Month: November 2003

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Soundtrack: Subbluecollar stuff downloaded off of the net a few years ago

A Brief (Update: actually, it’s not so brief) Note on Frank Capra & termites


Forager indicates that he is substantially in agreement with a lot of the stuff I’ve been ranting about, but asks “What About Capra?”. I replied, of course, because I think the question deserved an answer, and the results were beneficial, as we each were able to clarify our positions, a little, vis-a-vis Mr. Capra. Along the way, Forager mentioned Manny Farber’s “termite art” once again, and I decided that, even though I really should be finishing off doctoral applications, I ought to do a little checking up on this fascinating “insect aesthetic”… Anyway, I’ve barely scratched the surface of “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art”, but I like what I’ve gotten under my fingernails so far…

During the course of the aforementioned comments-thread discussion, Forager and I decided that we agreed (with the help of a little somethin’ called the “shotgun suspicion”) that Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is actually an exceptionally dark film… But that didn’t solve anything, because we still have no way of understanding why I love it and he hates it (or really dislikes it, anyway). Forager added that he really likes early Capra works such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen and It Happened One Night–it’s just the films the director made after his “breakdown” in 1935 that bother him. Now, I don’t want to go on for too long about IAWL in this space, because I’m trying to hive up that particular honey for use in late-December, but Forager also mentions Meet John Doe, in passing, and I think I’ll use that film as my text…

I really have to disagree with Forager’s contention that the later Capra films “don’t acknowledge any of the contradictions and complications in the material”. Or, you know, maybe I could let that statement stand, if the proviso could be added that, because this acknowledgement never takes place, the contradictions and complications which are manifest within the film are all the more intensely felt! Basically, I don’t think Frank Capra ever recovered from the bout of craziness which drove him into seclusion for most of a calendar year, immediately after he had become the toast of Hollywood, thanks to the Oscar-sweeping performance of It Happened One Night in 1934. The apocryphal story is that a “strange man” came to see Capra in his sickbed and lectured him about squandering a magnificent opportunity to enlighten a world that was waiting, with baited breath, for his next film. If that doesn’t convince ya that the Capster was a bit deranged, I don’t know what would! And I love it! Typically, I like works that just don’t hold together. My favourite books are Hawthorne’s Blithedale, Melville’s Pierre + The Confidence Man, Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hammett’s fiction–all of which are usually interpreted, when they receive any attention at all, as “fascinating failures”. My point is–why throw an artistic pass that you know you are capable of completing perfectly? To score another touchdown? Why run up the score? (this is the main source of my problem with Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Ford–well, no, I just hate Ford, I’m not gonna lie to you, dear reader!–but the rest of ’em? come on! Who wants to watch Hitchcock defeat the Freudian thriller 77-0?) Capra had already made the ultimate “never the twain shall meet” fable (Bitter Tea), and the ultimate screwball reconciliation between the sexes/classes fantasy (It Happened One Night), but the problem then became, what to do next?

I think the key early Capra film is actually The Miracle Woman–a textbook “fascinating failure” that no one, including Capra, knew what to make of, once it was done. The only thing that’s obvious about the film is that Barbara Stanwyck is probably the greatest screen actress of all time–and that any of the artificial technique she might have acquired earlier was completely eaten away by the impossible task her director assigned to her (basically, she was somehow supposed to embody complete sham and complete authenticity!) It’s an insanely great performance, and we’re not likely to ever see its’ like again, but I think that, in every film he made after 1935 (except for obvious phone-in jobs like You Can’t Take it With You and Arsenic and Old Lace), Frank Capra tried to recreate the intensity of that performance on an ever-widening canvas. By the time you get to John Doe, the termites in Capra’s brain had so eaten away at his ability to deliver a coherent sermon that you (or I, anyway) just gawk in amazement at what on earth it is he ever could have been hoping to communicate to the world. I mean–what’s wrong with Gary Cooper in this movie? To use actor-speak: “what’s his motivation”? Why does everyone keep changing all of the time? Why does Edward Arnold actually look concerned about Cooper’s welfare at the end? Does Stanwyck really think her hobo is the second coming of Christ? Does anyone really believe that “the People” that we’ve seen in this movie are capable of the kind of unified action that Stanwyck’s cynical speeches call for? Even after she says she’s starting to believe? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and neither, I’m sure, did Capra. Later on, he would just smile and say he made these movies “for the little guy”, but I think we can just dismiss that–he made them because he was so distressed and hopped up on the dichotomies that his early films had brought to light that he couldn’t help filming a record of the madness that comes from not “embracing contradiction”.

