Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Unlikeable Protagonist

Gillian Jacobs in Love
The new Netflix sitcom Love, which is produced by Judd Apatow, relies upon Apatow's usual stock comedy ideas.  Apatow believes that only bad behavior is funny.  So, in his desperate effort to get laughs, he is compelled to make sure that his characters never stop behaving badly.  You have your standard dickish behavior, which is contemptibly selfish and insensitive, and you have your standard asshole behavior, which is detestably stupid and incompetent.  Vulture's Margaret Lyons wrote, "[W]hen its characters teeter on the edge of genuine introspection, you can see the glowing potential within the show."  But the show choses instead to remain nasty by, according to Lyons, "poking at the worst parts of its characters' psyches."

Yet, these vexatious and unpleasant people are the protagonists that we are supposed to care about.  Defenders of this type of humor say that bad behavior makes a character human and, therefore, relatable.  But this behavior is usually so outrageous and contrived that it far from understandable, believable, or acceptable.  These are not common human flaws.  These are, instead, modern comedy flaws, which are something that inhabit their own reality.  Characters must behave in extremely strange ways to support the shock comedy, the gross-out comedy, and the cringe comedy.  Real people with real problems will not take front and center in an Apatow project.  So, Love involves the unpromising romance of dickish Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and asshole Gus (Paul Rust).

A character who is maddeningly awful is not interesting to me.  Gus has a compulsion to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Every time he opened his mouth, I found myself thinking, "Please don't talk."  It's a problem when a viewer doesn't want the lead character to speak.  Why, then, am I bothering to watch this?  It is understandable that critics and viewers have preferred to focus their attention on the show's supporting characters, whose good humor and humanity make them far more engaging.  Much of the series' strength come from supporting characters who aren't jerks.  The best thing that Vulture's Margaret Lyons could say about Gus and Mickey is that they are "surrounded by people who are lightyears more interesting."  Bertie (Claudia O'Doherty), Mickey's roommate, is sweet, decent and interesting.  Why can't we spend more time with her?

The bad first date trope typically presents very unreal problems.  But that is not the case this time.  Gus takes Mickey to The Magic Castle.  The air conditioning is too cold for Mickey, who asks to borrow Gus' jacket.  Gus explains that the theatre has a formal dress code and the ushers will likely throw them out of the theatre if he removes his jacket.  The problem here is real, but it is also real simple.  The air conditioner in this business establishment is on too high, which is causing a customer a great deal of discomfort.  It is clearly a problem that the theatre management has responsibility to solve.  If they are unable to solve the problem, the couple has no choice other than to leave the theatre and continue their date in a more hospitable environment.  But look what happens instead.

Bad decisions have bad outcomes.

I discuss the Three Stooges' poor problem-solving skills in my new book.  But the Stooges did not exist in the context of a serialized storyline.  The trio pressed a reset button at the end of every mishap-filled adventure.  Love asks us to follow these hopeless characters through a story that lasts more than ten hours.

Jacobs is an exceptionally talented actress who brings a great deal of humanity to her role.  This makes the character sympathetic even when the character shouldn't be sympathetic.  Jacobs allows the series to sometimes alternate between scenes of outrageously bad behavior and scenes of genuine human struggle.  Lyons wrote, "Jacobs's absorbing performance leads us to believe there's a full person under this fidgeting and posturing, but we don't get to see her."

Who can root for these two awful people to get together just so that they can make awful problems for one another?

TV Guide's Sadie Gennis spoke for many regular viewers of the Apatow-produced Girls when she observed that the characters in the show "often felt more like caricatures of monstrosity than watchable anti-heroes."  Slate's Willa Paskin noted that, despite the complaints about the characters' behavior in the first season, they behaved even worse in the second season.  She wrote, "The series became more obviously satirical and biting, sending up its heroines' increasingly outsized and repugnant behavior."  But this just doesn't seem like a send up to me.  What is it a send up of?  It can't be a send up of assholes because assholes acting like assholes is just reality.

Dunham acknowledged in interviews for Season 4 that it was time to "mature them a bit" so that the series' viewers "have a little more sympathy for their plights."  She essentially said that the characters needed to abandon their chaotic lives by relying upon "a little more wisdom" as opposed to "just pure emotion."  It is the most important part of being an adult to put logic before emotion.  But she didn't want the characters to mature too much because, she said, "it's still a show about girls who are constantly causing disasters."  It's a great comic disaster when Lucille Ball unintentionally gets drunk on the Vitametavegamin tonic.  But Ball found herself caught up in highly stylized and carefully constructed comic messes.  The disasters in Girls are aren't too wacky or too structured.  Girls presents real and recognizable lives in shambles.  It is simply girls behaving badly, which is most likely to inspire disgust and disapproval rather than amusement.

Did Dunham achieve her goal to make the characters smarter and more sympathetic?  Paskin wrote, "[Season 4] of Girls begins in what I think of as the ideal Girls weather: warm with a chance of abhorrent antics.  This stands in contrast to Seasons 2 and 3, in which the Girls weather was muggy with a 100 percent chance of an asshole hurricane."

