Category Archives: Movies

Logan: Meridian of Blood

logan

Wolverine at sunset

 

 

This post is about the latest X-Men film, Logan, directed by James Mangold. This is not a movie review in the traditional sense, and more in the nature of a commentary, a long one, and an appreciative one at that. There are spoilers throughout.

 

I.

The story begins along the U.S. – Mexican border in the vicinity of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, which is Spanish for “the pass.”  The story ends at another pass on the U.S. – Canadian border. In between these two points the characters cut a red river that flows north through our broken world.

The plot is very simple.  An older and unhealthy Logan, one of the few remaining mutants in an America of 2029, learns that he has a daughter of sorts, Laura.  He attempts to take her and a seriously ill Professor Xavier to a place called Eden, which serves as a clandestine border crossing into Canada.  Canada is apparently beyond the reach of the corporation that wishes to exploit Laura’s powers, which are the same as Logan’s.

As Logan journeys north, it seems as if James Mangold is taking the viewer back in time, asking if the Biblical Eden can be rediscovered.   Or, alternatively, a northern journey may represent an ascent, from Hell to Heaven.  For the place where the movie starts is surely hell. The border is a world of ugliness, blight, crime, illness, drunkenness, and death.

The country empties out but grows pretty with horses as we enter America’s plains, but is still gaudy and dangerous: casinos in Oklahoma City and menacing robotic semis on the highways. The people are fewer, but better: we meet a kind country doctor and a welcoming farming family.

The final act takes place along the pristine border between the U.S. and Canada. It is very scenic, and almost devoid of man and his creations. Logan is successful, and his daughter and her friends make it across the border into a primeval Eden. Logan dies there, one of many casualties on both “sides” of the fight.

The cultural references are overtly Western, and clips from the movie Shane are viewed by the characters.  Laura quotes from Shane at the end, and we are apparently left to understand that Logan was Shane, Laura was Joey, etc. Logan was just too tainted by violence to enter the promised land, like Moses dying outside of Israel for his sins.

But when the credits roll, there is an unsettling turn. The viewer is treated to Johnny Cash singing the apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around,” with its references to the Alpha and Omega, the Kingdom Come and the Beasts of Revelation.   What exactly was the message?

 

II.

bmm

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

From Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. By Cormac McCarthy

I will propose an interpretation entirely different, provocative, but I think more in accord with what was actually shown. I would suggest that Mr. Mangold’s work is not to be taken at face value, and in a way, he gives his game away in a recent interview:

What I mean by “forced into cinema” is that I am a big believer that we have gotten way into dialogue as the delivery mechanism of meaning in movies. If anything, I tend to find that my results are much more pleasing – at least to myself – when I view dialogue as the delivery system of lies in a movie. What we see is the truth, and what we hear is misdirection.

(emphasis added)

Myth vs. Man: James Mangold and Scott Frank on Logan

Creativescreenwriting.com March, 3, 2017

There is a monster lurking behind Logan, under the Shane exterior, and it is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. McCarthy’s brutal epic is a revisionist Western, and devoid of any  nostalgia for America’s frontier.  The novel was loosely based on the actions of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries who were paid by the Mexican government to bring “order” to the frontier by terrorizing the Indian tribes along the U.S.-Mexican border in the 1850s.  How? They scalped them. They eventually came to a bad end, killed at a border crossing by the same tribes that they had preyed on.

Mangold and his collaborators are too subtle (or careful)  to overtly reference Blood Meridian, a movie that many have been trying to make for years, and has been deemed un-filmable. I think too strong a linkage would have invited criticism for the presumption of borrowing from what some critics consider to be one of the finest American novels of the 20th century. And in a superhero movie of all things too! It is ironic that some have compared Logan to a Cormac McCarthy book, when there was one seemingly hiding in plain sight all along.

