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?
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?
Mere minutes after I shot my mouth off in yesterday’s quick post @trishalynn took to Twitter to prove me wrong.
Her list of non-sexualized heroines…. GO!
- Barbara Gordon as Oracle
- Vera Noble, from @trollprincess‘s Heroine Addict novel
- Violet & Elastic Girl from The Incredibles
- Jenny Sparks, created by @warrenellis. She was a sexual being, but not sexualized, iirc
- There’s an female archer out there who is a hero to her people & I think she’s conservative Muslim. Also, Martina Navratilova.
- Found another, from @shaenongarrity: Kira from The Dark Crystal
Pictured above: the only female heroine I can think of whose power is neither sexualized or derived from her sexuality.
If you can think of any others, leave a comment.
Nathan Rabin coined the very apt term Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the determined kind of free spirit that pervades current romantic movies and chronicled her well here and here. And the fine NPR folks at Pop Culture Happy Hour listed some other possible additions to the overused trope canon here. (Schlubby Screenwriter with Two Beautiful Babes to Choose From is an excellent choice.)
On the eve of One Day, that Anne Hathaway/Jim Sturgess movie I won’t link to because the trailer makes me angry, I have another addition to the possible canon: Little Miss I-Was-There-All-Along.
Because Ladies, it’s ok to pine away for the one you love. He may be a shallow jerk and screw half the city but one day he will get tired, or his idol will give him a long speech of wisdom through experience, or his dad will die and he will learn that life is fleeting/what’s on the inside counts/you were the one who was always there for him and he will come running into your open arms.
“She made you decent. And in return you made her so so happy.” That’s a line from the trailer (still not linking to it, it’s googleable). So she was responsible for making him a better person and “in return” was fulfilled by his mere presence.
Nevermind that this friend is usually played by someone like Anne Hathaway, who the guy should be trying to nail from frame one. Unless it’s one of those ugly duckling stories where the girl takes off her glasses and suddenly she’s GORGES OMG!
Looking at the Wikipedia listing of romantic comedies, the most popular ending for Little Miss I-Was-There-All-Along is that the object of her affection realizes what a wonderful and beautiful person she is and professes his love, only to be rejected as she moves on to his friend who has always seen her for the beauty she is, inside and out. (See: Sabrina, Bridge Jones’ Diary, While You Were Sleeping)
What the trailer for One Day seems to imply is that they wind up together in the end. So basically, just be nice (and patient) and that friend you’ve got your eye on will eventually come around. The female equivalent of the Nice Guy, except even more passive. And thus, I have put my finger on why the trailer fills me with rage.
Compare to My Best Friend’s Wedding, which plays with the trope and then dismisses it, DARING to leave Julia Roberts single when the credits roll. (Uh, spoiler alert?)
(Though I don’t look on the medium with disdain, I am hardly a romantic comedy aficionado a la Kelly Kapoor. However, I want to give props to Under the Tuscan Sun, which seems to be the only movie that works in a love interest like a deus ex machina, who drops in out of nowhere. But it’s GREAT. It’s about HER, not just her love life! You don’t have to wait for someone to get their shit together! Life goes on, even after you’re 25!)
ETA: BWAHAHA! Better Book Titles: One Day