Monday, July 21, 2008

WHY CAN'T THE BAD GUYS LOSE or HOW TO TALK PAST ONE ANOTHER IN THREE STEPS


In this post, I'm going to attempt to do two things: 1) discuss two seemingly dissimilar movies (No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight, and 2) offer up a theory of why in both of these movies, the bad guys keep getting away. Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with the bad guys being really slippery or the good guys being inept.

The Dark Knight, by the way, was freaking awesome, and I'll try to talk about the movie without actually talking about it, for the sake of the three readers of this blog who still haven't seen it.
***

In No Country, you have the story of Anton Chigur, an unstoppable force of evil who takes delight in being the purveyor of death, as evidenced by the near-orgasmic look on his face in his first kill. It's no small stretch to see Heath Ledger's take on the Joker in a similar vein; he gleefully describes the difference between using knives and guns, noting that the knives are just more exquisite. Two films, two villans who have looked over the edge of the abyss and found only their only reflection looking back. Both villans are described as living by their own internal code of right and wrong, and as such, find absolute joy in living out that chaos and destruction.

This is the genius of these characters: it's not that they have chosen to live out the 'bad' end of society's spectrums, embracing the illegal end of the law; for both Joker and Anton Chigur, there is no law. All that is left, having broken past the bounds of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, is sheer aesthetics: the delicious and exquisite embrace of pleasure for its own sake. At one point, the Joker remarks to Batman that he could never kill him. Why?

"You're just too much fun."



The problem that both Batman and the sheriff of No Country suffer from is the same: they operate within a framework of good and evil that their villans simply do not recognize. Seeing it in the chaos wrought by the Joker is easy: Batman's heroics are characterized as stretching the limits of what constitutes pursuing the 'good'. As he taps citizens cell phones and risks the lives of the innocent, Batman strains the limits of being a good guy, doing what he does for the sake of the city; the Joker's crimes, however, have no logic of right and wrong and so for all Batman's straining the limits of moral behavior, the Joker moves along unphased. In No Country, we see the same behavior, as the sheriff and his crew struggle to make sense of why Chigur is chasing after the money, when for Chigur, it isn't really even about the money; in the closing monologue, the sheriff describes a dream of his father, and how in it, he loses money, but experiences no real remorse over this loss: for him, the money central to the narrative of No Country bears no meaning for the sheriff, a man of the land and of family. This, of course, is where the sheriff fundamentally misunderstands Chigur: Chigur doesn't care about the cash either, but about pursuing his own internal code, which demands blood at every turn, from the innocent and guilty alike.

And so, two heroes, and two complete lacks of understanding. In both cases, it is not that the hero tries to overcome evil and lacks the will to do it; evil is simply playing a game that good knows nothing about, and so, the good guys come off looking befuddled and helpless, grasping at straws, making heroic gestures that completely miss the point. Because for Chigur and the Joker, the hero's willingness to go beyond the normalcy of good is not what is required; for either to be stopped, good and evil have to be discarded altogether, and they must be defeated by being more beautiful than their opponent, by performing an act so altogether haunting that their opponent respects them, not as a moral superior, but as a true artist.

It does no good extending our own definitions of good to match the excesses of evil, for evil plays by a logic that has no respect for the rules; it goes up chutes and turns over ladders, examining lines on the board as no more solid than light beams streaming through the dust. And so, approaches to evil must not seek to match their excesses, but operate from within the core strength of goodness--exercising virtue and true justice-- and in doing so, goodness bears the scourges of evil in order to overcome it--not by force, but by suffering.

9 comments:

the hamster said...

i like that first sentence on the last paragraph there. good thoughts and beautiful writing.

john and i already discussed it: if you keep making us look like tv tube monkeys with our thumbs up our butts we're going to vote you off the island.

no, really, this is good stuff here, myles. this post is the reason i love having coffee and beers with you - you see into the basement of places where i'm still searching the ground floors.

i like this letting go our definitions of good and evil. i think this is the reason i enjoy the films i enjoy so much - i want other definitions, i'm one person here and i haven't thought through all the angles and possibilities of life and people and joy and horror yet. i look to art to show me more, to help me consider ideas i've never notioned before. the majority of people i know do not want to abandon there own ideas and definitions, and they walk away from art discouraged or disturbed because life up there is not working in the confines of life for them right here. that's an empty way to view any art - be it film, literature, music or traditional forms of visual art.

and, i will go so far to say, that same refusal to drop guards in the face of challenging forces affects the way we view other people - needing society to fit our own definitions of normalcy and worth, or else we unintentionally demean them with hatred or, worse, false christian pity. that last one can be just as devastating as the wrong side of anton chigurh's coin.

the hamster said...

i give the new batman 4 pencil tricks out of five. there was so much i loved, and a few things i slightly hated.

myleswerntz said...

dude, you're no tube monkey. I'm the one who blogged about Super Troopers.

