Movie Heroes

Think about your five favorite movies and the main character in each. What are their goals? What kind of quest do they go on? Maybe some of these heroes have similar goals. “Kill the bad guy/save the day” and “get the girl” are popular ones. Do those goals tell you anything about yourself?

Some character goals are simple. If you look at most popular movies, it’s easy to tell what the character wants. In Jaws, for example (kill the shark/save the day), or American Pie (get the girl), the goals are clearly marketed to the audience even before the movie comes out. Often the goal is implied by the title (i.e. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Braveheart, Me, Myself and I, etc.).

“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is a great slogan for Star Trek. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. And who watches Star Trek? People who want to “explore strange new [fictional] worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” Compare this audience to the demographic watching The Place Beyond The Pines. Now look at the audience for Fast and Furious or G.I. Joe: Retaliation and you can plainly see a different set of moviegoers to match the goals of the heroes.

One of the best pieces of pop cinema is Goodfellas. Henry Hill immediately tells us that as far back as he can remember, he always wanted to be a gangster. And he gets to. He walks on the other side of the law until it’s about to cost him his life, and then he jumps into hiding, and back into square society. This is a fantasy a lot of us would love to live out, and it’s no wonder that movie is a classic.

Sometimes the goal of the protagonist is a little harder to figure out. What is Don Draper’s goal in Mad Men? It’s tough to say it in a few words. How about the characters in Glengarry GlenRoss? As a rule, the more words you need to describe the hero’s goal, the less people will go to the theater to see it.

However our tastes are formed, it’s impossible to say all the reasons we like the things we like. Joe Blow might be a natural-born lover of spy thrillers while John Doe might be a sudden convert to historical dramas after seeing Elizabeth. Trying to appreciate someone else’s top five list is tough to do and involves stepping out of our comfort zone.

Here are five of my favorite movies. The hero’s goal in a few of these is fairly straightforward but some of them leave me wondering about my brain.

2001: A Space Odyssey


8 1/2


Lost Highway

Imagine THAT

I tend to think of Art abstractly, as an idealized magical process. New things are created where before there was nothing. It generally starts with an idea or intuition out of which grows the impetus to create. Usually that first idea or an intertwining between two ideas comes with a great spark of enthusiasm that represents some sort of ecstatic truth. People would ‘get it’ perfectly if they could only feel exactly THAT.

But at the end of the day, art is something we perceive. I play a linguistic joke on myself when I talk about art without relating it to something in the world that someone is looking at, listening to, contemplating, or experiencing in some fashion. Creating something real that can bring others to that same ecstatic truth is Art. Artists attempt to elicit an experience or a process in their audience. But creating a worldly artifact that can be used by someone to achieve THAT is a process of its own.

Different art forms work differently this way. Some forms of art translate well into our everyday reality. For instance, if I think of a great idea for a book all I have to do is write the book (put words on page), publish the book (print/digital), and I’m done. On the other hand, if I come up with a great idea for a movie, I’ve got a lot more work cut out for me.

Literature, music, painting, and maybe dance are some of the most direct translations of an ecstatic idea, or THAT. In these art forms there is less process or activity for the idea to be lost or degraded. Each activity an artist takes to realize their ecstatic vision of truth takes the artist further from the world of ideas and closer to something that can be perceived by an observer. Even writing can dull the creative spark. Putting an idea into words is a challenge. A greater challenge is finding the right words and putting them into the right structure to guide a reader to a specific intuition.

This is the reason many serious artists don’t like to speak about their work. The ecstatic vision of truth doesn’t come neatly packaged in a few words, an image, or a soundbite. Usually it’s something numinous and mysterious, and the act of creating is the artist’s attempt to make that idea into something intelligible.

When a filmmaker is asked “What is your film about?” they better not have a snappy answer ready. If David Lynch could tell us what Lost Highway is about in one sentence, he shouldn’t have made it. Also, if it was that simple, we shouldn’t have spent 2 hours 25 minutes ingesting it. Fortunately the film exists as a process and a complete whole apart from any explanation. It opens up worlds of intuition for each observer to explore.

With film there are many distinct stages of creation, so the idea can get very far from THAT, the original creative spark. This can be a good thing because each stage demands its own creative treatment and different artists contribute their vision and talent to the final product. At the same time this can be a terrible thing because the successive stages of creation can dilute the power of the original idea. By the time the script is written, the crew and cast hired, the film shot, edited, blended with sound that’s been recorded, foleyed and mixed, and finally presented, the director might look at the screen and think, “This has absolutely nothing to do with my original idea.” The movie Bad Timing by Nicholas Roeg began with a straightforward script and was shot in a straightforward manner. Fortunately in the editing process they discovered a strange take on the material and the film became a beautiful example of non-linear storytelling. The finished product was surely closer to the original creative spark than Roeg expected from his linear script.

Film may be the most challenging art form because it contains so many types of art. Cinematography, production design, costume and make-up, sound recording, acting and more contribute to the overall essence put forth by the script, and this all must be wrangled by a director (who may or may not have written the script, and may or may not get it). The director ultimately, often unfortunately, answers to the producer. The producer is a business man who may or may not have any artistic talent whatsoever.

But film can be one of the most rewarding art forms because it is so absorbing. Film uses our aesthetic eye (like painting), our aesthetic ear and sense of rhythm (like music), our thinking mind (like writing), and our intuition (our own feelings), concerted to give us a two-hour experience, a process which hopefully will enrich us.

Of course, masterpieces in any art form stay with us forever. Good art shows us a vision of life we couldn’t seen without it. And whether we ever make it to exactly THAT, the process of discovery is the important thing.


P.S. Follow me on Twitter @EricRSchiller for my micro-blog book report on each chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s possibly the craziest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of crazy books.