Reasons to be evil
An eclectic taste in films can have odd results. Having seen, within days of each other, Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004), and The Wraith (Mike Marvin, 1986), I noticed that “cockroaches” appeared in both as a term of abuse. Clearly we’re not in Buddhist territory here, where all life forms have some claim to sanctity. It’s also obvious that these films come from different genres; and while realism and fantasy aren’t always separated by the issue of seriousness, in this case the end products do seem to be universes apart.
Meanwhile, much as we enjoy the huge variety offered by world cinema, are world events really sharpening our sensitivities to the onscreen treatment of violence and verbal abuse? If something like this is happening, there might be at least one gain from heightened alertness that is worth the pain of acquisition: more of us than ever are getting the chance to see that the “war of civilisations” between Islam and the West is only one aspect of a much bigger phenomenon something we might describe as le grand jeu sans frontieres, or, less elegantly, Find-the-Cockroach.
Probably the first piece of cinema to set my own antennae quivering in this kind of atmosphere was Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963, right). By the time I saw it in the late ’60s I was out of my adolescence and more suspicious of the story’s analysis than of the humanity it purported to analyse. Peter Brook was already dividing critics between admirers of his “depth” and those like me who were doomed to incurable shallowness. (Some websites credit Peter Hall with the filming of Golding’s 1954 novel; in a “what-if” exercise, we’d then be talking about something that sacrificed fashionable intellectual gloom for just as fashionable intellectual sexiness, not the other way round.)
Back in what passes for reality, Lord of the Flies, as book and film, still seems to me to be based on a dubious premise: put civilised human beings in extremis and the Beast, complete with head-hunting and conch-blowing rituals, will inevitably emerge as though there were some ugly larva of the soul just waiting for the right circumstances to pupate. However, another view actually scarier to contemplate shows that we barely have to scratch the surface of civilisation before we find any number of soft-wired reasons to be evil. I almost said “excuses”; but, reminded by Hotel Rwanda of the large numbers of people involved, it seems that the perpetrators of genocide are as human as the rest of us. Among other things, this means that when it comes to the business of mass murder, they/we actually require a halfway-convincing rationale, not just any old excuse.
On the other hand, how rapidly these “convincing rationales” kick in, as it were, is disturbing enough in itself. When more detail began to emerge about the people responsible for the London bombings of 7/7, it turned out that one of them a quiet young classroom assistant in a local junior school became a full-fledged killer, not so much by prolonged contact with extremist imams or fundamentalist literature, but by watching films that graphically displayed the effects of war on the bodies of “fellow Muslims.” Note that, to become a mass murderer, it isn’t enough to feel sorrow and anger over the deaths of mere fellow human beings: the dead and injured on whose behalf we wreak destruction occasionally sacrificing ourselves at the same time must be “our own.” Also, though this could just be a coincidence, it seems that those we punish for crimes against “us” should be, as far as possible, unsuspecting and even more helpfully unarmed.
For some, Hotel Rwanda, which helped spark these bleak ruminations, is “clumsily directed,” as though speaking of a disappointing art film. But a story this powerful surely requires no very fancy footwork and, on the contrary, guides us all the more steadfastly through hell via a single, undeviating point of view. Don Cheadle’s portrayal of a hotel manager caught up in genocidal violence needs to be especially convincing; and indeed it is. More than any question about finding a “real” Rwandan to play the lead, this film left me feeling glad that a way was found to reach large white audiences when the hero and his family happened to be black Africans.
If we look now at the more significant question of what heroism really means, then Paul Rusesabagina could remind us of Odysseus at his most desperately wily, or beleaguered Henry V before Agincourt. Such stories come to mind because they also show their heroes as moral pragmatists at best; and the reason for this, of course, is that not being magically invincible they too had to act under threat of imminent destruction.
In terms of film treatment, human heroes are seldom upstaged by saints if only because their chief opponents are, naturally enough, human villains; these, of course, are not to be confused with supernatural demons, like those of, say, Der Golem (Paul Wegener, 1915) or Nosferatu (FW Murnau, 1922); even less are they confusable with superheroes, like the one driving an indestructible hotrod in The Wraith (right). It seems superfluous to add that, for almost a century now, general audiences have been coping pretty well with the most powerful moral chiaroscuro of which filmmakers in all their smoke-and-mirrors sorcery are capable.
Why, then, is it so troubling to learn about the young man who, as a direct result of watching films, gave his life and that of many others for “fellow Muslims”? We know that what he’d been watching was propaganda and like all such material not exactly designed to allow the viewer maximum space in which to draw his or her own conclusions. It was certainly more than blandly reassuring to me when, in a recent interview, Sam Mendes spoke of this kind of basic restraint in the context of his latest film, Jarhead, 2005.
From first responses, it looks as if the general tone of that film is all too ambiguous and uncertain; and in the context of public opinion in Europe and America over the Iraq war, this suggests an unflattering faithfulness to reality. But even if Jarhead turns out to have failed where American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002) succeeded, it has at least respected an important principle of moral and artistic good faith on which a large part of our cultural well-being depends.
Here it seems clear that professionalism, in moral terms, entails more than musical soundtracks, voice-overs, rolling titles, and so on, important as these details are. In this context, I have no doubt that, at the technical level, the stirring documentaries watched by at least one of the London bombers were made to the best attainable standards; and, since they are probably still widely available in DVD format and on the Internet, ironically enough they form part of the same technology presently causing so many creative explosions in world cinema.
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If William Golding and Peter Brook seem to have underestimated our moral fragility, they do at least face up to the existence of a problem. Taken on their own terms, they are countering a sentimental view of childhood that was particularly rampant in late Victorian novels and early silent cinema. On the other hand, if Der Golem, or even Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926), ignores the over-definitive claims about child development made by early psychoanalysis, for some of us this only adds to their survival prospects.
By now, the sheer plurality and variety of cinema is foremost among changes that make it difficult to see, for example, a monolithic Graeco-Roman architecture underlying all our psychic processes. This is not to deny any of the particular glories of western civilisation; but, where these appear to be ghosts in an even bigger machine, there’s reason to thank cinema for allowing us glimpses of this larger phenomenon.
The point is that global culture hard as it is to define gets harder by the day to dismiss; indeed, some of us argue that seeing Culture as a universal phenomenon is fast becoming the only realistic way to approach the subject. Such an approach in no way diminishes awareness of its local, for-good-or-ill nature; and, among other interesting effects, it also helps us to examine all those essentially irresolvable but necessary arguments about whether we need more or occasionally less of the stuff.
In terms of dumbing down, The Wraith is a comic book brilliantly transferred to film. In this respect it compares well with Der Golem (right) also an illustrated storybook that, by the magic of cinema, comes to life; in particular, the sets of the ghetto in old Prague continue to enchant world audiences. Meanwhile, in both films the threat of violence is all around: in the narrow streets of the ghetto horribly prescient, in 1915 and in the small towns and on the deserted highways of 1980s Arizona. Also, in their denouements these films are alike in providing unashamed rabbit-from-the-hat resolutions: evil is simply not going to be allowed to triumph in either case.
Der Golem could be seen in this sense as fantasy at the crudest level of wish fulfillment; but its querying of superpowers compared with their treatment in The Wraith makes such a judgement crude in itself. In the “modern” fairy-tale, Youth possesses a steely resilience not only to violent injustice but to all social corruption and an even bigger trick to the corruptions of mortality itself. If that’s not enough, it violently imposes its own idea of justice without the slightest moral qualm or the slightest effective hindrance from any quarter, least of all from the sheriff’s office. Oh and the hero gets to drive off into the sunset with the prettiest girl in town.
Let me correct any impression that I’m treating such fantasies as intrinsically wrong or harmful. On the contrary, there’s a strong argument to suggest that, without a certain amount of basic psychological maturity on the part of the reader/viewer, such storylines would lose a lot of their tongue-in-cheek appeal; this implies that their natural audience would not, for example, be stacked out with many Mark Chapmans. Just as darkly, Holden Caulfield if he sat through such a movie at all would surely find yet more evidence for his thesis that “all is phony.”
It’s a strange irrelevance, no doubt, but if Chapman had been less like his literary hero in Catcher in the Rye and more willing, for a couple of brain-free hours, to imagine himself in a happy identity with The Wraith, there’s an alternative universe in which John Lennon still lives and breathes and, even more importantly, makes a big nuisance of himself in areas of western foreign policy. Meanwhile, we must make do with Harold Pinter achieving much the same effect, for quick confirmation of which try the Web under “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.”
There’s no very obvious way to test the assertion with which I’ll now conclude; but it seems to me to follow from what’s been said already that, far from watching too many films that clichéd accusation once routinely hurled at anyone showing signs of “inappropriate anger” when it comes to impressionable young minds, the bigger danger may well be watching too few.