Tuesday 8 January 2019

Cult Cinema #13: Exiles, part 1

(I've already written about The Passion of Darkly Noon, as part of We Don't Go Back. As the completion of On a Thousand Walls and Cult Cinema becomes more urgent, I've got to revisit it, and, inevitably, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which comes next.)



We've got the Moonies to thank for a lot of what we know about this sort of thing. The simple fact that Sun Myung Moon was a dyed in the wool hand rubbing Bond villain who freely owned the way he created structures of control means that we have a language of this. Moon codified the ways churches control us. And not just churches, any ideological group with the right tenor: inspired by a friend's experience with a hard-line leftist group, years ago I wrote a piece where I listed seven ways, I think it was, in which revolutionary Marxist-Leninists and conservative evangelical Christians closely corresponded, and managed simultaneously to outrage members of both constituencies, which was one of my finest moments, let me tell you.1

Leaving any extreme religious group is never simple. Even more mainstream ones leave their mark upon us. Churches have mechanisms of social control, even if they don't admit to them. And this is never more clear when you see what happens to people who leave, whether willingly or not. When you've been in a controlling and abusive religious movement, you don't just leave, because you had an emotional relationship, a human relationship, with that institution and the people in it. And as many people who have escaped from an abusive relationship that they had invested in will tell you, one of the feelings you rarely get warned about is the grief, the mourning for it, because the fact is, as hateful as that personal or institutional (or both) relationship might have been, it still leaves a gaping hole in your emotional life.

If you left willingly, you spend an awful lot of time dealing with doubts and regrets. If you were ejected or forced to leave for another reason, you pine for it, even if you in fact know that it was right. And OK, if this sounds very close to how romantic relationships end, well, the fact is, faith relationships are of the heart. They have to be. There's nothing rational about faith, any more than there is anything about hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Churches sublimate love, and you only need to take a glance at the number of modern worship songs that read like love songs.

Relationships with communities that intend themselves as a radical departure from the wider societal community involve participation. And participating in a community that stands in opposition to the society it's in involves patterns of behaviour, forms of relating, and shibboleths (Judges 12:5-6). If you don't have these, you might as well not be a member, because you just act and talk like everyone else – in fact one of the many ways I was continually out of step with the church group I was a member of for 15 years was the refusal to use what some of the older members called “Kingdom language”; my younger self found it exclusionary and too much like the world of spirits and magic I'd tried to leave behind, too much like Top Secret Decoder Ring language. I only understood far too late that this was really the point.

And when you leave these microcommunities you don't just reintegrate into the wider world. You have behaviours, quirks of language, patterns of thought, all things that had become a reflex to you, unconscious strategies of belonging, and which you discover when you re-enter the wider society, for whatever reason, now bestow on you the opposite of belonging. Religious and political groups of this kind very often have explicit manifestos for the remodelling of society at large, and in fact behave like they're test runs for the Better Order that is going to come about when the Apocalypse is done. But this means that society as it is now doesn’t look right to you. And so, you have a natural tendency to hold people who aren’t in your former group in suspicion, and you’re a bit skittish without meaning to be, and people notice that.

This is never more obvious than when people leave and try to reintegrate after having been in the sort of group that isolates itself physically in a compound, possibly the sort that American pop culture most identifies with the word “cult”, and it has proved fertile ground for film.

In The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), the lone survivor of a government-mandated Waco-style massacre stumbles into another microcosm of society; in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2010) a young woman escapes from her abusive “family” and retreats to her blood family; and in Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-present), a woman rescued from a cult leader's bunker after being locked there for a decade and a half with no idea that the outside world was even there attempts to adjust, in the face of having missed everything that's happened to society in the intervening time, and the trauma of having been manipulated and abused for a huge chunk of her life.

It's interesting that all of them name their protagonists in their titles, and that the titles reflect these protagonists’ experiences of reintegration. Darkly Noon enters a process of sex and death. The cryptic title of Martha's story reflects her fractured self. And Kimmy Schmidt maintains her dignity and cheer in the face of the inevitably frustrating aftermath of her experience. Reintegration is a personal thing, just as belief is, and these are, although presented from wildly differing directions, personal stories.

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser), with nothing but the tattered suit on his back and a King James Bible with his name on the flyleaf in his pocket, is the only escapee from the destruction of his sect, his home, by the forces of the federal government. Taken to an equally remote forest cabin, inhabited by the luminous Callie (Ashley Judd) and the silent Clay (Viggo Mortensen), Darkly tries to make sense of who he is, and the world outside he's forced to inhabit. He meets with different perspectives on the world: aside from Callie and Clay, who are supposed to present a sort of “normality”, there is Jude (Loren Dean), the optimistic young man who found him and who tries to instill wonder and hope in Darkly, and Roxy (Grace Zabriskie), Clay's bitter, lonely mother, who shoots up Clay's cabin from time to time and tells Darkly that Callie is a witch.

