Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ranting Essay on The Chronicles of Narnia, Dei ex Machinis, and the Angst of Being an Anal Movie Watcher

WARNING: There are probably Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian spoilers in here.

The other day I was watching the Chronicles of Narnia. The second one, Prince Caspian. Don't ask. (Also, pretty much unrelated to what follows here, but I hadn't seen the first film and, though I recall owning the C.S. Lewis books, I'm not convinced I ever read any of them as a child, either). Now, since long before I ever even knew there was a term for it, I've disliked the use of dei ex machinis. Lots of people do. This isn't unusual. Also not unusual is finding dei ex machinis in fantasy and sci-fi stories and movies, as magical or ultra-technological/futuristic elements go perfectly hand-in-hand with pushing-through-the-improbable and tying together loose plot ends that under normal circumstances could probably never be pulled close enough together to tie in the first place. Prince Caspian employs a deus ex machina twice towards the end of the film, and for some reason the way the particulars of the film coalesce just about screams all the ways a deus ex machina can be detrimental to the overall emotional/moral/cultural resonance of a film. I’ve always disliked “gods from the machine” because they are the sign of sloppy writing, ladders or (to use one of Daniel Dennett’s terms) sky-hooks that descend and rescue the writer from the corner they have painted themselves into. For many of us, they completely shatter the suspension of disbelief, and really, can be down right insulting after a significant emotional and temporal investment in a film or book. And, depending on the film, they can have much more devastating consequences to its intended message.

I think a big part of why Prince Caspian's dei ex machinis affected me so powerfully is that Prince Caspian is the first Disney film I can remember seeing that has a plot largely driven by people wanting to kill/trying to kill/succeeding in killing each other. I'm certainly no stranger to violence in movies, and Prince Caspian is hardly graphic, but honestly, as I watched these teens or tweens or whatever sort of adolescents they were actually kill people, I began to feel knotted with some kind of vague, ominous dread. They weren't killing monsters, they were helping monsters kill other people. This is heavy stuff to ride with, especially if the driver is going to bail at the end of the movie. A lot of the so-called monsters (who weren't all that monstrous really; all were archetypal staples of the fantasy congeries, most possessing significant elements of humanity) were stabbed and maimed and blasted and impaled by arrows in the service of the homicidal tween royalty. In fact, for most of the movie, the mixed-bag Narnians are getting their asses utterly spanked, suffering major losses against the all-human Telmarines. Much blood (I'm assuming) was shed and many lives were lost in the struggle to reclaim from the Telmarines the land that rightfully belonged to the Narnians. After the first major battle, the Narnians fail to seize the Telmarines' castle and must retreat. In the second major battle, they again find themselves getting badly beaten, about to lose control of their own stronghold. But then: WAZZA! Deus ex machina! Suddenly Mr. Talking Lion (who is apparently one or two tricks shy of omnipotence) decides he is going to help after all, first making trees flail around and attack people, and then summoning a gigantic Water Jesus to make everyone really, really wet before scaring the remaining Telmarines into surrender by somehow eating a guy on a horse (hold all comments about the Christian allegory found in the stories).

Nietzsche disliked the deus ex machina because it creates a false sense of consolation by attempting to resolve "tragic dissonance" in a manner that isn't metaphysically sound. Without a logical chain of causality, strife means nothing. Neither does reward if it materializes from the ether, largely independent of the actions being rewarded. This is where Prince Caspian blunders so epically. If at any point in time a Talking Lion can step in and thaumaturgically correct the most dissonant of situations, then anyone who suffered or died in an effort to change that situation before the intervention did so for nothing. It means nothing to die for a cause that is ultimately addressed through means outside of possibility and plausibility. Yes, the Narnian’s cause is a noble one in Prince Caspian, but only up to the point where events stop adhering to the logic the story has been developed by. After that, fatal cracks are sent backwards through everything leading up to that point, as though a heavy foot testing the integrity of a delicate sheet of ice finally shifts too much of its weight forward. After spending the better part of two hours gradually increasing the tragic complexity of a tale, claiming there's resolution when a marvelous panacea swoops in from God-knows-where is fraudulent. If at any point the miraculous can affect any outcome, then the events witnessed in the film ultimately mean nothing, because a deterministic chain can never be established, nor can the efficacy of agency be presumed for any character. Arguably, no one or nothing can affect the result of a series of events, because there is the possibility that any logical, Natural-Law-abiding steps taken towards an end can be immediately and utterly prevented or reversed by someone or some thing that doesn't even acknowledge logic or laws! What's the point of dying in a siege on a Telmarine castle if Aslan could've sent Water Jesus through to blast all of the Telmarines out? Or really, how did the Telmarines ever drive the Narnians to the brink of extinction in the first place if Aslan can do whatever he wants? Once illogical flights of fancy are made manifest, the whole back story is fair game for hypothetical applications of magic or divine intervention or implausible coincidence. Fighting and dying and hurting doesn't mean a damn thing if the resolution makes it clear that those things really didn't have to happen. It's meaningless if a Narnian dies at the hands of a Telmarine if the Telmarines can be completely eradicated by Aslan whenever he so chooses, and it means nothing for a Telmarine to die for his cause if it's not even a possibility that the Narnians can be defeated.

This kind of stuff nearly gives me an anxiety attack. Not because I have any resounding interest in the well-being of fictional characters, but because this sort of thing is touted as acceptable. And maybe worse, most people don't even care. David Foster Wallace touched on this when discussing the films of David Lynch: people like to be reassured of certain moral truths and the idea of justice, and movie-watchers do not like to be made to feel uncomfortable "unless the discomfort serves a conclusion that flatters the same comfortable moral certainties [they] came into the theater with" (p. 203) Movies like Prince Caspian have to resort to tossing in a deus ex machina because they ratchet up the tragic dissonance to such an unstable amplitude that the audience's expectation of righteous moral resolution can't possibly be met without resorting to a "god from the machine." If things played out the way the logical reality within these films dictated, evil and suffering would probably prevail. And even movie-goers who dislike trite or formulaic story lines tend to get upset when the bad guys come out on top. I'm not suggesting Prince Caspian should have let the bad guys win because that's what soundness of plot requires. Ideally, Prince Caspian should never have been written so that the good guys had no chance of ever winning without miraculous intervention.

I'm not sure how many other people have filmic crises like this after getting slapped with a fat deus ex machina, but it seems as though most are willing to accept a gnarly plot device so long as it guarantees the “earthly consonance” (to again borrow from Nietzsche) they are expecting. For me, it's brain-scrabbling when I'm forced to ponder whether the displays of justice and moral closure I'm being fed really should give me those warm fuzzy feelings, because just under the surface, I know they're the products of fraud. If I can't suspend my disbelief, if I can't accept that what is presented as goodness and justness is legitimate, then in a way, evil really does win out. I’m then confronted with all sorts of onerous psychic pinpricks, as the deus ex machina just becomes a sober reminder of the pervasiveness of shit and injustice and suffering, because the idealistic fantasy was just a tad too fantastic to slide through as a substitute. And I’m watching a Disney movie, here. I'll stick with Lynch if I want to be accosted by the dark, terrible ambiguity of human morality and existence. With Prince Caspian and the like, I get double slapped: (1) by the insult of having to accept a deus ex machina as a legit resolution and (2) by being denied the reassurance of the hopeful moral order of things by that very unbelievable deus ex machina. Which in a foolishly ironic way, is pretty damn unjust. This is why I particularly loathe the genres of fantasy and science fiction. To me, they always seem to have the opposite effect of what they intend by flushing the nobility of their tales down the toilet of the tenable and into some nether void of wacko irrationality. Suspension of disbelief is the audience's gift to a film maker. Prince Caspian-scale dei ex machinis are like stomping on the gift before the giver's eyes, or worse, wiping your ass with it.

This may all be a bit hyperbolic, yes. I recognize the issue is fairly minor. But as far as it relates to the importance of writing and the integrity of story-telling, etc, etc, I wish I was over-reacting. And believe me, in this Age of Irony, I’m aware that the use of dei ex machinis is fraught with ambiguity. But there’s a big difference between the endings of Dodgeball and Prince Caspian. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of bad writing going on out there in the world. There has been since the first dei ex machinis used in Greek tragedies. But hey, at least I’m not ending this particular example of it with any deities being lowered down via mechane. That would probably undermine my whole argument. Besides, special effects were never the issue here. As far as those are concerned, Prince Caspian’s the bomb.

-Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1872). The Birth of Tragedy. Modern Library: New York.

-Wallace, David Foster. (1995). "David Lynch Keeps His Head." A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Back Bay Books: New York. pp. 146-212.

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