Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, September 17, 2010


It's a little simpler to prepare a parallel comparison of coherent and incoherent discursive symbolism than was the case with last essay's comparison. Within the sphere of the sphere of literature the first of the two, coherent discursive symbolism, is virtually identical with what literary studies commonly call "verisimilitude."

Even in works dominated by the aesthetic of "thematic escapism," some verisimilitude is always necessary, though individual readers will vary on just how much they desire. Total verisimilitude after the ideal of Emile Zola would make any thematically-escapist work untenable, so what devotees of escapist fiction really desire (no matter what they may say) is verisimilitude in the service of enhancing escapism. In addition, serial works in particular tend to favor at least the superficial appearance of regularity and coherence. Thus it's not surprising that the BATMAN feature, after its first year of wild-and-woolly pulp-style adventures, quickly took on a more settled appearance, and began to emphasize the hero's abilities in the department of ratiocinative crimefighting, though the feature never entirely gravitated away from the more visceral type of dynamization.

But what about the opposite form of discursive symbolism? Is it possible to do with discursive symbolism what filmmakers Fragasso and Drudi did (in my estimation) with their execution of TROLL 2?

...Drudi and her director-collaborator Claudio Fragasso DON'T manage to arrange their sensational concepts into any kind of order, and what one gets is pure pandemonium.

Is it possible to be overly concerned with verisimilitude, to overthink things so that they lead to another form of pandemonium? I believe so, and it can be demonstrated using the same sort of parallel comparison.

In Part 3 of this series I used two distinct episodes of the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries as illustrations of my notions of coherent and incoherent presentationalism respectively. As one might guess from the reference to Batman above, I'll continue to use the Caped Crusader for the examples of discursive symbolism as well, but the 1960s teleseries is largely useless for discussions of discursive symbolism. So I'll draw from two BATMAN films by different creators to show how they treat the same realistic motif-- that of consistent character motivation-- in their respective works. And since the first comparison treated a Joker episode and a Mister Freeze episode, I may as well keep symmetry with respect to the chosen films as well.

The direct-to-video animated film BATMAN AND MR. FREEZE: SUB-ZERO is, like most of the Batman works that proceeded from Warner Brothers Animation in the 1990s, far better than any of the live-action films at balancing the aforementioned elements of the Batman comic series: leavening wild pulp fantasy with attention to realistic detail. Admittedly, this DTV film follows in the footsteps of Warner's BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, where the animators originally refashioned the gimmicky comic-book character of Mister Freeze into a villain with a more humanistic motivation: that of being monomanically obsessed with reviving his cryogenically-frozen wife. His obsession is not far from Batman's own devotion to crimefighting, though the difference between hero and villain is clearly delineated: Freeze will do anything to achieve his goals, while Batman will not. Freeze's bizarre ice-ray thus becomes the objective correlate of his own frozen affect, suggested by his monotone speech. SUB-ZERO, written and directed by Boyd Kirkland, not only continues the characterization established in the television series, but also brings Freeze closest to murdering an innocent to save his beloved wife. He only fails because of Batman's intervention, but the story's ending allows Freeze closure in that his wife is revived but he must remain separated from her, allowing him to evince a contented smile for the first time.

In contrast to this understated use of characterization to symbolize a flawed character's progress, we have a "Joker episode" in the form of Christopher Nolan's overrated THE DARK KNIGHT, which I reviewed here as being rife with "sloppy, overblown scenes." In that essay I critiqued Nolan for his lack of deference to the rules of "probability"-- a subset of the aforementioned verisimilitude-- but I didn't take note of the fact that most of these lapses came about because Nolan was so concerned with forcing the Caped Crusader into a narrative of overdetermined and incoherent discursiveness.

In my mini-review I did call attention to the "motif of renunciation" that had brought about some of the narrative improbabilities. However, I didn't observe the fine point that Nolan wasn't simply setting verisimilitude aside, the way presentational types ranging from Avery to Fragasso might do. Rather, his improbabilities are generated thanks to a sort of "super-verisimilitude" that does not really allow for the validity of its own title character.

It's because Batman is fundamentally unreal to Nolan, that Nolan feels that Bruce Wayne ought to be willing to disavow his mission at the drop of a district attorney's by-your-leave.

It's because Batman is not real to Nolan that one minute the hero drives his Batcycle straight at the Joker, apparently intending to run the villain over, and in the next minute the hero crashes his bike to avoid killing the heinous villain, apparently (though we never know) out of some last-minute squeamishness against killing.

And it's because the Joker's multiple homicides are not real to Nolan that Lucius Fox, on being apprised that Batman may be able to find Joker through the use of a super-wiretapping system, is more concerned with the system's potential for abuse than for its potential to end the Joker's reign of terror.

Nolan's Joker, though figured in the script as a devotee of pure chaos who exists outside the realm of credible human motivation, comes to seem more like an avatar of the writer-director's own attitude toward the Batman concept. In contemporary comics Batman and Joker are often figured as incarnations of a forbidding order and and a strangely-attractive chaos, but Nolan has no interest in the "order" championed by the superhero genre. Yet as DARK KNIGHT was an official Warner/DC production, it had to pay at least lip service to the seriousness of the Batman myth. The satires of this myth by comics-artists like Kurtzman and Feiffer have often been superficial, but they have the virtue of greater honesty.

All that is real to Nolan is his "myth of renunciation," which is founded in his imposition of overly-realistic strictures upon an escapist concept. To be sure, many fans of fantasy-fiction liked DARK KNIGHT, so the pandemonium Nolan created was not viewed ironically, in the way trash-film fans came to esteem TROLL 2. But there has always been a tendency within fantasy-fandom to feel guilty about their pleasures, to emulate a Puritan animus toward freewheeling fantasy. Something of the same pattern is evinced in a number of profitable comics-creations, such as Marvel's ULTIMATES line, whose rationale takes light-hearted juvenile concepts like the Avengers and converts them into "realistic" paramilitary organizations. This pattern too suggests a certain discursive symbolism at work, though at a lower intellectual level than one sees in Nolan's film.

Having schematized my two types of coherence and incoherence with examples in both the discursive and presentational modes, I can come back to the matter of Proppian story-function. I mentioned this at the conclusion of Part 1, but I realized that I needed to outline this schema first.

After this, things get really complicated.

No comments: