Category Archives: Meaning

Man of Steel: Why and How It Fell Apart

So let’s talk some Supes.

I’m going to split this blog into two parts: The quickie review. And the discussion. It’s best if you’ve seen the movie before reading the discussion.

Quickie review:

A thoughtful, fully realized, emotionally powerful, beautiful film that continues to get itself run over by trying to outdo the action and destruction in the Avengers. That said, if you’re not particularly concerned about the emotional and intellectual powerhouse that the movie tries and fails at being, it’s still a BIG, action-packed, beautifully filmed summer blockbuster that finally does Superman right.

I loved Henry Cavill. I loved the way that it at times felt like an alien invasion movie instead of a superhero movie. I loved the beautiful moments.

Like everyone else, if you dig epic action movies; go see it.

But I have to agree with the critics. This movie, despite its list of successes, still fell apart in every emotional and intellectual way it could.

* * *

Let’s talk about this trailer first.

This first trailer was everything that was working for Man of Steel on the most beautiful and emotionally-driving level. Every time the movie went to one of these moments, it was easily the strongest part of the movie. What was working here was on the thematic level. With the help of Christopher Nolan (who worked on the story with David Goyer. Goyer then went on to pen the screenplay), we have again the Batman effect that made the Dark Knight Trilogy (emphasis on the second installment) so brilliant.

This effect is not, I need to point out, the dark and gritty nature of the superhero movie. The effect is infusing the emotional and intellectual themes of the movie into the very characters themselves. (FilmCritHulk discusses this idea–and how the modern blockbusters are failing at this–far more in depth in his recent review of Star Trek: Into Darkness over at Badass Digest, which I’ll be drawing on as I consider Man of Steel. Read it. It’s astounding).

The fully realized and beautiful nature of the Man of Steel was in the way that Nolan and Goyer decided to hone in on Superman as an outcast, as a god-like power who can either be accepted as one of the people or taken away, studied, treated as, well, alien. This point, to be sure, was browbeating us for the entire movie. The overt nature of it did detract, but I still adore thoughtful and thematic movies, so I was willing to let my suspension of critique go for a bit longer.

But the problems come in the manifestation of these themes. What worked for The Dark Knight was in how the very essence of Batman infused his every action. His dramatic and emotional dilemmas came from his thematic and moral stance. And his nemesis, the Joker, stood for the exact opposite, locking them in a morally and thematic tension throughout the movie.

Here though, with Man of Steel, these themes that are stood for are lacking in follow-through. Do we ever see a moment in this film in which Superman must make a decision? Even his decision to turn himself in to the government and General Zod was so underplayed it didn’t even seem to be very important, despite the entire thematic build-up of the first act depending on it. How will the world accept him? Will they reject him or throw him to the dogs?

Um. We’re not really even sure. The only perspectives we get are Lois Lane’s and the occasional high ranking military official. For the entire dramatic tension of the first act, the brilliance underlying Superman’s very character, it’s forgotten, completely overwhelmed by threading General Zod’s plot in to make some sense of the epic destruction to come later.

My biggest letdown keeps coming around and around again to the execution. The themes were there (to which I suspect we have Christopher Nolan to thank). But after that… the script falls apart in the second act. And the filmography?

Director Zack Snyder is a man who loves beautiful filmography on the most epic of scales. And it’s his working of the camera that makes this movie so heartbreaking. In the scenes where we settle down, where we study Clark at his moments of insecurity and confusion, the film work is beautiful. Cranking in with the shallow depth of field and the sunset studies and the way the water crashes and the Alaskan lighting. It was perfection.

It was perfection in every sense. The dialogue was loaded with thematic and philosophical questions that spoke to the heart of our character’s natures: consider Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) in his encouraging of Clark to make the hard decisions to protect himself as an outsider. (Terrible advice, but deeply consequential and realized). The way the characters were driven by these motivations was genuine and tragic. The moment where Jonathan holds his hand up to Clark to keep him back was a true success. It was when inaction in the most tragic of way was met with the deepest emotional drives of a person. That’s dramatic movie-making on an EPIC scale.

Not crashing through buildings.

2840438-bg

But it seems that these moments were rushed through as quickly as possible to get to the action, especially being presented as snappy flashbacks.

People who love a great action film will disagree with me that this movie fell apart here because, for them, this film was crescendoing.

But seriously. After the flashbacks and the character building seemed to be enough, Superman slapped on the cape and it was all wonton destruction and action footage and how hard two aliens can hit each other. The entire movie got lost in watching Superman rip through skyscrapers.

The core heart of this movie (the emotional tenderness of an alien individual protecting a society he loves, who has rejected him even before he’s revealed himself) is utterly eclipsed by useless, meaningless violence. Now, we can consider the violence as meaningful. These are two GODS fighting it out, right? Humanity will see Superman as a God. That dynamic, of sharing in the human condition and being godlike? That’s equally as ripe and easily piggy-backs off the themes of acceptance discussed earlier. And what a wonderful presentation of this nature of these two gods clashing it out if not with violence so BIG that it dwarfs humanity below it.

Which I’d be on board about, except, well. It went so big that it forgot about humanity at all. The only glimpse we get is Perry White running about down below.

Not to mention, the emotional core of this movie–how much Superman should or shouldn’t care about these people–is totally forgotten as we watch him angrily hurl himself and General Zod through skyscrapers for thirty minutes, killing unknown hundreds–if not thousands–if not hundreds of thousands–in a matter of minutes. And Supes barely bats an eyelash at this until Goyer remembers to put another nod at the end to his human struggles as Supes tries to keep Zod from lazer-eye-cooking a couple folks at a museum.

Now, the scream that followed: oh, that scream was perfect. But so brief. And so overlooked. In that scream, his frustration and his sorrow at the loss and the destruction, his realization of never being included even as he’s the savior, it was all there. But all tacked on. Hardly an afterthought. And it was rushed to get to a moment of romance with Lois Lane (which, let’s be honest. Where did that come from? Love at first sight? They had no back story together. I couldn’t believe any of their romantic moments).

But what most astounded me was the utter obliviousness Snyder as a filmmaker had to the very imagery he was working with. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him that he’s dealing with imagery that’s DIRECTLY the deepest and most culturally resonant for our generation of Americans (if not many other places in the world): the image of the burning buildings toppling.

9/11 was the most horrific thing our country has experienced in half a century, and that was in watching only two buildings burn and finally topple.

The work that can be drawn upon from such a simple image as that, for a filmmaker, should be rich. To take such a simple image and play with what that means to our hero and the cultural zeitgeist. But it’s as if Snyder and the writers said, oh, 9/11, that’s SO ten years ago. Let’s bring down the fucking city

Was it only a few short years ago that masterpiece The Dark Knight made us care about two ferries full of people on a harbor?

In Man of Steel, the destruction was on levels so vast, so mindless, that there was never a moment in which the movie stopped and considered the horror of what was happening. Perry (Fishbourne) was running around, covered in white dust–imagery so resonant that it was hard for me to watch at times–and what does the film do with this image? Nothing, really. They outrun falling buildings and get lucky. There was no emotional resonance there at all.

It was borderline sickening. To so obviously take these images and then give zero consideration to where they came from and what that MEANS is a disgrace.

But let me back up from my rant.

It’s a superhero movies. Stuff blows up. Destruction happens. Somebody had to go bigger than the Avengers, right?

Fine. I’ll let that go, given its genre.

But what bothers me most in terms of filmmaking was that the movie utterly lost itself in such meaningless destruction. It could have worked. If Supes had for more than a second considered the damage. If he’d looked out on the destruction and been overwhelmed by what happened–or worse! that it in many ways ties was because of his very existence–if he’d for a moment had some kind of choice, or realization, or emotional experience other than the one scream, far too late and far too overlooked, I’d have felt more satisfied with the destruction.

