There are two ways to watch a film: actively or passively. You can be a passive viewer, soaking up plot like a comatose sponge, drool slowly dripping out of the side of your mouth. I think watching a movie passively can be lots of fun, a 90-minute escape from the daily grind. Or you can watch a movie actively, which involves studying a film’s parts, its subtleties, its ideologies, its imagery, its atmosphere, its social commentary, its satire, its heart, and its mise-en-scene (as us fancy people like to say). Watching a film actively allows you to see its inner-workings, what makes it tic, what gives it shape and personality, what makes it work or not work. When you actively watch a film, you’re forming a relationship.
So Chris and I run this service where we watch short films and break them down, analyzing their characters, themes, plot/story and mise-en-scene. To do this, we have to watch the movie actively. And, for the character section, we take usually note if any given character is either active or passive.
Yeah—that’s right! Just like you or me watching a film, characters in a film can either be active or passive. Active characters take action, and passive characters are acted upon. The reason Chris and I take note of this is because, typically, passive characters aren’t as interesting or relatable. As a guideline, your characters should be active human beings who take control of their stories and try to find meaningful change. Notice how I use the word “guideline,” and not “rule.” As Robert McKee details in his screenwriting book “Story,” a rule says “you have to do it this way,” and a guideline says, “this has worked for thousands of years, so you should, I don’t know, probably strongly consider doing it this way instead.”
Active characters aren’t a “rule” because, technically, a passive character can be interesting, depending on the surrounding execution of themes and plot and mise-en-scene and whatnot. That’s why, for new filmmakers making their first short movie, Chris and I typically advise against passive characters, who usually have no filmic reason for being passive, who are probably just passive because of poor writing.
One inherent problem with passive characters is a lack of meaningful internal change in charge, which is, basically: when a character starts one way and ends another. Simple enough, right? Daniel Plainview starts in a dirty hole, digging for oil, and ends with a mansion he bought with his oil fortune. The formal basis for change in charge comes from there being a value that defines the plot tor a subplot or a character. And that value is positively or negatively charged. Daniel goes from poor to rich, which could be viewed as a change from negative to positive…or Daniel went from member of society to loner, which is positive to negative. Sometimes values don’t change, but the meaning behind the value changes: Daniel goes from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, but that thirst for competition goes from positive to negative. The most striking change in charge is Daniel’s fulfillment of purpose to his lack of purpose in the end, which is probably why he goes a tad ape shit.
The key is to find meaningful change in charge—another “guideline” in film, according to McKee. To me, “meaningful” change in charge is long-lasting, and the root of the change occurs in the middle of character arcs. Through analyzing these short films, I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to have meaningful change in charge if the character is passive, which almost always results in a binary arc. Can you imagine There Will Be Blood without all that growth that occurs in the middle portion? If Daniel just went from one extreme to another? You would have long-lasting change, but you wouldn’t know why that change occurred, so it wouldn’t be very meaningful. That sounds crazy, but that’s actually the problem with lots of films. I think you can find characters like this in a lot of today’s superhero films, which aren’t concerned with creating meaningful internal changes in charge with tertiary arcs, but are much more concerned with external change in charge—there’s a lot of action-reaction scenarios that focus on the plot surrounding the character and how it shapes him or her from one extreme to another, as opposed to how the character views his or her place in the world and how he or she can grow as a character.
Active characters should have a tertiary arc, or an anything-above-terti-ary arc. There should be meaningful internal change constantly occurring in a character’s life, and he or she should be the proprietor of that change. His or her decisions and actions should shape his or her arc trajectory…because that’s real life. We affect ourselves through the decisions we make. In turn, the internal change in charge affects the external change in charge. Take a reactive plot: aliens are attacking the planet and a character has to save humanity—threatened planet to saved planet. Take an active plot: a man is searching for oil, finds that oil, accrues more and more oil fields, hires a staff, acquires a son, makes enemies with the local pastor, strikes rich, inadvertently ruins that son’s hearing, slaps that priest, buries that priest’s face in oil, finds a long-lost brother, kills that “brother,” attempts to regain that son’s trust, loses that trust, shuns that son, kills that priest and yells, “I’m finished!”—poor to rich, society member to loner, entrepreneur to entrepreneur, fulfillment of purpose to lack of purpose.
Now, tell me, which plot/character arc is more compelling? The binary arc with no meaningful change in charge, or There Will Be Blood, which has a giant arc and meaningful change in charge that has a long-lasting effect? The binary arc is limiting, has a passive character reacting to a system, while the n-ary arc allows the active character to enact meaningful change.
