Saturday, September 17, 2005

Essential X-Men (94-138)

Lately, I've been reading through my Essential X-Men tradepaperbacks, books that collect Chris Claremont's run on X-Men, from its beginning, to issue 213 in the most recent volume. While Stan Lee may have created the concept of the X-Men, Chris Claremont is the one who really deserves credit for making the book successful and culturally important, and though his later work isn't that good, he deserves a great place in both comics and pop culture history because in this book he developed a whole new way of writing action stories.

Claremont's greatest contribution was his blending of heavy soap opera elements into the traditional superhero stuff. So, there's a still a lot of fights and villains menacing the X-Men, but the core of the book is the character relationships and development over the course of the book. It's really striking to compare these stories to more recent X-Men stuff (Morrison and Whedon excluded) because over time the characters have become iconic, they've been through so much it would seem impossible for all this to happen in one life. And that means that it's difficult to really relate to them.

However, back in the 70s and 80s, the characters were not icons, and that gave Claremont much greater freedom to have them change and grow. In the storyline that's widely considered the peak of the book, the Dark Phoenix Saga, the drama comes out of the relationships that have been built up over the course of the book, and the ending combines the action element with the emotional, the action is used as a stage to act out the emotional drama of the book.

This style of storytelling was picked up by Joss Whedon, and used to incredible effect in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Claremont has a lot of flaws, but Whedon takes the form he developed and takes full advantage of it. The 'Dark Willow' storyline is the most explicit tie in to Claremont's work, but the Angelus arc in season two contains more of the emotional beats. Can Buffy put her personal feelings aside and do what's best for the world by defeating Angelus? She faces the same dilemma that Cyclops does, and in both cases, we don't really care if the world gets destroyed, the emotional relationship is much more important.

There are a lot of other similarities. In both cases, they work with genre trappings and the seeming requirement to have a fight scene in every issue/episode, however, this action frequently seems unneccesary and takes time away from the more important character stuff. The other major similarity is the prominence of strong women in a traditonally male genre, and not only strong physically, but women who make decisions. Jean as Phoenix is the causal motivator, not Cyclops who simply observes what goes on, frequently confused. Storm is also quite strong, and Kitty Pryde stands out as a completely different depiction of a teenage girl than what we usually get in the media, strong, intelligent, but still flawed.

Judging from what he's written about the X-Men, Kitty Pryde was a bigger influence than any other character on Joss, and provides the most obvious template for the powerful but flawed adolescent female characters who dominate his work, and when he took over X-Men, he made it a priority to get Kitty on the team.

Still, for all of his undeniable influence on what came after, are the actual comics any good? It's definitely dated, especially the early issues. Alan Moore and Frank Miller redefined comics in the 80s by moving away from thought balloons and third person captions and instead using the art to really tell the story. Claremont, while nowhere near as bad as Silver Age Marvel stuff, relies on a lot of tell, don't show storytelling.

The third person captions are awful, most of the time they don't really add anything that isn't already there in the art, and there's some very overwrought writing within. However, I'm a bit torn on the thought balloons. On the one hand, I'm so used to the post-Moore minimalist comic style, where thought balloons would only be used as a pastiche. However, with such a large cast, it would be really difficult to convey their feelings and emotions without the balloons and they really do help to round people out quickly. But at the same time I feel like it's a narrative cheat. But if it works, is there anything wrong with a narrative cheat? I can't say for sure.

The book also has some hallmarks of its era, the disco mutant Dazzler most notably, but also some of the outfits Kitty wears and the look of the aliens the X-Men encounter on their journeys around. Though looking at the backcover of Essential X-Men Volume 6, it seems like we've barely touched on the 80s. I wish I could find an image online because this is just the essence of 80s, Storm's mohawk, Nightcrawler's chia pet hair, it's great. I have to say I enjoy this period stuff, I don't think it takes away at all from the story and it makes it a lot more fun to read.

Claremont's other big flaw is that he frequently does storylines that tap into the larger Marvel universe and undermine the relatively mundane world he'd developed for the X-Men. So, Storm encountering Luke Cage, that works, but the Savage Land feels completely absurd and just doesn't work at all. I hate those barbarian stories, they're always awful because barbarians make bad characters. Then the Shiar business takes away from the emotional reality of the Phoenix. It is tightly intertwined with the plot, but I just don't like it.

