Monday, May 25, 2009

Sometimes you just can't side with the hero

At the moment I have some personal issues that keep me away from the computer 99% of the time. This has been going on for about a month now which is why I haven't completed my first draft of Naked Souls or done any blog posts for a while. That being said I've been watching A LOT of movies. One in particular inspired me to write and I have a few days of computer access so here it is.

I'm sure this has happened to most of us seeing as the morality guiding any particular hero in any particular story is guided by that of the author whether implicit or explicit. I mean few people can question breaking up a mugging, but The Authority drowning an entire nation just to clear out the dictators in power or basically walking into the U.N. and saying "we're taking over." Or in The Simpsons video game, when you play through the Marge or Lisa levels where it's fun to play through but when you think about it you've just struck a blow for (not against) censorship or you've just violated all kinds of property rights and deprived hundreds of people of a way to make a living. Along these lines I could probably do an entire entry on Captain Planet, but I do want to stay on what got me started.

There's a film from the 1973 called The Wicker Man that presents a scenario that creates this type of dilemma for me. There was a recent remake that traded a number of the ideas and themes of the original which would not fly in today's society for an extreme feminism so it's of no concern to me since, at least for me I actually experience the level of ambiguity that the author had intended.

But the key idea behind this movie is that there is a police officer from the mainland United Kingdom who goes to a small island called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Once he gets there he realizes it's a island that still practices old time paganism and has an extremely pro-sex bent. Beautiful girls dance nude for rituals. The phallic sexual nature of the Maypole and Spring's direct relation to fertility is explicitly discussed in a class of young children. People have sex out in the open in large numbers. Christianity is openly mocked and in general the approach to life is far more rational coming from the pagans.

This leads to a conflict in the detective. He is devoutly christian and he is often talking about bringing down the wrath of the mainland's government to end the religious freedom of the people of Summerisle between leads in the case. But this leads to the film's ultimate contradiction.

The pagans are a largely agrarian society who still make sacrifices in order to ensure a good harvest. The previous year's harvest failed and so this year the gods will require a human sacrifice. The officer is convinced that the girl he is in search of is intended as the sacrifice, though he is proven wrong.

The whole search for her was an elaborate ruse to draw him to the island. For he himself was a far greater sacrifice. He is a representative of a king (through his legal standing), he comes to the place of sacrifice as a fool/king for a day (he steals this costume in order to infiltrate the festivities at the key moment... though once he's there it's quite clear he has actually come as a fool), and he is a virgin. He is thus sacrificed for the harvest.

The problem I have with this movie is that I side far too strongly with the "villains." They talk sense and seem to actively be working to improve their society while the "hero" is happy to see it stagnate. They sacrifice the "hero" but they give him dozens of opportunities to opt out. One of which is an offer to have part of his status of a perfect sacrifice ruined by a night of passion with the most beautiful girl in town. By the time he's sacrificed you certainly feel that he deserves it.

The worst part of the whole problem is that he always frames his arguments in the form of "My mysticism is better than your mysticism." Meaning that the arbitrary things he believes are more valid than the arbitrary things they believe. Never once does he approach things from a standpoint of "there is no rational justification for sacrifice." This simply makes the pagans seem even more noble. Their religion calls for absurd things occasionally and they don't shy from them whereas he would, while still claiming them as a value.

In short he wants to fight everything about this culture except the one thing that deserves to be fought. He spends the whole film feeling a sense of superiority over the pagans which by the end is proven to be clearly unjustified. And when faced with a lethal fate from a religion which is not his, the only thing he can do is quote bible verses.

I can't see the pagans as evil, and I can't see him as not deserving his fate. Though the feeling is a bit cleaner than my other examples in that I don't feel like I've been made an accessory to a horrible crime, ironically.