‘The Lovely Bones’ or — A Problem with the Unprethinkable?
Despite being an atheist it was Theology and Philosophy I studied while attending Glasgow University. It was when I was in my 3rd year that my father died on holiday, dragged out to sea by the undertow. That was when my world collapsed.
The reason I relate this personal information is because when I watch a film that deals with loss, death and/or metaphysics then my critical tendencies tend to be on high alert. Is this film going to deal with any of this sensitively? Intelligently? Or is it going to be cack-handed and crass?
Now don’t get me wrong as I’m not an atheist who rejects all theological movies. Far from it, but they have to know exactly what the hell they’re talking about. William Peter Blatty and Ken Russell deal with issues of faith and religion with incredible intelligence (and, more importantly, humanity). So does Scorsese. Terrence Malick tackles grief by placing the human condition in the context of the Infinite, and if you want a film about the real meaning of Christ’s teachings then check out Pasolini. These filmmakers treat the subject of faith with intelligence and respect.
So how does ‘The Lovely Bones’ (2009) handle all this? With the nuance, dignity and respect of a chimpanzee violently buggering a reluctant tortoise… and that’s being kind!
Young Susie Salmon is brutally raped and murdered and then her body is chopped up and stuffed in a safe. But this is GOOD news for Susie as this now gives her access to the brightly coloured fairground of the spectral realm along with Brian Eno’s entire back catalogue… for free! (Peter Jackson has, essentially, rendered the afterlife into nothing more than a premium Spotify service and visualisor, but that’s the least of the film’s theological issues).
So Susie dicks about on the astral plane, trying on clothes and goofing about with other raped and murdered children (?!), whilst her parents undergo NO form of therapy, legitimate bereavement counseling, emotional release or any of the other forms of healthy grief because their daughter is psychologically abusing them from the beyond the grave by sending them little messages so they can never move on and let go because their daughter hasn’t died but instead has become some sort of Enya-powered, spectral surveillance device that’s constantly watching them.
The murderer isn’t captured, the parents’ divorce, nobody has any form of closure and Susie ultimately “levels up” into Heaven but first she has one last, vitality important thing to do and that’s trick an innocent teenage boy into unwittingly committing necrophilia.
Having had her selfish and illogical sexual urges satisfied (I thought Stanley Tucci was meant to be the creepy sex pest here?!) the film closes with Susie giving us (whether we asked for it or not!) some gentle reassurance even though, as any good therapist will tell you, reassurance is nearly always self-serving. This makes Susie condescending. And that’s a bit rich considering her state of Kantian non-being.
Christ, where the hell to even begin with this offensive mess because ‘The Lovely Bones’ makes no philosophical, psychological, neurological, ontological, metaphysical, existential or even theological sense in the slightest!
The main problem with Susie’s existential situation is this — she’s is meant to be dead yet is still functioning according to the rules of earthly existence. Yet if she is dead then she is now something that cannot be incorporated into the existing framework anyway, “thought” and “being” being reality as it is encountered. Any transcendence is a transcending of the “conditioned reality” because it is impossible for us to “step outside” this conditioned realm. It is only the unconditioned that can “break through” the condition, and that’s a form of revelation.
The 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling had a term for this; he called it the “unprethinkable”. The Twentieth Century theologian, Paul Tillich, developed Schelling’s concept further allowing him (and correctly might I add) to strip religion and theology of any vestige of the supernatural (this is why theologians don’t believe in ghosts). Most theologians are, essentially, as atheistic as they come and will tell you won’t find evidence of God anywhere you’d care to look (this is why faith is important). Not only that but you can’t actually “Be” without this world in the first place (god, this movie would make Heidegger puke).
So bearing all this in mind — how the hell can Suzie dance and prance about on some spiritual plane when she’s lost not only access to linear time and space but more importantly, as the philosopher Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher would’ve put it, all of her “empfindung” (organic sensibility) as well? Factor in Susie’s issues with the unprethinkable and this movie makes NO sense whatsoever. On ANY level!
This is the problem not just with the movie but any form of spiritualism at all: it’s not just that it’s bollocks but that it’s badly thought out bollocks.
I mean, only last week someone made the mistake of talking to me about clairvoyance and mediumship, which I rightly dismissed as manipulative crap.
“Ah, but Colin,” they ignorantly pontificated to me, “what if your dad is still out there on some other dimension or has been reincarnated into some other form and he could make contact with you? Wouldn’t it be reassuring to hear from him again?”
“What the bloody hell are you talking about?” I calmly exploded in reply. “For one thing if my dad was floating about in space somewhere then it most certainly would not be my dad any more but some weird freaky corruption of him. So THAT’S just insane for starters! And not only that but I’ve processed my grief and loss for my father. Sure, it took several years and a lot of therapy but I’ve reached the point I wanted to reach which is I’ve finally moved on and let him go. I still love his memory but if my dad was to actually appear before me now, in any shape or form whatsoever, and say “Hello Colin!” I’d not only tell him to “Bugger off, dad! You’re dead!” but I’d pull a gun from my pocket and blow his fucking brains out. What you’ve just described isn’t reassurance at all; it’s existential gaslighting!”
And that’s what ‘The Lovely Bones’ is — nothing more than metaphysical charlatanism. It is manipulative and exploitative by its very nature because spiritual “reassurance” (exploitation) can’t do anything with the estrangement, the “throwness”, of our existence in this universe. That’s something that can only be dealt with by accessing our emotions and pain in relation to reality (i.e. therapy).
This entire film is an obnoxious affront on the genuine process of grief and loss, as well as humanity, death, life and film itself.
The theological ramifications of ‘The Lovely Bones’ are legitimately insane. It is, at best, offensive and at worst it’s unwittingly malicious. This is not a voice of comfort; it is actively a grief inhibitor and that’s distasteful in the extreme, especially if you’ve ever lost someone.
I hate ‘The Lovely Bones’. I want to kick this movie in its monads (and I do mean monads). It is Peter Jackson’s only genuinely infantile film, and this is a guy who once made a movie with a walrus fucking a cat. But at least THAT made more metaphysical sense than whatever the fucking hell this is.