Monday, March 23, 2009

Ten favourite movie characters

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy tagged me for the Favourite Film Characters meme. The rules are simple:

1) Name 10 film characters that are your favourite and explain why. We aren’t talking about the actor who played them. Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes or Bond may be your favorite filmic sight on screen but you may hate the Mel Gibsons, Basil Rathbones or George Lazenbys who’ve played them. Of course no one’s stopping you from mentioning your favorite players if you like.

2) Tag 5 more film bloggers when you’re done, e-mail them, let ’em in on it, link back.

3) Read their posts and enjoy!

My immediate reaction was to rub my hands in glee. Lists are fun, and these kind of entries usually write themselves. A nice indulgent little post, I thought, before I get back to some proper writing in the shape of a seven-film Buñuel-fest to round off this month on The Agitation of the Mind.

I drew up a list in no time. Then I realised I’d completely overlooked the remit. I’d focused on great performances, not characters. My first choice, for example: Eli Wallach as Tuco in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. A magnificent, grungy, deliciously amoral barnstorming performance. But when I see the film, or think about it, I think of Eli Wallach as Tuco. Likewise I think of Sean Connery as Bond, with Daniel Craig running a close second. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, Rita Hayworth as Gilda. All great characters, but characters who are a product of the actor playing them.

So I set myself one cast iron rule: characters I think of purely as the character, not as the actor playing them (the first name that sprang to mind was Colonel Kilgore; I had to remind myself that Robert Duvall played him). Or an actor who can appear in many other movies but for me will always be that one character (so when I see Richard E. Grant mugging it in ‘Hudson Hawk’ or morosely underplaying in ‘Henry and June’, every fibre of my being wants Withnail to break cover and demand the finest wines known to humanity).

I had my first two. So – with a cry of “fork it!” and a blast of Wagner – here’s the line-up:

Colonel Kilgore, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Coppola’s genius was to take the original journey-into-the-heart-of-the-unknown/crazed-white-man-goes-native psychological nightmare (Joseph Conrad’s quietly terrifying ‘Heart of Darkness’) and transpose it to the Vietnam war, shoot it full of hallucinogenics and let it fumble its way upriver to a soundtrack of The Doors and Ride of the Valkyries. (In composer heaven, Richard Wagner has probably spent the last three decades mooning Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and going “Who the man? Who the man?”) War as futility; war as madness; war as a bad trip. And in the middle of all this, a surf-loving, Wagner-loving demented fucking lunatic in a cowboy hat, stripping his shirt off to go surfing as incendiaries explode around him. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” is one of the most oft-quoted lines in American cinema, and yet it’s just one line in a speech as memorable and beautifully rendered as Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” musings or Rick Blaine’s “maybe not today maybe not tomorrow” soliloquy. When the mad bastard says “some day this war’s gonna end” there’s such sadness in his voice you almost feel sorry for him. Then you check yourself and remember to feel scared.

Withnail, ‘Withnail & I’. Work-shy, egomaniacal, sarcastic, bitter, sometimes spiteful, a drama queen with an acute drink problem, demonstrably ineffective people skills and a hyperinflated sense of both his artistic abilities and his social credence, Withnail is a prime candidate for an exhortation of “get a life, you twat” followed by a swift exit from the cinema or a changing of channels. Really, you ought to. But the fact is, and it’s a nigglingly horrible fact to analyse too deeply – let alone accept – the fact is, Withnail is a lot closer to who we (primarily men) really are. It’s all too easy to identify with him. How many of us have sounded off at some point (“what fucker said that?”) only to bottle it (“I have a weak heart, if you hit me it’s murder”) rather than duke it out? How many of us have made with some drunken rebuttal, delivering it as if we were Olivier doing Hamlet, only to be less-than-cordially escorted out of the drinking establishment in question? And yes, in my bachelor days, concentrated drinking and an inattendance to the kitchen were definitely in evidence. Not that I ever found a rat scurrying around in the kitchen, but if I had the fucker would have rued the day …

