Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Man With the Three Exclamation Points

I've recently been going over some old Marvel/Timely/Atlas Patsy Walker comics by Al Hartley, and one thing that surprised me is how similar his early work is to his better-known Christian (or Christian-influenced) comics. He underwent a religious conversion in the late '60s, at which point he started consciously working Christian messages into secular comics -- though as I've said before, the messages were sometimes hard to distinguish from "hippie" messages of the same era; he shared the hippie obsession with the idea of returning to a better, purer, more natural state -- and, eventually, into the Spire comics.

But this story from Patsy Walker # 72, which Hartley drew and also wrote himself (Stan Lee didn't even put his name on it), has all the characteristics I associate with Hartley's later stuff: the combination of moralizing and trippy fantasy. The binary opposition, where one character is purely "good" and another character's function is to learn from the pure, good character. The over-wrought dialogue, often ending with Hartley's trademark, the triple exclamation point !!! Hartley really didn't change much in the '60s; he simply added an explicit religious dimension to what was already a quasi-religious preachiness.

Hartley's Patsy is a pretty interesting title for that and other reasons. As I've said, Hartley's art kind of creeps me out, with all the huge eyes and facial lines. But it certainly is different from other comics of this type, which went for art that was either more realistic or more cartoony. Patsy was like that even before Hartley took it over, but his predecessor, Al Jaffee, didn't like the material; Hartley completely embraced the fusion of romance comics with humor comics, and turned out a title that had a strange freakish integrity.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Art and Nature, Thus Allied

After writing an earlier post about the old-school approach to Gilbert and Sullivan -- and how at this point it often comes off better than attempts to freshen them up -- I found this longer excerpt from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, the first 10 minutes of the second act. (It was their second film of G&S's most popular work, though the 1938 film version was abridged, and had a non-member, Kenny Baker, as Nanki-Poo. The 1938 version is closer to an actual movie; the 1966 version is just a studio reproduction of what they were doing on stage at the time.) I think it conveys the strengths and weaknesses of the "traditional" G&S approach.

The weakness is that stilted delivery of dialogue, the broad gestures, become predictable and rule out any possibility of surprise or sudden illumination of character or theme. (I think Gilbert was stronger in themes than characters -- his characters are helpless puppets in the power of society's arbitrary rules -- but I could see a director or performer bringing more individuality to his characters than they usually get.) You can almost predict, if you know the music and the text, what the next movement will be.

The good thing is that the movements are related to the music and text, and don't try to go against them. The staging of "The Sun Whose Rays" in 1966 probably had a lot more movement than Gilbert's own staging (I don't know if it was as static as the version in Topsy Turvy, but I do get the impression that he preferred as little movement as possible during a song), but it's certainly not "busy" and doesn't try to pep it up with additional business. And the madrigal "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day," of which we unfortunately get only the very beginning in this clip, is done exactly as it needs to be: very statically, with all the visual interest coming from the way the characters are posed. There's not much that a director can do to add to this great number, and plenty he or she can do to detract from it with gimmicks.

Every time I return to Gilbert and Sullivan, I feel that Gilbert is one of the most fascinating, frustrating figures in the history of theatre, and one who has never fully received the kind of in-depth study he needs. His portrayal in Topsy-Turvy, as the ultimate repressed Victorian who appropriates another culture without really understanding it, shows how little Gilbert himself is understood. The extraordinary thing that Mike Leigh almost completely missed is that at a cruical moment in the G&S partnership, when Gilbert was under pressure to come up with a libretto with humanity and realism, he instead delivered the darkest comedy he'd ever written (and that's saying something), a play that is virtually all about the threat of death and torture, and society's desensitization to death and torture.

There's only one character who isn't either bloodthirsty or desensitized: ironically, it's Ko-Ko, whose job is to execute people, but "can't kill anybody," and is the only person in the play who seems to understand that inflicting death on other people is horrible (everyone else is mostly worried about being killed). And, typically of Gilbert, the one character who displays a spark of humanity is the one who's punished in the end, in this case by being made to marry the awful Katisha.

