Where can humor take place?

When I first enrolled in this class, I thought by around this time this semester, I would mimic a certain “Key & Peele” skit, in which movie hecklers interrupt the treasured silence of the theater in order to loudly complain about poor filmic techniques that the director of the movie chose. The skit is made even more humorous to me after taking the course, since the terms they throw around (like “mise-en-scene” and “crane shot”) actually make sense now. However, the skit does make me question one aspect of our movies that we’ve continually discussed: the placement/use of humor in apocalypse settings.

Of course, one might easily make the point there is no real room for humor in movies concerning the apocalypse when you think about the amount of damage and casualties that usually take place. But as we have seen in a good portion of the movies we’ve watched, this is often the opposite. For many of these films, humor works to disguise the tragedy and calamity we would otherwise witness firsthand. By reimagining the actual event in a way that’s easier to mentally digest, we can receive the message behind it without becoming depressed at watching it for ourselves, like how a dog owner might hide their pet’s medicine inside a treat. Take, for instance, Andrew Stanton concealing the hard-hitting subjects of the damaging effects of consumerism and environmental consciousness in a cute, children’s movie with animated robots. Or Don Hertzfeldt letting a third-generation clone explain the pain of existence to a babbling four-year-old in his movie.

But then, how much more effective are humor-based apocalypse movies over their serious counterparts at conveying a message? Would the presentation of deep, thematic elements hold more weight in viewing outright carnage and destruction, or does the feeling of laughing over grave subjects feel unnerving enough to pay attention to them?

Sacrificing Hope for the Future

Throughout the semester, we have been concerned with how we imagine our futures and ends, and what is at stake from thinking beyond the present. Of course, thinking beyond our current situations allows us a sense of pleasant escape, encouraging thoughts that the grass is likely greener on the other side. On the other hand, if the grass we wish to be more vibrant appears brown in our imaginations of the future, we can become inspired by that vision to attempt and rethink our current situations so that the future aligns with our desires. However, as films like Mad Max: Fury Road have taught us, we must not become so caught up in our illusions in order to actually produce the future that we imagine for ourselves.

“Hope is a mistake,” the character Mad Max says multiple times throughout the film. “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” We witness mental breakdowns from various characters in the film as they come across this same truth for themselves. Although pessimistic, the idea is easy to relate to.

Take for instance this incoming holiday season. A month from now, so many will rededicate themselves to some new goal or purpose, in the efforts of satisfying a resolution for the New Year. Oftentimes these goals are large and too grandiose to actually work, resulting in many crashing and burning on these goals with no chance of success. However, some people may not be going about their goals the right way — someone who plans to exercise more to lose weight isn’t going to get very far by eating out socially every weekend. Thus, many will attribute a failure in their plans as a failure of themselves, when this is not necessarily the case.

Imagining our futures is very similar to this. Like Max, Furiosa, and Nux all put in work towards a strategy to accomplish what they imagined for their possible future, we must also organize ourselves to create our visions and see them actually manifest before us. Does strategizing in this way, then, limit the risk that comes with thinking beyond the present? Or should the risk always remain present, in order to keep us in check?

Musical ‘movements’ in Magnolia

When people discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, his carefully placed symbolic objects (e.g. the numbers 8 and 2, the frogs) are usually brought to the forefront of the conversation. However, the movie’s auditory symbolism is just as stimulating; specifically, the soundtrack of the movie is just as rich in analysis as all of the visual symbols.

Of course, everyone already talks about the big Aimee Mann scene towards the end of the film, where the legion of characters is united in song, heart, and story, despite having differing conflicts up until that point. But also worth mentioning are the long ‘scenes’ beginning from the very start of the plot, in which long plays of the non-diegetic soundtrack section off bits of the narrative, often overlapping between the characters. Anderson’s use of music is unique in how its distinct presence works to produce the mood, tone, and implication of scenes simultaneously.

Take for example, the first ‘scene’ of music — in which Stanley arrives at the quiz site before the show starts (in one of the longest takes I think I’ve ever witnessed); Jim meets Claudia for the first time; Linda gets the prescription for her dying husband; Frank begins his interview; Donnie pulls up to the bar to see Brad the bartender; Nurse Phil begins chasing after Earl’s dying wish — all of this takes place with the same tense orchestral music bobbing in the background. Though there are a couple of diegetic interruptions, the background track never leaves and plays consistently up until the end of the first round on the quiz show.

