Friday, October 30, 2009

Darwin and the Death of the Tragic Hero

The post earlier this week about Darwin and Bill Gates has brought back a thought I've had for some time now. TheWife and I have very different tastes in film -- I prefer comedy or something with an odd narrative architecture and she like action films, especially, but not exclusively from the 70s.

What is interesting about these films from an odd narrative architecture point of view is that while today's films all start at the same point A (respectable male character has something dastardly happen to someone he cares about) and end at the same point B (evil person falls from a great height on fire while respectable person looking slightly disheveled quips something witty in a flat stoic voice while walking away), the older films had two possible endpoints and you never knew which one it was going to. There was the hero riding off into the sunset ending, but there was also the tragic hero who dies for the cause, someone so committed that he heroically makes the ultimate sacrifice. That is something that has virtually disappeared from Hollywood film. We don't see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid type endings anymore.

It seems to me that there are two reasons here. The mundane explanation is money. Test audiences probably prefer happy endings to tragic ones and they dictate plot. Further, if your film is a success and you haven't killed off the hero, a sequel is sure cash in hand, for example, the Bruce Willis Die Hard cash cow. I'm sure these brazenly financial aspects are a large part of the demise of the tragic hero from American film.

But there does also seem to be another explanatory hypothesis that comes from the history of ideas. Darwin's theory has become so embedded in our collective consciousness that we see death as evidence of being unfit for survival and such a lack of fitness is unbecoming in a hero. If they weren't clever enough, tough enough, or unemotional enough to survive, then they don't conform to our iconic image of a hero.

There will be deaths in these films, but it is usually the killing of a someone close to the hero -- often a dedicated buddy or partner whose unjust killing spurs the hero on. The last main characters that I can recall dying tragically for their cause were Thelma and Louise. But, of course, they were women and I do think that gender is relevant here. Our male heroes are required to become something akin to the Nietzschean Ubermensch, a combination of super-rational human and pre-human instinctive animal thrust into a state of nature, red in tooth and claw, where the social contract is thrown out the window, and for such a being death is the ultimate insult. Our heroes don't die, they just get cheesier and cheesier scripts until we no longer care about them.