At the end of the story, Nameless is murdered. Qin assents. His corpse receives great honors. Is that the end of heroism? Is that manliness judged? The assassin, like his teacher, chose for himself. Sacrifice follows from heroic pride, which demands & asserts freedom from necessity. But empire depends on obedience & men who cannot live on their knees cannot live at all. Manliness is supplanted by ruthlessness. Ruthlessness can use the progress of the arts & sciences, which are perfectly compatible with slavery.
The installation of empire follows the confrontation of two rulers. The scholar persuades his students to die with dignity: They cannot overcome necessity except by writing. The emperor teaches his servants that he is necessity or above necessity: He is properly treated with awe: All crimes are legal in his name. The warrior-scholars are examples of civilization in man & their failure suggests that freedom is an unlikely thing, both unpredictable & frail. The moment where the greatest natures grow is the greatest danger for the country.
These heroes live by beauty & are properly comprehended within stories: They are brilliant & they are superb. The emperor is merely splendid. He rules by terror. The stories about the heroes are a silent undermining of political life, especially of court intrigue.
The emperor’s defense of the lives of his subjects shows a vulgar willingness to sacrifice whatever might make life worth living for them. This is security. The heroes are a reminder of the highest capacities of human nature. This is the identity of calligraphy & swordsmanship: Both reveal being–what it is to be a man, truly. But a race of heroes remains impossible.
Why does heroism brings about the end of the age of heroes? The single-mindedness of heroes seems to be opposed to the production of children. This would seem to be connected with the freedom of heroism: It includes women. Heroes are not peace-makers, because they believe in war, not nature. This is why they do not exert themselves to end war at any price. Instead, they wish to preserve human dignity at any price. They have a preference for the noble over the advantageous. As a lived experience, this aims to beautify suffering through ceremony. This prevents the use of reason to relieve man’s estate.
At the same time, the insistence on man’s dignity privileges the study of human capacities & denigrates the curiosity about the world in which we live which is required for the devising & improving of useful things. One wonders whether the emperor’s offer of rewards is a serious plan to end heroism. Does he hope to buy death by money, as he pays soldiers? Or does he hope to show that money is not afraid of heroes?
Have you noticed how many popular spectacles aimed at children are telling them they are living in a world where the adults want to drink their blood? That this has stayed secret suggests to me that the madness openly advertised to kids lies concealed in the parents. The popular spectacles now treat the young as orphans by right & heroes if they manage to cope with their situation.–The natural consequence of this madness.
Marvel’s new spectacles lead the way to the therapeutic future. Even Captain America is therapy for a young woman of no importance. She is terrorized by the world & has strange, incomprehensible, uninteresting powers. The more boring she becomes, the more the heroes of this world fight each other to figure out how to accommodate her anxieties. Resenting parental authority & a desire to break the law are trotted out in the most childish way, which is typical of Marvel spectacles–they are basically aimed at children because they’re childish. The novelty is the focus on a ten-minutes-of-movie-time character…
The other child is Spiderman, also a stand-in for the audience. He gets none of the affection–he’ll get a reboot, which trumps dignity. He gets the condescension reserved for small, white boys. He is unprespossessing; shy does not begin to describe him. Unlike the girl, he has a moral confidence & a practical attitude that make him a perfect fit for action movies. Of course, he is utterly neglected.
This was supposed to be a story about men who avenge their fathers: They’re important characters: Iron Man, the silly villain, & Black panther! Marvel has managed to concoct a psychotic murderer villain who’s boring. In Marvel stories, when someone starts murdering people, the way he’s treated is, heroes tell him they feel his pain–he must be a victim at heart.
Then, the black guy from Africa. A man who made a career playing heroes now plays Black panther, the most pathetic attempt to patronize the civil rights struggles–he even has kitty claws. How do black people like that, I wonder! Of course, he alone learns the exotic wisdom of not avenging his father, instead achieving peace.
Finally, Iron Man had his dad murdered & when he learns who done it, he goes crazy. He has to have his technology destroyed before he stops attempting murder. There is something castrating about being powerless without electricity… No wonder that silly girl who does hand gestures takes up more time than the quest to avenge fathers. The patriarchy is over because the men are unmanly. Every feminist detail in the movie is as silly as the titillation of alluring little women outrunning & outfighting men twice their size, but feminism wins by forfeit.
Liberals & conservatives on Americans as a race of heroes
Iron Man says the young kids at MIT deserve all the money he can throw at their projects, whatever they are. That’s faith in the institution that picks & supervises them: Faith in science. The tech oligarch is paying comparatively poor pale imitations of him. That’s class solidarity: The future is libertarians paying for technology. His America is a land of heroes: They rise to the challenge, they scientifically solve the problem of human nature. It’s FDR & Reagan.
