Monday, September 1, 2008

THE MAKING OF A MODERN MYTHOLOGY: AMANDA YOUNG'S "HERA" TO JIGSAW'S "ZEUS"




to echo myles, my hesitation in even discussing the SAW films is that no one will read this. and i find that unfortunate. i'll openly confess before everyone here this day: i am a SAW fan. i like these movies. i like these characters. i like the way these films have evolved from simple crime dramas into their own twisted mythology. and i like the way there's a little bit of something for everybody in these films.

for literature majors and english teachers, the SAW films offer unending lessons in character development, the juggling of multiple themes inside a single text, and the role of the modern deity. for theologians and philosophers, the jigsaw saga gnaws at issues of mortality and abundant existence while constantly calling into question the wages of sin and the value of a life lived at tip-top moral capacity. for film-lovers and film-makers, SAW amounts to one horrendous mini-series revealing what happens when two friends sit up drinking beer and one says to the other, dude, if you could make a film with a super limited budget, what would you do?

the question seems insignificant until one steps back to view the panoramic totality of the SAW mythology. and i do not use the word "mythology" lightly here. when james wan asked leigh whannell - what film would you make - whannell answered (perhaps unintentionally) with a tale of gods and goddesses, aware of their own brevity, calling into judgment the morally wayward while offering new life through purgatorial sufferings. viewers may easily overlook the mythological aspect of the SAW films. upon seeing the violent traps and the tormented faces of the "victims", critics quickly chock these films up to one more ridiculous franchise of the horror genre; nevertheless, despite our initial reactions, there could be more happening here, something beneath the surface worth viewing through various lens. with these deeper elements in mind, i believe the SAW mythology begins with amanda young's (shawnee smith) introduction in the first SAW film.

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viewers first meet amanda at a police station where detective tapp (danny glover) questions her experience playing a classic jigsaw game. in this initial impression, amanda appears withered, her eyes sunken and exhausted. bright-red cuts highlight the edges of her swollen mouth. bruised-purple track-marks on her inner arms indicate amanda's heroin addiction. because victims are chosen for squandering life in moral waywardness, amanda's track-marks explain her unfortunate role as a jigsaw test-subject. on the viewing side of a one-way glass, another detective and a doctor - brought in as a suspect for questioning - watch amanda's testimony. the detective asks dr. gordon (cary elwes) to listen carefully to her story. even as the doctor tries to leave, the detective implores him to stay, stressing that amanda's survival offers her a unique connection to the jigsaw killer.

through this pleading for dr. gordorn's attention, audiences should clue in to amanda's importance in the film. although a secondary character in the first SAW, this focus on amanda's testimony exalts her as the central voice to both the case and the overarching story-line. so far, each of jigsaw's victims perished in devices designed to inspire the value of life into their thankless existence. amanda is the first jigsaw survivor. her reaction to surviving the game, to escaping her trap, sheds a new light on jigsaw's mission.

furthermore, survival is not the only attribute setting amanda apart from other victims: she is also the first person to visually encounter jigsaw. until now, victims have only experienced jigsaw's voice on a small tape recorder placed somewhere near their trap. the prerecorded message greets the victim by name, exposes their moral weakness, and then explains how to survive their personalized trap. in the jigsaw universe, physical pain precedes and purchases moral healing; the more suffering a victim willingly endures, the stronger one's moral fiber and zest for life will grow as a result. as mentioned, victims guided only by voice each flagged in their endurance of their test, leading to their death. only amanda, greeted by a visual recording, survives. one has to question if the visual reality of jigsaw - the divine judge's physical manifestation through the burning bush revelation of billy the puppet - empowered amanda to believe victory was actually possible. those victims left to only the gruff drone of a psychopathic masochist, possibly questioned the validity of the promise, having no face or vision to connect to their conquering moment. perhaps lack of faith in their judge, rather than lack of zeal for life, led to their failure in the jigsaw games.

amanda wakes in her personalized jigsaw game with a rusty metal device attached to her head. her wrists have been strapped to the arms of a chair. because amanda's hands are bound, hindering her from controlling a tape recorder, jigsaw greets her on a television set. jigsaw does not reveal himself in the flesh, rather he introduces himself through the disguise of a puppet. the puppet greets amanda, then illustrates the purpose of the device attached to her head. a timer, rigged to springs, holds and controls the mouth of the trap. when the timer goes off, the trap will rip amanda's jaw open at the hinges - "think of it as a reverse bear-trap." a lock on the back of the device will remove the metal trap from amanda's head; however, the only key is in the stomach of a "dead" cell mate. if amanda can get the key out of her cell mate, undo the lock and remove the device before the timer goes off, she will win the game. her prize: survival.

this scene from the first SAW film marks the precise moment where jigsaw enthrones himself as a mythological god. here, viewers witness jigsaw equating his mission with that of Jesus Christ's, as well as calling and creating his first disciple. although amanda's overall significance in the SAW universe will not be revealed until future SAW films, three moments in amanda's testimony shed a prophetic light on the genesis of jigsaw's mythology.

