Saturday 3 September 2011

A Fearful America : Heroes and The Village

Claire Bennett climbs to the top of a Ferris wheel. At this moment our eyes, the eyes of the world, television cameras following her into the night sky, are fixed on one young woman. She isn't hiding herself away any longer, nor any part of what makes her uniquely her.

Is this desperation or is it hope? What did she mean by "people never change"? Does she think that she (and other 'specials' like her) can live in the open as part of a harmonious society?

Standing on top of the wheel as if on top of the world, she spreads out her arms and jumps. She hasn't given up on us. She has taken a giant leap for mankind.

The question: will they, will we, welcome her? And so Heroes ends on a note of ferocious optimism.

M Night Shyamalan's The Village tells of a place isolated from the world, set back from modern civilisation. Its elders have been caused great pain and grief by society, the society they once lived in, a society such as we might recognise. Their hearts were blackened by the "towns". Out of fear they have forged a village in which to "protect innocence" and with which to shield the young from suffering. In an effort to keep their children safe, they recount tales of deadly monsters who lurk in the woods that separate their new home from the towns.

One day one of the younger villagers, Lucius, falls ill and Ivy, who is to be his wife, travels through the woods to the towns to get medicine. She is blind. Beyond the boundary of the village and beyond the woods, she meets a man from the towns and she is shocked to find "kindness" in his voice.

When she returns to Lucius' bedside has she brought hope back with her? Can she conquer the fear of those who have only mourning, a hardening void, to comfort them? Could she lead them out to a communion with the world?

In Heroes and The Village an older generation controls how a younger generation experiences the world. They attempt to keep them from dangers, and jealously guard secrets that maintain illusions. They both concern responsibility and power - the power of special abilities, the power of being a parent and the responsibilities that come with both. They show how a genuine concern becomes a constricting possessiveness as damaging (in Heroes children are experimented on, given injections of a formula meant to give powers) as that very influence which they seek to protect their charges from.

They keep them fragile, using fear, perpetuating fear, saplings with weak roots.

Earth-mover Samuel, the embittered visionary of Heroes' Season 4, gathers 'specials' in a travelling circus. In a place of eccentricity and easy deceit where they can hide in plain sight. He has created a temporary America within America, one such as it is, or was, meant to be. Almost every tent-pole and archway is decorated with American flags. His brood of misfits and foreigners, recalls the nations who first came in the hope of forming a cohesive new world. He talks of founding a "homeland", a word nowadays followed by "security", the double-edged sword of safety and fear.

Edward Walker, founder and chief elder of The Village's community, has likewise forged an America within America and set it in a late 19th Century whose values and behavioural conventions he believes offer a healthier template for living.

Samuel and Edward have retreated from harsh reality to comfort in the shape of a(n older) narrative - gifted circus performers and selfless villagers in a benign and gay 19th Century that may never have existed.

However, whereas Edward and the men and women who have collaborated in his project want to be utterly isolated, Samuel plans to burst out of this artificial womb. He ultimately wants to use fear against the world, to bend it to his will, rather than lord it over a huddled, cowered and benumbed micro-empire. He wants to show his powers and, by revealing what he and they can do, force acceptance, and the opportunity for life, liberty and the fruits of labour, through fear.

 Two Ways of Facing Fear - Edward Walker and Samuel

Claire is different. When she exposes herself and her kind, in those last moments of the series, it is not with a threat but a prostration (she lands face first). Her subsequent stare into the camera (see end), and into the homes of potentially millions of Americans, is part challenge, part act of humility.

*         *         *

How real are the dangers they fear? Can fear be quantified and weighed for rationality?

The elders of The Village reacted to real murders that afflicted their families. Near the end of the film, in the office of a modern man, we hear a news bulletin about the death of a young girl in America and the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan.

Isolationist or interventionist?

Crucially, this is not a representation of the world, from the Director's or our point of view, that is skewed to the negative. This is what the world is like. People are killed and the villagers are the usually unseen victims, the 'collateral damage' of these atrocities. They are trying to withdraw to the fiction with which, in the eyes of the masses, the distant and unknown victim is glazed.

