Saturday, September 29, 2018

Laughing in(side) the Face of Evil: Notes on Mandy

Q: Why is there evil in the universe? A: To thicken the plot.
– Sri Ramakrishna

I like villains, heroes, angels, devils — anyone who acts their parts perfectly!
– Meher Baba

If I start laughing during a take, it’s almost like a guarantee that it’s going to be in the movie. [Laughs]
– Panos Cosmatos

Mandy’s vengeful victory over evil—as if there is or ever need be such a victory, a victory over nothing—is grounded in the power of laughter, that inexplicable capacity of consciousness or the soul to exult in joyful sovereignty and spiritual freedom over whatever, to become the yes of a total NO to anything. Spontaneously—for no reason at all. To laugh in the face of … everything, oneself, in the face of God—becoming God. I am your God now.

THAT [laughing at myself] is exactly what Jeremiah Sand cannot or fatally fails to do. Named after the ‘weeping prophet’, he is a primo example of the permanently sad and ever sadder separative ego-self as trapped in its own hallucinatory dereliction. “I AM the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light. Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day” (Lamentations 3:1-3). Sand is an identity simply too special, too much of a face and appearance and form for himself to ever be laughed at, much less by himself. So the end of the day he is not special at all—save in a moment of invisible self-recognition, gazing at into the fire Mandy’s burning body—but just another depressive super sickie or ‘Jesus-freak’ living out his days in an auto-repetitive mirror-state of alienation from reality from which he ‘saves’ himself by imagining it as his own divinity. Alienation, being abandoned by Truth/God/Reality, being other than himself, is his illusory God-himself, his wearisome trip, with all the unoriginal trappings of a hippie-consumerist parody of natural deoessence or absolute individuality. Accordingly, Mandy Bloom’s laughter, the flowering laughter of a being worthy of love (amanda), sends Jeremiah immediately back to the mirror, desperately seeking security in the certainty of the impossibility of self-doubt. If you believe in yourself, you will believe anything!

Laughter is what makes Mandy’s murder a martyrdom, what makes her not only a victim but a witness to something that sees through the “crazy evil” which kills her (and can only kill upon being seen through), as if realizing the spontaneous power of the wind or spirt which blows across the embers of her own bones and scatters the ashes of her skull in Red’s hands. To laugh in the face of evil is to see through evil, to perceive its transparency, its insubstantial shadowiness, its nothingness. Is that it? You made this song? Yes. I did. And it’s about you? Yes. It is. [LAUGHING]. Supreme auto-affection of a fiction. “Tra l’erba e ’ fior venìa la mala striscia, / volgendo ad ora ad or la testa, e ’l dosso / leccando come bestia che si liscia” (Dante, Purgatorio, 8.100-2) [Among the grass and the flowers came the evil slither, now and again turning its head and licking its back like a beast that smooths itself]. Seeing Mandy’s lovely laughter I am tempted to translate it into the kind of divine critique of human religion we hear in Amos 5: 21-4: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” I hate your whole phony, religious, phonographic self! But the laughter is more and beyond that, something more perfectly carried away with itself. Yes, the saint could always have followed instructions, performed the demanded sacrifice, and extended her life. But how much better, how much more FUN not to, to find by seeing through evil, this so darkly seeming thickener—I see the reaper fast approaching—something better than its opposite, something unspeakable which sees and cuts through everything. “And suddenly she saw it coming towards her with the eyes of her soul, more clearly than can be seen with the eyes of the body, and as it approached her it moved like a sickle” (Angela of Foligno, Memorial). Hearing this pivotal laughter echo backwards and forwards through the film, we see that the question of humor and comedy is there all along, from Red’s starless expression in the helicopter as musically glossed with King Crimson’s “Old friend charity / Cruel twisted smile / And the smile signals emptiness for me” to his final weirdly comic gaze at Mandy’s spectral presence in his car. 

Between that initial non-smile (and weirdly proto-smiling non-non-smile) and his final hyper-smile (and weirdly astonished mad grimace), there are several conspicuous jokes, all rather nonsensical and anti-witty except for Brother Swan’s about the “porker” they offer to the Black Skulls: That is such a good idea. That lard-ass, he couldn’t find his nose in a mirror (again the mirror, anticipating Jeremiah’s begging of his own image what to do; also note how the image of porker is given a virtual role in the vengeance by Caruthers:  It cut through bone like a fat kid through cake). Red’s humor is nonsense, but in two different keys, descending and ascending, separated by the absurdly irrelevant relevance of what he sees, in exhausted shock, in the random mirror of television (Cheddar Goblin, Emergency Broadcasting System). Before Mandy’s death, his jokes (Erik Estrada, Galactus) breathe the contrary comic-melancholic air of his saturnine temperament (What's yours? Um...Saturn, probably. Yeah? Saturn’s pretty cool), the atmosphere of a man of sorrows making jokes which achieve laughter only by playfully ridiculing humor itself. After Mandy’s death, in devil-may-care vengeance mode, Red’s ‘jokes’ acquire the power of a divine or sovereign absurdity, becoming spontaneous movements of his soul achieving instant recovery from and victory over his situation: Ah! That was my favorite shirt. Ah! You have a death wish. I-I don’t want... I don’t want to talk about that. You’re a vicious snowflake. Now nonsense has become the logic of victory and vengeance itself, the opposite of defeated, world-weary therapeutized consciousness and at the same time the perfect expression of a heart who has experienced, through and against itself, the agony of the worst defeat: “This is the greatest pain: to see your love suffer” (Julian of Norwich, Showings).

Opened thus by “the tainted blade of the pale knight, straight from the abyssal lair,” Red becomes capable of swimming the mystic sea of hell and despair in which Jeremiah is drowning. “Their heart remains devoid of hope. This way leads them very deep into God, for their great despair leads them above all the ramparts and through all the passageways, and into all places where the truth is” (Hadewych, Letters). Ergo the supreme meaning and nonsense of Red’s final unjoking joke: I am your God now. The truth is the truth—whatever that is.

“Doing and laughing, machen/lachen, doing evil and laughing at evil, making each other laugh about evil. Amongst friends. Not laughing evil away, but making ourselves laugh at evil. Amongst friends” (Derrida). Like Red’s becoming like the monsters he fights, the simple genius of Mandy’s laughter is seen in its own shadowiness, in its flame-like oscillation between the vertical and the horizontal, between liberating joy and confined, monstrous spite. Laughing in the face of evil means laughing inside evil, passing though one’s own evil [laugh]. This is the meaning of the imaginal merging of Mandy’s and Jeremiah’s faces from the perspective of Mandy’s gaze.

“And what is laughter but a flashing of the soul, that is, a light appearing externally as it is within” (Dante, Convivio). One does not laugh at evil without laughing at oneself. One does not laugh at oneself without laughing at evil. “This is the sign of the spirit of truth: to realize that God’s being is total love and to acknowledge oneself as total hate” (Angela of Foligno, Memorial). Otherwise there is no true laughter, just another cruel twisted smile. The joke is there is no joke, the evil is there is no evil—what an evil joke! Now there is really something to laugh at after all, to laugh . . . Yeah it’s pretty awesome.