Like many parents of young children, I’ve spent a lot of this time of quarantine watching Disney +. A lot of time.
There are a lot of questions to puzzle over in the Frozen franchise. Was Anna included in Elsa’s seclusion or not? She sings as though she’s never been outside the castle, and yet she has a horse and seems to know her way around the kingdom. Why would she be included? And who enforced that rule after her parents’ deaths? For that matter, Elsa’s delayed coronation implies a period of regency, yet no one in Frozenor Frozen II appears to have played that role. There are no advisers or ministers to manage the kingdom while Elsa and Anna go off on their adventures — the royal siblings appoint outsiders Prince Hans of the Southern Isles and Grandpa Troll to watch over Arendelle.
But the biggest mystery in the world of Arendelle is the economy.
The Duke of Wesleton calls Arendelle his “most mysterious trade partner.” What is so mysterious? What goods does Wesleton trade with Arendelle? What are the “riches” Wesleton plans to exploit?
Arendelle is based on the nation of Norway in the early 19th Century. The Disney Wiki uses information from the short sequel Frozen Fever to narrow the setting down to an exact month:
The time period for Frozen is set in July 1839. In the upper left-hand corner of the geographical map shown in Frozen Fever, it is suggested by a set of Roman numerals that the year in which Anna turned nineteen was 1840. (MDCCCXL is the exact numeral order.)
During the last decades of the eighteenth century the Norwegian economy bloomed along with a first era of liberalism. Foreign trade of fish and timber had already been important for the Norwegian economy for centuries, and now the merchant fleet was growing rapidly. Bergen, located at the west coast, was the major city, with a Hanseatic office and one of the Nordic countries’ largest ports for domestic and foreign trade.
When Norway gained its independence from Denmark in 1814, after a tight union covering 417 years, it was a typical egalitarian country with a high degree of self-supply from agriculture, fisheries and hunting.
Norway’s economy didn’t really take off until 1842, just after the events of Frozen. This was due to trade liberalization and the decision by farmers to switch from arable land to livestock production. Exports of timber, fish, and ships also skyrocketed.
But real-world Norwegian economic history isn’t reflected in what we see in the film.
When Wesleton sees Prince Hans handing out blankets, he angrily confronts him saying:
“Are we just expected to sit here and freeze while you give away all of Arendelle’s tradeable goods?”
From the get-go, ice is established as an important industry. And for good reason. As our main man Frederic Tudor showed us around the turn of the 19th century, ice can be quite a valuable commodity. Before the establishment of the ice trade, it was only an item for the aristocracy. But harvesting and storing it in a large quantity allows for the preservation of foods throughout the year without an over reliance on salt, which also in-turn reduces dependency on expensive spices that were used to balance a meal’s flavor-profile.
As strange as it seems, Frozen very much presents ice as the center of Arendelle’s economy.
This presents a disturbing possibility. King Agnarr sequesters his daughter Elsa and tells her not to use her powers. He says this is because he wants to protect his other daughter, Anna. This rationale never really makes sense to most viewers. And why erase Anna’s memory as well? That hardly seems necessary.
But these actions *do* make sense if King Agnarr is trying to protect his country’s economy.
Imagine you’re Prime Minister of Kuwait. Your economy is heavily dependent on exporting oil. Then one day, a girl is born who starts running around, creating oil out of thin air. And not just a little bit of oil — she can generate enough oil to fill a palace ballroom in less than a minute.
If you let her, she’ll give free oil to everyone. Prices will plummet. Your nation’s businesses will collapse, and unemployment will skyrocket. People like Kristoff will starve to death. Within months, your subjects will be brandishing pitchforks at the palace door.
So you lock her up.
One day, when she’s older and can understand, you’ll let her use her power. An inexhaustible supply of oil can bring your nation great riches, as long as it’s properly managed.
In the meantime, you’ll go on a secret voyage to learn more about exactly how the girl got her powers. Obviously, no one else can be trusted with this knowledge — you and your spouse will have to go yourselves.
