Monday, June 18, 2012

Making the Deal

What is it with Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage and the Devil? (Or Angels?) The actor seems to have specialised in playing roles of conflicted persons, a men with questionable moral integrity, who must fight with the Devil to redeem themselves. He seems to be playing versions of these in every other movie, and it seems, he is succeeding as well, the latest being the sequel to the 2007 super hero (villain/being?) flick ‘Ghost Rider’; this time, he is the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’ (2012).

There’s nothing special about ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, but as a standard Hollywood actioner, it works. The film is relentless, with enjoyable action sequences, top class special effects and a strong supporting cast, including Idris Elba, and Ciaran Hinds as the Devil (He takes the mantle from Peter Fonda who played the Devil in the earlier film). If you want a comparison, it’s at least better than ‘Drive Angry’ (2011), another relentless actioner, where Cage was Milton, a mercenary from hell, on a mission to save his granddaughter from a Satanic cult.

In ‘Season of the Witch’ (2010), Cage played Behman von Bleiruck, a deserter from the Crusade who must help transport a woman possessed by the Devil to an isolated monastery located very conveniently in the wilderness. The highlight of the film was the appearance of the Devil himself in the climatic battle, complete with the amber eyes and bat wings. No prizes for guessing that our hero finally defeats the villain, at the expense of his life.

In ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’ (2010), Cage is a wizard called Balthazar Blake, who manifests in today’s New York after being trapped in an urn for thousand of years, and now, he must devise a plan to stop the impending resurrection of the fabled Arthurian witch Morgana.

In 2006, he was the new Wicker Man, in the remake of the film, where he becomes the human sacrifice of a cult.

There is a pattern in these Hollywood stories involving Devil, the most important of them is that the Devil must be defeated, and the hero must rise to the occasion. To bring home the point, the hero/protagonist is always a person with questionable moral integrity, someone who is outside the bounds of law and society, someone who has lost his “faith.” In the course of the narrative, leading to the final face-off, the protagonist must regain his “faith”, and earn the powers to defeat the fallen one.

There are numerous examples. In ‘End of Days’ (1999), Arnold Schwarzenegger faces the Devil. In ‘Stigmata’ (1999), it’s a faithless priest played by Garbriel Byrne. In ‘Constantine’ (2005), it’s Keanu Reeves’ dying demon hunter. The poor Devil! He no match with the humans. There was an interesting departure to this template in Danzel Washington starrer ‘Fallen’ (1998), where the demon (not Satan himself, but one of his minions) manages to outsmart the ever-resourceful hero.

Where did this structure of the face-off between the supernatural villain and all-very-human faithful hero originate. In the context of Hollywood, the answer lies in the tale of ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’. Webster was a real-life lawyer and orator, and this fictional tale relates how a farmer sells his soul to the devil and when the Prince of Darkness comes to collect what is his due, Webster argues on behalf of the poor farmer and defeats the Devil.

It’s an inspiring story, which has been told and retold, and was also made into a movie. However, to take look at the bigger picture, the theme of the story is as old as The Bible itself. It’s the story of faith vs temptation, righteousness vs evil, God vs Satan, and most importantly, it’s about making a choice, the right choice.

And these themes found its most recognisable representation in the tale of Faust or Faustus, a German folk tale, the story of a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange of unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Since then, the story has been told and retold numerous times, most prominent among them being the play by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, and 200 years later, by German poet Goethe. But, Marlowe’s Faustus is different from Goethe’s Faust and they are very different from Thomas Mann’s 1947 book or F W Murnau’s 1926 silent film or Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s recent ‘Faust’ (2011).

Personally, I have a soft corner for the poor doctor, especially in the Goethe version, where he is an intellectual, who is not satisfied with whatever he has learnt. He wants to know more, know everything, and it becomes his undoing. (My favourite portion is when Gretchen asks him whether he believes in God, and he passionately answer, who can point to a certain artefact and say that this is God and I believe him, and who can point to a certain artefact and say I do not believe him. The idea of belief is more complicated than that.).

This was the tragedy of Dr Faustus — his incredulity, his disbelief, his doubts, his faithlessness. He summoned Satan to do his bidding in a pure scientific curiosity. He did not believe that Satan existed, or God, or hell, or eternal damnation. Hence, he had no qualms in making the deal, and bartering his soul. At the end, in Marlowe’s version of the story, when Mephistopheles arrives to collect his soul, Dr Faustus cannot even ask God for help. He now knew that Devil existed, because he had seen him, but how did he believe that God existed. He had never seen him:
.... The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ—
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him—O spare me, Lucifer!...

Personally, I believe, Dr Faustus paid a rather heavy price for his inability to believe. For this, the blame goes to the structure of organised religion, who wants you to believe/have faith without question. It was this power that made Dr Faustus an example, to be aware of.

Too bad Dr Faustus did not have Daniel Webster to argue on his behalf, and too bad, he was not a Hollywood hero, who would defeat the Devil at any cost.

Just to be clear, Johnny Blaze in the original ‘Ghost Rider’, made the deal with the devil, not for power and knowledge, but to save his father’s life. And the devil tricked him.

Tail Piece: In Indian folk tradition, there are no devils. That doesn’t stop us from making the deal though. We make the deal with the Gods, or the Demons, the Asuras. However, our heroes in Indian mythology do not trade their souls (the soul is not theirs to trade, it’s part of the param-brahma, the ultimate super-soul), but their offspring, their firstborn. Like the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story, where the father escapes with his life with the promise that he’d send one of his daughters to the beast. The same way, Yayati trades his old age with the youthfulness of his younger son, Puru. Again, the Sage Markendaya was born with the express condition that he’d be death on his 16th birthday. It’s another story that he managed to cheat death, with some timely divine help.

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét. This retelling of the classic German Faust tale is based on the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker", written by Washington Irving. Benet's version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and is defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the famous lawyer and orator. The story was published in 1937 by Farrar & Rinehart. In 1938, it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and won an O. Henry Award that same year. The author would adapt it in 1938 into a folk opera with music by Douglas Stuart Moore, a fellow alumnus of Yale University, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Benét also worked on the screenplay adaptation for the 1941 RKO Pictures film.

More here.

Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend; a highly successful scholar, but also dissatisfied with his life, and so makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Faust's tale is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works. The meaning of the word and name has been reinterpreted through the ages. Faust, and the adjective faustian, are often used to describe an arrangement in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success: the proverbial "deal with the devil". The Faust of early books—as well as the ballads, dramas, movies and puppet-plays which grew out of them—is irrevocably damned because he prefers human to divine knowledge; "he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of Medicine". Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust and Mephistopheles to figures of vulgar fun. The story was popularised in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In Goethe's reworking of the story 200 years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for "more than earthly meat and drink".

More here.

No comments:

Post a Comment