Posts Tagged ‘hagiography’

Dawn of the Dead

"When there's no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the earth."

 

                        The hairs on your arm will stand up
                        At the terror in each sip and in each sup
                        Will you partake of that last offered cup?
                        Or disappear into the potter’s ground
                        When the Man comes around…

-Johnny Cash, “Man Comes Around” (2002)

If you’ve seen the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, you know that by far the best part in it is the opening credits.  If you haven’t, the film begins with “found” footage of news reports, home videos, etc, serving as rapid-fire exposition of a horrific zombie outbreak gone global and catastrophic – and all the while, Johnny Cash’s dulcet tones describe the Christian Second Coming.

Have you ever wondered why?

Slavoj Zizek brings his essay “Neighbours and Other Monsters” to a close with a brief consideration of  “The Man Comes Around”, which proved to be Cash’s final song, (“Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground / When the man comes around”): “The song,” says Zizek:

 …is about Armageddon, the end of days, when God will appear and perform the Last Judgment, and this event is presented as pure and arbitrary terror: God is presented almost as Evil personified, as a kind of political informer, a man who ‘comes around’ and provokes consternation by ‘taking names’, by deciding who is saved and who is lost.  If anything, Cash’s description invokes the well-known scene of people lined up for a brutal interrogation, and the informer pointing out those selected for torture.  There is no mercy, no pardon of sins in it, no jubilation in it.  We are fixed in our roles: the just remain just and filthy remain filthy.  In this divine proclamation, we are not simply judged in a just way.  Rather, we are informed from outside, as if learning about an arbitrary decision, whether we were righteous or sinners, whether we are saved or condemned (Neighbour 189).

It is easy, then, to see in Cash’s song a vision of the “Spielbergian Other” – the incoherent monster come to wreak an incomprehensible devastation.  Yet, in Christianity’s moment of apocalypse (as with all moments of apocalypse, as we discussed last week), what we face, while cruel, is not, is never, accidental or undeserved.  Instead, apocalypse comes as the horrible moment when a spotlight has been turned upon our darkest corners and the wriggling, writhing secrets that infest them – the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that there would be no warning, but that he would come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:4).   The Greek word “Apokálypsis” means, in fact, only “unveiling;” what we imagine to be an arbitrary, unimaginable horror is only an uncovering of what has always been seething beneath the surface.  This is the moment for which William S. Burroughs opaquely titled his book “The Naked Lunch” (which he eventually explained, when queried and with some frustration, “means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”). [1]

Until, one day, the veil of the Temple is torn, and we stand naked, utterly exposed, before the thermonuclear fires of divine majesty.  And your entire face melts off.

indy arc

Not actually a metaphor.

There is a passage, unique to the Gospel of Matthew, that has always been deeply troubling to theologians, yet precisely echoes Cash’s vision of the God of Terror.  In fact, Christian commentary has visited an almost willful neglect or deliberate cultural amnesia upon it – so much so that, even though it is at the moment of greatest significance to the Christian faith (the redemptive death of Christ), few of even the most ardent Christians are casually familiar with it:

“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost…and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:50-3).

It is easy to see why it has made so many parish priests nervous; identifying the Christian mystery with an apocalyptic zombie attack is not exactly soothing Easter-morning sermon fare.  That the world should shudder at the alleged Messiah’s death seems appropriate, after all – something evil has been done! – but that the saints, the hallowed departed, should come shambling out of their graves?  The incongruity jars us. [2]

Dawn of the Dead 2004

HAPPY EASTER!

judgementYet this tradition of communal forgetting is precisely what this deliberately chilling moment (when the dead rise and visit the living) attempts to disrupt, and precisely why it so troubles its readers: horrors do not just come; they come back.  They are visitations from the unconscious: suppressed nightmares, disturbing images, forgotten traumas.  We forget so easily (because we are wired to forget so easily) that the symbol of the Christian faith, the cross, is an implement of painful state torture (imagine a faith emerging today whose disciples hung in their homes images of a man being electrocuted to death in the electric chair, wrote poetry rhapsodizing his teeth cracking, hair singeing, and eyeballs bursting, and quested for the Holy Electrodes).[3]

After all, what is Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ on the beach, reminding him imperiously of his betrayal, if not a guilt-tormented horror story?  What is the encounter on the road to Emmaus, if not a whispered campfire tale, meant to elicit spine-tingling chills (“and that’s when she realized…the call was coming from inside the house!” “And that’s when they saw…the scratches on the side of the car!” “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight[4] (Luke 24:30-1).

