Analyses

 

 

Twelve Angry Men, One Paramount Obstacle

“He can’t hear you.  He never will.”

This quote is spoken by Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) to Juror #9 in order to calm the indignation that the latter feels when he attempts to tell the group why he changed his vote to Not Guilty;  Juror #7 leaves in the middle of the explanation, blatantly expressing his refusal to communicate and foster a healthy discussion environment.  In a few words, Juror #8 has described the plight of many over the years in the never-ending pursuit of justice and understanding:  if a person does not want to listen, then they will not.  Even still with this defeatist view regarding Juror #7’s willful ignorance, Fonda’s character does not give in to despair, and effectively forces the scales of justice to swing the correct way.  Amongst a group of fellow jurors who have their own reasons for voting on giving the death sentence to a boy who allegedly murdered his own father, Fonda makes the case for reasonable doubt, and their previously-held positions, one by one, are overturned;  through particular and careful deliberation and questioning, it is shown that the seeds of racial and political injustice can be undone with vigilance, patience, and the willingness to listen.  Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) showcases the uphill struggle that America continues to face with regard to justice and critical thinking in the shadow of prejudice;  a correct verdict can be reached, and a correct outcome can be achieved – only if the lanes of communication between people remain open, and our biases and prejudgments are eradicated.

Historical Context

The historical environment in which the film was born was a very tense and volatile one in America.  In the first half of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement had begun, and active resistance to racial segregation in schools had started to form.  In 1954, the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in schools illegal;  in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched.  A little over a year later, when 12 Angry Men was released, racial tensions were still peaking, as evidenced in the Little Rock Nine incident that occurred later that same year.  With the legal divisions between the races becoming eliminated, emotional divisions remained very much at the surface of society.

Alongside racial tensions, the film also did not escape the influence of political tensions.  McCarthyism – an era of supreme social anxiety and unrest – had recently come to a close, and had effectively left the country shaken and divided.  This, coupled with the continuation of the Cold War, found America in a deep sense of dread and paranoia.  The immediate future, while always not a guarantee, was especially not a surety during this time, with the nuclear arms race always floating in the peripheral consciousness of the world (when it was not at the forefront of it).

While the white, male, capitalist patriarchy was very much still in effect, racial desegregation and communism posed as risks to that structure.  The film addresses these threats that the hegemonic America faced at home and abroad in multiple ways, as characters and their respective reasonings (or lack thereof) incorporate racial and political motivations;  it further responds to its historical atmosphere by encompassing and incorporating themes of paranoia and apathy.  And finally, it undercuts the force of the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-white jury and challenges the idea that the majority holds the right view.

When the first official vote is cast in the jury room, it can be seen that the jurors who raise their hands last in voting Guilty, end up being the first ones who change their votes: #s 5, 6, 9, and 11.  This initial vote not only foreshadows the events to come and the order of the soon-to-be-swayed jurors, but also indicates reluctance in these individuals and the presence of peer pressure.  These jurors might have possessed more reservations than the others, but since they saw they were voting with the bulk of the others, decided that they were voting in the right.  Juror #8 is correct when he says that it was not easy for him to separate himself from the rest and vote Not Guilty, as in doing so, he effectively positioned himself before a gargantuan task, given the persuasive power of groupthink with regards to majority rule.  As Phoebe Ellsworth discusses in her article, “One Inspiring Jury”:

Even for very easy perceptual judgments, such as comparing lines that clearly differed in length, a unanimous majority could induce a person to deny the evidence of his senses and agree that two lines were the same when he ‘knew’ they were different.  (1396)

Clearly, when put in a situation where we are aware that we are outnumbered, we would rather betray our own knowledge and perceptions in order to remain with the larger group and avoid being singled out as a dissident.  With further conversation and examination of the proposed facts of the case, Fonda (with eventual help from other jurors), begins to show the mounting evidence for the existence of reasonable doubt.  As more discover that their initial votes were misplaced, there are still ones that remain vehement in their positions.  These last few holdouts, whether stemming from racism (as with Juror #10 and his ‘us versus them’ mentality), or personal vendetta (Juror #3 and his feelings toward youth and discipline), signify the need to convict, the need to blame and punish someone by any means necessary, regardless of the possibility of innocence, especially if that certain someone is identified as an “Other”.

Another concept that the film explores that is equally damaging to the moral tendrils of society is that of apathy.  For some of the jurors, this case is simply a task to fill their time, and hardly worth a second thought.  From discussing an upcoming baseball game to playing Tic-Tac-Toe on the jury room table, the jurors take lightly something that should not be taken as such.  In Nancy Marder’s work “The Banality of Evil:  A Portrayal in 12 Angry Men”, she observes that in order to function effectively and properly, “The jury has to engage in serious thinking, and ‘thinking’s chief characteristic,’ Arendt reminds us, ‘is that it interrupts all doing, all ordinary activities no matter what they happen to be’ ” (894).  Since they are quick to reach their own personal conclusions regarding the verdict, they carry on with normal conversation;  at times, they even act as if they are not judging a murder trial at all, but simply attending a mandatory business meeting.  As long as it is not themselves on trial, they deem it not worth the attention and sense of urgency.  With the jurors all being white males, their identities as the majority are reinforced, along with their sense of security, thus allowing the nonchalant approach (as embodied in Juror #7) to exist.  Luckily, these outlooks are breached by other jurors, uprooting the lackadaisical bed that the hegemony is accustomed to snoring and slobbering in.  This disruption undermines the prevailing and grossly unchecked misconception that the popular perspectives are the proper ones to possess.  Ellsworth claims that in watching the film, “we are reminded that the minority view can be the right view, even if the minority is only one, and that the only way to find out is by full disclosure” (1407).

