Names in Film
The Beginnings of Dignity
Why is it R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest instead of Randle, Melanie Daniels rather than Melanie or Daniels in The Birds, and Rosemary rather than Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby? L.B. Jefferies is Jefferies or Jeff but never L.B. in Rear Window, while in There Will Be Blood we may think of Daniel Plainview through his full name but not his first name. In Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte while her costar (Bill Murray) plays Bob Harris. In Vertigo, the central character's name is John Fergusson but he is usually called Scottie in the film. What does this tell us about the film-world characters are in and how we should react to them in terms of familiarity or formality?
Nothing could seem more formal than R.P McMurphy. It could be the sort of name we find at a doctor's surgery, where initials initiate and conclude the name: R.P. McMurphy, M.D. Yet McMurphy is one of the least formal characters in film, someone who of course fights for small freedoms in the mental institute in which he finds himself, after managing to convince the authorities he isn't mentally well even if he is in control of his faculties and just wishes to get out of Labour duties at the prison. But perhaps there is something in the surname, in the McMurphy, which suggests a Celtic rumbustiousness, a Scottish Mc meeting an Irish Murphy. The person with whom he constantly comes into conflict is Nurse Ratched, someone who has no first name in the film and a hard-sounding surname. The film's most sensitive supporting characters, Billy Bibbit and Charlie Cheswick have alliterative names, reflecting perhaps their hesitant natures. There is in the stammerer the unfortunately alliterative. Billy Bibbit is one of cinema's most famous stammerers, maybe alongside Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda, and despite Ken having an un-alliterative name, films with stammerers in them generally go in the direction of matching syllables. There is Billy Budd (of course from Melville's text, just as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is from the alliteratively named Ken Kesey's novel), Billy Boucher from The Waterboy, and Quirinus Quirrell from the Harry Potter films. However, we should remember too that superheroes are often alliterative, Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. But we should also remember that it is their more nerdy selves that have such monikers, when they become their heroic alter-egos they are known as Superman, the Hulk and Spiderman. This indicates that films, books and comics often use alliteration to illustrate vulnerability and fragility.
Yet let us return to R.P McMurphy and those initials, and think about other characters whose names we conjure up in the context of their nominal acronym. We can think of C.W. in Bonnie and Clyde, who betrays the title character near the end, L.B. Jefferies as we have noted, and also R. J. Macready in The Thing. One reason R.P McMurphy is commonly known by his full name is that others insist on using it. If he were in a less formal environment the full name would come up on fewer occasions and we might remember him as Randle or R.P. In Bonnie and Clyde many probably don't remember C.W.'s surname (Moss). In Rear Window, critics usually refer to the character as Jeff even if they often introduce him as L.B. Jefferies, as we find in a Senses of Cinema piece by Murray Pomerance, and in Rogert Ebert's review of the film. Other well-known initialised characters include C.C. Baxter in The Apartment and A.T. Tappman in Catch 22.
Here we may note a basic difference and a fundamental similarity between a name in film and a name in life. In film, the writer naming the character will probably have some sense of the person's destiny, though they might not yet know the ending, even if many a film is based on a book and the character's name is a carryover from a text with a clear conclusion already evident as with Rear Window and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In other instances, the films are based on actual events: as with Bonnie and Clyde. But the filmmaker isn't beholden to the novelistic source nor the given reality they draw from. In Bonnie and Clyde, C.W. was a composite of at least two people, Henry Methvin and W.D. Jones, as they drop one set of initials for another. In the film, C.W. is the only initialised character but in reality there were many of them, from the coroner J. L. Wade to undertaker C.F. Bailey, as well as police officers, H.D. Murphy and B.M. Gault. But the film did to people what the editing did to the film. If the editor Dede Allen insisted that "you have to cut with your gut", then director and writers David Newman and Robert Benton insisted on excising or compounding subordinate characters to keep the film quick and fluid. It is as though all the initialised characters were turned into just one: C.W.
