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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

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

Friday, January 31, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: "THE REMAINS OF DREAMS" (WEEKLY YOUNG SUNDAY, 1987?)





In my review of the ONE POUND GOSPEL arc”The Lamb Resurrected,” I called attention to the way artist-writer Rumiko Takahashi used the genre of boxing-stories to put forth “a modern-day reading of samurai battle ethics.” A na├»ve critic might try to impose on Takahashi’s series some superficial oppositional interpretation, in which the comical blunders of the male boxer, amiable dolt Kosaku Hatanaka, served to “deconstruct masculinity” or some such nonsense. In truth, the female author of GOSPEL shows herself to be more than a little fascinated with the ethos of the male warrior, both in this series and others like RANMA ½ and INU-YASHA. The fact that Takahashi’s male heroes often need to be taken down a peg by the women in their lives doesn’t signify a rebellion against the patriarchy. Rather, such a trope more often signals the classical notion that men and women exist to counterbalance one another, in terms of both strengths and failings.





To be sure, Kosaku’s dim-witted but sincere desire for the woman in his life, the novice nun Sister Angela, doesn’t appear in “Dreams” as more than a side-element. This five-part arc was the third storyline in the series, so the young just-turned-pro boxer has already invited Angela to become his girlfriend, only to be summarily rebuffed. Implicity Takahashi intends to line up Kosaku’s general thick-headedness in romance with his similar incomprehension as to the discipline a boxer must observe, if he has any “dreams” of attaining a level of excellence.

The first two arcs also establish the comic rationale of the series: Kosaku loves the sport of boxing, but he loves food as much or more. At one point in the story Sister Angela remarks that if not for her acquaintance with Kosaku, she would never have known that boxers had to watch their weight at all times—a remark that allows her to stand in for uninformed readers, who will have their curiosity about the sport slaked by assorted lectures on the sport. (In contrast, readers don’t get many insights on Catholicism just because Angela’s a nun. Takahashi portrays Kosaku making Angela’s acquaintance by unburdening himself to her in the confession-box—though I rather doubt that nuns usually hear confessions, even in Japan.)



For the first time in the series, Takahashi establishes the reason why Kosaku is so focused on both fighting and feeding: in his heart of hearts, he nurtures the primitive notion that the more he eats, the stronger he is. In “Dreams” the young boxer gets the chance to test his theory. At a time when Kosaku’s already got a bad rep in the fight-game for his inability to manage his weight, the boxer and his long-despairing manager Mukaida get the chance for another bout—only to find that it’s offered by a boxer, Kappei Onimaru, whose reputation isn’t much better than Kosaku’s. Further, in order to fight welterweight Onimaru, featherweight Kosaku must gain twenty pounds. Kosaku takes the fight as an opportunity to pig out in the extreme.





Mukaida allows Kosaku to chase his phantom, and sure enough, the boxer learns how badly his new diet affects his speed and coordination when, as Mukaida puts it, the youth has “twenty-two pounds of dead meat strapped to his body.” Meanwhile, challenger Onimaru is chasing his own demons— or, as the title suggests, dreams that are about to come to an end. Unlike Kosaku, who’s won some bouts despite his bad rep, Onimaru has no wins to his credit, despite the fact that he takes the sport far more seriously than Kosaku does. Initially Onimaru’s manager schedules Onimaru’s battle with Kosaku just to give the older boxer a win—not least because he’s probably going to have to give up the sport, since he’s had no success and his wife has a baby on the way. But even before the two men fight, Onimaru recognizes Kosaku’s inherent skill and power, and becomes angry with Kosaku for abusing his body so flagrantly. Kosaku and Angela even learn that Onimaru keeps a shrine to all of his previous opponents, in order that Onimaru can express how deeply he feels about the sport, even in defeat.



When the water breaks for Onimaru’s unnamed wife—who, incidentally, gives him verbal hell for his stubbornness—the dedicated boxer is on fire to get at least one victory before his child is born. Indeed, Onimaru is so certain that his masculine pride will finally be vindicated that he decides that the name of the child—which he’s sure will be a boy—will be “Victor.” (The wife sarcastically asks, “If it’s a girl, will you want to name her ‘Loser?’”) The fight ensues, and though Kosaku has a hard time of it thanks to his extra weight, he remains the superior fighter and emerges victorious. Onimaru is at last chastened enough to give up on the last remnants of his boxing-dream, and reconciles himself with his new status as father—naturally, of a little girl.
In contrast, though Kosaku no longer believes in his dream of eating anything he wants, it’s axiomatic that he’ll continue to aggravate his trainers by sneaking snacks. But Angela is encouraged both by Kosaku’s good intentions and his inability to live up to them—for this state of affairs ensures that he will always need a “mother confessor. ” Thus she will be able to remain a part of the handsome boxer’s life, even if she’s not quite ready to confess her own feelings in the matter.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

ADDICTED TO VICTIMAGE PT. 2

The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly — except that situations do not always follow one another in clear succession, but often there is a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled.-- Martin Buber, I AND THOU.
You wanted money. Where was it all to come from? You have drained your sisters’ little hoard (all brothers sponge more or less on their sisters). Those fifteen hundred francs of yours (got together, God knows how! in a country where there are more chestnuts than five-franc pieces) will slip away like soldiers after pillage. And, then, what will you do? Shall you begin to work? Work, or what you understand by work at this moment, means, for a man of Poiret’s calibre, an old age in Mamma Vauquer’s lodging-house. There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in that aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skilful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose. Men bow before the power of genius; they hate it, and try to slander it, because genius does not divide the spoil; but if genius persists, they bow before it. To sum it all up in a phrase, if they fail to smother genius in the mud, they fall on their knees and worship it. Corruption is a great power in the world, and talent is scarce. So corruption is the weapon of superfluous mediocrity; you will be made to feel the point of it everywhere.-- Vautrin to Rastignac, Honore de Balzac, PERE GORIOT. 

It's a hard world to get a break in,
All the good things have been taken-- "It's My Life," sung by the Animals. 


Here's yet another of my recycled titles, only loosely connected to this essay from 2015. Instead, I'm expounding further on my negative estimation of Jordan Peele's 2019 horror-film US, reviewed here. I wrote in part:

Even before listening to Peele's ruminations about "privilege" on the DVD, it was pretty evident that Peele wasn't telling a generic horror story in which the main characters just happened to be Black Americans. The Wilsons are clearly being punished for their affluence, while Peele's sympathies lie with the marginalized doppelgangers. Peele's politics... [assert] that everyone who possesses any level of privilege does so at the expense of some other person.

 During his DVD remarks, Peele maunders about the supposed moral underpinnings of his film, though he's absurdly fuzzy about what the moral is. This site transcribed said remarks:

 "One of the central themes in Us is that we can do a good job, collectively, of ignoring the ramifications of privilege," Peele continued. "I think it's the idea that what we feel like we deserve comes, you know, at the expense of someone's else's freedom or joy. And the biggest disservice we can do as a faction with a collective privilege, like the United States, is to presume that we deserve it, and that it isn't luck that has us born where we're born. For us to have our privilege, someone suffers. That's where the tethered connection, I think, resonates the most is that those who suffer and those who prosper are two sides of the same coin. You never forget that and we have to fight for the less fortunate."

This superficial screed speaks to my review-observation that Peele never feels it necessary to explore how the Wilsons became so well-off, or to say much, if anything, about what either Gabe, Adelaide, or both of them do in order to earn their daily bread. The insidious implication is that the Wilsons have wealth merely out of "luck," and that hard work plays absolutely no part in it. Indeed, though the Wilsons are black, by ascending to an upper middle-class position they become functional white people, who implicitly also have their superior wealth out of "luck." I suspect that people who think like this subscribe to an exaggerated idea of how much privilege white people have received as the result of "the good old white guy's network," as if one just signs one's name onto a sheet and starts collecting paychecks.

