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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Eastern Promises: Violence and Horror in Film

Eastern Promises is the latest film directed by David Cronenberg and stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Cronenberg has a bizarre repertoire of films with a flair for the grotesque. Not only are his movies often graphically violent, but they serve as veritable meditations on the effects of violence, both emotionally and bodily. And in that sense, I hate to say, I think he may have a spark of genius.

Personally, I do not have a high opinion of most of his work. His most recent two films, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, however, do deserve a bit of attention. It would surprise me very much, in fact, if Eastern Promises does not earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Director Cronenberg began his career making low-budget horror films specializing in yuck. E.P. is not a horror film by strict definitions, but is very similar thematically. And there is no shortage of yuck. Two fundamental themes for the horror genre are transformation and identity. Many literary forms ask the question "who am I?" but horror asks "what am I?" and "what am I becoming?", with typically unhappy answers.

The definition of a monster is a being who should not exist but does, or a being that cannot be classified. For instance, Frankenstein's monster is a being who should not exist but does. He is the fabrication of a scientist who plays God and attempts to manufacture new life out of old body parts. And Darth Vader is also a monster because we don't know what he is. He's hard to classify. Is he man or machine?

So horror asks, "what is it?" Dead or alive? Man or machine? Male or female? Plant or animal? Earthly or extraterrestrial? Sane or insane? Healthy or sick? Clean or unlcean? Think of the horror monsters you've seen and you'll find that these are the questions most often at play. The significant thing is that they urge us to ponder what it means to be a human. When does a being cross the line of being non-human to human or vice-versa? Etc. With today's bio-ethical dilemmas and the advances of research in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, cloning, chimeras, etc., you will see more and more, I predict, horror stories asking such questions.

How does Eastern Promises fit into this horror scheme? It's not a horror film, per se, but it considers transformation. A History of Violence does so even better, I'd say. Transformation from one thing into another, usually as the result of violence or bodily disfigurement. In E.P., Viggo Mortensen does a truly brilliant job portraying the ultimate thug as part of the Russia mafia in London. He captures the accent, look and mannerisms masterfully.

Here is what I value in this film. It assumes and teaches that violence changes human character. Not being the object of violence, but the subject. My pastor, Rev. David Petersen, posed a fascinating question in Bible class last Sunday, a question that he found in the work of Peter Kreeft, I believe. Suppose your child were a prisoner is a Nazi concentration camp. Now suppose, your child were approached by the sadist Dr. Josef Mengele who proposes to spare your son or daughter if he or she will assist him in his experiments. So the choice is this: Assist Mengele in torturing others or be tortured by him. Now how would you want your child to choose?

Many would say that since they don't want their child to be harmed, they'd prefer him to assist the doctor. But what is truly more damaging, to be tortured or to torture. I agree with Pastor Petersen's point that to do violence to another person damages the doer in more deep and lasting ways.

In his own way, I think Cronenberg makes this point. The monsters in this world are not those who've been damaged externally but those who do the damaging. They became spiritual freaks, if you will, disfigured on the inside.

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