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Thus Spoke Kubrick: A Brief Examination of Free Will

Self awareness blesses us with confliction:  presenting our minds a future of ambivalence and misconceptions of base-level worth in a chance universe.  Because of this, many find humanity itself is an intrinsic value, often anchoring their opinion to the concept of free will, a gift from the gods to ensure our conceit is not only hot air.  Unlike much of our ancestral counterparts, we act through an assumed filter of choice. When pressed, however, much like any mythology, the concept of free will deflates with the slightest amount of pressure.   We go to great lengths of disassociation to insist upon the complexity and uniqueness of the human experience, but through 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick writes a love letter to our unknown motivators.  

When I speak of free will, what do I mean?  Am I offering a fatalistic viewpoint where all actions are predetermined values and the actors remain unchangeable?  Not quite. Rather, through an agent of chaos, a life experiences a certain degree of unpredictability, where action is demanded of the participant.  We can break up the action into two categories: those of unwillingness (forced action) and those of willingness (desired action). Regardless of the cartographic impetus behind a decision, neither forced action nor desired action are the effects of autonomy.  Kubrick explored the former through the introduction of the Monolith.

2001: A Space Odyssey opens with the grand narrative, an introduction to our history—the dawning of man.  For a first time viewer, it is a humbling event. The horn section of Also Sprach Zarathustra breaks the visual and auditory silence of the vast nothingness of space for the first time.  Kubrick finds himself seated comfortably in the mythology of the divine, taking the place of God and separating the light from the darkness with the first sunrise of man.  

The Monolith is subject to controversy and discussion throughout the film community.  It serves as almost a Rorschach test for the viewer. While its ambiguity gives rise to many metaphors, the most fitting comes with the application to free will.  Driven from a watering hole, an ancient tribe stumbles upon the featureless and geometrically pleasing structure. Here we find the claim of consciousness and its mysterious effects through a simple symbol of biology.  The Monolith exists through incongruity with the surrounding environment. Its featureless dimensions are at war with the imperfect landscape of the desert. However, there is something familiar and completely natural about it.  A recurring motif to remind the viewer they are not writer of their story.

Like the proto-humans, our drive is somewhat of an odd companion; something that feels completely foreign to our sense of autonomy but natural to our biological composition.  When they discover the Monolith, it whispers to them with unmitigated influence, bringing to light their basic, primal urges and pushing them to react with violence in an attempt to tip the Darwinian scales and  reclaim a fundamental necessity for survival: water. It is the instinctual reflex of the forced action. As Daniel H. Pink states in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, our motivation can be thought of in terms of an operating system.  In these very early days of our ancestors, the Monolith is motivation 1.0, controlling our thoughts and processes with rudimentary biological needs.  Turning to the other side of the spectrum, when reduced to their simplest form, desires are made of the same indescribable material as the Monolith. We might be free to act upon our desire, but we have no control over the desire itself.  

Kubrick mirrors this complexity and unknowability of our drive with one of the opening scenes in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his droogs encounter a rival gang in an abandoned theater. There is one key difference between this encounter and the proto-humans of 2001.  Rather than tying the characters’ drives to an extrinsic motivational factor such as survival, Alex and his accomplices are driven by the sheer intrinsic value of violence itself.  What does this mean in terms of Alex’s choices? Is he choosing violence because of the pleasure he receives from the acts, or is the pleasure received too good to avoid? Regardless of the answer, if he does not choose the deterministic factors behind his actions, where is the freedom in his desires?  

Because of his violent proclivities, Alex is the perfect candidate for a new controversial form of cognitive therapy where, in essence, the treatment rewires the brain and forces Alex to become physically sick at the thought of violence.  As the Chaplain so aptly remarks, “The question is whether or not this technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” However, Kubrick built a house of doubt from the beginning and has left enough room for the viewer to question the conclusion at which the Chaplain arrives. If the treatment just replaces Alex’s natural urges with a different catalyst, how is he any different than before?  If the Monolith of the mind is eclipsed by another mysterious impetus that influences the actions of its recipients, can we really say that either application is the definition of autonomy? No. While most of us have lived our lives under the myopic conclusion of the Chaplain, we need to align our definitions of humanity with the truth: we are nothing more than complex machines, wired with the collective will of biology and shaped through the extrinsic values of our parents, friends, and role models.  

In its most basic definition, free will is predicated on the ability to choose the opposite without any variables being changed.  If the clock were turned back and the same options were presented, in order for Alex or the proto-humans—or the audience for that matter—to act differently, they would need an external or internal factor to diverge from the original context.  Even with this information in mind, however, most of us will continue to live with the illusion. We will continue feeling as if we are the writer of our personal narratives because, let’s face it, we have no choice. And while this information will not change the way we think about ourselves to any significant degree, recognizing the illusion of free will can affect our daily interactions.  We might find a little empathy and understanding in our fellow man.

