Now Really – a Moth Man?

Sometimes films are more interesting for what they represent than for what they are. Such was the case with Penny Marshall’s Riding In Cars with Boys, a film I reviewed in November, and such is the case now with Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies.

I had fun searching the web for background material on this film, going from paranormal sites documenting all kinds of weird phenomena, to a draft of a book about government secret operations employing “men in black,” to a discussion of the integrity of the Shroud of Turin. My search brought back fond memories of Larry the Legend Johnson’s graveyard-shift radio program in Chicago in the late sixties and early seventies. Back in those days when my life had all the luster of an AMC Pacer, the appeal of the weird held my attention even more than Professional Wrestling and Roller Derby.

The Mothman Prophecies is a reasonably well-made film telling an utterly absurd story supposedly about phenomena that took hold of the tiny town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in 1966-67. It is “based on” an utterly absurd book by a UFO hunter named John A. Keel who claimed objectivity in documenting this real-life episode of The X-Files about strange sightings and prophesies that climax with the collapse of a bridge over the Ohio River.

Why either UFO’s or “powers and principalities” should care a shred about a bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is the first good question to ask. The more interesting question, however, is why the old legend of the “black dog” – remember the legend evoked in The Hound of the Baskervilles – should revisit American cinema in 2002 with the dog being a giant moth creature. You would think either the scientists on the planet Zircon or the Prince of Darkness, himself, would have more self-respect.

What we seem to have here is another case of people groping for something more sublime than the Taco Bell wrapper on the passenger seat of their car – a friend of mine would say the car is colored either burgundy or a metallic gray. Nobody wants to tell or hear stories anymore about farmers struggling against the elements and cruel mortgage holders. We want stories about sadomasochistic serial killers or rape victims or teenagers making love as luxury vessels sink or hobbits pursued by wraiths or mothmen terrorizing Richard Gere.

By the way, Richard Gere stars in this film, although just about anyone could have been cast in his role since the camera spends most of its energy mapping out the pores on his face while he holds a telephone, drives a car, or bends over a bathroom sink. Like a television soap opera, The Mothman Prophecies seems more concerned with what people think they see and hear than what they do see and hear. This is to keep you from reasoning through the plot as an intelligent human being.

Just as the paranoia in the 1950s over nuclear testing and the space program fed escapist genres like the musical and the Biblical spectacular, and nightmare genres like science fiction/horror and film noir, so the new millenium has begun already to show people’s uneasiness with the prospects of a shifting American culture in a techno-age.

The world is out of control for the average cheesehead.

In this, the present American indulgence in the weird bears some resemblance to childish enjoyment of fairy tales. Hansel and Gretal cooked that old witch, spited their rotten stepmother, and lived happily ever after. How pleasing a tale that is for a little boy or girl with a rotten home life and depressing future–isn’t that the Harry Potter phenomenon, after all? Don’t all little people in bland, computer-animated modern homes with little in the way of genuine affection coming from “their primary caretakers” wish they could ride off to Hogwart’s school where the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, and where battles are, indeed, scheduled and resolved?

If you don’t mind a B-grade thriller, full of holes but atmospheric, then go see this film. (Try not to sit in front of people who must offer a running commentary, however, like I did. The film isn’t worth that, nor is your $8.50.) And, if you go, do realize before floating away on this cloud of intellectual suicide that many folks want stories like this to be true. Then, after all, their lives may mean more than fast-food wrappers and old Starbuck’s coffee cardboards.