Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society.
–Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street
Children of Thanos
Film in reviewRoy Scranton
Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society.
What do we make of the end?
The beginning is easy, nothing more American. A simple white Dutch church, founded 1767, built 1801, First Reformed, just as it said on the title card. We see a hand writing, hear a voice speaking. A man of the cloth struggles to record his thoughts:
I have decided to keep a journal not in a Word program or in a digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship is recorded, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, to set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself one should show no mercy.
The scene shifts, intercut, daylight, interior. Ethan Hawke’s Gen-X face desiccated under withering winter light, he stands at the pulpit clad in black, Dominie Ernst Toller. There is music.
What seems to be the drama emerges swiftly. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), young, sensible, pregnant, her large eyes gently pleading, asks the Reverend Toller to talk with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who was just released from jail, because Michael wants to kill their baby. At first Toller demurs, wishing for nothing more than to be left alone with his internal struggle, but as Mary’s problem emerges more fully he accepts the burden, almost relieved.
Toller and Michael talk the next day, in what seems to be Michael’s office. A poster on the wall shows the nine boundary conditions for human life on earth, at least four of which have been pushed into a zone of uncertainty. A characteristic hockey-stick graph dominates the wall behind Michael’s desk. Michael’s screen saver plays a NASA graphic representing global warming: the planet turns yellow, then orange, then red. Photos of environmental destruction decorate one wall, photos of murdered environmental activists another. Michael is a rag used hard and thrown, twisted, into a chair. His eyes leak angry despair, and his scraggly beard, hardly more than a denuded patch, seems grown to be wrenched and yanked by the young man’s anxious hands. He wears a gray fleece, gray socks, and gray-green pants.
Toller opens the conversation gently, but things turn when Michael asks him how old he is. Toller says he’s forty-six. “Thirty-three,” Michael responds. “That’s how old our child will be in 2050. That’s two years older than I am now. You’ll be eighty-one. Do you know what the world will be like in 2050?”
“Hard to imagine,” Toller says, chuckling, with the insipid humility demanded of those left behind by technology, suggesting in a few words the wonders of the internet, space flight, automated cars, genetic engineering, petroleum-based synthetics, mobile phones, Wellbutrin, and Viagra.
“Yeah, you think?” Michael asks, his tone bitter as wormwood. The question hangs a moment, then the catalogue begins: ecological devastation, rising temperatures, “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts.”
“He went on like that for some time,” Toller’s voice cuts in, taking over the litany. Sea-level rise, inundated coastal zones, cities underwater, drought, starvation, refugees, epidemics, extreme weather. It is a familiar recital. Then Michael returns to center screen and refocuses the conversation. It’s not climate change as such that’s the real worry, but societal collapse, anarchy, martial law, untold human suffering, a comprehensive vision of apocalypse, not in some distant future but within our lifetimes. Within decades.
Michael is the figure of climate despair. How could he possibly bring a child into this world? Toller, for his part, plays the priest, counseling faith in God’s plan, faith in the choice to lead a righteous life. He admits despair, telling Michael his own tale of woe: Toller, once an army chaplain like his father before him, had convinced his son to join too, against his wife’s better judgment. His son was killed in Iraq, his wife left him, and Toller washed up at First Reformed. “Now Michael,” he says, “I promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.” The feeling in Toller’s face is real. His eyes shine with suffering. “Courage,” he tells Michael, “is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers.”
The first time I watched this scene was in a theater in San Francisco, near the Tenderloin, where I was staying in a cheap hotel on a street crowded with junkies and the homeless, four blocks from Twitter headquarters. A friend whose judgment I trusted told me I had to see the film, and indeed I had already agreed to write this review, and I found myself, as one often does while traveling, with a free afternoon, so I took an edible and walked down to the theater. I was in the city because I had been invited to speak at the Commonwealth Club of California, in a dialogue with Climate One founder Greg Dalton and the Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, a former Dominican friar expelled from the Catholic church for questioning the doctrine of original sin (among other heresies). We were going to be discussing climate change, faith, and my new book, a collection of essays titled We’re Doomed. Now What? Like Toller, I was a veteran. Like his son, I’d been to Iraq. Like Michael, I saw the future as a vision of catastrophe. One of my book’s new essays, slated to be published in abridged form in The New York Times the next week, was titled “Raising My Child in a Doomed World.” It was about the precise problem I was watching Michael and Toller grapple with on-screen.
