Friday, August 19, 2005

Roger Ebert mud-wrestles a fellow-nihilist

I know just a little about wrestling, from experience. Well, I know I'm not good at it. Additionally, I know you need a pivot. What could be more futile than two naked skydivers wrestling? They may wriggle about, but the contest will conclude identically for both.

Reading film critic Roger Ebert's correspondence with the producer and director of Chaos, a movie I shall likely never see, I had a similar feeling.

I read Ebert every week -- not because I agree with him, which I often do not, but because he's a good writer. He's funny, creative, thoughtful, and tells you why he thinks what he does about a movie. Often that is enough to help me decide whether or not I want to see a given flick. If, for instance, a movie is a warm and sensitive portrayal of a reverse-transsexual homosexual surviving his/her/its narrow, rigid, repressed, hate-filled Fundamentalist Christian Republican evil white parents (and yes, I did just say the same thing nine different ways, in Ebert's thought-world), and finding meaning in days filled with sex and directionless motion, he'll commonly give it fifteen stars. If it's foreign-made and subtitled, sixteen. (I exaggerate, slightly.)

My favorite bad Ebert review was his of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. He spends most of the review talking about what he thinks of the book, and only gives passing reference to the movie here and there. He likes it, but not totally; no lesbians, no evil Christians, three stars only -- maybe including an extra star for the subtitles. And what's worse, he misunderstands the book! He thinks it was "about brave little creatures who enlist powerful men and wizards to help them in a dangerous crusade." Right -- except the opposite!

"Me digress," as Cookie Monster would say.

Ebert hated the movie Chaos. He explains exactly why, in classic Ebertesque fashion: he wrote that the movie
is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel -- a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's 'only' a horror film, or a slasher film. It is an exercise in heartless cruelty and it ends with careless brutality. The movie denies not only the value of life, but the possibility of hope.
He gave it no stars. This provoked the producer and director to write a response letter, challenging his perception. They argue that it is a post-9/11 horror movie, reflecting the ugly evil of our times. They plainly see themselves and their film as visionary:
We tried to give you and the public something real. Real evil exists and cannot be ignored, sanitized or exploited. It needs to be shown just as it is, which is why we need this [crud], to use your own coarse words. And if this upsets you, or "disquiets" you, or leaves you "saddened," that's the point. So instead of telling the public to avoid this film, shouldn't you let them make their own decision?
Ebert is, to say the least, not persuaded by their response. Here is the conclusion of his surrejoinder:
Animals do not know they are going to die, and require no way to deal with that implacable fact. Humans, who know we will die, have been given the consolations of art, myth, hope, science, religion, philosophy, and even denial, even movies, to help us reconcile with that final fact. What I object to most of all in "Chaos" is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever.

Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender.
But what is Ebert's answer? He provides none, specifically. What he really says amounts to this: "I don't like the hopelessness of your portrayal. I like feeling hopeful. There are things that make me feel hopeful, even if they're untrue (myth). I like them better."

Well, we all like feeling good over feeling bad. I prefer to think that my income is not taxed. I prefer to think I can drive as fast as I want. I prefer to think I can gratify every impulse I have without one negative consequence.

There's only one itty-bitty snag: what I'd like is not true. If I'm to find hope, it must be truth-based, or it is delusional, and anyone's hope (or hopelessness) is as good as anyone else's.

On Mr. Ebert's premises, I'd have to side with the filmmakers. Solomon saw it long ago, and wrote it out for us in Ecclesiastes. If the God of the Bible is not true, then "under the sun" there is no meaning, no joy, no redemption, no purpose. It's all ugly and squalid. Immediately under the surface of every pleasure is the yawning chasm of chaos, and the grinning skull of Death.

Now, I reject the filmmaker's premise because I don't share Mr. Ebert's worldview, nor theirs. I believe Jesus. Because I believe Jesus, I believe the Bible, and the Bible gives a comprehensive solution to the problem of evil (which I've sketched out briefly elsewhere).

So meanwhile, the best Ebert and the makers of Chaos can do is mud-wrestle. Their premises are equally sound, and equally baseless. They've both autonomously patched together their worldviews, and neither can find a purchase by which to throw the other.

God grant that they find the sole unshifting pivot point of the word of the infinite-personal God of Scripture. Only the house built on the rock will stand (Matthew 7:24-27).


Mike said...

Well, Ebert is unsaved (or at least talks/writes like one)... you can't expect an unregenerate to give the proper soteriological answer. He's only going to respond the way any unsaved heathen would, you can't expect more than that.

Ben Applegate said...

I think you miss the point of Ebert's argument. He is not arguing that he takes comfort in false mythology and therefore it is better than pure evil. He is arguing that art should offer a perspective on the world other than simply, "Evil triumphs," a message as uninteresting as it is untrue.

Myths may be fiction, but myths (the Greek tragedies that Ebert refers to at least) do offer a perspective on human life, as does all art. Ebert is not looking for a movie to believe in like the Bible, he's looking for a movie that has more to say about life than that it is empty and evil. I would think from the brief amount of your writing I have read that you would appreciate that.

DJP said...

Ben, of course I can't say with final authority whether or not I've missed Ebert's point. But I can say you've certainly missed mine.

If Ebert has nothing better to offer than what you suggest, then he has no grounds for arguing with the perpetrator of Chaos. The most he can say is "I like a movie to make me happy and hopeful, and yours didn't." He can't appeal to an "ought," only an "I'd prefer."

You want to be a relativist, you need to go all the way. You think you have a transcendent "pou sto," bring it.

I know there's this whole romanticized, pomo notion of "myth." But I don't buy it.