Monday, May 24, 2010

Fairy Tales and Social Regulation

On Saturday, I went to see an amazing example of the latest technology in film restoration. Thanks to bigwigs like Martin Scorcese, a true film classic, The Red Shoes, is now available to a new generation of film buffs.
The Red Shoes is probably the ultimate ballet movie, and maybe the ultimate art movie. Not only is there a great story - lifted from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson - but it features surprisingly deep character development, so we really get an idea of what it's like to run a dance troop, audition before a megalomaniac producer, and find fulfillment in one's art form. (When is the last time you felt a movie explored character like a novel? Only when you see a golden oldie do you see how satisfying it is to watch. Sometimes it's easy to think modern film consists of special effects with a few people thrown in. But I digress.)
The original fairy tale is a variation on the Faustian bargain. Faust agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly ambitions. The dancer in "The Red Shoes" never encounters the devil, but he is there in spirit: giving her fame through he power of the red shoes, at the cost of love, and then her life.
Victoria Page, in the story about the story, dares to be ordinary: she loves a man and marries him, neglecting her art. The megalomaniac insists she return to her art, renounce her husband, and achieve greatness. The choice literally sends her over the edge.
The lesson or moral of so many fairy tales is so remember the social contract and not to allow self-interest (set in place by the will to survive) to take up too much energy and focus. Kindness is rewarded. Selfishness and excess ambition are punished. These tales were probably written to instill social values in children (through benign subterfuge, except in particularly gory stories - and there are no shortage of those!). Yet they were also entertaining and immensely satisfying to adults - mirroring their sense of justice and fair play.
These days, we still desire social regulation, but the way we tend to go about it can be frightening. Modern Faust stories usually involve women being punished for choosing ambition (or even too much energy on an ideal) over relationships. (Men are rarely if ever chastised for the same - because they are still defined by work, not connections to others.) On the scarier end, we have Hollywood movies featuring vigilante justice: men going outside the law to exact revenge on criminals.
Can you think of any classic fairy tale with such an obvious message as "The Red Shoes"?

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