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Category: Criticism

Postmodern Horror

I’ve been trying to write a post about Shaun of the Dead, but it’s been tough going. I know vaguely what I want to say, but I seem to have no interest in turning my vague thoughts into words. Oh well. Instead, I’ve been thinking about postmodern horror of an entirely different kind.

But should I first discuss what kind of postmodern horror Shaun of the Dead is, since I’ve already contrasted it with the kind of postmodern horror I actually want to write about? Yes, I suppose I should. Shaun of the Dead, of course, is in the tradition of self-conscious/ironic horror movies, movies like Scream and even Scary Movie. The authors (I will use “authors” to refer collectively to the people who made a movie) of Scream take on the relatively easy and ultimately banal task of making a straight slasher flick, with one crucial violation of the rules: the characters know about slasher flicks, spend much of their time discussing slasher flicks, and recognize immediately that they are living inside a slasher flick. The result is a movie that balances precariously on the line between jokiness and sincerity and isn’t quite deft enough to avoid stumbling. It’s reasonably entertaining, although the authors’ mocking indulgence in the slasher genre’s violent and exploitative virgin/whore morality makes for some particularly queasy scenes. The second and third movies might have improved on the formula—I don’t remember clearly.

Before I saw Shaun of the Dead, I expected a goofier, indier Scream. But whereas Scream approaches the problem of self-conscious postmodern narrative by presenting characters who discuss horror-movie cliches at the same time that they act out those cliches, the trailer for Shaun of the Dead suggests that it takes the different approach of riffing facetiously on little details and problems that tend to get glossed over in other movies—viz. the talk-show guest who insists on staying married to her zombified husband. Sort of a converse Scream, a self-conscious joke-horror movie that shakes up the familiar narrative by making the characters less clever instead of more—not only do they not notice the zombie-movie plot mechanics clunking along around them, they mess with the mechanics by failing to fall properly into their roles.

That’s what I thought before I saw the movie. Mostly, anyway—I’m partly reconstructing my thoughts in light of having seen it. What do I think now that I’ve finally seen it? Well, it’s sort of like I expected it to be, but it also has other more interesting things going on. It starts with a strong romantic-comedy foundation. Shaun is a 29-year-old guy who suspects he ought to take things more seriously but seems to have trouble finding things that right taking seriously. His sidekick is Ed, who “doesn’t have too many friends,” which is an understatement. Shaun’s girlfriend is Liz, who has tired of Shaun’s inertial inability to discover nightly entertainment opportunities outside the local pub. Her sidekicks are David and Dianne, a pretentious twat and a flightly failed actress, respectively. Liz is one botched date from dumping Shaun for good. David is in love with Liz and doing a pathetic job of hiding it from his girlfriend Dianne. Dianne wants to know when Shaun’s going to hook them up with free cable. Ed’s single endearing quality is his ability to perform a remarkably poor impression of an orangutan. Shaun—well, he doesn’t exactly want to spend the rest of his life drinking himself to death at the Winchester (the aforementioned local pub), but all the better alternatives have the flaw of requiring him to do something other than sit around the local pub.

Hmm, it’s been several days since I looked at this post. I seem to have been writing some kind of plot summary of Shaun of the Dead. But what’s the point—I don’t have the movie anymore, so I can hardly do a close reading. It’s been weeks since I saw the movie! I will now speak vaguely and noncomittally.

So Shaun of the Dead starts as a romantic comedy, and it could easily have kept going without zombies for a whole movie. Throwing in zombies is dangerous, because it means people like me might say, “If they wanted to do a romantic comedy about the unresolvable opposition of needing to grow up and not wanting to become one’s parents, why are they wasting their (and, more importantly, my) time with zombies?” But I didn’t say this while watching this movie. Partly because the authors take the time to play connect-the-themes. The shots of a stumbly, zombie-sounding Shaun who turns out to be merely a sleepy, yawning Shaun, the zombified wage-slave drones who are literally zombified and then put to work as—zombie slaves, I guess—funny jokes, but also plugged right into Shaun’s real-life concerns. (And, yes, terribly obvious and presumably done in every other zombie movie ever. Well, it’s a zombie movie, you work with what you’ve got. Shaun of the Dead works with what it’s got stylishly and intelligently. [???????But if they wanted to do a movie about the unresolvable opposition &c., why did they waste their time with zombies?” I’m not going to get into a defense of using the fantastic in art here, sorry. Um, because sometimes mere naturalism isn’t enough for some others, and then they break out the zombies.]) Let’s continue that line of thought, but outside the parentheses. What the zombie stuff does is latch onto specifc real-life concerns in the narrative, complicate and modify them, cause them to resonate with greater intensity.

Damn, I’ve been sloppy in talking about the romantic-comed aspect of Shaun of the Dead. Because, when you think about it, romantic comedy as a genre functions like a lot of fantasy—i.e., it latches onto specific real-life concerns, complicates and modifies them, causes them to resonate with greater intensity. So Shaun of the Dead has the romantic comedy and the zombies messing with the narrative. But is that enough for Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg? Certainly not. They add that extra layer of self-consciousness, which allows them to slip back and forth between zombies and romantic comedy without getting bogged down in either. There are three big things going on in the movie—the romantic comedy, the zombie stuff, and the mucky “human drama”—and each is so emotionally intense (and gorily harrowing, in the case of the zombie stuff) that it could easily overwhelm the whole movie. But the extra layer of irony allows the movie to flip deftly with precision timing from the chilling revelation of Shaun’s mum’s impending zombification to jokes about David wanting to shoot Shaun’s mum to simple “human drama” as the relationships between characters build tension and explode in heady conflict. The section of the movie from the musical zombie fighting/dancing choreographed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to the moment when Shaun, Liz and Ed find themselves trapped behind the bar is the final buildup and climax of the movie. These scenes have everything going on at once, and it really shouldn’t work but it does anyway, and it’s lovely.

Er, I guess I ended up writing a lot about Shaun of the Dead after all. And not about the kind of postmodern horror film I claimed I’d write about at the beginning of this post. I suppose I could edit the beginning of the post to make things make more sense, but I think I’ll leave it as is. More to come on postmodern horror… some time. I won’t promise timeliness.

“They experience time and motion differently.”

There’s been plenty of good blog-writing on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3: Ian Brill, Ian Brill again, Jog. Johnny Bacardi, Johanna Draper Carlson, Marc Singer. And most of you have probably already read it anyway, so I’ll skip the overview and get right into a close look at the book’s many visual pleasures. All of the images in this post are links to larger images.

We3 #3, p. 23

The image to the left (We3 #3, p. 23) is one of the best examples of the most common layout technique used in We3: a large image with small panels overlaying it. The technique is used in other comics, but Morrison and Quitely use it better than most, as the overlay panels don’t act as part of the story’s sequential-art narrative, but instead act as meaning-modifiers on the large image. In the large image, Bandit and Weapon 4 are angrily staring each other down, but the two eye closeups complicate their staredown in two ways: their positioning emphasizes Weapon 4’s physical and emotional dominance of Bandit, and Bandit’s eye reveals his terror. Marc Singer points out the panel of “a minuscule dog that seems to represent how 1 views himself after a whiff of 4’s combat pheromones” (I thought it was a rat until Marc mentioned it!) whose presence seems to imply that the overlay panels aren’t necessarily part of the diegesis, not only because there is obviously no diegetic tiny dog, but also because the way it blends in with the larger image suggests that there is, impossibly, a tiny dog standing directly in front of Bandit. The moment of cognitive dissonance between the impossibility that there is a tiny dog and the visual implication that there is a tiny dog confronts the reader with the diegetic ambiguity of the overlay panels. That ambiguity makes the set of eye closeups even more interesting, because there’s no telling whether Bandit’s expression of terror is diegetic or non-diegetic—there’s no telling whether Bandit looks terrified or only feels so. And, as desperate as Bandit must be to hide his terror, he must not be sure he’s really hiding it—and haven’t most of us found ourselves desperately hoping our true emotions are invisible at one time or another? I know I have.