You are either personally affected by these horrors (1) or you are not (0). On or off.

The fear they teach to the younger members of their community is all-encompassing - fear the creatures, fear the woods, fear people - and no less real to them for being half-based in fiction. It is apt that where make-believe stands in for fact (or grows from it - the elders talk of rumours of creatures that were the basis for the full-grown horrors they visit on the young), the naive and brave Lucius will conclude a plea to go into the woods with "The End". This fictionalising could be their route to salvation outside the village, too, as the mind of a young person is receptive to the magical and transformative nature of fantasy.

The people of Heroes face the very real and constant threat of murderous ability-collector Sylar. In Season 3 the threat is wider still, as they are hunted and rounded up (orange jumpsuits, detained without charge, flown abroad - all echoes of Guantanamo Bay) by the Government. Noah, Claire's father, knows about the cruel and brutal experimentation undertaken on Elle (who can create electricity) by her own father. The 'specials' and their families know too of potential or embryonic futures (that involve 'specials' being driven underground, war and quasi-apocalyptic destruction) witnessed and reported by time travellers Peter and Hiro.

However, how a normal person in a position to shun or embrace someone different to themselves, would react to a 'special' in their midst is unknown. The heroes will occasionally show an individual what they can do, when it is absolutely necessary, and the thrill and danger they derive from this may be extrapolated to the ecstasy and dread they might feel if their secrets were blown onto the wind once and for all.

The authorities in Heroes are fearful too, especially in the light of Sylar's killing spree. They seek to hide specials away in prisons or, in one future, cure their 'mutations' with injections. These authorities are led (The Company, Pinehearst), or encouraged into action (the Government in Season 3), by 'specials' themselves who see first-hand what a cornered individual of this kind is capable of. These institutions become increasingly destructive as fear and self-loathing feed each other.

Those working for the Government, made aware of 'dangerous' specials by another of their 'kind', Nathan Petrelli, manipulate them as patsies, as false-flags to rally support for more stringent actions against what they paint to their superiors as terrorists. Matt Parkman (who can read minds) is drugged and sent out into Washington with a bomb strapped to him. The chains of imprisoned Tracy Strauss, who is able to freeze objects, are loosened so that she will escape and cause untold, and convenient, damage.

In The Village Ivy, as she is about to journey to the towns, is made aware that the creatures are only men in costume. When she is subsequently stalked by Noah (a simpleton apparently driven to insanity by his knowledge of the "farce") now dressed as the monster, her testimony give the elders a chance to perpetuate the myth and to bolster the boundaries of the village.

These are the tactics - exaggeration, opportunism and borderline falsity - that some in America and beyond have suspected their governments guilty of using to gain backing against terror, through terror. That of course is the whole set-up of the village - a fake ring of danger against a larger danger beyond. Again, this fiction embellishing and strengthening fact. A bete noire, a pacifier, the double-edged sword.

Excuses and Fear used against Fear:
Matt Parkman primed to explode (above)
Noah dressed as a Creature

Sometimes those in power are the terrorists themselves. In Heroes Linderman advocates the use of a nuclear explosion in New York City to bring people together in "a united sense of hope couched in a united sense of fear".

Fear coming from actual experience can grow larger upon closer scrutiny by grief and hate like the shadow of a menacing shape lit closer and closer. It is fuelled by ignorance, by lack of confidence and by pessimism. The village, the circus, are magnifying glasses to the rays of fear.

Perhaps one could reduce it all to age or to the battle between optimism and pessimism. The older generation of Heroes and The Village have either strayed from the straight path or wilfully abandoned it. They are set in their ways and afraid to live. They cannot imagine a life different to their own. Their experience, their 1 cannot be subtracted or cancelled out. Their fear is ossified.

The village elders demand their children eradicate the colour red from their sight as it attracts the creatures ("those we don't speak of" - a classic occupatio technique). Red is blood. Pain attracts more pain and fear multiplies exponentially.

