Thursday, February 03, 2011

Redemption song - Part I

One of my favorite archetype in film and literature is the morally questionable - or even villainous - character who is somehow able to turn towards the good and turn away from their evil actions, habits and ways. I find that a lot of people share my enjoyment of this particular archetype. But what is it that makes the redeemed person such an appealing character in books and films?

First of all, there is the obvious reason that the redeemed character is able to touch on moral shades of grey that are often beyond the archetypal hero, which is exactly why the hero of the story, especially in fantasy and science fiction, can be awfully hard to relate to. Han Solo in the Star Wars films, for example, is much more a redeemed scoundrel and vagabond than he is a traditional hero, and I think one would be hard pressed to find a single person who does not relate more easily to Han than to Luke Skywalker. This is not due to the fact that Luke Skywalker is a poorly written character or that Mark Hamill did not do an excellent job in the first three Star Wars films. Rather, Luke is primarily a symbolic representation of the archetypal hero within the monomyth, someone who represents the spiritual and moral journey of human beings in their search for enlightenment and the Good. The character of Han, on the other hand, touches on universal truths through very specific nuances and elements rather than through the overt symbolism of Luke. He is flawed, confused, funny, tragic. In short: a human being.

Relatability is a huge part of what makes the redeemed character so appealing. All of us contain within us good and evil, right and wrong. If there is nothing in a character that needs redemption than it can be very difficult to relate to him or her. There is also the human and divine truth of hope inherent within the person of the redeemed person, the reality made manifest that no matter how bad the world may be, no matter how much evil or suffering we may experience, there is hope in this world, manifest most powerfully in the moral choices we make. And here is yet another element of the redeemed one, namely that he or she represents the mystery of human freedom, the unfathomable lived reality that we are not completely determined by external circumstances, by what happens to us. Who we are as persons does not lie outside of our control. We choose who we are. This is the great humanist tradition that is represented so beautifully by Socrates in the West and Gautama Buddha and Lao-Tze in the East. 

Finally, there is the joy in watching a character who somehow transcends the moralism and false truths represented to us by the "they" (society, religion, parents, teachers - anything that stifles critical thinking and the exploration of our own inner self). The redeemed character is usually one who has fallen to the moral wayside not because he or she is truly evil but rather because they cannot abide by the make-believe world of what is considered "normal," the stifling influences of materialism, determinism, ignorance and greed. Those in need of redemption may be crushed, humbled, broken and battered, trying to get by as best they can outside the codes and norms of a society and world they cannot conform to. But because they are outcasts, because they are reviled, they realize the possibility of a different kind of life, something higher, more beautiful and noble. This is why Christ ministered to prostitutes, thieves, the sick, lame and hungry, the poor and homeless, those who are dismissed, spat upon and ridiculed. He not only cared for them and loved them, he was one of them, a figure who in the eyes of the world was pathetic and ridiculous. It's not that the upstanding citizens of the society at the time could not have accepted his teachings. Rather, they chose not to do so because they were comfortable in their supposed moral uprightness, their world of position, authority and wealth. It is the fucked up ones, the outcasts, that are ready to receive the mysteries.

Here are a few of my favorite redeemed ones, those silly, wicked and corrupt bastards that found the path to repentance and truth, paving the way for the rest of us sinners. As you will notice a couple of characters on this list, and in next week's continuation thereof, are from television series rather than films. Even though we here at Light Within Light don't usually cover the inane world of the tube we do enjoy the occasional awesome series and the two gentlemen in question here are a pivotal addition to my list of redeemed ones.

A further note: The folks on this list can be split into two categories, those who redeem themselves through a kind of inner transformation (internal redemption) by turning towards the Good (# 10, 9 and 7 on today's list) and those who have always been good in their heart of hearts yet have been vilified and dismissed by society but - in the course of the story being told - find some kind of redemption and acceptance in the world, even if its just from one person who sees them for who they truly are (external redemption, # 8 and 6 on our list).

