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Category: Movies

Red Right Hand

n.b. This was initally posted Monday evening, when we realized things were going wrong with the blog, and this realization arose from the fact that I don’t believe the post ever arrived in a form visible to people other than me. Now that we’ve settled into our piratical new home, I can revive it. Remember this is Monday Me, far less world-weary and generally weary. I’m not sure I agree with myself anymore.

I had a fun weekend, though not a relaxing one, so most details will have to wait until I’m more alert. I must be getting old; this time change has done me in! But I know you want to hear about Hellboy before I toddle off to bed.

First, though, a message for Rick Geerling. I went ahead and bought the Negative Burn collections for the first and second years. So far so good, but I hope to say more later.

Now, Hellboy! We liked it. I thought it was a lot of fun. I haven’t read many of the Hellboy stories, but I think the movie could have benefited from a certain sort of adherence to their mold. I’m just not especially interested in stories where the fate of the world is at stake. This is an ongoing problem with superhero stories in general and particularly in movies. I just think superhero movies would be more fun for me if they weren’t action movies (and I realize there’s no hope for this coming true) and the same holds for roleplaying games. I prefer smaller stakes because that leaves more room for character development, for personal impact. Then again, this could be linked to my peculiar disdain for property damage in standard Hollywood action sequences, too.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a purist who was offended by the love story in Hellboy, but I would much rather have seen more of a Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense slice-of-life story, in which a love story would fit, than the way the love story got manipulated by the Bigger Plot into something more trite than special. A lot of things would fit, like more pamcakes scenes, and there would still be fights. But it would be easier for me to get invested if it were just another day, another monster, none of this threat of eldritch horror from another dimension melodrama shit. And I think if this weren’t set up like a video game with a final confrontation with the biggest baddie maybe other people wouldn’t have minded the special effects or the rather standard way in which the threats are resolved. And maybe if the movie hadn’t been set up to culminate in one big magic moment the creators could have focused instead on expanding the characters to let the audience connect with them.

And I’m saying all this as someone who had a great time at the movie. I’d prefer something different, but that’s how I feel after I see many films. And Hellboy featured excellent performances, allowing for plenty of characterization (at least for the good guys) in a fairly small space, so it wasn’t totally lacking. I’m just curious why this is the way superhero movie stories have to work, since it’s the characters rather than the deeds that keep people coming back, right? I realize Superman’s death sold awfully well, but I don’t think people follow Wolverine for years just because they can’t wait to see who he’ll slice next. Or maybe I’m wrong. I’m not in the target demographic for superhero comics or Hollywood movies, but I sure wouldn’t mind a film that catered to me more. But I know what sells best is big explosions in HDTV surround-sound, and that doesn’t interest me. I’d like more cigar-lighting scenes, more stock heroic poses in moments of pain rather than victory, more pivotal Nick Cave moments (or Leonard Cohen, if applicable) and more pamcakes. Definitely more pamcakes.

What I Watch (and a little why)

David Fiore wanted to know what movies other comics bloggers love. I can’t comply with a list of 30 or more like other people, although if I did a longer list, I would have some overlap with those and especially with Eve Tushnet’s. Instead these are the pivotal references in what Dave and Rick Geerling are calling spiritual autobiography, and they seem to come in pairs for me. And since one goal of this is analysis of the links to comics preferences (ok, and simple voyeurism/curiosity and characterization, I assume) I should let it be known that I’ve just realized that most of my favorite superhero stories are fill-ins not parts of storyarcs.