Critical/Academic Reception

While the film was a critical success upon its release, it did not do well with audiences until a few years later, when it was shown on television;  this could be due to the fact that the film was presented in black-and-white, while television was the main mode of entertainment and the use of color (in both film and television) was on the rise (Dirks).  But, despite a lackluster initial release at the theaters, the film has garnered widespread critical and viewer acclaim.  Not only is it heralded as the second greatest courtroom drama by the American Film Institute, it also has demonstrated itself as a prominent instruction tool, not only with regard to cinema and filmmaking, but also the practice and development of communication (AFI).  In her article, “One Reasonable and Inquiring Man: 12 Angry Men as a Negotiation‐Teaching Tool”, Susan Hackley writes that the movie is often shown at “law schools, business schools, and elsewhere to teach lessons about negotiation, group process, communication, decision making, team building, leadership, and critical thinking” (2).  The film teaches people how to talk to one another, how to gain progress by discussing and thinking through things as a group by incorporating multiple viewpoints, and also demonstrates that consensus is the most desirable and effective outcome when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving.  Concerning thematic and moralistic matters, the film sets itself apart from other works by probing into the deep, troublesome fissures of the human condition.  As David Ray Papke writes in his article, “12 Angry Men Is Not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture”, that while “Pop cultural works about romantic action heroes or women in peril might provide escape, but 12 Angry Men truly edifies” (746).  This is why the film has remained such an iconic and venerable piece; while all films are entertainment, few can be classified as a unique experience, and even fewer can be regarded as an exercise in examining one’s own personal growth, morals, and worldviews.

Analysis

The film does an excellent job in addressing a myriad of social difficulties and hardships that marked the 1950s, from the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, to the lingering effects of McCarthyism, to the continuing stresses of the Cold War.  It portrayed a jury that was all-male and all-white, and even though the judicial system strives for equality in all avenues, the presentation of the whites in power paradigm stands as a metaphor for the illusion of supposed diversity, and the dangers and potential pitfalls of that specific lack.  Back then, the shifts in power were being felt everywhere:  whether people were fighting for equality, or, conversely, trying to keep the control in their hands, the 1950s marked a turbulent time at the local, national, and global scales.

The conflict that resides at the heart of the film directly correlate with societal challenges that were present at the time the film was released.  Sixty years later, the film’s arguments and messages still manage to resound in the political, social, and cultural climate that we find ourselves in – what had hobbled us in the fifties still continues to hobble us.  The case in the film and the subsequent attitudes of members of the jury eerily relates to an incident regarding America’s current Commander-in—Chief.  In 1989, in the case known as the Central Park Five, five African American and Latino teenagers were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park.  After they were in custody, Donald Trump spent $85,000 in advertisements that spanned four of the city’s newspapers.  In the ads, the crime was referenced, along with the demand that the death penalty be reinstated in New York (Ross).  Eventually, after the boys had served sentences and were released, the actual rapist confessed to the crime.  Even still, with DNA evidence proving their innocence and a confession years later from a serial rapist, Trump has refused to acknowledge this and apologize for his catastrophic lapse of judgment.  As disquieting as it is, he – along with many others who support capital punishment – remains “verdict driven”, instead of “evidence driven” (Ellsworth 1404).  Ross goes on to state that Trump “used the Central Park Five to differentiate himself from his political opponent.  He stoked support for solutions inconsistent with the law.  And he refused to admit any error.”  While it is appalling that such a prominent and powerful public figure holds such questionably rigid beliefs towards the very life of another, even after being proven incorrect, it is even more puzzling that that same figure has become a political one, with the support of many in this alleged land of the free, in this country of immigrants.  In his enlightening article, “12 Angry Men Is More Relevant than Ever in the Age of Trump,” Nathan Rabin claims that:

Like Cobb’s villain, Trump’s primary motivation often seems to be a sour, unshakable conviction that a non-white person accused of something is almost assuredly guilty – and that we, as white people, owe it to ‘real Americans’ (i.e., other white people) to punish them.

At least in the film, most of the jurors clearly saw the errors of their thinking, albeit through a grueling and painstaking discussion process.  We in this nation have to remember the virtues and merits that are contained in media artifacts such as 12 Angry Men and not forget that acceptance and tolerance remains within our grasp, in spite of what we fear otherwise.  People need to not be afraid to be altruistic, and be willing to accept other ways of life.  The process of acceptance actually mirrors the legal process within the film:  to accept other ways of living does not necessarily mean one has to agree with them (or, rather, to strictly believe that the boy is innocent), but to simply do no harm, and not condemn it (assume that he is guilty and vote for death).

Conclusion

In conclusion, 12 Angry Men and its denouement continues to serve as a marker of the ideal of “pure justice”, and how America remains far from attaining it;  this type of justice exists in a society where bigotry and racism do not taint the law and how it is administered.  Although justice is a desirable goal in every society, pure justice is extremely difficult to attain, and might always stay an ideal, instead of a reality.  The same reasoning for the inability to develop a perfect, flawless computer can be used to explain the inability for pure justice to be reached:  both technology and justice come from humans, and humans are full of flaws.  Our juries are no exception, and neither is Lumet’s;  Marder claims: “As long as they fail to take their task seriously, and succumb to indifference through bias, boredom, or haste, among other weaknesses, then mistakes will be made” (895).  It was close to a miracle that a Fonda-type was seated in that jury, because in mimicking what happens many times in real life, the defendant would have been put to death, not due to evidence, but due to incompetency on the part of the human jurors.  Ellsworth continues on with this idea, and asserts that “Although never explicitly stated, it stands for the idea that convicting the innocent is a far greater miscarriage of justice than acquitting the guilty, an idea that needs constant and vigilant reinforcing” (1406).  While it is virtually impossible to achieve a perfect record of correct convictions, an innocent person should never be imprisoned (or, the more ghastly fate that happens too many times, sadly, put to death).  Even one innocent person falsely imprisoned among ninety-nine criminals is still not acceptable, and should not be tolerated.

Interestingly, one of the biggest revelations in the film is the idea that certainty can serve as the enemy, the erosion of rational and complex thought.  In their piece “Deliberation in 12 Angry Men”, Babcock and Sassoubre claim that “The truth, we soon realize, is unknowable” (635).  How can we be sure about what we know?  The answer is: we cannot, and it is arguable that we ever truly can.  That said, one might wonder why it is that we have issues with admitting that we are not sure about a specific fact, that we find it incapable of saying the words, “I do not know”.  For some reason, humans try to make everything seem certain, and absolute.  People ingrain this way of thinking into their psyches so intensely that the beliefs that they “know” the truth about become not only part of their personality, but their identity;  this is partly why they become so indignant and staunch when it comes to their rightness – if one of their supposed truths are challenged and threatened, so is their identity.

In a way, it is depressing, to know that we are still embattled with the same afflictions that we were decades ago, and, in some cases, centuries ago.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841;  in it, he championed the concept to “Trust thyself” (270), and that “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (272).  Why can’t we, as a species, adopt these ideals, synthesize them into our consciousness, and truly and openly live by them?  The answer might be that our collective development is stagnant, and we have simply not evolved that far yet.  Evolution can be a very slow process, especially when attitudes and ideals are concerned.  For as much as we have progressed, cultivated, and invented, our ignorance and biases still remain within us.  In 12 Angry Men, good does prevail, but we are left with a sobering and imperative message:  we as individuals need to be mindful of our own choices and actions if we want to see this world improve.  As Marder states in her work:

One interpretation of the film’s ending is that good will triumph over evil.  Another interpretation is that we cannot count on having a Fonda on our jury, or in our society, so it behooves each of us to play this role and to guard against our own indifference, whether manifested as haste, bias, or malaise. (897)

We should all want to be as virtuous and moralistic as Fonda’s Juror #8, and due to the popularity and reverence the film has received, the majority of us do;  but, in order for this to be accomplished, and for humanity to improve itself, we need to think outside ourselves, and try to live inside another person’s proverbial shoes.  The best we can do, as it turns out, is to constantly try our best, every day, to understand one another.  This includes not resting into a way of thinking simply because it was our parents’, striving to appreciate all sides of a view or idea before making a decision, and standing up for the ones that cannot defend themselves.  Then and only then can we hope to become more emotionally intelligent, understanding, and competent human beings, and leave this world a better place than we found it:  a place where everyone and everything is comfortable and has what it needs, free from fear and judgment.

 

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Works Cited

“1950 – 1959 World History.” Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Anwar, Shamena, Patrick Bayer, and Randi Hjalmarsson. “A Jury Pool’s Race Can Deny Justice.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 May 2012. Web. 8 May 2017.

Babcock, Barbara Allen, and Ticien Marie Sassoubre. “Deliberation in 12 Angry Men.” Chicago-Kent Law Review 82.2 (2007): 633-42. Apr. 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Dirks, Tim. “12 Angry Men (1957).” Filmsite. American Movie Classics Company LLC., n.d. Web. 7 May 2017.

Ellsworth, Phoebe C. “One Inspiring Jury.” Michigan Law Review 101.6 (2003): 1387-407. May 2003. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 269-286. Print.

Hackley, Susan. “One Reasonable and Inquiring Man: 12 Angry Men as a Negotiation‐Teaching Tool.” Negotiation Journal. Blackwell Publishing Inc., 04 Oct. 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Janken, Kenneth R. “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe. National Humanities Center, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017

Joshi, Ashish S., and Christina T. Kline. “Lack of Jury Diversity: A National Problem with Individual Consequences.” Section of Litigation. American Bar Association, 2015. Web. 8 May 2017.

Marder, Nancy S. “The Banality of Evil: A Portrayal in 12 Angry Men.” Chicago-Kent Law Review 82.2 (2007): 887-99. Apr. 2007. Web. 1 May 2017.

“McCarthyism.” Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 8 May 2017.

Papke, David Ray. “12 Angry Men Is Not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture.” Chicago-Kent Law Review 82.2 (2007): 735-48. Apr. 2007. Web. 1 May 2017.

Rabin, Nathan. “12 Angry Men Is More Relevant than Ever in the Age of Trump.” Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair, 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 9 May 2017.

Ross, Janell. “Donald Trump’s Doubling Down on the Central Park Five Reflects a Bigger Problem.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 08 Oct. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.

“Top 10 Courtroom Drama.” AFI: 10 Top 10. AFI, n.d. Web. 14 May 2017.

Trueman, C.N. “What Was the Cold War?” The History Learning Site. The History Learning Site, 25 May 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Variety Staff. “Review: ‘12 Angry Men’.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 01 Jan. 1957. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Weiler, A.H. “Screen: ’12 Angry Men’; Jury Room Drama Has Debut at Capitol.” Rev. of 12 Angry Men. The New York Times 15 Apr. 1957: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

 

 


 

 

In Translation, Found

In the realm of cinema, there are genre films, and there are non-genre films.  The former are dictated by inherent cues that audiences can discern, thus revealing more surface information, such as specific character traits, or expected settings, or anticipated plot points.  While genre films can sometimes be easier to analyze, non-genre films can pose more of a challenge, as the absence of cues and genre-mixing give such films an undercurrent of ambiguity.  In certain instances, this ambiguity, and the lack of a definitive genre can help contribute to a certain film’s message.   Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation is one such example, as the melding of drama and humor helps to explore and illustrate the delicate moments in our lives, and that sometimes, what is not said is vastly more important and impactful than what is said.

The film focuses on two Americans who are visiting Japan and are staying at the same hotel.  They eventually cross paths, and a very special bond is then formed between them.  They are both kindred spirits in a way, as both feel unsatisfied, unhappy, and lost.  They are both insomniacs, and meet late one night at the hotel bar.  Their insomnia could be related to jet lag, but it could also be due to each of their current psychological disposition.  As author Charles Brockden Brown claims in his novel, Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, “The incapacity of sound sleep denotes a mind sorely wounded” (8).  The two main characters are deeply troubled, and both seek connection and coherence in this mess of a thing we call life.  The placing of these characters in Japan is all the more appropriate, as the film explores the struggle of connecting to our fellow beings, to reach a metaphysical understanding in a world that is strange and foreign (not only in reference to Japan, but by extension, life itself).  When two people who do not quite fit in the “average” column, this task is much more difficult to accomplish; but when this finally does occur and two people of the same kind find each other, the depth of the bond is that much more intense and special.

Bob is an aging actor who seems disenchanted by the way his life has ended up.  During his stay, his wife sends information about cabinets and other home furnishings.  When Bob drops the swatches on the floor, the scattered items symbolize his scattered, disarrayed life.  The phone calls he has with his wife are excruciating;  their dialogue is very choppy and forced, as the bare minimum is said between the two, and the fizzling out of a marriage is ever-apparent.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Charlotte, who is relatively new to marriage and adult life, already has doubts about her husband, and about herself.  She spends a lot of time alone, in her hotel room window, seemingly suffocated by the huge sprawling city outside while she becomes more isolated inside.  When she has a difficult day, she calls a confidant and attempts to tell her of her troubles;  however, the confidant is too preoccupied, and ends the phone call.  After she hangs up, Charlotte sits and quietly cries, as the attempt to connect was refused, and once again she is left alone.  This goes to show that what is not said, what is not divulged, has a more forceful impact than what is.

The most prominent example of the power of the unspoken in the film resides in the last scene:  Bob is on the way to the airport when he sees Charlotte in the street.  He finds her, and whispers something in her ear.  The audience does not hear what he said, but is left with the impression that it was positive, as the film ends on a melancholic, yet hopeful note.  Due to the fact that Bob’s dialogue was not divulged, the scene becomes more powerful, more moving, as any speech would have lessened the impact of their last interaction.  This restraint honors the sound of silence, and leaves the viewers with an impression that will not soon fade away.

More often than not, words have the tendency to taint, to exploit our feelings and emotions, as sometimes life is too magnificent, shocking, or horrific to be constrained to words.  The most poignant moments in our lives are ineffable, ultimately above literal and earthy description;  in these moments, words are never enough – life needs to just be.  And while life can be intensely dramatic and carry much gravitas, it also needs to be diffused with humor.  If one saw this world strictly as a tragedy, they would be overcome with depression, and unable to cope.  This is why the indispensible quality of humor and its redeeming and mood-lifting nature is so crucial, as it serves as a counterpoint to the somberness and despair that inevitably comes with being a human.  Bob and Charlotte share rapid-fire, witty, and humorous banter, even when they are upset with each other, and even in situations where comedy would not be expected.  Throughout the film, there are moments where the viewer does not know whether to laugh or cry, thus creating an intricate blend of emotions.  Lost in Translation is very cognizant of the fact that life is painful, but also hilarious, and that sometimes – humor is all we have.

The film’s atmosphere is propelled by certain cinematic techniques, such as editing and sound.  The movie contains mostly slow-paced editing, allowing the viewer to fully contemplate each of the characters’ subtle complexities – their respective thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  The level of character development would not have been achieved had it contained more cuts and edits.  It can be clearly seen that appropriate cinematic syntax is achieved, as the editing does not force the action or motives of the characters – it lets the movie flow with a natural, organic flow, a flow that mimics Bob and Charlotte’s serendipitous connection.  In sync with the film’s editing is the sound.  It is a relatively very quiet film, with the sound aiding, and not taking away from, the action/characters/mood of the piece.  The auditory tones of the score are characterized by calming and soothing rhythms, which further contribute to the overall steady and absorbing thematic tones.

In conclusion, Lost In Translation illustrates how a non-genre film can transcend the constraints that accompany genre films by evading any preconceptions that viewers might have.  This, in turn, allows the film to effectively and flawlessly convey the complex and subversive themes that it addresses.  With its extremely understated atmosphere and minimalist composition, it gives the audience something to think about rather than to simply know.   It is a rare film that offers viewers the chance to search their own lives and reflect on their own connections with the world, other people, and themselves.

 

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Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. N.p.: Seven Treasures Publications, 2009. Print.

 

 


 

 

Walter White and the Question of Anti-hero Acceptance

“If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”

This phrase is spoken by Walter White, the main character in the show Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan, to his brother-in-law, Hank, when Hank confronts Walter about his secret life as Heisenberg.  Viewers have been anticipating this altercation, as Hank is been one of the detectives that were in pursuit of Heisenberg.  Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who at first seems like a kind, light-hearted man who would have trouble doing any kind of harm to anyone or anything, has morphed into a cold, harsh, drug lord that threatens his own brother-in-law.  With anti-heroes such as Walter White growing in popularity, one question worth contemplating is:  Why do we enjoy reading about and watching anti-heroes?  What leads us to desire and sustain a parasocial relationship with characters who are deeply flawed, morally controversial, and commit horrific acts such as murder?  In a lot of ways, these individuals are more complex than the traditional hero-hero, and due to their respective flaws and reprehensible actions, seem a bit more human; they allow the audience to enter a world, and a character, where there is no clear black side, and no clear white—a world where only grey matters.

The concept of the hero in the narratives of the world spans many years, and remains a major driving force in the stories that we tell- we enjoy seeing the triumph of good over the threat of evil.  In his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell states that “From this point of view the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life” (31).  The heroic and theatrical ideals that we hold for the world around us allow us to relate to the traditional hero narrative, as this type of hero possesses traits that we might desire for ourselves, like courage, strength, fortitude, morality, etc.).  Since these types of heroes stand as the pinnacle of human goodness and virtue, the viewer respects and might even imagine themselves as the hero that is highlighted.

With the classic hero, the viewer/reader attributes positive emotions to him/her; nothing about them is disagreeable.  In a sense, they are flawless, as the reader/viewer does not question their choices or actions, or the possible malignancy that these can hold.  Traditional heroes, on the whole, almost always do the right things, and for the right reasons- essentially flawless.  On the other hand, with the anti-hero, the viewer is forced to reconcile both positive and negative feelings that they feel in regard to their actions.  Multiple times throughout Breaking Bad, Walt’s motivation of caring and providing for his family is emphasized and announced.  While Walter had good intentions when he entered into the meth-cooking industry, he inevitably had to commit several atrocities in order to sustain his position.  From poisoning Brock, to orchestrating the murder of ten inmates, to giving Jesse to Uncle Jack and the Aryans (who subsequently turn him into a meth-cooking slave), some of Walter’s choices permanently stain his righteousness with malevolence and bloodstains.  But even in the end, Walt’s capacity for sympathy remains large, as his grand plan and endgame was not fueled by hatred or revenge or malice:  it was fueled by compassion and love.  Ironically, it was these things that eventually led to his demise, as the paths and steps that were required for that heroic, desired outcome required many un-heroic acts.

It is easy to like a traditional hero, as the creator of the character gears the viewer/reader to always be in favor of them.  The case with the anti-hero, however, is more complex, as while the creator aims to garner sympathy for the character in question, they also design them to incite certain moral dilemmas within the audience as a result of the character’s questionable positions and actions.  Creators know that anti-heroes draw viewer attention, that much is clear.  What might be less clear is:  Why do we enjoy the anti-hero narrative in the first place?

In his dissertation, entitled Understanding the Framing and Complexity of Anti-Hero Narratives, Pragya Agarwal claims that “…moral  disengagement  could  possibly  act as  a  motivator  or  an  alibi  as  to  why  certain complex  narratives  such  as  that  of  anti-hero  are  mostly  likeable  by  the  audience  and  viewers enjoy and share the sentiment” (11).  According to the blog, Historical Underbelly, moral disengagement is “a term from social psychology for the process of convincing the self that ethical standards do not apply to oneself in a particular context by separating moral reactions from inhumane conduct by disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation” (qtd. in Fiske, 2004).  If our favorite television character commits an awful act or utters a horrible thing, depending on the severity of the offense, the odds are that they will still remain our favorite character.  This is made possible through the theory of moral disengagement, that the certain acts that they do are excusable.  Maybe they were forced to commit the act, or maybe they had no other way of solving the problem that they had found themselves in.  Since they had no other route to take, they decided to go down the path that did not let them come out clean on the other side.

In Shadi Neimneh’s article, “The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal”, the author states that “Modern anti-heroes are heroic because their times disallowed them to be traditionally heroic” (1).  In a world where the basis of a heroic story entails the bad guy stealing the princess, and the good guy has to go and rescue her, the concept of the anti-hero would be absent, as there would be no chance for the hero to “do bad”.  Little complexity, predictable storylines, and a thinner breadth of shades when it comes to the hero’s character can be attributed to the generic story of the hero, and the triumph over bad;  the hero simply has to do good in order to defeat the bad.  In the case of the anti-hero, this formula is absent, taken over by more dark and sinister themes with regard to the “good” protagonist(s).  When the world gives a character a rough cut, the character might not have any other choice than to cut the world back using their own rusty blade.  As Agarwal claims, “Often  in  the  light  of  fallen  societal  norms  and  structures,  pathetic  existing  structures,  defunct governance;  a  space  is  created  for  the  negative hero  to  emerge” (31).  It is definitely arguable that Walter had a choice:  he could have stopped the meth cooking, could have bowed out of the business and lived out the rest of his days peacefully with his family.  However, due to his discovered abilities, his drive to prove himself, and his need to redeem himself, he continued on with his operation, and navigated the drug and violence-filled labyrinth as best he could in order to provide for his family.  He did not (and could not) do so without the traits and tendencies of the anti-hero.

With some of our entertainment, seeing a superhuman superhero is exhilarating and enjoyable, simply for the sake of seeing a comic book hero defeat a mound of villains with physics-defying moves.  However, sometimes we enjoy watching people and characters that more closely resemble ourselves.  In his article, “The Rise of the Anti-Hero”, Johnathan Michael claims that “Characters who shine as morally pure and upright don’t ring true to us anymore, because it’s not who we see around us in the world. Neither is it what we see when we look in the mirror” (1).  It is very difficult for the traditional hero to fit into this certain mold, as they would cease to be that – they would instead morph into an anti-hero, the type of hero that utilizes and facilitates a grittier, more human way of going about achieving their desired goals.  When he found out that he had terminal cancer, Walt was driven by the need to make sure his wife and son would be financially taken care of after he passes away.  Walt, in trying to figure out how he would accomplish this, examined the different venues that were possible and the tools at his disposal.  He soon realized that he could use his excellence at chemistry, that through this intellectual talent of his, he could produce an astoundingly pure form of methamphetamine.  Yes it would be highly illegal, highly dangerous, and highly against what his family would have preferred, but Walt deemed it to be the best option for him, the best and most efficient way to attain the financial security that he aimed to collect in trying to do right by the ones he loved most.  We as viewers feel for Walt, as his struggle for serenity and peace of mind is very human and universal, a state of being that is vastly desired.

While anti-heroes can embody a wider array of human traits than a regular protagonist, they still reside in fiction, a heightened view of reality that is different from our own.  This also allows them to stretch beyond the limits of our reality and explore sides of life that the viewer might never encounter first-hand.  Throughout our lives, people might fantasize from time to time about what it would be like to make a lot of money in a short amount of time:  perhaps robbing a bank, or rigging a horse race.  Not that the majority would ever commit these acts, but it can be a very real fantasy since it is so far away from one’s life and one’s allowable actions.  The anti-hero allows the audience to live these fantasies vicariously through them, giving them the chance to experience what it would be like to actually engage in the acts.

Another reason why we are drawn to anti-heroes is that they allow us viewers to play with moral ambiguity.  What we see them delving into in their respective external worlds is what we only encounter in our internal worlds.  We are allowed to see Walter in these situations and wonder, “What would I do if that were me?  Is Walter right? Am I not that different from him?”  With the viewer having to align themselves with the anti-hero protagonist, a plethora of critical questions are presented, and multiple shades of their disposition are to be looked at and analyzed.  One such scenario from Breaking Bad comes in the third episode, where Walt has to decide whether to kill the drug dealer that he and Jesse have locked up in Jesse’s basement.  In a pro/con list, Walt writes the reasons why he should let him live: “It’s the moral thing to do;  Judeo/Christian principles; you are not a murderer; sanctity of life; post-traumatic stress; won’t be able to live with yourself; murder is wrong!”  Under the “Kill Him” column, there is only one entry:  “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go” (Gilligan).  As Presh Talwalkar observes in the post, “Game Theory in Breaking Bad“, “Walt lists many moral reasons not to kill him.  But he lists only one practical reason to kill him.”  It is clear that Walter is careful in the actions that he takes, and goes to great lengths to find a reason to let him live that overrides the starkly domineering reason to not.  For two episodes, Walt obsesses over the daunting task that lies before him, and while there are many points that relate to the morality of the act, the decision that Walt eventually makes is one of brutal and logical necessity.  The viewer could make the moral case that Walt should have let him go, as murder is universally known as being inherently wrong and immoral (Alchin and Henly);  however, death, or jail (if he had called the police) would have been waiting for Walt.  Throughout the course of the show, Walt would find himself in many more of these situations, situations where all options hold unsavory side effects and consequences.

Another point that is worthy of note is the question of redemption with regards to the anti-hero and their respective predicaments.  Despite them being morally reprehensible at times, one trait of the anti-hero is the presence of sympathy, and their tendency to remain a sympathetic character.  As David R. Koepsell and Robert App state, “Lucifer too was sympathetic in Milton’s Paradise Lost if only because he had the guts to rebel, however hopelessly, against a tyranny he didn’t create, and against whose dictates he would no longer stand” (2).  No one wants to see a character undergo oppression, and pain, and anguish;  this is the reason why it is easy to root for the underdog, the character, team, or group that is least likely to succeed, because the viewer/reader so desperately wants them to succeed.  When the dark horse prevails, it signifies a greater effort, a deeper commitment, and a longer ascent to the top.  Overall, it feels good to root for the underdog, even when that underdog is Satan.

In dealing with the uniqueness of the anti-hero narrative, one thing worthy of note is the alteration and melding of the elements of story.  In Jack Hart’s Storycraft, he states that the essential components to a good story include a sympathetic character and a complication (11-13).  Tales that feature an anti-hero as the protagonist have seemed to fuse these two elements together, so that the character’s complication is, in fact, the character herself/himself.  Thus, the character finds themselves pitted against not only the external world and its myriad of tribulations, but also themselves, as they attempt to navigate through the thunderstorms of life.  While Walter eventually goes to battle with Gus and has to constantly evade Hank and the DEA, an even larger battle rages, a battle that began in the very first episode and raged all the way through to the very last:  the one within himself, the one that concerns his pride, his regrets, and his need to redeem himself.

In conclusion, Walter White is the quintessential example of the modern day anti-hero, and is proof that a lead character need not be straight-edge and a do-gooder to make a strong impression, to leave audiences captivated.  When one goes deeper than simply stating that he is either a good guy that does bad things, or a bad guy that has good intentions, one realizes that Walter’s disposition includes both of these elements, which further adds to his multi-layered disposition;  it is a disposition that can be seen as vile and completely corrupted, or it can be viewed as an unfortunate one, one that was dealt a losing hand all-around, and is just trying to get by in this world like everyone else.  An anti-hero’s entire nature, their intentions, actions, who they might have been before and who they are currently, rest not only on the conflictions that they face within the story, but also the conflictions they face within themselves.

 

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Works Cited

Agarwal, Pragya. Understanding the Framing and Complexity of Anti-Hero Narratives (Case of “Breaking Bad” TV Series). Diss. MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad), 2014. Ann Arbor: ProQuest LLC, 2015. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Alchin, Nicholas, and Carolyn P. Henly. Theory of Knowledge. 3rd ed. London: Trans-Atlantic Publications, 2014. Google Books. Google. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Novato: New World Library, 2008. Google Books. Google. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

Couch, Aaron. “‘Breaking Bad’: Walter White’s 5 Most Evil Acts.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 22 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Gilligan, Vince. “…and the Bag’s in the River.” Breaking Bad. Dir. Adam Bernstein. 10 Feb. Television.

Hart, Jack. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2011. Print.

Koepsell, David R., and Robert Arp. Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry. Chicago: Open Court, 2012. Google Books. Google. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Michael, Johnathan. “The Rise of the Anti-Hero.” Www.relevantmagazine.com. N.p., 26 Apr. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Neimneh, Shadi. “The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal.” Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, vol. 46 no. 4, 2013, pp. 75-90. Project MUSE. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Talwalkar, Presh. “Game Theory in Breaking Bad.” Mind Your Decisions. WordPress, 1 Oct. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

 


 

Mulholland Drive: An Entrancing Entrance to the Lynch Realm

The medium of film is a fascinating and relatively new way for us to interact, interpret, and express our world; our external world, and our individual, internal worlds as well.  Because of this ability, cinema spans far beyond mere entertainment, and can reveal very poignant universal truths in ways that no other art form can.  Movies identified as surrealist and/or avant-garde are particularly essential in this regard, as their nature and aim is one of discovery and experimentation;  even though they go against the filmic norms of narrative, they still can achieve emotional and ideological meaning and, in most cases, even more so than the average plot-driven movies.  In his film, Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch uses cinematic techniques to focus more on generating a specific atmosphere rather than on articulating a story, and in turn, demonstrates how surrealism and unconventional storytelling can lead to a more powerful experience in film.

The cinematic elements of Mulholland Drive all contribute to present an understated and pervasive sense of ethereal mystery and dread.  First, the cinematography helps exude a dreamy eeriness through the duration of the film.  At the near beginning of the film, a point-of-view shot plunges the viewer into a red pillow, and into darkness;  then, the camera floats underneath a street sign: Mulholland Drive.  The viewer has officially entered the world of dreams.  At various spots in the film, the camera seems to be floating, and is never completely stationary.  This mirrors the uneasiness and lack of confidence the viewer has toward the events on the screen.  There are also multiple scenes where a certain character locks eyes with another character;  this is shown through extreme close-ups of each person’s eyes.  In the instance where Betty locks eyes with Adam in the movie studio, the connection between the characters is experienced, but not explained.  It is not clear why they stare at each other, but the scene echoes a sense of recognition that exceeds reality, that they remember each other from another universe (or portion of the movie).

The film’s mise-en-scene also aids in conveying its peculiar ambiance.  The characters talk and act in a slow, odd manner;  there is a constant undercurrent that something does not seem quite right.  Their movement and dialogue reflect the otherworldly mood that the entire film possesses.  For example, when describing the contents of a dream, a character describes it as neither day or night, but a kind of “half-night”. In the same vein, Mulholland Drive is neither familiar and yet, not wholly unfamiliar.  The seemingly random shots (of the red sheets and the yellow phone) mimic the feeling of deja vu, that feeling of “Where do I know this from?”  It is not something you think, it is something you sense, and Lynch upholds this through the duration of the film.

 Mulholland Drive’s unorthodox plot structure also plays a part in its perplexity.  It is very complex the ways Lynch makes the viewer ask “Why?” when it comes to the overall story and characters.  Our minds try to connect events and images in the film that in all likelihood do not share a connection.  For instance, we can assume that the line “The girl is still missing” refers to Rita, but it is never confirmed;  we can assume that the hitman’s friend’s accident was the same one that Rita was in, but it is never confirmed.  Nothing is blatantly proven in the film, but our minds, which are used to working with narratives and plots, attempts to piece together the events to build a cohesive story.  It comes as a moderate to severe shock that Lynch’s films do not work in this way.  In order to not become overly bewildered by the seeming incoherence of the plot, the viewer must learn to let go of the conventions and preconceived notions that they might have held before watching a Lynch film, as logic will not guide them though the experience.  Concerning the flow of events in the film, the chronology of occurrences in the first two-thirds is fairly straight-forward; even though the camera cuts between multiple storylines, each scene from each character’s respective plotline logically follows the preceding one.  On the other hand, the chronology in the last third of the film is jumbled, and unclear.  An interesting paradox can be discerned here, as the strong surrealism of the first two-thirds of the film equivocate to the disorganization of the last third.  Does this mean that our reality is just as confusing and deceiving as our dreamworlds?  Which one should we believe is the right one? Is there a right one?  Lynch gives us clues as to what are the correct clues, but we are never sure.  The viewer is left with questions such as: does the key symbolize mystery?  Rita’s death?  Rita’s revelation of her death?  Transportation to another dimension?  It is never clear, and the viewer is left to use what they were given and piece the puzzle together.

We may identify with the characters because they are humans, but our psyches are placed in the world of David Lynch.  Us, along with them, have found ourselves in the midst of a perfect mystery: lots of money, a loss of memory, and a journey into the unknown.  The clues are there, it is just a matter of making them fit.  However, sometimes those pieces fool us into believing what will fit and what will not.  What we think will lead to “The Answer” in the film, actually ends up decimating what we thought we already knew and presents us with many more questions to answer and connections to make.  For instance, later in the film, Betty takes an identical limo ride to the one that Rita took in the beginning;  this repetition instills in the viewer a sense that the movie is reaching a culmination,  despite the fact that up to this point, the movie has explained very little.  The scene denies our expectations of narrative, and does not deliver anything conclusive.  The viewer cannot trust what he/she sees, but instead has to rely on their intuition to navigate through the Mulholland Drive labyrinth.  This is what Lynch is referencing when he states that “I think people know what Mulholland Drive is to them but they don’t trust it” (qtd. in Rodley, 288).  We will each have different responses and theories regarding the film and its myriad of meanings, and Lynch assures us that this is okay.  We as viewers are rarely asked to contribute much more than our eyes and heads when watching a film;  as a result, we are not familiar with having to depend on our gut feelings to decipher possible messages and meanings within them.

While the movie and its various elements present many possible explanations, Lynch himself does not divulge its meaning.  He chooses this because he feels that “Telling them robs them of the joy of thinking it through and feeling it and coming to a conclusion” and that it ruins the movie-going experience when one is told all a film’s secrets (288).  This withholding of information actually appeals to our mind’s tendency to piece things together.  We are the detectives in our lives;  we are always looking for out-of-place and unfamiliar things because our eyes and minds excel at perceiving differences.  If we are simply told the answer to a problem without having to do the mental work for it, our brain executed little to no processing, having us learned little to nothing.  Lynch counters this by asking the viewer to meet him half way with his films;  he positions the audience the way he wants them to look, but does not point to any particular object;  he does not rely on narrative, but circles around it.  By doing this, he is giving us an opportunity that not many filmmakers even contemplate doing nowadays: the opportunity to think.

Lynch’s take on the sacredness of a film’s meaning to each individual viewer is not one that the mainstream public is particularly favors, or is even used to;  narrative dominates the cinema.  The public, especially the American public, demand that everything be served to them, clear as day, under their noses.  Ambiguity in film is not welcome, because it differs from what they normally encounter and everything that they have seen before. The plot-driven narrative has become overly familiar, as even with the majority of fiction films, reality is strived for.  When a film is deemed too strange or too “out there” in terms of its logistics and plotline, it is usually the case that the filmmakers (and studios) took certain risks in making it.  In Germaine Dulac’s essay, “The Avant-Garde Cinema”, she claims that the main studios and movie-going public believed that “The cinema must…belong exclusively and dryly to the drama created by the situations and the facts, and not to the drama provoked by the conflicts of minds and hearts” (655).  When we only deal with narrative, we are limiting ourselves and our aesthetic field of vision.   Why do we think that we can only learn through formulaic plots and recognizable characters?  If we never branch out of our normal ways of seeing and doing and thinking about things, we will never know what might be waiting for us outside of those limits, and our minds will remain small and untapped.

The approach that Lynch takes to Mulholland Drive and the rest of his films mark a very important aspect of cinema that needs more attention.  Humans like things to make sense, and therefore enjoy films that have a clear-cut explanation.  We need to have our thoughts in order, our emotions in order, and all the external stimuli that we encounter every day to possess order.  When something appears out of place, we try as hard as we can to rework things to that, at least in our minds, they have at least some semblance of neatness.  When things are in order, we can go back into our comfort zones and relax.  Day in and day out, it is the same;  this sameness is echoed in all of our art.  The studios, since they know what movies will and will not make money, only give us the movies that can guarantee a large monetary return for them;  they do not bother with the deeper complexities with the films, only if they can garner box office success.  Regrettably, America is ruled by this Hollywood system, and is the reason why we have four (soon to be five) Transformers movies.  Just like how our bodies become unbalanced when we consume only a limited number of vitamins and minerals, our brains become bland when we limit its intake and do not give it different stimuli.  In a way, we are already inclined to surrealism and the avant-garde.  Especially when we are dreaming but also when we are awake, we get bombarded with absurd thoughts and ideas on a daily basis.  They are intrusive, and we have little control over them sometimes, but they are pure thoughts, thoughts that remain uninfluenced by our intellect.  Avant-garde cinema mimics this phenomena, as Dulac states that “It [pure cinema] went in search of emotion beyond the limits of the human, to everything that exists in nature, to the invisible, the imponderable, to abstract movement” (656).  Films are heightened and enhanced versions of reality, and they can express ineffable concepts quite accurately.  Surrealist and avant-garde filmmakers know this, and are constantly trying to reach these higher truths that cinema can offer.

It is David Lynch’s bizarreness that makes him and his films so crucial to the evolution of cinema as a whole.  Every new advancement, whether it be in the arts, in business, or in science, can be considered avant-garde;  anything experimental, that has not come before.  If artists never take risks and step out of the zone of comfort, never push the boundaries that only pose as strict parameters, humans would never experience progress;  we would remain stagnant in the waters of complacency and the mundane.  Artists should fully embrace this allowance of exploration, and the viewing public should in turn give the experiments a chance and support artistic evolution.  It is truly amazing what film has done in its short life span, why not continue that curiosity and find out what else it has to offer, what else it can show us and teach us?  In his essay “Photogenie and the Imponderable,” Jean Epstein claims that “These experiments [of cinematography] contradict and throw into confusion the sense of order which we have established at great cost in our conception of the universe” (255).  We tend to be weary of new advancements, simply because they might threaten our already established set of beliefs and modes of thinking.  But what if our current ways do not equate to the highest level of living our lives?  We would never know if we did not possess the curiosity about the unknown.  Movies like Mulholland Drive are worth watching and analyzing because they subject us to something new;  they challenge our usual way of seeing and force us to think outside the proverbial box.  The message will not always be spelled out, or perhaps even obvious at all, but it must be understood that this is a necessary part of progression.  Friction and adversity have to be present in order for growth to take place, and we need to be willing to undergo this in order to become more intelligent, more compassionate, and overall more competent human beings.

Mulholland Drive speaks to another level of our consciousness, a level that deals more with intuition than with logic.  If we closely consider the film and how it works on us, we will see that the part that is allured by the film is the same part that is intrigued by the unexplained and strange nuances of events, emotions, and thoughts that we encounter in our daily lives.  We could be walking down a sidewalk and suddenly get washed over by a sense of dread.  Why does this random occurrence happen?  Is it because of the color of the fence?  Is it because it is completely quiet during that particular stretch of your walk?  Could it be because of a look a stranger gave you earlier that day?  The answer could be none, one, or all of these things, but we are never sure.  It certainly is not something that we can put into words, but for some reason we still know it and feel it.  Something this deep can maybe be described as cosmic essence, and inexplicable presence of knowing.  It is this that Lynch channels with Mulholland Drive.  He describes this concept by stating that “poets can catch an abstraction in words and give you a feeling that you can’t get any other way” (288).  Dulac also describes the abstract in surrealism as a “visual poem made up of human life-instincts” (655).  Lynch is certainly a visual poet, one who conducts elegant and mesmerizing pieces through unconventional and purely visual and psychological means.

In conclusion, Mulholland Drive is a cerebral, brain-awakening ascent to a world where reality, the land of dreams, and alternate universes all exist simultaneously.  It is not a movie to be watched, but one to be experienced;  it proves that a film does not need a clear narrative, need not lay down all its secrets for the viewer in order to be perpetually stirring and important.  The cinesphere that is Mulholland Drive is one that we as a society need more exposure to.  In the film, Cynthia tells Adam, “It’s been a very strange day.”  Indeed it has been strange, as is certain to happen in a David Lynch film.  Hopefully Lynch and other forward-thinking filmmakers continue on making it stranger, further allowing the collective cinematic consciousness to broaden and transcend its horizons.

 

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Works Cited

Dulac, Germaine. “The Avant-Garde Cinema.” 1932. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 653-57. Print.

Epstein, Jean. “Photogenie and the Imponderable.” 1935. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 253-57. Print.

Hudson, Jennifer A. “”No Hay Banda, and Yet We Hear a Band”: David Lynch’s Reversal of Coherence in Mulholland Drive.” Journal of Film and Video 56.1 (2004): 17-24. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Lynch, David, and Chris Rodley. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. Print.

Moine, Raphaëlle. “From Surrealist Cinema to Surrealism in Cinema: Does a Surrealist Genre Exist in Film?” Yale French Studies No. 109.Surrealism and Its Others (2006): 98-114. JSTOR. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Wilson, Eric. The Strange World of David Lynch: Transcendental Irony from Eraserhead to Mulholland Dr. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

 


 

The Importance of Character – “The Cat Lady”

A sequence of actions, a sympathetic character, a complication, and a resolution.

These, according to Jack Hart in his book, Storycraft, are the four crucial components in a story. While all of these play a paramount role in fleshing out the ideas in each respective writer’s head, the most important aspect of storytelling for one to develop is the element of character. From classic novels to the latest videogames, the element of character is what makes or breaks a story, and determines how effective that particular story is and how well it resonates with the audience. One video game, “The Cat Lady,” is a prime example of how the development of character in a story can present to the player/viewer a lasting, meaningful impression that is not soon forgotten.

The characters and their desires are where stories begin. As Hart claims, “Human needs and wants, he [Lajos Egri] said, set stories in motion and determine all that follows” (9). The building block of achievement: a person has a goal, and is driven to attain it. Besides having to have an objective, the character also needs to be afflicted with some sort of relatable conflict. Hart further asks, “Why pay attention to somebody who’s content, who has no reason to act, no challenge to meet, and nothing to teach us about coping with the world?” (13). Something to overcome is what everyone faces in their day-to-day lives, whether it be traffic or a death in the family, and that is what makes a sympathetic (and hindered) character critical to an interesting story. “The Cat Lady” is one such example that holds this type of character at its center, a character who not only needs to fight to live, but who also needs to find the will to live.

The game ironically begins with the protagonist, Susan Ashworth, committing suicide. It is not explained exactly how Susan has reached this state, only that she has been deeply troubled, and for a long time. Right from the introduction, players know that this is not your average video game. While it does have some sensational cut scenes and over-the-top villains, the main area of conflict resides not in defeating the various foes, but in the personal shadows and demons that Susan has to confront, deal with, and overcome. As Janet Burroway is quoted in Storycraft, “ ‘The profoundest impediments to our desire most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family’ ” (13). More often than not, the most terrifying things in life are locked inside, not out, and this game sheds the proverbial light on that fact.

Through supernatural/metaphysical intervention, she remains in a type of purgatory, one where she is immortal, and is forced to carry out certain tasks. From this point on, players can choose specific things to do, and things to say. For example, in one scene, Susan is speaking with a psychiatrist who is inquiring about her childhood. It is left up to the player to select whether Mom was around, if Dad was attentive, or whether Susan had a good childhood or a less-than-ideal one. The player cannot help but feel like they themselves are in the therapy session, being asked these same questions concerning their own childhood. Rose comments on the immersion that games like these aim for: “Like games, stories are rehearsals for life. We create a world in microcosm, an alternate reality, a world we wish were true or fear could become so. And then we immerse ourselves in it” (7). Stories are indeed rehearsals for life. After each session of playing the game, I heavily reflected on what Susan had just experienced, and by extension, what I myself had experienced; Susan’s affliction and struggles became my own. Anyone who has felt what depression feels like, or anyone who has felt loneliness, will be able to relate to Susan on some level. This relatability and capacity for sympathy is critical for player engagement: we want Susan to persevere and survive, as in a way, we have taken over the character’s life and treat it like our own. In effect, we equate the character’s triumph with our own triumph.

In conclusion, games and stories such as “The Cat Lady” serve as a demonstration of the power that character and its subsequent growth can inhibit. It is an extremely moving game, due in large portion to the character of Susan, and the complications that have arisen in her heart and mind and how she reacts to them. Even years after playing, I am still affected by the game and what it offered me: the chance to reflect on life’s most heavy-hitting topics, topics that regrettably are not readily talked about, and further investigate what they mean to the world, and to me. By engaging and immersing ourselves in games and stories such as these, we can benefit greatly, and, in the end, hopefully become more competent, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent humans.

 

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