Tuesday, November 27, 2007

2 or 3 Things I Know About Him (Look Through Any Window)



Loop-de-link: Jeff beat me to it with his great post, but I did want to follow up on yesterday's post about Bordwell's "adolescent window" with some examples of my own. I'm cheating a little bit by expanding the time frame: Bordwell set it at ages 13-18, but for me it stays open from 11-19, from that first horrific, hormone-ridden day of middle school (future movie idea: sixth grade as a version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where everyone you know is replaced by an eerie, alien pod person version of themselves) until just after the freshman year of college. With that in mind, here are several objects of adolescent obsession:

1) With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: My earliest comics-reading memories are connected to docks and sickbeds. We were renting a tiny cottage in some southwest Michigan town, and I'd fish down at the little dock near the house. Rather pitiful attempts to catch tiny blue gills were punctuated with reading the ragged copies of Batman and Superman found at the local drugstore. I must've been about six years old, and I don't really remember anything about the stories, although I do remember a cover with Batman hanging out a window, as Two-Face threatened to drop him to the ground several stories below. Later, when I'd get the flu in second and third grade, and miss several days of school, my father would bring home comics after work-- more DCs, but also a digest version of a Superman-Spiderman crossover epic that had them teaming up to defeat Lex Luthor. I knew Spider-Man primarily through television: the truly odd Electric Company segments that I eagerly awaited at the end of an episode (despite their distinct lack of derring-do), and the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, where the webslinger teams up with mutant pals Iceman and Firestar to fight crime. The latter was especially appealing-- unlike Electric Company, it had actual fight scenes, and I was also drawn to the idea of having superheroic pals with whom you shared a swinging pad (that can secretly turn into a crime-fighting lair with the flip of a switch). The idea that this superhero (a kid! Like me!) would team up with the Man of Steel (who, again, I loved primarily in cinematic, Christopher Reeve form rather than in comics), a guy from the "other" comics company, was one of those mind-blowing moments that truly defined detente for a nine-year old.

It wasn't until I turned eleven that I turned comics-collecting pro. I had friends who also collected comics, and taught me about arcane new rituals like "bagging" one's comics for preservation, and even keeping a list of issues you needed to "complete" a certain run. See?, I could tell my parents-- this wasn't just time-wasting, but taught you important lessons about organizing and preserving an archive and, um, stuff.

I was lucky to come of comics age during a great period in mainstream superheroing (roughly 1984-1988), when various talents like John Byrne, Alan Moore, Chris Claremont, Bob Layton, Roger Stern, Jim Shooter, John Romita, Jr., Frank Miller and others were having a lot of fun telling new and sometimes daring stories about Marvel and DC heroes. Most of these names probably don't mean anything to mainstream audiences, but to a young, comic-besotted kid, they were like rock stars, fabulous talents that brought a vibrant universe into being, just for me. For a shy, geeky kid who felt deeply out-of-place in junior high, the Marvel Universe, especially, became an important escape valve for anxieties and imaginative longing. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko knew what they were doing when they made Spidey a teenager, and thus tapped into the most powerful metaphor and dream in the history of the superhero genre-- I know I wasn't the only kid who wished a spider would land on him in chem class and give him powers he could use for revenge on his enemies.

That duality-- comics as isolated, individual escape and space of communal desire-- was enhanced by my other bit of fortuitous timing: reading in the age of the comics shop. The rise of the "direct market" in the late 70s transformed comics publishing thereafter, creating a strong market for more complex and "adult" stories that takes us to modern figures as diverse as Adrian Tomine, Warren Ellis and Los Bros Hernandez. I didn't know any of that in 1985-- I was just electrified by the racks and racks of new comics, boxes of back issues (some going as far back as *gasp* 1963!), and folks to talk about comics with. Without knowing the word, it was my first taste a subculture. It also happened as the nostalgia market-- especially for all things Silver Age (1956-1972, more or less)-- was really taking off, and Marvel began reprinting their classic sixties tales in cheap-as-new comics editions, allowing me to catch up on the pasts of my favorite characters without straining my allowance.

I made a joke above about comics-as-archiving-lesson, but I actually think that's true, especially with Marvel. Superman and Spider-Man together? Screw that! How about whole, interconnected universes? Marvel was my introduction to the footnote, although academics would not be nearly as witty as Stan Lee was with his asterisked, corner-of-the-panel notations ("It happened in Spidey #25, remember, True Believer? Sure you do!-- Stan"). In reading one Marvel, you had to ponder reading them all, to understand the intertwined stories and vast thematic architecture the Marvel Bullpen was constructing (sometimes a panel from one book would be reprinted in a different context in another-- simulteneity and cross-cutting across issues, Rashomon-in-tights).

Speaking of the Bullpen, I haven't even mentioned the "Bullpen Bulletins" page in every ish, giving you a "behind-the-scenes" look at your favorite creators, or the brilliant letters pages (especially those of editor Mark Gruenwald), which made you feel like they actually valued your ideas, conjectures and opinions. Yes, the interconnected stories, bulletins and letters pages were all brilliant marketing tools, as Stan Lee later admitted, but they were more than that for a young reader. They taught me basic concepts of authorship (you mean, someone actually writes these stories?) and creative personality at a young age ("I think I like Byrne's Fantastic Four more than Kirby's..."); they helped me understand economies of publishing and marketing and branding (Marvel is "different" than DC) which are still useful; and in their intertwined, decades-long mythologies, they taught me the value and thrill of research (this connects to that, which goes here, but don't forget this plot point...wait, how does this part fit?). I once spoke with a brilliant professor of Marxist theory who told me that he intuitively picked up his research skills and desires for theoretical and narrative complexity and coherence by reading Marvel comics as a child, so I don't think it's just me. At the same time, though, it is-- as I said above, they were writing these stories, "just for me," but I was also "writing" them myself, by imagining character's voices, "hearing" the issue's soundtrack in my head (like a movie score), taking that leap into "seeing" still images move on a page. Without ever saying so, Marvel comics taught me that interpretive acts are also creative ones, and that the text is not just a story, but a discovery of the self.


2)The Value of the Stare:
--1987: I'm fourteen, and my friend Rob and I are being driven to the high school football game by his parents. They have the oldies station on, and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" comes on. I'm thunderstruck, like God coming to Noah: this is the future (even if, paradoxically, it's the past). The song takes root in my ear like one of those slugs that Khan drops into Chekov's ear in Star Trek II-- it's more pleasurable, but it takes over my brain in a similar way.



I head to the record store in the mall, and find a cassette tape (tapes, record stores in the mall-- older modes of delivery) called Meet the Beatles! I must wear it out, playing it again and again, flipping for it as I flip over the tape. It's the first time I've felt the need to immediately play an album again after just listening to it. It never gets old.

--1988: Listening to Sgt. Pepper on Walkman headphones (odd name-- I'm always sitting when I use them) in the back seat of the minivan on a family trip through Gulf Shores, Alabama. I've avoided the album for awhile because I'm put off, at fifteen, by its druggy connotations. There's a part of me that thinks its sound will trip me out even if I'm not high. That part of me is silly and paranoid, of course. And also right-- its psychedelic soundscapes make for an eerie, slightly uncomfortable accompaniment to the shiny grass and beaches that go by my window ("Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away..."). Talking of going on tour in 1992, Bono said in an interview that "I don't think I've ever come back from a tour the same person I was when I left," and that's what the album feels like for me-- it sticks in my head (I hum songs in math class, their melodic power no match for algebraic dreariness), it transforms my vision, it has the dire effect of making me think hippies are cool (this will take years to recover from).

--1989: The album cover of Beatles For Sale, staring at me as I stare at it in the den of my grandmother's house. The image (reproduced above) is haunting and beautiful, even more surreal to me than Pepper's crowd shot, Revolver's collage or Rubber Soul's fish-eye lens shot. It stands somewhere bewteen the cheery mops of Hard Day's Night and the exhausted hippies of The White Album: they're still mods, and they're still boyishly stylish, but there's a look of unease on their faces. Writing of Humphrey Bogart's death in 1957, Andre Bazin will speak of Bogie's face as a sort of deathmask, that he carries knowledge of his doom on his wrinkled cheeks, but goes forth anyway, and it's this affirmation that makes him an existential hero. Years later, I will learn that Paul and John modeled the Beatles' haircuts on explicitly French and German styles they noticed in Hamburg and Paris in the early sixties, precisely the moment when Bazin's disciples are remaking cinema. Is there a hint of Antoine Doinel in Paul McCartney's pensive stare?


3)Pauline at the Beach: OK, I'll admit it-- I did it for a dame.

Well, two dames, actually. The first was a girl I had a massive crush on my freshman year of college. We were having dinner at her dorm cafeteria when she casually mentioned her Comp Lit 190 (Introduction to Film) screening that evening. "They're showing Breathless," she said in her southern drawl. "Do you want to go?"



Now, understand, this woman could've said, "I'm thinking of dropping acid, putting some Garth Brooks on the stereo and munching on crushed glass this evening-- would you like to join me?," and I would've said, "Sounds great!" Of course I said yes. And in answering in the affirmative, I discovered the love of my life.

No, not the girl-- she did not reciprocate my feelings, although we remained friends for several years, until she moved out of the country and we lost track of each other (last I heard, she was married and had two children, and was living in Israel). The real love was the movie itself, and the French New Wave it so brilliantly embodied. At 18, only a semester into college, I could not have told you about the film's use of jump cuts, ellipses and long takes, its heady mixture of parody and sincere affection for genre cliches, its simultaneous debts to Monogram and Marguerite Duras; all I knew was that it was the most fabulous thing I'd seen in my short life, and that it filled me with an exuberance I'd never felt for a film before. It was cool, and not just because Jean-Paul Belmondo flipped a cigarette into his mouth with such panache.

At this point, I prefer the humanist melancholy of Truffaut and Shoot The Piano Player, but Breathless was the first film to expose me to the possibilities of playing with cinema, of ignoring rules, of embodying that youthful experimentation that, as Barthes will later suggest, gleefully ignores "that old specter: logical contradiction." Yes, Breathless calls attention to cinematic conventions and undermines them, but it doesn't do so in the later, drier spirit of Godard's Dziga Vertov work-- it's both deconstruction and celebration, and that tension is what makes the film work; it does what Michael Taussig will later call for in anthropology, "piercing the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality." Looking at the film now, I see that it's not just Belmondo's bantering with Jean Seberg that I loved and learned from, but Godard's desire to speak in all registers at once--analytical, narrative, poetic -- and how I always want my own writing to register in those same ways, and with the same simulteneity. After all, if Godard doesn't choose, why should we?

The summer following that freshman year, I'm at a house by the beach on Lake Michigan, the waves pushing up against the shore in the dead of the night, while I curl up on the couch with Pauline Kael's I Lost It At The Movies. It's the perfect book for this moment, as it collects so many of Kael's early written pieces and radio reviews of films like L'Avventura, The 400 Blows, Grand Illusion, and, yes, Breathless. She confirms my instincts and feeds my desires for this new foreign-language cinema the previous year has exposed me to. She's the second dame in my cinephiliac noir, and almost immediately becomes a hero of mine. Graceful, perceptive and pungent, she's a very funny read on films I hate (I remember her takedowns of tripe like The Little Mermaid and Working Girl in The New Yorker in the late 80s, and her description of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington-- "No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can--but if anyone else should learn to, kill him"-- remains my favorite take on that overrated 'classic'), but its her raves that endear me to her, for the way they sing in a glorious, movie-drunk first person. Pauline Kael taught me the value of the "I," to not be afraid of the first person, and to read it, not as a sign of solipsism, but as a sign of taking responsibility (Barthes again: "It's always someone's voice") for one's tastes, ideas and opinions. Another great Kael quote: "If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?" Kael reminded us that those cinephiliac, quasi-physical passions so frowned upon by Christian Metz (and later apologized for by Godard) were not our enemies, but the raison d'etre of our writing, and, by extension, our lives.

3 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Mr Smith Goes to Washington - Can't stand it. Glad to see you read ole Pauline in the New Yorker too. It's the only reason I bought it. When Rafferty took over I stopped.

Anyway, great post. There's seems to be a glut of self-reflective reminiscing going on lately around the blogs. I'll even be doing a tiny bit of my own soon (and of course quoting you in the process).

And oh yeah, wasn't college great?

Cinephile said...

Hey Jonathan!
Glad you enjoyed it-- there were a bunch of things I didn't mention, that were also important to me: the work of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, the music and persona of Miles Davis, watching Casablanca for the first time as a teenager...But the post was already getting long, and these were three things that jumped out for me. I'm looking forward to your post, especially since you are apparently quoting the best possible source. (:

Bob said...

Ah, funny books and Godard, always a heady combination.

It's interesting to see where you fell into the academic trough by going to college, at almost the same point in my life where I ran, screaming, from it. (Something about rampaging theoretical Marxists in 1980's film studies classes made sure that this argumentative, freedom-loving semi-old school liberal was going to try and stay on some other end of the film world, though lately I suppose I'm sidling back toward it, non-academically.)

And, don't take this the wrong way but before I read this post, though I wasn't sure, for some reason I imagined you as: 1. A woman (well, you still might be...) and 2. Older than me. I guess it's the professor thing. No matter how old I get, Profs. will always, in some sense, be older than me.