Ally McBeal and the Stockholm Syndrome:
Or, Why Monsters Will Set You Free
by Michael Marano
Photo by Dion Wenchell
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Hey, all. This was commissioned for The City Paper's special Halloween issue. Even though it's written for lay people, I thought I'd run it the flagpole on these groups (for folks with a fondness for monsters and vampires) to see what you guys thought of it. Hope you all like it. (Just don't tell anyone on the Ally McBeal groups... heh.) Oh, by the way--towards the end of the article, I don't mean to suggest that vampires aren't cool ('cuz, they are cool); I'm just pointing out how the figure of The Slayer works as a trope, these days.
A reprint of the article first published in The City Paper.
Copyright © 1998 Michael Marano. All rights reserved.
Ally McBeal may seem harmless - she can't even cross a courtroom without tripping over her legal briefs. However, if you believe Michael Marano, renowned author and horror movie critic, Ally is really much scarier than Godzilla or a slew of vampires.
Noticed that almost all "important, adult" TV shows are about doctors, cops, and lawyers? Tick off the Emmy nominees last year: ER; Ally McBeal; The Practice; Homicide: Life on the Street; Chicago Hope. Doctors, lawyers and cops... like lice on the scalp of our national consciousness. Let's not forget the new shows of '98, like L.A. Doctors.
This trend scares the crap out of me.
Why, after spending a long, stressful, day at work with the iron thumb of THE MAN pressing down between your shoulder blades, would you want to come home and watch the exploits of the three kinds of people with whom you'd never want to interact? Let's imagine a glorious triple play day sans merci: a cop (AKA, servant of THE MAN) takes a report after the driver of an SUV (AKA, a yuppie Plutocromobile), cuts you off while speeding to make his tee-off, and you get banged up. You then spend a few hours being ignored in an ER (AKA, a warehouse of human suffering), just as the other guy's lawyer (AKA, Satan) serves you papers.
That would be a pretty freakin' bad day, wouldn't it?
Dealing with doctors, lawyers, and cops sucks because of the power they wield--their ability to deflect the courses of our little lives. That power is scary. Coming home to watch the mythologized exploits of doctors, lawyers, and cops is an act of supplication that serves to give such people more power (or, at least, more power to the institutions these people represent through their professions).
I'm not talking about old style TV shows about doctors, lawyers and cops; I'm talking about such shows produced during and since the Reagan/Bush junta. The "star" of Marcus Welby was the person, Marcus Welby. Same principle with Perry Mason and Kojack. In the post-yuppie, "My life is defined by The Big Chill; more Zinfandel and cocaine, anyone?" wasteland, the stars of these shows are the professions, not the people. Think about those lovable 80's chestnuts L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Today, Ally McBeal, married to her profession, looks about with envy upon people with relationships and families, while people with relationships and families are expected to look upon her with envy for her profession. That, my friends, is profoundly sick. Watching shows in which the profession is the star dehumanizes the professional, whose profession has the potential to dehumanize you. It's a weird, unhealthy take on the Stockholm Syndrome (the tendency for hostages to become attached to their captors), funded by those lovable masters of mind control on Madison Avenue.
Which is why I take exception (particularly now, on Halloween) to those constipated numskulls who call a love of monster movies TV shows sick.
Looking upon a monster is not dehumanizing, in that the monster is inhuman. What defines a monster is its power to disrupt, much as what defines doctors, lawyers and cops is their power to disrupt. Yet, unlike mythologized doctors, lawyers and cops, a monster's power is not defined by social norms or hierarchies, nor does its power reinforce social norms.
Just the opposite. It defies social norms.
Admiration for a monster's power liberates us from social norms and hierarchies because it forces us to think about them, while admiration for the power wielded by TV doctors, lawyers and cops chains one more firmly to social norms and hierarchies unthinkingly... as "plus good" oppressive as any model of totalitarianism envisioned by Orwell.
Admiration for monster's power is liberating because the monster's power is always outside society; monsters by definition disrupt society, thereby allowing us to question it. We learn from monsters; that's their purpose. "Monster" is derived from the Latin "monstrum", a portent or warning... a showing (as in "demonstrate") of what is wrong with our comfy existences. Dracula for instance, demonstrates, the repressed sexuality of Victorian society.
A fascination with monsters is a fascination with learning. Why else is the creation of so many monsters tied up with the quest for knowledge, be it in the gloomy lab of Frankenstein or the high tech labs of Jurassic Park?
With this in mind, I present a mini-guide to the stars of the monster movies and shows you should be watching instead of the exploits of an insane lawyer who dances with an invisible baby, what they teach and show us, and liberations they can afford.
I'll start with mighty Godzilla, as the big guy is my favorite monster. Please disregard the mincing Pee-Wee-Herman-esque limp lizard of this summer, whose advent on video is immanent... I'm talking about the real Godzilla.
Yeah, any dope can watch Godzilla topple Tokyo and figure out he's a big stand-in for the A-bomb. Not a subtle metaphor. But Godzilla--and what he shows you as a monster--work on a couple of levels.
First, to really grove on a Godzilla flick, you have to overcome the US paradigm of special effects. Yeah, Godzilla is just a guy in a suit. Yeah, he does not look "realistic". That's beside the point. There is a difference between US and Japanese approaches to the art of special effects, just as there is a difference between Western and Japanese painting. US special effects are supposed to look real; Japanese special effects are supposed to look cool. You have to meet a Godzilla flick half way, and once you do... those guys in rubber suits take you to another state of consciousness where it doesn't matter how unsubtle Godzilla is. All of a sudden he's a really effective metaphor not only for the A-Bomb, but for nature run amok and the consequences of human hubris.
Check out 1954's Godzilla, King of the Monsters. One scene in particular will give you a glimpse of the kind of power Godzilla has as a metaphor.... A Japanese woman, presumably a war widow, is cowering with her children in an alley as Godzilla levels the street outside. Sparks from burning buildings. like fallout, shower down around her. She huddles her kids close, and says: "Just a while longer, and we'll be with your father soon!"
Chilling as anything you'll see in a Bergman film.
Godzilla VS. Biollante (1989) changes the nature of Godzilla as metaphor; it doesn't deal with just radiation making monsters, but genetic engineering. Godzilla VS. Mothra (1992) has some of the best destruction you'll ever see, and the really cool thing is, even a "good" monster like Mothra can destroy a city to punish human hubris, in this case, corporate greed. Consider this flick as a monster mashin' counterpart to Bonfire of the Vanities.
While we're on the subject of giant critters, let's look at those good old fashioned 1950's radioactive giant bug movies that have been a delight of late night creature features for four decades now. When you look at The Black Scorpion, the giant ants of THEM!, the giant locusts of The Beginning of the End, The Deadly Mantis, it's easy to dismiss them as silly examples of the paranoia that wafted through the air of the 1950's along with the scent of the Rosenberg's roasting flesh and the vaporous booze on Joe McCarthy's breath. But it's the very smugness we feel in the 1990s about these flicks that lets us still learn from these radioactive bug uglies.
The 1950's are, through some twisted form of revisionist nostalgia, a moral yardstick in our collective American consciousness: a construct of the America we have lost (or THINK we have lost). Top see how central the 50's are to our collective awareness, check out a night of programming on basic cable or the new movie, Pleasantville. Giant bugs--goofy as they are--remind us of the dark specter of the 50's the revisionists would have you forget: Korea; the Cold War; bomb shelters, etc. Whenever Gingrich and company bemoan our moral decay, they consciously or not evoke the mythic 1950s as a time of innocence. And it's not just the Right who evoke the ghost of the 1950s; the Lefty granola chompers evoke the 50's as well, again, consciously or not, as they try to enforce innocence through MCarthyesque PC persecutions of free thought. (Honest, on some campuses, one must refer to a device like a "Walkman" as a "Walkperson" or face reprimand or expulsion). This kind of meddling in our thought is grounded in a sense we have lost our innocence, that we, as Americans, are a fallen society. Don't buy it. As James Ellroy has pointed out, we lost our innocence on the Mayflower. Those big bugs, and the terrors we felt under the veneer of Smilin' Ike's presidency, can remind of that.
Vampires aren't big this year. What's big this year are Vampire Slayers and there is a difference, my friends. Vampire Slayers have become a kind of monster unto themselves. Blade, Buffy, and James Woods as Jack Crow in John Carpenter's Vampires are the real stars of vampire shows and flicks these days, the way Barnabas Collins used to be the star of Dark Shadows. Why the sudden shift?
Vampires work as monsters because it's cool to only come out at night, to wear bitchin' clothes, be sexy and "never drink... wine!" Today's Vampire Slayers kick vampire butt by being even cooler than the vampires! Gone are the days when a stuffed shirt like Van Helsing can wear tweed and believably defeat centuries-old undead coolness with a sharp stick. You can believe that a guy who looks as cool as Wesley Snipes did in Blade can nuke a nest of neck noshers. Yeah, Spike and Drusilla are cool, but isn't Buffy cooler--a sixteen year old kid who can save the world and still make pithy quips as she consigns the bloodsuckers to dusty oblivion? Why would you mess with James Woods, even if you're 600 years old and King of the Undead? The modern Vampire Slayer has a moral coolness. They're outlaws working outside of society (a la Brando in The Wild One) in order to save society's sorry ass. They have the best of both worlds--that of the subversive and the savior. The Vampire Slayer is "Good" by being a bad ass... much in the way the vampire used to have the best of both worlds, those of the living and the dead.
It's this standing between two words--those of the real and the unreal--that is the ultimate strength of monsters, that allow them to teach us about the real and look at society from the outside. TV Doctors, Lawyers and cops function the opposite way by putting blinders on us, making us only see society's bland power structures without giving us the opportunity to transcend them. Monsters are subversive, much as I have intended this article to be subversive. I am the Dr. Frankenstein to this "monster" article, though unlike Dr. Frankenstein, I take responsibility for this monster. If the subversion of this article has offended you, good! By being offended, you have questioned my authority as a writer, and thus I, and what I've written, have served our duty as monsters. Now go question some more authority, as I return to my lab, my coffin, my ice floe, or the glowing sands of my radioactive desert home.
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Posted 12/29/98. The content of this page is copyright © 1998 Michael Marano and is protected under international copyright law. Photo copyright by Michael Marano and custom graphics by Yvonne Navarro and Webette Designs. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without the express written consent of the appropriate party is expressly forbidden. Don't swipe stuff-- it's tacky.