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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Just Thinking

For those interested, here's a link to my article for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. It concerns my analysis of James Cameron's, Avatar. The topic was chosen for me, and this is certainly not a film I would have chosen to critique, but I was led to some interesting and unanticipated conclusions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Keeping the Monster in the Closet: Lovecraft and the Tradition of Cosmic Horrror



Though Lovecraft's work is often marred by an overabundance of archaic terminology, and contrived dialogue, the man had a definite vision according to which he chose to operate. Many of his so-called defects can be explained by this vision. Frequently, his stories are accused of lacking a climax, of failing to deliver the monstrosity which has been steadily hinted at throughout the course of the narrative. Though many of his disciples would forsake this technique, Lovecraft was adamant about leaving the most explicit details to the reader's imagination. He even had a name for the genre in which he operated: "cosmic horror."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft set out the groundwork for his peculiar trade in a sparse piece of literary criticism entitled, Supernatural Horror in Literature, in which he aims to sketch out the contours of the "weird" tradition. The word "weird" has not faired well since Lovecraft's benevolent usage. The word now refers exclusively to strange habits or temperaments. In Lovecration lore, however, the word takes on more sinister connotations. It refers to something alien, remote, and uncanny. Indeed, in Lovecraft's hands the word becomes synonymous with the supernatural.

A mild-mannered man who spent hours in the city archives, cataloging, and studying antiques, Lovecraft had a way of maximizing his talents which few could hope to rival. A thread running through all of his work is the theme of insignificance. There are countless psychological ramifications that come along with this one, but let me restrict myself to a few artistic remarks on Lovecraft's techniques. "Cosmic horror" throws mankind's minuscule status within the universe into sharp relief. Everywhere, there are sinister forces and deities whose sheer immensity makes a mockery of any human effort. All about us, there are strange forces and beings who pervade the atmosphere. In one of his most effective stories (From Beyond), Lovecraft introduces a character who has created a machine which enables a sixth sense, effectively adumbrating a sinister world which lives all around us. In typical Lovecration fashion, the only real description we get of this netherforce consists in the reactions of the people who witness it, all of whom are compelled to donate their sanity as payment for the view.

Supernatural Horror in Literature is remarkable for its learned approach to the genre. Lovecraft opens the book with the now almost- famous lines: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But the "unknown" must remain unknown if it is to be effectively wielded in fiction. Consider this quote: "It may be well to remark here that occult believers are less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness, than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order." This is vintage Lovecraft: intense, hyperbolic, and tragically sincere. But Lovecraft is right. If you attempt to introduce too much of a scientific, or pseudo-scientific framework into the tale, the atmosphere is jettisoned. So, the inviolable rule of Lovecration horror is never to reveal the monster completely, and to allow the reader to languish in an atmosphere of relentless terror and panic, with no recourse to anything of even vague familiarity. Here, I would say, Lovecraft often succeeds. His style is hampered by archaic terminology, and truly comical outbursts of dialogue, but the scenes are set so effectively that the atmosphere becomes the story's greatest merit.

It's worth noting that Lovecraft also finds the "weird" in some more conventional places. He dedicates a few obligatory remarks to James's, The Turn of the Screw, adding that James is clearly more interested in playing with words than nerves. He singles out Nathanael Hawthorne for special attention. Goodman Brown is a notably macabre story, weighted with supernatural themes and apocalyptic imagery, but it is his House of Seven Gables that Lovecraft truly wishes to praise. The hints of spectral presences and a family curse all find ample support from Lovecraft, though I suspect, he may be seeing more than your average Hawthorn reader. Lovecraft also singles out Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for especial praise, naming Heathcliff as a dark Byronic hero of the first order.

The "unknown" is not simply uncharted territory for Lovecraft, but an entire aesthetic. It is the "unknown" which fills the universe with a mystical splendor, and allows us to give voice to true fear and awe, both of which Lovecraft seems to regard as the most noble of human emotions. Why noble? Because a sensitively-attuned mind will recognize man's infinitesimal status in the cosmos, and his total ignorance of nearly all the forces gathered about him. Clearly, Lovecraft saw a stark beauty in this conception of the universe. Given his atheistic convictions, it is interesting that Lovecraft dedicated his most ambitious intellectual pursuits to saturnine deities bent on man's destruction. But they had to remain concealed, or the magic was lost. Lovecraft was a practitioner of a kind of "aesthetics of concealment." The formula works because the things about which Lovecraft writes are so alien and immense that they preclude description. The genius behind this maneuver resides in its ability to demonstrate the fertility of the reader's imagination, effectively making a weapon of it, and turning it against him.

