it yet, go do so and come back. If you have, then forge ahead. Even if you aren’t convinced by what I have to say, I trust that some of it will at least serve as fodder for lively conversation.

That said, this monstrosity is about 4500 words long, and divided into four sections: Setting, Story, Characters, and Values. If you decide you want to read it in multiple sittings, try reading the first two and then the second two. Those chunks should be of roughly equal length.

Cheers,

David H.

 

Setting

Passengers is, if nothing else, a beautiful film. It is not set in the splash of stars and colorful planetary close-ups of Star Wars, but the vast emptiness of space as we know it—a realm of mystery, largely untouched by human civilization. That sense of the sheer immensity of the cosmos, the thrilling beauty and monstrous terror of something greater than any human being, is something we return to again and again. Most obviously we see it in the vertigo-inducing space walks, which are far quieter and more contemplative than the trailers we would have us believe. But we also see it in a thousand other places—in glimpses through ever-present windows and transparent roofs, in pools jutting over the emptiness, in losses of gravity that remind us that our presence here is unnatural and tenuously maintained. The atmosphere of a long voyage through the glittering, flaming, beclouded, and empty reaches of space makes the ride worth it.

Setting the voyage aside, the ship itself is a delight. At first it looks like the typical technological wonder of a thousand other utopian visions of the future. That trope starts to break down as we realize that the technology is surprisingly limited. Even before things start breaking down, we meet the computer’s frustrating inability to provide information it was not programmed with. The AI we meet both in Arthur, the robotic barkeep, and elsewhere is amusingly formulaic in its responses. The illusion of personality is not as thin as the old text adventure games, however, but far more familiar. The flaws of this ship are the same flaws we meet in smartphones with Siri and autocorrect—wonderful and useful, but prone to hilarious mistakes.

It’s that touch of the flaw, that consciousness of limitation, that makes the ship endearing. We see it faithfully carrying out its mission to the best of its abilities, but also fumble as it deals with the humanity of its passengers and its own slow breakdown. Over the course of the movie, the starship Avalon becomes as much a character as any of the humans on board.

Story

In the midst of the vast terror of space and the wonders and limitations of the Avalon, Passengers is a story well told. It begins with an accident, and that accident wakes up the first of our major characters—Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston.

Jim has a problem. He has awakened ninety years too soon, and there is no way to go back into hibernation. He will, barring some miracle, die alone on a ship filled with passengers. Luckily, Jim is a mechanical engineer, and he sets about trying to solve this problem. While a solution doesn’t present itself immediately, he is able to significantly improve his life by eating out in all the ship’s restaurants, racking up an enormous debt, and breaking into a high class suite with a basketball court and VR dance arena.

Over the course of his struggles with loneliness and attempt to get back to sleep, we get to know Jim well—from highs of childlike glee reminiscent of Home Alone, to the depths of near suicidal depression, staring into the abyss. We see his remarkable competence when it comes to tinkering with things, as well as his powerlessness when he finally comes to terms with his limitations. This first act of the film is a solid exercise in world and character building, brought to life by a gifted actor born for the lighthearted humor and dramatic intensity of the role.

But as we were all aware going in, this was not a Chris Pratt in space movie, but a Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space movie. The way that comes about is unexpected and powerful.

Jim has been alone for a year. (The way this movie marks time, by the way, is effective without being distracting, adding well to the tension and drama.) He looks even more hairy and unhinged than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the childlike humor Chris Pratt usually brings to a movies meet with depths of loneliness and fear that generate all kinds of pity. And that pity becomes gut-wrenching when we see Jim confronted with an awful choice.

One of the thousands of passengers locked in the hibernation pods is Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, the sleeping beauty who captures Jim’s heart. In the depths of his misery, he sees her and begins to wonder what it would be like to have just one friend to mitigate the loneliness, to make the long wait for death on an empty ship more bearable.

Of course, Jim knows how indescribably cruel it would be to wake her up. It’s wrong, and he knows it, and he admits as much to Arthur on one of his regular trips to the ship’s bar. But the existential crisis that is his situation has brought him so low that he can’t put the idea out of his mind. He finds recordings of interviews with Aurora, learns about her, learns that she is a writer, and reads some of what she is written. He is captivated by her, and this only adds to the agony of loneliness. Guilt builds as he contemplates doing what he knows he should not, and shame is visible on his face as he finally gives in and wakes Aurora up.

