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Monday
Oct132008

Wolfen

Readers will undoubtedly notice the thin thread of superstition that hems each of the glorious robes adorned in these pages, and this fact cannot be helped.  For whatever reason – fear, perhaps, or an eerie sense of systematic involvement – I have always been terrified of the shapes of supernatural ideas, dark patches that continue to surface in my nightmares and momentary lapses of attention.  As a child, I wondered why this was so.  After all, the teachings inculcated in my formative years were of the broadest bent, so what was I doing believing in such rot?   Many moons, full and otherwise, passed and the same dread persisted: phantom fears of strange and monstrous things with one element in common – they were all distortions of our human existence.  When pundits launch into their habitual tirades about life on other planets, one cannot help but notice that the creatures they tend to describe are mockeries or improvements of us.  A rational man might conclude that we cannot understand anything without relating it to ourselves, that's why our extraterrestrials are either little green men or manifestations of the age-old enemy of the ape, the reptile (occasionally, another pest is featured, the insect).  Yet these are all, I repeat, rational conclusions.  The most frightening of our nightmares are surely distortions of our mores and images; but what makes them truly horrifying is the unpredictability of their outcome.  Some critics have misinterpreted this device in evaluating modern films by praising their lack of morality and lauding the "anything could happen now" feature of so many films devoid of any moral center – but this again is very far from the point.  Superstition, legend, myth (the last apparently this famous actor's favorite word) endure the centuries because there is a lesson involved.  Never is a hero betrayed just because the villain feels like it; never does a conspiracy develop with a rejection of the idea of divine redemption.  In other words, the worst kind of nightmare – and by association, the scariest myth ever told – is one where we don't know what is happening but we know why.  We have done some wrong to someone (the victim, as much as we might deny it, is well-known) and we must pay for our sins.   A great way to segue into this extraordinary film.

Casual observers and film critics might have thought at the time that the title was the Germanic plural of "wolf," which it is and isn't.  The author of the original novel is this German-American mystic and writer of speculative fiction whose affinity for the language of his forefathers (-en is indeed a common plural in modern German; "wolfen" in this case, however, is an archaic adjective that means "wolf-like") made the neologism an easy one.  What is more important for our purposes, however, is the commonality with older English plurals such as brethren, suggesting not only brotherhood but spiritual kinship.  The scene is New York City at the end of the 1970s, the last chapter to a period of urban expansion, crime, and dissolute living that for many reasons has not been matched since.  Many have profited from the excesses of these years; others continue to live in abuse of their bodies, minds, and fellow human beings.  We are not told any of this, mind you, we see it in the streets.  Drug addicts and winos litter our pavements and alleyways; dealers of pleasure stand in the shadows of every dark corner; and the wealthy, shallow pundits of greed circulate in ostentatious cars flaunting their lust.  This world is fallen; it is also, we notice, a society of predominantly European and African descent.  These two strands are represented, respectively, by detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and coroner Whittington (the late Gregory Hines).  Wilson is older and attached to more traditional methods; Whittington is young and less categorical, more insouciant about the development of the society he sees every day in its final coldness.  The odd coupling is indicative not only of the changes in the American political landscape that ultimately led to this year's presidential candidates, but also of the oversimplified black-white approach to strange phenomena. When it rains, we witness the condensation of atmospheric water vapor into large drops, or it's not really rain.  And when someone is found dead, ravaged by wounds that could only have been made by an animal, the animal must be a species known to science.

These attacks befall the fallen.  That is to say, the winos, drug dealers, and hoodlums who help divide a city into quarters according to standard of living and safety, who affect travel guides and tourism, education and nightlife.  When certain parts of your hometown are far less desirable or peaceful than others, you have lost your home as well as all the citizens obliged to stay there.  You will never know them, never experience what they experience, but you will read about their woes in the newspaper or liberal pamphlets that encourage compassion and forgiveness.   In these modern times when hollow shells in the form of human beings have sold everything they and we have to some dark force – namely, greed, the most unforgivable sin after betrayal – we should begin to doubt that they are really human.  Someone more evangelical than I might deem these wastrels the Devil's minions, but I shall not.  No, they are very human, very corrupt, and beyond all repair.  What if a scourge were to rise among these same debauched and dirty streets, an ancient scourge of the people who once lived in smaller tenements among green fields and bountiful harvests, well before the steel and concrete impaled each field and caused it to wilt and die?  There have been many works of fiction on the brotherhood of the wolves or something to that effect, a plausible conceit since canis lupus is the most notorious of pack animals (a natural instinct belied by the modern oxymoron "lone wolf").  We have also been exposed in the last two hundred years to countless tales of lycanthrope shapeshifters, curses, full moons, silver bullets ...  But why are we still talking about wolves?  Aren't these the villains of children's fables and adolescent dreams?  Aren't the only bloodthirsty, ruthless pack predators in New York City the roving gangs of thugs that limit us to about one-third of the actual urban landmass?  Are we not immune if we simply keep away from these ghettos?  Yet sometimes, as in the first, amazing attack sequence, even the most privileged are not immune, nor should they be.  After all, we are all brothers and sisters falling from the same eternal tree.

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