Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Characters with Character

Oh dear. I've been tagged, it seems. An internet meme (some would say plague, but not I...) has been taking over the world of blogger, and that meme involves bloggers listing their 'favorite' movie characters. Greg over at Cinema Styles has tagged me so, if you find this painful, go over there and yell at him. Seriously, you have my blessing.

Characters are our emotional gateway into the themes a movie presents, so it's natural that there would be some who would strike a deep personal chord with us. We see something of ourselves in them, like a mirror in motion. I'm not going to pretend that this list represents my unequivocal favorites, but today, this is what feels right. So here ya go, in chronological order:

Emil Jannings as Hotelportier, The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)

It's hard not to love a character who gets the last laugh, who rises out of the muck to join the prestigious ranks of the upper class, by sheer chance. The legend is that they forced Murnau to change the ending from what it originally was, which had the Hotelportier dying in the same washroom he was once the attendant of. Personally, I love the film, 'compromised' ending and all, and its delicious irony is part of the joy of it. The title The Last Laugh would be kinda irrelevant without that final scene, honestly.

Jacques Tati as Hulot

(Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) & Trafic (1971), Jacques Tati)

Again, it's hard not to love Hulot. He's a bumbling, clumsy, accident proned observer of all of humanity's foibles. While the silent comedies from which Tati was inspired derived their laughs from the characters getting annoyed at the main character, Hulot never seems to inspire anger or outrage, no matter how badly he screws a situation up (though, in Mr. Hulot's Holiday, it seems that the characters are oblivious to the fact that he's the one who causes the mayhem). But the fact that he's funny is not why I love Hulot so much (though that's certainly part of it); it's because he is one of humanity's sharpest observers, always lurking in the background, observing us with an eye that is simultaneously loving, critical, and benevolent.

James Stewart as John 'Scottie' Feguson, Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

One of cinema's great tragic figures, Scottie Ferguson becomes enveloped by love that evolves (or regresses) into obsession. While most of us have never been pushed to the ends that Scottie finally is in the film's heartbreaking, soul-crushing final scene, I think most of us can still identify with not being able to get a person out of your head, no matter how hard you try. You see the person everywhere because they have, in effect, become part of you. His monologue to Kim Novak's character at the end is one of the most intense moments I've ever seen in any film--- his anger, heartbreak, and righteous indignation are all there for the audience to see. When she takes the final plunge, and the mystery woman is out of his life forever, he finds himself right back to where he started. As though she was never even there.

Frank Sinatra as Dave Hirsh in Some Came Running (1958, Vincente Minnelli)

Another tragic figure, this time played by ol' blue eyes in Vincente Minnelli's masterpiece-of-masterpieces, Some Came Running. I love this character because of the way his past literally explodes in his face, and he needs to come to terms with the friends and family he wronged before abandoing them. Along the way he gets mixed up with something of a bad crowd. It's an old and familiar story, but I don't think it's ever unfolded quite like it does in Minnelli's film. Also, here Sinatra plays against his friend, Dean Martin, in some of the finest acted scenes I've ever seen.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel

(The 400 Blows (1959), Antoine et Collette (1962) , Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed & Board (1970), Love on the Run (1979), Francois Truffaut)

Watching Antoine Doinel grow from petulant, misunderstood child to petulant, misunderstood young adult to somewhat petulant husband is one of the great joys film has to offer. Brought to life by French New-Wave icon Jean-Pierrre Leaud, the odyssey of Antoine Doinel is just about as enjoyable as it gets. But, like everyone else, it's the image of the directionless young boy alone on a beach that sticks with me to this day. I think we've all been there.

Jean-Paul Belomondo as Pierrot in Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)

Poor Pierrot. As you can see, by the end of his story he gets himself into something of a desperate situation, painting his face a hideous shade of blue and preparing himself to strap dynamite around his cranium. But, can you really blame the guy? He lives a boring, tranquil life with bratty, aggravating children. But he's invited to start a life of crime with the irresistible Anna Karina, and that's when the self-fulfilling Bonnie & Clyde prophecy begins to pan itself out. He and Karina are really just playing out roles they'd seen in dozens of American pictures (notably Nick Ray's They Live By Night). From the moment the journey began, it had to end with Pierrot blowing himself to kingdom come. It just couldn't have gone any other way.

Douglas Rain as HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

This will probably sound strange, but has there ever been a more human character in films than the immortal HAL 9000? Obviously, he's simply a high-functioning computer, but more profound questions on the nature of humanity have never been raised. The human beings we see in this film are more or less mechanical beings, relying on their technology to do their bidding. But HAL has a soul. He remembers his childhood. He remembers his first teacher. He knows all the words to "A Bicycle Built for Two". The scene where Dave removes his memory is one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of cinema. If humanity is indeed defined by our memories, both individual and collective, then HAL is about as human as they come.

William Finley as Winslow Leach/The Phantom in The Phantom of the Paradise
(1974, Brian De Palma)

A tragic self-fulfilling prophecy, Winslow Leach was just asking for trouble giving his cantata to the insidious Mr. Swan. He'd poured his heart and soul into a full rock-opera version of Faust that he handed over to the record producer Swan in hopes of notoriety, but Swan simply stole the sound and trashed it up and dumbed it down for mainstream consumption (without giving Winslow credit, no less). De Palma's film is one of the most critical takes on what industry does to art, the fundamental differences between the two enterprises; and the character of Winslow Leach is the ultimate sap who gets his life-worked scorned in the name of mainstream pap. It's like the lyrics to the Billy Joel song "The Entertainer"; You've heard my latest record/It's been on the radio/Ah, it took me years to write it/They were the best years of my life/It was a beautiful song/But it ran too long/If you're gonna have a hit/You gotta make it fit/So they cut it down to 3:05. Eventually, Winslow sets himself and everyone else free of Swan, but only by sacrificing himself. I find his death scene deeply moving, even in the context of this kind of goofy post-modern mash-up.

Woody Allen as Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry (1997, Woody Allen)

I probably could have littered this list with Woody Allen characters, but I settled on Harry Block because of the way he channels his life into his work. As Woody Allen says in the film, his character can't function in life, but in art. It's a more hard edged version of my favorite Francois Truffaut quote, "I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself,". But Woody Allen's film is also about the wall that must be put up between the artist and humanity, in order to effectively capture it. Deconstructing Harry is as profound a rumination on the relationship between art and the artist as Fellini's 8 1/2, and with Woody's trademarked wit. Oh, and it's one of the most deliciously vulgar movies I've ever seen, with profanity elevated to poetry.

Jeff Bridges as the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998, The Coen Brothers)

Sometimes....there's a man. And that man is The Dude. I know it's something of an obvious choice, and picking him makes me your typical 20-something-stoner-slacker, but that doesn't mean that I don't attempt to embody The Dude's spirit. Jeff Bridges really brings what could have been a cardboard cut-out character to life, and gives him a personality. Not to mention, he has a killer fashion sense.

Jude Law as Gigolo Joe in A.I. (2001, Steven Spielberg)

If anyone ever abandons me in the woods, I sincerely hope I run into a Gigolo Joe. He's just a class act, and he's a lady-killer if ever there was one. Not to mention, his head seems to be a juke-box which plays very romantic old-standards, which helps liven up the mood. I really want one of those. While it is indeed a fantastic character, it's Jude Law's performance that makes the character unforgettable; he carries himself with all the grace of a classic Hollywood icon, and he is consistently a joy to watch. A huge smile just envelops my face whenever he's on screen.

Bill Murray as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
(2004, Wes Anderson)

Sometimes you see elements of yourself in a character. Sometimes, you almost feel like the person on the screen is you. And, sometimes, you see yourself and your parent in a character or characters, and in this case it's myself and my father. Steve Zissou being a man simultaneously in awe of the beauty of the world and embittered by his life experience is something I see very much in my father. And the way he gets re-acquainted with a child he'd never known only to have to say goodbye again so soon feels like it was almost transposed from my life, though in my case there wasn't death involved. As for his propensity for marijuana, alcohol, and films...well, yeah, that's me. There are also touches of Werner Herzog in Steve Zissou, his insatiable desire to go out, make films, in spite of the fact that common sense dictates that you should stop. But, as they say, 'this is an adventure'.

Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy Go Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

Shit, I realize at the end of this post: no women. While Sally Hawkins in last year's Happy-Go-Lucky doesn't necessarily embody strong feminist values, her attitude towards life is one I aspire to have, though in not quite such an outward way as she does it. Being 'happy' isn't something that just happens, it's a moment-to-moment attitude that you either embody or don't. Poppy doesn't let anything or anyone get her down, instead relating to the world in her own bubbly, humorous way. But by the end, she realizes the effect she has on people (both positive and negative) and the consequences of her actions and the actions of others. Poppy is made immortal by a fantastic performance from Sally Hawkins, who is a joy to watch in one of the best films of last year.

So, that's 13, but I don't feel like taking anyone off the list, so you're just gonna have to deal with it. I live by my own rules.

I tag Rob, Keith, Ali, Ted, & Jim. Not that any of you actually look at my blog, but if you did, you'd be tagged.


Greg said...

Ryan, great list. And we have one in common, Harry. As I said on my list, it feels like the guy followed me around. That probably makes me sound like neer-do-well or just an amoral son of a bitch considering the characters in the films of his I chose but... well, hey, that's where life takes you. There's been a lot of heartache but I feel my life is as full as anyone I know and it's because I haven't shied away from experiences.

Thanks for responding so quickly Ryan and for including Sally Hawkins at the end who is kind of, sort of, wonderful in my book.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, when Deconstructing Harry came up over at bill's blog I knew that would be the Woody character I'd pick. I almost went with Boris from Love and Death, but I really feel that's kind of a one-note performance, as hilarious as it is. But I don't think picking the characters from the three films you picked indicates that you're amoral in the slightest; as you say, it's the road you've taken. What I love about Woody's film is that they don't discount just how complicated life can be, and good people can do what others would consider questionable things depending on circumstance. Incidentally, those three you picked are three of my favorites of his. One almost never hears Husbands and Wives mentioned with Deconstructing Harry, even though I think they're kind of two-sides of the same coin. And then I'd probably put Love and Death and Crimes and Misdemeanors alongside those three.

And yeah, I've only seen Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, though I look very forward to seeing her in something else. But part of me also can't imagine her as someone other than Poppy!

Brian Park said...

Hey Ryan. I'm a little late to your blog party, but I've been having a blast going through your older entries. Your Gran Torino review was dead on, and I'm sad to say that it was one in a handful of oscar noms that I've seen. I wasn't originally planning on seeing it, but I decided to give it a shot based on the recommendation of a friend who's taste in film usually mirrored mine. Ironically enough, the only thing that convinced me to give it a chance came from the caveat that in spite of everything that I'd read, the film was indeed a satire, so I sat down with slightly higher hopes and low expectations.

In a nutshell, it was hammy, cheap, and pretentious. The only glimmer of hope that remained intact was thanks to the post end-credits surprise footage of Eastwood slowly getting back up to his feet and walking towards the gang with open arms and upturned palms, which bore bullet holes in their center. The gang emptied a few more rounds into his gut, but Eastwood didn't miss a step as he came to a halt an inch away from the gang leader just as the he thrust a knife into Eastwood's already bullet-ridden gut. This didn't register even a blink as Eastwood slowly and tenderly held the gang leader's face, and after gazing into each others eyes for what seemed like eternity, went in for the most tender kiss I've ever seen portrayed on film. In an age of sequelitis, Gran Torino: The Forgiven is shaping up to be everything the first film should have been. I can't wait.

Ryan Kelly said...

Welcome to the neighborhood, Brian! And yes, what you say about Gran Torino is dead on, and the defense of it as 'satire' or 'comedy' strikes me as dubious. My big problem with it is that there's nothing campy about it--- even his sappy score suggests a serious tone. It's everything that's cheap and trashy about B-movies, but none of the fun.

I must confess, I missed this scene that you describe. Once Eastwood started singing over the end credits well, I ran away. As fast as I could. I think I knocked over a baby carriage on my way out the door. Oh well, collateral damage to protect my eardrums. But now, I seriously regret it (I mean leaving the theater, not killing the baby).

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks for reading pal, hope to see you again soon, both on the internet and in that strange place called reality.

bill r. said...

I loved Gran Torino.

BUT, Ryan, I also loved seeing Steve Zissou on your list. The only reason he's not on mine is because I tend to go on about that film a bit too much (see also Targets), but man do I love it. It's my favorite Anderson film, and that's already a pretty close race, and Murray is so movingly obnoxious and real in the middle of what is really a pretty wild movie. So maybe you and I can find some common ground after all.

Although I don't like potheads. Fucking hippy.

Ryan Kelly said...

It's my favorite Anderson film, and that's already a pretty close race

Though I tend to put The Life Aquatic on a favorite movies/characters list, whenever I make them, The Darjeeling Limited is REALLY my favorite. I love it more than I can really express. The Life Aquatic is a great many things, but perfect is not among them. You can feel Anderson's struggle while making the film, as it feels the most in-consistent of his works. Though, admittedly, that's part of why I love it so much. I think his last-two are his strongest, and it would be really un-fair of someone to try to make me pick between them.

So maybe you and I can find some common ground after all.

I wasn't aware we were so frequently at odds! I disagree with all my cinephile friends on a multitude of films. I mean, hell, the girl I live with and the love of my life doesn't like Spielberg! I think if I can get past that, I can live with anything. We're all so stuck in our ways, and the worst thing is that we're all so right literally all the time. It's a burden.

Although I don't like potheads. Fucking hippy.

Beats being some right-wing neo-Nazi! ;-)

bill r. said...

Beats being some right-wing neo-Nazi! ;-)

It does?? Well then maybe I'll switch!

Pat said...

Great list. I love that you included Sally Hawkins' Poppy from "Happy Go Lucky," and I'm kicking myself for forgetting her on my own list. That character stayed in my mind for, literally, weeks after I first saw the movie.

Ryan Kelly said...

She is rather unforogettable, though you could say that about most of Leigh's characters. That you identified with her shows that you have impeccable taste.

Thanks for reading, Pat!

pinkerton smithee said...

Glad to see Frank Sinatra on here chiefy but where do you get off labeling "Pierrot" or Ferdinand's children "bratty" I don't think they have a single line in the entire picture. The guy does care for them and even attempts to call them on the telephone before he blows his head up. Don't you remember his attempts to include his children with his reading's about Velasquez? Or how he even made that half hearted attempt to phone them prior to blowing his head up? Just because his wife uses them as pawns does not make the kids themselves bratty or aggravating or anything else.

P.S. I like your' list for the most part, although there must be something to be said of their being more robots than women on here. That along with all of the fellas on here that lose their girls too. Curious. eh?

Ryan Kelly said...

You're right, bad choice of words. But I think Godard is definitely giving the impression at the beginning of the picture that his tranquil life is suffocating. I think he wants to align your sympathies with what Ferdinand is about to do.

As for the list lacking women--- yes, I know, it's a problem. But I'm very picky with women characters. Feminism is an important value of mine (seriously), and I really like progressive portrayals of women on film. I struggled to think of characters that simultaneously embodied philosophy and spirit I identify with, honestly. And, again, this list is in no way supposed to be all encompassing. Maybe one day I'll do a post on women characters I like.

But it's okay, an asshole friend of mine talked me out of including more women. Isn't it natural that I, as a man, would identify with male characters? And I think we've all had our heart broken--- assuming we have a heart to break, that is.

Brian Park said...

Absolutely brother, you know where to find me.

Anonymous said...

from Icebox/Adam:

Funny you mentioned "Happy Go Lucky". I just watched "Vera Drake" last night. I am now a Mike Leigh fan!

Ryan Kelly said...

I have a copy of that waiting for viewing, I look immensely forward to it. I think he'll be a touchstone of mine.

Might I suggest Naked? It's a great movie, but also one of the most brutal I've ever seen.

Adam Zanzie said...

I've heard tremendous things about "Naked" (1993) and it's been in my Blockbuster Queue for a while now. Actually, I was going to rent it last weekend (instead of "Vera Drake") until I noticed that it was set to Very Long Wait. That disappointed me.

But I still intend to look through Leigh's career (although he hasn't made that many movies- he's a little like Terrence Malick in that respect). Actually, our good ol' troll friend sr wolfrider from IMDB once said that he finds it hard to watch Leigh's films because he often finds them to be "too bleak".


Ryan Kelly said...

Few people stink as bad as one sr_wolfrider. He truly is the worst of the worst. It's no wonder David Black managed to bring that idiot out of the woods.

Anonymous said...

Nice. List.

Every time I read one of these things I kick myself thinking "why didn't I include him/her/it?" In this case, it's Mr. Hulot. What a great choice.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks for the kind words, Rick. And yeah, it's impossible not to leave out characters you're fond of. Looking back on it, my Spielberg character really should have been Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Oh well.

Mattson Tomlin said...

love Hulot!

Miranda Wilding said...

I actually am passionately fascinated by this list.

I'll go out on a limb and admit that I'm not familiar with every single one of these characters.

But that definitely fuels this compilation's uniqueness and lack of predictability. Ultimately both very good things.

Selecting HAL is a particular stroke of brilliance. Bet lots of people thought about including him. But I wonder if anyone actually DID. Doubt it.

HARRY BLOCK in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY? He's kind of a nihilistic realist, wouldn't ya say? He's hard to like. But his crassness is almost endearing by the end.

GIGOLO JOE haunts me. But the entirety of A.I. is like that in any case. It's been a long time since I've seen it. Parts of it were brutally traumatizing. As much as I think it's a real achievement (I'd give the film four stars), I always end up wondering what Stanley would have done with that particular project.

But JOE is intriguing as hell.

I also really dig the inclusion of POPPY. She's sunny and mischievous and serene and oddly amusing. But there's a core of steel in that girl.

Anyone who would consider her a pushover simply because she's good natured needs to pay a little more attention.

Utterly awesome, Mr. Kelly.

I hope Greg is sufficiently proud of you.

Ryan Kelly said...

Well, familiarize yourself! All wonderful films. (if I do say so myself...)

Yeah, I tried to be kind of random and unpredictable, and choose a number of different films with different characters. Glad you appreciated it.

Harry isn't such a bad guy, Miranda. I may be alone here but I find the end of Deconstructing Harry to be very touching. Again, it's really the concept of being able to function only in life, and not in art, that appeals to me.

Gigolo Joe IS haunting, but at the same time I have a big smile on my face whenever Law is on the screen. It's just a graceful, effortless performance. I'm glad you understand that A.i is intended to be disturbing--- I don't care what anyone says, the end of that movie is SOUL CRUSHING, not happy. My girlfriend actually was so upset by A.I that she made me shut it off about a half-hour in. I've suggested watching it again, but I don't think she's ready.

I wonder what Kubrick would have done, too. You can't help but wonder. And if Kubrick had made it, we'd be sitting here wondering what Spielberg might have done with the material. At the end of the day, the movie DOES have a lot of traits of both directors, and it puts the rest of both of their careers in a very unique context.

Greg is never proud of me. He actually hit me after this post, for doing more than 10. I still have the bruise.