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On Militarism and Tribalism in the Movies

Some more thoughts on the recent "Trek", among other things. An informal essay, about 3,000 words long.
On the loss of courtesy, or, moral relativism and tribalism in the movies.


This is, primarily, a second stab at the recent "Trek" movie. I did enjoy it while I was watching it (at least, until I began muttering "This is stupid" at the denouement – something I might reasonably have done much earlier!) I was initially annoyed simply at the contrived plot, the bad science, and the casual destruction of both Vulcan and Romulus. But, as I thought about it more, and read more critical comments on it, it struck me that the new "Trek has some very particular flaws. One of these flaws is also obvious in a far better film – Peter Jackson's "Return of the King". Throughout the trilogy, but especially in this last film, Jackson (though he does a fine job of conveying Tolkien's story in most respects), falsifies the book in a couple of key ways. I'd sum up his failure by saying that he is completely blind and deaf to the virtue of courtesy, something Tolkien's good characters understand in the very marrow of their bones.

Here are some examples of what I mean. These are incidents that happen in the movies, but do not happen in the books.

In "Fellowship", when Pippin complains about not stopping to eat, Aragorn tosses an apple at him. In the book, it was Sam who flung the apple, not at a friend, but at an enemy, the sneering Bill Ferny.

Also in "Fellowship", in the extended edition, Aragorn strikes the snoring Gimli.

In "Two Towers", the distraught king Theoden flings his treacherous counselor, Grima, down the steps and threatens him. This does not happen in the book; Grima spits at the king and runs down the steps on his own, and the king – though he has been quite clear that there will be consequences if Grima chooses the wrong side – responds with dignity. He does not lose his temper at the insult of an inferior, or even at the grave harm Grima has actually done him. He offers him, instead, a genuine chance to redeem himself, which Grima refuses to take. It's a brief scene, but not insignificant.

Again in "Two Towers", there is a brief fight scene when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come into the king's hall. This, too, does not happen in the book, which relies instead on psychological drama and understatement. The three warriors are unhappy at leaving their weapons at the door, but do so as a courtesy to the king. Theoden – counseled by Grima – is angry that the doorkeeper has left Gandalf his staff, but he chooses to listen to Gandalf rather than Grima The courtesy of the heroes is contrasted quite deliberately with the discourtesy of the traitor.

I was initially most upset at the character assassination practiced on Faramir and his father Denethor in the films. Faramir, in the end, is not far from the young man we meet in the books. But still, he kicks over the body of the dead Harad warrior even while making a sympathetic speech about him. He is shown torturing Gollum, and he tries to take the ring. None of this is in the book.

What is done to Denethor is worse. In the book, he gives way to despair and pride, true, and he does send Faramir out on a hopeless mission. But – even though it may be good cinema – in the book, he does not sit callously eating a feast while his son rides to probable death. On the contrary, he shares the short rations of his subjects. He does not abandon the defense of the city – not till the attack is actually under way and Faramir is apparently dying. In the book, Denethor sends away most of the women and children to keep them safe, In the movie, we see that he has done nothing to defend his city or subjects and does not seem to care about his younger son at all.

But most egregious to me was a scene in the extended edition of "Return of the King". Aragorn beheads the Mouth of Sauron when he rides out to boast of Frodo's capture and demand the surrender of the men of the West. Again, this does not happen in the book. In the book, the messenger is clearly discourteous, cruel and duplicitous, and Gandalf and Aragorn rebuke him and reject his message. But they act with perfect courtesy. No noble person – indeed, no decent person with any training at all – would ever kill a messenger in Tolkien's world. Those who do such things are the bad guys – at least, in the books. Fine as the films generally are, Jackson doesn't understand this. He does not understand that courtesy, in Tolkien's world, is a virtue, a sign of self-discipline and even compassion. As such, it is something the "good guys" (whether guys or women) exhibit pretty consistently, and always strive for. Those who fail in courtesy also fail in morality. And Tolkien's world is not ours – not entirely. It was a mistake for Jackson to diminish the heroes and have them fail in courtesy in order to make them – perhaps – more comprehensible to a modern audience.

