Sunday, September 5, 2010

Martyrs: The New Passion Play

Perhaps as a reaction to the uproar over movies like Antichrist and Srpski Film, I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of morality to horror film. I'm eventually going to spend a whole post rooting around in these ideas, and as I've been shaping it in my head, I've also started thinking about the relationship between horror films and fables and how  in the U.S., our fables and fairytales have been shaped (and changed) by a largely Christian morality that eschews ambiguity for certainty, for the happy (or at least instructive) ending.

Our horror films do much the same thing. This gets me to thinking about the instructiveness of tragedy or a more existential (if less comforting) take on the genre. Maybe it's this Western sensibility that inures us to shitloads of gore but gets us all up in arms if violence or suffering is presented without ironic distance. We need our happy endings, the wicked punished and the good triumphant.

But that's at least another post if not two. I also think about how horror movies spend a lot of time on the figures of the Christian pantheon - Satan, demons, rogue angels, etc. (still waiting for a big-budget adaptation of the Book of Revelation) - but not so much the church itself. Sure, there's the occasional renegade priest or church built atop a site of evil or whatever, but not so much the church as it actually has operated. The Passion of the Christ was way, way gorier than Hostel (and predated it by a year, making it the first torture porn film), and the Bible itself is filled with all kinds of awful stuff, presumably meant to be a cautionary tale. The Passion Play began as a folk reenactment of the trial, suffering, sacrifice, and transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth, and few details were spared, lest we underestimate the magnitude of what he did for others.

This has more to do with Martyrs than you might think.

The movie opens with a young girl running through what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. She is bloody, bruised, running out into the street barefoot and screaming. This cuts to grainy documentary footage of people exploring the abandoned building she escaped, pointing out where she was kept. She wasn't raped, but she was abused, chained to a toilet chair, beaten and starved. Nobody knows why, the girl (Lucie) won't say anything.

Lucie grows up in an orphanage, and through the documentary footage we see her grow. She starts almost feral, but over time the care and attention of another girl named Anna, she starts to come out of her shell. The heads of the orphanage want to find the people who tortured Lucie, but her memory isn't good. Anna may be the only friend she has - Lucie tells her what she can remember (which is very little), but makes Anna promise to keep some things secret.  She tells Anna not to say anything about the deep cuts that keep appearing on her arms…

…or the shadowy, emaciated figure who comes to her in the night and makes them.

We flash forward 15 years later, and a suburban family of four are sitting down to breakfast, squabbling about school and potential boyfriends and the torments siblings afflict on each other. The squealing daughter is being chased by the brother in a domestic parody of the movie's opening. Mother repairs a pipe in the backyard, father answers the door.

Lucie is standing there with a shotgun.

What follows is essentially the story of what we are willing to do for (and to) other people, and what happens when we stop running. Lucie runs from her captors, runs from the withered phantom who haunts and hurts her, runs until she can no longer run. Anna runs from what Lucie is, whether she intends to or not, until Lucie calls her for help and she answers, tending to Lucie's wounds, stitching up repeatedly scarred flesh. She's all Lucie has. Lucie has done something terrible, and terrible things keep happening to Lucie. Something follows her around, and at a certain point we begin to wonder how stable Lucie is and what loyalty is going to cost Anna.

Martyrs has a very specific story to tell, but does an excellent job of keeping us guessing. Who kept Lucie captive? Was it for her own good? By what is Lucie haunted? What connection does it have to her? How far will Anna go to protect her friend? How far will she go to protect everyone else? The answers aren't always obvious, and the less you know about the movie going in, the better.  At the end of the day, all of the blood and scars and wounds and suffering are, surprisingly, with great, ancient purpose. Transcendence through ordeal. It is a painful story told in splashes of red, sharp metal, harsh, unforgiving light, and the fist's hard report against flesh. Like the story of Jesus, it ends in salvation even if we can argue about whose salvation it is.

It is a rare movie that shows us something horrible and asks us to find something noble in it. Martyrs is one of the best attempts in my recent memory. It is a passion play for the modern age.