Though Peele is promoting a simple-minded racial myth, the example of Buber shows how such an opposition can have more profound ramifications. The relationship of "the haves" to "the have nots" would be something Buber would call an "I-it" relationship. Peele is almost certainly implying that the relationship of the Wilsons to their deprived doppelgangers is comparable to the relationship of slave-owners to their slaves. Clearly the Wilsons' ignorance that the doppelgangers even exist is no excuse, in the same way those damn white people can't be excused for not constantly acknowledging that the country was built upon the labor of slaves.

Now, had Peele actually made a film in which someone was "fighting for the less fortunate," one might agree with his ethical stance. However, US does nothing of the kind. It's all about the doppelgangers' violent, largely aimless revolution-- and even though they're faux black people attacking real black people, clearly the Wilsons, by having stuff, represent the status quo. Nothing shows this revolutionary attitude more than the way Peele orchestrates the "accidental" playing of a rap song, "Fuck Tha Police," which repeatedly expresses black anger at, and plans for black violence against, law-enforcement officers who also represent the status quo. I for one fail to see how Peele can claim he's telling people to fight for the less fortunate, and at the same time spotlights characters who want nothing but violent usurpation of persons more fortunate.

"It's a hard world to get a break in,' the Animals sang, but little did they know that it was possible to blame the status quo for how hard it is. Just as Buber is more subtle than Peele regarding the "I-It relationship," Balzac is many times the superior of Peele regarding the dynamics of good fortune. The speaker of the quote above is the sinister, possibly criminal manipulator Vautrin, who attempts, in Mephistophelean fashion, to convince the naive young law student Rastignac to participate in a conspiracy. Balzac does not, in the end, champion Vautrin's "I-it" point of view, and favors rather the "I-thou" interaction of Rastignac and the eternally suffering Father Goriot. Yet the French author constructs Vautrin's argument with a rigorous honesty that Peele may never be able to achieve. There are many other factors beyond "the old boys' network" that can keep some people from good fortune. Rather, it's too much supply and too little demand: Rastignac is just one of a potential fifty thousand young men who seek prosperity, and Vautrin urges him to follow the path of corruption, since obviously the young man is anything but a genius.

Could Peele have made a movie that discussed so-called "white privilege" in more realistic terms, rather than one that simplistically insisted that it was the source of all suffering for people of color--even causing suffering, in an indirect fashion, to those persons of color who actually grab the brass ring of prosperity? I suppose it's possible. But most film critics bend over backwards to accomodate filmmakers who practice Peele's brand of identity politics. So he will probably go on making more movies like US, endlessly wallowing in victimage and the blame game-- and never, ever being having a moment of artistic honesty.







Monday, January 27, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU (1931)

The long gap between Rohmer's 1917 HAND OF FU MANCHU and the 1931 DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU is explained by Wikipedia's "Sax Rohmer" entry thusly:

The first three Fu Manchu books were published in the four years between 1913–1917; but it was not until 1931 (some 14 years after the third book in the series) that Rohmer returned to the series with Daughter of Fu Manchu. The reason for the long interval was that Rohmer wanted to be rid of the series after The Si-Fan Mysteries. The first three books had been successfully filmed by Stoll in the twenties as a pair of serials.[3] In 1928, Rohmer finally bowed to pressure and agreed to write a fourth novel as a serial for Collier'sParamount had the first Warner Oland picture gearing up for production and the daily newspaper strip based on the series was in the offing.[citation needed]Rohmer's first effort at reviving the Fu Manchu property was ultimately reworked as The Emperor of America. The original intent had been for the head of the organisation to be Fu Manchu's daughter. He kept Head Centre as a female criminal mastermind to combat Drake Roscoe, but was very unhappy with the book both as it started and in its finished form. He would later return to Drake Roscoe and his female supervillain for the Sumuru series. In the meantime, he tried again to focus his energies on what was first titled Fu Manchu's Daughter for Collier's in 1930, but with an older (now knighted) Denis Nayland Smith as the protagonist once more. The results were infinitely better and jump-started the series in the process.

I read EMPEROR OF AMERICA a long time ago and don't remember much about it aside from the fact that it had a female super-villain. DAUGHTER is certainly a better book, though I don't think it's nearly as good as HAND.

Though Doctor Petrie appears in the early chapters, he's no longer the series-narrator, possibly because he's now a middle-aged man, married to Karameneh and thus no longer capable of generating romantic plotlines. The new viewpoint character is young British stalwart Shan Greville, though Rohmer tells the reader even less about Greville's background than the author did regarding Petrie. Greville's informally linked to a current Egyptian expedition headed by Rohmer's favorite support-character, Sir Lionel Barton, and that linkage may come down to nothing more than the fact that the young man is in love with Rima, who is Barton's niece. Rohmer keeps telling readers that Rima is a superstitious "Irish colleen," though presumably she's at least half-British if she's Barton's niece.

Barton himself seems on the verge on his last appearance, since he starts out being declared dead. Petrie, however, receives a warning that it's possible to revive Barton with a special elixir, in Petrie's possession after one of the physician's previous contacts with the devil-doctor (currently believed dead after his yacht crashed in HAND). There are also other enigmatic personages hanging around the Egyptian dig-site. One of them is a sneaky-seeming Egyptian, who turns out to be Nayland Smith himself in disguise. Another is one Madame Ingomar, but Nayland Smith reveals that she is actually the daughter of Fu Manchu. For the first time Smith gives her the name "Fah Lo Suee," and he notes that his buddy Petrie met her once before (in HAND). Smith does not mention whether or not he personally has ever encountered the woman who, now just under thirty, qualifies as "the most dangerous woman living." (A later section also calls her a "superwoman," which is fitting since the first novel called her father a "superman.")

Rohmer does not revive the HAND plotline about how Fah was supposedly going to impersonate an immortal goddess out of Tibetan legend, but he does keep the idea that the doctor's daughter is going to try to mobilize an assortment of Eastern cults. Burmese dacoits were mentioned all through the first three books, but DAUGHTER is the first place to bring Indian Thuggee, Phansigars from Afghanistan, and the Arabic Hashishin under the umbrella of the Si-Fan, in addition to bringing back the Mandarin Ki-Ming from Book Three. In typical clueless-leading-man fashion, Greville stumbles into witnessing a Council-meeting, and though it's not clear whether or not Fah Lo Suee attempts to hoax the cult-members into thinking her a deity, Greville says that "she resembled an ivory statue of some Indian goddess. Indeed, as I watched, I knew she was Kali..." I'm pretty sure this novel is the first mention of Kali as well, though the early novels mention that the dacoits use a "call of Siva."

There are intimations that Fu Manchu, though elderly and infirm, is still alive. He doesn't do much until the novel's end, though it's possible that he makes it possible for Petrie to revive the not-quite-dead Barton. It turns out that the Egyptian tomb being investigated by Barton was an earlier haunt of Fu Manchu, and that the doctor stored therein a lot of chemicals and records, which, according to Smith, could give Fu-- or his daughter-- "control of practically all the fanatical seers of the East." Though Fah shows no signs of rebellion in HAND, here she's portrayed as a child of ambition, eager to supplant her father's reign over the Si-Fan.

But like Karameneh before her, Fah Lo Suee is a woman of chimerical passions, and she sets her sights on Greville. At one point she captures Greville, and makes clear that she can read his mind to some extent-- an ability later extended to Fu Manchu as well-- though Fah specifies that she can only read Greville's mind when he's weakened by the ordeal of capture. She plans to take him with her to China, and to keep him happy she's willing to take Rima along as well. However, at a point when she has Greville, Rima, and Smith in her power, Fu Manchu appears, upbraids her for her ambitions, and allows the Brits to go free, while making it clear that he'll be gone before they can return with police.

