Monday, April 7, 2014

MASKED MASTERMINDS AND SPECIOUS SPECTRES PT. 3

At the end of Part 2 I stated that the power to create illusions was a definite power, although one should deem it to be of a different order than the ability to directly affect physical objects or entities. 



The specific example cited in Part 2 were the assorted "specious spectres" of the cartoon teleseries SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU?  In my essay WHEN FUNNY ANIMALS ATTACK I went through some pains to specify that the basic concept of the series, in which some mystery-solving teens pal around with a talking dog, aligns the series with the domain of the marvelous.  The talking dog trumps the villains, who are aligned with the uncanny trope I termed "outrĂ© outfits skills and devices."  If there had been no talking dog in the series, then the show would have been uncanny, based on the dominant motif of said villains.




The studio Hanna Barbera produced many imitations of SCOOBY DOO's mystery-solving teens, and almost all of them also fall into the marvelous phenomenality. The well-remembered JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (1970-71) went SCOOBY DOO one better in the department of marvel-making: borrowing more from H-B's own JONNY QUEST than from the "haunted house" comedy-mysteries of Hollywood, the globe-trotting Pussycats continually encountered evil masterminds (usually not masked) rather than schemers pretending to be spooks.  That said, JOSIE still kept up its quota for intelligent animals, as the cast included a devious feline, one Sebastian, who couldn't talk but did a number of un-cat-like things, like opening locks with his claws.



The closest thing Hanna-Barbera did to an series without marvels seems to be THE AMAZING CHAN AND THE CHAN CLAN (1972).  Perhaps because the series' main idea was to focus on the famed detective's large brood of offspring, there was just one comical animal, the dog Chu Chu. However, as memory serves he neither talked nor acted like a human being; he was closer to the model of Bandit in JONNY QUEST, in that he was for the most part a "real" dog.  As for the villains, they were cut from a more mundane cloth than SCOOBY's, but at least some of them did dress up in weird costumes and chase the kids around a little before ultimately getting caught in slapstick fashion.



None of these series register as "combative" in that there is no opposition between two exceptional types of power, as stated in THE NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE:


in the past year I've formulated the idea of "the combative mode" as one that exists exclusively where at least two exceptional-- or "megadynamic"-- forces come into conflict, thus producing Kantian dominance

The "specious spectres" of SCOOBY, CHAN CLAN, and various other ghost-chasing comedy-cartoons might not have a lot of power-- that is, they would be on the lower, "exemplary" level of the "x-type."  Ncvertheless, as long as their opponents were at least on that same level, then one would have a combative narrative.  However, because these cartoons were inspired by comedies in which the protagonists generally won out through luck rather than might or skill, the casts of SCOOBY DOO and that show's imitators were usually what I've denoted as "z-types," ranging from "poor" to "average' levels of dynamicity.

What would a combative version of the SCOOBY DOO template look like? If the heroes were exceptional naturalistic fighters, they would provide a megadynamic force able to contend directly with the uncanny menaces.  The 2002 SCOOBY DOO live-action film toyed with upgrading the characters of Fred and Daphne in this regard.  However, the sequel to that film did not emphasize this element, nor did any of the three Scooby Doo teleseries that followed the first film. 



The famous "Hardy Boys" book series might come closer to the mark, given that the main heroes were usually described as above-average combatants. However, I don't know whether or not the majority of the books-- which came out in many different editions-- would qualify as uncanny or as naturalistic.



Strangely, Hanna-Barbera produced a 1977 teleseries that had all the makings for a combative series in the SCOOBY mold, in that the show's uncanny spectres were caught by a marvelous being with a good deal more dynamicity than a talking dog.  This series, the incredibly inept CAPTAIN CAVEMAN AND THE TEEN ANGELS, featured a superhero caveman with real if erratic super-powers, who was constantly talked into solving crimes by his three hot-babe partners. However, there was no combat in the series between the goofball caveman and his adversaries. Rather, the villains were usually corralled through some slapstick device, just as in SCOOBY DOO. Thus this series-- which, I will note, wins my award for one of the most mind-numbingly awful American telecartoons of all time-- is no more combative than the series discussed in this essay, TEEN TITANS GO. The latter also substitutes goofy slapstick for even a comic version of martial combat, though happily, with far less excruciating effects.






Friday, April 4, 2014

MASKED MASTERMINDS AND SPECIOUS SPECTRES PT. 2

In Part 1, I said, "the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked."



Despite that similarity, there's a pertinent disconnect between the two figures. Unmasking removes the mastermind's power, while it removes the spectre's appearance of power.


 

Most masked criminal masterminds don't share the agility of the villainous Bat (seen sans mask above), but they do have power, usually mainifested through the agency of gangs of henchmen or super-weapons. 




The character of Fantomas from 1911 was one of the first of this breed to circulate in early 20th-century pop culture, and the type, as noted in the previous essay, was particularly popular in serial films.  Most of the figures from silent serials are unknown save to buffs, though one, the Clutching Hand, was translated to a 1936 chapterplay. Many sound serials are replete with dozens of colorful masterminds-- the Crimson Ghost, Captain Mephisto, Doctor Satan, the Spider-- many of whom are more interesting than the films' nominal heroes.

In contrast, the spectre who pretends to be a ghost, a vampire, a mummy or whatever usually has no real power but that of illusion.  In Part 1 I also opined that "I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons."  And whatever one thinks of said cartoons, the original 25 episodes of SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU-- unlike many later incarnations, that brought in real ghosts, zombies, et al-- always kept faith with the same basic idea.



The Mystery Inc. teens investigate rumors of a monster.

The monster appears, scares them with its ferocious looks and tries to chase them away, usually twice in each episode.

The teens set some trap for the monster, which succeeds in spite of much slapstick hilarity, and the monster generally turns out to be a man or woman in a monster-suit.

Rarely if ever do the crusading teens-- who are heroic in their intentions, if not their dynamicity-- turn and try to overpower the monster by force of numbers.  Often when the malefactors are revealed, they look about as powerful as Grandma Moses. But the cartoon's entire raison d'etre was to offer mild thrills seasoned with slapstick comedy, so the show emphasized not "the fight" but "the chase," "the trap," and "the crime-solving summation."

One may dismiss the "specious spectres" as a worn-out contrivance, but to judge from their popularity in bygone days, they served a psychological purpose that contrasts with the pleasures of the more overt horror films of the sound era. In these comedy-Gothics, monsters were all puffed-up illusions, and no doubt the mature audiences that watched THE CAT AND THE CANARY or THE SMILING GHOST enjoyed that comforting thought as much as did any and all kids who enjoyed Scooby Doo.
But as I noted in THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS, even illusion does have a power of sorts, which I'll discuss in Part 3.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

MASKED MASTERMINDS AND SPECIOUS SPECTRES

Other serials like THE GRAY GHOST, WHO IS NUMBER ONE?, [etc.] and dozens of others all had either mysterious heroes or villains. Occasionally they had both.-- Jim Steranko, HISTORY OF COMICS, vol. 1.

At the end of GHOSTS AMERICAN STYLE I alluded to one such "mysterious villain," the character of the Bat, who first appeared in a 1920 play by Mary Robert Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. I reviewed the first two silent film-adaptations of the play here, noting that one, the other, or both may have had some impact upon the creation of the much more famous Batman. My interest in THE BAT concept is both historical and narratological.  The silent film versions follow the pattern Steranko sees in serial films of the same period, with their use of mystery-villains. Since I'm no expert on this period, I'd be curious to know the general nature of these figures. Were they, like the Bat, "masked masterminds" who are the ancestors of modern super-villains, whose motives are from the first clearly aimed at gaining money and/or power?  Or were any of them "specious spectres," who are initially ambivalent to the reader as to whether they're real spooks-- or at least, madmen, like the evildoer in the 1922 John Willard play THE CAT AND THE CANARY (whose 1939 adaptation I reviewed here.)

If the Bat is one of the ancestors of modern super-villains-- who admittedly graduated from the trivia of robbing Old Dark Houses-- the basic pattern of "the Cat" is derived from Gothic fiction.  Ann Radcliffe's 1791 novel THE ROMANCE OF THE FOREST is among the earliest Gothics to explain the supposedly supernatural events of the story, though I have not read it and its summaries do not allude to any "specious spectres." The earliest kindred of the Cat that I've personally read both hail from 1909: Gaston Leroux's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Bram Stoker's THE LADY OF THE SHROUD,.  Gothic fiction had a huge influence upon the history of horror fiction generally, but I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons.

Regardless, the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked.  The unmasking-angle may have lapsed as much in adventure-stories as in horror-fiction, and has probably become more confined to mystery-detective fiction as such.

In a future essay I'll deal with the impact of such figures upon my literary concept of dynamicity and its relation to the combative mode.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

GHOSTS, AMERICAN STYLE

At the conclusion of THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS I wrote:

At present I have not found a necessary connection between the two forms of the sublime.  It does suggest to me how some figures of comparatively low dynamicity can suggest that they are more powerful than they really are. I conclude that it is because of the effect of the combinatory-sublime, which seems to invest such figures with a larger-than-life "mana."

To toss out a more concrete example, PSYCHO's Norman Bates and the Jason Voorhees who debuts in FRIDAY THE 13TH--PART II are both "perilous psychos" within the category of "the uncanny." They are not equals in terms of their dynamicity-- Norman is at best at the low end of the "x-type" level of dynamicity, while Jason, even when he's supposed to be no more than a deranged human being, clearly occupies the high end. But they may be deemed as equals in terms of their mythicity, a narrative value that has its roots in the affects I have termed the combinatory-sublime. 

I emphasize again that mythicity is not coeval with popularity.  The mad killer from 1983's CURTAINS is probably no more formidable than Norman Bates in terms of dynamicity, but she isn't anything to write home about in mythic terms. However, the psycho-killer in 1971's BLOOD AND LACE is barely known outside the halls of horror-fanatics, but I rated her mythicity as "good" in my review, if not quite as good as that of Norman and Jason.

One thought I'm toying with is that although I still believe that the mode of the combative is determined by the presence of both *dynamicity* (an exceptional level of power is expressed in the combat of at least two opposed entities) and *centricity* (their combat is central to the plot), the aspect of the combinatory-sublime may affect the way in which a given protagonist's *dynamis* is received.

For instance, I wrote in this essay that even though ordinary gangsters are not able to fight the Golden Age version of the Spectre, the author had to throw in complications so that the Spectre would have struggle on some level.  I would add to this observation that criminals in THE SPECTRE represent more than just ordinary crooks: collectively they are the evil that forces the undead avenger to keep up his crusade, rather than going to his eternal rest. On this admittedly limited level, then, even the most mundane crooks assume greater mythicity than they would in a less ambitious story.



A less ambitious story involving another undead avenger appears in the 1941 ghost-comedy film TOPPER RETURNS.



This engaging if simple comedy-- barely a TOPPER film at all, as the titular character has little to do in it-- is really about co-star Joan Blondell's character Gail Richards. While staying at a typical Hollywood "old dark house," Gail is murdered by an unknown assailant.  Gail rises again as a ghost who wants to bring her murderer to justice, and forces the twittery Topper to help her.  To be sure, though, like other ghosts in the TOPPER oeuvre, Gail is able to affect the physical world. In one scene the masked murderer attempts to kill again, and Gail, turning invisible, rains punches down on the confused killer until he flees. At the climax she does manage to ferret out her killer and cause his death too. 

The mere fact that the mystery killer is not exceptional in his dynamicity would keep this from being a "combative" film.  However, would things be different if the killer had a more prepossessing aspect, if he had some sort of bizarre identity like "the Bat?"

Such an added fillip might indeed make a difference, and in future essays I'll discuss some reasons why.





Sunday, March 30, 2014

WHEN FUNNY ANIMALS ATTACK

Technically the words "funny animal" could be used for real-life critters who perform amusing stunts, like the contenders in Dave Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks." But it's generally used as it is in this Wiki-page: to signify creatures who are anthropomorphic in some way.

One variety is the fully humanized animal, who regularly walks on two legs, may wear clothes like a human, and who frequently interacts with cartoon versions of human beings.



Another type behaves in some ways like an amimal, and usually walks (or flies, or swims) as its real-world counterpart does. However, at any time such types can "take a break" and do identifiably human things.

They may do nothing more than think coherent thoughts, like the titular star of Disney's 1964 film THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA.



They may imitate only a few human actions, like standing on two legs. as Garfield often does. A
related but more outrageous type like Snoopy doesn't regularly wear clothes but can don them whenever he wants to take on another identity.



Some continue to go on all fours but can talk like-- and even to-- human beings, a la Scooby-Doo.



It's clear that in a purely technical sense, all of these types fall into the phenomenal category I call "the marvelous."  And yet it's clear from my studies of other compendia of metaphenomenal films that often this species of marvelous phenomenon is given a "pass." To my knowledge no such compendium has ever included 1972's SNOOPY, COME HOME, in spite of its walking, coherent-thinking "funny animal."  Similarly, in the essay ON FAIRY STORIES, Tolkien's great examination of the nature of fantasy, he excluded animal fables like those of Aesop from his realm of faerie.

I can well understand Tolkien's reticence. Features in which the characters look like humanized animals but essentially act like human beings generally fail to transmit what Tolkien called the "arresting strangeness" of fantasy. Mickey Mouse animated cartoons may at least have the mouse doing impossible things, but the Floyd Gottfredson comic strip was more like a rural comedy-adventure that just happened to star humanized mice, horses, etc. The erotic anthropomorphic comic book OMAHA CAT DANCER only rarely referenced the animal natures of the characters, whose adventures usually fell into the realm of soap-operatic melodrama.



It's as if funny animals have a certain "invisibility" in certain contexts: they're so obviously stand-ins for human beings that one doesn't think of them as "marvels" at all. I'm tempted to regard some of them, like the casts of OMAHA and  the MICKEY MOUSE comic strip as belonging to the naturalistic version of my narrative trope "delirious dreams and fallacious fantasies." However, to qualify as a "fallacious fantasy," the fantasy would have to be a phenomenon that was simply a departure from the work's diegetic "reality" that the audience was not expected to take seriously. An example of this would be the animated "Pink Panther" from the live-action PINK PANTHER films, who may comments upon, but is not involved in, the "reality" of those movie narratives.



In conclusion, I can only note that although many funny-animal works technically belong to the category of the marvelous, they often evoke so little of the affects of wonder and strangeness that they almost constitute an "attack" on their own domain.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS

In my last essay I emphasized the essential independence of dynamicity, mythicity, and their respective significant sublimity-values.  However, I also noted that their affects could become "intricately intertangled." Since I've been addressing the phenomenality of the "perilous psycho" intermittently this year, starting with the essay OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS, I'll stick with this theme as a source of examples.

In the aforesaid essay I questioned in part whether or not Sherlock Holmes was always a naturalistic figure in all of his iterations.  In the third essay in this series, I observed an opposing tendency in the villain of the Holmes film A STUDY IN TERROR:

I have yet to encounter a fictionalized Jack the Ripper, however, whose spectre does not suggest either "the uncanny" or "the marvelous."  This is in contrast to many other perilous psychos. 
The character in STUDY is of the "uncanny" type, which means that he does not violate the regularity aspect of causality, but does transgress upon the expectations of intelligibility. Jack the Ripper in STUDY IN TERROR is uncanny because he is "anti-intelligible," because he cannot be reduced to naturalistic causes, even though his real-life model probably was no more than a crazy man.



A STUDY IN TERROR is also a combative film in that its hero and villain engage in a battle of spectacular violence near the film's climax.  Because this Ripper is no more than an ordinary man possessed of uncanny madness, he is also "megadynamic" in the sense I used the term here.

It may be harder, though, to see all such uncanny figures as megadynamic, since not all of them are as combative.  In the 1960 PSYCHO, Norman Bates is a megadynamic figure only while he pretends to be his crazed, axe-murdering mother, and only when he is assaulting women in a relatively helpless position. When this psycho is caught by an ordinary husky man, Norman's appearance of power is stripped from him like his phony white-haired wig.



I suppose that I could solve the dilemma the same way I solved the fluctuation of power-levels in the three dynamicities in DYNAMIC DUOS PT. 2: Norman is merely an "exemplary" psycho, while Jack the Ripper is an "exceptional" one.  But I find it worth noting that Norman, both in his initial prose and film incarnations, is superior in terms of his mythicity to the Ripper-character from STUDY IN TERROR.  This suggests that he is a better conduit for the "combinatory-sublime," even as the Ripper is a better conduit for "the dynamic-sublime."

At present I have not found a necessary connection between the two forms of the sublime.  It does suggest to me how some figures of comparatively low dynamicity can suggest that they are more powerful than they really are. I conclude that it is because of the effect of the combinatory-sublime, which seems to invest such figures with a larger-than-life "mana."





COMBINATORY-GLORY + DYNAMICITY-POWER= KINGDOM OF THE SUBLIME

...combinatory sublime... a sublime affect brought about by the potentially dazzling array of "changing forms"-- COMBINATORY CONSIDERATIONS.

In the case of religious myth-figures, some sort of extra-human power would seem to be implied in the very idea of religion.  Mircea Eliade once commented that the hierophany (manifestation of a god) was always also a kratophany (manifestation of power), be it the strength of Heracles, the ability of Aphrodite to make mortals fall in love, or even the power to become a holy sacrifice, as with Dionysus in his form of Zagreus.  Folklore proper, perhaps because it often stems from oral and/or rural roots, tends to deal more with clever if powerless trickster-heroes as well as types who possess superior power: types like the "Jack" of beanstalk-fame would seem to outnumber types like the German "Strong Hans."-- THE UBERMENSCH AND THE PRINTING PRESS.

In the second quote, I noted that "extra-human power" was a fundamental aspect of religious myth-figures. But I do not find it to be so fundamental in the form usually called the "folktale."

In this essay I commented on the distribution of the levels of dynamicity between three tales from the collection of the Brothers Grimm. The last-analyzed tale, "The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was," sports the protagonist with the greatest dynamicity, in that he overcomes threats almost as powerful as himself, so that the tale also sports the greatest potential for the "dynamic-sublime."  The tale "Hansel and Gretel" deals with protagonists who have no spectacular dynamicity themselves, but who do overcome a menace of such high dynamicity, an evil cannibal-witch.  And "The Bremen Town Musicians" deals with only a functional level of dynamicity, as a group of intelligent animals take over a house from a gang of easily routed thieves.

Having rated these stories in terms of their potential for the dynamic-sublime, do they show the same dispersion with regard to the combinatory-sublime, a response to the "dazzling array of changing forms?"

As I noted in the last essay, not all works in the marvelous phenomenality are equally able to inspire the affect of the combinatory-sublime.  Though the protagonist in the "Youth" story encounters more menaces than Hansel and Gretel do, it might be argued that none of the young hero's menaces inspire a sublime affect equal to the primary menace presented in "Hansel and Gretel," that of a cottage of candy which conceals a cannibal witch: a crone who makes an appeal to the hunger of lost children in order to satisfy her own hunger on their flesh.  Certainly "Hansel and Gretel" has a fair greater popularity than "Youth," though this in itself does not demonstrate greater mythicity.

However, "Musicians" is still on the bottom level with respect to mythicity as it is in terms of dynamicity, and this returns me to the point I made at the outset.  The only marvelous element of the story is that the animals are intelligent and can communicate with one another, though as I recall not with human beings.  This seems to be the only marvelous element one can finds in most such animal-fables, like those for which Aesop became famous, and in general, as Tolkien observed in a different context, this form doesn't usually engender much in the way of the "sense of wonder." Further, though today Aesop's oeuvre is strongly associated with animal-fables, that oeuvre also includes joke-tales of a wholly naturalistic nature:


The joke involves a woman who asks a surgeon (in this case) to cure her from approaching blindness on the understanding that he would not be paid until she was cured. The surgeon applied salves but stole from the house anything moveable during the course of his visits. Once the cure was completed, the woman refused him payment on the grounds that now her sight was worse than ever, since she could not see any of her household effects.-- "The Old Woman and the Doctor."

So the folktale, unlike the religious myth, is able to be as marvelous both with or without involving "extra-human power," or simply naturalistic, or arguably uncanny, as in the case of the most well-known version of the Bluebeard tale

All of these observations are pertinent as proofs of my argument that the "two sublimities" are essentially independent of one another's operations, though those operations can become intricately intertangled, as I'll note in my next essay.