On Poetry and Culture Shock

Movies on heroism, both sides of the Atlantic.

I have just seen an Irish short film on Sonnie Murphy, an Irish athlete from the early 20th century. He died young, but inspired other Irish men to practise long-distance running. The movie made evident a point in which American and British-style filmmaking are different.

Everyone loves a story of personal achievement. We all love to see Scrooge reformed, the underdog vindicated, or the Ugly Duckling transformed. In American-style movies, the achiever is some sort of Chosen One. I’m thinking of Jerry Maguire, Shine, Good Will Hunting, Finding Rochester, Save the Last Dance. Sometimes there is a godlike figure, a mentor. Sometimes there is a blindly worshipping wife/girlfriend (mind you, no blindly worshipping boyfriend or husband, ever). What is always clear is that the protagonist has to fight alone against The System, against society, although the same people that scorned him will quickly become his fans as soon as it is clear that he is A Winner. The Chosen One transcends earthly limitations. The alternative is failure, being labelled as A Loser (booo, baaaad).

The British-style movie is a bit different. In it, the protagonist will have community support; the fight is partly against The System and partly against the protagonist’s own limitations. I’m thinking of The Commitments, The Van, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot (only to an extent), Little Voice, and superhero movies. The British-style achievement movie will include a scene in which the whole community sides with the hero in making some sort of collective effort to help him (for example, collecting money so that s/he can go to a far away competition). And someone will always tell the hero, “we need you to do this so that we feel special, so that we have a reason to be excited”. The hero’s community transcends mediocrity through him. The alternative is not being a loser: it is boredom, predictability. Eventual success is irrelevant; the important thing is to have tried.

Some British movies are done in the American mould. Bend It Like Beckham is one: the protagonist is a Chosen One, in need to fight against The System symbolised by her parents, who give in when she proves to be a star. Billy Elliot is halfway between the two schools: Billy is The Chosen One, even from birth, and he has to fight against the system, symbolised by his family, ad there is a mentor-figure, but his success is important for the community that eventually gives him support, and the problem is not Success vs. Failure, but the satisfaction of following one's true calling vs. apathy. Neither model is superior to the other (they are like all formulas: good if used skilfully) but I think moviegoers benefit from the existence of as many ways as possible of constructing stories.

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