Anyway, that’s what I think. I can understand why some people would find these films annoying, harrassing, disturbing, etc. But that’s why I love ’em!

Good night friends!
Dave

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Soundtrack: The Beastie Boys — Root Down EP

Happy Thanksgiving America!!!


In Quebec we call it “Action-de-Grace”, and it takes place a month and a half earlier, and–oh yeah–it’s completely lame… I suppose that, as a student of the Puritans, I am more drawn to their great feast day than most Canadians, but I don’t see how any objective observer could deny that the October holiday is a pale imitation…

Christine and I saw a sneak preview of Mona Lisa Smile tonight… I’ll go see anything if it’s free! However– despite the terrible title, and the terrible genre (the “inspirational professor”), I liked it quite a bit. No sign of Robin Williams, no inspirational speeches, no suicides– just a lot of personable characters with different opinions colliding in a rather closed environment, which makes for good drama… The film actually does a decent job of critiquing the whole “maverick mentor vs. the establishment” thing–although, of course, the ending failed to please me…

To Eve: Yes, the terminology is tiresome, but I think narratology itself is quite a valuable critical tool! I recommend Gérard Genette’s Discours du Recit, which actually offers something other than silliness to the reader–a cardinal sin for French theorists!!!

Good night friends!
Dave

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Soundtrack: Hole — Pretty on the Inside


There’s no end of stuff to deal with tonight, so let’s just dive right in!

1. I’m very much obliged to Loren at In A Dark Time, who had some nice things to say about Enlightened Romantics, my undergraduate thesis. Loren does some pretty hardcore poetry bloggin’, and i never miss his entries…

2. The ever-vigilant Neilalien spots a very important discussion of comics scholarship, over at The Pulse, and a theory that Dr. Strange was actually inspired by the Roger Corman version of The Raven!!! (about which, as a non-fan of Vincent Price, I can say, I sincerely hope not! But who knows? If this could be established, it would certainly bolster the credentials of the John Waters-style Doc that Neil has recently spoken of…fretfully)

Okay then–Time for the main event!!!!

John Jakala wonders if I’ve ever “run across a work whose stopping point made for a satisfactory unit considered overall?”. Shawn Fumo ponders the dialectical interplay between continuity and “episodicity”… And Sean Collins offers a bemused restatement of the wild overstatements that I’ve been making lately, which I very much appreciate and concur with. A.C. Douglas came down on me like a ton of bricks in yesterday’s comments thread, and I hope he comes back for more, ’cause I genuinely enjoy that kind of thing! Why else would I go overboard this way almost daily? Bring on the criticism!!! Speaking of which: I think Dirk Deppey’s a little worried about my sanity… You are not alone Dirk!

Anyway, Sean (Collins, that is) hits the bullseye when he interprets my recent comments to mean that “formally, at least, ‘normal’ mainstream genre-comic storytelling is interesting, insofar as it’s so goddamn bizarre”. John Jakala also dealt with this somewhere, but I can’t for the life of me find it right now…(I’m awfully tired!) But if anyone thought I was saying that serially published super-hero are the greatest works of art that humanity has ever produced, then I expressed myself very badly! All I meant was that there are some really unique things about the genre that I think are being taken for granted by some of the smartest people I’ve encountered in the blogosphere. To put it more succinctly: a lot of critics are calling for comic books that are more like novels or films, while I am hard at work on a novel that seeks to harness the aforementioned “goddamn bizarre” qualities of traditional super-hero narratives! I consider the Silver Age Marvels part of the American Romance tradition, and my (personal) goal in exploring their unique contributions to this tradition has always been to reincorporate these effects back into the prose fiction that I write!

Now, as for “endings”–a few days ago, I referred to Capra’s codas as massive “wrap-parties”, and I’m going to stand by my assertion that that is a great way to wind down a work that, formally, must stop–it overwhelms the viewer with pure human personality, enabling him/her to forget (if that’s what they want to do) that nothing whatsoever has been resolved (try watching It’s A Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with this in mind and let me know what you think!). And, speaking of resolution/(“I don’t WANT no”)satisfaction, a guy named Rod argues, in John Jakala’s comments thread, that “good endings happen, when they resolve the thematic conflicts of the story in a way that emotionally satisfies the *reader*.” That’s a valid point of view, but it’s not one I can go along with! As far as I’m concerned, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance is the greatest novel ever written, and the book’s power derives chiefly from its’ refusal to loosen the hellaciously tight knots it ties and reties throughout its’ progression. I don’t want to see conflicts resolved, nor do I, as a reader, crave emotional satisfaction. I want to be left with pins n’ needles…

Good night friends!
Dave

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Soundtrack: U2 — War

Didn’t “the author” die a few decades ago?

