Monday, October 29, 2012
Human movie monsters
I've been quiet for a few weeks; there's been a family tragedy that's taken up a lot of my time and will probably take up more in future. Just so you know. I'm okay, but very sad.
However, Halloween is coming and it always seems to me a cheerful festival, a chance for pretty orange lights and safe campfire scares. So, with this in mind, here's a Halloween subject:
What are the scariest or most monstrous performances in movies? Not goblins and vampires, but just human beings?
When I started compiling a list, I noticed that biopics were quite a feature; I like biopics. And the monsters they give us, based on real people, are often more subtle: you can play a fictional monster as an archetype, but to play a real one, you must find the place in which they justify themselves to themselves. To me, this is every bit as frightening, with its own fascination. So, while I was originally planning a top five, I think instead I'm going to give two sets of three, one for performed biographies and one for fictional creations. This isn't a complete list, nor even necessarily a set of top anything. There are many fine performances, and ranking them seems a little silly. So, here's my not-really-top-half-dozen human movie monsters.
Forest Whittaker as Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland
And we must all be glad that Whittaker made the decision to take on that role, because my goodness, the man delivers. Dominating the screen with his hearty, expansive force, a merry bully whose party you interrupt at risk of your life, Whittaker's Amin is horrifically distractible - a man who may destroy you in a moment of sudden rage or, if you can gather your courage to charm him, change his mind in an instant and lavish gifts on you - usually gifts taken from somebody else. 'You're a child,' Nicholas chokes out, facing his fate: 'that's what makes you so fucking scary.' And so he is, with the ego and the patience of a toddler ... but terrifyingly, he's not stupid. Far from it: he may look simple, but he's sharp, observant, a man who sees your lusts in an instant and feeds them as long as it serves him - then sees your fear of him when you know who he is, and turns on you with paranoid brutality. What might seem like simple-mindedness is just pure, naked shamelessness. He throws tantrums, demands the impossible, blames and lashes out, concerned with nothing but his own comfort to the exclusion of justice, reason and humanity. 'You should have told me not to throw the Asians out in the first place!' he shouts to Nicholas, facing the collapse of his economy, and when Nicholas points out that he did, cries, 'But you did not persuade me, Nicholas! You did not persuade me!' It's not that he can't see reality: he just doesn't want to, and with all his power, he doesn't have to. When you can torture a man to death on a whim, your common sense is under your own control ... and what a nightmare Whittaker makes of it. Amin is a man you can only wish will never know you exist, because once he has seen you, you will never again be safe: he will pick you up like a child picks up a toy, to dandle, chew upon and smash as the impulse takes him.
It's a performance of consummate artistry, entirely deserving of the Oscar it received, and one of the most frightening characters ever committed to film.
Andy Serkis as Ian Brady, Longford
For those non-Brits unfamiliar with the case, the Moors murders are one of the worst cases in British history: Ian Brady and his girlfriend Hindley kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed five children aged between ten and seventeen, supposedly influenced by Brady's Nietzschean belief that the superman is above the law. Public outrage was naturally high, and Hindley was classed 'the most hated woman in Britain'. Helped by Longford, Hindley claimed to have reformed and found God and campaigned for her own release, generating further outrage and bringing considerable opprobrium on Longford himself - especially when it emerged that she had, in fact, deliberately been withholding information about the sites of two of the victims' graves all along, which pretty thoroughly undermines her claims to reform. The outrage was potent (and I, for one, consider it right that she died in prison) - but was raised with a vigour not unmixed with sexism. I remember a tabloid at the time lambasting her killing of children because she was 'a woman and a potential mother'; Brady being a man and a potential father did not draw the same ire.
It's interesting to contrast Serkis's performance as the murdererous Brady with another Brady performance: Sean Harris in another made-for-TV drama, See No Evil. The latter is told from the perspective of Hindley's sister and brother-in-law - the latter of whom was invited to join the couple's murderous activities and instead, courageously, went straight to the police, only to find himself a suspect. Harris's performance is also excellent (the whole drama is good, and Maxine Peake's performance as Hindley is better even than Samantha Morton's excellent Hindley in Longford), but he comes at the role in from an entirely different direction, playing Brady as he must have seemed from the outside. Harris's Brady is an egocentric geek, domineering and a bit pretentious, a pushy autodidact fond of unasked lectures and philosophical questions, the eccentric brother-in-law you tolerate because we all have our little ways and he seems to make Myra happy.