It’s only a roughly ordered list, but I still need to start with A Moment of Innocence, Farsi title Noon va Goldoon, literally Bread and Flower, directed by the Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It’s about autobiography and representation and love and idealism and, well, the loss of innocence implied in the title. In reality and the movie, back in the 1970s young dissident Makhmalbaf attacked a policeman with a knife, trying to steal his gun. Makhmalbaf was jailed for the offense, and the young officer left the force. Years later, Makhmalbaf, now a respected director, reencountered the policeman, who’d shown up at a casting call for extras. They decided to film their story, and this is the result. Each picks a younger version of himself, perhaps a bit more handsome. Each independently (and this is where I have to take the story on its own logic; I don’t know whether Makhmalbaf actually oversaw all the shooting or if he didn’t know until afterwards what the police side of things was looking like) took and trained his younger self to understand what he was thinking and feeling, how to live his memories in the days leading up to the event. That’s all I’m going to say for now in hopes that someone among my readers will then go see it (or has seen it already) but this was heavily on my mind when I started talking about “creation of self through narrative,” and it sticks with me still. No movie has given me chills like the last scene here did, because how people make themselves is the most compelling story.

Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders. I could believe in angels who exist only to pull the tiny fragments of poetry out of life and record them. I know well how that life is not satisfying. And the music!

Moving way back to me as a 5-year-old, Return to Oz was a formative experience indeed. I’d read the books and so my parents took me to the movie, not knowing how much I’d be overwhelmed by the visuals. I grew up without television and remember this and a few other movies I saw as a child as engrossing and amazing movies, so big I couldn’t even really process them. Steven and I saw this last winter and it’s entertaining, but odd. I realize I’m also obsessed with the idea of audience, but I really don’t know how this movie got made. It’s too dark and disturbing for children (and I carried with me a slight distrust of optometrists’ machines, even though I knew that they weren’t quite what threatened Dorothy) and far too simplistic for adults. But it’s lovely, and perhaps where I started an obsession with set design.

I was perhaps nine or ten when I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock on television at my grandparents’. I was surprised to find when I saw it again last year that the scene I remember most vividly didn’t occur onscreen but was merely narrated. Typical! I haven’t seen any of Peter Weir’s films, but I probably should if they can manage the chilling, understated longing and melodrama that captured me then and now.

High school means Heavenly Creatures, and I’ve certainly gone on to watch more Peter Jackson! At the end and for half an hour after my first viewing my stomach was clenched with the thrill and horror of a love not worth killing for and the pain and power of self-delusion. My mother had taken me to see it since I wasn’t technically old enough to get in alone and she, perhaps predictably, was unimpressed and disgusted.

A few years later I developed a not-quite-inexplicable addiction to The Full Monty. It managed to humanize men for me, which seemed at the time like a fairly impressive feat.

And then there’s the last year or so, in which I’ve seen more films than probably any other time in my life, which isn’t saying much. Russian Ark was a standout for its audacity and precision and costumes and for a tiny unspoken subplot about quarreling lovers that I think I see. My favorite, though, was Dirty Pretty Things, almost a template for what I like in a movie. Sensitivity to culture, gorgeous dialogue, strong settings, candid and not exploitative looks at gender and violence as part of an actual story with actual characters. Actually, I’m not sure how it could be replicated, so it probably isn’t a good template, but is an impressive movie.

And then there are life-changing experiences. Casino Royale has opened me up to amazingly ridiculous humor and light-hearted happiness and Burt Bacharach and the Tijuana Brass! And after Annie Hall I cried for three days and then got the first burst of strength to really stop for good.

Batman: What’s yellow and writes?

Robin: A ballpoint banana.
Batman: Exactly!

Commissioner Gordon: Penguin, Joker, Riddler…and Catwoman, too! The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!
Batman: We’ve been given the plainest warning: they’re working together to take over…
Chief O’Hara: Take over what, Batman: Gotham City?
Batman: Any two of them would try that!
Commissioner Gordon: The whole country?
Batman: If it were three of them, I would say yes, but four? Their minimum objective must be… the entire world.

Seriously, you know my favorite Batman story? Batman: The Movie! The one with Adam West and Burt Ward, I mean. Seriously, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, well that’s fine, but it just doesn’t get better than this, folks:

Robin: When you think, Batman, with those four supercrooks hangin’ around, it’s amazing somebody hasn’t already reported this place to the police!
Batman: It’s a low neighborhood, full of rumpots. They’re used to curious sights, which they attribute to alcoholic delusions.
Robin: Gosh, drink is sure a filthy thing, isn’t it? I’d rather be dead than unable to trust my own eyes!

