Sunday, November 4, 2012

Halloween Postscript:

What is the fascination Americans have with the undead? Vampires and zombies and wrights (read GRR Martin) and werewolves and immortal enemies of Asgaard fill our screen with increasing levels of gore and violence.  Even Abraham Lincoln must address bloodlusty creatures before he can rid the country of the bonds of slavery.  There’s some spillover too.  Regular people in a post-apocalyptic world must be destroyed.  Who saw Book of Eli?

My class of college freshmen chose the undead and comic superheroes for film reviews.  There was no essay on Jane Ayre or Bowling for Columbine or even The Notebook. Presentations in class fell on Halloween, I grant, but that date was coincidental.

Students were invested in the series The Walking Dead or Paranormal Activity and followed the characters as they also follow the Kardashian sisters.  On, no.  Oh, no, no, no, no.  Most likely, there’s a movie in the works where Kim and sisters are vampires --  maybe good vampires ridding the world of dallying sports stars!  LOL!

So I chewed on this issue of our fascination with the undead in movies and on TV. I have a working hypothesis.  The world has shrunk and our post-WWII military-industrial complex is too big for the size of our enemies.  We cannot fire the big guns after the murder of an ambassador because we need the country that harbors the terrorists as friends with oil benefits.

There’s no longer a need for a beach head and heroism under fire and strategic deployment of aircraft carriers except to aid New Yorkers who need gasoline so they can shovel sand out of houses with no electricity.  We are no longer the world’s police, but rather the world’s primary caregiver.

The new normal poses a specific problem for moviemakers.  How to show acts of heroism when the enemy is an illiterate unemployed gun-nut, probably a virgin, riled up by religious leaders hiding their own failures to the community, fresh from a training camp where he just learned how to fire shoulder-mounted grenades?

From Here to Eternity was on cable last weekend.  Burt Lancaster grabs the machine gun that is meant for a tripod mount and fires at overhead Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor.  A grimace of determination, muscles taut, and no jiggling fat on his perfect torso.  I got vapors of Arnold or Sly or Jason or Vin firing the big guns to save comrades and set the world straight.  Except we aren’t fighting overwhelming forces anymore.  We bow to oil sheiks and bow again to Chinese financiers, and laud a new socialism at the Nobel Prize ceremony.

The world was shrinking while Stallone completed a series of Rambo movies.  First, he displayed misplaced aggression in a narrow-minded southern town which, if not politically correct, was forgivable. In the second movie Rambo returned to Indochina to rescue soldiers who were left behind. Later he journeyed to a vaguely drawn Middle Eastern country – maybe Caucasus that nobody knows where it is – to rescue his one trusted friend.  The bad guys in this series kept changing because the world had changed.  We’re now friends with Cambodia and former Soviet satellite countries.  Our movies must reflect the parity of competing with emerging countries for scarce resources.

So the movies turned to the undead because the hero can kill large numbers of them without compunction.  Heroism survives. Sword fights, up-close decapitation, men on fire, general maiming and severing of limbs, destruction of the evil installation.  The hero can prove his worth to the community if he kills zombies and wrights.

And orcs.  In LOTR the castle lord and small band of heroes mount horses to exit the castle and take the fight to the sea of orcs who are breaking down the walls of the keep. Our heroes ride down a ramp into the overwhelming odds of enemy forces, and some orcs fall off the ramp from the crowding.  Viewers don’t think, “It’s a shame that orc with the misshapen skull had to die. He only wanted what’s best for his family.”  They’re orcs; they have no souls.

Take the problem of Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie work for opposing government agencies. A contract is taken out to kill them both, god knows why, so they run and fight an unrelenting force of contract killers. Except the enemy here are supposedly real Americans working for the government.  The filmmakers resolved this problem of killing large numbers of our own kind by suiting the agents with black helmets like motorcyclists wear.  We don’t care if they die: we didn’t know them.

And how does a college freshman absorb this turnabout in American movies where the heroes are preserved, but the bad guys must morph into an alien force (think Prometheus) with no redeeming value?

I tried to start a discussion in class about the difference between Tony Stark and Captain America in The Avengers. Captain America was a product of government engineering and kept to a narrow moral code of leadership and duty in adversity. Tony Stark didn’t recognize the imperatives of duty and sacrifice.  He was busy playing games of one-upmanship with rival corporate CEOs – self-centered and reveling in gadgets and strategic maneuvers that trip up the other superhero on his own special power.

Captain America seemed stiff and stilted in the movie, adhering to a code reinforced under Truman in a time of adversity when any American could save another citizen through acts of altruism and teamwork – and annihilation of enemy cities.  Except now the weapons of mass destruction must point into another galaxy so our fragile planet is not abused.

Better to kill the undead. You can kill them as many times as you want with no overtones of political incorrectness.

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