Wednesday, September 04, 2002

'Signs' is a Sign of the Times

Have we humans always looked to the sky for portents of our destiny, even of our salvation? Probably. I've heard the Wise Men were astrologers. Indian totems, Aztec temples, Egyptian pyramids, and Christian steeples all point in that direction. Even our city skyscrapers seem like secular steeples, though in homage to more than one god. Nothing ever seems to come from below save trouble, like volcanic eruptions that choke and burn, earthquakes that bring down our buildings and, in ancient times, dragons that needed slaying by a hero who has gotten his charter from - above. Besides, this is the earth: the place where we live too familiar to our feet. In spite of the mysteries it still holds, we know it and each other too well, and the mysteries are, after all, merely of this earth. When we weary of each other, we become weary of our religion as well, and the tale it tells of the struggle between good and evil being played out in each of our souls in every nation of the world.

This story is not, of course, "merely" an earthly mystery. It is a supernatural one, the history of a creature suspended between heaven and hell whose complete destiny depends on certain critical choices made in the course of a brief lifetime. Occasionally, sometimes permanently, we tire of the struggle. God seems remote. He is from another world, we know, but one we can neither see nor touch. Some saints claim to have had glimpses of it - the sight, the taste, the smell of it - but we are not one of those, nor are we sure we have the desire to be. But up there, among the as yet unreachable stars, are many worlds of many possibilities, inhabited, perhaps, by beings of sublime wisdom, luminous intelligence, and ethereal physical presence, beings who might deign in their mastery of the elements to come down and teach us a thing or two in areas where our religion has ceased to inspire, like how to love thy neighbor as thyself, and, if we're good girls and boys, in areas where our religion does not apply, like how to build a fusion reactor, an ion propulsion system, or how to navigate worm holes. The possible can come to seem probable, and if the stars are slow in coming to us, then we will go to the stars, as witness the followers of Heaven's Gate, who knew full well that NASA would never take them where they wanted to go.

That there might be dragons as well as angels "up there" has occurred to us, but that only makes the new morality play we're seeking all the more exciting. The prospect that the war between Michael and Lucifer might unfold before our eyes rather than remain invisible in heaven, that it might even require our participation rather than prayer and fasting, is a fantasy greatly to be wished into fact. It would resurrect in our own time the mighty energy, visual concreteness, and high drama of the ancient pagan religions, wherein the rapacious gods mingled with humans, doing battle with their men, fornicating with their women, and sometimes eating their children in sacrifice.

Hollywood has always taken both scenarios into account. Of the latter we can point to "War of the Worlds," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Alien," "The Thing," and "Independence Day." Of the former we might mention "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "ET," "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and "Starman." This category postulates angels descending, and more obviously embodies the transformation of wistful stargazing into a substitute for the religious impulse, attended by the lapses in moral logic that Hollywood usually brings to a spiritual quest. In "Close Encounters," Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon climb the mountain where, at the top, they gaze beatifically upon the burning bush unveiling itself as a light-filled UFO that plays music. The creatures that emerge are suffused in light, clearly superior in wisdom and intelligence while seemingly childlike in curiosity and mannerism. Except for one thing. Humans also emerge from this heavenly vessel, some modern, like the pilots who vanished over the Bermuda Triangle, and some, it is clear from their manner of dress, having been gone for centuries. All seem transformed, enlightened by the experience. But what kind of wise creature kidnaps people and deprives them of the most important things in life, such as making love to a husband or wife and watching together as the children grow up? What kind of creature, in other words, feels by what right so emboldened as to step in and annihilate the destiny God put these people on earth to fulfill? "Close Encounters" is a good children's movie as long as the adults are gullible too. Likewise, in "Starman," an unfallen, innocent being comes down to us as a ball of light. A human body is a precious thing, but he clones one for himself from a single human hair, a replica of Karen Allen's dead husband. He needs it as a temporary shell in order to make his way about the planet as one of us. He is not only innocent but smarter and possessing powers that allow him to make a Lazarus of a dead deer shot by a hunter. And his cloned body works just fine, as we discover when the widow Allen introduces him to the innocent, unfallen joys of a sexual interlude outside the bonds of marriage. A pregnancy results, and she is informed by the alien she has deflowered that the baby will grow up to be "a teacher," a Jesus, no doubt, without the Judgement. Thus enlightenment comes to us by way of Tinseltown.

