Amoeblog

No Atheists in the Afterlife? Thirst (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 16, 2009 11:30pm | Post a Comment
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A fantastic adaptation of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Not that I've ever read any Zola, mind you, but I've read about him. Maybe after I've finished working my way through the entire output of the 19th century Russian realists, I'll be ready. If only Zola had featured more vampires in his stories .... Well, Chan-Wook Park knows how to get me interested in realism, at least -- same as the Russians -- with ideological discussions of atheism.

Sang-hyeon is a Catholic priest with a martyr complex or strong death drive (amounts to the same thing, I suppose), who plays guinea pig in a macabre experiment to help doctors find a cure for a virus that's particularly dangerous to Korean men. He's the only one to survive the voluntary infection, due to a  transfusion using vampire blood. The catch is that he now needs to feed on normal human blood to keep from sweating his own and breaking out in disfiguring boils. Initially, he's racked by guilt over his bodily urges, which leads to his sucking on a comatose patient's IV and a fellow priest, Noh, who has a more sanguine attitude about the vampire virus. Sang-hyeon sees vampirism as a loss of humanity, whereas Noh sees it as a gift, and a potential cure for his blindness. Due to his miracle cure, the vampire picks up a religious following of Catholics who see him as another messiah, parallel to that other popular tale of transfiguration. Is he a vampire who walks like a man, or man who acts like a vampire?

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Despite the similarities, Thirst doesn't belong to the "vegetarian" vampirism that Buffy made popular and can now be seen in Twilight. It was easy to sympathize with Buffy's beau, because when Angel did evil deeds, it was as the soulless Angelus, who constituted a separate identity (even if the two entities shared the same body and memories, they certainly had no control over what the other did). There's no identity switcheroo in Twilight, but the good vampire Edward is able to survive on animal blood (see 'carouche'). Angel was capable of that, too, having lived on rats for many years after regaining his soul. Furthermore, the two diegeses share a supernaturally enforced Victorian restraint, since the vampires get real thirsty for their lovers when sex is involved. Taking blood and sex out of the equation pretty much makes hash out of vampires, since they're reduced to a more pathetic version of us, but with superpowers. Instead, Park's film is closer in its themes to another vampire show that sometimes gets lumped into the vegetarian subgenre, True Blood.

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Maybe because it's on HBO or because it's not written by a Mormon, but True Blood manages to defang the mythology without violating it (although the hamfisted erotic dialog comes close). Here vampires keep their sanguinary sexual desires, are responsible for previous slaughters, and have to choose to live off of synthetic human blood (like only shopping the frozen food aisle). Making a somewhat analogous case to Peter Singer's animal rights argument, Southern gentleman/-vampire Bill Compton has come to view humans as deserving of the same rights as his own kind, since we're capable of the same feelings as he, if not moreso. Whereas True Blood's moral questioning is basically utilitarian, Thirst's is faith-based. The divine image has been transmogrified into a distorted mirror, so is Sang-hyeon still obligated to God's favored creature? If the vampire is nothing more than pure carnality, then its moral status is that of all the other animals not given the lead in the story of Eden. Scorpions aren't being immoral when they strike.

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Thirst's vampiric version of the 19th century nihilist is Tae-joo, an orphaned girl who came under the care of the domineering Lady Ra and her spoiled, sickly boy, Kang-woo. Rather than being raised as the boy's adopted sister, Tae-joo became his caretaker and wife. Sang-hyeon was a childhood friend to the family and, post-transformation, meets up with them again when Ra comes begging for a miracle to cure her son. Between games of mah-jongg with the family and friends, the priest and the wife begin to slip away for bouts of hedonism that's erotic in a way the metalhead couple making out in a mall could appreciate. Based on how she grew up, Tae-joo doesn't see much that's special in humanity, so wants nothing more than to leave it all behind by being turned. After a series of sinful events, including the plan to kill Kang-woo, Sang-hyeon grants her the salvation she desires. That's when he discovers that some vampires are more Darwinian than others. She's pure survival-of-the-fittest with nothing filling up the hole of faith. Humans are reduced to the status of actors -- that is, cattle -- and she's the only director that matters. Feeling himself drawn to the abyss, with his monstrous status of being nothing but an animal, only with the ungodly power to upset the divine heirarchy, Sang-hyeon can see no other moral choice than self-immolation -- and, thus, the movie's central conflict. Obviously, the couple hasn't read much utilitarianism or other atheistic moral philosophies. They might've discovered with Bill that there's more of a connection to humanity than the forced choice between nihilism and theistic middle-management allows.

Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 2: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 30, 2009 02:07pm | Post a Comment
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Being a congenital skeptic, I had expected Lost to go the way of other fantasy shows exploring the issue of faith. It began by establishing the central antagonism between its central characters, the rationalist doctor Jack Shephard (the de facto leader -- get it?) and the faith-filled, ironically named John Locke (the namesake of the famous British empiricist whose philosophical inbred progeny was one B. F. Skinner). In regaining the use of his legs after crashing on the island, Locke was granted something of his own revelation. By way of this objective correlative, Locke and the audience had a inkling that there was something more to the island than Jack's skepticism allowed. Throw in a smoke monster, people coming back from the dead and time travel and any reasonable person starts sympathizing with Nochimson's vaginal heroism. The lure is there to wrap the antagonism up in the same generic package as all the aforementioned failed fantasy programs. Affirm faith by killing it with literalism (compare the deracinated horror of Stephen King's CGI-infested movie-adpatation of his The Shining to the dread of Stanley Kubrick's).

Seems to me that faith is both an opening and a closing. The believer must remain open to mysterious possibilities that defy the normative limits given by our best explanatory models while digging his heels in the sand and claiming his irrationally derived belief is the truth. Therefore, faith requires mystery. If the implausible is made normative, as it is so often in fantasy, there is no faith involved. Of course, the recipient (viewer, reader) must maintain a level of faith by way of the classic suspension of disbelief. Similarly, lest the believer become a mere ideologue, he must live with uncertainity, a nagging suspicion that he might be wrong (i.e., not all that different from the fantasy genre's suspension requirement).

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Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 1: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 24, 2009 10:32am | Post a Comment
When Twin Peaks veers into the conventions of illusionism, which pay homage to the rationalist's faith in a phallic force and properly directed will, the series loses its sense of the benign subconscious and the affirming power of femininity. In the later episodes, the seeker regresses into a stereotypical hero. Proper reason directing Cooper's will becomes the heroic focus of the action against the typical perverse will and reason of the villain. The traditional conquest of Earle -- not the desire to see -- becomes the desire of the series. -- Martha P. Nochimson, David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, p. 93

The only thing Columbus discovered was that he was lost! -- Wyndom Earle

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Since Ron Moore and colleagues sank my Battlestar, the only show I've cared about is Lost. As the former demonstrated, TV is determined by its own law of entropy, where any show gets worse in direct proportion to the length of time it's on times the structural quality (plot, characters, diegesis, etc.) that the creators initially developed. Clearly, BSG went on for about 2 years longer than the initial fund of creativity allowed. Its keg was all but tapped by the beginning of the third season. Given its tenuous beginning, Moore probably thought his show wouldn't make it much past the mini-series, hoping that he'd at least have one of those cult-celebrated shows that could've been. On the other side of the coin, TV executives don't much care about quality, but about how long they can wring some advertising dollars out of the shows they're broadcasting. As such, they are creatures of chaos, encouraging the steady dissolution of the creative order; they are, in a word, demonic. It's the nature of the beast that creators have to get in bed with these incubi to give birth to a TV show. This Faustian dialectic requires as much blind faith from the creators as it does money being thrown about by investors. Little wonder, then, why so many SF-fantasy shows are predisposed to defending faith over reason. As articles of faith in the face of overwhelming odds, they came into being as the result of big, dumb chance.

