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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...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

THE THREE-PART HARMONY OF SUBLIMITY

For others, the advent of spring means cleaning out the house.  For me, it means yet more terminological revisions to my previously advanced terms regarding the experience of sublimity.

First, prior to any such revisions, a quick revisit to the cognitive and affective conditions that describe my trinity of phenomenalities.  In NOTES ON NORTHROP FRYE AND THE NUM-THEORY I defined the three phenomenalities in terms of their relationship to "causality," insightfully defined by Roger Caillois as "the changeless everyday reality."

“the marvelous”— cognitive and affective aspects of phenomena both exceed causality
“the uncanny”—causality cognitively preserved, but affectivity exceeds causality
“the naturalistic”—cognitive and affective aspects are both contained by causality



In ODDLY OR STRANGELY SUBLIME, I advanced these terms for the differing operations of the sublime within these phenomenalities.

Since works of an entirely naturalistic phenomenality are always defined by limitations, in which it is deemed impossible to transcend the cause-and-effect universe, such works do not evoke "arresting strangeness" in Tolkein's sense. They do, however, depict worlds in which "the typical" is frequently superseded by "the atypical." This may include anything from an anomalous event, such as a bank robbery, to a personal epiphany, such as Conrad's narrator describes by catching a ship at sea in a mood of sublime repose.

This kind of sublimity/sense of wonder, which does not break with the order of causality, I term the "odd-sublime," in that whatever takes place in the naturalistic world does not transcend either the cognitive or affective aspects of that orderliness.

Works in the sphere of the uncanny and the marvelous, however, fall into a category best termed the "strange-sublime." Marvelous works break with both the cognitive and affective aspects of normative order, while uncanny works break with the affective aspect appropriate to causal relations but largely stay within the cognitive sphere of causality.
I later decided that I didn't think "oddity" worked as well as "atypicality," and without otherwise revising this aspect of my system made a one-on-one substitution in NUM-INOUS CONFRONTATIONS, VIOLENT SUBLIMITY, the first essay in which I applied my evolving concept of "the sublime" to three phenomenologically-distinct works.  Of my naturalistic example, the character of "Dirty Harry" from the film of the same name, I wrote of this form of naturalistic sublimity:


At this point, if no other, Dirty Harry takes on a transcendent quality. I would call this particular quality (revised since I last wrote of it here) as the "atypical-sublime." In a naturalistic world, even the most extreme actions by hero and villain can never be more than atypical occurences in a world dominated by typical events.
 
I undertake the revisions of the currently reigning terms-- "atypical-sublime" and "strange-sublime"-- because I've decided that my terms ought to be able to reflect the phenomenological difference between the types of "strange-sublime" in the uncanny and the marvelous.  I've protested Tzvetan Todorov's totalizing tendencies, wherein he views an "uncanny" story as one subsumed by Freud's "reality principle:"


Todorov thinks that the rational order, Freud’s “reality principle,” has won out in the Poe tale because Poe does not literally have the house smitten by the hand of God, after the fashion of more marvelously-oriented Gothics like THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO. But I believe Poe only includes these realistic devices as a means of showing that even with those sops to rationality, the affect of sublime terror remains undiminished.
Nevertheless, though a work like HOUSE OF USHER is not subsumed by causality and the reality principle, unlike (say) Poe's PURLOINED LETTER, it also does not share the exact same relationship to causality as that of Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO.  In order to keep the distinctions of that relationship to "the real," I've devised three terms to reflect the causality-relationship of each phenomenality.

In NUMINOUS CONFRONTATIONS, I used the heroes of three adventure-films to contrast the different phenomenalities of each film.  These respective heroes can also be used to define the relationship of the sublime in each film to the causal order.



Again, 1971's DIRTY HARRY is entirely defined by a naturalistic phenomenality.  This phenomenality is not "real," any more than any other fictional production.  However, because all the forces and presences within DIRTY HARRY attempt to be identical with the causal order that we perceive in our shared cultural existence, any sublimity generated by the film-- in particular, by the conflict between the hero and his opponent-- must be termed an "iso-real" sublimity; that is, one limited to the forces and presences that are "the same" as what we know in "the changeless everyday reality."



1973's ENTER THE DRAGON breaks with this "everyday reality" not in terms of the cognitive aspects of causality, but with the affectivity appropriate to a purely naturalistic universe.  Of one metaphenomenal detail of DRAGON I wrote:


A hall of mirrors certainly does not violate our ideas of causality, so it is not metaphenomenal in any cognitive sense, but because it does suggest the metaphenomenal in an affective sense-- pushing [the villain] Han more toward the domain of the supervillain proper-- this scene in particular captures violent sublimity in one of its two metaphenomenal modes, both of which I still designate as "the strange-sublime."
 

All of the tropes I've designated in my critical writings on film *can* be expressed within a purely naturalistic phenomenality, where both the cognitive and affective aspects are "iso-real."  But uncanny works always push beyond the boundaries of the naturalistic in an affective sense.  This more exaggerated, perhaps more improbable form of affectivity generates a different manifestation of sublimity, one that is rooted in "the real" but transcends it partially.  For this reason I term this manifestation a "supra-real" sublimity.



Finally, with 1977's STAR WARS audiences manage to combine the two most famed genres of the marvelous: "science fiction" and "fantasy."  There are significant phenomenological differences between the two genres, which come down to a different approach to the nature of reality.  In science fiction an apparent "marvel" results from some discovery of a hitherto-unrecognized principle or application of science, while in fantasy,, the "marvel" results from some transcendence of all principles of reality.  Thus most of the characters in STAR WARS use "marvelous" devices like droids and ray-guns without regarding the devices as marvelous, though of course they remain so for the audience.  In contrast, the Jedi powers of Luke Skywalker and his fellow Jedi, though given a smattering of science-fictional rationalization through the concept of the Midi-chlorians, has far more in common with ideas of magic as promoted in otherworldly magical fantasy-fiction. 

Despite all the quarrels between exclusivist fantasy-fans and SF-fans of the same stripe, in a narrative sense the marvels of science fiction and fantasy work the same way: they invoke forces that are not commonly explicable within the domain of "the real."  For that reason, the type of sublimity I discern within the marvelous-metaphenomenal I'll term an "anti-real" sublimity.