I've sometimes thought of Gilbert as a misanthrope, but this isn't really right; there's usually someone on the stage -- one character, usually, sometimes more than one -- who has his admiration or compassion, though it's not always who we think it is. In Yeomen of the Guard Jack Point is usually portrayed as the sympathetic figure, but though he's partly Gilbert's self-portrait, I don't think he comes off very well at all. Gilbert cared so little about him that he originally had Elsie "laugh aloud" at his plight at the very end, changing it to "dropped a tear" only when audiences found the line too cruel. But the character Gilbert seems to admire is Phoebe, the one person who feels something resembling unselfish love for another character, and the only character who will speak out against English bloodthirstiness. And, like Ko-Ko, she's horribly punished and forced to marry a disgustingly bloodthirsty character.

So Gilbert doesn't hate all people, but he does have a very dark view of most people, and his consistent view -- in his plays and poems -- is that there's not much hope for anyone who points out the stupidity of social rules and conventions, or the society's obsession with casually-inflicted death. The only way to arrive at a happy ending in Gilbert's world is to work within the system and make up your own stupid rules to amend the ones that already exist, the way the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe rewrites one arbitrary, bloodthirsty law ("Every fairy shall die who marries a mortal") into another ("Every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal"). Unlike Shaw, he has no hope that anything can be changed by social enlightenment or a better system; the enemy, he implies, is humanity's compulsion to make up rules to live by. The theme that runs through all of Gilbert's work is that people will do anything, no matter how idiotic and awful, if convention dictates that they should. It's almost as if his enemy is society itself, because society is based on rules, and rules are inherently arbitrary and even evil.

Again, not much of this comes through in portrayals of Gilbert, but a lot of it is there in the texts, waiting to be brought out by an imaginative director. In the meantime, I think more of it will come out in a fairly straightforward, unfussy staging than one that tries to make points about things that are less interesting (like, for example, the cultural-appropriation issue in The Mikado) than the bleakness and anger of Gilbert's own themes.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reckoning With Robin

I mentioned on Twitter that I hoped Kick-Ass (which I have not seen) would be a success because it might convince Warner Brothers to bring Robin back to the Batman movies. In 140 characters or less, you're tempted to make outrageous statements that will tempt people to respond, but I actually did mean that; I like Robin, and think that precisely because he wasn't well handled in the Joel Schumacher films, it's time for the movies to take a fresh look at him. If anything he needs a movie reboot more than Batman did, since the Chris O'Donnell version is the only movie version apart from the TV spinoff and the black-and-white serials.

Now, I agree that Robin will never show up as long as Christopher Nolan is in charge. But that says more about Nolan than the character. (And given that he basically turned the Joker into Dennis Hopper's character from Speed, with even less of an inner life, I doubt he'd do particularly well with Robin anyway.) The idea of someone else muscling in on Batman's turf, both helping him and threatening his image as the sole vigilante "hero this city needs" (tm), actually could fit in pretty well with Nolan's themes, particularly the attention he pays to Batman's creation of his public image and reputation. But realistically it'll have to wait for yet another reboot of the franchise.

The thing about the concept of Kick-Ass is that it deals with an aspect of the Robin character that has been batted around in the comics from The Dark Knight Returns on, and even in the animated shows, but has never been dealt with in the movies: superheroes inspire kid copycats. In a weird way Robin is more "realistic" than a man who, based on no apparent model except a bat, decides to fight crime in his underwear. Robin is someone who sees a superhero and decides to dress up in a costume and be like him. This makes him someone the kids can identify with (that's why he was added), but it also makes him a sort of commentary on the whole idea of identifying with superheroes and wanting to be like them.

Add to that the fact that Robin is a child (though how old he is depends on which version they're using this week) risking his life and inflicting violence, and there are all kinds of moral questions that open up: is it okay to watch a child doing this, is it okay for Batman to let a child risk his life (or get killed, again, depending on which Robin this is) just because it's useful to have someone around to act as a decoy. This stuff has been dealt with, but not in the movies, and I'd rather see that than some of The Dark Knight's post-9/11 obsessions.

