Tuesday, February 3, 2009

We've Got It Bad, And That Ain't Good (or is it?)

While watching The Public Enemy, my idea of cool was once again conflicted. Looking at the film objectively, there is a lot of evidence to point to the coolness of Tom Powers. From his confident swagger to the self-assured way he treats his women to his sharp sense of style, Tom is the epitome of ironic detachment. And then there's the booze. Like it or not, the guy with the drinks is always at least a little cool. On the flip side, when I view the film according to my own ideas of cool, Tom seems like less of a paragon of awesomeness and more and more like a jerky loser. He's got a serious case of youngest child syndrome and some major sibling rivalry issues with his older and more glorified brother, Mike. As the movie went on and Tom's personality came to light, I saw Tom's confident swagger as an arrogant strut that did more to hide a weak character than to emulate actual confidence. His self-assured womanizing ways came off as controlling, and his petty temper tantrums revealed a definite reaction to being spoiled by his mom and brother his whole life. Added up, all of these things make for a most uncool individual.

While in the end Tom Powers as a person didn't come off as cool to me, his job occupation--ruthless, bad-ass Mafia member--still has a certain appeal. I think this begs the question: what makes criminality so cool? Dissidence is definitely a factor; rebellious movie characters from A to Zuko are highly indicative of America's fascination with dissident cool. I think that everyone, at least once in a while, wishes that he or she could be that Rebel Without a Cause who isn't bound by conventional social obligations. When people automatically expect you to operate in a way that rejects social standards, you are released from the kind of social pressures and rules that can be overly demanding on a day-to-day basis. Watching someone else defy society is for me a kind of vicarious release, which is one of the reasons I think criminality has a certain coolness.

Another aspect of cool criminality has to do with moral ambiguity, as we discussed after the movie. In Mafia movies, we often see morally corrupt drug runners and murderers expressing social virtues like loyalty, kindness, and generosity (at least to those who show respect). The movie that this kind of paradox brings to mind immediately is The Godfather, probably the best-known mob movie of all time. At the beginning of the film Michael Corleone, the son of prominent mob boss Don Vito Corleone, is much like the character of Mike in The Public Enemy. He is a war vet and even though he is surrounded by criminal activity, he vows that he will not participate in Mafia activity. However, when another Mafia family kills Don Corleone for refusing to involve the Corleone family in drug running (another example of the moral paradox of the Mafia), Michael is thrust into the position of Don Vito's heir and avenger. It throws me for a loop every time I watch it, because even though socially we know that killing people is wrong, when Michael Corleone shoots a guy in the face to avenge his father, it somehow seems justified. In fact, for some reason or another it seems disloyal for him not to get involved upon his father's death. I really don't know what makes moral ambiguity so cool, but it there is something about the uncertainty that makes it both a fascinating and desirable trait in characters.

From The Public Enemy to more recent crime movies such as The Departed, criminality has remained cool for decades. Characters like those played by James Cagney, Robert DiNiro, and Leonardo DiCaprio have become cultural icons of cool, but that is what they are and what they will remain: characters. Is criminality only cool in movies? What would we think about these guys in real life? Criminality is cool when we can distance ourselves from it, but what do we think when it hits too close to home? Like the beginning and end notes of The Public Enemy point out, criminality is real, and rarely really cool.


  1. I really like your post! I'd never thought about the way gangsters have redeeming qualities about them too, but maybe that IS the reason we find ourselves drawn to them. Loyalty especially sticks out in my mind. They may not be loyal to a good cause, but having that strong sense of loyalty in it's own right is admirable and something a lot of regular citizens can't even claim to have.

    Nice McLovin reference. I LOLed...literally. :D

  2. I think that when characters show a side of them both good and bad that it gives us hope. Being human makes us face so many institutions that make the world out to be just black or white examples being government or church. This is contradictory because we live in the grey. It may just be the postmodernist in me but so much is relative that we cling to the idea that hope that we are not condemned a dualistic world. So moral ambiguity is cool because it transcends the ideals of the modern day society.