One of the greatest and most essential pleasures of moviegoing is identification with the characters on the screen. If such identification doesn’t happen, even a great story can only be appreciated at arm’s length. The audience needs a surrogate through which to experience the story vicariously. What the best films accomplish is to create characters that speak to universal human experience but that do so with such specificity that particular audience members can feel a personal connection. Here we see how film can be both a “mass” medium and an extremely intimate one. It’s the close-up on a giant screen.
Thinking about this recently, I decided to write about some of the characters that I identify with the most. This topic carries some risk: as with any autobiographical writing, the writer has to be willing to share both faults and talents, vice and virtue. The biggest temptation in forming this list was to add the characters that I personally like most, with whom I wish I had something in common. I avoided this temptation, so Batman didn’t make the list. But I did have to fudge just a little bit on the age of the characters. I dream of being a filmmaker, so I knew I couldn’t include characters who were successful filmmakers already. However, most of the five I chose have begun one career or other in their respective stories. Only one name popped into my head when I considered my current stage of life (i.e. between college and establishing my own home): Ben Braddock in The Graduate. I decided that the events of that film were sufficiently far removed from my own experience to keep him off the list (phew!). Of course, no film character is going to match up with an audience member’s experience in every detail (probably even if the viewer is watching a biopic about himself). To be honest, I’m quite happy that none of the five I chose is just exactly like me. Watching a person who’s a lot like us do things we couldn’t possibly do is part of the fun. All that said, to make my list a character needed to share with me personality, attitudes, dreams, and experiences to an appreciable extent.
Beyond those criteria, though, there wasn’t any formula. This is hardly a top five set in stone (as if anything like that has ever existed), particularly the rankings. It’s just a snapshot of how I feel about myself at this point in time. I restricted myself to characters famous only for the movies they appear in — no adaptations of famous novels or plays, and no famous real-life individuals. Four of the five movies are original screenplays, with the other being based on a short story but clearly eclipsing it in popularity. Most of the movies are also familiar to my family and many of my friends, so I have hopes that there won’t be any shocking revelations. Finally, one source of encouragement for me in my current state of singleness: only one of these characters is still single at the end of his story, and that’s the rat.
5. Remy (Voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille (2007)
I come to compare myself with Remy by way of two analogies. First, I take his desire to become a chef as a metaphor for any kind of artistic ambition. For me, the passion isn’t for food, but for film. Given that this is a movie we’re talking about, I think this connection comes naturally. Remy finds himself at least as cut off from the great restaurants as many aspiring filmmakers do from the Hollywood system. Admittedly, I for one am in far better position to follow my dream than a rat who wants to work with humans. Like a fable, the movie does some exaggerating to make its point, and therein lies the second analogy that I use to empathize with Remy. But the film’s message, that “a great artist can come from anywhere,” never ceases to be tremendously encouraging. As a side note, I also find a connection with Remy because of his family. I, too, am well-acquainted with those who settle for garbage while I attempt to study the great chefs. This is me patting myself on the back a little, but it’s also an admission of a cause of some frustration for me.
4. George McFly (Played by Crispin Glover) in Back to the Future (1985)
I never actually went to a public school, so permit me some speculation as to how it may have gone had I not spent my entire youth in one protective bubble or other. Certainly, I can see myself getting bullied and lacking the self-confidence to overcome that. George and I are also both writers who have, at times, hesitated to show others our work. Having more assertive friends and mentors can be a big help. As far as I know, I haven’t met any time travelers, but that’s the only truly significant difference between George and me. There are other details about the character that I appreciate, including the science fiction/comic books/general nerdiness, the awkwardness around girls, the occasional malapropism, the lankiness. Attending a small Christian high school, as I did, is a pretty different experience from a public school, but there are plenty of ways that adolescence is the same for all of us. It’s a life stage recent enough for me to still feel a major connection with it.
3. Gil Pender (Played by Owen Wilson) in Midnight in Paris (2011)
There’s a distinction that can be drawn between screenwriters and filmmakers. Different writers will have different situations, but by and large the writer is simply the instigator of the film. He or she will be required to step aside and let the director, cast and crew mold the story to their liking. So, although Gil in Midnight in Paris is a successful screenwriter, I don’t see my selection of him as purely wishful thinking, since I have higher ambitions than what he has accomplished when the film begins. Anyway, I said I’d fudge the rules here a little. It’s Gil’s personality and opinions that I most identify with. There’s the conflict between art and commerce, with Gil wanting to be part of the former while settling for the latter. Most important to the film, though, is Gil’s nostalgia. Gil romanticizes a past he never actually experienced and bemoans that he was “born too late.” I have often wondered about living in different periods of history, when my personality would perhaps be more appreciated. But thankfully, the movie points out the holes in this thinking. Ultimately, I’m becoming happier with my own era. The “Woody Allen” archetype is one I’ve often felt empathy for, but I chose this particular manifestation of it for how specific it is to the kind of person I’d like to be, and already am in some ways.
2. George Bailey (Played by James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Thwarted ambitions. Frustrated plans. The possibility of never watching your dreams come true. My dreams are not small. I want to have influence, to make great things and be remembered for them. The hard lesson that It’s a Wonderful Life teaches is that it’s more important for the people you love to remember you than any abstract idea of “the world.” I see God in this film more than most of the movies I’ve ever seen. He has plans for our lives that we may know nothing about. But they will end up better than our dreams; that’s the hopefulness of the film’s conclusion. Of course, I’m far from the stage of life in which George Bailey finds himself here. But I can certainly imagine things going similarly for me, especially since I’m currently working with my family while dreaming of something else. That job isn’t something I’m going to be “stuck” with indefinitely; we don’t have a Mr. Potter. The point is, this movie applies to any “mundane” employment. I take great comfort in the fact that George finds a way to be content and truly happy, even if it takes divine intervention to get him there. This movie goes to dark places, much darker than I have as yet experienced. So maybe it’s preparation for what’s to come, should my ambition fail. Having seen the movie annually for much of my life, I can count myself well-prepared.
1. Barry Egan (Played by Adam Sandler) in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
A surprising choice? I don’t compare myself with Adam Sandler very often, but I think of this film, Punch-Drunk Love, as quite possibly the only bright spot in a uniquely horrible film career. But the simple reason that I put Barry Egan atop the list is that he inspired it in the first place. I saw the film for the second or third time a couple weeks ago and found myself liking it a lot more than I had before. The film is defiantly offbeat, but in all the best ways. And I find myself loving everything about Barry, warts and all, because some of those warts are my own. Here is a quiet, awkward, but good-hearted soul with considerable passion bottled up inside that occasionally explodes in violent anger. Bullied by his family (in ways I’ve never experienced, by the way, but that I can sympathize with, being always ready to take it on the chin), he finds himself isolated and to some extent ignorant about the outside world. The whole film is about the struggle to connect with other people, to have the strength and courage to share oneself. Barry meets a woman who’s willing to draw him out, which is the best thing that could ever happen for him. As I again look over my top four, I see just how important the love of a good woman is to these guys — Barry most of all. We really do need each other in this world, and although Barry’s attempts to connect lead to more pain at first, they show the promise of culminating in a much richer life. I’m looking forward to that.
(UPDATE [October 2012]: I’ve had some further thoughts on this subject, questioning the concept that a movie is only as good as its characters are “relatable.”)