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul

The viewer with the slightest sense of morality will feel emotionally detached from the repugnant protagonists that have come to dominate modern television.  It is no real surprise that viewers were relieved of late to have Better Call Saul, yet another asshole-hurricane, shift its focus from shady, undisciplined lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to Jimmy’s principled, caring girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).  Kim, very much a sympathetic character, is a perfect argument against the anti-hero.  A viewer's reaction to a story is greatly heightened when the viewer has warm and caring feelings towards a character.  A character who is set apart from a cable drama's dark machinations can serve effectively as an audience surrogate.  Kim, in particular, has served an important role in Better Call Saul's catastrophic and insane story about a Caine-and-Caine brother rivalry, a man with electromagnetic hypersensitivity who wears an aluminum foil blanket, and a psychopathic drug kingpin.  She has served as the series' moral compass and in this way has grounded the series.

The reactions to Kim assuming a larger role in the series have been enthusiastic.  The critics openly love Kim because, well, she's a good person.  She is a spring in a moral desert.  Typical of the recent comments about Kim have been "amazing run" (Donna Bowman, A.V. Club) and "stolen the spotlight" (Sean Strangland, Daily Herald).  Strangland wrote, "The MVP is Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, a resourceful lawyer who provides this show full of dubious characters with its moral center. . . It's fun to see Walter White's old enemies show up from time to time, but it's even better to see Kim Wexler every single week."  Katherine Recap of Fetchland wrote, "Once again Kim steals the show in the episode 'Inflatable' and wins our hearts all over again.  Mainly we’re happy because she teaches us an important lesson."  Gretchen Felker-Martin of Nerdly wrote, "Rhea Seehorn continues to deliver one of the most quietly exciting performances on the air.  Her smile when she thinks she’s won Mesa Verde is heart-stopping. . ."  It's fun to see Kim.  She wins my heart.  Her smile is heart-stopping.  It sounds for sure like love.  But Allison Keene of Collider has said it best:
In Season 1, Rhea Seehorn’s character Kim Wexler stood out for not standing out.  In a series with such bigger-than-life male characters . . ., Kim was a voice of reason and a refreshingly normal person. . . Kim is one of the major reasons Better Call Saul Season 2 has been so outstanding. . . Kim has become so much more than just Jimmy’s conscience. . . , and that is wholly thanks to Seehorn’s performance.  She’s a hero in a show where there aren’t many, and when it comes to hard choices she would always rather suffer the consequences then do the wrong thing.  But in no way does that make her boring or uninteresting or vanilla — one could even argue that she’s the most compelling character exactly because of these traits, and her exceptional dedication to what’s right.  She’s someone to admire and cheer for in a world that is so often morally gray.  Kim isn’t perfect, but Seehorn has made her one of the most unexpectedly fascinating aspects of an already great series, and has had an incredible season making her quietly become the heart and soul of Better Call Saul.
Daniel Swensen, author of the "Surly Muse" blog, defended the unlikeable protagonist (Read his full article here).  He wrote, "As long as I find their struggle compelling, I'll get on board with the most twisted, morally repugnant characters imaginable."  He added, "I've had many discussions about 'unlikeable' characters in movies and books, and whether or not 'likeability' is a prerequisite for engaging with a story.  Personally, I don't believe it is.  Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things."  He discussed his favorite unlikeable characters, including Darth Vader.  He explained:
I think "likeable" is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things.  For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals?  For most people, I'd venture to say probably not.  So what's likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind?  Well, I guess I've answered my own question here.
Darth Vader is no more likeable than your average Bond villain.  We can admire a Bond villain's genius, his power, his style, his way with the ladies.  The theme song to Thunderball extols the film's villain, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi).  Let me paraphrase the lyrics.  Largo runs while other men just walk and acts while other men just talk.  He will never stop fighting for what he wants.  He is the winner who takes all.  My favorite line: "Any woman he wants, he gets."  How could I not admire this man?  He's a go-getter.  He's a charmer.  He's a winner.

But, also, Largo kills people.  He kills lots of people.  I have to, in the end, oppose the man's moral values because I do not support the idea of others dying for his success.  As I watch the film, I want nothing more than for Bond to take him down.

Swensen is not the only one who isn't turned off by a really bad guy.  J. Gideon Sarantinos, author of "Gideon's Way" blog, wrote, "[Unlikeable characters] awaken our sense of rebellion, individuality, risk and determination to pursue our goals at whatever cost.  If we're that invested in such characters, they don't have to be totally likeable.  Audiences will root for them just on their boldness."

Root for a murderer?  A bad guy's boldness and rebellion is the kicking and screaming baby that we harbor deep down inside of our id.  At least, it should exist deep down inside of us as a well-developed ego and superego should be layered thickly over it.  I never indulge my id.  He's a little bastard.  You are wrong if you think that you can put your id on a leash and safely walk it around a park.  I prefer an uplifting film about a restrained, moral person than a downlifting film about a bold, villainous rebel.

