Grendel and the Omnibus: Artwork and Format, or: The Devils Beheld

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Back when I was a youth, and I read the comic books in chapbook form, one of my regular monthly buys was Grendel. Written and occasionally drawn by Matt Wagner, and initially appearing as a back-up feature in Comico publications, by 1986 Grendel was its own monthly title, and ran as such to 1990. After 40 issues, Comico was bankrupt, and Wagner moved to Dark Horse where Grendel persisted in a succession of mini-series. Grendel Tales, another series featuring work by Wagner but showcasing other writers taking on the Grendelverse, appeared in the ‘90s, as did two DC miniseries written and illustrated by Wagner pairing versions of Grendel with Batman.

Its publication history- spanning formats, publishers, and collaborators- is already complicated, especially for a creator-owned title. But the design of the series itself is also unusually complex. Grendel’s is not an alter-ego in the same sense as other comic characters; Grendel is, to its core, about a persona that travels through or is adopted by a range of highly disparate characters in divergent storylines, settings, and periods. This played out satisfactorily across the various incarnations of Grendel and Grendel, but the narrative complexity, the profusion of characters and events linked less by causality than by thematic continuity and divergence, yet with intricate cross-references between them, meant that it was difficult for me, at least, to fully appreciate in pamphlet form what Wagner had accomplished with the series as a whole. There had been graphic-novel collections of Grendel stories, but even these were spotty and incomplete. Some issues were never reprinted at all.

Because of all these factors- publishers, monthly and mini-series, different characters, different timelines and settings, Wagner and others returning to earlier story phases to fill in gaps- Grendel has had an unusually, maybe a uniquely complicated history. I want to argue that while Wagner’s work made Grendel an exemplary title in the ‘80s and ‘90s, its jumpy, spotty publication history and the relation of individual chapters in the Grendel mythos to the whole prevented it from achieving the status it deserves. The Grendel Archive edition published in 2007 seemed to indicate that Dark Horse was finally going to bring some order to all this, but only one collection ever appeared. Moreover, Behold the Devil, a miniseries focusing on a “previously unknown” episode in the career of the first Grendel, appeared in 2010, rendering even that anthology obsolete.

But in the last few years, a new comics re-publication format has emerged, the omnibus: smaller in height and width than the original issues, but printed on quality stock, relatively inexpensive, and very thick. The size of the omnibus can be an issue (making art smaller never helps appreciation, but add in downsizing dialogue and exposition, they can be actively annoying to read), but for reprinting older and less in-demand material in the middle of a recession, it is a format whose time has come. Whatever its limitations, it is the perfect, the ideal format for Grendel, and from 2012 to 2013, Dark Horse published four volumes in the Grendel Omnibus series (four Grendel Omnibuses? Grendel Omnibi?) The omnibus edition, finally, has resulted in an ordered, story-chronological publication of the entirety of the Grendel stories to date. Putting it into this format finally reveals Grendel for what it is, but which has never been so apparent before, at least to me: one of the great comic book masterpieces of its time. Archive editions tend to republish stories in order of publication; the Grendel omnibus series not only reorganizes texts into story-chronological order, but does so in such a way as to highlight the intellectual and artistic threads of the entire set, rendering the whole coherent to an unprecedented degree.

Wagner had begun publishing work about the first Grendel, one Hunter Rose, in 1982 in the Comico Primer series. When he reintroduced Rose as a back-up feature in his Mage series, in a story then collected as Devil by the Deed, he extensively revised this first telling of the tale. At the conclusion of Devil by the Deed, Grendel/Rose is dead. The history of comics has innumerable instances where a character is killed and another character takes up their mantle, but this is usually temporary. The Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man titles… all have featured replacements for Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker at one time or another, but brought them back after a few months. The Flash and the Green Lantern have experienced more permanent changes. Thus far, in the DCU the identity of the Flash has been Jay Garrick (1940-), Barry Allen (1956-1985 and 2008-), Wally West (1986-2006 and 2007-2012), and Bart Allen (2006-2007). Except for poor Bart, though, each other Flash has taken the role for decades at a time. The Green Lantern has variously been Alan Scott, Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner, along with John Stewart and Simon Baz.

Okay. But Grendel is different. Changes in the identity of Grendel happened every 10 issues or so (sometimes much less), each incarnation usually ending in Grendel’s death. With a few exceptions (eg., from Christine Spar to Brian Li Sung), each Grendel has appeared in an entirely distinct historical period, the series moving from near- to far-future in the course of its run. No two Grendels were mistaken for each other; where a random villain might not be aware than Wally West had replaced Barry Allen, each Grendel had a distinct identity and persona. Only one thing unites them all, and it is more thematic than causal: the use of violence as a tool. None of these Grendels is a hero. Some are anti-heroes, some victims, some utterly villainous. Hunter Rose, in particular, is fully a supervillain; Christine Spar closer to a heroine, but one whose actions have become quite dark by the end of her story; and Brian Li Sung simply a victim. Eppy Thatcher was a deranged drug addict; Orion Assante, eventually, a world ruler; and the last, Grendel-Prime, a nameless cyborg.

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As the first Grendel, Hunter Rose became something of a mythical figure, and touchstone, in the world of the stories. For readers, Rose’s tragic ending cannot overcome the impression made by his stylishness and his ferocious, almost superhuman intelligence and competence. Even though Devil by the Deed was dwarfed in length by later tales, for these reasons the appeal of Rose as a character has taken on a life of his own to one side of continuity. Thus, over the years, Rose has been the character Wagner has most often revisited, filling in gaps, elaborating on details and phases of Rose’s life treated summarily in Devil by the Deed, and pairing him off against DC’s Dark Knight.

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The first volume of the omnibus collects all of the Rose stories to date, despite the fact that many of these stories first appeared years or decades after Devil by the Deed. The omnibus is, then, roughly chronological according to the Grendelverse, but not the publication history. In that sense, volume 1 is chronological, starting with the first Grendel stories, but also topical in that it groups stories around character biography. Unified in the first instance by Rose’s presence at their center, these stories are also unified aesthetically. Initially, Rose stories were presented with only three colors, black, white and red, though the first graphic album publication of Devil by the Deed was full-color. In volume 1, Devil by the Deed reverts to black, white and red, and is followed by two separate series of individual, single-issue Grendel tales centered on Rose and maintaining the color scheme, Black, White, & Red, and Red, White, & Black. Filling out the volume, and still with that color scheme, are “Sympathy for the Devil” and Behold the Devil.

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Devil by the Deed lays out the framework of Rose’s life and adventures in some 38 pages of highly stylized illustrations, showing from the beginning a keen interest on Wagner’s part in page design, and accompanied by chunks of text “excerpted from” a supposed prose biography of Rose by Spar, the daughter of his ward, Stacey Palumbo. It tells Rose’s life story in brief, concentrating on his career as a novelist and super-criminal, and eventually settling on a kind of quasi-familial triangle between Rose; Palumbo, who he adopts after, as Grendel, killing her father; and Argent, an enigmatic werewolf just as beloved of Palumbo as Rose himself, and whose life mission is to destroy Grendel. When Stacey discovers Rose is Grendel, she shows a Grendel-esque skill at manipulation as she pulls strings to arrange a final confrontation between Grendel and Argent. Told in such a concise, telegrammatic form, Devil by the Deed leaves as many questions as answers, and so Black, White, & Red and Red, White, & Black go back and forth over aspects of Rose’s life to fill out the narrative. The first issue of the former, “Devil’s Advocate,” shows a lawyer chosen by Grendel to handle his legal business, such that his life becomes tied to Grendel on penalty of death. This serves to fill out the picture of how Grendel operates as a crime boss, which Wagner returns to throughout these two series. The next three, “Devil on My Back,” “Devil’s Apogee,” and “Devil’s Requiem,” turn back the pages on Rose himself, taking us deeper into his childhood and adolescence to show us how this boy became capable of fashioning himself into such a fearsome creature, how violence, rage against humanity, and a sense of superiority made him into Grendel. Devil by the Deed tells us that an affair with an older woman who believed in Rose’s exceptionalism helped turn him into Grendel, but these stories show it happen, and give it emotional depth.

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From there, Wagner looks at various characters, from Rose’s editor to hitmen to small-time thugs to rival gang-members to witnesses and other human loose-ends, to elaborate our sense of how Grendel works, how he instills fear and controls people, how his activities become a kind of web ensnaring everyone in his sphere of influence. These become stories about power: how Grendel uses it, principally using fear and the threat of death to shape the world around him to his own benefit. One such story, “Devil’s Mate,” juxtaposes Rose teaching Palumbo chess with Grendel conducting his business, highlighting the cold logic of his actions. “Devil’s Garden” extends this, a similar juxtaposition allowing Rose to teach Palumbo about predators, and Wagner to draw an analogy between Rose and a spider in his garden. Other stories, like “Devil’s Labyrinth,” centering on Argent, flesh out the psychology of characters only cursorily described in Devil by the Deed (hereafter DBTD). A number of them highlight Larry Stohler, something of a mystery in the first tale. Early in DBTD, Stohler figures out that Rose is Grendel, but uses this information to insinuate himself into Grendel’s operations, becoming his right-hand man, and the only person Rose trusts. Stohler remains a key figure in the rest of the story, but his motivations and interior life are left unexamined. Gradually, across the singleton b/w/red tales, we understand more and more about who Stohler is and why he does what he does (at significant personal risk; knowing who Grendel is is dangerous information). Other stories center on Palumbo and her growing understanding of her caretaker. Red, White, & Black, though again made up of seemingly stand-alone noirish tales, has a slightly stronger thread through it, in that several of the tales center specifically on Grendel consolidating his power at the expense of rival gangsters, and ends with a series of stories showing the circumstances around the final Grendel/Argent battle from varying perspectives.

The black/white/red stories are like the shards in a stained-glass panel, each one adding some small piece to forming a full reflection of Rose, his life, and his times. Each one is stylistically distinct; they all have the same color scheme, but each issue is by a different artist, often in a radically different style.

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Some stories are standard comic-book narration; others are framed as flashbacks, or constructed around thematic parallels and analogies; others are narrated in the style of DBTD, as chunks of texts accompanying illustrations. One, “Devil’s Toll,” consists of illustrations with each panel accompanied by a single word commenting on each phase of the action; another, “Devil’s Karma,” consists of full-page illustrations accompanied by haiku. I first read these stories as separate anthology-style series, and the stories work well on this level. But put together as appendices to DBTD, they gain immeasurable power: going back and forth over Rose’s life, oftentimes covering the same narrative ground but from multiple perspectives, highlighting the labyrinthine, chess-like quality of Grendel’s machinations. Taken together, then, the Rose stories, as they comprise volume 1 of the omnibus, become a tour-de-force of narrative complexity and formal innovation, far more impressive taken as a whole in this form than as individual issues. Behold the Devil, concluding volume 1, integrates the stylistic approaches seen in DBTD and the black/white/red stories to an extraordinary degree: within this single tale, we get the same multiple perspectives and even some of the stylistic variations as in the two series of b/w/r stories. Most daringly, via occult means, Rose foresees not his own future but that of Grendel itself: glimpses of Christine Spar, Eppy Thatcher, Grendel Prime. Here, just as we leave the first omnibus, Wagner lays out a kind of thesis about Grendel as a transpersonal force, as a personification of violence and will through ages and circumstances. Placed at the end of volume 1, it’s a transition, a preview, and a statement of intent. It could only work as such placed at the end of volume 1, as the capper of the epic of crime and revenge that volume 1 specifically is.

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Volume 2, then, shows the Grendelverse expanding on several fronts. Here, the stories are long-form, and in full color. Most centrally, here Grendel first shifts from a single person into a kind of idea, a persona taken as a channel for the rage of those who adopt it. Devil Child, the opener, might actually be the darkest chapter of the saga. Written by Diana Schutz, Wagner’s Comico editor, it shows the truly horrific life suffered by an institutionalized Stacey Palumbo after Rose’s death. As powerful as this 1999 miniseries might have been in itself, it becomes much more satisfying in the continuity as a prelude to Devil’s Legacy from 1986, by clearly explaining how Grendel might be more real to Christine Spar than the mother who she barely knew.

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Devil’s Legacy finds Spar a successful journalist and single mother living in New York and enjoying the huge success of her Hunter Rose biography, Devil by the Deed. But when her son is kidnapped and eaten by a troupe of Japanese kabuki vampires, there is little legal recourse available to her; the troupe, and it’s leader, Tujiro, have been doing this for centuries, and cover their tracks perfectly. Having written about Grendel, having spent so much time absorbed in him, she becomes him to take revenge.

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She is pursued by a now-disabled Argent, and NYPD Capt. Wiggins, Argent’s slick aide and advisor. Finally, though, being Grendel destroys Spar, leaving behind her lover, Brian Li-Sung, who by the end of Devil’s Legacy has witnessed enough of the truth behind Spar’s actions that he himself is scarred by it. Spar had met Li-Sung when traveling to San Francisco in pursuit of Tujiro; after her death, to feel closer to her memory, Li-Sung travels to New York. There, his sense of loss and his alienation turn darker and darker, until finally he decides to adopt the Grendel mask as a way of achieving catharsis. This turns from random acts of violence to a concerted attempt to punish Wiggins for his role in Spar’s downfall. But of all the Grendels, Li-Sung is the least capable (finally, he is just a stage manager), and his tale comes to a quick and pathetic end.

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The appeal of volume 1 is largely cerebral: first, one may appreciate the formal and stylistic audacity of the varied approaches to Grendel storytelling, and the intricate interrelationship of all the separate parts of Devil by the Deed, Black, White, & Red, and Red, White & Black. Second, Rose’s story encourages us to think about violence, fear, ego, will, and power in themselves, as ideas, the application to the characters’ lives being examples to flesh out and nuance them. Third, Rose is fascinating but not really relatable. In that sense, we are encouraged to think about the appeal of the villain. But that appeal soon proves relevant on other levels, because volume 2 is really the one that elicits the strongest emotional response. The appeal of violence and even villainy comes through in Spar and Li-Sung’s lives as responses to the terrible things life can do to people. If you emotionally invest in her, there are few things in comics quite as horrifying as Spar looking at her son’s eyeball having been pulled out of its socket. Li-Sung is pathetic, but one can at least identify with his alienation in the big city. In both cases, there is an intellectual dimension, but rooted in emotion: the reader is thinking, but about the appeal of extreme responses to those things we have or feel no control over.

At the end of volume 2, we go to the issues following Li-Sung’s death, featuring Wiggins, now an old, pot-bellied man, retired on his pension to a tropical beach. To earn some money, Wiggins goes all the way back to Rose, in fact following the Spar character’s lead by writing stories of that first, still most famous Grendel. This is the first really awkward bit of the omnibus editions: haven’t we already done Rose? If these are Rose stories, why not put them in volume 1? Given the Devil Tales issues were published much earlier than the black/white/red series, they feel rather like a dry-run for them; Wiggins follows the format Wagner would pursue in those of telling stories that fill out Rose’s adventures by focusing on somewhat tangential characters who are, for Rose, loose-ends in his criminal enterprises, and therefore doomed. But given that these stories are framed by Wiggins’ telling, and Wiggins first appears in Devil’s Legacy, they end up here. This is not, then, the best proof of my argument: that the omnibus edition is contributory to a sense of Wagner’s accomplishment rather than just a format that is a more or less a neutral factor in appreciation of the series.

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But the kicker comes in the opening section of volume 3, The Incubation Years, a series of never-before-reprinted stories bridging the continuous chronology of volume 2 and the jump into the far, and much less recognizable, future of God and the Devil. The first tells the story of how Wiggins, now a rich writer with a trophy wife on the back of the success of his Grendel books, is gradually taken over by hatred and paranoia, and driven to murder. Grendel becomes no more or less than a concept here, as if reclaiming his/her’s/it’s due from Wiggins for the latter’s success; it becomes a story of an unwitting bargain with the Devil. The succeeding stories, likewise, show Grendel as a force that one lets into one’s life at one’s peril, because in the end Grendel will take over. Each story focuses on a single individual who, in ways varying between literal and metaphorical, loses him or herself to Grendel and Grendel-ness; the backdrop takes us up to and through an apocalypse, the post-apocalypse migration to the western United States, and the growth of a theocracy in what’s left of North America.

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This sets the stage for God and the Devil, another sustained series centering on Orion Assante, an aristrocrat, social progressive, and atheist who valiantly fights the power of a deeply evil papacy, and specifically a pope who first appeared as an appalling villain in Devil’s Legacy. The entire rest of the Grendel run is set up by God and the Devil: its characters, its conflicts, its world. In it, Grendel is incarnated in a profoundly alienated, drug-addicted, addle-pated, poor, child-abuse sufferer called Eppy Thatcher. It is the most straightforward storyline in Grendel in that it has clear-cut villains, the Pope and Pellon Cross, the head of police and the Pope’s minion; a clear-cut hero, Orion Assante; and an sympathetic-in-spite-of-himself anti-hero, Thatcher.

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But God and the Devil is transitional not only in the literal sense of sketching out the world that the rest of the series will inhabit, but also in setting up Devil’s Reign, the crux of the Assante storyline. Indeed, that story lends its title conceit to that of the volume 3 as a whole, Orion’s Reign. While Devil’s Reign is punctuated by back-up stories showing the survival of an extended family of vampires led by Pellon Cross (infected in God and the Devil), it concentrates on Assante. With the best of motivations but increasingly cunning means, across Devil’s Reign Assante becomes the ruler of a chaotic world on which he wants to instill order and an imperial peace; in order to further these goals, he aligns himself with the Grendel mythology, finally dubbing himself the Grendel-Khan. The critique of organized religion is furthered here as Orion develops from a staunch, principled atheist to a kind of god himself.

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This returns us to the kind of moral quandary that drove Devil’s Legacy, whereby a person with good intentions adopts and is in some sense taken over by Grendel, as a persona and as a concept, such that Wagner can examine violence exercised as a force of will, as a means to assert power. This is not mere repetition, but a radical widening of scope: if Spar was an anti-hero driven to violence, and finally “evil” for valid, relatable reasons, Assante likewise has positive intentions, but uses violence as a tool to become, ultimately, a fascistic potentate. This is the will-to-power on a global scale, where Assante’s noble ideals curdle into something much more sinister by the very nature of realpolitik. Assante himself never becomes a villain as such, yet finally all that he has wrought is thrown into question by means which have led inevitably to the end that is a world where the Grendel-Khan and his international police force of “Grendels” rule with a velvet glove cast in iron. Only towards the end of Devil’s Reign do we achieve enough emotional and narrative distance from Assante and his struggles to view them as an allegory of creeping moral compromise and political imperialism, which has a profoundly disquieting effect given we have been on Assante’s side for so long by this point. Even here, he remains somewhat sympathetic by virtue of the fact that his opponents are yet more corrupt while his intentions are never exactly malign. This is an exploration of the morality of Grendel in an entirely new context, on a world stage, literally and thematically: violence and power not just as a personal temptation, but as an outgrowth of systems and institutions and political trade-craft. Reading about Hunter Rose, the reader might be implicated via the appeal of villainy; reading about Christine Spar, the reader might be implicated via our sympathy for her; reading about Orion Assante, we are implicated first by our sympathy for him, but then too via our tacit participation in Western political hegemony, and specifically (for those of us from the States), American global dominance. By this point, Wagner has completed a leap from microcosm to macrocosm in his exploration of forms of evil and the moral questions to which they give rise.

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Volume 4, Prime, pursues the implications of the Grendel-Khanate, and concludes the tale (to date). War Child, the first series here, is another straightforward adventure tale, at least for most of its run. In it, Assante has died and his faithless, manipulative, power-hungry wife Laurel has become Regent. Her power is rooted in keeping Assante’s son Jupiter in captivity. Jupiter is “kidnapped” by a cyborg in Grendel costume, Grendel Prime, who in fact was tasked by Orion to protect the child and help Jupiter taking the reins of power.

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Jupiter, Grendel Prime, and their compatriots are heroes here. Only at the end, when Laurel (her life already in ruins) is gruesomely punished for her “transgressions,” is a reader likely to begin to feel a bit queasy about the whole thing. The final story in the volume, Devil Quest, doesn’t particularly add much to Wagner’s project, and while it again shows the destructiveness of Grendel for anyone who gets too close to its power, narratively it doesn’t lead to much except to fill in the background to the second Grendel/Batman series. Of more significance is Past Prime, placed in between War Child and Devil Quest, taking the form of a prose novella written by Greg Rucka with occasional illustrations by Wagner.

In the publication chronology, Grendel Tales, in which other artists and writers played with the Grendel-verse, followed War Child, but the only one of these in the omnibus edition is Devil Child in volume 2. Following Grendel Tales, Devil Quest then led to Grendel Prime’s appearance in Gotham City in the 1996 miniseries. Past Prime, though, first appeared in print in 2000, but in story terms takes place right where the omnibus puts it. Years after Grendel Prime helps Jupiter Assante become the Khan, the cyborg has disappeared, and Jupiter has been assassinated. Devil Quest will show that a succession of increasingly unworthy Assantes succeeded him, but Past Prime follows a supporting character in War Child, Susan Veraghen.

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In War Child, Susan was first Crystal Assante’s keeper (Crystal is Laurel’s daughter from a previous marriage, and a partisan for her half-brother.) Crystal seduces Susan, and they escape together, living in the forest until Jupiter returns to take the throne. Past Prime is narrated by Susan, picking up her life after Crystal has abandoned her, after she has been sidelined in Jupiter’s Grendels, and after the guilt she nonetheless feels for Jupiter’s murder (which is never fully explained) has driven her to become, essentially, a ronin. In reaction to her own aimlessness, Susan goes in search of Prime. Prime is called such because he is felt to be the height of what a Grendel can be. In the world of Past Prime, by contrast, the Grendels have become roving bandits of a sort: thugs and opportunists. For Susan, if not for Grendels generally, being a Grendel is about honor as well as strength. Finding Prime, then, is about her restoring her own sense of honor, and about finding herself again as a Grendel according to the original code established by Orion and embodied by Prime. To do this, she must reject not only what Grendels have become, but also the disaffected who have become revolutionaries intending to overthrow the Khanate and eliminate the corrupt Grendels. One of these revolutionaries is a woman that Susan falls in love with in the course of her journey; even though she recognizes the validity of her lover’s arguments, Susan remains steadfast in her intent to reclaim her mission as a proper Grendel. Here, finally and most explicitly, the creators explore the moral grey areas around the Khanate, and the idea of Grendel as a metaphor for global power. Susan fights with herself as much as with the world around her. That she remains loyal to her own sense of Grendel-ness is both an expression of her own strength, and, unsettlingly, a subjugation of self (in that she is fully aware of what the Grendels have become), and a rejection of that part of herself that is driven to fight injustice. We never learn what becomes of Prime and Susan after this adventure: is there some larger goal they will pursue? Will they try to reform the Grendels or the Khanate? Is there, in other words, any real attempt at social justice that the reader would find laudable, as a counter to the revolutionaries they defeat? The ambiguity is certainly complicated by what is revealed as the revolutionaries’ own violence and power-hunger; it’s not as if they are indicated to be as heroic as Susan’s lover thought them. Too, though, one might argue that their violence is itself an outgrowth of the Grendels’- that this is the dystopian world that “Grendel” has wrought. Ending on a Susan marching forward with Prime, we are with total moral uncertainty. Few novels of comparably epic narrative scope end on such a complex note.

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Finally, it must be said that Past Prime underlines the extent to which Grendel is not only a testament to Wagner’s thematic ambitions and artistic accomplishment in crafting such an intricate epic, but to the virtues of writer/artist collaborative possibilities. In the omnibi, only two stories are written by anyone other than Wagner, Schutz on Devil Child and Rucka on Past Prime. But working with a huge range of artists in a huge range of styles, which in turn encouraged Wagner to take a huge range of approaches to storytelling, is an important part of why Grendel is a comics tour-de-force. As I’ve argued, the omnibus format allows Wagner to clarify the interrelationship of the parts to the whole in such a way as to reveal most fully and persuasively the nature of Grendel as a long-form narrative, to explore power and violence in all kinds of manifestations on all kinds of scales. Reading the title in collected, omnibus form, too, helps to reveal Grendel as an ambitious exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of graphic storytelling. I have no idea what kind of new territory Wagner can find at this point, let alone for Hunter Rose (vs. Lamont Cranston, I guess? I might be a bit behind on what’s going on with The Shadow these days), but I can’t wait to read it.

Mad Love 5: Surrealisme, mon espoir

The Lake House

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In this and the forthcoming final entry in this series on the supernatural romantic melodrama, I subject this subgenre to some theorizing along two lines: Surrealism in this entry, and melodrama in the next. I will concentrate in these on three key recent films, The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Adjustment Bureau, particularly in the next entry. These are the three films that started me off on this, but that I haven’t dealt with thus far. A detailed exegesis of them might wait until the next phase of this project (a book), but I hope to use them here, along with references to the films and TV shows I’ve talked about previously, to raise some questions in terms of Surrealism and the supernatural romance.

The first thing here is: how so, “surreal”? Over its history, the term has taken on multiple formulations. Though writers on Surrealism as a movement resist it, “surreal,” small-s, clearly has taken on a colloquial meaning that few other movements ever have, typically suggesting some amorphous sense of “weirdness,” of virtually anything that contravenes the strictures of realism. This meaning, at least, certainly extends to the likes of Cocteau’s Orpheus, discussed way back in the first Mad Love entry. But the Surrealists themselves detested Cocteau; Cocteau’s myth-informed symbolism cut against their focus on rupturing traditional ways of making meaning, their ideology of liberation, and even their attempts to find the marvelous in relation to concrete, physical reality. Indeed, the main gripe with Cocteau would seem to be that Cocteau was taken in some quarters as Surreal, and even invoked Surrealism himself, while in fact what he was doing was quite different. Indeed, for the architects of Surrealism, Cocteau’s elaborate world-construction made him a fantasist, and they were careful to exclude fantasy as such from the body of Surrealist art.  This sort of fence-tending is endemic to Surrealism, from Andre Breton spending huge portions of his “Manifesto of Surrealism” to expelling former fellow travelers, to Michael Richardson rejecting the Surrealist credentials of the likes of David Lynch in Surrealism and Cinema.

I will spend part of this entry outlining the Surrealist aesthetic and ideology, but having spent time now looking at Surrealism as an aesthetic movement, perhaps the first thing to say here is that I am not claiming that supernatural romances are necessarily Surreal in that capital-S sense. Breton, Dali, et. al. had detailed, extensively elaborated, and highly prescriptive notions of what Surrealism was and wasn’t. Yet not just in the movement’s early years when actual Surrealist art was still quite thin on the ground, but in fact right way through to the present, Surrealism is distinguished from other modernisms by its interest in the liberatory potential of popular culture, and popular cinema in particular. The actual body of strictly “Surrealist” cinema is limited, though this varies depending on the commentator. In Linda Williams’ Figures of Desire and Robert Short’s The Age of Gold, the Surrealist cinematic canon doesn’t extend past early Bunuel; in Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, R. Bruce Elder examines Larry Jordan’s animations as Surrealist, in great detail, but Elder has no interest whatever in any kind of popular cinema (others look to Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart” as an example of somewhat later American Surrealism). By contrast, in The Shadow and Its Shadow, his invaluable anthology of Surrealist writing on the cinema, Paul Hammond includes Surrealist celebrations of at least the potential of popular cinema, though in most cases this becomes a factor of reception (consider, for example, Breton and Desnos’ practice of randomly entering cinemas, absorbing images without regard to their narrative context, and leaving once bored). In Surrealism and the Cinema, Richardson rejects Lynch, but is happy to include the likes of Louis Feuillade, Les Enfants du Paradis, and Daughters of Darkness. Crucially for me, Richardson and Hammond note the Surreal aspects of such melodramas as Peter Ibbetson, Portrait of Jennie, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Though both are gimlet-eyed when it comes to contemporary commercial cinema, I want to argue that even if in the end they would disallow things like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Pushing Daisies, The Lake House, for one, is surely a film with significant affinities with Surrealism.

And this, ultimately, is what I am arguing: that while not Surrealist cinema per se, at least not according to the prescriptions of Breton and Dali, the supernatural romantic melodrama as a subgenre has significant affinities with Surrealism, and if some of these films fall more under the umbrella of fantasy (which the Surrealists had no interest in), others are exemplary cases of popular surrealism, even of popular Surrealism. Indeed, for Michael Richardson, “In fact there is no such thing as a ‘surrealist film.’ There are only films made by surrealists and films that have an affinity or correspondence with surrealism.”[1] In this sense, for him, the question should be, “how does consideration of this particular film or film maker in relation to surrealism help us to illuminate either surrealism or the film?”[2] The supernatural romance, or at least a set of core cases of it, has profound affinities with Surrealism. Consideration in this light can illuminate the films, and point to a vein in popular cinema of particular favor to the Surrealists, helping to illuminate their concerns as well. The Surrealist conceptions of cinema most salient here are those of the cinema as dream, and the capacity of the cinema to effect the intrusion of the marvelous into everyday reality. Beyond cinema as such, their celebration of love as a transgressive force feeds directly into a consideration of the supernatural romance.

Dream Lovers

“The outer world becomes so transparent and the inner world so diverse and full of meaning that one finds oneself in a state of nervous animation between the two.”[3] -Novalis

Surrealism was one of many artistic and philosophical movements in the early 20th century formulated in reaction to the sense that enlightenment rationalism had led to “an alienating dimunition of the polysemic fulsomeness of the world that man inhabited and that inhabited him.”[4] Under scientific rationalism, as Elder puts it, “some of the most profound realms of human consciousness were reconceived so that they came to be understood as lying beyond the bounds of the legitimate activities of the human enterprise.”[5] Firstly, Elder argues, Surrealism must be placed in an intellectual context in which the likes of Einstein had “revealed” “that the world is not as our senses perceive it to be:” “If our beliefs are erroneous, if they are no better than imaginings, why then should we not at least strive to make those ideas- those imaginings- as rich, as intense, as vital, as life-giving as possible?”[6] Secondly, he writes, “For many later moderns, this image of consciousness and reality seemed utterly inadequate. They felt the noetic strength and richness of forms of experience that modernity had disenfranchised,” and “strived to develop artistic forms that might revitalize them, preparing the way for them to assume a greater role in the knowledge enterprise when a new understanding of reality emerged. Indeed, many of these artists believed that one of the purposes of vanguard art was to hasten this emergence.”[7] In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Andre Breton railed that “Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.”[8] Elsewhere, he wrote that Surrealism endeavored in opposition to “the spread of this cancer of the mind which consists of thinking all too sadly that certain things ‘are,’ while other things, which might well be, ‘are not.’”[9] In opposition to this, the end-goal of the Surrealists, as Hammond puts it, was “the re-enchantment of nature, and of man.”[10] For them, the  “poetic imagination” was “the keystone, the binding agent of authentic understanding.”[11] As an agent for liberation, Surreality represented a “visionary, fugitive point of the mind where hierarchies and antinomies [were] to be abolished, where obstinate differences collapse into the flux of exchange.”[12]

The Surrealists strove for a kind of engagement with the world that would be free of the bourgeois worldview and hierarchies of knowledge based on rationalism. For Breton and his confreres, Surrealism was an expression of “total revolt,”[13] and in much of his “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in particular, he expounds on the links between Surrealism and Marxism, claiming that Surrealist ideas have no meaning outside the context of revolution. “…Surrealism aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory….”[14] It is for this reason, that he quotes approvingly Rimbaud on the value of “the ‘long, immense, reasoned derangement of the senses.’”[15]Elder writes,

Surrealism was not a movement that railed against the perfidious poverty of reality or the depravity of human nature. Rather, the Surrealists sought a more passionate means of apprehending the sensory world- means that implied a more intimate association between the subject and the object of awareness than quotidian perception allows. They sought this by means that displaced familiar perspectives, that disrupted our conventional relations with objects and destroyed our customary expectations in order to allow the endless possibilities inherent in concrete forms to reveal themselves.[16]

This guided Surrealist practice, and its investment in formalist notions of defamiliarization, that “difficulty enlivens perception by challenging it.”[17] In artistic work, defamiliarization was part and parcel of a triumph of imagination over rationalism, over what Elder calls “calculative reasoning”: “setting aside the rational faculties might allow a noetic process even higher than the imagination to supervene, one that would dissolve all the fixed certainties of the limited bourgeois self and allow a new way of living to emerge.”[18] Cinema had particular properties that enabled this kind of defamiliarization, as we will see.

The Surrealists took an immediate interest in cinema; indeed, Elder’s argument is that their understanding of cinema in turn conditioned how they conceived Surrealism itself. In part, certainly, their enthusiasm for popular cinema was a provocation against bourgeois taste. In terms of specific titles, self-identified Surrealists, whether Breton or, later, Ado Kyrou, only ever claimed that certain films could be thought of “popular accomplices” to Surrealism, films which perhaps partook of Surrealism tendencies without knowing; in Kyrou’s phrase, films that were “involuntarily sublime.”[19] Hammond recounts Paul Eluard’s encounter with Peter Ibbetson, here labeled an “‘involuntarily Surrealist’ Tinseltown melodrama.”[20] If they were interested in the secret life of objects, their ideal instances tended to come from popular melodramas, and their hypotheses for instances of Surrealist juxtaposition, liberated from narrative, came from the same: revolvers, handkerchiefs concealing evidence, runaway cars, telephones, typewriters, collapsing bridges, etc. [21] Commercial cinema, to people like Phillippe Soupault, was made up of “dream thoughts” laden with latent psychic charge.[22] In these terms, the Surrealists were “Epicureans of detritus,” who “uncovered treasures of poetry and subversion in the bargain basement of cinema.”[23] In his Le Surrealisme au cinema, Kyrou wrote of Surrealist appreciations of popular culture as a “delighted discovery and identification in mainstream cinema of a treasure-house of surrealist moments and motifs whose intrusion into conventional narratives is apparently surreptitious, unconscious, or involuntary.”[24]

If much of the Surrealist engagement with cinema posited “aberrant,” against-the-grain, “delirious” interpretations of whatever they happened to see onscreen, there were particular aspects of the cinematic image that seemed suggestive to them. For the Surrealists, there was a correlation of cinema to the operations of consciousness, specifically to hallucinations and dreams, already of interest to them by contrast to a reason-based comprehension of the world; for them, hallucinations and dreams were “more intense” than humdrum bourgeois experience.[25] Dream offered an “experience of otherness,” an “arena of unknown experience.”[26] Breton initially would define Surrealism based on the use of automatic writing to access this arena of thought, and in particular of dream.

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.[27]

Breton and the others actively worked on “recalling dreams so vividly that dreaming would become a part of waking life,” and “The hallucinatory or oneiric character of the cinematic image allied it with these efforts to intensify experience, to ensure that every moment of life would be felt with the same intensity with which we respond to a marvellous poem.”[28] Breton wrote, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”[29] In his “Second Manifesto,” Breton posited a kind of novel reflective of what they saw as the special capabilities of cinema, one “in which the verisimilitude of the setting will, for the first time, stop concealing from us the strange symbolic life which objects, the most commonplace as well as the most clearly defined, have only in dreams.”[30] Surrealist artwork should be modeled on “the world of dreams, where appearance can change from moment to moment, where space is pliable and time has no meaning.”[31] Elder writes: “Surrealism, Breton claimed, was a movement that had emerged from the hypnogogic borderland between sleep and waking, where reverie dismantled rational control of the stream of thought.”[32]

Hammond sums up the Surrealist attraction to cinema better than I can, in fact: “This hypnagogic marvel is founded on several things: the sumptuous concreteness and scale of the film illusion; the isolation from normal reality conferred by the darkness, the night of cinema; the curious contradiction of active, giant, hyperreal phantoms inducting prone, depersonalized beings of flesh and blood into their imaginary world.”[33] The analogies to dream are clear here, not only in terms of the theatrical experience of cinema (the film unspooling to stationary viewers in the dark), but in terms of the play of presence and absence in the film as it unspools. For the Surrealists, “[F]ilm images are dematerialized forms and therefore resemble the contents of the (ideal) mental state.”[34] Jacques Brunius wrote, “Contrary to the theater, film, like thought, like the dream, chooses some gestures, defers or enlarges them, eliminates others, travels many hours, centuries, kilometers in a few seconds, speeds up, slows down, goes backward. It is impossible to imagine a truer mirror of mental performance.”[35] It is both derived from phenomenal reality and, for the above reasons, “the least realistic of the arts,” and thus the “best tool” for the transcription of thought, “thanks to the extraordinary and sumptuous solidity it attributes to the mind’s creations, objectifying them in the most convincing manner, while it makes external reality submit in the opposite direction to subjectivization.”[36] Benayoun writes of cinema’s potential here, analogizing with dream: dream “does away with boundaries,”[37] to a powerfully defamiliarizing effect. In Jean Goudal’s description, cinema was “a conscious hallucination.”[38]

Cinema, like dream, could affect the subconscious on an intuitive level; as in Freudian accounts of dream, the Surrealist account of cinema saw it operating according to laws of desire, not rationality- indeed, could be seen as a language for representing desire. Desire here is less a kind of content than a formal principle tying subjects to objects, Williams writes[39]- itself an idea with some resonance with the idea that melodrama is a form representative of emotional structures of experience. In Williams’ discussion, Robert Desnos’ film theory indicates that “the film, like the dream, should reverse the expectations of the real world by presenting the accomplishments of our most secret desire for passion, adventure, and even murder.”[40] In fact, Desnos’ screenplays instantiate Surrealist ideas not in lurid melodramatic content, but in formal play; as in the case of dream, for the Surrealists this was less a matter of depicting the actual content of a dream and more a matter of finding “a filmic analogue to certain dream procedures.”[41] This is an issue not of dream content, then, but of dream structure. Within this framework, though, images of violence and passionate, erotic love had a charge, embodying operations of desire, that attracted the Surrealists.

For Bunuel and his fellow Surrealists, cinema was therefore “an instrument of poetry, with all that this word possesses of a liberating sense, of a subversion of reality, of a threshold at the marvelous world of the subconscious, of a nonconformity with the mean-spirited reality surrounding us.”[42] What is in fact particular about cinema for him, writing in “The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry,” is “mystery and the fantastic”[43] (note that this is a different meaning of “the fantastic” to that used by Breton and Kyrou, which I will discuss later). To further this, film should not try to make us believe in the worlds they represent; instead, “in Surrealist film everything happens so as to show that the film does not represent a world so much as it constructs one.”[44] Elder writes of the ways that cinema informed Surrealist practice more generally, “in their creative practices, they attempted to re-enact the mind’s construction of reality and to provide a model for a freer construction of lived reality. Creating a hyperreal image became a key goal of their art. Their work presented the strange and wondrous images of dreams and hallucinations with photographic realism.”[45] By representing thought and desire through its dematerialized images, cinema could reveal the everyday in new ways, and thus find the marvelous in the everyday.

The relationship of desire, subjectivity, and art here is partly rooted in the Surrealist enthusiasm for Freud, who had written, in Totem and Taboo, that “Only in one field has the omnipotence of thought been retained in our civilization, namely in art. In art alone it still happens that man, consumed by his wishes, produces something similar to the gratification of these wishes, and this playing, thanks to artistic illusion, calls forth effects as if it were something real. We rightly speak of the magic of art and compare the artist with a magician.”[46] Psychoanalysis, in both its Freudian and Lacanian iterations, was a major influence on Salvador Dali, and his notion of the paranoiac-critical method. This method was on the one hand a version of Surrealist “critical delirium” (like that with which Breton and Desnos engaged with their random viewing of film without regard for narrative context), but one that isolated the relationship between desire and representation; it was a kind of critical delirium applied to the world as a whole, as a basis for artistic creation. It was, for Dali, a way to allow, in fact to encourage, unconscious images to reach consciousness.[47] Paranoia in Dali’s use is not about fear, but about signification, how the world is understood and constructed in artistic practice. “[Paranoia] is a condition,” writes Elder, “in which the paranoiac interprets images, ideas, or events as being connected- as having either a causal connection or as having a mutual relation to a central fact- when outside observers would not accept the connection.”[48] It is “a mental state in which the subject can find immediately in the external world confirmation of the truth of his or her own state of mind (of the individual’s obsessions, etc.).”[49] The Surrealist artist, Dali wrote, must cultivate this stance toward the everyday world, and “Carried out thoroughly, this critical process would elaborate a world view that was all-encompassing and completely coherent, even though based on content produced by a delusional (paranoid) process.”[50] Boundaries between subjective and objective, real and imaginary, cease to exist; Dali wrote that via this method, “the element of delirium passes practically into the tangible domain of action”[51]- subjectivity passes into objectivity, in other words. Indeed, the two are inseparable: desire and the object are inextricably linked. Surrealist cinema must play on this relationship, and can do so by juxtaposing seemingly contradictory elements, in this way intensifying them, and so constructing a world that brings the marvelous into the everyday.

Marvelous Intrusions

“Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.”[52]- Andre Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”

For Breton, the idea of the “marvelous,” unlike that of the fantastic, is posited on its intrusion into the everyday, as opposed to elaborating alternate worlds or settling on one or another interpretation of the reality depicted; the marvelous remains “objectively” inexplicable. The Surrealist enthusiasm for this inexplicability grows out of their “lust for disorientation.”[53] It follows on from their stance toward subjectivity and the everyday with regard to dream states. Much as “Surrealist dreams linked the higher realm of imagination with the mundane world to form an undivided whole, by importing the intense (and actual) phenomena of the sleeping world into the waking world, whose phenomenal vivacity they augmented,”[54] so “Surrealism sought to intensify the elements that make up an artwork by bringing them into relationship with other contradictory elements”[55] according to the logic of desire. Exploring cinema’s properties as a medium, they in fact created a kind of half-developed theory of montage, like Eisenstein’s based on collision but of objects as well as shots, and rooted in affect, in this case a disorientation that liberated the imagination. The Surrealist interest in juxtaposition follows, in part, from that of Dada, its immediate forerunner, and in cinema, the photographic image facilitated grounding those juxtapositions and the subjectivity they represented in phenomenal reality: “an investment in reality gave the image greater force.”[56] In this way, “The Surrealists exploded the borders of realities- dreams, the unconscious, objective chance, hallucinations brought on by drugs or by mad love, or the convulsions induced by beauty- the places where the poetic image could be said to belong to reality and, paradoxically, to escape from it, released by the imagination.” [57] The Surreal would always be located within/by juxtaposition to the real. If the potential of cinema was partly rooted in the concreteness of its images, then Surrealists could use the medium to create “a sense of the marvelous within the everyday.”[58]

Breton explains the effect for which Surrealist juxtaposition should strive: “Poetically speaking, what strikes you about them [separate elements in a poem as they are juxtaposed] above all is their extreme degree of immediate absurdity, the quality of this absurdity, upon closer scrutiny, being to give way to everything admissible, everything legitimate in the world….”[59] Richardson argues that “Their interest is almost exclusively in exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact, between different realms of existence. Surrealism is always about departures rather than arrivals.”[60] Surrealism, then, is not about “things,” it is about “a relation between things,”[61] such that “oppositions of real and imaginary, high and low, life and death, and so on, are no longer perceived as contradictions.”[62] This, for Elder, is why Max Ernst’s photocollages are exemplary Surrealist objects: in his collage aesthetic, Ernst “gave visible form to the suspicion that modernity had rendered obsolete the opposition between dream and reality, between the inner and outer realm.”[63] Cinematic realism is key here: “The juxtaposition of incongruous elements that appears real- that is, that does not seem simply fantastic- is to some degree surreal.”[64] The marvelous is so because it is a concrete irruption of dream and imagination into the everyday, and thus “The marvellous rends the tissue of our consciousness of reality, and through this rupture in our (pre-) conceptions, something unheimlich (uncanny)- something strange, marvellous, bizarre, or terrifying- reveals itself.”[65] Films which highlight these intrusions, and with them the constructedness of reality, break down oppositions of fantasy and reality, inner and outer. Surrealism, Breton wrote, is not situated in one realm or another: “it is not placed. Neither in the palpable world, nor palpably outside of this world.…”[66] It takes from the outer world, is thus rooted in it, but considers “nature only in its relationship with the inner world of consciousness.”[67]

So, for Richardson, “The fantastic may be defined as that which accepts the conventions of realism while bringing them into question or going beyond them, so that we are unsure of the ground of reality on which we are standing. In contrast, the marvellous refuses the realist demand for verisimilitude, and reconciles- or holds in tension- the contradiction between real and imaginary….”[68] Hammond explores this distinction in Kyrou’s work:

In “The Fantastic-The Marvelous” (q.v.) Kyrou associates the former with any religious or spiritualist interpretation of the awesome uncanniness of phenomena: sons of god, angels, life after death, and the like. Such a masochistic evasion of the law of desire is set against the absolute materialism of the marvelous, a sacred category, euphoric and tumultuous in nature, out of which man is driven to explore a nonalienated, holistic being-in-the-world.[69]

For Kyrou, as for Breton before him, the marvelous is “the crux of Surrealism.” And the marvelous is rooted in the physical world and its material relations: “the marvelous explodes on earth.” [70] Feuillade’s serials are, for Richardson, ideal instances of this: “They evoke a world in which fantastic events surge forth in the most everyday situations,” and evince a “dream atmosphere that is uniquely material and matter of fact.” It’s an uncertain world, one in which “Nothing is stable: one thing may assume another aspect without notice.”[71]

The favored strategy for constructing this uncertain world is juxtaposition of the imaginary and the real, such that, as Williams puts it, “the imaginary not only intrudes into the quotidian but completely takes it over, causing the distinction between the two to break down.”[72] Thus the value of cinema itself: the more “real” the image, the more disorienting is the intrusion of another reality, or another logic, into it. Cinema, as Short puts it in The Age of Gold, “is a splendid dissolvent of the fixed identity of things.”[73] In cinema, reality could be transformed from what Short calls the “joint action” of the “optical unconscious” of the camera and the “desiring unconscious” of the spectator.[74]

What, though, is a sufficiently strong force of desire to disrupt and call into question the status of reality in the film image? The answer takes me to the last piece of the puzzle in exploring the affinities between Surrealism and the supernatural romance.

