A Most Unlikely Double Feature
It was brought to me last week by the All-Knowing Algorithm that resides on my tablet.
"Trapper Jake" tells us, simply and cleanly, about the life of a man who died in his 100th year, in 2013. He lived for most of his life in Fremont County, Wyoming, which lies near the center of the state and is itself about the size of Vermont. I didn't check this, but I think it is considered part of the Wyoming "high plains." There are no spectacular mountains, but the open plains have an austere beauty of their own. It is a long way from Fremont County to what we would call "civilization," with both Denver and Salt Lake hundreds of miles off.
Jake made his living, until the very end it seems, by trapping mid-sized creatures in the old-fashioned way, but for a few concessions to modern times such as his beat-up pick-up truck. He sits hunched over the wheel as he traverses long dirt roads from trap to trap, interspersing with the secrets of his trade a lot of personal stories, like the one about the time he found a varmint on two legs in the act of stealing one of his prizes. Jake, then a very young man, took out his .22 and plugged the guy through the ass, "by accident." The man pressed charges against Jake, but the local judge handed him his hat and let Jake go.
We learn that Jake was revered in his community, as a throwback to the old days, as a raconteur, and for the practical reason that he could be engaged to keep the coyote population down when the animals were decimating the county's sheep. Also, though, he was known for his devotion to his wife and to his children, especially a son who survived an initial polio onslaught only to die of the disease in his 40's.
Beyond portraying Jake himself, the movie is about "the ethical treatment of animals." When he comes upon them in traps, most of the time they are still alive. Jake's practice is to stun them by knocking them on the head, then to crack their windpipes with a couple of blows to the throat. It's a quick way to go if not a painless one, and it is good for us to remember that the lives of wild animals are in the main nasty, brutish and short with or without our intervention.
When he takes an animal, Jake resets the trap right away in roughly the same place where it lay. For coyotes, the trap is opened and buried in shallow, loose dirt. An animal bone or skull, smeared with a foul-smelling concoction, lies not over the trap but in front of it. The trick is to set branches and leaves in such a way as to create a natural path over which the coyote will walk as he follows his nose to the bait.
We also see Jake at work in the little shop where he skins the creatures. This is fine work that requires a steady hand, strong wrists, and some very sharp knives. The pelts so produced are what really keep Jake going. (One year he made about $18,000 off the trade in furs, a handsome enough income for a simple man in those parts.) We don't see much about what becomes of the coyotes, fox, muskrat and beaver after their skins are peeled off, but one good-sized rabbit does seem to make it into a thin lunch-time stew.
By the accounts of his neighbors, including a friend who is a Native American chief, Jake was a spiritual man, a God-fearing one, not in spite of his trade but perhaps because of it. To this we shall return.
As the film closes, Jake simply dies in media res you might say. Surely that is how he would have wanted it.
"Purgatory" is an odd undertaking. Released just last year, it is a Polish production with the explicit goal of getting us all on board with a very conservative conception of the afterlife, one inspired by the philosophy of the mystic "Padre Pio" and also of a couple of Eastern European women. These women channeled the afterlife; at least one pounded out her impressions on a rickety Polish or Czech typewriter. We see re-enactments of the lives of all three, but they are sparse in the extreme. We also see file footage of Pio at work. (He heard many thousands of confessions.)
Mostly in "Purgatory" we are lectured by contemporary men of the cloth who are Polish, French and Italian. (One was a friend of the padre and a dormitory mate in Pio's monastery.)
The clerics are soft-spoken and benevolent in their tone, but this lies in sharp contrast to the horror that they describe as the natural fate of man (and woman) after death, a vision that they believe we reject only at our further peril. Indeed, the film can be said in this sense to be a true "horror film."
According to their doctrine, even if our sins are forgiven, when we die we must atone for them by spending thousands or millions of years in purgatory, where we will suffer torments "the least of which are worse than any torments we may experience in life." And this is a condition that we will choose for ourselves rather than having it imposed on us. Like Mick Jagger, we will "look inside [ourselves] and see [our hearts are] black." With this knowledge, it simply will not be possible for us to be in the same room with God, as it were, until we are cleansed by the purifying fire for a very long time.
What's more, we will be entirely helpless to alter our fates in any way. If we scream for mercy, for early release into Heaven, God will not hear us. And this, critically, is where you and I, still earthbound, come into play. The prayers of the Faithful Departed are not heard, but the prayers for the Faithful Departed may be heard, if they are offered in the right spirit, and particularly if the Blessed Virgin Mary chooses to intercede for us with her Son, the Christ.
The last major piece of the puzzle as described in the film is the fact that earthbound suffering should be welcomed, because it turbocharges our entreaties on behalf of the dead. If we come down with a very bad case of the shingles, we should welcome it, for our suffering will redound not to our benefit but to that of our departed loved ones for whom we pray. (In grammar school, I was taught a variation of this cosmology, with slight cultural adjustments. I remember one nun telling us that a certain St. Theresa would stick hat pins in and through her hat, into her skull in fact, in remission of the sins of one or another inhabitant of that place.) Padre Pio himself, it should be noted, suffered the classic stigmata, the signs of crucifixion on hands and feet, demonstrably mind in triumph over matter.
For a modern person, even one favorably disposed to life after life, the whole cosmology makes no sense. Its fatal flaw is the clockwork orange argument. The supposedly merciful God designed and built the whole system. When the clock was done He wound it up and flicked it "on." Everything that happened after that, free will or not, was something that He chose. Given His own free will, He could have chosen otherwise, and all of this suffering would have been averted.
And, we are told, "Jesus has never been known to turn a deaf ear to the intercessions of His mother." Well, in that case, she herself must be rather arbitrary in her intercessions, for there are millions that still suffer notwithstanding all of the prayers sent up to her for relay to the Christ.
Kierkegaard, perhaps, or Dostoevsky's Jesus in "The Grand Inquisitor," could embrace this utterly bleak narrative, but only because they asserted that if it weren't impossible to believe then it would not be worthy of belief.
Compare and contrast. In Jake's afterlife, while there is Fear of the Lord, the lion lies down with the lamb, and Jake turns his "dog whispering" skills onto the very coyotes that he has dispatched, and to his friend the Indian chief this is simply the natural order of things.