What aspect of film most compels us to keep watching? For some, it can be heart pounding action scenes with transforming cars, creepy and dark atmospheres of forgotten campgrounds, or in the case of the 2012 comedy Ted, seeing Mark Wahlberg punch a ten year old in the face. Trust me, you’d have to watch it, but it’s funny. More so than not, when we think about our favorite movie characters, it’s those in which we can see elements of who we look at every morning in the mirror; ourselves. In order to dive deeper into this discussion we’ll examine how one film, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, succeeds in its character development, and the other, 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, fails.
Both of our main characters, Captain Miller, and Blanche, use their current circumstances to hide their true identities. In Ryan, we find out about Miller’s past within a powerful monologue. This moment is cleverly built up towards when as we learn early on, there are bets being made to whomever to find out about Miller. Within the monologue we find out about how he was a high school english teacher, living a somewhat normal life. This moment is impactful to the overall story and characters because it’s Miller’s way of reminding everyone that at the end of the day we’re all just regular people, who can find ourselves in unusual circumstances.
There’s no ‘one’ moment in Desire when we find the truth about Blanche’s past, it’s mainly sprinkled throughout the course of the film. Each of these moments really don’t have an impact on the characters, or the overall story. For example, when Blanche tells Mitch something as important as her being a main factor into why her husband killed himself, Mitch simply says, “You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be- you and me, Blanche?” The reason this answer is so dissatisfying, is that we already know how Mitch feels about Blanche. It may add to what we know, but doesn’t change it.
You might think these differing moments would all add up in the end, to maybe change a character’s viewpoint. For example, Blanche’s sister Stella. You would be mistaken. In the beginning of the movie, Stella is on the side of her sister even when it hurts, by the end of the film Stella’s character has not changed. Making any use of learning more about Blanche, seemingly a waste of time.
Before the opening scene there should already be a disconnect between the audience and characters in Ryan, and there intentionally is. We aren’t quite sure who the main characters are, as we see the allies arriving to Omaha beach. Most of us have learned about D-day, so there is something to somewhat connect us, but nothing substantial. We end up caring more about a fictitious battle at the end of Ryan, more than the epic scale of the real Normandy opening, because we are connected to the characters. The script gives us time to relate to, or at least understand, each solider.
If this is the case, then Desire should automatically have an advantage over Ryan in this regard. Most people can’t relate to war, but we all in our own ways can relate to the war-at-home of over exaggerated family drama. Due to Desire’s poor character development we simply don’t care about the characters, in turn we don’t care about what’s happening. With Ryan, we find notably this is the exact opposite. So at the end of the day, what keeps us watching movies? The answer is as simple as you’d think; we do.