“Southpaw” vs “Hitman: Agent 47” and the power of relatability

Spoilers at no extra charge!

In the last few weeks I’ve been very focused on why stories are so important to us. It’s not news, granted, but the fact remains that humans really like stories, be that real stories, fake stories, real mixed with fake, regular, political, fantastical, you name it and there’ll be an audience for it.

This was very much on my mind when I went to the movies to watch Southpaw. As a story lover, sports themes are beyond last on my spectrum of interest. I have no time for the struggle, the strife or the pain that goes into becoming a first class athlete. We all know that reaching the top at a physical profession is hard, there’s no story there as far as I’m concerned. All the same I sat down to watch it, knowing very little about it besides the fact that it was a movie about a boxer. Ok, I’m not going to lie, Jake Gyllenhaal was the clincher in that I, ahem… “admire” his acting abilities, *cough cough.* Ok, so the dude’s hot!

To the point though: Southpaw starts at the top of the main character’s athletic career. Billy Hope has got it all; he’s beautiful, talented, rich, famous, rose from nothing to the pinnacle of his profession and all without losing a single fight. The viewer is thrown into this perfect life and finds himself rooting for this guy, because he’s tough but gentle and loving too and who through hard work and talent has managed to build himself a great career, a beautiful home and a family. His wife is his childhood sweetheart and together they have a little girl who adores them and who is adored in return. Pretty idyllic right?

Identifiability is at the core of any story. It’s seeing that character, or part of them, in yourself, or the opposite, putting yourself in their shoes and wondering what would I do in that situation? Southpaw gives sight at a lifestyle that most of us would sell our right kidney to achieve, so we know the stakes involved. However, just as all good stories should, it takes a turn; by way of selfish miscalculation and obedience to his ego, rather than the reasonable voice of his wife, he is embroiled in an altercation and the wife is killed, leaving him with two sets of immeasurable grief, his own and his kid’s. The snow globe has ruptured and it is losing pressure fast.

It is at this point that Southpaw’s life unravels and he slips into self-destruct mode from where he loses his money, his house and is on the verge of losing his daughter both by her being taken into the welfare system and, worse of all, by the force of her blame over the loss of her mother. Now Southpaw is forced to find the strength to start from scratch, retrain, gain focus, control his spiralling emotions and put the pieces of his life back together, senza wife and kid.

Though I don’t wish to spoil it entirely for those of you that have yet to see it, the end is pretty predictable; of course he gets his shit together and wins both his family and his career back by way of some rigorous body and mind training and all’s well and all that jazz.

The skill in this story wasn’t in the plot-we’ve seen all that before. The power was in the telling. The narration of the story showed his humanity, his vulnerability and his weakness in the face of this disaster, for which he was essentially to blame, which made you identify with Southpaw and his struggle. I’ll take a guess at saying that most of the viewers will not be boxers but we all know the stakes involved in one form or another. There’s the rigorous training, the pain, the focus, even the hint at the deep psychological warpage that makes someone choose a profession where they agree to get the shit kicked out of them for money. If that’s not Freudian I don’t know what is.

The beauty about this movie was how well it was orchestrated. It was a story wonderfully told from every angle, be that acting, scriptwriting or direction, each aspect was carefully worked, so much so that I was left wondering if it was based on a true story. From what I can tell it was not, but it had enough realistic elements to make you think so. And by realistic I don’t mean “real world,” I mean that it stayed true to its narrative much like GOT can be realistic provided it stays true to its narrative. In this case the anguish was convincing, and the connection with the character was there because you could feel the conflict between his immense pain vs the urgent need to put it aside and pull his pants up.

The beauty hid in the fact that this strong talented boxer was physically fierce but lacked the emotional means to keep his life together in the absence of his wife. Modern and poetic. By the end not only did he get his life and his kid back but also the emotional maturity to see where he had gone wrong the first time. Whoop Whoop Billy Hope says I!

The trope of making dreams come true and vanquishing adversity resonates with most people and was the key to the relatability of this film despite the out there nature of his profession. It was certainly more powerful to have the juxtaposition of the big strong boxer with the emotional strength of a child grow into his own than it would have been a corporate world worker who for many might be a more familiar sight but maybe not as strong a message.

Southpaw should totally be up for an Oscar this year.

In contrast to this Hitman: Agent 47 was, on paper at least, more of the kind of movie I would purposely go to watch. Spy/Sci-fi in nature and with some cool genetic tweaking thrown into the mix, it had the potential for good movie watching and yet it fell flatter than an A4.

