Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 1)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull these stories down.

                             Stranger Things, World’s End — Chapter One:

                                  Wasteland

Friday, May 22, 2037

William Byers woke, cold. He had heard the howls, and though they could have been part of his dream, he doubted it. The demo-dogs were out in droves lately.

He sat up in bed slowly. His joints ached and his piles were inflamed. Reaching up his crack, he scratched vigorously. Between the heart attack he had last year, and the ass attacks he suffered every night, he felt his sixty-six years with a regularity that made him question his worth to the Hawkins Colony. If not for his veteran knowledge of the Upside Down, he would surely be regarded as deadwood. He was frail and couldn’t handle field work. Wall patrol was out of the question; he was no combatant. The greenhouses, maybe; he could assist Minnie there if he had to. But there was no cause for worry. His place in the Colony was writ for life. He had suffered for Hawkins more than anyone alive — abducted, possessed, and almost killed rescuing enslaved children. His reward was the leadership of the Colony, a truly thankless task that required him to chair the council and make decisions that never pleased everyone. Dustin Henderson and Steve Harrington were also on the council, for saving the town against repeated depredations of the shadow world. Until two years ago, Lucas Sinclair was a member too. Will sighed, thinking of Lucas. This would be a hard day for Mike.

He put on a pair of socks before walking down the hall. Spring was half over, and it was freezing. He cursed the new weather patterns, longing for the days when May didn’t feel like March. Before the Pockets opened. And for the time before that, when no one took the idea of Armageddon seriously. For that matter, William Byers wished he were still living before Donald J. Trump entered the White House, whereupon everything went to hell. His years of life between 1971-2016 seemed an age of purity. America had been majestic, even at its worst. He remembered savoring life and dreaming big. That itself was now a dream. America was a wasteland: a nuclear wasteland on the coasts, a shadow wasteland in between. And the shadow was growing.

He passed Mike’s door and looked in on him. His nephew was asleep and gently snoring; a lucky kid, all things considered. He lived with his uncle in the most spacious house in the Colony, and had virtually no responsibilities. That would have to change in another year. When you turned thirteen, you had to start pulling your weight.

Today Mike was turning twelve for his third time. He was one of five kids in a community of two hundred fifty-two, the other four being an infant born last month, a three-year old toddler, an eight-year old mute, and a fifteen-year old who fancied herself beyond her years. It was a raw deal. Mike desperately needed a friend.

In the main room Will pulled water from a bucket and killed the dryness in his throat. Moonlight filtered through the window, and showed the time of 3:10 AM on the wall clock. He stood and listened. Within minutes, raw howls decimated the night silence. The demo-dogs were near; maybe even a full grown demogorgon in the pack. He would hear gunfire shortly. Steve Harrington was one of the patrollers tonight, and Will always felt good when Steve was on the wall. The man was in his seventies, but he was the Colony’s best shooter.

Will sat on his recliner and closed his eyes; he had to sit before lying down again, or his back would rebel. Considering all his ailments, he was amazed he had survived this long — six whole years — at Ground Zero. He supposed that his Peace Corps experience helped. Botswana had been home for two years, and he had loved every day of it, hardly missing the comforts of running water and electricity. But he had been in his prime then; his early to mid-twenties. And he had signed on for a limited duration. The American Wasteland was here to stay. He had given up on Eleven, or just about. She was a broken shell.

Since the pounding of the nukes ten years ago, Jane Hopper had been a raving lunatic. Tormented by the guilt of her son’s reverse aging, the nuclear wipe-outs had triggered her complete meltdown and full dependency on others. Mike was two years old (for his third time), and once again she had relinquished him to the care of Lucas and Raquel Sinclair. They were all living in Hawkins, the home of their childhoods, having moved from Oregon to avoid the coastal calamity. They had heeded the rumors, unlike most American citizens. On July 4, 2027, those other citizens paid the price. As they waved flags celebrating their nation’s independence, the United States became the overnight home of a new kind of independence — the kind you made anywhere you could stand, fight and hold your ground.

There had been some recovery since the radiation cleared in 2030, but living on the seaboards was like being in the wild west. The midwest was drastically worse — the true wasteland now, with only the tiniest fractions of people remaining to rough it out. On September 11, 2031, “traveling gates”, called Pockets, had materialized across half the state of Indiana, blooming out in a radius from the town of Hawkins. Nuclear survivors who had fled the coasts suddenly found themselves in a worse situation. Hordes of vile creatures — demo-dogs, demogorgons, aboleths, shriekers, and more — emerged from clouds of toxic atmosphere, which appeared out of nowhere and stayed for days before vanishing and reappearing miles away. Families were torn apart and eaten in their homes. Indiana became a no-man’s land.

The Pockets had multiplied like fruit-fly nests, and the shadow holocaust expanded by a radius of a hundred miles every year. Now there were twenty-one states under constant attacks from the Upside-Down: most of the midwest and much of the south. It was impossible to survive in any of those states without fortified protection; and few people wanted to stay and join a Colony. The way Will saw it, they should damn well get used to it. At the rate the Pockets were expanding, by 2042, America would be Upside Down in all states from the east coast to the Rockies. By 2048, all of continental America would require walled Colonies. Alaska and Hawaii alone would remain free; pale vestiges of a superpower brought to its knees.

The nuclear holocaust had been devastating, but the shadow holocaust spelled the world’s end. It was set on a course to swamp the globe.

A premonition made Will open his eyes. Someone is here. In my home. Watching me. He looked through the moonlit darkness, his heart quickening. That made no sense. There were no intruders in the Colony. There were two hundred fifty two residents, and they all got along. The Council hadn’t needed to appoint any police force beyond the patrollers managed by a competent chief. Then Will saw who it was, standing by the hallway from the bedrooms, and he started breathing again.

“You move like a ghost,” he said to Mike.

“You don’t,” said his nephew. “Can’t you get a cup of water without banging everything?”

“I’m clumsy.”

“I want to stay home today. For my birthday.”

Nice try. “You know the deal, Mike. Every month. Especially on your birthday.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

Maybe. But you’re the only chance she’s got. “The e-pod will be here at the crack of dawn. Be ready for it. You want to stay up now, and I’ll cook an early breakfast?”

“No, I’m going back –”

Gunshots exploded outside, and they both jumped. Someone yelled, far away. Then another shout, followed by a steady round of gunfire. Silence for a few seconds; then more shots. Finally it stopped. The alarm hadn’t been sounded, which meant the threat was neutralized. Courtesy of Steve Harrington and his crew.

Mike came over and sat next to his uncle.

Will ruffled his hair. “Change your mind?”

Mike shrugged. “I won’t be able to sleep now.”

“It’s your birthday, kid. What do you want?”

“Pancakes. And ham and eggs, and toast.”

“Okay, your majesty. We won’t have anything left for lunch after that, but it’s your day.” He stood up, lit the wall lantern, and went to the kitchen. “Promise me you’ll be ready when the lab guys get here?” he called, banging pots and pans as he began preparing St. Michael’s feast.

“Whatever,” mumbled Mike, promptly falling asleep on the couch after all.

 

“Ready?”

Mike ignored the question. He was never ready to see his mother.

They were at the Hawkins Lab, five miles from the Colony. They had been picked up and driven there as usual, in the lab’s e-pod. Such rides were an unheard of privilege in the post-apocalypse. E-pods were the old governmental cars powered by small nuclear reactors, functioning as both air and ground craft. The lab scientists had negotiated with New York for two of them, and they guarded their prizes zealously. Air transport was a priceless commodity anywhere, but especially in the shadow wasteland, where a pack of demo-dogs could pulverize most ground vehicles in minutes, and outrun them under fifty miles an hour. Ground cars were notoriously unreliable anyway; most of them ran on alcohol.

Will and Mike got special treatment for a reason, and that reason was behind the door they were approaching on the second floor. The woman inside was broken; if she could be made whole again, America might have a fighting chance.

The lab had been reopened four years ago in a last-ditch effort to save the country: to find a solution to the Pockets, which were generated by the Gate at the bottom of the lab. No one knew how this Gate had been created, or by whom; it was thought to predate the Pockets by about a year. The scientists were led by Dr. Mark Reardon, and their progress had been negligible. Reardon believed the only real solution was the woman being cared for; she had dealt with shadow gates in the past, and worse. The only thing that ever penetrated her insanity was the boy at Will’s side.

“Be positive,” said Will, knowing that Mike would go through this ritual with the usual sullenness. He could see a retort jumping into his throat, but before his nephew could say anything, a scream stung the air.

It was Eleven’s voice, raw and heinous. It was impossible that anyone could scream like that and be remotely sane. It was the screech of a soul in relentless pain.

Before the scream ended, Will was dragging Mike toward the bedroom door.

Mike squirmed and broke his uncle’s grip, flinging him off. “No! I’m not going in there!”

Will seized him again. “You are going in there. You’re the only one who can reach her. Mike, she’s your mother.”

Mike said nothing, hurling defiance with his eyes.

“Come on,” said Will, pushing Mike through the door.

Inside, Jane Hopper’s bedroom was almost completely bare. The doctors kept it this way to minimize clean-up duty. The medication she received blocked her telekinetic powers, but occasionally the medication wasn’t strong enough, or it came too late. There were pictures on the stand near her bed: the first showed her and her boyfriend Mike Wheeler when they were fifteen, on Christmas Eve. The second showed Mike Wheeler alone, closer to twenty, without his eyes, sitting and playing guitar. The third showed her in her late thirties, matronly looking, and next to her son — a Mike Hopper slightly older than the incarnation now at Will’s side. The fourth showed Jane in her fifties; she looked strained holding her “second” baby, the same Mike, at six months old.

The Jane Hopper who sat propped up on pillows couldn’t be recognized from those memories. She was a parody of her former self; a grotesque distortion. Her nightgown hung in tatters. She stared at her visitors with rabid eyes. Fury clenched her face, and whimpers moaned in her throat. Will knew they were safe from her tantrums because of the injections she received. The drugs didn’t affect her power; they acted on her mind so she couldn’t use it. Safety hardly mattered to Will. The sight of her tore him apart regardless.

“Hi El,” he said softly.

She let out a scream savage enough to tear a lung.

At Will’s side, Mike tried to back out of the room. Will stopped him. “Go on,” he said. “Talk to her. Go, Mike.”

Mike slowly walked over and sat on the bed next to his mother. “Hi, mom.”

His mother slowly registered his presence. Her face of fury turned on him.

“Take her hand, Mike,” said Will.

Mike took her right hand. “It’s okay, mom. It’s me. Mike.”

“Mike?” Her damaged voice crawled like an injured thing between her lips. The rage on her face began to dissolve.

“Yeah. It’s me and Uncle Will.”

“Oh, Mike.” Tears spilled from her eyes. She fumbled for him, leaned over and hugged him, and moaned into his shoulder. Mike looked like he wished he were miles away.

Will cleared his throat. “Mike turned twelve today, El. It’s his birthday.”

It was the wrong thing to say. She stopped murmuring and looked up at Will with fierce distrust. She clung to Mike and spoke in his ear: “He’s poisoning you. Against me.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “Mom –”

Abruptly his mother grabbed him by the shoulders and violently shook him back and forth. Her face burned with fury again. “I’m your mother, and he’s not! He’s not! He’s NOT, do you understand!”

Mike was being whiplashed to and fro, and he yelled at his mother to stop.

Will almost intervened but gave it another few seconds. Usually her bouts of rage against Mike didn’t last any longer than that. She stopped shaking him and clutched him to her breast. “You’re going to stay with me,” she panted. “I spoke to the doctors, and you’re going to live here, so we can be family again.” She started weeping. “With me. You want that, right?”

Say yes. Lie to her. Show a mercy. But Will already knew Mike was going for honesty.

“I can’t, mom. You need to get well first. Then you can come to the Colony.”

Agony filled his mother’s eyes, and then without transition she slapped his face. Will moved to intervene.

Mike broke free of his mother’s grip as Will got to him, but she immediately snatched him back, with a grip that was ferociously strong for her sixty-six years. “Don’t contradict me!” she shouted in Mike’s face. “I’m your mother, and he’s not. He’s NOT, NOT!!”

“Let go of me!” yelled Mike.

Will gently grabbed her wrists. “Let him go, El.”

She snarled and bent over Will’s arm, sinking her teeth into his wrist. He yelled, more from the shock of her biting him — she had never done that before — than from the pain, though it was excruciating.

Two lab workers entered the room. Jane Hopper backed up against her pillows and screeched, threatening to kill anyone who touched her. The lab workers were as gentle as they could be in restraining her. She fought like a demented lioness and hurled obscenities at them, spit flying from her mouth.

Will was shaken. “Let’s go, Mike,” he said, but Mike was already at the door.

“Mike!” his mother wailed. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Mike! Come back! No! NO! NO! DON’T LEAVE ME!” She was sobbing and kicking at the lab professionals. “Don’t leave me… please!”

As they both left the room, Jane’s shrieks ripped from her abused throat. Will’s heart sank. She was only getting worse.

 

“I hate her!” Mike yelled for about the sixth time when they were back home.

Will was doing his best to control his temper. He seldom lost it. But Mike had been outright impossible since his mother’s episode that morning. He had yelled at Dr. Reardon as they left the lab, and shouted at Will on the drive home. The drivers in the e-pod’s front seat had kept quiet with poker faces, and Will had marveled at their professionalism.

“I can’t control the way you feel, Mike, but don’t ever let me hear you say that you hate your mother. Your mom is the most amazing person I’ve ever known. And I expect better behavior from you in front of others.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Will sighed. “Yes I can.”

“You’re not the boss of me. Uncle Luc was.”

“That’s right. He was. Now I am. And I dare say I give you a lot more leeway and freedom than Uncle Luc ever did.” Will was conveniently omitting the fact that he sort of had do be lenient with Mike. His nephew didn’t respect him as a parental figure. Lucas Sinclair had disciplined the hell out of Mike and been loved for it. Whenever Will tried such measures, the results were risible. There was a reason he had never had kids.

“Your mother deserves respect.”

“She’s a hag!”

“Stop it, Mike. She hurts. She’s trapped in an inner hell. You know she’s not herself. She raised you. Twice.”

“Uncle Luc raised me.”

Jesus. Will knew that Mike had complicated memories of his previous two lives. He certainly remembered them, but parts of them seemed unreal; like dreams or pictures in a book, he said. But surely he remembered his mother’s unflagging love and commitment to him. She had done everything for him, and saved him from an eternity of black hell in the Upside Down. In the process, however, she had caused him to age backwards. Then he had to start life all over again.