Friday, March 22, 2013

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIVELINESS

In VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF DEATH I wrote:

The two modes [of the varied and the unvaried] also apply to the other best-known principle whose main appeal to the kinetic senses, that of sex...
 
I hold to the conviction that authors who want to escalate the audience's kinetic tensions more frequently rely upon narrative violence rather than upon narrative sexuality.  Further, the use of violence in the varied mode is much more common than any parallel employment of sexuality.

In the above cited essay I cited two examples of stories in which a villain (or monster) sought to commit a sequence of serial murders.  The two evildoers even shared the motif of doing so for reasons of revenge, though the Joker tended to also kill off even people whom he was simply robbing.  I also pointed out that in the Joker's first appearance-- in contrast to many later stories, like "The Joker's Utility Belt" and "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge"-- the villain's killings were in the *unvaried* mode, while those of Doctor Phibes were in the *varied* mode.  Of the latter mode I wrote:

Thus in the PHIBES films the audience's intrigue may also be escalated by wondering what new death-device Phibes will introduce next.
Now, since I've asserted that narrative sexuality is a kinetic effect just as violence is, the question becomes: what discrete forms would a *varied* sexuality take?

Many, though not all, of the varied forms of violence are highly dependent on man's trademark use of weapons to inflict violence.  But although people do use instruments to facillitate sexual excitement, narratives of sexuality do not show a pattern of using same.  If anything, the use of instruments would probably diminish the audience's belief in the prowess of a professed Don Juan (or Don Juanita, for that matter). 

Narratives of sexuality can use the same pattern of serial escalation as narratives of violence: a serial killer murders victim after victim, a serial lothario brings "the little death" to conquest after conquest.  But the number of victims, or conquests, while it is relevant to the principle of escalation, is irrelevant to the question of whether a narrative employs either a varied or unvaried mode.

Only one close parallel applies.  If the use of multiple weapons is the dominant application of the varied mode in narratives of violence, then in narratives of sex, the closest parallel is that of specific sexual techniques and/or predilections.

But though works like the Kama Sutra and all its modern descendants recommend the employment of varied techniques for sex-partners in the real world, in human art the varied mode of sexuality doesn't occur nearly as often as the varied mode of violence.  Part of this is, as I said, because audiences are used to the idea of warriors or murderers employing varied methods of death-bringing.  But in addition, real sex is a much more private act than real violence, and too much variety can dispel audience identification.  I tend to think that this generalization also applies to fetishization narratives on the whole.  Should an erotic artist try to deal with both, say, incest and flagellation at the same time, the response of particular enthusiasts would probably be along the lines of the famous Reece's Peanut Butter Cup slogan.  "You got your incest in my flagellation!"  "Well, you got your..." etc. etc.

In the Western tradition the most common way to explore a variety of sexual techniques seems to be through an anthology-approach, where one can use different characters to expound different techniques.  Perhaps the best known American film on this theme is the Woody Allen farce Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, in which each story illustrates a different technique and/or manifestation of sexuality in comic fashion, as with the segment that really ought to have been titled, "Attack of the Giant Boob."



Even in many non-Western works, the anthology-approach is favored.  Japan's OGENKI CLINIC is another farce, but a serial one, in that it revolves around the exploits of a sex-clinic doctor-- the titular Ogenki-- and his buxom nurse as they explore their clients' many and varied manifestations of sexuality under the rubric of "medical treatment."  Even so, most stories content themselves with dealing with just one manifestation at a time, as with this rather mild illustration of "superhero cosplay sex."




It should go without saying that in works that follow the general pattern of Sade-- in which victims are subjected to varied torments for the sexual entertainment of their victimizers-- and perhaps of the audience as well-- are still dominantly in the mode of "varied violence," not "varied sex."


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

DYNAMICITY/DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS

 I've deleted this end-comment from my review of the 1934 BABES IN TOYLAND:

Originally, I viewed this film as a "combative comedy" due to the fight-scene between Barnaby and Tom Tom. As of 2-27-13 I've decided that neither Tom Tom nor Barnaby have the superlative qualities necessary to justify that categorization. However, the film's final battle between the Boogeymen and the giant toy soldiers-- both of whom have greater-than-average dynamicity-- does fulfill the mode of the combative. No such high-dynamicity conflict appears in the 1961 Disney remake.
I've probably devoted too much thought to this minor fantasy already in this post, particularly since it wasn't even  a film I enjoyed.  Nevertheless, the mere fact that I incorrectly labeled it as a "combative comedy" requires me to give it greater consideration.

At least the persona-classification of the protagonists (Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, potrayed by Laurel and Hardy) and their antagonist Barnaby proves pretty straightforward.  Barnaby is a villain of the first rank, but neither the comic stars nor the supporting "handsome young guy" Tom Tom are heroes.  Again, it's their quality of "positive persistence," not their lack of high dynamicity, that makes them demiheroes. I've given an example of a high-dynamicity demihero here and an example of a low-dynamicity hero here.  In fact, it's my consideration of the MIGHTY MAX cartoon-- in which the hero has no great dynamicity but one of his support-characters does-- that makes me reconsider categorizing the 1934 film as a "combative comedy."

That the significant value of the combative is there is beyond question.  I reiterate my interpretation that Barnaby and Tom Tom, the two characters contending over heroine Bo Peep, are not exceptional enough to generate any significant value of the combative.  However, the two supernormal forces that battle at the film's finale do generate that value.  Both of these forces, the toy soldiers and the Boogeymen, can be seen as "genies" through which the heroes or the villain respectively seek to accomplish their ends.



In the case of the heroes, the toy soldiers are constructed by Stannie Dum when he misinterprets Santa Claus' order.  Instead of building 600 one-foot-tall soldiers, Stannie constructs 100 six-foot-tall soldiers-- complete with working guns, which makes one wonder if the Stannie character was a part-time member in the NRA. 



In the case of Barnaby, his connection to the Boogeymen goes unexplained, but somehow he's able to gain control of them and turn them against the town of Toyland.  The attack is then repelled when Stannie and Ollie activate the soldiers and unleash them against the Boogeymen.