I only ask because a lot of people out there, in the blogosphere, seem to be clinging to the notion of the artist as self-begetting genius–it’s not just A.C. Douglas this time, it’s the whole ever-lovin’ comics-bloggin’ community (links to your left)! I held aloof from the Tony Isabella wars that took place in October, because I’m not a consumer of current-day comics, and I didn’t feel like my input would be helpful in any way–but it’s becoming apparent that I ought to speak my mind re:”creative control”.

Here, in a nutshell, is my position:

As a (rather tender-hearted) person, I feel bad for Tony, because I hate to see anyone suffer, and I’d be delighted to see him financially compensated for his trouble… However, as a critic, I consider the “Tony Isabella position” ludicrous, and counter-productive.

I touched on this in my own comment-threads yesterday–as far as I’m concerned, the “indie” aesthetic is reactionary nonsense, the artworld equivalent of the “Jeffersonian yeoman” ideal. We cannot retain “control” over the works of art that we labour upon any more than we can all return to the land and become self-sufficient producers. Leaving aside the question of influence, it should be obvious that, as soon as you let anyone else read what you’ve written, you have lost control of the piece, and–a fortiori–of “your” characters. The Marvel and DC universes are vast, interactive sites which make manifest the way all creation really works. A work of art is not a thing (i.e. set apart from culture)–by definition, it’s embedded within culture. That’s what makes it art!!! And once you plug into culture, you are no longer in control.

So, when Tony Isabella comes up with Black Lightning and places him within the larger context of the DC universe, it’s a de facto abandonment of the possibility of “taking his character and going home” (the legal issues don’t matter at all here–I mean, it’s very likely that, in some cases, a writer/artist can use legal tools to effect the rescue that I deny is possible, but that’s beside the point–when the “corporate comic model” is functioning properly, it provides a textbook example of the debt that creators, all creators, owe to their respective environments). Now, as to who gets paid, well, that’s a different issue, and I always prefer to see an individual win out over a soulless corporate entity, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s a good and chastening thing for a creator to be reminded that he/she does not have anything like a god’s power over his/her creations–or, at the very least, if the creator is a god, he/she is more like a member of a (really overpopulated) pantheon. Zeus, for example, can try to make things come out his way, but he’s always got to worry about Hera or Poseidon’s interference. There ain’t no Yahwehs at the typewriter! A lot of “indie creators” don’t seem to realize that…

Now, some of you might be saying, “how would you like it, Fiore, if they took your characters, and made them do things that you know they’d never do!!!” What if they dragged Dawn Paris out of Darkling I Listen and made her into a murderess or something? And you know what? Maybe I would hate that, but it wouldn’t make any difference, and anyway, the whole point of that character (and all of the characters I write) is that I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do next, and I don’t want any part of explaining what they have done. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as “interiority”. The world is all surface, and we’re all entitled to grope–it feels pretty good…

Good night friends!
Dave

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Soundtrack: The Fastbacks — …And His Orchestra

“Singles” Looking For Love

It would seem that the current debate over the continued viability of monthly, pamphlet-style “singles” began with Franklin Harris’s article here. Since then, a lot of the people in the comics blogging neighborhood (stalwarts such as Dirk Deppey, Laura Gjovaag, Johnny Bacardi, Sean Collins, John Jakala, Ron Phillips, and Kevin Melrose, among others) have contributed their thoughts on this matter. Now, just speaking for myself, I will say that I have no particular preference as to the rigidity of my comic books, but this discussion also touches on the “issue” of monthly publication and “seriality” versus narrative integrity and a new-critical-type standard of structural coherence in art (for this, check out Rick Geerling and the prolific Mr. Collins)–and I do care about that!