The sequence that follows mirrors the first act in many ways. Aurora goes through many of the same things Jim did, searching for passengers and crew, attempting to break out, accepting her situation, and finally trying to make the most of it. We get to know her in much the same way as we did Jim, but instead of watching her fall into despair, we instead see her fall in love with the last man on earth, narrating the journey as she dictates her next book to a recording to device.

This love story is every bit as funny and charming as you would expect from these two actors, and the effect is only increased by their solitude on the ship. But all the while the knowledge of what Jim has done looms in the background. We know that these happy days cannot last, not once Aurora knows what the man she has come to love did to her.

When she finally does, the effect is devastating. Arthur, misunderstanding the situation, informs her, and she confronts Jim. He does not lie to her. He tells her exactly what he did, and that he knows it was wrong. The next portion of the movie is devoted to Aurora processing that betrayal, rejecting Jim as he tries to make amends, and attempting to find a new way of life on this long, lonely journey towards death.

Throughout the movie, malfunctions have been building in the background. Something is wrong with the ship, and it has only been getting worse. We are reminded of this regularly, but not so that it distracts from Jim and Aurora’s stories. We know it will have to be dealt with, but that’s an issue for later.

It turns out that later happens when Jim and Aurora’s relationship is as dead as can be. A ship malfunction wakes up Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus, a Chief Deck Officer and the only other human we see awake for the majority of the film. His presence serves two purposes: it forces Jim and Aurora to work together to prevent the ship from destroying itself, and gives them a third person to seek companionship and sympathy from, finally exposing Jim’s evil deed to a third party.

The presence of Gus works like the prologue to the final portions of the movie. We quickly learn that his pod’s malfunction has made him fatally ill. Within minutes of appearing on screen, Jim and Aurora have to watch him confront his own mortality and attempt to die with some shred of dignity. As he does die, he leaves Jim and Aurora with a wristband giving them all the access they will need in order to save the ship. He passes, and they launch his body into space in classic naval fashion.

Next Jim and Aurora are confronted with just how critical the problem with the ship is. If they don’t do something immediately, they will be confronted with a disaster that kills every passenger on board. Forced to work together, they track down the source of the problem and do their best to fix it. This leads them to a terrible choice.

In order to fix the ship, Jim has to go out into space and manually open a port, allowing the fiery exhaust of the reactor to vent into deep space. In all likelihood, he will not survive. When the moment of truth comes, Aurora is torn apart by the necessity of killing him. Without him, she will be utterly alone. More than that, despite what Jim did to her, she did once love him, and he is actively proving his love for her. When she discovers that he is still alive, and goes to recover him, she is relieved. The crisis seems to have healed a wound that time never could.

But Jim’s act of self-sacrifice and Aurora’s forgiveness towards him are immediately followed by one final decision that must be made. In the face of survival and the drama of their relationship, the fact that they will die alone before reaching their destination has faded into the background. It is brought abruptly into the foreground by Jim’s discovery that they can go back into hibernation—but only one of them. He offers it to Aurora. For a tense moment, the next scene lets us think that she might have accepted, but then she arrives. She has chosen to stay with Jim.

The final act of the film occurs 88 years later, when the Avalon is within a few months of its destination. The ship’s crew awakes to find a garden growing on one of the decks, an Edenic paradise that Jim and Aurora have crafted over a lifetime together. Aurora narrates, having left behind a record of their story.

This is well-structured storytelling, each act and scene laser-focused on a single purpose, all adding up to a coherent, moving narrative. The setting is wondrous, but the story itself shows fine craftsmanship.

Characters

If a character and a plot are not enough to make a movie good, Passengers rises to the challenge and also offers characters we are willing to spend two years alone in space with.

I have already mentioned Chris Pratt’s childish humor, and the depths of darkness he descends to as Jim. He is moved by sever guilt and shame, and by love as well. But besides these qualities, he is also the consummate tinkerer. Jim is always working on something, whether it’s gaining access to the luxury suite, trying to save the ship, or modifying space roombas. He crafts intricate models and fine jewelry, and expresses a desire to go somewhere where there is still something new to be built. He wants to build a house.

