Saturday, June 27, 2009

Am I Evil?

Movies have provided us with some incredible villains. And not only have they provided us with great bad guys, they have given us bad guys we can actually be sympathetic towards. That is not an easy thing to pull off, but it is essential to have in order to have an effective villain. It's the difference between Alex from A Clockwork Orange and any of the villains from hundreds of action films. Darth Vader works. Otis from The Devil's Rejects works. Hannibal works (in The Silence of the Lambs at least). Magneto works. John Doe from Se7en works.

Villains work best when we can see ourselves in them, when we can recognize their humanity and the motivations of their actions. We can still find what they do to be repulsive (and the more repulsive we find it we find ourselves that much more attached ... if done properly). If you can't find sympathy in a villain, it will never connect on anything other than a surface level. Who remembers the villain from Lethal Weapon 2?

The effect of villains in a film was hammered home to me when I got into a discussion with a friend, who was trying to be a writer, about The Devil's Rejects. I had told him how I thought director Rob Zombie did it right because even though you hate what the Firefly family has done, you can't help but feel sympathy. He said there was no way he could feel sympathy, and no way he could see how anyone could. I countered with, "Then you'll never be a successful fiction writer because if you can't make even the most despicable character human it will never connect deeply enough with an audience to make a lasting impression."

He is not the only person who has said things like this to me, but he was so offended by my assertion that Zombie's film actually built sympathy for a pack of killers that he couldn't wrap his mind about what I was saying. I stick by it, though. The greatest villains are the ones you feel sympathy for, the ones you make you see things from their point of view.

My ex-wife and I once got into a great discussion about Kevin Spacey's character in Se7en. We were talking about characters in movies who were self-actualized. I argued that Spacey's killer was self-actualized as he could thoroughly justify his motives, he could explain them, and he acted upon his beliefs. She stated he was not because he killed people and a self-actualized person would not want to harm another. I shot back that a self-actualized person could kill if he thought it would better humanity, something Spacey's character obviously felt, because in the end it is all a matter of numbers and a self-actualized person would have to realize that. It's like the old time travel question: If you can go back through time do you kill Hitler? We never saw eye to eye on the issue of Spacey and self-actualization, and I'm not even sure there is a right answer, but the fact that his character could cause such a debate speaks volumes as to how well it was written (especially when one considers how little screen time he has). We never debated the villain from Event Horizon.

When a movie calls for a villain, I believe the villain has to be better written than the hero. After all, we can all understand the hero's motivations. Luke wants to save the galaxy. Jodie Foster wants to catch a cannibal. Both are tasks we are all familiar with. They really need no explanation. Cannibals wandering around eating people are bad. Floating space stations that blow up planets can really ruin you day. Therefore, the villains have to have extra dimensions to them. It's easy to say Darth Vader is just a guy who wants to help rule the galaxy, and if you only watch one movie you can actually come away with that. The reality is different. Darth Vader starts out as a young boy with much promise who is yanked from his home by strangers. He is trained to be a Jedi and then as a teenager is told he doesn't have the discipline required for his station. His mother dies. He falls in love. As he progresses through life the people he thought he could rely upon show how little they trust him, and that wears him down. He only wants to learn how to keep his loved ones alive forever, and he wants honesty. His switch to the Dark Side is not only believable but also understandable. Hannibal has just as much dimension in the first film (first in the series, not chronologically).

Hannibal Lecter is first and foremost an intellectual. He feels he is above most people, and his knowledge says he is. He is an excellent judge of character, but he is also a sociopath and cannibal. Throughout The Silence of the Lambs you realize that Hannibal is actually scarier behind bars than he is once free because he is so good he can still get you even when locked up. You also realize that if you met him in real life you would most likely be safe because he only seems to kill those dumb enough to fall into his trap, and you think you would never be that dumb. Most people actually think they are smarter than they are, however, and what makes Hannibal work is that he lets you know that. He can hit the flaws in anyone, but since it isn't you, you are safe in laughing at the idiocy of those who fall into his clutches. He kils not only because he wants to, but because he can. He kills those he views as his lessers, and who hasn't wanted to do that from time to time? Compare him to the cannibals in Frontier(s) and you can instantly see why one is a cultural icon and the others will be nothing more than a footnote in cinematic history (though the French horror film is incredible).

The visual imagery of Vader, whose image I opened ths posting with, evokes memories of samurai, Nazis, and ultimately pity. Anyone who has seen all the films knows that underneath that armor is a broken old man who could not survive outside his shell. It's very symbolic, and it works. He is probably the image many people think of first when they think of great movie villains. (And while I like him, he is pretty far down on my list of favorites). He not only symbolizes his own inner demons, but that of all movie villains. We see them on the screen, large than life, striding forth either in costume (Alex) or dressed in normal clothes (The Butcher from I Stand Alone, who is a villain who actually carries the film) while carrying themselves in such a way that the armor is purely mental. We see them and we understand that under all of that is a human just as fragile as us. (Otis cares about his family, Magneto wants his "family" to be left alone by outsiders.) Darth Vader tops movie villains lists not because he is a great villain but because he symbolizes all great villains.

I let a few people read my cannibal manuscript. I was worried that the main villain, a woman I named Momma Rose, wouldn't stand out enough to be memorable. I could live with her not being a villain of epic proportions, but I wanted the audience to have some kind of connection to her. Quite a few readers gave me positive feedback on her, but only one said those words I wanted to hear. "I liked her. She was doing whatever she could to protect her family and keep her heritage alive." That was what I was hoping that people would see in her. They might not agree with the actions I had the character do, but they could understand them.

Villains, the good ones, are memorable because we all think they same thing. There but for the grace of God ...

And if you just don't get it, I don't think you ever will, which is a real shame, too. If you can't see what makes them great, you're actually missing out. You're not getting the entire picture. It may not ruin your enjoyment of the film, but don't expect to win any debates any time soon.

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