The 2021 remake of the film Nightmare Alley was worth seeing for many reasons. I have blogged about it earlier (Under the category of Movies), but did not comment on an important theme in the film. The movie is about the carnies in a carnival, and in particular about a conman who has impressive abilities to convince people of lies. He is what used to be called a magician but now we call an illusionist. Bradley Cooper plays the part of Stanton Carlisle the illusionist.
One of the carnies, Molly, tells Stan about her father. She says, “he could charm his way out of anything.” Stan replies, “A man after my own heart.” That is exactly what Stan is. Until he isn’t. Molly too deceives people into thinking she is being electrocuted. Naturally, they fall in love and Stan promises her, “I’ll give you the world and everything in it.” She should know better, but she falls for that illusion. The most effective illusions of course are those which you want to be true. Those illusions are almost impossible to resist. And illusionists take advantage of such desires. Like the illusion that after you die you will go to paradise in heaven. Let’s face it there is not much evidence to support it, but many people want it to be true, so they believe it.
In the film, the rich man Ezra badly wants Stan to materialize his dead wife. He wants it so bad he will believe it. Stan asks Ezra if he thinks he can buy his wife back. Ezra’s answer was this: “Not to be crude. I know I can.” This is the deadly illusion of the rich man who believes he can buy anything. When Stan says he wants Molly to help him to convince Ezra that his wife has materialized he says to Molly he is just helping Ezra to unburden his guilt: “Far as I can tell, that is what preachers do every Sunday.”
At one time Stan rescues the geek who was lying in a puddle dying in the rain. He knocks on a door hoping they will answer and save the geek. But Clem, who “owns” the geeks tells Stan to get out of the rain and join him, telling Stan to quit pretending that he cares about the geek. That is an illusion he suggests.
Pete who teaches Stan the art of becoming an effective illusionist warns him that the book he has prepared on those arts is dangerous. That’s why he quit. Pete says, “When a man starts believing his own lies—that he’s got the power—He’s got shut-eye. Because now he believes it’s all true.”
Despite this good advice, Stan eventually starts to believe his own lies. That is hard to avoid when you are worshipped by adoring fans and your reasoning powers are numbed by the applause. When the illusionist believes he actually has the power to see the future he is done. Eventually, Stan learns the truth that he has been deceived. Then he is in nightmare alley. He has become the pitiful “poor soul”—i.e. he is the geek. Stan says, begging to be the geek, “I was born for it.”
Believing one’s own lies is particularly dangerous in times of war or pandemic.
That is exactly what may have happened to Vladimir Putin. Recently U.S. intelligence has reported that Putin has been misinformed by his military advisors about the poor performance of the military. Would those advisors dare to lie to Putin? Or rather, would they dare not to lie to him? In any event, Putin seems to believe the lies of the Russian propaganda machine. He wants his own lies to be true. He apparently, doesn’t even realize Russia is suffering grievous economic harms by his war. Does he also believe that Ukrainians are welcoming Russian soldiers as liberators? Does he believe his own lies? Has he gone down Nightmare Alley? What a poor soul indeed.