Bad Men and Why We Love Them

OK, a little misleading.  I’m not talking about REAL bad men.  Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches.  I’m talking about fake ones.  Bad boys.  Bastards.  Assholes.  Villains.

There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys.  You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds.  Most of the time.  Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end.  And we don’t really want it any other way.

Effing Mice Not Gonna Sing No More.

I have a fascination with villains.  My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella.  He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him.  Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all.  But I enjoyed watching him be bad.  I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care.  He was a jerk, and I loved him.

Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned.  Best Shakespearean character? Iago.   And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’.  Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope.  Just ‘A Villain’.  That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain.  He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself.  He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness.  He’s hateful and cruel.  He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain.  And he’s delightful.  He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me.  He’s defined by his villainy.  At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope.  He refuses to say a word.  He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care.  He just doesn’t give a shit.

So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone).  George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain.  And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.

"In movies I am invariably a son of a bitch. In life, I'm really a dear, dear boy." --Sanders

Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal.  Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t.  The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes.  He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly.  If he has flaws, he must overcome them.  He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero.  We’ve got to root for him.  When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end.  Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.

The villain has no such difficulties.  Shoot innocent people? Done.  Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not.  Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents.  He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department).  He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual.  He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays.  He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does.  The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Why, yes, this beard is natural. Why do you ask?"

Hitchcock understood this.  His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy.  Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.  A duller romantic figure never existed.  The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies.  And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch.  Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld.  The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin.  And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.

The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy.  He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath.  He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero.  We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through.  And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him.  He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.

Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us.  The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves.  Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness.  We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners.  We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day.  Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things.  He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad.  It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell.  But it’s true.

Oh, besides that, villains also look like this:

A Female ‘Hangover’? Sorry, boys, it’s all our own.

 Long ago, in the Before Time, there were funny women.  Or rather, women were allowed to be funny.  Their names were Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Shirley Maclaine, Thelma Todd, Mae West, Lucille Ball … and those are just the ones that I can think of at the moment.  And they played opposite men in comedies and were allowed to be just as funny, sometimes even funnier, than the boys.  They were ‘dizzy dames’ and ‘madcap heiresses’ and ‘newspapermen’.  They were powerhouses of screwball comedy.

Somewhere along the way (I think it really started in the 90s), it became taboo for girls to be funny.  Men were funny.  Men were gross and ridiculous.  Men got to be childish, get drunk, get high, get laid.  The Apatow Factory has produced girls that aren’t allowed to be funny.  They have to calm, sedate, the sober counterparts of those wild and crazy guys, who would put up with the madness and eventually, inevitably, stand by their men.  And, in those moments when the women got their own films, all they really wanted was a man to take care of, lord over even.  They were foils, straightmen, at the most people to be laughed AT, not with.

But there is hope.  Great hope.  With the release of movies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Bad Teacher’, the girls are getting some of their own back.  Girls get to be funny again.

‘Bridesmaids’ is not, as some have remarked, a female version of ‘The Hangover’.  It’s a whole new thing called ‘Bridesmaids’.  And it’s funnier than hell.  Probably one of the few movies I have seen to accurately represent adult female relationships, in all their weirdnesses.  It’s gross, it’s profane, it uses words that us girls are apparently not supposed to know (unless, of course, we’re sluts).  It’s real.  There are no shopping montages, no hair-pulling, no vicious back-stabbing, no battles over hunky men.  The lives of these women are not fixed by a makeover or a marriage.  And these women do not act like men.  They act like women, real women.  I mean, hell, they act like my friends.

‘Bridesmaids’ doesn’t turn the tables on the guys; it goes off and gets its own table.  Marriage, although it is a central concern of the film (much like ‘The Hangover’, let’s be honest), is not the end game.  Love, friendship, companionship, the trials of being an adult, regardless of sex, are the complications that run through the movie.  There are no easy answers and everything does not get wrapped up in a neat little package.  But the women of the movie — and there are many, of all ages — hold together, fighting, swearing, destroying, rebuilding.  Growing up.  The men are not excluded by a long shot, but it is adult relationships that are celebrated in the most hilarious way possible.  Everyone flounders and everyone, in some measure, perseveres.  ‘Bridesmaids’ gives me hope for the future of comedy, and for the future of gender relations.  The girls get to play as much as the boys, and they do it without being sluts, fashion plates, or that hilarious class of unmarried female who just needs a man to loosen her up and make her life worth living.

Nearing the end of ‘Bad Teacher’ (another recent case of women getting to be profanely hilarious), Jason Segel makes a very *ahem* lewd gesture at Cameron Diaz.  Her reaction is not to get 1) offended or 2) secretly turned on.  She just smiles.  She smiles because she’s found a person, a friend, a man, to be herself with.  A man that won’t save her, or change her, but simply be with her.  A man just as disgusting as she is.  And really, isn’t that all we’re looking for?