We3 #2, pp. 6-7

Some overlay panels seem to represent snapshot glimpses of what the combatants see in the midst of battle—the image to the left (We3 #2, pp. 6-7) is one of the most spectacular uses of snapshot overlay panels. I’ve never been in a fight, let alone a military battle, but I always imagine that the experience would be sort of the real-perception equivalent of that image of Bandit leaping through a jeep: a flood of visual information that doesn’t quite add up to a big picture. When the soldiers in the jeep realize a cyborg dog is about to jump through the windshield and maul them, I imagine they get quite an adrenaline rush and sensory overload, but there’s not enough time to make sense of anything. The overlay panels represent visually how the soldiers experience Bandit’s attack. The large image, on the other hand, represents Bandit’s ability, with his cyborg-enhanced animal sense and deadly combat training, to grasp the big picture.

But there’s even more going on in that image: notice the different apparent rates of time in the overlay panels and the big image. The big image uses the standard comic-book technique of duplicate images of one character tracing a path of movement through one panel to create a speed-up effect. The overlay uses a large number of panels showing incremental stages of a single action to create a slow-motion effect—look at the top tier, in which a bullet takes eight panels to travel through a soldier’s head, and the lowest tier, in which a soldier’s foot takes three panels to lift off the gas pedal. These actions take a fraction of a second, but the multiplication of panels dilates the diegetic time. Other overlay panels don’t appear to fit together narratively at all, and the breakdown of narrative cohesion fragments the diegetic time. When I try to read the overlay panels and the big image at the same time—an activity the layout actively encourages—I get three different temporal representations of the same narrative sequence, and the way the conflict between them disjoints my reading only enhances the other perceptual representations I’ve mentioned.

Now, here are two more pages from We3 (We3 #2, pp. 12-13 and #3, p. 6):

We3 #2, pp. 12-13We3 #3, p. 6

The first is another instance of Morrison and Quitely using a standard comics technique—this time it’s a character breaking out of the panel borders, typically used to suggest strength or power—to remarkable effect. In Animal Man, Morrison went meta and allowed characters to see the panel borders and move outside them. In We3, Tinker can move in and out of panels because she moves too quickly for the soldiers to react, and the soldiers are trapped within the panels by their limited perceptual abilities. The panel border comes to represent the limits of perception.

The second panel from the second page above is an allusion to Tinker’s panel-jumping attack—but, on this page, the animals aren’t around. In fact, the sequence of panels—the first with a point of view directly behind the homeless man, the second with the point of view seemingly directly in front of the homeless man, and the third a return to the first panel’s point of view—suggests that the second panel and the smaller overlaid panels represent the homeless man’s point of view. This is the one place in We3 where the panel layout is used to represent a human’s perception. This scene isn’t quite as action-packed as the cat’s attack in issue #2, but the large crowd of police officers and soldiers, flashing squad-car lights and blinding flashlights, would probably disorient most people. The small panels mirroring the panels from issue #2, particularly the penultimate right one that shows a closeup of the hand that grasps the homeless man from behind in the third panel—a hand the man shouldn’t be able to see—indicates the homeless man has superhuman perceptual abilities similar to the animals’. (Jog has the same idea, but he doesn’t seem convinced of it.) I think this strengthens Rose’s theory that the homeless man is a veteran—maybe the military did something to him that made him like We3, something that obviously doesn’t happen to everybody in the military. His ready acceptance of talking animals and confident determination to remove their “coats” seems to suggest he’s mentally unbalanced (he says he needs liquor, and the building where he lives is full of broken bottles—is he an alcoholic?), but maybe he knows more than he lets on.

No wonder Morrison called his recent Vertigo work “supercompressed.” Where a “decompressed” comic book enforces extended examination of a limited set of information through slow pacing and repetitive panels depicting incrementally changing scenes, We3 has an almost overwhelming amount of information packed into it, with even the spatial relationships between panels on the page modifying and extending the meaning of the pictures. I could go on and on, but this is enough for now.

Superheroes, Romantic Comedies, and Identity

Here’s something I just thought of. I don’t know, it might be crazy talk, but I’ll tell you about it and you can tell me what you think.

When I lamented the action movie’s triumph over the romantic comedy in Spider-Man 2, I meant it. Spider-Man 2’s pairing of romantic comedy and superheroism is no mere accident of narrative—the romantic comedy and the superhero story have a crucial intersection, which is the recurring conceit of the duplicitous hero whose dual identity first covers and eventually discovers (to use an archaic sense of the word) a seriously fractured and incomplete identity. In superhero stories, this is manifested in the opposed secret and superheroic identities, the thesis and antithesis that never synthesize. Superman’s possession of two identities (or three, if Smallville Clark is different from Metropolis Clark) highlights his lack of a natural, coherent identity. He is a Kryptonian, an Earthling, and an American, but he’s also none of them. They are masks he can wear and remove at will, not his face. Same with Batman, although The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps an attempt to synthesize Batman and Bruce Wayne. Romantic comedies often present similar, usually less heroic, dual-identity protagonists—the most relevant standard for what I’m thinking about now is the story of a man trying to make it with two girlfriends at once, a story that inevitably climaxes with a scene where the poor bastard tries to take both women on date to the same restaurant at the same time.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life replays the classic same-restaurant-same-time scene, except that Scott is too inept to realize that it might cause problems to invite both Knives and Ramona to his concert, let alone that he should do anything about it. That scene is also the one in which it turns out Scott was only half-joking (if that!) about being a graduate of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Scott really is thinks of himself as a superhero, if a highly unusual one. It can’t be coincidental that the book’s sidelong riffing on romantic comedy comes to a head in the same scene as the sidelong riffing on superheroes comes to a head. The climactic scene where the pop-culture fantasy (it’s all allusions to Star Trek technology, video games and musicals) that creeps through the book jumps up and really rocks out.

Judging by the previews (1, 2), the second Scott Pilgrim volume, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is going to throw awkward-adolescent maturation stories into the mix—not surprising, since that’s another kind of story founded on identity formation and identity crises, as well as a common component of romantic comedies and superhero stories.

So what? I’m not sure, what do you think?

Edit: Changed “Scott really is a superhero” to “Scott really thinks of himself as a superhero”

Debating Iron Council

Debating Iron Council: A bunch of essays about China Miéville's books, with a lengthy response from Miéville.

Via: Dave Intermittent (in a comment)

11 January 2005 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill

An essay on postmodern remix aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill from a college film class I took last year. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

“I stopped needing to save the world.”

Spider-Man 2

Is it a lovely romantic comedy or a superhero-action flick with delusions of seriousness? Unfortunately, pieta scenes and speechifying crowd out the superpowered romance, which is much more compelling.


I’m with David Fiore, “superhero” is no good. I’m sure it’s fine as a genre for commerical purposes, but as a critical genre, it mutates and limits the discourse in ways that are not useful to me. David’s “neo-existentialist romance” mutates and limits the discourse in ways that I find more interesting. I don’t know if he cares about this at all, but I’d be interested in some study of how the generic necessities of superheroism/crime-fighting distort the “neo-existentialist romance” in his interpretation of the Gwen Stacy clone saga. “Superhero” stories, like any fantastic stories, use fantastic elements to create pleasing and meaningful resonances with real-life stuff. (Well, that’s what I think fantastic stories do.) The generic expectations associated with “superhero” tend to calcify the potentiality of fantasy and make the resonances in “superhero” stories dull and predictable, which is how Spider-Man 2 became a movie that aches so heartbreakingly to be a romantic comedy but ends up overwhelmed by hoary old ruminations on the importance of heroes.

