Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008: TV

This year in TV continued the Golden Age of television, as some of my all time favorite series had career best seasons. Doctor Who, Mad Men and Battlestar all offered their best years yet, and beneath them was a fairly deep bench of really solid, but unexceptional series that all fall somewhere in between great and just ok, depending on the episode. The class of 2008 doesn’t look to have any all time classics, but there’s a lot of potential there.

10. Life on Mars
Best Episode: ‘The Man Who Sold the World’

There’s a bunch of shows on this list that are very much “TV good.” The best of Golden Age TV has been the kind of stuff that is said to ‘transcend’ television. How many times have we heard The Sopranos is more like a movie than a TV show? Life on Mars is very much the sort of thing that feels like a TV show, it looks good, but it’s not particularly artistic, and the characters generally follow that TV protocol of the illusion of change, stuff happens, but it doesn’t seem to add up to change that much. Still, if TV good was good enough for everyone watching TV before 1995, it can be good enough for me from time to time. The acting on this show is fantastic, and it’s still fun to watch Sam Tyler adrift in the alien world of the 1970s. It’s a show that has incredibly promising moments, these trippy interludes that are great fun and hint at a much larger world underneath the procedural storytelling that the show is structured around. What side of things will they emphasize next year? Who knows, but I am eager to see the show come back.

9. True Blood
Best Episode: ‘I Don’t Want to Know’

Speaking of TV good, True Blood barely even reaches that level, it’s more at TV so bad it’s good a lot of the time. I wanted more from Alan Ball’s followup to Six Feet Under, one of the greatest TV shows of all time, but this is still an entertaining show, one that had some really good moments and some really weak ones over the course of its first season. The central problem is that most of the characters were pretty bland, only Anna Paquin’s Sookie and Bill really popped out of the core cast. But, as the series went on, some of the supporting cast, particularly Lafayette, started to stand out, and during the Amy/Eddie arc, there’s plenty of great moments. However, the show stumbled in its final episode, with an absolutely arbitrary murderer revelation, and a barely there cliffhanger that didn’t really pay off anything the season had been to date. I still think the premise is strong, and the show was usually entertaining, but I doubt that it’ll ever be truly great. But, it’s still quite entertaining.

8. Swingtown
Best Episode: ‘Cabin Fever’

This is a classic example of a really strong “TV good” show. Nobody’s confusing the series for art, but it hits the emotional beats that you really want from an ongoing serial narrative. The characters are well realized, and I found myself drawn into their emotional dramas even as I was aware of the emotional manipulation the series was creating. Sure, there were way too many episodes that involved someone having a party and all the characters going, but there was some great subtle change in the characters over the course of the season. Watching the show brought back memories of Buffy or Six Feet Under, and the joy you get from just investing in characters’ lives. It never hit the heights of those two series, but it was a really solid season, and I’m sorry that the show won’t be back for a second round.

7. 30 Rock
Best Episode: ‘Cooter’

The show has been a bit less consistent this season than in past years. The onslaught of guest stars got old, but an episode like “Reunion” reminded me just how good the show could be. That was the year’s best comedy episode, with the hilarious Braverman impression, and the show’s over the top flaunting of its snobbishness and disdain for the ‘common man.’ The abbreviated second half of season two had some classics as well, particularly last season’s hilarious, and emotionally true, finale, “Cooter.” It’s the closest thing we’ve got an Arrested Development successor on TV today.

6. Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
Best Episode: ‘The Tower is Tall, But the Fall is Short’

This is a show that I almost gave on a couple of times. I stopped watching during the first season, then caught up on DVD. As year two progressed, I almost dropped it again. The episodes didn’t have that much continuity, it was a b-movie of the week type thing, but starting in mid season two, things started to knit together better, the characters became more defined, and the universe of the series kept expanding to more interesting directions. It’s a really strange show because there’s no clear focus, it’s got so many different plotlines going on and they all involve strange philosophical questions about predestination and the nature of humanity. I love the addition of Jessie, who’s managed to make the initially boring Riley into an interesting character. There’s just a lot of interesting stuff going on, and you never know what you’re going to get from week to week. The lack of cohesion is still a problem to some degree, but the show has made a vast improvement, which will hopefully continue when it’s paired with Dollhouse next year.

5. The Daily Show/Colbert Report

Normally I keep these sort of lists confined to traditional scripted series, but this year, I’ve got to give props to two of the funniest, most insightful political commentaries on TV. I don’t know if I can add anything to the myriad praise both series have already received, but it’s still amazing how these shows can be simultaneously funny, and cutting in their assessment of a political world gone mad. The Daily Show still struggles to find new correspondents who are as good as Colbert or Rob Corddry were a few years ago, but Stewart is as sharp as ever. And, it’s amazing that the seemingly one joke schtick of The Colbert Report could grow into an entire skewed universe that can be goofier than The Daily Show ever is, and occasionally surprise you with an absolutely brutal condemnation of the policies of those in power. And, if the past few weeks of political scandals tell you anything, it’s that the shows will have no shortage of material, even after Obama takes office.

4. Battlestar Galactica
Best Episode: ‘The Hub’

After an underwhelming back half of season three, BSG soared forth with its best set of episodes yet. It feels like forever since the show was on, but as I recall, each episode of the fourth season was really strong, nicely building on the tension inherent in the third season’s closing revelation of the final four, the show was more complex and emotionally engaging than ever. And, thankfully, we’ve only got a month left until the show finally returns for its final bow.

3. The Wire
Best Episode: ‘Late Editions’

It wasn’t the show’s finest season, mainly due to the not quite fully formed newspaper storyline. However, I think the show deserves a bit more year end love than it’s been getting because there was no show that had me more hooked on a week to week basis than this final run of The Wire. So much is written about the show’s sociological content and intellectual merit, but beyond all that, this is one addictive piece of fiction. “Got that WMD” indeed, I would stay up until 3 or 4 AM every Sunday night, waiting for the new episode to show up On Demand. The season did a great job of resolving the series’ ongoing character arcs, particularly the beautiful Bubbles ascent out of the basement, juxtaposed against the kids’ fall. It was a fitting final run for one of the greatest TV series of all time.

2. Mad Men
Best Episode: ‘Jet Set’

Mad Men had one of the strongest first seasons of any show in history, but Matt Weiner and co. still managed to top it with an introspective, often surreal and always compelling second outing. Don Draper is one of the most fascinating characters in TV history, made all the more so by the blank slate he projects to the world almost all the time, broken only occasionally by strange events, such as his encounter with a group of European vagabonds in the season’s best episode, “Jet Set.” This show is picking up the mantle of 60s European art cinema, deepening our understanding of the series’ universe with each episode. This series is the heir to The Sopranos, and like that legendary series, it’s the important commentary on contemporary American society in any medium.

1. Doctor Who
Best Episode: ‘Forest of the Dead’

I love all kinds of shows and movies, I can appreciate the artsy personal ennui of Mad Men or the gritty realism of The Wire, but there’s still part of me that responds more than anything to the sort of crazy sci-fi epic that Doctor Who at its best is. This season was by far my favorite of the series, there’s no outright clunkers, a swath of solid mid-level episodes, and a disproportionate amount of all time classics. The Russell Davies scripted three part closing arc is more epic than the show has been to date, from the fanboy joy of seeing characters from all three series brought together to the utter tragedy of Donna’s fate. Nothing else on TV emotionally engages me like this series, it may be galaxy spanning alien wars, but the show manages to puncture right to the heart of the emotional issues we all deal with. “Forest of the Dead,” the season’s high point, spun through a multitude of different realities, and managed to make one off characters extremely memorable. No series stuck in my head like this one did, when The Wire ended, it was all resolved, this one’s stuck in my head and had me eagerly awaiting the series’ real continuation when Moffat comes on board in 2010.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor"

I haven’t been that impressed with most of the Doctor Who Christmas specials to date. While the series proper might have a lot of standalone episodes, there’s usually some kind of connective tissue between them all, even if it’s just the developing relationship between the Doctor and his companion. With the exception of “The Christmas Invasion,” all the specials have been minus a regular companion, and that places a lot of burden on standalone character development. How many new characters can we get invested in?

In this case, I thought the Jackson Lake false Doctor story was a great hook. The high point of the episode is probably the teaser, when we’re left wondering “What’s going on here?” There’s good moments afterwards, but once we find out why Jackson thinks he’s the Doctor, everything goes along pretty much as you’d expect. There’s some cool stuff, like the giant Cyberman/Hot Air Balloon battle, but the spectacle doesn’t have the emotion that the best Doctor Who episodes have.

Part of that may simply be this is the first Christmas Special I’ve watched apart from the series. After six months without Who, and coming off the over the top in every way “Journey’s End,” I wanted something a little bigger. We’ve also got the impending departure of David Tennant hanging over everything, I suppose I should be happy to get even just a decent standalone with Tennant, but I can’t help but want more out of these specials that will close his run.

The moments that worked best for me were the ones that played off the end of last season, and the intense tragedy of the end of Donna’s arc. I watched the commentary on that finale after getting the season four box set for Christmas, and two things stuck with me. One is that I had no clue what Tennant, Davies and Tate were talking about for at least half of the commentary, I thought I knew British culture, but apparently I don’t. The other is that even with them nattering over it, that episode touched something deep on my subconscious, and I was all wrapped up in the tragedy again. I felt almost angry after watching it the first time, that Donna got such a raw deal. I’ve come to appreciate the episode more, and the skill it took to write something that got to me so much. I think it’s a brilliant episode, and in many ways, I wish Davies had just left on that high note and not come back for this inevitably lesser encore.

I don’t have that much to say about the episode proper. The moment that stuck with me was the Doctor talking about his companions at the end of the episode, and saying that “Sometimes they forget you.” He knows why it happened, but still, to have gone through so much with Donna and then to see her go back to the way she was, it must destroy him. I think he knew he could never be with Rose forever, but maybe he did believe that the DoctorDonna would last, and now he finds himself adrift and alone again. I do like that they let him go to dinner with Jackson Lake, and not go for the typical the Doctor leaves alone ending to these episodes.

What will the future hold for The Doctor? I wish we could have gotten a teaser for “Planet of the Dead,” or at least a release date. Will these next specials try to top “Journey’s End,” or will they just let Tennant fade out. A year from now, we’ll know for sure.

