"Strange weather we're having, isn't it?"
It's like a weird sound your car unexpectedly makes. A growth, lump, or pain you notice in your body. Behavior that leads you to think your partner is not totally faithful. Maybe your boss is giving you the cold shoulder at work. "It's all right," you tell yourself. Things will be okay in a few days. Things will go back to normal. Anything else you need reassuring about? Just have faith in the market. The market works. Trust me.
But with the weather there are the wars. There is the growing instability in the Middle East, the pocket and cradle of civilization, tying together our primitive beliefs with raw and real faith, and our modern industry with oil. And in accordance to that, there's a resurgence of religion, just like there's a surge in gas prices. There's the content of television. The dead fish and dead birds. And what about the plague of insomnia I notice on Facebook? No one can seem to get any sleep, like creatures disturbed before a storm. The omens of a new millennium still have their dark and waving cape draped over the dawn. We got through Y2K, but now we have 2012. The Revelation of St. John, the Mayans, Cayce, Jung, and Nostradamus all have big plans for us. We'd better pray that Montel Williams' personal psychic, the raspy Sylvia Brown with her far more benign predictions, is more on the money. Jesus is apparently coming back on May 21st of this year (about a week). How many tsunamis, tornadoes, and devastating earthquakes do you people need in order to throw away your possessions, give your heart to the Lord, and repent? Laugh it up, but what about those microchips they're putting in dogs? Soon they'll put them in humans. If you decode the bar numbers, I'm sure you'll find an equation that has the solution "666." The Mark of the Beast. Maybe the iPhone is that Beast, tracking us down and demanding our allegiance. The symbol hunters out there point out the Apple, that remnant from the Tree of Knowledge – knowledge which the internet affords in abundance – and so find our undoing. The Prince of the Air of the Earth rises. Repent! Repent!
Are you frightened? Actually, aside from the rather eerie similarities between the implementation of new tracking technologies and what the Book of Revelation reveals, I try to laugh it off myself. But even last week, as "the crap" as I call it continues to hammer us, when Barack Obama had a huge address to the nation which seemed to be rather grave until we got the good news of Osama Bin Laden's sticky end, I was sort of expecting the worst. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart pointed out that when a black president in the movies has to address the nation, it usually means apocalypse is around the corner, examples being Morgan Freeman in Mimi Leder's meteor epic Deep Impact, and Danny Glover in 2009's delirious guilty pleasure 2012.
I write about movies though, so Stewart's commentary of nervous anticipation experienced that Sunday night makes me wonder about apocalyptic fantasy and how cinema has been so interested in translating with horror and imagination the experience. Irwin Allen is famous for his huge disaster productions of the 1970s, like The Towering Inferno, but those look benign when compared to what CGI can show us. Roland Emmerich has made millions of dollars by destroying the planet again and again, first with Independence Day in 1996, then The Day After Tomorrow, and finally just going all out and tearing everything down in 2012. This final film has a kind of sadistic euphoria to it, and to see it is to laugh, whereas The Day After Tomorrow is a somber liberal warning (complete with Dick Cheney lookalike heel). Whether it's man-made or by nature, there is nothing humans cannot show through the screen in speculating about the End.
In a few weeks I'll indulgently jot down some thoughts about reflexive science fiction, but I'm going to try to separate apocalypse from post-apocalypse, or dystopian visions of the future. Regardless, aside from maybe Star Trek, the future rarely seems to be a warm and fuzzy place in movies and literature, and even Star Trek, if I've got my Trekkie mythology down, says that there were some bad nuclear wars in the 21st century. The Future in Film, or Apocalypse, works to scare the hell out of us, but like sex and horror, maybe we dig it. As cryptic and hard to discern as it is, the Book of Revelation is the book in the New Testament that always caught my fancy more than any other, and I don't think I'm alone in that.
Because of that, this journey to the end of the world is my own kind of journey, being that it's always been a sort of anxiety – and fascination – for me. Images of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," along with some of those passages from Revelation, held me engrossed for long periods of daydreaming. I stared with unhealthy attention at the Renaissance painting The Triumph of Death, something my 3rd grade Catholic school chums showed to me in an old book, replete with sworded skeletons murderously ravaging civilization, even the king laid to waste, helpless, absurd in his pomp. I was told this was "judgment day" and that it would happen someday, but the more I read about it the more "someday" became "soon." I found out what nuclear bombs were, but I could not wrap my head around them. How can anyone go to sleep at night knowing that they exist? They can go off at any moment. My impressionable mind was given bogeyman faces: Gaddafi (who's only just returned to his grand Skeletor throne), the Ayatollah Khomeini, then Saddam Hussein. It's easy to be cynical about the foreign policy incidences of 1991, and see the propaganda in perspective. But I was in scout camp the week that Saddam invaded Kuwait, and the general vibe was World War III. Time magazine had a cover story, "The Horror Show," showing Saddam in front of cameras with a hostage adolescent. Even though Saddam Hussein's army "was no worthy adversary," as Walter puts it in The Big Lebowski, for Catholic kids raised to be frightened and to accept prophesy as inevitable, an incoming war was not welcome. Not for pacifistic and logical reasons. I just didn't want the pot of my normality to be stirred. The next summer, James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day became one of the biggest moneymakers of all time, and beyond the Arnold Schwarzenegger heroics and the general time-travel story, the one scene that lingered with all of us was Sarah Connor's nightmare of a nuclear bomb falling on Los Angeles, followed by people's flesh being ripped off in a short but painful instant.
I had a problem not too much unlike Woody Allen has as a boy in Annie Hall. I was obsessed with the end of the world; but whereas Woody's was a more abstract anxiety related to "the universe expanding," for me the end would involve some imminent action where a lot of people would be going through slow, painful, sternum-smashing death, with anatomy torn apart and heads rolling down the street: the screams and gnashing of teeth that are reserved for Hell actually making an appearance on Earth.
A war veteran could maybe knock me on the head and tell me to toughen up. The images of the Holocaust or depictions of Stalingrad are worse than any artistic rendering of Hell or Apocalypse. But maybe it's not Death alone, or Pain in Death, that makes me so queasy about the End. Rather, maybe it has something to do with the implications of a predicted end. Christianity is apocalyptic to its core; as a religion, it is teleological, seeing life as a linear path with a clear beginning and an end, unlike other faiths that see time in a circular pattern. It is a highly eschatological religion, its origins following a prophet, messiah, what have you, who likely was obsessed with preaching about the end of the world. In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that the end will happen within this (his) present generation, which gives his extreme philosophy of embracing poverty, forgiveness, and altruism a kind of logic: "The world's ending next week? Oh, sure I'll join your cult!"
Of course, the End didn't happen, something theologians have apparently explained away by identifying Jesus' prediction as "The Great Non Event." But every generation subsequent to him has had its array of believers convinced that theirs was the last. Quite unfortunately, I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with already a tepid relationship with the End of the World. Like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I had the hell scared out of me by having it shrieked into me with the visceral inevitability of its presence. In regards to the narratives that have followed our civilization for thousands of years showing glimpses of the End, from Gilgamesh to King Lear (if one reads it a certain way) to Hollywood, the charismatic Christians have perfected the apocalyptic scenario into a very specific, punched-up script, often using the money of their organizations to give spectacular and riveting images to the plot. It's a great recruiter.
The Left Behind book series is a very detailed rendering of the Apocalypse Script that I was given years before Jenkins and LaHaye wrote their version down. An event known as The Rapture (slated now to happen May 21st) will occur. This means that all of the individuals that had given their heart to Jesus as born-again Christians will suddenly disappear without explanation, including those too innocent to have a choice about their faith (e.g. babies). Pilots will disappear and planes will crash; there will thousands of car accidents; children and old people will go missing in a snap. A swirl of panic ensues, followed by looting and despair. The maelstrom of anxiety will be silenced by a new leader, the Antichrist, who will put a stop to all problems, implementing a new program where all citizens will be given the Mark. New Christians, privy to the revealed truth, will resist the Mark, knowing that it is code for Satan's dominion; they will then be put to death. I particularly remember this nasty bit of the Tribulation Period, which lasts seven years and climaxes with the Battle of Armageddon, being that one of the programs I watched as a child dramatized the death-walk of one such resister, ascending a scaffold leading to a guillotine.
Anyway, after that whole Armageddon thing and the final negative implications of the Antichrist, Jesus comes back with his flaming sword and host of angels, reclaiming Israel for the Jews and conquering Satan by having him once more cast into a Pit. 1000 years of peace on earth follows, after which Satan is released and thrown into a Lake of Fire, along with all the unrepentant sinners who took his Mark of the Beast. The Story is over, completed, final, with the good guys winning and bad guys eradicated absolutely. Amen and amen. Pure triumphalism.
But what if you rather enjoy your secular life? What if you have major disagreements with the ideals of Christianity or dislike the folks who are preaching this stuff to you in the first place? What if, as I was, your sexuality is budding when you hear all this stuff? Doesn't this mean that you have to put off sexual sin? Which is, essentially, all sexual activity outside of marriage? Not to mention the basic "sexual sins" that most teenage boys engage in out of necessity. Talk about a raw deal. What I wouldn't have given to be born ten years earlier! It was considered a fact in the Jack Van Impe world of affairs that George Bush would be the final president, and that the Rapture would probably hit around 1993 or 1994. We were definitely going to see some nuclear blasts by 1996 or 1997, a notion spoken not only by the Van Impes or Dwight Thompsons, but even more well known kookies like Pat Robertson. In your teen years, you can't wait to get laid, you can't wait to prepare for your future, you can't wait for the summer movie coming out in 13 months….
Why should I do my homework? What's the point? In school, our Bible class screened videos detailing the Rapture (in addition to other rip-roaring pot-boilers, for instance a group of teens getting in a car crash and waking up in a kind of cosmic DMV, where all but one of them must "Step to the left": i.e. Go to Hell). I have to admit, though there was an assembly of other pressures that kept me from doing particularly well in grade and high school, that whole "It's the End Anyway" factor played a chief role. Why should I know how to add a fraction, or explain the difference between an acid and base when I'd soon either be vaporized and in Heaven, or at least beheaded by ye olde guillotine?