But then: there’s also another kind of arc: the unitary arc. The unitary arc is a real tricky motherfucker, and, as much as I’ve thought of countless examples and ways it could work, I don’t think it would ever be very interesting to watch a passive character—somebody who does not create action—that is part of some sort of unitary arc. This would not include characters like Mavis Gary in Young Adult. Even though she begins and ends the film as the same person, which might signal a unitary arc, we experience Mavis attempting to change, and then reverting to her former self. She is an active character, and her charge goes from stubborn childishness to even more stubborn childishness.
The most famous frequenters of the passive character might very well be the Coen brothers, who created the king of all passive characters: The Dude himself.
I started thinking about The Dude while watching Inherent Vice. I get why everybody is making the comparisons between the two films. There are a lot of similarities plot-wise. Both films explore power struggles between antithetical social movements. And, of course, both feature two laid-back, “just-happy-to-be-here” hippies: The Dude and Doc Sportello.
What I think is truly interesting about a side-by-side comparison of those characters is that while each character has a unitary arc and experience no internal change in charge, Doc, despite his similarities to The Dude, is NOT a passive character. Doc may appear passive in his demeanor, but, for my money, Doc is an endlessly more fascinating character because he tries to create change and find meaning. Between opening frame and closing frame, floating amongst the mist of marijuana smoke and patchouli stank, Doc enacts tons of change within his microcosm: When Shasta goes missing, he dedicates himself to finding her; When the government is bearing down on people like Coy, he empathizes with Bigfoot and attempts to thwart that system; When he sees a disrupted family system, he denies money as a reward and negotiates to have the family restored.
Adversely, The Dude experiences zero internal change in charge…but is also the proprietor of his stunted arc. His outlook on life is unwavering and his lifestyle won’t change unless an outside entity disrupts it (and drops a bowling ball on his bathroom floor). I get that that’s his character, the “dudeness” of it all, but when I think about Doc, and I think about Doc challenging himself and attempting to create change in the world…I just can’t connect with The Dude. The Dude is a reactionary character—he only gets involved in scenarios by happenstance, and then only participates if A) it pays, or B) if Walter drags him deeper down the rabbit hole.
Action + Reaction = not interesting, because there’s always more action, more growth waiting to occur.
Action + Reaction + Action = interesting, because that’s human growth, characters learning from situations and taking action—something we, as viewers, can relate to.
Personally, I never get the sense The Dude is emotionally involved in the zany situations he finds himself involved in. He wants to save that “poor girl,” which I guess is pretty admirable? But I don’t think he’s motivated to disrupt class structures or find peace with his place in the cultural landscape. Even when Donny is killed, he doesn’t show any real emotion. His emotions never dictate or dominate a situation. Other people’s emotions and decisions carry his storyline. He’s just The Dude, man, and he just wants to bowl. This is probably why so many people connect with The Dude: people often feel like they’re at the mercy of others, so to watch The Dude handle it all and come out unscathed? That gives people hope.
Personally, I connect with Doc because he has aspirations, wants to improve other people’s lives, and constantly takes action. You know what’s really interesting about all this? According to the way Chris and I have analyzed films, both Doc and The Dude have unitary arcs…yet Doc isn’t a passive character. Doc’s outlook on life, his lifestyle, his internal charge doesn’t alter, despite constantly taking action and creating meaningful change. I think this all gets at the tragedy and melancholy of Doc. Doc is somebody who tries change the external world’s value’s charge from negative to positive, yet accomplishes little-to-no growth inwardly, which shows that “meaningful change in charge” can be found even if the internal value’s charge isn’t changing—we’ll call this a neutral change in charge. The neutral internal change in charge is juxtaposed against a number of negative-to-positive external plot changes in charge he does enact:
Doc starts off looking for Shasta, ends with Shasta; Coy is separated from his family, ends with his family; Bigfoot is depressed about his deceased partner, finds a new companion through Doc.
Doc’s internal change in change hasn’t altered between beginning and end, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know any more about his character. Through these micro external changes in charge, we are able to gleam some understanding of Doc and his relation to the outside world. His journey with Shasta expresses a longing to hold on to love; reuniting Coy with his family proves family is more important than money to Doc; in that final scene, Bigfoot munching on Doc’s weed is Bigfoot’s own weird way of expressing how much he values their friendship and partnership.
I think it is pretty crazy for Paul Thomas Anderson to pull off an active character with a unitary arc and a neurtral internal change in charge. For the Coen brothers, The Dude ending exactly where he started makes sense because The Dude a passive character who doesn’t attempt to change himself or the world around him. But Doc is an active character who actively rebels against the government, power structures, and conflicting ideologies. Yet, despite the lives he has affected, there has been almost no macro external change in charge.
Which brings me full circle, back to unitary arcs.
So, when Chris and I analyze a short film, a passive character is usually a bad sign that usually leads to a boring binary arc and less-than-compelling growth. However, a passive character can work in a unitary arc, as long as there is some form of meaningful change in charge—whether it be internal, macro external or micro external—occurring. And depending on what sort of change in charge is occurring, one of three unitary arcs can emerge:
- Internal unitary arc: The character we have at the end is essentially who we had at the beginning.
- Macro external unitary: The macro situation we have at the end is essentially what we had at the beginning.
- Micro external unitary: The micro situation we have at the end is essentially what we had at the beginning.
To me, The Dude fails to be interesting to me because A) there’s no meaningful internal change in charge juxtaposed against the sporadic external changes in charge, and B) the internal unitary arc is directly in line with the macro and micro external unitary arc. Sure, crazy shit keeps happening around The Dude, but by the end, no meaningful long-term changes have occurred within or around The Dude, macro or micro. Donny dies, but it doesn’t seem to affect The Dude very much. If the world transformed and a new ideological movement took hold and The Dude just remained The Dude, there would be real, deep meaning behind all the change in charge, as the altering environment would explore and expose The Dude psychologically. But, as is, the environment reverts back to its former self, and so does The Dude. Which, knowing the Coen brothers, might be the point? Although this is the reason why millions of people love The Dude, because he is unchanging, personally, his internal unitary arc/change in charge doesn’t keep me interested in the character when juxtaposed against the external unitary arcs/changes in charge.
Disruption between the unitary internal and external is key, showing how meaningful change in charge—be it positive-to-negative, negative-to-positive, or neutral—can exist within a unitary arc. That’s what makes Sam interesting in Brazil—he attempts to change the system, but the system overpowers him and wins. Technically, the system surrounding Sam doesn’t have much of an arc, which is juxtaposed against Sam’s realization of its impenetrable influence. Sam is thinking so big—he wants to avoid a macro external unitary arc—that he fails to focus on the area where he can make a difference: the micro external.
This all comes back to Inherent Vice, a movie that (*breathes deep*) has a macro external unitary plot with a neutral change in charge containing an active protagonist who has a unitary internal arc and a neutral internal change in charge and creates meaningful, long-lasting micro external changes in charge that have negative-to-postive values in a micro external tertiary arc (*exhales*).
Unlike Sam in Brazil, Doc doesn’t fight to upend the 70s political and cultural landscape, but instead fights to change the lives of those affected by that landscape. And, already set in his ways and lifestyle, Doc doesn’t appear to change by the end, owning a unitary internal arc. Doc’s whatever-man attitude doesn’t exactly waver in terms of his outward appearance, which would point to a similar unitary-internal-unitary-external pairing The Dude experienced…but Doc does enact meaningful, long-lasting negative-to-positive micro external changes in charge, which shows that characters with a neutral internal change in charge and an internal unitary arc can create meaningful change if they’re active.
And that’s the root of my beef with The Dude. Of course there is action and “change” in terms of micro plot elements in The Big Lebowski, but none of it is change enacted by The Dude on his own terms, and none of the change is long-lasting, but, instead, short-term. A lack of meaningful internal or external changes in charge combined with a passive character within an internal unitary arc and an external unitary arc is too much dead energy. The point may be: nothing is supposed to happen, and The Dude isn’t supposed to change.
My question would be: How does that make him an interesting main character I can relate to?
And this is the point of all this discussion: Our understanding of Doc in Inherent Vice lies within the subtleties, the aesthetics, the insight into historical struggles, the landscape Anderson paints. Doc doesn’t try to find Shasta because some random dudes came into his house and pissed on his rug—Doc searches for Shasta and takes down the Golden Fang and returns Coy to his family and forms an emotional connection with Bigfoot, all in an attempt to create some microcosm of change, provide some sense of direction to a handful of acquaintances within a suffocating landscape ruled by governmental powers out of his control. This is all an expression of a movement Doc believes in and lives through (like The Dude), but the change he enacts reveals his character, his altered outlook on the corruption of the world, and his inability to enact change on a macro level (unlike The Dude). All Doc can alter is the micro: the people he can help through his P.I. business. That makes the change in charge meaningful and long-lasting, because Doc’s internal unitary arc’s potential seems boundless, forever creating action, building upon itself, continuing to help those who also feel betrayed by the system.