Welcome to the Cult of “Villainy Chic”
O.K. I’m not burying the lead on this article, because I support a thinly held theory about the real cause of pandemic violence in America that is finally gaining traction. And those intent on “getting the guns” won’t like it one bit, because it immediately goes to the point that other countries such as Israel, Switzerland, and United Arab Emirates have very high percentages of gun ownership, very low crime rates and virtually no mass shootings. In fact, the top eight nations with high gun ownership, except the good old USA, have low proportionate crime rates. So, I think it’s high time we got into what’s really at play here—the dark and murky soul of the human ego.
Even out of the gate, I’d like to personally thank the most recent “Craig’s List Killer” Miranda Barbour for lending even more credibility to my construct by coming out this week with claims that she and her fiancé have “offed” over 100 victims (mostly men) in a crime spree that would make Natural Born Killers look like The Velveteen Rabbit. I personally believe her pronouncement is an utter fabrication born out of some demented need for “stardom,” (and fact checking will eventually bear this out). But it does dovetail perfectly into my argument.
I call my axiom The Celebritization of Evil, one for which I will provide postulate evidence—draw your own conclusions. So let me tell you how I arrived at mine…
So here I am last night, catching the final ceremonies of the the Sochi Winter Olympic in all its icy splendor when I realize that I’m actually approaching it with a sense of relief because, for the last two weeks, this spectacle has deprived me of the only TV show I watch on a regular basis—The Blacklist. To jostle my awareness even further, I realize that it actually caused me to experience certain addictive withdrawal symptoms for having been denied access to this murky masterpiece of an “everybody’s dirty” spy series starring that picaresque scoundrel Raymond Reddington (“Red”), brilliantly rendered by James Spader...when it finally strikes me numb. Good heavens! I too have fallen into the thrall of a murderous scumbag—albeit a suave, brilliant, highly sophisticated, murderous scumbag with a genius IQ and an etched-in-stone personal code of honor that somehow renders him sympathetic and occasionally just. Well, there you have it: I’ve been programmed, as we all have, not only to find evil acceptable but also, through some glitch in human decency, to be seductively glamorous—one that is well-woven into the fabric of an American cult conjuration that I refer to as “Villainy Chic.”
I punctuate that opinion in a thousand ways, starting with an oddly ill-timed Holiday Season launch of that three-network miniseries, Bonnie and Clyde. For some reason, venerable Australian director Bruce Beresford decided to reinvent the wheel by reworking the 1968 Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway classic with this Emile Hirsh, Holliday Granger “rebake,” deliberately over-stylized to make these homicidal sociopaths come off as the envy of the Beau Monde. Instead, it turned out to be nothing more than a boring, bloody fashion show where some very pretty people, dressed like a Tamara de Lempicka art-deco mural, shoot up the scenery, rob a bunch of banks, kill people indiscriminately and then pay tribute to themselves in a spate of subliterate sonnets published in the national press.
The irony of this pair of miscreants now lifted to the status of American cultural icons by virtue of shiny people portraying them lies in the fact that, in their time, Bonnie and Clyde were looked down upon, even by their peers, as murderous trailer trash. At that time, in what amounted to a Depression era epidemic of crime, we had much flashier outlaws like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd who made infinitely more compelling copy as “true folk heroes” in their own right. All of them, it seemed, were portrayed as the unfortunate asocial progeny of a dysfunctional society who somehow managed to capture a sizable gallery of devoted followers because they robbed banks. And the entire nation was still chafing under the devastation of the pre-FDIC collapse of our financial institutions followed by an orgy of foreclosures, yet another financial rape of the average man, and a 1930s global monetary meltdown.
Then, as now, it seems it has never been the individuals themselves but “The System” whose malevolent opacity is clearly to blame. Of course, the cliché holds true that every villain is the hero of his own story. That alone is fodder for the twisted minds and broken psyches of sociopaths everywhere—that it is our free society that is the real Matrix of Malevolence. So in some oddly self-justifying counterpoint, their brief spurts of brilliant violence amount to acts of poignant protest, rendering them both original and daring. (And as art invariably imitates life, the 1930s in particular saw a surge in Hollywood Gangster epics such as Little Caesar, Scarface, and Manhattan Melodrama that starred the biggest “A-List” actors from Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson to Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, all dressing to the nines, mowing people down and garnering what, at the time, were astronomical box office numbers).