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience, a new Starz series about the high-dollar escort trade, features as its protagonist a call girl who may or may not be a sociopath.  The call girl, Christine (Riley Keough), is definitely not the warm and cuddly sort.  She doesn't like spending time with other people unless she gets paid to do it.  The Verge’s Lizzie Plaugic wrote:
Keough’s portrayal of Christine is calculated, cold, and pristine, like a revamped Patrick Bateman [the mentally disturbed protagonist of American Psycho]. . . Throughout most of the series’ 13 episodes, Keough maintains the same dead-eyed stare almost without interruption.  Even moments of intense fear and paranoia are trumped by this blank look, as if Christine is terrified to feel anything other than a deadening emptiness.  This stoicism can also make Keough sound like an unintentionally comedic robot. ("I love vacations" is among the best/worst line readings on the show.)
Other critics have expressed respect for the character.  They see the character's lack of emotion and lack of morality as a form of empowerment.  The message, I suppose, is that our humanity makes us weak.  The character's remoteness is at times unsettling and always unpleasant.  Surely, a real-life escort is more personable than she is.

No critic who is respectful of Christine makes mention of an incident in which the escort is confronted by the wife of a client.  The wife (Marie Dame) tells Christine that she and her husband have children.  She says it will ruin their marriage if she keeps seeing her husband.  Christine doesn't show the slightest emotion.  Instead, she sees this as an opportunity to extort the woman for loads of cash.  It turns out costing the woman $10,000 for Christine to stop seeing her errant spouse.

Christine could not act more ruthless when she meets the woman at hotel restaurant and accepts a thick envelope of cash.  After the woman leaves, she raises a cocktail to her lips and we see her hand tremble a bit.  What is that supposed to mean?  We have seen this character do something unconscionable.  She exploited a distraught and desperate woman.  We are now meant to believe that, after the pitiless shakedown that we have just witnessed, she has a glimmer of feeling.  Today's television producers expect us to work hard to make a connection with a protagonist.   We need to dig through the characters' actions for meaning and relatability as if digging through pony shit to find the pony.  No little hand tremble will make me empathize with this greedy, cold-hearted woman.

Swensen also cited Norman Bates and Charles Foster Kane as examples of unlikeable protagonists that audiences find compelling.  Let us examine those characters further.

We don't know for most of the film that Norman Bates is a murderer.  We just know that he is a devoted son who is trying, in a sad and desperate way, to protect his mother, whose mental illness makes her severely dependent on him.

What does Kane do that's horrible?  It is implied that Kane's yellow journalism tactics encourage the United States to go to a war with Spain.  But the newspaper man's guilt in this matter is too vague and abstract to have a real impact on the viewer.  What else is bad about him?  Kane gradually stops talking to his wife at the breakfast table and turns to a mistress for attention and affection.  I am no fan of adultery, but this hardly makes Kane despicable.  I am sure that Kane would have maintained a loving relationship with his wife if he just knew how to do it.  This is his problem.  He desperately wants love, but he doesn't know how to get it.  We all need love and we don't always know how to get it.  It makes Kane a sympathetic character.  Can we come up with another bad act on his part?  Kane pressures an old theatre critic friend to write a favorable review of his mistress' singing debut.  This rates low on immorality scale.  The Internet is filled with favorable book and film reviews written by friends.

I can think of five instances when I find an unlikeable protagonist compelling.  Let me now list those instances.

  1. Can I learn from the character's mistakes?  This ties in to Mike Nichols' Closer (2004), which Swensen discusses in his article.  The film shows how cruelly and completely infidelity can destroy relationships.  An adulterer can be the biggest fool, but he might be of interest to the viewer.  Anyone who has experienced even a fleeting temptation to cheat on their spouse gets to see a make-believe character on screen cheat on his spouse and see where it leads.  If the character destroys their marriage as a result of his cheating, his story will serve as a cautionary tale and reinforce the viewer's faithfulness to his spouse.  "See," a man says to himself, "that's why I would never cheat on my wife."  The faithful spouse can even feel superior about being a true-blue partner.  I should admit that I tried to watch Closer as research for this article, but I couldn't get through more than fifteen minutes of the film.  Everyone looked and acted like they were starring in a perfume commercial.
  3. Let us consider the husband and wife who, in other foolish ways, screw up their marriage.  These characters can hold a viewer's interest if, again, the viewer believes it's possible to learn from the character's mistakes.  Sadly, most of us have love and we have lost.  It is something we want to avoid happening again if we can help it.  So, it can be useful to see a couple on screen struggle through relationship problems.  Even if these people are assholes, it just might be possible that they have something to teach us.  By teaching us how not to love, they might be able to teach us how to love.

  4. We might be curious about what makes this person the way they are.  The explicit objective of Citizen Kane is to dig into Kane's background to discover his motivations.
  6. The unlikeable protagonist's struggle can be compelling if we think there is hope for the character to become a better person.  We don't root for the character as much as we root for the character they might become.

  7. In the way that we root for the reward of the hero, we can root for the punishment of the villain.  This is the reason that so many people wanted to see The Sopranos end with Tony Soprano getting gunned down.
Understand that none of these examples involve turning a villain into a glamorous role model, which is something that I could never endorse.

