Monthly Archives: May 2012

Avenging The Avengers, Part One

I have seen The Avengers twice so far, and both times it made me happier than any blockbuster has in quite some time.

Given the amount of money it’s made and that it enjoys a 69 on Metacritic, with 3 major reviewers giving it 100 and two more giving it scores in the 90s, it might seem churlish to spend any time criticizing its critics (like those fans of The Dark Knight who were indignant that Armond White brought down its Rotten Tomatoes rating, even though at this point White isn’t worth taking seriously enough to bother with). Of course, the Samuel L. Jackson/A.O. Scott Incident makes it worse: if responding to critics makes even SLJ seem silly, then it’s probably not going to be a very good look for anyone (though, granted, it would be worse if I had been paid millions of dollars to be in the movie).

I’m going to do it anyway, though, not so much out of fanboy dudgeon as to tease out a few issues around the film and its reception.  In doing so, I’m going to bring up some points raised not just by reviewers, but also by friends I’ve spoken about the movie with, namely my friend Kyle. Kyle is not at all hostile to the film- he quite liked it overall- but he raises questions about the position of these films with relation to realism and fantasy that are worth taking a moment to think about. I am also going to tease out a few more issues based on my reactions to it as a reader of superhero comics and as an observer of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

In this first post on The Avengers, I want to address issues around fantasy and reality in the fictional mode of the superhero film, drawing on my ongoing conversations with Kyle. In the second post, I will look more closely at critical response to The Avengers, and end by pointing to a few things about it that I don’t think have received enough attention yet. So with all the usual warnings about SPOILERS being AHEAD (not very specific ones, I don’t think) out of the way, let’s start with the realist, the fantastic, and…

Fantasy/Reality/Spandex, or, Crawdads Over Manhattan!

Kyle quite liked The Avengers, as I say, but he also had some issues with it in terms of the plausibility of the way its central conflicts were played out; at least some of where he is coming from I suspect has to do with his research on videogames and the military-entertainment establishment, which has fostered an interest in military tactics- an unhealthy one, I’d argue, after seeing how distracted he got by tactics, or the lack thereof, in this case.

In Kyle’s defense, his objections aren’t quite so silly as, say, scoffing at the idea of a man who turns into an invulnerable green rage monster.  They are more to do with how conflict is constructed and played out in the genre- not just superhero films, but franchise blockbusters in general; specifically, what he sees as certain weaknesses in the way the central conflict plays out. These are to do with the choice of antagonists; specifically, Kyle objects to the fact that the villains seem to be “depicted in the most idiotic way imaginable.” He’s not talking about Loki, he’s talking about the armies of interchangeable goons, the “entirely killable shock troops of apparently low intelligence” zooming about randomly shooting at people. Is this the best plan they can come up with, Kyle asks: “kill off all 7 billion humans by zapping them 3-4 at a time?” Why don’t these invaders try out some proper tactics- cutting off communication, say, or taking some minimal steps to disable any human response before it can begin, striking at some seat of power rather than zapping passersby?

In other words, Kyle asks, why are the villains so weak? Surely if the villains were stronger, so the conflict would be stronger, the threat to All of Planet Earth! scarier, the suspense more engaging. How can such idiotic invaders be truly threatening, he asks? And if they aren’t, if we don’t feel Earth is properly imperiled, how can we properly be awed by the prowess of our heroes? If the invaders are so unsophisticated in their battle plans, why do we even need Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™? Why can’t a regular old run-of-the-mill battalion or two do the trick? For him, the movie cheats its way around this by having the military be extra-ineffectual: Why is it ONLY the Black Widow’s bullets work, not those of any of the police or National Guard?  In fact, Kyle says, “contemporary hardware would be able to deal a pretty hefty blow to these invaders, even the crustaceans. Mind you, Manhattan would be demolished. But Earth would probably fare just fine.” The Avengers, though, are meant to represent, and be capable of, more; they are “Earth’s last hope- the only thing standing in the way of annihilation and/or slavery. So if the enemy doesn’t pose that kind of threat, then the importance and (ultimately) awesomeness of the Avengers is diminished.”

In one way, this is a fair point: what Kyle is suggesting would at least make for an interesting variation on this sort of narrative. If the military were shown to be highly competent in their response to the invaders, and were still overwhelmed, then the case for the Avenger Initiative is made all the more persuasively. It will be interesting to see how Joss Whedon or whoever ends up writing the sequel manages to deal with what from the outset seems like a very similar kind of threat (from Thanos, Marvel’s blatant Darkseid ripoff- he’s the big scary dude smiling in the end credits). At the same time, of course, one might also respond in this way: Write yer own damn movie! This film had quite enough to accomplish in its 2.5 hours without getting into any cat and mouse thrust and parry on the part of the heroes and villains- it had to bring that team together in the first place, to draw out the conflicts among them but also give them a credible reason to work together. Indeed, as in any team narrative from The Dirty Dozen to Friday Night Lights, the central conflicts are really within and between the members of that team. That has certainly always been true in the comic: fundamental ideological conflicts between team members is what powers the Justice League (recent writers have highlighted deep divisions between the worldviews and approaches of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, in particular) as well as some iterations of The Avengers (see for example the Marvel Civil War storyline of a few years back, where Captain America and Iron Man ended up on opposing sides in a conflict over the Superhuman Registration Act; one mini-series playing out this storyline was called Avengers Disassembled). This is not only the nature of these narratives, it is where their potential power lays: in allegorizing the ways that groups where the members all share basic goals must nonetheless always negotiate and renegotiate what unites and what divides them. There is room in there for nuances and complexities that narratives about conflicts between outright foes cannot incorporate. There are a lot of resonances to this premise, particularly around the ways in which it allows for an exploration of family dynamics; I’ll come back to this in part 2.

But Kyle is also touching on a larger issue here, because his argument is that live-action comic book movies are nodding to realism while continuing to operate on the most blatantly fantastic comic book logic, a logic that is never much bothered about the credibility or plausibility of the threat. For Kyle, this is having it both ways, and in the end, effective fiction has to choose one or the other. The retort that superhero fiction has never shown any inclination to do so before may not be enough; a problem is a problem, maybe, whether its in the source material or no. But I would go further: I would say that this is the power of the genre. Yes, superhero narratives, as a genre, have always had contemporary urban life as nearly central to its iconography as men in capes, and so the realism/fantasy binary has always been in its DNA. This might be a contradiction, but on the level of form it’s the central contradiction the genre negotiates, just as Structuralist critics argue that genres exist as rituals to negotiate ideological contradictions in a given culture (law and order versus individualism and the struggle for material advancement in the gangster film, for instance: both valued in the culture but hopelessly at odds).

That constant mediation between realism and fantasy is why the superhero form has established a space in which fantasy can operate in the midst of everyday life. Stories keep one foot in relatable experience, yet the fantasy components allow for broad figurative strokes that can render that experience in vivid metaphorical terms, melodramatic terms that render not just specific anxieties but the subjective, life-and-death emotional experience of them. It is far too simple to read these simply as stories about wish-fulfillment, adolescent wish-fulfillment at that, as those unfamiliar with them tend to assume. Indeed, as the genre has matured (along with the aging of its readership), whatever psychic struggles a given hero experiences has taken center-stage because exploring those is more narratively productive, more engaging to long-time readers, and more resonant with a wider range of life-experiences than wishing you were strong enough not to have to give your lunch money to the bully. In fact, the form embodies melodramatic structures that not only allow superhero comics to deal with specific thematic concerns in specific storylines, but that enables the superhero narrative itself to allegorize aspects of the experience of contemporary life: speed, technology, alienation, sociality, power, etc. This is not only what allows ambitious writers of all sorts to impart depth to their tales of the spandex-clad, but also what gives the superhero story an inherent and powerful surrealism (people like Grant Morrison really push this aspect of it). Nor is any of this specific to the comic book as opposed to the comic book movie; for one thing, given the nature and scale of the events on display in The Avengers, I would argue that Joss Whedon is quite conscious of that surrealism, and most certainly that figurative dimension. One gratifying aspect to the success of the superhero movie for a longtime geek like myself is to see how widely these narratives can resonate.

None of that is to say that the edifice would collapse if writers paid more fealty to military tactics, admittedly. But as in fantasy, it isn’t just that there is a ready alibi to any contraventions of reality the writer feels suits the narrative in any given moment- although that too- but also that the strength of the superhero genre is that it can bypass such details (for details they are) to get to the heart of whatever matter is in front of it. From a dramatic point-of-view, its true that more smart villains (as opposed to smarter villains) would be a twist. For his part, Kyle is willing to take on board the idea that the genre is built around negotiating fantasy and reality, and that therefore a certain level of verisimilitude and detail is left aside; he maintains that what is specifically being ignored in this instance depletes the potency of both the bad guys and the good guys.

