Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Party Gods

A man who refuses to have his own philosophy will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy. - G.K. Chesterton

From the used-up scraps file, here’s the best recipe I could find for holy water:

16 oz bottle of water
Some priestly vestments
A CD of Gregorian chants (optional)

Put on the vestments.  Play the CD if you got it.  Empty the water bottle into a large metal pot over high heat. Boil the hell out of it. Serves 3 persons (in one Godhead).

Hang onto that recipe - it’ll come in handy if you ever get possessed or your house gets haunted or you face some sort of apocalyptic scenario involving demons or vampires.  Also works for baptisms.  There might be some copyright issues with the Vatican, so freeloaders beware – if the Pope can tweet indulgences, telexcommunication can’t be far behind.
Before you dismiss the above as a pathetic attempt at humor, consider how much more pathetic would it be as an attempt at spiritual understanding.  After watching This is The End, I’m beginning to believe that an unhealthy-sized chunk of my generation won’t be able to tell the difference.  While a popular way of describing this trend is as an erosion of the sacred, I’m seeing it in reciprocal. To paraphrase the popular misquoted version of the actual Chesterton quote, when Man ceases to believe in the sacred, he does not believe nothing to be sacred.  He believes everything sacred.

A telling example of the sacralization of everything is the widespread adoption of “canon” to apply to the various series of comics, TV shows and movies that have attracted cult followings.  While perusing Amazon for a French-language version of an Asterix comic book (what can I say – I have a thing for Franco-Belgian comics from the 60s), I stumbled on a “non-canonical” work and, following a rigorous Wikipedia investigation, discovered a furious controversy over the author/illustrator’s decision to sell the right to continue the franchise after his death to corporate interests.  It was as if Paul sold the rights to future Pauline epistles to his amanuensis bureau (coming this fall, 126th Thessalonians: Paul vs. the Eurocrats).

Not that I’m exempt from this sort of misdirected religious zeal – I remember feeling something along the lines of righteous anger burning in my bones as I watched Spielberg’s overwrought Tintin and Peter Jackson’s awful Hobbit.  I contributed to the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the disastrously bad reboots of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.  As much as I claim to revere the Bible, the Constitution and the various “serious” works of Western Civilization, it’s clear that the popcorn mythology of Hergé, Spielberg, Lucas and Tolkien have infiltrated my heart and taken a prominent place in my internal canon (perhaps we can be thankful for Spielberg, Lucas and Jackson’s recent gag-inducing efforts: all the better to vomit the false idols from our midst).  If the various social circles, blogs and media outlets I frequent are sufficient indicators,  I am representative of much of America in this regard.
The canonization of light fantasy doesn't happen in a vacuum.  The influx of immigrants from third world hellholes like Hollywood and the Marvel Universe inevitably triggers the canonical equivalent of white flight. Or if that analogy is too right-wing and nativist for your liking, imagine an army of soulless corporate toys infiltrating our shared cultural memory and replacing the likes of George Washington with one of the animatrons from Disney’s Hall of Presidents.  The Stepford Gods will eventually drive out the real article.  

An effect of this mythological changing of the guard in its later stage is the intense spiritual and cultural insanity on display in movies like The End.  Like my readers, Seth Rogen and co. are stuck in a giant mixed metaphor with no legend to make sense of it.  The lines between beliefs and suspension of disbelief have been blurred (if this sounds like regurgitated, half-digested readings in postmodernism, it's because it is, but bear with me: if The Matrix taught us anything it's that a limited understanding of postmodernist philosophy can at least inspire some entertaining imagery).

This becomes especially problematic (at least theoretically) when a situation calls more for moral conviction than a finely honed entertainment palate, which is precisely what happens to the protagonists of The End when their life of discriminating hedonism (the great conflict between Rogen and buddy Jay Baruchel rages over what kind of partying is best - Hollywood-style with narcissistic celebrities or slacker-style with video games and pot) is interrupted by a vaguely Christian end times scenario.

Left behind in the Rapture,the boys - Rogen, Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, all playing caricatured versions of their pop culture personas - have to find a way to heaven as earth rapidly descends into demon-infested hell.  As Chesterton foresaw, they are left with only with the “used-up scraps” of somebody else’s religion to guide them.  In postmodernist terms, they have only a few worn fragments of Borges’ world-sized map with which to navigate the “desert of the real.” Specifically, they have a few Bible passages and a working understanding of the supernatural derived from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and, I’m guessing here, All Dogs Go to Heaven.  Predictably, it’s a nightmarish mess - a pastiche of wild parties, hellscapes, fights with friends and demons, with considerable ambiguity as to when one stops and the next begins.  God is conspicuously absent.

You’d think the absence of a merciful God and a working knowledge of good and evil would have fatal or, more soberingly, eternal consequences, but those concepts, or at least the used-up scraps they were written on, have apparently been lost to history. As the co-screenwriter and de facto God, Rogen calls in a few pretty much literal dei ex machina to retroactively pave the road to heaven with good intentions (generously defined in relative terms), punish the egregious evil-doers, and even lend a little bit of spiritual efficacy to an ad hoc exorcism to help his less obnoxious friends survive the trip.  Not that these interventions are serious or even half-hearted attempts to legitimize a fundamentally worthless moral philosophy - they are gleefully arbitrary “acts of God” offered in mocking obeisance to the dictates of conventional morality and classical narrative in order to keep the party going.  

The blatant hollowness of these gestures rings with more ominous implications. If heaven and hell are just a double punchline, the keys to both fall to the jokester.  In this light, many of the narrative decisions in The End - casting stars as exaggerated versions of themselves, setting the drama in their exorbitantly expensive mansions, excluding non-stars from the story (including the roles of the villains), omitting God, depicting heaven as a big celebrity house party - read as a declaration of Godhood on the part of the stars, or at least a shrugging acceptance speech for the divinity bestowed on them by the culture.  The much-feared Christian eschaton turns out to be all sound and fury, signifying only as the splashy backdrop for the apotheosis of sleazy celebrities into a Roman style pantheon (with Rogen as a Bacchus-style “good” god, and McBride as a Vulcan-style “bad” god).

It’s all absurd, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but the most disturbing takeaway is that it’s also pretty honest.  Further, it pretty much had to be absurdist to get mass distribution.  Anything that took Christian claims more seriously would either be consigned to the padded walls of the Christian media industry (or the indie realm, a la Passion of the Christ)or re-imagined as a horror movie.  These are the only spaces left  in the American pantheon for artifacts of the old faith. Even these spaces are occupied by pale shadows of the originals, the lazy simulacra of misremembered Sunday School lessons and the make-up effects fromThe Exorcism of Emily Rose.  In these versions they can co-exist less contentiously (and occasionally even participate in the frequent bacchanalias) with self-aware pop icons and their immense collections of entertainment memorabilia.  The faded notions of God and Satan are bound grotesquely together as minor deities in a supporting role for the newly ascendant Party Gods.