Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Desperate Search: The Rest of the Story

Part VII.
He slept with his fist pressed against his heart.
 Tetro, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

What is the worst?
Think hard. What is deeply your all-time, top prize, greatest fear?

Terry Gilliam tried to release his retro-futuristic satire on modern bureacracy, Brazil, in 1985.  The distributor of this particular picture, Universal, was displeased with Gilliam's product.  They saw an ending that was simply unacceptable.  It was too damn morbid.  What was the point of going through all that journey just for a loser of an ending?  What's the point in watching trapped prey unless it eventually escapes?  The studio saw this sad sack of a creation, and thought, 'We can rebuild it.  Stronger.  Faster.  Happier.'  And so they did.  What came of it was a version of the film that morphs what was supposed to be a dream sequence, into the final reality of our protagonist.  In that world, everyone we care about lives happily ad infinitum.

As is also the case with Blade Runner, we, the consumers, have been blessed to see Gilliam's dream realized in subsequent, non-studio inverventioned versions of the film.  The film can now be seen as it was intended to be seen (Extra credit: send me a write-up on the parallels between 'Director's Cuts' and the redemption of the true inner being of the sinner!).

From time to time, I take some flack for my tendency to embrace Debbie-downer films.  I think I am well versed to explain my reasoning for this, and I often give a more drawn-out version of this response:
                      Because we live in a world of sin, it is a far easier task for the auteur to create that which is a deeply affecting truth that finds its mold in the fabric of this broken world.  Happy endings are often corny because they somehow ring untrue to our lives.  They follow some sort of line of destiny that spews out these sometimes insolently simple creations that play a small note in an orchestra playing the notes of some other universe.  
                     To write a story of deep, resonant joy is the hardest task of any artist.  It is far safer to write a tragedy, and have it incidentally be a masterpiece, than it will ever be for a 'comedy' to fall within the confines of that category of art. 

I could pontificate further on this point, and could do so with near unending strength, but this is all an old hat concept.  Aaahh, I speak too quickly.  One more example for the traditional argument of Tragedy vs. Comedy:

Which of these myths is closer to our reality: Michael Myers or the Blue Fairy?

Perhaps you could say that Jesus is our Blue Fairy, but that's a stretch.  Jesus died to save us because he is awesome and we are not.  And he's chosen to save us from the repercussions of living in a world of Halloween.  Michael Myers is a pretty crushing reflection of the reality of death and sin.  It's coming.  It's unavoidable.  But the Blue Fairy is not coming, at least, you don't believe in her the way you know that death is imminent for both you and I.

Over a cup of 'kava s smetano' (coffee with cream), a friend asked me if I was afraid of death.  My answer; "No, I have no need to be."  Jesus has told us that we are granted eternal life to those of us who follow him.  In this way my fate is sealed; my endgame is written.  But this wasn't really the point my friend was trying to make.  After some back-and-forth, we arrived at our destination.  We were in complete agreement...

The worst of it all, the worst fear, the worst 'thing', the worst of the worst: it is nothingness.  Turn the radio to static.  Nothing.  What cruelty it holds.  What lack of compassion!  What obscene inarticulateness.

From "The Call of Cthulhu": The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

When H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" captured our collective fears, what was it that was so abhorrent and terrifying?  It's not the evilness, per se.  It's the grandity of it.  Grandiosity.  When that insurmountable monster arises from the deep, that leviathan of leviathans, there is no retreat, there is no combat, there is no chance.  It is over.  It was over before it began.  This is the endgame.  The end moment.  The end.

I am afraid of nothingness because I love story so much.  All stories end, yes?  But do they really?  Last month in Switzerland we discussed how to have better, clearer conversations.  One of the topics broached was that of 'the conversation after the conversation'.  When we hang up that phone, yes, we've physically ended the relationship for that moment, but twenty minutes later your brain comes up with what would have been the perfect response.  The perfect comeback.  The perfect proof.  Even though the physical conversation has ended, it keeps going onward, pushing further in the reaches of our minds and imaginations.  So, though it's physicality has ended, the spirit of the conversation continues onward.  So it is with story.

This talk of great fears and nothingness does indeed come into play with stories of happiness.  It does.  Trust me.