10. Darth Vader - The Star Wars saga

Star Wars remains among the most powerful and philosophical modern myths. If we were not so blind to the power and revelatory truth contained within myths and poems we would see that stories like Star Wars carry great significance for our culture and society not only due to their artistic merit but because they can teach us something essential about what it means to be human. Darth Vader remains among the most fascinating characters in 20th century storytelling, a person who is completely crushed and destroyed because of their egotistical striving for love, not as a means of communion and self-emptying but love as a means of self-gratification. In this sense Darth Vader in many ways mirrors the tragic title character of Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane. 

More machine than man at the time we first see him in Episode IV, Darth Vader, the former Anakin Skywalker, has completely succumbed to the forces of darkness, a wasted shell of a human being. Yet through the course of the next two episodes we see Vader form a closer bond with his son Luke who eventually affords him with the opportunity for redemption. The scene when Vader finally turns away from the dark power of the Emperor and gives himself up to save the life of his son is incredibly powerful and beautiful, brought to fulfillment in that beautiful final shot of Return of the Jedi where he has joined Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda in the spiritual plane (a shot later ruined by George Lucas in the Special Edition of the film when he digitally crammed Hayden Christensen into it - but the less said about that the better).

9. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) - Casablanca

Rick, at the beginning of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, has succumbed to the great spiritual maladies of our time: isolation, individualism and selfishness. "I stick my neck out for no man," is his motto, one which exemplifies his spiritual condition, one which brings to mind the horrifying philosophical dictum of Sartre that other people are "hell," a diseased view of human nature if there ever was one. Rick has gone through so much pain in his life that he has shut himself off within his own ego, not able to reach out to either his friends (of which he is blessed enough to have many) or to causes worthy of his talents and effort. He is a man who feels he has been betrayed by love because he cannot see that love extends beyond the comfort and pleasure afforded to our ego and reaches out to the very depths of our being, depths which are in essence communal and self-emptying. The story of Casablanca is that of a man who realizes that his happiness and spiritual fulfillment lie not in egotistical desires and satisfaction but rather in humility and sacrifice. Love, as Rick comes to realize in that immortal final scene of Casablanca, is a matter of letting go (what the great German mystic Meister Eckhart so beautifully expressed with his spiritual teaching of Gelassenheit) and of giving oneself up for the happiness of others.

8. George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) - Easy Rider

George Hanson is the perfect representation of the "external redemption." George doesn't go through any major change in the film in the depths of his person. Rather, our perception of his character is changed. This change of perception, in turn, affects our view of the norms and values of the society we live in. Such a transformed vision was astoundingly powerful in the context of the late 60's American counterculture, the cultural milieu out of which Easy Rider arose.

When Captain America and Billy, the two anti-heroes of Hopper's masterpiece, first encounter George he is sleeping off a rather serious hangover in a jail cell in the deep South. The Cap and Billy have been arrested for little else than having long hair and riding motorcycles. George is well-known to the local authorities, the son of a local politician and a practicing lawyer in the town. The local cops let him off with a slap on the hand but George also makes sure that The Captain and Billy get out of jail without any further hassle. It is soon established that George is a complete hell-raiser (and alcoholic) who is slowly killing himself as the only means by which he can escape the drudgery and suffocation of his social and cultural environment.

Nicholson's performance is rightfully a classic, one of the most joyous and gleeful fuck-yous to middle-class America. George is the product of a completely materialistic and superficial culture, someone whose life is defined by existential pain and suffering and who tries to anesthetize themselves with booze. The Captain and Billy, representing the countercultural revolution, offer him a way out, a chance to explore dimensions of his being that he has heretofore been too afraid to approach. This reaches a kind of culmination in the silly and great campfire scene where Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda share some very potent herb.

