What I Learned from the Devil at the Movies

Walter Huston Devil and Daniel Webster

Yesterday I spent a monumentally pleasurable afternoon in the presence of Satan; in the form of the ridiculous and wonderful performance that Walter Huston (above) gives in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’, a film about American history and the mythopoetics of the Yankee soul that deserves to be compared with ‘Citizen Kane’ (and not just because they were both edited by Robert Wise and released by RKO within a month of each other).  It’s an astonishing movie, of the kind that evokes an utterly romanticised vision of pastoral, political and religious life but manages to appear even more realistic for it.  (Story hook?  Poor farmer sells soul to the Devil in exchange for money and crops.  Doesn’t make him happy.)

There’s a hell of a lot more to it than the soul-selling plot point, and I’m writing something more extensive about the whole film, but for now I thought I’d post about what the movie devil looks like.  (I’m also honored to be currently involved in a project with Walter Wink, a theologian and writer who has done more than anyone I can think of to develop an understanding of the concept of Satan as a projection of human evil that is both psychologically healthy and intellectually rigorous, and avoids not only the neurosis that some religious practices can reinforce but also the societal resignation that results when people don’t think clearly about evil.  The fruits of that project should be published in the next year or so; I’ll post details then.  In the meantime, some of you may be interested in Wink’s incredible book ‘Engaging the Powers’, which describes the way in which story/myth is manifested in real-world violence, and how ending the cycle of oppression depends partly on finding a new way to tell stories, and meeting violence with its opposite, rather than pouring gasoline on a fire; this book will, I believe, be read, and its themes practised, for generations to come.)

Walter might enjoy his namesake, Mr Huston’s performance in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’, partly because it’s played for dark laughs, and partly because it reveals the structure of all human temptation to selfishness: looking up from a sense of scarcity to find an easily-imitated set of behavior played out by someone who seems to offer jealous reward.  You have it, so I want it.  Given that ‘Daniel Webster’ is a myth, it has a moralistic climax – in which the victim is defended on the grounds of national pride; but the film has the maturity to end not on a note of triumph, but a warning: it could happen to you too.  Movie Satan is usually a source of fear; but while fear can teach you something,  for now, I thought I’d write about some of what I have learned from Satan in the movies.  Lessons 5-8 may present the most valuable psychological idea I’ve ever heard; although watching Film Number 8 may make you feel like you’re in Hell.

1: Beware men with long fingernails who hire private detectives.

Angel Heart

2: Use a reputable adoption agency.

the omen

3: Always bring a Swedish guy with you.

exorcist

4: Be careful how you judge little things.

little shop

5: You’ll be paying those law school debts forever.

Devils Advocate

6: The Devil only has the power you give him.

matrix reloaded

7: He really only has the power you give him.

wizard of oz

8: Honest.

little nicky

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