not in our stars, but in ourselves
Thinking about poor old Norman yesterday has gotten me thinking about other movie villains – antagonists, if you prefer a less loaded word – and how right Alfred Hitchcock was: “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” You can have a great, noble hero. He can be strong, brave, quick-witted, daring, whatever you want. Without a worthy adversary, though, what’s the point? Who wants a story about just good guys? And who wants a cartoon villain? Real villains, effective villains, are often more complicated than their good and noble pursuers/victims. Below are a few of some of my favorites, who all serve to illustrate John Rogers’s point: “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
Col. Hans Landa
Yeah, yeah, I’m obsessed with Christoph Waltz. Shut up. Landa is one of the most fascinating characters in any movie, good or bad, and I just love thinking about him. When Waltz was doing press during the 2010 Oscar season, he suffered through a rather painful interview with David Letterman. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Letterman hasn’t actually seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) – but that’s neither here nor there. He kept pushing his point that Landa is the quintessential Nazi, and an evil man, and so on. Waltz tried to explain and re-explain that he played the character as Quentin Tarantino wrote it: a detective who happens to be wearing a Nazi uniform, but who doesn’t buy into any of the actual ideology.
And that’s one of the things about Basterds that’s so fascinating: they aren’t all goose-stepping, Jew-hating caricatures. Some of them are drinking all the Kool Aid, like Major Hellstrom and Sergeant Rachtman. Some of them are skilled soldiers with reservations about all the wicked deeds they have to do, like Private Zoller. Some of them are young and horrified, like Private Butz. They’re all culpable, of course, because they’re all Nazis working to advance the Nazi cause. But there are varying degrees of “evil.” Letterman was just focusing on the uniform Landa is wearing, but Landa is much more complex than a mere uniform.
Consider his delight with his unofficial title in 1941. He relishes being known as “the Jew Hunter.” Compare that to his scoffing at the same title in 1944, when he corrects Lt. Raine and Pfc. Utivich by insisting that he’s just “a damn good detective.” So he is. It is an interesting exercise to wonder just how and why he went from being an enthusiastic hunter to a rather weary security guard. Obviously, the tide had turned rather decisively by 1944, so he may have simply grown tired of playing for the losing team.
It’s also interesting to think about what sort of man he is. Obviously highly educated, well aware of his charm and charisma, a master seducer (according to Bridget von Hammersmark), and an evident schemer. He seems to have a touch of sadism, too, independent of his status as a colonel for the Nazis. For instance: when he and Shoshanna “discuss” her cinema, he clearly knows who she is. Since she and her theatre are advantageous to him and his plans to get a house on Nantucket, he doesn’t want to tip off his bosses that she’s a Jew with a grudge – but he does want to scare her a little bit. He succeeds. It’s not for any purpose as far as the Nazis are concerned – it’s just for Landa’s own gratification. Creepy.
Perhaps my favorite “villain” from any movie that came out during my lifetime, and the main reason to see The Dark Knight (2008). There are those who prefer Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in Batman (1989), but I am all about the re-imagined Heath Ledger version. I will note that I take him at his word: he calls himself an “agent of chaos” and likens himself to “a dog chasing cars” – all instinct, no real rhyme or reason. He’s evil in the sense that he murders people for fun – but he does have a point when he tells Batman:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code…it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
And when he tells Harvey Dent:
You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well, then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!
He’s not wrong. Chaos is fair. It’s a leveler. People make plans to subjugate and control other people. People scheme and lie and cheat to get what they want. People are, in a word, horrible – especially in groups. In a cruel world, why not expose that cruelty for what it is? Why not watch the world burn?
It’s interesting (I keep using that word; must break out the thesaurus soon) that, in the scene with the two ferries, the prisoners are more ethical than the commuters. The men who’ve probably done terrible things now understand how to behave ethically; the spiritually corrupt suburbanites who live their lives of quiet desperation have no concept thereof. Those commuters would have been considered the “innocent bystanders” – but they argue fiercely among themselves to blow up the other boat. The Joker knows it, too. He knows – to presage the next villain on this list – that the world’s a hell. The world full of bigotry, child soldiers, sexual assault, serial killers, genital mutilation, crimes of passion, crimes of dispassion, fraud of every sort, government corruption, government ineptitude, corporate greed, laziness, cruelty, intentional ignorance. Why not torch it?
Hitchcock reportedly considered Shadow of a Doubt (1943) his favorite of all his films, and that is likely due to the wicked Uncle Charlie – sonorously played by Joseph Cotten. He seems to be genial and pleasant, and even generous. He loves his sister, his nieces and nephew. But he’s not, shall we say, a people person. At dinner one night, he offers the following:
The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?
Cry misogyny if you like, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. Women whose ambition in life was only to marry well, who didn’t care much for love or for happiness, who kept themselves beautiful long enough to attract a mate and then let themselves become imprisoned by their houses, their clothes, their jewels, their accumulating flesh – hating their lives and their husbands and themselves, but entirely content within their hateful little universes. Believe me, I am not unsympathetic to women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Uncle Charlie isn’t talking about poor girls with no other choice. He’s talking about women who could have chosen other paths, but instead chose the path of lazy self-loathing.
Of course, he’s not especially positive on other people, either. He says to his niece, Young Charlie:
You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares! Or did I, or was it a silly inexpert little lie. You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie! Use your wits. Learn something.
And Young Charlie is one of the people he likes. Geez. Nevertheless, he has a point – the same point the Joker has. The world is a hell. It is a foul sty. For every goopy human interest story you show me, I will show you another five stories about people doing absolutely despicable things to one another. We all think we’re trying to be good, and to do the right thing; even Uncle Charlie thinks that. But he’s a killer. You may be a thief. I may be a cheat. We’re all protagonists in our own head, but antagonists to who knows how many others.
That’s enough evil for now…but I do have plenty of other baddies about whom I can, and will, ramble at length.