The New Archetypes: Part 5

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Sile...
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Until now the archetypes I’ve talked about have been heroes.  Well technically some of them like the Rogue Cop and the Assassin are antiheroes but they’re all the protagonist.  So how about a little love for the villain?  In ancient myth the hero’s opponents are often pretty simple monsters, a dragon or a cyclops.  But the need for character makes the best villains more interesting.  Grendel isn’t exactly a fully fleshed character by modern stories but he does have a backstory and a mother and even though there’s no doubt they’re the bad guys the poet gives us a sense of theiry struggle and pain.  In modern stories we have a bit of a problem though.  Most people don’t wake up to go fight monsters, or at least not fantastical ones.  The cops don’t get a whole lot of calls for minotaurs running around.  There are of course human monsters; genocidal heavies like Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin.  Story wise though these are army versus army type affairs.  Most of the grunts who (heroically it’s true) took fortress Europe never set eyes on Hitler.  But in a smaller, more personal story we need a more personal villain and we’ve got one who shows up a lot.

The Suave Pshycopath.  It’s true that the Suave Pshycho is evil.  He may be the head of a criminal organization or perhaps a serial killer.  But man is this guy urbane!  He’s most likely very well spoken with impeccable manners.  It’s quite likely that he listens to a lot of classical music and can definitely quote Shakespeare as well as more obsure poets.  If circumstances permit (he’s not in prison) he’s well dressed and a gourmande.  He’s probably a handsome chap.  And yes he’s pretty much always a he.

The prototype for the Suave Pshycho is probably Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Holmes is urbane, witty, upperclass and has a keen mind versed in a wide range of topics.  And so his archrival must be of a similar type.  A professor of mathematics with a keen mind that in this case is turned toward the building and running of an extensive crime syndicate.  Plus they’re both British so you know they’re terribly polite. 

Despite his ruinous hatred of the Great Detective though it might be argued that Moriarty is not truly psychopathic.  There are other examples, the Bond villains tend to fall into this type, Hans from Die Hard is another but we all know who the gold standard is.  Hannibal the Cannibal.  Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  He is a monster.  His own doctor says so.  He lives in a dungeon, a cave worthy of any monster out of myth.  Yet he’s soft spoken.  He’s polite.  He sketches.  He even has perfect posture.  He’s charming and in fact he’s fascinating.

And that’s the whole point.   When we have to look for our monsters in ourselves we don’t like what we see and we shouldn’t.  So maybe we make it look a little better.  Good looking on the outside but also someone who you’d like to invite to a party.  Someone who excels at dinner conversation.  Why?  Well here’s where it gets complicated because I think it’s more than wanting to take the sting out of the monster’s actions.  Lecter is brilliant and sophisticated but that makes him more terrifying, not less.  He’s not a foul smelling schizophrenic talking to himself in an alley.  None of us would go into that alley but most of us would be thrilled to be invited to Dr. Lecter’s house (before we knew about all his hobbies). 

When the Pshyco is suave we can’t tell friend from foe.  A frightening thought by itself but there’s also the horror of knowing him afterhis true nature is revealed.  All the times you were alone with him in his office.  Maybe you helped him pick out a credenza for his well appointed study.  Maybe you went on a date with him.  And that’s the other side.  We make the Suave Pshycopath charming so we can talk to him but it also absolves us of guilt.  How could anyone have known?  He was the perfect gentleman! 

And for some reason they are gentlemen.  The closest female equivalent I can think of are the great femme fatales in noir.  They’re dangerous, smart, and fascinating but they’re not quite the same.  For one thing, their allure is usually overtly sexual and the Suave Psychopath tends to use a gentlemanly charm that lacks sexual menace (Patrick Bateman from American Psychobeing a notable exception).  And the target of the femme fatale usually has a good idea she’s trouble, he just can’t help himself (usually because of the aforementioned sexuality). 

Of course when the Suave Psychopath is a serial killer is when he’s most modern.  If the serial killer isn’t wholly a product of the modern age his proliferation certainly is.  So are many of the investigative techniques that law enforcement use to track and catch them (in fact FBI Profiler is almost an archetype).  Despite the monstrous, heinous acts of these defective humans and the workmanlike way that cops catch them; we want to glamorize.  If you don’t believe me consider Saucy Jack.  A real serial killer who in retrospect shadowed cases to come.  Modern profiling techniques suggest that the Ripper was a man poorly educated, barely literate, whose first language was probably not English, had a deep resentment/hatred for women, lived in the area where the murders took place, was a poor working class man (perhaps a butcher), and it was likely the police had interviewed him but not charged him.  Yet still movies portray a handsome man in evening dress, top hat, cape, and white gloves that will soon be red with blood. 

