Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Unlikeable Characters

I'm just going to pretend that it hasn't been months since the last time I posted, and that I haven't been neglecting this blog. A lot of life stuff is happening, but I don't really want to talk about all of that right now. Right now I want to talk about something I've been noticing in my reading lately.

One of my least favorite things about being pregnant is the fact that I can't sleep very well. I wake up several times a night and then sometimes it takes me a long time to go back to sleep - sometimes it's because I can't get comfortable, sometimes it's because the baby thinks that 3:00 a.m. is the perfect time for some strength-training exercises. During this time, I usually obsess about everything I have to do at work, or money, or whatever else is worrying me. But last night I started thinking about unlikeable characters.

You see, I just finished reading "Remains of the Day," by Kazuo Ishiguro yesterday morning. Then last night I watched the movie "Rampart" with Woody Harrelson. And I disliked the main characters in each so much.  The confusing thing is that I liked the book, but disliked the movie. I'm still trying to figure out the reason for my different reactions to these unlikeable characters. Maybe it's because I like Kazuo Ishiguro more than Woody Harrelson. Maybe it's because "Remains of the Day" is a book, and "Rampart" is a movie. But I think it might be a bit more involved than all that.

Woody Harrelson plays veteran LAPD officer Dave Brown. He sees himself as the last renegade cop who's out there just trying to make sure the good guys win. But he doesn't fit in with the new culture of the LAPD - what he sees as over sensitive, too politically correct police officers who are more and more concerned about police brutality lawsuits, and less concerned with getting the crooks. He gets in trouble for a couple things - like beating the crap out of a guy who crashes into his car, and killing a couple of guys who were robbing a poker game (which, oh by the way, he was trying to rob too).

I don't dislike Dave Brown just because he's a bad cop. There have been plenty of movies where I liked the bad cop character - Training Day is the first example that comes to mind. Dave Brown just can't do anything right. He's a terrible father, a terrible husband, a terrible cop and a terrible person. Absolutely no redeeming qualities. But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is that he lacks self-awareness. He doesn't realize that he's a bad guy. He thinks the world is out to get him and that he was dealt a bad hand with his daughter is so angry. When his daughter tells him that he's hurt her and her sister, he is genuinely surprised. He can't understand why they don't know he loves them. But all he does is push them away, belittle things that are important to them and treat their moms terribly.

The bad cinematography aside (someone was trying a little too hard to be artistic and make a statement with images), this movie might have been really great if there had been any sort of resolution, or even a moment of self-realization on the part of Dave Brown. There was nothing. I was so angry when the movie just ended, feeling like I wasted my time. Woody Harrelson's acting was so great, and this movie had a lot of potential. I wanted to like it. I think the real problem with this movie was the plotting. There was no arc. No climax. It just ended on the edge of a cliff, and with no change in the main character's way of thinking or looking at the world. He didn't learn a darn thing. He remained stubbornly obtuse, and I still don't like him.

As for "Remains of the Day," Kazuo Ishiguro gives us another unlikeable character who is similarly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. Stevens is the butler of Darlington Hall, a great English estate. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as Stevens is on a sort of road trip through England. (I saw the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson a number of years ago, and what I remembered from that viewing was the love story between the butler and the housekeeper. But there was so much more to the story this time around. Of course, this could be the difference between the movie and the novel, but I'll have to watch the movie again just to be sure.)

Stevens is an unlikeable character, specifically because he is the perfect embodiment of everything he wants to be. He is dignified and proper and basically nothing else. To him, dignity means keeping one's composure no matter what the situation, and maintaining one's professionalism at all times. In describing to the reader his idea of dignity, he tells stories of great butlers (including his distinguished father) handling uncomfortable situations, like finding a wild animal in the dining room, or dealing with overly drunken house guests. Stevens actually realizes his dream of perfect dignity during a large gathering at Darlington Hall one evening, when he succeeds in handling everything professionally in spite of the fact that his father died right in the middle of the evening.

But what Stevens can't figure out is that his "dignity" also makes him an inhuman shell. Rather than being of comfort to his father in his last moments, or returning the love that his father expresses to him he simply excuses himself saying he has things to attend to. This "dignity" to which Stevens is always aspiring is really a defense mechanism. We see him deploy it on many occasions with Miss Kenton. He can never let her see how he really feels, or what he really thinks.