In Defense of the Slow and Boring and Fast and Entertaining

Hitchcock explains to Truffaut that he can't remember why he framed a single shot a particular way 40 years ago.

A recent New York Times article, by two critics whom I respect and mostly trust, gave me pause.  The article, entitled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, is a response from A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to another article in The New York Times Magazine by Dave Kois (available here) that purports to describe certain films (I believe we call them ‘art house’) as slow, boring and, above all, not entertaining.  Scott, Dargis and Kois raise some interesting questions (although I do hope that they realize the questions are not exactly new): are films meant to be entertainment or art? Can they be both? SHOULD they be both? And so forth.  What troubled me about the Dargis/Scott article, however, was not that they asked the questions.  It was rather the way they asked them.

Being a film student and proud cinephile, I am not exactly new to the arena of film snobbery.  Ever sat through Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Ever had, by my count, 12 whole minutes of your life stolen by Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Ever stared blankly at Alain Resnais’s Muriel? Ever prayed for death during Diary of a Country Priest? No? Then don’t talk to me about boredom, confusion or general malaise.  Now those are all movies that I find dull.  But I have friends, cinephiles, who enjoy them.  Who find them fascinating, moving, educational.  And that’s just fine.  We can argue about it, debate the merits of Brakhage, of Warhol, of Resnais and Bresson.  We might not ever agree, but we can find some common ground for discussion.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I also like my fast movies, my stupid comedies, my entertainment.  And I baulk when someone accuses me of snobbery simply because I enjoy Resnais and think Michael Bay should not be called a ‘director’.  That’s not snobbery; that’s taste.  And if your taste is for Bay’s massive explosions, more power to you.  Those films will never go away, and really, we shouldn’t want them to.  Because the people those films entertain are not the idiot masses, as some film critics would have you believe.  Thor does not belong in the same class of films as Solaris, but (and here’s a shocker to Scott and Dargis): it’s not supposed to.  It’s a big, dumb action movie and it’s a pretty good big, dumb action movie.  It aspires to be nothing more; it should not aspire to be more.

There is an incipient disrespect for films at the bottom of the Scott/Dargis argument, not to mention a disrespect for audiences.  Modern audiences don’t want to think, apparently.  I think they do, just not every minute of every film.  Compare to the difference between eating a hamburger and a milk shake with eating a filet mignon and red wine.  You’ll always recognize that the filet is, technically speaking, BETTER than the hamburger.  That doesn’t mean you want to eat filet all the time.

The films that I find most pretentious are ones like Inception, the ones that purport to be full of depth and intellect and are actually nothing more than meaningless amalgams of better films blended with pop-psychology and a healthy dose of Sartre for Dummies.  Films like that insult the intelligence of the audience because they masquerade as something better, deeper.  But that’s just my opinion.  At base, movies (like books and theatre and television) have the capacity to provoke, to challenge, to educate, and to entertain.  Lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock, the darling of the French New Wave and a massive influence on everyone from Truffaut to Tarantino to Scorsese to (I suspect) Malick, was one hell of an entertainer.

Geek Love #1: No, Seriously, Who ARE You Gonna Call?

No, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid of no ghosts.

I was going to do a review of Thor (big, shiny and sexy, for those who want to know), but then I decided that everything good, bad and indifferent about it has been written.  Go here for a good, comprehensive review by someone far more knowledgable about the Marvel Universe than I.  Instead, I’m going to favor you with one of my continuous obsessions.  One that a lot of people share.

I have a tendency to get really, really excited about certain things.  Books, movies, actors, directors, writers, bands … these usually form the center of my obsessive desires.  I geek out all the time.  But it’s a wide and varied spectrum, untethered by time period or coolness factor.  And there are gradations of obsession.  I was passionate about The Beatles for most of my high school career.  I don’t think there has been a time since I first saw Notorious when Alfred Hitchcock was not my favorite director.  Hunter S. Thompson has been a great hero since college.  And then there’s Ghostbusters.

You know Ghostbusters.  EVERYONE knows Ghostbusters.  It came out two years before I was even born.  When I was a child, I mashed the two Ghostbusters movies together into one gigantic Ghostbusting memory that undoubtedly involved the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fighting the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River.  Egon Spengler was one of the first crushes I ever had.  Yeah, that’s right, THIS guy:

I think it was the hair and the glasses and the whole brainiac thing.  Also, being a faculty brat and continuous student, I have a thing for slightly weird academics.  I still think he’s pretty damned sexy, but that’s another post.  I watched the Ghostbusters cartoon, wholly confused by the fact that Egon seemed to be wearing Cool Whip on his head and Peter sounded like Garfield.  I had an outfit, made up of khaki pants and an army jacket that I stole from my mother.  I pinned poorly drawn decals of ghosts to the sleeves.  I WAS a Ghostbuster, dammit!

