Monday, February 2, 2009

The "Bad Guys" of Cool

In last week’s movie, The Public Enemy, we attempted to dissect what made James Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, cool despite his crimes and eminent self-destruction. Almost everyone accept Tom’s overly affectionate mother knew that he was a delinquent from the time he was a young boy, yet most people couldn’t help but like him and admire his charm and style. Tom was a lot like James Dean in the respect that he was so casual and walked with such ease and swagger all the time that people’s heads automatically turned when he walked by. As a child, his situation at home made Tom become the smooth, collected man we saw in the movie. His father was a law officer who was emotionally detached from the family and his mother lived in a fantasy world where everything was joyous and her children never made mistakes. From that background came the dissident figure of Tom Powers, and while it made him unique among the other characters in the movie, he is not entirely unique as a “cool” icon.

I’ve never watched many gangster movies, although I’ve been told I’m missing out on a huge chunk of American culture by not watching The Godfather. But despite my failures in that respect, from the few I have seen such as Eastern Promises, Tom was pretty much your typical gangster. He was rebellious and heartless when it came to getting the job done, but both the audience and the characters around him were drawn to him. Another, rather obscure, example of that type of cool is a character named Frank Roberts from Sean Penn’s movie The Indian Runner, which is loosely based on Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman.” Frank was much like Tom in that he was always in trouble, but his brother (a law officer much like Tom’s father in The Public Enemy) and those around him couldn’t help but love him just because of his magnetic personality. These men somehow manage to make people look past their crimes against society and see only their compelling smiles and charm.

On a different note though, another character that reminds me of Tom Powers’ cool is the Joker from The Dark Knight. While the Joker is slightly more insane than Tom, the two have a lot in common. Their scared backgrounds have lead them into lives of crime and misery that should have driven everyone away from them, but it hasn’t. Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker has been an icon in pop culture since that movie came out last summer even though he is one of the most horrific “bad guys” ever created. Why? Because he’s so cool that he can murder countless people and never even flinch— he’s about as detached and dissident as cool can possibly be. The Joker doesn’t have the winning personality of Tom Powers going for him, but he is a magnet for attention. Both characters seem to initiate chaos and destruction to get the recognition they would be lacking otherwise.

There are also a few television characters who strikingly reminded me of Tom Powers and his detached, laid back form of cool criminality. One would be the infamous Dr. Gregory House from the USA Network’s show House. While Dr. House is not a hardened criminal like Tom Powers, he does not like to follow proper protocol in his practice, and he does commit numerous social crimes every time he opens his mouth. Dr. House is quite possibly more nonchalant than Tom ever thought of being, because while Tom tries to make people like him, House just doesn’t care who he offends. So the two men display different but extreme versions of the dissident cool we talked about in class. Another example that came to mind from TV was the infamous Roman Grant from the HBO drama Big Love. Roman certainly doesn’t have the good looks that Tom had going for him, but he’s just as much of a burden on those around him. Roman is the “prophet” for a Mormon compound that practices polygamy. While his family loves him and those around him practically worship him, Roman is a dirty businessman who will do anything to get his way. He has a coarse personality and would do almost anything to ruin the life of the show’s main character Bill Henrickson, even though Bill is married to Roman’s own daughter. So much like Tom Powers, Roman doesn’t care for many of those around him, but those people love and admire him anyway. So in his own way Roman is just as cool as Tom. He’s a horrible person, but most of those around him think he hung the moon, and that makes him the ultimate “cool” to those people.


  1. You make an interesting comparison with Tom Powers and The Joker. They do both live outside of societal norms and they both have sad backgrounds. Especially emotionally unavailable fathers. Great comparison.

  2. You draw some interesting parallels between Tom Powers and other modern bad guys. When we watched the movie, it said it was trying to convince us of Tom's menace to society, but as everyone noted in class, it wasn't his menace that immediately came off as bad. We were shown the bad people around him more than we were the bad in him. Even when he avenges his friend's death, we feel a bit of admiration at his sense of honor. We sympathize with him.

    In that same way, we sympathize with House because we've seen what has driven him to stop caring. Eastern Promises is different in a lot of ways, especially since there are a lot of hidden details throughout the movie. The Joker is different because we hear multiple origin stories, and it's likely that neither of them are true. With Tom, we see exactly where we came from and, through the director's eyes, that's enough to explain his character.

    There is certainly a fascination with House in this class...

  3. We're all starting to wonder about the attraction to older curmudgeons. Maybe I'd better get a little more cynical, and affect a limp.