Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Dark Knight

So we saw The Dark Knight last night—this is the kind of thing that gets to Japan right away (although we’re still waiting for Iron Man). In fact, one of my most vivid memories of arriving in Japan for the first time in August of ’89 is seeing Batman stuff everywhere, for the first Tim Burton film. Went to my first traditional Japanese summer festival, and they were passing out paper fans with the Batman logo on them. (Couldn’t find an image of one of those, but I found one for fans for the second Burton Batman.) Some kind of cultural commentary, I guess.

On the train on the way home, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I had a conversation that I’ll try to summarize, because it gets at something I’ve been trying to articulate to myself about superhero movies for a long time.

We were talking about Harvey Dent/Two-Face, specifically his transition from one to the other. It’s finding the coin by his bedside that triggers his final psychotic break and turns him into Two-Face, right? The coin, which he had previously given to Rachel, reminds him in a graphic way that she was burned to death. But it means more than just that his fiancee is dead.

It was a two-headed coin, but now one side is defaced; before, it was a symbol of how he left nothing to chance, now it’s a symbol of how chance has asserted itself in his life. Up to this point, he’s been an operator, a manipulator, someone who’s understood the rules of the game and made them work for him—he’s fooled himself into thinking that he’s in control of his destiny. Now Joker—who self-identifies as Chaos (do we believe him?)—has intervened, and shown Dent once and for all that he’s not in control, that luck rules us all. It’s this that causes his break: not simply losing his girlfriend, not even just losing his looks, but losing his certainty about the world and his place in it.

Sure, Sgt. Mrs. Tanuki says, but is that really enough to turn him into this supervillain? I mean, come on. To which I reply, essentially: yeah, but it’s just a comic-book superhero movie.

There’s something wrong with this response. Right now there’s a big debate going on among cinephiles about whether or not the comic-book superhero genre is worth taking seriously (there’s a good summary of it here). Myself, I come down squarely on the side of taking it seriously: I think there’s a great potential within the genre for thoughtful, artistic, adult movies. But if this is true, then it’s hypocritical to give them a pass for flaws because “they’re comic book movies,” with the implication that we shouldn’t judge them too rigorously.

But I do think that comic-book superhero movies should be given a pass on questions of realism. Not because they shouldn’t be taken seriously, though: rather, because they should be taken seriously in a different way.

I think of superhero movies as working like a kind of surrealist art. Events in them happen solely because the artist has chosen to make them happen. Events may be presented in a realistic way, but that just means the artist has chosen to gesture toward realism as part of his/her surrealism, not that he/she is accepting a realistic framework overall. Think of Magritte’s Time Transfixed: the artist is employing realism within the painting (the look of the locomotive, the carefully rendered shadow it casts on the fireplace), but only in the service of a surreal image. It’s kind of pointless to judge the total image according to realism (“hey, a train’t can’t come out through somebody’s fireplace like that, at least not without tracks!”). The artist is up to something else.

With comic-book superhero movies, that something else, a lot of the time, is the presentation of an inherited end-result. This is one of the features of the genre that most intrigues me, and that I think is responsible for most of the really great stuff that’s happened in it. This is where the genre takes on the dimensions of myth, or rather of interpretation of myth. You’re making a Batman movie: you’ve got a ready-made set of attributes for Batman. Suit, night, bat imagery, gadgets, no actual super powers, Bruce Wayne identity, etc. You can modify these, but only to a certain degree: basically, what you’re doing is trying to figure out how you want to present these attributes. What you want to say with them, about them. What the myth means to you.

You can employ realism, gesture toward it, as part of your presentation of these attributes, but it will never change the fundamentally unrealistic nature of the attributes. This is what Nolan is doing with Dent: he’s given us a very careful portrait of the character, whereby (if we’re the kind of moviegoer who thinks about these things way too much) (hi!) we can figure out the kind of person he is, what drives him, how he sees himself. He’s a pretty realistic character. And to a certain point, we can understand his transformation in realistic terms. But in the end that’s never going to be quite sufficient—because dude, he turns into Two-Face! Nolan leads us logically from A to B to C, but that’s only going to take you so far when the endpoint is not Z but a fish.

And that’s okay because, like Magritte, the comic-book superhero movie, no matter how much it may employ realism, is not fundamentally realist. Nolan (if I might presume to speak for him) is not trying to say that if you’re a guy like Dent, and you go through the things Dent goes through, you’ll end up Two-Face. He’s trying to give us a picture of Two-Face—that’s the starting point, that set of attributes—and then connect it to certain recognizable, real-world ideas (illusion of control), using realism as a tool.

