The Death of the Tragic Figure in Cinema

There have been many great and memorable tragic figures on the silver screen in what was essentially a Shakespearean model, from John Cassavettes’ flawed heroes grappling with the absurdity of the American Dream to Steve McQueen’s iconic embodiment of the individual against the system.[1] Disillusionment with the removal of these figures from any tangible human reality contributed to the development of a vein of cinema that had originated in the Fifties with the Italian Neo-Realists and found its epitome in Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief through its depiction of day-to-day working-class suffering. Indeed, Arthur Miller famously stated that:

In this age few tragedies are written […] it has often been held that the lack is due to a paucity of heroes among us […] we are often held to be below tragedy. The inevitable conclusion is, of course, that the tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly […] I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.[2]

This endeavour to portray the everyman as a subject for tragedy in all the misery of an existence founded in banality and struggle has also, to a large extent, cinematically stagnated. Indeed, the age of the tragic figure, the age of towering heroes and of ordinary men grappling against insurmountable odds, has been almost entirely laid to rest. What is now emerging in much contemporary cinema could more aptly be identified as the tragedy of the human condition, or of the modern era itself, over that of the individual. The tragic feeling as Miller describes it can no longer be solely attributed to the sensation “evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity”.[3] Tragedy is now seen in the failure of figures to escape an existence where any form of catharsis is denied, and where even the purest motivations can only lead inevitably to anguish and despair. It is thus tragedy on absurd terms. Characters now portrayed on screen are shown floundering in the midst of a desolate and impenetrable sea of grey celluloid; this terrifying impression of some ghastly moral ambivalence marking their actions has been best encapsulated in Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (the precursor to the celebrated Oldboy and the first film in the director’s “Vengeance Trilogy”).

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance illustrates an intense and harrowing cycle of violence which is precipitated by the grimly ironic attempts of the central protagonist, Ryu, to save the life of his dying sister. In desperate need of money in order to pay for his sister’s medical treatment Ryu kidnaps the daughter of his wealthy boss, Dong-Jin; the consequences of this act draw both Ryu and Dong-Jin into a haunting spiral of destruction that escalates exponentially at every turn. However, what distinguishes Park Chan-Wook’s bleak vision, and what is shown to be truly tragic, is that none of the central characters in the film are morally wrong; the audience is unable to condemn the horrors enacted on screen as they are so believably human. Suffering instead stems here from the most righteous and noble of actions, there is thus no conceivable logic uniting the downfall of these people and their desire to do what is good and honourable. A pervasive sense of helplessness hence abounds within the film; the only course available for the two central figures is to watch their world slowly disintegrate around them, regardless of whatever they may do. For Park Chan-Wook, the universe ultimately appears to be a perverse enigma, in which there can no longer be a right action, so that one man’s tragedy is subsequently extended to a universal sense of tragic absurdity. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance effectively dispels the illusion of a world divided into rigid shades of black and white, revealing in its place a pixelated grey blur.

This horrifying sense of greyness, where all now fall inescapably under a tragic veil, is further evident in the Turkish Three Monkeys by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the director of Climates and Uzak. On the surface Three Monkeys seems to provide an acute analysis of the interweaving of the personal and political spheres of life in contemporary Turkish society, and the dangerous ramifications that arise as a result. Referencing the Sino-Japanese image of the three wise monkeys, who in turn see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, alternatively suggests that Ceylan’s film is more about the human reluctance to acknowledge the now ever-present existence of a maliciously cynical cosmos. Ironically, Three Monkeys also highlights suffering arising from a father’s selfless desire to do the right thing for his family in a hostile world of economic hardship. It is thus blackly comic in its unfairness and absurdity, for good and bad alike are rendered equal and irrelevant – everyone will come to grief however valiantly they struggle to do the right thing. One cannot help but think that this modern vista of collective tragedy, where pathos is no longer solely the reserve of one specially designated figure, is a sombre reflection of the world around which cinema itself is moulded.

Even the latest incarnation of superheroes are not free from this terrifyingly fatalistic condition, in that with each confrontation there are shown to be no winners and only losers in what is increasingly exposed to be a universally tragic epoch. Again, it is perhaps the lack of a definitive demarcation between good and evil that both unnerves and compels us, hence the prominent element of moral ambivalence in the recent adaptations of once untarnished comic book figures. Indeed, the eponymous Hellboy in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army is simultaneously the crux of humanity’s survival and the cause of its undoing, as is foretold in the film’s unsettling dénouement by the Angel of Death:

It is all the same to me, my heart is filled with dust and sand. But you should know, it is [Hellboy’s] destiny to bring about the destruction of the Earth […] not now, not tomorrow, but soon enough. Knowing that, you still want him to live? […] The world, or him?

The tragic absurdity of being damned in either scenario is here shown as having penetrated the once secure realms of fantasy, where characters were either strictly good or bad. It is the growth of this grey area in terms of morality that effectively marks the demise of the tragic individual and the coming of a universal tragic condition in modern cinema.

Cinematically, the era of the tragic character is in many ways over. One man’s struggle against an oppressive economic system has become indicative of a tragic age which has dispensed with moral certitudes. World cinema especially is turning to question the surmounting lack of logic and absurdity that defines the modern human existence. The final image etched on the screen is thus almost utterly nihilistic, yet perhaps it is time to hear, speak, and ultimately see evil. To attempt to render such films more ethically palatable or aesthetically pleasing would be to distort what we know, but never truly wish to acknowledge, is reality. And even in the moments of ugly, unflinching violence and unremitting bleakness, films like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance contain instances of sublime beauty and aching tenderness that cause us to re-evaluate our perspective on life. However disturbing and uncomfortable it may be to endure such pessimism there is something inexplicably and absurdly life-affirming about witnessing the grim comedy of such trials. Rorschach’s bitterly ironic reflection on the Comedian in Zack Snyder’s recent adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen in some ways best summarises this cinematic progression from an era of individual tragic figures to an age and society of collective tragedy:

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But, doctor […] I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laughs. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Fade to black.

[1] See The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; Opening Night; Hell is for Heroes; The Sand Pebbles.

[2] Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”, The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller (London: Methuen Drama, 1994).

[3] Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”.

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