Saturday, February 16, 2008

Man on Fire

Denzel Washington's movies have increasingly had religious, and specifically Christian, elements in them. A few years ago, I saw Man on Fire, and it demonstrated this point well. Washington stars as a former assassin named Creasy. At the beginning, he asks an old friend (also a former assassin, played by Christopher Walken) if he thinks God could ever forgive them for what they’ve done. Walken says no, and Creasy agrees.

Walken gets him a job as a bodyguard for a little girl named Pita (played by Dakota Fanning). She’s a complete charmer, but Creasy resists for fear of caring for someone. Further events with religious or spiritual aspects take place: he describes himself to the mother superior at Pita’s school as the "sheep who got lost". Pita’s mother walks into Creasy’s room and sees an open Bible. "You read the Bible?" "Yeah, sometimes". "Does it help?" Yeah, sometimes". He tries to commit suicide, but the bullet has some flaw and doesn’t go off. Divine intervention?

Eventually, Pita wins Creasy over and shows him "it’s all right to live again" as Walken’s character puts it. Not long after, as he reaches for his nightly bottle of Jack Daniels, he pauses, puts it back, and then opens his Bible instead.

If it had ended here, it would have been an uplifting story about how none of us are beyond the pale, beyond the hope of redemption. It also would have been an after school special instead of a Hollywood action movie. Spiritual growth is boring.

Of course you already know what happens. They never have characters like Pita in movies unless they are put in mortal danger in order to tweak our emotions. The truly good person, the one who doesn’t deserve to suffer, suffers. The little girl is kidnapped. So Creasy goes back into assassination mode and starts torturing and killing -- in very artistic ways as Walken’s character again puts it -- everybody involved in the kidnapping.

Revenge movies like this usually employ a sense of divine justice -- that is, the protagonist has suffered at the hands of others, and so wreaks his wrath upon them mightily. The bad guys have exerted their wills against the good guy: "If you love your son/daughter/ husband/wife/mother/father/whatever, you’ll do what I say". But then the good guy exerts his will against the bad guys, so they get what’s coming to them. Thus you have the miracle of payback.

Ultimately this type of movie is about people exerting power over others. But nobody can actually live this way. As long as we encounter other people, we are faced with other egos who have as much free will, as much value and worth, and as much right to live as we do. It may make you sound tough to say that you will never give an inch, and that nothing and no one can stop you. But it’s false. This is why Sartre said that "Hell is other people". This is why Nietzsche wrote that his philosophy was more aesthetically pleasing than the "traditional" ideas of love and respect.

This is also why movies such as Terminator are so popular, especially with guys. Arnie played the ultimate male fantasy: he gets whatever he wants, he can’t be stopped, and anyone who gets in his way is eliminated without any remorse. Did you catch that? Not only does he kill anyone for any reason, he is free from any sense of recognizing others as individuals, as sacred, as having any existential value. It’s why Brad Pitt said in Fight Club "It’s only after you’ve lost everything" (i.e. your sense of self-worth and value) "that you’re free to do anything" (i.e. reject the worth and value of others as well). Once you reject the value of other people, you are no longer enslaved by the idea that you should take them into account as you live your life. You're free to live life on your own terms.

But again, this is all an illusion. As long as there are other beings in existence -- and you have to figure that the odds for that are at least 2 to 1 -- their rights, their needs, their wants and desires have to be taken into account. The only alternative to this is psychopathy.

(reposted from OregonLive)

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