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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...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


In SEITZ WARNING I goggled at Matt Zoller Seitz's notion that future superhero films should model themselves after the "spectrum of moods and modes" represented by a certain pop-cultural manifestation:

The ZOMBIE film?

Not the horror genre as a whole? Not even some genre that more closely resembles the superhero flick's emphasis on heroic violence, like the western, but--

The ZOMBIE film? That's what he thinks has "poetry" and "soul?

Though in that essay I didn't pursue parallels between the western and superhero genres, I will do so now in order to talk about how the idea of standards both "high" and "low" can come to alternate within a given culturally-accepted genre.

In this essay I asserted:

Before [Owen] Wister, the subject matter of cowboy adventures was mostly known through dime novels which played to an audience much like that of later pulps and comic books: to juveniles and to (occasionally) adults whose tastes were considerably less than literary. But Wister's novel took that subject matter and raised it to a new level that might have been juvenile in tone but was adult in the concerns it addressed.

In this essay, then, I demonstrated that early "Ned Buntline" westerns were "juvenile pulp" and thus paralleled the content of most early action-adventure comic books, while Owen Wister's VIRGINIAN was aimed more tellingly at an adult audience that desired "adult pulp." The same division according to adult and juvenile appeal can be just as easily observed in the western genre's cinematic history.

I confess I've seen very few of the extant silent westerns, but from online histories it seems demonstrable that a lot of early "oaters," such as those starring Tom Mix, were essentially aimed at an uncritical juvenile audience. In contrast, summations of 1916's HELL'S HINGES seem to evince a headier, more maturely-rigorous view of life than one would find in Tom Mix, even if most of the generic
expectations are still satisfied. HELL'S HINGES even duplicates the basic "gunfighter/schoolmarm" opposition formulated by Wister's VIRGINIAN, itself first transferred to film two years before.

With the coming of sound to the cinema, "adult pulp" westerns seem to have faded from view to a great extent, and the genre seemed dominated for most of the 30's decade by juvenile oaters essayed by Buck Jones, Roy Rogers, and a very young John Wayne. But 1939 seems to have broken the spell and ushered in several major pictures of comparative adult sensibility: Henry King's JESSE JAMES, Michael Curtiz's DODGE CITY, Cecil B. deMille's UNION PACIFIC and both STAGECOACH and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (sort of an "Eastern western") from John Ford. All of these I regard as "adult pulp" in contradistinction to more consciously "arty" cinematic works of the time, though not all address the issues of "heroic violence" in quite the same way.

Backtracking a bit, what I find most objectionable in Seitz's careless essay is that in his quest for emotional "moods and modes" he says nothing about how superhero films should achieve this while still satisfying the audience's dominant expectations, one of which is that superhero films will offer them the pleasures of spectacular violence. The history of the western, however, does offer some clues.

First off, saying that all of the 1939 westerns above qualify as "adult pulp" does not mean that they all used identical narrative mythoi. For instance, take DODGE CITY and STAGECOACH.

Curtiz's DODGE CITY is a story of adventure, in which noble sheriff Wade Haddon (Errol Flynn) is challenged to "clean up" Dodge or get the hell out by its ruthless
outlaw boss (Bruce Cabot). There isn't a great deal of time spent expounding on motives or personal conflicts, though in keeping with the film's appeal to an older audience it does present a more well-rounded picture of life than a Roy Rogers film. From what I can gather the film may best be known for sporting one of the best-executed saloon-brawls in cinematic history.

Ford's STAGECOACH falls within the mythos of drama, though some critics may choose to view it as more of a "melodrama." The elements of violence and physical danger

are no less present than in DODGE CITY , as the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) protects an assortment of stagecoach-travelers from marauding Indians. But here, concerns of interpersonal interaction between the travelers take precedence over the action set-pieces.

As a pluralist I don't esteem dramatic adult pulp for being any better than adventurous adult pulp: the two are oriented at doing different things and each does its job quite admirably. I contrast these films to show that it was (and still is) possible for a genre which emphasized heroic violence, and which was once considered dominantly juvenile in tone, to become accepted by an adult audience without sacrificing the pulpier aspects of said genre.

I've already given examples of exemplary superhero-genre films within each of the four Fryean mythoi that have evinced higher standards than Matt Zoller Seitz allows that they have. Perhaps neither WATCHMEN nor SPIDER MAN 2 have won approval with Seitz himself, but I think he would be hard pressed to claim that the two films lack *ANY* of the "standards" he advocates. But the two are as instructive as paradigms for the future of superhero films as the Curtiz and Ford films have been for the history of westerns, and anyone interested in the aforesaid future would be well advised to give them at least as much attention as one gives to ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE.

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