Decades ago, you could watch any number of films-- dramas, action-adventures, Westerns, swashbucklers-- in which good was pitted against evil. There would be villains: men who were power-mad or consumed by greed, or who would readily commit violent acts. Ultimately, they would be quashed by heroes: men who were honest, stalwart, moral. You could sit in your seat in a movie theater and look on helplessly as the villain would scheme, but you felt safe whenever the hero appeared onscreen because you knew that, at the finale, the good guy-- the John Wayne character, or the one played by Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn-- would triumph, and all would be right with the world.
I cannot say how much of all this was an accurate representation of life in the real world. But I would add that, way back when, there was a belief that right would overcome might, and that right-thinking men and women were the pillars of society.
Today, however, we live in a world that is altogether different: a world that seems to be consumed by cynicism. And this is reflected in so many of our movies. Let me cite two films that I saw one recent afternoon. Neither film is very good, even though each features a pair of Oscar-winning actors. But that is not the point. What is key here is that both films portray a contemporary world in which there are no good, moral individuals. They only portray characters who are evil, and what separates them is the fact that they are evil in different ways. In other words, a character who merely lies and cheats is, relatively speaking, a good guy when compared to a character who is sadistically violent. In other words, these films feature no heroes, but rather gradations of evil.
The first film is THE SON OF NO ONE. It is the muddled, overly dramatic tale of a young New York cop who is haunted by the memory of his involvement in two murders while growing up in a Queens housing project. Here, the Oscar winners are Al Pacino and Juliette Binoche, who have small, thankless roles as, respectively, a police detective and a newspaper columnist.
The second film is TRESPASS and, here, the Oscar winners are Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman. They star as an upper-class married couple who are mired in dysfunction and deceit, but they are saints when compared to the band of psychotic, moronic thugs who invade their home and take them hostage. If there is a point to this loud, unpleasant time-waster, it is that the wealthy are just as corrupt and miserable as their “lessers.” But you knew that.
I also will add that, to my experience, this kind of cynicism is reflected in the attitudes and beliefs of so many of our young people. And here is proof. A while back, I assigned a response paper to my students at the University at Albany. Their job was to offer an analysis of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, a 1957 classic whose main characters are a ruthless newspaper columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, and an amoral publicist, played by Tony Curtis. In general, the vast majority of the responses ever so casually put forth the notion that these characters mirrored the real world. And in the real world, everyone-- without exception-- is consumed by greed. Everyone is power-hungry. Everyone is thoughtless. Everyone is ruthless.
In other words, there is no good in the world, only evil. There are no good guys. Instead, there only are bad guys. This point of view is reflected in THE SON OF NO ONE, and TRESPASS, and so many other contemporary films.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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