Wednesday, April 30, 2008


One of my favorite sports blogs is Fire Joe Morgan, because it's less a blog about the game of baseball than a very funny running commentary on the idiotic ways the media often covers the game, and by extension the wider trends of cliche, doublespeak and inane nostalgia that one can see in everything from cultural criticism to political coverage. One of their pseudonymic writers, "Ken Tremendous" (who recently revealed himself to be Office writer/producer Michael Schur) has an interesting piece up today about a TV encounter with Bob Costas and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, and he critiques Bissinger's profanity-laced rant about the dangers of the Internets, and those dang old blogs. Here's the money quote:

The argument I had tried to make in the pre-taped segment was: you can't say anything about "blogs," any more than you can say anything about any medium. There are good blogs and bad blogs. There are blogs that cover the personal lives of athletes, ones that cover only the games, ones that offer opinions, and even a few that quixotically and foolishly attempt to metacriticize the media as a whole. What Bissinger did that was so annoying to me was: he lumped all of these into one thing ("Deadspin," essentially), then took one article from one day and read it aloud from a file that looked suspiciously like it'd come from Joe McCarthy's safe, and read one sentence from it aloud. And furthermore, he seemed to conflate the actual blog and the people who write for it with the silly comments people make at the bottom of every article.

It's a big dumb ignorant mistake to do this. It's a big hot wet mushy smelly bonebrained mistake to (a) use one sentence from anything as a representative sample of the thing, much less as a representative sample of all blogs everywhere, and (b) to mix blog comments and blog articles. It's an even bigger mistake, in my opinion, to disparage the level of discourse on the Internet and use blog comments as an example. (And swear a ton while doing it, while saying that the Internet is "profane.") Picking a random blog comment and wielding it as a club to bash "blogs" is like picking a random romance novel off an airport bookstore shelf and saying, "This book sucks. Fuck you, Tolstoy -- your medium is worthless!"

For what I hope is the last time, but is clearly not: the level of discourse on Athletics Nation, and Baseball Prospectus, and SoSH, and Joe Posnanski's blog, is every bit as high (if not higher) than what you can read in the best newspapers in the country. Bissinger's hare-brained attempt to prove Leitch an uneducated oaf by asking whether he had read any W.C. Heinz (which failed miserably when Leitch had, in fact, read some W. C. Heinz) was a perfect example of the old guard's attitude toward the new guard: you little shits don't get it. You don't know how to write. You have no gratitude or appreciation for those who came before you. So: fuck you. (P.S. I have never really read your blog.) (P.P.S. Fuck you, though, anyway.)
(italic emphasis mine).

"What the institution can't bear is for anyone to tamper with language," Jacques Derrida wrote. "It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of 'content,' if only that content does not touch the borders of language and of all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees." Under all the arguments about 'mavericks' and race and gender and age, as important as they all are, might be the anxiety Derrida notes within the academy, and that Tremendous/Schur writes of in sports blogging: an unwillingness to change the very ground rules of the conversation, an unwillingness that often feels generational as much as anything else. If, as has been noted, Obama and Clinton's policy specifics (their "revolutionary 'content'") often overlap, then does the choice really come down to a rhetorical one, a desire to shift space rather than triangulate and mock it?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


In one striking image (sadly unavailable online) from the Experience Music Project's Artist To Icon exhibition, a bunch of Liverpool teens have gathered for a large group photo in the street, commemorating the July 10, 1964 "Beatles Day" in the band's hometown. It was the first time the Fab Four had been back to the port city since they'd made it big, and the day served a dual purpose as a hero's return/thank you to their longstanding fans, and a keen marketing opportunity for the just-opened A Hard Day's Night. What's most striking about the photo, however, is how eerily it predicts the album cover of Sgt. Pepper: dozens of smiling, almost beatific teens stand with guitars, tubas, trombones and other musical instruments, grouped together in rows and all decked out in similar, Beatles-style regalia. The band itself appears nowhere in the photo, but the picture speaks to the symbiotic relationship they had with their times, their ability to both shape and reflect the oncoming teen onslaught.

The rest of the exhibition is a similar revelation about the public and private sides of three pop icons: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley. Some of the photos (like the one above) are famous, some are private (I especially like the image of a smiling, Joker-like Dylan backstage) and some offer performance stills I'd never seen before, like one of Dylan sharing a spotlight with Joan Baez, the light bending and refracting off them both, as if their charisma was powerful enough to literally shape a space. If the exhibit (which I caught this past weekend at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum) comes anywhere near you, I highly recommend it.

How Many Friedman Units Did That Pie Weigh?

Note, too, how Crowley's (EDIT: Sorry for the misidentification-- it was actually Jeannie Mose) piece works hard to ignore the specifics of Friedman's conflicted politics, suggesting that all pie-throwers are half-baked. Still, it's worth watching just to watch "suck on this" Tom get a literal taste of his own medicine, and to see Ralph Nader get pied, too.

Voice Lessons

Midway through her show at the 2008 Gilmore Fest, singer Audra McDonald performed "Stars and the Moon," composer Jason Robert Brown's melancholy ballad from his 2001 show Songs For A New World. The lyric tells the tale of a personwho is promised those objects named in the title by a fervent lover, but feels conflicted:

...And he kissed me right here, and he said,
"I'll give you stars and the moon and a soul to guide you
And a promise I'll never go
I'll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you
And the strength that will help you grow.
I'll give you truth and a future that's twenty times better
Than any Hollywood plot."
And I thought, "You know, I'd rather have a yacht."

It's a sad song in the end, as the narrator makes a different choice, and realizes, "I'll never have the moon." But when McDonald sang the line about the yacht, the audience laughed-- in recognition, I think, of the way the song plays with romantic cliches, and allows the quotidian to breathe alongside the more grandiose declarations that normally dominate such songs.

That mixture of the large and the small, the grand gesture and the down-to-earth joke, defined McDonald's superb performance last Thursday in Kalamazoo. A Tony-winning actress who has also recorded a number of records and stars on TV's Private Practice, McDonald brings monstrous chops to the table, her soprano voice able to cover everything from jazz to R&B to Broadway show tunes with ease and searching beauty. But she's also very funny, and as much as I loved the songs, I almost found myself looking forward to her between-numbers anecdotes just as much. For all of the drama of her songs, she's a very subtle performer, and it takes a few numbers to recognize her strategy: opening with a song, then telling a funny, self-deprecating anecdote, which seems to almost be offhand (she'd often turn to her pianist/musical director Ted Sperling to ask questions about an upcoming song), which in turn would lead into and illuminate the next number. It became a way to take the unfamiliar (Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa) or the daunting (Stephen Sondheim) and make them familiar and comfortable. The attention to younger and perhaps less well-known composers, the cute stories about her precocious child and recognition of music students in the audience all spoke to an overall goal of creating a connection with the audience, and a community of music and understanding. The obvious sincerity and passion of McDonald's outlook justified even the cliche of the audience sing-along (on "I Could Have Danced All Night"): instead of the air of "look, we're all singing!" hokeyness that such a gesture usually creates, Thursday night's sing-a-long was another embodiment of her desire to remind us that we all have our own voices to add to the conversation, whether we want the moon, the stars or a yacht.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Bond A Week: Following The Trail (The Connery Years)

The first, and introduced as first-person narration: Bond exists inside the frame as character, and outside it as narrator of his own adventures. Hedging their bets, the producers structure their images and narration around Ian Fleming's famous name (Sean who?), and the beauty of their travelogue images. But what's this interjection of Bond back into the narration? Who's in control of this story, anyway?

