Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ambrose and ANTICHRIST: Separated by Centuries, Connected by Awesomeness


Hey Dan’s readers (theatrical aside, re: the last guest post I did for Dan: Shenan: “You should go in and change that part where I said there were spoilers. I don’t really reveal any twists or anything, and I feel like your readers are just going to stop reading it after seeing that in the beginning.” Dan: “My readers? You mean Joe. My readers are Joe.” Shenan: “And Andy!! And I linked to it on Facebook so I bet some random people will click on it...”). So I guess, hey Andy and Joe and random people who click here from Facebook. Guess who it is again (hint: one of the two people in the above conversation, and not Dan). I know, pretty soon Dan’s blog is going to have more of my content on it than his (well, save for during the month of October). And I know, I’m no “Dan P.” as he refers to his internet-self as. But when I was going on and on about all this stuff I’d written on a post-it note and stuck inside a random work notebook that I’d just found, Dan suggested I write another blog post on it. So here I am, writin’ a blog post! It’ll make sense soon, I promise.

Now, when I once admitted going to see Dark Star Orchestra, a band that recreates exact set-lists from actual Grateful Dead concerts in each show they play, back in my high school days (...twice), Dan said to me, “That is possibly the nerdiest thing you’ve ever confessed to doing.” Well, this blog post might trump that. I think I just did something nerdier. And it involves these two men:

(Not as sexy as it sounds)

Yes, that would be Lars von Trier, artsy pteromerhanophic Danish director, and Ambrose Bierce, 19th Century American journalist and short-story author and bad-ass-mysterious-Mexican-desert-disappearer-into. Awhile ago, I started thinking about Ambrose Bierce (I mean, who doesn’t on a slow day at work?), and started getting a weird sense of deja vu. Of course, my natural first instinct was to think, “Fucking A! I guess that settles it once and for all: I must’ve been ol’ A.B. in a former life!” But then I realized it was because I’d just watched Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, and many of the same tropes, motifs, and symbols seemed to be resonating between centuries in the works of these two artists. At least that means I never had to experience sustaining a serious head wound in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Or being Danish. (Ba-da tsss! All in good fun, Danes)

Now, I’m not really sure if this post is going to reach some overarching conclusion or point by the end of its exploration, but I thought it’d be fun and maybe a little interesting to compare some Ambrose Bierce stories and how they may have influenced or been borrowed from, or just totally coincidentally correlate with, ANTICHRIST. Since readership is mostly limited to people I know have seen ANTICHRIST, I’m going to dive right in and avoid describing its plot in detail. But I will describe some Ambrose Bierce stories along the way.

First off: let’s take the short story “The Damned Thing” from 1894. This is arguably one of Bierce’s most famous stories (besides “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” which most everybody probably had to read in middle school or high school), and was made into a MASTERS OF HORROR episode in 2006 (in kind of a weird interpretation with a really shitty CGI monster at the end, which essentially negates the whole point of the short story). I first read it in a tattered used copy of a circa-1950s compendium of horror-related short stories edited by--wait for it--Boris Karloff. I remember reading it aloud to my friends in my parents’ basement and being totally entranced by it (yep, if you didn’t think younger-Shenan was nerdy enough after the DSO concert thing, that’s what else I did in my free time). “The Damned Thing” starts out in Hugh Morgan’s cabin, where a whole bunch of townspeople, local farmers, a coroner, and the dead body of Hugh Morgan have gathered. William Harker, a good friend of Morgan’s, comes forth to offer insight into how Morgan’s body ended up so mangled and lifeless, via Morgan’s diary and his own recollections of a hunting trip he took with Morgan. He tells everyone how when he and Morgan were in the woods hunting, they encountered something unseen thrashing around in the bushes, which Morgan referred to as “the damned thing,” apparently familiar with whatever it was. Moving closer to the wild oats where the thing seemed to be, with guns cocked, Morgan and Harker see the oats being crushed, with seemingly nothing atop them. Though he seems to recall no fear, Harker says that the experience left an unsettling effect on him. As he tells it,

...once in looking carelessly out of an open window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, as warning of unthinkable calamity.

Long story short, Morgan fires his gun at whatever is disturbing the oats, and before he knows it, Harker is thrown to the ground and hears Morgan screaming in agony somewhere in the distance. He looks over and sees Morgan’s body being thrashed about from side to side as if in violent, supernatural convulsions. And by the time he reaches him, he’s dead. Of course, the coroner doesn’t buy this story, concludes that Morgan was maimed by a mountain lion, and leaves Harker feeling more than a little bit invalidated. Similarly, we learn through some final excerpts from Morgan’s diary, Morgan worried he was insane when he first began to encounter “the damned thing.” But he eventually concludes that he’s not insane. He references the actinic rays that the human eye is no able to detect, stating that the eye’s range is but a few octaves of the real chromatic scale,” and similarly, that there are notes that the human ear cannot detect. He concludes that there exist things in the natural world that humans cannot perceive, and our own (literal and metaphorical) blindness to these things terrifies us, instinctually.