So: it’s not that we’re not supposed to take it seriously because it’s a comic-book superhero movie, but that we’re not supposed to take it realistically. Sure, all the stuff Dent goes through is insufficient, in realistic terms, to turn a guy into Two-Face. But for me, that’s not the point. The point is that we have Two-Face, and through the way he introduces and explains Two-Face’s mythical attributes, Nolan has helped us see them as relating to the illusion that we control our destiny. For example.

Anyway, that’s the best I can do with it right now. I’m sure I’ll revisit this, because I actually think the comic-book superhero genre is the most interesting one going in movies today. And this despite not being a comic-book fanboy—I’ve never read a single Batman comic.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Kind Of Man

So this year Van Morrison launched the second round of remasters of his back catalog, this time with bonus tracks. It’s a ploy, but it worked on me: it finally got me to start rounding out my Van collection, something I’ve always meant to complete. I’ve really been enjoying discovering some of the records I’d never heard. Recently I picked up 1985’s A Sense Of Wonder.

Astral Weeks and Moondance are not only Van’s best albums, they set the parameters for all of his subsequent work. Ever since them he’s veered between the improvised, ambitiously poetic vision of Astral Weeks, sacrificing accessibility for fidelity to a higher truth, and the composed and arranged conciseness of Moondance, which says you can find a higher truth in the mundane beauties of a great radio song. If you’ve read Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, it’s like what he says about the difference between a horn solo in a jazz number and one in a soul song. Van does both.

Usually he doesn’t do either for a whole album. Your typical Van Morrison album will include several tracks that gesture toward the meditational/celebratory thing—the otherwise very accessible St. Dominic’s Preview has the spatiotemporal journey (not to say trip) of “Listen To The Lion.” By the same token, every one of his albums has at least one—though often only one—track that verges into Moondance territory. A little extra care taken to punch up the melody, hone the lyrics, put the whole thing into a tight little package, make it a song, a record, rather than simply a performance.

Another way of saying this is to say that every Van Morrison album contains at least one song that sounds like a Top 40 hit, even if it wasn’t. Among his many talents the man can write a classic when he wants to, something like “Jackie Wilson Says” or “Wild Night” that’ll just jump out of the radio when it comes on.

Some of these tunes have gotten the acclaim they deserve, but most haven’t. On A Sense Of Wonder the would-be greatest hit (it’s not on any of his compilations) is “A New Kind Of Man,” the last song on the original record. You can hear a clip on Van's official site (which I can't link directly to).

If you’re not familiar with Van’s ‘80s work, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that echoey, slick, New Agey production. There’s almost nobody else I’d endure that for, but somehow Van was able to make it work for him. He’s not ironicizing the plasticity like, say David Bowie (I think) was, he’s just aiming for a pristine, expansive sound, and it works. It works ‘cause he believes it works, I guess. I don’t know.

So get past that and what do you hear? Right off the bat you notice that horn line. That’s what makes the song. It’s one of those great melodic horn lines that nobody bothers to write anymore. And here’s where the pristine production and arrangement begin to make themselves felt—that horn line works in part because of its particular color, the way it’s a soft, melancholy trumpet softened further, mellowed out, by the saxophone doubling it. It’s a nifty arrangement, courtesy of Pee Wee Ellis, Van’s bandleader in the early ‘80s and James Brown’s in the late ‘60s.

The horn line interlocks with some tasty lead guitar licks; lead guitar that started off with almost a country figure, but then gives us some sweet, slashing soul chords. That’s basically the last we’ll hear from the lead guitar, by the way. On rhythm, the guitar continues throughout the track, sometimes in the foreground, but usually in the right channel, in the background. It’s got that clean ‘80s production, but it’s playing a nice little r&b figure. The r&b elements really break out when Van reaches the refrain and the drummer and bassist lock into that little Stax soul-march thing. For the verses the drummer is playing light, on the rim, it sounds like, but in the refrain he gooses it up a bit, and it makes all the difference.

It’s a very careful arrangement, very focused. During the bridge—most of the songs on this album don’t have bridges; the fact that this one does speaks to the amount of craft being brought to bear on it—we get all the backup vocals swelling, the guitars chiming to a crescendo. Real emotional peak time.

Then comes the song’s strangest moment: at the end of the bridge there’s a brief pause, and a little solo bass figure leads us back into the last verse. But the bass is so muted, so weak, that it’s almost a little comical. It has to be, though, because if it was any louder, any funkier, it would upset the balance of the song. This arrangement is all about restraint, all about channeling that r&b energy into those insistent drumbeats during the refrain, not about cutting loose into a bass-led jam. We need to be brought down at this moment, so we can savor again the coolness of the horn line.

Which we do, as Van leads us out of the song.

