THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

The Tempest

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OBEY, AND BE ATTENTIVE. Featuring Steven Seagal as Prospero, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Caliban, Jason Statham as Antonio, and Frank Langella as Skeletor

OBEY, AND BE ATTENTIVE. Featuring Steven Seagal as Prospero, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Caliban, Jason Statham as Antonio, and Frank Langella as Skeletor

It’s fitting that The Tempest is a play about closure, because this is a blog post about closure.

When Anthony and I first started this blog back in 2011, reading and blogging on the complete works of Shakespeare within the space of a year seemed within the realm of possibility. After all, there are 37 Shakespeare plays and 365 days in a year. That averages to a play every 9.86 days. Easy, right? Well, for a good stretch we were blogging dynamos, but the slings and arrows of life threw our Slings and Arrows schedule off a little bit. And hey, I wrote a book, so it’s not like I’ve been lounging around deliberately not writing about a Shakespeare play every 9.86 days.

At present the blog is serving as a repository for dialogues about other things we’re digging, such as Superman, Batman, and most recently James Bond, and that’s a nice fit, mixing recreation with the business of blogging. But as someone with mildly OCD tendencies, the Shakespeare side of things has been a bit of unfinished business looming over me. And with one play left in the canon, it seemed silly not to officially close that book. So without further (much) ado, let’s talk The Tempest.

The Tempest is thoroughly enshrined and over-determined as Shakespeare’s parting work, and it makes sense. The play’s content matches this sentiment perfectly: Prospero the exiled patriarch wraps up his loose ends and unfinished business and reclaims his kingdom, and Shakespeare the playwright wraps up his loose ends and unfinished business and returns to Stratford to own property and leave second best beds to his wife. It’s neat and tidy and serves intertextually to put a cap on a magnificent career.

Having said that, if The Tempest was entirely victory lapping it would be tedious: thankfully it’s got some rough edges too. Stephano and Trinculo are a lot of fun, and Caliban is one of the best characters from Shakespeare’s post-major tragedy period, raw and unfiltered and memorable and capable of striking poetry. The character’s presence has made the play popular among postcolonial scholars, who examine the coloniser/colonised relationship between Prospero and Caliban and ponder whether Shakespeare was a progressive empowering the subjugated by voicing their oppression or an imperial stooge justifying that oppression by highlighting the savagery of that voice. I’m inclined to say Shakespeare’s pro-Caliban, but there are compelling arguments for both sides.

As faithful readers (all twelve of you) will know my big preoccupation with Shakespeare is seeing how his plays have been adapted to film and other mediums, and The Tempest has enjoyed one of the liveliest afterlives of all the plays. The play got the Western treatment with Yellow Sky (1948), the sci-fi treatment with Forbidden Planet (1956), and a modern update in the Paul Mazursky-directed, John Cassavetes-starring Tempest (1982). Much as they drew on Hamlet for The Lion King, Disney drew upon elements of The Tempest for The Little Mermaid (1989) and Pocahontas (1995). Given that The Tempest likely riffs on the Pocahontas/John Smith story, which preceded its first performance by a few years, there’s some interesting symmetry there.

The play’s also been a go-to for arthouse adaptations like Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). I’ve only seen Jarman’s film once, a long time ago before I saw any of his other films or understood his significance as a filmmaker, and must confess I didn’t take to it. I think a rewatch is definitely in order, especially as I’d now count myself a fan of his work. In contrast, I was very familiar with Greenaway when I first saw Prospero’s Books: I’d seen a number of his films (including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover repeatedly) and had also seen an opera he directed at the Adelaide Festival in 2000 and heard him talk at my university around that time, so I was already disposed to liking it. Whether I’d like it as much on subsequent viewing remains to be seen – I’ve gone a bit cold on the director in recent years – but I appreciate the ambition and lunacy of the film and Greenaway’s use of John Gielgud as Prospero. I didn’t care much for Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010), though I liked her use of Helen Mirren as Prospera, investing Prospero’s betrayal with a gendered dimension.

As I type these words and wing my way towards the end of this post I feel a sense of closure at having wrapped up this trek (a little over four years in the making) through Shakespeare’s body of work. I also write this from a new home in a new city that I’ve moved to for a new job, so there’s an added charge and resonance to officially clearing the slate (you can expect a final issue of Hamlet vs Faustus in the next few weeks too). Thanks for reading…

Ben

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January 23, 2015 at 9:40 pm

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Slings and Arrows and Bondage

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Bondage

The cinematic James Bond turns 52 this year, and is both a distinguished relic and as vital as the year he was birthed. The literary James Bond turns 61, and inhabits a perculiar realm as both precursor and shadow to his cinematic counterpart. Inspired by Film Critic Hulk’s recent series on Bond and invigorated by our recent discussions of Batman 89, Anthony and I decided to revisit ground zero for Bond on film, Dr. No.

Dr No

BEN: Looking at the Bond films and their literary sources side by side can be a head-scratching, hair-pulling exercise. These aren’t like other book-to-film series, like Harry Potter, where the films follow the same order as the source texts and are relatively faithful adaptations (albeit with the usual concessions that come with adaptation). No, the Bond films follow a completely different order to the Bond books, and vary wildly from  reasonably faithful translations to similar-in-name-only.

Dr. No is a case in point. The first of the Bond films and the prototype for all that followed, it’s actually based on the sixth Bond book. If you watched the James Bond films in the order of the books that spawned them, you’d begin with Daniel Craig’s card-playing blunt instrument in Casino Royale, then segue to Roger Moore jumping over alligators in Live & Let Die and getting into space battles in Moonraker, then segue to post-toupee Connery in Diamonds are Forever and then pre-toupee Connery in From Russia with Love before finally getting to Dr. No. When you finally got there, you’d probably wonder why the gun barrel opening has a weird music box quality and the opening credits feature ‘Three Blind Mice’. It’d be akin to watching Star Wars and seeing the opening text scroll horizontally rather than vertically.

Similarly, if you tried reading the books in the order of the films, starting with Dr. No, you’d miss out on all the stuff from the previous novels that culminated in the Bond of Dr. No, and you’d probably be underwhelmed too. After all, when we meet Bond around 10 minutes into the movie version of Dr. No, it’s this iconic moment. When we get to Bond twelve pages into the book Dr. No, Fleming writes “James Bond came through the door and shut it behind him. He walked over to the chair across the desk from M and sat down”. Not exactly mythic, and certainly not a patch on our REAL introduction to Bond, this vivid, muscular passage from Casino Royale published five years earlier: “James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes”. The gist is, you can’t really look at the Bond films and books side by side. Where, say, Potter in print and film inhabit the same narrative world, Bond in print and film inhabit completely different, alternate realities. However, it’s fascinating and illuminating to look at how the films riffed on their sources, which can tell us a lot about those particular moments both in Bondage and broader popular culture.

Anthony, I think you’re a bigger admirer of the books than I am. Why do they ring your bell and what does Dr. No do for you?

Dr No

ANTHONY: Well, my admiration for the Bond books is not a standalone affair. I bumped into them as a teenager after growing up on the films. With the excesses and indulgences of Diamonds are Forever and Moonraker films as a reference point, Fleming’s thrillers seemed smarter and far more dangerous. It was a similar experience to watching Friday the 13th and Prom Night before discovering John Carpenter’s original slasher Halloween. The original material is so much stronger after seeing the dregs of the adaptations and imitations, and how Bond plays out in both mediums will likely guide my comments for the remainder of these chats.

Still, the reasons why I Iove the Bond books are because of how they better represent elements I first found in the films. I already loved those things about Bond, but the books presented those qualities with a straight face and something approximating vivid realism. I’d argue there’s something close to a narrative integrity in the books that rarely surfaces in the films. Case in point, Ben, you mention that the Bond films were shot in a different order from the books and often do not stand side-by-side comparisons. As a reader of the books, I’ve seen something of a narrative unfold over the novels. As the films are shot out of order, sequential elements of plot and character are absent. For instance, Strangways and Quarrel are significant parts of the earlier book Live & Let Die. They are established as characters that are tragically killed in Dr. No when Bond returns to Jamaica. In fact, Strangways death functions as the inciting incident in Dr. No (the three blind mice scene) and comes as something of a shock as you’ve known the character from Live & Let Die. The film Dr. No lacks those characters as an anchor and reference point and also a sense of the book’s dramatic weight. As the films don’t follow the order of the books, and must ignore the threads of narrative consequence that Fleming wove through his, they are drawn further away from a credible sense of reality. Bond even has something like a character arc, or at least an entangled involvement in escalating events, in the books. I’ll rant more about this later.

As a film within the franchise, Dr. No can seem a little like a curiosity. We see each of these recognizable elements, the gun barrel opening, the opening titles displayed on the bodies of dancing women, the opening meeting with M, but they seem strangely spartan. As you mentioned, the opening to Dr. No might seem odd to someone who knows the later entries in the series. As a spy film, isolated from comparisons to other books or films, Dr. No doesn’t do a lot for me. Sure, Ursula Andress is stunning and Dr. No himself is fun and villainous. The action beats are fine for the film’s context. I do quite enjoy seeing Connery settling into the character for the first time. His sense of charisma is a little more off the hook here than it was in future, less Bond by numbers and more a young actor striving to nail a part. Connery’s a little more laconic and rough around the edges. I like it, though again, only as a counterpoint to the later films.

Then there is the issue of the Bond Women. First, when we speak of enjoying the Bond films and books, it is in a very particularly context. This context is one in which we acknowledge the excitement and fun of this property alongside its objectionable sexism, racism, homophobia and violence. Some of that can be ignored, some can be appreciated ironically (which the films certainly do from time to time) and some can be enjoyed in a balanced sense of indulgence. Some of it cannot be forgiven though. Film Critic Hulk discussed this thoroughly in his own aforementioned Bond spiel. Of course, many might enjoy these elements of the property in an entirely unhelpful manner, which I suspect is a big part of the series’ appeal as well. It is in light of this questionable indulgence, that we can discuss Bond women as an undeniable appeal of the series as well as its weakest point.

Ben, shall we discuss Dr No’s Bond woman, Honey Rider?

Ursula Andress

BEN: Honey Rider’s an interesting character. The film character is rightly iconic, mainly on account of her striking entrance and ensemble as well as for being the first major Bond girl, and while I don’t think Ursula Andress’s performance quite rises to the iconography – especially compared to Daniela Bianchi, Honor Blackman, and Luciana Paluzzi over the next few films – all the other ingredients gel nicely. The character in the book has a lot more backstory and depth, but certain notes ring false, e.g. when Bond and Rider are imprisoned by Dr. No and she suddenly gets crazy horny and has to be chastised by Bond. That sort of patriarchal sexism is a recurring feature of the Bond books, as are somewhat racist sentiments – e.g. the Jamacian character Quarrel’s heavily accented “Gawd, cap’n! What’s dat fearful ting?” (p. 101) – and these features tend to age the books quite a bit. I don’t know enough about Ian Fleming’s personal life to conjecture whether these are fair reflections of his own attitudes, but I get the sense when reading the books that, like a lot of airport novelists with certain niches (e.g. Tom Clancy with the military, Michael Crichton with science, John Grisham with law) he wrote what he knew, meaning that while Fleming nailed his depiction of British intelligence and nailed his depiction of topics, people and places that interested him, sometimes he would be the stuffy British imperialist looking at something quizzically from the outside, and it would show.

Since you raise the questionable aspects of the Bond mythos and how they work today, I’ll digress briefly here to share an idea I’ve floated with a few people. I would love – LOVE – to see a Mad Men-style television adaptation of the Bond books, done in the order of their publication, with two books covered per season. When I read the books these days they really do feel like Mad Men: the period setting, the fetishizing of places and food and drinks and clothes, the everyday sexism and racism, and the long, long conversations. For example, looking at Dr. No, the three page discussion about guana, the one page monologue about Chinese Negroes, and Dr. No’s six pages of dialogue recounting his personal history would all stop a film dead, but in a longform television program could be really cool. It’d be a way of adapting those awkward elements of Fleming and presenting them as a time capsule while also weaving in some commentary, and it would also mean some of the weirder things we’ve never seen from the Bond books – e.g. The Spy Who Loved Me, in its original form, is a home invasion narrative set in an isolated hotel and narrated by its female caretaker – could be adapted. Anyhow, that’s my dream project of the moment. But I digress…

While I noted earlier the weird disjunctions between watching Dr. No as the first instalment of the film franchise and reading it as the sixth instalment in the book series, it’s actually a pretty straightforward piece of adaptation. The broad plot beats are fairly identical: Bond goes to Jamacia to investigate the death of agent Strangways, finds out Strangways was investigating the criminal activities of Dr. No, visits No’s island where he meets Honey Rider, gets imprisoned by No, eventually confronts and defeats his enemy, and makes sweet love to Rider at story’s end. The little differences are interesting – for instance, the scene where Bond confronts a tarantula in the film is a centipede in the book, the song that Honey Rider sings on making her entrance is different etc – and the usual embellishments and/or trims that come with the adaptation process are generally sound (i.e. no long conversations about guana). Having said that, I’m particularly disappointed that a scene in the book where Bond fights a kraken – REPEAT: BOND FIGHTS A KRAKEN –  didn’t translate to film (Roger Moore does wrestle a giant snake in Moonraker, but that’s for a future post). Seriously, that scene is up there with the Garden of Death in the book You Only Live Twice when it comes to top things I want in the Bond films but haven’t seen yet (paging Mad Men producers, paging Mad Men producers…).

While the film doesn’t have a kraken, it has something even better: Sean Connery. Whilst some of Fleming’s more anachronistic attitudes to race and sex are prevalent in the film, and indeed the film series in general, Dr. No in some respects actually feels like a very modern film. In fact, it feels much more modern than many of the later films. This is partly due to director Terence Young’s clean, stripped down approach, i.e. there’s nothing in terms of gadgets or set pieces that dates the film, whereas, say, the jet pack Bond uses at the start of Thunderball is a great big red flag that we’re very much in the past. But what also makes it feel modern is Connery. The chauvinism Bond displays throughout is certainly of its era, but Connery gives a performance so charismatic and magnetic and cool that it really does transcend its era, the same way Harrison Ford’s work in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark or Clint Eastwood’s work in the Dollars trilogy remain electric and contemporary. There’s something about Connery, gender politics aside, that feels timeless, whereas each Bond actor that followed, while all absolutely brilliant in their own way, feel tethered to their time (hell, you can tell what day of the week George Lazenby was Bond). It sort of helps that Bond is surrounded by old dudes in these early films, e.g. Bernard Lee’s M, Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, and that Connery exited the series before he, like Roger Moore, grew old alongside them (though he pushed it a bit with Diamonds are Forever). Whatever the case, the fact remains that Dr. No, while relatively low fi in comparison to instalments that followed, benefits from this low fi approach and is really high in Bond wattage.

Sean Connery

ANTHONY: Yeah, I’ve not even touched on the racism in the book of Dr. No (the ‘Chigroes’, Quarrel’s mannerisms, etc). Too be honest, it’s a very unpleasant blemish on the book and film. As for the sexism, Honey Rider is an interesting example of the difference between the films and books. Honey Rider is the first Bond woman of the film franchise and therefore quite historic. Her noted ascent from the ocean is a scene later referenced by Jinx in Die Another Day and by Bond himself in Casino Royale. She is, however, handled in a typically sexist fashion. She is generally objectified, patronised and exploited.

Rider in the books, named Honeychile, offers a little more complexity. She sports a broken nose and boyish buttocks. She is a victim of rape and tough as nails. She lives in the remains of a crumbling house and is something of a caretaker for her own wild menagerie. Bond is reluctant to sleep with her until he has killed Dr. No and later arranges relevant employment for her, foreseeing the temporary nature of their relationship. Fleming would expect his readers to see Honeychile as a vivid and strong woman (which she is) and Bond’s treatment of her as noble. While she is brilliant and tough and independent, she remains subjected and all too willing to fall into Bond’s arms like a schoolgirl. That is precisely how Bond women appear in Fleming’s texts, over and over. It’s still sexist, though a more naunced and complex sexism than the films often displayed. That is generally my perception of the gulf between prose and celluloid with this franchise…

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September 23, 2014 at 11:10 am

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Slings and Arrows and Wonderful Toys: Revisiting Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) Part 2

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Bat 1

Previously on Slings and Arrows. All caught up? Good, now continue reading…

ANTHONY: The film’s outright sins start with the script. First, the pacing’s off and the tone can stray into more surreal territory. The character arcs for Bruce Wayne, Vicki Vale and The Joker are slim at best. Bruce/Batman is essentially a charismatic enigma for much of the film. There are also a range of plot threads and characters that never really offer much: the presence of DA Harvey Dent, the crooked cop Eckart or the comic relief character Alexander Knox. Jack Palance’s role as a gangster doesn’t actually seem necessary (the gang crime sub-plot gives The Joker a bigger character arc than Batman). Sure, all these faces give the film some context in which the primary players move, but they also offer set-ups that never really pay-off. As the third act gets moving, many of these elements seem to fade away.

The script starts as something of a film noir, moves along with some odd plot points (The Joker poisons cosmetics and vandalises art) and then ends in a dark and vivid comic book action beat. Consider that Prince’s pop music inserts itself on the odd occasion and it can all seem very strange (to Burton’s credit, he wisely pairs the Prince music with The Joker’s antics). Aside: I’ve often wondered if Burton might have been distracted by the opportunity to use The Joker to poke fun at New York’s elite art and fashion scene with all his dead models and trashed masterpieces at the ‘Flugelheim Museum’.

The fault with the script doesn’t fall on Burton’s shoulders. Behind the scenes, the script was compromised in two distinct ways while official writer Sam Hamm was on strike. First, Jack Nicolson was a big name and needed a lot of screen time to justify his involvement. A fun game to play is whenever Nicholson has a scene, note the point where the crucial plot and dialogue end, then just watch how long the camera lingers on his glorious mugging and meandering.

Second, Burton had never directed a big budget action film before and found himself being handled by producer Jon Peters. Now while Peters may be widely mocked due to an infamous Kevin Smith stand up routine, he did offer one crucial piece of advice to the young filmmaker (other than wanting Bill Murray cast as Batman) and that was the importance of action beats. Peters believed that a script must contain an action beat every dozen pages. This explains the car chase and street fight that takes place after Batman rescues Vicki Vale from the art gallery. Now this scene makes no sense in regards to plot logic (why did Batman get out of an armoured car to fight thugs in the street?), but it is one of the coolest moments in the film and a standout scene (also consider the action beat where Batman fights thugs on the Cathedral rooftop: why are they there? Did the Joker’s helicopter drop them off? Why do they attack one at a time? You get the point). While Burton may have had no control over the meddling with the script, in these instances, the insertions actually offer a great deal, even as they aggravate the lack of logic.

Given the wondrous aesthetic and dodgy script, the general consensus is that this film is a triumph of style over substance. More than that, I’d argue its style is its substance. Where Donner’s Superman functioned as a Baby Boomer’s nostalgic redemption of a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America, social subtext is not a concern in Batman. Instead, Burton takes this raw iconography (Batman, Joker, the damsel in distress, the mob boss, the corrupt city) and arranges them as living dynamics in a surreal world. In that sense, Batman is a rich celebration of classic cinema and comic book culture. Ben, if you had to sum up the lasting significance of Batman, what are your final thoughts?

Bat 2

BEN: Before I get stuck into the cultural significance of Burton’s film, I’d like to touch on the script and cast too. As mentioned in the last post, I understand people’s legitimate gripes about how the film prioritises the Joker over Batman, but as also stated previously, I don’t mind. In fact, I like this particular dynamic. The film both bounces off and riffs against the template Richard Donner established in Superman. Like Donner’s Superman, Batman spotlights the film’s villain at the expense of the hero’s screentime, and exploits the villain for comedy as much as menace. In terms of Nicholson’s contribution to both the film and its commercial success, I can’t really fault this business logic: Nicholson’s performance is OTT, greatest-show-on-Earth mugging, and it was and remains an absolute blast, as well as a big part of the film’s audience appeal. However, the film rejects the Donner model in choosing not to provide an origin story for the hero: we see the murder of the Wayne family in flashback three quarters of the way into the film, but until that point Bruce Wayne’s personal motivations for becoming Batman are not revealed. It’s an interesting choice to kick off the film with Wayne already deep in Batman business and then proceed to peel back the layers of the onion over the course of the film. Sure, most of the audience already knows the backstory, but as a storytelling conceit for the film I like it. As Anthony notes, it keeps Batman and Bruce Wayne enigmatic, unlike, say, every other superhero movie where we witness the setup from the outset. And while the action punctuating the storytelling is, as Anthony observed, a bit mechanical, I like the rhythms of those scenes, the way the score compliments them, and the comic notes mined among the fisticuffs.

Now’s a good time to talk about my favourite thing about Batman: Michael Keaton. I love Michael Keaton as a performer. LOVE him. In addition to providing me with a gateway for the assortment of genres and things mentioned in the last post, Batman also provided me with a gateway to discovering the work of Nicholson and Keaton, who, much as Burton became the first director I really recognised, became the first actors I really recognised and followed. I’ve spent the last 25 years working through pretty much their entire bodies of work, and while Nicholson has the more distinguished filmography – what with Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining etc – I find Keaton consistently fascinating. From the broad comedy work like Night Shift, Mr Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Beetlejuice to more dramatic stuff like Clean and Sober, Pacific Heights, The Paper, Jackie Brown etc, I find the choices he makes onscreen fascinating and am never not engaged when watching him work, even when the film itself doesn’t work (and unfortunately there are lots of those from the late 90s onwards, though the upcoming meta Birdman looks like it could be something special). Batman’s a great example of these fascinating choices. As Bruce Wayne, Keaton rejects default leading man posturing, playing up Wayne’s social awkwardness, unfocused energies, and the troubled psyche underneath the amiable exterior. As Batman, meanwhile, he adopts a cool Clint Eastwood-esque whisper and highly theatrical yet minimalist body movement, a concession to the limitations of the costume but also a really cool choice. It’s an unshowy (on the surface) but at the same time very accomplished performance, and a perfect counterpoint to Nicholson’s OTT work. And while I’m talking about the performances, I’ll also shout out to the support cast: Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, and Tracey Walter, while never given more than one dimension to work with, do just fine with their one dimension.

Ok, now for the film’s significance. The summer of 1989 was brimming with big blockbuster brands: it also saw the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, and Lethal Weapon 2, among others. Being seven, I was oblivious to most of this stuff (though I did see Ghostbusters 2 theatrically and was traumatized by Vigo the Carpathian, who isn’t so much scary as nightmarishly ugly in a way children shouldn’t be exposed to). But to those counting the commercial beans, the combined success of those films and Batman certainly reinforced the adage that known brands equal bigger box office (though other franchises took a financial hit that same summer, like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Karate Kid, and the James Bond films). I also think that Keaton’s casting helped level the action movie playing field a bit and broke down some action hero stereotypes, paving the way for more unconventional action leads like Nicolas Cage and Matt Damon to join the ranks of more conventionally heroic types like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford. Moreover, Batman represented a stepping stone towards the era of superhero movies we’re now in, though for most of the nineties it was an odd mix of pulp throwbacks like The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom, adaptations of cult characters like Judge Dredd, The Crow, Spawn and The Mask, oddities and curios like Steel, Tank Girl, and Barb Wire, and TV adventures for The Flash (which was VERY closely modelled on Batman) and Lois & Clark.

And, of course, there was more Batman in the wings (pun intended). Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns is, I think, a tremendous film: it has poor logic and dialogue, but it’s a truly batshit, subversive, eccentric piece of expensive mainstream filmmaking from a director clearly cashing in all his chips and doing whatever the Hell he wants. Exhibit A: The Penguin is hideous to look at, eats raw fish, bites people’s noses off, hangs out with scuzzy circus folk, sleazily paws an intern’s breast, threatens to kill a cat, rides a giant mechanical duck, kidnaps children, and nearly destroys Gotham using an army of penguins with rocket launchers. That’s just scratching the surface of how bizarre a cut of blockbuster meat the film is. It’s also got a bit more going on thematically than Batman – with the characters of The Penguin, Catwoman and Max Shreck each embodying different aspects of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s personality, i.e. the orphaned freak, the costumed vigilante and rubber fetishist, the rich businessman – and another great, even more stripped-down Keaton performance (he actually asked to have his Batman dialogue reduced, something of an anomaly in Hollywood). Sadly, the other two Batman films of the 90s, Joel Schumacher’s lightweight Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, are garish endurance tests. Then, after lying low for almost a decade, Christopher Nolan revived the series with his Dark Knight trilogy. While those films looked, at the outset, to be a definitive take on Batman on film, they ultimately ended up being yet another very particular, auteur-driven take on the character and mythos. And I’m fine with that. Batman as a cultural icon is flexible and renewable enough that I’m happy to see lots of different takes on film, be in Burton’s, Nolan’s, even Schumacher’s and, despite whatever issues I had with Man of Steel, I look forward to seeing what Zack Snyder does in Batman vs Superman. Having said all that… I really dislike Batman: Dead End. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a short film that’s a drab series of gags in which Batman fights Joker in an alley, then fights the Alien, then the Predator, then the Blob, then Chucky, then Warwick Davis’s Leprechaun, then Tim Curry’s Pennywise, and then the Borg from Star Trek. Ok, some of those I made up, but it’s still crap. But I digress… Anthony, where do you stand on the film’s legacy, and its place in the Batman canon?

Bat 3

ANTHONY: Agreed, Keaton is still the best Batman. Kilmer’s Batman was bland. Clooney’s was lame. Bale is a great Wayne but his caped crusader is silly and carried by Nolan’s craft. Keaton communicates a great deal with very little and his suitably quiet Bat-voice could be both menacing and deliver a gag. Funny. Moody. Badass. Keaton rules.

And I also agree that those aforementioned script issues are nagging complaints but not fatal to the film’s gravitas. Nicholson’s garish extroversion and Keaton’s haunted introversion forms a dynamic that becomes necessary to the film (the final battle takes place after the Joker calls Batman out and the antagonist drives the plot). Even if it struggles at points, it works on its own terms.

As for the film’s legacy and place in the Batman canon? First, as Ben points out, it kick-started the genre and paved the way for the trend of the tent pole superhero film. While Donner’s Superman proved that a superhero feature film was possible, Batman proved that it could be possible for other characters, especially with commercial tie-ins and merchandising (look closely and you might see the Nike Swoosh on Batman’s boots). In a universe where Iron Man can make a billion dollars and bloody Ant-Man is about to start shooting, Burton’s Batman was the big bang.

After considering the tone of the earlier Superman flicks and some the superhero franchises that quickly followed Burton’s film, we see that Batman was directly responsible for black being the new black. Sure, we had colour and pulp as Ben pointed out, but Batman ensured that superhero films got dark. It wasn’t just the gothic aesthetic, but the scarred faces, charred corpses and grinning cadavers the Joker leaves in his cackling wake (to this day I do not know how this film nabbed a PG rating, nor how I managed to sleep the night I saw it as a child). Now every superhero film and franchise reboot has to be dark, but consider how innovative and brave Burton’s approach was when Gene Siskel responded like this:

  • We have so many films that are being made for the teenage audience… Here’s a picture with adult stars, troubled characters and a dark look. It’s a shame that that approach has to be considered a risk these days.

Today, creating an optimistic superhero film for an all-ages audience would be considered a risk. For good or ill, Batman set a new dark sensibility and potential adult audience for superhero films.

I think Batman’s lasting significance in the Bat-canon, and the wider genre, lies in its most potent sensibility: awe. Given the camp history of the 60s TV show, Batman resituated the character as a mythic avenger and a meaningful brand. It took pop music and star power and gothic sound and fury and made the bat symbol a golden cultural sigil. From the film clips, to the toys, t-shirts and the VHS cover, that bat symbol was slick and almost religious. Batman felt like it meant something.

This sense of awe was sown deep into the film’s treatment of the caped crusader. Each glory shot of Batman dramatically descending (the first appearance, the siege in Axis chemicals, the art gallery rescue) surrounds the character with darkness, smoke or broken glass and is underpinned by Elfman’s swelling bombast. Consider Jack Nicholson’s response to seeing Batman swoop out of the darkness and grab him by the throat: wide-eyed, he lets out a genuinely startled ‘Jeeesus!’ Batman is shot in slow motion, silhouette, shadow and sometimes with a Lugosi-esque portion of light falling only on his eyes. Dancers and stuntmen donned the suit to give Batman the appropriately graceful movement when Keaton couldn’t. Even the first dramatic glimpse of the Dark Knight was achieved with animation on a matte painting for a truly iconic effect. Burton went to any and all lengths to present the character of Batman in an awe-inspiring fashion, the surrounding players reacting to this mysterious figure with fear and wonder. No one has matched that. Certainly not Schumacher. Nolan crafted finer and more successful entries in the franchise but still did not meet that operatic and mythic sense of awe. Burton took the comic book story of a billionaire who dresses in an animal costume and treated it like Götterdämmerung with genre-defining results. Superheroes are a dime a dozen these days, but as a rapt seven year-old in a theatre in 1989, Batman was, and is still is today, awe-inspiring.

Bat 4

BEN: Correct. The first time I saw Batman, from the opening credits tracking through cavernous terrain before pulling back to reveal a giant Bat symbol, to the final shot of Batman standing against the night sky with the Bat signal in the background, I was awed and hooked in a way no film had awed or hooked me before and few films have awed or hooked me since. I’ve probably watched it more times than any other film, and if I wanted to I could probably close my eyes right now and see the whole film play out in my head top to tail, beat for beat. Every single day lines and moments from the film spring to mind, some iconic, some minor: “Who are you?” and the iconic retort “I’m Batman!”; Jack Palance’s obscene mugging as Grissom; “Eckhart, think about the future!”; Napier’s plummet into the vat of chemicals; Napier tearing off his bandages post-surgery; crime boss Rotelli being fried to a black crisp; “I’m glad you’re dead!”; Wayne leaving flowers in Crime Alley; the mimes outside City Hall; “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”; “Check his wallet”; Batman vs. the machete maestro; the Batmobile charging through Axis Chemicals; “You wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts!”; “He stole my balloons”; the Batplane silhouetted against the moon; Bob the Goon’s undying loyalty to the Joker being rewarded with nonchalant murder; the Joker’s giant rifle in his pants; the cathedral ascent; “Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”; “I made you, but you made me first!”; and so on. There are dozens of other moments, big and small, I could rattle off. Like I said at the outset, whatever its shortcomings, Batman’s the most important film of my film-viewing life, and it’s done more to shape my tastes, interests, preoccupations, fetishes and personality than any other film…

ANTHONY: Absolutely. This film gets in your head and doesn’t leave, in part stoking a continuing fascination with the character that I’ve written about before. Batman helped form a childhood love of cinema, superheroes and comics that led me to engage these mediums and ideas as an adult (now my plug: my superhero mockumentary film Justice Squad, where one of the prop masks was moulded and sculpted from scratch as homage to Burton’s costume aesthetic, and also my comic book Dead Ends, which actually contains no superheroes whatsoever). I still regret not being able to see Batman on the big screen again recently at the Astor cinema when I lived in Melbourne. I recall Donner’s Superman got a restoration/director’s cut rerelease in 2000, taken from a quality transfer and given a fresh colourisation and sound mix to repair some of its inconsistencies. I can’t help but think a similarly remastered Blu-ray release of Batman might help correct the disparities in the visuals and effects and present the film’s rich qualities closer to how they first appeared on the big screen. For now, we can content ourselves with the standard DVD/Blu-ray and perhaps the odd screening of Batman Returns. Foregoing that, I also may concoct an elaborate heist whereby I purloin Ben’s childhood collection of Batmania merchandise from his parent’s basement and reenact the film in my bedroom (not even joking).

Finally, something occurred to me when I attended the Tim Burton exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI with a friend a couple of years ago. There were displays for Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, amongst others. I found scenes from Batman screening in one corner with Elfman’s magnificent theme on a loop. There was also a screen worn bat-cowl behind lit glass. I pushed through the bustling crowd, who were mostly drawn to props from Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd, and stared at the decaying rubber mask. I remarked to my friend, “you know, this is still the best Batman movie.” My friend didn’t reply. They were elsewhere, looking at the artifacts from Burton’s later films. I turned back to the prop, one of the cowls that Keaton wore on set, and it was inches from my face. My reflection was visible in the glass and my eyes seemed to peer perfectly from the prop behind it, as if I wore Batman’s mask. And that’s it I suppose, Burton’s film may not be the best Batman movie, but from my perspective at least, that’s how I see it. Batman left an impression, and now I, as well as Ben, still see myself in it all these years later…

P.S. Two Batmania stories for the road. First, I visited a candy store in a country town in 2001 and found a bunch of small, candy-filled plastic Batman busts for sale. The candy was branded from Tim Burton’s film and dated 1989. That’s right. Batman candy was still on sale 13 years after it was produced. I bought it (didn’t eat it thankfully), then sold it to a collector a few years later. Second, back when the film was released, one young friend of mine was so excited to be seeing Batman in the cinemas that he refused to let a full bladder interrupt his viewing experience. He held his pee for as long as he could before devising a cunning plan: release a small amount of urine into his trousers, wait ten minutes for it to dry and then released another small amount, and so on. And this is how he peed his pants, undetected, throughout the rest of the film. Such is the power of Batman.

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June 26, 2014 at 8:26 am

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Slings and Arrows and Wonderful Toys: Revisiting Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) Part 1

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25 years ago, Batman landed. Tim Burton’s film wasn’t just the first in the modern Batman franchise but also a landmark release in pop culture and blockbuster cinema. In a world where The Dark Knight made a billion dollars, Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing The Joker and Batfleck is a global hashtag, Batman started it all. Tim Burton’s Batman was a frequent talking point when we were film students over a decade ago, so we thought we’d celebrate its 25th anniversary with a retrospective look at its impact and legacy, and perhaps see if Shakespeare fits in anywhere at all… Batman poster BEN: If you were to ask me what my favourite film is, you’d invariably get one of two answers. On those days when I’m all about the intellectual, the austere, the 70s American New Wave, I’ll likely cite Chinatown. And on those days when I’m all about the comforts and assurances of the Dream Factory, I’ll likely cite Casablanca. But really, I’m fibbing: my favourite film is Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it a better film, objectively speaking, than Chinatown or Casablanca? Nope. No way. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen other favourites that are, objectively speaking, far better films: The Empire Strikes Back. The Adventures of Robin Hood. There Will Be Blood. Lawrence of Arabia. The Seven Samurai. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Unforgiven. The Blues Brothers. An American Werewolf in London. The Thing. Gods and Monsters. The Deer Hunter. All far better in terms of craft, storytelling, and artistry. But if I’m being true to thine own self (to paraphrase Polonius), no other film has impacted me more – in terms of personality, taste, lifelong obsessions, and simply turning me on to films – as Batman did when I saw it at the age of seven 25 years ago. ANTHONY: And that’s where this discussion begins for me, at the age of seven. Nostalgia’s been significant to some of my responses here (Man of Steel, MacbethRomeo and Juliet) and Batman is no exception. However, this isn’t just about sentiment, but context. In 1989 the only other superhero to have had a film franchise was Superman. Star Wars was done. Big spectacle in cinema was limited to action films and historical pieces. When the trailers began to surface for Tim Burton’s gothic comic book adaption, flanked by a highly stylised promotional campaign, it hypnotised popular culture. The resulting trend came to be known as Batmania, with massive marketing, hundreds of pieces of merchandise and a series of singles by the pop artist, still then known as, Prince. Batman was everywhere. No comic book reading child could be unmoved by this. I saved pocket money for toys. I got a Batman costume for Christmas. I tore promotional posters from magazines and went wide-eyed, like an acolyte before the altar, to a department store to see the Batmobile on tour. I delved heavily into my Batman comic books and constantly sketched pictures of the Caped Crusader (a tendency which hasn’t really abated, as evidenced by my instagram habit #batmanaday). Batmania was like kiddie-crack. As a child sitting in a darkened theatre, the film itself was a revelation. It was thrilling, frightening and inspirational. Given that the films of the American summer are released in Australia’s winter, the season seemed to reflect Batman’s mood and I can distinctly recall the film influencing my perception of my quaint hometown. Adelaide is no Gotham, but suddenly its cold alleys seemed haunted, the flashing neon signs reflected on the wet streets in a sinister fashion and the city’s rather limited buildings seemed to reach for darker skies. As a seven year old, Batman literally changed how I saw the world. Now, like Ben, I can’t argue that Batman is an exemplary film, but I’ll certainly argue that it is an effective film, and an important one to a genre which has become big business. Now, some writers have suggested that the Batman myth has an overall Shakespearean angle. Before we sink our teeth into Burton’s film, do you see any of the Bard in the Bat? Entrance BEN: Although my seven-year old memories of the Batmania surrounding Batman’s release are somewhat unreliable and impressionistic (my ten year old memories of anticipating Batman Returns are much clearer), there’s plenty of evidence to suggest my parents helped pay for Tim Burton’s swimming pool. I still have, boxed up somewhere, a tie-in comic book, two different ‘making of’ books, action figures, dolls, badges, and a badass Batmobile, and I remember the toy sections of the local Kmart being stocked with a higher concentration of toys for Batman than I’d ever seen before for a single property, or seen since for that matter. I also remember watching Prince’s ‘Batdance’ music video  on TV multiple times, though I wouldn’t watch it again until I was in my twenties, and over the years had conflated the film and music video to the point where I thought both Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson acted in the clip (I’m not sure they even watched the clip). One other piece of Batmania which I never saw until my twenties was the teaser trailer alluded to above, which was created to put to rest fears that Keaton was miscast and that the film, coming from the director of Beetlejuice and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was goofy and campy (though of course it is, in its own way, a goofy and campy film). These days, with every new trailer a highly polished Cliff’s Notes version of a film accentuated by epileptic editing and thunderous blasts of noise, this music-less tease feels like an artefact from an alien culture, but I can see how it would’ve gotten an audience’s juices flowing (I’m also a fan of the more polished version that followed, with Danny Elfman’s score top and tailing it). To answer your question about Batman and the Bard, there’s definitely a Shakespearean component to the mythos. Obviously much of the mythos hinges on the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, his quest for justice, his commitment to protecting his city, and his straining to live up to his parents’ legacy both as Bruce Wayne and Batman. These themes and tropes echo elements found in Hamlet, the Henriad, and the Roman plays, and different authors have tapped into these wells in differing ways over the past 75 years, exploring the various thematic nuances and dramatic possibilities within them. In addition to this shared thematic terrain, I think there’s a distinctly Shakespearean element to the world-building in the Batman universe: with a cast of rotating characters including Batman’s wildly eclectic and striking Rogue’s gallery, his fellow freedom fighters, and the citizens of Gotham caught in the crossfire, all dispersed widely across the social, economic, sexual and cultural scale, the Batman universe is not short of colour, variety, or voices articulating competing and often contradictory philosophies, from the nihilism, cruelty and engineered chaos of the Joker to the resilient moral fibre of Jim Gordon. Burton’s Batman doesn’t quite capture this colour and variety, this intermingling of tragedy and comedy, of high and low registers and vantage points, but it’s a hell of an entrée to a remarkable body of stories.

ANTHONY: Yeah, as we discussed previously Burton’s follow up Batman Returns does riff off Richard III wonderfully with Devito’s Penguin. There have been origin tales focusing on the listless and grieving Bruce Wayne that have had something of Hamlet about them (Nolan’s Batman Begins for instance). As Ben suggest, the aristocracy battling for revenge and the fate of a kingdom is certainly Shakespearean and so the billionaire Bruce Wayne fighting for the soul of his city and the ghost of his parents fits that bill well enough. The general motif of a nobleman taking an outlaw alter ego to fight for justice owes more to Robin Hood, Zorro or the Shadow. In fact, when the cartoonist Bob Kane was commissioned to create another hero character after the success of Superman, he went straight to pulp characters for grist. Kane was no real literature buff and it was pulp, not classic drama, that gave inspiration, (as well as cold, hard cash as, in true comic book business fashion, he also screwed his co-creator Bill Finger in the process). Burton’s Batman offers a general dramatic mood and operatic aesthetic and at least feels like it could be Shakespearean, even if it’s just in incidental touches (notions of vengeance and privilege, asides from cackling villains, a city on the brink of chaos and the significance of red roses). Truth be told, there’s more of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera evident in this film, as the producers found their third act had nowhere to go and simply took the musical’s gothic finale and put it on a Gotham rooftop (much to Burton’s surprise). Which brings us to the substance of the film itself. As an adult with years of cinema theory and popcorn munching under your belt, how do you think Batman functions and fares as 126 minutes of cinema? imbatman BEN: Well, each time I watch the film I’m increasingly aware of its shortcomings, which have been reinforced by wider reading about the film and its development history, critical reception and cinematic context. One of my favourite film critics, Drew McWeeny, has been particularly vocal about his dislike for the film, and I see where he and others are coming from. I get the many criticisms that have been levelled at the film: that the sets make Gotham feel very stagebound, that some of the effects and matte and model work are ropey, that some of the action is stilted, that the design of the costume limits Batman’s movement, that the film is very Joker-centric at times, etc. I also see why hardcore Bat fans are deterred by some of the character choices, like the Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, Batman killing the Joker and a thug that beats the bejesus out of him, Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave etc. I get that these are legitimate gripes. But for the most part, they don’t deter from the film for me. I like the conceit that the Joker and Batman create each other; I like that there’s a certain level of handcrafted artifice to some of the effects, giving them a tangible charm; and I like the theatricality of Michael Keaton having to turn his body 180 degrees because he can’t turn his neck to look behind him. And honestly, I think the negativity of many of the film’s harshest detractors is heavily coloured by the succession of inferior sequels that degenerated further into crass camp, retrospectively tarnishing the film’s merits, as well as the fact that its merits have been overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s grittier and, I would concede, better-made films. Ultimately, the film itself resides somewhere in the middle ground between the fondness of enthusiasts like Anthony and myself and the scorn heaped upon it by detractors. It’s neither a transcendentally great film nor a terrible one, but rather a solid film with serviceable writing and direction. Having said that, those qualities that made the film pop and sizzle back in 1989 still work their magic on me in a big way. First and foremost, there’s a certain level of stylisation running through the film that continues to entertain me, and that stylisation played a big part in switching me on to cinema as a medium and an art form. I’d certainly watched plenty of films and television before then, but never really thought about the way that a film worked, and while I didn’t necessarily understand the way that films worked until a long time after Batman, I definitely began to notice how they worked. I was fascinated by Batman’s composition: the framing and lighting of scenes, the rhythms created by the editing, and the way that music accentuated scenes (and boy oh boy does Danny Elfman’s score invest the film with bombast and grandeur). The seams in this composition would become more evident over time, but never before had these things registered with me as a viewer, and I thank Batman for introducing me to the mechanics of what became and remains my favourite art form. Of course, part of the reason I noticed them was because the direction was sufficiently showy to stand out, and that visual flamboyance and theatricality also made me a Tim Burton fan. Thanks to photographs of Burton’s gangly silhouette directing Michael Keaton in the ‘making of’ books I owned, Burton became the first filmmaker I was aware of: I proceeded to gradually catch up on his previous films and watch his subsequent ones, and until the start of the noughties – until he started making truly terrible films from Planet of the Apes onwards – he was my favourite director. In fact, as a result of my Burton fandom, showiness and flamboyance became the characteristics I looked for from filmmakers, and my other favourite directors throughout the nineties – filmmakers like Sam Raimi, Brian De Palma, and Sergio Leone – were all similarly visually inventive. My tastes have changed considerably since then, though I remain fond of those directors and learned much of the grammar of cinema from them, thanks to Burton and Batman. And while the film introduced me to other things that would become ongoing interests – to the broader Batman lore, to superheroes and comics books, and to pulp heroics (from the Batman-influenced films of the early nineties like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer and The Shadow to the pulp literature of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs) – it’s that awakening to cinema as more than just a diversion to be passively consumed that I’m most grateful for. And I’d like to think that, even as a dumb kid, I was sufficiently discerning enough not to be seduced to the medium by a ‘bad’ film.

ANTHONY: And Tim Burton’s role as a highly stylistic auteur is what gives this film its wings (pun intended). From his favourite composer Danny Elfman, to the counter-intuitive casting of Michael Keaton (a 30-something comedic actor with a receding hairline and a slim build as Batman?) and the startling choice in art direction (helped by the design of the brilliant Anton Furst), this film is filled with Burton’s dark eccentricity. His artistic vision for Gotham city is cool and eclectic: a town of Prince music, gangsters with sunglasses and tommy guns, 80s rockers on motorcycles and women in pillbox hats. The Gotham Globe set appears maybe four times and it’s a stunning recreation of the 1940s newsroom. The foley work also fits right in the retro aesthetic with each gunshot and punch sounding straight out of a vintage crime film. Don’t even get me started on how the exquisite score works with the film’s visual dynamics. As an auteur, Burton stylises each detail and it leaves an impression. Some of his choices, like the art-deco matte paintings and model work, have aged the film as Ben pointed out (even reviewers at the time noted how obvious the model work was). Consider that Jurassic Park comes four years later and we begin to see how Batman was one of the last in the classic model of blockbuster production values. However, Burton’s very deliberate choices create something of a timeless feel, reminiscent of German expressionist cinema and film noir. Batman has aged, but I’d like to think in a similarly graceful fashion as classics like Blade Runner, 2001, The Wizard of Oz, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Metropolis. vicki-joker This concludes Part 1. In our next post, Anthony critiques the sins of the script, while Ben loves on Michael Keaton and hates on Batman: Dead End. To be continued…

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June 25, 2014 at 10:17 am

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Superman, Shakespeare and Cinema Part 2…

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The first part our chat regarding the Bard and Man of Steel can be read here. Shortly following this discussion, a Superman vs Batman film was announced as the sequel to Man of Steel. Given the nature of the timing we were unable to discuss that eventuation before editing this piece. Also, there’s little point in talking about a film that’s nought but a logo, so off we go…

cartoon by James Lincke

cartoon by James Lincke

I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying… yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our superheroes to do that? There is a certain demand for it, but I just keep wondering why people insist that this is the sort of thing we’d all do if we were in Superman’s place and had to make the tough decision and we’d kill Zod. Would we? Very few of us have ever killed anything. What is this weird bloodlust in watching our superheroes kill the villains?

– Grant Morrison

B: I’m curious Anthony, where you think Man of Steel ranks in the pantheon of miscalculated comic book movies. Here’s a nerdy question: if you had to rank Man of Steel, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (hey, we gotta keep tying this back to Shakespeare somehow), how would you rank them?

A: Ask a nerdy question Ben, get a nerdy answer (what about the 80s Captain America film?). I’d say superhero films can miscalculate in their representation of a character or just in their general execution. For instance, in the first category is Lundgren’s Punisher, which barely resembles the comic book character but it’s a fine shoot-em-up action film for its context. In the second category is Superman IV, a mostly decent attempt at representing the kind of ethical dilemma the character might face in 1988, but also a cheap and shoddy film. Superman III is a weird beast, silly plot and no real story, not to mention the Pryor comedy schtick that subverts the entire premise. I’d argue Batman Forever wasn’t a miscalculation at all. For its context, BF was a successful film where the heroes have clear character arcs that were true to the previous films and general mythos, (despite the ‘toyetic’ Schumacher nonsense creeping in). Batman and Robin… dude, where do we start on that? As for Daredevil, Elektra and Catwoman? I’ve not seen them (well, I’ve seen Daredevil, I just remember nothing about it but boredom).

Man of Steel lands in that first category I’d say. It’s a finely crafted film that, in part, misrepresents the character. As a result, it’s already made over half a billion bucks coz most I talk with don’t have a lingering affection for the character to really offend. For the average Joe, this was a good modern Superman film. In that sense, it becomes hard to label it as miscalculated when every member of the cast, FX shot, action beat, orchestral sting and set piece seem to be a fiercely calculated attempt at brand repositioning. Honestly, Man of Steel is a successful film and I enjoyed the aforementioned elements. In the end, it’s just not a great representation of the character. And I think that matters, box office grab not-with-standing. Where would you put it amongst the apples, the oranges and the lemons?

B: Well, I would naturally put Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher at the top of the pile, followed by Catwoman and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I kid of course, though Dolph Lundgren is pretty great. You’re right, there are good films that do their icons injustice, bad films that somehow do their icons justice, and films that are bad AND do their icons injustice. In the Man of Steel‘s case… an apple-orange-lemon juice?

Honestly, I’m like the easiest target for these films. I’ve seen most major comic book films theatrically, with a handful of exceptions. Since 2008 my early May birthday has coincided with the release of a new Marvel movie, and that’s generally how I’ve celebrated. Of those films I rattled off above, my favourite is probably Daredevil. It’s got a lot of charm despite its chintzier attributes, and it’s a comic book character I love – even more than Superman – and enjoy watching on screen even in a film of only moderate quality.

I think it says a lot that I can enjoy and forgive a bad Daredevil film more than a bad Superman film, despite personally preferring the Man without Fear over the Man of Steel. And I think that’s because Superman’s iconography is so huge and, dare I say it, important, that to pervert it rubs me the wrong way. Yes, Superman is important: the character’s been in print for 75 years now, and is a cornerstone of comic book culture, film culture, popular culture, and modern mythology. That carries a lot of weight. And for all its technical credentials and impressive individual elements, Man of Steel represents a massive wasted opportunity.

Another nerdy question: where to from here? Do you want to see more of this incarnation of the character, do you think the films provides fertile soil for building a DC Universe on film, and if Warner Bros read this blog (yeah right) and gave you the keys to the kingdom, how would you move forward? And something something something Shakespeare?

 A: The keys to the kingdom hey? Yeah, we’ll get to that. First, I haven’t forgotten about Shakespeare (the last shred of connection between the original purpose of this blog and our current meanderings). Man of Steel’s references to Hamlet (angsty young hero and a ghost father, imagery of graveside chats and skulls) are not new to Superman. J. Michael Straczynski’s recent graphic novel Superman: Earth One, from which Man of Steel borrowed a lot, does a good job of applying the tragic dynamics of the Prince of Denmark to the Last Son of Krypton. It’s not a bad fit.

Of course it works, it’s Shakespeare. Hamlet is a great template for discussing loss and being and purpose and duty in any genre or medium. Man of Steel touches on these timeless themes, and even if people argue about the quality of the execution, it is a better film for it. As the nerd revolution turns the stuff of video games and comic books into mainstream blockbusters, filmmakers will need to be more conscious of traditional drama, at least as quality control. After all, in a culture where comic book characters are rebooted every decade, Shakespeare’s plays still persist after half a millennium.

If WB, particularly Dianne Nelson who manages the superhero brands, were to ask me ‘where to from here’? – and wisely, she does not consult the fanbase– first, I know nothing about anything really, but I’d respond as pragmatically as possible. For the purposes of repositioning Superman as a successful publishing brand and film franchise, Man of Steel worked just fine. If they want to make money from the character at the movies, just keep doing what they’re doing.

However, we’re not the only ones suggesting this film could have been so much more. It was needlessly dark and divisive. Remember, when Snyder shoots existing material he makes 300, but when he creates original content he makes Sucker Punch. Many now argue that Snyder can’t influence story again. Keep Goyer, but enlist some journeymen script doctors to get the character arcs and pacing tighter. WB actually hired Geoff Johns to consult on these DC films. Bring him to the table, he’s written some Superman stories (some of the best bits of Man of Steel came from his Secret Origins series).

Man of Steel made money, but if WB want to make The Dark Knight or Avengers levels of cash with this franchise, then they’ll need a stronger product offering more than action/spectacle. The film must unite the film-going public with broad appeal, not divide the fan base, frighten children and bore mums. At this point, what a Man of Steel sequel needs is more warmth, humour and a stronger connection between protagonist and audience. That means building real romance with Lois, making Smallville feel like home and the Daily Planet a smart and witty place (and dare I say it, Jimmy Olsen should be there. Just cast Rupert Grint). That means pulling back on the spectacle and action a wee bit to fit in a clear and sympathetic character arc for Superman.

Man of Steel was cool, but Superman is not just an action hero. Superman is a big character that represents big things, a campfire myth at which popular culture has often gathered. Superman is Jesus. Superman is America. Superman is every orphan and immigrant and every kid from a small town. He is the everyman who feels mundane on the outside but suspects they are capable of much more within. Superman is us. Make that film. Make a Superman film.

So yes, I want to see more. I like Snyder and Goyer and Zimmer. Cavill is just Superman incarnate. While it’d be nice to address the misrepresentation of the character, I don’t want a sequel trying to correct the previous film’s sins. Still, I believe they can make a strong sequel. It’s Superman. I’m hopeful. 😉

BTW, I can’t seem to care about any Justice League tie-ins. It just sounds goofy, but apparently someone wants this movie so whatever. I’d love a Superman/Batman film, though I’d struggle with a rebooted caped crusader so soon if Bale doesn’t want the fat paycheck. Dunno. What do you think?

B: Yeah, I’m indifferent to Justice League, both as a prospective cinematic property and as a comic book property in general. I like all those individual characters – Flash, Wonder Woman etc – but don’t particularly care for them as a group. And while I love what Marvel’s done with The Avengers on film, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for seeing Nolan’s Batman, Snyder’s Superman, Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, or any variations in the same room.

Having said that, I’d kill for a retro comic book pulp team-up with Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Billy Campbell’s The Rocketeer, Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow and Billy Zane’s The Phantom. But I digress…

I actually think a sequel to Man of Steel has been set up nicely in a couple of key ways. With Lois knowing that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, that’s a very different dynamic from previous Superman films and neatly does away with one of their more contrived dramatic tropes. I think the devastation of Metropolis could be used as just cause and viable spin for Lex Luthor’s crusade against Superman, should they go in that direction (the LexCorp truck I spotted towards film’s end makes me think they will). I’d like to see Superman grapple with his decision to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, though at the same time I don’t want a brooding Superman ala the Dark Knight films. Not sure where the balance lies there…

But I’m not chomping at the bit for more; I’m open to it certainly, but not craving it. And while the film’s made sufficient mint to spawn a sequel, it hasn’t really become a cultural conversation piece in the same way as The Dark Knight, Iron Man or The Avengers. And given Superman is the precursor and gold standard to this whole damn cycle, that’s genuinely disappointing.

A: And that’s where we finish up. After 75 years of Superman, when pop culture is flooded with his imitators, the character still has the ability to inspire, disappoint and make loads of cash. Here’s to wishing the Man of Steel a happy birthday, and many happy sequels…

B: Finally, to tie things back to Shakespeare, the definitive take on Superman as Hamlet. You’re welcome…

 

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August 4, 2013 at 2:33 am

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Superman, Shakespeare and cinema: Part 1…

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This year saw not only the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first printed appearance in Action Comics 1, but the premiere of the character’s latest cinematic incarnation, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. As the film flew across the world, it drew condemnation and praise from audiences, fans and critics, as it dressed our beloved hero in large-scale urban destruction and time-honoured Shakespearean motifs. Given the fascination Ben and I share for comic books and the Bard, we thought we’d waste some time with a wending rant on all things Superman, Shakespeare and cinema. Let’s go…

mos-prisoner

A: So there are some Shakespearean elements present in Man of Steel. First off, there’s an obvious Hamlet vibe, Clark Kent moping about and being driven to action by the ghost of his father…

B: There’s also a pair of father figures he’s torn between, ala Hal in Henry IV. You could call Jor-El the Henry IV-ish father figure, regal and grooming his son for duty, and Jonathan Kent the Falstaff figure, built from an earthier timbre and holding his son back from fulfilling his potential.

It might be worth putting our cards on the table and explaining our allegiances going into Man of Steel. I like Superman. A lot. He’s not my favourite superhero or comic book character – that would be Batman, with a grumpy Incredible Hulk a close second – but he’s in the top tier. My favourite version of the character in any form would be the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 80s, the first two of which are great, the latter two of which are horrendous but dignified by the sincere work of Reeve. I like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns; I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of the Fleischer cartoons, the George Reeves series, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville, but never watched any of them obsessively; and the comics I’ve read I’ve generally liked, especially stuff like A Superman for All Seasons and All-Star Superman. In the lead-up to Man of Steel, I was primed. Director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is one of the best comic book adaptations committed to film, and producer Christopher Nolan was responsible for steering the Dark Knight films. While that series promised to be a definitive cinematic take on Batman and ultimately proved to be a more personal idiosyncratic beast, it was nonetheless a fascinating and compelling experiment. All in all, I was pumped for seeing these two auteurs tackle one of the great icons of popular culture.

A: Well, here’s my hand. I am Superman fan. My experiences are much like your own. I grew up with the magical Reeve films and have vague but fond memories of the 50s TV show. I can even remember Superman’s 50th birthday celebrations in 88 (I believe he got a TV special and a TIME cover story). As I got older, I was into the thrilling Fleischer cartoons and even the mediocre Superboy TV show. Superman appeared on TV again, most noteworthy was the pilot for Lois and Clark, Superman: The Animated Series and the first season of Smallville. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a flawed but reverent sequel to the first Superman film, and packs a bit of nostalgic magic into its rather episodic plot.

First and foremost, the character is a comic book hero. For the uninitiated, I’d recommend the books of Elliot S! Maggin, the Man of Steel mini-series, The Death of Superman, Superman: Peace on Earth, Superman for all Seasons and All Star Superman. In all these instances, the character is a thrilling action adventure hero while representing a unique humanist ethic… you know what, I already did that spiel on my site. Either way, I dig the Man of Steel and no matter how old I get I am still that kid forever leaping off the couch wearing a towel for a cape. Sufficed to say, I was cautiously optimistic about Zack Snyder’s cinematic reboot.

And you’re right about Snyder. He filmed Moore’s “unfilmable” Watchmen and acquitted himself rather well. Same when he shot Miller’s 300 against a green-screen and he’s still praised for his Dawn of the Dead remake. When he’s adapting existing material, he’s adept at turning panels of sequential art into celluloid. Many have noted, however, that when he must create original content as a storyteller, we end up with Sucker Punch and that owl movie.

Consider also Man of Steel’s production team. Producer Chris Nolan is a master of tense blockbuster realism, even if his films about men driven by loss and vengeance are rather incongruous for a character like Superman. Likewise, writer David S. Goyer has more runs on the board than any when it comes to penning superhero flicks. Given this team up, Man of Steel could have been an astounding piece of pop culture myth. More on that later.

Now, to finish my initial Bard-related observations. There are some motifs in Man of Steel, other than the Hamlet-esque relationship between Superman and his ghost-dad, that we could call Shakespearean. For instance, Krypton is the kingdom that falls due to the pride of age, in part reminiscent of King Lear or the Henriad. Also, the motif of the tragic general doomed by his flaws and duty (Coriolanus, Othello) surfaces in the figure of Zod.

Man of Steel also toys with the notion of free will, where baddie Zod and other Kryptonians are genetically predisposed to certain motivations and roles within society. As a protagonist, Superman has no genetic predisposition and must face choices regarding his place in the world, even to which world he holds his allegiance. Regardless of the film’s success in executing these ideas, it does posit the broad idea that free will creates heroes and predestination makes villains.

Shakespeare of course, dealt with the dogma of Calvinist predestination, the idea that some are chosen for glory and some for damnation. In fact, many of his richer patrons would have thought that we each hold a station in society by the will of the divine. We can be sure that Shakespeare was not a Calvinist as the Puritan cause is mocked frequently in his plays, particularly Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. In a more pagan sense, Shakespeare is also aware of the powers of ‘fate’ and that plays a big part in the tragic downfall of Macbeth.

Given these vague connections, I still wouldn’t suggest Man of Steel is particularly Shakespearean, rather it invokes the broad strokes of traditional tragedy, much like The Dark Knight trilogy or Skyfall (previously discussed here). Today, many blockbusters often borrow the largess of traditional drama to add weight to the popcorn and Man of Steel is no different.

B: And therein lies one of its chief problems. Batman lends himself to tragic pathos, given his dark origin and brooding disposition. So does James Bond: the Bond films tend to mirror the popular aesthetics of their time, so it’s fitting that Skyfall cribs from the Nolan Batman films (the death of Bond’s parents that left him orphaned; a calculating villain who’s a distorted mirror version of the hero and lets himself get caught to deal his deadliest blows; even the burning of a childhood mansion). But Superman’s an alien in blue lycra with a red cape who punches and lifts big things. That’s not to say there can’t be darker takes on Superman (just as there are lighter takes on Batman and Bond: see the Adam West and Roger Moore eras respectively). But to reinvent Superman in the Dark Knight’s image is the first of a number of major miscalculations.

Sadly, the combination of Snyder and Nolan that I originally thought was a winning team proved wrong for the material. As individual filmmakers, they’re terrific. But united on this particular property, it’s a poisonous combination. Snyder’s got an aptitude for stylish devastation and violence. Nolan’s all about serious, realistic takes on his superheroes. As a consequence, in the final third of the film we’re shown what would happen to Earth if super-powered beings ever let rip… at great, tedious length. So much time is spent depicting buildings being destroyed either due to alien terra-forming or superhero fisticuffs, with an invisible death toll presumably adding up to hundreds of thousands. Basically, 9/11 happens thirty times over in Metropolis. The message is clear: this is what would happen if superheroes really existed. But is that the message audiences want from a Superman film: that Superman’s presence, not to put too fine a point on it, would completely fuck up planet Earth? While that message is suited to the darker tone of the Dark Knight films, given that the cause & effect of vigilantism is a central theme in the modern Batman mythos, it does not really belong here.

What’s more, all this destruction and devastation becomes deadly boring and numbing. There’s little sense of fun or charm in Man of Steel. While again this stems from Nolan’s mandate on realism and Snyder’s over-emphasis on spectacle, I also have to lay some blame at the doorstep of Goyer. There’s no denying he’s one hell of a plotter, but his dialogue’s mechanical and there’s a flatness to a lot of the more performance-based scenes that the actors, despite their best efforts (and some are really, really good) can’t quite overcome…

A: I agree there. The Nolan/Goyer team deal in superhero realism where Snyder crafts action violence. Together, it looks like a job for Superman, though they posit the Man of Steel as the cause of the chaos as well as the cure. It misses the mark for the character. Plus, you could hardly describe any of those storytellers as optimistic in tone.

Mario Puzo did describe Superman as a “Greek tragedy”, but that never obscured the wit or charm in Donner’s first film. I can’t help but feel that Superman requires that more traditional touch, more of a Spielberg or Zemeckis approach. I’d have suggested Abrams had he not previously been attached to direct one of the aborted attempts at this film (and written a truly odd script for it). Hell, if the script was strong and polished and the studio had a real tight leash, Michael Bay might have come closer to the right tone for a Superman film. I know that sounds odd, but you should feel good at the end of a Superman film, not numb from all the 3D 9/11 imagery. At least Bay would have shot it with some colour and fun.

It’s tough, because Nolan, Goyer and Snyder are all accomplished and skilled creators whose work I have enjoyed. As a writer, I particularly hold Goyer in high esteem for his ability to make geeky characters work for broad audiences. But we’re not the only ones suggesting something’s gone awry here. When it comes to the technical elements of the character dramatisation, Film Crit Hulk truly autopsied Man of Steel already. If we’re gonna lay the blame at anyone’s feet first and foremost, then we need to talk about Snyder, coz we’re gonna have to talk about the suicide-by-cop moment. As a fan, I was disappointed, even momentarily angered, by that decision. Did you care as much?

B: I did, though I think that is a question of decision rather than direction. Objectively speaking, I think Man of Steel is a well-directed film. While the set pieces do become numbing, I can’t deny Snyder’s knack for striking imagery. The stuff on Krypton early in the film is a particularly funky and nerdy (in the best sense) vision of Superman’s birth planet that we’ve never really encountered before, like Doctor Who’s Gallifrey imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And smaller moments work well too, like the scene where Jor-El recites the history of Krypton to his son and background imagery illustrates the story. Details and touches like this which other filmmakers might have skipped over or skimped on attest to Snyder’s directorial and visual acumen.

And like I said above, some of the performers are really great. Henry Cavill makes a good impression as the titular character, as does Amy Adams, a great actress who’s often a little bland, as Lois Lane. I think Russell Crowe is entering the ‘Fat Brando’ stage of his career playing larger than life characters and making big choices (see also his work in The Man with the Iron Fists and Les Miserables, as well as the upcoming Noah) so he’s well suited to the role of Jor-El. And I love Kevin Costner in pretty much everything and he invests the role of Jonathan Kent with appropriate Americana.

All these elements, taken individually, are fine. But again, it’s the bigger creative decisions which glue them together (or don’t, to be more precise) that really hamper the film. It’s not just an issue of tone, but basic character choices. The treatment of Jonathan Kent is a great example of that. As Film Crit Hulk noted, the filmmakers gave Kent a tangled mess of motivations and confusing messages to impart (don’t save people or be a hero now, because you need to save people and be a hero later) which undermines the gravity of Costner’s work in those scenes. There’s no better actor equipped to have played that part, and it’s disappointing that his performance is hobbled by that clumsy writing and a rather miscalculated death scene.

A: Yeah, that bit of visual exposition in the ‘fortress’ is a highlight, as is the opening on Krypton and even those touches of Malick in the Smallville scenes. Let’s not forget his deft hand with uber-powered showdowns. No one can doubt Snyder’s ability to craft an image or an action beat, and his direction there is fine, but it’s his decisions as a storyteller that left so many scratching their heads. That’s why I connect him with the now infamous Superman-kills-Zod decision. That precious little moment was originally Snyder’s idea. A recent interview with Empire revealed that Nolan and Goyer were suitably confused at the notion when Snyder suggested it. Clearly, anyone with a functional knowledge of the character understands that Superman does not kill his enemies, not just as a moral code, but as an expression of his heightened compassion. It’s what makes him different from the countless anti-heroes in pop culture who gun down baddies for breakfast. Superman is meant to be better than that.

I’m just about done fan-hating on that decision, but I will add this: many have said of that scene that Superman had no choice but to kill Zod, but more precisely, the writer and director offered him none. So what else was Superman supposed to do? Well, Superman could have blocked Zod’s heat vision, injuring himself rather than killing. Maybe he could have used a burst of strength or flight to move Zod to the side. Hell, if you have enough grip to twist a man’s neck you can certainly turn him 180 so he’s unable to immolate innocent bystanders. First off, Superman could have spent at least a few breaths trying to appeal to Zod’s genetic predisposition and offered to work alongside him in rebuilding Krypton elsewhere. There’s a crapload of things Superman could have done rather than kill. Just ask a comic writer. And I say that not as some expert comic author, but as a dude who’s read a bazillion Superman comics over the years. Man of Steel’s ending was unimaginative, sad, yet dramatically inert.

Finally, we see how silly this games gets, here I am trying to mend the plot of a popcorn superhero film. I would, however, argue that this highlights the issue: Superman can do whatever he wishes. He’s freaking Superman! For what purpose do we create the impossible and good man if not to do impossibly good things? That’s the point of an aspirational mythic character. To be better than us.

B: I did not know that moment derived entirely from Snyder, so I stand educated. Still, it says something about that particular combination of talent and the particular tone they were going for that such a choice was not only feasible but perversely organic to the storytelling.

To be continued next week, in Part 2…

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July 28, 2013 at 6:10 am

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Overview of Tragedy, Part 2

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Merry Christmas one and all.

As a gift, here is the long-threatened follow up to the original overview of Shakespearean tragedy. While many may have observed our posts drifting further and further from traditional Shakespearean content over time, I am determined to keep to topic this time around. Let’s get started…

First, tragedy began thousands of years ago, with songs about goats. You see, the first dramatic tragedies were derived from the religious rites of Dionysus in ancient Greece. Consequently, they were known as ‘goat songs’, and involved lots of booze and chanting and probably resembled something like Catholic mass meets an AC/DC concert (that actually sounds pretty sweet).

These rites evolved into a spectacle separate from religion, incorporating legend and myth. In the 5th century BC, Aristotle began to theorise the function of drama. He suggested that dramatic tragedy had an identifiable structure, built from a beginning, a middle and then an end (known as the protasis, epitasis and the catastrophe). The three-act structure was born.

This dramatic structure should, Aristotle argued, consist of a unity of elements, incorporating one event, one location and one time. As centuries passed, the Greek tragedy continue to evolve and in 18 BC, the poet Horace argued for a five-act structure (later thoroughly theorized by Gustav Freytag in the 19th century).

Time passed, Rome rose, Christ was born, stuff happened and many, many stories were told over the centuries. During the Renaissance, the British theatre scene was bustling with bright young authors such as Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlow, the sharp-tongued Robert Greene and, of course, our humble Bard, all putting their pen to the traditional genre.

In the first decade of the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote most of the tragedies that have come to define our modern understanding of the genre. From such works as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello, we have come to recognise the archetypal noble man with a fatal flaw. This character, harbouring one defect that rises to grasp at power just as a weed reaches for the sun, is now part of our cultural understanding.

Outside of the famed tragedies, Shakespeare wrote other lesser-known tales, and in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, the elements of tragedy are present, though not in the typical forms. While Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists fit the classic Greek model, his work does not actually observe the Aristotelian unities, with multiple events stretching over many times and places

The Bard also tends to give his protagonists a stronger sense of free will, exhibiting complexity and ambivalence, without the sovereign, destined fate of Greek tragedy. So in keeping with the tradition of these overviews, let’s ask Dr. Ben some questions about how Shakespeare altered, and influenced, the genre of tragedy?

A: So Ben, do the lesser-known tragedies offer anything of interest that the big plays do not? Where do they fit in the oeuvre?

B: From a literary perspective, there’s a good reason that Hamlet, Othello, King Lear et al tower over the lesser known tragedies: they’re superior plays. But from a dramatic perspective, I think the lesser known ones can seem a lot fresher since they haven’t been so thoroughly processed and digested in the collective cultural consciousness. And they’re the sorts of plays that, while never going to sell out the stalls, offer interesting possibilities for those who stage them: see, for example, stage productions of Titus Andronicus from Peter Brook and Julie Taymor, or Ralph Fiennes’s recent film of Coriolanus.

A: In the instances of Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, how might we view the significance of Shakespeare’s departure from the Aristotelian unities? Was it revolutionary at the time, or simply the trend? What implications does this have for the stories themselves?

B: Shakespeare wasn’t especially interested in the Aristotelian unities, which is why a lot of critics and commentators of a more formalist disposition bagged him subsequently, but I think the works speak for themselves. The Tempest is probably the most successful play in conforming to the Aristotelian unities, and that’s dramatically fitting given both its place in the canon and the theme of resolution and restoration that runs throughout it.

A: Coriolanus himself is a rather stoic tragic hero, and earlier you suggested his primary sin is pride, refusing to work with the plebs. While hardly Oedipus, he also has an interesting relationship with his mother. Compared to Timon, is Coriolanus a more traditional tragic protagonist in a more traditional play?

B: Yes he most certainly is.

A: … of course… I probably should have asked a more specific question. Greek tragedy often depicted the workings of fate, but Shakespeare tends to give his tragic heroes more independent and nuanced psyches. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, how do you see that evidenced particularly in Coriolanus and Timon?

B: Yes I would. It’s evidenced in their actions, which are plainly stupid to readers but are grounded and contextualized in personal idiosyncrasy.

A: The events of Timon bear a resemblance to a number of Biblical parables, not just the waste of the prodigal son, yet also the parables of the debtor, the great banquet and the hidden treasure. This tragic parable also functions a great deal like a problem play. What’s your take on the piece? Confused or eclectic?

B: Eclectic, as opposed to something like Pericles which is clearly confused.

A: It seems as if there’s little room for tragedy in our popular entertainment nowadays, Oscar-nominated pieces notwithstanding (Gran Torino, The Wrestler, Black Swan). Are we just too addicted to popcorn to stomach stories of sacrifice and loss? Where does tragedy fit in 21st century western storytelling?

B: I disagree somewhat. I think if you look at films like The Dark Knight series and other popcorn entertainment of that ilk, there’s often either a tragic dimension to the character or a kernel of tragedy that initiates or underlies the narrative. Having said that, I wouldn’t say that much of this stuff is genuinely tragic: a lot of it is what Joe Dante calls ‘non-content films’, but invested with a superficial dramatic heft.

A: Yeah, I thought Batman might fit in there somewhere- Hang on, there’s a new James Bond film out, have you seen it yet?

B: Hell yes.

A: Did you dig it?

B: Hell yes.

A: So, at this point, the James Bond franchise is reaching half a century. Hardly another fictional character has so consistently maintained such a visible cinematic presence. The reasons for the property’s appeal are clear, but how might you define its one lasting quality over the years?

B: I don’t think there’s a single lasting quality. If there is, it’d be that it’s maintained a half dozen or so qualities or recurring motifs while rolling with and adapting to popular tides. The DVDs for the Bond films that came out a few years ago had special menus that allowed you to access scenes featuring women, bad guys, gadgets, exotic locations, action beats, and staples like the gun barrel opening (now seemingly the gun barrel closing), theme song, M, Q, Moneypenny etc. So you’ve got those consistent ingredients across the whole series, plus narratives that adapted themselves to political tides (various gradations of the Cold War) and pop culture trends (blaxpoitation, science-fiction, 80s revenge thrillers etc). The Bond series is the ultimate chameleon: the same ugly lizard each and every time, but blending in and reinventing itself where needed.  

A: How might you suggest Skyfall embodies these successful elements?

B: Skyfall’s a pretty spectacular merging of the classic Bond ingredients with the modern action film aesthetic. It’s a fun and consistently entertaining piece of classic Bond escapism while also conceding to Dark Knight era expectations around pop heroes (tragic past, parental issues, engaging in mind games with warped mirror image villains etc). It both looks back to and celebrates the incredible rich history of the series while also looking forward to new possibilities.

A: The first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Casino Royale, was both an elegant return to source material as well as a slick modernisation of the character. The following film, Quantum of Solace, though hampered by the writers’ strike, continued on with the thematic elements of Casino Royale as more of a traditional sequel. This move harkened to a more concrete continuity for the Bond films, as well as a character arc for the protagonist himself. Skyfall, however, appears to largely change tact and return us to the older Bond format where every film is essentially disconnected from a larger story. Do you see this as a virtue, a flaw, or a necessary evil?

B: I think Quantum of Solace, as a film in its own right, is terrible. As a direct continuation of the storyline of Casino Royale it’s fine, but it’s not a film I can watch independent of its companion piece and find satisfying. In this respect, the fact that Skyfall is a film with a complete beginning, middle and end, as opposed to two thirds of a film, makes it vastly more satisfying. By the same token, I think it does continue the storyline from those first two films, most notably in its development of Bond’s relationship with M, and I think at film’s end the stage is set for the series to move ahead with continuity in place while still allowing storylines to be disconnected.

A: The initial James Bond books and films captured so much of the machismo in the Cold War western zeitgeist. However, that mentality becomes impotent in the face of the post 9/11, 21st century climate. How does the character of Bond relate to the new threat of nationless fascism and terrorism?

B: He shoots it.

A: Of course, so  given that the post 9/11 worldview offers creative challenges for the Craig films, how might the post-cold war Pierce Brosnan films from the 90s fare in comparison? Did Brosnan’s Bond suffer from an absence of threat and a lack of things to shoot?

B: I find it very hard watching those four films these days. Goldeneye remains the best and remains pretty great, but I think nostalgia plays a big part. The others are flimsy at best and moronic at worst.

A: Which is the best Bond film and why?

B: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which like Skyfall is a merging of classic Bond ingredients with a dramatic weight and texture (which was then new to the series and would not be repeated for a long time). It’s both the archetypal Bond film and one of the weirdest, most peculiar in the series. And George Lazenby’s great. That’s right: GREAT.

A: Comparatively, which was the worst Bond film and why?

B: Moonraker and Die Another Day are so ludicrously over the top I instantly disconnect from them whenever I try to watch them.

A: In hindsight, does the James Bond franchise offer any relevance to our discussion on Shakespearean tragedy?

B: Characters and stories that are reflections and embodiments of their times, heroes whose fates are intertwined with the fate of their societies (symbolically in the Bard’s work, often literally in Bond’s case), popular entertainments consistently delivering expected ingredients while working in new variations and tweaks to formula. Yeah, I think so.

A: Fantastic. So, there we are, knowing a little bit more about Shakespearean tragedy and a lot more about James Bond… right on topic.

Merry Christmas

A

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December 22, 2012 at 10:39 am

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