Needless to say, the recent "Trek" film does the same thing. Courtesy simply isn't a virtue any of the characters understand, with the possible exception of Sarek. (Spock might get there, but, imho, he's not there yet) I grant you that the original "Trek", being a modern American creation, never put the emphasis on courtesy that Tolkien does, but, all the same, I do think there was something like it visible in the best episodes of the TV show.

I do not mean to say that Rodenberry's "Trek" was ever as morally coherent as Tolkien's universe. It was, from the outset, a rather brash American show that did not really question some of its assumptions. As fans of the new film have pointed out, the acceptance and expression of emotion was almost always seen as a good thing. Kirk, as often as not, triumphed through instinct and action, not rational thought. A common trope in the original show was the person (usually Kirk, not Spock) driving a computer to destruction by presenting it with a paradox – or, more simply, blowing up the thinking machine with a phaser. So, even in the original "Trek", emotions and instinct ruled and violence could be a solution. In those respects, the new film seems to follow in the footsteps of the original show pretty closely. But there are still some key differences.

"Star Trek", in the 1960s, had an optimism and good humor completely missing in the new film. And, to me, it seems that this upbeat feeling and camaraderie – which are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all the TV Treks I watched (TOS, TNG, DS9) - are based on something very like Tolkien's concept of courtesy.

For one thing, the show was always about intellectual and moral, not just physical, exploration. The Federation represented a fairly coherent ethos – acceptance, tolerance, knowledge, and the freedom to build and explore. More powerful civilizations – Earth and Vulcan – were strictly pledged not to interfere with more "primitive" peoples, but to let them live in their own ways and choose how much, or little, they wanted from the Federation. Of course, the Federation was consistently shown as "good" and other civilizations as "bad" (the Romulans and Klingons, for example, or the Orion slavers). But there are two things to note about this.

First, as much as C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, Trek up to the 21st century understood the concept of a noble enemy. The best example is our first introduction to the Romulans, who are shown as courageous and disciplined. The Romulan captain who gives up his life in this episode is clearly meant to be an admirable character, someone who, in different circumstances, might have been Kirk's friend.

Second, we see enemies become friends throughout the course of the show. One of my favorite episodes (and one of the best aliens Trek ever did) is "Devil in the Dark". Terrified miners wound a fierce alien creature that has been attacking and killing them – and Spock discovers that she is intelligent, the last survivor of her generation, and a mother who has been protecting her eggs. Once communication has been established, forgiveness is possible, and the Horta even becomes willing to dig for the miners, provided her children are safe. Later, in the animated series, we see a young Horta in Starfleet*.

The Klingons, too, are initially shown as enemies, with some truly barbaric practices (torture and mindrape) to their credit. But, in the very episode where they are introduced, we also see that they are actually very similar to humans. The advanced aliens who enforce a peace between the Federation and the Klingon empire state that the two civilizations will become allies. At first, both captains reject this idea, but Kirk, at least, seems aware of how immature his belligerence makes him seem. And the audience cannot help but notice that the two captains have identical reactions to alien interference – a reaction the audience might well share. This is actually quite sophisticated; the audience members are being asked to evaluate their own moral priorities as they see themselves in the thwarted captains who had been preparing for war. As a child, I found this thrilling, even though the Organians, who controlled the situation, seemed paternalistic. But, going still deeper, if the Organians seem paternalistic and overly controlling, perhaps that is because they understand that the surest way to unite Humans and Klingons is to give them a common "enemy" to rebel against! So we are asked, as viewers, to decide what "freedom" and "civilization" really mean. Are Kirk and his counterpart, Kor, really less free because the Organians have prevented them from fighting each other?

