June 27, 2012

ON COMICS: 'Before Watchmen' NITE OWL #1

 Nite Owl #1 by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Kubert & Joe Kubert 

One of the major storylines in Watchmen is Nite Owl coming out of retirement to embrace his inner superhero, get the girl and save the world, aka how Dan Dreiberg got his groove back. 

So, if any character has a good backstory to mine, it's Nite Owl. At his height, he and Rorschach were crime-fighting badasses; Dan was the Batman of the Watchmen universe. He was cool. To wit: the Kuberts' gorgeous cover to Nite Owl #1. A triumphant, commanding pose, a ripped Nite Owl surveying his dominion. Now, don't get me wrong--I love fat, nerdy, impotent Dan Dreiberg. I mean, I really love fat Dan. But as much as I love the extremes of the character, what I'm interested in is how shy, nerdy Dan can co-exist with skull-crushing, vigilante Dan. How did he get to be that way?

Luckily for me, it seems that's the exact question Straczynski is asking in this series. When you think about, in a lot of ways, Dan is the most human character in the Watchmen universe. He doesn't have any superpowers, he wears glasses, he eats bad food; he's fallible, the quintessential "regular guy."So one of the best aspects of the series is watching Nite Owl play off of all the other personalities in Watchmen: sociopaths (The Comedian), extremists (Rorschach), and god-like, giant blue naked dudes (Dr. Manhattan). Dan is also an interesting link between the old guard (The Minutemen) and the new. And this is exactly where Straczynski begins in Nite Owl #1.

It's 1962. Dan is still a teenager living with his parents. His room is plastered with Nite Owl (aka Hollis Mason) memorabilia. One night he bugs Nite Owl's Owl Car (yes, really) and tracks him back to his underground Owl Cave (yes, really). There he finds a note from Mason to meet him in the park the next day. Dan pushes hard to become Hollis' partner (the Robin to his Batman, if you will). Mason says he'll think about it.

And here is where the book lost a lot of points for me. When Dan gets home, he learns his father has burned all of his Nite Owl memorabilia and sees his father viciously beating his mother. Only a few panels later we learn his father has had a heart attack and a few more panels later Mrs. Dreiberg is spitting on her husband's lifeless corpse at the funeral. I mean...what? Why couldn't Dan's father just have died? Dan mentions in Watchmen that he was gifted a large inheritance when his father died, but why the need to include domestic violence in the equation? It seems like a very sudden and unnecessary narrative crutch to fall back on. Considering Dan's chivalry towards women and general good-guy-ness, wouldn't he have mentioned his father's violence to Laurie (who certainly has plenty of daddy issues herself)? I mean, it's kind of a huge event smack dab in the middle of the book that only seems to get us from point A (Dan living with his parents) to point B (Dan living with Hollis Mason and training to become the new Nite Owl). I guess Mrs. Dreiberg moved to Mexico or something IDK.

Dan trying on Hollis Mason's Nite Owl cowl

ANYWAY...the next part of the book is actually really, really cool, which is why I'm having a hard time not liking it. It's now 1965, Dan is officially Nite Owl, he's got Archie and he's partnered with Rorschach. (Rorschach!) In one brilliant splash page, we get the summation of their thug-busting partnership with not one, but two "Hurm" jokes! Blatant fan service, but, c'mon, you know when Rorschach shows up, the "Hurm" jokes aren't far behind. 

What follows is the famous scene of the first meeting of the Crimebuster. Joe & Andy Kubert very wisely don't try to re-invent the wheel here. They replicate the characters' blocking exactly, we just get everything from a different angle. Check it out.

I really dig this. We get a new perspective on the meeting that started it all. We're privy to Dan's thoughts about Laurie, all the while we know that she's looking at Dr. Manhattan. Now, just because I liked the Crimebusters retread, it's still just that: a retread. As much fun as it is to watch Dan interacting with Hollis, Rorschach and Laurie--the key figures in his life as Nite Owl--there is a strong sense of deja vu with this issue. We've seen it all before. And maybe JSM is just getting the introductions over with (and rather quickly--this book moves at lightning speed) so he can start building a really epic Nite Owl/Rorschach crime-fighting arc. I would like to see JSM slow down a bit and give real time to the important relationships in Dan's life. He basically has the entire 1960s to do so. There's so much to be mined here; it would be a real shame to just treat the Nite Owl title as a sub-par Batman team-up book.