“Your Uncle Luc was a great man. Don’t let his greatness diminish your mother’s.”

“She stinks. She’s hysterical.”

“She can’t help –”

“I’m not going there to see her anymore!”

“Listen to me!”

“Just because she can make tornadoes doesn’t make her special!”

“Will you please calm down?”

Mike only got more furious. “She’s a shitty mom! I never had a mother!”

“Shut up, I said!”

Mike burst into tears, and Will cursed himself. He couldn’t recall the last time he had yelled at anyone like that. Probably years ago. Maybe decades. Lamely, he put his hand on Mike’s shoulder to apologize.

“Don’t touch me!” shouted Mike.

Will should have let him go, but he was angry again — angry at all the yelling, and tired from being up so early. He shook Mike and told him to shut up, grow up, and stop acting the child. Forgetting of course that he was still a child. Mike told him to let go. Will wouldn’t let go. A stream of twelve-year old F-bombs filled the room. Will still held him firm. Suddenly Mike stopped struggling, and closed his eyes.

Without warning, Will felt smashed by a wave of burning coldness. He couldn’t see or hear a thing. An awful sense of deja vu hit him, as if this had happened before. He felt caught, paralyzed, on a landscape of contradictions: freezing incineration; searing numbness; a vacuum that permitted no life, and yet couldn’t kill, because there was no moment to the next, during which life could cease to be. Mike was somehow doing this to him.

Then — it felt like only a second later, but also many years — Will was suddenly right again, his senses registering everything they should. He was still holding Mike, but they were far outside the house, at least a hundred feet away. He let his nephew go. What the hell had just happened?

“What did you do?” Will demanded. In his first life Mike had possessed an amazing power over time. In his second life that power had taken on a mind of its own and shrunk him down to infancy. In this life he had shown no evidence of that power at all. Or had he?

Mike didn’t answer, and he started walking away, around their house to the back.

“Hey,” said Will, confused, following him. “I asked you something.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” said Mike as he kept walking. He was cutting around other buildings and heading towards the Colony’s recreational field.

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll see.”

They came to a hill overlooking the play field, and Mike stopped next to a tree. He looked down at the two people using the field — an adult and a child playing frisbee — then sat against the tree.

Will looked down at the frisbee throwers, and gasped in shock. He wasn’t seeing right. He started walking down the hill to get a better look.

“No,” said Mike. “Stay under the tree with me.”

Something in Mike’s tone compelled obedience. Will stopped, but he didn’t take his eyes off the impossible figures below, shouting and laughing as they threw the frisbee. One of them was his good friend Lucas Sinclair. The other was Mike Hopper himself.

Lucas had been killed two years ago by a demogorgon. Mike was up on this hill right next to him. Neither of them could be down there.

“Uncle Luc was my father,” said Mike. “You’re not my boss.” He put his head on his knees and broke down sobbing.

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What readers are saying about World’s End

Here’s what readers are saying about my novella World’s End. Thanks everyone, for your praise and enthusiasm. I never dreamed you would be as moved as I was in writing the story.

“I read parts of World’s End during my work hours. That’s how much I couldn’t put it down.” (Stephanie Gatley)

“Fan fiction can be awful, especially when the only fan it satisfies is its author. With World’s End, Loren has reached way beyond his own tastes, and tells a story with broad appeal. Stranger Things, indeed.” (Greg Wright)

“How many times have you reached the end of an emotionally intense book or movie and felt bereft? You’re not ready to let go. You need to know what happens to your friends. You miss them. Loren brings them all back with a vengeance. And the story goes on.” (Tina Lozeau)

“Honestly one of the best time travel stories I’ve read – and I’ve read many.” (Taheem Kazmi)

“Loren transports us into the world of Stranger Things so vividly, that you may as well be reading the Duffer Brothers’ next screenplay.  He is a master at including the best cultural references from the eras, and weaving in an interesting plot that keeps you staring at the last page after you’ve finished.  It sucks you in hard and then kills your soul in all the right ways fanfiction should.  Definitely a must read for any Stranger Things fan.” (Kylie Hargrove)

“A thrilling story that is actually superior to the plot of the TV series’ season two.” (Matt Bertrand)

“Eleven has suffered so much throughout Loren’s trilogy, and worst of all in World’s End. What her son manages to do for her in the end made me cry.” (Darren Hughes)

I will start posting the chapters to World’s End tomorrow, one each day from December 16-25.

Twenty Great Religious Films

Better understood as a list of religiously themed films, since “religious films” have a reputation for poor design and cheesy acting in favor of pushing dogma. There is excellent cinema that explores religiosity without necessarily advocating for it, and here they are, in my view: twenty great religious — or religiously themed, or spiritual — films of all time.

(Note: this expands on a previous list of ten.)

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1. The Seventh Seal. Ingmar Bergman, 1957. If there was only one religious film I could save, it would be this. It sounds boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. It opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world (see also entries 11-13 on this list), and in The Seventh Seal he ties that theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. It’s set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. For example, in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife. The strawberries meal seems to contrast with the ritualized Eucharist liturgy. There’s also huge entertainment in The Seventh Seal — bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off — that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The final scene (above image) is my favorite frame from any film: the Dance of Death. If it is indeed this nihilistic dance that awaits us all, at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts and unexpected epiphanies, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.

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2. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2011. This meditation on suffering was inspired by the book of Job, in which God replies to his servant’s anguish not by having the courtesy to answer the question, but by hubristically displaying His creation: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:4) This is what the 20-minute cosmos sequence is about, a stunning Big-Bang/evolution snapshot that makes the viewer feel humbled by celestial mysteries. While it didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), the amazing visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it (you can watch the sequence here) helps put the matter in perspective in a way that words off the scriptural page can hardly match. Our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. Basically, Malick takes an American Catholic family of the 1950s and frames them within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, to get others to please it too, and to find reasons to be unhappy.” What’s interesting is that grace emerges in this film not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The film ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, even if that’s a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses.

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3. There Will Be Blood. Paul Anderson, 2007. This blistering attack on the prosperity gospel was almost enough to make me renounce my capitalist convictions. Set in 1911, it’s about a man’s rise from poverty (a miner) to riches (an oilman), and his relationship with a young pastor who offers faith-healing and hypocrisy to those who dare the doors of his grim church. Daniel is a mean and hateful man, who has no friends and just wants to become filthy rich. The pastor is Eli, who is just as greedy but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty; Daniel scorns religion but has no problems using it as a means to an end. The middle and final scenes define this relationship. In the first, Daniel arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation and suffers a humiliating baptism which involves him screaming his confessions at the congregation and Eli slapping his face: “You will never be saved if you reject the blood,” warns Eli, a statement loaded with irony since there is plenty of real blood on Daniel’s hands. The final scene sixteen years later reverses the humiliation. Eli has become a failure and needs money, and Daniel (now an obscenely rich drunk and more mean-spirited than ever) says he will give Eli money if his admits that he’s a false prophet and God is a fiction. Eli confesses this, and Daniel finishes his revenge by clubbing him to death. Blood spills from everywhere throughout this film — from the land (oil), people, and the Lamb Himself — and critics are right to call it a masterpiece of rare vision. It’s about greed and evangelism eating each others tails.

