Saturday, September 1, 2012

Losers Gallery

I like losers. Partly because I am one, but mostly because there is a heroic dimension to their feckless attempts at adaptation. That is, if there is an attempt at adapation. A keen disinterest in adapting to the world at all, à la “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski or Henry Chenaski in Barfly, is highly engaging material in and of itself, and supremely heroic.

Chaplin’s The Tramp was one of the first of a long line of losers to grace the screen. But the tradition is much older, and might well be compared to the role of the Heyókȟa in Lakota culture. The Heyókȟa was a contrarian, jester, satirist, or sacred clown whose antics and eccentric behavior were intended to subvert convention and open a space where people could be a little freer to be themselves. The intent was to provoke people into seeing things differently.

The loser is a modern day fool. In Shakespeare’s plays, such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, the fool is in fact a highly intelligent provocateur, mocking the lords and ladies with exquisite panache. But the contemporary fool, such as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski or Annie Walker in Bridesmaids, is a peculiar blend of intelligence and naiveté. They make assumptions about other people that open them to vulnerability and mishap. Losers appeal to our insecurities. We see ourselves in them. We feel ourselves exonerated. We feel more at ease about being ourselves and accepting our flaws. Losers are antidotes to the mania for achievement.

Movies about losers have a great deal to say about conventional ideas of success. Success in the industrialized nations is evaluated according to money and real estate. It is quantifiable. And toxic. Success according to these terms has nothing to do with our inner being. It destroys the spirit. This is what renders losers such magnificent heros. A comprehensive list of losers as they appear in the movies would merit an entire book. But here are few of my personal favorites:

Annie Walker
Annie Walker, the lead role played by Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, is not a classic loser, not a down and outer on the far margins of society, but assumes those dubious honors in the course of the movie. You don’t need to be a woman to feel Annie Walker’s pain. She’s lost her bakery store and her best friend is about to marry into serious money. Her primary competition as bridesmaid is an overachieving bitch named Helen Harris, III. Annie is neither irresponsible or incompetent. She is a bad judge of character (her no-strings-attached sexual relationship with the wealthy narcissist Ted (played by Jon Hamm) is empty and exploitative, but she is a fundamentally decent and capable person. Annie’s plight is familiar to anyone who has had to compete with douche bags and suffered one indignity after another.

Jeffrey Lebowski
The first time I saw Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) wander a grocery store in his bathrobe and write a check for 69 cents for a pint of milk, I thought, that’s me. That’s me up there on the screen. I don’t, however, have anywhere near Lebowski’s ambition to do nothing but smoke dope and bowl. That’s where he exceeds all my worldly and spiritual goals.

Henry Chenaski
Henry Chenaski, played by Mickey Rourke in Barfly, is based on the poet Charles Bukowski. I’ve never been much of a Bukowski fan, his poetry has always struck me as inanely one-dimensional and simplistic, but there have been times I enjoyed its candor and raunchiness. And I can’t help admire Bukowski’s (Chenaski’s) tenacious grip on sleazy, booze-fueled all-nighters of flagrant, Dionysian riot. The subversive undercurrent of Rabelaisian contempt for bourgeois respectability is a total delight throughout. I love every minute of this messy, delinquent movie.

I’ve been a non-practicing alcoholic for 22 years now. But I still fondly remember, and fantasize, the joys of sitting in a bar for hours at a time getting snockered. Alcohol is a very imperfect drug, to say the least, but if you want release from a world of tedious regimentation and appalling banality, booze is a pretty good legal high.

My favorite lines from Barfly:

Wanda: I hate people. Do you hate people?
Henry: I don’t hate people. I just like it a lot better when they’re not around.

Rob Gordon
It’s hard to feel too sorry for Rob Gordon (John Cusack), he’s actually kind of a cool guy, leading a fairly good life. His record store isn’t thriving, but he appears to be a safe remove from bankruptcy. High Fidelity is a movie about the pangs of rejection, and in that regard, I find all kinds of sympathy for Gordon. I know exactly what he’s going through. I know exactly how it feels to be rejected, and then endure the added pain of seeing our former partner couple with a douche bag. Life is funny that way. Why do ex-lovers, husbands, wives, always seek out such terrible people when they leave us? Is it the final stab to the gut? And why, if they’re the dumpers, are they the ones that are mad? Is their awful choice of partner a weird form of revenge, or a kind of self-punishing purgation for rejecting us? Or did we find ourselves partnered with a person we only thought we knew? High Fidelity brings this issue to the fore in the guise of Ian “Ray” Raymond, played by Tim Robbins. WTF, you think. Why this guy? Raymond is precisely the kind of guy your ex is going to end up with: a yuppie douche bag with a vegan diet and a copy of the Kama Sutra on his book shelf. Gordon is a prince by contrast. Though he is something of a cad. It is revealed that he once cheated on Laura, his beautiful girlfriend, played by Iben Hjeljle. Hard to sympathize with him on that account. But when Laura’s new romantic partner enters the store, it is all painfully familiar: the condescension, the smugness, the narcissism, it’s all there, played beautifully by Tim Robbins. Who wouldn’t want to leap over the counter and pound the shit out of this guy?

