Men without families A note on how a man is split in two
Neckbone & Ellis run into Mud on a deserted island on the Mississippi. He says they remind him of him. This turns out to mean, they look lost. Is that how freedom comes to sight? They seem to strike a deal about the ownership of a boat in a tree. Nature is not quite what you might think looking at the river. Is the boat the fruit the tree bore? At any rate, there is an argument about taking possession of things. Also, Mud starts with his charms–a combination of handsome manliness, worldliness, & a sense of mystery replete with Christian sinfulness.
Neckbone has no family. His uncle is not only a man–he fishes for a living, occasionally finds pearls, & tries to persuade women to try sexual perversions. He is also a teacher by proxy: He recommends a book about building confidence to become successful; this is school with a purpose, but there is still homework. The boy is practical & vulgar like his uncle. He treats Mud like dirt from the beginning; he wants his gun.
Ellis’s father says life is work & a man is supposed to take care of his own. He takes care of his own son by working him hard, so that he can one day take of himself. But he never made much of himself & has no future to offer his son. He’s not only not confident, but he confesses himself a failure & says he doesn’t know what’s what.
His family is falling apart. The mother wants to go to the city, because there’s no living on the river. The boy doesn’t want that. The mother cannot say but that she wants & deserves a change. She has no idea how to raise her boy aside from psychological cliches for women. Of the women, all we need to say is that they confuse speeches with deeds.
Ellis is a stranger in his home & is correspondingly attracted to Mud. The needier & scarier Mud becomes, the more Ellis is attracted to him. This is because he is the opposite of his friend–he yearns for nobility. Mud changes from a kind of natural perfection to a natural force: Love. This corresponds to the emergence of eroticism in the teenager. & to the emptiness of freedom.
Aside from seeking out Mud, there is another thing that attracts Ellis–a girl, Pearl. He sees a young man mistreating her & he cleans his clock with a surprise hook. He gives her pearls & asks her to be his girlfriend. This is about the extent of his knowledge of women &, though he says he does not like fighting, one wonders how he could ever restrain himself. Does he think women, being weak, cannot sin?
This is Mr. Jeff Nichols’s most prestigious movie.
Political suggestions & the problem of interpretation
Clark Kent alludes to #blacklivesmatter with his concern that vigilante Batman is beating up people in poor neighborhoods. Alfred calls Batman’s aircraft a drone & of course Batman & Lex are doing surveillance. The general who imitates Obama alludes to government-military conspiracies keeping war incidents under wraps. Unless someone’s throwing a punch, there’s hysteria threating to burst at any moment. The most shockingly weak allusion, to judge by audience reaction, is to 9/11. Batman is a first responder! &, too, the very model of a politically responsible billionnaire.
I’ve showed before what the story wants to say about heroes & trust & how it conceives of its audience & of the nation it both addresses & describes. Comparatively, these allusions to American political events fall flat. Maybe this is because the plot is so weak. Maybe the theme of executive power running through super-hero movies is just not acceptable as a political theme. I’m not going to talk about the plot, because people mock this movie too much & for the wrong reasons. I’d like to get at something wrong with the audience.
A basic problem with understanding these stories is the sentiment that we are in possession of something a story-teller might steal from us unless we’re careful. I’d agree that authorship & authority always starts out as a fight between poets & the people. But I’m not sure how capable people with a taste for novelty are of defending their stories from their poets.
I’m not sure what can be done to persuade people who think of these things as property to take a chance on someone who’s thought about the stories for what they reveal about who we are, but I’ve given examples of serious things going on in-between the lines as well as on the surface. It’s really important for people not to turn to sarcasm or to think they’re intelligent if they resolutely miss everything important in the story.
From the point of view of the story-teller, what’s wrong with people is that they make ridiculous characters like Lex Luthor too plausible, & they do it blindly. That guy is a walking-talking embodiment of tech oligarchy ruling over a self-loathing soul. I’m going to out on a limb & suggest that the Superman-Batman fight from th point of view of story is the conflict between Mr. Obama & the conservatives who’ve turned grim after his apotheosis in 2008. Batman’s reaction to an attack on an American city is obvious; but so is Superman’s Messianic distance from the people.
It’s not enough to say the plot is bad, because a good plot would reveal the same thing: There is something essentially ridiculous to this political conflict. Neither side is really above party or trying to act prudently for the common good.
