Thursday, February 27, 2014

Simple Bad Guys

                Someone asked me on my Wicked post why I thought the Witch was such an interesting character. Of course, I couldn’t simply give a quick rundown; this had to turn into another blog post about villains in general (the fact that the next day I ripped apart a terribly done villain also factors in).
                These days we like complexity in everything, including our bad guys: “he’s not just a simple villain” or something like it is becoming such a common source of praise that one wonders whether it’s approaching its expiration date (the way “spectacular special effects” has done). Now, I’m not going to object to this habit; I like complex, humanized antagonists as much as the next man. But I notice that the villains we really gravitate to, the ones that stick in our minds are, for the most part, the ‘simple bad guys.’
                If you were to list the most memorable and iconic villains in cinematic history, your list would probably look something like this: Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, Blofeld, Hannibal Lecter, Mr. Potter, and Freddy Krueger. These are the villains who capture our imagination, whose image we keep coming back to, who become bywords or cultural touchstones, so that even people who haven’t seen the movies know at once who they are. And with the possible exceptions of Hannibal and (arguably) Vader, they’re all extremely simple characters. They’re two-dimensional, flat, ‘just villains.’ Yet they are the ones who fascinate us (this notion is further supported by the fact that the most celebrated movie villain of recent years is The Dark Knight’s emphatically non-humanized Joker).
                This to me suggests that maybe complexity and what we might call ‘humanity’ isn’t necessarily what we look for in our bad guys. Or, to put it another way, that when we compare complicated, distinctly human villains with simply evil bad guys, we’re actually comparing two very different things.
                When we view a story featuring a humanized villain, we’re seeing a conflict between two men; Mal and the Operative are both just men with competing philosophies and characters. Mr. Smith and Sen. Paine likewise are just men who, finding themselves at the same moral crossroads, took divergent paths.
                On the other hand, you can’t really call, say, Mr. Potter a ‘man’ at all. He’s a caricature, a bogey; the embodiment of greed, corruption, and self-interest. The Wicked Witch likewise is a bogey; a living expression of ‘wickedness,’ with all its implications of cunning, cruelty, spite, and covetousness.
                The distinction, then, is between what we may, for present purposes, call an ‘antagonist’ and a ‘bogey.’ An antagonist is a human bad guy; someone who opposes the hero for clear and understandable reasons because they either both want the same thing or want two mutually exclusive things. A bogey is a mythic bad guy; less an actual person than an imaginative representative of some idea or quality. To put it simply, an antagonist possesses certain qualities; a bogey embodies them.
                Let’s take an example: contrast Mr. Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You with Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Both characters are greedy, unscrupulous, self-centered businessmen of a well-known type: the uncaring rich man who gobbles up everything he possibly can by hook or crook, who relentlessly seeks more and more even when he already has more than he could ever use or enjoy.
                But Mr. Kirby is an antagonist: he’s greedy, snobbish, and heartless when it comes to his business, but he loves his son dearly, has a sense of humor, and is capable of acts of kindness and self-reflection. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, is a bogey: he has no family, no apparent interests apart from being a heartless miser, and he only ever laughs when he’s getting one over on someone else.
                A key difference is that Mr. Kirby has a past: he and other characters make references to things he had done or characteristics he had had before he became so obsessed with business. There’s a sense of Mr. Kirby being fallen from what he once was. Mr. Potter has no past; as far as we know, he entered life old, rich, and evil. As Hannibal Lecter said in a cut line from Silence of the Lambs, “nothing happened to me. I happened.”
                Bogeys don’t have pasts. Of the villains I listed above, I believe only one – Darth Vader – is given any kind of back story, and that very little: he was a Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the Dark Side, he betrayed the Jedi, his wife and infant children went into hiding to escape him (note that I’m not counting later attempts to give these characters histories, both because these efforts come after they have already become seared into the public mind and because they almost all fail spectacularly). Having a past humanizes the villain, and some villains don’t want to be humanized.
                In Batman Begins, there are several scenes where characters discuss the idea of symbols: a mere man can be destroyed, or ignored, or locked up, but a symbol is something more, something eternal and incorruptible. Bruce consciously sets out to achieve that kind of mythic status through a combination of solitude, anonymity, and primal imagery. That is what a ‘bogey’ villain is meant to do; to encompass in a single figure some archetypal evil. When they succeed, some vast, formless shadow in the viewer’s mind is given a definite shape or symbol, almost in the way a sound is associated with a letter. That vague idea of seductive, yet life-sucking evil finds its expression in the form of Dracula. The chaotic, violent subconscious that so terrifies us in our sleep is given the name and face of Freddy Krueger. The half-suspected cruel intellect manipulating world events from behind the scenes becomes a soft-spoken man stroking a Persian cat. Thus our formless notions of evil are given shape and character in these mythic villains.
