Archive for Nerd Testament

Nerd Testament #3: Never Drink…Vine

Posted in movies, Religion with tags , , , on February 23, 2009 by bradellison

One of the best of the Hammer Dracula films starring the peerless Christopher Lee was Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.  The Man Himself delivers only a couple of lines in the picture, which is about par for the course with the series (and one of the great tragedies of that fine set of films is that Christopher Lee’s magnificent voice doesn’t get used enough.  Fortunately there is Jesse Franco’s magnificent Il Conde Dracula, in which Lee plays the Count as written in the book, and delivers my favorite monologue, the one about the glories of the past), but he doesn’t need to say anything, because his glare says it all.  He opens up by asking “who has done this thing?” and then spends the rest of the movie silently working to punish the person who had done that thing, and then announcing “the revenge is complete,” in a grimly satisfied way that sends chills down the spine.  Dracula’s instinctive response to being crossed it to put everything else on the back burner and punish the guy responsible, such is his pride.  And this is something Lee captures magnificently, portraying Dracula as a no-longer-human aristocrat.

Let us all take a moment to contemplate how completely awesome Christopher Lee is.

Christopher Lee

Yeah.

Where was I?

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.  Yes.  Good.  Moving on.

It’s about the vengeance of Dracula.  It’s about pretty ladies in nightgowns getting bitten in the throat.  It’s about youthful courage and love overcoming the powers of darkness.

And, most importantly for our purposes today, it’s about faith, and about how men may respond in the face of evil.

There are, in this story, three men of consequence besides Lord Dracula.  Two of them are priests, and the third identifies himself as an atheist, though he’s really more of an agnostic.  All of them come face to face with Count Dracula.  One breaks.  One stands.  And one is reborn.

There is a village still reeling from the horrors enacted by the now-dead vampire lord, who was swallowed up by clean running water at the climax of the last film and now lies dead beneath the ice.  But still the village lives in fear, and the church stands empty, for the shadow of Castle Dracula falls upon it, and that dark place is steeped in evil, even with its master gone.  The village priest is a broken man now.

To this place comes Monsignor Mueller, on a routine tour of the churches under his charge.  He is less than pleased by this state of affairs.  And so, taking up the great cross from the church altar, he ascends the mountain towards the castle, with the trembling priest in tow.  But where courage fails, strength fails, and he falls on the wayside.  Literally, he falls.  And hits his head on a rock.  And a trickle of blood flows from his scalp, down the rocks, and into the lake.  It’s not much, but just a drop of blood from a faithless priest is enough to restore Dracula to life.  And as the good Monsignor seals the gates of the castle with the holy cross so that Dracula may not enter, and recites the Rite of Exorcism so that the dark miasma of that place will dissipate, the Count is claiming his new servant.

And when he sees what has been done to his home, he goes to work taking his revenge.  With nothing but an increasingling mad slave and a stolen hearse, Dracula follows the Monsignor to the city where he resides with his widowed sister and beloved niece.  The vengeance of the Son of the Dragon is not direct.  It is subtle.  He begins his work by seducing the girl, infecting her with his evil.  By making her a vampire, he will inflict pain greater than death upon those who love her.

It is, ultimately, the third man who will stand in Dracula’s path.  An earnest young student driven by an insatiable desire for knowledge, he’s the man courting the young lady.  He runs into difficulties on this front when, at dinner, he answer’s the Monsignor’s question about which church he attends with the statement that he is an atheist, and is thrown out.

But as a reasonable man, he’s not about to reject the evidence of his eyes, and so when crunch time comes, he accepts that he’s embroiled in a battle with forces supernatural, and the Monsignor, in his dying moments after seeing his life fall apart at the hands of Dracula, entrusts his niece’s salvation to this youth.

In the end, she is redeemed by his love for her, while Dracula, ironically, falls off a cliff and is impaled on a large cross, which pretty thoroughly settled his hash until Taste the Blood of Dracula came out.

Four men, then, play a part in this story.  Also three women, but unfortunately they’re mainly relegated to the role of plot devices, serving to drive the story forward while wearing nightgowns and low-cut blouses.

There is Dracula.  So consumed by wrath and pride is he that sleeping in a sewer in a coffin he stole from a dead woman while seeking revenge is preferable to returning home and going about his business.Not much of a role model.