Batman #683: "What the Butler Saw"

I don’t have that much to say about Grant’s last Batman issue for the foreseeable future. It’s a nice conclusion to his run so far, summing up the major themes in an easily accessible way, and bridging the gap to Final Crisis nicely. However, I found myself more eager to read that Final Crisis issue than this issue. The ending was never that in question, but at least if Final Crisis #5 hadn’t spoiled the ending of this one, there’d be a bit more tension.

A lot of the criticism of Morrison’s Batman run has centered on the idea that it’s incomprehensible without knowledge of the classic Batman stories Morrison’s referring to, or the philosophy he’s presenting in interviews. These issues tell a condensed version of the “it’s all true” Batman history that Morrison discussed in interviews. It is the first time we see this concept rendered so explicitly in the text itself, and I think that’s the major merit of the issue. But, having already heard the concept in Morrison’s interviews, it’s not that much of a shock. This is basically confirming what we’d already suspect from the run to date.

There’s some fun moments here, but the major significance is found in the events with the Lump, and in Alfred’s final speech. During Batman RIP, Batman puts forth the idea that Gotham is a machine designed to make Batmen, that’s debatably true, but what we see in these flashbacks is the process that led to the creation of Batman, the way he turns the memory of his parents’ death into an engine that drives him past human limits of endurance. The Bruce Wayne we see in the alternate reality scenes is the kind of person that maybe he was meant to be, a spoiled rich kid, but the tragedy fuels him to be an undefeatable superhuman fury of justice.

The Lump tells Batman that he’s useless and immobile, he needs something to power him, and after his emergence in Batman’s mind, he has Bruce’s own trauma to drive him. The concept of Thogal is a brilliant addition to the Batman mythos, rather than just referring to the Nanda Parbat experience, it refers to the entirety of his life as Batman. Each awful thing that happens pushes him deeper into the darkness, but he continually climbs out. He faces death, he experiences the ultimate evil and is able to come back stronger and more able to fight it. That’s what Alfred’s speech that closes the issue is all about, his ability to face death and triumph over it.

The entire saga of Morrison’s Batman will apparently wrap up in Final Crisis #6. It’s a rush reading this in single issues, and seeing the two thematically similar stories literally cross over. Morrison is tying up all his loose ends in the DCU, there’s a lot to cover in the last two FC issues, hopefully they’ll hit that same manic insane hypercondensed style as Seven Soldiers #1 had. I don’t think anyone could manage a totally satisfying traditional narrative wrapup in that short a time, he’ll need something that unwraps in your mind as time passes. It’s only a couple of weeks until we’ll find out.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2009 Film Preview

2008 hasn’t been the best year for film, but it’s still got a few days to impress me with something great. But, looking ahead to 2009, we’ve got some potentially fantastic films on the horizon.

11. The Box - I’m one of the few defenders out there for Richard Kelly’s madly ambitious previous film, Southland Tales. It’s an undeniable disaster, a beautiful one in a lot of ways, but it’s not the kind of film that’s going to make it easy to find funding for your next one. So, he’s scaling it down for a film that’s described as a feature length Twilight Zone episode. I’m hoping that this film doesn’t sacrifice the idiosyncratic voice of his previous films in attempting to atone for the wackiness of Southland Tales. The premise has potential, and the Arcade Fire scoring the film is a great sign. We’ll see how it goes.

10. Thirst - The new Chanwook Park film has been getting some crazy buzz over in Korea, notable largely for the apparently extreme nudity required for the lead actress. I enjoyed Park’s recent “I’m a Cyborg,” but he hasn’t come close to the heights of the Vengeance Trilogy in either of his two recent projects. Is he getting back in the game here? Oldboy is one of the most ecstatic pop films of the decade, and if he could recapture some of that energy, we could have another classic on our hands. And, vampires are hotter than ever, so he should at least have an audience for the film.

9. Cleo - I don’t know if this one will actually make it out in 2009, but if it does, I’ll be right there to see it. Soderbergh is one of the toughest filmmakers to love because his films have very little throughline. He jumps from genre to genre, and just keeps making new and different stuff. I really like some of his films, and the notion of him making a musical based on Cleopatra’s life came out of left field. But, I really like musicals, particularly wackier ones, and this one sounds pretty out there. I’m sure it will divide audiences, but I’m excited to see what Soderbergh comes up with.

8. Public Enemies - Much like The Box, Public Enemies will have the onus of having to atone for a previous “failure,” in this case, Michael Mann’s masterful Miami Vice. Vice got a pretty poor reception when it came out, but thankfully got some year end love, and I think history will see it as a minor masterpiece. I don’t think a better film has been released since Vice came out, and I also think that the film represented a huge step for Mann, moving away from a narrative based cinema towards a more impressionist emotional film construction. Will Public Enemies follow? It’s hard to say right now since no footage has leaked. Certainly the subject matter doesn’t seem like something that demanded another film telling, but Vice seemed utterly redundant and turned out to be so real and emotionally vital. The cast on this one is fantastic, and I’m confident Mann will make the movie work.

7. Avatar - James Cameron’s been out of the narrative filmmaking game for a long time, but Avatar sounds like a worthy return. He’s created some of the most enjoyable and filmically satisfying popular cinema of all time. Both Aliens and Terminator 2 are pretty much flawless blockbuster films, managing to combine real emotion and interesting themes with all the action. Avatar is wrapped up in the 3-D element, but I just hope that he keeps the story and emotion present. He’s been away from filmmaking for too long, hopefully he’ll come back strong.

6. Where the Wild Things Are - Spike Jonze’s previous two films were both fantastic, evidencing an emotional depth that wasn’t present in his music videos. I wasn’t thrilled hearing that he was adapting Wild Things for his next film, but reading that lengthy interview with him at Aint-it-Cool, and seeing the initial photos, I’m much more excited. The images look so soulful and emotionally resonant, if the film can match that, it’s going to be quite an experience. And hopefully it won’t take Spike seven years to get his next film done.

5. Watchmen - I have really mixed feelings on this film. On the one hand, it is really cool to see the slavish attention given to realizing Alan Moore’s world on screen, and I’m sure there’s going to be myriad cool moments in the film. But, at the same time, the book is so perfect, and so intrinsically tied to the comic book medium, it’s hard to see what the film adaptation could add. Even if it’s like the Sin City movie and functions as a perfect recreation of the book, what purpose does it serve? Perhaps its purpose is just to entertain us, no more, no less. And, I’m sure I’ll get plenty of entertainment from the film. But, as you enjoy it, just remember, the snake god Glycon frowns on you. I wish everyone who saw Watchmen would check out Promethea, or the documentary “The Mindscape of Alan Moore” to get a better idea of what Alan Moore is really interested in.

4. Inglorious Basterds - I’ve loved every film Tarantino has made so far, and this one sounds like a hugely ambitious, really fun take on the war film. The script reviews make it sound great, and the cast is fantastic, particularly the presence of Maggie Cheung, back on the screen after a lengthy absence. I loved Kill Bill, and really enjoyed Death Proof, but I do hope this film captures some of the narrow emotional focus of Jackie Brown. All of Tarantino’s films have more emotional investment than most people give him credit for, Kill Bill is a lot more than just b-movie homages, the violence is also about revealing Beatrix to us. But, nothing in his oeuvre can match the simple emotional pleasure of watching Pam Grier and Robert Forster circling around each other. How wil Basterds wind up? I guess we’ll find out soon.

3. Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0: You Can(Not) Advance - The first Rebuild of Eva was a great movie, a variation on the series that clarified and focused the narrative into a more cohesive finished product. Rewatching the film, I saw a lot of interesting stuff, but my first reaction was slight disappointment, that the film stuck so closely to the original series. Judging from the info and trailer for 2.0, there’s going to be some big changes here, and I’m eager to see how Anno and co. evolve the narrative and make it work in a new form. I’m also curious to see if the idea of the new films as a kind of sequel/cyclical narrative with the original series is developed further. Plus, we’ll get the entrance of my favorite character from the series, Asuka. Will Anno take things to that tripped out place End of Eva dwelled in? The first Rebuild gives us an idea of what the project will be, but this is the one that blazes a whole new trail. I just wish I could see the film in a theater, not on a bootleg download.

2. The Tree of Life - A new Terence Malick film only four years after his last? That’s unprecedented. The actual story of Tree of Life remains kind of unclear. It’s either about three men in the 1950s, or about a minotaur at the dawn of time. Hopefully, it’s both. Either way, Malick is such a singular voice, I’m sure he’ll manage to make any subject matter into something magical and beautiful. The New World is one of the best films of the decade, and he makes films in a different language than virtually everyone else out there. He understands film as a medium, and the unique things that film can do more than any other director, he constructs moments of astounding beauty and emotion that linger long after the film is over. People may have had trouble with The New World, but history will vindicate it as a masterpiece. Hopefully this new one will match it.

1. Enter the Void - I’ve been waiting for this film for four years, ever since I first saw Irreversible. Irreversible is one of the most intense cinematic experiences you’ll ever have. The subject matter may have gotten the attention, but for me, it was the amazing craft that really made the film. The one take shots are unprecedented, and the film’s use of subtle CG is a perfect example of the new possibilities of effects. Enter the Void was described as an entire film in the style of the last 20 minutes of 2001, a feature length acid trip, and if there’s any filmmaker who can make you physically experience things with a film, it’s Noe. This will not be watching an acid trip, it will be tripping on acid. It’s a hugely ambitious movie, and I’m confident Noe will pull it off.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wrestler

In the world of film culture, Darren Aronofsky’s been on a wild journey of opinion during his brief career. He went from the indie peaks of Pi, to the contentious respect of Requiem for a Dream, to the general rejection of The Fountain, and is now ready for a ‘comeback’ with The Wrestler. I think The Fountain was his weakest film, but I also feel like his first two films are so brilliantly made and affecting that it was always going to be tough to match them. The Wrestler is probably my least favorite of all his films to date, but that’s not a knock on it. This is a wonderfully realized story of people just doing their thing, it’s got a bit more of a real human core than any of his previous films, and when the film ended, I was satisfied, but also felt like I could have easily spent a while longer just hanging out with Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram. He was such a compellingly realized character that it almost felt like there was no reason his life need be contained in a two hour film.