The risen Jesus of Christianity is himself the ultimate profane obscenity, the ultimate returning horror – not a ghost, but reanimated flesh, crawled out from the grave three-days rotten, demanding that we slide our fingers along and into his suppurating wounds, demanding (if translators were more honest with the original Greek), that we “chomp down” on his flesh and “guzzle” his blood.  Christ demands of each of his followers that they become necrophagic fetishists; Christians who justify their ludicrous anti-Semitism by characterizing Jewish people as “Christ-killers” should keep in mind: the Jews may have killed God, but the Christians ATE him[5]

zombie last supper

“This is a difficult teaching,” the incredulous (and kosher!) apostles say, recoiling in horror, “who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

This central mystery of the faith – Messiah as human refuse – has perhaps never been made more apparent than in, of all places, the first South Park Christmas special, in which the town of South Park, after public outcry at the religious content of the children’s nativity pageant (which includes a viscerally graphic staging of the birth of the Christ-child), attempts to mount a PC-version, scrubbed clean of any spiritual overtones (resulting in a staggeringly dull dance number orchestrated by minimalist composer Philip Glass).  In order to correct this mistake, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, an anthropomorphic feces stool in a Santa hat, emerges from one of the children’s toilet bowls, and proceeds to re-teach the town the “true meaning of Christmas” through song, all the while smearing foul stains on every surface he touches.

Mr. Hankey
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” (Matthew 7:14-15).  Parker and Stone’s Mr. Hankey is perhaps the most sophisticated and reverent expression of 20th century Christian theology.

Mr. Hankey is a nexus of Christology: he simultaneously represents the humble, rejected Jesus of lowly origins (if the toilet bowl shocks you, remember: there was A LOT more shit in the stable Luke has Christ born in, and the Pharisees in all the Gospels are obsessed with Jesus’ poor hygiene) AND the moment of Judgment, when your dirty little secrets come back up from the drain and wipe shit all over your nice, tidy life (the -ahem- “log” in your own eye).

Zizek, in his Pervert`s Guide to Cinema, discusses a similar scene of returning remains in The Conversation.  In the film, Gene Hackman`s character, a private investigator, searches a bathroom.  His gestures carefully echoing shots from Hitchcock`s Psycho (including a careful perusal of the shower drain, which in the latter film is morphed in-shot into Janet Leigh`s unblinking dead eye, returning our gaze), Hackman`s detective nearly gives up on the search – until he flushes the toilet, and gurgling from its depths, spilling onto the floor, it blossoms a torrent of blood.  Zizek explains: “In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet excrements simply disappear out of our reality into another space, which we phenomenologically perceive as a kind of a netherworld, another reality, chaotic primordial reality, and the ultimate horror of course is if the flushing doesn’t work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders return from that dimension” (Pervert`s Guide).

Zombie JC

We're so used to the "sacred heart" that we forget how GRUESOME it is - and intentionally so. The photo-shopped zombie face here is virtually redundant. (and don't even get me started on stinky old mummy Lazarus...)

Mr. Hankey, Gene Hackman’s plugged toilet, and the Risen Christ calling us to Judgment (the man who comes around) are all symbols for the same thing: the crime, the concupiscence we cannot escape.   The “eye” of the sink, of the drain, of the abyss, vomiting our sins back at us – filthy, but all the filthier because it is our filth.

But they are also a reminder that accounts are being kept, that books are being balanced – and that one day, the order will be overturned.  “The last,” says Jesus in the Gospels over and over again, “shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 10:31, 19:30, 20:16; Luke 13:30, Thomas 4.x).

“Holy shit!”, then, is not just a curse; it is, collapsed into two words, the whole of the Christian project: the deification of the excremental remainder, the glorification of a newborn king laid in a trough, and the apotheosis of a naked criminal, nailed to a plank outside the city limits – “the stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone” (Acts 4:11), they claim – and claim in triumph.

To “sanctify” Christ – to make him clean, and well-mannered, and meek, is to forget the key message of his ministry.  It is to forget the man who came not to bring peace, but a sword; it is to forget the man who flipped tables in the Temple, who back-talked the Roman oppressors, cursed a fig tree (but it was not the season for figs!), and whose final promise was to return to bring the earth to judgment, once there was no more room in Hell, and walk the earth again.

All hail Zombie Jesus!


Footnotes:

[1] Forgiving Spielberg: While I am, for simplicity’s sake, calling the facile idea of the Other as ontologically incoherent “Spielbergian”, I must point out here that, in his defense, Spielberg, when not caught up in post 9/11 “God bless America” fervour, does indeed understand this was never true, and that the apocalypse is always a function of the sublime – behold the grisly fates of his Nazis, their flesh melting like wax, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the titular Ark of the Covenant is opened at film’s climax (“Its beautiful”, one of the Nazis remarks – seconds before his head literally explodes).  Here, Spielberg’s hero, Indiana Jones, is not spared because of his virtue, or his love of his children, or the enduring goodness of the American people, but merely because he refuses to return the fearsome horror of the divine gaze.