So it seems that I had my own "Great Non-Event," as the Apocalypse just didn't reach the Twin Cities. But whereas some other Christians I know despair about the End being postponed, I took it as a relief. It meant that a lot of this stuff was probably bullshit anyway. It meant that I didn't have to believe in some Great Eye looking at my every move, or that I didn't have to feel bad about wanting lots of sex before marriage, or even marriage. But the thing about Faith, which is so fantastically drawn out by Flannery O'Connor in her novel Wise Blood (and by John Huston in his 1979 film of it), is that just as Belief is incessantly haunted by Unbelief, so too is Unbelief haunted by the specter of Belief. The Apocalypse implies Judgment. It implies that we are not free, that are secrets are not safe. The way Judgment Day was explained to me as a young teen was that every moment of our lives was ultimately to be shown – like as a movie – to every other human being who ever existed. And being that Judgment Day was set in Eternity, we had all the time in the world to look over everyone. Assuming we went alphabetically, I thought at least by the time they'd gotten around to me, everyone would be so numbed by what they'd already witnessed that my own embarrassments and failures would scarcely make much of an impression.
The Religious Life has one taking the Eternal quite seriously; the Secular Life, where you are guiltlessly afforded pleasures, means to jump into a kind of ever moving simulacrum of experiences, enjoying life in a carefree way while on the trip. Apocalypse stops the carousel of joy, and impales us with its grave seriousness. The base and primal material of human experience cancels out the escape of the simulacrum and we have to face up to our mortality, the implications of our existence, and a final judgment. It's almost like that Primal Matter of the Deeply Religious, connecting us to Death, to the Heart of Darkness, to Blood Sacrifice, whatever, is staved off like a bad childhood memory; it is necessary to repress if we are going to continue living in a birth-school-work-death fashion. Our worship is a simulation of religion, not real religion.
The linkages in this discussion thus are not only Apocalypse to Science Fiction, but also Apocalypse to Religion. The ideas of Apocalypse as relates to the comfort of our stable, everyday lives is expressed in The Last Temptation of Christ, where in his last temptation, Jesus lives as a family man with children, extramarital affairs, good food, drink, and general happiness. But as he gets older and dark clouds hover – in the form of Nero burning Jerusalem – the Eternal haunts him. He looks at the red sky, relating to God, like an old adversary he has avoided for decades. Now black time has come for its lapping up of the world. That is Apocalypse, and certainly the siege of Jerusalem around 70 A.D., during which some of the more apocalyptic sections of the New Testament were written, I believe, had an impact on the imaginations of the authors.
We can use our science and anthropology to disprove the Bible, or simply use our eyes for reading to point out the inherent contradictions. Going back to a detailed translation of the text reveals how passages we take for granted mean completely different things than we have been classically led to believe. But what if? What if Pat Robertson is right? What if Jack Van Impe is right? What if, even more interestingly, Osama Bin Laden is right? It's playing with those absurd 'what ifs' that gives Apocalypse some of its power. There's a paradox at work here that upsets my equilibrium. Whether the Apocalypse denotes Meaning or Unmeaning, there is no comfortable place to stand because of how helpless you are. In the Christian New Testament, we are doomed; just as we are doomed as alien food in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds; just as we are doomed as each other's food in the godless world of The Road, where our deepest sentiments are rendered moot. The End frustrates because it both calls us to Account, while also denying us any significance whatsoever. Death is Real, but we are not. Like the painting that held me rapt as a boy, it is the Triumph of Death.
Which brings me back to the safe zone of movies. Independence Day, 2012, Testament, The Mist, The Road, Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, La Jetee, 12 Monkeys, Strange Days, The Terminator saga, and in interesting interpretations Seven and Gangs of New York, all deal with the trepidation of the end of the world, but a large part of their appeal has less to do with the honest-to-God (very honest to God, indeed) questions about our terminal existence than it does with our basic sadism as a species. Just as humans loved gladiatorial spectacles, executions, and Judge Judy, a great deal of us get off on seeing pain and destruction inflicted on others upon the canvas of a film screen – so why not the eradication of everything? The crowning symbol of our Christian civilization is, after all, a man suffering the worst form of execution imaginable, hanging helpless on a cross, with a mocking crown of thorns on his head. And yet we're comfortably detached from the corporeal seriousness of the image, though it hangs over so many domestic quarters in our calm lives. We can understand why this anxiety existed in the Cold War years, producing Kiss Me Deadly (where a briefcase is opened at the conclusion, ending the world in a nuclear blast), Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe. Those were warnings and pleas, or in Strangelove's case, expressive of a need to laugh at the absurd situation we were in concerning our inventions. Laughter is our one consolation: Kubrick's subtitle is How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Even so, the prospects of nuclear winter following the detonation of the "Doomsday Machine" cannot help but haunt the cerebral viewer, as the sadistic former Nazi, Dr. Strangelove, patterns out a new system for human survival in the underground mines.
