Tuesday, November 27, 2012

ParaNorman: the Theology Of Mediocrity

"You don't become a hero by being normal," the tagline tells us, and for Christians, that's a great message, because we are called to be heroes and from start to finish, ParaNorman shows us a mis-understood outcast patiently accepting all the bullying and verbal reprimanding from his own parents to school peers. Norman's patience is "super natural," that is, it literally rises above nature, and we know that can only happen because of grace which raises our own selves (weighed-down by Original Sin) above the circumstances; being "normal" is being of this world, whereas being Christian is being "Not of this world."Likewise, we can understand how the forest pictured in the poster above also isn't "of this world," because it's not: the forest is the exact opposite of the Garden of Eden, it's the same Dark Woods which Dante traveled through in his Canto I of The Divine Comedy, that is, the Forest of Death wherein all our sins are documented in the wounds they have laid on our souls and only by going through can we successfully complete our journey.
Out on video this week (finally!) is Men In Black III (my review at Men In Black III & the Victory Of the Cold War, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!), Lawless with its stunning, all-star cast (my review Lawless & Brass-Knuckle Tactics, which is an anti-capitalist film, but it is done extremely well), as well as Chris Butler's and Sam Fell's ParaNorman. It's been a long time since we discussed this film, but you may recall that I was not looking forward to it one bit, primarily because of the date the "witch" was hung symbolically linking the witch to the Catholic church (to which I belong). The truth is, like The Woman In Black, it is anti-Catholic in a very subversive way that many Catholics will actually welcome (myself not included); so, the film takes great pains to establish a Catholic presence, only to undermine it by telling Catholics to basically, "Get over it" (please see Naming the Harlot: The Woman In Black).
It's the tiny detail of the year the Blithe Hollow Witch was hung to death which the entire narrative builds its message; why? During this time in history, there was a bitter struggle between the Catholic Church and groups wanting to reform and break-away from the Church (like Puritans) who, because they protested practices, beliefs or both, were called Protestants (in general). Up until the time Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church, all Christians were Catholic, there were no denominations (except the split between Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, but they were still Catholic) unlike today there are Nazarenes, Methodists, Lutherans, Adventists, Non-Denominational, Baptists, Southern Baptists, etc., an entire list; it's imperative that we know this going into the film because Norman's school play is about one of those groups, the Puritans (who wanted to reform Anglicanism, which itself was a reformed Christianity), and how they were the ones who hanged the witch.
What is "genre breaking" for ParaNorman is that it has two supernatural villains (zombies and a witch) both of whom turn out to not be villains after all: the zombies want to help Norman complete the ritual successfully and Agatha was just angry about being mis-understood. ParaNorman intentionally takes great pains to establish a Catholic hero (for the informed viewer, the one who recognizes Catholic elements in the plot), establish a Catholic identity for Agatha and all so it can undermine it. Did film makers intentionally sit down and discuss with one another how to make Catholics feel bad about their faith? No, they didn't have to; sometimes what you do speaks louder than what you say, and that is certainly the case with ParaNorman. Ultimately, the film wants young, energetic and faithful Catholics to abandon the ancient role of the Church and its authority to be just like everyone else, so, in other words, become zombies OR risk being a nasty witch like Agatha. Not much of a choice, is it? Am I being paranoid? Am I finding an attack where there is none? No, trust me, I really wish this film were about something else, and after I initially left the theater, I really thought it was a pro-Catholic film, but I just can't find a way to make the divisive elements fit--especially with Agatha being returned to the grave with no real resolution--to fit a pro-Catholic/Christian reading or a reading about some other topic completely.
So why can Norman "talk to the dead?"
Who else can talk to the dead like him? Catholics. 
Because of the Catholic doctrine of the communion with the saints--that those who have died can hear our prayers and we can ask them to pray for us, and we can pray for them--Catholics "talk to the dead," and that was one of the long-held beliefs in the Catholic Church which certain members decided to "ditch" as they broke away to form their own variations on Christianity (called "denominations" and, yes, the Puritans also abandoned the communion of saints). For example, I can ask my patron saint, Thomas Aquinas, to pray for me for help with a particular prayer request I have. Trust me, I was raised a Protestant, I know you are saying, "But just pray to God directly!" but, I counter, if you could ask Billy Graham to pray for you, would you?  Of course you would, because, as a Protestant, you consider Rev. Graham a holy man and that his prayers (and the prayers of anyone else you could get) would benefit your cause before God. That's the basis of the communion with the saints for Catholics. Don't believe me? If Norman doesn't follow through with the ritual, the Blithe Hollow witch will "raise the dead," and that's a one way of describing the communion of saints, raising the dead to intercede on your behalf before God, but they leave out that last part.