In the end, haunted by his lost faith, as represented by the bullet-riddled apparitions of his parents (Katie Harper and Mel Cobb), Darkly accepts Roxy's account of things, and he turns to violence, both against himself and against his hosts. Indeed, almost right from the beginning Darkly's behaviour is presented as strange, as unsavoury, as wrong, and any sparks of hope are invariably snuffed out by signifiers of his inevitable descent almost immediately they appear.

When I first saw The Passion of Darkly Noon, I adored it. And there's much to like. The whole thing has a sort of languid grace to it. Everything is wreathed in light. Striking images surround it. You might even call parts of it poetic. I remember taping off the TV and watching it maybe a half a dozen times between first seeing it in 1999 and abandoning my VHS recorder a few years later. Eventually I tracked down an import (it wasn't available on DVD in the UK and it looks like, at the time of writing, it still isn't) and I watched it again… with a faint sense of disappointment. Was this the same film I'd fallen in love with? It was. The play of light. The bit with the shoe. The ghosts. Yeah, OK, that was it.

Again, a couple of years ago I watched it as part of my original folk horror marathon. This time I wasn't nearly as impressed with it. And I rewatched it once more this week. All my patience with it evaporated.

Now on the one hand, the use of light and composition in The Passion of Darkly Noon is lovely. The whole thing glitters and sparkles in green and gold. It has striking, profound images – the image of the giant shoe floating down the river is generally the point at which you either go, “OK, this is striking and odd and a bit beautiful” or “Oh, for Christ's sake”; and characters speak in poetry.

But the images often just seem to be there because they're images – and we're back to that shoe, which doesn't make sense, even when at the end of the film it's explained. And characters might speak in poetry, but people don't. And the problem with speaking in poetry anyway is that bad poetry is the worst dialogue a film can have, and bad poetry is a really easy thing to do. The film has a feeling of the theatrical to it, and OK, Ridley is a playwright, but you shouldn't need a character to introduce another characterwith a biography.

I think part of that is down to how in the intervening time I became familiar with Philip Ridley's other films, of which only two exist. Ridley, primarily a playwright, is seen by his champions (Mark Kermode, notably) as one of those Great Lost Talents, an auteur with a very strong voice. The Reflecting Skin (1990) is one I was profoundly ambivalent about, a meditation on the American Condition made by an outsider where no one is sympathetic, even the intense little boy you're clearly supposed to sympathise with, and the aesthetic drowns out any sense of emotional truth. The whole thing is beautiful but paper thin and somehow really obvious. His one British-set film, Heartless (2010) is a hot mess of a film, where not one of the character beats falls in the right place, character development is largely unearned and plot developments are discarded and introduced with no real sense of where the thing is going. It's like three films mashed together, and not really in a good way, and again, no one in the film is at all sympathetic, even the character you're supposed to sympathise with, an awkward young man made an outsider because of a facial disfigurement.

In The Passion of Darkly Noon, once again the central character whose experience guides the plot is an outsider boy.
But here, to some extent, everyone is an outsider: Callie and Clay live alone in the woods because the local community shuns them (and so Darkly is isolated from isolation). And you're supposed to sympathise with most of the characters, with Callie and Clay, with Jude and even Roxy a bit. But with the exception of Jude, who's really thinly sketched, no one really earns that sympathy. Darkly is perhaps the most sympathetic of the main characters, mostly due to Brendan Fraser's performance: he sells every one of the developments of Darkly as a character, no matter how little sense they make.

But Callie's attitude towards Darkly is smug and dismissive. He explains early on that his parents named him “Darkly” through Biblical sortilege (of which more later), and she flatly dismisses it and decides that she's going to call him Lee because Darkly is a weird name. And that's pretty horrid, and made worse by the way she's framed visually. Callie is wreathed in light; the beads of sweat on her golden skin sparkle like stars. She is thigh and cleavage. She is a fantasy figure. A fairytale princess. A temptress.

And so when Darkly gets told she's a witch, he believes Roxy, because he's already been dismissed and mistreated by a woman he's watched through a crack in the wall of the barn while masturbating. And obviously he's Deeply Religious, so we know without being told that he has been taught that Wanking is Wrong, but we're also shown that Callie is Luminous and Someone You Fall in Love With but also a Bit of a Bitch. The character of Callie, as a construct, is a big problem because of this.

Because she's not a person. She's like an idea of what women are like in the mind of someone who really doesn't like women. And partly I think that framing the character of Callie that way is deliberate, because we're supposed to understand that Darkly sees Callie that way because he's from the sort of background that hates women, but it's missing a crucial empathy, so you just get a stereotype, and that's not fair to Ashley Judd as an actor for one. I don't think so much that Ridley is a misogynist as such, as much as the film presents a world where no one is likeable and no one behaves like an actual person. And this means that the climax, for one, hinges on some baffling character beats that are utterly unearned.
Darkly guiltily masturbating while he watches Callie through a crack in the wall of the barn he's staying in early in the film is supposed to show how he's repressed and unable to handle his urges – it's just framed as strange and wrong. And that's sort of part of the problem with the whole film. In that, OK, repression is wrong, and the sort of extremist religion that has its members hole up in a compound and hoard guns is weird, those are undeniable facts, but the film doesn't go any farther than that.

And I think that's because the script for The Passion of Darkly Noon doesn't have a whole lot of interest in the religion.

Let's go back to Darkly's name.
Callie: I had to burn your clothes. They were ruined. I'll find you something of Clay's to wear.
Darkly: Did you – find a – a Bible? In the pocket?
Callie: Oh yeah, I didn't burn that. I've got it.
[She picks the Bible up from a dressing table, brings it back, leafs through it.]
Callie: "Darkly Noon." What's that?
Darkly: Me.
Callie: It's your name? That's a peculiar name, isn't it?
Darkly: My mom and pa chose it. They stuck a pin in the Bible. They stuck the word Darkly: You know the passage. It's from Second Corinthians 13:12, "Now we see each other through a glass darkly."
Callie: Primitive way to choose a name, isn't it?
Darkly: It's the way we choose our names. It's what we believe.
Callie: We?
Darkly: My people.
Callie: Your people? Do you belong to some sort of a sect or a cult?
Darkly: It's not a cult. It's the way it should be. We live by the Bible. All truth is in the Bible.
This exchange (which goes on to describe what happened to Darkly's sect and why he's here) basically has all of the main problems in the film's attitude to the religion hard-coded into it.

First, Darkly says that his name comes from “Second Corinthians 13:12, Now we see each other through a glass darkly.”

It doesn't. It comes from First Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

If you've never been to a church, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the single most widely read passages of the New Testament outside of the Gospels. It's where “faith, hope and charity” comes from; it's where the phrase “I put childish things behind me” comes from. It's the passage of Scripture most read at church weddings (and in fact I've been asked to read it myself at two weddings). People in churches learn this passage off by heart. It's not just any old passage of Scripture. It's one that, if you're part of this culture, you know.

But here's the thing. When writing the script, Ridley just remembered a famous bit of Scripture and didn't bother to go and check the reference. Like, how hard would it have been to crack open a Bible? And that lack of care for what might actually matter to a fundamentalist, that betrays itself in this laziness. Because there is no way in Hell that a character like Darkly Noon, raised a fundamentalist, named after a Bible verse, would not know the correct reference that gave him his name, his actual identity. This speaks of, more than anything, a contempt for the subject.

And the fact that the other main character of the film, the one you are supposed to sympathise with, dismisses the identity of a bereaved youth to the extent that she decides she has to call him something else is a sign that perhaps the filmmaker might himself feel this way. Callie is not a fundamentalist, and she does some kind things, too (I mean, she takes Darkly in), but she is nonetheless an awful, insensitive person, and I don't think that the film intends her to be. I think that her smugness and dismissiveness is supposed to be, in the world of the film, right.
And the thing is, right, fundamentalism is basically in my opinion a bad thing. But you cannot, cannot, cannot write a drama where the main character is a fundamentalist without at least attempting to understand fundamentalism. And Ridley doesn't try to do that. When the ghosts of Darkly's ma and pa show up and say things like “No faith without blood, ” and “Sometimes you just gotta kill ‘em, ” there's the sense that they're just, you know, Central Casting Fundamentalists. There is a place in cinema for Central Casting Fundamentalists, but not when they're driving the central tension of the film, which is Darkly's inability to live without fundamentalism. You can't sell Darkly Noon's inability to live without fundamentalism if you can't adequately give any indication whatsoever of why someone might want to live with fundamentalism.

So what you're left with is basically somewhere between folk horror and a dark fairytale, and folk horror and dark fairy tales are worthy pursuits in their own right, and maybe it's not fair of me to expect some sense of verisimilitude in how it presents the plight of someone grieving and lost and isolated from the faith that was their cradle. Because maybe it wasn't really trying to do that.

But then, maybe not trying is the problem.

1. As far as I can remember, it was something like: 1) they have sacred texts of which they promote approved interpretations, and encourage regular and close reading both the texts and secondary interpretative literature; 1a) they have interpretative literature that they mark as both orthodox and heretical, so it has to be the right kind of interpretative literature, and reading the wrong sort with approval may incur sanctions from within the community; 2) they split like crazy, and often see only their variety or varieties closely aligned as the real one; 3) they have jargon and shibboleths that are quickly learned but nearly impenetrable to the outsider, and which sometimes differ in meaning from group to group; 4) they permit questioning and indeed claim they encourage it, but only to a degree and only the right sort of question, and the wrong sort of question, or the wrong frequency of question will incur once again social sanction; 5) they lovebomb, only unlike the Moonies they neither admit to it nor recognise it as what they're doing; 6) once they kick you out or you leave you're really out, and in fact it's much better to be a nonbeliever than an apostate, and even if you return to the fold, you'll never be trusted in the same way by the group at large; 7) they are hoping, wishing, working tirelessly for an apocalyptic final reckoning of some kind, after which a Better World will come into being, and last forever. [back]

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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