Themes of the absurd and modernism evolved naturally with the nuclear age, also so finely suited to the images and memories of the Holocaust and other atrocities during World War II. The documented fact of what was photographed and plausible by the mid 1940s proved that Kafka and the surreal was not as otherworldly as we would hope. Mary Shelley speculated on the "last man" in the early 19th century, but nuclear war made the idea of the Last Man inevitable. In Scorsese's Kundun, the Dali Lama watches newsreels detailing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the broadcaster quoting the pilots who saw the explosion: "We have seen what the last man in the last moment will see." Kundun represents a theology separate from the teleological linearity of popular Christianity, however, but nevertheless there is a fear and shock when the comforts of a culture are seized and destroyed. The attained goal for Kundun is the obliteration of the ego and surrendering oneself to Nothingness; Christianity (or rather popular Christianity) demands the ego remain alert and immortal. You will burn in Hell for your decisions. Nevertheless, even Kundun (perhaps because his film is being directed by a Catholic) is struggling with the "I" in the weight of "Eternity," and the "Last Man" puzzles him.
There's no specific place for me to start in thinking about the annihilation of the world in cinema. I'm not interested in it as a grand survey, but rather by pondering the speculative visions of the filmmakers I think have best expressed the weight of the End in balance with our civilized comforts. The problem with the high concept disaster movie with no-holds barred special effects, such as Independence Day and 2012, or say Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, is that it's too easy to compartmentalize the fear by virtue of the abundance of things we see. 2012, when we see a car jumping a train that's jumping a train, is almost as kookily funny as Dr. Strangelove, if you're in the right mood or have brought a flask to the theater. Like a horror film that does not show the monster, a filmmaker will be more effective by the power of suggestion. CGI shows us everything, but it kills the imagination. The mask of drama is recognized as a mask.
Those Christian videos we had to watch as children had dramatized moments, but they were played against footage of a real preacher. They were highly effective propaganda, particularly for fear-stricken kids (Guns are less frightening than Guillotines). The comfortable zone of what we accept as real is then in my grasp as a viewer, and I'm not escaping into drama. In apocalyptic cinema, the best thing one can do is weigh the fear of inevitable catastrophe and judgment as something on the horizon, like those clouds at the conclusion of the original Terminator. One of the best apocalyptic stories, and I've come to accept as the best apocalyptic movies, is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, made into a John Hillcoat film in 2009. McCarthy plugs us into the apocalyptic period but does not give us specifics about what exactly happened, though we can be certain that it has something to do with issues that we are now dealing with in our daily lives right now. McCarthy sensationalizes nothing, even the cannibalism, but plays the deep emotional connection between father and son as his focus. This makes The Road incredibly poignant but also more terrifying. Beyond our comforts as people with friends and families, the main assault of apocalypse is on those sentiments that tie such relationships together. Is love between a Man and Wife eternal? A father and son? A mother and son? Between two friends? Do we become desperate and vicious to each other, debasing altruism completely? The book The Road begins with a dream of a frightening creature gazed on from a distance, without conscience, simply predatory: "[On] the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark." This is the fearful face of Nature, our Nature, impersonal to our attachments. It simply devours, with the doll's eyes of a shark. And yet for the Man, his son is indicative of a transcendent presence: "If he is not the word of God God never spoke."
Hillcoat's film is unfortunate to have been based on such a great book. Only a very select few filmmakers (e.g. Terrence Malick, Wong Kar Wai) are able to create cinematic images that evoke a kind of equivalent poetry. Like Roger Ebert, I had to see the film twice to appreciate how good it was, being that it's so hard to forget McCarthy's peerless prose. If such a film is greeted with mixed notices on a first viewing, and then opens in limited release with hopes of expanding, it is doomed. It was more disheartening to see the trailer months before release, where The Road had news footage of cataclysmic disaster: the trailer implied that the movie would explain away McCarthy's mystery.
Thankfully, it did not, and the trailer was just an ill-conceived marketing ploy to make the story seem more alluring to disaster-hungry audiences. The film is as perfectly executed as it could be, providing the aftermath of apocalypse but with natural sets and limited CGI, filmed around Mount St. Helen's, abandoned highways in the American Northeast, and near the far-reaching wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. Best of all it has Viggo Mortensen as the Man, flawlessly generating stolid toughness and the most tender compassion to his son. Mortensen can suggest eons of events and disaster through his eyes, representing humanity's last stand against pure animal carnivorousness. But he is not above showing a kind of sadistic defensiveness, for example towards another lonely drifter that has stolen some of their articles. The Man and the Boy have each other, but the poor drifter has nothing. Fears of apocalypse relate not only to depravity and cruelty, but also then to utter loneliness: no relations, no friends, no compassion, no altruism.
The most stirring apocalyptic film for me is Peter Weir's The Last Wave, a 1977 Australian production about a lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) defending aborigines who may be clued into secret knowledge pertaining to a catastrophe that might be heading to the continent's shores. The reason why the film works again is connected to how Weir is making a film about middle class people who wake up to find out that they may possibly be in an extraordinary position where their comfort supply is coming to an end. You have the lawyer, his wife, and his children; you have the spectacular though mundane and banal developments of the city. But then you have the aborigines, whose history traces back over 50,000 years. It is an ancient sense of history that modern civilization, always locked in the present moment and neatly categorizing history for its official records, cannot begin to understand.