Here is the real deconstructive dilemma of the film's plot: Judge Hopkins, pictures, was one of the Puritan founders of Blithe Hollow who ordered the execution of Agatha because she talked to the dead. Intuitively, we know Judge Hopkins is a "villain" because he's a zombie and villains lack the heroic qualities needed to be a hero. Agatha isn't good because she terrorizes everyone and is depicted as a witch. So, if Norman is going to be like Agatha, he's going to be a witch no one likes (and in one of his visions he has, he is actually being persecuted in Agatha's place); if Norman turns against Agatha like everyone else, he'll be a zombie like Judge Hopkins. At the end, when Courtney discovers that Mitch is gay, that effectively means that the final burial of Agatha (the Catholic Church) makes way for a homosexual lifestyle because you know the Puritans would not have tolerated homosexuality anymore than the Catholic Church does, and that Blithe Hollow has been saved so that Mitch can be gay, suddenly turns our attention from Norman the hero to Mitch who has been lauded as a moron the whole film but because he's gay, he's wonderful and will be the "new hope" that a Blithe Hollow--rid of the Puritans and the Catholic Church--can look forward to.
Between the date of 1712, and the seemingly supernatural ability to "talk to the dead," we have a definite identity for who the Blithe Hollow witch: the Roman Catholic Church. Why? This doesn't have anything to do with the clerical sex abuse cases, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Dogmas or the split in the Church between Catholic and Protestant or anything like that: it's about un-demonizing homosexuality. Because the film creates conflict about what Puritans and Catholics disagree about (the communion of saints) it sweeps under the rug that which they agree about: the un-naturalness of homosexuality. By depicting Protestants as zombies, and Catholics as witches, when Mitch reveals at the end that he's gay, there is no moral authority in the film to standup to him and stop the (ever furthering) spread of homosexuality. Even though Mitch has been a dumb lug throughout the whole film, he's suddenly the hero of the liberal agenda finally revealing itself and what's worse is that children are seeing this!
First, let's begin with a formal analysis of how Norman's face is sculpted: he looks like an early, Byzantine icon (please compare to the one depicted immediately below). His eyebrows are stylized, his large eyes deeply set-in with the sockets almost like face-caves to frame the eyes. His thin nose and tiny nostrils only accentuate his eyes more and his mouth is practically non-existent; what doesn't follow traditional iconography is his large, protruding ears (icons of saints usually don't depict the ears, to show that they have closed themselves off to worldly conversing and converse only with God).  So why does Norman not look "normal?" The saints aren't normal. Norman's eyes communicates how he is wise for his age because he can see what others do not (this is substantiated by his "inner visions" he has of Agatha's trial and what happened to her, he can see beyond the mere surface of things into the deeper reality). Now, what should we immediately be thinking about a shot like this? Norman brushes his teeth, so his appetites are being cleaned (he's purging himself of his own vices) and how does he do it? With a zombie toothbrush. By seeing (with his enlarged eyes) what the zombies of his family do and act like, Norman is able to cleanse himself of any tendencies to act like that himself.
 Zombies, as we have explored in My Favorite Zombie: Night Of the Living Dead and in Being Unto Death: Carnival Of Souls, are the walking dead, or, symbolically, those who are not "alive" to the real purpose of life; a key to understanding zombies, at least traditionally, is that they can't see their reflection, like vampires. Why is this important? Because it means they "can't reflect," or enter into the spiritual life so the most important part of them is dead, their soul. Norman can see them, much like the little boy in The Sixth Sense, because children haven't learned the falsehoods adults become numb to. According to the traditional rules of horror films, the supernatural presented by the film must reflect the natural; in other words, if there are zombies in the supernatural characteristic of the film, that's because the characters are themselves zombies; so, where are they?