It is this: Love.

Amours fou

“In order to attain authentic lyrical existence the poetry of cinema demands, more than any other, a traumatic and violent disequilibrium veering toward concrete irrationality.”[75] –Salvador Dali, “Abstract for a critical history of the cinema”

“Mainstream cinema comes ethically closest to Surrealism in the expression of love.”[76] –Paul Hammond, “Available Light,” in The Shadow and Its Shadows

Genres like the comedy, the musical, horror, noir, and various strains of melodrama, presented “fertile territory for dislodging our faith in a realist apprehension of the solidity of reality.”[77] Indeed, Richardson argues that “the most remarkable configuration of Hollywood film and surrealism is to be found in the treatment of love”: “A belief in the transformative power of love has been one of the constants of surrealist endeavour.”[78] Their romantic/erotic ideal was “an extravagant, overwhelming kind of love,” one that “represented a rending, a moment of rupture when the identity of the individual self is brought into doubt through an encounter with an other who holds a possibility of effecting its transformation. This love is violent and transgressive….” Through this kind of love, “the solidity of the world disperses,” and there is an “irruption of the eternal into everyday life.” [79] This love takes the couple “beyond the dimensions of time and space which form ‘this world,’” and “it is through the couple’s experience of one another that they are transformed and made aware of another dimension of reality than that which they are habitually used to.” The faith that such melodramas invest in love “conjoin” them with surrealism “in a defiant refusal of the given.”[80] This is amour fou: “The phenomenon  of the couple, the man and woman whose transgressive love unites them against a repressive society conspiring to contain their passion, characterizes mad love.”[81]

Members of The Adjustment Bureau, conspiring to prevent the love of the central couple

Members of The Adjustment Bureau, conspiring to prevent the love of the central couple

For Breton and the rest of the Surrealist Group, love’s transgressive power was to be glorified. Consider this passage from the Group’s manifesto in celebration of “L’Age d’or”:

We are not far from that day when it will be seen that, despite the wear and tear that bites into us like acid, and at the foundation of that liberating or somber activity which is the seeking after a cleaner life in the very bosom of the machinery with which ignominy industrializes the city,

                                                                        LOVE

alone remains without perceptible limits and dominates the deepness of the wind, the diamond mine, the constructions of the mind, and the logic of the flesh.[82]

In his Second Manifesto, Breton wrote, “[Surrealism] believes, and it will never believe in anything more wholeheartedly, in reproducing artificially this ideal moment when man, in the grips of a particular emotion, is suddenly seized by this something ‘stronger than himself’ which projects him, in self-defense, into immortality.”[83] For him, love was the most powerful, most liberatory emotion capable of this, and he devoted a significant portion of his work to celebrating it, principally his book, [ahem] Mad Love. This book is in part another manifesto of Surrealism, but one written out of his devotion to his second wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba. Throughout, he celebrates his love for her, aspects of which seem to defy reality: one extended passage[84] discusses how his poem “Sunflower (for Pierre Reverdy),” written in 1923, literally predicted his meeting her 11 years later. Following this, chapter 5 is an extended lyrical rhapsody to her, wherein he refers to “treading the unknown with the one I love.”[85] One passage:

I desire you. I desire only you. I caress the white bears without reaching you. No other woman will ever have access to this room where you are a thousand, as I decompose all the gestures I have seen you make. Where are you? I am playing hide and seek with ghosts. But I will certainly end up finding you, and the whole world will be newly lit from our loving each other, because a whole chain of illuminations passes through us. Because it takes in a multitude of couples who like us will know forever how to make a diamond from the white night.[86]

Love for Breton was not merely the subject of poetic digressions, but “a fundamental principle for moral as well as cultural progress.”[87] He reiterates the Group’s stance on “L’Age d’or,” highlighting the subversive potential they attributed to love:

The film remains, to this day, the only enterprise of exaltation of total love such as I envisage it, and the violent reactions of its representations in Paris produced have only strengthened my consciousness of its incomparable value. Love, in everything it can contain for two beings, which is absolutely limited to them, isolated from the rest of the world, has never shown itself so freely, with so much tranquil audacity.[88]

Later, a characteristic lyrical passage:

Wonderful Teide, take my life! Turn, under those radiant hands and make all my facets sparkle. I want to make only one being with your flesh, the very flesh of the medusas, for one single being alone to be the medusa of the seas of desire. Mouth of the heavens and yet mouth of hell, I prefer you thus in your enigma, able to send natural beauty to the skies and to swallow up everything. It is my heart beating in your inviolable depths, in this blinding rose garden of mathematical folly where you mysteriously ready your power. May your arteries, traversed with beautiful, vibrant black blood, guide me at length towards everything I have to know, to love, toward everything that must make a plume at the end of my fingers! Let my thoughts speak through you, through the thousand screeching mouths of the ermines where you display yourself at sunrise! You truly bear the floral ark which would no longer be the ark were you not to hold it above it the single branch of lightning; you mingle with my love; this love and you are destined as far as the eye can reach to create the dust of diamonds. The great bottomless lakes of light succeed in me with the rapid passing of your exhalations. From you all roads to the infinite, all springs, all the lightbeams leap, Deria-i-Noor and Koh-i-Noor, lovely crest of a single diamond trembling. On the side of the abyss, made of philosophers’ stone, the starry castle opens.[89]

Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, is addressed to his and Jacqueline’s daughter, Aube: “Despite everything, I shall have maintained that this expression forever is the master key. What I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever.”[90] The last line of the book, to Aube: “I want you to be madly loved.”[91]

Based on love, he envisages a world in which “the only real object” is “the actual one of our desire.[92] Love is the only force that allows escape from rationalism’s “frozen waters of egotistic calculation.”[93]

Reciprocal love, such as I envisage it, is a system of mirrors which reflects for me, under the thousand angles that the unknown can take for me, the faithful image of the one I love, always more surprising in her divining of my own desire and more gilded with life.[94]

Nature is likely to light up and to fade out, to serve and not to serve me, only to the extent that I feel the rise and the fall of the fire of a hearth which is love, the only love, that for a single being. I have known, in the absence of this love, the real skies empty, the flotsam of everything I was about to grasp in the Dead Sea, the desert of flowers.[95]

Discussing the Venus myth, Breton testifies that love cannot be imaginary, cannot be fantasy, but that rather its power comes out of its relation to the everyday: “passion, with its magnificent wild eyes, must suffer at having to mix in the human struggle.”[96] Yet, as for the Romantics, from this it could triumph: “I do not deny that love has a difference with life. I say it should vanquish, and in order to do so, should rise to such a poetic consciousness of itself that every hostile thing it meets should melt in the hearth of its own splendor.”[97] In the face of such splendor, “fairy stories” (such as supernatural romances?) might become real: “If I want the world to change, if I even mean to consecrate part of my own life to its changing in its social aspect, it is not the vain hope of returning to the time of these stories, but of course, in the hope of helping the time to come when they will no longer just be stories.”[98]

For Breton, writing in 1951, cinema has a special power to represent this love: “What is most specific of all the means of the camera is obviously the power to make concrete the forces of love which, despite everything, remain deficient in books, simply because nothing in them can render the seduction or distress of a glance or certain feelings of priceless giddiness.”[99] The distinction Kyrou makes in “The Fantastic-The Marvelous” is worth returning to here, because he puts it in the service of a passionate espousal of a cinema in which the marvelous, because at the insterstices of the real and the imaginary, can therefore represent the transgressive potential of love. Kyrou defines the fantastic by way of Christianity and the myth of the virgin birth, and goes on to describe the marvelous in sharp contrast, emphasizing its worldliness as key to love as liberatory. “On the other hand, the glance of a woman who loves is the bridge leading to the forces on the other side, and these forces are as worldly as that glance. Therein resides their magic which, instead of reducing man to the level of a kneeling domesticated animal, lifts him up, makes him aware of the power of revolt, and puts him in touch with the treasures he refused to see surrounding him. So-called supernatural phenomena are only unknown human forces or the magnificent symbols of terrestrial power.”

Everything I know, everything I can find, everything that can move me, everything that exists is found on earth. This everything is endless, and the marvelous it conceals accepts no idealistic, deistic, or in any way nonexistent accretion that destroys it.[100]

“Love,” he writes, “can only emerge victorious in this universe where the refusal to consider the earth a vale of tears opens up the floodgates of human revolt.”[101] Again we see the special power of cinema in this regard: “At the moment of dreaming, the fantastic does not exist, it is real.”[102]

If the marvelous is the “crux” of Surrealism, and here specifically in terms of showing love to be a force of revolt, then I would argue that this notion traces a trajectory through the body of supernatural romantic melodramas, and allows us to isolate a particular set of films within it that have evident Surrealist affinities. By definition, the supernatural romance is based on fantasy, in the fantastic in this Surrealist sense, and in a generic sense (rather than that outlined by Todorov and other literary critics, who most commonly view it in terms of an indeterminacy between the real and the supernatural), but not based in fantasy-based alternative worlds. In fact, the degree to which the imaginary here is situated with regard to the material world (versus that of some alternate, quasi-religious or mythical world) varies. With that variance comes degrees to which the supernatural romance shows love to be disruptive or liberatory within the real, or, more conservatively, subject to rule-bound, hierarchized spiritual realms.

Hammond’s introductory chapter to The Shadow and Its Shadows demonstrates that the supernatural romance was an abiding interest to Surrealist film critics. Discussing cinematic depictions of love that the Surrealists embraced, Hammond lists a number of titles,[103] and not all of them are supernatural- for example White Shadows in the South Seas and Gun Crazy- but most of them are. All of them share some sense of love pitted against a cruel and repressive world, and indeed the inclusion of White Shadows alongside the likes of Peter Ibbetson suggests the narrative and thematic consonance of material and metaphysical subversion for the Surrealists. Richardson, too, recognizes the supernatural romance as exemplary, and includes films like Peter Ibbetson and Berkeley Square. Where he’s quite wrong is in imagining that “It is, for instance, difficult to think of a single significant Hollywood film since Vertigo that even touches upon love in a way that corresponds to a surrealist perspective.”[104]

What I’m arguing is that in fact love corresponding to a Surrealist perspective is a particular tendency within the supernatural romance right to its contemporary iterations. All of these films and television programs are about something that can be rightly be called “mad love”: they are all about love affairs that by their nature or that of the obstacles they encounter, are, prima facie, impossible. Insofar as I have used “romantic melodrama” as a key part of my term, these are also all films that take place in some sort of “real world.” Therefore, the supernatural condition or obstacle always constitutes an intrusion of the fantastic, the imaginary, into that world: a marvelous juxtaposition of two realities that leaves the statuses and boundaries of both indeterminate, and thus liquidizes any physical or metaphysical certainties. In some cases, in fact, even “fantastic” iterations of the supernatural romance can carry seeds of revolt (in the Surrealist sense) within them.

Returning to my genealogy from the first four Mad Love entries, then, we can say that where in Peter Ibbetson there is no explanation given, or seemingly felt needed, to explain the immaterial communions of Peter and Mary whilst he rots in jail, the film is exemplary of popular film Surrealism, while Borzage’s Liliom couches the title character’s attempts to redeem himself to Julie and his daughter from beyond the grave in strictly Christian terms. Liliom’s love for Julie allows him to transcend the barriers between earth and the afterlife because Heaven allows it, in the service of Christian moral redemption. Both films are exemplary supernatural romances, but Peter Ibbetson has far greater affinities with Surrealism. Death Takes a Holiday is at least more Pagan than Christian in its depiction of Death, but too, its conclusion, Death taking his willing bride, is by degrees more transgressive than the resignation, airing of platitudes, and subsequent reincarnation (Death bestowing a gift on the living) that ends Meet Joe Black. Portrait of Jennie is, again, admirably Surrealist in its refusal to explain how the love of Eben and Jennie is possible, such that in it love bursts through the laws of time, life, and death. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death, though, ultimately the elaboration of a fantastic Christian afterlife, carefully overseen by bureaucrats, makes love subject to the judgment of higher forces, largely shorn of transgressive power. Indeed, Mr. Jordan and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir are notably conservative here. In the former, whether love is or is not allowed to flourish is wholly dependent on the decisions made by Mr. Jordan and his employer; in the latter, Mrs. Muir is never allowed the raptures of earthly love, and the film becomes a parable of forbearance: she must wait for the afterlife for her reward. A Matter of Life and Death takes Heaven rather less seriously than Mr. Jordan, though, and it gains some Surrealist credibility by virtue of its depiction of a man who simply refuses to surrender his life and his love. Orpheus, made by the hated Cocteau, would be far too caught up in Cocteau’s personal revisions of classical mythology to please the Surrealists, and Brigadoon too much about stepping out of the world into some nostalgic bygone place to count as having much subversive potential. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman may be rooted in a specific mythos, but it is resolutely about the power of love as a force of disorientation and disequilibrium in its world.

Pandora is one of the latest Hollywood films that either Hammond or Richardson are willing to admit to a Surrealist pantheon, but from the revival of the supernatural romance in the late 1970s to the present, a Surrealist sense of the love story has persisted within it. Where Heaven Can Wait follows relatively closely in the footsteps of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (of which it is a remake, of course), Somewhere in Time shows sheer desire as capable of literally transcending time, space, and matter. Made in Heaven might show a fully elaborated, fantasy afterlife, but that afterlife continually intrudes upon the everyday in ways that are deeply disorientating, indeed delirious. Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply , though, are in this sense not love stories at all, but films about letting go, which surely would disgust Breton and Kyrou, while What Dreams May Come wants its characters to hold out for their reward in the (more than a little twee) afterlife. If City of Angels is more a love story than Wings of Desire, it’s also much less Surrealist than the latter, in which love triumphs, and could even be said to transform the earthly realm (thinking here of the move from black and white to color).

At moments, even the most apparently conservative supernatural romance may take on a dreamlike quality, even if within the paradigmatic norms of the popular fiction film, rather than the much more radical terms of self-consciously Surrealist practice. In large part, this is because the fiction film, even in its classical variants, can withstand a certain amount of indeterminacy, such that films that chime with Surrealism can exist within it, however uneasily. By contrast, episodic television’s repetition, routinization, and general imperative to resolve enigmas about the nature of the diegetic worlds it depicts, in the service of fostering long-term investments in situations and characters, means that even while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pushing Daisies are clear cases of supernatural romance, they are not particularly Surreal. The art cinema, on the other hand, thrives on indeterminacy, and it is because of this indeterminacy that The Story of Marie and Julien is one of the most powerfully disorienting, Surrealist works in this canon. I have identified The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as an art-cinematic supernatural romance, but in the sense that it works allegorically. Perfect Sense and The Fountain are allegories, too, as well as kinds of science-fiction film. Both are limited from a Surrealist perspective, the former too centered on grappling with the real, the latter too flagrantly imaginary.

Back in the realm of the popular, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be labeled science-fiction as well: it is the story of the lifelong relationship between Henry (Eric Bana) and Clare (Rachel McAdams, go-to romance movie girl), endlessly complicated by the fact that Henry travels in time, but never willingly; rather, it affects him rather like an epileptic fit.

Henry about to travel in time, for the last time, in The Time Traveler's Wife

Henry about to travel in time, for the last time, in The Time Traveler’s Wife

Eventually, Henry is seen as having a “condition.” He is possessed of a genetic anomaly that he passes on to their daughter Alba. This explains and justifies the supernatural component of the film, the time travel, which so complicates Henry and Clare’s love, but more, insofar as that condition is an obstacle to them that can only be overcome by Clare’s patience, the film ultimately becomes a medical melodrama as much as a romance. Henry’s condition is a kind of illness that he and Clare must find ways to work around if they are to stay together. Love unites them, but does not open a space for transcendence. The Adjustment Bureau, in which politician David Norris (Matt Damon) must defy the title characters- angels, basically- in order to be with dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), is dependent on Christian mythology, but nonetheless shows love as a subversive force. David cannot forget Elise, refuses to accept that being with her is not a part of The Plan. If finally “the Chairman” relents and allows them to be together, this does not wholly nullify the film’s transgressive spirit.

The Lake House, finally, is without a doubt an exemplar of Surrealist mad love (it is the remake of a 2000 Korean film called Il Mare that I haven’t tracked down yet). It is the story of a love that flourishes between Alex (Keanu Reeves), living in 2003, and Kate (Sandra Bullock), living in 2006, as conducted through letters they leave to each other in a magical mailbox at the house where Alex lives and Kate used to live. There is no magical other world here, there is only Chicago in two time periods that mysteriously impact each other. There is no explanation of any kind for how it is that Alex and Kate’s love is able to exist outside time. Finally, the film borders on the incoherent: not only does the premise not make rational sense, but neither does the narrative arc. Initially, there is no apparent reason why Alex doesn’t immediately try to contact Kate in 2006, a lingering question only resolved late in the film. It beggars belief that Kate would go so far as to look up hospital files for Alex’s father, but never makes the slightest effort to find out what has become of Alex in her timeline. It never even particularly makes sense why Kate would make repeated trips from downtown Chicago to the lake to hang around a mailbox.

lake_1

If the premise is that Kate has rented the house on the lake where Alex used to live, when Alex moves out he apparently either sells the house to Morgan’s (Dylan Walsh) real estate agency, or rents through them; either way, it’s hard to believe Morgan wouldn’t have any knowledge of Alex’s (temporary) fate. And then there’s the dog, who belongs to both Kate and Alex in turn, who in fact appears to be an actual time traveler, with all the head-splitting paradoxes that implies. Within the superficial bounds of a conventional, mainstream Hollywood romance, The Lake House is incoherent, even delirious, and deeply worldly, but in a world where love can violate time, space, even causality.

Alex and Kate "converse" across time, shown in split-screen, in The Lake House

Alex and Kate “converse” across time, shown in (concealed) split-screen, in The Lake House

There will be more to say about all this when I go to the book stage on this project. Researching surrealism has brought up yet more titles to watch: the Tay Garnett-directed William Powell/Kay Francis vehicle One Way Passage (1932); Marcel L’Herbier’s La Nuit Fantastique (1942); Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949); and Mario Soldati’s Malombra (1942), the subject of a tribute by the Romanian Surrealist Group found in the Hammond collection. It’s time I had a closer look, too, at Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) and Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942, evidently a great year for supernatural lurv). Then, too, the supernatural romance keeps going forward: in the time since I started this, two have come out I haven’t looked at yet, Upside Down and Winter’s Tale (while another, About Time, just proved too tangential, not enough a romance). But before I leave the blog-stage, I want to talk a bit about the melodrama, how the supernatural romance uses and varies melodramatic conventions, and how it might present a distinctive articulation of melodrama’s structures of emotion, metaphor, and social experience.

(Note: Yes, the title of this entry is a Talking Heads reference. Speaking of references…)

References:

Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972)

Andre Breton, Mad Love (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987)

R. Bruce Elder, Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013)

Paul Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadows: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (SF: City Lights, 2000)

Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (NY: Berg, 2006)

Robert Short, The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema (London: Creation, 2003)

Linda Williams, Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (Berkeley: UC Press, 1981)


[1] Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, 6.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Richardson, 1.

[4] Paul Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadows, 2.

[5] R. Bruce Elder, Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 6.

[6] Ibid., 14-15.

[7] Elder, 6-7.

[8] Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 10.

[9] Ibid., Manifestoes 187.

[10] Hammond, 2.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Breton, Manifestoes 125.

[14] Ibid., 137.

[15] Ibid., 175.

[16] Elder, 291.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Ibid., 260.

[19] Hammond, 69.

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] See, for example, Hammond, 7.

[22] Ibid., 9.

[23] Ibid., 26.

[24] Short, 8.

[25] Elder, 261.

[26] Richardson, 9.

[27] Breton, Manifestoes 26.

[28] Elder, 262.

[29] Breton, Manifestoes 14.

[30] Ibid., 163.

[31] Elder, 271.

[32] Ibid., 276.

[33] Hammond, 23.

[34] Elder, 266.

[35] Hammond, 100.

[36] Ibid., 101-102.

[37] Hammond, 111.

[38] Ibid., 86.

[39] Williams, 15.

[40] Ibid., 26.

[41] Ibid., 30.

[42] Hammond, 112.

[43] Ibid., 115.

[44] Williams, 32.

[45] Elder, 269.

[46] Ibid., 331.

[47] Ibid., 352.

[48] Ibid., 353.

[49] Ibid., 354.

[50] Ibid., 353.

[51] Ibid., 356.

[52] Breton, Manifestoes 14.

[53] Hammond, 17.

[54] Elder, 330.

[55] Ibid., 328.

[56] Ibid., 267.

[57] Ibid., 294.

[58] Robert Short, The Age of Gold 28.

[59] Breton, Manifestoes 24.

[60] Richardson, 3.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., 5.

[63] Elder, 302.

[64] Ibid., 303.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., 131.

[67] Ibid., 260.

[68] Richardson, 20.

[69] Hammond, 38.

[70] Ibid., 158.

[71] Richardson, 23.

[72] Williams, 8.

[73] Short, 10.

[74] Ibid., 13.

[75] Hammond, 63.

[76] Ibid., 39.

[77] Richardson, 62.

[78] Ibid., 63-64.

[79] Ibid., 64.

[80] Ibid., 65.

[81] Hammond, 39.

[82] Ibid., 186.

[83] Breton, Manifestoes 162.

[84] Breton, Mad Love 55-67.

[85] Ibid., 71.

[86] Ibid., 89.

[87] Ibid., 77

[88] Ibid., 78.

[89] Ibid., 97.

[90] Ibid., 114.

[91] Ibid., 119.

[92] Ibid., 88.

[93] Ibid., 79.

[94] Ibid., 93.

[95] Ibid., 95-96.

[96] Ibid., 97-98.

[97] Ibid., 116.

[98] Ibid., 84.

[99] Hammond, 74.

[100] Ibid., 159.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Ibid., 160.

[103] Ibid., 39-40.

[104] Richardson, 71.

“Nothing Happens By Chance”: Dr. Mabuse, Our Contemporary

BLACKL_S01_KAT_0059

People think it matters who occupies that house. It doesn’t. Multinational corporations and criminals run the world.

-Raymond Reddington (James Spader), outside the White House with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), The Blacklist season 1 episode 6, “Gina Zanetakos”

Recently, I attended the 2013 Film and History Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I presented a paper on the Dr. Mabuse series produced in Germany by Artur Brauner. This series started with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), the last film directed by Fritz Lang, but continued on for some 5 sequels, most heavily imbued with Langian aesthetics as if to compensate for the absence of Lang himself behind the camera. Though that series came to an (ignominious) end in 1964 (with The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse, perhaps the most boring imaginable film to have such a promising title, and a total capitulation to the Bond phenomenon), the character did not entirely disappear. In The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, David Kalat identifies Scream and Scream Again (1970) as a kind of quasi-Mabuse film, and in 1990, Claude Chabrol’s Dr. M updated Mabuse in an overtly science-fictional context (whereas SF elements had been present in Brauner’s series only in the same sense as in early Bond films).

In the q&a following the panel, I was asked if there were any plans to resuscitate Herr Doktor M., and I replied that I didn’t know of any. Then, about a week later, I first saw the pilot of The Blacklist, the main character of which immediately struck me as perhaps the most Mabuse-ian character in recent memory. That’s when I decided to write a blog on Mabuse and his family tree.

The idea of the supervillain, the Evil Genius who controls events from behind a mask, an alterego, or simply complete anonymity, does not begin with Mabuse. Evil conspiracies abound in Victorian literature, not least its melodramas. The Criminal Mastermind was quite commonly a leading series character in early crime fiction. One root inspiration for crime fiction as it developed in the 19th century was Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), a notorious thief with a penchant for disguise who in later respectability founded the Sûreté. Vidocq’s adventures on both sides of the law were depicted (in embellished fashion) in a ghost-written memoir published in 1828. Both Vidocq and his book were a notable influence on criminology (he is considered the father of that field), and on fiction, both melodramas like Les Miserables and early crime fiction’s heroes and antiheroes. Vidocq’s activities as a detective inspired Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories, Emile Gaboriau’s M. Lecoq character, and others; but so did his activities as a master thief, a clear inspiration on Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail’s Rocambole, Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin and E.W. Hornung’s A.J. Raffles. While both Raffles and Lupin ply their trade for the forces of good as often as for personal gain, early Rocambole novels have the character as more purely villainous; only in later stories does Rocambole become a do-gooder. Raffles and, particularly (in my reading), Lupin tend towards a degree of ambiguity: it’s never entirely clear what side of the angels Lupin is on in a given story. Certainly it’s not easy to predict in advance of reading the ending, often rendering him a decidedly ambiguous character. In this, he clearly anticipates the persistent (so-far) ambivalence of The Blacklist toward Raymond Reddington.  That said, there’s always an appeal to the gentleman-thief either way, partly based on their charm. But there’s another thing, one that has persisted in heist and con movies: the pleasure of seeing someone do their job very, very well. These, too, play into Reddington, a man of culture and charm who is also improbably gifted as a spy.

Mabuse himself has three particularly vivid and immediate ancestors: Dr. James Moriarty, Fantômas, and Fu Manchu. Moriarty, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Napoleon of Crime,” was inspired by another 19th century master criminal, a thief named Adam Worth (detailed in Ben Macintyre’s book The Napoleon of Crime). Despite only appearing in a few Conan Doyle stories, Moriarty is by far Sherlock Holmes’ most famous antagonist, because he is Holmes’ opposite number, a genius fit to match wits with a genius. Right through to Reddington, genius-level intellect is a fundamental requirement of a Master Criminal.

Like Mabuse, Moriarty controls a vast, shadowy criminal empire, pulling strings from behind the scenes. In that he plans and brokers illegal activity for others, he is clearly a direct forefather of Reddington, dubbed in the Blacklist pilot “the Concierge of Crime.” Moriarty is very much a figure of late 19th century melodrama, and there are plenty of ways to read the narrative conventions there with regard to the experience of an oppressive world out of one’s control. There’s no clear social subtext beyond this, though, unlike the cases of Fu Manchu and Mabuse, both of whom were invented to speak to specific historical events at the time of their writing. Unlike them, too, Moriarty is not interested in shaping geopolitics or the economies of nations; at one point Holmes tells Watson that Moriarty “might have controlled the destiny of nations,” as the villain’s intellect is so vast, but thanks to a defect in his character, opted for crime instead. It’s not until A Game of Shadows that we see a Moriarty attempting to become not the Napoleon of crime, but rather a Napoleon full stop- a telling difference that speaks to the pressures on filmmakers to raise the stakes in a post-Bond mediasphere. That said, even on the page Moriarty is a core case of conspiracy thinking: through him, all crime in the capitol is interconnected in a vast web unperceived by the general public.

It should also be remembered that Moriarty is only in a few Holmes stories, and even in them, he’s barely onscreen, a ploy adopted by Rex Stout for Nero Wolfe’s nemesis, Arnold Zeck. In this sense, one must ask why Moriarty has such an inflated reputation in the Holmesverse: why is he so infamous when his page-time in the Holmes stories is relatively limited? Perhaps this speaks to the modern/postmodern taste for the supervillain, the resonance of the concept in light of social experience. Fandom’s demand for Moriarty is one reason why producers of new Holmes iterations showcase the character. Indeed, until a Moriarty shows up, the work of any Holmes update is incomplete, and viewers stay on alert for indications of his presence (consider the way that the first episode of Sherlock, “A Study in Pink,” uses Mycroft as a red herring for Moriarty- only to point to an actual Moriarty at the end).

Three contemporary Moriarty's: Jared Harris in A Game of Shadows

Three contemporary Moriarty’s: Jared Harris in A Game of Shadows

Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty

Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock.

Natalie Dormer in Elementary

Natalie Dormer in Elementary

Like Moriarty, Fantômas is a murderous sociopath, possessed of none of the overtly redeeming or appealing features of Raffles or Lupin. With the Fantômas series (1911-1913, and carried on by Allain as late as 1963), Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre made the titular Evil Genius the central character, the engine powering the series, even if in terms of page-time he was outstripped by his nemesis, Inspector Juve. As with Moriarty, the mystique, the sense of the character’s omnipotence (and omniscience, and at times seeming-omnipresence) is enhanced by keeping him off-stage most of the time, yet in control nearly all of the time. Still, as the main character, he’s a far more powerful and present figure than the literary Moriarty. In Allain and Souvestre, Fantômas is a force of chaos, in this way taken by critics as a symbol of the convulsions attending the dawning of modernity. He’s an attendant at the Shock of the New: the world of Fantômas is one of disguises, alter-egos, hidden compartments and passageways, one where evildoers are always afoot, and where danger can erupt in the most benign places quite unexpectedly. For this reason, Fantômas became a kind of anti-hero to European modernists, the Surrealists in particular. These properties carried over from the literary Fantômas to Louis Feuillade’s serial adaptation, then to subsequent Feuillade serials like Les Vampires, in which at any moment, say, a trap-door in a Parisian apartment could open to reveal a cannon which might fire on a theater in the middle of an evening’s performance. With the Master Criminal pulling the strings on this world, anything can happen at anytime to anyone, and there is nothing the forces of Law and Order can do to prevent it. The famous image of Fantômas astride the Parisian skyline- first appearing for the literary version but adopted for Feuillade’s serial as well- is emblematic for exactly this reason: Fantômas, and the paranoia he induces in Juve and his other opponents, is a personification of the zeitgeist, standing in for the unseen forces of the modern (urban) landscape. This is why it is entirely fitting that the poster image for Lang’s 1922 Dr. Mabuse der Spieler should be a blatant copy of that image.

Fantomas1

Fantomas2

dr_mabuse

Like both Moriarty and Fantômas, Fu Manchu is a figure characterized by his seeming omnipotence. He’s a master criminal who devises elaborate plans carried out with ruthless precision by underlings (it must be noted that Fantômas is rather more self-reliant; in that and in his penchant for disguise, the DNA of the Gentleman Thief remains just perceptible). Where Moriarty is content with profiting off criminal activity conducted in a shadowy underworld underpinning the everyday one, Fu Manchu wants to RULE THE WORLD! By comparison with the comparatively inscrutable Fantômas, Fu Manchu’s megalomania is therefore even more anticipatory of the later Bond villain (and comic-book supervillain). It makes sense, then, that the character, racism intact, would appear on screen both in the 1930s (which saw Hollywood appropriate pretty much every series character in detective fiction to “feed the maw of exhibition,” as Tino Balio might say) and in the mid-1960s, after the initial success of the Bond series.

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu is rarely read today, and in the literature on crime fiction, his significance is seen in symptomatic terms. Sax Rohmer invented the character in a period in which China was assuming greater geo-political and economic importance; therefore, Fu Manchu stands in for a Western fear of the Rise of the East. Likewise rarely read today (indeed much less so than Rohmer, which has just been reprinted by Titan in the UK, whereas I can find no English-language version of Dr. Mabuse), Norbert Jacques’ Dr. Mabuse was instead an overt critical commentary on economic and social conditions in early Weimar Germany. For Jacques, Mabuse was a way to explore fears of decadence and financial manipulation (gaming the system) in the Germany of the early 1920s, an era in which Germany was stuck in economic chaos. Not having read Jacques, I can add little to Kalat’s interpretation of his first novel, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler. For Fritz Lang, though, over time Mabuse took on a larger, less immediately topical significance. In his truly magisterial The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, Tom Gunning argues that Mabuse becomes a symbol of the exercise of power in modernity itself: manipulation, deception, surveillance, and systems of control. The Mabuse narratives are readable as allegories of power and powerlessness, the sense that the world is controlled by shadowy but decisive forces, and that the rest of us are trapped in it as if by cogs in a machine (this is the modern sense of the Destiny-Machine, Gunning’s master term for Lang’s concerns, that oft-noted sense of “fate” as a force in his world). Again and again, we see Mabuse pulling the strings on cataclysms to which the rest of us are bystanders, victims or patsies; but also pulling the strings on the everyday operations of business and politics. His key tools are the ability to affect the wills of others, and his access to information: knowledge is power for Mabuse. Here we might see Mabuse (and the similar figure of Spione’s Haghi) as a true exemplar of the 20th and 21st century obsession with conspiracy theories (a genealogy we can also trace to Jack the Ripper-following-the-Queen’s-orders theories). If in the Fantômas world, nothing makes sense, in the Mabuse world, everything makes sense- if you understand the logic behind the way the world works, if you are one of the few privileged to understand the real reasons things happen, if you know what those reasons are.

Rudolph Klein-Rogge in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Rudolph Klein-Rogge in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Wolfgang Preiss in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

Wolfgang Preiss in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

In the cinematic Mabuse’s engineering of catastrophes that benefit his interests, we can find a precedent for the most important post-Mabuse non-comic-book Criminal Mastermind: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For Ian Fleming, Blofeld was a bit Moriarty, a bit Fu Manchu: largely operating behind the scenes, never known to the world outside MI6 and the CIA, but threatening large-scale disasters to extort massive amounts of money for SPECTRE. And a bit Fantômas and Mabuse: both the literary and cinematic iterations of Blofeld make use of disguise (in the books, in OHMSS and YOLT, in the movies in OHMSS and DAF). Like Moriarty but unlike Mabuse, there’s no sense of Blofeld controlling the normal run of events. Blofeld is strictly a criminal, his schemes playing out as elaborate heists ending in extortion attempts. The cinematic Blofeld, in particular, is more visible than Moriarty; if in Thunderball, he is merely glimpsed, in You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds Are Forever, he is a hands-on leader in a way Moriarty never was. Indeed, and I think interestingly in the context of issues of power and conspiracy, it is precisely when and as a result of his direct involvement in events in the latter 3 films that Blofeld becomes vulnerable to Bond’s efforts to put a stop to him, while in Thunderball he is distant and untouchable.

Donald Pleasence, the archetypal film Blofeld, in You Only Live Twice

Donald Pleasence, the archetypal film Blofeld, in You Only Live Twice

Blofeld emerges late-ish in the Bond books, after Fleming has spent most of the series featuring the KGB as the principal villains. In the movies, SPECTRE comes to the fore right from the get-go, but the revelation of Blofeld isn’t until the 4th film, thus keeping a sense of gradually-unfolding mystery around the organization’s hierarchy. Blofeld is disposed of in Diamonds (more or less; I’m leaving out the opening of For Your Eyes Only) thus opening up an ongoing series of new megalomaniacal villains, many of them intent not on extorting money from world governments, but destroying the world to remake it in their own image (Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, Drax in Moonraker). After the Cold War, the threat of global annihilation fades from the Bond series, and so, gradually, does this particular strain of villain. Once again, the Bond villain becomes someone who threatens a catastrophic, but not necessarily apocalyptic, turn of events for some specific personal gain (consider Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) in Tomorrow Never Dies, looking to expand his share of the media market). With the Daniel Craig reboot comes at least the promise of a new Blofeld, this time perhaps behind the operations of the shadowy QUANTUM, the string-pullers in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Blofeld is the one truly iconic villain in the Bond series, so fans like myself keenly anticipate his return to the series, much as Holmes fans await each new Moriarty and superhero comic fans anticipate favorite series villains in film adaptations. It is, of course, in the comic book supervillain that we see the greatest profusion of Master Criminals in contemporary media, and many of them line up with their forebears rather nicely. Lex Luthor, for instance, is a kind of Mabuse figure (the 1920s Mabuse): a public personage, but one who also, covertly, conceives and executes criminal schemes for his personal gain. The Joker, by contrast, is more of a Fantômas, a refinement of what the Surrealists loved about the character: where Lex Luthor manipulates events to gain power and wealth, the Joker is a kind of inexplicable force of chaos. This side of the Joker was even more dominant in the most recent live-action version, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Superhero comics, by their very nature as a form of myth, liberally partake of metaphor and allegory, and are amongst the last places in contemporary fiction where the Master Criminal happily resides. In more self-consciously realist fiction- literary, cinematic, and televisual- the Master Criminal has become a much less central symbol of power and control in modernity and postmodernity. From the early 1970s conspiracy thriller on, criminal conspiracies have webs but no centers, no colorful spiders. Social reality has shifted in ways that make the Mabuse-like Supercriminal obsolete, whether the mysteries of the JFK assassination or the muddy chain of evidence and clown-car profusion of bureaucrats that was Watergate. In contemporary media, the larger scale the conspiracy- be it political assassination or any other form of global power-grab- the more likely is it that the Master Criminal is replaced by a villainous collective. Too, the more realist the fiction, the more likely that the lines between the villainous collective and the Establishment are blurred. From The Parallax View to The X-Files to Alias, the villains are either invisible, explicitly represented in the fiction by mere underlings, or are groups of old white men representing diverse corporate and state interests and presented in low-key lighting. These are not Villains perverting the System, they are the System. The difficulty in naming A villain in the Bourne films (films overtly positioned as Bond revisions) is a case in point. But this is true of science-fiction, as well: in Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe, there are conspiracies afoot, but they are engaged in by collective antagonists with shared goals.

If this is the contemporary norm, then The Blacklist is on one level a decidedly retro show. At the very least, Raymond Reddington is not just a retro character, he’s practically an anachronism in some ways. Yet how the show negotiates Reddington’s status within still larger schemes- circles within circles- makes it a very contemporary show, as well as one with indelible ties to the fictions concerning Herr Doktor Mabuse.

The_Blacklist_-_Episode_1.02_-_The_Freelancer_-_Promotional_Photos_(6)_595_slogo

Are there spoilers ahead, you ask? Yes, indeed there are, but I’m pretty vague about them.

The Blacklist is built around the Clarice/Lector dynamic between FBI agent Elizabeth Keen and a new “asset” named Raymond Reddington. Reddington is a former spy who went rogue and refashioned himself as a Master Criminal, in fact a “consulting criminal” along the lines of Moriarty: he facilitates, he plans, he brokers deals, he provides goods and services in the support of larger schemes executed by (seemingly) still-worse criminals. Thus, he is “the Concierge of Crime.” This is a show without a Holmes, though (Keen is bright, but no genius, and Reddington is not a sworn enemy), and one that centers on Reddington, rather as if Arvin Sloane, played by Ron Rifkin, had been the outright male lead of Alias. If his centrality to the fiction is more Mabuse than Moriarty (leaving aside the specifics of job descriptions now), then so too is the way his power depends on his ability to manipulate people and situations to his own interests.

James Spader as Raymond Reddington and Megan Boone as Elizabeth Keen, from episode "Gina Zanetakos"

James Spader as Raymond Reddington and Megan Boone as Elizabeth Keen, from episode “Gina Zanetakos”

At the start of the pilot, Reddington turns himself in, but does so in order to help the FBI catch a terrorist posing an urgent threat. Reddington seems to want the terrorist to be caught for his own reasons, despite having facilitated the terrorist’s entry into the country, and despite the latter having carried out at least one request for Reddington once in the US. The case successfully resolved, he proposes an ongoing arrangement: in exchange for immunity, he will help the FBI catch all the names on his “blacklist,” a list of horrible criminals whose crimes go undetected because the government doesn’t even know they exist. His one proviso is that he will only communicate with Keen. It is clear that for Reddington this is all for his own interests: but how?

For various reasons, more and less obvious, Reddington is a moving target. He’s the main character in a show that mixes serial and procedural plots concerning catching the names on the Blacklist. As it’s an ongoing show, it behooves the producers not to settle certain questions about Reddington and his motives. Why is a Master Criminal aiding and abetting law enforcement? What does he get out of this? What are his ultimate aims, and are they good or bad? Is he a hero or a villain? Certainly he’s outwardly a villain, but perhaps he’s been undercover all these years? Why is he so interested in Liz Keen? While he is clearly executing a large-scale, long-term plan, what is the nature of that plan? Since the enigma of the show is the enigma of Reddington, the show has to postpone drawing conclusions about him. In some episodes, he is merely a particularly ruthless hero (consider “The Stewmaker”), but after a run of these, recent episodes have emphasized his amorality and brutality, his proclivity for sociopathic violence. At the exact same time, though, producers have indicated that there is another conspiracy going on here, one that involves Reddington but that he himself is only a small part of, perhaps is a victim of, and one that presumably (though not yet certainly) represents a threat more malignant than Reddington himself. In much the same way, of course, Reddington is partly redeemed on a weekly basis by contrasting him with the names on the Blacklist, all of whom are far scarier than he is, and a lot less charming.

So what we have here is a Moriarty-by-way-of-Mabuse leading character of a major network TV show. An evil genius involved in seemingly every large-scale criminal activity in the northern hemisphere. A spider in the middle of a web. Raymond Reddington pulls strings on events to benefit himself in various ways, ruthlessly and amorally exercising his power through manipulation and information exchange (using blackmail, extortion, charm, persuasiveness), pursuing an unknown goal. He is a Super Spy Evil Genius. That the character is who he is, all while being smart and appealing yet sinister, and most of the time in a costume, is the chief pleasure of the show.

raymond_reddington_-_the_blacklist_-_cast

And yes, it’s a bit retro, a bit anachronistic, and the show plays at times as if Mabuse has been stuck in the middle of a Ludlam storyline (as if in some sort of Jasper Fforde plot). But insofar as he is explicitly a Super Spy Evil Genius, it’s a bit wrongheaded, if not disingenuous, to criticize the show because Reddington is too competent or powerful or connected, as some do. Reddington being a supervillain is the whole point. (See the AV Club reviews here.)

Reddington is a clear example of a contemporary Mabuse, then; in fact, the clearest. And his world is a Mabuse-ian world. It’s another world where anything can happen at any time, none of it good. A father and son playing catch in a park can be interrupted by falling wreckage, killing them horribly. That nice man you were talking to on the subway can turn out to be a mass-murderer who kills you and everyone else on the car. He also lives in a world where everyday events are the result of sinister machination.

You’ve obviously heard of corporate espionage – companies trying to beat other companies to be the first hand on the dollar. But what if it were taken… a few steps further? In 1982, seven people in Chicago were killed by an over-the-counter drug laced with potassium cyanide. The company’s market share went from 35 to 8. It was never determined how the drug was poisoned, but I will tell you someone was hired to do that. Remember those tire recalls? Chernobyl? Deliberate and malevolent actions taken by corporations to protect their vital interests. Nothing happens by chance

-Reddington to Keen, “Gina Zanetakos”

On the one hand, Reddington stands in as a contemporary Mabuse-like iteration of conspiracy theory-dom, the conviction that there is a hidden and malevolent pattern to events (the criminal, the corporate, the political), indeed the Langian conviction that power is a Destiny-Machine that swallows us all. Because he is an individual figure controlling events, he is on one level a relic of an earlier phase in Western culture, one in which this sort of fear plausibly could be centered on a single malign person.

[OK, HERE’S THE ONE REAL SPOILER]

But on the other hand, on The Blacklist, Reddington himself is seen to be merely one cog in yet another machine- a machine controlled by a faceless and nameless cabal (though personified by one of the most iconic actors in all of television, which is another interesting point of tension) that appears to be either within or synonymous with the American government. Reddington’s world is also one where everything, from the activities of the state to the flow of commerce, is controlled by shadowy figures. This is a paranoia which the show both counteracts by giving faces to some, the names on the Blacklist, and reinforces by continuing to open out its conspiracies.

