I need a term for this

In which I rant about films while meditating on a trend about protagonists.

So let me confess: I hate arthouse films. They all strike me as 5 minutes worth of story stretched out over 2 hours through over-indulgence of camera-work and using the excuse of post-modernism to fool the audience into doing the work for them instead of bothering to actually craft anything like motivations or plots.

And don’t get me started on student-films which are just the larval stage of these.

So I went and saw The Green Knight over the weekend. And it’s an arthouse film that I didn’t hate. Though it still has dumb story issues, by far the worst of it is a protagonist issue that I know I’ve seen in other stories lately even if I can’t think of it right now.

I do know and have seen the accusation of “blank slate” protagonists – the character which is largely empty to better enable the audience to project themselves onto them. Bella of the Twilight series being the internet’s most famous example. Regardless, whatever complaints there might be towards Bella, I will state that at least in that series, I know she desires Edward Cullen and immortality. It may not be much, but it’s at least THERE.

Sir Gawain in this film doesn’t even have that much. In this film, what do we have of his drives? His motivations?

We see that he likes sleeping with Alicia Vikander, which tells us he’s at least a straight guy with eyes. I assume the horse he rides would also like to mate with an attractive filly (if he was riding a stallion and not a mare, it wasn’t clear in the film) so that makes him no better than an animal. Does he feel anything more? During one scene Alicia’s prostitute character is talking about what she wants to Gawain in the film, confessing that she doesn’t want to just be his whore, but his wife, proper and official. That she wants to be a lady in the royal court and to own Gawain’s heart as well as his gold.

What is Gawain’s reaction in this scene? NOTHING! Because his head is turned away from the camera so we’re looking at the back of him while Alicia carries the scene entirely on her own. He utters no lines, makes no motion to address these feelings. You could replace the actor with a plank of wood in the scene for all the difference it makes.

Later on the film, there’s some inquiries of Gawain and he states that he wishes to become a knight. Here’s the problem…

Film has a language to it like any other medium through which humans communicate. If I film a scene in one way, then the audience will assume that everything happening in frame “is real” whereas if I film another scene using a different technique then the audience will assume that what’s happening in frame there is a dream or hallucination or vision or something “less real.” Arthouse films LOVE to mix up the techniques showing such things in a “real” fashion or showing “real” events in an illusionary fashion – then they love to reply with, “well what is real and what is not? maybe it’s all an illusion man…” (yeah get kicked by a horse or body slammed by a bull sometime and see if you ever question “what is real” ever again).

Anyway, when the film itself starts introducing questions within the audience, the audience is going to start questioning other things. Gawain says he wants to be a knight – why should we believe him? How do we know this is any more “real” than anything else we’re shown? Then when you start questioning it, you start noticing other parts like any signs he’s demonstrated this desire. Is he shown training? Practicing? Reading about knights? Consulting someone about them? Does he ever stop and ask “what would a knight do?” In fact, throughout the film we’re shown repeatedly that other people seem to have a better idea of what it means to be a knight than he does and has to keep informing him. If anything, one is reminded of those drifting twenty-somethings where it seems less like he “wants” anything and is more becoming a knight because that’s what is expected of him.

I’m sure someone might suggest “he doesn’t want to die” as a characterization. The problems there are 1) that is the human default such that a deviance from it is considered a character trait, and 2) being a default, bar then becomes lowered to the point breathing or eating or screwing are now “character trait” – they’re not.

Again, we don’t have a character as a protagonist. You could replace him with a plank of wood and it would put in about the same performance.

Ed, Edd n Eddy - Plank by Ali-Srn on DeviantArt

AND I’M NOT CRITICIZING THE ACTOR HERE. The poor guy is literally given nothing to work with save maybe 5 total minutes where he’s given some faint substance to act with. The fault for this lies squarely on the director and writer (who is the same person) for providing no substance for Dev Patel to work with.

So what should we call this type of protagonist? Plank of Wood Protagonist?

The one who is less than nothing… Void Protagonist?

He or she goes from set piece to set piece in the story, dragged along by events which they have no reaction to. Dead Fish Protagonists? (GK Chesterton reference for the nerds there)

And I want to reiterate – this isn’t about spelling things out. This isn’t about adding in exposition or or having characters look at the camera to express their emotions. This is about having characters. PERIOD. You’re not “leaving it up to audience interpretation” by shoving a dead fish on screen, you’re just asking the audience to do all the work for you. If I have to do your job for you, why am I paying money to see your story? If I have to use my imagination for the character of a knight, I can just stay home and make a cardboard sword and tinfoil helmet and save even more money.

Give me a human being to react to, don’t put a dead fish on screen.

26 thoughts on “I need a term for this

  1. How about Blank Canvas Protagonist? Or Empty Protagonist?
    These type of characters seem to exist both in TV and Movies because the makers just haven’t thought it through to the end or haven’t taken more time and effort over their product. They are an outline sketch of a character, they type you might have when formulating your idea that’ never gets filled out, so perhaps Sketch Protagonist works?

    • I wanted to shy away from things like “blank canvas” because that’s too much like “blank slate” and might be confusing. I do like “empty” though.

      You may be onto something about “rough sketch” too. I’ve heard rumors that after the writer’s strike back in 2007, a lot of what was once termed “script doctors” have been put out of work. Those were experienced, competent writers who would be called in to punch up, tighten, and otherwise improve scripts. I’ve yet to see anything that confirms it, but with the way writing has steadily declined since that date I’m very tempted to believe it as most scripts nowadays seems like they’ve never been edited.

      Though I’ll have to admit, as I was writing, “dead fish” seemed to stick in my brain as very apt and evocative. lol 😉 After all, who wants to watch a dead fish on screen?

      • Got it, that type of character could be “The Guppy”
        There’s definitely something missing. I’ve noticed some shows recently have “Staff writers” I’m not sure exactly what they are contracted to do from show to show, but I’ve noticed shows that do employ them seem to fare better with their integrity and characterisations, but that could be just a coincidence

      • IIRC, Staff Writers should be regulars to the show to help keep newcomers and all on track and within the show’s “voice” or “tone.” i.e. “Ok you’ve written a pretty good plot here, but Sam and Dean are all wrong in this.”

        Good eye. I bet if I could find some database and maybe do a search for that crew credit, it would probably tell us more about the last 20 years than we realize.

    • I want to say this is what you’ll get if someone is trying to do the stoic, and does it badly. Certainly the first thing called to my mind when it comes to “stoic” is Mr. Spock of Star Trek, and he played chess, the harp, traded barbs freely with Dr. McCoy. He was very much a real character even if he didn’t react.

      What I’ve noticed lately is even less than that. There’s NO reaction at all – even a stoic one – to things.

      Well and sometimes there is a reaction, but it’s very instinctual. Off the top of my head in the example of the movie, the reactions we get are fear when life is threatened, fear when the unnatural appears, and attraction towards a female. An animal could provide us that much, you know?

      • Teal’c.
        He didn’t have a lot of expression, but he did have motivation, desires, and he chose actions.

        It’s HARD to not know where he stood, any more than one would doubt that Spock was rather big on trying to be logical.

      • Ooo yeah. Teal’c was also a great stoic character. And I guess sort of Ronan in Atlantis? Though he would go into rage fits sometimes? (still on my watch list, but i’ve seen bits about it)

      • Sorry can’t resist, got drop in here and say, Smouldering intensity is the perfect description for Dean Winchester 🤣🤣

      • What, no Flynn Rider reference? (Tangled) Come on, that one was golden!

        Re Ronan: Sulky stoicism might be more accurate than just “stoic.” And he did let his temper take over, though not *too* often. Mostly he would blow up in a fight against the Wraith, or when people brought up his homeworld of Sateda.

        And yeah, Teal’c was stoic. Gosh, I miss him. We’re not likely to see that type of character or acting any time soon – especially if they really *do* reboot the series….

