by Harlan Kennedy
It’s a jolly old time for Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. The German philosopher will be crowing in his catafalque. This year’s movie blockbusters prove not just that you cannot limit a screen saviour to one season only – audiences will demand a revival run, then another – but also that that if the original folkhero is unavailable, then clones, offspring or entire secret bloodlines can be brought into light and play.
Shazam! What fun. What cheek. What heady promise of perpetuity beyond the perpetuities we know already. It all started with Jesus Christ. THE DA VINCI CODE was the first cuckoo in the sanctity-of-oneness nest. Ron Howard’s film from Dan Brown’s bestseller proposed that reports of celibacy among messiahs are greatly exaggerated, that the son of God may well have left us a lineage, that his heirs are or could be among us today. There may be no such thing, suggests this bestselling flick from a bestselling literary potboiler, as one Lord and Saviour in the actual, untold story of Christianity.
Are we surprised that this daredevil idea has awaited the age of cloning? Although THE DA VINCI CODE is not about genetically engineered replication – it isn’t THE BOYS FROM BETHLEHEM – the heresy of its hypothesis that Christ diminished his uniqueness by lapsing from chastity can take cover, of a kind, in an era that is coming to accept cloning as a reality, even in the future as a possible commonplace.
We are losing faith in particularity (it seems). Or we are growing out of the faith that it is the only gospel in biological morality. If human beings can be DNA-designed in the exactness of our own image – in ‘my’ image or ‘your’ image – it seems less scandalous to contemplate that there may be, albeit by traditional biological methods, a family of Christs.
Then along comes Superman – Christ by a comic-strip route – and the replication stakes are raised higher. SUPERMAN RETURNS not only launches a new Christopher Reeve look-alike in the form and face of Brandon Routh, as near as dammit to an in vitro doppelganger accessorised with Reeve’s youth and looks and even his cheese-eating comic talent as Clark Kent, but also hints that Superman has a son. A son! Farewell, again, to messianic uniqueness. Not even the double chastity defence of a formfitting bodysuit and exterior red briefs were enough, it seems, to stop ‘Soupie’ and Lois getting it on during a quiet night on a Metropolis rooftop, or possibly during one of their ‘look, no airplane’ versions of the mile-high club.
Either way it has gestated a succession, hints SUPERMAN RETURNS. And a son of Superman is a challenging, even disturbing prospect. Like a great-great-great-great-recurring grandchild of Jesus Christ it seems a case of lese-majeste, impugning a legend, vitiating a faith, attacking a certitude.
But then again modern authors and filmmakers, if not Christians, may be discovering that lese is more. A line of saviours ups the ante, relishably if roguishly, on folk metaphysics. It puts something viral and mischievous into the practise of heroic virtue. Like a family business passing through generations it holds out the possibility that something can go wrong. For once you multiply or mass-produce the talent to work marvels, doesn’t a little jeopardy enter the machinery?
Screen Christs in their performing shape have long shown a tendency to shapeshift into comic-book or Saturday-matinee malefactors. Just look at the phenomenon. As soon as the blood has dried on the Cross, messiah impersonators start working a different kind of magic. Willem Dafoe transitioned from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST to the supervillain cacklings of SPIDER-MAN. Max von Sydow swapped do-gooding in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD for do-badding as Ming the Merciless in FLASH GORDON. Is playing colourful villains the reward actors get for slogging through monochrome duty as Messiahs? Or have we – more germanely – moved into an era of polymorphous mythomania? Ever since STAR WARS proposed that the greatest hero of the cosmos could be sired by the greatest villain, that Luke Skywalker could cry “Daddy!” in an epiphanic existential birth-cry while hanging from a space-ledge during a duel with Darth Vader, we have been joint conspirators in a cinema extolling the unpredictabilities of lineage.
Cloning will no more ensure moral dependability than did the lottery that was, and is, traditional human reproduction. Isn’t history, and aren’t myth and fiction, full of good-bad twin combinations? DNA is not an ethical determinant. Moral behaviour lies in the cracks between programme codes. And audiences like the fact that destiny’s unfathomable schemes are always one step ahead of – are always outwitting – humanity’s finite attempts to be infinite. So in X-MEN THE LAST STAND, another summer hokum epic and the third in the mutant superhero trilogy, the central figure of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the turncoat superfreak who is now good, now bad, now good, now bad, referees a world in which virtuous superpersons fight evil ones while the government struggles to tinker with meta-human unpredictability by finding a ‘cure’ for the mutant phenomenon. But again, the rogue gene of cosmic unpredictability surfs the helpless seas of terrestrial design.
What is the modern folkhero blockbuster telling us (stretching that elastic category to include THE DA VINCI CODE)? It tells us that no human design, of thought, science, theology or ethics, can have the last word. We live in too uncertain a world. Perhaps we always will. The more we learn, the less we know. There is always a surprise round the next metaphysical corner. There is always a new horizon beyond the one we can see.
We think we can outwit God or Nature by designing our own race? Well, God or Nature will surprise us by showing there are designs beyond designs. We can celebrate a comic-strip superhero or a scriptured Messiah who are, in each case, unique, chaste and unreproduceable? Only until we discover they aren’t; or rather, that there is something in the human creative gene itself that hates finality, that hates perfection, that hates the achieving of simple paradises. It sees in cinema and other arts the chance to mix it all up, mess it all up and start all over again. If human beings are never to be allowed the last word on life and destiny, at least the artist and entertainer can have the last word on the fact that there is no last word.
That makes him a kind of supreme being (actual) in a world which has lost count of its supreme beings (notional) in the ever more complex collisions between art and reality, science and religion, folklore and fact.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.