Talkin' Bout Some Bad Mothers

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-05-30 23:00:00 No comments

I didn't originally have plans to see Cruella, but some part of me is now curious about it, if only because of the arguments it's spawned about what sense it makes to try and give wicked characters a justification for their wickedness. Many of us, I think, are subtly uncomfortable with the idea that we should just dismiss some people as evil, and I agree up to a point. It's not that we should be incurious about evil people, but that we should not be mistaken in our motives. We shouldn't confuse tragedy (the process of the corruption of fierce good intentions into bad behavior) with misplaced sympathy for the devil (the excusing of bad behavior born of corrupted good intentions).

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To me the key is dispassion -- the ability to stand back and observe, and not cloud things with sentimentality or moralizing. It's fascinating sometimes just to watch someone who's bad, because bad behavior is by itself fascinating when laid out with the cold logic of an algebraic equation. Takeshi Kitano's debut film as director, Violent Cop, worked like this. The Kitano character has no tragic backstory to "explain" his behavior; the only thing we have close to that is the fact that he is highly protective of his simple-minded sister. But we also get the impression he'd still be the same violent cop without her; with her in danger, he just has yet another way to express his existing impulses. Why he is like this is less important than what it leads him to, and through, and beyond.

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Such stories are hard to do well in part because they depend on the need for the story to have some kind of charismatic element. In Kitano's case, it's because he embodies a kind of ugly charisma: we can't take our eyes off him because we have absolutely no idea what he might try to do next. Michael Rooker in the title role of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer was like that, too. We couldn't stop watching, even though half the time we watched through our fingers. Ditto Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. Ditto Charlize Theron in Monster, a character further leavened with great compassion by director Patty Jenkins. Ditto Sweetie in Jane Campion's film, another story about someone whose bizarre, aberrant character is the real subject. Ditto Henry Hill in GoodFellas, or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. And, I take it, Cruella deVil in her early days (and perhaps also her later ones).

Better people than me have written about the baleful influence of psychoanalysis on fiction, but its problem was not that people used psychoanalytical methods to analyze fiction. It was when writers started defaulting to psychoanalytical understandings about their characters, instead of intuitive or transcendental ones, to "explain" them and thus make them sympathetic. The problem is that characters don't always need the reader's sympathy, but they do always need the author's compassion -- the understanding on the author's part of how to do what they are full justice, even if what they are is awful. Flattening that out into a psychological explanation doesn't help.

The idea that Cruella (or whoever) is supposed to be interesting because of a trauma in her past that was never resolved is one-dimensional storytelling. Actually, it's not even storytelling; it's a case study, one that tries to reduce the complexity of personality to a linear equation of trauma. It implies the only reason people are interesting is because they're damaged, which aside from being a boring insight into character is something I don't buy for a minute on its face. Art, even the popular kind, isn't about case studies, but about grappling with the thing itself, good or bad or ugly.

Tags: art creativity creators psychology