Where Have All the Princesses Gone?

Ian Bogost has a theory about Every Computer Animated Film Ever that boils down every plot into a universal structure, not too dissimilar from the monomythic Hero’s Journey. I don’t have much to add about the narrative conventions of the genre, other than to seize upon one point Bogost makes in passing and to expand upon it. The hero of nearly every computer animated film ever is, as Bogost puts it, an “anthropomorphized creature protagonist.”

As I commented on Bogost’s post, I’d argue that the “anthropomorphized creature protagonist” is a technical effect of what we might call the platform of CG films: for at least twelve of the last fourteen years (going back to Toy Story in 1995), humans, especially their faces, were simply too difficult to render in CG. So Pixar and Dreamworks had to make do with anthropomorphizing Potato Heads, cars, rats, bugs, fish, and so on.

What I find fascinating about the genre is how the technical limitations of CG transformed the more standard Disney princess story. From the late eighties to mid nineties we had Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And suddenly, nothing. No more princesses.

The animated princess is a thing of the past.

A final thought: is it a coincindence that post-Toy Story we find the most “othered” princesses: Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)? Is it a sign of multiculturalism or some sort of reaction to CG, the death rattle of pen and paper animators?

What Can Psychics Tell Us about the Present?

A friend wondered aloud why psychics always seemed to be women. It’s not a question I had ever considered, but it made sense once I paused to think about all the psychics I had ever seen in pop culture. They were all women. The archetype for me is the gypsy fortuneteller in “The Wolf Man,” condemning poor Lon Chaney, Jr. to a lifetime curse of moonbeams and a mouthful of bloody canines.

It’s not that men who predict the future don’t appear in mythology, folklore, and modern popular culture. It’s that they predict a different kind of future than psychics. Women psychics are called upon to foretell intensely personal, private dramas: future loves, distant health crises, far off financial success or ruin.

Somehow it has happened that men in the popular imagination who see the future are prophets, who speak of widespread tumult affecting everyone: war, famine, disease. Unlike a female psychic, whose foresight is restricted to the intimate inner lives of her patrons, the male prophet operates in the public sphere, telling the entire nation or world where it is bound.

The anonymous gypsy soothsayer versus the revered Nostradamus, the Delphi Oracle versus the Book of Revelation’s Paul, Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network versus Edgar Cayce. It’s the same pattern every time.

The Psychic/Prophet dichotomy is essentially a reworking of the socially delimited options traditionally available to women and men in European and American culture. Women are confined to the private realm (the family and household), while men dominate in the public realm (national governance and defense). These narrowly defined roles apply not only to the actual constructive maintenance of the social fabric, but also to the virtual work that psychics and prophets perform.

Something else to consider: judging from my limited experience, psychics often foresee a karmic world in which balance is restored, a redemptive future where a window opens for every door that closes. A job loss leads to an exciting, fulfilling career path. A heartbreak gives way to a true love. Life-threatening illness paves the path toward enlightenment. Prophets, however, warn us with zero-sum propositions, with clear losers and winners, stark differences between right and wrong, where equilibrium is not the outcome but a sense of justice is.

Now here’s a crude essentialist thought: is this difference in vision between a world restored to its communal spirit and a world riven in two the difference between the way women are taught and expected to interact with the world (by nurturing it) and the way men are taught and expected to interact with the world (by dividing it)?

Review of Shyamalan’s “The Happening”

The Happening is possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and I’m just desperate to find some inkling of redeeming value in Shyamalan’s mess. But I can’t. Just a collection of loose thoughts that may help somebody else also trying to justify to themselves their rationale for sitting through this movie:

  • There is the promise — ultimately undelivered — of thematic coherence between the honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (raised in the opening scene by the science teacher Elliot Moore and underscored in the early part of the movie by the constant vibrating cell phones, an echo of a bee’s buzz). But no link is ever made between CCD and the waves of suicidal compulsions that strike humans on the East Coast. And if a link were made, it might not necessarily work. Are the bees supposed to be a foreshadowing of a human colony collapse? Is the same neurotoxin responsible? Why would plants want to kill bees? Or is CCD the motivation for the plants killing humans? In revenge for killing off the world’s bees? What a mess.
  • Unnecessarily gruesome. I’ve heard this is supposed to be a horror movie as opposed to a suspense thriller. Shyamalan should stick to thrillers. He must think the only difference between horror films and suspense thrillers is the level of goriness. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
  • Zooey Deschanel cannot act. Period. No debating this one. And why are the women so helpless? They can’t even operate a radio without a man’s help. Or is the idea of helpless women supposed to be an homage to the horror genre? It’s ridiculous either way.

OKay, I’m already spending way too much time on this. The film stole 90 minutes of my life the other night, no reason for it to suck up any more.

The Heart of Iron Man

Something about David Denby’s review of Iron Man in The New Yorker has been bothering me ever since I saw the film for myself. I’ve finally figured out it has to do with Denby’s misreading of the superhero genre, rooted in a disregard — shared by many critics and moviegoers — of the source material for superhero movies, that is, comic books.

Now, I am not a Marvel fanboy, and I definitely never was an Iron Man fan. But I still feel the need to come to director Jon Favreau’s defense here and respond to Denby’s review, if only because the review has resumed a conversation that has been going on in fits and starts in my mind since the first Spider-Man movie in 2002.

Two elements of Iron Man are particularly susceptible to the general misunderstanding of the comic book form that is so widespread: Robert Downey, Jr.’s eyes and Tony Stark’s heart.

About Downey’s eyes, Denby comments that

…once Stark climbs inside and becomes Iron Man he loses his perverse charm; Downey without eyes is Downey cancelled.

True, there is something transfixing about the glint in Downey’s eyes. And true, this glint disappears behind the mask. But this is the inherent nature of the superhero genre: an appealing character must don a mask, hiding the very bodily feature that film has taught us, through the widespread use of the close-up, is the indicator of emotion — the face.

In comic books, it’s a different story. Because all the images are still images, the hero with a mask is on the same plane as the hero without a mask. Emotions are conveyed, not through facial close-ups, but through the artwork itself: slanted or jagged lines, scenes exploding into the gutter, full-page panels that slow down reading, and so on.

A superhero movie with a hero whose face is static behind a mask — Batman, Spider-Man, and yes, Iron Man — is actually an homage to the source of the film. The masked superhero whose expressions are inscrutable is “quoting” the form of the comic book. In her studies of film adaptations of literary works, the film theorist Millicent Marcus has coined the term “umbilical scene” to describe such tributes: a conscious or unconscious acknowledgment by the film of its literary “mother.” In superhero movies, these umbilical scenes can be predictable in-jokes, such as the Stan Lee cameo in every movie based on a Marvel character. Or they can harder-to-decipher formal decisions, such as the unmoving mask.

The first umbilical scene I ever noticed in a Marvel-universe movie was the absolutely inanimate mask of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The effect was actually disconcerting, to see this supervillain speak from behind a frozen face. I first thought the Green Goblin’s mask was some sort of play on Japanese Noh theater, but I realized soon after that Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, even more so than Spidey in the film, was a conscious recognition of Spider-Man’s origins in the stock-still pages of a comic book.

The second element of Iron Man that Denby gets wrong is that “Tony Stark is more like James Bond — he’s always on top.” Again, I’m no fanboy, but I have to point out that Denby glosses over Stark’s fatal flaw: his injured heart, which comes into play on both literal and metaphoric levels in the film. The archetypal superhero must have a weakness. Superman has his kryptonite. Peter Parker has his Aunt May, and Iron Man has his heart, which is seconds away at any given moment from being shredded internally by the shrapnel in his veins.