But I find myself asking: though the soldiers and the Boogeymen are extensions of the will of heroes and villain, are they central to the struggle, or just supporting characters in the story?  My rationale for not considering MIGHTY MAX as a combative adventure is that I deem Max's powerful ally Norman to be a secondary character, and so his contributions to the stories are secondary-- and non-centric-- as well.  It would be a different matter if I felt that Max and Norman comprised what I've termed an *ensemble.* But I do regard Norman to have only non-centric status.  Similarly, that's also the reason that the presence of a powerful supporting character of the DOCTOR WHO series, K-9, does not confer combative status upon the episodes in which he appears.  However, in K-9's own 2010-11 teleseries, he is the star and therefore his clashes with powerful aliens are fully combative.  By the logic of these examples, then, the toy soldiers and the Boogeymen are support-characters, and their exceptional combat does not generate a narrative value.  They are not comparable to the "iron genies" I discussed here.

On another front, I've recently reviewed the film OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. In this "prequel" to Baum's WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, protagonist Oscar Diggs also lacks the quality of "glory" that I deem necessary to a "hero"-- although ironically, he wants to have that glory.
Early in the film he says:


I don't want to be a good man... I want to be a great one.
In one of the film's few insightful moments, though, his supporting character Glinda sees the truth of his nature, telling him at the film's end that he actually is a good, rather than a great, man, with all the responsibilities the former role entails.  In my review I contrasted these values of glory and persistence thusly:
Glinda/Annie gets the last laugh at the ending, for through her influence Diggs becomes an ego-effacing "good man" rather than the ego-serving "great man" he wanted to be. 

However, though Diggs fits my criterion for demihero-dom, he does have some power that at least rates as "exemplary."  Diggs' power is that of illusion, of trickery, and it is through that power that he, Glinda and the Oz-ites are able to overthrow the superior forces of the Wicked Witch-Sisters.

Now, if Diggs were more of a comic bumbler like Stannie and Ollie dependent on dumb luck-- if he was not able to out-strategize the Witches-- then OZ would not be have the narrative value of the combative, in spite of the violent magical conflict between villainess Evanora and supporting-character Glinda.






I hope to work around to an "ethic of the combative mode" in future, FYI.



Monday, March 18, 2013

OUR ARMIES AT WAR, WITH MONSTERS

Part 1 and Part 2 of DYNAMICITY DUOS I discussed some of the ways in which individual characters, or small groups of characters, might pass from a lower level of dynamicity to a higher one.  With respect to such characters as Ellen Ripley of the ALIEN franchise, I demonstrated how such a character could begin at the "middle" level of dynamicity and then, in the course of the narrative, pull herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to the "high" level.  Even so, in the film ALIENS Ripley remained remained on the low end of that level, that of the "exemplary" as opposed to the "exceptional" level of her alien opponent. Later, ALIEN: RESURRECTION would transform the heroine into something more than human.

I also want to touch on the question of military might, which is often seen employed by large rather than small groups of characters, a might often pitted against the focal presences of giant monster-films.  I also touched on this principle with respect to small character-groups in TWICE THE MIGHT PT. 2, noting:

...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.
Prior to FORBIDDEN PLANET, another 1950s SF-spectacle followed essentially the same pattern.  In Ishiro Honda's 1954 GODZILLA, the audience witnesses the incomparable power of the focal monster.  Though the armies of this film are contemporary ones, as opposed to the far-future forces considered in TWICE THE MIGHT 2, the level of force unleashed by the Japanese military is functionally covalent with the forces unleashed by the heroes of FORBIDDEN PLANET.  The monster is at least affected by the intensity of these forces, though on the whole Godzilla is able to overcome everything humanity throws at him, including a huge electrified fence.



However, one genius-scientist, the war-weary Doctor Serizawa, is able to redeem mankind by unleashing a technological weapon which even Godzilla cannot resist: the deadly "oxygen destroyer," which reduces the giant creature to a skeleton-- though the resilient reptile manages to come back for further rampages in the many sequels.  Serizawa's invention is a tangible expression of the force that mankind as a whole can bring to bear.  So the 1954 GODZILLA qualifies as a combative film, since it both centers upon the results of the combat (the narrative value) as well as evoking the sense of sublime power (the significant value).

Consider in contrast, however, the 1953 adaptation of H.G, Wells' novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.  There's no question that the film evokes the grandeur of clashing powers as the American military strives in vain to bombard the near-invulnerable vessels of the Martian invaders.



However, though this would be another example of a work in which the X-level of dynamicity was expressed by both contestants in the significant sense-- exemplary for the military, exceptional for the Martians-- it would not be combative in the narrative sense.  In the film as in the Wells novel, what saves the human race is not some last-minute strategy or new weapon, but a lucky break having nothing to do with Earth's defenders.  In the book, Wells stresses only irony in the fact that the Martians perish from Earth-bacteria, while the 1953 film reverses this ideological interpretation, regarding the bacteria's presence as an expression of divine providence.  But regardless of which interpretation is favored, in neither case can Earth's defenders take any credit for the Martian defeat.



A very different rewriting of this Wells-conclusion appears in the last part of the Moore-O'Neill LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN VOLUME 2.  The starring characters are all involved in the battle against the Martians' second invasion, though neither Nemo's submarine nor Hyde's supernormal strength are able to do more than to give pause to the aliens.  What defeats the Martians in this second encounter is a mutant strain of bacteria developed by the army and dispenses by the League's government contact Campion Bond.  As in the examples of FORBIDDEN PLANET and GODZILLA, this germ-warfare is yet another last-minute "new weapon" which should be racked up to the account of Earth's defenders, even though Moore typically has his characters express horror at its utilization.  Two of the League-members, Quatermain and Murray, are even implicated in this dubious triumpth in that the two of them unknowingly convey the germ-weapon to their commander.
Admittedly the British army in this story is not as central an opponent to the monsters as the armies seen in the 1954 GODZILLA and the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS; the members of the League are the central opponents.  Nevertheless, the combative mode is not dispelled simply because the particular triumph comes about because of the actions of supporting characters.  As long as those supporting characters are strongly allied to the central protagonists, they can be viewed as an extension of the central protagonists' unified will.