More Kim Wexler characters, please.

"Eraserhead" Isn't So Weird

I am not a fan of self-indulgent and pretentious filmmakers who go far out of their way to make a weird film.  Aggressively weird films do not speak to me and are, in the end, a waste of my time.  But Eraserhead (1977) is amazing because, despite its extreme weirdness, it is an understandable and relatable film.  The film's director, David Lynch, wanted the film to reach people even though he knew not everyone would like or understand it.  Lynch said, "Each viewer gets a different thing from every film.  So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn't speak to them at all.  It's just the way it goes." 

This is a matter that was astutely discussed by Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson in an article for The Dissolve titled "The five-year nightmare of Eraserhead."  Phipps wrote, "[R]e-watching Eraserhead made me aware again of how personal Lynch's films feel, as if they were saying something the director had to say, even if it only makes sense to him.  And the wonder of Lynch's films is that they're clearly the work of a singular creator with no interest in watering down what he does for others, but they still find a way to reach so many people."

It is, in its own way, a man-child film.  The protagonist, Henry (Jack Nance), is a young man who stumbles forth on the difficult journey to maturity.  You can tell that Henry is outgrowing childhood faster physically than emotionally by a simple stock clue - his pants legs are too short for his legs.  Mike D'Angelo of A.V. Club wrote, "Attempting to describe Eraserhead tends to be an exercise in futility, but it's easiest to process as a young man's worst fears about impending adulthood.  The protagonist, Henry, whose vertical shock of hair makes him look perpetually alarmed, has just had a child with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart). . . Swaddled in bandages and looking more reptilian than human, the baby, or whatever it is, cries piteously day and night, resisting all efforts to be fed or comforted; Mary is so stressed out that she abandons the family, leaving Henry to cope as best he can."

Henry's facial expressions speak volumes to viewers.  Vulture's Bilge Ebiri wrote about "a permanent mixture of befuddlement and fear playing out on his face as he confronts responsibility, love, loss, and death."  The Dissolve's Scott Tobias wrote, "More crucial to Spencer's appearance, however, is his face, which is as easy to read as the action around him is wildly enigmatic.  Anxiety, discomfort, bafflement: That's the repertoire of expressions that settle around his eyes, and make Eraserhead identifiable as a character piece and a mood piece, no matter how far Lynch drifts into the avant-garde.  It takes time — and perhaps repeat viewings — to unpack the film's internal logic, but Spencer's basic fears of intimacy, fatherhood, relationships, and the hostility of the world around him are easily and intuitively understood."

Tobias noted that Eraserhead had a strong influence on the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991).  The two films do in fact have many similarities.  Eric Hoffman, a film critic with on-line magazine Mental Contagion, pointed out that Fink replaces Henry's reptilian baby with something else that needs care and nurturing: a script.  The blank sheet of paper in Fink's typewriter cries piteously day and night in a desire to be fed with action and dialogue. 

Most obviously, Fink was inspired by Eraserhead's bizarre sound design.  Tobias wrote, "Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year of the film's five years in production coming up with dense layers of noise that create a low-level ambience in one scene, and rise up to an overwhelming crescendo in the next. . . Beyond the howling wind, the driving force is the sound of machines: The hums and hisses of a radiator, the clanks and chugs of some unseen factory that seems to operate perpetually beyond the walls.  This is the relentless soundtrack of Spencer's life — and of modern life more generally.  It sustains (and frequently aggravates) the stress that dictates his waking hours, and the troubled subconscious that dictates his dreams."

How does Fink compare?  Vikram Murthl of Criticwire wrote, "The first thing that stands out in Barton Fink is the sound.  Skip Lievsay's eerie sound design coupled with Carter Burwell's score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that's slowly falling apart."

Henry lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant apartment building.  Fink lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant hotel.  Trapped within these ugly and alienating confines, the characters find themselves becoming claustrophobic and paranoid.  Kempley wrote of Fink's habitat, "There is the decidedly rank smell of brimstone in the air at the Earle (its slogan is "Stay a Night or a Lifetime"), the primary setting for this latest version of the Mephistopheles story.  It's 1941 in Los Angeles and a heat wave has settled over the city like a sticky gravy.  It's so hot the wallpaper is peeling off in Fink's room, the paste running down the walls in gooey rivulets.  That this is a leaky, living hell there is no doubt. . . The Earle is also alive with the sounds of night: the creaking of ceilings and the protests of bed springs, grunts, thumps, screams, wails and wheezing doors. . . A gurgling, heaving purgatory, it seems a most likely place to teach understanding and punish arrogance."

It is also possible that Lynch and the Coen Brothers were influenced by Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant).  Brian Eggert, the author of "Deep Focus Review Blog," wrote, "Polanski specializes in obsessions and madness, particularly those purveyed within a limited space. . . Each [of Polanski's trilogy] takes place in an increasingly confining apartment, the respective protagonists wary of neighbors, sounds, and the history of the building itself.  The walls seem to gradually close in and suffocate the interior, whereas the world inside their heads has long since gone mad.  These films each force the audience to question the reliability of the central character.  Is the world really out to get them, or are their fears a symptom of some mental malady?"  Film critic Will McKinley praised Polanski for "his artful juxtapositions of silence and ambient sound."  Chris Alfino of Chris Alfino's Film Blog wrote, "Sound design plays a critical role in the way suspense and fear are built. . . Polanski accentuates smaller sounds, sounds like the squishing noises of lips while people are talking.  He often mutes other audio tracks at the same time.  In such a way, he uses audio to effectively point at what he wants us to pay attention to, even more subtly using it to point at what isn't relevant in a scene (a sort of auditory ellipsis)."  Eerie sound design plays an important role in Repulsion (1965).  Catherine Deneuve embarks on her descent into madness during an early scene in which she finds herself repulsed by the sex sounds that filter through her apartment's walls.  Norman Hale of Movietone News wrote, "The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering."

It was the same with the other films of the trilogy.  Hale makes mention of "the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary's Baby." 

For the protagonist of The Tenant, the smallest of sounds can be unnerving.  He lies awake at night listening warily to the sounds of a ticking clock and a dripping faucet.

Sound effects often heighten the stressfulness of claustrophobic spaces in films.  This is evident in films as diverse as Alien (1979), Das Boot (1981) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016).  Would Alien's deadly hitchhiker be as scary without the blasts of steam, the hiss of respirators, or the blaring alarms that warn of the alien's attack?  Kelley Baker, author of The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide, said of Das Boot, "You care about the damn boat. . . You hear this submarine creaking, and you hear rivets popping off, and you hear all these sounds that the guys in the submarine are hearing.  And it's just like the submarine is a character.  And you want that submarine to get up.  You don't want these guys to die.  You want the submarine to survive all this. . . You want that submarine to live." 

Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show podcast thought that the interesting use of sound effects in 10 Cloverfield Lane made the film's claustrophobic bunker "seem almost like a living, breathing entity in and of itself."  She referred specifically to the "groaning and clunking [pipes]" and the "wheezing vents."

Like Henry, Fink is a man-child.  The Washington Post's Rita Kempley appropriately called Fink "a smug whelp."  Fink's understanding of the world, his perception of people and his insight into himself is grossly undeveloped.  Christopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, "Turturro's character is manifestly unlikable in almost every way: sanctimonious, patronizing, hypocritical, and utterly devoid of self-awareness."  Fink is a New York playwright who has come to Hollywood to write for motion pictures.  His first assignment with his new employer, Capitol Pictures, is to write a wrestling picture for gruff, beefy actor Wallace Beery.  As he struggles to begin his screenplay, he acts more like a child unable to figure out his homework than a professional writer.  He whines to anyone willing to listen about his painful struggle with writer's block. 

You can resolve writer's block in one of two ways.  First, you can free yourself to write anything that comes to mind.  It doesn't matter if it's good or not.  Don't judge, just write.  Chances are that, when you take a look at what you have written, you will find something onto which you can build.  Fink doesn't write a word.  Your other option is to get input from outside sources.  Fink intends to get help from novelist W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), but he gets so caught up in pontificating to the man about his lofty ideals that he never gets around to asking him about his wrestling script.  He should talk to his new friend Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who knows about wrestling and Wallace Beery movies, but he cuts off the man before he can tell Barton anything useful.  He could buy a wrestling magazine at the newsstand for inspiration.  He choses instead to dawdle like a lazy, irresponsible and unfocused schoolboy.  Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the president of Capitol Pictures, lets him know that he needs to "grow up a little."  Lipnick sees him as being as useless and helpless as a child.  "You ain't no writer, Fink," says Lipnick.  "You are a goddamn write off."

As it turns out, Fink's friend Charlie is a serial killer who decapitates his victims.  A severed head is likely in a box that he gives Fink to hold.  In Eraserhead, Henry finds that his wife's head has been torn off in a photograph. 


Later, Henry has a nightmare in which he is decapitated and his head is converted into pencil erasers.

Henry receives solace from a tiny imaginary mutant woman, The Lady in the Radiator. 


Barton receives solace from a lady in a photograph.

J. Martin Cassady Jr. noted on a discussion forum that, in each film, a character has problems with an involuntary discharge (puss leaking out of Goodman's infected ear in Barton Fink and blood dripping out of Nance's nose in Eraserhead).

The Coen Brothers have been very much focused on sound design since Barton Fink.  Unnerving sounds play a prominent role in their latest film, Hail, Caesar! (2016).  The plot centers on the kidnapping of Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).  The kidnappers drug Whitlock and carry him off to their hideaway.  Whitlock awakens in a storage room, stirred by jarring sounds seeping through a closed door.  First, he hears a vacuum cleaner, then he hears a barking dog.  In the very next scene, Josh Brolin attends a tense lunch meeting at a Chinese restaurant.  The occasional sound startles him.  A beaded curtain crackles as he passes through.  A filter pump in a tropical fish tank burps and gurgles.

This is the type of weirdness that I enjoy.

You can read more on the man-child in my new book.

Additional notes

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby (1968)
I realized as I researched this article that Rosemary's Baby has a couple of connections to The Shining (1980).  First, the two films both involve the unraveling of a marriage after the husband and wife take residence in a building that has a long and ominous history.  Jack Nicholson, who plays the husband in The Shining, was also considered for the role of the husband in Rosemary's Baby.  Polanski rejected Nicholson for a very good reason.  The husband is supposed to be corrupted by the various evil forces in the building, but the director believed that Nicholson had qualities that would make him come across as dark and sinister as soon as he appeared.  This is actually a complaint that many people, including The Shining author Stephen King, have expressed about Nicholson's performance in The Shining.  Polanski wanted an all-American boy-next-door type to play Rosemary's husband.  His first choice for the role was Robert Redford.  Polanski ended up with John Cassavetes, who ironically seems even darker and more sinister than Nicholson.  It is the one flaw of the film that Cassavetes seems to need little coaxing to betray his wife to a witches' coven.

Leigh Janiak said that Rosemary's Baby and The Shining were the main inspirations for the sad and creepy Honeymoon, which involved the unraveling of a marriage that occurs when a couple visits a creepy cabin.  It was one of my favorite films of 2014.

A more recent film that falls into this category is The Witch, which also has a family moving into a claustrophobic new home and then being set against each other by malevolent forces that plague the home.

My last observation is that the elevators in these films are creepy.

 Rosemary's Baby (1968)

 Eraserhead (1977)

Barton Fink (1991)


The Shining (1980)

Don't Let An Angry Mob Take Away My Art

"I thought how I hate any kind of mob - I hate mobs of sports fans, mobs of environmental demonstrators, I even hate mobs of super-models, that's how much I hate mobs.  I tell you, mankind is bearable only when you get him on his own."

― Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole

TV Land dropped The Cosby Show reruns after the media reported rape allegations against series star Bill Cosby.  Daniel Holloway of The Wrap wrote, "The Cosby Show has become a pariah on television."  Larry McShane of The New York Daily News wrote, "American's dad Bill Cosby was banished. . . to 'Can’t See TV.''  The mob that arose in the wake of this scandal demanded Cosby's blood along with every bit of vinyl, celluloid and video tape onto which the comedian had imprinted his voice and image.  

A mob with an unbridled fury for justice, at least what they perceive to be justice, is not more important than the law.  Today, the self-appointed justice league argues that it will serve society to convict Cosby as a rapist and throw him in prison.  But the strange and contrived path that has been taken to justify Cosby’s trial is something that should bother anyone who values court procedure.  It reminds me of what Eisenhower said when mobs protested the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate the public schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).  The President said, "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

The strategy of the activist mobs today is crude and childish.  It comes down to the same solution for everything.  You don't believe that the justice system will give you the outcome that you desire.  So, stomp your feet and scream.  You don't believe that the election process will give you the outcome that you desire.  So, stomp your feet and scream.  Never trust a mob.  A mob never thinks.  A mob only feels.  

The Cosby controversy brings up many issues that fascinate me - the conflict between mob frenzy and legal doctrine, the separation of art and artist, the distinction between coercion and consent, the worth of a cultural icon's legacy compared to the worth of social justice.  The least interesting aspect of the story to me is Cosby himself.

I am really here today to discuss the part of the controversy that has to do with art.  Sure, law is more important than the mob.  It is one of the most important principles of our government.  But, just as important, the furious mob is not more important than art.  As I get older, I find myself believing more and more in utilitarianism.  I believe, exactly as this doctrine holds, that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility.  Certainly, I must question if we as a society are losing more than we gain to pursue this matter.  This is about more than a man's guilt or innocence in a sexual assault trial.  It is about the substantial amount of art that this man has produced in the last fifty years.  We need to treasure our art and be careful with the way we tend to it.  In the process, we need for sure to separate the art from the artist.  It just might be that one is far more important than the other.

So, you don't think that Cosby was funny?  At a time that the Cosby story was first receiving extensive coverage in the news, another famous comedian fell under scrutiny for unsavory sexual activities.  The comedian was Charlie Chaplin.  David Harding of the New York Daily News wrote, "The guy really was a tramp, according to divorce papers from 1927."  Divorce papers that were drawn up nearly 90 years ago were discovered in an abandoned Los Angeles bank.  The documents provided the nasty details of Chaplin's divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey.

By Grey's account, 35-year-old Chaplin seduced her when she was 15.  As it turned out, Grey got pregnant, which is something that happens in these circumstances.  Chaplin demanded that Grey have an abortion, but her mother threatened to report Chaplin to police unless the couple married and had the child.

Harding wrote:
That union went ahead following a discreet ceremony in November 1924, but the troubled marriage lasted just three years and produced two sons.  The papers claim that Grey was forced to perform sexual acts that were illegal in California during the 1920s. . .  He also asked her to take part in a threesome with another woman.  She described Chaplin's actions as "revolting, degrading and offensive". . .  Chaplin allegedly told Grey that his requests were reasonable.  "All married people do those kinds of things," he said.  "You are my wife and you have to do what I want you to do."
Late in his life, Chaplin admitted to having had sexual relations with more than 2,000 women.  Yes, the man was a tramp.

