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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cap the Haterade: Through Rain and Sleet and Snow

And we introduce a new genre of post here at Free Toy Inside: a discussion of things that are unjustly maligned by critics and consumers alike. In this space you will find a defense of things that are popular to hate on. Be that movies, music, video games, books, or any old thing that comes to my mind.

Why? Because some things just don’t deserve the hate. Some things do, of course. Illinois Nazis, for example, are fully deserving of the hate that gets lobbed their way. But some things are hated on for no other reason than it is fun or hip to do so.

Well, consider this a curative for people who’ve spent too much time on SomethingAwful.com.

In my first installment, I’ll tackle a target that should probably be defended by a better writer, or a worse one. But since good writers don’t like The Postman, and bad writers are too busy trying to write screenplays for people who hate The Postman, then it must necessarily fall to me.

Ambitious? Friend, you’re looking at a man who beat the original Contra on the NES with one life. Challenge would be my middle name if fate and genetics hadn’t conspired to make my middle name “Slammin’” .

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Postman is a decent movie. Does it have flaws? Sure. It suffers from Costner syndrome, first of all, which is an affliction that forces every movie directed by Kevin Costner must be as epic and sweeping as Dances with Wolves, or at least take three hours to watch. Seriously, every move Costner’s ever been in should have had an intermission or a more merciless editor.

The Postman also features Costner’s typical ham-fisted message delivery (WAR IS HELL, DAMMIT!)

But at the end of the day, the stories tend to be good and the delivery, though long, is entertaining. Costner’s style is a throwback to older moviemaking, when movies were more apt to be character studies and the plots tended to be too complicated to sum up in a sentence. I suspect this is why they aren’t more popular, since most modern movies cater to the ever shrinking attention spans of viewers brought up on music videos. If you get bored watching something where the camera doesn’t do a zip-cut every three seconds, an establishing shot consisting of Kevin Costner and a mule walking through the ruins of civilization will probably put you to sleep.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, and I’ll wager that most of the people who hate the movie never have, The Postman is the story of a postapocalyptic drifter without a name who gets conscripted by an army of white supremacists that terrorize the remaining settlements of Western America known as The Holnists. He escapes, taking refuge from a storm in a mail delivery truck that contains the corpse of a pre-war mailman and bags of mail. He runs a scam where he claims to be a mailman from the re-established United States Government, charged with getting the lines of communication flowing for the northwest coastal states, in exchange for food and shelter. The con quickly melts away and he starts actually executing the duties of a mail carrier, along with the help of a lot of young members of the settlements he visits who are looking for any kind of hope for the future.

But hope is dangerous, and the settlements touched by the Postman begin to resist the brutal Holnist army, which responds by hunting down mail carriers and anyone who gives them refuge. And this is where you might consider the main plot to start. From here, the timeline of the movie spans something like a year or more, as can be seen through the changing of the seasons.

The leader of the Holnist army, and the movie’s chief villain, other than despair, is a former copy machine salesman turned general named Bethlehem. Now, the Postman is based on a book I haven’t read, so I can’t tell you if there’s any significance to that other than it enables aspiring political cartoonists in the movie to circulate fliers with the phrase “O Little Mind of Bethlehem” on them. Having taken a turn at writing a novel (I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and haven’t had the time to work on it for ten years) I wouldn’t doubt that the author named the character to get one good joke out of it, because I’ve done it myself.

Bethlehem is insane, but the nature of his mental disorder isn’t explored to any great degree. Narcissism and megalomania are two of his defining traits, to be sure, but he’s not the cardboard villain that you might expect from a movie featuring a heroic mailman fighting a white supremacist. At one point the general is shown painting a self portrait using a hand mirror, and he angrily demands that his subject stop moving. It’s a throwaway scene, shown through a door that’s literally closing on the camera. But it gives insight into the kind of man Bethlehem is, and lends some depth beyond the “racist = bad” motif that a shorter movie would have settled for. As a result, the character feels human. A vile, brutally despicable human, but still human with motivations that the audience can understand, if not agree with. I don’t say he’s the gold standard for villain writing, but I do say that he is proof that it’s possible to make a villain three-dimensional without making him sympathetic in any conceivable way. As a viewer, I don’t need to believe what he believes; I just need to believe that he believes it.

That’s a major theme of The Postman: Believing in something. Believing in something can cause a revolution, and the war between two revolutions is the main conflict of The Postman.

Boiled down, there are two types of revolutionaries: The Eager and the Reluctant. Eager Revolutionaries, like Bethlehem in this movie, like to talk about how revolutionary they are. They talk about the revolution they’re working for, and how amazing the world will be once their revolution starts turning. These are the kinds of revolutionaries that tend to kill a lot of people and get their pictures on Tee-shirts, because they’re really good at self promoting but not so good at building a world anyone wants to actually live in.

The Reluctant revolutionaries are the ones like The Postman in this movie. They’re not in it for fame, or to remake the world in their own image. They just do things that make sense to them. These kinds of revolutionaries tend to get beat up more, and they don’t to get their pictures on shirts, but their impact on the world is in general more profound and usually for the better.

Bethlehem wants the power that The Postman accumulates in this movie, and has been working for it since the war broke out. His problem, like many Eager Revolutionaries, is that he doesn’t know how to acquire that power except through fear. So he threatens everyone. He threatens to kill members of his army who disagree with him. He threatens to kill civilians who disobey him. This gives him a feeling of power, because people stand aside from him and do what he says, but that power is illusory. And this is thrown into sharp relief when The Postman starts delivering mail.

The Postman has more power over the people in the settlements than Bethlehem could ask for. In one visit, he burns off much of the fear that Bethlehem had instilled in the general populace. They’re still aware they can’t fight him and his army, but he’s no longer the invincible monster that must be placated with offerings. The scenes in which Bethlehem’s power crumbles even as he tightens his grasp on it are among the more satisfying scenes ever committed to film.

In the end, it’s a good story with good characters that concerns itself with that universal human need: Hope. I’ll never understand the antipathy toward it.