In addition, we do run into some timeframe issues here. Silk Spectre #1 ends in 1966 with Laurie hitching a ride with her boyfriend and some hippies to San Francisco, and here in 1966 he's attending the Crimebusters meeting in New York. It will be a real challenge to get these books to coordinate with each other and stay true to the complex and detailed Watchmen timeline. Will they pull it off? Hurm, indeed. 

June 26, 2012

ON COMICS: 'Before Watchmen'

Watchmen got me into comics, so when I heard about DC's plan to launch 'Before Watchmen,' unlike a lot of comics fans, I was pretty psyched. I mean, I love the characters, I love the universe, and because Watchmen was what opened up the entire medium to me, I feel a sentimental attachment to the property.

Of course, I have my reservations. Isn't part of the brilliance of Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen its narrative singularity, the fact that the six-issue series stands apart as a comment on superhero comics as much as it is a total story in and of itself? Yes, but unlike some purists (I would say, killjoys), at the same time as I entered into the realm of reading and collecting comic books, I entered into the bizarro alternate universe of comics fandom. Watchmen fandom to be exact. In this world, the characters belong to us--the fans--and we may tinker with them as we wish, rewrite their deaths, fill in gaps in the canon, write about before and after the official beginning and ending of the series.

And isn't that what's happening here? Sure, it's on a terrible, soul-crushing, DC-sanctified corporate level and not a cool, underground, indie slashfic level, but what's the difference? Anyone who knows comics knows writers, artists and companies reinvent, retcon and otherwise draw and quarter their own creations in a ouroborosistic orgy of cannibalism on a regular basis. At least DC hired some cool people to honor/destroy/do absolutely nothing drastic or permanent to the legacy of the greatest comic book of all-time.

Yadda, yadda, let's get to the books.

Minutemen #1 by Darwyn Cooke

Okay, so maybe I'm not to be entrusted with objectivity here, but in my mind, Darwyn Cooke is the perfect man to handle the Minutemen, who were the Watchmen before 'Before Watchmen.' Meta-meta-meta, woah. In my opinion, Cooke's epic DC: The New Frontier is second only to Watchmen in its thorough, enthusiastic, gorgeous, heartbreaking de- and re-construction of the origin and myth of the American superhero.

As an artist, Cooke's commitment to mid-century retro aesthetics is a welcome asset to the story of Golden Age crime fighters. Indeed, I think Cooke's attention to fabrics, shading and the overall tactile quality of the character's costumes actually adds a new dimension to Dave Gibbons' original artwork.

Watchmen itself was full of extra-textual pieces on the Minutemen that were not, strictly speaking, part of its linear storytelling. You could certainly read #1--6 of Watchmen without reading the supplementary excerpts from 'Under the Hood' and get along just fine. In this regard, Minutemen #1 is sort of a supplement to a supplement, with 'Under the Hood' author Hollis Mason (aka Nite Owl) walking the reader through the history of the Minutemen.

Hollis recalls how, while still a New York policemen, he first encountered Hooded Justice. Cooke's reveal of the vigilante is terrifying and suspenseful, dousing the page in striking red (the first appearance of that color in the book). He goes on to introduce all the players: Sally Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre), Edward Blake (aka The Comedian), Byron Lewis (aka Mothman), patriotic superhero for hire Dollar Bill, and mostly touchingly, Ursula Zandt (aka The Silhouette). In Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen, Silhouette is alloted only a few panels and her intriguing and heartbreaking backstory is only alluded to by other characters. In Minutemen #1, Ursula gets four whole pages of introduction (as much as Cooke gives Nite Owl, his narrator), giving us a glimpse into the character's crime-fighting never seen before. 

This is the stuff of fandom heaven. This is the kind of thing I wanted to see from 'Before Watchmen': fan favorite characters actually being given stuff to do. I want to see Silhouette busting up a child pornography ring; I want to watch her take down bad guys; I want insight into her background in Nazi-occupied Austria. There's nothing in the first issue to suggest that isn't exactly the kind of storytelling we're going to get from Cooke's series.

But as much time as Cooke spends giving us the run-down on characters, he's crafting a larger portrait of how these disparate vigilantes came together as the Minutemen. Using minor characters like Sally Jupiter's manager/husband Larry Schnexnayder, Cooke begins to connect the dots between the 'before' and the 'after' events of the Watchmen universe. The book ends with the reveal of Nelson Gardner (aka Captain Metropolis), the former marine who founded the Minutemen. Like many of the minor characters from Watchmen, very little is known about Captain Metropolis and what little we can piece together of his background is mostly speculative. It's exciting to watch how Cooke weaves together all these characters, incorporating the history of Watchmen while setting future events in motion. But the first issue gives little indication on what kind of story Minutemen will tell. Will it be a retro action book? Will it flash forward to Hollis and Sally Jupiter's involvement in Watchmen's main story, or will it stay in the 1940s? I could even envision different issues having a different narrator. Whatever the future holds for the 'Before Watchmen' Minutemen series, I know I'm in good hands with Darwyn Cooke, and  that at the very least, each new issue will deliver the gorgeous, detailed artwork and lovingly crafted characterizations that are the Cooke's signature. 