I might as well warn you that there are spoilers here. The novel is really two parallel stories - the relationship (or lack thereof) between Stevens and Miss Kenton, and the downfall of Lord Darlington. Stevens cannot let himself get close to Miss Kenton, no matter how much she tries to build a genuine friendship. His defenses go up every time they get anywhere near some sort of intimacy. She teases him, he gets defensive. She tries to bring him flowers, he forbids her to enter his office. She lets her guard down, his goes up more. The best he can do is admit to himself that she is very professional and is good at her job, but he never says this to her. Instead, when he gets defensive, he nitpicks at her job performance.

As for the Lord Darlington story line, Stevens always defers to his former master, whom he respects a great deal. Until the end of the book, he denies that Lord Darlington did anything wrong other than attempt to bring about peace in Europe. Lord Darlington's actions were only ever out of gentlemanly and honorable intentions. Of course, it's easy to see later on that getting involved with Hitler's most trusted confidants was probably not the best idea, but Lord Darlington only wanted to facilitate peace and keep things civil, as any respectable gentleman would do.

Stevens spends a great deal of the book standing up for and defending Lord Darlington's actions, but he betrays his true inner feelings in a couple of instances where we see he wants to distance himself from Lord Darlington. He denies having been Lord Darlington's butler on two separate occasions. He meets several people on his travels, and does not correct them when they presume he is a gentleman himself. He does not identify himself as working for Darlington Hall if he does not have to, etc. But even to the reader, he will not admit that these deceits are related to embarrassment or shame at being associated with someone who has become a national disappointment and disgrace. It's because of dignity. It is beneath his dignity to reveal anything personal to strangers, or to discuss his past with people, or to embarrass someone because they misunderstood something. This is all very convenient and allows him to deceive himself - but the reader is not fooled.

Occasionally, Stevens will admit to having made a small mistake. After Miss Kenton receives word of the passing away of a close relative, he leaves her crying in her office and realizes he forgot to offer his condolences. He worries about this all day, but when he finally has another opportunity to express his feelings, he instead picks a fight with her about some trivial housekeeping matter. Similar things happen on several different occasions, and this is why the two of them never actually hook up. It's such a perfect situation. They clearly have a lot in common, and there is certainly chemistry. But though she makes herself available and is obviously open to a relationship and makes several efforts to that end, he is too dignified to entertain the idea.

So, like Dave Brown in "Rampart," Stevens is stubborn, stuck in an old rut, has failed to evolve with the times, fails to be honest about the mistakes he will admit, and makes mistake after mistake, without realizing it. Both characters are obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. Neither can be honest with himself. Neither can be honest with the other people in their lives. Both are terrific at their jobs - Stevens runs a flawless household, Dave Brown rids the streets of as many bad guys as possible. Both are unlikeable. So why do I feel so differently about both of them?

I think it's because of one single paragraph towards the end of "Remains of the Day." Stevens has gone on a long road trip to see Miss Kenton to see if she wants to come back and work at Darlington Hall. When they meet, there is finally a conversation where the feelings between them are addressed by Miss Kenton. She says something simple along the lines of "we could have had a future together." (Sorry, I don't have the book with me, and I can't look up the exact quote right now.) Stevens' internal reaction to this statement is perfect. He admits to himself (and the reader!) that in that moment his "heart was breaking." In that one sentence the reader is treated to a single glimpse into Stevens' soul. Not only does he have one (he's not a robot!), but it is a good one! He has regret, he has sorrow and pain. For a moment he realizes that his life could have been so different, so much fuller. In that one second he admits to himself that he maybe hasn't done everything right. For a moment we feel that pang of regret with him and we can finally empathize with him. Of course, on the outside, he remains stoic and "dignified" and does not reveal this inner turmoil to Miss Kenton (now married and with a new name, but again I don't have the book with me, so I can't remember it).

If there had been one single moment like this for Dave Brown, I think I would have liked the movie "Rampart" a lot more. I just wanted one hint that he had regret for some of the things he's done. I don't need him to be sorry that he killed a date rapist or that he killed and stole from thieves. But I did want him to be aware of how his actions affected his family and friends and others around him. I don't need to know everything that happens to him in his life. I don't need to know if he was eventually convicted or at least fired. But if there's no plot resolution to the film, then it exists solely as a portrait of Dave Brown's character. And it's an incomplete portrait at that. I think that's why the movie failed for me.

Any thoughts? What do you think about unlikeable characters?

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