In the years that followed, my passion for this greatest of American comedies waned.  I turned to other, more esoteric interests.  I became a cinephile and book nerd and looked down my nose at such common things as popular comedies.  Then, one day, I went to Montreal with my parents for a film conference.  And the first Ghostbusters happened to be playing on television.

That was when my little five or six or seven year old self began running around, crying to be let out.  I felt suddenly ecstatic, like someone told me the Easter Bunny was real.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, I basically relived all my childhood.  I wrote a paper for my horror/sci-fi class at NYU on comic apocalyptic imagery in the first film.  I rewatched both films numerous times.  I began watching the TV series again.  While I did not go so far as to, say, build a proton pack or buy a jumpsuit, I definitely did my best to completely geek out.

Ghostbusters for me was not just a really cool movie.  When I was a child, I was frightened of ghosts.  Still am, to tell the truth.  And what Ghostbusters did was prove to me that ghosts were scary, yeah, but they were also funny, ridiculous, something to laugh it.  And when they were scary, well, there were always those guys dressed like exterminators who would show up and stop them.  For me now, Ghostbusters represents New York, home, and the exceptional power of the comic to transcend terror.  In less than a week, I’m going to get a tattoo on my shoulder of the Ghostbusters logo.  It might be a little trite, a little straightforward, but it actually means something to me.  It means that, in the end, laughter will win.  Or maybe it just means that I was born in the 80s.  One or the other.

Writing for the Love of Writing

I can be pretty damned sarcastic (I know how surprised you must be to read that).  But there are times when I want to be completely and totally honest.  And this is one of those times.

Last night, I had the great good fortune to participate in a reading with other members of my MSc class in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.  Over the past three semesters, we’ve been together an awful lot.  We’re a small class, which means that most of us know each other quite well.  When I came to Edinburgh, I was a tad nervous to be in a group of other writers.  I’ve heard of courses where writers compete against other, even come to hate each other because everyone else seems to be a threat.  Thank God, that was not the case with this course.  What I’ve found is a kind, loyal group of incredibly intelligent, talented people, ready to embrace each other’s work as well as provide criticism, understanding and, at times, commiseration.  Trying to become a writer is not easy; it can be a thankless job and few of us will be able to make our livings at it.  It matters a great deal to be surrounded by people who truly love what they do, and who are willing to support each other in the pursuit of a creativity that is simply not as readily rewarded in mainstream society as business acumen or financial prowess.

So last night, after an exceptional day of panels concerning the business side of literature, we got together and read our own work.  In a pub, naturally; we at least fulfill that stereotype.  Now, I do not particularly enjoy spoken word events.  They can range on the spectrum from generally entertaining to mind-numbingly boring.  At the worst, they can be pretentious celebrations of some very undeserved egos.  Every once in a while, you come across an excellent reader or writer, but I admit that I have taken to avoiding them.  Not so last night.

Having come through several semesters of at times painful workshops, I was grateful to hear stories I had never heard, and some that I had.  Grateful to the camaraderie expressed every time someone else took the stage, and grateful just to be sitting with such a spectacular group of people.  I will be shocked if every single one of us doesn’t manage to make a go of being a professional writer.  MSc programs sometimes get a bad rap for being writing factories, producing generic ‘literary’ novelists.  I can say with certainty that this particular program has not done that.  We are all so incredibly different in our interests, in our styles, in the way we approach writing.  This is a result, I believe, of particularly good instructors, but also of our own desires, our own independence.

We were told of the importance of having a community.  What I learned last night was that we do not have to go looking for that community.  It’s right there next to you, in the person you’ve argued with, got drunk with, laughed with, commiserated with.  We have formed our own community and I, for one, am immensely grateful to be a part of it.  And I can say that honestly, without sarcasm or cynicism.

The Hipster Chronicles # 2: The Way of the Douche

“Just to let you know, your facebook statuses are getting douchier and douchier.”

My dear and always honest friend Lindsay expressed this to me several months ago, when I was in the midst of a paper on Nietzsche and postmodernism that was, like, totally blowing my mind.  And my, but my facebook statuses were indeed getting douchier and douchier.  No question.  Since that fateful day, however, I have begun to hear the word douche used in new and exciting contexts.  How douchey can we be? seems to be the question of the day.

