Saturday, April 10, 2010

Faith and Fantasy

My son's persistence finally wore down my misgivings, and I took him to see Clash of the Titans today. Turns out he wasn't bothered by the violence at all; I guess the threshold is a lot higher these days. But seeing it again did give me a chance to reflect further on the film's representation of human-divine warfare or, more broadly, on the film's position regarding the sacred.

To put it simply: the film's position is that the sacred is pretty much a farce. The gods are petty, grasping, egotistical thugs; the heroes are uniformly disdainful of worship or even of common courtesy toward the immortals; and the only human in the film whom one might call religious--a street prophet who warns his people not to spurn the gods--is depicted as a wide-eyed lunatic who drags the unoffending Andromeda to the sacrificial altar and who burns his own flesh to prove his devotion to his deities. If you were looking at this film alone, you'd have to grant some validity to the Religious Right's accusation that Hollywood is openly hostile toward its audience's spiritual values.

And really, when I think of the fantasy films I know, it's hard to find one that endorses traditional Western religious values. Just to name some recent examples: Avatar locates the sacred not in the spiritually bankrupt human society but in the earth-worship of the indigenes; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus eviscerates Christianity as so much wish-fulfillment and mumbo-jumbo while mustering considerable sympathy for the Devil; and The Lovely Bones conjures a Limbo state that's far more an expression of digital wizardry than of godly design. One of the previews before Clash pretty much summed up the dominant fantasy-film attitude toward the divine: in the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, when one dream-stalked character whispers, "Oh, God," he's answered by Freddy Krueger's snarl: "No. Just me."

What are we to make of the smearing of the sacred in fantasy film? Maybe it is because Hollywood is full of atheistic, liberal elites who wish to tear down the moral fabric of the nation. Or maybe it's because fantasy, as otherworldly entertainment, has no room for the traditional belief systems most oriented toward the otherworldly; maybe fantasy, in its fulfillment of humanity's immortal desire for something beyond this mortal realm, crowds God out of the scene and off the screen. In this sense, the plot device that drives Clash of the Titans perhaps signifies an impulse deep in the history of fantasy (and fantasy film) itself: Perseus's defiance of his creator mirrors fantasy's impulse to create a world wholly of its own. And the reaction against this impulse looks back to an equally old distrust of such godlike powers of invention. The Israelites were punished for worshipping images of their own devising; the Puritans hated the stage because it jeopardized God's monopoly on the making of men. Perhaps fantasy will always find itself pitted against its society's most deeply held systems of belief. Perhaps it could not be fantasy if it did not vaunt against the gods.

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