Wolfenism And Its Aspirations! (probably not subject to change)

I had been going to springboard from my original post on the third edition of the Humanist Manifesto, into a broader discussion of its principles and the logical coherency thereof; but when I read a recent review of the 1980 film Wolfen (here on AICN) by someone who had never watched it before, I thought... hey! Halloween's coming up, we should do a Halloween post, right? And I'm a big fan of both the film and the book (by Whitley Strieber). And the reviewer makes explicit a point about the movie that always rather bothered me in the background. And, hey!--that happens to tie into my recent post on the Humanist Manifesto and the logical coherency of its principles thereof!

I love it when providence comes together. {gggg!}

And then I got sick with the pseudo-flu and missed posting it, not only for Halloween, but for several weeks. I did manage to get it posted in time for Thanksgiving weekend! Barely! I’ll try to make some relevant connection to that later.

So: first, some background on the movie and the book, for context. (The book has been out of print forever, but it should be easy to find a used copy somewhere, such as at the Amazon link above, or by library interloan. The DVD is in stock at Amazon, amazingly. There is also a 2008 novel by the same name written by someone else, with no real connection to the plot so far as I know--it’s a paranormal romance werewolf novel instead.)

The basic concept is the same in both the book and the movie, although the plot and execution are somewhat different: a certain race or species of wolf (movie and book respectively) evolved in parallel with humanity, up to human levels of intelligence. But because of their superior physical senses and capabilities they never had a need for culturally developing technology, the way humans did. (Also, the movie wolves are physically just regular wolves, except for being much smarter than usual.) When humans back in medieval times began to displace other more easily hunted animals in the habitats of the wolfen packs, the packs naturally started preying on humans instead; and by the modern day, they have adapted to preying on humans almost entirely.

However, it’s also obvious to the packs that humanity is a huge danger to their existence (due to our vastly greater numbers, and our technology which they haven’t ever bothered to understand). So the packs secretly hunt and kill only humans that aren’t going to be missed by other humans. In the modern world, that means they hunt and eat the homeless who can be found in sufficiently large numbers in the largest human cities. (In the book there are also wolfen packs who still live in the wild, away from humans as much as possible, but they aren’t who the story is about.)

In both the movie and the book, trouble comes when a New York City pack kills some people who will be missed, attracting the attention of police investigators. The pack starts subsequently hunting and executing every human connected with the investigation who seems to have figured out what’s going on.

In the book, the wolfen are physically as well as mentally evolved: they can operate briefly on hind legs, their faces are more humanlike (due to larger brains and the need for more complex communication with each other), and they’ve developed opposing thumbs. So they’re a lot more like ninjas when they hunt and kill; and part of the terror in the book (from the humans’ perspectives) is the shock that these alien creatures are hunting them so efficiently in the city. Also, in the book the trouble happens when two adolescents from a particular pack panic a little when two cops show up as they’re hunting and killing some homeless people at a garbage dump (the cops are there for some other investigation), and they kill off the cops. The father of the pack is told by other pack leaders that it’s his responsibility to fix the problem. So despite the fact that he sympathizes a little with the humans, he leads his family in trying to do the only thing he can think of that might work: kill off every human investigating the case. This fails, as he fatalistically expected, but he sacrifices his life at the end giving it his best shot (while his remaining family watches, sending him love and moral support). The author is very effective at moving back and forth between the humans and the wolfen point of view: the wolfen are frightening and alien to the humans, and so are frightening to us (the readers) when we’re “riding along” for their chapters. But the wolfen are sympathetic and even heroic when we’re “riding along” for their chapters.

The movie (originally made in the early 80s by Michael Wadleigh, who did a fine job but then retired from directing movies for some reason) operates under major technical restrictions, as can be imagined, but it makes the best of what was available at the time, including the newly invented Steady-cams and electronic solarization filters (for the wolves’ p-o-v night-vision). One obvious result is that the wolves are just wolves physically (which makes it difficult to explain how they can show up at the top of skyscrapers, or decapitate victims with a charging leap!) But a less obvious result is that the filmmakers couldn’t really get into the minds of the wolves. So the story was changed somewhat.

In the movie’s story, the pack (only one pack is ever mentioned or shown) is living peacefully in the New York slums, killing homeless people for food, when an industrialist decides to renovate the area by knocking down all the buildings. The wolfen naturally take this as a threat because he’s going to remove their food supply and hunting range, so they hunt him down and kill him (along with his wife and their bodyguard/chauffeur) one night. The police think terrorists are behind the murders at first, so a specialist on terrorist psychology is brought in to help the grouchy old detective on the case, who is played by Albert Finney (the protagonists are rather different from the novel); but when the detective learns too much the wolves target him and his crew, too. Meanwhile, a tribe of Native American high-steel workers (some of whom have ties to terrorist groups, and who become suspects in the killings for various reasons) helps provide the detective, and the audience, with some of the internal perspective of the wolfen.