In some ways, the most sensuous part of this trailer for me is the "UA" tag at the beginning: slow, teasing, and only revealing itself in a visual and musical flourish at the end. Until then, we have to strain to see make sense of the action-- the suspense starts even before Bond appears on the screen.

Bond as Constructivist art: far more text-driven than the earlier trailers, this one flashes Bond's name across the screen like a password for cool, a brand as recognizable as Coca-Cola. I love the way the "o" in Bond's name looks like a martini olive.

The connecting threads here are sonic: the omnipresent Bond theme, and the narrator's voice, pitching Bond like a brand of soap: "hallmark of today's greatest entertainment!" Neither the images nor the narration reveal plot details the way the earlier trailers did: for this most sensuous of the Connery Bonds, the images float without captions or context, simply flashes of meaning that the producers wisely choose not to explain.

Shorter, tighter, and blunter than those in the past, this trailer is actually more entertaining than the film it advertises. By now, the character/star match is complete: "Sean Connery is James Bond," and Bond is a series of visual signifiers, as narrative context gives way to fetishes centered on sex, violence and style (the narrator's voice is also tougher and more monotone: hype in the age of Lee Marvin).

Is Bond still Bond? The red car zooming down the Vegas streets looks like an image out of any American action film or television show, and there's no theme music, narration or flashing "OO7!" superimposition to tell us who the driver is. The "he" the narrator will refer to a moment later isn't even Bond, but Sean Connery, M.I.A. for the previous entry in the series, but back as a reassuring image of continuity and nostalgia: "We're back, to what great movies are all about." But the trick of Bond in the 60s is that, for all his political conservatism, his dandyish style is a radical gesture in the face of action movie tradition. The trailer's aesthetic backtracking predicts the character's fate in the 1970s: while many of the films are entertaining, Bond will sacrifice his position as stylistic avatar, and become a figure of comfort food campiness.

Oh, Sure, You Say That Now...

The ever-bipolar NY Times posted an editorial today blasting the Clinton campaign for its negative campaigning. It's all well and good, and I don't disagree with it, but it does make me wonder why they didn't think of any of this back when they were endorsing her before the New York primary. (The endorsement editorial also points out the pitfalls of using the second person-- "We opposed President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq"-- really?)

In happier news, I saw Leatherheads last night and quite enjoyed it, and I'm also digging the American version of The Office as I catch up with it on DVD. Expect blog posts on both soon, as well as comics updates, as soon as the grading clears...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Doin' The Triangulation

With 10% of the precincts reporting (as of 9:40), Clinton leads 55-45%, not a bad spread for Obama, given his 20-points-behind start and the frankly shameful (or is it shameless?) coverage of the last six weeks. Talking Points Memo has constant updates. Over at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner, John West notes one particularly stupid remark from congential foot-in-mouther Ed Rendell, the PA governor who's backing Senator Clinton:

"But what I find amazing, particularly because our students are brighter than ever and it doesn't matter whether it's Penn or Lasalle or whatever, the students go and drink the Kool-Aid of a wonderful speech..."

It's fascinating to me that Democrats have spent eight years often unfairly mocking and maligning Al Gore for his "horrible" 2000 campaign, his dull campaign style, his string of dumb decisions and dorky attitudes-- and now all of those supposed negatives, about bad style and hackneyed speeches and ham-handed appeals, are being spun as positives, markers of some strange definition of "authenticity" by Clinton's supporters. As The Daily Show put it a couple of months ago, the campaign's rallying cry seems to be "No We Can't! No We Can't!" It's not only a strange campaign strategy (if probably necessary, given Obama's rhetorical brilliance), but one which suggests a real fear of style, something that doesn't bode well for the Dems should Clinton squeak her way to the nomination this summer. But hey, I'm sure that the famous Clinton campaign skill will kick in at any moment, and the juggernaut that James Wolcott wrote paeans to last month will gather steam, and we'll all forget about the campaign debt and fired staff and media sniping, the disingenuousness and the victim strategizing, the "3 a.m." phone call ad and Mark Penn, the race-baiting and the gun-toting and the false statements about nuclear weapons in Iran, tell me how this is a progressive feminist campaign, again?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Suits of Armor

With the Iron Man movie a mere two weeks away, I'd point you to two interesting online pieces. one in today's New York TImes, which offers a fascinating interview with the film's star, Robert Downey, Jr., and touches on some of the ironic parallels between actor and part that will hopefully make this summer blockbuster a unique one (of course, being the NY Times and all, it has to adopt a slightly distanced tone-- "hmmm, comic books"--and act very know-nothing in relationship to the form and the characters in order to maintain their hipster cred, which means they miss out on the most obvious paralllel between Downey, Jr. and Iron Man: their addictions, and the resonance that gives the stories). The other is courtesy of our old friend Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, who links to a funny Onion video about the IM movie, the power of the film trailer, and the obsessiveness of fans (of which, of course, I know nothing, no, not me..doo de doo...).

Land Lines

Around 1:45 a.m. or so, just before falling asleep, I flipped on Turner Classic Movies, and stumbled on the last twelve minutes or so of Wife vs. Secretary (1936). I didn't know what the film was at the time-- I only knew that its images fascinated me. When I flipped over, Myrna Loy was standing in a shiny silk dress, the light bouncing off its silvery folds and making her look even more otherworldly and beautiful than usual. She was on the phone, framed in a long shot, her body pushed over to the rightmost side of the screen, the telephone cable stretching like a life line across the frame, the background a series of door frames, tables and bric-a-brac whose thin lines of light and dark made it look like someone had scratched on the negative. The film cut to her correspondent, Clark Gable, who she hangs up on; Gable pauses before putting his own phone receiver down, and the wipe moving across the screen almost seems to pause with him, until both dropped receiver and completed wipe line signal a transition to the next scene. I'm sure that "paused" wipe was an optical trick brought on by the late hour, but it's what hooked me into the movie, made me want to see what happened next. On the level of narrative, Wife vs. Secretary seems like hokey melodrama, but its mise-en-scene in these final moments is gripping, as director Clarence Brown expertly uses soft-focus lighting, tight close-ups, and art deco set design to tie the characters to their landscape, to evoke a world of love, loss, and movie star glamour (I also caught glimpses in these last moments of Jean Harlow being called by Jimmy Stewart on a pay phone). I thought of Gilbert Adair's Flickers as I watched, and his passage in that book where he talks about film stills: "Can a single film still tell us everything we need to know about a film?" He goes on to say how he doesn't want to see certain films, so as not to spoil those spellbinding moments pulled out of time. I'm not sure I want to see the rest of Wife vs. Secretary, and I'm not sure I need to: cut out of the larger narrative, these scenes are jigsaw puzzle pieces whose mysterious shapes and fragmented images are far more fascinating than any whole into which they might fit.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Bond-A-Week Twofer: Ladland

