I Feel Your Pain 
Identifying with the immoral and amoral in the movies
By Grant Rosenberg

From Gadfly May/June 2000


I've 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.

We 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.

What has happened to us?

We 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 popcorn.

In 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, Midnight Cowboy, 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.

George Bailey, with his wife and kids are our family, but so are the Corleones.

It 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 as Glory, Schindler's List, 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?

In 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.

More 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?

Roger 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."

Not 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.

Are 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.

Having 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?

At 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.

Though 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."

In 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.

The 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 ad copy.

Perhaps 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.

It 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.

The 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.

It's where we've always belonged.