by GARY YAMASAKI The genre of “anti-hero” films is especially relevant in a discussion of point-of-view dynamics. In fact, the very nature of an anti-hero movie is totally dependent on the workings of point of view. With movies of this genre, the protagonist is given characteristics not ordinarily associated with heroes, but with villains, a characterization that would ordinarily distance the viewers from the protagonist. Yet, the viewers do not find themselves feeling distanced from this character, but rather, feel a sense of allegiance with him or her. As a result, the viewers may find themselves pulling for the protagonist to succeed in some endeavor they would abhor if they were to encounter it in the real world.
Sound familiar? This is essentially the same dynamic outlined in an earlier post entitled “Who says, ‘You have to be objective?’ Not biblical storytellers!” There, it was demonstrated that readers will come to pull for a character if they have been led to experience the events of the story line as through that character’s point of view, the exact dynamic responsible for viewers coming to pull for anti-heroes.
Allow me to illustrate this dynamic with a movie experience I had back in the mid-70s. I was in my parents’ basement watching The Day of the Jackal (1973), a film set in the early ’60s about a British assassin who is hired to kill French president Charles de Gaulle. The story line follows his intricate preparations for the hit—securing forged identity papers, supplies to change his appearance, and even a pair of crutches that could disguise his disassembled rifle—and then his evasive maneuvers to get himself to the site of an open-air appearance by de Gaulle in Paris, with a body count accumulating in his wake.
The climax of the film has The Jackal perched in a sixth-floor window overlooking de Gaulle on stage down below. But as he is readying himself for the shot, his location is detected by the police down on the street. The camera then cuts back and forth between the police desperately trying to reach his perch before he can take the shot and our assassin setting up de Gaulle in his cross-hairs. And I remember so clearly sitting there, and saying to myself, “Hurry up! Take the shot!”
There I was, pulling for a cold-blooded murderer to add another kill to his resume, and I didn’t know why. However, it all became clear years later, when I had gotten into point-of-view studies and read the following in an unpublished 1981 paper by Janice Capel Anderson: “If the reader views a murder scene through the eyes of the murderer, he or she is more likely to identify with the murderer than with the victim” [her findings laid out in this paper were later incorporated into her Matthew’s Narrative Web]. Here, Anderson astutely picks up on Wayne Booth’s analysis of Emma, and its recognition of the empathy factor inherent in the filtering of events through the eyes of a particular character.
That is exactly what was happening to me while watching The Day of the Jackal. I was seeing the events through The Jackal’s eyes—through his point of view—and thus got lulled into pulling for him to make the kill. This is just one illustration of what occurs in all anti-hero movies; point-of-view crafting has the power to have us pulling for characters to succeed in endeavors we would ordinarily detest in our daily lives.
One of my favorite anit-hero movies is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Early in the movie Lightfoot steals a car, so the audience knows early on that he is unscrupulous. The audience first sees Eastwood’s character behind a pulpit preaching in a small, rural church. The audience does not know that his stint as a “preacher” serves only as a way of hiding out until he can recover the money stolen in a spectacular crime years ago. They meet when Eastwood’s character jumps on Lightfoot’s stolen car to escape an assassination attempt by the other thieves, who think Thunderbolt has betrayed them. Even though they objectify women and even carjack a middle-aged couple, the audience bonds with them. One scene shows them protecting rabbits from a deranged man. Thunderbolt buys ice cream for a boy. Thunderbolt refuses to kill one of the surviving thieves when he has the chance, even though that man has tried repeatedly to kill him. The surviving thieves reconnect with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to pull off the same crime in a slightly different way. In the process of recreating the crime, Thunderbolt treats a bank manager cruelly. They almost succeed, but one sneeze gives them away. In the chase scene after the second heist, the audience bonds with the criminals as they flee several police cars (in a highly implausible scene). After one of the gang betrays the others, the police recover the money. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot stumble accidentally upon the original loot. They use the money to fulfill Lightfoot’s ambition: paying cash for a white Cadillac convertible. Shortly afterwards, having fulfilled his goal in life of buying the Cadillac, Lightfoot dies from injuries sustained in a beating administered by the betrayer in the group. They hurt many people and cause much property damage, all for a trivial purpose–to buy a car. Yet, because they are the point of view characters in the movie, the audience bonds/merges with them.