Mickey, a film starring comedian Mabel Normand, was by far the most-seen and most popular movie in America for decades.
Mabel Normand, Comedienne
During the 1910s, Mabel Normand was a comedy queen. She combined solid acting chops with incredible comedic timing and instinct. Normand was one of the first people to take a pie in the face on film and helped transition comedies from one-reel shorts to longer-form stories.
She wasn’t just an actress either. She spent time behind the camera, directing Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, sometimes in films she also starred in. Chaplin once said she was born “knowing more about comedy and comedy routine than any of the rest of us ever learn.”
Chaplin owed Normand his career. He was a natural clown but initially struggled through the dramatic parts of the films the studio put him in. Producer Mack Sennett was ready to fire him, but Normand convinced him to give The Tramp a second chance. Normand’s tutelage paid off, and Chaplin used the lessons she taught him through the rest of his career.
Mabel Normand used her skills in drama, comedy, and stunt work during the 1916 filming of the film Mickey.
The story is a bit complicated — Mickey lives with her step-father a gold mine before she is sent back east to be turned into a proper lady. Some fish-out-of-water comedy ensues, and Mickey soon has two suitors. The movie climaxes in an exciting, hilarious horse race with Mickey as a surprise jockey.
Mickey was not a success initially. Distributors didn’t know what to do with the action/comedy/romance/melodrama. It was essentially shelved for about a year.
Then, a miracle happened.
Mack Sennett was working in his Long Island office when a knock came at the door. The owner of a small movie theater had a problem. A logistical mix-up had left him without a film to show the next night. Unless he found another movie soon, his theater would sit empty.
Sennett suggested Mickey, and the theater owner agreed.
Audiences loved it. Sennett excitedly phoned Normand, informing her she had a hit on her hands.
But he had no idea just how big Mickey was about to become.
As word spread about the film, critics raved. “No photoplay yet produced is so filled with adventure, thrills and human emotions as Mickey,” said an article in The Tattler. A review in Moving Picture World went further. “Mickey is a digest of the science of producing motion pictures. It has everything imaginable that might be conceived by the most inventive producer, past or present.”
Audiences lined up to buy tickets in the middle of a flu epidemic that shut down most large public gatherings. (Normand herself caught the flu, but survived) “America was not flocking to see movies. They were flocking to see Mickey. Theater owners begged Triangle to send them prints of the film,” author Timothy Dean Lefler wrote.
Mickey helped Hollywood discover a new way to make money: merchandising.
Memorabilia included Mickey hats, dresses, lantern slides, and socks. A theme song was written and released. In the first four days, Americans bought 500,000 gramophone records.
The film’s popularity grew and grew. It was re-released in 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1921. According to The Tattler, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”
The word “Mabelescence” gained circulation. A 1919 magazine explained the term meant “anything peculiarly like Mabel Normand, which means merry and madcappish and warm-hearted and tender.”
Box Office Records
Mickey grossed about $8 million at the box office, according to producer Mark Sennett. (He is sometimes quoted as saying $18 million, but that is almost certainly typo.)
When you take into account average ticket prices during the releases, Americans bought about 40.9 million tickets to Mickey between 1918 and 1921.
That’s more than twice as many admissions as the widely-remembered blockbuster The Birth of a Nation had sold up to that point. The only film that had sold near as many tickets was the 1914 Western The Spoilers, at an estimated 30.8 million.
Mickey held the record for the best-selling movie from 1919 to 1938, when it was passed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As of December 2019, Mickey is #172 on the all-time chart. That’s a fantastic feat when you realize there are three times as many people alive today as there were when Mickey was in theaters.
The Star Forgotten
Mabel Normand’s career was at its highest in 1918. It plummeted quickly.
Normand ended a romantic relationship with Sennett and left his production company this same year. She fell ill with the flu and struggled to match her previous output.
