God, guns, and ghosts

MOVIES: A left-wing porno, secular superstitions, and a scrapyard slasher.

Red State

Red State is a seedy little porno set in a Middle America that exists solely in the minds of MSNBC producers; an intellectually barren land of churches and gun stores and people who voted for McCain. For people who seldom set foot outside the secular Green Zones of the two coasts, Hollywood liberals are obsessed with the ‘flyover states’ and their latent American Talibanism. Movies like Jesus Camp, Saved!, and Dogma (directed by Kevin Smith, who also directs here) document the Bible Belt like a snarky anthropologist coming across a remote tribe for the first time and failing to conceal his disdain. The New Yorker‘s David Denby, whom it’s safe to assume has never lived more than five minutes from a sushi bar, sums up this prejudice best in his review of Young Adult, a dreary observational comedy in the vein of The Good Girl. This ‘piece of Hollywood hipster social criticism,’ he notes, is ‘driven by… a vivid loathing of American mediocrity’.

The fear and loathing would be tolerable were it not allied to howling ignorance of Christianity and conservatism. Everyone has their favourite story of cultural elite cluelessness towards religion but Jeff Sharlet’s all-too-brief career as a theologian must be the most entertainingly knuckleheaded. Sharlet, a Rolling Stone hack (or ‘hack’ for short), had a conniption after interviewing then-Senator Sam Brownback on his socially conservative views, which included opposition to abortion, pornography, and same-sex marriage. In explaining what he considered the deleterious effects of liberal social policies on the nation, Brownback pointed out: ‘You’ll know them by their fruits’. Sharlet was incensed by this clear anti-gay slur and his scripturally illiterate colleagues in the mainstream media soon piled in with denunciations of Brownback’s ‘homophobia’. What none of them had grasped but was obvious to anyone with a vague knowledge of the Bible – or ‘Americans’, as they’re known outside the Rolling Stone newsroom – was that Brownback’s ‘homophobic slur’ was in fact a scriptural quotation having nothing to do with homosexuality. Matthew 7:16: ‘You will know them by their fruits’, an injunction from Christ to his followers, drawing on the metaphor of the good tree and the bad tree, to beware false prophets whose deeds (their ‘fruits’) will lay bare their wicked intentions. Thank God no one mentioned the commandment against coveting your neighbour’s ass.

Being patronised is bad enough but when it’s by people who think Acts of the Apostles was an off-Broadway show, it gets a little tiresome. Red State is patronising and tiresome and so clueless it could have been written by Jeff Sharlet. Three hormone-pumped teenagers – Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) – arrange an orgy with the older but beer-distributing Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Two bottles of hops later and the boys are out cold, presumably poisoned, and wake up stripped and locked in animal cages. They have been ensnared by the worshippers at Five Points Trinity Church, a Christian fundamentalist gaggle led by Paster Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) whose philosophy of punishing sin is less six-with-the-rosary-beads and more tie-to-a-cross-and-shoot-in-the-head. After Cooper kills a snooping sheriff’s deputy, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is called in, led by Special  Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), and a ferocious gun fight breaks out between the federal agents and the machine gun-packing Old Testamenters.

The movie’s message is unambiguous: Small-town America is a land of trailer-occupying Jesus nuts who spend their spare time protesting the funerals of gay teenagers with signs that read ‘Anal penetration = eternal damnation’. This would work as a satire of the genetically-challenged Westboro Baptist Church, who picket soldiers’ funerals chanting ‘God hates fags’, but the Five Points fundies are the only game in town. No alternative view of Christianity is offered in the movie and one suspects that’s because Smith considers the sect’s fulminations about abortion, homosexuality, and ‘the Zionist media’ representative of mainstream Protestantism. And how brave, in contemporary America, to produce a movie about ‘Zionist’-hating fundamentalists who kidnap, torture, and kill non-believers and make them Christian in orientation.

Leftism, as a worldview contingent on the twin pleasures of victimhood and imagined courage, has a strong masochistic streak that seeks out vilification to feed its appetite for noble suffering and the righteousness of the oppressed. Those who disagree are not simply people who think differently but fascist boogeymen never more than two steps to the left of book-burning and dawn raids. Red State, a left-wing fantasy of right-wing violence, offers liberals an orgiastic realisation of their cultural prejudices. The pleasures of persecution are many and satisfying and when shot in pornographic close-up they serve dark, unspoken fetishes. Kyle Gallner and Melissa Leo give gusto performances and I’d happily watch John Goodman eating cheeseburgers for three hours straight, but their talents are wasted on a slight and transient effort.

Smith’s film is not satire, or even broad comedy. It’s a whack-off movie for New York Times readers.

*****

Insidious

We are all parapsychologists now.

Where once a belief in ghosts was confined to children, campfire stories, and people who push shopping carts, spook-hunting has become a growth industry. Nearly one-in-five Americans claims to have seen a spectre and the number rises to one-in-four when you ask Britons. The paranormal is steadily gaining ground as a respectable subject for academic enquiry and there is a (peer-reviewed!) Journal of Parapsychology, where one can presumably hope to be published after completing the PhD in the subject offered by a university in Scotland. Television series like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, in which self-credentialled ‘paranormal investigators’ spend the night in supposedly haunted locations and try to document spectral activity, pull in audiences in the millions. And, proving that ‘let your fingers do the walking’ doesn’t just refer to Ouija boards, ghost-busters now advertise in the Yellow Pages.

