Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Despicable Ratio

Movies simply cannot do anti-heroes justice. I watched two movies with anti-hero protagonists of one sort or another recently, “Rampart” and “Shame.”

"Rampart" stars Woody Harrelson as a lifelong LAPD cop whose personal life is almost as wacked-out as his time behind the badge. He’s got two children from two women who just happen to be sisters. If he goes a night without banging something, we don’t see it in the film. Meanwhile he’s under investigation for beating an “innocent” man on camera and making increasingly worse decisions to cover it up.

"Shame" stars Michael Fassbender as a upper-middle-management suit in The Big Apple. He has a sexual hangup or perversion for every centimeter of length and girth between his legs... which is a lot, because he’s hung like a zebra. Something in his childhood has screwed with his airwaves, and his sister, played with superb frailty by Carey Mulligan, exists mostly as a punishment, reminding him of this murky mysterious past.

Both films were, technically speaking, fine and ambitious. Neither were created to provide the viewer warm fuzzies or happy thoughts upon their conclusion, so it’s not a crime that I didn’t “like” them; they weren’t made to be liked.

Since “Paradise Lost” (if not earlier), even despicable protagonists exist to illicit some level of sympathy, connection or understanding from the audience. As both “Rampart” and “Shame” drew toward their conclusions, I found myself aggravated that I couldn’t feel any real connection to these characters. I didn’t want to despise them or feel above them, but they didn’t feel human enough, or maybe interested enough in being decent, for me to sympathize with them.

Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Walter White and Al Swearingen. All of these men own shelf space in my DVD collection because something in their stories pull me into their version of life, a quadruple-espresso shot of hell buffered by a few spoonfuls of flavored half-and-half heaven.

What is it about television series that makes it so much easier to be attracted to, even beguiled by, an anti-hero? I think it’s The Despicable Ratio.

The Despicable Ratio would be the number of times an anti-hero engages in a thoroughly detestable act in comparison to the number of times they seem like decent and likeable human beings. Sometimes, these detestable acts can have undercurrents of something approaching justice, and we are all guided by different moral compasses, so this isn’t a scientifically quantifiable fact of a number, but rather more of a personal impression.

In the case of “Rampart” and “Shame,” we witness two protagonists who pile on several dozen detestable -- or at the very least unsavory or pathetic -- acts in the course of 100 minutes. Or, in other words, roughly one uncomfortably less-than-decent act per 10 minutes. Between the set-up and the delivery of these moments, these movies have very little time remaining to show their decency or goodness or... well, anything that might make us feel sorry enough for them to want to endure their suffering alongside them. I often felt, in both movies, like I was being bludgeoned by their misdeeds.

On TV, the best anti-heroes average one detestable act, sometimes two, in a single episode. The rest of the time they’re wrestling and struggling with normal lives, normal problems, and approaching them with what normal people would like to think are normal and decent if flawed solutions. Movies don’t offer that breadth of time, the manifold slices of life that allow the bad stuff to be stitched in with patience and “white space,” as designers like to call it.

And we need to believe they’re trying to be more decent than not, trying at least a little, even if they’re only trying to fool us or, even better, themselves. It helps us lie to ourselves that they might, deep down, be decent people. Like we think we are. Full of flaws, once in a while despicable, but mostly decent.


troutking said...

As a fan of the Sopranos, Mad Men, even Archie Bunker, I agree with you that TV is the medium for the anti-hero. Just to be provocative though, what about mob movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas. You do root for them despite their despicable acts. Maybe it's only really good movies (or TV shows) that can pull it off...

Kathleen said...

Yeah, I remember reading about Shame as "must-see cinema" and getting really excited that it was on HBOGO. Right after finishing it I thought "Ummm why was I so keen to watch that?"