Shortly into The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg's character, Jim Bennett, a literature professor, mid-list former novelist, and gambling addict, proclaims to his lecture hall, "If you take away nothing else from my class, let it be this. If you don't have the magic, don't bother. Desiring a thing cannot make you have it." A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, The Gambler is one of those movies that is simply a constant train wreck. Wahlberg's character has very little redeeming qualities, besides possibly being incredibly truthful, but even that he takes to a degree that is rather unsettling to the people around him. Perhaps his only trait that separates him from the other characters in the film is his intelligence. Despite his unappreciative nature to his family, his tirades towards his students, and his inability to curb his gambling habit, Jim Bennett comes across as highly intelligent, articulate, but also, full of self-loathing and hate towards his own existence and the world around him. The idea here is that if you don't have everything, you should have nothing at all. However flawed that mindset is, there is a startlingly amount of white male characters in literature and film that follow a similar mantra.
Look at J.D. Salinger's character Seymour Glass, most known for putting a pistol to his right temple and pulling the trigger in the last line of in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," but in other stories where Seymour is mentioned, and what Salinger revealed about one of his most peculiar characters, we learn that Seymour is brilliant but troubled. See Chip Lambert in Jonathan Franzen's modern classic, The Corrections. On the television side of things, look no further than Hank Moody portrayed by David Duchovny for the seven seasons of the Showtime hit Californication. There are countless more characters in literature, film and television that fall into this category, but why do we enjoy watching and reading about such self-depreciating and self-centered human beings?
First, we examine these characters for what they present. Often times they are white males approaching middle age that are highly intelligent , charming and good looking. However, the quality that seems to cause such a level of turbulence in their lives is that they are all creative as well. Intelligence and creativity are often times thought to go hand in hand, and while that is sometimes true, there are levels of each that directly affect the other. These characters are often times too intelligent for their own good, and since they possess a knack for creativity in some way, they easily are swayed into thinking that they are failures.
A highly creative person is able to do just that, create things that can be shared with the world, whether that be literature, music, poetry, inventions, etc. But someone who also is wired to be extremely book smart on the systematic level is more prone to second guessing their creativity. As Jim Bennett said, if there is no magic then don't bother. Someone with a lower intelligence level would not curb their creative side as easily. The reason for this probably lies somewhere in the perception of the world through these troubled characters' minds. In this world, if you aren't the best at something, there is no point in trying. Possessing a large amount of intelligence, according to them, means that they see reality for how it really is and that for some of us, themselves included, there is no hope.
While it is a blatant distortion of how the world really operates, when trying to assess why these characters, who quite obviously resemble real life counterparts as well, say the things they do and live the lives they live when they have so much potential, the answer becomes complicated. Now, siding with this brash outlook on life is surely not something that anyone aspires to do, the reality is that there is a valid point to their actions.
The difference between these types of characters and the ones who succeed on a high level in all walks of life is very minuscule. The truth is that for every hundred of these types of characters, there is one that closely resembles the rest but somehow makes it to their version of the peak of existence. In essence, individuals that are only wired to aspire to achieve fantastic levels of intellectual and creative output are in fact, important to society. The ones who fail, like the examples above, have shown flashes of brilliance but are unable to sustain it for a long period of time without falling back into self-hate, and a sadistic view on the world around them.
The common theme of these self-depreciating, intelligent, white males is something that can be looked at in multiple ways. It is often times represented because for thousands of years white males have had a lot of control over society, and while that is blatantly wrong, in some ways these characters are ingrained to feel like they have to prove themselves. On the one hand, they appear to be wasting their life and negatively impacting the ones around them, but on the other, they are striving for something that so few people ever reach: Becoming the best at any single thing in the world. While this may not send a good message, it does show how just how close the gap is from above average intelligence and creativity to pure genius.
If you look at it in the light that a lot of the success stories of creative geniuses and highly intelligent people often times fringe on the outskirts of society to the beat of their own drum, and while we do not usually give them an afterthought, it amplifies when examining the characters that almost got there. We scrutinize intelligent, white males who seem to have it all, when in their own reality, they have nothing at all. It becomes somewhat of a character trope since it is easy to despise characters who fall into this demographic, but however unlikable these characters are, there is a reason why we analyze them. What is so wrong with their lives?
Around 70 percent of all suicide victims in the United States are white males and it is no secret that high intelligence and creativity is a blessing and a burden, given that the more of each trait one possesses, the greater the chance of viewing the world and one's self in a negative light. The simple conclusion is that if they do not consistently reach their own personal goals set by their peak levels of intelligence and creativity they have deemed themselves a failure, and there is not much else to do besides sit back and watch them spiral downhill. While we are watching, we wonder why they abuse their bodies with alcohol and drugs, push people away, and flush their potential down the toilet. Unfortunately, the small percentage that have the penchant for this type of mindset often times are unable to stop falling down. However, sometimes they find a way out of that spiral, but only the ones with the most creativity and intelligence are capable of overcoming their greatest adversary: Themselves.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.