Colonel von Waldheim, ‘The Train’. Only two movies had ever had me cheering on the Nazis: ‘The Sound of Music’, where I’ve been known to yell impotently at the screen “They’re in the cellar; lob a grenade!” and ‘The Train’. This is an almost cheat (as is my next choice): I love the actor so much, and the performance is quite brilliant, but it’s also a complete immersion of actor into character. Which is a poncey way of saying that it’s half a great performance and half a fantastic character. Besides, it’s my list so what the hell? From the off, Paul Scofield gets under the skin of Waldheim. Like Kilgore or Withnail, he’s lacking in redeeming features (in fact, he makes Kilgore look like a chilled out doper). His one virtue is a love of art. And it doesn’t matter who dies for it. When he explains himself at the end – “The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. These paintings will always belong to me or a man like me” – it should sound callous. It doesn’t. What he’s done is perfectly understandable and the fact that Labiche, his nemesis, can’t come up with a counter-argument and just pulls the trigger instead leaves Waldheim perversely vindicated.

Gustav von Aschenbach, ‘Death in Venice’. Full disclosure: Dirk Bogarde is my favourite actor. This is a borderline outlawed entry in the list, since I can’t help but think of ‘Death in Venice’ as a film starring Dirk Bogarde instead of a film about Gustav von Aschenbach. And yet the great man’s performance goes beyond mere acting. At the start of the film, he wears Aschenbach around him like a mourning suit. By the end, he has stripped away layer after layer of Aschenbach’s brittle detachment and laid open the all-but-dessicated heart of the character. This is how Bogarde describes the experience in his memoir ‘An Orderly Man’: The five months of work on ‘Death in Venice’ had been the hardest I had ever known for stress and mental strain; daily I had struggled with a personality … who had overwhelmed me to such an extent that every single function I performed in my daily life was as he would have done. I was never without his influence at any time, even in sleep.

Captain Renault, ‘Casablanca’. I took my wife to a Valentine’s Day screening of ‘Casablanca’ a couple of years ago and was amazed, queuing for our tickets, when she said she’d never seen the film before! Afterwards, she came out with the best summarising comment I’ve ever heard on ‘Casablanca’ (although one that’s not likely to guarantee her membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences): “Rick was okay, lassie [Ilsa] got on my nerves after a while, but Captain Renault was great. Yeah he was sleazy, but he was great.” In less than twenty-five words, she’d nailed both the essential problem I’ve always had with ‘Casablanca’ and the reason I love it so much. I don’t, if we’re being completely honest, give a crap whether Rick and Ilsa get back together, have to part, get on a plane, don’t get on plane, whatever. The “maybe not today maybe not tomorrow” speech is immortal – it is to film what “to be or not to be” is to theatre – but it’s “round up the usual suspects” that puts the biggest grin on my face. ‘Casablanca’ is a film where Humphrey Bogart is Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet is Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre is Peter Lorre and Ingrid Bergman looks utterly lovely but way overdoes the trembling bottom lip … and where Captain Renault just happens to be played by Claude Rains and is lecherous, amoral, mercenary and so smooth, charming and likeable that Hannibal Lecter comes off as a stevedore with Tourette’s syndrome by comparison.

Okay, five characters in, all male, very few redeeming features. I’m starting to worry what this list says about me. Let’s have a breath of (non-cynical) air next and spend a few minutes with …

Kiki, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. Animation is perhaps the most effective cinematic form for appreciating a character as a character and not an extension, or a clever manipulation, of the character who plays them. Granted, many animated films have famous voices behind the drawings, but I’m not thinking of Christian Bale when I watch ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, or Patrick Stewart in ‘Steamboy’. Kiki, in the English language version, was voiced by Kirsten Dunst … when she was much younger. So I don’t hear the Dunst of ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Elizabethtown’. I hear Kiki. ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ isn’t my absolute favourite Miyazaki film, but I’m often more caught up in the sheer visual poetry of his work than I am by individual characters. Kiki I love for her innocence, optimism and exuberance. If this had been a Disney or a Dreamworks production, she’d have been an annoying self-satisfying little brat. Miyazaki, however, with his impressive ability to conjure child protagonists without being condescending about them (as well as his almost feminist sensibilities) delicately breathes life into Kiki. A truly lovely character in a playful, poignant and life-affirming film.