Since I failed to post in this ongoing series last week, I thought I'd make it up (and keep the TV theme from the previous post going) by offering the above Robbie Williams video, "Millenium," from 1999. The song samples John Barry's title song from You Only Live Twice, and the video itself creates a visual correlative to sampling by recontextualizing and parodying elements from several Bond films (I count Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Moonraker and Thunderball, but you might keep score differently). Released in the late 90s, when Pierce Brosnan's Bond and Mike Myers' Austin Powers were both doing different kinds of homages to Bond's sixties past, Williams' video seems to split the tonal difference. It's certainly poking fun at Bond's machismo and confidence (the faulty jetpack is the most dramatic symbol, but I also like the high-tech briefcase that holds nothing more deadly than a schoolboy's lunch), and Williams' cherubic face and constant laughter contribute to the air of childish good fun. At the same time, the visual and sonic sampling both suggest a great deal of affection and admiration, and certainly the increasingly dense layering of references requires a Sick Boy-like knowledge about Bond's history. In mocking individual elements of the Bond mystique, the video is very careful to simultaneously recuperate the air of cool they still evoke, and to deploy it to build up Williams' own public persona: a constant loop of laddish savoir-faire that runs throughout the night.

A Bond-A-Week: If The Shoe FIts

The screen is black, and suddenly a white ball appears on the screen, moving left and right, almost bouncing in time to the music. The ball suddenly moves forward, and as it becomes larger, it transforms itself into a close-up of a gun barrel. A man walks out, turns and fires, and this is our introduction to

Bond, James Bond.

Except there's no black screen, no white ball, no John Barry music, and no gun barrel. The very first James Bond movie had none of those stylistic elements we'd come to associate with the ongoing action series, and it wasn't even released in theaters. The man pictured above, however, was our first onscreen James Bond: beefy American actor Barry Nelson.

Shot in 1954 for the live CBS television series Climax!, and preserved on kinetoscope, Casino Royale was an adaptation of the first Bond novel, made only a year after Ian Fleming published it in 1953. For years, it was thought lost, but I managed to see it at an "Ian Fleming Symposium" I attended at Indiana University in 2003, and it's since been uploaded to YouTube. Bond purists have sometimes been critical of its very loose translation of the character: Bond is American, not British, and called "Jimmy Bond," a name which doesn't really connote suave sophistication. In keeping with this changing of nationality, Felix Leiter (in the books and all subsuquent films an American CIA agent) is British. The logistics of television in the period meant that it was all shot on soundstages, claustrophobic interiors replacing the panoramic globe-hopping that would be the trademark of the sixties films. And it runs only an hour, which necessitates a compression of Fleming's narrative sweep.

For all that-- and for all datedness of the black-and-white, low-budget mise-en-scene-- there's something fascinating about this version. It's not nearly as good as the 2006 Casino Royale, but it's far better than the 1967 spoof. Actually, what all three adaptations have in common is how well they reflect the period in which they were made. The '67 version is a Pop Art free-for-all, part bloated white elephant and part modish Marvel Comics satire. The '06 film is gritty and action-packed, and haunted by the spectre of post-9/11 terrorism.

The '54 edition is less a Bond film than a film noir, owing as much to Gilda as to Ian Fleming. As played by Nelson, "Jimmy" Bond seems like a later iteration of Glenn Ford's Johnny Farrell, a cynical gambler who's not as smooth or in control as he often thinks. The noir tone is actually enhanced by the lack of exteriors: it frames the clipped dialogue with Expressionist intensity, and helps to paper over the sometimes pedestrian acting and occasional live snafus. That Expressionist history-- an accidental tapping into of a tradition of cinematic espionage that extends back to Fritz Lang -- is further enhanced by casting Peter Lorre as arch-villain Le Chiffre, who Bond must take down in a one-on-one game of baccarat. Nelson apparently took the part in order to work with Lorre, but became so nervous that at one point, Lorre had to tell him, "Straighten up, Barry, so I can kill you!"

The telefilm was not a critical or commercial success, and CBS's plan to do a Bond TV show with Fleming fell through. Various other plans to translate the Fleming aesthetic to the screen-- including a character Fleming created called "Napoleon Solo" and writing a screenplay with producer Jack McClory for a film tentatively titled James Bond of the Secret Service would also not pan out (although the latter gave us SPECTRE, the novel Thunderball, and a massive lawsuit that would have far-reaching implications for the cinematic Bond). It would be eight more years before the character was visualized again onscreen, and the television Casino Royale would not be seen again for nearly thirty years. But none of that should keep you from watching it on YouTube, where much of it has been posted. As a first attempt, it's quite honorable, and as a totem of the Cold War-- airing just four months after the Army-McCarthy hearings would close out one version of the paranoid world of espionage and subversion within which Bond lives-- it's utterly fascinating.

Punch Lines

I tried, I really did. I wanted to be all Zen about the craziness, see if it blew over, ponder the leaves and the grass and the comng of a really lovely spring to Cineville. Grade papers, go to brunch, see a movie. Breathe, breathe.

Just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me in!

Ironically, the episode of Friends excerpted above aired in local syndication Thursday night, the day after the absurd debate in Philadelphia, and in the midst of the even more absurd defenses from David Brooks and National Review, and the ultimately self-destructive responses from Clinton supporters like Joan Walsh and Tom Watson (I can respect Watson more than Walsh because he's at least upfront about his fandom, although both of them have had enough intellectually dishonest moments in this campaign season that they should really form a band and go on the road as the Disingenuous Duo). The Daily Show had a funny takedown of the George-and-Charlie show, and Digby and Glenn Greenwald, as usual, do a good job of framing the larger media narratives that ABC's performance both fuels and is fueled by (Greenwald also corrects the narrative that Obama is "hurting himself" by *gasp* actually quoting polling data that suggests he's closing the gap in PA; do you think Joan Walsh, Salon's editor-in-chief, even notices what her own website publishes?).

I expect nothing from Chris Matthews, National Review or the increasingly disgusting "jus' folks," gun-toting silliness of the Clinton campaign. But I sometimes think there's a Stockholm Syndrome even among liberal politicians, bloggers and commentators when it comes to these narratives-- that we've lived so long with the word "gate" attached to every political misstep or scandal that we've subconsciously absorbed the methods of the right and don't even see them as a problem anymore. Josh Marshall discusses that succinctly here, and I would only add two things: 1) Please spare me the recurring trope-- used by Walsh, Chris Matthews, and Maureen Dowd, among so many others--of "I'm just a working-class Irish person..." (which is tired and vaguely racist and immensely self-deluding) as an excuse for misconstruing Democrats' personal histories and policy proposals and dissembling about your own anxieties surrounding black and female candidates; 2) how is what Obama said any different than what Thomas Frank was celebrated by so many good lefties for writing in What's The Matter With Kansas? How is it different than what Bill Clinton said in 1991? How is it different than analyses that occur in academic journals and conferences? How is it different than the kind of material that Salon's been publishing for the last decade? Is it somehow deeper and more acceptable when it comes from the mouths of journalists and academics than actual presidential candidates? Or is the real 'bitterness' in the commentariat, who sense that a shift from the Clintons to anyone else as the center of Democratic politics would mean the loss of a good gig for folks on both the right and the left?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Talking In the Treble Clef

Lines cast out by my I-pod shuffle:

Oklahoma was never like this... (Paul McCartney, "Press")