This brings me to the ethos of TOS, and of all the Treks that followed it (at least up to early Voyager). The theme of Trek is exploration, and the ideals it expresses are community, understanding, knowledge and freedom. It is by living well in community, growing in understanding and knowledge, and acting as an aware, ethical being that one becomes free. Gene Rodenberry was an atheist, and apparently quite prejudiced against religion, but his humanist message is in no way alien to any moral or philosophical system or religion that I know about. It certainly isn't to mine! On the contrary, I see it as a clear expression of a universal moral law that C.S. Lewis called the Tao. Like Lewis, Rodenberry affirmed that there was such a thing as adult, ethical behavior, and that it was something all people could agree on. What's more, through Trek, Rodenberry expressed his belief that human beings (and other sentient, rational creatures) could actually get there – become truly free and build just and prosperous societies.

For all his flaws, Captain Kirk, in TOS, is a citizen of such a society. He has, at key moments, self-discipline and self-knowledge enough to renounce violence, and he is aware that virtue requires watchfulness, discipline, and continuing effort. The captain's capacity for self-discipline and moral growth are shown very well in an episode called "Arena". Captain Kirk and an alien captain are set down in a hostile landscape by powerful aliens. They are told they must fight to the death, and that the victor will save his crew, while the crew and ship of the loser will be destroyed when he dies. The crew members watch helplessly from above while the two captains struggle.

The Gorn captain is in most respects superior to Kirk – physically more powerful, harder to hurt and harder to kill. But Kirk is quicker. It is his quickness, in particular, his quick thinking, that enables him to make a weapon and injure the Gorn. But, when he has the other captain at his mercy, Kirk refuses to buy into the aliens' evil game and kill him. "I will not kill today," he proclaims. As a result, he saves both his ship and the Gorn captain's, and the alien who appears tells him that his species shows promise. It isn't his intelligence, courage or ferocity that brings Kirk these victories. It's his integrity and strong moral sense. Of course, the intelligence, courage and ferocity do get him to the point where he can spare the Gorn captain's life. TOS isn't a show that truly celebrates pacifism. But, though "Trek" sees that aggression can have positive sides, it also sees war as a failure, and peace and compassion as victories – here, just as much as in "The Devil in the Dark".

And, as Kirk remarks in this episode, peace and compassion must be worked for and won over and over. A one-time victory is not enough. Every day, day after day, we must proclaim, "I will not kill today". This vision of adult, ethical behavior is much more in line with Tolkien's Middle-Earth – where Aragorn and Sam are confirmed as rulers of their respective realms because of their power to heal, and where Aragorn frees slaves and offers peace and mercy to his defeated enemies – than anything we see in the new movie.

One very clever blogger has pointed out that the ethos of the new "Trek" is essentially militaristic. Thus, Pike's conversations with Kirk come across like those of a bad recruiter in a poor urban neighborhood. George Kirk is, in essence, a Kamikaze pilot or suicide bomber – and we are expected to celebrate his action, as, in fact, I did when watching the movie. We are constantly shown that violence is a solution, and never encouraged to question this idea. The most egregious example, to my mind, is when the bad guy, Nero, is trapped, with his ship and all his crew, inside the event horizon of a black hole. Kirk offers him rescue, which he refuses. When Spock questions Kirk, he says he is doing the logical thing. The two young men (human and Vulcan) then get the emotional satisfaction of cutting apart the helpless ship with rocket fire, and this is clearly something the audience is supposed to cheer.

I'd like to explain why I found this scene so disturbing. Kirk is simply mocking Nero when he offers rescue. It is not in his capacity to deliver; also, he knows full well that Nero will refuse. He can then take his revenge on his enemy with a clear conscience. He gets to kill his father's killer while appearing (but not actually being) mature and merciful. This echoes another scene in another extremely popular entertainment – Harry Potter's mockery of Voldemort in the climactic scene in Deathly Hallows. "Try for some remorse," the boy tells his enemy, knowing that Voldemort is completely incapable of even understanding the concept. Then he gets to destroy his father's killer without having to assume any guilt for the killing, since Voldemort, by trying to kill him, has essentially committed suicide. In both cases, we are asked to celebrate young men who have never had to learn the slightest discipline or grow up at all. They certainly do not have to face any consequences for their actions. At the end of the book, Harry – who has essentially been passive throughout – is celebrated as the savior of the Wizarding World. At the end of the movie, James Kirk, who has mutinied against Spock and acted on impulse throughout, is rewarded with a captaincy. Not only does he leap several ranks to become captain, he is given the top ship of the line. He never has to show the discipline or self- knowledge we see from Kirk in TOS to achieve this extraordinary reward. All he has to do is follow his impulses. In that respect, the new "Trek" has far more in common with "Harry Potter" than it does with the original show.

