Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
Welcome to Connection Degree Three …
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a story of slavery and escape, abjectness and redemption. Its main character, Cora, flees her cruel master to claim her freedom and identity, if not de jure, then de facto. Cora escapes the Georgia plantation she was born in and manages to survive long enough to have a chance at freedom, contemplating her fate and the fate of her people, as well as the soul of America – the ‘American Imperative,’ as one of her pursuers puts it. Her point of view is not pretty because pretty is something Cora was never offered, and yet the fugitive manages to entertain notions of beauty as she moves away from her captors and into the wide-open world, a world she’s never before seen or imagined, a new life that seems to accept her and treat her as a human being and not as a subhuman beast, or like chattel. Her point of view becomes warmer, even hopeful as she realizes that she, Cora, is the only slave to have made it out of the Randall plantation successfully – she and her mother, Mabel, many years ago. Cora’s incredible success imbues her with hope and determination. She’s poised to make a new life for herself in a free state, or in Canada, putting behind the inhuman cruelty of her captors and masters, specifically Terrance Randall, in whose cruel hands many a slave were beaten senseless for the slightest of reasons, while captured escapees were burned alive in the front yard where Terrance hosted his guests to dinner, showing them how he dealt with ‘niggers’ – a psychotic level of cruelty that brings us to
To Die In Spring by Ralf Rothmann, the WWII story of two German farm boys snatched up by the Waffen SS against their will. Recruited to fight and die if need be for the Fatherland during the Nazi last gasp in 1945, the boys are thrust into a vicious and soul-shattering war, a world filled with surreal cruel scenes, people shot at and blown to pieces across the country. The savagery of the war withstanding, one of the most striking scenes takes place off-camera, so to speak, in flashback. Walter, one of the two boys, recounts his father’s behavior when Walter was a small boy – how Father used to come home drunk from a night out in the village, sit across his bed and shout at Walter, claiming he knew he wasn’t sleeping, that Walter was only pretending, and that the boy should be punished for the transgression. Walter would shake with fear and his father would scream in triumph – ‘You moved!’ – and beat Walter with a poker, getting angrier and wilder as the boy screamed in pain.
But that isn’t the end of it. Walter then recalls another scene as he tries to capture the totality of Father’s madness – how Father used to catch pigeons, hold them delicately in one hand while inserting a pin into their hearts very very slowly, then release them in the shed, watching them flutter in the enclosed space until they bled to death. Dead pigeons falling from the rafters, bleeding to death with a pin in their hearts. That man, Walter’s father, was for all intents and purposes a normal citizen, a member of his community, a livestock farmer, a husband and family man, and he was eventually posted in Dachau as a guard, and you can imagine what happened there, how he abused the prisoners – a set of images and implications that capture the psychopathic cruelty of the Nazi paradigm and everything it enabled, a psychopathy that brings us to
Badlands And The ‘Innocence’ Of American Innocence, an essay by Jim Shepard on the first and in many ways notorious movie by director Terence Malick. A cult movie, of sorts, the first of its kind in terms of dealing with the character of the young, fugitive, psychopathic serial killer, Badlands chronicles exactly that, a killing spree committed by a couple of young murderers (Kit and Holly), showcasing neither the glory nor the drama of their situation. This is not a Bonny-and-Clyde tale, Shepard reminds us. There’s no redeeming quality to these outlaws, no affability. We neither like them nor root for them, and this is part of the filmmaker’s plan. Badlands is the story of two senseless young people dreaming up a way for their lives to acquire meaning, driving themselves down the rut of violence and unaccountability. The bravado of the Western outlaw, so to speak, with a twist. Kit and Holly do as they like, no need to explain why, they just do it, rampaging their way through the countryside, expecting others to understand and respect their motives, their ‘special’ individuality – that trademark American quality that seems to underscore the country’s psyche. This is total freedom, perverse in the way all total things become, a twisted kind of exceptionalism that roams unchecked and without guidance.
Shepard’s essay then points out that the filmmakers go to great lengths to show us how utterly flat Kit and Holly are as individuals, how their worldview – into which they’re desperately trying to grow – doesn’t match the raw, bleak reality of their behavior, their inability to articulate their actions and control their emotions. Kit and Holly are as dim as sausages, almost child-like, the essay says in so many words, and yet they’re dangerous, lethal, playing an adult’s game. They’re lost inside their own unsophistication, special as far as they’re concerned, innocent, exercising some God-given right to do as they please.
Having said that, when one takes a closer look, it seems that one of the two killers is not as unsophisticated as she seems.
Holly, notes Shepard in his essay, has been providing the voice-over for the story all along. She’s our narrator, and seems all too aware of the narrative she’s constructed, telling a different story to the one we’re seeing on screen (more on that later). Holly presents a story of captivity, the tale of a person abducted by a savage (Kit) and forced to endure a stint in the shadow of cruelty. She is, according to the narrative she spins – if you pay attention, the essay goes on – a person strong enough to endure her trials and come back in one piece to relay what happened.
Captivity tales, Shepard reminds us, were a thing in Frontier days, told by colonists who’d been abducted and ravaged by ‘savages,’ as much part of American literature and folklore as the modern Western, an American sub-tradition, which brings us back to
The Underground Railroad and its captivity story – the story of a woman captured in the vice of the savage South, Terrance Randall’s plantation in particular, where all kinds of atrocities took place, and the vice of which Cora, the slave, escaped long enough to find her people and tell her story.
