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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Thursday, January 31, 2013

E.C.? P.C.!-- PART 4

If I got nothing else out of Gary Groth's EC essay over at the Journal site, at least I lived to read Groth pen these words:

I should mention here the obvious, which is that there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes literary values.

 
In few if any of Groth's essays and reviews does he ever admit this lack of consensus.  Time and time again, regarding of what verdict Groth renders, he stresses the "argument from taste:" that persons of good taste are as a united front against the maundering hordes of the subliterate.  Certainly there's no doubt in his mind in the quote I cited here.  Art is art and the Punisher is junk and never the twain shall meet. 

The second most interesting thing about the Groth essay is that though it was written, at least in part, as a response to Christ Mautner's negative review, Groth does not address Mautner's assertion that some if not all of the EC works referenced were "melodramas."  Since I noted here that this is an important part of Mautner's review, this omission begs speculation.

Groth does mention the concept of melodrama in passing:


There was certainly drama of a sort in strips like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo, but it was the graphic element of the strips that propelled them into the first rank. There was melodrama in such strips as Rex Morgan, Mary Perkins, and Mark Trail (and probably others I don’t care to think about), but these were hokey, dull, tepid soap operas. There were adventure strips — Flash Gordon, Captain Easy, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates — but these, too, were not first and foremost drama (with the possible exception of Valiant) so much as melodrama within adventure, sci-fi, or fantasy trappings where the latter were just as important as the former.

But EC attempted to do straight drama in comics form, undiluted by comedy or slapstick or adventure trappings. True, most of EC’s dramatic stories were bound within genres — crime and suspense and science fiction — but they played it as straight as they could within those — and their readership’s — limitations. The preachies were the most naturalistic, many unrelentingly grim and tough-minded, such as “…So Shall Ye Reap” and “In Gratitude.”
 
I won't get excessively picky about Groth's use of the term "melodrama" as an ingredient rather than a form, though I'll note that I would consider most soap-opera serials to be the purest incarnation of melodrama in the annals of genre-literature. I agree with Mautner that many of the EC stories reprinted are melodramas in terms of form-- while disagreeing with him that melodrama is something implicitly bad.  But I don't know whether or not Groth agrees that some of the EC stories are melodramas.  He does admit that they have flaws:



To bring us back to the original question of where EC resides in the history of comics: As I said, EC’s flaws are pretty obvious: Even when the artists were striving for greater seriousness than the ironic gore of the horror stories or the outrageous early sci-fi plots or even the clever but predictable crime and suspense stories, the writing was often overwrought, prolix, and ham-fisted, and the artists were straightjacketed by EC’s rigid visual grid (which Kurtzman and Craig avoided by writing their own stories, and Krigstein rebelled against time and time again).
 
 But flaws have nothing to do with the essence of melodrama; one can find flaws in any number of serious canonical authors.  To repeat what I wrote before:


Wikipedia defines melodrama as "a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions." In my book that means that a melodrama is all about jazzing up the audience with hyper-emotional effects, not about making an appeal via the relative subtlety of so-called "serious drama."
 
I return to Groth's attempt to give EC Comics precedence as an innovator in terms of bringing the ethos (my word) of drama to the comic-book medium:


But EC attempted to do straight drama in comics form, undiluted by comedy or slapstick or adventure trappings.
 
The problem with this statement is that before one can sing hosannas to EC for its innovation, one must define on some terms what "drama" is in its "straight" form.  Preferably, too, since Groth so often dismisses earlier attempts at drama (or melodrama) because they have been "leavened" by other elements, a definition of "melodrama" would also be preferable in a paragraph like this (which precedes the long quote above):



Next, portraying drama in comics form had never been one of the form’s fortes. In fact, it had almost never been done successfully. The best newspaper strips over the first half of the century — Moon Mullins, Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google, Popeye, the Gumps, Skippy, Mickey Mouse, et al. — always couched their drama in comedic terms (usually a mélange of slapstick, vaudeville, and gags) that also, miraculously, reflected a dimension of (usually) lower or middle-class life as most urban Americans experienced it. Slapstick + kitchen-sink drama. There were only three significant exceptions that I can think of — Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Gasoline Alley, two of which were couched in adventure terms, and all of which had humorous elements to leaven the drama or make it palatable to what the newspaper editors or artists thought was their audience.
 
If I were to attempt a sweeping defintion of both terms, I would probably pursue something in the vein of the "subtlety/exaggeration" dichotomy.  Nevertheless, I would not consider GASOLINE ALLEY less of a melodrama because it has humor in it, any more than I would consider SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES to be "straight" drama even if all of the stories were devoid of humor (which they are not).

It's certainly Mr. Groth's prerogative to formulate a definition with which I disagree, be it based on a "purity test" or whatever.  What I find onerous is that Groth does not define his terms at all, being content to take refuge in his overarching view of historical development.  To be sure, his essay is a decent comics-history lesson, even if it's informed by his desire to submit a reason why EC Comics are important to every comics-fan's library.  But if he's going to speak of strips that have "couched their drama in comedic terms," it seems logical for him to define what there is about drama that is not comedic, or what a "pure melodrama" would look like as opposed to his impure examples of MARY PERKINS or FLASH GORDON.

Only once does Groth offer, albeit briefly, a literary POV from a resepected critic that might allow for some leeway in artistic evaluation-- a leeway Groth only rarely admits in other essays:


As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that looking for literary values in comic books from their inception in the ’30s through at least the ’70s and ’80s is a pretty fruitless task. This leads us straight into the territory of Manny Farber’s elephant art vs. termite art, but, put succinctly, there are a lot of fascinatingly recondite or rarefied or compartmentalized aesthetic virtues to be found in commercial comic books, none of which should be dismissed out of hand, but in terms of fully realized literary works — or oeuvres — very few.  
I should mention here the obvious, which is that there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes literary values. My dear friend, Don Phelps, who is on the side of termite art, has argued persuasively that strips like Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Popeye are examples of literary visual art.
 
But as he says, this is just an aside, after which Groth proceeds to take issue with Mautner's review and to cite the handful of EC works that for him "represent genuine artistic or literary achievement." 

Gary Groth admits that he doesn't intend to define art in this essay, which is entirely appropriate given his concerns:

What constitutes “literary” values won’t be disposed of in this paragraph, but maybe we can agree that form and content have to be successfully married to create something of human relevance, depth, and substance, or otherwise offer the play of pure aesthetic pleasure.

This is certainly an adept statement of Groth's own personal taste, but as a formal statement of principles, it's useless.  The statement does seem to be a very "drama-centric" definition in its first part, though the second part offers an "out" for works of canonical art (or would-be canonical art) that don't address issues of "relevance" or "substance" in what I've called a discursive mode.

Having found Groth's formulation flawed, the question becomes: can I do better?

Stay Tuned For the Absolute Best Definition of Art Ever.
 









Tuesday, January 29, 2013

E.C.? P.C.!-- PART 3




This essay-series began in reaction to Gary Groth's statements on behalf of Fantagraphics' republication of certain stories from the EC Comics oeuvre.  I've already addressed Groth's peculiar remarks on William Gaines' "generosity" in Part 1.  But before I can address Groth's more recent 1-23-13 essay on the Comics Journal site, I have to address the review that sparked them; Chris Mautner's 10-20-12 review of the first two Fantagraphics EC-reprints.

In keeping with my title, I find Mautner's reaction informed by a certain degree of political correctness.  It's fairly minor in comparison with the idiocies one can find in the essays of Chicken Colin, critiqued here and here.  Unlike Chicken Colin, Mautner never stoops to producing a Barthesian reversal of the work's textual meaning. 

What I would critique in Mautner's review is the conflation of contemporary political priorities with what Mautner calls "aesthetic value." 

The first substantial critique appears following a plaudit for Kurtzman's "Corpse on the Imjim":

...Air Raid!, Kill! and Big If! all hold up rather well, despite being invested with more than a bit of overwrought melodrama.
 
The sentence is unclear to me.  Are the cited stories being faulted because they contain melodrama? Or is it OK with Mautner if they're melodramatic, as long as the melodrama isn't "overwrought?"  The two are certainly not synonymous.

Gary Groth's essay takes extensive issue with Mautner's next assault, where he finds "jingoism" in certain stories.  Loathe though I am to agree with Groth, I feel that he disposes of these objections so well that I need not cover them.  Apparently the faults of some stories in the "Imjim" volume come down to these two offenses, "melodrama" and "jingoism."

However, Mautner finds the majority of the stories in the companion volume, "Came the Dawn," to be "banal and overwrought."

Mautner's pronouncments on the "Shock Suspenstories" material suggests to me that he's not thrilled with melodrama in general.  He writes:

These reveals would usually be of the stupefying kind one could see coming a mile away that added little to the story . To wit: the anti-Semite accidentally discovers that he was adopted and his biological parents were Jewish! The bigot turns his back on a neighbor of mixed race … only to discover that an African-American had given him a life-saving blood transfusion as a child!
 
I can't make sense of Mautner's criticism about these reveals "adding little to the story." In melodrama such broad effects ARE the essence of any given story.  Wikipedia defines melodrama as "a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions."  In my book that means that a melodrama is all about jazzing up the audience with hyper-emotional effects, not about making an appeal via the relative subtlety of so-called "serious drama."

I'll simply note in passing my disagreement with the politically correct statement that "saintly, martyr-like" ethnic characters are precisely "the flip side of Sambo."  But Mautner's yearnings toward literary probity shine forth most strongly here:

There’s also a sexism and misogyny that runs through Dawn that’s more than a little creepy. The title story deals with a man who stumbles into at first what seems to be a Penthouse Forum fantasy only to become convinced his dream girl is not to be trusted, with — ho hum — deadly consequences. The Assault is even more disconcerting, as it features mob violence (a favorite reoccurring motif for Feldstein) in the service of a seemingly abused teen girl who (of course) turns out to be a conniving slut and seductress. That’s not even mentioning the scenes of women being tied up and whipped by Klu Klux Klan figures not once but twice in Under Cover! and The Whipping. Clearly, these guys have some issues they needed to work out.
 
Again, Mautner doesn't take into account that this alleged misogyny, like that of the exaggerated melodramatic endings, was first and foremost an effect meant to entertain the audience, rather than a revelation of the authors' own personal leanings.  That isn't to say that there's no connection between the two, but Mautner has not taken the care to evaluate the audience EC's creators aspired to captivate, nor the prevalence of those effects in other mainstream entertainment of the period.

In Part 4, we will see that Groth, even in defending the EC raconteurs, will prove if anything even more politically upright (or is that uptight?)



Monday, January 28, 2013

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "LIVE AND LET DIE," PART 1



In 1953's CASINO ROYALE the "non-politics" analyzed here dealt with the conflicts between protagonist James Bond and the double agent Vesper Lynd.

The second novel in the series, 1954's LIVE AND LET DIE, has its sexual aspects, but the emphasis is clearly on the matter of race/ethnicity.  Clearly conflicts between ethnic groups have been some of the most politicized-- if not the most-- in human history.  Can one find a "non-political" aspect to this novel?

One avenue is suggested by the continuity between CASINO and LIVE.  To recount the relevant aspects of the first novel:

Bond is sent to undermine the operations of the Frenchman Le Chiffre, whose expensive casino is a cover for his activities as a paymaster for Soviet spies.  Bond knows that Le Chiffre has been skimming from his masters, so 007 works to undermine the gambler's status further by outgambling the Frenchman at the casino tables.  To recover the money Le Chiffre and his men capture Bond and torture him, in particular by battering his genitals.   Bond is accidentally saved by an agent of SMERSH, who arrives and kills the paymaster and his men.  The assassin has no orders to kill Bond but because he knows Bond is a spy for the other side, he uses a knife to carve a letter into Bond's hand, a Cyrillic letter that identifies Bond as a spy. During Bond's recovery the agent worries about losing the ability to make love, but his (apparent) ally Vesper helps him recover that ability.  However, she commits suicide and reveals in a letter that she was a double agent for the other side, leaving Bond emasculated in an emotive rather than a physical sense.

LIVE AND LET DIE mentions neither Le Chiffre's attack on Bond's body nor Vesper's blow to his heart.  However, as if serving as a displacement for these deeper assaults, the early part of the novel does dwell more than a little on the lesser humiliation of "the mark of the spy" inflicted by the anonymous SMERSH killer.  Despite the fact that the killer's intervention saved Bond's life, Bond nurses a grievance against SMERSH, even though plastic surgery has covered over the identifying mark on Bond's hand.  He hopes M will put him on a "trail of revenge."

Bond's next case does oppose him to the interests of the Soviets, at least. To an extent Fleming recycles one aspect of CASINO. Le Chiffre was responsible for distributing money to Soviet agents, and, on a minor note, Le Chiffre also fomented Communist influence in French unions.  Both of these elements become far more important in LIVE.  Bond's opponent "Mister Big" controls a majority of the Negro workers in New York, making him far more of a player in regard to undermining the loyalties of the American underclass-- not that Fleming aspires to any deep analysis of the sociopolitical aspects of the conflict, of course.  In addition to controlling a secret network of subservient minions, Mister Big is also helping funnel money to the Soviet cause by illegally selling gold coins-- acquired from the treasure of the pirate Morgan-- which activity puts Bond on the villain's trail, due to Mister Big's location in the British possession Jamaica.

A Marxist analysis of LIVE AND LET DIE would certainly find fertile ground here.  Fleming barely acknowledges the history of social injustices to black culture, either in America or elsewhere, and instead seizes upon the risible notion that Mister Big maintains power over his acolytes by pretending to be the voodoo death-god Baron Samedi.  I've frequently mocked the extreme oversimplications of many Marxist analyses, but I can hardly deny that in LIVE AND LET DIE Fleming is clearly resorting to the common trope of the "superstitious natives who don't know what's good for them."  In jungle-thrillers ignorant savages are often manipulated by fake witch-doctors.  Mister Big is certainly in that tradition, holding sway over hundreds of minions by pretending to be a voodoo deity-- though with the added fillip of doing so for the furtherance of Communism.

Yet, apart from Fleming's absurd notion of African-Americans of the period being enthralled by voodoo sorcery, Mister Big is a good deal better developed than many white characters, particularly the quickly forgotten Le Chiffre.  If one disincludes the many villains of the aforementioned jungle thrillers, Mister Big may be literature's first "black supervillain," depending on how one defines the term.  His dossier does reveal that he was born in Haiti and is "half Negro and half French," but Fleming does not assert the racial myth seen in many pulp stories, in which "half breed" villains are assumed to possess greater organizational skills because of their "white blood."  Instead, Bond's superior M makes this statement:

"And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all professions-scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal."
 
Some modern critics might find the statement condescending.  In contrast I regard it as proof that Fleming, however much he subscribed to some racial myths, saw no reason why the condition of being a "Negro" should keep one from being a "genius," even a genius of crime.

I'll deal more fully with Mister Big's character in Part 2.  But in addition to pointing out that he is a "credit to any race" given the largeness of his criminal ambition, it should be noted that Bond shows no animus to black people or their culture in this novel.  One might argue that Fleming was simply being cautious, aware of the potential controversy of his topic.  Nevertheless, Bond's opposition to Mister Big is based neither in race nor in the politics of Big's Communist masters.  First and foremost, Bond wants a shot at Mister Big as a way of pursuing the aforementioned revenge-trail.
Near the end of Chapter 2, Bond says:

"I like to meet [Mr. Big]... I'd like to meet any member of SMERSH."

