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Nasty displays of screen rage

Characters with anger management issues are erupting on film and TV. Maybe it's a reflection of our world.

November 29, 2002|Deborah Hornblow | Hartford Courant

In an early scene in P.T. Anderson's film "Punch-Drunk Love," Barry Egan, the character played by Adam Sandler, struggles to control his temper. He has been teased by his sisters, all seven of whom take turns calling him names and meddling in his personal affairs. The camera cuts away from Sandler's Barry for an instant and then we hear the sound of shattering glass. He has kicked in his sister's sliding glass doors. Egan is the most vivid example of a character who is erupting all over screens big and small. It is the character with anger-management issues, the one who cannot control his temper, bite her tongue or keep his fists to himself.

Catherine Keener plays an unhappy mother and wife in "Lovely & Amazing," a woman who responds to rejection by muttering angry expletives.

In "Mostly Martha," Martina Gedeck is a perfectionist chef who has a tendency to get hostile with customers who complain. Marching into the dining room in one scene, she confronts a man who sent back his steak to be properly cooked. After a hostile verbal exchange, she jams a knife into the table.

In "8 Mile," Eminem stars in a semiautobiographical tale of a young Detroit rapper whose anger fuels his music.

HBO's Tony Soprano is prone to outbursts and was working on impulse control with help from a psychiatrist. A commercial for Glad trash bags features a coach going ballistic over a hard-to-wrangle trash bag.

One common characteristic of these outbursts is that the displays of temper tend to be wildly out of proportion to the offense. Should being called a name provoke someone to smash glass? The characters have too much invested in what is in play. Instead of dealing with anger as a natural part of human existence, they have bottled it up or held onto it for too long. The emotions come rocketing to the surface in volcanic explosions, and audiences everywhere enjoy the vicarious thrill, as long as the character "going postal" isn't appearing in real time on CNN.

Savage or funny, today's tantrum-prone characters are a reflection of an angry society. One need only review the day's headlines to see evidence of a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Anger sells.

Anger is sanctified and applauded.

The trickier question is: Why?

Apart from the day-to-day challenges of living in an urbanized, hyper-speed, consumer-driven, road-raging, celebrity-obsessed society, we are all lately suffering from the sadness occasioned by current events and the attendant feelings of fear, impotence and anger.

"Something that we talk about in psychiatry a lot is mad versus sad," says Heidi McCloskey, director of the program for professionals at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. "Sometimes when an individual is very sad, it's easier for them to express their anger because they feel quite threatened by their sadness.... Maybe people are struggling with a need to feel empowered so they hold up their anger like a shield."

The characters on big and small screens have as many reasons for being angry as the names of shooters and terrorists who surface in news reports.

Where is the contented person? He can sometimes be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

Meanwhile, the anger rages on in a culture that is coming to be defined by it.

In the fairy tale "Punch-Drunk Love," Barry is saved by love. His anger abates.

The title character in the happily-ever-after "Mostly Martha" is likewise rescued by amore in the form of a patient sous-chef.

But the other characters, who have the misfortune to be in stories that aren't fairy tales, must deal with the raw human impulse toward anger and rage.

Just like the rest of us.

*

Deborah Hornblow writes about movies for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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