Those who are immortal or capable of healing in Heroes, who have seen so much suffering, so many lives come and go, the same chronic illnesses of mind and body afflicting mankind, their pessimism transmogrifies into a desperation and misanthropy of a terrifying order. Adam wants to wipe out humanity with a virus and Linderman wants to wipe the slate clean. Only a cataclysm will do. Claire too, herself (if Sylar is to be believed) undying, flirts with militancy and rage in her darkest hours.

And hope? Can these lost souls truly achieve freedom and tolerance?

The curiosity and will to be independent of the young are bedfellows of hope. They want to dig up secrets and to test limits and it is this lust for discovery and truth, for finding out who one is, that is the motor for both narratives. This search will look to shatter the skeleton of fear once and for all.

You see, fear does not imprison children but embolden them. The boys in The Village stand with their backs to the dark woods and see how long they can go before they get too scared. The young here can achieve baby-step victories over fear, dipping their toes into the water until, on the precipice of adulthood, Ivy and Claire will eventually dive in, having conquered their fear of drowning.

The younger they are the more optimistic they seem. Candace, in Heroes, is a woman who can make you see what she wants you to. We are led to believe that she is a fat woman who has been bullied and abused because of her size. She appears to us and the other characters as thin and conventionally pretty. Candace tells Micah, a young boy, that the planned nuclear explosion will "heal the world" to which Micah replies defiantly that he "didn't know it was sick". In The Village Ivy, blind, says "I see the world, just not as you do".

If you are at peace with yourself, your circumstances and your abilities then you may view the world bathed in a forgiving light. This is because the world isn't Us vs Them or the U(nited) S(tates) vs Them, whether them is other races or nations or beliefs or physical attributes. Us is them. Heroes is firmly rooted in this idea. Those who are normally 'them', the odd, the 'specials', are our protagonists, our eyes and ears. They are our heroes.

So, for these people hidden away physically or hidden away within themselves, is the world good or is it bad? That is the pivot upon which their actions swing. What will happen to me when I step out into the world? Will I fall?

In other words, is it a world worth taking a chance on?

If I, Claire, am good and hopeful then the world can be too. If I, Ivy, have trust and love, then the world will move for that love. There are many obstacles for those haunted by loss and those saddled with grudges and insecurities. But life cannot be retreated from. That society you run from will grow around you from under your feet. Out of fear came hope. In The Village a bloodied knife in Lucius' chest forced courage to the fore. In Heroes when baby Claire's house burnt down she needed to be able to heal, and she did. When Becky, hunted by The Company, hid under the bed and didn't want to be found, she turned invisible. When Daphne was struck down by cerebral palsy she was given the gift to run. And faster than the wind.


  1. Great double review here Stephen!

    Well, I have long defended THE VILLAGE (it's my favorite Shyamalen) for it's eerie Twilight Zone-type narrative, it's ravishing use of color, a stunning performance from Bryce Howard, and the best lyrical and atmospheric score in James Newton Howard's career.

    Your approach and analytical discussion here is fascinating.

  2. Thanks very much Sam.

    The Village is my favourite Shyamalan film too, The score and the leading performance, as you say, are excellent.

    It is emotionally very powerful and, in spite of its high concept plot that some found ludicrous, an utterly believable portrayal of grief.

  3. "The Village" is rather strong for a Shyamalan film-- it relies a little too heavily on the twist without really thinking it through as much as it deserves, but it's still thought provoking. Ending as it does, it feels more like the first part of a longer story about this isolated, family-knit dystopia, a bit like Lois Lowry's "The Giver" for its rural feel. This "first chapter syndrome" is a problem that bogs down some of his other early movies, too, particularly "Unbreakable", which I still think is his best work, and one that definitely ties into "Heroes".