I assert that even though LIVE AND LET DIE does incarnate some genuine political content-- which would be its only defining content to a Marxist-- what we have here is a hero looking for a dragon to slay, one who reminds him of earlier dragons who wounded him and then disappeared.  At base one should view this as a manifestation of an archetypal, rather than a political, unconscious. 





Saturday, January 26, 2013

E.C.? P.C.!-- PART 2

The more I think about the matter, the stranger it seems to me that Gary Groth, as I noted in Part 1, should even raise the question of how "generous" William Gaines was to his artists.  What form of largesse could possibly be of any significance, given that Gaines neither allowed creators to own their own works, nor returned art to the artists?  Why not just laud the EC work in terms of its excellence, and leave the question of Gaines' ethical deportment for separate consideration?

Gaines, I believe, is frequently given a "pass" in these matters due to the critical position EC Comics occupies in the minds of the Bloody Comic Book Elitists.  As example-- and this is, to be sure, not a COMICS JOURNAL-specific concern-- I cite these passages from ALTER EGO's interview with Sheldon Moldoff, conducted by Roy Thomas.
 

MOLDOFF: Well, as I said, you've got to come out at the right time and the right place. An interesting part of my career-and I have written proof, since I've kept all my records from 'way back-
When Max Gaines was killed in his motorboat accident, his son Bill took over EC. I had met Bill before, but now he was in charge, and I was doing some work for him. I asked him, "How's things going?" He said, "Lousy. The family's considering closing up and getting out of the comic book business." I said, "Bill, if I give you an idea which I think will be the next trend, will you give me a contract and a percentage of sales if it shows a profit? I only want it if there's a profit; I'd get paid a percentage of the profit. I think I know what's going to come in next." And he said, "I'd be glad to!" I said, "Okay, I'm going to bring you a couple of titles and a little breakdown, and show you what I have in mind."

Moldoff asserted that this handshake deal wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

 So I went running down there, and they're still at Lafayette Street, and I said, "Bill, what is this?" He said, "I knew you'd be here." I said, "Well, do you blame me? We have a contract, and you're supposed to use mine! I'm supposed to be the horror man!" He said, "Well, I decided I'm not going to give percentages. I don't want to give percentages. I'll give you all the work you want, but no percentages." I said, "No, we had an agreement, and I want you to honor it!" He said, "Well, there's nothing you can do about it, Shelly. I decided I'm not paying anybody percentages."
 Thousands, perhaps millions, of words have been written to pillory the employees of Marvel and DC for their heinous acts in "stealing" the works of Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, et al.  In the quote reprinted in Part 1, Gary Groth accused Marvel of "impoverishing" its employees.

How many words have been written, online or in print, to excoriate William Gaines for his alleged crime, for which there's at least as much evidence as there is for the "crimes" of Stan Lee?

Has anyone so much as alluded to Moldoff's allegation when making an assessment of Gaines, be it in the JOURNAL or anywhere?  I honestly would like to know, as I can't very well read everything.


Assuming that my hunch is correct-- that Gaines' problematic status has received little to no comment-- am I alleging a conscious conspiracy to protect the rep of William Gaines, because he's one of the Fathers of Quality Comics That Snooty Elitists Like Best?

No.

But I think that elitists are unconsciously selective when it comes to the purported offenses of their heroes.  Gaines' offenses, even if they are genuine, are just old news, no one cares about whether or not he cheated a minor player like Moldoff.  But Stan Lee's offenses against Jack Kirby, DC's against Siegel and Shuster-- these are "evergreen," because Marvel and DC remain "the enemy," now and forever, World Without End.

In Part 3 I'll address certain contemporary reactions to EC comics.





Thursday, January 24, 2013

E.C.? P.C.! -- PART 1

So what could possibly be "politically correct" about the "E.C." Comics of the above title? 

Taking the second item first, Wikipedia provides an exhaustive definition of "politically correctness," claiming that it "is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent."

This would not seem particularly applicable to EC Comics itself, given that the company was known for championing social issues in an uncompromising manner. 

However, I'll argue here that the term does apply, not to the original comic books, but to their forthcoming republication by the company Fantagraphics, which is also known for (generally) championing their own set of issues.  The full announcement can be read here, as well as Gary Groth's remarks on the project.  It is these remarks by Groth that I find to be "politically correct." In the following paragraph, Groth minimizes any potential "offense" in his reading of William Gaines in order to distance him from the common ruck of other "mainstream publishers."


The more I think of Gaines, the greater a publishing figure he becomes," Groth continued. "EC couldn't have existed without Gaines, specific books couldn't have happened without Gaines. He nurtured a lot of books, and had a sense of quality that virtually no publisher could match with the possible exception of St. John. Although he was somewhat paternalistic, you can see that from today's point of view, Gaines was incredibly generous to the artists by the standards of back then. He's a remarkable figure in comics publishing. I think among mainstream publishers he still might stand alone.


The "politically correct" keyword of this paragraph is the word "generous."  In what way was Gaines "generous" to his artists?  Did he give them the right to own their stories?  Did he return their art?  Did he occasionally fete them with expensive dinners and similar largesse?


Of the three rhetorical examples I posed above, I have only heard an affirmative with regard to the last one: Gaines did apparently dole out largesse to *some* of his contributors.

However, I don't get the sense that mere largesse has ever been the standard by which either Groth or most of his Comics Journal contributors have judged publishers.  The common position voiced at the Journal is that any publisher who does not fully endorse creator ownership is the lowest barnacle on the ship.  A quick example of this disdain for such publishers appears in this Journal essay by Groth, in the context of a historical argument about Marvel's return of art to its artists:

By 1976, because of a confluence of historical circumstances, which mostly amounted to raised commercial and creative consciousness among artists, both Marvel and DC were returning original art drawn for their current comics. DC also dug through their archives at that time and returned to the artists all the old art in its possession. Marvel did not until 1984, when, under pressure from artists, they too began to return older original art. But there was a catch. The artist had to sign a one-page “release form” that was a retroactive work-for-hire contract, cementing Marvel’s ownership of the reproduction rights of the art and any concepts or ideas within it. Most artists didn’t have any objections to signing this, or at least not sufficient objections to prevent them from signing it in order to get their original art back (which they could, for example, sell on the then-growing original art market — which was an important economic consideration, insofar as working for Marvel over their lifetimes had impoverished many of them).
I'm fairly sure that with some digging I could find passages that excoriated, in much harsher terms, any publishers who purchased work under the "work-for-hire" stipulations, but this one will do for now.  Marvel is bad because it exploited its artists and continued that exploitation by enforcing these retroactive "work for hire" contracts in order to protect Marvel from legal complications.

Why then is Gaines immune from this lofty scorn?  In what way did he take care of his artists, and how if at all was it different from the standard practices of Gaines' contemporaries, including the company that would later be known as Marvel?

Or is Groth's praise of Gaines influenced by a "political" need to distance Gaines from those practices?

More in Part 2.






Wednesday, January 23, 2013

JUNG AND SOVEREIGNTY

One of the key features of my ongoing theory is the notion that every coherent narrative, even if it contains elements of all four of Northrop Frye's mythoi, only one of the mythoi dominates the narrative.   One of my earliest examinations of this concept of mythos-dominance (and, implicitly, of the "submissiveness" of any other mythos-elements) appears in this 2010 essay.

As I've recently been rereading Jung's tome PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, I find it interesting that even though Frye does not invoke Jung's four psychological functions (sensation, intuition, thinking, feeling), Frye's "logic of dominance" (my term) mirrors the logic Jung uses to assert that only one of the psychological functions can be dominant when it is in a "conscious" state.  Jung defines his use of the term "conscious" thusly:

To recapitulate for the sake of clarity: the products of all functions can be conscious, but we speak of the "consciousness" of a function only when its use is under the control of the will and, at the same time, its governing principle is the decisive one for the orientation of consciousness.
 
