Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Sade Day

As noted in the last post, many modern protagonists in film and literature display, at best, a dubious moral sense. These characters are not even anti-heroes in the 60s/70s fashion. Dirty Harry had a firm moral code, after all; it just wasn’t consistent with the Bill of Rights. So did Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank (1967); it just was one consistent with being a hit man. Bronson as Kersey in Death Wish was on a mission of public good by his lights. Contrast them with the Dude in The Big Lebowski, Dexter Morgan in Dexter, or Richard B. Riddick from The Chronicles of Riddick.

But what about villains? Have they evolved, too? Not so much. We have grown cynical about heroes, but have we kept a simple belief in villains? It seems so. True enough, we frequently get a back-story nowadays to explain the villainy, or to put it in context, but this was not actually unusual in the past either, e.g. Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). Even in Frankenstein (1931), we learn enough to sympathize with the alienation of the monster.

In general the same types of villains recur as ever. Serleena from Men in Black II is no less evil and ambitious than Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. Other common types: the Monster, sometimes with a mind (Dracula), sometimes without much of one (Jason); the Sociopath (Kalifornia); the Psychotic (Psycho); the seeker of unwarranted revenge (Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle); the megalomaniac (Stewie in Family Guy); and, perhaps the most interesting, the amoral philosopher, such as the hunter of human game in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), or the nihilist anarchist Joker portrayed chillingly by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008).

I venture that all the philosopher villains of fiction owe something to the Marquis de Sade, the crazy nephew of The Enlightenment. I recommend De Sade’s Justine and Juliette, by the way, but not his “masterpiece” 120 Days of Sodom unless you truly want to test your commitment to free expression. The Marquis deserves a discussion all his own, however, so we’ll leave him for another time.

I’ve always found credible all-too-human villains to be the scariest, and therefore they are my favorite. A prime example is Frank Booth played by Dennis Hopper in David Lynch’s off-beat 1986 movie Blue Velvet. Frank is a dangerous and volatile (and believable) character with such severe psycho-sexual issues that he has to drive them out of his mind with drugs, violence, and sadistic sex. It is not enough for him to dominate his victims; he must utterly degrade them, too. By his abuse, he so warps one victim (played by Isabella Rossellini) that she orders a young man at knifepoint to hit her, apparently because at least this time it will be her choice. Afterward, the young man (Kyle MacLachlan) is shaken to have found a part of himself that was OK with it.

It’s always satisfying to watch villains get their comeuppance in the end. It is wicked fun when they don’t, too. Perhaps that explains why old-fashioned villainy has survived on page and screen better than heroism; either ending works for us. Another reason may be that we like to contrast ourselves with these characters, as in, “Hey, I may not be perfect, but at least I don’t hunt humans for sport.”

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