Now, the etymology of the word ‘douche’ has a long and complicated history.  When we call someone a ‘douche’, we are not, of course, referring to the actual item of feminine hygiene.  Nor are we particularly comparing said individual to that item.  Back in the day, my father informed me, to call someone a ‘douche’ was one of the worst things you could say.  Now, we say it routinely.  It references someone (very often male) who behaves in a pretentious, obnoxious, or generally … uh … douchey manner.  It continues to be a derogatory term, of course.  Or does it?

Recently, I have heard (and used) the word ‘douche’ in a highly self-referential fashion.  ‘Hipster douchiness’ has become a regular statement among my circle of friends here in Edinburgh.

“Come and be a douche with us!” stated a text message, inviting everyone along to hang out in the Meadows.  When one sits in a cafe, drinking organic coffee, typing one’s novel on one’s MacBook (or, for true douchiness, iPad), one is achieving a true level of douchiness that few ever arrive honestly at.  Dressing like a hipster, saying things like ‘That is sooooo Postmodern’, reading Nietzsche, speaking of one’s existential self, updating one’s blog with ironic referential comments, shopping at Urban Outfitters, complaining of the difficulty of one’s life while lying in the sun, being a barista in any capacity, talking about being a barista, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, listening to obscure folk music … these are not the hallmarks of true douchiness.  No, true douchiness must be achieved by being AWARE of true douchiness.  By the recognition that one is behaving like a total, complete, remarkable, capitalized Douche.

“We’re so hip, we’re going to a band that even we haven’t heard of!”

This, my friends, is true douchiness.  The Way of the Douche is fraught with peril, for the pitfalls might turn you into an acoustic guitar playing juggler on a unicycle who has no freaking idea of how douchey he/she truly is.  It might turn you into a twenty-something would-be novelist in a cafe bitching about how no one gets just what post-postmodernism is.  The Way of the Douche must be carefully discovered, hopefully with people just as pretend-douchey as you are.  For the true Douche is not a douche at all.  Just someone who enjoys a ironic joke, a scene of pop-culture referentiality, an honest moment in the sun with friends.  Someone who can laugh at themselves.

So, verily, I say unto you: go and discover the Way of the Douche.  I know I have.

‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’: What About the Albino Crocodiles?

Only Werner Herzog could get me excited about a movie about cave paintings.  The thought of one of our greatest living filmmakers descending into the depths to examine the secrets of prehistoric man is wonderful to me.  And, as usual, Herzog did not disappoint.  He crafted a film in which paintings came alive, in which the weird world of calcified remains and sparkling geological wonders, buried beneath the surface, awakens into our own.  ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ is both riveting and elegiac, and creates a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of just how small our current world is in comparison with that of our ancestors.

Herzog manages a great deal with a limited camera crew, limited lighting and limited mobility within the cave.  The images he produces are spectacular.  The paintings themselves — of cave bears, cave lions, furry rhinos, wooly mammoths, wild horses, and a host of other animals, many now extinct — are brilliantly shaded, complex drawings that exhibit the artistry of what we like to call primitive humanity.  The cave sparkles under Herzog’s lighting as he wanders on a narrow metal track, pointing out calcified skulls of cave bears, and the markings of animals and human beings alike.  One image that he can only describe and never show is that of a footprint of an eight-year old boy next to the pawprint of a wolf.  The images that evoke movement — a stampede of horses, two rhinos fighting — are linked to cinema, and Herzog dexterously draws out the correlation between some of the earliest forms of art with the most modern one.

There are moments when the film drags.  Herzog, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have an obsession with New Age choral music that detracts from the majesty of what he’s trying to present.  Rather than allowing the sounds of the cave to speak for themselves, he introduces a somewhat clunky heartbeat that recurs throughout the film and hammers home the point that the cave has a life of its own.  Some of the analysis of the archaeologists takes on a ‘well, we know nothing about this, so we’re going to speculate wildly’ tone, which might have been toned by a bit more scientific/historical discussion rather than what it feels like, which is rampant speculation.

There’s also plenty of Herzogian weirdness to go around.  A master perfumer wanders the forest trying to ‘sniff out’ caves.  One of the archaeologists attempts to throw a spear.  Another reveals that he was a circus performer before turning to archaeology.  And, finally, there are those albino crocodiles that take up perhaps one of the strangest postscripts in the history of documentaries.  But I won’t completely spoil that one for you.

I wish I could have seen the film as it was meant to be seen, in 3D (never thought I’d say THAT), but even in 2D, it is spectacular.  Herzog remains a master of his craft, a deft commentator on the beauty and futility of human endeavor.  He hasn’t quite mellowed in his old age, but he has achieved a new spirituality that is both welcome and, at times, a little weird.