The Dadaists and Big Hero 6

LipstickTracesSo I’m reading Lipstick Traces and it’s slow going because these beautiful sentences go on and on until your realize that they might not mean anything at all and you have to go back and read it all again very very carefully to see if there is anything there. And I’m reading about dada and I’m not sure why, but the picture of Alben Barkley (it’s disturbing, and I’ve included it below the fold) at the concentration camp makes me think about Big Hero 6.

BuchenwaldHe’s so matter of fact in that picture. But then how should one look at a pile of murdered bodies? There’s a cognitive dissonance between the objects “stacked like cordwood” as Greil Marcus says, and the knowledge that each one of them was at some recent time a person. It is both impossible and necessary that people look on a scene such as that without going mad.

The people who created that scene were not mad. It’s impossible to believe that a person could see it and come away whole, and yet the people who did the killing were just people. It would be so easy to imagine them all twisted and depraved with horrible, tortured backstories, but history tell us that most of them, outside of the big historical characters, were normal folks who managed to normalize the unthinkable through a combination of peer pressure, fear, and submission to an appealing cultural narrative.

The Dadaists denied narrative. They claimed that the madness of their generation’s great war was too great to allow for order of any kind ever again. Or something like that. Greil Marcus’ explanations of art movements are not easy to follow.

I think the Dadaists were full of shit. Humans have always and will always make sense of the world through narrative, especially in times of chaos. But sometimes we need new stories.

Marcus furnished me with this quote from Carl Jung:

There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to.

Big Hero 6 is one of very few stories I can think of that drains a dominant cultural narrative of its power. Almost every action movie provides a satisfactory resolution with the death of the villain. Traditionally, the hero kills the villain, and the audience cheers.

Grandpa you’re messing up the story. Now get it right! Who kills Humperdinck? Is it Inigo? Who? Somebody’s got to do it!

Nobody kills Humperdinck. He lives.

Jesus Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?

In children’s stories, where violence is less acceptable, the satisfaction is generally served by the villain falling to his or her death (just google “villain falls to death”). Occasionally, villains are dragged off in chains/handcuffs, but this is usually when the primary story line is not a battle between good and evil, as in Frozen, or in movies for grownups where the stakes are not life and death. And these handcuff endings are usually not as satisfying.

That’s why so many movies have a moment where the hero stops the bad guy, says something to the effect of, “No, he’s not worth it,” and then is forced to kill the villain when the villain takes advantage of their mercy to try to kill someone. Yay! Look how moral our hero is! Yay! The bad guy is dead!

When a rare story comes along like Big Hero 6 where the hero not only spares the villain but understands him and sympathizes with his motivations in a way that is satisfying, it makes me wonder how much the traditional bloodthirsty narrative contributes to our ability to dehumanize real people, to look at stacks of bodies like cordwood dry eyed, to interpret statistics that look like genocide as “a high crime rate.” Is it mere coincidence that people who still find something heroic in the story of the Alamo are the same ones who demonize Mexican immigrants?

Our stories both reflect and shape who we are. I admit that most of the time, stories are more enjoyable when the villain dies. But it’s lazy storytelling because fiction, while freed from responsibility to facts, has an obligation to the truth, and real life has so few true villains. The Dadaists were a bunch of pretentious poseurs who broke themselves against the monolith of narrative. But the song does not remain the same. Slowly, we do learn to tell new stories.

Aside: Big Hero 6 also makes science look cool. So much love.

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