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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, April 22, 2011

POSTMODERN HEROISM

"Unleash the relativism!"

Clash Poster
Recently I watched the new remake of Clash of the Titans. It was released as a 3-D movie, but it was refitted for 3-D rather than built to be one from the start, so apparently the effects weren't very impressive in the theater. I don't much care for 3-D movies, because they inevitably have scenes of things thrusting at the camera like Dr Tongue on SCTV. Its rarely part of the drama or storytelling, just something thrown into make you jump and say "that looks 3-D!!"

Overall it wasn't a terrible movie, but as a fan of mythology I found the story a bit curious. The original story of Perseus was honestly handled more accurately in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief than this flick, despite the big changes in the setting.

The original story of Perseus was of a demigod (son of Zeus and beautiful girl Danaƫ) who arrives to save Andromeda from the wrath of the gods in the form of the Cetus (or Ketos), a horrendous monster. Andromeda's mom Cassiopeia was a famous beauty and she boasted that she was as beautiful than the daughters of Poseidon (Nereids). Perseus goes and has several adventures (the original Clash was closer than the new one to the original mythology) and ends up stoning Cetus with the head of medusa, marrying Andromeda and eventually ruling the land of Argos (which is in Ethiopia), although like most myths there were alternate endings. The gods were so impressed by this act of bravery and heroism that they put Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Cetus in the stars after they died.

In the movie, Perseus is a demigod, but there's some war between men and gods, who require human emotion to survive. Zeus wants men to love him and claims he created humans (the myths tell us that Prometheus did), and their worship gives him power. Humans have rebelled, and are rejecting the gods and in a scene where they knock down a huge, amazing statue of Zeus, Perseus' adoptive family is killed by Hades and a bunch of harpies along with the soldiers who knocked it over. Hades is trying to be set free to terrorize the world because he grows more powerful with fear, so he manipulates Zeus into letting him do what he wants.

Here's where the story gets a bit odd, because "doing whatever he wants" is apparently getting mad at Cassiopeia for saying her daughter Andromeda is more beautiful than Aphrodite, and telling Argos that they have to sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken in ten days or they'll all die. Perseus refuses to "be a demigod" so he rejects gifts given him by Zeus on his quest to save Andromeda and kill the Kraken, thus somehow weakening Hades. How this is going to make all humans fear the gods more is unclear, since Argos is a small town on the edge of the ocean and Perseus came from an entirely different place, as did several other characters.

To a certain degree, as I always say, some changes have to happen in stories when they go from one media to another. For modern viewers, a castaway boy adopted by a family falling in love with his adoptive sister (the original myth) is uncomfortable, to say the least, so the whole story was changed. That is a understandable. In the movie, he marries Io, who is a wise and athletic teacher and guardian of Perseus, although she had absolutely nothing to do with the story. Her inclusion was primarily to get a hot girl into the story and have her do cool stuff to attract female viewers and give Perseus a love interest. But more was changed in Clash of the Titans than certain cultural references.

Why these changes? Well it has to do with the worldview of the writers and of Hollywood in general. Think back to Braveheart, what was that movie about? The scream of the dying William Wallace tells it all: freedom. Historically, Scots weren't fighting to be free, they were fighting to be self governed. They didn't want liberty, human rights, and democracy, they just wanted the English to go away so they could run things themselves. Come to think of it, they still do. The problem is, a bunch of lords fighting to run things themselves instead of English lords isn't as compelling to modern writers as some grand struggle for liberty.

And the liberty they seek isn't real clear either. They don't speak of rights much, they don't have much discussion of what they'd be free to do, the liberty seems to mostly consist of making the bad guys go away. They want autonomy and license, to be able to do what they want without someone oppressing them, which is a pretty strong leftist theme of the powerful vs the disempowered, but the Greeks knew nothing about that kind of idea.

And here's where the key to the worldview comes in. These battles aren't a struggle of right versus wrong, or heroism against evil. They are a battle of the oppressed versus the oppressor. The original Perseus legend presumed that the gods were worthy of praise and worship, and Perseus was simply protecting someone he thought was hot and wanted to marry. Perseus didn't defy the gods, he just attacked a titan (Cetus) and killed it. He thought a girl being eaten up for her mom's boast was wrong, so he fought the evil creature and won.

There's been a pretty big shift in popular culture away from good and evil, from right and wrong, and especially away from heroism being a man standing up for what is good and right versus any evil regardless of the cost to himself. Perseus has to practically be forced to take action, and when he does he's selfish, petulant, and refuses to use his abilities to protect others, resulting in dozens of deaths. In the end he kills the beast but he does so not to help someone else, but because of his rage against the gods for what they did to his family and to fulfill his father's dream of a world where men stood up to the gods and were free.

ConstellationsThe problem with the entire movie is that for most of it, there's no clear reason to side with the anti-god crowd. In fact, they come across as not just dumb but pointless. There is absolutely no depiction of oppression or cruelty by the gods, only sudden, violent retribution for rebellion against them. Perseus' adopted dad complains that a bad fishing day is because the Gods are angry and taking away the fish, but there's no reason to believe this other than his insistence. His wife tells him that the Gods are good and help them, but there's no reason to believe that, either.

In short, the writing was poor, but more than that it displayed a common theme in modern media: there's no heroism, only people doing stuff out of angry vengeance. There's no right and wrong, just oppression and oppressed.

Consider Unforgiven, one of my favorite movies. Like Lonesome Dove before it, this is a postmodern western. There are no good guys in Unforgiven. The conflict arises because a man is angry at a hooker. The hooker is described as being horribly disfigured, but honestly she looks pretty good despite the few fading scars. The protagonists are desperadoes out to murder people for money, the sheriff is a sadistic brute, and the girls are hateful harpies who reject an attempt by the cowboys to make up for their misdeeds because they hunger for blood.

Eastwood's character doesn't act out of any desire for right and wrong or justice, he's just mad that his friend was killed and put out as a prop, and goes on a drunken rampage. Nobody comes across as anything but selfish, petty, mean, and brutal in the entire film.

Lonesome Dove does the same thing. Nobody does anything for a good reason, they just do it. The Texas Rangers are sort of presented as heroes, but neither of them does good. One doesn't care for how his son is being mistreated and delivers a savage beating with a coil of rope, then pulls a gun on a bartender for not being respectful enough. They go on a long cattle drive in which several people die pointless, meaningless deaths, and on the way meet up with a horribly evil villain, who they don't even catch. They hang one of their friends, a former ranger, for being with a gang of bad guys and not single-handedly shooting them all down, apparently. Their black buddy dies an idiotic death while they all stand around and watch. A young Irish boy dies in a river from a freak attack by dozens of snakes.

In the end, one of the rangers never reconciles with his son who is an ungrateful jerk who whines that his daddy doesn't love him in exactly the way he commands. That ranger drags his buddy's body across a thousand miles or more of tough terrain for no particular reason except he wants to bury him in a certain spot.

The ranger, Call, goes through the motions of heroism by facing great difficulty and trial on a long painful quest but the purpose is utterly empty and devoid of meaning. His buddy didn't seem to care particularly where he was buried, the hooker that fell in love with him loses her one love who is basically charming but selfish and lazy.

Larry McMurtry was amazed that anyone would like his book, because he deliberately wrote it to "deconstruct" and demolish the western myth. His book savagely attacks the cowboy, the Texas Ranger, the strong silent type, and nobility in general. Sure, the story is entertaining and performances by the main characters was so good the show is worth watching but ultimately, like so many modern movies, it was soulless. The list goes on and on, with shows like Pulp Fiction being entertaining and interesting but without any redeeming feature or uplifting point. No heroes, no good guys, no right or wrong, just events.

It isn't that I think every movie has to deliberately have some uplifting message and moral character, its that they deliberately avoid any such hint. Good storytelling contains these elements, rightly done, stories will uplift and teach without meaning to or trying to. I don't want some propaganda or tract when I watch something like Clash of the Titans and that's the very problem: that's what we get when you intentionally rewrite a story to leave out right and wrong, justice, heroism, and good versus evil.

These efforts may be well done, entertaining, exciting, and fun, but they're devoid of purpose and point. Nobody learns to be a better person, no one is engaged to consider right and wrong, and most importantly, there are no heroes. Even Braveheart, which is presented as a vast fight of good versus evil with a hero ends up a bloody revenge movie without a clear purpose other than making the English look bad and die. Granted, that appears to be Mel Gibson's lifetime goal - people say he's anti-Semitic, but he seems more clearly anti-English to me.

In the end, our culture suffers from lacking any clear and repeated examples of good versus evil and right versus wrong in our entertainment. One of the best ways to raise kids to do good is to show them good and people doing good in a positive light. Lacking that, all they do learn is violence, selfishness, and the nobility of having nobody tell you what to do, which is anarchy, not democracy.

Thankfully there are exceptions. 300 glorified fighting for liberty and truth, the Batman series and first two Spider-Man movies were about doing right at any personal cost, because its the right thing to do. Its out there in shows like NCIS, usually, so we're not totally without these elements. Its just that since Hollywood is so removed from the basic concepts of virtue, absolute ethics, and justice, they can't even understand how to write such a story, let alone even consider it. As a result the whole culture pays a price.

*A related post: The Terminator's Unexamined Worldview, in which John Connor tells the Terminator "you just can't."

5 Comments:

Anonymous Eric said...

This is a bit of a tangent, but your post reminded me of it. My wife got me watching the ABC show 'Parenthood' awhile back (loosely based on the 80's movie with Steve Martin), and while it is overall just an 'average' show, one character really stands out as a sort of example of what you are talking about here, and also as a rare strong male presence in a popular American drama.


This scene from last week's episode, between Zeke Braverman and his grand-daughter Amber who has been unrepentant about a drunk driving accident she was in recently, really got to me. It is rare that you see a strong man portrayed in such a positive light, especially in relation to having wisdom to share with the younger generation. Craig T. Nelson is always great in manly roles, but he deserves an award for this scene:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/233852/parenthood-a-trip-to-the-junkyard

2:56 PM, April 22, 2011  
Anonymous Christopher Taylor said...

I love Craig T Nelson, he's a great actor and a good guy from what I've been able to find out.

3:21 PM, April 22, 2011  
Blogger Philip said...

Lacking that, all they do learn is violence, selfishness, and the nobility of having nobody tell you what to do, which is anarchy, not democracy.

Also called libertarianism, but I digress.

Popular culture has pretty much been beating the antihero and institutions-are-bad-and-must-die equines for over half a century. While it can still make for a good story, I have to wonder how much of it is habit.

Your post also reminds me about John Cleese (Monty Python fame) and his explanation of why he moved from London to Bath: while London was a "cosmopolitan city", Bath to him "felt British". Kinda funny coming from a member of a comedy troupe that pretty much mocked everything British.

5:28 PM, April 22, 2011  
Blogger Rich Rostrom said...

"They didn't want liberty, human rights, and democracy, they just wanted the British to go away..."

ITYM English; Scotsmen are British too.

11:19 PM, April 22, 2011  
Anonymous Christopher Taylor said...

True enough, I'll edit that.

8:39 AM, April 23, 2011  

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