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Pop psychology has killed the villain Profit is more important than the menace of evil

Leave Nurse Ratched alone (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)


November 15, 2021   5 mins

While working on Network, their 1976 satire on television news and the American public, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky mocked what they called the “rubber-ducky” school of screenwriting: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer,” Lumet writes in his memoir Making Movies. He continues: “I always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behaviour as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations. If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character has been written.”

I wonder what Lumet would make of studios greenlighting entire movies to “state the reasons”. Largely thanks to Emma Stone’s spiky charm, the 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella made $233m on its release in May. If Hollywood can rehabilitate a puppy-skinner who is basically called Cruel Devil, then all bets are off. Following prequels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ratched) and The Sopranos (The Many Saints of Newark), get ready for the origin stories of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and Gru from Despicable Me. The ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet is currently shooting the Roald Dahl prequel Wonka. Now that Netflix has acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, the only obstacle to a Young BFG movie is that he would sound too much like a rapper.

Blame, in part, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which bucked William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” maxim by building a series of interconnected movies into Hollywood’s dream scenario: a safe bet. Constructing a universe around beloved IP is the business model of our times, besides which inventing characters and worlds from scratch looks like a terrible bother. But the MCU has six decades of comic-book mythology to work with and, because it had a plan from day one, relentless forward momentum. Most IP-juicing requires starting with well-known movies and working sideways or, increasingly, backwards.

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For the Star Wars empire, whose first three prequels notoriously depleted global supplies of exposition, that means Solo and Rogue One, both set prior to the Star Wars movies that people fell in love with. For The Wizard of Oz, the blockbuster musical Wicked asks how those witches ended up so mean. Meanwhile in the world of superheroes, Joker reaped 11 Oscar nominations by presenting Gotham City’s murderous chaos agent as the product of bullying, insufficient mental health care, urban decay and toxic showbiz. Not so judgemental now, Batman.

Some of these are successful entertainments but, nonetheless, ones that nobody asked for. I doubt that any child has ever watched the Wicked Witch of the West and thought, “Huh, what’s her story?” Most of these stories were originally written before the rise of pop psychology, when it was OK for a character to be wicked or bizarre without inviting an investigation into nature, nurture and the long-term consequences of trauma.

It’s not that there are no successful attempts to mine a character’s past for information that might decode their behaviour. Citizen Kane’s Rosebud or Vito Corleone’s salad days in The Godfather Part II are gold-plated arguments for the value of an artful backstory. But screenwriters are obsessed with providing damp-squib answers to questions that nobody was asking. I enjoy reading interviews with the people behind prequels as they try to justify the exercise without admitting that the only important question these movies are answering is “How can we squeeze more money out of this IP?” Ever wondered how Han Solo got his name? Me neither. Turns out he was alone a lot. Cool.

Television has its own version of rubber-ducky syndrome, now that flashbacks are de rigueur and grief has replaced alcoholism as a short cut to depth of character. Baptiste was already the most depressing cop show on TV — Camus of the Yard — before they killed off Baptiste’s daughter and his hallucinations of a stuffed toy elephant turned tragedy into accidental comedy. Another recent BBC procedural, Vigil, was grippingly assured in the present-day scenes but drifted off course in the flashbacks. It was as if writer Tom Edge didn’t trust us to believe that a woman would feel uncomfortable investigating a murder on a submarine (pretty stressful!) unless she had previously experienced her own watery calamity. Watching these shows back-to-back with Mare of Easttown, I began to wonder if a shocking bereavement was a requirement of the job. It feels a little crass to milk grief so frequently, and unnecessary, too.

How much do we need to know about a TV detective to be invested in a whodunnit? Columbo had an indelibly eccentric personality (mostly improvised by Peter Falk) but no stated first name and no private life except for a wife we never saw (unless you happen to have watched the flop 1979 spin-off Mrs Columbo). Columbo was what he did, and that was enough.

What Lumet and Chayefsky were really getting at with their rubber-ducky quip was the pretence that explaining everything is akin to psychological veracity. We are all shaped by our experiences, good and bad, but rarely in a clear or simple way. Psychotherapists don’t identify one essential turning point in a client’s life (“Hmm, Dalmatians, you say?”) and then close the case. Sometimes, one can know every factor and still encounter a terrifying, unilluminable void at the heart of a personality. In real life, not everybody who does appalling things is misunderstood.