One sees this "triumph of the supporting ally" in many venues, so I'll confine myself to one from Marvel's IRON MAN #5, where Iron Man's battle against the computer-villain "Cerebrus" (no relation to the Dave Sim character) is concluded by one such support-character.



Thursday, March 7, 2013

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF DEATH

In ESCALATION PROCLAMATION I wrote:

Though I specified in NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE PT 2 that narrative conflict did not require literal violence, narrative violence does have a potential, beyond that of any other literary device, for escalating the immediacy of the conflict...To be sure, narrative violence only has this potential when it is repeated within the narrative. A single violent act, such the sort of unsolved killing that initiates most murder-mysteries—including two of Poe’s three efforts in that genre—merely serves to incite the average reader’s curiosity. What incites that reader’s deeper identification is the repetition of violence. Through repetition of violence, the reader’s potential fears for the story’s characters are escalated. Which character may die next? Can the hero save the next victim from the villain’s machinations?

 
Having meditated for some time on the many ways in which violence escalates reader-tension through repetition, I've formulated two repetition-modes which are not confined to violence as such.  The two modes also apply to the other best-known principle whose main appeal to the kinetic senses, that of sex, and they might also apply to other facets of narrative storytelling: the dramatic interaction of characters, the thematic association of various thoughtful analyses, and others to be named later.  These two repetition-modes I term the VARIED and the UNVARIED.

I should add that this blogpost also touches on the theme raised with regard to the "goal-affects" of persona-types at the end of NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE 2:


...I am not saying that concrete goal-affects do not appear in hero-villain narratives. Maybe the Joker sends Batman a mocking note so that Batman will come chase him, but clearly the Penguin would rather get away with the loot rather than tilt with the Caped Crusader again.
 
Just as it's possible for heroes or villains to be consciously motivated by concrete goal-affects, even though their basic nature suggests the abstract quality I term "glory," it's just as possible for a monster or a demihero to appeal consciously to abstract goal-affects such as fame, even though their basic nature inclines toward the quality of "persistence."  In EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS 4  the Baron Frankenstein of Hammer Studios' CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN appears to want the "glory" of scientific fame, but analysis of the narrative shows that his character reflects rather the "instinctive will" of the monster-persona. Thus it will be seen that even though the two examples here use some of the same strategies for working evil, those strategies do not make them equivalent personae.

The earlier of my two examples appears in BATMAN #1 (1940).  In the first appearance of the Joker, the villain's modus operandi deals with him constantly dealing out death to many victims, whether they are rich men who possess priceless gems or authorities who have harried the Joker in the past.


Throughout this story the Joker only uses one UNVARIED weapon for his ritualized murders: a drug that causes its victims to perish with a rictus-smile on their lips (currently called "Joker-Venom" in the DC canon).  True, when chased by lawmen the villain may resort to a gun or a knife, and he does distribute the death-drug in a variety of ways: a poisoned dart, a cloud of gas.  But in this introductory story, the Joker is almost a one-trick pony, making his mode of repetition an UNVARIED one.

In contrast, consider the monstrous Doctor Phibes of two Vincent Price films of the early 1970s.




In these two films, Phibes uses a VARIED number of traps and device to execute his victims, some based on the "Ten Plagues of Egypt."  In the photo above he's using a device to drain all the blood from one victim, but his methods are diverse, including crushing a man's head with a mechanical mask, stabbing another with the horn of a (sculpted) unicorn, exposing another to scorpions, and so on.

Now the distinction I want to make is that even though the initial Joker-outing and the two Phibes films all intrigue the reader with escalating levels of violence, one does so by simply repeating essentially the same murder-method, while the other gives extra "spice" to death by introducing variety.  Thus in the PHIBES films the audience's intrigue may also be escalated by wondering what new death-device Phibes will introduce next.

Of course the Joker didn't remain a one-trick pony in later iterations.  I haven't tried to trace his development into a user of diverse gimmicks for battling justice.  However, the 1952 story "The Joker's Utility Belt" almost certainly takes pride of place.



From the 1960s on, the Joker would continue to be defined by his gimmicks, which either dealt out death or could incapacitate enemies so that he could kill them if he chose-- though usually, being the Joker, he had to try the old death-trap schtick, which also qualifies as a VARIED mode of repetition.

 

 More later.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

SEX, SETH, AND SADISM PT. 2

At the end of MAJORITY RULERSHIP PT 2 I said:

No matter how much one may dislike the particular modern manifestations of sexism, they have their roots in patterns that are as old as humankind. More on these patterns in a future essay.
I don't think I ever wrote that essay, so I may as well consider it to be my response to Heidi McDonald's screed on THE BEAT, referenced in Part 1.

On 3-1-13 I wrote this on the BEAT thread to agree with another poster:


I would agree with all of this except to add that [the Boob Song] is a bit of a joke (not a satire) on the male gender’s obsession with boobs; that a lot of hetero men will think of GIA or MONSTER’S BALL in terms of getting to see the tatas of famous actresses, not whatever the “high drama” was about.
It’s not so much that feminist statements here have been humorless; rather they’re not honest about admitting that what bugs them is that any women who show their stuff, even in art movies, SEEM to put themselves in a subservient position (call it “commodification” if you must get into the barren terrain of Marxspeak). I emphasize SEEM because I don’t think that these actresses are in a subservient position, though I understand the false logic that gets people to that conclusion. For that matter, I don’t think Jenna Jameson is subservient for showing her stuff, nor does the principle apply any male actor who does the same. Do the people who buy this argument also view nude Greek statuary as “commodification?”
 
I was 90% sure that the "they're not honest" remark would have goaded either Heidi or Laura Sneddon into a response, but for whatever reason I got none.  No one in either gender likes to be told that he or she is being dishonest in making heartfelt statements.  And of course I don't know anything about what went through their minds.  It's only their logic that I critique as "dishonest."

For example, Heidi said on 2-28:

“So what! That’s classic humor!” you say. Yes it is, and it’s also why as a FEMINIST I object to this extremely limiting form of humor that views women only as objects of outmoded social roles.
 
