Month: November 2003

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Soundtrack: Peter Parker — Migliore!

What to do ’till the X-Mas List Starts…

Eve Tushnet wonders if, when I say that, as a critic, I privilege an “eye-level aesthetic”, I mean that I like works of art that, in looking at human beings, are neither “idolatrous nor prideful”. And she’s right. That is what I mean! So, at least as far as people go, Eve and I are completely in sync. What else is there, you may ask? Well, cats, certainly. And our other friends from the animal and vegetable kingdoms. But–what else? If you’re asking me–nothing. However, in Eve’s case, you’ve got Concepts and God (the BIG CONCEPT) to deal with… And herein lies the source of our cordial disagreement.

Quoth Eve:
“This, to me, exemplifies what an eye-level view of the world looks like–neither precluding heroism nor turning it into just another excuse for self-love.”

With this statement, she has left me far behind, because it would never enter my head to either “preclude” or “turn to” an abstraction like “heroism” (or “beauty”, or “God”, or “love”, and so on). Not that I want to discredit “heroism”–I call works that do that kind of thing “cynical”, and there’s nothing worse than that. But the Platonic conception (Eve is a Nietzschean–but, of course, all Nietzscheans are Platonists at heart) of the universe (as an accumulation of symbols pointing toward Ideal Forms) leads inevitably to these shallow debunking excercises. Quite simply: get rid of Idealism and you short-circuit Cynicism. Satirists need abstraction to breathe–and by Jove I’d love to smother (this impulse in) them! I guess maybe you think this sounds simpler than it is– but I’m here to tell you, the idealist/cynic binary has been dead to me for a good long while, and I haven’t run amok or lost my moral compass!

The only reality is other people, and that’s real enough for me. When it comes time to construct a political system, I’m fine with spinning our theoretical wheels until we get it right (getting it right would entail the creation of a society in which every individual has an excellent shot at making a meaningful life for him/herself, without providing an easy solution by doling out ready-made meanings), but at the existential level, I don’t see why I would need abstract categories, when I’ve met Christine, and Kim, and Jamie, and Angela, and John, and Maggie, and Kathryn, and Cara, and Ingrid, and Chris, and Fred, and, you know, everyone… Amazing things start to happen, when you “look people in the eye”… Ah, but what does this have to do with the creation of art, you may ask? When I sit down to write, I might be looking at a cat, if one of them sits on the monitor–and those eyes, beautiful as they are, don’t pack quite the same punch–or maybe just a reflection of my own, if there’s a shine on the screen.

What it comes down to, then, is writing as if you could look the reader in the eye, and reading as if you could look the writer in the eye. It’s all very subjective, and there’s no way to prove that this is what’s happening. But you know it, when it does… (see why comic book letters pages mean so much to me?)

What interests me, as a critic, is the process by which a life at “eye level” feeds into an eye-level aesthetic. The relationship between the two things is anything but clear–but it’s a mystery well worth pondering…

Tomorrow, I’ll be more concrete, I promise!–starting with a discussion of Spider-Man and Emersonian “Whim”.

Good night friends
Dave

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Another short post tonight:

Basically, I just want to thank Eve for recalling me to my own search for an “eye-level aesthetic”. I admit that what I’ve posted on this subject has been sketchy so far, and I’m going to work on bringing the picture into focus (with some help from the 60’s Marvels–and Frank Capra) in the week to come.

However, I will add that in this, as in many things, Eve and I are closer than she thinks–and her blog is a pleasure to read!!

G’Night!
Dave

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Soundtrack: New Kingdom —Paradise Don’t Come Cheap

Kings Row and The Amazing Spider-Man

Yesterday, I alluded to Sam Wood’s Kings Row, and this got me thinking about a pet suspicion of mine–namely that Stan Lee & Steve Ditko had the great 1942 melodrama on their minds while they were constructing the web-head’s little world and cast of characters…

One of the reasons that I felt let down by Tom Spurgeon & Jordan Raphael’s Stan Lee: And the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book was that, as far as I can recall, they completely neglected to look at the influence that films of the studio age might (must?) have had on Stan the Man. I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to want this (and maybe there just wasn’t any evidence they could point to)–but I do. I’ve read lots of stuff, over the years, about how strongly Citizen Kane affected various artists (Errol Flynn movies too), but if, as everyone seems to agree, one of Marvel’s biggest contributions to the super-hero comic book was the introduction of “soap opera elements” into the adventure narrative, doesn’t it make sense to explore Lee’s debt to the great melodramas of his youth and early adulthood?

At some point in their discussion of the creation of Spider-Man, S & R describe Peter Parker’s world as (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book with me, unfortunately) a bleak place, which the adolescent Peter has very little power to affect, and which is devoid of any viable adult role-models. I remember gripping the page a little more tightly, hoping to see them make the leap to Kings Row, but it didn’t happen!