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In the Absence of God

Cinema is a medium of meditation.  Its essence is relativity, a structure built through the filter of the viewer’s life and values, opening every story to the world of interpretation.  Film holds an abstract mirror up to its subject and allows us to explore the grand narratives of what it is to be human: perception, consciousness, sexuality, death, and ultimately—spirituality.  However, what is it to be spiritual? This is the peculiar nature of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, as it aims to answer this question through an examination of the divine and the profane, often blurring the two in a paradoxical confluence until the viewer can no longer tell the difference between them.  Often planted firmly under the restrictive nature of religion, spirituality is divorced from its modern conception in First Reformed as we follow Ernst Toller through an exploration of faith, meaning, authenticity.  Ambiguity is the language of the film, and Schrader withholds just enough to skirt around confrontation and the dissonance we find between faith and reason.  As the viewer, we come to see that when a worldview is predicated on a myth for so long, adjusting values to include a sense of veridicality can be a harrowing task.

First Reformed opens a dialogue between faith and reason by filtering the two diametrically opposed values through Ernst Toller’s narration.  As the audience, we receive a look into a conflicted psyche, torn between the doubt of silence and the want for something beyond the physical.  Schrader, like most great artists, uses the medium to parse the unknown, to investigate what makes us human. One of the most fundamental aspects of our nature is the emotion of guilt.  When we have wronged someone or acted in a way that is ostensibly counterintuitive to our constructed morality, we find ourselves experiencing a ping of distress. This leads, for most of us, to a need for absolution.   Schrader explores this need through the conversation between Toller and Michael while introducing us to one of the main themes: are we worthy of salvation?

Michael begins the conversation through an expression of anxiety:  is it wrong to bring a child into this world? Bearing children is a function not many people question.  It is a built into our code. We are meant to grow old and have offspring, but we never consider if a child would want to be born.  The world, with all of its improvements in medicine and technology, still offers little sympathy to its inhabitants. When Michael asks about the moral implications of bringing a child into a hopeless world, however, Toller realizes his question is less about the child itself and more of a way for Michael to confront one of the oldest issues humanity has faced:  the purposeless life. An idle existence is something to fear, as it forces us to address the ephemerality that looms over us all. The dread of a lonely night and the reflection it brings can lead only to stasis and an incongruity between the physical and the spiritual. There is a sense of duality we all experience. We have the feeling of there being a ghost in the machine, a Cartesian theater where the true self processes every experience.  However, when we stare into the abyss of our consciousness, only the darkness stares back. This is the genesis of our anxiety.

During the conversation, Toller continues his examination of the unfulfilled by referencing Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book in which Kierkegaard argues it is not the physical death we should fear, but a spiritual one by means of ignoring our true self.  Much of the Existentialist movement is grounded in the idea of individuality and authenticity. If an individual fails to nurture either one of these values, they open their life to self-deception, hardships, and despair.  As Toller tells Michael that we must not give into anguish, the audience sees him as an unreliable narrator for the first time. As Pastor Jeffers later states, Toller is alway in the Garden, sweating blood and toiling in a perennial darkest hour.  Much like our main character’s pursuit of truth, so must the viewer decipher between what is authentic and what is a desperate attempt to force belief in the unreasonable.

Within this consistent state of affliction, we find a parallel between Michael and Toller.  While their concerns are different in name, they function as synonyms, as both have found concern with the metanarrative on which they have based their lives.  Much like the environmentalism to which Michael subscribes, Toller’s faith has diminishing returns. The comparison to Michael is not wasted on Toller either. As he mentions during the narration, the conversation is much like when Jacob wrestled the angel:  “Every sentence, every question, every response, a mortal struggle. It was exhilarating.” Michael is the doubt, festering below the surface of Toller’s psyche, whispering the possibility of God’s death. He emphasizes this point when he tells Michael the only way to combat despair is through courage. Reasoning, when we cannot know the mind of God, is useless.  Because we cannot predict the future, we have to choose courage over despair, despite the unease of uncertainty. These thoughts of blind faith are almost reflexive in nature for Toller; something he likely heard from the lips of another pastor who advised him to embrace the absurdity of God and all the ambiguity that accompanies His word, rather than rely on the tangible.   However, reflective glance for Toller reveals the truth: there is little comfort in the unknown.

