Friday, July 11, 2008

On Heroes

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for drawing my attention to this article by James Bowman. It echoes some aspects of my own article on current US cop shows. The gist of Bowman's argument is in this sentence:  'American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of the disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes.' He cheats in order to stand this point up by dismissing superheroes and space opera heroes as evidence of a desire to put no pressure on 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.' Er, bollocks. What about Juno then or any number of 'real life' films with real heroes? Having, perhaps, noticed this problem, Bowman then cheats further by, towards the end, restricting his lament to war films and westerns. Well, yeah, but these are more issues of genre aesthetics than moral shifts in Hollywood. You can't make a John Wayne film because they've all been made. And, while on that subject, Bowman's analysis of that great movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance leaves out the crucial aspect that this is, in part, a meditation on heroism and the Wayne character certainly does not become the unconditional hero he seems to imply. John Ford is a greater artist than Bowman understands.
But what about this sentence? 'Where there is no hope of a better world, there can be little to distinguish heroes from villains.' This is also bollocks but it's slightly more interesting bollocks. Bowman is suggesting the hero must be an agent of the future, a common delusion of utopians, most recently the neocons. But I can think of no greater hero than Chandler's Philip Marlowe and there is no prospect of a better world in any of those books. Or there is McNulty in The Wire; anybody who does not see his profound heroism is morally blind and the whole point of The Wire is that the problems of the present are intractable. True heroism is about keeping going when everything, the future included, has turned against you.
The movies are as full of heroes as they ever were, though it may be true to say that the apparent horizon of heroism has narrowed. It is a commonplace of contemporary heroes that they are aware of their limitations and do not, unless they are superheroes, expect to save the nation or the world. Indeed, it is a crucial aspect of their heroism that they fight on in spite of this. To wish, as Bowman does, that the movies would feed an (entirely fictional) audience appetite for supposedly traditional heroes is to miss the peculiar beauty of which both film and especially TV is now capable.


  1. It is an odd article. Why can't a whistle-blower be a hero? Russell Crowe's character in The Insider is stalked and menaced by tobacco-hired goons, his wife leaves him, etc., all because he takes a stand over something most people know anyway - that nicotine is addictive. It has all the requisites for heroism: danger, loss of worldly status, pointlessness, a huge bloated Russell Crowe tripping over and rolling down his lawn.

    Or what about serial killer movies, don't Manhunter's Will Graham or The Silence of the Lamb's Clarice Starling count as heroes?

    It seems to me what he's really saying is "our heroes are no longer exactly the same as those of 50 years ago"

  2. Indeed. It's not the heroes that have changed, it's the villains.

  3. You use the word 'bollocks' rather a lot. Remember, tone is important.

  4. Bryan

    I'm starting to get the impression that your hatred of the neocons is driving your opinion on everything else. If history might exonerate the neocons on Iraq, then history is bollocks. If the neocons believe in a better future, than anyone who does so is a utopian and not eligible for hero status.

    I think you've defined neocons in such a way that multiplies their numbers far beyond what you'd be comfortable with. Whether they are for the Iraq war or against it, I think most Americans still enjoy narratives with identifiable good guys and bad guys, and the proverbial happy ending where good overcomes evil.

    But Bowman is wrong even about westerns and war movies. Open Range (2003) with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall fits the Liberty Valance mold. The Missing (2003) with Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones does as well. The older style hero films are still being made, but it is easy to lose sight of them because so many of the anti-hero or victim-hero movies are being churned out by writers and producers who want to send a political message. The best hero films are timeless, and not so tightly bound to the historical settings they inhabit. The Seven Samurai becomes the Magnificent Seven becomes X-Men.

    Bowman doesn't mention the reluctant hero/accidental hero genre, which is very different from the victim hero and which is very popluar. The Road Warrior is in this category. As bleak as the Road Warrior's dystopia is, it still fits in the category of a "better future" heroism that you deride as utopian. Gibson's character is given a choice between being a lone survivor of the anarchic outback or throwing his lot in with the surviving remnants of civilization, and he chooses the latter.

    Bryan, is the idea of civilization utopian?

  5. Bowman almost matches Harvey Mansfield's output of ridiculous comments for square inch, and he even competes with the good professor in the false dichotomy competition.

    Life is way to short too spend too much time on such drivel, but here are a few observations:

    The old-fashioned good guy/bad guy *western* in alive and well, although it often involves a nonstandard venue (see, for example *Outland* and *Cop Land*)

    John Wayne's character was quite heroic in *Liberty Valance*. Not only does he allow Stewart's character to claim credit for the heroic act, but he resists the temptation to kill the little bonerack for getting the gal.

    Finally, it's curious that Bowman fails to mention Clint Eastwood, the conservative icon often credited with killing off the old style western hero.

    Richard Bray