He is quite literally a Mabuse/Moriarty in a Ludlam-informed post-9/11 world, and it is here that The Blacklist works to position the Super Criminal in relation to a cultural representation of power based on a more current understanding of The System, its fundamental malevolence, and it the way it controls everything and everyone. That may produce some aesthetic dissonance (two worlds colliding and all), but it’s also how The Blacklist negotiates its place in contemporary culture.

Notes:

1. My thanks to friends of the blog Jake Smith, Bond Expert, and Dorinda Hartmann, Holmes Specialist, for their advice and fact-checking.

2. This title was inspired by a Film Comment piece from the 80s or 90s, I believe by Peter Hogue, called “Fritz Lang: Our Contemporary.”

Life in the Clubhouse: A Short Genealogy of Stars in Their Constellations, Or: The Awesomeness of Awesome Celebrities Hanging Out Together

Welcome back to The Third Meaning. I’ve been on hiatus here after a long and busy year, but now it’s summertime and the bloggin’ is easy. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up regular posting for a bit.

On to today’s subject: This is the first part of what will be another Third Meaning two-part series, this one on the entertainment industry’s promotion of behind-the-scenes and off-set social interactions. Part Two, coming next week, will be by Friend of the Blog Jo Murphy, current Ph.D candidate at Monash University.

Now then:

I’m no celebrity scholar, but one particular facet of star culture has always fascinated me- as something to think about, sure, but also just as a media consumer and a fan. It’s a fantasy that has always had a deep appeal to me. And that is the idea that everyone I like likes everyone else I like.

This is an insupportable fantasy on several levels. For one, “liking someone” for me is first and foremost about the work by these people, not necessarily their social personae. Why, then, would I expect them to be likable individually, let alone as one big group? That said, I do have a particular emotional investment in those artists who also seem like Real Cool People To Hang With: Joss Whedon, Ira Glass, and Steven Soderbergh top that list, but I would happily spend a night in the company of, oh, Aaron Sorkin (if I was on some sort of upper), David Fincher, Neil Gaiman (very much Neil Gaiman, in fact- but maybe not Alan Moore), Grant Morrison (how long I’d want to hang with him likely depending on the particular hallucinogen we’d ingested), Edgar Wright (and Pegg and Frost), people like that.

Neil Gaiman and Karen Gillan

Neil Gaiman and Karen Gillan

Neil Gaiman and Kat Dennings, a seemingly random pairing of two people I'm rather fond of (despite the awfulness of Two Broke Girls).

Neil Gaiman and Kat Dennings, a seemingly random pairing of two people I’m rather fond of (despite the awfulness of Two Broke Girls).

A map of Newton Haven, from 2013's The World's End, given as a gift from Edgar Wright to Neil Gaiman

A map of Newton Haven, from 2013’s The World’s End, given as a gift from Edgar Wright to Neil Gaiman

Not necessarily everyone I like, though. I love Michael Mann, but I can’t see chillaxing with him: I have a feeling it’d be like a live performance of one of his commentary tracks, not a conversation. And while Declan McManus is a firm yes, Morrissey… well, no- he seems self-righteous and narcissistic to a point that would be intensely irritating on a personal level.

Thus, it provides me a great deal of pleasure when I hear one artist I like singing the praises of another. Whedon is quite vocal and generous towards others in film, TV, and comics; as is Glass, towards all sorts of people (and Gaiman too, but a lot of the time to people who write things I’m actually not that invested in, like YA novels). But it’s not like it’s my fantasy alone. For one, it underpins the lasting appeal of the Algonquin Round Table for literati, that “Vicious Circle” of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and others that Alan Rudolph commemorated in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). History has commemorated that crowd in lots of forms, in fact: in 1996, Friends of Libraries USA designated the Algonquin Hotel a national literary landmark. Books, documentaries, paintings and more have romanticized the wits of the round table, though Parker herself was dismissive of the group she of whom she herself was the most renowned. Some have perceived them as “famous for being famous” far more than for their work, a familiar phenomenon in modern celebrity culture.

The Algonquin Round Table, by the great Al Hirschfeld. Simply being drawn by Hirschfeld assures a place in NYC history.

The Algonquin Round Table, by the great Al Hirschfeld. Simply being drawn by Hirschfeld assures a place in NYC history.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

In making his film, Rudolph was somewhat returning to the sort of topic that had he explored in his biggest previous arthouse hit, The Moderns (1988) (best line, Stein to Hemingway: “The sun also sets, you know!”).

The Moderns theatrical poster.

Though less chummy, the artists and writers who gathered in Paris in the 1920s were also a far more accomplished group: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali, etc. The idea of the most revolutionary artistes of their period all gathered in more or less one place at more or less one time is undeniably alluring, and one that, via A Moveable Feast, Hemingway himself went some way towards enshrining. If The Moderns pokes holes in the myth even as it lights incense to its memory, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is both more self-conscious about Paris in the ‘20s as a myth, even as it romantically, albeit playfully, spins it out yet again.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris.

The pop music industry has its own versions, too, and for all tastes: there are places/times like Sun Studios in the ‘50s and Motown and Muscle Shoals in the ‘60s; there’s the Factory scene around Andy Warhol, starring the Velvet Underground; there’s the CBGB scene in New York in the mid to late ‘70s; and slightly later, the punk scene in England, where there’s always a frisson for fans when one sees photos of any sort of group combination of J. Rotten, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, and an extra hit when one spots Adam Ant or Shane McGowan in photos (the stars of the then-tomorrow!). On the other side of the coin, there’s the celebrities hanging out together at the height of disco in places like Studio 54.

New Year's Eve 1978 at Studio 54, photographed by Robin Platzer.

New Year’s Eve 1978 at Studio 54, photographed by Robin Platzer.

Best of all, because linked to artistic and personal affinities rather than a scene as such, the idea of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed hanging out in the mid-‘70s. Todd Haynes played with this idea in Velvet Goldmine (1998). But if Hollywood gets a bit swoony over literary versions of the Clubhouse idea, it is second to no other medium in creating  and marketing their own equivalents.

Bowie, Pop, Reed. A classic rock 'n' roll image.

Bowie, Pop, Reed. A classic rock ‘n’ roll image.

Reed and Bowie kissing.

Reed and Bowie kissing.

In Hollywood, the idea of the stars as Godlike figures has always had a Grecian dimension: the stables of performers under contract at classical-era studios were imagined to interact constantly and collegially, as in some sort of Mount Olympus, but perhaps with less intra-office drama. MGM, “the Rolls Royce of studios,” basing much of its identity in the marketplace on having “more stars than there in Heaven,” advertised this in photo shoots bringing them all together in massive, staged photographic constellations.

MGM's stable of stars in 1943.

MGM’s stable of stars in 1943.

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“Between shots” on Dinner at Eight, the party continues.

At another point in the classical star galaxy, there’s the oddly literal version of the clubhouse idea represented by “The Puppets.” According to Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, this was a group of young, relatively obscure East Coast actors and actresses who had moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s, and who rented what functioned as a literal clubhouse at 2107 Beechwood Drive to maintain some sense of fraternity by putting on musical shows for their own amusement. Willson wrote about them in places like The New Movie Magazine: “Anita Brown and Tom Brown decided, one bright day, that it would be a swell idea if all the ‘kids,’ like themselves, who knew each other back East, could get together, form a club, rent a clubhouse, give shows and have a good time. It would keep them all together and give them a place to go in the evenings after work, and during the days when they weren’t busy on a picture.” The Puppets had some 22 members, including forgotten names like Junior Durkin, Maurice Murphy, Tex Brodus, Pat Ziegfeld, Ben Alexander, Billy Janney, Earl Blackwell, Bob Horner, Patricia Ellis, and Gertrude and Grace Durkin. Hofler calls this “America’s first cult of youth,” thanks in part to Willson’s attempts to glorify these “new faces” hanging out at “kid parties,” but claiming “firsts” is usually to be avoided. Certainly, though, it was a strikingly on-the-nose, real-life version of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”

Fantasies of classical Hollywood as a whole, in both movies and the publicity around Hollywood, CA itself as an industry town, cathected on nightclubs and studio commissaries and parties where all the stars supposedly mingled.

Jean Harlow, William Powell, and the largely forgotten William Haines, among others, at the Trocadero.

Jean Harlow, William Powell, and the largely forgotten William Haines, among others, at the Trocadero.

James Stewart and Ginger Rogers at the Trocadero.

James Stewart and Ginger Rogers at the Trocadero.

William Powell and Carole Lombard at Ciro's.

William Powell and Carole Lombard at Ciro’s.

Places like the Trocadero and Ciro’s are enshrined in Hollywood history as a consequence, and had such cultural currency that Looney Tunes could use them as a jumping-off point for cartoons like “Hollywood Steps Out” (1941), set in Ciro’s.

Images from "Hollywood Steps Out": Here's Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland presented as a couple even off-set.

Images from “Hollywood Steps Out”: Here’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland presented as a couple even off-set.

James Stewart and Dolores Del Rio (I think).

James Stewart and Dolores Del Rio (I think).

Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis.

Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis.

Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. The cartoon came out in 1941, the year of her last film.

Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. The cartoon came out in 1941, the year of her last film.

Cagney, Bogart, Raft.

Cagney, Bogart, Raft.

William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Will Rogers, I'm not sure but I'm thinking Gilbert Roland, C. Aubrey Smith, and... Errol Flynn, maybe?

William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Will Rogers, I’m not sure but I’m thinking Gilbert Roland, C. Aubrey Smith, and… Errol Flynn, maybe?

The best for last: Groucho Marx and Clark Gable.

The best for last: Groucho Marx and Clark Gable.

These were golden gods collectively basking in the perfection of their lives, one big, outlandishly beautiful family. So even after the breakup of the studio system, when there was no longer an economic imperative to glorify your stars by showing them interacting with great jollity, the fantasy lived on in myriad forms in ancillary industries like gossip, entertainment journalism, and biographies highlighting stars’ interactions with each other. Oral histories are part of this, too. I’ll get to television in a moment, but certainly how the stars interacted is the main focus of books like Tom Shales’ Live from New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live. Or, more recently, take Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches with Orson. The book as a whole is appealing mainly for its sense of being let in on the private, uncensored Welles, but highlights include both his snubbing of Burton and Taylor (to paraphrase, “Can’t you see I’m eating here?”), and his joyous greeting of Jack Lemmon (“THERE HE IS!”). Celebrities hanging out together are a reliable magnet for paparazzi, columnists, TMZ, and various others in the beast that is the infotainment machine. Every issue of Vanity Fair seems to find some occasion to show pictures of The Beautiful People together at parties, especially come awards season. Indeed, some of the most reader-pleasing coverage of the Oscars are the multi-page spreads of after-parties in VF and other publications. The entire publicity machine around the Golden Globes, forever the Jan Brady to the Oscars’ Marcia, is that the Globes is where the stars “let their hair down”: ie., get tipsy and reveal themselves at a ceremony that is, we are told, one big party.

Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue for 2011.

Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue for 2011.

Then, too, every year VF does a Hollywood issue, including massive Annie Leibovitz group shots bringing together otherwise seemingly disparate groups of actors: but look, here they are, ALL TOGETHER! Like they’re friends! Moreover, these issues always include behind-the-scenes features on the photo shoots, often focusing on things the stars said to each other on the day.

Gossip media and entertainment journalism both feed on and publicize the entertainment industry they cover, and if they have played a huge role in keeping this fantasy construction of a world made up of stars alive, it’s not as if Hollywood itself hasn’t continued to fan its flames. Ensemble films, for instance, frequently appeal based on the notion of the stars interacting on set as much as in the films themselves. This was the basic selling-point for the Rat Pack films of the 1960s, most notably the first Ocean’s Eleven. The most recent version of this is this year’s This Is the End, elaborating on the comedy value of stars acting like asshole versions of themselves. I give a lot of credit for that trend to Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras pushed this about as far as it could go, with Sex Fiend Wannabe-Writer Patrick Stewart, Filthy Kate Winslet, Spoiled Daniel Radcliffe, and Unaccountably Cruel David Bowie (it was at that point I quit watching), among others. This Is the End gives us Pretentious James Franco, Unctuous Jonah Hill, Whiny Jay Baruchel, Slightly-Weaselly Seth Rogen, Predictably-Obnoxious Danny McBride, and, um, Pretty-Normal-Actually Craig Robinson. One high point of the film, and in fact a high point of the Asshole-In-Real-Life character type is Michael Cera as an arrogant, entitled, druggie, misogynist counter to his nebbish-y nice-guy persona. As always, there is a somewhat complicated operation going on here: on the one hand, the stars are “debunking” themselves, “making fun of themselves,” but in doing so in such an exaggerated way, they are actually assuring us that they are down-to-earth folks who are so cool that they are down with poking holes in their own egos. At this point, the surest ways for a star to tell us they are Jes’ Folks are either to get involved in disaster relief efforts, or to make fun of themselves in the broadest possible strokes. But in This Is the End, all this is layered on top of the foundation of “These guys actually do hang together!” This is widely assumed already, given the history of collaborations between various combinations of Rogen, Hill, Franco, Baruchel, McBride, and Robinson. The movie not only builds on that while milking it for comedy, it updates the Trocadero/Ciro’s fantasy for an era in which Hollywood clublife has been devalued by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton; instead, then, we have a house party including, besides all the above, Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholz, Martin Starr, Kevin Hart, Jason Segal… etc.

This Is the End premiere

This Is the End premiere

Films like This Is the End (from Sony, by the way, the same company responsible for Superbad and Pineapple Express) remind us that the Everyone I Like Likes Everyone Else I Like fantasy can still be fuel for corporate product. In the post-1948 era of (mostly) independently-financed, package-unit production, there is generally little sense of film studios as anything other than the banking and distribution concerns that they are, with none of the specific cultural identities that adhered in the classical era. And with films financed and produced on a case-by-case basis, apart from franchises (consider the way Marvel Studios distinguished itself from DC adaptations by grouping various heroes together, right from the first appearance of Nick Fury in the end credits of Iron Man), there’s no real motivation to invest heavily in publicizing an entire slate of films, as MGM accomplished with its group photos of contract players. But let’s not forget that TV production concerns and networks are inseparably bound to the film studios in contemporary entertainment conglomerates, and networks do have an investment in publicizing their entire product lines at any given time. There are lots of instances of this sort of thing, like the Showtime ad that featured Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy, from Weeds, kvetching with Laura Linney’s Cathy, from The Big C. Still, for this media consumer’s dollar, the best of these was the brilliant “Oh, What a Night” ad for The WB’s Fall 2000 season, a perfect expression of the net’s self-branding as a youth-oriented channel. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.

Otherwise, industrial uses of the Clubhouse fantasy are largely a case of assuring us that everyone on a given film or TV series got along famously, the implication being that this translated to the final product in some way. This is how they function as promotion: If they had fun making it, you will have fun watching it; or, at the very least, that behind-the-cameras energy will seep into the work in some way. Perhaps for some consumers, it is the opposite: it’s possible to imagine those for whom the text is a kind of memorabilia for the fantasy about the stars. DVD featurettes for shows from Arrested Development to Doctor Who, and movies from Fast and Furious entries to indie dramas, lavish time on the cast members joking around. Cast commentary tracks become opportunities for demonstrative bonding (and, at their worst, fawning and ego-tripping). In the case of comedies, they also become forums for extra improvisatory comedy, widely understood to be essentially a group endeavor, and so again pointing to behind-the-scenes bonding + collaboration. Sometimes, too, producers will go to fairly elaborate lengths to facilitate this impression. One striking example was the commentary track to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 “remake.” Jerry Weintraub, after all, knows him a Rat Pack, and the notion that all the cast members loved being together was one of the engines powering the sequels. So for the cast commentary track, even though careful listening makes it apparent that the participants were in a couple separate, small groups, and that Andy Garcia was taped by himself, their comments are carefully edited together so that they sound as if they were all in the same room, hanging out and chatting. At one point, in fact, Garcia’s laughter is edited in such a way as to create the impression that he is laughing at a joke made by someone being recorded at an entirely separate time in an entirely separate space.

NORTHERN WATCH

Meanwhile, social media users and online fan communities will never let the Clubhouse, Everyone I Like Likes Everyone Else I Like fantasy go, in part doing the entertainment industry’s self-promotional work for them. The thing that finally made me write this blog, in fact, was having my attention brought to the Tumblr Awesome People Hanging Out Together. And really, who doesn’t want to be part of a club like that?

UPDATE: Thanks to Dorinda Hartmann for pointing me to this NBC promo for the 2002 Upfronts.

UPDATE 2: Again thanks to Dorinda Hartmann, I’ve added a paragraph on “The Puppets,” an obscure but quite literal iteration of this idea from early ’30s Hollywood.

Too, according to Hartmann, there’s this: writers on TV shows who Tweet  jokes back and forth with each other, transplanting the clubhouse into the Twittersphere. She mentions Sleepy Hollow and Elementary. Which reminded me that cast-members do the same, as with a recent back-and-forth between Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, of House of Lies, tweeting gags back and forth after a report of gunfire near the HoL set this last November.

UPDATE 3: This.

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On seeing Goblin and Suspiria in Auckland, NZ

On Friday the 19th of July, I flew from Dunedin to Auckland to see Italian prog-rockers Goblin perform their score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria accompanying a screening of the film, as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Here is my report.

goblin-susperia-cover

First off, the Civic Theatre is, in my opinion, the single most beautiful picture palace I personally have been to. The Regent in Dunedin is gorgeous, of course, but for me the Civic tops it, with the spires, the intricacy of the detailing, and the starry ceiling. It is, then, a near perfect location for a movie with live accompaniment.

2007-4-3-civic auckland+civic+theatre   walks-heritage-civic_333_500

Suspiria (1977) itself is one of the great horror films of all-time: an idiosyncratic, even iconoclastic masterpiece. Argento is a towering figure of the European horror film. He followed in the footsteps of Italian maestro Mario Bava, whose films set the most immediate precedent for Argento’s delirious aestheticization of horror conventions. Though Bava pioneered the giallo, he is equally known for his supernatural films, particularly Black Sunday (1960); Argento is best known as a maker of gialli, but Suspiria is a different thing. Gialli are, in the main, riffs on the slasher-predating violence of Psycho (knives being the pre-eminent choice of weapon), combined with intricate, twisty thriller plots, influenced by a different set of Hitchcocks (and macabre thrillers like Mad Love, The Black Cat, The Raven, and Hangover Square; films by Lang and Clouzot; and paralleling Franju). In the core case of the giallo, there is not only a fully human killer, with no supernatural properties, but typically an at least nominally rational motivation for the crimes (monetary gain, for example), even if committed in the guise of serial killing. When the giallo killer is psychotic, he is provided with a backstory and coherent explanation, as in Psycho. When the giallo’s indulgence in gore began to feed into the slasher film, the supernatural dimension (Michael, Freddy, and Jason are all unusually difficult to kill) was matched with a markedly more irrational, alien motivation: pure psychosis, blood lust, hatred- in short, not just perverted sexuality, but evil. Early Argentos like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red were baroque, gruesome, sadistic thrillers, among the finest of the gialli. Suspiria, though, is an Argento moving into something quite different. With Suspiria, Argento follows the more excessive tendencies of Deep Red into pure delirium. This is cinema where the plot is secondary at best: Argento here is playing with stylization and excess, lapsing into incoherence so as to better create a dreamlike effect. He achieves an oneiric lyricism in nightmarish worlds where the most primal horror might rage at any moment; like so much of the best horror of his era, one feels one is in the hands not of a cold, precise, and masterful narrator (like Hitchcock, and even De Palma and Cronenberg) but of a madman. Storytelling as such is irrelevant to the Argento of Suspiria, and Tenebrae and Inferno following it. Any felicities or complexities in that regard would constitute little more than a distraction from production design, composition, camera movement, sound, extreme violence, pounding music, high-pitched performances, and outlandish situations- in short, the pursuit of pure sensation.

Given this, a live performance accompanying the film by Goblin, the composers/performers of the original score, is a perfect fit. (This version of Goblin includes three original members, Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, and Maurizio Guarini, alongside newer members on bass and percussion.) With a more complex narrative, the cacophony of a 5-man Italian progressive rock band would overwhelm and obscure the storytelling. But in the context of a film going for surreal, nightmarish sensationalism, their impact creates an immersive experience.

Music-Goblin-Suspiria-band

Though they did a few other albums, they specialized in soundtracks, and where much Italian prog-rock was heavily indebted to Emerson, Lake and Palmer- and tending to operatic effects, if with fractionally less bombast than French prog-rock- Goblin’s Suspiria score has a stronger affinity to krautrock: their music is based on intensity and repetition (a perfect fit with the requirements of the motion picture soundtrack). They produce such an encompassing, relentless wall of sound that it is fascinating to have a chance to witness them doing it. Their work on Suspiria is laden with enough sonic effects that to be able to pick out what sounds are made by keyboards, what by the bass guitar, what by acoustic guitar, what by bouzouki (one of the main instruments!), and what by a stage-filling array of percussion is revelatory. And yeah, the impact: they are pummeling on video versions of the film. A few meters in front of you, in front of an enormous screen playing a 35mm print of Suspiria? You are pinned to your seat. It is most certainly not something you should miss if you can help it, and if you truly care about the cinema.

Moreover, one cannot but be chuffed for them: touring around performing your best-known work to big audiences is an undeniably sweet gig for aging Italian prog-rockers. When was the last time you saw the musicians in the band take photos and video of the audience at the end of the gig? (You’d never see Billy Corgan doing that. His contempt for his audience- by itself enough to ruin a gig- is such that once you’ve paid for your seat, you get the sense he’d just as soon see you under the wheel of a bus.) Yet this is just what Goblin did as they received their applause. It was sweet.

That audience, however, was the rub. The people doing the applauding were also the ones preventing this from being the kind of immersive event it could and should have been. They were a blight on the evening.

Simply put, this was an audience largely composed of total douchebags.

