Posts Tagged ‘Hitchcock’

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:

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.