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Ribbons of Revenge

There's a man going round taking names/And he decides who to free and who to blame/Everybody won't be treated all the same/There'll be a golden ladder reaching down/When the man comes around.

So sings Johnny Cash in "The Man Comes Around," a song inspired by a dream Cash had wherein Queen Elizabeth II told Cash he was "a thorn tree in a whirlwind." Cash knew that phrase was familiar but could not remember where he first heard it. He later said he located it in the Book of Job and was spurred to write "The Man Comes Around," a song built upon biblical imagery of reckoning and responsibility. Many of the lyrics are either direct quotes or paraphrases of lines from the Book of Revelation -- the ultimate reckoning, the "end of days."

It's fitting that Cash's last classic plays beneath the opening credits of the new Dawn of the Dead. The horrifically funny montage depicts America's zombie-fueled collapse in quick-cut, channel-surfing glimpses. In this grainy, bloody stream of images, made jaunty by Cash's frank warnings of biblical judgment, it's like seeing live news coverage of a society's collapse. It's the perfect mood-setter. Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's same-titled 1978 original zombie epic, about a band of hardy Americans making a last stand against the Other in a shopping mall, offers not just the latest in film school style and splatter FX, but also a recent-vintage assortment of real-world fears.

The poster tagline for Romero's original promised, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth." But the tagline actually makes better cultural sense in the remake, when it's quoted onscreen in a cameo by Ken Foree, star of the 1978 Dawn. Romero's Carter-era zombie picture was a bloody goof on consumerism -- a horror-movie dig at a country that had fallen so deep into narcissistic isolation that its denizens shopped after they'd dropped. With few traces of religious feeling, much less religious fear, it felt like a 1970s disaster picture with zombies instead of an earthquake.

The new Dead feels more uncanny. Where the undead onslaught in Romero's version seemed a motiveless plot-driver, the onslaught in this new version seems more purposeful: a massive punishment for massive sins. It's an end-of-days movie strengthened by thematically appropriate touches: the Cash-backed credits sequence, which includes a high-angled shot of men kneeling in prayer; an "innocent" child zombie that's like a ghoul equivalent of a preadolescent suicide bomber; shots of wrecked cityscapes dotted with World Trade Center-style smoke plumes; a pivotal conversation between major characters about the possibility of paying for one's sins in hell. The ruined America depicted in the new Dead still appears democratic, capitalist, secular. But an unknowable spiritual world lurks beneath the surface. When the spiritual world erupts and the horror show unfolds, we sense that characters who didn't think about the afterlife before are thinking about it now -- maybe even dreaming about it.

Just as Cash's song was inspired by a dream, the new Dawn is one of many recent movies that seems to have been dreamed up by the industry. Recent history has seeped into movies, and manifested itself in powerful, if mostly oblique, ways. With some overlap, the movies tend to fit into one of two categories: revenge dramas and religious pictures.

The revenge dramas generally suggest one of two opposed conclusions: revenge is troubling but necessary (A Man Apart, Walking Tall, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2) or a life-altering mistake (21 Grams, Mystic River). The religious movies aren't religious in the sense that they advocate a particular religious point of view or dramatize a religious story (though The Passion of the Christ does both). They're religious in the sense that they presuppose and invite a religious view of life. They assume there's a higher power and perhaps a hell. They assume that good and evil are not rhetorical abstractions, but words to describe real cosmic forces at war in the universe and inside each person.

Like dreams, these movies are coded, half-involuntary responses to a post-9/11 world, and the fears of war, religious unrest, mass death and spiritual reckoning the event hatched. The movies are not precise or even outwardly purposeful, and none deals specifically with politics. But they are still movie dreams that work through real anxieties.

What are dreams but deep subconscious responses to real-world anxieties and fears? They are mechanisms allowing the brain to work through and interpret life in a sub-rational, even irrational way -- through images rather than words. Take then, film, described by Orson Welles as "ribbon[s] of dreams."

Those dreams willed into creation by American cinema express unresolved tensions that have always existed in this country and probably always will. Look at films from any given decade and one senses the tensions between secular and religious impulses, between those who feel that violence can be justified, even moral, and those who think it's almost always a mistake; between those who believe the American status quo is essentially healthy versus those who are predisposed to think it's sick, dishonest or destructive.

American movies made from the end of World War II through the late 1950s dreamed images of a polite, productive, white, Christian society (Rock Hudson and Doris Day, biblical spectaculars) that was nevertheless riddled by self-interest, cynicism and corruption (Touch of Evil, Sweet Smell of Success, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), family dysfunction (Giant, Written on the Wind, Rebel Without a Cause), fears of annihilation (The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and pockets of deprivation and resentment (Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, Kenneth Anger's coded gay fantasia Fireworks).