There is, of course, a humane liberal impulse to understand how circumstances can corrupt an individual; how the abused can become the abuser. It is the job of psychologists and the criminal justice system to get beyond the idea that certain people are irredeemably sinful, and the task of historians to fathom how seemingly ordinary people could become complicit in atrocities. Authors such as Gitta Sereny (who wrote about the Nazis Albert Speer and Franz Stangl and the 10-year-old child-killer Mary Bell) and Gordon Burn (who chronicled the serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Fred and Rosemary West) dedicated their lives to interrogating the problem of human evil.

Disney and Warner Brothers, needless to say, are not engaged in that painful work but in the trivialising of trauma to give profit-seeking entertainment a veneer of psychological curiosity. It is both morally dubious and narratively absurd. In storytelling, villainy often has a theatrical boo-hiss quality that requires no elucidation.

Why is Cruella a canicidal fashionista? Because otherwise Dodie Smith’s story would have been just a bunch of dogs running about. Why is the Joker a cackling killer? Because the joylessly uptight Batman needed an antithesis. In Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a pompous psychologist appears on a talk show with the Joker to argue that he is not so much evil as horribly mistreated. The Joker promptly kills him, and everybody else in the room, with glee.

It’s true that Miller was a law-and-order conservative who enjoyed poking fun at bleeding-heart liberals but, like Christopher Nolan, he also knew that the Joker is compelling because he is beyond understanding. Ridley Scott squandered a great deal of time and money on making two prequels to his own Alien, even though the unknowable menace of the creature was what made the 1979 movie such a taut shocker. More often than not, additional information makes antagonists less intriguing.

As one of the showrunners of Lost, Damon Lindelof was as responsible as anybody for the backstory epidemic, creating a time-hopping narrative tangle that concluded with a crushing disappointment. He was then a co-conspirator on the Alien prequel Prometheus. On his next show, The Leftovers, he learned his lesson and leaned into his characters’ reactions to the mysterious disappearance of 2% of humanity rather than the reasons for the event. Trauma was the cake rather than the icing, and therefore taken seriously. In becoming so comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, Lindelof made one of the finest shows of the decade. The theme tune of the second series summed up the ethos of the whole show and the reason behind its success. It was a song by country singer Iris DeMent: Let the Mystery Be.


Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.

Dorianlynskey

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hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Character complexity, or its pretence, is symptomatic of left wing ideas penetrating the film industry.

The assumption at the heart of the left’s psyche is that our minds are blank slates. Evil is not within us by this reasoning, but a product of the system. A character’s environmental exposure to “the system” is, in the mind of the ideologue, the most crucial aspect of character development.

But, much like the screenwriters who lament the “rubber duckie” explanation of human evil, I likewise find this approach hollow, as I do most things that are informed by ideology rather than thought.

My own observation of humans is that many have every excuse to be mean and malevolent but are nevertheless inexplicably kind, while many who have have every reason to be kind are inexplicably mean and cruel.

I think modern writers would do better to grapple with this baffling reality.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

We are not all blank slates…. And some have evil imprinted if we consider that 3% of the population are psychopaths.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

There is no evidence to suggest that anyone is a blank slate. Indeed, if we were, it would make us the first animal in the history of the animal kingdom to be so.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago

Certainly the potential for evil. But even non-psychopaths can do evil.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I don’t think the Left is inclined to leave anything to the imagination.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

I agree with what you have written about humans being inexplicably kind and inexplicable mean but I don’t understand the link in your first sentence with left wing ideas. Could you enlarge on that please?

hayden eastwood
HE
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

A certain dominant strand of the left believe that we are only products of our environment, which means, in effect, that we would all be the same person if exposed to the same factors, which is why nothing in this world view is inexplicable, either in kindness or wickedness

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Thank you Hayden. I wonder why belief that we are products of our environment is linked with left views.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Wicked characters have an important role to play in children’s stories particularly; they teach children that evil exists, it can destroy them if they make the wrong choices, but it can also be defeated by integrity and goodness. By watering down the moral lesson and getting wishy washy (or “rubber ducky”) children are being tricked and fooled for profit as the article points out, but it could also literally have lethal life consequences for them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
hayden eastwood
HE
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

This is a great point

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I think the book Thinking Fast and Slow has some input on this. Naturally, it seems most people are cognitively lazy. If somebody offers an excuse for negative behaviour traits, then people will tend to reach for that as an instinctive obvious explanation, rather than go through the effort of thinking it through. Working through a maze of confusing ideas would require resolving contradictions and a considerable amount of self-criticism.

