Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nihilism Lite

Thanks for inviting me, and welcome to my entry to the Synchroblog.

I was trying to think of the common thread for today's musings, and I decided to focus on three recent horror movies I've seen in the theater - Grindhouse, The Reaping, and 28 Weeks Later. The first one I really liked, the other two I was slightly to very disappointed in. (It should be noted, I'm not much of a predictor of box office success: Grindhouse completely bombed at the box office.) Partly it reinforced for me the observation that the sheer quantity of blood and viscera on screen has little to do with the film's quality, its underlying meaning, or how disturbing one would find it. As a side note, this also means that our current ratings system is completely useless, as it only rates for outward, visible acts, not inner meaning or context. (This was brought home to me very graphically a few years ago when I took my small son to see The Hulk, which was rated PG13. Yes, there's no blood on screen, but that hardly outweighs the fact that Dr. Banner's dad stabs his mom to death in front of him!! That's very disturbing, regardless of the lack of fluids on screen.)

Anyway, to return to these three films: Grindhouse has more fluids on screen than the other two combined. Heck, it probably has more splattered all over than everything in the last year combined. But it is a funny, irreverent film; at a stretch I might even call it uplifting. At least, by the end of each of its halves, the bad guys are dead, and by the very end of the film, I and most of the theater had been screaming with laughter for the last 20 minutes, through the credits, and all the way out to the parking lot. But the other two movies had that kind of unreflective, reflexive, automatic kind of nihilism that I refer to in my blog entry's title as the lite version, and which seems to be the dominant way to make a horror movie (and probably has seeped over into other genres as well). It's not real nihilism, the kind that brings despair or rage, but just a completely uncaring, callous shrug that the people we've watched for 100 minutes will all die horribly anyway, evil will triumph, and none of the characters' heroism or sacrifice or love or hate or betrayal make any difference whatsoever. I know it's the film makers' way of being edgy or dark or whatever, but I think it's just lazy story-telling. Invest me in the characters, make me care, give me a plot that's not utterly predictable (and neither The Reaping nor 28 Weeks does any of these things, either), and then if you want to kill off the main characters or end the world as we know it, then that would be real nihilism, and it might be interesting. This is just a cop out for some cheap effect.

And to relate this to Christianity and film: it's not the outward trappings - the gore, the wizardry, the swear words - that make a film (un)Christian. It's the heart of the film. And, as Flannery O'Connor often observed about writing, a tale has to be first and foremost well-written, before one can debate its merits as delivering a Christian message. I don't think nihilism lite tales are ever well told, and they are also never compatible with a Christian world view. But a gore fest like Grindhouse might not be for the squeamish, but it's an entertaining film, and there's nothing particularly un-Christian about it.

See what the other synchrobloggers have to say on Christianity and film:


Blogger Adam Gonnerman said...

Very glad you've joined the Synchroblog this time around. Your observation regarding Hulk was interesting. Indeed the actual meaning of the content is often ignored while gallons of blood spilled is criticized.

12:23 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

I think this is a problem for parents especially, but it's a consideration for anyone who reflects back on what they've watched.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Mike Arnzen said...

Brilliant post, Kim! You really hit the nail on the head. I think there might be more going on to 28 Weeks Later than perhaps meets the eye, but I'm not sure yet...it's still settling (and for an 'unsettling' movie, that's odd, no?). I thought Planet Terror was a RIOT. You've really got me thinking about all this now. For me, the irreverant humor is a huge part of what makes the "nihilism" serious matter, and in Planet Terror is simply works -- much like it does in Evil Dead 2. I know that usually humor is something that might make something 'light' (if not 'lite') so I'm still trying to sort out how humor plays a role in all this. But you've raised a fascinating issue. -- Mike Arnzen, http://www.gorelets.com

7:50 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Thanks Mike. We should follow it up somewhere. Maybe a panel or something. I guess my only initial point is that, for a Christian at least, the message, "Nothing matters. The world sucks. (sigh) (shrug)" is much more incompatible with how we look at the world, than the message "Look at all that BLOOD! WHEEE!" But you may be right to connect it to how humor works in other horror. Certainly, for me, Romero's avowed nihilism actually doesn't fit perfectly with his film vision, which is hilarious, satirical, and always ends on a hopeful note (methinks the director, he doth protest too much!). Perhaps part of it is that there's no point in satire, unless you believe what you're satirizing is worth saving or fixing at some level.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Steve Hayes said...

My initial impressions of reading Stephen King's books was that they were nihilist. In Pet sematery, for example, there is no kind of rationale for the evil. It is just there.

But on second thoughts I realised that the evil was just a kind of backdrop. The essence of the story was how the characters responded to it. So they weren't quite so nihilist after all.

1:38 AM  

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