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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, March 24, 2012


In Part 1 I formulated the concepts of "tonal levity," which governs the dynamizations of comedy and irony, and of "tonal gravity," which governs the dynamizations of drama and adventure.  The main focus of both principles is the congruity, or lack of congruity, between the interests of the fictional narrative's protagonists and those of the viewing/listening audience:

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment seems entirely congruous with the "interests" that the fictional characters have in their own fictional lives, are governed by the principle of *tonal gravity,* in that the reader feels himself "drawn down" into the characters' interests.

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment becomes at odds with the "interests" of the fictional characters are governed by the principle of *tonal levity,* in that the reader "floats free" of that investment and is moved away from "concern and sympathy" and toward a humorous or at least distanced response.
Though I also provided a brief comparison between two SF-works, using one (PLANET OF THE APES) as an example of tonal levity, and another (STAR WARS) as an example of tonal gravity, I didn't address the original problem: why does it seem, in an intersubjective sense, that sublimity/"the sense of wonder" is more often perceived in works of tonal gravity than in works of tonal levity.

Kant suggests a starting-point in his defintion of the sublime.  For Kant, the only way a subject can experience the aspect of the sublime is if, while observing the might and magnificence of a given phenomenon (for Kant, natural wonders), the subject can feel safe enough from natural disaster to contemplate the phenomenon.  Though Kant does not clearly locate the sublime in art, as Burke and Schopenhauer do, this "position of safety" does resemble that of the invested audience-member, who is "drawn down" into investment in the interests of the characters.  Thus the viewer of Kant's sublime takes the threat of the phenomenon "seriously," in that he can imagine being caught up in it even though he is reasonably safe from that peril.  This suggests that in order to experience the sublime a sense of "gravity" is necessary.

The mode of "levity," however, convinces the subject that he is essentially independent of the world of grave consequences.  In this mood the Kantian paradigm of the subject faced with awesome natural phenomenon takes a different course: feeling himself safe, this subject laughs at the inability of natural forces to touch him.  In fictional narrative, the audience-subject may read about any number of perils to the lives of comic or ironic characters.  But the audience-member has learned not to invest too much interest in these types of characters.  The comic ones will usually be saved by fortunate fate; the ironic ones are doomed from the start.  In adventure and drama, there is generally more emphasis upon what Frye calls the characters' "power of action," which I'll be exploring more thoroughly in Part 3.

While STAR WARS and PLANET OF THE APES are adequate broad examples of my concepts, a narrower application can be seen using works that involve similar subject matter.

I would not claim that there are no attempts to conjure forth the "sense of wonder" in the 1968 film PLANET OF THE APES.  As I note in my review, roughly half an hour ensues before the film's protagonists-- a group of Earth-astronauts, who will soon be whittled down to just one protagonist named Taylor-- encounter the society of the apes. 

There is a strong, if possibly negative, "sense of wonder" attached to seeing humanoid apes usurp all the functions of mankind, including treating human beings as if they were mere "dumb animals." I myself, on a recent viewing, almost judged the film a "drama" in my initial review (the correction appears in the essay), until I realized that Taylor's "power of action" is not commensurate with that of the majority of dramatic protagonists, nor did the plot allow for what Aristotle termed the "reversal" that takes one from good to bad or from bad to good.  Taylor allows himself to hope that his situation may improve, but when that hope is cruelly crushed by the film's final revelation, the only "reversal" is one of "from bad to worse."  The film's scenes of social satire, though I found them overly long, are nevertheless vital to seeing that the world of the APES is one which Northrop Frye calls a "demonic epiphany"-- particularly of the type where one sees that "the goal of the quest isn't there." 

Contrast this film to KAMANDI, the popular Jack Kirby comic book which took its inspiration, however indirectly, from the APES films.

Kirby's work was of course conceived to be an ongoing serial from the beginning, while PLANET OF THE APES only begat sequels once the initial film-- potentially a stand-alone work-- proved successful.  However, though Kirby occasionally includes moments of loony comedy or even existential despair in the adventures of the "Last Boy on Earth," the cumulative emphasis is principally upon hot-blooded adventure, as with the combat-scene shown above.  Taylor and Kamandi, both of whom are tough human beings with no fantastic powers or weapons, are identical in terms of their *physical* power of action, but not in terms of their *thematic* power of action.  Because the audience-subject can potentially invest himself in the myriad adventures of Kamandi without reserve, Kamandi's world-- where assorted other humanoid animals have joined apes in usurping man's birthright-- is a place of endless wonder, and therefore, an uncompromised vision of sublimity.

The mythos of the comedy invokes tonal levity after a different fashion, and for a different purpose, though one might assert that it ends up with the same basic "unserious" affect of the irony.  For an example of this mythos, I turn from an "animal society" to an "Amazon society," largely because I have already discussed the appearance of sublimity in a review of this comically-themed film.

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES, which is by no means as well known as the previous two examples for irony and adventure respectively, neverthless illustrates my point as to how the effect of sublimity can be present and yet be defused by the devices of tonal levity.

In my review of INVASION, I didn't prize its actual humor very highly, but I noted that the script did have some "insights" into what made the more serious versions of its SF-tropes successful.  The story's main conflict takes place between two foolish protagonists attempting to keep two representatives of an alien, Amazon-like society from conquering Earth.  I appreciated the fact that these "space Amazons" were something of a reversal of the normal depiction of such types in "serious" SF films of the time:

The space amazons are, in essence, the element of Haze’s script that most pushes the crude humor from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sci-fi cinema of the 1950s sports a fair number of stories about alien worlds ruled by women, as seen in 1954’s CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1958’s QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE. In these films the females possess technology superior to that of Earth, but their feminine emotions make them vulnerable to the charms of hunky Earthmen. INVASION follows this basic pattern, but Tanga and Puna are scientists who are far more intelligent than any Earth-denizen in the story, rather than simply inheriting technology from their culture. Their ability to loom over the short soldiers is of course exploited for sex appeal—lots of shots of Philbrick looking straight up into Puna’s cleavage—but it also allows an interesting reversal, in that Puna and Tanga can and do frequently push or knock the two males about with impunity.

I also had some praise for the fact that the scripter actually devoted a little thought as to how the aliens' society functioned, at least enough thought that it could've passed for the average space-opera tale.  However, though the film makes no bones about the fact that the Amazons are both physically and intellectually superior to the dim-witted Earthmen, any "sense of wonder" one might have toward the Amazons-- that is, "wonder" apart from your basic lust-- is squelched by the way the two schmuck-heroes triumph by sheer dumb luck: that "fortunate fate" I mentioned earlier.  One shot of the Amazons' reduced status by picture's end probably captures best the levity-stratagems involved here:

To complete this comparison, I'll choose one of the "serious" films that may have served as the inspiration to INVASION.  Admittedly CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON is given such a cheapjack and clumsy presentation that many viewers have probably enjoyed it less as a drama than an unintentional comedy:

Nevertheless, the basic theme of a female society seeking to subvert male-dominated Earth society is played essentially straight, in keeping with this description from the site MONSTER SHACK:

 A popular film genre during the 1950′s and 1960′s was the "Amazon" film. The plot typically revolves around a group of men who discover a secluded society of women who have no apparent need of men. The "Amazon" society is often ruled by a dictatorial "Queen" with the power of life and death over her subjects, yet despite this overbearing totalitarian government, the women somehow consider themselves to be more "advanced" than the "primitive" culture of "men". Due to the fact that they are cut off from the opposite sex, Amazons usually have underdeveloped or nonexistent emotions, often with no idea what "love" means. The dashing men swoop into the Amazon society (usually taken prisoner in the process) and are typically sentenced to death by the jealous and possessive "Queen". At the last moment, one or more of the Amazon women fall in love with the men and betray their society in an effort to save their new found "mates". The Amazon Queen almost always die in the end (at the hands of the men), thus releasing her followers from their draconian existence and giving them the freedom to feel love and emotion for the first time.

While this summation can't help but sound risible, the theme of male-dominated society-- represented by stalwart Earth-astronauts voyaging to the moon-- versus the insidious persuasive power of the alien "cat women"-- is one in which a viewer *could* be seriously invested, if the film was not handicapped in terms of its presentation.  The scene above shows Helen, the one female astronaut (Marie Windsor), being mesmerized to join the society of the Cat Women, who wish her to betray the men in the moon-expedition.  Significantly, the only way that the hero can break the spell on Helen is with good old masculine force:

Doug rushes back and tells Kip what the Cat-Women are up to. Kip, of course, is already aware of the plans from his previous chat with Helen, but it suddenly hits him that Helen is back under the Cat-Women’s control, and is getting information from Laird in the other room. (Alpha is then receiving what Laird says about the ship via telepathy.) Kip rushes into the room and finally discovers that if he can cover the moon-symbol on Helen’s hand, she will be freed of the Cat-Women’s mind control. (Are you following all this?)

Kip forcefully grabs her hand and covers the moon mark, breaking the spell.
As the review covers in greater depth, this display of force also awakens Helen to her love for Kip, which in theory is supposed to arouse the identificatory responses in the audience, since the film encourages audiences to want to see the characters together.  The defeat of the Cat Women depends less on full-fledged heroic activity than any roughly comparable situation in KAMANDI, so this is a lower level of the "power of action," one more befitting the label of "drama."  Nevertheless, Commander Kip and his buddies are not, like Penn and Philbrick of INVASION, depending on dumb luck to save their bacon.

Further, though the film botches the poetic resonance inherent in the title, it's certainly feasible that the basic association of "cats," "women," and Earth's lunar satellite could be conveyed so that the film succeeded in conjuring the sense-of-wonder.  And 1950s cinema is replete with more than a few examples where this sort of "feminine sublimity" was successfully conjured.  CAT WOMEN is, sadly, the closest thing the period offers to a "serious" take on alien Amazons. 

In conclusion, the basic effect of the comic or ironic strategies characteristic of tonal levity-works is that they defuse the "gravity" of the potentially sublime phenomenon, so that the audience-subject is no longer fully invested in it. Without full investment, the subject rises above the sense of grave consequence, and in the safety of being on the other side of the page, or screen, he can laugh-- whether heartily or bitterly-- at the storm's fury.

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