Serkis, though, takes the opposite line, playing Brady as Brady saw himself or perhaps as he appeared to Hindley: an unstoppable psychological force that bears down everything in its path. Meeting Serkis's Brady is like meeting the devil, like meeting depression made flesh. Serkis, always a physical actor - he played Brady between playing Gollum and King Kong, remarking that it was the middle point in a series of monsters - gives Brady a dark and massive presence that fills the room with raw, intelligent spite. His Brady is a man who sees inside you and and hates everything he sees, who talks to hurt you and has nothing but contempt for any illusions of goodness or worth you might ever have cherished. It takes some doing to overbear Jim Broadbent, but Serkis does it: we see him only three times, each time more damaged in body as his hunger strike takes a toll, but with a focused malevolence that leaves his own pain aside and goes straight for the soul.
Harris's performance is probably more accurate in terms of the real Brady, but Serkis's is a sight you never forget.
Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich, Conspiracy
And so Heydrich is, in Branagh's presentation: handsome, confident, his own self the most polished of products. He has a word for everyone, and he controls the meeting with slick authority, brushing off distractions and speaking over contributions, utterly in charge, holding to himself and unpacking at his own pace the great secret nobody else knows: that he has the mandate to kill every Jew in Europe, and that everyone else's agreement to this plan is a mere formality. There's a frightening sadism, not even towards Jews - not onscreen, anyway - but in the pure satisfaction he takes in unfolding his plan almost as an aesthetic pleasure, relishing his right to overrule anyone who interrupts its pleasing tidiness. Branagh begins as charming, becomes maddening as he lets nobody else have a single moment of self-assertion on even the most trivial subject, and finally, terrifying. His word for everybody becomes ruthless, no longer about management but the necessary application of force, persuading this person with some soft words about a better future after the war, that one with a reminder of his mandate from the Fuhrer, and this one with a quiet, smiling death threat: 'Oh, you will answer now, or you will answer ... later.' All with the same unchanging suavity with which he entered the meeting.
It's an ordinary conference, albeit a well-run one, food and surroundings luxuriously just so. And in the course of it, Branagh's Heydrich condemns a race to death through death threats for his colleagues, and walks out of the meeting calm, cheerful, and pleased with a neat afternoon's work.
Fredric March as Mr Hyde (and also Dr Jekyll), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931, directed by Rouben Mamoulian)
Making beautiful use of Expressionist iconography - lush staging, deep lights and darks, visual metaphors - the film adapts Stevenson's short story and adds a new plot of its own. Dr Jekyll, scientist, philanthropist, beloved by his patients and suspected by his colleagues, is a man of immense drive - for science, for knowledge, for charity, and for love and sex. Condemned to a long engagement by the father of the woman he passionately loves, his patience snaps and he begins taking for release what he had first taken for science, the drug that unleashes his hidden desires. These desires find a tragic focus in Ivy, a free-and-easy young woman whom Jekyll previously helped after a street scuffle and who, attracted by this graceful, handsome gentleman, made a pass at him that Jekyll could not accept, but evidently couldn't forget either. Unleashed, Hyde goes to find her, and Ivy's fate is sealed.
The physical performance plays skilfully against the make-up, rendering Hyde a fidgety, hunched, simian presence. His restlessness is not nervous but greedy, following every impulse to move, to enjoy, to grasp. Brutality is uncontained - Jekyll's fine walking stick quickly strikes out against any underling who displeases Hyde - but March retains the confidence and intelligence of Jekyll, playing Hyde as a man of animalistic lusts but highly human wits. Most horribly, the script allows points of convergence between the two: both Jekyll and Hyde will, when excited, speechify and call for a response ... but where Jekyll rejoices at his shortened engagement and incites his butler to say how happy for Jekyll he is - a response the affectionate butler is happy to give - Hyde torments Ivy with threatening promises of their evening together and demands she say how happy the prospect of unnamed violence makes her, adding emotional torture to physical.