Why were saints depicted in icons as they were for so many centuries? They are not physical (biological) portraits of the saints, rather, they are the spiritual portraits of the "athletes of God" as they were called. In this particular version of Mary with the Christ Child, it's a rendering of Mary as the Seat of Wisdom, so in contemplating why Mary is considered so wise, the artist has offered us visual clues to ponder so we can imitate her virtues in our own spiritual journey. First, Mary's features mirror those of the Christ-child perfectly, because all Mary did mirrored what Christ did. The large eyes symbolized inner sight and the ability to see into the hidden nature of the spiritual life (a particularly good gift for us, the viewers to have during ParaNorman because we are asked to have that same inner-sight as Norman the hero and see as he sees; please note that we do not see Mary's or Christ's ears because they have interior listening, i.e., they converse with God). The small mouth indicates several virtues: first, the overcoming of the appetites; the saints were all devoted to fasting so they could discipline the flesh (the high cheek bones making saints look "gaunt" accentuates that they don't have "spare flesh" on their frames from over-eating). Secondly, a fasting from conversation, or disciplining one's self from participating in idle talk so one could be more tuned to the genuine needs of their own soul and others. Likewise, Mary's head-covering, indicating modesty, depicts how the saints keep their own thoughts covered so they can better do the will of God. What's so important about this particular image is that it shows the adult (Mary) becoming like the Child (Christ) because in our sinful society, it's the children who become like the adults.
Alvin the bully is definitely "one of the zombies" because he can't reflect on what he is doing; Courtney, Norman's silly sister, talks so much she doesn't have time to reflect on what she does. Neil? Is he a zombie? Neil wanting to be with Norman is a good sign that he recognizes what is good, but Norman exercises virtue when Alvin bullies him whereas Neil just explains it away instead of exercising virtue (hence, Neil being so overweight is a sign that he doesn't "exercise," like watching his mother's aerobic video, he only watches others instead of doing himself). Just as the townspeople think the zombies are trying to kill them instead of helping them, so we can see that mirroring how the Puritans thought the Catholic Church was trying to kill them instead of helping them; the townspeople wanting to kill the zombies then is poetic justice for what the Puritans did to Agatha. (Consequently, these are all examples of chaos theory, which is good to keep track of).
Agatha, the "Blithe Hollow Witch," who was executed when she was eleven years old for "speaking to the dead." She is a relative of Norman's and he recognizes himself in her (their physical appearance) just as we can see the resemblance between Mary and the Christ Child. What is so significant about Agatha's death is that she was hanged, not burned, which is the method of execution favored. Why? Witches, as "brides of Satan," were usually burned for two reasons: so the real flames on their flesh might prompt a conversion of heart at the thought of the eternal flames of damnation on their souls and to "help" the accused by purging them of earthly sins so they would come before God in their judgment without as many sins upon their soul. Agatha being hanged makes her resemble the Bridegroom, Christ, who was hung upon the Tree of the Cross so that, as the Song of Songs tells us, the Bride (the Church) will  resemble the Bridegroom because she will bear the same sufferings as He. What other important tree is there in the film? The tree where Agatha's mother took her when she was little and told her stories. We will touch more upon the "fairy tales" below, but the "mother" is Mary, the Mother of us all in Faith, and she takes each of us to the Tree of the Cross and tells us the story of Salvation.  
What about Norman's strange uncle, Mr. Prenderghast?
No, he's not a zombie. We can say that he is more spiritually advanced than the others because of his nearly ascetic lifestyle, as well as his life-long devotion to a cause greater than himself (saving the town from "the curse"), however, he has not achieved the level of spiritual advancement Norman has. That he dies before carrying out the ritual for the curse shows that he's "dead in faith" because he only carries out the ritual but is not strong enough to stop Agatha; this is where the film's own logic starts breaking down, but it goes on anyway. So why is Norman so much more advanced than everyone else?
He watches zombie movies.

