Friday, December 5, 2008

Worst Cliches of Movieland #2: The Bad Guy

"In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is successful, is very much more marked. It is, indeed, ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale. Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the 'log cabin to White House' brigade. And switching back eighty years, one finds Mark Twain adopting much the same attitude towards the disgusting bandit Slade, hero of twenty-eight murders, and towards the Western desperadoes generally. They were successful, they 'made good,' therefore he admired them." (George Orwell, "Raffles and Miss Blandish", 1944)

One of the earliest and most recognizable images of French cinema is from the Lumiere Brothers' L'Arrivee d'un train a La Ciotat (1896). Matter-of-factly, it shows us, as the title makes clear, an everyday train arriving at an everyday station in Lyon. Early audiences, as yet unaccustomed to the illusion of film's realism, reportedly fled from their seats as the train approached when they saw - or thought they saw - that they were directly in its path. The film epitomized a way of looking at the world - by embracing it - that can be traced through the films of Antoine, Delluc, Vigo, Renoir, De Sica, Olmi, virtually all the Nouvelle Vague and beyond.

Not to be outdone, Thomas Edison produced a film in 1903 that also featured a train, except it was called The Great Train Robbery, with Wild West bandits shooting off their guns. And this film, too, epitomized an approach to the world - or a retreat from it - that can be traced through the whole history of American cinema. At the end of The Great Train Robbery, shot entirely in the wilds of New Jersey, a bandit appears, looks straight into the camera, draws his pistol and fires it directly at - us.

From the very beginning, American cinema seems to have been preoccupied with criminals and criminality. Whether it is derived from a strong anti-authoritarian streak or, indeed, its opposite (what Orwell called power worship), it is clearly inspired by the conviction that crime does pay and that might makes right. Because of its purely kinetic qualities, it is probably no accident that filmmakers have found violence in whatever form, but particularly that practiced by those with the power to practice it with impunity, to be mesmerizing.

One hundred years of technical development has made violence in film not only more literal but also more commonplace. And periodic expert studies on the de-sensitizing effects of screen violence on the spectator are invariably debunked by film industry-sponsored expert studies - just as the tobacco industry routinely sought to disprove the harmful effects of smoking, until the evidence against them was too overwhelming to refute.

The careers of some of the most beloved American actors have consistently depended on bad guy roles, from James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart to Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino. While the attitude behind the creation of these bad guys has not always been equivocal, thanks to the powerful Hayes Office, until the 1960s the bad guys were expected to get their comeuppance by the film's conclusion - and were not thereupon exalted by it. Soon after, however, filmmakers found they could dispense with the moralizing and let the bag guys prevail. By now it is commonplace to see them rubbing out one another. The police, as arbiters of justice, are commonly represented as ineffectual at best and corrupt at worst. Precisely who or what is holding society together in film after film is difficult to divine, which is perhaps why the rest of the world (and George Orwell) suspects that America is a chaotic, crime-ridden place where everyone has to carry a gun.

In the past decade, a spate or films and a cable TV series have actually attempted to humanize murder, by presenting to us the psychological problems suffered by career murderers. The extent to which these productions rely on the ready cliches from bad guys going back to D.W. Griffith is a par of the comfortable familiarity in which they deal. But the fine line they walk, and invariably cross, is always a moral one. And pretending that murderers are pitiable or even funny is surely one of the most brazen miscalculations of American cinema. It is one thing for filmmakers to convince themselves that the average American has a streak of larceny in his heart, but it is quite another for them to appeal to that streak or attempt to cultivate it. Perhaps it is merely the Walter Mitty in him struggling with his powerlessness, without for once wondering that there is good reason for him to be powerless. Certainly the popularity of The Sopranos and Analyze This would suggest something of the sort. But even as a joke, the exploration of such cartoon evil puts enough of a strain on one's credulity that one turns with relief to Conan Doyle or even Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - a fictional universe in which the good guys, however neurotic or cynical, always outwit the bad guys. At least it takes more intelligence - not to mention talent - to create villains with enough complexity to be convincing, and thereby all the more terrifying. Even if the balance of the universe is invariably - if sometimes precariously - preserved in the penultimate chapter, its preservation is an important reminder of exactly whose side we are on.

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