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Archive: July 2005

More Last Week’s Entertainments

What I Watched

Mulholland Dr., David Lynch: I only recently discovered Lynch’s ten clues—or, actually, I might have seen them before and forgotten about them. Here they are (from “Mulholland Dr.” on Wikipedia):

  • Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
  • Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
  • Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
  • An accident is a terrible event…notice the location of the accident.
  • Who gives a key, and why?
  • Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
  • What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
  • Did talent alone help Camilla?
  • Notice the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
  • Where is Aunt Ruth?

I haven’t take then time to figure out all the clues, but some of them are pretty easy: one of the clues before the credits is the first-person-perspective shot of somebody lying down to sleep; the red lampshade appears first next to the phone that isn’t answered in the sequence of phone calls between the conspirators against Rita, and later when Diane receives the phone call from Camilla about the party; Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for The Sylvia North Story, which is the film where Diane and Camilla met; Rita’s accident is at the same place Camilla meets Diane to bring her to the party; etc. The most common interpretation of the movie seems to be that the first part (before the cowboy tells Diane to wake up) is Diane’s dream after learning that the hit man she hired has killed Camilla, and the second part is Diane’s descent to insanity mixed with memories or hallucinations of events leading up to her decision to have Camilla killed. Many of Lynch’s clues do suggest this interpretation, but I but I’ve never been convinced. The second part seems more believable—not only because “there’s an overwhelming tendency, amongst critics and other analytical folk, to privilege the ’sordid’ over the ’sentimental’” but also because it doesn’t have strange conspirators controlling everything behind the scenes—of course, the conspirators are all still there, but they’re presumably regular folks whom Diane incorporates into her fantasies. But does verisimilitude have any place in a movie like this?

Then there’s the man behind Winkies, Silencio, the blue key and the blue box. In one of the comments threads for one of David Fiore’s many posts on Mulholland Dr. at Motime like the Present, a fellow named Charles points out something about Silencio I hadn’t known:

Lynch plays on an old joke of his, and one of his most memorable scenes, by doing himself one better: he has del Rio playing herself, lipsyncing to her own song, a Spanish cover of Orbison. This joke loses much of its humor if (1) you fail to recognize the reality of del Rio, an actual person, (2) its connection to the very real oeuvre of Lynch and (3) how its reality might differ from the rest of the film.

Mulholland Dr. is actually the only Lynch movie I’ve seen, so I can’t follow the joke (it’s apparently something to do with Blue Velvet), but I note that it reinforces the central theme of Silencio. Rebeka del Rio lip-synching to a recording of herself—it’s indistinguishable from reality, but it’s fake. The movie is full of juxtapositions of obvious fakes and perfectly realistic fakes: Betty’s jokey rehearsal with Rita and her real rehearsal with Jimmy Katz; Adam Kesher’s unenthusiastic approval of Camilla Rhodes and his “love at first sight” moment with Betty; Naomi Watts’s bubbly Nancy Drew acting in the first part and her almost show-offy naturalistic despair in the second.

Backing up a bit—the two parts of the movie, the dream and the reality according to the standard interpretation. Like I said, I’ve never been convinced by the standard interpretation, but I do think there are distinct levels of reality (fictional reality, I mean) at play. The reality narrative seems more real than the dream narrative (insofar as one fiction can be more real than another), if only because it’s more sensible to extrapolate a fantastic dream from a hallucinatory reality than vice versa. But there are complications—the theme of obviously fake things and other fake things that look real in comparison, for one. For another, there’s the reversal of causality: the dream is caused by the reality, but their relationship is obfuscated by the presentation of the dream before the reality. As I watch the movie, I think, “Diane’s car ride along Mulholland Dr. is just like Rita’s”; it’s only upon consideration, after the movie, that I see clearly how causality runs backwards through the movie. It’s Diane who wakes up at the end of the dream, so it’s presumably Diane who goes to sleep at the very beginning of the movie. But when she wakes up, it’s like one of those unsettling dreams about waking up from a dream. The reality is more real than the dream, but it’s nothing like firm ground for us to stand on. But maybe that’s the best we have.

