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.

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

4. Genealogy 3: Television

Television is a bit tricky to try to account for here. The only examples of the supernatural romantic melodrama I’ve been able to think of are on American television, where the lack of closure that’s a consequence of the production model even in cable makes sustaining a romantic melodrama difficult. Certainly in broadcast television, producing 22 episodes a season means that an exclusive focus on a single melodramatic plotline in a filmic sense is impossible. Either that plotline would quickly grow tedious without the variety provided by other stories, vying with the melodrama plot for screentime, and ultimately vitiating the emotional intensity film is able to generate through its singularity and intensity of focus; or the melodrama plot must be resolved, and so its centrality to the series abandoned. Largely because of this, most television series that work in this terrain at all do so only in part. They end up as far more mixed narratives as wholes, conglomerations of elements from across melodrama and fantasy, rarely if ever settling into one singular narrative or generic mode- or at least, not one with the specificity of the supernatural romantic melodrama.

Though supernatural romances were certainly important to Bewitched (1964-1972) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970), the first melodramatic treatment of the supernatural on American television must surely be Dark Shadows; yet as a soap opera that ran for 1,225 episodes over five years (1966-1971), one wouldn’t expect it to have spent that much time on a single plotline. I don’t know how much of it I’ve seen- 30 at the most, I’d think- but I can’t recall anything from those I saw that has much to do with the kinds of narratives I’m talking about. That said, the resemblance-to-lost-love aspect of the Dracula story (so focal to Coppola’s version in particular) appears to have been replayed here as Barnabas’ fixation on a waitress, Maggie, who resembles lost-love Josette.

Catherine and Vincent in Beauty and the Beast

So the first genuine supernatural romantic melodrama on American screens, as far as I can tell, is Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990). While I can remember its existence, remember even that it got good notices at least at first, I can’t recall ever having seen a single episode. I am, then, wholly dependent on Teh Internets for whatever I can say about it; luckily, since Teh Internets is never wrong, I can speak with total confidence, secure in the knowledge that all the information on it has been subjected to rigorous peer review and is therefore wholly reliable.

The economic demands placed on American television- to fill out long seasons, to sustain a show over several seasons with no definite resolution in sight, to remain accessible to new viewers- means that most shows that engage in sustained serial narration of necessity fit in episodic storytelling alongside it. A lot more, and, y’know, actual research would be needed on my part to be definitive here, but from what I can tell, the only real seriality in Beauty and the Beast concerns the central relationship itself, the premise for the show, which forms a narrative hub from which weekly plotlines developed. A lawyer, Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) is attacked in Central Park. Left for dead, she is found by Vincent (Ron Perlman), the titular beast, who shows her a whole community of underground-dwelling outsiders living under the city. When she heals and returns to the above-ground world, she takes up self-defense, and takes a job as an assistant district attorney to go after the kinds of criminals who nearly killed her. Against the backdrop of a growing attachment between Catherine and Vincent, the show seems to have been a crime drama as much as a romance: every week, Catherine going after a new villain, and Vincent saving her from them when things get dicey. A given episode, or run of them, could be character-oriented, but routine crime-drama plots were always how the show sustained itself. Then too, in the third season Linda Hamilton got pregnant, and had to be written off. Catherine was violently killed; Vincent went into mourning; a female profiler for the police department investigating Catherine’s death replaced her. With ratings already in decline, the hole left by the abrupt end of the central relationship that had fueled the show meant that it was soon canceled.

Buffy and Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Almost ever contemporary televisual iteration of the supernatural romantic melodrama since follows the model of, and is profoundly influenced by, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). It’s the 800 lb. gorilla of the supernatural romantic melodrama on TV. In transforming the property from a mediocre film he had written into one of the canonical TV shows of its era, Joss Whedon also changed it from a coming-of-age comedy/horror story to a melodrama/horror story with comedy relief. The key relationship here, for my purposes, is of course that of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz), the ‘good’ vampire she meets in the first episode and soon falls in love with. Whedon pulls a masterstroke when Buffy and Angel consummate their relationship, only to have Angel fall prey to a spell that means that if he experiences total happiness, he will lose his soul.

Fan art, including dialogue, of the aftermath of Buffy and Angel’s sexual consummation.

This is exactly what happens, and as Whedon plays this out, he achieves his most perfect genre synthesis: the horror storyline that develops becomes an ideal metaphorical vehicle for playing out the angst of adolescent love, the fears of a teenage girl who has given her all to a man who then, lacking a soul, cruelly betrays her.  Throughout the series, the horror functions, thematically, to figuratively represent the trials of a young (white, middle-class) woman growing up in America, just as Elsaesser theorized melodramatic conventions work to figuratively represent “structures of experience.”

The above happens in the middle of season 2. At the end of the season, Buffy must kill Angel- more precisely, send him to Hell- to stop his resurrection of a demon who will destroy the world, but as it happens she does so at the exact moment his soul is restored to him through another spell. Angel returns to Buffy the next season, but they can never be together again, lest he again lose his soul. Finally, after season 3, Angel gets his own spin-off; in season 4, Buffy goes to college; and there, she meets Riley, who is very much human. In season 6, Buffy carries on an intermittent sexual relationship with Spike, a not-very-good vampire; in season 7, Spike gets his soul back, and their relationship progresses, but as a subplot. After season 2, Buffy is never again so centrally a supernatural romantic melodrama; certainly that kind of melodrama never really leaves the show entirely- we can see it in Buffy/Spike, Xander/Anya, and Willow/Tara- but all those are subplots.

Angst.

Nonetheless, the power of the Buffy/Angel relationship is formative for later supernatural romances on TV. It’s at the core of the Sookie (Anna Paquin)/Bill (Stephen Moyer) relationship on True Blood (2008-present), which I gather has taken a number of turns since season 1, some involving Sookie and Eric (Stellan Skarsgard’s son).

Bill and Sookie, True Blood

I wouldn’t know; season 1 took a while to click for me, and offered little incentive to return, which I never did. As well, at least the first season of True Blood is on some level as much a satire as a melodrama; where Whedon used horror as a vehicle for a bildungsroman, Alan Ball used vampires as stand-ins for homosexuals in a parody/critique of Southern American attitudes to sexuality. Buffy/Angel was a major influence on the romance storylines on Charmed (1998-2006), too. One witch sister, Piper (Holly Marie Combs), falls in love with Leo (Brian Krause), an angel (basically; in the parlance of the show, a “whitelighter,” a guardian of the realm of magic), and complications ensue; another, Phoebe (Alyssa Milano), falls in love with Cole (Julian McMahon), a demon, and complications ensue.

Piper and Leo, Charmed

Phoebe and Cole, Charmed

At various times, Cole and Leo change from what they are to human and back again, with the attendant consequences for the relationships in question; more complications, more ensuing. Also, there’s a show called The Vampire Diaries. I gather it’s a sort of cross between Buffy and a sanitized True Blood. That’s all I know, and, until/unless forced to watch it, all I’m ever likely to know about it. I have no idea if there’s been a sustained romance plot on Supernatural, and likewise don’t really care that much one way or the other, though I do know defenders of the show. Most recently, Once Upon a Time (2011-) mines this fantasy/melodrama vein, premised as it is on fairy tale characters stuck with no memory of who they are because the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) cast a spell out of her jealousy of the relationship between Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas); now all living in our world, the Queen/Mayor continues to manipulate events to ensure that they stay apart.

Snow White and Prince Charming, Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time’s first half-dozen episodes or so demonstrate the potential pitfalls of supernatural romantic melodrama on TV; in that time, it failed to establish any other storyline as central as the Snow/Prince/Queen triangle (the mother/daughter stuff between Snow White and Emma, Jennifer Morrison, never seemed to come center stage), and because too much progression too quickly in that triangle would affect the entire premise of the show, nothing ever seemed to develop at all. The resulting stasis- every step forward for Emma and Snow was matched by one step backward at the hands of the Queen- was both boring and frustrating for me, and I dropped out quickly. Compared to Whedon’s narrative prolifigacy on Buffy, where at some points he seemed to be burning up storylines with unfeasible, inadvisable speed, as if daring himself not to run out of ideas, and for viewers it felt at times like a high-wire act, Once Upon a Time seems too afraid of using up what few ideas it has, and so refuses to dispense with a single one.

If Buffy inspired its own wave of supernatural melodramas, the comic playfulness of Buffy (and, to a lesser extent, Angel) can be felt as an influence on shows like Wonderfalls (2004), Pushing Daisies (2007-2009), Dead Like Me (2003-2004; it comes highly recommended, but I haven’t seen it yet), and Reaper (2007-2009), which play supernatural threats, and romantic barriers, as much or more for laughs than pathos. In Wonderfalls, Jaye Tyler’s (Caroline Dhavernas) newly acquired ability to hear voices that tell her to intercede in a given chain of events around her to effect a positive outcome (a different set of guest characters, events, and voices every week) certainly complicates her love life, but circumstantially; that is to say, there is not a supernatural barrier as such to her experiencing romance with her crush-object Eric (Tyron Leitso). Sam’s (Bret Harrison) responsibilities as a Grim Reaper on Reaper certainly get in the way of his romance with Andi (Missy Peregrym), but no differently than any other job that is both time-consuming and difficult to explain to your partner (Dead Like Me is also about Grim Reapers, I gather).

Chuck and Ned, Pushing Daisies

Of this set, Pushing Daisies is the most interesting by far, and the most melodramatic. It’s also the richest, most artistically successful show to date by its creator and executive producer, Bryan Fuller- whose previous credits include Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, but who this time ran the show for a full two years (Dead Like Me ran 2 seasons, but Fuller left after 5 episodes due to ‘creative differences’). Ned (Lee Pace) has the ability to touch dead things, and bring them back to life. This comes with two major caveats: if he touches the formerly-dead thing again, it dies forever; if he doesn’t do so within one minute, something else in the vicinity will die to keep the cosmic ledger balanced. He discovered this ability as a child: when his mother died, he brought her back to life; because he didn’t touch her again within the allotted time, the father of neighbor girl/childhood sweetheart Charlotte “Chuck” Charles died instead; but then, having touched her again later, Ned’s mother died after all, and for good.  Now running a pie shop (his mother was baking a pie when she died the first time; but one practical benefit of Ned’s ability is that he buys rotten fruit cheap and makes them fresh again), Ned has also fallen in with a private detective, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride); Ned brings dead people back to life, he and Emerson ask them who killed them, Ned touches them again, and then he and Emerson go collect the reward. One day, Ned hears of the murder of “Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles” (Anna Friel) on a cruise ship (a supposedly fun thing she’ll never do again); and indeed, she is Ned’s Chuck, years later and all grown up. When he and Emerson go to revive her and find out who did her in (she doesn’t know, it turns out), Ned can’t bring himself to “kill” her again. They fall in love (Ned always loved her, of course, but Chuck quickly falls for him, too), they even live together, but can never touch for fear Chuck will be no more; often, this is played for comedy, but from episode to episode, the key note is pathos, as they search for and find ways to be together and express their love without actually coming into direct physical contact.

In this scene, voiceover narration tells us that Ned and Chuck are holding their own hands but thinking of holding each others’.

Unable to kiss, their monkey statues do so on their behalf.

-until they discover uses for plastic.

Moreover, Ned can’t bring himself to tell Chuck that he is responsible for her father’s death, which causes a set of complications which are played mostly for melodrama; and Chuck doesn’t dare tell her two maiden aunts, her foster parents and sole living family members (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene), that she is alive again, for fear it would reveal Ned’s secret; this causes a set of complications played mostly for comedy. Also, there’s Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), who works at the pie shop, and loves Ned. Since Olive hasn’t died, yet, there’s no complication there, but Ned doesn’t love Olive; also, though, he can’t tell her what is going on with him and Chuck, which, given that they don’t touch, causes Olive all manner of confusion and angst. This is mostly, but not always, played for laughs, in large part because of how Chenoweth plays the role. Another note of mixed pathos/comedy is provided by Ned’s revived dog, Digby, who he must pet with an articulated wooden hand from several feet away.

Digby

The difficulty of verbally explaining this extraordinarily complicated premise is, no doubt, one reason that audiences couldn’t be lured to it, and that ABC didn’t stand by it, even though when you actually watch the show it seems perfectly simple. But it was also an extraordinarily idiosyncratic show, generically, formally, and stylistically. Any melodramatic elements were just one berry in the pie. Firstly, it was a hyperbolically styled, cartoonishly art directed show, one of a few in its decade; others include The Tick (2001-2002) and The Middleman (2008). Pushing Daisies was Barry Sonnenfeld’s 6th foray into television production, after Maximum Bob (1998), Fantasy Island (1998-1999), Secret Agent Man (2000; this is the first I’m even hearing of this one), the unjustly forgotten Karen Sisco (2004), and, most saliently here, The Tick. If Sonnenfeld’s direction of the Maximum Bob pilot was more in the relatively restrained mode of Get Shorty (1995), for The Tick he was very nearly as over the top as in the Men in Black films. Sonnenfeld definitively set the visual style in Pushing Daisies, directing the first two episodes, and if anything they represent a high point of visual stylization for both American network television and Sonnenfeld. Pushing Daisies would consistently feature the exaggerated wide angle lens cinematography familiar from Sonnenfeld’s films (including those he shot for the Coen Brothers), along with hyper-saturated color, and elaborate sets combined with CGI to create a cartoony, fairy-tale world for these characters.

Pie Hole exterior stage set

Pie Hole exterior with CGI

Pie Hole interior

Style in the show was at once expressive and ironic (Sonnenfeld has always talked about his use of wide angle as specifically keyed to comedy), as if the approach to Pushing Daisies had been borne of drugged-up viewings of 1950s Sirk melodramas (the music is a lush parody of soap opera and melodrama soundtracks). In this, it is keyed perfectly to Fuller’s scripts: undeniably sweet and often very moving both in conveying the obstacles to Ned and Chuck’s love, as well as Olive’s unrequited love for Ned, and the grief of the maiden aunts; but also full of macabre, black-comic touches (the typically grisly murder victims, and the ways they are dispatched), and with a constant sense of whimsicality (the name The Pie Hole, a car that runs on Dandelions, Emerson’s taste for knitting things like pistol holsters, etc., etc.). Fuller’s use of comic repetition in language is just one element that suffuses the storytelling with this whimsy: Chuck was murdered while on a cruise package sold to her by the Boutique Travel Travel Boutique; Chuck’s aunt’s were formerly stars of a synchronized-swimming act called The Darling Mermaid Darlings; and so it went. Throughout, an extensive use of voiceovers from an unseen narrator emphasizes the narrative artifice.

Formally, the show is another example of “episodic seriality”: there would be ongoing enigmas, principally concerning relationships among characters, and built in to the premise (Would Ned tell Chuck that he was responsible for her father’s death? Will Olive figure out that Chuck doesn’t just look like but actually is murder victim “Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles”? Will Chuck find a way to be close to the Darling Mermaid Darlings again? Why did Ned’s father abandon him, and will he ever return? More than anything, how can Ned and Chuck have a proper relationship without touching?). Such questions were increasingly prominent toward the climaxes of each season, but while relationships were always developing, narratives were mainly episodic, every episode centering on a new murder needing solving. More than anything, generically the show was a kind of super-quirky variation on the screwball/romantic mysteries of 1930s Hollywood film, more Nick and Nora Charles than Hart to Hart or Remington Steele. So, the romantic melodrama of supernatural barriers to love was ever-present, but almost always mediated at several levels of formal and stylistic remove: the mystery plots, the comedy, the stylization, the ironic cast of it all. Nonetheless, the key emotional note of Pushing Daisies, set by the Ned/Chuck relationship, was a classically melodramatic one of keen, sustained longing. A genuine innocence, sweetness, and poignant sense of longing always managed to come through it all, perhaps even accentuated by the layers of artifice, just as (for this viewer at any rate) the emotions in Wes Anderson films are made more powerful by the leverage provided by, and the contrast to, the stylized worlds in which those emotions are played out.

Pushing Daisies

One of the most adept and powerful post-Buffy genre shows (insofar as it used genre plots metaphorically in relation to characters’ lives) was J.J. Abrams’ Alias, in which he used an overarching espionage plot to explore how character relationships were marked by deception and manipulation: when not lying to each other, most characters were hiding things from most others, and generally maintaining a carefully cultivated façade to obscure their truest goals and emotions. Lost (2004-2010), executive-produced by Abrams but principally the creation of co-writers and –producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, likewise uses genre narrative as a vehicle for exploring larger issues, but with a much broader, more abstract fetch: Lost is variously concerned with identity, the ties between us (along with The Wire, it’s one of TV’s most complex “network narratives”), morality, responsibility, and commitment. Until its last season, it was never clear whether Lost was at base a science-fiction show or a fantasy show (alongside its action plots, crime/mystery plots, melodramatic plots, etc.); it finally did resolve into a fantasy narrative, and in doing so revealed the extent to which the whole construction functioned on the level of the symbolic. Though the shifting time frames and machinations on the parts of various players formed a barrier to relationships like those of Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and Jack (Matthew Fox), the principal example of the supernatural melodrama plot was that of Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny (Sonya Walger).