Then he's also sort of constrained by the reality of comics at the time. Marvel's motto was 'each issue could be somebody's first,' so there's frequent scenes where Wolverine will say something like "I can easily cut through this with my retractable, unbreakable adamantium claws," clearly exposition for new readers. And then there's the fact that towards the beginning of each issue someone always gives a speech summing up what has happened before, something that was required by Marvel back then.

And Marvel's edict that every issue must have a fight scene in it also holds back Claremont. I'm not sure if Claremont would have had a much smaller amount of fight scenes if he got his way, but it feels like he doesn't really care about the action parts of the book, in the same way that the fight scenes in Buffy, with a few exceptions, just take away from the actual character development.

But despite its myriad flaws, it doesn't take away from the fact that these books are amazingly compulsive reading. The best works are ones I respect creatively and get totally addicted to, X-Men I don't completely respect as a piece of art, but it's extremely compulsive reading. Character arcs develop over long periods and seemingly irrelevant plot elements freqnetly have additional meaning. For instance, the Warhawk issue seems like a pointless standalone villain tale, but it has a huge impact twenty issues later when we get to the Hellfire Club storyline.

And it's a joy to watch the characters develop. Claremont's run on X-Men lasted roughly 185 issues, and I think Cerebus is the only title that one creator worked on for so long. This book is Claremont's vision and he totally knows all the characters. He's created fully rounded, flawed people that may be successful as heroes, but still have petty jealousy and myriad insecurities. Spider Man might have started the hero as downtrodden victim thing, but his was played more for comedy, here we see the X-Men all really struggling with issues that don't really get resolved or go away, just like they wouldn't in real life. Colossus feels guilty about abandoning his family to join the X-Men, and he can never shake those feelings. Wolverine reminds me a lot of later period Spike, someone who's cold on the outside, but inside has deep feelings and insecurities. Even though I've only read the first few issues with her, Kitty Pryde is probably Claremont's greatest creation, a fully realized, rounded and interesting character.

I also like the way Claremont manages to rotate through a huge cast of characters. There's about six X-men during the Byrne run, but you've got Xavier, Moira, and the original X-Men all cycling through on occasion, bringing the number of recurring characters to around twenty. And if you compare the level of development on the original X-Men to the new ones, you can see just how good Claremont is in comparison to what came before.

Claremont falters when he does overtly mystical or otherworldly stuff, but when he does storylines grounded in reality, the work is great. The Hellfire Club storyline is top notch, particularly the issue that ends with Wolverine in the sewer, getting ready to rescue his friends. It's one of those moments where you just know shit's about to go down. Reading these, I'm trying to pinpoint the moment where Wolverine became the breakout X-Men character, and if he hadn't by that point, that issue would certainly have done it.

The issues I like most are the ones where there's no action, and he just lets the characters do their thing. Though there's a bunch of really good action storylines, notably Proteus, which is a really cool concept, and he uses it take the characters in a new direction.

Ultimately, despite all his flaws, Claremont tells stories that make you want to keep reading. Most ongoing stories use some kind of generic hook, or high concept to bring the reader in, and gradually become less reliant on it in the storytelling, instead focusing merely on the characters. This happens in Six Feet Under, Buffy and one of the problems of X-Men is that it never quite leaves behind this reliance on generic trappings to focus solely on the characters, but at the time, it probably just wasn't possible.

Reading those books, you don't get the feeling that you're reading the start of a franchise that would ultimately end up generating billions and dollars and in many ways, keep Marvel afloat. Instead it seems like one guy telling stories he was interested in telling, and it just so happened that, for once, the best product rose to the top and was rewarded with good sales and success.

With this work, Claremont brings comics as far as they could go under the rules that governed mainstream work in the 1980s, single issue storytelling rather than an overarching narrative, at least one fight per issue and stories geared towards kids. Claremont breaks all of these rules to some extent, but he's still constrained by them. It takes Alan Moore and Frank Miller to open the floodgates, and then the British invasion of Morrison, Ellis, Ennis, etc. to redefine the norms of comics. But look at Moore's Swamp Thing and you'll see a work similarly reliant on overwrought third person captions that aren't so far from what Claremont writes here.