The Iron Giant

Now, I have to admit my favorite “superhero” movies is one about heroism. But The Iron Giant comes at the theme from an unfamiliar angle: the Giant rejects violent confrontation with “bad guys;” he wants only to protect people and rescue them from danger. It’s so refreshing to have a hero whose code of justice isn’t based on vengeance and punishment.

“Saving is what misers do.”

Is that profound or does it just make no sense? Despite my ill-advised participation in some of the debates on the artistic/critical worth of “superhero” comics several months ago, I find most “superhero” stories actually pretty dull. Most of the really good ones either ignore entirely the standard trappings of heroism and saving the world, or they shine that “existential spotlight” on heroism and find it seriously problematic. Not usually because it’s fascist so much as because it’s miserly. “Saving is what misers do.”—forget Watchmen, The Invisibles has my favorite critique of superheroic ethics.

Old-Fashioned Appreciation

I wondered what people even mean when they say something “took them out of a story.” J.W. Hastings explains what they mean:

Now, saying “X took me out of the story” doesn’t mean that “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality”, which is what both Steven and Dave are arguing, but rather that “X broke the mood” or that “X broke the rules”. […] saying “X took me out of the story” isn’t so much about breaking “suspension of disbelief” or puncturing an illusionist surface as it is about an audience member feeling that the art maker has broken the rules of a game they were playing or that the art maker has failed to properly set up or cue a change in these rules.

In fact, I have witnessed people use the phrase to mean, “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality.” (Not that I can point to specific examples of people using the phrase with such a connotation, so take my claim with a grain of salt if you don’t have your own anecdotal evidence to back it up.) On the other hand, J.W. is correct in suggesting that I should not have yoked the phrase so securely to the illusionist school of experiencing art implied in the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.” J.W.’s explanation of the phrase probably applies more often than not.

But I think what is underlying what both Steven and Dave are saying is their belief that being truly engaged with a work of art means analyzing and interpreting it. I even get a sense that they feel that an audience has a kind of moral imperative to analyze and interpret a work of art, or that this kind of analysis and interpretation is morally superior to old-fashioned “appreciation” of art works. […] Steven and Dave, of course, aren’t alone. Their kind of analytical criticism is practiced throughout academia. Personally, I think that this almost obsessive focus on analysis and interpretation has led to a whole bunch of “art critics” who don????????t have anything resembling traditional aesthetic sense. By approaching works of art merely as a group of symbols that need to be decoded in order to discover their “meaning”, these critics have cut themselves off from being able to appreciate the beauty of, to take pleasure in, or to be moved by a work of art. In fact, it becomes impossible for them to differentiate between, say, a Willem De Kooning painting and an advertisement for toothpaste. After all, both the painting and the advertisement are equally suitable objects for critical analysis and interpretation.

Ooh. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad? In my defense, I’ve never done critical analysis of a toothpaste ad—nor a De Kooning painting, for that matter. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad, equally suitable objects for critical analysis? Hardly! (Which is not to say a toothpaste ad isn’t suitable for critical analysis—maybe it is sometimes.)

But I’m not talking about paintings or toothpaste ads, I’m talking about works of narrative art which, more often than not, have large verbal components. So what does constitute “old-fashioned ‘appreciation’” of narrative art, if it doesn’t include interepretation and analysis—however informal and schematic?

For now we see through a glass, darkly

The only comic book I’ve read recently is JLA Classified, which is a fun superhero comic, a slippery polysemic critique of US foreign policy, a parody of the grim (and dull) superteam pastiches of The Authority and The Ultimates, and a playful subversion of Batman’s coherence as a character. Steve Pheley quotes Don MacPherson:

The problem isn’t that this Batman is different, it’s that Morrison tries to maintain both are the same man. “I’m opening the sci-fi closet, Alfred. Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this.” The notion that the Batman who patrols Gotham, trying to prevent the sort of tragedy that scarred him as a youth, would have a box full of seemingly magical toys just doesn’t wash. […] It took me out of the story.

to which Steve replies cogently:

Me, I tend to think it’s perfectly valid to have Solo Batman and JLA Batman being different, and blurring the lines between the two is fine if the tone of the story allows it (as the Classified story does). Call it Hypertime, call it selective continuity, call it fudging — why not, if you can get a good story out of it?

