The appeal of innocence
Media depictions of erotica and gore abound, but innocence is not lost. In film and on television, it still draws big audiences. Why does it endure?
"All hatred driven hence, the soul recovers radical innocence." - W.B. YeatsSkip to next paragraph
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In the books and film "The Lord of the Rings," a young character who resembles a Botticelli angel is given a task his elders cannot perform. Frodo Baggins is tempted by an evil power, but he resists it - when no one else, not even the wisest, can. It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Frodo knows that. He chooses fortunately, if reluctantly, to carry out his task.
The story celebrates his self-sacrificing choice - his innocence. It is a hero's journey and, as such, a journey toward meaning.
Throughout the history of storytelling in the West and in the East, innocence has been prized - not ignorance, which is usually mocked - but innocence that is guileless, guiltless, and free from meanness or resentment. Many current box-office hits feature stories that celebrate innocence - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Lord of the Rings," "Amélie," and "A Beautiful Mind." Earlier this week, these four films received 29 Oscars among them.
Theater, movies, and even TV (though much more seldom) offer a range of heroes of innocence, from the ancient Greeks' Antigone to French do-gooder Amélie, from fairy tales to true-life adventures, from children to old men.
In "Amélie," nominated this week for an Oscar as best foreign film, the title character is compelled to bring goodness to others.
"[Amélie's] motives are not to benefit herself," says James Wall, senior contributing editor and film critic of The Christian Century. "Even ... when she is coming into her own relationship, she does the same thing - it's for his benefit as much as for her own."
Young Amélie, a waitress in a Parisian coffee shop, triumphs over a troubled childhood when she discovers her life's meaning - finding surreptitious ways to make others happy. We love her because we recognize in her something we want to see in ourselves. She is part clown, part fairy godmother, part child.
Despite the cynicism and materialism of the post-modern era, despite irony as a lifestyle choice, and despite the prevalence of pseudo-science that argues for the utter selfishness of human beings, audiences in cultures all over the world recognize innocence when they needed it most.
Think back over the history of film, from F.W. Murnau's exquisite silent movie "Sunrise" (1927) to the films of Frank Capra ("It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") to Steven Spielberg's latest, "A.I." Movies about innocent children, men, and women have often come at a time when we needed them.
"Innocence is a timely topic in light of Sept. 11," says Hamid Naficy, professor of film and media at Rice University in Houston. Directly after the tragedy of Sept. 11, journalists around the country were calling academic experts like Dr. Naficy to ask what has changed. "Innocence is one of the values that has been rediscovered," he says.
More thought has been given to the problem of evil since Sept. 11, points out Kathy Merlock Jackson, professor and coordinator of communications at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va. And more credit is being given to heroism, selflessness, and kindness.
"The innocent eye is basic goodness," Dr. Jackson says. "Movies don't reflect our reality necessarily. They often reflect our desires, our aspirations. Innocents are able to function as moral commentators."
In many cultures, innocence is often associated with children. "The Sixth Sense," "A.I.," "Children of Heaven" (Iranian), "Color of Paradise" (Iranian), "Taliesin Jones" (Welsh), "Ponette" (French), "Kolya" (Czech), "The King of Masks" (Chinese) - these are a just a few of the films from around the world that have dealt with the innocence and discernment of children.
In each, children are under terrible strain, shouldering the burdens of an adult world. None of them are sentimentalized portraits. In "The Sixth Sense" a child has a special gift. When he learns to use it, he is no longer afraid, and he is able to help those in need (fantastically enough, in this allegory, they are ghosts).
In "A.I.," the child is a robot whose love for his human mother is programmed into him - but so powerful is that love that he will wait through millenniums to spend one more day with her, and then take that day as enough. The robot is more "human" than the humans of the story.
"It is children who are able to stay open," says actor-screenwriter Jamie Horton. In his new film, "A Rumor of Angels," a young boy who has lost his mother later discovers that life is eternal. He is healed of grief. "We sometimes begin to lose that [childlike] openness to beauty and simplicity," he says.