So, Claremont's flaws are in the time he came up in, and despite the revolution in comics storytelling, he hasn't changed, hence the negative reaction to his recent work. Writing about his work, I run into a lot of conflicting feelings, that show up in the constant switch between praising him and writing about his failures. Ultimately what Claremont did was make characters people cared about enough to keep the comic book's sales high for thirty years. And even though the vast majority of mainstream people don't know it, when they go to see the X-Men film, or watch Buffy, they're witnessing the legacy of Chris Claremont.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gilmore Girls: 'The New and Improved Lorelai (6x01)

Last spring and summer, I watched the first five seasons of Gilmore Girls, and I enjoyed the whole run of the show. If a show has respect for its characters and allows them to grow and change, it pretty much doesn't matter what genre it's in, I'm going to enjoy it. Change is the key element of stories, and I pretty much demand strict continuity from the shows I watch. So, for its first four years Gilmore Girls was consistently entertaining and I enjoyed watching it, but it never reached the heights of my absolute favorite shows.

During the fourth season, the show started to get into a bit of a rut. There were still interesting elements, but the Lorelai/Jason storyline was pretty weak, and everything just felt like more of the same. However, in the last couple of episodes of that year, everything changed. We finally got resolution on the Luke/Lorelai romantic tension, with the really funny self help tapes bit, and Rory finally did something morally wrong when she slept with Dean. So, this set up a lot of issues going into the fifth season.

And coming out of this, we saw the first real messing with the show's basic premise, a mother and daughter who are more like best friends. Class war had always been critical to the series, Lorelai's feeling that her success is more legitimate because she did it without her parents, and that the life she lives in Stars Hollow is more satisfying than the one her parents have with their society friends in Hartford. And throughout the series, Rory had accepted this, even as she occasionally annoyed Lorelai with her nice behavior towards her grandparents, and indulging them in things they wanted her to do that Lorelai had rejected at her age, like going to the debutante ball back in year one.

But when Rory starts dating Logan, she becomes more immersed in their world than ever, and there's a great episode where Dean is standing outside of a party at her house, while she's inside with Logan and his whole crew, Dean serving as a stand in for the whole Stars Hollow life that her mother so cherishes.

And this culminates at the end of the season when Rory steals a yacht and decides she's quitting Yale, runing the plans her mother had for her her entire life. And this new season premiere is notable in that it contains no scenes between Lorelai and Rory, a bold move considering it's their relationship that has been the traditional focus of the show. But I like the fact that they did that, because it builds up the tension between them. By not speaking, and communicating through intermediaries, it increases the awkwardness that will be there when they eventually do meet up again.

And what this also does is make Lorelai unable to fully embrace the happiness she should have from being engaged. Despite their engagement, her and Lukke seemed on edge here, certainly not behaving like people who have just made a huge commitment to each other. But, there's an understandable tension between them, to Luke it's inexplicable how Lorelai could just let Rory go. The reason Lorelai has to let Rory do her own thing is because she doesn't want to become her parents and try to shackle Rory to a life she doesn't want. The thing that's great is the way they invert things, rather than slumping it like Lorelai did, Rory has chosen to run away to the upper class life that Lorelai herself had rejected, and what that does is throw Lorelai's life into turmoil. The one thing she could always hold over her parents was how successful Rory turned out, not because of her parents' involvement, but because Lorelai raised Rory her way. And it's the fact that Rory would turn away from her at such a critical moment that makes Lorelai willing to just let her go here, to live with the consequence of her choice.

Which isn't to say that Lorelai doesn't care about Rory, she still loves her as much as before, it's just that she realizes something no one else does, Rory is a grown up and has to make her own choices.

At the same time, Rory finds herself struggling to convince people that she really has changed, and has no desire to return to college life. Logan doesn't believe her, even as Rory seems to have fully embraced the ne'er-do-well lifestyle of his friends. Seeing her dreams and entire lifeplan called into question last season, Rory has decided to live a life completely removed from who she was, living day to day with no higher purpose or goal.

So, this material works great, creating conflict between all the characters, and placing Lorelai in a very uncomfortable position, and I'm seeing a lot of parallels between the overall structure of Buffy. At the end of season five, Buffy got darker than ever before culminating in the death of its main character. Gilmore Girls did the same, and ended with the 'death' of the show's main focus, the Lorelai-Rory relationship. And it looks like this year of Gilmore Girls may be the darkest yet, following the fallout of last year, much like Buffy did. Buffy season six is my favorite season of television ever made, so if this season can capture that same feeliing, I'll be thrilled.

However, the show still has flaws that prevent it from being completely successful. The strength of the show is the relationships, but we've still got sequences dealing with the cartoonish townsfolk, who are always the low point of an episode. These people don't change or grow at all, and they really couldn't, they're not designed to, but they seem out of tone with the other goings on.