Now we fast-forward to present time and a need to feed the jaded masses with a well-defined cult of Thug Worship that is striking us down as a society without our even knowing it. We have grown up loving our colorful antiheroes from Tony Soprano to Walter White in Breaking Bad—all of whom have either a family tradition or some unfortunate set of circumstances that have propelled them into going sideways with their social contract. Talented directors like Quentin Tarantino and the legendary Martin Scorsese have built entire career franchises out of rationalizing the manipulations of their twisted protagonists with irresistible appeal. Kill Bill and Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and Casino have brought us such a tapestry of confusing ethics and violent response that we have stopped going through the shock of trying to determine right from wrong, and simply accept “wrong” in all its mucky shades of gray as the way things really are.
The latest media phenomenon is the impossibly popular Showtime series, Dexter. Dexter—handsome, affable and 30-something of course—just happens to be a serial killer whose perverse talents for murder and mayhem have, through some evacuation of logic, been transformed into a useful purpose: assassinating international criminals, sex perverts and big-time terrorists that all the institutional minions of our intelligence agencies are somehow unable to wrangle in by any other means. To be sure, Dexter had a troubled, abusive childhood (which seems to justify everything these days). Besides, he is charming, charismatic and a genius with an off-the-hook Forensic IQ…and (yet again) a code he lives by. As such, he follows in the footsteps of that other über-archetypal sociopath, Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter.
Popularized by the book and the film, Silence of the Lambs, this somewhat overrated Oscar winning “best picture,” surrounds the mental and emotional manipulations of an FBI apprentice by an arch-villain so badly overcooked by Anthony Hopkins that, at some point, the performance takes on the aroma of well-hung pork. Not to worry though, because the majority of audiences everywhere seem irresistibly drawn to cannibalistic, skin-flaying psychopaths—so much so, that there have not only been three sequels/prequels, but also a website and a fan-club called “Loving Lecter.”
Why be surprised, when you think about it? Real life cannibalistic pedophile and deceased serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has a fan club. Charles Manson has a fan club and a website. So does Vlad Tepes, the original Dracula. So does Adolph Hitler (one naturally created by people who claim the Shoah never happened). And of course Satan himself has several, including a couple of churches and a blog.
If this seems to be taking negative role models to the extreme, when you think about it we really had nowhere else to go. The Godfather, a portrait of a Mafia family has been lifted to the status of a cultural legend and (ironically) stands as the No. 3 most popular film of all time. Also in the all-time top five favorite films, The Dark Knight Batman series really rises out of itself to offer praise and fascination for that self-celebratory schizophrenic, The Joker, in an Oscar worthy performance by Heath Ledger. Rounding out America’s most popular quintet (all violent films) is the irrepressible Pulp Fiction, a film so layered with drug dealers, killers, sex perverts and addicts that we must either walk out on the film or accept the charm of their uncaught moments and the slim veins of human frailty that they almost deliberately pause to reveal. (Ah! The hitman with the poetic soul and a mastery of Biblical verse! How utterly irresistible…and the perfect crossover into reality.)
In case you hadn’t noticed (and by all indications, you haven’t) America has a built a culture of adoration around the wrong kind of heroes. Our fascination with villains and “Sympathy for the Devil” actually goes back for decades, if not centuries. It has become interwoven into the psycho-sociological DNA of the American mindset that it has become our virtual social signature to the world.
We are “the gunslingers.” We are the “gangstas.” We are the Terminators, the bandolero bedecked, AK47-toting Marines who can wipe out entire battalions with a blast from our .50 caliber automatic canons. We (the collective “we”) have just managed to turn every bit of this into an art form, and it is now an art form that has managed to cut across all ethnicities and cultures in ways that seem to deliberately persuade the young disenfranchised minorities of America that crime and violence are viable career options on the way to seizing power and assuming a mantle of social significance.
One needs only review the cult-classic stature given to films like New Jack City, The Crow, Menace II Society, and American Gangster (based on real-life drug lord Frank Lucas) to lay across the indelible, if morally ambiguous, message that minority youths actually have a shot at a life of luxury, adventure and even celebrity if they follow some very well-established guidelines to rise in the hidden world of gangs and the gang culture itself. And who doesn’t enjoy the rags to riches success story of that Marielito reject, Tony Montano (Scarface) portrayed with paradoxical hubris by Al Pacino? Tony Montano, the vile “Mini-me” Cubano gangster who harbors an incestuous obsession for his own sister. Tony Montano who snorts more cocaine than a Charlie Sheen icebreaker and then blows up himself and everyone else in his world.