The dream and the reality are both stories Diane/Betty tells herself; the difference is that she’s in control of the former (for a while), while the latter crashes messily into other peoples’ stories. Now we’re going way back in Peiratikos history to creation of self through narrative. We create and know ourselves through stories, but the problem with being the authors of our own life stories is that we’re also characters in other people’s life stories.

I completely forgot to talk about the man behind Winkies and the blue box. Maybe later, maybe later.

Last Week’s Entertainment

What I Read

Banana Sunday #1, p. 4

Banana Sunday #1, by Root Nibot and Colleen Coover: Orangutans and gorillas are apes, not monkeys. This error is especially troubling in a book that I would otherwise happily give to a child. Oh well. Nibot writes stylized, emotionally heightened dialogue—it’s like the characters are just a little more excited by everything than they would be if the dialogue were more naturalistic. Hmm, I see David Welsh has already explained what I’m trying to talk about. As he notes, a lot of the dialogue is exclamatory declarations of character traits. It fits just right with Coover’s cartoony exaggeration. The page I’ve scanned here is one of the clearest examples, especially the middle tier of panels. Coover tends to draw characters in an odd half-hunched posture—it makes them look endearingly eager or beleaguered as appropriate. Go-Go the gorilla is a shameless scene stealer, and I cannot resist.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville: I’ve only just started it. I hated Billy Budd when I had to read it in high school, but Moby-Dick is great fun so far. So far it’s mostly been the madcap adventures of Ishmael and Queequeeg, and I can’t wait till this comedy duo encounters Captain Ahab and his mad quest—who knows what’ll happen then, but it’s sure to be crazy and entertaining. For some reason, I imagine Grant Morrison reading Moby-Dick at a malleable age. I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished the book, I think.

Rose and I saw Mulholland Dr. and Rize recently, so hopefully more about them later. And, er, Minority Report, which I haven’t forgotten but have been too lazy to watch.

Open Letter to the Comics Internet

The comics internet is fucked! And we’re all part of the problem. Really, you’re not pushing comics forward. We’re folks on the internet writing about stuff, and we don’t matter to anybody but ourselves and the few other people who read us. Just kick back, have fun writing about stuff, and don’t worry about the forward momentum of the art form.

I think we can all agree that the final sentence of Rose’s post was ill-advised. A very bad idea. If you read everything Rose has written about this and think she’s accusing anybody of being misogynist or claiming she knows what anybody was thinking during recruiting for CBG, you need to work on your reading comprehension skills. The only badly behaved people in that comments thread are Alan David Doane, Steven Berg and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Christopher Allen.

You all are protesting way too much. Why is that?

You spend—let me count—one and a half years writing about comics, then you make a couple of fairly mild criticisms of Comic Book Galaxy (and one ill-advised final sentence, yes, we all remember that) and you’re suddenly PART OF THE PROBLEM!!!

You are all very silly and hysterical. So am I. Maybe you should get over it now, Logan and friends. I myself am getting over it… now. Now you try.*

P.S. Rose did bring up race, Logan. Thanks for reading before ranting.

P.P.S. No, really, we don’t want to write for CBG. So sorry.

* Yes, actually, this post is part of our shameful secret “agenda.” If I used smilies, I’d put one of those eye-rolling smilies right here.

Exile in Guyville

Well, it had to happen someday. Someone’s finally asked about the existence of women comic book bloggers. And while the obvious response is that they’re all over LiveJournal, Elayne Riggs and Laura Gjovaag only name seven, including themselves. I had no trouble coming up with 20 non-pros off the top of my head, but maybe that just means I’ve been paying more attention to the issue. It’s not a community, certainly, but it’s not nothing and we’re not all invisible.

Where am I going with this? Nowhere directly, but it coincided with the first post by a woman at the new Comic Book Galaxy, although author Diana Tamblyn still isn’t listed among the official contributors. I wasn’t surprised to see that the new direction CBG would be taking included lots of writing from lots of white guys, but it was interesting to note that (by my count) 12 of the 25 contributors are also bloggers.

