Thursday, July 06, 2006

Review: Superman and the Mythology of the American Hero

For the July 4th weekend I decided to see a prototypically American film: Superman. I didn't watch the new one but the older one with Christopher Reeve. This film, and the mythology underlying it, exhibit two related facets of American culture: secularist values and a uniquely American faith in law and order.

When Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed, "God is dead," he saw nihilism triumphing over all of Western culture and decadence ensuing. As the Western world became secularized a vacuum needed to be filled. Some turned to esoteric societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn, others tried to revive religion with fundamentalism, and some turned to Superman.

In the film Superman's mythology follows the broad outlines of ancient hero stories in various religions. He has a somewhat "miraculous" birth by being born on another planet. Like Moses he is allowed to drift away to be adopted by other parents to guide and protect him. He even has a period in his Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his powers and uniqueness. In a parallel fashion Jesus disappeared right before his ministry and Buddha had a period in the wilderness where he strove to find the "truth."

The makers of this film made this into an American hero story. He grows up in a town called Smallville which looks like it lies somewhere in the American Midwest. By the look of the students and the cars he seems to be in an idealized, Norman Rockwell-type of Fifties America. And when he gets to the big city, Metropolis, he is in an idealized New York City.

There are other ways Superman's story is uniquely American. He responds to Lois Lane that he fights for "truth, justice, and the American way." By "truth" he doesn't mean it in the dharma sense or as in philosophic truth, but more like the myth that George Washington never told a lie. And Superman's resolution of problems is not at all spiritual but a matter for the authorities to ultimately resolve. (He rounds up the criminals and sends them to jail). It is almost as if Superman is an ultra-cop.

The film does a good job of summing all this up into something very enjoyable. Without the use of computers they have very good effects--even for today's standards. And by focusing on the mythology and a ready-made story there's not much need to worry about the acting (even though there are some very good actors in here) or the script. The filmmakers relied on the look of the film and the actors and how well the story can be carried along by the mythology. It is a well made piece of American pop culture.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Malice and the Appeal of Sociopaths

I just finished watching Malice half-heartedly. I remember seeing this movie at the theater when it came out and being heavily disappointed. After seeing it today I remember why.

This movie could've been great. As the film begins it seems like Alec Baldwin's character is some immensely egotistic, tragic character out of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or Milton's Paradise Lost (Lucifer). And while watching the film I thought it was very appealing to see the development of a supremely arrogant character who sees himself as above everyone else. When he gives his speech proclaiming himself to be God, I secretly rooted for him. Just like Byron understood when creating his heroes, there are many of us who like attractive, charismatic, independent people with a supremely strong will.

But somewhere in the middle of the film, the story cheeses out and becomes a typical Hollywood thriller. It becomes a scheme for money with adultery and the usual backstabbing that has been going on in Hollywood thrillers since the days of film-noir. I lost all interest in the doctor's character and what I thought was the initial appeal completely vanished. I spent the rest of the film hoping Nicole Kidman would get naked.

Alec Baldwin's best talent is playing arrogant characters (and appearing on Saturday Night Live). The filmmakers chose a perfect actor for the doctor--then they wasted him. They give Alec Baldwin one very good speech but don't follow through. And even though this film is tolerable, I hate when I am given such high expectations and then completely disappointed.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Popeye" and Robert Altman

Apparently, Robert Altman will be given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars this year. I haven't seen all his films (it would probably take a few centuries), but I have seen a fair number of his more famous films. All in all I think Robert Altman deserves more than an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. He is truly one of the few directors who is willing to take risks and make films which many people may not like.

That said, I decided to rent one of his films the other night: Popeye. Popeye is probably one of the worst films I've ever seen. While watching it I kept thinking that this actually could be a good movie. There are many characteristics that would make it seem as if it might be a smashing success: lyrics by Harry Nilsson, elaborate sets, great actors (Robin Williams in the lead and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl), and a great director--Robert Altman. But I think that is the problem with this film.

Robert Altman's films tend to be meandering ensemble pieces with a very loose plot. Musicals, and especially musicals based on a comic-strip and cartoon character, don't seem to fit in well with loose plots. One of the big problems in Popeye was the fact that it is a musical, with very little musical direction. One of the things I liked about the recent musical of Chicago is how intrinsic the music is to the movie. I felt like it was an afterthought in this film and there was much time between the musical numbers. I thought the movie had changed for a second when there was too much silence.

The songs in the film are actually good. I thought many of them were charming. And Shelley Duvall's weird, whiny voice works perfectly for the songs she sings and for her character of Olive Oyl. And Robin Williams isn't too bad either when he sings his Popeye songs.

Plus, the two leads do very well as their characters. Robin Williams' mumbling throughout the film is a perfect mirror of the old Max Fleischer cartoons where Popeye always had some witty asides he would mumble in the background. And Shelley Duvall even mimics the cartoon Olive Oyl to the point of imitating her "hmmm"s after her statements.

The sets were elaborate. I like the colors in the film and the very good sense of an actual seaside village you get from the film.

The only thing I can think of that was really bad was Robert Altman. If he hadn't been the director this film might actually have worked.

To honor Robert Altman I suggest you go out and rent Nashville, M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, or The Player. But whatever you do, don't get Popeye. You'll be sorry.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Food Critics Corner: My Dinner Last Night

While at my apartment last night I was treated to a rather sumptuous meal. The chef, me, had prepared a simple, rustic pasta dish.

The penne pasta was whole-wheat which gave the dish a rather dark color. And the pasta was just slightly overcooked so not al-dente which is my preference. But the sauce was amazing and highly overcompensated for the slight weakness in the pasta itself. The red sauce was freshly made with chunks of whole tomatoes still scampering about. And just the slightest hints of onions peeped through. It was very hearty but amazingly sweet. One must compliment the chef for this minor miracle.