Last edited 2 years ago by Antony Hirst
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Two things: Is this whole article not merely an extreme case of the cod-psychology the writer claims the Entertainment industry is up to with its output? Only the article is this grander and more complex rubber duck explanation of their simpler and uni-dimensional rubber duck which is Hollywood, and so is kind of Déjà vu all over again? And that is a common psychological trait – that we just see everyone being a mirror of our own psychoses., or we see another persons psychosis so come to believe we have them too….

But whatever… the question I care about is why the modern entertainment industry is so degenerate. If you used a simple metric: ‘Does watching this stuff make you a better person, or a less good a person’? Does this stuff reflect positive values, or negative ones? Because I find it is 95% negative values, and maybe 5% positive.

And what does that say about the people who make up the industry? Why do they not lift up, rather than bring down, the character of society and people? I mean, why are they and their message evil, or at least degenerate? I was reading about the rapper disaster and looking at pictures of the astoundingly grim and dark set and message…… and it made me think of the music I was exposed to as a young person – and I thought of ‘He aint heavy, he’s my brother’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jl5vi9ir49g and then song after song of this vein….. then and now….

“”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where?
Who knows where?
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother


So on we go
His welfare is my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another


It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share?
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”

And then Tavis Scott from the concert disaster:

“Bad Mood / S* *t On You”

[Bad Mood]

(I just have one question) F* *k outta my business
I did things that most men will ask forgiveness
Broke the code, the commandments from my descendants
Who gives a f* *k? New children in the buildin’
We ride with no limits
Shut the f* *k up, don’t you hear me tryna finish?
I’m in a bad mood

Rob that dude, f* *k that couch, burn that house
We the cause of the era, new ni* *as with new terror”

This is the sort of thing I wonder about with the entertainment industry, why is is so bleak and destructive of spirit…

(edited to format)

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

At the rate things are going, there are probably more Elvis impersonators in Uzbekistan than in the whole of America.
Well, if there is still a good clutch of cheery entertainers in America, in the second- and third-tier categories, they are probably inconspicuous in the multichannel age. The present-day first-tier entertainers are all amok, with their pained expressions. That’s what is apparently cool. Do they resent their situation? Their trade?
You’d think the hounded, the weary and the poor who migrate to the West might prefer Elvis to some grim-laden rapper. Are the newcomers to western shores to be thumped with bad beats in the shops they go into? In order to make them feel welcome in their new district? Do their more conservatively religious peers or elders raise even more of an eyebrow at the silly, decadent, wayward Western civilisation?
That civilisation knows how to shoot itself in the foot. Parts of it may even be taking deliberate aim.
And as more and more teenagers move on to never-ending violent video games, the few among them who had picked up a guitar to try their hand at it are sucked into a world where a digital device is their daily crutch, not the clunky musical instrument.

Play apparently has no limits! Have you ever heard of such a dispiriting, self-serving advertising message? As if the company concerned offers an escape hatch for today’s overfed, well-dressed, spoiled-rotten youth. Who are being taught to hate their inheritance.

I imagine newcomers to America, in the 1950s, from the wastelands of Europe following WW2, must have been amazed by the arts and entertainments then in the mainstream of life. For their enjoyment and presented as a tonic.

Who’s looking for a mere tonic these days?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Today’s youth spoiled-rotten ?

When an ever-increasing proportion of them come from broken or conflict-ridden homes or only-children lacking a capacity for rapport with others ?

What do you think their “inheritance” is ? – it’s often unhappiness and loneliness, with toys, gizmos and drugs filling the inner void.

Why shouldn’t they hate the West, hate their inheritance, hate their elders ?

Who, it now turns out, have been destroying the Earth for their own selfish convenience.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Next, you’ll be telling us that Elvis is “wholesome” !

When, as all know, destroyed spiritually by the grim predestination Calvinism he was raised in, Elvis abandoned himself fatalistically to destroying himself with junk food and drugs, routinely raping girls in their early teens by way of variety.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tony Buck
Judy Johnson
JJ
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

I had never linked Elvis’ downfall with Calvinism. What an interesting idea! Why would that make him fatalistic? I had assumed he simply couldn’t cope with wealth, adoration and temptaton.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Reports are coming through that a nine-year-old boy, who had been severely injured at the event, has now died: the tenth fatality.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

 I mean, why are they and their message evil, or at least degenerate?
With regards to film, I think it is partly the infiltration of Hollywood by a critical social justice-critical theory mindset, bent on using the medium to project certain contemporary moral beliefs about the world – agitprop. The puerile forms of these appear degenerate, for they only portray a very narrow and cynical view of moral interactions between individuals.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Harvey Weinstein is a more typical product of Hollywood than any SJW.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Hollywood has always been a cesspit.

