Friday, December 06, 2013

In This One Respect, Every Good Movie Is Good BECAUSE It Disprescts the Conservative Movement

Stuart K. Hayashi

You often hear people who are not on the political Left complain that the attitudes of most motion pictures, television programs, plays, novels, and other forms of narrative fiction tend to be heavily skewed toward the ideological Left.  The ideological Left considers entire categories of the population to be conservative and rightwing: (1) corporate executives, (2) imperialistic military men, and (3) strict, hard-nosed, intolerant, fire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalists.  Therefore, such characters are always the villains.  Any time that a good guy somehow happens to be a corporate executive, military man, or an evangelical Christian, this good guy will always be depicted as a specimen who is atypical of his own category -- this character is usually more sensitive and nonjudgmental than is the "typical businessperson," "typical military leader," or "typical evangelical."  By contrast, environmentalists and hippies are thought of as being leftwing.  Therefore, they are almost always portrayed as good guys in movies.  (In the rare case where  an environmentalist or hippie is portrayed negatively, it is prefaced that he is a "rogue" member of this group who goes too far, and who is not representative of this group.)

For a long time, I have considered the leftwing bias in most narrative fiction to be nauseating. I still feel this way.  However, I believe there is one important respect where, for narrative fiction to succeed in pleasing its audience or reader,  narrative fiction must necessarily be anti-conservative.  More than that, for a narrative fiction to be emotionally satisfying, it has to go against one of the most important tenets preached by the conservative ideological movement.

Conservatism Being Defined as Standing Athwart Progress and Yelling "Stop!"
Many leftwing people call you a "conservative" if you oppose government takeovers of people's peaceful commercial transactions.  However, on account of such influences as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk (that rhymes), there is another definition for ideological, civics-related conservatism.  The definition refers to believing that, in the West, any social custom that is currently valued as a longstanding tradition is necessarily good.  That tradition -- regardless of what it is -- is considered good by virtue of it having remained a tradition for so long.  Despite his having penned an essay titled "Why I Am Not a Conservative," Friedrich August von Hayek has indicated some special agreement with this conservative viewpoint.  In Hayek's theory, customs emerge through social evolution.  Some people try to start their new customs -- speciation -- and customs "compete" against each other.  A custom "wins" a competition if it becomes well-adopted and consistently practiced among the population.  That is the survival of the fittest as applied to social customs. The customs from our past that were the best for us Westerners, happened to survive and become what we today consider traditions.  Private commerce and private property, which became firmly established in the late nineteenth century, are deemed to be such time-tested traditions.   The same goes for celebrating Christmas. Thus, when people try to impose communism or socialism upon the West, communism and socialism make for unwelcome and radical innovations that disrespect our time-tested traditions.

Of course, there is an internal contradiction in Hayek's theory:  it ignores the fact that every traditional custom we value, including capitalism and Christmas, once started out as a wholly untraditional innovation.  There was a time in human history, for instance, when nobody celebrated Christmas.  Christmas had to start as an untraditional, radical innovation that challenged the time-tested traditions of paganism and widespread virgin sacrifice.  In the Middle Ages, the status quo of society was feudalism  and mercantilism-- feudalism and mercantilism were considered the time-tested traditions.  When increasingly laissez-faire liberal capitalist ideas emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to challenge feudalism and mercantilism, capitalism was considered the unwelcome radical innovation disrespecting time-tested traditions.  Likewise, given that Hayek already conceded that human social customs emerge through social evolution, one can counter Hayek in saying that just as capitalism was the next evolutionary step above feudalism, socialism must be the next evolutionary step above capitalism (indeed, that was Karl Marx's argument in The Communist Manifesto).  The internal contradiction of Hayek's argument cannot be resolved unless Hayek believes that social evolution was good up until the late nineteenth century, when laissez-faire liberal capitalism had reached its peak.  At that point, Hayek presumably believes, society had gotten as perfect as it could be, and social evolution finally stopped.  Only if we believe that, can we believe that attempts for man to "evolve" from capitalism to socialism are unwelcome, whereas the past evolution from feudalism to capitalism was entirely welcome progression.

