been told that when Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway was released in Poland, smack-dab in the middle of
communism, a final subtitle was added at the very
end, stating that the two main characters were later
caught and punished for their crimes. This "fact"
is not stated in the official print of the film,
yet the Polish government couldn't permit a film
to be shown that endorsed lawlessness by its sexy,
bad-ass outlaw protagonists.
spend the first quarter of Psycho rooting for Marion Crane to get away with her crime.
Then she meets Norman Bates, who, after his "mother"
murders her, hides her body in a car, pushing it
into a lake. We watch, over Norman's shoulder, the
car sinking until it stops, the trunk still visible
above the surface. Panic falls across Norman's face
until the car continues down, completely sinking,
quite literally covering his crime. Along with Norman,
we are relieved.
has happened to us?
are rooting for the bad guy. And let us not forget
that moments before, we were also rooting for the
deceased to get away with her crime. Many critics
say this is Hitchcock's masterstroke, getting the
audience not only to switch alliances, but also
to implicate ourselves in acts of theft and murder
by endorsing their success. This doesn't end with
Psycho. More than a few films depict characters that gain
our sympathy at the outset, and then, presto-chango!
they become thieves, killers or non-specific sociopaths,pulling
the identity rug out from under us. A cinematic
"bait-and-switch," if you will. From Travis
Bickle to D-Fens to Tyler Durden to the talented
Tom Ripley, these characters cause us to rethink
the idea of the protagonist and what it means to
identify with what we see while we're munching on
literature, it's called the "unreliable narrator."
At what page in Catcher in the Rye did you say to yourself,
"This Holden kid may not be playing with all
his marbles?" In traditional cinema, and song
for that matter, the protagonist has implicitly
been the audience surrogate, and therefore, an upstanding
citizen. Moral ambiguity, to say nothing of outright
evil, was left for the often blackclad villain,
who would receive his comeuppance before the conclusion.
Films such as Bonnie and Clyde,
The Godfather and The Getaway seemed revolutionary at the time for portraying as their sympathetic
centers, lawbreakers and murderers—with Coppola's
film having the audacity to suggest it symbolized
the story of the American Dream.
Bailey, with his wife and kids are our family, but
so are the Corleones.
is the assumption that we are to identify with the
protagonists that created the formula I will call
"The White Man Gateway." In films such
Come See the Paradise, Witness and
City of Joy,
a white male is the portal through which the audience
watches a film about a minority group. Some of these
and other films rightly deserve the criticism that
they are not courageous or original enough to tell
the story of the minority group itself. Borne out
of the insecurity that WASPs won't go to the films
otherwise, this formula takes the easy way
out. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that the
audience (somehow absent the millions of non-WASPS)
needs someone to identify with in order to follow
a story, and shouldn't question the character's
actions in any way, since the hero is the hero.
But what happens when that person is revealed to
not be such an affable chap?
the past few years, we've seen anti-heroes as heroes
who earn our respect and even admiration. Leon,
the Jean Reno character in The Professional
is a hitman of all things, who we grow to love as
a father, just as Matilda does, despite his occupation.
He may fill businessmen full of lead with that trademark
French efficiency, but he drinks several gallons
of milk a day and loves plants. Though it could
be argued that it is Matilda through whom the audience
sees the world, it is in fact Leon. He is the fish
out of water, and even puts a gun to her head as
she sleeps, debating whether or not to put her out
of her misery. The audience's surrogate is never
in a position to be maimed during slumber, unless
it's Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
interestingly, we have films depicting cold-blooded
and ruthless people who not only look cool with
a cigarette dangling, but who live on in the public
consciousness, being quoted out of context or appearing
on black T-shirts in used CD stores. We are initially
meant to identify with Travis Bickle and Tyler Durden
because we agree with what they are fighting against.
Their final actions, to our horror, are far beyond
what we would endorse, but try telling that to the
kid with the nine-foot "You Talkin' To Me?"
poster over his bed. And with Fight Club and The Talented Mr. Ripley,
we again have attractive men presented as the centers
of our stories, with whom we initially find sympathy.
But these are not rote plots, and the filmmakers
play with the notion of what we accept as our beacon
into the story. Knowing nothing about a film's plot,
we will default to the protagonist, unaware of the
madness that may wait. These stories are the most
evocative, because they turn the tables on the audience,
calling our own morality into question. Who is ever
prepared for that?
