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In Salvo 7, we asked our resident film critic Barbara Nicolosi about the essential elements of good storytelling, as well as the egregious manner in which contemporary filmmakers tell their stories. What we didn’t get to discuss was the importance of character. Specifically, we failed to explore the concept of the hero and speculate on why the franchise hero has all but disappeared from Hollywood.
Can you start by identifying the qualities of a hero? What attributes must a hero possess?
I’m going to defer to Aristotle here. In Poetics, he says that a hero should be slightly better than a real person. This is why we make movies or plays about princes. You are not a prince, but you will watch a play about a prince because he is living bigger than you can, and that adds to the drama. The same goes for a president or a governor or a police chief—anyone who is a little better than the masses in a few areas that make him fascinating.
Take Indiana Jones, for example. He’s a smart archaeologist. He knows more than you do. He’s amazing with a whip and a gun, and he’s incredibly resourceful. Luke Skywalker is strong in the Force, and Yoda is much wiser than you. You can just go down the list of great film characters, and they will all be better than the average person and stand out in an area of skill or knowledge.
So that’s it? A hero is just someone who is more skilled than we are?
No. Aristotle also says that heroes must be better than we are in terms of virtue as well. At the very least, they should have propriety—propriety in courage, in discretion, and in noble aspirations; they should be slightly more consistent and loftier than the audience. Of course, they shouldn’t be hugely so, because then we couldn’t connect with them.
This is the game that the screenwriter must play. If you ask the average person whether he is brave, he will almost invariably answer in the affirmative. But not every person can really be brave, right? If that were the case, we wouldn’t even know what bravery is. So the reason why you should only make your heroes slightly better than the masses is because we all secretly believe that we are extraordinary people waiting to happen. We need to feel that heroism is within our reach. That’s what will draw us in.
Why is it important for us to have heroes?
Now we are moving into the major confusion afflicting contemporary storytellers. The other day I came out of a movie with a friend—I can’t say which movie because it hasn’t been released yet—and I told her that the lead character was just awful. “I wouldn’t want to be stuck on an elevator with this character for four minutes,” I said, “let alone two hours.” And she replied, “Yeah, but he was based on a real person.”
This is the problem. Someone once told Flannery O’Connor that he had lived his whole life in the South and had never met one of the people in her stories. “Oh, good,” said O’Connor. “I’m not trying to write real people; I’m trying to write good characters.” Today’s storytellers, however, are justifying bad-story fodder by claiming that it mirrors real life. But here’s the thing: We already have real life. Personally, I have loads of it. I have mundane, banal, morose, and boring people all around me. I need better than that from stories. That’s the whole point of them. We’ve got real life, and it’s not healing.
I think it was Benjamin Disraeli who said that we need extraordinary heroes in our stories and plays so that we can be good to the guy next door. A super individual shames us into good behavior in real life. Take Mother Teresa; she scooped dirty, indigent people out of the gutter, even though they smelled bad and had maggots on them. She shames me into not snapping at my husband when he does something stupid. The extraordinary example of the hero shames us into mere civility.
What’s the difference between a hero and a protagonist?
A good protagonist is simply one who is pushing the story events to happen; he doesn’t have to be a hero. Actually, no one in the movie business these days wants to say that his film has a hero. When you’re in pitch meetings, it’s considered quaint—and not in a good way—to talk about heroes. What you connote with the term “hero” is that some people are better than other people, and that’s not fair. Rather, it’s mean and judgmental. How dare you imply that? How dare you say that Patton was better than Goering? He wasn’t better. The two men just found themselves in different situations.
Film execs will talk about the subject of the movie. They’ll talk about the one driving the action. They’ll talk about the object of the action. But they’ll never mention the word “hero.” In one sense, this is good because it’s an acknowledgment that there’s nothing heroic happening in their movies. One of the reasons why the audience has turned away from the cinema is that what’s being sold as heroic isn’t at all heroic most of the time.
What do you mean?
Traditionally, the choices that define the hero have high stakes and provoke a change in the external world. Luke Skywalker gets his act together, turns off his guiding computer, and trusts the Force. Personally, he makes a huge leap from cynicism and doubt to faith. He becomes a trusting person, destroying the Death Star in the process and setting the Empire back hugely. There is a change in the external world because the character conquers an inner darkness—an inner demon.
Today, there is a tremendous cynicism about the capacity of the individual to impact the broader world, and the truth is that you probably can’t make that big of a difference. But storytelling has always been the terrain where someone could. We need someone who can level a mountain so that we can step over an anthill; storytelling should be hyperbolic for that reason. Now, however, our heroes have a lack of pastoral concern for the broader world. Why should I care about making things better? It all stinks anyway. This is the movie Garden State; everyone is just surviving the way he needs to, whether that’s through drugs or relationships or something else. Survival is the only goal. Indeed, the new goal of the hero is to develop the coping skills that will allow him to survive in whatever narcissistic way works. There’s just nothing there for the audience to care about. A narcissist just trying to cope is not compelling.
To what degree is Hollywood ignoring what the audience wants, and to what degree is it giving us exactly what we want?
People always ask me whether Hollywood mirrors society or determines it, and my answer is that it does both. Hollywood mirrors human society by holding a magnifying glass to it, for entertainment has to be bigger than real life. You take a slightly freakish behavior and then magnify it for entertainment purposes. But this makes our tolerance for quirkiness and dysfunction greater, and in this sense Hollywood is determining our tastes as well.
The question is, what does the audience really want? Well, children want heroes; that’s clear. Kids love The Incredibles. They’re not thrilled about Ratatouille. The latter film was an artistic achievement for Pixar, but it was nothing next to The Incredibles, or even Monsters, Inc. I asked my 9-year-old nephew what kinds of movies he loves, and he wants stories of good people clearly fighting evil. What he doesn’t want is to watch The Dark Knight and see Batman struggling with whether he truly wants to help people. This is post-Christian crap!
Is the upcoming generation of filmmakers just as cynical?
What I have noticed in the Millennials—the people who are coming of age in this new millennium—is a sadness about the possibility of heroism. This sadness comes from their lack of discipline. They know that heroes are needed, and they believe that they know what a hero is—namely, somebody who would do something without getting paid for it—but they have been so coddled themselves that they just don’t view this sort of heroism as a viable option.
These kids have been told from the time that they were in pre-school that they are special, but they’re really not. I tell my students this all the time. You are not special as a generation. I can tell you all day long that you are excellent, but if you don’t discover your own excellence in your own moral achievements, then it will fall on deaf ears. The ears of your mind and spirit won’t buy it.
This affects their storytelling in the same way that cynicism affects the stories of the Boomers. So many of the scripts I am reading right now have scenes of characters looking sadly and impotently at a crisis.
How do we change this?
I’m not sure. What I’m trying to do with our young writers at Act One is push them back to classic storytelling principles. “I don’t care that you don’t believe that a high-stakes choice for good is possible,” I tell them. “I just want you to write it.” I don’t want to get stuck in this existential debate about what should happen in a romantic comedy. I sit there at script meetings and hear writers saying that they don’t know whether they should have the lead couple get married and have kids because a lot of times it doesn’t work for people and maybe they wouldn’t be good parents and perhaps they came from broken families and so on. Please! What exactly am I supposed to root for with this couple? Some motorcycle rides out in the country? Is that the goal here? You can see how this indecisive impotence just guts the heart out of a story.
Other than The Incredibles and a few other Pixar films, have there been any movies the last couple of years that contain decent heroes?
No. In fact, this year’s crop of so-called superhero movies—Push, Wolverine, Watchmen, and so on—are the most cynical things you can imagine. There is nothing in them that offers lightness of heart, spirit, or hope. The theme of Watchmen was that no good deed goes unpunished, which is not what you expect in a comic-book movie. I just keep seeing worse and worse stuff.
The other night I went to see Public Enemies, which is the John Dillinger movie, and it was dreadful. You can’t help contrasting it to Bonnie and Clyde, an amazing psychological study of how people dabbling in crime eventually become demonic. It’s a work of genius where Public Enemies is not. The latter movie does not work because it wasn’t willing to judge the actions of Dillinger, and it actually juxtaposes them with those of the FBI agent who pursues him. Both men are killers; there is no difference between them. The film is completely unsatisfying.
A hero has to move toward an understanding. This is what the audience is waiting for; this is what it’s expecting. When bad things happen to a character, he is supposed to learn from them and stagger away with a hard insight. Who wants to see a movie in which no one learns anything—the hero just dies or doesn’t die? My mother used to say all the time that life is hard and then you don’t die. This sums up all current movie heroes. They do take their blows and stagger away, but they have learned nothing. •
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