Finally, Robin just makes a better confidante for Batman than all the Robin substitutes they've tried over the years. Robin was added, in part, because Batman needed someone to talk to. He still does, but they keep using Lucius "Morgan Freeman On Autopilot" Fox or Commissioner Gordon or Alfred where Robin is more effective. (Robin also makes Alfred more interesting, since he can talk to Robin about Batman or to Batman about Robin, giving his insights without the breach of etiquette that would involve telling off the young master face-to-face, and allowing him to tell us, through this other guy, what he knows about the characters' histories.) He was introduced as a "Watson" character; it was a good idea then and I think it's still a good idea now.

Again, none of this matters if the character is mis-handled. One way the TV series managed to make the character work was, against expectations, making Robin smarter than Batman. (Remember, it's a running gag that Robin solves the Riddler's riddles before Batman does.) The dynamic that made the show work is that Batman is completely unaware of his own absurdity, while Robin has a touch of real-world grounding, and sometimes seems mildly aware that what he's saying is ridiculous. That approach wouldn't work in a non-satirical movie, but the point is that if Robin is played a little differently from Batman, he can represent us, as he often does in the actual comics.

So there are at least some of my reasons why I'd like to see a non-Chris-O'Donnell Robin.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Grudge Match: Dick Dastardly vs. Professor Fate

Inspired by my Great Race reference in an earlier post, I return to a question that has haunted all of humankind ever since the '60s: who would win a race between Dick Dastardly (voice of Paul Winchell, Wacky Races) and Professor Fate (The Great Race?). Both are evil. Both have poor fashion sense. Both have mustaches and an infinite willingness to cheat. Both have silly voices. So who wins a race between two men who are basically doomed to lose? Yes, Fate won the race, but only because Leslie let him win. Dastardly won't do the same, yet unless one lets the other win, neither can win. So is this just doomed to go on forever?

There are two things going for Fate, apart from that whole thing where he actually won in the end. One, he's the original and Dastardly is the Hanna-Barbera copy. In a fight between the original and the H-B ripoff, I'll bet on Ralph Kramden to beat Fred Flintstone, and Sergeant Bilko to beat Top Cat, so I guess Fate has the edge there. And two, Fate has the sidekick advantage. He has Max, who is... not exactly competent, but at least fun, and willing to try new things and push buttons. Muttley doesn't do anything except laugh.

Though some might argue that given Max's track record, it's better to have a sidekick who doesn't do anything.

The other argument for Dastardly is that he occasionally won as part of the Really Rottens team in the Laff-a-Lympics. That could make his record better than that of Fate, who only seems to have that one forfeit victory to his credit.

So which rotten rapscallion will ride the road to riches?

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Brief Plug

Sorry I've had so little to say here recently. I do want to note that according to this post at BoingBoing, the cartoonists who contributed sketches to Craig Yoe's "Jetta" collection (devoted to Dan DeCarlo's obscure, pre-Jetsons futuristic sit-comic) include friend of this blog Jenny Lerew.

Yoe has been putting a lot of books together lately; you've probably already seen the plug for his most important recent project, "The Complete Milt Gross." (Not actually the complete Gross, but a complete collection from one era of his work.) But if you haven't, allow me to plug that here.

The first time I saw a Gross cartoon was, I think, a reprint in the "Big Book of Jewish Humor." It was a retelling of the story of Rumplestilskin (or as the title put it, "Ferry Tale from Romplesealskin for Nize Baby Wot Ate Opp All de Crembarry Suss"). The experience of seeing it for the first time wasn't quite as weird as a first encounter with Krazy Kat, because at least Gross's dialect was recognizably based on -- though exaggerated from -- actual speech patterns. But it was still strange and new; no cartoons I'd ever seen in newspapers or comic books were anything like it. And more than anything else in that book, it seemed like an introduction to a different era of Jewish humor, a complicated balancing act between self-mockery and even self-criticism (since the dialect represented the way of talking that his readers were trying to get away from, and perhaps in some cases resented in their own parents) and pride in the way Jewish and "goyish" culture could intersect.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Favorite Musical Numbers in Blake Edwards Movies?

I've been re-watching some Blake Edwards movies lately, with my usual mixture of admiration and frustration: he really was a brilliantly talented filmmaker (in my opinion), and I admire him for managing to preserve his basic style -- an Old Hollywood approach in almost every aspect of moviemaking, really -- through all the changes in film in the '70s and '80s. But he could hardly ever make a movie that was good all the way through. I know I said a lot of this a few years back when I wrote about S.O.B. (a movie I still love in spite of its terrible scenes, maybe because I turn to it as a corrective to '70s movie nostalgia), but I wanted to say a bit of it in new words.

