It may be our, the audience’s, fault for being too fickle and stingy with our own money but it seems like some writers (or directors or producers) are hesitant to make any kind of claim about their own work and never explicitly say who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. I can think of three of the most grievous (in my mind) offenders when it comes to laying a stake in the ground and committing to a point of view:
The Wicker Man (1973)
I might be coming to this with a bias but I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for here. On the one hand, Sergeant Howie is ignorant, belligerent, and unsympathetic until the very end. On the other hand, they kill ’em.
In The Illiad there are sympathetic characters on both sides, sure, but Homer was Greek, speaking to Greeks. He was rooting for (wait for it) the Greeks. The movie makes no such distinction. There are good Greeks and good Trojans. There are even pretty people on both sides, so no shortcuts there. There are bad characters sure (Agamemnon), but they’re fighting side by side with the good characters (Brad Pitt). So even if the bad guys lose, some of our good guys lose too. That can’t happen. But we also can’t allow Orlando Bloom and the Trojans to perish. Not when he’s got Galadriel’s bow. (What?) So for all battles the biggest emotion is “…Go …Rah? … Don’t kill em too hard!” For the love of god(s) (which are not present at all for some reason) don’t let anyone die ugly!
Ides of March
(And here be mild spoilers)
Ryan Gosling, our brilliant hero, in trouble for something that’s not even a big deal (seriously, I don’t understand why a meeting is that important, he didn’t even SAY anything), wronged out of proportion to the act. George Clooney, democratic candidate fantasy from heaven (handsome, pro choice, pro gay rights, anti war, sex scandal that isn’t really that bad, c’mon). On the flip side, Ryan Gosling jumps ship immediately and George Clooney sells out his ideals. A confrontation at the end where both characters are in the wrong and the right. And a speech in the beginning where a character literally says “nothing politicians do matters.” Why would you tell us this?! You have stated, at the beginning of your movie, that anything that follows is completely inconsequential.
I’m not saying that a movie has to tell us what to think. But the movie has to know what IT thinks to leave us free to agree or disagree. In these examples, the movie tries to split the difference, never making the good guys too good or the bad guys too bad just in case someone gets offended (even though we love a really bad bad guy). All that makes is a bunch of bland characters that no one cares for one way or the other.
Look at The Prestige. Two (three?) flawed characters but flawed in different ways, at different times. The sympathy shifts midway through and makes the audience reset their assumptions but guides them through the whole way, though always one step ahead.
So, what other movies try to play both sides and wind up canceling each other out?
Did I miss anything?
Ahh, it’s that time of year again. The leaves change, the coffee is ordered hot again, the tv lineup changes. No, I don’t mean the premiere of the new shows. I mean when half those shows get cancelled two episodes in and are taken behind the woodshed.
Look, I was as gleeful about the axing of The Playboy Club as everyone else and I’ve never seen a frame. That whole “it’s empowering to women” hullabaloo was enough to turn me off even if I did have a tv (which I don’t). [For reasons of poverty, not snobbery.]
While the tv shows get shuffled around again to accommodate, what happens to all the people working on the shows? Now there are hundreds of crew men and women who are suddenly out of a job. Which is part of the business but… how much say do they have in the creation and development of a show. The boom-mic guy? Not much. He’s not going to pipe up and offer a suggestion for a line reading without getting kicked off the set. But aside from getting fired like that, how much say do they have in where they work?
I really want to know, what’s it like out there? Do crew members look at the listings for new shows and carefully pick which ones they’d like to work on? Do they have that many options, are there that many available openings? Would they even see a script before it’s being read right in their faces? I don’t think so. And now they’re out of a job for something they had no control over.
If you ask Colleen McCullough what Caesar was like she would probably tell you he was brilliant, misunderstood, beaten down at every turn and still arose on top (until that time he, yanno, didn’t). Ask Mike Duncan, creator of the History of Rome podcast (recommended), and he’ll tell you about a conniving trickster who only pretended to have Rome’s interests at heart but really only wanted power for himself.
Listening to the podcast while reading the last two McCullough books proved interesting…. And confusing.
It also got me thinking about other divisive characters in history, more and more of them the further back you go. The mixture of extremely different cultural attitudes and diminishing records tends to do that. Depending on who you ask, Alexander the Great was a monster or a benevolent ruler. Judas was a traitor or doing god’s work.
This isn’t necessarily a historical problem though. How well do we know anyone’s intentions, motivations, and desires? How well do we even know our own? I wanted a chalupa for dinner last night and now I don’t know why. (Urf.)
From a writer’s standpoint, I think the more ambiguous, the more interesting the character. There’s a fine line, their actions can’t be totally random (see, The Infinities by John Banville, about a family who had long-standing relationships that he never bothered to explain). I’m going to repeat myself and idolize a Harry Potter character but I think Severus Snape is written beautifully. By the end he is given motivations that tend to drive him but he also acts impulsively or has to make decisions quickly. And his nature is still unclear. Yeah he’s cast as a hero by the end but a strong argument could be made that he was a dick about it, selfish and immature throughout. He took pleasure in tormenting an 11 year old because he wanted to bone his mom.
Snape was my first thought but who else, in literature, history, or both? Which characters/people are fascinating enigmas? And which characters do you get into fights with your friends over who’s a bastard and who’s just cuddly and misunderstood?