Posts Tagged ‘the other’

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


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!


[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.


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.

War of the Worlds Tripod Attack

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creaturesthat swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.  No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise.

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

–          H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Is it the terrorists?!?”, a doe-eyed Dakota Fanning shrieks (all her lines are delivered at a brain-melting high-pitched keen) to her father (Tom Cruise in unconvincing Joe Six-Pack drag) while, in the rear-view mirror, friends and neighbours disintegrate into dust, filling the air with greasy white ash and settling at the feet of sinister iron colossuses.

Dakota Fanning

Welcome to the Desert of the frigging Real, Dakota Fanning.

Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds comprises the second installment of his 9/11 trilogy.  If Munich considered the need for vengeance, and if Minority Report considered the dangers of the corresponding constriction of civil liberties, then his War of the Worlds is about nothing less, and nothing else, than the raw, incomprehensible horror of those first few hours of the attack on New York City.

“We didn’t set out to play upon the tremendous paranoia and anxiety about terrorism in the environment right now,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, “but we do live in the shadow of 9/11. And every iteration of this story has occurred during anxious times in history. Orson Welles made his radio play right before World War II. George Pal made his movie in the middle of the Cold War. And now I’m making mine” (Spielberg in Ryan).[1]

WOTW scare

Oh, Orson, you SCAMP.

Wells’ masterpiece has, like Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, become a leitmotif in popular culture, retold and reconfigured freely every few decades by another auteur’s cultural temperature-taking (the word “auteur” is here applied with quantumly vacillating quotation marks).  Whether virtue or defect, however, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is faithful to his source material, indeed is nearly verbatim, in one crucial detail: the opening narration.

But I am not convinced he understands its purpose.

War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, is about the terrible moment when Judgment comes.  The Other arrives howling from the abyss, without words, without reason, and plunges our world into perdition’s fire.  Zizek, echoing Freud, called the Neighbour “primarily a thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose way of life…disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails” (On Violence 59).  This Spielberg seems to grasp, and it is precisely to this end that he has used Wells’ classic to explore the dreadful eruption (or, perhaps more truly, irruption) of the Real that 9/11 represented (throughout the movie, the image recurs of one of the main characters staring out at us through a pane of shattered glass, as though the film itself pathologically and compulsively duplicates this perforation of “reality’s” fragile lens).  He understands the awful terror in being beheld by the ineffable and found wanting, as the scene (invented for his version) in which the Martian ship’s monstrous eyestalk insinuates itself through the family’s subterranean hiding place, implacably seeking them like an avenging angel of the superego, makes clear.[2]

But Spielberg has not understood one crucial detail: in the mythopoetic pattern of Wells’ War of the Worlds, we are meant to be the Martians.

Spielberg’s version is about the terror, but that is all it is about.  His story is, as usual, one of the indomitable triumph of the family over adversity, culminating in the saccharine Hallmark-card reconciliation at movie’s end.  He describes the film as “a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life” (Spielberg in Reader’s Digest).  The enemy is not just unknown; it is unknowable; Spielberg is governed by the same logic which somehow made George W. Bush’s explanation of the motives of the men who perpetrated the attacks on the World Trade Center – that “they hate us for our freedoms” – an acceptable answer.  To question the motives of the aliens (or the terorrists) is akin to questioning why Gargamel is after the Smurfs: perhaps to kill them, perhaps to eat them (and at least for a while because they are somehow a necessary ingredient in transmuting lead to gold) – the point is that he’s evil; any other motive merely extends from this Aristotelian first premise.

gargamel bin laden

"Gargamel hates us for our freedoms!" For most Americans, the motives of both these figures remains equally unclear - and irrelevant.

Kenneth Miller, in reviewing the film, sings damning alleluias:

Martian death rays and war machines lay waste to civilization — but the bad guys get wiped out by a virus to which humans are immune. Their traits as people give the Earthlings the strength and resilience their enemies lack. That’s the real theme of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: When all hell breaks loose, Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, overcomes his shortcomings as a dad and a human being. He’s one man, struggling against evil for the sake of his family. It’s not an entirely happy ending — the title is War of the Worlds, after all. But don’t discount the hidden strength Ferrier has inside — the strength of his humanity (Miller).

