We’ve all experienced moments in which we are made to feel invisible. Cut in front of in a queue, stepped over on the train, crushed between the sliding doors of a closing lift, we know the fear and humiliation of social rejection a little too well. In some ways, it’s comforting to know that everyone is subject to this kind of thing. Strangely, though, this kind of logical thinking is difficult to muster up when you have been face planted into the sweating armpit of a person who has recently consumed a meat feast. How comforting, then, when we see a fellow schmuck on the big screen, lovingly extending our empathy as we watch life walking right over them.
Men in the crowd are a little different to the Everyman; whilst we can identify with them, it is only within specific circumstances. Whilst we recognise our darker days in their everyday lives, we can be thankful in the fact that they are a once in a while kind of occurrence. For the man in the crowd, being walked all over is a fact of life and you almost believe that, were things to go right for them, they would suffer some sort of a breakdown. It’s not all bad though; like everything in life, there is some sort of silver lining to the man in the crowd condition. Over its history, cinema has shone a light on the outsider, beaming its light on the people who everybody else has forgotten. There is some sort of irony to this, of course; when the outsider is focused on for the whole world to see, are they still really on the outside? In cinema, it tends to be less about the social isolation than redemption. The men of the crowd we see are usually transformed from their original lowly status, reminded that not everything is as bad as it seems and there are other people out there. Like most things, though, it’s more fun to see them at their most isolated, to see things in them that we see in ourselves on our darkest days and to remember that we are not alone.
Like everything, there are varying levels of outsider-ness and, as is tradition, we will take a look at each step a little more closely, trying to pinpoint why we love the underdog so much.
The Go Getter
King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd is the classic story of small town man comes to the city to make it big. From the preliminary shots of the Statue of Liberty on the waterfront, it becomes clear that protagonist believes that New York City is where his dreams will become a reality. Everything about John Sims, down to his name, suggests the Everyman. His route through to city, from newcomer, to eager office worker to man in love to disillusion seems to be the same as the path of so many before him. John Sims is the outsider before the world has made him that way; in The Crowd, we witness his fall from grace, so to speak. John’s optimism is what keeps him afloat for much of the early parts of the film and Vidor suggests that it is perhaps his belief that he will become something big that contributes to his isolation. As he is told that he will make it big from a young age, he doesn’t realise that the city and society are opposing currents; they will always push against you. John Sims is eager but not savvy enough to break free from the crowd.
The Endless Optimist
On the other end of the spectrum is the outsider who cheerfully accepts their position in life, masking their discomfort with a plastered on grin. The Apartment’s C. C. Baxter is the ultimate pushover, allowing senior members in his office to use his apartment for their own extramarital affairs. Half-believing that his compliance will result in big things for him, Baxter willingly bears discomfort and social rejection from his neighbours, who believe that he is somewhat of a floozy. C. C. Baxter is such a nobody that he doesn’t even have a full name, reduced merely to a couple of letters. Rumour has it that C. C. Baxter was the inspiration for The Simpsons character Gil, a man endlessly subject to misfortune. C. C. Baxter is within every one of us, coming forward on the days when we feel at our most small.
The Totally Invisible
At least C. C. Baxter had people who needed to use him; the protagonist of The Double is pushed out of his life completely without anyone even noticing. Simon James is clever, efficient and sensitive and those around him don’t even see him. When his exact double comes on to the scene, however, people start mistaking Simon for him, believing that newcomer James Simon was responsible for all of Simon’s good work. The end result is incredibly frustrating, exacerbating the feeling you get when no one hears you above the crowd. Simon James, in a way, is the ultimate outsider, removed not only from society but also, his own already isolated existence.
The Slow Train
In Adaptation, Nic Cage plays twins whose personalities are entirely at odds with one another. The main twin, Charlie Kaufman, is a struggling screenwriter, attempting desperately to hit upon the idea that will get him noticed. His brother Donald is spontaneous, lacks direction and drive and yet, manages to land himself in success after success. However, Charlie isn’t jealous of his brother’s success; his issue is his slow pace, not his jealousy. Because his brother exists as his own carbon copy, people rarely pay attention to Charlie. In a further twist, Charlie Kaufman was actually the film’s screenwriter, displacing the lost identity once more. Charlie Kaufman on the film is a replication of the real Charlie Kaufman. In fact, we could say that Charlie Kaufman the writer is the ultimate outsider because he uses a copy of himself to hide behind.
The man of a crowd is a person to whom we can all relate. On our lowest days, they remind us that we are not alone. In their redemption, they show us that not all is lost.