In both Jekyll and Hyde, March creates passion, intelligence and a masterful disposition; in Hyde, he blends the id with the intellect in a truly horrific alchemy.
Sydney Blackmer as Roman Castevet, Rosemary's Baby
When we first enter the film, it's Ruth Gordon's Minnie Castevet who seems like the nightmare neighbour, pushy, loud, nosy and invasive, apparently long settled into bossing around her quieter husband. Soft-spoken, fond of repeating his old stories and favourite phrases - 'You name a place, I've been there,' 'We shall see, we shall see' - Roman seems mild and ineffective. His tacky wardrobe and flyaway hair, his singsong voice and slight, befuddled feyness: all add up to an old coot who might be a little peculiar, but seems absolutely unthreatening.
Except when you see him in his circle. The sing-song speeches become smooth fanaticism; the quiet voice is a voice that doesn't have to be raised to be heard; the delicacy of manner becomes utter, aristocratic self-esteem. Roman is quiet and off-kilter not because he's confused, but because we are: because he knows something we don't. Those odd repeated phrases are not rambling but preacherly; his apparent submission to his wife is in reality the relaxed authority of a man who knows himself to be the John the Baptist of his faith and can let his followers flap around as much as they like without disturbing his secure, inborn status. And in that status is the pitiless calm of the prophet: as he confronts Rosemary, the young woman who trusted him while he arranged for her to be raped, impregnated, monitored and then robbed of her baby, a woman he has violated in every possible way, his assurance doesn't waver. He just orders aside his loyalists and plays upon poor shattered Rosemary with poised, impervious belief.
Blackmer's performance is a monster that depends entirely on context, on knowing, finally, what the secret is. But when we know that secret ... that's when the twinkle becomes, truly, diabolical.
(I'd also put in a word for John Cassavetes's performance as Guy Woodhouse here, Roman's accomplice, callow and callous, who sells his wife to advance his career: his restless irritability and selfish dependence on the goodness of others even before the Satanists start their pitch makes for a fine plausibility in the role. Rosemary is duped by, in effect, a corporate monster, an unholy combination of personalities. Again, it's a movie of contexts, and an exceptional one.)
Sergi Lopez as Vidal, Pan's Labyrinth
Pan's Labyrinth is, in its naturalistic scenes, a violent film, bloodily, wincingly so. Vidal is the nexus of this violence, seeming to regard it as the inevitable fate of those who make the mistake of being inferior to him: he has the pure sadism of a man for whom power is a virtue and the inability to protect oneself from it is reason enough to deserve your pain. Torture is his true home; he recites the same speech while laying out the horribly ordinary tools of his trade with each new victim as if enjoying the chance to reaffirm his own relished identity.
There is much to admire in the fantastical elements of Pan's Labyrinth, including the fine physical performance of Doug Jones as the monstrous creatures. But it's Lopez who grounds the film, who enacts evil in human action ... and in so doing, gives the monsters their real bite.
So, those are some favourite human movie monsters. What are yours?
Glad you're OK. Don't suppose there's much I can do, but if there should be, give me a shout.
In the fictional category, it's an obvious pick but I think still a valid one: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs. He took what could have been some of the corniest lines ever written, and somehow made them work, to a degree that frankly they didn't deserve.
I'm still hoping for a good film about the Krays, one day - the Peter Medak one from 1990 really doesn't cut it for me, or I'd nominate it in the "real" category.
The only one of these I've seen is Conspiracy, and you hit it right on the nose. Branagh's Heydrich is worlds more frightening than Bruno Ganz's Hitler in Downfall. Ganz's character is clearly unhinged, and has at that point succeeded in wreaking terrible destruction on the world, but at the time of the film he's literally and metaphorically isolated and impotent.
On the other hand, watching Branagh's performance and then watching the interview with the real Traudl Junge before and after Downfall makes her seem much more chilling, in the sense of Arendt's banality of evil.
Your descriptions of some of these others make them sound much more intriguing. I might have to check them out.
