The Problem with Archetypes

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lately I’ve been read­ing all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan sto­ries, and, look­ing past the de­li­cious­ly pulpy swords & sor­cery gen­re-ness of it all, many of the tales wrestle with the ten­sions be­tween civ­i­liza­tion and bar­barism. Lately I’ve been think­ing a bit re­gard­ing how me­dia of all sorts (news­pa­pers, tele­vi­sion, on­line, video, video games, et al.) por­tray re­al peo­ple as ar­che­types in a tac­it nar­ra­tive. I re­cent­ly fin­ished a game called The Saboteur in which the play­er takes the part of an Irishman in Occupied France, killing Nazis. As you play the game, you end up killing a lot of Nazis. And, as I played, I be­gan to re­al­ize that Nazis & Nazism have be­come the ar­che­typ­al stan­dard of evil in our cul­ture. I see two prob­lems with this kind of thing, one gen­er­al, one speci­fic.

The gen­er­al is­sue is that ar­che­types are, by their very na­ture, re­sis­tant to nu­ance, im­mutable, and less than re­al. Archetypes are eas­i­ly pack­aged and me­dia cre­ators of all types should con­scious­ly avoid pack­ag­ing each sto­ry that comes along in­to an ar­che­typ­al di­choto­my: hero/​villain, good/​evil.

The speci­fic is­sue, in the case of the game The Saboteur, is that, by treat­ing Nazis as the ar­che­type of evil, the true hor­rors of Nazism in the Third Reich can be sim­ply ig­nored. Nazis be­come mon­sters in­stead of men. You don’t need to un­der­stand a mon­ster. You don’t try to un­der­stand a mon­ster. You don’t ask “Why a mon­ster?” You just kill them.

Plenty of me­dia nar­ra­tives fit this bill. Yesterday, when, about a half mile down the road from me, 3 wom­en were saved from a life of rape, abuse, and cap­tiv­i­ty, the ar­che­typ­al nar­ra­tive was im­me­di­ate­ly placed up­on the scene. Charles Ramsey: Hero; Angel Castro: Monster; Gina de­Je­sus, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight: Damsels in Distress. It’s all too easy. You can make a sto­ry out of any­thing by im­pos­ing ar­che­types and then adding flour­ish­es, like, in the case just men­tioned fake satel­lite news re­port­ing.

When it’s easy, you get lazy. People who are con­vict­ed of crimes are treat­ed as mon­sters. Every per­son who works in pub­lic safe­ty or in the mil­i­tary is au­to­mat­i­cal­ly a hero. This kind of lazi­ness does se­ri­ous dam­age to peo­ples’ lives, gut-lev­el pub­lic opin­ion, and to crit­i­cal think­ing skills of the peo­ple who prop­a­gate it. I hope adding just one lay­er of com­plex­i­ty can make this point stand out a bit more.

Instead of say­ing that con­vict­ed crim­i­nals are evil, let’s just say they’re bar­bar­ians. So, peo­ple who are in, or have been in jail are bar­bar­ians, and peo­ple who aren’t and haven’t are civ­i­lized. There’s no good or evil here, just a lev­el of so­cial so­phis­ti­ca­tion. In this con­text where is there space for good or evil? Well, who would the bar­bar­ians kill? Child mo­les­ters and rapists. Why? A bar­bar­ian would say “Because they’re evil. Monsters.” and leave it at that. But that’s still wrong. A so­ci­ety in which rooms full of chil­dren are mur­dered by a gun­man, ath­letes and spec­ta­tors are shred­ded by bombers, and a trio of broth­ers en­slave young wom­en for a decade is not a so­ci­ety that can af­ford to re­ly on lazy nar­ra­tive ar­che­types. We have to be will­ing to ex­ert our­selves enough to ask earnest­ly un­com­fort­able ques­tions. Archetypes worked in pulp fic­tion fan­ta­sy sto­ries in the 1930s, but this isn’t the Hyborian Age. Evil doesn’t look like a crazy frog beast. It looks like every­one. And, more im­por­tant­ly, so does Good.

A bar­bar­ian has no need for nu­ance: if it’s a mon­ster, kill it. A civ­i­lized per­son must ask “Why a mon­ster?” 