For me, though, at the end of the day, if you are second-guessing the hordes of outer-space chariot-riding skull-faced goons in The Avengers, you might be paying attention to the wrong thing- even if its not the fact of them but the fine-grained specifics of what they’re up to.  If you run out of subtext to think about in the battle scenes, you could pay attention to the style- the emphasis on spectacle and the interplay of the realist and fantastic components give filmmaker a tremendous amount of room to experiment with visual style. Or just look at the surrealism of the mise-en-scène, as enabled by the fantasy mode: you are watching a city where enormous crustaceans are swimming through the air. Embrace the defamiliarization.

Kyle, of course, isn’t convinced, and the question he asks is still an important one: “what is the EMOTIONAL raison d’etre of a film like [this] one? And does it accomplish this through amping up the fantastical, or by grounding it?” Neither, exactly, I say: instead by threading the needle between the fantastical and the grounded. How firmly it sutures you will vary, though, and in the next post I will talk about some critical responses to The Avengers from some awfully resistant viewers.

To be continued.

Notes on the ‘Golden Age’ English Detective Story, Part 1 “Cozy”- An Introduction

The first in an ongoing series of indefinite number

Life Traumas and Comfort Lit

There is a pattern I’ve noticed in my life. It’s one that for a long time I was not at all aware of, but now that I am, I follow that pattern quite consciously, if not self-consciously. It’s this: whenever I am going through some major trauma or life-change, I immediately gravitate to the security of detective fiction. Crime fiction as such won’t do: Elmore Leonard would be far too chaotic, Jim Thompson far too bleak. There has to be a detective bringing order to the chaos, and preferably one that is him- or herself not too deeply affected by that chaos; this rules out quite a lot of contemporary detective fiction. In the context of any chaotic moment in my life, any moment where I seem to be out of control, the effortless authority of the Master Detective is very attractive. The way they impose order on the upheaval resulting in, and from, the murder; the way they bring logic and reason to the emotional and physical violence of the act of murder, and to the scattered array of evidence they sift through: all this is profoundly, almost viscerally appealing to me when my life has been thrown upside down.

Consequently, then, in such times I am most attracted to ‘classic’ detective fiction, particularly those writers who emerged in pre-WWII England, and the American writers who copied them (not Hammett or Chandler, then, so much as Rex Stout). Part of why it makes such good comfort food is that I grew up on it: along with Ian Fleming, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving, Dorothy L. Sayers and Edmund Crispin were two of my favorite novelists when I was a child. That’s a bonus, but ultimately it’s the smooth surfaces, the elegant, clean writing, the limits put on emotional expression, and the emphasis on the cerebral, and specifically on problem-solving, that appeals to me, that is both satisfying and emotionally reassuring.

Now, you may notice that this blog has been inactive recently. There has been a lot going on here at Otago, first with the school year starting up, and then with PBRF. Then, at the end of March, I ended up in the hospital, with a condition that easily could have been fatal, and even more easily could have left me disabled in certain ways (but has and will not, I assure you). I had three separate surgeries, and ended up staying in the ward for just two days shy of three weeks. When I got home, I spent the next two weeks in bed before getting back to work full-time. Until a few days ago, I was receiving nursing care every day; now it’s every other day, and I expect to be seeing the nurses for another month at least. This is because I have an enormous open wound that is gradually healing shut, and that wound continues to make it difficult to work: this is the first time I have been able to get any writing done. Even this I am doing in bed because I am still unable to sit in a chair for long periods of time (so I’m trying to develop new working habits).

Me, writing this post.

When I was in the hospital, with a problem I expected to be sorted out in a day at the most but which was even then spiraling out of control, I had no TV in my room (and the one at the end of the hallway only got 2 channels); I had no laptop (and no wifi anyway); I had no iPod or iPad or iPhone or iAnything to distract me or amuse me or keep me in touch with the world. I even had to borrow a mobile phone from a friend so I could stay connected to anyone and anything at all. What I needed most of all were books: cheap (pointless to steal, easy to replace), easy to handle no matter how uncomfortable your position, easy to get, and endlessly and totally absorbing. Stuck in the hospital like that, escape was all that I cared about, and books do that for me maybe more even than film. I have no-one at home to bring me the books I had lined up by my bedside, and even if I did, those weren’t calling to me. What to do? What I ended up doing was asking my good friend the intrepid Sally Milner to go to the nearest used-book store to get me anything she could find by Conan Doyle and Christie. Despite reading Sayers, I had never read Christie, so anything Sally Milner, Book Gal could find would be good. The same, perhaps even more remarkably, goes for the Holmes stories, despite having read not one but two separate books both called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. (It’s my natural orneriness, I guess, that I went for the obscure or second-tier first.) In the end, Sally brought me two Conan Doyle books, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, one Christie, Dead Man’s Folly, and a Ngaio Marsh, Dead Water. Maybe it was the trauma, maybe it was the desperation of being in the hospital, maybe it was that I only had these two things to read, but she got me hooked all over again. Reading those books, and then chatting with her and my good friend Dorinda Hartmann (like Sally, a very perceptive reader, and even better-versed in the sub-genre) about them, and about English mysteries of the ‘Golden Age’ in general, brought up some things that had been on my mind for a while.