Her longtime friend and collaborator, Fatty Arbuckle, was accused of murdering actress Virginia Rappe in 1921. The next year, Normand was interrogated in the murder of her friend, director William Desmond Taylor. Then in 1924, Normand’s chauffeur used her pistol to shoot and injure a millionaire oil broker.
Normand was not implicated in any of these incidents, but her association with the scandals changed her public image when she could least afford it.
In 1926 she married Lew Cody, who had played the villain opposite her in Mickey. She developed tuberculosis, was sent to a sanatorium, and died in 1930 at the age of 37.
In 1919, an article in The Tattler proclaimed, “Next to our President there is no better known character in the country today than Mickey.”
A century later, Mickey is entirely unknown to the general public. The film doesn’t show up in the Top 200 Favorite Silent Films on Flickchart or the Top 200 Most Popular Films of the 1910s on Letterboxd
Mabel Normand is not the only early female filmmaker to be neglected by 20th Century historians. Her masterpiece deserves more attention from movie buffs and scholars than they have given it so far.
D. W. Griffith’s evil, racist filmThe Birth of a Nation is widely regarded as the most popular silent movie ever made. I believe this reputation is based on a misinterpretation of its box office records.
But it made its extraordinary gross mostly because of its unique release strategy and extraordinarily high ticket prices — not because it was extraordinarily popular.
Most movies of the 1910s were distributed the way they are now. A studio would rent prints to theaters across the country, and those theaters would split the box office revenue with the studio.
In 1915, there were more than 10,000 theaters across the country, and the average ticket price for a movie was between 10¢ and 15¢.
But Birth of a Nation charged $2 for most seats, sixteen times what movie-goers were used to paying. That’s the equivalent of a theater charging $148 a ticket today.
How did it get away with this?
The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first film to charge such high prices. Tickets for the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria ranged from 25¢ to $2. So it followed that film’s successful pattern.
The producers told the public this was no ordinary movie. This movie was a spectacle — a film that could only be appreciated in a particular type of quality theater — at quality prices.
The studio built up a tremendous amount of advance buzz, with screenings in Los Angeles and at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. Then for its first few years of release, Birth of a Nation was shown only in upscale locations like New York’s Liberty Theater and similar places in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By January 1916, it had been distributed to only twelve locations but had sold more than $2 million in tickets.
The producers eventually did lower their standards for qualifying theaters (unofficially, of course!), and the film gained wider distribution in larger and mid-size cities across the country. Ticket prices weren’t always $2, but they were still much higher than tickets for the other movies playing in town.
So The Birth of a Nation made more money than most silent films by selling fewer actual tickets.
It’s impossible to know precisely how many tickets The Birth of a Nation sold. Many reports have grossly exaggerated its popularity — but we do have some contemporary estimates.
In August 1915, the New York Press estimated 400,000 people had seen the film. By February 1916, people had purchased an estimated 5 million tickets. By June 1917, the number was up to 10 million.
Ticket sales began to slow at this point, but they continued to trickle in. All tickets from 1915 to 1927 were between 25¢ and $2, with most on the higher end. If we estimate an average of $1 a ticket, we find the film sold 18 million tickets by the end of the silent era.
The 1914 Western The Spoilers sold an estimated 17.5 million tickets in its first year; a re-release sold about 13.3 million more.
Popular? Very. But it’s not the unparalleled hit many historians make it out to be.
SOURCES: Block, Alex Ben., and Lucy Autrey Wilson. George Lucas Blockbusting: a Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies, Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. New York: ItBooks, 2010. https://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN9780061963452.
It’s long been understood that Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre tells stories of violence. But what often gets lost is that Kubrick’s focus is not on violence in general, but on violence that is particularly male in nature.
In the twisted logic of the film, violence feeds on itself, begetting more and more violence until the world is destroyed.
General Jack D. Ripper fears emasculation (the stealing of his “precious bodily essence”) and death from Russian men. So, he preemptively launches a nuclear attack. This act of violence seems to encourage a violent response from Moscow, which leads to even the nebbish American President Merkin Muffley to plot genocide.
