Iconic Character Problem

[I forgot to post this yesterday. Oops.]

I want to talk about a little film called Hesher, which last weekend saw a quiet release to mostly awful reviews. I hate to feel like I’m patting myself on the back, but I found it sort of amusing and delightful that many of the reviews I read for Hesher cited the same problem I did when I covered the script: Hesher’s a cipher, full of ambiguous statements and questionable behavior, with no clear motivation for why he says the things he does or acts the way he does, or — more importantly — why anyone should care.

As I saw it — but didn’t write in my coverage because it’d be comically unprofessional, and nobody would have cared — Hesher suffered from what I think of as the Iconic Character Problem. It’s hard to say iconic characters can’t be grown in a lab, because Indiana Jones — one of the most iconic characters of the past 50 years — was quite literally grown in a lab, as anyone who read the lengthy transcript of talks between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg knows. More often, though, it seems that iconic characters are accidental. Did anyone really think Yoda would become one of the most memorable characters in the Star Wars universe? Hell, did anyone think Boba Fett — a character with very little screen time and virtually no dialogue — would turn into an iconic character? The two best examples I can think of come from television: The Fonz and Homer Simpson. Their respective shows were not initially about them, and nobody involved really knew what they had until the characters exploded. (But there’s another, related example to a lab-created iconic character: Mork, later of Mork & Mindy, who originally appeared in one of Happy Days’s strangest episodes so Garry Marshall could prove he could both rein in Robin Williams’s zaniness and make him appeal to a primetime sitcom audience.)

I think what separates characters like these from the character of Hesher is that everything mentioned above could feasibly work without the iconic character. Granted, Indy is a tough sell, but think about it: each film (even Temple of Doom) has a tight story and other memorable characters. Even if Indy was a vacant-eyed muscleman played by Vin Diesel, the movies still have a high probability of working. The presence of Harrison Ford and the small touches just pushed the character over the top, into a double-elimination arm-wrestling match with another iconic character, Lincoln Hawk (sometimes Hawkes). Yeah, I went there.

In Hesher, the title character is technically a supporting player, but without him, the film is little more than a bland coming-of-age story without any fresh insight or pathos to make the story work. But the story still doesn’t work with Hesher, because co-writers Spencer Susser (who directed) and David Michôd (who wrote, directed, and costarred in the vastly superior Animal Kingdom last year) have decided to construct a movie about an iconic character, instead of a movie that just happens to have an extraordinarily memorable character who could, in time, attain iconic status. Everything Hesher says and does has no basis in believable reality, and we never really know the character on any level beyond what the writers want us to see: a brash rocker-type whose aimless, raunchy monologues aspire to profundity in annoyingly hackneyed ways.

Aside from the general content of the script, my main evidence for thinking Susser and Michôd have more interest in manufacturing an iconic character than developing a character with enough memorable qualities to become one on his own is the ending. The script closes with a few paragraphs describing a montage of “Hesher moments,” ramming his highly memorable wackiness down the throats of the prospective audience. I have no idea if such a montage made the final cut, but it’s obnoxiously presumptuous to put such a scene in the screenplay — especially when the character in question isn’t as memorable as the writers think he is.

What makes Hesher so unmemorable is his overall lack of development. We never engage with him on a human level, because he’s an artificial construct of quirks that don’t necessarily hang together in a believable way. Even worse than that, his presence makes no real impact on the other characters. TJ, a somewhat morose and confused kid, follows Hesher’s bad advice. Things get worse, and then they get better, but not because of anything Hesher does. The script follows painfully familiar story beats to get to its happy ending.

In many ways, the script for Hesher reminded me a lot of a film called Paper Man, which got on my radar only because my friend Tarini read it. Like Hesher, Paper Man tells a story of relentless indie clichés while tossing in a sure-to-be-iconic character in the form of an imaginary friend dressed as a superhero. In both cases, these characters seem to exist to solely to give bad advice that causes the main character to extricate himself from the “relationship.” Once that happens, things get better, but in both films, the movie makes it seem like these wacky, iconic characters had something to do with that. Like it was all part of a cosmic plan — giving terrible, life-ruining advice that would force the characters to solve their own problems for once.

It’s a bizarre concept to me. Let’s take a hyperbolic hypothetical. Let’s say I convince young TJ, the protagonist of Hesher, to kill a man just to watch him die. I don’t really have any good reasons for him to do this, but he’s sort of morose and malleable, so he does it. Does he have any reason to thank me if it turns out he just happened to be a child molester? I didn’t know he was a child molester, I gave him terrible advice, he acted on it, and things ultimately worked out for the best. That doesn’t mean I’m the secret hero of his story. It also doesn’t mean Hesher’s story, or my story, or TJ’s story is worth telling. It’s a Family Guy-esque tacked-on bit of moralizing at the end, because the writers remembered stories usually have a point. “How can we salvage it?” “Uhhh… Let’s make our wacky iconic character the hero to justify his exasperating presence!”

Ugh. Movies.

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 17, 2011 9:09 AM