Black Death

“As sure as the sun rises and falls, witches will burn.”Black Death*

Tonight I had a couple good laughs watching the medieval horror/thrill Black Death.  The movie was not an intended comedy, nor do I mean to make light of the film or to say that it was intentionally funny.  But once you have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is hard not to remember it when there is anything to do with the Black Plague or witch burning.  This is not the fault of the filmmakers.  The movie itself is unique, interesting, and gritty.  Although it pulls from other films like The Wicker Man, it puts things together in an original combination.

The film stars Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne.  Redmayne plays a young monk during the bubonic plague in the 1300’s.  His monastery is wracked with the dead.  He has a secret love of a girl in the local village.  Due to this he secretly wants to leave the monastery and the death that surrounds him.  When Sean Bean, who is a knight in service for the church, says that he needs a guide, circumstances drive Osmund, Redmayne’s character, to lead Ulrich, Bean’s character, on a journey.  They are searching for a village that has not been touched by the plague.  They believe it has made it untouched by the plague due to a necromancer and black magic.

The movie treats the situation as realistic, from the viewpoint of the people that are living in that time and place.  The viewer does not know until late in the movie if there is any supernatural element to the movie, or it is just the superstition of a backwards religious people.  This is a dark film, with gritty violence and all manner of barbarism carried out in the name of religion.  It is suspenseful and bleak.  Torturing and many forms of dismembering take place throughout the film.

However, Hannah Arendt once said, “that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  As Monty Python demonstrated, through the clarity of hindsight, the beliefs of those times are completely absurd and ridiculous.  Although the characters may or may not be dealing with the supernatural, I don’t want to spoil anything, you know that they are largely on a fools errand.  When local villagers want to burn a woman at the stake for supposedly putting a curse on the local water supply, one can’t help but feel, knowing such things happened, as being a complete folly.  The actions of many of the people in the movie are so absurd, yet realistic, that is somehow passes through the looking glass and becomes somewhat of a comedy of human behavior.  I don’t want to portray the movie as a farce.  I’m not even saying that the movie depicts the actions of these people with anything other than serious.  However, it is because it is so straight that you realize just how absurd this behavior is.  When a character is drawn and quartered it is completely horrific.  Yet once upon a time our ancestors did that kind of thing.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder why this time period is depicted in more movies.  It is strange and horrifying enough to be almost fantastic, yet interesting because it is not fantasy.  This movie takes liberties with the time period, and the story itself is fiction, but many of the things that people do to one another, many of the beliefs, are real.  I found this movie to be entertaining, gripping, interesting, and yes funny at times.  It is also batshit insane.  When they are venturing out to find the possibly supernatural village they come across men walking down a stream whipping themselves and carrying a large cross.  These people are punishing themselves to make penance with God.  They warn the main group not to go any further.  If these are the people warning them, what kind of further insanity waits down the road?

Although this movie is first and foremost a horror movie or thriller, it does ask questions about the nature of evil, religious belief, and human nature.  One can’t help thinking about what is going on in the world currently due to religious strife while watching it.  It is entertainment with intelligence.  It looks and feels differently than the typical Hollywood movie and that is because it was filmed in Germany, even if it has several stars in it.  The camera work and art direction is gritty and realistic, though gothic in fitting with the time period.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy.  While I watched this film I couldn’t help but wonder what actions of modern times will look completely ridiculous to those hundreds of years in the future.

The famous witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

* This quote may be slightly paraphrased.  It was late, we were already watching something else, and my internet searches came up empty.  If not exact it gets close enough to the original’s intent.

Insane Violence and The Bible On Film

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.

The more I think about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings, the more I like it.  It is a ridiculously violent film, an epic spectacle, and the actors find new and entertaining ways to chew up scenery.  (It would have been an even better movie if it had been rated R.  Though to be honest, other than not showing people getting limbs hacked off in battles and nudity, the movie pushes the barriers of PG-13 to the limit.  We’re talking about a movie where scores of people get eaten by crocodiles, so many that the river runs red with blood.)  All of those things that I stated merely make the movie entertaining.  What makes it brilliant is that this is a movie that brings the insanely ridiculous violence of the Old Testament front and center.

