The New Archetypes Part 1

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood
Image via Wikipedia

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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DVD Review: The Book of Eli

Eli
Image by scriptingnews via Flickr

This is a Spoiler Alert people!  This movie has a bit of a ‘twist’ ending which I will talk about.  If you haven’t seen it and don’t like spoilers you might want to watch the flick before reading this.

Anyway…I was born and grew up during the Cold War.  Ah, the good ol’ days.  Younger readers might not know it but we were reasonably certain that the whole world was going to be blasted into the Dark Ages with Nuclear Missiles. 

Sound scary?  More like awesome!  At least according to the scads of movies I watched like A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior and Steel Dawn.  There were enough of them that post-apocalypse was a whole genre and they all had the same tag line–“In a post-apocalyptic world a lone warrior…” 

Of course the Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Bloc fell and I had a basement full of canned food and a crossbow I would never use to fight off gasoline pirates.  After the Cold War ended movies stopped being about nuclear winter and started being about horrible diseases (Outbreak, Twilight).  But then the Hughes brothers go retro and give us a classic post-apocalypse movie.  Written by Gary Whitta and starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. 

Everything is as it should be.  We have a blasted skeleton of a world where human life is cheap and soap and water are valuable.  We have the Lone Warrior walking through the desert.  No surprise that Denzel is both calm and cool but tough and menacing.  He fights and kills when he has to but tries to avoid trouble and just “stay on the path.”  In addition to his pump shotgun, bow, and sword, he carries a book.  He reads from it every day before locking it and carefully wrapping it up. 

We then meet Carnegie the Overlord of a small town.  Carnegie just happens to have road crews out searching for books.  For one book in particular and it’s not hard to figure out that book is the very one carried by our Lone Warrior.  It’s also not hard to figure out that the book is a Holy Bible.  The two men meet and when Carnegie finds out about the book he’s willing to kill to get it.  The Warrior fights his way out and retakes his Path.  He’s followed by a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis) who’s curious about him and why the book is so valuable. 

Of course Carnegie and his henchmen pursue them and eventually the Warrior is cornered and has to give up the book in exchange for Solara’s life.  Carnegie takes the book and shoots the Warrior, leaving him for dead.  He doesn’t die though and manages to keep up his quest despite his grievous wound.  With Solara’s help he travels West to Alcatraz and finally names himself (Eli, of course) and tells the people there he has in his possession a King James Bible.  Alcatraz is apparently a sort of armed monastery where a small group of literati are saving books from the world that was. 

Of course as soon as the bad guy gets the book and the good guy just lets it go; savvy movie goers know that something’s up.  They start trying to figure out the twist and there is one.  Normally I don’t like to spoil endings but I’ve already gotten into an argument about this ending so I’m just going to say it.  Eli is blind.  When Carnegie gets the lock open on the bible it’s written in braille.  Back at Alcatraz Eli recites the book he’s read every day without fail for thirty years to be transcribed. 

This is how to do a ‘twist’ ending.  It’s a trick and a payoff to be sure but it isn’t a gimmick.  It affects the story but it isn’t the point of the story.  It’s subtle enough that I had to go back and watch it and say ‘I’ll be damned, that dude was blind the whole time.’ 

The movie obviously deals with religion and faith but this too is subtle.  By moving the story to a world where nobody has religion or faith, the storyteller can move past contemporary ideas of both.  In fact there’s no real preaching to the story.  The book means one thing to Eli and another to Carnegie.  Carnegie is the ‘bad guy’ no doubt but he’s not evil.  He wants the book to give people hope so he can rebuild a civilisation with safety and order.  Sounds kinda reasonable actually. 

So what we have here is a well paced and beutifully shot action movie with a couple of strong leads.  We also have an engaging story about what’s worth fighting for beyond mere survival.  The Wasteland Warrior character brought full circle to his archetypal roots of a knight on a spiritual quest.  In short, some good Storytelling.

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Spoiler Alert: My thoughts on spoilers inside!

spoilt
Image by dstrelau via Flickr

I don’t think spoilers are that big of a deal.  I just ruined the end of this post for you, but I hope you keep reading.

I understand why they bother a lot of people – they want to be surprised by the twists and turns of a movie when they see it. Especially if they’ve just forked over $15 for a ticket and popcorn, they want ever danged nickle’s worth of possible value.  But honestly, does much that comes out of Hollywood really surprise us anymore?  Can you not guess the major plot points of most major movies, especially with the trend to putting out trailers that give half the movie away three months in advance?

That’s just me being snarky, though. The reason spoilers don’t bother me much is that I appreciate good storytelling even if I know where it is going. Do you have movies you’ve seen multiple times?  You already know every plot point, so why do you do it?  You like the tale. I’ve seen Fight Club, Star Wars, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, and a slew of other movies dozens of times, yet I enjoy them just the same. If a movie is good, knowing points about the first viewing won’t change your experience, or make it a lower quality film.

Even though I disagree, I try to respect the whole “no spoilers” idea for the most part, but sometimes it’s silly.  If someone gives away the ending of The Sixth Sense at this point (Hint: HE’S DEAD THE WHOLE TIME) it’s not a spoiler – you’re just lazy. That movie has been out for ages.  People saying No Spoilers around the Lord of the Rings movies were also driving me batshit. The books came out in the 1950’s. I refused to reign in my discussions about the movies (which I loved) because someone couldn’t get around in the last half century to reading them. Tbbbttt…

Personally, I wish people would relax more and enjoy the storytelling for an experience, and not as a revelation of secrets. Who knows… maybe if people put less stock into first time revelations it might encourage Hollywood to put more effort into solid storytelling that stands up no matter what you know about the plot.

SPOILER: It won’t work, but I’m a stubborn dreamer.

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Armchair Editing: The Curse of the Amateur

There’s an old saying about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and another one about ignorance being bliss.  In the case of storytelling that can lead to a weird limbo of discrimination and discernment.  As your own skill of the craft grows you undoubtedly find yourself appreciating good storytelling more and you’ll have a growing vocabulary to express that appreciation.  You’ll likely also have less and less patience for bad writing or, even worse, lazy writing.  These are probably good things.  The limbo part comes when something isn’t necessarily bad…it’s just not good.  Then your new skills and vocabulary may move you to pretentiously play editor-after-the-fact.  Of course just because your opinion is amateur doesn’t mean it’s invalid.  Opinions on, say…

Stephen King’s Cell was a great short story.  Or it would have been if it wasn’t a few hundred pages long.  It was a good story idea–every single cell phone sends a signal (which comes to be known as the Pulse) at the same time.  That signal turns people into murder machines.  Everybody loves a good technophobic horror story and this made for King’s entry in the Zombie genre (spoiler: they’re fast zombies).  The signal happens in the first few pages and the rest is our hero trying to make it home to Maine from Boston to see what’s become of his young son.  There are eventually explanations floated about what the Pulse really is and where it came from but they struck me as sort of weak.  Clay, the hero finds his son after some close calls and heroics.  The boy is infected but there’s a chance he can be ‘cured’ by reexposure to the now ‘mutated’ Pulse.  Again, not bad, but…unsatisfying.  

At novel length not enough of the causes of the apocolypse were developed (like in The Stand) and the fact that he was trying to get home to his son got a little lost in the adventures of humanity against phone-freak.  Alternatively the whole thing could have been trimmed radically to a shorter work.  Maybe not a true short story but perhaps novella length like The Mist.  It would have meant big cuts but the narrative would have been a lot tighter (‘tight’ will be a common word in your new writer’s vocabulary).

This will tend to be more noticeable in movies with their more rigid screenplay structure.  If a filmmaker is gonna go long on a first act he better be giving us something worth watching.  You will also find yourself less willing to cut a guy slack for leaving in scenes that don’t need to be there.  Boondock Saints was a new take on the vigilante story with engaging dialog, interesting characters, and a tight (there’s that tight again) narrative pace depsite the audience experiencing much of the movie after it’s happened (if you haven’t seen it just trust me, it’s a sort of flashback structure).  Of course with a first time filmmaker and limited distribution it took DVD to make it a hit and a cult film. 

Boondock Saints 2:  All Saint’s Day was…less successful.  I knew it wouldn’t have quite the same punch as the first one, you can’t write a cult classic on purpose after all; but in this one I never really bought the brothers’ motives.  It was supposed to be revenge/justice and clearing their names but after a few menacing glares their steely resolve gets lost in the comic stylings of the new Mexican Saint, Romeo.  It reappears jarringly when they threaten to give a wiseguy 9mm stigmata.  Then redisappears just as quickly.  Then their father, Il Duce shows up and has a showdown because the whole thing was really about him. 

If it sounds muddled, it was.  But even before the movie was over I knew it didn’t have to be muddled.  It just needed editing and some of that would have been the classic darling murders.  There’s a dream scene where Rocco (who died in the first movie) comes back and has a shot with the boys.  He says he was proud to stand with them and then they go on a long rant about what makes a man.  What men do and what they don’t do.  It moves over the whole city from high rise rooftop to artfully lit warehouse.  It doesn’t belong there and a good editor would have cut the scene right after they drink their whiskey.  Four minutes saved and much more dramatic punch. 

Oh, well.  It’s unavoidable so you might as well learn from it.  These points make for good discussions with other writer’s and ‘what if’ sessions.  How would you do it differently,  what would you keep, etc.  You might want to keep it between writer’s though.  Normal people will tend to think you’re a pretentious prick and may even resent you pointing out holes in stuff they used to enjoy.  They might even be right.    

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How to Watch Movies with Your Chick (and Still Keep Your Nuts)

Everybody knows that chick-flicks suck. Women still insist on watching them though and they apparently insist on forcing dudes to watch them. I’ve drawn a line in the sand myself: I won’t go and you can’t make me. Not everyone however has that sort of fortitude (you know: to be kind of a dick). So what are lesser men to do?

Well, I’ll tell you. You need to be sly. Use a little camouflage and subterfuge. Pick movies you can convince a chick she’s into (or thinks she should be into) but that don’t blow. Like this.

Say Anything. This is a fairly typical teen romance/coming of age story except for one thing. It’s well written and witty with interesting characters and good performances. Chances are your chick has seen it at least three times already but don’t worry she loves it. You’ll probably like it too but you also get Grosse Pointe Blank. Not really a chick flick but still on the romance side and it has John Cusack. Chicks love them some John Cusack. Now you have precedent for ‘romcoms’ involving paid assassins. From there you watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Pitt and Jolie. Pow! Double whammy: chicks love them some Brad Pitt and now you’re watching Fight Club or cite the Angelina Jolie precedent and you’re watching Wanted.

Bonus Points: The Professional. More hit men but most chicks will respond to the relationship between Leon and Matilda. Be careful though. If she figures out that little girl is the same Natalie Portman you now lust after she’ll call you a dirty bastard. She’s probably right you perv.

Thelma and Louise. Some people already consider this a chick-flick. It’s not a chick-flick it’s a buddy-flick. I submit to you that Thelma and Louise has much more in common with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A buddy story follows the same general arc as a love story but replaces romantic love with friendship (that’s from Story by Robert McKee). It’s all good though because Thelma and Louise do love each other and now you can watch Bound, a little film by the Wachowskis. This is a tight film noir where there’s not one femme fatale but two. You know. Together. Good stuff.

Ones to avoid: Juno. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie. Comedic take on a serious subject with a great script by Diablo Cody and great performances from the cast. But that cast is led by Ellen Page. Your chick might want more Ellen Page and get Hard Candy. You don’t want to watch that one with your chick.

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