In this lovely land of corrugated cartons and plastic bags,
we want our entertainment packaged as neatly as the rest of our consumer goods:
an attractive label on the outside, a complete and accurate detailing of contents
there or on the inside, no loose ends, no odd parts, nothing left out.

Thus the Hollywood movie tradition, wherein the bad ones get it in the end,
the good ones triumph and the joys provide the proper balance for the tears.
Not that we are unsophisticated - particularly in the face of competition
from foreign films that have had the temerity to suggest that life, unlike the
good things therein, does not come in small packages or packages of any size;
that though the sun sets daily, it does not do so solely as a happiness-ahead
backdrop for lovers, and that the not-nice people can have it as good as
and frequently better than the nice ones.
- Judith Crist

My Heroes Have Not Always Been Cowboys

27 May 2003

In her criticism of the "Hollywood ending," it's entirely possible that Crist had some justification for complant. The problem is, the sentences above are the opening two paragraphs of her review of Hud, a film she apparently admired a great deal - and there our troubles begin.

I don't know if you've seen Hud, but it is, even by Crist's admission, a wholly unsympathetic film ... about a wholly unsympathetic person, and the three people who come closest to him and then eventually learn what he is, each reacting to him in their own way. It is not an easy film to watch, so much so that I have never made the full attempt; a few bites of that apple were enough to inform me that it was rotten all the way through.

Hud is, as far as I can tell, a movie that gives the audience nothing, nothing to pin their emotions on, nothing positive at all. It is an exhibit of horrors, daring the viewer to have the tenacity and digestive stability to stick it out to the end.

Now, it's worth noting that Pauline Kael thought all of the other critics (including Crist, who she goes so far as to mention by name) missed the joke on Hud. She said that

Hud is a commercial Hollywood movie that is ostensibly an indictment of materialism, and it has been accepted as that by most of the critics. But those who made it protected their material interest so well that they turned it into the opposite: a celebration and glorification of materialism - of the man who looks out for himself - which probably appeals to movie audiences because it confirms their own feelings. This response to Hud may be the only time the general audience has understood film makers better than they understood themselves. Audiences ignored the cant of the makers' liberal, serious intentions, and enjoyed the film for its vital element: the nihilistic "heel" who wants the good things out of life and doesn't give a damn for the general welfare.

Normally, though I admire both women tremendously, in a fistfight between Kael and Crist my money will be on Kael every time. But this time it isn't, because tied up into Kael's thesis is a closely associated thesis about the American moviegoer ... and while it's a thesis I don't have the ability to reject, I would gladly do so if I could.

Simply put, I don't understand the idea of sympathizing with the nihilistic heel. I can see sympathizing with the lovable rogue (which is why I have endorsed and enjoyed criminal behavior in such films as Out Of Sight, Heist, Where the Money Is, and the remakes of The Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean's Eleven). It helps to have a person as your rogue who can defuse some of the innate nastiness with sheer likability - this was very obviously the motive behind casting Paul Newman in Hud (Kael agrees), and George Clooney seems to be basing the more successful parts of his career on it. But no amount of innate charm can turn Hud into a sympathetic character for me.

I have discussed this online many times, argued about it, gotten kicked around for it, and it's time I codified it. I've been accused of disliking a film if it doesn't have the Hollywood ending. This isn't true. (I do resent the kneejerk reaction that some film critics have, where they more or less automatically dismiss any film that does put its ending in a neat little ride-into-the-sunset package. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, for example - who is no Pauline Kael, nor even a Judith Crist - has apparently never met a happy ending he liked.)

What is true is that I cannot like a film - am literally incapable of liking a film - if I cannot sympathize with the protagonist.

Now, "sympathize" is a very broad term, as I'm using it. I'm fine with the concept of the reluctant hero or anti-hero or even a protagonist villain. But if you give me a "bad" protagonist then I must be in his head enough to understand and tolerate his badness. I have to be able to see why he does the things he does and say to myself, "Yes, if I were there, I might be reduced to that as well." I don't need to root for him to survive, I don't need to root for him to see the folly of his ways ... but I do need to be able to root for him. I have to have an interest in following his particular ninety minutes of life story, or why am I seeing this film at all?

I'm tired of getting derided for this being a simplistic view of films. I consider it fundamental, and the surprise to me is that it apparently needs to be stressed, repeated, re-emphasized. To me it should be obvious: For any audience that is not masochistic, there is simply no incentive to plunk down good money to see a film consisting entirely of wholly detestable people.

