Thursday, March 15, 2001

The bad

"The conch shell shatters, down you go."
— Pink Floyd, "The Wall

Hollow Man (2000) Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Plato had a parable about a man who first turned invisible and then turned into a fiend. His point was that most people are good because they know they're being watched. (You drive the speed limit when the cop's around, speed when he's not.) Invisible, people would be monsters. Plato's fable was the germ of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man and James Whale's 1933 movie based on it, which was frightening mainly for the psychological effect the Invisible Man had on the village he terrorized. Verhoeven's incarnation has psychological horror, too, plus the kind of state-of-the-art, digitally rendered geysers of blood we've come to expect in a Verhoeven movie. If you get past that, there's a philosophical core here. Where invisible Claude Rains was driven insane by the chemical, invisible Kevin Bacon turns evil because he can get away with it. As Plato predicted, a man who doesn't have to be good becomes very, very bad indeed.

Lord of the Flies (1963) Directed by Peter Brook. Forget those idiotic reality TV shows. For real fun, start with World War III, take a planeload of refugee boys from a British private school (they'd call it a "public school," go figure) and crash them on an island in the South Pacific while killing all the adults on the plane. Watch as the kids reenact, in microcosm, the workings-out of original sin that led to World War III. Starting out all mannered and proper (the stately choir walking down the beach singing "Kyrie Elieson"), the lads soon revert to savagery (a British boy's idea of savagery). Folks have called this film racist, but that misses the point: Civilization has a very thin skin, and the beast within is close to the surface, ready to leap out and kill. Brook makes this point via naturalistic performances by untrained child actors, hauntingly filmed in minimalist black and white. It's easy to find fault with this film (why are the uniforms clean?), but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and it's wholly disturbing. (See also The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by the same director.)

Rashomon (1950) Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Contrary to urban mythology, Rashomon (the film) is not about the relativity of point of view. (The original short story is, but that's a different story.) Like Plato, Kurosawa was obsessed with the beast within. How much human "goodness" is merely conventional — because the eyes of society are watching? How bad would people be if there were no eyes to see? In Kurosawa's fable (set during the social chaos of a Japanese civil war in the 1600s) a bandit ambushes a pair of newlyweds in the woods; later on a woodcutter stumbles into the rape-and-murder scene. Later, the people involved (including a ghost) tell their stories of what happened; the stories are later retold to a group of refugees huddled in the wreckage of the Rashomon gate in old Kyoto. Everyone's story is different, not because there is no truth but because all the characters are lying to make themselves look good. Contrary to popular opinion, in Kurosawa's Rashomon we do know the truth — and the truth is everyone acts badly. Hearing this ugly truth almost destroys a Buddhist monk whose deepest religious principle is compassion — but it's not the whole truth. Kurosawa doesn't agree with Plato — people aren't entirely rotten; goodness isn't entirely an act. As the movie ends, a final act of kindness restores the monk's faith in humanity.

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