Now tell me you’re not thinking of ANTICHRIST at this point. And not just because I inserted that picture above. So many of the same themes seen in "The Damned Thing" are echoed in ANTICHRIST. ANTICHRIST is all about The Woman’s (and eventually The Man’s) terror at the seemingly innocuous (and ironically named) Eden, because of something at work that they can’t perceive, that nevertheless has total power over them. It’s at the root of all anxieties, fear of something in which neither the feared thing nor the fear itself fit into the heuristic by which we view the world, and it’s a powerful button to press in the viewer/reader.

Additionally, both the movie and the story play on the fact that what seems inanimate actually has a consciousness that we can’t perceive the whole of. Like an evil Gaia Theory gone rogue, ANTICHRIST posits that a place can be evil, that “nature is Satan’s church,” in a much more sinister turn of Ambrose Bierce’s words:

I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire tree-top — the tops of several trees — and all in full song. Suddenly — in a moment — at absolutely the same instant — all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another — whole tree-tops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard...It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between, will sometimes dive at the same instant — all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded — too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck — who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

Flocks of birds lifting off at once in silent Vs, whales diving simultaneously miles apart: these groups of animals all move with one consciousness, as limbs of one being, form something greater than sum of its parts when its parts are all we can perceive in our limited grasp. And if we can only grasp its parts, how can we begin to understand its full nature? Its goodness, or its evil? And by extension, our full nature, our goodness or evil, what we’re connected to and affected by in ways we might not see? We can’t, and that’s what makes it so damn terrifying.

And, just to show you how horrifically the MASTERS OF HORROR episode mangled the entire concept of the story just as the damned thing mangled Hugh Morgan’s body, here is the image they chose to reveal of the damned thing:

It’s a poor screen-cap, but really? Really? You’re going to ruin the whole point by showing it at all, and that’s what you show? A monster made of oil blobs?

Moving on, I also noticed eerily similar imagery to that of ANTICHRIST in Bierce’s 1891 story “Chickamauga.” This is a haunting story that no doubt drew on Bierce’s experiences as a Civil War soldier. The gist of “Chickamauga” is this: a little boy is playing by himself in the woods, wandering about pretending he’s a general commanding an army. He falls asleep in the woods, and when he awakens, there are men all around him. Some are walking, some are crawling, some are lying on the ground bloodied and motionless. I think I’m going to let Ambrose Bierce’s startlingly evocative words do the describing of this:

Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer...

...Something in this—something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements—reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them. But on and ever on they crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity. To him it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father’s negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement—had ridden them so, “making believe” they were his horses. He now approached one of these crawling figures from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious view of the situation. And so the clumsy multitude dragged itself slowly and painfully along in hideous pantomime—moved forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles, with never a sound of going—in silence profound, absolute.

Holy fucking shit. Let’s all just take a moment to just sit with those words before we move on. Maybe re-read them and let them knock the wind out of you again? I hope I write something 1/10th that good someday.

So then, of course you presume now that the “Chickamauga” of the title is the Battle of Chickamauga, from which these men are staggering away. The little boy still does not fully grasp the horror of what has happened to these men, or the horror of war itself, and continues on playing in his fantasy version of war, joyfully walking home again through the woods leading all these “soldiers” at his precocious little command. And then he emerges from the forest to see his home on fire and his mother lying on the ground dead, and the story ends without needing to tell us in so many words that he grasps the reality of war and death for the first time. Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.”

This one doesn’t evoke themes as much (though you could make the argument that the boy’s lack of perception/perspective on the horrors around him mirrors The Man’s initial lack of and eventually gaining of understanding of the evil of Eden), but it’s final image is chillingly similar to the final image of ANTICHRIST. This one:

“Chickamauga” actually what I instantly thought of when I saw the ending of ANTICHRIST, the final scene where Willem Dafoe marches through the forest out of Eden with an “army” of ghostly women. Did von Trier ever read this slightly obscure story from the American Civil War literature canon? I’m guessing the answer’s probably “no,” but perhaps this image is so haunting (and perhaps so universal to war/death/evil/groups of people walking in general) that it’s nestled itself into the consciousnesses of people worldwide.

Finally, we have “The Boarded Window” (1891). This story is about a man named Murlock whose wife dies and, after he prepares her for burial in his remote cabin, he hears the cry of a child in the distance. He is puzzled and slightly disturbed, but falls asleep, only to awaken to a mysterious presence in his house. All of a sudden, he feels/hears a body being slammed against the table where his wife had been lain, and reaches up to feel that no body is there. He thinks that he’s going insane with fear--as Bierce writes, There is a point at which fear may turn to insanity; and insanity incites to action. With no definite plan and acting like a madman, Murlock ran quickly to the wall. He seized his loaded rifle and without aim fired it.” The blast from the gun reveals that it’s a panther, dragging away the body of his wife. He passes out, and awakens to find the body of his wife on the floor, all disheveled from the panther. With...the ear of the panther in her mouth. What?

OK, what does this have to do with ANTICHRIST, you might ask? I’ll admit, the connection is probably a minor one. But it stood out to me nonetheless. “The Boarded Window” plays with how our emotions and perceptions can dictate our reality and our nature. Murlock, never having experienced deep sadness before and finding himself unable or unsure of how to feel or act in the face of great sadness, does not cry for his wife. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t experience her loss; it just doesn’t manifest itself in the normal emotional channels, translated into the normal actions carried out in response to those emotions. Bierce writes:

Murlock had no experience in deep sadness. His heart could not contain it all. His imagination could not understand it. He did not know he was so hard struck. That knowledge would come later and never leave.

Deep sadness is an artist of powers that affects people in different ways. To one it comes like the stroke of an arrow, shocking all the emotions to a sharper life. To another, it comes as the blow of a crushing strike. We may believe Murlock to have been affected that way.

This is a man clearly transformed by grief he doesn’t know how to experience or deal with, whose reality and sanity is thus transformed by it too. Or is it only that? Does his grief perhaps have the power to transform objective reality as well? How could his wife have ended up with the panther’s ear clenched beneath her teeth if a) the panther wasn’t real, and b) she was dead.

Grief, anxiety, and the ways in which our emotions can both alter our subjective perceptions and objective realities are also themes explored by ANTICHRIST.

von Trier explores in this movie how one woman could be so wracked with guilt and anxiety that she begins to question the structure of her own reality and her own nature, maybe internalizing the kinds of messages she explored in her graduate studies. She begins to question the issues of inherent guilt over/evil in being a woman, when a woman's defining feature of being a woman (her sexuality) causes something "evil" to happen (as it did when her son fell to his death while she was having sex with her husband). It also takes anxiety and asks the question: if our fears and sense of evil are really constructions of our mind, then doesn't that mean there is, inherently, something evil in ourselves? And doesn't that make our nature evil, if even a part of it is evil? If you believe yourself to be evil, and internalize that message, who or what is to say you’re not? What stops you from acting on it? What stops the world from being evil if that’s how you experience it? Who’s to say it’s not?

And we’ll end on a picture of Charlotte Gainsbourg looking like she’s having a lot of fun playing evil. That’s it! I hope I’ve inspired someone to go out and read some Ambrose Bierce today. Or re-watch some ANTICHRIST. Or both. We now return to your regularly scheduled blog programming...


Shenan said...

Ugh, my apologies to Willem Dafoe. I called you William. I bet people have been doing that to you your whole life, and I'm sorry I was one more. I'll correct this as soon as I can...

Mr. Subtlety said...

I'll admit, while both Von Trier and especially Bierce are awesome misanthropes, I wasn't sure how they could possibly be connected. But I can't deny that you point out some striking connections.

I think the way in which they're related most closely is in their willingness to explore a kind of undefined horror. Things which you can't exactly put a label to as "frightening," but nonetheless hit on a deeply horrific level (often attached to feelings of sadness or guilt).

One interesting note: the horror in Bierce's "Chickamuaga" is the child's failure to realize the meaning of the surreal stream of humanity parading before him -- while the horror of Dafoe's women-parade is (possibly) in his realization of place in a ancient drama of violence and misunderstanding. So the way they present their horror is reversed: the kid fails to see the meaning in the group which he finally understands when it is embodied in a personal figure, while Dafoe doesn't understand the real meaning of what has happened to him until he gets his own ghostly parade of strangers.

Not sure which one is more horrifying, but they work very slightly differently towards the same kind of terror.

I think you're right that there's a psychological level at work from both artists which links them nicely. Plenty of artists traffic in our fear of the unknown, but these two particularly traffic in the fear of the unknown about ourselves and our perceptions about the universe. I would never have thought about it this way, but now I kinda want to see Von Trier adapt a Bierce story.

As a 'thank you' for an excellent read, please accept this Von Trier quote:

"Von Trier announced that after finishing Melancholia he hopes to begin production of Nymphomaniac, a film about the sexual awakening of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The director explained how he got the idea for the upcoming project: "my DP on [Melancholia], Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.

That's all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder."

Shenan said...

Ha! Love the quote. Looking forward to all the youth and nudity to come. Also, I think von Trier would have done a much better job with THE DAMNED THING than Tobe Hooper (bless his heart, I loved his other Masters of Horror episode) did. Though I guess what Bierce's stories make up for in abundant terror, they tend to lack in nudity, so I don't know if ol' Lars would be interested anyway.

Shenan said...

Also: totally, re: the third paragraph of your comment. That's a cool way of looking at it.

Shenan said...

3rd Also: I would like to formally announce to Dan's 2+ readers that I have started a blog myself. I think now that I've made it through 4 posts without abandoning it, I can introduce it to the public. While the original concept was "blogging about music so I don't post songs on Facebook all the fucking time like an emo kid," I think after last night I might want to change the concept to The Great "what happens when you get Shenan drunk near a computer" Experiment. Now that I've discovered drunk-blogging, I have no doubts that I'll be able to sustain content, because music operates by tapping into various human emotions, and human (and sometimes alien) emotions feature prominently when you are drunk, and thus I will ALWAYS feel like over-sharing about music I like when I am drunk. I hope to blog sober too, but now that I know drunk-blogging will always be there for me, I'm pretty confident in my ability to crank out new material. Quality yet to be determined.

Anyway, as of yet 3 sober posts and 1 drunk post can be found at: