Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Pedagogy of the Superhero"

Last week, I had the opportunity to do my very first guest lecture - a 95 minute piece that I titled "Pedagogy of the Superhero", after a book that the class spent 3 weeks reading, Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was basically, as you might have guessed from the title, about the values that superheroes in American pop culture impart on to kids.

Given that the course is 'Worlds of Childhood', the lecture was structured largely around 1) an analysis of the childhood ideologies into which Superman and Spider-man (though mostly the Lee-Ditko era Spidey), respectively, interpellate their readers, and 2) a look at child superheroes and kid sidekicks; the narrative functions that they are purported to serve and the normalizing functions that they actually serve. In retrospect, I was probably too anxious about justifying my lecture, and while I don't think that I should've abandoned this aspect altogether - I can remember, as an undergrad, appreciating it when literary analysis was given a larger socio-cultural context and didn't seem hopelessly insular and inapplicable to anything outside the classroom - it also distracted from the far more enjoyable stuff, like discussing Superman and nostalgia or parsing the very systematic way in which Supes is constructed through the opening credits to the 50s Adventures of Superman show.

I've found out, though, that I'll have an opportunity to refine it and re-present it when this class is taught during the Fall-Winter session - albeit it at only half the length. This is where I need some help, though. I've been asked to come up with a couple superhero stories to add to the course's reader, and I'm thinking that I'll run with the Superman/Spider-man comparison again. Which means that I need to find an exemplary - and probably old - 'big blue boyscout' Superman story and a Lee-Ditko Spider-man story where both Peter Parker and Spidey get a chance to be misunderstood. And they need to be widely available in black-and-white reprints. (The latter shouldn't be hard to find, but I don't know anything about the availability of old Superman stuff.) A little help?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

That Watchman trailer that's gone mostly unnoticed...

The first Watchmen trailer aired before The Dark Knight, and I was more excited than I was apprehensive. (This might have something to do with the rather good Smashing Pumpkins song it was paired with - “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” - which was both lyrically appropriate and had the added bonus - and liability - of being used in a previous superhero movie. But I think that was the point - more on that later.) From what I can see, there are at least four obvious aesthetic touchstones in play: the source material itself (Zack Snyder has lifted several of the trailer shots directly from Dave Gibbons), Frank Miller film adaptations (both Snyder's own 300 and Sin City), the Burton-Schumacher Batman films (though the color and contrast, and the Pumpkins song, are more suggestive of the latter than the former), and Dark City (the Rorschach scenes and comparatively drab and washed-out urban backdrops seem to suggest this source). Drawing these connections seems doubly important because Snyder has apparently claimed that just as Watchmen consciously draws on the history of the superhero tradition in order to revise and reimagine it, he plans on reappraising the superhero film genre.

All that said, it's difficult to judge whether the film is actually
any good based on the trailer. Rorschach looks exactly like he does in the comic and Jackie Earle Haley seems like a good choice, just as Jeffrey Dean Morgan strikes me as perfect for the Comedian; Billy Crudup and Matthew Goode I'm not so keen on, especially the latter, though I'm willing to wait and see. (Were budget not an issue, Ozymandias would seem like the perfect role for an aging pretty-boy star - like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt - or perhaps a former star on a career downturn, preferably someone who's played a superhero before like Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer.) The importance of Dr. Manhattan's visual presentation to the success of the adaptation probably can't be overstated - if it doesn't look 'right' (and who's to know what will look 'right' until we see it?), it'll be nothing but a distraction. Though I think, for instance, that this one looks pretty cool:

One last thing: apparently, there was some sort of youtube contest connected to the film where people were encouraged to make their own in-story commercials for a Veidt (Ozymandias' company) corporate product. I haven't looked at many, but this one is hilarious in its perfect reproduction of 80s toy ads:

Friday, July 25, 2008

So the National Post's readers think that academics want to destroy their civilization...

First: full admission that there's a certain amount of self-satisfying wankery involved in any organized academic discussion. We use inaccessible language (which is often doubly ironic when we write about issues of social justice) and usually speak/write specifically for people who are already onside - meaning that we risk marginalizing the only-mildly curious and fail to give the apathetic any immediate or apparent reasons to care. We also nitpick at the mostly rhetorical differences that separate, say, a Marxist anti-racist from a Foucauldian anti-racist, or imagine that the divide between someone who feels that gender is the most foundational social variable as opposed to someone who feels that the social is actually organized around class is deserving of the sorts of arguments that result in anger and alienation - despite the fact that both would still agree that gender and class inequality are each really important topics that require our attention.

None of which is a good reason for the sort of reactionary bullshit that the (Toronto) National Post's readers are heaping on a call for papers by the Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality (RACE), an academic organization for anti-racist scholars in Canada. There are the usual complaints that ask why the white tax-paying majority is funding a conference that is ostensibly opposed to their interests - though I could just as easily complain about the tax money that's funneled into the military, as 'economic relief' for big business, etc. - and responses that react with incredulity to the suggestion that racism is actually a problem. (Though at least one of the comments actually made me laugh: "why are they calling for new papers and abstracts? [...] Speaking as a white hegemonist capitalist, i can assure them I'm not trying any new tricks, just same old stuff.")

And then it's the commenters' turn to supply the irony. Y'see, the responses actually manage to provide proof of the need to continue the production of anti-racist discourse and dialogue:
  • a commenter unflatteringly compares the "bad English" of the CFP to that of "the same Nigerian princes who are always trying to make me a rich man" (the "bad English" crack could have escaped notice as a shot at academic language, if not for its being inappropriately linked to an African bank scam - the poor grammar and spelling of those bank scams is nothing like the inaccessability of a CFP, and so the disdain appears to be aimed at their ostensible authors)
  • another asks to the see the CV of the professor who's serving as the contact person (to which one would be within their rights to ask whether the same mocking request would be made of, say, me if my name were the one attached to the CFP)
  • one explicitly reduces anti-racist activists to "immigrants" wanting to "destroy Western civilization" and "change [Canada] to a third world country"
  • another argues that "Saudi money" is now being paid to Canadian Universities to fund "dangerous agendas" like Israeli Apartheid Week (and, presumably, this conference), making the same covert accusation as the above, but with just a smidgeon of subtlety
  • and then the reactionaries kick in with mocking calls to form groups like SPERM (Society for the Protection of Equal Rights for Men) and SPEW (Society for the Protection of Equal rights for Whites) - oblivious, I suppose, to the existence of such groups and the continued socio-economic dominance of white men and the institutions that maintain their dominance (or, for that matter, the thinly-veiled hate groups that already exist for precisely those purposes)
Ultimately, the way in which these people manage to inadvertently provide evidence for the continuation of anti-racist and feminist political projects almost certainly escapes them. And, once again, I'm mostly just poking fun at them for the benefit of people who already agree with me and can see this without my having to point it out. But sometimes you just need to laugh at it, right?

Monday, July 21, 2008

A brief explanation/apology

I realize that I'm normally an incredibly snarky writer, but some of my responses to comments this past week - Dark Knight comments, in particular - have been downright mean. So this is just a quick explanation why.

I've been posting to discussion boards and participating in internet arguments for over a decade, so my tolerance for trolls is virtually nil and has been for a long time. This isn't normally a problem here, though, because my personal blog tends to attract comments from relatively small groups of people - people I know personally, professionally, or through other blogs and forums in which I participate and actually care enough to leave that space and follow me here. But discussion of The Dark Knight seems to have attracted a new crowd - I went from about 50 comments in the first 6 months of 2008 (and about half of those comments are my own, too) to 30 or so in the past 4 or 5 days (fewer than half of which are mine; and most of which, strangely, were in response to old posts about the film's promotional shots, rather than my actual movie review). You can see them if you click on the 'batman' tag and read older posts, though I haven't made all of the comments public. Some of them are so needlessly nasty - it is, apparently, an Internet Thought-Crime to say anything critical about the film - that I've actually dreaded having to review the comments over the last few days. And with those comments in the back of my mind, I then start responding to the genuinely well-meaning comments, which is not a fantastic idea.

So if I've seemed a little quick to snap at people or otherwise like a pompous ass, (more so than usual, that is) please forgive me. Once the movie hype washes over and the flood of anonymous people telling me I'm an idiot/douche-bag/pussy subsides, I'll revert to my more benevolent forms of snarkiness.

Friday, July 18, 2008

On "The Dark Knight"

I just saw The Dark Knight, (spoiler alert!) so my thoughts might be a bit scattered. But I think I can sum them up thusly: it's a very good superhero movie, but it's not a very good movie. As Geoff Klock notes on his list of favorite films, the best of the genre have yet to earn their spot on an undifferentiated list of great movies. Two fundamental problems kept the material from elevating the production to something more:

1) Its seriousness. Most of the characters in this film talk like incredibly earnest philosophy majors, and the closing sequence is actually the most egregious part in the way that it allows Batman to pontificate ('Harvey wasn't what Gotham deserved but it's what they needed. Batman isn't what they need but it's what they deserve.' Uh, come again?) over a steadily building score in the most melodramatic way possible. Relatedly, the Nolans seem discontent to allow us to figure out what the various characters symbolize: half the script seems to be devoted to discussions of heroes, villains, and the politics of representation. This is the stuff of academic papers - whose authors are notorious for their over-seriousness, naturally - not of action films.

2) Its pessimism. The scene with the boats aside, this movie seems to regard everyone with doubt and suspicion - Batman doesn't even trust himself. In a clever-if depressing-rewrite of The Killing Joke's conceit - where the Joker tortures Jim Gordon in order to prove that even the best of people can be broken - we end up realizing near the end that the Joker's goal has always been to turn Harvey, to show that even Gotham's 'white knight' could be corrupted. In The Killing Joke, the Joker is proven wrong; in The Dark Knight, he's proven right. And not only is he proven right, but Batman takes the fall and Gotham is left with its white knight crazy and dead and its dark knight a pariah. Super.

There's some redemption, though, in Heath Ledger - he's what makes this a very good superhero movie, if not a very good movie. I didn't initially think this would be the case - I disliked his look, especially the scars on the face and the make-up. But given the rave reviews, an anonymous commenter asked me just yesterday whether I was prepared to eat my words. And while I'm not sure that I necessarily have any to eat, since I was only commenting on his appearance rather than the performance that I could not have seen, I can say that I was surprised by the complexity of the character for at least three reasons:

1) He's actually exactly the character that I had described in those old posts as the one that I wanted to see. In one, I note that the Joker should be the ultimate hysteric, who makes a demand upon his foes to tell him who he is and, in so doing, becomes exactly the villain that they want him to be. The writing is particularly strong when we see the Joker go through the process of rewriting himself, as when he tells a different origin stories for his scars. This could easily lead to the same long-winded pseudo-philosophizing that I criticize above, but...

2) His counter-philosophy actually undercuts the rest of the film. When the Joker explains that he's the anarchy to the good guy's reliance on planning and order, he risks falling into their categories and neat little cosmology. Except that it's a lie - the Joker, true to his excessively Rube Goldbergian nature - explains this just as we're realizing that his every action has been directly or indirectly aimed toward driving Harvey Dent totally fucking nuts. The Joker isn't scary because he operates without rules, but rather he's scary because his obviously pathological dependence on rules reveals how every rule is arbitrary and our dependence on them equally pathological. (This is also why Dent's arbitrariness as Two Face is a nice addition, though it's far less developed.)

3) Lastly, he's funny, and a film like that needed more of him. He cross-dresses, cackles, and channels an evil Woody Allen in casual conversations. All of which seems fantastically appropriate.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Some videos worth watching...

#1 - The Sesame Street version of Feist's "1234"

A poster on PerezHilton remarked that anyone who doesn't smile while watching this must have had a horrible childhood. I'm inclined to agree.

#2 - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, from Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris

I have to admit that I found the first 3 and a half minutes almost unbearable. Whedon and Harris are satirizing bad blogs, but don't seem to get that an entertaining bad blog - much like entertaining camp - is one where the blogger is entirely oblivious to how much of a loser he or she is. Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, seems acutely aware, and so it's just uncomfortable.

But then the singing starts around the 4 minute mark and the love ballad about freeze rays and the girl at the laundromat is endearingly and unknowingly pathetic in exactly the way that a bad vlog (even if, at this point, we've abandoned the format) from a D-list super-villain should be.

No embedding - Act I of III can be found here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Morgentaler and the de-politicization of a feminist legacy

Dr. Henry Morgentaler was recently awarded the Order of Canada, which is the highest honour that the Canadian government can award to those who "desire a better country." It was a warranted, if controversial, choice - Morgentaler is largely credited with the decriminalization of abortion in Canada, given that it was his legal battles as an abortion doctor that eventually led to the prohibition ending. (The law was deemed to be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and so was removed from the books but never replaced.)

Naturally, there's been some resistance to his selection - some other members of the Order have returned their metals, and critics are also getting an inordinate amount of airtime. They argue, as one site puts it, that "his years of advocacy for legalizing abortion and for the thousands of abortions that he personally has performed" are not grounds for the award. Of course, it's not that simple - but you wouldn't know it, to watch Canadian TV.

Morgentaler himself, speaking of the day the Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional, provides the actual justification for the recognition: "For the first time, it gave women the status of full human beings able to make decisions about their own lives." Too bad that this angle, which seems rather key, gets so little mention. How sadly ironic that these discussions are silencing living women and removing them for the debate all over again.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Astonishing X-Men 25

I'm tempted to simply call this CSI: X-Men - though maybe this is only the first 2o minutes of the pilot episode. But something about this book escapes an easy encapsulation. Or maybe it just seems that way because I want to like it. Because I like Ellis and I like Bianchi, but I don't particularly like (or, I suppose, dislike) what they're doing here.

For his part, Warren Ellis admits that there's a certain element of self-indulgence to this project, and that he's planning to have fun with it. Fair enough - I don't particularly like my super heroes to be bland and too, too serious. It's also clear that the only other writers he really cares to converse with are Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon. There's a rather unsubtle moment where Ellis becomes the third in that line to feature a discussion of costumes and social coding - it's also, unfortunately, the least convincing of the bunch. Compare, if you will:
Morrison (New X-Men 114)
Beast: "I was never sure why you had us dress up like superheroes anyway, Professor."
Cyclops: "The Professor thought people would understand the X-Men if we looked like something they understood."

Whedon (Astonishing X-Men 1)
Cyclops: "We need to get in to the world. Saving lives, helping with disaster relief...we need to present ourselves as a team like any other. Avengers, Fantastic Four-- They don't get chased through the streets with torches."
Wolverine: "Here come the tights."
Cyclops: "Sorry, Logan. Super heroes wear costumes."

Ellis (Astonishing X-Men 25)

"We're all things to all people, Ororo. Today, we're consulting to the police, and there's no police officer in the world who's happy when he or she sees a super hero costume. Costuem says vigilante, and, these days, costume can also either say government flunkie or illegal combatant, which is one step away from being a flying terrorist. So when we do something like this, we dress in a way they understand, and we jump past all the crap that comes with a costume right now."
There's a sort of law of diminishing returns in effect here - with each iteration of the costume speech, the explanation grows longer and the meta-level becomes shallower. Sure, Ellis throws in that "we're all things to all people" as a way of bridging the "we're not super heroes/we are super heroes" divide of Morrison and Whedon - speeches that are clearly aimed at the reader - but the Morrison/Whedon disagreement was a largely superficial one in the first place. Their 'disagreement' was over how the X-Men should perform their role in public, and so already a tacit acknowledgment that the characters can mean 'all things to all people'.

A note on the visuals - While I like to look at Bianchi's art, I also have a number of reservations: the coloring is too muddy, the layouts are sometimes too crowded, but mostly his storytelling is confusing. He avoids conventional establishing shots and transitions in time and space, which means that I'm often playing catch-up when the location has changed and it wasn't made obvious - as examples, take the image of the murder victim on the second page (it's totally unclear how or where it's fitting - or, really, why we're seeing it) or the transition from the crime scene to the room where they're reviewing the evidence (how much time has passed? where exactly are they, anyway?). But maybe this is something that I'll get used to.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sometimes the title makes the movie

I saw The Visitor a few days ago, an incredibly bleak film about a middle-aged economics professor - Walter - who arrives at his long-abandoned NYC apartment to discover that it's being occupied by two strangers - Tarek and Zainab. (They're squatters, legally speaking, but only because someone fooled them into thinking that he owned it. These sorts of misunderstandings, sometimes comical and sometimes serious, feature heavily in the film.) They have no place else to go, so he let's them stay - and, eventually, they also allow him to realize that he hasn't actually been living.

It would be very easily to dismiss the plot of the film as cliché: the passive and kind brown guy introduces the stuffy white guy to non-Western music and gets him to "stop thinking" and start feeling; the white guy studies globalization and the economies of developing nations, while the brown guy provides him with the lived experience from which the white guy's been totally alienated; the white guy realizes that he hasn't been living only when the brown guy finds out that he's no longer allowed to live here.

What rescues it, though, is the title: The Visitor. We'd be tempted to think that Tarek and Zainab, and later Tarek's mother, are the titular visitors: they're in the USA illegally, squatting at Walter's apartment and later invited to stay. But the title is singular: Walter is the visitor, and so, relationally, the others must already be home. Sure, we're tempted to see the film, as I have in the paragraph above, with Walter as its center and the action revolving around him. (The film is even structure in this way.) But Walter's only passing through - somehow, the film seems to say, we were taught to misrecognize who's visiting and who belongs.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Music as oh-so-fleeting defamiliarization

Some music was playing as I walked into the room just a moment ago, and despite my familiarity with it (fyi, it was Hawksley Workman's "Old Bloody Orange") it took me a good 3 seconds to recognize it. In those 3 seconds, it was completely foreign to me - I must have wandered in part-way through a bar of music because I didn't recognize the melody or the chord progressions. This seems to happen every so often, most often when I turn my iPod on without looking at the screen: a piece of music that I've heard dozens of times is totally unrecognizable by virtue of an unorthodox starting point, and in that moment it could become absolutely anything.

There's always a brief moment of delight in recognizing the song, followed immediately by the disappointment of having been alienated from the original mystery that so completely captured my attention for those 3 seconds. I can't remember what it was that I first heard when I entered the room - I only remember that it was "Old Bloody Orange" that was playing.