Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The man with no name, the man with too much of a name

One thing that consistently gets my quills up is when characters in a movie have no name.

You know, like the main character in Drive.

In the credits of Drive, Ryan Gosling's character is referred to only as "Driver."

Fortunately, I did not actually notice that he had no name until that point. I'd certainly prefer that to the alternative: a bunch of really clumsy dialogue that trips over itself trying to come up with synonyms to the person's name. "He" and "that guy" and "the kid" (etc.) get old pretty quickly.

As soon as I realize the characters in a movie don't have names, I immediately think of that movie as some kind of Samuel Beckett ripoff. Of course, the filmmakers are not usually going for the same things Beckett was going for, but the same level of pretentiousness may be present. "The character has no name because he could be anyone, he could be your or me!" Yeah, I get it. It addresses nothing less than the universality of human experience. Good for it.

(I should pause here to tell you something that may be obvious by now: I had my complaints with Drive. One positive is that I saw it on Sunday night and am still thinking about it/processing it on Tuesday morning, which undoubtedly qualifies as a good thing.)

However, the reverse is also true. I hate it when a character has too much of a name.

No, I'm not talking about characters of Spanish heritage who have a dozen first/middle names. I think that's excessive as a cultural tradition, but it doesn't bother me and is not relevant to this particular conversation.

What bothers me -- with a few notable exceptions -- is when a screenwriter is so proud of the name he/she has created for a character that it gets repeated ad infinitum, almost like the name itself is a joke/piece of clever screenwriting. Sometimes, this name even becomes the title of the movie.

Take Charlie Bartlett. (Please, ha ha.)

As Charlie Bartlett is purely a work of fiction from an original screenplay, they could have made that character's name anything. Yet I suspect the name Charlie Bartlett was chosen because the rhyming first syllables of each name made it particularly fun to say. And then, particularly fun to repeat in quick succession in the trailer:

I actually kind of like Charlie Bartlett, but I can never think about it without thinking about the major screenwriting crutch of giving the character a snappy name -- so snappy that it can function as the movie's title. There are certainly plenty of other titles that qualify, but this is the one that always comes to mind whenever I rail about the laziness I think is inherent in naming a movie after its main character.

Ah, but remember what I said about exceptions?

I don't have this problem with Donnie Darko. No doubt, the exact same thinking applied -- instead of the rhyming of "Char" and "Bar," it's the alliteration of the two Ds that makes the name roll off the tongue easily. Either way it's cutesy.

But see, in this case, I don't care.

I think Donnie Darko is a masterpiece, and a masterpiece forgives all faults. In fact, Donnie Darko works as a good example in this post in multiple ways.

See yesterday, I had a disagreement with someone about the quality of Drive. He loved it -- I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it, but my feelings are never going to qualify as love. What I did know was that I could list a litany of small complaints I had about Drive, complaints that could certainly qualify as nit-picking. That brought up a larger discussion about the usefulness of nit-packing as a critical exercise ... and whether it should even be called nit-picking in the first place.

During that discussion I had a realization about the term "nit-picking," which is that it is almost always -- okay, always -- used negatively. If you are said to be "nit-picking," you are tearing down an idea or piece of art based on allegedly unimportant details, things you should be able to overlook.

The thing is, if you are concentrating on those details, it means that the idea or piece of art has not done enough to convince you that they were unimportant. I'd argue that the actual best way to consider the fine art of nit-picking is as "early criticism." You pick nits when you are not yet able to articulate why you did not like a particular film. As brilliant as we film fans like to fancy ourselves, sometimes we just don't immediately summon the words for why a particular film didn't work for us. Until the time that we can, we sometimes find ourselves saying things like "Yeah, I didn't like the clothes that guy was wearing, they were stupid." Better than that, I hope, but still not really to the heart of what was wrong with the film.

And so Donnie Darko entered into that discussion as well. Described even by its devoted fans as a movie that does not make perfect sense, Donnie Darko is just the kind of movie that could die under the intense scrutiny of so-called nit-picking. But see, I don't nit-pick Donnie Darko because I love it so much. I don't care that there are some things that don't make sense, and I don't care that the title is a perfect example of a movie-naming convention I find to be lazy. Donnie Darko had me at hello, and that's all there is to it.

As for Drive and Charlie Bartlett ... well, they've still got more work to do.

Exaggerated conclusion: Movie characters should have a first name but no last name. Every male character should be named Mark, and every female character should be named Julie.


Don Handsome said...

I would nit-pick your argument to say that the too little of a name phenomenon (which does not ever seem to bother me) is not always a function of a pretentious conceit. Not all the no name characters are not named so they can fill in for us, some of them are not named because it just doesn’t matter what their names are. This, I believe, is what is at play in Drive the same way it is at play in the Dollars Trilogy, and in Kill Bill (though The Bride is eventually named), and the same way its at play in That Thing You Do (and probably in countless other films). While these stories may have a lead character (or band of characters) those characters are essentially secondary to the set piece of the film. I don’t feel that I stand in The Man With No Name’s shoes when watching A Fistful of Dollars, he’s just the cog on who’s back I am hitching a ride.

In the case of Drive – the actual name of “Driver” is unimportant, because his history is unimportant. What matters is the story we see on the screen with him, which is about a particular arc in his life and in the other people around him. He doesn’t need a name, because he may not even exist outside of this arc. In another arc of his life, he might be Carl or Bud, but what he does in this arc is move forward – he drives. And he drives forward with such a cold and calculated zeal that it makes perfect sense in the terms of the story that we are watch, that Carl/Bud just simply be called “Driver”.

I do definitely side with you on the too much name phenomenon. When a name like Charlie Bartlett seems forced and unreal to me even though I actually know a Charles Bartlett, you know there’s a problem.

But the problem is that you never know what is actually going to be a problem for you. You’re right you tend not to judge a film for its flawed names (or any other flaws that you can find) when you like that film. I found a lot to hate about Charlie Bartlett (including but not limited to his stupid name) but I also can’t stand Anton Yelchin so maybe I was predisposed to be annoyed by those little nit-picky items. Whereas Donnie Darko sold me from its opening shot so I found it hard to bother with caring about any of its shortcomings. But I think the thing that makes a film great is that when we’re not only willing to look beyond its shortcomings, but we are also willing to openly forgive, excuse, or use those shortcomings as proof that the movie is great.

Getting back to Drive, there are a lot of things to nit-pick about it, but I think those things are generally minute details that add up to little, insignificant complaints with the film. In the face of the piece as a whole, these blemishes are more like beauty marks adding personality to a film that you didn’t know was there (This is what happens when you watch Donnie Darko right? I mean all those holes, they become key to the experience.) They give the film depth and mark its greatness. And they mark it as a product of an artistic collaboration rather than a machine-like outpouring of production value. So I guess that I ultimately don’t agree that nit-picking is always bad (I agree that it has negative connotations though). With our favorite films – whatever they are – you can nit-pick or not, they will stand the test of time and ALWAYS be great to us.

Now, get back to a theater and see Drive again, and try not to be so damn nit-picky this time.

Mike Lippert said...

I have to agree with Don on his comments on Drive and beyond, especially this one: "Getting back to Drive, there are a lot of things to nit-pick about it, but I think those things are generally minute details that add up to little, insignificant complaints with the film."

I think unnecessary nit-picking dug you into a hole with Midnight in Paris as well.

To the topic at hand there are also two other things I hate: when characters are given names just so the title can be snappy (You, Me & Dupree is culprit number 1 for me) and movies that use older movie titles to play off of (Citizen Duane, All About Steve, Bringing Up Bobby, etc).

Vancetastic said...

So Mike, I guess you don't buy my argument that you nit-pick because you haven't yet been able to crystallize an analysis on why you really don't like something? Maybe this is on the verge of being a circular argument, but you nit-pick something because you already know you don't like it, and use the things you're nit-picking about as evidence of why you don't like it, even if it's not the right evidence. Besides, I don't think it's nit-picking about Midnight in Paris to say that I think the characters are shallow and uncharitable -- that Woody places the Woody stand-in on a pedestal and makes his fiancee a total shrew. That detracted from that film for me, so why is it not a legitimate complaint? I felt less inclined to go along with Gil on his trip because I had complaints about the simplicity with which his character and other characters were drawn.

About Drive in particular, I would agree that the fact that he has no name is not a particularly important problem with the film. However, I do think it's emblematic of some questionable decision making that relates directly to other, more serious problems with the film, the specifics of which I won't get into right now. In the case of this post in particular, I chose to focus on that one minute part of the movie because that's often what I like to do on my blog: I like to talk about specific, individual phenomena that usually relate to multiple examples from cinema, rather than submitting holistic film reviews. The Audient is not a review site, and I don't think I've ever written something that I would consider a prototypical review. (At least not here -- I do do that for my paying gig.)

Don, you're right to take me to task for suggesting that Drive is pretentious, which this piece does suggest because it was written with serious time constraints. I think that giving a character no name is OFTEN pretentious, but I don't think that's the case here. I do somewhat agree that his name is unimportant -- but I also think that most character names are unimportant. In fact, ONLY in films like Charlie Bartlett are the character names important. Would we like the Godfather any less if he were named Sylvio Napoli rather than Michael Corleone? We wouldn't. On the most basic level, a character's name is important because other characters need something to call him/her.

I just think that not giving a character a name tends to take unnecessary risks of distracting a viewer. I think of Your Friends & Neighbors, where the fact that none of them had names (until the end credits, where all their names rhymed as some kind of comment on the unimportance of names) became a significant obstacle for the screenplay to overcome -- I remember numerous awkward sequences where the fact that they couldn't provide a name for another character interrupted the flow and/or the clarity.

The points you guys make are definitely taken, and I definitely make broad generalizations in order to be brief (that rarely works) or to provoke (that sometimes does). To give you both some sense of solace, I have still been tossing around Drive in my head, so it clearly had an impact on me. I may ultimately come around on it more than I have.