Bad Day at Black Rock vs The Last Picture Show
In Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a mysterious man arrives at a small town ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – stepping off a train and inquiring about a Mr Komoko – his presence makes everyone in the town uncomfortable.
The Last Picture Show (1971) tells the story of a group of teenagers, coming of age in a ‘dead end town’ that’s been sidestepped by mid-20th Century America. These stories explore the flip-side of the American dream, the antithesis of the jingoistic ticker tape parade – not exactly a diabolical or dystopian world, so much as one where things have gone off the rails, where working class underachievers blunder into lives of low expectation, desperately seeking meaning in whatever way they can. In Bad Day At Black Rock the mysterious stranger breaks through the poisoned status quo by sheer persistence, and in the process he comes into violent conflict with the town bully.
The Last Picture Show shows bored teenagers distracted by sex to alleviate the claustrophobia and emptiness of small town life. But these are small towns with small town thinking, and the stifling social conventions of conservative 1950s America. In these small towns ‘everyone knows everyone’, and everyone else is an outsider. It’s an inward-looking world. Teenagers, without the opportunity of a place at university, are doomed to a mundane and inconsequential life. These are the backwaters, culturally dead, ossified by the status quo. The youth, with their dreams and aspirations, will surely have their hopes dashed and endure a frustrating future. Even relative success stories in The Last Picture Show are tarnished by unhappy marriages, futile resentments, and destructive rivalries – and in one case is literally unable to perform. This is far from the American dream, more like an American failure. At best, characters are bundles of desire, subjects of their uncontrolled hormones, and at worst – in Bad Day At Black Rock – people are poisoned by envy and prejudice.
- The system in storytelling – stories take place within distinct worlds that have specific characteristics. This can involve a social or cultural way of doing things, a hierarchy or stratification of power – a mind-set. In popular culture it’s referred to as ‘the system’, and protagonists often try to beat it to get justice, and to become themselves. In the Ancient Greek world – the system – had been created by and was maintained by the gods. The mortal world was in many ways a mirror image of Mount Olympus where the gods fought one another and had political squabbles. A hero’s fate could be decided by divine intervention at any point along their journey. Jumping forward, the system in the Medieval European world was a God-given hierarchical order; God at the top, the monarchy ruling by ‘divine right’ below, then the aristocracy, next the landed gentry, and finally the peasants. There was an absolute distinction between good and evil. To defy the hierarchical social order was to act against God’s order. The system in storytelling represents the status quo, and the concentration of power – in the hands of the gods, the monarchy, the property owning class, revolutionaries (the party), or the political elite. The protagonist strives for an end to repression, seeking ‘freedom’ of some kind (emotional or intellectual) and a desire to live in a more natural and harmonious life. The struggle for freedom may involve unmasking the truth, some dark secret at the core of the system, or being allowed to be yourself. The individualism of the protagonist or their desire for freedom and justice compels them to evade or escape the system, but the system inevitably chases them (fearful of an existential threat to its power). There comes a point when the protagonist must eventually assert their beliefs, and fight ‘the system’, whatever form it takes.
- Character and purpose – an audience is more likely to empathise with a character who has a purpose, especially if his or her goal is a basic human desire. In The Road, the Man hopes to take the Boy to safety. In Ice Cold in Alex Captain Anson hopes to take the soldiers and nurses under his command out of harm’s way, and return them to the safely of Alexandria. A visible goal gives a character a dynamic, which is to say, the motivating desire to restore the story’s ‘balance’. It’s only through achieving this that a character can achieve his or her meaningful purpose – this mirrors similar desires held by the audience. The desire for salvation, liberation, and freedom are basic real world and storytelling human goals.