The Aesthetic of Evil: A Video Essay Explores Evil in the Films of Bergman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese & Beyond

Movies have heroes and vil­lains. Or at least chil­dren’s movies do; the more sophis­ti­cat­ed the audi­ence, the hazier the line between good and evil becomes, until it final­ly seems to van­ish alto­geth­er. Not that cin­e­ma direct­ed toward gen­uine­ly mature audi­ences dis­pens­es with those con­cepts entire­ly: rather, it makes art out of the ambi­gu­i­ty and inter­pen­e­tra­tion between them. This is true, to an extent, even in some of the recent wave of big-bud­get super­hero movies, in the main exer­cis­es in rolling an “adult” tex­ture onto sto­ries essen­tial­ly geared toward ado­les­cents. Hence the appear­ance of the Jok­er, Bat­man’s grin­ning arch-neme­sis, in “The Aes­thet­ic of Evil,” the Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy video essay above.

In the Jok­er of Christo­pher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “we see an evil that’s relent­less, pri­mar­i­ly because the core func­tion is com­plete and total anar­chy. What­ev­er order is estab­lished, who­ev­er it’s under ‚must be destroyed. As a result, an epoch is cre­at­ed where any rules or codes of con­duct are bro­ken. Any­thing that you antic­i­pate will hap­pen, will result in the oppo­site.”

This Jok­er made an out­sized cul­tur­al impact with not just the explic­it­ness of his dis­or­der-ori­ent­ed moral­i­ty, but also a mate­r­i­al-tran­scend­ing per­for­mance by Heath Ledger. In that same era, Jamie Hec­tor took a com­par­a­tive­ly min­i­mal­ist but equal­ly mem­o­rable turn in David Simon’s series The Wire as Mar­lo Stan­field, a drug king­pin “too vil­lain­ous for the vil­lains.” Like the Jok­er, Mar­lo is a law unto him­self, “will­ing to destroy the equi­lib­ri­um of any facet of the world there is, on a whim.”

These two rep­re­sent just one of the forms evil has tak­en in recent decades. The essay’s oth­er exam­ples range from Psy­cho’s Nor­man Bates and 2001’s HAL 9000 to The King of Com­e­dy’s Rupert Pup­kin and Fan­ny and Alexan­der’s step­fa­ther Edvard — or rather, the unwel­come trans­for­ma­tion of the fam­i­ly Edvard rep­re­sents. The most dia­bol­i­cal evil does not con­fine itself with­in the per­son of the antag­o­nist, espe­cial­ly not in the work of Michael Haneke, which twice appears in “The Aes­thet­ic of Evil.” Ben­ny’s Video is on one lev­el about a mur­der­ous ado­les­cent; on anoth­er, it’s about the “eva­sion of the real” that seduces us all. The White Rib­bon is on one lev­el about ran­dom acts of vio­lence in a small vil­lage; on anoth­er, it’s about how evil reflects “the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of a soci­ety.” Haneke’s films have often been described as dif­fi­cult to watch, and that may well have less to do with what they show than what they know: even if we aren’t all vil­lains, we’re cer­tain­ly not heroes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles on the Art of Act­ing: ‘There is a Vil­lain in Each of Us’

Rare Video: Georges Bataille Talks About Lit­er­a­ture & Evil in His Only TV Inter­view (1958)

“The only thing nec­es­sary for the tri­umph of evil is for good men to do noth­ing,” a Quote False­ly Attrib­uted to Edmund Burke

Why Do Tech Bil­lion­aires Make for Good TV Vil­lains? Pret­ty Much Pop #93 Con­sid­ers “Made for Love,” et al.

The Aes­thet­ic of Ani­me: A New Video Essay Explores a Rich Tra­di­tion of Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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