Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Art and our Fears: The Witch and Bus Stops

I saw two events last week that  both seemed to explore our fears as a society but from very different eras and it's been something on my mind all week.

The first piece was the big high profile movie, The Witch, which has been playing for a few weeks. No fan of hardcore horror, I was a bit reluctant to see it but the setting - 15th century Massachusetts - was appealing. It's a very interesting movie though not really a horror film at all in most ways and the way it was marketed was very misleading. The film tells the story of a family - parents, two boys and two girls as well as a newborn baby - who are kicked out of their religiously oriented village for heresy (the father is preaching his own brand of Christian doctrine) and are exiled to the wilderness. They set up their farm there, isolated, next to the woods and things continue until one afternoon when the newborn simply vanishes. It's assumed that a wolf came out from the woods and took him away but there are suggestions of something darker.

What struck me about this film is how we forget today how the word evil used to represent an actual thing: actual spirits or the devil himself. For us, the word evil is used more metaphorically to suggest almost always a person who acts in selfish or incredibly self-serving ways that somehow cause harm to others or society. So we say that a serial killer or terribly manipulative person or someone who exploits the poor, etc., we say those people are evil. It's more about the lack of social empathy or the fact that the person can't act in a way that we accept as normal social behaviour. But in the world of 15th century America, evil was an actual thing that existed. It had little to do with social interaction or being selfish or not understanding how to act in accordance with mores of the day. Evil actually resided deep inside the forest, was a thing or a person that simply meant to cause disorder in the world.

It also struck me that it's so surprise why forests have long been so frightening to people. Today,
forests are almost like the last remnant of the nature we have managed to tame and control. But 500 years ago (and throughout most of human history), forests were terrifying places: full of wild animals and very easy to get lost in. People probably very often did enter forests and never return simply because they were so vast and dark.

The Witch is a good film but it's not a horror film and anyone who goes expecting this will be disappointed. It's a film about evil but also about the fears that we as a society cultivate: in our children, in each other.

I then saw Bus Stops at the Centaur and though the pieces on the surface are very different, they both share commonalities in terms of showing us what we fear. This play, translated from the original French, was written by Marilyn Perrault, and simply shows a collection of various urbanites all killed in a terrorist attack on a public bus in Montreal. The story is framed from the point of view of a coroner trying to piece together what happened after the fact via her imagined interaction with several of the victims, trying to separate the public hysteria from the facts.

The acting was spotty at times  (I saw the opening show so maybe it's gotten better: some players are solid; others were less so) but the play is good, the writing is interesting and engaging and the production itself is innovative and entertaining. But again, the play shows us what we fear as humans: we fear the "unknown" terrorist. Evil. But this kind of evil operates in a vastly different way to the evil in The Witch: this is social evil, people who act in selfish ways that harm others for some bigger political or personal axe to grind. It also gets at another fear: the tendency we have to scapegoat people for crimes because of racism or prejudice.

The Witch is playing downtown for the next couple of weeks and is worth a couple of hours though it's not a fast-moving film in many ways. It's dreary and sad but also scary. The script, too, is written in a very dated English so it's not always easy to follow the dialogue. But it's a good film and gets at the heart of what evil used to represent.

Bus Stops plays at Centaur through March 27 and is a very engaging story about our modern contemporary fears of evil.

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