Thursday, August 28, 2008

STL #76 Summer's End

I had thought of writing posts on both summer movies and summer reading, but since summer ended suddenly (it's the first full week of classes), I might not get to both. So instead I'll roll both into a cumbersome omnibus (cumnibus).

I. 3 Super Hero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight: 2008 will certainly mark the apex of the "comic book movie"--Wanted and the second Hell Boy movie also came out, and next year's Watchmen adaptation is provoking buzz and booksales with its trailer. Watchmen might well be the Heaven's Gate that ends the comic book (actually superhero) movie motherlode by exceeding its grasp, but this summer, the genre has offered a range of spectacle and even aesthetic satisfaction. Iron Man was maybe the most satisfying as spectacle--though I enjoyed the fun performances of Downey and Bridges (the Dude turns evil), what sticks with me is the coolness of armor. My favorite scene was an action set piece. Iron Man sets down in the middle of a hostage situation--terrorists have guns close on a number of innocents. We switch to the Iron Man internal display--like a high tech security camera, with digitized information of some sort floating around the figures of the scene. Abruptly, guns built into the armor pop up and take out the terrorists in one precise instant. As a display of technology and force, which is after all the appeal of this movie as a techno-thriller, it's pleasing in its mastery and abruptness. The situation goes from impossible to solved in the blink of an eye.

As spectacle, the Hulk movie leaves a lot to be desired. The animated title character is offensively fake--not that I want the 7 foot tall green monster to look "real," but I don't want it to look like a video game demo, which is what the last third of the movie is. I like the first third quite a bit. The backstory is dealt with quickly in an old fashioned montage of news reports and headlines, and the movie becomes a tense and human fugitive movie for a while. The Rio shanty town is a captivating setting, and Ed Norton's performance brings out the desperation and sorrow of his character, along with one unexpected joke, when he warms some bullies in his broken Portugese that they "wouldn't like him when he's... hungry."

The Dark Knight is really the one that demonstrates the potential of the super hero movie to succeed as a serious work. It's a probing psychological piece that transcends the apparent silliness of its costumed protagonist. He's simply a driven man with some unusual methods. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is of course getting a lot of attention, but it's well-deserved. While Nicholson's performance was also ballyhooed, the contrast between that and Ledger's reveals the ham-handed clumsiness that it is. Every choice Ledger makes is toward the understated. His Joker looks down at the ground, mumbles, demonstrates a deep protectiveness of his interiority. It's a shockingly good and immensely scary portrait of real evil. I'd like to watch it again, to think about how Bale's Batman follows and departs from this model. The Batman voice is extraordinarily grating on the ear, but I think that's the point--on one level it's a mask for hiding his identity, but on another it's his true mad and wounded self.

II. Summer Reading

I had some time for reading this summer, which is nice. I reacquainted myself with some of the sf/fantasy writers I liked in my early teens. I read books by Michael Moorcock, Urusla K. LeGuin, and Philip Jose Farmer. I read 2 of Moorcock's "Von Bek" books--The Warhound and the World's Pain (which I had read before) and City of the Autumn Stars (which I had not read). I liked the former--the protagonist and Lucifer were enjoyably presented, and the magical "Mittelmarch"--a counter-Europe hidden in strands across the continent--was a lot of fun too. One of the most provocative bits is a passing reference to an adventure in the alternate Europe where Carthage destroyed Rome and, centuries later, an order of Rabbinic Knights had arisen as a sort of counterpart to the Knights of Malta. The latter book didn't captured my fancy. It had more of Moorcock's multiverse philosophy of a strugle between order and chaos. Moorcock's ideas seem to have been vastly influential on Dungeons and Dragons, and is actually a simple but powerful tool for thinking about ethics, but can make for tedious writing. It's a problem in the Elric novels I also read through. I had fond memories of Elric, and while I still like the idea of the character--the effette end of a long line of emperors, a weak albino kept alive by drugs, spells, and an evil, soul-eating sword--the novels read little better than role-playing scenarios.

I'm unlikely to go back to Moorcock, but was very excited by Le Guin's work. I loved her Earthsea trilogy when I was younger, and while they hold up (I have two of the later second trilogy to read yet), I'm very excited by her science fiction. SF of the seventies, reflecting a range of foment from radical collectivism to libertarianism, produced some of my favorite genre novels. Her short stories that I read in The Wind's Twelve Quarters inspired me to read The Left Hand of Darkness and especially her anarchist novel The Dispossessed.

The seventies also produced Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld. The first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is short and readable, but the real triumph is, as so often in this genre, the idea. The entire population of the world's history is clustered near a river with no known beginning or end. Courageous individuals are able to navigate this river, though they don't know where they're going. This is really a lovely metaphor for the human condition, though I'm not sure if that's enough to keep me reading through three more novels.

So summer's over, like I said. I'm off today, trapped in the house by torrential rain. The last movie I saw was early Fall fare--Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. I'm reading Adam Bede. People are deceptive but not costumed. The have secret identities but are not heroes. They fight but with paltry power, with words and negligence, and not laser beams or swords. I guess I'm back in the real world now.