The Great American Anti-hero

On this day of Thanksgiving for our American readers we thought what better an opportunity to take a look at that greatest of American traditions, the anti-hero. While the character-type may not have been strictly an American invention, with the roots of the character stretching back through all mediums and iterations of story-telling as far back as Shakespeare and the holy books, as is the case with many an American speciality they re-apropriated and completely defined the type, with the best acting almost as some kind of reflection, or mutated take on the American Dream.

We’ll be making a thorough analysis of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in the coming days, with that film featuring many of the ideas and narrative notions discussed below. Think of this as a warm-up.

The Snapper Kid – The Snapper Kid of D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers Of Pig Alley makes for the ideal barometer of just how much the American filmmaker pushed the medium forward, and how quickly too. At the fore of a short feature that brought with it fresh developments in narrative technique stands a figure as complex as the developments being made behind the camera. As the kid interacts with those on screen, what once was clear cut and downright bad becomes more mute, with Griffith’s key decision perhaps being to introduce an even bigger bad in to the mix, diluting the impact of The Snapper Kid and muddying the lines somewhat. By pictures end the audience doesn’t know whether to root for him or call the cops, and a new age of cinema was borne.

Charles Foster Kane – Painfully obvious, and one we were keen to omit for reasons of such, but alas any list of the great and complex would prove empty. Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane is perhaps the ultimate jigsaw of a character, his narrative arc a puzzle and one that has proven eternally appealing. One might even argue that as it was the influence of Citizen Kane that led to the Nouvelle Vague, and that it was the Nouvelle Vague that led to the New Hollywood, that Welles’ hand was played much further and more directly than a glance may suggest.  

Josey Wales – Clint Eastwood  No genre defines, nor is defined by, the anti-hero better than the Western. The adaptation of the wilds in to the hospitable encapsulates everything that America stands for, while Eastwood’s finest hour acts as the perfect encapsulator of the late 70’s. Vietnam and Watergate, trust and the authorities, inform Eastwood’s film, with his first truly post-modern look at the Wild Wild West. Eastwood would later revisit the character the post-post-modern Unforgiven. Audiences couldn’t move in the 1970’s for such ambiguous figures, with the effects of the post-Bonnie & Clyde New Hollywood, itself steeped in a chaotic political age, dictating that anti-authoritiarion was the mood of the times. 

Bobby Green – Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray have collaborated on a number of works in this key over the past 12 years, with this low-level gangster afforded due conflict thanks to his dual-identity as the son of a distinguished police lineage. Green makes for that poetic, complex anti-hero that is so often the kind lost in the modern cinema due to the necessity of fireworks and grandstanding. Old-fashioned yet similarly contemporary and refreshing.

Daniel Plainview – Paul Thomas’s work has long played on the subversion of character archetypes, and yet one stands all others, even if it is largely because he’s the closest Anderson has ever come to a linnear protagonist (as against the mass of ensembles or duos that much else of his work revolves around). Daniel Plainview is a behemoth of a figurehead, channeling Faust, Kurtz and Kane to create one great, big, bastard vision of America.

Jackie Cogan – The name itself says it all. Jackie Cogan. It rolls out of the mouth. It’s the sort of character name that pulp novella writers come up with, and indeed one did here. George V. Higgins, the man behind Killing Them Softly, also wrote The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, the novel on which the Peter Yates-Robert Mitchum was based. Cogan is here over Coyle for a number of reasons, not least because of the way in which the character is double-barreled in a sense: his directorial influence (courtesy of Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik) sees the character become a  modern day retooling of the archetypical western figurehead, with the casting of Brad Pitt, an actor whose portrayed more than his fair share of anti-heroes, giving the character yet another level of subtext. 


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  1. Looking forward to reading your analysis of Heaven’s Gate.

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