Heidi's cant about "social roles" is a perfect (unintended) response to my earlier statement that the nature of sexism is to be located in "patterns that are as old as humankind."

What patterns?  Well, how about the "hardwired sexual response" I mentioned in an earlier post?  While it's true that we can't easily separate the effects of culture from the effects of biology, it's dishonest to claim that men's interest in boobs is entirely the construction of culture, much less of "outmoded social roles."  We know, for instance, that in some primates the swelling of the breasts signals the female's estrus to the male of the species.  One doesn't have to be a fullblown advocate of the so-called "evo-psych" movement to speculate that even in modern civilization heterosexual men are still "programmed" to respond to primitive sexual signals.

I note that in some circles it's been claimed that the breast-attraction is not universal, citing its alleged absence in, say, early Chinese culture.  But the culture-warping schtick isn't confined to Madison Avenue.  If you grant contemporary culture the power to make men fetishize the mammary glands, then it's thinkable that some archaic cultures may have diverted a natural sexual response from one target to another-- for instance, to the fetish of tiny feet esteemed by some Chinese generations.

Similarly, Laura Sneddon said:

Lots of people here saying they don’t see how MacFarlane was undermining women or being sexist… all those people happen to be men. What a coincidence!
 
But once again, MacFarlane didn't "undermine" anyone.  He didn't put any live actors into subservient commodification-scenes.  He pointed out that such scenes (if one chooses to view them as objectification at all) had appeared in a number of high-art films, thus giving guys who wanted the illusion of seeing the actress's tits the chance to do so.  I don't think he had any "satirical" point in doing so.  It was just a funny consequence of the actresses having chosen to go "sans shirt" (as Heidi puts it). It's a consequence every actress has live with when she makes that decision, whether it's a film of "high art" or a piece of Roger Corman schlock.

There are some specific ways in which women having boobs can lead to their being victimized.  There are also ways in which it can give them wealth and power, as per my example of Jenna Jameson (OK, a little more than just breasts there).  The ethics of such sexual display would howeve require a more involved examination than I wish to pursue just now.






Monday, March 4, 2013

EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 4


In Part 3 I contrasted two teleseries—LOST IN SPACE and THE LOST WORLD-- which shared the same base concept—a group of castaways journeying through strange worlds, often obliged to help others in keeping with a dominant moral outlook of Good Samaritanism.  I did so to clarify that the differences between the personas of “heroes” and “demiheroes” are not determined by what they do, but how they do it.

The emphasis on "what they do" is one I've started calling “the recipe mentality.”  Vladimir Propp’s folktale-morphology, which I’ve admired hugely, is one example of this mentality.  For Propp the difference between his two types of protagonist, the “seeker” and the “victimized hero,” is a difference based in their orientation in terms of folkloric plot: one is largely active, the other is largely passive.

I admire Propp’s intent, to focus on the bare rudiments of narrative as closely as possible, presumably to avoid imposing some heuristic vision of his own upon the original materials. However, some time ago I realized that in popular fiction at least, there was no clear division between such plot-based actions, and I doubt that one exists in folktales either.  LOST IN SPACE and LOST WORLD are two serials with essentially the same premise, but their respective protagonist-ensembles combine, in varying proportions, the actions of Propp’s “seekers” as well as his “victimized heroes.”  In terms of dominant plotlines, I would have to say that more often than not the ensembles are placed in the position of the “victimized heroes,” in that trouble usually seeks them out rather than the other way round. Still, the Proppian distinction doesn’t capture the difference in character-attitude, which might be fairly deemed a failure of Propp’s analysis (one attacked in general terms by J.R.R. Tolkien, as mentioned here).

A parallel difference in character-attitude must also be the determining factor between the personas of the villain and the monster.  I’ve observed in past essays that some critics have tried to see the persona of “the monster” as applying only to creatures that seem without “motives, ambitions, or soul.”  In CREATED AND CREATOR ENSEMBLED HE THEM I gave evidence as to why even a very intellectual type of character, such as Wells’ Doctor Moreau, could still be a “monster.”  This reasoning also applies as to what qualities would separate Moreau’s monstrous nature from the nature of a “villain” who might employ the same modus operandi, that of making animals from men.  At some point I may try to make a direct comparison between Wells’ Moreau and some more villainous version of his type.  For the time being I’ll illustrate my “villain/monster” divide with reference to two of the most famous “mad scientists” in popular literature, Victor Frankenstein and Doctor Fu Manchu.

When this opposition occurred to me, I realized that it might have been awkward to compare the original novel-characters.  Mary Shelley’s mad scientist (who technically never becomes a licensed doctor) begins and ends within the scope of one novel.  Sax Rohmer’s “devil-doctor” seems to have been intended as a serial character from the beginning.  To keep the parallels closer, I decided to examine how each character was constructed in terms of works that were both intended as ongoing serial works.

I’ve now reviewed only the first entries of the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN series and the Harry Alan Towers-produced FU MANCHU series.  Both serials starred British actors and focused upon characters created by British authors.  The Hammer series debuted in the late 1950s and lasted sporadically until the early 1970s.  The Towers series debuted in the middle 1960s and lasted only about five more years, and arguably it coattailed on the success of the Hammer horror-films, since the Fu Manchu series starred an actor made internationally famous by his assocation with Hammer.  The Hammer Frankenstein series is well regarded in some critical circles, while Towers’ Fu Manchu films are generally beneath any critical radar.  But for my purposes, the serials’ most important point of comparison is how each uses the “mad scientist” trope.

The Shelley novel devotes considerable time to Frankenstein’s backstory, and Rohmer’s novels build up a complex if indirect portrait of Fu Manchu’s character.  Neither THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN nor THEFACE OF FU MANCHU delves into motivation, however.  As I remarked in my CURSE review, the only motivation Victor Frankenstein has for his experiments is that he is a “precocious child of privilege” who also happens to be a genius and wishes to prove it.  Towers’ Fu Manchu doesn’t even get this much.  Nayland Smith describes the devil-doctor as “the most dangerous and evil man in the world,” and that’s the only motive needed, with Towers eschewing even the minimal political motivations of the novels (i.e., Fu Manchu may have been a product of China’s Boxer Rebellion).

