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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Nothing New Under the Cinematic Sun?

I finally saw Avatar. I realize it’s been out for months and earned an obscene amount of money at the box office, but I have a thing about crowds and prefer to wait until the hype has died down before I see a blockbuster like this in a movie theatre. I must say that James Cameron’s film certainly lives up to it reputation in terms of visual spectacle. The scenery is indeed dazzling, and the 3-D effects will likely spawn dozens of imitators for years to come—which is only fitting, since imitation is pretty much all you get with Avatar in terms of its storyline.

Granted, it’s nothing new for artists to build on the work of their predecessors. George Lucas freely admits that he dove deep into the archetypal pool (via Joseph Campbell) when scripting out his Star Wars saga. Likewise, the Wachowski brothers drew from a host of literary and religious archetypes when they created the Matix trilogy. However, Cameron does not pay homage to these traditions so much as he downright steals from the work of other screenwriters and filmmakers.

While watching the three-hour long Avatar, I found myself making a mental checklist of the cinematic allusions being played out on the screen.  Dances With Wolves is there in bulk, as are the aforementioned Star Wars and Matrix movies.  There are also echoes of Braveheart, Pocahontas, Medicine Man, Independence Day, Donnie Brasco, Apocalypse Now, The Search for Spock, Total Recall, and Kingdom of Heaven. Cameron even seems to borrow from himself a bit with nods to the Alien and the Terminator franchises. Plus you get a movie with Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers and a narrator who is divided between two worlds—much like the protagonist in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novels.

Don’t get me wrong, many writers have built careers based on adaptations of other people’s ideas (William Shakespeare comes to mind), and James Cameron’s film is worth the price of admission if only to admire the work of a talented team of animators. But without the stunning visuals, Avatar’s storyline seems a bit shallow. Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, and in a country whose reading habits continue to decline, perhaps movies are the only form of cultural transmission we have left.

The Mist: DVD Review

Cover of "The Mist (Two-Disc Collector's ...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve read most of Stephen King‘s work and liked most of it too.  The Mist was a good one, one of his better ones actually.  When I heard Frank Darabont was going to make a movie out of it I figured it would make a pretty good movie.  After all the guy clearly has a talent for making flicks out of King’s tales.  Maybe you’ve heard of a little film called the Shawshank Redemption.  Anyway for whatever reason I missed it in theaters (that happens to me a lot) and just got a chance to watch the DVD.

Holy freaking crap!  Sorry, that’s for the end.  Let me start at the beginning.  The story on the surface is a straight up monster flick.  A terrible storm in the night brings an odd fog bank in the morning.  Dave Drayton, our hero, takes his son and neighbor to the supermarket and while there the mist sweeps over the whole town.  But of course the mist isn’t the real problem.  The real problem is the hideous monsters that live in it.  Clearly, none of them belong on this planet and all of them appear to be killers.

If that’s all it was it would just be a monster flick, fun but probably not very scary.  The other layer and the real meat of the story is how the situation affects the people trapped in the store.  At first it feels a little like a Twilight Zone episode but as things get more dire (and things get into the store) it progresses to more of a Lifeboat, and then degrades quickly into Lord of the Flies.  All of this is very well done.  The movie is longer than most thriller types but well paced.  A slow burn beginning with no real explanation of the mist.  Then tension keeps cranking up until the good guys have to decide which is more dangerous, staying in the store or taking their chances in the mist.  They decide to take their chances.  They have to fight for their lives to leave and see how far a tank of gas will get them.  All of this plays pretty much as it did in the novella which brings us to the end…

Holy freaking crap!  I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t seen it.  I will say that the ending of the novella was purposefully vague.  Dave and his small group of survivors just keep driving off into the mist desperate but clinging to a very small sliver of hope.  The story itself acknowledges the ending and more or less says ‘sorry, it ain’t satisfying but that’s how it went’.  Darabont decided to go for something a little more definite.  It’s not a happy ending but it’s powerful and it fit the story he had told.  It’s also one of the ballsiest endings I’ve seen in a good long while and I have no idea how he talked a studio into it.  However he managed it I’m glad he did.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

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3:10 to Yuma– Weapons as Character

I love Westerns and I don’t trust people that don’t.  3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version) is one of my favorites for a bunch of reasons.  Great performances, gorgeous cimematography, lotsa shoot outs, and a nice tight pace.  The tight pace is accomplished partly by keeping exposition short and simple.  Get him on the train, get paid, save the farm.  It’s also smart enough to use genre convention to save time.  We’ve all seen enough evil ranchers, poor farmers, suave outlaws, and ruthless pinkertons to know where we stand. 

Yet the characters all feel real.  What struck me about this movie (and stikes me everytime I watch it) is how smart the weapons choices were.  I’m a gun enthusiast (some say gun-nut) and would guess that a lot of Western fans are as well.  In this one not only are the guns and gear correct for the period, they serve as a shorthand for the characters.

The Whip:  Okay it’s not a gun and some might (foolishly) not consider it a weapon but Ben Wade has a coiled whip on his saddle.  He doesn’t use it, doesn’t even touch it I don’t think.  So why is it there?  It’s a long bullwhip with a bone handle, a stockman’s whip and a working tool.  Wade hardly seems like the type to move cattle or drive freight.  A whip is supple, has a long reach, a wicked lash, and despite being kind of cool to look at, relies on cruelty for effectiveness.  Kind of like Ben Wade.

The Old Soldiers:  It’s mentioned early that Dan Evans fought in the Civil War.  Later he’s asked North or South but we can already guess.  The gun he uses most is a Spencer Carbine, a Union weapon and a cutting edge design in the War but at the time of our story most folks would rather have a Winchester.  His pistol is an open top Colt, an 1851 Navy with the cartridge conversion.  Servicable but again old fashioned.  In Dan’s house we even an old musket, probably a Springfield rifle-musket already a relic in the movie’s time frame.  It could be that Dan doesn’t care about fads or newfangled guns when the ones he has work fine.  It could be he’s just too damn poor to afford a new rifle.  But it could also be that he’s stuck in the War, can’t let go or get over what happened to him. 

The Hand of God:  Ben Wade’s pistol is a Colt Single Action Army.  Hundreds of thousands were made and carried and indeed it’s still made today.  It’s a fine weapon but it was by no means the only pistol in the West yet it’s the iconic ‘Old West Gun’ today and that’s it’s place in the movie.  There’s plenty of SAA’s in the film but Wade’s is special.  It’s decorated with a crucifix, has a name (Hand of God), and according to Wade is cursed.  He wears it in a holster that’s damn close to a modern quick-draw rig.  All gunman’s affectations that are largely the stuff of fiction.  There’s no doubt that there are two Wades.  The real man and the image he’s had a large hand in crafting.

‘Not the Prince of Cats’:  We’ll leave for now the question of whether Ben Foster as Charlie Prince stole the movie (hint: he did) and just focus on his gear.  Physically it’s the only thing to focus on.  With his leather jacket and leather chaps he just looks like one big holster.  It’s all about his pistols.  Smith & Wesson Schofields worn butt forward.  For the period the Schofield would be just about the pinnacle of handgun technology.  The big selling point then was it’s quick reloading capability which Prince shows off in the film.  Charlie Prince obviously loves his pistols and loves to use them.  Were Charlie Prince in a modern setting he would never own a Glock.  Sure it shoots bullets but where’s the style?  Where’s the love of using the finest tool money can buy (to kill someone)?  There’s no question Charlie is using his guns to compensate for something.  But does that make him less dangerous or more?

The Scepter of Power:  The shotgun in the movie is a brutal looking coach gun (I didn’t recognize the make but research says it’s a Colt 1873).  It doesn’t really add to anbody’s character but I noticed that whoever had the gun seemed to be in charge of the group.  First McElroy, the Pinkerton, then Wade, then Evans.  I don’t know if that was on purpose or if it’s just the natural authority of a sawed off shotgun.

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Criminal Boredom

John Dillinger wanted poster
Image via Wikipedia

I like Michael Mann’s work.  I was (and am) a devoted fan of the Miami Vice show.  The Last of the Mohicans is one of my favorites and high in my movie quote rotation.  Manhunter, even though it differs quite a bit from the Harris novel Red Dragon, is superior to the generally more faithful Red Dragon with Edward Norton.  True, Miami Vice the movie was less than perfect but I kind of enjoyed it.  If you haven’t seen Collateral check it out.  It’s underrated and I think it might even be brilliant and you will totally buy Tom Cruise as a grey haired professional killer.

So I was expecting to enjoy Public Enemies.  I missed it in the theater and rented it the other day.  Michael Mann, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale…what could go wrong?  Well….

This movie wasn’t really about anything.  There were plenty of threads there that it could have been about but none of them were developed or even looked at.  A cursory glance at best and then events just sort of move on.  It could have been Dillinger’s story but we don’t really get anything from the character.  He has one scene where he talks easily with reporters at his mugshot but that’s the only glimpse of any kind of charm.  Neither is he a blood thirsty bandit, nor somehow driven to rob banks for a living, nor yet a professional robber who goes about it in a workmanlike manner.  He just does it.  We don’t even see that much of it.

It could have been about Melvin Purvis, the G-man trying to catch Dillinger but we don’t get a whole lot of his character either.  More than Dillinger for we at least get the idea he might be concerned about what kinds of methods he will have to resort to to get his man.  It never rises above concern though and it sure doesn’t slow him down.

It’s not a chase movie like The Fugitive, or Catch Me If You Can.  There’s a glimpse of how Hoover used the media to demonize Dillinger and his type and make interstate crime the FBI’s reason for being.  That would have been a pretty good movie there but blink and you’ll miss it.  It’s not about how the Italian mobs organized and turned away from the flashier and riskier shoot-em-ups of Dillinger’s gang either though thatwould have been a good movie too.  If you  think it’s a love story, think again.  There’s no romance.  Dillinger announces to Billi Frechette that she’s his girl and she has no say in it.  You know what else she doesn’t have?  Any real screen time or dialog.

In short, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.  It didn’t flat out suck either which is the really frustrating thing (for me anyway).  All the elements of story were there.  They just weren’t developed.  It didn’t tell a story so much as record events.  I can watch that on the History Channel.

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