Thursday, July 10, 2008

More antiheroes

Okay, much discussion here about anti-heroes. I wrote it all up, and before I saved it (stupid me— I really do know better), the power went out in a storm, and there went all my brilliant thoughts. So you're going to get my UNbrilliant but at least saved thoughts.

First, Andy told me that I got it wrong. (He's been saying that most of his life.) Here's how he parses Michael Corleone:

Godfather I: Anti-hero.
Godfather II (this is interesting): Villain/antagonist.
Godfather III: Tragic hero. (I pointed out that GIII has definite allusions to King Lear, btw, particularly in the daughter-death scene, but also the king giving up his kingdom.)

I thought about that Godfather II idea, and thought, yes— because young Vito, the Robert de Niro character in the 20s, is the hero. Why? He's doing heroic things (in his way): protecting his family, strengthening his community, eliminating a bully, establishing a code of honor.
Now Michael, half a century later, undoes all that. He puts his family in danger, kills his own brother, alienates his foster brother/best friend, weakens his community by starting a mob war, becomes a bully (and allies with dictators), and violates most of the elaborate code Vito and his generation created.
So if Vito is the hero, and his goals are paramount, then Michael who ruins those goals becomes the antagonist. (Back to this later— can the villain be the protagonist? Cf. Macbeth.)

He also said he didn't think Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven was an anti-hero because he did what he did for his family. He said motivation determines whether you're a hero or an anti-hero. (I somewhat disagree. Later.) Outlaw Josey Wales is a more "anti" Eastwood hero, he says.

He brought up King's Dark Tower series (just so you'd know he does know how to read ), and said if you calibrate by book, Roland is definitely an anti-hero in The Gunslinger, but gradually becomes more heroic and is a full-fledged hero by The Wolves of Calla.

Second, my husband remembered that Benjamin in The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman, that is) was called an "anti-hero" when that film came out. What do you all think? The reasoning then was that he was NOT a hero— not strong or brave or powerful. Things happen to him, and the major praxis of the plot is his growing self-awareness and wisdom. Well, as that spawned a whole genre of similar films about nebbishy but intelligent young men encountering adulthood, I gave that some thought. I think those young men (like Zach Braff in Garden State— a real update of The Graduate) are not ANTI-heroes, but non-heroes. That is, they don't have the usually heroic qualities of courage, ambition, potency. But they are protagonists, and we're supposed to identify with them. (Not me… the angst of post-adolescent young men has about as much interest for me as the dietary habits of fruit flies.)

So… some questions, anyway, that arise from these discussions:

1) Does heroism/anti-heroism depend on the motivation? That is, is the hero the one who does the right thing (by whatever standards) for the right reason, and the anti-hero the one who does the right thing for the wrong reason? (That is, he saves the old lady because he wants a reward.)
2) Or— this is my thought— that the difference has to do with the end, not the beginning. That is, if the character is redeemed in the end, he's a dark and dangerous hero. But if he's not redeemed, he's an anti-hero. So Dirty Harry is an anti-hero, but Paul Newman in The Verdict is redeemed, so he's more the hero. What do you think? The one who triumphs but is not morally redeemed= anti-hero? Theresa mentioned Scarlett O'Hara— she ends up rich, but not redeemed — she's still thinking at the end that she can block out the past and just look ahead. Or think of the "Seven Samurai" type stories where an outlaw helps a town out, but leaves in the end because he can't conform to community standards. Anti-hero? You know, say the John Wayne character maybe in Liberty Valance— he never really gives into the redemption?
3) Does the anti-hero have to triumph? Can there be a tragic anti-hero, who fails or is defeated?
4) I keep thinking that the relationship to the plot is important— the anti-hero is EFFECTIVE. This is why the notion of Benjamin Graduate and all his ineffectual descendants as anti-heroes annoys me. They are reactors, not actors. Things happen to them… they seldom make things happen. The major change is just that they learn… they don't really have much effect on the world. Hero, anti-hero, seems to me, they have to be the "proto-agonist"… they have to act, and have an effect on their world.
5) Comic anti-heroes? Paul Newman? Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke?
6) What's the difference between an anti-hero and a villain?
7) The Macbeth issue… what is Macbeth? Definitely a protagonist. Is he a villain because he does evil, or a tragic hero because he is brought low by his own attributes, or an anti-hero because he has heroic attributes— courage, ambition, power— but unheroic motivation?
8) Tragic anti-hero?
9) Women anti-heroes? Scarlett, yes, plenty of heroic qualities there, but also huge negatives.
10) What makes a hero anyway? What makes an anti-hero? What do you see as the connection between the two?

How about some examples of heroes vs. anti-heroes? Can you think of female anti-heroes beyond Scarlett?

I think Buffy wished she could be an anti-hero, but she was too tied to the need for moral behavior. Are we actually open to that gradation in women? (Scarlett really is special!)

Let's look at Shakespeare characters, because we'll know them. Hamlet, the precursor to all those nebbish guys? Lear. Othello. I think Macbeth is a particularly interesting example.


Wes said...

The ultimate authority on knowledge and wisdom, Wikipedia, has a list of antiheros, under the clever title, "List of fictional anti-heroes".

I'd like to make a few comments, but can't until my next meeting is over (maximizing shareholder equity).

Edittorrent said...

That's sort of an anti-hero motivation, I think, Wes. Maximizing shareholder equity. :)

Wes said...

I'm probably the last person in the world who should be commenting on literatary matters since, I skipped thru three degrees with only one lit class, seems to me an antihero lacks traditional virtues yet performs acts which support or protects these virtues (note I'm trying to avoid the use of heroic). If that is the definition then Eastwood's character William Munny in Unforgiven fits. Munny is a killer who tried to live virtuously for the sake of his wife, but when she dies he takes a job as a killer again. In the process he draws upon his dark side and unsavory skills to avenge people who have been exploited, damaged, or killed. His acts are savage, yet he elimates (kills) the villians who caused problems for others. Thus I believe Munny is an antihero.

Wes said...

Sorry about all the typos, but I'm on a fire drill at work and had to hurry.

Edittorrent said...

I was wondering about the Unforgiven character. I got the idea that he in a way can't help his nature-- he's a killer, and can't escape that?

What about the Viggo Mortenson character in A History of Violence? Now that I think about it, that's very like Unforgiven in plot?