One of the things that I find quite "interesting" is that people seldom identify Captain Louis Renault (played by Claude Rains) as one of the most villainous people in Casablanca. In fact one might argue that he is far worse than any of the other characters in the story. Major Strasser is a officer in the German military and is carried out orders and/or upholding the ideology of the party he belongs to. Rick Blaine is an alienated hurt man who we come to realize is not neither as bereft of morals/ethics as he would like to think. Laszio is so blinded by ideology and his consciousness of doing right that he can see little else.
But Renault. Renault is the type of middle level leech/user that one finds in so many companies, countries and positions of power.
Content warning: discussion of rape and rape culture.
Renault is demanding "sexual favours" of women who are trying to get themselves and their loved ones out of Casablanca. He is actually hearty and open about what he is doing and Rains absolutely sells the way in which certain types of men can get away with such actions. Renault finally switches to "the other side" but it is fairly clear from the film that he does not do so out of ethics or morals.
Watching Rains performance informs how certain type of people just never get held accountable and how rape culture can wear the face of "good old boys."
Renault finally switches to "the other side" but it is fairly clear from the film that he does not do so out of ethics or morals.
Interesting. It always seemed to me that it was presented as a kind of moral reform - that in the same way that Rick was representative of America, clinging to self-interested isolationism instead of using his resources to help, Renault was explicitly linked to France, first accepting and then rejecting the Vichy government and so redeeming his own patriotism. What is it you see that you'd say makes it 'fairly clear' that his switch is not a case of morals or ethics?
We may just be reading it differently in that I always saw Casablanca as a fairytale more than a character study, with different characters enacting different sides of the political debate. As such, I found it hard to like or dislike any of the characters because they didn't seem like people so much as like swing votes. What's your take on that?
The only one of these movies I have seen is PAN'S LABYRINTH, which I agree shows humans as far more monstrous -- and brave and beautiful as well -- than any supernatural creature.
But I am intrigued by Kit's take on CASABLANCA, and reminded of the phenomenon of AXIS POWERS: HETALIA. If you're not familiar with it, it started as a Japanese webcomic, later manga and anime, in which the various nations and principalities of World War II are anthropomorphized as cute teenage boys, with various broadly stereotypical traits (e.g., the USA is always eating hamburgers, is loud and bossy, and wants to be seen as the hero; Mmy, you might be amused by the running gag that the Canada character is always invisible and whenever he speaks, the others are briefly puzzled as to where the voice is coming from, before ignoring him)
Anyways, while the humor is broad and sophomoric, the historical lessons are often surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated. What is very odd to me is the way that HETALIA fans (many of them teenage girls) have glommed onto the "cute boys" aspect of the comic and fanatically cosplay and write romantic fanfic about characters who represent not only their own nation's historic "enemies", but were frankly guilty of the most abhorrent behavior imaginable.
("Germany", for example, is not in any way excused for the Nazi atrocities, but nonetheless is just as cute and adorable as the rest of the characters.)
I ... don't know what to make of this, honestly.
I haven't read it, but my speculation would be towards genre. Manga and anime tend to attract a very fannish following - by which I don't mean just people who are enthusiastic followers of something, but 'fan' as in 'fandom' - people for whom the social currency of shared enthusiasms is an important part of reading.
And if people are social readers, that often affects how they relate to the characters in a story as well. Fannish ways of reading do not tend towards the metaphorical; they're more inclined to see fiction as a delivery system for imaginary friends, or an imaginary community in which their opinion of events occupies the same place that political commentary does on real-world events, or at least to view the characters as people rather than as fictional strategies.
To that way of reading, what the characters represent is simply not a factor: you relate to the characters and you relate to other fans of those characters; relating to the author's intentions is too exclusive and one-sided a relationship and they're inclined to regard it as on some level demeaning. They like to see the act of reading as an act of co-creation; reading something precisely as the author intended (especially if the author was intending to educate, which sounds like the case here) removes the opportunity to see yourself that way, and as a result, seems to offend them.
This may bend a bit if the author themselves can either serve as an imaginary friend - they seem like the kind of person you'd like - or else has a positive relationship with their fan following. In that case, they may get a vote, but it's not a casting vote - but even then, that's only if authors can present their intentions as non-demeaning towards the readers. Authorial intention towards characters is seen as inherently tyrannous: to 'use' a character to make a political or historical point is seen as inherently demeaning to the characters because it doesn't respect their 'humanity' .
