August 5th, 2013
My “Beware the Simple Storyteller,” essay a couple weeks ago got a nice response. This essay is a follow-up. What do you do when you start to run short of villains? For a perspective, I point to one of the greatest pieces of environmental writing that you’re not likely to ever consider without me pushing it — P.J. O’Rourke’s Rolling Stone essay for Earth Day 1990 making fun of environmentalism. It’s a timeless classic which is mostly about the innate “narrative need” for villains.
Let’s begin by talking about “narrative needs.” We know that humans are, “Storytelling Animals.” Jonathan Gotschall wrote a nice book with this title last year. Our entire culture and daily life is built upon stories. So it’s only logical we would end up with narrative needs. In the same way our body needs carbohydrates, fats and protein, our brain needs the building blocks of stories.
This begins with the need for heroes. Given what Hollywood is pumping out these days for blockbuster movies, no one in America would question this need (though try living in Australia — at the start of Chris Vogler’s foundational work, “The Writers Journey,” he talks about how Australians buy into their “tall poppy syndrome” which is anti-heroic, and which I know too well from having lived there several years).
The flip side of needing heroes is the need for the villains they oppose (good guys AND bad guys). In the “Beware” essay I talked about Frank Daniel’s simple rule of screenwriting that, “Your story is only as strong as your villain is evil.” Why doesn’t the popular press talk about this dimension as much as they do about heroes?
The basic trend is everywhere in our society — from the far right painting President Obama as evil incarnate to the left gong crazy with “Bush Bashing” for the last President. We need villains. So while I’m headed in this essay towards rightwing goofball P.J. O’Rourke, I want to get there via the new Woody Allen movie I just saw a couple nights ago (which is excellent — the Wood Man is 78 and at the top of his game!).
ANDREW DICE CLAY AND P.J. O’ROURKE
Let’s talk about two men who are largely annoying, but like broken watches, every once in a while manage to land right on the money. After a career of being not that funny yet frequently offensive, all of a sudden the Dice Man is about to be a major “contendah” for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
If you haven’t seen Woody Allen’s new movie, “Blue Jasmine,” you should see it, not just for the equally Oscar-worthy performance of Cate Blanchett (she’s tremendous), but also for, of all people, Andrew Dice Clay. It’s not like he’s an epic and unforgettable character in the movie — you can only expect so much of a supporting character in a humble Woody Allen film — but you really can’t take your eyes off him. He is indeed that good, unintentionally stealing every scene he’s in. There’s no doubt he’ll get at least an Oscar nomination. So, after a lifetime of embodying male piggedness at its worst, boom, he’s a role model. Of sorts.
Similarly, I’m no long term fan of conservative author/schnook P.J. O’Rourke, but in 1990 he so thoroughly characterized the mass behavior of the American environmental movement with his Earth Day essay in Rolling Stone (I read it when it originally came out) that I have managed to track down his timeless essay titled, “The Greenhouse Affect” (brilliant title and waaay ahead of its time — and as I say, I may be the only person on the planet who still gives thought to it) in a collection of Rolling Stone environmental essays.
“HATRED IS THE MOST ACCESSIBLE AND COMPREHENSIVE OF ALL UNIFYING AGENTS” – ERIC HOFFER
This is the key quote in O’Rourke’s brief 7 page essay. He, of course, has lots of silliness to go along with it, but buried in his nonsense is this very penetrating quote from “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer. And this is where I’m picking up on what I had to say about the vilification campaigns against processed foods (the followers of Michael Pollan) and fracking (the followers of Josh Fox). They are both tapping in to this unifying, blinding force of hatred.
He quotes Hoffer further saying, “Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God, but never without a belief in a devil.” This is yet another simple, fundamental rule that everyone should keep in mind as you listen to these campaigns of rage being conducted in a relatively healthy and spoiled society.
Then with typical O’Rourke smarm in reference to big business he adds, “The environmental movement has, I’m afraid, discovered a unifying agent. I almost said, ‘scapegoat,’ but scapegoats are probably an endangered species.”
EVEN A BAND OF ANGELS CAN TURN UGLY
Lastly, the best quote of all, referring to the lynch mob mentality that can arise in the environmental movement at times he says, “Even a band of angels can turn ugly and start looting if enough angels are hanging around unemployed and convinced that succubi own all the liquor stores in heaven.”
Great essay. And similar to what he says, I get uncomfortable when I start hearing too many people feel like they’ve figured out, “the devil in our society.” It’s just all too complex these days. It’s like the Gulf oil spill. No sooner did it happen than news began to trickle out that The Nature Conservancy had earlier accepted $10 million from BP Oil Company and many other conservation groups had also accepted their hand outs, making it difficult for them to grab the moral high ground.
Everything is connected with everything, and possibly even worse, the world may not be coming apart as badly as many people like to think. Two weeks ago The Economist had a cover article on, “The Curious Case of the Fall in Crime.” Crime is falling worldwide, and in the U.S. is half today what it was two decades ago. I’m keenly aware of this as I moved to L.A. in the fall of 1993, shortly after the riots, and the city was literally a police state with police helicopters in the sky night and day. It’s nothing like that today. And on a longer time scale, Steven Pinker detailed the long term decline of worldwide violence a couple years ago with, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
VILLAINS AS ENDANGERED SPECIES?
So what do you do when you start to run out of villains? Hollywood has dealt with this problem for decades as we end up no longer hating certain countries. Who are you allowed to vilify?
In a decent world the answer is obvious — you put more effort into telling stories that are both powerful AND accurate. It is possible, even in a world of fewer villains, to do this — to tell compelling stories that are still honest. But it takes harder work. And a willingness to just stick to the truth and accept the financial shortfalls when the public doesn’t go wild over your film because you foolishly told the truth (rather than just Ben Affleck’s “the spirit of the truth”).
The bottom line is that everyone these days, as villains become an endangered species, needs to ask themselves (which P.J. O’Rourke was encouraging you to do) as the lynch mob assembles, “Is this really a source of pure evil we’re going after?”
Again, for processed foods, fracking, over-fishing, vaccinations, chemical preservatives, and countless other complex issues these days the answer just isn’t that simple. The only hope for dealing with all this complexity is better and more conscientious communicators who can find the stories that are both accurate and powerful.