Edwards reminds me of what Bill James said about the baseball player Mickey Vernon, that if you took his best seasons and filled in just regular average seasons between them, you'd have a Hall of Famer. If you took the best scenes of Edwards' movies and just balanced them with scenes that aren't embarrassingly bad, you'd have a great body of work. (This explains, by the way, why Howard Hawks said something to the effect that the secret of a good movie is to have three great scenes and no bad ones. The rest of the movie doesn't have to be as good as the best bits, it just has to be without bits like the Mickey Rooney scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany's) Vernon had an excuse: he played injured a lot of the time. Edwards, I'm not sure. I thought back in 2004 that his unevenness was a sign of his insecurity, a lack of knowledge of or interest in what the public wanted. That could be; he certainly seems to be saying in S.O.B. that he either doesn't know what the public wants or, insofar as he knows, he hates what they want. But I don't think it explains everything. It might be that he just didn't have the capacity for self-correction, the ability to throw out bad ideas and keep good ones.

Well, his films are what they are. One thing I usually enjoy in Edwards' movies are his pointless musical numbers. Coming along after the original movie musical died, and having such a close working relationship with Henry Mancini, Edwards liked to work Mancini's songs into his movies -- but oddly enough, in my opinion, the more integrated the songs are into the film, the less well they work. Victor/Victoria is the closest thing he made to a real musical, and except for Robert Preston's simply-staged "Gay Paree" song I don't find the musical sequences terribly impressive (it doesn't help that the songs, with Leslie Bricusse lyrics, aren't up to Mancini's earlier work). Darling Lili works better, but only "Whistling Away the Dark" is really stunning.

But when Edwards just puts a number in for no good reason, it can be a highlight. Obviously I'm thinking primarily of "Meglio Stasera" in The Pink Panther, which is so pointless that Edwards can't even remember (on his commentary track) why he put it in. Yet it's one of the great scenes of '60s cinema, and in a strange way sums up the whole point of the film, its beauty and cruelty and jet-set snobbery and the tragic figure of Clouseau, who is considered out of step (literally, in this number) because he's the only decent human being in the movie. By the way, I have no idea why this upload is missing Jeffries saying "Ragazzi!" -- it must be from a foreign dub where they forgot to put it back in -- but it's the best-quality upload currently online.

And then there's Dorothy Provine's similarly out-of-nowhere number in The Great Race. It's not as memorable a tune or as beautifully-staged a number (though Johnny Mercer's lyrics are an asset as always); parts of it look like they shot a master and some close shots and then ran out of money. But I've always found it the most purely entertaining four minutes in a bloated movie, filled with scenes that want to be the funniest ever, and don't quite make it. The best moments in this film are the small ones, and this is just fun, in a way that most movies from the era never were. Again, if Edwards' comedies as a whole were anywhere near as uncontrived and entertaining as this one scene, he'd be a pantheon moviemaker, instead of a guy who created some good scenes.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Or Maybe God Was Right

Vince Keenan has some thoughts after seeing Bigger Than Life:

I don’t have many rules when it comes to movies, but here’s one: when every hosanna fawns over what a movie says but not what actually happens onscreen, odds are you’re in for a tough sit...

The lopsided script is so focused on Mason and his largely one note fugues that the behavior of the other characters is rendered incomprehensible. His doctors aren’t held to account. As for Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush), I had to keep stepping out of the movie to backtrack her motivations. “I suppose if she thinks X, it makes sense she’d do Y.” Many critics claim Bigger Than Life is fundamentally about issues of class – novelist Jonathan Lethem, a great admirer of the film, offers 27 minutes of cultural background on the DVD – but the movie treats money obliquely. In a key scene, Mason holds up medical bills shot in such a way that I couldn’t tell what they were until he’d already put them down. Here’s another of my rules: if your characters’ actions are essentially prompted by subtext, you’ve failed as a dramatist.

Vince also compares the film to the New Yorker article it's based on, and finds that the true story makes more sense at every point. (For example, in real life, the teacher's dosage of cortisone was constantly upped by the doctor; the writers of the movie, not wanting to portray doctors negatively, made it entirely the teacher's decision to overdose on the miracle drug.)

I don't really agree with his take, but it's worth reading lest the DVD release and the (deserved, in my opinion) acclaim for Bigger Than Life get us all too caught up in Ray-mania. Most of his movies have serious flaws and Bigger Than Life, which may be my favorite among his films, abounds in unclear motivations, absurd plot points, and most damningly of all (since this is something Ray could have fixed on his own, without help from the writers) some weak acting, particularly from Christopher Olsen in the big role of James Mason's son.

And yet most of these flaws -- except the acting flaws, of course -- don't matter all that much to me personally. In a strange way, the lack of coherence in the film makes it more interesting than it would have been as a realistic case history, like Hitchcock's The Wrong Man the following year. In particular, the Barbara Rush character is more interesting to me because her motivations are so unclear and her behavior is so frankly bizarre. The thing I always find, when watching it, is that the wife drug-free (or is she? this being the '50s and all, who wasn't taking some sort of miracle drug?) is crazier than her husband on drugs. Her absolute insistence on playing the devoted wife role, no matter how things are collapsing around her, is almost pathological. It's like she is so determined to play her proper role in society, knowing her place, afraid even to go into a store that's out of her price range, that she is willing to let her husband destroy himself, her and her son rather than admit there's something wrong.

But while I think that's a valid interpretation of the film, borne out by what happens on the screen, it's also an interpretation that "justifies" what would normally be considered weak writing (a character who acts bizarrely for reasons that are never clarified, and whose bizarre behavior is never even addressed as such by the other characters). A lot of '50s Hollywood movies are like that. The directors of that era who caught the imagination of the French New Wave critics were often those like Ray or Sirk, who would take a compromised script -- often with hashy writing, tacked-on endings, and unjustified plot twists -- and made the movie look like it might mean something more than the script implied. (So at the end of Bigger Than Life Ray is using every device he can to make the happy ending look weird or sinister; it's not even that he has a specific, coherent comment to make on the convention of the happy ending, just that he wants to make it seem strange. Update: as noted in the comments, it's an exaggeration to say that there's no specific purpose to the way the ending is filmed. In particular, the final shot is pretty clearly intended to suggest that things might not get better for these people.) The New Wave saw this as a plus, because they were tired of "quality" movies from Europe and America, where every motivation was spelled out and every theme was explicitly stated.

So what seemed like weak writing in some of the films of Ray or Sirk, or the nonexistence of vital plot information in Artists and Models, or that plot point in Vertigo that is set up and never resolved, and many other such moments in '50s American movies, all seemed like a plus to the Godard generation. That generation of moviemakers set out to make movies that would deliberately incorporate the unclear motivations and messed-up characters that some of these filmmakers incorporated by accident. Which led to the cinematic status quo that so angered Pauline Kael in the early '60s, where both art and commercial movies paid less attention than ever to "motivations and complications, cause and effect."

The quality of Hollywood movies by the early '60s was far below what it had been in the '50s (and almost all the '50s favorites were in decline, in many cases having let their lovable flaws become much bigger flaws that choked off anything good in their movies), but you could argue that the decline was a direct consequence of the tendencies that appeared in the great Hollywood movies of the '50s: by ignoring the basics of good screenwriting, and trying to make movies that went against norms of good structure and characterization, these directors were doing something that could never work on a regular basis. This would explain why Howard Hawks, having broken many well-made movie rules with Rio Bravo -- creating a great film with an incredibly slow pace and some gaping plot holes (remember, we're told later in the film that Dean Martin witnessed a shooting that he wasn't actually conscious to see) -- spent much of the rest of his career making slow, plot-hole-filled movies that weren't very good, trying to repeat the Rio Bravo formula without the greatness.

But in those '50s movies, where the approach works, there's a certain exhilaration in seeing the rules of screenwriting class trumped by the power of images, performances and that unique atmosphere that a director and cinematographer can create. The fun of Johnny Guitar or Bigger Than Life is that the director and actors and cinematographer seem to be telling us that there's more to the story than the script will admit. I can see, in the right frame of mind, why so many young critics and filmmakers fell in love with that idea.