A lot of you may never have heard of this film, or know it only as the site of Ronald Reagan’s greatest performance and his prophetic utterance of the line: “Where’s the rest of me?” (in the movie he’s referring to his legs–amputated unneccessarily; but a critic of Reagan’s latter-day politics might well pose the same question in reference to the social conscience young “Dutch” possessed in the thirties and forties). So, I’ll just provide a little summary of the film’s plot:

Basically, it’s the story of Parris Mitchell, a sensitive, practically friendless orphan who lives with his infirm grand-mother in a small-to-middling midwestern town called Kings Row. Parris (played by Robert Cummings, who never gets any respect) is shy to the point of maladjustment, but destined for greatness. His one desire is to become a doctor and relieve human suffering–a commodity which is very much in evidence in Kings Row, where almost everyone is embedded in horrifyingly naked power-relations (either as oppressor or oppressed). The three stars of the film: Cummings, Reagan as Drake McHugh, and Ann Sheridan as Randy Monaghan, are exceptions to this rule, and their relative freedom makes them seem like super-heroes–especially Parris, who is so talented that he earns a scholarship to study psychology in Vienna (at the turn-of-the-century). But–“with all his power”–Parris really can’t do anything to cure his grandmother’s illness (and he laments this fact in true Spider-Man style–“Anna! I can’t save her!”), or prevent the established doctors in town from carving up the populace or killing their psychotic daughters… To tell you more would spoil things–just go rent it!

Anyway, whenever I see the early scenes of the film, between Cummings and kindly, over-protective Maria Ouspenskaya as “Grand-Mere”, I just can’t help thinking of Peter and Aunt May. There are scenes–such as the one in which he is studying late and she dodders in to remind him to get his sleep–that prefigure panels from the early Spider-Man so exactly it’s almost creepy…

Which is not to say that there aren’t huge differences between the two works–for one thing, the Lee-Ditko spideys treat their subject ironically, while Kings Row goes at it head-on with no emotional holds barred (and succeeds too–thanks in large part to an overwhelming Erich Wolfgang Korngold score which, if you give it even half a chance, is pretty much guaranteed to preempt sneers, not to mention thought!!)

Good night friends!
Dave

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Short of Time tonight–so I’ll just plug another site!

If you have any interest at all in studio age movies (paging Johnny Bacardi!), you must check out Michael’s Movie Palace. I think I’ve spent about 5 hours there, over the past few days, and I’m not anywhere near done with the material he’s posted (I mean, I’ve been taping these things off of PBS since the mid-eighties, and I’ve accumulated about 900 of ’em, but Michael’s tossing off reviews of stuff like Yes, My Darling Daughter and Dieterle’s seldom-seen but influential Fog Over Frisco, like it’s no big deal–and maybe it isn’t, if you get TCM! About which I will say–quoting Nancy Coleman in Kings Row (merely the greatest pure melodrama ever made)–“I wish it was me! I wish it was ME!”) Also–Michael’s list of favourite X-Mas movies is worth a look!

Good night friends
Dave

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Soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac — Rumours

We had Phil Esposito in-store tonight, doing a book-signing, and man, the place was (comparatively) crazy! Usually, by about 8pm, the downtown businesspeople have retreated to suburbia and the students have found cooler places to hang out, leaving a co-worker and myself to deal with ringing up an occasional sale, taking a confused call or three, and pondering the best way to wake up the monobrow guy who passes out drooling on headlines every night in a dirty plush window-seat. We also get a lot of shelving and receiving done, when we have to, of course…

But tonight, that window-aisle was jam-packed with signature-seekers and I guess the “missing link” had to find another bunk for the evening. Sad. And I got called “Rufus” twice tonight, which is even worse than usual. I mean–I know, Rufus Wainwright is a Montrealer, and yeah I guess I do look quite a bit like him (at this point, it would be pointless to deny it… but I don’t have to like it, or Rufus himself–although Christine loves him, and so, apparently, does Sean Collins), but enough’s enough ‘kay! The guy’s got more grandiose things to do than work a cash register, and if customers want to joke around with me, they’re welcome to do so, but I need to start seeing more creativity out of them!

And it’s all ’cause people want heroes! They want to meet stars, catch glimpses of them, titter about resemblances to stars… And yes, they want heroes in their comics too! I know, I know, it’s the “super-hero” genre, and I’m the one who wants to make them about something else, so I guess I should just take my lumps on this Alex Ross thing! Laura Gjovaag is ready to close the book on the matter, and so am I… (I’m glad you’re not angry Laura!) And John Jakala points out that, in his opinion, Ross undermines his own “mythologizing” project by giving us such realistic portraits of these “New Gods”. I’m not sure about that, but it’s interesting. Certainly, it’s much more interesting than anything I’ve had to say about Ross–in part because I truly have zero interest in themes such as heroism, courage, virtue, etc… I never have, and I guess I never will. I’m not saying that these themes are not/should not be important to others, or that super-hero narratives don’t participate in this discourse–it goes without saying that they do! However, my own (possibly futile) project has grown largely out of a desire to understand why a person like myself, with an obsessive interest in stuff like the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American Transcendentalists, should be so fascinated by the Silver Age Marvels (and texts that I identify as being in their tradition, such as Gruenwald’s Captain America and Morrison’s Animal Man)… My point is that I never should have opened my mouth about Ross, because whatever he’s doing–“mythologizing”?, critiquing?, investigating the sublime?–it’s not interesting to me, and I was bound to fail to see the nuances that other people seem to have no trouble picking up on!