Now, one might posit a number of reasons why this was so. Firstly, any country’s financial center is sure to have a high level of douchebaggery, and Auckland indeed has a reputation as NZ’s Douchebag Capitol. Secondly, one friend told me that Auckland has a culture of laughing at horror movies. Having had no experience of screening organizer Ant Timpson’s bygone Incredibly Strange Film Festival, I can’t say, but expectations from that might have been a factor here, in which case Timpson probably ought to take some of the blame for how the audience approached Suspiria. In any event, bringing an Italian prog-rock 5-piece down to play necessitated filling up the Civic to offset costs, which therefore necessitated this screening being pitched as a big event, which in turn likely brought in a number of viewers who had no idea what to expect, and no affinity for cult horror cinema of the 1970s. Nonetheless, what was truly enraging about this audience was their evident smugness as they laughed and jeered at the film. This was a film-festival-hipster douchebag audience, a pretentious douchebag audience, and thus the worst kind. Their inability to grasp what Argento was doing was matched by their sense of themselves as smarter and more sophisticated than the film. It was as if they thought, Oh, I go to the film festival, so I’m an educated, cosmopolitan viewer. But they laughed at the film’s lack of realism- Hahaha! That’s not real! Hahaha! Blood doesn’t look like that! Hahaha- that exposition is rather clumsy! Hahaha- this film is dubbed! The current dominance of small-scale realism in the indie and arthouse cinema seems to form their horizon of expectations of what cinematic art should be. Hitchcock called such people The Plausibles: Hahaha! That’s not plausible, so it’s funny. In fact, however, this pseudo-sophistication is little more than a cover for a profound parochialism: realism is one thing the cinema can do, by no means the only thing. But Argento doesn’t care about verisimilitude. He isn’t aiming for subtle storytelling, so laughing at Suzy’s voiceover about counting the number of steps the teachers take is simply making something of nothing. Blood never looked realistic before the ‘80s (and why should it? why does that matter?). All Italian films, at least of this period, were dubbed, so, again, this is not worth commenting on.

This was an audience that utterly failed to engage with the film on its own terms, that utterly failed to approach it with anything but ignorance and philistinism masquerading as sophistication. The audience treating the whole event as an episode of Mystery Science Theater (which I would argue has generally been a baleful influence on the reception of disreputable cinema), yelling things like “Take five years why don’t you?” as the student stacked suitcases to escape from the killer through a window, in what I’ve always found a gripping scene, came close to ruining the whole experience. Just as comedies may benefit from being seen with an audience, this showed just how profoundly an audience of braying, ill-educated cretins, utterly deluded about their own acuity, can ruin a horror film. That they didn’t is testimony to the artistry and considerably greater intelligence of both Argento and Goblin. So if you happen to have a chance to catch this bill, be ready for them. Try to get into a zen state of acceptance of the pitiful ignorance of self-congratulating hipsters- otherwise, you’ll end up killing someone, and while ridding the world of another one of these people might be a good thing, it does mean you’re likely to miss the end of the movie if you do.

Thanks to Chris Dumas for “the Plausibles.” Thanks to Lydia Randall for the “take five years” quote. Very special thanks to Logan Valentine for getting the tickets, serendipitously far enough away from people actually yelling at the screen that they were not in hitting distance. And naturally, all of my friends in attendance are exempted from my ranting.

On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part Two, by Kyle Kontour

[Ramaeker here: First off, a big welcome to my first Third Meaning guest blogger, Kyle Kontour. Dr. Kontour, ladies and gentlemen. Now then: over to him.]

There is an interesting constellation of meanings Boyle evokes in using the term “Pixarfication.”  He is not suggesting that Pixar films and their ilk are not good films—indeed, he indicates an appreciation for what he thinks they do well—but that such films are most certainly not “adult”.  But if the trend has been away from adult films and toward family friendly fare, then what has this meant for childrens’ films?  Before I delve into this issue, both “Pixarfication” and “adult” require some unpacking here.  Let’s tackle the latter first.

In my reading of Boyle’s comments, “adult” would indicate content that deals with things such as sex, war, ambiguity, complex emotional and psychological states, complicated musings on the state of society, and so on.  I think it also includes a more sophisticated cinematic aesthetic, as well:  films that are “grown up” in that they take some effort (and maybe time) for the audience to read, possibly even breaking with many of the standard formal conventions of the Hollywood film.  “Adult” is something embodied by films like Annie Hall (1977), as opposed to, say, A Bug’s Life (1998).

So what is “Pixarfication”?  I hope I do not take too many liberties with Boyle’s comments and implied sentiments, but I interpret this to be speaking mostly to the trend of a form of moviemaking that is aimed at the whole family, and which is deliberately produced and marketed to be a cash cow—expected to gross over $200 million at the domestic box office and providing essentially endless merchandising opportunities.  What Boyle is emphasizing, beyond the critique of the blockbuster political economy, is a kind of “flattening” of content:  that the only way to make that kind of money is to ensure that such films are bereft of “adult” content.  What Boyle seems to be implying, furthermore, is that we can essentially draw a straight line from Star Wars to Pixar in terms of the profitability and proliferation of kid-friendly, unsophisticated entertainment.  Also, most kids‘ films are unabashed cartoons (albeit now almost exclusively CGI), in which Pixar is merely the most prolific and famous of several studios (DreamWorks Animation Studios, Illumination Entertainment, et al) that make family friendly animated films, each of which we can now expect to be among the top twenty grossing films of any given year.  Whether Boyle intends to or not, he implies that “un-adult” means “kiddie fare,” and that such fare has taken over.  I think that framing things this way, however, is too dismissive of what I think is a far more impactful aspect of “Pixarfication”:  the extent to which kids’ movies have become more adult.

Where Paul has pointed out that the 1970s were not as artsy and daring as some nostalgiacs make them out to be, we must also look with fresh eyes at kids’ movies of 1970s and 1980s.  (I include here films from the 1980s not only because they pre-date Pixar, but also because of their contemporaneity to Star Wars.)  Put simply, films aimed squarely at children were often made cheaply and crudely (whether animated or live action), had very simplistic plots, and were unsophisticated in their depiction of morals, emotions, and the workings of society.

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn

Examples include low-quality adaptations of fantasy novels (The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, The NeverEnding Story), hackneyed, fantastical romps (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Herbie movies, etc.), saccharine toy line promotions (The Care Bears Movie, My Little Pony: The Movie), and Disney animated fare that remains infamous for its relatively poor quality (The Aristocats, The Rescuers, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron).  If the 1970s was the height of Hollywood adult cinema, then the ’70s and ’80s were almost certainly the nadir of kids’ films (brighter spots such as the Jim Henson films and E.T. The Extraterrestrial being the exceptions that prove the rule).

To be sure, today’s kids’ films can for the most part slot in easily with such movies in terms of broad themes and story structure, although we can also say with some degree of assurance that the overall quality of craft is greatly improved (starting in 1989 with the so-called “Disney Renaissance” in hand-drawn animation beginning with The Little Mermaid, and accelerated with the subsequent boom in CGI animation ushered in by Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995).  If such films are not as artistically sophisticated as what Boyle might consider an adult film, they are nonetheless a marked improvement when compared to earlier kids’ films, almost across the board:  cinematography, mise en scene, editing, camera movement, staging, etc. However, a number of so-called kids’ films are also remarkably more sophisticated than their forebears when it comes to what Boyle might well consider to be “adult” content.

We can begin with Pixar, which has produced many films over the years that I would argue contain adult elements.  [SPOILERS, HO!]  In Toy Story 2, we bear witness to “Jessie’s Song”, a montage which depicts the process of growing out of childhood, from the point of view of a discarded toy (which children may be able to understand, but with which only adults can empathize).  Finding Nemo opens with the violent death of a parent/spouse, its plot is motivated by what is essentially a kidnapping, and in the process both father and son must overcome their own fears and limitations (both physical and psychological) in order to be reunited.  The Incredibles deals with how to work through marital ennui, while including a scene in which the superhero mother tells her children, “Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren’t like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you if they get the chance.”  Toy Story 3 is arguably one of the most “adult” films ever to receive a G rating:  it includes depictions of torture, living under dictatorship, moving on from the loss of loved ones, and an incredibly moving scene in which the main characters, when faced with what appears to be inevitable doom (being burned alive in a trash incinerator), quietly hold hands and await their fate together.  The film is entirely centered around the loss of childhood:  Andy (the toys’ owner) grows up and moves on (but retains his sentimental attachment to his toys), Andy’s mother is visibly shaken by her son’s vacant room as he leaves for college, the film’s villain, Lotso, is twisted in anguish and rage over childhood abandonment, and so on.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Such sophistication is arguably best rendered by Pixar, but can be found in other such films: DreamWorks Animation Studio’s Antz neatly satirizes social class; Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Wreck-It-Ralph is a poignant treatment of heroism and self-sacrifice; Illumination Studio’s The Lorax, based on the Dr. Seuss book, fills out its run time by adding some clever satire of consumer culture and a critique of disaster capitalism, and so on.  I think it is also worth noting that even the most crowd-pleasing and least complicated films tend on the whole to at least be more comedically sophisticated (compare the Emperor’s New Groove, for example, to the slapstick in Aristocats).  Perhaps the best example of all is Pixar’s Up, which spends the first ten minutes of the film establishing the relationship between the protagonist, Carl, and his wife Ellie—a series of scenes (capped with a four and a half minute montage that spans several decades) which follows them from the day they meet as children, to their wedding, through such trials as financial difficulties and their inability to have children, and culminating in Carl somberly walking back into his house from Ellie’s funeral (if there is any doubt as to the deftness and poignancy with which this is depicted and the emotional impact it leaves, read through the comments anywhere on Youtube that this clip is posted).  The film’s plot is motivated by Carl’s desire to make good on his promise to his dead wife to get to Paradise Falls (we must assume it is initially his intent to die there or die trying), but ultimately turns on Carl striking up a paternal relationship with a neglected boy scout—it is a film that tackles the meaning of life and death with the sort of maturity and subtlety that would have been totally inconceivable in a so-called kids’ film prior to Pixar.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

To be sure, this is not to say that such movies are anywhere near as “adult” as Dog Day Afternoon or Chinatown or The French Connection.  My point is that overall they are considerably more sophisticated, in terms of both filmmaking craft as well as themes and issues, than kids’ films in years past.  What Pixar has ushered in is not merely the family friendly blockbuster.  “Pixarfication” is the bar being set so much higher for family entertainment.  While I sympathize with Boyle’s lament about an era in which truly adult films are no longer important to Hollywood, he should celebrate the fact that the Pixar generation of children has been immersed in films of considerably greater cinematic quality than would have been the case of children growing up in the 1970s and ’80s—and that the adults who go to the movies with them are seeing films that are not, in fact, utterly bereft of adult content.  Where adults may have had to suffer through kids’ films in the past, these films are now ones that adults look forward to seeing and that the whole family can enjoy (and discuss) together.  Pixarfication presents a world of joy, verve, and color about which we may very well by cynical; but it also depicts a world that is complicated, filled with genuine and relatable dangers and sorrows, and in which fortitude and resolve (and not deus ex machina such as enchanted suits of armor) are what you must have to get out of a difficult situation.

On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part One

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

On 6 May, 2013, a video clip made by French site Vodkaster.com started making the rounds. The clip features British director Danny Boyle doing press for his new film Trance. In it, Boyle testifies to what he thinks is wrong with cinema today, specifically mainstream Hollywood cinema. He calls it a “Pixarification of movies,” to pick the line that the blogosphere jumped on and used as the headline. Cinema of the 1970s was consecrated to serious artists making challenging films for mature adults. Cinema now is given over to craftspeople, often very skilled, making safe, predictable, simplistic fare for children- and, implicitly, adults treated like children; hence “Pixarification.”

In this post, I will say a few things about Boyle’s version of recent Hollywood history: how what Boyle says here is the standard story, and an expression of nostalgia for a period that wasn’t quite the paradise of artistic freedom and restless innovation it’s remembered as (not all studio output of those years is as museum-ready as some remember it being); how “adult filmmaking” (noting, as Boyle is keen to stress, we aren’t talking about porn here) survives in Hollywood today; and how we have to think more carefully about what hasn’t but also what really has changed since the 1970s if we are to understand the state of Hollywood.

Next time, my good friend Kyle Kontour will talk a little bit about another of Boyle’s claims, and how it stands as a claim about recent Hollywood: what does it mean to invoke Pixar in the context of a “dumbing down” of cinema, and an appeal to children instead of adults?

First off, the clip of Boyle’s statement is right HERE.

Now, one response to this is to point out that Millions and Slumdog Millionaire are quite a long way from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now. It’s a fair point, if a cheap shot, but I’m less interested in Boyle than in the narrative he’s recounting.

The second thing to say, then, is that this is the standard story, pretty much. From Thomas Schatz to Peter Biskind to any number of movie critics and bloggers kvetching about the “death of cinema,” we get the same narrative: the 1970s was a Golden age for genuine cinematic art in the United States- one referred to as a Hollywood Renaissance even at the time- but with the monstrous success of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood went into an irreversible decline, dumbing down its storytelling to feed mindless spectacles to the masses.

Speaking from a British perspective lends Boyle’s statements a bit of novelty: he doesn’t name Hollywood as the villain of the piece, as the origin of the great films of his youth or the dumb flicks of today, but rather comes at it as a moviegoer, using what was on down the Odeon as his jumping off point. Not strictly talking about Hollywood allows him to cast his net just wide enough to include Nicolas Roeg, a great British filmmaker who, simply because British, hasn’t benefitted from the retrospective adulation of ‘70s cinema (Roeg’s prime era) devoted to Hollywood. But even if unspecified here, in the main what Boyle is really talking about is the decline of Hollywood cinema in particular (at a stretch, popular English-language cinema). Ultimately, the story Boyle is telling is the same as always. In their pursuit of children and teenagers with disposable income, and to offset the ever-rising costs of producing and marketing blockbusters, producers have dumbed down movies, carefully steering clear of all the risks, all the maturity and seriousness that made ‘70s movies so laudable; and leaving adult filmgoers stranded. At the same time as Boyle’s comments have gotten attention, so too has Steven Soderbergh’s speech to the 2013 San Francisco Film Festival, where he bemoans the economics that have pushed cinema (by which he means auteur cinema) out of the movies (by which he means entertainment product). Both directors are making the same argument about Hollywood today, more or less- homogenization and simplification, spectacle over story, escapism over art, etc- but Soderbergh avoids the sweeping historical generalizations that Boyle perpetuates.

From the first appearances of this story until now, there have been only two major revisions. The first is that now television, of all things, has eclipsed the movies as the Serious Art Form du jour (Boyle is right to specify writers going to television, as clearly the TV being canonized today tends to embody particular sets of literary values). The other is that as time has gone on, the moronification of Hollywood has gone from a coming storm to just the way things are. Decrying the influence of Star Wars has gone from “The End Is Nigh” to “And lo, this came to pass”; from paranoia to discontented resignation.

And so: nostalgia. Since at least the mid-1990s, there’s been a wave of nostalgia for Hollywood films of the 1970s. 1970s Hollywood has become the ultimate Good Object to posit against the Bad Object of whatever is going on in studio production at any given moment, and there has been a flood of writing along these lines. If you’re a filmmaker, 1970s Hollywood has become such an accepted shorthand that, if you want to distinguish your product from others in the marketplace, you can invoke it to show you’re doing something serious, and probably rather dark. Clearly, that’s what’s going on with Boyle in this clip: implicit is that Trance is meant to be a film that combines seriousness, artistry, and genre in such a way as to recall 1970s Hollywood. Not yet having seen Trance, I can’t say how apt this is.

For this to work, of course, the discursive keynote has to be “yearning for an unrecoverable past full of golden glories,” and this in turn depends on two assumptions:

1.     the quality of studio films in the 1970s was much higher than today, and tended to seriousness and innovation

2.     studio films today are aimed at children, and so tend to simplification and immaturity, spectacle over story or character

The problem with the first is that of selectivity. Looking back on the moment, rather than living through it, we remember our cherished objects and forget how much else was out there.  In this case, we remember The French Connection and forget McQ or Freebie and the Bean or Walking Tall. We remember and wax lyrical about the films of Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Hal Ashby, but forget Irwin Allen, Tom Laughlin and Joe Camp. Yes, we got The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Nashville, Night Moves, and Chinatown, but we also got Airport 1975 and Airport ‘77, Benji, The Towering Inferno, Oh God!, and Love Story. We got M*A*S*H, but also Whiffs and S*P*Y*S.

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Let’s look at the box office, for instance: there, in 1970, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, Little Big Man, and Catch-22 are stranded in a sea of Love Story, The Aristocats, Ryan’s Daughter, and Tora! Tora! Tora! In 1971, The French Connection came in #2, but Fiddler on the Roof was #1, and Diamonds Are Forever #3. For every Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, or Clockwork Orange, there’s a Summer of ’42 or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The Godfather was the top in 1972, of course, but The Poseidon Adventure was #2 (albeit a distant second). And so it goes, year by year; in 1973, New Hollywood art-genre classics The Exorcist and American Graffiti sandwich the far more conventional The Sting. In 1974, the top 4 includes Towering Inferno and Earthquake as well as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, with The Godfather Part II coming in at #5; it’s followed by Airport 1975, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, The Longest Yard, Benji, and Herbie Rides Again. 1975’s top 10 is topped by Jaws, natch. It includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, and Three Days of the Condor, but also The Return of the Pink Panther, Funny Lady, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Etc. So in the midst of this supposed Golden Age of mature, ambitious art-genre syntheses are some of the worst films ever made in Hollywood, creaky and conservative products that the studios could have retched forth at any time in the 1950s or ‘60s. The art-genre films only thrived for a short while, too. By the time you get to the end of the decade, serious, adult films in the main have lost their box office pull. In 1978, the top 5 is made up of Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Which Way But Loose, and Heaven Can Wait, while The Deer Hunter squeaks in at #10, behind Halloween at #8 and Dawn of the Dead at #9. 1979 sees Kramer Vs. Kramer at #1 and Apocalypse Now at #4, but the only other critically notable film in the top 10 is Alien at #6.

OK, then, if the 1970s was not dominated by mature cinema for cosmopolitan adults, if it wasn’t quite the paradise of artistry that we might like to remember it being, perhaps the more crucial point is that Hollywood today doesn’t make the films for adults it clearly used to, let alone with an expectation of solid box office. It is true that in the 1970s, for a little while, serious films could do very well, encouraging producers to continue to make them until Star Wars proved a decisive influence on a return to more conservative, classical genre filmmaking oriented more to younger audiences than to adults. I’ll come back to some of the implications of that in a moment. But does it even make sense to talk at all about serious films coming out of Hollywood today, in the era of Transformers and Avengers?

Well, yes. Maybe not in the top 10, though of course I (an adult) loved The Avengers, I would happily make a case for adult themes in The Dark Knight Rises, and I think Skyfall can be thought of as adult filmmaking. But in 2012, studios also released Looper and Zero Dark Thirty (Sony); Argo, Magic Mike, and Cloud Atlas (WB); The Bourne Legacy and This Is 40 (Universal); Lincoln (Disney); and Flight and Jeff Who Lives at Home (Paramount). All of these were released under the corporate parent banner. But we also have to remember that in the 1990s, the studios started to invest in the “independent” market, forming boutique divisions to sell serious films to niche audiences. This is on the wane: WB shuttered Warner Independent Pictures, Disney no longer distributes via Miramax, etc. This has meant that indie distributors no longer compete with studios in the indie film market, but it’s also part and parcel of a trend in which the studios capture more and more of the total theatrical market with fewer films, while genuinely independent companies put out more films to compete for a piece of a smaller market share. But Universal still distributes Focus Features, which in 2012 released Moonrise Kingdom and Anna Karenina; CBS entered the game, again, with films including Seven Psychopaths; Sony Classics put out Amour, Rust and Bone, Searching for Sugar Man, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Damsels in Distress, and West of Memphis; and Fox Searchlight released Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ruby Sparks, and (not just “adult” but geriatric)The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In 2013, in fact, Fox Searchlight is distributing the new film by Danny Boyle. It’s called Trance. Surely all of these are serious films with adult concerns.

So perhaps the 1970s was not quite the era we like to remember it being, through the rosy lenses of nostalgia. Perhaps the ‘00s and ‘10s are not quite the vast wasteland that it sometimes feels like. This is not to defend Hollywood, exactly, nor even to defend Hollywood today as opposed to some mythical, prelapsarian (preLucasarian?) past. There’s no question that the ‘70s was an anomaly in terms of studio support for art cinema-inflected filmmaking. It is, rather, to question what has been lost, to achieve some specificity here. It’s not serious films, not exactly. But the fact that to look for serious films in Hollywood today takes us so quickly to their indie divisions, and away from anything coming anywhere near the box-office top 10, indicates a ghettoization of anything challenging or unconventional beyond certain set limits. You can still make your American art film with studio support, but your freedom will be dependent on keeping it within tight budgetary limits. What has been lost is any possibility of making an ambitious, art-cinematic film on a large-scale; the possibility of making a big, dark, realist epic, a film that has both ambition and breadth and scale.

Epic scale in Heaven's Gate

Epic scale in Heaven’s Gate

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Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

ApocalypseNow2

It’s on this level in particular that the 1970s can look like a heroic period, a period in which directors dreamed of making The Great American Film the way writers used to dream of writing The Great American Novel and now, we are told, people dream of creating The Great American Television Serial. The closest thing in 2012 to a film that felt like an art-cinematic epic was The Master. Made for $32 million, distributed by the Weinstein Company, The Master had an enormous intellectual fetch, but was essentially 3 people (and some extras) in a series of rooms. Apocalypse Now, by contrast, would cost over $100 million today, while Heaven’s Gate would cost between $100 and $200 million. When ambitious filmmakers must by necessity work on small canvasses or try to smuggle their concerns into a children’s adventure film (Scorsese’s Hugo) or a superhero franchise (Nolan’s Batman films) to be able to work on a large scale, clearly cinema has lost something.

Hugo

Hugo

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

...and mythic conflict.

…and mythic conflict.

As a scholar who has read any number of condemnations of contemporary Hollywood over the years, I do give Boyle some credit for focusing his critique on films we all actually think quite highly of rather than the usual suspects- Pixar rather than Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay. This allows him to avoid some clichés. But what does it mean, this opposition of serious, sophisticated, complex storytelling with simplified “family-friendly” fare? Does it actually work to use Pixar as a shorthand for films made for children instead of adults? If there hasn’t been any full-fledged Pixarification of Hollywood movies in general, has there at least been one of children’s films? If so, what has it been?

MADE-ON-DEMAND ROUND-UP! #2: Crime Classics, Old Hollywood and New!