Silk Spectre #1 by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

Silk Spectre is the hardest damned Watchmen character to write for, and just as hard to defend. Both Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre I) and her daughter Laurie (Silk Spectre II) are burdened with being the only female characters of much importance in the Watchmen universe, and are therefore saddled with every expectation of women, ever. It was Alan Moore's intention to use Silk Spectre(s) to investigate, comment upon, and ultimately critique the issues surrounding female superheroes (their intense sexualization and fetishization for male audiences); but like most minority representations, those stereotypes were also enforced.

And, so, with all this baggage, I was still excited by the prospect of a Silk Spectre book drawn by Amanda Connor (goddess of lady superheroes and all around incredible artist) and written by my fav Darwyn Cooke, who's partly my fav because he's generally pretty fair-minded when it comes to giving female characters some depth and integrity.

But we seem to run into some issues right away because Watchmen already covers the time when Laurie is very young. How much 'Before Watchmen' could there possibly be? As a second generation superhero, Laurie was born into the business; in fact, her whole life is defined by Watchmen. Is it actually possible to sincerely explore her other facets without totally re-writing the character? After reading Silk Spectre #1, I still have my doubts. 

The story takes place in 1966, when Laurie is sixteen (the same age she was when she started dating Dr. Manhattan). It primarily concerns (and stop me if you've heard this one before) her strained relationship with Sally as mother/sensei/best friend/public embarrassment, her burgeoning attraction to A Cute Boy, and The Mean Popular Pretty Girls at school who are all about slut-shaming and being catty about Sally Jupiter's rather scandalous superhero past. The latter issue is the one I found most interesting because, really, being a teenager with an overbearing mom is enough without that mom having been the spread-eagled subject of a Tijuana Bible.

As much as Cooke's writing succeeds in capturing some of the genuine naivete and insecurities of teenage life, it's Amanda Conner's art that really makes this book. I especially loved the little fantasy inserts of Laurie's inner-thoughts (a compliment from her crush rings wedding bells and a tift with her mother conjures hellish caricatures). There are also many mirrored images of Laurie and Sally that visually signify their co-dependent yet adversarial relationship, and also serve as references to Dave Gibbons' constantly referential and recursive artwork in Watchmen. Silk Spectre #1 carries over the snow globe symbolism in Watchmen to this book, and all of the other visual in-jokes (Sally and Laurie both checking themselves out in the mirror, both dissatisfied by what they see) are excellent touches. Perhaps the greatest of these are two panels that reference key events in Laurie's life and in the Watchmen series as a whole: after sparring with her mother, Laurie is seen in close-up with a trickle of blood spilling from her nose; after receiving a chaste kiss from A Cute Boy, Laurie imagines herself jumping for joy on the moon. Oh, if only she knew how that one turned out.


As an interesting footnote: of all three 'Before Watchmen' books released so far, Silk Spectre #1 is the only one to stick to Watchmen's rigorous nine-panel format (see above). Even though the story of Silk Spectre #1 is one of teen angst, infatuation and rebellion (in Connor's signature expressive, cartoony style), in terms of how the panels look on the page (and within the individual panels themselves), this is the closest the 'Before Watchmen' comes to actually looking like Watchmen.

The story proper wraps up with Laurie running away with A Cute Boy and, since this is 1966, hitchhiking with some hippies to San Francisco. This seems like a cop-out. Hippies? Please. But maybe this title will take us to some weird and unexpected places. Will everyone's favorite hashish-tripping, vision quest-taking, vegetarian, utopian fascist Adrian Veidt show up? Fingers crossed.

Comedian #1 by Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones

Azzarello is no stranger to high-profile investigations of the psychotic mind (see: Joker), so when it was announced he'd be penning Comedian, I think everyone's reaction was kind of a collective, "Well, duh." Eddie Blake is the biggest bastard of the Watchmen universe (well, I guess that's debatable). At any rate, he is, to outward appearances, the most repugnant anti-hero, a ruthless sociopath who views the world as a sadistic joke. Fun times, kids! The Comedian made a career out of violence, working for whatever government would pay him to assassinate whatever political obstacles needed to be erased. 