Movies made from the mid 60s through the late 70s contrasted a patriotic, pious, tradition-loving, Old Testament, violence-approving silent majority against a left-leaning, drug-taking, war-protesting youth culture. The leftish, counterculture-friendly visions of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Zabriskie Point, The Conversation and Who'll Stop the Rain were counterbalanced by the more conservative, gotta-break-eggs-to-make omelettes visions articulated in Patton, the original Walking Tall, Joe, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, The Exorcist and The Omen. (The latter shocked bluenoses with satanic sadism, but also reassured the devout by insisting that God and the devil were real.)

This new era has its own set of tensions that we sense whenever we turn on the television or the radio, or open up a newspaper. And it's only natural that the entertainment industry would attempt to confront the defining events, if not the tension. The play-turned-movie The Guys, for instance. Or the USA Network biopic Rudy, built around 9/11. There's also the "Yeah, Bush!" Showtime melodrama DC 9/11, some well-meaning episodes of Third Watch and the short subjects gathered in the anthology 11'09"01.

Still, there haven't been as many overtly 9/11-themed movies and tv projects as one might have expected, considering what a Very-Special-Episode nation we live in. You'd have thought by now there would have been several tv movies about the passenger revolt on Flight 93, especially after Neil Young wrote a song about it. But the part of our entertainment industry that makes moving pictures has stuck to its usual timetable, addressing the first few years of the Era of Terror indirectly, or connecting with it only in a generalized way. The resultant films bear visual and thematic signifiers that are as obvious as bruises, and as ripe for interpretation as dreams.

The first wave of post-9/11 movies arrived in late 2001 and continued throughout 2002. They seemed to reflect post-9/11 life directly and purposefully. But because these movies were made long before the attacks, their resonance might have been due less to the filmmakers' intentions than the films' subject matter. The covert viciousness of Spy Game, the siege mayhem of Black Hawk Down, the tribal violence of Gangs of New York and the civilization-testing showdowns in the Lord of the Rings trilogy come to mind.

One could make a slightly stronger, if still problematic, case for certain dramas released during 2003 that dealt with the consequences of revenge. House of Sand and Fog struck certain critics as a 9/11 movie, even though it was based on a 1999 novel, because it revolved around a conflict between a self-pitying, young white woman and a smug, immigrant Iranian and his family over possession of a house. Irreversible, Mystic River and 21 Grams have been cited as veiled commentaries on American involvement in Iraq, because all three revolve around grievously injured parties seeking revenge. (In two cases, they're seeking revenge on the wrong person.)

The past two seasons of Fox's action series 24 have worked through Iraq and the war on terror in grim comic book terms, pandering to conspiracy theorists on the left and the right while critiquing America's longtime belief that it has a God-given right to vengeance. The series' man-of-action brutality, xenophobic resentment and disdain for diplomatic niceties feel very silent majority, but the show's elaborate backstories are more leftish. Season two found American oil interests and their patrons in the United States government allowing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in order to justify a retaliatory war against Middle Eastern countries that had nothing to do with the attack. Season three is shaping up as a tale of disgruntled ex-commandos who threaten terrorist violence against America to scare the president into doing their bidding. Even though it was conceived last summer, this plotline crazily echoes right-wing explanations of what happened in Spain four weeks ago, where terrorist attacks on the cusp of election spurred voters to kick out the ruling conservative government and put socialists in charge. Thus 24 might be the only show in tv history that John Milius and Gore Vidal could watch together.

HBO's Deadwood is just as relevant, obliquely referencing both the war on terror (the town's citizens are terrified of murderous "Injuns" few of them have actually seen) and Iraq (the town's gradual evolution from outlaw mess to functioning government amounts to nation-building in miniature). Like 24, Deadwood suggests that powerful people manipulate America's fear of the Other to get what they want. The season opener revolved around an alleged Indian attack on white settlers, which spurred the righteous formation of a white posse. Turns out the attack was carried out by white criminals associated with the series' chief bad guy, who also happens to be the town's most prominent businessman.