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  1. It's a mistake to equate Christian morality (if that's what you're doing) with a refusal of ambiguity. Only a very base, misunderstood form of Christian thought would refute ambiguity.I don't know if that's what you're saying, however.
    I think that often times, things/issues secularists would prefer to be left ambiguous are not, in Christian thought, while the things left ambiguous in Christian morality are the things that Traditional Western morality chooses to leave to mystery.

  2. I'm approaching it more from the belief in a just world - that the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished. This isn't an exclusively Christian outlook, but it's pretty important in Christianity, and Christianity is pretty well sunk into the culture of the United States. I think as a result things like moral ambiguity and the possibility of unearned victory or undeserved tragedy get shortchanged in our movies compared to movies from other countries.

    Although it is my contention that religion itself, regardless of doctrine, is an attempt to make sense of an uncertain or ambiguous world. Starting with a creation myth, it's an imposition of meaning on the unknown or unknowable.

  3. I'm with you on the first paragraph, but I don't know that I'd agree that "Christianity" has sunk in more in the U.S than in Europe; it seems more like a form of Christianity is more present here, in the U.S, and I think it's been shaped as much by the entertainment industries desire to offer a marketable product as it has shaped the world of American film.
    If anything, it's a low-church Chritianity, in which every believer is free to interpret the Bible as they will, as long as they put on the right show; why wouldn't you write that narrative to fit with a nice sense of justice? To what extent is ambiguity *actually* present in the world? Getting into that means getting into competing ideas about the nature of justice.It's not enough just to say it isn't not ambiguous.It's necessary to describe the ambiguity.
    I love the blog, by the way.I like it much more than the horror genre, really.

  4. I'm not saying that Christianity has sunk in more here than Europe, though I do think that Christianity is probably bound up with national identity more here than elsewhere. Just that Christianity is a big part of the culture here, and some of the philosophical baggage it carries influences popular demands in entertainment. Specifically, the belief in a just and meaningful world. These beliefs don't require Christianity, they're possible in a secular context, but since I'm talking about entertainment, cultural conservatism and a movie with some pretty big religious overtones, I thought I'd bring Christianity into it.

    I think ambiguity is constantly present in our world - from everyday uncertainty in conversations or little decisions to the big questions - why are we here, why do good and bad things happen, where do we go when we die, etc. - and we have different strategies to deal with it at different levels. But I would argue that ambiguity is inherently aversive - it makes us uncomfortable and we seek to resolve it. Good is good, evil is evil, everything has an explanation. Religion is a time-honored framework for explaining the unknown or unknowable, but it's not the only one. I'm just advocating for more of the uncertain and unexplained in our horror movies. But like I said, that's another post.

    I'm glad you like the blog - there's a lot of dross out there calling itself horror film, and I'm disappointed with much of what passes for analysis and criticism of horror film right now. Give the genre a chance. You have to be picky, but there's some good stuff out there.

  5. This is an interesting discussion. For me, it implicates American film in general. Were American films more morally ambiguous before film studios learned, through test audiences, that American consumers quantifiably preferred unambiguous endings? I don't know. It would be interesting if someone could quantify the answer.

    I remember watching Jules et Jim, a French non-horror movie, when I was a kid and being shocked at its flexible model of morality. I wonder if that was because I was young and/or I was American. Did French audiences not bat an eyelash at it? Are they OK with morally unjust film endings? Again, it would be interesting to know.

  6. I don't know if I could quantify it, but I do remember the occasional horror/exploitation movie from the 70s-80s where the bad guy would win (the one that sticks in my head is Tourist Trap), and non-horror film does it sometimes - Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Player, Arlington Road - and I can think of one or two off the top of my head where morality is sketchy, but none of them that I can recall are especially commercially successful. Which might go back to that art/entertainment distinction I made earlier (which I kind of just made up, but it seems useful for delineating two different experiences of film), and it's not like there aren't some seriously, awfully nihilistic horror movies out there, but they're niche products for a specific audience, and I'd hesitate to call something like August Underground: Mordum art.