Again, though, my concept of "detestable" is as loose as "sympathize." I don't care much for films where the protagonist is (or begins the film as) a loser, a drub, a Patient Toiler - what my spouse would call a nebbish. (The character of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors is the Ur-nebbish, if you need an example.) I don't like films where the humiliation of the protagonist is a source of much of the humor. In short, I don't want to see main characters who are utter losers any more than I want to see main characters who are utter assholes.

"But," people say to me, "if you don't have the main character start out as a schlemiel, you lose one of your most effective devices for forward motion in your plot." I agree, and I have exploited this in fiction a number of times. But it is important to notice that even when I write characters who begin as losers (so they can be not-losers later), they are losers whose heads I can get into, whose loserdom I can (here's that word again) sympathize with.

Now, clearly, sympathy is subjective (as is all critical analysis). Perhaps you can get inside the heads of the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore or The Ice Storm in ways I cannot. I only know that, after nearly thirty years as an audience [2014: make that forty-five years as an audience and counting], I can say with some certainty when a film will have no characters in it I can like, and avoid it. The problem is that I am startled at how many of them there are.

It seems like these days the line is drawn: You are either an action film with no real characterization of any kind, or you are a small film which is a study in disagreeable characters. This mars brilliance for me - as in the only film I've walked out on in decades, Being John Malkovich, which I really did feel was an endurance test for the audience - one I flunked. Given the novelty of approach in the parts I did see, I'm willing to concede it's a fairly brilliant film ... but, heavens, why must it be so detestable in the process of being brilliant?

Meanwhile, the days of films which actually had interesting characters and yet also the positive aspects are gone, gone, gone. Even the interesting nebbish is gone. The screwball comedy has gone; Hollywood believes audiences no longer have the patience for it, and god help me, they may be right. Every so often an exception comes along and then it is inevitably tagged as a "feel-good" movie, a line I find dismissive at best and denigrating at worst.

I don't care for the way David Mamet paces his dialogue, but to see a film like Heist or State and Main is to get a reeducation in the nearly-lost art of learning the inner workings, and thereby gaining sympathy for, even the nastiest characters ... on the strength of what they say. The words, the insight, are what distinguishes, say, Ten Things I Hate About You from just another mindless teen comedy. Ten Things is not a "feel-good" movie. That ode to the reforming virtues of money, Pretty Woman, is a "feel-good" movie. The main difference is that nobody sees Pretty Woman for the script. (That, and Julia Stiles has more acting ability in her left pinky than Julia Roberts has in her entire body.)

So perhaps this growing division between two types of films can be placed partially at the feet of the writers. Maybe they have an inferiority complex. Maybe they feel (again with some justification) that in order for their words to be taken seriously, they must write depressing films about nasty people. Maybe they know that if they try to write a romantic comedy with brains, it can fall into one of only two baskets: It will get consigned to the feel-good bin, or the trash can.

But I don't think it's just the writers. I think there is a deliberate schism, across all levels, in the film industry (at least the mainstream Hollywood film industry). And I trace the beginning of the problem to the years around 1970.

That was when nobody was really sure what would attract the younger, stranger generation. The studios, then and now, were run by old farts, and what in the hell would get these hippie kids into the theatre? They had no idea. So they did something that surely they would not have done except as a last resort: They got experimental.

In the process they doomed the last remnants of the film tropes that had served them well for four decades ... and that was a mixed blessing; I'm in favor of more experimentation, but I humbly suggest that, the way the Hollywood ending fell into disdain for a few mad years (and has never recovered since), the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. The idea that the Hollywood ending is now reserved for mindless fluff and explosion-packed extravaganzas without plot originated directly from this period of upheaval, circa 1970.

And the most direct example I can use is what became of the Western.

I recently rewatched two films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These films are as different from one another as night from day. But to me they have this in common: They are both experiments perpetrated on the Western, as a genre of film, at a time when white hats and black hats, clearly delineated, had become hopelessly passé.

And I consider them both troublesome films. "Troublesome" because I am willing to acknowledge they both have brilliance ... but they're hard to watch today, for various reasons; and as reinvented Westerns, they fail. Overseas, Sergio Leone was reinventing the Western properly - A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - and the weakness of the Hill and Altman films only shows more by comparison.

Are the Leone films brilliant films? No, but they are brilliant Westerns, and they know what their genre is. I think that, for the most part - I'm prepared to concede the occasional exception - trying to transcend genre is almost always a mistake. It's possible to be brilliant, even break rules, while staying within the genre. This is not the same as crossing the border.