But then, I have a soft spot for insane parody. (Guess what my favorite James Bond movie is… Right, Casino Royale!)

I think this is probably my last post on Batman (for a while, anyway), unless I think of more I want to say about DKR. While I’m here, I should note J.W. Hastings’s Watchmen vs. DKR post. To put it uncharitably, the idea seems to be that DKR is better than Watchmen because Watchmen actually excepts you to think and analyze the text (which, isn’t that what reading is—analyzing the text? just because it’s not a “deep” or “pomo” analysis dosn’t mean it’s not analysis…), whereas DKR is content to be a totally awesome book where Batman kicks out Superman’s teeth. And, well. I disagree, as you may have guessed from the fact that I’ve spent the last couple weeks analyzing DKR a whole lot. OK, and I thought the line about Watchmen being a 12-issue deconstruction was pretty funny, because I don’t remember much deconstruction going on in Watchmen at all and, as I think some of my DKR-blogging and certainly Rose’s post no working class hero indicate, DKR is fertile ground for deconstructive analysis of heroism (vs. villainy). Anyway, I am being uncharitable, as I said—this passage, J.W. is obviously engaging in actual thought and analysis:

Yet they are more honest and exciting than Moore’s comics, and, in the end, they are more complicated–not in terms of structure, but because Miller leaves things unresolved the moral questions he leaves us with are more pressing and harder to answer. Alan Moore draws detailed maps for his readers to follow, but Frank Miller tosses you into the middle of a dangerous world and forces you to choose sides.

…which makes me wonder why he said “analysis doesn’t really suit” DKR, but maybe he was just being, well, ironic. Or maybe the problem isn’t analysis in general, but “academic-style analysis” (whatever that is). At any rate, it all seems like a fairly strange critique of the books.

Oh, there was one other Batman thing… Paul Levitz on the necessary components of a successful Batman story (maybe a temporary link… are Yahoo! news stories temporary?):

There’s the “aspirational experience,” which Levitz says consists of how people react emotionally to the Bruce Wayne character, his traumatic childhood involving the death of his parents and how that leads the billionaire to use his riches to fight crime.

“It’s all about making you feel that if you went through something traumatic, you’d rise to the challenge in the same way,” Levitz says.

Right, I hope if my parents are murdered, I’d have the courage to beat the living shit out of criminals while wearing a rubber fetish suit. Batman as representative of a moral ideal we can aspire to? Of all the weird ways to reading superheroes… Oh well, here’s more lovely Batman: The Movie:

Vice Admiral Fangschliester: Avast and belay, Batman. Your tone sounds rather grim. We haven’t done anything foolish, have we?
Batman: Disposing of pre-atomic submarines to persons who don’t even leave their full addresses? Good day, Admiral!

“The Commissioner is an excellent cop—but, I think, a poor judge of character.”


Pinocchio helped me figure out something about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Weird, huh?

See, I just watched Pinocchio (Walt Disney’s version) for a film theory class I’m taking this semester. In the course of a discussion on the class’s message board, I said:

Talking animals show up at crises in Pinocchio’s narrative. Jiminy Cricket is the first character Pinocchio meets after the Blue Fairy, and of course is present for Pinocchio’s first lesson about conscience and morality. The fox and the cat arrive to escort Pinocchio into his acting career and later to Pleasure Island. Even the poor donkey boys serve a similar function, as the appearance of Pinocchio’s donkey ears and tail come at the moment when he finally starts to get the picture–being a bad boy is a bad idea! So making these characters talking animals distinguishes them clearly from the human characters and the non-talking animal characters, and also keeps them within the cartoon world of the movie–they’re not realistic like the Blue Fairy.

Then, just a few minutes ago, I was thinking about DKR, trying to decide what to write about tonight. Recall that last time I ended with a question: “If politicians and psychologists are impotent to judge or do anything about Batman, is there anybody who isn’t impotent?”