The real scene that emphasizes Rob Gordon’s full status as a loser is when he visits his colorful ex-girlfriend Charlie Nicholson, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is wealthy. Her friends are wealthy. When Rob enters her posh apartment, and is virtually ignored by the other guests, who ooze nothing but toxic, malignant narcissism, he has all my sympathy. My one frustration is that he is too nice, too polite. He sets himself up for abuse.

Mavis Gary
Charlize Theron brings glamour and eye candy to the role of the loser. She plays a writer named Mavis Gary who isn’t a full-fledged author but a ghost writer for a young adult series. Hence the name of the movie, Young Adult. Mavis is credited as a contributing writer but she is not listed as the author, a point which is comically staged in a bookstore where the clerk tries to deter her from signing one of the books that is the last of the series. The books have been put on a table so that they don’t have to shelve them. Mavis insists she is the author, and points to her name on the inside of the book, but he clerk remains skeptical.

Mavis is living a lie. Her life is modest success financially, but is otherwise a sham. She comes across as single, detached, and incomplete. She enjoys promiscuous sex, but is emotionally distant. It isn’t until the snapshot of her ex-boyfriend’s baby pops up on her computer screen that she registers any real emotion. She goes into attack mode. It’s as if she suddenly realizes how empty her life is and decides she is going to return to her rural hometown in Minnesota and rectify the whole thing by deploying all of her feminine wiles and stealing her boyfriend back from his wife, who has just delivered the baby. Her delusions are large, and wide-open. You know things aren’t going to go well, and there is more than a little schadenfreude in seeing such a fox go down in flames. Until she begins to go down in flames. And then she hits a sympathetic cord. She might be a fox, but her life is so distraught, her emotional turmoil so alcoholic and damaged, that she becomes a figure of compelling interest. High drama. You can see the irony in the unexpected rapport with the maimed and crippled Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a catastrophic loser who rises above his tragic circumstances to become a figure of tremendous wisdom, courage, and humor. He’s fun to be around. He is fundamentally decent, someone you can trust and feel comfortable with, but he does speak his mind, and his insights can hurt. He does not pull his punches. And the guy makes whiskey in his garage. How cool is that.

Freehauf is the perfect counterpoint to Mavis. Nearly beaten to death in high school for being mistakenly perceived as gay by the very jocks that Mavis used to give blow jobs to, he is physically unattractive, in many ways similar to Charles Laughton’s hunchback in the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame directed by William Dieterle. One might also compare him to the beast in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, except that there isn’t any real passion or romance at the core of their relationship. Each offers a healing energy, a profound respect and acceptance for who they are, which isn’t exactly love, not romantic love, but deep, primal redemption.

Hamlet is the Jeffrey Lebowski of brooding. A total loser. He shuffles about feigning madness and getting in everyone’s hair instead of doing the right thing and shoving a sword into his corrupt uncle, King Claudius. By the time he gets around to doing that, five other people have died as a result of his fuck ups.

Terrific soliloquies, though. Best loser soliloquies.

Hamlet 2
Steve Coogan stars as Dana Marschz, a recovering alcoholic and failed actor who is now teaching drama at a high school in Tucson, Arizona. Things are not going well. He is notified that the drama program is going to be shut down, his productions continually receive bad reviews from a prepubescent student, and his wife Brie (Catherine Keener) leaves him for their dimwit boarder. Dana ‘s response to all this is to write a sequel to Hamlet, which will include all the previous characters brought back to life, and introducing Jesus Christ, played by Marschz, in which he sings a song-and-dance number titled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”

The kind of fool Coogan plays is sweet. He has no meanness whatever in him. He is a perverse Candide, a man who believes in the ultimate goodness of everything, no matter how many times he is mocked, tricked, deceived, and kicked in the pants. As losers go, he is the least cognizant of his shortcomings, the most absurdly optimistic. I almost didn’t include him because he is more of a caricature than a real character, but Coogan’s vigor in this role is so irresistibly lunatic it would be remiss not to include him.