There is the village priest.  When confronted with real evil, he lost his hope, his courage, and his faith.  Faithless and afraid, he became a slave, and ultimately a monster.  Building on my last post, this is a consequence of being ruled by fear.  Afraid of Dracula, he became a pawn of Dracula.  Unable to trust that God’s power was greater than the vampire’s, he fives himself over instead to Satan’s power.  This is something that has happened in the real non-vampire-infested (as far as we know) world.  People given over to fear have done terrible things, from burning books (and Black Sabbath records.  I’m not sure it’s a sin as such to burn Paranoid, but it is a waste of an awesome album), to hanging innocent men and women as witches.

Then we have the good Monsignor, who serves as our hero for the first half of the film.  He is rather a better role model.  Fearless in his faith, but kind and gentle as well.  His gospel to the pitiable priest is “if God is with us, who can stand against us?” This seed falls on hardpacked ground, and the birds swoop down to eat it before it grows, but he does his best.  However, this good man is not perfect, either.  His response to the young man’s lack of belief broke the bounds of courtesy and kindness, and neither did it serve as a good witness to the youth.  In fairness, he’d had a rough day at work, directly confronting the supernatural forces of darkness with the power of Almighty God, and thus might well be short with an agnostic.  And in the end, he puts his faith not only in God, but in the young man’s love and strength of character.  And that faith was rewarded.  Note, therefore, that the purposes of the Kingdom of Heaven are probably better served by inviting atheists into your home, rather than throwing them out.

Finally, our hero for the second half, when in most Dracula pictures youth does battle with old age, our young lover.  An earnest youth, he expresses a desire to learn the truth of the world.  He does.  It takes a personal encounter with Dracula fully persuade him, but by the end of the movie, he’s seen with his own eyes the power of faith.

There might be a moral in there about how you should learn to embrace the unscientific, the mystical side of life.

There might also be a moral in there about how much easier it is to do that if there are actual vampires running about being destroyed by the power of the holy cross.

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Nerd Testament #2: With Great Power

Posted in Religion with tags , on February 14, 2009 by bradellison

Superheroes are a fascinating phenomenon.  Their literary lineage goes back immediately to the pulps, their sires including such stalwarts as Doc Savage, Tarzan and The Shadow, and the family tree goes back to the very beginnings of human literature, to the great champions like Roland, Achilles, David and Gilgamesh.  But the comic book superhero is something quite different from his forebearers.  The secret identity conceit is a key innovation, as are the outre alter egos they create for themselves.  Any burly chump can put on a trenchcoat and punch mobsters and Nazis in the face, but ever since Siegel and Schuster had their lightning-strike, it’s expected that heroes will don colorful tights, masks and capes to do their crimefighting, sporting colorful monikers, wild origin stories, and weird specialties.  This flair for showmanship, and the way it suited the purely visual four-color medium the superhero is associated with, is what makes these characters iconic.  The Man of Bronze might be the apex of physical and mental development, but ultimately he’s a big guy in a suit.  And the whole point of The Shadow is that you don’t see him.  But Superman, he’s a living breathing flag.

And as such, superheroes are more effective as symbols.

Consider Superman.  Doomed Planet.  Last Son.  Kindly Couple.  Speeding bullet.  Locomotive.  Tall buildings.  Mild-mannered reporter.

Never-ending battle for Truth and Justice.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever read a comic book in your life, it’s a safe bet that you know the mantra by heart.  You probably know it as “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” and the absence of that third thing might even upset you, but please note that the American Way was a later, Cold-War-inspired addition.  Superman does stand for the American Way, all that’s best about America’s ideals, indeed he is the living embodiment of them as an adopted immigrant and a small-town boy and a big-city champion, but Superman is also a universal hero, and that’s as it should be.  He possesses nigh-godlike powers, and it is good to remember that God is not American.

But the point is, Superman is a universally recognizeable symbol for all that is good and right and heroic in the world.  He’s an exemplar.  In addition to providing thrilling adventures, for seventy years now he’s also been an impeccable role model.

Consider Superman’s dark mirror.  Bruce Wayne possesses no superhuman gifts.  He was not fortunate enough to be raised by loving parents.  What he does have is a fortune and an indefatigable will.  When his world was broken, he decided to do something about it.  At the age of eight, this child decided to turn his grief into drive, and swore an oath to fight evil.  Like Doc Savage, he’s a modern renaissance man possessing unmatched physical prowess, a keen intellect, mastery of seemingly every discipline on Earth, and the overwhelming urge to make the world a better place.  His methods, however, are more in line with those of The Shadow.  Darkness, disguise, illusion and fear are his weapons.  And yet, he will not kill.  There are rules he abides by, and following them has sometimes cost him, but he, too, is a role model.