In terms of Achilles’ Heels, Stark’s heart is a much richer narrative device than, say, a rock from the planet Krypton. There’s a very neat internal/external dichotomy going on with Stark. There’s the obvious and surface-level theme of physical vulnerability, staved off through engineering and technology. But there’s also the symbolic nature of the tender heart, surrounded by armor — that is, Stark builds barriers to protect what turns out to be a fragile emotional interior.

I don’t know where the inevitable Iron Man franchise of films will go, but if they follow the comic books even remotely, they will have to reckon with (1) Stark’s damaged heart, always threatening to “crash” in a more profound way than any cybernetic exoskeleton might and (2) the dark side of Stark’s “James Bond” style of living, which manifests itself in the comic books as depression and alcoholism.

With these dangers on the horizon, and only a metal suit to protect himself, Tony Stark cuts a much more interesting figure than most superheroes. And I’m looking forward to what happens next, Avengers Initiative or not…

Raiders of the Lost Ark Comic Book

Raiders of the Lost Ark Marvel AdaptationIn anticipation of the upcoming Indiana Jones movie, I dug through the old comic book box and came up with this, Marvel’s “Official Comics Adaptation of the Hit Title” — the original Raiders of the Lost Ark in comic book form (larger image).

You’d think this would be worth some money on eBay, but it looks like they’re going for about a buck a pop. So much for another one of my “collector’s item.”

The Death of a Legend: Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston and the NRAAnyone who knows is me is expecting a flurry of posts about the sad news of Charlton Heston’s death. For a while, back in the late nineties, I was single-handedly trying to forge the field of Heston Studies. My work focused on Heston’s informal sci-fi trilogy from the late sixties and early seventies: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. One of those essays — “There Goes the Neighborhood: The Seventies, the Middle Class, and The Omega Man” — was even published in a collection called Shocking Cinema of the Seventies.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about posting the other essays, and finally, tragically, now seems like an appropriate time to do it. So bear with me as I dig through my files and look over these old fossils, and if they’re not too embarrassing, look for them here in the future…

Puzzling over the flight home

How many passengers on a transatlantic flight play Sudoku?

Apparently all of them.

Another observation from the flight…One of the in-flight movies was The Dukes of Hazzard. I assume this movie was supposed to appeal somehow to the retro-seeking, nostalgia-desperate Gen Xers like myself, who spent many Friday nights in the eighties watching The Dukes and The Incredible Hulk. Like other attempts to create new franchises from recycled television shows, the movie was, well, I can’t say a disappointment, because I didn’t expect anything at all in the first place. But the spirit of the movie was all wrong, fundamentally misguided. Bo and Luke Duke, the good guys, were buffoons, played for laughs, while the bad guys–Boss Hogg, Roscoe–were played straight. This is the opposite of the original series.

Of course, I’m overanalyzing a movie that is obviously meant to be taken lightly. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that this inversion of the comical and the serious seems to happen a lot in the adaptation of seventies and eighties television shows for the big screen in the new millennium. It’s as if the old shows–Incredible Hulk, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard–weren’t campy enough, so the remakes have to be in camp-overdrive. Or rather, as if to prove we once took the originals seriously and didn’t conceive of them as camp at the time, we have to produce remakes with even greater camp value.

The single exception to this trend seems to be the Sci-Fi channel’s remarkable reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. In this series, what was once camp is now deadly serious. And that’s what makes Battlestar one of the best television shows around right now.

The World Trade Center (from the archives)

Lately I’ve been reading up on the history of the World Trade Center. It’s easy to forget, in this post-9/11 world, that for most of their life the Twin Towers were reviled. One of the most prominent critics was Wolf Von Eckardt, the Washington Post‘s eminent architectural critic. Upon seeing Minoru Yamasaki’s model for the buildings in 1966, Von Eckardt called the World Trade Center a “fearful instrument of urbicide.” Its two towers, he wrote, “just stand there, artless and dumb, without any relationship to anything, not even to each other.”