The entertainment was not too bad either. A re-run of Law & Order: SVU was showing. But that was bolstered by my very lovely company. All in all a good dinner.

I give it a 3 out of 4 possible stars.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I just finished Richard Dawkins' now classic The Blind Watchmaker. Not a bad book at all. But before I tell you about it I should provide some background.

I have a degree in English and American Literature and my minor was in History. In other words, I'm not great at science or math. But I've always been interested in some aspects of science and biology and evolution happen to be subjects I like. I'm not a complete moron when it comes to scientific subjects but I'm sure any 8th grade science geek could probably run rings around me.

Consequently, this book by Richard Dawkins is made for me. The way I understood it it was written with a general reader in mind. The book is well written and plausibly argued. And as long as you pay attention and follow the logic of the author's arguments it's not that hard to follow.

The basic premise of the book is to show how life could appear in the universe without a creator or any pre-conceived notion of design (the whole "Intelligent Design" argument now being debated across the U.S.). Dawkins obviously loves Darwin and bases his argument on cumulative evolution over billions of years (the age of the Earth [and please shut-up you stupid creationists trying to argue that the Earth is only 6,000 years old!]). Dawkins patiently explains how such a slow and random process like natural selection could evolve our life-forms over vast amounts of time. Like I said, I'm no great scientist, but the argument makes perfect sense and I still fail to see why anyone tries to argue otherwise (except, of course, for religious reasons, but those are very silly reasons).

Overall, this is a good way to try to understand evolution in more depth than the few words hopefully given to you in high school and college. There are a few parts which I found to be boring (like the taxonomy debates and different schools of thought in taxonomy) but I think this book is an important read--especially now that religious nuts are trying to dumb people down.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (or, My Attempt at a Movie Review)

Brokeback Mountain I would rate as a very good film. Apart from whatever political or social issues it raises, it is a good film.

Very simply, it is a love story. The film, in episodic fashion, captures the love affair between two men in Wyoming from the 1960s to the 1970s. Their meeting, the awkwardness of their initial feelings towards each other, their drifting apart and coming back together over the course of a lifetime is shown (for the most part) just as it should be in a love story--slowly, like melting butter.

But then of course there has to be complications in order to make drama. Considering who the characters are (two gay cowboys in Wyoming and Texas in the 1960s) it's not hard to see where the drama comes from. Of course the characters have to confront their own position in society. Plus they have to confront whatever ambiguous feelings they themselves might feel because of how they were brought up (which Heath Ledger does remarkably well). And, sadly, they have to confront their ruptured family lives, again because of who they are. The actors, in my opinion, did superb in capturing all that conflict.

One of the strengths in this film is the understatement. The time, the place, but most especially the characters are very muted. Heath Ledger is wonderful as a man struggling very hard (and winning) at trying to not allow the emotions to seep through. The kind of world they live in doesn't allow huge dramatics from anyone, least of all a couple of gay men. Consequently, much of the film has to work against itself by trying to make the drama as undramatic as they possibly can. There is much loss, anger, heartbreak, and sadness in this film--but very few "Oscar winning moments."

I think this film captures the best and the worst in all of us. It is amazing when feeling those initial slings of passion when we fall in love. It is degrading and dehumanizing when feeling the heartache and grief that can come from it. That is all here. And anyone who thinks this might be just some novelty because there are so few films with gay characters with such depth should watch this film. It is so much a story of our own fragile heart.

Master of Puppets by Metallica

(this is a blog entry from another blog of mine now defunct; originally posted 8/25/05)

Master of Puppets (1986)Produced by Metallica and Flemming Rassmussen

One of the best albums ever, in my opinion. This was Metallica when they started to take over the world.I first heard Master of Puppets shortly before the release of ...And Justice For All. A friend of mine loved Metallica and kept telling me to listen to them, but I wouldn't because another friend of mine who was a huge Iron Maiden fan told me they sucked. Eventually I gave in and borrowed a tape of Master of Puppets. I was amazed that something with that much power and heft was coming out of my cheap stereo. For the next two or three weeks I listened to it non-stop, very loud, over and over again. (My father was pissed!)

What struck me about Master of Puppets initially was how heavy and fast it sounded (at least back in 1988 or so when I heard it). The songs seemed very well-developed and not just a collection of melodies (they almost have a narrative drive behind them). And the lyrics were menacing. I loved it.

The work starts off with Battery, one of Metallica's best songs. There is an acoustic guitar which opens the song--kind of haunting--then the loud electric guitars kick off, picking up the same melody. The rest of the song is like a frenzy, with much power and rhythm.The next song is the classic title track. This is one of the songs on the album which seems to have a narrative drive. There is a purpose to the way the song is structured, with a definite opening, middle and end. The solo in the middle is quite lovely and the "cackles of the damned" at the end add a nice touch.Other songs of note: The Thing That Should Not Be has a very menacing, mesmerizing opening and H.P. Lovecraft-inspired lyrics; Disposable Heroes has a great, driving rhythm throughout the whole song--when you hear the song it feels like going to a war; Orion is a great instrumental with a nice little part by Cliff Burton (bass)--very moody song with a lot of different parts to it (I wish Metallica still did instrumentals); Damage, Inc. closes the album on yet another frenzied note, the song is harsh and ugly (I love it!).

Overall Master of Puppets has a sense of menace, madness, and "hell on earth." Plus it still is one of the heaviest albums I've ever heard.

Cover Art:The cover shows a military cemetery with a reddish sky in the background and giant hands in the sky playing with the puppet strings attached to the crosses on the graves. Very doom-laden cover. website Metallica Club--fan club website