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4. The Exorcist. William Friedkin, 1973. As my favorite film of all time it was difficult to rank on its strength as a religious film, but the fourth slot feels about right. As a horror film it’s the best ever made; as a religious film it’s a treatise on the mystery of faith. Friedkin describes it thus: “Life is such a gift and and yet a mystery, and I don’t think we make movies about that stuff anymore. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will take out of The Exorcist. But if you believe that there is a force of good in the world that is forever combating evil, sometimes winning victories over evil, but never an ultimate victory — if you believe as I do that that’s the case, then you will take that away from The Exorcist.” You can make a case for the historical Jesus being an exorcist more than anything else. If his teachings and parables have endured famously, his healings and exorcisms are probably what made people listen to him in the first place. However, some of the people Jesus exorcised may have been just mentally ill, even if understood to be possessed. This film inverts the assumption. All the doctors and shrinks insist that Regan is mentally ill after the somatic causes are ruled out. Even the priest Father Karras believes this, and it’s only after the most harrowing confrontations in Regan’s bedroom that he finds his faith again, under instruction of the elder exorcist. It took an agnostic director like William Friedkin to make a film about faith this compelling, let alone so terrifying.

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5. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009. To celebrate sexual deviance in a context of religious dogma is a bold strike, and Love Exposure pushes more envelopes than South Park and Borat combined. It’s a four-hour sprawl of religious guilt, sexual frustration, family feuds, industrial pornography, and peek-a-panty photography — the last involving street boys who look up girls’ skirts while camouflaging their camera shots with hilarious martial-arts acrobatics. It’s impossible to summarize without sounding ludicrous, but be assured that critics and audiences love it. I fell absolutely in love with Yu and his quest for the right girl — his “Virgin Mary” as it were. He’s a genuinely good kid, but driven by the need to sin in retaliation against his repressive father, a Catholic priest who treats him horribly in the confessional booth. On the street he finds his dream girl, Yoko, who unfortunately despises men, and yet falls in love with Yu anyway because she thinks he’s a woman since he’s dressed in drag (again: it all sounds too absurd to make time for, but trust me, it works). Things get even crazier when another girl, Koike, comes between them and manipulates them in psychotic ways. While Yu is a product of religious repression, Koike is the product of religious abuse (repeatedly raped by her father until she castrated him) and a destructive sociopath. I felt like these characters were my family by the end of four hours (which seemed more like two and a half), and for all the absurdist comedy, the message about Catholic dogma, new wave cults, and the ultimate nobility of perversion is a very serious one.

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6. Silence. Martin Scorsese, 2017. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as good as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed.

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7. Seven. David Fincher, 1995. I realize I’m being cute by putting this at the seventh slot, but I wouldn’t rank it lower than ninth in any case, so it may as well go here. Seven is a mainstream masterpiece that continues to feed my fascination with Christian sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates it above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end. “The box” has become an icon of our collective mindset almost like “Rosebud”. That comparison may sound absurd, but I do believe that Seven is as perfect a film as Citizen Kane. There’s nothing to fault here: the atmosphere (always either dark or raining), the scoring (the prologue’s Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene’s Air on the G-String in particular), the casting (Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s best roles), and above all for its dramatic tunnel into the depths of hell and the meticulously crafted climax, all of which combine to suggest a hopeless world, an ugly humanity, but with enough heroes like Somerset and Mills who for their flaws are willing to fight on regardless.

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8. Doubt. Patrick Shanley, 2008. When a liberal priest is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys, one nun becomes convinced of his innocence while another is certain otherwise. We aren’t sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest a sympathetic character. He’s progressive for the year 1964, while the inquisitorial nun (Sister Aloysius, above image) laments Vatican II. The pivotal scene is the conversation between Aloysius and the boy’s mother, who basically tells the nun to just let the priest have his way with her son, in a jaw-dropping and surprisingly compelling argument, given her limited options as an African-American woman of the time period. She isn’t wild about her son’s friendship with the priest, but thinks it’s a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father, who hates and beats the boy for “his nature” (apparently the boy’s gay orientation is being signaled at an early age). That’s a hard idea in our world today which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths, and that is part of Doubt’s challenge. It’s easy to like the priest for many reasons, not least his fantastic sermons — the opening one on doubt (being “a bond as creative and sustaining as certainty”) and the middle one on gossip (which skewers the two nuns wonderfully).

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9. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989. This reinvention of the passion play is a critique of orthodox Christianity but fires especially on secularist evils — fame, the media, and the contempt actors suffer in the commercial industry. It takes place in ’80s Montreal where a Catholic priest hires a talented actor to direct the annual passion play, but he wants him to get creative and rework the stations of the cross for a more modern consumption. The priest gets more than he bargained for. Using the latest of biblical scholarship, the actor (Daniel) casts himself as Jesus and with four other actors turns out a passion play in which Jesus is an illegitimate bastard sired by a Roman soldier, and less interested in making people feel good than terrifying them with lines from the Abomination of Desolation (Mark 13). The priest is outraged and does his damnedest to stop the project, but Daniel and his group persist and continue to draw crowds. Not only that, but Daniel’s personal life begins to strangely mimic Jesus’, especially in two pivotal scenes. The first summons the moneylenders in the temple, when an actress auditions for a TV commercial and is told to remove her clothes simply because the casting director wants to humiliate her. Daniel bounds to his feet and tells her to leave, and then overturns the lights, cameras, and tables. The second scene comes at the end, where Daniel delivers an incredibly haunting version of the Markan Apocalypse before collapsing on the subway station. Most Jesus films are lame; Jesus of Montreal is genius — the best Jesus film of all time.

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10. Mother! Darren Aronofsky, 2017. If you don’t like being offended on the deepest levels, then you should probably avoid Mother! at all costs. On the surface it portrays a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell literally breaks loose. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This batshit craziness is an allegory every step of the way: Before God created humanity, there was paradise, represented by the house. Jennifer Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, who defends the living organism that is the house (we see mouths appear in the floor, flesh gurgling in the toilet, etc.). She is baffled as to why people disrespect her home. Javier Bardem is God, her husband, who is a writer (a “creator”). Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the Adam and Eve equivalents who invade the house of Mother’s perfect world, and the writer’s study (the Garden of Eden), which holds God’s perfect crystal (the forbidden fruit). Their unruly children are the Cain and Abel analogs, and the former kills the latter right in front of Mother who is aghast. The writer eventually acquires multitudes of fans who swarm into the house (feeding God’s need for worship). The intruders keep sitting on Mother’s sink, causing the pipes to burst and bringing about the Flood. God finally impregnates Mother, who gives birth to the messiah, who is adulated, seized, ripped apart, and eaten. She snaps at long last and attacks the crowd in fury (nature’s wrath). Mother! is the one of the angriest films I’ve ever seen, about humanity’s abuse of the Earth which prompts Her retaliation.