Look at this town--there's no men left!/Just frail old boys and babies/Talking to teacher in the treble clef (Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock, "The Tea Leaf Prophecy")

Flava with a cocoa kinda flow/Baby, baby act like you know (Maxwell, "Sumthin' Sumthin'")

Back in the day when things were cool, hey/All we needed was bop-bop, bop-bop, bop-ba-domp... (Erykah Badu, "Back In the Day")

But this feels so unnatural /Peter Gabriel too (Vampire Weekend, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa")

How might we reel these lines in? They caught my ear because they presented various forms of lyrical opacity, that "wha--?" of first hearing that might also inspire laughter, head-scratching and curiosity. Upon reflection, we might tease out what the words mean, place them in a logical context ("Baby, act like you know"): this one's an historical memory, that one's a pickup line, etc. But such a reading, however "correct," isn't really that interesting. The lyrics here aren't functioning like those in a musical or an opera, where they contribute to some kind of longer narrative or overarching character development. Instead, they're pop songs that function like snapshots, moments cut out of the timelines of the characters they delineate, offering the offbeat aside. Instead of seeing them as the basis of an exigesis, how might we capture their wit and energy and often cinephiliac imagination, and deploy all that as a motor of creativity?

Notes for a future assignment:

Take three lyrics from three different pop songs that fascinate or confuse you: the more lyrically opaque the better. Write a brief narrative (one to three paragraphs) based on each. This narrative can have a direct connection with the lyrics (if the line discusses a character or setting or event, for instance, that you want to tease out), but should not simply reproduce any narrative that the song as a whole creates: for instance, if you're fascinated by a line in "Rocket Man," don't just retell that song's already-existing story. Instead, it should be a new fiction you've generated out of those elements. The story you generate doesn't have to have any direct connection to the lyric, however: it can also be inspired by the tone the words create, or the image that flashes up in your head as you hear them, an image which might be quite different from the one the line directly describes.

Once you've written your three brief stories, tie each of them to a film watched in class. That connection can be (perhaps should be) an offbeat one, and not simply a one-to-one relationship. Use the stories and the lyric as a bridge into the film's formal elements, the class reading, etc. What does entering a critical discussion on a film in this manner add to your understanding of it?

Monday, April 14, 2008


Yes, that's John Hurt in the video above, adding his melancholy face and wry smile to the mise-en-scene of Paul McCartney's "Take It Away" (1982), and evoking (as McCartney notes in the commentary track) the late Brian Epstein, the Beatles' first manager. The video skillfully uses close-ups (on car headlights, instruments, faces) as transitions that take us from bedroom to recording studio to triumphant concert performance. The skillful filmmaking and Hurt's presence act as reminders of an earlier age of music video: big-budget, driven by narrative, and still feeling out the relationship between song, image and salesmanship that, within two years, MTV will have perfected.

The video is included on The McCartney Years, an expansive collection of music videos, documentaries, and concert clips that was released on DVD last fall. It covers the whole of McCartney's solo career, from "Maybe I'm Amazed" in 1970 to "Fine Line" in 2005, and it is by turns witty, clunky, imaginative, overly literal, evocative-- and always, always charming. Charm is one of McCartney's best assets, as both a musician and a public personality, and it's one that's occasionally caused him to get a bum rap from hipster quarters. It serves him well here, though-- these are mini-films as much as music videos, and McCartney's game attitude anchors and slyly comments on the hokey narratives and overly effects-driven visuals that sometimes surround him. He really is a very natural performer, and the cumulative effect of the videos is to make me wish someone would cast him in a film (preferably against type, where that charm could be deployed in a more ironic fashion, like Cary Grant's sometimes was).

HIghlights of the package include a video for "Band On The Run" that uses Pop Art animation and Beatles imagery to transform the song into a quasi-autobiographical tale of escaping from Liverpool to America; "Say Say Say," his collaboration with Michael Jackson that in video form becomes a story about two con men on the run; and 1997's "Beautiful Night," full of layered B&W imagery whose liquid textures transform the scenes of domestic bliss into something much more unstable and ambivalent. You might imagine the best videos go with the best songs, but that's not always the case. "My Brave Face," the superbly bouncy lead single from 1989's Flowers In the Dirt, is saddled with a lame, jokey film that tells a tale of obsessive fandom that's completely at odds with the song's ironic take on marital woe; on the other hand, a lame disco retread like "Goodnight Tonight" has a wonderfully strange video whose sepia tones, scratched film stock and grubby Weimar setting are a striking juxtaposition to the mocern, mechanical beats of the song, and set off associations with Dada and Kraftwerk that might that I never would've thought of otherwise.

My favorite video on the collection, though, might be 1980's "Coming Up," from McCartney II. Paul played every instrument on the record, so the video must create a "band" by reproducing multiple McCartneys on guitars, bass, drums, etc. (Linda appears on backing vocals). The bright Technicolor look matches the song's synthesized drumbeats, and the McCartney clones allow the musician to show and parody multiple sides of his public persona: boyish frontman with the mic, "serious musician" on keyboards (complete with imperious John Cleese mustache), Buddy Holly fanatic on guitar, and strangely familiar moptop with bowl haircut and Hofner guitar on bass. As this moptop sings along, he rocks back and forth, shakes his head with gusto, and shouts his "woo!" with a near-maniacal glee, utterly oblivious to how silly he looks. It's Dana Carvey's Paul McCartney impersonation a decade before it debuted on SNL, except it's even funnier because it's being done to a fine point by the star himself.

Go Banana!

Coming soon!:

-- The real start of the long-promised, possibly long-awaited Bond-a-Week!

-- More comics goodness than you can shake a stick at!

--Lapper: Friend or Faux?

--Random political blatherings!

--Television, television, television!

Sorry for the delay: last week was quite busy. Hope all are doing well! And while you wait for my next post, let me recommend that you mosey over to the "Comics Should Be Good!" blog, where they are doing a fascinating project called "The 100 Top Comic Runs." They requested that people write in with their favorite stretches of a certain comic (a writer-artist pair on Spider-Man, for example, or stretches of Transmetropolitan), got 700+ ballots, have tabulated the votes, and are now posting the results in five-part increments. It's a fun read, and if you are at all inclined, it will probably make you add stuff to your comics reading list.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Men of Steel

Via a comment on Glenn Kenny's blog, I found a link to this fascinating article, outlining the odd connections between Iron Man and the Black Sabbath song of the same name (which is all over the IM movie trailer).

It not only feeds my superhero fetish, but acts as a nice example of blogging as a tracing of links, fueled by obsession, desire and curiosity: in other words, the best kind of writing.

Monday, April 7, 2008


A mild-mannered professional man, Ferdinand Ward was trusted by late 19th century bankers and businessmen, small and large investors, and even an ex-President, Ulyssess S. Grant. Called "the Young Napoleon of Wall Street," Ward ran a successful brokerage firm, which returned handsome dividends to its investors (who included Grant and railroad financier William Henry Vanderbilt). Charming and trustworthy, Ward's unfailing politesse and social skills-- as well as his confidence in his firm's investments-- helped build his firm, to the point where he owned estates, townhouses and other signifiers of wealth.

