“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”
Human beings… we are tangled individuals. We misunderstand people as much as others misunderstand us. We latch on to no duty and responsibility on responding for the nature of our behavior. This lack of justification for our actions, force us to navigate alone, through the complicated waters or our own contradictions. In other words, we stand abandoned in the intimacy of our personal versatility.
Characters in film, on the other hand, are contradictory beings in complex ways. Not complicated but complex. They do not stand-alone. They have the flanking judgment of an audience watching their every move.
Characters are superior forces than human ones. They are empowered by the essence of raw instinct as much as by the begrudging distinction between good and evil. They are works of art, pieces of a naked canvas elegantly brushed with the finest of human attributes, at the same time they are grotesquely carved with the most unbearable of habits and tantrums.
1. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
What it can teach you: Film characters are actually all about paradoxes. Not contradictions.
All the contradictions of a character must be in accordance with the dimension of their complexity. Their clashing behaviors work in communion with the purpose of the journey they have yet to intersect. Their contradictory actions lead somewhere, and, are led by something greater within themselves.
The man that is able to push a kid to the train tracks before allowing him to steal the purse of a woman, the secretary who sodomizes her integrity in order to gain power, the man who murders the woman he loves to avoid her the suffering of human decay. These are all paradoxes, not contradictions. These are all collapsing incongruities coming out from great characters’ conducts. This is good filmmaking.
No one else explores the complexion of character paradoxes better, and the loneliness of human contradiction through such kaleidoscopic themes, than the Austrian man with the ancient voice, the hollow eyes, and the genius necessity for cinematic perfection: Michael Haneke.
Amour is bulletproof narration. The movie communicates a saga about self-disintegration. It is never too self-explanatory, never too detached from self-recognition.
A man trying to catch a pigeon, running around the empty corridors of his cold apartment so he can get the bird out through the window, how can a scene so simple in texture, contradict the ruggedness of its emotion? It’s a perfect paradox of a man hunting down something he wants to set free. The pigeon represents his wife; the apartment represents the pain, the window… death.
If you have seen this movie, forget for a moment about the crushing ending, forget about the vortex of uneasiness that stays with you long after the last frame of the film fades out. Just, look at the bigger picture. This is not a social drama about the desolating realities of age and death. This is a movie about a man and a woman, who after a lifetime of shared conversations, still find to surprise each other with untold stories about the magical experience of childhood.
This is a film about a man and a woman, who choose to cast away society, and exile themselves into the fortress of their eggshell apartment, in order to protect the memories that are about to be tarnished with the unforgiving stains of decrepitude. This is a movie about the paradox of acceptance. A man and a woman, accept each other’s light and beauty, when traversing through the ugliest facets of their love, and the darkest hours of their life together.
2. Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998)
What it can teach you: Contradictions are a disharmony on the desires of a personality. They are a fight between the surface and the essence of a character.
Happiness is a film about fluids: The messy fluids of sexuality, and the raunchy fluids from which the soul is made off.
Happiness, above all, dismembers the meaning of irony into new depraved suggestions of humanity and morality. The film is a depiction of unconscious human sadness. Dejection shines like a flickering neon sign, deep inside the bowels of every single one of the characters that parade in savagely ordinary issues, throughout the bizarreness of the film.
We are enraptured by all of them, not because they are all monsters in all their inner and external dimensions. No, they are not walking devils with dead eyes and shark smiles (and we are talking about sex maniacs, and viscously upset individuals here).
They are just unfortunate losers that desperately want to grasp on to the traits they believe, make them a little bit more humane (family, jobs, therapists, boyfriends), without being aware that their humanity, as dislocated as it is, their purest, untouched essence as human beings, exudes precisely from their deranged impulses and disturbed weaknesses. This is where the contradictions of Happiness are such on point, spellbindingly awesome.
The gem of the crown is Bill. On the surface, he is a psychiatrist, a quiet, lingering family man. He looks more like a tree branch about to crack due to the weight of the heavy snow, than a human himself. He is almost too fragile to do any kind of abrupt movements. But on the inside, hidden well among the dark caves of his psychological function, a burning desire inhabits. He is a pedophile.
A pedophile that is also a therapist, these are two very interesting superficial contradictions, but only work at a characterization level, where the audience is able to perceive and understand them at plain sight (like Bill masturbating inside his car to a teen idol magazine). The movie goes deeper than that.