Whether it’s the allure of the dark side of human nature or the wish to ignore the mundane aspect of murder and death I’m not sure.  It’s poor police work but the good news for Storytellers is it makes a great character.  Actors don’t want to play mustache twirlers and audiences don’t want to watch them.  But a well done Suave Psychopath is impossible not to watch.

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The New Archetypes: Part 4

Shane Hong Kong Premiere Booklet 1953 P1309907

I’ve been talking about how the modern storytelling of movies has given us archetypes that are also uniquely modern.  Modern they may be but they still tend to follow classic Hero journeys.  A Rogue Cop is still our good guy and must still defeat the bad guys.  The Nobody will travel on a journey of discovery and emerge changed in the third act, hopefully for the better.  But there is a modern archetype whose story arc goes backwards.

The Retiree.  The Retiree as his name implies is at the end of his career or no longer in the line of work.  Whatever this line of work was it was dangerous or illegal or both.  The Retiree has probably enjoyed great success in theline of work even if that success is simply measured by the fact that he’s still alive.  The Retiree in many cases probably never thought he’d make it this far but now that he has he wants to get out of the field.  Older, wiser, past his prime and fully aware of it he dreams of different life.  A safe, normal life where he can forget about his past and grow old like everyone else.  At this point one of two things happens.  Either The Retiree has ‘just one more job’ before he can realize his dream or his retirement is interrupted because he gets ‘pulled back in’.

We might as well get right to Shane since it’s one of the first, one of the best, and pretty much the template.  There were definitely men in the Old West who made their entire living with their gun.  They were just as definitey not somebody you would run into all over the place.  Most people had real jobs.  But in the mythic West of the movies the gunslinger becomes a man of adventure and danger.  He lives by the gun and dies by the gun.  He lives by a code and dies by that code too.  Shane gets a chance to live a normal life when he’s taken in by a farmer and his family.  He works on the farm as a hired hand and seems like he has a chance at happiness and a normal life. 

Of course it’s never that easy.  The nefarious ranchers hate the farmers and their plowed fields and fences.  Shane backs the farmer who’s courageous but not a fighter.  When the ranchers hire a gunslinger to enforce their will there’s only one way to beat him.  Shane must strap on his peacemaker and become a gunslinger again.  The template is repeated in plenty of movies.  Pale Rider, another Western, is pretty much the same story but so is Soldier a sci-fi flick with Kurt Russel.  You can substitute any job that’s not 9-5 and the story will work.  He could be a car thief (Gone in 60 Seconds), he could be a mountain rescuer (Cliffhanger), or he could even be a ping pong player (Balls of Fury).

There’s a couple of things that make this archetype modern.  One is the simple idea of retirement.  Heroes of ancient myth didn’t really retire.  They fought monsters and wars then they died and their death was usually a big part of their story.  They rarely got old.  Being a hero wasn’t really a job anyway which brings us to the second thing.  The modern idea that you can choose (or at least try to) who you are.  The fates of ancient heroes were set down before they were born.  The Retiree, whatever his life was until now, has a choice to be something different, something better.  Like The Assassin story a good Retiree story has redemption at it’s core.  Shane chose to face his fate as a gunslinger.  He gave up that life to protect it and that final sacrifice is usually the emotional punch in the best of these stories. 

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The New Archetypes: Part 3

When Lego Ninja Attack...
Image by Neil Crosby via Flickr

Last time I talked about the Nobody.  Everybody has felt like a Nobody at some point which makes the Nobody a sort of everyman.  If you can’t root for him at least you can identify with him.  Before that was the Rogue Cop.  This guy (it’s almost always a guy) plays by his own rules but we know he’s the good guy.  But what if our good guy doesn’t do good things?  What if he’s a bad guy?  How can he still be the hero?  Why do we root for the modern Archetype of The Assassin?

Murder is by and large a bad thing, even in the violent make believe world of movies.  We the audience can’t seem to get enough killing though and the storytellers are always happy to oblige.  But that whole morality thing keeps popping up.  Even if it’s fiction some of us might feel guilty for cheering on killers.  Some of us might feel guilty enough to digitally alter (and not very well, I might add) a decades old iconic scene to make a cantina shooting look like self-defense.  So how do we make it okay for the hero to murder people in cold blood?  Simple.  We pay him lots and lots of money.  For some reason we love movies about assassins.  The ProfessionalAssassins, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Grosse Pointe Blank, WantedLa Femme Nikita/Point of No Return…that’s just off the top of my head but the list is pretty long.  So what is it about the Assassin?