It is particularly interesting that the only other well-known mutant used from the comics, aside from Wolverine and Xavier, is Caliban, an albino, hairless creature. Mangold also made an interesting casting choice by having Stephen Merchant, an unusually tall actor (at 6’7), to play the role. Caliban was of ordinary height through most of his tenure in the X-Men comic book series.

caliban

Caliban the cowboy, as portrayed by Stephen Merchant in Logan.

 

I would suggest Caliban is an allusion to the similarly tall (nearly 7 feet), hairless, albino character of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who critic Harold Bloom described in Shakespearean terms as an Iago-like villain. Caliban is not intended to be Holden,  this visual is just a bread crumb Mangold has tossed out to the careful observer.  Under this theory, Pierce and his mercenaries are the Glanton gang.  Instead of bringing order to the border, they are delivering order to America by bringing mutants under control. Pierce and his Reavers, like the Glanton Gang, meet a bloody end at a border crossing at the hands of those they victimized.

This theory explains why so much of the action in Logan is set in Mexico or along its border with the U.S. And why there is almost no similarity between the film and its supposed inspiration, the 2008 Marvel comic series Old Man Logan.  That comic involved a west to east journey across America, had no Mexican element, and was a typical superhero slugfest. In the end, Logan survives and plans to rebuild the X-Men and take on the villains who have conquered America. The only point in common is that both feature an older Wolverine.

Who is Judge Holden then?  Its our friend Logan, the unkillable, immortal, killing machine. Like the Judge, everyone that comes into Logan’s orbit eventually seems to die. Logan was the last of the X-Men, like the Judge was the sole survivor of the Glanton Gang.  In particular, Judge Holden appears as the younger cloned version of Logan, the X-24.

Hey, but Logan is a good guy! And he is. In a way he is “the Kid” of Blood Meridian, the least worst, most self-aware of the cutthroats, who has aged into a wiser form by the end of that book. But in his potential for death and destruction, and his method of violence, Logan is a god of war, like the Judge. And it is Logan’s clone, X-24, that kills Professor Xavier and many others in the film. Because Logan, and superheroes generally, are not the saviors we make them out to be. Mangold has Logan deliver the indictment himself, as he verbally shreds the mythologized exploits of the X-Men as portrayed in the films meta-version of the X-Men comic books.

Mangold was upfront in his interviews about wanting to de-mythologize the superhero genre, as has already been done for Western in movies like Unforgiven or his own version of 3:10 to Yuma. In more recent Western, cowboys are not Knights of the Plain. They are survivors, opportunists, and flawed all the way around. And because they rely on violence, often indiscriminate killers as a result.

And this is why the Shane references are a misdirection on Mangold’s part. Because unlike Shane, Logan brings death to those he means to help. This is demonstrated with the fate of the Munson family, who are a stand in for the Starret family of Shane. Laura is not Joey, Joey is the doomed son Nate Munson. Logan draws the Reavers to their home, and is powerless to stop his clone from killing this version of the Starrets.  He even gets a bunch of local bullies killed, as he provoked them with an earlier display of violence, and they show up in time for the X-24 to off them too.

Many reviewers, while praising Logan, expressed discomfort with the level of violence. You are supposed to feel this way. The violence in Logan is the most extreme of all the X-Men movies, and nearly all superhero movies.  It deliberately mimics the level of violence in Blood Meridian.  You are not supposed to revel in it, and I have to say I am a bit disappointed in some who hold up the young Laura as some sort of female empowerment figure. If  superheroes really existed, they would leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake that dwarfs anything done by ISIS.

 

III.

Logan is not the first effort to de-mythologize the super-hero genre. Alan Moore did this with Watchmen, which was later adapted into a film. Moore’s caped crusaders are very human and fail to achieve anything.  The ending offers only an illusion of hope, which is better described as “progress.”

Logan differs from Watchmen in that there is a real message of hope at the end. I am not the first to note the religious sensibilities of the film.  As I watched, I found myself counting how many times Logan fell down or laid down and lost consciousness in the last act. Three, I believe.  And the choice of death was quite interesting: impalement on a tree, with a final stab in the side from the X-24.