Amelie Poulain, ‘Amelie’. A kind of chic/kind of kooky (but just the right balance), eminently French, grown-up version of Kiki who it’s okay to fancy. Christ, did I just type that? Seriously though, after my wife I can’t think of anyone I’d rather share a crème brulée with.

William Munny, ‘Unforgiven’. “You’d be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children?” “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” When I watch the Dollars trilogy, I see Clint Eastwood. When I watch ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, I see Clint Eastwood. ‘Hang ’em High’, ‘Pale Rider’, ‘High Plains Drifter’: Clint Eastwood. When I watch ‘Unforgiven’, I see William Munny … and I see regret, remorse and the death of the old west carved into every line on his face.

Les Grossman, ‘Tropic Thunder’. Picture yours truly in the cinema: after half an hour wondering “who’s that guy playing the brass-balls Hollywood producer?”; after an hour thinking “he looks kinda like Tom Cruise if Tom Cruise really let himself go”; an hour and a half later checking the end credits and thinking “fuck me, that was Tom Cruise”. For the record: I’m not a Tom Cruise fan. In fact, more often than not, he annoys the hell out of me. In ‘Tropic Thunder’ – the most bitterly acidic self-reflexive film on the Hollywood system since ‘The Player’ (but with a shitload more laughs) – it’s his character who steals every scene. Grossman makes Hitler look like Mother Teresa, Saddam Hussein like Princess Di. “I want you to take a step back – and literally fuck your own face!” “Instead of ten million, how about I send you a hobo’s dick cheese?” “A nutless monkey could do your job.” Fantastic! And his bladder-looseningly funny end credits dad dance makes David Brent look like Darcey Bussell.

Gromit, ‘Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. A clay figurine. No dialogue. One of the most fully-rounded (and achingly sympathetic) characters ever created. Brian in ‘Family Guy’ has the cutting one-liners and that whole camp Noel Coward thing going on, but it’s Gromit who’d fetch your slippers and your paper and want nowt but a chunk of Wensleydale in return.

Yes, I rather think that list says something about me. My favourite film characters, and it’s only the ladies and the dog I’d care socialise with.

Now it just remains to hand on the baton (with apologies if they’ve already been tagged) to these luminaries of the blogosphere:

Moon in the Gutter
The league of cine-literate gentlemen at Out 1


Anonymous said...

For those who have seen Jean-Pierre Jeunet's romantic French film, here is some background information and the filming locations of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain in and around the Montmartre district of Paris.

À bientôt,
Alexandre Fabbri
Brasserie Alizé

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Hi Neil! I just realized that you tagged me for this after I was nudged again by someone else and wanted to say thanks for the invite. These meme things tend to drive me nuts since they feel like school assignments but I like the idea of this one.

You might be surprised by one of my choices since it's mentioned above but not included in your list!

I've been enjoying a lot of your posts about Bogarde since he's one of my favorite actors as well and I loved the fact that you included the tragic figure of Gustav von Aschenbach on your list.

On a side note a finally watched Damn the Defiant! recently and really enjoyed it thanks to the performances of the great cast. Nobody plays a nasty bastard as well as Bogarde!

Neil Fulwood said...

Alexandre - thanks for the comment. I enjoyed reading your guide to Amelie; I'd like to visit Paris in the not-too-distant future, and I'll be sure to refer to your guide when I do.

Kimberley - glad you share my passion for Bogarde. I find his career endlessly fascinating. John Coldstream's recent biography was superb. I'm planning another Bogarde fest later this year, concentrating on his matinee idol years. (I saw 'Damn the Defiant' a few years ago and it would be such an average film if it wasn't for Dirk relishing his sadistic role.)