Remember to Laugh
From The American Spectator.
April 30, 2008.
Last month in this space, we had occasion to notice that heroism is now treated as a matter for comedy (see "No Room for the Gentleman Amateur," in TAS of March, 2008), but we might have added that the same is true of villainy. On the cover of Entertainment Weekly a week or two before this year’s Oscar ceremonies, a photo of the Oscar nominees Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem — the eventual winners in the categories of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — were featured under the headline: "The Bad Boys: Two Villains who Redefine Evil. Two Academy Awards Waiting to Happen." Both Mr Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood and Mr Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men give fine performances in (I would say) inferior films, but in what sense could they be said to "redefine evil"? Only, I think, in the sense that it is redefined as more comical than solemn or scary.
But this isn’t a new thing. I don’t know if I would call it a redefinition, but we learned to laugh at evil decades ago from the Bond villains. EW itself recognizes this by placing Plainview and Chigurh in the tradition of the Bond villain, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me, whom it places midway on its scale between "Mean" and "Evil." Of course, there were also Goldfinger and Dr No and any of a dozen or so others, not to mention Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies, which are parodies of a parody, and even, perhaps, the most memorably lurid of Hollywood’s 1980s and 1990s spate of "serial killers," Hannibal Lecter. Though Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter was in theory supposed to be a scary guy — as are, for that matter, Plainview and Chigurh — he was so over-the-top in his scariness in Silence of the Lambs that he was already on the brink of becoming a joke before he was brought back in Hannibal — and the erotic charge between him and the fair Clarice (Jodie Foster in the first film, Julianne Moore in the sequel) was made explicit.
You can recognize these villains, whether of the subtly or blatantly comic kind, by their evil trademark — Jaws’ teeth, Oddjob’s killer hat, Goldfinger’s love of gold-leaf, Dr Evil’s Mini-Me or Hannibal’s goalie-mask and fondness for fava beans and Chianti while devouring human organs. The alleged re-definers of evil are the same. Chigurh has his page-boy haircut, his pneumatic cattle gun and his habit of allowing his would-be victims to flip a coin for their lives while Plainview has the villainous catch-phrase, "I drink your milkshake!" — supposedly taken from a transcript of the Congressional investigation into the Teapot Dome oil scandal in the 1920s and meaning "I steal your oil deposit." This has taken the Internet by storm and adorns the T-shirts of the many fans who presumably love the movie not for its human drama, if any, but for the Grand Guignol-like thrills of its caricature villain. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, told EW’s Ken Tucker that he "has always looked at Blood ‘as a horror film’ — and at No Country as ‘a sort of horror Western.’" Just so. Horror, too, now tends to default to comedy.
In a sidebar to the EW article, Gregory Kirschling writes of his dismay at the eagerness of the popular culture to take up "I drink your milkshake!" This, he claims, "reduces art to a punchline; it puts an epic in a blender and comes out with . . . a milk shake." But what else could he expect? Where there’s a joke, there’s got to be a punchline, and villainy is now more often a joke than not. Just look at the wacky killers in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, a movie about two hired assassins holidaying in Bruges, Belgium, while they await instructions from the crime boss who employs them. Though it occasionally pretends to have a serious sub-text, the movie is essentially just a laff-riot. The cross-talk act between Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) takes its cue from Pulp Fiction (1994), which pioneered the idea of mining cinematic gold from the dialogue of a couple of mirthful murderers, and "The Sopranos," in which we were made uneasily aware that if we took what we were watching too seriously, we wouldn’t be able to laugh at the jokes.
It is difficult to give a sampling of Mr McDonagh’s witty dialogue in a family magazine, as it is so enseamed with obscenity that the quality of the vernacular in his heroes’ mouths can hardly be conveyed without those words. But there are one or two rare bits that don’t require them. Here’s one. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that, about half-way through, Ken is instructed by the sinister Harry (Ralph Fiennes), his boss back in London, to kill his younger companion. Ray is new to the contract killer game and, in committing his first murder for Harry — of a priest, no less — he has accidentally killed a little boy who had been waiting to make his confession. Poignantly, we are shown a piece of paper clutched in the dead boy’s hand. On it is written in large, childish printing, the words: "1. Being moody. 2. Being bad at maths. 3. Being sad." Ray is eaten up with guilt about this, and Harry, who has what he calls "principles" about killing children, simultaneously decides that Ray must die. "You can’t kill a kid and expect to get away with it. You can’t. You just can’t."
But Harry’s principles turn out to be little more than a joke as well. They are just Harry’s quaint, old-fashioned way of pretending to himself that he’s not the evil thug — or at least not just the evil thug — he really is. Ken, who has up until now been trying to get his resolutely philistine friend Ray to appreciate something of the cultural riches of Bruges, is genuinely sorry to have to kill him, but he follows Harry’s instructions up until the point where he approaches Ray from behind with his gun drawn. Here, however, he sees to his horror Ray raising a gun to his own head. "Ray, don’t!" he cries.
Ray turns and, taking in Ken’s drawn gun at a glance, says: "You were going to kill me!"
"You were going to kill yourself!" says Ken.
"I’m not allowed, and you are?" says Ray. "How is that fair?"
I’ll not go on to reveal who dies and why, but there are multiple further mixups and mistakes that remind one of those old-fashioned sex farces where people are always finding themselves in the wrong bedroom. In fact, this movie is a sort of murder farce, an updated version of the entertainments that amused our grandparents. Just as they took what was then lately considered to be the immensely solemn and serious subject of sex and marriage and made a joke of it, so the successor-genre takes the formerly serious subject of murder and makes a joke of it. Who wants to be the po-faced, prudish spoilsport who says that it is wrong and spiritually impoverishing to make a joke of such things? But unless somebody makes that case, it won’t be long before everything becomes a joke, which is beginning to seem pretty much the state we’ve arrived at now.
It’s true that In Bruges is funny, but it is so only because movies generally and movie violence in particular have over the past 30 years become ever more detached from reality. This, as I have argued before in this space (see "The Hero Vanishes," TAS of September, 2007), is part of the legacy of modernism which, whatever its other charms, has all-but ruined the movies. Modernism in the movies, I argued, allowed them to become self-conscious, so that the director — or auteur as the French foppishly called him — became the hero of the film, rather than the ostensible hero, whom audiences were encouraged to patronize and feel superior to rather than, as in the past, to look up to. That’s why Plainview has comically to slurp up his oil-milkshake and Chigurh to proceed from one murder to the next like a malign superhero, out to show that truth, justice and the American way are the biggest jokes of all.
In this world, movies, like painting and the other arts before them, can only be judged on formalist criteria. Technique is everything and old-fashioned content — plot, character, moral vision — insofar as it exists at all is merely the vehicle for it. The early modernists, in film as in painting, were often brilliant craftsmen who created objects of great beauty. At the level of the visual artifact, this year’s Academy Award winners have done the same, but for them self-consciousness has become little more than a mannerism, and their efforts to create something worthy to stand beside the artistry of the past has produced only grotesque parody.