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The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television
edited by Martin F. Norden
by Brian Bergen-Aurand
There is no theory of ethics . . . without storytelling and the temporalization (in several senses of the word) which is an intrinsic feature of all narrative.
—J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading
The story of evil is the story of remorse. That is the overriding lesson of this collection edited by Martin F. Norden, whose previous book, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Rutgers, 1994), provided disability studies what Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (HarperCollins, 1987) provided gay and lesbian studies. Evil is remorseless. It is driven, certain, assured, sinister, wicked, vengeful, and, most of all, always tied to a narrative. Remorse is what redeems an evildoer; remorselessness is what assures a villain’s eternal damnation. It is the story of the struggle between these poles that is written on the faces of all the characters discussed in these twelve essays. The essays stand together well, and the conversations within and between them enrich the collection. They show that what complicates any discussion of the face of evil is the representation of evil on particular faces—always other, monstrous, outside the family of man. According to Norden,
There is no doubt that evil has proven a particularly serviceable abstraction for legions of media practitioners. They have changed the face of evil frequently, conflating the concept with just about every conceivable identity variable at one time or another and also associating it with a host of nonhuman subjects: animals, extraterrestrial aliens, even inanimate objects. In so doing, they have turned evil into nothing short of a ubiquitous commodity for our consumption.
The face of evil fascinates us, and yet, these essays caution us that the fascination with these images—this oscillation between desire and disgust—is always coded in political and psychological terms even as it dons a moral garb. All attempts to describe evil fall back on prejudices, and this volume alters the way we might read expressions like “blackened,” “crippled,” or “scarred” by evil.
The writers discuss monism and dualism, Hitchcock, Harry Potter, Roberto Benigni, Jay Rosenblatt, Presidents Bush and Nixon, horror films and cop shows, comedy, tragedy, race, sexuality, and disability. They analyze and historicize the significance of film titles, the intertextuality of cinematic genres, and the rhetoric of television. Most are formal and cultural critiques; all of them speak to questions of suffering and representation, to debates over the “normality of evil” and the “banality of evil.”
Some of the usual suspects of the philosophy of evil are present: Adam and Eve, Plato, Augustine, Freud, Nietszche, Lacan, several gods and devils, and, of course, Hannah Arendt. (Absent are Abraham and Isaac, Spinoza, Leibniz, Machiavelli, Levinas, Derrida, Blanchot, and Agamben.) Perhaps what is highlighted here is a shift from one paradigm to another. Evil is political and psychological. It is dictatorial and dysfunctional. And it is metaphysical and religious; the new face of evil demands theodicy once again. Although the volume still relies heavily on psychoanalysis for its explanatory regime, it does open the conversation to other paradigms for contemplating cinema and television.
If there is one weakness with this collection, it is connected with the promise of discussions of film and television in the title. Although there is some talk of the smaller screen in several of the essays, only three of them provide extended considerations of the face of evil broadcast through this medium. With the manifold depictions of evil on television—brought to us through the evening news, soap operas, police procedurals, courtroom dramas, and daytime talk shows—there is much here that could have been discussed at greater length.
It seems that since September 11, 2001 we have been talking more about evil; certainly, the word has returned to the forefront of many contemporary political and moral debates. What The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television shows, however, is that images and discussions of evil have been around since the beginnings of the two media. The images have always centered on bodies, and they have always been tied to narratives about remorse. We construct new evil empires or axes of evil when needed. We imagine darker bodies, different religionists, or separate species as evil when effective. We commodify nature or the supernatural as an evil force when economically viable. We are more than willing to alter the face of evil. Yet through all these permutations, the motivation remains the same: to separate ourselves, to elevate ourselves, to show how our difference is meaningful by creating “them” as the evil doppelganger of “us.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008