This is the advantage of hindsight as film form. If Hitchcock could say that drama is life with the dull bits cut out, writers and filmmakers can say of naming that this is nominalism with expectation; that they assume the character to conform to the name they have given them because vital to that name is the destiny the character can expect. Obviously, in life too, names are given with certain expectations placed upon the child's often baptised head. Few though are given the sort of nominal destiny a Dickens would give to his wonderfully named characters, from Oliver Twist (where Oliver will escape the orphan status that his background initiates but that twists in circumstance will counter), to the Artful Dodger, who will indeed remain artful. Spark Notes makes much of Dickens's names as destiny: "The name "Twist," though given by accident, alludes to the outrageous reversals of fortune that he will experience. Rose Maylie's name echoes her association with flowers and springtime, youth and beauty. Toby Crackit's name is a lighthearted reference to his chosen profession of breaking into houses." But there is a difference between what we might call diegetic naming and non-diegetic naming. If a character is given a name by the author rather than a nickname by the other characters, this can seem to give the latter a greater existential freedom than the former even if we might also wonder how that plays out in life. The Artful Dodger wouldn't have been born with such a name but his skill at pickpocketing earns him such a moniker. Often in life, though, people end up with nicknames they wouldn't wish based on a contingently unfortunate moment, Somebody breaks wind in class and finds themselves called Guff for years; a person has a year of school wearing glasses and for the next decade is called Johnny Four Eyes. It might seem so much more existentially free to be given a nickname over a birth name but instead of a name lovingly offered by parents who have no idea how you will turn out, you are given one by cruel kids at school who turn one moment of your life into a decade long nightmare.
In film, nicknames take various forms: the positive, the negative, the ambivalent and the accumulative. There are plenty of film characters whose nicknames wouldn't be their chosen monicker. In Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo reflects the character's gnawing, needling determination to hustle, while who would wish to be called Scarface? Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's version of the story does at least gain notoriety through the nickname that helps him build an empire; Ratso's leaves him a New York pariah with no more than a freezing cold apartment in winter; a horribly hot one in the summer. It is a dump that only a struggling out-of-town, naive and desperate figure like Joe Buck would occupy when Rizzo provides him with a home.
If Scarface is a nickname earned through the damage done to his face, no matter if it contributes to the reputation that will allow Montana to do damage to the faces and bodies of numerous others, often a character gains a nickname for the violence they inflict. In The Gangs of New York, William Cutting might be the character's real name, which indicates violence enough, but he is also known as The Butcher, wielding the weaponry of the meat carving profession and using it on people rather than non-human animals. Equally, Hatchet Harry in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is the sort of man who when introduced by his monicker is likely to have the individual who shakes his hand also shaking in his boots. Bond henchmen often go by nicknames, Whisper, Jaws and Oddjob and we don't expect the monicker to be sandwiched between a real forename and surname. While Tony 'Scarface' Montana or John 'Scottie' Ferguson have their nicknames incorporated within a full name, a Bond villain remains entirely ensconced in their caricatural villainy, or what we might call their 'henchness' or 'flunkeyness'. Their status is so low that they deform language, requiring an adjective less elevated than villainous. Hench is slang for well-developed muscle, fitness etc, and a flunkey is a figure who usually does menial tasks, often with servility. Such characters rarely merit a full name and few are going to worry about their backstory when what matters is what is in front of these henchmen: usually an oncoming truck, a pool full of sharks, an airplane window they will disappear through. They often suffer witty deaths, an oxymoronic phrase that Bond more than any other franchise turned into monetary gain. A nickname can often be a way of generating familiarity, an affectionate moniker for a long-term friend. But it can also be an opportunity to rob a person of their dignity or, as in Bond films, a character's life. Anybody named Oddjob or Whisper isn't likely to last long, even if Richard Kiel's Jaws survives The Spy Who Loved Me and gets to appear in Moonraker, where he moves from flunkey to helper, getting Bond out of a scrape. But to get a flunkey to fight another day is a joke in-itself. We might expect a villain to return time and time again, and many a horror franchise banks on it, with the pun entirely intentional as Jason or Freddy Kreuger keep coming back for more in a variation of Hitchcock's claim that a good villain makes for a good story. A good villain, in franchise-speak, is good box-office. But a henchman or flunkey is there not to push the story along but to be pushed out of the nearest window, to become a parenthetical detail in the main design. Kill a flunkey at the end of the first act and the story continues apace; kill the villain at the same stage and your film has lost its sense of purpose.