Similarly, having watched a lot of Six Feet Under over the summer, the way the show is shot seems uninspired. This really is invisible filmmaking, but Six Feet Under's style of shooting serves to heighten the emotions and be beautiful in and of itself, while there's not much interesting going on here filmmaking wise.

That said, the last shot was fabulous, capturing everything we need to know about Lorelai in this episode. And I'm not watching the show for great filmmaking. It would be nice to have, but to bring it in now would seem out of place.

So, top notch episode here, really interesting character dynamics, and I hope they play out this tension for a long time rather than resolving it easily. This has the potential to take the show to a level of quality beyond everything it's done in the past.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Punch Drunk Love

As I mentioned before, I just watched the film Punch Drunk Love for the second time. PDL was Paul Thomas Anderson's follow up to Magnolia, one of my top five favorite films of all time, so when I watched this the first time, I was expecting something great, if the same level of transcendence that Magnolia reaches. On the first viewing, what's most striking is how minimalist the film is. After the excess, in terms of style and story scope, of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, PDL sees Anderson pull back and do something much smaller and intimate. There's only two developed characters, and there's almost none of the cutting between different plotlines that was used to such great effect in Magnolia. Instead, this film dives deep into the world of a man who's got some problems.

The first really bold choice that Anderson makes with this film is casting Adam Sandler. Unlike most of my generation, I'm a big Sandler hater, his semi-retarded man-child characters are not funny or entertaining to watch, and along with Chris Farley, his output represents a nadir in terms of films that people seem to genuinely love. But, what Anderson does with this film is take a variation on the traditional Sandler character and play the film as a drama instead of a comedy, or at least a dark comedy instead of a straight ahead comedy.

Though I'm no expert, looking at his other films, you can see Sandler's social ineptitudes played for laughs, and his tendency for manic rage provides some of the biggest comic payoffs. In this film, there's a number of scenes that would have been done as comic setpieces in his other films, notably the smashing of the glass and the bathroom scene, but here, rather than focusing on the act itself, Anderson dwells on the aftermath. The emotional crux of the bathroom scene isn't the fact that he has this rage, we've seen that before, it's observing how this rage has alienated him from society, beautifully done here in the awkward conversation between Barry and the restaurant owner. We sympathize with Barry, but it's completely understandable why this guy would want Barry to get out of his restaurant.

So, the entire film is in some ways designed to challenge the generic conventions of the 'Adam Sandler movie,' and essentially take him out of the cartoon world he usually lives in and show the real world consequences of his characters' actions. This is the Watchmen of Adam Sandler films, deconstructing the generic elements and repositioning them in a real world context.

But, someone with as strong an authorial voice as Anderson would not use a film merely to riff on what's come before, or at least what's come before in one specific genre. Instead, the film becomes an odd fusion of this completely naive, uncorrupted belief in the power of true love to conquer all and the gritty identity theft scheme, which leads to some moments of extreme violence, both physical and verbal. It's the same thing I was talking about in my review of 3 Iron, a fairy tale love story that is occasionally punctuated by the crushing weight of the real world.

There's two primary themes the film touches on. One is finding a way to use one's rage and indignation at past trauma to create a stronger self in the present. This is almost a superhero origin story, as Barry has to learn to use his power to fight evil instead of using it to destroy himself. As the film begins, Barry is totally alone, he has no outlet for his emotions, and any attempts to put on a false smile around his sisters are eventually undermined by their constant dwelling on the ways they used to embarrass him as a child. This drives him to once again break the glass, and his inability to have a real relationship with anyone drives him to the phone sex line.

The phone sex line seems designed to show the way that love has been commodified in modern society. The pure expression of love is gone, but you can buy fake love for $2.99 a minute. But, that's not even the extent of it, this group that claims to offer love actually uses loneliness as a means of stealing peoples' identities. They find people at their greatest moment of weakness and use their own shame as a way to exploit them. Barry's shame is what constrains him through the whole first half of the film. He's ashamed at what he did as a child, he's ashamed he called the phone sex line, he's so embarrased about what he did in the past that he's unable to open himself up and make connections with new people in the present.

The fear that Lena has heard bad things about him from his sister is what prevents him from first going out with her, Only when she opens up to him can he go out with her, this is something that's repeated after their first date, only when she calls him and says that she wanted to kiss him does he have the courage to fully express his emotions.