With the introduction of Mary, Schrader offers a secular counterpoint to the spiritual milieu that pervades First Reformed, and as her influence becomes more apparent, Ernst Toller continues to resist the temptation of losing his faith.  Nonetheless, we see his transformation through his journal. Much of what he writes is a wisp of the virtue he wishes he could possess.  Everything in his life is a reminder of his failures, including his position as a spiritual counselor. First Reformed, once a respected sect of the Dutch-Reformed Church, is now little more than a tourist souvenir shop, living in the shadow of its sister location, Abundant Life.  Since his son’s death and subsequent divorce, Toller has lived a life of solitude and reflection. However, much like Michael, he has not embraced a life of authenticity. He has buried himself in the faith and become an ethical impostor, going through the motions and measuring his worth against the expectations of others.  Unfortunately, these are unreachable standards with which Toller’s grief and shame only grows. Schrader demonstrates this in the scene where Toller is offering a group of school children some of the rich history of his church. When speaking of the Underground Railroad, he says the following, “Can you imagine that? In the dark. The air hot, shaking with fear.  The sound of the slave hunters’ horses outside. On their knees, holding each other’s hands, praying for God to save them.” This section of dialogue mirrors Toller’s current state. He has been hypnotized by the abyss, engulfed in the blackness and hoping God will end his suffering. The more he prays, however, the stronger the silence becomes.

A key tenet of existentialism is the belief in the individual.  Free will, in the eyes of this philosophy, is a vital part of humanity.  While the definitions of individuality are manifold, there is a consensus of the consequences we face without an idea of our true self:  through the loss of freedom, we welcome overwrought sensibilities in a senseless world. Jeffers sums the Kierkegaardian view of this nicely when giving his sermon on anxiety.  He states anxiety ails only the wicked, caught in their determination to do things their own way. Kierkegaard speaks of this in The Sickness Unto Death.  The idea of the self is a product of our relations:  do we find ourselves in partnership with the Infinite or the Finite?  If it is the latter, we have accepted the temporal over the everlasting and experience despair through our separation from God.  Juxtaposing the sermon, however, is Mary. While she is representative of the world, there is an unmistakable divinity to her character.  But she suffers from the same sickness as Toller: “I woke up and my heart was pounding and I thought, like, the roof, the ceiling, was just gonna fall in.  So I had to get out…Without warning, this dark curtain just fell. I’m scared of everything…I just can’t stop my thoughts. They go on and repeat and repeat.”

In attempt at mitigation, Toller and Mary inhabit a shared consciousness through meditation.   For a brief moment, Toller finds peace through Mary, transcending the physical beauty of life and embracing the sense of awe that accompanies the realization of our mortality.  Our purpose is found in the brevity of our existence because it is not until a period is placed that a sentence finds full meaning. As he lets go of his dread, he experiences true spirituality for the first time.  He later tells Mary a story of his great grandfather, a pastor from Muskegon, Michigan. In the final moments of his great grandfather’s life, the pastor was to have said he was standing on holy ground. The moment with Mary is a taste of this.  It is a short-lived reprieve, however. Toller lets go of Mary’s hands and finds himself back in the Garden, lost in the rumination of a hellish landscape.

Paul Schrader is masterful in his ability to force the viewer to inhabit Toller’s world.  His minimalist approach encourages the audience to lean into the film with its stagnant camerawork and bleak color palette.  This also allows Schrader to break the rules and highlight important aspects of the film. One of the most interesting examples of this comes in the finale.  In the last few shots, Schrader plays with color saturation and vibrancy. Moments before Toller fills a tumbler with drain cleaner, we see his parsonage void of color, almost to the point where the film feels as if it were shot in black and white. However, when Mary enters, the room is filled with light and warmth.  While the ending is drenched in ambiguity, the key to Toller’s fate lies in how the room is lit and Mary’s mysterious entrance. Because of Jeffers, we know the door to the parsonage has been locked, and there is presumably only one entrance to such a small building. This moment is a vision, the last images of a dying man who sought truth and love all of his life.  The embrace with Mary is Ernst’s holy ground, where he experiences divinity at its fullest, shedding the pseudo-spirituality of Christian mythology and embracing the wonder of Mary’s secular touch. In an unreasonably passionate kiss, the camera swirls around the two in order to parallel the meditation scene and indicate we are witnessing a fantasy. The movie abruptly cuts to a black screen. Toller has faced the abyss.

Through Ernst Toller’s ideological evolution, we see that First Reformed is a study of the self and how easily our identities can be blurred by uncompromising narratives. While it is important to find meaning, losing oneself completely to an ideology stands in opposition to the original desired effect.  We must find a healthy balance between our desire for authenticity and the timidity of accepting that, in the macro view of things, we live meaningless lives.

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The Transitional Self: Annihilation and the Illusion of Identity

We have all wondered, at one time or another, about our individuality.  What are the basic components of the self? We all have the feeling of a singular “I,” a certain unnameable essence that separates us from the rest of our friends and family.  One of the earliest philosophical debates in identity is the Theseus Paradox.  Theseus, thought to be the founder of Athens, is included in the pantheon of foundational Greek mythology.  Memorialized for his bravery and leadership, the citizens of Athens preserved his battleship for years. Through natural occurrences, preservation turned from an act of repair to an act of replacement.  Every original piece of that ship eventually rotted and was replaced with new planks. From a philosophical lens, this poses a reasonably tricky question: can we still view the repaired ship as the one that belonged to Theseus?  If not, at what point during the repairs did the ship cease to be the same vessel?

