The mummy’s curse

karloff-mummy
I will not even put a picture from the new version.

Last night I saw the latest iteration of Universal’s Mummy movies, and boy was it terrible. I knew it would be bad, but there is no air conditioning in my current digs, it’s hot and humid, the movie theater only charges $5, and I had already seen every other film there that I could even remotely stomach. I am a huge fan of classic* monster movies, and the Mummy is my favorite monster. How could it be otherwise for an archaeologist? Many moons ago I wrote a (rather well-received, if I say so myself) paper for an archaeology class, comparing The Mummy (1932) with The Mummy (1999), so I figured I could handle The Mummy (2017) in the name of ongoing scholarly research.

Spoilers below.

But honestly there is no way to spoil a movie this bad.

First some general ruminations: Right out of the gate, this version of The Mummy was bound to suck because it’s been given the Tom Cruise/summer blockbuster/comic book treatment. Apparently Universal is launching a monster franchise a la the Marvel and DC Comics franchises, called Dark Universe, where all the monsters will be shoehorned and (monster-)mashed together. There are winky nods to the 1999 film that are utterly contrived and cringeworthy, as if to prove that hey folks, this is a coherent universe just like Marvel! This seems ill-advised to me in that, as far as I know, monster and comic book fandoms don’t really overlap much. I could be wrong. Anyway, I never liked the “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type monster movies, nor do I like superhero movies that involve more than one superhero. I don’t know…I guess I can suspend disbelief in one superhero, or even an entire race of immortals like in The Highlander (please please please please please no Highlander reboots, Hollywood, I am begging you), but a whole posse of superheroes raises ontological questions for me that are never satisfyingly addressed.

In theory I could more easily embrace the idea of a multi-monster cinematic universe, because the supernatural comes in many flavors, but the more monsters you add, and the more types of monsters, the more you dilute their impact. Especially with the classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, Phantom of the Opera, even King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon), there is a distinctly erotic component that works because it taps into semi-conscious desires and fears. In a sense the monster is the masculine id unleashed. The horror is in the individual’s subjective encounter with the Weird, which as we know from real life, is always unique and unrepeatable.

But that can be a topic for another day.

Returning to this specific iteration of The Mummy, I’m more concerned about the disturbing subtext. So let me rant about that for a bit.

The “hero”

As you would expect from a Tom Cruise movie, it is more about his character, Nick Morton, than about the titular mummy. The Mummy feels like a McGuffin provided solely to universe-build for a new superhero. But Morton is a truly vile excuse for a human being: a US soldier who uses reconnaissance duty as a cover to loot Middle Eastern antiquities to sell on the black market. This lifestyle is referred to in the film as “adventure.” Now I love a good Film Noir-style antihero; and Hollywood’s take on adventure has always played pretty fast and loose with laws and ethics. Usually they manage to create protagonists who walk the fine line of roguish-but-likeable or outlaw-for-a-good-cause. For example, Brendan Fraser’s character in the 1999 version of The Mummy: it’s implied he is a mercenary and treasure hunter but he’s never actually shown looting anything, whereas those who explicitly loot all meet grisly ends. But Morton goes beyond antihero straight into Horrible Person territory, and it’s all the more unsettling given the dubious reasons for US interventions in the Middle East in the first place. Morton is about adventurism, not adventure. We’re supposed to believe Morton is actually a good guy because he saves a woman’s life, but sorry, I think the scales of Ma’at are far from balanced and I find it really disturbing that the film’s creators apparently think this level of bad-person-ness is something that can be cheerfully overlooked. The subtextual messages here are:

(1) If you’re an American (especially a soldier) you can pillage other nations’ cultural heritage and that’s ok, not only will you get away with it, it’s really just entrepreneurial spirit and “adventure.” Sure, as with archaeology there’s always the risk of unearthing unspeakable ancient evils, but they’re no match for GI Joe!

(2) The other day I was joking with a friend about what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if Tolkien were American. Among other things I speculated that Frodo and Sam would be cops. It’s no accident that our “hero” is a soldier, because apparently it’s no longer possible for Americans to conceive of a hero who is not military or paramilitary personnel. Note that in the original 1932 Mummy, the heroes were archaeologists. Nerds. And I mean actual boring archaeologists, not Hollywood’s idea of archaeologists, which is just looters with Ph.D.s.

Speaking of archaeologists, in the new movie it’s implied the female lead, Dr. Jennifer Halsey, is one, but actually she’s a monster hunter. There’s no need for an archaeologist in this Mummy, because it’s not about antiquity or knowledge in any way.

The women

And speaking of women, it is illustrative to look at the treatment of the main female characters in the 1932, 1999, and 2017 versions: Helen Grosvenor/Ankhesenamun, Evelyn Carnahan, and Jennifer Halsey and Ahmanet the Mummy, respectively.

The common theme of all the Mummy treatments hitherto is that said Mummy does bad things for the sake of love/lust, and as punishment was entombed alive. (Paging Dr. Freud…). So there’s a frisson of forbidden sexuality as well as religious transgression. The original (1932) movie returns repeatedly to the theme of sacrilege and trespass: inter alia, Imhotep’s use of necromancy to reanimate Ankhesenamun, the archaeologists’ entry into the tomb and violation of the curses binding the scroll of Thoth, even their unwrapping of the princess’ body:

Frank Whemple: Surely you read about the princess?

Helen Grosvenor: So you did that.

Frank: Yes. The fourteen steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes and her jewels and her toilet things – you know they buried everything with them that they used in life? – well, when we came to unwrap the girl herself…

Helen: How could you do that?

Frank: Had to! Science, you know…

All the layered tensions of cultural and sexual trespass in the 1932 Mummy center around and in the character of Helen Grosvenor: Being half-Egyptian, half-English and both herself and the reincarnation of Princess Ankhesenamun, she embodies the duality of the colonial. She is half ancient, half modern; half colonizer, half colonized; half alive, half dead; half the East, half the West. She is, effectively, Egypt itself. Not only her identity but her literal body is contested by these polarized forces, and her character is torn between them. She is, in a sense, the passive background against which the film frames its central questions: What are the costs of scientific progress? Of trespass? Does our pursuit of mastery over matter put us in danger from (non-material, non-Western) forces we can never understand? Helen is essential to the story in a way that, given the temporal and cultural context of the film, could only be portrayed through the perceived passivity of a gendered female body.

(The intersection of colonialism, archaeology, science, knowledge construction, gender, authority, place, and the supernatural make this film especially worth digging into, if you’ll pardon the pun.)

The 1999 version, though set in 1926, suffers no angst about colonialism. Bear in mind that the original was released only 9 years after the opening of Tutankhamun’s supposedly cursed tomb. But by 1999 we are sufficiently distant from those heady days that we don’t ask so many uncomfortable questions about trespass. Naturally it goes without saying that white people save the day, and that the hero is an American soldier–though more a soldier of fortune than a regular. This time the heroine is much more dynamic but–as reflected in her name, “Evie” (= Eve)–she is responsible for unleashing the ancient evil through her curiosity. It is made quite clear that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge–maybe just knowledge period–is dangerous. Whereas in the 1932 version the archaeologists give mini-sermons about the importance of “increasing the store of human knowledge about the past” and advancing science, in 1999 the motivation of the male characters is simply treasure, and that of the female character is scholarly acceptance and legitimacy. But although from a feminist perspective this is doubtless the best of the three films (the woman even saves the man’s life!), it seems like the writers couldn’t decide how to handle the erotic story component: They apparently felt it necessary to keep the damsel in distress element, but instead of making Evie and Ankhesenamun (read: Imhotep’s love interest) the same person, they split them so that there is no reason for Imhotep to be pursuing Evie (as opposed to some other hapless woman he could sacrifice). I’m not sure if it was felt that being in overtly sexual distress was too sexist or too creepy; or if they thought reincarnation was a bridge too far that the audience wouldn’t accept; or what.

Moving on to this year’s version, Jennifer Halsey is completely unnecessary to the story except as the life that Nick Morton must save to show us he’s not a totally Horrible Person. (He is a totally Horrible Person.) Otherwise she’s just there to translate a couple sentences of hieroglyphs and to be menaced by the Mummy. From this we see that:

(1) Colonial dynamics are back in a big way, just without any uncomfortable implicit self-criticism. The blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian beauty is threatened by the dangerous brown woman who just happens to be from an area now part of the “Middle East.” Coincidence? I think not. Somehow it even seems especially fitting that Halsey is British and must be rescued by an American soldier, like we’re replaying an America-centric narrative of WWII–here we come to save you from the baddies, Britain!

(2) Naturally our damsel in distress needs to be rescued by our paragon of American masculinity. She has no self-determination at all–she is ordered to Iraq by the male boss of the monster-hunting team, where her efforts are co-opted and derailed by her male companions’ looting; and for the rest of the movie one or the other of these men is calling the shots and she is left running along behind them.

Oh but wait, isn’t the Mummy in this movie female? Doesn’t that make it totally not sexist at all? By switching the Mummy’s gender, we’re supposed to spend the whole movie rooting for a (brown) woman to get her uppity ass kicked by (white) men. Note that the only female member of the monster-hunting team is the ineffective Halsey, who is also the only person who attempts (briefly, and of course ineffectively) to communicate with the Mummy.

The portrayal of Ahmanet the Mummy draws heavily on visual tropes from Japanese horror that are hella scary when done by the Japanese, but Hollywood’s attempts are always hamfisted. You know what I mean, the very white skin with the long wet black hair hanging over the face, writing on the body (in the Japanese context it would be protective Buddhist sutras), and the walking/crawling in a broken, disjointed manner. But Japanese horror isn’t just about the look, it’s the way it very skillfully turns your expectations of comfort back around on you. What you think is going to be a love story turns out to be literal torture, for example. It also excels in the application of very subtle touches to convey mood and build suspense. When it comes to horror, the Japanese get that women are mad as hell and given half the chance we might be unspeakably cruel and terrifying. Merely using the visual tropes without the underlying tension and mood comes off more like an uninspired pastiche. This Mummy is all image and no substance.

Indeed, the erotic component has now been almost entirely displaced from the story and characters onto the actresses’ bodies, in particular the scantily-clad Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet. To be fair both of the other movies also involve scantily-clad women; it’s just they also have plots. She needs to sacrifice Morton so that Set can inhabit his body (seriously, does nobody understand how gods are supposed to work anymore?) and then they will live happily ever after as king and queen of the damned or something. She ostensibly makes Morton her “chosen” because he freed her from captivity; we’re never given the sense that she is particularly taken with him sexually, albeit she tries to seduce him to her side; and he’s certainly not her eternal love from beyond the grave. Ahmanet’s entire motivation is power, not love or sex. But–not to beat a dead horse here–she is a McGuffin, not a plausible character.

The evil

In the 1932 Mummy, the evil–that is, what makes the Mummy a bad guy and a monster, as well as the plot device that consigns him to a living death–is necromancy. The implicit message is that life is for the living, death is for the dead, and never the twain should meet. If you raise the dead, then your punishment will be the inverse, to be entombed alive. Imhotep’s attempt at necromancy was a sacrilege against the gods, co-opting the magic by which Isis raised Osiris for use by and for mortals. Indeed the gods are a reality in this movie–it is Isis, not any of the humans, who ultimately puts an end to the Mummy.

Imhotep is a pretty obsessive dude, definitely a stalker by modern standards. He kills several people, and even worse, a dog, in his quest to get with Ankhesenamun. But basically he is lovelorn and just wants to be eternally undead with his princess, so it’s kind of hard to hate him.

1999’s Imhotep was having it on with the pharaoh’s concubine, and together they murdered the pharaoh, then Ankhesenamun kills herself. Imhotep is arrested but somehow gets free and does some necromancy. Of course he gets caught and you know the rest. Reanimated, he has two jobs: first, to kill those who opened his tomb, and second, to apparently be a terrible curse upon humanity. There are some obvious questions here–for one thing, if they went to so much trouble to punish Imhotep and keep him from rising from the dead, why did they subject him to a burial treatment where rising from the dead (let alone rising and then being an invincible one-man plague machine) was even a possibility? But I know, I’m applying too much logic here.

This version never makes it clear why necromancy is so bad (the gods never come into it), or why Imhotep is bent on world domination. He kills several people, which is bad, thankfully no dogs this time, but mostly he’s just another lovelorn obsessive.

The Mummy’s evil in the 2017 movie is, on the face of it, laughable: The bad girl kills the pharaoh and her baby brother. Big deal, that was just a regular Tuesday afternoon in the dynastic wranglings of ancient empires. Sure it was enough to get you executed and your name cartouches chiseled off your statues, but it certainly wouldn’t warrant being buried in a pool of mercury 1000 miles away from Egypt.

No, what apparently makes her really evilly evil is that Ahmanet performed some kind of witchcraft invoking Set, “the god of death” (I know, I know; if I rolled my eyes any harder they’d get stuck looking backward, but this is actually one of the least stupid things they say about ancient Egypt in this movie**), prior to patricide/fratricide. Throughout the film we’re reminded that Set is the god of death, and how terrible it is that Ahmanet wants to enable the god of death to be incarnate in a mortal body. One proposed solution: to allow Set to inhabit the mortal body and then to kill it and thereby kill the god of death! Again, clearly people do not understand how gods work.