Other revenge tales are less dark and messy. Last spring's A Man Apart starred Vin Diesel as a drug enforcement agent seeking revenge against the thugs who killed his wife. While the movie clearly implied that the hero was crazed with grief, it just as clearly endorsed his need for vengeance. The new Walking Tall goes further. Updating the 1973 silent majority classic, it replaces beefy white guy Joe Don Baker with biracial ex-wrestler The Rock, setting the story in the Pacific Northwest instead of the Deep South and giving the picture a populist-progressive storyline. (Much of the town's crime wave is the fault of its richest citizen, who is bleeding the place dry.) But the subtext of the picture is far more basic, even reactionary. It's produced by a contemporary version of the mindset that birthed the original Walking Tall, not to mention Dirty Harry and Death Wish. It is a mindset that says one must act in uncivilized ways to protect civilization, and that only a naive liberal would argue otherwise. (In a classic vigilante moment, the hero pulls the bad guy over for broken taillights, then breaks them.)

Quentin Tarantino's two volumes of Kill Bill are a DVD obsessive's version of a revenge picture, wherein primal emotion takes a backseat to homage. It's hard to argue that its tropes have much to do with political reality; it's an ostentatiously abstract and self-conscious project, as emotionally connected to real revenge as Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were connected to details of real life in 19th-century America. But some of the director's choices resonate anyway: the international odyssey undertaken by Uma Thurman's Bride, and her go-it-alone determination; the juxtaposition of extreme violence and bland domestic peace; a revelation in Vol. 2 that establishes a deep connection between the Bride and Bill and complicates her rush toward revenge.

The Australian folktale Ned Kelly is an outlaw movie in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, an outlaw movie with an obvious political dimension, about young outlaws fighting an occupying government that turns citizen against citizen while exploiting the country's resources. Lines of voiceover dialogue refer to the outlaws hiding in caves (an image that's never actually shown onscreen). Cops fear the gang, but average citizens are thrilled to see anyone take action to remove an oppressor's boot from their neck. Kelly's gang is hunted not just because they committed crimes and disrupted the peace, but because they dared seek personal revenge against the injustices of government agents. The gang must be killed or captured, because its continued existence reminds civilians that their government is not as wise and feared as it wants the world to think.

David Mamet's Spartan is the richest post-9/11 treatment of revenge thus far, a political nightmare pointed enough yet vague enough to support numerous divergent readings. Like 24, Spartan plays out Sept. 11 and subsequent wars in stripped-down, mythic terms. The initial assault finds Arab slavers unwittingly kidnapping the president's disaffected, sex-club-working daughter (possibly a stand-in for the American people, in the sense that she's innocent, but not that innocent). Val Kilmer's hero leads a Secret Service black ops mission to find the first daughter and bring her home safely.

The mission is declared over -- accomplished -- when a body fitting the first daughter's description turns up in Boston Harbor. But the hero and his acolyte (Derek Luke) think she's still alive and undertake a perilous, unapproved mission to rescue her. Mamet appears to suggest that the false "death" of the kidnap victim was part of a setup -- a Russian-doll style con-inside-a-con, designed to eventually lead the hero to Saudi Arabia, where he could rescue the first daughter "off the books," so to speak. One leaves the movie thinking the hero was set up by forces too vast and nefarious to fully understand. Even though the kidnapping was carried out by people with their own agenda and no apparent connections to the Saudi government, Mamet suggests the crime will still be used as a pretext for "vengeance" against a country the U.S. could not otherwise justify attacking.

As my friend Robert Abele has suggested, Spartan can also be read as a cautionary tale about parameters of the military mind. Soldiers do whatever they're told to do and prefer not to know why. When you get into "why," you start asking questions, and questions invariably lead you to the realization that the leaders you trust are self-interested, untrustworthy or both. Truth leads to paralysis; ignorance is bliss.

While post-9/11 revenge pictures are fun to analyze, they might ultimately prove less significant to historians than the flowering of religious feeling, nearly always Christian, in recent Hollywood movies.

Hollywood has generally been hospitable to the idea of religion. But with few exceptions (notably the biblical spectaculars of the 1920s and 1950s) it has avoided specifics. For now, that seems to be changing. There is certainly more religious feeling in mainstream movies now than there was four years ago; more, perhaps, than at any time since the 1970s, when graphic, supernaturally themed horror movies appeared to symbolically punish Americans for various political and cultural sins. When the devil possesses little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, for instance, her actress mother is leading onscreen protests in what looks to be a counterculture movie.

The most obvious example is The Passion of the Christ, which defied expert predictions to become the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time and now seems poised to become the top-grossing movie, period. The massive success of Mel Gibson's troubling and amazing film is a better topic for a book than a couple of paragraphs of an essay. Suffice it to say that it's hard to imagine the film being as massively successful had it been released five or 10 or 20 years ago.