(As a trivia note: the younger of the two tribesman characters is played by Edward James Olmos, who would go on decades later to play Commander Adama in the remake of the Battlestar Galactica series! Also, the movie’s musical score was written by James Horner, and would soon be largely recycled for his score to James Cameron’s Aliens.)

This technical difficulty in trying to give the audience some sympathy for the wolfen, leads to an unexpected narrative result. In a beautifully poignant finale, Finney makes peace with the wolfen by managing to communicate to them that he has no intention of continuing his prosecution of them: so they’re safe and can go back to their way of life without fear of further interference from human authorities. It’s a great scene, and leads out to a wistful ending monologue from Finney’s character as the wolves gallop joyfully back through city streets in the early morning light, to the ruined church where they live, ending with another of the movie’s signature ‘wolfen-view' sequences (shot with that newfangled steady-cam thing and the electronic solarization effect) soaring through the church, up the stairs, into the attic where the sun shines through broken stained glass and doves fly out and around, to the strains of Horner’s gorgeous and unique music. And everyone lives happily ever after, in union with nature!

Except for the homeless people the wolves are killing for food.

The movie accidentally (or conveniently?) forgets about that part; which led the AICN reviewer to a burst of what story tropers today like to call Fridge Logic. (The term’s invention is often attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, although he called it “the icebox moment”.) 'On the way to the refrigerator' after the movie (i.e. shortly after finishing it), the reviewer suddenly realized that the movie was basically saying it was not only perfectly okay and even morally beautiful for those wolves to be killing homeless people, because they weren’t wanted anyway, but also that if the wolves had only kept killing the desperately poor minority people instead of upscaling to the ultra-rich white guy (well at least he had an ex-Ton Ton Macoute bodyguard), there would have been no problem at all! (Gregory Hines, more-or-less prefiguring his role a few years later as a sardonic New York police detective with Billy Crystal in the needlessly vulgar but otherwise very underrated Running Scared, makes some biting quips along this line. But don’t worry, he’s sacrificed to the plot long before he can deflate the upbeat Implied Holocaust ending of the movie. Um, spoiler.)

The book, by contrast, presents the two species at eternal odds with one another. There can’t be peace between them, because evolutionarily they’re in a life and death competition. Sure, the father of the pack may have a few liberal tendencies of pity and sympathy for the humans. Which are richly played for dramatic effect when he refuses to risk his family any further and mounts a final assault by himself to kill off the last humans who know what’s going on: he firmly puts aside his nascent sympathy for the humans, and his distant wish that something more could be had between the two groups, and goes up the side of that skyscraper to do what needs to be done. Because that’s just how things are, and they can’t realistically be any different.

And in terms of the moral grounding underlying the story (whether book or movie), he’s exactly right. It’s a survival of the species situation. There can be no compromise, because the humans cannot and should not (despite the movie’s ‘Lost Aesop’ ending) be expected to tolerate this kind of threat living among them--even if that threat usually only goes after humans the other humans don’t want around. Because there’s no way to guarantee that the threat won’t occasionally go after humans the other humans do want around (especially themselves!) instead.

The only other option is to just accept the sacrifice of undesirables, like the last of the Mohicans do in the movie--even if you might be one of the undesirables yourself someday. (But, hey, keep your own head above water and maybe you won’t be considered expendable prey! Otherwise, sucks to be you, but that's how it is.)

I’m sort of amazed the movie even got made: is it really possible, today, twenty-fiveish years later, that someone would dare to make an arguably mainstream movie where, for all practical purposes, the film ends with Simba and his fellow lions singing about the glory of “The Circle of Life” when the prey animals on the bottom end of that circle are homeless humans!?

(What’s even more amazing, the only other movie directed by Michael Wadleigh I’m aware of, was that famous film about the Woodstock concert, which he shot first. Peace, love and red riding hood baby!--make wolfen, not war! If I was the sort to write short stories, and if I was a little more evil, I’d run a parody homage with a pack of wolfen picking off stragglers for food at the fringes of the concert while it was going on. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t have been far from the truth in some ways.)

In part 2 (four years later on Christmas Eve 2014...), I'll explain why I thought of the Humanist Manifesto when, in my appreciation of the review, I took a moment to remember and reflect on the story (movie and book, both variations) -- since I'm pretty sure that Wolfenism, and its aspirations, wasn't on the minds of its drafters. (Hopefully!)

Meanwhile, if there are any super-intelligent wolves in New York City who happen to have advanced up to reading the internet: this is all fiction, I don't believe you exist, and I'm sure you had a Happy Thanksgiving, too! (White or dark meat, either one. With leftovers. Ahem.)


Jason Pratt said…
Just a comment-tracking registration.

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