Desmond and Penny in better times, Lost.

The obstacles presented to their relationship by her father’s (Alan Dale) hostility to Desmond were nothing compared to Desmond being stuck on the Island, which for purely supernatural reasons spelled a potentially permanent separation from Penny.  Those moments in which they did manage to reconnect despite the barriers between them were among the most emotionally satisfying on a show that relied on character relationships to provide emotional touchstones in the midst of what was an often bewildering narrative arc across the series. (The extent to which it did and continues to bewilder some viewers is demonstrated by the persistent and entirely wrongheaded reading that the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 died in the plane crash and The Island was Purgatory.) Certainly, the Desmond/Penny plot is one of the most vivid and moving supernatural romantic melodrama plots on recent television. In fact, in my viewing, its nearest rival in the last few years has been on another Abrams show. Unfortunately for my purposes, it’s not really a “supernatural” plot at all. Not technically, anyway.

Fringe, again executive-produced by Abrams but principally created by former Alias writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, is explicitly a science-fiction show, so titled for its basis in the concept of “fringe science,” the iterations of which on the show are at least supposed to be extrapolations of the more out-there of current theories on the subjects it depicts. The principal concept of the show is that of multi-dimensionality: parallel Earths each of whose existence threatens the other. The first few seasons depict a kind of Cold War between the parallel Earths which always threatens to heat up; the question is, Can the Earths co-exist, or must the existence of one necessarily mean the destruction of the other? The inciting incident in all this is that the Walter Bishop (John Noble) of our world, an eccentric scientist, finds a way to bridge the gap between worlds after his son Peter dies of an illness. When the Other Peter Bishop develops the same illness, Walter kidnaps that Peter to save him- only he never takes him back, raising that Peter as his own, and earning the lasting enmity of the Other Walter when the latter figures out what happened. Decades later, Walter, Peter (Joshua Jackson), and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), an FBI agent in the Fringe Division, must deal with the consequences, opposing the efforts of the Other Walter and the Other Olivia- whom they dub “Walternate” and “Fauxlivia”- to destroy their world. In the course of this, Peter and Olivia fall in love. The finale of season 3 takes the team to the Other Earth for an extended adventure, but at its conclusion, Olivia is imprisoned by Walternate, and Fauxlivia comes back in her place. Where Olivia and Peter had only begun to explore the nature of their feelings for each other, Fauxlivia and Peter quickly commence an affair. When Fauxlivia is found out, and returns to her Earth while Olivia returns to ours, Olivia finds out that Peter and Fauxlivia had had a relationship, and this provides another obstacle to them. They begin to move past this by the end of season 4, but in the finale, Peter activates a mysterious machine which results in his existence being erased from both worlds. When Peter manages to reinsert himself into spatiotemporal continuity with his memories intact, Olivia no longer knows him, as he’s never existed before- and once again, their relationship has been stopped in its tracks. In the storyworld of the show, these barriers are scientific in their basis, and so technically Peter and Olivia are not an example of supernatural barriers to romance- but that science is so sketchily defined, so far outside of the bounds of any scientifically verifiable realm of possibility or plausibility, that they might as well be. And like Penny and Desmond on Lost, like the exceedingly complicated and emotionally charged father-son relations here, this relationship is a primary anchor for viewer investment in the series narrative.

Olivia and Peter, Fringe

[Oh, and please, if you comment: I’ve only seen the beginning of season 4 of Fringe– no spoilers!]

To be continued.

Next time: contemporary arthouse cinema.

Thanks to Jo Murphy for her suggestions for this entry.

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

3. Genealogy 2: Contemporary Studio Cinema, 1978-2005

Warren Beatty and Buck Henry in Heaven Can Wait

The supernatural romantic melodrama having laid fallow since the flurry of late 1940s/very early 1950s films I discussed in my previous entry, the modern iteration of these romantic fantasies is prefigured by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s Heaven Can Wait (1978). Being a comedy (an underrated one, and an auspicious directorial debut for Beatty), Heaven Can Wait doesn’t quite count as a core case, but it does draw on elements of melodrama, as well as conventions intrinsic to the supernatural strain I’m looking at. This Heaven Can Wait is of course not related to the Lubitsch classic; it is, rather, a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. As such, it fits nicely with the turn to classical Hollywood reference points characteristic of late 1970s, post- Star Wars neo-classical studio films, and the nostalgia endemic to Hollywood in the 1980s can partly explain why this kind of film comes back in the first place. Where Robert Montgomery played a boxer in the original, in Beatty and Henry’s revision, Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is a football player who is accidentally claimed by Heaven during a car accident- accidentally because the accident hadn’t quite played out yet, and as an athlete, he was actually supposed to have survived.

Joe goes to Heaven

Heaven owes him a body, and Mr. Jordan (James Mason) takes on the responsibility of finding him one. What he ends up with is a middle-aged millionaire, Leo Farnsworth, who has been murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and her lover/his secretary (Charles Grodin). Having returned to life, even if in an aging, out-of-shape body, Pendleton still wants to pursue his dream of playing in the Superbowl. He must persuade his coach, Max (Jack Warden), that he is fact Joe reincarnated, so that Max will help him train to rejoin his team and get to the big game. Further complications arise when he falls in love with an environmental activist, Betty (Julie Christie; its really an awfully good cast) protesting Farnsworth’s corporate policies.

Though Betty disapproves of Farnsworth, the transcendental power of love is invoked here: despite Farnsworth’s past, Betty is attracted to him because she sees something else in him, some truer essence which comes through his eyes- a truth not unlike that which Julie saw in Liliom. As in A Matter of Life and Death, there is a great deal of concern for “the rules” of death and the afterlife, for abiding by what is written, and the plot complications stem from this: Farnsworth was only intended to be a temporary body for Pendleton while they found a longer-term replacement. So what happens when they find the replacement, telling Pendleton he must vacate Farnsworth, just as he’s finally made the team and won over Betty?

Betty confronts “Farnsworth” while Mr. Jordan looks on

What melodrama there is here comes out of this dilemma, and the way it plays out: we know Joe’s situation, but when the time comes that Farnsworth must die, and Joe must be reincarnated a second time, neither Max nor Betty do. Moreover, when reincarnated this last time, Joe does so without his memories (how then will it still be Joe? good question!). He’ll get to play in the game, sure, but what of the romance? Unrestricted narration, again, provides some pathos as Max thinks he knows who Joe has become, but Joe no longer knows who he was. Not knowing this, can he and Betty ever be together? What will become of them? The motif of the indexical object that serves as physical proof of reincarnation, in this case, is front and present: it’s Joe’s soprano saxophone, along with Joe’s ability to play it, and his signature tune, “Ciribiribin.

That Heaven Can Wait was a substantial commercial and critical hit may have enabled the production of the first really full-fledged contemporary supernatural romantic melodrama: Somewhere in Time (1980). Directed by Jeannot Szwarc from a script by Richard Matheson based on his novel (Matheson is best known for the novel I Am Legend, Spielberg’s Duel, The Night Stalker, and some of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery), Somewhere in Time seems to have been conceived as a throwback to the late ‘40s cycle of supernatural melodramas; indeed, the Time Out Film Guide describes it as utterly oblivious to contemporary tastes.  A fair call, and along with its general mediocrity, a probable reason for its abject failure both critically and at the box office. But it is interesting precisely in the degree to which its romanticism feels anachronistic.

In Somewhere in Time, a playwright (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a woman (Jane Seymour) in a picture (shades of Laura; here, it’s a photograph of an actress); he then wills himself back in time (through self-hypnosis) to 1912 to be with her. Time travel literally becomes an exercise of will, love overcoming physical obstacles a matter of agency and desire. In some ways, the film vaguely recalls Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating: the past is a place we can go to and wander around in if we want to badly enough; here, too, there is a sense in which Richard, Reeves’ character, is an interloper, in costume but out of place. Unlike Celine and Julie, though, Richard’s presence radically changes the narrative he enters: he woos and wins Seymour’s Elise, despite the warnings of her manager (Christopher Plummer), a low-level psychic who has foreseen a man changing her life, and wants nothing to interfere with her career.

Richard and Elise meet. Somewhere in Time

If there is almost always some object that functions indexically with regard to the supernatural in these films, time travel in Somewhere in Time is entirely tied up with things. Richard’s obsession with Elise is focalized through her photograph, though initiated by her appearance in the present, as an elderly woman who hands Richard a pocket watch and pleads “Come back to me,” to his utter confusion. Thus not only the watch but also the woman herself, and her knowledge, prove that Richard has already made the journey into the past before he ever imagines doing so. Years later, blocked writing a play, he checks into the Grand Hotel, where he not only finds Elise’s photograph, but also a 1912 guestbook with his name in it (she had been there for a performance). He travels to her house, and among her possessions (she died the night she gave him the watch) he finds a music box, shaped like the hotel, which plays his favorite song, and a book about time travel. Richard contacts the author of the book, who believes himself to have traveled to the 16th century through self-hypnosis; Richard resolves to go to 1912 the same way. In order to create an environment in which his auto-suggestive time travel might occur, Richard empties his room of all traces of contemporary life, dressing himself in period clothes and accouterments. He and Elise fall in love. During her big performance, she drifts into an impromptu monologue professing her ardor for Richard. The photograph he fell in love with is in fact a photo of her from this part of her performance: he has fallen in love with her captured in the moment she proclaims her love for him. Elise runs away from Robinson, and finds Richard; they are united, but when dressing the next morning he finds a 1979 penny he had mistakenly left in his suit, and when he sees it, he is wrenched back to the present.

The film as a whole features extraordinarily diffuse cinematography, lending it that dreaminess it has; while this lines up with the ethereal atmosphere of films like Portrait of Jennie, it is also a 1970s visual cliché signifying the past. There is little else of the moodiness or the visual inventiveness of the classical-era supernatural melodramas, though there is some nice play with reflections (we see Richard, reflected in a mirror, watching Elise’s reflection as she walks along the shore; the image nicely encapsulates both his desire for her, via his gaze, and the ontological gulf between them) and split-field diopters. Also of note is the set of techniques used to signify his journey to 1912- a combination of wide angle lenses, underexposure, heavy diffusion, and superimposition- which is used again as Richard, debilitated by the after-effects of the time travel, dies. As he does, he sees Elise surrounded by white light, beckoning to him. They are reunited against a white, foggy background: a Heaven of a banality typical of a film which could have been much more in other directorial hands.

The failure of Somewhere in Time seems to have dissuaded producers from trying the genre again until towards the end of the decade. Where Somewhere in Time is fulsomely soap-operatic in tone, Chances Are (1989) and Alan Rudolph’s Made In Heaven (1987) blend in comedy and “quirkiness”, respectively, and both turn to reincarnation for their premises. Chances Are, an out-and-out comedy, is also the creepier of the two: a man dies, is reincarnated, and falls in love both with his widow and their daughter. Made in Heaven, on the other hand, is one of the strangest, dreamiest Hollywood films of its day, as one might expect from Alan Rudolph in his prime, and one that is tonally schizophrenic enough to make pegging it on the comedy/drama spectrum quite tricky. Here, the rather bizarre variation on the supernatural melodrama narrative is this: Mike (Timothy Hutton) dies and goes to Heaven where he falls in love with Annie (Kelly McGillis), who hasn’t been born yet. When she is born, the person in charge (more on ‘him’ in a moment) grants Mike’s wish to be born again so that he may find her, but gives him exactly 30 years to do it in; if he fails, he will never see her again on Earth or in Heaven (a classic melodramatic deadline with a murky metaphysical twist).

Mike and Annie in Heaven. Made in Heaven

Rudolph’s films of this period are marked by a certain dreaminess and tonal indeterminancy very much in evidence here. Heaven itself is designed as a sort of surrealist Our Town, a Norman Rockwell-ish vision of an idyllic, early 20th century, semi-rural community, but Rockwell meets Timothy Leary.

If it is principally a turn-of-the-century Americana, it’s also very bohemian in a hippie kind of way, devoted to art and to learning, with every soul and celestial being pursuing their bliss, each on their own trip. It’s full of anachronisms, too: though Mike dies in the late 1940s, Heaven already has 1980s computer hardware (the idea is that all ideas are born first in Heaven, then brought to the world with the souls at birth). There is a toy-maker here, but all the toys teach learning and creativity (no toy guns in this Heaven). At moments, its design resembles artists as various as Maxfield Parrish and Giorgio de Chirico, just as the film’s sensibilities drift back and forth from Frank Capra (or for that matter, Powell and Pressburger) to Robert Altman. Pastels are everywhere, as is lens diffusion; people appear and disappear, and float through the air at will. This is a Heaven in which people can imagine things into being, and change things (the colors of a house, for instance) at will. Heaven is a dream, in fact: all one has to do is to imagine being in a place, and they’re there. There is a recurring image of a boy playing piano who appears and disappears, as if oscillating in and out of reality. Some spaces are more markedly oneiric: empty rooms with checkered floors and brightly-hued walls, drenched in fog, with time-lapse clouds rushing by out of the windows. Mike’s memory calls forth his childhood home; when he visits it, he just catches the appearance of his boyhood self in a mirror before the ghost child vanishes. There, again, is the ever-present note of nostalgia that underlies all the temporal slippage, but always mixed with a Utopian celebration of the imagination, and a psychedelicized assertion of the fluidity of reality. The character of Emmett, for instance: possibly God, possibly an angel (we never know which), Emmett is only really identified as a vaguely defined authority figure, the one who sets the 30-year deadline for Mike. Emmett is a most unusual Heavenly figure, a chain-smoking 1940-style, quasi-film noir tough guy, but- here’s the kicker- played by Debra Winger (then married to Hutton) in drag.

The enigmatic Emmett

Having fallen in love in Heaven, Mike and Annie’s romance is already uncanny, but this really becomes a tale of mad love when Mike, reborn as “Elmo”, tries to find Annie, born now as “Ally”, driven only by a vague, haunting sense that something is missing from his life, that someone he already loves is out there somewhere.

Mike trips out on himself

Appropriately, the real world is then itself haunted by echoes of Heaven recurring like fragments of the half-remembered dream that, for Elmo and Ally, it is. When Ally’s grown, we learn she had an imaginary friend called “Mike.”  A toy designer on Earth, she “invents” a pink hopping animal toy we saw first in Heaven. Emmett appears to Elmo to remind him of the deadline, but it is never clear how consciously aware Elmo is of the visitation. A melody Mike heard in Heaven becomes a musical motif in Elmo’s life until he turns it into a song and thereby “makes it” as a musician in his second life. All these function as indices of the reality of the experiences in Heaven. Here and there, in the midst of montage sequences tracking the progress of the characters, Elmo and Ally daydream, flashing on images of their lives there.

Indeed, this section of the film is imbued with a degree of the dreaminess Rudolph established in Heaven. Mark Isham’s trumpet adds a languid romanticism throughout, and the cinematography remains diffuse, albeit more mutedly so. The camera constantly drifts and floats through the scenes, and the narration itself is highly elliptical, drifting from one alternating storyline to another (Elmo to Ally and back), and in doing so jumping forward through their lives with scant attention paid to any signposting apart from changes in dress. Rudolph makes an extraordinarily heavy use of dissolves- not just for appearances and disappearances, as in Heaven, but in montages, between scenes, even within scenes. The love scene between Mike and Annie in Heaven is entirely based around a floating camera and dissolves between each shot, and when Elmo and Ally finally meet on Earth, Rudolph flickers back to Emmett, then back to the couple, shots going in and out of focus, and all joined with dissolves. The use of dissolves throughout thus becomes another manifestation of Heaven in the Earth of the film. It’s an ethereal, diaphanous film, and one that never really lets viewers inhabit a comfortable position in relation to it. In Heaven, for instance, the flowering of Mike and Annie’s romance is punctuated by this strikingly weird exchange: “I’m glad you died.” “So am I.”

Made in Heaven seems to drift not just between its storylines, but between tones: some is comedic, some whimsical, some dreamy, some dramatic, some even parody film noir, featuring Ellen Barkin as a cartoonish femme fatale. Indeed, the offcenteredness of the film throughout is reinforced by a bizarre series of cameos: besides Barkin and Winger, there are appearance by Don Murray, Tom Petty, Ric Ocasek, and Neil Young (who also writes Elmo’s song, which is sung by Martha Davis of the Motels). Yet for however much the film drifts between storylines and tones, the love story is still charged with melodrama: the pathos that comes from Mike knowing Annie is going to Earth before she does; the dilemma of Mike, loving her, going up against Emmett and “the way things have to be”; the use of chance and coincidence, as Elmo meets Mike’s parents, still mourning their dead son; the choreographed near misses between Elmo and Ally all their lives until finally they meet.