Note the irony in The Underground Railroad where the civilized person is the ‘savage’ (the slave Cora), and the savage is the ‘civilized person’ (plantation-owner Randall), which, if you think about it, matches the theme in Rothmann’s novel, To Die In Spring (an ironic title in itself) where the ‘advanced’ German civilization performed inhuman cruelties unto those weaker than it.
And don’t forget Badlands. Whitehead’s Railroad leads us back to that film, too, a story in which, as Shepard argues in his astute essay on Terence Malick’s film, the violent paradoxes that underscore the modern American condition come to light. Americans have a perverse relationship with fugitive killers, and it begins with the stories they share about them, many of which are from the point of view of the killers themselves. The self-perceived innocence of psychopaths even as they commit murder is a thing (it’s not their fault, the killers claim, they mean well), and one can see the method to the madness – criminals are innocent in their own eyes, and always have an excuse. They tell their stories as they see fit.
The problem is that there’s enormous demand for these stories, a deep tradition that goes all the way back to the medium of cinema, out of which the paradox was first born, first and foremost by way of the Western outlaw, the (anti)hero we learned to loved and root for even as he and she gunned down person after person – ‘redskin,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘squaw,’ sheriff and posse, other outlaws, even Liberty Valance (what a great name for a villain, and who better to finish him than Jimmy Stewart – ‘print the legend!’) – for almost one century the American outlaw has been getting away with murder, gunning down villains, bullies and lawmen of his choosing, her choosing, anyone who gets in the way, even women and children, or entire towns (after the western got real desperate to push the envelope – remember the High Plains Drifter?) everyone is fair game in this narrative, this contemporary and ongoing mythology of deadly Americana.
(The only person we couldn’t see blown away was Jimmy Stewart, and the actor who did him in onscreen got a bad rap. But seriously …)
The notion of the western outlaw is a paradox so ingrained in the psyche of the modern American, so terrifyingly conflicting (‘I’m a good person, I’ll kill if I have to, I’m innocent even as I commit crimes, and the public is in awe of me’) so appealing and mesmerizing is this madness that the media and press and literature at large – and the American folk lore behind it and, above all, cinema – can’t get enough of it. They lift it to great heights, rendering its paradox as its own frame of reference within the cinematic world, as Shepard reminds us … Something akin to the Nazi paradox borne out of the Teutonic hero tales, yarns told over and over again until countless Germans forgot what was right and decent. Eager to live out these tales in their own twisted way under the guise of a culture absorbed in the echoes of its own miscarriages of justice, they pushed the limits, Reich upon Reich, righting wrongs with more wrongs, meeting cruelty with cruelty, creating a civilization out of sheer terror and never, ever realizing how abjectly horrible their actions were, consumed as the brainwashed were with their glorious and glorifying narratives.
It happened in Germany, and it happened in the South, and keeps happening across America, an atrocity that loves reinventing itself, claiming new victims. It takes place across the world in the unlikeliest of places where human beings fail to grasp the consequence of their actions, sacrificing affect for effect, replaying grand stories inside their heads, which others are eager to pick up on and perpetuate in their never-ending effort to find meaning inside a world that fails to live up to their lofty, imperious expectations, plunging their surroundings in cruel darkness as they attempt to live out these high-minded, perverse, out-of-control fantasies.
And there you have it. The Underground Railroad; To Die In Spring; Badlands And The ‘Innocence’ Of American Innocence: three devastating pieces of art on the depth of cruelty exercised by individuals of broken affect – by all kinds of people and organizations in the names of tales and narratives that subject those unfortunate enough to cross their paths to unfathomable cruelty.
As parting thought, let me offer one more insight from Shepard’s essay.
Shepard points out that Holly’s story of captivity feels calculated. If we listen closely, Shepard points out, we wonder whether there’s more to her character than meets the eye. Holly seems to have been more in control than she let out at first – either that, or she understands how to play the aftermath. She portrays herself as an innocent clueless deer-in-the-beams young woman (girl) caught in Kit’s whirlwind, unable to escape him. The police and press eat up her meticulous narrative. She constructs a myth of romantic outlaws on the run, which we, the viewers, know isn’t accurate. (We’ve seen the flat, raw reality of Kit and Holly’s situation.) Her spin is evident by the end of the story, which works like character twist, one that you have to pay close attention to.
In other words, there are two narratives underway. One is the visual, the story as it plays out, what we see on screen; the other is Holly’s narration. We experience both of them, side by side, simultaneously. It turns out that the way Holly relates her story is different to what took place, her subtle angle coming into play, and we realize she has set us up, offering her audience (the police and press in the movie as well as the viewers) the story we were eager to entertain. (It’s not a plot-driven setup, more like a structure twist, an implication arising from form.) She’s sold us the story of two antiheroes on the run, infused it with something grand and romantic, the very allure can’t get enough of, if not root for in a twisted way, and we come to realize, as Shepard points out in so many words, that the third culprit in this situation is none other than us, the audience, who gobble up these myths, consuming and popularizing them to the point that they become cultural phenomena, mythical archetypes, even national policies, foreign and domestic, leading to systems of slavery, Nazi holocausts, and gun-you-down empires that think they’re doing the right thing even as they’re caught red-handed, time and again.
Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror (writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.
Check out our interview with Nicolas D. Sampson here.