Then there’s perhaps the greatest of comic book role models: the amazing Spider-man.  Why the greatest?  Because in the words of the original tagline, he’s “the hero who could be YOU!”

Peter Parker, nerdy teenager.  Social outcast, frail and sickly loser, loved only by his aging aunt and uncle.  A miracle occurs, and he’s granted incredible powers.  At this point, one of the classic heroes of the golden age would promptly swear to start righting wrongs, and head out to find some gangsters or Nazi spies to punch.

Peter Parker jumps into the wrestling ring to earn some fast cash, and from there he gets on the Ed Sullivan show.  He’s eagerly looking forward to a life of fame and fortune.  Which, let’s be honest with ourselves, is what most of us would probably do.  As Guillermo Del Toro notes in the Hellboy commentary track, he would probably use superpowers to steal beer too.

But the four-color world is a harshly moralistic one, frequently driven by simplistic irony.  And complexity is not a requirement for emotional impact, which is why I still get a little choked up when I think about Uncle Ben.  The moralat the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 is a resonant one: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

For forty-seven years now, Spidey has been living by that creed.

And he pays for it every day of his life.

Superman is a golden icon.  Batman’s a billionaire playboy.  The Fantastic Four are wealthy celebrities who live in their own skyscraper and are loved by all.

Spider-man is frequently spit on, accused of crimes, and made the target of hurled garbage.  He can barely make ends meet a lot of the time.  His relationships are always troubled.  The love of his life died in his arms, murdered by a lunatic with a grudge against him.  He did manage to marry a gorgeous supermodel, but let’s face it, their marriage was under constant strain, largely because of the way he kept putting on tights and going out to fight supervillains capable of ripping him to pieces.  The editor of a major newspaper has made it his life’s work to destroy Spider-man’s reputation.  He’s constantly being beaten into jelly, thrown into death traps, buried under mountains of rubble, and having to cope with weird clone nonsense.

But he still does what’s right.  The essence of who Spider-man is and what he’s about can be found in The Amazing Spider-man #33.  Buried under wreckage, the water level rising, he refuses to give up.  He struggles free, not for himself, but so he can save his Aunt May.  Sam Raimi seems to get this, which is why Spider-man 2, one of the best superhero movies ever made, features a climax in which Spider-man, maskless, battered and alone, is crucified on the front of a train trying desperately, and apparently futilely, to save the people inside even if it means being ripped apart.

Raimi includes a number of visual cues in the movies that are reminiscent of the Gospels.  Spidey is taken by the Goblin to a high place, and offered dominion over all the world, for instance.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.”  That, combined with the notion that everyone is your neighbor, is at the heart of Christianity.  The chiefest virtue, and closest emulation of the Christ, is self-sacrifice, giving yourself in place of others.  And this is exactly what Spider-man does.  He takes the sin and pain of the world upon his own shoulders, as much as he can bear.  He takes the kicks and insults, too, and doesn’t expect any other reward.  His creed is that, because he is able to do what is right, he should do what is right.  He does it anonymously, even though that makes it easier for his enemies to slander and vilify him.  And he’ll never stop doing it.

Because he’s a hero.

Slightly Late Nerd Testament #1: the Parable of the Ronin and the Whore

Posted in Religion with tags , on February 8, 2009 by bradellison

Some background:

Lone Wolf and Cub is, straight up, one of the greatest achievements in comic book history.  It’s twenty-eight volumes in length and it tells a unified and dynamic story from beginning to end with all the depth and complexity of a Victor Hugo novel, yet almost every chapter (at least in the first two thirds or so) is capable of standing alone as a self-contained episode.  It’s a story about mighty samurai, but it’s also packed with period detail on the lives of peasants, merchants, craftsmen and gangsters.  It’s pulp exploitation to the max, chock full with bloody violence, gratuitous sex and implausible twists and cliffhangers, but it’s also a deeply moving and richly drawn saga about the highest of ideals and themes.  Loyalty, duty, honor, betrayal, love and revenge.  It’s the product of one of the best writer-artist teams in comics history, and pioneered a cinematic visual style reminiscent of Kurosawa’s chambara films and Leone’s spaghetti westerns, a style that hugely influenced Frank Miller back when he was at his best.  Pretty much everything about it is awesome.