What Jung says with application to the operation of the conscious psyche in general psychological terms can be applied no less to the operations of the psyche as it arranges the elements of narrative into a coherent mythoi.  Jung explains his point about "sovereignty" as relating to the potential of the functions to negate or undermine one another.



This absolute sovereignty always belongs, empirically, to one function alone, and can belong only to one function, because the equally independent intervention of another function would necessarily produce a different orientation which, partially at least, would contradict the first. But since it is a vital condition for the conscious process of adaptation always to have clear and unambiguous aims, the presence of a second function of equal power is naturally ruled out. This other function, therefore, can have only a secondary importance.” 

Again, I note that Jung's logic follows a deductive line of reasoning, which parallels Frye's methodology as described in the above essay.

More Jung stuff to come.

                                  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

SEXUAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "CASINO ROYALE"

In RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN DJANGO UNLEASHED, I emphasized the need to evaluate art outside the bounds of "political" considerations, be they on the side of "liberation" or "oppression." Of course I've been stumping for this sort of non-politicized thinking since I started this blog, and one of my most frequent targets has been ultraliberal Alan Moore.  In STALKING THE SYMBOLIC SNIPE I took issue with his condemnation of Ian Fleming's James Bond in this offhand comment:

“…we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond’s psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.”

While I conceded that James Bond's creator was something of a chauvinist, I cited four or five examples that did not support Moore's rash claim.  However, as I occasionally reread the Fleming Bond novels for the purpose of comparing them to the film adaptations, I finally decided to reread the first in the series, 1953's CASINO ROYALE.  Surely even Alan Moore, no matter how little he thinks of Fleming, would concede that whatever "psychological makeup" appears in Bond would come forth in full force in the novel of the hero's "birth."

The plot of CASINO ROYALE, as many have observed, is much more naturalistic than one beheld in the 1960s films.  There are no gimmicks of any kind in the novel, aside from a reference to some anonymous character killing himself by devouring a poisonous coat-button.  The villain Le Chiffre has nothing unusual about him: he's simply the paymaster for a Soviet spy-organization.  Because British intelligence determines that he's dipped into the Soviet till for his own expenditures, Bond is sent to LeChiffre's casino in Royale-es-Eaux in order to "break" the paymaster's bank and thus disrupt the entire operation. Bond is unfortunately saddled with a female agent, Vesper Lynd, and his internal thoughts make quite clear that he sees women as a liability in the espionage game.

Halfway through the novel, Bond seems to be proven right.  After Bond wins a fortune from LeChiffre's casino, Vesper apparently falls for a ruse and is captured by LeChiffre's men.  One might expect that, given the thoughts he's expressed up to that point, James Bond would simply leave Vesper to her fate.  Instead, betraying a Galahad-like mentality, he drives after the abductors and crashes his car into theirs.  The ploy fails: the paymaster and his men take both Bond and Vesper to a secluded hideout.  Bond is tortured for the location of his winnings.  He bravely holds out, but the only thing that saves him is the Soviets have been investigating LeChiffre's thefts.  A SMERSH agent kills LeChiffre and his men, sparing Bond simply because the assassin has no orders to execute anyone else.  Bond and Vesper are later rescued by Bond's allies.

At this point one might think that Bond's polemic against female agents has been justified.  During the weeks following his recovery from his tortures, however, Bond softens toward Vesper, and even tells her that a male agent might have fallen for the same trick.  They become intimate and fall in love, though Vesper seems antsy about any future commitment.  Bond considers for the first time taking the marital plunge.

However, Vesper's appearance as a helpless "damsel in distress" is revealed as a deceit; she's working for  SMERSH, who insert her into Bond's mission in order to betray him at a critical time, which she does.  However, because she has fallen in love with him, and knows that SMERSH will blow her cover in due time, Vesper commits suicide.  She leaves behind a suicide note explaining her true role.  In reaction to both her betrayal and her death, Bond re-dedicates himself to his mission against evil, and seems to dismiss Vesper's importance in his life as he speaks the final words of the novel, "The bitch is dead now."

Now, the question becomes: does this scenario prove Moore's contention, that Bond displays an "utter hatred and contempt for women?"  Certainly devotees of Political Correctness would not appreciate his comments early in the novel, to the effect that women muck up the profession with their tendency toward emotionality.  Yet this attitude does not seem to evolve so much from Bond as an individual as from Bond as a male in a male profession.  We know next to nothing about Bond's personal history; in this novel, Bond is defined by his devotion to his job-- and in that sense, his chauvinistic attitude denotes a standard male resistance to feminine intrusion, rather than something unique to Bond's own "psychological makeup."     

But the denouement is telling in that Bond's chauvinism is not supported by the narrative.  Not only does he risk his life to rescue her, he falls in love with her as a result of her long association with him during his recovery.  Fleming even remarks, speaking narrator-fashion, that tough men like Bond have a penchant to fall into the opposing mode of sentimentality.

One aspect of Bond's chauvinism is validated: in Vesper's suicide note she reveals that SMERSH was able to control her because they had her lover confined in a Soviet prison, and made her cooperation the price of keeping him alive.  Thus, in a sense she is governed by her emotions, though not in the way Bond means when he makes that observation.  Vesper's emotions also cause her to fall in love with Bond for his genuine heroic qualities, so that she both forsakes her condemned lover and her own life under the thumb of SMERSH.  Her suicide, while convenient from the standpoint of keeping Bond devoted to his crusade, also denotes a strength of character not unlike that of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

And what of the last words of the novel?  A political consciousness would see this as support for Moore's contention.  I would argue, rather, that Bond's words are an attempt to distance himself from the painful reality that the woman he loved was both an enemy spy and the lover of another man, not to mention the reality of her death.  Again, Political Correctness cannot read between the lines; cannot grant that a man might speak ill of women as a group as a way of shielding himself from such pain..  But it should be obvious that the things James Bond says are not always covalent with the things his creator means.



Thursday, January 17, 2013

DYNAMICITY DUOS PART 2


In Part 1 I expanded on my original schema for the three levels of dynamicity outlined in DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY. My current schema allows for a range of dynamicity in each of the three levels, with the stipulation that the characters within a given range are united not as existing characters but as narrative functions. 

In order to illustrate the range of dynamicity in each category, I've chosen to survey one particular character who has been re-imagined by different authors over time.  In each case the dynamicity changes in such a way as to illustrate the "change in range."

In the aforementioned essay, one of my examples of the "less than good" level of dynamicity was the support-character Vicki Vale from the BATMAN franchise.  In making this determination, I was thinking of the original character who debuted in 1948 and remained a recurring character until the early Silver Age, in 1963.  Throughout this period Vicky, a skilled photojournalist, made a pest of herself by trying to ferret out Batman's identity, but showed absolutely no ability to defend herself in dire situations.  On that basis I would judge her dynamicity as "poor."



















However, this character undergoes a revision when she again becomes a recurring character in the Bat-books during the early 1980s.  (Note: according to Wikipedia Vicki made limited re-appearances in the 1970s but she did not become a regular fixture.)  One change to her status was that the "pest" characterization disappeared and she began working out, with the result that on a few occasions, various characters would comment on the newer, fitter Vicki Vale.  She still was not a character one considered skilled in combat, so I would still gauge her as no better than the upper "microdynamic" level.  This character writeup from the online site COMIC VINE seems to substantially agree as to the change in the character:


"Vicki is a regular human with no known superpowers. Although not particularly athletically gifted, she has displayed enough physical ability to survive through certain dangerous situations."