It bothers me when people write the kind of reviews that say this film is a move beyond the “gimmickry” of his previous films. In film, every reality we see is a construct, be it the imitation reality of this film or the hyper-stylized world of Requiem for a Dream. In each case, the goal is to draw us into the characters’ world. In Requiem, that means using hyped-up editing and shooting techniques to get us in the mindset of addicts. There, the characters themselves are less important than their addiction. Addiction is the film’s main character, its hero that triumphs over all resistance. Filmed in the ultra-realist style of The Wrester, I don’t think the film would have been as affecting. But, in the case of The Wrestler, the outré elements are already there in the narrative. The film is about exploring this guy’s life, and it’s crazy enough that we don’t need editing techniques to get into his mind, we just need to see what he considers normal.

It makes sense that Mickey Rourke would get so much of the attention for the film. He is totally believable as this character who’s been through so much, and has no belief in himself outside of his wrestling. I was never a big wrestling fan as a kid, but a lot of my friends were, so I was familiar with the world, and it always surprised me how many old guys were still working years after what you’d imagine would be their prime. Randy isn’t good at anything else, and like all athletes, it’s hard to deal with the knowledge that you’re well past your prime with so much life to live. That’s the core connection between his story and Pam’s, knowing you’re at the point in your life where your body, which has been your livelihood, just can’t do it anymore. What do you do without it?

I think it’s tough for everyone to get old, and know that your best days are probably behind you. But, at least in most lines of work, you’re dealing more with your mind, so the more you learn, the better you should be. But, for Pam and Randy, it’s all downhill. What sort of jobs can you get with only stripper or wrestler on your resume? Randy finds himself working a deli counter, a far cry from entertaining a million people in Madison Square Garden.

But, at the same time, the most fun scene in the film is Randy’s embrace of that deli counter world, turning every order into a chance to have some fun. In that moment, you can see things maybe working out for him, but there’s this looming knowledge that it can’t always be like that. When Randy’s feeling bad, can he bring that same charm? During the “A little more,” “a little less” breakdown scene, we realize that there’s going to be days where he just can’t keep it up, can’t deal with the ghost of who he could have been. When he sticks his finger in the slicer just enough to nick it, he’s trying for the same pop he’d have gotten in the ring. Ever the showman, he can’t just quit, he’s got to get a reaction out of people, and that stunt certainly achieves his goal.

In the end, Randy decides that he’d rather live on the edge, and risk his health, for the charge he gets from the crowd. The film ends with a Sopranosesque ambiguous conclusion. Did Randy die up on the ropes, or did he soar in for a Ram Jam, pin the Ayatollah and win the match? I don’t think he died, that doesn’t really seem to jive with the low key film we just saw, but it’s certainly a valid interpretation. Rather, I think the film went out on a high note, Randy relived his greatest moment, it wasn’t MSG, he was a lot older, but on some level, he got that same feeling he’d been chasing for so long.

Watching this film makes it hard to believe that no one ever tackled a serious film on professional wrestling before. Besides the obvious visual energy, it’s such a weird insular world. If we could have myriad films on boxing, why not one or two on wrestling? There’s a lot of fun in the opening scenes as the crew plots out their matches, and also in the nods to Randy’s 80s heyday with his action figure and NES game.

The subplot with Randy’s daughter is also pretty interesting, mainly because of the way we’re deprived of any sort of resolution. Randy does a good thing, then messes it up, and never gets a chance to make it up to her. We see the film from his perspective, and want her to take him back, but from her perspective, it makes no sense. He can say all he wants about a desire to change, but his action doesn’t back it up. I though she might show up at that final match, but no, she just goes off and lives her life, another bridge burned for our hero.

Ultimately, this isn’t as innovative or dazzling a film as Requiem or Pi, but much like Rachel Getting Married earlier this year, it’s a joy to watch smply because of the way it captures the rhythms and interactions of everyday life. Mickey Rourke is justifiably praised for a fantastic performance, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can give is that when the film was over, I felt like I could have easily watched another hour of this guy just doing his thing. It was that well realized a world and that compelling a character.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Holiday Movie Season

The Hollywood film releasing pattern gets more and more condensed and bizarre every year when it comes the Holidays. The supercondensed release of virtually all the quality/artistic movies in the matter of a few weeks does nothing to help those movies find an audience, or build a consistent cinema culture over the course of the year. Why is a movie like Wendy and Lucy, which is very unlikely to get any real academy love, getting a release during the busiest part of the Oscar season? Surely it would be more likely to find an audience during the summer when a quality drama stands out, and isn’t struggling just to get on a screen.

But, it’s not just arty movies that are piling up, the next two weeks are just absurd with the amount of huge budget, big star films colliding into each, searching for the same limited audience on a small amount of screens. Was this simply a case of nobody blinking, or did they really think it was a good idea to release all these movies at once? Take a look at what’s coming out between now and Christmas on the blockbuster end of things: Seven Pounds, Yes Man, Bedtime Stories, Valkyrie, The Spirit, The Tale of Desperaux and Marley & Me. These are seven movies that would easily win a weekend in September or March, why are they being clumped on top of each other? At least three of these movies are going to get totally lost in the shuffle and bomb, I’m thinking Valkyrie and The Spirit will be at the top of that bomb list. I get that a lot of people go to the movies on Christmas, but this is like trying to get people to go to an all you can eat buffet right after Thanksgiving dinner, there’s only so much room.

And, the art film world is just as full. Benjamin Button is going to have a hard type competing against all these films, and if it gets a lukewarm reception like Australia did, it’s going to lose a lot of money. The problem with studios is that they feel like the only way to make money off quality films is to get Academy Award nominations. So, they dump every good movie made during the year out in a few weeks, all in the hopes of being one of the two or three films that will actually get nominated, and parlay that buzz to big box office. Good movies get lost in the shuffle, and that means that fewer good movies are going to be made in the future.

I think it hurts everyone who really loves film when a movie like Australia bombs. Say what you will about the end result, but it’s so rare that an auteur gets the chance to make a movie on that scale, we should support them when they come along.

The arrival of the holiday season means we’re nearing the end of the year, and that means top 10 list season. I’m going to start writing up my various top ten lists soon, nothing too radical this year, but there’s some surprises. And, I’ve still got a bunch of films to see before my list is finalized.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Final Crisis #5: 'Into Oblivion'

Final Crisis as a whole is a really curious event. Taken in the context of the DCU as a whole, it feels rather disconnected. I don’t even really read any DCU books other than Morrison’s, but just from the online chatter, you can tell that it isn’t as huge a deal as Secret Invasion was over at Marvel or previous Crises were, simply because it isn’t really a crossover. The story doesn’t sprawl out over the whole line, it’s very concise and focused to a specific set of books, and I think that set of books has been remarkably successful because most of them are a piece of Grant Morrison’s DCU. This book is his little corner of the world, full of heavy violence and Silver Age insanity living back to back, all infused with a glorious over the top energy. I still think the series lacks the emotional resonance of Grant’s best works, but it’s full of crackling energy and an epic good/evil quality that will hopefully make it a fitting capper to the many years of Grant’s work in the DCU.

I think the best way to enjoy the book is to look at it as very much a companion piece to Batman RIP, a cleansing ritual in which the DCU will reach its low ebb, then burst forth again in a new, better way, in the Fifth World. And, just as Batman RIP was about uniting the many different corners of the Batman mythos, this series is about exploring the DCU in all its strange and contradictory elements, focusing particularly on those which Grant has rehabilitated during his time there. We get appearances by three of the Seven Soldiers here, and in his treatment of characters like the Marvel Family, you can see what Grant’s been writing down in those fabled notebooks of possible character revamps.

This entire work feels a lot like the missing piece of Seven Soldiers, the actual invasion of the Sheeda. Seven Soldiers was notable because it let you see this awful threat obliquely, through what we picked up in the various miniseries, never connecting them all for the full on ‘war.’ Batman RIP/Last Rites, Superman Beyond and FC: Submit all function like the Seven Soldiers miniseries did, filling in the gaps of what happened around the big threat. I think Final Crisis is the only crossover that I wish had a lot more tie ins. I think it would have worked better if it was structured as a two month weekly series, where every book in the DCU told a story set in the world of the series, all overseen by Grant. There’s so many stories to be told in this world, and I’d love to see even more of what Grant had in mind with the story.

Anyway, on to the issue itself. This issue is largely about plunging everyone even deeper into darkness, even as the cracks in the plan begin to shine through. This is the battle to create a new and better world, even as Darkseid creates a populace with one mind to serve him in braindead oblivion.

I don’t love the opening bit of the issue. I never particularly liked the Green Lanterns, their powers are so vast, it seems hard to tell stories with the characters. Admittedly, I haven’t read Geoff Johns’ recent run, but even in JLA, Green Lantern often served as an all purpose deus ex machina. What the scene does set up is the way that Darkseid’s lieutenants have infiltrated all areas of the DCU. I like this concept, and I think it works well to pave the way for the fifth world. The Gods of old now wear mortals, if evil gods can do this, good gods could do this too. Way back when the series was first announced, there was speculation that Batman and other current heroes would replace the New Gods, and I think it would be incredible to see Batman channel the spirit of Orion and just tear apart Darkseid’s world.

This is the final battle of the Fourth World and it’s being played out on the DCU. When this war is over, there will be a new set of new gods, and the DCU will be a healthier, shinier place. But, for now it seems that the gods of New Genesis are dead, and the gods of Apokolips reign. It plays a lot like the fiction suit concept from The Invisibles. The gods are wearing the identities of people within ‘the game,’ and manipulating them to their own ends, only these aren’t the benevolent 4-D beings of The Invisibles, they’re using this possession to destroy the DCU.

The creepiest of these is Mary Marvel, who’s being worn by DeSaad. The crotch rub on Captain Marvel Jr. is already an infamous moment, and she seems like the pure embodiment of this wild youthful embrace of total evil. DeSaad is definitely getting a lot of joy out of being able to wear this girl, and use her body. Grant has talked a lot recently about the fact that the DCU is always going to revert to the status quo, so he might as well push it to extremes on the journey. That’s what this comic is about, taking the DCU to its nastiest, darkest place before soaring back into the light.