Karameneh, incidentally, only has a couple of appearances here, but Greville makes indirect acknowledgement of her beauty: "It is fortunate that modern man is unaffected by the Troy complex, for [Karameneh] was, I think, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life." Greville's never quite as fulsome in his praise of Fah Lo Suee, even in the "Indian goddess" passage, though it may be possible that he's somewhat overwhelmed by her superiority. The novel is not very well constructed, but I rate it as a mythic narrative for Rohmer's evocation of the devil-doctor's daughter, who has a plaintive side one never sees in her father:

I am as ready to be lied to as any other woman, Shan-- if only he tells his lies sweetly.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

WHAT THE WELL-DRESSED SUPERHERO OUGHT TO WEAR

... "ought to wear," that is, in terms of impressing adult readers and thus giving rise to the reception of the genre as a legitimate category of what I've called "adult pulp."

In one of my old JOURNAL essays I started off by noting that superheroes wearing costumes was the one element that made adult readers consider the genre as pulp-fiction of an irredeemably juvenile kind. And there's no question that a lot of adults say that the thing they find most off-putting about superheroes is their tendency to wear their underwear on the outside. (Incidentally, this excuse for a joke made the most sense back when Americans wore "long underwear" of one kind or another.)

However, I've come to think that the costume-complaint may not really be as substantial as I thought earlier. In the pop-culture world as we know it today, there are a lot of characters who have superhero-like powers, weapons or adventures, and who wear commonplace attire. James Bond may be the foremost example of this type, and there's no doubt that the prose novels qualify as adult-oriented pulp. However, Bond's enormous popularity across many cultures stems principally from the movie adaptations, which may have caught fire from being culturally "in the right place at the right time." Before Bond, popular fiction-- prose fiction, movies, comic strips-- played host to innumerable characters who wore ordinary clothes but enjoyed extraordinary adventures, whether they chased down weird masterminds (Doc Savage), mystic menaces (Jules De Grandin, Mandrake the Magician), or just freaky-looking criminals (Dick Tracy). For every one of these that became moderately well known, there are presumably dozens that have been forgotten. The question is, did even Dick Tracy-- arguably one of the most famous "plainclothed crusaders"-- earn any deep and abiding respect because he pursued Flat Top and Pruneface while wearing regular clothes?

Say, for sake of argument, that the leotard-style costume never caught on in comic books. Early sketches of Superman suggest that Joe Shuster originally meant for the hero to wear street-clothes a la Doc Savage, and that the image of the costume that was added later, almost at random, in imitation of  such carnival performers as strongmen and acrobats. Given the appeal of a "modern-day Hercules," it's not impossible that a non-costumed Superman might have begotten an extended  family of mufti-clothed crimefighters, and that costumes might have appeared only occasionally, as they did in the period of the "hero pulps." Assuming that the level of talent and production of such comic books stayed the same, is there any reason to think that comic books full of supermen in plainclothes would have earned any more deep and abiding respect than the costumed versions?

Despite the fact that a lot of adults have scorned costumes as elements of childish make-believe, I think the genre of adventure itself is the real source of contempt. In an earlier essay I referenced Ursula LeGuin's animus toward prose genres like space opera and sword and sorcery, which certainly don't involve "costumes" as such. There are a few 19th-century prose novels in the adventure-genre that have become acknowledged classics-- IVANHOE, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. But it took about a century for academic critics to embrace adventures with metaphenomenal content, such as DUNE and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In the last twenty years academics have become somewhat more latitudinarian about the adventure- genre, with or without elements of fantasy. But old attitudes die hard.

There are various "adult superhero" graphic novels out there, and it may be significant that a lot of them aspire to literary quality by using the tropes of irony and satire. I think a great "adult superhero" graphic novel in a purely adventurous mode is still a possibility, but it would have to have the complexity of a Melville novel to overcome the casual contempt so often directed against the genre.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 6

Though the last essay in this intermittent series came out in November, it really concerned itself with an argument about who was the most centric character of a particular film, and not with the sort of analysis that concerned the first essay in the series.

The analysis in the first FINAGLING essay concerned itself with examples of works in which a "fake phenomenon"-- the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving's story and in some though not all film adaptations of the story, and the two phony bloodsuckers in 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. Here, I'll address an obscure story that goes against this trope-tendency.

At a time when horror-stories were verboten to all comics-publishers who signed on to the Comics Code, a couple of companies, one of them being the Gold Key imprint from Western Publishing, profited by continuing to circulate terror-tales to a juvenile audience. Naturally, most if not all such stories were much tamer than the gruesome fare that brought the Code into existence in the fifties. But at least the offerings in Gold Key's BORIS KARLOFF'S TALES OF MYSTERY were indisputably in the horror genre, which is more than one could say of the totally bloodless fantasies propounded in sixties titles like HOUSE OF MYSTERY and ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN.

That said, most tales from KARLOFF's were formulaic, and so short that a writer barely had time to set up a situation before it was time to unveil a monster. I imagine at least a few writers may've got bored with the formula despite dependable paychecks, and maybe some author's boredom led him to write "The Return of Bird-of-Fire" (KARLOFF's #52, 1974).

"Return" takes one page to set up the situation: a couple of white explorers land their plane in the Andes Mountains, where an unnamed tribe of Indians has existed for centuries without encountering modern civilization. When the white guys inform the tribe's chief (also unnamed) that there's a great reserve gold in them thar hills, the chief says that he knows all about it, and relates the myth of Bird-of-Fire:




By the third page, the explorers have made many promises about bringing modern benefits to the tribe in exchange for mining the sacred gold. No one in the tribe has a problem with this, until the chief finds out that the white guys are really planning on flying away with a lot of gold and leaving the tribe flat. The fourth and final page shows the tribe taking vengeance:




Short though the story is, a practiced writer could've worked things so that some flaming bird monster really did spell doom for the thieves-- and indeed, this would have been the normal default for stories in KARLOFF'S. So I speculate that a bored writer decided, just for once, that the bad guys would be killed by entirely mundane means, and that the "monster" was just the tribe's projection of their fictional deity upon their own accomplishments.

So as far as the story is concerned, the Bird-of-Fire the focal presence of the story, as the other "fake phenomena" mentioned were in their narratives? Not this time, I would say, because, even though the Indians evidently believe in their god's reality, nothing about the god influences their behavior. They could've shot the plane down had they all been atheists, simply angry at getting ripped off. Certainly the two robbers have no centric charisma either, and that leaves the tribe itself to be the "star" of the story, while their decision to interpret the plane's fiery destruction as the god's vengeance is just an authorial irony that has nothing to do with which character(s) possess the greatest centricity.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

NULL-MYTHS: "THE HAUNTED ISLAND" (COTU #43, 1965)

There are a lot of Silver Age DC stories that are wacky in a good way, and there are those that are wacky in a bad, I-can't-believe-it's-so-bad way. But this 1965 CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story qualifies as a null-myth because it's bad in an inconsummate way.



"Haunted Island" is the second of two stories in issue #43, and it gets the cover feature in large part because this issue marked the heroes' shift away from their dull purple jumpsuits to uniforms in bright primary colors of yellow and red, complete with hourglass-emblems on their chests to remind readers that they were "living on borrowed time." (I think it was around this time that the venerable Blackhawks had to give up their dour blue outfits for garish red and black garments.)

"Island's" writer Bill Finger reportedly only scripted seven stories for this DC series, all under the editorship of Murray Boltinoff as far as I can tell. One presumes that the costume-change signified that CHALLENGERS' sales had dropped somewhat. Like many other DC stories of the time, "Island" doesn't just content itself with having the heroes decide to change their togs one fine day. Instead the change stems from an almost impenetrable whim on the part of the story's villains.

First off, the heroes get involved in protecting a museum-sarcophagus from theft by a weird bird-man.


The bird-man absconds with his booty, but the Challengers pursue in their plane, while conveniently commenting on other "rare artifact" thefts of recent weeks. They land on a "dead island," and in their explorations they find a private museum that includes a preserved dinosaur and giant scorpion.




They then have a dust-up with a large fellow who, despite his sixties turtleneck, is without doubt mean to evoke Universal's image of the Frankenstein Monster. However, in their pursuit of the giant fellow, the heroes are gassed. They wake up wearing their spiffy new outfits.



