Sunday, June 21, 2009

archetypes: kolchak the truth seeker

as i've said before, i like archetypes. i am a fan of joseph campbell, and i've always been susceptible to folklore and myth. when i began to read shakespeare i was thrilled by the archetypes of his own creation (hamlet, falstaff are arguably the greatest among many) in addition to his use of ones already in existence; for example, his usage of ovid's characterization of medea to inform his witches in macbeth -- he even actually cribs a few speeches verbatim. but the archetypes of literature are not stuck in the past. we may revisit them but as human culture changes, our archetypes evolve and mutate. chandler successfully applied a knight archetype to his private investigator philip marlowe, and helped hammett solidify the private eye archetype. before buffy appeared, van helsing was the only model of a vampire slayer, and i would argue that now he exists as a shadow of buffy's refurbished, more relateable archetype (i'm choosing to ignore that hugh jackman movie). sometimes the layering of archetypal characteristics into one protagonist is the most beguiling to me of all. that certainly seems to be the case with kolchak.

i've been watching lots of kolchak lately. i have both tv movies, and the television series on DVD, and i find myself drawn to this character again and again. the original character was created by jeff rice, but it was richard matheson (remember him? i am legend?) who wrote the screenplays for the first two movies. for the television series, named kolchak: the night stalker (which is confusing along the same lines as frankenstein: kolchak was never the night stalker himself he was pursuing him, but that's the first movie's name and i'm guessing they were trying to factor it into the title) set in chicago, there was a variety of writers, but the story editor was david chase, the creator of the sopranos. obviously an estimable pedigree, but ultimately while the writing is fine, it's the character of kolchak i can't resist. he is archetypal: the intrepid investigative crime reporter who will do whatever in takes to get to the facts of the story -- what really happened.

in the first two movies some attempt is made to make him human: he has friends, and girlfriends but by the time of the series, the only woman in his life is ms. emily the old lady who writes the crossword puzzles at the paper, and he never changes his clothes: he wears the same suit and hat every day much to the dismay of everyone around him. he says he's a baseball fan but he misses the world series because all that matters to him is the story and he doesn't disappoint anybody by not showing up because he was going to go alone. and if somebody befriends him, they often end up dead.

kolchak is single-minded in his pursuit of information: he regularly buys from a motley crew of gypsies, monks, hospital orderlies, and morgue attendants for autopsy reports, and looks at corpses. if he can trick the scoop out of an informant for free that is even better, and he tries the public relations angle quite often. sometimes he sneaks into crime scenes by pretending to be an authority figure: a doctor, a cop, a health inspector, and sometimes he just commits to some old fashioned B&E. no rules apply to kolchak unless he is forced to obey them by others. he is unscrupulous except when it comes to telling his story.

he never goes out looking for the paranormal but inevitably, kolchak's pursuit of a seemingly routine violent crime case always leads to facts that cause the forces of society to try to stop him: his editor vincenzo who sometimes believes the stories but worries over the trouble they will bring, and the law: over and over again, the police and/or the government oppose kolchak because they are more concerned with maintaining order than telling the truth. and that's the thing about this character. when you first meet him in the night stalker he seems to have a pretty great life. he is a respected crime reporter and he is proud of his ability to get to the heart of the story. but he is brought low because he refuses to twist the facts for the common good. he is convinced that the facts are owed to everyone (i.e. not just the authorities but his readers) regardless of whether they are mentally prepared for them.

kolchak serves no other function than to be a reporter: a seeker of truth who shares his knowledge with "the people". he will kill whatever monsters he needs to kill (kolchak is always being held on charges of murder, or arson, or something as a result of his investigations) in order to find the truth and bring it to the reading public. he uses good people and bad people to get at his goal, and breaks the law as often as not in pursuit of this goal, but i still love him because of his dogged insistence that this is what he is good at, and he is good at nothing else. as much as i love the slicker stories presented in the movies, it is when kolchak becomes a loner seeking the truth that i am truly captivated by him. this seeker of truth character is amalgam of archetypes: kolchak is part detective, part knight, part outcast, part storyteller, part scapegoat. i am tempted to deride or chide him for his childish pride but his chiaroscuro improvisations still make me chortle. and ultimately, i am always on his side even when he's a jerk (taking advantage of the kindness of old ladies, calling women "broads", stealing books from the libraries of exhausted professors) because i too, am convinced that this is his purpose and that is why i can watch his story repeat in cycles over and over again.

6 comments:

  1. all right, i'm gonna watch kolchak: the night stalker now.

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  2. Interesting post...I quite archetypes too...I hate to admit it too...but I actually enjoy that Hugh Jackman Van Helsing movie...sorry :(

    In the UK, they used to show the Night Stalker on the Sci-fi channel...never did watch it properly though.

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  3. I had commented here several days ago, but I don't know what happened to it.

    I am woefully unfamiliar with Kolchak. I'm thinking when I come to visit you will have to show me some of your favorites.

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  4. alex hoffman (via facebook)June 24, 2009 at 5:53 PM

    hey kerry: kolchak is played by darren mcgavin, the father in the christmas story. i think you'll really appreciate the life he breathes into the character. i'm not sure if kolchak would be as brilliant without him in the role: mcgavin's got a sparkle in his eye and some bandy-ass legs. :)

    p.s. i'm not sure what's up with these comments. i didn't see these until just now and i'm not getting emailed when they're being left.

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  5. hey kerry: kolchak is played by darren mcgavin, the father in the christmas story. i think you'll really appreciate the life he breathes into the character. i'm not sure if kolchak would be as brilliant without him in the role: mcgavin's got a sparkle in his eye and some bandy-ass legs. :)

    p.s. i'm not sure what's up with these comments. i didn't see these until just now and i'm not getting emailed when they're being left.

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  6. you're welcome to like that movie. it was quite silly though. :)

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