But anyhow, because of the influence of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk -- and, to some degree, even Hayek -- conservatism is ideologically linked not merely with individual Lockean rights and free commerce, but also with "valuing traditions on account of their being time-tested traditions."  The fetish over traditionalism means that conservativism is fixated on maintaining the status quo.  Conservatives do not care about judging the status quo as good or bad according to some external standard, such as how rational or humane the present customs are.  Whatever are the current customs, are assumed to be good.  The conservative movement's presumption about the inherent goodness of the status quo became evident when William F. Buckley defined the Western political conservative movement as being animated by the desire to "stand thwart history and yell, "Stop!'"

Leftists see Americans happily practice commerce and free enterprise, and therefore -- ignoring the fact that for most of man's two-million-year history, man was not consistently capitalist, with the modern conception of capitalism being a relatively recent innovation -- conclude that support for capitalism and free enterprise is stodgy conservative support for the status quo.  That leftists tend to associate militarists and evangelicals with social tradition is more understandable -- for most of history, prior to the Renaissance period, warriors and priests were uniformly the richest and most influential people in any society (warriors and shamans are even the most socially influential people in hunter-gatherer societies).

Now, what does this have to do with narrative fiction being inherently anti-conservative?  Insofar as narrative fiction can satisfy the audience or reader, quality narrative fiction necessarily opposes traditional social conservatism in this respect:  good fiction is about what happens when the status quo is shaken up.

From hereon, I am going to spoil the endings of famous stories.  ^_^

Every Good Fiction Narrative Denies Bill Buckley's Request
Motion-picture-screenwriter-turned-writing-coach Blake Snyder explains this well in his manual on effective narrative fiction writing, Save the Cat.  His point is that the audience is most emotionally satisfied when (1) the audience identifies with the protagonist and (2) the protagonist is wiser at the end of the story than he was at the beginning.  At least, he should be changed in some way.  This even applies in a story about a protagonist's downfall, in which, through unwise choices, the protagonist is more corrupt and less happy at the end than he was in the start.  For instance, Citizen Kane is about a man who becomes increasingly corrupt throughout the story.  he does not make a big change that saves his soul at the end.  However, when he says "Rosebud," indicating his lost innocence, that indicates that, in his final moment, Charles Foster Kane recognized, to some extent, how and where he went wrong.  Therefore, even when it comes to such "lost soul" protagonists, they are not only changed by the end, but also have some insight they did not possess in the beginning.  In the beginning, Charles Foster Kane is naive.  At the end, he's miserable and evil -- unredeemed -- but at least he has some self-realization in the very final moment.  In that respect, he's still wiser in the end.   The same can be said about Oedipus Rex -- at least he is less naive at the conclusion than he was at the start.   It is very rare that one sees a movie where the protagonist is exactly the same at the end as he was from the start.  In some ways, it appears that Charlize Theron's titular character in Young Adult has, by the final scene, learned very little from the experiences of the movie.  She came close to having a breakthrough, but then she blew it.  But I think that is exactly why many audiences judged the moving to be emotionally unsatisfying overall.

The idea is that the audience and readers identify with the protagonist.  The audience and readers are to experience the events of the story, vicariously, through what happens to the protagonist.  the lesson the protagonist learns is, by implication, the lesson for the audience and readers.  If the events contained no lesson for the protagonist to learn then, by implication, it follows that the events of the story contained no lesson for the audience or reader either.  Then the audience or reader will say, "What was the point?  There was none!"

Snyder points out that the protagonist normally makes his transition in three acts.  Act One shows the status quo for the protagonist.  That is, we are introduced to what life is normally like for the protagonist.  It can be pleasant or unpleasant; the point is that this is what is normal for the protagonist.  This rule applies even if the protagonist and everyone around him is an eccentric.  For instance, in Act One of The Nightmare Before Christmas, we are introduced to the monsters who inhabit the land of Halloween.  We are shown their rituals and customs. We are supposed to interpret Jack Skellington and the other monsters as weirdos.  However, for the purpose of the narrative, we are given access to what is routine for the monsters; they celebrate Halloween the same way every year.  It has become predictable, and Jack Skellington is bored with it.  What we see in Act One, is what is normal for Jack Skellington.

