Distorted Reality and FX’s Taboo

trafalgar square by leonard bentley on flickrIt’s been said that human beings warp everything that they touch as a consequence of original sin. Like Midas, whatever we come in contact with, we distort, however slightly, either through some degree of ignoble intention or some incapacity to effectuate what is pure. In other words, even our best achievements are tainted by motives that always ring with a tad bit of pride, self-interest, or spite, or are not as fine as they might have been because those self-same things stunt our ability to conceive of a better form.

And if that is true of our more virtuous accomplishments, how much more is it so of our less altruistic endeavors. Only the great saints can sing hymns, having disappeared to themselves in the quotient. Only they can lift a pure, true note, and it may be that they have to wait until they are within the halls of God to lift it; for this world itself is too warped to provide the necessary acoustics.

But most of us cannot concern ourselves with the saints too much. We know our limitations.

One way this warping effect manifests is through our opinion of the world. Of what is possible. We make it a kind of physics that uses as its laws and constants the abilities of our own hearts.

I’ve been watching a show on the FX network lately that has put this point in relief. The show is called Taboo. I teach late on Tuesdays, and wanted to have something to watch when I got home that would be entertaining. It seemed like an historical piece, set in pre-Dickensian England but with Dickens’s Bleak House edge running through the tale. I saw that Ridley Scott was an executive producer, so it would be worth a see.

In the tale, a weird adventurer, played by Tom Hardy, returns to England after a mysterious life abroad. He seeks secrets his mad father, recently deceased, has kept, all with an eye towards a fortune coveted by both crown and corporation (the East India Company, naturally). Filling out the cast of characters are butchers, chemists, brothel keepers, medicine men, tawdry stage performers, and quisling spies. The filming is shot through some kind of blue and black filter, and practically all of the scenes are muddy, bloody, and gore-filled.

To Hollywood filmmakers (is it right to call all of the film-making industry “Hollywood”? whether it occurs there or not? Suffice it to say, I’m using the word as metonymy), it seems that there is a particular formula for seriousness. The more grisly, ghoulish, and ghastly the depiction, the more likely the piece is to be seen as a realistic, serious drama. The work might not be any good, but at least they won’t laugh at your efforts if you gut someone from belly to throat and have someone eat the entrails.

It’s rather like a twelve-year old boy who aims to be taken for older by acting as vulgar as possible. After a while, the effect just doesn’t work anymore; either people’s stomachs get stronger or they begin to roll their eyes at the banality.

Another tired approach to coopting “gravitas” is what I call the “Let’s shock the Baptists” routine. Trying to outdo the last guy, filmmakers edge out a little bit farther on the limb of what is depictable, believing that the ratio of kink to worth is indicative of artistic merit. If they can get the bourgeoisie to clutch their pearls by portraying a little more flagrantly episodes of incest, sadomasochism, masturbatory indulgence, and sacrilegious sorcery, they’re doing their job.

The trouble is, just like the gore porn described above, the kink porn obeys the law of diminishing returns too. The Romans got so bored with yet another throat-slitting in the Coliseum that they took to mass throat-slittings, hoping that the multiplier effect would achieve an increasingly ever-elusive euphoria.

Like most drugs though, the appetite becomes resistant to the new dosage; more and more is required and eventually the level of physical tolerance is taxed beyond limit. The stomach and crotch may not be sated, but the heart has had its fill and collapses under the strain.

So in this way, such efforts as Taboo only wind up being rather boring, blood-bloated and semen-soaked as they are. But there’s something else going on in a work like this that is sadder, and it has to do with an equally juvenile attitude towards the world alluded to above.

It is the cynical posture that says there can be no goodness beyond the level known to a particular person’s consciousness (usually this is the filmmaker, who gives his outlook to the main character). It is the comforting assessment that says all priests, lawmen, soldiers, police, etc. are corrupt at heart, hypocrites and charlatans; it judges the world through a solipsistic lens, and says of it—“the level of goodness cannot be greater than my own, and therefore there is no need to aspire to greater than I am.”

What need has the criminal to reform when the society that has made him a criminal is vile itself, down to the very last person, save not one? If it is as ugly a world as all that, then there is reassurance in staying the course with venality. Such a posture towards life can only lead to the temporary enjoyment of what power one’s own gifts at exploitation can win, and then comes the grave.

That is the rather tedious tale we are told again and again, as though what we are viewing is a homemade graphic novel, penned by adolescents stuck in a fugue-obsessed gear, trying to shock their parents into taking them seriously. Pitiful, cold comfort indeed.

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A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

Above image by Leonard Bentley, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

The cast of Manchester by the Sea dressed up for the release of the movie, standing under a title of the movie. It’s impossible to speak of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea without alluding to its major premise: Some events in life simply can’t be overcome. However, stating that conclusion does not betray the work’s plot, because from the outset the story depicts a man upon whom a terrible blow has been dealt.

There is no hiding the reality of Lee Chandler’s all but palpable melancholy. Casey Affleck (the much more talented actor of the two Affleck brothers) shows the quiet range of his skills in the glassy-countenanced depiction of a suburban-Boston janitor whose sorrow is wrought into every movement of his mundane life. One doubts that he even feels the cold of the snowy New England winter as he loads a dumpster with trash and brushes off the advances of bored tenants.

So when news comes that Chandler’s older brother has passed away back in his hometown, the loss, though felt, has the effect of another stripe added to the back of a whiplashed mule; the animal winces, but is far too calloused from old, deep injuries to cry out in any audible way. Still, what he finds when he arrives for the funeral is a complication that adds new dimensions to his burdens. [Read more…]

Transcendence: A Tribute to William Christenberry (1936-2016)

house window light 800“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop said, with irony. Still, it’s true that we mislay so many things over a lifetime that we become quite adept at bearing our deprivations. By the end, it’s a wonder that we have so much left to convey; the reading of wills should be bankrupt affairs, little more than legacies of good wishes and snatches of fair poetry.

But it’s not just carelessness that empties our pockets. Some things—many things—we simply let fall away. There is intent behind the release, and if not intent, recklessness. As in Bishop’s poem, among the things most commonly lost in this fashion are people. They have a habit of slipping out of our lives all too easily and much too regularly. [Read more…]

The Nightingale Floors

craig-pennington-birds-on-flickrIn Kyoto, Japan, seventeenth-century Nijo Castle contains an architectural feature meant to protect the ruling shogun. The floors in the inner most chambers are constructed in such a way that the nails rub together when trod upon, creating the acoustical effect of chirping birds. Known as “nightingale floors,” the sound acts an alarm, providing a warning against enemies attempting to take the shogun by surprise.

The richness of such a design is manifold, as beautiful as it is practical, as charming as it is inspired. Leave it to the people of silk screens and floating worlds to make something so delightful out of a military defense. The Japanese just have a knack for poetic juxtaposition achieved by means of elegant economy, creating eternal wonders within the space of a few square inches—bonsai trees, haiku, etc.

But when a wildly uneconomic Western mind such as mine comes across something like the concept of the nightingale floors, the idea ranges into metaphors and ironies. Oriental simplicity gets “all mussed up” by occidental complication. I cannot leave the “nightingale” alone, but instead must think of all that it implies. Call it maximalizing the minimal. [Read more…]