Liberty and Doom
In my darker moments, I wonder sometimes whether being free is really worth it. I consider the vast swathe of my freedom that I do not use and cannot envision using. If it were gone, would I miss it? If I didn’t miss it, would it matter? As obsessed with liberty as we are, it sometimes seems as though its benefits are intangible or perhaps outweighed by its drawbacks.
Oh, and there are drawbacks. Freedom means carte blanche for any jackass to do any jackass thing they damned well please, more or less. Civil Society is essentially based on the idea that complete and total freedom is a fundamentally bad idea that achieves the opposite of it’s intended goal. As laid out by Rousseau in The Social Contract:
What man loses as a result of the Social Contract is his natural liberty and his unqualified right to lay hands on all that tempts him, provided only that he can compass its possession. What he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that belongs to him. That we may labor under no illusion concerning these compensations, it is well that we distinguish between natural liberty which the individual enjoys so long as he is strong enough to maintain it, and civil liberty which is curtailed by the general will.
It can be seen, then, that instances of natural liberty, rather than permitting one to do as they please, instead result in one being forced to guard what they have against others that would take it. The citizen is thusly deprived of ‘Moral Freedom’, in that they are unable to consider matters any higher than their own survival. In this loose philosophical framework we can see the historical provenance of anarchist societies, economic collapses, the opportunity for tyrants to rise, and a whole mess of horrible mayhem that results when everybody decides not to listen to rules set out for the common good and instead decide to see how much they can wring for themselves out of the system. This happens when the pressure is off, so to speak – when we are free to do as we please. If humans (and cultures) were perhaps wiser, kinder, and less selfish, then maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. They aren’t, though, so we do.
Of course, I always come back to the side of liberty. Being free to do as I please is better than the alternative if for the simple fact that there is no guarantee that the alternative will be a good fit for us collectively. It could be horrible – much worse than freedom sometimes is – even if it isn’t necessarily so.
Science Fiction has explored this conundrum often, and nowhere more potently than in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Where as Orwell was busy scaring the pants off of us with his 1984, Huxley’s dystopian tale is always there, in the background, seeming infinitely more terrifying. You see, whereas Orwell writes a horror story, Huxley makes a hypothetical argument. The argument goes like this: What if society made it so you were never bored, never sad, never hungry, never injured, never sick, never poor, and never lonely, and the only thing you had to give up was your ability to think for yourself?
Do you make that deal? If you’re the ruler of the world, do you force your people to take it?
Before you snort at the thought of giving up your precious liberty, think about it for a second. Think hard: an end to all suffering. ALL suffering. Are you able to fulfill your full potential and wow the world with your genius? Obviously not. But even if you are never ludicrously happy, you will never even be a little bit sad. Even if you never fall in love, you will never be alone. Even if you never believe in God or explore the depths of existential philosophy, you will never feel their lack, either. In a very real sense perhaps you won’t be human anymore, but would you care? Would any of us?
What makes Huxley terrifying is not the ‘wrongness’ of his world, it is the fact that it is all too easy to understand the rightness of it. When I feel depressed about the human race and about the (more-or-less) great society in which I live, I wonder whether we aren’t all just fooling ourselves into thinking we deserve to be free. Maybe this is what we get. Maybe, as Agent Smith points out in the Matrix, we couldn’t handle utopia anyway and we need to have suffering in the world in order to accept it as real. Maybe that’s what freedom is – feeling pain. Suffering for the benefits of liberty. It’s just that sometimes I’m tired of it; sometimes I just want somebody to come give me my dose of soma and make the world go away.
Why They (Should) Fight
Are you ever bored by action sequences? I am. As much as I love action movies, dig a good scrap between hero and villain, and adore edge-of-your-seat stunts, I often find myself bored or underwhelmed by very technically advanced and well choreographed action in movies and, indeed, in books and comics as well. Where one film can blow twenty million dollars on some special effects extravaganza involving two guys wrestling on top of a moving plane in the middle of a dogfight and fall utterly flat, another movie can have a simple brawl in a bar that takes my breath away. So, what’s the difference? Well, quite simply it boils down to emotional investment in the stakes involved.
The same rules that make good musicals can and should make good action movies. Sound crazy? Well, consider this: when do characters sing in a good musical? Well, they usually do it at a crucial juncture in their story–when they are trying to make a decision, expressing their emotions, or are at a point where they can’t do anything other than sing to resolve the tension or advance the conflict. Fights and action sequences should basically work the same way. A hero should get into a fight when the stakes are too high to do anything else–they are at a crossroads, with an obvious choice to make, and we are invested in that choice as it is an important part of the story. The best action and adventure movies understand this implicitly. Take, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which features many of the best action sequences in movie history–every single one of them involves high emotional stakes for Indy, for the audience, and are necessary for the plot to advance. Each sequence adds to the film, rather than wastes our time by putting the ‘real’ story on pause.
For a good example of how to both do this right and do it wrong, we need look no further than the Matrix movies. The first film was fantastic–the stakes were clear, we were invested in the outcome of the fights, and they served to advance the story. The fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the subway station is cathartic; it is the culmination of the plot, and we hang on every blow. We feel as though Neo’s life is in legitimate danger (even though we know it probably isn’t through simple plot calculus), and when he escapes agaisnt all odds, we cheer for joy. It works because it fits with the story, not outside or around it. It’s part of why we’re there.
Now, let us consider The Matrix Reloaded. Now, I don’t think the essential storyline of the film was bad (John Kenneth Muir writes this review that explains why better than I ever could), but the action sequences were objectively terrible. Think back to that never-ending highway fight. Remember it? Do you remember what that was all about? Yeah, neither do I. I didn’t know when I saw it, either. I remember vaguely they were trying to catch something, but I forgot what during the scene. Oh, right–they were trying to get that keymaster guy, I think. Hell, I don’t know. All I do know is that the scene went on for a really, really long time and must have spent a lot of money for me to be checking my watch halfway through. It’s purpose wasn’t clear, if indeed it had one, and we weren’t invested in the stakes. Snore.
A lot of adventure books, movies, shows, and so-on live by the mantra that the next fight needs to be bigger than the last. Budgets get larger, stakes get higher, and CGI effects multiply like mosquitos in a Louisiana swamp. The funny thing is, though, that bigger doesn’t automatically mean better. Better means better, and what makes something better is high stakes, yeah, but stakes that we identify with, care about, and understand. If the fight doesn’t do that, then what’s the big deal? They may as well sing, for all I’ll care.