Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I Guess There's Always Contact

Forgive me both a small rant and spoilers of half-century-old media.

I dislike seeing plotlines of movies or television episodes in which the protagonist is rewarded for irrational belief or punished for questioning. In a free society the opposite responses should be given: honest questions should be encouraged and unthinking acceptance should be squelched. But that's not what really bothers me about these plots. Perhaps examples would help.

Example one: Rear Window. In this 1954 Hitchcock thriller, a broken-legged Jimmy Stewart spies on his neighbors, witnesses a few unexplained events, and concludes that one of the neighbors has murdered his wife. For every silly leap in logic Stewart's character makes, Grace Kelly's character is there with a rational explanation (at first, anyway).

To me, it was obvious that this was a psychologically nuanced movie about the destructive dangers of paranoia. I was wrong.

Apparently, Jimmy Stewart's character was right and the neighbor did kill his wife. Buried under a dearth of evidence, the character jumps to the farthest conclusion possible to fetch. And he's right.

Example two: Worst. Twilight Zone episode. Ever.
An American in post-WWI Europe, David Ellington, chances upon a castle and meets a man who claims to be wrongly imprisoned by insane religious zealots. Upon being caught speaking to the prisoner, Ellington is given a talking-to by the leader of the religious order, who claims that the prisoner is not a man but the devil.

Ellington asks reasonable questions, like, "If you've locked up the devil why are people still suffering?" The leader responds by defining the problem away: "The suffering you see is just little stuff, which is caused by people; the devil only does the big stuff." I'm paraphrasing, of course. Ellington doesn't believe that stupid crap, so he lets the man out.

Big surprise: the man is the devil.

As I said above, I am unsure why the rewards and punishments for these behaviors are not reversed, but I am upset over more than just that. It's the missed opportunity. The stories in these examples were, overall, very good. The acting was as good as could be expected. The respective directors of my examples desired suspense, so the endings were deliberately kept obscure. In effect, until the respective climaxes of the stories in my examples, the endings could have gone either way. The neighbor could have not murdered anyone. The prisoner could have been just a man, and the religious leader a crazy.

Had these stories ended exactly contrary to the way they did, they would have served as wonderfully encouraging tales of the virtues of critical thinking or the folly of illogical belief. But they didn't. The believer, not the skeptic, is held up as a positive example to the viewer.

Where is our positive skeptical role model in mainstream media? Where is our modern Sherlock Holmes, always coming to the right conclusions and, more importantly, explaining to everyone how he or she arrived at those conclusions? Where is the media for me, the viewer who was bitterly rather than pleasantly surprised at the endings to these example stories?

I would rather see the heroes in movies employ proper reasoning at least now and then. I would like television characters who took facts plainly available to any observer, especially the viewer, and came to the right answer every time. Instead, unthinking acceptance is championed, and science is shown to be incomprehensible magic (I'm looking at you, CSI).

It will be a happy day if and when a television program with a skeptical outlook or protagonist breaks the top ten. We'll see what we can do to bring that about.