Understandably, Lovecraft dedicates an entire chapter to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Ever cognizant of the academic resistance to Poe's oeuvre, Lovecraft praises Poe's unique and sophisticated psychological insights which undergird his best works, though he recognizes Poe's melodramatic defects, as well as the many coincidences scarring his work. Of special interest here, are the references to Charles Brockden Brown as Poe's predecessor.

Aside from Poe, there are three masters whom Lovecraft singles out for special attention in his little book: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft took the best elements from all three of these writers, and carved out his own niche in the genre. Of these three, Blackwood's, The Willows, is the most kindred to much of Lovecraft's work. The test of time has secured Lovecraft an admirable place in the world of horror literature. Many authors cite him as influence, and have built upon his mythological framework, but Supernatural Horror in Literature remains an overlooked gem. It should stand as a classic treatise on the horror genre. The central thesis of adumbrating the "unknown" through a series of careful hints, and atmospheric pulses ought to be more emulated. We would be spared much of the brainless carnage that has become the standard trade of the horror genre. What Lovecraft tells us here is that horror--cosmic horror, at least--is less about revulsion, and more about awe and wonder.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Carrying the Fire


I'm going to bypass the unwritten law stating that a writer should always recommend the book before the movie. I'm ethically justified, of course; I think this movie will drive you to the book.

The "post-apocolyptic" thriller is becoming a theatrical staple. A slew of films dedicated to our society's expiration seem to fill our screens every month. Cormac McCarthy, who usually restricts himself to copious bloodshed on the Texas and Mexico borderlands, makes a contribution to the genre with, The Road. All similarities end once we move past the generic category. The remarkable economy of the book is matched only by its ferocious honesty. The language is parred down--one is tempted to say worn down--and effectively conveys the austere conditions in which the protagonists find themselves: A world reduced to a bed of ashes, and traversed by marauding bands of cannibals, everything either devoured, or in the process.

The film matches McCarthy's furnace-of-a-world visually and atmospherically. The actors are haggard and emaciated in the manner of concentration camp victims. They are known simply as "the man," and "the child." Their names have been effaced along with their homes, along with society. All that matters is the bond uniting them, which the man calls, "the fire." This fire might also designate "humanity," since the character uses it to refer to those few who have chosen to retain their "human" values, rather than embracing their animal instincts, and consuming flesh indiscriminately. It is a striking name. Fire has primal connotations, bringing to mind a key element of the dawn of civilization. Fire is also a source of animation, combating darkness with light. We seek it also for warmth. Taken together, it seems a highly spiritual manner of describing the thread running through mankind.

It's a harrowing film. The imagery is harsh, and the director is uncompromising in his visual translation. The extreme conditions in which the characters find themselves throw the tenderness between them into sharp relief. The bond (the fire) is powerful, but their bodies are so fragile; we know that both can't survive. And here is where the film/book grows very interesting. What drives these two to survive, and to affirm life, as many in the story refuse to do, is something beyond their biological instincts. It must be. The only options otherwise are suicide, or savagery. The Man and the Child opt for neither because they believe there is something which elevates man above this squalor, something transcendent, something sacred. If they both carry the fire, others must also. If others carry the fire, who bequeathed the fire to them?

After I first saw the film, two days before Christmas, the resounding question in my heart was: In whose image are we made?

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Your Own Personal Jesus": A Review for Viral Bloggers



Matt Mikalatos makes a provocative, and frequently hilarious debut with Imaginary Jesus. A welcome breath of unconventional air, the narrative begins with Matt's "imaginary" Jesus coming to fisticuffs with the apostle, Peter. Jesus absconds, and further mayhem ensues as Matt and Pete take to the Portland streets in hot pursuit.

The book creatively indicts all of us who call ourselves Christ's followers, pointing to our inveterate tendency to remake Jesus in our own image, using him as a convenient badge to our identity, or as a helpful sidekick. It is fitting that Mikalatos treats this practice with a great deal of severity. This accounts for the author's habit of rapidly shifting from slapstick to ideas of great gravity. The results can sometimes be disorienting, or even a bit unfocused.

The prose is highly accessible and bereft of any ornamentation. The book moves too fast to lavish the reader in details. Mikalatos does display a rather deft grasp of Portland culture, and the pretension of hipsters in general. At any rate, laughter will abound as you navigate the story.

Why read Imaginary Jesus? Stated most baldly, the book is an invitation to dispense with your own imagination, and to come into the real presence of God, a noble purpose indeed.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Living Art


I've been reading a new column in the New York Times Opinionator blogs called, the Stone. It's a forum for contemporary philosophers to do what most contemporary philosophers now do exclusively: examine culture. Culture here usually refers to current music or reality shows, but in this particular post: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/ Columbia professor, Arthur C. Danto, examines the work of a performance artist, Marina.

