Non-human characters

It’s awards season once again, but there will be no gongs for the thespians who aren’t people.

Not all the characters we see in movies are flesh and blood.

In 2003’s Japanese Story, for instance, one of the more prominent parts was played by the Australian outback.

Menacing, disquieting, inscrutable, beautiful, the Pilbara was an intrinsic component of the movie.

While actor Toni Collette and the film itself earned praise and awards, it seemed almost unfair not to present the outback with its own Australian Film Institute gong.

This might, of course, create some logistical problems. What would the desert wear to the ceremony? What would it say in its acceptance speech?

(“I’d like to thank God …”).

Likewise, in Lawrence of Arabia, the shifting golden sands of the Middle East form as big part of the film’s fabric as the performance of Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif or indeed any of the human players.

Ubiquitous, enigmatic and unrelenting, the desert in the film is like a stalking villain that never lets up or gives in; survival requires a constant effort.

That film’s musical score is also such an indelible and recognisable part of the movie that it too is like an unseen character, albeit an important and evocative one.

As the score builds, accompanying a scene where Lawrence leads a caravan of camels across a seemingly unnavigable part of the desert, you can feel your throat becoming increasingly parched. Will they ever reach the other side?

You would expect song to play a key part in musicals – films like Singin’ in the Rain or Oklahoma would hardly make sense without them.

Yet there are other films, too where song plays a key role.

Imagine Saturday Night Fever without the pulsing disco tunes of the Bee Gees. The scene featuring John Travolta strutting along the pavement to the accompaniment of Stayin’ Alive is a defining moment of 70s pop culture.

Although the Coen brothers billed O Brother Where Art Thou as an adaptation of The Odyssey, (even giving Homer a screenwriting credit) it is really a series of comical vignettes that are tied together by an eclectic range of bluegrass tunes.

It is a film with a rather exaggerated, contrived (but humorous) plot. The pleasure to be derived from viewing it comes from its beautiful craftsmanship – the sumptuous cinematography and mise en scene – and the performances from its character actors.

Apart from George Clooney, who plays the excessively loquacious Ulysses Culpepper, I don’t think there’s a more important “character” than the music.

Indeed, it almost seems at times as if scenes were written to accompany the music rather than vice versa.

Many films are set in the urban environment where most of us live, and cities can also sometimes seem like characters, even playing major parts.

New York is as familiar to us as many Hollywood stars.

Its dangerous streets and ornate buildings, its parks and skyscrapers are used so often in film they are in danger of being typecast.

It’s a good thing it is such a versatile performer, sometimes sophisticated and alluring (Manhattan, Wall Street Moonstruck), sometimes dangerous and dishevelled (The French Connection, The King of New York).

The city saddled with playing desperate, depressed or just plain worn-out characters has got to be Detroit.

Once described as the place where the American Dream broke down in the rain and rusted, the Motor City is usually depicted as some kind of hell.

In 2002’s Narc, its grey, drab, joyless streets play a rather malevolent role. The human equivalent might be portrayed by Christopher Walken.

It is a ghoul, a dark-hearted thug from which its denizens are incapable of breaking free.

In Robocop, Detroit is depicted as something of a lawless playground for various pimps, thieves and other assorted criminals ripe for the intervention of the straight-laced cyborg policeman. Yet in 2002’s 8 Mile not even the gritty Motown streets can hold Eminem back from his rhyming’ destiny.

A city doesn’t have to be real to play a character, either.

Consider the metropolis of Dark City in the film of the same name, Gotham in Batman, the hamlet in Sleepy Hollow, or the unnamed city in Se7en.

None are in fact genuine cities, but if anything this only heightens their status as characters rather than mere living spaces. Their shadowy nooks, gothic spires and spooky lanes seem to be inhabited by a nasty sense of foreboding – as if the streets know something the human characters in the films are yet to learn.

The cinema landscape, in fact, features many non-flesh-and-blood characters in a range of guises.

A boat, a building and a computer played important roles in Titanic, Towering Inferno and 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively.

On the meteorological side, the ocean stole the thunder in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, The Perfect Storm, and White Squall.

Backdraft may have featured Robert De Niro, Billy Baldwin and Kurt Russell, but the real star of the film was its many fiery tongues of flame.

In Twister a series of powerful gusts was the headline act.

Of course for these films to achieve any sort of realism, the special effects have to be top shelf.

In the past few years computer-generated effects have come to play such an intrinsic component of filmmaking that in movies such as The Mummy or Matrix Reloaded they could be said to constitute a character all their own.

A character does not have to be corporeal.

In Serendipity, a sense of fate, of destiny, plays perhaps the main character (certainly the title role) in the romantic comedy.

The other side of fortune is bad luck, and in Intacto it is depicted as a palpable object that can be transferred from one person to another, like a disease, or a dread talisman.

One of the main characters in Final Destination is Death. Unlike the hooded Reaper of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, or the spectral figure of the Ingmar Bergman film, it has no human guise.

Rather it is an unseen force that is not assuaged until its intended victims are taken.

And there’s a very big upside to this cast of characters.

They don’t have managers, make unreasonable demands, stay out late partying, want to direct, or ask, “What’s my motivation?” There are no tantrums, no bad days.

They are method actors, and always in character.

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