Physical Impossibility presented a panel event at Glasgow Film Festival 2017 called Patsies! A Celebration of the Cinematic Loser. Craig McClure, Dr Becky Bartlett, Edward Ross, Kate Coventry, Video Namaste and Claire Biddles all presented on the theme of cinema’s worst deadbeats, duds and dweebs. I hosted and for the second year running and, despite an extra 30 mins running time this year, FFS, had to cut my own segment for time. I’ve adapted my presentation to read here but made very few changes. Not to say my delivery would’ve made it any better, but bear in mind it was never intended as an article. Enjoy!
We are all the main characters in our own stories. We are de facto the heroes in the movies of our lives. But every film has peripheral characters. You can’t have a focus without a background, right? You have heroes, you have villains, and then every film has countless nobodies.
It’s necessary that stories have protagonists and that their stories are fleshed out with a supporting cast, who are surrounded by incidental characters who are further surrounded by inconsequential human shapes. I want to talk about human collateral damage – the side characters who are casually thrown under the bus so that the main characters can live happily ever after. This operates on a sliding scale from the individual also-rans in every romantic comedy to the tossed-off mass death of Zack Snyder films.
So one one end, take Walter, played by Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. He was Meg Ryan’s fiance, but he was a bit square, had allergies and didn’t get at all “nervous about forever”, so she binned him for Tom Hanks, practically sight-unseen. Nobody is supposed to care what happened to this milquetoast man, but we can be sure he did not go quietly into the night. All thanks to this guy:
But these things happen. Sucks to be you, Walter, but at least you didn’t have kids. But then consider the likes of Gordon Silberman in Roland Emmerich’s 2012.
First of all, no offence to any Gordons out there, but if your romantic opponent is named Jackson Curtis, you’re basically on a shoogly peg. The set-up is this: Jackson is a failed author working as a chauffeur for a Russian oligarch. Gordon, a surgeon, is married to Jackson’s ex-wife Kate and is basically raising Jackson’s kids. But the *wink* fault-lines in their relationship are about to open up:
That’s Gordon there, telling his wife not to jump into a chasm. So the world is ending but Jackson inexplicably manages to swoop in and save his ex-wive and their kids, coincidentally swooping up Gordon along the way. Luckily, Gordon is also a pilot and manages to fly them all to temporary safety. Everyone appreciates Gordon’s vital role in saving their lives so clearly he has nothing to worry about:
Poor Gordon. But not to worry, once they get to the massive arcs that the 1%ers have created to save the rich, he’ll have plenty of time to reassert himself, right?
Nope, Gordon had to die so that Jackson could be reunited with his family. And after a reasonable period of mourning, and once the kids have had time to get over the horrific death of the man who raised them, maybe, just maybe they can move on:
Obviously Gordon can’t come home with them because he’s pretty fucking far from being together, having been torn asunder on the gears of the narrative. Sorry, actual gears.
Not Jackson’s fault – and remember he was dead upset.
So Gordon is another casualty of the happily ever after, but again, these things happen – they need to happen and we understand that. But some films take the piss.
Take Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones in 2011. It has kind of a complicated premise – Jones even provided this handy diagram to help make sense of it:
Captain Colter Stevens (take that, Jackson Curtis), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is part of a military experiment which repeatedly projects him back in time to the moments before a terrorist’s bomb explodes on a passenger train. Each time they send him back, he wakes up in the body of a teacher named Sean Fentress and then has just eight minutes to identify the bomber, who’s planning an even bigger attack back in the present. This is his first trip:
So it’s essentially Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Captain Colter back in the present is actually barely alive, a multiple amputee on life support, so he doesn’t have much of a future. At the same time, he becomes determined to stop the bombing and change the past, convinced his experience there is real and not just a projection. He’s aided in this by Sean’s colleague and potential love interest, Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan.
Source Code becomes a film about multiple alternative realities, and yes, in most of the others depicted, Sean Fentress dies with everyone else on the train. But in the end, in the reality we’re supposed to care about, Colter Stevens stops the bomber and gets a chance at happily ever after when he breaks the loop and time moves on with him still snogging off with Christina.
Everything’s going to be OK. There’s just one pesky question:
We’re supposed to believe it takes just eight minutes for Stephens to woo Christina Warren – remember, we follow six of Colter’s eight-minute cracks at solving the mystery before the train blows up, but he takes at least eight, maybe nine total swings at it. So he gets like an hour total to get to know her and fall for her – it helps that she’s “beautiful, kind and painfully honest”, I guess. And Christina’s obviously impressed with this new Sean. “Who are you and what did you do to Sean Fentress?”, she asks.
BUT from the start, we’ve seen she was already kind of into Sean, who’s her work colleague and has been coaching towards a career move and through a recent break-up. If she wasn’t, it’d be much more difficult for Colter to take care of business. But Colter essentially swoops in at the last minute, eight minutes, I guess, and cashes in on what is possibly years of groundwork by poor Mr Fentress. But I know what you’re thinking – Fentress is dead, right? He would be, anyway, if it wasn’t for Colter. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. And Colter deserves his new lease on life. This is the very end of Source Code:
Emphasis added. Let’s not talk about Fentress’ family, or how Colter’s going to figure out where he lives, or his cash card pin code, and whether he should reapply for his Disclosure before he returns to work. And let’s just hope that Sean isn’t trapped inside his own mind, watching helpless as Captain Colter pilots the ship, Being John Malkovich-style.
What is the takeaway, then? That the next time the hero wins the day, maybe we should spare a thought for the Seans? Maybe not – maybe the real message here is if you like someone, don’t wait to tell them. Don’t leave the door open for the Captain Colters, be the hero of your own story or someone else will. Don’t be a patsy, like Sean. Sean Fentress.