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Heroes and Henchmen: The Lost Tale of the Individual

February 20th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) is a majestic tale of a prophecy, a king, his wizardly guardian, and the many heroes of his quest. This makes for awesome battle scenes, no doubt, as well as slow-motion 80s sex scenes that always involve the presence of a fire place, fire pit, or 30-plus candles, and bad 80s hair. A byproduct of battle scenes, and sex that eventually leads to more battle scenes, is a lot of dead people.

Movies generally incorporate this formula for much entertainment, but who’s going to be on the receiving end of a shield bash and a spear to the face? Oh, countless evil henchmen, how we appreciate thee for thy action-opportunity-creating-and-often-ineffectual-bodies: Hide-clad barbarians; tin-can black knights; stormtroopers and TIE pilots; the endless baddies who get tooled by Superman, Batman, and James Bond; the dudes who get their asses kicked one by one by Bruce Lee. In their stories, those dudes are evil – all of them. I’ll grant at the very least the premise that they either had it coming for working for some nefarious jackass, or were simply caught in the middle of what was their ass-kicker’s right to defend himself, avenge his family, champion his people, protect the rainforest fairies and trees, or defend his right to defend himself.

But what about the red-shirted Ensigns of the moving picture world? The good guys who are slaughtered beyond count? I particularly remember one scene in Excalibur in which Arthur, in his campaign to unite the fiefdoms under his control, joins a siege in progress. Countless troops die on both sides, until Arthur reaches the enemy lord, and the lord surrenders when Arthur’s ready to claim his severed testicles in the name of Camelot. But the lord then proclaims his undying allegiance to the great King Arthur. Meanwhile, obscurely in the backdrop, dead and dying soldiers lie scattered everywhere, now allies in being the “good guys,” probably wondering “well, what the fuck was all that for?” But: “the story? it’s not about them.”

This is exactly what I want to talk about here. Fine, it’s a story, I get it, a pretty good one at that. But when warnography is everywhere in which the lives of the pawns don’t matter as long as we’re “looking at the big picture,” how does this translate into our values? Over 4000 soldiers dead in Iraq; don’t worry, we’ve got 1.1 million more of them. 1 million Iraqi civilian casualties; no problemo, they’ve got 27 million more who are freer than ever! Yes, sometimes losses are inevitable, and trade-offs must be made to protect life. Recognition of this fact, however, does not require ideological indoctrination that “little” trade-offs are always acceptable as long as you look at the big picture, because it essentially puts a utilitarian or otherwise freaky morally mystical spin on things which can lead to all kinds of horrid moral results.

I can imagine a myth-loving, military-masturbating, “individualistic” conservative who likely enjoyed an excellent childhood with love, hugs, and divine command saying now: “What are you some kind of dipshit communist! If everything were up to you there would be no heroes! Every story would be about living in a shit-hole gulag! Everybody would be fucking starving! Get real asshole!!!!”

As interesting as the prospect of getting real asshole is, my position does not imply that stories should be egalitarian, proletarian, collectivist, etc. in their character developments. This is the conclusion fallaciously drawn by leftists, rightists, centrists, and other douchebags inhabiting the discontinuous function of mainstream social and political thought. We live in an era of false dichotomies: you’re either a Democrat, or a Republican. You either want to tax everyone to hell for large welfare programs, or you want to tax everyone to hell to fund large foreign wars. You’re either with our terrifying rampage of violence around the world, or you’re a terrorist who wants to kill Americans. The cliché is at least superficially correct: the world isn’t just black and white. In fact, it’s white, and non-white, but everyone seems to be thinking in terms of red and blue. It’s the false dichotomy with which we’re being constantly presented in mainstream culture, whether it’s in political values, in social dialogue, or in art forms. Much like how not all political systems are not stuck between the imaginary poles of the individual’s success at the expense of society (fascism) and “society’s” success at the expense of the individual (socialism), not all portrayals of individualistic triumph need be subjected to this false dichotomy. On one hand, anything that challenges tales of kings or valiant warriors is a communistic, individual-hating endeavor, and anything that demonstrates proud and successful individuals must be selfish aristocratic capitalism that disregards everyone else’s well-being, alienates the worker, and rapes carebears.

It’s certainly true that there is an expressive utility in focusing on individual characters and their heroic displays of virtue; in great irony, even collectivists will invoke this, because reality forces them to. Talking about how a class triumphed over another class can maybe last them a poem, song, or national anthem, but then they simply run out of actions a gelatinous blob of a concept can possibly do before lapsing into overt absurdity. Classes can, well, triumph, struggle, march, protest, fight, and if you’re feeling particularly loose with your concepts, shout a slogan in unison, carry a banner/flag, etc. They can’t tell a joke, smoke a cigarette, be introspective, walk down empty streets and encounter an old friend, among all the other things that fun characters do in interesting stories. In Soviet Russia, concept define YOU!

However, in good art, individual triumph goes beyond mere artistic instrument to become the theme and essence of the art itself. In the case of Arthurian myth, or the exaggerated tales of Che Guevara, there is individual triumph, but that triumph is geared toward the attainment of some good beyond the individual. They dramatically sacrificed themselves as a bright and shining light from the sky enveloped their body, filling them with erotic love for swords and mankind and what-not. Their actions moved toward the fulfillment of some prophecy set long before their births, whether it was the return of the king’s rule with Excalibur at his side, or the victory of the working class over the evil capitalists. Philosophically, both of these narratives are a heap of garbage, though perhaps entertaining as fiction- in suspension of disbelief. Yet stories like these must certainly affect society’s values, or, rather, reflect society’s values. The easy story this might tell is that people hold different viewpoints. What this tells me is that society is wildly revolving between different versions of what is effectively the same viewpoint: that the individual does not determine goodness, but something up and above him does. I guess this is what’s necessary to make a war film- an interesting one- just like this is what’s necessary to make a war, period.

Excalibur, overall, is a cool movie. A keen eye must be pointed toward it and movies of its kind, however, to distinguish entertainment from pure warnography- those stories and images that get us habituated to and accepting of the use of state violence. Even more importantly, we must not let the “big picture” conception of “the good guys winning” lead anyone to believe that the individual can be, without his consent, forfeited on the behalf of any cause. Beyond that, we must also prevent the “big picture” from leading anyone to believe that the individual should ever feel a moral obligation to forfeit himself to the satisfaction of fictional moral rules. Parental influence, religious parasitism, and mass-media warnography generate moral demands and glorification of sacrifice and violence in children’s minds, perpetuating violence in the world. So next time you’re watching Star Trek, take a moment to lament the Ensign who beamed down and never came back.

Here’s a link to the movie on Amazon, with an excellent price. Hot 80s sex scene for $2.50 + shipping? awesomes!

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