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11-13. The “Silence of God” Trilogy. Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63. It was a guarantee that Bergman would have multiple slots on this list. His “Silence of God” trilogy is sometimes called the “Faith Trilogy”, but that’s rather misleading considering that Bergman is always about the impotence of faith. Each film stands on its own, but it’s helpful to watch them sequentially as they escalate the riddle of God’s existence: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister (Through a Glass Darkly), to the anger questioning his existence (Winter Light), to finally accepting there are no answers, though the search for answers remains important (The Silence). The first is a character examination of incest and psychological breakdown; it was my first Bergman film and I fell in love with Harriet Anderson (above image) completely. The second is a theological interrogation that shows a pastor, furious at God’s indifference, breaking his own “silence” towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality. The third carries the theme of silence to its symbolic extreme, with non-communication pervading every level: two sisters stay at a grotesque hotel and retreat into their own silences/dysfunctions of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. It adds up to a brilliant symphony which reflects Bergman’s evolution away from a doubtful Christianity. All the more ironic is that his secular humanism became even more doubtful, and I find myself revisiting these chamber pieces to get a handle on my own schizophrenic tensions between religion and humanism.


14. First Reformed. Paul Schrader, 2018. Less a remake of Winter Light (the twelfth slot, above) and more a spin-off, it nonetheless follows Bergman to a tee in refusing to answer the questions it raises and bruises us as we search for meaning in a world going to hell. In Winter Light the parishioner killed himself over the fear of nuclear war. In First Reformed the suicide is caused by the specter of environmental catastrophe. In the wake of this, the priest is so shaken that he finds himself drawn to martyring himself. Schrader brings the theme of God’s silence into the modern era, making Bergman themes accessible without compromising them. It asks what happens when you build your life on the premise of God’s existence, and then God turns out to be silent, his Son’s teachings impotent in a world of environmental devastation, corporate power, disease, torn relationships, and ruined dreams. At no point does First Reformed pander to the mainstream by sacrificing its artistic vision. And when Schrader goes for the jugular, it’s in ways that surprise; the final scene still blows my mind. My only reservation is the sequence that replays Tomas’s cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but here is zipped through in the blink of an eye. Aside from that, First Reformed is the rare remake/spin-off of a mighty classic that has every right to exist, and it grows on you with subsequent viewings.

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15. Thirst. Park Chan-wook, 2009. Spiritual on the basest level, Thirst is about the purity of desire — the desire for sex and blood, but also for something more elusive, like a supernal righteousness or sinfulness. It’s about two vampire lovers who deal with their needs on opposite ends of the moral compass. The priest is a good man who becomes a vampire at the start of the film, by accident. Having volunteered to be injected with a trial vaccine for a rotting disease, he dies in the trial, but unlike the other guinea pigs he comes back to life; one of the transfusions has turned him into a vampire. Only fresh blood can stop the return of his skin boils, but he does all he can to avoid killing people, mostly by sneaking through hospitals and slurping the intravenous tubes of comatose patients. But when he turns a woman he falls in love with — the wife of his best friend, whom they both end up murdering — it’s not long before she brings out the worst in him. The film explores the duality between blood-feeding as a sacrament, and its Satanic counterpart which revels in the glory of the hunt. Few vampire films explore the suffocating pain of being a vampire, and those that try usually leave much to be desired (like Interview with the Vampire). Thirst succeeds in this largely because of its religious framework.


16. Of Gods and Men. Xavier Beauvois, 2010. I was only vaguely familiar with the true account behind this film before watching it. In 1996 a group of French Cistercian monks in Algeria were taken hostage by Islamic jihadists and then beheaded. They could have easily avoided their fate and returned to France, and some of them wished to do just that, but as a group they elected to stay and minister to the surrounding Muslim villagers who were coming under fire — girls getting killed on buses for refusing to wear the hijab, others getting their throats slit for various violations of sharia law. The film maintains an extraordinary sense of detachment as the monks wrestle with their faith and their conscience. They have no interest in converting anyone to Catholicism, only following Jesus’s dictum to help the oppressed even if that means martyrdom; which in the end, of course, it does. The contrast between Jesus’s injunctions (to help the poor and dispossessed at whatever cost to oneself) and Muhammad’s (slay unbelievers) isn’t the point of the film; Beauvois is no triumphalist preacher. But the contrast emerges just the same, and if that’s not politically correct, it’s certainly accurate. Christians continue to be killed like this throughout the Muslim world. It’s noteworthy that while both the peaceful Muslims villagers and jihadis cite the Qur’an, it’s the peaceful ones who paraphrase or generalize without precision, and the jihadis who recognize specific texts; indeed one of them finishes a quotation carelessly parroted at them.

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17. The Witch. Robert Eggers, 2016. This horror film was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of a mainstream effort with loud bangs and cheap thrills. It’s far better than that, and I think a religious film primarily, as the characters obsess God and their purity of purpose. Set in 1630s Colonial America (interestingly, the same period of Scorsese’s Silence), decades before the Salem Witch trials, the story tells of a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from other people. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at them, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer by John Winthrop (one of the Puritan founders of New England) in near orgasmic ecstasy. Not being familiar with the writings of Winthrop, I thought this was some kind of pagan perversion of a Christian prayer, given the erotic overtones (which I should have known better as derived from the Song of Songs). The boy is still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much, and it’s scary. He dies after shouting this litany, and it’s pretty much heads or tails whether he’s saved or damned. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. There is much to admire in the Puritan zeal, and much not to, as it turns out.

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18. Palindromes. Todd Solondz, 2005. This satire on abortion plays no favorites, and you will feel painfully skewered by it whether you’re for life or choice. It tells of a thirteen-year old girl (Aviva) who is forced against her will to have an abortion by her mother, who advances the most pathetic reasons to have the abortion, clearly robbing her daughter of the “choice” she claims to espouse. Aviva runs away from home, and eventually joins a Christian communal family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. Some of the ballsiest scenes are found at the Christian home, where physically and mentally disabled kids shuck and jive to Jesus songs, and are cared for under the genuine but perverse love of Mama Sunshine. The film suggests that both anti- and pro-abortionists wind up in the same morass of contradictions, regardless of their starting point — like palindromes, which are words reading the same backward as forward. I’m also intrigued by the film’s secondary message, a parable for the book of Ecclesiastes, that there is “nothing new under the sun”. The key dialogue for this comes at the end from the character of Mark, when he tells Aviva: “People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do but they don’t. If you’re the depressed type now that’s the way you’ll always be. If you’re the mindless happy type now, that’s the way you’ll be when you grow up. There’s no freewill. Ultimately, we’re all just robots programmed abritrarily by nature’s genetic code. We hope or despair because of the way we’ve been programmed. Genes and randomness, that’s all there is and none of it matters.” Well, there you have it.

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19. Shadowlands. Richard Attenborough, 1993. To make a film about C.S. Lewis runs the risk of evangelizing as the man himself did, but Attenborough tells a professional biography, and one that is utterly heartbreaking. I’m not usually fond of romances in which one of the pair gets bad news from the doctor and ends up dying in horrendous agony, but Shadowlands filters the tragedy through the lens of a famous theologian who had written so much on the necessity of human suffering. Confronted with it personally, he finds himself mocked by his own wisdom. Before meeting Joy Gresham, C.S. Lewis had always been confident about the purpose of pain and suffering: “It’s God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” he thunders in his lectures, when we first see him. The idea is that pain and suffering is God’s way of perfecting people and enabling them to learn from cruel experience — to grow up, in other words. The problem is that Lewis never really experienced pain and suffering. He had an easy life in his academic tower, teaching students who near worshiped him for his fame. When Joy gets cancer, it virtually emasculates him. Shadowlands is a tearjerker, but without a sliver of cheap melodrama; a brutal look at how a Christian theologian was broken by his own lessons.