Before I go any farther, I’ll note that I was not one of the women approached by CBG to contribute and I have absolutely no interest in being involved with them anyway. What’s interesting to me is that so many other bloggers feel differently. I understand that many comics bloggers really want to break into comics writing and that there are already plenty of bloggers writing weekly columns (and arguably some of the best ones) for a wide variety of comics sites. I’m perfectly happy to write here and do nothing else because I get to set the rules and the parameters (in my case, in collaboration with Steven) and then write whatever I want to write. I gave up my dreams of writing professionally a decade ago, so this current setup is pretty much my ideal. So what is it that makes some of these new blogger/columnists consider shifting to a wider pop culture focus or confining comics reviews to CBG? I don’t really know beyond what they say there and I’d love to hear more because I’ve always been fascinated in why people write the way they do on blogs and what they think they’re doing with their blogs in the first place. But what do they think they’re doing with their columns and how do those replace or supplement their blogs?

And here’s where things get ugly or controversial, and I’m just going to say what I think with the caveat (which I hope would be obvious to all readers anyway) that obviously this is just what I think and I have no vested interest in whether or not others agree or want to implement my ideas. There’s no good reason I should matter to you, right? I think if CBG were a teaching hospital, I wouldn’t go in for surgery there. It’s a site that requires copious editing, and yet not all the punctuation ends up where it belongs. Sure, it’s a work in progress, but it’s not the second coming of anything. I have a reputation for despairing that there’s not more good writing in comics, a complaint that extends to comics criticism. While there aren’t many CBG columns I think are really badly written, I’m not getting excited either, not hearing new voices, just some guys on the internet. And the real, core problem is that they’re writing as if they’re not on the internet. This is a site that has three different columns analyzing and reviewing Ice Haven in the same week with not only no conversation between them but no links from one piece to another. In fact, if I hadn’t made those links for you, you’d be stuck doing what I did and puzzling through the commentary listing to try to find where the two that aren’t listed might have been. This is a comics site that talks about comics but not in a way that makes discussions readily available to a casual reader. The google search is effective but inelegant, to say the least.

Why give up the conversational possibilities of a blog for a closed system like this? Why write something online if it might as well be mimeographed? Why have three overlapping reviews and nothing synthesizing them, analyzing the connections and dissonances (and nothing to help readers do this for themselves)? And I realize that none of these CBG bloggers have closed up shop and I really don’t expect them to. I’m sure it brings them more prominence than their individual endeavors would and it must be great writing experience to be expected to deliver the same sort of writing on a regular basis (which is yet another reason this would not be the job for me!) and I don’t think these blogger/columnists have made a bad decision in getting involved here. I do think it’s a bad idea to think that this version of CBG is the apotheosis of anything. But I’m not the whole audience, though I’m a reader, and it doesn’t need to appeal to what I think it should be.

But for those keeping score at home, I think it should be more like a blog than a webzine with near-daily updates. It could be an active conversation between all these informed and verbal columnists engaging each other’s ideas rather than writing in a vacuum for an audience in the ether. It could be easily navigable with a link for the title of each referenced comic or creator connecting to any other uses of those names on the site. In short, it could be intertextual in a way that it’s not, and I think that lack is its greatest limitation. It’s not a galaxy with any constellations in it, just a collection of loose stars. And sure, constellations are in part the stories we attach to groups of stars, but it’s a lot of work for a reader to create those stories right now and there’s no way to see whether what I call the Big Dipper is someone else’s Great Bear.

Of course I think it would be good if there were more women writing for CBG if they wanted to and had things they wanted to say, but I also know that there are already women writing for readers who are willing to look and pay attention. We don’t all have the same interests or tastes in comics or in blogging and I wouldn’t expect a woman at CBG to speak for me just because we have ovaries, but I’d be interested to see what she’d say just as I’m interested enough to read women bloggers who are writing now. But if there are other women who don’t want to be part of the move to “put more ‘gal’ into the Galaxy soon” (especially given the way contributing editor Chris Allen discusses, views and interacts with real-life women) I don’t think that’s a problem at all. I’m just glad there are other venues where their voices can be heard, and I prefer those anyway.