Nevertheless, even with spotty depictions of character, it can be demonstrated that of the two characters—both devoted to a consciensce-less pursuit of science for personal gain-- one of the two conforms to the persona of the monster, and the other to that of the villain.

I indicated in EXPENDITURE PT. 3 that LOST IN SPACE’s characters were characterized by the value of “persistence.”  The characters in that series comprised a family whose primary concern was one of homeostasis; the ability to survive from day to day while allowing the children to mature under the best achievable circumstances. In the Shelley novel Victor Frankenstein—whom I would view as the demihero counterpart of his monstrous creation—also seeks a homeostasis, but in a thoroughly negative sense. Threatened by the agency of other people, Frankenstein subconsciously wants to be a community of one, and so allows his monster-doppelganger to kill all those that threaten his solitary hegemony.



The Victor Frankenstein of CURSE extends this scientific preoccupation to Sadean proportions.  Like his novelistic forbear, Hammer-Frankenstein becomes the prisoner of his own idée fixee, but the Hammer version is much more calculatingly cruel than Shelley’s original.  Whereas the novel version agonizes over his love for his cousin Elizabeth, Frankenstein barely wants his beauteous cousin in his life. At most he consents to marry her for societal convenience, though he may also be aware that his tutor Paul loves her, and so wants to keep Elizabeth around in order to manipulate Paul.  Sex for Frankenstein is an itch that he scratches with his convenient maid Justine.  When Justine has the temerity to get pregnant, Frankenstein has no interest in the fact that she carries his child, and he sets up the mother of his child—and his child—to be killed by his captive creature.  As I pointed out with regard to Doctor Moreau, the negative manifestations of the demihero—dominantly a positive persona-- are never as extreme as those of the monster, a persona statistically dominated by a negative nature.  Like Moreau, Frankenstein prates about having his genius recognized by others, but neither of them really cares about fame.  They exist to unleash the dark forces of their respective obsessions, and their genius-intellects are merely the vehicle for those obsessions.  The voice of a more humanistic side of genius is heard early in the film, before Baron Frankenstein harvests the genius’ brain for his obscene creation:   


“… we [scientists] quickly tire of our discoveries.  We hand them over to people who are not ready for them—while we go off again into the darkness of ignorance—searching for other discoveries, which will be mishandled in just the same way.”—Doctor Bernstein, courtesty of CURSE scribe Jimmy Sangster.


I don’t think it’s coincidence that scribe Sangster associates the productions of science with the delving into “the darkness of ignorance.” Normally one imagines science as a light that dispels ignorance, but Sangster’s Bernstein sees it as unleashing dark forces in a human community ill-prepared for such revelations, while those doing the unleashing are no less prisoners of their own obsessed psyches.  Thus science, rather than dispelling darkness, merely allowes it to propagate new forms, like Frankenstein’s monster.  Thus the intelligent genius of a Frankenstein conveys the same value of a “negative persistence” that we see in unthinking monsters like Leatherface or the Blob.


I said earlier that Hammer-Frankenstein’s obsession had been extended to Sadean proportions.  By that I meant that his cruelty is more deliberate than that of the demihero-protagonist of the Shelley novel.  However, it’s a cruelty that is largely reactive to circumstances, like the threat Justine poses to Frankenstein’s operations.  True Sadean sentiments are proactive; they seek cruelty for its own sake, not simply to achieve homeostasis.


The Towers Fu Manchu, as I noted earlier, shows no political motivations in his desire for world domination.  The Fu Manchu of the Rohmer novels dreams an impossible dream, seeking the return of the hegemony of ancient China in the face of European dominance and (in the later novels) in opposition to Chinese Communism.  True, since Towers’ Fu Manchu is served mostly by Asian aides—his Chinese daughter, his dacoits, who strangle people with their “Tibetan prayer scarves”—one presumes that if Fu Manchu achieved world conquest, the result would be a world with Asians on top. So the threat of the “Yellow Peril” is still one of Asian hegemony, even though Towers tries to stay away from real-world politics.   

       

Whereas Frankenstein’s senseless ambition merely stems from the “negative persistence” of his own ego, Fu Manchu’s mad science is informed by “negative glory.”  Admittedly, the Towers Fu Manchu doesn’t seem to defy history quite as much as the Rohmer character does with his passion to revive dynastic China.  Still, Fu’s central plan might be deemed a pre-technological take on nuclear brinkmanship.  He eschews dirtying his hands with modern technology; Fu wants to destroy Western hegemony with a natural weapon born in the remote wilds of the East, specifically Tibet. Today modern audiences would never place credence in a death-drug brewed from some rare Eastern flower.  These audiences have too much belief that the next source of chemical warfare will come from some terrorists’ laboratory.  Such weapons, even if conceived by Eastern enemies of the West, would still be a continuation of Western science, but would not be the exclusive properties of the mysterious East.


Because of this primitivist urge, Towers’ Fu Manchu still carries the aura of Satanic defiance, of purposefully transgressing the norms of society, as all good villains must. Monsters, in contrast, usually transgress norms without as much conscious intention, or else by using some false rationale, as do mad doctors like Moreau and Hammer-Frankenstein.  Thus Fu Manchu is also a Sadean in the true sense of the word, in that he desires power for its own sake—though in FACE it is his daughter, rather than the devil-doctor, who shows a desire to take erotic pleasure in cruelty.  


I must note in closing that in the first Towers Fu Manchu film, the devil-doctor isn’t seen showing off his own scientific genius as Victor Frankenstein does in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  In FACE OF FU MANCHU the evil genius allows other experts to brew the death-drug of the Black Lotus, and one never sees his own perfidious inventions.  However, later Towers entries do show Fu Manchu conceiving weird weapons of his own, so I would say that the Black Lotus peril of FACE is still evidence of Fu’s scientific aegis, even if he has others doing the work for him.  Certainly he comes across as more of a wonder-worker in FACE than he does in MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, where he just knows a few exotic poisons. 


