Tuesday, October 13, 2009

phantasm, or the TODF Theory of Dudes

I've long held there's a Meyers-Briggs style Theory of Dudes which applies just as much to fiction as fact, and while there's a bunch of different subnotes to this theory the heart of the matter can be summed up as The Dude's Creed. America aspires (and sadly too often fails) to live by the Dude's Creed, and many of the common examples of Dudeism really aren't very good examples (Jeff Lebowski, for example, is not a Dude but a Goof with Dude ascending: we'll get into this later), but there is a perfect example of Dudeism in its purest state, and that's Phantasm. You'll generally hear Don Coscarelli's 1979 film considered as a horror film, which is probably apt, but it's much more a coming of age film, and the heroes of the film typify a kind of Joseph Campbell style Dudeism in the starkest of terms. Note: this is usually a given, but I want to make it painfully clear that anyone can be any of these types, and odds are good that in most movies there's at least as many female Dudes as male. So what makes a dude a Dude? The dude is the embodiment of Pynchon's line "Be cool but care", a way of being able to objectively understand the surrounding world and act justly while still remaining compassionate. A Dude probably wouldn't put it that way, but you know what I mean. The Dude is part of any number of archetypal roles, from the samurai to the cowboy, and much of what I dislike about current films is there's just not enough Dudes. Let's look at the Pearson brothers, Jody and Mike. Jody, the older brother, is a fully formed dude, while Mike is becoming a dude (and by the beginning of the film is already further along than most dudes-in-training). A dude is self-sufficient: because Jody does not need anyone to take care of him, he has the ability to help others without needing anything in return. The Pearson house has no parents (due to a recent car accident) and Mike has bonded really strongly with Jody in their absence, even following him as he attends the funeral of one of his friends. This is where Mike starts to notice strange things happening at the mortuary, and where he begins having trouble telling fantasy from reality. A true dude has the ability to cut that Gordian knot, and it's important to consider that Mike, instead of pretending nothing happened and going on with his life, investigates the mortuary -- Evil does not randomly fall on the characters in Phantasm, they directly confront it. As a kid, this was very refreshing, having seen my share of likeable but whiny protagonists from Jen in the Dark Crystal to Luke Skywalker, so a kid who wasn't constantly whining "Why do I have to go in the spooky cave?" was very engaging. The Pearsons are dudes all the way around: they work on cars (Jody has a fucking *sweet* '71 Cuda Hardtop), Mike drives around on his minibike, Jody plays guitar with his friend Reggie who drives an ice cream truck -- it's like Dude Heaven. In my schema the positive roles are Dudes and Goofs, and Reggie is a goof -- he likes to hang out and crack wise and take life as it comes, but he has a strong minor characteristic of Dude -- he'll goof off, but when it's important he'll step up and do what needs to be done. These guys could be characters from The Journey to the West they fit the types so well, and it's a big part of what makes this movie so engaging to me as a kid (and still to this day). Dudes (positive active) need Goofs (positive passive) because otherwise they can't enjoy themselves and get too focused on their goals, while Goofs need Dudes to keep focused and not constantly get sidetracked, so they're a good match. The negative types are Wussies (negative passive) and Scumbags (negative active) -- a Wussy is just sour about everything and has no ability to make any kind of meaningful change, while a Scumbag accumulates power to manipulate others and feed the unchecked ego. The Tall Man is obviously a Scumbag. You can admire the Scumbag for the ambition and realpolitik he or she brings to the table, but ultimately the greater vision is lacking, whereas the Wussy is just pathetic. I think the key to Coen Brothers films is each one consists entirely of only one type, and the comedy or drama which ensues results from the things that type lacks on its own. I'll write more on this after work, but I figure you get the basic premise.

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