First of all, let’s deal with some liminally potent characters: Commissioners Jim Gordon and Ellen Yindel. Both eventually come to the same conclusion about Batman. In Commissioner Gordon’s words: “I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big. He was too big…” (p. 56) Commissioner Yindel later echoes: “No. No. He’s too big…” (p. 176) In admitting their inability to judge Batman, they are allowed to judge him. Note that both these characters are part of the political world, but apart from it. Gordon is a rogue, unafraid to ignore political expediences, forced from his job by politicians. Yindel sides with the politicians who want to get rid of Batman (at first, anyway), but unlike them she’s ready to take action.

Back to Pinocchio. I was trying to figure out what role the Joker and Harvey Dent play in DKR, and then… The talking animals, who appear in Pinocchio’s life as catalysts for crises in the narrative—that’s the Joker and Harvey Dent! Well, they’re not talking animals, no—but they have similar narrative roles, don’t they? Harvey Dent returns to a life of crime just before Batman comes out of retirement, the Joker just after. Batman’s encounter with Harvey brings up a problem for Batman that Dr. Wolper also brings up several times (not that it matters what Wolper thinks): as Wolper puts it, “Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psychoerotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns” (p. 47). “I see… a reflection, Harvey” (p. 55), Batman says. Get it? Harvey Dent, Two-Face, reflections, Harvey is Batman’s narcissistic mirror slave, as Batman and Harvey work in their adverserial relationship to validate each other’s existence.

I still have the Joker and Robin to talk about here, but I think that’ll have to wait till tomorrow.

Belleville Rendezvous!!

I took my 12-year-old brother Bertie to see The Triplets of Belleville today. So far, the Curtin family opinion is (unanimously) that you should find it, see it, stay through the end of the credits! It’s a madcap mixture of George Booth and Quentin Blake and Jacques Tati and a million other things with a complex visual vocabulary and spectacular music and sounds. I have a strong pro-verbal bias, and this was a movie with almost no dialogue, and yet I don’t think words could have improved it. Instead it worked fully within a language of images. Well, not fully; I had a great time watching the posters and street signs and graffiti. My favorite writing was what amounts to URINATION PROHIBITED on the wall of what I think was someone’s house.

It benefited greatly from a willingness to be a bit loose with visual styles, bringing things into focus as they become important to the story and letting them slide to the background (or foreground) when not needed. What impressed me most was a consistent editing touch that would splice simultaneous scenes together, crosscutting. When one door opened, you’d see what was behind a different door, and yet this wasn’t confusing. Triplets is just a movie that depends heavily on parallels, on multiple converging stories, on the choices people make to bind themselves to each other. I’ll have more to say later on how this relates to my pet theme, but I’m too tired now for analysis. I’m too tired for anything but polemical cheerleading - see this movie! It’s fun! Take an interested kid!

In fact, that last point is an important one. We both enjoyed the movie, and I was proud of Bertie’s level of analytical sophistication. He appreciated parallel structure in the beginning and end of the story and was quite excited about this. He laughed that a puppy who had a runin with a toy train would become a dog who barks at commuter trains. Most importantly, and setting this apart from previous film excursions, he didn’t need anything explained to him in the course of the story. Perhaps my constant exhortations that if you don’t ask who the person entering the room is but listen instead to see if it becomes clear have gotten through. Well, I also quietly translated some of the written French at the beginning to make sure he was following. At any rate, it gave us plenty to talk about and he’s already (well, was already, before his bedtime) bragging about how he’ll be able to tell all his friends tomorrow that he saw a movie that has “only one line of dialogue!” My littlest brother’s growing up, and it’s good to feel I’m doing something right in gently guiding him. Ah, the cleverness of me!

Updates on Me Me Me!

Quickly, for those who care, I’ve got small and somewhat inadequate reviews of the movie I Capture the Castle and the Dark Horse collection AutobioGraphix in the new issue of Sequential Tart. I liked both.

