In my church we Mormons accept the following as scripture: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." (Doctrines and Covenants 121:39). This pessimistic commentary on humanity is what's primarily behind an interesting film I saw last night, Das Experiment (2001), a German work about an academic experiment where twenty men are made guards and prisoners and monitored to see how they adopt their roles.
It is based, more or less, upon a real life experiment held in 1971 which was abandoned after six days due to brutality on the part of the "guards." (Read the wikipedia article provided by the link. It is not a comforting treatise about humanity.) It was a very thought-provoking film despite the fact that I initially thought one of the plot devices would be, "Who are the prisoners and who are the wardens?", which is what makes the 1967 British television show The Prisoner so fascinating. (There are also interesting themes of the individual vs. society, and the nature of prisons and free society.)
It also caused me to remember something I once heard on the radio, that prison guards usually scored higher on aggression tests than do prisoners.
As I watched this film I asked myself, How would I behave? I would like to think that I'd take my cues from one of my personal fictional heroes, #6 (Patrick McGoohan) of the Prisoner: "I am not a number. I am a person. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, filed, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own." Certainly I have a strong personality, do not accept the role of victim and am not easily moved by peer pressure (as I learned in Marine Corps boot camp). But these are extreme situations - who's to tell?
I found it interesting that none of the "prisoners" attempted to assert their personalities over their guards. Why not? I think I would. After all, this is an academic exercise, not the real thing. I kept wondering why one of the prisoners didn't say something to the guards like, "You are a guard now. In a week you won't be. Perhaps then we will chat. Time is on my side, not yours." One of my favorite episodes of the Prisoner is called Hammer into Anvil (from a quote by Goethe: "You must be hammer or anvil") where #6 does something like this and ruins one of the wardens by exerting mental dominance over him.
Anyway, excellent film. And, being German, it has special interest. Indeed, one blue-eyed fellow comes off as very much the sadistic concentration camp warden type, and another shouts something about Nazis as he's hurled into his cell. German National Socialism and the Final Solution is the unstated subtext to works like this, I guess.
(I mentioned USMC boot camp; I learned something valuable about myself as an eighteen year-old. At one point, one of our drill instructors said he was disgusted by our poor performance and had decided to leave. All of the members of my platoon petitioned him to stay. That is, all did in a platoon of about seventy, except for two - me and another recruit. I had realized that this was merely theatre on the part of the drill instructor and refused to go along with it and told everyone so. The other recruit stayed silent but aloof. It wasn't a big deal except that in the setting of a recruit platoon, where everyone is coerced to be a team, there was pressure and I didn't relent. I was satisfied with myself in the realization that I didn't bend easily to peer pressure.)
Last night I also watched a excellent, absolutely top notch BBC documentary about gladiators and the great Colosseum in Rome, Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story (2004), which deals with the real-life experiences of Verus, a slave turned gladiator turned free man. Cari came into the room while I was watching it and said, "This looks gay." Yeah... it did, kind of. But it is historical, factual and highly recommended for history buffs.
Did you know an English Civil War (1642-1651) battle was fought in Maryland? I didn't until yesterday, when my friend Don told me about the Battle of the Severn. As battles go, it was no, say, Gettysburg (total combatants: about 300 - that's a skirmish in my book), but it has been called the last battle of the English Civil War. Interesting!
I gave up on Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I was put off by the New York Times mindset and general anti-military snarkiness. I was raised on M.A.S.H. episodes and got more than enough of that kind of thing in the Seventies. So I will instead rely upon a helpful wikipedia link to explain the meaning of the popular term "catch-22." There. Now I know. Onto other works...
...which currently is Knight - The Medieval Warrior's Unofficial Manual by Michael Prestwich, a library book. It's a clever little volume, assuming that you live in the mid-fifteenth century and wish to become a knight. It explains the training, the code of chivalry, the various orders, manners and behavior, etc. I've never seen this approach to the subject before, so it gets high marks for originality. I have a friend who woudl like this book. I'll recommend it.
Finally, I note that thanks to Michael F. Keaney, writer of film noir encyclopedias, I have now seen every noir cited in Silver and Ward's encyclopedia save ten (out of about 300). And five of those ten were made before 1940 and are more pre-noir than really film noir. Most critics agree that the genre began with either Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) or The Maltese Falcon (1941). I've seen them both and vote for the earlier film. Anyway, it's an achievement of sorts. Thanks, Michael!
Tomorrow I discuss The Big R.
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