Last Week’s Entertainments

What I Watched

La Dolce vita, Federico Fellini et al.: The irony of 8 ½ is that even after Guido’s revelation that he loves everybody and can’t live without the people in his life, the movie remains trapped in his fantasy. Guido has successfully alienated everybody, but he imagines that they all forgive him and join him in a circus-like celebration of his new happiness; he imagines that everybody else’s happiness is congruous with his own. The movie remains claustrophobically solipsistic to the end. La Dolce vita, on the other hand, remains outside its protagonist Marcello’s mind. (Guido is a film director and Marcello is a gossip journalist, but they are almost variations of the same character. Guido is more playful, less seemingly defeated by decadence than Marcello; but who knows how Marcello really thinks of himself? The gauche Marcello at the end of La Dolce vita might be how the rest of the world sees Guido.) It turns out the whole doomed culture is solipsist. If Marcello ever has an inspiration like Guido’s, it remains hidden; we see only the stark reality: a sordid orgy, an encounter with a big dead fish, a moment of failed communication. La Dolce vita and 8 ½ both begin their finales with characters half-walking and half-dancing onto a beach; I recall that the characters moved left to right in 8 ½, but in La Dolce vita they move right to left. (Rose reminds me the girl whom Marcello cannot hear and fails to recognize moves from left to right, which is certainly important.) Basic film technique: because right is good (and because Western written languages read left to right, time progresses in a left-to-right circle on a clock, &c.), movement from left to right suggests progress; although the association of left and badness has largely disappeared, movement from right to left still seems backwards. In 8 ½, of course, the characters move clockwise in a circle—the progress is as illusory as the fantasy in which it occurs.

La Dolce vita reminds me of Bright Young Things (which I saw first), and I imagine Stephen Fry was influenced by Fellini in making his own movie. The oppressive sordidness of the upper-class and its hangers-on and the obsession with celebrity are straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s book—I suppose Fellini was influenced by Waugh. But Fry’s swarms of photographers and party scenes mixing sexy young people and batty old aristocrats are straight from Fellini. There an interesting connection I just noticed between Vile Bodies/Bright Young Things and La Dolce vita, viz. the protagonists are both writers who’ve written books that are never published (Marcello’s supposed book is only mentioned, Adam’s is a finished manuscript but is confiscated as smut by Customs). Both are journalists who write celebrity gossip whose books seem to represent a failed communication of something more important and genuine—it’s easy to idealize a book that exists only hypothetically. (Adam’s book exists more than hypothetically but only to him, never to the viewer.)

What I Read

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler: An indispensable guide to using English with good taste. Provides ceaseless entertainment to the well-educated and pedantic. The dictionary was published in 1926, so interested readers can judge the accuracy of Fowler’s speculations on future developments of usage.

Shining Knight #3, Grant Morrison, Simone Bianchi et al.: Lots of exposition, as Jog notes, but it’s pretty fun. The Seven Soldiers stories all have storytelling and the unresolved dialectic of story and reality—in Shining Knight #3, a certain character’s relation of the original Arthurian myth becomes even more interesting on a second reading, after her true identity is revealed. Elsewhere, narrative captions comment on the narrative with excerpts from an Arthurian protomyth; at the end of issue #2, in fact, Sir Justin responds directly in dialogue to the narration. Morrison infuses Shining Knight with myth but avoids tiresomely literal adherence to the monomyth and overwrought quotation from The Apocalypse of John.

What I Played

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rockstar Games: It’s by far the largest and most complex of the Grand Theft Auto games, but it introduces the new concepts gradually as part of gameplay—in fact, most of the new concepts seem to be unavailable until the game introduces them, so there’s little chance of confusion. Each new GTA game invites new controversy; I haven’t heard of any controversy yet surrounding San Andreas, but its portrayal of gang banging in the poorest neighborhoods of a fictionalized Los Angeles is unlikely to get a pass. (In fact, Rose informs me, San Andreas is already in trouble.) I was skeptical of the decision to give the player-character in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a name, personality and voice: too much emphasis on the story, which is superfluous and necessary only to give the gameplay a sensible context. San Andreas’s story has become even more, um, serious (relative only to Grand Theft Auto 3), and player-character Carl Johnson’s sad backstory (he returns to Los Santos at the beginning of the game because his mother has been murdered) is annoyingly incongruous with the hilariously frenetic gameplay. I haven’t decided yet if San Andreas is too big and too realistic, too focused on character and story, but it’s been fun for the fifteen or so hours I’ve played.