To think what could have been done, too. The themes were there. The plot was there. To give Superman a true decision, to encapsulate this idea of saving the very people who rejected him all his life, to put him in a position of godlike power over the people who might not even deserve salvation… I’d argue that such a decision was what the entire movie was building to. And the fact that they overlook this? 

Lazy filmmaking.

Superman just hugs Lois and knocks a drone out of the sky with a chuckle, in a cheap play on recent headlines.

Superman went through a change in this movie. He started as a child who couldn’t handle himself in the world. He couldn’t handle himself against bullies and those who were cruel. And then he went to Alaska, learned of more bullies, and somewhere in between there and putting the suit on, he became peaceful and confident and Zen. He had a journey up there, and it was the truest heart of the movie, and we skipped it. It was about finding his place in the world. But the revelation was that he found his place on another world. How he came to find his place on our own? That was the other core of the movie. And it, too, was utterly overlooked.

I don’t want another Batman Begins. But if we’re rebooting Superman with an origin story, I’ll tell you what: THAT was the story. That change. That need to find his place? That was the heart of this film. And they let it go.

Would it have been so bad–would it have been rejected by audiences–to have in Superman’s origin movie his very enemy being mankind itself? And his victory over it, instead of tearing down buildings, in becoming accepted as the symbol of the truest essence of humanity?

What dialogue! What emotion. What ripeness!

But no. We needed to blow shit up.

SO:

Even as the dust clears on my own rant, I don’t want to hate on this movie. I said the b-word. I called this movie beautiful, and even amidst the clunky, rushed, convoluted pacing of the first half, the beautiful moments were deeply so and spoke to the heart of the film, and that’s more depth than most superhero movies ever achieve.

It just so utterly lost itself in a way that went so big, it squashed the very premise of the movie entirely.

Now, that all said, they finally did Superman right.

Henry Cavill was a WONDERFUL Superman. He stood for everything he was supposed to stand for and didn’t make it cheesy. He was sexy and confident and symbolic and Superman. (And he looked like the perfect Hollywood-levelling-up of Tom Welling–anybody with me on this?)

After the movie, there was a smattering of applause. I very intentionally didn’t join in. But I was glad that there was applause.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, but you made it this far, go see it. You’ll probably like it. Just don’t think too much.

B-

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Game of Thrones, Mindless Television, and RISK

Wanted to write a quick blog inspired by a twitter conversation (because I need to blog more and this is exactly the kind of thing that should be blogged).

And so it’s going to be in TWO PARTS!

Part One: I hate you because you’re BRILLIANT.

I was perusing the glorious re-tweets of the twitter account @RedWeddingTears. If you’ve been living under a rock the past few days, Game of Thrones penultimate episode of season 3 rocked the minds and hearts of its fan base with a shocking death. (I suspect its not much of a spoiler to point out that all the hubub revolved around a death).

And though many of the tweets are quite hilarious,

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.51 PMOthers are quite saddening.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.05 PMOf course, I’m instantly reminded of FilmCritHulk’s recent column about spoilers and the different ways of consuming media. Which (spoiler) essentially breaks down as such: There are four types of movie-goer: the ones who go for a good experience, the ones who go for an EPIC experience, the ones who appreciate the thematic and symbolic nuances, and the ones who appreciate the craft and making of the film itself.

I like to think I’m firmly in the third category, with a healthy appreciation of the other three. While I think that a tremendous amount of weight falls into this third category (I’ve had intellectual engagement with films that falls on a level far more profound than a purely emotional one), a tremendous amount of weight falls upon the first two.

And I find it equal parts hilarious and tragic when people say that a show should be cancelled (or that they’re going to stop watching television altogether) because they’ve had such a profound reaction.

To say, through tears, that Game of Thrones is “treacherously written” is laughably ironic.

And not simply for the sake of the unintended “treacherously” (I suspect “terribly” to be more the idea). Eliminating treacherous writing would eliminate all sense of tension at all.

But that in a lot of ways is George R. R. Martin’s whole point. We’re far too used to watching our heroes with the expectation that they’re going to succeed. He’s flipping our traditional notions entirely on their heads. Is that his only trick? I’m not sure that’s the case, but with good writing, it’s a fine single trick to have.

See, the great irony of these tweets is that if writing can force you into a reaction that profound and gut-wrenching, that’s incredible writing. The hardest jobs of a writer is to address the main two categories of consumer: the ones who want to be emotionally moved, and the ones who want to be intellectually moved. Game of Thrones is doing both right now. Emotional, political, and loosely social themes contextualized by painful and wild plot twists? That’s an achievement.

And if you’re watching to not be moved to the edge of your seat, it means that you either want a story that’s predictable and banal, or that the writing has failed in making you care. Right now, Game of Thrones is neither banal nor un-sympathetic.

My twitter conversation then moved into the idea that if such people are threatening to stop watching television entirely, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Which leads me to Part Two: Is television still an evil that’s sucking our brains? 

We’re in what I like to call the second golden age of television right now. Which is to say, despite the advent of reality television and the cut-throat nature of network primetime mostly-procedural television, cable networks have risen and given intellectual, broad-scoping, serial television a place to thrive. This began by their trust in their audience, and the shows that they invite. Breaking Bad is debatably the greatest show on television right now. But Breaking Bad would not have gotten to the place that it is now without having to fight its way through the first three seasons. I only watched Breaking Bad because I wanted to watch the bumbling figure of Walter White in his first season transform into the face on the season four DVD cover.

Breaking-Bad-Season-4-posterA show like that (regardless of the clash in formats) would never make it that long on network television. And yet, here it’s the best on all of TV.

Because of this uprising in cable shows, we’re having this second golden age in television. We’re realizing again what TV can be. And it’s not what we thought it was. Though TV has been reinventing itself for longer than I’ve been alive (even since my birth, we’ve watched the rise of both episodic crime television and reality television), we’ve hit a new age in the intellectual and emotional capacity TV can hold. Game of Thrones is shocking audiences across the world. Mad Men, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story and others are doing things unheard of and reaping the rewards of smart audiences flocking.

Netflix, in the best decision they’ve ever made, recognized the long-term audience in their publication of old television serials that hook audiences for weeks at a time as well as the success of serial narrative-driven cable television, and they dove headlong into House of Cards, which in my opinion easily rivals the brilliance of Breaking Bad. Of course, Hemlock Grove and the revival of Arrested Development have only driven their success further. 

The point here being that though we’re engaging different parts of our brains, though we look like automatons when our glazed over eyes watch endlessly the dancing images on the boob toob,

tumblr_m7javtQmec1qzguyto1_r1_500there is finally a genuine intellectual and emotional work being done through the medium of television.

Is it a healthy stand-in for reading? Perhaps not as much. But is it finally an intellectually engaging one, challenging us on moral, social, and thematic issues? Absolutely.

And, I’d beg to suggest, if you can’t handle those emotions, or having those things you fall in love with be torn from you, or having the things you take confidence in believing suddenly subverted, I’d stick to reality shows. But if you want to step up and finally engage in something profound, that could change your life, these types of stories are becoming more and more available.

I can only hope that purely reactionary viewers realize that, and that the cable networks don’t become so flogged with competition for viewers’ eyes that they forget that good art takes time.

As a viewer, that’s not always fun. And as a network, it’s not always safe. But that’s risk. And risk is crucial.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , ,

Dogville, an Analysis

The awkward thing about a blog such as this is that I don’t think you should read it.

Which is to say, it’s a discussion of the movie Dogville, by Lars von Trier, and if you haven’t seen the movie (which is likely most of you), I suggest that you watch it first. Suggestion seems too light a word. Really it should be kind of mandatory.

Lars von Trier is the director of the Depression trilogy, which features the deeply-disturbing Antichrist, 2012’s much-hyped Melancholia, and the forthcoming Nymphomaniac. Dogville is the first of his America trilogy, the second film of which is called Manderlay. 

Here I’m only focusing on Dogville, but, whatever you do, don’t pull the Fight Club card like I did in high school and let the end be spoiled for you because you’re sure you’re never going to see it.

It’s the kind of movie that you must know nothing before going into. Don’t even go googling for a trailer. If you do choose to watch it, sit through the entire movie. For the first two thirds, you may well feel like turning it off or doing something else, the only thing I can say is watch the whole movie.

Unfortunately it’s not on Netflix instant at the moment, so it’ll take more legwork, but if cerebral movies are your thing, it’s incredible.

Go watch it and then come back. I’ll wait.

* * *

dogville_2_1024

For the rest of you lovelies, I want to talk about this movie, because it demands talking about. The first time I watched it was a year ago, early in the morning, with my filmmaker buddy AJ, and by the last twenty minutes, I was sitting up on my bed with my hair in my hands in shock.

The second time I watched it was last night with my girlfriend, and the experience was no less profound, but far less visceral. The shock of the town’s descent and, later, the film’s abrupt left turn into allegory had fallen, and instead I could watch the development of the philosophy and commentary happening within.

Perhaps many of you were more toward my girlfriend’s level of engagement and expectation, where she laughed afterward that she’d have been very disappointed if they didn’t machine-gun the town. But I was along purely for the journey, with a kind of lack of expectation or suspension of disbelief that registered in manifested shock by the final forty minutes of film.

A quick perusal of online reviews of this movie — a very quick perusal, I should point out — seems that what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. Though America quickly turned back on itself in the years following, there was still a certain mindset of community that would turn on outsiders butting in with an upheld index finger and a curt “this is our discussion right now, please.”

Von Trier presents the town of Dogville in a claustrophobic, campy, allegorical sense of something bigger than itself. Despite being located in the Rocky Mountains near Georgetown, Dogville could be anywhere. As Henry Sheehan’s underwhelming review attempts to get at, and placed in wonderful terms by the New York Times: Dogville is stripped down humanity. As the Times points out:

[…]there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not America. Dogville is very specifically within America, and very specifically begins von Trier’s planned America trilogy for a reason. The town of Dogville is very intentionally placed in the Rocky Mountains, that quintessential staple of the west, in a place characteristically defined by the gold rush of barely a few decades earlier, in the timeline of the film. Indeed, the provocative credits sequence makes the American distinction quite clear, as is discussed in reviews over and over again.

But I would suggest that for one thing, we have a better position to consider such a critique of America now, a decade after the film’s release. Regardless of your belief as a conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the decline in popularity of the Bush Administration’s final seven years following the events of September 11th, along with two decidedly controversial wars, reeled America back into a heated critique that quickly came to counter the unity found in the short months following September 2001. This national wariness extended into the Obama Administration’s takeover, counterbalancing his projection of hope and clarity to make up for the decade’s confusion prior. Any extreme, supported or otherwise, is going to meet a distinct amount of critique. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on here, whether elephant, donkey, foreigner, or otherwise, the point is that American solidarity, even after the uniting events of 2001, has again began to crumble.

And by 2013, we’re again open to reception of criticism. Take the virality and boldness of the opening scene of 2012’s The Newsroom. 

[Love that video… except for the whole worst period generation period ever period. Every new generation is the worst period generation period ever period to the old generation. If he were a teacher who got to deal with the parents of our worst period generation period ever period, I think he’d start to understand why we “all” think we’re so entitled. That said, there’s obviously blame to go around, and we’ve got some issues. But I digress.]

So, now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie by a filmmaker who at the time had never even been to the country.

That all said, it is absolutely necessary that Dogville both be located in America and representing America.

This is because America, popularly, is the pinnacle of Western culture. Whether it’s deserving of that title or even on any less fragile a pedestal because of such standing is irrelevant. America, structured by a thousand years of crescendoing Christianity and ideology focusing intensely upon the individual, with its sudden rise both as an ideological powerhouse and a relatively successful one, is the perfect canvas for deconstruction of those themes.

In the New York Times piece, they illustrate von Trier’s reaction to the point:

What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America.

Earlier in the article too, von Trier specifically pointed out this idea of America as a canvas, when referencing Franz Kafka having never visited America either, before writing his story Amerika.

“I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use.”

America is the pinnacle of the individual, and hence is the pinnacle of selfishness and greed. Our entire economic system runs on the idea of greed and competition. You don’t have to visit America to be familiar with greed and competition, and it’s not an insult to America to use it as a canvas to illustrate such abstraction taken to the extreme. The entire point of the film is to illustrate how communities that claim or even function as a single unit in an individualistic society can succumb to selfishness and, ultimately, when given the right circumstances, evil.

Is this ultimately a kind of discussion between the Capitalistic, individual-centric west versus a more socialistic east? Yeah, kind of. Von Trier even said,

”I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”

The delicate line that von Trier walks with a movie such as this is between labeling an entire country (one that inherently defines itself on pluralistic values) by a single allegorical situation, and using an abstraction of a country to present a discussion between ideologies. The former borders on insulting (especially given the post-9/11 world it premiered to), and ignorance, in that obviously characterizing a whole people with a single allegory is a narrow viewpoint. But! The latter, illustrating what a country (or religion, or philosophy, anyone so-defined by their fundamental ideologies) stands for–well, isn’t that art?

Is Dogville anti-American? Perhaps. But that’s skipping straight to the conclusion, and in so doing misses the point entirely. Good art is about the conversation. What would it mean to be anti-American, anyway? The knee jerk reaction is to think that “they (he, whoever) hate us.” I identify as an American, and so they must hate me. But America is a way of thinking and a way of life. It’s a compound of beliefs and practices, and even though we started as a melting pot of the world’s cultures, even though if you put a liberal and a conservative at a table and had them duke it out, we have to recognize that there are fundamental issues at the heart of our country, and it’s these issues that are examined in any smart American critique. Before we condemn them for condemning us, we have to clarify what’s being condemned (or, if we relax, discussed) in the first place.

Where Mr. Sheehan concludes that Dogville wasn’t particularly provocative save a few moments, I would argue that the entire premise is provocative. To watch “good, honest people” fall into the depths of human evils and utterly justify it to themselves is an incredible experience to engage it.

The tools the movie employs are directly related to its study of both this altogether western human experience and theme. The other most popular talking-point about the movie, aside from its critique of America, is the design of the set as wall-less and stark. The wall-less, staged nature is at once Campy. Camp being the style–primarily in theater–that focused on artifice. Though often Camp is presented as a kind of silly commentary on the nature of various social constructions, Dogville is aware of its Campy nature, but applies it in a refreshingly serious way. The most notable scene in the movie being when Stellan Skarsgard rapes Nicole Kidman in sight of the entire town as the rest of the town goes about its business, completely oblivious.

The lack of walls goes on to suggest a variety of commentary on the nature of community, on the nature of what is seen or understood but socially denied, but also it speaks toward a kind of essential humanity. There’s a play here on the nature of privacy. Privacy is a curious beast because its very nature depends on this essential Western ideal of individuality. We see ourselves as inherently different from everyone else. This as a direct counterpoint to the more Eastern beliefs epitomized by Buddhism by way of Fight Club, if I may, in which emphasis is placed on the fact that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same living, breathing organic matter as everyone else. At the end of the day, we are all simply human beings.

tumblr_l70whzNKQX1qcfba3o1_500

You’re the all singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Consider cameras in every room of your house. The discomfort of being watched at every moment, of having your privacy revoked. These things then that we want to hide, or keep private, come curiously because most of the things that we hide are either altogether natural acts (sexing, shitting, showering–most inherent in the way we clothe ourselves, the way we consider nudity a private affair) or the actions we are ashamed of (crimes, betrayal, or secrets). Hiding the former is ultimately kind of odd, as there’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of. As the popular children’s story asserts, Everybody Poops.

