Tag Archives: the fantastic

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 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.