With their unprecedented sense of you-are-thereness, have the movies forever changed the way we are affected by tragedy?
Somewhere in the middle of “The Bacchae”, when the imprisoned Dionysus breaks free and uses his godly powers to wreak havoc on the palace of Pentheus, unleashing an earthquake and its attendant fires, what did the audience of ancient Greece actually see on stage? Euripides wrote of these horrors, but how did the stage manager or the art director translate these descriptions into display?
It isn’t difficult to guess. The actors probably swayed left and right, as if inside a ship seized by a giant wave. A few pieces of rubble probably flew in from the wings and from above, powdery proof of destruction disbursed by invisible stagehands. Tiny mounds of combustible material were probably set off to suggest conflagrations. And, the audiences probably came away with a simple sense of the tragedy, taking in what was on stage, in front of their eyes, and then extrapolating its effects in their heads to get the full impact of Euripides’ intentions.
But if a movie producer with a massive budget made “The Bacchae” today, the special wizards of Hollywood would render these scenes of death and destruction with such verisimilitude that there’d be no need for extrapolations inside the head. Everything that Euripides intended would unfold before our eyes, on a screen capable of accommodating a vastness of visual information that the half-formed images in the insides of our heads cannot hope to match in detail. That’s surely a reason we’re drawn to movies of earthquakes and tornados, erupting volcanoes and floods, aeroplane disasters and mishaps on ships.
Is that why we read news or see pictures of the recent tsunami in Japan and slap our foreheads and think, “Oh my god, that’s just like a movie?” Of course, we are shaken by how, in a matter of minutes, we are reminded of our smallness in the scheme of things, and our claims of conquering the universe are exposed as the empty boasts of children. And yes, our hearts go out to the battered people even as we count our blessings that we weren’t in their sea-soaked shoes.
In short, we do experience the normal things we are supposed to experience in order to qualify us as human beings made not just of flesh and bone but also spirit and sympathy. But have the movies changed the way we look at or respond to mishaps, whether at the corners of our crime-infested streets or in continents far away?
Would we shiver at these horrors a little more, would we lose a little more sleep had we not been stuffing our faces with popcorn while simulations of these catastrophes unspooled on screen? Have these thrills inside the theatres deadened us somewhat to the tragedies outside? Perhaps, mankind has always possessed an all-too-necessary insulation layer that prevents us from being too affected by the bad things, the sad things that happen to others — life, after all, has to go on — but the feeling persists that the people who thronged to the plays of Euripides would have had a far more human response to the tsunami.
I read of the giant waves, of the rescue efforts, of the valiant 50-member crew attempting to protect Japan (and us) from full-blown nuclear disaster, and my mind fills up with images borrowed from Hollywood, and I wonder if a screenwriter somewhere is thinking, right now, what a great story this would make. Movies take their cues from life, but are we losing a bit of our souls each time we watch one drawn from death?
(Lights, Camera, Conversation... is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films)
Keywords: natural disasters