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Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Cavell’

The latest entry in an ever-intensifying game of iterate-me-with-your-best-shot that goes back more than half a century, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has inspired some rather high-profile musing about the superhero genre’s lizard-like propensity for storytellular regrowth. No review worth its salt has failed to mention that this is the second Spider-Man origin film in ten years, and I’m not about to buck that trend; however, where many commentators have adduced this fact in order to decry (or merely denote) a sped-up, played-out tendency of today’s entertainment industry, I am more interested in it as another indicator of the superhero’s crucial position as a four-color harbinger (and now Hollywood hallmark) of pop postmodernity.

As any diehard comic book fan will tell you, this business of rapid-fire “rebooting” has deep roots – Marvel (with its ill-fated premature attempts to resuscitate the Submariner and “Commie Smasher” Captain America) and DC (with far more successful second kicks at the Flash and Green Lantern canons) have been doing this kind of thing since the mid-to-late 1950s. Back in those pioneer days of belatedness (just as, I would argue, in our own), this process had exactly the reverse of the stultifying effect that Dargis and Scott ascribe to it upon the segment of the population that took note of its processuality. As I’ve argued (at remarkably tedious length) elsewhere (and perhaps especially here), the situation helped to produce the ideal conditions for a kind of lecture engagée that had no real precedent in the annals of mass pastimery. Of course, in an age before the advent of specialty collector shops (to say nothing of exhaustively complete, easy-to-find, and even-easier-to-afford internet archives), the segment in question (call them a “collecting remnant”) was rather miniscule. However, as the saying sort of goes: mighty coteries from little dork nodes grow. Today’s popniscient public offers living proof of that.

Don’t let your price guides (do they still publish those?) fool you kids, THIS is the Golden Age of superheroes. That’s not a very startling statement, of course – no one is denying that these characters are more powerful than they’ve ever been before. And I will even confess to sharing some of A.O. Scott’s concerns when he notes that “the scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.” There’s no question that, in making the leap from the subcultural trash heap to the mighty multiplex, these stories have sacrificed a great deal of their underdog-in-the-manger vitality. At least on the surface. But to let the matter rest there would be to overlook the genre’s most extraordinary power of all – i.e. its ability to unite readers/viewers from across the political/social spectrum (many of whom would never deign to speak to each other in any other context) in passionate group appraisal and debate of each beloved character’s continuously evolving historiographical trajectory. As a kid, what I fell in love with about superheroes, far more than any specific panel or page, was the interpretive scrum that I plunged into every time I poked my nose into a letters page – and today, as an adult, my engagement with them is even more heavily focalized through podcasts, forums, blogs and the like. These are the places I turn to (certainly far more than any of our hopelessly uninspiring North American political institutions) when my faith in the democratic project wanes. These supposedly ephemeral products of the “superstructure” (and the even less heralded glosses and “fanotations” they generate) constitute, for me, the embryonic, but very definitely beating, group heart of a truly intersubjective community-to-come. And, strangely enough, that oddly spastic organ is now being kept alive (while also, I will readily admit, “being played”) by “Big Hollywood”.

All of that was just a round-about way of saying: “yeah, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man tonight, and I check out just about every superhero movie they churn out”. (And also: “yeah, I think they’re culturally significant events.”) Not only because many of these films do present the characters as “avatars of reaction” (to quote Scott and Dargis – and, I must say, I think that label applies more completely to Christopher Nolan’s Bat-chise, which these NY Times people seem inexplicably to like, than to just about any other genre entry I can think of), but also precisely because their increasingly reliable release schedule furnishes critics and commentators (both paid and unpaid) with regular opportunities to make these kinds of statements.

So what did I think of The Amazing Spider-Man? Well, I liked it a lot! And probably, I must say, more than I would have liked it if I hadn’t seen all three of the Tobey Maguire spideys first. It’s not that hated those Sam Raimi-directed efforts (each one definitely contained many likable elements – from J.K. Simmons’ JJJ to the strange chocolate cake wielding girl next door to Topher Grace’s gleeful, pre-alien-possession church prayer for the death of Peter Parker), but, on the whole, I really disagreed with Raimi’s gothic, Danny Elfman-ridden take on Peter (and even more so with his inexplicably stodgy deflation of the unsinkable Mary Jane Watson, whom I grew to love during Gerry Conway’s 1970s run on the comic book). As some critics have noted, the genre-splicing of superheroics with the indie-romantic-comedy-coming-of-age-film serves Spider-Man much more effectively than Raimi’s desperately auteurish superhero/monster movie mash-up. (This is why I find Dargis’ contention – and she’s not alone, by any means – that Webb didn’t bring a sufficiently original approach to the material so baffling – this spider-film isn’t even the same genre as the 2002, 2004 and 2007 entries!)

