The New Archetypes: Part 2

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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A Serious Slice of Life

A Serious Man
Image via Wikipedia

Over the weekend, I watched the Oscar-nominated (Best Motion Picture of the Year & Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) film, “A Serious Man“.  The cast is a great mix of instantly recognizable veteran actors and fresh faces, each attached to a well-developed character, no matter the amount of screen time.  The visuals of the Midwest of 1967 ably draw you in, giving a frame of reference for the intertwined story of father and son, Larry and Danny Gopnik, each propelled toward a crossroads in life.

The Coen brothers are as much master craftsmen of the screenplay as they are of the film as a whole.  Each conversation that takes place feels very natural while also advancing the story at a carefully measured pace.  The only time any of the characters is played against the expected is when they are involved in one of the dream sequences that are sprinkled throughout.  And, while I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the Jewish customs portrayed, it felt as though each i was dotted and t was crossed without becoming pedantic.  In other words, I felt that I was given enough information that I could follow along without breaking the flow of the story.

One deftly wielded technique that is used almost to perfection is the passage of time that occurs out of view of the two main characters (I cannot recall any scenes that did not involve at least one of them).  Minor characters go off and take part in activities that we only learn about when their orbits reconnect with the main storyline.  As in life, we, as observers of the main character’s view, are only aware of those things that occur elsewhere when we are told about them secondhand, and then only to the detail that others are willing to share.  There is likely a whole other movie that could be made, entitled “Uncle Arthur’s Off Screen Adventures”.

If you enjoy wordsmithing or witty dialogue, pay particular attention to the scenes between Larry and the Korean student or the student’s father (there are two of the former and one of the latter).  Subtly delivered, they are darkly comedic gold.

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