Most of the nicknames thus far addressed are negative or ambivalent, but occasionally they are positive and accumulative, and perhaps none more so than Peter 'Maverick' Mitchell in Top Gun. But Paul Newman was no less impressively Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler (with Cruise appearing opposite in the sequel) and was also Cool Hand Luke in the film of that name, where his nickname was instant but still positive: he bluffs at cards. Frequently in film, characters are given names that are self-defining, as though any story they possess can be summed up by the monicker they have been designated by other characters or have adopted themselves. Whether it is The Man with No Name (A Fistful of Dollars and their sequels), Harmonica (Once Upon a Time in the West), Razors (The Long Good Friday), or the various characters in The Driver who go by names like The Driver, The Player, the Detective, the Connection, these are names with purpose. But films may often give a very minor figure in the film a name as functional as their role, and often chauvinistically so. "They don't necessarily even need names; "Bikini Babe 2" and "Blonde 4" are parts I auditioned for" (The Atlantic). So says, Brit Marling. in an article about the power Harvey Weinstein had in an industry with obliviously sexist attitudes, where the power certain males had to make and break careers was a given.
But the higher up the casting food chain, the more an actor can expect a proper name. If they don't get one, we are likely to wonder why. In The Long Good Friday, Razors isn't a leading role but it is an important secondary one, with H.P. Moriarty's character more than a flunkey; he is central character Harold Shand's right-hand man, someone Harold needs and who could be removed at any moment since the film is centrally about this possibility as those in his crime empire get taken out. Razors is in numerous scenes and even gets to explain with few words how he got so named, showing an upcoming victim 65 inches of stitching before he says: "now you're are going to feel what it is like boy." The name is more than a functional designation; it gives to the character a proper place in the underworld and the price he has paid to be part of it. The nickname is indeed accumulative. He also has a conspicuous scar on his face, the sort a film will utilise to show the dangers the henchman represents, but John McKenzie's film goes further than that by showing the bodily scars and giving the briefest of back stories to their existence.
This is usually the domain of more central characters as when we find out how a Bond villain or occasionally a Bond girl (Safin in No Time to Die; Le Chifre in Casino Royale; Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace) have become scarred. Razors may be a henchman but McKenzie gives him more than a nickname and a disfigurement; he gives Razors the dignity of the briefest of self-explanations for his bodily markings. When critics attack films for the laziness with which they show scarred characters for easy scare tactics, one way this image can be countered is by giving the character the dignity of a history. Vicky Knight doesn't appear in a small supporting role as a scare device even if she was nicknamed after a horror villain. She appears in Dirty God as the leading character in a film about a woman severely scarred. Her own scars came from a fire at her grandparents' place, leading to 33% third and fourth-degree burns on her upper body and face, while in the film she is the victim of an acid attack. The point though is that she isn't offered up in the film as shorthand for horror but given complexity of character within her scarred tissue. She may have been nicknamed Freddy Krueger as a child but instead of getting to play a character in a horror film, she gets to act in a film that echoes aspects of her life. Now of course Krueger comes from The Nightmare on Elm Street films and he is played by an actor with no facial scars and the character is given a backstory, but what a film like Dirty God does is insist on casting an actress with scars her own in a part that explores the scarring and doesn't use it as a plot ploy as a means by which to scare the living daylights out of those who are looking for a bit of nocturnal horror.
Often the absence of a proper name suggests the presence of silence as if offering a name is too gregarious and verbose for a character like The Man with No Name in Leone westerns or The Driver. In the latter, Ryan O'Neal's character doesn't like to explain himself and usually finds a task to hand as if trying to prove Wittgenstein's initial notion that language is merely how we name things, that the linguistic stems from the actual. Why waste time with words if deeds happen to be their source, and you can offer the materially original rather than the linguistically abstract? In one very well-known scene, the Driver proves to a heist gang that he is brilliant not with the boastfully verbose, but with cool assuredness. They want to know how good a getaway driver he is; he proves it by taking them round a car park at great speed, managing to scare the hell out of them and impress them to hell simultaneously. The car ends up a wreck, but only because the Driver has carefully allowed it to become so, showing precision control as the car falls to pieces in his very capable hands. In company he usually allows the other person to do the talking, whether it is the cop on his tail, the alluring woman who refuses to shop him, or a fellow figure in the crime world, he remains at all times a man of few words. There is a scene where he is invited up to the Player's apartment and the Driver proves the opposite of a sweet talker. The Player explains why she didn't finger him in the line-up, and says a few other things before the Detective comes up to the high-rise apartment to pursue further questioning, and she hides the Driver on the balcony. When the cop leaves and she comes back into the room, all he has to offer is one line before exiting.
In The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the Man with no Name (sometimes referred to as Blondie) has little to say, but most importantly says nothing when he feigns death in a moment where a few words would be all important. His partner in occasional crime Tuco is trying to get important info out of the apparently dying Blondie and Blondie knows that offering this information will be the death of him. Tuco has the name of a cemetery where gold is buried but it is Blondie who knows which grave it is buried in. The Man with No Name keeps mum and Tuco must keep him alive. Silence really is golden as Tuco thus helps him recover at a Frontier Mission with the idea that between them they will find the treasure. If Blondie talks, there is no reason for Tuco to keep him alive. Blondie must hold his tongue if he is to hold on to his life, and the plan is that they will have to go to the cemetery together. The Driver and The Man with No Name are thus men of few words and that parsimoniousness with language is reflected in the absence of a proper nomenclature, as if words are very precious things and why waste any of them on a person who exists anyway, name or no name? Indeed, in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Man with No Name continues to exist because he really is a man of few words, and to reveal several too many would be to put him into a grave rather than searching for gold in one.
An important question in film and also in a different way concerning celebrity is whether someone goes by their first name or surname, or whether a combination is required to define who they are. To say Audrey doesn't mean that much, but to say only Hepburn risks confusion. Which Hepburn Katharine, perhaps? Yet this isn't only because there is a competing Hepburn in Hollywood's Hall of Fame, otherwise Marilyn Monroe could be called Monroe without difficulty. Though she might be known as Marilyn, she won't be known as Monroe, and is often given her full (albeit pseudonymous) alliterative monicker. Few would say Rudolph when referring to Valentino, but the surname will often be enough. Interestingly The Man with No Name himself can be called Clint with people having a good idea of who you are on about, or Eastwood, with no greater confusion. But say Paul and few will assume you are talking about Newman, and if you say Newman will people definitely know you are talking about Paul Newman? Redford will get by with the surname but the first name means nothing, and Robert Redford has that alliterative allure that is unlikely to harm a career in Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin, Doris Day, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte. But of course, it is very far from a prerequisite as far more of the biggest names in film don't nominally alliterate: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, John Wayne.
Yet quite a few stars changed their names: Monroe, of course, but also Cary Grant (Archibald Leach), John Wayne (Marion Morrison), Natalie Wood (Natasha Nikolaevna Zakharenko) and indeed Audrey Hepburn (Audrey Kathleen Ruston). If alliterative names were such a recipe for success why didn't far more stars adopt them when escaping the one given to them at birth? Perhaps because naming, like stardom, isn't a recipe; that it involves not just prescription but perception and reception too a star has to be capable of living inside their new name, and alliteration might have damaged the careers of various stars. Would it have been better to have James Jackson or Steven Stewart rather than James Stewart? John James, or William Wayne over John Wayne? If we think Cary Cooper might have worked it is chiefly because it so closely resembles the one Gary Cooper did adopt. (He was born Frank James Cooper.) We are dreaming up counter-factuals with the benefit of hindsight, and there was a charisma in these various stars that would indicate a change of name needn't have destroyed their careers.