      • Sorry to disappoint …. Tangled is still on my to do list🙂
        My guilty pleasure is currently Finding Dory….
        Some animation can hit all the right character notes and be inhabited with life that just works. If you haven’t already, you should try Batman, The Long Halloween, that does a very solid and pleasing job without too many plank or guppy like inhabitants in Gotham. They pretty much all have wants and motivations. , Bruce Wayne does some stoic smouldering too.
        (Nate , if you’re listening, I’m anxiously waiting your thoughts and review of BTLH Part 2)

      • Yay🙂
        I’m so analogue, I got my copy Monday on DVD……
        Hope you enjoy. I’ll say nothing more, do not want to spoil it for you.

      • Got mine via HMV online delivery to store, but I’m in the UK.,our date was 9th August for DVD . Your dates may be well be different.

      • Sorry it took me awhile to find my way back here. Someone is using a variation of my screenname and causing login problems. This time with WordPress. Sigh. FWIW, I thought of another term you could use: The Dud. I know, I know. That’s practically guaranteed to be confused with Lebowski. Still, it’s an accurate description of that characterization. 🙂

  2. Yeah, the article below and a perusal some years back of Arthurian legend (including The Green Knight) made me wary of the film: https://lorehaven.com/the-green-knight-film-may-not-outmatch-the-original-poems-challenge-of-human-virtue/?fbclid=IwAR3f5ChQ3cHWCjHsvPXo0-UNKVCwIJbtUtWbeLcfrC7OImsT7rz_wUWHJKk

    With regard to what to name this type of protagonist, I’m tempted to suggest “audience de-motivator.” Oh, look, here’s this hero! But wait, he’s not real – or maybe he is real, but he’s not as good as you think he is. It’s all subjective, man, don’t you know that?

    No, it’s not, and I’m not interested in being “demotivated.” Give me a hero I can root for, not a villain disguised as one or a “dead fish” as empty as your ‘artistic’ ideals. That is all I want, and if you are not selling what I’m looking for, then I’m not buying. End of story.

    • I mean the film has interesting potential. I have the original on my “to read” list and this has definitely encouraged me to step it up in my queue. It has real potential in it but even going off just my basic knowledge of the source, I’d have to say the film fails even as a deconstruction. Because it would seem you’d need to have a protagonist actually be something in order to deconstruct them. When you make them a plank of wood (dead fish? guppy?) then there’s nothing to tear down.

      And LOL at “audience de-motivator” because that really sounds like a classic comic book device. “Oh no! Lex Luthor has hit Superman with the de-motivator!” (I say that with all affection and not discounting the term.)

      I mean even a villain as a movie protagonist would at least be SOMETHING – some character, some thing you can react to. These protagonists can’t even reach that level.

  3. Remember that movie that had a gal after a breakup sitting there and eating eggs in a zillion different ways because always, before this point, she’d “liked” whatever was chosen by whoever she was with?

    How the character didn’t even KNOW how she liked eggs cooked, not really?

    That, but at a more cultural level.

    I don’t think it’s a choice, I think it’s that showing desire is a weakness– in the sense of it is a truth which can be used to harm you– and the deeper, more genuine the desire, the more it leaves you vulnerable.

    One of the things that makes bullies hate geeks so much is that geeks, by default, tell you something that matters to them. That makes them easy to hurt, and the one thing bullies like– and you can see it demonstrated– is to be able to hurt someone.

    The only way to be safe– is to not love, not hate, not feel anything, not CHOOSE anything.

    When that’s your lifestyle, you get characters who have no motivation.

    They don’t know how they like eggs, because that would mean admitting they like something enough to form an opinion.

    • Runaway Bride! Yeah that’s like the only scene I remember of that film. lol XD (my memory is very weird)

      You may excellent points about how ironic detachment is used as a shield and all. I’ll have to think on it more. You’re definitely onto something there but I feel like it’s only 84% of the picture. There’s still something missing… (maybe it’s laziness too)

      • At least you remembered the film?

        It doesn’t feel like an entire thing to me either, and I couldn’t even come up with a name. Maybe something like “Freedom by having nothing,” but that’s not very punchy.

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