Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Annoyance and Art

When it comes to fictional characters, main characters at least, most audiences want them to be likable. They want to empathize with the hero battling evil or the underdog overcoming huge odds. At the very least, we don't want the main character to be an annoying dipshit.

Not that annoying dipshits can't be entertaining. John Cleese has made a living annoying other people for a living. He even made an instructional video, How To Annoy People, along the way. Of course, that's in laugh out loud farcical situations.

And we love annoying dipshits who get their comeuppance. Think of the title character of Voltaire's (and later Bernstein's) Candide, who is indoctrinated in the worldview that this is the best of all possible worlds. It takes scrapes with the Lisbon earthquake, and auto-de-fe, and other horrors to shake his perception. But at least he comes around in the end.

But what about a character who starts out annoying, stays that way throughout the picture, and doesn't have a change of heart in the end? If the idea intrigues you, may I recommend Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky. It'll mess with your mind.

Happy-Go-Lucky is the story of Poppy, a 30 year old with the sunny disposition of a pre-angst tween. She is precisely the kind of person that would annoy the hell out of me in real life. Relentelessly positive, quick to toss off of non-sequitor to answer a question, and never (well, almost) thrown off stride by what life throws at her, whether it be a bicycle thief, a racist conspiracy theorist driving instructor, or a babbling homeless man. She seems impervious to the real world and all the troubling things that go with it.

So I hated the movie, right? Poppy never learns her lesson, never straightens up and starts to act like the adult she is. What could be more aggravating, right?

Except it isn't. As the film progresses, we see that Poppy is actually a very admirable character. She has deep connections with those around her, from her roommate of a decade to her family and coworkers. She has a job, an important one, that she does well. Her coworkers seem to respect her, at least. Rather than being oblivious to the shitty bits of the world around her, she just refuses to let then ruin her good mood. She's actually kind of impressive, in her own way.

The bottom line is this - Mike Leigh took a character who is clearly annoying and managed to make me admire her. I still didn't care for her, in the end, but I had sufficient respect for her to let her live her life on her own terms. If nothing else, that's a hell of an artistic accomplishment, but what else would you expect from Leigh?

After all, her way of dealing with the world didn't harm anybody else, so what the fuck? I'll just cross the street if I see her bopping down the sidewalk.


jedijawa said...

Interesting. Have you seen Amelie?

jedijawa said...

I liked it. But agree with you too.