The other category, devils descending, has for me always been the more compelling, as humans are generally most interesting when, as the Starman teacheth, "things are at their worst." This is the premise that M. Night Shyamalan exploits effectively in his newest work, "Signs," and perhaps better than his many predecessors. Better, that is, if your interest is in watching the progress of a character rather than in ogling aliens, admiring the special effects, and cheering the triumph of good over evil in a climactic final battle. There is a final battle in this film, but it takes place in a man's soul, the man hiding in a dark basement where the events outside are hidden from view, both his and ours.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former reverend of some stripe (he is still called "Father" by others; he tells them to stop) who has lost his faith after first losing his wife in a horribly freakish car accident. He has been left to raise his young son and even younger daughter. They have been joined by Graham's brother, quite a few years his junior, a former baseball player holding two minor league records, one for home runs the other for strikeouts, who has returned home to be of help. The daughter is, naturally, adorable and the son's precocity is admirable - he's the one who begins explaining the nature and purpose of the aliens and their crop circles after finding in this small, rural town's small, rural bookstore the only book on ET's on the shelf, a book that just happens to contain all the clues he needs to start piecing together the puzzle. This small point of credibility is accompanied by others of which I shall mention two: after receiving a strange phone call, Graham heads over to Ray's house. Ray is the fellow who fell asleep at the wheel and ran Graham's wife down in his truck as she was walking along the roadside, cutting her nearly in half and pinning her between the truck and the tree. When he gets to Ray's house, it is empty, but he finally sees Ray (played by Mr. Shyamalan himself) sitting in his SUV. He approaches to find the SUV loaded with belongings and to be informed by Ray that he is going to the lake - he doesn't think the creatures like water - and that he has trapped one in the pantry. He then apologizes to Graham for the hurt he has caused "to you and yours." Graham's face becomes a tortured mask of the eternal conflict between the commandment to forgive and the fire of vengeance that would punish and blame: he knows he ought to forgive, that he needs to forgive, but is impaled upon the stake of its near impossibility. He finally nods, giving Ray what they both need. This moment is worth your seven or eight bucks. He then goes inside and, in a clumsy attempt to get a look at the creature, lies on the floor, sticks a meat knife beneath the door, and tries to use its shiny blade as a mirror. The creature's ugly hand makes a grab for it and, in the ensuing struggle, perhaps by accident, Graham cuts off the tips of its fingers. He rushes home, but doesn't call the lady police officer (we're in a low crime area) nor take the fingertips with him to offer as proof against her previous skepticism. Furthermore, this olympian alien has shown itself capable of leaping onto a ten foot high roof in a single bound, and later of breaking out doors and windows and of withstanding repeated blows from a baseball bat. How does it get trapped and contained in a pantry? Then, toward the end, Graham and his family emerge cautiously from their basement prison. All seems well. The creatures are in retreat, some means of combatting them having been discovered. Suddenly, one appears from nowhere and snatches the limp body of Graham's son from off the sofa. He holds a nasty looking set of claws to the boy's throat. And what, I wondered, is he doing there? All his fellows have fled. With all the holes in the house he is certainly not trapped. Why doesn't he disappear into the cornfield, which was perfect cover for his kind earlier in the film? Where's his spaceship? He got down here easily enough. Can't he get back up? Am I to understand that a species capable of traversing millions of light years doesn't have an escape plan? Then a closeup reveals the terrible claws and the missing fingertips. Oh, he's stuck around for revenge. His very life's at stake, but he's going to get payback for the missing digits. Okay, if everybody says so. But I got the sense that the director felt he owed us at last a good look at the alien he'd been withholding so long. And, sorry, one more thing. It turns out that water, the stuff of baptism, is their nemesis, leaving the viewer to imagine an invasion repelled by a citizenry armed to the teeth with squirt guns.