White culture has worked to separate the local aborigines from their history through their efficient process of categories. If they are City Aborigines, they cannot be Tribal Aborigines, and therefore the law must look at them as it does its large white population; notions such as "black magic" cannot be considered in a court case (whereas it would be legitimate if the aborigines were from a tribal reservation). The aborigines' link to the past also keeps them attuned to the "Dreamtime," a whole different reality which an anthropologist in the film describes as "being more real than real." And what is a dream? A dream, an aborigine tells the lawyer, is a shadow of something real. And the content of the lawyer's dreams is troubling, bearing relation to the strange weather happening, such as hail storms occurring in places without clouds, cyclones being out of season, or ceaseless rain. Clues and symbols in addition to dream content insinuate that the Earth is approaching the end of a cycle, which means a period of destruction will occur – before a rebirth.
Plot is one thing, but The Last Wave is an apocalyptic masterpiece by virtue of how it stirs its elements together to create a deliberate atmosphere of grim imminence for people not at all ready for it. Weir is apparently an avid reader of Jung, and as in his previous film Picnic at Hanging Rock, he melds the importance of religious dream symbols and the permanence of the Earth with the transitory customs of human civilization which are comparably insignificant. The lawyer is put in a position where he has no choice but to face the Eternal, which cuts through the babbling legalese of his daily existence. He confronts his tender stepfather, a minister. "Why didn't you tell me there was a mystery?" he asks. In white culture, the mystery is explained away and people are fed the reassurances of safety.
The implication of The Last Wave is that the aborigines are more at peace with this secret knowledge of the cyclical patterns of destruction and rebirth; communing with their dreams, they exist all around Time, whereas the white men, who record their own family histories in a linear fashion (something detailed in the picture), is living in a perpetual present moment that repeats itself – until it doesn't. In the end, the tsunami wave is inescapable. But the lawyer does not run in fear anymore. After descending into the depths of who he is and confronting the hidden shadow self in his dreams, he approaches the water and waits for it (if it's real; there is much ambiguity in The Last Wave), perhaps not unafraid but accepting the cycle, the dream, the rain.
One could criticize The Last Wave for sentimentalizing the aborigines as noble savages, but the film is only establishing an idea of how the Eternal symbols that we grow up with do not mean anything, unless Death becomes a certain reality. The lawyer's daughter has dreams that are also troubling, and says that she saw Jesus. "I love Jesus," she says to her parents. "He loves you too," the mother responds tearfully, but the implication of such an answer means that the mother is pressed by the notion of having to finally take Jesus seriously. The moment becomes frightening because both the lawyer and his wife are scared that the world the aborigines have opened them to is revelatory of something terrible on the horizon, discounting the lives and connectedness of this successful, middle class family unit.
The End of the World is like a dying human being recounting the distant glimpses of his own past, retouching the elements he had and lost in his youth. The being falls back into his sleep where the archetypes and gods of his past dwell, along with the formative events – both of his biography and of his species. Another great apocalypse film – which is in contention for being the best – is Chris Marker's experimental short from 1962, La Jetee, which plays out entirely in still photographs with voiceover narration and live, but beguiling, sounds. The protagonist in La Jetee stands on an airport pier – the sounds of technological modernity encompassing things – and he fixates on a smiling woman. He holds her gaze in his mind for years, long after the nuclear holocaust that followed the next moment. Paris has been destroyed and the survivors live underground. Scientists are having prisoners go through time travel experiments to find out what they can from the past, but La Jetee's hero is simply interested in finding out more about the mysterious woman he saw on the pier as a child.
He meets her in the past and becomes her special friend, but also goes into the future to get the secret for human survival. He believes that he is freed from his duties, escaping execution from his post-apocalyptic captors by having his future friends take him back to that special moment in the past, where he can join the mysterious woman he loves. But then he realizes that his captors have followed him. He is gunned down in front of his childhood self, on the pier, moments before the nuclear bomb will explode. The memory that has haunted him since his youth has been the moment of his own death.
The scenario of La Jetee is familiar to viewers of Terry Gilliam's Hollywood take (though very unconventional, and wonderful, by Hollywood standards), 12 Monkeys. The theme of both films is that time cannot be altered: the End will happen and there is nothing that can be done about it. The salvation for the present was fixed for the present only, the protagonist being a mere pawn in the whole ordeal. La Jetee is haunting not only because the still images seem to act more in accordance to how glimpses of memories work (and memories only become memories, Marker tells us, because of the scars they leave), but because of the antiquitous music, a Requiem mass that pulls the future back into the past, just as it puts our present into a foreboding future. 12 Monkeys, being a Terry Gilliam film, is not nearly as frightening in an apocalyptic sense, but still haunts with its provocations regarding Time, the messy Present, and how we as film viewers expect to see the given scenario of "the present," which we already know, play out. The film's two main characters (Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe) hide in a movie theater playing Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film about characters doomed to repeat the past, and Willis' character notes how his situation as a time traveler is no different from someone watching a movie again: you know how the movie will end, but you still watch it hoping something new will happen.