In his review, Mr. Vishnevestky notes that Logan is certainly no Christ figure. I agree, he is far more a Peter, futilely hacking away with his sword at an endless stream of enemies, or a good thief, worried about money and material things. But whether thief or Peter, in the end he embraces love and submits to death.

 

Atheists sometimes complain that Christians wind up seeing religious symbols where they do not exist. And its true to an extent, but also not true.  If you want us to stop seeing them, then stop using them. Even Palpatine can’t stop himself when talking about his mentor in Revenge of the Sith, who used his powers to save those he loved from death: “He saved others, he could not save himself.” Actually that’s Matthew 27:42.

What Palpatine said was: He could save others from death, but not himself.”  Big difference, right?   Perhaps George Lucas is a closet Christian, and wanted to sneak in an allusion to Lazarus and Jesus. I do not know.  And I don’t presume to know Mr. Mangold and his fellow screenwriters’ religious views, but as  I discussed in a prior review, it would not be the first time non-Christian Hollywood directors explored Christianity in an indirect way.

So I go to these movies, and watch the hero sacrificing himself and/or dying and coming back to life, and having a happy ending. You cannot get away from it, whether its Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows or Flynn Rider in Tangled.  I could make a very long list.  And our stories were not always this way. Before the Incarnation, the choice for Drama in the West was either Tragedy or Comedy, death or absurdity.  And it was believed these forms were god given, from the muses Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy).

But now things have changed. Just like the Roman roads were put to use to spread the Word, so are all mediums curved towards His purpose, whether you want it or not. So it’s not really Hollywood’s fault that they keep inviting an inconvenient guest into their movies.  While we live on our surface, Jesus is living rent free in that space inside your heart. Like a good general, he is the master of your interior lines, and can meet you on whatever ground you choose: the workplace, films, books, etc. All your bases belong to Him.

And he is there to welcome us, but first you must become like a little child to receive him.  So we are left with a message of hope, as Laura and her fellow children return to Eden, or Heaven. If the studios have any decency, we won’t see any sequels with a grown-up Laura dealing death and destruction. You aren’t supposed to return from the Undiscovered Country.

So, goodbye Laura, and don’t ever come back.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Outcasts (2016)

As opposed to the beta test we choose to settle for so often, below is a trailer for a new documentary about real life produced by Grassroots Films. I don’t know when this will be available. (Update – It doesn’t appear this will get a public release. DVD or internet maybe?)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Hail, Caesar!

 

hailcaesarheader2

I didn’t anticipate ever writing a movie review on this blog. But I read some interesting reports about the Coen Brothers’ new movie Hail, Caesar!, and I saw it today. This post is neither a plot summary nor a critique of the skill of the cast and crew. Rather, I am going to address the exploration of Christianity in this film.

I don’t know what the Coen Brothers personal beliefs are. They were raised in the Jewish faith, but did apparently marry non-Jewish women (or at least women not Jewish by birth). They have wrestled with serious philosophical and faith issues in prior films. Others have commented that A Serious Man was a meditation on The Old Testament.  They have also grappled with nihilism (The Big Lebowski) and the mystery of iniquity (No Country for Old  Men). Their movies are very moral in the sense that those doing wrong rarely if ever “get away with it.” Intolerable Cruelty was arguably a celebration of the permanence of marriage, which is not that odd coming from two Hollywood figures who’ve stayed married to the same women. True Grit had a strong religious element.

I will be freely discussing plot elements for the rest of this post, so SPOILER warning. I will engage in fairly aggressive speculation, so feel free to completely disregard and laugh out load at some of what I suggest. When you read a lot of Gene Wolfe, you learn to look for hidden symbolism and such. The peril is you may start seeing it when it isn’t there.