Snobbery: in the books & on the books

My experience of these books as mental comfort food jibes with their literary nickname, the ‘Cozy’, well enough. I cannot deny that a lot of their appeal is that on some level they are very reassuring books. But to too many commentators, the signified of ‘cozy’ here is a pervasive and nauseating twee-ness. Male writers of mysteries, like Raymond Chandler, and commentators on them, from Edmund Wilson to Julian Symons, adopt a stance to them that is patronizing at best and outright insulting at worst. Theirs is, essentially, the same attitude that a music fan might encounter perusing rock critics talking about pop, and for the same reasons. Not only are these books disposable, lightweight, substance-free, unchallenging, escapist, not only do they present a sanitized vision of life, but of course they do, because they are written by and for women. The readers of these books, and sometimes even the writers of them, are broadly painted as Jean Teasdales, a Miss Marple in their soft moist hands as they sip sweet milky tea while curled up on the couch surrounded by their cats. Just as rock is serious, artful, and masculine, as opposed to pop which is disposable, empty-headed, and feminine, so Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Cain and Macdonald are granted artistic legitimacy in a way that is denied to Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey. The likes of Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, and Edmund Crispin, important male writers of mid-century British detective fiction, aren’t enough to offset the feminization of the British mystery so railed at by the likes of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) in the introduction to his Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. For one thing, Innes and Crispin are self-consciously comic and playful, overtly not-to-be-taken-seriously; Symons labeled them ‘farceurs’. Too, unlike the women, all three men wrote mysteries under pseudonyms so they could keep their reputations at mystery writers at one remove from their more ‘serious’ endeavors (Innes was actually J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford don; Crispin was Bruce Montgomery, Oxford graduate, composer, and music teacher; Blake was Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel, and Poet Laureate). This suggests they internalized some version of the prevailing prejudices against detective novels in general, and perhaps their chosen form of it in particular. In this, they are much like the American critic Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote mysteries as S.S. Van Dine, and was for a time the foremost American equivalent to the British writers; and Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote as Ellery Queen. John Dickson Carr, another American-born proponent of this school of mystery, was never taken very seriously, partly because he was ludicrously prolific. As for the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, roughly a contemporary of Christie et. al., well, his books were about a policeman, and anyway were far more rooted in procedure (and manly things, like trains!), so he simply could be excepted.

Leaving to one side this decidedly patriarchal discourse, there are other prejudices underlying the aspersions case at the ‘Golden Age’ British mystery which are harder to dismiss. For one, the books do show a pervasive xenophobia; the killer may not always be Johnny Foreigner, but J.F. is always suspected, and voicing such suspicions always seems to be perfectly socially acceptable. Most damagingly, however, there is the matter of class. There’s no getting around the fact that these writers, to a woman, characteristically wrote about the aristocracy, and about the middle class though this is not so widely recognized. If the working class made an appearance they tended either to be criminals or otherwise disreputable in some way (not the killer, though, perhaps because that would require too much ingenuity on their part, or even point up a degree of class conflict not to be admitted here); or loyal but dull-witted servants, complete with exaggerated renderings of accents (whereas everyone else, upper class and middle, speak ‘normally’), as in “I told milady as ‘ow that bounder shouldn’t of been ‘ired. ‘E’s not a proper Englishman, you know! I never trusts them foreigners!” Against this, the American innovation of broadening the scope of the class backgrounds and social worlds rendered in the crime story really does seem salutary. Given the political orientation of the academy and arts journalism, the notion that the British novels are hopelessly conservative has become a widespread source of discredit.

Of course, the authors themselves- Christie and Sayers certainly- tended to be politically and socially conservative, but whether that applies to the books is debatable (for instance, Christopher Hitchens reported Christie’s anti-Semitism, but her killers were never Jewish). The books certainly don’t explore class, and most of the detectives seem comfortable at least if they’re not aristos themselves (not all: Miss Marple was always on a fixed income, and the reader is kept aware of her restricted circumstances).