Every mortal man sooner or later starts doubting whether Superman is what he seems, except, I think, his mother. But mothers are that way. Well, Superman pretty much is what he seems to be, that’s the uncanny thing about him. He’s the image of proud benevolence & he acts it out, too. But in our world, proud benevolence does not look like itself. & we cannot really abandon this world of ours, can we? We’re bound to misunderstand Superman for that reason.
So Batman decides he’s got to destroy Superman, just to make people safe. Why should Batman not see the obvious about Superman? Because he doesn’t really think about being, only about power. For a guy out to do justice for the sake of the people, he’s remarkably careless about what the people admire. He’s too sure that the beautiful & the good are separate. It’s gentlemanly Alfred who points out the consequences…
But Batman’s insistence on punishment as the essence of justice points to his awareness of human frailty. He feels he’s risking his own life, whereas Superman is not, so he’s got no right to risk others’. This would tend to privilege irrational anger over anything else. Batman in defending people forgets to ask what humanity is. Is he going to defend people from their hope that there’s some good that need not be feared?
Maybe Batman is the least of the problem, however. The media profit from popular confusion while offering themselves as pontiffs & consciences of the nation. They play Superman’s part for a living. So do the politicians who deal with the ugliness of war & espionage, but play tribunes of the people & moral consciences of the nation. This entire set up would collapse if kingly power were taken seriously among institutions that institute oblivion about the public good or the requirements of community.
Superman answers just about every prayer & so of course people act like he’s not real. Some loser scientist says: There, I have the suprme dignity of proving human beings have no dignity, because there are aliens! He may be too stupid to know he’s human, but that’s close to innocence, & everybody else is arguably worse… The political hearings are a travesty: These people have no idea what to ask Superman because they’re not interested in learning who he is. Even the woman he loves ponders abandonment to save her principles.
An entire moral order might collapse because no one is willing to trust Superman. Well, who would they trust? It seems, all the fuss is about avoiding that most serious question. Behold a country where the majority party is all about betraying the national interest in war. What community? What common good? Sounds familiar maybe?
This story is a very unusual attack on young people. It puts the millennium in millennials, as it were. The actors young enough for young people play Superman & Lex Luthor. Lex is both a mastermind–aren’t all kids these days?–& a villain–he’s got no class. He’s a super-intelligent, corporate overlord who’s won shocking admiration but is willing to throw it all away because of his anxiety issues.
Mr. Jesse Eisenberg seems to specialize in playing sickly kids who have something like a spark, some suggestion of the brilliant, but who descend into madness because they do not see that in other people, too–his ugliness is supposed to suggest that he does not see other people’s humanity. He’s a kind of piece of evidence that modern life is not worth the bother. But why is this psychology now affecting superhero movies?
What does it mean to want to kill Superman, just to be safe? It’s pretty obviously the negative or even polemical form of something more troubling: Not knowing what to do with your life. Why kill Superman? He concentrates the public mind & puts limits on human achievement. This kid Lex goes crazy because he’s successful in a world where people applaud success without first inquiring into its sources.
This insanity is inherent in all criminality. The laws make us feel human–even more, they make us feel justified. Now, successful criminals might think everyone, when all is said & done, is a successful criminal, because necessity is merciless. & then this kid sees people look up to Superman remembering Jesus Christ. That’s the end of freedom; that’s hero worship; that’s saying there is good in this world beyond fear. You could say this kid is paranoid & resents the fact that the people as a whole are not.
I wonder whether Christians should not pay more attention to this phenomenon. The whole story is about producing the miracle of resurrection. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with people–they think they know how this is going to end. Salvation ends up being taken for granted. There’s a kind of smug Christian who feels entitled, like he’s got salvation in his pocket. The movie only makes sense if you assume the audience is like that–but on a secular basis.
So this is not about killing Superman, but about whether people can deserve a hero & any kind of salvation. The crazy kid seems to believe people are not human & they deserve the worst with which nightmare can threaten them. His suggestion that devils don’t come up from underground but descend from the sky suggests he’s aware how lonely man is in the universe. Faced with being lost in the cosmos, he prefers doom.
The new Superman story has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears; I admit there’s a lot I wish had been worked differently, but if people do not see the point of the story, it’s their fault, not Mr. Zack Snyder’s. He’s working over time to point out to people how unbecoming youthful paranoia is & how undeserving of the beautiful & good things we have inherited.