If the film’s overtly phallic symbols don’t convince you Dr. Strangelove’s violence is uniquely masculine, consider the lack of women in this film about the end of the world. The only female character is a Playboy centerfold / mistress, played by Tracy Reed.
And, consider the plan laid out by Dr. Strangelove himself — men of power will spend life in a mineshaft full of women selected for breeding.
But the mere existence of male violence isn’t all Kubrick has to say on the topic. His films explore the way violence is present in the lives of all men, and how they are forced to interact with a violent masculine society and a violent masculine nature.
One of Kubrick’s favorite patterns is to introduce a male character with attributes that may lead us to believe they’re not the “violent type.”
We may believe a working-class drunk like Jack Torrance in The Shining abuses women. But certainly not an urbane, bookish Francophile like Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
These traits initially code Humbert as effeminate, weak, and possibly homosexual. Humbert’s double, Clare Quilty, shares many of these traits. Both men are soon revealed to be child rapists.
Alex in A Clockwork Orange is an aesthete with a large vocabulary who revels in Beethoven. He is also a rapist and a murderer. His counterpart – Mr. Alexander, is also an aesthete. He is a liberal, a writer, and disabled. Yet he too wants to commit murder.
David Bowman of 2001: A Space Odyssey has a harmless, anodyne presence up until the moment he slowly dismantles HAL 9000’s brain while hearing him beg for his life.
Sophisticates among the upper crust in both ancient Rome (Spartacus) and modern New York City (Eyes Wide Shut) force the smaller men and women of the world to perform or them in pageants of lust for sex and blood.
There are very, very few “good guys” among Kubrick’s men. Spartacus and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake from Dr. Strangelove both qualify, but both are ultimately brought to use violence themselves.
(The only exceptions that springs to mind are perhaps Dolores Hazes’ husband we briefly meet at the very end of Lolita and the cook at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, who attempts to rescue Wendy and Danny. In an amusing coincidence, both these characters are named “Dick.”)
Where does this male violence come from? In some of his films, Kubrick explores how patriarchy perpetuates itself by requiring men to become violent.
“Patriarchal masculinity is a force that feeds on its practitioners who find themselves at constant risk of becoming casualties in masculinity’s ceaseless and essentially arbitrary struggle for self-assertive dominance over whatever it chooses to perceive as its other,” Berthold Schoene-Harwood explains in Writing Men.
Toxic masculinity is a vampiric force. Those men who do not yet belong to the patriarchy are forcibly initiated into the brotherhood of death — or are annihilated.
Full Metal Jacket demonstrates this most clearly. Pvt. Leonard Lawrence enters camp as a soft, goofy guy who seems unlikely to harm a fly. The society he exists in cannot tolerate a non-violent male. The violent apparatus of the military breaks him down and remakes him into a killer. Sgt. J. T. Davis experiences a similar transformation.
In Paths of Glory, the French command authority requires unwilling male soldiers to violently sacrifice their bodies in a pointless attempt to kill other men. When Col. Dax, played by Douglas, attempts to stop the cycle, his masculine-coded values of obedience, honor and courage are called into question.
Ultimately, cultural enforcement of violence is not enough, and the authorities are compelled to use direct violence to destroy the men who tried to opt-out of the attack.
Spartacus features a similar conflict. The Roman rulers coerce men to kill each for entertainment. Our hero and his fellow men rebel, provoking a violent counter-revolution by the ruling class.
A masculine inclination to violence caused solely by societal structures is hard to root out. But it’s not impossible. One can imagine a world in which boys and men are conditioned to be peaceable citizens. But is that enough?
2001: A Space Odyssey communicates the idea of inter-generational violence in cinema’s most celebrated cut. The prehistoric primate’s bone weapon changes before our eyes into a 21st Century piece of space technology. Kubrick seems to be showing that the savagery of our past hasn’t disappeared. The apes of the past became the humans of the present who will become the star children of the future – but violence is part of them all.
