Tag Archives: Analysis

EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes.” CARL JUNG

I have recently explored character names and character personas on this blog. These articles can be found here:

  1. WHAT’S IN A NAME
  2. A TEST OF CHARACTER

Now I would like to broaden the subject and have a go at defining some basic film character archetypes. My definition of this has some crossover with personas, but archetypes are not necessarily the component which make up the character – they ARE the character!

Archetypes are a common or typical shorthand; a tool writers, directors and actors can use to define character during the creative process. They are not stereotyping though. They are standardized models and structures that can be built upon to fully flesh out a character.

The archetypes I would like to consider are: Everyman/Woman, Hero, Super-Hero, Anti-Hero, Nemesis, Mentor, Sidekick and Lover/Romantic Interest. Obviously, many of these archetypes can combine, especially in more complex films, plus I’m sure there are loads of others. However, I will limit myself to these for now.



EVERYMAN / WOMAN

The staple for many, many movies is an everyman or woman or boy or girl (or gender fluid) character who is easy to relate to for the audience. It could be Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), or Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), or Tom Hanks in basically everything – even Toy Story (1995). They tend toward the working or ordinary class with regular jobs and family units. Their stories will be everyday, or they will find themselves facing incredible situations. Alfred Hitchcock favoured everyman and woman characters who would be thrown into dangerous situations. Actors who excel in such roles include: Hanks, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Jack Lemmon and many more.


HERO

Many characters can begin ordinary or everyday, but over the course of a film become heroes. Luke Skywalker for instance is an bright farm kid with dreams of joining the academy. A series of contrasting events then cause his rise to discovery and heroism. On the other hand, some heroes are fully formed such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. The everyman character and hero are often combined, like with John McCLane or underdog characters such as Rocky Balboa. My favourite hero arcs are stories where the character starts in lower status such as The Terminator (1984), Django Unchained (2012) and Harriet (2019).



SUPER-HERO

So what’s the difference between a hero and a super-hero? For me the hero may be capable of incredible feats of action and endeavour, yet he or she is ultimately mortal. Thus, while they may be a super-hero on the surface, Batman and Iron Man are heroes to me; albeit mechanically improved ones. Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, have god-like powers, thus defining them as SUPER! Obviously, there are crossovers as illustrated by Peter Parker, Captain America and Captain Marvel. All of them begin as everyboy/man/woman characters and become super-heroes due to military experimentation or being impacted by incredible events which cause physical transformation.


ANTI-HERO

I love a good anti-hero. I think they are my favourite character archetype. They can be charismatic and just on the side of the righteous, but misanthropic and sarcastic like say, Wolverine or Blade. They can be on the wrong side of the law, but redeem themselves at the end of a film like Danny Archer and Han Solo. They can be outsiders or loners like Travis Bickle. They can be hard on the outside and soft on the inner like Juno. Moreover, certain actors have cornered the market on anti-heroes such as Jack Nicholson, Ellen Page, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. My favourite anti-heroes are often cursed with supernatural forces causing them to be trapped by certain powers. The ‘Wolfman’, Lawrence Talbot, and Carrie White are fine instances of this.



NEMESIS

Given it is pantomime season there’s no harm is looking at villains! For me the greatest villains are the ones which actually have a valid cause or point. Of course, I don’t agree with their actions as they will generally involve killing people or destroying the Earth or Universe. However, villains such as Robert DeNiro’s heinous Max Cady had valid motivation. Likewise, Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of everyone was founded on sound environmental ideology. This doesn’t make it right though. Sympathetic nemeses are also interesting like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger. Moreover, King Kong for example, begins life as a threatening monster, but ultimately ends up being sympathetic compared to man. Nonetheless, you cannot beat a good old fashioned baddie like Hannibal Lecter, The Terminator, Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched and one of my favourites, The Wicked Witch of the West.


MENTOR

The Mentor character can take many forms. They are very valuable in supporting a hero or heroine on their adventures, plus providing vital exposition or the rules of the world information. The archetypal mentor archetype is a wise, older character like Morpheus, Alfred Pennyworth, Gandalf, Mr Miyagi, or Obi Wan Kenobi. Moreover, they will often have powers and magically assist those around them. The wonderfully helpful Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Every so often mentoring is rejected by the younger partner. A case in point being Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills eschewing Morgan Freeman’s Somerset’s sage advice with deadly results. Then again, mentoring can take a more twisted and controlling turn as seen with The Devil Wears Prada’s (2006), Miranda Priestly, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent arthouse classic, The Phantom Thread (2017).