But enough of this! Back to ironic saints and conspiracies of fun tomorrow! And tonight–more Essential Doctor Strange for me! Is Steve Ditko the greatest comics artist ever? Right now I’m thinking he is–and I’m really looking forward to that all-Ditko issue of The Comics Journal that Forager will be participating in! (I’m no Randian–although she did write Love Letters, a great Dieterle film–but I’m really wishing, just now, that I had the wherewithal to track down some of Sturdy Steve’s Objectivist stuff. Mr. A, in particular, looks awesome!)

Good night friends
Dave

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Soundtrack: Rage Against the Machine — Evil Empire


Re: An eye-level aesthetic, Part 0.5

Steven Grant describes the sixties Marvel House Style as a “conspiracy of fun between the company and its’ audience”. (link via Alan David Doane.) Unfortunately, he felt the need to qualify his inspired statement by adding that Marvel was just “pretending”. Come now! What’s fun is fun, and there are no two ways about it! Like this exchange, f’rinstance (from Strange Tales #136–September, 1965):

Dear Stan and Steve,
As I was looking over my older comics I happened to notice Strange Tales #129. The cover was heinous! Or even worse! The exact words were “No! We didn’t leave Dr. Strange out of this issue! We just didn’t have any room for him on the cover.” I think that was down-right embarassing for Dr. Strange. By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, never do it again!!
Neal Cohen
191 Spiers Rd.
Newton Ctr., Mass.
(Marvel’s response?)Okay, Neal–we aim to please! Next time we omit Doc from the cover, we won’t print a note mentioning it! Howzat?

This “conspiracy of fun” is exactly what I mean when I talk about an eye-level aesthetic, and I’m going to devote myself–in the ten days or so leading up to my X-Mas blogging project–to exploring stuff like that cover blurb, the lettercols, the Bullpen Bulletins Page, and the narrative voice of the Silver Age at Marvel…

One more thing: the fact that the “House of Ideas” was a growing money-making machine that did some mean things to its’ employees has nothing to do with whether the company was able to generate a genuinely interactive relationship with its’ readers. There’s nothing ersatz about this fun! By the same token, the works produced by a “grass-roots, independent, creator-owned”-type organization, like, say, Aardvark-Vanaheim, can still read like unanswerable decrees from on high (even if the lettercols go on for four pages!). Dave Sim’s into conspiracies all right, but they aren’t fun, and he’s never even come close to addressing his public in a conspiratorial tone, which is too bad, because he might have gotten something out of the experience…

Good night friends
Dave

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As the quest for exhibits of an “eye-level aesthetic” continues…

Eve Tushnet embellishes upon Forager’s discussion of Claremont’s run on the X-Men. Along the way, she explains: “I haven’t read pretty much anything between 1983-ish and NXM“, about which I will say–Eve, my friend, you are lucky! Personally, I’m right there with Forager in appreciating what Claremont & Cockrum did on the title in the 1970’s, and I like some of the Byrne stuff too (there can’t be anyone that actually hates the Dark Phoenix Saga, can there? Even among those of us–like me–who feel that the increasingly solemn/operatic tone of the series had negative long-term consequences for the super-hero genre as a whole). In my opinion, Byrne & Claremont, each of whom has proven to be quite insane when given autocratic power over a strip, somehow managed to keep each other in check enough while working together to produce some enjoyable stuff–but the X-Men in the mid-to-late-eighties–when I was buying comics weekly–was absolutely terrible. And–although Claremont didn’t write X-Factor–his take on mutants was influential in forcing the 60’s cast (which I love in the Roy Thomas/Werner Roth issues of 1966/67) to endure even more painfully melodramatic adventures unrelieved by any irony whatsoever (anyone remember Calvin Hodge and the “crucifixion of Warren Worthington on wings of steel” stuff? and the “where-is-my-mind?” saga of the “simpleton Beast”?) But at least X-Factor had cool Simonson art! Meanwhile, on the Uncanny series you got Silvestri and Leonardi, which just wasn’t any good at all (Silvestri’s women look as if they will NEVER BLINK AGAIN).

Oh yeah–this was the cover of Time the week I was born (kind of a lame one–I don’t want to be associated with an energy crisis, I have enough trouble getting up in the morning):



Link via Johnny Bacardi via Laura Gjovaag.
Good night friends!
David