Then the Challs meet not one, not two, but five freaky forms, including the giant and the bird-man. The leader, who looks much like one of DC's elfin support-characters, informs the heroes that the five freaks are mutant versions of once-human scientists. Their mutation causes them not to just to choose isolation from the human world, but also to collect "things that should be dead, yet still exist."



The mutants, having established that they consider themselves a cockeyed version of the "borrowed time" crusaders, then establish that they want the Challs to join them on the island as part of the collection. Why the mutants should care what the heroes wore, if they wanted museum exhibits, is pretty much ignored. One of the heroes, Prof, volunteers to let himself be mutated, hoping to be able to turn against the death-collectors.



Prof's stratagem doesn't quite work as planned: he turns into an "evil energy-being" and attempts to kill his friends. Only through lots of luck are his buddies able to reverse Prof's transformation and escape the Haunted Island as it conveniently blows up, dooming the mutants and their collection. The four stalwarts then decide to keep wearing the costumes. The end.



The presence of a mutant who looks like the Frankenstein Monster-- but whose identity has nothing Frankensteinian about it-- shows by itself enough symbolic inepititude to qualify "Island" for null-myth status. The story's more salient concept-- the Challengers are given new costumes by negative versions of themselves-- has a little more promise, but it blows that potential by heaping incident upon incident.

The CHALLENGERS title was never distinguished by very good stories, and only occasionally by good art. But this one may well be the mediocre feature's lowest moment.

NO APOLOGIES IN THE ARENA

The title is a play on Camille Paglia's exhortatory essay, "No Law in the Arena," since in this essay I'll contend with an assortment of arguments lobbed at me by comment-poster Ryan. Infrequently I've used comments as the basis for extended blog-essays, and in this case it's necessitated by the sheer length of my rebuttals.

OK, in this 1-20-20 essay I commented:

Yes, I've heard Shapiro accused of being a racist because he doesn't like Palestinian culture. I defy you to produce an actual quote in which he's attacked Palestinians or any Muslims for being "subhuman." As an Orthodox Jew he's threatened by the Muslim hatred of his people, with their frequent promises to push all Jews into the sea, so I don't doubt that he's castigated their culture. But that's not the same as calling the people themselves subhuman. Moreover, while it's not impossible someone could find some questionable remark in Shapiro's history, that's a long way from demonstrating that he's any more a doctrinaire racist than Trump.


Ryan wrote, in part:

Wrong. Shapiro's comments basically said that "Jewish settlements are awesome" Arabs like to "live in sewage." That's basically saying they're animals no matter what prettying attempts you use to justify it. When Andrew O'Neil called him out on it he got angry and called him a lefty (which is rather rich).


Ryan did not supply me with "an actual quote," so I found a useful summation here, which happens to cover the Andrew O'Neil interview that Ryan finds so supportive of his position:
Shapiro, the founder of "The Daily Wire," was a guest on BBC's "Politics Live" Thursday to talk about his new book, "The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great." He reacted negatively when Neil brought up an old tweet of his where he said, "Israelis like to build, Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage."
"That's a dumb tweet, but it is important to understand that the next few tweets clarified that that tweet is specifically referring to the Hamas leadership," Shapiro replied.
Neil had the next tweet too: "'It's not all Arabs that want to live in open sewage, it is just Palestinians,' you went on to say. And then you said the Palestinian Arab population is 'rotten to the core,' you went on to say. Not Hamas. The Palestinian Arab population."
"I say that by poll numbers, they elected Hamas," Shapiro said in defense of his comment about Palestinians. "They elected Hamas, they educate their children in school that Israel should be obliterated."

First, Shapiro later apologized to O'Neil, at least for mischaracterizing him as a Lefty. Second, in the transcript above he admits that he made a "dumb tweet," but he still viewed the Palestinians as "rotten to the core" because so many of them support the terrorist organization Hamas. (Why Ryan has a problem with this cultural slander I do not know, since he's shown elsewhere that he's totally OK with regarding all Trump-supporters as racists.) Third, Ryan is demonstrably wrong in that none of the tweets insult the Palestinians by calling them "animals" or "subhuman:" he insulted their lack of moral rigor-- which in turn, in more dubious fashion, he links to their willingness to live in crappy conditions. 

Now, Ryan is, in theory, on slightly stronger factual ground when he comments upon a host of abuses that the Palestinians allegedly would have suffered had they agreed to a "two nations" agreement with Israel. I don't imagine that Orthodox Jew Shapiro has any great empathy with Palestinian sufferings; I can imagine-- and this is only speculation-- that he might think that they should have to accept less than equal conditions because Israel had to protect themselves from an assortment of peoples whose ancestors were entirely willing (as I said before) to drive all Jews into the sea. Nevertheless, I believe that *currently* Shapiro advocates a "two nations" solution, even if he doesn't advocate giving Palestine every thing it wants.

My personal take is that neither Israel nor Palestine are playing with a straight deck, and in that respect, I can imagine that Shapiro is a Jewish chauvinist. But that's still not the same as his being racist, except in the minds of Americans who like to portray the Israel-Palestine conflict as a conflict of white skins and brown skins-- which I'm kind of surprised Ryan didn't bring up.

Ryan then cites "all the usual suspects" to "prove" Trump racist: the Fair Housing Act, allegations of racism from former employees, yada yada yada. The Trump-quote about Japan "stripping the United States of economic dignity" is ill-chosen, implying that no one can make any criticisms of an Asian government without being racist. Then Ryan brings up the matter of the Central Park Five. As it happened, I posted elsewhere some objections to the media's characterizations of both the 1980s Trump ad and his more recent comments:

Note the words in the original ad "when they kill." Since the CPF case did not involve someone being killed, it should go without saying that Trump did not call for the CPF to be executed for the alleged crimes of assault and rape. Thus it follows that he did say that criminals who did not commit the crime of murder "should be forced to suffer," but that's the extent of his verdict regarding the crimes of which the CPF were accused.
Yes, the NY TIMES ad mentions the death penalty. This was a common refrain of the "tough on crime" faction, with which Trump was clearly aligning himself. It was not then, and is not now, a proof of a speaker's racism to voice the belief that the absence of the death penalty would encourage crime.as Trump aware of the CPF's impending trial? I have no doubt of that. But he did not call for the CPF to be killed, as many current narratives have it.In mentioning that the five were "convicted," you omit a salient point: that at some point the Five confessed to the crime. Since it's been verified that they did not rape the victim, it's indisputable that they did not commit that particular crime, though it's not been demonstrated that the NY police coerced the CPF into confessing. Later it was the contention of Linda Fairstein that the CPF had some association with Matias Reyes, but if-- and I repeat, if-- the Five were guilty of any lesser crimes, all accusations against them were vacated when Reyes confessed. Fairstein's opinion, which may be nothing more than an attempt at covering herself, is probably what Trump has referenced in recent times when he said he still did not believe the CPF innocent.
In summation, I don't necessarily believe that Trump was guilty of racism simply by stating that rapists should be punished by the law, and I do believe that recent attempts to simplify the real-life story are illustrative of the current form of shame culture.

I could go on, but I don't have any ambitions of convincing Ryan or anyone else that Trump isn't a racist. I've stated that he may be, but that that possibility is far less significant than the incredible animus that ultraliberals have churned up over him. Ryan's attempts to list every single one of Trump's examples of racist behavior proves everything I wrote in the TRUMP VS. SHAME CULTURE series:

Trump's very existence was a thumb in the eye to the Left's shame culture, which insists that nothing is more worthy of total condemnation than white racism. (Thus, the Donald's "both sides" Charlottesville remark far outpaces George Dubya getting the country mired down in Iraq in order to make money for the oil companies.) Sadly, Trump himself is not capable of enunciating an actual credo that might fight back against the virulence of shame culture; he merely says whatever he wants to say and basks in the attention it earns for him. 
What ultraliberals hate about Trump is that they weren't able to shame him out of the presidential race. Had Trump never made his inflammatory remarks at the outset of his campaign, there can be no doubt that his critics would still have reeled out all the same litany of past sins as Ryan has done, with particular emphasis on that horrible, deeply revelatory "birtherism" routine-- while conveniently ignoring Obama's far more serious sins.