What no one knew-- until it was too late-- was that Ward kept two sets of books: the one he showed irate or curious investors (who wondered what had happened to the thousands of dollars they'd entrusted), full of promising figures and large projected profits (supposedly near $15 million, in 19th century terms); and the other one, the real one, which revealed that Ward's investment firm was actually $14 million in debt. No investments were ever made, except in Ward's extravagent lifestyle. Years before the term was coined, Ward had invented a Ponzi scheme, one that would ruin Grant, Mark Twain, and many other, lesser-known investors. It was the great financial scandal of the day, and Ward would be tried and imprisoned at Sing Sing, but that was only the start of his strange adventures.

Imagine being an historian, working on this tale that weaves poltiics, finance, urbanity, and skullduggery. Now, imagine if Ferdinand Ward was your great-grandfather.

That was the story Geoffrey S. Ward presented in his talk this evening at the Oberlin Science Center, entitled, "A Swindler in the Family: Trying to Understand a Nefarious Ancestor." Ward is an Oberlin graduate (class of '62), the former editor of American Heritage magazine, and the author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning A First-Class Temperment, a biography of FDR. But he is most famous as the screenwriter and collaborator of documentarian Ken Burns, with whom he worked on The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and The War, among many other films. This, quite aside from his family connections, makes him the right historian for this project (which was an excerpt from a larger, forthcoming book project): I don't want to say too much more about the specifics of the talk, as I don't want to scoop what will no doubt be a fascinating read, but I realized in its larger outlines, it is really a tale of modernity. With Citizen Kane still fresh in my head (as he talked about Ferdinand's prison time, I could hear Orson Welles in my head yelling, "I'll send you to Sing Sing, Gettys! Sing Sing!"), I kept thinking about how, for all its 19th Century trappings, this was really a tale of the 20th and 21st centuries: the skillful juggling of rhetorics both oral (wooing clients with sweet lies) and written (cooking the books and using the "scientific" quality of numbers to fabulate); the dislocations of the city of which Robert Ray writes in The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, where the vast urban space can hide thieves and swindlers, and enable quick disappearances; the performative nature of Ferdinand's swindle, the simulacrum of the financier he presented, rather than the reality (Geoffrey Ward noted that his great-grandfather may have had multiple personality disorders); the fluidity and ephemerality of modern capital, a wealth that's virtual rather than material; and the central role of technology in various aspects of Ferdinand's story, especially a very funny anecdote about telephones. It's finance as magic trick, as fabulism, or, to use a cinematic term, as projection, so it seems appropriate that the man's great-grandson is so fluid in his movement across written, cinematic and oral communications (Ward's a very good speaker, but I also kept wondering what this might have looked like as a film, who might have "played" Ferdinand in the voiceover). In its anecdotal weave of history, memoir, and the strange detail that flashes up out of nowhere, Ward's striking lecture mimicked the "family charm" and charismatic weave that he claimed Ferdinand possessed, but deployed these gifts as a form of illumination, rather than obfuscation.

Geoffrey Ward was also kind enough to speak with my Intro to Cinema class this morning, where he was funny, insightful and extremely gracious. It was fascinating to hear about his collaborations with Ken Burns, and the differences between writing books and writing screenplays, and he also surprised me with some of his responses to questions (he's a big fan of Grizzly Man, for instance). The Burns/Ward projects always return to the questions and contradictions of America, the difficulty of forming communities, but also the necessity of that effort (whether it's in war, sports or music). It is not surprising, then-- but very gratifying-- to discover that Ward himself embodies those same values, and so graciously passes them on.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Citizen Heston

When I read of Charlton Heston's death very early this morning, I was far too tired to do him any justice, and to really think about what he meant to American films, so I just put up a couple of YouTube clips from Planet of the Apes and Touch of Evil, and thought I'd let the very fine work speak for itself. But I'd like to add a few things now.

One of my favorite lines from the last forty years of film is "DAMN YOU, DIRTY APES!" It's an easy line to mock-- it's over the top, melodramatic, done in an operatic and expressive style rather than the naturalism that's far more in favor today. And yet, those qualities are precisely why I love it: not in spite of its ridiculousness, but because of it. It happily oscillates between camp and sincerity, inviting cool derision, but still getting under my skin and hitting the emotional notes it's aiming for. And I think, in essence, that's why Charlton Heston is valuable.

There have been a lot of fine tributes to Heston today: I would direct you to Sheila's touching tribute (which includes a nice excerpt from Richard Dreyfuss), Glenn Kenny's spectacular remembrance of Heston in Touch of Evil, and Dave Kehr's obit, which quotes in full the Michel Mourlet Cahiers du Cinema passages that Kenny references.

This is what Mourlet wrote, in 1960:

Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like “Hiroshima mon amour” or “Citizen Kane,” films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.

That's wonderfully cinephiliac writing, and it gets to a point that Dreyfuss makes in his tribute. Dreyfuss writes

Is so and so a great actor? A good actor? A bad actor? Speaking as an expert it's a stupid question. The actor either gets you to where you have to go, or not. Heston did; priceless. He could portray greatness, which is no longer an artistic goal; he could portray a grandeur that was so satisfying. What he was able to personify so perfectly for us was a vision of ourselves called heroic. Is this out of favor? Out of step? Antique? Yes, antique as in gorgeous, incredibly valuable, and not produced anymore but this is a critique of the world, not him (hopefully we will one day come back to all that).

There's an irony in that last line, as Dreyfuss, a fine actor in his own right, was of that generation of stars whose work did so much to introduce a new model of screen masculinity, and to perhaps hasten the phasing out of the Heston style. But I'm more interested in that "good/bad" axis of which Dreyfuss writes, and its ties back to Kane. Coincidentally, I showed Kane to my Cinema 101 class this past week, along with Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. I wanted us to think about what we mean when we talk about "good" or "bad" movies: are the criteria based on formal or techical excellence, narrative "depth," cultural significance, etc.? How are these categories constructed, and who gets to decide? How much of this is something we can objectively mark as "true," and how much of it is simply personal taste? The more we talked about the films, the more I came to see them, for all their differences, as having a lot in common: both tell the tale of a mad genius who draws in and destroys a coterie of friends, lovers and hangers-on in the media captial of the world; both were made by directors new to the studio system; both self-consciously played with generic expectations, to initial mixed critical response; and both ended up playing with a self-conscious, self-reflexive style in their respective eras that would be extremely influential (would we have the contemporary TV soap-- from Dallas to The OC-- if it wasn't for Russ Meyer's example?).

At one point, while talking about Dolls a student said, "The dialogue doesn't seem to matter: you can look at their faces and know what they're saying without having to listen to the words." I think he meant it as a criticism, but I responded that such a style might be the essence of cinema, or at least of a particular definition of it: words are redundant, but images sing. However campy in the Dolls context, it's a form of "cinematic" thinking, relying of the logic of the image rather than the word, and one which feels both old-fashioned (taking us back to the silent period) and very postmodern (image is everything).

Thought of that way, Charlton Heston, as described by Mourlet above, is indeed the "axiom of cinema": however 'ridiculous,' on a narrative (i.e., "literary") level his characters or stories, his face-- laughing, glaring, or wrenched into that famous grimace-- was one of the most recognizably expressive in postwar cinema. As Dreyfuss would say, "It got you where you had to go"; as Mourlet might say, it was mise-en-scene embodied; as Roland Barthes might say, it "still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced."