Actually, I said most of what I wanted to say in a reply-comment to Rick’s Nov 19th “rant”, but I think it’s important enough to repeat here: serially published super-hero comic books (those which feature letters pages as integral parts of the text, anyway), beginning with Marvel in the early 60’s, offered a wonderful paradox to the world: synchronic, interactive narrative! (TV shows are serially aired, but they don’t integrate viewer commentary into the shows–unless you want to accept joke segments like Letterman’s “Viewer Mail”–and even soap operas are forced to move forward, given the tendency of human actors to age visibly over time). I would submit that the very things that intelligent fans seem to deplore these days (characters that don’t change, zero opportunity for “closure”, endless permutations that grow out of minute variations in the approach to a very limited number of existential situations, etc.–the super-hero comic, in its’ “open-ended”, monthly form is a bonanza for structuralist analysis!!) are the things that make this genre unique and fascinating. Think about it–what do you hate about the adaptations of Chandler’s books to film? Those final clinches, right? The damned closure! Who ever said it was more “artful” to have an ending to your story? There is no such thing as closure in life–with the possible exception of death, and who knows about that, right?–that kind of thing is always a subjective imposition upon experience, so why on earth should it be necessary in art? I would say that the temptation to offer the last word on anything is the single greatest obstacle between a creator and greatness…

I’m not saying that self-contained “sequential art” is devoid of interest, but I am saying that the “traditional” model for the presentation of these narratives is actually far more compelling (formally!) than the types of works that mature fans seem to be clamoring for. My message to the proponents of the monthly, “single” super-hero format? Do not equivocate, and do not apologize! Most of all–do not defend your opinion based on “sentimental attachment” (or, you know, go on doing so, by all means, but understand that you’re just asking to be patronized by the Dirk Deppey school!)By the same token, I say, if we must have rigidity, then bring it on!!! (sounds like the viagra e-mails I get by the gross every day…)

Oh yes–congratulations AC! Although–as usual–I disagree with you completely, this time on JFK, but we’ll do that dance later, hunh?

Good night friends

Dave

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Soundtrack — A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector

Christine & I saw Elf this evening, after a pleasant meal at Cafe Presto, where they charge $3.75 for really good Penne Arrabbiata, play cheezy Italian Disco music, and ring a bell every time someone settles their account…

About the movie–well, it won’t be on my top 25, but I enjoyed it. I’ve liked Zooey Deschanel since I saw her in Mumford (she was also, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing about Almost Famous and The Good Girl) and I’d like to see her get a chance to carry a movie soon. Her performance is more of the same John Garfield “things-aren’t-going-so-well-for-me, but-I’m-onto-this-conspiracy-and-I’m-amused-by-it-all” stuff that she’s done (to perfection) before, but Elf reveals that she’s got a really good, jazzy, singing voice, and now I’m even more impressed…

Will Ferrell? His brand of humour is not my style at all, but I did laugh quite a bit, especially at the line “He’s an angry elf.” (If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about–if you haven’t, I can’t explain it to you). There’s a lot of stuff about the importance of “belief in things you can’t see”–and I don’t like that brand of Christmas-mysticism at all (but I’ll spare you that rant for now; it’s coming soon though–you’d better watch out!) One cool aspect of the film is that Favreau’s North Pole renders hommage to the Rankin/Bass version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (complete with bewhiskered snowman–Leon Redbone filling in Burl Ives), which I like to think everyone loves… Christine–the world’s biggest Mary Tyler Moore Show fan–crackled with joy every time Ed Asner appeared on the screen, and that’s always nice too!

Now then! What was I saying about Spidey and Emerson?

Oh yes–whim. “genius”. super-powers. Putting on the mask. Retreating to the study. Swinging into action–creative anonymity. Transcending your situation– not in order to “merge with the infinite”, or dispel the mirage of the world, but to “gain perspective” on the concrete things you love–your friends, your city, your world, the only things that matter–and make an impact…

Emerson wrote (in “Self-Reliance”)

“I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write upon the lintels of the door-post, Whim.”

And keep in mind that Emerson uses “genius” as a synonym for “creative urge”, or “vision”. I think this describes Peter Parker’s actions pretty accurately. He goes out to “clear his head”, “unwind”, etc. Sounds like a writer, cracking his/her knuckles, getting ready for something to happen on the page, as opposed to in his/her life… Doesn’t it? The idea that super-powers are a metaphor for an artistic sensibility has been with me since I first picked up a comic book, and I think it holds up rather well. And note how often Peter worries that his spider-man shenanigans are merely an escape from the web of personal relations… Certainly, his “genius” leads him to shun Aunt May, and Gwen, and a host of others, over and over again–but he keeps at it, even though he can never be sure that he’s doing the right thing, it just feels necessary, and (hopefully), it benefits everyone, in the end… All of this plays into my long-cherished notion that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a very important pop-cultural link in the chain of transmission from the Puritans to Marvel, and I’m preparing to write an article that explores this in depth…

Good night friends!
Dave

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Soundtrack — Kill Rock Stars Anthology, 1991


Christine is shedding her 25ness as we speak–Happy 26th, My Sweet!!!

