Thursday 21 May 2020

Article: All Hail the Cinema Bastard

It is said that audiences love a good villain and when looking through the annals of cinema it isn't hard to dig up a Darth Vader here or an Ursula there. The appeal lies in their charm. That swagger. Confidence. With good villains, it's hard not to sympathise, but never surprising if we empathise. I for one was not surprised by the Thanos is right truthers. He tells his tale convincingly. Great stories have antagonists as compelling as their heroes.

This piece isn't about that. 

I've decided to write about the toe rag of movies. The obnoxious, self-serving clowns who are not the villains of the story, yet they're certainly not the heroes. The Richard Hammond of the seventh art. The Cinema Bastard.

Usually a melding of a well-horned screenplay and a brilliant character actor, the cinema bastard is the stock character of legend. An underrated individual who can really make a film. The bureaucratic gatekeeper, the smug sleazebag. He will never be the true villain but is happy to cosy up to him as his hype man. If you are thinking of a right-hand man like Oddjob or the muscle-bound, metal-mouthed Jaws then you're mistaken. Those guys can handle themselves against Bond in their own right. They are worthy foes. Boris from GoldenEye, on the other hand, is a cinema bastard. Arrogant, smug, and just a traitorous pain in the ass as opposed to a more accomplished, formidable ass-kicker. The Cinema Bastard will not get his hands dirty and if there is a chance to screw over the protagonist without doing so. He is all in. He is the gambling turncoat. The morally bankrupt also-ran who will sell you out to get a leg-up. The pencil pushing office dweeb who has a sudden taste for needlessly enforcing rules against our hero. Especially if a girl is involved. He is a jerk, but he is never the main boss.

Do I have an example? Why of course. There are so many.

Director James Cameron is one of the first names that springs to mind when we consider the Cinema Bastard. He gave us two of the best. In The Terminator (1984) we are introduced to Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). A criminal psychologist who is an infuriating mixture of somewhat decent intentions and justifiable ignorance. He is not seen what Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has seen, so it’s understandable that he simply marks her tale of an indestructible mental man as pure delusion. However, it is not so much that he doesn’t believe Sarah, more than the smarmy, offhanded way he denounces her claims. This, of course, comes into the forefront in Terminator 2 Judgement Day (1991) when Silberman arrogantly parades an imprisoned Connor in front of some other colleagues. Channelling his inner Dr. Phil with haughty aplomb. His reaction when the T-1000 turns up is priceless.


Cameron gives us the quintessential Cinema Bastard in Aliens (1986). Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) is the smarmy corporate lap dog. The smirking stooge who hides the insidious wants of the Weyland-Yutani corporation under his cheap suit and tie or trashy plaid shirt, beige ghillie combo. There’s good reason to think of Burke has the villain of Aliens due to his morally bankrupt actions. “Let’s release those face-huggers!” “I’m going to let you all deal with the Aliens. Let me close this door!” Proper villainous. However it’s important to remember that the aliens are the main course, Burke is still really a side dish. A heinous one, but a side dish all the same. What is important about Burke is the reason why he’s pulled such acts. All the chummy interaction he holds with Ripley. All the weaselling around the Army men. Going down to LV-426 as a “representative”. Burke is Ian Holm’s Ash muscled up from the 1979 original, but at least Ash was programmed. Burke is more than happy to skirt past the line of moral decency because…money? A corner office?

Like Ellis in Die Hard (1988), Burke seems to operate on the deluded belief that he’s somewhat impervious to the chaos, for little reason other than dishonest bluster. One of the key aspects of the best cinema bastards stems from the fact that we know they’re a wrong un from the off. Villains can obtain a sense of empathy. Audience members never side with the morality vacuum that is The Cinema Bastard. Even if what they’re saying makes sense, they’re a prick about it. One of the nastiest things about Burke is the best part of Paul Reiser’s performance: The sheer blank-faced denial that he is ever in the wrong. He is a pure oily politician. Born and raised to convince and deceive. Nearly everything he says is an angle. The most disturbing thing about Burke is how easily we could image him in congress or parliament today, spewing fake news without blinking an eye. Burke would happily cause disruption and confusion in the streets of a seismic global event. If there’s a price.

Everyone has their own special Cinema Bastard. Walter Peck (William Atherton) from Ghostbusters is well loathed. My personal favourite? Resident warmonger Albert Nimzicki in a deliciously sleazy turn by James Reborn in everyone’s beloved hawkish blockbuster Independence Day. He can be summed up in two moments. Getting his way and getting President Bill Pullman to launch nukes at the volatile little grey planet destroyers who have invaded Earth being one of the major ones. As the POTUS rightly hesitates upon the action (“God have mercy on our souls”) Albert Nimzicki just leans over his shoulder and apples EVEN MORE PRESSURE on the Prez with his gentle nudge "Mr. President” he mutters as if he hasn't already doomed us all.
The nukes launch, they strike the spaceship, and Nimzicki is already polishing his brass neck way before the hit is even confirmed. That is a pure bastard. A man that's so sure of himself that he doesn't even wait to see if the ship is still there. Of course, it hasn’t made a dent. ID4 is a long-ass summer movie and the nukes occur at the midway point. But nothing is more satisfying than when this bastard gets his pink slip near the end of the films running time. For bastard watchers, that’s when the fat lady sings.
What is it about the cinema bastard? The human face of banal evil. The bouncer who IDs you on a night out when you are clearly old enough. The retail customer who pulls demands to see the manager over a mild inconvenience. When the bastard arrives in the movie, we already know the problem and they love to pretend that they are the solution. Think Harry Ellis in Die Hard. We all love a villain, but we love to hate the cinema bastard. The contrarian asshole who wonders what's in it for me. The red-tape loving nightmare who stirs the administrative pot for the hero.