What’s interesting is that all the scenes before this point lacked accompanying music like this, so the soundtrack picks up just after 40 minutes into the film. Additionally, it is almost a full 40 minutes later when this particular song from the soundtrack cuts off. Thus, all of the action that takes place above it, despite it coming from different characters, is grouped into a single section. This technique repeats later in the film to different songs, resulting in larger chunks (or movements, if you will) of the story. We know a particular ‘strain’ of the story has ended when the backing song does.

Like in the other films we’ve discussed, I believe this technique works similarly to how an apocalypse brings people together in the other movies. The backing music of these large movements unite the cast and parallel their actions temporally and symbolically. If examined like Melancholia, we could say that Magnolia unites all the character’s personal apocalypses to merge into one larger one (and perhaps this event is the frogs raining). Furthermore, since this technique reoccurs throughout the movie, could this work for us (through the characters) to think about our future at various points in time, like with the other films?

Reflection inspired by Pandian’s “Seeing Things”

In her excerpt “Seeing Things”, Anand Pandian discusses how humanity uses cinema as a medium through which we can broadcast and urge our own perspectives. To Pandian, if we examine the perspectives shown to us in cinema, we will be able to “find new ways of reconciling human aims and intentions with the precarious vitality of this globe,” resulting in a change or expansion of perspective. This claim works well in our class’s focus on apocalyptic movies, as these movies tend to deal heavily with changing our perspectives and behaviors so that (X) event does not happen (in the way that the past influences the present).

Why are we so fascinated with the end, and how do we imagine it?

According to Pandian, this has to do with our “utopian vision” of wonder and promise that we put into our films. Like the child reaching out for the moon as if it were a ball, humanity stands at the foothills of a barren mountain, longing to reach its peak and cross over to the other side in search of the green, rolling hills of Utopia. We like to imagine that the end will be paradisiacal — a lush reward after the long, arduous struggle of life.

However, the creators of apocalypse movies, specifically, put a twist on this vision in that instead of automatically placing Utopia in the vision of our end, they dangle its promise above life’s harsh reality that we have not yet overcome, like a mother promising dessert to her child if the child eats all of its vegetables first. Apocalypse film creators warn us to not get complacent, that we are in charge of whether Utopia comes around or not — in other words, our poor choices today will affect if we remain at the foothills or not.

We’ve seen this message in our class’s selection of films, stated both subtly and outright.

For example, recall how Lars von Trier implies how a stagnant fixation on rigid societal customs results in inner turmoil and implosion with his focus on personal apocalypses in Melancholia; this is similar to Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of human formality in Dr. Strangelove. Or when Andrew Stanton illustrates humanity’s downfall in affluence and consumption due to their previous poor actions of apathy towards their home planet in Wall-E, with Don Hertzfeldt achieving a similar depiction concerning humanity’s favor and obsession of life over love (and other human emotions) in his World of Tomorrow.

In this way, it seems apocalypse film creators implore their audience to reconsider their held perspectives on what the world’s end will be like and how it will come about. Along with Pandian, these movies’ creators appear to be aware that “at stake here, in other words, is something profound: the reconstitution of what is real,” as one’s perception will often translate to his reality with enough time and justification.

Should, then, we fear our apocalypse cinema’s decrees?

Why pursue immortality?

Many of the films we have watched thus far deal with the question of human extension of life. Whether it be through cloning, movement of consciousness, or physical movement to escape certain death elsewhere, in these movies, humans always try their best to escape their own demise. It is a common narrative (if not the only one) in films for humans try their best to defy the odds and survive, so this is not a question from a popular viewpoint, but: why try at all?

It seems almost ingrained in us to desire to live over anything else, to the point where (as we saw in Advantageous and World of Tomorrow) many will consider transferring their consciousness and memories to other ‘vessels’ to hold onto some version of life. This makes sense, as biologically, life is programmed to try to preserve life, whether through adaptation or escape (in a survival of the fittest sense). Furthermore, humans often fear death (or the absence of life) as we don’t know what comes after, and we cannot remember a time when we weren’t living. However, films run with this idea to create a depiction of humans fighting against the most impossible obstacles to live, and I wonder why there is no room for the consideration of death as an alternative to the struggle.

