Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frenemy Mine

My brother and I watched the Bill Maher movie Religulous last week, and I found it highly amusing. Bill Maher comes off as charming, good-natured, and his comic timing is impeccable. I completely disagree with most of his viewpoints (his opinion that all religions are fungible, that is, that the little old lady clutching her hymnbook is as responsible for 9/11 as the maddest fatwah-spewing mullah, seems to me to be particularly simplistic) but I enjoyed watching his film in a religious sense more than I like most "religious" TV and films that I've seen. I suppose it is the chance to hone your dialectical skills with someone over the Big Questions (does God exist, and if so, what do we owe him?) as opposed to quibbling over minutia (our right to wear our hair wet to church on Sundays) that engages my attention. In other words, Maher knows it is a Big Question, and that puts him in a category apart from many "atheists" and "agnostics" who simply assume their position without much thought so they can do as they like, just as many "religious" people assume their position to go with the flow and never make an ethical decision based on their belief from Sunday to Sunday. The fact that Maher is on the opposite side from me on the Big Question puts us in a weirdly personal relation on an intellectual plane.

It was pondering this paradoxical position that led me to identify for myself a motif common in movies and TV shows. I call it the "We Are Much Alike" moment. There comes a point in the conflict between Hero and Villain when the Villain pauses and asks, "Why are we fighting, you and I? We are more alike than those common slobs that you're defending. Join me, and we'll rule the world!"

This usually happens at a point where the Villain has had a taste of what a formidable opponent the Hero can be. Now he may just be stalling for time to gather his strength and wits for a new attack, but he may be seriously trying to co-opt the Hero to his side. And if that is the case, I believe he tries it not only for the power he could gain, but for two deeper psychological reasons.

The Villain wants, as the Judge says of Moriarty in They Might Be Giants, "a different kind of victory." I think first of all he wants to confirm to himself that his decisions were correct, that anyone as smart or powerful as he is would make the same choices he has, if they only had it explained correctly to them. And second I think the Villain wants company; his position makes him isolated and he wants someone (if only as a junior partner) to confide in and understand him.

Now a Hero faced with this choice can have three reactions. The first is straight from the heart and amounts to crying "Never!" and attacking. The second is saying "I know we're a lot alike, and that's why I have to kill you," and attacking. And the third (and I think most evolved) is saying, "I know we are, and that's why you should join me." This almost never works, but at least the Hero knows he's tried as he attacks.

There is, of course, the dread fourth reaction, in which the Hero does join the Villain. This does not turn out well. It happens to Anakin Skywalker, and he is bilked out of Palpatine's promises and placed under a more abject relationship to the Emperor than he ever was in to any Jedi Master. It happens in a rather ambiguous manner to Clarice Starling, depending on your point of view; whether Hannibal Lector released her from societal conditioning that held her back or brainwashed her to be his own perfect mate is a moot point.

The "We Are Much Alike" moment happens in lot of movies and TV shows, as I've said. It happens between Gandalf and Saruman, and it is a constant concern of Frodo and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The differentiation between himself and his foes is always on Batman's mind in all his incarnations. It is the conflict that drives the entire first series of Trigun, where Knives is constantly trying to force Vash into his nihilistic, egocentric point of view. In the Dragonball series, Goku goes through it with all his antagonists, and has a pretty good track record of converting them to his benevolent point of view.

This may all sound to some people like simplistic morality play stuff, but it is not. What it is saying is that good and evil are absolute, but people are not, or need not be; that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. And that is an encouraging and dynamic thought.

1 comment:

John said...

An interesting observation well illustrated...You should join me, it would be wise, friend!