(And the lives of most of its actors even worse).

Now it’s merely more obviously so.

Is the twee racism of Gone with the Wind any better than today’s films ?

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Different

Last edited 2 years ago by Mangle Tangle
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

In my view, a more contemporary, pernicious phenomenon, is the not so subtle subversion of the psychological for the political. Lumet says a character should be clear from his (let’s not forget her as well) present actions. Now, reality is clear from the political interplay between identities. And unfortunately the agitprop is within plain site on the screen, projecting an ideology that seems to pretend that is the way the real world works.

Last edited 2 years ago by michael stanwick
Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Usually, that’s the way the real world does work.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I can recall watching the first British television broadcast of The Wizard Of Oz in 1976. Quite an event, it was. Perhaps its relatively late broadcast, 37 years after being made, was due to a deliberate patient wait until enough households in the country had a colour television set.
Back then, folk would have gladly accepted any scrap of entertainment they could get. At the time, I’m sure nobody would have thought how the Wicked Witch came to be. Now they might have wondered how a wicked witch came to be. But the capitalisation of her moniker meant nobody needed to inquire.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

The first series of Pennyworth was one of my favourites of the decade, although the second series is a bit dreary. Endeavour is one of my all-time favourite shows, probably because Allam and Lesser and to a lesser degree Strange and De Bruin, are brilliant. Oddly, though, I never had much time for the rest of Batman’s universe (Dark Knight is dead set over-rated tripe), and I have never liked Morse.

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

I was also thinking about Endeavour, I liked Morse and in fact am rewatching it at the moment, but the early series are quite ghastly. However, Endeavour is just beautiful and thoughtful and as you say the characters are so well-drawn.

N T
N T
2 years ago

I think you’re overthinking this. The studio has a popular franchise, and a character that is already familiar to the audience. They are exercising/exploiting that character’s infamy for profit. Instead of producing another sequel, they are taking it in a different direction that might be more interesting to the audience.
By the way, Cruella was a surprisingly good film, and Lightyear has nothing to do with Buzz.

Last edited 2 years ago by N T
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I suppose Wicked must be the rubber-duckie extension to The Wizard Of Oz, as Cruella is to 101 Dalmatians.

Are the rubber-duckie extensions all crass? Are they examples of the desire of culture executives to reinvigorate interest in the original art? To link in relevancy to the old stuff? Bereft as they might be of any original ideas themselves? Or are they motivated by the desire to blur or undo the distinction between right and wrong? As a way to undermine traditional morals? If they want to make money, how do they see what impacts best on today’s young cinema audiences?

Take the late Eighties movie “Planes, Trains And Automobiles”. How much of the charming spell of that movie would have been punctured had a prequel followed, laying bare how John Candy’s character, shower-curtain-ring salesman for Industrial Light & Magic Del Griffith, came to grief and forever on the road with his trunk, staying in cheap motels? It’s too hard for him to admit to the loss of his beloved wife, that her tragic death has him on the road, that he is full of hot air besides. He puts out a big photo of his wife by his bedside seemingly every night – that’s all we know. And that’s all we ever really needed to know. For such a talkative guy, he is very reserved. His snooty advertising executive brief companion is outwardly very reserved himself. Most folk are. Or used to be. But now we live in the social media age where all must be laid bare. Maybe that in part lies behind the desire of film-makers to take apart a cherished character.

As for Planes, Trains, we surely would not want to know explicitly what eventually happened to the two main characters either, beyond movie’s end. But you can see that where there lies innocent charm, the modern entertainment industry has tended to see in that a great opportunity to rough it up.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Plains, Trains? It’s nearly Thanksgiving now, is it not?

Tony Buck
TB
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Western civilization no longer exists.

And that’s the fault of just about everyone in the West, not just campus radicals.

Since it no longer exists, ever less can be created from its embers – only the horrors of the Modern Movement in music and the arts or the horrors of rap music or the raked-over manure of prequels.