 
The next level I rate as "fair-to-good," and I choose the character on whom Vicki Vale was essentially derived: "Superman's girlfriend" Lois Lane.  However, the original Lois, as articulated by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was a woman out to push her way into man's world.  In her first appearance she slaps a gangster, though in so doing she may be depending on the social taboo against men hitting women, even in retaliation for a blow.  Nevertheless, she's occasionally seen slugging both male and female criminals, suggesting that she did have a little more than "average" fighting ability, putting her at the lower level of "mesodynamicity."




















By the time Bill Finger created Vicki Vale as a pest-girlfriend for Batman, the Lois Lane that apepared in the Superman titles wasn't as gutsy as the Siegel-and-Shuster version.  Even when she got her own series, she seemed to go backwards in terms of toughness.  However, at some point the writer of the sequence below (or his editor) decided to show Lois as a really tough girl.





Following this story in LOIS LANE #78, Lois was said to have been taught the Kryptonian martial art "Klurkor" by Superman himself.  Thus, depending on the inclinations of her writers and editors, she was frequently seen duking it out with bad guys.  Still, she did so only in a pinch, not because she was a full-time crimefighter.  During one such battle, where she's kicking around three thugs, she tells them they ought to be glad they're not fighting a real tough girl like Black Canary.  On the basis and similar references, I would tend to rate this Lois as being at the higher end of the mesodynamic level.


Finally, to illustrate the lower and upper levels of megadynamicity, I find myself reaching out of the comic book world into that of the cinema.

Ellen Ripley is always mentioned when viewers list their favorite kick-ass females.  However, she's nowhere near the level of the megadynamic in the 1979 ALIEN film.  She's probably no better than "fair" in that film, for she only manages to kill the titular menace because the creature happens to attack her in an escape pod, where she's able to eject it into airless space.

Like several other characters who begin as low-dynamic foils to some mighty menace-- a list which includes the heroes of the original TERMINATOR, EVIL DEAD, and the 1999 MUMMY-- Ripley gets a dynamicity upgrade in the sequel ALIENS (1986).  After she's given arms training by her marine allies, Ripley takes on the kickass persona familiar to her fans.
























However, I tend to view this level of megadynamicity to be on the lower "exemplary" level.  Ripley remains on this level through the third film in the series, ALIEN 3, but ALIEN RESURRECTION boosts her to the upper level of the exceptional.  Ripley, having died in the third film, is reborn but in a form crossbred with the DNA of her extraterrestrial nemeses.  At the very least she's stronger than an average human, though this increased dynamicity did not lead her to further adventures in the cinematic medium.

QUICK LIST OF EXEMPLARY OPPONENTS

Since I've recently advanced the notions that (a) a combative work must contain no less than two opposed characters possessed of megadynamic "might," and (b) that level of "might" extends from a low level ("the exemplary") to a high level ("the exceptional"), it behooves me to provide a short list of examples of the more newly-defined of the two categories, the "exemplary."

As of this writing I've reviewed over 200 films on my movie-blog, though there are fewer than 200 entries given my tendency to "double up" or "triple up" the films to which I've given short critiques.    In each case where a film had a combative mode, I noted that status in the label section, along with each given film's status in terms of its Freyean mythos.  So the easiest thing is to go down the list and determine which if any films are qualified by either protagonist or antagonist (or both) being of the lower level in the combative mode.

Since the separate "demihero concept" also requires some elucidation, I'll also mention whether or not it appears in this grouping of films, though this will not be a list of all demiheroes in the corpus of films reviewed.

______________________

Under the label "combative ironies"--

Only one of the films, John Carpenter's THEY LIVE!, has a protagonist of the exemplary level, the hero John Nada.

________________________

Under the label "combative comedies"--


In 1989's EASY WHEELS, the villain She-Wolf and her gang of bad bikers are exceptional; the heroes are only exemplary.

Both 1994's BLANKMAN and 1989's CHOMPS pit exceptional heroes against exemplary gangster-villains.

Both of the DOCTOR GOLDFOOT films pit an exceptional mad scientist against merely exemplary secret agent heroes.

 ___________________________

Under the label "combative dramas"--

Both 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA and 1960's BRIDES OF DRACULA present a "Doctor Van Helsing" who, while not exceptional in his level of power, is a much more athletic and resourceful hero than the character from the novel DRACULA.  In past essays I've mentioned that the assembled "vampire killers" of the novel, though they are demiheroes, also qualify for greater-than-ordinary status, though I was not using the term '"exemplary" at that time.

The 2011 RED RIDING HOOD potrarys the titular heroine as an exemplary demihero.

In 1999's VIRUS Jamie Lee Curtis' character Foster is an exemplary demihero.

In 1954's MISS ROBIN CRUSOE, both the demiheroes and villains are exemplary types.

The character of the vampire-slaying monsignor in 1968's DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE has the same exemplary status as Hammer Films' Van Helsing.

______________________________

Under the label "combative adventures"--

The villains of 1941's JUNGLE GIRL are exemplary types.

Exemplary villains menace the heroes of 1945's ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS and 1953's THE SIREN OF BAGDAD.

Both THE WHISPERING SHADOW (1933) and SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936)  pits exceptional villains against exemplary demiheroes.

Exemplary villains constitute the threats in 1986's ADVENTURES OF THE AMERICAN RABBIT, 1937's DOCTOR SYN, 1963's DR. SYN ALIAS THE SCARECROW, 1953's BANDITS OF CORSICA, 1943's THE PHANTOM, 1953's VALLEY OF HEADHUNTERS, 1951's MASK OF THE AVENGER, 1953's THE KID FROM BROKEN GUN, 1937's THE SHADOW STRIKES, 1958s LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, 1984's SHEENA, two of the "uncanny" HERCULES films, many of the TARZAN films and all of the BOMBA films.


NOTE: I have used the term-set "exemplary and exceptional" before, to denote differing types of literary merit.  However, I don't envision using them in that manner very often in future, and so have chosen to re-use the terms in this very different context.

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

DYNAMICITY DUOS PART 1

I'm tempted to subtitle this essay "the trouble with gangsters," since some of the considerations here stem from evaluating the presence of the combative mode in stories where the exceptional hero faces unexceptional crooks.  Are there ways in which some gangland-spawned foes prove more "combative" in the significant sense than others, just as I've said that some heroes, who have (discounting weapons) only ordinary mortal abilities, can possess more dynamicity than other heroes of the same basic abilities?

Anyone who's read this blog (aside from the automatic Google search-engines) should know that when I phrase a proposition in this manner, the answer will be affirmative.  But is there a way to rephrase the concept of dynamicity to take in this application of the combative mode?


In DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY I outlined three "power-ratings" of dynamicity, patterned loosely after related categories in Aristotle.  To sum up:

The "X-type," who possessed megadynamicity, was said to be entirely "exceptional."

The next rating down, the "Y-type," possessed of mesodynamicity, was said to cover a range of "good-to-fair."  I justified the need for such a range thus:

'This category requires a "range" approach because characters who are simply "good" in terms of their personal dynamicity function almost exactly the same as those who are simply "fair."'

Finally, for roughly the same reasons, I assigned the final rating, the microdynamic "Z-type," as "fair-to-poor."

However, I've now amended that breakdown.  Keeping in mind my assessment of the way a "mesodynamic" hero, such as Jack Burton, could be "boosted" to the higher status, I decided that the the same principle should apply to some-- though not all-- of the mundane opponents pitted against an exceptional hero.

As a negative example, one where such boosting does not take place, here's a brief scene from the first adventure of "the Bat-Man."



These two catchpenny thugs, while hypothetically capable enough within the "good-to-fair" range, are so easily disposed of by the exceptional hero that they certainly cannot be "X-types."

However, the corpus of Batman's adventures contains many mundane crooks with no more actual powers than those in the previous example.  Such opponents could and did give the hero a harder time.



I suggest that although these ne'er-do-wells are not in the same league with Batman's truly exceptional foes, as per my example of the Penguin here, they still fall into the range of the megadynamic by virtue of their narrative operations. For one thing, though in both examples Batman defeats the mundane malefactors, he has to work somewhat harder in the second case, suggesting that the lawbreakers here are smarter and/or more formidable.

The same "boosting" distinction applies even in cases where the criiminals are even more outclassed, as when they combat heroes with literal super-powers.

In "The Mysterious Mister X" (ALL-STAR COMICS #5, 1941), a group of gang-leaders get sick of having their operations continually broken up by the members of the Justice Society, many of whom are powerhouses like the Flash and Doctor Fate.




With one exception (the section of the story devoted to Green Lantern), none of the gangsters have any special resources.  Even the guy in a Hindu outfit, who goes after Doctor Fate, is merely a trickster.

All of them meet ignomious defeats, such as this one:



And this one:




Nevertheless, as outclassed as the hoods are in the powers department, one has to admire, if only slightly, the guts of mundane men determined to tilt with gods.  Perhaps their courage is born of foolhardiness-- certainly the author was not holding them up for admiration.  Still, it takes some moxie for such thugs to take on the mighty Justice Society.  I'd argue that even this futile attempt confers on them a level of "might" not seen in less ambitious crooks.

While such thugs' moxie cannot make them exceptional, I suggest that it does boost them to what I now term the lower level of megadynamicity, which makes such encounters qualify for both the narrative and significant values of sublime dominance.

Thus I've re-interpreted the schema put forth in DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY, to show that all three categories encompass a range of dynamicities.  The reigning schema now reads thusly:

THE Z-TYPE covers the narrative functions of all dynamicities ranging from the "poor" to the "average."

THE Y-TYPE covers the narrative functions of all dynamicities ranging from the "fair" to the "good."

THE Z-TYPE covers the narrative functions of all dynamicities ranging from the "exemplary" to the "exceptional."

This elucidation of an "exemplary" range of power in the megadynamic level doesn't just serve to account for the narrative functions of mundane villains like the "Academy of Gangsters."  It also takes in certain "weak heroes" like Jack Burton and Jonathan Harker, who begin as no more than "mesodynamic" presences but who "step up" to become full-fledged monster slayers, either through the possession of limited talents or dogged persistence.

In Part Two I'll offer detailed examples of each of these six power-ratings, to illustrate how the extent of a character's dynamicity affects his (or in the case of the forthcoming examples, her) narrative function. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

MYTHOS AND MODE PART 3

In MYTHOS AND MODE 2 I said:

In a similar manner, narrative values can trump significant values in terms of determining whether or not a work is “combative” or not.  Based on that assertion, I would say that MACBETH remains a “combative drama” even though it lacks the significant value of sublime dominance between two contending forces.  In contrast, I would not consider CORIOLANUS combative in that I feel the subcombative narrative values predominate.  As I continue to consider other cases I will probably come across examples where the reverse verdict proves true for each example.

I'm revising this nugget of theory to say that the "combative mode" should always denote those works that contain both a narrative combative value and a significant combative value.  This means that MACBETH and possibly one or two other works I previously labeled as "combative" are necessarily subcombative instead.

I recently came to this conclusion as I considered the statement I'd made re: the character of "Doctor Who" in WHAT'S ON FIRST, WHO'S ON SECOND:

...in essence the Doctor... belongs in the adventure-mythos, but only in the subcombative compartment of that mythos.

I realized that the reason I'd made that assignment was precisely because the Doctor's tendency to use "froda" rather than "froda" to triumph over his multifarous enemies. This approach deprives the viewer of beholding "the significant value of sublime dominance between two contending forces."

To be sure, certain Who episodes may contain brief contentions of this sort, as when the Doctor employs a powerful ally like K-9.




But because the narrative is not centered around the battle, such clashes have at best a transitory effect, such as one sees in the sole battle of Coriolanus and Aufidius examined in MYTHOS AND MODE 2, or with the clash of the two werewolves in WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

The same applies to the example of MIGHTY MAX, which I analyzed in terms of its central persona but not in terms of its conflictive mode in this essay.  I remarked that Max sometimes had his ally Norman handle much of the heavy lifting.



 

But Norman is neither a member of a "ensemble" as I define the term, nor a "genie" who becomes the real center of the story because he dependably comes to the hero's aid, a la GIGANTOR.  Thus his exhibition of "might," like that of K-9, are no more central to the narrative than the examples from the Shakespeare play or the Universal werewolf film.

It's possible that I may come across exceptions to this rule as currently stated.  But at present, I will consider that a work should generally be combative only if it combines the narrative and significant values associated with the mode.

Monday, January 14, 2013

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN DJANGO UNCHAINED



Whenever learned articles employ such phrases as “racial politics” or “sexual politics” to describe fictional narrative, the metaphor is clear. No matter how escapist the narrative may seem, it’s assumed that a political opposition is always at work, possibly stemming from Frederic Jameson’s “political unconscious.” 



Further, it is a not a “politics” like that of the real world, where politicians shift allegiances or make secret deals for purely personal advantage.  It is an absolute politics, in which the representatives of oppression are always for oppression, and the representatives of liberation are always for liberation. 



I speak, however, of “non-politics” as a counter-metaphor to escape this rigid oppositionalism.  “Non-politics” takes in any and all purely personal elements that have been elided from oppositional accounts, elements that don’t fit the “either/or” dichotomy.



After viewing Quentin Tarantion’s DJANGO UNCHAINED with a friend, that friend made a remark that I feel sure many other white viewers made: observing that Tarantino’s movie portrays an American West almost bereft of “good white guys.”  With the obvious exception of central character Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz), every other white character is either a villain or an ineffectual bystander. 



At the time I replied that such strong racial opposition was wholly characteristic of one of the major influences on DJANGO specifically and on Tarantino generally: the “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s.  Not all of these films are without “good white guys,” but it’s far more typical to draw battle-lines in terms of race in such films as DOLEMITE, HUMAN TORNADO, SUPERFLY, BLACK SAMSON, FOXY BROWN, and COFFY, just to name the first six that come to mind.  However, race doesn’t always tell, for one can find examples of black characters who “sell out to the Man.” A noteworthy example appears at the climax of COFFY, where the heroine’s boyfriend sells her out both politically and sexually (i.e., sleeping with a white woman).



Most of these films are escapist in tone, making no attempt to address abstract matters of morality or justice.  In the minds of oppositional critics I presume they would fall upon the side of “liberation” since they depict, however crudely, the triumph of oppressed people—just as Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION would fall on the side of oppression in validating an oppressive regime.  However, oppositional critics generally fail to see that when blaxploitation films do draw battle-lines exclusively in terms of race, they subscribe to the same logic as the Griffith film does, saying, in effect, “protect only those who share your own ethnic characteristics.”


At first glance, it might appear that Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED subscribes to this same logic.  Bounty hunter King Schulz liberates the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters so that Django can help him identify a trio of wanted men; former overseers on Django’s plantation.  For this service Schulz promises to give Django his freedom, though Django goes beyond the letter of the agreement when he tastes the forbidden fruit of blasting down white oppressors, specifically those who have injured him and his wife Broomhilda.  Following this successful adventure, Schulz and Django bond so strongly that Schulz agrees to help the ex-slave find his wife, who had been sold separately to an unknown buyer.  The duo locate Broomhilda on the plantation of wealthy Calvin J. Candie, so they initiate a scam designed to liberate Broomhilda legally, though it requires some deception as to their real motives.  However, Candie’s house is managed by a slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  He sees through the deception and exposes the scheme to protect his master’s interests.  In the end Schulz and Candie both die and Django takes bloody vengeance on the entire Candie family, leaving the race-traitor Stephen for last.  He and Broomhilda ride off into the sunset to make a new life, having also acquired papers that will give Broomhilda freedom.