Life is not a shooting gallery in which ultraliberals get to win by pot-shooting easy targets. Life is, as Paglia intimated, an arena, and Trump, in his crude way, exemplifies this fact, in part with his endless catcalls at his opponents. When historians judge Trump's Presidential legacy, they may find him  guilty of political sins that undermined America's standing in the world community-- and here, I'm talking about sins on the level of Dubya's nation-making idiocy. Nevertheless, those sins won't be tied to all of these petty examples of his narcissistic insensitivity.

In one of his posts Ryan concludes by saying that I'm "basically an apologist for the worst conservative ideals." The inability of ultraliberals to know the difference between centrism and conservatism is something I've encountered and written about copiously, through my remarks on various Bertlatsky fellow travelers, various forums and a certain hive of buzzing psuedo-intellectuals who almost make Berlatsky look good. I call conservatives and liberals alike stupid when they say or do stupid things.

I think for myself, and I don't apologize for anything, least of all my belief that everyone in every political arena is irredeemably fucked up.

ADDENDUM: Just to further clarify my stance on the Central Park Five, when Ava Duveray's doc on the Five made the headlines, I listened to the earlier Ken Burns doc on the same subject. I found it interesting that one of the Five gives a lengthy description of how he and his chums went to the notorious Park that night, talking about other activities they passed by, and some of the violent acts they witnessed in the Park. But at no time did the guy say WHY he and his buddies chose to go there, rather than hanging out with other friends.

Only two real possibilities occur for going into a crime-ridden area like that one: either they dared one another to do so, like an adolescent rite of passage, or they were hoping to stumble across someone who would give them free sex, either with or without coercion. This does not mean that I am certain that the Five attempted to commit rape. But it may play a role in the confessions, as opposed to the narrative that the police simply browbeat the accused teens.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

DARN CLEVER, THOSE ULTRALIBERALS


                     




Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro probably overstated the case when he claimed (and I paraphrase) that most or all of Hollywood had become obsessed with liberal concerns. Nevertheless, the rise of the so-called Progressives on the political scene has had an unmistakable impact, one mirrored in not a few fictional narratives. There’s no knowing whether the proponents of the narratives sincerely believe that their messages can change the world, or whether they’re chasing the latest trend to grab the attention of an increasingly fragmented mass audience. But the purveyors of Progressive fiction have for the most part been marked by a unique tone of strident righteousness, a determination to lecture rather than to persuade, much in common with such political types as Cory Booker and Rashida Tlaib.
Ultraliberal concoctions like THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and the BLACK LIGHTNING teleseries are a long way from the earnest humanist works produced by Classic Liberals like Rod Serling and William Gaines. The latter worthies never doubted that American culture was seriously beset by demons like racism and rampant consumerism, and they were passionate to save America’s metaphorical soul.
But for ultraliberals and Progressives, that soul is not worth saving. In an earlier essay I pointed out how a couple of penny-ante ultraliberals touted their TV show by describing America’s history of slavery with the happy term “foundational.” This is a fancy way of restating an old Catholic formula: the newborn infant is guilty of original sin, and the only way to compel good behavior is to wash out—or maybe beat out—the devils.
However, the downside of condescending lectures is that few people like to be lectured, and that leads to counter-reactions. Some reactions are from unalloyed conservatives like Shapiro, and Hollywood is likely to ignore such protests.  However, producers are not nearly as likely to overlook box-office failures like 2018’s GHOSTBUSTERS and 2016's BIRTH OF A NATION. In the last few years Youtube has become rife with reviewers who continually protest the spread of Progressive hectoring, ranging from amateur film reviewers like the Critical Drinker to professional comics-artists like Ethan Van Sciver. Whenever a Progressive film or comic book fails to win an audience, such pundits exult that they have, at very least, discerned a meaningful counter-reaction against the politicizing of entertainment.
Of course, sometimes politicizing does make money, and Hollywood never forgets anything that makes money. Additionally, such raconteurs are also masters of camoflague, and some of them may seek to propound their beliefs more by implication than by righteous rants.
Case in point: a new 2020 NBC broadcast series, LINCOLN RHYME: HUNT FOR THE BONE COLLECTOR. The opening episodes of the series follow the general template of the 1999 Denzel Washington vehicle THE BONE COLLECTOR, showing the attempts of Rhyme and his team of profilers in their hunt for the elusive serial killer of the title. However, given that LINCOLN is a series, Rhyme’s team also has to go after other psycho-killers as well.
Episode two, broadcast on 1-17-20, hurled the Rhyme team against a serial murderer known as “the Wrath of God” because he terminates victims, whom he considers morally deficient in some way, with methods patterned on Greek mythological stories. Judgmental serial killers are nothing new in the crime and horror genres, of course, and the program doesn’t spend much time justifying the Wrath’s peculiar myth-happy psychology. But the script does seem unique in finding an additional scapegoat for the killer’s crimes.
The Rhyme team is unable to stop the Wrath from committing myth-murders in the show’s first half hour, but one of the killings supplies a clue, and that clue leads them to a local college. It seems that a female Classics professor, name of Antoni, is not only teaching mythology in that college as a guest lecturer, she’s also taught such classes in all of the cities where the Wrath operated. This association is enough for two of Rhyme’s detectives to seek Antoni out. The audience doesn’t find out exactly what Antoni teaches, since the detectives show up as her class ends, so the audience only hears Antoni describing some of the deaths of sinning mortals in Greek myths. The detectives, anxious to make a bust, act in a confrontational manner with Antoni, but since they have no actual evidence, she ignores their threats and takes her leave. Afterward, one detective says to the other, “Did you see how angry she was?” The script does not actually show Antoni being angry, only mildly annoyed, which suggests that the writer wants to set her character up for a fall.
In the last quarter-hour the team tracks down the Wrath and captures him while preventing one of his ritual murders. The Wrath’s reason for crafting his myth-deaths is not expanded upon, while his identity, an ordinary-looking middle-aged white guy, is also underplayed. This leads to Antoni’s second and last scene, which I argue is what the scriptwriter really wanted to portray. The detectives return to the college and arrest Antoni, claiming that they went through the Wrath’s effects and found a journal that implicates Antoni in the crimes. Case closed.
The unjustified remark about Antoni's "anger" proves interesting, since in modern times there’s a lot of very justifiable concern about murders arising from anger, particularly from spree-killers like the white supremacist Dylan Roof. However, it often seems like Progressives don’t care about murderers when they don’t conform to the model of  “the angry white male.” One sees an example of this attitude in Rashida Tlaib’s attack on the New Jersey supermarket killers, an attack she deleted when she found out that they were not white.
The episode does not make race an issue. However, the script’s insistence that the mythology professor MUST be implicated in the serial killer’s crimes strikes me as peculiar, given that the same script does not really justify this implication, aside from one detective’s remark. In the real world mythology and mythology professors usually have nothing to do with serial murder. However, one prominent celebrity professor, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, has been (incorrectly) labeled an alt-Right apologist by many Progressives. Peterson does not teach or lecture exclusively about mythology or even about the literature of Classical Greece, though such subjects have appeared in his online lectures. But purely because Peterson questions the beliefs of the Far Left, he’s often labeled not only as alt-Right, but as an intellectual who appeals to “angry white men.”
Whether or not readers agree with my interpretation of this single episode, I predict that Hollywood scriptwriters will continue to propound ultraliberal scenarios. But in the near future, some may be a little less strident, and a little more sneaky, than was the case earlier. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

PATTERNS AND POTENTIALITIES

...I agree with Jung's comment that "ideas" are developed out of what might as well be called "images" (Kant called these lesser elements "notions.") However, I want to specify that one need not buy into Jung's specific concept of inherited mythological images in order to validate his basic schema. Jung's predecessor-and-influence Cassirer said much the same thing, sans the inherited images.-- A PAUSE FOR POTENTIALITIES, 2015.

In WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, Schopenhauer distinguishes between "intuitive" and "abstract" representations: humans share "intuitive representations" with other animals, in that they are based in the body's "percepts."  But humans alone have the power to conceive "abstract representations," for humans alone can base representations in "concepts."  I will use this basic opposition here, though I'll substitute "intellectual" for "abstract" purely for euphony.-- HERO VS. VILLAIN, MONSTER VS. VICTIM PART 3, 2012.

The first quote lists some of the predecessors that influenced me in my formulation of the four potentialities, though only two potentialities concern me in this essay:

The DIDACTIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.
The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.

I've also lined up these potentialities with my terms "overthought" (for the didactic) and "underthought" (for the the mythopoeic). The primary function of the "over" and "under" terms is illustrative, using a spatial metaphor to show how these discourses were functionally separated from the discourses spawned by the other potentialities, "the kinetic" and "the dramatic." I've lumped these two discourses together as "the lateral meaning," because I believe this represents the base experience that all audiences experience fictional constructs. And while I derived this line of thought largely from one of Frye's essays, there's also a possible influence from Schopenhauer. The discourses of "the kinetic" and "the dramatic" are theoretically comparable to the "intuitive representations" available not only to humans but also to the lower animals, since those discourses, whether simple or complex, may be reduced down to "does this 'other' cause me pain or pleasure," and "does this 'other' give help or hindrance?" Similarly, the didactic and the mythopoeic line up with what Schopenhauer called "abstract representations," because their subject matter is not concrete but abstract. Arguably, though, the very abstraction of the abstract potentialities may cause them to overlap much more than the "intuitive" pair.

In last year's essay AND THE HALF-TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE PART 2 I wrote:


Both "symbols" and "ideas" are abstract constructions, but symbols offer the artist "a free selection of causes"-- which I have aligned with my concept of "affective freedom"-- while ideas depend more upon establishing a chain of cause and effect, which I have aligned with "cognitive restraint." But both abstract constructions depend upon the use of fictive epistemology.

It was in my two HALF-TRUTH essays that I introduced the term "epistemological patterns." Though the term was new, I'd been writing about this particular abstract concept since the blog's beginnings, probably the first time I brought up Joseph Campbell. But because so much of the blog's content is devoted to sussing out the nature of mythopoeic discourse, I've neglected to give specific examples of the very different way in which the didactic phenomenality makes use of epistemological patterns.

The word "didactic" is derived from a Greek term meaning "apt at teaching." Thus any use of the didactic phenomenality must rely upon using rhetoric to teach audiences something. I suspect most if not all of the ancient Greeks would have viewed a literary's work meaning as one that was both rhetorical and discursive, and the later notions regarding "poetic intuition" would have been outside their wheelhouse. For me, writing in the shadow of Jung and others, I see that the didactic and the mythopoeic sometimes reinforce one another, sometimes conflict with one another, and at other times barely seem to exist in the same narrative-- as one can see in the 1984 Steve Ditko story ""AM I MARO, ROMA, OR RAEM?"

Because the philosophy of Ayn Rand has such a profound effect on Ditko, his greatest passion seems to have been to codify his Aristotelian/Randian beliefs into narrative entertainment. Ditko certainly knew that he could not make a living thumping this particular tub, and so many of his works don't overtly address his didactic concerns. Ditko also had considerable skill in rendering the discourses of the kinetic, the dramatic and the mythopoeic, but a story like "Raem" shows how intensely Ditko sought his version of epistemological patterns in the world of abstract ideas. One character in this story, featuring Ditko's short-lived hero "the Missing Man," voices Ditko's theme as explicitly as possible:

We're starting with reality and the law of identity, Syd. A is what it is, A. We intend to establish definition by essentials, root out false axioms, invalid anti-concepts and all the fallacies that permit the irrational to be treated as anything other than what it is: the inhuman.

The story's embodiment of "the irrational" is the villain of Raem Lanet, the Missing Man's opponent. This scientist, out of a desire for "prestige," transforms himself into a half-man, half-robot creature, in which form he attacks employers who have actually done him no wrong. Despite this overriding purpose, Raem experiences a conflict between his human half and his robot half, and this stands not as a mythopoeic discourse but a didactic one, since Ditko is trying to "teach" his readers that one side of Raem's personality is flawed and irrational, while the other is somewhat more rational and thus closer to the Randian truth. The "epistemological pattern" in this narrative would be predominantly psychological in nature, probably more than a little beholden to Freud's :"ego"  and "id" conceptions.

Now, though Ditko's principle discourse is didactic in nature, the ego-id pattern has a mythopoeic potential as well, and can be found in literary works that precede Freud's rise to prominence, such as Stevenson's 1886 DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE. A given artist might be able to utterly ignore that potential, for the sake of making a rhetorical point, and something like this transpires in STAR TREK's version of the Stevenson story, "The Enemy Within."

"Raem," however, shows instances where Ditko's instinct for the mythopoeic interferes with his rhetorical purpose, as I pointed out in the review:


...in "Raem," Ditko is close to invalidating his own philosophy. If the irrational is "inhuman," as Wrds says, than why isn't it incarnate in Raem's robot half? There have been any number of SF-stories in which a robotized human regained his humanity through empathizing with other humans, but though Ditko' does use the same basic trope, his focus is squarely upon the Randian choice between the true and the untrue. Ditko may have intuited that there was no way to attribute irrational bitterness and violent intent to the robot half, so he ends up with a final scenario in which the rational renunciation of such "anti-concepts" comes from either the robot half alone, or from some belated interface of human and robot. Either way, "Raem" may be Ditko's most passionate defense of Randism-- and as such, may also be a back-door admission of the significance of emotional value.
To enlarge on this a little more, the same psychological patterns that Ditko uses in a didactic way, to get across a certain message, also have symbolic values, wherein "robot" usually connotes the antithesis of human empathy. Ditko doesn't want to default to that symbolic value, because he wants to critique the selfishness of human beings, so he tries-- with equivocal success-- to make Raem's robot-half more empathetic than his human half. The idea of human feelings arising from an inhuman imitation of humanity is at least as old as Collodi's "Pinocchio," and as Ditko uses the trope it's more of a mythic than a didactic concept given that Ditko doesn't succeed in giving Raem's robot half in a rational cause-and-effect origin.

So in "Raem," we see Ditko drawing upon psychological patterns for both the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities, even though his usages of each may contradict one another.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: TYPHOID #1-4 (1995-96)

If Stanley Kubrick's film A CLOCKWORK ORANGE had married a 1990s Freudian treatise on the inter-relation of sex and violence, their baby would probably have looked like the four-issue miniseries TYPHOID by writer Ann Nocenti and artist John Van Fleet.




In an earlier review of another Nocenti story, I mentioned that my reading of the author's run on Marvel's DAREDEVIL comic title had been somewhat inconsistent. That said, even during my incomplete reading, I had some appreciation for Nocenti's original addition to the blind hero's mythos, a schizophrenic character who was essentially three personas in one body. Born Mary Walker, a shy and introverted artist, various circumstances cause her to manifest a second personality, the sexy and assertive Typhoid Mary, and then a third one, an ultraviolent man-hater named Bloody Mary. One character in the mini-series styles the trio as "virgin, whore and killer," thus separating off Mary's propensity for bloody violence from her enthusiasm for sex-play.

I didn't read enough of Nocenti's DAREDEVIL to know what the author last did with Typhoid in that feature, though according to Wiki the vixenish villain continued to make appearances in other Marvel features. In 1995, however, Nocenti had the deranged quasi-dominatrix escape an asylum, after which Mary Walker attempted to live an ordinary life despite her intrusive extra personalities. She even has a boyfriend named John (as in "John and Mary," maybe), but he only has a minor role in TYPHOID. The mini-series is far more concerned with what feminists now call "toxic masculinity," though Nocenti's skilled enough that the narrative isn't a pure paean to wonderful womanhood. Mary's first solo adventure is devoted to portraying her as a "schizophrenic private detective,"  though to my knowledge this was her only series.