The gap in logic which Miller’s review contains (“aliens are destroyed by virus”, therefore “our traits as people – the strength of our humanity – give us resilience enemies lack”) is not his own; it is a cohesive rendering of the film’s message.  We deserve survival, our goodness is identical to our humanity, so God will furnish it.  For Spielberg, the Martian susceptibility to Earth’s diseases is an act of Providence.  For Spielberg, the trust in God that America stamps into its coins has not proven counterfeit.

To this end, Spielberg deploys Wells’ original opening (quoted in full at the beginning of this essay) because it seems to him, of course, to license exactly the reading he wishes to further.  The narration is read in the film at a folksy, leisurely pace by Morgan Freeman, who has made a career playing what Spike Lee called “Super Duper Magical Negroes” – patient, wise engines of exposition and enlightenment,[3] while the opening image, the presumed gaze of this lackadaisical, authoritative/ authorizing/ authorial voice, is of those same bacteria that will eventually kill the Martians, busily going about their business within the dewdrop of a leaf – the tiny saviors about to be implemented in God’s (Morgan Freeman’s?) wonderful salvific plan.


Spielberg's film begins with a "zoom-out" from the bacteria which Wells makes the bane of the Martian invaders. For Spielberg, these microscopic foes represent Divine Providence. For Wells, however, they are a symbol of dumb luck and the dangerous risks of colonization.

It is ironic, given this microscopic view, that Spielberg has not looked close enough.

Wells’ beginning is about a terrible conflation: the Martians behave just as we behave; the Martians invade just as we invade.  Like the first dreadful clangs of a requiem, Wells begins his theme of cultural annihilation with a series of metaphors that vector around humanity’s horrfying similarity to the Martians: just like us, just like us but now we are the observed; now we are under the microscope.


"I am an allegory for the decadence and imminent collapse of the Victorian Empire! ZORP ZORP!" Alas, critical inquiry cannot fully explain the martians' magnificent pimp-walks.

If Spielberg had read more closely, he would have seen in Wells’ slim novella a parable for the rotting Victorian empire, a creature that had once, too, beheld the world with envious eyes, and now, in its dying anemic spasms, realizes too late that it has spread too fast, too thin, and exposed itself to indigenous pathogens it cannot not hope to metabolize.  He would have seen in the Martians an invader with technologies that outclass the beset “colonized” and hungry for the resources these wretched beasts squat upon, scorching the earth to call it peace.  He would have seen that Wells has very carefully and surely made the eyes that gaze across the gulf of space our own.

With War of the Worlds, Wells in many ways gave birth to science fiction – and in the same moment, made it a vehicle, not merely for imagining the purgative, apocalyptic gaze of the Other, but a tool for reconfiguring ourselves as that Other.  He made it a means of parallax: for beholding the monster, but also for beholding that we are that monster.  The masterstroke is in that first opening movement; the rest merely elaborates the melody.  The true horror of Wells’ War of the Worlds, which has utterly eluded so many of its adapters and interpreters, is that there is nothing alien about its aliens.  We do not just for a moment gaze with their eyes; they gaze, always, with ours.  Behold the Other – ourselves.

Had Spielberg understood this, he would, indeed, have seen an opportunity in adapting War of the Worlds to comment on the aftermath of 9/11, and call, as Wells had done, a civilization to judgment.

And little Dakota Fanning, cowering in the backseat of an SUV as poison-light seared the horizon behind her, would have screeched what she should have screeched: Is it the Americans?!?

[1] How his 2004 film Terminal, which followed Minority Report but preceded both Munich and War, and treats a fumbling buffoon stuck in an airport (played by perennial fumbling buffoon Tom Hanks), links into these three films would require a second viewing I find myself unwilling to extend it.  Perhaps, as in ancient drama, or as Marx so famously observed, tragedy must be followed by farce, and thus the film is a meditation on the horrors of longer wait-times while Homeland Security subjects the more darker-skinned (or, in Hanks’ case, more hilariously accented) of passengers to their perverse, procrustean ministrations.

[2] This moment of the merciless, relentless Real seems to haunt Spielberg’s oeuvre; recall in particular the “pre-crime” cops of Minority Report, who know your sins before you have committed them (yet always arrive just in time to cause maximum drama and collateral damage to all points of ingress in apprehending their targets), or the ludicrous (yet no less terrifying) moment in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs pursuing the children unlock the door in order to gain access to the kitchen.

[3] While there is no shortage to examples in his career, see especially Shawshank Redemption, Robin Hood, Seven, Driving Miss Daisy, both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the host of documentaries he narrates, and, at the ultimate zenith of the form,  the two “Almighty” films, in which Freeman literally plays God.