Saturday, May 31, 2014
2:00 PM |
The Good Villain
I have this small exercise which I do for one of my literature classes where I try prove a crucial point over why I have made them run through the thick and often difficult gamut of formalism, feminism, Marxism, queer theory, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis, and other interpretative strategies in reading the texts we’ve taken up in class.
In this exercise, I make them take a closer look at the classroom they’re in. “Do you see yourself sitting in your chair?” I ask them. “Do you see those windows, those doors, that blackboard, that electric fan—things in this room already so familiar to you?” They nod, of course. “It is the same room you have been sitting in for the past few months now,” I say, quietly underlining the point for them to understand that what they see are things they have come to always see every time we meet for class, to the point of banality.
I ask them to stand up. Then I ask them to carefully climb on top of their chairs, which they do, gingerly, some balancing carefully more than the others. Then I ask them: “Do you still see the same room you have been seeing these past few months?” Of course, they nod yes. And then I finally ask them: “But how do you feel this time around, seeing them?”
The answer to that is the surprise they always get: because the things they see are still the same things they’ve been seeing—but this time around, everything is cloaked in the sheen of small surprises. Because they same exact things are being seen in the light of new angles, new perspectives. That window, that electric fan whirring from the ceiling, they’re still the same window and electric fan—but are now charged with a newness of being seen in a totally different way. “This is why we have these interpretative strategies in reading,” I finally tell them, “because they are windows to new meanings.”
Of course, I stole this whole bit from a very iconic scene in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society
. But I have always believed in this exercise. It has come to encapsulate for me the validity of other viewpoints, of other interpretations, of other ways of telling the same story.
I think of this because I’m fascinated all of a sudden over traditional fairy tales and how they have always been the type of popular narrative that seems to give us even more with every “fracturing.” The earliest one I could think of that fascinated me was a politically correct version of “The Three Little Pigs,” this time told from the viewpoint of the Wolf, who reasons out in the end why he’s been seeking out the pigs in the first place: “It is my manifest destiny as a wolf to eat pigs!” Even as a child, I thought: He’s right. No one should fault a wolf for doing what wolves must. I can’t imagine a vegetarian wolf.
Years later, reading the short stories of Neil Gaiman in preparation for a dinner I was to have with him during a literary event in Manila in 2007, I came across a gem of a fractured fairy tale. “Snow, Glass, Apples” was Gaiman’s own version of the Snow White story, told from the perspective of the Queen, a benevolent figure who seems to have a rightful reason as to why she needed to have the fairy tale princess killed and her heart brought to her as evidence of the kill: Snow White was a murderous vampire, with that preternaturally white skin, those bloody red lips … those evil fangs. She had to die
Needless to say, my fascination for all these prepared me very well for Walt Disney’s Maleficent
, its retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, this time told from the viewpoint of one of its iconic villains. Maleficent’s elegant villainy is, of course, already signaled to us by the portmanteau that is her name—magnificent malevolence all rolled into one. As played by Angelina Jolie, the humanized character, I thought, was the perfect project for this kind of retelling. No one else except Ms. Jolie could possibly pull of that demand for character—and still be likable. I went out of the movie theater satisfied by Disney’s exercise in giving internal complexity to a famous villain, in the vein of Elphaba’s turn in Wicked
and the Snow Queen’s reimagining in Frozen
I liked—if not loved—the movie, which fulfilled its promise of retelling a fairy tale. It has always announced this approach, which was why I questioned other people’s dismay over it: Maleficent was not malevolent enough, or that Disney “killed” everybody’s idea of a popular villain. But wasn’t that the objective? Didn’t they foreground this in the trailers?
I liked the new complexity promised by exercises like this. It’s giving ground to what I have always felt to be true about human nature: we think we’re the heroes in our lives’ narratives, but if we really think harder about it, we could always be the villains to someone else’s story. This way, it scales back much of my own rabid tendencies to see people whom I have disagreements with as complete villainous warts: if I think harder about it, they’re fighting their own secrets fights, too. Perhaps they do what they do because of some secret circumstances.
Why do people do bad things? It is one question I have always been fascinated with. Vulture, the New York Post’s famous culture blog, sees the trend as a double-edged sword, however: “So Disney’s recent move away from classic villains is, on some level, a good thing, in that it allows them to delve into some heretofore unexplored types of relationships, and to find psychological complexity where once there was none,” writes the Vulture blogger. “But I can’t help but feel like something has been lost as well. The Evil Queen, Maleficent, the Coachman, Shere-Khan. We didn’t spend a lot of time getting to know them. They were mysterious, elemental, totemic. And so, we could fill them with our own fears. They were charismatic enough that we brought our own complexity to them. These bad guys also put our heroes into sharper focus: Try to imagine Snow White without the Evil Queen, Peter Pan without Captain Hook.”
I get this, but as I told Job de Leon, the new complexity excites me more. To which Job replied: “But sometimes evil just is: you can’t explain it but you have to deal with it anyway. Different kind of storytelling with different assumptions for what makes a compelling story. I guess it’s like saying you don’t really need to humanize Sauron to improve The Lord of the Rings
, nor do you need to give Game of Thrones
characters more rigid different moral compasses. I don’t have an opinion now on which one is better than the other, but I can appreciate both.”
I appreciate both, too. And as history would like to remind us once and again, evil often can be so banal, already so human, there really is no explanation sometimes for the evil that men can do. But in stories, I guess I demand some complexity of character, if only because it is my last shred of hope in a humanity that seems too eager to lose its humaneness. It is my need to see how Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader (although that exercise with George Lucas ultimately didn’t turn out so well), or how Trahald became Gollum.
As Tim Kreider once reminded us: “We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time. Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
So I like Maleficent
. And I want Walt Disney’s Ursula
next. Let’s see… She’s the beautiful wife of King Triton, and Ursula lives to sing—but the jealous sea god thinks she has been canoodling her conductor. And so Triton divorces and banishes her. Her golden voice is also taken away from her, and Ursula is cursed to become an octopus. Of course, if this happens to you, you’d get angry. You’d want justice. And of course you’d also get angry if your ex-husband immediately marries another mermaid who promptly bears him several daughters—including this Ariel, who somehow reminds Ursula of her younger self. That voice
Labels: film, life, literature
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