Aurora is just as fascinating a character, experiencing as wide a range of emotions artfully expressed by the talented Jennifer Lawrence. Like Jim, she has deep-seated desires that have shaped her character. She is a talented writer, as was her apparently famous father. He died when she was seventeen, and whatever other family she may have had is never mentioned. She seems to be the archetype of a millennial’s dream: talented, successful, and totally unencumbered by any attachments. She wants to do what no other writer has ever done: voyage to a colony and come back, carrying her story of a new world with her into a future far from the life she has known. This desire to experience adventures like her father, and to be widely read by virtue of her own talent and experience, sets her apart from Jim as a person in her own right—a person whose dreams he has snatched away.

Arthur, the ship’s barkeep and an extension of the Avalon’s personality is, as I indicated earlier, an endearing character. He is as competent as his programming allows, and smiling face and listening ear to the two passengers who want nothing more than company. Indeed, when what Jim has done is revealed, they undergo something of a custody battle for time spent with Arthur. But behind is welcoming manner and delightful foibles is the subtly unsettling nature of a robot who is just a bit too smart, just a bit too unfeeling, and increasingly broken.

The last character worth mentioning is Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus. The depth of the character is made all the more remarkable by the brief time we have with him. He comes onto the scene as a man with a mission, putting off his own health problems and refusing to get involved in the fight between Jim and Aurora. The ship is malfunctioning, and he must save the ship. He goes about it in a gruff and workmanlike manner, with lines that seem just a bit more blue collar than you expect coming from the man that played Morpheus.

When Aurora does finally force him to comment on Jim’s sin, he refuses to indulge her bitterness while also refusing to exonerate the Jim for what he did: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.” This simple, folksy wisdom, a recognition of human frailty, paints Gus as a man of insight, if not the most warm and cuddly guy imaginable. Soon after, he is confronted with his own imminent death. He dresses up and sits gazing out the window into space. Ever mindful of his duty, he passes on the wristband giving them access to the whole ship. He tells them to save it, and to take care of each other. Then he dies, leaning over on Jim as he does. That very human, oddly childlike gesture seems to illustrate just how small we all are in the face of death.

This is a movie with a tiny cast of characters, but they are portrayed with a depth far beyond what most movies offer.

Values

The setting, story, and characters are enough to make Passengers worth watching, but the film is far more than the action/rom-com sci-fi flick the trailers seemed to offer. It’s a meditation on death, the meaning of life and relationships, and the value of legacy.

Film critics I respect have criticized Passengers for its disturbing gender politics. Boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy ruins girl’s life, boy gets away with it, and girl goes along with it. If this were done unconsciously, I might agree with them, but the movie is all too aware of just how wrong what Jim did is. He knows it, and tears himself apart up until the moment of weakness where he does it. It’s just behind his eyes throughout their relationship, and he confesses it freely when Aurora confronts him. Aurora’s devastation is magnificently illustrated, at least as haunting as Jim’s earlier loneliness. When Gus is brought in, he does not deny that what Jim did was as wrong as wrong can be. He only says that it’s what drowning men do.

And that’s the key. It’s what drowning men do. In the midst of a crusade for a just society, our culture has tendency to treat humans as if they are morally perfectible. We can always do what’s right, at least with regards to the big things, if we only tried hard enough, if we were only properly educated, if society were only set up in the right way. Wrong is wrong; it shouldn’t happen and people shouldn’t get away with it.

But Passengers seems to question this assumption. There is another philosophy of humanity, a very old one, but often neglected in our generation. It’s the belief that people are morally flawed. We are all, to put it in Christian terms, sinners. Of course we shouldn’t do certain things, but that’s not the world we live in. The fact is that human beings do what’s wrong, and nothing we do is going to change that.

Jim woke Aurora. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t excusable, but it’s what he did. There’s no getting around that, no erasing the past, and no erasing his sin. As Gus said, “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.”

In our search for justice, forgiveness is often understood as telling the victim to get over it, as telling the victimizer that what they did was okay. That’s not what’s going on in this movie. Passengers is deeply aware of the vileness of what Jim did. But it suggests that perhaps this is the world we live in, and we can’t do anything to change it. Our anger may be justified, but it fixes nothing. If we want to go on living, if we want to get past our hurt, sometimes we have to do something just a bit more than human. Sometimes we have to forgive the unforgivable.

