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. Yeats
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.
In "Children of Heaven," a pair of sneakers becomes a trust, an obligation, and a complex problem involving poverty, community, and filial loyalty. In "Color of Paradise," a blind child's gratitude and enthusiasm for learning, his love for family, and his forgiving nature contrast starkly with his father's self-concern.
Realistically told, these two Iranian films are allegories for larger issues than they appear to probe, Professor Naficy says. "Often a child in these films is a messianic figure that allows revelations to be channeled through him," he says. "These children are powerful, capable of doing things we can't, because they haven't been corrupted morally."
The realistic setting of these stories comes as a counter-agent to the real violence in the post-modern world, says Naficy, who adds that the only "genre of innocence" on TV today is C-SPAN.
But others see a few television shows that are still interested in innocence. The WB's "Smallville" and "Gilmore Girls" both revel in the innocence of their characters. "Smallville," Jackson says, concerns an innocent, in this case a teenager, "who has a gift and wants to learn to use it well."
Likewise, young Rory in "Gilmore Girls" (also on The WB) is a gifted student, who eyes the eccentricities of her mother and grandparents with a tolerant and loving eye. While other teenage girls at her private school envy and snub her, she never gives in to resentment, dismissing their nastiness with wit and goodwill.
In film, adult innocents usually are plagued with either terrible mental or physical problems, or they are heroes of science fiction or fantasy. "K-Pax," "I Am Sam," and "Forest Gump" all picture their heroes as innocents with severe mental disabilities.
"If you place [innocence] in an adult, you either have a Jesus or you have a disadvantaged adult, a brilliant mathematician ["A Beautiful Mind"], or childlike, a 'Forrest Gump,' " says theologian Wall.
Forrest Gump "struck a cord with viewers," he says. "What appeals about these films is the longing for that quality of life in which we don't slog through despair, temptation, and guilt.... We find it in 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Color of Paradise.'
"What's appealing to us is we would like to be innocent and make things better for others. It's a longing to be good."
The interest in innocence brings popular culture in direct contact with philosophical and theological issues.
"Metaphysically and theologically, this innocence is the fundamental element in human existence," says Huston Smith, professor of religion at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Why Religion Matters," who points out that all the major religions and many indigenous religions believe in an original state of innocence - from the Garden of Eden to the Age of Grand Harmony to Atlantis.
"In Judeo-Christian tradition, we are made in the image of God," he says.
"It's thought that the deeper elements [driving humans] are sex and aggression, but innocence goes much deeper than they do - even though it is covered over by layers and layers of crud and distraction and consumerism and all that jazz.
"It can be hard to access. But there are two ways. One is to work at it through religious technique. The other is, it can occur spontaneously in even the most unlikely of circumstances. This is known in Christianity as gratuitous grace. This is what the positive images of innocence surfacing in [stories] are getting at."
For those interested in movies about innocence, here's a list that's a starting point. These films are from many countries, cultures, and genres, but in each, innocence plays a major role in one way or another.
Billy Budd (Not Rated)
Children of Heaven (Not Rated)
The Color of Paradise (PG)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (PG)
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (PG)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13)
The Fisher King (R)
Forrest Gump (PG-13)
The Green Mile (R)
I Am Sam (PG-13)
The Iron Giant (PG)
It's a Wonderful Life (Not Rated)
The King of Masks (Not Rated)
The Majestic (PG)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Not Rated)
The Other Side of Heaven (PG)
Ponette (Not rated)
The Shawshank Redemption (R)
The Sixth Sense (PG-13)
Small Change (PG)
The Straight Story (G)
Sunrise (Not rated)
Trois Couleurs: Red (R)
The Winslow Boy (G)
- M.S. Mason