Well for starters he’s cool.  I don’t know anything about the real world of assassins.  I don’t know if they’re cool or not but in the movies they’re cool.  They wear cool clothes and use cool weapons.  They have cool training sequences perhaps in a cool facility or in some secret ninja stronghold in the mountains.  They have cool moves for every situation; getting into and out of buildings, finding their targets and evading detection.  They remain cool under all kinds of pressure whether they’re being shot at or laying in wait for their targets.  Just laying in wait has to be cool.  You can’t just sit on a lawn chair with a deer rifle; you have to hang on to the chassis of a car or climb headfirst down a rope or…whatever.  Call it the Batman factor:  if you look cool enough it doesn’t matter how insane your actions are.

There has to be more to it though and I think there is.  It’s not just cool moves that are attractive but the power and freedom.  The Assassin strikes at will and without hesitation.  He has the power of life and death.  He’s free from moral judgement, at least from himself, because he’s only doing his job.  A plumber doesn’t feel guilty about snaking a drain.  Despite the fact these people are ending lives most of us wish we could operate so surely and powerfully.  We live by countless rules every waking moment and being free of those rules is a strong fantasy.  Of course there’s a price to pay and that’s humanity.

Humanity is the other side of the coin for the Assassin.  Most of these characters have either been stripped of their humanity through training or lost their connection to humanity from years of killing.  It’s the lack of morality and humanity that give the Assassin storytelling legs.  The assassin story is usually a redemption story.  Perhaps the Assassin never wanted the life he was in and has to find a way out (Point of No Return).  Perhaps there is an unexpected connection that makes the Assassin want to be human again (The Professional).  Sometimes the Assassin sees the effect he has on the rest of humanity and wants to make things right (The Killer).  Whatever the case the Assassin is usually trying to regain his lost humanity and we root for him to make it.  If a paid killer can find redemption than so can the rest of us.   

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The New Archetypes: Part 2

faceless
Image by HaPe_Gera via Flickr

Last time I nominated the Rogue Cop for a truly modern archetype.  Dirty Harry of course being the template but we can all get behind a Martin Riggs, your choice of Tango or Cash, or even Lt. Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti (even if you don’t want to admit you loved Cobra).  The rogue cop is easy to root for; he’s out there doing what needs to be done to take out bad guys in exciting adventures.  There’s another modern archetype who’s not quite as exciting…The Nobody.

The Nobody in the modern sense is paradoxically a product of identity.  Characters in ancient myth have names and identities strong enough to last centuries, sometimes millenia.  Merlin, Achilles, Hercules, Samson, Sinbad etc.  These are great heroes whose names have come down with enough power to be shorthand for strength, cunning, honesty or whatever the case may be.  But if you needed a farmer in myth or folklore you usually just called him farmer.  Or smith or goatherd or whatever they were.  No need for a name, woodcutter was an identity.  Eventually though as we get into the modern age everyone gets an identity.  A first name, last name and even a middle name.  Sounds good but there’s a downside; the sociological concept of anomie.  In a city of millions of people a name might not mean much especially if it’s John Smith.  And that’s how we get The Nobody.

The Nobody is so plain and conforms to routine and regulation so completely he’s almost invisible.  Their clothes are dull.  Their voices are soft and their words don’t sink in.  They get ignored by the opposite sex and bullied by bosses and other coworkers.  If they drive, their car is grey and gets good gas mileage.  If the faucet leaks in their apartment they rarely complain to the landlord and if they do, the landlord ignores them.  Whatever their job is they do it well but anyone else could probably do it just as well.  In fact the Nobody’s job is important to the archetype even though the Nobody’s job is rarely important.  It tends to be bureaucratic or corporate in nature and probably happens in a cubicle under fluorescent lights.

So if it’s so damn boring how can it make any kind of story?  Well the beauty of The Nobody is his very plainness.  Since he’s so formless you can use the exact same archetype to tell all kinds of different stories.  You can keep it bleak and depressing like About Shmidt— a man who retires from his job as an actuary (a job so boring no one really knows what it is) to discover that he has no connection to anything in his life.  A good storyteller can actually make the Nobody’s boring character the interesting thing about the character.  That sounds like it doesn’t make sense but the Coen’s do it all the time (The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man).  There’s a dark side too if you want it.  Travis Bickle is a Nobody who’s disconnect is so bad he appears to be in pain talking to a woman but smiles while he’s pumping blood from the bullet wound in his neck. 