Perhaps it marks the difference of a script written purely with the goal of commercial success as opposed to one that has all the signs of a decent creative venture.

The main character, a highly sensitive, genetically mutated girl who is on the run from something called the Syndicate is being hunted down for her skills which will be used to locate her father, the only man who knows how to make more of her. At first she appears scared, vulnerable, down to earth and bohemian; she is also a technophobe and a map using (yes real paper), archive digging polymath who, in theory, I should have been much more able to identify with. Yet I was left completely cold. The script was poor, full of holes and lacked conviction. One minute she can sense people coming for her in her sleep and the next she is fully awake and alert and doesn’t sense jack shit. What the fuck is that all about? Poor script that’s what.

At no point did I relate to her plight, which is closer to my field of interest than a male boxing champion ever would be; neither did I connect with her emerging bad assery, which felt rushed and out of character. She was as delicate, damaged and vulnerable as they come yet at no point did I feel concerned that she might die. Neither did I wonder how or whether she was going to get out of all of it alive, despite attempts to make her appear charitable, humble and chosen. Her own attachment to the male characters was cold and weak (nothing like Southpaw’s connection to his wife) even though one of the male leads turns out to be her brother who wakes her long suppressed childhood memories of abandonment. Blah!

Katia starts off as a frightened, feeble semblance of a human being but through the help of 47 she is given the space to grow and mature as the movie progresses so that she can come into her own, an improved version of the genetically enhanced human being that we know her to be by way of the film’s messages. In her universe her struggle is also very real; she fights to prove that both she and the automaton that she is travelling with are responsible for their choices and that they are not simply action figures made up by the sum of their parts, or that their mutated powers and lack of emotion, as in the case of 47, are affecting their humanity. Great in theory but it all fails to transfer out of the glossy look on the screen. Her pain simply does not contaminate the viewer.

I don’t know if you need to see both these films to recognize the similarities other than read about them here, but I thought there were enough common points in the search for personal growth at high stakes to make me wonder about weak and strong story telling. One failed miserably whereas the other was a major success. The power is always in the telling of the story.

Everyone struggles, everyone knows fear and loss and sometimes even bravery but it’s worth nothing at all if by the end of it the character leaves you cold. Blockbuster shootemups might be great for the adrenaline rush you get from watching them but I know that its Southpaw’s maturation and growth that will stay with me for the longer term.

So I ask, what is it that makes a viewer/reader empathize with the character?

On success, dreams, aspirations and fluidity.

I like to think that people have dreams. All people.  There are billions of people on this planet and for the most part they work in areas they are not drawn to, are not happy in and dare I say, are not where they hoped to be when they were kids, astronaut ambitions notwithstanding, and that’s just the developed world, to say nothing of the millions living in abject poverty scraping a living in inhuman conditions in sweat shops and the like if I am allowed to speak broadly.

Everybody wants to be happy and successful though success means different thing to different people. Some want to reach the highest echelons in large corporations, others think lots of money means success no matter how they make it, whereas most consider a happy family life to be the key. There are also those who want to be spiritually fulfilled and those who are happy living in the moment with no further thought to the future. Success is very relative and we must always judge it by our standards and not those imposed on us or expected of us by our environments.

For those working in fields they find uninspiring and who are judged by the success yardsticks of others, breaking the drudgery of uninspiring routine, are the occasional stories they hear of the lucky few who through hard work, luck or a combination of the two, managed to make their dreams come true in the nick of time and break away from the poverty or the soul destroying grind they had to endure for years on end, finally reaching their goals, achieving their ambitions and living happily ever after. But what about those that never made it? What about the majority of those people who believed the rhetoric, tried really hard, made the affirmations day in and day out and still ended their lives far from completing or even approaching the dreams they had harboured for a life time? Who thinks of them? Who tells their story? What do they teach us?

