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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

You’ve Got To Believe It

I am a storyteller. Whether I am a good storyteller remains to be seen, but it’s something I do. In that endeavor, I’ve learned a thing or two. One of those is that it’s pretty darn hard to sell a story you don’t believe in. You can think it’s a good story, and you can dress it up in raw talent and technical mastery, but the fact is, if you don’t care then the audience does not care.

It’s not just true for prose, either. I’ve seen acting, and I’ve done acting, and in both cases there’s been good stuff and there’s been bad stuff. You can get the bad stuff from any number of things, but good acting generally only happens when the actor gets inside the character’s head. When you see the world through the character’s eyes, then you can present it the way he sees it. Ask Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger.

This means that a storyteller has to have a certain talent: empathy. If you want to tell a story, you have to believe the story. If you want to believe the story, you have put yourself in that world. There is a lot of imagination involved in that, and a lot of mental and emotional flexibility.

The problem is, no good story is told with just one character in mind. You have to account for the actions of all the characters, and if it’s a good story, then they will have very different motivations. This means you have to have a second talent: confidence in your own view of the world. You have to be able to look at things from multiple angles, but have enough of your own view to be able to separate yourself from the ones you are presenting.

Good storytelling demands this. Empathy and detachment, subjectivism and objectivism, reconciled in a single mind. If you’re not born with it, you have to learn it. It can be learned, but it takes real work.

These things are important, because no matter how good your story, there will be slow parts. You can’t just skate through on the action scenes or moments of high drama. If you get bored when your character goes out for ice cream, so will your audience. That means you have to want that ice cream so that your audience wants that ice cream. And if they don’t, you better be flanking that scene with a couple things you really do believe in. Because if it’s just one long stretch of things you don’t care about, why should we hear your story?

Now pardon me while I go believe in ice cream.