I don’t watch a lot of movies. The last one I saw was a month ago on YouTube: the 1954 version of 1984 with Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith. It had a more tasteful treatment of Smith’s rat phobia than the version with John Hurt (1984), which I believe has more to do with audience sensibilities back then than cinematic technique. If they made a contemporary version of Orwell’s book, we could contrast the depiction of Smith’s phobia in 1954, 1984, and today. I’m sure a current remake would be more graphic and violent. That’s just where we are as a society, which is ironic given that in 1954 the world was still recovering from the most devastating war in history and today we live in relative peace.
This brings me, oddly enough, to my grandchildren, who do watch a lot of movies, especially in the era of Covid. And I can’t help but watch with them. I like most of these movies: Incredibles (2004), Incredibles 2 (2018), The Secret Life of Pets (2016), and anything with Grumpy Gru, whom I identify with. Others, not so much. Or, to be more precise, their themes and imagery have shocked me.
Consider Mulan (2020), Onward (2020), Moana (2016), and Maleficent (2014) to name a few. Collectively, they involve conjuring the dead, demonic forces, witches, animism, and the ritual use of supernatural powers to control human destiny. I suppose you could say they take the magic of Disney literally, except that Robert Eiger, chairman of the board of Disney, also has very mundane concerns. He agreed to market Mulan worldwide for the Chinese government as a sort of Chamber of Commerce promotional video. Perhaps they should have called it Moolah.
What’s more, these movies give prominence to non-traditional perspectives as in the case of Moana and Maleficient. In Maleficent, the eponymous character is a vengeful fairy with blood red lips who dresses in a shimmering black cape and sports horns like Baphomet. A purportedly misunderstood figure, she turns to evil because of unrequited love (see “J,” the Unrequited). The movie was such a success that Disney released Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in 2019.
I have been taken aback by the subtle acceptance of evil and the upending of the expected unity of truth, beauty, and goodness in these films. Maybe this simply reflects life in a Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter world where magic and the id have escaped their dungeon confinement. If so, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, John Gardner’s Grendel, which established the antihero hero in modern fiction and was mandatory reading in high school, turns fifty next year. Still, I have to ask whether this turn to the dark side is an unconscious attempt to balance the current, technocratic, consumer state with a new kind of romanticism. Or is something else going on?
I have spent my adult career in higher education, so I know and appreciate the power of learning. Young minds take on the values and perspectives of their teachers, peers, and the media. Even if you hold that the family has the primary responsibility of teaching, you have to admit that these other influences can dominate a person’s life. This is nothing new, but it should frighten those who believe that education ought to aim at preserving the good at the same time that it roots out injustice.
So, I believe something else is going on. The flood of antihero heroes, the fascination with evil, the explosion of erotic themes and imagery in the media, the blatant bias in that same media, and the restrictions imposed in the name of a public health crisis (justified or not) don’t strike me as coincidental. In fact, there seems to be a method in all the madness.
You might accuse me of being overly critical and a bit of a Grumpy Gru. You may be right, although you don’t have to be paranoid to know that some people insist that two and two equal five and will beat you over the head until you agree with them. Just ask Winston Smith.
Sometime soon we will have to choose how we add, rat phobia or not.