No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
(a brief excerpt from Yvonne Rainer’s famous “No Manifesto“)
I get to teach a class on screenwriting in the fall, which is exciting. I took a screenwriting class in the English department while a grad student at the University of Minnesota in 2014, and found the state of pedagogy on the subject basically unchanged since I was an undergraduate at USC in 2000.
That state being, in my opinion, pretty wretched. The Hero’s Journey, per Joseph Campbell and George Lucas, is basically preached as the be-all and end-all of the subject, all helpfully built into charts and tables of what needs to happen on which page.
No doubt this treasure map to unimaginable riches has been followed successfully some dozens or even hundreds of times. But the idea of a one-size-fits-all template has done more harm then good, in my opinion, and is additionally growing more obsolete by the day on our swiftly tilting planet.
Calling a soldier returning from Afghanistan a hero is supposed to be a compliment, but it usually or always reduces the complexity of that soldier’s experience to being good and courageous, fighting evil and chaos and whatever else. Beyond disrespectful, it actually has the potential to do narrative violence to that person’s very real, nuanced, complex, and by no means uniformly heroic experiences.
The Hero’s Journey is our religion today, to question it is a form of blasphemy – which is precisely why it needs to be questioned, especially in the movies, the venue where it assumed such a central cultural role.
If we are neither heroes nor anti-heroes, what are we, how will we make sense of our experiences? If we have no ambition to save the world, literally or metaphorically, and are just trying to figure out how to navigate our very real relationships, problems, struggles, challenges – what if those experiences need not be elevated to the level of the heroic and the anti-heroic? What if we were not the good guy, and those who oppose us were not the bad guys?
Would our current cosmology come crashing down around us? Or would it be possible to just relax a little bit, and be slightly more accepting of people with different motivations and different goals? Would it make us less competitive, less successful? Or would it merely allow a little bit of wiggle room for empathy, understanding, sharing?
I am not a religious person, but it occurs to me that perhaps the great gift to humanity of organized religion was, and is, humility. The idea of a patriarchal God is highly problematic, but at least it presents the concept of a more powerful figure running things, beyond our control and understanding. Religion, whether via Jesus, Buddha or Zeus, gives us the immense freedom to be small, to be occasionally helpless, to not have the answers or rule our own fate. Whereas life without recognition of any of these greater powers is a tremendous burden.
Think about that for a second: the curse of being “the master of your own fate.” Having no one to blame but yourself for all of your flaws and shortcomings.
The prototypical hero figure, at least in Greek Mythology, is Hercules – famously a demi-god, the child of a god and a mortal. Capable of godly feats but not a full member, with benefits, of the Pantheon.
Movies provide an interesting analog to this: the characters who are really all powerful sit outside the movie; the producer/director/studio, none of whom ever actually appear in person until the credits. Your designated protagonist is usually in the Hercules role – they must struggle, at the behest of the producer gods, but as a sort of demi-god they will undoubtedly triumph and survive their trials.
Who would be the main characters of Post-Heroic cinema, if they were not the Prot-agonists and Ant-agonists? (From the greek roots, “agon” meaning contest, “agonist” meaning contestant, “proto” meaning central in importance?)
Could we put actual humans in our stories rather than competitors? Could we put them in a fictional world that is not competition-based? To do so, would we have to acknowledge that we, the filmmakers, are not gods, and would that in fact be central to the idea of a non-control-based cinema? And what would it all look like, and would people want to watch?
All satisfying questions, without obvious answers.