“It took me out of the story.” “It took me out of the story.” When people say this, I feel like Brad Stand in I ♥ Huckabees.

“It took me out of the story.”
“That is so not true. Wait, what does that even mean?”

What are people doing in the story in the first place? They’re readers, not characters. OK, I’m being deliberately obtuse. But people talk about being immersed in the story, forgetting they’re reading a book or watching a movie. That can’t be what they mean. How could they really forget that they’re scanning a sequence of words (or images) on a page, or that they’re watching a sequence of images projected on a screen? And “willing suspension of disbelief.” I think people don’t mean this literally—how could they, and why would they want to, believe that the story they’re reading is true?—but the language of forgetfulness and belief seems unhelpful, at least for me. I want to remember, not forget, that I’m reading a text.

This language must be related to that some people hate criticism and analysis of texts. They complain that dissecting a text takes all the fun out of it—maybe because it forces them to abandon their strategies of immersive forgetfulness and belief, which seem childish and naïve to me.

More on “the work is the work”

More on “the work is the work”: Sean Collins: "Of course the work is not just the work... sometimes what you want a given work of art to be is what it probably should have been." Uh, is this where I'm supposed to say THANK GOD YOU SHOWED UP?

See also: Jason Kimble
See also: David Allen Jones

13 June 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Demo Interepretations

Larry Young has this to say about people’s interpretations of Demo (look for the 11 June entry):

I very much enjoy readers’ interpretations of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan????????s Demo. It????????s interesting to me, personally, that most audience members find the various snapshots of Demo so compelling that it seems, to me at least, that many readers are missing the lemon because of the meringue. Many folks who should ostensibly know better get fixated on the what-happens-then or the but-what-about-the or the he-didn????????t-take-responsibility or whatever. Me, I think they????????re not getting the fact that the story is the story. You????????re on the bus, or you????????re not. No need to blame the bus.

Sure. On the other hand, though, maybe some readers got the lemon and just didn’t think it was very good lemon. The story is the story is the story, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have flaws. I thought Demo #6 (the only issue I’ve read) is a pretty good little story, but I was following one discussion that included people who found it unsatisfying, and everybody involved in the dicussion had cogent arguments for their readings of the story. Some readers found the severe disconnect between the frame story and the flashback troubling and annoying. I found it troubling, but I also found that that troubling disconnect was at the center of my reading of the story. (Actually, I found it quite annoying as well, at first, but I changed my mind.) Brian Wood, who participated in the discussion, apparently didn’t intend there to be a troubling disconnect at all. I can see how all three of these interpretations work—I find my own most compelling, certainly, but I can see how the others work. My point: there are lots of ways to read any text, and the ways you don’t care about aren’t irrelevant (even if you are the author or the publisher…).

Jason Kimble also replies to Larry Young, and makes a good point:

Truly impressive writing works on all the applicable levels, or at the very least plays a skilled magician’s game of compelling the reader to focus on the levels that work while failing to notice those that aren’t quite so solidly constructed.

If you haven’t managed that, you haven’t managed it. Playing “you just don’t get it” does no one any good, and just leads to a lot of naked emperors prancing around. While that might make for good porn, it’s not the best way to encourage critical thought and improve your storytelling skills.

Authors can’t choose for readers which parts of the text readers should focus on. If a reader chooses to focus on a part of the text the author considers irrelevant, it’s not that the reader is “fixating” and is “just not getting” it—it’s just that, well, that part isn’t so irrelevant after all.