These questions are the heart of Alex Garland’s science fiction adaptation Annihilation.  Much like Theseus’ ship, none of us remain the same person throughout life, both in a physical and mental sense.  We all fall prey to biology and its curses. As we age, we find hair greys and thins, skin wrinkles and loses much of its elasticity, even soundness of mind comes into question with each year.  So how do we reconcile these changes with our sense of self? How do we continue to have planks removed and still see the same person? It is through progressive change and the illusion of free will that our singular narrative goes undisrupted.  Garland examines the substructure of identity through a journey of Lena’s psyche, leading the viewer into the depths of her consciousness where Lena is confronted with the absence of a sole identity.

The subtextual narrative of Annihilation acts as a catalyst for an important conversation about what is to be human.  While there are interesting takes on cancer and relationships, the true heart of the film lies in a simple question:  what is identity? This is a hard concept to define because there are so many facets as to what makes an individual feel an “I.”  However, Garland provides the viewer with a great example through Lena. The film’s journey is one familiar to all of us. Over our lifetime, we change.  Little by little, we develop new taste in music, food, and cinema. We are instilled with the ethical values of our parents, though these can be altered through other meaningful relationships and ideas. It is through these incremental changes that we  still accept the narrative of our lives. This is the idea behind the Shimmer and its peculiar attributes, like the refraction of DNA and memories. The Shimmer is paradoxical in nature: there is an eerie otherness to everything that resides under the dome, but a familiarity lies at the bottom of the mystery.  As Lena points out in the discovery of the multi-colored flowers and vines, they all look so different that one would not believe they are from the same plant, let alone the same species. They are caught in a continuous mutation, much like Lena’s identity.

With occasional flashes of the past, the audience is introduced to a version of Lena that, like the flowers, doesn’t seem to belong to the same consciousness. Through infidelity, Lena begins a self-examination into her own misjudgment of character. The Shimmer and expedition team are a perfect vehicle for Garland to magnify Lena’s introspection.  In this sense, the crew are the many faces of Lena’s consciousness: Anya is addiction to impulse, uncontrollable and incessant. Josie is the softer side of this, wanting nothing more than the chance to feel alive, even if that means a path leading to self-destruction. Cassie is sorrow, a physical representation of Lena mourning who she was before the affair.  And Ventress is the cold, detached examination of Lena’s value judgments and moral identity, serving almost as an underdeveloped conscience.

The Shimmer, in turn, is a metaphorical device for Lena’s psyche.  Her journey to the Lighthouse is one of pursuit: it is a way for Lena to kill her attachment to identity and embrace the idea she is only a passenger to uncontrollable desires, regardless of whether those actions are high-minded or not.  Subsequently, it is through one of the most unnerving and beautiful scenes of the film that Lena faces a facsimile of her current persona. Lena’s confrontation with the being is almost like a ballet, choreographed in a bizarre echo of her insecurities. The duplicate is a surrogate for all of Lena’s doubts and shortcomings;  it is a manifestation of the faults she wishes to discard but have ultimately left her with little more than a suffocating sense of regret. Throughout the film, a tattoo emerges on Lena’s arm, which foreshadows this final confrontation.

The ouroboros is an old symbol for the infinite recurrence of life.  It is depicted through a serpent eating its own tail and is meant to represent the perpetual state of creation and destruction.  Joseph Campbell spoke well to this point in the Power of Myth: “There is a sense of death as not death somehow; that death is required for new, fresh life and so on. And the individual isn’t quite an individual.  He is a member of the plant.” Lena realizes much of her identity is a culmination of uncontrollable desires which arise through hidden biological proclivities and external factors.  She must let go of her guilt by burning her memories down to create something new.

Garland realizes that an integral part of our identity is found in memory.  Looking back at the original question of Theseus’ Paradox, we have to consider that our self is much more than a corporeal idea.  Much like the ship, we can replace limbs, sinew, and bone; we can lose hair, eyes, speech, and hearing, but the moment the mind begins to slip, we effectively lose ourselves.  Memories provide context to our narrative. They are the glue that binds our story from birth to death. This is a significant point in Annihilation as it is brought to our attention by Ventress: “We are disintegrating!  Our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia.  If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.”  