Also, I didn’t weigh in on the fascinating issue of Catwoman underwear, which Graeme and others discussed a week or so ago. Target seems to stock Superman (Supergirl?) underwear, but I haven’t seen other comics properties in women’s grundoons. I searched for a scary Hulk face, but to no avail. Of course, maybe that wouldn’t have sold well to people who weren’t me. But the boys got them! Then again, I’m still annoyed the Daredevil boxers didn’t have the proper slogan: HERE COMES… DAREDEVIL, THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR. I’d have bought those indeed!

Prolegomena to a theory of why I like stuff

I watched more movies in 2003 than any year before, and that seems to be a continuing trend. I’ve never been good with movies, neither an ideal nor indulgent viewer, but I have strong views and tastes. I’m still not sure I can explain or excuse or codify these, but I have a new way of looking at it. When thinking about what I would teach in a film studies course, I thought I’d focus on the creation of self through narrative, and I realized this would be a way for me to fit in basically all my favorites.

I’d start the course with one of my 2003 finds, Capturing the Friedmans (registration required), which collects personal testimonials from participants in a child sexual abuse scandal of the 1980s. Memory is fickle, and we get to see stories change, move towards or away from verifiable “truths” in different tellings, and that doesn’t even include all the places where truth can’t get in, real and imagined and reimagined motivations.

A police detective describes stacks of pornography strewn around the house where police photos show there were none. One student speaks of suffering extreme, public sexual abuse, while a classmate denies witnessing or experiencing any of this. Then there’s the family of the accused, trying to figure out what went wrong and where and how, and how to allocate and accept guilt. It quickly becomes clear that no one has the whole story, no one is a totally sympathetic character. Yet everyone is presumably being honest and forthright and trying to make a public record of The Truth from their perspective. This messy conglomerate gets closer to any sort of truth or understanding than any single narrative could.

I was thrilled with the film for several reasons, but mostly because it makes its postmodern unease so natural and inevitable that no one watching can hope to figure out what really happened, since that whole idea has become nonsensical. Instead, it’s a story about how the characters decide for themselves what happened, based on what they experienced and also what they want or believe or need to think to keep living as they do, and the audience is complicit in this endeavor. I would like to think even reticent students would be inspired or tempted to continue such evaluation in their own worlds.

So we are the stories we tell, both narrator and protagonist, as well as (un)written product. We are what we see in ourselves and what we refuse to see. I prefer art that acknowledges this, evaluates it, extends it. This trend and focus is antithetical to the Oedipal trajectory, the Hollywood happy ending. Being a creating/created subject means not giving in to that closure, not accepting closure at all. After watching a movie this summer (and I won’t give away its name for fear of too much spoiling, and because it basically doesn’t matter) I’d said that every human story ends in death. What I meant by this in that particular case was that it should never be a surprise that death comes to a character, only when it does. Beyond that, there can be a rightness to a story’s conclusion, but no certainty, no predestination.

As a counterbalance, we watched Paycheck last night, perhaps a mistake. Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, a reverse engineer of the future (in this case, December 2003) who, awakening with his memory wiped, realizes he’s sent himself clues to destroy the world-rending machine he’s created, not to mention stopping the Evil Corporate Executive who set him up, as well as Getting the Girl. It was painful to see all the clues available, see how long it took the characters to make banal and obvious observation and then wait for the inevitable conclusion. I laughed a lot, and did not stifle it as well as perhaps I should have. This was a movie with no narratives at all, really, just a mess of cliches, and certainly with no selves to the characters. Because of this (and other things, including truly inept dialogue) I found no way in, nothing to care about, no way to invest myself in the characters or the story or anything at all except the movie’s (be/a)musing pseudoclockwork.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten at what I like or what I mean, but I’ll come back to it later. I like my plots tight, my writing literary or sharp, but most of all my protagonists self-aware. I sometimes take “self” loosely and am not even sure this covers everything I like, but it seems like a good start and a safe barometer so far. At least I have some nascent theoretical explanation for my snobbishness now, and a new year in which to develop and test it.