“I felt like I was Jacob,” Toller reflects midway through their discussion, “wrestling all night long with the angel. Fighting in the grasp. Every sentence, every question, every response a mortal struggle. It was exhilarating.”
I felt a similar uncanny exhilaration watching my thoughts play out on-screen, and knew too the thrill Toller spoke of, the thrill that came from grappling with the philosophical and spiritual implications of catastrophic climate change, the battle to save one’s soul, the fight against nihilism and despair, the desperate existential fight to make sense of senseless suffering, failure, and the end of life as we know it. My first real encounter with the seriousness of climate change, in the summer of 2013, had thrown me into such a struggle, and, like Toller, I found it electrifying. The question of what we make of the end arose with an urgency and power I hadn’t felt since confronting my own death as a soldier in Baghdad, since pondering suicide in my early twenties, since first reading Nietzsche and dropping out of college, having decided to become a writer. Coming to terms with the fact of climate change was among the most significant events in my intellectual life.
Toller and Michael wrestle to a stalemate, which would seem a victory for the minister: like a guerrilla fighter, the spirit of hope wins so long as the fight goes on. They plan to meet again the next day, but Michael gets called in to his job at Home Depot and has to reschedule. Things accelerate from there. Mary finds a suicide vest rigged with C4 in their garage and gives it to Toller. Michael arranges to have Toller meet him in a nearby park, where the minister finds Michael with his brains blown out in the snow. We learn Toller is dying of cancer, and we watch the minister take up Michael’s cause, a “new form of prayer,” growing increasingly fervent, wearing Michael’s suicide vest, planning some massive and irrevocable act.
Things also get weirder. After Michael’s death, a giant plastic eye appears in his and Mary’s living room. Mary comes over to Toller’s rectory one night and the two go on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” something Mary and Michael used to do after getting high: they lie on the ground fully clothed, Mary on top, face to face, breathing in rhythm, staring into one another’s eyes. After some time, they levitate, rising from the ground and ascending into the cosmos and flying over the earth–first mountains and oceans, then tires, cars, a clear cut, a toxic waste dump, and a Superfund site.
Throughout all this, Toller struggles with the degradation and commercialization of worship, embodied on one side by Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), minister of the Abundant Life megachurch that has jurisdiction over Toller’s nearly empty “souvenir shop,” and on the other by the industrialist Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a major donor to Abundant Life and a key funder for the upcoming 250th anniversary and re-consecration of Toller’s First Reformed. This event, a social and political spectacle that provides the film with its temporal telos, becomes the site of Toller’s planned protest, which is foreshadowed with menace and unfolds in the film’s last minutes with horrific inevitability.
There are many ways that First Reformed resembles writer and director Paul Schrader’s best-known screenplay, Taxi Driver, not least in this, its basic structure, the story of an isolated existential hero plunging relentlessly toward redemptive violence. Yet whereas Taxi Driver ends unambiguously in a sequence of brutal carnage that does, at last, save the maiden from the dragon, drape the hero in glory, and offer traumatized veteran Travis Bickle the salvation and transformation white America so ardently desired, suggesting in its quiet way that the grotesque failure of Vietnam might be redeemed if only we would set our house in order, First Reformed swerves in its last moments into a scene so ostentatiously at odds with everything that has come before that accepting it at face value would mean denying that the film up to that point had anything serious to say.