One of my favorite quotes is the Hannah Arendt quote, “the horrible can not only be ludicrous, but outright funny.”  The Old Testament is so ingrained in our culture that even though we acknowledge the violence in it, and the fact that much of this violence comes from a wrathful God, that I don’t think it registers with most people in a visceral way how absurd it is.  Floods, plagues, mass murder, and a woman being turned into a pillar of salt are just the tip of the iceberg.  We know this stuff.  Even those like myself, that didn’t grow up going to church, know all of these stories.  But how often do we reflect upon how batshit insane they all are.  Ridley Scott did.  He made a movie out of part of the Old Testament and he put the batshit insane right up front.  No other movie that I can think of takes the violence of the Old Testament and presents it as such a ridiculously depraved spectacle.  Which, whether you believe in the Old Testament or not, is hard to deny.  Like the Hannah Arendt quote above, this movie is often so horribly violent that it becomes a comedy.  Even if Ridley Scott changes some parts of the story, he tries to find natural causes for most of the plagues for instance, he is getting the essence correct.  I mean, he didn’t make up the plague where all of the Egyptian first born children are killed.

A lot of the reviews for this movie have talked about how Scott got this or that wrong, or that he made it too much of a spectacle, or whatever.  No, Ridley Scott basically just showed what was there without all of the self seriousness of most religious films.  Again, I’m not saying that he didn’t take certain artistic liberties with the story, only that he does so in a way which actually highlights things that are already there.  He helps show us a story that we’ve heard a million times in a way that doesn’t allow us to ignore what is going on.  I would imagine that most of those that really didn’t like this movie already have preconceived notions as to what the story is about.  This movie is basically showing us that we are telling millions of children a year a story full of the most depraved violence.  And it has a good laugh at it.  The comedy of the divine.  I mean certain scenes from this could almost be in a Monty Python movie.

This movie does the opposite of what another famously violent religious movie does.  That movie  The Passion of the Christ is also insanely violent, but what it does is actually obscure what is important in the Christ story through that violence.  That movie focuses mostly on the violence that was directed at Christ leading up to his death.  But there is nothing special about his death.  I guarantee that someone is meeting just as horrible a fate as he did in some third world shithole right now.  Christ wasn’t even the only one crucified that day!  This isn’t the fantastic violence of an angry God.  This is an extreme version of the day to day violence of mankind.  In focusing on this kind of violence it actually helps one to ignore what was spectacular about the story of Christ.  The fantastic part of his story is that he rose from the dead.  But that still isn’t what I’m talking about.  Whether or not you believe Christ was the son of God, or that he rose from the dead is still, in my mind, not what is most important in his story.  Christ spent a good deal of his life teaching people what they should be doing.  They should be loving each other and not worrying about earthly possessions and treating the lesser amongst us with kindness.  That is what makes his story exceptional.  And he did that at a time when the world was even more barbaric and depraved than it is now.  Right now someone is probably being executed as we speak, in a horribly painful way, in an Arab country for drawing a comic book about Muhammad or something equally as ridiculous.  So again, dwelling on the whole crucifixion thing, longer than the love and kindness in his teachings, is kind of ass backwards the way I see it.

So you have two violent movies that tell stories from the Bible.  One highlights the absurdity of violence, while the other uses violence to distract from a message of love.  Do you have to guess which one made more money and got more critical acclaim?

The Unknown Known and the Meaningless Language of Donald Rumsfeld

MV5BMTg0NDIwOTc2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjc4MTQ5MDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

My last post featured John Oliver on drones.  In that video Oliver talks about a government memo in which the word imminent is robbed of all meaning.  Recently I watched the Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known, which is a documentary about Don Rumsfeld.  A better title would have been The Man Who Wasn’t There.  Rumsfeld talks in a bureaucratic language that robs everything of meaning.  He speaks almost entirely in euphemisms.  The more you watch of this movie, the less you know.

That does not mean that it is without value.  While you start the movie thinking it is going to be a movie trying to hold Rumsfeld accountable for the mistakes, namely the Iraq War, that he made while in government, it becomes that almost seems more to be about the manipulation of language.

Having just read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think but to compare Rumsfeld to Eichmann.  Now let me be clear, I am not comparing Rumsfeld’s crimes to Eichmann, or saying that they have an exact personality match.  However, both seemed to be characters in bureaucracies that used a kind of empty language that masked the horrible realities of their actions.  Both men also seem to be very shallow thinkers.

Rumsfeld, in this movie, rarely seems to reflect deeply on what he has done.  He has kept an amazing amount of records.  He dictated so many memos that he called them “snowflakes”.  He doesn’t seem to be consciously misleading Morris.  It is more that he answers the questions directly, but in a way that is devoid of any deeper meaning.  It is an interesting movie with an extremely frustrating subject.