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1. From Headquarters (Warner Archives; William Dieterle, 1933)

Bureau of Missing Persons (Warner Archives; Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

Films of the early 1930s- particularly those from Warner Brothers, it seems to me- are full of all manner of oddities and curiosities. These are two of them, films that represent an under-recognized phase in the development of the police procedural as a trans-media genre. (Whether they are unique or represent a genuine production trend is “a researchable question” as David Bordwell would put it.) They are films that anticipate not only the television police procedural, particularly the post-Hill Street Blues ensemble procedural, but even their literary antecedents, the postwar police procedural novels of Ed McBain and, later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Like so many of those, Bureau of Missing Persons is focused on a single division in a then-modern police station. Here, though, it is one without the obvious glamor of a homicide or even robbery division. The filmmakers try to offset that seeming deficit in a couple of ways.

The first is to frame it as a social problem picture in that quasi-exploitative early WB way. The film begins with a crawl revealing that

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…and promising to show us the inside story of one police unit devoted to finding them. It then alternates among four major characters, each of them strictly hierarchized in terms of narrative importance and screentime. While most of those characters don’t pursue single story threads, the division of the film between them resembles the hierarchical structure of TV episodes, the alternation between detectives calling to mind contemporary television drama’s a/b/c/etc. plots.

The “d” character does have a “d” plot: an officer played by Hugh Herbert (in an uncharacteristically straight role, though it has a comic payoff) is obsessed by one particular case, ceaselessly searching for one Gwendolyn Harris; the “c” character, though, played by the great Allen Jenkins, is seen pursuing a few lines of activity, including aiding the “a” character; the “b” character is the father-figure bureau captain, played by professional father-figure Lewis Stone; and the “a” character is Butch Saunders, played by Pat O’Brien as an arrogant, roughneck robbery cop who comes to the Bureau of Missing Persons.

Pat O'Brien

Pat O’Brien

Lewis Stone

Lewis Stone

Allen Jenkins

Allen Jenkins

Hugh Herbert

Hugh Herbert

Being the star, O’Brien’s Butch must undergo a character arc, learning to be sensitive to the public and to use his brains and not his brawn. The interaction between Butch and Capt. Webb is critical to that arc, bringing Stone’s character center-stage, where he then proceeds to provide moral lessons to everyone who comes through his office in any capacity. Shortly, though, the balance is tipped in typical classical Hollywood fashion. Butch gets a love interest, a woman who is the focus of his major case. Bette Davis’ Norma Roberts is a woman who seems to be looking for her husband, but whose case proves far more complicated.

Initially, Bureau of Missing Persons seems to be presenting a look inside the operations of the bureau as a whole, giving equal time to all characters and bouncing from case to case. Eventually, in a paradigmatically classical maneuver, it settles on one main story: the search for Norma’s husband, the developing romance between Butch and Norma, and the complications that ensue when it turns out that Norma is a fugitive in a murder case. It becomes a vehicle for O’Brien and Davis, two important Warners stars.

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If finally Bureau of Missing Persons turns into a more standard Hollywood star-driven policier, to the last it periodically alternates among its characters and a succession of minor plots to maintain some sense of the ensemble drama, analogous to the likes of Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight as well to television procedurals. Roy Del Ruth directs with a characteristic briskness, and an emphasis on character and performance that suits the material: the vividness of O’Brien, Stone, Jenkins, and Herbert in the end trumps the plot in pushing the ensemble to the fore.

The same gradual tipping towards a male/female pairing happens in From Headquarters, but for me it’s a particularly unexpected film, and a particularly fascinating example of a genuine police procedural in 1930s Hollywood, one put together in ways that are more common today. Like Bureau of Missing Persons, on one level, yes, it is a star-driven mystery, inflected with a romance subplot involving the chief detective (George Brent) on the case and his chief suspect (Margaret Lindsay), a melodrama of the sort- vaguely scandalous behavior, at least one aristocrat, the presence of the inevitable George Brent- that was pretty routine in the “pre-Code” era. On that level, it’s passably entertaining, despite the fact that its basic mystery plot turns out to be as banal and obvious as, well, George Brent.

A melodramatic moment between George Brent and Margaret Lindsay.

A melodramatic moment between George Brent and Margaret Lindsay.

That it drifts into that mode at regular intervals from about a third of the way through the film seems a sop to the marketplace (and the poster image, as reproduced on the DVD cover, above) as well as a bow to classical norms. But the other film here- and, let me underline, even more markedly than in Bureau, these are two different films that co-exist and interweave in a typically Warners brisk 64 minutes (which partly excuses the obviousness of the mystery)- is a genuine curio, a long-forgotten ancestor of CSI, likewise obsessed with forensic technology and procedure. Moreover, its focus on one station rather than one division provides opportunities to become a surprisingly ambitious, “realistic” survey of  law enforcement practice.

In fact, the melodramatic romance subplot, centering on Brent as the Lt., and Margaret Lindsay as the suspect/love interest, is in certain ways cleared up by the halfway point; romantic misunderstandings are cleared up and doubts are dispelled, though Lindsay remains an official police suspect for much more of the running time. Since Brent is convinced she’s innocent, and since this is not a film noir, her innocence is never in much doubt after that point for the audience, and to some extent this drains the mystery of any real stakes, though, again, the film is fast enough that it doesn’t matter. Too, the lack of stakes in itself is not that unusual in movie mystery plots of this period and style, which are typically more invested in the glamor of the star detectives/romantic partners. But those weren’t procedurals, or ensemble dramas; indeed, those films are typically based on puzzle-oriented detective literature, and From Headquarters would be a spectacularly bad example of a puzzle. In fact, though it does share characteristics with early literary police procedurals, authors like Freeman Wills Crofts still emphasized the puzzle. Instead, From Headquarters anticipates by some decades the emphasis on procedure for realism’s sake (including its more banal aspects) in postwar crime fiction, and in television procedurals; it’s practically an anachronism.

Like so many of those later procedural narratives, it is very much pronouncedly an ensemble piece, in important ways more so than Bureau, in that the case is solved not by one detective (as Butch single-handedly solves the case there), but by the cooperation and collaboration of all. Of course, where even commercial television procedurals play it pretty straight except for the token weirdo, as with Bureau, the cast of Warners contract players give it that specific urban flavor the studio did so well. The cast includes a number of sharp players, including Eugene Pallette as the bullish sergeant (I think it’s safe to say every film Eugene Palette appeared in was improved by his presence, for his physicality as well as his comic timing), Edward Ellis as the crusty, murder-relishing forensics investigator (who to a substantial degree drives the actual crime-solving), and Hugh Herbert playing more to type here as the comic relief bail bondsman.

The incomparable Eugene Pallette

The incomparable Eugene Pallette

Edward Ellis (here as the title character in The Thin Man)

Edward Ellis (here as the title character in The Thin Man)

These characters fill out the mystery plot but also giving us a feel for the entire police station, almost as a living organism, from the switchboard, to fingerprinting, to the pressroom (and who doesn’t love a wisecracking newshound?), to the crime lab. In fact, the film never leaves the station except for flashbacks to the night of the murder during witness interrogation scenes (that in this way it recalls so many urban dramas and theater pieces of the era helps cushion the more unusual procedural aspects). This is one of the few films of this era that must be described in terms of the concept of encyclopedic narration, more in the sense that Bordwell uses in describing art cinema than in the sense used by Edward Mendelsohn in describing Thomas Pynchon novels (64 minutes compared to the 776 pages of my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow). It truly endeavors to provide a survey of life at a police station, from its opening scene of a group of men being processed, to its owlish attention to technology: firing a bullet into a crate of cotton to check ballistics, checking fingerprints, performing autopsies. Brent’s lieutenant, Pallett’s sergeant, Ellis’ examiner, and Henry O’Neill’s inspector solve the murder of a wealthy cad only by working together, doggedly pursuing their suspect through a combination of procedures, from forensic investigation to good old-fashioned interrogation.

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William Dieterle, an underrated director in general, captures the feel of the station with a flair for realism that counters his better-known reputation for the fantastic shown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Portrait of Jennie, and, in the Warners-programmer style, at a cracking pace besides (noting that supposedly, Michael Curtiz did some uncredited work on it as well).

Having started as a point-of-view tracking shot, here the camera shifts to an objective view of a shadow on the wall to conceal what the character sees.

Having started as a point-of-view tracking shot, here the camera shifts to an objective view of a shadow on the wall to conceal what the character sees.

His Germanic sense of style is here, too: each flashback is done in a single shot, long takes with elaborate and bravura tracking movements that, reminiscent of Murnau, oscillate between point-of-view and objective views on the scene. All in all, From Headquarters is an odd and worthwhile little film that deserves a lot more recognition in the history of the police procedural than it gets.

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3. The Carey Treatment (Warner Bros. Archives; Blake Edwards, 1972)

Sure, I liked the Pink Panther movies growing up, like most kids in the ‘70s did. But since adulthood I have hated Blake Edwards. But I do like the first 2/3 or so of Experiment in Terror, a film that at least for a while manages to avoid the crude excesses, the grotesquerie and shameless mugging of Edwards’ lumbering attempts at comedy (I have a particular distaste for The Party; for many people, even non-Edwards fans, this film is defensible, I think because Edwards restrains himself a bit so as to mimic Jacques Tati- but I hate it because it makes me yearn all the more for the lightness of touch, the subtlety and playfulness, that Tati brings to similar material). So I took a chance on The Carey Treatment, another of Edwards straight thrillers.

I’ve been wanting to see it for quite a while, in fact; I love James Coburn, and (as this post itself would indicate) I always like a ‘solid whodunit’, as Leonard Maltin labels it.

Carey2

For a while, the medical mysteries (it’s based on an early novel by a pseudononymous Michael Crichton) are engaging enough, and for a scholar of that period there is much of interest here. Outside of comedy, Edwards has a chance to indulge in the kind of realist aesthetics so prevalent then, with lashings of handheld camerawork and the like.

But even in the first couple acts, Edwards never seems to get things into a groove. The pacing lurches from scene to scene, even within scenes; the film constantly pauses to allow Coburn to mack not only on the unbearably cutesy Jennifer O’Neill but also on a slutty nurse- moments after he’s been with O’Neill at a party he’s throwing. He returns to O’Neill (with paper plates of the chili he’s serving; acceptably manly fare for a party thrown by a guy) after the nurse turns him down, only to find her a little put-out by this, but he says, basically, Hey, don’t cramp my style, baby!, and Edwards seems to want us to like him for this.

Mack daddy Coburn and simp girlfriend O'Neill

Mack daddy Coburn and simp girlfriend O’Neill

He wants us to like Coburn’s Peter Carey rather a lot, in fact, given how narcissistic, aggressive, and self-righteous he is. In fact, this is one of Coburn’s more unbearable characters, and so it remains impossible to care much about the whodunit. Then, in the last act, as usual, Edwards goes right off the deep end, ending the film with a barrage of ludicrous plot twists, and hyper-violent action pitting Carey against a maniacal masseuse (!). By the time the film was over, then, I was left with little else than the cold comfort that I felt my anti-Edwards prejudices had been confirmed again.

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4. The Brink’s Job (Universal Vault Series; William Friedkin, 1978)

This is an interesting film for a couple of reasons. In itself, it’s a brisk, entertaining heist film, and if you are a fan of that subgenre, it’s a solid entry worthy of your attention, if not quite a must see. If you are a scholar of 1970s Hollywood, it exemplifies a rather perplexing trend in that decade towards a very specific kind of nostalgia, one begins in a nostalgia for the classical Hollywood of the period in which the film is set, but goes well beyond that. If you are a fan of William Friedkin, The Brink’s Job is a bit of an oddity, a film that comes after his major triumphs but still within his prime period, one that demonstrates both his strengths and his compromises with an industry in which his standing was beginning to falter.

The presumption in watching this film, in light not only of Friedkin’s 1970s films but the twists and turns of his career across that decade, is that he took it on under pressure. He had started the decade with two films back-to-back that were sizable commercial successes AND award-winning critical successes, The French Connection and The Exorcist. As with The Godfather, these were enormously popular, cultural phenomena even, while also boasting what was then a cutting-edge style drawing on art cinema techniques and strategies, notably in terms of objective realism. Taken together, these films went a long way toward demonstrating the commercial potential of a Hollywood art-genre cinema in that decade. Retrospectively, then, they are quintessential examples of the best, or at least most interesting, of what Hollywood was doing in that decade.  But after The Exorcist, he embarked what was by all accounts a nightmarish production, one that went way over-budget and over-schedule, and was at the end of all that a complete flop: the infamous Sorcerer. For those reasons, it is often seen as a landmark on the road to the end of the 1970s Hollywood auteur cinema. A remake of a French film (Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear), that is if anything artier and less commercial than the original, the commercial and critical failure of Sorcerer means it is a landmark in the historical decline of the art-genre cinema more generally. That it is a superb, masterfully crafted, idiosyncratically bleak film, on that could only have been made when and where it was, makes it ripe for a re-appraisal that is well overdue (and which it will hopefully receive after its theatrical re-release and blu-ray release later this year). After Sorcerer’s long gestation and eventual release in 1977, The Brink’s Job follows in 1978 surprisingly quickly, so quickly that it seems doubtful that Friedkin had any hand at all in initiating the project. It is, quite evidently, a work-for-hire assignment in bringing Walon Green’s script to the screen. While it doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful, it is nonetheless the case that Friedkin’s next film, Cruising (1980), was a project he was much more invested in, and on which he seems to have had a fair amount of creative freedom. When it not only bombed at the box-office but was one of the most widely reviled films of 1980, Friedkin’s career never recovered.

Compared to all the titles that immediately surround it in Friedkin’s filmography, The Brink’s Job is a distinct anomaly. The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Cruising share a controlled craftsmanship; a cool, almost Langian detachmen; and, again like Lang, a pervasive bleakness at the hearts of the worldviews they embody (in the case of The Exorcist, for instance, there’s a tension between Blatty’s sense of redemption achieved through Karras’ self-sacrifice, and Friedkin’s sense of a yawning abyss just under the surface of the everyday). The Brink’s Job hints at that kind of pessimism in Warren Oates’ boastful but cowardly demolitions expert, but otherwise the film is dominated by a fond nostalgia for it’s vision of mid-century, ethnic urban life among the working-criminal classes. It isn’t sentimental exactly, but it is suspiciously warm and boisterous, at times a cooler version of what we would get in Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs than even something like The Sting. At other times, unfortunately, it even turns into a knockabout slapstick comedy.

Slapstick in "The Brink's Job"

Slapstick in “The Brink’s Job”

The Sting remains an obvious touchstone, though: in The Brink’s Job too there’s the realist period depiction of city life and crime (in this case based on an historical incident), the earth-tones dominating the sets and costumes, the diffuse cinematography (seen throughout period films of the era in a visual attempt to signify ‘past-ness’), the jaunty score influenced by old-timey jazz and pop.

Period flavor

Period flavor

This nostalgia for ‘20s-‘50s  lifestyles and culture can be seen as a deracinated alternative to, but in some respects continuation of, the much more ambivalent sense of that period in Bonnie and Clyde (and the many, many ripoffs of and responses to that film, from Robert Altman to Roger Corman). For all the differences in form between those films, whether Thieves Like Us or The Sting and The Brink’s Job, and expressions of nostalgia like those of George Lucas’ for his boyhood pleasures in Star Wars, or his teenage years in American Graffiti, or the 1970s nostalgia for 1950s teen-culture generally, which, beyond American Graffiti, also encompassed Sha Na Na and Happy Days, these are clearly related trends. If one was going to think more about this, one might well read my friend Dan Marcus’ book Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics; one might also look at The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Friedkin’s first stab at period pictures, and for all its manic energy a far more cynical take on its subject.

If Friedkin’s rendition of the period crime comedy-drama is weightless, it is also a lot more restrained and, therefore, agreeable than most. There’s not many grounds to compare The Brink’s Job to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but if you’ll indulge me, Friedkin is the David Fincher to Walon Green’s Eric Roth. Smack in the middle of this, though, is the robbery itself. Now, this is not one of the top ten heist sequences or anything, but a Francophile like Friedkin was never going to miss the chance to do his riff on Rififi. So no, this sequence isn’t as gimmicky/innovative as the famously silent robbery in Jules Dassin’s film, but Friedkin clearly enjoys the technical challenges of staging a cinematic heist, and seems far more at home doing it than he is at anything else here. The heist itself is anything but clockwork as it proceeds for our heroes, and Friedkin makes a taut sequence out of it, one that largely dispenses with character-based humor, and consequently has both the precision and the chilliness of his other ‘70s films. The movie’s mixture of its elements is uneasy and a little unsatisfying, but it’s good fun, and worth studying if you like Friedkin, or ‘70s crime pictures, especially if they are period-set.

My hiatus

As you will have noticed if you follow this blog, I’ve effectively been on hiatus for some time, and will be for a bit longer. I’ve had a few deadlines for some projects, some of them quite exciting, and there will be more in the next few months.

When I can, though, I intend to resume the blog, with upcoming entries finally concluding the Mad Love series, continuing the Made-On-Demand Round-Ups, and dealing more with music-related subjects.

Thanks for reading; I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Mad Love: The Surrealism of the Supernatural Romantic Melodrama, Part Four

5. Art Cinema Variations, 2003-2011

Before I start, I should say that I’m especially aware of the spoiler-y nature of this entry. There were spoilers in previous entries, too, but perhaps because these films are relatively recent, and because I’ve been talking up Perfect Sense as a pleasantly surprising little film, I want to emphasize that I’m going to spoil these films for you if you haven’t already seen them: Perfect Sense in particular doesn’t make anything like as much sense as a part of this subgenre if you don’t know how it ends.

Now then.

As I’ve tried to show in previous entries, the supernatural romantic melodrama has on at least a few occasions been the basis of art cinematic variations: Orpheus and Wings of Desire are the ones I’ve mentioned, if the latter only in passing, when I wrote about City of Angels. That’s because I’d argue that Wings of Desire (unlike its Hollywood remake) is really on the borders of the supernatural romantic melodrama rather than a fully-fledged example. Damiel’s love for Marion is a central thread, but not one that dominates the film until the last half, and never in a way that is particularly melodramatic in its affect. Even if Wings of Desire is for me a peripheral case of the narrative vein I’m mining (as much as it’s also one of my favorite films), it does illustrate the basic dynamic of art cinematic variants on the supernatural romance: a more-or-less overt use of the romance plot as a primary figurative device to explore the filmmakers’ range of thematic concerns. Wings of Desire on the whole returns again and again to the public (memories, experiences, identities) versus private, and the abstract versus the concrete, and while these and other such oppositions are developed in various ways across the film, as it goes on, the Damiel/Marion relationship becomes their principal expression.

In this entry, I’m going to write about four films along an art-cinematic spectrum, from art cinema proper (radically challenging the norms of mainstream cinema) to arthouse cinema (by which I mean a niche-market cinema that makes some use of art cinematic techniques and strategies but in modified forms alongside more conventional kinds of storytelling) to Hollywood art cinema (“prestige” fare aimed at a mainstream audience but drawing on art cinema to a limited degree). The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) represents an art cinema version of the supernatural romantic melodrama; in their divergent ways The Fountain and Perfect Sense represent arthouse versions; while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a Hollywood prestige film that verges on the art cinematic, in particular in the ways that the Benjamin/Daisy relationship serves as a vehicle for a more expansive, even philosophical set of concerns.

There’s been at least one other recent-ish arthouse film that has played with the supernatural romance- Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. In the end, though, it turns out to be a Scooby-Doo version of it: after teasing the audience with the idea of a relationship between a widow and a 10 year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, it’s revealed that the actual situation is nothing of the sort (though the kid does appear to go into some sort of fugue state where he seems at moments to be genuinely convinced that he is the reincarnation of the husband, the question of how he knows so much is solved in very mundane terms). I gather that the script went through multiple drafts, and one wonders if this ending came out of those revisions; Jean-Claude Carriere is one of the credited writers, and one can easily imagine a draft by him at his most Bunuelian where the resolution would be quite different, and quite a bit more discomfiting. That’s not to say it’s an uninteresting film, though, and as a story of the intractability of grief in the face of an impending marriage, it anticipates Melancholia.

I have a somewhat limited range of experience when it comes to Jacques Rivette, a filmmaker who has always interested me in theory (based on descriptions of his films I read in James Monaco’s The New Wave when I was 12 or 13), but who only really began to fascinate me after rewatching Celine and Julie Go Boating last year (I’d seen it before, but found the idea of it more interesting than the actual film; watching it again after many years, I fell for it head over heels). Of all the nouvelle vague directors, though, Rivette has been particularly ill-served by home video formats. The bulk of the films I read about in Monaco are unavailable (L’Amour Fou, Out 1 and Out 1: Spectre; and for what it’s worth, the BFI DVD of Celine and Julie leaves a lot to be desired), while others are available only in France, sans anglais sous-titres (La Religuese, Duelle, Noirot). The most available Rivette titles are relatively recent, and most of them are still in my to-watch stack. So my perception of him, based on Paris Nous Appartient, Celine and Julie, La Belle Noiseuse, and now The Story of Marie and Julien (I saw Va Savoir too long ago to say anything about it), is still that he is one of the more forbidding new wave directors. His work is the least easily penetrated of all the Cahiers group: his films aren’t as based in genre as Truffaut or Chabrol; they’re not as flashy as JLG; and they don’t really have the same kinds of surface charms as Rohmer. He is also a filmmaker who has notably experimented with the long film, which in and of itself can be daunting for some (La Belle Noiseuse, about the making of a single painting, runs a mere four hours; the shortest film I’ve seen of his so far is 2 ½, though I know his most recent was a surprisingly brief 84 minutes; at the other end, Out 1 is just shy of 13 hours long). In their length and their reticence, their slowness to reveal themselves, they can require of viewers a kind of act of faith (reminiscent, in that sense, of watching A Brighter Summer Day): you have to trust Rivette, to go along with him in the belief that it will all pay off in the end.

That is certainly true of The Story of Marie and Julien. It opens in a park where Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) sees Marie (Emmanuelle Beart), who he met at a party a year before; he has not seen her since, but still thinks about her. This is suddenly, violently revealed to be a dream; Julien then wakes up, and sees Marie in the street. They plan to meet later, and Julien proceeds to a rendezvous with Madame X (Anne Brochet), whom he is blackmailing. Though there is a clear differentiation between “dream” and “reality” here, the effect of starting in a dream and proceeding to the extraordinary coincidence of meeting Marie is disconcerting, wrong-footing the viewer right from the start. It seems odd, too, that Julien himself doesn’t seem to know Madame X’s name, which would seem to be a prerequisite for blackmail.

Marie meets Madame X, who is the first to realize Marie’s true nature.