I am obviously biased here. I am religiously predisposed both to believe that sin is a fact of life, the sort of thing all humans do. That goes with another religious predisposition to believe that the unforgivable ought to be forgiven. That is asking a lot. Indeed, it may be asking more than may be humanly possible. But if sin really is a fact of the human condition, it may be the only way we can learn to live together.

Regardless of whether you agree with this angle on sin and forgiveness, the very fact that it’s an uncommon view makes this a movie worth watching, chewing on, and having conversations about.

But the interesting values portrayed in this movie don’t stop with that troubling issue of forgiveness. There is also a surprising movement from seeking personal fulfilment to building relationships.

When the movie starts, Jim is alone, and the movie is simply about his self-interest, his survival. When he accepts his fate, he moves on to all sorts of self-indulgence. This culminates in his waking of Aurora, a clear act of self-interest trumping love for others.

Aurora, similarly, begins in a way of life that is individually driven, atomistic. She leaves behind all her friends and the life she knew to pursue her career goals. One friend in particular gives her a weeping, heartfelt farewell that highlights the degree to which she is declaring her independence from other people. When she reaches the other world, and has experienced it, she plans on turning around and coming right back, cutting herself off from any relationships she has built there.

Over the course of the movie, both Jim and Aurora are confronted with their own self-centered individualism. With death and loneliness staring them in the face, they come to realize that they need other people, and that they are morally obligated to love other people. Love, not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the sense of caring for another person, going out of one’s way to respect them, to protect them, and even to improve their life.

Others found the ending of the movie off-putting. Jim and Aurora didn’t get back into hibernation, didn’t solve that original problem and live to reach the colony. Doesn’t that mean they lost? But I would suggest that this is the entire point.

In today’s world of constant advertisement, of easy wish-fulfilment, of instant gratification, fast food, streaming entertainment, and endless information at our fingertips, we have come to view ourselves as consumers, and the world as a product. We are individuals who have desires that must be fulfilled, and the world exists to fulfil them. Jim wants a new world in which to build things. He should get it. Aurora wants to have adventures and to write things people will read. She should get it.

But in Passengers, this is exactly what doesn’t happen. Given the chance at individual fulfilment, at erasing what Jim has done and going on to fulfil her dreams, she chooses not to. To those of us raised in an individualistic, consumerist society, this feels wrong. It feels insane. Doesn’t she realize that life will be so much better on the other side of hibernation? Of course she does. And she rejects it.

Again, this could be read as bad gender politics, and if the movie was less self-aware, I might buy that. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

Over the course of the movie we have been repeatedly confronted with the vast emptiness of space, the fragile nature of human life in that void, the fragile nature of relationships involving flawed human beings. We have seen the horror of loneliness, been confronted with the inevitability of death, the shortness of our own brief lives.

If Aurora goes back to sleep, we know what that will do to Jim. More pointedly, Aurora knows. Aurora also knows the value of relationships, knows what that means because she has been threatened with death, offered the relationship that mitigated that pain, and then had it ripped from her in an unthinkable betrayal. Aurora also looks back to her father, looks back to the friends she has left behind, and we know that even in a life where there were other human beings, Aurora was lonely.

In Aurora’s choice, we are not being told that the guy should always get the girl. In Aurora’s choice, we are being told that relationships matter more than personal fulfilment. We are being told that the most important things in life are not our dreams or desires, but other people. We depend on them for survival, but they are also, as Jim came to realize early on, what makes survival worth it.

This realization comes about only when the characters are confronted by mortality. If the lesson stopped there, that would be more than enough. But it doesn’t.

While Jim and Aurora are still together, he asks her who she is writing for, if not for people she knows. At that point, it doesn’t matter who. She just wants to be read. But later on, when she comes to grips with the fact that she will die before anyone sees what she reads, she begins to speak of posterity. She is not writing for a future fame she will personally get to enjoy, but to leave something to future generations. She is leaving a legacy.

In the end, having chosen to stay with Jim, that’s exactly what she has done. Her writing was not for personal glory, and it wasn’t just for Jim. She passed on her story the passengers who would awake long after they were gone. She left a legacy beyond death.

Just like the decision to stay with Jim, this a vaguely off-putting idea in our society. Again, we are often so radically individualistic, so focused on our own desires, that the idea that we would plant something and never live to see the harvest is all but unthinkable. Why do something if you won’t derive enjoyment from it?

This idea is not present only in Aurora’s writing, but also in Gus looking past his own death to the good of Aurora and Jim, and the good of the ship. It is present in Jim and Aurora risking their lives to fix the ship, and to save one another when self-interest cries out against it. Throughout the movie we are confronted with death, and throughout the movie we are asked to look beyond it, to look to a future we will not live to enjoy. In this day and age, that’s a remarkable thing to do.

Together these three values of forgiveness, relationship, and legacy, all of which trump individual fulfilment, combine to create something far more wonderful: hope.

From the beginning of the movie, Jim is a tinkerer. He takes the world around him and wants to make it something more. When Aurora comes along, he is a given a new direction for his efforts. He creates a robot to communicate with her, he builds a model and a ring, and he plants a tree. He is fundamentally a builder, someone who wants to create something that will improve not only his own life, but the life of others.

In the final scene, we see the results of this mentality. In their years together, Jim and Aurora built a garden in the main concourse, a green world filled with trees and birds and robots pulling vegetables out of the earth. In the midst of it all is a house, the house Jim wanted to build, the something new that there was no room for back in the old world. Jim and Aurora did not survive, but they built something worth having.

And that’s the true value of Passengers. It’s not just the story of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space. It’s not just a rom-com, a sci-fi action flick, or even an interpersonal drama. It’s a story about how civilizations are built. In the beginning there were only two people staring death in the face. By the end there is a garden, a home, and a story for the future. Forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and a mind tilted towards legacy—these are the values of hope, and hope is what creates beauty.

After the year we just had, I can think of nothing more needful.

Let Us Now Praise the Carpenter

Let us now praise the carpenter, and the things that he made,
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.
I can still hear his hammer singing ten penny time,
Working by the hour till the day he died.

Oh, he was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

Oh he worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin,
With a care and a love you don’t see too often.
He built boats out of wood–big boats–working in a shipyard,
Mansions on the hill, and a birdhouse in the backyard.

He was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

He said “Anything that’s worth cuttin’ down a tree for
Is worth doin’ right. Don’t the Lord love a two by four!”
Well they asked him how to do somethin’ he’d say, “Just like Noah built the ark.
You got to hold your mouth right son, and never miss your mark

To be tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
Be was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
Square with the world. You take good care of your tools.”

A life of working hard at a craft and a well-earned reputation for virtue are things to strive for, whatever your profession.

Here’s Guy Clark singing a live version.

This is what good country is about–telling stories or passing on wisdom through sung poetry. And that, I believe, is the very heart of a “folk” music tradition, the kind of music that builds, reinforces, and defines a community. It does not merely entertain, it illustrates and embodies what the community is about.

Taken from that perspective, country music has historically been remarkable for embodying that kind of music in a mass market context. The way we often treat music as pure entertainment with no greater purpose, and as a thing of passing fads, is not conducive to a culture that creates or values songs like this. For country, however, that was a selling point for a long time.

One way to build our communities is to nurture this kind of music, whatever label it falls under. Folk, Americana, some brands of rock, blues, soul, or jazz, all can potentially tell stories and pass on values. Wherever you find yourself musically and regionally, this is something to consider. A strong community is reinforced by a strong musical tradition.

There is something missing in this picture, of course. One reason music of this kind doesn’t survive well in America is because it’s hard to pass on actual songs. They are protected by copyright, because we believe music belongs to the artist first and not to the community. We cannot re-sing, re-write, or modify old songs to suit new singers, because we do not own them. And so we don’t write songs that are meant to be treated that way.

If we want to build strong communities, we should think through this understanding of the artist and what art is meant to be.

 

Noise, Music, and the Crowning Moment of Awesome

Our heroine strides boldly into an area filled with the enemy, shouldering an assault rifle and taking them out one by one. They are a slow, faceless enemy, not one is an individual threat. Their numbers make them lethal, however, and what will happen to her if captured in unthinkable.

