Friday, December 5, 2008

Why we need villains

Two more words to complete that title: in stories. As carry-over from this post.

Why do we need villains in stories? Put another way: why can't we have stories proper without villains? What is it that villains do for stories?

The answers are obvious as they are manifold, causing one to wonder why the question even needs to be asked. Let's start simply - even simplistically. First, for standard: we need villains in stories because the hero needs to be pitted against something in order to test him and bring forth his heroism.

Second, for full engagement with our own souls (relevancy): we need villains in stories because we have villains in our own personal stories, interiorly and exteriorly.

Thirdly, for the expansion of the mystery of reality into the dark unreal regions, thus claiming ground for ourselves (groundedness/illumination): we need villains in stories because a story will be disconnected from reality if free will has no play in its world. Since free will is best displayed through manifest and various characters, a story may go ill by denying itself villains, or getting the villain wrong, either through watery caricature or through the near-total subtraction of creature-hood (Hannibal Lector). For what is a villain but a character who makes wicked choices through his own free will? Thereby unintentionally proving the existence of free will?

But wait, does this mean that you absolutely cannot have a good story without a villain? Of course not. Does a Midsummer's Night Dream have any villains? No, not really.

So then, how does this pertain to Pixar - and in general, the disenchantment with...let's call them 'classical villains'; characters whose narratives eventually reveal something of the absolute in the consequences of their choices, the same as the choices of the heroes do. Take for instance the utterly hard-bitten demise of Gollum. As well, the utter enoblement of Frodo. Or, if you will, (not that I'm aligning Disney with Tolkien; God forbid) the likewise demise of the queen/witch and the enoblement of Snow White.

My concern is not with specifics here, but noticed trends in a certain consistent direction: what is happening to us who write our narratives with increasing cleverness and wit and technique, and even with whopping good (and natural, as opposed to propagandistic) messages, but so geared toward the power of that message by dint of the absence of villainy (that is, the absence of starkly-cut, unanalyzed, unapologetic, uncommented-on, yet not-overwhelming villainy and evil) that there is a certain hermetically sealed quality about it? I get this feeling with Pixar's movies. And I do not think it is the computer animation that does it to me.

I can only put the feeling this way: the story is not yours. I do not mean that it is not the same story as yours, but it does not become you; you do not become it; the story does not enweave itself unnoticed into the reflection of your personhood - so that, say, when you watch it again, the propulsion of your own soul seems to be carrying the story along.

It is that which Pixar's stories lack: the magic of the propulsion of your soul seeming to carry the story along. I am certain this lack is there because they have no villains to speak of. Having classical villains (and without subversive undercurrents) causes other things in the story to happen. You cannot really help but see the mystery of sin when the queen in Snow White asks her questions of the mirror. It is vanity as sin, plain as an apple, yet mysterious - the kind of thing a child would ponder after watching it, in that realm so close to daydream, and hopefully adults: this mystery of sin in our own hearts we see depicted in a story.

We begin to see why many films today go to weird lengths to avoid this in the depiction of villains, or to soften it (psychologize it) if they are depicted at all. Because it points in such a compelling way to the good - not the good kept in precious quarantine, but the good in diametric opposition. The good that is so good that though it is opposed to evil, it cannot be ultimately defined as an opposite.

And we today just don't like things that are diametrically opposed. It causes things like finding one's own heart as something on fire in the spatial house of free will; causes it to be inclined to singleness; purity, as by a sword or fire. A choice made as a creature of God.

Sure, we can have subversiveness, but what happens when our enitire diet consists in this? And what may be worse: what happens when that subversiveness grafts with the classic in a way that sort of...neutralizes it? What are we missing?

But of course I'm just stacking up criticisms where they don't belong. Because Pixar is not that league I am speaking of.

Right. More excuses - excuses that pull us further away from the narrative of narrative; further away from the notion that there is something in story so closely bound up with our real direction in life, that our reflection on it should literally haunt us.

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