If we dissect this quote under the assumption that Ventress is a branch of Lena’s subconscious, we realize the words are weighted.  Lena’s head lies heavy with the burden of indiscretion. The journey, as mentioned previously, is something of a redemptive tale in the sense that Lena is trying to reconcile a psychic disconnection between who she thought she was and who she has become.  However, like with any journey of significant growth, she must confront her painful past.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the Shimmer is an external representation of Lena’s mind.  Garland accomplishes this through echoes of Lena’s memories. Late in the story, the crew sets up camp in an abandoned building that mirrors Lena’s home. However, like most of the environment in Annihilation, the aesthetic aspects have a preternatural value.  Whereas the earlier scenes within her home offer warmth to parallel her relationship with Kane, the echo is meant to be a counterpoint–it is cold, unforgiving, and eerie.   This is an important distinction when we examine the conflict with the bear.

The bear is one of the most interesting monster designs I have encountered in film.  It is a grim confluence of man and beast. While his structure is mostly that of a bear, he is accented with human remains:  a skull protrudes from the left side of his face like a macabre blister. He is Lena’s projection of Kane. Much like the ouroboros, Garland hides the significance of the bear in plain sight, tattooed on Kane’s body.  

There are two flashbacks that give more context to Lena’s idea of Kane.  The first is a moment where the two are lying in bed, engaging in playful banter about his upcoming departure.  The second encounter, however, serves as a contrapuntal scene, contrasting the closeness the audience felt before.  Much like the imitation of their home in the Shimmer, Kane is passionless and stiff. He has discovered Lena’s infidelity and rather than facing  his misplaced trust, he chooses to bury his grief, never fully addressing his anger. Her encounter with the bear, in this sense, is an unfilled wish.  Kane’s decision to enter the Shimmer was one born out of passive-aggression, which robbed Lena of a resolution and left her in a perennial state of contrition.  

Annihilation is ultimately a film about transition.  It is an exploration into a unique meta-narrative where identity itself is brought into question.  Garland, moreover, defies the idea of a singular self by challenging our presuppositions regarding free will and consciousness.  While most of us see our identity as axiomatic, the idea of a definitive “I” is nothing but an illusion. Sure, we can still maintain unique characteristics that separate us from others, but we can no longer claim to be the genesis of our personality.  Much like the Shimmer’s interpretation of refraction, we are an amalgamation of our biology and environment. When it comes to our psyche, we have a certain degree of volatility, which remains hidden from our narrative due to gradual change. However, through deep introspection, the illusion can snap and leave us, like Lena, with a new perspective.

 

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Innocence and Myth: An Exploration of Pan’s Labyrinth

When we are born, are our minds blank slates?  It is an appealing notion—coming into the world with no preconceptions or biases—because it plays to our idea of free will and the autonomy of the mind.  However, when we dig into the depths of our minds, we realize the power of our biological proclivities breaks the illusion of choice. We are slaves to the nature of the previous generations.  Much like genes, ideas can be passed to our offspring. We bury these stories in our ancestral unconscious as a unique way for us to express our instinctive humanity. We tell stories as a caution, warning the next generation of our shortcomings; we tell stories to explore our biggest fears: loss, grief, death, even life; but most of all, we tell stories for entertainment.  There are very few feelings that can trump the mystery, joy, and adrenaline captured by a well-spun tale. Guillermo del Toro’s dark parable Pan’s Labyrinth is an exceptional example of storytelling.  Not only is it entertaining, but it is also an exercise in exploring the loss of innocence and the strength of cognitive illusions.  Del Toro filters his fairy tale through the simplicity of archetypes, pushing Ofelia’s journey into the depths of the mind and illustrating how our mental biases can distort the filter of reality.

From the opening of the film, the audience is introduced to a girl who favors the fantastical.  Most of Ofelia’s time is spent in rumination on tales of peculiar fairies, grotesque creatures, and harrowing adventure.  There is good reason for such an imagination: she is a child of war, living much of what should be her most endearing years in chaos and uncertainty because of Francoist Spain.  Because of this, Ofelia finds comfort in the fables and easily blends reality with the sensational to preserve her innocence a little while longer. She imagines a different life, one where she is a princess who has wandered too far from home.  Through the completion of three tasks, Ofelia will be able to cross the barrier into a forgotten kingdom. It is, however, with each task completed that reality seeps through the cracks of her imagination.

Infancy is a pivotal time of our lives.  Early childhood development undergirds much of our adult life, laying out the foundation for either a well-adjusted existence or the first step to a life of disarray.  Regardless of which path we find ourselves on, there is always the temptation to retreat when the road becomes bumpy. The first task is an introduction into Ofelia’s desire  for security and comfort, or a return to her mother’s womb. Ofelia finds her way to a withering fig tree. Split down the middle, its branches curl in a vaguely uterine way, leaving the viewer with an image reminiscent of fallopian tubes. Paralleling Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole, Ofelia climbs through the hollowed trunk to find a toad dwelling in the base of the tree.