Elmo meets Mike’s parents

Made in Heaven is one of the few really interesting movies from this phase of the supernatural romantic melodrama, but it was also a flop, a film that was quickly lost in the shuffle of the mid-late ‘80s: too eccentric for the mainstream, too commercial for the indie-arthouse scene Rudolph was coming from and would quickly return to. A few years later, though, came the first real hit supernatural melodrama of the modern period, but a film dispiriting enough to watch that it can illustrate why it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for writing this part of the genealogy. Ghost (1990) is an extraordinarily sentimental drama written by Bruce Jay Rubin (who would later adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife), and directed by Jerry Zucker coming off of Top Secret! and Ruthless People. Here, as in Always, a couple (Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore) is separated by the man’s death, a murder in this case. He remains stuck on Earth, and when he discovers who had him killed, why, and that his love is in danger, he tries to communicate with her through a comical psychic (Whoopi Goldberg). Though it is certainly a love story, a true reunion of the lovers is never really on the table, as it is in other examples of this kind of meller; it is instead about his conveying that love to her as he had been unable to do in life, which therefore requires him to prove the reality of his existence as a ghost. Among the creative personnel, there are plenty of notable credentials- the music is by Maurice Jarre, the editing by the great Walter Murch, the cinematography by Adam Greenberg, coming off of Near Dark and The Terminator, and shortly to do Terminator 2– but there is virtually nothing of cinematic interest here, save perhaps one interesting mirror shot, which reminds one of the recurrence of shots of reflections on glass in these films, which tend to function as objective correlatives of the invisible but very real barriers between The Couple.

As close to a reunion as Ghost lets its characters have.

Likewise as concerned with Moving On as with the lost love itself, is Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, the arthouse version of Ghost, and from the same year (1990). Like Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply is mostly a melodrama, but in its story of a dead man (Alan Rickman) haunting his bereaved lover (Juliet Stevenson) are also connections to comic ghost stories about people haunted by those they had been close to in life, like Blithe Spirit (Lean’s film of Coward’s 1941 play came out in 1945), Topper (1937), and Kiss Me Goodbye (1982). Whereas for me core cases of the supernatural romantic melodrama revolve around a couple’s attempt to overcome ontological barriers, Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply are not about the formation of the couple, but about the lingering emotional ties between them after death. In both films, the ghost interacts with the living partner, but the boundaries between them are never crossed or called into question; the goal is to acknowledge those emotional ties, but move past them. Thus, the films share little of the Surrealist enthusiasm for the amour fou.

Given that both films enjoyed some degree of critical and commercial success, especially Ghost of course, it’s surprising that there don’t seem to be any other attempts at the supernatural melodrama until 1998. The first of these I’ll talk about is City of Angels (1998), a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) by, um, the guy who did Casper. Wings of Desire itself is only in part about the budding love between Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Marion (Solveig Dommartin), being also a survey of the psychic life of Berliners around the time the Wall came down. As such, it isn’t quite a core case of what I’m talking about here, though its emphasis on the sensual world- Peter Falk’s memorable paean to coffee and cigarettes, the transition from black and white to color as Damiel becomes human (so reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death’s association of monochrome with Heaven and Technicolor for the corporeal world)- resonates with many of the films in this vein. For its part, though, City of Angels immediately goes for the melodrama, the sentimental, and the obvious- even before settling into the love story. Where WoD allows us to listen in on the likes of a painter struggling for inspiration, or an old man reflecting on war and peace while gazing at the remains of the Wall, CoA’s angels witness the thoughts of a parent and her dying child, a new grandmother, the patients and doctors in a children’s ward in the hospital; where WoD shows a library, CoA, then, gives us a hospital. The library will appear, but much later, and when it does it becomes an opportunity for meditation not on history and national experience, not the specificity of experience, but some vague notion of Universality. It’s also far more overtly religious than Wings, despite the shared subject matter- and, in a very Hollywood way, distinctly New Age-y (all that stuff with sunrises at the beach- which, though, occasion some of the film’s most striking images).

Most screen time here is devoted to the love story, complete with a lot of scenes of Nicolas Cage’s Seth, basically, stalking Meg Ryan’s Maggie- watching her while she sleeps, for instance, anticipating Edward and Bella in the execrable Twilight. However increasingly cheesy their sexual encounters are, however predictable City of Angels is, there are a few things to be said for it: it’s certainly far better than it needed to be, with a number of nice lyrical moments, an exuberant embrace of sensuality (a recurring feature of these, as we have seen), a surprisingly good feel for LA as a location, and a classic Nic Cage freak-out once he becomes human and can feel for the first time. It’s also notable for being the rare Hollywood adaptation of an art film that has a darker ending than the original, though of course here it comes as a classically melodramatic twist played for sentiment as determinedly as possible (a viewer with any familiarity with this genre’s norms will figure out that something bad is going to happen as soon as the film starts to dwell on Maggie going shopping on her bike).

Also from 1998, Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black is a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, my copy of which arrived too late for part 1 of this blog series, but in time for this. The original is a deeply flawed film, its joints stiffened by a theatricality that’s dated badly. At the same time, if it’s a relic, it’s a consistently fascinating one. Early ‘30s theatrical styles of performance and staging, at least in their filmed versions, can have a strangely hypnotic quality oddly reminiscent of the performances in Heart of Glass (where Werner Herzog famously hypnotized all his actors before shooting their scenes); Browning’s Dracula comes to mind here (and Ulmer’s The Black Cat, and parts of Halperin’s White Zombie). In those cases, the effect comes in part from the collision of stagey artifice with uncanny subject matters, and that’s true here as well: Death (Frederic March) decides to take a holiday, and takes an aristocrat, Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), into his confidence to help him ease into the social world. The complication comes when Death falls in love with the man’s daughter, Grazia (Evelyn Venable).

Frederic March as Death as “Prince Sirki”

The film’s dreamlike quality is further emphasized by the fairy-tale-Europe setting and characters, and sparked by scattered moments of horror: Death’s initial and closing appearances as himself, and an extraordinary close-up of Death, in his human incarnation as “Prince Sirki”, revealing himself to another character by the horrific intensity of his gaze; darkness seems to bleed into the frame as March’s face swims out of focus. Death Takes a Holiday itself seems seduced by the unearthliness of Death’s presence here, just as Grazia is, and in this version she embraces Death, revealing at the end that she had in fact never fallen in love with Prince Sirki, but knew that he was Death all along. In another of this genre’s peculiar inversions of romance conventions, they walk off into eternity together at the end; in other words, Death claims her, and she willingly follows.

Another charm of Death Takes a Holiday, relative to Meet Joe Black, is that it tells its story in 79 minutes; Brest spends 3 hours on it, adding not much more to it than a plot about the father’s imminent death (known only by Death, assuming the identity of Joe Black when he becomes mortal, played by Brad Pitt; and the father, now an industrialist named William Parrish, played by Anthony Hopkins); his upcoming birthday party, organized one of his daughters, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden); and a subplot about corporate takeover. The party, along with Parrish’s knowledge of his mortality, occasions an extraordinarily repetitive succession of scenes between William, Allison, and her sister Susan (Claire Forlani), the object of Death/Joe’s affections. For the most part, then, the film is a leisurely, comfortably middlebrow rumination on career versus family, but it adds a level of melodrama over and above the original in the Joe/Susan relationship. In this version, the two meet in a coffee shop before Death takes over Brad Pitt’s body. The end of the scene in the coffee shop has the two of them walking away, but as they do so each turns to look at the other, only they miss each other’s glances- and then, Pitt is run over in the street, and Death intercedes. If unrestricted narration is most pointedly used in this instance, by establishing that it is this unnamed man Susan fell in love with, not Death/Joe Black as such, some poignancy is wrung out of our realization of her misunderstanding as they encounter each other throughout the film. This Death refuses to take Susan with him out of love for her, and then returns the man in the coffee shop to her, amidst an elaborate fireworks show at Parrish’s birthday, after Death and Parrish have gone to the afterlife together.

It really says something when the only way a director can create visual interest is by exploding some fireworks.

Lastly, 1998 saw the release of one genuinely eccentric studio supernatural melodrama: Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. Like Somewhere in Time, it’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, and like The Adjustment Bureau, it’s about a couple that must defy God’s laws to be together. Here, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) watches helplessly while his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) sinks into depression over the death of their two children in an auto accident. When he too dies in another car crash, he watches over her much as the men in Always and Ghost; but, recognizing that his imminent yet invisible presence is hurting her by keeping her stuck in mourning for him, he lets go of the Earth and goes to Heaven. When she kills herself out of despair, he hopes that they can be reunited, but of course suicides go Someplace Else, and he must journey to Hell and rescue her. Chris’ mission, with the help of his Heavenly guide Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and the Tracker (Max Von Sydow), is to find Annie, to reach out to her in the depths of her depression, and to lift her out of it so that they may be reunited in a Heaven of their own creation.

That this Heaven is essentially fluid, that it is whatever those who dwell there make of it, raises a number of enigmas for Chris on his journey. If Heaven may be remade by each soul, then as a consequence Chris finds that not everyone is as their appearance makes them seem: Chris learns that his Heavenly guide, Albert, is an old friend; that Leona (Rosalind Chao) is actually his daughter Marie, having assumed a form sparked by a father-daughter moment during a family vacation; and the Tracker (Max Von Sydow) who helps him journey to Hell to find Annie is in fact his son Ian. This conception of Heaven is also the source of the film’s saving grace. What Dreams May Come is wall-to-wall with New Age-y platitudes, and, unfortunately, Robin Williams is in pretty much every scene. On the other hand, by making Heaven the product of the imaginations of the souls there, Ward has his rationale for creating an extraordinary series of CGI spectacles. It’s a little heavy on the Maxfield Parrish, especially in the “common spaces” of Heaven (which must be externally stable spaces, rather than re-imagined by each of those who go there), but the film is gorgeous, if garish, to look at, completely un-restrained by any notion of realism. In this respect, it is the most overtly surreal film in this group; on the other, since we are after all in the afterlife, the disruptive (if not necessarily subversive) potential in other supernatural melodramas, where Love enables the defiance of the laws of physical reality, is moot here.

Chris’ Heaven. What Dreams May Come

Because Chris is an art-lover, at first his vision of Heaven is as an inhabitable painting; just not a very good one

Heaven’s communal space

Hell. One of the faces Chris runs across is Werner Herzog.

A few other films deserve a mention here before we move on; none of them are core cases of the supernatural romantic melodrama, but all demonstrate the various strands that spin out of it. Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) is one such film: a woman (Kathleen Turner) passes out at her high school reunion and inexplicably travels back in time to her high-school years and remembers why she fell in love with the man who in the present she is about to divorce (Nicolas Cage). Here, the supernatural- time travel- is not a barrier to couple-formation, but an occasion for reflection on the heroine’s life choices. The comedy-drama Prelude to a Kiss (1992) rates a mention, an outlier that gives us a couple (Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan) separated not by death but by body-swapping, as the woman switches bodies with an old man on the couple’s wedding day. Stuck in his body, she gradually learns to embrace life’s possibilities despite her fears of the future. Abre los ojos (1997) and its remake Vanilla Sky (2001) don’t quite fit here, being near-future love stories told through dreams. Just Like Heaven (2005) is another comedic romantic fantasy, as an architect (Mark Ruffalo) falls in love with the psychic projection of a doctor (Reese Witherspoon) whose apartment he rents when she’s fallen into a coma. Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005), is about a man who, in practicing his wedding vows, finds himself inadvertently “married” to a dead woman, this becoming an obstacle to his actual wedding; it’s not a melodrama, and as a typically Burton, stylized, Gothic animated film, it falls well outside of my parameters. Likewise the superhero film is more science fiction/fantasy than surreality, but of course the love stories in the Superman, Spider-Man, and Hulk series are also beset by unusual barriers between couples.

Finally, there’s the forking-path love story: Sliding Doors, Premonition, and, on television, Awake. Here, some vaguely defined notion of alternate realities allows for variations on romantic melodrama narratives, but without actually constituting a barrier as such. In Fringe, however science-fiction its premise, the notion of alternate realities is a very real barrier for Olivia and Peter, and so that will need a bit more elaboration… next time.

To be continued.

Next up: TV, the arthouse

Thanks to Jo Murphy and Teri Higgins for suggestions for this entry in the series.

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

1: Introduction

When you have a DVR, and if you as cinematically omnivorous, or at least as highly suggestible, as I am, you end up watching lots of things you wouldn’t have otherwise. After all, every movie can teach you something about cinema. A few weeks ago, I DVR’ed The Lake House, and then a few days after that The Adjustment Bureau. I’ve had a fondness for The Lake House for some time- besides being strange in the ways I’ll suggest later, as the son of a former practitioner, I like its regard for architecture as an art form, to the point where at various points it dwells on building design and its philosophies at some length. The Adjustment Bureau was a film I was curious about on a couple levels: I’ve grown fond of Matt Damon, and it’s based on a Philip K. Dick story. But it was advertised as a thriller, and it’s not, really. It is instead a love story, and a deeply strange one. It struck me that both films belong to a rather peculiar, and interesting, subgenre of romance pictures, one with roots that go back quite a long way, but which has seen some notable examples popping up in the last few years: those two, but also The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and others. We could just call these films “romantic fantasies” or “supernatural melodramas” and be done with it, but I want to stress their surreal aspects, drawing attention to what interests me most about them, even if (because?) doing so makes them sound more interesting than they actually are. They may be more or less self-conscious about this, but they become popular tales of amour fou, in the guise of thrillers and “chick-flicks,” that I rather think the Surrealists would have liked.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

The story of amour fou is a staple of literary and theatrical melodrama, and of course the Gothic, not least if we factor in its neighbor, the tale of “star-crossed lovers,” which these films quite literally are. As a narrative strain, “mad love” has been a fruitful tributary to German Expressionism, the Universal horror film (not least Mad Love), and the film noir– and it was a favorite theme in popular art for the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s. Part of what makes supernatural romantic melodramas stories of amours fou, arguably, is how they go about addressing a fundamental problem for the love story in the contemporary social context: how do you erect obstacles between the couple? If they are in love enough for us to be invested in their situation, how can you have a plausible enough obstacle for them to have to overcome in order to be together? Unless you want to do a period picture (be it Thomas Hardy, Far from Heaven or The Notebook), class, nationality, religion, and other aspects of social background just aren’t sufficiently convincing barriers to a Western audience, even if really they should be; we have all been raised, mostly by movies and pop songs, to believe that True Love Conquers All.  Incidentally, this is also one of many, many problems bedeviling the romantic comedy, which of all contemporary genres has fallen the farthest from its classical Hollywood heyday. The romantic comedy has tried to deal with this to varying degrees of success by having the guy be a schlubby loser (Knocked Up, et. al., ad nausea), by putting the couple into a long-distance relationship (Going the Distance), or, simply and probably most commonly, by requiring the characters to overcome some sort of moral or psychological (eg., past damage) inability to commit. In the melodrama, the damaged-goods thing is especially prevalent, since it can play up the lead characters’ Deep Deep Pain. Death haunts the genre, really, from people recovering from the deaths of loved ones, to the death of one of the principles (too many to list, and going back as far as you care to look); one example of this that’s relevant here is Ghost. But you can only have so many stories about people getting over deaths of significant others, and except sometimes in the surreal supernatural melodrama, you can’t have a happy ending if you kill one or more of the lovers in question. How then to keep them apart? In the surreal/supernatural melodrama, the lovers are kept apart by the biggest obstacles imaginable: the laws of time, space, and reality. It is the scale of these barriers that imbues the films with the lingering aura and slightly unearthly pallor of amour fou, and what makes these films part of an ongoing subgenre of supernatural, metaphysical melodramatic romances.

Since I began to think about blogging on it, this project has rather metastasized, with more and more films popping up that I have felt obligated to have a look at. As this has happened, it has occurred to me that this topic is at the very least under-written about, and that it might therefore be turned into a more serious academic project. Consequently, I am hoping that readers of these posts can point me in the direction of more things I ought to watch, and things I ought to read (though certainly there are ideas in surrealist writing on the cinema, there’s not much I can find so far in studies of the melodrama, and nothing I have seen so far that looks specifically at the stuff I am here). I am going to start by sketching a genealogy of these films, going back as far as I can. I am quite sure there are far more examples of the supernatural romantic melodrama, though, and I hope that readers can point me to some. I am generally interested in people’s thoughts on this, in fact: on the implications of the surreal/supernatural romantic melodrama for melodrama as a form in terms of narrative, style, and genre.

Once I have finished my (rough) genealogy in part two, I will move on to some first thoughts on the supernatural romantic melodrama, some of the issues raised by The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lake House, The Adjustment Bureau, and Benjamin Button, among other recent iterations of this bizarre, capital-R Romantic strain of cinema.