The thing that separates it from something like Identity Crisis or even Miracleman is that it’s not trying to bring the horrors of the real world into the superhero universe, it’s taking the evils within the DCU to their extreme. That’s why we’ve got a gang of tiger soldiers going out to hunt people, the concept is ridiculous, but Morrison makes it look badass. And, it’s answered by that fantastic two page spread of our heroes going into action.

I heard somebody call this issue the Silver Age taken to its darkest extreme, and I’d agree with that. It’s got the frantic storytelling pace of a Silver Age comic, and the total embrace of the craziness of a superhero world. Like Batman RIP, it’s about finding the psychological resonance inherent in these comic book characters.

I’ve been reading The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test recently, and it’s interesting to see all the acid heads of that era constantly referencing comic books. They saw themselves as superheroes, they saw that as the evolutionary path to move humanity forward. That’s the inherent power in the concept, the draw of reading about people who are better than us, people we can hope to be one day. This comic is about that evolution, the war that we all fight against oppression and single mindedness in our society.

We are fighting that war everyday, we’re fighting an army of corporate influences out to enslave our minds, out to make us forget that our lives can be more than just this. Wonder Woman and her furies are the people who’ve given up their dreams, given up on ever being happy and decided that it’s easier to just surrender to the routine and go along with what society wants them to be. But, we can be Hawkman too, fighting in the sky to save ourselves from Anti-Life. It’s easier to go through life without thinking. That’s what Hawkman reacts against when he proudly declares that “Life…is all struggle!”

I wish that more of the critical commentary on this work was about the way that it relates to our world and the political place we’re at right now. I hate when writers on entertainment blogs say that politics is off limits. The best works of fiction, even if they’re as seemingly removed from our world as this one, are all about the world in which they’re created. Grant’s an astute social critic, and his works always capture the zeitgeist of the moment in which they’re created. To read The Invisibles is to trip back to the mind space of the 90s, and you can tell a lot about the change in times by comparing his JLA to Final Crisis. This is a heavier time, but we’ve still got people fighting on the edge of perception to make the world better.

One of my favorite scenes in the issue is Mister Miracle’s call for action. Of course he’s not dead, we’ve already seen him rise up and miss death at the end of Seven Soldiers. If he can come out of the ground, surely he can survive a bullet. That does raise the question of Batman as the fifth world’s incarnation of Mister Miracle? Is he the host for Scott Free?

Anyway, the critical thing here is the Metron pattern. This is sigil, designed to channel the god Metron into the reality of the DCU. It’s the same kind of thing we saw in The Invisibles with King Mob channeling Lennon, only in this case, the gods of the Fifth World are able to literally visit them and influence the world. I really hope that the last issue involves an army of people united by the positive god, wearing the Metron symbol, and going out to battle the army of Apokolips.

Also notable in the scene is Shilo’s description of Darkseid’s fall, “A devil-god is dragging us down with him into a deep, dark hole in time.” This is exactly what happened to Shilo in his own Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle series, a mini that should be essential reading for understanding Final Crisis because it contains the entire series in micro. The DCU is now experiencing the plunge through awful permutations of reality that Shilo went through, and it will need to die before punching out the grave infused with a new fifth-world energy.

Along those lines we get the great scene where wheelchair bound Metron from the Mister Miracle series runs into Nix Uotan. Nix is at his lowest ebb, he’s lost faith that there’s anything more than this world. He remembers a life he used to have, a life of wonder and magic, but now it only comes out in dreams and drawings. He has lost his faith and seems on the verge of succumbing to Darkseid. The entire series is contained in his arc, the loss of the wonder, and in this scene, its glorious rebirth. I love the way the Rubik’s Cube becomes a motherbox and wipes out the guards so quickly. The hypercondensed storytelling works in this issue because it’s centered around this one struggle. Each side makes salvos at each other, and this time, good has won one.

But, things go bad again very quickly during the chilling Darkseid speech. We’ve all seen these sort of evil speeches before, but here, I was just overwhelmed by the amount of evil on display. This is the superhero comic taken to 11, an entire universe in peril to the point that even Lex Luthor is worried. Darkseid has command of the world, they are united and one behind him, a hivemind extension of the ultimate evil, and only a few heroes remain to do combat with it.

One of them is Nix Uotan, who has realized himself into some kind of fifth world superhero. Parituclarly notable here is the transition page where the heroes he drew from many worlds float in the air. His side of the story ties back to what was going on over in Superman Beyond. The core of it seems to be that it is our belief in the heroes that matters, the apperance of Metron reaffirms Nix’s faith in himself and lets him actualize as a hero again. In All Star Superman, Morrison posited the idea that Superman was actually the creator of our world, and his good qualities are an archetypal well from which humanity will always pull. Superman will always be there because we need him to save us, and if we believe in him enough, he’ll be there. Because that’s what heroes are, and the bigger the threat, the bigger the heroes.

I’m still loving this series, I wish it came out in a more timely fashion, but I think it’s going to be looked back on a lot more kindly than it’s being received now. It really is drawing on all Morrison’s DC work in a way that is virtually unprecedented. I love the fact that Batman RIP continues here because it ties everything together in a fascinating way. It feels a lot like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, an acknowledgement of the fact that all these stories hail from the same mind, and an attempt to reconcile the contradictions and ideas within.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Batman #682: 'The Butler Did It'

It’s great to get another issue of Morrison’s Batman so soon after the end of RIP. This one doesn’t exactly clear up the many mysteries that still linger after RIP, but it does a great job of showing us the revised history of Batman that Morrison’s used to underlie his run, and ends with a brilliant twist that ties Batman’s run so far into both his own Final Crisis mythology and Kirby’s New Gods mythology. The initiation never ends.

Ever since the major shift in tone with the Torture Chamber three parter, Morrison’s Batman run has been a series of death and rebirth experiences, with Batman facing down an essential darkness that plagues humanity, all on his quest to reach a higher level of existence. In the last issue, we’re led to believe that Hurt may in fact be the Devil. He is a pure source of evil that Batman has been fighting against his whole life. But, in the DCU, who’s the true source of evil. Why, it’s Final Crisis villain Darkseid, and as we find out at the end of this issue, Batman’s Thogal experience continues after RIP ends when he finds himself at the mercy of Darkseid’s eugenics experiment.

The major question left unanswered between RIP and this issue is what exactly happened to Batman after the helicopter explosion. I don’t think that was ever meant to be death for Batman, and this issue makes that clear. Sorry to everyone in the media who reported last issue as the death of Batman, but he’s back alive and imperiled again in this issue. Perhaps real death, or true transcendence awaits at the end of Final Crisis, but for now, he remains earthbound.

This issue reinforces the thematic ties between the Batman run and Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle miniseries. Batman #681 was essentially what happens with Mister Miracle after the end of Seven Soldiers #1, of course he’s going to rise again, and of course he’s going to do battle with, and triumph over evil. That is the nature of heroism. But, both series have their heroes dealing with something a bit more complex than simply battling evil, it’s all about doing battle with someone who’s out to destroy their minds. Shilo’s trippy journey through a myriad of alternate realities, each one bringing him closer to total despair mirrors what happens with Bruce in RIP. I love that kind of storytelling structure, breaking down strict narrative reality and replacing it with a shifting subconscious realm, where you can read the story as simultaneously a straight up, twisted superhero narrative, or as a meditation on the hero’s fractured psychology.

Last issue, Bruce talks to the evil monk about how during Thogal you see a mix of past, present and future. Here, Bruce flashes back through his entire career, as part of a psychic interrogation by The Lump. I’m not sure that we really needed another spin through the Batman origin story, but it is nice to see the schizophrenic history of Batman synthesized into one linear issue.

We start with the darkness of Batman’s early days, when he’s thoroughly committed to battling criminals, and never takes his eyes off the mission. Time blurs and soon he finds Robin entering his world, bringing “color” to their “monochrome lives.” Morrison makes a good case for Robin being essential to the Batman mythos, in the same way that Miller did over in Goddamn Batman. Robin makes Batman human, he makes him about more than just avenging his parents’ murder.

We next spin through another trippy 50s flashback with my favorite panel of the issue, Bruce and Batwoman facing a strange beast on another world, or maybe just tripping on acid together in the batcave. There’s a constant emphasis on chemicals in the story, and one of Morrison’s big concepts is that many of Batman’s strange adventures can be written off as side effects of exposure to Joker gas and other chemicals. In the cave together, I love Batwoman’s rambling monologue, “…my soul dying…on another planet…oh god…when our souls die…we die too.” It’s the sort of stream of consciousness raw emotion that Morrison does better than anyone.

Next, we reach the introduction of Simon Hurt. Here, he’s equated with Darkseid’s Lump monster, a parasite that digs through Batman’s memories and uses this knowledge to attack his weak points. Hurt is the Lump, and he is, in some ways, Darkseid. He’s all the evil that Batman’s ever faced, and this Final Crisis story is just a heightened stakes version of the same stuff we saw in Batman RIP.

This section has a strange panel in which they bury Alfred, then all of a sudden he’s back. I’m not that familiar with Batman history, but I believe this refers to a death of Alfred at some point in the 60s, before he came back during the TV show era. I do like Morrison’s nod to the 60s series with Batman and Robin stream of consciousness solving a riddle. However, I can’t help but wish that JH Williams had been drawing this. His ability to blend styles from disparate time periods together would have made this a much more visually compelling issue, and also helped clarify the changes in Batman’s world over time.

As Robin grows up, and away from him, Batman claims that he never liked any of this goofy stuff anyway. The dark age Batman reasserts itself, “Crime. Madness. Horror. These are the things I understand,” and a reinvented, more insane Joker beckons. Presumably, the next issue will deal with Batman’s dark journey through the 80s, and end in a way that sets up his final fate in Final Crisis.

But, this issue ends with a brief spin through an alternate universe, where Bruce is not Batman, all part of the process of keeping Bruce unaware that he’s under psychic interrogation. It’s understandable that he’s so paranoid, it seems like someone’s always trying to destroy him. I’m reminded of the quote from “Robin Dies at Dawn,” echoed in Morrison’s run about eyes, thousands of eyes watching. Batman thought he defeated Hurt, but now he’s part of something larger, a conflict with Darkseid and the essence of evil itself.

