Today, as I write this, the world is learning about the death of Ronnie James Dio, who succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of sixty-seven. The heavy-metal singer replaced Ozzy Osbourne in the late ’70s as the front man for Black Sabbath. After several years and records, Dio went on to front Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and to have a successful career leading his own eponymous band, with hits like “Holy Diver” and “Rainbow in the Dark.” More importantly, Dio contributed to culture a long-lasting mimicry of evil. One example would be his creation of the “devil horns,” which have become the de facto gang sign for rockers everywhere, from freak folk to metal heads.
Ronnie James Dio emerged as the symbol of rock musicians who were considered by conservative Christians to be in league with the devil. Dio was a scapegoat of a cultural crusade that included lawsuits against bands for their influence on suicides, government censorship of occult lyrics, and church protests outside concerts.1 If you wanted to piss off your parents or your Sunday school teacher, Dio’s music was a perfect place to start.
But were these musicians actually in league with Lucifer? Probably not. As far as I can tell, authentically satanic heavy-metal rockers all live in Scandinavia, where they burn down churches and cannibalize their bandmates. Dio and his colleagues were, at worst, playfully pushing back against an ’80s society dominated by the Christian right, and perhaps more realistically, they were just acting out imaginary roles. In fact, in all the YouTube interviews and footage I’ve watched of Dio, he seemed like a pretty nice guy. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? Is it as simple as Dio acting out a persona on stage that has little or no continuity with the real Dio?
I suggest that when we begin to take the mimicry of evil in celebrities too seriously, we only confuse evil with things that aren’t evil at all, and the fact that we continue to do so is patently American. With the rise of celebrity as a concept over the last century, Americans have been obsessed with blaming the rebellion of their teenagers on famous people. The only difference between Dio and Elvis is that to Americans in the ’80s, Dio not only represented sexual rebellion, but he was also intricately bound to ontological evil itself.
For people like me, the cynics who haven’t personally experienced real evil, it is more tempting to subscribe to the privation theory—that evil is simply a lack of good and that bad people are just normal people gone wild. This would explain celebrities like Dio, for if one thing plagues American pop culture, it isn’t ontological evil, but a gaping lack of good.
The majority of people probably subscribe to a derivation of one of these extremes. Evil is either a being linked in some way to a devil roaming the earth (or in Dio’s case, a musician possessed by a demon), or evil is simply a word that does not represent an actual event, experience, or person—people just do “bad” things. Is there a medium between the two theories? What is the difference between bad and evil?
Whatever your theory of evil, pop culture is incapable of addressing or engaging in the conversation in meaningful and lasting ways. The fact that we have even entertained questions of who is evil and who isn’t evil is symptomatic of a problem. When pop culture simplifies the discussion of evil, evil becomes meaningless. This is typically a give-and-take movement between Hollywood and America: Hollywood gives us easily defined evil characters like murderers, demons, villains, and Megan Fox, and we overcompensate by burning Harry Potter books.2 Either way, we find that whether celebrity becomes a metaphor for ontological evil or a privation of good, there is a steadfast absurdity in the pop cultural discussions of evil. It is necessary, then, if we are to find a nuanced discussion of evil, to search the fringes of culture.
The German art-house auteur Werner Herzog broaches the topic of evil in a more thoughtful way in his latest feature film, 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.3 In this film noir, Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a lieutenant who is, in fact, very bad. McDonagh’s one good deed of the film comes in the first scene when he is patrolling a holding cell in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and finds that a prisoner hasn’t been removed and is drowning in the floodwaters. McDonagh jumps in to save him but is injured and forced to take painkillers for the rest of his life, causing him to spiral into other addictions like cocaine, marijuana, and gambling. But McDonagh isn’t just an addict. He holds innocent people at gunpoint to steal their drugs. While investigating the murder of a Senegalese family, McDonagh threatens the life of an elderly woman. He is a thief and a bully.
When his gambling addictions and erratic behavior finally catch up with him, McDonagh loses his badge. He then joins forces with gangster Big Fate (Xzibit), the very suspect of his original murder investigation, in order to give Big Fate police information in exchange for a cut of his drug deals. To some, this lieutenant might not only be bad; he might be evil.
What makes this film interesting in the context of this discussion of culture and its approach to evil is that Herzog and his style are patently fringe whereas his cast falls right in the center of the simplified culture he finds himself pushing up against.
Cage plays McDonagh with a sort of balance between not-so-subtle madness and a nuance that the habitual over-actor hasn’t displayed since Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation. Before I saw Bad Lieutenant and began pondering Cage’s career in this context, he represented quasi-evil to me. If the privation of goodness is evil, then who is worse than Cage? If there exists a metaphorical connection between good morals and good talent, then, Cage’s career is the perfect argument for a privation-of-good acting theory. Most of Cage’s films over the last fifteen years have been the kind of movies that are so full of Hollywood-big-budget, American, excessive cheese and balding-alpha-male compensative buffoonery, that I considered Cage the prototypical representative of evil in a cynical, materialist, myopic pop culture. It was easier for me to ignore Cage’s good work as fluke than to reconcile the tension in the bizarre extremes of his ability.
Why would Herzog choose such an awful, over-the-top actor like Cage to play a role that required refinement, precision, and an ability to channel sheer insanity? Did Herzog see Cage as the perfect candidate for his evil lieutenant because he saw in him the same depravity that I had seen? Even more frustrating, why is Cage good in some movies and bad in so many others? When you set his performances in films like Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000), National Treasure (2004), and Ghost Rider (2007) beside his performances in Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Adaptation (2002), and now Bad Lieutenant (2009), Cage’s career is downright mind-boggling.
A friend of mine, who was an electrician on the set of Bad Lieutenant, let me in on the trade secret that addresses this problem. Apparently, Cage is an acting robot (my next question to the friend—an evil robot?): he can regulate the affect shown on his face as he is ordered to, almost as if he has no affect of his own to ignore or bypass. Directors absolutely love working with him for this reason. When Cage is in a film with a great director, he is great. Look at the directors of his best performances: Herzog, Jonze, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen. The directors of his bad performances are mostly forgettable, although many of them involve big-time producer Jerry Bruckheimer (a much better case for evil than Cage the acting robot!). Cage is a blank slate; he is not evil Hollywood incarnate but merely subject to the Bruckheimerian forces of his environment, and sometimes that means that he lacks goodness.
Mark Driscoll, a Seattle megachurch pastor, recently claimed that James Cameron’s Avatar was the “most satanic, demonic” film he had ever seen.4 Initially this amused me—I’ve long thought that Cameron sold his soul decades ago for the sake of getting rich. However, when I found out Driscoll meant that Avatar was evil for its pantheistic ideology, I realized that the phenomenon of Christians misnaming evil in culture is not localized to the ’80s.
The absurdity of Driscoll’s remark caused me to reflect on the actual reasons people like Cameron and Cage make the movies many of us hate, and the simple truth is that it’s how they pay the bills—Cage, after all, owes money to the IRS. And so they easily succumb to the greedy atmosphere of Hollywood. In this respect, there is no good, bad, or evil filmmaking; there is only an evil environment.
I believe Herzog would agree with this conceptualization. His lieutenant is not evil, and although McDonagh slips into what Herzog would call “the bliss of evil,”5 the true evil that is making him so blissful comes from his surroundings—the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, which literally caused good people, good cops in fact, to descend into madness killing others and themselves. The imagery may be ham-fisted, but it is deliberate that we first see a serpent swimming through the floodwaters of the jail. The reptilian motif continues throughout the film, most notably in a scene in which a tripping McDonagh joins his partners in a stakeout only to hallucinate two iguanas on the table. For Herzog, evil is real, but it’s around us and in nature. We are simply conduits for its madness or its redemption, depending on the circumstances.
This is most clearly seen in Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers living with bears in an Alaskan wildlife preserve. Treadwell, who had no real training working with animals, or filmmaking for that matter, filmed his exploits in an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of grizzlies in North America. Treadwell comes across as charming, brave, and completely disturbed as he documents himself getting close to the bears and talking to them as if they were people. Treadwell claims that “I will protect these bears with my last breath.” And then, in 2003, a bear eats Treadwell and his girlfriend. Roger Ebert pointed out the cruel reality that not only did Treadwell’s good intentions lead to his own death and the death of his girlfriend, they also lead to the euthanization of the very bear he was committed to protecting.
Although Treadwell comes across as maniacal, Herzog passes no judgment. In the film, Herzog, who also narrates, films himself listening to the audio recording of the attack while the audience cannot hear it. Herzog is obviously shaken and he tells Jewel Palovak, Treadwell’s friend and the owner of the footage, that she must destroy that tape. Herzog states as a matter of fact the circumstances into which we are thrown, saying, “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” Herzog gives his characters the benefit of the doubt due to privation of their own good or intelligence, but he is not as forgiving to nature. The lives of his characters are chaotic because the universe is chaotic, not because of their own evil.