Fall back for a moment to the doctrinal belief of existential nihilism.  It, as a theory, exerts that there is no absolute, internal meaning to life.  This philosophy is practically and ultimately unlivable.  All men seek meaning.  All men seek purpose.  And so the nihilist is forced, by the necessity of living, to abandon his bleak outlook for something that has the hope of meaning.  All sad tales have this aspect to them: they suppose movement.  They are not static.

Take Brazil.  Ending in catatonia, though the character may be enlisted into a realm of quiet nothingness, this is not the response that we, the viewer have.  We are brought to the point of dissection.  We are uneased by the state of which the film ended.  We want to rid ourselves of such a feeling.  So we do something about it.  We vent.  We quickly try to whitewash the feelings by giving ourselves happy stimuli.  Or we review the film to get a handle as to how we got to this disturbing junction.  Perhaps we will go back and revisit the film, only this time, our lens is skewed toward stitching together the seams of the wretched destiny our protagonist unknowingly barrels towards.

Take happy Universal edit of Brazil.  Ending in freedom, our minds drift away from all of it.  Our protagonist is happy.  We are happy.  Everything is fine.  And because everything is fine, there is no movement.  No movement = static.  And static, dear brothers and sisters, is a bedfellow with nothingness.

Joy and happiness are tremendously difficult themes to build in authenticity because they so easily fall victim to the great 'staticness' of this world.  And staticness is not storytelling.  It is the absence of story.

Some quick theological terms are of use here.  I believe we are living under the banner of an 'inaugurated kingdom of Jesus Christ'.  Christ has come to save us sinners.  His active work of paying for our sins is completed.  I have been made anew already.  I am saved from the destruction I deserve to bear.  Now, this is a whole truth, but still, the world is decomposing.  It is brimming with sin.  Everything is in the process of being renewed.  The consequence of that statement is that all things are not yet made new.  The redemption of all things has not yet come to pass.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost in time, like tears...in rain.
Time to die.
Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott

Joy and happiness have not been made complete.  We have not yet known the furthest extent of their reality.  We have not yet known completely redeemed joy, redeemed happiness.  We only yet know of its shadow.  And because of this, we struggle to see these subjects as moving, vibrant pulses.  They remain obscure, distant ideas.  They appear not to move.

Suffering and tribulation are our closest friends when it comes to story.  We know them.  We sit in a world soaked in them.  And so we observe how they breathe, how they move.  That is why they are so much easier to capture (with excellence) in story.

Let us now recollect St. Augustine's famous syllogism:

God created all things.
God did not create evil,
Therefore, evil is not a thing.

If evil isn't a thing, then it must be nothing.  Static.


  1. I'm reminded of a monologue I once did by Jason VandeBrake. It goes like this.

    In the dream I wake up. Like I just woke from a vivid dream. And my jaw hurts from grinding my teeth all night in my sleep. And to me the world is full of love and peace and hurting.

    I open my eyes and see nothing. I look and look and blink over and over to see if I can find a trace of something, some light, but there is nothing. I can’t tell the difference between eyes open and eyes closed. To me there is only black. I get up and move slowly around with my arms extended in front of me so I can feel in front of me so I won’t run into anything and hurt myself. But I feel nothing.

    I walk more, I turn, I walk faster. Now I’m reaching, reaching rather than just extending my arms to protect myself. Reaching for something, anything to feel, to touch. Still blinking, opening and closing my eyes. Not knowing, seeing only black. I am so afraid that there will be nothing forever. My walk turns to a run and still I feel nothing. And I’m reaching. I won’t mind if I get hurt, I want to get hurt, I want to feel something. And this is when I get really scared. When I keep running and running and feeling absolutely nothing I keep going and going for what could be hours and still there is no light and nothing to feel. So I stop and become completely still.

    There is no taste in my mouth. There is nothing to smell. I am still and I listen. And I hear. There is a sound. A voice that seems to come from right beside me. It is nearly inaudible. It repeats something over and over and over in my ear.

    The voice says- “There is something. And not nothing.”

  2. Once did? How do you mean, Books? As a speech? As a belief system?

  3. like as a performance in a postmodern collection of plays. But there are times when I suppose I did it as a belief system too, now that you mention it.