In The Shining, Jack Torrance is the past, present, and future. The physical and psychological abuse he inflicts on his wife and young son aren’t part of who he is. They have been passed down from generation to generation in a cycle of male violence of the type that has infected families across the world. He has “always been the caretaker.”
Equally apparent are the generational links in Barry Lyndon. The film begins with our protagonist’s father being killed in a duel. “Gentlemen, cock your pistols” is the Freudian opening line.
The protagonist joins the military before seducing his way into marriage with the wealthy Lady Lyndon. Charming, arrogant, and unempathetic, Barry typifies narcissism and subjects his new family to his abusive personality. Lady Lyndon sinks into the passive melancholy that resembles Wendy Torrance. Barry’s disregard for her and murderous attack on his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, also remind one of the Torrances.
But Bullingdon uses the pattern of violence to his advantage. Completing the Freudian cycle, he wounds his father in the leg and replaces him as head of the household.
BREAKING THE CYCLE?
In The Shining, Danny Torrance escapes both his father and escapes becoming his father. He does this by finding his way out of the maze – a metaphor many children of abusive households can immediately relate to.
“Every interaction is part of a larger motive: My father’s every word and action was chosen carefully, designed to manipulate, refuse, invalidate. Recognizing these patterns is the beginning of resisting them.”
Luckhurst writes that in The Shining, “Danny will survive the Overlook because he has traced out the escape routes over and over”—and notes that he will only return to himself “as he escapes his father in the maze.” My mother, my sister and I had traced our own escape routes into the homes of family friends, into our relationship with one another. Our house simmered with tension in slow, steady undercurrents. I imagined his cruelty as a frequency chart, the peaks growing closer and closer together.”
But Danny’s experience is the exception, not the rule, in Kubrick’s films. The director’s well-known pessimism largely leaves us with a world that is dominated – forever- by the violent urges of men.
World War I’s impact on modern art and philosophy are well documented. The Victorian Age took human progress for granted. The Enlightenment idea that rationality would continuously improve and perfect civilization ruled. That view of the world died, along with 16 million people. The universe seemed broken, and death reigned.
This feeling found expression in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, Otto Dix’s art, in Dada and Surrealism – and in political movements that often turned destructive.
Poole’s treatment of three films in particular stand out:
The first is Abel Gance’s J’accuse. Shooting began in August 1918, and the film is most memorable for its scene in which the war dead rise to march on French civilians who have forgotten their sacrifice. Although these characters are not zombies in the sense we think of them now, their manner and visual presentation have been adapted by horror filmmakers working in the zombie genre. Poole points out that the cemetery in George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead is decorated with war ribbons.
The dead are treated differently in horror made during and after the war than in horror before the war. Edgar Allen Poe wrote of corrupted souls and demonic forces. The zombies who dominate contemporary horror have no souls.
Victorian Era spirituality sentimentalized the dead, with highly ornate mourning rituals. These disappeared virtually overnight when the war broke out – and entire culture changing the way it saw death. Now, people were surrounded by bodies and parts of bodies that were clearly not alive. The mutilated soldiers and civilians seemed to make a mockery of the idea that humans were anything other than animated sacks of flesh.
The soulless nature of these zombies was used by Romero to create an allegory of capitalism. I read the wights in HBO’s Game of Thrones as sharing a theme with Gance’s soldiers — the dead return to haunt those who live at their expense.
The scene in J’Accuse is rendered even more horrifying when you learn that Gance used real soldiers on leave to play these parts. 80% of them were killed within a few weeks.
Nosferatu, the 1922 German Expressionist classic, has its roots deep in the Great War. Producer Albin Grau, the driving force behind the film, was an occultist who served in the German Army during the war. It was there a Serbian farmer told him the story of how his father was a vampire, inspiring Grau to create a vampire story of his own.
