...and who wants self-actualization?
I recently read David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business. It's a remarkable book. I usually choose not to read books about screenwriting or, for that matter, the movie business. A little Robert McKee or Syd Field goes a long way for me. Then I'm somehow bloated. Never trust a guru. They're smart, sure. But you have to shut a little something off to stay with them.
Bambi vs. Godzilla is different. Mamet is, of course, a first-rate dramatist. And this has driven him to revulsion at the way things work in Hollywood. There's a gem every other page or so. Some of the gems are depressing as hell. But you leave the book a better writer, I think.
Mamet turned me onto a remarkable American noir film from 1967: Point Blank. It stars Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. The tagline is one for the ages:
"There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can't tell them apart." Uh huh.
Mamet points to the film as an example of what's wrong with many mainstream Hollywood thinking about main characters: that they must be likable. After all, the audience essentially engages the main character as his lackey to pull us through the plot, right? So, the audience is happiest when they like the guy up on screen most of the time. Audiences like main characters with pluck (and boobs) and a desire to become better people. Everybody likes that, right?
But drama isn't always so easy on the viewer. This self-actualization that Hollywood wants us to vicariously enjoy while sitting upon our ample asses descends from a much sterner mother: catharsis. Catharsis isn't a pleasant thing to go through. It's ripping away the traits that define you and letting yourself slide to the floor in a jelly, hoping that something new and better will prop you back up.
And that's not the worst of it.
What drives any good drama is the main character's need for something. Think to what you lack. Think to what you can't bear to have the world know you lack. Love. Respect. Family. Something darker, perhaps. That's what drives a drama. It's what you can't mention. Hollywood realized a while back that this isn't quite as safe a model as self-actualization. Nobody's afraid to want that for themselves, at least vicariously through Spiderman.
This, predictably, makes the drama (and the very potential for drama) less.
At the beginning of Point Blank, Lee Marvin loses big. While robbing some gangsters, Marvin's partner steals his wife, his share, then lodges two bullets in him -- all on an abandoned Alcatraz. As his life seeps away, he wants one thing: revenge. And this alone drives him to survive (and swim to San Francisco, apparently).
Now, self-actualization is an easy, calm, soothing kind of master. It has twelve steps. You can take a break. You do your best. There are books to help you. Self-actualization has websites. Revenge? Not so much. It's irrational, unquenchable, and merciless.
Lee Marvin tracks down his wife. As he sits there wordlessly she pours out her confession and he realizes that she wished for the death she thought he had. Unsure whether to kill her or take her back, he loses both options when she does kill herself. He marches on. He tracks down his former partner, who's now bought his way into the mafia. He gets his sister-in-law, Angie Dickinson, to sleep with her dead sister's husband so he can sneak up and kill him. He does kill the partner -- but in about the most unsatisfying way possible: the poor guy falls off the roof trying to get away from Marvin.
At this point you'd think the movie is about done. Everything that was set up has been resolved. But not for Marvin. Where do you put revenge? He was ripped off for $93,000 in the initial heist. He chases and murders his way up through the criminal syndicate to get the money. They're mostly baffled by him. What is he gaining by going after this incredibly powerful organization? Why, for that matter, does he even think they owe him a penny? It's not terribly rational -- but revenge just isn't.
And then at the end Marvin finally gets his money. Or he could. It's offered to him in a pay off back on Alcatraz. But he won't come out of the shadows to take it. He won't take the boat back to San Francisco. Instead, he just recedes into the darkness. End of movie.
NEVER do you 'like' Marvin's character. Sure, he maybe fulfills the old screenwriting bromide: "the audience has to want the main character to succeed'. But that's begging the question. And if you gave him a dog and a sweet, supportive wife, we'd puke.
What makes him work as a character? Put simply: a great dramatic question at every step. What happens next? He's a mystery, a Manichean hodgepodge of good and evil with a not insignificant pinch of crazy thrown in. But he is consistent and coherent, and he never once panders to the audience.
This has the effect of making him human. The final tragedy hits like a ton of bricks.
And while the movie business might have difficulty making money laying that kind of trip on you, it's certainly something the audience can appreciate. And I'd say the writer of drama simply must understand this.