The scene is the re-consecration. The community has gathered, including the mayor, the governor, Pastor Jeffers, and Balq, to witness and participate in the body of Christ, God manifest in his church. The church’s pipe organ has been repaired and bellows at full volume, while Abundant Life’s choir director, Esther (Victoria Hill), sings the 1887 hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Toller, in his rectory, has donned and armed Michael’s suicide vest, then covered it with his black Genevan gown and white stole, preparing to blow himself up along with Balq, Jeffers, Esther, all the other visitors, and First Reformed itself. Committed, he heads for the door, but stops short as he sees Mary going up the steps into the chapel.
Suddenly stricken, distraught at the idea of blowing up Mary and her unborn child, Toller disarms the bomb and tears off the vest, then wraps rusted barbed wire around his torso, scourging himself, and puts on a white alb, through which his blood blooms in red clusters, as if he were marked by stigmata. Jeffers, anxiously looking for Toller, comes out of the church and pounds on the rectory door, sees no sign of the minister, then retreats back into the church. Toller returns to his desk, dumps out the scotch in his tumbler, and fills the glass with Drano. Within the church, the hymn plods on.
Toller is about to drink the Draino when Mary comes into the rectory, through the door which had been locked just moments before, when Jeffers had come knocking. Toller turns to Mary, drops the Draino, and walks toward her, enrapt. She calls him by his first name, “Ernst.” The two clasp one another, kissing hungrily, eyes closed, spinning and spinning as Esther’s hymn resounds and then–nothing. The end. Roll credits.
In his study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Schrader argues that for a film in such a style, form supersedes content. He quotes Bresson: “The subject of a film is only a pretext. Form much more than content touches a viewer and elevates him.” Schrader himself writes, “In transcendental style the form must be the operative element, and for a very simple reason: form is the universal element whereas the subject matter is necessarily parochial, having been determined by the particular culture from which it springs.” According to Schrader, “Transcendental style is simply this: a general representative filmic form which expresses the Transcendent.” By “Transcendent,” Schrader means that which “is beyond normal sense experience.” He writes, “Transcendental style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism… . To the transcendental artist these conventional interpretations of reality are emotional and rational constructs devised by man to dilute or explain away the transcendental.”
Accepting the auteur’s own claims for what he has accomplished, the viewer can only nod and agree: Yes, I see, First Reformed is a film in the transcendental style. The plastic eye and the Magical Mystery Tour are there to alienate us and prepare us for the final transformative event, the moment when the film expresses the Transcendent, taking us out of ourselves and establishing a connection with the divine. Thus we must understand the final scene, with Toller and Mary dancing and kissing, as the maximization of mystery, the eschewal of reality, a universal formal expression of existence beyond all human sense and understanding.
The problems the transcendental style pose the critic are noted by Schrader. “Good criticism is eclectic, transcendental art is autocratic,” he writes. “They have made understandably poor bedfellows.” Transcendental art approaches mysticism, and in its approach to the ineffable deals continually in contradictions. A critic “cannot analyze the Transcendent,” Schrader asserts, though “he can describe the immanent and the manner in which it is transcended. He can discover how the immanent is expressive of the Transcendent.”
This critic’s instinct is to begin disassembling such claims, much as my first reaction to the film’s ending was disappointment and anger. Cheap talk about transcendence sounds like a lot of specious mystification, especially considering the very real immanence of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, never mind the gender politics of a narrative that puts a pregnant young woman in the role of saving not only an isolated older man tortured by his own hopelessness but all humankind. Mary is not a person in the film’s final scene; she is merely an instrument of God’s grace. Her own grief and desire are washed away by the situational need to save Toller from his despair. Is this the best we can do, in attempting to make sense of the end of the world–mysticism, Marianism, and deliberate irrationalism? Transcendence posited against rising seas and collapsing ice sheets looks like nothing more than a pretentious form of escapism, just another attempt to dodge an urgent ethical reckoning.