It's what the lamentable site TV Tropes calls the 'Literary Agent Hypothesis': the pretence that the author is merely recording the real events that happened to the characters, and may, should the reader choose, be declared to have recorded them inaccurately. (It says something about the site that they would call this the 'literary agent' hypothesis rather than the 'biographer' hypothesis; I certainly have yet to see my literary agent tell the story of my life.)* But in any event, these kinds of social readers prefer to take a social attitude towards characters as well as each other.
For an author using characters to make an analogical point, that's just not going to click: it would require accepting that the characters are not just unreal, but pawns of the author in service of a non-social point. (History is part of society, of course; I mean 'social' as in 'socialising.') From what I've seen of the fan mindset, such a way of reading is anathema. It seems to strike them as exploitative and callous, and they start rooting for the characters to somehow outwit or defeat the author writing them.
Of course, there are stories written to which this is an appropriate response. Ironically, considering how much hatred there is for it in most fan communities, the Twilight series is very much written to be read in that way. (Though it may also be why it lends itself so well to anti-fandom: the fan way of reading it is contextually appropriate even if it's hostile to the actual content.) Some stuff is written to be engaged with in a social way. Just not everything - but it sounds like your cosplaying friends are importing that way of reading onto a work that doesn't really suit it.
Which is not to say I'm assuming mmy's take on Casablanca was fannish, of course, because there are more than two ways of reading in the world!
*Any whining about how horrible it is not to like TV Tropes is going to get deleted.
Branagh's Heydrich is worlds more frightening than Bruno Ganz's Hitler in Downfall. Ganz's character is clearly unhinged, and has at that point succeeded in wreaking terrible destruction on the world, but at the time of the film he's literally and metaphorically isolated and impotent.
The thing that struck me as most disturbing about Downfall - intentionally, I suspect - was not the character of Hitler, but of everyone around him. Ganz plays the ruins of a charismatic personality, moving imaginary armies on a map and throwing hysterical tantrums when confronted with facts ... but the true horror is that those around him are still following his orders even though they know they're ridiculous. Not because they're mindless automata, but because they love him and can't bear to hurt him. It plays as very real human love, some potent mixture of the grateful child for an ailing parent and the pained parent for a fragile child ... to the point where people are calmly poisoning their own real children rather than leave his side. It's not the horror of the unstoppable monster, but of the monster people could, but won't, stop.
Given the long history of censoring representations of Hitler in Germany prior to Downfall - a good idea in my view, and it's too bad America didn't take the same line after the Civil War; we might be in less of a mess nowadays without Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind, masterpieces though they are - having an actor play him was always going to be a delicate business. I would theorise that it was either a conscious attempt to come to terms with that problem, or else just an attitude shaped and informed by Germany's caution towards Hitler, that the blame, the horror, was forcefully laid not upon Hitler, but upon those who chose to follow him. In other words, the price of showing Hitler in a German film was making it a kind of cautionary tale: Hitler's gone, but don't get too complacent - he was just one man, and he'd never have gotten anywhere if the rest of us hadn't let him. We're not making an Indiana Jones movie here; we can't afford to just brush him off. Let's not forget our own responsibilities.
I think, not unlike Rosemary's Baby, it's a film of corporate horror ... only in this case, the 'leader' is past all authority except the authority that his followers, all equipped to know better, insist on indulging him with.
(Kit at 7.27)
I wonder whether your theory of fannish reading can be stretched to include fandom of/for specific characters? Specifically, regarding character A as a good guy and character B as a bad guy in the teeth of most of the evidence, nominally because there was one particular incident that pointed the other way but often, I suspect, in practice because there's a community of people who feel the same way.
I know some fans of The Archers who certainly work this way: a character does something nice, and that's declared by these people as (at best) "creepy and controlling" because he has already been classified as a Bad Person.
I fear that thinking this way may be closely correlated with the Daily Mail "all criminals are that way irrevocably and should be locked up forever" approach to justice.
(I find TVTropes occasionally useful when I want to point other people at a particular stylistic feature, but I would never get involved in editing.)
