Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Madmen, Myths, and Monsters

I’ve long had a fascination with the contradictory nature of humanity. The apparently irreconcilable people interest me the most. Egil Skallagrimsson, for example, and Vlad Tepesh each have two very different, and apparently contradictory reputations.

Egil was an Icelander, subject of his own saga. He killed his first man at the age of eight, lived a full life farming punctuated with large amounts of killing, raiding, and poetry. His poems are considered some of the finest in Icelandic literature. Is it possible to separate the murderer from the poet?

Vlad Tepes has become known in America, thanks to the efforts of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, as the basis for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad was a murderous ruler, who killed a large number of own countrymen, and yet he is regarded as one of Wallachia’s great national heroes. He was unspeakably cruel, if even some of the stories are to be believed–and it’s fairly clear that a lot of foreign propaganda working in some of the tales, and yet, if you managed to steer clear of his displeasure, he was considered a strong and just ruler. He valued honesty, but if anyone was caught being dishonest, or unchaste, or disrespectful, it was slow, painful death on the stake. And yet, there is a fondness for him in Wallachia–after all, he was a brilliant tactician who fought, and lost, to the much-larger army of Sultan Mehmed II. He was born into a brutal and unpleasant time, and he survived (for a time) by being as cruel and heartless as possible.

Neither one, I think, is someone I would want to associate with. They’re interesting from a distance, but there’s an element of danger to being close to them that I just don’t think I would enjoy.

Two days ago, I watched The Last King of Scotland, and Idi Amin Dada was brought back to life by a stunning, Oscar-award-winning performance by Forrest Whitaker. It’s a powerful film, although, historically, a mixed bag. The main character, a Scottish doctor, is completely fictional, although the backdrop cleaves fairly close to actual events of Amin’s bloody-handed rule. However, one of its most powerful images comes from something that is almost certainly legend rather than fact.

The actions of Amin and his murderous government are fact, even if specific numbers are disputed. It is difficult to tell exactly how many people Amin actually killed–likely somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Something of a piker compared to the Big Dogs of the 20th century; Pol Pot, Leopold, Hilter, Uncle Joe, and Chairman Mao, yet clearly Amin was of the same mold. Being a paranoid mass-murderer is one of those things that tends to overshadow any other part of someone’s personality. I hear “Hitler” and I immediately think ‘extermination camps’, not someone who may have had a great singing voice, or was generous to his girlfriend.

And yet, the compelling aspect of The Last King of Scotland is its humanization of Idi Amin Dada. This is partially accomplished by showing him primarily in his private life, the film generally avoids addressing the bloody massacre that was happening in the countryside. After all, Amin was simply ordering others to do the killing, rather than participating in it himself. In person, apparently, he was a charismatic and could be quite funny. He once wrote to Queen Elizabeth II, offering to be her lover. Incredibly, the DVD has a series of interviews with people who knew or had met the real Amin, and some spoke of him in friendly terms.

How do we reconcile these two people? There is a modern tendency to view people as one-dimensional, as having one stand-out trait that overshadows all the rest. Bring up the topic of Robert Heinlein with a science fiction fan if you don't believe me. Idi Amin Dada was more than just a madman who had so many bodies dumped into the Nile that the downstream Aswan hydroelectric dam once shut down because it was choked with corpses. He was a personable when he wasn’t paranoid, a champion boxer, a generous giver of gifts in a similar way to Elvis. The intellectual whiplash from trying to meld these two persons into one character is part of what makes The Last King of Scotland so compelling. The psychotic, paranoid face of Idi Amin Dada is slowly revealed through the course of the film, only after we have developed some sympathy for him. The audience is then left unable to look at Idi Amin Dada as a one-dimensional madman. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

How do we look at people, and how do we create impressions of them in our minds? Can I create a character as rich and contradictory, fascinating and yet frightening as Idi Amin Dada, Vlad III, or Egil Skallagrimsson? After all, their actions made sense to them at the time, even if their hands were forced by circumstances. Certainly Vlad and Amin were subject to tremendous political forces against which they struggled mightily against. And yet, all three were certainly the heroes as they understood the stories of their own lives.

1 comment:

theaterrabbit said...

Yes, I agree almost completely with John's assessment of creepy people in "Madmen, Myths and Monsters". This is John's friend Rob from John's old dorm btw. I used to be Mr. Fester in one of his games, but enuff about me.

I agree with John. There had to be things that were personable and chummy about murdering dictators, or every one in his/her government or kingdom would flee in fear from them. Ok, my knowledge of "evil leaders" is no a professional knowledge, but I wanted to leave some comments anyhow.

For example, I don't think A. Hitler would have gotten into power if he had said originally: I'm gonna murder millions of you people if you vote for me. That wouldn't attract the crowd of voters.
Also, I think real "bad guy types" need some down time + can't be w/ their hand on their pistol or sleep with one eye open all the time. How could the Sopranos' tv show leaders work and be hard as stone + act like inhuman killers all day long?
They seem to be in the Vietnam War waiting for sniper bullets all the time. I think real "bad guys" have to have a lighter side, or an [enjoy beer + the bowling alley with the guys]-side, like Christopher Walken in the Dogs of War film, or Al Pacino [was it him?] in the first Godfather film.
If these characters, real and fictional, are so very powerful and act like: " I will eat you all, all of you people-in a most horrible way", all the time, their workers would all just lose their bravery "not show up" and abandon him or her someday. Marvel Comics' villain, Venon, is cool [with big teeth + cool black + white outfit], but in real life, no one would follow him. That is my view on the subject.