Behind our heroine are two more members of our trusty team. They are deeply concerned for her. She is putting herself in grave danger, wandering away from her friends to confront the numberless enemy one-on-one. It was tragedy that drove her to it, emotional trauma so severe it made her snap. She stops to tell them to leave her alone, but they won’t. So she ignores them and continues taking out the enemy, headshot by headshot, quick and efficient and merciless. She is a sight to behold, and we stand in awe.

Suddenly, one of the women following her begins to have flashbacks. The violence here, the wrath of our heroine in her crowning moment of awesome, reminds the second woman of her own trauma, and of her own awesome abilities. She lifts her handgun and begins to fire.

“I don’t need your help,” the heroine says.

“I’m not doing it for you,” says lady number two.

Now we have two people simultaneously snapping, simultaneously having reached the breaking point in their separate story arcs, each with their own trauma to deal with. And they are both blowing the enemy away. Third girl goes in with a knife, and is awesome, because why not?

Heroine number one runs out of ammo and gets pinned by a bad guy. Just as we think she is about to die, heroine number two casually blows the bad guy’s brain out from point blank range.

“I almost had him!” heroine number one snarls. Resume combat.

 

 

At this point, I left. I just couldn’t keep watching. Each of the heroines’ outbursts of righteous anger, their thirst for just vengeance, and their remarkable ability to make it happen would have been awe inspiring—on its own. But heroine number two undercuts heroine number one, and heroine number one distracts from heroine number two. In this single climactic moment, multiple good guys are confronted by the same dangerous situation, and their separate stories reach a climax, or at least a turning point, but we can’t enjoy either. It’s like Eminem and George Strait blasting from speakers in the same room—separately, each song might be the best in its genre, but together it’s just a lot of loud, foul, twangy noise. This kind of writing drives me up the wall.

It’s easy to imagine where it comes from. If one person snapping and taking out the bad guys is awesome, wouldn’t two be twice as awesome? Especially if we can work them into the same situation, and get them interacting with each other? On a surface level it’s very appealing. One could even see how someone might enjoy watching it. If you take the stories out of context, heroine number one’s story is incredible. The same goes for heroine number two. But set beside each other, it’s distracting.

This is the kind of storytelling that grows out of playing pretend. As a kid, I used to do this all the time. My buddies and I would be running through the woods, killing aliens, orcs, dark elves, demons, Nazis, zombies, whatever kind of bad guy we could come up with. We’d been playing all afternoon, and there had been plot twists, betrayals, romances, secret missions behind enemy lines. But now one of us would be facing the Big Bad of our story. Now was the moment when all of that back story came into play, where that one person’s character would be put to the test.

But, hey, we have to play fair. We can’t let him hog the awesome. My character is cool, too! So one person interrupts the other’s moment of truth to have their own drama-filled moment, their own trial. The story gets adjusted to accommodate them, and then a third kid wants to be awesome too. It quickly turns into an episode of the Expendables, each person trying to match or outdo the other, trying to play just as awesome a part in the story. And as a result, the story breaks down. Nobody really defeats the bad guy or becomes a hero in a satisfying fashion. We are just a team of Supermen, all invincible and of sterling character. And most of us slightly annoyed.

The problem here is that no one is actually interested in telling a good story. We’re interested in constructing a fantasy where we can be better than we are in real life. This is an escape into wish-fulfillment. The same thing happens in a lot of sci-fi TV shows featuring a “team” or a “family” setup. Our crew of space cowboys each functions as a stand-in for a separate section of the fandom. A whole bunch of people want to be Mal, others want to be Jayne, or River Tam, or Zoe, or Wash. These characters are them if they were awesome, are them if they had a crew like that, and could go on wild space adventures.

Given this setup, what happens when we reach a climactic episode? Well, we can’t focus on Mal, because the fans want more of River Tam. But we can’t focus on River Tam and not Jayne. And so on and so forth. We try to please everyone by making their favorite character as awesome as possible, and end up losing sight of the big picture.

Now, I use Firefly as an example, but Joss Whedon is actually pretty good at balancing his characters and blending their arcs into a solid overarching story. He is, perhaps, the example of how to pull this off, if you really have to. But so many sci-fi shows are bad at this. Kids’ cartoons do it as well. And as a result, they keep devoted fans, but they are fans of the superficial awesome, people who just want their characters, the vessels they escape in, to continue existing whether the story needs to continue or not.