Miles (Paul Giamatti), from the movie Sideways, has been divorced for two years but is still in mourning for the death of his marriage. He has also written a novel, for which a publisher has shown some interest, and is eagerly awaiting news of its acceptance, or rejection. He makes a living as an eighth grade teacher. He is a sad sack, depressed and fraught with anxiety, and has made plans to take his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to the wine country near Santa Barbara for a week of wine tasting, relaxation and golf, before Jack gets married. His friend Jack, however, has other plans. Jack is intent on getting laid as much as possible before taking his vows and marrying into a wealthy Armenian family, and getting his friend Miles laid as well. Miles has no interest in getting laid at all, which quickly becomes a source of conflict. Miles just wants to kick back and play golf and teach Jack about the magnificence of wine. Jack is a middle-aged actor, still recognized for his role as a doctor in a soap opera, with a permanent hard-on and testosterone drooling from his ears.

The characters in Sideways are so familiar to me I feel completely at home. I know exactly how Miles feels. I, too, suffered horribly after a brief marriage of not quite three years, believing, somehow, that we would one day get back together again, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I, too, am a writer, and have eagerly awaited news from a New York literary agent. The only thing separating from Miles is that I have stopped drinking, whereas Miles and Jack have carte blanche to drink the Santa Ynez Valley dry. I envy them.

I also know what it’s like to be depressed and try to have a good time, or pretend to have a good time, for the benefit of a friend. It’s miserable. There is nothing worse than putting yourself in a situation of fun and pleasure when you’re in the midst of despair and it is all you can do to muster the energy to take a shower. You see all the pleasure-inducing sensations, but you can’t feel them. You pretend to feel them, and the pretense makes it worse. Miles, at least, is not quite so depressed he is beyond the reach of alcohol. With a little pharmaceutical help from Xanax and Vicodin, he is still capable of getting drunk, God bless him.

Miles discovers at a critical point in the movie that is novel has been turned down. We know that he is a good writer. There is a scene in which he describes his passion for pinot noir that is captivating and beautiful. His novel has been turned down because the publishing industry is corrupted by profit motive. They don’t know how to market his book. In this sense, Miles becomes a loser by virtue of his real success as a writer. When the level of competence and overall aesthetic quality of the writing become too high, the writing ceases to be marketable.

I have long lost count on how many times I have seen Sideways. It’s not even a movie anymore. It’s a second home.

Little Miss Sunshine
The entire cast of Little Miss Sunshine are losers. Who later turn out to be winners. Not in the conventional sense, but in the deeper, more humanistic sense. The entire family is a microcosm of dysfunctional, toxic, Americanized ideals of success. But the two principle losers are Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carell) and Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear).

Ginsberg, a noted Proust scholar and homosexual, has just attempted suicide. Hoover is a motivational speaker with a pathological devotion to the power of positive thinking. They are opposites. Ginsberg, his wrists still bandaged from his suicide attempt, gazes forlornly from his sunken eyes, resigned to endure whatever indignity life has to offer. He has lost the will to fight. Hoover, who is not receiving positive feedback from the nine step program he is aggressively marketing, hovers the abyss of failure with furious determination to stay airborne. Their mutual dislike becomes immediately apparent as soon as Ginsberg’s sister Cheryl Hoover (Toni Colette) brings Frank into their suburban Albuquerque home where he must share a room with Dwayne Hoover (Paul Dano), Cheryl’s teenage son from a previous marriage who has taken a vow of silence until he is accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy in order to become a test pilot, and who has mounted a huge portrait of Frederic Nietzsche on the bedroom wall, ostensibly for inspiration. Richard eyes Frank at the dinner table with poorly disguised contempt. Frank, incredulous at Richard's callous obsessions with winners, turns to Dwayne and asks "how do youd stand it?"

Richard Hoover is every loser’s nightmare. He will not admit any deterrent to the progress of anyone’s success, however huge and compelling, however tragic and calamitous. He is void of sympathy and has no deep philosophical views. He does not look at anything from multiple viewpoints. He sees everything as black and white and one-dimensional. He believes that success is due in part to hard work, but one’s attitude is key to obtaining it. Being morose is a mortal sin. You can work your ass off at something, but unless you’ve got the right attitude, unless your every pore is beaming radiant positive energy, success will continue to elude you. “Losers don’t get what they want,” proclaims Richard. “They hesitate. They make excuses. And they give up. On themselves and their dreams.”

Richard’s simplistic formula is maddeningly shallow. It reduces all of life’s unforeseen complexities to a cookbook recipe. It overlooks individuality and is utterly blind to nuance. It is the exact opposite of Proust’s sumptuous prose. Richard is pushy, arrogant, insensitive, and insanely, pathologically optimistic. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself for your misfortunes. You want to strangle him. Fortunately, Richard’s setbacks do have a humanizing effect on him, and it’s hard not to like him at least a little by the end of the movie.

