A tragic hero for the modern day screen

There are few well-written, tragic characters on the screen these days.  While we often sympathize with characters who suffer terribly, we feel a familiar pity for them, and only rarely go through the catharsis meant to be induced by tragedy: shedding an embarrassed tear in a movie theatre, or sobbing uncontrollably in the comfort of our own home. We are comforted by this “release” of our emotions, or even by the reminder that our own circumstances aren’t so bad after all.
So what is the difference between tragic characters who are “familiar” and those that tap into true emotion? Do universally tragic characters exist? And what determines whether that character will resonate on a personal level? Going back to the classics, a tragic character is defined by his or her tragic flaw, and also by his or her potential for greatness. They must “fall” from an elevated place in order for the tragedy to be more fully realized. Typical tragic characters from the classical cannon are Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, while more modern ones can be found in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or in many of Ernest Hemingway’s novels.
One of the best written tragic characters is Shakespeare’s King Lear. With Lear, we feel a deeper sense of pity than with other characters. Perhaps it is his age, or that he was once a great leader who lost it all in the end, including his own mind. Or maybe it is the undying faith of his daughter Cordelia, who even after he exiles her, returns to save her father from the torment of her sisters. This in itself is an indication of the man Lear must once have been – a loving father, a powerful soldier, a husband. Regardless of what it is, this character taps into a different, more profound sympathy that is difficult to put into words.
Even though Shakespeare was writing hundreds of years ago, modern tragedies tend to focus on similar topics: war, family relationships, death, and loss of purpose or identity. Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season, is not a tragedy in the classical sense, but it has its fair share of tragic characters. The most moving of these is Richard Harrow, played by British actor Jack Huston. Similar to Lear, Harrow evokes emotion more deeply than what we are accustomed to. Aptly named, as he is truly harrowing, this supporting character is a young WWI veteran who ends up in Atlantic City after he is befriended by one of the main characters, Jimmy Darmody.
Once a dapper soldier, Harrow is also one of the most recognizable characters, as he wears a mask on half of his face to cover up a tragic war injury. Despite the attempt to make the mask “match” the rest of Harrow’s face, it is poorly made, and his face looks slightly askew. The face plate is held in place by his glasses, and has hair to match his moustache – it is made somewhat ridiculous, evoking even more sympathy for this sensitive young gentleman who fought honourably for his country.
Harrow rarely looks people in the eyes, and struggles to speak, drink and eat, embarrassed by his affliction. Even though he is more comfortable without it, Harrow is fearful of removing the mask because of the effect it has on other people. While sleeping mask-less on a couch in the female protagonist’s home, her children run out of the room screaming in fear.
Yet, we can see that Harrow still cares about his appearance: he dresses nicely, takes good care of himself, and is physically fit. And the only thing he wants out of life is the love of a family. This is where writers Nelson Johnson and Terence Winter have done an expert job in tragic depiction – Harrow travels light, but is never without his talisman. It is an old book, plastered with magazine images of families: wives cooking dinner, children playing with their dads. A woman with which to share his life is Harrow’s ultimate dream, a dream that his friend Jimmy, with his wife and young son, takes advantage of again and again. Similar to Lear, Harrow desires a simple life after all he has suffered. But the audience knows deep down how difficult this will be for him to find, and we see that Harrow knows it when he attempts to take his own life.
It would be very easy to make this character more laughable than tragic; however, Jack Huston is a superb actor who captures the gentle, fragile and kind nature of Harrow, while creating mannerisms that never fail to highlight the difficulties of this man’s life.
It is rare to feel so genuinely for a television character, but Johnson and Winter have managed to achieve this with the character of Richard Harrow. They have written an uncommon tragic hero who is so very real, and who achieves a deeper connection to human suffering. He is just one example of how far television writing has come in recent years.