And so Sunnydale is saved from destruction, and everyone is happy, until the next time, when the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. Eventually people start coming back from the dead just to keep the story going. And we have to bring in new characters so things actually happen. They story that was supposed to be told in the first three or four seasons turns into a twelve season monstrosity that only the diehards can stand, because this alternate universe is their alternate life.

Am I dissing Joss Whedon again? I don’t mean to. Again, he’s basically the only person I’ve seen who can take this sort of fandom and this sort of wish-fulfillment angle of ensemble-cast storytelling, this pretending writ large, and pull it off. But even with him it gets old. And with others, it’s downright unbearable. Fox Mulder found “The Truth” so many times, eventually Scully had to ask him, “What Truth are you looking for? You’ve already found it again and again.” Yes, Scully. Yes he has. But we all need Fox to keep going, so we can keep going.

All this is not to say that there’s no place for escapism, or for ensemble casts. But we do sometimes settle for cheap writing when we could have so much more. We could have a good story, where we explore a character, and their motivations, carrying the story through meaningful tension to a solid climax, and a denouement that leaves us feeling we’ve learned something. Instead, we often sacrifice that for something that looks awesome on paper, and never really goes anywhere. We prefer noise to music.

Stories About Womenfolk

So, I’m back in an ill-timed get-serious-about-storytelling phase, which resulted in me spending the entire afternoon reading Film Crit Hulk. Who is Film Crit Hulk, you ask? Why, only the awesomest green-skinned, musclebound blogger in the universe! He’s an anonymous individual in the movie business (dealing mostly with screenwriting, it would seem) who uses a hulk-sized, all-caps writing style to churn out essays on film, storytelling, and culture. Essays that are often longer than the senior theses at my college. And, he is so freaking good at it.*

At any rate, Film Crit Hulk is a feminist, and this impacts his views on the way we tell stories. Now, seeing as female individuals comprise about half of humanity, I really ought to have better-formed thoughts on this. However, I don’t (yet), so I’ll be largely holding my tongue. Except on this one thing.

See, Film Crit Hulk in his smashing article on The Hero’s Journey pointed out that storytellers these days don’t know how to deal with women. They tend to do one of two things: make them a fairy princess, an idol, a Madonna… or else they turn her into a temptress and a femme fatale. And if they want to pay lip service to the notion of gender equality, they just give her a gun– and let her maintain a side-character/love-interest status with very little actual characterization. Hulk then names off a few goddess myths which people interested in writing awesome women might want to check out, and encourages the reader in that general direction.

On one level, my first thought is “cool.” But on another, it makes me nervous. In the effort to go out and prove that women can be just as interesting characters as men, I’m worried about folks turning those women into men. If we want to make good, interesting, excellent female protagonists, we can’t just make them men in skirts. Because, honestly, Braveheart kind of has that market cornered.

I’m all for recognizing the fact that women are people (duh), and even awesome people (seriously, duh), right there in our storytelling. I don’t want a world where guys are the only protagonists and girls are all just the trophies the heroes get at the end.** Or femme fatales, because if the only powerful/independent women are also evil… well, let’s just say that people who tell stories like that make me want to go all smashy on things.

But if you’re a guy trying to avoid these problems and create a good female lead, you have to be careful. Guys don’t always understand other guys, and women are another thing entirely. Female people, you know. That’s a different language to think in. Yes, all people are just people, this is true; but people are complex, so seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is tricky business.

This is not to say it shouldn’t be done. No, I’m just saying it’s good to be cautious. I would rather see an overdone archetype done well, than someone try to think outside the box and end up making a dude in a girl’s body. Or worse–a flat, grey, characterless monstrosity. Because the way I see it, that does women even less justice. Actually, I find it kind of insulting. But what do I know? I’m not the one being insulted.

Anyhow, that’s my two cents. Thoughts welcome.

 

Footnotes

*I read a lot of his articles today. But if you want a good start towards storytelling 101, try his article on Three-Act Structure. It’s a nice taste for his style and some of the stuff he likes to talk about. Also just plain good. Warning to folks of a sensitive eye: Sometime Hulk swear.

** I really wish I had a link to that one scene in A Knight’s Tale where Adhemar and William are talking about “Trophies, horses, women.” Then again, no I don’t. Because this means you’ll just have to go and watch that whole movie just to find that one line. And that would make me happy.