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20. Noah. Darren Aronofsky, 2014. Before the allegorical Mother! came Aronofsky’s literal adaptation of a biblical narrative, and the story I’ve always wanted to see made into a mighty epic. In some ways Noah is a boilerplate blockbuster, but I love it to pieces for the way it reinterprets the flood through Gnostic and Judeo-Christian filters almost impartially. And if it channels Lord of the Rings grandiosity, that works too, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth — the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic, but a grim one that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Noah and his family are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out — because people, in God’s eyes, deserve nothing less. Noah turns homicidal like his Creator, as he plans to murder his daughter-in-law’s babies. Don’t listen to complaints that the theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. It is a dark chapter of the bible come to life, with a great realization of the Ark and epic battle scene that rivals Peter Jackson’s Ents. But it also forces the hard issues of Job, the Saul and David stories, and the apocalypse of Revelation.

Revisionist Affection: The Elder and Younger Bushes

Americans have been looking back on the two Bushes in absurdly glowing terms — the younger George since his grandiose speech on democracy (in which he blasted Donald Trump), and the elder since he died last week. I’m not generally one to take someone down in the wake of his demise, but I do make exceptions, not least when it comes to revisionist affection for very bad leaders.

In an earlier post I ranked the presidents who served during my lifetime — from Nixon to Obama — and I ranked them on the basis of their actual presidential record, not on the basis of charisma, management style, or reputation. My ranking was as follows:

1. Jimmy Carter — 49/60 (Good)
2. Bill Clinton — 42/60 (Average)
3. Gerald Ford — 38/60 (Average)
4. Richard Nixon — 28/60 (Poor)
5. Barack Obama — 20/60 (Bad)
6. Ronald Reagan — 15/60 (Bad)
7. George H.W. Bush — 12/60 (Bad)
8. George W. Bush — 4/60 (Atrocious)

Jimmy Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and the Bushes were the worst. I explained my scoring in detail here, but I repaste the explanations for the two Bushes below, since they are apparently needed in our age of alternative facts and absurdist revisionism.

George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Rating: Bad

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We are still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East. Herein lies the biggest misperception of the elder Bush: he had the reputation of being wimp, but he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan, and he landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success but a long-term disaster; because of it Osama bin Laden turned the jihad onto America; this in turn led to a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son; and because of all that, Al-Qaeda morphed into the even worse Islamic State. As Ivan Eland notes, “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.” (Eleven Presidents, p 242)

Prosperity (2/20): Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he did not do, and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allowing the economy to right itself as a matter of course.

Liberty (7/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and had commendable views on immigration. But his sins outweigh these causes. He pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal. He escalated the war on drugs, demanding more prisons and jails and prosecutors, while of course maintaining the legal disparities that made African Americans ten times as likely to be incarcerated. He did nothing to help against the spread of AIDS, regarding it mostly as a contemptible issue. And on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho: the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders; the residents were acquitted of all crimes; and yet one of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy.

A total score of 12/60 isn’t the record of a good president by a long shot. Just because you can watch an old video clip that shows George H.W. making favorable remarks about immigrants, and contrast that with an overt racist like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean the former deserves to be lamented. Seriously.

George W. Bush, 2001-2009. Rating: Atrocious

Peace (0/20): The younger Bush was an atrocious president in every way, and in my opinion the second worst in U.S. history after Woodrow Wilson. He invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Ivan Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns an absolute goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which killed the economy worse in the longer run.

Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

Those who conveniently forget why they were so infuriated by the above atrocities should pull their heads out of their asses. George W. was certainly not a “good president compared to Donald Trump”. He was appalling, pure and simple.

 

 

 

Guest Review of my Stranger Things Novel

It’s been a while since Leonard Ridge has written anything for this blog. He sent me his (spoiler-free) review of my Stranger Things novel, which I post below. It’s not a kind review, though I suppose Leonard has said worse about me.

           Loren Rosson’s Stranger Things: From College to World’s End
                                     Reviewed by Leonard Ridge

I count myself among those who will do whatever it takes to steer a friend back on track, no matter how impossible the task or conceited the friend. So here I am to offer what I’m sure will be unwelcome remarks about Loren’s latest novel, a piece of fan fiction that is, to put it mildly, self-indulgent trash.

I am referring to the novel, or trilogy of novellas, called Stranger Things: From College to World’s End. They are generational stories that follow those kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. In Loren’s imagination they confront terrors that make the Demogorgon and Shadow Monster look like puppets out of Sesame Street. But I intend to keep this review spoiler free. Suffice to say the Upside Down is dishing out nastier threats than before; none of the three novellas has a happy ending; and the fate of one character in particular is so tragic and depressing, to say nothing of degrading, that it qualifies the trilogy as misery porn. To those familiar with Loren’s fiction, this is nothing new. He always abuses his characters. But up until now, those characters have been exactly that: his own. The Stranger Things kids belong to our collective consciousness. They are not Loren’s to throw into the meat grinder for his self-gratification.

The first novella, The College Years, is the worst offender in this regard. It is also the most vapid story of the three; indeed there is hardly a story to speak of. It opens in 1990, with the boys on their first summer vacation from college, though it is hardly that for Will. His mother still helicopters the hell out of him; that he is a legal adult be damned. The vacation turns grim for the other two boys too, when the fourth member of their group who has been dead for three years suddenly shows up — very much alive, though unable to speak, and smelling like a thousand sewers. (I’m avoiding names to avoid spoilers; in Loren’s vision, this character died horribly at the end of what will be Stranger Things season 4 in the TV series.) It’s a premise that shows promise, but in Loren’s hands goes nowhere. Even in the novella’s best chapter — a hideous flashback to the dead character being brought back to life, enslaved and tortured in the Upside Down — there is little to advance the plot, and it’s drowned in a pretentious writing style that shows Loren trying to impress himself more than the readers he so blatantly disdains. Frankly I felt raped reading this story, in two ways. First for having to watch my favorite character torn apart in graphic detail and then suffer more in prolonged agony; second for the abuse of trust between Loren and his readership — the trust we hold that a writer will make good on his promise and deliver at least some payoff to the horrors he puts us through. Loren didn’t do that, though he obviously thinks he did; the final paragraphs deliver a genuine surprise, but it’s a gimmick that simply gives him an excuse to write two more novellas.

And if the second novella shows Loren telling a story for a change, it’s a fairly lousy one. The Next Generation fast-forwards us to the year 2009 during the week of Halloween. Eleven has a child now, a foul-mouthed fifteen-year old with a hard-on for the actress Ellen Page and a fetish for the fantasy hero Elric; or perhaps it’s the other way around. Either way, the autobiography is shameless. That Loren can write characters so transparently in his self-image does not show him to be a true writer. As for the narrative itself, it’s weighed down by weaknesses, above all a clash in tone. The first five chapters are from the point of view of Eleven’s son, and are at many points crude and vulgar in the extreme; the last three are from Eleven’s. The minds of a fifteen year old boy and his thirty-eight year old mother are light years apart, and the clash is so jarring that it comes across less like versatile writing, and more like two authors writing at cross-purposes. There is also mean spirited humor, even in the last three chapters, especially the vicious dinner-table argument over Barack Obama. Loren confided to me that he laughed himself into fits writing that scene, but I don’t find it funny in the least; I found it racist. There is loads of belching throughout the story too. Of the three novellas, The Next Generation shows Loren at his most crass and juvenile. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Loren Rosson story without misery porn, which the final chapter provides… and sets the stage for worse calamities.

