Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cowboy and Aliens and Being a Man

My partner and I saw "Cowboy & Aliens" this weekend. Big-effects movies are a fun summer thing to do when it's 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Part of the storyline turned on a few scenes that have really bothered me. Not "bothered" in a gory or sexist or gross-out way but bothered me due to the serious disconnect they illustrate about our social situation.

The scenes I'm talking about have to do with a youngish (pre-teen) boy and a tough-guy cattle boss. The boy listens in as the cattle boss tells a story about his first experience of war. He was a volunteer soldier in the border battles with Mexico and Indians.

His company arrives too late to fight but they witness the aftermath and he encounters a settler who suffered tremendous burns when a cabin was set on fire. The man pleads to be killed. The cattle boss does the job with a knife that he passes on to the boy. This scene concludes with someone asking the cattle boss about what that story meant. "Be a man," he says.

Later in the film, the boy uses the same knife to kill an alien in self-defense. When the scene plays, you can hear the whole audience remembering the words of the cattle boss and cheering for the kid as if he somehow achieved manhood in a single-bound. This is what really bothered me.

There is a tremendous amount of difference between striking out at something to save yourself and doing a dangerous or abhorrent act to save or comfort another. To cold-bloodedly kill another person who is obviously going to die within hours or a day cannot be easy when you can think, "It's not my job," and pass on by.

But to reflexively strike out at someone or something when you are threatened is far different. Toddlers in tantrums do it all the time. Usually, and especially for the boy in the movie, the outcome is not even predictable; it is just a surrender to a "flee-or-fight" instinct; an auto-pilot, adrenaline-fueled response.

What does the boy know about the outcome he'll achieve ... Death? Injury? Momentary disorientation during which he might run away?

To face another person and do the thing that kills them when you are not threatened, even if they ask for it, requires that you consciously accept the burden of living with that decision and memory for the rest of your life -- did I act like a god or a devil? That's a very different rite of passage from the reflexive act of self-defense.

And that comes back to what's bothering me. This film is selling the notion that the everyday striking out due to self-interest is the equivalent of a conscious sacrifice of self-comfort and self-image.

Can you really accept that you have acted in a manly -- or humanly -- way when your sole driver is self-preservation?

There's no excuse for it. Film moments like this lie to us and our children. They confuse selfishness and self-preservation with heroism. And they legitimize the former in place of the latter.