I watch a lot of bad movies. There’s a certain masochism involved, as no one sane really wants to sit through Slipstream, and there’s a certain sadism as well, the schadenfreude you experience when introducing an unwatchable anti-classic to new viewers. A bad movie can be bad for any number of reasons, and the deeper one gets into exploring the torpid world of crap cinema, it becomes remarkable not how many bad movies there are, but that there are any good movies at all. For all the lessons something like, say, Godfather can teach us about what makes a good movie good, there are times when the opposite is true. Manos: The Hands of Fate, an inadvertent Dadaist masterpiece, taught me one of those important lessons.
We first see him standing at the doorway to a small building in the middle of a scrub desert, dressed in the wide-brimmed hat and shabby uniform of a hillbilly mechanic. He leans on a wooden staff, and when he moves, he does so gingerly, limping with the massive fluid build up in his knees. His voice is a warbling drone, and he can barely concentrate on anything beyond what the heretofore unseen Master will and won’t like. This is Torgo, the lovechild of fertilizer salesman Hal Warren and psychedelic drug enthusiast John Reynolds.
In Manos: The Hands of Fate, Torgo serves as Renfield to the Master’s Count Dracula; in Torgo’s words he “takes care of the place while the Master is away.” He spends most of the film shimmying though the background on his impossibly swollen knees, seemingly having wandered in from an unrelated movie, interacting with Manos only in isolated moments of semi-lucidity. When the Yakmala gang screened Manos, Torgo became a blanket term for any character that appeared to exist in his own film. Once identified, we started noticing other examples in terrible movies, including Croker of Evil Alien Conquerors and Jar-Jar Binks of… you know. The quality of the Torgo’s hypothetical movie was irrelevant; as long as it would be easy to see this character in a major role of another movie, he or she was a Torgo.
As the term took deeper root in my mind, I started seeing Torgos in good movies as well as bad, including two of my favorites. The Big Lebowski started out as a flop, grew into a cult classic and has since taken its rightful place at the pinnacle of neo-noir. Several characters qualify as Torgos, including Maude Lebowski (starring in a film about the struggles to conceive a child in the LA art scene), Larry Sellers (the anti-hero of a highschool gangster flick), Donnie (the hero of a quiet indie drama about the empty life of a surfer, with music by The Shins) and Jackie Treehorn (the antagonist of a film about corruption in a Quiet Beach Community). The most memorable Torgo is the man often described as the Dude’s nemesis: The Jesus. That description makes him sound like the film’s main villain, which he is not: that honor belongs to Uli Kunkel or the other Jeff Lebowski. The millionaire. The Jesus only appears in two memorable scenes including an introduction far more inspired than any other in the film. The Jesus never impacts the plot in any way, and yet we know more about him than his screentime would require. We know he’s a sex offender with a record (having done six months in Chino for exposing himself to an eight-year-old), he has multiple color-coordinated jumpsuits, he’s a creep who can roll, he has a coke habit and contempt for firearms. The Jesus is never even aware of the central plot, existing entirely in his own film about an ex-con’s struggles to make it to the top of a local bowling league, sort of a cross between Kingpin and The Woodsman.
The Oscar-winning Torgo is not entirely unknown. The most memorable character in Silence of the Lambs is, of course, Hannibal Lecter, netting Hopkins a Best Actor statue for twenty-odd minutes of actual screentime. At first glance, Lecter might appear to be the film’s villain (and he regularly tops Greatest Villain lists), but he is not. In screenwriting terms, Lecter is the dynamic character, the person that guides Clarice Starling on her quest to save the symbolic lamb by defeating Buffalo Bill. Lecter has no real stake in apprehending Bill, assisting Clarice as part of his master plan to escape incarceration. His movie is a prison film with Dr. Chilton as its villain and Barney the orderly as the tough-but-fair prison guard. Briefly, Lecter’s film hijacks Clarice’s, with his stunning jailbreak at the end of the second act. The argument that this represents Clarice’s low point doesn’t hold water. After all, when Ardelia informs Clarice of the breakout and expresses worry that Lecter might come after his young apprentice, Clarice immediately dismisses any such worry. Because she is not instantly proven wrong, the audience takes this as fact. Hopkins winning Best Actor, as opposed to Best Supporting, implies that Lecter’s impact on the film is nearly equal to that of the film’s heroine.
This leaves a central question: What does it mean to exist in one’s own movie? Firstly, a Torgo requires an unnecessarily rich backstory, either implicit or explicit. Despite what nearly every movie producer will say, “unnecessary” is not a synonym for “bad.” Torgos often stand out because unlike many characters that only exist to play a role in the protagonist’s plot, the Torgo has an inner life. He has strong goals that are unrelated to the movie at large. He appears to be a complete person, or closer to it than the characters that surround him. In short, he is, if not realistic, a character interesting enough to theoretically carry a story of his own, providing depth to the film he has graced. A Torgo should be something for which writers strive, bringing their false worlds to life with fully realized supporting characters. Every person sees himself as the protagonist of his story. In our minds, we are all Torgos, waddling through the desert in hopes to find a granny-pantied wife of our own. If the goal of writing is depth and realism, then Torgos should be thick on the ground.
Who cares if the lesson came from arguably the worst film ever made?