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.