The truly breathtaking jolting of yearnings comes from the actions taken by Bill to appease the desires that jog him like a marionette. On the one side, he reaches extreme measures (drugging his family) to rape his son’s friend, on the other, he disregards his personal symptoms of desperation and sadness to save his son from a life of sexual untidiness and clutter boundaries, with a brutally honest confession of such desires.
The movie never exploits Bill as a villain nor a hero. It just portrays him as a man, a regular man. Which makes it even more disturbing.
3. Rosetta (The Dardenne Brothers, 1999)
What it can teach you: Dilemma and contradiction go hand by hand.
Rosetta is a skimpy art film with a colossal social punch. The story painfully unfolds through the convulsive despair of a lonesome teenager, as she attempts to find a job (in order to secure a less shimmy future for her and her alcoholic mother), in what could be better described as a neorealist voyage.
Rosetta is not a sympathetic character, and with fair reason. The journey she embarks on, delivers nothing back, but the flaming ashes of her broken dreams. So in return, she smacks her way through the abyss that chases her down, by committing despiteful acts of duplicity and treachery. But, can we blame her? Are those acts really that despiteful after all she’s been through?
There is a scene in which Rosetta waits an awful long time, before helping her friend out of the river in which he is drowning. When he asks her why did she wait so long, she confesses: If he had drowned, she could have gotten his job.
The Dardenne brothers’ creative juice flows exquisitely through the veins of a downbeat story. A story, that orbits around a central character’s dilemmas and contradictions. Rosetta changes with every choice she has to make.
From being a frightened little girl who gasps tenderly for air, every time her mother drains both their lives down the sewage of misfortune, to having no regrets on back stabbing her only friend, for a slim chance on getting a job at a waffle car. Her contradictions are a respond to the dilemmas she is forced to undertake: “The greater the pressure to make a choice, the deeper the contradiction in the character’s actions.”
The audience never stops to think why do they like or dislike a character. They just recognize themselves in the character’s choices. Through the character’s contradictions, they see themselves reflected.
4. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
What it can teach you: A character can never be “too contradictory.”
J.K. Simmons plays many men in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. First, he plays Mr. Fletcher, a barbaric music teacher, a predator, always hunting, always looking for new talent to devour. He is obsessed with the achievement of perfection by the means of physical and verbal torture. Secondly, he plays Mr. Fletcher, a docile role model who gives affectionate advice to a little girl that aspires to one day, play the piano professionally.
Thirdly, he plays Mr. Fletcher, a Machiavellian man, capable of ruining an important musical presentation just to fulfill a personal vendetta. Fourthly, he plays Mr. Fletcher, a vulnerable mentor who shreds a couple of tears for a former student of his, which recently passed away in a car accident.
Fifthly, he also plays Mr. Fletcher, a liar, a proud man so clustered with disdain towards the idea of softness, that he is incapable of admitting that the student he is shredding tears for, did not actually died in a car accident, but hung himself as a result of the scars he severed on him, while training under his tutelage. And the list goes on. Bottoms line, J.K Simmons plays a man with many faces.
Whiplash is electric. It’s a “two men show” that sparks with flamboyant energy every time Miles Teller and Simmons share the stage to destroy it with blood spilling confrontations. They rip each other apart to the symphony of broken beats and cutthroat dialogue.
The movie is a master class in vibrant and driven film editing, and even more so, a passionate lecture about character layering. Chazelle ventures into dangerous ground by supplying a character (Fletcher) with multidimensional masks.
A character, that has to maneuver such disguises in the appropriate measures, in order to maximize the potential of every single one of them. In the hands of a least focused filmmaker, an inferior articulated story, and a less qualified actor, Fletcher might have ended being a cartoonish representation of a cardboard villain.
Whiplash demonstrates that with the right proportions, and always with the purpose of serving the story, a filmmaker can unearth as many contradictions as possible out of any given character.
5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
What it can teach you: Contradictions are a respond to the classic battle between what the character wants vs. what the character needs, but is unaware of needing.
There Will Be Blood is a cacophony of dark murmurs, whispered like a dusky hex by the spirits of greedy men condemned to spent the afterlife among tenebrous shadows. There are always unsettling strings echoing, accompanying every single frame of the movie, like a chant, or perhaps a whimper. The film itself breathes like a living organism, it is provoked by, in the same equivalency that it suffers and cries for the madness of its main character: Daniel Plainview.
Paul Thomas Anderson disarms the audience from turning away from this protagonist. He bulges like a protuberance among the rest of the men. Not only because he stands tall, like a tower always facing north, like if his only intention was to defile the sky, but because of his brutal eyes and his greasy voice, a voice that sounds like boiling grease, where weak men are destined to perish. There is no escape from the magnetism Daniel Plainview discharges.
“I have a competition in me”-says Plainview in quiet buzzes, like an injured animal licking away the pain of an open wound. He is a man that hates all men. He hates himself, therefore. Oil is power to him. Power is his drug. Power is the heroin that lessens his painful hatred towards humanity. Or so he believes.
In the second act of the film, he refuses the local pastor of the land he has come to drill, to bless the first well he and his company had built. His personal “wants” restrict him from sharing any kind of power, be it evangelic or business like. Power is not a cake you give away in slices.
However, deep down, he has a hidden layered need. A need he suppresses. He needs a family. He craves for that same human contact he most proudly expresses to resent. Proof of that, he adopts an orphan child and raises him as his own. No one forces him to do so, it’s a deliberate choice that comes from an effervescent necessity. He even welcomes to his life, a strange man who claims to be his lost brother.
And for a moment there, he stops hating men. That is until the pretended brother turns out to be an impostor, and then everyone else becomes a prop once again.
Daniel Plainview contradicts himself by responding to the urges of his inner needs, and ignoring the pestilence of his obvious wants. This is a character that embraces a classical struggle of wants versus needs, although, there is nothing classical with him. He does not change at the end like any other classical character, in a classical story, propelled by a classical storytelling structure.
This is a modern tale in all its elements, even if it was based on a book written in 1927. One of those modern elements is the journey it establishes for its protagonist, one where he understands the dangers of contradicting his beliefs: if you do so, you will fall down, and then you will be force to climb upon the ladder of power and overtake the top of the mountain once again. And this is no easy climb.
6. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
What it can teach you: Our vulnerability makes us contradictory beings.
It is frightening, how the prophecies Network once alleged about the future of television and society, have been able to creep into the 21st century like silent rodents.
Deformed, perhaps, from the original concepts the movie exemplified, but still, here, present in essence. The soaked, mad prophet with lost eyes and infuriating words is no longer mad as hell. The camera stopped chasing him like a rabid animal that needs to be captured. He no longer reprimands a hypnotized society about the cancers of capitalism. No. Today the prophet comes in the form of a T.V. personality hosting a talk show. He dresses in fancy suits, blinks elegant looks, and gives polished smiles. The camera is always there for him, like a submissive lover.
Was Paddy Chayefsky aware that he was predicting an imminent TV apocalypse? Who knows! Who cares! The only imminent truth is, that he wrote one hell of a movie!
There is almost a grotesque carnival of fantastic characters marching around in different points of the film. There are terrific performances along the way, from a roaring wife betrayed by the winter urges of an impossible husband she has tolerated for way too long, to gigantic moments of farce confrontation between TV executives.
But none, compare to the centerpiece of this visually stunning art show-Diana Christensen, a man eating, ratings-starved, femme fatale of the TV world that as Max Shumacher (our main character) describes in solemnly rigid words: “I don’t know if she is capable of any human emotion. She learned life from Bugs Bunny.”
And it shows, because just like the mischievous rabbit, she tortures, humiliates, depraves, uses, and chops anyone that crosses her way and has no utility for her own satisfaction. In a way, in her eyes, everyone else is an Elmer Fudd.
She in fact, reacts and acts the same way as a spider queen. She sodomizes the men she is with, paralyzes them with sweet, seductive venom, chews them up, and when the flavor is gone, spits them out. That is exactly what she does to the main character, Max. But she is not made of steel, far from it.
Chayefsky opens a window with a view to all the characters’ insecurities. Again, none has the same spectacle as Diana’s. Her strengths come from interaction; her vulnerabilities arise from the fear of loneliness. She dresses with more style and grace than the princess of Monaco at the workplace, but lives in a shitty duplex that looks as if it was rundown by a tornado.
She has no doubts on betraying the man she “loves” for a better networking deal, but she is unable to hold a cup of tea without shaking when Max finally decides to leave her for good. Seductive, obsessed programming executive vs. lonely, abandoned, little girl. Strengths vs. vulnerabilities.