Thursday, February 23, 2006

2005: The anti-hero as hero

Holy, shiny, self-sacrificing heroes are so passe nowadays.

Reflecting the rather grim times in which we're living, many of the main characters in this years' Best Picture nominees share certain indelible personality traits that make for some of the greatest conflicted anti-hero protagonists ever brought to screen.

Consider Ennis del Mar, the main character of Brokeback Mountain, along with Truman Capote, Timothy Treadwell, Eric Bana's Avner from Munich. To a lesser extent, even real-life heroes Edward R. Murrow and Johnny Cash are stellar examples of flawed, somewhat compromised human beings, even though they struggle hard to do the right thing. Moreso than their counterparts, anyway.

As character actors are to the world of movie making, anti-heroes are to story: most intriguing, deep and fully realized for an audience. Their shadings are richer, motivations more challenging and ability to confound more likely.

Like Capote, Ennis del Mar is more willing to pretend a life than actually admit to who and what he is, because of society's rejection. He lies to his wife, to Jack, even to himself. Only when it is too late does he realize what his choices have cost everyone, most of all himself. What's not so obvious is what he gets out of these choices.

With Capote, it's clearly ambition driving the cart of his own self-destruction. With Del Mar, it's fear. Though one could reasonably argue fear is a primemover of ambition. Without innate levels of fear - whether such pertains to success, emotional openness, poverty or an ordinary life - people wouldn't feel the need to make certain choices.

Del Mar, Capote and Treadwell are all largely self-inventions: Capote, with his fey mannerisms, ethereal voice and manipulative brilliance; Del Mar, bottled-up and cloistered from a childhood with a father who wanted tough sons, and Treadwell with his self-fashioned educator/child of the wilderness rebirth. All three are essentially hiding in alcohol, publicly declared false lifestyles and the woods.

Where public persona overrides the need for authenticity, acceptance of self is one of the most difficult goals to attain. Instead, a reliance on artifice and props becomes the short-cut to temporary happiness: see me as I wish to be viewed, not as I truly am.

Symbols of American life don't really get any more apt.

With our endless better living through status and shopping mentality, obsession with perfection, youth and keeping up with the Joneses, and relentless reivention of self (America and the movie industry were built on just that - former business magnates and frustrated bright, creative individuals headed west for new businesses, names and identities) these men are a mirror to our cultural need for facades.

America, the best and brightest - by any means necessary.

America, we don't torture - except when we do.

America, we have a great economy - built on Asian finances.

Ironically, or perhaps obviously depending on a person's view, none of these characters facades make them truly happy. Capote, it can be argued, loses his soul through compromised integrity. Del Mar loses the person he truly loves. The message remains that they must lose crucial pieces of themselves if they choose an inauthentic life.

Fortunately for them, unlike Treadwell, it's not their actual life being sacrificed.

But what of us, products of our time with flaws reflected in those ten feet high faces flickering across the screen; what are we giving up to live a fantasy?

Many of us are living the high life, off credit. We're immersed in sport, entertainment, alcohol, sex. . .anything to take the edge off reality. We've got designer clothes and McMansions, and yet, if the number of Americans currently on mood-altering pharmaceuticals is any indication, we're really no happier with our props, our Bergdorf's scarves, our loveless marriages.

Will we, unlike Truman, Ennis, Timothy and Avner, realize before too late what all of this really costs?

Stay tuned.
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