That is just who they are. Mr. Status Quo. The devil's advocate for Thanos. The open-plan office arsehole whose answer needs to be heard, despite no one asking the question. There's nothing wrong with holding libertarian values if you feel that way. However, the cinematic bastard feels endeavored to tell you it's the only way to go and he’ll do it with a smug grin.

The zombie sub-genre is prime real estate for the cinema bastard to move in with his awful taste in furniture. A Twitter colleague reminded me of the superb turn played by Dylan Moran as David in Shaun of the Dead (2004). The so-called pacifist whose blatant affection for Shaun's girlfriend manifests itself into a particular method of passive aggression towards Shaun before of course, he becomes lunch.

Harry (Karl Hardman) from Night of the Living Dead (1968) may be doing the best for his family in his eyes, but the socio-political tension that inhabits this movie, with its black lead, helps turn the claustrophobic house into a battleground. Harry does what he can to rub our hero the wrong way. Romero often stated that he wasn't trying to be political and yet considering every zombie film he did after Night, as well as that film's brutal ending, it's hard not to think that Harry would probably listen to the lead character if he shared the same skin tone.

Leonard Nimoy, most known for being Star Trek’s stoic logical foil behind Captain Kirk as Spock, plays self-help bastard Dr. David Kibnar in the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). His new book’s out. He's the toast of the town. Always informing folk of his opinion but never listening to their words. He says things like giving people a psychological band-aid after giving them some pop psychology. If the film was made now? He would be a self-help scammer on Instagram. He would be Dr. Phil. He is the man telling everyone that nothing is wrong while the world's on fire. The smug cynic. We are never surprised when he succumbs to the alien spores. But he’s never the chief enemy. Merely an irritating distraction.  

Zara from Jurassic World (2015) is a weak example from a franchise that gave us 1 of the 90’s best bastards in its first cinematic entry. The insidious notions of Dennis Nerdy (Wayne Knight) seem so far away in a movie marred by retrograde views on gender. Unfortunately, Jurassic World also decides to give Zara a bastard style comeuppance. The unlucky babysitter is marked as the first female on-screen death of the Jurassic Park franchise, yet her demise is highly obnoxious considering her lack of bastard level. The appeal of the Cinema Bastard lies within a film dishing out a delicious brand of its own rich creamy Moral Justice. That director Colin Trevorrow wanted to switch the script and surprise the audience is understandable. We've kind of seen it all at this point. But the jarring aspect of Zara’s death without even a level of bastardry can give off disabling effect in terms of tone. The level of assholery is so close to what we know so a cinema bastard comeuppance is a small hooray. Not here. Her death feels frivolous and senseless. An outcome with little of the weight of a true cinema bastard. It's a reminder that we go to movies for the same way Mia Farrow’s character does in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). We love to indulge in the black and white escapism that the movies so often give us. The cinema bastard is all about getting his way and getting hoisted by his own petard.

It’s the likes of Zara from Jurassic World that make us realise that we’re seeing less of this kind of this jerk of a character. This piece has referred to films of the ’60s and ’70s (The Mayor from Jaws anyone?), but it’s no surprise that the Cinema Bastards entered a rich vein of form in the ’80s and ’90s. Particularly in larger mainstream movies where you need an authoritative or administrative figure who may stand in the way of our brave protagonists, but only for so long. The cinema bastard was a great role for a solid character actor who may not have been the main draw of a movie but held a “that guy” presence that keen-eyed film fans would always appreciate. The list of actors is a long one: JT Walsh, Paul Gleason, Anthony Heald, John C. McGinley, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, James Tolkan, Colm Meany…need I go on?


As film tastes have changed hugely since the arrival of mega franchises and cinematic universes it does feel like there is less space to take up the cinema bastard mantle. When I tweeted about how much I missed the cinema bastard, I quickly had a thread filled with amazing jerks from so many films of my adolescent years. The Cinema Bastard has taken a step back in recent times, despite having the likes of Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) and Ann Dowd (Hereditary, Compliance) keeping the throne warm. The Cinema Bastard seemingly has a healthier living in the world of TV, possibly due to the time allowance a show has for it to grow. As major films place their focus squarely on spectacle, there’s little shock that we see the likes of Ann Dowd rising to the occasion in The Handmaids Tale in spite of her superlative displays in the aforementioned movie examples. For me it one of the reasons why Zara’s character and death feel so out of step in Jurassic World. The pieces all seem to be there, but they just don’t fit. It is a bit of a shame. Sometimes we need jerks.