Goodbye, blogroll.

And good riddance. We never liked you.

Young Avengers

Edit 2005-07-06: Corrected my mispelling of Jim Cheung’s name.

Young Avengers, Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung et al.

[This began as a post of brief thoughts on books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched in the last week (a new column-type thing I hope will get me posting at least once or twice a week), but my piece on Young Avengers #4 & #5 ended up so long that I decided I’d better put it in its own post.]

I almost wrote a response to James Meeley’s latest correspondence, but why bother? I will note that Heinberg diplomatically explains to him that Young Avengers is not an all-ages book. (Meeley, one imagines, objects also to teenagers reading about sex.) It is an intelligent book about and for teenagers. The art is pleasant; Cheung draws reasonably anatomically correct figures and costumes that look like real (albeit exceedingly tight) clothes. The story is pregnant with identity crisis both fantastic and realistic—the fuel of a good superhero story in David Fiore’s neo-existentialist romance mold, I think. The typical secret-identity confusion (and these kids’ secret identities are multilayered) is enhanced by the liminality of adolescence.* Iron Lad of the 30th century (ha ha) knows he’s going to grow up to be Kang the Conqueror (apparently a particularly infamous supervillain)—unless he refuses to do so, a decision which would irrevocably change not only his own 30th-century future but, thanks to Kang’s time traveling, the future of the 20th century, causing who knows what temporal chaos. Patriot is the grandson of Isiah Bradley, the black Captain America. Cassie Lang, Ant-Man’s daughter, thought she was normal, but it turns out she has superpowers too. Kate Bishop has no superpowers and isn’t even related to any superheroes, but she’s turning into one of those Batman-type characters who outdoes the superpowered but inexperienced—and, it must be said, inept—guys with pure human skill and cool-headedness. We don’t know much about Hulkling and the Asgardian yet.

Patriot (who, if he’s the kid from the end of Truth: Red, White & Black, is named Litigious) and Kate are the most interesting characters so far, I think. Patriot is a kid with a chip on his shoulder about Captain America’s role, however unknowing, in Isiah Bradley’s ruin, who finds himself with a power and responsibility he doesn’t want because of his heritage and who tries to compensate for his basic immaturity with a dubious attempt at macho bravado. Kate, on the other hand, is a girl who saves the day when the Young Avengers botch an attempt to rescue two hundred wedding guests in a church from hostage-takers; she decides to tag along with Cassie when Cassie goes on a search for the Young Avengers, and she grabs some superhero weapons and leaps into battle when Kang the Conqueror attacks. Their relationship begins with typical “no girls allowed on our superteam” posturing by Patriot, but it veers off in entertaining directions all its own when his attacks whither against Kate’s unassailable confidence. That their mundane adolescent sparring plays out in the midst of superhero battles heightens rather than diminishes the human drama. As Rose says (of Scott Pilgrim):

The reason I like superhero stories is because they have so little to do with the smashing and stomping that are supposed to be at their core, at least if done correctly. Instead they’re a heavy template for readers to fit themselves into a reality where certain narratives make sense and the readers can make sense of themselves. It’s not about the power fantasy but about both power and fantasy, which is something over-specific “slice of life” stories can miss.