Which brings me to the third volume that has been so wrongly praised, World’s End. Loren’s readers say that he “outdid himself” in this story, and they love it so much that they have been begging him to write more Stranger Things fan fiction by the truckloads. I beg everyone’s indulgence in allowing me to set the record straight. It’s true that Loren outdid himself in World’s End — with bloated narrative and cheap thrills. It’s twice as long as it needs to be, and is a time travel story, which means the usual fare of reworking the past, but I promise you in ways that are less impressive than meets the eye. It’s almost impossible to review World’s End without dropping major spoilers, so I’ll just say that some of the chapters will have you turning pages in such a fevered excitement that you’ll be hoodwinked into believing that Loren is as clever as he thinks he is. The setting is post-apocalyptic, but don’t salivate over that either; Loren can’t write a dystopian society to save himself. The year is 2037, long after President Trump ignited a nuclear war which devastated eighteen states on the east and west coasts, and killed one hundred and twenty-four million Americans. The Stranger Things “kids”, who are now sixty-six years old (the ones still alive, that is) must work to stop a second holocaust that came after the nuclear one: the Upside Down’s invasion of Indiana which has by now spread to twenty states in the midwest and south. By 2048 the shadow world will swamp all of continental America, and thus the time-traveling mission: to stop the Upside Down holocaust before it ever started. It’s a good idea, but Loren muddles it by having the main character recruit the Stranger Things kids when they were twelve years old in 1983, and take them into the future (which is the main character’s past) on a preposterous detour to a different point in time that has no bearing on their mission. This is so that they can watch a fucking movie together (I kid you not), and only after that will they try to save the world.

I’ll say one more thing about the pile of manure that is World’s End. I’m exceptionally pissed about Loren’s witless and insulting portrayal of Donald Trump. Not because I like the man; I loathe our current president as much as anyone else. What offends me is Loren’s far-fetched scenario that caused President Trump to initiate Armageddon. I won’t spoil this either, but it’s a truly galling move. Trump is his own self-caricature; he doesn’t need the supplements of Loren’s ludicrous caricatures piled on top in order to make a point.

Why this trilogy has been fawned on by Loren’s readers is beyond me. It’s surely a testimony of their loyalty, to say nothing of their compassion. I realize I’m in a minority position, but my honest advice would be to avoid this trilogy as if it were a contagious disease.

The Best Films of 2018

I couldn’t come up with ten films to recommend for this year. I was disappointed with Hereditary, didn’t waste my time on Solo, and found Eighth Grade obscenely over-hyped. I expected Ready Player One to be a guilty pleasure, but it wasn’t even that. Not a strong year to say the least. But the following seven are very good.

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1. First Man. 5 stars. The year’s best film is a repeat of my top choice for last year, which was Blade Runner 2049. Each stars Ryan Gosling, and was released in the month of October to high critical praise but low box office performance. It’s sad that today’s audiences aren’t equipped to sit still for long periods of quality storytelling. First Man isn’t a space-race thriller. We do catch glimpses of the historical background (that space exploration was driven by the need to show up the Communists more than for any laudable scientific goals), just as we get some of the social fury over the perceived waste of taxpayer dollars (as when Gil Scott-Heron, played by Leon Bridges, recites his famous “Whitey on the Moon” poem to crowds suffering in poverty). But the film is primarily a meditation on grief. Neil Armstrong lost his two-year old daughter to a brain tumor, and his persistence in braving the dangers of space emerges as a desire to escape the world into a cold perilous silence. Whether or not he really left his daughter’s bracelet on the moon hardly matters; it’s cinematic and does no violence to history. That he is not portrayed as planting the American flag is also irrelevant. People watch films like this with the wrong eyes. First Man is a near perfect film, and one that I will be watching again many times.


2. First Reformed. 5 stars. Not exactly a remake of Winter Light (1962), it does spin off the Bergman classic, and for the most part very well. It also mimics Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with the role of the elder pastor who mentors the Ethan Hawke character. Then too I have heard it compared to Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). According to critic Alissa Wilkinson, both films revolve around the same question: “What if you predicated your life on God’s existence, and then God turned out to be silent, crowded out by bodily discomfort, broken relationships, plundered dreams, and external forces more interested in their own power than the unsettling implications of Jesus’s teachings?” But First Reformed goes for the jugular in some mighty surprising ways, unlike the more subdued approach of Silence. It’s also a parable about the apocalypse, with Bergman’s atomic warfare theme being changed to environmental catastrophe. I’ve seen this film three times. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the scene that replays Tomas’ cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but in First Reformed was zipped through in the blink of an eye. If Schrader didn’t want to take that scene seriously, then he should have just omitted it altogether.

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3. A Quiet Place. 4 ½ stars. If First Man shows the silence of space, and First Reformed the silence of God, then A Quiet Place presents the most literal version of the theme — the silence required to stay alive. The premise is that alien creatures have taken over the world: blind and savage, they navigate purely by sound. They can hear the slightest scrapings and whispers from long distances, by using their craniums to roll open and expose disgusting membranes. Woe to anyone who sneezes or steps on a branch; within minutes, or even seconds, he or she will be descended on, pounced on, and torn apart. One family has survived this alien holocaust, though one of the young children was killed by an alien thanks to a battery-operated toy. Scarred by their loss, the family lives in a farm house, where they survive day-to-day by communicating in sign language, and tiptoeing gingerly over the house floors. I never thought that silence could be such an effective device in a horror film like this, but it revs up the tension way beyond what noise and screams offer in most horror films. This film was a gamble, and it paid off big time.

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4. The Public. 4 stars. I, of all people, was skeptical going into this one. Librarians have been subject to ludicrous caricatures, and the premise of The Public sounds a bit silly. But it turns out to be a great love letter to libraries and the diverse people they are supposed to serve, especially the poor and mentally-ill. The plot centers around an act of civil disobedience when a band of homeless patrons refuse to leave the Cincinnati Public Library at closing time. It’s sub-zero weather outside and they’ve had it with being cold. A librarian decides to turn the library into an overnight sanctuary for these patrons, and the situation escalates into a stand-off between those inside the library and the police outside. This may sound rather silly, but the film functions as a parable that interrogates the values which public servants nominally stand for, and on this level it works. Those who work in public libraries, like myself, will get plenty of mileage from the behavior patterns of certain patrons.


5. Revenge. 4 stars. Rape-revenge is a problem genre, seldom rewarding the viewer beyond cheap payback. The Virgin Spring (1960) is a classic exception that doesn’t glorify retribution; the father’s revenge against the rapists and killers of his daughter is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous. Autumn Blood (2013) is another exception, ending with the girl choosing not to execute the man she loathes. This year’s Revenge is certainly not like these films; it celebrates retribution without apology. But it also is to be taken with a pound of salt. The plot involves a married man having an affair with a young woman, who is then raped by one of his two visiting friends. Then she is pushed off a cliff (by her boyfriend, the married man) so she won’t tell the police. She survives the fall in a most incredible way, and it’s from this point that Revenge becomes a chase throughout a no man’s land, that clearly favors style over substance. Where this city girl acquired wilderness survival skills, let alone proficiency with a rifle, is anyone’s guess. But that’s what gives Revenge a pass; you can glorify retribution when leaning on such an extreme style that winks at the audience. The girl’s acid trip in the cave is my favorite scene; it basically defines the tone of Revenge.