These difficulties are not the result of Mr. Shyamalan's inability to tell a coherent story, but of his wish, or need, to serve two masters: art - which requires following the progress of a soul - and mammon - which requires the making of money, that the director might live to film another day. It is the science fiction premise that causes problems. If you can believe that without the crop circle bait to lure us in this movie would have been a commercial success, then you have more faith in the industry and your fellow man than have I. I love science fiction; in fact, I seek it out. But I understand what I am looking for - and it's not high art. The more believable the better, but "Signs" demonstrates perfectly the obstacles to muddying the waters of good and evil. It's easy to kill an alien, for they are "merely" evil, ugly, devoid of character, and in no need of salvation. Standing over the one you've just killed, you seethe with the satisfaction of having vanquished a wild animal. Standing over a human you've just killed...I've heard the feeling is quite different, whether you were justified or not. When Graham and his charges are huddled in the basement of their boarded up house surrounded by aliens pounding at the door and thundering through all the hallways and corners like a herd of predatory rats, the invaders seem no more than that, vermin worthy of extermination. They represent all the unexpectedly vile things that might assail us in life and test the motion of our faith. But they are evil in general, not in particular. Anyone who has ever been attacked by another human being knows the grotesquely horrible intimacy of it, an intimacy that's absent here. The true artist knows that even the bad guys have character.

It is during this basement scene, while holding his dying son in his arms, that Graham utters his agony: "Don't do this to me again. I hate you," pierced by the horns of the unbeliever's dilemma, unable even to hate Him without acknowledging His existence. But does the viewer believe that this gentle, timid, self-effacing, good-humored, deeply devoted family man who is uncomfortable with swearing was ever really in danger of his soul? His faith had already been tested by his wife's death. Why this new thing in quite this way? If he lost his son, would some remnant of faith remain for the sake of his daughter? If he lost her, would the presence of his brother keep some spark alive? These are legitimate questions that point us in a different direction: what would it take, short of a confrontation with aliens from another world, to either return this man to his former conviction that there are no coincidences, that someone is watching over us, or to confirm him in its opposite? That's another, harder, story to tell, but it would be a real one.

The science fiction premise makes certain things easier and runs the further risk of becoming dated, not only in its technological assumptions but in its dramatic suppositions. If, tomorrow, a convincing explanation disproved Mr. Shyamalan's hypothesis as to the origin of crop circles, his plot would lose its driving force. If, tomorrow, we were given proof that Mr. Shyamalan's hypothesis is correct.... Before we answer that let's answer this: which event seems more real - that apparitions of the Blessed Virgin have actually occurred on earth or that crop circles are made by aliens? That Christ is risen from the dead or that star-wandering visitors have found our little corner of space? Odd that the supernatural denizens of a world we can't see have more substance than the possibly natural inhabitants of the one we can. I guess it's a matter of which faith you prefer. And to answer our original question: Mr. Shyamalan's hypothesis will never be proven true exactly as proffered. Beings who can drive through the void to get here are rational; if they are rational they are possessed of free will; if they have rationality and will, they have souls. It will be much more complicated than the fantasy supposes.

I liked this movie. It was fun. There is much to laugh at, and some genuine creepiness. I would encourage people to see it - for fun, not as Christians desperately seeking a sign that Hollywood is aware of their existence. The general diet they feed us of energetic, guiltless sex, admirable mobsters, and mutilated teenagers (to them the body is nothing, just another special effect) is not going to change. If you want souls in peril and the regeneration wrought by faith, rent "The Song of Bernadette," "A Man for All Seasons," "Tender Mercies," or even "Scarecrow," a long ago sleeper about which there is nothing overtly Christian but wherein Gene Hackman's character makes a decision based on love that will define him forever. Or pick up Flannery O'Connor's short stories and read them all over again. Along with characters walking the edge of eternity on every page, I guarantee you'll see things you missed the first time, and not an alien in sight.

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