|Prodigies of Evil|
Issue #48 (August 1985)
Not long ago I purchased a videocassette of Howard Hawks' 1949 release, The Thing, a classic monster movie in which an Arctic research station is terrorized by a rampaging eight-foot-tall rutabaga from another planet. In the intervening 36 years, I [quoteright]had forgotten how good it was. By comparison with the 1982 remake, it is a classic in more sense than one. It is, for one thing, a masterpiece of understatement. For another, it could have been written by Sophocles.
Millennia ago, Aristotle laid down rules for dramatists to follow, requiring unity of time, place and action. The Thing adheres fairly strictly to the Aristotelian unities. Most of the film takes place in four or five rooms of the research station over the course of about one day. It could easily be done as a play on the legitimate stage.
There's another way in which The (1949) Thing imitates classical literature. I haven't taken a stopwatch to it yet, but I believe that I am not far off the mark when I say that the monster appears on screen for no more than about two out of 86 minutes running time. The rule in ancient literature was that unlike children, monsters are better heard than seen. When some prodigy of evil, such as a supernatural monster or a grisly battle, had to be depicted, it was always in the words of a messenger panting out the news after a marathon run onto stage from the wings, or of a lookout describing what he saw from the fortress ramparts. Of course, the Greeks had a word for it, from which we have the English "teichoscopy," literally, "view from the wall."
One of the things I remembered from seeing The Thing back in 1949 was how the monster, in order to get the human blood it needs to nurture its seedlings, cuts the throats of two unfortunate scientists and hangs them upside-down from the greenhouse rafters to help them drain. (What a cumbersome way to reproduce!) I had a vivid mental image of this happening, and I recall having had some morbid fantasies about it as a boy. But when I saw the videocassette in 1985, I realized that this event is not depicted on the film at all; it is reported by a messenger who has witnessed it off-camera. As the movie-makers had intended, my imagination did the rest, and it did it more vividly than any amount of special effects would have.
If this impression this movie made on me is anything to go by, then one might well conclude that Aristotle was right, and that the explicitly gruesome makeup and effects of which more modern movies (such as the 1982 Thing remake) are capable are dramatically just not as effective as what The Eternal Verities, handed down to us over the centuries, teach us to do. There is quite a lot of tension conveyed to the audience in the movie, but it is not delivered by grue and gore. It is communicated by well written dialogue; when the actors are nervous, they all talk at the same time, and they say the stupid and silly things that jittery people say. This makes the collective skin of the audience crawl in sympathy. Not only is this cheaper than special effects, it is more elegant. It demands more both of the writer and the audience than the explicit gore in the world.
George Lucas would have done well to re-read his classical literature before making Return of the Jedi. He went to a great of (well publicized) trouble to make Jabba the Hutt a perfectly ghastly villain, and the results were well worth the effort. But Jabba is just one of the lower rungs on the galactic ladder of evilness; how much more evil the Galactic Emperor ought to be! Lucas wisely kept this personage tucked out of sight during the first two installments of his trilogy, and he should have in the third, too. Next to Jabba, the Emperor pales into insignificance, so much so that when it comes time for the showdown, Darth Vader just picks him up and chucks him down a hole. His exit does not befit the most powerful and evil being in the universe. Like the all-devouring sea-monster in the Phaedre of Racine, his deeds should have been reported by a messenger, not actually seen.
I think there is a corollary to the above esthetic observations that applies to real life and not just the stage or screen. In The Thing, classical teichoscopy is largely supplanted by the Geiger counter. The monster, being radioactive, as any self-respecting outer-space creature ought to be, can be detected by radiation alone. His — or its — comings and goings are documented, through the wall, by the frequency of clicks coming from the instrument. In real life, we do not have this luxury. Evil is not radioactive (although its by-products may be). If it were, how easy it would be for the police to keep the streets free of crime! How easy it would be for the SEC to keep the stock exchange honest! How easy it would be for the President to tell which empires are evil (e.g. the Soviet Union) and which are not (e.g. South Africa)!
We also don't have the luxury in real life of being able to tell evil just by looking at it. Evil just isn't packaged the way it is in the movies. Real-life evil is seldom inarticulate, eight feet tall, and covered with a chitinous exoskeleton. More often than not, the worst kinds of evil are of medium height, with brown hair and moustache, and a talent for public speaking. Hannah Arendt wrote that the worst part of this sort of evil is its banality. It is commonplace, everyday, trite, unobtrusive, something you can walk right past on the street and never notice for what it is. It is only after it has made its way to the levers of power (or to a source of high explosives) that we come to recognize it for what it is. And it is just this unobtrusiveness that makes real life evil far more ghastly than anything Hollywood can dish up. Adolf Eichmann didn't gloat out loud over all the misery and destruction that he was visiting on millions of human beings; he thought, and wrote, and spoke, of what he was doing as processing units of production, as if he had been in charge of manufacturing light bulbs rather than exterminating European Jewry.
There used to be a time when at least by the end of the last reel, good had to triumph over evil. Even if the baddies hadn't been caught up with by the law, they had to be killed in a car crash. Movies that ended any other way could not be distributed in this country. Another 1949 release, Kind Hearts and Coronets, made in Britain, had two different endings, one for showing in the United States, another ending for everywhere else. The U. S. ending clearly indicated that the villain-hero was not going to get away with his misdeeds; the everywhere-else version left the question open. The Thing of 1949 is also somewhat open-ended. Although the present monster has been defeated, there is the possibility that others will follow in its foot- (or whatever else-) steps. The movie ends with the exhortation, "Watch the skies!" If we are to protect ourselves from the ravages of real life monsters, we might be better advised to watch the newspapers.
Gareth Penn is probably best known as the greatest amateur Zodiac sleuth after his many articles in The Ecphorizer that lead to the identity of Zodiac. However, Penn is much more than that as he has a keen inquisitive mind that finds an interesting story in just about anything from a memorial to a little-known soldier in a park in Vallejo, CA, to his notes about animals, to plumbing the depths of the limerick. Penn's prolific pen is evident in that he has made a contribution to every issue of The Ecphorizer up through Issue #33 (and counting!).