Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, Simple Hero?

The Good Old Days - The Lodger (mp3)
Superman Song - Crash Test Dummies (mp3)
On Film I Play Myself - Tim Seely (mp3)

The American has the unmitigated gall to question what's happened to the cinematic hero of yesteryear:
I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero.
(Seriously, you should click on that link and enjoy the read. It's a very interesting article.) 

Heck, I'll forward his theory one notch further. Most of the comic book-based superheroes who clog the screen today are no longer the simple superheroes of yesterday. Batman is one seriously psychologically discombobulated fella, leap years away from Adam West's cheeky '60s version. Iron Man is an alcoholic fighting to right the wrongs of decades of corporate irresponsibility. The Hulk is the notion of powers that are more of a burden than a blessing. The X-Men are people who are pushed to the fringes and feared.

The last Superman movie failed miserably, yet Superman and (possibly) Captain America are the only two heroes that, at least for a large chunk of their existences, were fairly simple and clean heroes. They carried few deep, dark secrets. Their aims were simple and true (and quite similar): Fight for truth, justice and the American Way.
The point of all three of the kinds of hero in which Hollywood has specialized over the last 35 years has been to make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience. It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire.
While I agree with the essence of Bowman's argument -- that golly, it sure would be peachy-keen if we could have some fellas up on the big screen who were pure role models for how to be a Stand Up Guy in today's wacky world -- I can't help but confess that nothing about characters that simple appeals to me.

I prefer Unforgiven, where you realize that Gene Hackman's Little Bill, who's supposed to stand for justice, actually stands for something a little more egotistical, frightening and rash. Where Clint Eastwood's William Munny was a lawless man who'd found the righteous path, went on a fairly chivalrous errand to earn much-needed money, and then reverted to his more evil ways when he stumbles upon the kind of flawed justice that ruins the lives of mostly decent people.

In fact, William Munny isn't that terribly far from Batman. They both give in a little to their darker natures, sacrificing something of their own souls in the name of a higher and more aspirational sense of justice. The reason we don't have simple hero figures is because we know better. We know that being a hero comes at a cost. It requires sacrifice. Sometimes that sacrifice is in relationships, and sometimes it's safety. Whatever the price, it's always there, and it's always significant. Most superheroes sacrifice intimate relationships, must hide their identities. Even the greatest movie "simple" hero ever, Atticus Finch, had to pay a steep price for his principles.

As much as I love Atticus, though, I've always been more fascinated with the conflicted hero, the one who has just as much potential to do the wrong thing as the right. Characters who actually come to two paths in the wood and... awww, you know the rest of it.

Some examples, if you want to check out some of my favorite conflicted-hero flicks (non-superhero version): Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight. The East German policeman in The Lives of Others. Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King. Topher Grace in In Good Company. Edward Norton in American History X. Ben Affleck and Samuel Jackson in Changing Lanes. The whole cast of Galaxy Quest.

Then there is Bowman's conclusion:
Without this belief in a community where power is not antithetical to the good and the decent but the means of its advancement, (no films) of our own time will ever be able to give us any but a debased sort of heroism.
Sadly, it's difficult to disagree with him. But... have you tried to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington lately? You might as well watch The Wizard of Oz, because Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith is just as fictional in our current world as the Tin Man or the Good Witch.

As all movie-based debates should, this one ultimately falls around Jimmy Stewart. Do you prefer the imperfect heroes from It's a Wonderful Life or Rear Window and Vertigo, or would you rather have Mr. Smith, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Lin McAdam from Winchester '73?

Either way, as Bowers rightly acknowledges, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has enough simple heroism and conflicted heroism to make either side happy.

"The Gold Old Days" is from Life is Sweet. "On Film I Play Myself" is from Funeral Music. Both albums are available on's mp3 downloads site and iTunes. "Superman Song" is from the first album by Crash Test Dummies, The Ghosts That Haunt Me. It ain't avilable either place.


jbradburn said...

I think the perfect heroes are a thing of the past. However, one could ask Hollywood - do you have to make our heroes so flawed? Of course, I would also dispute the fact that there aren't any heroes in movies these days - and I think that heroes can fall into 2 categories:
1) The person who is good overall and little negative characteristics are shown to the audience. I think this character is displayed in the head coach and the assistant in "We Are Marshall", it's also Cuba Gooding's character in "Boyz in the Hood", it's the QB in "Friday Night Lights" - it's Bruce Willis in the 6th sense ,it's Mel Gibson's character of William Wallace in a movie whose name I can't remember. Tom Hanks character in "Saving Private Ryan" and the red-headed guy who rises up in the ranks of "Band of Brothers".

2) The person w/ a flawed past who succeeds in turning his/her life around; Think Paul Newman's character in the abscence of Malice, Gene Hackman's character in Hoosiers, I haven't seen the movie, but I imagine Will Smith's character falls into this category in "The Pursuit of Happiness" - also, see Bubbles in The Wire.

I think both of these type of heroes are inspiring - and both meet the definitions of "heroes". And yes, I think it's possible to have a good movie, that is inspiring w/out having to make someone super human.After all, Superman wasn't a super hero only because of his strength, but also because of his virtue.

Maybe we're talking 2 different definitions, but I think there are plenty of heroes out there and some even make it to the big screen.

Dan said...

Of course you don't agree with Bowman. It's a piece of conservative crybaby nonsense from The American. Oh, why can't today be more like the 50s? Jeez, you wankers, buy a calendar.

Bob said...

Mr. Bowers may not realize that in the ironic universe that we live in, we are going to get equally ironic heroes.

Beowulf, way back when, was a pretty cut and dried epic hero, perfect as a paragon for the times, but, hey, the power of the individual has diminished a lot since then and the rules of the game are not as clear. That's also why some people define WWII as the "last good war"--ignore the fact that more people died, and more people died needlessly than at any other time in history. At least we knew who the good guys were!

Dan said...

I agree and was going to make that point about WWII, especially regarding WWII movies with Audie Murphy and John Wayne charging up some hill on a Hollywood backlot.

One thing, though. You say "the power of the individual has diminished a lot since then". I would amend that to say "the myth of the power of the individual ... ."

Bob said...

Well, it's a simple mathematical reality that if you live in a world of millions instead of billions, or in a country of thousands rather than millions, or in a community of hundreds or less, you will have larger impact.

Dan said...

Well, the power of the individual in story-telling was always a myth. I mean, Beowulf is literally a myth.