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Great Moments in Cinematic Drinking: The Thing photo

Kurt Russell needs a moment to himself. It’s been a hard day. Night. Days? It’s hard to tell. He’s been in Antarctica so long, the days so long that they become nights, the nights so long that they swallow the days. Helicopter pilot in an Antarctic outpost was supposed to be an easy job. Grounded for snow most of the year, there was ample time to grow his beard out, catch up on his reading, his drinking. Play ping pong with the geologists and figure his life out. He had no idea what he was in for. We did:  the first sight we’re treated to in 1982’s The Thing, after the cleansing retinal tear of the film’s title eats away at the vacuum of space, is a spaceship. Or at least the best approximation of one that early ‘80s special effects could muster—substantial in its size and mass but amorphous, making us wonder if we need to adjust our glasses, moisten our contacts, rub the sleep out of our eyes, wait for the Netflix stream to buffer. It moves through space too easily, not beholden to the laws of mass or gravity, something we can glimpse but never know, touch but never feel, a half-remembered flash of pink and blue beacons in the unbroken night. (These lights, far from alien, resemble Happy Days neon, a throwback to the 1950’s creature flicks that inspired John Carpenter to create this most nihilistic of masterpieces).

Like every Kurt Russell character, R.J. MacReady seems uniquely equipped to handle a crisis. Take charge attitude, devil may care grin, lax grooming that somehow pays off with impossibly great hair, masculinity oozing from those eyes, grey-blue and unforgiving as a winter sky. But this enemy is different. It isn’t clear cut like the others he’s faced: bands of ruthless criminals threatening to kill the president, an evil magician trying to free himself from an ancient curse. This enemy is both everyone and no one. It’s the Doctor, but it’s not really the Doctor. It’s the dog, but it’s not really the dog. An alien entity is loose in the compound, picking them off one by one, taking over their bodies, impersonating them, using the fear and paranoia that the Reagan years gave them as its weapon. It’s an infection. A disease. And no one can be trusted. Kurt Russell’s confidence, his sweet leather jacket, his vaguely Cowboy-adjacent hat, his studly Kris Kristofferson beard, they’re all failing him now. Just give him a minute. Just let him sit here, pour himself another glass of J&B blended Scotch, and come up with a plan. He’ll figure it out. He has to. That’s how this works.

If you’ve even dipped half of a toe into the murky waters of the genre, it isn’t spoiling anything to tell you that nobody is getting out of this one alive. Between the spaceship’s first weightless glide toward Earth and the last scene (and what a last scene), there is blood, gore, violence, carnage, all rendered in special effects that strike a sublime balance between hilarious and revolting. Kurt Russell survives, but that survival is tenuous, a technicality, a Butch and Sundance kind of survival. He made it to the end of the movie, but only because the director yelled “cut” just in time, leaving us to fill in his last breaths for ourselves. The monster is apparently defeated, but it’s little comfort: the camp is in flames, along with the radio, the choppers, anything that could get him off of Antarctica before he freezes to death.

Just as MacReady cozies up with a snowdrift and begins to settle in for a long winter’s nap, someone steps out of the shadows. Childs, another survivor from the camp, whom he’d taken for dead before the final battle (a young Keith David, his thundering voice simultaneously conveying the warmth of the flames and the coldness of the earth). Whether the monster took one last victim, MacReady doesn’t know. There’s no way to know, really. But it doesn’t much matter. The result is the same: the men are left to watch each other, miles beyond trust, as they slowly freeze to death. They opt to kill themselves in the slowest way possible: MacReady hands Childs the bottle of whisky. They drink. They wait for the world to end.

* * *

This is how most of my days go: I wake up late, but not late enough to really enjoy it. I have work to do, but plenty of time in which to do it. I work at home. I make my own schedule. White, frigid expanses of time. I have nowhere to be, no one to talk to. I am a To-Do list made flesh. And so I turn on my computer, brew a pot of coffee, crack my knuckles, and get to work. By “work,” of course, I mean checking my Twitter feed. I’m spending a lot of time on Twitter. This is less a #humblebrag and more of a “My name is Matt and I’m an alcoholic” confession. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if I were emotionally equipped to handle it, but my nervous disposition and propensity toward anger can turn a few minutes of mindless scrolling into either a rage fit or a sustained depressive episode, depending on the day. This lack of emotional maturity makes me, I like to think, a sort of living metaphor for Twitter itself. I’m not alone in this, I know. “Social media” has a way of isolating those that it purports to connect, and emboldening those who would rather burn everything down and salt the earth.

A few weeks ago, I met a friend from Atlanta for drinks while he was in Portland for work. He was a satellite friend—we’d shared the same social orbit (parties, dinners, gatherings) but hadn’t spoken one on one more than a handful of times. Now, sitting across the table from him, sharing beers, the distance collapsed, the alcohol in our blood making us warm, giving birth to new intimacy. We were like old friends. We talked about—what else—Twitter. I think at the time, the most recent #apocalypse was the racist crackdown on the protesters in Ferguson, or new data about the melting polar ice caps. (Which, on the bright side, would sure solve a lot of R.J. MacReady’s problems). “I was too old when Twitter got started,” I told him. “My brain was already fully formed. It’s going to take people younger than me to cope it.” I told him about how it made me feel, like every RT and reposted think piece was draining a small amount of hope out of the universe. This sounds melodramatic as I type it, but I’m not exaggerating, at least not on my part. I was a poetry-writing high school sophomore the year George W. Bush got elected—I’ve spent most of my life convinced the bad guys are winning. It’s not the content that makes it unbearable; it’s the form. The relentlessness of it. The constant ability to refresh and find an influx of bad news, another damning statistic, one more rape threat against someone you deeply respect, 140 reasons to give up and go back to bed.

It would be easier, maybe, if I felt like I was innocent. There’s probably no way to answer the question of whether we turned Twitter into something monstrous or it made monsters of us. There is no computer program like the one Wilford Brimley uses in The Thing, preternaturally capable of providing precise figures for the most nebulous of queries. (“Probability that one or more team members may be infected by intruder organism: 75%.” Probability that this is the only movie in which your upper lip will not be interwoven with 16 pounds of artisanal mustache:  99.8%.) What I do know is that “social media” has sharpened my crueler instincts, filed down my capacity for empathy. There are small examples, like how unjustifiably enraged a mere baby photo or a post about walking a dog can make me. Then there are incidents like a few years ago, when I started such a vicious fight with one of my aunts about Obama that I broke down in tears on the phone with my mother and refused to come to Thanksgiving.

I used to believe (with sincerity or as a coping mechanism, I’m not sure) that this anger I carried was a weapon. That I could help get gun control passed or John Boehner impeached if me and my fellow rage junkies just tweeted about it enough. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about something a friend said to me once. One of my favorite people, but still someone who I’ve probably spewed garbage at for having the gall to post a status about a band I don’t like. “Matt,” she wrote, in reply to whatever my latest self-righteous screed had been (about the Republican party, or directors of mediocre comic book films, or the sun). “You need to get control of this anger. It is going to eat you.” And she’s right. I can feel it. Anger and fear and disappointment and desperation building inside of me until they form something real and physical, alien but familiar, something I made but never asked for. A thing, roiling and burning in the bottom of my chest.

* * *

For years, I’ve maintained that The Thing has the greatest ending in the history of film. This is how we live, I thought/said/drunkenly yelled at a cat. We can never really know anyone. Worse, we can never know where the monsters are. I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking the ending is great—the lighting! Keith David’s voice! the eerie drone of that Ennio Marcone score!—but I’m beginning to change my mind about why. Watching it this year, my nihilistic thirst for Apocalypse blunted by gray Oregon skies and the realization that I want to live as long as I can, as happily as I can, for the people I love, I have a take on the movie that my younger self would never have entertained. Just the idea of it would have enraged him. R.J. MacReady, paranoid, angry, convinced he has the monopoly on truth. He is The Thing’s real villain. (Kurt, if you’re out there, forgive me?) From start to finish he expects and believes the worst, taking for granted the nightmare version of human nature. That’s the problem. If you believe that anyone can be a monster, then everyone already is. Believing in monsters is the best way to find them. All that worldview gets you is nihilism, mutually assured destruction. MacReady gives the thing exactly what it wants. Division. Anger. Fear.

It’s the same thing we all do, every day. When I get on Twitter, I’m not looking to connect, to network, to take a quick break from more pressing matters. These are all reasonable uses for Twitter, and if I could get away with lying to you here I would probably resort to one of them now. What I’m really look for is fuel. I’m looking for something to be angry about. I’m looking for someone to hate. It’s not about knowledge or activism or doing good. It’s about feeding my rage. Pornography for the Apocalyptically inclined. I’m looking to tick boxes on my list of reasons why I wish it would all burn down. But what I’m beginning to realize—slowly, ever so slowly—is that there aren’t any monsters out there. I wish there were. It would make everything so much easier. What we have to reckon with instead is much scarier: ourselves.

I want another ending. I want to imagine that we are better than our worst instincts. I want to work together. I don’t want to freeze to death in the Antarctic night. I don’t want to keep my distance, looking for any funny moves. I don’t want to pass a bottle back and forth warily, squinting around ice crystals forming in my eyelashes. I don’t want to burn alive, clutching some nameless enemy to my chest, immolating the two of us in living fire. I want to sit close. Near the fire, sure, but not too near. I want to pass a glass back and forth. (It’s not J&B in my ending, either. It’s something good. Something I’ve saved just for the occasion). I want to hold the whisky in my hands, warming it with my palms the way a beloved friend taught me years and years ago. I want to hand it across the table. It’s your turn. It’s all right. Take a sip.


image: Bob Schofield