Bear with me, because it’s going to take a while for me to get to the point. I’ll tell you the conclusion up front: I’m learning how not to be such a snob about movies.
I’ve been teaching a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy recently, and one of the things we’ve talked about is the importance of acknowledging and taking responsibility for your sins. The Catholic Church worked for so long in part because it knew that and gave people a meaningful ritual for doing so; it also acknowledged that most of us do walk around feeling some guilt or shame most of the time.
These days, we go to counselors to “confess” these feelings. Unfortunately, all too often, the focus there is to find someone else to blame. We walk out feeling exonerated, but what we’ve really done is just found a scapegoat to bear our problems (another time-honored ritual). John Cleese puts his finger on just how far this particular pendulum has swung in this brief discussion of how “political correctness” has become oversensitiveness to the point that any time we feel bad, we not only blame others but turn on them for it, in this video.
Another British and Cambridge-educated comedian, Stephen Fry, had a similar take on political correctness in this interview. But what struck me most about what Fry had to say is his point that high ideals so often seem to lead to a reality that is the exact opposite of what those who held the ideals intended. His main example is the USA, which was founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment and envisioned a society based on the principles of rational thinking and freedom from any kind of tyranny, but particularly that of religious dogma.
Try telling that to the Religious Right.
Fry’s hardly the first to warn us about this. D.H. Lawrence wrote a scathing polemic in Apocalypse about how trying to impose high ideals on an entire community inevitably leads to tyranny, citing as his prime example Soviet Russia under Lenin (he didn’t know then how much worse things would get under Stalin); Dostoevsky pointed out in The Brothers Karamazov that the imposition of Catholicism on Europe led to the Inquisition. Both writers saw that while individual people may be capable of living up to a high ideal – we call them saints, sometimes – society as a whole can’t do it. (Joss Whedon makes the same point in Serenity: the attempt by the Alliance to “make people better” backfires in horrific ways.)
I have my idealistic moments, and I do try to be a good person most of the time. For me that has meant owning my own “shadow” – the parts of me that I feel bad about, and that includes, sometimes, not just the stuff that I’m ashamed of but the aspects of me that are good that I don’t always express out in the world like I could, out of fear that other people will think I think too much of myself!
I’ve only just realized that my innate idealism comes to the fore a lot in my choices of what movies I watch. I’ve sneered at any movie by the Farrelly Brothers, for example, with their emphasis on “toilet humor” and other crassness. Even watching “QI,” a show that delights in odd factoids about everything – just my cup of tea – I would complain about how the discussion inevitably includes jokes about genitals.
But I’ve also observed how when a group strives to always “stay in the light” – like a church – inevitably the shadow rears its ugly head and causes trouble, causing schisms or erupting in nasty fights in workshops or meetings. A friend of mine who runs a lot of workshops told me that when people in her workshops get too idealistic, she stops the discussion and says “okay, we need something crude, something lewd, and something rude.” So they tell dirty jokes or say something outrageous. This balances the energy while giving the shadow its due, so that it doesn’t take the group over.
So I’m rethinking my stance on those movies that seem aimed at the 13-year-old that seems to persist in . . . well, I would have said in men up until recently, but do I, and do other women, often project our own crude side onto men instead of owning it? (And what would happen if we stopped? Would men start cleaning toilets?)
Which brings me, finally, to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I love this movie. I have seen it in the theater at least 15 times, and I own the DVD. (And one of the big thrills of my life has been actually meeting John Cleese.) But I have to admit that every time I watch it, I’m aware of a sense of disappointment that the beautiful Arthurian story is being shredded. I’m always disappointed at how it ends: instead of the satisfaction of storming the castle and taking the Grail, the Knights are handcuffed and taken away in modern police cars, and the movie ends with a policeman throwing the camera down.
Well: I can always watch Excalibur when I want to see that other story. The Pythons are not interested. They are having too much fun, being lewd (“and now, the oral sex!”), crude (“I’ve soiled my armor”), and rude (“I cast a fart in your general direction!”). They are not just acknowledging the shadow, they’re dancing with it, singing songs with it, and just generally holding it up to the light in every way they can.
Shining a bright light means casting a strong shadow. But when we look right at the shadow, we are more able to notice just how bright the light is. At one point someone in the movie says, as Arthur goes by, “must be a king.” “How do you know?” another person asks. “Because he’s the only one that hasn’t got shit all over him,” is the reply. And it’s true that as stupid (“1 . . . 2. . . 5”) and cowardly (“Run away! Run away!”) Arthur can be at times, we see his true self shining through. We remember the myth of the Once and Future King, the ideal ruler, even as we watch Graham Chapman gallumping along on an imaginary horse while his servants clap coconuts together to make the sound of hooves. It’s silly, it’s a joke, we laugh . . . but somehow . . . we long to be riding with him.