Because of the amount of offspring toads can produce, they often double as a symbol of fertility in mythology.  However, in the world of Pan’s Labyrinth, the toad is a parasite, sucking the life from a once beautiful tree.  As Ofelia’s descent can be seen as a return to her mother, the viewer is left  wondering if the toad is how Ofelia perceives her yet-to-be born brother—nothing more than a fleshy little leech who is slowly killing the one beautiful consistency in Ofelia’s life.  Like most children, she views her parent through the lens of idolatry and divinity. Ofelia’s mother is elevated to a picturesque version of the sacred feminine in her adolescent eyes, and she cannot bear to see this stranger inside her mother.  Due to the confrontation with the toad, Ofelia is forced to challenge her fears of losing her mother’s affection, or worse, her mother’s likely death.

Like most sibling rivalries, the first child has replacement anxiety, a fear that can result in an overall uneasiness regarding their idea of a distinct self. The initial task of returning to the womb and ultimately finding rebirth is an important first step in our heroine’s journey because it represents her desire for an identity of her own.  For most of the film, Ofelia’s real-world interactions are punctuated by shame and oppression, so accepting the persona of Princess Moanna is an awakening in Ofelia’s individuality. Similarly, the second task provides our heroine with introspection, albeit something much more enigmatic and daunting than the toad.

Hollywood and its audience has a somewhat sordid affair with monsters.  While we love the adrenaline a good horror film can provide, the underlying motivation to our fascination with the appalling is death.  Monsters are meant to remind us of our mortality, as they often provide a reflective glance into ephemerality. It is with the introduction of the Pale Man in the second task that our heroine contemplates her own death.  

There are some interesting parallels between the Pale Man and Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s stepfather.  The second task, in this respect, is a dive into the depths of Ofelia’s subconscious. As the Faun warns her, “You’re going to a very dangerous place, so be careful.  The thing that slumbers there, it is not human.” During this second undertaking, her mind offers a grim fantasy, one where the Pale Man, a creature who feeds on the innocent and helpless, is a surrogate for Ofelia’s stepfather.  The Pale Man is the undiluted personification of Vidal’s inhumanity. Even his lair mirrors Vidal’s dining room, complete with a feast that any child would find irresistible.

Being set in post-civil war Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth examines the nationwide famine the country faced.  During this time, the food was controlled by the government and rations were extremely limited.  Families of the middle and lower classes starved, while those in power never went without food. This is most likely why Ofelia finds the large grapes so appealing.  

Ignoring the warnings of the Faun, Ofelia cannot resist taking from the feast on the Pale Man’s table. This awakens the monster from his slumber, endangering Ofelia and the fairies.   In this particular scene, the Pale Man rips apart two of the three fairies accompanying Ofelia on the journey, which marks a turning point in the film, which signifies the death of her fantasy.  The Pale Man accomplishes what Vidal and most of the authoritative figures have tried to do for greater portion of her life. The entire cognitive illusion is shredded in the teeth of the monster.  

The final task comes with a grand realization for Ofelia:  death is not something to fear. After returning from the Pale Man’s lair, Ofelia is confronted by the Faun and is reprimanded for not heeding his warning.  This offers ostensibly one of the most important conversations of the film. Angered by the death of the two fairies, the Faun tells Ofelia, “You broke the rules and can never return.  You and your spirit will remain among the humans. You will age like them, die like them, your memory will fade and we will all vanish with it.” The Faun’s words reflect how Ofelia’s perception has changed.  For most of the film, Ofelia spends her time in the shadows, doing everything she can to stay hidden from the Captain. However, her identity begins surfacing through disobedience. With breaking the rules of the Faun, Ofelia is forced to confront her completely normal existence.  She is not special. She is not Princess Moanna. And she will die one day, being forgotten by all of those who came before and after her.

In this sense, the final task of retrieving her brother is Ofelia’s loss of innocence.  With the death of her mother, Ofelia sheds her fantasy, realizing that our connections are one of the only things that give our life meaning.  The physical existence that has been closed off from Ofelia comes pouring back in, and she knows that she must save her brother from the grotesque sensibilities of the Captain.  Stealing her brother, Ofelia heads to the center of the labyrinth, to the center of her mind. Each step taken breaks away pieces of the fantasy. Guillermo del Toro illustrates this through his use of color.  There are a few different palettes employed throughout the film, but the most striking is when analyzing the colors for the real world versus the fantastical one. Del Toro paints with blues, greys, and darker tones for reality.  In contrast, we see gold, amber, and vivid reds for Ofelia’s fantasy. Her imagination offers a color scheme that is a lot warmer and more inviting than the cool hues of Spain. With this in mind, we, as the viewers, see the colors of her fantasy seep into reality, offering a counterpoint to the cold world her stepfather built.  Each explosion offers a brilliant cloud of red and gold insubordination, lighting up the drab night sky and breathing life into the people of Spain. Conversely, this moment of freedom is Ofelia’s last. As she lay dying, Ofelia finds herself in Moanna’s Kingdom, reunited with her mother and true father. In these final moments, just as with most of her life, she clings to the idea of a fairy tale to help her cope with the unknown.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of polarity: it illustrates the stark contrast between our deepest desires and the pains of reality.  Through cognitive illusion and the power of myth, Guillermo del Toro explores some of the most burdensome questions humanity has to offer—identity, loss, and meaning.  The result is a poignant hero’s journey that appeals to the simplicity of our archetypal subconscious, reminding us that while magic is an appealing notion, we cannot run away from reality.   