And there is one more thing the new "Trek" seems to have in common with "Harry Potter". That is racism. The "Potter" books, of course, posit anti-Muggleborn prejudice as the greatest possible evil, all the while showing pervasive anti-Muggle racism as something completely acceptable. Worse yet, Rowling compares her bad guys to Nazis, quite explicitly, while at the same time making use of dreadful anti-Semitic and classist stereotypes. The new "Trek" is similarly muddled. The classic "other" of TOS – like Tolkien's elves, a convincingly alien and fascinating people – are, of course, the Vulcans. The basic philosophy of TOS originated on Vulcan, and was called IDIC – infinite diversity in infinite combination. While original Trek posited a fruitful alliance between Earth and Vulcan, in which both peoples would learn from each other, the new Trek continually denies the value of Vulcan logic and philosophy, and ends by destroying the planet and almost all the people on it. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? For we have seen that Kirk's instinctual aggression is the best way of coming at problems in Abram's universe.

Summing up, the new Trek actually contradicts the vision of TOS in two ways. While TOS optimistically stated that, in spite of our flaws, we humans could learn to create a better society and become better people, the new show tells us that we do not have to learn. All we have to do is follow our instincts, and all will be well. And, while TOS showed peace as possible and desirable, even between bitter enemies, the new movie is focused on vengeance and militarism. This vision of humanity and the universe is diametrically opposed to what many of us viewers saw in Trek right through DS9, and even in some of Voyager. J.J. Abram's "Trek" could more properly be called the anti-Trek. While retaining the character names, some basic traits, and even some lines of dialogue, it utterly betrays all that I loved about "Trek" since childhood. It isn't really Trek at all, but something else – something much meaner and less generous. I enjoyed it while I was watching, true. The film was well made and well acted. But I think the ideas it conveys are toxic.

• I may be mixing up the animated series and a Duane novelization here. In any case, I do remember a scene with a young Horta in Starfleet. This would not be possible in the new "Trek".

About racism – it's quite clear that Nero, et al, are meant to be Al Qaeda, and that anything Kirk does to destroy them is therefore right. I find this disturbing, too – like the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Slytherins and Goblin bankers in the Potter books.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
shyfoxling
Jul. 8th, 2009 06:50 am (UTC)
[Faramir] is shown torturing Gollum, and he tries to take the ring. None of this is in the book.

Have you watched the interviews in the extras? I am not sure if it was Peter himself (maybe Philippa?), but someone speaking to this alteration in the script said that they felt it sucked the power out of this evil artifact of the Ring if you have Faramir just able to say "I would not take this thing if it lay by the roadside" (or whatever his actual line is). I was like whoa, wth? I always thought that was just the point about Faramir -- he has a simple, plainer kind of almost monastic virtue, a humility Boromir doesn't have. That he can say such a thing and mean it is amazing, yes, but... that's what we're supposed to get, isn't it?

A one-time victory is not enough. Every day, day after day, we must proclaim, "I will not kill today".