Don’t think I strolled over to the theatre as a “friendly witness”. On the contrary, the trailers for the film, with all of their talk of Peter’s special “destiny”, had me quite worried. As my tweets will confirm, I was not prepared to look kindly upon any story that deviated from presenting the protagonist as a regular schnook, randomly empowered and correspondingly forced to rethink his “responsibilities”. Well, there was a deviation, and, to my surprise, Marc Webb managed to convince me that Peter Parker (in the comic books that I grew up with) never was a regular schnook. How could he be, with all of this web shooter inventin’, instant photojournalistin’ and Gwen-n’-MJ-lovin’ going on? Peter, as conceived by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gil Kane, Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Roger Stern and many other notables, is a personality-plus kinda guy. Sure, he’s a little bit shy when we first meet him, but even then, as film critic/philosopher Stanley Cavell (after Ralph Waldo Emerson) would say, “he is fit to stand the gaze of millions… [he] carries the holiday in his eye.” In other words, he’s a romantic comedy protagonist (Cavell prefers the term “Hollywood comedy of remarriage”). I liked Raimi’s films best when he veered in this direction (i.e. near the end of Spider-Man 2). Sadly, he didn’t do it nearly enough, and, even when he did, the bizarre, tortured performances that he demanded from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (both of whom I have liked in other films) worked against that kind of lightheartedly serious effect.

With the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (who reinvents the historically rather tepid Gwen Stacy as a character to be reckoned with, while keeping the fetishistic nostalgia fiends in the audience at bay by dressing in the time-honoured accoutrements of her feeble four-color self), Marc Webb got it right. Sure, the Lizard is a somewhat less-than-captivating villain (especially since he’s deprived of his perennially perturbed wife and son Billy, from the comics). Who cares? Spider-Man was never about the villains. It was – and, in this one writer’s opinion, IS – about a gifted young man webswinging his way between humor, hormones, and heroism (just another name for moral responsibility) – and doing his damnedest to avoid posing next to American flags. Marc Webb got that right too.

What do you think?

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Wine of Youth (1924)

King Vidor’s first film for the newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wine of Youth lulls the viewer into a comfortable  rhythm with its Jazz Age jocularity–and then rips the skin off its “comedy of manners” facade to expose the capillaries of a culture in (perennial) crisis. Perry Miller famously described Transcendentalism as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism.” Wine of Youth tracks yet another of those tidal movements within the sea of sea-changes that is the American social scene.

The “Wine of Youth” in question is pressed from the soul of our protagonist by the impossibly conflicting demands of “authenticity” and “self-authorization” (call it “will”, if you will). It’s an intoxicating (that means “poisonous”, y’know!) paradox–we equate “freedom” with “choice”, when, in fact, every choice is the abrogation of freedom. Vidor’s film follows one “flaming youth’s” flickering awareness of this phenomenological fact. The person in question–the amazing Eleanor Boardman (in the first of a string of King films–culminating with The Crowd):

The film introduces us to a series of three Marys (each of whom, we are asked to believe, represents the “typical” young woman of her generation). Mary I (destined to become “Granny” in the present-day portion of the film) is shown careening toward marriage to the tune of a polka, sometime during the 1870s. Twenty years later, Mary II (aka “Mom”) waltzes to a similar fate–although not before she voices a few concerns about the ersatz quality of love that is “merely declared.” These quibbles come to naught when Mary II’s beau puts his lips to more convincing use, causing her to exclaim “ours is the greatest love the world has ever known!” These events lead directly to the creation of Mary III–who enters the story with some very definite ideas about indefiniteness:

Will our protagonist emerge from the film with her protean agon intact? Well, as you might expect, no. However, her journey toward the terminus is handled in such a way that we cannot but assume that the terminal case made by “THE END” will inevitably be reopened at some future date–and that Mary IV, whomever she proves to be, can expect a subpoena circa 1945.