Each of the four parts is given a subtitle derived from a famous fairy-tale female, respectively Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood. In addition, issue one also sports an additional title, "A Fairytale of Violence," though none of the other issues have such this add-on. Nocenti explicitly links all of these famed females together in terms of their suffering at the hands of males, and though the add-on title suggests that there's some disconnect between the linked ideas of "fairy-tales" and "violence," Nocenti almost certainly knows that both original folktales and their literary imitators utilized quite a bit of violence, not always directed purely at women. In any case, the TYPHOID narrative extends the split between innocent Mary and her demonic other selves to society in general, where innocence is continually victimized by violent acts, largely though not exclusively associated with masculinity.



Two plotlines dominate TYPHOID. The more overt plot deals with a serial killer preying on New York prostitutes. The local cops are unable to solve the case, whether they're corrupt male cops like Detective Richards, or dedicated rookies like sincere policewoman Clair Dodge, so Mary decides to track down the murderer. In the second plot, two loopy film-students, Quince and Trent, get the idea to capture the schizophrenic quasi-heroine and make a movie about her psychological aberrations. (This includes fixing her eyelids so that she has to look at a series of assaultive videos, a clear homage to a scene in Kubrick's movie.) Nocenti more or less brings the two plots together in the last issue, but no one should read TYPHOID looking for a well-wrought mystery. Nocenti has followed the pattern of hardboiled detectives, in which the sleuth solves the case not by ratiocination but by being enough of a nuisance to attract violent attraction from guilty parties.



I won't claim that Nocenti's basic idea is any more original than it is well-crafted. However, even if the overall intellectual heft of the story proves somewhat weak, Nocenti brings a rough-hewn poetry to her interactions of sex and violence. The murders are committed by a killer (or killers?) who force hookers to suck on the barrel of a gun before firing, and it's impossible to read this without thinking of Freud's concept of oral fixation. But the opening page gives readers a pun that goes beyond Freud's reductivism, as an unseen person asks Typhoid why she kills, and she responds (in part) that she does so "to lighten the load." The element of humor makes Nocenti's "fairy-tale of violence" a far more evocative realm than most of the Neopuritan screeds that followed in the next twenty years.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE HAND OF DR. FU MANCHU (1917)



While Karameneh is unquestionably the most significant female character in the first two Fu Manchu books, she takes a back seat in HAND to the daughter of Fu Manchu, even though the character is not named and only makes sporadic appearances in the story. Indeed, though Karameneh recovers her memory of Petrie and Smith near the end of the second book, in HAND Rohmer marginalizes her by packing her off to Egypt for her supposed safety. This provides no protection whatever, as the recrudescent Fu Manchu easily abducts her and uses her as a pawn against his enemies. Her signal accomplishment at the end of RETURN-- where she shoots her former master and almost kills him-- is nullified by a life-saving surgical operation, and though Fu evinces a desire for vengeance upon his erstwhile slave, he sets this aside in order to use her as a bargaining-chip with Petrie.

While RETURN pictures Fu Manchu becoming the world's emperor, in HAND the advent of Fah Lo Suee as a female ruler is foreshadowed by Nayland Smith. For the first time, he bestows a name upon Fu Manchu's network of spies and assassins, the Si-Fan. Though the name is said to refer commonly to a community in Tibet, Smith claims that it actually represents an organization that advocates the rule of the world by an empress. Smith's description of this legendary empress sounds quite a bit like Rider Haggard's "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed," in that this empress is said to be "incalculably ancient." To be sure, the empress renews herself through a "continuous series of reincarnations," and though Smith does not believe the legend literally, he suspects that Fu Manchu plans to manipulate the Si-Fan's desire for such a goddess-like figure by using his own daughter to that end.

Petrie meets the future Fah Lo Suee early in the novel, but has no idea as to her significance, since she creates the illusion that she's simply an ordinary servant-woman. In truth she's operating in London to help her ailing father obtain surgical help for the wound Karameneh dealt him, and Petrie finds himself and another surgeon forced to save the great enemy of the Western world, in part to save Karameneh's life. Fah does not appear in this scene, for Rohmer is focused on building up the uncanny mentality of the devil-doctor, who's able to coerce the doctors to do his will despite still having a bullet lodged in his skull.

Since Karameneh is largely passive in HAND, and Fu's daughter is usually offstage, Rohmwer makes up for the loss of resourceful women by introducing Zarmi, a Eurasian woman serving the devil-doctor's entourage. In contrast to Karameneh's feminine modesty, Zarmi is an ostentatious flirt, though she's entirely loyal to Fu's schemes. Since Fu is implicitly compared to the Satanic serpent from the Bible, Rohmer follows through by giving Zarmi an equally snaky aspect.

She was lithe as a serpent, graceful as a young panther, another Lamia come to damn the souls of men with those arts denounced in a long dead age by Apolloinus of Tyana.

Despite this mythic assocation, Zarmi remains a stock villain and nothing more. For several chapters, Rohmer puts aside menacing women and introduces a new subsidary male villain, the mandarin Ki-Ming. This worthy actually tries to convince Petrie that he represents a faction of the Si-Fan that has turned against Fu Manchu, but Smith places no faith in this claim. Sure enough, Ki-Ming only approaches Petrie in order to use Tibetan psychic practices-- which Rohmer refers to as "animal magnetism"-- in order to bewitch Petrie into killing Smith.

Petrie's second encounter with the future Fah takes place by sheer accident, when he boards a train and seeks a compartment. He ends up sharing one with the elegant daughter of his arch-enemy, though he never realizes that he's seen her before. He's unable to determine her national origins, and only later will Rohmer specify that Fah is half-Russian.

Finally, Petrie spies on a convocation of Orientals who are being invited to witness the advent of "the Lady of the Si-Fan," who is of course Fah masquerading as the legendary empress. Yet it's not until after this event-- wherein Fu buys his freedom from Petrie by giving up Karameneh-- that Rohmer specifies, over two-thirds of the way in the novel, that the Lady of the Si-Fan is Fu's daughter. Smith does not specify whether or not he's ever had any personal acquaintance with this personage. However, the same passage in which Petrie admits how he freed the master villain for the sake of love, Smith makes an oblique confession: "I understand, old man. That day came in my life long years ago."

The novel then winds up with the return of support-character Lionel Barton, the poor man's Richard Francis Burton, and once again, he serves the purpose of being the "Asianized European." (That said, Barton does utter the first racial slang-epithet to appear in the series, calling a minor character a "dago.") Barton also leads the intrepid heroes to Fu's current hideaway, which happens to be in a defunct devil-worship sanctuary, which in turn was built on the ruins of an ancient Phoenician site. This sequence is one of Rohmer's most suspenseful passages, and although Fu and Fah escape in a Chinese yacht, the novel concludes by implying that the wrath of heaven itself rises up against them. A massive storm wreaks havoc upon the seas near England, and the novel ends when Petrie and Smith behold some of the wreckage of the yacht, implying that once again the devil-doctor may have finally met his final fate.

And for nearly fourteen years, Fu remained dead. Ostensibly Rohmer brought back his Chinese villain simply because nothing the author wrote in the intervening years sold better than the doctor. The revival may have also stemmed from Hollywood's renewed interest in the character, beginning with THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU in 1929. Though the film owed little to any of Rohmer's original work, it probably deserves some credit for encouraging the author to expand on his most memorable character, whose series would continue into the late 1950s.


THE READING RHEUM: THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1916) PT. 2

Upon reflection the first part of my review of the second Fu Manchu book omitted one significant development. Whereas the first one is concerned solely with chronicling the romantic course of narrator Petrie's life, RETURN offers the first glimpse of romance in the life of Petrie's hard-driving mentor in the life of adventure, Sir Denis Nayland Smith.