So really what we are being told here is that death is evil. Could American death-denial possibly be writ any larger? I mean we’re not even talking damnation here, just plain old garden variety death. After Morton becomes possessed by Set, he uses his new superhero powers to reanimate two dead people. Indulge me as I unpack this a little more: In the previous incarnations of The Mummy, we are told that bringing the dead back to life is sacrilegious, blasphemous–the dead should be allowed to remain dead unless the gods decree otherwise. Now we are being told that necromancy is entirely cool because death is evil; anything that prevents death is thus good by definition. Nick Morton, for example, can be a Horrible Person, but he thwarts death three times, ergo he’s got a heart of gold even though he’s now using super powers to more efficiently loot antiquities.

In sum

What we learn from 2017’s Mummy is that death is evil, brown people are evil, women are either evil or useless, and all problems are solved by the application of US military force. Where 1932’s Mummy is full of the discomfort of a waning empire wrestling with the ramifications of colonialism, 2017’s is about taking everything from brown people that isn’t nailed down. It doesn’t even pretend that it’s for the good of the benighted savages, or that women are people. Its ethos is materialist and materialistic, exploitative and extractive, and most of all, in gibbering terror of mortality. Is this what American culture has come to? (Rhetorical question.)

 

*”Classic” for me generally means black and white and pre-1960s. But I also love Hammer films.

**They also overestimate the age of the New Kingdom by 2500 years.

Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

Maybe it’s part of the trend of magic re-entering the mainstream of late, I don’t know. Although the inner shadow-hipster I completely disavow cringes at the idea, I think it’s a good thing that we seem to be seeing a re-injection of proper myth into stories “for kids.”

Cases in point: Spirited Away, The Little Prince, Moana.

(Ok, I know Spirited Away isn’t new, in fact this year is its 15th anniversary. But for precisely that reason some theaters are screening it this month. And to be fair, Miyazaki has been making movies with spiritual/Shinto themes for decades, but maybe now people outside Japan will be able to get that in a way that I suspect they haven’t previously. As a sidebar, Chihiro is way less bratty and annoying in Japanese than in the English-dubbed version.)

Oh yeah–spoiler alert. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Spirited Away (2001)

spirited-away

Spirited Away is the most overtly shamanic of the three films here. It is pretty explicit that the heroine Chihiro and her parents inadvertently cross into an Otherworld when they wander through a seemingly abandoned amusement park. I mean, they should have known, really–transdimensional crossings pretty much go with the territory with abandoned amusement parks, I would think, much like buildings that used to be hospitals (speaks the voice of experience) or are full of antique dolls (shudder) are bound to be haunted. There follow a series of encounters with bizarre spirits out of a really adorable (Japan, amiright?) mushroom trip as Chihiro is stripped of her this-world identity* and must find allies, and her own courage, on the Other side. She does this, in part, through performing services to spirits like the river kami in the bathhouse, Kaonashi (“No-Face,” a kind of wetiko–and indeed, greed is the big villain in this film), Haku the dragon, and Bou the giant baby. What she learns in the Otherworld enables her to return herself and her parents to this world, but now she is not only transformed by the journey but has a posse of helping spirits.

There’s some more theories about the meaning(s) of Spirited Away in this article, but it unfortunately reduces the shamanic character of the story to the more universal but neutered “spiritual.”

*Chihiro’s loss of this-world identity is made explicit when she is renamed Sen. Sen, another reading of the first character in the name Chihiro, means 1000; in other words, she is literally robbed of a name and becomes just a number. That this is done by Yubaba, the greedy mistress of the underworld bathhouse where Chihiro must earn her freedom, could be read as a symbol of the dehumanization we all face in the modern workplace/marketplace.

The Little Prince (2015)

little-prince

The Little Prince, based on the ostensibly-children’s story (really more a tale for jaded adults), was released as a Netflix original. It sets the original story within a framing narrative which is what turns this from a very French meditation on love, loss, and death (seriously, when I read the story I can hear it in my mind’s ear as if it is being read by an ennui-filled Frenchman between slow, cynical drags on a Gaulois) to an underworld journey. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Netflix had been plugging the movie on its homepage but I had exactly zero interest until I happened to hear an interview about it on NPR while driving to work. Specifically, it was this quote, from the Fox, that happened to be a major sync for me:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Three days later I was looking to kill time while doing laundry and Netflix promoted the movie again, and my primary helping spirit told me emphatically that I needed to watch it.