In my view, there is a lot of subtle to overt Christian (in particular Catholic) symbolism in the film. Let’s start with the move poster, and compare it to the Logo for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Jubilee logo is a reference to Christ as the Good Shepherd, who goes out to find the lost lamb. Similarly, the poster shows a man carrying the lost actor (lamb), Baird Whitlock. Interestingly, “Whitlock” comes from “White hair”, sort of like a lamb.

I think the intent of the poster is to depict someone acting as the Good Shepherd, perhaps Eddie. While this scene never exactly appears in the film, Eddie is the one orchestrating Baird’s safe return. Perhaps just a coincidence.

The Seven Sacraments are alluded to expressly, or indirectly:

Baptism: The old-timer jumping in the trough of water during the premiere of The Lazy Moon. In particular, its the full immersion baptism of John the Baptist. Hobie is a sort of John the Baptist figure, a rustic coming out of the wilderness to join the movie.

Confession: Two expressly shown.

Communion: Baird Whitlock drinks from an elaborate chalice before passing out. At the communist HQ, they have communion in the form of the white bread sandwiches in which the crusts are cut off. The Coens make a point of showing them being prepared and then distributed. Baird holds two up. Why bother to cut the crusts off? So they look more like communion wafers.

Marriage: Ms. Moran and Mr. Silverman are married off screen. His reliability and commitment are what appeal to DeeAnn, emphasizing the sacred bond of marriage. The Mannix marriage is also shown.

Confirmation:  Bishops used to gently “slap” (really tap) young people on the face as part of the confirmation ceremony in the RC Church.  Mannix slaps people twice in the movie. Both the young actress early in the movie, and also the almost childlike Whitlock towards the end. Arguably he was trying to get both to grow up. This one may be a reach on my part.

Anointing of the Sick: No one is actually ill in the movie. Eddie does save the film editor from being strangled by her scarf. Burt places a wet cleaning rag on the bartender’s head during the dance routine. No good fit, perhaps you can spot one?

Holy Orders: The all-male writer’s group? Baird “joins” the party during his kidnapping by signing up for a communist party membership. Perhaps a reach.

As an update to this post, I think the dancing sailors bit (“They’re ain’t no dames here”) is a reference to the all male catholic priesthood. Some of the homoerotic elements may be the Coens’ commentary about this feature and some of the consequences.

Scenes from the movie and  characters that are allusions to events or people from the Gospels:

Lawrence Laurence: He is an allusion to Pontius Pilate, and the scene with Hobie was an allusion to Pilate’s questioning of Christ. This is more than just the shared alliteration. The name Lawrence comes from the Latin for Laurel leaves, which Roman leaders would wear on their head in the form of  a wreath. Pilate is sometimes depicted wearing a laurel wreath. Lawrence’s direction of Hobie is fruitless and repetitive, like Pilate’s questioning of Jesus. Jesus would not say what Pilate wanted him to say, like Hobie won’t/can’t say what Lawrence wants him to say.

Burt Gurney: He is an allusion to Judas Iscariot. He betrayed the studio by aiding the kidnapping. He took the 30 pieces of silver in the form of the $100,000 when he got on the sub. He “returned” the silver when he dropped the money in the ocean by accident. His descending into the dark ocean in the black submarine with the red light is an allusion to his death and perhaps damnation to hell.

Baird Whitlock: In part, Lazarus. He “goes to sleep” and his body is placed in a van and then a room.  He is rescued and returned to the living.  Also Peter the Disciple. He denies the Lord by joining the party and dissing the studio to Eddie’s face. He is rebuked by Eddie, like Peter is by Christ.

Hobie Doyle: John the Baptist, in part. The rural origin. The Baptism scene in The Lazy Moon. His basic goodness. He does act out the part of Christ in being questioned by Lawrence/Pilate. His rope tricks are an allusion to Christ’s miracles.

DeeAnn Moran: Mary Magdalene/The Woman Taken in Sin/The Virgin Mary. Her water scene is arguably an allusion to the attempted stoning. She takes her fin off and hurls it at the conductor, striking him. The other swimmers had formed a circle around her. She was pregnant at the time with an out of wedlock child.