Oh yeah, Van. Of course none of this would work without him. Imagine some other fixture of mid-‘80s music singing against this backing track. Stylistically it’s right up the alley of any of the resurgent veterans of the period—Clapton, Winwood, Henley, whatever—but any of them would have made it sound fake, antiseptic. Van sings it with just enough fire, just enough husk in his voice, to counterbalance the pristine sound, but without so much of an appearance of effort as to destroy the coolness. He propels the song, but he doesn’t force it. It’s not a sweet vocal, but it’s not a wild one. It’s just right.

That’s ‘cause Van’s the Man.

The Darjeeling Limited

We saw The Darjeeling Limited tonight. I can never figure out why some foreign movies open in Japan immediately and some take forever; clearly big dumb blockbusters have the edge over small, articulate indie films, but some big dumb blockbusters take longer than others. Anyway, this isn’t a big dumb blockbuster, so I wasn’t surprised it took a while; in fact, I was surprised it hit the theaters at all. We happened to catch it on the last day of its engagement at a curious theater in Kawasaki, the Kawasaki City Art Center, a brand-sparkling-new complex that’s run by an NPO. The theater felt like the Carpenter Center at Harvard: black and red, no frills, but a good place to concentrate on a film.

So anyway, neither of us are exactly Wes Anderson fans; I’ve seen one of his, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Mrs. Tanuki hadn’t seen any; but we wanted to go see a movie, and the only things remotely interesting were this, The Happening, and the new Miyazaki Hayao, Ponyo. The latter two are movies that don’t excite us by directors who do; we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to see them yet. So Monsieur Anderson it was.

As Mrs. Tanuki says, it’s pretty much impossible to take a bad photo or shoot an ugly film in India: this one’s a Xanadu of color and texture, but I’m not sure how much credit Anderson can really claim for that. Nevertheless, it’s important: as a friend once taught me, the essence of a film is its visuals, and I think we’d be a fool (all of us, collectively) to argue too much with a film that shows us beautiful things. This one does.

But what of things Anderson can claim credit for? Here are thoughts on three of them, for what they’re worth (the thoughts or the things, take yer pick). (Oh, and, spoiler alert.)

1. The widescreen format works particularly well for the train setting, and Anderson uses it nicely. I’m thinking of the key scene where the mother tells them all to try to communicate their thoughts silently, and we get first an Ozu-like boxing of the compass between the four characters in the scene, and then we travel to the right along the titular train, only now the train also includes rooms that aren’t in the train—hotel rooms, hovel rooms. Anyway, the long slow movement to the right along this “train” is quite effective, showing us every major character and a few minor ones, everybody in his or her own solitary compartment, traveling together yet separately through life (Anderson’s metaphors aren’t always the subtlest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

This sequence does a couple of other nice things. One, by showing everybody going about his or her own business, apart from any interactions with the three Whitman boys, it gives some of these secondary characters a degree of autonomy that fleshes them out as characters. This is particularly nice to see with regard to the Indian characters, given how they’re constantly in danger of turning into props for the boys’ story.

And, two, Anderson sets this sequence to the Stones’ “Play With Fire,” the lyrics of which echo Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” played earlier, in describing a jet-setting woman in terms of the material and mental accessories with which she defines herself—but Jagger adds a touch of aggression, bringing this jet-setter into contact with someone more dangerous, less restrained. In the context of the film, what is this suggesting? That these highly repressed characters, with their six-thousand-dollar belts and carefully chosen iPod playlists, by trying to get in touch with their deepest feelings, are playing with fire, and if they actually succeed they’ll find something like what we see in the last image in this pan down the train: the tiger burning bright (well, actually kind of lurking in the dark).

2. The music in this film was a treat for an inveterate Kinksphile like the Tanuki. Yes, God save the Kinks. And, of course, the Stones. The classic British rock soundtrack might have had more meaning here than just the well-chosen lyrics, though. The Kinks and the Stones didn’t do it, but many of their contemporaries made the same spiritual journey to India that the Whitman boys do—more importantly, the same one their Boomer mother does. Either they were seriously trying to find a spirituality they couldn’t find in Knightsbridge, or they were going shopping; maybe both. Anyway, in this film you have echoes of that, I think. But soft echoes: you have the Kinks and the Stones and, very conspicuously, not the Beatles. On the other hand, you do have the three brothers seen in profile walking in single file down the runway, with Jason Schwartzman barefoot. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think of the cover of Abbey Road there.

3. As usual, Anderson has a great feel for sibling relationships. A lot of people call his characters artificial or stylized, and no doubt they are; but they’re stylizations based, at least in this case, on a keen sense of the dynamics of a certain kind of sibling relationship. The interplay between the three brothers is well written, well directed, and well acted.

Inaugural post

So, like, I'm starting a blog, 'cause everybody's doing it, right? This one's going to be about books, records, movies, and anything else on the art-entertainment continuum that I feel like writing about. Don't expect much. As Dylan sang, "If there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now." But, you know, hope you like it.