Oh, wait-- Barthes said that about Garbo, not Heston. But is it any less true of Chuck? We bathe in the cinephiliac voice of Barthes in "The Face of Garbo," and don't blink for an instant at how he describes this goddess of Classic Hollywood, but I suspect a lot of us might blink at describing Heston that way (in his remembrance, Kenny notes the scandal Mourlet's Heston appreciation caused). But why? Heston's face is no less expressive, no less a container of dreams, fears and aspirations (which is probably one reason the NRA chose him as their spokesman), no less a projection of the self. And Garbo is no less melodramatic or 'affected' an actor than Heston (that's not a putdown, by the way: I love Garbo, and that style of performance). Is it the different eras they worked in? If Heston had been of the silent period, when the more 'over-the-top' style was de rigeur, would we love him more? Is it his politics, so many of which I disagreed with? Or is it that sheer willingness to appear ridiculous? Heston titled his memoir In The Arena, and like so much of his work, it's a boldly dramatic title that seems a bit outsized. And yet the greatest thing about Heston-- why his acting survives the smug certainties of Michael Moore and Gore Vidal-- was his absolute willingness to dive into a role, be it Ben-Hur, the Omega Man, or a guy with a rifle in his cold dead hands, and to give it his all. You don't have to like those films or those political positions to admire the gusto and the strange courage. Heston isn't just barechested in so many of his roles: he's emotionally naked, too, using his highly theatrical style to get to places a Method performance couldn't.

Which brings me back to Citizen Kane, and a point of disagreement with Mourlet: I think Heston and Kane have a lot in common, and might be an excellent fit.

I suspect the reason Heston is so good in Touch of Evil is that he and Welles, in acting styles, are cut from the same cloth: how many times has Welles been described as outsized, melodramatic, theatrical, hammy? In fact, in my imagination, my Cinematheque of Unmade Movies, I can see a different version of Citizen Kane, with Heston in the title role. It would be different, to be sure, but spectacular: imagine Heston confronting Susan as she refuses to keep singing, or smashing up that room of toys and furniture and snowglobes (we already know how good Heston was at rage). Imagine his boisterous humor in the early Inquirer scenes, his slow corruption and confrontations with Leland over the governorship; imagine that crackling voice muttering, "you're fired," and continuing to calmly rewrite the review. But more than that, imagine Heston in those sad, quiet moments towards the end, slowly walking through that vast hall while Susan completes one of her endless jigsaw puzzles. His body-- that magnificent, tall, incredibly physical machine-- is aged, bent over, hobbling. It can no longer effortlessly stride through the Inquirer newsrooms, or casually provide the war to go with the reporter's prose poems. Its seemingly ageless youth has vanished. And yet, that towering, Shakespearean voice remains, those dark questioning eyes, and grasping hands. Even moreso than Welles, I think Heston might have conveyed the terror, tragedy, and sad humor of that state, and might have looked at home amidst that Expressionist scenery and lighting; is there a better example, after all, of Mourlet's "god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage," than Charles Foster Kane?

Charlton Heston, R.I.P.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Mockingbirds, Boys Towns, B-Movies and Bette Davis Eyes

Happy birthday, Gregory Peck!

Happy birthday, Roger Corman!

Happy birthday, Bette Davis!

Happy birthday, Spencer Tracy!


A quick call out to readers, mockers and passerby:

I am teaching a course on movies and melodrama in the fall, and I'm starting to assemble a list of films to watch or re-watch over the late spring/summer for syllabus prep. There are several movies I know I want to look at again, and will probably use for the course (although nothing's set in stone yet): Rebecca, Gaslight, all the Douglas Sirk that's available, Preminger films like Fallen Angel, Bonjour Tristesse, and Daisy Kenyon. I'm looking forward to diving into the oeuvres of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (especially after the Siren's great pieces on her). I'm also curious to think about how the genre interacts with other genres, like the political film (Advise and Consent), the horror movie (arguably all of them, but especially those of the 1930s, 40s and 70s, like Hangover Square or Carrie), and the musical (Love Me or Leave Me, A Star Is Born, The Red Shoes). But I throw the question out to you all: are there melodramas I absolutely have to watch? Favorites of yours that I haven't mentioned? Offbeat or obscure films I might have overlooked?

A Bond A Week: I Never Joke About My Work, 007

Last week, I announced that I'd be starting a new feature, "A Bond A Week," to begin this week. Well, it's been busier than I'd imagined it would be, so I beg your forgiveness for the delay, and promise I'll begin the feature in earnest next week. Or as the films themselves always say, "The End...BUT James Bond will return in..."

Leaps of Faith

"Wow," said a student surveying the room Friday night. "If a bomb dropped on this place, the hipster population of Oberlin would just be decimated."

Certainly, the whiny guy and his coterie behind me-- who were a bit inebriated, and made snarky remarks throughout the evening, like the poor man's Stadler and Waldorf in a Gus Van Sant remake of The Muppet Show--fit that description. But as we all crammed into the pews at Fairchild Chapel Friday evening for the S.O.S. (Superb Oberlin Showcase) screening of 28 student films, organized by Oberlin prof Brett Kashmere in conjunction with the ongoing One Take Super 8 Event project, the refreshing thing was how many of the films belied those hipster stereotypes.

Having the event in one of the campus chapels was inspired: as the lights went down and the stained glass shone high about the screen, there was an almost Bazinian quality about the proceedings, the sense of cinema as a sacred event or leap of faith, a feeling enhanced by the pew seating and the programs placed like church bulletins next to the Bibles and hymnals. This leap of faith quality also extended to the films themselves: the conceit was that, as the event's press release put it,

none of the films will have been seen before the evening of April 4th. Each filmmaker is limited to only one 3-minute cartridge of Super 8, and must shoot their entire film without the opportunity to rewind for a 'second take.' In addition, none of the filmmakers are permitted to edit, or even inspect, their films prior to the screening. No Cuts. No Splices. No Changes. One Take, One Night. All of the work shown will be projected on the original medium of Super 8, and accompanied by live soundtracks or unique audio compositions.

The whole event felt like a time machine back to the earliest days of cinema, when audiences would gather in makeshift public spaces, accompanied by live music or address, uncertain of what they would see, but certain it would be an Event: unpredictable, astonishing, and maybe just a little bit magical. The space was packed, the band was set up, the audience was primed.

And delightfully, the films lived up to their atmosphere. Full disclosure: several films were by former students of mine, so I am a bit biased in their favor, but even taking that into account, it should be said the films were imaginative and inspired, creatively using their limitations to tell stories, create social commentaries and offer images whose beauty and strangeness was only enhanced by the in-the-camera editing restrictions. And it was wonderful to see Super 8 projection again: in an age of digital video and antiseptic 'clarity,' the sheer materiality of the film image-- with its texture, graininess, and painterly color (to say nothing of the pleasurable hum of the projector)--was a sensualist's delight.

Some of the films turned out better than others-- while all were inventive in their conception, the gamble of the strategy is that the formal execution of those strategies might not turn out the way one hoped. The biggest problem was the lack of light in some of the images: while many of the films imaginatively deployed light & shadow for different effects, I got the sense that some images were underlit more than their makers intended-- words that clearly signified something were cast into darkness and made illegible.

But the majority of films were fantastic: Alex Rogalski's "Meditor," a dazzling and disturbing layering of stained-glass images on top of one another, an appropriate start to our religious service; Nick Hoskins' "Milk," a single-shot piece of a man finishing off a pint of milk, where the drops of liquid pop like fireflies against the dark background; Sara Krugman's "House Home and Soup," a sad and funny retelling of the Richard Scarey story "The Teeny Tiny Woman," whose text is read by a young girl whose voice is filtered and altered to sound robotic and extra-terrestrial; Jon Comeau's Pythonesque "I love chips.," a single shot film of the filmmaker cheerfully finishing off a huge pile of potato chips (as the sound cleverly fades in and out); Alison Luby's "What Comes First," a witty stop-motion animation about an egg desperate to avoid the frying pan; Ben Baker-Smith's "Silent Scream," a series of black-and-white images of friends screaming whose visual clarity acts as an ironic counterpoint to the silence of the soundtrack (we can see, but not hear); Willie Thurlow's psychedelic "The Picnic," which felt like a lost reel from Magical Mystery Tour (I mean that in a good way) and was accompanied by a racous call-and-response trombone-voice-drums combo; and Max Rivlin-Nadler's 3-D memoir/parody "All My Friends are Ghosts" (and yes, he did provide 3-D glasses; as we all put them on, it was another way the screening harkened back to an earlier communal moment in film history).

Whether it was in imagery or sonics or both, all the films offered thought-provoking meditations on filmmaking and film viewing, and the dynamic relationship between the two. And that's as worthy a set of sermons to hear on a Friday night as any.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Bleacher Bum

Given the painfully fluffy nature of his 'interview' show, it's good to know Larry King is capable of getting mad at someone, I guess.

In what might be read as a metaphor for the arc of King's career, the article goes on to note that

King kept "arguing and was then relegated to the bleachers, where he continued to make noise, and was finally forced to watch the game from the outfield’s periphery."

Perhaps if the ump had dressed like Ross Perot, Larry would've treated him with more respect?

Brian's Big Ol' Comics Round-Up

A quick glance at what I've been reading recently...

Buffy The Vampire Slayer #12 & #13: Like a vampire, each new Buffy writer has taken up the skin of the title and possessed its soul in a slightly different way: creator Joss Whedon's work was heavy on arc and exposition (logically, since he wrote the first six issues, and presumably has the whole thing planned out in his head), and somewhat awkwardly attempted to adapt the television show's very fluid mixture of humor, action and melodramatic angst to the comics page, with up-and-down results (the best being his recent one-issue return, in issue #10); comics writer Brian K. Vaughn's Faith-Giles arc was suspenseful, dark and character-driven, and by far the best work the title has seen thus far; Drew Goddard, who wrote for both the Buffy and Angel TV shows, took over with issue #12, and the most surprising thing thus far is how humorous his work has been. With the exceptions of "Selfless" (on Buffy) and "The Girl In Question" (on Angel), both of which had moments of high comedy, Goddard's Whedonverse work on the small screen was unrelentingly dark, violent and twisted (and some of the best writing the final seasons of those shows produced), but his comics writing here is a romp. I particularly liked the Xander-Dracula and Buffy-Satsu scenes, which ironically parallel and comment on their respective same-sex relationships, and manage to be funny, sweet and respectful at the same time. The inclusion of the campy Dracula figure (briefly introduced in Season Five of the TV show) is inspired: his arrogance, self-absorption and insecurity are a nice echo of the Spike from the "Lover's Walk" era, and his anxieties about his aging become a subtle companion to Buffy's own fears and doubts of her leadership abilities. Goddard also pulls off the neat trick of making the odious Andrew appealing (love the George Hamilton joke), and offers a couple of very nice scenes for Willow. Perhaps because his two issues feel more like situation comedy than the earlier issues, they play better on the page, relying less on the mock cross-cutting and awkward attempts at voiceover with which earlier issues struggled. That doesn't mean the action's not there, though, particularly in the suspenseful scenes that close out issue #13, an explosion of violence that whiplashes the reader from the earlier comedy back to the angsty melodrama, and reminds us that Goddard's the guy who ripped Xander's eyeball out.

Justice League: The New Frontier Special #1: Designed as a comics tie-in/promotion for the DVD adaptation of Darwyn Cooke's 2004 miniseries, DC: The New Frontier, and boldy (for such a promotional project) sporting the optimistic description "first issue!" on its cover, this one-shot with the unwieldy name is a surprisingly good use of the single-issue, anthology form. Written by Cooke, and drawn by Cooke, David Bullock, and J. Bone (with fantatstic color throughout by Dave Stewart), each story illuminates a different set of DC characters and their relationships. The anthology form allows Cooke the chance to fluidly shift from the action-packed and darkly ambiguous (the opening story's Batman-Superman face-off for "The Greater Good") to the teenaged and trashy (Robin's motorcylce hijinks in "Dragstrip Riot") to the wonderfully satirical (Wonder Woman's hilarious infiltration of a Playboy club in "The Mother of the Movement"), while playing with the form and history of DC comics itself. As he also proved during his stint on the revived Spirit, Cooke is adept at taking older characters and making them say something new and self-reflexive about comic book writing and readership, while doing so within the form of a straightforward action tale; he's the Howard Hawks to Alan Moore's Jean-Luc Godard, so skillful at what he does that you might not even notice how deeply he's reaching as you tear through the pages. The New Frontier miniseries re-imagined the Silver Age DC universe (roughly World War II to JFK) in a more "realistic" manner, using familiar heroes like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman to ask questions about nationalism, patriotism, racism, and patriarchy in the conflicted period of the Cold War: what does it mean to be a 'hero' in a world that's rejected the idea? (In addition to its slam-bang action and humor and its fascinating political context, it also acted as a neat meta-commentary on the comic book industry of the early 50s, which rejected superhero books for nearly a decade). imply due to its length, the miniseries was able to cover a broader and deeper swath of American cultural history than this one-shot issue can: JL: TNFS feels less like a novel and more like a series of improvisatory sketches, but it's no less of an achievement, and if you've never read The New Frontier, it acts as a tasty appetizer (I must admit, it also does its job as a promotional piece: the storyboards and anecdotes in the back made me drop the DVD into my Netflix queue).

World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control #1-3: As a longtime Marvel reader, and as someone whose childhood imagination was shaped by heroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers, it pains me to admit: the current Marvel Universe is a mess.

Don't get me wrong: it's still full of great characters (which is why there are so many movies featuring them), and there are still talented writers and artists doing good work on books each month (the Knaufs on Iron Man, Joss Whedon on The X-Men, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, and the ongoing miracle of Runaways). But they're working in an environment that's become toxic due to one thing: the dreaded crossover. For the last four or five years, Marvel has become obsessed with the "event," some kind of multi-issue miniseries which crosses over into every book in their stable and, in its ripple effects, tries to remake the Marvel U. Most comics bloggers trace this disease back to the 1980s, when the two Secret Wars miniseries did a similar all-company crossover thing, but you could really go back as far as the birth of the Marvel Universe itself in the 1960s: one of the coolest things about Marvel growing up was that all their characters lived in New York, interacted with one another, and appeared in each other's books. It was a brilliant marketing device, of course, but it also gave a cohesion and intertextual richness to the reading experience-- in its chance meetings and intertwined emotional threads, Marvel felt "real" in a way other companies' adventure comics didn't.

The problem with the "events" of the last several years is that they've lost that casual, "hey, there's Spider-Man!" quality, and foregrounded their status as "must-reads," despite the fact that they are nearly always an underwhelming creative experience. Heavily promoted, built around a series of single-entendre 'political' ideas that make The X-Men look like Frederic Jameson, and spreading their narrative too thinly across every book in the Marvel Universe, these titles (everything from House of M to Civil War) always leave me feeling bored and annoyed, and they have the added effect of damaging characters for no truly compelling reason. If Stan Lee was a Cold War hipster, full of irony, self-reflexivity, and a spin on superheroes that somehow blended Jean-Paul Sartre and Mad magazine, this Joe Quesada-era Marvel is totally emo: almost parodically dark, self-serious, decompressed, and overhyped.

Thank god, then, for writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist Salva Espin, whose World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control is the antidote to all this self-regarding gloom. Light where the Marvel "event" comics are heavy, laughing instead of frowning, pissing all over the idea of multi-issue epic arcs (the whole series is only three self-contained issues), and cheerfully ignoring the man-boobs and computerized machismo of contemporary battle scenes in favor of character, dialogue and wry laughs, this book with the horrible title is almost the anti-Marvel, a through-the-looking-glass return to the fun that Marvel once provided on a monthly basis, and a melancholy reminder of the spirit it currently seems to lack. I was turned on to the book by a review at Bully's site, and I don't think I've had as much fun with any comic in a long time.

The quick narrative conceit: for reasons that really aren't important, superheroes must now register with the government, Tony Stark/Iron Man is in charge of nearly everything, and the Hulk has been shot into outer space. For reasons that aren't really important, the Hulk comes back to Earth, and for reasons that aren't really important, he gets in a big fight and basically destroys whole sections of Manhattan. Yeah, like you care, right? The folks at Damage Control, Inc. don't, not about motivation, anyway: a privately-held clean-up corporation, they specialize in cleaning up the post-apocalpses that superheroes seem to create on a daily basis (what with all that lunging and punching and blasting and jumping), and their only concern is getting Manhattan back on its feet, rescuing folks and putting building back up (while staying under budget and making a profit).

Having a blase (or at least tongue-in-cheek) attitude towards superheroes is essential for Damage Control, which mocks the genre's cliches while clearly showing a great deal of affection for them. As longtime readers of this blog know, I love superheroes, but I also think we can become too self-serious about them: Damage Control is out to puncture our pretensions, from the parodic splash page intros which mock the importance of continuity (one is structured as a "Mad Libs" for the reader to complete) to the almost Godardian paring away of all those elements (spandex, action, longwinded speeches) that seemingly define the form; in their place, McDuffie and Espin highlight the average, the everyday, ironic and quotidian, all those humans in the background that we might not notice as we look up in the sky, but who are no less heroic despite their lack of costumes. In shifting the focus and the tone, they paradoxically remind us of why we love superheroes in the first place: without ever showing one punch or repulsor ray blast, they offer us that mixture of magic, hope, humor and possibility that Marvel always used to represent.

Ultimate Spider-Man #118-#120:: OK, there's one Marvel comics title that's managed to avoid all of this crossover silliness. But it's over in a different universe.

Since its debut in 2000, Ultimate Spider-Man has been the "real" Spider-Man title to me, the one that-- moreso than the Spidey in the 'proper' Marvel U.-- captured the character's mix of heroism, humor, insecurity and hope. USM was aunched as the flagship title of a new "Ultimate" universe: the idea was that, after nearly 40 years (and following Marvel's recovery from its 1996 bakruptcy), the Marvel Universe had a vast and slightly unwieldy history; the continuity and intertwined threads that were once its calling card had made it difficult for new fans to catch up with everything that had happened. So, why not start over? The Ultimate U. would have the same characters as the 'official' Marvel universe, but would be separate and started from scratch, as if Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and others had just debuted in 2000. Some of their histories would be completely reimagined, while others (like Spidey's) would cleverly rethread the characters and events from the earlier continuity into the new origins and adventures; new readers got in on the ground floor, while longtme Marvelheads could chuckle at the intertextual jokes spread throughout.

USM succeeds because of Brian Michael Bendis, the gifted, Cleveland-born comics writer and artist who's been scripting the title since its debut. Originally known for "indie" books like Powers, Sam and Twitch, and the mind-blowing true-crime book Torso (as well as a funny memoir of his time in Hollywood called Fortune and Glory), Bendis has spent most of the 21st century working for Marvel and becoming its new mastermind. I'm not sure his "official" Marvel U. stuff is that hot, but he was born to write USM, since the teen angst, wit and superheroics of Peter Parker provide him with the perfect canvas for his style. Bendis's writing is full of pauses, stammers, sentences that cut-off, dialogue that overlaps or gets stuck in the throat: what better way to represent the travails of adolescence? At the same time, his jones for research and vast knowledge of Spider-lore makes the book pop with an almost cinematic sense of place and character, and his years of writing crime and gangster comics allows him to truly capture a city under siege, and provides the necessary dark balance to Spider-Man's sunny disposition. Paired first with artist Mark Bagley, and for the last year or so with artist Stuart Immonen, Bendis has offered 120 issues of Spider-Man whose action, character, depth and emotional resonance match any period in the character's long and successful history.

For all that success, however, even I didn't think Bendis could make the "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" idea work. Green Goblin? Harry Osborn? Venom? Death of Gwen Stacey? Spidey in Hollywood? Check, check, check, check, check-- he seemd to be reimagining key moments in the character's history with great skill. Bringing Iceman and Firestar into the mix, from the mediocre mid-80s cartoon? Why not just introduce Spider-Smurf instead?

But damned if it doesn't work. I wouldn't dare spoil the twists for those who haven't read the last three issues, but suffice to say Bendis takes the cheesiness out of the concept, and replaces it with heart, humor and not a little scariness. That scariness takes the form of a noted mutant supervillain, but that figuration is only a metaphor for the larger and more universal fears-- of bodily change, getting older, hiding secrets, changing your identity-- that Bendis is really interested in, and that superhero comics have always been one of the best pop culture vehicles for. The best moments of USM are almost never the fight scenes, expertly staged as they are, but those moments before and after, as characters must face up to what they will or have done. Appropriately, then, the climax of this arc is not a battle in the sky, but a heart-to-heart between three teens in a suburban backyard. For this most human of all superheroes, that seems by far the bigger challenge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Strike That

Maybe it's just my hatred of the bad food, tight shoes and glaring fluorescent lights at the alleys, but-- am I the only one who thinks being bad at bowling actually makes you more qualified to be the President?

Also-- Digby notes the usual macho/racist nonsense this 'issue' inspired on the aptly-named Hardball.


Read Digby here and here, and then King Kaufman here, since they are both talking about the same thing: the desire of the media for underdog narratives, even if (especially if?) the media has to invent them (and even if such an invention is ultimately to our detriment).

April Fool

And although Universal Music Group doesn't allow embedding, you can also see the original video for the song here.