Then I recalled two moments from earlier in the film. The first comes when Toller is talking to Michael. “Wisdom,” Toller says, “is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously. Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” The second moment is a reading from Toller’s journal, just after Mary finds the suicide vest but before Michael has killed himself. “The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer,” Toller says. “How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion.” Toller’s voice comes in while we watch him on his knees bent over the toilet, retching his guts up, a deliberately staged contradiction between image and voice, matter and spirit.
Film, of course, is ineluctably linear, narrative, cast in human time. Yet the transcendent ekstasis Schrader’s art calls for is, by definition, beyond time: if there is anything by which we might define divinity, it is that it is not subject to human temporality. Representing the Transcendent is, as Schrader observes, impossible. The best that art can do is to create the formal conditions that might allow for an aesthetic experience of the divine. Not emotion, but experience. Not catharsis, but a kind of kenosis, achieved not through the simultaneous identification with contradictory ethical worlds, as in the Hegelian understanding of tragedy, but through the confrontation of an even deeper contradiction, that between a world of meaningless suffering and a world redeemed by love.
These two worlds are incommensurable. Each makes the other seem unreal, even absurd. Mary and Toller’s communion at the film’s end is one truth, the two hours preceding it are another, and the aesthetic experience offered by Schrader in First Reformed is not the linear progression from the latter to the former, or even the supersession of the latter by the former, but rather the challenge to hold both contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously. First Reformed only seems linear, only seems narrative, only seems concerned with climate change. In truth, the subject is a pretext, while the film’s form presents an aesthetic object in stasis, concerned with the universal experience of Transcendence, only comprehensible from outside the narrative, linear, mortal frame of human life. The kenosis First Reformed offers is achieved through balancing the absolute negation each truth presents against its contradiction.
Schrader’s harrowing art-house film was not the only movie released in 2018 about global climate change, balance, despair, and hope. Three weeks before First Reformed was released in the United States (it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2017), Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War premiered with the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time, earning more than $640 million. The film, which cost almost $400 million to make, went on to become the fourth-highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), and the highest-grossing film of 2018, taking in more than two billion dollars in receipts. First Reformed, on the other hand, cost $3.5 million to make, earned back $3.8 million at the box office, and was received with critical acclaim.
It’s disingenuous to call Avengers: Infinity War the Russos’ film in the same way that First Reformed is Schrader’s. Schrader is an auteur, while the Russos work for Kevin Feige, the president of production for Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios, a wholly owned division of the Walt Disney Company, the world’s largest independent media conglomerate. In addition to Marvel Studios, Disney also owns ABC, A&E, Lucasfilm, Star Wars, and the Indiana Jones franchise, and spent the summer of 2018 maneuvering to absorb 21st Century Fox. This merger will increase Disney’s U.S. movie market share from about a fifth of the market to almost a third. Schrader wrote his own script and First Reformed was independently produced through an assortment of backers; Avengers: Infinity War was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and produced entirely by Feige and Marvel Studios.
The close juxtaposition of First Reformed and Avengers: Infinity War calls to mind a similar comparison we could have made more than forty years ago between Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote and which was released in February 1976, and George Lucas’s Star Wars, released in May 1977. Whereas First Reformed and Avengers: Infinity War are both about climate change, though in one case as pretext and in the other as subtext, so too were Taxi Driver and Star Wars both about the Vietnam War, and in a deeper way about World War II and postwar American global hegemony–a claim that needs a more thorough argument than I can make here, though it’s worth pointing out that Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is not only a Vietnam veteran but also the hero of a revisionist film noir, a genre that, when it emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, was centrally concerned with returning World War II veterans and the domestication of global violence. Also, many critics at the time recognized that Star Wars was an attempt to redeem some sense of American adventure from the bloody mess of the Vietnam War, a point that Lucas made explicit in his notes on the writing of the film, which he had begun only after turning over the development of Apocalypse Now to Francis Ford Coppola.