It is this side of Eddie Blake--the political mercenary--that Azzarello focuses on in Comedian #1. The issue courts controversy immediately with a scene that sees a youthful Eddie playing football with Teddy and John F. Kennedy at Martha's Vineyard. Why controversy? Well, because in Watchmen it is heavily implied that The Comedian assassinated JFK (the film version goes so far as to depict it). With this in mind, Azzarello spends the entire book toying with our expectations and preconceived notions of Blake's involvement, his political convictions, and even his influence in the U.S. government. 

Blake is all about machismo, gun-toting terror and skull-crushing thuggery. He fancies himself the big man on campus, and when that illusion is shattered, The Comedian's tearful disillusionment triggers Watchmen's famous first scene: the assassination of Edward Blake. Whereas Watchmen can, in some ways, be boiled down to a 'Who killed Eddie Blake?' murder mystery, 'Before Watchmen' seems to hint at an earlier moment of The Comedian's self-doubt. 

There is a lot of cool, alternative history going on in Comedian #1 (as there should be in the Watchmen universe), but I wonder if Azzarello isn't taking things a bit too far too early. Without giving everything away, at the end of this issue, Blake finds himself a pawn in a much larger game. It stuns him and leaves him wondering 'what next?' The last five pages of the book are absolutely haunting, giving us Blake as helpless bystander; we watch him watching a horrific historical event, instead of enacting one.  Something about that passivity is deeply disturbing. I don't know if this series will offer up a more empathetic Comedian (I sincerely hope not; Blake is a grade-A son of a bitch and I'd hate to see that image softened), but it does seem to hint at a more vulnerable one. 

J.G. Jones is is the artist for this series, and though I always like to see Azzarello commune with his go-to guy Eduardo Risso, I'm glad Jones was chosen for this project. Risso's art, all deep blacks and scratchy pencils, is often a paean to aestheticized ugliness, but in delving into Eddie Blake's history, I feel like we're drudging up enough ugliness already. Jones has a clean, realistic style (his Kennedy boys are dead-ringers) that lends the book a grounding in historical reality, even while writing concocts layer upon layer of metafiction. The tension between the storytelling and the art is something I really look forward to in future issues. 

June 25, 2012

Look East Film Festival: A BITTERSWEET LIFE

How can you not want to go to a film festival with kimchi on the poster?

Day 1: The Films

"You can do a hundred things right, but it only takes one mistake to destroy everything": Kim Ji-woon's A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005)

Kim Sun-woo (Byung Hun Lee) is the manager/house detective/enforcer for an upscale hotel managed by Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), a paranoid, ruthless and uncompromising gang boss. Sun-woo is an impeccably stylish killer who, when not cracking skulls, enjoys sipping espresso and wearing finely tailored suits. He doesn’t even get his hair mussed when beating down thugs.

In A Bittersweet Life, he’s like a Korean James Bond, all smooth moves and deadly precision. Part of this image is due to Byung Hun Lee’s absurd handsomeness; although a very accomplished actor, the fact that Lee is so good-looking seems impossible not to comment on. Lee joins fellow gorgeous actor Alain Delon in Le Samourai as an example of the passive, deadly, and doomed noir protagonist. But bad times are a-brewin’. When Kang suspects his young girlfriend Hee-soo is cheating on him, he assigns Sun-woon to watch her, report back his findings, and if need be, eliminate the girl and her lover.

It is exactly an old school film noir plot. The protagonist is trapped from the very beginning.

He also has to deal with a rival punk gang boss and his stupid fellow hotel enforcer Mun-suk. The truth is, although Sun-woo is powerful muscle, he’s a piss-poor detective. He has a short temper that erupts all too often; he can’t tail Hee-soo worth a dime (he sits in a car across from her hours for hours on end and doesn’t even duck when she looks his way); when he finally confronts Hee-soo and her male companion, all he has to do is ask her what their relationship is—maybe it’s all a misunderstanding? But he doesn’t do that. He lets his rage (and burgeoning lust for Hee-soo) get in the way.

Classic film noir sap, always fallin’ hard for the wrong dame. So Sun-woo lets Hee-soo and her lover go, double-crossing his boss and triggering a series of increasingly violent events. Sun-woo has some pretty explosive anger management issues he takes out on some rice rocket, drag-racing punks. The man’s rage is furious and terrifying—and ultimately self-destructive. One moment of unadulterated badassery: the oly thing Sun-woo keeps in his trunk? A metal baseball bat.

When Mr. Kang returns, Sun-woo’s life begins to unravel. He gets beat up real good by some thugs working for another gangster who wears glasses and a bucket hat who I will dub Hat & Glasses for our nominal purposes here. What the hell does Hat & Glasses have against Sun-woo? In true film noir fashion, it seems he’s plunged headlong into a pile of shit and now everyone, enemies known and unknown, are out to get him.

Turns out Mr. Kang was behind it all. He knew Sun-woo lied about taking care of Hee-soo and her boyfriend and sets out to systematically dismantle his life by way of revenge.

They break his fingers and then bury him alive, which seems a little harsh to me.

The burial and resurrection sequence is a little bit of the good ol’ Korean ultraviolence: pure exploitation joy with intense camera zooms, jazzy, spaghetti Western-infused Spanish guitar cues, and exaggerated, kung-fu SFX with every punch and kick. Of course, our hero escapes. This bravura sequence is the film’s most impressive, and its most disruptive. It’s a clear homage to Tarantinoesque excess. Director Kim Ji-woon has said A Bittersweet Life was heavily influenced by Kill Bill, an influence that is pervasively obvious throughout the film.

The burial scene marks the film’s high point, but everything after that gets a little fuzzy and unfocused. Characters disappear and reappear seemingly at random and it’s difficult to keep track of who is who and who is after what and why. For the first time, Kim includes some scenes of broad comedy and the film undergoes several quick mood changes, most of which didn’t work for me.

A Bittersweet Life does a total reversal: now it’s Sun-woo’s quest for revenge on Kang and all the people who betrayed him and ruined his life. The enforcer goes rogue, engaging in a series of double-cross deals with the Russians to acquire an arsenal of weapons and boatloads of cash to fuel his revenge fantasy.

One by one, Sun-woo tracks down his enemies and eliminates them. One of the most memorable tete-a-tetes takes place on an empty hockey rink. It’s scenes like these that remind us never to bring a knife to a gunfight; the image of blood pooling on ice has rarely been so beautiful.

In the final shootout, Kim borrows liberally from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (a man’s fingers are shot off, among other things). Sun-woo just decides to kill everybody, facing each set of opponents with a steely Mexican standoff and (apparently) unlimited ammo. In addition to Tarantino’s House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill, the finale also recalls the bloody, pyrotechnic excess of John Woo. He becomes the impossibly bullet-proof action hero cliches, surviving a headshot among several other traditionally life-ending injuries. We seem to be entering the realm of impossibility here; the violence is simply too extreme, too unbelievable.

Sun-woo’s final lines sum up the film perfectly: “This is too harsh.”

But then the final reversal…after Sun-woo apparently dies in the climactic shootout, last scene of the film flashes back to an opening scene of Sun-woo drinking espresso in the hotel bar. He gets up, looks at his image in the window and begins shadowboxing, enacting a fantasy version of himself as a deadly man of action. In reality, Sun-woo may have wholly crafted the events in the film in a daydream; the ending is open to interpretation. What is clear from the final image is that A Bittersweet Life is about a man fighting with and against himself in a struggle he’s fated to loose.

The film’s twist ending incorporates the film noir theme of the unreliable narrator in a really interesting, genre-bending way. A Bittersweet life is intensely melodramatic and sentimental, but also abrupt and savage in its depiction of violence. Like Kill Bill, it’s a revenge picture, but unlike Tarantino’s constructed alternate reality, Kim’s film acknowledges the impossibility of that kind of stylized violence existing in any kind of recognizable, contemporary reality. In reciting a Buddhist parable, Sun-woo admits his own flaws and the necessity of fantasy in achieving his ideal self:
One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, "Did you have a nightmare?" "No." "Did you have a sad dream?" "No," said the disciple. "I had a sweet dream." "Then why are you crying so sadly?" The disciple wiped his tears away and quietly answered, "Because the dream I had can't come true." 

And isn’t that true of cinema itself? Kim Ji-woon has made a film that exploits the fantastic nature of fantasy itself, and gives us a comment on our own enjoyment in ultraviolent revenge films.
In a Q&A after the film, Kim described his ambition to film an “artistic description of destruction” via the figure of the lonely male protagonist in the big city (a la Taxi DriverLe Samourai, and many films noir). He certainly succeeded in bringing that wounded, lonely archetype to 21st c. life.

June 20, 2012

What did you learn in film school today, dear?