This makes no sense and perfect sense. What used to be called ‘God’ but what secularists have successfully rebranded ‘organised religion’ has declined in social and cultural standing. Faith is increasingly absent from the public sphere and blasphemy, once taboo, is now considered plain good manners – and repercussion-free, provided you don’t offend the wrong strain of believer. What has replaced it is not the sweet reason longed for by rationalists but a mush-headed relativism that, having thrown off the restrictive doctrines of ‘hierarchical’ religions, now celebrates every coven of crystal-clutchers calling itself a ‘faith group’. This is not so much scepticism as nihilism: We’ve become so cynical we’ll believe anything.

Hollywood, having surveyed the success of paranormal reality shows, rushed out The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, and now Insidious. A low-budget family-in-supernatural-peril offering, Insidious tells the story of the Lamberts, an all-American suburban family tormented by a clutch of demons. After Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai’s (Rose Byrne) son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, all manner of sinister entities descend upon their home, going bump in the night, tipping over furniture, and threatening the family, like a particularly violent episode of Extreme Makeover. When a change of location fails to quell the odd goings-on, Josh and Renai realise the demonic activity is focussed on their dormant child and they call in a team of ghost-hunters led by a sexagenarian psychic (Lin Shaye). A séance soon reveals the boy’s coma to be a prolonged bout of astral projection that has left his vacant soul at risk from demonic squatters led by a fearsome cloven-hoofed creature which, if not stopped, will take up permanent residence in the boy’s body.

Insidious doesn’t sit on the fence like Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project, which allow their audience to decide for themselves whether supernatural forces are at play or just overactive imaginations. Insidious says that demons are real, psychics can see them, and bearded men with stop-motion cameras can record them. It thinks itself so sophisticated for rejecting obscurantism – a priest is called in but is unable to help – when it is merely offering a new brand of obscurantism. The Exorcist was an unabashed appeal to superstition. Insidious gussies up superstition as New Age pseudoscience. Spook-detection gadgets have replaced crucifixes, though one dreads to think what Linda Blair would’ve done with a Geiger counter. The psychic conducts a séance while wearing a gas mask and the filmmakers expect us not to laugh even though she looks like a gimp at a demonic fetish party for kinky grannies.

The movie is an ill-fitting hybrid of the haunted house and possession sub-genres and since it can’t decide which it wants to be it ends up doing neither very well. The two houses featured lack the character and atmosphere central to a haunting movie and since we spend little time with the troubled boy before his coma there’s no emotional connection with him once he’s at risk. The parents are similarly distant. Audience sympathy for their plight is precluded by unmoving performances and pathological smugness – if you’re going to name your children Dalton, Foster, and Kali you deserve to be haunted – and you wonder why the ghouls would want to hang around such a clan of prisses.

Its appeal to audiences – and it’s made almost $100m – lies in its hacky but effective scares rather than any engaging narrative or character development. Jumps without story, without character are just physiological excitations. You could stick your finger in a socket every ten minutes and achieve the same effect. If you’re one of those people who likes to commune with ‘the other side’, you probably should.

*****

Wreckage

Wreckage breaks one of the enduring conventions of the slasher movie: A killer who guns down his victims.

The modern horror film has been taken every which way. Satire, irony, parody; gender-indeterminate killers, Indian burial grounds, murder sprees on trains and down mines and aboard spaceships; low-budget, high-budget, remakes, reimaginings, crossovers, and rip-offs. We even tolerated Jennifer Love Hewitt for a while.

But the gun taboo has remained. Chase a babysitter with any number of household implements just as long as you don’t pull a piece. The killers in the Scream series – to which there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod in Wreckage – tend to produce handguns in the final showdown (usually, Glock 17s; these are serial killers with money to burn) yet never think to blast away their early victims.

A firearm allows distance while a butcher knife demands intimacy – and splatter movies, odd though it may seem, are deeply intimate affairs. We should probably figure in the feminists and the Freudians; sometimes a knife is more than a knife (though bullets are surely the ultimate in phallus substitution). Film theorist Carol Clover suggests some other rationales:

In the hands of the killer, at least, guns have no place in slasher films. Victims sometimes avail themselves of firearms, but like telephones, fire alarms, elevators, doorbells, and car engines, guns fail in the squeeze. In some basic sense, the emotional terrain of the slasher film is pretechnological. The preferred weapons of the killer are knives, hammers, axes, icepicks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks, and the like. Such implements serve well a plot predicated on stealth, the unawareness of later victims that the bodies of their friends are accumulating just yards away. But the use of noisy chainsaws and power drills and the nonuse of such relatively silent means as bow and arrow, spear, catapult, and even swords, would seem to suggest that closeness and tactility are also at issue. The sense is clearer if we include marginal examples like Jaws and The Birds, as well as related werewolf and vampire genres. Knives and needles, like teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws, are personal, extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace.

That said, it’s doubtful the makers of Wreckage had psychoanalytic film theory in mind. The movie sees a group of friends hunted down in a local scrapyard after a murderer escapes from a nearby prison. Handgun aside, the conventions are honoured: past event, evil returns home, car breaks down on lonely road, cops are useless, ‘hey everyone, let’s split up!’, and a lame twist.

Wreckage is cheap but inoffensive.

Feature image © Georges Biard by Creative Commons 3.0