This is the end of a trilogy. In subsequent posts, I’ll write about the first two movies that dramatize the life of Ip Man, the master of Bruce Lee. Fans of martial arts as much as people interested in what China has to offer could benefit by seeing them. They also speak to the times: They include political commentary about what’s going on in Hong Kong, if not China, in the indirect way typical of old Chinese poetry. This movie in particular is an example of moderation & of learning from a master: Wong Kar Wai & his movie about Ip Man, The grandmaster.
This is the end of the story of a man on whom the dignity of China may be said to depend. He fled the chaos & tyranny of the mainland to go to Hong Kong. But there, his people are no more free, though they are at least allowed peace. At first, the story seems to be about fighting off foreign tyranny. But the main conflict is elsewhere, suggesting moderation is now more important than justice.
Two kinds of old masters emerge & two kinds of students. The story is trying to put Ip Man in-between old & new, so that he can make sure that in the future a Bruce Lee could emerge. Why does Bruce Lee matter? He was a hero to people in Hong Kong, an astounding fighter with charm. His confidence & humor suggested Chinese people had a future, which was tied up in some ways with Americanization. The other student is also a mockery of Americanization–the gangster.
It is a recent theme of Hong Kong movies that American capitalism, or infinite acquisitiveness, is breaking down the family & community morality of the Chinese. So also here, the gangster-former-student, like one of the masters, decides that violence & humiliation are the way to secure honors for themselves. They will be or they will serve prestigious men; their victories will have people admiring them & obeying them. They both start poor &, agreeing with the poor man’s opinion that wealth is happiness, they adopt the wealthy man’s opinion that man is not powerless, but he can act for his own betterment.
This corruption is showcased together with the Asian contempt for life & inclination to cruelty. Unlike the Americans, who believe that God gives dignity to every life, the Chinese do not show a guilty abhorrence of slavery. For that reason, they have much greater need of a hero, but far less ability to reward him or even produce a man of the needful powers & motives.
Ip Man has to show that honor is a way of thinking about how to protect humanity, not a way of terrorizing people so they kneel before you. This is a teaching that moderates both the Asian habits of despotism & the American opinion that everyone, being equal, owes nothing to anyone else. Ip Man strives to defend the best of Chinese tradition–deference to the gentle, respect for education, & obedience to public order.
But, a man who lives honorably & dedicates himself to public service will suffer poverty & humiliation. His family will suffer; Ip Man has only his students & school to rely on both for the continuation of his work & for his bulwark against the lack of dignity & misery in which his people live.
Daredevil also has a brunette babe from the past to make his life interesting. They have a remarkably ridiculous story–wealth & privilege lead to irresponsibility; educated youths become free spirits–they move effortlessly between heart-rending stories & mindless lust; & then they’re supposed to turn murderer. The suggestion here is that aristocrats avenge their beatings, while democrats suffer theirs meekly. That is the part of the story where Daredevil’s Catholic faith disappears.
I could not agree, however, that the moral seriousness of the story can be gauged by the display of a shapely girl exerting herself in sensual ways to overpower men twice her size. Is there much doubt that that’s a gauge of the moral seriousness of the audience, however? This is perhaps the most Catholic part of the story: This girl makes the most compelling case for a view of humanity that is essentially about enslavement. She beautifies Asiatic despotism.
The most curious part of the story deals with this girl. Why should she be important? She is worshiped as a goddess or as the source of a divine power. Three men fight for her soul or over her soul. Daredevil wants to offer her a home in Hell’s Kitchen, which is better than it sounds–he offers to justify suffering by love. Their old master, who again saves their lives, offers her a chance to avenge her beatings. The ninja offers her divinity.
There are some things that could be said about the emergence of a cult, which parallels the story of Kingpin’s political ambitions in the first story. But brevity requires us to focus on the importance of this cult: Its purpose is the attainment of immortality. This is an attack on the Catholic church: Corpses are stolen from their graves & the holy sacrament is perverted as blood-stealing.
This is the most sophisticated part of the education that the story offers. Despite Daredevil’s weaknesses, he is serious about the offer of love. Now, this is Christ-inspired, but it is not Christian. The advantage would seem to be the incredibly powerful ties of eroticism that could compensate a failing faith. But whether this can justify suffering is open to doubt. Daredevil really has nothing comparable to the Catholic teaching when it comes to dying. There he dares not look.
The girl’s beauty, as befits her tragic name, conceals terror. She is supposed to be the instrument of the end of the world, the end of man. It is in her case rather than Daredevil’s that we see a situation that is explicitly like Christ’s temptation. Perhaps the way to understand Daredevil is to think about the difference between the offer he can make & Christ’s offer of salvation.
Erotic failure & feminist success in justice-peddling
Daredevil’s blue-eyed blonde legal assistant, former damsel-in-distress, & future journalist flattering democrats – also, failed lover – is the image of the lie we tell ourselves about our tastes. We love pretty women & are willing to construct damsel-in-distress stories around them. The feminist reversal preserves the mechanism: Intensely erotic suffering with a different moral justification.
Unfortunately, this degenerates into the ugly attempt to turn journalism into sexy morality. But morality is full of suffering; & the ugly exploitation typical of journalism depends on fear of each other, not love of beauty. The beautiful lie liberalism sells is that journalism reveals the ugly truths about America, uniting the outraged majority against the reactionary few. Engine of progress!
Let’s look at the images & the sequence of events for the girl’s importance to the plot. It turns out blue-eyed blondes with vixen looks embody the moralism of our justice system, the moralism of the press, pretending to reveal the truth to further justice. The babe-turned-journalist prophesies that evil people are really good people victimized by circumstance & everyone not now a monster is a hero!
Now, the sequence of the story: She persuades a murderer on trial to accept a legal strategy in court, & therefore bind himself to the justice system, by giving him some of the truth about the horrible injustices he’s suffered. He subsequently betrays her silly ideas: This truth he has learned moves him to find surer, illegal ways of revenging himself on his enemies!
She does her blue-eyed blonde act to humanize a beast of a man, God’s wrath: He goes on a rampage because of the truth she’s told him, which overpowers all her moral good looks. As for character: The blonde babe is consorting with Daredevil’s enemy behind his back in the quest for strong, independent womanhood. The breath-taking blindness of her actions is believable: The audience is supposed to be blind to it. This is no great victory for feminism, but a show that feminism serves a kind of democratic attack on prudence.
Funniest is the feminist moment: The blonde babe is offered police protection & she calls it patriarchal bovine byproduct–a hilariously defenseless girl whose life depends on manly men more than a few times! Feminism is revealed as the blindness that keeps some women from going insane with fear. It is a pious lie, as it were, that preserves ignorance about danger. People of any ambition are bound to be thwarted & only accusations of discrimination can give them any sense of their dignity, at the price of course of the individuality which was implied in their ambition in the first place. Then there’s a suggestion that journalism is the lower class correlative of inside-baseball lawyers in future-America, with its unjust meritocracy…
This is what Punisher says: This is the theme of the story. He himself is the hero of a world where manliness no longer makes sense. As Daredevil says, Punisher really is all about justice. There is no justice but punishment for human beings: That is the revelation of our limits, of our nature. Manliness implies man is somehow aloof, apart from the world of which he is a part. There is no such thing for Punisher. What happens to you–that you must avenge–there is nothing else to human action–there is nothing else to man’s belonging to his world. Daredevil is supposed to be better than that.
This second season is accordingly somewhat more serious about Daredevil’s Catholic faith: It is far more seriously tested. But the question of the punisher remains, what do we learn from suffering? Do we turn into philosophers? Monsters? Do we learn nothing? This season, unlike the previous, is full of magical things that are explicitly a challenge to the Catholic faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ while being a mockery of it. You have to translate all the magical stuff as scientific attempts to make man immortal. Daredevil’s intellectual conversations display the Catholic rationalism that kills all superstition, all Asian wisdom!
The story tries to put together two different problems Daredevil must face. One is, whether he should rule Hell’s kitchen. He claims Punisher has no right to go around murdering people. But Punisher is one of thousands of people in New York city who lose someone to murder every year. Who is Daredevil to tell them what it behooves them to do when faced with the business end of mortality?
The other problem is the magical stuff, which is about solving the problem of man’s mortality. This would mean, either there is no need of a ruler, if mankind were immortal, or that the ruler would be a god, if he alone were immortal. Daredevil has to address myth-making at a far more serious level than getting criminals to fear him like the devil–putting the fear of God in them.
Both are tied up with women Murdock loves for one reason or another. There’s a blue-eyed blonde who thinks Punisher is all-too-human, which figures, but who also serves to show that Murdock really is not able to protect her. & a dusky beauty who is able to fight alongside him, but who is tempted by the possibility of turning into a goddess.
In both cases, the question arises as to whether there is anything like peace or anything like knowledge. Daredevil’s learning from suffering is always about this hanging on to the unity of humanity that’s threatening to collapse into gods & monsters.
Joy & her family are Italian Catholics, but the religion in the movie is American Protestant Christianity. It comes in two indirect suggestions. One goes back to the original reformation: Joy’s dreams can become reality somewhere in Amish country. The other is of our times: Advertising is more or less televangelism, but you get useful things instead. Advertising is not merely present as a part of the economy or as an art, but as a revelation.
There is some kind of connection between our peaceful prosperity & God’s special connection to man. Joy manages to sell her own products only when she becomes persuaded that all she’s really doing is trying to persuade a friend that she can help. She speaks from her own experience to people who have had the same problems & who would benefit by a solution as much as she does. This conceals the inequalities between producer & consumer.
Her moment of triumph requires a few things of interest. One is the humiliation & pain of menial work. There is more than a hint of hopelessness in her past. This suggests that misery & squalor have a kind of immorality about them, which recalls the saying, cleanliness is next to godliness. Capitalism goes maybe no farther than health & cleanliness, but it goes that far.
One sees women who are helping each other free themselves from the slavery of household chores. Their minds take control of their households, because they can do things without suffering too much or too much drudgery. This is as far as the old liberal teaching of capitalism can go to meet feminism. It is remarkably lacking in anger or resentment. It has about it the pattern of statesmanship, solving a crisis by giving the quarreling partisans something that’s good for them while keeping them active in search of the good.
Then, of course, it turns out that all these moral promises are more than a little deceptious. People who tell this story of perpetual peaceful prosperity for everyone ignore how much fear, contempt, greed, laziness, stupidity, & envy hurt people. Joy has to learn that people have got to be kept to their promises when possible, but that it’s not easy. Even if the free market talk is true, the truth it tells hurts people in two ways: It encourages idleness; & it sets the gullible up for exploitation.
That is not the only problem, however. The doing of the work of capitalism, inasmuch as any work can be described this way, encourages people not to care about other people trying to do the same. They system is neither friendly to innovation nor to new people. Concealed within capitalism is an un-Christian quarrel about status or importance or moral dignity.
Reagan said in his first Inaugural Address that middle-class life, in being an aspiration, made of Americans heroes in some way. This story shows you how. Joy is a young woman in a very bad situation. Her eventual success & the fact that such woman did exist & did succeed do little to still the fear & indignation with which we respond to suffering so undeserved. Neither should her struggle conceal the condition of her success, the peaceful prosperity that allows people who can make useful things to make a living out of their designs.
The heroic character of productive or useful work emerges gradually, as Joy frees herself from a poverty worse than deprivation, a sense of powerlessness & an inability to care for her family. Useful inventions put together thinking & work & thus allow Joy to use her specific powers in pursuit of her needs. The ability to meet one’s needs is liberating–this attaining of freedom is the heroism of the middle class.
Joy is a poor single mother of two. She has difficulties holding a job while dealing with a family in which people hurt each other or abandon each other because they feel powerless & they have no way of figuring out what’s good about being human, either in their own case or anyone else’s, so they give up on striving entirely & enslave themselves to some debasing desire.
This again reveals the heroism of work, because it allows some people to help others. To overcome their own loneliness & being trapped in their own desperation. The great difficulty of this sort of life, the constant suffering inflicted by the people she’s trying to help makes it hard for Joy to be herself–to be anyone, really, because she’s jostled between hope & despair. Nothing in her life has anything of the eternal or the reliable about it. Necessity & punishment are not even really different.
Joy enters in agreements with several kinds of people, all of which fall apart; she has to live in a world where no one is as good as his word & this teaches her to do better. She learns that people look down on her because they can hurt her. She learns that defending herself & becoming strong enough to harm people is good both for her & for them. Ultimately, she does not become vengeful, because she is more dedicated to a happiness that allows for helping other people & allowing them, too, to live their lives as best they can.
Something like self-knowledge underlies her story. Joy is uncertain about her inventions, whether they’re good, useful, & even legally hears. She learns she needs confidence in the good things she can do in order to go on using her mind for inventions.
Mr. David O. Russell seems to have cornered the market on Americana. No one else makes films that have the feel about them of youth. If there is anyone in Hollywood who can make the platitudes of positive thinking serious…