Ebert writes of The Talented Mr. Ripley: "The movie is as an intelligent a thriller as
you'll see this year. It is also insidious in the
way it leads us to identify with Tom Ripley. He
is the protagonist, we see everything through his
eyes, and Dickie is not especially lovable; that
means we are a co-conspirator in situations where
it seems inconceivable that Tom's deception will
not be discovered. He's a monster, but we want him
to get away with it."
only does Tom Ripley succeed in getting away with
Dickie Greenleaf's murder, he is even fortunate
enough to have the moment replicated in exactly
the same shot from Psycho. Both scenes have the murderous protagonists waiting for a vehicle to
be completely submerged, to cover a murder that
neither "rationally" wanted to commit,
as we the audience peek over their shoulders, rooting
for the damn thing to sink.
we on a sadistic bent? Or do we switch alliances
with whoever is the most persuasive? I was 12-years-old
when I saw Rocky IV, an age ripe for jingoism, and yet I was incredulous
enough to realize how silly it was that the stone
cold Russkies were chanting Rocky's name just because
he knocked down Ivan Drago, their one-man Iron Curtain.
But perhaps that pre-Glastnost, Stallone-scripted
moment was not as absurd as it seemed. I don't want
to believe it's as simple as charisma, but that
explanation goes a long way, whether it's Adolph
Hitler or Bill Clinton. Charisma, it seems, excuses
immorality, especially if you've got bitchin' background
music to swagger to.
swagger in spades is Fight Club. We live through Ed Norton's nameless character, a
slightly Milquetoast average schmo with a subversive
edge to him. He shops at IKEA and is feeling lost
in the modern monotonous malaise that, as with the
Kevin Spacey character in American Beauty, seems to be going around as much as last winter's flu bug. We then meet
Tyler Durden, who stirs things up, saying and doing
things we've always wanted to do and say. And so
we traipse through the story, bouncing our sympathies
between these two guys, both of whom we like for
different reasons, the yin and the yang, the sex
and the brains. One who we want to be, the other
who we really are. And then people start getting
hurt. Tyler is no longer Robinhood, no longer our
self-help guru. Tyler is Hitler, praying on people's
legitimate disillusions and attracting them to something
superficially noble until, yikes! We've become something
worse than we were before our enlightenment. It's
no accident Jared Leto's character is the Aryanest
Aryan this side of Sweden (the country that brought
us IKEA, of course). I don't think I'm diminishing
its strong points when I say that really, Fight
Club is Heathers, ten years later. By the end of Fight Club,
we are left somewhere in the middle, wanting to
have our cake and eat it too, until we learn that
Norton is Tyler Durden, and the film has manipulated
our assumed identification with Tyler, whoever is
playing him. The real question is, did you
like him any less on your ride home?
the beginning of Taxi Driver, we meet Travis Bickle, who makes a legitimate complaint
that New York, and the world for that matter, has
become a sewer, and a hard rain should fall, washing
away the scum and immorality. Audiences nod their
heads, until Bickle begins to do things we know
we would never do, like take a nice lady on a date
to a pornoflick, shoot a politician, or start a
bloodbath—even if it's to kill some really bad dudes.
Travis is a hero by the film's end, and we are left
with either a sense of exhilaration, applauding
his actions, feeling we would have done the same
thing, or feeling uncomfortable in our own skin
for going along with him for even the shortest bit.
That is what makes the film work so well. Like it
or not, we have been brought into the film, forced
to react to it, and by extension, to ourselves.
the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, D-FENS, parallels Travis Bickle, he is presented as
a joke from the outset, an unattractive Dilbert,
avenging the nerds. D-FENS is Bickle in politically
correct times, underscored by a scene where the
only purpose is to distance D-FENS from the real
bad guys, the white supremacists. Reminiscent of
the disclaimer in the Polish version of The Getaway,
it seems before the film could be placed before
the jejune yes of the American public, we had to
know D-FENS, despite being a middle-aged white male,
was us. And that it was okay to hate crime and be
mad as hell and not want to take it anymore: "Don't
worry Joe Six-pack, the world sucks, you can say
it, and it doesn't make you a racist bastard. So,
sit back, relax and enjoy the catharsis."
his films, Douglas often has swagger, but not as
D-FENS. Looking back on earlier examples of the
magnetic, yet questionable protagonist, there is
Brando, almost unanimously regarded as a revolutionary
screen actor. What was it about him that caused
such a stir? Was it his carnal power, his good looks,
or his manic, no-holds-barred intensity that walked
the wire of vulgarity? Well, it was all these things,
but what ties them together was character. In The
Wild One, and
the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar
Named Desire, we have a brute who is raw but caring, who women want
to have and men want to be, despite rather unseemly
behavior. It isn't so much he becomes a monster
after gaining our sympathy, it's that he was a bit
of a monster to begin with, a predator, but we didn't
care, we just wanted to watch.
question still remains: what do we think of these
people, and ourselves, after we leave these films?
