Anti-Heroes in Film – By Dusty McGowan

On the Waterfront and the Naming of an Obsession

The obtusely triumphant musical score clashed behind the final images of On the Waterfront. My screenwriting professor stood by the ancient TV monitor, making wide sweeping gestures with his hands. I almost expected him to bang on his chest and grunt primally a la Tarzan.

“Was that a movie, or was that a freaking MOVIE?” he wildly exclaimed as the DVD player clicked off.

His enthusiasm was not exactly catching for me. The honest truth is that I felt enormously unsatisfied. Why? I had just watched what is widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made by the respected people who are behind those decisions. I finally understood the context of the “I should have been a contender line.” This was at least one more opportunity to check a “classic” off the long list of obligations to watch in a lifetime of viewing.

Why was this experience rubbing against my conscience like a popcorn kernel stuck in my gums? Why had it been so unsatisfying?

The answer lies in the film’s “heroic” protagonist Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando.) He begins the movie as just an average, slightly troubled and regretful John Doe. By the climax, he might as well be crashing through a window like a DC comic book superhero and launching the evil villain into the stratosphere.

He is such a traditional archetypal figure that I felt slightly uneasy reflecting on his character’s journey. Were his motivations forced and unrealistic? I would venture to shout: “Yes, of course they are.” I understand classical film structure a little bit too well and have grown distrustful of it. The truth is that a certain amount of manipulation takes place in the process. The audience is forced to buy into a melodramatic happy ending (and I would argue that On the Waterfront has one).

The other glaring issue, in my mind at least, is that no one in real life is like Terry Malloy. People seldom over come their faults and decide to save the day. People seldom operate out of anything but self interest. Most importantly, people make terrible life decisions that often cancel out their victories. In other words, many of us who are flawed.

Terry Malloy is not flawed enough. He checks his faults at the door in the final half hour of the movie and gets crowned a king. This is not the sort of character that I like. I usually become invested in ne’er do wells, antagonists, and truly questionable individuals. The scholarly label for these characters is: “anti-hero.”

After watching On the Waterfront, I ruminated deeply on some of my favorite leads in films I admire. That is when I heard an invisible chime inside my head (which always signifies a realization). The fictional people I identified with the most when I was younger were not squared jawed, traditionally brave dudes. The scholarly term for them, as I mentioned before, is “anti-hero.” I prefer the much more primal and direct: “loser.”

I love movies about “losers.”

I realized I had been living with this obsession for years, even if I hadn’t adequately named it. The desire not to watch “normal” movies when I was younger had led me down a (somewhat) dark path. I had gravitated towards the Taxi Drivers and Five Easy Pieces on the bottom of the video shelf collecting dust. These loosely plotted, character oriented, and (at least for me until then) obscure pieces of celluloid functioned as beckons for my fixation.

They also helped me to shape my guidelines for truly successful “loser” movies.

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The Rules of the Game

Yes, as with any obsessive compulsive film watcher, I have my mandates for a true “loser” classic. They are very simple, and I only have two.

1. There Needs To Be Empathy For The Loser

The simple and direct way of stating this: You need to care about the loser in question. The character can’t lose your sympathy as an audience member, no matter how disreputable their actions are. You need to be right on board with the characters’ pathology, and have an understanding of it. You need to be able to see yourself in the hapless failure for whom you have chosen to spend two hours of your time with.

Of course it sounds as if I’m putting the direct pressure on you as a watcher. In reality, the job of generating empathy is the work of the film. How deftly is the character drawn? How quickly are you brought into the world of the movie? Here’s the biggie: Does the reality of the story allow you an opportunity to see the bleeding heart of the “loser”? Is this someone you can root for despite the fact they are inherently tragic and will ultimately fail in reversing their fate?

A good example:

Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) in Buffalo 66 is introduced in such a way that he is instantly easy to identify with. Billy gets off the bus (after being released from prison) desperately needing to pee. Billy moves through an unfamiliar environment frantically, looking not only for a restroom but for somewhere that allows him to stand still comfortably. The rest of the film is an investigation into why he is like this. At the end, you both understand and care about him.

