“White Man eats the body of Jesus Christ every Sunday”: Ravenous and the New Age Wendigo

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Let’s be real; in every way imaginable this weekend is Crap Christmas. Easter is the Justice League to Christmas’ Avengers – it has the same tedious check-list, just with fewer frills. Inevitably, along with the inevitable chocolate binge, this means each year we re-run debates on “the true meaning” of Easter. 2017, like every year, has featured the usual assortment of adorable videos of 3 year olds humorously critiquing the logistics of rabbits that lay eggs, as well as the usual tedious, forced stand-up routine from that friend, about whether someone who is resurrected is necessarily a zombie (sorry fella, Cyanide and Happiness outflanked you on that by a good decade); but of course while you might get some entertainment out of these finicky points of pedantry, they completely ignore the ideological undercurrent of the festival in its modern form. That’s why this Easter Sunday, we’re taking a look back at a forgotten work of savage satire; Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999).

Tellingly released a year before the turn of the Millennium – a time which would have been a completely arbitrary number but for the connotations of the 2000th anniversary of Jesus’ birth – the film took us on a darkly comic journey into that most sinister aspect of the human condition; cannibalism. What is to be noted though, is that the film clearly foregrounds the fact cannibalism is not just a literal act, committed by black-eyed psychopaths in the American wilderness, it is the metaphorical process of manifest destiny, of the consumption of lands and human energy for profit that would underwrite the world that birthed our own 21st century world.

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The music – a masterful fever-dream of classical orchestral bluster from Michael Nyman and driving modernised paranoia from Damon Albarn – positions the film perfectly to this end. It fits the film like a glove because it replicates the narrative’s own methodology; devouring the horrific, whispered legacies of life and death in the old West (particularly the Donner party) and digesting them into a nightmarish fable for the modern day. Listen to Colquhoun’s Story on YouTube, and you’ll see exactly what I mean, as the 1840s banjo-twang dissolves into the juddering thunderstorm of an almost perverse saxophone chorus – prompting one commenter to emphatically declare “3:20 – Jesus, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Ted Griffin’s fabulously grizzly script – a witty blend of cannibalistic innuendo and ideological exploration – is delivered with an addictive fervour by Robert Carlyle’s Colquhoun, whose eyes contain by the same primitive blood-lust behind those of the shark in Jaws – lifeless, black, “like a doll’s eyes.” The contrast between Colquhoun and Boyd is important – it is not just a warning to Boyd of what he may become – it becomes increasingly apparent that one is a simple reflection of the other. The difference is, only one is repulsed by what he sees.

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Without publishing spoilers, the plot delivers some brilliant food for thought in this regard. Second Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce) is stationed in a remote outpost as a result of his actions during America’s military annexation of Texas. This is a punishment for an act of cowardice – yet it is also a reprieve as his masters acknowledge this act served them, making him a pathetic kind of hero in their eyes. On arrival at his new station, Boyd’s past role in conquest, expansion and consumption on behalf of the USA position him uniquely for his first encounter with the myth of the Wendigo. Boyd is told by George, the camp’s Native American scout, a man who eats the flesh of his enemy is cursed with an insatiable hunger for more – until they are something entirely inhuman, monstrous. This of course, others insist, is outdated mysticism, until George points out “White man eats the body of Jesus Christ every Sunday.”

There is something about Hollywood’s recent fascination with the Wendigo that borders on cultural appropriation – particularly in The Lone Ranger (2013) – where the white settler monopolises the metaphorical wisdom of the noble Native American in order to consume more mindfully. This is not one of those times. As we continue on Boyd’s journey, a realisation occurs that his simple Liberalisation will not be enough. There is something within him instilled throughout his life, from his time as a soldier to his inevitably Christian upbringing, during both of which an acceptance of consuming human energy for one’s own survival and prosperity was normalised; he is cursed by a monstrous ideological “common sense” lurking inside him, which his journey teaches him must be destroyed. It is therefore a hero’s journey like no-other, and one I would encourage you to follow to its end.

It also teaches us something less literal to take into our own lives; and this is something particularly important I feel, when considering the “true meaning” of Easter. With UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently railing against a perceived “banning” of Christianity from Easter, while claiming GOD HIMSELF would have voted for Brexit, it is as good a time as any to consider the ideas and assumptions we are swallowing this weekend.

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Freed from EU bureaucracy, Theresa May has designs on your liver…

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while someone who literally denied the Holocaust this week is encouraging you to forget and CONSUME.

As we tear into the chocolate eggs, rabbits and chicks representing pagan fertility and new life, which have either since been appropriated to symbolise the dead and reborn flesh of Christ, or the equally religious experience of consuming a commodity – the consumption of which supposedly empower our spirits, or make us whole, to either end – we buy into this normalisation. We purchase the spoils of exploitation and for a brief moment our pupils dilate and all is right with the world. There’s something that’s been instilled in all of us, just waiting to get out. We have a choice – perhaps a less literal choice than that of Boyd – but nonetheless a choice, whether to indulge or to destroy that ideological urge.

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