This reminds me of the "Reiki Principles":

Just for today I will give thanks for my many blessings.
Just for today I will not worry.
Just for today I will not be angry.
Just for today I will do my work honestly.
Just for today I will be kind to my neighbor and every living thing.


it's quite clear that Nero, et al, are meant to be Al Qaeda

Whoa, what? I agree that there are Semitic stereotypes at work in the Potter books (I've seen you discuss this before). I had to have it pointed out, but it became rather obvious after that. Maybe the same will be the case here?
mary_j_59
Jul. 8th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
Yes, about Faramir's type of virtue. But also, there is this. I think it was Brian Sibley who compared the evil of the ring to addiction. There *are* people in the world who know their own weakness, and refuse even to touch the things they may become addicted to. So it isn't that Faramir is capable of resisting the ring; it's that he knows he is not capable! The same, of course, is true of Aragorn, Gandalf and Galadriel, who all refuse to even touch the ring, for the same reason. It's always interesting to me that the only people who actually give up the ring voluntarily after having possessed it are Bilbo and Sam, and Sam is the only person who gives it up without any coercion. OTOH, he hasn't owned it as long as Bilbo!

About Nero as Al Qaeda - I do think the link between the Nero/Kirk dynamic and the "war on terror" is fairly obvious, but two other people articulated it better and more quickly than I. The first was a woman writing for Counterpunch, an e-zine, and I have a link to her review in the comments on my journal. The second was a young man writing on his livejournal - don't have a link yet, but will try to find it, if you're interested.
andy_godfrey
Jul. 8th, 2009 08:13 am (UTC)
(Linked to here from Ferretbrain) Really interesting article! I think you're spot on with what you say about LotR, and I share your misgivings. I guess to some extent the differences can be justified, e.g. the length of a film meant there was less scope for Denethor to be presented as a complex/ambiguous character, while the fact that the Faramir sequence was repositioned to the end of Two Towers rather than the middle of it meant that he had to be presented slightly differently.

I think the lack of courtesy goes hand in hand with the greater sentimentality and cheesy humour in the films too, and they're all typically cinematic features. In fact, in lots of ways I guess the films are nothing like the book (especially e.g. Aragorn, who is even more different from the depiction in the book than Faramir or Denethor), which isn't necessarily a bad thing as a carbon copy film would be kind of redundant.

I think the big difference in perspective is summed up by the fact that Tolkien loved the cautious, peaceful Ents, whereas Jackson admits to finding them rather boring.

I share your impression of Star Trek too, though I don't know so much about the franchise. I was interested (as a first-time reader) in what elements of Harry Potter you thought were antisemitic?

Apologies for verbosity.
mary_j_59
Jul. 8th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comments, and I think you are quite right about the rather cheap humor and sentimentality of the movies. They are still (collectively) very good, and quite a cinematic achievement, IMO, but they are certainly not perfect.

Anti-Semitic imagery in the Potterverse:
A friend of my sister's, and her father, noticed this from PS/SS! The goblins have these characteristics: they are clannish, cruel, small, sallow, long-nosed, ugly and they control all the money. It's really egregious, once you notice it, and it's pretty hard not to. Of course, after HBP, I was hoping Rowling might turn these stereotypes around, but she doesn't. We meet a "rebel" goblin, only to find that he is treacherous and motivated by self-interest. Ugh!

IMO, the Slytherins, like Snape, fit anti-Catholic as much as anti-Semitic stereotypes. But, again, they are clannish, ambitious, and devoted (apparently) to their mothers. In fact, as a friend from a Snape discussion board pointed out, you get to be in Slytherin because of your mother. Others on livejournal have pointed out that, consciously or not, Rowling writes Lucius Malfoy as the stereotypical wealthy Jew who controls the political system by bestowing his wealth on those who support his agenda. And Snape's description (small - I never saw him as tall, and he's never described as such - sallow, long-fingered, dark-haired, dark-eyed and greasy) isn't at all unlike the way the goblins are described. (One almost wonders, after DH, whether Snape is intended to be part goblin - except that he apparently looks like his Muggle father!) Of course, these characteristics could also apply to other non-English types, including Italians, Spaniards, Gypsies and Eastern Europeans. Beyond pointing that out, I'm not going to get into the anti-Catholic stereotypes here; I've said enough about them elsewhere! But I really do get a vibe, from the Potter books, that the virtuous people are meant to be the native "protestants" - the genuine English types. I've got a long essay about what Rowling apparently intended further down in my journal; it's called "J.K. Rowling and the Mores of the 19th Century."