    Now "Heroes"-- there was a show I mostly watched the entire duration of, and always admired. No, it was never quite as good as its first season, but it had a bunch of unexpected problems to deal with, mostly around the Writer's Strike that hit in the middle of Season 2, forcing them to go straight to finale-mode too soon and giving them too much time to second-guess themself and give into all their fans' demands. That third season, the first half especially, was a clusterfuck of epic proportions, primarily because it was nothing but contradictory, out of character fanservice. The common uniting theme of the Specials fighting against some unseen, constantly shifting future of unjust law is a common trope in comic-books (everybody reliving "Days of Future Past", and everything X-Men), but I liked how they stuck to certain aspects of it as constants, especially as the second half of the third season rebounded with a pretty good telling of it from the point-of-view of the dictatorship (also interesting that it happened around the same time that Marvel was in the midst of their "Civil War" series).

    This notion of Samuel's circus as a refuge being linked with "The Village" is an interesting notion. They're both largely drawn from far-reaching American pasts (the circus is pretty much a phenomenon of the 19th century as we know it, with their freaks, geeks and sideshows), imbuing them with a nostalgia as means to escape from reality, escape from injustice (and thereby perpetrate a brand of injustice all their own). Both also have a distinctly pastoral feel to them (what with Samuel literally controling the Earth-- a canny way to distance him from being too obvious a Magneto rip-off). There is a great subversion of all the classic American tropes in the series (I'd argue that the comic-book superhero itself is a very American thing), right down to its primary leads-- the big city Petrelli boys (one a male nurse, of all things) and little miss "Save the Cheerleader, Save the World" herself, Claire. It's a good thing the show closed on her repeating her classic little debut in the finale (which, I'll admit, I didnt' see in full-- I had counted on the show staying alive and me being able to watch it all on DVD), becuase it gives a nice full-circle feel to it all. Shame the show didn't survive.

    Interesting how often you've written about America, by the way, Stephen. Have you ever visited here, or plan to?

  4. Bob,

    The Village to me is Shyamalan's best film and one of the best American films of the past decade. It builds fantasy and high concept on the foundations of something everyday and makes it believable. It is strong emotionally and not afraid to be.

    I haven't heard of 'The Giver'. Perhaps I should read more American literature. That includes comic books. The problem there is that it isn't easy to read decades of editions without spending vast sums. I've read bits of various off the browsing in bookshops but to understand a mythology you need all the pieces.

    If I were more versed in comics I would know this: "The common uniting theme of the Specials fighting against some unseen, constantly shifting future of unjust law is a common trope in comic-books". It is an interesting idea.

    "They're both largely drawn from far-reaching American pasts"

    Yes, and I think you are right about the specific past of circuses. I should have zeroed in on that and the 'pastoral' in both stories, though that is part and parcel of the past, I suppose.

    I've seen all of Heroes. It is a shame that it was cancelled though I think the ending is a fine one. You can imagine that the next season would be full of problems / intolerance because that is what would be deemed more 'real'. I just wish they could (seeing as this is fiction and fantasy), if it continues sometime in the future, fashion a plausible happy ending.

    I haven't been to America, no. I would like to one day. I've always liked the architecture in New York. It seems like a more impressive place than London. Of the large West Coast cities, San Francisco looks the most appealing. In terms of writing about America, it just happens that I have seen links between films I like and current broad (I don't know enough to speak in detail) political/psychological issues in the USA.

  5. Of course I'm not just spotting things that aren't there. The parallels (to the USA specifically and to wider pressing issues) are clearly meant. All films have something of their country in them but these are more 'about' it.

  6. Well, it's hard for there not to be intentional parallels with American society in works that either explicitly link themselves to the country's remembered/imagined past of settlers, or go all out and include a politician as one of their characters (Adrian Pasdar was one of my favorites as Nathan "Flying Man!" Petrelli). For the most part, your observations are spot on, I just think it's interesting that the American psyche is strong enough that people often analyze works through that lens, even without having been there one's self. I've done similar things on a smaller scale, probably, thinking about Japanese national character while watching various films or anime, despite the fact that I've never been there (or even speak the language).