The Night Porter

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #59: Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.
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There is a pic­ture of a naked wom­an at the end of this re­view. If you or your work­place has a prob­lem with that, you should prob­a­bly not read this or wait un­til you get home.

The Night Porter is a film about a sado­masochis­tic re­la­tion­ship be­tween an SS of­fi­cer and a con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­er. The film takes place in 1957, but nei­ther Max [Dirk Bogarde] or Lucia [Charlotte Rampling] have moved on from their old lives as Nazi and pris­on­er, re­spec­tive­ly.

Max is the night porter at a Viennese hotel, still proud of his Nazi past, per­haps sub­con­scious­ly wracked by guilt, and now forced to “wipe people’s as­s­es;” a tak­er of or­ders, not a giver of them. Lucia, emo­tion­al­ly needy and by a twist of fate, is stay­ing at the hotel with her con­duc­tor hus­band. They run in­to each oth­er and, out of fear and ob­ses­sion, stalk each oth­er un­til the hus­band leaves town. Then Max slaps her around a bit and they have a rip-roar­ing good shag.

This couldn’t have hap­pened at a worse time for Max, he and his SS com­pa­tri­ots are per­form­ing some sort of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic mock tri­als on each oth­er, in at­tempts to as­suage [or ful­ly re­press] any guilt they feel for their ac­tions dur­ing the war. After each per­son has had their tri­al, any wit­ness­es that re­main alive are “filed away” and all pa­per trails com­plete­ly de­stroyed. These men still feel that the Nazi dream can be ful­filled, and they know there is still at least one wom­an alive who knows about Max. Unfortunately, Max is in love with her, and the feel­ing is re­turned.

The Nazis lay siege to Max & Lucia, by keep­ing a 247 watch on his apart­ment. If ei­ther of them leave, they will be killed. They’re okay with this at first, Max chains Lucia up so “they can’t take her away” and they play their pow­er and pain games with each oth­er. When they are al­most out of food, Lucia starts gob­bling jam, they wrestle over it and then have a rip-roar­ing good shag. Then, af­ter their pow­er is cut, they es­cape by night and are still as­sas­si­nat­ed.

The film is os­ten­si­bly about pow­er dy­nam­ics, es­pe­cial­ly cap­ture-bond­ing, a mech­a­nism re­lat­ed to Stockholm syn­drome. While it was con­tro­ver­sial at the time, for its por­tray­al of con­cen­tra­tion camp cul­ture and de­base­ment, this set­ting, and the sub­se­quent Viennese af­ter­math, are well suit­ed to weav­ing to­geth­er the in­ter­ests of com­pet­ing groups.

The bond that binds Max & Lucia is one that is still very mis­un­der­stood and taboo. Max al­ways has the pow­er, but some­times he sub­mits to Lucia, his cap­tive, af­ter he has trained her. She al­so fights back on her own, but on­ly in or­der to up the an­te, to see how far they can push them­selves in­to cru­el­ty. If you can call it cru­el­ty, since they both love it. Similarly, the Nazis seek to con­trol every pos­si­ble loose end of their lives, to erad­i­cate any threat to pre­serve them­selves. Throughout, I get the sense that all of the play­ers are un­der the con­trol of their de­sire for pow­er, in­stead of con­trol­ling the pow­er of their de­sires. There are like­ly quite a few ref­er­ences that I missed, such as the ap­plic­a­bil­i­ty of Mozart’s The Magic Flute [with which I have on­ly pass­ing fa­mil­iar­i­ty] and the German song that Lucia sings for the SS of­fi­cers in the cabaret.

Overall, I thought this was a su­perb film, with ex­cel­lent act­ing and ex­treme­ly poignant di­a­logue [at times]. The cam­era work was in­ter­est­ing, as lots of shots hug the frame or seem like the cam­era could be tracked out just a bit. There are long re­veals and lin­ger­ing shots that cre­ate a strong sense of im­pend­ing cat­a­stro­phe. This one is worth a watch, if you aren’t too prude.
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Criterion Essay by Annette Insdorf
Images Journal re­view by Shane M. Dallman
The Criterion Contraption’s re­view.