There is a wonderful, revelatory moment in which Frank and Dwayne, who have taken a break from the beauty pageant and are standing at the far end of a dock overlooking the Pacific ocean, come to terms with the real meaning of success and failure in life. Dwayne, who is fed up with the phoniness and emptiness of competition and the whole toxic obsession with winning, tells Frank “Sometimes I wish I could go to sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap. High School and everything. Just skip it.” And Richard responds:

You know Marcel Proust…French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent twenty years writing a book almost no one reads. But he is also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life because they made him who he was. All the years he was happy, you know, total waste, didn’t learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

The real perversity of success as it is perceived in the United States is brilliantly realized in the movie’s climactic scene at the beauty competition for ten year old girls, who have been dressed up to look like glitzy, Las Vegas showgirls.

John Keats

Keats was not only a great Romantic poet of England’s Regency era, but he invented couch surfing. Most of his adult years were spent as a guest of his more financially secure friends, such as Charles Armitage Brown, where he lived for seventeen months, taking the front parlor at Wentworth Place. This is where he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Jane Campion’s Bright Star focuses on this part of Keats’ life with great feeling and sensuality. The opening scenes shows a needle going in and out of a piece of white fabric. It is a beautiful metaphor for writing, as it shows all the concentration and inherent delicacy of putting words together artfully.

Ben Whishaw, who also played the poet Arthur Rimbaud in the movie about Dylan, I’m Not There, gives us a Keats who is sensitive, fun, at times irritable, and who must endure the fate of any poet in love, which is that of deep frustration. Unless one is born rich, one assumes a vow of poverty if one is to devote one’s life to poetry. This is as true now as it was in Regency England. If the poet finds a woman, or man, able to go along with this program, the scenario is still precarious, but promising. In the case of Keats and Fanny Brawne, it was simply to be assumed that marriage would never be possible. And so much of the movie shows the two being cautiously flirtatious, and falling in love despite themselves. The outcome, as we all know, was deeply, terribly sad. Most movies about losers are funny and uplifting. This one is not. It is not until the end, when Keats has succumbed to tuberculosis, that his true greatness becomes apparent to everyone. Not just as a poet, but as a human being. Fanny Brawne went into mourning for six years, and although she married in 1833 to Louis Lindon, she kept all of Keats’ letters, and wore the gold engagement ring that he gave her until she died on December 4th, 1865.


David Grove said...

Wow, this is great. I love cinematic losers, too: Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) in Bananas, Tom Wingfield (John Malkovich) in The Glass Menagerie, Jimmy Fingers (Harvy Keitel) in Fingers (James Toback's bizarre first film). Almost all of Buster Keaton's roles. & I love losers in French cinema: the Raskolnikovian Michel (Martin LaSalle) in Bresson's Pickpocket, Nana (Anna Karina) in Vivre sa vie. Denis Lavant's roles in Leos Carax's first two films. These French films confirm all that stuff Henry Miller wrote about how the French look at things differently: by American lights, the protagonists are losers; but you feel that they're successes. They're nearly destitute; they live in murky Dostoevskian cells; they subsist by pickpocketing, prostitution, and sleight-of-hand cons; they fail to get the girl; they go to prison; they get murdered. But somehow all that is irrelevant, because they cultivate the life of the mind. These films whop you on the head with a different universe, as Ginsberg put it.

& I like the losers who are drifters, bums, bagladies. Sylvie (Christine Lahti) in Housekeeping (adapted from Marilynne Robinson's beautiful novel. Johnny (David Thewlis) in Mike Leigh's Naked. & my favorite drifting loser of all: Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces.

& then there are so many losers--e.g., Travis Bickle--who are much less sympathetic than the lovable fuck-ups you list, but whose stories are nonetheless moving. E.g., Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) in Kubrick's The Killing, just about the noirest noir I've ever seen. Like Whitman, I feel I belong to these convicts and prostitutes myself. That I'm a loser myself.

John Olson said...

Thank you so much, David, for your generous comment. It makes a nice addition to my essay. You've expanded my ideas in a really great direction, and added some names and concepts that greatly enrich the theme. Johnny, for instance, from Mike Leigh's Naked is precisely the kind of figure I had in mind. And as I remember, he is contrasted with an arrogant prick yuppie, Jeremy Smart, played by Greg Cruttwell.

David Grove said...

Oh yeah, he's a great arrogant maggot-dicked misogynist yuppie!

John Olson said...

I later remembered that David Thewlis is also in The Big Lebowski, playing the pretentious, dingbat art critic Knox Harrington.