In religious studies there is what is called Negative Theology, popular among early Franciscans such as St. Bonaventure, it demonstrates what God is by what God is not. Similarly, zombie films can be said to be a type of negative theology in that zombies depict how Christians should not act so they don't turn into zombies, because zombies are the opposite of saints, for example, zombie flesh is usually either green or white. When they are green (like above) it's because they are rotting; saints are often depicted wearing green because green symbolizes new birth and hope. When zombies are shown to be white, it's because a corpse turns white due to the natural decay of death; when a saint is "dead" to the world, they are alive in purity, innocence and faith, which is what white symbolizes. That the Puritans have been turned to zombies illustrates the animosity towards Protestants, and that the Bride of Christ, the Catholic Church, has been turned into the Bride of Satan, a witch, clearly illustrates how perverse ParaNorman is by positing that Mitch and his boyfriend are natural. Again, this is aimed at children.
I hope that--by now--you have seen how films (and art in general) tries to communicate to viewers about politics, morality, the social structure, our inner-life, etc., and like films in general, zombie films specifically seek to reveal how other people drag us down, how others make us inauthentic (we sacrifice being ourselves to be what others expect of us), how others try dominating us to make us like them and our subtle actions and thoughts which aid "zombies" to make us like them, hence, why zombies "eat" brains, they destroy our ability to "think through" what they are trying to do to us and they make us "eat" their lies and falsehoods which slowly poisons us to believing that they really know what is best then we are zombies.
So who is Norman's Grandma in the film? She's probably meant to be a soul in Purgatory. Norman's dad tells Norman that "Grandma's in a better place now," and Norman refutes him, "No, she' s in the living room on the couch."  Protestants believe that, after a person dies, pretty much everyone goes straight to heaven; unless you were like Adolf Hitler, and regardless of how many really bad sins you committed, if you love Jesus in your heart, you get a "Go To Heaven" free card. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that a sin is a sin, a debt against God's love for you, and that debt has to be paid off before you get to go enjoy Heaven; you can start paying off the debt here, but if you die and you have sins for which you have not atoned, that atonement must take place in Purgatory. It seems that Norman asks Grandma why she's still on earth and she says something about not wanting to be with her husband, which is seriously problematic, because the Husband of every soul is its creator, Jesus Christ, so her preferring to remain on earth rather than in heaven with the Bridegroom might itself be her sin because she prefers the imperfect things of earth to the perfect bliss of Heaven.
On one hand, we can say that zombies really do exist, because we can see zombie characteristics amongst those we know in our daily lives; further, zombie films wouldn't still be around after forty years, so audiences do identify with the message of a zombie-horror film. However, we can also say that zombies don't exist as monsters walking around in a daze, they exist only as symbols into which we invest meaning; this makes zombies, like many films, fairy tales and the role of "fairy tales" in ParaNorman is one tricky topic to understand.
The resurgence lately of fairy tales being told in Hollywood (Mirror, Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer, etc.) reveals Hollywood's sudden need to teach viewers the lessons which fairy tales typically embody because fairy tales are the vehicles of secular virtues. In this clip, Norman's uncle tells him about locating the book and what he has to do:
When Norman goes into his uncle's house and finds the book he died holding onto to, it can be said that Uncle Prenderghast's sin was that he wouldn't "let go" of the past he claims is coming to haunt Norman. Norman is obviously disappointed that the book is only a book of fairy tales, and that's probably because that's what the film makers see the Bible as being, fairy tales. When Norman meets up with Agatha, he has to talk her into going into her grave and accepting death instead of pretending that she is still alive, and that is clearly a politically charged message to Catholics that we should let the Church die and bury it once and for all (I certainly won't).
If you don't believe the importance of Mitch in the film, please consider that Mitch has "the vehicle" of the film (he's the only one who can drive) and he's the one "driving" throughout the film.
In conclusion, as The Woman In Black offered anti-Catholic rhetoric to Anglicans thinking of "swimming the Tiber" by dredging up old conflicts between the two Churches while ParaNorman offers an anti-Catholic rhetoric to young Catholics to "not be so Catholic" and "lord" it over other Christians or no one will like you. Why would they do this? Because liberals know Catholics will stand against socialism, and eroding Catholics' bond to the Church will make it easier to get lukewarm Catholics to accept homosexuality and socialism (or at least not speak out against it); those who do speak out against it are like that nasty little girl that no one liked, who turned into a terrible witch, and was all alone,... and you don't want to be like that, do you? 
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner