Hope is a hell of a hallucinogen. My brain, at least, allows me to think about a future amidst an array of outcomes, one after the other answering the question, “What if this goes right?” Hope allows for aspirations; it allows us to forge a path forward that isn’t totally entropic. Some of our friends and colleagues traffic in swimming upstream, brimming with positivity for a perfect future. We all know these people—and we’re disappointed by them. Too much hope is toxic. We need darkness to appreciate the light and we need to ween ourselves off expecting things to be one way when they’re the other way.
This is how watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels, it’s a clever trick, and it’s certainly on purpose. Our experience as an audience feels totally orthogonal to the experiences of titular Butch and his partner, Sundance. Redford and Newman gallop together toward futility, dragging the audience along, tied by the ankle behind their (dead) horse. It’s a subtle asymmetry, because of the character/actors’ sparkling charisma. We almost believe that they’ll survive anything, no matter how wacky or odds-against. It’s what makes this movie magical and spiritually different from its natural successor, 1991’s Thelma and Louise, which sells its nihilism and feminism to great effect. That’s not this.
In both cases, the motif works because we’re programmed to seek thrill but not accept its consequence. It’s also why we watch narrative fiction, to escape from our defined reality into worlds where we believe the rules might be different or contradictory. The most ambitious movies and television seek to subvert this alternative programming, too. The Sopranos allows its audience into the mind of a vicious human with deep, unresolved emotional trauma. Which of these traits reflects our desire for fiction and/or truth? 1969’s winner, Midnight Cowboy, dumps its audience into a torrid New York—opening us up to a world we’ve maybe grazed but never dived into. Why do we want to watch people suffer and why do we reward it? It’s the other, scary side of hope: we hope others’ problems don’t befall us.Continue reading