Performance art is not for the faint of heart; the acts themselves usually involve, among other things, nudity, public defecation, and various forms of humiliation, all in a semi-public setting. What all of these rituals are supposed to prove is a matter of great debate among advocates. At any rate, the experience is seen as a great deal more dynamic than looking at a painting. The subtleties of the Flemish painters may wain next to the conceit of a woman urinating in a cup in front of you.

Marina's act involves her sitting in a chair across from an empty seat in which you are invited to sit and observe. That's all. She is fully clothed, so this is a relatively modest act as far as performance art goes. Nothing is said, though you are free to throw some dialog her way. Some reportedly have sat across from Marina for hours. Professor Danto reports that his experience bordered on the spiritual.

He describes Marina as becoming "incandescent," a work of art undergoing a change at the hands of the sculptor. This, he counters, is a delicate experience made all the more precious because we are invited to participate in it. We may become part of Marina's piece, so to speak.

Danto has written extensively on the interface of philosophy and art. Though I cannot here hope to elaborate on the subtleties of his work (I haven't read most of it), he has concentrated on the loss of "beauty" as a standard criteria of modern art. This paradigm shift was largely ushered in by the Modernist movement. What really seems to be missing in this scenario--and I think Danto would agree--is a sense of transcendence in the pieces themselves. An "ontic-referent" is a term in currency among theologians. It simply means something of our world, like a painting or a book, which points to something greater, or divine. Modernism sought to divest art of this kind of thing. Here is the world in all its wretchedness, and no religious sentiment is left upon which to lean. This is a purer expression of reality, and beauty is something for which we are now too mature.

Perhaps this is how people see Marina's act. In a world of such austere criteria, a woman sitting across from you in a chair may well be a religious experience. I can't help but think that we've lost something vital...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I Still Exist

I apologize for the long absence. I've been working on an article for Just Thinking magazine, a periodical published by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries on a triannual basis. The article concerns my analysis of James Cameron's most recent film, Avatar. It is slated to hit the press at some point in July, I believe. I'll post a link for those of you who are interested when it's released.

My ostensible plan for this blog is to post some of my thoughts on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I'll have to finish the book first, and though this is my second reading, it may still take a few days after I've concluded the piece before I can form a coherent thought about it.

In the meantime, here's a video of Duke University Professor Stanley Hauerwas discussing the subject of a good death. It's a very moving interview, and I've found much to cherish in this man's words as of late.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

He's back and yes, he's that bad! (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)


A Nightmare on Elm Street remake was inevitable. If you've seen the original, you'll remember some of the memorably dated special-effects and outfits. For all its failings, Wes Craven's film remains a deeply disturbing, and surreal look at fear at its most intimate and primal. Fred Kruegger is not just a horror icon; he is a modern archetype of evil, and part of the American mythological landscape just as much as John Wayne, or James Dean.

The remake is a film propelled entirely by its storyline. This is a surprising fact, given our recent cinematic horror shows which refuse to do little more than disclose obscene acts of torture for our fevered perusal. A Nightmare on Elm Street continues to demand the audience's attention. This is not to say that there isn't a copious amount of bloodshed, there is, but the film does sacrifice some carnage for the plot. Critics are already railing against the acting, but then again, there weren't any Oscar-worthy performances in the original, so this seems a mute point. The film is still "stylish," which seems to me to be a stock compliment bestowed by badgering critics these days upon films about which they have very little to say. For my part, I found the film's cinematic techniques to be functionalist at best. Everything is subordinated to the story, even the effects, and the inevitable blurring between dreams and reality.

The marketing strategy of the film was creative. Freddy's guilt is brought into question, which would have been a fairly radical change to introduce. We've yet to see the slasher vindicated for his crimes. Well, you won't see it here. As it turns out, Freddy really is that bad. His crimes are given a more wicked distinction because of the story's focus on pedophilia. Fred remains a portrayal of senseless wickedness in the face of child-like innocence. So, he's still that bad.

Though the film's story is altered slightly, it doesn't deviate much from Wes Craven's vision. The film's exploration of the collapsing wall between dreams and reality, as well as its near Freudian preoccupation with guilt set within the context of the child/parent relationship all remain. One memorable addition to this film is its focus on the consequences of revenge; the parents are held to a higher standard for their vigilantism, and the film joins the growing list of stories exploring the perils of taking the law into your own hands.

But, I'll say it again: Kruegger is still a bad guy, and in a world of multiplying Dexters I find that somewhat comforting.

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