Do we feel manipulated, cheated, yet still adoring?
Or do we feel invigorated, justified in our aggression,
absolved of our infidelities? And what kind of effect
does this have, this sense of impunity? Some say
it's good evocative entertainment, a necessary muddying-up
of the playing field. But others, and more than
a few politicians, say it causes chaos. Whether
it's The Basketball Diaries, True Romance or Taxi Driver, presenting
immorality and lawlessness without punishment, particularly
after we are meant to identify with the protagonists,
is a dangerous form of art, the uglier side of not
dumbing down all storytelling to the lowest common
denominator. We return to the image of the teenager
with the poster of a mo-hawked Travis Bickle over
his bed. Novelist Philip Roth once aid, in the face
of the continuous charges of self-hatred and anti-Semitism,
that he would not treat any people, even his own,
with kid gloves. And he was right. If we tell our
stories worried about how it will play in Peoria,
we aren't telling the truth—we're writing
the best commentary on the misunderstanding of intention
and perspective comes from the music industry. After
years of rock'n'roll musicians standing in front
of the very kids who made them millionaires, Bruce
Springsteen, U2 or B.B. King singing about poor
migrant farmhands and coal miners, one has to ask
if they can sing those songs from a first person
perspective anymore. What does Bono have in common
with a poor Irish lad in a Dublin factory? Yet we
seldom ask if a rich, successful male novelist has
the right to pen the thoughts of a poor pregnant
nun in Argentina. Because a singer stands alone
in front of a microphone, in his or her own name,
the audience seems unable to separate fact from
fiction. And so one day, Ziggy Stardust was born.
Though he was not without his own predecessors,
David Bowie got up on stage and said, "now
I'm Ziggy." This might have been to get his
rocks off, but it could also have been a response
to the unimaginative minds of listeners, incapable
of a suspension of disbelief. In the '90s, Bono,
social conscience number one of the '80s, became
The Fly. Was he just bored, or was he commenting on all the
criticism that he wasn't representing "The People"
anymore, and therefore decided to become a spoof
of those accusations? There is something to all
that, in the cases of Bowie and Bono (whose "real"
identities still aren't their birthnames, continuing
the persona glut), yet I still haven't figured out
where Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines fits into the mix.
On his most recent album, Garth has become a fictional
rock star, complete with a detailed life story and
even a film in the works. Some radio stations have
been playing it straight, as if Gaines is a new
musician on the scene. And now Garth is freed up
to sing about whatever he chooses, without the shackles
of being the most overexposed country singer in
history. Long live the slippery slopes of fact and
fiction! As with Alexander the Great, Garth seems
to be weeping, for there are no more worlds to conquer.
is this confusion of fact and fiction, this identity
satire, which leads us to Being John Malkovich. There seems no irony that the first major film about getting into the
head of a celebrity is a known, yet mysterious actor,
often playing antagonists, who has never shown up
in a tabloid. Perhaps Being John Malkovich is the best litmus test of all: Craig (John Cusack) is an interesting,
unique, determined and humble man when we meet him.
But soon we see he is an unfaithful, greedy, duplicitous
disliker of animals who locks up his wife in a cage
like she's a dancer in a Def Leppard video. Yet
we love the cute nebbish. We love him because we've
always wanted to be someone else too. Tom Ripley
may have had to kill Dickie Greenleaf to become
him, but the kinder, gentler Craig Schwartz only
has to get sucked through a hole in his office wall.
Our yearning doesn't stop with Craig; we love all
of the scheming egoists in the film—except, ironically,
Malkovich himself, the only one who has any real
reason to be unpleasant. In Being John
Malkovich, audiences have finally, literally, found a surrogate
through which to view the world, and that view bores
us as much as our own lives of ordering from catalogs
and eating toast.
unexpected and widespread success of this film seems
to illustrate the mainstream acceptance of morally
dubious protagonists. The non-art house audiences
embrace themselves in these farcical, conniving
backstabbers. Although the world still loves Star
Wars and a good James Bond romp, we don't need good and
evil to wear black and white. Moviegoers have long
been divided into two categories: those who want
distraction from the world at large, and those who
want to see it depicted. It seems these categories
are bleeding into each other, on a large scale for
the first time with these devilishly entertaining
films. We like to watch ourselves up on that screen.
where we've always belonged.