Shows About Nothing

Shows About Nothing

Philosophy's Hibbs is troubled by nihilism in modern TV and movies

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

If the movies of Frank Capra celebrated the triumph of good over evil, Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy) laments, George Bailey has given way to Hannibal Lecter, who lives beyond good and evil.

In a new book, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld , Hibbs follows the trajectory of evil in American film and television and links it to the spread of nihilism - a state of spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations to which, Tocqueville and Nietzsche warned, democracies are especially susceptible.

Hibbs challenges both Hollywood and its critics by arguing the demonic anti-heroes and seductive comic evil of popular culture are not weapons in a conscious cultural assault, but reactions to the apathy and conformity of American life.

Hibbs shares a view of Seinfeldian irony as a smirking "detachment from everything" that provides "a freedom of connection from others and the ability to laugh at everything." But he goes further to say that an overarching nihilism in American culture provides the "framework in which irony and cynicism flourish."

Thomas Hibbs.

Nihilism may be simply described as "the epoch in which there is no higher or lower," Hibbs said, "in which the higher aspirations that have motivated mankind over the ages lose their attractions for the human soul. There is no fundamental meaning or ultimate point to human life.

"Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky were on the opposite ends of the spectrum regarding God," Hibbs continued, "but both said that without God, anything goes. Nietzsche also said that if you went the nihilistic route, you would be choosing not only Jerry Seinfeld - but Columbine."

An Aquinas scholar who professes "a perverse liking for horror films," Hibbs examines in his book a series of grisly films from "The Exorcist" to "Silence of the Lambs" that he says reveals our preoccupation with the power of evil.

He cites the 1962 classic "Cape Fear," which presents the chilling moral dilemma faced by civilized attorney Gregory Peck, who steps outside the law to protect his wife and daughter from being stalked by Robert Mitchum's predatory rapist. The 1991 remake by Martin Scorsese is marked not only by an increase in gore, Hibbs said, but by the tacit indictment of the lawyer's victimized - but in this version, dysfunctional - family, with Robert DeNiro's vengeful ex-con, versed in jailhouse readings of Nietzsche, transformed into a psychotic anti-hero.

In the 1991 Oscar winner "Silence of the Lambs," Hibbs said, "the psychologists end up depending on the cannibal, who turns murder into an art form in a sort of perverse affirmation of freedom."

Films once presented evil as a serious threat that was to be overcome by individual or community virtue, said Hibbs. But in recent years provision has rarely been made for the pursuit of justice. Rebellion has been all, he said, and the result has been a void.

"If nothing positive comes out of rebellion, both rebellion and convention seem foolish," said Hibbs, "and you're left with snickering irony."

When evil ceases to terrify, it becomes banal, he says, producing a comic view of the meaninglessness of life that is evident in such films as "Forrest Gump" and "Natural Born Killers."

But Hibbs sees signs of "a way out" from the cinematic nihilism he describes, noting "complex models of goodness" in such historical films as "Schindler's List," "Malcolm X" and "Saving Private Ryan." In popular Disney animated films like "The Lion King" and "Mulan," he observes "ancient notions of friendship, loyalty, the aspiration for excellence and the sense of life as a quest."

Hibbs also reports that more than half of the students polled in his freshman Perspectives class name "Braveheart" as their favorite movie.

"I think this sense of bravery, of sacrifice for great good, satisfies a natural appetite," he said. "Maybe we need to recover something that is very ancient - the notion of human life as a quest for good."

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