Very slowly, Rivette reveals more about Julien, though never exactly why he’s involved in blackmail, given that, as Madame X herself points out, he doesn’t seem that hard up for money, nor does he seem like the criminal type. What we do see is that he repairs antique clocks from the home where he leads a largely confined, solitary existence with his cat, Nevermore (another oddly disconcerting note: the cat seems, at least early in the film, to be scared of the camera, and keeps staring at it; the effect is weirdly reflexive).

Julien, Nevermore, clock.

Julien and Marie meet, and meet again, this time sleeping together, but she remains oddly elusive, disappearing the next day. When Julien tracks her down, though, she agrees to move in with him. As Julien continues to blackmail Madame X and tinker on the gears of the clocks that fill the ground floor of his house, and the relationship deepens, Marie commences to remodel a room on the top floor, for reasons that aren’t explained at first. For quite a while, in fact: for it’s first half, the film seems slow even by Rivette’s standards, spending an inordinate amount of time on a relationship between a woman whose behavior doesn’t particularly make sense, and a man who for his part remains somewhat unsympathetic (it’s hard to work up much identification with a blackmailer, and Radziwilowicz is a stolid, charmless presence here).

Julien, Marie, clocks.

Except for excursions to meet Madame X, the action is confined to Julien’s house, which across the length of the film becomes a remarkably concrete and vivid space, such that a dynamic begins to emerge between the specificity of the house (and that cat, omnipresent, with a bell around its neck that constantly jangles), the abstraction represented by the clocks, and the mystery of Marie, who inexplicably pulls away from Julien at several key moments, going into her own world.

Duration, then, seems to function in part in relation to tactility, grounding the film in the physicality of this world to establish a phenomenal context for the fantasy elements which begin gradually to take over; Rivette is, I’d suggest, underestimated as a transcendental stylist. Rivette’s negotiation of the concrete and the ephemeral is further enacted in the remarkably erotic sex scenes (apparently unprecedented for Rivette), where the couple’s lovemaking is punctuated by dialogues where they take turns narrating elaborate sexual fantasies, their minds intermingling just as their bodies are.

The increasing domination of the fantastic is aligned to a gradual shift in focus, from that of the uncomprehending Julien to Marie herself. As the film shifts from his perspective to hers, the narrative becomes not only more supernatural, but also less of a mystery and more of a melodrama. Marie is revealed not as the noir-ish femme fatale one suspected she might be, and more as the very different kind of femme fatale that she actually is. The film is divided into four chapters: “Julien”, the opening chapter, ends with Marie moving in; “Julien et Marie” ends when Marie meets and is given a letter written by Madame X’s sister, Adrienne (Bettina Kee); “Marie et Julien” reveals that Adrienne is dead, and by its end that Marie is a ghost herself; and “Marie” finally answers the central enigma: Marie is indeed a ghost, but a living and insistently physical ghost (in interview, Rivette clarified that while a ghost, Marie is anything but a “phantom”- again, that insistence on the corporeal), and in remodeling the room at the top of the house, she is transforming it into the space where she killed herself. Rivette’s fascination with theatre comes into play here: Marie is turning the room into a kind of stage (it’s never an exact replica, but key features enabling the necessary series of actions on Marie’s part are put into place) on which she can replay the scene of her death, thus enabling her to move on from the physical plane. The room is both a physical reality, and an invocation of another space existing in Marie’s psyche: here again Rivette insists on the physical yet calls forth the transcendent. Marie is both acting out one reality (bringing the story of her and Julien to a conclusion, obeying the rules of her liminal existence) and performing another (reliving the emotional memory of her death by recreating it on this stage).

The more we learn about Marie, via Julien’s investigation of her past, the more the barriers between them begin to seem insurmountable, and the more pathos this realization produces. Julien, however, cannot let go of her, and indeed tries to kill himself to join her; they struggle and Marie’s wrist is slashed, though because she is dead, she cannot bleed (this was anticipated earlier in the film when she cut herself, bloodlessly, while remodeling).

Julien tries to stop Marie from killing herself- again.

Marie has warned him that he will forget her completely unless he lets her go, and now moves her hands over her face in a “mystery gesture” (which we have seen performed by Adrienne, and is one of several invocations of mysticism in the film, including a gaelic chant by which Marie emotionally possesses Julien) which renders her invisible to Julien and erases his memory of her.

Marie and the “mystery gesture.”

He can’t figure out how or why he’s cut himself. She watches him as he sleeps, and as her tears fall on her wrist, it starts to bleed. Julien wakes up, and sees Marie, but doesn’t know that she is the woman he loved. “Give it time,” she replies. After the length of the buildup (the gradual and piecemeal exposition), after the sense of impending doom and the pathos of a seemingly insoluble melodramatic situation, it’s a remarkably romantic ending, as if in its last moments the film takes flight. For a film that asks so much patience of its viewers in the first half, the reward is unexpected (an art film with a happy ending!), almost delirious, and, for me, washed away any vestiges of my initial resistance.

That ending, in its flight into pure romance, is also the climax of the film’s invocation of the transcendent through Marie’s story (which, again, is grounded in part in the shift of narrative focus and emotional center from Julien to Marie). Seen as a film more about her story than his, his blackmail can be said to be somewhat arbitrary, signifying perhaps material pursuit generally (while also incorporating an element of appearance versus reality that suits Marie’s arc), but whose clocks, insofar as they represent the problem of order and the Ideal in the material world, remain significant. All of this, too, is against the background of the insistent materiality of the house and the corporeality of the couple. Again, Rivette’s suggestions of theatricality are crucial here; in addition to the attic room as a stage set, dialogues between Marie and Julien are determinedly un-natural, performed to emphasize their written-ness, at some moments to the point of sounding like quotations. Theater here is intertwined with the concept of ritual: the mystery gesture (and its doubly significatory power in the narrative, as an expression of or means by which Marie “possesses” Julien, and as a signifier of the mystic), the gaelic chant, the enactment of the suicide all play into and off of the film’s theatricality. As wary as I am of making any fixed interpretation of a work by a filmmaker as subtle and complex as Rivette (and, as always, I’ve not read anything else on the film yet, and my take on it could be refined or overhauled by doing so), but I will offer a read of The Story of Marie and Julien as a supernatural romantic melodrama. In the end, if we accept ritual (and theatrical performance generally) as having a fundamentally figurative quality, then the film as a whole can be said to be a ritual enacting (a stage of) Romantic Love itself: the mystery of the lover (the partiality of how much we can ever know about them), the weight of the past on the way we conduct relationships, the sense of risk and obsession, the letting go and the acceptance that preface any lasting union.

If Rivette only very gradually reveals any kind of genre dimension to The Story of Marie and Julien, in a very different way (must! make! smooth! transition!) finally Darren Aronofsky leaves the generic status of The Fountain somewhat under-determined. It blurs the boundaries between science-fiction and fantasy, and to some extent between art and arthouse cinema (though of course it is much, much less demanding than the Rivette) as it oscillates between storylines in vastly divergent times and spaces. In the end, at least some of that oscillation is contextualized as a story (one being written and read) within the story of the film- but then, too, mise-en-abyme structures are classic art cinema territory. The Fountain opens on a Conquistador (Hugh Jackman) searching for the Tree of Life as a fountain of eternal youth for the Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz), whose political position in under threat from the Inquisition.

Bald Future Tommy and the Tree.

Then it takes us to a bald man with a striking resemblance to the Conquistador, who is in a bubble with the Tree, floating in space; and finally to Tommy, a scientist, who is immediately established as the man in the bubble, but in a separate time-frame is on present-day Earth searching for a cure for cancer to save his wife, Izzie, who bears a similarly striking resemblance to the Queen. The initial disorientation that comes out of the juxtaposition of these narratives fades, to a point: the tale of the Conquistador is a story called “The Fountain” written by Izzie for Tommy (while this explains the status of the story of the conquistador, it also means that it is presented in a non-linear fashion, beginning in a flash forward to a late point in that narrative, which is only read by Tommy at a late point in the Scientist story; well into the film, he begins reading “The Fountain,” and at this point the Conquistador story is related in linear fashion). With the story, Izzie clearly means to convey to Tommy something about letting go, that she will live on in him in some way, always be with and within him even after she’s gone. Because of this, she wants Tommy to finish writing the story, but he can’t bring himself to do so. The culmination of this will take place in what is finally suggested to be the far future, with Tommy and the Tree (whose bark gives him eternal life) inside what is probably a spaceship, hurtling toward a dying star, Shebob, which for the Mayans of the Conquistador story represents the afterlife and rebirth. When Tommy accepts death as a fact, including his own, when he achieves some emotional enlightenment- when, in fact, he can let Izzie go- he can then “finish” her story, and his own.

Tommy, transcendent in the end.

Very near the end of the film, Tommy talks to Izzie’s apparition in the kind of expectation-reversing dialogue that recurs so often in these films: he says to her, “I’m going to die!” and both smile happily at this.

Tommy and Izzie.

The Tommy and Izzie storyline is the film’s center, emotionally, narratively, thematically, and melodramatically, incorporating unrestricted narration to generate pathos (Tommy hides the depths of his grief from Izzie in her last days), and a race-against-time plot (Tommy wants to use the bark from the tree to develop a cure for Izzie, but will he do so in time? He does not, but immediately after her death learns that the new solution works). It’s also the storyline in which Aronofsky most indulges his attraction to extreme emotional states; after Izzie dies, Tommy, sobbing uncontrollably, begins to tattoo himself with a fountain pen (as he will continue to do in the Bubble).

If indeed the bubble with the Tree and the bald Tommy is a spaceship, then the film is science-fiction; the Tree would still carry a suggestion of a higher power, but can be seen simply as a tree found in a rain forest that has unusual properties. But there’s never any explanation of how Tommy came to be in a Space Bubble with the Tree in the future, and while the filmmakers insisted in interviews that a spaceship could take the form of a bubble, that’s never explicit in the film itself. Indeed, the mandala-like patterns Tommy and the Tree Bubble pass through invoke the mystical as much as the cosmic.

We can, then, either take the events in the Bubble as the conclusion of an emotional drama partly enacted through the allegory of the Conquistador, or take the Bubble and the Conquistador as allegorical of Tommy’s grief over Izzie’s death. Either way, The Fountain is about Letting Go, and in this way is truly the arthouse version of Ghost- or perhaps the head movie version of Ghost. While the Tommy and Izzie narrative is engaging, ultimately it’s the visuals which distinguish the film, particularly at the Tree in the Conquistador story, and the Bubble traveling to the dying star in the future story.

The Tree as seen in the Conquistador story.

Bald Future Tommy and Izzie/The Queen.

The Bubble approaching Shebob.

As a melodramatist, which surely he is, Aronofsky makes use of hyperbolic visual spectacle for expressive ends, and The Fountain represents a very steep high-water mark of this in his work to date. Aside from the head-trip space sequences, the film as a whole is patterned around images of corridors and the movement from darkness to light, representative of Tommy’s journey to enlightenment.

Though a fundamentally small-scale story- a scientist’s wife dies, he grieves- The Fountain suggests a broader scope through the Conquistador and Space Bubble storylines. David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, likewise, oscillates between a very small story of two lovers, and the global catastrophe against which that story plays out.

Susan and Michael, Perfect Sense.

It’s a high-concept arthouse film, less radical but in the same ballpark as Suture, with a close focus on the romance and the Glasgow it takes place in, but against the backdrop of a series of inexplicable events which directs the course of the romance in such a way as to insist on its status as metaphor.

Michael (Ewen McGregor), a womanizing chef, works in a restaurant across the street from Susan’s apartment.

She (Eva Green) is a scientist working with the Centers for Disease Control who, one day, connects when he bums a cigarette from her. They will console each other and spend the night together after each is finally affected by the film’s first Global Inexplicable Event (my term, not theirs): a sudden flood of grief followed by the complete and permanent loss of the sense of smell.

Michael and Susan after their loss of smell. Or: director David Mackenzie riffing on Bergman.

This pattern is varied across the film in two ways. First, from the loss of the second sense to go onward, a third stage is interjected, such that the pattern becomes: flood of emotion –> immediate behavioral response relating to a sense or to an emotion –> loss of a sense. Each is presented in a montage with voiceover narration, carrying on from that which opens the film, which had set the scene and told us that these are “The days as we know them. The world as we imagine the world,” before events change everything. After humanity loses the sense of smell, taste is next, followed by hearing. In the second change to the pattern, each stage in the progressive senselessness of humanity will be presented as being increasingly sudden, such that the stages-of-response montages come quickly after the crisis montages. Further montages show not only humanity’s responses to the loss of each sense, but also explore all the forms those losses take: for instance, the loss of the sense of smell being less important in itself than the loss of all the memories associated with smells. Montages also show us how life goes on, how humanity adapts to the loss of each sense in turn. Michael’s restaurant is one focus of this: when smell goes, a montage shows us the kitchen staff making tastes stronger; when taste goes, they experiment with texture in their dishes instead.

In between each loss of a sense, Michael and Susan’s relationship develops in stages. They haltingly spend more time together, each negotiating the neurotic barriers they’ve erected around themselves: his fecklessness, her defensiveness. After the loss of taste, they embrace the sensual with and through each other: sex, dancing, eating. But the loss of hearing proves to be their Waterloo, and the first moment of the film where arthouse character drama is overtaken by pure melodramatic narration and affect. Loss of hearing is preceded by an explosion of anger and hostility. Chaos seems to reign, and Susan is forced to move in with Michael. At just this moment (and it’s clearly not coincidental that this happens just as they have, by default, entered the Moving In Together stage), the rage hits Michael, him before Susan. When he screams at Susan, what he says seems to confirm all her fears about him: that he doesn’t really care about her, that she is just a “set of holes” to him. Susan leaves Michael and returns to the lab. Michael, repentant, calls her and starts to leave a voicemail telling her it was just the disease, it wasn’t him yelling those horrible things at her. But this reaches Susan’s ears just as the rage hits her, and she throws away her mobile. After that, it’s too late: both have lost their sense of hearing (and with them, the film itself goes silent). Michael’s message will never reach her. In the aftermath of this, Michael tries to find her, but never manages to do so, and she never realizes that he is looking. The pathos that comes from the audience having this knowledge, but not Susan, is classically melodramatic, and, if the film works for the viewer on this level, it’s wrenching.

But at the conclusion, humanity feels a sudden rush of euphoria- “a profound appreciation of what it means to be alive,” the narrator tells us- and love. Forgetting everything but their love, Michael and Susan both try to find each other to share the moment. He cycles to her apartment; she drives to the restaurant. Thus, though they are actually painfully near each other, neither sees the other, and it seems that here at the end they might just miss each other (this is a leap, but I keep thinking here about the end of The Killer). Susan drives away as Michael runs out into the street, having seen her car from the window. But Susan has rounded the block: as Michael is looking one way, we see her car reappear in the background. They finally see and run towards each other, but as they do so, everything seems to get brighter, over-exposed. And then, just as they touch, both they and everyone on Earth loses the sense of sight. The drawing out of the suspense here- will they see each other, when we know, from the pattern the film has established, that this new flood of emotion portends another loss of a sense?- is pure melodrama. The film goes dark, just as it had gone silent when hearing was lost. We are told that Michael and Susan, embracing, can still feel each other, their arms, breath, and heartbeat. After the melodrama, then, an irony that is both sweet and just slightly bitter: we hear that as they hold onto each other that if anyone could see them (and no-one can), they would look like ordinary lovers, oblivious to all the world apart from each other. “This is how life goes on,” the narrator says. And the film ends.

As befits its subject, Perfect Sense is a deeply sensual film, concerned as it is with the relation of sense, experience, and emotion. The film as a whole centers on a play between the concrete and the abstract in connection with this dynamic. The character drama keeps us connected to the world of emotion, while the style insists on the concrete and the sensual: it’s standard arthouse realism, but with some very assertive stylization in traveling shots with a dv camera fixed to Michael’s bike, a technique that gives us a vivid sense of Michael’s experience of his world, and in the montages. The montages showing all the aspects of life humanity loses with each sense, in particular, are composed of sharp, saturated still photos that both open out the film to take in the broadest range of human experience, and suggest the ephemerality of that experience. The film asks, How would people keep going if they lost their sensual connection to the world? Michael’s boss worries that all humanity will look for from food is fat and flour, but in fact humanity is more resilient, finds other ways to heighten experience: by eating dishes in a restaurant that are all about the play of colors and textures, for instance. Finally, though, the answer we are left with is: if we lost everything else, what we would cling to would be each other. When all the senses are gone, we are left with our connection to other people. With love, in fact. The film could be as easily described as science-fiction as it can fantasy, but the inexplicability of these events, the lack of any kind of cause ever put on offer, recommends it as a supernatural romantic melodrama. The way that the film uses these inexplicable events as a way to explore the relation between brain and body, the impact of physical infirmities on emotional life (one way to think of Perfect Sense is as a allegory for what keeps us together when each of us starts falling apart), and especially as an exploration of what really matters that, in the end, affirms Love over all the things that in everyday life that may hold us back from it, renders it a quintessentially arthouse supernatural romantic melodrama. Along the way, though, it renders the world of the senses so vividly that even if I’ve spoiled you on the plot of Perfect Sense, it has a genuine sensual rush to it, and that in large part is what makes even its most abstract and metaphorical aspects effective.

That same sensual rush is in some measure the great saving grace of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I will say less about it here, as it’s certainly the best known, most widely seen film of this bunch.

As a co-production of Warner Bros. and Paramount budgeted at $150 million, starring one of the biggest male stars in contemporary cinema (Brad Pitt), helmed by one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema (David Fincher), and which as of April 2009 had made some $330 million theatrically worldwide (God only knows how much it’s made on DVD, blu-ray, streaming, and sales to cable, but at least that figure again, given the percentage of any film’s gross made up by ancillary revenues), it’s a film that doesn’t really fit comfortably into the arthouse category, let alone art cinema per se. I would argue, though, that it clearly is a Hollywood art film, just about as much as any “New Hollywood” (post-1960s) film ever has been. As an art film, it goes down very smoothly; its mostly linear, and generally objective; the narrative is clear and unambiguous. But as a blockbuster, it is unconventional, unique really, and quite overt in its… well, necromania. From first frame to last, it is in every way a film about death, in all its forms, and mortality in every way that it shapes our experience, but especially in the context of Love.

The short story, of course, is completely different. It’s often comic, if bittersweet, and it’s really about nonconformity: Benjamin just refuses to age, and therefore behave, the way everyone else does; it’s not a great story, but the ending, showing how Benjamin sees the world as his consciousness flickers away, really is. It’s disappointing, though understandable, that Fincher didn’t do more with it, that being down to a shift in viewpoint from Benjamin (Pitt) to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), such that the focus remains on a sense of loss as Benjamin grows into a child (but it’s also intriguing to imagine what a Terrence Malick might have done with it). The film, though, is most directly about the fact that every moment of Benjamin’s life foreshadows his own death, starting with his decrepitude at birth. Expected to die at any moment, of course he does not; but aging backwards, at every turn he is reminded of time, of the fact that life is fleeting, that anything at all might befall us in this world (Queenie’s mantra, and later Benjamin’s: “You never know what’s comin’ for ya”) but that we have to navigate it as best we can anyway. That we are fundamentally alone in doing so (“While everyone else was agin’, I was gettin’ younger- all alone”), yet with a knowledge of death, we must embrace what, and who, comes our way all the more. Encountering death, Benjamin is constantly reminded that at the end, we have to just let go; and this becomes his motto for life as well.

He is raised in an old-age home, death always around the corner, and in all sorts of forms (including near-death experiences: “Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightnin’ 7 times?”). His experiences with work (the crew travels from port to port) and women (except Daisy and Queenie) are all on some level transitory, random. His experience of the war is likewise random, sudden, and violent.

Benjamin and Daisy failing to connect.

Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is long delayed by their discrepancies in aging, in fact doomed from the start by them, but this is what gives Fincher, Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda leave to bathe the depiction of their time together in a golden glow, a quality that becomes the film’s chief appeal for consideration as a romantic melodrama.

Yet because the film reminds of so insistently that Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is doomed to end as it does (and apart from anything else, the circumstances of Daisy’s death, and Caroline’s reading of the diary, tell us how the relationship ends even before we meet Benjamin), the fundamental melodrama of the situation is transformed into a philosophical resignation more characteristic of art cinema- and, of course, of a film about death.

Benjamin spending a few last moments with Caroline before he leaves.

It also opens on an art-cinematically reflexive touch: Daisy relating the story of Mr. Gateau and his clock, a story that has nothing whatever to do with the plot of the film, but which functions to set the rules of the film, its intrinsic norms. That is, it doesn’t just tell us what the film is about, it tells us what it is. It works quite clearly as a story about time that parallels Benjamin’s- time moving backwards; as therefore an epigram to the film itself, which, like Mr. Gateau’s clock, makes time go backwards- for Benjamin; and as the artist’s model of the film itself in miniature. Both the film and the clock are machines that play with time, made to remind us of death and expressly to achieve an emotional response in their respective audiences. “I hope you enjoy my clock,” Gateau/Fincher say (we might add, /Eric Roth, the screenwriter).

David Fincher, hoping you’ll enjoy his clock.

But there’s a dynamic interaction of melodrama and art film here. Even if the ideas of the film are fundamentally banal- take life as it comes! (not surprising from the writer of the heinous Forrest Gump)- its emotional pull can make it effective enough as a melodrama to offset its shortcomings as art cinema. Moreover, as cinema, there’s a sensuous pull to it, as well as an emotional reticence (quite unlike the way Aronofsky would have treated this material) that counteracts, as an astringent, (most of) the lumpier conceits in the script (notable exception: the hummingbird). Fincher roots the film in a vivid, textured realism that plays against the fantastic elements in a story of a man who somehow ages backward. By grounding the drama in a recognizable world, though, that realism actually plays into the idea of Benjamin’s condition as a metaphor by which the makers intend to convey something about the human condition, a metaphor they insist we read as such. Within that realism, too, Fincher and his team craft a series of seductive, pictorially ravishing shots that impart a mordant romanticism that elegantly matches the story.

Thank you all for reading this. This is the penultimate entry in this series. There will be some delay before I post the finale; I’m about to be very, very busy for a while. The final entry in the series will come back around to the films that caught my attention in the first place: The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Adjustment Bureau. I will outline a series of issues and raise a series of questions around these films. As always, and at any time, I greatly appreciate any responses and comments you should see fit to provide; I hope to do something more with this stuff one of these days.

To be concluded.

Thanks to Adrian Martin and Matthew Ward for suggesting films for this entry.

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