You can “read” the movie on various levels: as a social critique about how work and school crush our souls; as a parable about death and grief; or as an exploration of “what is essential” in life, e.g., play, spontaneity, love. But the more interesting story, to me, is once again about a journey to the Otherworld and the encounter with helping/tutelary spirits–specifically the Little Prince, the Fox, the Snake, and the Rose. The little girl heroine first acquires her own helping spirit/power animal–a fox (Trickster par excellence), represented/embodied by one of the most shamanic implements I can imagine, a stuffed fox toy covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and filled with jingle bells–and then goes to retrieve her friend the Aviator’s helping spirit, the Little Prince, before stewarding the Aviator into death. In so doing she effects healings/soul retrievals for herself, her friend, her mother, and by extension (if you’re receptive to the idea) the viewer.

For me, this movie was filled with truth bombs, some of which are still waiting to be ignited. My feminists out there will be happy to know that the Rose, who in the book is a two-dimensional and very unflattering depiction of Woman as weak, vain, and naive, is in the movie a tutelary spirit; and as mentioned, the Little Prince is actually not the hero in this version, but rather a little girl.

If you do work with helping spirits, it’s hard to put into words but there is something about this movie that seems to allow them to plug into it and download huge packets of information to a receptive mind. I don’t know, maybe it was just me? Give it a try. For example, if you plug the character of the Rose into the mystical and goddess (Isis/Venus/Mary/etc.) symbolism of the Rose (an example, another–there’s a lot and it’s well worth the dig), and even its medicinal properties, it’s like a cheat code that lets you jump ahead five levels. Then layer it onto this:

Strike, dear Mistress, and cure our hearts. I’ll just leave you with that and let you do your own experimentation.

Moana (2016)

moana

Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Disney films. Even as a kid I chafed against the message that the most important things I could aspire to were being pretty and falling in love with a rich man. I mean, I get the social context of the films made circa midcentury when that was an accepted “truth,” but Disney has lagged way behind the times in updating that message. As far as I know it wasn’t until Brave (2012) that we finally got a movie where romance wasn’t portrayed as the apotheosis of the story (and thus of a woman’s existence).

Also I hate musicals.

But, again because of an interview I heard on NPR on the way to work–which is interesting because I only switch to NPR these days during commercials on other stations, because as shit as popular music mostly is these days, it’s still better than what passes for “liberal” “news”–I thought I’d give this one a shot. I mean, it has a Trickster (Maui), explicitly identified as such.

Unsurprisingly considering this is Disney, of the three movies under consideration here it’s the most literal and (for me anyway) has the least potential for truth-bomb-downloads. In some ways, this movie is kind of an example of how not to do a movie about Otherworld journeys. It takes the seafaring very secularly and beats one over the head with the usual vapid Disney pabulum about “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart” and such, and once again the protagonist is a “princess” (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the part of the writers, she rejects that title, but if it walks like a duck…). Being a “voyager” is held up as something wonderful but there is never any reasoning for it; I can’t help but think how cool this movie could have been if the writers had read Star.Ships. Yet it does have ancestor spirits, Tricksters, an animate ocean, and gods, and the classic storyline of seeking a helping spirit, journeying through the underworld, ordeals, performing service to the spirits, and returning home transformed:┬áThe eponymous character Moana rebels against custom and authority in watered-down Whale Rider-style to find Maui and force him to fix a mistake he made that is ruining the world for mortals. Although she finds Maui in this world, together they journey to the underworld to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook.

The underworld act is by far the best part of the movie, in large part because it evokes that boss Trickster, now on the spirit side, David Bowie.

Indeed, of these three movies, this one actually explores the Trickster mythos most deeply, showing how Maui is both a teacher and helper of humans and also something of a bumbling clown who “inadvertently” makes trouble for us. Arguably the story would have been more realistic (at least based on my experience of Tricksters) if at the end we found out that Maui had set up the story’s central McGuffin and all of Moana’s ordeals from the get-go for inscrutable purposes of his own, but I think that’s way too meta for Disney.

Anyway, if you bring the right perception to Moana (he who has eyes to see, let him see) you can still show the kids how to extract its mythic marrow. And for the girl children, they will get another young heroine, one who is happily not on a quest for a socially-advantageous marriage. And it’s a more appropriate entry-level treatment of myth for the littles, where Spirited Away has some creepy nightmare fuel and The Little Prince might go over the head of “kids” who don’t already have some grounding in the concept of spirit journeys.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

The World's End

After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.

The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.

The Matter of Britain

The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.

The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”

Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.

Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.

So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…

We want to be free to do want we want to do!

…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.

At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.

When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.

This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?

out of order

It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.

As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.

We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.

Narrative and the “Rashomon effect”

Toshiro in Rashomon
Summer in Japan. So hot right now.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.

Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.

The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.

If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.

I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.

In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.

The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.

Rashomon

To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.

You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.

Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.

At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.

We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.

Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.

When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.

But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.


On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.

When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.

*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).