Even the endings of the respective films differ in their presentations of “persistence” and “glory.”  CURSE ends with Frankenstein about to go to the guilloutine, but since the film proved successful, Hammer’s producers found a way to show that the baron escaped execution so that there could be further appearances of Peter Cushing’s obsessed scientist.  FACE OF FU MANCHU starts from the other extreme: Fu Manchu appears to die in the film’s first scene, but his nemesis Nayland Smith still imagines that he lives despite being beheaded.  Nayland Smith eventually figures out how the evil doctor pulled off the trick, and attempts to kill Fu Manchu in the film’s final scene.  But Fu Manchu implicitly survives any and all devastating dooms levied upon him, due to the villainous glory attaching to him.  Hammer’s Victor Frankenstein also persists from film to film, destined to come up with a new monster each time.  But Frankenstein never becomes a glorious figure.  No matter how many innocents die for his experiments, he, the wandering monster, is arguably more pathetic than any of them—as I hope to show with further examinations of the Hammer series.

MONSTROUS MISCELLANY PT. 2

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's"-- William Blake.

This is a much more elegant way of saying what I said in TERMINOLOGY OF ENDEARMENT:

I'm aware that my lexicon of terms on this blog has been and probably will remain daunting to most readers. But I believe that no critic worth his salt is ever comfortable with passively receiving terms set down by other analysts, whether lit-critics like Frye or persons from other disciplines like Big Sigmund.
 
My "system," of course, will probably never have any impact as a series of blog-posts.  To have any impact in any sphere, the system would have to be set down in some coherent form, be it a book or a wiki.

That said, one reason I'll probably never put down a lexicon on the blog is that I'm constantly finding new linkages that redefine the old ones.  Critics who want to stick with the predictable terminologies of the Freudians and the Marxists and their kinded-- following what I deem the delusion that those disciplines have some real connection to the world of "objective science"-- are welcome to do so. 

On to one such connection:

Not since 2011 have I written of the dichotomy "Moira/Themis."-- a pairing principally derived from the formulatons of 20th-century myth-critics, such as Jane Ellen Harrison, whom I discussed somewhat in BACK TO THE LIBRARY.

The creator toiling in the fields of "high" or canonical literature expects to impose a theme upon the phantasms of the imagination, much as (in a different context) Jane Ellen Harrison argued that early myth's early phase, dominated by the "Moira," or fate, gave way to a second phase, that of "Themis," which dealt with the ordering of myth as attuned with "behavior dictated by social conscience." The parallel to the operations of "high" and "low" literature need not be belabored.
In a related essay, I compared the characteristics of "moira," associated with ritual and "the primitive law of sacrifice and atonement," with Frye's concept of "primary concerns," while "themis" was a socially articulated concept of "justice," comparable to Frye's concept of the "secondary concerns" that guide civilized humans in the right attainment of the "primary concerns."

The paradigm here is one of evolutionary development.  Subconsciously powerful forces-- be they "moira" or "primary concerns"-- eventually evolve into the more discursively organized, conscious concepts of "themis/secondary concerns."  And Schopenhauer advocates the same developmental distinctions between "primary" and "secondary" levels of experience:

"...the world as will is the primary (world) and the world as idea the secondary world. The former is the world of desire and consequently that of pain and thousand-fold misery. The latter, however, is in itself intrinsically painless: in addition it contains a remarkable spectacle, altogether significant or at the very least entertaining. Enjoyment of this spectacle constitutes aesthetic pleasure." Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851 (Essays and Aphorisms, R. J. Hollingdale, trans., London Penguin Books, 1970), p.156.

The two literary personas that I compare with the primary "instinctive will" of moira-- the monster and the demihero-- might not be as entirely governed by "misery" as the Gloomy Philosopher chooses to typify ordinary life.  However, the images of sacrifice and suffering capture the "emptying" essence of the concept of *kenosis* as conceived by Theodor Gaster.  One might say that the positive incarnation of "moira" is the community of ordinary, "persistent" humanity-- a community destined to be eternally threatened by its shadow-side, the negative "monster."

In contrast, I would not say that the world of the secondary "intellectual will" is "intrinsically painless."  However, I would say that its personas, the "hero" and the "villain" are defined not by sacrifice but by the "filling" essence of *plerosis*, which takes the form of glorious spectacle.  It's therefore no coincidence that the principal quarrel between the hero and the villain is not one of simple existence, as it is between the monster and his demihero victims.  Rather, their quarrel concerns the validity of "themis," the intellectually imposed law, which the negative "villain" defies and the positive "hero" defends.

SEX, SETH, AND SATIRE PT. 1

Once again the spectre of sexual objectification rises up to disturb the innocent souls of Hollywood. It's been a week since Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars with these partial lyrics to "the Boob Song."
We saw your boobs
We saw your boobs
In the movie that we saw, we saw your boobs.

Meryl Streep, we saw your boobs in "Silkwood"
Naomi Watts' in "Mulholland Drive"
Angelina Jolie, we saw your boobs in "Gia"
They made us feel excited and alive.
Anne Hathaway, we saw your boobs in "Brokeback Mountain"
Halle Berry, we saw them in "Monster's Ball"
Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut"
Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler," but
We haven't seen Jennifer Lawrence's boobs at all.

We saw your boobs
We saw your boobs
In the movie that we saw, we saw your boobs.


On this BEAT post, entitled "Why Seth MacFarlane Is Not a Great Satirist," Heidi found the lyrics somewhat less than politically correct, saying:

Let’s take the most obvious example: “We Saw Your Boobs.” The set up is William Shatner as Captain Kirk slingshotting back in time to warn MacFarlane not to do the horrible tasteless things he’s about to do and thus earn the label of worst Oscar host ever. To show what’s about to happen. Shatner cuts to a video of MacFarlane singing a song called “We Saw Your Boobs” where he names actresses and the films in which they appeared sans shirt.
Now, if the object of the humor was actually MacFarlane and his penchant for ribald attack humor, a simple 15-second cutaway—much like those on Family Guy—would have gotten across the point…and the humor. But no, it goes on for nearly two minutes—the point is to name and shame, say the word boobs and turn actresses into dehumanized objects yet again. I have a dream that someday women will be judged by the content of their character and not the content of their Maidenforms, but that day has not come for MacFarlane. In his world, if you’re a woman and doggedly track down the worst terrorist the world has ever known, you’re not a hero—you’re just another woman who’s mad at being stood up on a date.
 

