Friday, March 27, 2015

"Blaming The Storyteller"

In all the years I watched movies and TV shows, there has always been a “Bad Guy”, somebody the “Good Guy” could vanquish and then ride off into the sunset, sometimes without even a “Thank you.”  Merely a post factoly curious “Who was that ‘Masked Man?’” 

There were always the Indians.  Terrible.  (Only later revealed to have had some legitimate grievances of their own.)  You wrote westerns, you had a built-in adversary. 


On a less colorfully war-whooping level, there were the railroad executives, the bankers and the businessmen.  Terrible.  Inevitably sporting dead-giveaway mustaches.  When the Indians were starving quietly on their reservations, these capitalistic corruptees filled the gap as the targets of audience hostility. 

But never concurrently.  I do not recall any western where I heard,

“Woe is us!  We’ve got trouble with Indians and the bankers!”

Like my friend who married four women consecutively, evil adversaries ravaged the countryside one adversary at a time.

But there was no time when there was nobody.

The movies appeared to be lucky.  Filling the “Villain Contingent”, materializing one after the other with nary an overlap, there was, without intermission, somebody out there trying to destroy us. 

When the “Indian Trouble” died down, it was, briefly, the Spanish (in the Spanish-American War) and shortly thereafter, the “Huns.”  Then it was the anarchists (whoever they were.)  And when the “anarchist peril” died down – here come the Nazis.  (And the Imperial Japanese, but those were two branches of one totalitarian tree.)  We vanquished the "Axis Powers", and before movies could worry, “Who are we going to hate now?”, in march the Communists.  And the storytellers heave an appreciative sigh of relief.

The Communists fall apart?  No problem.  Say hello to the terrorists.  It’s like they’re at home cataloguing their record collection and the call comes, “You’re up!”  If the Communists had stuck around, the terrorists would be sitting there 1like Prince Charles waiting for the Queen to die.

The identity of the “Them” may have changed over the years, but what never changes, it would seem, is there is always a “Them.”  (There was even a movie called Them (1954), where the “Them” were giant irradiated ants.  (A generic stand-in for "foreigners.")

In all of my rapidly expanding years, I do not recall a moment when we have not experienced a “Them.”  Making me wonder if we don’t inherently require these adversaries.  We must.  Judging by their continual appearance, we seem incapable of living without them.

“Adversarialism is inevitable”, the conventional argument asserts.  “So stay ready at all times.”

The question today is,

What if adversarialism isn't inevitable but we have been conditioned to believe it is  and believing that has turned "adversarialism is inevitable" into a “self-fulfilling prophesy”?  

Such speculations did not originate with me.  Some really smart people have been writing about this.

I recently slogged through a book entitled The Undivided Past, by David Cannadine.  (I’ll tell you what an ordeal it was getting through it.  At the three quarters point, Cannadine himself writes, “If you have persevered through this book to this juncture…”  Even the writer knew it was unbearable.)

Cannadine’s important, albeit boringly articulated, message was that an assiduous study of history reveals that, contrary to conventional assumption, the classifications of identity that fuel brutal ”Us Versus Them” adversarialism were never as monolithic as they’ve been portrayed to be by earlier historians, who are nothing if not their respective eras’ “Storytellers of Record.”

According the Cannadine, the traditional cohorts of personal identification – be they patriotic, religious, racial, class-based, gender related, or whatever – were, upon further examination, more internally fractured than historically depicted rather than being unilaterally united against “The Other.” 

There were some historical periods when these oppositional groupings actually got along.

Of course, we would never know that from the stories we’ve been fed.  And that's where the hammer's coming down.

It is time for the storytellers to own up to their responsibilities, for contributing – in my view substantially – to making this troubled world the internecine nightmare that it is by sticking exclusively to telling one kind of story.

The kind with the savagery in it.  (Taking the “lazy route”, ‘cause it's an easier sell.)

I challenge storytellers everywhere to tax their imaginations, belatedly “balancing the books” with stirring counter-narratives where there is nobody to hate.  (Somebody recently asked me, “Can you tell an interesting story without conflict?”  We don’t think we can, so we have convinced ourselves it is not possible.  And by the way, your story can have conflict.  It just needs a conciliatory center.  Rather than “We win!”  Or in the case of the Alamo, “We lost.”  Followed shortly thereafter by “We win!”)
Movies tell us having an enemy is the natural way of things.  In real life – at least according to one writer – that is not necessarily the case.  What we need now are some memorable stories to back up that under-publicized perspective.

Hit the computers, boys and girls.

You have a long way to catch up.


Brian Fies said...

Good topic! I like this premise for society at large. I can't remember a time when I wasn't afraid of somebody or something "out there," though I wonder if the years between the fall of the USSR and September 2001 might qualify. You may recall scholars writing about "the end of history" because all the big questions had been settled and everything was obviously going to be so boring from now on.

Movies take advantage of many other sources of conflict. Man vs. Nature: disaster movies don't always have villains, and it's hard to hold a grudge against an earthquake or volcano.

A lot of slice-of-life movies lack villains. Annie Hall, Little Miss Sunshine, Sleepless in Seattle. The dramatic tension comes from wondering if and how the protagonists will get what they want. Ditto a lot of romantic comedies.

Citizen Kane has no villain, unless you want to count Kane himself.

My favorite example, because it occurs in a genre well-known for over-the-top villainy, is Star Trek 4 ("the whale movie"). The conflict is Kirk & Co. against a seemingly insurmountable challenge; the only bad guys in the whole movie are hapless whalers who turn up for about 30 seconds at the end.

Eddie Burns said...

The following link shows all wars in which U.S. forces have been involved.

I have no desire to read the book you mentioned, but judging from the time spent at war as opposed to the time spent in peace, I don't think there's much hope for
Cannadine's dream.