Act Two then introduces some radical innovation -- some change in the protagonist's circumstances -- that shakes up the status quo.  The radical innovation might be welcome or unwelcome, but it is always the opposite of the status quo.  If Act One revolves around the protagonist being miserable (such as in the case of Jack Skellington), then Act Two involves the protagonist having the opportunity to change what bothers him.  In the case of Nightmare Before Christmas, Act Two is about Jack Skellington abandoning the Halloween traditions and taking on a new enterprise: taking over Christmas.  By contrast, if the protagonist was happy with the status quo in Act One, then Act Two will cause distress for the protagonist.  An example would be in another Halloween-themed movie:  Halloween (how conveniently-titled!).  In Act One, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the other teenage girls in her social circle seem generally pleased with life.  Then in Act Two, Michael Myers begins his killing spree, ruining everything.

Act Three involves a sort of reconciliation -- or battle -- between the status quo of Act One and the radical life change of Act Two.  The story will end with one of two possible outcomes.  One possible outcome is that the protagonist comes to accept the radical life change that he experienced in Act Two.  An example of this would be in Despicable Me.  In Act One, Gru lives alone and occupies his time with his Lex Luthor-ish plans to commit crime.  In Act Two, the radical life change involves his adoption of three girls who often annoy him.  In Act Three, Gru must choose between his old life (being alone and committing crimes, as seen in Act One) or the radical life change (embracing his parental affection for the three girls, as was developed in Act Two).  In the case of this movie, Gru chooses the radical life change introduced in Act Two.  The other possible outcome is for the protagonist to fight off the radical life-changing circumstance and regain some semblance of what life was like in Act One.  In the case of Halloween,  Laurie Strode fights off Michael Myers (the radical life-changing circumstance introduced in Act Two), and the viewer is left with the assumption that she will try, as much as possible, to go on living safely as she did in Act One (although it seems she will have permanent trauma).

Another case of the second possible outcome is seen in Something Wicked This Way Comes.  In Act One, we are introduced to citizens of a small town.  They seem rather idyllic and conservative and don't have much complaints, although they nurse some secret insecurities.  The main character, played by Jason Robards, Jr., is insecure about his old age; he also feels insecure about how he already so old when his son was born.  He is old enough to be the grandfather of his son, and he worries that this makes it difficult for him to protect his son.  That is the status quo.  In Act Two, the seeming idyllic nature of the town is tested when the circus of Mr. Dark (played by Jonathan Pryce) comes onto the scene. He shakes up the status quo by addressing the insecurities of everyone in the town: he uses magic to cure everyone of their insecurities, but it always comes at a heavy price.  He seems to be an agent of the Devil.  In Act Three, Jason Robards Jr.'s love for his son motivates him to summon his courage and to defeat Mr. Dark's evil magic.  That is, the protagonist vanquishes the radical life-changing force that Act Two introduced.

At first, it may seem, in this case, that simply because the radical life-changing force of Act Two was defeated, it follows that the status quo from Act One has triumphed, and has now been restored.  But that is not the case.  The status quo from Act One re-emerges only in a superficial sense.  The town was peaceful in the beginning, and it goes back to being peaceful in the end.  However, the status quo in Jason Robards, Jr., himself has been permanently disrupted.  He is not the same as he was in the beginning.  In the beginning, he let himself be debilitated by his insecurities about being old and mortal and too weak to protect his son.  By the end, he has become a man determined to protect his son no matter what, he no longer dwells upon the old insecurities.

The same principle applies to Halloween.  Laurie Strode found peace in the beginning of the movie, and it is implied that she should find peace after the ordeal is over (well, at least after the ending of Halloween II).  However, Laurie Strode is still different at the end, at least in a subtle respect.  In Act One, she was naive about the sorts of dangers that life could thrust upon her.  By the close of Act Three, she is no longer so naive.

Therefore, even when, in the movie's conclusion, the radical life-changing influence of Act Two is outright evil and is outright vanquished, a change in the protagonist still happens.  Moreover, that change in the protagonist is something that the author wants his audience or readers to consider welcome.    The change in the protagonist is welcome even when the original impetus for that change, itself, was very evil and unwelcome.