Director F. W. Muranu experienced horrific trauma during the war. He was drafted and after surviving the Battle of Verdun, Murnau served in the new German Air Force where he was shot down several times and became a prisoner of war. His lover, the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, was killed in vicious melee combat on the Eastern Front.
Nosferatu was largely based on Braum Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but it departs from the source material in several ways. Poole emphasizes the way Nosferatu links the vampire with a plague destroying Europe – seeing both as an analog for the war.
Grau encouraged this interpretation, telling critics and audiences the film had to be seen in the light of the war. Grau called the war “a cosmic vampire” that had come “drinking the blood of millions.”
Poole also examines the horrifying scene in which the body of Count Orlok is found in its coffin:
“The vision of a corpse existing at some unthinkable intersection of life and death proved compellingly terrifying for this generation… What had the war revealed about the human body and the ancient concept of the soul? People had witnessed too much death and mutilation. Loved ones had not died peacefully in their bed after some encouragingly precious final words. Rather, they had been torn apart, their bodies never found, or they walked about in the trancelike state of shell shock, often scarred, burned, sickened or blind. Nosferatu evoked this terror for a country that had seen more than its share of corpses.”
Nosferatu had, and continues to have, enormous influence over horror art even outside the world of film. Poole writes that groups of surrealist artists would host Rocky Horror-like screenings of Nosferatu, in which they’d shout of the words of the intertitles on screen.
There was a sense that traditional means of expression and thought cannot cope with the mass death of the war. Poole’s book spends time with surrealism and Dada, with Sigmund Freud, Otto Dix, Franz Kafka, H. P. Lovecraft and T. S. Eliot.
Out of this milieu of frightening death and confusion came some of the most enduring and recognizable characters of the 20th Century — the Universal Monsters.
I think Poole overstates his case a bit in this chapter. He writes that James Whale’s Frankenstein monster is a “mound of corpses” that represent the dead from the war. I don’t see any evidence that Frankenstein or the rest of the Universal cycle was inspired directly by the Great War. But it certainly is true they were inspired by films inspired by the great war. In the same way, the look of the White Walkers in Game of Thrones wasn’t inspired directly by Great War soldiers, but rather come from a tradition of zombie portrayal and conception that has roots in the Gance’s J’accuse.
And Frankenstein certainly took its look directly from the German Expressionist horror that arose in the wake of the war. Whale screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari repeatedly while making Frankenstein, and the design of Castle Frankenstein and the doctor’s laboratory were heavily influenced by Nosferatu.
Poole’s Wasteland has plenty to offer beyond these three films. I found his treatment of Salvador Dalí ‘s vicious racism and support of fascism enlightening. He also relates how Bela Lugosi served in the Austria-Hungary elite ski corps during the war and once buried himself under a large pile of corpses to hide from Russian troops. He was later discharged for war neurosis — fascinating background for the man who would embody the idea of the undead.
The book offers innumerable intriguing ideas and backgrounds like these. It’s a fascinating take on the war and some of the overlooked ways its legacy sticks with us today.
One of the secrets of Battlestar Galactica’s success is the moral complexity shown both by its characters and by the show’s treatment of them.
It opens with a miniseries depicting a history-ending genocide: all 12 planets that house the human species are destroyed in a single day. Released in December 2003, viewers cannot help but see the attack as a parallel to the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
In many ways, Battlestar Galactica seems a product of Bush-era liberalism. It takes pains to point out that although a nation must defend itself, being attacked is not license to disregard morality. During its run from 2004-2009, the show directly addressed many of the time’s hot button issues in American politics — the morality and efficacy of torture, the sometimes blurry distinctions between ‘freedom fighters’ and terrorists, and the balance between liberty and security.
The show’s moral complexity puts it on an almost Shakespearean level. At times, the characters refuse to compromise their values even in the face of extinction. (Due process for genocidal robots?!) At other times, they do horrific things, sacrificing even a thousand people for the good of the many. A single character may support the rule of law over all else in one situation, but help rig an election in another.
These complex behaviors are part of what makes the characters feel so real. Very few of us behave with total ethical consistency through out lives. (You’re likely reading this on an LCD screen, the production of which is riddled with serious ethical problems.) We muddle through the best we can, making decisions in the moment, often disagreeing with our friends and even ourselves. That’s an essential part of the human experience.
In a pivotal Season 3 episode, a character is placed on trial for actions taken. The character’s defense attorney gives a Pauline speech about how everyone on board has sinned — the very nature of their continued existence implicates them.
If to err is human, what does that mean for a race of robots who can err? The shows’s dramatic unveiling of the cylons seems to come in answer to this question.
The American political landscape is radically different in 2018 than it was in 2003-2009, but Battlestar Galactica’s moral quandaries are still critically relevant in the Trump Era. When do we fight to preserve our institutions, and when do we bypass them? When do we reason with our enemies, and when do we battle them? What imperfections are we willing to overlook in our leaders, and when do we draw a line?
People disagree about the answers to all these questions. Battlestar Galactica invites us to see the humanity in all of them.
I’m a fan of superhero films. But the genre has gotten mired in a disturbing trend that needs to be discussed.
Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to tour the Vatican Museums. The collections were displayed in chronological order, and they told a fascinating story as I walked from room to room.
The art from the classical worlds of Greece and Rome portrayed powerful gods, goddesses and titans. To my memory, no one lower than the level of demigod was given a statue. The stories of the super-beings were privileged far above those of us regular humans. They were depicted as conquerors and athletes, ruling and destroying.
When Christianity took hold, the script was reversed in the most dramatic way possible. Now, the art depicted suffering and sorrow. The stories of impoverished ethnic minorities were put on display. The only God was one who was a man, and who was crucified.
A tour through a museum of Hollywood might tell this story in reverse. It began telling about the lives of tramps, downtrodden orphans, slaves, and plucky underdogs. Now, cinema’s most popular genre focuses almost exclusively on those born into great power and wealth — and those of us without powers are invisible.
“Harry Potter was born with wizard genes, Luke was born with the Force. But in both cases, they had to train their ass off to have a chance.
Superman, on the other hand, had superhuman strength from infancy — he did not have to lift a bunch of asteroids to build those muscles. Tony Stark inherited his money, and whatever he’s done to keep it, the films go out of their way to make it clear that his life is easy — he has tons of spare time and lots of fun hobbies. Yeah, Bruce Wayne spent a few scenes training with mountain ninjas, but everything he accomplishes as Batman is done purely with his wealth — his multimillion-dollar car, a state-of-the-art cape that lets him fly, expensive surveillance technology — right up until he rides off into the sunset in his military-grade flying machine.”
Look at Avengers: Infinity War. Literally half the human population is wiped out. But you don’t see any of that. The sidequests of the gods are given more screentime than the deaths of 3.8 billion mortal earthlings.
The X-Men films take an interesting tack in that superheroes are discriminated against rather than worshiped like they are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the D.C. films. Although it strains plausibility to believe that Americans would punish power rather than reward it, it’s still a good effort at telling a different type of story.
Magneto begins as the most sympathetic of characters, and his story follows the classic underdog archetype. But the focus uncritically remains on him even as he morphs into a villain. The audience is encouraged to feel his pain, but never the pain of the innocent non-mutants he murders.
Professor Xavier’s school promises to shelter mutants from the world – but it only protects the powerful. There’s no room in his school for mutants without power. People born with Down Syndrome, or Fragile X are certainly more at risk of discrimination and harm than someone with laser vision or telekinesis. But Xavier shows no concern for the welfare of people with mutations that might be detrimental rather than beneficial.
Pixar’s The Incredibles is the most serious offender. Its characters explicitly espouse the view that the non-powerful people aren’t special, and don’t matter as much as the powerful do. The Nietzschean, Ayn Randian “Supers” all have innate, inherited talent, while the villains try to better themselves to become their equals.