His character should know: he is a walking Christ allegory. His name is James Cole, the JC denoting his symbolic Christ predicament (James Cameron's Terminator saga gives similar Christlike treatment to its hero, John Connor). Cole has been sent from 2029 into the pre-apocalyptic past of 1996, by the "God" figure collective, a group of imperial scientists lording over the underground. There are also John the Baptists (the manic street preacher, apparently a refugee from the Future), a Judas (Brad Pitt's crazy animal rights activist), a Mary Magdalene (Madeline Stowe's psychiatrist), and a Holy Spirit (the strange voice that speaks to Cole at times). Gilliam, who's made an artistic career of skewering efficiency both in business/government (Brazil) and religion (the Supreme Being in Time Bandits and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) plays with the scientists'/Gods' inadequacy with Cole (he ends up in 1992 instead of 1996 at first, then back in World War I, etc), whose purpose is ultimately to die at the airport of his youth, the same way Marker's protagonist dies in La Jetee. His actions amount to securing the scientists' "insurance" package for the future, so that they can find the virus that killed 99% of the population in 1996 and cure it in the future: they do not want to prevent the past from happening. They want to save the human race, but only if they can secure their own powerful positions.
12 Monkeys and La Jetee ask a question about apocalyptic inevitability. Even in an over-industrialized, polluting and over-populated world headed straight to hell, would we prefer things as they are as opposed to the rebirth? The saved world after the apocalypse, or the world as we know it? James Cole, or Chris Marker's protagonist, are not interested in a cure. Rather, they want to go back to their lives before the Eternal became a fact to which they were held accountable and under constant observation. Marker's film voices the protagonist's longing: "Rather than this pacified future, he wanted the world of his childhood, and this woman that was perhaps waiting for him." We want both the pasts – and the presents – we have lost. Not a utopia or redeemed future.
12 Monkeys is photographed in grime and bears the hallmarks of Terry Gilliam's extreme style of wide angle lenses, dissonant sounds, and over the top performances, like Pitt's (I would also contend that Bruce Willis gives his best ever performance in the movie). Dystopia is not only a part of 2029, but is in the present day of 1995/1996 Baltimore with too many people and too much apathy. There's a curious connective tissue with it to another Brad Pitt movie from the same year, David Fincher's Seven.
Seven is not merely a serial killer, as far as I'm concerned; it's an apocalypse film, and it is that dimension as an apocalyptic film that gives it a distinction from the standard investigative thriller. When Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) describes to his boss (R. Lee Ermey) a violent crime, his boss says with worried eyes, "It's the way it's always been." But this is the statement of somebody trying to convince themselves of something, and hold off despair with a broad picture which may be a delusion. I do the same thing when people point out the weather to me: It's the way it's always been, but we simply have more reporting, more tracking, more precise data. But what if I'm wrong?
Seven is a picture that communicates the post-Christian anxieties of a world that is apathetic on one side, and yet burgeoning with new, dangerous, fundamentalist belief on the other, appropriate considering that Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition made its Faustian pact with the Republican Party in the late 1980s, the social issues of abortion and gay rights being hugely significant in swaying how many people would vote. The idea here – both for John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in the film Seven and activist Christians at the time – was to make the carefree apathy and hedonism associated with abortion and gay sex (sin and anything relating to sexuality go hand in hand, even if in truth they don't) a kind of parallel to Sodom and Gomorrah. In Bible class, we were shown videos put together by anti-abortion groups that made the link explicit. Such behavior – "dancing, fucking, living without a care," as John Doe puts it – necessitates the wrath of God, and John Doe is that wrath.
That's the fear imbued throughout Seven: this is not merely a psychopath, but possibly, just possibly, someone who has a point. Somerset tells his ignorant partner, Mills (Brad Pitt), that he can only be disappointed with the outcome of the investigation. That is unless John Doe's head splits open and a UFO flies out. The climax of Seven works well enough in heightening its suspense, as the detectives escort John Doe out to a field in exchange for a full confession and guilty plea, that we feel something outrageous like a UFO coming out of John Doe's head might actually happen. Mills is the vehicle for the audience, representing our positivist, humanistic perspectives; he does not have Somerset's deliberative, skeptical, and inquisitive nature that accepts nothing as black and white. It is difficult to fathom the judgment laid out for Mills, which is the judgment laid out for the general human collective in apocalypse: in the Bible it is written that God will take the hot and the cold, but the lukewarm he will spew out of his mouth. We are all, living secular existences governed by economic exchanges while ritualizing archaic symbols that we nevertheless fail to take seriously (as in The Last Wave), lukewarm. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's wonderful South Park universe, the best and most biting social satire in all art (including avant garde) today, hilariously takes God and the Bible very seriously, by giving population counts for both heaven and hell: Heaven is strictly populated by Mormons and has the population of a mid-level suburb; Hell is growing like the national debt, in the billions. It's a joke that anyone with an exclusivist religious background can find very much on the mark, and precious by virtue of how no good citizen or progressive artist would dare touch it.