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!
oryx_leucoryx
Jul. 9th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
Hi Mary. I remember the discussion of the antisemitic overtones in HP with you, smallpotato and others over in Snapedom. Since then I have read all of Pratchett's Discworld novels, and one of the surprising things he does is create a sympathetic gold-loving species in his dwarfs (not dwarves :) ). Sorry, dwarfs don't really love gold, they only say so to get it into their beds. But they are also hard-working and have a complex society with somewhat different but understandable rules and moral codes, old traditions passed down in writing that made sense in their original setting but are facing crisis in the city where the dwarfs were a minority among other species. To quote Sam Vimes It was funny how people were people everywhere you went, even if the people concerned weren't the people the people who made up the phrase "people are people everywhere" had traditionally thought of as people.

Pratchett's dwarfs are so sympathetic that it is his Jewish readers who happily identify as dwarfs (though they could also be code for any immigrant group that succeeds through hard work and whose members yearn for old ways and the Old Country, but in reality stick to the new, and at the same time they serve as yet another way for the exploration of gender and gender roles in Pratchett's world). Had dwarfs attended Hogwarts they'd be Sorted into Hufflepuff, for the most part.
(Deleted comment)
mary_j_59
Jul. 9th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
Of course i don't mind! I think you're absolutely right. )
arkan2
Jul. 8th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Reply part 1
I guess that explains my mother's problem with Gandalf whacking Denethor around with his staff when Denethor goes all apocalyptic prophet in Return of the King: how discourteous of him.

Trek up to the 21st century understood the concept of a noble enemy.
Up to and into the first half-decade of the 21st century. You had noble enemies and enemies becoming friends in Voyager and in Enterprise. You also had the camaraderie and the populist sense of everybody working together for a greater good. Whatever complaints people may have against Voyager and Enterprise, they at least held onto that optimistic, communal Star Trek spirit.

(In fact, now that I think about it, there was an episode of Voyager which had a backup of the Doctor activated 700 or so years in the future as part of an alien museum documenting Voyager's involvement in one of their wars. One of the themes to that episode was how the historians, while getting the events more-or-less right, bungled the rest pretty spectacularly, including personality and motivations. At one point, the Doctor witnesses a reconstructed scene of the ready room in which the senior crew act like - well, like Kirk and Spock on the bridge in Star Trek||, right down to getting into a physical brawl. The Doctor is furious to see his crewmates so horribly misrepresented, but part of the fun for the audience is reflecting how badly the aliens have misinterpreted not just the Voyager crew, but Starfleet as a whole if they think any Starfleet command crew would ever be so thuggish. I'd compare Abrams to these aliens, only at least they were smart enough to recognize that any crew which acts like that must be the bad guys.)

So we are asked, as viewers, to decide what "freedom" and "civilization" really mean.
And this pretty much sums up my other big problem with Star Trek||. Along with being morally juveniles, it's intellectually DOA.

This humanist message – though, apparently, Rodenberry himself was an atheist
Excuse me? What do you mean, "though?" Since when have people needed a religious denomination or a belief in some all-powerful, all-knowing cosmic watchmaker to have a functional moral compass? I mean, I think Richard Dawkins and his ilk are barking up entirely the wrong tree when they act as if religion is the root of all evil, but the suggestion that people who do not believe in God are somehow morally stunted is just as ludicrous.