The Immorality of the Death Penalty

California Executions Death Chamber

Many executed here / by the awful lawfully good – Morrissey in his song Mountjoy

I was astounded the other day when I was looking up Governor Perry’s death stats.  If you read my recent blog on him you would know that last year, I’m not even sure what he is up to now, he hit the 500 mark.  Some of those people were mentally retarded.  

Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.  She talks about how the gas chambers began with the extermination of the mentally retarded and the terminally ill first.  It was talked about in terms of mercy killings and medical procedures.  

I also just finished reading Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.  This is a play that takes place in the 24 hours before someone is hanged in Mountjoy prison.  The person that is to be hung apparently killed his brother and chopped him up.  It’s never clear if he is guilty or not.  In fact the person to be hung is never actually seen onstage.  What the hanging seems to do is demoralize everyone else in the prison, from the lowest prisoner to warders and prison officials, whether they believe the quare fellow is getting his just deserts or not.  The play may sound like a downer, but it is actually quite full of absurd comedy.  

I believe the death penalty is immoral.  In saying so you must face the fact that often the people that receive it, though not always as our justice system is full of flaws, have done absolutely horrible things.  Some of these people have killed children in the most horrible ways imaginable.  One shouldn’t think about these things in terms of abstract principles.  

But I can’t help but feel that after reading Arendt and Behan, that what the death penalty does is make our society more barbarous.  When you institutionalize extermination in some way you are saying that it is OK to kill people depending on circumstances.  

In you believe in the death penalty, but in no way participate in the actual process, you are also forcing other human beings, who may be altogether decent, to perform horrible tasks.  My Dad knew former Governor Casey of Pennsylvania.  He was telling me last night that one time he went into his office and the only book on the Governor’s desk was one about the pros and cons of the death penalty.  Clearly he was wrestling with that subject in some kind of existential matter.  As Governor it was his duty to uphold the law and sign off on the death penalty when the law recommended it.  What about the prison guards that must take those on death row to their deaths, or those in the medical field that must administer lethal injection?  If you support the death penalty, do you really want those people to have to carry out that act?  Do you think about how those acts might weigh upon their conscious?  These people are technically carrying out a legal act under the law.  However, the law is making these individuals carry out an act that is one of the worst things a human can do to another, which is to take someone’s life.  

Also, if we say that killing is OK under certain extreme circumstances, does it not make it morally easier to perpetrate acts of death around the world.  Are we not normalizing killing to some degree?  

Again, I want to go back to Behan, whose The Quare Fellow I believe is a read that you should check out if you want to think about this subject.  It is entertainment because it truly does entertain.  I can’t say enough how funny it is.  But it also makes you think, without any of the soapbox moralizing that so many works that deal with this issue would normally do.  It is both seriously funny and dead serious.  In the play one section talks about how horrible death by hanging actually is, as many that hang do not die instantly.  Think of the botched executions that have taken place in Oklahoma and Arizona recently.  No human should die in such a way even if they are guilty.  But what about the smallest sliver of a chance, if one knows how flawed our justice system is, that they might not be guilty?  I think it was Andrew Sullivan the other day, that called it death by torture.  I am reminded of the torture museum I was in in Sienna Italy and all of the horrible ways they killed people in the middle ages.  

But why I want to bring The Quare Fellow back up most of all, remember the person that is executed in the play never actually is seen on stage, is that I think you can make an argument against the death penalty by removing the person at the very center of the argument, the condemned.  I believe this act of killing slowly degrades our society from top to bottom.  It again makes those that are forced to uphold our laws perform horrible acts.  It also gives the message to our entire society that revenge killings are OK.  It puts something immoral at the heart of our “justice” system.  We should be better than an eye for an eye, even if the animal inside all of us occasionally tells us something different. 

Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

george-carlin-dogma1999-2

…constitutes a veritable goldmine for a psychologist – provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can not only be ludicrous but outright funny.  –  Hannah Arendt

This quote is from her Eichmann in Jerusalem.   I purposely removed it from its context, because I believe this statement to be true on many fronts.  As Steve Allen once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”  I was listening to the George Carlin special last night Life is Worth Losing.  In it he has you laughing at suicide, mass murder, and the “pyramid of the hopeless”.   There is a great deal of absurdity in the human condition.  Comedy allows us to talk about things we otherwise might shy away from.

Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

ORWELL

I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.