Between those things we want to hide, the latter becomes far more complex, and begins to bleed into the issues illustrated by Dogville. Are there absolutes in private crimes? Crimes designed purely out of malevolence? Dogville’s premise alone begs the question as to whether there are crimes that are purely malicious, or whether everything is a strange blend between self-disillusionment coupled with selfishness and a lack of community consequence. Indeed, much of the violence in the film is an illustration of precisely this: evil that can occur anywhere given the right circumstances.

And much of the situational drama that nuances the movie begs the question as to whether community accountability is the best treatment for such selfishness. Because ultimately, these crimes in the movie are at their essence selfishness. Self-justified acts on selfishness inflicted on Nicole Kidman as Grace.

It’s ironic then, how in the film, those acts most selfish (and by the end, most twisted) are justified by the need for comfort in another: a need for community. Skarsgard as Chuck tries to kiss Grace because he feels lonely and sexually unsatisfied. Ben, in much the same way, needs the company of kind women and sexual satisfaction. Indeed, even Paul Bettany’s Tom ultimately wants companionship. The irony falls in this dynamic between wanting comfort in another, lacking respect for that other person because the desire is so high, and a lack of community accountability because of such blind selfishness, which may well provide a substitute for such comfort.

If there’s a critique of Western society here, it’s in the emphasis on the individual. That even individual interests as a part of a societal whole restrict empathy and true understanding of others. Illustrated to their extreme when these issues are brought to the community as Tom pushes Grace to come clean with the group, there is no accountability because everyone in the town is so absorbed in their own selfishness.

Indeed, the critique extends to the way we manifest this individual in our political process. Consider the moments of democracy in the film. Every decision the town makes is based upon a vote of the townspeople. Our moral code in America is decided by the collective. If enough people deem something as acceptable, it is not morally wrong. What tension then, when we consider issues like the morality of abortion, of gay rights, of smoking marijuana, or the death penalty. If there’s a law for it, it’s morally permissible, if there’s not, it’s not. Von Trier takes this to the logical extreme, in which a town collectively decides it’s acceptable to keep an outsider as a sexual and indentured servant.

In fact, the commentary goes farther to consider the position of America on immigrants. Grace, in the film, comes from a place foreign and far, finds herself in the town, and in their struggle as to whether or not they should accept her as one of their own, puts her to work. How easily that becomes exploited when it’s suddenly acceptable to force someone into such labor, and it’s in relatively little time that her work is doubled, her wages cut in half, because of a perceived wrong. A wrong in large part based on the communities own navel-gazing and a treatment as different. As an outsider.

Now, certainly the film doesn’t dive into the justice system and whether such an “objective” system helps prevent against such individual selfishness, but that should be taken less as an oversight of von Trier and more as a separate issue entirely. The town forms its own justice system, a microcosm of the modern, hyper-structured, rule-filled system designed by the populace in the first place. The film’s focus is on the individual’s role in a community and how we treat each other. And the movie is long enough as it is.

But I want to get back to this idea of human nature and those crimes we’re ashamed of. Where before we considered whether crime comes from a community’s self-delusion, we on the other hand have to consider the other premise of the movie: whether malice is human nature, whether we can extend this reflection of private crimes to instances of Clockwork Orange-type violence. If such malice is in any individual’s nature, it would suggest a malicious undercurrent wrapped up in our own collective human nature.

Grace and her father discuss the issue in the car during Chapter Nine:

Father: Rapists and murders may be the victims according to you, but I–I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.

Grace: But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?

Father: Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.

But von Trier studies the strange blend between the two, and considers whether selfishness is human nature. Perhaps that’s the film’s conclusion: that malice isn’t inherent, but selfishness is (at least in a culture that idolizes the individual), and look what that can lead to.

The question of the necessity and right of an individual to privacy (and as an inherent part of freedom) is one for another time and so I want to move on from this question of privacy, shame, and human nature, and start to move into what’s absolutely the most provocative part of the film, that of Chapter Nine, the dialogue with the father figure (or “big man”), and the religious connotations within.

One of the remarkable distillations of this moment is in recognizing that Nicole Kidman’s Grace is actually of a kind of Anti-Christ nature. This of course is not in the sense of the Antichrist as Satan incarnate to bring about the end of the world, but as a kind of second coming of Christ–or a more modern day re-envisioning of the Christ story.

This of course hinges upon this idea of the father figure, the “big man” figure as a symbol for God. He’s all-powerful and holds deep responsibilities, hands out judgements and destruction, and hails from a “city” of opulence and wealth, dreamt of by the townspeople, who are altogether separate from it. And Grace is His daughter (God’s Grace, get it?), who then acts a direct counterpoint to Christ, who was God’s incarnate son. Grace’s entire character arc is of a high-born woman who finds herself, after running away, amongst townspeople–human beings. And over the course of the movie, she seeks to understand them and ultimately, God-willing (har, har), become a part of them. But she’s separate from them. She’s pure. In this manner, the film is a kind of imagining of that “what if God was one of us” situation. The age old question as to what if Christ returns as a homeless man on the street? Would we help him?

red_vs_blue_fan_art__simmons_2_0_by_corsecagent-d5kh13d

“Well, my gut says ‘no’, but then again, my gut’s made of an advanced polymer, and it doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. Stupid gut.”

In the God symbolized by the father figure, the head gangster, we have also symbolized the Old Testament, and the God that goes with it. Oftentimes in today’s changing world, many nu-Christians (like, nu-metal, anyone? anyone?) consider the New Testament as an updating of the Old Testament. From Carl Jung to modern day, progressive Christians, there’s an idea of a wrathful, jealous, emotional, un-empathetic God coming to terms with humanity through his son, Christ. In Jungian theology, this Christ figure died on the cross not for our sins, but for God’s sins, in order for God to fully understand the human condition through his experience as an incarnate human being, with emphasis on the suffering humans go through in the physical realm. But on a less controversial level, the more progressive Christians consider Christ as God 2.0, an update who brings peace and understanding, where the Old Testament God gives way to this more fully realized God.

In Dogville though, we see illustrated this deeply empathetic New Testament offspring-of-God-figure engaged in–finally–a conversation with the Old Testament God Figure. The story follows this idea of Grace telling him what she thought of him, then running away, treating the analogous Christ story as less God’s intention and more Christ’s. As her father says, “Our last conversation, the one in which you told me what you don’t like about me, never really concluded, as you ran away. I should  be allowed to tell you what I don’t like about you.”

It’s as if the crucifixion story was paused to allow God to come down from the heavens and discuss how Jesus should best handle the situation.

In Dogville, we finally have a dialogue between the judging, powerful Old Testament God (“I… I call them dogs.”) with the New, empathetic one (“Why shouldn’t we forgive them?”). The discussion of arrogance, of the worth of humanity, of human nature, of what’s best for the world, unravels between them. Eventually, Grace gives in that she’s “arrogant because I forgive people,”. The conclusion here being of the importance of holding standards, about punishment and mercy in order to raise people to their best, rather than forgive them constantly.

“You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them…” The Father figure says. “Does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do. You do not even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.”

This echoes even the alchemical, mystical sense that I like to speak of, in which it’s suffering that’s the method toward purity (see boiling dirty water or tearing down muscles to rebuild them stronger when working out). It brings back ideals of tough love that are echoed throughout antiquity.

The culmination of their dialogue leads to Grace’s revelation that the town’s actions were indeed wrong, and that no matter who committed such actions, there needed to be punishment. To be made an example of, in a sense. As the narrator says:

“What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.”