 

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Mother and the Eternal Return

How is man to live in this irrational world?  It’s one of the foundational philosophical questions that every person asks, yet its ubiquity does not undermine the importance behind the inquiry: the exploration of man’s concept of himself and his place in the universe.  When we look to the cosmos, we find it is indifferent to our existence, and it is in this indifference that discord between the meaningless of being and our natural search for purpose clash. As Albert Camus noted, “Absurdity arises out of our attempts to make sense of a senseless world.”  Heavy with biblical allegories and overt critiques on humanity’s planetary abuse, Darren Aronofsky’s metaphorical thriller mother! (2017) is layered with existential inquiries.  Moreover, the film’s most interesting point comes when we focus on Javier Bardem’s portrayal of God.  Rather than playing to the normal divine elements, such as perfection and omniscience, mother!  takes an unconventional approach by granting God a human appetite, one that is undergirded by a longing for purpose.

The film begins with the ending of another story.  We see a woman immersed in flames; her body lay beaten and bloody.  The camera cuts to fire-damaged walls being wiped clean through divine intervention.  The universe is resetting. This is a visual introduction to the idea of Eternal Recurrence, an essential theme in the world of mother!   Eternal Recurrence has genesis in the idea energy never ceases. All of the joy, all of the heartbreak and mistakes, all of the accomplishments—even the little things, like the time taken to read this essay—will return to us in the exact way experienced before.  To put simply, once a life has been set in motion, existence recurs in a self-similar form for all eternity. The life you experience now will be lived an innumerable amount of times. As the plot of mother! unfolds, the audience realizes every action set in motion is the product of God’s will, which through the mythology of the Abrahamic religions has been portrayed consistently as unchanging and perfect.  The apologetic narrative is God has a plan. Nevertheless, Aronofsky challenges our theological presuppositions by playing with imperfection.

In the film, he tasks God as a writer who finds himself at a creative impasse. The repetition of life has weakened his creativity.  Because of this, we learn God creates each of his partners out of a need for intellectual and emotional stimulation, the foundations of ingenuity.  Nonetheless, what God once thought was an incredible talent for creation has, through many failed attempts, been revealed as nothing more than resignation to the fatalistic rhythm of life. Each decision in mother! digs God deeper into an existentialist trench and undoubtedly adds to the beginning of the next cycle of destruction, a narrative that is all too human.

Upon my first viewing of the film, the parallels to the fate of Sisyphus were hard to ignore.  According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned to an eternity of hard labor and unending frustration.  During his life, Sisyphus was known for his wit, and according to various stories, he cheated death on multiple accounts by tricking the gods. Arrogance was the ultimate sin for Sisyphus, as he thought himself more clever than Zeus.  For this, Zeus designed a punishment to match the hubris of Sisyphus: endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down once he had reached the top. The French philosopher Albert Camus argued the maddening nature behind the myth of Sisyphus is the ideal illustration of the human condition.  Part of humanity is a want for inherent value—we need life to have meaning. And when meaning cannot be found, we experience what Camus calls the Absurd. In this context, the Absurd does not appeal to the illogical, but rather to the friction encountered when our search for meaning is met by a meaningless universe. Camus and other existentialists state there are three ways of dealing with the Absurd:  Suicide, religion (or other transcendent beliefs), or acceptance. Camus argues it is in the last option we find true freedom. Through the acceptance of complete mundanity, we find purpose in the unremarkable.  As Camus noted, “What counts is not the best living but the most living.”

This is the cycle of acceptance on which mother! is predicated.  Even with infinite power and being outside the constraints of time, God finds himself burdened by loneliness.  Because of this, he invests everything into his creations, not for an exercise in enlightenment but in hopes that someone will recognize his greatness.  He thrives on praise. This is evident during the final scene between God and Mother. When she confronts his insatiable pursuit of recognition, God responds by saying, “It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough.  I couldn’t create if it was, and I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.” This is a pivotal moment because it allows a peek behind the motivational curtain of God’s actions.  Up until this point, we have seen nothing but frustration as he loses control of his creations. God, from our limited knowledge of his nature in the beginning of the film, is a generous man. Contrarily, our initial impression of divine compassion is tainted by the selfishness displayed after the publishing of his book.  