And then of course there’s freedom.  When you’re a Nobody you’re a blank slate.  What do you really have to lose anymore?  Fight Club and American Beautyare two brilliant films that came out about the same time.  I always thought they were two sides of one story coin.  Both feature Nobodies (the narrator in Fight Club isn’t even addressed by name until the third act.  He’s Tyler Durden. If that’s a spoiler shame on you for never watching Fight Club) who lead cubicle farm existences.  Of course they’re only existing so both of them start exploring the possibilities of freedom.  Fight Club, one of the rare movies that manages to be better than the book, is the young man trying to define manhood and freedom.  American Beauty is the middle aged man trying to recapture the freedom of youth.  Of course Lester Burnham doesn’t get quite as far as Tyler Durden but that’s only because he gets shot in the back of the head (if that’s a spoiler shame on you for never having watched American Beauty).

That freedom is also what makes this modern for me.  Mythic tales deal with fate and destiny.  The Nobody is not fated to break out of existence and slay dragons.  At some point and on some level he has to choose to find a definition other than the one he has now.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to find anything.  Nor is there a guarantee that if he does find something it’s actually going to be better.  But if it was guaranteed it wouldn’t be much of a story would it.

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The New Archetypes Part 1

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood
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Archetypes in the movies is certainly nothing new.  It’s almost impossible to discuss Star Wars (OT obviously) without talking about heroic archetypes and heroes’ journeys.  Many of those archetypes are so ancient that they are as old as storytelling itself.  Movies aren’t ancient but they seem to have had quite an effect on storytelling in barely over a century.  That effect is big enough that some characters seem to be becoming archetypes peculiar to the modern age.  Since this is the sort of stuff that fascinates me I guess you’re stuck reading it.  I have five in mind off the top of my head but I think I might find more as I ponder a bit.  Hopefully the comment sections will yield some I haven’t thought of.  Let’s start with…

The Rogue Cop.  This one is modern in part because the idea of a police force as we think of it is modern.  Not that much older than movies really.  Cops make good Hero archetypes naturally.  They’re good guys who stop bad guys.  They take oaths and carry shields.  Knight of the Round Table type stuff.

Then came Dirty Harry.  We love that guy.  Why?  There aren’t many reasonable people, including real life cops, who think a man like Harry Callahan should be walking free, let alone armed and carrying a badge.  Yet there aren’t many people, including real life cops, who don’t root for Harry.  He shoots people down rather than arrest them and apparently gets every partner he has killed as well.  Still, most people think of him as the good guy.  There has to be something there that we like or identify with.

I think it’s just the fact that he will always do what he thinks is right.  We all wish we were so confident about what to do that we can just go ahead and do it.  It doesn’t seem to matter that Callahan’s code isn’t legal and under the cold light of reason not particularly moral.  What matters is that it’s not relative.  Dirty Harry knows what has to be done and he’s the one to do it.  If you go against the code you go down.  Zero ambiguity.  Zero guilt.

I can’t really think of an ancient story Archetype that really fits the Rogue Cop.  Arthur’s knights were expected to follow the chivalric code at all times.  A knight that followed some made up code of his own just wasn’t a good guy.  Much of this is modern because of modern social structures of course.  Not just the idea of law enforcement but the idea of civil rights.  We tend to believe in civil rights but we can’t help but be pissed off when those rights protect those we know are bad guys.

So is Inspector Callahan and the Rogue Cop a true Archetype?  Well, what was the last movie you saw where a cop interviewed witnesses, filled out paperwork, got a warrant, gathered evidence, made an arrest (not by himself but with a squad of patrolmen), booked his man, filled out more paperwork, testified in a court of law, and then clocked out and went home?  How many people did Martin Riggs arrest compared to how many people he shot or just broke their necks with his bare hands?  I haven’t seen the last Die Hard movie but in the first three the only thing John Mclane does that even remotely resembles police work is flash his badge and say ‘I’m a cop’.  

The funny thing is real police makes pretty good story.  My wife is a True Crime addict and she got me hooked on The First 48, a show on A&E that follows real homicide detectives on real cases.  Fascinating stuff and real human drama but it takes the fantasy of movies to achieve the archetypal status and Dirty Harry is the gold standard.  

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