Grace then makes the decision to kill the town and to burn it, echoing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. What’s fascinating here though is the reversal from the earlier New Testament Christ story. Where in that story, Christ sacrifices himself in order to save humanity, so sparing his wrong-doers, here, with the influence this Old Testament God-Figure, Grace makes the opposite decision, coming back around to the Old Testament ways, destroying her captors explicitly for the sake of “other towns…of humanity” and “not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” Where in Christian mythology, Christ was sacrificed by tyrants and ultimately saved all of humanity, here we have a reversal, in which our Christ figure instead sacrifices the tyrants to save humanity

The emphasis on the end of the quote, toward the importance of her decision on herself as a human being speaks toward God’s revelation in his manifestation as a human being. Where Jung understood this manifestation as His coming to terms with the nature of suffering on the physical plane and a kind of self-recognition, here this manifestation is about coming to terms with the necessity for punishment. It’s like an episode of Undercover Boss in which the boss realizes his employees don’t need extra reward, but a good spanking.

"What's this, Chuck? You raped all our customers? I've decided to give you $5,000 for your kid's college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus."

“Chuck, you’ve been doing such a good job down in that apple orchard, I’ve decided to give you $5,000 for your kid’s college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus.”

It’s in this way then that she’s the anti-Christ in the sense that she’s Christ’s opposite in action, not his opposite in essence  She is herself a messiah figure, but one who ultimately comes to understand humanity and the Old Testament God at once. From this perspective then, it would seem that Dogville could be more aptly titled Antichrist than von Trier’s 2009 movie was of the same title.

But the religious allegory doesn’t stop there. Without stretching it, there’s a commentary extending to the broken figure of Stellan Skarsgard Chuck as the embodiment of Satan. Midway through the movie comes the revelation to Grace that Chuck was from the city once, and that he rejects her because he can’t stand the reminder of everything that he came to Dogville to find. Chuck also tries to tempt her in the orchard, and devotes his life to harvesting apples.

Where Grace is a revision of the Christ figure, Chuck serves as a reflection on the far-earlier-fallen Satan, who ran from Heaven because he was upset with God. A re-envisioning of Satan then, in that he didn’t run to the humans in order to corrupt God’s most favorite creations (and what good would that do, as they’re already corrupt enough and God is all to happy to punish them when they transgress), but he ran to them in order to find something genuine and pure, but was mistaken in much the same way that Grace was.

Exactly the same way as Grace was, in fact. Consider if Grace decided to stay? Perhaps eventually she would be accepted, in strained terms, until she made a defeated life with Tom, had five kids and the white picket fence, picking apples in the orchard all day, and utterly down-trodden with the life she leads. This narrative then reverses the old ideals, that it was humanity that was corrupted by Satan, and instead suggests that maybe it’s Satan who was corrupted by humanity.

Satan then, in this allegory,  is no more the manifestation of evil than Christ. Simply speaking, he’s the broken product of evil and misguided hope. Satan is a long-defeated Christ.

So what’s the use of this religious allegorical nonsense? Particularly how it interacts with the other heart of the film: that of the American critique.

I could ruminate on the way that American culture, yet in its infancy, embodies both the roles of the Dogville community and the Old Testament God figure, dishing out judgement and punishment to the rest of the world. I could reflect on the thusly ironic and pessimistic question of the film, in that if America really is such a godless society, who will give us the punishment we need? I could continue into some sort of conclusion about whether this conclusion really is anti-American and whether or not that’s truly warranted by the end of it.

But I won’t elaborate on these, or seek to answer them. Because these are the questions left for the individual. These are the questions any one of us need to ask ourselves, not only as part of America or as part of Western culture in general, but as human beings who are inherently given to our selfish natures, who inherently must look out of only one pair of eyes for our entire lives.

Whether there’s truth in this commentary is not a success or a failure of the film. It’s not an argument in the philosophical sense, where it can be proven wrong by logic and so devalued. As a film exploring these issues in a way that not only makes us feel deeply, but in a way that makes us think deeply, Dogville is truly an achievement.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , ,

Dreams and Dreamstuffs

“I have a quick paranormal(ish) question to ask you. The other morning, I woke up to find a man standing at my bed. He appeared to be yelling at me, but there was no sound (kinda like he was on mute). He was standing there for about 30 seconds and disappeared when I blinked. It took me a little bit to process what I had seen. His image was so vivid that I could tell you exactly what he was wearing, but there was a shadow over his face. 

My question is do you think that I was just dreaming? I’ve asked lots of people about this and I’m getting lots of conflicting answers. I thought I would ask you to see if you had any thoughts. I know it’s hard to give an answer when you weren’t the one who experienced it, but I was thinking about the blog you had about the pig man at The Stanley and how this is kinda similar.”

-K. G. 

Thought I’d toss up another reader question for your Saturday.

What got me about your question and made me want to address it in the blog was this question of “just dreaming”. It’s no surprise to me that you’re getting conflicting answers, because it’s a pretty conflicting area of thought.

The way I approached dreams for most of my life was the way I think most people do: It just makes more sense that your subconscious mind is firing off random crap because it’s kind of on drugs and bored than it is that one out of a couple hundred conflicting dream interpretation books might have tapped into something profound and deep.

That said, I still think a lot of that is true. Dreams are random, often based in reality, and can be pervasive. Pervasive in the sense that they can cross over into your reality as hallucinations if you’re in the right condition, which can be drowsy, half-asleep, or driving (if you were me this summer making what could have been the last and worst decision of my life). When I hear about many people experiencing supernatural activity around them at night, it’s easy to wonder if most of it stems from dreams.

Old Hag Syndrome is the folklore-ish title for the experience of waking in the middle of the night and being unable to move. Often this is accompanied by a myriad of different phenomena, but the term refers to the belief that an old hag, or witch, is straddling you and so keeping you from moving. We see this reported in relation to stories of the old hag, incubi and succubi, presences atop a person, strange apparitions, black masses, and alien abduction stories.

Science likes to brand all of this under the condition of sleep paralysis. The brain releases chemicals while you’re sleeping that paralyze you so that you don’t act out your dreams. When brought awake suddenly from REM sleep, the body may well still be paralyzed. Hallucinations often accompany the waking because the dreamer is still so close to the dream state.

But dreams don’t like to stay so simple. Many people have profound mystical or psychical experiences within the dream state. Many people’s experiences of nightly phenomena are validated by others at the same time, by people who later stay in the room, or by later investigation.

Indeed, there is a certain phase of the sleeping process called the hypnogogic state, which is the state that the sleeper reaches when they are essentially asleep, but one part of their brain or awareness is still paying attention. This is a state that is frequently tied to Astral projection, trance mediumship, hypnosis, meditation, and more.

This is where the doors start to fly open. Many say that when one accesses this state, they have an easier access to astral or spiritual planes of consciousness. Because the critical, physical mind is relaxed, the subject can easier experience a different and wider range of the world around us. Science would want to suggest that any experiences had in such a state would easily be dreams, and that with enough practice, the dreamer can begin to control their dreams. This would suggest then that most of the astral work, out of body experience work, or mediumship, is just a controlled dream state.

The doors fly open in that arguing to validate any one piece of these experiences is the stuff of hundreds of years study and debate in a number of separate fields. You can read justification for near death experiences, astral projection, out of body experiences, and trance mediumship and they’ll all vary in critique and support.

I, for one, think that there is something to this state and these experiences. Not only do I find the abundance of material on the subject persuasive (though there’s much still I need to read more. My focus has been on other areas of the paranormal for the past few years), but I did have an experience in the hypnagogic state myself, about two years ago.

What then is happening in these states? We don’t know. Are there spirits around us normally that we are too stubborn to see? Are these spirits on a different plane of consciousness that the subject must ease themselves into, that’s easier to access when our brains are muted? Are they only dreams?

Laszlo Mednyanszky Death and old manJung theorizes about the collective unconscious and the unconscious minds. He believes that the unconscious is a place where we push our unwanted thoughts and emotions. These elements can manifest suddenly, and the experience is not generally pleasant. These repressed thoughts and experiences can rise when we have our guards down, namely, during sleep. The same can be said for more spiritual elements existing in the collective unconscious, which manifest as consistent symbols, called archetypes. These repressed elements of the subconscious mind, he believed for much of his life, accounted for spirit appearances; solely dependent on the observer. It wasn’t until the end of his life that he confessed his experiences pointed to spirits being something more objective and unrelated to an individual.

Either which way, it seems something is occurring that has an easier time accessing us in the night while we sleep. Whether that’s the case with you, where what you saw was in fact a spirit, I think that depends on whether you can discount it as a dream or hallucination, given your lack of surety about it’s presence and your closeness to sleep. Are you experiencing other occurrences that would justify the appearances of a spirit? Have you ever had trouble sleeping? Have you had trouble sleeping recently? Do you dream very vividly? Have you seen apparitions before?

Weighing many of those questions against each other is important. If it seems to be an isolated incident, accompanied by sleep issues, and is otherwise unjustified as an objective spirit, you might decide to write it off. If there’s validation, coming in the form of other supernatural experiences, as well as little justification toward sleep being the cause, then perhaps it was something supernatural.

Sleep is funky and fickle. And I think the mind is a powerful thing. But I would say experience suggests something is indeed occurring around our sleeping selves, in which “just dreaming” is not so simple as we’d like to think.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtidein October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , , ,

Use Your Words, Dude

Today I want to talk about our Words and specificity.

Some people think it’s nerdy to be concerned about word choice or specifics. To which I say it’s everything, and fascinating, and incredibly important.

This vlog will be simple today. Only two parts.

For the first part, I want to examine the importance of being specific in your questions on a ghost hunt. Let’s take a listen again to the interaction we had with the spirit of Lucy through a cell sensor April of two years ago. In this example, we have the instance of my asking Lucy the question:

“Do some spirits feel negative energy?”

Lucy responds without an answer, indicative of a “no” response. But her answer is immediately ambiguous in the yes/no situation. Is this true that no other spirits feel negative energy? Or, I wonder, quickly adjusting my question,

“Do you KNOW if some spirits feel different energies?”

Her response is again no. So to fully clarify, I ask;

“So you don’t know?” And she then responds with a yes.

But even here in this example, there’s loads and loads of questions and clarifications I didn’t ask, that I didn’t realize at the time, being younger and put on the spot. We’d been asking Lucy about feeling our “positive energies” and then opposed them to whether she feels (or, sometimes, as we accidentally used interchangeably, “draws from”) negative energies.

See the obvious problem here? She might have understood what we meant, discussing the positive attitudes and excitement of the group, versus the negative energy put off by grumpy people. But especially when asking even pseudo-scientific interview questions, we start talking about “positive energies” and that could mean something completely different to her, or say, a scientist. Some scientists theorize that ions may contribute to paranormal phenomena, or be a factor in the manifestation. Ions are charged particles. What’s interesting is that an excessive amount of positively charged ions in the air make people feel bad. And, inversely, excessive negatively charged particles make you feel good. (This is where you get those “Ionic breeze home air filters” on infomercials. They charge the particles negatively so that your room feels better.) Some think then, that as a byproduct or condition of the spirit’s manifestation, positive ions may contribute, and may also explain the heavy, more negative feelings associated with even benevolent hauntings.

So as we sit asking about Lucy only drawing from “positive energies,” who’s to say she wasn’t referring to ionic charge, not attitudes?

You can understand how quickly, from even this one example, what seems like a simple question can be loaded, and especially difficult for a spirit to answer with just a yes or a no.

Look at the simple difference between the questions “Can you do something?” and “Do you do something?” One speaks to potential, the other speaks to whether it actually happens. How easy would it be to ask Lucy if she can interact with the other spirits, then begin to tell the story that Lucy does interact with the spirits. There’s a jump in the facts here. Perhaps she can but doesn’t.

What I find interesting about this forms the second part of the vlog today, and that applies to real life applications of thinking about our words.

For example, I have a tattoo on my forearm of a Jack o’ lantern. Some people would say specifically that I have an “evil Jack o’ lantern” tattooed on my arm. I’d say I have a scary looking Jack o’ lantern. Now this isn’t an issue of semantics. My tattoo is supposed to be scary. And specifically so.

IMG_2413

In fact, I got it partially because of this idea that Jack o’ lanterns were meant to scare off evil or negative spirits. So to say that my tattoo is itself an evil Jack o’ lantern is not only inaccurate, but also contradictive to it’s very purpose in a MEANINGFUL way. Having an evil Jack o’ lantern would make my ink a part of that evil rather than combating against it.

If you think about it, we see a lot of things that way. Many of us see things that are scary as inherently evil.

And I think that making that distinction between scary and evil is a very important distinction. One that horror aficionados, for example, have made for a long time. But one that a fair amount of the general public have been ignorant of. They often act under the assumption that for one: scary things are evil. And then leap to two, if you like scary things, you’re interacting with things that are evil or are romanticizing the evil.

This opens doors to different conversations, but what I want to stress is the importance of the distinction.

So I urge you to continue to make distinctions. To study those binaries we tend to group. Not just within the paranormal and the questions we ask, but with ANY distinction. In politics, in literature, in music. In social interaction. Because it’s important to clarify what you mean, what society means, and where you stand.

If you liked this vlog, feel free to check out the earlier episodes here, subscribe, and give that like button a click.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , , ,

The Afterlife?

So Hallowtide is about Will’s journey through his personal hell. Since I’ve read the book, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the afterlife and ghosts… Do you believe that everyone has their own personal afterlife tailored specifically for them? Or does everyone have the same afterlife (according to their religion or beliefs)? Or maybe some elements are the same in everyone’s afterlife. I can’t help but think that maybe some ghosts are just living their afterlife and that’s why they haunt specific places. For example, heaven for them would be a particular place that made them the most happy and hell would be a particular place that gave them a horrible experience (where they died, where they were abused, etc.) -Kelly G

This is a great question, and one that I thought would make a good blog post to reply to. Without giving too much away, my novel Hallowtide is indeed about a young man and his journey to Hell. This journey seems to, at the most superficial, be taking place within his dreams. Dreams are a space of subconscious interaction, and many psychologists believe that this dream state is a good place to manifest the mind’s invisible. But the questions are raised within the book when it comes to the “truth” within these dreams, the “truth” of the subconscious, and the doors that opens to much of psychologist Carl Jung’s philosophy, in which there is a deeper layer of unconscious space, the Collective Unconscious, where the collective subtleties of a culture pool. Joseph Campbell took this idea and ran with it toward his search in finding universal consistencies within mythic hero stories. I bring this back in the novel to discussions about then what might be spiritually real happening within Will’s dreams.

The research and study that I did in college and my personal life while working on the novel has definitely melted into my own thoughts on the nature of the afterlife too. Obviously this is a popular topic of reflection too with my job as a ghost hunter.

While I’m actually quite taken with Jung’s mythology, I also find a certain foundation in the theory of Mystical Experiences. Much of mysticism (a broad, broad category in its own right) suggests that there are at least two levels of worlds (more often a spectrum between the two), one of which is this physical world in which we operate (the one of empiricism, the five senses, sciences, and that which we can document) and then the more Platonic world of ideals, ideas, the abstract, a space where perhaps morality and good and evil and intention are as tangible as here, the flesh. This is the spiritual world. This is the non-physical. It seems to me that the act of death is a shedding of the physical, and that whatever is at the core of our experience, this consciousness (soul, spirit, what have you) is then in this inherently non-physical, ineffable place beyond this world we know.

But it seems that these worlds intercross (a spectrum, as many mystics believe). Indeed, if we ourselves are physical and spiritual beings both, most pertinently then, within ourselves.

Emotions play an interesting role here that I haven’t come to a conclusion on. Emotions, I’ve always felt, are what help us to transcend this place. My inner romantic believes that emotions like true love, that deep, world-shaking (indeed, breaking) feelings of compassion, or utter selflessness (even hatred perhaps) transcends this world and puts us on the level of spiritual creatures. But we also find that with emotion is often material attachment. We often find ourselves most emotionally attached to things: temporary, physical, stuff. Whether that’s a person, a place, or a thing, all of which will fade in time.