However, it is in this final moment before the next reset that God experiences Amor Fati, the idea that all of the events in one’s life—including the suffering—is a necessary good. He is Sisyphus in this moment.  Knowing his freedom of will extends only so far and he has no way to change his fate, God is overwhelmed with a sense of contentment. Much like the conclusion Camus arrived at with Sisyphus, we have to imagine God is happy. He has embraced the Absurd through his acknowledgement of a fruitless life.  And while this resolution may sound bleak, acceptance is the only way to break free of the Absurd.

Mother! presents the viewer with the idea of eternal, unchanging life.  Through the pursuit of science, we know this metaphysical proposition is unlikely.  Rather than a continual loop, life is in a state of flux. It’s a condition of variability, most of which is out of our control.  Much like Aronofsky’s characterization of God, we spend most of our time alive with the thought that our existence is something exceptional.  However, the reality is much less grand: we are a happy accident. This is the paradox on which life is based. Because of this, we have to create our own meaning and be brave enough to live with the consequences of those actions, whatever they might be.

Weekend Recommendations 4/27-4/29

Girls Trip (2017, HBO)

Girls Trip does not introduce novel concepts to the comedy genre.  In fact, most of the film is as conventional as it gets.  Four friends—Ryan (Regina Hall), Sasha (Queen Latifah), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Dina (Tiffany Haddish)—take a trip to New Orleans in an effort to rekindle their friendship after spending years apart.  When they get to the Big Easy, predictability kicks in, and the normal raunch-comedy shenanigans ensure: drunken misconduct, bar fights, and a plethora of lewd jokes. The movie’s plot also follows an unsurprising character arc.  However, there is one reason you need to see this film: Tiffany Haddish. Every line she delivers in Girls Trip is done with impressive timing and skill.  Without her talent and on-screen charm, the film would have been trip worth cancelling.

Mom and Dad (2017, Hulu)

Do you love Nic Cage being Nic Cage?  Do you hate children? Boy, do I have a film for you.  After a mysterious epidemic triggers a desire in parents to kill their young, Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur) try to survive an evening of hysteria with their mom (Selma Blair) and dad (Nicolas Cage).  The subject matter is unadulterated, campy fun to the highest degree. Who doesn’t want to see Nic Cage trying to kill a nine year old while singing “The Hokey Pokey?”

 
Good Time (Amazon Prime, 2017)
This was my first introduction into the rich cinematic work of the Safdie Brothers.  Good Time takes place in the span of one evening and follows the journey of Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) as he attempts to break his brother (Benny Safdie) out of jail.  The movie is beautifully shot, transporting the viewer through a feverish odyssey in the urban night of New York City. Robert Pattinson’s performance perfectly balances  vulnerability and arrogance, and shows his acting chops stretch far beyond any of his earlier, more well-known work.  The visuals and camera work are tight and often anxiety-inducing, leaving the audience just as breathless as Nikas.

Review: The Little Hours

Loosely based on one of the tales in Giovanni Boccaccio’s collection of novellas The Decameron, Jeff Baena, most well known for Life After Beth and I Heart Huckabees, juxtaposes medieval sensibilities with modern sexuality and humor.  What could have easily been an exercise of brainless obscenity has been fleshed out into a fully-realized ensemble comedy.  

The Little Hours is the story of three nuns: Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginerva (Kate Micucci).  With little more to do than a few chores around the convent, the nuns have developed a fondness for the profane.  This is evident within the first few moments of the film when the abbey repairmen greets Fernanda and Generva, only to be met with an unexpected string of imprecations.  Tired of the abusive sisters, the repairman quits, leaving Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) in the difficult position of finding someone new. Luckily for the Father, a handsome and virile servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is on the run after sleeping with his master’s (Nick Offerman) and is in need of hiding. Massetto is the introduction of temptation into the nunnery, as the sisters’ boredom soon turns into a comedic sexual awakening.  

The script for The Little Hours is quick, witty, and full of absurd situations that marry the mundane medieval life with the bluntness of modernity.  While the entire cast provides fantastic delivery, no one does this better than Aubrey Plaza. Her character is not much different than the others she has played in past projects; nonetheless, there is something bewitching in her performance.  This might be due to her husband, Jeff Baena, knowing how to write lines perfectly for Plaza and play to her impassive strengths.

What could have easily been a 10 minute SNL sketch that bats at low-hanging fruit has been elevated to a fully realized sex farce.  While the film does have its faults (particularly Generva’s story arc), Baena and crew do a wonderful job of finding balance between dry wit and surreal humor that is reminiscent of Monty Python.