Yet at the end of the day it is George who teaches something essential to The Captain and Billy. They provide him with the opportunity to be who he truly is but he affords them with the philosophical understanding of their own rebellion. He tells them what they stand for, what they could potentially help bring about. He understands the power in their dress, their speech, their breaking away from what is considered normal and good. And that understanding, sympathy and love ultimately make him dangerous, a threat to the status quo. And that is what he dies for. But in that death he symbolizes something very cool, dangerous and funny. Something very human.

7. Takashi Shimura (Kanji Watanabe)

One of the great tragedies of our ethical reasoning is how many people equate being good with being nice, i.e. that if one is not a completely amoral person one is thereby morally righteous. This is a horrible and pathetic lie. Conformity to codes of conduct has nothing to do with ethics, at least not in the ancient sense of the term ethos, which centers on one's character rather than on one's individual actions or conduct. One's ethos is connected to the very core of one's being, the earth from which one springs, the center of one's existence. This is the tradition so beautifully represented by Aristotle in his masterpiece The Nicomachean Ethics. 

The hero of Kurosawa's masterpice Ikiru, Takashi, is a complete bureaucrat, someone who not only abides by but represents everything that is shallow and mundane about modern culture and society. Yet he is a perfectly "nice" person, someone who never hurts or deliberately maims anyone around him. He abides by the rules and does what he is told. Yet in this conformity there is a kind of evil, a failure to be truly human, a failure to love. It is only by breaking free of the status quo that we are free to be good, free to love and cherish each moment, each person, to truly be present to the suffering and hurt of others and take them upon our own shoulders.

Kurosawa's Ikiru is the tale of a man who is transformed from a slave to a free man, someone who becomes who he truly is. By letting go of his clinging to position, authority and status Takashi is able to focus his attention on the living present, on actual flesh and blood human beings who need his help and attention, all rules and protocols be damned. In order to do this he needs to let himself go, to let his desires and passions go, and scene after scene Kurosawa shows us the breaking down of this man's ego revealing the true self beneath, hidden there for all these years, especially in that beautiful shot of him sitting on the swing, an image of a human being basking in the joy of being alive.

6. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) - Pirates of the Caribbean

Depp famously modeled Sparrow on the 20th century Rock Star, especially his pal Keith Richards, and in doing this revealed something essential about the perennial appeal of the bad-boy, rock n' roll persona. Since Elvis we have been enamored with the idea of the freedom and transcendence of rock n' roll, the breaking away from the bonds and shackles of societal conformity. The roots of this freedom lie in the Zen-like detachment of the blues, the aesthetic and spiritual response to the suffering imparted upon the African American slaves and their descendants in the American south, given a musical expression and reality in the tradition of the blues and the later rhythm n' blues tradition. Artists such as Elvis simply broadened the language of this detachment to make it speak to the existential and spiritual angst of white, adolescent America in the McCarthy-era 50's.

Depp's connection between the rock n' roll image and that of the pirate is in some ways ingenious. The mythical image of the pirate is of a person whose mannerisms, dress and speech are one big fuck-you to the culture around them, a free spirit whose rebellion is not (only) against law, justice or the good but rather against conformity and uptight callousness. Jack Sparrow is not an evil man but simply a deeply flawed one; yet in those flaws lies a great freedom, a loony zaniness that transcends the pathetic drudgery of the everyday and the moralism of the status quo. Part Daffy Duck, part Evil Knievel, Depp's Jack is redeemed not through an inner transformation but by making good on his promise as the deliverer of the human soul (parallel to the spiritual function of the Coyote in Native American mythology) as he allows Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley) to find their true love by breaking free of the societal bonds that constrained them to specific (and arbitrary) positions and roles.

Join us soon for the next five gents in our exploration of redemption in film and television. Until then we urge you to smoke 'em if you got 'em and to hang loose in the caboose.

1 comment:

Birdy said...

Love this blog topic - a favourite of mine as well. I would like to add the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction as well. It was a huge contributing factor in my appreciation of that movie.
Alaska Birdy