Meanwhile, we have pressed the pedal to the metal over the last 30 years not only to accept violence, especially violence where bad guys seem to thrive, that we are now faced with “action-adventure” films that have no chance of attracting young male audiences unless they are scored in mega-deaths.
Somewhere along the way in the last 20 years we have managed to license and market legions of video games (85% of them violent or include violence) that have reached nearly $30 billion in revenue, involving 93% of alternate reality possessed Millennials (between the ages of 2 and 32) pounding away at some target with a kind of whack-a-mole mastery that no one over the age of 40 can possibly hope to imagine. And of course, high scores are directly proportionate to whatever number of the enemy we are able to neutralize by any means available to us. To be sure, the kill ratios number in the thousands. Though estimates vary, 78% of all video games played by boys from 3 to 18 charge-in with an average of 45 acts of violence in the first 10 minutes and more than 5,400 kills in a single month. In each game there is no sense of right and wrong; there is no special leverage given to heroes over villains. Winners are determined purely in terms of skill. And in a majority of the cases (over 61%) the bad guys win.
What this manages to accomplish is an extended zombification of the relationship between predator and prey; so there is no virtually accountability other than some thinly measured success for the vast unwashed. Compound that by the fact that, hero or villain, the mechanics of slaughter dictate that we have ramped up the graphic violence to such a point that the mostly young male audience walks away disappointed should we not blow up the entire universe, or (a la Resident Evil, Underworld and Spartacus, Blood and Sand) splatter so much stage blood on the screen that you need a half-gallon of Windex to wipe it off.
Accountability, of course, is what is missing from all this. Everything in the sociopathic scenario is a matter of raw material—a kind of macabre “scoreboard.” This is perpetuated by the producers and purveyors of violence from Hollywood who look upon each explosion as a return on dollar and piled-up filmic “corpses” as cash registers. (They do this out of one side of their mouths while they are campaigning for “gun” laws and supporting restrictive enforcement statutes out of the other.) I need not underscore the moral hypocrisy of all this except to point to a recent chart where BOQ (Box Office Quotient) and body count seem to have a rather symbiotic relationship that makes the term, “strange bedfellows,” come to be an understatement.
It is both appalling and yet predictable to note that so many of our heroes (and crossover characters) are actually listed in the Top 10 all time action-adventure draws according to “screen kills.” Our man and favorite Marine/cowboy/Dirty Harry stud, Clint Eastwood, tops the list with nearly 700 kills. But such luminaries as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Segal and Dolph Lundgren all check-in at Numbers 2 through 6 at well over 400 kills each.
I’m trying to digest this “kill ratio” rating system and how it drives filmmakers and marketers toward the way they will structure their promotional P&A (Prints and Advertising), when I realize it is all a part of the film marketing Matrix…and the fact that we have so entirely blurred the lines between good an evil that there is no longer a distinction.
I think about the current list of top films and TV Series More recently, we witnessed the close of a fifth season of Boardwalk Empire. Arch criminals, historical Mafia legends, hookers, black gangstas and crooked politicians all conniving, torturing and killing their way toward their attempted monopoly on vice…and questionable company of people even more twisted than they. This 4-year run was supposed to offer some level of credibility because it dealt with historical characters such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone who ended up turning into what they always seem to become in scenarios such as this—a gaudy pastiche of the originals.
Or do they? Does villainy get a get-out-of-jail-free pass these days? Now, we seem to accept it almost as our daily bread.
I point to the recent Whitey Bulger trial and sentencing as the explanation point on that rhetorical question. It’s not enough that this man is a consensus master villain and unrepentant mass-murderer, he has by every social mechanism at his disposal proved phenomenally durable, achieving his wicked longevity with the apparent complicity of all our intelligence agencies.