That the eventual fate of the Ark is to be boxed away, housed in a colossal storage facility filled with identical crates, is the film’s ingenious reiteration of the standard human encounter with the numinous: divine revelation followed by careful anaesthetization and compartmentalization: Institution always clothes the divine, like the mute, mad angel caged in a chicken coop in Gael Garcia Marquez’s Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. One would not be surprised to discover St. Paul himself among the security guards of the Ark’s dusty prison.

Everything that's ever been wrong with organized religion, in one breathtaking shot.

And, after all, even in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, despite Spielberg’s best intentions to make the Martian invasion as “random” as he perceived the 9/11 attacks, the plot connives to make Mars’ assault a similar return: Spielberg’s Martians, unlike in any other adaptation of the story, have “long been buried” beneath the planet’s crust before “awakening” for their attack; they may, in fact, have been here first – just as Jurassic Park and Jaws both emphasize the fact that the horrific Other is, again, an ancient evil come back to menace neophyte man.

So maybe Steven gets it after all…

[2] Recollections from My Fucked-Up Childhood: I recall, when I was child, asking after Church about this bizarre moment when zombies attack Jerusalem, and my poor mother conjecturing that perhaps the force of the earthquake had bumped the graves open, and the dead only seemed to come back, as though animated by the jostling of the shockwave.  Anything else was probably the Devil’s doing.  That she seems to have suppressed or forgotten at the time that the passage clearly asserts it is God’s doing reminds me of an older John Milton, summarizing his manifold arguments for a powerful presence at work in human history: “In short, many visible proofs, the verification of numberless predictions, a multitude of wonderful works have compelled all nations to believe, either that God, or that some evil power whose name was unknown, presided over the affairs of the world”(Milton in De Doctrina.2).  William Empson noted drily, “not even Voltaire could have written such an icy sentence” (Milton’s God 303).  As Kierkegaard knew, that the divine is first and foremost fundamentally terrifying is the first religious lesson every child learns, and every adult, to their spiritual and psychological detriment, forgets.

[3] Sacred Torment: One cannot help but here see the image of Francis Bacon’s “Pope” series, in which the artist, working in the period following Pope Pius’ shameful lack of intervention or outcry during the atrocities visited upon the Jews and others during the Holocaust, produced image after image on black canvas of a horrifying Papal revenant shrieking, surrounded by grisly hanging slabs of meat.

[4] The Unspeakable Grammar Problems of the Greek: I have resisted the temptation to add the extra-textual exclamation mark, as to my knowledge Koine Greek, to its obvious detriment, has no such effusive punctuation.

[5]  Bad Boy of the Baroque: The artist Caravaggio’s career is nothing but a series of attempts to restage and rejuvenate the sacred obscenity at the heart of the Christian mystery (to the detriment of his career and the everlasting benefit of his infamy): his Calling of St. Matthew depicts not a first century tax gatherer, but a wealthy contemporary merchant, cowering under the gaze of Christ’s imperious summons – exactly enacting a man caught in Johnny cash’s spotlight; his Death of the Virgin scandalously uses an infamous prostitute as the model for the mother of Jesus, and painted her not passing in quiet dignity, but “like a bloated corpse fished from the river”; and his The Doubting of St. Thomas shows the sceptical disciple inserting his probing finger into the wound of a euphoric Christ’s side – a “wound”, it was widely claimed, modelled on the anus of one of Caravaggio’s rent-boys.

caravaggio

And that's why, to this day, getting your wound finger-banged is called "getting a St. Thomas Didymus." I know they sound weird, but Cronenberg says they're totally righteous.

Easy A Poster

While crossing a shallow but turbulent river, a powerful surge overtook Teresa of Avila, knocking her from her donkey and down into the mud.  As she sat up, wiping her eyes and wringing out her clothes, she saw the Lord appear, sitting on her overturned cart.

“That, Teresa,” he said with a smile, “is how I treat my friends.”

“And that, Lord,” she replied, “is why you have so few of them!”

Oh god, the filthy things I want to do to this movie. 

The religious mysticism student in me wants to talk about Stone’s heroine as what Robertson Davies called a “fool-saint” – a quasi-martyr who gives of themselves until nothing is left, even when their actions seem counter to conventional morality.  Olive has a lot in common with Davies’ Mary Dempster – and indeed with all the best saints: not the cloyingly pious, and not the glorified bureaucrats, but the crazy motherfuckers who ate shrubs and talked to birds and lived on top of pillars or in weird little holes and reconquered France and yes, who shouted at Jesus while he was chillaxing next to their donkey in a river.

