Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Hero Has to Fundamentally Change the Story

Still not completely better, believe it or not, but lets finally dig into this movie a bit.
When you’re writing a story about a fiasco, then the first instinct is to have the hero rise above the situation and wisely shake his head at the folly on display. After all, he’s a hero, and heroes are smarter and better, right?

There is no better example of this than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Everybody is hot to get the skulls except for Indy, who gets dragged along reluctantly and keeps scoffing at how silly the whole quest is. In the end, Indy wins the race to find the skulls, reiterates that he doesn’t really care, and half-heartedly enters the cave anyway.
But this is completely wrong. The hero must drive the story, even if that makes the hero “look bad”. 

When Do the Right Thing came out, many movie critics claimed that it was morally irresponsible of Spike Lee to have his “hero” throw a trashcan through Sal’s window, rather than try to bring everybody back into harmony. Certain members of Lee’s audience, they argued, needed to be shown a demonstration of moral rectitude, or else they might swarm out into the streets after every screening, smashing every window they saw!

But, over and above the overt and covert racism of the critics, that would have made for a terrible movie. Audiences have no patience for heroes who stay above the fray. No matter what’s going down, we want our “heroes” to be in it up to their necks: When there’s greed, they should be the greediest. When there’s anger, they should be the angriest. When there’s folly, they should make the biggest fools of themselves.

In the riot, Mookie finally proves himself to be the “hero” of the story, not (necessarily) because his act was the right thing to do, but because it finally made him the fulcrum of the story: this day finally becomes his story, defined by his action, and his flaw and/or strength, depending on how you read it. Is he “the only one who could solve the problem”? Not really, but he’s the only person with a foot in both worlds, and therefore he decides that it’s his duty to tip the situation decisively in one direction.

Lee’s most daring move, in fact, was not his hero’s climactic action, but all of Mookie’s laid back actions before that. We’ll look at that next time…


Unknown said...

My take on this scene has always been that mookie was protecting sal and his sons by focusing the mobs violence on the restaurant instead of the people. This right thing was something that would have been wrong in any other circumstances, thus the irony of it.

What do you think?

Geekademia said...

I see your point about the hero having to be in the thick of problems and not being fully above them, but I don't think having a character who is the voice of person, for example, is automatically boring or bad storytelling. By your own logic, a hero has to be working the hardest to solve a problem, which does sometimes mean being on the outside or having an alternate perspective. It can indeed be preachy if said person has no connection to the events in question, that much is true, but I don't know if that's the same as the hero having to be the most extreme example of a film's atmosphere.

None of which means you're wrong about this movie (I haven't seen it, I must admit), but I think it's at least a distinction that should be made.

Matt Bird said...

Are there great movies in which the hero is primarily a moderating influence throughout? Three movies starring Henry Fonda come to mind: "The Ox-Bow Incident", "My Darling Clementine", and "12 Angry Men". In each case, his mildness is somehow fierce.

"Mean Streets" also comes to mind as a movie similar to "Do the Right Thing", in which Harvel Keitel is, like Mookie, trying to get everybody to cool it, and, unlike Mookie, never really snaps. That movie works, but it's tempting to say that Robert DeNiro steals the movie from Keitel, because he's the least moderate one, and the one on whom the climax is focused.