Friday, August 10, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Emily Brontë was not the first to create a monster twisted by bad winds and cold hearts. Mary Shelley made another, the creature brought forth by arrogant Dr. Franksenstein who shunned his son and set him adrift in an icy, brutal world. Hannibal Lecter is a more modern incarnation, but whether his proclivity for murder and cannibalism began in love denied is not clear; we only know that he is a textbook psychopath.

I am not the first to have written about such villains, sometimes merely to illustrate an ageless literary archetype and sometimes to explore the human experience that manifests itself in such characters from the darker regions of the human heart. Today, I wish to consider how popular such characters are in Hollywood.

First, I must admit that I am a sucker for redemption tales. I prefer to dwell, at least in fiction, among rascals, miscreants, and killers if salvation in some form is on the horizon. Having said that, I must also admit that I am a married woman; thus, I have held the hand of my sweetie while he enjoyed action movies, many of which have no redeeming value whatsoever. They are simply an exercise in bravado, weapons real and imagined, in blood, and body counts.

Now that you know a bit about me and my experience, you can place the next declaration in its proper context: I detest the current Hollywood action ilk. Here’s why.

Hollywood does not think complexly, perhaps because it underestimates its audience, perhaps because it overestimates its own appeal, perhaps because it simply relies upon tried formulaic stories and lacks imagination. I don’t know, but the result is a number of Hollywood films that rely upon simplistic good and bad character conflicts.

Movies about war take advantage of this dichotomy. Whichever side has bankrolled the film tells the story from its point of view as the good guys, the heroes beset by bad guys with foreign sounding names who nevertheless speak the Queen’s English or some version of American English, often with a backwoods twang added for good measure. I guess we believe here on this side of the pond that folks from Appalachia or Alabama are tough guys who can stand up to and overwhelm bad guys from anywhere.

Movies about the old West also take advantage of this dichotomy. Men with badges wear white ten-gallon hats, and men with larcenous impulses choose darker clothing. They also usually have smaller heads and therefore, require smaller hat sizes. The White Hats carry weapons, of course, but they do not take life lightly. They pause, often looking off into the distance, at the horizon, as if their resolve beckons and approves. Dark Hats fire guns and stick knives impulsively, instinctively, feeling as little remorse as old Macbeth who runs through Young Siward simply because he can.

These classic movie forms about war or the American West become interesting when imbued with a touch of Joseph Conrad or William Golding, both of whom considered the Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies within every man, woman, and child. In their worlds, a sheriff is not simply genetically predisposed to a rigid moral code any more than children are born free of temptations to behave as bullies or predilections to survive at the cost of the unfit.

In the worlds that Conrad and Golding reflect in their fiction, characters struggle as they choose one path or another. Young Marlow or younger Ralph might take something from the local candy store because it was easy to do so, but the candy fails to please. Their Superegos labor in overdrive until they confess.

The men who traffic in ivory, on the other hand, and the Jacks of this world let their freak flags fly (from Easy A). They let their Ids out in broad daylight and don't call it home for supper.

When a Jack or a Company Man decides to become anything else, when he vows to fight his Id demon, when he feels empathy for his victims, then he becomes a villain worthy of our attention. John McClane is not a nice guy until Hans Gruber forces him to realign his priorities away from a self-pity party inspired by his wife’s star eclipsing his own. McClane becomes an Everyman, the one who shows up when we need a hero. He fumbles and stumbles, even mistaking Gruber for a hostage. He literally walks on broken glass, leaving his blood-stained footprints on the page of his personal challenge to be brave and good.

So it is the war within, like the one Hamlet fought, the one wherein he doubted his purpose and his worth, that is most interesting, not the war without, featuring Fortinbras’s brass and Claudius’s sty. It is the struggle to rise above self-interest, survival instincts, and personal reward in order to serve, sacrifice, and save. That’s what Hollywood misses and glosses almost all the time, but I’ll prove that in subsequent posts, using some of the biggest box office hits from recent film history.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more examples of war movies and Westerns as well as the one film referenced in this post: Die Hard or its two sequels. Some of the best war films include the war within the soldiers, and they include The Best Years of Our Lives and Saving Private Ryan. A movie that relies upon a somewhat two-dimensional juxtaposition of good guys and bad is The Great Escape. Complex Westerns include the novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and its film adaptation. Less complex Westerns include several early John Wayne films such as The Big Trail (1930).

You may also enjoy reading or re-reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Macbeth and Hamlet by Shakespeare, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

Writing Challenge:

Write a two-dimensional character analysis for a good guy and a bad guy. Remember not to make them complex. As you write, you should become more aware of the stereotypes employed to create such characters quickly. Television programs, confined in a tight time frame, and movies often employ these stereotypes to establish a character’s nature in the first few minutes of film.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Tips

Students, young and old, as you wield your pencils and pens, as you click and clack on your keyboards, remember some of the basic usage mistakes that teachers would love to stop circling. One basic mistake is using the wrong form of three words that sound exactly alike but have different meanings. They are to, too, and two.

As you two begin your journey to wedded bliss, remember not to dwell on your spouse’s defects for you may have too many defects of your own.

Two refers to a number greater than one and less than three.

To is a preposition indicating a direction toward.

Too is an adverb that indicates excess and can be used as a synonym for also.

Don’t rely upon spell-check to signify if you have used the wrong word in context. Re-read with your mind tuned to the different meanings of two, to and too.