But we can say there are common characteristics of a star that might suggest a recipe (ambition, beauty, charm), even if there are numerous actors who lacked at least one and even all three of these characteristics (Bogart, Borgnine, Edward G. Robinson, Cagney, Elliot Gould, Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Lest we assume only men can get away with lacking beauty, an Elle article looked at various actresses who when starting their careers were deemed not beautiful either. Meryl Streep was reckoned too ugly for the lead female role in Dino de Laurentiis's King Kong according to TV interviews she gave more recently, and "a journalist suggested she [Viola Davis] was 'less classically beautiful' than her Hollywood contemporaries." (Essence) Whatever one may think of this brutal objectification, one notes there doesn't seem to be a formula for 'making it', and while people of vastly different levels of physical attractiveness have become stars, equally, and more importantly for us at this moment, there is no guarantee that a name will help you along either.
Who would have thought Arnold Schwarzenegger might become one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. A bodybuilder who appeared as beefy characters in the odd film in the 70s (The Long Goodbye, Stay Hungry) and who could be seen very clearly as the superstar of his chosen profession in Pumping Iron, when he started to take seriously a Hollywood career few were inclined to take him seriously in turn. His agent proposed he change his name: "no one would be able to pronounce his name let alone spell it!." (The Guaranteed Millionaire) Mark Hamill said: "Arnold Schwarzenegger asked me for advice when he was just starting out. I told him to lose his accent for a wider range of roles to change his last name since no one could pronounce it. He did the opposite became one of the biggest stars EVER." (Business Standard) Any notion of nominal destiny would seem to be countered by the success of this Austrian who could at least pronounce his own name, and might have had problems with an American one if adopted. While he mastered the art of American ambition, Schwarzenegger never quite managed the mastering of the English language. In the past, numerous stars from Europe or with recent European heritage had changed their names: including Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr), Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (Greta Garbo), Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas) and Charles Dennis Buchinsky (Charles Bronson) Would any of them have become such huge stars holding onto their original names? And might they have been able to do so had they been acting in a different era? "Your advice was absolutely correct under any normal circumstances, and those were the rules back then. I just happen to be a rule-breaker", Schwarzenegger said to Hamill. But he might have accepted that he couldn't have broken those rules thirty years earlier.
Names aren't just things people are given; they reflect the times and reflect too the class background of those with such names and the class perceptions of audiences. Many British actors today come from very wealthy families, including Emily Blunt, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hardy, Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West. Addressing the problem, James McAvoy, brought up in Glasgow's deprived Drumchapel, says "...whenever we talk about this, we have to be very very clear. There's a lot of posh actors that have been to boarding school and all that who are feeling very embattled, sort of cornered," he said, adding: "[N]obody has got anything against an actor who is posh and is doing really well." (Hollywood Reporter) McAvoy's point is that if all the actors are from money what does that do for representation: "That's a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that's not fair to begin with, but it's also damaging for society." However, our essay chiefly concerns names, and here are a few: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rupert Friend, Orlando Bloom and Tilda Swinton. These are all actors from money or at the very least comfortable wealth and we might guess that from their names. But actors named Eddie and Tom are no less posh even if their first names at least the diminutives they use as stars doesn't indicate money even if their accents will. Tom Hardy, who appears in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max III, and stars as Britain's most notorious, truculent and self-sabotaging prisoner in Bronson, can offer a different accent easily enough, and the roles he often plays suggest a Tom rather than a Thomas. Hiddleston, despite his Thor moments, seems much more a class-implicated actor in Archipelago, War Horse, The Deep Blue Sea and various TV shows, someone who could have gone by the name of Thomas Hiddleston, without diluting the Hiddleston brand. Hardy seems an actor who is keener to escape from the background he comes from into the roles he plays, and so Tom is much more apt. Benedict could have offered the diminutive Ben but perhaps the surname was the main area of awkwardness; he for a while went under the name of Carlton before others recommended he change it back to Cumberbatch. His agent Penny Wesson reckoned: "You really should change your name back to Cumberbatch. It's memorable." (Guardian) It is the sort of name Dickens might have found a use for and if it indicates an English flair rather than an American directness then that needn't harm a career where many a viewer wants an English eccentricity. Tom Hardy is the sort of name consistent with Paul Newman, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Clint Eastwood and others where three or four syllables are enough. Benedict Cumberbatch, with his polysyllabic name, can do very well in Hollywood (and has done) but will probably always carry an echo of an actor from elsewhere.