Morrison definitely uses some old tricks here, the journey from pulp age to silver to Bronze recalls Flex Mentallo’s similar structure, and a lot of material in Seven Soldiers. Is any medium so obsessed with its own history as comics? Whereas New X-Men and Marvel Boy were largely about new pop concepts that tie in to Morrison’s own philosophy, this is a book about riffing on comics history, and exploring things from within the DCU, rather than from our own universe.

But, I think there still is enough fresh stuff here, and I like the way it bridges the gap between the themes of Final Crisis and the themes of the rest of Morrison’s Batman run. This is another aspect of the ongoing Thogal process, the plunging into darkness before an emergence into light. The entirety of Final Crisis is a kind of Thogal for the DCU, it must die before it can eradicate its flaws and darkness, then return a stronger, more healthy entity.

Final Crisis has gotten a lot of bad press lately, be it for the lengthy delays or the art switches, but I think once all the story that Morrison wanted to tell is out, and removed from the hype, it’s going to be looked back on as a great storytelling experiment. It’s on the road to synthesizing most of his DC work to date into a single story. Batman’s running in, Superman’s running in, 52 is running in, Seven Soldiers is running in, JLA is running in, it’s all coming together in this epic, and I’m hoping he gets the chance to tell the story he wants to tell, and give the DCU the glorious rebirth it deserves.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Batman #681: RIP Conclusion: 'Hearts in Darkness'

“Hearts in Darkness,” the conclusion to Batman RIP, continues the recent trend in Morrison’s work of creating issues that are hypercondensed on the page, and just expand in your mind after reading. As such, I’ll admit that after finishing the issue for the first time, I was a bit underwhelmed. Was exploding in a helicopter a fate worse than death for Batman? What was the big reveal of who the Black Glove was? The issue doesn’t fulfill the expectations that had been built by both Morrison’s comments and DC’s framing of the storyline.

The way I read RIP, the “fate worse than death” doesn’t refer to what happens in this issue, it refers to the storyline as a whole, Bruce’s adoption of the Zur-En-Arrh persona and his descent into life on the streets and insanity. This issue is the triumphant return of Batman, literally rising out of the grave, back in his regular outfit and revealing how even in his insane state, he’s managed to stay one step ahead of the Black Glove because “Batman thinks of everything.” Batman can go away at the end of this issue because his purpose is filled, he’s inspired enough people to continue his mission, and his confrontation with Hurt at the end is the final stage of his journey through Thogal, the conquering of his greatest fear.

When I read The Black Glove hardcover, and the subsequent RIP issues, I didn’t think there would be a big reveal about the identity of the Black Glove, I thought Hurt and his crew were the Black Glove. Surely, Hurt was evil enough, you didn’t need a shocking twist that Alfred was behind it all, or something like that. It’s mostly the marketing hype that leads you to expect something so shocking this issue, admittedly some of that is Morrison’s fault, but future readers will judge the book on its own merits, not the hype.

The significance of this issue, and the run as a whole, is underlined by the red and black flashbacks to Bruce and the monk speaking in Nanda Parbat. Bruce speaks of experiencing hallucinations in the darkness, the blurring of past, present and future. This sounds exactly like the torture chamber three parter that preceded RIP, but what is the “place that’s not a place” that he refers to? That could be the opening page of this issue, where he lies in darkness, awaiting rebirth. It could be where his primary self went when Zurr-En-Arrh Batman was in control. While he was Zurr-En-Arrh Batman, his rational self was able to process all the weird stuff that happened to him, and come up with the plan he could use to take down the Black Glove.

This issue raises the question of what exactly Batman was experiencing during RIP? Was he totally insane, as it first appeared, or was he actually one step ahead of the whole thing, as this issue implies? Here, Bruce claims that he always knew Jezebel was evil, and his “love” for her was an act. On some level, I think that makes the story less satisfying, but I’d argue that it isn’t as simple as reducing everything to two competing acts, with Bruce’s as the successful one in the end.

One could argue that Zur-En-Arrh Batman is the Batman that Bruce imagined himself to be as a child, the raw force of nature who could destroy Joe Chill and save his parents. With his gaudy, multi-colored outfit, he resembles a child’s fantasy, and the last page of this issue makes it clear that Zur-En-Arrh actually refers to the last moment Bruce had with his parents before they were killed. Earlier, Hurt talks about how Zur-En-Arrh is a totally Freudian power construction, a Batman without emotional ties, just pure combative energy.

This entire arc is designed to mimic the experience of Thogal, as in The Invisibles, the initiation never ends. For Bruce, Thogal is the equivalent of meeting Barbelith, only he’s more about the journey within than the journey without. Bruce has gone through all these strange adventures, which he’s struggled to synthesize together in the Black Casebook. The great mysteries of the universe lie inside himself, and that’s why this arc, and the series as a whole, is about Batman confronting the worst in himself and deciding to press on.

Earlier in the arc, Jezebel plays her trump card, and calls Bruce’s whole life into question, confronting him with that darkness inside himself that he found in Nanda Parbat. Jezebel thinks she can blow Bruce’s mind by raising the question of whether he’s the evil force that’s been out to get him all this time, but Bruce is one step ahead, he’s already thought of that too when he asks the monk if he “I have been, even unconsciously, my own worst enemy?” Knowing that he could be turned even on himself, he creates this backup personality, drawn straight from the trauma of his childhood, and lets it take control when he seems to be in the clutches of the Black Glove.

I don’t think that Bruce is “acting” when he goes through the whole thing with Honor Jackson and the heroin addiction. I think he put the regular Bruce Wayne away, and let Zur-En-Arrh Batman go through the “weapons grade crystal meth” attack. The real Bruce is tucked safely away, waiting for his moment, and subconsciously guiding Zur-En-Arrh Batman where he needs to go. Reading the arc now, you could see Bat-Mite as the lingering remnant of Batman’s sanity, helping him get where he needs to go, then leaving before Batman confronts the worst of things. His sanity is tucked away and Zur-En-Arrh Batman goes through the Joker poisoning and Jezebel’s betrayal. I think the betrayal does hurt him because the Zur-En-Arrh Batman doesn’t want to believe she’d betray him, even if regular Batman is thinking many steps ahead, already planning how to take her down if he needs to.

One could even read it that Batman has to retreat to the Zur-En-Arrh personality just in case she’s right, and he is the Black Glove. The implication in this issue is that Hurt is the Devil, and I think that interpretation fits, but the read that makes the most sense for me goes back to the first introduction of the Black Glove, they aren’t even an organization really, they’re everything out there that could hurt Batman. It’s Jezebel, it’s Hurt, it’s the third Batman, and in the end, Batman defeats them all. It’s notable that Hurt mentions trying to take away Batman’s purpose by taking all the criminals off the street. Those criminals are just part of the same game that Batman plays, it’s what The Joker represents. They have a kind of bargain, but the Black Glove is differnet. By removing his everyday threats, they force Batman to confront something deeper, his own existential purpose. They make him question himself, and the thought is that he won’t be able to withstand their torture, that they’ll always be one step ahead.

The Joker thinks the Black Glove is naïve because they believe that they can beat him. The Joker may be totally insane, but Batman always remains one step ahead of him, finding the pattern and connection between his seemingly random action. As we saw in “The Clown at Midnight,” The Joker prides himself on the constant reinvention of himself, but Batman always “builds a new box around me.” That’s the conflict, and in that sense, The Joker functions as an evolutionary imperative. Batman must become a better crimefighter to keep up with what The Joker does. That’s why he went through Hurt’s experiment in the first place, he wanted to be able to feel what The Joker feels.

Hurt took advantage of Bruce’s desire to see the dark side, and implanted in him the insanity trigger. At that point, Batman wasn’t ready to deal with what he saw in the hallucination. That’s probably why he went to Nanda Parbat and underwent Thogal. He lost this battle against himself in the isolation chamber, so now he’ll take it one step further, and purge the demons within himself.

The Joker here seems to function as more of a John a Dreams type character than the pure evil of the Black Glove. Simon Hurt is predictable because he’s always going to do the evil thing, The Joker frightens them because they don’t know what he’s going to do next. Here, he essentially takes Batman’s side and tells the Glove that they’re fucked, they shouldn’t have left Batman out there because even if you think you’ve got him beat, he’s always one step ahead. As Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character made clear, he’s often evil, but he’s more interested in producing chaos. I also like the absurdity of The Joker getting tossed off a cliff by Alfred and Damian.

Throughout the story, there’s great little character moments with Batman’s allies. One of Morrison’s most underrated strengths is his ability to distill the essence of characters in a very small period of time. I think that’s why he’s such a brilliant comics writer, no one else can make you care about people in a few panels like he does. The moment between Robin and Beryl here is fantastic, and makes you want to see more of the two of them together. And, all we need to know about Damian is captured in that one panel. The Club of Heroes doesn’t do that much here, but we understand all we need to know in those couple of pages. It does make me wish that the Robin RIP tie in focused on Robin and the Club of Heroes battling the Club of Villains in Gotham, I’d have loved to read that.

The issue reminds me a bit of the finale of this past season of Doctor Who, with its cameos from everyone on the series to date. Even as Batman passes on the cowl, we know that he’s inspired a legion of people who will fight crime and keep his mission alive in his absence.

Batman climbs out of the grave in a pretty awesome sequence. I still see people cracking on Tony Daniel’s art a lot, but I think he did a great job with the arc. Sure, JH Williams or Quitely would have been better, but I think Daniel gives things a pulpy energy that the two of them might not have captured. I love the way he draws The Joker, and I love the crazy 20s pulp hero look that Hurt has. I also think he does a good job of showing Jezebel’s loss of control, culminating in her deadeyed plane ride look. I think Daniel’s better than Kubert was at the start of the book, and he’s crafted some of the most memorable images in any Batman comic ever. A lot of that is Morrison’s script, but Daniel has gotten better and better as things have gone on. And, I think the juxtaposition of all these wacky happenings with his very 90s Image style worked really well.

I think Morrison does a great job of conveying the turning point in the arc. It starts with the Bat-Radia, which turns out to be a transmitter, connecting him to the Arkham security system. Where did the Bat-Radia come from in the first place? Was Honor Jackson a John a Dreams like entity, helping Bruce fulfill his mission for the universe? Or was it that Bruce had left the radia somewhere, knowing that he could use it in the event he had to resort to his backup personality? I’d argue that it was part of the autopilot mode he went into when he became Zur-En-Arrh Batman. He built that radio, and didn’t consciously know what was in there until it was needed. Batman writes in the casebook about not knowing how things would play out, he would have to just “trust preparation to see me through.”

The Joker abandons the Glove, and Batman rises from the grave. Then, Hurt’s guests start to turn on him. The religious and political figures here echo the crew from The Invisibles’ “120 Days of Sod All,” only this time they’re confronted with their own sins. They enjoyed being in the presence of evil, but now things are spinning out of control, and they’re going to be held accountable for their sins. Batman’s raiding their mountain fortress, and they just want to get out of there.

This leads up to the final confrontation between Batman/Bruce and Hurt. Hurt is that which Bruce can never destroy, the doubt within himself, the fear of betrayal and pain, the guilt about what he’s done. Hurt tries a number of tactics to get to Bruce. First, he plays on the idea that as Batman, Bruce is really the same as the Black Glove, attacking the poor in a never ending attempt to make up for the trauma of losing his parents. He positions Bruce’s nightly patrols as something analogous to the “fox hunts” that Sir Miles does with homeless people.

Then, he quotes Batman’s own words from “Robin Dies at Dawn,” the isolation chamber story. I read that original story a few weeks ago, and it’s a good story on its own, but doesn’t really delve deeply into the psychological implications of what happened. Morrison does a great job of expanding on the basic ideas, and appropriating some of the imagery, like the strange stone idol face. Here, Hurt taunts Batman saying, “I must put away my Batman costume…and retire from crime-fighting!” Hurt is playing on all Bruce’s fears, in this case, the idea that he’s so insane, his personal crusade is endangering the lives of others.

Hurt then claims he’s Thomas Wayne, playing on Bruce’s ultimate fear, the idea that not only was his father evil, but he was the one who killed his mother. If Thomas Wayne was behind it all, then Batman’s crusade against violence was totally misguided. Hurt says that “Wayne became Hurt,” he has warped the image of Thomas Wayne into this insane doctor. That’s also what he threatens to do to all Bruce’s loved ones, spin them into drug addicts and criminals as he spoke to Alfred about earlier. Does it really matter if Thomas Wayne is Hurt? Hurt will create a new reality in which Bruce’s parents were evil.

Now we come to the one moment in the issue that I still find a bit underwhelming, the revelation of Hurt’s ultimate plan. As I just said, it makes sense, but it doesn’t seem like the ultimate capper to this storyline. I suppose the significance is the idea that Bruce has very few good things in his life to cling to, he exalts the memories of his parents, and his adopted father, Alfred. To tear them down would be to destroy the foundation of Batman, the last piece of humanity that existed before Bruce had to become Batman. But, I don’t think it totally works as a topper to everything insane that’s come before.

I do like the pay off on the next page. Batman poses the idea that he’s found a “pure source of evil” as he reached “the limits of reason.” If Batman is pure reason, always prepared and ready to deal with anything, it would make sense that his greatest foe would lie at the limit of reason. Perhaps that was the journey through the entire arc, his time as Zur-En-Arrh was a journey beyond reason to insanity. Now, he finds himself not quite believing that Hurt could in fact be the devil. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, it doesn’t matter in the end. Ultimately, the Black Glove is Batman’s ultimate foe, they will always win. But, in punching through the glass, Batman shows that he is the Black Glove, and he can destroy the evil that opposes him by destroying himself as well.

Bruce has sacrificed himself, confronted the ultimate evil within and come out stronger, but he’s going to become something else for now. In The Invisibles, we saw humanity move into the supercontext after ending the war that had raged forever. Here, Batman has been in a war with the Black Glove his whole career, what does he become after defeating them? He will evolve and become something else, leaving the Batman identity to someone else. As we saw in the page that opens this issue, and come after the end, “Batman and Robin will never die!”

The issue ends with a flashback to the birth of Batman. On one level, this shows us where Zur-En-Arrh comes from, the misheard final words of Thomas Wayne. If Hurt is the ultimate source of evil, he would know everything about Bruce, and he would know that those words would have a major significance for Bruce. By equating Hurt with Bruce’s father, his defeat becomes the ultimate cleansing. Bruce has passed through the worst shadow, this endless Thogal, and perhaps come out as something closer to the happy kid we see here.

I’m curious to see how Morrison handles the character when he hopefully returns to the book in the spring. Will we see the long promised “hairy chested love god”? I’d like to see him keep up the psychedlia of these issues, but perhaps spin it in a slightly more positive direction. Either way, it’s great that we’re getting another issue this week.

In the context of Morrison’s work as a whole, this arc and Final Crisis continue the style he first used on Seven Soldiers, the hyperdense comic that requires a lot of work to unpack, but is incredibly fulfilling to analyze and ponder. It’s interesting to read criticism of the issue because the comics world often seems totally backward from what’s praised in other arts. Nobody’s telling The Wire to do more done in one stories, or not rely so much on continuity, but here, people criticize Morrison’s Batman because they have to do a little work to understand it. Morrison may work on the most mainstream characters, but he’s using a very complex storytelling method, much more so than in his 80s superhero work or JLA. It does rely on the reader to fill in some gaps, and people can call that sloppy plotting, but I prefer it because it gives you a lot more. This issue took me over 25 minutes to read, and a lot of thinking to fully understand. That’s the sign of a great work, and it’s also why Morrison is the best writer in comics. He understands that the 22 page comic needs to be more than just what’s on panel, it’s got to be a world that’s downloaded into your head and gradually unpacked over time.

It’s strange that a comic this dense and tied into the rest of Batman continuity should get such media attention for “killing” Batman when actually reading the book makes it clear that he’s not actually dead. But, if it gets more people to check out Grant’s work, all the better. He has no illusion that Bruce will not eventually get back to being Batman, it’s the journey through the story that matters, and this was a great journey.

Ultimately, I don’t think the issue is the most shocking revelation in seventy years of Batman history, but it’s a great capper for RIP and Morrison’s run as a whole. If we don’t see anymore, I’d be disappointed, but still satisfied. This arc is my favorite Morrison work since Seven Soldiers, a constantly confounding, strange and complex story that gets to the core of Batman in a totally different way than you’d expect. I think my favorite Batman comics story is still The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but this is a close second. And, considering there’s seventy years of Batman stories, that’s pretty good.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Australia is the kind of movie that makes you remember what movies can do, it’s the kind of movie that wraps you up in the story and creates more than just striking images, it creates incredible film moments. Most movies are about telling stories, they go through the beats of the story in a perfunctory way, playing out the script to its conclusion. Some movies spend a lot of time on the visuals, and create beautiful images. But, truly great filmmaking is about a lot more than capturing interesting images. It’s about combining those images with music, and the emotion you get from being engaged with the narrative to create something transcendent. Watching this film, I kind of knew most of the story beats, things proceed as you’d probably expect them to, but, like the best stories, it made me doubt that what I knew would happen would happen, making the moment that might seem objectively inevitable so powerful in the happening.

I love both Baz Lurhman’s previous films, but see flaws in them as well. Moulin Rouge is a really frustrating movie for me in some ways because there’s moments in there that are as amazing as anything in cinema, think the love song medley atop an elephant, which culminates in an utterly exhilarating, swirling 360 camera shot, or the harrowing “Come What May” finale. But, then there’s moments that are just awful, like some of the goofier stuff with the Bohemians, and the “Like a Virgin” sequence. Romeo and Juliet is equally full of brilliant moments, the scene where Juliet walks past the fish tank with angel wings on is one of the most memorable single images of film in the 90s, and I love the overwhelming neon crosses lurking in the background of seemingly every scene.

Australia scales back on some of the eccentricity of his previous films, and their hyperpop postmodern aesthetic. It feels in a lot of ways like a lost film from classical Hollywood, epic in scale and emotion in the way those films were. An epic romance between an initially stuck up society lady and a roguish, but charming man against the backdrop of war could just as easily summarize Gone With the Wind as it could this film. Most classical Hollywood films didn’t have the veneer of irony that lies over so much of our cinema, and culture in general, today. We can watch them and laugh at the overblown scores or overwrought acting, disparage the films instead of engaging with them. Admittedly, some of the films were just bad or overdone, but at its best, classical Hollywood managed to make films that created these exquisite emotional dramas and then played them to the hilt.

Think of Casablanca, a film that holds up today, and will forever. It’s such a perfect mix of personal drama and larger scale conflict, using the war to magnify the individual stories. Without the war, the Rick/Ilsa drama doesn’t mean as much, and without their relationship, the war story feels remote and intellectual, instead of emotional. The oncoming troops may be a real danger for all involved, but we feel that danger because of what it means to our heroes. One of the few films more recently that captures that feel is The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a film that features a similarly big score and emotional scale, the doomed lovers and the evil empire are the same, only the circumstances are different.

Australia manages to capture that same feel, with its blend of interpersonal romantic drama and larger scale conflicts, each accentuating the other. It’s not the most innovative or groundbreaking film that Baz has done, but it made feel so much for the characters, get so absorbed in the emotional moments, that’s why I loved it.

The film has two fairly distinct parts, the cattle drive section resolves itself in such a way that the movie could end there and be perfectly satisfactory. This sequence has a lot more in common with most classic Hollywood Westerns than most of today’s gunslinger driven Westerns. Driving cattle around, was always the big thing, with the conflict between the wild and civilization as the centerpiece. The film echoes the iconic opening and closing shots of The Searchers a number of times, with its positioning of Sarah in the door frame, looking out at her ranch. The traditional Western deals with a protagonist who is too wild for civilization, and spends his time on the outskirts, making new territory safe for the people in town. Hugh Jackman’s Drover fits this description pretty neatly, and as is typical, he meets with up a civilized woman, who he in turn brings into his world, liberating her from stuffy societal expectations, and freeing up to a new kind of experience.

Like a lot of old Hollywood stars, Nicole Kidman has a very specific star persona. She has taken on a wide variety of roles, but there’s always an essential coldness to her, and Baz plays on that cool here by starting her out as the very English ice queen, then gradually melting her through her relationship with The Drover. Nicole is widely known, but I don’t think she’s ever been a huge draw at the box office. A lot of people dislike her, and my favorite roles of hers do play on that image, particularly her work in The Hours and Dogville. There’s a lot of joy in watching Sarah learn to do these wild things, like try to herd cattle or try to console Nullah after his mother died because we want to see Nicole Kidman do the same things. How would Nicole Kidman talk to you if your mother died? She can’t express feelings, right? Well, the film plays with that, and lets us see her develop in the kind of person who can feel.

In this film, the conflict between the wild and civilization is incarnated in Nullah, the mixed race child. He is not at home in either world at the beginning, bound by Fletcher and societal rules that could get him taken away from home and sent to a mission. Over the course of the film, he embraces both sides of his personality, using the Aboriginal ‘magic’ to connect with his grandfather, and save the cattle from going over the cliff. That moment was one of the awe inspiring bits I’m talking about. We watch the cattle running wild, the horses teetering on the edge of the cliff, tension is huge, magnified by Flynn getting run over. It’s all building up to this lone kid standing on the edge of a cliff, hoping to hold back the horde, and then he does it. In film, it’s the build up where you really feel things. Even if the cattle ran over the edge, that would still be kind of an emotional release, you’d know what was going to happen. The tension is in uncertainty, in the cattle running at this kid as he grits his teeth and prays that he can stop them.

Another great setpiece is the entrance of Sarah, The Drover and the cattle into Darwin. It’s an epic scale scene, with hundreds of cattle running around. Normally, why would you care who gets the army’s beef contract, but the film makes you care. You’re caught up in this struggle, even if the villains are pretty one note evil guys, not unlike Moulin Rouge’s Duke. It’s the emotional engagement that matters, and as tension builds while The Drover is looking for a way to stop the cattle, you’re caught up in that moment.

I think a large part of the reason why I loved the movie, and why so many seem to have mixed opinions on it, is the film’s total lack of irony or distance. We’re so used to watching films that put emotions in quotations marks, that leave enough distance that if a scene doesn’t work, you can just say, well, you weren’t really supposed to care anyway. It’s safer to do that, if you shoot something that’s supposed to be bad, whether it be bad or good, you’ve succeeded. This film turns the emotion up to 11, and if you’re not engaged with the narrative, I’d imagine it would come off as cheesy. But, the more you risk, the greater the payoff. By trying for real emotion, the film will ether totally grab you and put you through the wringer, or leave you cold. I don’t need a film that everyone’s going to like, I’d rather have a film that some people will love and some will hate. I loved the film so much, I feel like everyone would love it, but I suppose it is just as possible that people would be bored, or react against it.

After the cattle stuff is over, we get the wonderful kissing in rain sequence. One of the things I love about all Baz’s films is that he really thinks in cinematic terms. The visuals are the characters’ emotions, flooding forth onto the screen. Then, there’s a bit of a Return of the King situation where we get what could very easily be an ending to the film, only to segue into some darker times, as everyone leaves Sarah behind, and the war comes to Australia. The war section of the film is even stronger than what came before, culminating in the film’s best setpiece, the bombing of Darwin/rescue of the children sequence.

Watching this sequence made me that a filmmaker can still get this kind of budget to not do a sequel or blockbuster action movie. It’s an idiosyncratic, singular vision, and Baz got the money he needed to realize it. It’s so rare that you get a big budget movie like this, and if the Oscars are worth nothing else, they’re worth it for making these movies financially viable. Without both the prestige and financial reward that Oscars bring, the studios would have no reason to fund a film like this.

The scene uses a lot of outright melodramatic techniques to engage you emotionally. There’s the lengthy period where the Drover believes that Sarah is dead, her belief that Nullah is dead, and of course the fact that there’s twenty helpless children endangered by evil enemy soldiers, and for a time, we’re led to believe they’re all dead. I just wanted them all to get back together, and be happy again, and I think that’s a testament to the film. This one passed all those intellectual filters, that feeing that movies shouldn’t just have a happy ending, I wanted everyone to be okay, and was riveted as they all struggled back together.

Visually, I love the way they made Darwin look, a post apocalyptic world set against an expanse of surreal orange sky, or the way the soldiers were faceless specters that arose out of smoke and disappeared back into it again. The rescue of the children was really well done, leading up to that most melodramatic of moments, Sarah waiting, hoping that Nullah will return even as everyone says she has to leave. She’s going to go, but the boat’s right there, how can she not see it? And then, Nullah starts to play “Over the Rainbow,” and it’s just totally heartrending. She hears it, the song crosses the sea, and she looks out to them and they’re there. This finally leads to the reunion, drawn out shots build the suspense, until finally we get the embrace and reunion we’ve been waiting for.

The story ends with a reconciliation of the wild and the civilized, of white and black. King George will take Nullah on walkabout, but he’s not going forever. George also says that this is “our land,” he’s accepted Sarah and The Drover, he knows that they love Nullah and respect his values. It’s a mysterious ending, the story will continue even though we’re not there to see it.

This is my favorite film of 2008 so far. It hit me on a deep emotional level, and felt so much more alive and urgent than most movies out there. You can see a joy in the storytelling, a love for the material and a total investment in the emotional world of the characters. That’s what great cinema is all about, and this is great cinema.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Star Wars: A New Hope

I’m rewatching “the trilogy” this weekend. I suppose future generations might think of Lord of the Rings, or perhaps even the prequels when saying the trilogy, but for me, there’s only one set of films that will forever be known by that name. I think it’s so hard to look at the Star Wars films as films, apart from the merchandising empire, and the troubled prequels and other spinoffs. I wrote about this a bit when I reviewed Empire last year, and I think the release of the Clone Wars film and animated show has only exacerbated a lot of the issues already out there.

Watching Star Wars this time, what jumped out at me was a couple of things. One was the astonishing production design. There’s so many iconic visuals from the film, the Darth Vader outfit, the stormtrooper outfits, the various ships. It’s easy to forget that all of these things didn’t just exist, somebody had to go through and design all this stuff. Lucas pioneered the concept of the lived in universe, and that’s really what you feel as the film begins. This is something that exists somewhere out there, and we’re just looking at it. Lucas had a documentary background, and this film does have a slightly edgier, more verite feel than the other films in the series. It’s got a carry over from 70s filmmaking, while the other films in the series feel more timeless.

That’s not just true of the visual style, the principles of the film are very much in tune with that 60s generation. I think part of the reason that these films are so much more successful than the prequels is that the conflicts of the prequels are very complex, and more ambiguous. The story of the prequels is about the gradual corruption from within of essentially good institutions. I think one of the most audacious things that Lucas did in the prequels is to make it clear that to some extent, the Jedi had become apparent, and were complicit in their own downfall. Obviously, that sort of genocide is never justified, but the Jedi largely bring it on themselves by trying to stifle all of Anakin’s emotions, and not evolving with the times. Anakin was prophesied to bring balance to the force, and that’s what he did.

What the Jedi in the prequels, and even Yoda in Empire and Jedi say is that you have to disconnect from your feelings to be a Jedi. Yoda doesn’t seem to understand why Luke would run after his friends, surely his training would take priority? What Luke does in Jedi is channel his emotions into fighting the Emperor and Vader, he’s not removed from the world, his friends are his strength, the rock that lets him pull Vader back from the brink and ultimately pave the way for a new kind of Jedi, one that’s less monastic, more integrated with the world.

The thing that frustrates me about the prequels is that the ideas are a lot more complex than those in the original trilogy, and when you talk about the films from an analytical point of view, they’re full of endless material for analysis. The issue is with the moment to moment to execution, and just one good script pass, and someone to tell Lucas to hold back on the CG and you’d have a trilogy of masterpieces. I think a large part of the problem is that Lucas sees things in big picture terms. He saw the prequels as something he had to do, to complete these vague outlines he had from years ago. It’s like building a house that’s architecturally incredible, but a total mess inside, so you can’t totally love it. I read once that if Revenge of the Sith was a foreign film, people would absolutely love it, and I really agree with that. Look at Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, the same kind of philosophical musings that Western critics loved in his other films were criticized when they actually heard them spoken aloud in English. I think it’s easier to give leeway to a foreign film because we assume that weird stuff is a cultural difference, and the dialogue in Clones or Sith would play a lot better with that in mind.

But, there’d still be the CG issue. I think one of the things that people who use a lot of CG in films forget is that the joy of special effects wasn’t just about telling the story, it was the spectacle on its own terms. There’s a reason George Melies was both a magician and a filmmaker, special effects should have that “how’d they do that” element, and on the original trilogy, that’s definitely there. Watching Jedi, I have no clue how they got so many ships flying around, watching the prequels, you know it’s just CG. I think CG can look totally photorealistic, and still take us out of the film on some level when we know that it can’t exist in the real world. When you’ve actually built something, it’s there and we believe it because it exists. With CG, it’s a lot trickier, and I think that leads to one of the key things that artists have to keep in mind in a new CG age, namely just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, sometimes limits help art.

Looking at the mishmash special edition cut of ANH that’s on DVD, the CG elements jump out as totally removed the rest of the film’s world. The incredible documentary realism of the film is broken when you’ve got a giant animated lizard walking around. That Jabba the Hutt scene is probably the worst offender, but those random CG critters in Mos Eisley take you right out of the film. Now, maybe that’s truer to Lucas’s original vision, but film is a medium where reality and vision have to meet in order to work. There’s a reason that totally invented universes frequently fail, it’s because the crazier you go in someone’s vision, the more difficult it can become for people to engage with it. The CG environments of the prequels feel inherently unknowable on some level, while we can all relate to the desert or snow or barren industrial corridors. In the end, film isn’t about throwing the images in your head onto the screen, it’s about working with actors and set designers to find a way to realize those images in a believable way that works with the narrative.

If you want to pass a couple of hours, head over to The Secret History of Star Wars, a site that looks behind a lot of the myths surrounding the production of Star Wars, and explores how the films we’ve got now came about. The key theme of the site is the idea that what made the original trilogy so great was Lucas’s collaborative partners. On the original Star Wars, it was his wife, Marcia Lucas, and screenings with his creative friends, like Coppola and De Palma, that helped shape the film into what it is today. The basic thesis is that Lucas didn’t “lose it” with the prequels, he just lost the strong collaborators who could help realize his ideas in successful ways.

I think that’s true for a lot of artists. A lot of times you need that Lennon/McCartney antagonistic relationship to keep pushing things forward. Once people decide that you’re a genius, and you can surround yourself with people who won’t challenge you, it becomes a lot harder to make good art. I still love the prequels because I see so much brilliant filmmaking there, and can look past some of the surface flaws, but those films don’t match up to what the original trilogy was.

Anyway, going back to the original film itself, watching it what really jumped out this time was how Lucas reconfigures the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey myth to fit with the concerns of the world at that time. It’s simultaneously a very classical story and one that deals with what’s going on in the world, and I think those are the best kind of blockbusters, the films that really resonate with people. The only film since I can think of that fuses these two things so well is The Matrix. I love art cinema, but there’s something amazing about watching a film that can simultaneously be as artistically successful as this one and incredibly popular.

So much has been written about the connections to classical mythology, but the film also feels very much at home amidst other 70s cinema classics like Easy Rider. This is a film about a young man’s journey away from his boring home to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment in a politically radical protest group. It’s a fusion of 70s spiritual and political concerns, all the while taking on a government that abuses peoples’ rights and tries to stop this ragtag band of freedom fighters. I think Star Wars is one of the best films that kids could watch because it instills values that are very positive. Unlike most blockbuster films, it’s a refutation of the status quo and governmental order. It’s a call to revolutionary action and consciousness evolution. I think it’s easy to forget that when you focus on the coolness of the fights, but listen to what Obi-Wan says about the force here, replace the lightsaber with a bong and you’ve got Easy Rider.

What Obi-Wan is telling Luke is essentially the path to enlightenment, about transcending the material world and existing on a higher level of consciousness. The blaster shield helmet sequence is about Luke learning to look beyond the material world and realize that there’s more out there. As Obi-Wan says, “Strike me down and I’ll become powerful than you can possibly imagine,” he’ll finally transcend this reality and become one with the force. Han Solo is a materialist, as are most of the Imperials. They denigrate this “old religion,” the Empire is a world that doesn’t believe in anything more than cold physical reality. Ironically, it’s run by a borderline insane Sith lord, but I’m guessing the Emperor didn’t show that side of his personality much in the later years. It would have been appropriate to end the series with the Emperor never existing at all, the idea that they built this Emperor figure as a way to create a self sustaining bureaucracy, a pyramid scheme where everyone reports to someone higher up, but there’s no one at the top.

Having the heroes as “rebels” is by no means something only Star Wars did. Most blockbusters involve battling some kind of oppressive force, but what Star Wars makes explicit is the idea that revolution is a viable thing to fight for. In a post-Bush world, I think it’s inspirational to watch a film like this and see those small planes fly in and destroy something so much larger. We just kind of took it for the past eight years, where was our rebel alliance? The sad reality is that most of us would just live under the Empire and not try to fight back. I think the live action Star Wars show could get great mileage out of exploring the way that the Empire tries to frame the Rebel as domestic terrorists, and uses the “war on the rebels” as an excuse for huge weapons projects like the Death Star. I also think there’s something very relevant about the idea that you can build this gigantic battle station and have it undone by one person who’s totally committed to take you down. That’s why we can never win this ‘war on terror’ when all it takes is one insane person to take down anything we can build.

Another notable 70s era element is Leia. In recent years, the strong female protagonist has become something of a must have for action movies, they’re not just there to get rescued, but at the same time, they still exist as an object for male lust, a supporting character for the central male hero. Here, the narrative initially places her in the damsel in distress role, but once she gets rescued, she takes total control of the characters, and leads them out of the Death Star. She’s the political leader, and has the most agency in the narrative.

I saw Star Wars when I was three or so, I have no memory of a time before I’d seen Star Wars, I was always obsessed with the movies, they’re what made me want to make movies myself, starting from an early age. So, the films are just sort of logged in my subconscious, and as such, they’ve influenced my perception of the world. I never saw women as the sort of “princesses” you see in most Disney movies, objects to be rescued and adored, Leia is how I imagine a princess should be, doing her own thing and taking charge when she needs to. There is something of a love triangle in the film, but it’s only the men who talk about it, she’s not really involved in the romantic side of things, she’s too in to her mission. Admittedly, in Empire, Leia takes on a more traditional romantic role, but the brilliance of that film is the way that her and Han are treated as equals. It’s very much that 30s Tracy/Hepburn equal partnership kind of relationship.

Star Wars has the unfortunate reputation of marking the end of 70s auteurist cinema and instituting a period of soulless blockbusters that persists to this day. To some extent, that’s true, but it’s no fault of the film that it connected with so many people. Watching the movie, I did wonder why I sometimes have such a commitment to make more obscure films. Isn’t there some joy in making a movie like this, something that’s smart and true, but still accessible to a lot of people. Hollywood dreams of making four quadrant movie, films that appeal to all audiences, and I’d imagine a lot of filmmakers want to do that too, but it’s so tough to do. I think most “four quadrant” films wind up aiming squarely at 13 year old boys. Star Wars is a film that kids can watch and love, but I wouldn’t call it a kids movie, or a family film or anything like that. It’s a throwback to classical Hollywood in a lot of respects, a movie that everyone can love.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A New Era for America...And Fiction?

I haven’t said anything on here about the major event that happened last week, the election of Obama as president. It’s a huge thing, and a great step forward for the country. How well will things actually turn out? Can he undo all the awful things done by the Bush administration? It’ll be a while before we have the answers to those questions, but I think there is a tangible hope about the country’s direction now, a major contrast from the Bush era post 9/11 loss of agency and hope that we could ever have something better.

Back in 2000, the major narrative of the election was, there’s no difference between the two parties, they’re just two sides of the same coin. Hearing that today, that Bush and Gore are the same, it sounds absurd. A lot of people say that it doesn’t matter who’s president, things will be corrupt all the same no matter who’s in power. I think the Bush administration has proven that decisively wrong. Bush has remade the government in his image, he’s created two wars based on lies, both the “war on terror” and Iraq, and fundamentally changed the tax structure, such that Obama’s attempt to go back to what’s essentially the Clinton era tax system is called socialism. If Bush was not elected, we would not have gone to war in Iraq, I think that’s the best testament to the fact that who is in power does matter.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to make a mess than to clean things up, and if there’s one major worry about the Obama administration, it’s that people will jump all over him too quick, and say that he’s failing before he even has a chance to get started. But, ideally he’ll be able to do something different and make the world a better place.

The political climate of the nation influences a lot more than just policy, look at the pop culture that’s emerged in the Bush administration, everything is dark and brutal. Once goofy, over the top characters like Batman and James Bond have been reimagined as starkly realistic warriors in a morally corrupt world. I think the resonance of works like Casino Royale and The Dark Knight is largely due to a general pessimism in the world, a feeling that there’s no time for frivolity, even our blockbuster films have to be grounded in reality. While they’re really strong movies, a vast improvement from the goofy excesses of late Clinton era Bond and Batman, both films are notable for the fact that the heroes get very little joy from what they’re doing. They’re on a mission, and are constantly forced to sacrifice elements of their humanity as the films go along.

Grant Morrison is always perceptive about the cultural climate his work goes out into. The day-glo pop optimism of late period Invisibles fits perfectly with a world where the Cold War has just ended, and for the first time in fifty years, we had no enemy to battle. That’s exactly what happens in the story, this illusory war collapses and the characters are liberated to move on to the next stage of humanity. But, a year after the series ended, we got a new illusory war, one that sounds like something Sir Miles would jokingly propose, a “war on terror.” Think how absurd and sci-fi that sounds. It’s like Jack Kirby in the middle of the Fourth World. In a world where we fight imaginary wars, maybe our fiction has to be hard edged and brutal, as if we’re trying to make those wars real. Couldn’t you read The Dark Knight as an elaborate Bush era fantasy, this chaos is what will happen if we don’t have total control.

The position of chaos in popular mythology says a lot about the culture we’re living in. The Dark Knight is about a character fighting to keep the world in check, to hold back change and preserve the status quo. Compare to the Clinton era opus, The Matrix, which posits super-cool chaos warriors who go through the world destroying all symbols of authority in their path. Part of the reason that the later Matrix films failed is likely that people found it harder to relate to characters who want to destroy the status quo after suffering through an event like 9/11. Neo and Trinity are the kind of characters that Batman would be taking on in his attempt to keep a fragile hold on order.

Part of the reason why I find Morrison’s work on Final Crisis and particularly Batman RIP so interesting is that it’s so distinctively tied to the world we’re living in now, a dramatization of the end of the Bush era. Final Crisis’ Slayer album cover aesthetic is all in service of a story that’s designed to “let evil win,” before bringing things back in an explosive burst of hope. It’s a way to exorcise our demons, to pass through the ultimate terror and show that humanity will always come out strong. It’s appropriate that the last issue of Final Crisis will come out within a week of Obama’s inauguration, to kick start the new era.

RIP is even more interesting because of the way it turns Batman from a protector of order into his own force of chaos. Pretty much all the Batman films are dominated by their villains, Morrison’s great achievement is to make Batman himself the most interesting character in the comic. Over the course of RIP, we see a guy who’s exerting all his mental energy trying to maintain control, to hold back the force of chaos. In doing so, he finds himself in a war against the Black Glove, an uber-powerful organization that is so devious, he can never hope to defeat it. It’s Batman’s own war on terror, and one of the most powerful scenes in the arc is when Jezebel suggests that Bruce himself was the one who created the Black Glove, because he couldn’t deal with not having an enemy to fight. He is addicted to being Batman, and having this ultimate enemy, one he can never defeat, justifies the billions of dollars he spends on gear.

There’s a pointed criticism of the military-industrial complex there. Jezebel ponders what the money he’s spent being Batman could have done in a third world country. Instead, Bruce chose to fight a war that will never end, a war that eventually upsets his mental state and turns him from an agent of order to an agent of chaos.

It’ll probably take a few years before we see works that reflect an Obama era view of the world, but I think we will see a move away from the intense emphasis on ‘realism’ and darkness. If the world becomes a better place, art will reflect that too. Maybe in the next Bond movie, James will finally be able to have a little fun without feeling so guilty about it.