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6. Loveless. 4 stars. This Russian film came out last year but only recently reached American audiences. It’s a cold tragedy about a boy named Alyosha, who runs away from his parents, and dies before the search party can find him. The parents have no more use for each other than they do him (they’re going through a divorce), and Alyosha’s disappearance does nothing to prompt any reconciliation between them. The father works for a tech company run by Russian Orthodox who expect their employees to be married and have kids, and so he must conceal his divorce. The mother is never without her smartphone and taking selfies. Everyone is cold, clinical, and completely self-absorbed — thus the film’s title. I’m hard pressed to think of a film that portrays solipsistic characters to the degree that Loveless does. The only time we see the heartless walls crack is when the parents go to the morgue to see the remains of a child whose description matches Alyosha’s. They deny that it’s him. And then break down in tears.

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7. Annihilation. 3 ½ stars. Alex Garland has become the go-to director for “brainy” sci-fic, and while I think he is overpraised (Ex-Machina was good, but not that good), there are scenes from Annihilation I will admittedly never forget. A biologist played by Natalie Portman ventures into a hot zone to find her lost husband, along with four others. This hot zone is called the “Shimmer”, and what’s found therein is a morass of death, transformation, and bizarre replication. Basically all DNA in the Shimmer is subjected to unpredictable mutations resulting in torturous hybrid forms, which means the rescue team is ultimately screwed. The deeper one goes into the Shimmer, the more reality gets eroded, and it ends on quite a mind fuck. The film is definitely worth watching, even if you weren’t overly impressed with Ex-Machina.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017.)

TV Pick List

Here’s an update of my TV pick list. Channel Zero is the most notable addition.

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1. Stranger Things. 2 seasons (so far). 2016-2017. Watching Stranger Things allows me to relive my ’80s childhood in the best possible ways, and reminds me how lucky I was to grow up in a time when kids were independent, didn’t have helicopter-parents, and had far more creative outlets for their imagination than what you get today online. That sort of vivacious freedom is hard to find today. Like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, I went out with my friends and explored the world — in the woods or by the pond or across the sand dunes — and connected with my parents mostly at dinner time. The series is an homage to other things too, like old-school Dungeons & Dragons before the game became lame and commercialized. The kids are fantastic and their acting skills amazing, and this is critical to the show’s success. It was rejected my many network executives because the idea of kids as lead actors in an adult series was too daunting. As for which season is better, it’s a tough call, but for me season 2 tips the scales. I ranked the episodes here and here. And I was so inspired by Stranger Things that I put aside my disdain for fan fiction and wrote a trilogy that imagines these kids in their adult years, and their ongoing battles with the Upside Down.

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2. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. Stranger Things may be my personal favorite, but objectively I would call Breaking Bad the best show of all time. It starts strong and gets stronger, never flagging on its promises, and I dare say if the show writers had gone to ten seasons they probably could have kept the momentum going. They settle for nothing less than excellence. Breaking Bad is the revenge tragedy of a school teacher who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord — people have learned to respect him or else — and the journey to that point is a brilliant character evolution. The suspense levels are insane; even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.

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3. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age; the aesthetic is that overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is that Silence of the Lambs has been way superseded, something I thought impossible. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. Here’s how all the episodes rank. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s outrageous that the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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4. Game of Thrones. 8 seasons. 2011-2019. With only one season left, George Martin has become increasingly irrelevant to his own creation. Basically we’ve been getting the sixth and seventh books before they are published. And like the books, the series has been a game-changer in fantasy, with wild plotting, understated magic, graphic sex, constant backbiting, and heroes who die unfairly in every other episode. The focus is on court intrigue and politics, and no one takes the supernatural threat broiling up north seriously until too late. If I had to summarize Game of Thrones in a sentence, I’d say it’s about power and political ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local and petty interests if they can. See how the episodes rank.

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5. Channel Zero. 4 seasons (so far). 2016-2018. I tend to avoid anthology series, but there are exceptions where starting over each season with new plots and characters works. Fargo is a good example (though it doesn’t make my top-ten cut); True Detective and American Horror Story are not. You can’t do better than Channel Zero. It’s weird, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and pulls no punches. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous — and the last “room” almost impossible to figure out how you’ve been screwed over. Season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers who eat human beings, and who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. And season four’s “The Dream Door” is about a woman whose homicidal fantasy figure comes to life when she gets angry — sort of a psychological version of the Incredible Hulk. Season two is the one that really gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most terrifying material I’ve seen on TV. Season three is a close second; it may as well have been directed by the show runners of Hannibal, it’s that good.

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6. Twin Peaks. 3 seasons. 1990-1991; 2017. The first season is classic, the second also very good though it lost its bearings a bit in the second half, and for my money the third is the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you will be disappointed. But if like me you think the prequel-film Fire Walk With Me is a masterpiece, chances are you’ll love season three and all of its weird and hideously disturbing elements. These are some of the most mesmerizing and esoteric hours of television you will ever see, a rare treat to lovers of dream-logic, painful no doubt to those who crave plain meanings. In the end, Cooper is able to use the knowledge he’s acquired from years in limbo to jump back in time and prevent Laura Palmer from being killed, and how this “resolves” is quintessential Lynch to be chewed over for many moons.

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7. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. This is the Canadian science fiction show that makes cloning and governmental conspiracies believable. Few Americans have heard of these Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism and disease, and it’s almost impossible to come by on DVD. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).


8. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are brilliant and takes the show to a new level. Some were disappointed with season three, but not me. The glacial-paced storytelling was used very effectively to give space in examining the evil inside of Paul.

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9. Damages. 5 seasons. 2007-2012. Glenn Close was born to play Patty Hewes: a high-stakes litigator who demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, disowns her son, and then tries having her own protégé killed. Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who respect without ever trusting each other. Some claim that Ellen’s willingness to have anything to do with Patty after the murder attempt undermines the show’s credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the point. When Ellen is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it’s as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one. She acquires power over Patty knowing her worst secret. The theme of forgiveness, and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, is precisely what makes Damages compelling. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.

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10. The Man in the High Castle. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2018. Yes, this series is going downhill, but the first season remains a masterpiece, and the opening credit sequence is the best of any TV show I’ve seen in my life. Every time I hear the woman sing Edelweiss over the monuments of Nazi America I feel like I’m having a spiritual encounter. The show pulls off the impossible feat of making Hitler the guy you actually root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable American Nazi, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. Nazi America is portrayed as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite characters are on the Japanese west coast: Inspector Kido, who stops at no act of torture to preserve the honor of the motherland, and of course Trade Minister Tagomi. The first season’s final scene which sees Tagomi waking up to something unexpected is pure epiphany. The second season lost some of its edge in the second half with the departure of the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz, and the third season fell a bit short reaching too high. But I will keep loving this series until it jumps the shark.