Love the protagonist

Recently I saw “The Apostle”, the phenomenal and disturbing 1997 Robert Duvall film about a deeply religious – and deeply disturbed – southern preacher. It’s a film well worth seeing, with great writing, directing, editing and acting all around, including a truly excellent performance by Farrah Fawcett that will probably change your views on this underrated actress.

The thing about this film though, is that the main character is repellent in so many ways, and yet you feel, as the audience, completely on his side. He is arrogent, abusive, self-defeating, often cruel, frequently violent, and prone to going into drunken murderous rages. Through it all he rationalizes everything by clinging to what he thinks of as a personal relationship with Jesus.

By all accounts we should hate this man. But we don’t – we can’t. We are in his head, seeing the world through the prism of his point of view. And distorted as that prism is, the magic of storytelling makes its unfair claim upon our sympathies, and we find ourselves rooting for him.

I am continually amazed at the power of the protagonist driven narrative. Whether it be Tony Soprano, Stanley Kawalski or Don Corleone, when a great actor allows us to feel a character’s internal state of mind, makes us believe in that character’s inner life, we cannot help but embrace that character as our surrogate self within the narrative, however morally repugnant that character may be.

What is it within us as humans that allows such a transformation – that leads us, with such willingness and abandon, to give away our hearts?

3 Responses to “Love the protagonist”

  1. Dan Nielsen says:

    I haven’t seen the picture, but was trying to account for possible thematic material in similar situations. Some notions (whew!):

    Accepted power can solve some problems. A spate of Indian films was born a few years ago emphasizing this theme in the mob government, such as D, Sarkar (an adaptation of The Godfather), and Maqbool (a terrific adaptation of Macbeth). The idea often was, maintain the reins and fix your problems by any means; this is how you become a great help. In the case of Maqbool, one might empathize with the character for not wiping out all his problems.

    Connection as the means to progress. Sometimes the protagonist becomes a complete outsider, as in Dil Se.

    *Dynamic transcendence of the human spirit. We are born basically without the power of decision. It is undeniable that to some degree persons can be caught on opposite sides of the fence. It is exactly the uniqueness of perception and strength of will that allows someone to cut a path through the common and which might allow her to hold onto a grander cause. It could be a transcendent spirit that has the power of will to persist and create vision. One version of this is a supposed honor among thieves, as found in Heist.

    Paying the price. Films like Saving Private Ryan show a sort of outgoing warrior spirit-bond, the acceptance of a basically honorable fight.

    *Power of traditional wisdom. Sometimes riding the wheels of grander fate becomes historical aggrandizement better than pursuing facts of the moment.

    Taking care of one’s own relations. Sometimes there are more down-to-earth cares that the protagonist does handle well, rather than acting well externally for the wrong reasons. Thinking Euthyphro. There may also be problems set into motion early in the storyline that the character would have to ignore for a happy ending.

    *Acceptance of the irrational. With politicians who without a second thought believe Earth was created 6ka, it’s not hard to understand that suspension of disbelief can be a well-practiced art. A Beautiful Mind tried to show something of the thin line between the struggle for bold truth and self-delusion.

    *Revelation of supreme rationality. Sometimes a strange protagonist has special information only revealed at the coda.

    *The sovereignty of ideals. The movie may share details of a proud individualism in the protagonist. Likewise, it may be about a sort of against-the-big-evil-corporation syndicate like Hackers. Or it may strive for a broader understanding of how persons best meet their needs for resources and community.

    Making law by breaking law. Some films rely on the protagonist stepping outside the bounds. Hamlet’s critics might agree.

    The double agent. Sometimes the protagonist is not one of the bad guys. This carries him through the fray and the temptations, as in Beyond the Law. Apparently that sort of thing also happened in The Fast and the Furious, but I don’t remember any of that film.

    The myopism of an insider experience. I got the impression Gone in 60 Seconds was about convincing a viewer that person could steal a car. Once caught up in the motions, who cares what the plot was? Some scifi movies like Marooned or Andromeda Strain give a glimpse into a large-scale system, but often in an informative way, and where the technical details reflect the broader events of the psychological plot.

    The psychodrama. Sometimes we simply get so emotionally invested, believe so much in the interesting intricacies of the character, or just become charmed that events depreciate. Such happens with sports figures. Even after an actor like Salman Khan hits pedestrians with his car and threatens to have Aish killed in real life, he can still be redeemed by Marigold.

    The need for the inferior. The naked patient to dissect, the comic sit-com ditz.

    The unappreciated. The protagonist may carry some deeper unseen gift that she is honestly wanting to share for the weal of the world.

    * These seem to hinge on the definition of “normalcy” for the protagonist, which may be ill-defined as it can mean “tradition”, “rational standard”, or “central distribution of the measurement” (with a possible sampling bias).

  2. admin says:

    Wow, that’s awesome Dan! A very nice exposition of the possibilities.

    I’m curious to see what you will think when you see “The Apostle”. It definitely contains most of the elements you’ve outlined. In a way, I think Duvall is deliberately pushing the limits of the redemption story, by asking, in a sly way, just how unsympathetic a protagonist you can get away with, if you place him into a traditional redemptive narrative.

  3. Dan Nielsen says:

    Thanks! I’ve been wanting to see Countdown, so it could be fun to compare the younger Duvall to an irascible old Duvall.

    Less-on-topic ramblings..

    Tonight I was watching the special features for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There’s a very quotable man (Scott Cassell) introducing the giant Humboldt squid. This gave pause: “Anything that can kill and eat a man makes some interest to human beings”.

    That’s an unusual sufficient criterion for interest! I’d guess the interest has more to do with the odd characteristics of the system doing the killing and eating – and the compelling dreamlike mysteries of the sea (which Cassell also references). Cephalopods are interesting for many reasons – they’re strong and sleek; they essentially have brains in their arms; some, like the mimic octopus, can perform tricks. It could be said that the recurrent surprise that such unusual things exist, along with the otherness, is what is so memorable.

    Captain Nemo as main character – a puzzle there. Should we respect him more for assembling a crew that was loyal to the end, or less for taking power from it? Is the mystique of his beastlike metal ship, and his life, beautiful? Is his devotion to the sea at all admirable, or is it just his personal “ocean kitchen”? Is his unwavering strength and outgoing introversion respectable in any way? Is his creation bound to the more-noble side of his spirit, or was it a misered technological innovation? And how did he create the means to build and assemble all those parts? In the end, as his ship destructs, he sees his work not as his own peculiar and inimitable creation, but as the eventual claim of humankind, believing his life’s purpose for the tool to be the primary achievement; is this good?

    A comment in the special feature notices that Nemo is not so much the mad scientist so much as the mad politician. If you remember much about the film, you may recall that James Mason (Nemo) acts terribly well; he puts the effort into the role that Nemo put into his voyage. He even teaches himself to play synchronized organ with good technique; most movies technically sound in other respects, even Schindler’s List, don’t bother with believable music-playing.

    I don’t know if you ever ran into David Heise’s work. The social dimensions he popularized make up an “evaluation-potency-action” space. It might be interesting to think of a protangonist’s position sitting between archetypes at the extremes of each dimension. I’m feeling that one of the traits which might give Nemo some importance is that he is quick and forthright, allowing him to move into different extremes. He might do something very noble one minute, and something unconscionable the next; dominating one minute, gently speaking and serving dinner the next; standing calmly, then acting swiftly. That seems to be the “never-failing gentlemanly captain” archetype. Aa, this might be bull.

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