2. Genealogy 1: Classical Cinema

There are at least moments in melodramas, suggesting some sort of supernatural power in romantic love, going back at least as far as D. W. Griffith’s version of Way Down East (1920). There is a hint there of a kind of psychic bond between future lovers, as David (Richard Barthelmess) wakes up in distress when Anna (Lillian Gish) is suckered into a sham wedding ceremony by the sexually-predatory Lennox (Lowell Sherman)(do earlier film versions include this moment?; it is hard to imagine it being done on the stage, though obviously it would by no means be impossible for a play that was staged with a version of the ice-floe climax). We might also extend the idea of the supernatural romantic melodrama to Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), in which a woman seeks to reclaim her lover from Death. Arguably, Destiny falls a bit outside of the main corpus I am putting together here, as its framed narratives of Death conquering Love tend toward the fairy tale- supernatural elements thoroughly infusing the fabric of the film- as opposed to the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday which is a principal characteristic of the surreal romantic melodrama as I’m sketching it. Where Destiny resonates, though, is as an allegory of a theme common both to Fritz Lang films and to the supernatural melodrama, the operation of what Tom Gunning calls “the Destiny-Machine,” the ways in which characters’ lives seem to be controlled by forces far beyond them. I will come back to this idea especially in relation to The Adjustment Bureau and Benjamin Button. Most of the supernatural melodramas play out this sense of Fate, in fact, and the larger forces that render the world a machine in the gears of which are characters are trapped, without any clear sense of social context (like Destiny if unlike later Lang); by comparison, The Adjustment Bureau and Benjamin Button are unusually grounded in the materiality of the world.

Much closer to what I’m talking about, if still not a “pure” case of it, is Liliom. I don’t know the play, and I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s 1934 version of it, which isn’t currently available in any watchable commercial version. I have seen the pedestrian film version of the bloated Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production Carousel, which retells the story. But the 1930 version of Liliom by Frank Borzage is far more interesting. Where Carousel is framed by the Liliom character (renamed Billy) in the afterlife recounting his misadventures (and showing from the get-go that he has not ended up in Hell, which is an open question in the Borzage), Borzage’s Liliom is for its first 2/3 a straightforwardly realist narrative of a man, Liliom (Charles Farrell), who works a carousel at a fair, and falls in love with a shy servant girl, Julie (Rose Hobart), who has long idealized him from afar. To be with her he must give up his job at the carousel, owned as it is by Mme. Muscat (Estelle Taylor), who is in love with him and resents his relationship with Julie. Unable to support Julie, Liliom gets sucked into a robbery schemed up by The Buzzard (the great and largely forgotten Lee Tracy). Faced with the punishment for his crime, Liliom stabs himself, yelling Julie’s name as he does so (how melodramatic is that?). At the 2/3 point, Liliom dies, and that’s when the film turns into a supernatural melodrama, as he convinces the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner: DeMille’s Jesus in The King of Kings, 1927, and eventually Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) to allow him to go back to Earth for one day to do something good for the widow and daughter he left behind, after Liliom first agrees to spend a period in Hell to earn the right to do so.

Though for the first 2/3 a realist narrative, reminiscent of the German Kammerspiel film of the ‘20s, and of Murnau’s late silent films (Borzage was avowedly influenced by Murnau), touches of Expressionism are present throughout. Long before the afterlife comes into play, the carnival is like an intrusion of Dream in the everyday, mundane world, providing a glimpse of something beyond the real-life toils and struggles of the characters, and connecting Liliom to that world of fantasy, at least in Julie’s eyes. Consider, for example, the carousel ride Liliom and Julie take together, where the backdrop representing the rest of the carnival appears strikingly artificial and two-dimensional. From this glimpse of a fantasy world that forms around Liliom and Julie, Borzage goes on to build his melodrama around the intensity of looks exchanged between them (but especially Julie’s adoring looks at Liliom), first in the biergarten…

Rose Hobart gazing at Charles Farrell in Frank Borzage’s Liliom

…and then beyond it- but he always reminds us of what the carnival represents, as its rollercoaster is ever-visible outside an enormous picture window in the spare dwelling they share with Julie’s aunt.

When they leave the biergarten, Liliom stops, turns, and looks at her, and in this moment, when their love begins to bloom, all diegetic sound apart from their dialogue suddenly falls away: again, the world of the lovers transforming the world of the everyday. Transformation of the everyday is a key recurring element of the supernatural romance melodrama: the power of Julie’s love for Liliom, manifest whenever she gazes at him, transforms him into a gentleman in her eyes, something no-one else can see. If her gaze becomes a kind of bridge through which the power of romantic love enters and transforms the everyday world, then as the film goes on it does so as an expression of the torment that is the price of her love: idleness and the inability to provide for her turn him violent, but the purity of her love persists whenever she looks at him, and her pain vouchsafes the purity of these emotions.

At the close of the film, Julie tells her daughter that its possible for a blow from a loved one not to hurt at all- “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss,” as the song would put it: again, pain, even the inflicting of it, is proof of love.

Julie pining for Liliom

Around the halfway mark, in fact, the film is consumed with the lovers’ torment, and that pain is shown to us through classically melodramatic uses of unrestricted narration (that is, the pathos comes from us knowing more about what is going on and why than the individual characters do). We see how much pain each of them is in, even when they don’t see it in each other. We know that Liliom turns Mme. Muscat down when she tries to get him to give Julie up and return to the carousel, whereas Julie is certain that he will; we know, and she doesn’t, that the real danger is that Liliom will get sucked into The Buzzard’s crimes; and finally we know, but no-one else does, why she breaks down in tears when Julie’s friend Marie brings her fiancée Wolf to meet her. All the pain generated in and around these gaps in knowledge further ennobles the lovers: when Liliom is on his death bed, Julie sits over him, a candle placed in the background so that it shines over her head like a halo; and when he wakes and they share their parting words to each other, that candle is now placed exactly between them, bathing both of them in its glow.

In that their love ennobles them, transforms them, even transforms the world around them, the film becomes one about the power of love to transcend the everyday. The notion of boundary-crossing, as between the world of dreams and the world of the everyday, settles most persistently in the train motif. Liliom and the Buzzard loiter around the train tracks, and it is there the Buzzard talks Liliom into committing the fatal criminal act; it is beneath a staircase next to the train tracks that the robbery is attempted, and for Liliom goes horribly awry. It’s with Liliom’s death, though, that the train motif jumps to a whole other level. As Liliom dies, we again see a view of the carnival rollercoaster out the window, and as the shot is held can begin to perceive a train coming from the rollercoaster and heading towards the window (the duration of the shot suggests we should perceive it sooner than I did, but on my DVD, though quite a good BFI DVD, it was far too dark outside the window). Then, the train bursts through the window and into the room (it’s a startling moment no matter what, enough to make you think all those urban legends about audience reaction to “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” might be true after all). The train whisks Liliom away to Heaven; when Liliom makes his deal with the Magistrate, another train, spitting sparks all around it, takes him to Hell, and finally returns him to the first train so that the Magistrate can take Liliom back to Earth for a day.

Liliom boards the train to Hell.

In its images of these trains and the afterlife that they take us to and from, Liliom concretizes Borzage’s idealization of love as transcendence, taking the film, and us with it, straight into the surreal terrain of the supernatural melodrama.

For a core case of the supernatural romantic melodrama, in which love (momentarily) transcends corporeal barriers, though, I’d point to Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935). In it, childhood friends Gogo and Mimsey are separated when his mother dies and he is sent off to England to be raised by his uncle. Later in life, Gogo, now Peter (Gary Cooper) and Mimsey, now Mary, Duchess of Towers (Ann Harding) meet again when her husband hires him to restore his stables. This is a classically melodramatic twist: first, it rests on coincidence; second, the pathos that develops here relies in large part on unrestricted narration, as we realize who Peter and Mary are to each other long before they do. Just as they finally do so, and further realize how much they have always meant to each other, the Duke forces a showdown. Peter kills him in self-defense, and Peter is sentenced to life in prison. Far from the end of the story, this is actually where it gets really weird: Peter and Mary begin to share their dreams, even their sensations. Mary urges Peter to believe that these shared dreams are not merely illusory, but rather that in them they are actually, finally united: “the strangest things are true, and the truest things are strange.”

Ann Harding beckons Gary Cooper join her in Peter Ibbetson

One party urging another to believe something that seems utterly fantastic becomes a recurring feature of the supernatural melodrama, showing up in A Matter of Life and Death, Heaven Can Wait (1978), Somewhere in Time, Ghost, The Lake House, and The Adjustment Bureau. In the dreams, Peter and Mary overcome the barrier first of his imprisonment, then of an injury that leaves him paralyzed, to finally be together. Fully the whole last 1/3 of the film takes place in these dreams, with but moments where we see him in prison and her as an aging widow; throughout, cinematographer Charles Lang so heavily diffuses the image as to impart a constant, shimmering glow.

I haven’t yet seen Death Takes a Holiday (1934), so I can’t speak for it (I’ll address its surpassingly tedious remake, Meet Joe Black, in part two), but certainly the extraordinary level of stylization in Peter Ibbetson is shared by Portrait of Jennie (1948), directed by the underrated William Dieterle, and produced by David O. Selznick as a vehicle for his discovery/paramour/soon-to-be-wife Jennifer Jones. Joseph Cotten plays Eben Adams, a struggling artist, who encounters a mysterious girl dressed in turn-of-the-century clothes named Jennie (Jones) one day in a wintry Central Park.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie

Each time he encounters her, years seem to have passed in her life (she acts like a little girl when he first meets her; soon she is womanly), yet she refers to events that took place long in the past as if they are still to come. Once he has fallen in love with her and tried to find out more about her, Eben realizes that Jennie died at sea long ago, and that he has fallen in love with a ghost.

But since Eben seems to be seeing her at different phases of her life leading up to that point, he becomes convinced that he can save her, and to do so, travels to the lighthouse where she died in a storm, so that he can intervene.

The supernatural melodrama frequently complicates storytelling, blurring boundaries between categories, and here what is backstory- how Jennie died- plays out also as foreshadowing, in moments when she is drawn to Eben’s painting of the same lighthouse, or when she betrays her fear of black water: Jennie is incipiently aware of her death, even as she seems to be reliving her life each time Eben encounters her. In this way, both Eben and Jennie appear out of control of their lives, their encounters, their circumstances. Eben is drawn into the mystery of Jennie’s life just as helplessly as she relives it; as he puts it, “It was not in my hands, nothing was in my hands.” One idea, reiterated by both of them, becomes almost the film’s mantra: “The strands of our lives are woven together, and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.” Finally, when Eben goes to try to save her from the storm in which she died, he must ignore the complete lack of any hint of a storm on the horizon in his time- yet the fact of Eben braving her storm brings that storm into his timeline, and all those on the coast experience it, not just him. As he moves toward the moment of Jennie’s death, Eben increasingly acts as if in a trance, as if he can do nothing but act out his role in a larger drama, however ineffectual he turns out to be. As his world is manipulated by Destiny, Love becomes a kind of metaphysical absolute, a force that functions not as a threat to Fate, or a way to escape it, but as Fate itself. Finally, this love escapes Eben’s clutches, but marks him forever, turning him from a talented technician into the great painter of “Portrait of Jennie,” just as she is turned from a forgotten girl into the subject of that painting. “There is no life ‘til you’ve been loved, and then there is no death”: even if Eben and Jennie can’t overcome their fates to be together, so those fates have been shaped by their encounter such that both are transformed.

Portrait of Jennie puts the larger questions raised by such a story- about the subjectivity and relativity of experience, about the power of romantic love to transcend all earthly barriers- front and center right from the opening, asking “What is time? And what is space? What is life? And what is death?,” telling us that “each human soul must find the secret in its own faith,” and quoting Euripedes (“Who knoweth if to die be but to live… and that called life by mortals be but death?”) and Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Just as all that brings subjective experience- the heart of melodrama as a form- into play, so does the film’s style, which insistently emphasizes artifice and style in relation to that subjectivity. When we first go into the park as Eben and Jennie meet for the first time, Dieterle superimposes a canvas onto the image, providing a dreamy diffusion to the image just as it insists on art as one engine of the story (indeed, one story element that modulates our sense of Eben’s love for Jennie is that on some level he is using her as a muse so that he can paint his masterpiece). As the film goes on, this canvas superimposition is re-used around their encounters, and eventually to mark act breaks in the story. Jennie and Eben’s encounters are filmed with a striking range of cinematographic techniques: in their first encounter, all shots are high angle and use forced perspective, making Jennie look smaller, while their second encounter begins with a series of low angle shots making her look larger (as indeed she is meant to have grown up some years between the two); wide angle lenses are used to achieve deep focus across the film; heavily diffused images suggest that all this is either a dream or enchanted, much as they do in Peter Ibbetson; the extensive matte work and clearly soundstage-built Central Park adds to this.

When Eben paints Jennie’s portrait, chiaroscuro lighting is added to the diffusion, taking us still further into the dream; the recurrence of fog in the mise-en-scene becomes yet another form of diffusion, as well as marking out the liminal space outside time in which this story plays out. Nor is the dreaminess confined in its expression to visual style: in each of Eben and Jennie’s encounters, a theremin appears on the soundtrack. As in other supernatural melodramas, there is an emphasis on the senses, alongside a confusion between the world of the senses and some non-corporeal world beyond it that our lovers are given a glimpse of; the ghostly Jennie at one point experiences synesthesia, “hearing” the stars come out. Finally, the film’s most dramatic use of style, as particularly emphatic artifice and as a kind of Gothic correlative to the transformation these events have worked on Eben and Jennie, the climactic storm is filmed not in the black-and-white that the film has been to this point, but with green tinting. The lighthouse itself is an especially Gothic touch, its spiral staircase suggesting the journey through times and realities that Eben makes in running up and down it, while the storm- a classic Gothic trope, here functioning both as obstacle and as an correlative of inner states- rages outside.

In the lighthouse…

…while the storm rages.

Finally, on the last shot- the portrait of Jennie itself- Dieterle transitions to full Technicolor: the transformation of our lovers and their realities complete.

“Portrait of Jennie”

Around this time, the immediate post-WW2 years, the supernatural melodrama flourishes, more or less explicitly in response to the loss of life and limb in the aftermath of the war. The wartime theme takes precedence in A Guy Named Joe (1943), directed by Victor Fleming and remade as Always (1989) by Steven Spielberg. In it, the ghost of a pilot (a bomber pilot in the wartime original, a firefighter in the remake) watches over a younger pilot coming up in the ranks, even as the latter pursues the dead man’s girlfriend. The Enchanted Cottage (1945), which I haven’t yet seen, is about a man who has come home from the war seriously disfigured, and hides away from his family and fiancée. His cottage is cared for by a homely maid, and as the two begin to care about each other, they appear to each other physically transformed; she believes that this is a magical property of the cottage itself. Other supernatural narratives around this time include Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) (both based on plays by one Harry Segall), both powered by the fantasy of reincarnation; in neither case is love the motivation for the reincarnation itself, but in both cases love complicates things for the characters and for the heavenly case-workers in charge. The postwar context is apparent in a somewhat concealed form in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a comic period film that is nonetheless about a widow (Gene Tierney) moving into a house and falling in love with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) who was an earlier resident.

Though it too ranges across a variety of tones (characteristically), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death (sometimes known as Stairway to Heaven), has enough melodrama in it to qualify here. An aviator named Peter (David Niven) who was meant to die when his plane was shot down manages to cheat death, and falls in love with a young radio operator for the US Air Force named June (Kim Hunter). When Heaven cottons on to what’s happened, the aviator must stand trial and plead for his life so that he may be with the woman he loves.

David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death

The first thing to say about A Matter of Life and Death is that despite it being a postwar film, it seems to function in part as propaganda, or at least a comment on semi-current affairs, directed at American service people stationed in England, airing the downsides of fraternization between American and British military personnel (it references an obscure 1944 report by five U.S. Senators on American troops stationed abroad), but ultimately endorsing transatlantic togetherness. What it turns into, though, is a genuine courtroom drama centered on a philosophical debate about transcendent values versus social context.

As is so often the case in the supernatural romantic melodrama, though, transcendence is somehow inseparable from the world of the everyday. In Portrait of Jennie, a scarf plays the role of the physical object that stands as proof of the supernatural; here, it is a book on chess that Peter’s angel, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), borrows from Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey). The necessity for a physical proof of supernatural transcendence remains a convention of these films: the watch in Somewhere in Time, the defaced painting in What Dreams May Come. The Lake House is built entirely around the exchange of such objects, namely the letters themselves (and the paw prints, the tree, and a copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion). Beyond the importance invested in these talismanic objects, though, AMOLAD places a powerful emphasis on the world of the senses and sensuality. The physical world, the “real” world, is in gorgeous Technicolor, while Heaven is in black-and-white.

The stairway to Heaven.

Heaven here represents logic, abstraction, in its modernist design, in the placement of statues of great thinkers alongside the stairway leading to it, in the discussions Peter and Conductor 71 have about Plato, even in the parallel between Heaven, looking down on Earth, and Dr. Reeves’ camera obscura, in which he takes a God-like view of the village (Reeves being the character who most forcefully represents logic in the world of the film). The emphasis on the sensuality of Earth, by contrast, seems typical of Powell and Pressburger’s celebrations of the world of the senses (and is the subject of the film’s best joke, Conductor 71’s line that they are “starved for Technicolor” in Heaven). When Peter, having jumped out of his burning plane over the channel, to his certain (and should-have-been) death, wakes up on a beach, he confuses it for Heaven. The naked goatherder boy playing pipes to his flock, is a physical image that evokes the beyond for him, but mistakenly, and here as elsewhere the idealized image of England as Albion is nicely consonant with Powell and Pressburger films like A Canterbury Tale, just as paeans to the physical and sensual pervade their films from I Know Where I’m Going to The Red Shoes, Gone to Earth to Powell’s The Age of Consent. In fact, the subjective experience of the senses is a bridge to the beyond: it is a certain smell that tells Peter that the Conductor is nearby, ready to whisk him off to Heaven, as a recurring Ligeti-esque piano motif signals the same to the audience.

The film is about forms of proof, ultimately. The first of these is whether or not Peter is suffering from a brain tumor which may have caused his delusions of having died, having gone to Heaven, etc. (the exchange of the book comes into play here). Given his “symptoms”- eg., the smell that precedes each instance where Conductor 71 freezes the world and visits Peter- this is a perfectly logical explanation for what’s happened to him. The film undercuts this not only through the primacy effect- the film has shown us Peter talking to the Conductor and going to Heaven long before Dr. Reeves offers his alternative diagnosis- but also by coming down firmly on the side of the spiritual as against the rational. The dialectic of Peter and Dr. Reeves is part of this, one representing the spiritual and the other the scientific- but then, Powell and Pressburger enact a couple of reversals. Peter undergoes an operation to remove the tumor, which according to Reeves will cure him- thus, giving the film’s climax a realistic alibi; but at the same time, Reeves is killed and goes to Heaven to be Peter’s counsel at trial.

The trial commences.

In that trial, the American, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), argues for rationality and practicality in the face of Peter and June’s love, and in the end is decisively defeated.

The trial comes to a climax in the operating theater.

The moral, given to us at the end of the trial, is stated thus: “Nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love…. For love is Heaven, and Heaven is love.” Thus the rule of universal law- that Peter must have died, and therefore must move on- is defeated by the power of love; and yet, before Peter can go back to June, he must sign onto a plan laid out for him by the magistrate. If surrealism still has some Romantic potential for subversion to it, allegorized in the supernatural melodrama as a rejection of materialism in favor of emotion, then Peter’s obeisance vitiates that somewhat here.

Gradually, this postwar boom in the supernatural romantic melodrama begins to taper off. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) replays some elements of it, and whilst starting out as a tale of a poet, Orpheus (Jean Marais), obsessed by his art to the neglect of his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), it actually becomes increasingly melodramatic as it goes, turning into a love-rectangle: Eurydice loves Orpheus, but Orpheus loves Death (María Casares), while Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), falls in love with Eurydice. While the love of Orpheus and Death is doomed, so is the love of Heurtebise and Eurydice; in the end, Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited, their love reaffirmed. Ultimately, Orpheus takes place in too-alternate a universe for the strain of cinema I’m looking at- an alternative universe where poets are rock stars- but Cocteau’s mobilization of a Surrealist sensibility in largely everyday settings is still very powerful.

Into the mirror.

Out of the mirror.

Aside from reverse-motion, negative image effects, and mirrors as watery portals, Cocteau derives most of the film’s surreal charge from the oneiric potential in the objects of modern life: shortwave radios, chrome and automobiles, motorcycles and leather gear.

Even the mise-en-scène of the world on the other side of the mirror insistently resembles postwar ruins more than any purely fantastic realm. Mise-en-scène is also the principal appeal of Vincente Minnelli’s film of Brigadoon (1954): the titular village itself, and the contrast in sound, framing, and set design between Brigadoon and New York. Though a musical, Brigadoon is a particularly melodramatic one, with strikingly little comedy for the genre, and its story of a man (Gene Kelly) who stumbles upon a village that only appears out of the Highland mists once every hundred years, and finally elects to give up his life to be a part of it with the lass he’s fallen in love with (Cyd Charisse), makes it a clear example of what I’m looking at.

Brigadoon aside, though, the last great surreal, supernatural romantic melodrama of the classical period is Albert Lewin’s often-jawdroppingly weird Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). The story is simple: a femme fatale, Pandora (Ava Gardner, never more gorgeous) falls in love with a mysterious man, Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), whose yacht shows up off the coast one day. She discovers what we have already learned, that he is in fact the captain of the Flying Dutchman, and in order for them to be together, and for his curse to be lifted, she must give up her life for him. Here again pathos comes from the fact that we know who he is well before she does (and thus understand why, in his love for her, he tries to convince her she means nothing to him- for to do otherwise is to ask her to die). But the narration is unsually complicated here: the story is framed as a flashback from the point when a body (concealed to us) shows up on a beach one day, and delves into flashbacks-within-flashbacks when Hendrik recounts the story of how he ended up the cursed figure he has become. Sequences like this one come as almost-indigestible lumps of exposition relayed through first-person voiceovers, and generally the film is unusually dialogue-heavy (it is a supremely wordy film), and studded with soliloquys from Geoffrey (Harold Warrender), who is confidante to both Hendrik and Pandora. Yet these are punctuated by passages of eerie silence and temps mort, moments where time is drawn out, as if literally embodying one of the fundamental principles of the supernatural romantic melodrama, that in them love flouts the laws of time as well as space. In finally coming together, Hendrik and Pandora have overcome time, and Pandora drifts into a poetic reverie: “Our love is real, there’s no sense of time” and “It’s as if we were in a spell, outside of time, unending.” These slowed-down, drawn-out moments have a diaphanous, trance-like quality, and match the Mediterranean setting both in its sun-baked days and cool blue nights.

The color is deeply saturated throughout, and Lewin achieves some extraordinary deep focus effects.

It is these choices that impart the film with a particularly dream-like atmosphere, though scenes on the beach staged around random classical statuary are full of compositions overtly reminiscent of Surrealist painting.

Just as the narration oscillates between theatrical wordiness and cinematic contemplativeness, so the performances exist in a contrast that, if perhaps unintentional, is nevertheless strangely effective: the stiffness of almost the entire supporting cast (except for Marius Goring, playing a suicidal paramour of Pandora’s, and chewing up scenery as always) forms a kind of backdrop, against which we have Gardner’s luminosity, her keening, voluptuous in-love-ness, and Mason’s yearning, his ragged, despairing desperation. It is Hendrik’s speechless staring at Pandora that conveys his love for her, just as Julie’s yearning looks at Liliom do in the Borzage: as if love’s power to transcend the physical world is foreshadowed in its escape from language.

If Hendrik often acts like a somnambulist, dream logic also pertains to those objects of the physical world charged with meaning in the way that objects in dreams become sites of psychoanalytic condensation and displacement: the cape of Montalvo, Pandora’s bullfighter suitor (Mario Cabré); the diary of the Flying Dutchman that Geoffrey discovers as an artifact and asks Hendrik to translate, precipitating the flashbacks; the painting Hendrik makes of Pandora, which she defaces, which in turn allows him to finish it; and the hourglass that represents Hendrik’s continued life, which stops when Pandora and Hendrik come together at the climax and which shatters when they die. If these objects are given a dream-like power and significance, if they in this sense are freighted with surreal power, they also mark a world in which the lovers are out of control. Pandora and Hendrik are helplessly drawn together even as his fate is tied up in God’s curse upon him. Nothing- their lives, their love, the rules of the world they live in- seems to be in their control, and the objects are correlatives of that. This, of course, is one of the characteristics of the family melodrama in Thomas Elsaesser’s discussion of it, “Tales of Sound and Fury”: objects are charged with meaning in a way that leaves characters trapped by them as they are by the social world, unable to act (Gunning makes a strikingly parallel argument about Lang’s depiction of the Destiny-Machine). Here, it is less the social than the metaphysical world that traps them, but the dynamics of passivity, claustrophobia, and repression are so similar as to encourage us to think of these films, too, as allegories of modern experience- just at another level of poetic remove from reality.

Thanks to Amy Heller, Teri Higgins, and Sally Milner for their thoughts and suggestions on the supernatural melodrama.

Avenging The Avengers, Part Two

Critical Disconnect

Shattering Bifrost in Thor

The claim that the superhero genre is not inherently moronic, implicit in my first post on The Avengers, is still a contentious one, even after not only some 35 years of modern superhero movies, but also 30 years’ worth of “Hey! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines in the popular press. The association of superhero comics and children is one reason why comics have such a tenuous First Amendment status, and that’s just one of many gripes indie comics publishers have with men and women in tights. No matter how many ambitious writers attack the genre, the indie comics intelligentsia has refused to grant superhero comics any legitimacy. That indie comic creators and journalists resent the superhero comic is understandable, given how dominant that one genre is, but their intellectual disdain for it has always struck me as parochial and blinkered.

I congratulate those of us who think about movies for a living for having got past genre-prejudice decades ago; what is dismissing an entire genre but mere cultural politics? (Haven’t any of these people read Bourdieu?)

Yet even if any given classical Hollywood genre gets its due, that doesn’t necessarily mean a contemporary one will get the same. The superhero film gets less respect from film critics than the comics do from literary critics; worse, in fact, in that few film critics display any recognition that anyone anywhere might possibly take superhero narratives seriously. A lot of this has to do with literary bias operating on various levels. Contemporary film critics still have little regard for action films, or other sorts of predominantly visual cinematic forms. As Jack Smith put it, “Film critics are writers, and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.” Dialogue scenes they understand; visual style they do not; spectacle they are actively hostile towards. Then it’s on top of that we have to add in a distrust of the source material, seeing it as the most crotchety Comics Journal scribe does: puerile wish-fulfillment fantasies for acne-scarred boys of all ages. Both the indie-comics proselytizers and most movie reviewers share a bias to literary naturalism, and the sight of costumed heroes against the backdrop of the outlandish spectacle endemic to the genre preempts any notion of bringing any real critical acuity to bear. Andrew O’Hehir, in his “Will Superhero Movies Never End?,” provides an ideal example of this: “the pretense of mythic grandeur can’t stand up to the fundamental teenage-boy, men-in-tights silliness of the whole enterprise.” In one swipe, O’Hehir dismisses the movie under examination, without ever looking closely at it, simultaneously waves away literally mountains of serious work in the genre, and congratulates himself for doing so. In this context, sweeping, reductive generalizations and willful ignorance are put forth as proof of the fact that he is a mature adult and fans of the film must not be.

What could anyone possibly find silly about this picture?

When they actually do talk about the film, the harshest critics of The Avengers end up falling back on clichés about blockbusters that have been circulating since the 1970s, and which have been substantially discredited in serious film scholarship. This is what I want to write about here: it’s banal and obvious to claim that film critics are out of touch with mass tastes; not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily salient, either. (Plus, O’Hehir is waiting for it, having tried to preempt anyone who would “render any and all detractors as pipe-smoking William F. Buckley squares, defending a nonexistent Establishment.”) It’s a bigger problem when critics are out of touch with scholarship on film, and because of intellectual and taste prejudices are unable to adequately engage with the film under discussion.

For some, the continued rude health of the superhero film goes beyond “professional cross to bear” into “psychological torture.” Every summer sees another film critic bemoaning the continuation of the genre, even as a) the general moviegoing public persists in ignoring Bela Tarr or Jafar Panahi, and/or b) the studios continue not to mount saturation releases for the likes of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or The Mysteries of Lisbon. Really, this is one of those things that reminds one of the continuing relevance of Andrew Sarris: in critics at the Chicago Reader, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice, as much as in any long-forgotten curmudgeons of Sarris’ day, we see the lingering shadow of the “forest critic.” “It is the system he blames for betraying the cinema…. Somewhere on the western shores of the United States, a group of men have gathered to rob the cinema of it’s birthright. If the forest critic be politically oriented, he will describe these coastal conspirators as capitalists. If aesthetically oriented, he will describe them as philistines. Either way, an entity called the cinema has been betrayed by another entity called Hollywood…. The forest critic cannot help wondering what would happen if these buildings [movie theaters] were consecrated to what he considers to be genuine art.” The issue is not whether or not more people should see films by Tarr, Panahi, Ruiz, or Ceylan- of course they should. When Dan Kois wrote “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” for the New York Times Magazine, his diatribe against having to watch art films, complete with sideswipes at the snobbery and/or hypocrisy of those who profess to genuinely take pleasure in them, others were quick to rush to the defense of demanding cinema, as well they should. When it comes to the reverse, though- to defending the superhero movie or other blockbusters against critics who seem as unable to come to grips with them and what they are trying to do as Kois is with Tarkovsky- we are left with shrill internet crazies who not only don’t make particularly persuasive arguments, but tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of fanboys and philistines. The problem with Kois’ piece in the first place was it seemed to reassure people that they shouldn’t have to make an effort to understand things, and that people who claimed to were probably just poseurs anyway. But understanding what’s going on, what to look for in Hollywood films, that takes a bit of work too, even if they don’t demand it of you as part of the admission price.

To understand superhero movies, to judge them on their own merits and flaws rather than to wish that they were doing something else entirely, to see what is or is not interesting in a given case, requires an openness and willingness to approach them on their own terms. To quite a few critics, though, everything about The Avengers is to be tolerated at best, bemoaned at worst, and mistrusted above all.  As the culmination of a corporate strategy that has been playing out since the first Iron Man, branded as such right in the title (Marvel’s The Avengers), it got read as a corporate property but not as a film (a political economy reading rather than the poetics it deserved). With at least two more major superhero franchise entries to come in the Northern hemisphere’s summer season, the discontent of these critics has spilled over into an active resistance to eating your cultural nom-noms, with The Avengers taken in some quarters as symptomatic of larger, darker trends.  For A.O. Scott,  it is proof that while the superhero movie is  still “in a period of commercial ascendancy, [it] has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Predictably, Scott praises the dialogue scenes (at which Whedon is undeniably gifted), but doesn’t recognize that the climactic action scene completes the character drama without relying on that dialogue. The unified, coordinated actions of the team as they fight the Chitauri (and the end-credits shawarma-eating, cruelly denied to audiences in my part of the world) resolve their conflicts more elegantly and cinematically than dialogue ever could, showing a fully functioning “family” at last (it’s actually rather sweet on one level). But for Scott, the battle scene is one of “grinding, hectic emptiness,” marked not by what is in fact extraordinarily elegant staging and camerawork, notable for its clarity as well as its kinetic impact, but instead by “bloated cynicism.” In fact, the accomplished craft that has gone into such a scene would seem to indicate anything but cynicism- rather, a sincere effort to make an action scene that is satisfying on multiple levels- but the very idea of talking about an action scene in terms of “levels” would already get me laughed out of Lincoln Center.

The cynicism Scott finds, though, indicates a kind of incredulity that runs throughout a number of The Avengers’ negative notices: they can’t believe that anyone put any genuine artistic effort into this thing, and they can’t believe that any viewer could genuinely, thoroughly enjoy it. Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The idea, maybe, is that people already love Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor so much — like, so, so much — that all a filmmaker really needs to do is put them all into a big stock pot filled with elaborate set pieces and some knowing dialogue and he’s golden. And maybe, given the heightened-lowered expectations of movie audiences, that really is all he has to do: It’s possible to have looked forward to a movie all year, to enjoy watching it, and then to have completely forgotten about it the following week.” Scott Foundas asks of the enthusiasm for The Avengers, “is that the sound of genuine excitement or merely relief?” For O’Hehir, audiences don’t enjoy the film, they “yearn to believe” it’s enjoyable. You are deluded, for you have convinced yourself you are having a good time; but, so he tells us as he continues the most condescending passage I have read in film criticism in quite some time, to him, “it’s my job — and, I guess, my inclination — to stand outside those tidal currents and view these big spectacles dispassionately.” Audiences aren’t willing to do this, he thinks, and that must be why they like this movie. “To praise the movie lavishly, as so many people have done and will continue to do, basically requires making endless allowances. It’s really good (for being a comic-book movie). It’s really good (for being almost exactly like dozens of other things). It’s really good (for being utterly inconsequential).” At one stroke, O’Hehir dismisses comic books, movies based on them and the sensibilities of the audience for them; they are fannish apologists carried away by their childish enthusiasms, whereas he is able to bring a mature, objective eye to bear upon such farragoes. O’Hehir most obviously manifests what runs just a millimeter further from the surface in Zacharek and Foundas, a version of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy: no audience of clear-eyed grown-ups could possibly enjoy The Avengers, and therefore….

For his part, at least Jim Emerson  admits a personal bias: “I generally find it difficult to care about superheroes and the movies that franchise them.” His gesture of largesse to audiences who do is to quote Leonard Maltin on the Captain Marvel serials having been made for 10-12 year old boys, who naturally excused them a few of the more egregious faults. For anyone else, The Avengers doesn’t have much to offer, and certainly not for serious students of the cinema: “My own hunch is that it’s not going to be subjected to much in-depth critical analysis. Not of its aesthetics, anyway. Somebody might write about how it changed the movie business (if it does), or study the mythology of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or examine the technologies used in making it, but they’re not going to study the filmmaking, which is serviceable but little more.” Foundas isn’t paying any attention to the aesthetics at all, it would seem, for him to write that hiring directors from TV, like Whedon and J.J. Abrams, “is bringing us a lot of movies that look and feel like big-screen television.” A consideration of TV’s budgetary restrictions and consequent avoidance of large-scale action scenes, the extent to which the stylistic lines between TV and film have been blurring since the 1960s, Whedon’s and Abrams’ indulgence in specifically cinematic techniques precisely in order to mark their films as distinct from their televisual work (the former’s camera mobility, and most overtly the latter’s crush on lens flare), and the sheer scale of their films, all render this the single most absurd sentence written about the film.

Even O’Hehir is willing to grant that Whedon is “one of the most experienced storytellers of our time,” not for his directing but for his writing, for the TV shows he created, produced, and in large part wrote. You would expect more attention to be paid to the writing, then- to his distinctive dialogue, to his working out here of themes to do with quasi-family groups linked by shared responsibilities- but because this is an action-oriented blockbuster, writing is presumed to be, if not irrelevant in the first place, then rendered so by the emphasis on visual spectacle. As when Scott bemoans the way the cleverness of the dialogue is slammed repeatedly into the ground much as the Hulk does to Loki (“Puny words!”), so ultimately the foundation of the harshest criticism here is that leveled at action- and spectacle-oriented cinema in general, and right from the get-go. Zacharek sees it as a film that has “has forgotten that the whole point of reading comic books is for story and character development.” For her, this isn’t any more narratively sophisticated that boys playing with dolls: it’s “a kind of G-8 summit for action figures who have finally been allowed out of their cellophane boxes. They do action stuff, then they talk a little, then they do more action stuff.” The reason the movie is so forgettable, in her estimation, is that action so dominates story that it rips the story apart: “The picture is broken down into narrative chunks that ultimately don’t tell much of a story – what you get instead is a series of mini-climaxes held together by banter between characters.” And banter is not the same as character development. (The thing is, and I know this is a tangent, I can’t help but noting how wrong she is about Black Widow; she writes that “she’s quickly relegated to the superhero back burner,” when in fact she is nearly as much a focal point as anyone else here.)

Foundas echoes Zacharek’s complaint that The Avengers is forgettable: “After two-and-a-half hours of world-threatening chaos and world-saving derring-do, you leave the theater satisfied, but without so much as a single memorable image (or idea) lingering in your mind.” It’s a diagnosis of the film’s problems by way of short-term amnesia: the action so overwhelms any sort of actual storytelling for him, he is unable to remember whether it was there in the first place. O’Hehir, too, is left unsatisfied by the barrage to which he has been subjected: “in trying to cram in enough plot and back story and increasingly incoherent action sequences for at least three summer movies, Whedon never finds a confident or relaxed narrative pace, and the results are exhausting, a picture that pushes three hours and feels like five.” The sensory overload preempts any possible coherence or unity or felicity of storytelling. Rick Gruen is perhaps most explicit in claiming that spectacle robs the film of narrative sense: “Of course, so does the budget and, like every self-respecting blockbuster, this model comes with the expected 3-D bells and CGI whistles – all the costly stuff that is guaranteed to put the lavish into the spectacle even as it seems, inexorably, to drain the sense from the plot and the interest from the characters. Expected too is the result: a kind of sterile opulence or, if you prefer, a magnificent emptiness.” These aren’t even really films anymore, says Emerson; “as we’ve been saying year in and year out about certain kinds of fantasy-action-science-fiction blockbuster attempts since the late 1970s, they’re more like amusement park rides (and they eventually become those, too) than movies.”

This formulation- the narratives fall apart, so these are not movies but rides- is one that has been leveled at blockbusters for nearly 40 years, going back at least as far as Jaws. Writing on the preceding decade for American Film, Morris Dickstein excoriated the post-Jaws blockbusters as “money machines” made with “heartlessly slick technique.” In American Film Now (1979, rev. 1984), James Monaco called it “the Bruce esthetic”: “The Bruce esthetic is visceral- mechanical rather than human.  Films like Jaws that fit it are machines of entertainment, precisely calculated to achieve their effect- at the box office as well as inside the theater.” For the next 20 years, these ideas ping-ponged through both journalistic and academic writing on contemporary Hollywood. Richard Schickel complained in 1989 that “what we get… [in these films] is not narrative as it has been traditionally defined, but a succession of undifferentiated sensations… there is in fact no authentic emotional build-up, consequently no catharsis at the movie’s conclusion.” Because spectacle so dominates the aesthetic of these films, “we are left without consoling coherences of old-fashioned movie narrative, left with anarchy, picking through the rubble it leaves in its wake, wondering what hit us.” Mark Crispin Miller kvetched in 1990 that “today’s American movies work without or against the potential depth and latitude of cinema, in favor of that systematic overemphasis deployed in advertising and all other propaganda.” Peter Biskind opined in 1990 that Lucas and Spielberg had attempted to return to classical Hollywood storytelling, but that “the attempt to restore traditional narration had an unintended effect- the creation of spectacle that annihilated story. The attempt to escape television by creating outsized spectacle backfired, and led to television’s presentational aesthetic.” (Here too invoking television seems at least as much to do with television’s lower currency as with any actual resemblance between TV and blockbusters.) Of course, reviews of individual films rehearsing this old saw are numberless.

Academics took much the same line. For example, in an essay which appeared in Jon Lewis’ 1998 New American Cinema anthology, Fred Pfeil claimed that the classical model of narrative development has been “superseded…by the amnesiac succession of self-contained bits and spectacular bursts.” Timothy Corrigan wrote in 1991’s A Cinema Without Walls that the contemporary blockbuster featured an “extraordinary exaggeration of narrative incident, character-images, and technical form to the extent that the excessive quality of these elements usurps any motivational significance.”  In an essay whose title, and that of the book it appeared in, speak for themselves- “Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over” in Jon Lewis’ anthology The End of Cinema As We Know It (2001)- Winston Wheeler Dixon described what’s been happening as “the collapse of narrative.” Descriptions of narrative fragmentation have featured heavily in writing by Thomas Schatz (in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, 1993), Justin Wyatt (1994), and James Schamus (in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema anthology, 1998).

In the popular press, Blockbuster (2004) by one-time Sunday Times critic Tom Shone has been the only serious counter to critical orthodoxy (though the downside is that he doesn’t seem to care at all for art cinema; why do critics persist in thinking there is an inevitable divide on that score?). But in academic film studies, few who engage in the serious study of contemporary cinema still maintain the argument that the blockbuster is hopelessly fragmented anymore. In the same 1993 volume as Schatz, Jim Collins argued that the likes of Schickel and Miller were stuck in 19th century notions of the well-made realist narrative, and that “these technophobic denunciations of media ‘overload’ never even begin to address the distinguishing features of recent popular narratives,” namely that the semiotic excess should be seen as attempting to grapple with that of media-saturated contemporary life. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell showed that while contemporary Hollywood pursues variations on the formal and stylistic paradigms of the classical period, it is still a storytelling cinema, and one in which familiar narrational patterns and devices still hold. Warren Buckland (first in the same volume as Schamus, then in a 2006 monograph) has shown that Steven Spielberg, in many ways the exemplar of the modern blockbuster, nonetheless makes consistently canny use of techniques of narration. While Bordwell reminded us that blockbusters are by no means all that Hollywood makes, Geoff King gave us a sustained look at the interplay, and specifically the interpenetration, of narrative and spectacle in the blockbuster. Quoting Rick Altman, he pointed out that there is no opposition between narrative motivation and spectacle: “Decide which spectacles are needed, then make it seem like they are there for internally motivated reasons.” Hollywood has been doing that for ever. In contemporary cinema, King argued, “The ‘excessive’ quota of spectacle is a source of pleasure in its own right, and one that merits attention as a distinct component in this kind of film. It is rare, however, for spectacular audio-visual display to be unleashed more than fleetingly in Hollywood without bearing some relation to narrative dynamics.” Spectacle needs a narrative armature to have any impact; narration can be deployed alongside spectacle; and, what is an action scene but a culminating moment in a dramatic conflict between a goal-oriented protagonist and an antagonist?

Generally, academia has a reputation as lagging behind the popular press in paying attention to cultural developments. Partly that’s because it takes us a lot longer to get a piece published. When we do, though, there’s at least a chance some of us will get it right, because we’ve had the time and inclination to think about it carefully. It’s been 37 years since Jaws came out, and in that time academics have come a lot closer to the mark on the modern blockbuster than almost any critic has.

Researchable Questions, or, “Almost Exactly Like Dozens of Other Things”?

One thing that both the positive and negative coverage of The Avengers has in common is that few see much worth commenting on, at least not in the film itself (as opposed to, say, The Avengers as Industrial Phenomenon, or The Avengers as Critic-Proof Movie). To some, it does its job extraordinarily well, to others it doesn’t, to still others that job doesn’t deserve any respect to begin with. The end. But I think there is more to be said about it than that, and certainly more than I can say here. Yes, its production and marketing deserve a full-scale exegesis, but there are textual questions too.

For instance:

-What about The Avengers as a Joss Whedon film? Once Marvel set it in motion, this juggernaut has been barreling towards us, fueled by truckloads of cash and seemingly unstoppable. That’s the political economy view again. But here’s another view (the auteurist view, maybe, or even just the neo-formalist view): there was no reason it had to be particularly good. It is, though, and a great deal of the credit for that has to go to Joss Whedon, the writer-director. Whedon is already a fascinating case of contemporary transmedia authorship; how does The Avengers fit into his work? Certainly family dynamics have been at the heart of all of his television work- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse– just as they are in The Avengers. He has spoken of this as his chief interest in making it: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team — and that is the definition of family.”

Themes of family in The Avengers: from estrangement…

…to union.

Nor is that the only recurring element; as Keith Phipps notes in the most perceptive review of The Avengers I’ve read (and, yes, the most enthusiastic), “other recognizable Whedonisms arrive intact, including a distrust of authority that extends to the ostensible good guys and an unfailing ability to switch between effervescent lightness and wrenching emotion.”

What is and isn’t distinctively Whedonesque in The Avengers? Besides his writing, how is he developing as a director of performers and a visual stylist? Compare this to any of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and the clarity of the action scenes is striking- and well-suited to a team film, where the relative positions of each member are crucially important. Indeed, that clarity, firmly within what the “Intensified Continuity” style, makes The Avengers an interesting case for anyone writing on contemporary film style. It is even something even some critics recognized, like Joshua Rothkopf: “The action scenes—blissfully easy to follow—are where Whedon makes the giant leap into the big leagues.”

Ultimately, where the film is most successful, and here deserving of study, is the way it balances, sometimes toggling between and sometimes bringing together, spectacle and narrative. Richard Corliss writes of this when he says that The Avengers aims not for “transcendence,” only for “the juggler’s skill of keeping the balls smoothly airborne. At that it succeeds.” Phipps, too, singles this out: “The Avengers is big but graceful, carefully balancing small character moments with action scenes that stretch from the New York pavement to the sky and beyond.” He goes on: “Remarkably, given that sprawling cast of characters, everyone gets their due. Yet compelling as each character is in his or her own right, the real pleasure comes from the unstable chemistry of putting them together.”

-What about The Avengers and serial narration? It is nothing new for series films to carry on plot elements from one film to the next, but The Avengers is a complex piece of serial narration, the last element in a series that crosses at least four other franchises (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk; but I would happily go to a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie, too), each of which had their own stories to tell. As a first entry in a separate series cutting across the others, the elements of continuity were not so strong in The Avengers as in The Lord of the Rings, but far more so than, say, James Bond. More episodic than the former and more serialized than the latter, The Avengers felt like the series finale of a TV program balancing episodic and serial narration. Scholars of TV narrative and scholars of film series should have quite a bit to talk to each other about here.

-As when Scott speaks of “imaginative decadence,” O’Hehir sees the superhero film not just as exhausting, but exhausted: “It’s a diminished form that has become formula, that depends entirely on minor technical innovations and leaves virtually no room for drama or tragedy or anything else that might make the story actually interesting.” But I would argue the exact opposite, that the superhero film has now reached maturity, becoming a stable paradigm that can sustain films as divergent and idiosyncratic as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.

Kick-Ass

Iron Man

Thor

From the hyperbolized realism, ultra-violence, and black humor of Kick-Ass, to the looseness and incorporation of improvised character moments of Iron Man 1 and 2, to the combination of Shakespearean theatricality, high-fantasy world-building, and lavishly stylized production design of Thor, the superhero film has achieved as broad a range as its generic constraints (action, spectacle, costumes) will allow, and as rich a body of possibilities as any in contemporary studio cinema. There is much more to be written about how this form has developed and been varied since Superman in 1978.

O’Hehir says that “Right up to the end of The Avengers, I carried with me the faint hope that this really would mark the conclusion of this particular epoch-spanning series of hyperinflated comic-book spectacles.” For me, though, it was quite the opposite. I’m going with Phipps (who maybe I should also say was my videostore clerk when I was in Madison) on this one instead: “just as Star Wars helped bring the dreams of science-fiction fans into the world at large in the ’70s, in the years since X-Men, the distinction between fans and general audiences has gotten thinner and thinner. Maybe that’s what happens in a golden age. “ If this does continue to be a sustained Golden Age for the superhero movie, though, it’s still probably too much to hope that the line between scholars and critics will get thinner too.

References:

Peter Biskind.  Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998

David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It:  Story and Style in Modern Movies  (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2006)

Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, NY: Continuum, 2006.

Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins, eds., Film Theory Goes to the Movies, NY:  Routledge, 1993.

Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam,  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Morris Dickstein. “Issues.” American Film, December 1979.

Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema:  An Introduction, NY:  Columbia University Press, 2002.

Jon Lewis, ed.,The New American Cinema.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Jon Lewis, ed., The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, NY: New York University Press, 2001.

Mark Crispin Miller, ed., Seeing Through Movies, NY: Pantheon, 1990.

James Monaco, American Film Now.  NY: New York Zoetrope, 1984.

Steve Neale and Murray Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema.  NY: Routledge, 1998.

Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood,  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

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.

Steven Soderbergh Is Better Than You Think He Is

(Even If Haywire Isn’t)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Haywire, was released at a high point of media interest in the director, thanks to widespread reports on the news of his retirement from film directing at the ripe age of  49- in his prime, in fact. Even if we grant some inclination to critical generosity on account of this, a Metacritic score of 67 is pretty remarkable for an action film, and a laudable result for a director working in the genre for the first time; despite isolated action scenes in earlier films, Haywire is Soderbergh’s first extended foray into the genre. So it was newsworthy when, a few days after it opened, it received a Cinemascore audience rating of D+. Adding injury to insult, it opened in 6th place at the U.S. box office, and to date has grossed just $15 million (IMDb chart 27 January 2012), against a budget of $23 million.

This is quite a change from the norm for new releases of action films, a genre more typically characterized by disdain from critics but enthusiasm from audiences . Why have viewers been so disgruntled by the film? This reaction is not dissimilar from that of those who were upset that Drive isn’t more like The Fast and the Furious. Drive and Haywire don’t have much in common, it’s true, but there is this: neither film is fish, and neither film is fowl. These are not conventional Hollywood action films by any stretch, yet they both have far too much action to fit into the indie/arthouse category they have so much in common with otherwise. Drive, if anything, is easier to get a handle on; its violence comes in short bursts in between long, dreamy interludes studiously recreating the existentialist cool of early Michael Mann. It’s European/arthouse credentials are therefore clear, both in the tone and in the referentiality. Haywire is comparatively action-packed, without the overtly arty pacing or lingering psychological ambiguities of Drive, and without the reverence for old movies. If Drive is fundamentally an arthouse homage to straightforward action and crime films of days gone by, then Haywire is an action film first, but one in which Soderbergh draws on “indie” aesthetics to subvert expectations. The ending is not exactly ambiguous, but it is open enough to be off-putting to action devotees; the narration is legible, but the chronology is non-linear; emotions are downplayed; and the conflict is conveyed in terms that avoid the Manichean overstatement that often feels endemic to the genre. Soderbergh is not parodying or denigrating his chosen genre framework, though; this film is never condescending to the action film, and one is left with little doubt that he could pull off a more straightforwardly commercial film if it wasn’t for the probability that doing so would bore him to tears. If Drive exemplified certain recurring traits of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn- an interest in the laconic, in wide-angle lenses, in violent masculinity- then Haywire, too, is clearly the product of a director who works repeatedly with particular collaborators (here, Lem Dobbs and David Holmes), who shies away from overt, heavily-underlined emotional manipulation, and who has a distinctive, if pared-down and functional, sense of composition and rhythm. Too, Soderbergh’s abiding interest in process, especially in recent work, is clearly visible here.

Even if, like Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 13 held back some key information for the sake of the punch-line, compared to 11 and 12 it verges on the exhaustive in its elaboration of the team’s interlocked strategies for revenge. K Street focused on the how’s of lobbying to the point of completely ignoring any intelligible ongoing story. The Girlfriend Experience, likewise, eschews linear storytelling in favor of a study of the economic, physical, psychological and emotional exchanges in sex work, a film that is more essay as narrative. Che avoided the epic romanticization of the conventional biopic (and, indeed, the scope of biography) in favor of a detailed study of two revolutions, one that triumphed and one that failed miserably, so as to examine the process of revolution in all its variables and contingencies (leading troops, jungle fighting vs. city fighting, mobilizing political discourses, etc); in that sense it, too, has an essayistic quality.

Contagion generated considerable suspense from a rigorously grounded delineation of a pandemic, its ripple effects, and the range of responses to it, but at the same time, its harshest reviews came from those who seemed to expect something far weepier and more melodramatic, an updating of the Irwin Allen aesthetic that Soderbergh studiously avoided (…like the plague! boom!).

Haywire spends far more time on how Mallory first eludes and then tracks her antagonists, escapes from Dublin, and figures out what’s happening to her and how to fight back- on the processes of espionage, and indeed of fighting, as kinds of work- than it does generating a deep empathy for her.

This need not have been quite such a stumbling block to the film as it turned out to be, but in the event a lack of feeling for Mallory renders the film curiously unengaging. Why this happens goes to the heart of why Haywire fails, but also to what makes this a Soderbergh film, and so to why Soderbergh is so important and so valuable, and why Soderbergh is so frequently misunderstood and underrated, even by critics and cinephiles: he is the most restless, rigorous, and probing experimenter in American narrative cinema today. Nothing characterizes him as a director more than that.

Contemporary action films are largely exercises in fast editing, close framing, and incessant camera movement, whether harnessed to realism (the Bourne films) or to lavish spectacle (Michael Bay). At it’s best, such films are exercises in movement and rhythm played out through editing and cinematography as much as through performance, staging, and stuntwork, and much of the fascination of these films comes from the experience of them as visual music. While audiences have evidently embraced this aesthetic, critics and scholars haven’t, and people ranging from David Bordwell to Matthias Stork have instead called up HK or “classical” cinemas to demonstrate the range of options that other action cinemas have draw upon in contrast to their contemporary-Hollywood Bad Object. In Haywire, Soderbergh attempts to marry the naturalism of the Bourne films with the performer-driven staging and stuntwork of Hong Kong, doing so by casting an actual mixed-martial-arts fighter as the hero, rather than a Matt Damon, say, an actor whose limited abilities require felicitous framing and cutting to impart the illusion of realistic yet physically impressive action. This allows him to stage fight scenes in long takes, and predominantly in long shots, and still achieve exciting results. If at first the pacing and framing seem flat, there is a steady build such that later scenes are as dynamic as anything being made in Hollywood, even as the phenomenal integrity of the profilmic action is maintained (that is to say: the filming respects the reality and continuity of the action unfolding in front of the camera). The problem with casting an athlete, though, is simply this: she can’t act. Worse, she has little or no charisma. This is why stars work so well in genres like this: the film need not develop character in detail, or even do much to make us care about the heroes, because we already know them and care about them from other films. The presence of the star is a kind of storytelling shorthand, because they bring their whole persona to the film, and we bring our knowledge of that persona from all the other films we’ve seen them in. Gina Carano has no such advantage here, and given Soderbergh’s lack of interest in building up the character psychology (which would have been another kind of departure from action film convention, and evidently not the one that interested him), given that we don’t know her, given that she brings none of the things a professional actor can… well, the film does recover from it, but only progressively. As it goes on, our sympathy for her is elicited bit by bit: by reactions to her and the situation from characters we do respond to (be they for her or against her), played by people capable of provoking an immediate viewer response (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas are instantly repellant; Channing Tatum is likable; Michael Douglas effortlessly calls up an ambivalent response that makes us more nervous for Mallory; and maybe most critically, we care about Bill Paxton within seconds of his first appearance, and that Bill Paxton cares about her makes us care about her too); by our deepening sense of her plight as it develops; and from a direct, brute response to watching bodies in peril. If I was more and more invested in Carano’s Mallory as the film went on, the fact that I didn’t for so much of its length rendered it impossible ever to care very deeply.

Haywire may not completely work, but it does indeed serve as a reminder that there are a whole range of things action films can do beyond what Hollywood does with them now most of the time, and that there are more things to be tried. It’s a failed film for all its virtues, but a fascinating experiment, just as one might say of The Good German (an adaptation of classical Hollywood style in the service of a bleak narrative that is more ‘70s paranoia thriller than film noir) or The Informant! (a nearly unclassifiable film that wrongfoots expectations at every turn and throws any notion of tonal consistency out the window: is it a character study or a thriller parody, or both? a docudramedy, perhaps? seriously, what is it?). That in so many ways it breaks from the game as it is played today is part of why audiences don’t know what to do with it, just as people so often have trouble getting a handle on Soderbergh’s oeuvre in general. What is he? What kind of films does he make? Most directors of his caliber have a more recognizable, idiosyncratic approach (Wes Anderson, for instance, but even P.T. Anderson). Soderbergh’s idiosyncrasy, though, is his uncategorizability. This resistance to pigeonholing is such that even those who recognize the sheer range of the films he makes can’t seem to figure out who he is. For casual, mainstream spectators, Soderbergh is a name known, if at all, from Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s films, a maker of smooth but a bit off-beat entertainments. They might have liked Contagion, but Che and The Girlfriend Experience baffled them (if they stumbled across them at all), and Haywire left them cold. Closer observers, including a lot of his fans, often like some kinds of films he makes, but not others, and thus look back to some moment in his past career as a touchstone, as a revelation of some “true” Soderbergh underneath all the restlessness. One set of fans lionizes the serious-but-entertaining social problem filmmaker of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and for them his recent films, for some even including Contagion, are either too cold or too obscure. Another takes him as an indie director who dabbles in mainstream genres, their perception of Soderbergh rooted in Out of Sight and The Limey. Haywire makes sense to them, but Contagion, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience didn’t appeal. I would argue, though, that to understand Steven Soderbergh, you have to understand Schizopolis: you have to understand that Soderbergh is at once an experimenter and a formalist. Schizopolis is as far outside the mainstream as any contemporary A-list director has ever gotten, but it’s not a Romantic burst of free expression, it’s not an improvisation, it’s not a Godardian jazz solo of a movie. It does not, to recall Kerouac’s description of postwar jazz, follow “free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought.” It is free only in that Soderbergh crosses boundaries and departs from convention. He doesn’t ignore the normative, though; rather, he violates it at every turn, systematically, rigorously exploring all the different ways restlessness, lust, and marital and professional ennui can be depicted in visuals and dialogue. If Lost Highway reeks of being a wallow in David Lynch’s post-divorce rage, bile, and confusion, Schizopolis is a very different kind of divorce movie, one made by a director who turns his emotions into fodder for a series of formalist cinematic games.

This does nothing in itself to counter those who charge that he is cold, but it could also be said that the more lightly he touches on emotions, the more powerfully one senses them coursing under the surface. Schizopolis is hilarious and playful throughout, but a deep despair is there too. For that matter, Contagion was for some of us more moving precisely because it didn’t shove emotions in our face, allowing us to find them ourselves. That said, others found parts of the ending maudlin, but frankly, letting the daughter have her prom was the least Soderbergh could give us as an emotional bone, and certainly the succeeding “Day 1” segment introduced a far more chilling note at the film’s close. Haywire’s emotions are as buried as Mallory’s, so much the cool-headed professional as she handles her predicament, but there is no sense of what’s beneath the surface because Carano is not capable of conveying the sorts of depths that made Damon so compelling in the Bourne films. Still, I could be open to the counterargument that, for procedural fans, for spy-movie fans, this makes it a purer hit of the drug. The bigger pity of it for me is that since his efforts to make The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have fallen through (since George Clooney dropped out, Soderbergh moved on and Guy Ritchie is now attached), I can’t see a project in his immediate (pre-retirement) future where he can put the lessons learned here to use in another action film (though who knows what sort of film The Bitter Pill is going to be).

One reason why Soderbergh’s experiments are so satisfying to a viewer like me, a bit of a formalist myself, is the palpable sense of setting out cinematic problems and carefully working through solutions. From this he gleans a body of methods  used to tackle different problems in subsequent films, thereby in turn generating yet more solutions. His filmography sees him systematically and progressively take up challenges, push the approaches he takes to their limits, and apply those lessons in ways to perpetuate the learning process. Schizopolis freed him from the more schematic, limited formalism of earlier films in ways that allowed him to achieve a looseness that enlivened Out of Sight; the (deceptive) sense of looseness and temporal play of that film were taken much further in The Limey, which was at once more intricately structured (reminiscent of Resnais in its non-linearity), and yet more attuned to the nuances of mood and moment. His sense of how to introduce a sense of mood and contingency into a highly structured work helped him find new, fresh notes in the much more mainstream Erin Brockovich. And so on. Consider how far he’s come as a cinematographer from the first films he shot as “Peter Andrews” to now, and how far he’s come as an editor since he started cutting his own films as “Mary Ann Bernard.” This is not to take the old auteurist line that each new film by a canonical director builds on the previous in an ever-ascending arc of greatness; like all ambitious directors, Soderbergh has stumbled along the way. But there is a sense of forward motion and steadily accumulating mastery in a career dotted with films where all the lessons seem to come together to produce genuinely sublime results. Solaris is one, an unusually lyrical film for him that is a culmination of his experimentation with subjective non-linear narration, and of his attempts to find his own particular union of genre and art cinema.

Che is another, utilizing both an understated, documentaristic realism (the depiction of revolution not as epic, heroic narrative but as a gradual, day-by-day, inch-by-inch trudge) and a systematic, highly patterned formalism (the whole series of stylistic and formal contrasts in the diptych construction) to their extremes.

Looking back to and ratcheting up the network-narrative stratagem of Traffic, combining it with a keener focus on process and a broader sense of social interconnectivity, Contagion was another high-point.

Haywire isn’t a high-point, really, but apart from the performance issues (which admittedly were fundamental to the whole design), it is a beautifully-made genre film, and one that throws up new avenues to explore, should Soderbergh wish to. He may or may not do so in the few films he has left before he steps away from directing films, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he will return to filmmaking in time, and that when he does the lessons he’s learning now will be put to good use. For someone who has moved forward with the restlessness he has demonstrated, it seems appropriate that one gets the sense that he feels exhausted. He has spoken of running out of new ways to make films, of wanting to take a break because he cannot figure out how to jump to another level; for instance, in a recent Film Comment interview, he spoke of not knowing how to do some of the things with visuals that David Fincher or Terrence Malick do. He may not feel he has the stylistic facility of Fincher or the poetry of Malick, but the elegance and precision of so much of Contagion and Haywire (especially when compared to the often-leaden overstatement of Kafka and The Underneath) suggests that he’s selling himself a little short, that in fact there are plenty of moments where he can and does approach the level of Fincher. Of course, Malick is doing another sort of thing entirely, and in finding himself wanting by comparison, Soderbergh is holding himself to an awfully lofty standard. That may not be the best thing for his peace of mind, but viewers have reaped the rewards from Soderbergh constantly moving forward, constantly raising the stakes of the game he’s playing.  Wherever he sets his sights when he does come back to directing, I don’t think I’d bet against him.

Defending Hollywood

On the 7th of November, 2011, in a now-infamous entry on his blog, Frank Miller let loose a startlingly vituperative, borderline psychotic rant on Occupy Wall Street, calling those participating in the most promising political movement in contemporary America “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness,” “clowns” who “can do nothing but harm America.” Choosing not to burden the few fans he still has with any actual thinking, he spewed out a lot of puerile puns- calling OWS a “movement” only in the sense of “bowel movement”- and accusing those protesting of hurling “garbage” that- get this!- would play into Al-Qaeda and their various Evil Islamicist pals’ unceasing attempts to Destroy America.

The absurdity of all this, not least from a writer/artist who used to take a notably anti-corporate line back in his ‘80s heyday, is so crashingly obvious that Miller’s original piece is barely worth commenting on. Where does one start? With the overall meanness, the small-mindedness? The cocaine-fuelled rantiness? The paranoia of a man stuck in 9/12-mode, when it ought to be clear that unregulated corporate capitalism has done more harm to the world in the last 5 years than Al-Qaeda has in the last 10? Best to just shake one’s head and move on, trying to forget the Dave Sim-like mental decline of a man who used to be one of the most important figures in modern comics. Miller deserves nothing more than some vigorous jeers on social media, and he got that, but unfortunately (not for him, for us) he also got novelist Rick Moody writing a piece for The Guardian taking Miller’s rant not as the barking of a lunatic but as a smoking gun, a peek behind the curtains into the politics of the whole of Hollywood and comics both.

Moody’s piece, published on the 24th of November, is titled “Frank Miller and the rise of cryptofascist Hollywood.” What Moody is training his sights on here is the notion that Hollywood, seemingly a provider merely of entertainment, actually peddles propaganda. Feel free to take a moment to let the crashing obviousness of that sink in. After all, it came as something of a shock to Moody to realize this (when he was in his early 30s!) while watching Under Siege, and he still seems to be reeling from it almost 20 years later. “Before Under Siege,” he writes, “I had a tendency to think action films were funny. I had a sort of Brechtian relationship to their awfulness.” Some of you must already be thinking, why even bother engaging with an argument put forth by someone so condescending as to characterize the IQ of an entire genre in one reductive swipe? You’re right, of course, but let’s press on. Like many a person gripped by the force of a revelation, he now seems to find political allegory everywhere. Gladiator, for instance, is an allegory about… wait for it… George W. Bush’s candidacy for president; he concedes that neither Russell Crowe nor Ridley Scott are American citizens (I’d be inclined to double check that, actually; I think it’s a fair guess they have a pretty secure immigration status), but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the film went into production in 1999 , before W. was on the culture’s radar. “Is it possible to think of a film such as Gladiator outside of its political subtext? Are Ridley Scott’s falling petals, which he seems to like so much that he puts them in his films over and over again, anything more than a way to gussy up the triumph of oligarchy, corporate capital and globalization?” Let’s pause a moment to consider this. Consider that in this last interrogative, what is at best a fringe interpretation of the film is blithely assumed to have the status of fact. Consider, too, that this interpretation depends not only on an easy one-to-one relationship between contemporary politics and the narrative, but also on the idea that Gladiator is a celebration of Roman oligarchy and political succession. One would, then, expect the coronation of Commodus fulsomely to be celebrated in the film; in fact, most viewers perceive Commodus as the villain of the piece.

For Moody, a whole series of sweeping generalizations follow, to him seemingly so patently obvious as to hardly require evidence or logic to support them. Most action film stars of the 80s and 90s- and therefore their films- defend “a conservative agenda,” and/or justify vigilantism. Likewise, the more recent superhero adaptations are marked by a “moral framework that is just as simplistic as in action films, if not more so, and the triumph of the social order is just as violent, and just as relentless….” Less enlightened viewers may be distracted by that seductive opiate of the masses, CGI, but once you peel back a layer of spectacle, the politics are glaringly obvious: “Might is right, the global economy will be restored, America is exceptional, homely people deserve political disenfranchisement, and so on.” Thus he returns to Frank Miller: for Moody, the politics of Miller’s online rant are of a piece with the politics of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of 300 (a common interpretation of the film is that the Spartans are Americans and the Persians stand in for the whole horde of contemporary Middle Eastern devils gathered to thwart us; but arguably the film is if anything a classic case of Hollywood’s studied ideological incoherence, such that the film may be read almost as easily with the Spartans as Iraq/Afghanistan and the Persians as Americans- who, after all, invaded who?).  But this film, so truly hysterical in so many ways (homoerotic? homophobic? both?), is taken to be typical, not in any way exceptional. And here’s the rub: it typifies not only all of contemporary Hollywood product, but also all of comic book politics. In his single most odious sentence, Moody writes that “At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously”; this is some small advantage given that movies are so much more insidious. Nowadays, “in the Marvel and DC era of Hollywood,” movies are always either “self-evidently shilling for large corporations (with product placement) or militating for a libertarian and oligarchical status quo (which makes a fine environment for large, multinational corporations).” If you aren’t part of the solution, whatever that may be, Moody thinks you’re part of the problem: “Paying your $12.50, these days, is not unlike doing a line of cocaine and pretending you don’t know about the headless bodies in Juarez.” So, the “hard right, pro-military” politics in Miller’s online rant aren’t only accounted for in his own work, or those of his adapters, but in fact in comics generally and “in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema.” American movies, too, “agree” that “war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining.” Comic-book adaptations have “so degraded” cinematic art that what was once a “humanist” form now can do little but repeat the platitudes of the 1%. “Whatever mainstream Hollywood is now, Frank Miller is part of it.”

Now, anyone who happens to get some pleasure from Hollywood films is likely to be inclined to be hostile to all or part of Moody’s ravings. In fact, if you either watch studio films or read comics, you are likely, as I do, to find Moody’s rant nearly as cretinous as Miller’s. Neither are especially hard to pick apart, either. One could point out that it’s a bit of a stretch to see Frank Miller as “part of” mainstream Hollywood: there are all sorts of reasons its unlikely that Miller has had a particularly profound influence on contemporary Hollywood politics; the one film he made on his own was a disaster; Robert Rodriguez appears to have abandoned plans for Sin City 2, and no other adaptations of his books seem to be anywhere near the boil.  But ultimately, Moody is after much bigger game than Frank Miller. I won’t spend much time defending comics, except to point out that a condemnation of comic book politics ought to at least address the origins of the superhero in the mythology of the golem that the Jewish creators of almost every major character drew upon, and the fact that like the golem, the superhero traditionally fights for the underdog as much as he does for the status quo. But how does one defend Hollywood, in the context of its politics? Should one, in fact? It is certainly the case that seeing a movie is not in itself a politically effective form of activism, and perhaps in that sense, sure, more comparable to snorting lines of coke than to doing anything to stop drug lords in Juarez killing people. An infinitely more sophisticated version of what I take to be Moody’s point here is taken up by the likes of Jonathan Beller in writing about cinema in terms of the attention economy (grossly simplified: how capitalism colonizes your attention, and thus solicits your tacit quiescence, through media). But as I understand it, that’s more about how cinema circulates as a cultural mode, how movie-watching functions in a broad sense, than it is about the political content of any individual film. When it comes to that, Moody is surely right about SOME films; it doesn’t get much more pro-military than Transformers, a film designed as a shill for at least one corporate entity (Hasbro). However crude his sense of politics is from the get-go, it seems to me that the key question lies in the validity of the generalization.

Certainly, one response to Moody might be the old reactionary, ultra-conservative line about Hollywood liberalism, but any reasoned response is likely to shift from the general to the specific, to question how applicable Moody’s claims actually are. For instance, one might point out that a condemnation of Hollywood politics ought to begin with a recognition of the number of times that the baddies are corporate suits. Of course, as with the gangster film, in such cases a systemic critique can be avoided by depicting EvilCorp as an aberration, a perversion of the capitalist pursuit of wealth by those who ignore the values of community and law and order. The many, many films where the baddie is a politician or military officer similarly show the antagonists as aberrations, but because the case here is complicated by the fact that said baddie is actually a part of the system, there’s at least a bit of room open for a holistic criticism of the establishment. Here and there, too, a blockbuster attacks corporate capitalism or the American government in ways that don’t give orthodox ideology any easy way out, at least if you are willing to grant that Hollywood’s most subversive statements are almost always clothed in at least some layers of allegory and metonymy. Avatar may be racist, but it is also unequivocally critical of corporate and military collusion in economic imperialism. This last summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had audiences cheering for the apes to win their liberation from (and revenge against) the humans, basically cheering on the end of civilization. Whether you took it as an allegory of management and workers, or colonizers and colonized, or, most directly, masters and slaves, it was a clearly pro-revolution film. It was also a movie celebrating collective action rather than individual achievement, just as we might say of A Bug’s Life or even the Ocean’s trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be something of an aberration, just as Syriana was in getting audiences to root for a terrorist bombing at its climax. But most Hollywood films, even the blockbusters, don’t have conservative politics as such, nor the leftist inverse: they are purposely incoherent in an attempt to bypass criticism from any quarter, to provide contradictory evidence to fuel a response to any such criticism, and to provide plausible deniability to avoid conflicts around their carefully designed marketing strategies and release patterns. Superhero movies demonstrate this quite well. X-Men: First Class might come down on the side of Charles Xavier’s message of pacifism, tolerance, and peaceful change rather than Eric Lehnsherr’s violent resistance, but it still shows the mutants ruthlessly betrayed by the country they fought to save. The Dark Knight shows a city where a vigilante is needed to protect threats to the status quo, but ultimately rejects not only the surveillance technology Batman uses with no regard for civil rights, but even the idea of vigilantism. Then too, though people like Moody tend to slide from criticizing blockbusters to criticizing all of Hollywood as if those are coterminous, in fact it needs to be remembered that not all Hollywood product fits into that category. As much attention as blockbusters receive, there are still medium and low-budget films released by the majors, and in all kinds of categories, and even now some of them are made as much to garner prestige as to make a killing at the summertime B.O.- and that’s leaving aside the amount of television production the studios engage in.

My response to Moody- looking for individual cases that escape or complicate easy generalizations- is a time-honored one, the one taken by perhaps Hollywood’s most influential defender, Andrew Sarris: to look not at the forest, but at the trees. By insisting that critics look at what differentiates Hollywood films via attention to the individuals who make them (one in particular, of course, the director, but the idea of looking for marks of individuation through the creative worker has broader applicability) rather than the larger narrative and generic patterns (and clichés) that characterize Hollywood cinema as a whole, Sarris and other auteurists managed to shift the whole terrain of film analysis: to paying attention to the fine grain of textual details, and also to subtext, to the notion of looking for what a film “Is Really About” whatever the story (and whatever the overt politics). Whatever debates arise around the idea of looking for a single Creator in a collaborative medium, the salutary impact of auteurism on film studies derives from the fact that they didn’t just claim high-art status for movies in general and Hollywood in particular, they also made a claim for the validity of close, detailed studies of cinematic texts. But if that was a clear gain for all film scholarship, the auteurists opened up whole new realms to explore for students of popular cinema in particular. Auteurism at its birth is nothing if not a high-art way of looking at mass-culture objects, and by looking closely finding a level of artistry equivalent to or more satisfying (because more subtle, more veiled) than the more overt pretensions of the art cinema that announces itself as such. At the same time, critics of auteurism tend to get as caught up in polemics as Sarris himself; however much Sarris courted controversy by defending Hollywood, a sympathetic reading of his key essays (“Notes on the Auteur Theory 1962,” “Towards a Theory of Film History”) reveals much more modest claims than opponents attribute to him. No-one claims that every Hollywood film counts as art in an evaluative sense (as Sarris tended to use the word, however much the very idea of film authorship is caught up in a discursive shift in the use of the term “art” from an evaluative to a descriptive sense), nor that every director is an auteur: the auteur director’s strength is a function of the weaknesses of others, those who do not or cannot reshape and personalize their material.  As a defense of Hollywood, auteurism actually requires a willingness to dismiss most of its products at the same time as it requires a willingness to pay some degree of attention to all its products.

The auteurist demand that Hollywood be taken seriously and studied closely has been influential almost beyond the calculation of it, on journalists prepared to recognize that Hollywood is or at least has been capable of producing art, on academics carving out terrain for teaching and research, on filmmakers hoping to do personally significant work inside the commercial system. Yet in reportage and opinion on popular culture, debates over Hollywood’s capability of producing art are renewed every few years. Sarris and others may have convinced people to at least pretend to appreciate John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and influential reviewers like Pauline Kael may have helped to alert moviegoers to the likes of Altman, Coppola, and Scorsese in the 1970s, but since the studios renewed their commitment to the blockbuster in the late 1970s, critics and even scholars have tended to take as jaundiced a view of Hollywood as was ever found pre-Sarris. The auteurists may have convinced people to take classical Hollywood seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the contemporary period.

Time plays its tricks, for one thing: when people think of classical Hollywood, even the most knowledgeable tend to think of Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, of Casablanca and The Awful Truth and a handful of other classics that taken together represent only a small percentage of the studios total output from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, for most of which time they put out over 4 times the number of films they do now. Few outside of the most hardcore scholars and buffs grapple with the studios’ run of the mill fare from this period. Even people who know that Hollywood produced an enormous amount of twaddle in the classical period can forget that in the slew of ads for Jack and Jill or New Year’s Eve. To say that Hollywood made more great films in 1939 than in 2009 may be right, but arguably the percentage is not far off, especially once we factor in “independent” films distributed by boutique divisions of the majors.

Others are simply so hostile to the blockbuster trade that they can’t or don’t try to understand what it is such films are trying to do. They cannot differentiate a good action film from a bad one because they apply the wrong criteria (cf. Moody’s comments on the stupidity of action films). It is simply missing the point to require an action film to provide psychologically detailed characters as riven by doubts and insecurities as most of us are, or plausibility, or narrative intricacy. By finding the films wanting on such grounds, commentators, even academics, have been lured into mis-describing the films as if they had no psychological causation or narrative to speak of, when even the weakest examples of the genre provide a stable, character-driven narrative armature so as to generate audience involvement with what transpires onscreen. The action film is not about literary values; when it has them, they are perhaps a bonus. Instead, at its best, action cinema embodies things that Hollywood has always been very good at: spectacularizing narrative and narrativizing spectacle, using a wide range of tools in the medium’s arsenal to create audiovisual symphonies that are as close to a “pure cinema” as anything the avant-garde ever produced (not that there is any such thing as pure cinema; cinema’s impurity as a medium is one of its most enduringly exciting characteristics).  Caught up in their notions of literature as the highest form of art and importing those criteria to cinema, lionizing their version of classical cinema and refusing to approach the contemporary on its own aims, norms, and merits, some not only cannot see what’s still being done successfully in Hollywood films, they wouldn’t admit it if they could (much like those Sarris wrote of who found Hollywood a kind of painted lady, contemptuous of her even as they guiltily succumbed to her charms). More than that, they can’t even comprehend those who would defend it.

The reaction to Tom Shone’s extraordinarily eloquent defense of post-Jaws Hollywood, Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Summer (one of the best books on American film for a popular audience published in the last few decades), is telling, because some reviewers not only didn’t agree with Shone’s arguments, they wouldn’t grant any legitimacy to him or what he was trying to say. Reviewing it for Film Comment, Adam Nayman summed up: “The message is clear: cinephiles, drop your grudges (and that new book on Abbas Kiarostami), put Back to the Future in your Netflix queue, and let the healing begin. Shone’s success in making a halfway convincing argument for this dire entreaty speaks either to our encroaching apathy in the face of Hollywood’s global dominance or the effectiveness of his own affably insinuating soft-pedal critical approach.”

Now, keep in mind: Shone is not saying all blockbusters are awesome sauce. He’s celebrating the very best films of Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron, et. al., and being quite tough on the likes of Roland Emmerich while he’s at it. That Shone is far from uncritical should be considered when you’re pondering just how “dire” his entreaty here is. While Shone is snarky about the art cinema, the either/or fallacy here says at least as much about the reviewer’s own prejudices; people consistently, inexplicably write as if it’s not possible to enjoy The Wind Will Carry Us and Die Hard both. (Does that date me? Maybe I should say, both Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Mission: Impossible 4.) Finally, there’s the line about Hollywood’s global dominance. Commerce: this is the crux of the problem. No-one has any trouble compartmentalizing the best films of the classical era from the way studios conducted their business, but without the benefit of time, inundated with current Hollywood and the culture and economics around it, that can be much harder. In fact, perhaps it should be; the business of filmmaking was at least as savage then as now.

Questions of the role of the critic arise: given that Hollywood is a globally hegemonic cinema, what are the responsibilities of the critic? Implicit in Nayman’s review is the idea that the critic should support the underdog, should celebrate cinema outside the corporate-entertainment monoculture, should praise films that do things differently than Hollywood films, all of which seems true and uncontroversial. But for many of the more highbrow critics, it is an extension of this logic to say that the critic should oppose Hollywood hegemony with all their verbal might, and that this means rejecting what Hollywood is in the business of making. Of course our sense of cinema will be impoverished if we only ask one thing of it; does that mean we are obligated to reject that one thing on principle? In an interminably long, pointlessly anecdotal, borderline incoherent review of Blockbuster and two other books on contemporary cinema, Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing’s Open Wide, David Thomson (an extravagantly overrated critic, and one who has always been hostile to contemporary Hollywood) has this, and only this, to say about Shone’s entire project: having noted that both Blockbuster and Open Wide talk about the economics of the contemporary blockbuster, he writes, “What is striking (and so disturbing) in these books is the uncritical tone of this business history. Hayes and Bing and Shone seem to say that the way things are going is not just natural, but admirable. It’s a business, after all. You feel that these writers are gently trying to prove their suitability for a studio job. But the gelding of film criticism is part of the larger failure to stand up and denounce the wretchedness of what this complacent business is churning out.”

Hayes and Bing are talking purely about economics in their book, and certainly don’t get into whether or not the films are any good; why should they?  But Thomson assumes every piece of honest writing must denounce said films, either oblivious to Shone’s praise of the best of them, certainly unmoved by it, or unable to comprehend that someone sincerely might like some of these sorts of movies. The mere fact of praising any of them is toadying for Thomson (in fact, Shone did leave his job as film critic for The Sunday Times, but to write a novel, not to be a studio exec). It’s hard to imagine a more willfully obtuse, closed-minded, high-handed, self-righteously dismissive response to a contrary position. Like Nayman, Thomson conflates the process and the product; if we are to resist Hollywood as the culturally-hegemonic corporate capitalist beast that it surely is, they seem to say, we must first reject all that comes from it. It is precisely because English-language film critics today are split between studio shills manufacturing blurbs for posters and New York-based pseudo-intellectuals contrarily promoting the latest from Iran and Romania that few, if any, are reliable guides to Hollywood, which, by virtue of its dominance, its sheer ubiquity, would seem to be a fairly urgent area of inquiry, rather than one that can be merely dismissed.

Academics grapple with similar issues in the study of popular cinema. Postmodernism is supposed to have dissolved the boundaries between high and low culture, but there are plenty of corners of the academy, and not only in English departments, that this paradigm shift seems to have bypassed. The idea of taking Hollywood seriously is still out of bounds for a lot of academics, let alone films based on comic books. These people need to read the opening chapter or two of David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong, as good as one-stop defense of popular cinema as I know. They should consider that virtually all cinema is made for some sort of marketplace, be it the multiplex or the gallery, such that all of it is made with some economic considerations in mind; and with those come expectations about form and representation. Even once we’ve dispensed with the likes of them, though, the question remains: What stance do we take to Hollywood? What does one stance or another get us?

One illustrious figure in the field once told a colleague of mine that in his department, Hollywood is taught as “the enemy.” As put, that seems inadequate to me. Certainly, the American film industry is as ruthless and amoral an example of capitalistic economic and cultural imperialism as you can find, and those of us who teach it should acknowledge that. Some will stop there, concluding that to go further in appreciating Hollywood films is to help do the industry’s work, to promote the industry either explicitly or implicitly. But my love for the films, and my estimation of what they can and can’t, do and don’t do means I have a deeper investment in Hollywood cinema than would allow me to leave it at that. It simply isn’t the case that the economics of film production directly determine every formal aspect of the films themselves; Althusser’s notion of relative autonomy is important here, the idea that cultural production is relatively autonomous from the economic base. Making films about superheroes may itself be economically determined, but that doesn’t explain the formal achievements of Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, or Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, or Kenneth Branagh in Thor. It may be a business decision to put a man in tights in front of the camera, but not, or not directly, how to film him. That Hollywood largely supports the economic status quo may be true, but does not exhaust the subject, even if what counts as a political “subversion” is so disguised as to be unintelligible to most viewers, and Hollywood films so caught up in the larger circuits of capital that the idea that one might have a subversive impact is virtually inconceivable.

The problem is, how to reconcile a healthy suspicion of Hollywood as an economic and cultural institution with a keen, open understanding and appreciation of what Hollywood cinema does (and doesn’t do)? But that’s not the only problem. The fact of Hollywood’s global dominance, the extent to which Hollywood is an oligopoly and the extent to which it has colonized people’s idea of what cinema is, is enough to put the study of Hollywood front and center. But when running a film history class, say, how do you adequately explore Hollywood without marginalizing other cinemas? How do you take Hollywood into account without dismissing it but also without perpetuating its hegemony? It’s true that students often have a reflexive resistance to Hollywood, and that does some of the work for you; merely defending even some aspects of Hollywood cinema can upset their expectations more than any Godard you could show them (maybe not more than “Un Chien Andalou,” though; that eyeball shot gets ‘em every time). But I have no answers for any of these questions. I will never be wholly comfortable spending 6 weeks of a 13-week film history survey class on Hollywood, with only one week each on French cinema (the New Wave), German cinema (the ‘20s), Russian cinema (ditto), Japanese cinema (postwar), etc., but I also can’t figure out how to talk about the world’s dominant cinema in less than 6 weeks. For the other questions, I can only rely on this: cinema, even Hollywood cinema, maybe especially Hollywood cinema, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to any one of its aspects, including the business of it.