... Sorry, didn't mean to chew your ear off, but as you may have figured out, you rather hit a nerve there.
mary_j_59
Jul. 8th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Reply part 1
Oh, sorry! I did not mean that atheists weren't humanists. I meant that, though Rodenberry posits a rather general "humanism", his basic morality would ring true no matter what your spiritual/philosophical/ethical worldview was. A bit like Lewis's "mere Christianity" without the Christianity. I didn't in any way mean to proclaim that Trek's morality was inferior because of Rodenberry's atheism. On the contrary. Even though I am not an atheist, I do think all people understand right behavior, whether they are deists or not. And I heartily approve of Rodenberry's concept of right, adult behavior. I like to think that most people would, and that's what I was trying to say. I just said it rather badly. Will need to reconsider and revise, I guess.
arkan2
Jul. 10th, 2009 05:02 am (UTC)
Re: Reply part 1
Don't sweat it; I probably overreacted. But yes, I do think clearing up the wording would be appropriate.
mary_j_59
Jul. 10th, 2009 12:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Reply part 1
I already revised it - did so last night.
arkan2
Jul. 10th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Reply part 1
So you did. Looks good.
arkan2
Jul. 8th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
Reply part 2
The other thing to remember about Kirk Prime is that he was not on the opposite end of the logic/emotion scale from Spock. In the original, that role fell to McCoy. That was the whole reason for his and Spock's constant bickering. They were philosophical polar opposite, with Kirk in the middle.

I've heard two theories to explain this relationship. Explanation #1: The point is that neither extreme is right all the time. Sometimes - often, in fact - the logical choice is in fact less rational than the emotional one. So there's Kirk in the middle of the scale, taking advice from both sides, and going with the counsel of the one who's more in the right in this particular situation.

Explanation #2: According to my philosophy professor, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were based on concepts in Plato's Republic. In it, Plato envisioned the good society as a class system with a strict hierarchy. The rulers would be thinkers and philosophers, the wise in other words. Below them would be the warriors, the men (and women, Plato was open to gender equality on this score) of action, the go-to people. On the lowest tier would be the artisans and craftsfolk, the merchants and the farmers and the smiths and the other laborers.

Of course, this sounds pretty dystopian, but my professor insists you're not supposed to take it literally. According to him, it's supposed to be a metaphor for the people and groups should organize their priorities. The highest priority, the ruling principle should be logic and intellect overruling hot-blooded emotionalism, which in turn should be placed above appetites and instinct.

According to this model, Kirk, the man of action, guided by wise advice of the resident philosopher (Spock) keeps things running smoothly and keeps the avatar of instinct and appetite (McCoy) in his place and doing his job, instead of running amok. (Roddenberry modified Plato's ideas slightly for story purposes.)

In either case, the point is still that Kirk is in the middle of the spectrum, and if there's any side he panders more to, it's the thoughtful, logical one rather than instinct and blind aggression.

It was rather amusing to see Bones end up taking the middle road in the movie (would've been even better if they'd explored it more), but considering where it left Kirk, the ostensible hero and most often moral compass ... yeah, it's a bit problematic.

I'd like to explain why I found this scene so disturbing. Kirk is simply mocking Nero when he offers rescue. It is not in his capacity to deliver; also, he knows full well that Nero will refuse.

"Try for some remorse," the boy tells his enemy, knowing that Voldemort is completely incapable of even understanding the concept.
Oh how I hate sequences like this. Even going by the most generous interpretation, you can only conclude that Harry and Luke and the Doctor are blithering idiots for offering up such weak arguments for why the villain/monster should do as they say. I mean, I'm about as hardcore humanist as they come, so I do believe that Voldemort or Jabba the Hutt or whatever monster the Doctor is battling this week are capable of doing the right thing. But obviously, they have to be approached in the right way, appealing to whatever facet of their character is most open to being reasonable. Luke never would've convinced Vader to turn from the dark side if he'd just given him the generic Hero's Speech about how the villain should mend their ways.

This sort of behavior is more like the Spanish invaders who would march up to an American Indian village and read out (in Spanish, which most native Americans wouldn't even understand) a proclamation that basically went "We hereby lay our claim to this land and proclaim it for Christianity in perpetuity. You must now all give up your heathen ways and become good Christians. This is your only warning. If you do not immediately comply, then obviously you are irredeemably evil, and your lives and possessions are forfeit." This is not, in short, giving the villain a fair chance to save themself.
anne_arthur
Aug. 15th, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
Sorry to be so late in replying to this, because this is a great essay, and I agree with it wholeheartedly! I especially like your points about the Lord of the Rings: I had vaguely noticed that the films seemed rather coarser than the books, but you have put that into perspective beautifully.