Superhero movies don’t necessarily have to be this way. Westerns were once criticized in this same manner, but they grew up and grew more complex. John Ford critiqued the nature of power and violence in The Searchersand The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, among others. In the 21st Century, the line between revisionist Western and regular Western has virtually disappeared.
So far, the only mainstream superhero film to take the challenge head-on has been Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen. It has a cynical take on how people with power are actually treated in society, and throws mud on the idea they are somehow morally superior beings or that their lives matter more.
Captain America: Civil War had a storyline about collateral damage, and the Spider-Man series continues to include valuable non-super characters. But these are the rare exceptions. For most Hollywood comic book films, only the powerful count.
The production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which several people lost their lives or had their bodies mutilated, is often held up as an example of courageous art on the part of the director. It is no such thing, and it’s long past time the filimic community cast a more critical eye on Herzog’s mystique.
The movie is about a 19th Century colonialist named Fitzgerald, who leads his indigenous workers up the river, to death and disease in order to achieve his dream of building an opera house in the jungle. You might expect Fitzgerald to be portrayed as a malevolent figure; a Kurtz or an Ahab. But director Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski see him as an eccentric romantic.
The film itself is clearly problematic, but the real-life experience of those who worked on the production is horrifying. The deadly ordeal was captured in the documentary Burden of Dreams. (a title echoing Kipling’s ode to colonialism) Like the semi-fictional Fitzgerald, Herzog too led his indigenous workers up the river, where they met death and disease.
“In one of the region’s driest summers on record, scavenging Amahuaca tribespeople launched a scavenging hit-and-run raid on the film camp. One man was lucky to survive an arrow through his throat, while his wife was hit in the stomach, necessitating eight hours of emergency surgery on a kitchen table.”
“The attack was only one of a catalogue of disasters, including two plane crashes – in which five people were critically injured, one paralysed – and the death of a young highland Indian who drowned after borrowing a canoe without permission. Among more than a thousand extras, a few perished from disease – though arguably not as many as might naturally have done so without the presence of the production’s camp doctor. A Peruvian logger bitten by a deadly snake made the dramatic decision to cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to prevent the spread of the venom.”
This description of the deaths of native peoples comes several paragraphs into Thorpe’s essay on Fizcarraldo. Their lives are given only a passing mention. I have not found any source the lists their names.
The lives and well-being of indigenous people seem to matter very little to film buffs. Roger Ebert, whom I generally admire, wrote of “the Brazilian engineer resigning and walking away after telling Herzog there was a 70 percent chance that the cables would snap and dozens of lives would be lost” — and yet Ebert calls the film “brave and epic.”
Ebert also wrote of a crew member who was bitten by a snake and had to cut his foot off with a chain saw. Ebert finds that Herzog “could have filmed his entire production a day or two outside Quito, the capital of Ecuador,” but the critic praises the director’s deadly decision because it made possible a few vast panoramas.
“Watching these extraordinary images up on the screen knowing what your watching is the real thing is absolutely breathtaking, and is something no CGI or any form of special effects could ever surpass.”
Imagine a similar scene taking place in America or Europe, in which an engineer tells a director there is a 70% chance of the crew being killed, and the director plunges ahead with the shot. Herzog may have ended up on a blacklist or faced lawsuits. But it didn’t happen there. It happened to indigenous workers, miles away from the nearest city. It is presented as a romantic example of Herzog’s obsession with his craft. And so, the incident actually elevates Herzog’s reputation as an artist — rather than diminishes his reputation as a human being, as it ought to do.
Most of the essays I’ve read on the dangers of the film focus the disputes between Kinski and Herzog, or the emotional difficulties Herzog underwent while trying to make his film. It makes sense to pay more attention to the director and the lead actor than the extras, but the myopic view of their superficial suffering compared to the deaths, illnesses and injuries inflicted on the crew and indigenous cast hearken back to the colonialist attitudes of the film’s setting.
It is more than possible to both make great art and to care for the safety and well-being of those who make it.