For instance, the radical life-changing influence of Michael Myers attacking Laurie in Act Two, was evil and unwelcome, and it was ultimately vanquished.  However, in fighting off Michael Myers, Laurie has become wiser, and that change is welcome.  Likewise, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the radical life-changing influence of Mr. Dark performing his magic in Act Two, was evil and unwelcome, and it was ultimately vanquished.  However, the battle against Mr. Dark motivated Jason Robards, Jr., to confront his own insecurities and fears.  He, too, has become wiser from the ordeal, and that change is welcome.  Therefore, even when the most radical- life-changing element of the story is fought off -- and the audience and reader are expected to approve of the radical life-changing influence being fought off -- it is inevitable that a much more important, deeper change occur within the protagonist himself.  That is, it is inevitable that (1) the status quo of the protagonist's psyche will forever be destroyed, and (2) the audience or reader is expected to consider this destruction of the inner-status-quo to be a good development.

That is, the protagonist has to change. If the protagonist does not change, then the story was a rip-off and the audience or reader will feel cheated.  To the extent that the author wants the story to be satisfying, the status quo that was within the protagonist's mind in Act One has to be destroyed.  And, in that regard, every satisfying form of narrative fiction is about change.  Every satisfying story is about change.  And, as a corollary, the status quo is to be challenged and discarded.  In that respect, every satisfying narrative is necessarily anti-conservative.

That is why, if you want to write a satisfying fiction story, you cannot do what William F. Buckley, Jr., does.  You cannot afford to stand athwart progress and yell, "Stop!"  For the protagonist to make no progress would mean that the protagonist remains completely unchanged from beginning to end.  If the author stands athwart the protagonist's progress, from the story's very beginning, and tells the progress, "Never begin!", then the story was pointless.  Insofar as the author wants the story to be good, the author has to be a rebellious, radical liberal innovator in this respect: The author must get out of the protagonist's way and let the progress occur within the protagonist's mind.

Because most fiction writers of our day have only seen what it is like to live in a commercial society, and are naive about what life is like in the absence of market economics, they misinterpret for-profit commerce, per se, as a corrupt status-quo.  Consider how Detective Comics rebooted the Superman comics in 1986.  The story was told from Lois Lane's point of view.  In Act One, we are introduced to Lois Lane and the status quo.  The status quo is that the world is ruled by profit-chasing businessmen, which is the same as saying that the world is corrupt.  It is no wonder that Lex Luthor is now a self-made billionaire corporate executive.  In Act Two, Superman arrives.  He is the radical life-changing force that shakes up the status quo in Act Two, challenging the businessmen who run the corrupt establishment (Lex Luthor) and showing Lois Lane that there is still is hope in this world. 

Even if a Satisfying Story Is Said to Have a "Conservative" Message, the Story Entertains You Because It Refrains from Conservatism in an Important Context
Now, it is possible to write a satisfying fiction story that can be considered "pro-conservatism" to left-wingers and right-wingers alike.  However, even when the protagonist is nominally and superficially "conservative," the story is only satisfying if a central character becomes wiser in the end.  And this transition to greater wisdom is, in an important context, inherently and decidedly non-conservative.

I will give an example of how even a movie that allegedly has a socially "conservative" message is anti-conservative in how it requires a central character to change.  I think of the late 1990s romantic comedy Blast from the Past.  The movie begins in 1962, when a mad scientist named Calvin Weber (Christopher Walken) and his pregnant wife (Sissy Spacek) mistakenly believe that the USA is being destroyed by nuclear missiles.  They trap themselves in Walken's underground fallout shelter, and no one can leave the fallout shelter until 25 years have elapsed.   They have their son, whom they name Adam.  They teach Adam many scientific facts and, more importantly, good, old-fashioned, early 1960s'style manners and conscientiousness.  He eventually grows up to be Brendan Fraser, and, once 1997 arrives, Adam can finally go up to the surface world.  Ah, but Act One has not yet ended.  At this point, we are introduced to the actual central character, a young L.A. woman named Eve Rustikoff (Alicia Silverstone).  Now we are introduced the central character's status quo:  by the 1990s, good manners have gone by the wayside.  Everyone is disrespectful of each other and are jaded.  And Eve is no exception.  Then she meets Adam, and Adam shakes up her world.  That is where Act Two takes place.

