Friday, December 20, 2013

More short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Or, how to know when to stop reading?

I never set out to read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Just most of him.  I naïvely thought (and, as a lit scholar myself, I really should have known better) that it would be fairly easy to identify the Fitzgerald Canon, and that's all I really wanted to read.  I seem to have read more than that, and that too has been rewarding:  "The Cruise of the Rolling Junk" seems pretty extra-canonical, but as I wrote, I think it's one of his most enjoyable things.

If I had set out to read everything, I'm not quite sure where I would have turned.  It seems there are a couple of ebooks out, just out, that contain the complete short stories and essays, and there is a complete-works scholarly edition finally coming out right now that presumably will eventually include all the short stories.  As it was, though, I think I was unconsciously figuring I'd read what's available in mass-market editions;  I'm really trying to figure out how American publishers curate and market American literature.  And on that score I've been mildly surprised and disappointed:  I figured at the very least Fitzgerald's original short-story collections would all be in print, but no.  And I figured the stuff uncollected in his lifetime might have been rationalized and made easily available.

But no, not really.  Up to this point I had read the pre-humous collections (Flappers and Philosophers. Tales of the Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille), and then the posthumous collections that didn't seem to overlap with the pre-humous ones too much (The Basil and Josephine Stories, The Pat Hobby Stories, Bits of Paradise, Afternoon of an Author).  At that point I thought all that remained was The Price was High, at which I balked - even the subtitle of that one admits that it's scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Those can't be Canon, right?

But then I looked at Matthew Bruccoli's The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which seems to be the current best attempt to identify the Best of FSF's stories, and realized that it includes a few from The Price was High.  More alarming, it included a few that aren't in there, and also weren't in any of the others I'd read.  I ultimately realized that the previous best attempt at the Best of FSF's stories, Malcolm Cowley's 1951 The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which drew from both collected and uncollected, and the uncollected of which stayed largely uncollected elsewhere, even as the book itself was superseded.  Confusing.

Anyway, since I'm in the mood to move on from this author, I read the stories from the Bruccoli and Cowley volumes that I hadn't yet read - about fifteen in all.  I'll pass on The Price was High (although Mrs. Sgt. T, who knows me rather well, says she's sure I'll read it someday, because I'm just that compulsive). 

It won't surprise anybody that these stories ended up being a mixed bag.  All of his collections are.  The Cowley volume includes at least a couple of gems:  "The Rough Crossing," about an intense few days on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, and the marital discord it shakes loose, is one;  "An Alcoholic Case," the most harrowing thing I've read by FSF about his alcoholism, is another.  The Bruccoli volume also includes some gems:  "Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar" is as high-spirited and stylish as it sounds;  "More than Just a House" is another slightly pat relationship story, but any time FSF is honestly in touch with poverty it gets interesting;  and "The Lost Decade" (actually in the Cowley book too) is another intense short piece about alcoholism.

All of which is to say that I probably will find more gems in The Price was High when I get around to it.  Which in itself is another way of saying that I don't entirely agree with either Cowley's or Bruccoli's selections.  But if I had to recommend a one-volume selection of FSF stories, I'd probably say the Bruccoli is best.  However I still think the ones he published in his lifetime should be in print, and that's what you should reach for first.  See what he wanted to be remembered for, then read what he wanted forgotten.  He wasn't right, but he had the right to be wrong, and it's interesting to see how he exercised it.  I mean, it's worth realizing that, in 1935, he would rather preserve something as slight as "The Night of Chancellorsville" than "The Swimmers."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk

This is a three-part travelogue that was published in magazines in 1924, but not in book form until
2011. It's a mystery to me why it took so long, and why it's not better known.  As I've noted before, FSF's nonfiction just may be, with a few exceptions in either direction, where it's at.

Because I take it back:  this made me laugh.  Out loud.  At least a couple of times.  The idea is that it's a road trip, a true spur-of-the-moment, for-no-good-reason road trip of the type young Americans take:  Scott and Zelda wake up one morning in their Connecticut cottage and realize they need real Southern biscuits and peaches for breakfast, so they drive all the way to Alabama to get them.  In a car that's falling apart, through an America that's decades off from an interstate highway system.

I'm coming to realize that Fitzgerald's best characters were Zelda, the unflappable flapper, and F. Scott, the buffoonish author who thinks he's above it all, and in this book he plays those characters to the hilt.  It's sitcom stuff but it's great:  they have the devil-may-care attitude that leads them to think that money will buy them safety and comfort everywhere they go, but he also lets us see that in fact they don't have the money, and therefore they're in constant comic peril and real discomfort.  (Since they're driving through the South and Fitzgerald's a frightfully unself-conscious racist some of this peril is expressed in horrific terms, but.)

And most importantly, writing about his best and easiest subjects freed Fitzgerald up to make some really decent jokes.  It's all a natural performance, and quite witty.  A more or less random selection, from p. 65: 
About the time we crossed the white chalk line which divides Virginia from North Carolina, we became aware that some sort of dispute was taking place in the interior of the car.  It began as a series of sullen mutters but soon the participants were involved in a noisy and metallic altercation.  I gathered that things were being thrown...
Silly cartoon humor: the white chalk line.  Situational humor: the sophisticate mystified by machinery.  Witty self-deprecating irony: the parts of the car at war with each other mirroring the marital disputes they in some measure give rise to.  Plus, wonderfully musical writing:  "sullen mutters," "metallic altercation."

One of his best.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Vegetable (1923)

His only full-length published play.  It's hard to judge it, of course, just by what's on the page,
because the kind of comedy it was intended as is probably the kind that only comes to life on the stage.  Then again, he did publish it, so he must have intended it to have some kind of life beyond the stage.  But it doesn't:  it's dead on the page.

It's partly because it simply isn't funny.  Maybe it was funnier at the time - maybe the jokes haven't aged well - but I rather doubt it.  After all, the play bombed, and the book doesn't seem to have done much better...  The situations aren't particularly funny, the characters aren't particularly funny, and the dialogue isn't particularly witty.  It reads like the kind of thing that was screamingly funny when Fitzgerald and his friends concocted it - but the humor metabolized out along with the alcohol...  I've now read most of Fitzgerald (I'm a few volumes behind in my blogging, but I think I'm ready to say I've read enough now), and one thing I don't think he was, was funny.  There are smiles and smirks in his writing, but precious few actual laughs.  He's not that kind of writer.  He tries to be here - he thinks he is - but he's not.

But I could forgive that, actually.  Comedy often doesn't age well, and in fact comedy doesn't always have to provide laughs to be worthwhile.  There can be other things on offer.  What really sinks this book is that it puts the worst of Fitzgerald's social attitudes front and center.  The plot revolves around a shlubby Everyman for whom bootleg alcohol is the pillow of Kantan:  he dreams he's President.  The problem is that, rather than enjoying his success and then awakening to realize that all earthly glory is as transient as a dream, he screws everything up as President and then wakes up thankful that he's just a simple man after all.  In other words it's a profoundly antidemocratic work that laughs at little people for being little people, and tells them that they shouldn't aspire to great things, but should be content with their little stations in life.

If there is humor here, it's the snide laughter of the elite, aimed at shaming the plebes into remaining in their place. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Batman & Robin (1997)

I got through a whole review of Batman Forever without once mentioning Robin.

No great loss, though.  I confess that I have little use for Robin as a character, at least in the movies.  As written he seems meant to be just what the comics character was meant as: an audience surrogate for adolescents, and a way to lighten up the Batman.  But I'm definitely of the camp that says Batman is at his best when he's at his darkest:  he needs no lightening up.  And the third movie didn't need an adolescent surrogate:  every character was one already.

Plus, the film was hopelessly confused as to what Robin was supposed to be anyway.  As written he was an adolescent, but Chris O'Donnell looked every day of his 25 years when he played the part.  Nobody - not a single person - bought him as a teenager.  I mean the very next year he'd play a lawyer, right?  And so the chemistry between Batman and Robin - hell, let's leave chemistry out of it:  the story makes no sense.  ...Of course, leaving chemistry out of it was probably exactly why a grown man was cast as Robin:  fear of the skeevy overtones that the once-(probably-)innocent pairing would inevitably take on in 1995.  Especially when the suits have nipples.

There was a potential there for an interesting deepening of the Batman character, though.  I mean, even as Val Kilmer's playing him, he's the definitive loner, but the entry of Robin demands that he become part of a team.  And it's clearly against his will:  what Bruce Wayne is having to deal with is the inevitable consequence of his success.  He's breeding imitators.  They're his responsibility whether he likes it or not.  The vigilante inspires other vigilantes - is he okay with that?  I don't say that this theme was handled with any more subtlety than the others, but it could have been.

Okay, I've delayed long enough:  we have to get to the fourth movie now.  And in the fourth movie, they've stopped even trying to put in any interesting subtext.  They've completely dropped any shadow at all from the Batman character.  Now he's the dad in The Brady Bunch - a harried pater whose familias is growing in unexpected ways.  Batman is a mildly reluctant team player here.  And so he has no meaning whatsoever.

In its own way, Batman & Robin is as big a disaster as Superman IV was.  The production values are infinitely higher, which means it does provide some intermittent cheap thrills, but it quite intentionally reduces Batman and the whole enterprise to a joke.  And not a very good one.

What's happening here is what happened 'round about the third or fourth Roger Moore 007 film:  everybody involved decided they could no longer take seriously this thing they were doing, and assumed audiences felt the same.  They disrespected it.  And the result is just pointless.  It's an unthrilling action movie, and an unfunny comedy.

It's not the fault of the casting.  It's the fault of the writing and directing.  To be sure, the casting has some real problems.  Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl is a mistake;  she was clearly cast because she was that girl in that Aerosmith video, so the kids must like her.  Meanwhile that very year Sarah Michelle Gellar was showing how you create a girl-power hero, putting Silverstone to shame.  But Batgirl is not as big a problem as Ahnold is.  I'll own up to having less use for Schwarzenegger than I have for Robin - his appeal is just as lost on me, and always has been.  But even if you liked him in Terminator or Total Recall it's just painful to watch him here, barking out oversimplified punch lines like they were marching orders.  He's a big sucking sore in this movie.

And the thing of it is...I actually like George Clooney as Batman.  Let me qualify that.  Of all the actors who have played Batman he looks most like Batman, with his square jaw and his easy mastery.  Now, he's a comic actor, and I'm not sure how he would have done with the darker scripts his predecessors were given.  But he does the best he can with what he has, and almost pulls it off.  It's not his fault the movie around him is what it is.

Then again, I like George Lazenby, too.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Batman Forever (1995)

The superhero genre has a complicated relationship with the sequel.  From a comic-book standpoint,  
it's natural that any movie about a given superhero will be followed by another, and then another, and then another.  Superhero comics, after all, go on forever - there's no end, just the occasional decision to reboot.  From a Hollywood standpoint, too, the sequel is a no-brainer, but for a different reason:  a superhero movie is an action movie, and ever since Rocky, Jaws, and Star Wars, Hollywood has been addicted to action-movie sequels.  The business model is predicated on them.

So why is it that no superhero movie series to date has lasted for more than four films?  (The only exception, I believe, is the X-Men movies;  the original series only lasted three films, but the spin-offs take place in the same continuity.)  The James Bond series lasted forty years and twenty movies without a reboot, proving that movie audiences would accept a comic-book style endless continuity.  But superhero films don't do that. 

Maybe someday I'll set about seriously watching all the TV superhero things;  I suspect the superhero model might be more suited to the medium of television, which (in America, at least) is similarly open-ended.  In modern big-budget filmmaking, with only one installment every three years, there's too much riding on any one installment to risk failure, so there's more pressure to stick to proven formulas, meaning proven villains.  And so we've had two modern film Two-Faces, two Jokers, two Lex Luthors (in a total of four films);  and the hero's origin story gets told again and again. 

Batman Forever represented an attempt to take the superhero movie in the direction of the Bond films.  It adopted the theory that you could change the director and lead actor, and audiences would still buy it as long as there were enough other, smaller continuities to sell it.  Q and Moneypenny, Alfred and the Commissioner, stay the same, and we accept it as still the same Batman.  Doesn't matter if Batman himself is different.

In real time, this worked with Batman Forever.  It made a lot of money.  But of course Batman and Robin didn't, and in fact it stunk up the joint badly enough to retroactively erase Batman Forever's success:  ever since, every time the lead actor has changed in a superhero franchise, the whole thing has been rebooted.  I'm not in favor of this.  I think this film and its sequel are flawed, but I don't think it has anything to do with Val Kilmer and George Clooney not being allowed to face the Joker, or have their own origin stories.  The flaws like elsewhere.  But Hollywood, like America, always wants to pretend that history started today...

The problem with this movie is just that it's big, loud, and dumb.  The next one would be bigger, louder, and dumber, though, and much worse.  This one (with Tim Burton producing) has just enough of an artistic conscience to keep it acceptable. 

For example, the all-important subtext.  It tries.  Or maybe it doesn't try, but it at least pays lip-service to the idea that Batman should be about something more than just stomping baddies.  It looks deeper into Bruce Wayne's past, explaining things that the first two films had left unexplained - things that maybe never occurred to you as needing explaining, but that's the point.  It at least tries to develop the character further.  The traumatic childhood encounter with the giant bat:  that's good.  It locates Bruce's motivation somewhere deeper than in just a desire for revenge, or justice.  He's a little bit disturbed. 

The problem with this film, in comparison to the first two, is how it handles this subtext.  I mean, it's all laid out for us in the first scene, the first conversation between Batman and Chase Meridian.  The dialogue, here and throughout the film, is painfully, brutally on-the-nose.  You can sense the director's (or somebody's) impatience with the whole notion of subtext here in how gracelessly and inelegantly it's handled.  I mean, this is what is meant by the phrase "dumbing-down," right?  This is that principle in action.

That's not the only problem.  As a Hollywood style, as opposed to a comic-book style, sequel, it's preoccupied with mimicking the original with as little difference as it can get away with, with predictably diminishing returns.  The Nolan series proved how much potential there is in the Two-Face character;  here he's just a cheap knockoff of the Joker.  In fact, put the Riddler and Two-Face together and you just about have the Joker.  Similarly, the idea of a lovers' triangle between Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the Girl had been done twice already;  definitively with Vicki Vale in the first film, and with intriguing variation in the second one (because Catwoman/Selina Kyle made it actually a lovers' quadrangle, or a bit of perverse and schizoid partner-swapping).  

The movie's not a total loss.  It's effective at being a big, loud, dumb movie.  Which is to say it's fun.  In true Hollywood sequel fashion you're never unaware that it's an inferior imitation of the original, but it's not so inferior that it bothers you;  the increase in bigness and loudness distracts you from the increase in dumbness.

And it does a few things very right.  The casting, for the most part, is excellent.  Tommy Lee Jones was quite a meta choice to play the ruined D.A. Harvey Dent, since Schumacher had directed him playing a U.S. Attorney just the previous year in The Client;  the meta-ness was probably lost on most people in 1995 (I certainly didn't notice it), but Jones proves suprisingly capable as a raging villain.  He manages, through sheer physical violence, to hold the screen against Jim Carrey's Riddler, surely the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top performance of the decade.  And Nicole Kidman, as dumb as the lines she's given are, is incandescent as the femme fatale.

But again, they're all written as imitations of earlier characters.  Two-Face as presented retains almost nothing of the former crusader for justice that the character is supposed to be;  he's just Jack Nicholson's Joker's violent side revisited.  And while the Riddler character is promising at first, as an enraged science geek, Jim Carrey's physicality transforms the character into into Jack Nicholson's Joker's theatrical side personified.  And more is less:  put them together and they're still not as charismatic as Jack.

What about Batman?  Val Kilmer brings nothing to the role that I can see.  Out of costume he's too heroic-looking (or acting) to sell the character as a nerd-in-body-armor like Keaton did, but he's not heroic-looking (or acting) enough to reinvent the character as a square-jawed cool Daddy-figure like Clooney would.  He's a placeholder.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992)

I've already written about this movie, but that was before I started writing about All the Superhero
Movies.  I may have more to say.

But yeah, this is more of a Tim Burton movie.  With the first one, Burton proved he could make a big blockbuster on his own terms, but he did so by ensuring that it was just far enough out of the mainstream to feel edgy, but not so far as to alienate anybody.  With Batman Returns he went farther.  It's still a respectful adaptation - Burton's still taking it seriously - in fact he's taking it seriously enough to take it personally.  This is Superhero Movie as Art Movie, if there ever was one.

*

Part of what Burton does is weird is to destroy the classical symmetry of the Hero vs. Villain setup.  His first Batman had observed that symmetry:  Batman vs. Joker was a classic matchup, inviting us to consider Good vs. Evil in the way any ancient epic might.  This movie gives Batman two antagonists, the Penguin and Catwoman.   

One way to look at this (which is how I looked at it for the longest time) is the cynical way:  Jack Nicholson was so charismatic that it took two actors to follow him up.  Anything less would have felt like a letdown.  And I'm not sure that's a wrong conclusion to jump to:  clearly the doubling up of celebrity foes fits in with standard Hollywood sequel practice.  More is better.

Another way to look at it (which never occurred to me until this project) is that this film is just doing what the second Superman movie did.  After all, that one brought Lex Luthor back to aid and abet General Zod's team;  that, too, can be seen as destroying the hero/villain symmetry.  That is, there's precedent (not to mention pressure from the fans to bring as much of the comic book world into the film world as possible).

But now I think the best way to look at it is as Burton intentionally destabilizing the superhero narrative.  Penguin is the antagonist in the classic mold, and he functions as we'd expect him to, as a (funhouse-) mirror image of the hero, setting the hero's strengths and weaknesses in starker relief.  Burton gives us, in the Penguin, what Batman might have been, had things gone slightly differently in Bruce Wayne's life - they're both orphans, both child-men who overidentify with strange animals, both renegades who insist on living secretive lives in subterranean lairs outside of society.  But whereas Bruce Wayne was deprived of loving parents by external violence, Oswald Cobblepot was violently rejected by his parents.  And that, as they say, makes all the difference.  As adults both men have their maladjustments, but whereas Bruce has learned to manage his with severe repression (and sublimation?), Oswald has nursed his, and indulges them at every turn.  If this was all the story Burton had to tell, it would already be a sneaky, queasy subversion of the superhero narrative:  Batman isn't better than the Penguin out of choice or moral strength but simply because his mommy loved him.  And so we feel Penguin's end as tragedy (as well as being comic as all hell), which is not what we feel about Joker.

But that's too simple for Tim Burton this time around.  And so he introduces Catwoman as a kind of trickster figure.  By rights Joker should be the trickster figure of the Burton films, because that's how he presents himself - that's the source of his dark charisma - but this front is belied by the depth of his evil.  Catwoman isn't as outwardly mischievous (although she's mischievous enough), but she does come at the hero/villain duality from a decidedly sideways direction, as a trickster should.  She's not interested in Good or Evil triumphing, Justice or Self-Advancement;  she rejects the whole thing as a game between boys.  She's feminist as trickster, girl power as the ultimate destabilizer of traditional narratives.

Make no mistake, her presence deforms the narrative.  It does it in ways anyone can notice.  Every scene devoted to establishing this second antagonist (deuteragonist?) as a character is a scene not devoted to advancing the Batman vs. Penguin plot.  When we begin to see her as an enemy our focus on Penguin is blurred;  when we begin to see her as a hero our sympathies for Batman attenuate. 

Let's put it even more simply:  the film doesn't spend a lot of time on Batman's character.  It forgets about Penguin for long stretches.  It feels long and sags in the wrong places.  It doesn't have the undiluted force of the first movie.  It's a little shapeless.

But that's what makes it so deep.  Catwoman's presence exposes the boyishness of the other two characters in such a playful, winning, and gleeful way that this deconstruction (and I use that word carefully) makes it a better movie.  At first we see her as a character caught in the middle, wanting to be seduced by both sides;  but gradually we see Batman as being in that position, no less than her.  And then we're back in the first movie's territory, the hero with the dark heart, but with bonus sexual undercurrents.  We begin to get a sense of just how twisted Bruce Wayne must be to do what he does. 

All this, and kamikaze penguins.  This is a perverse movie, in that oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing way that Tim Burton delivers, at his best and most characteristic.  Gloriously perverse.  Twisted, indeed.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Afternoon of an Author

Another posthumous collection, this one from 1957.  Which puts it after The Crack-Up and before Bits of Paradise.  And like The Crack-Up, it's a bit of a miscellany.  It's more or less evenly split between short stories and essays, but instead of being split into a section of "Essays" and one of "Stories," it's split into four sequential Parts meant to encapsulate four distinct phases of his career, with the essays and stories chosen to do that as well as possible from the theretofore-uncollected stuff.  I guess that was the plan, although the short stories included here are for the most part much weaker than those in Bits of Paradise;  these weren't the best of the theretofore-uncollected stuff.  Maybe just the best of what Arthur Mizener could arrange reprint rights for.

Anyway, I don't feel that the chronological arrangement works all that well because the stories and essays don't sit that well together.  Mizener argues that they do, that they bleed into one another, but I don't agree;  it's pretty easy to tell what's a personal essay and what's fiction with Fitzgerald.  I think what we have here is another example of how the personal essay was undervalued as a literary form in mid-20th century America:  to get these pieces taken seriously Mizener has to stress how close they are to his fiction.  They're not.  They're better.

Take "Who's Who - and Why," for example.  It's a very early (1920) account of his rise to fame, and it's exquisite in its mixture of justified pride and failed false humility, breathless excitement at what he's achieved and quixotic frustration that he hasn't gotten more, more, more, even at his young age.  It's a literary author speaking from within celebrity culture, at an age when he's young enough not to know the difference but old enough to know that he should.

Or take the nifty pair of essays "How to Live on $36,000 a Year" and "How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year."  Fitzgerald's great theme was money, if only he knew it.  Not class, not pride, not lost illusion, but money.  (That's why they call it money.)   And these essays perfectly capture why.  When you've got it, you can't help but spend it.  When you don't have it, you can't help but spend it.  You have to spend money to make money.  Nothing's as expensive as poverty.  It's all true.  And he captures it all so well that you can't hate his materialism.  It's so honest, so honestly American.  That's his theme.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Seirai Yūichi, Seisui (2000)

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The story is Seisui 聖水, by Seirai Yūichi 青来有一. It was co-winner of the 124th A-Prize, for late 2000.
The title story is the winner:  a long novella whose title could be translated “Holy Water.” 
The book contains three other stories, which I haven’t read yet (!).
The narrator, Hidenobu, is a single male in his 20s or perhaps early 30s, on his second career.  He worked in a bank for a while, but is now working for Sagari, a friend of his father’s.  Over the course of the story Hidenobu meets and starts a relationship with Kayano, who also works for Sagari.  Tension in the love affair is provided by the fact that Kayano’s mother thinks Sagari might be after Kayano, and in fact he kind of is; by Hidenobu’s passive, charmless approach to wooing her; and most importantly by the fact that Sagari seems to be on the verge of starting his own religion, and Kayano’s mother is a charter member.  Hidenobu’s father turns out to be a believer, too, and Hidenobu doesn’t like it. 
Belief is the theme of this story, and boy, I’ve just scratched the surface of how it’s explored.  The story is set in a village behind Nagasaki that overlooks the city, in particular the Urakami Cathedral and Ground Zero;  the village itself is defunct, but was once a hidden-Christian enclave.  Hidenobu’s father grew up there, and now that he’s dying of cancer he moves the family back there, to a little house he’s had built especially to remind him of the old days in the village.  He spends most of his time on a lounge in the garden under a magnolia tree. 
The village’s history touches everything in the story.  It involves betrayal as much as it does fidelity;  as the village emerged into the Meiji period one of its sons, Unosuke, betrayed them to the authorities as Christians.  And yet he’s hailed as an illustrious forebear, even as the village’s Christian past is also celebrated.  That “Christian” should probably be put in scare-quotes – not my judgment, but the characters’, as many of them refuse to be assimilated into the new mainstream Christian churchees that have come into Nagasaki, but instead cling to the catechism that was passed down in their midst over the centuries, the “oratio,” even though they readily confess to not understanding more than a few words.  They don’t think of themselves as Christians, but as hidden-Christians.  It’s more about cultural identity than belief.
And yet belief is constantly problematized in this book.  The narrator’s father, a longtime unbeliever, a practical man of business, asks that the oratio be recited at his deathbed;  he claims to see the spirits of the dead, or their reincarnated form in birds and bugs in the garden.  And he starts to believe in Sagari’s new religion. 
The narrator’s father runs a chain of supermarkets, while Sagari runs a chain of thrift shops and a mineral-water business; a lot of the plot of the story revolves around the father’s attempt to merge the two business, bringing Sagari in as his successor, using Hidenobu as a kind of stalking-horse.  There’s resistance, not least from Hidenobu, because of the quasi-religious nature of Sagari’s business.  That consists of this.  His mineral water is marketed under the name Holy Water, and comes (but not really) from a grotto that he found in a fishing village – when he found it he was suffering from lesions in the mouth, and one drink healed him.  He placed a statue of the Madonna in the grotto, and started selling the water.  It has more than a few true believers, and it started spawning irregularities in his chain of stores:  he started issuing scrip based on the water that could be used in lieu of cash in his stores, or in a flea market that he starts.  Essentially setting up a parallel secret economy, outside of the real one, getting people to work in his stores for the scrip, to repair and sell things in the flea market for the scrip.  All for the satisfaction of it, or because they believe.  Hidenobu’s father, the hard-headed man of business, used to scoff, but now that he’s dying of cancer he believes the water is taking away his pain, and is content to allow his business to be placed in the service of the holy water.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the whole thing is set against a hibakusha backdrop.  It’s not clear that the father’s cancer is related (but it’s a safe bet);  it’s not really clear which of the old people in the story have what ties to the bombing, but it’s always there, and near the end the father attends a memorial service. 
To be honest I’m deeply torn about this story.  It’s packed with sociohistorical detail, really well grounded in a place and its people.  Any one of these threads would make for an interesting story.  But all together it’s perhaps too much – hidden Christians and the atomic bombings and a new religion and dealing with a father’s death and a family-business successor dispute and a quasi-love story, all in a hundred-page story.  Oh, yeah, and I left out Sagari’s shady student-radical past.  It leaves you exhausted.  Especially as, for all that plotting, the narrator is a maddeningly passive character.  We never learn much about his feelings, only that he’s not particularly well-disposed to Sagari and his religion;  and he never does or says a whole lot.  He’s a cipher, and so rather than discovering this complex world through him as he navigates or explores it, we just feel it pressing in on us.  Maybe that says something about the weight of culture and the paralysis of incipient grief.  But I’m not sure it does justice to everything else that’s trying to go on in this story.
The language, too, leaves me ambivalent.  Seirai’s style is dense and demanding, not particularly graceful, but at times can be quite striking in the specificity of its descriptions – at what feel like regular intervals he describes the vegetation in the garden, or the rooftops of Nagasaki below, with extraordinarily vivid detail.  And yet in other ways he employs a curiously limited vocabulary – people never stand (tatsu) but always loiter (tatazumu), for example.  Slightly unusual words used frequently enough to be quite noticeable.  I’m not quite sure of the point, but it calls attention to itself.
It’s interesting to me that this won back-to-back with Chūin no hana – it reinforces my suspicion with that one that there was some kind of perception that it was a post-Aum moment, and therefore one in which literature that expressed both anxieties about religion and an attraction to belief, or best of all anxieties about the attraction to belief, was perceived as particuarly appropriate.

Update 6/2/14:
I got around to reading the omake stories.

"Jeronimo no jūjika ジェロニモの十字架" (Geronimo’s Cross).  Earlier than the title story;  Seirai’s first story, in fact.  It suffers a little from the same surfeit of thematic matter, but not from a surfeit of plot.  Very little happens, in fact, and most of that is in flashback.
The narrator, who has the same name as the author, is a guy in his 30s who has recently had his larynx removed – cancer – so he’s mute.  That’s not the main thread of the story, but it’s important.  The main thread concerns an uncle of his, Akiteru, who Yūichi thinks of by his baptismal name, Geronimo.  The family aren’t Christians now, but were for a little while. 
This story, like the title story, is very concerned with family history, and since it’s also set in Nagasaki, in Urakami, that means a family history intertwined both with the atomic bomb and with the hidden Christians.  Yūichi’s (the narrator’s) grandmother was a survivor who lost her husband and a son to the bomb;  after the war she remarried to a Christian, and converted, but then he turned out to be a con man and a bigamist who left her, so she left the church.  Geronimo was his son, and in adulthood he is the black sheep of the family.  The present moment of the story is Bon, and Geronimo shows up at his eldest brother’s home with everyone else, and is given the cold shoulder as he always is.
Geronimo has a checkered history.  Among other things, he found an antique iron cross one day while helping move the family grave site and concluded, with no other evidence, that the family was once Christian, hundreds of years ago;  he reverts to the religion of his birth and in fact for a little while ends up running his own sect, or cult – really just himself and three cronies who use it, the other family members think, as an excuse for sponging off strangers.  He’s a skeevy guy, and the narrator recalls seeing him once as a homeless guy, or seeing a homeless guy who looked exactly like him, in Tokyo staring lecherously at high school girls in short skirts.
The climax of the story comes when, in the present moment, Geronimo whips out his cross, puts it on the Buddhist altar during Bon ceremonies, prays, and then challenges the narrator to pray.  Promises a miracle.  The narrator feels bullied, the narrator’s mother gets into an argument with Geronimo, and then Geronimo seems momentarily transfigured, and then he has a seizure, and when he wakes up he has forgotten what happened.  He says his humanity is disappearing – whether this means he’s going insane or become a deity is never explained.
Time passes and Geronimo has disappeared;  in the last scene the narrator, riding the city trolley during Bon, imagines he’s riding together with all the spirits of the dead tormented Christians and bomb victims…
It’s a very intense story, and I’m coming to like Seirai.  There’s a whole lot in here to sink your teeth into.  The writing is precise and rich, if demanding and sometimes repetitive.  The setting and characters are so fully realized, or perhaps I should say so thoroughly grounded in history (I’m not sure they’re fully realized as characters), that they really stick with you.  And the themes are important and intriguing ones.
The narrator is still a bit of a cipher, though.  His feelings are more foregrounded here than those of the title story’s, but still, given his suffering, and the way he’s put on the spot in the climactic scene, you might expect him to stand out a little more clearly than he does.  Geronimo is the real focus here.  He’s reminiscent of some of Endō Shūsaku’s characters – he liked to make his intellectuals skeptical of true faith, while situating belief in abject sinners and peasants, people weak in every respect, with a weakness that itself leads to the divine.  Geronimo does offer some sort of godliness, even if it may be a scam, or may be the product of insanity;  there’s something about him that suggests to the narrator the possibility of transcendence, or at least escape from self. 
 “Doroumi no kyōdai 泥海の兄弟” (Mud-sea brothers) is a little different.  It’s also first person, but the present-day action is limited to a mere frame:  the narrator visits a small fishing village in Kyushu where he used to live as a boy, and then we get a flashback to his first year there as a middle schooler.  At the end we flash forward again to the present day, but just to close the story:  nothing happens.
So the story proper is the flashback, and what’s more it’s told in strict chronological order, from when the narrator moves to the town and on the first day of school meets his new best friend, Yutaka, to the first day of school after summer break that same year, when Yutaka has transferred to another school. 
The narrator’s father is a researcher of sorts who has moved to this town to study the mudflats.  Yutaka’s father is a local, an ex-yakuza who has reformed and works manual labor jobs around the town.  Yutaka and the narrator become best friends for a trifling reason – on the first day of school they both have bandaids on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.  Outsiders both, they bond and spend the spring and summer playing in the extensive mudflats and reed beds on the edge of town.
The plot largely concerns Yutaka’s father, the ex-yakuza.  Nicknamed Onigen (“demon,” for a tattoo on his back and his lawless behavior, plus “gen” from his given name), he has a younger brother nicknamed Kinrō who joined the mob with him, and who never quite reformed.  Onigen married, had a son, went to prison, and his wife died while he was in the joint, so now he’s gone straight.  Kinrō is making that hard for him.  You can kind of guess where this is going:  Kinrō crosses the local mob, gets killed for his troubles, and Onigen has to choose between staying straight and avenging his brother.  He tries to stay straight, but it’s clear he’s lost Yutaka’s respect, so he tries vengeance, botches it, and is killed.
This subplot is straight out of any number of gangster movies, East and West (“they pull me back in…”), and I guess the only thing surprising about it is how predictable it is.  How surprising it is that Seirai, having chosen to employ a genre-fiction plot, employs it with so little modification.
But of course he puts a literary slant on it.  It’s all in the treatment, after all, it always is, and the treatment here is as careful and stubbornly literary as anything else in the book.  It’s all told from the point of view of the adolescent narrator, who’s an observer more than anything.  Yutaka doesn’t even tell him much – most of the back story we learn from An-san, a retired fisherman and distant relative of Onigen’s who spends most of his time puttering around on the mudflats now.  So the boys are insulated from most of it, and as much time is spent describing their adventures on the mudflats as on detailing the vendetta. 
Even there, the focus is on Yutaka’s feelings.  He’s presented as a kind of primitive.  His mother was a kind of naïve religionist who taught him that people’s souls went straight into animals, such as the shellfish who live in the mudflats, when they did.  And his father has clearly, in spite of himself, passed on his atavistic code of honor.  Yutaka wants his father to avenge his uncle, and has to be talked out of avenging his father when he dies.  In fact we don’t know what happened to Yutaka in the end – the narrator thinks he’s talked Yutaka out of it, but then Yutaka is taken in by a relative in Kumamoto and moves, and that’s the last the narrator hears of him.
How does the narrator feel about all this?  It’s not quite clear.  So much is left unsaid.  There’s an obvious parallel being drawn between Onigen’s loyalty to his brother Kinrō and the relationship between Yutaka and the narrator.  They even call each other “brother,” and when Yutaka picks a fight with some older boys who are making fun of his father for not seeking revenge, the narrator is right there with him.  They both get a brutal beat-down.  And the narrator, being less of a fighter by nature, gets the worst of it.  So with both sets of brothers we have loyalty to a brother in distress dragging the other down into the mud.  Literally, in the boys’ case:  the fight happens on the mudflats.
I’m definitely changing my mind about this author.  It’s a very different story from the other two I’ve read, sharing only a setting (Kyushu) and the general theme of family.  But what a setting – you can feel the mudflats, smell the reed-bed.  I’m not sure that idea-wise the story delivers much, but in terms of intensity of feeling, it packs a punch.
“Nobunaga no shugoshin 信長の守護神” (Nobunaga’s Guardian Deities) is the joker in the deck in two ways.  First, it’s utterly different from the others in terms of its themes and its style.  Second, and not unrelatedly, I think it’s supposed to be a comedy.
It’s about a college-aged kid named Uichirō who is an extra in a film being made about Oda Nobunaga.  They’re filming battle sequences in Kyushu, near Mt. Aso, and Uichirō is playing a footsoldier.  Many footsoldiers, actually – he dies any number of times.
The Kyushu setting of course connects it with the other stories, but it’s not Nagasaki; the whole story takes place in the mountains, and the kid himself is from Fukuoka.  The other commonality is that it’s heavily plotted, while the main character is curiously passive.
Uichirō is between schooling – couldn’t get into his first choice, and is doing the film-extra thing as a break from prep school.  He’s thinking about film school, and this is his first brush with the industry.  He’s also got a Family Situation.  His mom and stepdad’s marriage is falling apart, and over the course of the story his stepdad turns violent.  Uichirō’s not so sad to be out of the house for a while, staying in cheap inns with the rest of the extras.
The film is a mess;  this is where the comedy comes in.  The director is a video-game designer who had a hit with an RPG about Nobunaga;  the studio hired him to film it, but it’s clear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Later we learn that the video game itself wasn’t all his doing – a team of hackers put out pirate versions that were better than the original, and that fueled its popularity. 
The stars, the guys playing Nobunaga and his Guardian Deities (a group of super-samurai tough guys who surround him in battle), are non-actors.  This is one of the Comic Situations:  pros in supporting roles (secondary actors, production staff) surrounding amateurs in positions of authority.  Nobunaga and his crew are being played by gigolo-types from Kabuki-chō;  also a drag queen, and an African-American former K-1 fighter named Anton. 
Uichirō hooks up with Koroku, another extra.  The reader notices that something’s wrong with Koroku before Uichirō does.  Koroku has an unhealthy obsession with Anton – knows suspicious amounts about him, and seems to have been following him around.  At the same time wherever the film crew goes there are suspicious attacks on local people by a guy in a cape and Darth Vader helmet.  It’s obvious to the reader that this is somebody dressed in a Nobunaga-era samurai costume, and pretty soon we start to suspect it’s Koroku, because he’s so creepy.  But Uichirō doesn’t notice until the end, when Koroku confronts him, club in hand, and confesses – before turning himself in…
This happens in the aftermath of a strange party that Uichirō and Koroku go to.  They somehow wangle an invite to hang out with Nobunaga and his crew at their inn (which is much nicer than the one where the extras stay, of course), and once there the warlord starts passing around funny cigarettes.  Things get strange, and Uichirō remembers nothing about the rest of the night.  But Koroku later tells him, with barely-disguised jealousy, that Anton tried to rape him.  The stress of this is what leads Koroku, in what seems like a hallucinatory state, to confess – and not just to the recent attacks, but to what may be murders going way back.
And then, like I say, he turns himself in.  And Uichirō goes home.
It’s not a great story.  In fact it’s a pretty resounding failure.  The funny parts aren’t funny, and they don’t sit well with the crime-and-trauma parts.  And the long party scene is actually offensive.  It’s pretty clear that Seirai is inspired here by Murakami Ryū’s Almost Transparent Blue, but he doesn’t have that author’s self-awareness or irony.  It’s also obvious that he doesn’t have much idea of what marijuana does.  And, by far the worst, he indulges in horrible stereotypes about African-Americans.  Right down to the fucking watermelon.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Bits of Paradise

And further on into the posthumous stuff.  Bits of Paradise was published in 1974 and collects 11
previously uncollected stories of FSF's, plus ten of Zelda's (a later edition added one more FSF story, "Dice, Brassknuckles, & Guitar" - I didn't read that version). 

I didn't read the Zelda stories.  I don't have anything against Zelda, but to be honest I'm not sure how I feel about having her short stories only made available as an adjunct to Scott's;  and I'm pretty sure that if I read her I want to read her separately, so that I can pay attention to her for her own sake, rather than as an adjunct to Scott.  Then again, if I'd been making the publishing decisions back in '74 and I'd had that attitude, it might have meant her stories never got collected at all.  I'm not sure which is worse.  Luckily I don't have to make that decision.  Just when to read her.  So:  later.

The one exception I made was for "Our Own Movie Queen," which is credited jointly to both of them;  the notes say Scott probably only wrote the climax.  If that's the case, then Zelda's a pretty damn good writer in her own right, based on this story and the co-credited essays in The Crack-Up.  The editor's intro doesn't think much of this story, dismissing it as typical popular fiction of the time.  Maybe I'm just responding in innocence, not having read much popular fiction of the time.  But it's a great story - fresh, vivacious, witty, spunky.  '20s in a way that one always comes to F. Scott's fiction expecting but seldom actually finds.

Of the Scott solo stories, many have been reprinted in what's currently the standard Fitzgerald short-story anthology.  And I won't argue with that selection:  "A New Leaf," "The Swimmers," "The Hotel Child," "Last Kiss," these are indeed the best stories in the book.  But the book's worth seeking out anyway, because most of the other stories are almost as good.  In particular, "The Popular Girl" really struck me.  It's double the length of his typical magazine story, which makes it practically a novella, and it has a correspondingly deeper realization of its main character and her storyline.  It doesn't particularly break with convention, and it has a pat storybook ending that I've learned to think is par for the course with his magazine writing, but it's well-written, well-plotted, and the protagonist, a young woman staving off sudden poverty by trading on her looks, hoping for the one big score, is presented in an admirably complicated way.

Most of these, according to the editor, were left out of Fitzgerald's authorized collections because he had taken their best or most meaningful bits for his full-length novels.  That policy of his was a shame, I think, because the short stories, at their best, have a focus and impact that his novels (always excepting Gatsby) sometimes lack, for all their compensating glories.  Take "A New Leaf," "The Swimmers," and "The Hotel Child."  All of them work the theme of Americans in Europe, innocence vs. experience, who's exploiting whom, and one of them throws in alcoholism;  as such they're clearly leading up to Tender is the Night.  But none of them feel too similar to the novel - he obviously transmuted his feelings greatly in coming up with the novel - and so these stories stand beautifully on their own.  In fact they complement the novel wonderfully.  "The Hotel Child" trades in caricature, of vampiric Europeans sucking the life (=money) out of fresh young Americans - but it does it so vividly, and so wittily, that it's hard to object.  And it's balanced out by "The Swimmers," which does a much better job than anything in Tender at getting at why Americans (of that generation) might have preferred living in Europe despite all that.

"Last Kiss" is kind of an exception.  Written in 1940, it wasn't collected primarily because Fitzgerald died soon after.  But even if he'd lived, he probably would have let it languish because it's clearly dealing with material he was working on for The Love of the Last Tycoon.  And while because that's incomplete we'll never know, here too the short story might just be better.  With tremendous economy it suggests all the great feeling behind the romance in that novel, and does a much better job of working in the British-American cultural subject - the unease, the resentment, that can't help but disrupt the relationship.  One empire dying, grasping at the youth of the one about to reach maturity.  It's all here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up

On I press with the posthumously-collected Fitzgerald.  This one was published in 1945 and consists
of three sections.  First come essays - short non-fiction pieces from his 1930s, most of which were actually published during his lifetime.  Second is something called "The Notebooks," which it appears that Fitzgerald had compiled before his death, but which also seems to bear the mark of editor Edmund Wilson, pretty deeply.  Third is letters, both to and from FSF.  My short take is that the first section is brilliant, I should have skipped the second section, and I did skip the third section.

The essays are the best thing of Fitzgerald's I've read outside of Gatsby.  Maybe better than that, although I'll admit that one probably wouldn't bother to read these if it wasn't for that.  But they're good enough to make me suspect that the essay might have been Fitzgerald's true metier, something that never could have been allowed him in his day because of the overwhelming prestige, in America, of the Novel.

Partly they're brilliant, but doomed to obscurity, because of their autobiographical nature.  This is clearly true of the title essays, dealing with Fitzgerald's own problems with alcohol.  These are full of insightful, beautifully embittered writing, and as Patricia Hampl points out, they were decades ahead of their time.  His decision to deal with his problems in non-fiction form (however successfully he obliqued them in these essays) seems to have been seen as an admission of artistic defeat by his peers, or worse:  sensationalism.  Now it's much easier to recognize that therein lies the art.  Now we've realized that Literature can, and in fact always has, included non-fiction writing.

I don't know, though;  maybe I'm a little more conscious of that than some?  Steeped as I am in the J-lit, where this kind of thing is not just accepted, but expected.  Any 20th century writer with an audience seems to have volumes and volumes of this kind of thing.  Not just the confessional, but also the ruminative, the playful, the acerbic, the documentary - all notes that the other essays in this volume hit.

Anyway, any reader who at all cares about Fitzgerald simply must read "Echoes of the Jazz Age" and "My Lost City," since they contain some of his most enduring writing on his own age.  And any reader who's interested in Fitzgerald as a modernist, an experimental writer, needs to read "Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number - ", cowritten with Zelda;  nothing more than a long, vivid catalog of hotels stayed in, making the reader feel at first dazzled, then nauseated, then amused, then somehow enlightened.

It's worth noting that FSF's writing, his style, in these pieces is polished to the highest sheen.  He reads like a man unleashed here, allowed to concentrate on the words because the story has taken care of itself.  Check out this sentence, from the eulogy to Ring Lardner, "Ring":  "His intentions, his will, once in motion, were formidable factors in dealing with him - he always did every single thing he said he would do."  Note how perfectly the words fit together, but also how the sentence does what it describes:  it starts slow, convoluted, like a man whose intentions aren't yet sorted out, but then as it progresses it starts to move and takes on a single-minded purpose, so that it culminates in that glorious string of monosyllables.

*

The Notebooks sounded like a good idea at first, but that was because I misunderstood what that idea was.  They looked to me like a kind of Pillow Book, like a collection of random, or random-feeling, jottings on various topics, where the variety and unstructured nature is part of the charm.  Coming straight out of the essays in the first part of the book this seemed promising, but in fact it got tedious very quickly.  There's just too much randomness here - unlike Sei Shonagon he's not actually consciously addressing any of the categories these fragments are placed into.  Rather it seems that these are bits and pieces he either jotted down or lifted from short stories he otherwise didn't want to preserve;  the categories were imposed after the writing.  And the fragments mostly read like snippets from longer, more coherent pieces.  Not a satisfying read at all.

Especially because I started in on Bits of Paradise right after, and am finding passages from the Notebooks right and left in these stories.  And they work much better here.  The Notebooks can be skipped.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

The historical importance of the first modern Batman film is well understood.  After the Superman
series had been run into the ground it may have appeared that superhero films were doomed after all, but then Tim Burton comes along and proves otherwise.  With a vengeance - his Batman was the pop culture event of 1989. 

The artistic successes of this film have been just as widely expounded-upon, so here too I'm not sure I'm going to be able to add anything.  But I'll write what I think anyway.

*

Side note:  as I've mentioned before, I first arrived in Japan during the Uno administration (and how many of us can claim that?), which happened to be the height of Batmania in Japan.  I'd left an America where that fucking logo was everywhere, where that Prince non-soundtrack was everywhere, and arrived in a Japan where everything was exactly the same.  I mean, I had no problem finding Exotic Olde Japan if I looked for it, but even there, there was the Bat.  A few days after we arrived we went to a neighborhood festival in the upscale Azabu Jūban neighborhood of Minato-ku (lots of expats like us), and somebody was handing out fans with that fucking logo on it.  My first lesson in globalization.

So, yeah, it was real easy to recognize that this was a hype machine in overdrive, and that there were millions upon millions of people getting excited about something that had precious little to do with anything more than bangs and bucks.  And that, of course, has been the story of every superhero movie since then (I'm too young to remember if Superman was similarly ubiquitous, but it probably was).  So I can understand the resistance many feel toward these things.  My own feelings about pop culture are nothing if not self-contradictory, though, so in I plunge.

*

I thought at the time, and still think, that Burton's greatest achievement in this film is Gotham City itself.  And here's where, despite all the obvious major-studio marketing, I'm going to insist on an auteurist reading of this film.  Without Tim Burton, there's no way Gotham City looks like it does in this film.  Sure, another director might have made it dark and foreboding, but nobody else would have made it feel as malevolently baroque, as exaggeratedly malevolent, as Burton.  It's comic-book-y in the absolute best possible sense:  a creative deformation of reality.  A reflection in a fun-house mirror.

And this is something that's particularly right, not just for Batman, but for the DC Comics world he comes from.  Famously - i.e., it's something that even a non-superhero-comics-reading dilettante like myself knows - DC comics take place in made-up allegorically-named cities in a made-up version of America, while Marvel comics take place in real-life, real-named cities.  Superman lives in Metropolis, while Spiderman lives in New York.  This means that the very settings of DC comics are commentaries on America in a way that is not true in Marvel comics (although you could say the exact opposite and it would be true, too). 

But the first Superman franchise basically ignored that.  It paid lip service to the idea of Metropolis, but it was a Metropolis with a Times Square and a Statue of Liberty.  They weren't really trying.  They didn't really know what to do with it.  But Burton did.  His Gotham City is not New York, not Chicago, but every decaying late-20th century American city.  It makes the film more universal as well as more fantastic.  His successors wouldn't get this.  (Nolan tries in his first Batman film, but goes the opposite direction in his last two.)

*

I'm not going to talk about what a skilfully made movie this is, how it confirms Burton's abilities as a storyteller, abilities that tend to get overshadowed by his brilliance in atmosphere and design.  (Yes, I'm a fanboy.)  I'll just note that in my mind this film always looms as the definitive superhero origin-story movie.  So much so that watching it again I'm always astounded at how little time Burton spends on that.  The movie starts in medias res, with Batman already doing his thing, and we only learn how he got that way gradually, in passing, while we're following other action.  And yet it's all made clear in the viewer's mind.  That's some careful storytelling.

*

Michael Keaton is the one caveat I've always had about this film.  I'm one of those who was never totally convinced by him.  Not that his performance is bad.  Rather, I think he's probably doing exactly what Burton cast him to do.  So I guess what I'm saying is that the whole thing adds up to a perfect artistic whole that is, in its entire effect, still slightly disturbing to me.

Superman has all the powers.  That's his gig.  Batman has no powers.  That's his gig.  He's just a rich guy who's gone vigilante, who can buy the gadgets he needs to make him look like a superhero.  But he's no superhero.  And that's what Burton realized, I think.  And so he casts Keaton, and has Keaton act, not larger than life, but smaller than life.  He shrinks before our eyes.  He's not quite a nebbish, but he's an underwhelming, almost anticharismatic presence for most of the film.  And when he puts on the suit it's obvious that it's body armor:  not muscle.  So he looks fake.  Because he is fake:  that's the essence of Tim Burton's Batman.

And on one level it's brilliant, because it forces us to turn our attention to the guy who's doing all this fake stuff.  Why would Bruce Wayne act like this?  Isn't there something a little off about a guy who'd choose to dress in tights and live in a cave and spy on his guests and jump off rooftops?  A lot of what I love about Nolan's series is that it takes these questions and follows them to their logical conclusions:  isn't Batman just as problematic as any of the villains he fights?  Burton doesn't go quite that far;  he's content for us to realize that, essentially, Wayne's a weirdo. 

But of course he's a weirdo paired up with the Joker, who's also a weirdo.  But, partly because of the way the character is written and partly because of who's playing him, the Joker in this film is a hypercharismatic weirdo.  Jack Nicholson is larger than life.  And so the Joker dominates this film.  This much was obvious at the time, and that's what's always made it faintly disturbing to me.  Everybody watching this film loved the Joker better than Batman, and not in the love-to-hate-him way people loved Darth Vader.  I always got the feeling that people were more or less rooting for the Joker.  Hell, I wanted to root for him.  He was having more fun.  He was Partyman:  Prince knew what this movie was about.

It was about daring to suggest (recognize?) that the supervillains were more glamorous, more charismatic, than the superheroes.  That evil is more fun than good.  Which fits in perfectly with Burton's ouevre.  But as a Burton fan I have to admit that it's one thing to suggest (recognize?) that within the safe confines of a hermetic fandom, where we're all adults and literate and versed in irony.  When it spills out into the world of invincible corporate logos and becomes a truly mass phenomenon, it makes me nervous.  Millions upon millions of people grooving on the exploits of a gleeful, fun-loving mass murderer:  this is not just a little creepy?

And so began the 1990s.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Superman IV (1987)

When I started on this series of posts I had confidence that I'd finish it having come up with
something worthwhile.  Maybe not worth your while, but at least something that I'd enjoy going back and reading.  (Part of why I blog is because I forget things.  I think my way down a particular road to a certain distance, then get distracted and forget, so that next time I go down that road I end up retracing my steps, and usually not getting any farther than I did the last time.  A good blog post for me is when I can go back and read it and find myself exactly at that same spot on the road  So that maybe I can get a little farther this time.) (I still don't know that I ever do.  But anyway.)

I'm not sure I have.  Busy, distracted, etc.  It's on me.  But to some small degree I think it's also on the films themselves.  What I've realized is that the original Superman series was kind of a botched job start to finish.  Even the first one, which I think is one of the great superhero movies, one that I'd point to as a reason this genre deserves to be taken, occasionally, seriously, is full of compromises that ruin, not it, but the second movie.  (I can't get over the fact that the Donner versions of both films have to end with the reverse-time trick because he used it in the first film.  There's no perfect opening one-two punch to be had, even in the imagination.  The myth is marred.)

They get worse from there, steadily and unswervingly.  But it's not until the fourth movie that they lose the plot altogether.  Up through III there's still some sense that these things have a subtext, must have a subtext.  I think it happens to be the same subtext each time:  the tension between power and responsibility, the idea that Superman's superhumanness precludes human happiness.  He can't indulge himself.  He can't love one woman because he must love all mankind.  That's there in the first movie, but sort of in the breach:  he chooses to break the rules to save Lois Lane.  And if the series had ended there it would have been a really interesting statement - Superman's so powerful he can break even the universe's moral rules and get away with it.  Ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy.

But that was never Donner's vision:  he always intended, it seems, that the first film's triumph turn to ashes in Supe's mouth.  His vision for The Superman Story was for Superman to learn that he can't have it all - in order to save humanity he must give up his own humanity.  Self-sacrifice.  The Jesus thing.

Lester may have never taken the series seriously, but he was a serious enough filmmaker to understand subtext, and the only reason III works at all is because Lester works in the Superman-vs.-Clark Kent subplot.  Superman divided against himself.  But in terms of the myth it's really just a rehash of II.  Superman is tempted (okay, poisoned) into using his power for his own pleasure.  And this strikes everybody as Wrong, and so Clark Kent has to knock some sense into him.  It advances the thinking on this theme a little, in that this time it's Superman's humanity that has to come to the rescue, rather than be sacrificed - we're allowed to think that his moral perfection is divisible from his physical perfection, and that his moral perfection is embodied in his human self rather than his Kryptonian.  But still it's about loving the one vs. loving the many - it's just that the one in this case is himself.  (And this is why the Lana Lang subplot, while fun, doesn't work - Superman is supposed to have learned that he can't fall in love.  By endorsing a Superman-human relationship in this film Lester turns Superman's rejection of Lois Lane into a rejection of the city girl for the heartland girl, which is yet another very-'80s distasteful aspect of this film.)

So:  it's not great subtext, it's not new subtext, but it is subtext.  It is, in other words, a brain.  An effort to at least pay lip service to the idea that Superman might mean something.  It's there in Supergirl as well:  we can see Supergirl and Selena undergoing parallel female awakenings, learning the potential of their own power, and deciding how to use it.  Power vs. responsibility again, but cast in typically '80s gender-retro terms:  the responsible use of power for a woman turns out to be protecting hearth and home (Argo City), and the selfish use turns out to be controlling men, both sexually and perhaps politically.  Not cool.  But not totally brain-dead.

Superman IV is totally brain-dead.  Not only does it lack interesting subtext of its own, but it completely misunderstands the subtext of the films that come before it.  It doesn't just fail to get Superman right, it gets him wrong.  It desecrates Superman.

F'rexample.  Perhaps the most famous sequence in the original movie is when Superman takes Lois flying.  The unmistakeable erotic overtones of this were one of the things that marked the film as, at long last, a superhero movie for grown-ups.  And it was also pure poetry, a great romantic moment.  (Supergirl echoes this neatly by, effectively, combining Superman and Lois Lane into Supergirl, a girl taking joy in her own flight - fumbling towards her own ecstasy, as it were.)

But the romanticness of it is what leads to trouble:  Superman falls in love with Lois, and that leads him to shirk his responsibilities, and so he has to undo it.  Erase Lois's memory of his loving her, in Lester's version;  in Donner's erase the fact that it ever happened.

In IV, Superman gets depressed, so when Lois comes over he takes her flying.  And this time he drops her - tosses her - always catches her, but still.  It's not like he can give her the power of flight - all he can do is throw her.  Anyway, it cheers him up, although at times it seems to scare her.  And then when it's all done, he kisses her and erases her memory of it.  Do you see what's wrong with this?  He uses her for his own pleasure, and then escapes accountability for it by toying with her mind. Superman rufies Lois Lane.

'Nuff said.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Supergirl (1984)

This one I'd never even heard of.  Evidently it never got a US release.  But of the five films in the
original Superman series, it's not the worst.  It's not even the second-worst.  On the other hand, it is the third-worst...

What it does badly is pretty easy to identify.  It's borderline incoherent a lot of the time - like, on a basic narrative level, it's just hard to figure out who's doing what or why.  Or maybe it's just so poorly thought out that you don't want to figure out what's going on.  Why does it take us until near the end of the movie to realize that the villain's strangely decorated lair is actually a carnival haunted house?  What's the purpose of delaying that information?  It's not much of a payoff when it arrives;  more of a "huh." 

But plot holes aren't, in and of themselves, a real problem for me in superhero movies.  The bigger problem in this film is that the midwestern town it's mostly set in is undoubtedly the ugliest slice of America ever committed to celluloid.  Dirty, drab suburban sprawl, full of random power lines and no trees,  fast-food joints and strip malls, all crammed together in a shallow frame so we can make out all the corporate logos (product placement is always everywhere in this series), just before they get squashed by a not-terribly-fast-moving tractor.  Watching it I half wondered if the whole thing was a clever and hard-edged satire on American consumerism.  I almost wish it was.

The tone of this movie, at every turn, is just off.  Weird.  Sometimes it's weird in a good way, like Supergirl's first flight.  It's so wide-eyed and airbrushed that you expect unicorns to pop up, or Shaun Cassidy, but it works in a strange way.  A Girl's First Flight.  Similarly, the opening Argo City stuff with Peter O'Toole is bad, bad, bad, but strangely enjoyable - vaguely reminiscent, for sheer vervaciousness, of such Gallic s-f masterpieces as Barbarella or Fifth Element

The best part of it, the one really good thing, is the villains.  Faye Dunaway, Brenda Vaccaro, and Peter Cook as a trio of backbiting, not-too-imaginative witches.  The parts are underwritten - like I say, they're given a great lair but the filmmakers forget to explain it until it's too late to care - but all three of the actors camp it up marvelously. There's an opportunity for some kind of mythic resonance here - contrasting types of Girl Power - and it gets lost in the mess of the script.  But Dunaway and Vaccaro's chemistry almost delivers it anyway.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Superman III (1983)

My take on this movie is pretty much the same as everybody's, I think.  It's not great - in fact it's really
awful in parts - but then again it's not as bad as the fourth film.

The awful parts - where to begin?  Richard Lester is still directing it as if he's embarrassed by the whole thing.  Not too embarrassed to cash the checks, I guess, but certainly not willing to invest the thing with any dignity.   And while my particular subject-position on all the superhero movies is that I'm not a superhero-comic reader, still I can tell that the villain here is not an integral part of the myth.  It doesn't surprise me to learn that he was written precisely as a not-Lex Luthor when Gene Hackman's services couldn't be procured.

Then there's Richard Pryor.  Now, I don't have a problem with the idea of putting Richard Pryor in a Superman movie.  I mean, I could probably accept him if the part was written right.  But the racial attitudes that underlie the writing of this part are just odious.  It's wrong on so many levels.  But that was the Reagan era for you.

But then there's the extended sequence with Clark Kent vs. Superman, or good Supe vs. bad Supe.  This is the scenic part of the Uncanny Valley. We're seeing things that just shouldn't be, and they're wonderful.  It works on all the levels that the rest of the movie fails on.  Visually, thematically, narratively.  The film is worth seeing for that.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed R.I.P.

Yes, even a Deadhead, prog-sympathizer, soft-spot-for-folk-having, no-New-York putz like me likes him some Brother Reed.

And now there ain't no comin' back.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Superman II (1980)

Writing seems to be the only area where my morbid persistence fails me.  I'll watch all the superhero movies, even the ones everybody knows stink - I can't stop myself - but as soon as I set myself the task of writing about them all, it's all over.  I can't get started.  If I totaled up all the pages I've written
on unfinished novels since high school I'd have...well, a lot.

I start with the Superman movies because they're the first superhero movies I can personally remember, but also because they're usually accepted as starting a new era in superhero movies.  Once Hollywood could make you believe a man can fly, it could do anything, and any superhero story was possible. 

I've long realized this, but as I think I hinted before, Superman is such a problematic myth for me (how do you make perfection interesting?) that I never revisited the movies until now.  So I'm only now coming to the realization that, for all their historical importance, they're really a botched job.  Even the first one - and in many ways, I love it - is less than what it could have been.  The story of why is well told here, so I'll just summarize.  Richard Donner was hired to make two Superman movies at once:  he was doing the Peter Jackson thing of filming it all at more or less the same time, but finishing the first one first to make the money to finish the second one.  But Donner's bosses lost their nerve and wouldn't guarantee the second one until they saw that the first one was a hit.  So to hedge bets Donner put the second movie's ending at the end of the first one.  It was a hit, but the bosses sacked Donner anyway and brought in Richard Lester to finish up the second film. 

Decades later Donner went back and put together his own version of Superman II, and really, if you're at all interested in the character, you have to see both of them.  Which is kind of sad, because the Lester version really is bad.

It's bad because it doesn't take the character, the story, the mythos seriously.  His Superman does what so many of the Bonds around this period did, treat the whole thing as an excuse for a romp.  It's a fun movie, and very much in tune with the times, but it mostly fails to make anything of its materials.  It's as if Lester was embarrassed to be making a movie about a guy in tights.

Donner wasn't embarrassed:  his first Superman movie succeeded because he (and his team) believed.  Respected the material, and brought it to the screen with a conviction that poetry out of it.  So one might expect his Superman II to be better than Lester's and it is - there's hardly any comparison.  I only have one objection:  it's incomplete.  I understand the desire to minimize the amount of Lester-shot footage in the final Donner product, but so much is cut out that unless you've seen the Lester version you don't really understand what the villains are up to.  The Donner version depends on the viewer having seen the Lester version. 

I guess I have one other objection, although there's not much that could be done about this.  The Donner version of SII ends the way Donner had originally meant the film to end - meant it, that is, way back at the beginning of the project.  The problem is, Donner used that ending for the first movie;  it really wasn't available for the second movie.  In other words, both Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut end with Superman turning back time.  What needs to happen is for somebody to go back and cut a version of the first movie that ends the way the original project meant for it to end, so that the two films match up as the big two-part epic they were meant to be...

Unless/until that happens, what we're left with in these first two movies, and two versions of the second, is kind of a mess.  A noble, promising, at times glorious mess, but still a mess of loose ends, inconsistencies, and half-realized ideas.  Which, in an odd way, fits:  since Superman is about perfection, it's kind of right that it was unrealizable, at least in this first go-round.  I think one perfect Superman movie did get made, and maybe I'll get around to explaining why I think it's perfect someday, but for the moment I'll just observe that it embraces incompleteness - it starts as if in the middle of a story, rejecting the idea that it can achieve perfection in itself.  Maybe the best way to glimpse completeness is through incompleteness?  Not a new idea, certainly, but a nifty innovation for a superhero movie.

So what does Donner do in his version of the second movie that's worth doing?  Present The Last Temptation of Christ - in tights.  I.e., he argues that if Superman is perfect, then part of his perfection is to recognize that he belongs to everybody, and therefore to nobody in particular - and to accept that, he has to deny himself happiness, or at least whatever happiness he thinks a normal human relationship would bring him.  Superman must be self-denying.  And that's the only way we mere mortals can even begin to identify with him as a hero.  Without that he's just a child's fantasy.