What better fodder for filmic fiction than this man? After all, Bulger had already been lionized in books and film and has somehow come off as this outside-the-lines criminal mastermind given a pass to continue his one-man crime spree with the help of the FBI, the NSA (and God only knows who else) and top it off by getting his own roman a clef biopic. Not just any film, mind you: The Departed—an Oscar “Best Picture” Martin Scorsese crime drama with the iconic Jack Nicholson playing Bulger’s celluloid self in an utterly captivating way, as only Jack can do.
Bulger, acknowledged as one of the most execrable mobsters in U.S. History, is a brutal killer and duplicitous stool pigeon to boot. And yet we observe him with a knowing nod and a wink toward the real bad guy behind the curtain—some “suit” in a U.S. Government intelligence agency office (pick one) pulling the strings on evil puppets such as he.
So, in his way, Bulger, despicable and horrid though he may be, is no more contemptible than the system that created him and allowed him to flourish for nearly 40 years. And, rest assured, he will continue to flourish…in some federal prison where he will wile away his dotage, holding court with a coterie of adoring felons and some back-door book and film deals that, despite our denials, still go on. (If you doubt this for a moment, you need merely reference a recent IMDB filmography where a new Ben Affleck directed film is in development, starring his old friend Matt Damon to play Bulger. Welcome to crime as Media Empire!)
Media in all its forms are the willing accomplices to this, before and after the fact. The real trigger came last summer with the Rolling Stone cover unleashing a photo-portrait of [alleged] mass-murderer, part-time social parasite and full-time sleeper-cell radical jihadist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he stood posed rakishly against a wall, curl dropped down with that cute little “bad-boy” pout in the tradition of the Doors Jim Morrison (circa 1968). Catching a glimpse of it as it flew out at me from a half-dozen different blog-sites, I couldn’t help but notice the engaging, if not somewhat callow, expression on this young punk’s face. So, “boy next door!” So humanizing! In fact, it momentarily created the intended result— offering a striking rockstar resemblance to Josh Groban, or even (dare I say it) Ryan Gosling—a kind of incidental allure that made him somehow…acceptable.
Then came the headline, “The Bomber.” Well, I thought, perhaps they’re doing an article on former Heavyweight Boxing Champ, Joe Louis (The Brown Bomber) or Yankee slugger Babe Ruth, the original “Bronx Bomber.” But no: This glamorous little banner was referring to Tsarnaev and his wiping out 114 people at the Boston Marathon, featuring him as a good boy somehow gone bad, let down by his family, his friends and our [apparently corrupt] American society. And, to be sure young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has his own website, fan page, groupies and even a caravan of Hummers and sexy, black Chevy Suburbans whenever he shows up for arraignments and hearings preceding his pending trial.
One can’t blame Rolling Stone entirely. They have never been known for journalistic ethics in the first place, and had to pick this monstrous low-hanging fruit to help bolster their flagging subscriptions. But they—and all the press—remain a major part of the problem.
The more we study real life villains such Bulger and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we find they constantly had highly publicized role models they admired either from real life or fiction. Bulger adored any stories about the escapades and accomplishments of his hero Al Capone. Tsarnaev thrived on the teachings and media savvy of longtime Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi up to and including his final assassination.
We know, historically, that so many assassins, would-be assassins and serial killers are intent upon, if not obsessed with, their own celebrity. John Hinckley Jr. purportedly shot up President Ronald Reagan’s entire cortege including Reagan himself because he was trying to score points with (then) starlet Jody Foster. More recently, Colorado mass murderer James Holmes had created his own personal cult surrounding The Dark Knight [Batman] film series and even died his hair bright red to more closely personify his arch-villain role-model, “The Joker.” In their private memos, Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric David Harris were self-described “Natural Born Killers,” cloning themselves after the very twisted eponymous Oliver Stone celluloid homage to violence in America. Charles Manson and his entire murderous clan had their own twisted connection to hit songs by the Beatles and, to this day, are noted by the simple sobriquet, Helter Skelter.
Ultimately, it is not the fact that these icons of violence exist, or even our idolization of them, that is the real cultural culprit here. So, at this point, I have to pose the social syllogism: If this kind of demented evil feeds on notoriety, does it not logically follow that we declare moratorium on these guys? Once their heinous acts are recorded and they are noted for public record in the press, why not ban them from press coverage and deny them the celebrity status they so obviously seek? The answer is as certain as the question is academic: there’s just too much media money in it. So we must milk it for all it’s worth, while claiming to honor the First Amendment rights from which the press profits and the gore-obsessed public is entitled. All decisions, after all, come down to economics.