It’s true, as my friend said, that aside from Schulz all the white characters are villains or ineffectual bystanders.  What he didn’t notice, though, is that the same situation obtains for black characters.  Nearly all black characters in DJANGO are ineffectual bystanders except for Broomhilda—but even though she's not a simple bystander, she's also unable to participate in Django's heroics.  She does try to play along with her husband’s scam, but when it fails, she’s reduced to nothing more than a damsel in distress.  There’s one moment when some liberated slaves manage to execute the man who enslaved them, but the event only comes about because Schulz liberates them. 




And then there’s the one black villain.  At first glance Stephen might appear to be just another “sell out to the Man,” as with the character in COFFY.  However, I suggest that something more complex and non-political is going on.



For one thing, the relationship of Stephen to Calvin Candie is almost a mirror-image of the one between Schulz and Django.  There are differences, of course. Schulz, coming from Germany, has had the benefit of a classical education, while Stephen—made up to look a malevolent version of the “Uncle Ben’s Rice” icon— mangles words to show his lack of formal education.  Nevertheless, Stephen, despite having internalized the white man’s system of values, so that he feels extreme hatred toward Django upon seeing a “nigger” on a horse—is easily as subtle as Schulz.  Where Candie is easily flattered and manipulated, Stephen remains suspicious and perceives the connection between Django and Broomhilda.  After Candie has been killed, Stephen’s authority is sufficient to keep Candie’s relatives from killing Django too easily, as he persuades them to sell the former slave to a cruel mining camp.  Of course this reprieve allows Django to save himself and his wife, and to bring an end to Stephen, after Django tasks him with having ignored the tortures of thousands of slaves of his own race.  Yet the irony of this “moral” is that if one were to assume that race-loyalty is the standard, then Schulz would be as big a “race-traitor” in that he doesn't confine his loyalty only to Caucasians.



There are also obvious differences between the men being mentored.  Django has apparently been born and raised in slavery, so his moments of ignorance—such as not knowing some of the words Schulz uses—don’t reflect badly on him.  This feeling also extends to the one moment at his expense, when Schulz allows him to choose his own “valet uniform” and Django picks out an outfit that looks ridiculous even in the eyes of his own people.  In contrast, Candie has had the benefits of good education like Schulz, but is plainly a mediocre intellect at best.  Schulz chooses to mentor Django because he likes him and dislikes slavery.  Stephen, having lived in the plantation-house since the days of Calvin’s grandfather, has become the mentor to Calvin via inheritance, much as the character of Mammy becomes a maternal influence on Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.



Nevertheless, despite the fact that Stephen continually sasses his master in order to manage the house the way Stephen thinks right, the bond between the two is as real as the one between Schulz and Django.  Oppositional critics probably will not understand the scene in which Stephen weeps over his dead master, since it might seem to sympathize with standard “slave-weeps-over-dead-master” scenes out of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.  This is the only way the scene can be understand in a “racial politics” sense, as a sneaky way of saying, “see, slavery isn’t so bad if the slaves feel affection for their owners.”



Of course this is not the point of the scene or of Tarantino’s film: only a fool would think that Tarantino has presented slavery as anything but evil in DJANGO UNCHAINED.  However, because Tarantino is also capable of thinking outside the political box, he can reflect on the varied ways in which human beings allow themselves to be seduced into evil—sometimes in very ordinary ways, like Stephen coming to regard the young Master of the House as something akin to his own offspring.  Candie clearly reciprocates the feeling, at least within the boundaries of the master-slave relationship. Thus we seen the differences between the two mentor-student dyads are largely superficial.  Battle-lines are no longer drawn in terms of race in DJANGO UNCHAINED, so that evil and good can be determined in terms of a more abstract justice, rather than in terms of belonging to either a majority or minority ethnicity. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

TWICE THE MIGHT PT. 2

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In keeping with my observations in Part 1, I'll detail two more examples of films that share the quality of being combative in terms of one value (the significant), though they divide in terms of the other (the narrative).

The first film to consider is 1959's THE ANGRY RED PLANET, which I reviewed here.

The above film-ad shows a combat between the futuristic astronaut-protagonists of the film-- armed, naturally, with the requisite ray-guns-- as they contend with the most famous beastie they encounter, the so-called "Rat-Bat-Spider."  Clearly both the ray-wielding astronauts and the monster qualify as megadynamic sources of might, which satisfies the significant value.

However, ANGRY RED PLANET cannot be combative in a narrative sense, as the film does not center around any of the combats between the astronauts and the Martian monsters.  The various menaces are something of a gauntlet the heroes run until they are sent back to Earth, more or less with their tails between their legs.  Therefore the overall spirit of this space-drama is subcombative.

In contrast, 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET-- which possesses a wealth of virtues that the later film does not-- also possesses the narrative combative value as well as the significant combative value.

The significant value is obvious in the assorted scenes in which the astronaut-protagonists come to grips with the "Id Monster," prior to finding out that it's been generated by Krell machines which are in turn responding to the anxieties of scientist Dr. Morbius. 

However, whereas the sense of escalation to a final confrontation is absent from ANGRY RED PLANET, FORBIDDEN PLANET builds this sense by virtue of the baffled astronauts as they attempt to learn the nature of their invincible enemy. 

To be sure, when the Id Monster is defeated, it isn't because of the clash between the weapons of Earth-science and the power of the Krell machines.  The Monster is defeated by undermining the source of its power in Morbius, who is in essence the Monster's Achilles heel.

Nevertheless, without the clash of energies that establishes how potent the Id Monster is, there would be no narrative perception of the need to seek such a vulnerable point.

I'll note in passing that I rate the central heroes of both films as "demiheroes" in that they are concerned more with the Hobbesian value of "safety" than of "glory."


Saturday, January 5, 2013

TWICE THE MIGHT BUT LESS FILLING

Returning once more to the formulation of Kant from CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT:

 Might is called dominance if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might.

I've touched slightly on a few manifestations of might and dominance in canonical literature and in folktales, but where dominance is concerned, it occurs most frequently in certain types of genre literature. I noted in STRENGTH, IN NUMBERS:

... as a rule modern genre-narratives explore these concepts on a more sustained basis than do most modern would-be literary efforts.
Genre literature can excel in this regard because it allows, as Northrop Frye said, an "unobstructed view of the archetypes"-- including, in this case, the archetype of the narrative pattern Joseph Fontenrose terms "the combat myth."

However, not every narrative that contains two opposed sources of "might" necessarily evokes the combative mode.  It's for that reason that I've distinguished the presence of both narrative and significant values within the combative mode.  The lack of one value or the other can cancel the narrative's potential for combative sublimity.

As my first examples, regard these two classic Universal horror-films:




WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)






FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Both of the films, like the majority of horror films, conform to the kenotic mythos of the drama.  Both contain two characters who possess supernormal might: two werewolves in LONDON (seen above, played by Warner Oland and Henry Hull), the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in the 1943 film. Both films end with rather short battles between the supernormal figures, so both satisfy the significant value of the combative, which engenders a particular sublime effect through contending might.

However, WEREWOLF OF LONDON is primarily about the tormented sufferings of the Henry Hull werewolf.  His conflict with the Oland character is distinctly secondary to his agonies over the loss of his wife to another man. The mere contention of two powerful figures in a narrative cannot engender the narrative value of the combative, as I showed here with respect to Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS.  

