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.