It’s been said many times before that our culture has a strong tendency to prefer stories with clear moral lines. Good guys and bad guys. White hats and black hats. In film these lines were strongly coded in Hollywood production in the early twentieth century. Despite plenty of film making since featuring characters with serious flaws, antiheroes with dubious motivations and human frailty and sin of all manner, the clean moral lines, like the gravitational pull to a large unseen planet, still gather our attention.
The aim of this need is to identify a hero, someone in whom to invest our own messianic fantasies of heroism and triumph. The need to identify with the hero is so strong that a lot else will be lost to attain this connection. What can be lost is any nuances, any character flaws we’re eager to excuse, others whom we are okay with being wronged, as long as the hero is on the path of his or her goal. The hero can do heinous things, but if they look right and sound right, we’ll all be fooled. This one of the features of the protagonist of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, “Don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool you.” He looks the part – but he’s a psychopath.
The hero as an engine stands apart from the field as our focus becomes about their wants, their concerns, their struggle the way they frame their worldview. It reminds me of those pictures in psychology with the vase that is also two faces. The vase pops out in the foreground, but the background, the negative space, is where everything else is going on. A typical film basically attempts to shape the foreground by highlighting a character’s arc against a background. What distinguishes them in the conflict between the need of the character and the challenge of the adversary, or environment. It’s in the tension between the two objects that is the source of the drama.
Alfonso Cuaron’s use of foreground vs. background
One filmmaker who actually plays with this effect is Alfonso Cuaron. It’s a technique used in Children of Men and his earlier Y Tu Mama Tambien. That coming of age story about two upper middle class friends in Mexico who go on an impromptu road trip to the coast is ostensibly about two friends and their relationship with an older woman. It can be viewed entirely on the level of this foreground. However, repeatedly the camera wanders from focusing on the characters and turns to other people – workers, farmers, people at a party, and so on. In short, about people the story is not about. These shots would be cut in an ordinary film, but it’s included here. The effect is chilling in a way as it brings attention to the negative space of the story and shows these characters’s behavior as existing in a bubble of self-absorption. In Children of Men, the technique is similar to a different result, as these meanderings show us a lot of information about the speculative near future of the story. This is information that would otherwise have to handled with too much awkward sci-fi pipe laying exposition. Instead it becomes a rich tapestry of textual background that emphasizes how isolated the hero is and how harrowing the heroic task at hand.
(I imagine the next step of this kind of story telling would veer from person to person, the narrative slipping from one protagonist to another. It would come out as something like a Richard Linklater movie.)
I think it was Goddard who said a director choosing where to put the camera is a moral choice. By showing this space, this distance, we gain perspective about who the film is ostensibly about and who its not. Do we see heroes, or their context? Their persona or their shadow? Conscious or unconscious?
Game of Throne’s foreground vs background moral tapestry
I think something is at work here with the divisions among Game of Thrones watchers. And what is being revealed is itself pretty ingenious. For the run of the show audiences have been anticipating the character Daenerys to rise from the desert to retake the Iron Throne and rule over Westeros. The show is called, after all, Game of Thrones, and there is a presumptive goal – to achieve rule. She’s not the only one, as there were other characters who are candidates to rule from the multiple houses. But much of the audience believed in the Daenerys’s case – for what reason? I claim it’s this: it’s all about how she comports herself as a savior to fix everything wrong on the continent. She makes the most grand promises. She is the sole character who is treated with long titles that she insists on, demands others to call her queen, acts out upon her entitlement. She believes she is a victim who is owed greatness. She dresses the part, but she’s really a killer. Like an even less self-aware Buster Scruggs.
Yet she has a very long shadow. She acts impulsively, alternatively cheating, threatening, screaming and burning her adversaries. Her fiery temper has be constantly guarded and quelled by advisers. She executes coldly and shows little mercy. Of others, she demands fealty, great at conquering and enacting revenge, but shoddy at actually governing wisely. She claims she is liberating people but her followers act like brainwashed cult members. She is, in short, a demagogue. If she had a campaign slogan, it might be “Make Westeros Great Again.” Half of the audience saw only the messianic, salvific part of the narrative, the foreground, and excused the sociopathic cruelty of the other half, the neglected background. Some folks even named their children after the “strong woman” character, wore the t-shirts, and are literally blindsided by this revelation of the show. They are shocked now to discover for the last time that she really is the mad queen, the inbred daughter of mad king Aegon Targaryen who previously destroyed King’s Landing.
Dany fans will point to how many hardships she went through to get her power and so on. But name a character in that show who didn’t endure hardship. Cersei, Jon, Arya, Bran, Tyrion, Theon – they’ve all been through hell, that doesn’t mean they’ve earned the keys to the kingdom. Others will say the heel turn was too fast. Because seven seasons of warnings and foreshadowing were ignored. And perhaps folks are getting used to the plodding bloat of bringe-worthy television writing, forgetting that theater from Aeschylus to Shakespeare had some amazing transformations of character in short time spans. Some fans, even some tv critics, blame the writers and say they’ve betrayed the show. Who are these people and what show are they watching? This isn’t a show you can have on while looking at your phone. No, the writing isn’t bad. Compared to most tv writing, it’s excellent. In fact, the ability for writers to string an audience along for years, then break their hearts with the ending that is both surprising yet also inevitable, is in fact really, really, really great writing. Any writer wishes for that kind of talent. No, this was no shocker out of the blue. The signs were there. People chose to ignore them. If they watch it again, it’ll all seem so clear (as this supercut shows). It’ll no longer be the white vase we wanted, but the black faces peering in all along from the shadows.
Khaleesi fans who are blindsided by the show are suckers. They fell for a very old con, one longing for a grandiose messianic demagogue. In this case, a charismatic goddess of destruction. Khaleesi meet Kali the destroyer! But such is life in the real world too. We’re taken in by people who claim they are heroes, who claim big visions, who claim to swoop in and fix things. And we’re equally blindsided by the atrocities committed in the name of those grand visions. It’s the story of countless wars. It’s the story of America – which promises to liberate countries while destroying them. From The Philippines to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, it’s the story of us. Despite My Lai and Wounded Knee and all the rest we still think we’re the good guys.
It’s the story of power, of empire, of everything the Iron Throne is represents – and those who get close to possessing it are always corrupted. And such as it is with those who pursue power with fire and blood. There is no white hats and black hats in the fog of war. Mars consumes the blood of both sides happily. Yet for all the many slaughters of history, people foolishly still want to believe war is something that can be controlled … and won.
We don’t want to look at ourselves. We’ll do anything but that. It’s much easier to blame someone else. They’ll say “Daenerys deserved better” or “the audience was betrayed.” No. That didn’t happen. And it’s not even asking the right question. The right question is – “why am I bothered by this?” Or “what does this speak to in me?” But this is America, we don’t like these questions. As George Bush once said to a reporter, “don’t put me on the couch!”
In the end, the purported goal, the Game of Thrones, isn’t really about who will end up on the throne. But really, after such destruction, will there even be a throne. Perhaps that isn’t the true goal either. Perhaps … something else … in all that negative space, the faces in the dark.