                Though let me be clear that these are not mere ‘symbols,’ so that you can say that Mr. Potter is the evils of unbridled capitalism, or Hannibal Lecter is psychopathic tendencies. Rather, they embody these things in the way that Apollo embodies music or Diana embodies the woods: it is a deeper kind of symbolism, one that doesn’t allow for a one-to-one comparison (i.e. Potter’s confinement to a wheelchair represents to actual impotency of capital, etc.), but which tries to capture the feel or beats of the thing itself in one archetypal figure. In describing the effect, it often seems like mere symbolism, but it actually goes much deeper than that; the thing being expressed is caught in elements you could never really put down in a list of matching qualities. It’s found in the witch’s cackling voice that has an undercurrent of a snarl. It’s found in the goddess’s bare arms and deer-like strides as she runs under the moon, a bow on her shoulder and dogs baying at her feet. It’s in the old man tossing off muttered sneers as he recommends ruining another man’s livelihood. In short, the whole ‘feel’ of the character captures the feeling of the thing itself in our minds. Like in music, it’s the piece taken as a whole that creates the effect.
                 Now, obviously there is a lot of grey area here, where a bad guy fails to either be humanized or achieve any kind of mythic grandeur. It might be said that a ‘bogey’ is the easiest kind of villain to write and the hardest kind to do well. The ones listed above are a mere handful of the innumerable blunt, simplistic, one-dimensional bad guys that flood cinema screens. Most, frankly, just feel lazy or boring. Some rise to a mild level of archetypal power, but not enough to really capture the viewer.
That, I think, is why we often sneer at bad guys who are ‘simply villains;’ not because it’s bad writing in itself, but because it fails so often. This sort of thing is very advanced storytelling, so advanced that most examples of it happen, as it were, by accident; the right combination of design, script, and performer come together to capture the intended effect, often as much to the writer’s surprise as the viewers’. If Dracula had been played by anyone other than Bela Lugosi – even great actors like Conrad Veidt or Lon Chaney Sr., both of whom were considered for the part – I’m willing to bet that he wouldn’t have made half the impact he did (the fact that none of the many, many actors who had assailed the part since have come close to eclipsing Lugosi supports this view). The same thing with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (an earlier Lecter film featuring Brian Cox is now barely remembered except as a trivia question), or Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch. The best most filmmakers who attempt this sort of character can reasonably hope for is generally something like Red Skull from Captain America or Jack Wilson from Shane: a villain who captures the right feel of the thing, but not spectacularly so, and only, as it were, for the time of the film. They serve their purpose in the story, but don’t take a place in the ‘pantheon’ of the culture.
                Regarding complex villains, these, I think, generally fill out the middle or upper-middle of the storytelling spectrum; they fascinate and intrigue and trouble us, but I find they almost never rise to the artistic heights of ‘bogeys.’ Much as we enjoy them and admire the craftsmanship that went into them, I think it’s clear they don’t grab us in the same way the others do. Sheriff Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil is an intriguing character and a great villain, but who remembers him? In fact, the only indisputably ‘complex, three-dimensional bad guy’ I think of off the top of my head who reaches iconic status is Norman Bates (I’m not counting characters like King Kong or the Frankenstein Monster, whose ‘villain’ status is debatable). These ‘antagonists’ as I have called them have our cheers and our critical approval, and rightly so, but they don’t fascinate us like the bogeys.
                And that, to finally answer the question that prompted this post, is why I think the Wicked Witch of the West is an ‘interesting’ character (at least in the movie: I haven’t read the books); she’s one of those great mythic figures that capture an idea so perfectly that she becomes the means of conveying that idea. She’s interesting in the same way that Hecate is interesting; because she taps some primal well of imagery in our minds and becomes more than just a character in a children’s story. You could, if you really wanted to, break her down into Freudian or feminist or religious or Marxist interpretations, but you’d spoil the effect, just like you’d spoil a joke if you tried to explain it, or kill an animal by dissecting it. She’s interesting not because you can dissect or examine her, not because she raises interesting questions or poses moral quandaries, but simply because she is what she is: the Wicked Witch of the West.

Vivat Christus Rex!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective

Post a Comment