After his trip to Hawaii, Barry seems imbued with power, and as he says at the end of the film, "I have love and that makes me strong." He fights and defeats four men with no problem when he feels that they have threatened Lena, and when he goes to confront Dean, it is his utter confidence in himself and his power that allows him to win. Dean is someone who's able to push people around by calling them on their mistakes, through sheer force of will, but when Barry matches his strength, he cowers and lets Barry go.

And now free from the shackles of the past, Barry can embrace his love, and things look good for his future. The real emotional love has defeated the commodified shameful love .

From a technical point of view, Anderson again creates a challenging and always intriuging film that pushes a lot of boundaries in regards to what's acceptable in cinema. The most notable visual element is the brilliant use of color. By associating Barry with blue and Lena with red, he's able to play up the emotion of any scene just by well placed color. When Barry stands on a red rug at the hotel, we know that Lena will be along soon. When they're driving and the entire scene is bathed in blue light, we get the feeling that Barry is comfortable, at home. The use of lens flares and lines of light moving across the screen creates some really striking images.

And most importantly, Anderson is a master at framing a scene. The way he shoots is frequently unconventional, but almost always works to achieve the effect intended. There's some great tracking shots here, most notably the one in which Lena and Barry walk out of the restaurant and are followed by the huge truck. I also love the way he pushes the whites, in the opening scenes and in the grocery store. And the integration of music is top notch as well. The use of lush strings calls back to the classical Hollywood era, but it's percussive backing to scenes that's really interesting. Frequently the characters behave as if they are actually hearing the music and move accordingly.

All that said, I do have some issues with the film. I don't really like Barry in the first half of the film, and even in the second half, she still seems not quite grown up, though Lena also seems a bit childlike, so perhaps they belong together. Also, the change in tones works at times, but occasionally it's just too jarring, and prevents the film from achieving the full romantic feeling he was going for. I don't think it reaches the same perfect romantic height as Amelie, and it's that sort of pure feeling of love that I think Anderson was going for here. Also, as I said with Hard Eight, there's just not as much here as in Anderson's other films. I think Anderson's strength lies in showing us a lot of characters interacting, so having one main characters seems a bit restrictive. But that doesn't in any way mean that this isn' an engrossing and successful film.

The casting here is interesting. Only two of the 'Anderson Company Players' appear here, and in what are essentially glorified cameos. Sandler is great here, I think his performance is a complete success. Emily Watson is top notch as well, in a character not that far removed from her role in Breaking the Waves. It was also cool to see Mary Lynn Raskjub, who's great on 24, get some film work. Do I miss Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, etc.? Yes, but if Anderson felt the need to write parts for all of them in every one of his films, it would start to hurt the films, as in the case of Christopher Guest's most recent stuff, where there's all kinds of narrative digressions just so they can fit in all their actors.

Coming off Magnolia, nothing was going to be completely satisfying, but PDL works by going in a completely opposite direction and crafting a different, but still interesting story. Anderson's one of my favorite directors and I can't wait to see what he gives us next.

PTA Quote

I watched Punch Drunk Love today, and I'll have a review of that tomorrow, but in looking online, I came across a really interesting quote from PTA.

"I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make."
- Paul Thomas Anderson

This is something I'd definitely agree with, but I find it interesting that PTA himself views Magnolia as sort of the pinnacle of his style, and despite being so young, he basically feels that he could never top it. Most directors do a bunch of movies and then do what I'd call their 'compilation movie,' a film that features all their stylistic tricks, the unique things that make a film theirs. For David Lynch, this was Mulholland Dr., with its 50s style heroine, red curtains, lip synching performers, blonde/brunette dichotomy, etc. For Tim Burton, it's The Nightmare Before Christmas, for Wong Kar-Wai it's 2046. These are the films that so immersed in the director's style, it basically means that they have to make a radical change with their next project.

Magnolia does this for PTA, it takes the style he'd developed in Boogie Nights and brings it to the extreme. In this one film he defines his style and makes any future explorations with it irrelevant. Magnolia is such a singular entity that to go back and make another big ensemble movie would be nearly impossible. It took Robert Altman 18 years to follow up Nashville with Short Cuts, and it could take just as long for PTA to go back to the style of film that defined him.

So, with Punch Drunk Love, I doubt he expected to top Magnolia, that's just too big a task. Magnolia is one of those transcendent films where everything comes together and works. I never expected PTA to top Magnolia, but I find it interesting that he agrees with me there. Is that a bit disheartening, yeah, but I think it's PTA being realistic and that I respect.