Postmodern Cinema and the Death of the Hero

By Pollard, Tom | CineAction, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Postmodern Cinema and the Death of the Hero


Pollard, Tom, CineAction


Film heroes, or protagonists, fascinate and intrigue us today, just as they have since the invention of motion pictures. People never tire of reading or viewing narratives of heroic individuals struggling against overwhelming odds. Interest in heroes dates back to ancient times, when audiences flocked to Egyptian, Greek or Roman theaters and amphitheaters to attend plays featuring dramatic, tragic, or comic protagonists. Ancient audiences marveled at the deeds of Osiris, Perseus, Thesus, Heracles, and Odysseus as portrayed by amateur or professional actors. These early heroes eventually succeed, one way or another, sometimes by slaying dragons or other monsters. Just as often, though, heroes must slay other warriors instead of dragons, while at other times they must overcome far greater obstacles than these, including aliens, terrorists, and even entire armies in order to achieve their goals. Victorious, conquering heroes continue to evoke reverence and adulation today, whether they are military, sports, financial, political, or entertainment figures. In as far back as 1748 Thomas Morell wrote the familiar lines "See, the conquering hero comes! Sound the trumpet, beat the drums!"(1) echoing hero worship in his day. Many of today's heroes, by contrast, display flawed, all-to-human personas. Today's audiences increasingly encounter a very different category of heroes featured in films and television unknown in Morell"s era, yet the images projected by these media, as well as by fiction, poetry, and drama, reveal a flawed, doomed category of protagonists that I call "postmodern heroes."

The familiar "hero's journey" has long been mapped and plotted, as well as analyzed, psychoanalyzed, and deconstructed. Heroes and their deeds attract interest and attention whenever they are discussed or dramatized. Joseph Campbell, though, continues to be the one who most readily comes to mind regarding hero studies. Some writers and filmmakers adapted Joseph Campbell's stages of the mythological hero's journey that make their first appearance, according to Campbell, in ancient mythology and that continue to describe the adventures of contemporary film heroes. Stuart Voytilla, in Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films (Michael Wiese, 1999) adapts Campbell's stages to analyze the plot structures of fifty major films of the past. These stages, according to Campbell, include the "call to adventure," "refusal of the call," "meeting the mentor," "crossing the threshold," "belly of the whale," "atonement with the father," and "the road back," among others. Charlie Allnut's (Humphrey Borgart) refusal to assist Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in sailing the African Queen riverboat down the dangerous Ulange River for the purpose of torpedoing the German ship "Louisa," followed by his (reluctant) decision to go along, represents the initial reluctance of many modernist heroes. In this study we can find many examples of reluctant modernist heroes who go on to achieve dramatic victories against overwhelming odds--a scenario that in fact describes the plots of most Hollywood films. Audiences of these films expect to find rugged, determined, self-reliant heroes who, despite their initial recalcitrance, act in some way to protect society (or at least a particular segment of it) against dangerous villains who threaten mayhem and destruction. Over the past two decades, however, audiences have found themselves viewing films that increasingly portray quite different sorts of characters that fit the syndrome of the "postmodern hero." Postmodern cinema refers to neo-film noirs and angst-filled comedies as well as the ever-present blockbusters, where a new kind of hero is showcased--one who never quite achieves victory but ends up mired somewhere along Campbell's "road of trials." Instead of serving as great paragons of strength and determination, like Charlie and Rose in The African Queen, postmodern heroes are far more likely to be social misfits, outcasts, grifters, and losers, characters who usually end up blocked if not destroyed by powerful forces arrayed against them. …

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