I would write on the lintels of the door-post Whim

In the interest of striking while the iron is hot, I’m going to let my discussion of Emerson & Spider-Man slide (but it’ll return, as will the above quotation from “Self-Reliance”) and focus on the world outside of my brain!

1 — Neilalien discusses his feelings for Rintrah, Doctor Strange’s chucklesome–and now barbecued–apprentice. I’m with ya all the way on this one Neil! The green bull was one of the things that made the Sorceror Supreme so much fun, back in 1989-90, until those Infinity Gauntlets got a chokehold on the series, and commenced squeezing. In his second shot at the Doc, Roy Thomas tried something completely different, and it was working really well, I think–a mix of truly disturbing stuff like Vampire love, time-honoured stuff like the confrontations with Mordo, Satannish, Mephisto and Dormamu, interesting experiments like the “tabloid issue” (#9) + a more extensive cast than the Doc usually had, each of whom (and Rintrah was notable here for doing stuff like transforfming into Fred Astaire and delivering a few lines from Irving Berlin’s “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”) made important contributions to the atmosphere–humorous, but still serious (i.e. not like the DeMatteis/Giffen Justice League Whatever). Anyway, I’m here to say right now, I’d pay good money to see Rintrah live again! (perhaps a petition?)

2– Speaking of Roy Thomas, Kevin Melrose has posted a brief, qualified ode to the Earth-2 books of the early-to-mid-eighties, notably All-Star Squadron, which I’ve always loved. In fact, there’s not much that Thomas has done that I haven’t liked (Conan stuff excepted–I just can’t get into sword & Sorcery), and it’s nice to see a knowledgeable comics fan praising the Rascally One for a change! I think the 1960s Avengers are legitimately great, as is the 1968-69 Dr. Strange–and X-Men #20-38, with (mostly) Werner Roth pencils and John Tartaglione (RIP!) inks, are, if not great, then at least wonderful…

Unfortunately, as this article makes clear, Roy the Boy is no more, and a doddering old duffer has taken his place. Sad…

3– Forager disputes my contention that Frank Capra’s films belong in a discussion of an eye-level aesthetic. Well folks, this is where the subjectivity comes in, big time! As my dad likes to say, I have a sickness when it comes to Capra, and It’s A Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (along with the more universally accepted It Happened One Night) are pretty much the most important works of art in the whole world to me (along with Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance)… I think part of the problem with Capra is that people read his book (The Name Above the Title) or they watch those parasitic Frank Capra Jr. commentaries that mar the DVDs and they actually start to believe that the films offer nothing more than all-American wholesomeness. But Forager, let me ask you a question–if these films are preachy, what are they preaching? I don’t see what it could be–other than the gospel of human personality. I can see that you might feel buttonholed or harrasssed by a Capra movie, but preached to? More than any other director, except for Cassavettes, Capra just let his actors super-nova on screen, and it can be disconcerting if you’re not in the mood for it–but if you are, you will find that his people (especially Stanwyck and Stewart) are staring straight at you… (and sure, they might be riding some socio-political hobby-horse or other, but the context in which these pleas are uttered always works against them!… Nothing ever gets solved in a Capra movie–what kind of preaching is that?)

Capra’s oeuvre really explores the problem of endings, which, obviously, fascinates a proponent of “seriality” like myself… Basically, I don’t believe in endings, so I don’t have a problem when an artist creates an unbelievably tight knot of human joy and misery, pulls for as long as his/her medium comfortably allows, and then just gives up and, in Capra’s case, throws a “wrap party”, films it, and then calls that an “ending”. In this respect, Meet John Doe is possibly the most interesting film ever made, because it is absolutely impossible to imagine even a competent way to write finis to it…

4. Eve Tushnet thinks I’m taking ethics too lightly!! Believe me Eve, I wish it were true–I really miss Ovaltine (is there an eggless version out there?) For me, “God” is a metaphor for whatever it is that allows me to interact with other people, and I decide on how to relate to them on a case by case basis–I’m with Kant, base your ethics on the need to treat every person (and animal) as an end in him/herself–it’s the only way out of solipsism/pantheism… And it is pretty simple–until you bring this stuff into the political sphere–and there, I agree, it gets pretty crazy! Oh yeah, Eve, I think Madison is great too!

Something further may follow of this masquerade

Good night friends!
Dave