I think the point is not to let go of definitions of good and evil, but to recognize that evil doesn't play by these definitions, and so, trying to confront evil on its own terms only means corrupting good, not confronting evil. on the other hand, it's a challenge to good to think of the good as the truly beautiful, which the Joker/Chigurh's views gesture towards.

4 pencil tricks and a Big Chief eraser out of 5.

the hamster said...

no, i like letting go of the definitions. suspension of morality and all that stuff. comes in handy during the machete blows and skin-shots. try it. it's fun.

Jeremy Allen said...

Myles, thoughtful writing here. I enjoy very much your writings and look forward to more of them, but this one leaves me with some questions. Let me know if I am misunderstanding you.

You write that Batman and the sheriff operate via a framework of good and evil. You also write that Chigur and Joker are beyond the good-evil framework and operate via their internal codes of seeking pleasure for pleasure's sake. If I understand correctly, I see two distinct and separate realms of operation here.

You conclude with, "approaches to evil must not seek to match their excesses. . ." By 'evil' here I assume you are referring to the operations of the bad guys in the story, but according to your earlier description the bad guys are not part of the framework of good-evil, so I don't see how now you can refer to the bad guys as evil. They must be referred to as those who operate by internal code that is beyond the good-evil framework, or as artists who seek pleasure for pleasure's sake, but not as evil, which would only place them back into the framework you said they were not in.

So, our framework of good-evil, as you describe, is a scale of actions where at one end are actions we approve of (lawful) and at the other end are actions we entirely disapprove of (illegal). According to your analysis, I think you cannot place the actions of Chigur on this scale since they are on some other scale entirely.

In this case, how does suffering at the hands of such 'other' actions become "an act so altogether haunting that their opponent respects them . . . as a true artist?" And how would that constitute overcoming?

myleswerntz said...

good catch: you can't really call Chigurh 'evil' if his code is 'beyond good and evil'. In the case of the villans in both films, who operate in a world of nihilistic joy, the only thing they respond to is pleasure derived from their internal code.

so....overcoming them happens not by being 'better' than them, but by appealing to them on the level of being the perfection of destruction, which is the only form they respond to. this is where 'goodness' transcends our typical bounds of good and evil, by incarnating its good instead of appealing to rules.

case in point: with the Joker, Batman is respected not because he stretches the rightness of the law, but because he outplays the Joker, as it were: he's 'fun' for the Joker. But the Batman's 'being fun' for the Joker means for the Batman taking on the mantle of suffering, the price for having transgressed the moral code of right/wrong in the eyes of Gotham. And thus, the only way to overcome evil, is to suffer, by becoming the very thing that the Joker seeks (the indestructible destroyed one) and in doing so, exhausting the Joker's search and 'stealing his thunder' as it were (the Joker is motivated not by a goal, but by the hunt for destruction--running up against the perfect exemplar, thus, ends the Joker's rampage).

Thus, the Batman willingly embraces suffering--both by his willingness to stretch the boundaries of the good, while staying within them (and incurring the wrath of those in the boundaries of good/evil), and from the Joker, for exhausting the Joker's destruction involves becoming the 'fun' the Joker seeks, i.e. the suffering one that is not destroyed.

Now, is the suffering one beautiful? I'd argue yes, because for both the Gothamites and the Joker, Batman has become the perfection of their worldviews: for Gotham, Batman has become the perfect lawkeeper in that he is subject to the same law he transcends; for Joker, this transgressive act makes Batman into the Destroyed one who cannot be destoryed, i.e. the perfection of the Joker's quest.

the hamster said...

all's i'm saying is that it's totally bitchin' when batman flips that 18-wheeler over on its nose! i squealed.

Landon said...

We posted nearly identical comments regarding the similarities between No Country and Dark Knight on the same day. I think you might have a future in film studies, Dr. Werntz.

Landon said...

Maybe a Harvey Dent/Llewelyn Moss comparison is in order?