(Kit at 8.29)
I think that part of the reason for continuing to follow orders, after the leader has lost it, is a simple lack of alternatives. Having gone that far, there isn't going to be a good ending (unless he provides it - and his legend says that he's pulled off miraculous victories before). Even if you don't really believe that any more, what else are you going to do? Run outside and surrender, and probably get shot?
I wonder whether your theory of fannish reading can be stretched to include fandom of/for specific characters? ...
I know some fans of The Archers who certainly work this way: a character does something nice, and that's declared by these people as (at best) "creepy and controlling" because he has already been classified as a Bad Person.
Well, I was talking about a general reading/listening/viewing attitude, and strong partisan reactions to particular characters are certainly an element to it in the examples I've seen. Quite a key one, in fact, because if the way of consuming is heavily based on relating to the characters as if they were real, then forming intense likes and dislikes is an inevitable part of that.
And they're probably all the more intense because the characters, being unreal, never actually do anything to the fan that might change their minds. That character you hate is never going to turn out to be your best adviser when you and your dad have a big falling-out; that guy you love is never going to borrow money from you and get all defensive when you ask him to pay it back; that guy you always criticise is never going to burst into tears and make you feel guilty for hurting his feelings. Real people are usually a mixture of qualities and we change our views of them as and when we run up against their variety. Fictional people can conveniently be treated, in our heads, any way we like, and it'll never come back at us. You can work out your fantasies and take out your resentments in a completely safe, consequence-free setting.
But it is a limiting way of reading, especially with characters who aren't completely consistently written. Take a series like The Archers: in the decades it's been running, it must have had hundreds of writers handling the same characters. Even the most professional team is not going to have complete consistency in their writing: fiction is a handmade product and any irregularities in the weave are part of the natural process. Soaps like The Archers are at pains to conceal this as much as they can, but even so, a little thought on the subject should make it clear. If the characterisation warps a bit and you're listening with that awareness in mind, you can just shrug it off: 'Eh, I preferred it last year, hope it'll change again soon.' But if you assume the characters are real people, those inconsistencies lead to some serious mental loops.
I find TVTropes occasionally useful when I want to point other people at a particular stylistic feature
Fair enough. Just please don't do it here.
I think one could argue that, at least in the current production climate, characters in The Archers are prone to inconsistencies because they're moved around as needed to fill a certain role in the plot of the month. It's certainly clear that record-keeping is not all it could be (someone has a crippling fear of heights one month, then a few months later is happily going on a roller-coaster, with no acknowledgement of the change).
So per your hypothesis that's going to cause even more trouble than might be the case in a series written by a smaller number of writers over a shorter period. Alas, it would probably be rather difficult to measure mental dislocation among fans.
please don't do it here.
Sure, no problem - your space, your rules. Did I miss something?
Yes, you're absolutely right that the horror in Downfall vests in the other characters, especially Frau Goebbels. I can see some of the characters' reactions as love, but not most of it. I actually thought that one of the things the film did well was a range of the reactions: terror from some of the officers, devotion with various degrees of blindness from others, and even unwavering ideological certainty - which went hand-in-hand with some sorts of love, but was more fundamental than that, I think.
It's not the horror of the unstoppable monster, but of the monster people could, but won't, stop.
No, I think it's the horror of why these people couldn't, in their own minds, stop him. This can turn into a debate about free will and so on, but I think one of the poorly-understood issues of closed-epistemology ideologies is how people on the inside can't, in their world, get out.
thanks for sharing.Post a Comment
July 2006 August 2006 September 2006 October 2006 November 2006 December 2006 January 2007 February 2007 March 2007 April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 July 2007 August 2007 September 2007 October 2007 November 2007 December 2007 January 2008 February 2008 March 2008 April 2008 May 2008 June 2008 July 2008 August 2008 September 2008 October 2008 November 2008 December 2008 January 2009 February 2009 March 2009 April 2009 May 2009 June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 September 2009 October 2009 November 2009 December 2009 January 2010 February 2010 March 2010 April 2010 June 2010 July 2010 August 2010 September 2010 October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 March 2011 April 2011 May 2011 June 2011 July 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011 November 2011 December 2011 January 2012 February 2012 March 2012 April 2012 May 2012 June 2012 July 2012 August 2012 September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013 June 2013 July 2013 August 2013 September 2013 October 2013 March 2014