Saturday, August 21, 2004

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.”

The Movie: The Usual Suspects, 1995 (Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter; Bryan Singer, dir.)
Who says it: Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint, a small-time criminal with a bad limp
The context: Verbal’s talking about the mythical crime lord Keyser Soze, who might or might not have been responsible for an elaborate heist and the deaths of almost everyone involved.
How to use it: To bolster your latest conspiracy theory, or to stop yourself from making one more excuse.

Here in Hollywood some people are staging a mocking version of "Hell House," the fundamentalist Christian version of the Haunted House. Teenagers put on "Hell Houses" that are supposed to illustrate the dangers of drug use, drinking, premarital sex, etc. in very lurid ways. As always with these things, there's a fine line between demonstrating an activity as a bad example and making it look really exciting and glamorous. A documentary on the "Hell House" phenomenon made this point, and also showed the adults involved as misguided, hysterical brainwashers.

A friend invited me to a preview of the "Hell House" show here tonight, but I don't think I can go. Despite my Catholic discomfort with fundamentalist extremism, I'm even more uncomfortable with making fun of anyone else's sincerely-held beliefs, and particularly of anyone else's respect for evil.

As a child I used to be afraid that Satan would pop up in the dark to tempt me. (Where I got this idea I couldn't say, probably from the copy of Rosemary's Baby I read in secret when I was eight.) But as an adult I have four godchildren, so four times now I've stood at the baptismal font and promised on a child's behalf to reject Satan, and all his works, and all his glamors. And I think the Catholics are right about this: if Satan exists -- and looking at the world today, it's kind of hard to argue that he doesn't -- he's not a scary monster. He (or she) is a beautiful creature who encourages us to laugh at the idea of evil, who tells us not to judge, and who offers complex rationalizations and psychiatric explanations for the worst types of human behavior, everything from Abu Ghraib to pornography.

Satan says, "Don't take yourself so seriously" -- which by extension gives us permission not to take anyone else so seriously, either. Not taking other people seriously is where the trouble starts.


Paul Tomme said...

What do you think the Devil's going to look like? He'll be attractive, he'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he'll influence a great god-fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing. He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He'll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they're important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along, flash over substance. He'll talk about all of us really being salesmen … And he'll get all the great women.

Albert Brooks, in Broadcast News

AnswerGirl said...

I love that quote, Paul. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. Just a little comment, the quote were originally said by Baudelaire, a french poet. I hate when hollywood steals great quotes and then produce them as their own :-)

AnswerGirl said...

Ah -- I knew that the quotation was not original to the movie, but didn't know the source. Thanks!

Mark said...

Chris is right. The quote is from a short-story about meeting the devil, published by Charles Pierre Baudelaire, in February, 1864. And just like the Albert Brooks' quote warns us, the substance of Baudelaire's intent is being replaced by the flash of Hollywood. Watch out! That old devil truly and actually doesn't want you to know he's real.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Evangelical atheists are, if anything, even more obnoxious than evangelical Christians. And I do not allow anonymous comments on this blog.