Thursday, October 30, 2008

Non-Fiction Review: Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert, Bill Schelly

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Bill Schelly's Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert is a fine portrait of the pioneering comic-book cartoonist. It also works as an entertaining non-fiction companion to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, he presented the world of the early comic-book industry through the eyes of two dreamers. One was a geeky, meagerly talented fan-turned-pro who saw this world as a way to status, and the other was a talented and idealistic artist who came to view it as the means for fulfilling his muse. Schelly, on the other hand, gives us a real-life comics-industry dreamer who charted another course.

Joe Kubert didn't see the industry as a short cut to status, and his primary motive wasn't to follow and satisfy artistic impulses. A better-adjusted personality than either of Chabon's protagonists (and probably most of his peers), he treated the field as an opportunity for professional and entrepreneurial achievement. By keeping his feet on the ground, he succeeded remarkably well. Now in his eighties, he is considered one of the finest craftsmen in comics history, and his great success as an entrepreneur, the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, is the best kind of business venture: one that meets a need and contributes to the profession it was designed to serve. He has all the status he could want, and the artistic fulfillment came as well. Kubert's cartooning chops are as strong as they ever were, and over the last two decades he has turned out a number of graphic novels that include journalistic non-fiction, historical adventure pieces, and fictional explorations of the New York immigrant community he grew up in. In many ways, he is an exemplar of the American dream.

The best section of the book is the opening chapters. Joe Kubert was born in the Jewish shtetl of Ozeryany, Poland in 1926, and his family emigrated to the U. S. soon after. Schelly provides a vivid account of the Kubert family's life in the East New York section of Brooklyn during the 1920s and '30s, and he catches one up in the enthusiasm of the young Joe for the popular culture of the time: classic radio shows, the seminal monster and gangster movies, and, of course, the newspaper comic strips. Kubert's favorites were the great adventure strips of the day: Harold Foster's Tarzan, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. They sparked his interest in drawing. When comic books exploded with the debut of Superman in 1938, they compelled him to seek out the comics publishers and production shops in Manhattan. Packagers such as Harry Chesler took a liking to the precocious eleven-year-old, and the cartoonists took time out from their work to give him drawing tips. Kubert received his first professional commission when he was just shy of thirteen. His relationship with editor Sheldon Mayer is of particular note. He describes Mayer as "my first real mentor," and the editor's interest in the young cartoonist paid off. By the time Kubert was twenty, he had become one of the top illustrators in the field. Schelly conveys the joy and sense of accomplishment of the young Kubert, who saw his dream come true almost as he was dreaming it.

Schelly takes care to keep the reader aware of the burgeoning horror and chaos in Europe. Hitler's miltary adventurism was of personal concern to the Kuberts, as their relatives lived in the regions that were of most interest to the Germans. Passages dealing with the experiences of Kubert's relatives in Poland are juxtaposed with the accounts of Joe's rise in the comic-book field. The upheaval of Ozeryany after the invasion of Poland, Jews being shot in the city streets, and others being slaughtered in the Belzec concentration camp--all are given attention. Schelly concludes these sections with a restraint that is both admirable and deeply disturbing: "What is known for sure is that none [of Kubert's relatives in Poland] survived the war." According to Schelly, the horror of what happened to his extended family haunted Kubert, and it informed the development of the somber, moody style of adventure cartooning he became famous for.

The middle sections of the book go by quickly and enjoyably. Schelly devotes time to a wide variety of subjects: Kubert's family life, his briefly successful entrepreneurial efforts with 3-D comics, and his experiences working on the Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, and Hawkman comic-book features. The chapters dealing with his work on the Tales of the Green Beret newspaper strip and his time editing the war-story and Edgar Rice Burroughs lines at DC Comics are particularly fascinating, largely because both projects became caught up in stressful editorial conflicts. These periods were clearly not enjoyable times for Kubert, but Schelly's treatment emphasizes his view of Kubert as "the consummate professional." Kubert's personality compelled him to see a project through both good times and bad.

In many ways, the book treats the founding of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art as the culmination of Kubert's career. The respect for the mentor-student relationship Kubert had with Sheldon Mayer, the respect for an illustrator and cartoonist's craft, the ability to see a project through to the end--all contributed to the impetus to establish the school. The descriptions of the work involved in setting things up are enjoyable in the way stories of most entrepreneurial efforts are: the principals are obviously figuring out how to do things as they go along, and that keeps the narrative lively. One also appreciates the unheralded contribution of Kubert's wife Muriel, who was, judging by Schelly's account, absolutely indispensable.

The final section of the book is largely a celebratory discussion of Kubert's late-period graphic novels, including Abraham Stone, Fax from Sarajevo, and Jew Gangster. Schelly makes it seem like the icing on the cake of a life well-spent, and one leaves the book with happy admiration for the prolific cartoonist, influential educator, and successful businessman. Kubert describes himself as "the luckiest man in the world," and one wishes him well. The book is intended as a biographical tribute to Kubert, and in this it is successful.

It has flaws as a history. Schelly occasionally presents things that run counter to accepted versions of what happened, but he doesn't bother to acknowledge or reconcile things when he goes against the grain. For example, he includes a quote from Leonard Maurer that describes MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman's resignation from the magazine differently than any of the numerous accounts out there. According to Maurer, Kurtzman quit the magazine in disgust over publisher William Gaines' conduct during a lawsuit against Kubert, Maurer, and Maurer's brother Norman. Every other account claims that Kurtzman quit after unsuccessfully demanding a controlling interest in the magazine. I'm not claiming Maurer is wrong, but Kurtzman's resignation from MAD was a fairly significant event in comics history. If Schelly sees fit to include this contrary view, he has a responsibility to discuss it relative to the common version of what happened. This is minor, but it and other examples raise questions as to what else Schelly is neglecting.

Schelly's failure to acknowledge the standard views of subjects extends to his critical discussions of Kubert's work. He devotes the most space to Fax from Sarajevo, Kubert's 1996 graphic novel about the real-life experiences of a family friend during the Bosnian Civil War. The book's approach is likened to that of such "non-fiction novels" as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It is an interesting comparison, but Fax from Sarajevo's most obvious antecedent is Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel that was also constructed around dramatizations of firsthand wartime accounts. Schelly doesn't mention Maus other than to note that its commercial success opened the door to publishing graphic novels that weren't aimed at children or traditional comics fans. Given the stature of Maus--it is perhaps the most prominent and respected graphic novel yet published--the failure to discuss the similarity of Fax from Sarajevo's approach to Spiegelman's seems almost obtuse. The book also generated some controversy among critics and cartoonists who felt Kubert's romantic-melodramatic cartooning style was inappropriate, but apart from a brief quote from Gordon Flagg's review in Booklist, Schelly doesn't discuss that either.

Most of the problems with the book are attributable to the fact that Schelly is not a trained historian, and he doesn't strive for the objectivity that a professional scholar would consider imperative. (Although one wishes he and the editors had gone through the book with The Chicago Manual of Style handy. The copyediting is substandard, and the numerous errors are distracting.) Man of Rock is a general-audience biography, and its intent is to celebrate its subject. Schelly provides a detailed view of the various periods in Joe Kubert's life, and he offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Kubert's most notable work through the decades. It is all presented in a breezy, brisk style. For those interested in one of the greats of adventure cartooning, or in the history of comics in general, Man of Rock is a delight.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Miracleman: The Golden Age [Book 4], Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. He identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the original discourses and offer new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention. On some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off this. He had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as much as it could be done. Neil Gaiman, his successor on the strip, appeared to have nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, well-crafted piece that builds tension by creating a counterpoint between the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality and one's concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. But the rest of the stories are quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem is Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber. Unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman finding solace in a children's-book fantasy while her family is falling apart, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at a faux-confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to. But he's quite oblivious to her, and Gaiman doesn't seem to realize how boorish he is. I kept waiting for the girl to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman's relatively eccentric protagonists also don't work very well. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally. One waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a story effectively. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles in the stories. The look of "Trends," which recalls the work of Jaime Hernandez, is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including German Expressionist woodcuts and most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. But Gaiman's efforts are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Film Review: The Counterfeiters

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film earlier this year, and it's not hard to understand why. The two best foreign films of 2007--the year's two best films, period--were Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both were eliminated from contention in the foreign-film category by the Academy's arbitrary rules and convoluted nominating process. That left a weak field, and given the Academy's traditional fondness for movies about the Holocaust--it seems like one walks off with a major prize every year or so--The Counterfeiters had the inside track to the award. The film holds one's interest (although in a way one resents), but there's nothing especially artful or compelling about it. The Holocaust setting deserves something more accomplished.

The film tells the story of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to destablize the British economy by flooding the country with fake currency. A team of Jewish artists, engravers, and printers was assembled at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Kept in relative comfort, they set out to solve the assorted logistical and practical problems involved in, at first, perfectly counterfeiting the British pound, and then the American dollar. It is estimated that the phony British currency they produced amounted to four times the value of the actual money in circulation, which made the effort the largest known counterfeiting operation in history.

Ruzowitsky begins the film after the war has ended, where we see his protagonist, Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), at a Monte Carlo gambling resort. He's carrying a briefcase full of banded cash with him, and he uses it to check into a luxury hotel and idle his time at the casino. He is revealed as a Jewish concentration-camp survivor after a woman he picks up notices the tattooed number on his arm. He then flashes back to his life in Berlin before the war, where he used his considerable artistic talents for counterfeiting and passport forgery. After being apprehended and sent to prison, he finds himself at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he begins working with the other prisoners to successfully forge the pound and the dollar.

The film is never compelling on more than a melodramatic level. Ruzowitsky's sole means of generating narrative interest is by keeping one in dread of what may happen next. One is given the obligatory scenes demonstrating the guards' capacity for arbitrarily abusing and murdering the prisoners. Ruzowitsky also keeps one aware that once the prisoners succeed in counterfeiting the currency, they will have outlived their usefulness to the Nazis. They will be either be killed or returned to the general camp population, which could also mean their deaths. The difference between the camp commandant, who treats the Bernhard prisoners relatively humanely, and his second-in-command, a murdering sadist, is also exploited--one sits uneasily waiting for when the brute inevitably takes over the camp. And there's the prisoner who has tuberculosis--when will the guards discover his condition and kill him?--as well as the prisoner who becomes suicidal after he discovers his family was murdered at Auschwitz. The film prepares the viewer for one awful development after another, and the only questions are when they will take center stage.

Ruzowitsky does develop a narrative strand with possibilities for dramatic conflict. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl), was an anti-Nazi agitator before being sent to the camps. He is sabotaging the efforts to counterfeit the dollar. He's an idealist with absolutist moral views, and Ruzowitsky presents him as a counterpoint to the pragmatic Sorowitsch, who feels little compunction in collaborating with the Nazis, as it means he will live another day, and it can create opportunities to help the other prisoners when they're in need. Burger's attitude, if left unchecked, could get them all killed. The film raises the question of whose behavior is the more truly moral, but it answers it too easily in Sorowitsch's favor. There's little sense of a potent right-against-right conflict between the two characters, and Ruzowitsky can't resist treating it in melodramatic terms: Will the Nazis become so frustrated with the failures that they kill all the prisoners, or will the prisoners relent and turn Burger in? It becomes just another opportunity to fill the audience with dread.

The conflict between Sorowitsch and Burger is also hampered by the film's inability to create any rapport between the audience and the two: one is always left on the outside looking in. Ruzowitsky clearly intends for Soroswitsch to be sympathetic--he's always shown helping the other prisoners, and he refuses on principle to snitch about Burger's sabotage--but the film never allows one to identify with him. Part of the problem is in the writing, but some of it lies with Karl Marcovics' performance--he's just too stoic to make one feel Sorowitsch's conflicts. One understands them intellectually, but the emotional resonance just isn't there. August Diehl is somewhat better--he effortlessly conveys Burger's fervor--but the script doesn't develop the character enough for him to give Burger any dimension beyond the first view of him.

The film is ultimately affectless, and Ruzowitsky's screenplay and direction never rise above mediocrity. One understands the Holocaust's appeal to filmmakers--it allows for a tense, thriller-like atmosphere, and the circumstances allow for moral questions that can occasionally be profound. But it also allows for a film to have an inflated aura of importance that the filmmaker doesn't justify. The appeal of The Counterfeiters is middlebrow, and rather disgracefully so. The Holocaust was a great human tragedy, and it should be treated with the utmost respect. It certainly shouldn't be grist for the mill of unimaginative filmmakers in their quest to win awards and impress people.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Film Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a superb film. It won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but its low profile in the U. S. isn't surprising. It tells the story of two young women in Ceaucescu's Romania, and their experience with securing an illegal abortion after one becomes pregnant. The film sounds like a dreary, grungy piece of social realism, and coming from Europe, it's probably going to be slackly paced. In short, it's most likely a film that one couldn't pay U. S. audiences to see. The film is definitely a grungy piece of social realism, but it's redeemed by the dynamism of Mungiu's approach. It is captivating from beginning to end.

The film takes place over the course of a day in 1987. The two protagonists, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are roommates in a university residence hall in Bucharest. Gabita is pregnant, and due to the Ceaucescu regime's strictly enforced pregnancy laws, she has arranged to get an illegal abortion. As the film opens, we see Otilia's preparations with helping Gabita--buying cigarettes and soap, borrowing the last of the needed money from her boyfriend, and haggling with hotel clerks to secure a room.

It's during Otilia's scenes with the hotel clerks that the differences between her and Gabita come into focus. When we first meet Gabita, she seems oddly dissociated from the fact that she's about to get an abortion. Otilia seems more engaged with the situation--she's running around doing errand after errand to get ready, and all one sees Gabita do is wax her legs. Gabita was supposed to make a reservation at a particular hotel, but Otilia has to haggle making arrangements at another once it becomes clear that Gabita never bothered. Gabita also sends Otilia to bring the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), to the hotel in her stead. It's in clear defiance of his insistence that Gabita meet him. He's facing a substantial prison term if he's discovered performing an abortion by the authorities, and he's absolutely exasperated by the failure to follow his instructions. It doesn't end there; Gabita's flightiness has resulted in their being in a hotel other than one he approved (i.e. one that won't demand ID from him at the desk). She has also lied about how far along the pregnancy is, which could result in a more severe prison term if he's caught. She doesn't even remember to bring a plastic sheet for the bed. The story goess from this crisis point to Otilia's troubled relationship with her boyfriend. It concludes with the tense efforts to dispose of the aborted fetus.

Otilia is clearly a far more grounded personality than Gabita, and Anamaria Marinca's excellent performance captures both her determination and personal conflicts. She's caught between her friendship with Gabita and her disdain for Gabita's irresponsibility, and one can sense her sympathy with Mr. Bebe's aggravation when she tries to mediate things in Gabita's favor. The circumstances lead Otilia to literally prostitute herself to help her friend, and Marinca makes her anger and disgust quietly palpable. Marinca also conveys the tensions between Otilia and her boyfriend after Gabita's abortion sours things between them. Marinca's technical control is on stunning display in a dinner scene with the boyfriend and his family. Mungiu holds an extended shot of everyone at the table, with Marinca's face the focus of the composition. For several minutes, one watches her expression shift between boredom, impatience, and annoyance with the boyfriend's snobbish, self-absorbed family, who talk about her as if she isn't even there. Marinca never breaks character, and she keeps the shifts expressive and fluid; it's a bravura display of discipline and skill.

Mungiu's direction maximizes the impact of Marinca's performance in this scene, and the approach he takes is characteristic of his work throughout. He designs every scene in terms of counterpoints. In the dinner scene, he uses the staging and framing to play Otilia's stillness and silence off the dinner-table bustle and prattle of the boyfriend's family; the contrast brings her facial expressions out in stark relief. In the hotel-room confrontation with Mr. Bebe, he builds a powerful dynamic between the women's anxiety and Bebe's logical, dispassionate response to everything. The scene is also an extraordinary showcase for Vlad Ivanov. He paces his delivery of Bebe's lines terrifically well; he manages to sound mechanical and unaffected simultaneously. When Bebe finally loses his temper, the eruption of anger is like a slap in the face. But Mungiu's skills go beyond the dynamism of his staging and his capacity to showcase actors to their best effect. He also demonstrates a superb eye for verisimilitude: the setting is perfectly evoked, and the characters seem entirely of a piece with it.

Ultimately, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days manages to transcend the homeliness of its subject matter by being a terrific piece of suspense filmmaking. But it does not rely on the dread of melodramatic suspense; it uses the suspense of compelling dramatic conflicts. The haggling with the hotel clerks, the confrontation with Mr. Bebe, the experience at the family dinner--all are developed in terms of conflict, rising tension, and resolution. They are stunningly brought off. Cristian Mungiu's skill is such that one wonders what he couldn't tell an interesting story about. Here's hoping that Mungiu can find a path to success with U. S. audiences. They don't know what they're missing.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume I: "I Yam What I Yam," E. C. Segar

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Popeye is an icon of American popular culture, but my memories of him all date back to the 1970s, and they're sketchy at best. I really only remember him from animated cartoons that aired on TV in syndication, which always seemed to revolve around him saving his girlfriend Olive Oyl from the clutches of the fat, bearded bad guy Brutus. (Bluto is the traditional name of this character, but he was always called Brutus in the shorts that I saw.) Popeye would always save the day with the help of eating spinach, which gave him invulnerability and super-strength. He was a grotesque, humorous version of the costumed superheroes I obsessed over as a kid, but instead of saving the world, or just his hometown, he only sought to protect the people close to him, whether it was Olive, the baby Swee'Pea, or his mooching hamburger-loving friend Wimpy.

As I grew older, I became increasingly aware that there was more to this character than the animation indicated. The original comic-strip Popeye was created in 1929 by cartoonist E. C. Segar. He was a supporting character in Segar's Thimble Theatre newspaper daily. Popeye was a crude, ignorant deckhand who loved to gamble his money away playing craps, and he was always spoiling for a fight. Segar (pronounced "SEE-gahr") had been producing the strip for about a decade when he introduced his good-hearted, malapropism-prone sailor, and nothing he had done up to that point ever generated the response that Popeye did. The character quickly took over the strip, and Segar came into his own as a cartoonist. The Thimble Theatre strips he produced between 1929 and his death in 1938 are considered perhaps the most sophisticated adventure material produced in the medium, and they are among the greatest newspaper comics ever published. When The Comics Journal listed their choices for the hundred greatest English-language comics of the twentieth century, Segar's Thimble Theatre Popeye strips ranked sixth among newspaper features, and eleventh overall. They enjoy the reputation of a comics masterpiece.

In 2006, Fantagraphics Books began publishing a projected six-volume reprinting of Segar's Popeye material. The books are scheduled to be released at the rate of one a year, and the third is due out any day now. The individual volumes are handsomely produced in a hardcover, oversized format. A week of the dailies are printed on each page, and a special color section is devoted to the Sunday strips. (The Sundays had a different story continuity than the dailies, so being printed in a separate section is appropriate.) The first volume includes the dailies published between September 10, 1928 and December 20, 1930, and the Sundays between March 2, 1930 and February 22, 1931. I read it filled with eager anticipation.

And it's not bad. I gather Segar was not yet at the height of his powers in these early strips. The world depicted in this volume is not the one the feature is famous for, and one senses its full realization is years away. Popeye, once he becomes a permanent member of the cast, shares center stage with the Castor Oyl character, who was the strip's initial star. Olive Oyl is barely present in this volume, and the strips devoted to her relationship with Popeye are relegated to the Sundays. There is no Swee'Pea and no Wimpy. (There is no spinach or Bluto/Brutus either, but Jules Feiffer makes clear in his introduction that those are fixtures of the animation, not Segar's original material.) The strip is a humorous adventure picaresque with occasionally fantastic elements, and the first volume reads pleasantly enough, but it's primarily of historical interest.

The initial storyline featured doesn't include Popeye at all. It begins with Castor Oyl, Olive's short, bald brother, receiving an African "whiffle hen" as a gift from his uncle. The bird is domesticated and friendly, but it moves super-fast, and Castor's uncle offers Castor a thousand dollars if he manages to do the impossible and kill it. Most of the episode deals Castor's repeated failure to win the money by killing the bird, and it plays like an early comic-strip version of the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote animated shorts. It's one slapstick gag after another, and things get more outlandish as they continue. The storyline ends on a sweetly ironic note: the bird, named Bernice, interprets Castor's efforts to kill it as affectionate attention, and becomes devoted to him.

Popeye comes on the scene after Castor discovers that rubbing the bird's head is a guarantee of good luck. Castor buys a schooner to travel to an island gambling resort, and he hires Popeye to be his crew. Castor is a compulsive, impatient, and occasionally bullying fellow, and the dynamic between him and the hard-headed Popeye is frequently hilarious. The two are always arguing, whether it's about one using the "whiffle hen" to cheat the other at craps, or Castor's highhandedness and Popeye's insubordination, or the arguments between the two about Popeye's pay. Castor insists he's giving Popeye the "privilege" of being one man who does the work of twelve while being paid one man's wages, and Popeye sensibly argues that if he's going to be doing the work of twelve men, he should get twelve men's pay.

Money makes the world go 'round in Thimble Theatre, and many of the stories revolve around scrounging, get-rich-quick plots, and confidence schemes. Castor uses the "whiffle hen" to break the bank at a posh gambling resort. He gets swindled out of his millions in a land-speculation deal. He and Popeye try to turn a quick buck by entering Popeye as a ringer in boxing matches. In the first volume's final two daily continuities, Castor and Popeye's reputation as adventurers leads to them being offered large commissions to solve mysteries, and they open a detective agency. The strip revolves around the folly of greed, but it's not the wealthy man's greed of rapaciousness. It's working-class greed borne of desperation. These strips were created during the Great Depression, and they're heavily reflective of the period zeitgeist: the buck-chasing on display is motivated by the need to survive.

And Popeye is in many ways a working-class man's idealized view of himself. He may be poor, but he retains his dignity, and his fists-first approach cuts through all the baloney. He has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting slicksters and other scoundrels, and he's indomitable in his dealings with them--which drives them right up the wall. The single funniest moment in the first volume occurs when the recurring villain Mr. Snork, a suit-wearing thief and con man, exclaims of Popeye:

What a nerve!--swims out to my ship--takes my guns away from me, beats me up--forces me to tell him all I know about the mystery, and then makes me set him ashore in my best life boat [sic]. Bah!! And I thought I was a hard man!

Popeye's propensity for using his fists whenever he gets a bad vibe can occasionally land him in trouble, but he lets it roll off his back. As he says, "I socks 'em where I sees 'em an' I leaves 'em where I socks 'em--an' tha's that!" And he's inevitably vindicated by the end of the story. Popeye may not have money, but no one ever gets the better of him. (Unless, of course, a craps game is involved.)

Thimble Theatre is an unusual reading experience for contemporary audiences, and one may find its most striking aspect is the structure and pacing. Most humor strips today feature interchangeable gags with no continuity, and they have an extremely abrupt structure: set-up, punchline, and a post-punchline follow-up. Segar's material has a continuity--the daily storylines tend to cover about sixty strips each--and the punchlines of the individual strips have a more prolonged development with little or no aftermath. The individual Sunday strips are far denser than one sees today. They show Segar was a first-rate gag man. He often came up with a recurring piece of slapstick for each storyline, and he would then play variations on it while incrementally advancing the plot. I gather this was not an unusual approach in the older humor strips, but it's unheard of among today's features. It gives this decades-old material a freshness one doesn't expect. In other words, everything old is new again.

And that's what ultimately gives this first volume its appeal. Subsequent editions may reveal the richness that gives Thimble Theatre its enormous reputation, but one is at last given an extended glimpse into the roots of a great pop-culture phenomenon. It stands enough on its own to make it an enjoyable ride.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Short Take: Recount

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Jay Roach's Recount, which he directed from a script credited to Danny Strong, is a mediocre dramatization of the extraordinary aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election. The film truncates and misrepresents key aspects of the post-election recount fight, and it doesn't create a compelling retelling of what happened on its own terms. The material just isn't shaped into a satisfying story. Roach handles some scenes well, such as his slapstick restaging of the Miami-Dade white-collar riot, but most of the film seems perfunctory in its execution. The various principals are a mixed bag. The protagonist, Al Gore campaign staffer Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) is a potentially dynamic character--he wholeheartedly fights for Gore despite their personal estrangement--but the script doesn't develop his conflicts enough to make him interesting. If Spacey hadn't been one of the film's producers, it would be hard to understand why he took on the role. Laura Dern gives an amusing performance as Florida's ultra-flakey Secretary of State Katharine Harris, and Bruce McGill, who plays a lobbyist sent by the George W. Bush campaign to mind her, quietly dominates every scene he's in. Unfortunately, neither is given much to do, and the same is true of the rest of the cast, which includes such solid performers as Bob Balaban, John Hurt, and Denis Leary. That said, the only performance I actively disliked was Tom Wilkinson as James Baker. He plays Baker as a laid-back, seen-it-all good ol' boy, and he suggests none of the actual Baker's conspicuous intensity and drive. In many ways, what's wrong with Wilkinson's performance is what's wrong with the film as a whole: it's superficially competent, but it doesn't do its subject justice. The story of 2000 Florida recount was a remarkable mixture of wackiness, irony, and nail-biting suspense, and it may ultimately be seen as one of the most unjust (and ultimately tragic) episodes in U.S. history. It deserves better than this mildly diverting retelling.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comics Review: Miracleman, Alan Moore, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In the interview anthology The New Comics, published in 1988, Robert Fiore provided this assessment of Alan Moore's style:

The mainstream comics writer is something of an alchemist. His task is to make something worthwhile out of what can be very base material. The usual approach is to introduce elements from outside the genre. Alan Moore works differently. He will examine a genre and try to bring its best elements out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions. For example, when given a comic about a swamp monster, rather than fight against the absurdities of such a concept, he tried to make the most intelligent swamp monster comic possible. He succeeds more often than not.

Fiore's description of Moore's approach as analytical is accurate, but he suggests that Moore's goal is to produce the Platonic ideal of a particular type of story. It's hard to go along with that. Moore tends to pull apart a concept and identify the various discourses and resonances that inform it. He then builds his stories through reconstructing the concept in ways that critique the old discourses and create new resonances. In Swamp Thing, for example, the main character as originally created was a scientist who had been transformed into a humanoid plant creature, and his goal was to turn himself back. Moore identified a discourse behind this concept as denial: the tendency to reject one's present circumstances in favor of clinging to a rosy view of the past. He then constructed a narrative that played off the emotional resonance of this by pulling the rug out from under it. It's an approach that informs most of his major work, and it may be why he's most comfortable working with reductive material, e.g. pastiche, pulp genre stories, and historical fiction. It's always easier to build off another's foundation than to create one's own.

This is not to denigrate Moore's achievements. With works like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, he essentially accomplished for the superhero comic what The Godfather did with the gangster film, or what Chinatown achieved with the private-detective genre. He dissected the hackneyed aspects of the material in order to find new resonances. Then, with extraordinary craftsmanship, he used those resonances to completely reimagine what he was working on. His best work is startlingly fresh and dynamic, and it's not hard to understand the acclaim and sustained sales interest that books like Watchmen have maintained for twenty years.

Moore's first effort in this vein was Miracleman. In the early 1980s, at the behest of editor Dez Skinn, Moore and illustrator Garry Leach took a moribund British knock-off of the American superhero Captain Marvel (of Shazam! fame), and used it to reimagine the idea of an omnipotent costumed character in the Superman mold. The initial premise of the story was that the character's alter ego, Mike Moran, was now middle-aged, and he had lost all memory of his life as Miracleman. This initially included the magic word he used to transform himself. Moore and Leach set things up with a gritty naturalism. The setting was contemporary--1982--London. Moran was a freelance journalist with a working wife, and their conversation revolved around financial anxieties. The initial villains were domestic political terrorists, essentially the Weathermen or Symbionese Liberation Army of the environmental movement. Despite the realist trappings, the initial episode plays out in the typical fashion of superhero stories: Moran encounters the terrorists at an anti-nuke rally outside a nuclear power plant, he remembers his magic word, and defeats the terrorists as Miracleman. A threat emerges to the established order, the hero confronts it, and the threat is contained.

Moore illustrates the basic reactionary discourse of the superhero genre with this opening episode, and then he turns around and explodes it. Miracleman may be a modest do-gooder in the Superman/Captain Marvel mold, but he does not function as a pacifying force in society. He's a disruptive, ultimately transformative element. The government sees him as a threat capable of incalculable destruction, and their first response to his reemergence is to destroy him as expeditiously as possible. They know his true origin, and that as Moran he's a normal human being. A special operative is sent to take him out. The irony is that they're perfectly justified in their fear, and that fear is horribly borne out.

Another discourse informing the superhero genre is that it's a response to a sense of personal and physical inadequacy. It's why the genre is especially popular among male teenagers: as adolescents, they're caught between being boys and men, and they're filled with anxiety over whether they are or will be physically and personally up to the role of being an adult. Many also feel frustrated and emotionally beaten down by their circumstances. The superhero is a powerful fantasy for this mindset: it's a character who transcends inadequacy to become a powerful, ultra-competent figure, and no one is capable of telling a superhero no.

Moore subverts this discourse with the character of Johnny Bates, a. k. a. Kid Miracleman, who was Miracleman's superpowered boy sidekick years earlier. But unlike Miracleman, he did not forget who he was, and he abandoned his human alter ego to grow to adulthood in his superhuman form. He has quietly used his powers to climb to the pinnacle of society. When Miracleman encounters him, he's the wealthy, glamorous owner of a major British electronics corporation. But he's thoroughly amoral and malevolent, and capable of casually murdering people in the most ghastly ways. He holds a grudge against the older hero for what he recalls as patronizing treatment decades earlier. Their battles ultimately destroy London, and the carnage is horrific. It's everything the government officials were terrified of and more. The imagery from Bates' final assault is chilling: human skins flapping on clotheslines; bodies impaled on the hands of Big Ben; a woman with her arms torn off wandering with her crying children through the debris. The most disturbing image sneaks up on one. Moore and the episode's illustrator, John Totleben, show a family screaming in terror in their car. One then notices that the skyscrapers in the background are shown from an extremely odd perspective, and one sees other cars hanging in midair at various angles. The full impact of the panel then hits one: Bates arbitrarily picked up those cars and flung them high into the air, one after the other. It's as unsettling an image as one will ever encounter, in comics or elsewhere. Unchecked will and absolute power--the heart of the superhero fantasy--are shown taken to their nightmarish extreme.

The violence in adventure fiction often has a glamour to it. Moore attempts to subvert its appeal with the imagery from London's devastation and elsewhere. He and the illustrators rub one's nose in the ugliness of violence from beginning to end. But as dramatic as it is, the violence is not what gives Moore's storytelling its power. His great contribution to comics was in demonstrating that intricate novelistic narratives were possible in the medium. His sense of characterization is superb; the story's principals are all strong, fully-realized personalities. Thanks to Moore's exceptional ear for dialogue, they all have distinct voices. Every scene is constructed in terms of narrative effect, and the various strands of the story are orchestrated into a larger whole. Moore is also astute enough to recognize the more immediate absurdities of the superhero genre, and he uses those for narrative purposes, too. He treats them as mysteries to be solved. He is such a strong storyteller that he can take ridiculous elements such as Miraclewoman, the mad scientist Dr. Gargunza, and even Miracledog, and make them seem satisfying and integral elements of the story he's telling.

Miracleman has its flaws. Moore's effects sometimes gets the better of his judgment. The most egregious instance occurs early on, when a lovemaking scene between Miracleman and his wife is crosscut with a jaguar hunt in the South American jungle; the wife's climax is juxtaposed with the moment the cat is killed. And for all of Moore's gifts, he cannot write effective descriptive prose in extended passages. He's particularly fond of pretentious similes such as, "Like a kite that has lost its war with the wind, I hang crucified upon the sky," or purple descriptions like "wind-driven clouds drag zebra skins of sunlight and shadow across the waking city." He fortunately relies on action and dialogue to propel the story; one who yields to the temptation of ignoring the prose captions may be better off. And perhaps Moore goes wrong by including an extended childbirth sequence, which has several views of the baby emerging from the mother's vagina. I don't object out of prudishness; the pacing is off, and it comes across as self-indulgent. It's also--no pun intended--belabored.

There are problems with consistency in the artwork. The first third or so is fine. There's no disruption when Garry Leach turns over the illustration duties to Alan Davis. Their styles are so interchangeable that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other picks up. The consistency problems become glaring in the middle section. Davis is replaced by Chuck Austen (credited as Chuck Beckum), and their work is not at all compatible. Austen's panels lack the skill of Davis's. The change in the figurework is extremely conspicuous: Austen's posed stiffness can't compare with Davis's fluid dynamism. The team of Rick Veitch and Rick Bryant is better, but the art still isn't on the level of Leach and Davis. It's hard to escape the feeling that Moore's scripts are being manhandled by less-than-capable talents. Leach and Davis's work is matched and exceeded only in the final third. John Totleben does remarkably skilled and detailed work, and its lush, dreamlike quality is perfectly appropriate to the fantastic, phantasmagoric direction the story takes.

The final third of Moore's Miracleman is its most impressive. He began with the idea of a superhero in the real world, and he develops it to a natural conclusion: this is a god in the real world. He resolves all the narrative questions he developed over the series, and Miracleman embraces destiny by accepting godhood and establishing himself as the world's ruler. It's not an easy path; his wife and his human identity (whose personality becomes increasingly separate) abandon him, and he must confront his dismay at the refusal of many to accept the utopia he brings. These final episodes are framed through Miracleman's recollections, and the birth of this new world order is presented with a remarkable sense of awe. The story ends on a pensive note, with Miracleman wistfully looking down on the planet's lights from his palace in the sky.

Miracleman is no longer commercially available through publishers or first-run book retail. It's sadly only available on the used-book and collectors' market. If one is looking to buy the three volumes discussed here on eBay or elsewhere, be prepared to spend a thousand dollars. Dez Skinn, the original editor, never properly acquired the rights. He assumed it was an orphaned copyright and trademark, and just commissioned new material. His arrangement with Moore and the illustrators was for them to keep the copyright for their specific episodes, and this arrangement was maintained by the U. S. publisher Eclipse, who thought they had purchased Skinn's share of the character rights. At least one bankruptcy and lawsuit later, all the episode copyrights and printer films reportedly now belong to Neil Gaiman<, who took over writing the series from Moore. But he can't do anything with them until the legal questions are resolved, which doesn't seem likely anytime soon. There are so many conflicting claims that no one knows who owns what with regard to the character's underlying copyright and trademark. One person recently recommended just publishing the books and see who files a lawsuit. Get the claimants deposed and settle things. This is a historically significant work in the comics field, and it's a shame the legal mess has turned it into a notoriously unavailable work of fan fiction. It deserves much better.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Art Review: The Cartoon Paintings of Philip Guston

This article was originally written for an art-history course in 2002. It was previously published at Pol Culture.

In the late 1960s, Philip Guston, one of the most influential Abstract Expressionist painters, began to work in a representational mode that continued until his death in 1980. The paintings, bluntly cartoonish images of Klansmen, Cyclopses, and assorted detritus, such as old shoes and used paintbrushes, provided, according to H. H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather in their History of Modern Art, “the key inspiration for the New Image and Neoexpressionist painters of the early 1970s and 1980s.” Guston became, to quote Robert Hughes in American Visions, the “one figure [who] stands out above all others in intensity and influence [....] His work over that decade [the 1970s] redefined the terms of painting for a whole generation of Americans."

Such a position of prominence in the postmodern era would seem to identify Guston as an exemplar of postmodernism, but Hughes, for one, doesn’t think so: “It [Guston’s work] had none of the opportunist or weightless character of postmodernism.” And Doré Ashton, one of Guston’s most prominent exegetes, vehemently rejects the notion in his essay "That Is Not What I Meant at All," published in a 1988 issue of Arts Magazine:

Dutifully the post-moderns troop around in a place--can we call it a world?--that has been deconstructed for them like a prefab. They heed the voice of the master [Jacques Derrida] that decrees “Deconstruction must neither reframe nor fantasize the pure and simple absence of the frame.” [...]But there are phrases, exclamations, paragraphs, and, of course, structures, in Guston’s last works. There are images and ideas abutting. Everything has a connection for the one or the many willing to seek it [....]
But Hughes and Ashton are not separating Guston from postmodernism so much as they are separating him from the worst of it, from both the empty pretentiousness of much postmodern art and the self-defeating excesses of its resident school of critical thought, poststructuralism. Like many postmodernists, Guston took modernist notions of art and turned them inside out.

Philip Guston's Zone (1954), a work from his Abstract Expressionist period

The Abstract Expressionists--and their critical champion, Clement Greenberg--rejected, by and large, representational painting in favor of abstraction in part because the former reinforced the discourses of society that oppressed the individual. The art that came before them had, in their view, become fodder for government propaganda and the commercialized kitsch of popular culture. (Greenberg’s examples of kitsch, as described in his famous essay, "The Avant-garde and Kitsch": “popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc.”) According to Greenberg, only the intense subjectivism of abstractionism would protect the artist’s work from assimilation and corruption within the larger culture; it was a way (in Greenberg’s view, the only way) for the artist to preserve his or her individuality. Guston’s later work continued to embody the Abstract Expressionist goal of exalting, or, at the least, declaring the painter behind the painting, but he accomplished it within a representational idiom. And not just any representational idiom, but perhaps the most derided of all: the blunt imagery of the comic strip. Like such contemporaries in the cartooning world as Charles M. Schulz, Jules Feiffer, and Robert Crumb, he fused the largely sterile pop-culture idiom of the comics with a highly individual perspective and intensity. It was the flip side of the detachment and irony eventually found in the bulk of postmodern “high” art; emotional resonance came to be found in the most striking works of postmodern “low” art.

Poststructuralist criticism has its own issues. In brief, poststructuralist theory argues that language and its various manifestations (such as art and literature) are made up of a series of often contradictory discourses that can be analyzed without reference to centralized or absolute meaning. Derrida and his fellow theorists, however, have had an unfortunate tendency of pushing their theories to such extreme lengths that they veer into folly. An excellent example is this passage from Derrida’s Of Grammatology:

The “rationality”--but perhaps that word should be abandoned for reasons that will appear at the end of this sentence--which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in the logos. Particularly the signification of truth [emphasis in the original].
To reject the spirit of the opening verse of the Gospel According to St. John (“In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ) and with it, all notions of objective morality and ethics, as well as those of standards, is regardless of one’s religious orientation, untenably nihilistic. Such statements also raise the issue of why one should bother to read the work of Derrida or anyone else: if everything’s meaningless, then nothing matters, and anything goes; why should one care? But one doesn’t get the sense after a full reading of Derrida and other poststructuralists that they mean such statements to be taken entirely literally. Jacques Lacan, one of Derrida’s most prominent peers, warned against the abuse of poststructuralist theory in his essay, "The Agency of the Letter":

[W]e can observe that even a text highly charged with meaning can be reduced, through this sort of analysis, to insignificant bagatelles, all that survives being mathematical algorithms that are, of course, without any meaning.
And even Derrida admits--somewhat--to a centrality of consciousness--a logos of sorts--beyond language that motivates human expression: “all language in general springs forth when passionate desire exceeds physical need, when imagination is awakened [emphasis in the original]”. Poststructuralist theory is best when used suggestively, to explicate a work, rather than abused, in order to undermine one. And it does help to explicate the development of Philip Guston’s work in the final phases of his career.

Elsewhere in “The Agency of the Letter,” Lacan provides a description of the evolution of signifiers/imagery in a discourse:

And the enigmas that desire seem to pose for a "natural philosophy--its frenzy mocking the abyss of the infinite, the secret collusion with which it envelopes the pleasure of knowing and dominating with jouissance, these amount to no other derangement of instinct than that of being caught in the rails--eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else [emphasis in the original] of metonymy. Hence its "perverse" fixation at the very suspension--point of the signifying chain where the memory screen is immobilized and the fascinating image of the fetish is petrified.
What Lacan is positing is that the psyche is perpetually reaching for a signifier/image to express meaning. Once a signifier is realized, the psyche expresses its “pleasure” through a moment of closure (“the suspension-point”) and then strives for a new signifier to replace the previous one; the cycle begins anew. In terms of painting, the painter is constantly searching for an image to express a particular meaning. Once the image is found, the painter creates a closure for the image in a completed painting (or in a series of paintings, the final closure being reached when the “pleasure” of achieving and re-achieving the image has been exhausted). The painter then searches for a new image to replace the old. And so on. This tendency can be very clearly seen in Guston’s later work. The paintings divide into three successive phases: the “Klansman” period, the “Cyclops” period, and the “unpopulated” period. The phases are characterized by the presence (or non-presence) of a particular autobiographical figure, other, or signifier in the paintings. The hooded Klansman gives way to a disembodied, one-eyed head--the Cyclops--which, in turn, gives way to pictures with no conspicuous figures, pictures that feature nothing but the objects that surrounded the figures in the earlier paintings, most notably old shoes with nailed-in soles. The figures go from masked to uncovered to absent, like the layers of an onion being peeled away. Along with Lacan’s paradigm above, they illustrate Derrida’s dictum that “language is born out of the process of its own degeneration.” Or, in other words, the discourse of continuity between Guston’s paintings “undevelops” (or deconstructs) itself as it goes along.

The paradox is that the most complex image, the one most laden with associations and meanings, is there at the beginning. According to Guston, his Klansmen pictures were self-portraits , and 1969's The Studio (at left) certainly bears this out: it features a Klansman with a brush, in front of an easel, painting himself. Guston was fully aware of the associations that accompany the Klansman image; his identification with it was part of an effort to caricature his sense of the evil within himself. (He was not, it must be emphasized, identifying himself as a racist thug.) Guston’s choice of the image, however, when seen in the light of poststructuralist theory, is a little mystifying. In the essay “The Mirror Stage,” Lacan holds that the self-image gains in complexity as it progresses; Guston’s self-image, as rendered in the paintings, simplifies. The answer may lie in the fact that the image of the Klansman was not so much an initial self-portrait as it was a repudiation of his Abstract Expressionist phase. According to Guston, he was “sick and tired of all that purity” in Abstract Expressionism; he “wanted to tell stories”. Derrida accounts for this: “each new cycle begins a progression-regression which, destroying the effects of the preceding one, brings us back to a nature yet more secret, more ancient, more archaic.” Guston turned away from the most refined of styles, a visual signification process devoid of even assumed meaning, to the crudest of narrative styles, with a central image highly charged with meanings and associations.

The relationship of the Klansman to the Cyclops is defined by this model of Derrida’s:

The presence of the thing itself is already exposed in exteriority, it must therefore be de-presented and re-presented in the outside of the outside. In the living arts...the outside imitates the inside. It is expressive [emphasis in the original].
With the representation of the Klansman, following Derrida, the next step in the signification process would be for the presence cloaked by the Klansman to signify and present itself. Guston’s imagery follows this signification model. The Klansman, with all of its assorted extraneous meanings, loses its mask to reveal the Cyclops, a figure better equipped to function as a signifier for the self. A key work featuring the Cyclops figure is 1973's Painting, Smoking, Eating (below).

The Cyclops, unlike the Klansman in The Studio, does not lead the viewer to contemplate his activities outside the scenario of the painting. As Derrida has written, “Usurpation necessarily refers us to a profound possibility of essence”; Guston, with this figure, is better able to signify his personal world (painting, smoking, eating) in the painting’s context. The Cyclops has another advantage over the Klansman as a signifier for the self: it has a face; there is no mask to hide behind. The emotional state of Guston-the-Klansman is beyond knowing; the feelings, however, of Guston-the-Cyclops are beyond mistaking. In Painting, Smoking, Eating, the artist-Cyclops, surrounded by tokens of his needs and appetites (the bed, his cigarette, the plate of uneaten fries), is consumed with the anxiety his role as a painter foists upon him: he stares red-eyed at the old shoes--an ever-present motif in Guston’s later paintings--that sit there, waiting to be painted. The unmasked figure is necessary for a purer autobiographical or confessional mode, a “veering off of signification” (from the Klansman) that Lacan describes as “the most appropriate means used by the unconscious to foil censorship.”

Derrida writes that “attention to the signifier has the paradoxical effect of reducing it.” Lacan’s notion of a “desire for something else” takes hold: Guston’s fascination with the Klansman image exhausts itself, demanding a supplement less complicated by meaning. The Cyclops is the supplement to the signifier of the Klansman, and, in the process of being produced, as Derrida notes, it cancels the original signifier out. In becoming the new signifier, however, the Cyclops is just as vulnerable to negation as the Klansman. Derrida writes, “But, as always, the supplement is incomplete, unequal to the task, it lacks something in order for the lack to be filled, it participates in the evil it should repair.”

In the next stage in the signification process, the Cyclops should both create a supplement from and be cancelled out by a presence that it cloaks. But what does it cloak? It is easy to define the Cyclops as what was being cloaked by the Klansman; the Cyclops was simply the presence under the hood. But in Painting, Smoking, Eating, as in other works, the Cyclops is not a mask for another figure. It does, however, provide a mask. The Cyclops’ gaze inflects and, therefore, masks the shoes. The shoes are not seen for themselves; they are a source of anxiety for the Cyclops. The next step in the signification process is to make a presence of the absence of the Cyclops' gaze and to portray the shoes without inflection, without a mask. The absence of the figure is the signifier of the self for Guston in such paintings as 1976's Green Rug (above right); Guston renders his imagery without rendering his self-consciousness in the process. His painting continued in this phase until his death.

The absence of the signifier of the self returned Guston to a semblance of the “purity” of his Abstract Expressionist work; by absenting the presence of the self, he also absented the necessary counterpoint for the dynamics of narrative, leaving only the shoes and other detritus, signifiers almost as devoid of meaning as the non-figurative brushstroke. Meaning, however, was never lost for Guston; he just came closer and closer to his own private vocabulary. To quote Doré Ashton, “He [Guston] told stories but he wasn’t narrative, finally. He demanded attention to his own, his personal iconography [....]” Guston ultimately came full circle: the private, personal brushstroke gave way to narrative which gave way to private, personal icons; items such as the old shoes became his personal totems, his imagistic familiars. They were ultimately his inner self given outward expression, devoid of anxiety or pretense. Guston’s work exemplifies a tenet of poststrucuralism: to paraphrase Derrida, Guston’s imagery was created out of the process of its own degeneration, an evolution that was simultaneously a devolution. Guston’s final destination was not, however, the absence of meaning; his ultimate accomplishment was to define a personal logos of self.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Film Review: John Adams

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Near the end of John Adams, the elderly Adams (Paul Giamatti) is taken to see John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence before its public unveiling. He angrily dismisses the painting as romanticized bunk, noting that the signing of the Declaration at the 1776 Continental Congress was hardly the dignified event Trumbull depicts. He seems to be speaking for director Tom Hooper and scenarist Kirk Ellis, particularly with regard to their attitude towards fictional treatments of history. Most historical dramatizations falsify their subject matter: the great figures of the past are treated as paragons of nobility, their achievements are gilded in pomp and splendor, and the details of life in their times are presented in the most whitewashed, artificial terms. The approach Hooper and Ellis take with John Adams is the opposite. They show the Founding Fathers and their times in the grittiest, least-idealized terms possible.

It seems the best approach in theory, but previous efforts in this vein have often gone terribly wrong. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Roberto Rossellini's The Rise of Louis XIV and Oliver Stone's Nixon. Rossellini attempted to depict the young Louis XIV in grindingly realistic terms, treating him as an overwhelmed young fellow whom accident of birth had placed on the French throne. Stone was considerably more fanciful, but his goal was to present Richard Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) as a conflicted, emotionally complex man who was hardly the larger-than-life figure he had been made out to be. What Rossellini and Stone overlooked was that Louis and Nixon were not everyday people caught up in the tide of history; they were outsize personalities who made history happen. One couldn't look at Rossellini's nebbish Louis without thinking that he'd either end up a figurehead or assassinated, and Stone's Nixon was such an introverted mope that one couldn't imagine him getting elected dogcatcher, much less twice climbing to the apex of power in the most powerful country on Earth. It seems that it's not enough for demythologizers to strike an uncompromisingly realistic tone; he or she must also suggest the qualities that made the chosen subjects the legendary figures they are.

That's what Hooper and Ellis achieve in John Adams. The Founders are not shown to be great because they were idealists; they are great because they had the bullheaded determination to make those ideals a reality. Apart from Tom Wilkinson's expansive Benjamin Franklin, the Founders are not shown to be likeable people. They're self-righteous, impatient, and manipulative--about as disagreeable a bunch of personalities as can be imagined. And John Adams is the perfect focus for this treatment, because he was perhaps the bluntest, most uncompromising, and most personally obnoxious of them all.

The mini-series (derived from David McCullough's best-selling biography) shows an Adams who was unwaveringly determined to do what was right in all circumstances. Hooper, Ellis, and star Paul Giamatti make clear from the start that it was not in Adams' temperament to do things out of expediency or for others' approval. We first see him as he takes on the defense of the British soldiers tried in the Boston Massacre, a course of action that made him one of the most unpopular men in New England. As the series goes on, one can see there was probably no one among the Founders who was more disliked by those who dealt with him, whether during the negotiations at the Continental Congress, his service as a foreign diplomat during the Revolutionary War, his tenure as the first Vice-President, or his single term as President. What redeemed him in his contemporaries' eyes was his unflinching honesty, his intellectual rigor, and his strong ethical core. No one was better able to discuss the motives and goals of the Founders in terms of right and wrong. It was what drew Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), and George Washington (David Morse) to him, and what made this singularly unpleasant man one of the key figures in this country's history. Hooper, Ellis, and Giamatti dramatize this superbly.

The portrait of the off-putting Adams of history is balanced with the deeply sympathetic treatment of his private life. The love and deep sense of commitment he and his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) had for each other is beautifully developed. Hooper and Ellis take special care to show that the key aspect of the relationship was that she was his intellectual equal. But in keeping with their doggedly unromantic approach, the John and Abigail they show were hardly an idyllically happy couple. These two were nearly torn apart by the conflicts between duty to family and duty to the moral cause of the Revolution, but--and this is what makes the depiction of their relationship so profound--these storms ultimately served to strengthen their bond. One's heart also goes out to Adams because of the sadness of his experiences with his children. We see the pain of his having to compel his eldest son, John Quincy, into diplomatic service at an unconscionably young age because of the boy's foreign-language skills. The series also draws us into his grief over the early deaths of his son Charles (Kevin Trainor) and his daughter Nabby (Sarah Polley). The public John Adams is fully reconciled with his private self.

Hooper and Ellis extend their uncompromising view of Adams' life to the milieu he lived in. Eighteenth-century New England is shown to be as cold, wet, and uncomfortable as one would expect. One is also shown the ravages of disease throughout society, including a crude smallpox vaccination gone awry, and a mastectomy in response to breast cancer. There's nothing glamorous about most of the colonists one sees, particularly in Boston. Many seem little more than derelicts. The depiction of violence is also unsparing. A man is shown being stripped, tarred, and feathered at one point, and another is seen having his leg amputated after a gunshot wound. But the grittiness does have its lighter side. One is given repeated views of the wet, muddy bog that would become Washington, D. C. After Adams assumes the presidency, he and Abigail move into the (unfinished) White House. The sight of the elegant official residence sitting in the middle of a vast field of mud never loses its comic punch. And every character has conspicuously bad teeth, which look progressively worse as the series goes on.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the series is its depiction of the various historical figures. Benjamin Franklin is shown as a worldwise, joyous libertine, and Tom Wilkinson plays him with relish. Danny Huston's Samuel Adams is depicted as a vaguely disreputable rabble-rouser--the eighteenth century's answer to Al Sharpton. The portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is quieter. Stephen Dillane gives him a wary reserve. His every word seems careful and deliberate--the restrained delivery even dries out the romantic revolutionary nonsense he spouts in his enthusiasm for the French Revolution. The most amusing is Rufus Sewell's Alexander Hamilton, a conniving backstabber with a hilarious fetish for military dress. The funniest scene in the series is when Hamilton is showing off his designs for the new U. S. Army uniforms. Sewell's comic timing is terrific as he excitedly explains the significance of the button alignments and the other tailoring flourishes.

David Morse's performance as George Washington seems a bit off at first. The greatest of the Founders is introduced in the Continental Congress scenes, and Morse has the exceedingly proper manner for which Washington was famous. But he doesn't initially suggest the volcanic temper that manner was developed to contain. His Washington seems like a bit of a doofus in the early sections. But Morse's performance does a fine job of capturing the tensions between Washington's manner and temperament in the scenes during Washington's presidency. His best moment comes after Washington hears of Adams' efforts to officially confer an honorific like "Your Excellency" on the President. Washington tells Adams, "Mr. President will do," and despite the understated delivery, his irritation comes through beautifully. It's ultimately a sharp, thoughtful portrayal.

The performances of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are the series' heart and soul. Giamatti never fails to convince one of Adams' intelligence, determination, and drive. He's equally adept in the more sentimental scenes of Adams' home life, and his achievement is his ability to reconcile the different sides of Adams into a single, unified characterization. Linney's Abigail isn't as richly written, but she beautifully conveys the dynamic between Abigail's stoic surface and the deep love she feels for her husband and children. She also fully convinces one of the depth of Abigail's own intellect, and the scenes of her arguing with Adams never leave one thinking they're anything but equals. Linney and Giamatti make as fine a team onscreen as John and Abigail Adams did in real life.

In all, the series is as well-rounded a portrait of a historical figure as one could ask for, and the period is superbly evoked. One can quibble over historical inaccuracies, and one wishes a better job had been done of explaining how the unlikeable Adams became the most prominent political figure in New England, but Tom Hooper and Kirk Ellis have managed quite an achievement. They demythologize the American Revolution, but they never lose sight of what made its principals great.