Last night on Twitter, I got into it a little bit about what constitutes a "classic film." What a boring, old argument, I know. But I was in a bit of a mood, feeling defensive, and so I snapped up the bait. I was on team "there is no old or new cinema, only CINEMAH!" Which is just about the most earnestly embarrassing naive expression of Youth with a capital Y that there could possibly be (and the kind of idealized utopianism that only proves the oft-argued opinion of older film critics that them kids just don't know what they're takin' about because they haven't lived yet).

Well, excuse me for being young. I can't argue with you there. Older people have had more time to learn things, it's true! I can't fight math (though Lord knows I've tried). But I'm 24 and Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 25, so cut me some slack here.

But I couldn't stop thinking how you could actually categorize a "classic" film. How could I prove my point that there can be classics from any era? Well, I crawled back into the corner of my mind where I keep my "What I learned in film school" folder and dug up some terminology that sort of helped me with my book-learnin'. So, here, I gift to you, gratis, some BS film stuff I spent four years and $40, 000 to learn.

1895--1910 Early cinema

I think it's crucial that there be a division within "silent film." The Great Train Robbery is not the same as Metropolis, and there are more consideration than merely having or not having sound. Even that distinction is blurred by films with post-synchronized dialogue or companion sound tracks or sound effects (eg. Wings, Sunrise).

I've made 1910 the cut-off for "Early Cinema" for one reason: D.W. Griffith. In 1910, Griffith shot the first film in Hollywood, In Old California, with his Biograph players (including future multi-era Hollywood superstars Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford). As Jesus Christ is to Christianity, American cinema history can be measured pre-and post-D.W. Griffith; and the man is just as controversial. Griffith established the basics of the cinematic visual language in American film (which dominated the Western world to the point of saturation and only became challenged critically during the New Wave movements of the late '50s/early '60s; Asian cinema is a whole 'nother story). But what of the other apostles: Alice Guy-Blanche, Oscar Micheaux, or the future studio moguls who started out as business men and merged with creatives out of economic necessity?

There are simply too many pioneers to mention; this era is like the cinema gold rush: everybody was doing everything and taking credit for it. As anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that just watching films from 1903--1909, you "feel" a difference. Narratives are less consistent, editing techniques we've come to take for granted (shot/reverse/shot, parallel editing, variation in camera position) are not always present. Post-1910, you have the rise of "the star" as a market force, which helps to define studios, normalize exhibition patterns, and shape the kinds of stories that are being told (which in turn standardizes the length of films, as well as their framing--the history of "the star" and the close-up are inextricably linked).

1910--1928 The Silent Era

Here we enter what most people think of when they think of "silent films." All the pioneers are present and accounted for (Griffith), and many figures that will later dominate The Sound Era are cutting their teeth (Hitchcock, Lang, Wellman). Good ol' Allan Dwan began shooting pictures in 1911 and didn't stop until 1961.

This is the period where narratives become more standardized, genres become more defined, and like I said earlier, it's all about MOVIE STARS. The Silent Era is most prominently divided by the First World War, a profound cultural event that impacted the stories that would be told after the conflict, as well as brought European talent to Hollywood and contributed to the diversity of American film and its transcontinental proliferation and dominance.

The 1928 end date is a bit iffy because, of course, The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927. However, it wasn't until very late in 1928 that most studios begin releasing sound pictures. This was a very hectic period for Hollywood, with studios re-shooting their in-production silents for sound, re-casting actors or training old ones in how to speak and move on camera and a bevy of other transitional chaos. It is worth noting that 1926/1927/1928 is generally considered the apex of the silent film form in America (and when you look at comparable European films in 1929/1930, I believe the late '20s were the absolute height of the form). Of course, we'll never know, will we? Only Chaplin continued making silent masterpieces, and maybe only he could have. The silent film form is still viable, still alive and energetic, but now sadly, irrevocably just another "quirk" in the arsenal of filmic grammar.

1928--1968 The Sound Era

Within what we can loosely "The Sound Era," from the beginnings of synchronized sound in studio feature films to the dissolution of the Hays Code and implementation of the MPAA ratings system in 1968, there are several distinctive sub-categories. The most significant of these, at least to the TCM audience, is what is commonly known as Classical Hollywood Cinema, aka what most people think of when they think of "classics." I would date Classical Hollywood Cinema from 1934 (enforcement of the Hays Code) to about 1959 (I agree with Robert Osborne on this one).

As you can see, this leaves some "in-between" periods; I like to think of 1928--1934 and 1959--1968 as liminal periods in American film history. When you think about it, these were periods of great upheaval and transitional change for the country at large, so why not for cinema as well? Both of these liminal periods feature great change within the studio system, the restructuring of stardom (eg. silent film stars fading, or television stars rising/crossing over to features), and experimentation of the film form. Perhaps most notably, both periods gave rise to certain rebellious behaviors. The early '30s are well-known as the "Pre-Code" era, where racy subject matter was celebrated and sex and violence reigned. The same kind of moral flexibility is evident in the '60s, a period in American cinema where the old guard collided with new sensibilities, sometimes creating awkward Frankenstein hybrids, sometimes creating unique masterpieces.

I may be a bit biased because the 1960s happen to hold a special place in my heart, but the more I see from this decade, the more I'm intrigued by this often unwieldy collision of old and new, of Jack Warner and Roger Corman, of roadshow fanfare and midnight movie madness. I would argue that any "liminal" period in film history is worth investigating, and because of its unique hybridity, often more rewarding than the stalwart classics in any era.

1968--1982 New Hollywood

Bonnie and Clyde is generally cited as the shot heard 'round the world. What shocking violence! That was 1967 and a year later, Jack Valenti et al shuffled through the Scrabble letters and came up with the (seemingly eternal, always frustrating) ratings system.

New Hollywood is basically the moment when the monkeys took over the zoo. It was the first era in American cinema where the preeminent directors were film school educated. Unlike guys like Allan Dwan, who came to Hollywood before the rest of the country even knew the name, and then worked as literally everything, from mechanic to actor to stuntman to gaffer to director, guys like Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese emerged from the film culture that was equal parts academic (NYU, UCLA) and practical ("interning" with Roger Corman, etc). Part of this change was mandated by the dissolution of the studio system, some of it stemmed from changing tastes, and a large part was due to the proliferation of the auteur theory as a viable artistic career goal. For the first time since Early Cinema, individualization trumped studio recognition; the draw was the director's singular vision, not the story, not the stars, and certainly not the studio.

Importantly, the New Hollywood directors were profoundly influenced by the international New Wave moment that gripping France, Japan, Italy, Sweden, etc. Woody Allen strove to create Bergman pictures while Bergman was still directing; Scorsese was influenced by Fellini, Lucas by Kurosawa, and because the old masters were still active, these influences were all mashed up together. The old and new entered into a continuum; the influences and the influenced became harder to disentangle. Everything became more referential. Suddenly, decades of lofty FILM HISTORY weighed heavily on creator and viewer alike.

The genre experimentation that began in the late studio era found its logical expression in the era's extreme violence and Vietnam-era disillusionment. Guys like Sam Peckinpah, who began making Westerns with genre stalwarts like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (Ride the High Country) later exploded the very notion of classicism with films like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A similar mournful or elegiac tone permeated much of the films from this era; a co-mingling of post-Kennedy disenchantment and Nixonian paranoia prevailed.

This pessimism was somewhat mediated by the "invention" of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, generally credited to Jaws in 1975. Think: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The blockbuster era also ushered in an era of cross-promotion, of theme park rides, merchandising potentialities, sequels, prequels and spinoffs. In an effort to maximize profits, films were no longer "films" (that is, singular entities with a life contained in its run-time), but "properties" belonging to multi-national corporations who may mine them for revenue, in perpetuity, amen.

The death of New Hollywood came after a series of big budget flops. Everyone was trying to make another Star Wars while retaining a semblage of auteuristic control. High profile failures by previously commercial directors (Michael Cimino's Heavens Gate in 1980 and Coppola's One from the Heart in 1982) effectively decimated Hollywood's tenuous relationship with the expensive idealism of the "Movie Brats."

1982--present??? The What-The-Hell-Do-We-Call-This-Now Era

What factors define the "Modern Era" of American film? 

The rise of computer graphics, video tape, DVD, digital projection; struggles with postfeminism, queer identity, race and gender; the rise of independent cinema; the ascendency and domination of the multiplex; the "threat" to the multiplex as posed by ever-multiplying home viewing options; internet piracy; skyrocketing production costs and the importance of overseas box office; post-modern conceptions of temporality and globalism...I think the list could go on and on. And that's just Hollywood.

The year is 2012. Are we in an essentially different era of American film than people in 1986? In 1994? Even, in 2001? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I don't have an answer. I have a lot of ideas on where we could divvy up this thirty year block. Perhaps in 1998, which introduced us to the wonderful world of DVD? DVD offered greater resolution and data capacity than any previous home viewing format, so much so that it could replace film as a medium for exhibition. It extreme portability made the copying and sharing of movies infinitely easier, and, along with digital home video cameras, ushered us into to the DIY era of digital filmmaking, the exhilarating/terrifying/threatening/wonderful "anyone can make films" period of media saturation we still live in.

If we focus our attention on the margins of "film," that is, NOT the theatrical distribution and exhibition of Hollywood feature films, I believe we can most accurately pinpoint the distinctive features of the "Modern Era." It is not so much what's on the big screen, as the kinds of screen on which we're watching. Increased interactivity, the multiplication of viewing formats, and above all, the proliferation of CHOICE in our viewing habits, are are primary factors in establishing what makes our "Modern Era" different from eras past.

I don't believe it's so much the kinds of stories that have changed, but more importantly, the way we can tell the same old stories with new technologies and "see" them in new ways.

So, what's a classic again?

All this stupid definition of terms is hopefully toward a broader understanding of "classic." Classic is ephemeral, contestable, controversial, and constantly evolving. I like to think of the "classic" the same way I think of "genre:" it's a helpful terminology that allows us to group certain films together, separate others, and generally give us a way of seeing to make some organization out of chaos. It is NOT the be-all and end-all designation for certain films and it is not written in stone. There will always be liminal, marginal films that defy categorization or bridge many categories at once. Is there really a distinction between "classic" and "cult classic"? Or is such terminology only an attempt to separate what society has internalized as a high culture vs. low culture binary?

I think that by dividing film history into eras based on chronology (and setting the limits of those eras on concrete developments like technological innovations, industrial change, etc.), we can better understand what kind of films exemplify a certain era. Once we pinpoint the characteristic elements of a certain era, we can come to define which films represent classics from that era. Therefore, yes, you can have classic films from the 1930s, but also from the 1910s and the 2000s.

For some reason, we have, as a culture, adopted the "classic" terminology to refer to a fixed period in history. We are stubbornly enamored with "THE PAST." But to have a cut-off date for classic films? Absurd. And not only that, but genuinely ignorant and disrespectful of film history.

I know it's hard to cope with one national cinema, let alone many, but as a final mind-bender, consider the varying definitions of "classic" as they may apply to movies from other countries. While French New Wave and British New Wave are more likely to be given "classic" status in America (aka be shown on TCM) because of their eras (late 1950s--1960s), what about New Wave cinemas from Asian? The Korean New Wave began in the 1990s. Chinese cinema came to prominence in the West in the 1980s with the Fifth Generation filmmakers. But to what American or European critics might appear to be a "classic" example of Chinese filmmaking, might, to a scholar of Chinese cinema, be analogous to Hollywood's "Movie Brats." If you fix a rigid temporal restriction on film "classics," how does that apply to other cinematic cultures?


Like every good student of the Humanities, my conclusions are inconclusive. Sifting through the sands of film history, I can only glimpse at fragments. There is no complete picture and there should not be definitive definitions. We live in a continuum, constantly in communication with the past, the present, the future, with other media, with ourselves and our communities. I would humbly suggest that those who use "classics" for only films produced during the period of Classical Hollywood Cinema, reconsider and substitute that terminology (or, CHC for short). Because although the Golden Era of Hollywood represents the solidification--perhaps even perfection--of the American cinema style, it certainly does not hold exclusive rights to what makes a "classic."

June 18, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY (1972)

Frenzy is notable for its vivid sadism and (literally) naked violence. It announces in bold, bloody terms, "THIS IS HITCHCOCK. THIS IS THE '70S." Gone is the subtelty and suggestion of murders behind curtains. We are no longer looking at the act through windows--we are in the room, we are up close and personal. In many ways, we are murderer and victim, perpatrator and voyeur.

Hitchcock is like a giddy schoolboy in the ways he delights in showing us the gruesome details freed of Hollywood censorship. (Frenzy is Hitchcock's only rated 'R' picture.) The roughneck inhabitants of London's Convent Garden drink, smoke, curse, fuck and kill. Like Hitchcock's early British films, Frenzy is a return to the lower depths of humanity; there are no Hollywood stars in evening dress, no champagne to accompany sophisticated murder plots. The women in Frenzy are murdered without regard for cinematic beauty, utterly without decency. LIke a modern Jack the Ripper, the Necktie Murderer lays his victims out bare, like slabs of meat, their eyes bulging and tongues lolling horribly. 

Hitchcock's framing of these murders is never less than masterfully, but stripped of the master's usual finesse and painterly framing. We stay with the murderer and his prey, sometimes for several minutes of unbearable brutality. Hitchcock does not give us an out; he forces us to look at these deeds--at ourselves--at our breathless delight and grinning horror. Frenzy is HItchcock's ugliest film and his final masterpiece, a gruesome capstone to a fifty year career plumbing the depths of humanity's basest instincts.