Saturday, July 26, 2008

the joker=crazy delicious!

I used to collect X Men trading cards—it was THE thing to do in elementary school—and I followed all the comic book heroes on TV more or less, but Batman was my favourite. I absolutely loved Batman Begins for all the right reasons (the acting, the writing, the sets, the stunts, the whole frame of the moral and psychological underpinnings). But I also loved it for superficial or shall we shall subconscious reasons—you can read what I wrote about that in these entries. 1, 2

I was quite embarrassed to find that after watching the first film, much as I loved and still love Christian Bale, I really fell victim to absolute obsession with Cillian Murphy’s character Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow. Seeing as how was flooded with Cranefics, I surmised I wasn’t alone—but I did feel a bit ridiculous succumbing to such a weird obsession. (Hey, at least I never wrote any Red Eye fics.) So I did my self-indulgent thing and wrote my Cranefics, which, fair enough, are some of the most praised things I’ve ever done on (though it’s a bit like preaching to the choir). I guess the writing that came out of the obsession, as well as my discovering Cillian Murphy who is a great actor anyway, means the thing wasn’t wholly bad. So I was looking forward to seeing The Dark Knight and totally unconcerned that the same thing would happen again. Well. Read on.

I read a really excellent review of the film on Simon’s blog. He made an interesting point I wouldn’t even have thought about, and I’m usually the first one to blow the whistle about this: with the exception of Rachel Dawes, there are very few female characters in the film. While this would normally bother me, I believe my mind drew the parallels right away with Master and Commander, and the naval world of the early 19th century was, male dominated for obvious reasons. The Dark Knight doesn’t have that genre restrictive immunity, but like that film, it’s all about the violence and not about the sex. Which is an interesting concept in itself for a big blockbuster type movie.

I’ll try not to spoil things for you, but the film is even better than its predecessor, which was so well-made in my opinion (and critics and the public agreed). Though it does go on a bit and could use some tightening, the majority of it makes me green with envy as I wish I could write something that worked so well. It’s a wonderful lesson in how good drama works: a careful balance of rewarding the audience with what it expects and baffling it by pulling the rug out from under it. How do you open a movie? Like this one. I can just see the scenes on the screenplay flying by in my mind, how crisp, not a word wasted, all of it no doubt translating well into storyboards. It helps, of course, that Christopher Nolan writes AND directs, but so he should.

It does worry me a bit at how cool I found it, since it is a film about violence, some of it quite disturbing. But like its predecessor, that’s what makes it unique—the psychology of it gets under your skin as much as a slowly turning screw. The first film had a lot of setting up to do, focusing on the (reinvented) backstory and the iconography of a man who dresses up in black, wears a mask, and pretends to be a bat: to inspire and combat fear. The first film was about fear. That’s why Scarecrow made such a good villain. The second film is similar but it makes much out of chaos and why THAT scares us more than anything. The ancient order in the first film responsible, so they said, for the fall of Rome and the Black Death, operated somewhat similarly, but their long term goal (I think) was to preserve humanity, or at least the best specimens of humanity. The Joker here, as he explains, is a free agent who likes to introduce a wrench into people’s notions of safety, just for fun. If he has another motive, it isn’t explained—which seriously freaks Batman/Bruce out. (After all, his parents’ death was senseless but the rationale was robbery to feed a homeless man.) “I’m a like a dog chasing cars,” says the Joker. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I got my hands on one, but that’s what I do.”

I think the film is really intelligent, despite all the explosions. Gotham DA Harvey Dent (whose end fans will see coming and will find him the more poignant for it) notes that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. The Joker also brings up the fact that no one is bothered when a gangbanger dies or troops get blown up in Iraq, it’s the unexpected deaths that get our attention (though one could argue back to him that our brains are limited in their comprehension of death as a finite concept, so to focus on every single death in our lives would cause us to self-destruct).

With the Joker and Harvey Dent both having significant roles in this story, Batman/Bruce takes something of a back seat, though I suppose you could compare it to Captain Jack’s reticence in the first series of Torchwood. If the movie was three hours long, perhaps there would have been more Bruce time, but I think in general it succeeded in cramming all the incidental characters in. Including the absolutely fabulous Gary Oldman as Gordon (and man, there is a huge shock in store for you but I won’t spoil it!). While I think Rachel Dawes is brave, she doesn’t seem particularly fleshed out in the film. Much to my delight, Cillian is back for a short cameo as the Scarecrow—though not nearly enough for the rabid fan in me. Doctor Who fans will be pleased to note that Eric Roberts plays a mob boss. Michael Caine is ever dependable, and there’s a pretty impressive sequence in Hong Kong.

In watching the film, I got to wondering how the Doctor would react if placed in the Gotham City environment. There’s so much violence and bloodshed and a very different mentality from even the present Doctor’s darkest outings. Can you imagine putting the Doctor and the Joker in a locked room together for an hour? The Doctor shares with Batman the penance of working for the greater good while always having to make sacrifices. Though the Doctor might not approve of Bruce’s violent methods, I think he would understand his ideals.