Her child to the unknown father may be an allusion to the Virgin Birth. She marries a Joseph, who accepts her despite the fact that she is already pregnant. She is wearing a  spotless white dress in her one scene with Joseph Silverman, a symbol of the sinless Mary.

Joseph Silverman: Joseph, husband of Mary.

Eddie Mannix: The Christ, Son of Man. Christ’s temptation in the desert is alluded to in the meeting with Cudahy and his offer to join Lockheed, who has the power of the A-Bomb. Too many other references to count.

Most importantly, he puts together the ransom for Baird, the lost sheep, immediately without any hesitation. He does not try to go to the cops, or avoid paying it. Christ “ransomed” us from sin and death. This is the most important common element.

Cudahy: Satan, he tempts Eddie. He buys him meals, calling to mind the stones to bread story. He offers Eddie cigarettes too as a form of temptation.

The Communist Writers group: The Pharisees/The Sanhedrin. Their all black hats on the row boat recalls the  black religious garb of the Pharisees of the time of Jesus, at least as depicted in other movies.

Thora and Thessaly Thacker: Mary and Martha of Bethany. Both sisters, both same first two letters of first names. Thora and Thessaly are always pressing Eddie for timely responses to their stories about Baird/Lazarus. Mary and Martha similarly chastised Jesus for not returning sooner when Lazarus was ill. Both have a house-plant related last name. Thacker comes from thatch(thatch roof). Bethany means “house of figs.”

Carlotta Valdez. I think this is a Salome allusion, she is a dancing actress(Like Carmen Miranda), and does little dance for Hobie on their date. She even balances something on her head, calling to mind John’s fate. Carlotta lives in a palatial estate, consistent with Salome the daughter of King Herod.

Other references I noticed:

Capitol Studios. Capitol comes from the Capitoline Hill of ancient Rome. It was the highest hill, where the Temple to Jupiter stood. Jupiter was the chief of the Roman pantheon. I think Capitol Studios is supposed to represent the Church, as both the Body of Christ and the physical structures, here on earth.

During the submarine scene, I think Burt’s giant leap from the boat to the submarine was an allusion to Jesus walking on water.

During the crucifixion scene of Hail Caesar!, the character played by Clancy Brown makes a point of referring to Jesus several times as “a Jewish priest.”  I have rarely heard Jesus described this way. Interestingly the name Coen comes from Cohen, who are the priestly tribe of the Jewish people.

Finally, the movie within the movie Hail Caesar! is a reference to the actual movie Ben-Hur, which is subtitled “A Tale of The Christ,” just like Hail Caesar!. The scene with the water and the slaves  comes from Ben-Hur, and is the only time Jesus is directly shown in both movies (from behind).

Now the question.  If you find any of my speculation credible, why did the Coen brothers do this? Is this a parody/satire on Christianity and Catholicism. I read one review by a Catholic who thought they were making fun of religion.

I don’t think this is it. While Eddie is overly scrupulous about confession (and the priest tells him he is, and this priest is portrayed in a good light), he is otherwise giving up an easier, better paying job to take care of the various misfits and screwballs who work for the studio. He prays for guidance on the job decision.

I think Hail Caesar! is the closest the Coens can come to giving the Christian faith and Jesus a show of respect or affection in this day and age. Its a “Hey, these people may be on to something” type message. Baird’s speech before the Cross at the end should be taken seriously, even though he forgets the line and they have to cut it.  The Coens have to do this in comedy form, so no one (in Hollywood that is)  thinks they are trying to make a serious point. I don’t claim they are actually Christians or believe in Jesus. They do not appear to overtly practice any religion, from all that I have read. But if they are part of mixed marriages with Christian women, then they may be raising their children in both faiths, and have had to come to know the Christian faith as part of this experience, and treat it with some degree of respect.

So, if you already saw it, and plan to see it again, these are some things you may want to watch for.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies