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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Maybe the fault lies in David Bordwell's own expectations, rather than in the films that he says made him bored and depressed.

Now I can think of any number of failings that I could mention (and have mentioned in one case) in two of the summer's big superhero flicks, IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT. But it's hard for me to imagine someone who was open to the "superhero experience" being bored with BOTH of these works. I mean, if you don't like a light, humorous take on superheroes or a dark, theoretically-weighty take either, then there's not a whole lot left. It's like saying you can't stand light humor or "black comedy" either: it doesn't fill one with a lot of confidence as to your take on comic matters.

(At the conclusion of the essay Bordwell notes, "Comics aficionados may object that I am obviously against comics as a whole. True, I have little interest in superhero comic books..." No, Mr. Bordwell, I don't think any comics-fan would label you against comics as a medium because you don't have a taste for superheroes. Most contemporary comics-fans, even those who are heavily invested in superheroes, are pretty hep to the notion that there can exist fans who like the medium but not the superhero genre. We've had a little thing called THE COMICS JOURNAL hanging around for some thirty years to remind everyone of the distinction.)

The supposed failings of the two films doesn't occupy much space in Bordwell's essay, the bulk of it devoted rather to the question: "Why comic-book superhero movies now?"

To this end Bordwell ruminates on a wide variety of possible reasons that led to this cinematic upsurge of super-doers. None of them are precisely wrong-- and all of them are better than the "zeitgeist" explanation which Bordwell and I both oppose. But it seems to me that Bordwell fails to see the forest for the trees: fails to see how the upsurge in superheroes stands in continuity with the more general renaissance of fantastic adventure-heroes generally. For instance, Bordwell talks about how STAR WARS revolutionized the FX resources available to makers of things cinematic, but says nothing about the widespread audience acceptance of both the genre and its type of hero-- which would have been aimed largely at juvenile crowds in earlier years-- paved the way for a greater acceptance of the heroes who wore their underwear on the outside of their suits.

Here's an example of some more tree-only vision:

"During the 1990s, less famous superheroes filled in as the Batman franchise tailed off. Examples were The Rocketeer (1991), Timecop (1994), The Crow (1994) and The Crow: City of Angels (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Men in Black (1997), Spawn (1997), Blade (1998), and Mystery Men (1999). Most of these managed to fuse their appeals with those of another parvenu genre, the kinetic action-adventure movie."

Now, Bordwell doesn't define "the kinetic action-adventure movie," but since he calls it a "parvenu" I'll assume that he's not dealing with all adventure films stretching back to the original BEN HUR, but to a specific subgroup action-films that emphasize kinetic action over drama. He doesn't pin down the beginnings of this alternative mode, though he does assert that the crime film, among others, took on greater prominence in the 1970s:

"As the Western and the musical fell in the 1970s, the urban crime film, horror, and science-fiction rose. For a long time, it would be unthinkable for an A-list director to do a horror or science-fiction movie, but that changed after Polanski, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, et al. gave those genres a fresh luster just by their participation."

This jibes with my own opinion (and incidentally, Pauline Kael's) that one of the key films that effected this reshuffling of genre-privileges was Don Siegel's 1971 DIRTY HARRY. Certainly DH has a more "kinetic" visual style than a roughly-similar crime film from 1968, Gordon Douglas' THE DETECTIVE. So I have no argument that there is a distinct action-adventure mode like unto the one Bordwell describes. However, it's not enough (for me, at least) to say that the "appeals" of the two subgenres were somehow "fused." What we see, taking the "forest" view, is most forms of the action-adventure film began to move toward wilder and more outlandish scenarios which some critics of the 1970s would surely not hesitate to call "comic book-y" (meaning, of course, that they were like superhero comics, not like CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST). The makers of the action-adventure films moved toward the outlandish for the same reason the makers of superhero films did: wild action and spectacle sold tickets. Thus it may not be coincidence that six years after DIRTY HARRY, the space-opera came into its own with STAR WARS, which I would say had more long-term influence on the eventual renaissance of filmic superheroes than Bordwell's example of THE MATRIX.

Thus, our differences as to the influence jazz. And I guess that given Bordwell's disinterest in superheroes light and dark, I'm not really surprised that these films bored him. But I'm not sure why they "depressed" him, though I presume that it has to do with "the shift from an auteur cinema to a genre cinema"-- more on which later.


Charles R. said...

Actually, Bordwell's a fan of genre movies. He wrote a prominent book on HK genre cinema, for example.

Charles R. said...


And, of course, many auteurs have worked within genre cinema. In fact, auteur theory was a defense of genre cinema. I suspect you might mean art cinema, but there's never been a vast culture wide shift from art cinema to commercial cinema for Bordwell to get suddenly upset about. So I'm not sure what you mean. Ah well. Take it easy.

Gene Phillips said...

My impression from the "superheroes for sale" piece (as well as one or two other things I scanned on DB's site) is that he's a fan of CERTAIN genre movies, and the fact that he wrote a book on HK genres proves that as well, but nothing more. He noted in his addendum that he never got into superheroes, which is fine as a statement of personal taste, but I wonder if it doesn't hamper him in the interpretation of that genre. Indeed, while as I said I don't believe in the "zeitgeist" explanation as an explanation for superheroes becoming popular withe the cinema's mass audience, I don't think Bordwell substituted any better ideas. His essay devoted a lot of space to improvements in FX technology w/o precisely saying that that was the cause of the upsurge. I take the position that the mass audience has always liked spectacle and that the current (by no means permanent) liking for superhero films is *helped* by the improved FX that allows costumed characters to look as spiffy as they do on the comics-page. So IF he was saying that improved FX was the main cause, I'd say that's stating that the tail wags the dog.

Auteur theory began as a critical approach for dealing with directors of obvious excellence who chose to work within some genre that wasn't ordinarily considered "tony" enough to be worthy of artistic criticism. Hitchcock is certainly a prototypical example. One can argue that Hitch's thrillers aren't really any MORE generic than whatever "serious dramas" that the first waves of film-critics might have considered worth their attention, but certainly thrillers were a less *reputable* genre than "serious drama," be it HAMLET or WATCH ON THE RHINE.

Bordwell's the one who's claiming that auteur cinema has shifted into genre cinema, as well as claiming that the proponents of genre cinema today lack the auteurist characteristics of earlier periods (he doesn't specify). His argument touched on the notion that in early years quality directors were able to encode their personal visions into genre fare, and he apparently doesn't think that's very common anymore, hence his "shift." I dunno. For every Hawks or Hitchcock in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it seems that there were any number of Lloyd Bacons who were no better or worse than Favreau or the guy on the FANTASTIC FOUR flicks. I guess maybe he was "depressed" because he didn't think there were any auteur-directors out there these days, but if so he didn't make that very clear.