If one could continue to live as they did with no harm or setback, this of course would be the ideal solution. But as we have seen in WALL-E, the human pursuit of existence came with the loss of knowledge and awareness. In 28 Days Later, there is an everyday struggle to live from not only the threat of man-eating creatures, but also the fear of your fellow man, resulting in a sort of inevitability of escape. In Snowpiercer, those that survive are subjected to the whims and beliefs of those higher in the social hierarchy. In Advantageous, those that live longer have fewer opportunities, especially if they are not wealthy. In World of Tomorrow, the living clones are not exact copies and lose many memories of the original person.

In all of these cases, the people that adapt or move to survive experience a loss of humanity, self, and emotion — so do they truly live?

What is the cost of survival? Is the extension of life still rewarding as ‘life’ if the life is not distinctly human as it were previously?

Religion in 28 Days Later

I think an important yet subtle theme featured in 28 Days Later is religion. From the very beginning of the movie when Jim enters the church, Boyle seems to be bringing a comment on religion into the movie’s analysis. For example, he could be making a comment on religion’s futility by rendering it useless in a place of killing and death. The church in the beginning could be seen as a place of sanctuary for people attempting to escape infection, but it is instead filled with already-infected and/or dead bodies (even the Father!).

This comment remains evident in the film’s other less obvious portrayals of religion, like the non-diegetic playing of “Ave Maria” behind a couple of scenes, and Selena using the words “began the exodus” in her initial conversation with Jim. These scenes directly call back and reference Biblical material.

Furthermore, Boyle uses select objects in the film to symbolize Biblical content, as well. From the festive Christmas decorations hanging in Frank and Hannah’s flat to signify the presence of Christ, to the four horses galloping in the countryside the characters visit to possibly represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, to even the starting and ending group of three characters standing for the Holy Trinity, Boyle fills his movie with religious imagery down to the most imperceptible details.

But — if Boyle believes religion is futile, then why is his movie so saturated with religious imagery and references? Perhaps Boyle is instead commenting on God’s/religion’s impartial omnipotence. After all, in the beginning, the “Rage” disease is man-made and initially spread due to human error, and at the end of the movie there is no divine intervention or favor to save the characters from their plight. There is nothing divinely given or natural about the events of the apocalypse, yet you can find references God’s presence everywhere. What is Boyle attempting to convey?

Portrayal of Sexuality in Melancholia and 28 Days Later

**Trigger Warning** This blog post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

In the past two movies our class has watched, I have noticed a common theme shared between them: the importance (if any) of desire/sex. Depending on the movie, it is portrayed differently, but I have seen its presence in both Melancholia and 28 Days Later.

For example, we discussed how Melancholia’s protagonist Justine has an obvious affinity for expressing her sexuality in how she entices then denies consummation with her husband in exchange for an affair with a stranger and in her late-night nude lounge on the riverbed in the moonlight. Additionally, 28 Days Later features numerous intense sexual violence scenes with the soldiers onto Selena and Hannah. But what is the importance of this wanton exhibition?

My guess is that both directors of Melancholia and 28 Days Later want to make a comment on sex. Discussing sex while putting it in the frame of the apocalypse suggests the kind of sex they want to talk about and portray is more carnal and animalistic. After all, Justine and Major West’s soldiers both committed forced sexual assault. Could the comment be, when faced with imminent doom, humanity will resort back to acting on an innate savagery?

Or, could both directors want to discuss female sexuality in particular? While von Trier paints female sexuality as seemingly empowering and emboldening, Boyle marks the subject with horrifying violence and force that seems to express the opposite. I have also read from reviews of Boyle’s film how the imagery of gory blood and the implication of the phrase “28 Days” likens it to the image of the female menstrual cycle, which further deepens the movie’s relation to female sexuality.

I have no concrete answers for my guesses at these directors’ aims. However, it is interesting to think about how sensitive topics like sex(uality) play out in the event of humanity’s end. For example, since female sexuality is such a taboo topic in society, it would make sense if the directors of these films wanted the opportunity to discuss it, as their movies gives them the chance to do so freely.