In the Words of Daft Punk, the Archive Won’t Stop, Can’t Stop; or, Why The Book of Eli Makes me Feel Good About My Choices in Life Even if it is a Terrible Film

I have to admit that the recently released The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010)[1] constitutes a moment of personal gratification for myself and my recently completed PhD project in that it only serves to further cement the work I did there.[2] In short, a bulk of my project constituted a revivification of the now long dead and mostly forgotten practice of “nuclear criticism,” a theoretical framework  most explicitly laid out in Jacques Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” which he delivered in1984 at a colloquium on nuclear criticism at Cornell University.  At the time, Derrida argued that all literature is marked by the nuclear epoch in that the historical and literary archive is that which is most threatened by nuclear war.  What The Book of Eli represents so dramatically is exactly this logic: whatever else may be going on in its world, the real stakes of the post-apocalyptic wasteland Denzel Washington (Eli) traverses throughout the film are ultimately archival ones.

Disregarding for a moment the conflicted and confusing Christian ideology which infects the film like an out-of-control tumor, as well as the film’s problematic geography, weak characterization, the presence of Mila Kunis,[3] and its overall ridiculous premise, this film is about a book, and not just any book, it is about the Christian Bible.[4] Denzel has been told by a voice (Christian God) to carry the only remaining Bible west, and that he would not only be protected during this journey,[5] he would “know” when he arrived where he needed to be.[6] Threatening his progress is Gary Oldman’s character, who is desperately seeking a Bible for its powers of populace-manipulation (think Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals).  There is also a pretty great scene when a bunch of books are plopped down on Oldman’s desk, right after he was reading a biography (?) of Mussolini; he of course instructs his underlings to burn these books (archival destruction!).

The real crux of the film for myself is the reason it gives for there being only one Bible remaining.  Basically, after what appears to be global nuclear war, the survivors got together and burned all the Bibles in the world, blaming this text for the devastation.  (This also implies that this was a religiously motivated war, like b/t Islamic States and Christian ones, rather than a good ole’ ideological nuclear war.)  Denzel’s ultimate task is to bring this Bible, which he memorizes—so doesn’t need the actual object (memory as archive. . .)—to Alcatraz, where a printing press and archive has been set up to rebuild civilization.  The film ends with the Christian Bible being placed on a rack of books including the Torah and the Qur’an, as well as a host of other religious texts.[7]

In all of this, The Book of Eli is a deeply confused film.  It simultaneously acknowledges the really insidious, destructive aspects of religion while attempting to uphold the importance of the Bible’s teaching—namely “faith.”  Denzel-as-blind-prophet directly communicating w/ God as signaling the importance of the restoration of the New Testament (one would assume the Old Testament was present on that shelf already. . . .) runs directly into the Bible as “just another book” in the last scene.  The Apocalypse portrayed is simultaneously one caused archivally (by religion) and one that can be lived-through afterward only archivally (by, again, religion).  (Need I mention that if the nuclear war wasn’t the Apocalypse of Revelations, it is, in Derrida’s phrase, “still to come” in the space of the film. . . .)[8] The film, ultimately, has no idea what it is trying to communicate, no idea where it stands, no idea what Christianity really has to do w/ anything, other than being a convenient trope for an apocalyptic film.

And, at day’s end, this is what is so impressive about the film.  Its archivally apocalyptic logic overwhelms it, takes center-stage, and demonstrates that the archive’s destruction (or restoration) is the limit of the nuclear.  Once one invokes such a post-apocalyptic landscape, all questions become archival.  The visual presentation of the film is at times breathtaking—man I love what CGI enables w/r/t post-apocalyptic landscapes—but in every case, the visuals are simply archival markers of what has been destroyed: the Golden Gate Bridge, Nuclear Power Stations, Freeways, old burned-out automobiles, gigantic craters, and of course the presence of “Western” towns run by a malignant “boss” (Oldman’s character is unsubtly named “Carnegie”).  The main object Denzel carries around as a marker of the “good” of humanity, the Bible aside, is in-and-of-itself an archive: an old beat-up iPod (man he loves listening to that iPod).