Avengers: Infinity War is a magnificently constructed spectacle, Wagnerian in its scope and power, consisting mostly of fistfights between hyper-muscled, digitally enhanced heroes (some in robot suits) and giant, monstrous, intergalactic intruders. The plot, for those poor benighted souls who have not yet experienced firsthand the full power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is, in all its Byzantine detail, fairly complex, but the basics are simple. A giant scrotum-chinned blue alien named Thanos, played with cold, weary fury by Josh Brolin, is searching for six MacGuffins called the “Infinity Stones,” elemental sources of galactic power created by the Big Bang, which give their user control over Space, Reality, Power, Soul, Mind, and Time.
These MacGuffins have appeared before, most notably in the first Avengers film, which begins with one of them (in the form of “the Tesseract”) being studied as part of a secret U.S. government program which is attempting to use it both as a source of limitless energy and as the key to building weapons powerful enough to withstand intergalactic invaders. The Tesseract’s infinite potential for both good and evil is not only an overt metaphor for atomic power; it is also a more surreptitious metaphor for the power of oil. And just as the power of oil is precisely what made America great in the twentieth century while also calling down the attacks on Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11, so too the Tesseract’s power calls out to alien invaders who descend on New York City in an orgy of destruction.
Thanos, when we meet him again (it turns out he was the one trying to get hold of the Tesseract in the first film), has already found the Reality Stone and embedded it in a fancy gauntlet that can hold all six stones and combine their powers. The central action of Avengers: Infinity War follows Thanos and his minions as they find and take control of each stone. And to what end, beyond sheer power? There’s the rub. Thanos plans to kill half the universe–but not because he revels in suffering. Indeed, Thanos seems burdened by his self-appointed mission rather than pleased with it. His epic murder spree is in fact motivated by a Malthusian anxiety about overpopulation in a universe of scarcity, and a sense of injustice at the vast, unnecessary suffering such overpopulation entails. You might call it genocide; he calls it mercy. “It’s a simple calculus,” he tells his daughter Gamora. “This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.”
This is not the first time I’ve heard this argument. Nearly every time I go somewhere to talk about climate change, someone brings up overpopulation. Not usually in the Q & A, but most often before or after, one on one, where the stakes are lower. And of course people are right to bring it up. Human population is one of the boundary conditions we’ve pushed into the danger zone, and it’s obvious that there can be no solution to catastrophic anthropogenic global warming that doesn’t involve a population management plan, at least something like China’s now-abandoned one-child policy. When I spoke at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, someone in the audience asked about instituting some kind of system to help thin out the herd, perhaps voluntary suicide or a kind of suicide lottery, and I said what I always say to such questions, which is that while overpopulation is a real problem, most solutions to it entail inhuman horrors as bad as or worse than the problem itself. Thinking about climate change and population management moves swiftly from birth control and abortion, which remain contentious in the United States and elsewhere, to proposals for euthanasia, inducements to suicide, and full-blown genocide. Thanos may be a silly-chinned cartoon villain, but he’s also a malevolent truth that haunts our present.
Thanos embodies more than the problem of population management in a Malthusian world. He also embodies climate change. As Thanos gathers the Infinity Stones together, he gains the power to transform the environment, change reality, and warp time, much as climate change is doing for the human world. When Thanos appears, at the beginning of the film, he stands among the Asgardians he’s defeated, including the gods Thor and Loki, discoursing on their loss in a speech that not only speaks to the fact of human mortality but speaks as if the spirit of History itself were addressing twenty-first-century America: “I know what it feels like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, but to fail, nonetheless. It’s frightening. Turns the legs to jelly. But I ask you, to what end? Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here. Or should I say, I am.” Thanos, a short form of the Greek word thanatos, is the personification of death, which promises to meet us tomorrow in the form of rising seas, inundated coastal zones, underwater cities, drought, starvation, refugees, epidemics, social collapse, anarchy, martial law, and untold human suffering, just as Michael warned Toller.
One of the most notable things about Avengers: Infinity War is the ending. Spoiler alert: the Avengers fail: the bad guy gets the stones and wipes out half the universe, turning the populations to dust in an instant. The Black Panther dies. Doctor Strange dies. Spider Man dies. The film ends on a grim and somber note, with Thanos reflecting on his achievement. He’s saved the universe by balancing it, saved life by pruning it back, made living room for the survivors. The truth is, though, we’ll be lucky if half of humanity’s current population survives the next century. And looking back a hundred years from now, disappearing in a cloud of dust will seem a mercy.
What do we make of the end?
The sequel to Infinity War comes out in May 2019, and will doubtless change our perspective on Thanos’s victory. Further Black Panther and Spider Man movies are already planned. In the superhero world, just as in capitalism’s relentless vortex of creative destruction, death is not the end but an opportunity for a reboot. First Reformed’s ending, on the other hand, is more final, at least if we take it in the terms Schrader seems to want us to, though a plausible case could be made that the film’s final scene is Toller’s dying fantasy, taking place while he dies from ingesting the tumbler of Drano he’d poured himself. This interpretation would understand the alienating devices meant to prepare us for the final transcendental ekstasis as symptomatic of Toller’s emerging psychosis. Similar to the way the banal insistence that America’s recurring mass shootings are individual mental health failures rather than structural or social problems trivializes and individualizes deep collective failures, however, a reading of First Reformed as just another story of a suicidal psycho would drain it of its disturbing power and evacuate the very thing that makes the film worth pondering.
In either case, with the intergalactic spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War or the transcendental style of First Reformed, the one a global blockbuster and the other a formal attempt to create or express what Schrader argues is a universal spiritual truth, we have to ask whether these efforts are adequate to address the unique situation humanity faces in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. I suspect Schrader would argue, as have others, that global warming isn’t unique. Climate change simply occupies the role now vacated by nuclear war, which motivated a similar exploration of faith in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light and is in this way a kind of archetypal general evil–although were we to be honest with ourselves we’d have to recognize that nuclear war remains a serious threat to human life, and is itself a unique development in the history of the human species. Never before has humanity had the physical capacity to end human life on earth. Likewise, never before in human existence have we had to face global social collapse and the possible extinction of our species because of the unintentional consequences of technological development. Humans have seen ice ages come and go, we’ve been able to adapt to climatic fluctuations, but we’ve never faced a problem like this, and what’s more there’s nothing quite like it in the paleo-climate record. We’ve moved so much carbon from the earth into the atmosphere so quickly that we have no idea how precipitously things will change. Are changing.
There is a sense in which Schrader would be right, though, if not about the archetypal character of climate change as an event, which is the role it plays in his film (i.e., a merely parochial, particular expression of a universal human worldview), but about how, no matter what the specifics of the situation might be, we remain human beings grappling with the question of meaning, caught between hope and despair. Yet the underlying faith that there is a transcendental position from which these two truths can be seen to exist in equipoise depends on there being another world besides this one, literally Wholly Other, a transcendental position that seems difficult to credit in a materialist universe, imaginable only for some being as fantastic as Marvel’s Thanos. Here Schrader’s First Reformed and Marvel’s Infinity War collapse into each other, in their shared projection of the possibility of a transcendent reality. About this projection we may disagree, but there is no evidence, no proof, and no authority that can settle the question in faith’s favor. One must simply believe in a divine reality beyond all experience, a leap of faith there is no reason to make, indeed for which having reasons is out of the question. Either one believes, or one doubts. Either one follows Michael into the abyss, or one has faith in Mary’s grace. Those are the choices.
What do we make of the end? What do we make of our end? It is doubtful whether First Reformed or the Avengers can help us decide such questions. What the end of global carbon-fueled capitalist civilization ultimately means will not be determined by the people who caused it or even by the people who live through it, but rather by those who survive the catastrophe, the children of Thanos: that remainder who will have adapted to the strange and alien world we have made.