The televised mass murder of 9/11 drove a lot of people back to church -- or temple, or mosque -- who hadn't been spending much time there before, and prompted fierce examination of good, evil, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and all matters spiritual. For the past three years, religion (in the form of religious violence) has been the top story on the news almost every night. Between the sight of Christian soldiers in Muslim lands (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinians, one cannot help thinking that the increasingly secular, materialist mindset religious folks kept warning the world against was not as pervasive as they thought.

Perhaps religion was never truly decimated or rendered irrelevant in this country. Even in supposedly godless places like New York City, The Passion of the Christ is as popular as it is everywhere else. Perhaps, instead, faith was simply made no. 1 on the unwritten list of things Americans weren't supposed to talk about; culturally and politically, faith was driven underground like a river of lava from a volcanic eruption that occurred long ago. Now the world is less stable than it was during the 1990s, and we're seeing little theological eruptions when we go to the movies.

Christ is the Krakatoa of theological eruptions--the right religious picture for the right time. Where the Jesus of 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ was a neurotic waffler who doubted He was really God's son, Gibson's Jesus could not be more certain of His identity and His destiny. He's an action-hero Jesus, a unilateral, go-it-alone Jesus who's willing to withstand horrendous punishment without complaint on behalf of a world that does not understand the nature of His sacrifice, much less the means by which it must happen. (Jesus' departure from the cave of resurrection is accompanied by martial drum music -- the warrior reborn.)

Not all religious imagery is so straightforward. In fact, most recent movies that express religious feeling put it in the background of the story. But the feelings are no less palpable for not being front-and-center.

The Fighting Temptations and The Ladykillers aren't aiming to convert anybody, but they spend more time in gospel-singing, Jesus-praising churches than Hollywood movies are usually willing to spend. And both films (The Ladykillers especially) suggest that faith is not just an expression of goodness, but a central force that animates goodness. Ernest Dickerson's excellent movie version of Donald Goines' 1970s noir novel Never Die Alone transcribes the author's ideas and incidents more or less faithfully, but places them in the context of spiritual distress to a much greater degree than Goines did. The drug-dealing, woman-abusing antihero, King David, narrates his story from beyond the grave like William Holden's deader-but-wiser screenwriter from Sunset Blvd. King David's ugly odyssey is presented moralistically, as a tall tale about an entertaining but indefensible swine that knew he was doing evil but was having too much fun to stop. At the end of the movie, Dickinson lingers over images of King David's corpse being packed inside a pauper's coffin, then fed into a crematorium furnace to be consumed by hellfire -- a sendoff that would have passed muster with the Hays Office in about 1938.

Drawn from Mike Mignola's graphic novels, Hellboy at first seems like just another B-list comic book picture, this one about a nice-guy devil that growls softly and swings a big fist. But even a cursory examination of the film's images betrays a stark religious sensibility. Look past the wham-bam mayhem and you'll see a celebration of religious and political conversion -- and easily the most Roman Catholic Hollywood film not directed by someone named Scorsese.

The title character is an imp brought into our world by a Nazi experiment overseen, bizarrely enough, by Rasputin. The imp is a gun-fighting, pizza-scarfing galoot raised by the United States' Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and taught to love America and want to protect it. (He even carries rosary beads.) His enemies include a host of HP Lovecraft-inspired demons and a reanimated, mummy-like ninja assassin whose insides turned to dust long ago. Co-writer and co-director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) deploys Christian motifs throughout, including sacramental rivers of blood, stigmata and intimations of resurrection. (The murder of Hellboy's surrogate father, a paranormal expert played by John Hurt, occurs while a turntable plays "We'll Meet Again.")

Del Toro favorably contrasts Hellboy's sarcastic yet sincere allegiance to Christian America against satanic foes who aim to unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos on the world. The final 15 minutes are a near-apocalypse, with Twin Tower-sized demon tentacles raking down from storm clouds. Like a comic book opposite of Jesus, Hellboy realizes that the entire time he imagined himself in unshakable allegiance with the good guys, he was actually part of an anti-divine plan orchestrated by the forces of darkness. If he hopes to save his adoptive Christian culture, he must reject his true father, Satan. Writing in the online magazine Film Forum for Christianity Today, Jeffrey Overstreet correctly observed that del Toro's film "boasts more religious symbolism than any comic-movie yet produced."

Hellboy is a deliberately light film, but its messages are dead serious: good and evil are struggling for control of every mortal soul; the end of days are nigh; agnosticism and neutrality are as bad as conscious evil; it's time to pick a side.

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