Like many of the people I know, I too belong to the millions of dream-bearers who live in small communities which are unable to sustain the more artistically inclined individual. I have but one life ambition: to make a living from my writing which would allow me the freedom to explore all my other artistic outlets such as my sculpting, cooking, silver work etc. In truth I want a Renaissance lifestyle, art sustaining art, just for the sake of my piece of mind and spiritual completion. I would love for my work to achieve meteoric success but the truth is I would be head over heels happy to have a steady average income where I could support my modest lifestyle, currently sustained by my corporate employee status, without the fear of being unable to pay my bills, feed my cats, go out to dinner from time to time and maybe even the odd trip abroad. At the time of writing this I am in the middle of having my first book edited, which will be released in a matter of weeks. I have high hopes for this book, but I am also mature enough to realise that life is not made merely of dreams but some very harsh realities too. Maybe this time next year, I will still be here struggling with my writing; maybe it will have had some average success though apparently the majority of self-published authors sell an average of 300 books before plateauing which is a very sobering thought indeed, considering how many authors I have come across in the brief time that I have been interacting with the fascinating world of indie publishing, some of which are very good indeed. Hindsight might be 20-20 but future-sight is blind as a bat with broken sonar and the only thing I, and I guess a lot of other creatives, have is non dithering confidence in our work and lots of hope for the future, only it’s sometimes very hard to keep that up, especially when the current and the odds are constantly against you. Confusing? Yes! Ironic? Even more so! When you’re a one woman marching band, you just have to keep going.

Becoming an author is really quite simple. You just sit down at a keyboard and bash away at your amazing story. Easy! Ok, maybe it’s not that simple, but truth is I really do believe that you don’t need much to be become a novelist as long as you fulfil certain criteria. Everybody can tell a story, some more successfully than others and each in their own style. I’ve been racking my brains and cannot think of a single person I’ve ever met who is incapable of telling a story. Telling stories, describing situations, verbally communicating is what makes us human. Not everyone needs to be a Shakespeare or a Dickens or a Marquez to be able to tell a story because, lets be honest, not everyone wants to read Shakespeare, Dickens or Marquez. Everyone has their own style and everyone has their audience.

Someone once said that everybody has a book in them, and Christopher Hitchens went that little bit further and added that that’s where it should stay, but much as it pains me, on this matter I disagree with the great man. I love listening to people’s stories; they don’t have to tell you every single fact of what happened to them from the moment they were born to the moment they came to stand before you to realise that there is something interesting about everyone, so maybe in our core we are all little storytellers and listeners. Whatever the field, who doesn’t like books and if not books then movies, or TV series and soap operas even? Stories are in all of us. The mind’s innate curiosity searches them out in our routine, in gossip, in the news… The world is made up of big and little stories.

I believe you can have a talent for writing and storytelling but I also believe it can be acquired if you have certain personality traits such as a good imagination and good observation skills. Obviously good command of your chosen language is mandatory but that too can be worked on. Those with the need to write don’t have to have a degree in English Literature, a good author will always shine by the quality of their work. What helps, is a thirst to read because other authors are our greatest teachers. Through them we are taught what works and what doesn’t in the written form. In his book On Writing, Stephen King advises potential authors to read voraciously, and not just good books but bad ones too, because there is nothing more obvious than a bad book pointing out in practice what doesn’t work in the written word. That having been said however, “good” and “bad” is all relative because there have been countless books released which have found incredible commercial success that I would label as terribly written or cliché. Is it all subjective? Does it depend on the reader, the genre, the style of writing? Probably, but who can tell for certain? There’s that fluid concept of success again.

If indeed everybody has a book in them, then I have several. Hell, I make up of stories in my head about people I come across in the street just by what they’re wearing or holding or driving or I make up scenaria from bits of what people say to me or even what they don’t, simply by the way they behave or their body language. I like this so much that sometimes I don’t even want to know the truth about what they were really doing on Saturday night because my version is so much more entertaining and way more interesting. Does that make me unstable? I don’t know. The ghost in the attic will neither confirm nor deny, he’s had the hump with me since the exorcism. I am not a traditional author. I have two degrees in History and am well read and though I’ve always dabbled, I never thought I could be an author for real, or even if I was to become one, we all know the astronomical odds against getting published. I realise however that we are living through a very exciting time where anyone with a dream has the means and the opportunity to go after it a lot more easily than in the past. I am grateful for the indie movement and am awed by the opportunity to be part of it, come what may.

In conclusion, I wanted this blog to act as somewhat of a timeline or a record of my author voyage right from the start, a bit like a captain’s log on a journey with an unknown (but hopefully long and prosperous) duration, perhaps in solidarity to other people who are dedicated to changing their lives and doing something that gives them pleasure, as opposed to something that causes them pain or that they consider to be meaningless or unchallenging. It is not my intention to give writing tips as I am not an expert though I would perhaps enjoy the using the editing skills I’ve gained from my professional experiences and help people on their writing journey as others have helped me. This blog is purely a record of my writing adventure and a soapbox, so as not to say pulpit, for my thoughts and experiences of this new field that I have come to love and admire, and I hope it gives you food for thought whether you are a reader or writer. It is fluid, just like success…

Oh and to answer your question, no I don’t have an attic.