Waste Reducing, Appliance Recycling and Living in Containers: Three Green Initiatives for 2012

For many of us, the environment is at the top of our priority list when it comes to lifestyle. And businesses are catching on: people are more in tune with green ideas, and businesses are using incentives such as being carbon neutral as a way to attract customers. Recently, three green initiatives have been getting media attention in Canada, which are not only innovative, but in some cases, have the possibility of changing our culture entirely.
The first idea was presented on Dragon’s Den, and is called Event Water Solutions. This group from Orillia, Ontario has devised an ingenious way to reduce waste from water bottles at events. Essentially, they bring in a large sink system with several taps that hook into a local water supply. To avoid cross contamination, the Event Water staff fills the bottles for event-goers. If clients don’t have a water bottle, they can purchase one from Event Water. As a customer, this is a great way to save money, especially considering that bottled water is more expensive per litre than gasoline (think about that next time you leave your home without your own water bottle!). When questioned by the dragons as to why companies would want to implement something that reduces their profit margin, the team responded by saying, “We’re getting calls everyday”. It may be idealistic, but this could represent a real shift in cultural thinking: it is better to reduce landfill rather than making a quick buck. This is long term thinking rather than short term gain.
Next, we have Unplugged Small Appliance Recycling Program in British Columbia. According to the Unplugged website, in BC alone over 2 million small appliances end up in landfills every year; this means potentially hazardous materials going in to our environment. This recycling program, which has over 100 depots in British Columbia, is the first of its kind in Canada. They will recycle broken or used appliances, from toasters to electric toothbrushes to microwaves. Despite the small fee to cover the costs of staffing and recycling, it is well worth the positive effects on the environment. Visit their website for more information on how recycling reduces waste and energy costs in BC, and where you can recycle your small appliances.
Finally, a green scheme worth considering for long term urban development in Canada is the housing innovation of recycled shipping containers. A recent article on the Yahoo Canada home page describes a single mom in California who built a home out of a shipping container for $4000. She did the renovating herself; cutting out spaces for windows and doors, then adding insulation to both the walls and the floor. This woman, who has gone back to school, chose to live mortgage-free and spend more time with her daughter, while helping the environment by using recycled materials for both the central home and an extension to the space. Although it is unclear how much the land cost to build it on, Lulu has picked up on a revolutionary idea that is getting more and more media attention.
Yet, shipping container living has been around for several years now. In 2006, the History Channel ran a story about “Container City” located in the docklands of London, England.. Here, people can rent out 300 sq. ft. (the size of one container) of live-work space for $80-140 per month. It’s a cozy, but affordable space for people on a budget, especially here in Vancouver where renting 500 sq. ft. can cost upwards of $1500 per month. Built with 100% recycled materials, this Container City is a prime example of how to improve living conditions while being environmentally conscious.
In Canada, we have our very own container architect, Keith Dewey, who is the owner and designer of Zigloo.ca (zigloo.ca). At approximately $150-250 per sq. ft. to build (compared to paying $600+ per sq. ft. in Vancouver), these Zigloo homes are affordable, compact, and modern, and are making use of materials “destined for the scrap yard” as Dewey states in the Vancouver Sun (http://zigloo.ca/vancouver-sun-zigloo-article/). Dewey indeed lives in his very own container home on Vancouver Island, which cost a total of $360, 000. A Zigloo has also been designed for a residence in Squamish, titled the “Squamish Cargospace Living Project” (http://zigloo.ca/squamish-cargospace-living-project/).
Squamish Cargospace Living Project
 This home boasts the following green attributes: geothermal heating, wind power and a water recapturing system. It is unique, yet modern, and is reminiscent of Cam Frye’s super posh 80s home in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Other designs include enviro-friendly items like a green roof. Affordable housing has been on the political table for years in cities all across Canada, so my question to politicians and urban planners is what are you waiting for?
Our country and its people are doing impressive things to help the environment, and these three ideas only have room to grow. You don’t have to live in a Zigloo to be green-friendly, but consider other ways you might reduce, reuse and recycle materials in your life. It is cost-effective and better for our planet in the long run.