Of course, we now have cases in point where so called “sane” citizens are gunning people down for texting in a movie, playing their music too loud in their own SUV or just walking through a neighborhood wearing a hoodie—and then hiding behind the obscure tenets of an equally idiotic initiative called “Stand your ground.” Once again, the benchmark by which the self-appointed cowboys use to separate themselves from the villains in society are so thin that it becomes impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, simply because these asocial nut jobs somehow consider themselves ersatz versions of Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness, Charles Bronson (in Death Wish) or Michael Douglas in Falling Down, “entitled” to enact rash, macho reprisals against the evils of a permissive society and using “kill-ratio” icons to cloak their own cowardice. Now they have a statute that, unless it is interpreted in the strictest sense, can become a license to kill. So, we are caught in the middle between marginal role models on both sides of the argument.
Ultimately, we come down to the conundrum of the Sandy Hook School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and that conduct of the slaughterer of innocents, Adam Lanza. Here we have the perfect storm of an ordinance-fixated mother and an autistic son with access to an arsenal some small countries would covet. Naturally, when you have a militant and single parent martialing her rather parallax perspective of social justice around an Asperger Syndrome offspring with serious abandonment issues and an intense jealousy of anyone who took away mom’s attentions, you have the Perfect Storm for a scenario where violence and mayhem are waiting in Act III.
And yet there is so much more. Lanza, 20, eerily akin to the psyche of Norman Bates, was fixated not only upon an entire filmography of man-to-boy pedophilia but also intensely obsessed with an underground video kill game called…”School Shooting.” (Yes, they [the collective ‘they’] have a violent, disgusting video game for just about everything, and this is no exception.)
I will resist the temptation to propose the legislation and even prosecution of such viciously exploitive and tasteless dreck, because that is the peril of privilege in a free society with a First Amendment of the Constitution that must be protected at all costs. Or is it?
Film star Bruce Willis (no stranger to violent films himself) once observed that, “You cannot possibly legislate insanity.” And though my instinctive response as a former Marine and a 2nd Amendment advocate is to nod my head and say, “Amen,” there is some abnegating angel in me who must stop and say: Enough! In doing so, my dissent takes a form I might have never imagined before, and so I ask us all to think about it.
We legislate and restrict the distribution of porn, both in publication and on the Internet. We prosecute purveyors of graphic pedophilia and snuff. We restrict the times and networks through which sexually explicit material is shown to the public at large. Might we not at least try putting a leash upon that most obscene of all public lewdness—bloody, gratuitous violence? In certain countries in the EU, TV networks follow a code that limits the showing of truly violent films and TV series to later at night, after young children have gone to bed.
Our children—in this high-tech, low touch single-parent electronic reality video game universe—are too often taught win-lose before they are taught right from wrong…before they are taught good from evil, before they are given a system of values. In this newfound paradigm of moral relativism they, too early-on, lose the ability to measure the subtle shifts between power and reckless disregard. The redemptive grace in all of this is that at some level even our young children know it.
To underscore that point, I return to the fallout from what has proved to be the most senseless and tragic mass murder certainly in the last half century, the one that punctuates all others before and after: the slaughter of those 20 innocent children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook.
In an ABC television broadcast about a week after the event, Nightline news commentator Bill Weir interviewed a gallery of 24 boys and girls—ages 9 through 11—to get their feedback on the real problems underlying the shootings at that Newtown school and other tragic events like it. The default opening question from the host came as no surprise: “Do you think it’s the guns? Is it the easy availability of firearms and weapons that is at the root of terrible events like this?”
What was surprising, if not stunning, was the response from this panel of children. Without exception, these 9-11 year-olds answered with a resounding “No!”
The real problem, in their opinion, was all the violence in film and television—all the violent video games, “and all the people killing people all the time in movies.”
“There are also a lot of people who think being bad is cool…” added one boy. And the summary of this very young but very wise panel was—less violence and more of the good things of life, fewer bad guys and more positive role models—would make a difference…perhaps a tremendous difference.
Out of the mouths of babes…or is it just common sense? In view of all this, I have to ask you just one question, in the words of the immortal Jeff Foxworthy: “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”