Minor Characters, Slight Return

About a year ago – give or take – we ran a piece on beloved minor characters – those bit parts that somehow build a film into something more; that give colour, or background, or just plain WTF moments. Well, we’re back for more…

The Cowboy, Mulholland Dr.
by MrMoth

Many, many words have been placed on the internet concerning Mulholland Dr. The meaning, the point, even the story, have been puzzled over to little effect at great length. What’s with the guy who doesn’t like the coffee? What’s in the box? Who’s the guy behind the burger bar? Do they do snacks in Club Silencio, or do you think you have to bring your own? Would sweet wrappers be too noisy, do you think? Well, I’m not here to answer, or even ask, any of those questions. I’m interested, primarily, in The Cowboy.

If you see him once, you did good. If you see him twice, you did bad. If you see him thrice, you get a ‘Big Chief I-Spy’ badge. But why would you want to see him at all? Look at the guy, take a look at him in his first scene, he’s a freak, he should be advertising cheese. The lipless mouth, the browless eyes. The big hat. Five six at high tide and eight stone in the rain, he shouldn’t be menacing, but he assuredly is. Maybe this is due to the stiffness of the delivery – this is sometime Lynch producer Monty Montgomery’s only acting part – maybe due to the spooky-doo Lynch ambience surrounding him, maybe it’s just that someone who looks a proper tit giving orders backed by semi-mystical threats is actually so weird that it can’t be anything other than menacing.

This is sort of spoiler-filled, but you’re taking that risk, right?

The Cowboy appears twice more in the film. Ruh-roh! But is that bad? The disunited fracture three quarters in to  the film throws everything into disorder, so when we see the Cowboy wafting around the swanky party at the end like some kind of fancy perfume, does it even relate to his Wyclef Jean style threats earlier? Is it his outrageous getup (honestly, that coat! Is he fresh on-set after managing the ’82 England squad?) that grabs Naomi Watts’ attention, plucking him up as a supporting character in her – yes! – death dream? Does any of it matter? When it comes down to it, the Cowboy is there for the same reason as the wheelchair-bound mobster, or the incompetent hit man – to bamboozle the viewer, to set up menacing dissonance, to keep our eyes on everything but what we want to look at.

Annoying Movie Line Guy, Annie Hall.
by Indy Datta

You know nothing of my work, Jon Snow!

I watched Annie Hall for the first time in ages recently, and coincidentally saw Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, the next day, because I’d missed the start of the film I actually wanted to see. Almost any comparison between the two films serves as a sobering benchmark of how weak Allen’s latest work is compared to his best (box office success and Oscar notwithstanding), but here’s just one.  The pompous dickhead in the celebrated New Yorker movie line scene from Annie Hall is a comedy movie staple – the fall guy who’s there to make the hero look good in comparison. But it’s a staple that needs to be used judiciously if a film isn’t to become smug and bullying – comic heroes shouldn’t be made to look too good.

But the present-day characters in Midnight in Paris are nothing but fall guys. There’s Michael Sheen’s “pseudo-intellectual” (and really, after making (i) Interiors and  (ii) Jonathan Rhys Meyers quote Sophocles to some ghosts in Match Point, Woody just doesn’t get to call anyone a pseudo-intellectual) , who’s like the Annie Hall gag made Welsh flesh, but there’s also Rachel McAdams and her parents, whose function in the script is to say something really ghastly in every scene they’re in (so obviously ghastly you don’t even need to pull Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster to berate them) so that we’ll like Gil – the Woody character played by Owen Wilson – more. You can see why Woody might think he needed to do that, as  Gil has no apparent personality beyond not being as vulgar as his in-laws, but, yes, smug and bullying (and unfunny) it is.

After McLuhan smacks the guy down in the Annie Hall scene, Alvy Singer addresses the audience and says “Boy, if life were only like this!” – the wish fulfillment aspect of the comedy is acknowledged, the danger of forgetting inherently part of that recognition. You’ll look in vain for any such perspective in Midnight, or any other recent Allen film.

Harry Pepper, Barefoot in the Park
by Anise44

It may look like a stoop, but it climbs like a flight.

Poor Harry Pepper. All those storeys! Terrorised by stairs is never a good way to start your character’s arc – huffing and puffing like a real-life wheezy the penguin in order to install a telephone. All he wanted to do was go to work, do his job, stop for lunch (pastrami on rye) and then go back home again. Little did he expect the stairs.

Still, at least the lovely young couple are sweet and it’s always nice to see people starting out in life – I bet he spoke about them to Mrs Pepper that night over their spaghetti marinara ,and they will have smiled warmly, thinking of the two newlyweds – no less a couple than Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, even – at the top of the apartment block, setting up home in financially-straitened domestic bliss.

Oh but then! Off-scene, this little mileu falls apart – and the telephone is the tragic casualty. Communication breakdown (the symbolism!). These being pre-mobile days, Harry is called back urgently. Our poor hero’s return to screen is in the midst of the crumbling remains of young love, and he is consequently met with a vision of The Somme, or at the very least the full-throated cold war. Did you know ketchup could be a weapon?

I felt every frantic move – the pain and desperation! Our poor repair man’s need to get out of the apartment before he became a blood sacrifice, or was asked to dispose of a body. Poor Harry Pepper. All he wanted was to go to work, do his job, stop for lunch (salt beef bagel) and then go back home again. He was great. He was sympathetic. He was hysterical.

Thurston Howell, Magnolia
By Phil Concannon

‘Nothing in this game for two in a bed’.

Henry Gibson had a career that spanned over four decades, but he remains best known for the parts he played in two great ensemble pictures. In 1975, Gibson played Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman’s Nashville, and that performance inspired his casting in Altman devotee Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in 1999. In an interview with Sight & Sound, Anderson said that he wrote this role for Gibson simply because, “I really wanted to work with that guy.”

Gibson’s appearance in the film occurs almost an hour into Anderson’s sprawling drama. Lovelorn former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) arrives in a bar to drown his sorrows and cast admiring glances at hunky bartender Brad. He unwisely strikes up a conversation with bar regular Thurston Howell (Gibson), who has his own flirtatious relationship with Brad, and who treats other patrons of the bar with disdain and condescension, doling out a series of sneering put-downs. “You talk in rhymes and riddles and rub-a-dub… ” a bemused Donnie complains as he hears another of Thurston’s cryptic one-liners.

Clad in a velvet smoking jacket, Gibson gives a perfectly measured and devilishly entertaining performance. This watering hole is Thurston’s territory, and he doesn’t take kindly to the likes of Donnie stumbling into it, stealing the spotlight and making their own play for the object of his affections behind the bar. His delivery of lines like “Sounds as sad as a weeping willow,” as he listens to Donnie’s tale of woe, is laced with casual cruelty, and his physical mannerisms, the way he primly clutches his glass or catches Brad’s attention by dangling a note in the air, immediately establish his character in brief strokes. In this three-hour, multi-character film, Gibson only has a few short scenes and a handful of lines, but it’s enough to make a vivid and unforgettable impression

One thought on “Minor Characters, Slight Return

  1. I have just discovered that the actor who played Harry Pepper (Herb Edelman, he was 6 foot 5!) also played Dorothy’s husband Stanley in the Golden Girls. Harry Pepper was married to Bea Arthur. So there you go.

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