I haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds, as no one has yet produced the wild horses required to get me there, but I did comment on this general subject in 2005. I mostly stand by what I said then. The underlying question here is “What is the purpose of fantasy?” And I don’t believe that the answer is “Just for kicks.”
However, readers may notice that in a recent post I defended horror stories, as I have gained a somewhat more complex understanding of what they mean to people who love them. As I said then, fiction has an ability to enter people’s subjective realities in a way that straight reportage of facts does not. But that is a testament to how real it actually is, not “just pretend.”
It’s interesting that I had no problem with Brad’s original line that when we watch movies, we “come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing.” In the follow-up he backtracked after Adam said in the comments that only an insane person would do that. But in fact, on a base neurological level that’s quite true. The fear that we feel when watching a character in danger, our joy when they beat the bad guy, or our sadness when they die, are all the same to our brains when watching a movie as when we experience them in real life, just somewhat diluted by the intellectual knowledge that this isn’t really happening.
The question, then, should less be, “What is the effect of seeing this or that on screen?” so much as “What is the effect of feeling those feelings over and over?” The answer, of course, is going to vary a lot since people have different emotional reactions to works of art. But I do think that’s a more fruitful direction of inquiry than our current fixation on exactly how much blood is spilled or how realistic the special effects are.
There’s still clearly a big gulf between movie experience and actual experience, which is probably why ax murders of the sort Marvin points to are still rare. A fantasy murder, from the point of view of an invisible observer, is far different from being in the presence of a flesh-and-blood person who is looking back at you. But there are other kinds of experience that fantasy more strongly resembles, such as memory. It has been pretty well established by now that people often think they remember things that they actually only imagined, whether under their own power or through hearing about it from somewhere else. And this is not so strange if you think about it, because the act of imagining and the act of remembering are very similar. They are both, actually, a lot like watching a movie.
Because awareness of this memory/fantasy blur came about largely through scandal — people accusing their parents of abuse that didn’t happen, for instance — we tend to think it as a bug in the human wetwiring. But I think this also has a positive social purpose, because it is how we can have collective memories, in a sense. Passion plays are a good example of this: by re-enacting the events of the Gospels, people can experience what the disciples felt together and make it their communal story. The recurrence of Nazi villains in cinema is a more recent example of this kind of thing. Few people alive today actually remember World War II, but thanks to the jumble of factual and fictionalized retellings it is part of our collective memory.
Fantasy also resembles the imaginative acts necessary for visualizing something going on far away, or speculating about the future. In that way, it helps us know not only who we were but what we can become. This is important to understanding Star Trek fandom, I think. On the other hand, it also can lead to things like this:
Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”
Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”
The students, I am sure, know that 24 isn’t real; but then again, actually interrogating terrorists isn’t real to most people, in the sense that they haven’t actually experienced it. Very few people have, which is why discussions about it tend to be dominated by hypothetical scenarios. Which is why the types of stories we tell, fantasy or not, still matter.