Seven was a movie that anticipated the coming millennium. It understood the general subconscious of its time, which was not at all imminently worried about the year 2000, but probably in many cases nevertheless had an irritable "what if?" about it. "It's the way it always was" is an excuse people give to live as comfortably as they always have, without making changes or proposing sacrifice. Something I loved about Oliver Stone's new Wall Street film, Money Never Sleeps, was how it had a subtle atmosphere of impending doom strewn throughout its entire fabric, the new, informatic and globally networked world teetering on a coming collapse. Even so, human beings repress the need for change, going on silly motorcycle races and to swanky charity benefits. There's a wry joke to Stone's happy ending of domestic closure and bliss. The credits roll with the Talking Heads music that ended the first film, released in 1987, as bubbles blown burst in the air. The original Wall Street was a warning – and things only got worse. Money Never Sleeps was widely misinterpreted as having an all-too-cheery happy ending, but it's really about how the comforts of our technology and money act to shroud us from prospects of doom.
Stone's Natural Born Killers from 1994 was also eerily apocalyptic in anticipating a coming chaos of pure annihilation, blending notions of the End with many religious images and arcane ghosts that television and film have either blotted out or sentimentalized. It joins Seven in being a grave prediction of things to come. Stone's Nixon from 1995 has an unsettling air of the End approaching, CIA Director Richard Helms, in a scene that's genuinely frightening, quoting Yeats' "The Second Coming": "What rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Another film from 1995, Kathryn Bigelow's magnificent Strange Days, is similarly grim but also sees possibilities of hope. I saw Strange Days for the first time the same day I first sneaked into a theater to see Seven (October 7 of that year…a very cold, depressing, rainy day indeed). It was unfair – and brutal – of me to watch two such films for the first time on the same day. Strange Days is a remarkable work that has taken well over a decade to be appreciated, and perhaps it had no other choice. Written and produced by James Cameron, Strange Days is densely packed with a lot to chew on: apocalypse, cyborg technology, race relations, a film viewer's relationship to the film they are watching, etc. Cameron specializes in engineering movies that are accessible and adored by everyone on the first viewing (Aliens, The Terminator films, Titanic, True Lies, Avatar), but Strange Days is the best thing with his name on it, in part because it demands a lot of time to digest.
Its success is due to its director, Cameron's ex-wife Bigelow, who seems to have more balls – in addition to brains – than most of her male counterparts, Cameron included. Set around New Year's Eve, 1999, Strange Days follows a hustler, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who sells a new kind of black market technology (SQUID) that neurologically shoots a person into a live recorded experience of another person; given the sexual possibilities, SQUID is a hit. Life is pure simulation in Lenny's world, and as one character (Tom Sizemore) points out, "Everything's been done already," adding later, "What does it matter? The world's going to end soon anyway." Strange Days luxuriates in the post-modern condition.
But the world doesn't end, even though Bigelow has made the experience of Strange Days, with sci-fi spectacle, huge emotions, provocative ideas, and disarming shock (a criminal uses a SQUID device on a woman he is raping and going to kill, hooking her apparatus up to his, so that she sees and feels what he is doing – something that only a woman director could probably show effectively), so much that when the ending washes over us with confetti flying in the air, lives lost, dreams broken, and hope born, the sense is that we have lived through and survived the end of the world, or what is left of it.
As in Strange Days, when the year 2000 arrived nothing really changed. But 9/11 soon after froze people in a panic, making them eagerly turn back to their religion and to mystic seers like Nostradamus. Though what happened that day is something that other peoples have to deal with all the time, the image of the burning towers is perfectly apocalyptic: it is the modern symbol of constant commerce, success, stability, and comfort being destroyed by carnal, base, arcane fury striking in the name of God. Even though Al Qaeda actually embodies the modern condition as much as any other politically radical organization, the religious context and indescribable barbarism of the 9/11 hijackings carries the sense of civilization encountering its forgotten and ignored frothing and animal self.
Paul Greengrass' United 93 breathes the apocalyptic frenzy of the End as it Happens, even if it isn't the End. The film begins with a prayer as the camera hovers over the carefree modernity of Boston. There is fundamentally little difference between what the hijackers bring into United 93's narrative and what the aborigines do in The Last Wave; the distinction lies in the result: the lawyer accepts the incoming wave in a kind of sublime clarity, whereas United 93 ends in a tumult of ferocity. It is the cyclical notion of the End versus the Teleological, where either Heaven or Hell is at the end of a straight temporal line.
Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was criticized for its inclusion of the Twin Towers at its epilogue, a series of dissolves showing New York change over 100 years. But Gangs of New York is an apocalyptic movie if ever there was one, with futurism projected far into the past. The masterful opening 15 minutes, as rival gangs go to battle, suggests George Miller's Mad Max films. "Civilization is crumbling," Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) says later, and indeed "civilization" hangs on a thin wire, like it does in United 93, or Children of Men, another film where the apocalypse feels like it's urgently happening. The Draft Riots that conclude Gangs of New York are surreal in their details of a world run amok, with soldiers firing on citizens, angry mobs storming aristocratic houses, Negroes being found and hanged, and, most glaringly, P.T. Barnum's circus elephants roaming the streets. But it's from such chaos, the film says, that new order is built and identities are constructed.