Mary III (we’ll just call her “Mary” from now on, since she’s the one in the spotlight) has 2 suitors (“and she ain’t ashamed”)–Ben Lyon (Mr. Serious) and William Haines (Mr. Callow). Boardman’s knowing performance communicates the fact Mary is aware that this specious “choice” is no choice at all. What she really wants is the freedom to throw herself into the social whirl without being courted all of the time. Unfortunately (for her!), her sultry skepticism pokes an eye in even the most powerful storm, creating a pocket of pure pensiveness in the midst of these Fitzgeraldian frolics:

Mary knows that “flapping” isn’t freedom–but she longs to take flight. After a lot of tame bourgeois shenanigans, she hits upon a plan–she and her 2 guys will take a “trial honeymoon” (free of societal pressure and matrimonial maneuvering), in order to forge a more “authentic” understanding of each other. Natually, this shocks Mary I

and amuses Mary II (who understands her daughter’s urge without condoning it–or believing that the gambit has any chance of clarifying matters):

Once Mary III (I guess we need the numbers back after all) leaves the stage, her two elders have it out in an exchange which culminates (after Granny claims that Boardman is “in danger”)  in these very Thoreauvian echoes of Walden‘s “lives of quiet desperation”:

“Danger” is the Vidorian (not to mention Emersonian, Melvillian, Hawthornian, Fullerian, etc) status quo–the inevitability that must be avoided at all costs.

But how?

Certainly NOT by making a chastely illicit run up to the country, no matter what illusions those gusts of open road might conjure up:

The film quickly disabuses its heroine and its viewers of the notion that freedom is so easily won. Soon after the group hits the beach, Lyon gets sulky and Haines gets pervy, leaving Mary in a state of, uh, consternation?

She quickly realizes that the dread “society” cannot be escaped–it can only be confronted… and not head-on either, but rather “aversively” (as Emerson and Stanley Cavell would say). Turn your back on “society” and it’ll assault you in your tent (as Haines attempts to do!) Try to “face” it and all you’ll get is Harpo Marx playing “mirror”. The best we can do is fight our way unclear to a vantage upon the world informed by equal parts Rapid Eye Movement and sidelong glance.

So Mary fakes an attack of appendicitis and goes home–and this is where Wine of Youth gets really interesting. Discovering that everyone is out looking for her, Mary is amused until she hears the angry rumble of the family’s return. She hides in a closet and grabs a ringside seat (alongside the viewer) at one of the most upsetting conjugal disputes this side of Alice AdamsIt’s a Wonderful Life or Woman Under the Influence. Mary’s delinquency provides the spark which ignites a very desiccated marriage. During the next few minutes, this goofy lark of a film turns deadly serious, with Mom (played by the intense Eulalie Jensen) unleashing every poisonous postscript she’d been withholding since the day she made her own “choice”. Near the end of the battle, which simply must be seen to be understood, Mom tells Dad that she’d like to kill him with her bare hands. The pantomime might look a tad silly in a still–however, in motion, it scorches “abject despair” into the sign lexicon.

When Mary emerges from her cache to fling the enormity of her parents’ lifelong deception into their faces, they make a valiant effort to rewrite the story by contorting themselves into a warped imposture of “family feeling”:

Of course, in Mary II’s own long-ago words–“love” cannot be called into being by fiat. This declaration of dependence upon one another–an act of willful reinvention that makes a mockery of any and all notions of “authenticity”–fails to convince Mary III

But the crazy thing is that–after a melodramatic McGuffin involving a bottle of poison that never quite gets swallowed–Mary II and Dad actually discover that they HAVE talked themselves into something like a state of passion for one another. Their tale concludes in a manner that, in many ways, anticipates Stanley Cavell’s “comedy of remarriage” genre! Meanwhile, a strangely dutiful Mary III (inspired by a willful urge to rewrite her parents’ story by claiming it as her own–and attempting to call the placid relationship she had dreamed of rebelling against into “genuine” being? With no coherent “American Dream” to dream against–the revolt against philistinism collapses?) trudges back to the suitor who didn’t try to attack her on the honeymoon and, pretty much by default, throws herself “completely” into the throes of a purely rhetorical “grand passion” that builds the bourgeois sepulcher she grew up wanting to tear down (if she could only fix its position). Her (and the film’s) final words?

Even better than the real thing?

next time–The Big Parade!

good night friends!

Dave

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