    As for the decades' worth of comics-- yeah, that can be intimidating. Thankfully, the range of important stories over the years is actually rather small, and easy to work with all things considered. In terms of Marvel comics, there's really only a few stories or authors one has to look out for-- in "X-Men", anything by Chris Claremont is essential, or at least worth a read; in "Spider-Man" Stan Lee and Gerry Conway's terms are the most important, with "The Death of Gwen Stacey" being what you might call the "Empire Strikes Back" of comic books ("Kraven's Last Hunt" is also a good one); with "Iron Man", probably all you need is "Devil in a Bottle"; for "The Incredible Hulk" the Peter David years are legendary, although Greg Pak's recent span has also been exemplary (the "Planet Hulk" storyline being one of my favorite standalone runs); for "Daredevil", there's been good runs recently by Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubacker (who also did good work on "Captain America", inspiring a few touches in the film), but Frank Miller's run with Elektra, Bullseye and the Kingpin is still the one to beat, and one that came to a great climax with his "Born Again" arc with artist Dave Mazzucchelli (who also illustrated his "Batman: Year One" book over at DC, Miller's other great contribution to Dark Knight lore). For "Fantastic Four", all you really need is the Jack Kirby stuff.

    Now, I realize even this cherry-picking of choice comic-book stuff looks daunting, especially when one factors in all the other mainstream, indie and outright artsy, avant-garde fare that I'm leaving out (oh, for a rebirth of Art Spiegelman's "RAW"). But thanks to the whole shared universe of Marvel stuff, you can often infer a lot of the larger picture when concentrating on individual stories. It's not essential stuff by any means, but it helps when you look at all the comic-book movies out there.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations. Many of the comic book film adaptations have put me off. Only Thor has impressed me recently, and that is really just a watered down / adulterated version of Norse myth. You talk of Kingpin and Bullseye and all I know of them is from the film Daredevil, which I didn't particularly like.

    "I just think it's interesting that the American psyche is strong enough that people often analyze works through that lens, even without having been there one's self."

    Something that was even more apparent in the last week is how Americans tie their identity to their nation far more than British people do. You would hear Americans say after the attacks that "(we) Americans are strong and we will get through this". A British person would say "people are resilient. We'll get through this"

    "I've done similar things on a smaller scale, probably, thinking about Japanese national character while watching various films or anime, despite the fact that I've never been there (or even speak the language)."

    Yes. I wouldn't pretend for a moment that I understand another nation's culture (they are too complex to be just 'picked up') but there are things that you can discern.

  8. "Something that was even more apparent in the last week is how Americans tie their identity to their nation far more than British people do. You would hear Americans say after the attacks that "(we) Americans are strong and we will get through this". A British person would say "people are resilient. We'll get through this""

    I wonder if it's something people are more comfortable with in the past, than nowadays. In America, and in Britain I know there's a tendency to heroicize the "Greatest Generation" of WWII. Britain especially can look at the way that Londoners resiliently carried themselves during the Blitz with pride, as something uniquely British (it seems like half the "Doctor Who" episodes I've seen do this at some point)-- also, something uniquely civilian, I think. Today, we heroicize the volunteer soldiers, policemen, firefighters, not so much the ordinary people who get caught up in events and simply "keep calm & carry on".

    The "Daredevil" film is particularly bad, frankly. Miller's comics are interesting as a blend of superheroes and film-noir, and it's too bad just how poorly the movie wasted the opportunity. "Thor" I thought was okay, but mostly for the chance to see Kenneth Branagh direct on such a large scale again. His "Hamlet" is possibly the best Shakespeare film ever made.

    I do reccomend "X-Men: First Class" as something that ties into "Heroes" and actually summarizes a lot of stuff from the comics fairly well (and by that I mean ignores whole swaths of it to tell an entertaining story).

  9. X Men : First Class does look good, I must say.

    ""Thor" I thought was okay, but mostly for the chance to see Kenneth Branagh direct on such a large scale again. His "Hamlet" is possibly the best Shakespeare film ever made."

    For me Grigori Kozintsev's King Lear and Hamlet are the best.