Readers of the original Rohmer books are probably few in number these days, but the Marvel comic book MASTER OF KUNG FU gave a modicum of literary immortality to Smith's romantic life with Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of his Oriental adversary. There's no intimation that Fu has any offspring at all in the first book, but after Petrie's initial encounter with Karameneh, Smith, though he's never met the woman, speculates on her origins.

She is either Fu-Manchu's daughter, his wife, or his slave. I am inclined to believe the last, for she has no will but his will, except-- in a certain instance.

In my review I expanded on this conceit:

The idea that [Karameneh] may be Fu's daughter is never seriously entertained, given that there's no resemblance between the two characters. Yet Karameneh's constant interference with the plans of her master bears some similarity to standard tropes in which a lovelorn damsel aids her romantic swain against her overly domineering father. 

The Smith quote proves only one thing: that Rohmer had at least considered the possibility that his Asian evildoer might have progeny. It's impossible to know whether or not Rohmer had considered giving Fu a daughter at the time he wrote RETURN, and it seems unlikely that he'd decided at that point to make Smith and that daughter lovers in some future story. But since Smith was of more than marriageable age, Rohmer may have wanted to account for his single status, and thus he chose to do simply by suggesting some failed love affair in the past. Oddly, Smith's love-life comes up on the novel's third page, in conversation between Petrie and a minor character, but not until a few chapters later does Smith himself hold forth on the subject. This quasi-confession comes about because Petrie meets Karameneh, still doing Fu's will but brainwashed to forget her former allies. Petrie lets her escape custody, and Smith becomes irate with his physician-friend:

A woman made a fool of me once, but I learned my lesson; you have failed to learn yours. If you are determined to go to pieces on the rock that broke up Adam, do so! But don't involve me in the wreck, Petrie-- for that might mean a yellow emperor of the world, and you know it!

While a lot of Rohmer's prose proves pedestrian, this passage shows that he could embody poetic conceits when sufficiently inspired to do so. Granted, it's a little odd to witness Smith mixing nautical metaphors with Eve's betrayal of the First Man, particularly since both ideas seem to come out of nowhere. Since neither man has yet figured out that Karameneh has been brainwashed, Smith leaps to the conclusion that she's simply faithless, and that she's betrayed Petrie and the cause of England because of her loyalty to the man who wants to become the world's "yellow emperor." Both of Rohmer's novels repeatedly associate Fu Manchu with Satan, but here he's being further associated with the tempting serpent who persuades Eve to betray Adam, though with no reference to Eve having been deceived through the serpent's manipulation of her good intentions.

It's also possible to read Smith's fulmination as motivated by envy: a woman made a fool of him, and therefore on some level he's somewhat satisfied, in a "misery loves company" manner, to see his boon companion betrayed the same way. Naturally this psychological point isn't explored any further, since Rohmer is writing fast-paced adventure, not serious drama. The third novel, however, will include more references to Smith's failed romance, and though the novel does introduce Fu's daughter for the first time, albeit without naming her, there are slight indications that the two  of them might have some history.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

TERRY GILLIAM AND THE TOTAL FAIL

I'm only a modest fan of Terry Gilliam's cinematic writing and directing, and the only Gilliam film I sometimes want to rewatch is THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. But despite my merely middling regard for Gilliam's creative work, I found his December screed against the movies of the MCU worth analyzing.

Gilliam's comments for the online magazine Indiewire had some resemblances to earlier complaints by both Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, in that all three rants attacked superhero films for devouring the lion's share of the box office dinner. By itself, this is sophistry. Gilliam says:


“I don’t like the fact they’re dominating the place so much,” he said. “They’re taking all the money that should be available for a greater variety of films. Technically, they’re brilliant. I can’t fault them because the technical skills involved in making them are incredible.”


There are two major problems with this attitude. First, for anyone else to concur with Gilliam, that person would have to believe that the cinematic marketplace can support whatever ideal of "variety" that Gilliam advocates, if there were no MCU or any similar cinematic trend to dominate the market. But let us suppose that "fellow travelers" might come to some accord about an overall range of "good variety" while differing on particulars. Gilliam's statement still represents a leap in logic in that it assumes that Result B will take place from Cause A, even though it's arguable that Cause A has never actually been observed to take place in the arena specified, cf. the American film market.

Second, it's demonstrable that the "superhero trend" is far from unique in the American film industry, which has been for the most part driven by genre films that had wide appeal to audiences, and so encouraged producers to keep pumping out more films in those genres. Gilliam does not accuse the MCU of being a unique phenomenon, but the long history of genre films in Hollywood renders his complaint problematic.

Only on one point does Gilliam attack the superhero genre in a specific manner:

“What I don’t like is that we all have to be superheroes do anything worthwhile. That’s what makes me crazy. That’s what these movies are saying to young people. And to me it’s not confronting the reality of, you know, the quote-unquote human condition. You know what it is like to be a normal human being in difficult situations and resolving them surviving,” he said. “I can’t fault them for the sheer spectacle, except it’s repetitive. You still have to blow up another city.”

Now, Gilliam does not cite any specific instance from either MCU or from other superhero films to bolster his interpretation, aside from one offhand comment that makes it sound like it's too easy for Iron Man to replace his armor when it burns up. I've had my problems with some of the films in this series, but I certainly would not concur with Gilliam. At the very least, the three Iron Man films continually call attention to the difficulties that the genius in the armor has with interacting with the ordinary world.

Gilliam supplies even less support for the statement that "we" (meaning the audience) "have ot be superheroes to do anything worthwhile." Perhaps the former PYTHON performer overvalues the idea of deconstructing genre icons, as he and the Python troup did in their HOLY GRAIL film. It's only in a comic/ironic context that one can make, say, a film about knights in which the activity of the knights is not the center of the narrative, but exists to point the way toward something else in society. So it really makes no sense to critique superhero narratives for making superheroes the most important figures in the stories, just as cowboy-heroes are the most important figures in the majority of westerns.

I have a lot of personal reservations about MCU films, though I don't really think Gilliam's comments are MCU-centric; as he phrases them  I think that they could be applied just as easily to the Sony company's series of SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN films.

Ironically, the part of Gilliam's screed that I most agree with on aesthetic grounds is one with which I disagree on logical grounds. Of the 2018 BLACK PANTHER film, which I reviewed here, Gilliam said:

“I hated ‘Black Panther.’ It makes me crazy. It gives young black kids the idea that this is something to believe in. Bullshit. It’s utter bullshit. I think the people who made it have never been to Africa,” he said. “They went and got some stylist for some African pattern fabrics and things. But I just I hated that movie, partly because the media were going on about the importance of bullshit.”

While I didn't hate BLACK PANTHER, I too thought that much of its hype was bullshit, and that the film's characterization of Africa was politically correct nonsense. However, I don't entirely fault the film for not being realistic, which Gilliam does. I critiqued the film for not finding a middle ground, weaving real-world politics into an evocative fantasy, and as a result, the film is weak both in terms of its reality-elements and its fantasy-elements. Given that Gilliam has become best known for fantasy-films, I would think that the lack of a balance between these respective sets of perceived elements would be more important than the film's failings to mirror reality precisely.

It's strange that these admonitions from Scorcese, Coppola and Gilliam have come at this late date. While perhaps an old-time Hollywood director might've looked back at the 1990s and viewed the BATMAN and TEENAGE TURTLES films as a transitory phenomenon, by the early 2000s it should've been obvious that big-budget films in this genre were making big, big money, and that they weren't going away, even before the 2008 success of IRON MAN. Perhaps some of the hostility stems not just from the superheroes ruling the box office, but also because they're getting critical approbation, which has usually been directed at films of perceived "variety" as opposed to more generic forms of cinema. I didn't think BLACK PANTHER deserved an Oscar nomination, though ironically it was much better than two other more "mainstream" nominees. But I believe Gilliam, even though he certainly has greater knowledge of fantasy than the other two directors, simply doesn't engage with the particular nature of the superhero fantasy, and for that reason makes a superficial judgment about this particular genre.