Abstraction from conscience

All of the popular TV and movies that I grew up watching abstracted from the reality of conscience. All the criminals, villians, or persons who did bad deeds tended to be that human impossibility: the sane sociopath – that is, a normal and otherwise sane person who does evil and is otherwise untroubled by remorse or the desire to confess. The suave, Mephistopheles – style superbadguy was the rule. All wrongdoers could lie continually to authority with a straight face, and tended to suffer no obvious psychological corruption from doing terrible things (which happens even to those who do terrible things with some justification – soldiers sent to war frequently have a very difficult time dealing with the things they had to do- even the things they did justly). Murderers (even those who killed out of passion) were always caught by the great cunning or powerful technology of the detectives, and not – as is more likely to happen- by simply confessing to get the whole matter off their chest.

Somewhere in this critique there is room to mention the glamorous, attractive prostitute with all her teeth; the sexual libertine who doesn’t live in a shabby and cheap environment, etc.

Part of this might be the restrictions of the medium itself- it is no easy task to translate the interior world of conscience into the the visual medium of contemporary popular media. One simply can’t make much of a movie out of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.


  1. Edward said,

    January 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Do you think that part of the problem is that modern writers find it difficult to illustrate how evil can be both weak and formidable? Movies and television have a habit of portraying those who waver in their sin or those who are remorseful as less than worthy of being the true enemies of the protagonist.

    Perhaps this is actually an expression of some universally implicit knowledge that our real enemy is other worldly. In other words, the depiction of a sane human sociopath, an impossibility, is intentional. It is impossible because this type of evil can never be merely human and we know that another human being, always a possible subject of forgiveness, can never be the ultimate enemy of another human.

  2. David G. said,

    January 15, 2011 at 10:57 am

    “One simply can’t make much of a movie out of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.”

    Sed Contra: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_and_Peace_(1965_film)

    But I agree it’s “no easy task”.

    • January 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      I more had in mind the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Ressurection. I’ve always treated War and Peace as though it were almost from another author.

      • Landon said,

        January 16, 2011 at 7:56 am

        Just curious, but why do you say that? I don’t necessarily disagree, but that is not something I picked up on reading War and Peace and Ivan Illych (my admittedly limited experience with Tolstoy). What qualitatively differentiates them in your mind? Is it that works like Ivan are more “internal” or “personal”, whereas War and Peace loses that by its sheer scale?

      • January 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

        Both have the same genius and psycholigical insight, but the role of the Gospel is very different. War and Peace seems more like an attempt to comprehend life through universal history, Ivan Ilyich (to take the most striking example) is an attempt to see human life in light of the Gospel. I don’t see any way of speaking about it without making extravagant sounding claims which strike me as just balanced – Ivan Ilyich just is what the Gospel says man is. The reality of his life is exactly the problem that Christ came to solve – or the monster he came to drive out.

  3. Brandon said,

    January 15, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I think it has to do a great deal with the difficulties of presenting something as dramatically interesting in a visual medium. Most real evil is very uninteresting dramatically. The challenge in a visual medium like TV or cinema is that you need sometimes to present evil in such a way (a) that it can obviously be seen to be evil and (b) that it’s dramatically interesting. I think this is why TV and movie villains tend to be so similar: there are basically only two ways to make someone’s actions both visibly and dramatically evil: brutality (which is dramatically interesting because of the shock) and seduction (which is dramatically interesting because of the psychological tension of how it makes evil seem in some way good). Thus, over and over again, one finds that TV and movie villains are brutes, seducers, or some mix of the two.

  4. peeping thomist said,

    January 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Always fun to come to the blog and randomly shoot out thoughts inspired by the always interesting posts and comments.

    The fact that evil is uninteresting, disgusting and boring does present a dramatic problem for all art. On the flip side, most run of the mill decent but incontinent people are somewhat uninteresting dramatically as well.

    I bet that good looking actresses have been playing the part of prostitutes in art throughout history, for instance, despite the obvious truth of the matter. And as much as I would want a movie to depict the life of Hugh Hefner as it actually is (with him routinely cleaning the dog poop call over the old rug on his bedroom floor before he pays off his harem according to a recent article), this would ruin 3 decades of fantasy by the baby generation that never grew up. We’re not there yet.

    You need something out of the ordinary to happen to make a good story, even if it happens to ordinary folks. Either that or with the story you draw out what is extraordinary within the ordinary that the audience doesn’t usually see. But this is all probably neither here nor there re the post and the comments.

    The post reveals why The First 48 is one of the best documentary TV shows ever made. Grist for theological and ethical thoughts in all directions. From musing on the significance of Cain and Abel to learning the almost shocking extent to which human nature itself cries out for the sacrament of confession, it is all there. Documentaries like this belie and balance out the moron cartoons you refer to indirectly above. Although in general, documentaries are dangerous themselves as the fact that they are “Reality TV” obscures the fact that they are still productions of the highest order.

    I think you must be right about the medium to some degree, but I wonder where the line is? It could be that images before video often displayed morality in vivid extremes, which, it seems to me, is evidence for your case about the medium.

    Yet the fact that grown adults these days have the visual attention span of a 4 year old child who just ate a case of pixie sticks suggests to me that there is problem with what we do with the medium as well. There is a visual equivalent to pop music, and it corrupts in much the same way, I think. Ingesting the great film makers (or those recognized as such worldwide over the last 100 years), or trying to, is for most of us like the rock-addled teen trying to listen to Mozart.

    Further, doesn’t video add something to the image in such a way as to make it a completely different thing? Water is made of hydrogen, but… It is the way we tell stories now, not just a medium for flickering lights. So it very much includes sound and dialogue…and the image in motion creates an infinite variety of ways to tell a story with depth in a way that the still image can never compete with.

    Anyways, we don’t have families telling stories to the kids around the fire and at night and for fun as much. We only have “nuclear” families, if that, and we play recordings made by other people acting them out for our kids. And the good, middling or poor quality of the stories I think reflects our upsides and downsides. Technology on the one hand allows us to tell stories that are captivatingly precise: the story teller can show you virtually anything. And we can always turn to them, even without a bard. But on the other hand technology separates us from the usual medium throughout human history: someone we know telling it to us. And a lot is lost with that too. It’s a mixed bag.

    Fascinating post…so many things to riff on…

  5. peeping thomist said,

    January 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I was watching Swiss Family Robinson recently and was very amused by the zany, almost happy music playing at the end while the family slaughters hundreds of pirates. Their young boy was flinging home made hand grenades at them. They unleashed gigantic tree trunks that rolled down a hill and crushed scores of pirates. It was hilarious in retrospect. And I guess that might go to Edward’s point. Maybe we need to make it simple sometimes. We don’t need to give the pirates humanity. We need some black and white once in a while. I dunno. I doubt that a lot of 11 year old boys would get why my wife and I were laughing: they might enjoy it without blinking. Not sure though.

  6. skholiast said,

    January 15, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    The suave or fashionable or smart or something-else-we-kind-of-envy murderer (Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman, Dorian Gray…) is a modern meme. I imagine there have been a few approximations of these folk in real life, but it’s funny– I’m not (I think) naive about human depravity, but I almost think a fictional portrait of Prince Myshkin or Fr Zossima far more “realistic”, despite the fact that all such representation verges on bathos (by which I only mean that holiness can’t be presented ‘realistically’ [all inquiries as to ‘what the resurrection looked like’ are misplaced]). Could it be that the good wants (so to speak) to be represented– it tends towards iconicity? Whereas evil really does have to hide behind the garish, the cartoony, the phantasmic, the monstrous, precisely because there is no there there? Gotta think more on this.

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