Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Fear and Self-Loathing at the Android's Dungeon

Sometimes when you're writing one of these blog posts, it's easy to get carried away by the seductive rhythms of the first-person singular. Another way to put it is that bloggers have a tendency towards rambling and digression. I'm not really stating anything new here, I don't think. But if you've been following this blog for any length of time you know I occasionally take rambling digresssion to new heights. Oftentimes I've been burned by the inconsistency of my own thoughts, posting lengthy discussions on this or that subject which seem, in the hazy light of four-thirty in the morning, to make perfect sense but which become, in the harsh light of daytime, randomly assembled jumbles of fallacies and suppositions. I've even been known to permanently erase particularly embarrassing posts from time to time, which is one of those things I would probably hate if someone else did it, but this is my blog so I can afford to be a hypocrite when I am publicly embarrassed by my own words.

But as is also the case, sometimes a brief digression or expository cul-de-sac proves more revealing and inflammatory than the actual main point of a post -- such was the case yesterday, when a lengthy discussion of the weird gender issues in the X-Men comics and movies was essentially hijacked by my ill-conceived defense of X-Men 3 -- followed, of course, by multiple paragraphs discussing how that very same film contained numerous instances of weird and inconsistent thematic gaffes. All of which makes me wonder -- why? Why did I enjoy the film so much, seemingly in inverse proportion to its quality? I mean, seriously, it's not a great film by any means. I think the reasons I liked it so much had a lot to do with the very same reasons it might not wear well over time -- it's fast, it's loud, it is at times aggressively stupid. It wears its fealty to the worst impulses of the source material proudly on its sleeve.

None of which really has anything to do with the fact that, my jokey reply notwithstanding, Tom Spurgeon was essentially dead-on with his comments:
Audiences have been known to embrace with ticket purchases AND esteem loud, cheap and violent movies with giant plotholes and implausibilities. They like Raiders of the Lost Ark, for pete's sake. They like Star Wars, which is incompetently made. I'd suggest the difference between those movies and [X-Men 3] is each contains some sort of animating principle, each unpacks something in the story or the characters' throughline that's charming or beguiling enough to override people's criticisms of how these stories are told.

First, I don't think there is any doubt that the movie in question will not be remembered in the same caliber as the two inarguable classics he mentions. For good or ill, Raiders and Star Wars are part of the cinematic canon -- and, for the purposes of this discussion, they defined the state of the art of action moviemaking in their time. This is all the more amazing considering that Star Wars, despite the technical wizardry of the special effects and its imaginative cinematography, was strictly amateur hour when it came to the actual nuts and bolts of directing and editing. But people can forgive a lot based on the actual content of the story, and with Star Wars Lucas somehow figured out how to broadcast a signal directly into the fanboy's brain, in such a way that those with receptive brainwaves can be to this day reduced to a quivering Pavolovian wreck at just the hint of that famous John Williams fanfare. . .

And therein lies the heart of the problem. For myself, and many of those reading this blog, the very notion of being a fan frames a dilemma at the heart of our avocation. How many successful blogs have risen to prominence on the basic premise of exhuming bad comics from years gone by for our mutual derision? It's practically the default mode for the entire blogosphere. Every blog, no matter how high-minded or narrowly-focused, eventually succumbs to the siren song of posting wacky Superman panels or odd Herb Trimpe covers. But at the same time, from my perspective, there's always an undercurrent of not-so-funny self-abnegation to these types of displays. It reminds me slightly of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with a group of recovering drinkers huddled together and relating their worst stories, bonded by common experience but at the same time eyeing each other, and their not-quite-satisfying cups of stale coffee and warm Pepsi, with a wary disquiet. Because, dammit, I'm glad to be sober, but I can't say I wouldn't mind a drink.

The term that comes to mind when I do something like watch X-Men 3 is wallowing. As much as I may enjoy a superhero movie, it still conjures distinctly ambivalent feelings. As with anyone who grew up reading superhero comics, there's a lot of strange impulses conjoined with the concept of being a fan. Younger fans, or people who came to the medium late in life, probably can't relate to this. You see this kind of "generation gap" (although it has nothing to do with age) anytime you have someone who grew up with crappy comics trying to communicate with someone who came to comics as a fully (or at least partially) sapient being: the older fan will almost always discount genre, whereas the younger fan will point to a number of interesting and innovative works that easily circumvent any genre-as-limitation constraints. It's essentially impossible to bridge this gap, and you even see it a little in the conflict between older alternative publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and younger "new mainstream" publishers like Oni and AiT / Planet Lar, who aren't afraid of the notion of genre either in terms of producing high-quality genre work or even, gasp, attempting more ambitious work that might even cross previously taboo genre barriers.

All of this hails back to something I feel very strongly, and which I am certain -- although I have no independent corroboration -- that a number of others feel as well. Basically, we have for the most part left superhero comics and their trappings in our past. We may still enjoy the occasional superhero book, but it's not our bread and butter. And when we grew up and grew out of our youthful preoccupations, discovering the wider world of art and entertainment that lay outside the purview of our previously limited definitions, we grew deeply embarrassed and ashamed at the scope of our previous horizons. This is often (but certainly not always) compounded by the social and emotional shame associated with the stigma of fandom suffered by many growing up. Imagine my surprise to go out into the wide world and discover -- gasp -- women actually reading comics! Not just unattractive, socially-inept future-spinster types either (which may be offensive but that's the way the gender binary forms when you're a young lad), but actual, real live girls with working girl parts and everything. For anyone who grew up in a time and place when reading comic books -- or playing video games or Dungeons & Dragons or watching zombie movies or Star Wars -- was a social taboo similar in nature to chronic masturbation or leprosy, this was a realization just slightly less upsetting than suddenly learning that white is black or 2+2=5.

So yeah, I think it's safe to say that we (by which I mean I, but anyone else is free to chime in on this point), have some issues. To a large degree there's a sense of exasperation with our younger selves -- why the hell did I waste time with Marvel Two-In-One / Alpha Flight / Brigade when I could have been reading the complete works of Theodore Dreiser?* And so to this day when I watch a superhero movie there's a fervid desire to distance myself from a genuine enjoyment of the film based on the lifelong accrual of negative associations with any public expression of fannishness. It almost goes without saying that the vast majority of the comics which we grew up reading are stupid; indeed, bad comics exult in an extreme condition of mindless vapidity unique to the form -- so there is a genuine, if belated (and no less fervent for its lateness) aesthetic judgment built on a lifetime's experience with the often horrible source material. I want to catch up on my priggish disapproval by retroactively shaking a finger at my younger self.

So when Spurgeon asks "Why defend a gut enjoyment that a lot of people don't even share for the sake of a message or slew of messages which is / are insulting and / or stupid?", he's actually unpacking quite a bit of rhetorical baggage. The "gut enjoyment" of the film, on my behalf, is based on an acknowledgment that the source material is, in many cases, profoundly stupid, and yet there remains a sentimental attachment to the characters and situations which desires, in the circumstances of revisiting the characters in a darkened cinema, to be assuaged. As opposed to other movies that attempted to "prettify" the source, or ratchet up the previously existing pathos and melodrama to obnoxious levels in order to shoot for some kind of dramatic authenticity**, X-Men 3 embraced the stupidity.

Star Wars is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon operating on a larger scale. Although I still love the first three Star Wars movies, I've also grown enough to gain a bit of distance. The original trilogy may have some moments of bravura filmmaking scattered throughout, but really, as movies they are stunningly mediocre achievements. There are many far superior science-fiction and fantasy films that have failed to gain anywhere near the foothold on our collective imagination. And yet . . . even after all these years it's still possible to put aside critical exasperations with Lucas and be -- to borrow Spurgeon's wording -- beguiled.

But there's also a lot of ambivalence here. Because as much as I may like Star Wars, I am also profoundly embarrassed to like Star Wars. I mean, come on, it's just a weird fantasy flick with bad costumes and third-hand philosophical bloviating peppered throughout. We talk about the embarrassing thematic underpinnings in the X-Men saga, well, that's nothing compared to Lucas' crypto-religious worshipful superstition and ham-fisted mythography. This is why I'm about the only person I know who actively and vocally prefers the prequel trilogy to the original. Blasphemy, you say -- even those of you without any emotional attachment to Star Wars in any incarnation are probably shaking your heads at the fact that the prequels were markedly inferior products.

Well, follow my reasoning here:

Lucas isn't a stupid man. He may not be the moviemaking genius his bank account implies, but he's far from dumb. To a great degree I think the prequels were a conscious attempt on his part to distance himself from the fervent following generated by the first three films. He didn't set out to make the self-important generational saga undoubtedly envisioned by Star Wars fanatics since time immemorial. He set out to have some fun. Whatever the films' other virtues, you can't say that there aren't some excellent sequences in all three films, and the overall mood is one of pretty, fizzy excitement. Sure, there's some pathos and philosophical digression***, but there's not a moment in the entire prequels when something interesting isn't happening onscreen, or if not interesting, at least pretty.
The three prequels are more obviously childrens' movies than the original trilogy. I mean, of course, the first three are childrens' movies too, but no one seems to remember that because too many grown-ass adults take them too seriously. To my mind, the prequels fulfilled the same purpose for Star Wars fans as William Shatner's infamous "Get a life!" appearance on Saturday Night Live. He was telling his fanbase to stop taking the damn things so seriously. Laugh at Jar Jar Binks or don't (the kids did, which is all that's really important in this context), enjoy the painterly detail of the digital imagery or not, but there is absolutely no way to mistake the movies for anything other than a huge piece of escapist fantasy. Whether or not the die-hards appreciated the effort, Lucas still laughed all the way to the bank. Those of us who enjoyed the films appreciated the fact that we could enjoy the movies without also being overwhelmed by the sheer absurdity of the enterprise.

Because, ultimately, I think the main point here is that the Star Wars prequels, like X-Men 3, didn't take themselves too seriously. Unlike many superhero movies, most fantasy films, pretty much the entirety of latter-day Star Trek as well as the vast majority of modern superhero comic books, they were executed with a wink and a nod, full of the kind of semi-ironic signifiers that broadcast acceptability to those, like myself, who are just too damn jaded to get carried away in an inferior escapist fantasy, or too damn self-important to lose that last bit of self-consciousness. Because, more often than not, if a movie of this kind radiates self-seriousness and portentous sincerity, it fails. Everyone sure loved The Lord of the Rings but I'll be damned if I ever felt much more than a passing amusement, hardly the timeless wonder they were shooting for. I sincerely love Tolkein on the printed page, but I think the filmmakers flat-out failed at translating the texture and the tone of the books. If a movie that features monsters and goblins or dudes in spandex insists that I take it seriously, well then, I am going to hold it to the same standard as any other movie that presents itself as a sincere piece of artistic expression. And most often it will fail, and fail miserably. If I want to see compelling drama, I don't want to see an X-Men movie, and if an X-Men movie tries to be compelling drama it's throwing away the franchise's appeal in pursuit of some kind of chimerical approbation.

So, ultimately, I think what we're seeing is a divide similar to the recent kerfluffle over All-Star Batman & Robin. Those who are "in" on the joke love it. Those who don't get the joke, or think the joke is one them, hate it****. Likewise, X-Men 3 makes no pretenses of being anything other than a superhero movie. Which means, by any objective standard, it sucks. It's full of thematic inconsistencies, plot holes, bad acting, sheer mind-numbing leaps of plausibility, and some downright weird permutations of the source material's already-twisted philosophy. But it doesn't take itself seriously, and isn't afraid to embrace all the goofy parts of the comics that the first two films sort of shuffled off to the side. It appeals to the part of me that simultaneously still has affection for the X-Men and also wants to be able to keep some kind of distance from the franchise, wallowing in my worst nostalgic desires while still allowing myself the luxury of laughing as well, because it is laughable. Basically, having one's cake and eating it too. Which is a hypocritical thing to say, but that's life. From all I've just said, going to superhero movies is obviously a form of therapy for me.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that Spurgeon is 100% right, but I'm content to cherish my hard-earned prejudices while admitting my own ample blind spots. Because, dammit, if I forfeit the right to uniformly castigate all those who disagree with me on the basis of an untenable aesthetic judgment, what kind of blogger am I?

*Of course it goes without saying that later in life when I finally did get around to reading An American Tragedy I gained a new appreciation for the subtle pleasures of Youngblood.

**A list which includes the first two X-Men movies, the two Spider-Man films, The Hulk and Batman Begins. Daredevil, it should be noted, did succeed in conjuring up some good old-fashioned stupidity, but not necessarily the good kind . . .

***Although, it should be noted, the philosophy of the prequels, while a bit less obvious, made a lot more sense for those who paid attention. Even the much-derided midichlorians were a welcome development, in light of the fact that they negated the pseudo-medieval mysticism of the first trilogy and introduced the idea that the Jedi were not mystically infallible but merely gifted, and that all the religious trappings which grew around the Force were just conventions which had calcified into a faulty system of belief. I also like how Lucas pretty brutally dismantled the notions of prophecy and predetermination that floated uncomfortably around the original trilogy. Those who take their comfort in the childlike certainty of having "The Force" watch over us all were upset, but those who appreciate the ability to define our own destiny were pleased that Lucas was no longer selling our children patently offensive notions of divine will in action.

****The third group, people who get the joke just fine and still think the book is a piece of crap (like myself), is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion.

No comments :