Maria Puente of USA Today pointed out, "History is replete with artists behaving badly."  She observed, "Considering how long and how often it has happened, Western culture should find it easy to separate art from artist — to judge a particular work of art apart from the behavior, even reprehensible behavior, of its creator. . . "

Peggy Drexler, a Cornell University psychology professor, was even more emphatic on the matter.  She said, "Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we'd find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by.  It's possible we'd never see a movie, look at a work of art or read a book again."

Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in "The Good Life"

British actress Felicity Kendal said that she couldn’t be less like the loving and devoted wife that she played in 1970s sitcom The Good Life.  Kendal admitted to having a "dark side."  The twice-divorced Kendal said, "Look, the aura and sweetness has got bullshit all to do with my life. . . I always did have affairs when I wanted – it’s just how you feel at the moment. . . [The Good Life was] a short period 40 years ago but it’s extended to now because it’s on all the fucking time and it’s what people talk about. . . It’s quite flattering that I did so well people think it’s real.  But the character I played wasn’t me." 

This is yet another artist with a dark side.  This is yet another artist who is not what they appear to be.  I have more than once fallen in love with an actress because I loved a character that the actress played.  It could not have been more devastating to learn that Linda Carter didn’t go around in real life spinning a golden lasso or Lauren Graham did not really have a wisecrack for every occasion.  It could be disturbing to be smitten by an actress who played a thoughtful and loving woman on screen only to see her on a talk show and realize how flaky and shallow the actress was in real life (I will not name the actress because, even though my heart was broken, I have moved on). 

So, do we now initiate a ban on City Lights?  No work of art would be immune from this type of ban.  I have many Facebook friends who adore Laurel and Hardy.  What if a judge suddenly unsealed divorce papers for Stan Laurel and the papers included accusations of sexual misdeeds by Laurel.  Do we stop enjoying Sons of the Desert or Way Out West?

Greg Ferrara of Movie Morlocks wrote, "I remember hearing this choice nugget about The Exorcist, and still do, when the movie is brought up:  'Did you know it’s based on a real possession?'  Again, yes, I’ve heard that.  And, no, I don’t care.  What I care about is what is in front of me on the screen when I’m watching the movie. . ."  I feel the same way.  So, it doesn't matter to me if I am watching The Gold Rush with a friend and the friend says, "Did you know that Chaplin had sex with underage girls?"  I don't care.  It has no bearing on Chaplin eating his boot, which is pretty funny.

After the "Harry Potter" book series had finished its run, J. K. Rowling suddenly announced that Harry's headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay, which was information that the author had never passed to readers in any of the series' seven books.  Once the author made the announcement, fans rushed back to the books to see if this was just a fact they happened to miss.  But no amount of textual analysis has yielded the slightest clue that Dumbledore was gay.  A fan found that an anagram to Dumbledore's name was "Male bods rule, bud!"  The simple truth, though, is that, if it isn't on the page, it doesn't exist.

It's like if the man who painted this Paris cafe said that he imagined a man passed out in his own vomit in the cafe's bathroom.  It's not relevant.  All that is relevant is what I can see and the effect that this has on me.  The painting and an observer experience a personal one-on-one transaction.  The artist ceases to be relevant as soon as he washes off his brushes and moves on to his next painting.

It's like George Lucas coming back to the Star Wars films years later to insert new CGI effects, alter dialogue, and change music.  The fans were furious with Lucas.  As far as they were concerned, the filmmaker had no right to do this as the films no longer belonged him.  The films now and forever belonged to the fans. 

So, The Good Wife's Barbara Good was, in real life, an adulteress.  Forty years ago, Kendal stepped out onto a set and delivered a performance to the broadcast world.  Since that time, her performance has been aired innumerable times across the world.  An actor gives a performance to an audience, who immediately takes possession of it.  Barbara Good doesn't belong to Kendal anymore.  So, no matter if she left the set and screwed her brains out with a German Shepherd, it shouldn't have the least effect on the performance that she provided.

Cosby's records, films and television shows belong to the fans, who should only be concerned with what these works present to their eyes and their ears.  The exception to this is Leonard Part 6 and Ghost Dad, which Cosby can and should keep to himself.

No, please, let us separate the art from the artist.

Additional Notes: The Casting Couch

Everyone understands how the casting couch works.  An actress willing to trade sex for an acting role reclines on a couch in a producer's office and allows the producer to have his way with her.   Cosby's way, if the stories are to be believed, might have been stranger than most.

This is a couch. 

It is nothing more and nothing less than a couch.  As far as Hollywood tradition goes, it takes a naked young actress reclining across its cushy expanse to make it a casting couch.  So, to avoid impropriety, I recommend that a young actress keep on her clothes and submit nothing but her resume during an interview.

Rebecca Carroll of The Guardian wrote, "There is a convenient myth in the entertainment industry: 'the casting couch.'  As the myth goes, young women willingly sacrifice their virtue on this metaphorical piece of furniture to older, seemingly benevolent men who just need a little sexual encouragement to bestow their mentorship on the next big thing.  And, maybe, for some women that was true – but there has always been an uncomfortable whiff of coercion to the myth, and more than a little slut-shaming of the women who, willingly or usually less than willingly, found themselves on that couch."

Thandie Newton

Actress Thandie Newton began a six-year-long relationship with a 39-year-old director, John Duigan, after auditioning for a film at the age of 16.  She claimed to have been coerced into the relationship.  She said, "I was a very shy, very sweet girl.  I wasn't in control of the situation.  Would I have liked things to be different?  Sure.  But I can now value myself more for the way I got through it."

Newton was later given a lead role in Duigan's critically acclaimed film Flirting (1991).  The film put her into the spotlight and led to her becoming a star.  Newton became a director's girlfriend and the director launched her career in one of his films.  Was this trade or coercion?  Was this exploitation or love?  It was a six-year relationship.  It had to be have more complicated than a casting couch tumble.  It is also significant to note that this happened in Australia, where the age of consent for sexual activity is 16.  Newton acknowledges that Duigan broke no law, but she remains angry about the relationship and sees it no differently than the other instances of casting couch abuse that she had to endure.  She complained about a photographer who had her in a leather miniskirt bending over a desk.  Isn't that just Tuesday in show business?

Newton described in detail to CNN's Max Foster an even worse experience, which she regarded as "horrific."  She was at the time eighteen years old.  She said:
The director asked me to sit with my legs apart.  The camera was positioned where it could see up my skirt.  [He asked me] to put my leg over the arm of the chair and, before I started my dialogue, think about the character that I was supposed to be having the dialogue with and how it felt to be made love to by this person.  I was thinking this was strange.  Why would I need to do that?  But this is the director. . . It must be normal. . . I'm thinking, I was in a protected [environment].  There were boundaries.  Three years later, I was at the Cannes Film Festival.  My husband and I bumped in this rather drunk producer. . . who mentioned the director I had had this audition with, and he looked very sheepish and walked away.  My husband grabbed him later and said, 'Why did you start to say something and didn't?'  It turned out that the director, who had went on to make the film, used to show that video late at night to interested parties at his house.  A video of me touching myself with a camera up my skirt!
I do not know what this scene revealed that made it so special.  I don't know why a producer would think it was so extraordinary that he would have to show it to late-night visitors.  Flirting, which was made at around the same time as this audition, features a scene in which Newton spreads apart her legs to allow a young man to reach under her skirt.  The actress has done many explicit sex scenes in films.  If you want to see Newton stimulating sex, you don't need to belong to a secret underground society of film industry perverts.  You just need a subscription to Mr. Skin.  How was her touching herself between her legs out of line with her other acting work for the last twenty-five years?  You either want to preserve your modesty or you don't.

Newton was willing to act sexy in front of film cameras and was presumably willing to act sexy in auditions to prove that she could handle these roles.  I am confused, honestly.  I have tried my best to put myself into Newton's place at that audition.  The director asks me to play with myself while he points a camera down my pants.  Even if I am sixteen years old, I have to become uncomfortable.  I have to question if this is a necessary part of the audition.  So, I don't unbuckle my pants.  I leave.  Or, maybe, I am feeling unusually bold that day and I do see this as a necessary part of the audition.  So, I unbuckle my pants.  I make a choice.  It's not a grey area.  I imagine that Newton wanted to please the director to get a role in his film.  She, too, made a choice.  A person needs to take responsibility for the choices they make in life.

Was this outfit coercion or choice?

Was this outfit coercion or choice?
The average person doesn't care about the sleazy stuff that goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.  Even if they did, it is beyond their control to do anything about it.  As long as an aspiring actress is willing to sleep with a producer for a job, we will have the casting couch.  It is the choice of the starlet to sell her body for the possibility of fame and fortune.  Mickey Rourke said, "There's ways you get a job and ways you get a job."  The sleaziest proposition is just a proposition.  The starlet has the option of accepting or rejecting the proposition.

Kirsten Dunst, who worked with Newton in Interview with a Vampire (1994), was once asked in an interview if she was ever pressured by a director to have sex.  She said, "No.  I don’t give off that vibe.  I think that you court that stuff, and to me it’s crossing a boundary that would hinder the trust in your working relationship."  Feminists were infuriated with Dunst over this remark.  This was, in their minds, blaming the victim.  Her remarks were reshaped by angry bloggers into blunt and provocative statements.  It was claimed that, in essence, Dunst said, "If you end up on a casting couch, it’s because you were probably a slut to begin with."  Allison of dlisted wrote, "So, let me get this straight – basically she’s saying is that if you find yourself in a casting couch situation, it’s because you were asking for it?"  Some actors come into an audition with feeling that they'll do anything for the role.  That's the sort of desperation and vulnerability that is sensed immediately by a sexual predator.  But be strong and say "no."

You should never be harassed in any way when you apply for a job.  There's no question about that.  But I do not believe that an actress lacks control in the situation.  Keep your dignity.  Leave your resume.