[19 September 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say humans aren’t inherently evil. They argue that people learn their malevolent behavior at the hands or influence of another, or through the systematic brainwashing of (or reaction to) the world around them. People can’t be born bad, yet we often argue that they can be blessed with talent, insight, or specialized physical ability. No, evil is left to the specious and supernatural, a place where wicked little children kill their rivals, bad seed style, and the maladjusted take to machetes and murder as a means of making sense of their darkest inner fantasies. There is barely room for the misguided, or in the case of some, the mean-spirited and manipulative.
The notion of bad, and the byplay between right and wrong come to the fore in the two films that arrive at number five on the Sight & Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time. On the director’s side is Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizing Taxi Driver, the tale of a disillusioned loner who becomes a social vigilante by way of his affection for a teen prostitute. Within the overall collection comes F. W. Murnau’s amazing Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. There, a callous gal from the city twists a poor country farmer into plotting to kill his wife. His reaction to such a challenge changes his life forever. Oddly enough, in each case, the threat of violence (or the actual arrival of same) propel the characters forward. Equally intriguing is how faith in humanity is restored once the true villain is vanquished and morality makes a case for its continuing purpose.
For many, Taxi Driver is Scorsese’s ‘70s masterpiece (we’ll relegate the equally stellar Raging Bull to the beginning of the ‘80s for the time being). It represents his leering love letter to New York as well as his personal paranoia about the state of human affairs. It features a superstar-making turn by Robert DeNiro, a sensational script by Paul Schrader, and enough local color to choke a pre-Disneyfied downtown. It’s a movie mired in distress, a poem to the ‘pollution’ that soils our hero’s beloved Manhattan. For Travis Bickle, the world has become a depressing and ungodly place. He finds blame everywhere, even in himself. Through the course of a compelling character study, we see his journey inward, his desire to “do right,” and his final aggressive act of attempted redemption.
Sunrise has a central character who also falls from grace (so to speak) only to find his footing in the end. For The Husband, (Murnau’s film does not provide character names), the wiles of a wicked city woman drive him to distraction. She wants his mousy wife (Janet Gaynor) out of the way and convinces him that death is the only real solution. Using sex and the promise of bright, bright lights, she gets the man to walk precariously close to the edge of criminal intent. But then, regret takes over, and a trip to the oft referenced fairytale metropolis renews his love for his wife. When the haughty harlot tries to intervene again, our lead takes his anger and frustrations out on her, much in the way Travis Bickle eyes a presidential candidate, and finally, a feral pimp (played by Harvey Keitel) as the target of his temper.
Indeed, in both films, our main men are driven by demons beset on them by the society they struggle through. Bickle believes he is an avenging angel. The Husband sees himself as the victim of vile enticement. He is bored by his simple rural existence and longs for the sugar spun tales of his alluring temptress. As with Bickle’s self-proclaimed deconstruction of a corrupt planet, it’s the outside that’s struggling to get in, not something inside hoping to get out. Yet both men appear capable of cruelty, acts outside the normative human heart. Yes, they have catalysts, but said mechanism is not solely responsible. Evil exists inside them, as well as all around them.
The subtext of malevolence makes each of these films an aesthetic treat. When Bickle goes on his long inner monologues, rants meant to provide insight into his planned endeavors, we see what he sees. We see the “filth” in the streets, as well as the lack of sympathy the space has for men like him. We recognize why the teen hooker (played brilliantly by Jodie Foster) sparks empathy, and why the rejection by a campaign worker (Cybil Sheppard) pushes him over the edge. Bickle needs to feel powerful and important. What he doesn’t want is another societal slap in the face.
The Husband has the same problem. He’s bored and disinterested, taking his Wife for granted and his agrarian life as a trial. He wants out, needs a means of making sense of what seems to be a dead end existence. Again, a woman plays the part of medium. She pokes and prods, pushes and promises. She lures with the suggestion of a city dazzling and shiny, of excitement and fun…far, far from this maddening malaise. It gets so bad that when she whistles, he literally jumps. She also motivates his attempted murder, as well as his last act realization about his love for his wife. There may be some inherent evil in The Husband, (and Bickle too, since his past assumes such a conclusion), but it’s kept under control…until…
So where does the wickedness really come from? Is it nothing more than a combination of factors, an internal weakness fueled by far more malevolent outside sources? Well, yes and no. In the case of Travis Bickle, a life looking into the seedy underbelly of society has created a warped view of the world, one that needs his avenging justice to set itself right. He will make things better - or die trying. For Sunrise‘s The Husband, there is no such philosophy, just a turn of the century ennui that is twisted by lust and desperation. In the end, both men act out in an animalistic manner, discovering a sort of salvation in the process. They may not be inherently evil, but for the characters in S&S‘s fifth place poll position, the possibility remains ever vigilant, and viable.