Eve is initially surprised and annoyed by how polite and respectful Adam is to her and everyone else; she considers that weird and foreign.  Of course, what is really going on is that Act One's status quo is one where everyone is disrespectful and libertine -- this sort of society is what social conservatives believe to be the natural result of social liberalism taken to its logical conclusion.  By contrast, Adam represents what are believed to be old-fashioned "conservative" values -- he is deeply religious and cares about being polite and respectful.  Note that, technically, he was home-schooled (his parents believed they were the last surviving humans anyway), and therefore this movie has a pro-homeschooling subtext; it is one of the few movies that portrays homeschooling in a positive, rather than derogatory, light.  Throughout Act Two, Eve gradually finds herself falling for Adam, and she becomes less cynical (that is, what conservatives think of as "less liberal").  In Act Three, Eve must choose whether she wants to be with Adam.  If she rejects him, and goes back to her old life, then she is essentially going with what is the status quo of the story:  left-wing libertine cynicism.  By contrast, if Eve chooses to be with Adam, she likewise chooses the old-fashioned (conservative?) early-1960s politeness and family values.

I can see why National Review praised Blast from the Past as a "movie with a conservative message."  That is ironic, as I do not think the movie's makers intended for political conservatives to like it.  I would not be surprised if everyone involved in the making of the movie was left-wing and hated political conservatives. I think that what was actually going on was that the film's writers did not think of Adam as a symbol for political or social conservatism, but simply saw him as being representative of old-fashioned, early-1960s family values and good manners.  After all, back in the early 1960s, supporters of the welfare state who voted for Democrats were also told to believe in all that stuff.

Now here is what I find interesting:  from the viewpoint of the movie's audience, it would seem that Adam is the conservative, and the cynical modern city around him (including Eve in the beginning) is liberal.  However, from the perspective of the story itself, the positions are reversed.  Remember:  as far as the story is concerned, whatever is the status quo, is the conservative position.  The cynical, impolite, irreligious libertines who occupy Los Angeles in this story are the status quo; they are the establishment and represent the consensus opinion. They are what the story considers the normal, default position.  Therefore, cynical libertine characters in this movie are the movie's conservatives.  By contrast, by consistently being religious and polite and respectful of others, Adam behaves as a complete weirdo -- he is out of step with everyone else, a "fish out of water."  He is the radical innovative element that shakes up the status quo in Act Two.  Therefore, as far as the story concerns him, Adam being religious and well-mannered makes him the radical, rebellious, innovative liberal.

The same principle applies to The Fountainhead.  Because the story opposes political-economic collectivism and the welfare state, people assume the story is a "conservative" one . But it is not.  We see what actually goes on when we consider that the story is told from the perspective of Dominique Francon.  Just as Lois Lane saw everyone else in Metropolis as too corrupt in the beginning of the 1986 Superman comics series, Dominique sees all of the people around her behaving as unthinking conformists.  She sees so much of it, that she believes there is no possible alternative to it.  That is the status quo of the story, and therefore all of the conformists of the story -- including the supporters of the welfare state, such as Mitchell Layton and Ellsworth Toohey -- are conservatives.  Then, in Act Two, Dominique meets and falls for Howard Roark, who challenges her preconceptions.  Just as Adam Weber was in Blast for the Past, Howard Roark comes across as this big weirdo who shakes up the status quo.  Howard Roark is a man who actually says what he means and means what he says, who walks his talk.  His integrity makes him abnormal.  In dealing with him, Dominique learns what else is possible to humankind.  In Act Three, Dominique must make a choice.  If she refuses to help Roark, then she will be going with the opinion she had in Act One -- her status-quo position -- which involves the pessimistic belief that good cannot win and therefore should not try to win.  By contrast, if Dominique helps out Roark, it means that she has changed.  It means she now concedes that integrity can indeed win and it is imperative to take action to preserve that integrity.

Therefore, even when a satisfying story's protagonist is called "conservative," the protagonist refrains from being conservative in this important respect:  far from accepting the status-quo position, the protagonist affects a change.  Contra Bill Buckley, the protagonist urges progress to March Ahead, not "stop!"