Note that setting is unimportant here. There have been plenty of Westerns in space, for example, or in feudal Japan. The more successful ones are the ones which know they're Westerns - Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and their more worthy Kurosawa ancestors, come to mind. The failures are the ones that don't fully appreciate the territory in which they're operating. When you get something that probably should have been a Western but tried to be something else, it's a danger sign.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a hard film to watch, and not just because of the relentlessly deliberate (read: slow) Altman pacing. It's a beautiful film, of course, because Altman and his merry men know how to make anything beautiful. But it is not a Western, and it is not about nice people. And while that may be very verité (the real Wild West was not a very nice place, with few white hats in sight), verité treatment is not and should not be the primary characteristic of the Western. In fact I'll go so far as to say it's a detriment. So, clearly, this is not a Western.

The film certainly has merit, not just for its beauty but because Altman, bless him, does not stoop to explain. He throws you into the middle of the stories, everyone talking at once - often unintelligibly, as Kael points out, until you realize that making out all the words doesn't really matter. He lets you learn on your own what the stories behind these people are; he doesn't spell anything out. But then, once you've learned about these people, who do you put your support behind? Is there anyone in this film whose welfare and well-being the average viewer has any reason to give a damn about? Is there anyone we'd like to see rise above all this and develop as a character? I, personally, can't find anyone like that here. This may have been a more realistic West but it is not the West, however cartoonish, that makes an entertaining story to me. And, again, if a film is not entertaining on some level, why am I paying my money?

Meanwhile, Butch Cassidy is almost too far in the opposite direction. Here you don't have apathy for the characters because they are too gritty, grim, or unlovable; here you have apathy for the characters because they're too flip. As written by the overrated William Goldman, this movie is what an old writing teacher of mine called a card trick in the dark: Full of little snippets and in-jokes the writer has put in strictly to amuse himself; no one else can possibly appreciate them as well. Yes, this movie has some great lines and moments, and the people involved in making it are and were betting their bucks that those are what you'll remember when you leave the theatre. That, and the charisma of its lead actors (Newman as casting-to-defuse again). The people responsible for this film sincerely hope that you will not remember that the movie is mostly a vast void - a first half consisting of one long chase scene without purpose, plausibility, or real denouement, and the second half consisting of wholly detestable and poorly-paced behavior in the grimier parts of Bolivia. Butch Cassidy thumbs its nose at the audience; it dares them to see the holes in the fabric it's ostensibly weaving. It's a scam.

But it has two ostensible villains as its protagonists! It has a sweet schoolteacher who's actually one of the "bad guys"! And this is why it was allowed to be what it was, why it got made: Because it was at a time when people were trying desperately to get away from white hats and black hats, when any alteration of the formula, however vacant, was permissible in the name of experimentation. Just so long as it didn't have a happy ending, anything was valid.

If you think I'm missing the boat on this film, I invite you to read Pauline Kael's comments on it. You'll find them in either of the collections I Lost It at the Movies or For Keeps. She calls it "a glorified vacuum." She also points out that this is a spin on Bonnie and Clyde, which I agree with. That latter film is a much better version of the same sort of thing ... and hardly a happy-ending movie, for those who think I'm being too reductionist here.

I don't demand a happy ending. I don't demand that my heroes always be heroes. But I do demand a character I can want to succeed - no matter whether that character's personal idea of success is to vanquish all their foes, find true love, whatever.

Gladiator is not the deepest movie in the world, but it allows you to root for its (on the face of it, rather unlikable) hero because it allows you insight into his situation and what he has lost. The Quick and The Dead and its rather more serious cousin Unforgiven are two good reinventions of the Western of recent years, and in both cases the hero is no prize, but he/she is someone we can back. He/she is someone we can trust, despite faults and failings ... which is an important characteristic in a protagonist (at least for me).

In short, I think it can still be done. I think you can have movies that show life outside that neatly packaged box and yet still end up with something that gives people a reason to pay exorbitant fees to step outside their drab, wretched lives for ninety minutes or so.

I also think it must be done or we will only continue to see the inevitable slide where Hollywood produces no movies for grown-ups because they are staying away from theatres in droves. It may already be too late.

But I'm not at all sure that Hollywood has the slightest idea how to do it on a reliable basis, and the historical record from, say, 1965 on bears me out. So I keep declining to see movies, and as I do, my hope for film declines as well.

It's a sad state of affairs, and not just because the cowboys are gone.

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