Von Eckardt calls the scale of the Twin Towers “utterly inhuman.” Maybe that’s why they eventually gained acceptance–if not from the architectural community, then at least from the popular media. What else could King Kong climb, except for something that was utterly inhuman?

Click for larger image

Some notes on the Last Samurai

Some notes on The Last Samurai: first, beware of any work of popular culture that has “Last” in the title. It is usually used to conjure up a mythic past, and it signals a strong nostalgic longing for “the good old days” or “the way things used to be.” Any such cultural production is bound to conceal a conservative view of contemporary society.

Second, The Last Samurai is essentially Dances with Wolves transplanted to Japan. Instead of the noble Native Americans fighting for their disappearing way of life, it is the noble samurai fighting for their disappearing way of life. In both cases the enemy is a disease called modernity, and Western culture (which is paradoxically validated by the end of the movie in the form of the triumphant rugged individual) is the carrier. Modernity is characterized by a disregard for the past, for tradition, for ancestors. Modernity focuses on style, not simplicity; machinery and steel, rather than nature and the body. The past in The Last Samurai is exemplified by Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai. He possesses a wisdom and insight that the rest of us can only find in Chicken Soup for the Soul. The fact that this mystical Japanese warrior-philosopher speaks perfect English only slightly undercuts his credibility.

Third, apparently the last samurai turns out to an American, which is supposed to make us feel good, I guess. You could argue that Katsumoto is the last samurai. He is, after all, the one leading the fight against the Japanese emperor’s flirtation with European and American culture. But he dies. Who is left in his place is Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an American soldier of fortune hired by the emperor to train the royal troops. The emperor’s goal? To crush the rebellious samurai. Algren, however, is captured by the samurai in his first battle against them, and he slowly adopts their way of life (a la Dances with Wolves). He winds up becoming Katsumoto’s right-hand man. Katsumoto dies in the final battle and Algren lives. The film ends with Algren returning to Katsumoto’s village, where he is bound to fall in love with Katsumoto’s sister and become a surrogate father to her little sons. This makes Tom Cruise, with his indomitable fighting spirit, the de facto last samurai, in my eye at least.

Fourth, all throughout the film’s extended battle sequences, something that the novelist Don DeLillo wrote in White Noise, his brilliant dissection of American violence and culture, ran through my head: “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage….War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” This made me wonder: the glorification of war in The Last Samurai — and it is glorified to a troubling degree — what nostalgia gives rise to it?

If the movie had been made for a Japanese audience, I can see how the nostalgia would be for the samurai. But this movie is intended for an American audience, and the closest thing we have in modern America to the samurai are, well, nothing we have is even close.

The answer, I think, lies in the two images of America presented in The Last Samurai: on one hand, there is the hero Tom Cruise, a nearly broken man at the start of the film, haunted by his participation in the massacre of an Indian village. One the other hand, there is his commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, who, from his very first sneer you know is the bad guy. He is the one who ordered the massacre (shown in bits and pieces in stylized overexposed flashbacks). Bagley is a humanitarian of the lowest order, one step away from General Custer himself, the foolhardy white soldier who lurks on the margins of the film as a symbol of the arrogant swaggering American. Colonel Bagley is such a disagreeable figure that the audience is forced into identifying with Tom Cruise — who is really not such a likable character either, once you think about it. Yes, he does redeem himself, but only through the stereotypically orientalized mysticism of the East.

So, there are two types of soldiers of fortune in The Last Samurai, one bad, one good. And this is the main point I want to make: even if we only identify with the good soldier of fortune, we are still identifying with a soldier of fortune — someone who kills for money. When Tom Cruise joins the cause of the samurai he learns that honor is the more important thing to fight for, but in his case this is only because he has nothing left to fight for. And it isn’t even his own honor he fights for, but someone else’s. The American is so morally impoverished that he even has to steal someone else’s honor.

This is the kind of American we’re nostalgic for at the turn of the new millennium.