“Cads, From Top to Bottom”
In his wonderful study of cads and other miscreants, entitled… well, let’s just say it rhymes with “grass bowls,” and is similar to donkey chasms, and means “stinkers,” philosopher Aaron James argues: “[T]he [schmuck] does what he does out of a ‘sense of entitlement,’ a sense of what he deserves, or is due, or has a right to. However misguided, the [rat] is morally motivated. He is fundamentally different from the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts, and who sees people as so many objects in the world to be manipulated at will” (13). As you can hear, I had to go to euphemism school to deliver this one on polite radio! While reading James’ book, I wondered: Who are the greatest [nincompoops] in the history of cinema? Charles Foster Kane comes to mind, as does the HAL-9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, what most struck me about my thought experiment was how easy it was to identify the films in which the [jerks] appear, but then how difficult it was to identify with any certainty whether the villain or the hero of those films better fit James’ definition.
For example, when thinking of Harry Potter, the obvious candidate is Voldemort, given the indiscriminate killing he does. However, as James indicates, he might merely be a psychopath, one who enjoys killing for no purpose whatsoever, without any kind of moral compass. Oddly, once Voldemort’s candidacy is removed, the next likely suspect is James Potter, the father Harry comes to idealize because of his being untimely ripped away from family during his most formative years. J.K. Rowling goes to great pains to show how awful James Potter was as a kid, harassing the awkward Severus Snape at every opportunity.
Similarly, in Caddyshack (1980), Judge Smails (Ted Knight) is the villain who runs his country club with strict discipline. His anal retentive antics make us chuckle, but the film’s best comedy emerges from the loveable [boor], Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), who says of Smails’ wife, “The last time I saw a mouth like that, it had a hook in it!” Much atrocious behavior in the cinema finds its source in such sexism. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), Ferris (Matthew Broderick) appears to be the countercultural hero standing up to the bureaucractic principal, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), but his antics come at no consequence only because of his male privilege. This power most impacts his long-suffering sister, Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), whose consolation prize at the end of the film is merely to get to date with a character played by Charlie Sheen, who is now the poster boy for present-day Hollywood [louts].
A particularly compelling case for thinking about the cinematic [ninny] is Horns (Alexandre Aja, 2013), a recent film that finds Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) accused of murdering his wife, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). At the beginning of the film, Ig is an… ahem, grass bowl… self-centered and oblivious to the damage his is doing to those around him. In its second act, the film is mostly a comedy, as Ig mysteriously grows horns from the top of his forehead, and otherwise begins to turn into the devil. Oddly, our expectations are reversed. Ig’s turn to the demonic in fact softens his bad behavior, as his affliction causes others around him to be far worse moral offenders. Everyone who comes close begins telling him exactly what they think, and then breaking as many of the Ten Commandments as they can. Then, the film takes an even stranger turn, revealing another major character to be the actual murderer. James observes, “Of course, the occasional [bounder] does change his way of being. Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge eventually undergoes a dramatic moral transformation. It is an interesting question whether [scoundrels] ever wholly transform, or whether being a [cur] is more like being an alcoholic: one is always gratefully in recovery and never finally cured” (118).
Horns renders literal James’ alcoholism metaphor. For most of the film, Ig is a hopeless drunk, reeling from Merrin’s death. However, when he begins unearthing the truth about the murder, he sobers up. For a brief moment, he even seems fully redeemed, wearing his fiancé’s cross, causing the horns to disappear completely. However, to finally bring the murderer to justice, he has to take off the cross, transforming back into a demon, this time forever changed. And yet, even in his fully satanic form, Ig is less of a monster than the actual murderer, who is what James calls “a [heel] in spades.”
Unlike the other films I’ve mentioned, which hedge their bets between the hero and the villain, thus confusing the moral terrain, Horns gores us with the truth. The veneer of civilization covering barbarity is razor thin, and the difference between the holy and the damned is completely unstable. Oh, to heck with it, James’ book is called Assholes. In his terms, as Horns elegantly demonstrates, we are all just sphincters, and woe be to us.