The other part of me, the semiotician, wants to talk about Olive not as saint, but as author.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of comparing Olive to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, and it certainly makes for some striking visuals (and ensembles) – but Olive runs circles around dumb old Hester when it comes to fucking owning it – another narrative Olive reshapes to her ends (the film is full not only of Olive’s personal-address webcasts, but footage from old films from dawn-of-cinema to brat pack; Olive explains the world by taking bits of story and recutting them to taste, just like she does her outfits).  Contrary to what the poster claims, this is not the story of Olive the social outcast, but of a girl who seizes the narrative by the throat, over and over again, and makes it her bitch. Who learns to control the flow, and spin, and valence of information, and who most importantly, by film’s end, learns where the lacunas go, and where the line of disclosure warps and ends.  

Wood-Chuck

Also, Penn Badgley occasionally pops into the story dressed as a wood-chuck. Because this is (ostensibly) a rom-com, however, he has a decidedly better time of falling in love with a lunatic devoted to a mission of self-ruination than that one sexy monk from PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC does. Better hair, too.

Either way, the film is about the slippery way story shapes being.  At one point, Lisa Kudrow’s late-arriving character declares that Olive “can’t be a slut because sluts can never admit it”, but Olive is already well on the way to realizing the opposite is true: you can’t be a slut unless you let someone tell you you are.  Kudrow’s hissed, staccato “who would you believe?!?” when Olive threatens to speak truth to cuntiness is only the opposite side of Kudrow’s “whores lack self-awareness!” coin: approval of the Non-du-Pere granted, and rescinded.  Olive don’t play that game.  Her final address to her webcam made me cheer in my seat; if every girl in the audience had the same revelation, we would have an apocalypse (the best kind) on our hands. 

The film is getting a lot of comparisons to Saved, and I suppose that’s fair – but unlike Saved, Easy A refuses to stabilize Olive’s moral compass; it lets her twist in the wind, and decide for herself what the ethical thing to do is.  It both refuses to make organized Christianity the (only) bad guy by making the Jesus-freaks a vocal but by no means monopolizing group (characters distasteful and pleasant alike both express their contempt for Amanda Bynes frankly staggeringly genius turn as an honest-to-God psychopath – don’t retire yet, Amanda Bynes! I don’t know who you are, but obviously you are AWESOME!), and by much more realistically identifying the (cartoon) mob not as Christian maniacs, but normal kids – even former best friends.  Olive’s parents are cavity-inducingly wholesome (the film may well have been pitched as “what if Burton’s Catwoman had had a stable and supportive home-life?”) but they are also patently clueless, as are her teachers – in fact, the film twice pulls a neat reversal with its faculty where Olive becomes not their pupil, but their, well, redeemer in the most gratingly Christian way – she suffers, and takes on their sins, so they don’t have to.  Saved is about looking at the dumb motherfuckers of the planet and saying “you know what? Fuck ’em.”  Easy A is about how you’ve got to rescue their dumb asses from the cave, too. 

Bernini's Teresa of Avila

"Communion with God? Well, it's like an angel, shoving an arrow made of molten gold repeatedly into your crotch until you dissolve into inundating folds of orgasmic pleasure." Teresa makes being raped by the Divine seem not so bad, but Olive (and Jaye Tyler) may have a different take.

The story of Abraham and Isaac bothers a lot of people because they trip on Isaac – it’s tough not to sympathize, after all, with the kid who’s dutifully preparing his own sacrificial altar because daddy has a notion (and if you think that’s fucked, try reading the infinitely-more-fuckeded story of Jephthah and his daughter, which has the same beginning but significantly one less handy goat). 

But the point of the Abraham story, and the reason he is the father of the People of the Book, is because he was willing in that moment to give up the thing he loved most, defy every instinct, and every ethical code – just because God said to.  That’s the part about religion that terrifies people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Because it’s crazy, and gross, and means you don’t even really exist – you’re just the universe’s butt-monkey (and if you haven’t watched Wonderfalls before, you really, really should).  Olive does the crazy thing, the thing everyone tells her is wrong (including herself!), just because she knows it’s what she has to do (the scene of her attempting to find solace or guidance in religion, and repeatedly getting shit on, INCLUDING AN EMPTY FUCKING CONFESSIONAL, okay, is maybe my favourite bit.  Saved ain’t got SHIT on that bizness).

The film keeps trying to be a John Hughes movie.  With apologies to John Hughes, thank God it isn’t.  It’s uneven, and rough, and in places feels like a tonally-wonky first draft, but it’s also fecklessly, scrappily charming, and if I had a teenage girl I’d make her watch it every fucking week. 

And if anyone can explain WTF is up with all the oranges in every single shot, I will give you a dollar.

Final Score: 8.4/10