9/11 indirectly had another effect on a movie which was pulled from release because of eerie parallels in its images to real life events. Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko toys with the end of the world, but in watching Kelly's work we understand that there is no distinction between the planet Earth and his human protagonists: his protagonists are suicidal, and with that suicide wish there is a dream of stopping all time. Kelly is surely exercising his own demons and contemplations of a biographical past. Donnie Darko is set in 1988, the seat of the director's own adolescence. The main character (Jake Gyllanhall) knows that the world is going to end and makes inquiries into the prospect of time travel. But the end of the world is the end of his own life; he will die of his own free will – rejecting a kind of "last temptation" to find love and more time – so that the girl he loves can live; if she never gets to meet him, she will not die. The deep question of suicide is like prophecy to the End of the World: it is irresistible and necessary. Kelly even frames his Director's Cut of the picture with pop songs by vocalists who committed suicide (Michael Hutchence of INXS with "Never Tear Us Apart"; Ian Curtis from Joy Division with "Love Will Tear Us Apart"), both intense and good looking young men, like Donnie Darko.
Kelly's ill-fated follow-up was Southland Tales, an attempt to meld Dr. Strangelove, Brazil, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!, an attractive proposition that fails because Kelly's satire is obscured by his political sincerity. The world itself is suicidal in Southland Tales, but again I believe that the world is mainly a metaphor for the director's own consciousness. He fills the film up with his own 1980s nostalgia, casting supporting actors who find pop cultural resonance in the bygone decade of his youth. The nuclear bomb to end everything is a perverse form of wish fulfillment; just as Donnie Darko is psychologically out of shape and overmedicated, the Earth of Kelly's 2005 is on its own road to nihilism. There may be worth in the film, but not as satire like in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or fear as in Fail Safe. Southland Tales is a document of the mind, of memory, of sensations; its root is probably in Kelly's hero, David Lynch, having odd familiarities with Lynch's unproduced end-of-the-world scenario One Saliva Bubble, just as Donnie Darko certainly has roots in Lynch's unproduced Ronnie Rocket.
My favorite of his efforts, again dealing with the world's end, is his last one, though it was unfortunately unappreciated during release. The Box is set in the mid 1970s, where a happy family (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) is interrupted by a stranger (Frank Langella) who gives them a box. If they press the red button on the box, they will get a lot of money. The downside is that someone – no one they know – will die. This is a swell horror movie set-up, but the revelations bring it closer to the territory of Kelly's earlier films. The stranger is in fact hosting an alien, and the box is a test that aliens have given to humans. Time after time, human beings prove unworthy, giving themselves up to the riches of the box instead of having the ability to feel sympathy for an unseen person. The result, it is implied, is the extermination of the human species. But the box's significance is a clever metaphor. It is surely, with its red (Kubrickian) eye, a form of computer and represents the lifestyle and device that human beings will turn themselves over to in the End Time, or at least until the aliens come to bulldoze the planet for an intergalactic bypass (to recall another great end of the world yarn, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The Mark of the Beast, if we are to take my own reading of 666 being a barcode or computer chip, is the embrace of the digital over the real, evaporating into the air of nothingness as opposed to partaking the body and blood of God.
But it will be okay. Even with the tornadoes, tsunamis, Mad Cow disease, reality TV shows, peak oil, lack of water, shark attacks, tick diseases, earthquakes, and what have you, it's always been like this, right? Right?
And then the lights don't go on. The internet doesn't work. You have no water. And you're cooking the dog for food, etc.
Though Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds was escapism and little else, Orson Welles' original radio broadcast of Welles' book is one of the most effective portrayals of the End, as it kept so much of it in the dark. Radio might then be a better medium for apocalyptic fear; the less specific things are, the better: La Jetee is much more unnerving than 12 Monkeys, the older film being armed only with its still frame photographs, just as the frustrated normality of The Last Wave works better than 2012. Up until its outlandish climax, on the other hand, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs perfectly works as a mainstream, big budget rendition of doom and the Triumph of Death, closing off its witnesses from what's happening. Volumes are suggested by a television station that's down (something that also works in the George Romero zombie films), much more than spaceships firing laser beams.
Assuming we even think about the end of the world, it's a private matter. A documentary suggestion of its arrival, like in a volcanic Ring of Fire omnifilm special or a film like Collapse, exercises our imaginations to create the rest: trembling, scoffing, laughing at, or flatly shrugging off the result.
In the meantime, as of late the news has been giving us plenty of ammunition. But whether it's May 21st, 2011, October 21st, 2011, or December 21st, 2012, the main question we have to ask with a decision to be made very carefully is when is the right time in these end times to max out all of our credit cards, and if we do, oh won't it suck if we're stuck with the debt in March of 2013. Sins held to account indeed. With interest.