The Joker’s insanity, on the other hand, made me think briefly of Erik the Phantom in the book. If you read the Kay version, Erik’s madness is at least partially caused by morphine overdose, but both versions seem to present a man who has absolutely gone off the deep end. So the performance aspects were similar. However, Erik always had a motive, at least I think: he loved Christine and wanted her. The Joker had no such motive. But that brings to mind another literary parallel, a bit more far-fetched, admittedly: Milton’s Satan. Why does he fall? Why does he leave Heaven for Hell and Pandemonium (Milton’s word, by the way; pan= all + demons)? Greed? Jealousy? Or just spite? Because Milton’s Satan has always been accused of being seductive to the reader, especially in light of the rather insipid portraits Milton (deliberately) gives us of God the Father and God the Son, and because Blake actually thought Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost, he does tend to both repel and attract the reader at the same time. Which is how I felt about the Joker. He was easily the funniest character in the film, but the laughter in the theatre was uncertain, self-conscious. He was like a train wreck: you couldn’t bring yourself to look away.

There is such hype over Heath Ledger’s performance I didn’t want to blindly follow any lemmings off a cliff, but I literally haven’t been able to think about anything else. I feel a bit tainted, as the whole media fixation reeks a bit of dragging out the dead to entertain us, making us no better than our Roman gladiatorial forebears. For James Dean at this point, it’s not only acceptable but considered good taste. But this—my mind says it’s weird and morbid. I knew the first place to turn was to see if I’d gauged the general mood of teeny bopper fandom correctly. And I had. There were over 500 Batman-related pieces of fan fic. And the truth is, these are mostly girls my age and younger, who intellectually or otherwise are getting off on a fictional character who cuts people up with knives and who is, to put it mildly, a psychopath! So was Erik, so was Heathcliff. I’m attracted and I’m repelled.

The thing about the Batman stories are that all the characters are very twisted, angsty and torn. These aren’t sunbeam superheroes. True, there is a trend to try to justify all the villains in the movies by making them victims of childhood trauma, etc., which, ha, I myself emulated in my Cranefics. The Dark Knight acknowledges and makes fun of this tendency by making the Joker a completely unreliable narrator. “Do you wanna know how I got my scars?” And he has a different story for every mood. I sometimes worry that because I’m a “nice” person I lack the psychological depth to write really interesting characters that don’t end up being a projection of myself. I have a hard time writing characters who act contrary to what I would myself do, or, harder still, writing characters who break all the rules. So, if nothing else, I can try to emulate the film in that respect.

Okay, I think I’ve written enough. The title is from a review of a fic on

Should you be interested:
Cold Shower
The Pajama Game

Monday, July 7, 2008

misery and alligators

Got my summer issue of Missouri Review and my compensation for entering the Alligator Juniper contest. I must have thumbed through issues of AJ before as its approach is similar to Scribendi. One difference is that we had color and they didn’t. Another is that we published WRHC students, they publish anyone. Another is that Scribendi normally has no theme; AJ seems definitely tipped toward the Southwest. All of which is fine; what I found terribly distracting was the poor copyediting. I found 21 errors in one prose piece alone.

Nevertheless, there are some good pieces. I wasn’t struck by any of the poetry except “Baghdad Equinox” by Lauren Eggert-Crowe. The National Winner for fiction is Matt Mendez’ “Airman,” and it’s an honor richly deserved. I wonder if this is the same Matt Mendez whose poetry class I shared, who had a spike through his ear? He was a good poet and a good writer, that Matt Mendez. This one writes a fascinating and visceral epistolary story set in Iraq in 2003. Its characters and situation are convincing, and it’s poignant and gets under your skin. If “Airman” can invoke New Mexico as a remembered place in a soldier’s memory, “The Last Day of the Boon” by Justin St. Germain is a skilled counterpart for Arizona, specifically the town of Tombstone, which it captures with weariness and satire. The sense of place in this story was great, but it petered out (as many stories do) into something unresolved.

I really enjoyed Robert Schirmer’s “Levitate,” a magical realist-cum-coming of age story. “MasterBlaster” by Richard K. Weems had great ingenuity combined with sardonic, post-apocalyptic skewering. The story, of two young lesbians sleeping rough and avoiding being beat up, raped, and starved, is unique, and the point of view told totally convincingly. Brad Crutchfield attempts a similar transference from his persona of Black male to that of a young white girl in “Monkeys,” though less successfully. The story has aspirations to Robert Penn Warren, but suffers from the same petering out as the St Germain story. Just when I was convinced the collection was all about the gritty now, the oddball of the bunch, “The Fit of Gloves” by Maija Stromberg, takes us back to the 1950s. It reminds me of “Kind” from the Winter 2007 issue of Missouri Review in tone and setting, and the conceit—a woman who fits gloves at a department store—is a good one. Yet, like several of the stories, I don’t feel it fulfills its potential.

One problem is that the essay entries were not well distinguished from the fiction, and in all the essays—“A Prayer for Earl,” “Other Dead People,” and “With Love and Careful Scrutiny”—I was halfway through before realizing I wasn’t reading fiction. This may not seem important, but it is to me, at least. For example, in “A Prayer for Earl,” I was going to excuse the somewhat awkward narration as the voice of a “lady preacher,” but find it hard to come to terms with since the narrative is real. “Other Dead People” fortunately works beautifully as either fiction or memoir, with Deborah Thompson’s lyricism over the death of her life-partner Rajiv coming off as inspiring and authentic. I would have been really impressed if Joshua Leavitt had invented the character of Vanessa in “With Love and Careful Scrutiny”—even so, the memoir is well-written.

The National Winner, “River Voices,” rather bored me, to be honest. No doubt “Elegant Universe” won the student award because of its unconventional approach to memoir—detachment and referring to oneself in the third person. Nevertheless, one of the characters has a sister named Tegan after the character in Doctor Who (it even says so in the text) so that inadvertently amused me. “Separation Anxiety” by Lisbeth Davidow is a more conventional approach to memoir, but I believe it’s what the memoir is really about. There’s death of some kind in all of these pieces, but in Davidow’s, it’s up-close and for me at the moment, very relevant. It’s the death of the author’s mother at 94, moved from home to hospital to rehab, much in the cycle my own grandmother is going through. And like my grandmother, Davidow’s mother is needy for attention from her children, equal parts guilt and affection. The maturity and the blend of objectivity and emotion in the memoir are accomplished.

At the end were some twenty pages on genre blur that made me more angry that I hadn’t submitted to that than anything else. Of these, I like Julie Marie Wade’s “Layover” the best—a sort of prose/list poem that jumps everywhere with Mozartian energy.

In the Summer 2008 issue of Missouri Review, I find less to like than in the previous edition, but still a strong outing (and one typo). The cartoons are still unfunny, I find. A long excerpt from James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin reminded me of many people I knew, (Amaris, Greg Martin, Heidi, the memoir about the man who lived alone in Alaska for a year, O Brother Where Art Thou) even though I’ve never even been to West Virginia. It’s strange, there’s no doubt about it, but compelling and certainly made me want to read the whole book about Rice Moore’s adventures with bear hunting in the woods of Virginia. I think Mathew Chacko aims to make Mr. Ninan in “Ivy: A Love Story” sympathetic despite his obvious faults much as Monica Ali does in Brick Lane to her protagonist’s husband. He mostly succeeds, and the story is wonderfully real in terms of atmosphere. I do feel a bit cheated by an ending that’s as meandering as its drunkard anti-hero.

John J. Stazinksi’s “Lessons in Amateur Stalking” is difficult to put down, and the situation is something right out of the movies: Stazinski’s widowed mother was killed when he was 18 by a “shirtless teenager.” Later in life, as he still attempts to comes to grips with the loss, he begins stalking the now-grow-up killer. It’s effective because it both explains and implicates us in the guilty pleasures of his obsession. The ending is one no Hollywood movie could predict, and for that it’s a wonderful revelation to look at life—how it really is. I think David McGlynn’s “Hydrophobia” is having a crisis of existence: it purports to be about fear of a house being consumed by damp in Wisconsin whereas it’s actually about the birth of a chromosomally-complicated child. I know it should be ironic to hinge on such counterpoints, but I don’t think it does that effectively. As two separate memoirs, it would be fine.

I wasn’t really moved by any of the poetry by Scott Coffel, Paisley Rekdal, or Rebekah Remington. There’s an interesting, but short, article on designer/artist Norman Bel Geddes which proves he obviously deserves closer attention. Stuart Dybek is sadly an author I had not heard of before, but the interview here proves he is another highly intellectual author. His reflections—and weariness, really—on genre-blurring make a nice counterpoint to that section in AJ. One imagines his rough stories about southside Chicago wouldn’t be out of place in AJ either. It’s important that he mentions the “fake” memoirs by the likes of James Frey, as Michael Cohen mentions that infamous name, too, in “Agonists of the Contemporary Memoir,” a fascinating article. He begins with historical precedents like Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, and Thomas DeQuincey and moves from these (all male) writers to contemporary “agonists” like Caroline Knapp, Marjorie Williams, Andre Dubus, Joan Didion, and Nancy Mairs (mostly females). It’s a fascinating genre, and I think Mairs hits the nail on the head when she says the readers of these works “puzzle” her. Is it all about feeling the relief that our lives aren’t as screwed up as these people’s? There must be more to it. Equally, is it just catharsis for the writers to write about what pains them, thus recalling all the pain a second time and categorizing it? Or is it suffering through suffering, as C.S. Lewis maintains? The only writer missing from this collection, in my opinion, is the author of Autobiography of a Face, whose haunting lifelong experience with a facial deformity displays the full range of human suffering, and the need for a writer to exploit it somehow, to make life bearable.

I’ve just sent off a check for a year subscription to Poets and Writers, too. Heaven help me.