Thursday, October 21, 2010
EVIL & FILM
What links these films is the theme of EVIL and also the notion of how films and stories should end. I say should but I don't mean to be coercive. Formulas are useful but they can suck.
Both The Town (2010, dir Ben Affleck) and The Getaway (1972, dir Sam Peckinpah) are about bank robbery and tough guys. Both are good films but they fail in the credibility stakes as the heroes are too heroic, too Superman for us to really believe. It makes us happy but happiness lies in credibility. Yes, my hero really can/could do this. What Affleck and McQueen's characters achieve is ultimately not realistic and thus a let down. Both films address certain areas of realism very well. In The Town we have a great insight into the poor Irish Bostonion community. In The Getaway the psychological and relationship dimension of the central characters is refreshingly complex but...no need to repeat my gripe about realism. What is also problematic - more so in The Town is the idea of Evil which is addressed and gives the film its watchability and profundity. The Affleck character, who is surrounded by evil fellows and who is a violent thief, basically, encounters good in the beautiful woman who is present at the first robbery. But one example of the immaturity of the handling of evil is where the beautiful woman has had a problem from some people on the estate she lives on. The Affleck character just goes and beats them up. His remorse ultimately is shallow and the problem of evil in this film is painted over by the generosity of superman Affleck at the end of the film.
The Getaway makes no bones about evil in that there are no scruples about it and there is a greater evil in one of the fellow bank robbers of the Steve McQueen character. This is a kind of template for No Country for Old Men: deepest evil's pursuit of bad (but not as evil) protagonist. There are real scum out there and McQueen gets rid of them. But really he is also scum. No one wants to be robbed. But we do invest in wrong-doing hard men and this investment is made effectively when they are up against greater evil, stomach turning evil. (There are gentlemen and women bandits, probably, but they must be really rare).
Evil and its subtle insinuations are explored in Haneke's White Ribbon (2009, dir Michael Haneke). No simplistic solutions here; no one medium evil versus a greater evil. There are a few spotless characters, like the protagonist, but Evil and brutishness is pervasive among the leading men of the community (Pastor, Doctor, Baron) and their children. Set before WWI this is an unsettling film in which no one is let off the hook and in which the only resolution is the purification which the war brings. Like a number of his films the lack of resolution can lead to a feeling of almost being cheated narratively but the unblinking attempt to look at evil is perhaps so unflinching as again to fall short of the credibilty of greatness that masterpieces achieve.
Dramaturgy needs obstacles. Evil provides a ready and powerful obstacle. But for a narrative to really impress us, how evil is dealt with, the credible nature of its effect and impact is an important factor in the satisfaction felt by an audience and that may have something to do with the Ultimatum Game, which is often used by economists to analyse fairness in transactions.
Simple explanation of the game:
I have 10 gold coins. I must offer you them as a precondition of the game. If you refuse my offer we both go away with nothing.
There is a great chapter on this in The Wisdom of Crowds where capuchin monkeys are offered food in return for pebbles. Exchanges are smooth until one monkey is given a grape for nothing. Then the other monkeys throw away their pebbles and refuse to play.
"In many cultures, people offer "fair" (i.e., 50:50) splits, and offers of less than 20% are often rejected".
In short and at a tangent when it comes to Evil perhaps our mechanism for the Ultimatum game is partly at work.