August 12, 2006

Hive Mind

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Hellboy (2004) starts by evoking the fabled seven gods of chaos. Guillermo del Toro is perhaps the most significant disciple of the directors Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan López Moctezuma. Jodorowsky is probably better known than Moctezuma, at least in arty circles. In his day, Moctezuma made a number of totally off-the-wall movies that rivaled Jodorowsky. All of them are great, but The Mansion of Madness (1973) is one of the best. It’s as if Moctezuma made a feature-length movie based on the album art for Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, an unparalleled example of the high-water mark of psychedelic musical experimentation. Needless to say, the inmates have taken over the asylum. Del Toro has made movies since the 80s. Blade II (2002) might be his most well known. But Cronos (1993) was what really put him on the map. It is about an occult, scarab-like machine invented by an ancient alchemist who discovered the secret of eternal life. The catch is you become addicted to the blood-sucking device and are ultimately turned into a vampire. A number of movies have advanced the same idea of the vampire as addict. But none of them have done so more bluntly than Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). In it a stylish band of country western outlaw vampires wreck havoc on the Oklahoma panhandle. Bigelow, who studied French theory with Sylvere Lotringer at Columbia University, can be counted on to put an unexpected spin on her subject. The unlikely twist the director brings to the vampire story, besides setting it in the mythological no-man’s land of the American South, is that these creatures of the night can be saved from their eternal life of mayhem and killing by a simple blood transfusion. It is vampirism as a disease of the blood. The vampire becomes addicted to the evil coursing through its veins. One has only to flush the contaminated blood from the system to save the patient. No doubt the ending is two parts cornball to one part science-horror with the lovers able to finally embrace each other in the sunlight. Del Toro strikes out in a slightly different direction with Hellboy. Based on the popular comic book, the story is more like Lovecraft meets the X-Men. The occultist Nazis have recruited the great Russian mystic Rasputin to open a portal to the dark side of space where the seven gods of chaos lay in slumber, banished from our dimension by the mythological gods of yesteryear. G.I. Gurdjieff is maybe the first person to recast the devil as space alien. According to Gurdjieff, in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Satan was originally condemned to live out his miserable existence on the red planet. Gurdjieff was briefly associated with Theosophy. Like Rudolf Steiner, however, he and Madam Blavatsky did not see eye to eye, and he soon struck out on his own. For Gurdjieff it made much more sense that Satan was an ancient astronaut, a spaceman from a distant universe. As a child of modern science, the theories he developed became increasingly alien to her ideas. Heaven and Hell alone couldn’t possibly explain the universe. Mythology, like space, Gurdjieff believed, must exist in many dimensions all at once. For reasons of his own, he had concluded our solar system must be a kind of interstellar Hell. So, when he imagined the lost angels fell, he imagined they fell to the Martian surface. Gurdjieff employs the unlikely and sometimes awkward narrative device of having Beelzebub recount his various sorties to the Earth to his grandson as they fly through the stars in his space ship. The storytelling conceit allows for some funny insights like when The Devil describes Earth people as misshapen and ugly because we do not have cloven-hoofed feet and horns. Mainly though, it allows Gurdjieff to describe Beelzebub’s Earthly encounters as fractured vignettes in much the same way as Carl Theodor Dreyer does in his 1921 Leaves from Satan’s Book. Sometimes criticized for not being representative of Dreyer’s minimal style, his third movie is like a Best of Satan’s Greatest Hits starting with his bargain with Judas to betray Christ (Jesus is never better portrayed as a proto Che Guevara). The other episodes include the Inquisition and French Revolution, and Dreyer ends the movie with an excoriation of the 19th-century Russian invasion of Finland. Rock legend has it that the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for The Devil” was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the song, memorialized in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 movie by the same title in which the director films the band rehearsing and recording the tune from start to finish and juxtaposes those sequences with footage of black revolutionaries, clearly follows the format of Dreyer’s film much more closely. One of Hammer Film’s most ambitious undertakings by far was Quatermass and The Pit which also came out in 1968. At the most basic level, the movie is an allegory of the hive mind and its need to destroy the outsider. In that sense it was at the time very much meant as a criticism of Nazi fascism and can easily be recuperated to comment on what the current U.S. Administration is calling “Islamic fascism” and what critics of the Bushevic “New World Order,” going back to Bush I, are calling Western fascism. The movie takes off from the occult theories of Gurdjieff and provides the foundation for a movie like Hellboy. As with Gurdjieff, the devil comes from Mars. Only it offers a much more complicated and compelling theory: The horned insectoid Martians, which closely resemble gargoyles, are genocidal maniacs; faced with their own extinction they crossbreed with early ape men which they reintroduce to Earth to mix and ultimately take over the population. Griel Marcus writes about it in his groundbreaking book on the history of the avant-garde from dada to the Situationist art movement and ultimately Punk Rock, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Marcus sites the movie as a comparison to the effect of seeing The Sex Pistols for the first time. The subway station where the Martian spacecraft is discovered is called Hobbes Lane. The name is an old English reference to a quarter originally named “The Devil’s Way” (there are also the odd factoids that only old-world Europe can offer like the myth that only iron can kill the devil). The movie’s reference to Sigmund Freud’s idea of “original sin” doesn’t escape Marcus. He writes: “Freud believed that modern people in some fashion remember, as actual events, the parricides he thought established human society, and unconsciously preserve the memory in otherwise inexplicable persistent myths and rituals; in Moses and Monotheism he argued that, hundreds of years after the fact, the Israelites carried a memory of their forebears’ murder of the first Moses, even though in oral and written traditions the event was completely suppressed.” The idea that Quatermass and The Pit advances is that some humans are actually hybrid Martians which among other things explains the otherwise totally irrational xenophobic violence and evil of those Radical Right Neocons in our own country. Faced with the insane destabilization of the Mid-East in which every progressive democratic impulse is being driven out of the region by the very real threat of a Western sponsored genocidal warfare on their people in what can only be seen as an attempt to insight WWIII, no rational explanations for their policy remain viable. These are people without any historical hindsight — the Neocons must have missed that day in class. As with the Nazi occult impulse to raise the power of evil in Hellboy, the Radical Right’s bastardization of Christianity to suit its culture of death in our country is in reality nothing but a cover for its true desire for an alliance with the demonic occult. The evil they have let loose on the world will haunt us for years to come.

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