One may wonder looking at classic Hollywood how despite the diversity of an immigrant culture, many actors felt obliged to give the impression they were mid-state; offering solid, all-American names that needn't connote the foreign. We have already noticed this for example with Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood, but others include Rock Hudson (Leroy Harold Scherer Jr), Doris Day (Doris Kappelhoff), Joan Crawford (Lucille LeSueur) and Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz). This might show classic Hollywood as implicitly racist, with actors changing their names all the better to pursue careers that may have been curtailed by audiences unwilling to watch German and French-named actors on screen. But that wasn't a problem for Marlene Dietrich or Maurice Chevalier as they played up their European aspect. But of course, Rock Hudson and Doris Day are Eisenhower-era actors, an age, at least according to film, that emphasised conformity and consumerism, where if citizens played their part in building the economy, resisting communism and recognising their patriotism, all would be well. As Eisenhower said in a 1955 address, his purpose was "to maintain justice and freedom among ourselves and to champion them for others so that we may work effectively for enduring peace" but also "to help keep our economy vigorous and expanding, thus sustaining our international strength and assuring better jobs, better living, better opportunities for every citizen." Thirdly he saw the importance of concerning "ourselves with the human problems of our people so that every American may have the opportunity to lead a healthy, productive and rewarding life." ('1955, State of the Union') But the price for such prosperity and community was conforming to a general notion of America despite or because of Eisenhower's equalitarianism. Kenneth E. Morris and Barry Schwartz note the"frequent use of the name Ike ...presumes a relationship of informality and equality. The slogan I like Ike rather than I respect Ike expresses the same democratic perception." (Sociological Quarterly)
Numerous fifties films played up this conformity or addressed it as a problem from Pillow Talk (that starred both Day and Hudson), to Rebel Without a Cause, All that Heaven Allows (with Hudson) to Imitation of Life. In All that Heaven Allows, the central character falls for her gardener but the family disapproves; in Imitation of Life, the daughter of a black mother is pale enough to pass for white and wants to distance herself from her mother as she sees there are far greater opportunities available to her as a white woman. One should be wary of overly imposing an Eisenhower-era specificity to such films Imitation of Life was a remake of a 1934 film (itself based on a 1933 novel) and the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder transposed All that Heaven Allows into a German context in the 1970s. Nevertheless, when a country wants to come together, when it wants to perceive itself as a unified whole, one way this becomes manifest is by having actors, whose original names indicate the international, becoming nationally homogenous. Doris Day and Rock Hudson are such names.
To conclude this essay on nominality, let's note that philosophers have long been fascinated by the significance of names. Gilles Deleuze says, "I recognize Kant's name not by his life, but by a certain type of concept signed Kant, exactly as I recognize a great painter not by his life, but by a certain tonality, a certain line, that are signed by this proper name. Henceforth, one can very well conceive of being the disciple of a philosopher. If you are situated so that you say that such and such a philosopher signed the concepts for which you feel a need, then you become Kantian, Leibnizian, etc." (The Deleuze Seminars) Emmanuel Levinas reckons "the names of persons whose saying signifies a face-proper names, in the middle of these common names and commonplaces-can resist the dissolution of meaning and help us to speak." (Proper Names) Without making too much of these remarks, but without at all ignoring them, we can think of the popular saying what is in a name, and also the popular TV show The Prisoner, which gave birth to the remark "I am not a number. I am a free man." How many prisoners have become not a name but a number, as power seeks to dehumanise, suggesting a name is humanising and must be avoided? It as though a person must start becoming a statistic rather than a human being in a variation of another well-known saying that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. In Judith Butler's Frames of War, she notes that what matters is recognizability, which she insists is "not a quality or potential of individual humans. This may seem absurd asserted in this way, but it is important to question the idea of personhood as individualism." Butler sees it less in the type of individualism the neo-liberal model offers, as wants and desires can be sought and met, but closer to a state of universal vulnerability: "The precarity of life imposes an obligation upon us." If Levinas (referenced by Butler) sees that the face and names are closely associated, and if we believe that central to removing empathy and compassion can sometimes be in how we name, or don't name someone, does this mean that filmmakers have an ethical responsibility in naming a character? When Marling says she would audition for a part and her character would be referred to as Bikini Babe 2, or when an actor gets to play an extra blown away along with a handful of others, all merely there to show the firepower prowess of the leading man, then we can see that non-naming is a way of turning characters into statistics, into the numerically evident but the existentially redundant. Bikini Babe 2 is just another Bikini Babe, the more the merrier to reflect a hot and sexy environment, just as the numerous figures slaughtered in an action film are there to indicate a dangerous milieu the hero effortlessly rises above. In Butler's terms they have no precarity; in Levinas's the face-to-face encounter is non-existent. Deleuze could see that naming isn't some given noun but also potentially an important adjective.