I do, however, wonder what you see as the place of courtesy in modern society, from an American perspective? In Britain, it seems to have become a bad word because people associate it with the class system: if you are polite to someone you are showing deference, saying that they are better than you, forelock-tugging. It goes with the attitude that the rules are made by the powerful, the Toffs, the Nobs, the Slytherins, and you can't beat them by fighting fair. I disagree strongly with this - to me, courtesy is essentially egalitarian: you treat someone courteously not because that person is your superior, but because they are your equal, and you naturally behave towards them as you would want, and expect, them to behave towards you. In Christian terms, it is the most basic form of love. And, as in the (real!) Star Trek universe, that sort of courtesy brings harmony, and forms the basis of communities - and strong communities, and a strong sense of self-worth, breed courtesy. My (brief) experience has been that (despite what your film industry is saying) ordinary people in the US are more courteous than people in the UK, and I wondered if this is because you don't confuse courtesy and class in the way that we do? Or is my view of your country altogether too rosy?
sigune
Mar. 24th, 2013 03:49 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting to an Arthurian, especially one whose favourite knight is the one with a reputation for being the most courteous of all :D.

I looked up your article because your comment on my journal made me curious. Having just finished my rereading, I feel much the same as you do, and having read your Dragons, I can see why this difference between film and book strikes you so much. The majority of Tolkien's characters are essentially noble. Sometimes they are also tragic, but only the really evil characters are nasty, base and violent. Tolkien's sensibility in LotR reminds me very much of Arthurian romance, in which the heroes are high-minded, aware of their own failings, and try do well. Knights ought to be courteous, magnanimous and forgiving, and one who slaps another person or behaves rudely in another way is rebuffed - Sir Kay's lack of courtesy is not appreciated and he always gets punished for it in one way or another.

At the same time - and now, I guess, we get closer to my idea about the LotR films - the appreciation of courtesy, even within the Middle Ages, has its ups and downs. In some epics, Sir Gawain's courtesy (which is often considered his defining attribute) makes him the ultimate hero, whereas in others, it is not considered a good thing but rather a weakness or a mannerism.

I think courtesy is, at this moment, very much out of fashion. In a lot of the medieval epics, the heroes show exemplary behaviour. We know that medieval society was not cushy and that its nobles were rarely noble. We know that torture was considered perfectly legitimate in order to get a confession out of someone, and that people who were condemned to death were actually *lucky* if they were 'only' hanged or decapitated. This is not an aspect of society shown in a lot of epic literature. But the exemplary thing has simply got out of fashion, I sometimes think. For me, the LotR films stick to the story, but not to the spirit of Tolkien's book. They are more 'modern' in the sense that they move closer to the sort of thing people like in Game of Thrones - which is gritty and unapologetically shows the dark side of human nature. It is not exemplary; it allows you to feel morally superior - or reassures you that you are not abnormal in your lack of nobility. Also, "panem et circenses"... People just like a spectacle. Worth and reason just don't offer enough of that.

To be sure, Jackson's LotR is NOT Game of Thrones. It's not nearly so extreme. But it moves Tolkien a little bit in that direction. It takes up some of the things that Tolkien only hints at - goodness, the constant threats in the films that Orcs are about to eat man-flesh! - and almost entirely does away with other symbols that Tolkien uses to characterise evil, such as the warping and destruction of nature. I suspect that treating nature badly is just not considered sensational enough :/.

Just to be clear, I do love the films and find them a serious cinematic achievement. But rereading Tolkien I was surprised at how much they actually differ from the book and its sensibilities.
mary_j_59
May. 24th, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
I just want to thank you for this intelligent comment, which I somehow missed when you made it! It is true that, in some respects, Jackson actually falsifies Tolkien's books. He doesnt' understand Tolkien's theology at all. But, all the same, I love the movies, too!

BTW, my sister just looked at the picture you did for me which is hanging above my desk. She said, "I want you to publish the dragons, and I want Sigune to illustrate the book." What do you think?!
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