In contrast, though some have argued that FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN places more emphasis on the Wolf Man than on Frankenstein's creation, the essential thrust of the plot focuses on arranging the "meeting" of the two monsters-- cultivating an alliance between the principal characters, bringing them together with the late Doctor Frankenstein's research as a means of ending their respective maladies, and then culminating in a "heroic" Wolf Man taking on a "villainous" Frankenstein Monster.  Here, the narrative value is satisfied in that the entire narrative is built around a culminative combat, while the formidability of the characters satisfies the significant value.

It should go without saying that a narrative lacking either combative value-- one which has several "mighty" figures within the narrative who are engaged only in preying on "basic strength" victims rather than fighting against each other or against another "mighty" threat-- such a narrative displays only "might" and never dominance, as exemplified by 1944's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.




Friday, January 4, 2013

SHORT POST ON SIEGEL AND SHUSTER

Another BEAT-response.  I just can't seem to stop wasting my time there. Heavy sigh.

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Well, I agree that Siegel and Shuster made their own bed for the most part.  Going largely by the Gerard Jones account, they weren't exactly starving when they made the Superman deal.  The Larry Tye book says they consulted a lawyer before they signed, but it musta been some punk kind of shyster!  Surely by then any lawyer worth his salt would have known how much merchandising proceeding from cartoon characters like Popeye and Betty Boop.

Now one might fairly  loathe DC for later crimes, like swiping the Superboy concept and eventually muscling Siegel and Shuster out of the operation.  But I don't think you can blame the DC editors for trying to make the best deal they could for their company.

I can't agree  that the "hostage situation" hurts original independent creators, though.  If anything the loss of Superman warns artists not to sign away anything they believe in.  If the company wants to own everything you create, don't give them "John Byrne's Next Men," give them "John Byrne's 'Spinnerette!'"

What I've seen companies doing for the last 20 years is not confining all work "in-house," but attempting to spin off properties created during the Bad Old Days.  The failures (thus far) of attempts to claim characters created during those days, like Howard, Blade and Ghost Rider, makes them a good bet for development.  And of course the Big Two have published work that is strictly owned by the artist, but they haven't succeeded in creating a lasting imprint dedicated to such work, so the policy remains marginal in effect.


Small point in the Gerber piece: Jerry Siegel claimed he created hits for Ziff-Davis.  What were these "hits?"  LARS FROM MARS, maybe?  Or LITTLE AL OF THE FBI??

Thursday, January 3, 2013

MYTHOS AND MODE PART 2


What valiant foemen, like to autumn's corn,
Have we mow'd down, in tops of all their pride!--
HENRY VI, Part III, Act 5, Scene 7. 
 

In my initial meditations on the nature of combative and subcombative modes, I treated them in terms of narrative values.  In those early essays my sole consideration was whether or not the narrative centered around a literal combat. This consideration speaks to narrative structure but not its reception by the audience partaking of the narrative.

 

Later I realized that Kant’s two categories of “the sublime”—that is, “might” and “dominance”-- possessed broad applicability to the audience’s responses to the narrative; responses in which audience-members felt emotions of awe or wonder in the presence of exceptional dynamicity.  I will now label these experiences of sublimity “significant values.” They do not come about by accident, but because the artist of the work hopes to draw forth such emotions in his audience.  Both “might” and “dominance” encourage the audience to identify with entities or conditions of exceptional dynamicity.  In most of my examples I’ve cited entities or conditions whose dynamicity is of a metaphenomenal nature, but the same operations of sublimity pertain to isophenomenal narratives, as I demonstrated in the NUM-INOUS CONFRONTATIONS essays.

 

My first example of a combative narrative was William Shakespeare’s MACBETH, where the entire narrative tension builds to the climactic combat of Macbeth and Macduff.  I still assert that MACBETH is a combative work, in terms of its narrative values.

 
But does the play possess a combative significant value? Most of Macbeth’s murders are committed in stealth, not in battle, whether by him or by proxies.  It’s true that Macbeth and his fated enemy Macduff are both presented as courageous, doughty warriors. Minutes before encountering Macduff, Macbeth slays a young soldier named Siward.  When Macbeth fights Macduff and finally learns that the latter is his destined bane, Macbeth still refuses surrender.
Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!
--MACBETH, Act 5, Scene 8.

However, I can find nothing in the play that makes the two characters “exceptional” in their dynamicity.  They are good fighters, without a doubt, but not necessarily exceptional.  Lacking that dynamicity, both the characters and and the play lack the significant value of combative sublimity.  If there is sublimity in MACBETH, it arises not from the audience's watching the characters locked in combat, but from beholding the pitiless fate that raises Macbeth up and then casts him down.

 

MACBETH is a play with what I term “marginal metaphenomenality,” due to the prophecies of the witches.  However, no such metaphenomenal content appears in CORIOLANUS.  At its outset this play seems to be building to a climactic combat between Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus and Volscian general Aufidius, who have fought on the battlefield so often that they go out of their way to best one another whenever possible.  In Act I, scene 6, Coriolanus praises his enemy’s might as being beyond the pale of his own common soldiers:
 none of you but is
Able to bear against the great Aufidius
A shield as hard as his.

One scene later, the two generals fight.  To Coriolanus’ demand that the Volscian “wrench up thy power to the highest,” Aufidius shoots back:

Wert thou the Hector
That was the whip of your bragg'd progeny,
Thou shouldst not scape me here.

 

Can one view these allusions to superhuman status as indicators that either opponent is superhuman? Certainly not. But the utterance of such allusions—coupled with the fact that these two have repeatedly fought before, with neither man prevailing—suggests that they are, within an isophenomenal context, exceptional.  Thus the significant value of combative dominance does appear within the sphere of CORIOLANUS.

 

However, there is no narrative combative value here.  Despite the suggestions that these enemies may finally sort out the question of superiority by play’s end, CORIOLANUS is, unlike MACBETH, not centered around a combat.  Instead, Coriolanus’ arrogance brings about his disaffection from his fellow Romans, leading to a temporary alliance with Aufidius and the Volscians, and finally to an ignomious demise rather than a heroic confrontation.

 

So, to recap:
 

MACBETH= narrative combative value YES significant combative value NO

CORIOLANUS= narrative combative value NO significant combative value YES

 

Though there’s a great deal of violence and vengeance in Shakespeare, most of it does not pursue the combative mode with respect to either narrative or subjective values.  If one should desire (for symmetry’s sake) a canonical literary work that contains both a narrative and a significant combative value, one would probably have to settle for one of the most Shakespeare-influenced works in the canon, Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK.  Melville’s novel takes place within the realm of the uncanny, where the characters exist in what purports to be a naturalistic environment, yet everyone partcipates in weird rites, strange portents, and so on.  On one level Ahab and the White Whale are merely mortal beings; on another, they are sublime presences, with Ahab taking the persona of the Satanic over-reacher attempting to “break through the mask” of inscrutable Deity, represented by the cetacean, who remains unfathomable even after Ishmael has attempted to break him down into his species down into its constituent parts.

 

In RISING AND FALLING STARS I established that it was possible for a work to fall into a given mythoi-category (say, “adventure”) even if one of its two major aspects—“plot” or “character” aligned better with another mythos.  This would only be the case when the “adventure-plot” dominated over the “drama-characters,” my chosen example being that of the James Robinson STARMAN.

 

In a similar manner, narrative values can trump significant values in terms of determining whether or not a work is “combative” or not.  Based on that assertion, I would say that MACBETH remains a “combative drama” even though it lacks the significant value of sublime dominance between two contending forces.  In contrast, I would not consider CORIOLANUS combative in that I feel the subcombative narrative values predominate.  As I continue to consider other cases I will probably come across examples where the reverse verdict proves true for each example.

 

In conclusion (of this series), I’ll note that I’ve not yet applied this distinction to any of the movies I labeled as “combative” on my movie-theory blog NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS.  Off the top of my head I would guess that most of those thus far cited share both narrative and significant combative values.  Possibly I’ll review my past estimations further in light of these new formulations.