SIDEKICK

The sidekick is a lower status character that can be an ally, helper, friend or even enemy that also provides comic relief or dramatic tension. Different from the bromance or traditional buddy character, because that double-act dynamic is on an equal level of status. Great sidekicks include: Hermione Granger, Short Round, Robin, Chewbacca, Dr Watson and many more. Often, the sidekick actually becomes more interesting, funny and memorable than the lead protagonist. Examples of this include the brilliant Hit Girl, Igor, Donkey and the aforementioned Hermione. Sometimes the sidekick takes a darker route such as Loki and Lady Macbeth, who use their influence for evil rather than good.


THE LOVER / ROMANTIC INTEREST

So, the love interest can be a romantic extension of the sidekick but can also be a mentor and even a villain. I would differentiate the love interest character from traditional romantic comedies or dramas. For instance, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sally and Harry are of equal status and classed as everyman and woman archetypes. However, in James Bond films the love interest is traditionally a female conquest. More in depth love interest characters are those that are not just trophies; they become equal in the story. Princess Leia is a heroine and love interest, likewise Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most recently, and a reflection of our progressive times, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman found a fine love interest in Chris Pine’s heroic Steve Trevor. Thankfully, the outdated “damsel in distress” stereotype is being consigned to the past and now we have characters of all backgrounds and gender represented on an equal basis.


CONCLUSION

As I said earlier this list is just an exploration of archetypes. There are a number I could have included. That stock character the wife or husband is one which always appears regularly in films. Often, they are waiting by the phone or television screen as some disaster befalls their partner. Lastly, I could have included the double-act, the team or the ensemble archetype; where one or more characters combine to create a whole. But, I think I’ll save that for another essay.



TELLING STORIES WITH STYLE: THE TROPES OF TARANTINO

TELLING STORIES WITH STYLE: THE TROPES OF TARANTINO

**CONTAINS MOVIE SPOILERS**

Quentin Tarantino is a powerhouse of cinema. He has proved consistently, since his debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992) right up to his most recent film The Hateful Eight (2015), a filmmaker of incredible invention. His works are well known for their references to pop culture, TV shows, music, fashion, and quoting in general from an array of cinematic influences. Indeed, his films are always firmly planted in genre, from: war films to Martial Arts to Western to crime and B-movie pictures. However, despite utilising other genres as a springboard for his writing, Tarantino instils his own style within his work. This creates a paradoxical form of originality, making him what I would call a postmodern auteur. The postmodern auteur not only quotes, borrows and steals from other influences but they are able to present them in a fashion so as to make them feel fresh and somehow original.

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It would be easy to write an essay of Tarantino-style bingo pointing out which films and genres he has used and stolen or quoted from, thus, as an alternative, I would like examine the narrative tropes he employs to tell his screen stories. Tarantino isn’t simply a cultural magpie throwing in arbitrary pop references but he has a magic box of narrative tricks gained from cinema, stage, literature and music. In this essay I would like to explore some of these methods and how he diverts from the linear narrative style represented by the classical Hollywood norm. I will also examine his work in general and scenes from his films to show how he has created some fascinating means of telling stories.

Tarantino differentiates his films from the classical narrative style in a legion of ways. Such tropes include: “Chapter Headings”; non-linear timelines; unreliable narrators; and what I have termed “the long game” scene or sequence. Along with his perpetual references to various genres, specific films and the use of soundtracks from other movies, such devices work brilliantly to propel the narratives of his films. It may seem quite a simplistic device to use, but “Chapter Headings” are a very effective story device.  It’s obvious to say Tarantino has borrowed from literature in order to structure his films this way, but the ‘Chapter’ introductions establish the nature of storytelling and literally inform the audience of a change in scene, time, place and character.

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While classical Hollywood works to immerse us in the invisibility of filmmaking, Tarantino calls attention to the form with “Chapter Headings.” He does this not as a Brechtian distanciation device but rather as a means to include us in the story intellectually. The “Chapter Headings” also create humour, mystery and suspense. For example in Kill Bill: Volume 2, one chapter is called The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz, which immediately conjures a mysterious and eerie story to come. It  turns out to be just that as Beatrice ends up buried alive as the segment further reveals more of her fascinating back-story. In an ingenious aside in Tarantino’s “Universe”, Paula Schultz is in fact the wife of King Schultz from his own Western Django Unchained (2012).

“Chapter Headings” also seek to cement and bind another of Tarantino’s tropes: the non-linear or fractured timeline structure. Here, fractured events are portrayed out of chronological order and do not follow the direct causality pattern of the events in the standard narrative model. Non-causality is as old as the hills with Homer’s The Iliad in the 8th century BC being one of the first examples of such a narrative device. Indeed, it’s easier to pick out a Tarantino film that doesn’t follow a non-linear structure than not. However, even his most linear film Jackie Brown (1997), which follows the eponymous protagonist’s attempts to stay out of jail and alive, finds the narrative splintering into a triptych of varying perspectives during the final act.

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Often non-linearity is used to show dreams, flashbacks, time-travel and explore splintered identities or point-of-view; nonetheless, the non-linear narratives of, for example, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Inglorious Basterds (2009) contain fractured timelines from mainly a creative and aesthetic choice. But they are not just style for style’s sake as they create a dazzling intellectual response and activate the viewer to piece the stories together like a jigsaw. Reservoir Dogs (1992) is especially ingenious in breaking the rules of genre as it’s one of the only films I’ve seen about a robbery which shows us everything aside from the actual crime. It is important, however, to say that while Tarantino knows the rules of linearity he chooses to break them, on the whole, to enhance the cinematic experience. Interestingly, in my opinion, his most satisfying films are those which are his most linear. Tony Scott proved this when he re-wrote and re-ordered Tarantino’s script of True Romance (1989), while Django Unchained (2012), aside from a few brief illusory dream sequences and momentary flashbacks, builds powerful emotions as Django hunts down his slave captors and wreaks revenge in order to be reunited with his wife.

A narrative off-shoot of fractured timelines is Tarantino’s use of stories within stories and unreliable narrators. The device of the unreliable narrator is another means in which Tarantino differentiates his narratives from classic storytelling. In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Tarantino takes great joy with narrators, unreliable or otherwise, telling lies; something seen brilliantly in both Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his most recent film The Hateful Eight (2015).

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In Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tim Roth’s “Mr Orange” is revealed to be an undercover Police officer. “Orange’s” cop superior actively tells him to invent a story – because you “gotta have a story,” – to inveigle his way into the Joe Cabot’s gang. Thus, he invents a shaggy dog tale about the time he almost got bust by cops in a toilet. Tarantino presents a dishonest character delivering a story in a false reality providing both suspense and entertainment from a wholly unreliable basis. More ambiguous and vile is the story Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren tells to Bruce Dern’s irascible Confederate, General Sandy Smithers, in The Hateful Eight (2015). Sworn enemies while occupying opposing sides during the American Civil War, Warren, raises the dramatic stakes by regaling the story of how he strips, sexually humiliates and then kills Smithers’ own son. We flash-back to this incident and must consider if this is actually real or invented in order for Warren to provoke Smithers to grab a gun; thus allowing the Major to shoot him self-defence. These devices are tremendously effective narrative tools for creating shifting emotional responses to characters and again mark Tarantino’s work outside the classical norm.

The Hateful Eight (2015), given it is virtually set in one location, is very theatrical in feel. Marrying the influences of the Western genre in such television shows as Bonanza with Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), the film also evokes principles of the “Shaggy Dog” story and Chekhov’s gun theory where every element of a narrative has cause effect irreplaceability. Consequently, the whole film feels like one long sequence of scenes and event with a massive and particularly violent payoff at the end. Indeed, this narrative conceit is a major styling of Tarantino. While most basic screenwriting books will tell you to get in and out of a scene as quickly as possible to move the narrative along, Tarantino disregards this rule throughout his oeuvre. This, I call the “Long Game” scene where lengthy dialogue gives way to a spectacular punchline at the end.

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A perfect example of the “Long Game” scene is the beginning of wartime epic, Inglourious Basterds (2009). We open with the “Chapter Heading”: Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France and are introduced to Christophe Waltz’ SS Office Hans Landa. At first Landa is amiable and charming in his inquisition of a French farmer. Indeed the scene moves slowly and not without humour as the German takes out his over-sized pipe and drinks the farmer’s delicious milk. But, as this is Tarantino we know suspense is building to a slow but startling crescendo. When the reveal of the hidden Jewish family below the timbers is shown, we realise that Landa is not the affable German he acts but a devious murderer and the nemesis within the narrative. With machine guns firing and splintering wood in slow motion, the soundtrack swells operatically as the scene ends with Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) sprinting away, her family butchered by the Nazis. Such “Long Game” scenes are one of Tarantino’s memorable tropes and he achieves this through his brilliant handling of conflict, dialogue and expert use of cinematic form and content.

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Overall, Tarantino has had an exceptional film career by using established means of telling stories, both inside and outside the rules of standard narratives. He uses devices like those discussed to invigorate and entertain the audience. There is also much pleasure to be had from experiencing the tropes such as: “Chapter Headings”; unreliable narrators; non-linear structure and the “Long Game” scenes. Thus, using theatrical, literary, cinematic and musical narrative influences Tarantino proves himself a master of storytelling as demonstrated in his impressive body of work.

KILLING ME SOFTLY: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HOLLYWOOD THRILLER!

KILLING ME SOFTLY: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HOLLYWOOD THRILLER!

“It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death. Whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” Sigmund Freud

Here’s a re-blog of an article I wrote for www.sothetheorygoes.com – you can read here or below:

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Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.

The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.

But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.

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These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.

One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.

Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).

What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.

Film Title: No Country for Old Men

While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.

The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean.  While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.

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Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.

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Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience.  Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.

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What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death.  Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.