Basically, the Bible in The Book of Eli is merely a stand-in for archival maintenance or restoration.  It doesn’t really matter what book it is in the space of the film, only that the Bible is perhaps the most manipulatively affective sign of this restoration[9] and that it allows all sorts of other heavy-handed bullshit to enter the narrative space.[10] In short, The Book of Eli is yet another marker of the reliance of aesthetics upon imagining the archive as both producing apocalyptic destruction and saving the world from that very same destruction.  This is nothing new, of course, but the overt manner in which this happens throughout the film combined w/ the work I just completed, makes it a singularly interesting (for me at least) instance of this, and one which shouldn’t be ignored just b/c the film is so awful.

[1] This is actually a slightly odd entry into the Hughes oeuvre, as they had previously made films like From Hell (2001), American Pimp (1999), Dead Presidents (1995), and Menace II Society (1993).

[2] In other words, during my written project exams I referred to its imminent release, and while we were waiting to get started with my oral exams, my committee and I had a brief conversation about it.  Needless to say, if The Book of Eli proves anything, it is that I will always have a career talking about archivally apocalyptic films. . . .

[3] And how “hot” she looks in a world where pretty much all the other characters look like irradiated mutants, i.e. Tom Waits’ cameo (though he does look alright).

[4] Btw, I’m going to spoil this movie all over the place here, so don’t read on if you care about such things.  (I’m going to spoil it in 3, 2, 1. . . .)  That said, it wouldn’t really hurt you knowing whatever it is I’m going to say b/c you already know what is going to more-or-less happen the minute the film opens—i.e. both my friend Adri and I kinda knew Eli was blind pretty early on, and just sorta forgot this fact as the film progressed, making the big “reveal” or “plot twist” pretty funny/not surprising at all (that he was blind the whole time and, lo and behold, the book he was carrying around was in brail!)—poor Gary Oldman.

[5] Consequently, ridiculous action scenes ensue where Denzel is pretty much a badass.

[6] For those of you looking for a clear analogue b/t Denzel and the biblical Elijah, there is none.  The closest it gets is Malachi 4:1-5: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evil-doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.  And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of the hosts. . . . Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  (Note: this is taken from The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  Other Bibles place this as Malachi 3:19-24.)If indeed Elijah-as-prophet-of-messiah-and-eschaton is the reference for Denzel, then the film botches this quite badly—i.e. the burning has already happened.  The film makes a point of stressing how humans (not God) caused this destruction, however, so within the theological-eschatological space of the film, perhaps all this means is that the messiah and “real” burning (the landscape of the film looks pretty burned though. . .) is in the future—the apocalypse hasn’t “happened” yet.  Kunis’ character, Solara, also seems to be an analogue for the biblical figure Elisha, but again, the Christian or Old Testament themes are pretty damn loose everywhere here, so reading the film in such a way doesn’t really generate much (or so I believe).

[7] There is also something to be said about this being a “‘New’ King James Bible,” rather than a translation from the Hebrew or Greek.  English gets privileged as the language of God in a very real way, which, the more I think about it, is deeply disturbing.  (To say nothing about the textual inaccuracies of the King James Bible. . . .)

[8] This is also to say nothing about the cannibals, George and Martha (Washington) and the shootout which occurs at their (little) house (on the apocalyptically devastated prairie—i.e. also see my entry on apocalyptic Westerns w/r/t The Road).

[9] Furthermore, the film doesn’t even address the glaring fact that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, and to destroy every copy but one is ludicrous, no matter how fanatical the Firemen or Tetragrammaton Clerics may be.

[10] In that, it really isn’t much better than something like the Left Behind series, and may in fact be more insidious b/c of the presence of Denzel rather than, say, Kirk Cameron.

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