Herzog outlines a more intricate third option than the two normative extremes of good and/or evil: we are all blank slates trying to stay afloat in the bliss of evil that surrounds us. For me, it this definition of evil that motivates me to pray, “Deliver us from evil,” and not the idea that my fellow man sometimes represents evil incarnate. In the context of rock musicians, this is of course the more sensible description, but when we start to give that grace to people like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler, this theory of an evil environment seems to place all of us in the same category as some pretty messed-up people.
Is it then surprising that if Americans are going to look to celebrity and art for a clarification of evil, we are more likely to scapegoat figures like Ronnie James Dio as metaphors for ontological evil than to accept Herzog’s chaotic and hostile environment? In the same way that I did not want to accept Nicolas Cage as having potential for good, we do not want to accept the chaos and danger of evil being around us instead of being contained within us. According to Herzog’s theory and Cage’s example, we are all simply cogs in an evil system, and if we are here long enough, we will all eventually surrender to the bliss of evil. Isn’t it easier just to think of ourselves as good folk and to blame evil on Dio, Marilyn Manson, or Harry Potter?
We need to stop taking celebrities so seriously. And while musicians, actors and directors may take themselves pretty seriously, they also love to poke fun at evil. This is what Dio did with a grin on his face for thirty years before he rode his tiger into that midnight sea yesterday. Even Cage, as he swims through the bliss of evil, looks like he’s having fun.
Herzog, himself, sees humor in Bad Lieutenant. McDonagh stares in bewilderment as the soul of his murdered enemy break dances near the corpse. He tells Big Fate to shoot the body again to still the dancing soul. McDonagh, as Herzog’s puppet, hysterically cackles away to Big Fate and forces Big Fate to smoke out of his crack pipe. We, as the audience, along with Big Fate, stare at him wide-eyed, caught between fear and laughter at his ever-growing absurdity.
At the end of Bad Lieutenant, McDonagh has been promoted but returns to his old games, shaking down innocent partiers for drugs. In a hotel room, he runs into the prisoner, now a hotel employee, whose life he saved from the rising waters of Katrina. The prisoner offers to get McDonagh clean. In the last scene of the film, the two men are sitting in an aquarium, with their backs against a fish tank, now protected from the waters by glass, and McDonagh mutters the last line of the film to the ex-inmate, “Do fish have dreams?”
The question accomplishes a few things. First, it is a perfect absurd bookend for a film exploring a ridiculous man and his mad descent into the bliss of evil. Second, it raises the possibility that the evil found in Herzog’s chaotic environment (fauna being collaborators in an evil nature) is sentient, placing us back where we started, which is also absurd. Third, for Cage, he might as well be saying, “I am bizarre. Don’t try to figure me out. I’m going to go make a National Treasure sequel.”
Whether or not it is a created thing or simply a description of our bad actions, evil exists. It has nothing to do with musicians biting the heads off chickens or with actors who sell their souls to make box-office hits, but one can hardly witness the chaos and hostility of the universe and deny its existence. This is the extent of what is unassailable and true about evil, and for that reason we should feel uncomfortable naming it. If there exists any intersection of value between a theology of evil and pop culture, it lies at the fringes, near artists like Herzog, who enable us to ponder the complexity of evil. For when we hold to only one definition of evil, we actually devalue the experience of its real victims.
So heavy metal singers aren’t evil and actors like Cage aren’t bad; they all just give really bad performances. Cameron isn’t evil, whether it be for his propaganda or his commercialism. And until we develop a better theology of poor taste, there are no grand consequences to enjoying the work of these celebrities. There are, however, consequences for the way we label people, and this is why it is important for us to live in the tension of the good, the bad, and the evil; to appreciate the absurdity in the midst of it; and to ponder the paradoxical possibilities that real evil is in us, lurks around us, chases after us, or exists only as a word with no power at all.
1. Judas Priest, Tipper Gore versus bands like Merciful Fate and Venom, and Marilyn Manson, respectively.
2. West Coast-hippie-liberals like me may not realize that the bulk of red-state America actually thinks this way, but every time I visit my native state of Tennessee, I am reminded that they, in fact, do.
3. Herzog maintains that this film is not a remake of the Harvey Keitel–acted movie, Bad Lieutenant (1992). He has never seen that film. The franchise was owned by one of the producers, and Herzog considered the title a necessary evil to getting the film made.
4. See Monica Guzman, “‘Avatar’ is the most satanic film Mark Driscoll has ever seen,” Seattle PI, Blogs, February 24, 2010, http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/archives/195724.asp.
5. Mekado Murphy, “Werner Herzog Goes Wild,” New York Times, November 2, 2010, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/werner-herzog-goes-wild/.