Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Top 10 Bad-Asses of cinema - Part I

The following piece of wisdom, from the great philosophical masterpiece The Grande Lebowski, offers us some food for thought regarding our latest, epic list:

The Big Lebowski: "What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?"
The Dude: "Dude."
The Big Lebowski: "Huh...?"
The Dude: "Uh, I don't know sir."
The Big Lebowski: "Is it being prepared to do the right thing, no matter what the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?"
The Dude: "Hmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles."

Similarly, we could ask "What makes a bad-ass?" A hard thing to define (especially since there is no Platonic dialogue on the subject) yet Reid and I have taken upon ourselves the spiritual and philosophical enterprise of exploring this profound question. In true Socratic fashion, we are not content with simply providing you with numerous examples but would like to move from particular bad-asses to bad-assery itself, the form or essence of bad-assery, if you will.

To begin with, lists that touch on the bad-assedness of film characters are often very limited and stereotypical. There is the mandatory mention of Eastwood, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, et al. All strong and powerful figures indeed but they betray a lack of subtlety and nuance in our search for the form. Being a bad-ass, I  believe, is not primarily a mark of violence, brute strength or the craft of random destruction. Rather, it has to do with ones disposition towards the world, core principles and values and who one chooses to be a a human being. Bad-assery, like philosophy itself, is a way of life, one which is marked by bravery, courage and strength (inner, rather than outer) but also a sense of humor, a giddy joy that enables one to face whatever adversity or challenge with a swagger and a smile. The true bad-asses are those we aspire to be (does anyone aspire to be a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, God bless them?) and who inspire us in times when we feel overwhelmed by the senselessness, bureaucracy and evil that so often pervade our world. The bad-ass could be a hero, in the traditional sense, fighting against villainy and cruelty, or it could simply be a person who has the bravery and integrity to be who they truly are, who God made them to be, and who transcend the pettiness, fear and anxiety that threaten to dominate our lives.

Without further ado, I present to you 10 gentlemen who in my mind embody this ideal, this essence and in whose presence I have spent many an hour peeking into the mysteries of the universe.

In a somewhat particular order:

The thinking man's bad-ass, the prince of irony and the duke of sarcasm, Fletch is one of the coolest film characters of all times. There's kind of a zen jazz quality to Fletch. He lives completely in each moment, intuitive and fresh, yet he is also very intelligent, smart and resourceful. Fletch lives by certain core values while at the same time loving life and having a good time. And remember, when in doubt, charge it to the Underhills.

His bad-assedness is similar to that of Fletch but coupled with wonderful dignity, Sheriff Bart is definitely one of my favorite film characters of all times. All of the bad-asses on my list embody the Socratic dictum that a good man cannot be hurt by an evil man and Bart is a wonderful example of this. "They" can enslave him, beat him, torture him or kill him but he will always have his dignity, his goodness and his cool and that they cannot take away, and because of this he is not afraid of anything. I love the look on Bart's face when he is standing on the gallows, completely at peace with himself and the world (messed up as it is). Then, after he narrowly escapes death, we see him sitting astride his horse, decked out in the most pimpin' Western outfit the world has ever seen, a mile-wide smile on his face, the master of his destiny. He makes other people strive to be better (especially the Waco Kid) by his honesty and his joie de vivre instead of judging others or preaching to them. A good spiritual lesson indeed.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin astutely pointed out that there are two kinds of freedom. Negative freedom is the removal of constraints, the absence of obstacles or barriers. Positive freedom is the possibility of acting in such a way that one takes control of one's life and realizes one's fundamental principles and core values. People often equate the two, with tragic results. The Great Escape is, on the surface, about negative freedom, about Allied soldiers escaping from a Nazi prison camp. But this is only what appears on the surface. The film is primarily about positive freedom, an inner freedom, about never giving up, about keeping the fire inside you alive and burning. The film is gleefully anti-utilitarian. The main point of the film is not how successful the escape is in terms of how many men get out of the camp but rather the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, evil and suffering.

Captain Hills, the American officer in the camp, is not a very well rounded character. We know almost nothing about him, unlike the other officers. This is because he is primarily a symbol, a mythic representation of some of the core, fundamental values that once made America great. No matter how often the Nazis put him in solitary confinement, Hills is nonetheless completely and absolutely free because of who he chooses to be.

Jack Sparrow, in my mind, represents several mythic and spiritual symbols. One is that of Coyote, the Native American trickster god who is a symbol of chaos and madness, the one who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. For most Westerners such symbols represent destruction and evil but we would do well to heed the advise of such thinkers as Heraclitus and Nietzsche and remember that fire and chaos are not only symbols of death, they are also symbols of life. Fire gives warmth and illumination and chaos is the symbol of movement, of progress, of becoming.

Another symbol that comes to mind through the good captain is that of the Holy Fool in the Eastern Christian tradition. These Holy Fools, men and women both, would cast off cultural and societal norms and pretend (at least to some degree) to be mad in order to access divine realities and spiritual truths, to reflect back to us how uptight, legalistic and misguided we can be. Both the Holy Fool and the Coyote are primarily opposed to moralism, fundamentalism and ideology, revealing to us that goodness is not primarily about how well you fit into the norms and standards of society but who you are as a human being. And in following their path our lives will not be dour and legalistic but giddy and joyful.

A case in point is the wonderful last scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean where Jack Sparrow has reclaimed his ship and is sailing towards the horizon and further adventures with a song on his lips. A great symbol for how to live life.

American film-noir from the 40's and 50's are among the most interesting films in the history of cinema. The incredible visuals would often serve to reflect the themes and tropes of the genre, perhaps most noticeably in the way the dark and shadowy world the characters inhabit reflects their inner lives. There is a lot of grey in this world, morally speaking, which is why moral ideologies almost never capture the complexities of the human condition.

Philip Marlowe represents the fact that we can still be genuinely good and do the right thing even though we are confused and lost, even though it is often hard to tell exactly what the "right thing" truly is. Marlowe has seen and done terrible things but he still has his integrity. This integrity primarily manifests itself in and through his relationship with Vivian Rutledge. The sense of shared fun, eroticism and general grooviness between them (wonderfully portrayed through some of the jazziest dialogue in the history of cinema) is one of the greatest representations of love on film, capturing what so many movies forget, namely that love is both incredibly serious yet also fun and silly.


Reido Bandito said...

Killer list.
I have to admit that Chevy Chase often leaves a negative afterthought with me. Not sure why that is.

Haukur said...

I'm waiting for Part II before I tear this to pieces :p