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey

Peter Davison as Albert Campion

But I’m not convinced this makes them univocally conservative (frankly, if there’s one canard of leftist criticism that drives me insane, its that to not talk about a given ‘problem’ in your book is to suggest it doesn’t exist). This is because the books most certainly are nowhere near as fluffy or as divorced from reality as is usually suggested.

Darkness visible

I can’t speak to all of them yet, but I can say that both Allingham as an author, and Campion as a character, reputedly grew progressively more serious across their careers. Marsh’s Dead Water, about the mixed motives at play in a town that has embraced a newly-acquired reputation for the healing properties of its spring, has an almost shockingly cynical, desolate undertow (regarding some characters at least). Sayers’ novels show a keen if sometimes oblique awareness of emotional pain and psychological damage, through the wartime past of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. So far in my reading, Christie has proved the darkest of the bunch, possessed of a bleak view of human nature and motives famously attributed to her 1926 discovery of her first husband’s infidelity, and their 1928 divorce. In the Marple novels, this comes out in Miss Jane’s awareness of the skeletons in every closet anywhere in the vicinity of her tiny, seemingly-idyllic village. Poirot himself may be a bit more of a continental romantic than Miss Marple, but the crimes he investigates betray no less vividly Christie’s sense of unease, the ugliness she finds in the plushest, most glamorous settings and the most superficially respectable people.

I’m not claiming this is a class critique in disguise, but it does present at least as dark and penetrating a picture of human vice and venality as anything in Hammett or Chandler; indeed, I’m prepared to argue more so. When those writers take us into the underworld, we find exactly what we expect, but Christie reveals to us that same ugliness in the most outwardly-safe and insulated worlds. Such ugliness comes not from external pressures, or outsiders penetrating the inner sancta, but from inside the hearts and minds of those who reside in that world, from the flaws built into the human character. It is often pointed out that in each book, the evil of the killer is seen as aberrant, whereas in Hammett and Chandler it is an inevitable cost of the criminal’s pursuit of wealth; but when you add up book after book, the outwardly-respectable/inwardly-murderous population of Christie’s world grows to such a proportion that the darkness undergirding that world becomes increasingly vivid, unmistakable in fact. I would suggest that there are points of comparison here between Christie et. al. and Alfred Hitchcock. In his entry on Hitchcock in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris writes this:

“Hitchcock understands, as his detractors do not, the crucial function of counterpoint in the cinema. You cannot commit a murder in a haunted house or dark alley, and make a meaningful statement to the audience. The spectators simply withdraw from those bizarre settings, and let the décor dictate the action. It is not Us up there on the screen but some play actors trying to be sinister. However, when murder is committed in a gleamingly sanitary model bathroom during a cleansing shower, the incursion of evil into our well-laundered existence becomes intolerable. We may laugh nervously or snort disgustedly, but we shall never be quite so complacent again. Hitchcock’s repeated invasions of everyday life with the most outrageous melodramatic devices have shaken the foundations of the facile humanism that insists that people are good, and only systems evil, as if the systems themselves were not functions of human experience.”

Indeed. And so, arguably, it is also with Christie. Is it so with the other great figures of the Golden Age British detective novel as well? What are those writers trying to do besides entertain? Given that entertainment is itself frequently discounted by critics despite the considerable artfulness often employed to that end, there is much to say about why and how these mysteries are still able to provide so much pleasure to so many readers. There is also much more to say about how this fiction is represented, not only in studies of the form, but also in film and television. Adaptations present their own particular take on these narratives, but the authoring of the work has itself been narrativized in the likes of Agatha and the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp”.

My interest in this right now has a few tributaries: an ongoing desire for comfort lit due not only to my recent traumas but also to the fact that this is in general a bit of a transitional period for me in my life (long story); my resentment of the prejudices underpinning the standard critical accounts of the ‘Cozy’, a resentment of a sort that seems to spark quite a lot of my writing, come to think of it; and just by the fact that this seems like a fun thing to think and write about, as an intellectual project quite different from my current work projects. So this is the first of a series of blogs on this subject. It won’t be my exclusive topic- for one thing, most of the time I’ll be posting after I’ve read not one but a group of books and am ready to offer observations on them, or just in general when I have new things to say- but it will be an ongoing one for the next while. Reader, I hope you enjoy this series of posts, and that they get some good conversations going both online and off.