Friday, January 30, 2009

Yale conference - day 1

So the first day of the graduate conference at Yale mostly lived up to my high expectations: most papers that were presented during the two longish panels this morning and this afternoon were solid efforts, with a few standout contributions, and the keynote speech from Scott Bukatman was entertaining and contained some stimulating new insights, even if it was somewhat snarky and opinionated. I was pleased to encounter Ramzi Fawaz again after previously having met at the 2007 PCA/ACA convention, where I had already been impressed by his acute dissection of superhero mythology. His talk here at Yale focused on The Incredibles, laying bare the problematic ways in which this beloved film of mine actually has at its core a problematic resistance towards 'otherness' and non-conformity - I now understand somewhat better why I may have been so reluctant to work on this film and take its true politics to task...

Predictably, much of the discussion so far has been centered on The Dark Knight as a cultural phenomenon, with some heated exchanges of opinion about the film's obvious (and less obvious) flaws. Unfortunately, much of the social banter between panels has had a tendency to the exchange of preferences and opinions rather than further discussion and analysis; I understand the impulse to defend or attack films like these among other academics, but there's really only so many times I can stand to hear what's wrong with Christopher Nolan as a writer, director and/or editor.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Of Samurai and Dark Knights

Resulting from a guest lecture I gave a few months ago on 9/11 and representations of evil, I have been invited to introduce screenings of two films this week, which have been programmed as a 'superhero double bill.' The appearance of last year's phenomenal The Dark Knight on the schedule will probably surprise no one. Combining it on a single bill with Kurosawa's arthouse classic Rashomon, however, is to my mind a more 'creative' choice: I doubt I am the only one to be initially somewhat baffled by the thought that Rashomon is in any way related to the superhero movie genre.

But although Rashomon's reputation is mostly based on the way it constitutes narrative as subjective, with its contradictory accounts of a single event, what it seems to have in common with Nolan's The Dark Knight is the way in which it offers competing ideas about the nature of reality. Speaking more broadly, the different people talking about the different eye-witness accounts bring into sharp relief the absence of a single, trustworthy perspective on the world, which is in many ways one of the foundations of the superhero genre as a whole.

Both films also, each in its own way, break with the moral and aesthetic conventions of the genre from which they have emerged. Where Rashomon offers a deconstruction of traditional Japanese samurai stories, The Dark Knight is far more interested in the slippery slope one encounters when confronted with chaos and nihilism. So whatever the original reasons for programming these two films together on a single bill, I guess there is some basis for a somewhat cohesive introduction...

Superhero double bill @ Crea Amsterdam

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Body of Lies

The latest high-profile entry in the dead-on-its-feet post-9/11 thriller genre, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies is certainly not the worst of its kind, but it somehow did end up one of the more embarrassing commercial failures - in spite of the top-heavy casting of Leo DiCaprio alongside Russell Crowe. Whether its underperformance at the US box office was caused by its (appropriately) ambiguous plot or by its 'been there, done that' similarities to lesser pictures like Syriana and Rendition, it seems to be faring comparatively well in European cinemas.

But whatever the reasons for its commercial rewards (or lack thereof), the film certainly has a redundant quality to it that somehow succeeds in forfeiting its many obvious qualities (not least of which is the too-beautiful-for-belief Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as the tacked-on romantic interest). Seemingly struggling to offer an exposé of the human aspect of America's War on Terror, it ultimately implies little more than that the US intelligence agencies are fatally compromised in their disregard for actual human lives, and that local authorities may be better suited for managing this fight (see also: A Mighty Heart).

The film may be hampered by a convoluted, strikingly uneven plot, but it sets itself apart from most previous films to which it has invited comparison by ultimately emasculating its hero instead of offering him his expected climax of moral awakening (cf. Rendition) and/or cleansing violence (cf. The Kingdom). "Walk out that door, and you're turning your back on America," says Russell Crowe's boringly immoral handler as DiCaprio opts for Middle-Eastern romance over American bureaucracy. Perhaps that sentiment still echoes the American moviegoer's feelings too much for comfort.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Theorizing superheroes

With the upcoming Yale symposium at the end of this month, I'm starting to try to organize some thoughts and ideas that have been circulating in my mind, and in some cases taking shape in recent lectures, articles, reviews and discussions. One of these concerns the ambiguous relationship the superhero seems to occupy towards theories of modernism and postmodernism. In some ways, they seem to be the ultimate embodiment of the heroic ambitions of early 20th-century modernism: Superman and Batman are - after all - the ultimate incarnation of individual human accomplishment, constituting modernism's ambivalent relationship to technology in its two major figures: Superman has no need for technology, and his first cover (and most iconic moment) is one of him lifting up and destroying a car. Batman on the other hand uses individually customized technological gadgets to overcome challenges. On top of that, we have the strong, frequently defining relationship between superheroes and the modernist architecture of the early twentieth century.

On the other hand, the forms in which we have traditionally encountered them seem to be more characteristic of most notions associated with postmodernism: the stories tend to be predictable and highly generic; the comics clearly recycle dominant ideologies associated with mass culture of the various periods in which they were produced; superhero mythology as a whole tends to contribute to a nostalgic de-historicizing of the present, in a classically Jamesonian way; and with their massive accumulation of varied, often contradictory histories, superheroes also seem to have become Baudrillardian simulacra: free-floating signifiers that can come to stand for anything from an ironic fashion brand to an ideological position.