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A classic example is X-Files, which burned out after the third season and whose endings justified every ludicrous theory the conspiracist Agent Mulder came up with. After a few years of this, the skepticism of Agent Scully's ratiocinations came across as implausible, or just plain dumb. Faith in something that's demonstratively true isn't really faith; it's empirical knowledge. Contrary to some interpretations, X-Files didn't really analyze the role of faith, so much as side-step it by making the supernatural natural. You'd be one stupid hobbit to doubt magic in Middle-Earth. The hero in an absurdist universe can either fight it like Agent 6 did in The Prisoner, or just embrace it like Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. On the former journey -- Kafkaesque in its structure -- lies madness, cancellation and no end to the story, much like what waits for the rationalist in the real world; on the latter, you get a better chance at a few more seasons, but, like a business going public and expanding, the product begins to feel like a cheap imitation (just look at X-Files).

Contrariwise, David Lynch and Mark Frost built the possibility for endless expansion into Twin Peaks with the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder -- what Lynch has called "the golden goose." They intended to keep it ongoing indefinitely while exploring the epiphenomenal mysteries arising from the central investigation. ABC felt that endless mystery would tax the faith of viewers, and "asked" the creators to wrap up the Laura storyline in the second season. The end of that mystery wasn't all that killed the show's élan: both Frost and Lynch went away to work on other projects, turning the reins over to a bunch of cheap Lynch clones, resulting in a whole lot of James and Lucy. It was with the return of Frost that the show began to regain some sense of direction, but more along the lines of the classic good versus evil struggle to which Nochimson alludes in the above quote. Agent Cooper now had a Moriarty, Wyndom Earle, a damsel in distress, Annie, and there was a white lodge to go along with the black one -- tropes that a Jungian once called archetypes, but are now known as clichés. Nochimson is herself a Jungian feminist who sees Cooper as a hero-seeker, a protagonist who leaves himself open to questions, tapping into the universal unconscious, rather than one who is out to conquer the Other. Openness, you see, is the province of universal femininty -- think the woman's classic coital role ('classic' should here be read as another synonym for 'cliché', or 'stereotype'). Reason is phallic, controlling, penetrating, and thusly the province of masculinity.

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Despite the reductionistic men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus rhetoric, Nochimson's book gets it right that Lynch isn't much of an us-versus-them sort of narrator. As becomes increasingly evident from Blue Velvet to Inland Empire, all of his protagonists possess a Hermann Hesse-duality that drives the narrative more than some external battle with another. However, Cooper is his purest hero, only shown to face his dark side when Lynch returned for season 2's finale. By listening to his dreams and going with his occult intuition, Cooper might be considered a man of faith, albeit one who doesn't put all his eggs in one basket. (These eggs aren't of the hysterical kind, though.) But he was until the final episode, and against Nochimson's reading, always in control. He asked the right questions and proffered the best hypotheses again and again. I'd say, given the preternatural realm of Twin Peaks, Cooper belongs philosophically with his cohort Agent Mulder to Noam Chomsky's brand of rationalism. ("Mulder" even pops up in Twin Peaks as an FBI investigator in drag, an agent of scientifico-rationalism mocking the identity politics inherent in Nochimson's account.)


Against the bottom-feeding positivism of behaviorism that was dominant back in the 50s, Chomsky countered that unobservable mental models (the a priori, or given) were necessary to understand linguistic behavior. Scientific discovery, like language learning, is guided by models, where one has an initial theory that undergoes modification as experience dictates (I speak loosely here, so see these entries on Universal Grammar and Modularity if you're curious). If the data is consistent with the theoretical model, no change is necessary; it is, for all intents and purposes, rational knowledge. Mulder and Cooper's seemingly outlandish theories might not work in our world, but they tended to be confirmed by (were consistent with their experiences in) their own diegeses. Their faith is more analogous to David Hume believing that one billiard ball will move when struck by another, i.e., it always had in the past (as far as he knew).