Emotions then have this kind of two-fold place, where on the one hand I think that they can help us transcend to the non-physical, on the other they tie us to the physical. And I’ve found that with spirits, with these ghosts that we interact with, there always seems to be some kind of lingering attachment. And also, as might be an inherent part of this transition to the non-physical, their emotions and attachments often seem amplified.

There’s a story I like to share, the source of which has gotten fuzzy in my memory (but I think it was from Andy Coppock), of this spirit in an old run down California hospital. Creepy place. This spirit was apparently violent and angry down in the lower levels. But this team went down there, dispensed with the bull, said ‘stop yelling at us, and instead tell us why you’re so upset.’ And what they got from this spirit was that he’d been killed accidentally on the operating table when he was a patient at this hospital in the 60s. Being so upset about this, he made it his goal to try to scare everyone away from this hospital so that the same thing didn’t happen to them. But he was still seeing this hospital as functioning and running as it was the day he died.

This to me suggests a kind of correlation to the old cliches, the Sixth Sense and Casper ghosts who have unfinished business and who see what they want to see. It seems to me though that these emotions that become so pure after death, that surround these various focuses and objects of attachment, do align with a distortion of this physical reality, and the changes in ways of interaction that so go along with it.

But most importantly it suggests to me that the individual spiritual experience is a very powerful and oftentimes unique one.

And that oftentimes it’s layered with attachments, illusions (though who is to say what’s “real” when you’re operating beyond the real), and struggles.

Buddhists, in focusing around the elimination of dukha, (suffering or dis-ease) are focused–you could say–in the study of happiness. And they don’t believe that true happiness is found in material objects because they are temporary. Every single thing in this world will break down. You. Me. Your loved ones. And so finding happiness within them is not true happiness because it will eventually turn to sadness. It’s dependent. True happiness should be independent, and stand on its own. So even, I expect, for a spirit finding happiness–its own kind of Heaven–in something of the material world (a loved one, a home, an object), is not, under this kind of thinking, truly happy. It’s a kind of false happiness. One that, the Buddhists would suggest, is bested by the peace of inner-happiness and of acceptance. Or, as the mystics might suggest, the kind of peace found in transcendence, in moving on, in letting go, in embracing the spiritual, the divine–whatever that indescribable non-physical pinnacle is of such a world.

I think letting go of this pure physical reality is difficult for many of us and that it’s a lifetime(s) of learning what we’re here to learn and then trying to overcome the intoxication of the pleasures (and pain) of the physical that is a real challenge, but a necessary and natural one. Why we don’t see many spirits from the past few hundred years alone suggests that there’s something to move on to. Whether that’s reincarnation or a more pure form of non-physical spirituality (divinity, as some mystics would suggest) (or both), I think that isn’t not nearly so absolute a process of life and death as we think here in our physical world.

Beyond that, to suggest what people see then in their afterlife experiences, I think can be a bit messy. If they’re “seeing” something, there’s an inherent suggestion that there’s still something physical happening there. They have eyes to ‘see’ and that there is something to “be seen.” All of these would suggest that in such a setting there is a still some tie to the physical. So I think if someone is seeing something that can be described, it might be again, some kind of focus or attachment that’s overwhelming the pure experience that is the afterlife. Whether that’s guilt, or whether that’s a kind of excitement for something specific, I think it could become hard to trust.

While researching mysticism, we find this idea of people accessing the divine, the spiritual. Indeed, this is the foundation of many of the religions that surround the globe, especially the theistic ones. A person has an experience of something beyond the physical. They want to share this experience and they want to share how they discovered it (setting grounds for a belief and a set of practices, the foundational cornerstones of any ideology). Of course they try to describe it in words. But the experience is beyond the physical world. And words are a limited construction of the physical. You cannot describe the indescribable. You can only point at it). The mystic also describes it in terms of their culture, which can also be very limited. The culture picks and chooses which elements fit their framework for viewing the world, the experience is repeated, doctrine is described, and in its sharing with thousands of people, is often changed. And so, it’s no surprise to me that we get wildly differing accounts of religious experiences across the world.

So by putting any one religious theory of the afterlife over another, or even trying to describe it in words at all, is to muddy the waters. But I hope that this gives some idea of my perspectives on it all. Certainly I come from a very mystical perspective, one that has lead to a much more pluralistic religious perspective, but one that sustains a lot of respect to all religions and belief systems.

But I certainly don’t know. Many far smarter than I have written many books on the subject. Some of which are quite good, many of which I haven’t gotten to yet. But this framework is what at the moment makes the most kind of sense to me, and ultimately, as structured the question, what found its way into the story of my first novel, Hallowtide. 

Any more questions? Disagreements? Furthering thoughts? Dive into a conversation below. But keep it cool. Religion is touchy. Death is frightening. And we’re all just trying to figure it out.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the novel Hallowtide. After winning the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, he went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s graduated Colorado State University with a degree in Creative Writing and an emphasis on Religious Studies. He works at the Stanley Hotel leading the weekend public ghost hunts and writes for the TAPS Paramagazine. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

My Amityville Horror Review

This past week I was invited to an early screening of the new documentary My Amityville Horror in Denver Colorado before the Denver Film Society’s film festival that kicks off this month.

We all know the story. Whether we’ve seen the movies, read the books, or have heard the story through word of mouth at some point during the past forty years, the house at Amityville and the events that occurred inside are a source for many to speculate about. The reality of extreme hauntings taken to international attention and ultimately fictionalized for the horror audiences at home make for hot debate.

When any story is presented time and again, then fictionalized, then retold, then re-presented, it becomes a cultural story. An urban legend. A thing of exaggeration and conflicting reports.

After the story became a hot local news item, George Lutz and his wife Kathy went national with their story to clear the water and tell their side of what happened in the 28 days they stayed in that home. Though Christopher has come forward to speak out about his experiencesMy Amityville Horror looks in finally to Daniel Lutz, who tells his version of events for the first time in some forty years.

The movie focuses primarily on his version of the events, the narrative pieced together through a series of interviews with him now as a grown man. Leaning heavily on the questions and perspectives of Laura DiDio (and later on the perspectives of reports and psychologists to wrap out the film), the film is about Danny. There’s no shocking evidence presented. There is no “actual footage” or “recordings” or new evidence presented. What’s already been presented remains. The popular re-imagining remains. The debate laps between them.

The Lutz family story, in the way it became a pop-culture commodity, is laced with the question of truth. Daniel’s story is much the same. The filmmakers here know this. They know that they’re bringing a new perspective to a story already overburdened with perspective. What makes this one fascinating is that it’s from an eyewitness. And yet, the question of truth still remains.

Less about the specific differences in the movie versus the recalled reality of Danny Lutz, the movie calls together the power of the mind, of emotional turmoil, of trauma, of broken families and a child’s imagination, and studies these relationships. But it doesn’t outright break them down, letting the truest work be done by the engagement of the audience, subtly nodding to possibility (cock-a-doodle-doo, if you’ve seen it), but without a feeling of the overt.

And it’s scary. Indeed, the very question of memory and our human experience is a frightening one. Eyewitness testimony is the weakest kind of evidence. Ever have discussions of childhood memories with your parents that differ wildly on the details?

When the movie was over, I turned to my buddy Connor and I said, That film was so many different kinds of crazy.

And I mean that. But not crazy in the derogatory way. Crazy in the way of the unreal. And the layers of crazy in this movie is in the dialogue between what was real and what wasn’t. If you outright don’t believe in ghosts at all, the film is a dialogue about the power of the brain, about childhood trauma, and belief. If you believe that there in Amityville, some supernatural activity happened, but perhaps not to such an extreme, that line between the extreme and the subtle becomes the subject of debate, and what it is that pushes the family member’s belief one way or the other.

The most haunting question by the end of the movie though isn’t whether it was all true, but more so whether it wasn’t. It’s clear that this man is deeply scarred from his experience. It’s clear even from watching Christopher’s interview with Jeff Belanger that he’s lead a life dealing with it too. Whatever happened in that house ran deep. That is fact.

But to affirm “truth” any further opens up a realm of debate, and a fascinating one, on the nature of experience, the nature of trauma, and the nature of the spirit world itself. And for a film to delicately handle all of these elements, while tackling the big questions, is a resounding success in my book.

My Amityville Haunting is still making the film festival rounds and has yet to specify any wide release.

A

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the novel Hallowtide. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team, lectures across the country, and leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found on his website karlpfeiffer.com

Cloud Atlas Review

Four AM on a Friday morning. Review time.

Preface to say I was excited about this film. Hearing Lana and Andy Wachowski do media for this film was fantastic. This was their baby. And they came out of anonymity in order to inspire the public to go check it out. And go check it out you should.

TLDR: Complex, thought-provoking, operating on many, many different levels, thematically rich, well acted. But also not for everyone, and weak in places.

Cloud Atlas is a movie about souls traveling through time. Each actor illustrates a different soul, each soul embodies itself in a different character in some six or so different stories that interweave throughout the movie as a whole.

The film is about redemption. Primarily embodied in the main soul (character), acted by Tom Hanks, it’s about one man’s journey from greedy killer, to awakened hero.

It’s about hope. But whereas we’re used to a study of hope in an individual sense, the scope of this story is cosmic. Dealing with over three or four hundred years of the human race, this becomes a story that doesn’t simply study one person’s life, but many people’s lives, afterlives, and the human race in general.

It would be wrong to say that this film is about karma or reincarnation. Those are labels, attached by cultures and adopted by societies, and so carry with them connotations and likely inaccuracies. Cloud Atlas seeks to transcend these instances, these windows of the world that we’re used to looking through in our daily lives (indeed, it’s our only view), and study something broader, if not greater.

“It’s through the eyes of the other that we most truly see ourselves,” (my rough paraphrasing) was one of my favorite quotes of the movie (and hopefully the book, when I get to that shortly). I mean, get-this-tattooed-favorite quotes. Applying individually to the characters, to the more grandiose souls, and to the way that we treat human beings in different cultures and races in general, this movie comments on layer after layer after layer.

Though at times some of the voice overs and thematic lines feel forced and even obviously trite, I think that’s the risk of a movie trying to do such grand thematic play. And it’s forgivable so long as the depth backs it up. The audience after all are all watching at different levels. And sometimes just pointing out that these character’s souls stretch through the movie, while overt to some, might bring the pieces together for others.

The visual components were fantastic. The acting was fantastic. The desire by Lana, Andy, and Tom Tykwer to make this book into a movie permeated the film, and to know that they did it independently, is even more of an accomplishment. Movies that take this kind of risk need to be supported. Hollywood needs to take these kinds of epic risks more often. Because we absolutely need brilliance of this measure on our screens.

For the first two thirds of the movie, I wasn’t very impressed. It felt very simple. But as the threads come together in the final third, the ethical and human and thematic and personal and redemptive issues start to come together, where loss and love are realized, where even the foundations of religion and hope itself are pulled apart and studied over time, the movie begins to do its truest work.

If entropy is about falling apart over time, this film is about how things are realized, and how they come together.

Now there are a few instances where the movie goes wrong, or where you feel it might go wrong. There’s been criticism cropping in the last few days about white actors playing asian characters. Anyone with this criticism hasn’t watched the movie. The actors have the challenge of playing characters of all races and genders. Asians play white characters, male plays female, white as Asian and all back again. This is the necessity demanded of this script. If you want to call it yellowface, you’ve utterly missed the point. That said, it’s not always elegant. Some actors just don’t quite fit the roles, and the effects can be distracting. Well done distractions, and to an important point. But not always elegant.

At times this, combined with the lofty ideas dealt with can very easily feel like the movie was trying to hard. And it’s easy to leave it at that.

The movie is long, and the pacing is a bit awkward at times, ringing in too many climaxes and sometimes jarring switches in the story and action. Scenes could have been cut. I was never bored. I was awake and engaged the entire movie. But I know some weren’t. Though the visuals are pretty and the action is well done, it can drag while keeping up with each storyline.

This is a movie you must engage with. To take it on its surface is to watch six compelling movies that awkwardly intertwine to no real rhyme or reason. But it’s that rhyme and reason that intertwines between them that absolutely is the point. As I said before, it’s about big issues. It breaks the conventions of every movie that’s come before it. You must go prepared to think.

If the thematic and intellectual achievement here was not enough, it was in these three directors capturing what has been said to have been unfilmable. Cloud Atlas is a massive scope of a story, and for these three to fit it in one three-hour movie experience, and as elegantly as they did, a true masterwork was accomplished here. And if you’re not left moved by the end of the movie, I hope you’re moved to think about the other impossibilities that this film has now made realistic.

A

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the psychological thriller HALLOWTIDE. He also won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in creative writing, has lectured across the nation, and works at the Stanley Hotel, leading the public ghost hunts on the weekends. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Philanthropy Continued

I was going to leave this as a comment response, but I liked the bend in the conversation and I liked challenging notions of entertainment. So I want to keep the conversation going and see what you guys think.

Robynn left this comment the other day:

I’d suggest that reading purely as escapism is a form of entertainment separate from art. Absolutely this can be one of the goals of writing, and is the approach for many, (for most who want successful and wide-spread consumption of their art, I think in many cases the art needs to be in some way entertaining and escape-worthy). But I wonder about the philanthropy of that artistic side: the one that changes people, changes the world, and challenges the norms, which is a process that isn’t necessarily enjoyable, or one people want to escape into. 

This can be political or dramatic or religious. In whatever it is that’s so sufferable about this world that we want to escape from, good art, I think, should address those exact same things.

Perhaps it’s just the desire to change the world, even if that change is violent, that makes something philanthropic.

But it’s interesting that you bring your metaphor to drugs, and I want to address that too. If my writing is essentially crack, and I’m also a philanthropist by supplying your escape, could not the same be said of drug dealers? Pornographers? Exotic dancers? Action movie directors? Athletes?

Perhaps there is no easy answer, but I like to challenge everything, and this was the direction my thoughts went. Thanks for the comment Robynn, and thanks for letting me use you as a part of the conversation. Floor is yours now, guys. Discuss?

Philanthropic Art

So in California two (three?) weeks ago, I was having a discussion with a wonderful gentleman about philanthropy and art. Chris McCune walks into the room and points out something about what a philanthropist I am. My knee jerk reaction is that I’m not. I think a lot of people in the world today are idiots and I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that charity work doesn’t make me feel wholesome. Chris shook his head and said, “naw man, you’re a writer–you’re a philanthropist.”

And I had to chew on this for a while. Because I’m not sure he’s wrong. But I’m not sure he’s right either.

I write because I’m thinking, and I have stories that come together, and I’d like to put them down permanently and exercise those stories.

The next level is SHARING what I’m writing, and that is distinct from the writing itself. Why do I share what I write? I share what I write because I want to produce ART.

What then is ART? There’s a quote that I’ve been trying to find, but for the life of me cannot (if anyone can help, that’d be wonderful). But the quote goes something along the lines of the purpose of art being to “settle those unsettled and unsettle those settled.” And I quite take to this. There’s another quote by Georges Braque, “Art disturbs, science reassures.” I like this idea of art being challenging, moving, disturbing, unsettling. It’s part of the reason I’m so taken with the horror genre. There is real art that can be done within.

Now the question then is whether or not THAT is something that helps people: whether or not the purpose of ART, if that’s one way to define it, as disturbing, is helpful? Because that can have very negative results. You unsettle someone and they might jump off a bridge.

So the question remains whether or not the act of SHARING a piece of ART is inherently philanthropic.

What do you think?

 

Edit to add: