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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

City of Ember

Viewing City of Ember took me back to memories of Siskel and Ebert arguing about children's films. Siskel inevitably panned the kiddie flicks for lacking depth, acting and plausibility. Ebert would accuse him of being a curmudgeon and then cite the film's various charms... usually imagination and a healthy sense of adventure. And here I sit, of two minds... Siskel and Ebert sitting on my respective shoulders like a fat gray angel and sadly deceased devil.

The film itself is set in a post nuclear holocaust world where the last of humanity lives in an underground city, waiting for the day when they can return to the surface. But somewhere along the way, everyone forgot about returning and are content to lead fearful and obedient lives in a grim subterranean 19th century London. Two young heroes shake off the city's collective torpor and make a predictably challenging yet successful dash for freedom.

Ebert, still reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times, actually illuminates most of the plot holes in his own lukewarm 2.5 star review. The most egregious gaffs (to me at least) were casting a 24 year old Harry Treadaway to portray a young adolescent, the use of a utilitool as a deus ex machina device, and the entirely unbelievable roller coaster ride toward the end. But Ebert the angel reminds me that roller coaster rides through a dark underground river delight the imagination... and creating a deeply immersive and imaginative setting is the film's primary strength. Then Siskel the devil whispers back, "Too bad the characters lack any compelling or imaginative dialogue."

At a deeper level though, Siskel and Ebert would probably agree on the film's transparent politics. The film's underlying symbolism is troubling for a politically left-leaning viewer like myself. As the primary villain, Bill Murray plays a gluttonous simpleton. His role as the obese mayor of the City of Ember, along with his two henchmen (one effete and the other club-footed,) create a clear portrayal of the enemy. They are fat, lazy, corrupt, and deformed. The heroes are young, attractive, strong and equally quick of foot and mind. This already calls to mind the sort of bigotry that permeated the film 300. And most telling, the two heroes are depicted as unnaturally industrious, eager to work hard, putting them in stark contrast to everyone else in the movie. Their challenge is to overcome the stagnation of their society and recapture humanity's potential. As such, they are Ayn Rand repackaged for the middle school set. Every social institution is portrayed as ineffective at best, and criminally corrupt at worst. Religion even takes it on the nose, portrayed as a bunch of singing enthusiasts with their heads in the sand.

It's a dangerously naive view of society (even in a microcosm) to depict it as a grossly inept set of systems in desperate need of a savior. It sets up an antisocial set of beliefs about being above the law, entitled to whatever freedoms you desire, and that rebellion is the only answer. But of course, stories marketed toward youth are unlikely to trumpet wisdom or temperance as worthwhile virtues. If the true test of a film like this is whether or not you'd take your kids to go see it... be forewarned that it's a libertarian manifesto posing as fantasy.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Comic Book Philosophy Part 2

In a recent interview I was asked why I wanted to work in the public defense system. How could I dovetail my concept of social justice with a job description that included digging up loopholes and lame defenses for pimps, crooks and wifebeaters? This is a massively difficult question. This is an interview-making or breaking question. It's a question I stumbled on mightily because I found it impossible to give my real answer. I couldn't do it because I couldn't bring myself to talk about Daredevil in a job interview.

Instead of giving my real answer I mumbled a bit about creating a boundary between your work and your life and not investing all of your social work self-image into your job. I maintained that I'd be okay with the work load because I also volunteer, fundraise for international non-profits, and try to be a caring person in a whole range of domains. Really, it wasn't a terrible answer... but my eyes would have lit up and I would have spoken with passion and truth if I had been willing to talk about Matthew Murdock.

I grew up reading comic books. And like many of my generation, fed my moral development a steady diet of X-Men, Spider-Man, The Punisher, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers. I didn't always agree with the protagonist's position, but Marvel had a penchant for injecting their stories with sophomoric moral quandaries that stimulated the adolescent mind. The most fascinating of which to me was ol' hornhead... a blind defense attorney named Matthew by day, and a costumed vigilante known as Daredevil, the Man Without Fear by night.

A bad sketch I once did of Daredevil and his arch nemesis Bullseye

Why such a fascination?

Daredevil always had morally complex relationships with his villains. One of his villains, a buffalo-sized man named Melvin Potter (who was also known as The Gladiator) was also shown as a gentle man who was a victim of his own mental illness. And while DD might beat him up on page four, he'd be defending him in court by page 15. One of DD's main villains, The Kingpin, was often shown in a sympathetic light... especially when the book described how brutal and chaotic organized crime would look without a strong central boss. Stoolies and low-level thugs (like the recurring character Turk Barrett) were shown as pathetic victims of their environment... people who just never really had enough smarts to think themselves off the streets. And of course, there was Bullseye, the centerpiece villain of the Daredevil series. Bullseye upped the ante. He wasn't a villain that blustered and threatened and had their plans foiled at the last minute. He actually killed people. He killed main characters. He raised the stakes of the moral conundrums. How could Daredevil see the humanity in a cold-blooded killer? Could he save the life of a scumbag like that?

In posing and answering these questions, Daredevil gave me an interesting definition of heroism. I developed a sense that heroism wasn't always about jumping into the way of danger, it wasn't just using your powers to defend the little guy from a bully. Daredevil posited a kind of heroism that challenged us to do the hardest things... to think deeper and show compassion in the face of your enemy. It suggested that heroism could also be protecting the worst of us from our own desire to punish and purge such villainy from society.

I think one of the most noble things about western civilization is the commitment to public defense. It is surely imperfect, and there are not enough genuine attempts within the penal system to actually help people get better. But to look into the faces of some of the most vile flaunters of the social contract and think, "This is still a person" is what protects us from the devolution of mob rule and the court of public opinion. I believe in it. And it's too bad that interview didn't go better, because I would have done a damn fine job... even when it made my stomach turn, because of the example Daredevil laid out for me.