Pretty much all the stories I’ve encountered in my life that I really enjoyed (as well as many that I didn’t enjoy) have at least a little bit of magic to undermine the alienating specificity of realism. Kate and Patriot are very good. Iron Lad worries me, though, because Kang the Conqueror threatens constantly to overwhelm the story and turn it into a dumb fight between the Avengers and Kang. Battles and backstory minutiae don’t interest me in themselves, and they quickly bore me when they become detached from more entertaining storytelling concerns. That’s always the danger with a mainstream superhero story, that it turns into series of fight scenes and explorations of minor points of backstory, with the moral or philosophical problems of the story typically degenerating into inchoate muttering about heroism. An most infamous recent example is Identity Crisis, a story whose only reasons for existence are to explain apparent inconsistencies in some supervillains’ characterization and to engage in hand-wringing over superheroes’ inability to protect their loved ones (due mostly to ineptitude and negligence, as far as I can tell). The latter might have made for a good story, but nothing ever comes of it except faux-tough-guy narration from Green Arrow about the tragedy of your wife getting killed because you’re never home and you forgot to secure your house against tiny people crawling through the phone lines.** So I worry that Young Avengers will degenerate into a big fight, with Iron Lad doing the right thing because he’s a hero (or doing the wrong thing because he’s destined to become a villain). Issue #5 remains entertaining, but it’s walking the fine line between a story with fighting and a story about the fighting. But I’m not very worried, because the last page (which genuinely surprised me) all but guarantees an entertaining conclusion for Iron Lad. Still, I never underestimate the corrupting influence of Marvel.

* A note on adolescent power fantasy and the mainstream of superhero comic books. To suggest that superhero stories are immature power fantasies is to commit careless synechdoche in considering genuinely (if not self-consciously) immature power fantasies as the totality of the genre in ignorance (sometimes real, sometimes feigned) of more sophisticated stories about power and fantasy and identity. (Moreover, they tend to ignore the potentially interesting parts of otherwise banal or objectionable stories, such as the metafictional weirdness of Crisis on Infinite Earths.) In truth, superhero stories are a subset of a larger genre of fantastic fiction that includes, in addition to obvious superhero stories: Scott Pilgrim; much of Grant Morrison’s work in comics, especially The Invisibles but also Kill Your Boyfriend and Sebastian O; Eightball #23 (”The Death-Ray”); Dune; Wings of Desire; Joan of Arcadia. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a genre; it’s not a coherent body of works like, say, film noir. It’s a disparate collection of fantastic stories with potentially interesting thematic relations. Occasionally there is clear intertexuality, but the mainstream of superhero comics is largely insular and doesn’t invite comparison with anything outside. Those few superhero comics which escape the stultifying effect of that insularity may be more fruitfully considered, I now think, in the larger context than in the context of the superhero mainstream.

There are several common elements in these stories, viz.: confusion and ambiguity about identity, represented in the protagonist both by a fantastic secret or unknown identity and by more realistic identity crises; a problematic power relationship enhanced by the protagonist’s preternatural abilities; significant romantic and existentialist influence; stories about stories (e.g., flashbacks, frame stories, storyteller characters); rejection of naturalism in favor of artificiality, often through narratorial and authorial discussion of the story (instead of remaining unobtrusive to assist ‘willing suspension of disbelief’) and extensive use of allusion and intertexuality.

This is a problematic statement, probably too much so. I should distinguish between, um, storytelling and journalism. No, I don’t like those terms, but I mean narratives that are about more than their specific events and narratives that are about only their specific events. When I write story, I mean the former class of narrative. The latter kind is not a lesser art; the only lesser art is an attempt to create the former class of narrative using only the tools of the latter.

Needless to say, the nature of the magic used in service of stories has a profound effect. The superpowers and secret identities in Young Avengers encourage one kind of story, and the ubiquitous blue tv glow and mysterious guy who paints “Ghost World” graffiti in Ghost World encourage an entirely different kind. Obviously, I don’t consider ‘magic’ necessarily to be actual magic; I consider ‘magic’ to encompass any non-realistic storytelling device. I shan’t presume to guess how other people read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even the strictest adherent of realism could find the realism-undermining magic in a beloved story or, failing that, recognize that the ’story’ in fact belongs to the second class of narrative mentioned above.

E.g., Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.

** Not all such stories are bad—1960s DC comic books abound with five-page stories explaining how Superman used to hang out with Jay Garrick even though Jay Garrick is a fictional comic-book character in 1960s continuity (there’s a second Earth with Jay Garrick and a second Superman, which emits psychic radiation or something into the minds of comic-book writers) and why nobody realizes Clark Kent is Superman (Superman unwittingly transmits hypnotic disguise rays to people around him). Plenty of comic-book readers love stuff, obviously, so good for them. Identity Crisis’s crime is taking up seven long issues and being aesthetically offensive and dumb.