1) as amanda approaches her "dead" cell mate lying on the floor, timer ticking on the springs of her metal headpiece, the camera pans past white words inscribed on the grayish-green wall behind her. amanda does not notice the words. if viewers pause the screen, they will read:

If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it, but if you give up your life to me you will find true life.

this, of course, alludes to Christ's rebuke of peter in matthew 16. as Jesus tells His disciples that soon He will leave them and suffer many things, even unto death, peter - full of righteous indignation - cries out against Jesus' plan, declaring, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" (Matthew 16:22). Jesus then rebukes peter, calling him "satan" and saying that peter is "not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" (16:23). Jesus then turns to His disciples and declares -

"If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." (16:24-25).

jigsaw singles out individuals bent on self-destruction. he chooses victims who unknowingly shorten their lifespan with each and every self-indulgent choice. according to jigsaw, the wickedness of pride does not result in self-indulgence robbing the community; rather, and much worse in jigsaw's estimation, self-indulgence leads to an unappreciative, mishandling of an individual's life. ungratefulness is the worst form of wickedness in the jigsaw universe. and these ungrateful miscreants, wallowing in lives of addiction and indulgence, make up the body of believers he hopes to convert - not believers in the goodness and beauty of life, but believers in him, in jigsaw, as the giver of second chances and redemptive gratefulness.

a vital distinction must be noted here: whereas Jesus took upon Himself the suffering and shame for those He came to save, jigsaw demands that his disciples endure the consequences of their own sins in concentrated doses for themselves. also, Jesus' salvation leads to a life that benefits the believer and the community; jigsaw's false absolution merely leads to further pride and self-exaltation above the ungrateful community at large.

the scene between peter and Jesus from matthew 16 echoes between amanda and jigsaw again in SAW III, ultimately leading to the death of one of these two characters.

2) in order for amanda to obtain the key to her own freedom, she must mutilate the body of another human being. the rules of amanda's test once again set her apart from previous victims: amanda's survival and gratefulness lie contingent in her willingness to destory another human life - which fits quite cozy into jigsaw's vision for renewed life. again, jigsaw's goal is not betterment of the community; instead, he desires gratefulness of the chosen individual despite the welfare of others. amanda's test celebrates her first course in the catechism of jigsaw's faith.

this unique requirement - asking amanda to harm another, not herself for survival - asks interesting questions about jigsaw's intentions for amanda. is jigsaw testing amanda's desire to live, or amanda's willingness to host future games, to set future traps, to take life in order to save life? did jigsaw expect amanda to survive? did jigsaw see in amanda a worthy conspirator, even a bride to join his broken union of salvation? it's hard to say - particularly when considering that amanda was the first to be greeted through visual means, that she was called with Christ alluded words, and that her test demanded harm towards someone other than herself, one has to wonder if jigsaw's plan ran deeper than merely teaching amanda a lesson about gratefulness.

through amanda's story in SAW II, she reveals her survival of many trials long before jigsaw found her. perhaps jigsaw knew this. seeing amanda as immortal to an extent, jigsaw possibly set amanda's trap more as a challenge of initiation than a game of moral fortitude. this proves particularly possible when jigsaw (again revealed in billy the puppet) rides out to greet amanda after she removes her trap. this time, jigsaw does not address her in a recording - he speaks to her in real time, saying:

"congratulations, you are still alive. most people are so ungrateful to be alive. but not you. not anymore."

with these words, jigsaw pronounces amanda "grateful" and, in doing so, deems her his equal. these words invite amanda to participate in giving life to others. for jigsaw, surviving near death experiences does not allow the survivor to pursue self-fulfillment and the realization of long-sought dreams. hardly. survival means devoting one's life to converting other ungratefuls into the fold. amanda has not bought her own freedom as much as she has earned her position atop mount olympus. zeus will now consummate his hera in the ways of judging and ruling over the masses of ungrateful mortals.

3) after amanda tells her story, detective tapp asks if she is a drug addict. amanda remorsefully and emotionally confesses her addiction. detective tapp then asks amanda, in the words of jigsaw, if she is "grateful". amanda smiles at detective tapp and replies, "He helped me."

amanda's testimony confirms that jigsaw achieved his purpose in divinely affecting her life. by claiming that he helped her, she also professes jigsaw's goodness. amanda does not seem to view herself as a victim, as victims rarely view themselves helped or bettered by their trials; rather, amanda views herself as an admirer of the person who brought positive change into her life, perhaps in the same way some recall a traumatic, even debilitating accident as marking the beginning of a better, more intentionally lived life. "better" - in each sense - seems to refer to a gratefulness never evident before the defining blast. and since gratefulness is the goal for jigsaw, amanda has achieved her life's purpose in his eyes.
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when gratefulness meets intense admiration, the result may look like a disturbing devotion to the source of each elated emotion. a man can proclaim himself a god through his own voice, while never achieving a divine position in his own religion. a god requires admirers, devotees, disciples. a leader can only lead once he is followed. jigsaw needs amanda. he needs someone to survive one of his games. only then - once the first victim has survived and devoted themselves to his mission - can jigsaw become immortal through his work.

the circle is now complete. the creation of a demi-god's tormented faith is set in motion. jigsaw has found and rescued his beloved, his grateful equal. and she has responded by naming him the giver of her new life, the redeemer of her moral calamity. by these proclamations, jigsaw assumes his self-enthronement and takes a bride to assist in his judgements. the genesis of jigsaw's mythology bursts into dawn at amanda young's declaration - "He helped me."

4 comments:

myleswerntz said...

I love it. This is your best yet.

the hamster said...

you better believe it is. thanks.

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