These people will relieve the estate of mankind: They’re working for poor people. One wonders, what do poor people deserve? A black woman checks Iron Man’s privilege: Is all this generosity born of guilt? Is this class or race that’s browbeating him? Stark feels guilty for the death of a black kid, who apparently matters because he was a great science student building housing for third-world poor people. How about those of us who are not such scientific-educated heroes? Are we human?
We do not matter–this martyr of do-gooder liberalism & the racial privilege-checking teach the libertarian billionaire a lesson: Obey liberalism. He folds like a chair. Iron Man shares his feelings about wife & father, his failure to know & love people. Is this a manly man getting in touch with his feelings? Only if you think scientific power equals manliness. Otherwise, it’s just another guy who knows in his soul that liberals are right.
Then comes conservatism Marvel can believe in: Captain America, previously a liberal poster-boy. He wants American power free, unfettered by committees & international institutions. He cannot say, proudly: Most countries are tyrannies where the regime terrifies the people. Marvel heroes cannot believes in America enough to say that.
Iron Man is ok with putting heroism on a leash–he’s always trying to do that–he never learns from provoking catastrophe. Iron Man’s close to a politician: He knows the ugly truth about the people–the only way they will stop blaming him is if they blame themselves, which means they have to vote. Getting people to consent, however, would mean rule by fear: Whenever they’re terrified by strange enemies, they’ll throw themselves on the mercy of heroes. In the clothes of American democracy stands the old Roman dictator.
Captain America is far closer to American politics. He gets that people need to trust their president in war. He defends American sovereignty. He also believes Americans are a race of heroes, not because of technology, but because Americans will fight tyranny–they will fight for the right cause. But America has a treason party that prefers to lose wars just in case American power is unjust. That does nobody any good & makes it impossible to have any presidents, including liberal presidents.
In Marvel stories, the cowardliest liberalism triumphs. The American government is looking to throw heroes in jail because they save people’s lives & destroy villains. The problem with that is that there are victims. In a liberal world, it is preferable to have villains murder & tyrannize. America used to throw terrorists into jail & there were whispers of torture. Now, certified American heroes are jailed. Manliness have become so counter-cultural it’s illegal.
In Marvel stories, liberalism worships in the temple of the UN. No one mentions the tyrants who gain legitimacy at the UN. There are no Muslims & Jews in the UN: There is only the unanimity of moral authority: America is wrong & must be stopped. You would think that in this universe, civil war happens because there are some Americans who think America is a pretty good thing & shouldn’t be jailed for their willingness to fight evildoers.
Not quite. The plot is not about Captain America, who is marginal. It’s about Iron man, because he’s so popular. He’s supposed to be the libertarian prince of liberal America. Is he going to be stopped? Is his moral authority going to be removed? Not quite–the guy who loses on everything is Captain America. His insistence to think for himself & be a slave to no foreigner’s will or whim–that’s what makes him an outcast.
So the story mostly seems to be therapy for Iron man. He was neglected by his father & lashed out; his parents were murdered. Now, new virtual reality technology can give him the therapy he needs, if liberals are right & you just have to cope with grief. It turns out, Iron Man’s worship of power has some seed of manliness in it–besides class privilege, beyond political irresponsibility–there is a son who will avenge his father. He’s no weakling.
Iron Man thought he could buy therapy by creating new scientific powers. That science could give him power over his own soul, to cut himself from his father. But blood is stronger than science, it turns out. What has this to do with civil war? Nothing in the slightest. It only barely has anything to do with heroism: It shows that all legitimate manliness starts in righteous anger against injustice.
In Marvel stories, when someone tries to say something about the friendship between men–Captain America & the Winter soldier grew up together & fought a just war together–there is just embarrassing silence. Nobody knows why manliness might be important; no one is manly enough to speak up for it. So Captain America becomes an annoying obstacle in his own movie–he’s uninteresting. The guy who talks about processing his emotions & whose marriage is falling apart takes center stage.
This is the poor man’s Batman v. Superman. Far worse villain, plot, & details. All you get is amazing fights & there are very few. You’re better off reading the wikipedia page & my essays. This is further proof that Marvel is aggressively mediocre while DC has the really good, really interesting directors.
Son is told by his mother that his father is dead. She’s not attending his funeral–the new wife & family claim the right to lay him to rest. Son & his brothers do attend: They deny the man has a right to rest in death. Funeral beautifies too ugly a life: They’re there as a reminder of the evil the man had done. Nobody will be living down this past, because it’s flesh & it’s blood.
Son learned bitterness from his mother, but now he’s a man with the powers of a man. His mother looks weak & stupid; maybe that’s a kind of innocence–she certainly does not seem to want to bring about a catastrophe–one wonders whether she is capable of understanding what was once her family. His pride makes him defend his brothers, ruin his marriage, live with a dull hatred of the world, & hate the ghost that was his father.
He is married to a woman who cannot put up with his pride anymore. One wonders what could have possessed her to marry him. Not that he has no attractions, but it is hellish imprudent to wed a man who hates the world. He is a gambler sure that he’s going to beat the system at some point. He seems to have turn to unearned gains because there is not much to do by way of earning anything in his town.
His two brothers, Boy & Kid, are in some ways dependent on him. Their very names recall the father–the other boys, who at least look like a normal family, have real names. One’s looking to get married, & to a girl who seems like his chance at a happy life, while living in a tent in Son’s backyard. He has no idea whether he is in love or whether love’s worth living for–Son tells him that love is the only thing he should be considering. The other’s living out of a car & prefers to stay alone; he seems a coward; he teaches black kids basketball. Son plays father to him, too.
It doesn’t take any beauty or success to love something; Son loves his brothers despite all his & their failures; he has no intention of ever breaking faith with them. It’s just not clear how they could even make a living–except the younger, for whom marriage might be the freedom it was not for Son.
It’s the weakness of the city that turns family to tragedy, which seems natural. These men do not seem any more prudent or authoritative than the boys, who are ruled by anger & shame, in case they should seem cowardly. Women are trapped & no help. Even jobs, class, & family make little difference.
Director Jeff Nichols’s debut film–it is a story of revenge & murder among the rural poor. It is a harsh, unsentimental story, but which never hides the danger of the hardening of the heart.
This is the sort of thing an American Ingmar Bergman might film. The relationship between manliness, family, & the Christian faith, apparently director Jeff Nichols’ continuous study, is faced with the end times in this story. We do not live lives with any grasp of the mysterious part of human being. We all think we know who we are & we know we’re worth something–we’re important somehow. Who knows why or for what purpose?
Revelation comes to Curtis as an attack on his identity. His manliness turns into a trap & an illusion. He sees his manly attitude to danger turned against him in dreams. His fears are marshaled against him as some kind of divine punishment for having dared to think himself the protector of his family. This then is supposed to be the necessary prelude to the work he has to do to protect his family.
One wonders what dangers could beset rural Ohio. The way we look at the world, worst comes to worst, it’s cicadas. But this is not how Curtis sees it–he knows what it means to be normal, but he can no longer do it. He begins to lie to his wife & conceal himself. This man had thought himself a man of few words because none were needed–he was an obvious or uncomplicated man whose deeds were open to all around him to know.
Now he has secrets–he has turned into the kind of man he would never have befriended; he has ceased to understand himself; he turns to fighting against his dreams; that is one necessary step toward fighting the fight that the dreams are announcing. Gradually, he loses his job, his friend, & maybe his family is next. He does not feel privileged but cursed. But he cannot change.
Curtis devotes himself to his work silently, preparing for his family either a shelter or a tomb, depending on how you think about divine providence. Curtis obviously doesn’t think God has anything to say to him. He has the manly man’s reluctance of doctors & fear of what psychiatrists mean & do in America. He has no interest in priests. His judgment may be correct.
The self-loathing of the proud man turns him almost entirely away from love. His manliness is revealed gradually, as much by his work as by the fear he inspires in his wife, who gradually learns that normal life has ended & that now she has to think of her life as a chaos. If we admit that Curtis is not merely willful & his wife is not merely whimsical, then we should turn around to consider the relation between love & the protection we expect from divine providence.
Curtis is a construction worker; he has a wife, Samantha, who takes care of their daughter, Hannah, who is deaf & has to be taught sign language, which they must also learn, & who needs rare medical care. Curtis leads a small team, is friendly with his coworkers, has the working man’s habit of drinking a beer or two before coming home sometimes, & his quiet manner is mostly confidence or self-reliance.
But if he had to say something about his life, would he be able to speak? One part of manliness is aloofness, a desire to be oneself by oneself, apart from others. One reason for it is the sense that the world is somehow deceptious or that one cannot find the words to say that which he believes he knows. To be oneself might mean to be trapped. This is a story about what freedom would mean in such a case.
What’s it like to be Curtis? What’s it like to feel you need to take a shower to deal with a moment of contemplating where you stand to the world? There is a storm coming. There is a dirt that arouses a shocked disgust. Man cannot persevere in face of necessity–he can neither understand his world nor protect himself. It’s like a dog on a leash, barking madly. These dreams somehow depend on two sorts of things, the fears & dangers that echo when Curtis watches scary news on TV, & the shame he feels for lacking self-control.
Meanwhile, the women feel differently–they joke about the progress from ape to man. It’s very uncertain. Savagery can always return. There’s reason to fear that the good is not lasting. When the wife sells beautiful ornaments, the husband thinks of caging the dog. This man’s love of his wife & daughter, who needs so much help, more perhaps than his job can pay for, leads him to silence.
He has a mother his family abandoned to the doctors. She’s insane. How to live with someone who is a danger to the world around her? Curtis comes to fear he, too, is crazy, because of her. He has a brother, but no father. One wonders what in his experience or education might prepare him for the terror & disgust now descending upon him?
His friend says, Curtis, you’ve got a good life. It’s not warning–don’t screw it up, you hear! It’s not envy, either–it’s admiration. It’s offered as praise & it is praise, but how can you know if someone is happy before they’ve died? Things might change. Curtis concurs in his friend’s judgment, although he is embarrassed to say so. He must have always been quiet about the good things in his life.
This is the only really strange & objectional of director Jeff Nichols’s movies. It is nevertheless a good way to think about manliness & family for those who are not persuaded of the moralizing effeteness of the times.
There is a shocking contrast between Alton’s weakness & the bloody deeds & dark designs that surround him. One wonders whether there is any kind of wisdom that could come to us as innocence without our turning to bloodshed. There are at least three Biblical stories about fathers or sons in a similar relation to revelation & the two that deal with politics deal with the emergence of religious civil war from revelation.
American religion is in a crisis, is the suggestion of the story. The cult setting is not really about the massacre in Waco, Texas, but it is a reminder that now the federal government is openly the enemy of most popular forms of American Christianity. This is not merely the federal courts, but also the agencies of the executive. The government is trying to take possession of a boy because he has become an object of worship. This is a remarkable foolishness, but it comes of an awareness of the fearful power the Christian teaching has over the souls of Americans.
As for Americans, one does not suspect that people who are successful in American society, so publicly democratic, but so given to success-worship, would form such cults. It is rather the miserable people. They are far more vulnerable to the call of faith. & they are often exploited by shameless clowns who can turn murderers. Christianity has never been much good at persuading people about the distinction between true & false prophets.
The stories of Moses & Christ are the most obvious guides to this story. Choosing Joseph is wisest, because it reminds people that the call of faith affects them in the most intimate union in the family. The faith & fate of the father in this story is the only guide to the distinction between private & public. & protective love seems to be under attack.
The story shows what’s wrong with public affairs by showing an FBI that tolerates the worst about cults in the name of individualism while reacting violently to its own paranoia. The imprisonment of the child shows a deep inhumanity that comes not from any intention to harm, but an inability to recognize a human being. The mystery surrounding the boy is practically a matter of who will stand up for his humanity.
It should not be a surprise that personhood is a miracle. No government agenda or methodology or bureaucratic culture can explain or improve the love of a father for his son. & in an age of individualism, the faith implied in recognizing the unique importance of a person whose life has to somehow bear the burden of the hopes which descry our future, looks like madness, especially when people are willing to sacrifice for love.
Roy has stolen his son Alton from the cult where he had allowed the boy to be raised. Roy has come to think that he knows better than the cult leader what to do about his son’s unnatural powers. The FBI attacks the cult, in search of the boy, whose powers are uncovering government secrets. The cult leader wants him back, too. Who knew it could be so difficult to keep a family together?
As soon as he takes his child back from the cult, Roy & his state trooper friend Lucas have to murder a policeman. The law cannot understand or tolerate what they are trying to do. The FBI can figure out which way he’s going, but not why. Roy has figured out something they have not, because he starts from his desperate love for his son. Roy is not the only man who will kill for the sake of the boy, but he is the only one who is risking his own life.
Roy is not trying to give his life meaning by using the boy, unlike everyone else. But his insistence on the meaning of his fathering the boy is inexplicable, although the boy does need protecting. The boy’s powers cannot have come from the father & the father’s new purpose is tied up with his sense of how mysterious the boy is.
The farther the boy is from his father, the more he comes to use his own powers. When the government officials finally get their hands on him, they lose all their political powers. There is now no more killing or dying. One only sees a bunch of people who get angry & scared in relation to their job descriptions & who have no idea that they are looking at a human being. The boy’s powers seem necessary only where he is a stranger.
But the father loses his faith without the boy. He is the only one who tries to take seriously what we have all been taught by Christ, that we are persons. In the case of the father, he knows that that which he has helped to bring into this world is not under his control. Responsibility does not begin to describe the awe in which this man lives. The relationship between mystery & the future in an individualistic society may simply be an unbearable burden.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that both the callous government officials & the murderous cult leader are Christ-haunted in their ways. But the separation of church & state that is the core of the liberal separation of civil society & state is preserved. It’s prison for the people who attract official attention; or running away from society; or plausible deniability of criminal responsibility.
A new Jeff Nichols story about the relationship between manliness, faith, & family. Find it & see it.
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.