It’s the story of Ogami Itto (which, literally rendered into English, might come out something like One-sword Wolfe), the Shogun’s personal executioner.  At least, he was the Shogun’s personal executioner until a rival clan framed him for treason and murdered his wife.  Rather than submit to the death his alleged treason demanded, Ogami did the unthinkable: taking his infant son Daigoro, he renounced the rules that defined his existence and went into exile, wandering the countryside working as an assassin until the time when he’d be able to fulfill his vow of vengeance and destroy his betrayers, the Yagyu clan.  He was accompanied by his son, who rode in a baby cart that was rigged up as an arsenal in disguise, packed with spring-loaded blades, a bullet-proof bottom, and, at one point, an experimental twenty-shot supermusket.  Daigoro, from the time he could walk, not only bore witness to the bloodstained life his father led, but aided him as an active accomplice.  A toddler, it turns out, can be a very effective Trojan horse if he keeps a cool head and follows instructions.

And it came to pass, at a certain point in Ogami Itto’s wanderings, that he came to a hot springs resort, a mountain village accessable only by a long and narrow rope bridge.  As he came to the end of the bridge, he was accosted by some of the bandits who had completely taken over the town, which they were in the process of despoiling.  For his own reasons, Ogami permitted them to take him prisoner.

The bandits led the samurai and his child through the village, which had been transformed into a little slice of hell.  In the process of walking from the bridge to the inn where the bandits have set up shop, they pass one rape and two murders.

Ogami and his son are taken to the bathhouse, where all the other out-of-towners were being held captive.  Among them was a prostitute and pickpocket by the name of O-Sen.  A particularly hot-headed and belligerent bandit, a man who felt the need to see Ogami’s stoic dignity humbled, came in and began demanding that Ogami duel him.  When he found himself ignored, he simply started beating Ogami with his scabbard.  When that failed to elicit any response from the samurai, who continued to sit tranquilly in a meditative posture, the bandit demanded that Ogami and O-Sen put on a show for him.  With Ogami continuing to ignore him like a buzzing gnat, the bandit turned his attention to the prostitute, who proved easier to taunt.  Her response was that she would rather die than do what he asked, and he was about to accomodate her when Ogami, who’d only spoken five sentences in the whole issue so far, all of them more than fifteen pages back, broke his silence, stood up, and removed his kimono.

O-Sen’s first response as disbelief.  “No!  You wouldn’t…Not for me…”

Her second response, eyes downcast, was “If…If you can accept a woman like me…Do what you will.”

There followed much mockery from the watching bandits, the main points of ridicule being the cowardice of a samurai who would degrade himself so thoroughly to save his own life, and the beautific expression on the prostitute’s face, as though she were the Goddess of Mercy rather than a whore being penetrated in front of a jeering audience.

It was some time later, as the other prisoners sat around the lantern contemplating their almost certain deaths in the morning, and scorning Ogami’s cowardice and lack of shame, that O-Sen spoke out.

“Silence!  What do you know about it?  I was ready to bite off my tongue and die then, and he saw it.  That’s why he swallowed his shame and volunteered to sleep with me.

“Do you know how happy that makes me?  Saving the life of a woman like me?  He gave up all his samurai pride and posturing, just for me…

You may see where I’m going with this story now.  If not, take a look at the book of Hosea.

The Prophets, time and time again, and in harsher language than you’re ever likely to hear from a pulpit, drew the analogy between God’s people and a whore.  Ezekiel had some things to say involving Israel’s craving for donkey-sized penises.  People, the Scriptures tell us (and does not your own observation prove it out?) that people tend to turn aside from what they need, what they aught, and what is best, and instead pursue shiny trash, cheap thrills, and various brands of spiritual and mental junk food.  We mess things up.

As the Apostle Paul put it in one of his epistles:

Why everything that’s supposed to bad make me feel so good?
Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would
Man I tried to stop man I tried the best I could
But…

So that’s what we are.  And what God is, evidently, is far, far above man.  Which is what makes the Incarnation such an interesting phenomenon.  The Alpha and Omega, injected into creation as a character in His own story, breaking the fourth wall by becoming wrapped in fragile corrupt meat and made subject to the laws of nature.  Sweating, bleeding, eating, defecating.  Communicating by pumping air through wet fleshy bellows and slapping meat together.  Becoming something made up of countless cells constantly dying around and within Him.  And then He proceeds to humble, nay, humiliate Himself even by meat-puppet standards.  A peasant laborer in an occupied country on the grimy edges of the Empire, a man who conducted Himself with an inordinate lack of dignity or concern for propriety.  His whole career was spent looking for unclean things to embrace.  Then he capped it all off by dying one of the most agonizing and ignominious manners we vicious bloodthirsty little talking monkey-things ever came up with.

All this degredation and disgrace, heaped upon the I AM THAT I AM, and for what?

For us.  Honor and pride set to one side, disgraced before the adversaries who accuse and defy, in order to save a whore.