Once upon a time, on a crowded subway platform, I heard an earnest busker straining for the heights — “I be-leeeve I can fly…” he sang with all his heart. The poor fellow’s reach, however, greatly exceeded his grasp. It would have been easy to snicker at the tone-deafness of yet another desperate soul, one who really needed to find or hold onto a day job. But I’ve remembered that moment ever after as a sweet — if bittersweet — picture of the human condition, not excluding my own. For I’ll admit on other occasions I’ve found it less sweet than unsettling to be around people whose personal narrative was so transparently out of sync with reality: such proximate radioactivity tends to cast an X-ray on the soundness of my own treasured narratives. In the face of imminent disclosure, a mocking irony is often the shield of choice to defend one’s fragile sense of self-worth.
That’s what makes Special so special (might as well get that out of the way): the filmmakers absolutely refuse to treat their hero (that, too) as an object for the viewer to feel superior to. Doing so would have been ironic in the literary sense, given that the mocking form of irony is all about feeling superior. But mocking Special‘s hero would yield merely the spurious pleasure of feeling superior to some poor soul who only wants to feel superior. Instead, Special takes its hero narrative as seriously as its hero, Les, takes his own. Next to smart aleck films which have tried to go all reflexive on the super hero genre, Special is (fittingly) a minor classic. The issues inherent in such reflexiveness — such as “Why would anybody want to be super?” — touch on profound existential matters which, if handled with care, as Special does, serve to reveal the Secret Identity of the race.
Special is an independent film starring Michael Rapaport, a solid character actor whose face, New York accent, and intensity will be familiar to many. This starring turn is the sort that might have been a break-out role for Rapaport, except this 2006 film has not enjoyed the profile it deserves. That’s probably because Special is not only poignant, but disturbingly so: it disturbs at a fundamental level, wrapped in the very costume viewers have traditionally used to escape their limitations and mortality: the superhero myth. Rapaport’s Les is a middle-aged lonely nobody. His job is thankless: he’s a meter-maid, used and abused by both clientele and boss. He’s too old to read comics, he says, in a recurring voice-over narration, but he tends to see the world in the melodramatic, if often most apt, primary colors of comic book morality. He longs to be heroic, if not necessarily in terms of superpowers, then simply in terms of staying power, in the sense of being “unstoppable.” Like every one of us vaporous creatures, Les wants to be solid and real, to be different, to make a difference; in short, to be special.
Turn with me from my aforementioned earnest busker to Ernest Becker: a cultural anthropologist who argued that life is an “arena for heroism,” the stage on which each of us deploy our manifold narratives to block out our deepest fears, especially our fear of non-being — of cosmic insignificance, of death. In his Denial of Death, Becker indicates that such hero stories might feature prominently a career, a bank account, accomplishments, status, a pet project (a blog!) — all calculated to imbue our existence with significance and provide an illusion of at least some control over our destiny, that is, to hold back the dark night and make us feel indispensable, i.e. super. We cocoon ourselves in little fictions: “If I don’t get [Fill in the Blank] accomplished, life as we know it will end.” Or, conversely, we tick off an item from our To Do list and feel like we’ve saved the world. Such hero narratives sound paltry indeed in the mouth of Les’s boss at Parking Enforcement, whose glib use of indispensability as a motivation tool exposes its hollowness: he makes Les repeat: “I’m important. I keep this city running.”
The main problem for Les is not that he’s ordinary, but that he’s noticed it — that his usual hero narratives no longer work. It’s a classic existential crisis. From Albert Camus’ point of view, Les has glimpsed the terrible truth of the human condition and faces that showdown which Camus says can only end in suicide or recovery. Or philosophical suicide: Les turns to medication. He joins a clinical study, taking a new drug designed to suppress self-doubt; for Les, the result is an unexpected side-effect (as in “Call your doctor if you experience an inflated sense of self lasting more than six hours.”) Les becomes convinced he has acquired super-powers.
The trouble for Les is that he has incomplete success in getting the world around him to cooperate with his new hero narrative (I can truly sympathize). For one thing, nobody else sees the super powers Les believes he now possesses. And despite some undeniable success as a crime fighter, much of Les’s confident efforts to bring his hero narrative into the real world are as dubiously effective as his bloody attempts to pass himself through walls.
The scenario is complicated by his clash with what seem genuine evil doers, including a pair of corporate “suits” whose company produces the drug that gave Les his powers. The Suits are Supermen of the Nietzchean sort, whose suppression of self-doubt has cleared their way of ordinary morality and all else — except for Les, whose ever more public displays of his comic book identity now threatens their investment.
Ultimately, the Suits represent not just a particular or even general corporate evil. For both Les and us, they come somehow to stand in for all the Dark Powers of the Universe: from the bully on the playground, to Cruel Fate, to Existential Absurdity to even the Grim Reaper himself. Most powerfully, the Suits represent that Voice in the Night that tells us we’re nothing, that nothing we do or have done or ever will do matters in the least. Special pits Les against these most primal existential forces in breathtaking, but almost unbearable, style, striking so close to home that we feel every blow. But also, hopefully, in the painful process, we are borne up by Les’s inspiring (or crazy) determination to fight back as long and hard as he can. Now we’re really in Camus’ neighborhood, with Les in the role of Sisyphus, heroic in his defiance against an indifferent universe that will ultimately retain the upper hand, despite such heroism.
With things getting so metaphysical, the stakes inevitably rise for how the filmmakers are going to end their hero narrative. Are they going to settle for the false transcendence of a happy ending, the kind of philosophical suicide Camus disdained? Are they really going to conjure up the Dark Forces and let this drug-induced super nobody triumph over them? This, of course, raises uncomfortable questions about the super hero myth in general, whether or not they’re all just facile vanquishments of the only thing that is truly Unstoppable.
But do we really have no choice but to surrender to the Dark Forces? I’ll leave you with the Sisyphean references as a hint as to where the film takes us. I can note that Les’s struggles don’t cover the full gamut of Camus’ concerns: Les’s problem is self-doubt; that he lives in a morally meaningful universe he seems to take for granted. Perhaps we must blame that on the influence of comic books in his life. For outside that kind of morally meaningful universe, Les’s determined stand against Dark Forces may not be much more heroic than his throwing himself at that brick wall. And the Suits’ determined stand against Les is no less heroic. (Even Camus had to back away from brave relativism after a brush with Nazi Supermen.) For Les and the rest of us, a word to the wise might be Kurt Vonnegut’s warning: “You are who you pretend to be, so be careful who you pretend to be.”