Sunday, August 21, 2005

Evil Without Hope

Critic Roger Ebert wrote a fascinating essay in August 19th "Chicago Sun Times" in which he suggests that stories containing "evil without hope" are morally and aesthetically wrong. He writes

I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it?

"Chaos," the movie that Ebert uses to make his point, like a movie of a man falling to his death, which can have no developments except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies. Pre-destination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it is self-defeating.

What I object to most of all in "Chaos" is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as [the filmmakers] think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever.
I admire Ebert's essay, but I disagree with it. Of course, I don't disagree that he disliked the film. That would be stupid. Of course he disliked it. And my guess is that I would dislike it too.

But Ebert goes further. He suggests it is aesthetically and morally wrong to depict evil without hope. The moral issue is thorny. To prove his point, Ebert would have to show how such depictions of evil harm people. I doubt he can do that. Or, if he's writing from within a Christian framework, he'd have to show how films like this violate God's law. I'm not a theologian than I am, so maybe someone will show me where I'm wrong, but I can't see how depicting evil without hope violates God's law.

Christianity states that Evil exists. And that there IS hope. And that the hope is God. So I suppose that if I went around saying, "evil exists and there's no hope," I might convince someone that there's no point in them turning to God. And in doing so, I'd be doing evil. But films are FICTION. Surely -- even to a Christian -- it's okay to create a fictional world that is godless.

It's pretty pointless to argue aesthetics, except to say that Ebert and I have different systems. In my system, any story that is PSYCHOLOGICALLY truthful is valid. People often misunderstand this. They say that a story must be true and they define truth to mean some sort of reflection of the real world -- "a mirror held up to nature." But I doubt anyone really has this aesthetic. If they did, they would have to instantly dismiss fantasy, fairy tales, etc. (Unless they actually believe that fairies exist!)

Such people would probably tell me that though a story might be set in a fairy kingdom, it can still contain HUMAN truths -- truths about love, sadness, passion, etc. Which is exactly my point. Those are psychological truths: truths about the way we think and feel.

I suspect this is why an open-minded Christian can enjoy fiction set in a godless world. It's because even the most devout Christian must have moments of doubt. And such fiction would tell the truth of these moments. Similarly, an open-minded atheist might enjoy a story, like "2001," that is set in a universe with gods. Because we all feel the presence of gods at some point in our life. The reality of gods might be a lie, but the FEELING is true.

We all -- sometimes -- feel like evil exists and there's no hope. That is psychological truth. Even if we know it isn't really true in the real world. Or even if we want it not to be true. We sometimes feel that it IS true. And that feeling is real. So a story may portray this truth. In fact, a story that suggest that we ALWAYS feel hope in the sight of evil is telling a lie.

One of the things stories do best -- perhaps the THING they do best -- is to give body to a feeling. Stories can create whole worlds that reflect feelings, rather than our physical reality. This is the way stories are most like dreams. Dream worlds need not be true to nature, but they must (and always are) true to the psychology of the dreamer. Stories are the same. Stories can take our abstract fears and embody them as monsters; they can take our internal loneliness and cast it in the form of a barren, lifeless planet; they can take our anger and restlessness and embody them as explosions and laser battles.

Now there are some feelings that we may hate to feel. We may structure our lives, as best we can, so that we avoid these feelings. If "evil without hope" is one of those feelings for Ebert, then he would do well to avoid this film. And a more honest review would say, "This movie makes me feel hopeless,
I don't like the feeling of hopelessness. If, like me, you don't want to feel hopeless, avoid this movie. Because it's pretty effective at conveying hopelessness."

And clearly the movie IS effective (or at least it was for Ebert). Ebert doesn't claim it was boring -- or that it tried to convey hopelessness but failed. He claims it succeeded and that made it a bad film.

Some of us enjoy movies about those feelings we try to avoid in life. (Though "enjoy" is the wrong word. Maybe "need" is better.) I am one such person. There are many feelings that I try hard to avoid in real life. Loneliness is one; fear is another. Perhaps it's because I can't entirely avoid them that I seek out films about these feelings. I KNOW I can't avoid them. I KNOW I must confront them. It's so much safer to confront them in a story than it is in real life. I need that safety net.

Ebert writes
The message of futility and despair in "Chaos" is unrelieved, and while I do not require a "happy ending," I do appreciate some kind of catharsis. As the Greeks understood tragedy, it exists not to bury us in death and dismay, but to help us to deal with it, to accept it as a part of life, to learn about our own humanity from it. That is why the Greek tragedies were poems: The language ennobled the material.

Ebert's mistake is to think that the catharsis must be intrinsic to the story itself. But it needn't be. The story can set up a situation for which the viewer provides his own catharsis. As-long-as catharsis takes place, the story has done its job. I suspect that Ebert's catharsis might have been writing his essay. Sometimes a catharsis can be total rejection of the story. "I damn you and will have nothing to do with you!"

Such movies can -- for me at least -- provide a catharsis while I view them. When I watch a movie of "evil with no hope," I may cry or clutch the hand of the person I'm with. But I will give in to the truth of my feelings -- those truths I've been working so hard to avoid. And that "giving in" IS cathartic.

I so need to give in once in a while, because fighting the feelings is such hard hard exhausting work. Once in a while I need to say to the devil, "Yes! I know you will win! I'm yours! Take me!" Even if I know that the devil will not (necessarily) win.

And then I need to wake up from this dream. I need to know that the dream was just a dream -- that the movie was just a movie. I need to know that (in a dream only) I hit bottom. And that I'm still alive; that I still can love, drink wine, relax with a book, and -- for a while -- avoid bad feelings.

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