I prefer ambiguity. I know many people prefer certainty because it makes them feel better, but I’ll take something that makes me think and maybe edge me out of my comfort bubble over something that keeps me safely and numbly inside that bubble forever. I prefer ambiguity because the world is ambugious, and if I’m going to live in the world, I’d better get used to it.
I prefer a story that posits a conflict without resorting to painting one side as “good” and one side as “evil.” “Evil” is a great shorthand in something like a fairytale, where the villain is usually an allegorical representation of greed, selfishness, cruelty, or some other negative aspect of the human psyche. But to tell a more complex story, these delineations become useless, and ultimately harmful to the plot and characters.
However, it’s pervasive. This good-versus-evil nonsense permeates even real life, where people are quick to write off anything that’s different from them as “evil,” as though life is really that simple. Someone’s religious or spiritual ideas are different than yours? They’re evil! Someone has a different view on politics or social policy? They hate America!
People really say those things. People from all parts of the social and political spectrums can be so quick to point and scream and declare themselves and their ideas the only ones with merit.
It makes for tedious conversation, and it makes for even more tedious cinema.
After all, if you boil down two characters to all-good and all-bad, they’re just not going to be very interesting, and their story is going to follow suit. A good-versus-evil storyline can be handled well, but it’s usually because the characters are given some level of ambiguity. When the villain is simply evil for evil’s sake, it rings false and unrealistic—was anyone blown away by Lord Sauron’s character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? No? Of course not. Because he’s a giant eyeball.
There are, however, plenty of movies, even ones that are fairy-tale like, that take good and evil and actually make you think about them and what those concepts mean, and why no one is ever purely good or purely evil. And, yes, there are only three this week. I'm tired.
The Dark Crystal. Jim Henson, Frank Oz. 1982. On the surface, this movie tells the story of a power struggle between two races, the good but passive Mystics and the ambitious but corrupt Skeksis. It sounds simple enough, but wait—the real reason the world is in a state of imbalance is because at one time, the Mystics and the Skeksis were one unified race embodying all aspects. Split into their incomplete halves, the world is doomed, and it’s only through their reunion that the world can be saved.
Princess Mononoke. Hayao Miyazaki. 1997. Miyazaki’s epic follows a country lad into two clashing worlds. One is the forest, where giant talking beasts rule as they have for generations, and a human girl raised by the wolf gods swears to destroy all other humans. The other is Irontown, an industrial city built by the calculating Lady Eboshi. Eboshi seems to be the villain, with little thought for nature conservancy, but she’s also proven to be philantrhropic, taking in abandoned lepers and giving well-paying jobs to former prostitutes. Mononoke, on the other hand, while she lives in harmony with nature, is often violent and impulsive. Both sides are explored through the eyes of the foreign newcomer, and both sides can be completely understood by the viewer. And (spoiler alert) there’s even a peaceful resolution.
No Man’s Land. Danis Tanovic. 2001. During the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, two soldiers, one Bosnian, one Serbian, are caught in a bombed-out building in no man’s land. Shot at from both sides, they are unable to leave and must endure one another’s company. While they talk, the pointlessness of the conflict is revealed. The two men grew up in neighboring villages, frequented the same places, and even dated the same girl. They both also hate NATO. They’re neighbors, but their deep-seated ethnic hatred can’t be shaken even when they talk face-to-face. It’s an often funny movie, but is ultimately a bleak look at humans’ propensity towards conflict, even if no one can win it.
The reason for gut reactions about good and bad are understandable. We like to think we’re good. We’re the good guys, the heroes of our own fables. But maybe we aren’t, and that’s a scary thought. When confronted with someone who thinks or acts differently, it can force us to examine our own thoughts and actions, and sometimes draw some not-so-nice results. So you do one of two things: you can shut down, cover your ears and yell about evil and wrong and sin. You can always assume that you are right and good and never really think about the things you’re doing and saying. You can be comfortable forever. Or, you can think critically and objectively about yourself, your world, and your seeming “opposites,” and try to understand why people think differently, why they have the ideas they do. You can try to understand where people are coming from, and find some common ground. You can grow beyond good and evil.