Wit's End

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The man hath penance done, And penance more will do.


And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
...
The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

                     ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Last night I rented the newly released boxhouse flop Tusk, Kevin Smith's most recent film, having just seen his earlier religious farce Red State - which was also notoriously panned by the press.   Although Tusk is represented in the itunes store as a comedy, actually, it is excruciatingly terrifying, and only comedic in the sense that classics like Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet and The Grifters are funny - which they all are, but it requires a strong stomach and powerful appreciation for the macabre to see the humor.  I haven't read many reviews yet but from a glance it seems they uniformly hated the movie.  Whether that is because they completely missed the allegory, or disdained the message that underlies the glib and gruesome plot, or had more legitimate critiques I can't say...but personally, I thought it was rather brilliant.  In fact, I would like to see it again, but I don't know if I can muster the courage to look again into the "ebony void".

The film follows the framework of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner fairly closely (with a merciless twist), but in a modern version.  A young man, a self-absorbed and shallow hipster podcaster from LA, stands in for the original poem's wedding-guest, who longs to join in the frolics of the nuptial party but is instead prevented (and literally, in the film version captivated) by a grizzled, garrulous mariner - compelled to listen to his cautionary tale.


Like the famous ballad, it is a study of the "beast that lies within" humanity, and manages to make a pastiche of Coleridge's reproachful albatross with the ravenous Walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem- in which both the animal and the Carpenter are equally ruthless and cynically callous towards the hapless oysters arrayed along the beach.  It probably would be an excellent idea to review both those poems before watching the film, should you garner enough fortitude to witness the vicious cruelty that sets the film apart (spoiler alert!) - the Mariner not only wishes to convey the wisdom he acquired from the wanton murder of the innocent and helpful albatross/walrus, but in a perverse attempt to atone for the unforgivable, he compulsively resurrects his victim by kidnapping and surgically butchering men until their form is altered into that of the giant moaning beast.  I can't decide if it is an inchoate, capricious mash or a brilliant amalgamation about original sin - the violation of nature - and the price humanity will ultimately pay for being, as the film implies, far more of a savage beast than any bellowing walrus.  

In addition, the movie alludes to Alfred Lord Tennyson's colossal In Memoriam, which he wrote over many years following the death of a friend, in which he contemplates whether the savage brutality of nature (red in tooth and claw) defies faith in god.  He questions whether the evil and pain that are inescapable in the world render existence meaningless, abolish spiritual eternity, and relegate humanity to become, eventually, nothing more sublime than dust or fossilized rock...with life no more than a monstrous fleeting exercise in futility.
Man's implacable, almost casual inhumanity to his own kind is invoked as well, in the emotional betrayal of the three young friends towards each other, and even more explicitly in the pathology of the Mariner, with his graphic reminder of Canada's eternal shame.  The history of les Orphelins de Duplessis is a vast and outrageous crime in which up to 20,000 orphaned children were wrongly certified insane by psychiatrists, and confined for years.  From the 1940's through the 1960's, the province of Quebec, in collusion with the Roman Catholic Church, schemed to obtain federal funding to institutionalize children who had mostly been forcibly taken from their unwed mothers, others from parents who were duped into thinking they would be educated.  These children were then subjected to the most horrendous abuse - everything from rape to torture to use as medical guinea pigs, to hundreds of early deaths.  The litigation is ongoing - the sinister conspiracy between church, state and medical practitioners still unresolved.

In this time of glaringly obvious anthropogenically induced mass extinctions, Coleridge's timeless dire warning is even more essential - that humans should love all creatures, great and small (he might as well have used the word "biodiversity").  Then as now, it will just as surely be disregarded, as will the import of this contemporary film.  You can listen to the poem, with Richard Burton as the Mariner, here - the movie trailer is below.

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