An unsuccessful example:

The recent Blue Valentine gave us one more story about an unhappily married couple. The couple in question could by any stretch of the imagination be conventionally called “losers.” My problem with Blue Valentine was that I never once bought into their struggle. What was unique or special about the miserable people I was watching onscreen? I never had a clear sense of what the movie was trying to give me as an audience member. In the end, I just didn’t care about what I had watched.

2. There Needs to Be Catharsis

Every story about a “loser” has to have a note of closure. The sense that this chapter in the “loser’s” life has ended, and we can come to a conclusion about what we just endured as viewers. This isn’t the manufactured happy ending that we all know by heart. You realize why the film you just watched exists.

I would like to list a few examples from “loser” films. (Be advised there are minor spoilers which follow and an awareness of the films is helpful.)

Five Easy Pieces

The ultimate catharsis in Five Easy Pieces comes at the very end of the movie. You understand why the Jack Nicholson character cannot be a father, or even a friend to himself. That is what Five Easy Pieces has been a meditation on. You mourn the loss of a meaningful life along with him, and wish him well as he hitches a ride out of the truck stop.

Leaving Las Vegas

The catharsis comes in the realization the only way Ben (Nicolas Cage) and Sera (Elisabeth Shue) can find redemption is in each other’s company. Leaving Las Vegas is about finding a connection in the bleakest of places. Considering the sort of devastation that is displayed during the movie, this is a rather hopeful sentiment.

Winter’s Bone

The lead character of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has a very standard victory at the end of Winter’s Bone. However, it is hardly heralded as the last frame fades into black. The external circumstances of her life are still extremely hard. She doesn’t win the lottery, and her meth addicted mother doesn’t suddenly clean up. It’s a “happy” ending, but one with little conventional resolution. She moves on with her life, that’s it. That is a satisfying note to end the story on.

A Few More “Loser” Classics

Taxi Driver

What can be added? The discussion of cinematic anti-heros starts with the one that every movie watcher can identify instantly. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) does eventually become unhinged, but only after experiencing the sort of loneliness every human has come across. The movie doesn’t glamorize him (contrary to the way the meaning of the film has been twisted by real life sociopaths). He is just allowed enough space to exist as the audience lives a period of life with him.

Chilly Scenes of Winter

To be perfectly frank, this is a film about a stalker named Charles (John Heard). He is the very definition of “obsessive.” The fact that Charles is self aware and funny is the key to what makes him sympathetic and heartbreaking. Charles obsession with his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mary Beth Hurt) becomes a story that everyone who has experienced rejection will relate to on some level.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Warren Beatty (as McCabe) plays one of the most naive of all cinematic “losers.” He is quite simply a man who believes his own self constructed mythology. You can’t help but root for him, even as you watch his delusions destroy his fleeting chances at success.

Conclusion: Losers Need Their Day In The Sun

As a film lover, I often worry about the tyranny of current releases. The characters become even less human with each tent pole release. They have no pulse or vitality, and most importantly no flaws. What is there for me to care about as an audience member or as a human being? The problem is that there are not enough small, character based, loosely plotted films being made in our day and age.

In short, there are not enough losers wandering around on the cinematic landscape. There have been notable exemptions to the rule in the last few years. Up in The Air was a studio backed study in intense isolation. Little Miss Sunshine dealt with an entire clan of less than perfect people. The recent Michael Douglas vehicle Solitary Man gave us a less than likable failed car sales man.

I like these movies, and appreciate the facts of the human condition they attempt to expose. At the end of the day, though, a few drops in the bucket are not enough, so I’ll ask this small favor of you. Please go out support the cinematic anti-heroes, or losers. Rent the movies I’ve mentioned in this article.

Finally, the next time you see a square jawed hero implausibly over come impossible odds…please launch your pop corn directly at the screen.