I have no idea where Heidi gets the "mad at being stood up on a date" thing from; it's not in MacFarlane's song and doesn't seem to reference any of the movies MacFarlane names. I assume the "terrorist" remark refers back to 2012 Oscar nominee ZERO DARK THIRTY.

Heidi's initial definition of "satire" is pretty close to my own, in that I think real satire includes some moral element.  Heidi says:

Satire is meant to take one thing and examine it through a humorous lens, usually in a critical way.
 
However, I certainly would not agree that it can or should only be directed at the people Heidi thinks should be critiqued:

 Now of course, there is often pop culture satire on Family Guy, but the humor is as much aimed at the helpless as at targets that need to be taken down a peg. It’s the mocking humor of the powerful, not social critique.
 
I wonder what Heidi would make of this typical scathing shot which Al Capp of LI'L ABNER fame took at the counterculture of his time.



Now, Capp may have regarded hippies as "targets that needed to be taken down a peg" if he genuinely did not like their worldview.  Does the fact that hippies were marginal in terms of real-world power mean that it's not satire when he attacks them, but that it is satire when Capp attacks General Bullmoose, he of the famed motto, "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the country?"


Though I agree with Heidi that some moral criticism is intrinsic to satire, the example of Capp indicates that satire's mode of criticism has nothing to do with whether the targets do or do not wield power in society.


All that said, I also disagreed with those who defended the Boob Song in terms of its being satire, whether of MacFarlane's image or Hollywood art movies, or whatever.  I also disagree with Heidi deeming MacFarlane as "not a great satirist" because I don't deem him to fite that category.  I said on the thread:

MacFarlane’s not a satirist at all. He’s a farceur; he makes his daily bread poking at any and all sensitive areas (unlike the SOUTH PARK posers).The object of his humor in the “boobs” skit was to point out that Oscar can nominate all the high-falutin’ flicks, can ignore pretty much every good comedy every made– and hetero guys will still primarily remember which hot chick showed her tatas in which flick. 
“Forget it, Jake. It’s hardwired sexual response.”
 
 Having said that, though, I decided to search the web to see whether or not Seth MacFarlane had ever *claimed* to be a satirist.  I did find an offical response from him that made such a claim, in response to a protest over one of those jabs at "the helpless," Down Syndrome victims, with an additional jab at a "powerful" figure, Sarah Palin, in the FAMILY GUY episode "Extra Large Medium."


The Times asked "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane for an interview regarding the matter. But he opted to send a statement via his publicist: "From its inception, 'Family Guy' has used biting satire as the foundation of its humor. The show is an "equal-opportunity offender."-- SHOW TRACKER.
 

Nevertheless, even now that I know that MacFarlane has on one occasion defined himself as a satirist, that doesn't alter my view.  FAMILY GUY may produce a "feminist episode" in which Peter Griffin's normal male chauvinism is replaced by a New Age feminine sensitivity.  But meaningful change is anathema to the broad farce of the show, and so Peter's newfound sensitivity vanishes in the face of a riotous appeal to male fetishism: a catfight between Peter's female boss and his wife Lois.



Now, even if I say that a comic routine is not meant to make a serious moral criticism, that isn't the same as divesting the routine of all meaning.  I won't dwell on the distinction here, but will only note that I examined the matter of non-moral meaning somewhat more in A MORAL FIXATION.

Next up: having disposed of Seth and satire, that other thing-- I forget its name-- will appear in Part 2.

Friday, March 1, 2013

MONSTROUS MISCELLANY

"[Leatherface] is never an object of pity per se, but is clearly not your standard masked maniac who delights in the torments of his victims.  He is the very banality of our primal basic animal nature; no motive, no ambitions, no conscience and no soul.  It exists merely to survive and provide for itself and its family."-- "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," essay by Michael Feischer, HORRORHOUND magazine, Jan/Feb 2013.
 
Though I don't quite get why essayist Feischer changes pronouns in midstream from "he" to "it," the fact that he does so might demonstrate that the concept of the monster is one that makes it hard to distinguish between sentient life and non-sentient objects.  A few of the monster-movies I've reviewed on NATURALISTIC! UNCANNY! MARVELOUS! even include "monsters" who are nothing more than non-sentient phenomena gone berserk, though it's more often that they're giant versions of creatures found in nature-- spiders, birds, octopi, etc.

Feischer (presumably no relation to the similarly named comics-writer Michael FLEISCHER) is only talking about one monstrous figure, but I would say that parts of his description work for my concept of the monster-persona, particularly the reference to "basic animal nature" and the focus upon survival of itself and its ingroup.

I certainly would not typify monsters as being without "motive," "ambitions," "conscience," or "soul," however.  A mad scientist like Wells' Doctor Moreau, examined here, has both motives and ambitions, although he has no conscience and arguably no soul.  In contrast, many monsters are appealing precisely because they are aware of their monstrous nature and struggle to some extent against it, even if they fail to triumph, as I recently observed in the case of the two BLACULA films.
Perhaps one appeal of the monster is that he has an "animal nature"-- which for me is the same as an "instinctive will"-- that he often fights against, though often unsuccessfully.  The rare monsters that manage to succeed are those that, like the Hulk and the Swamp Thing, do manage to become serious heroic protagonists. Comic monsters like Dick Briefer's Frankenstein must be considered successes of a sort, though since they occupy a comic universe, their struggles are by their nature lacking in deep conviction.



On another matter, I wrote in the above-cited essay:


The difference in the degree of negativity, however, makes me label Wells' Doctor Moreau a "monster" rather than a "demihero."

This doesn't contradict anything I've written, but I want to clarify that though the demihero does have some potential as a vessel for negative, life-denying forces-- and can even transform rather easily into the figure of the monster-- on the whole the "instinctive will" governing the demihero is the positive mirror-image of the "animal nature" Feischer references.  At times demiheroes are set up to be unequivocal victims, whether they are sympathetic  or not, but they have a quality of "persistence" equal to that of the monster, and so are capable of turning the tables on their monstrous doubles-- though usually with the sort of "glorious" attitude of the hero triumphing over the villain.