On Authority in Films and TV
(This is a cross-post from my personal journal.)
Okay, I’m writing this pretty much exactly as I’ve thought of it, but here’s something that just hit me.
I’ve started watching a TV show called ‘the Event’, that’s currently running on Channel 4. It’s an American import – very slick, a lot of special-effects and full of action. It’s very entertaining and I’m really getting into it. (I’m watching it via the online catch-up service, as I’m an episode behind.) Only, while I was doing so, I was abruptly slapped in the middle of the face by an unexpected idea.
Here goes … let’s see if I can put this across in any kind of coherent form.
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of surprisingly-good television. Lost and the new Battlestar Galactica, for instance, were both interesting as well as entertaining. (At least, they were, until they both went off the rails – but that’s a separate rant.) I suppose that’s the silver lining to the duff decade that the ’00s were – there’s nothing like bad times to force people to think and to question things.
But it gets me to wondering about whether or not these sorts of things tell us something about our culture. (And when I say ‘our culture’, I loosely mean the Western world, rather than any particular bit of it.) The counter-argument, of course, would be that it’s all just entertainment, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. And there probably is some truth in that.
But, but, but…
…*why* are some things entertaining when others aren’t? Why is it that some things attract attention and can distract us from our own day-to-day lives – i.e., entertain – when other things don’t? Presumably, because there’s something in them that feels relevant, that connects with something we feel about the world find ourselves living in.
In particular, my eye was caught by the displayed behaviour of ‘authority’.
Let me use another example. A while back, I saw the original (1950s) version of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. A while after, I saw the (not-too-impressive) remake with Keanu-oh-dear-I-can’t-act-someone-help-me-please Reaves. (Amusingly, they cast him as the emotionless alien – he did that rather well!) The plots were a bit different, obviously the ‘modern’ version had mucy better special effects, and there’d been an attempt to update the existential threat (ecological collapse as opposed to atomic war).
But what really struck me was the different way the authority figures behaved in both.
In the 1950s version, Klaatu gets shot by a soldier. But, it’s portrayed pretty much as an accident. The acting isn’t great, but you can see that the man with the gun is really, really scared as he looks at the alien spaceship – he’s confronted with something beyond his experience, he doesn’t know what to expect, what’s going on isn’t clear and OH MY GOD THERE’S SOMEONE WALKING OUT OF IT! The fact that he flips out and shoots is certainly regrettable and wrong, but hardly an act of conscious and deliberate, pre-planned malice.
In the 2008 version, Klaatu gets met with faceless people in creepy hazmat suits, who basically just gun him down on sight. (If I remember correctly.) What happens is simply indefensible, either morally (you’re shooting someone who isn’t threatening you) or practically (the first visitor to this planet from one of the galaxy’s great powers gets, umm, shot – nice bit of diplomacy there, folks!).
In the 1950s version, Klaatu ends up in hospital. While there, he meets the man from the government. The man from the government is neat, punctual and polite. I seem to recall that he actually apologises for what happened! The MFTG isn’t too much help, granted, but he does seem sincere and he does seem to want to help, within his limits. Also, he does seem keen to communicate with the Cabinet and the President on Klaatu’s behalf. Also, at this point, I can’t remember there being any – any! – soldiers about.
In the 2008 version, we have the woman from the government. Initially, you might think this is progress – after all, it’d be inconceivable for the ’50s version to have a woman as the State’s mouthpiece. But far from being a positive gender role, the WFTG is a shouty plump frump who seems (if I remember correctly) much more keen on having Klaatu vivisectioned then talking to him. She also seems to have little influence over the military, and the place they’re in is crawling with uniforms and guns. Also, she doesn’t seem to want to negotiate at all with Klaatu, and seems very unwilling to keep the elected authorities up-to-date on what’s going on. (There is a scene later on where she’s talking to the Vice-President – I say talking, but actually she’s just being a shouty frump at him down a mobile phone. There’s no hint of actual dialogue at any point.)
Contrasting the two eras is fascinating. I’m ignoring the technology-driven stuff like SFX for a reason – the 1950’s version used the most advanced effects available for its day. If they’d had access to Noughties SFX, there’s no question they would have used them. No, what’s significant is the way the narrative and the characterisation have changed.
In the ’50s version, authority certainly has its issues, and is to be treated with healthy scepticism – but it’s not necessarily shown as out-of-control and unaccountable. The authority figures certainly get things wrong, but they aren’t shown as absolutely and dogmatically unreasonable. In the ’00s version, however, violence appears to be an ends in of itself. The presence of lots of guns is never questioned. No-one in power behaves sensibly for so much as one second. The ’00s version isn’t sceptical, it’s cynical. No-one is portrayed as being up to any good, bar the possible exceptions of
John Cleese the professor and the obligatory cute-but-annoying kiddie. Even Klaatu himself, we discover, is basically evil. (He means well, but the means involves genocide.)
Also, the ending of the ’00s version is much, much less optimistic. In the ’50s version, the electricity gets put out, except for onboard planes and in hospitals, for one hour. In the ’00s version, Klaatu knocks the electricity out everywhere, worldwide, with no exceptions. Then he dies before turning it back on again.
Think about that for a minute. Assuming the power companies can’t do it themselves, millions – possibly billions – of people will shortly die, from the disruption to industry, commerce and agriculture. The ’00s version ends with the whole Earth converted into one vast, offstage planetary charnel house. The only ray of light is that the swarm of nanotech nasties also gets stopped – but all the people who’ll die of stravation or dysentry might not see that as such a mercy.
All of this occured to me while I was watching ‘The Event’. It isn’t as extreme here, but there are echoes of the above. The President appears to be basically reasonable, but some of his advisors seem downright creepy, talking enthusiastically about sacrificing ‘the few’ for ‘the many’ (clearly on the assumption that they personally will never be one of the few). Also, we see authority figures behaving violently, abducting people and detaining others indefinitely for no yet-apparent reason beyond knee-jerk suspicion. Authority is not something to be trusted, it’s something to be afraid of and run from.
But it’s not just here. I’ve seen similar tropes in Lost and Doctor Who and NuBSG, and that’s before we touch on the world of books. I wonder if this is telling us something about the way we’ve come to perceive power and the people who have it? The attitude today seems to be entirely different to the attitudes of decades past, and it raises the question of what’s changed.