Action holds a lot of stock in Hollywood. A director yells, “Lights, camera, action!” from his or her chair, a gun goes off and a stunt car explodes. Or something — I don’t know, it’s a very tired cliché. The point is that action rules Hollywood movies, even those without car chases or explosions. Atticus Finch would be pretty lame if he sat on his porch for all of To Kill a Mockingbird and just thought to himself, “I should defend that innocent black man … if only I weren’t so tired.” In a Hollywood film, character action, as channeled through an ‘active’ protagonist, underlines theme and generates entertainment.
Few Hollywood pictures can get away with a ‘passive’ protagonist, and, for the ones that do, they strike us as unusual or subtly profound. The ennui of The Graduate or the “Dudeism” of The Big Lebowski are groundbreaking, in retrospect. They subvert mainstream ideals of success, class and masculinity. In indie and foreign cinema, you will find more films with atypical protagonists who do not always steer the narrative.
As proof, I present two great films: City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and produced in Brazil, and The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski and produced across a smattering of European countries. Coincidentally, both were released in 2002. Even if you have not seen these films, you have heard of them. You probably have one of these on your laptop hard drive, ready to watch when you’re not in the mood for Arrested Development reruns (so, never). Both of these movies feature protagonists who, for most of the plot, stand to the side and watch horrific forces destroy their homes (gangs in the “Cidade de Deus” favela outside Rio de Janeiro and Nazis in Warsaw, respectively). While a screenwriting guru like Robert McKee would decry such inaction, a passive protagonist can reflect injustices — specifically, violence — with honesty and without euphemism.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a smart boy unfortunate enough to grow up in a slum, narrates City of God. He introduces us to the favela’s other inhabitants, most of whom steal, deal drugs and murder on a daily basis. With little personal opinion, Rocket’s voiceover ties together a nonlinear plot that spans two decades. His one passion is photography, which allows him to appear active even when he is standing on the sidelines, “shooting” the gang members who are shooting each other. Film theorists have long loved to compare the camera with the gun, as has the general public. While the gun aims, shoots and kills, the camera aims, shoots and preserves (but this philosophizing is for another column). Rocket’s passivity allows us to see, through a naked pair of eyes, the extreme violence (to the extent where children murder other children) infecting his home.
In The Pianist, Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in his Halle Berry smooch-winning role) survives the Holocaust through inaction, not to mention a lot of luck. He watches an execution of Jews that, for some reason, does not include him. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising rattles the street outside his friend’s apartment where he furtively squats. Another acquaintance — a member of the traitorous Jewish Ghetto Police — literally pulls Szpilman from his family as they are ushered into a cattle car destined for Treblinka. It makes for a cold procession of events, marked by horrified reaction shots rather than deliberate bouts of action. Schindler’s List, while uncompromising in its images, ends on an inspiring note thanks to Oskar Schindler’s heroism. Stories like Schindler’s provide needed hope when digesting such atrocities, but it is Szpilman’s helplessness that betrays the true darkness of the time, as hard as it may be to face.
There is a sharp cynicism in pivoting mass murder around a passive protagonist. Rocket, Szpilman and, by extension, the viewer witness inexcusable violence while surrendering the resolve to stop it. Even worse, the belligerents are not cackling caricatures but children eased into the drug trade through opium or young men brainwashed to believe their genocide is righteous. The balance of good and evil is a bit off, isn’t it? It’s no surprise Hollywood doesn’t go for the passive protagonist, particularly one under such duress. As we watch the character buckle under forces out of his or her control, we think, “Damn, that could have been me!”
Thus, a passive protagonist steers a film towards realism and away from romanticism. You could say a photojournalist like Rocket as City of God’s narrator likens it to a documentary, though that opens a whole new can of worms as the movie is still a work of fiction (even if it’s based on a true story). Its veracity notwithstanding, a film with minimal character action is likely to provoke and disturb us more than one in which an active protagonist overcomes the odds to save the day. A film like City of God or The Pianist may also offend us to the core, which is likely why some despise character inaction in all cases: Where’s the happy ending? How I am supposed to walk out into the world with a shred of respect for my species after that?
The recently released Cloud Atlas may be the ultimate antithesis to such life-negating, humbling fare. The film — which, I will say, is well worth your time — strings together six, century-spanning plot lines, all connected by different incarnations of characters, each played by the same actor. It’s ludicrous. The movie’s official plot summary reads: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” The pitch allows for a lot of car chases, explosions and be-all, end-all character choices, all in service of a lie we would go crazy not to believe.