Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good and Evil in Hollywood

It seems to me that it used to be, in the movies, that the good guys and the bad guys were different.  A distinction was made.  The big final scene: the bad guy has tried to kill the hero but fails and the hero now has the drop on him: the bad guy snarls “Go ahead! Do it!” The hero wants to but can’t do it: “That would make me like you.”  My grandchild-in-law Daniel reminds me that often then the hero would turn away, the bad guy would then go for a gun and the hero would kill him in self-defense, giving us in the audience the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy get killed—but in self-defense.


Is this just me wishing for the old days?  Maybe, but why do today’s movies appear to be determined to make no distinction between good and bad?  In Platoon, the evil sergeant Barnes is lying helpless on the ground and when the kid Chris, who has seen how evil he is, comes upon him, he shoots Barnes like a rabid dog.  In The Untouchables, when Elliot Ness pushes the mobster Nitty off a roof, making himself judge, jury and executioner, he admits to himself that he has become what he has fought.  But he is content.  OK, it is true that Nitty goads Ness to the breaking point...

In crappy exploitation movies in which watching violence is the whole point, these days we get to watch the hero enjoying killing the bad guys. In (was it Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal?)  the hero holds his victim in the air over a cliff and threatens to drop him unless he gives him the information he needs; the terrified man tells him what he wants to know and pleads “You won’t drop me, will you?” and the hero says “I lied,” and drops him. 

At the lowest level, the most morally corrupt movies create bad guys who are so horribly, one-dimensionally inhuman we thirst to see them get what they deserve. The monsters make monsters of us.  Even in The Untouchables we see the standard device of making the bad guy so evil, so despicable that we are all relieved when he is taken out.  In the worst of such movies (say, any by Stevan Segal?), in the first half we are treated to detailed depictions of unspeakable, sadistic acts done by the bad guys who smile while they mutilate and torture their innocent, helpless victims.  In the second half of the movie we then watch detailed depictions of unspeakable, sadistic acts done by the hero on the bad guys.  The hypocrisy of it is numbing.  These movies reflect (and perhaps have encouraged) our cultural hypocrisy of “closure”, that word used these days as a euphemism for revenge. 

Ok, so let’s dismiss the sadism and blood-spatter genre from discussion.  There will always be a market for violence and the morally stunted who pander to it—think of professional wrestling. Still, even respectable Hollywood seems determined to avoid making the good-guys/bad-guys distinction, as if this childishly na├»ve.  Why is this, and is this a culture change from what I remember? 

It might be argued (and is) that this non-distinction is more realistic, because, of course, we are all both good and evil.  Hopefully, most of the time, we know and apply the golden rule and believe in the value of the life every other human being.  But I think we all know, deep inside us there is a snarling, cowardly beast that is afraid of the stronger or stranger and wants to prey on the weak, destroy beauty, inflict pain.  There is a rapist and bully and coward and sadist inside every person, even you and me.  But still—what does it say when the hero figure in a movie is a contract killer, or a drug dealer?

I guess what bugs me is this worry: can our culture, which is smothered in entertainment which simplifies reality into one-dimensional bad guys (let’s not mention video games), can our culture understand this is not reality?  It’s scary when you think of the world view that Hollywood panders to, and the simple fact that people are impressionable and can be easily brought to that world view.  The Patriot gave us an English officer in the Revolution who was a psychotic monster—we conclude he richly deserves everything that the character played by Mel Gibson does to him.  This is called demonizing, a story technique as old as mankind.  But people saturated with this mythology by Hollywood appear not to understand this is unreal!  One day I was talking with a couple of men about “The Patriot” and one of them says, “Well, I don’t blame Mel Gibson (note the failure to distinguish between the actor and the character) doing what he did to the redcoat,  I would have done that--and more!” A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…

In real life, the difference between the good guys and bad guys is not that the good guys don’t have evil within them.  It is that they have principles that they attempt to follow in spite of their evil instincts.  And real good guys usually follow their principles.  The difference between a thief and an honest person is not that the honest person doesn’t covet others’ money or whatever.  But the honest person is committed to the idea that stealing is wrong--and doesn’t do it.  And--there is no way to sugar-coat this--the goodness of an individual is in the percentages.  We call a person “good” when the percentage is high, when we can count on them to be honest, to be kind, to do the kind and generous thing when other choices are possibile—choices that might have been to a his/her advantage.  And it is a percentage.  Sooner or later everyone, in a moment of weakness and if the temptation is strong, makes a selfish choice.  These we simply have to forgive.

Let’s not pretend that real life is simply made up of the good guys (ourselves, naturally) and Evil Ones.  Sorry, it’s more complicated than that. Each of us has much be forgiven, and each of us has small reason to feel morally superior.  Our only defense can be, do we have a conscience and do we try to follow it? Let’s not delude ourselves that real life is like a Hollywood story. And if we can remember our own failures maybe we will be a little less quick to judge (not to mention blow away) those others.