We opened by suggesting the formality or informality of a given name: that though R.P. McMurphy is an informal character he is given a formal name because of the institution he finds himself in, and that Daniel Plainview is never really Daniel he is too aloof from other human beings for that. Others are known fondly by their nickname like Scottie Fergusson, and others alliteratively. But while scriptwriting manuals make much of the function of characters, on how a character exists within the narrative structure of the material, and may even draw on Vladimir Propp's useful deployment of the various roles that characters play as a function within the Russian folk tale, they might sometimes do better addressing the broader ethos that allows characters to function and society perhaps to function as well. When Propp looks at folk tales and sees that they all have a similar set of characters that we have the hero, the helper, the dispatcher, the princess and others, this is all very well for a particular type of narrative but should it be a universal narrative panacea for writers determined to learn the 'basics'? Especially when these basics often become base as numerous supporting characters are given less than a function and more of an objectification. Maybe Bikini Babe 2 shows the hero that there is more to life than a beauty in a bathing suit but what does the person in the bathing suit think? Maybe the hero who has put forty bullet holes into a dozen human obstacles realises that vengeance is only as useful as the lessons you also learn about love, but that isn't much use to the functional figures that you have bumped off. This might seem an irrelevant point but that is not too far removed from Butler's, who isn't too highfalutin' to eschew a reference to Rush Hour 3 in her book looking at how often the American government refuses to recognise the full existence of people they allow to die. In the film, the lead characters get into a Paris cab; the taxi driver tells them to get out. One of them is American and the driver says he doesn't take Americans: they're "always starting wars, always killing people." Butler is likely to be more in sympathy with the taxi driver than the American who ends up pulling out a gun to get his way, and she says: "Now of course the US government gives all kinds of reasons for the killings while at the same time refusing to call those killings "killings". (Frames of War) When she speaks about the countries that the US fight to protect a wider sense of justice, Butler says: "Such populations are 'lose-able', or can be forfeited, precisely because they are framed as being already lost or forfeited; they are cast as threats to human life as we know it rather than as living populations in need of protection from illegitimate state violence, famine, or pandemics." Partly what makes people 'lose-able' is that they aren't named they remain abstractions. Hollywood film is full of lose-able people too; collateral damage to a hero's learning curve just as many in warring zones are the fallout of a determination to make the world 'better'.
A good place to end this piece is on a scene from the Scottish film, Local Hero. Here, an American oil man, MacIntyre, is in Scotland with a Scottish colleague and they travel to the village where they hope to persuade the locals to agree to an oil refinery nearby. On the road, they hit a rabbit with their car, and aim to nurse it back to health at the hotel they are staying in. The hotelier has other ideas and the rabbit finds itself on the men's dinner plates. They are horrified, with MacIntyre saying "it's a pet, not an animal. It had a name; you don't eat things with names." Here he makes clear that nominality designates rights, that by giving the rabbit a name it moves from its generalised status as a rabbit to the specificity of a particular rabbit. The hotelier puts an injured rabbit out of its misery and turns it into dinner; MacIntyre views a loved thing slaughtered. It shows clear differences of perspective but perhaps acknowledges that giving something a name is to demand a nominality (rather than a humanity, which can still be abstracted), one that suggests the beginnings of dignity. Looking at names in film, how they are designated and how often they are absent in supporting players, is a useful way of understanding cinema, our relationship with it and its relationship more broadly with life.
© Tony McKibbin