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Archive for June, 2010

“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 21, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Book: Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Boland and coloured by John Higgins.

Movie: The Dark Knight (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaon Eckhart and Gary Oldman

I’ve liked as well as disliked The Dark Knight for various reasons, chief among them (for both sides) being that it never seemed to be clear on its own morality. Today, however, I may have come across the thing to perfectly demolish any hopes that movie ever had of coming over once and for all to my good side, something that may well mean that that movie will remain eternally in my disdain, and that thing, dear reader, is this:

That, dear sirs and madams, is a page from Alan Moore’s scary twenty two-year-old Batman: The Killing Joke. And, having read it only once, I feel convinced that this is the Batman interpretation. Why? Well, the reasons are various, and convoluted.

So, in keeping with the form the reasons have taken, let me start at the second act: for me, the strongest moment in The Dark Knight was this one:

Filched from Jim Emerson's site

No, it wasn’t because the Joker was enjoying himself. Let’s zoom in:

Yes, we must all stare at the arm, for it is the arm wherein lies the ultimate difference between comic and film.

And like all ultimate differences, it only bears mention for one reason, that it is this difference when looked at hard enough and from the right angle that gives way to the ultimate similarity between the two works of art.

Yes, ultimate similarity, for book and film – though neither is rehash of the other – are the same work of art. Or, rather, they are the product of the same vision. Not just a fuzzily similar sort of vision, but the exact same vision.

Okay, now the first act; let us go back to the remote days of childhood, days of darkness in which the only reason I took recourse to art was because I was bored, having no idea, no conception even of what was to come ahead. It was then that I first encountered the Joker, on TV, a white-coloured man with green hair wearing a purple suit. Funnily enough, I never remember having laughed at him, or having been scared of him; like most lasting memories from my childhood, I barely gave him a thought back then.

But, now I realise, I must always have had a morbid fascination with him, for how else would he be so much clearer in my head than other cartoon characters I spent infinitely more hours watching? Back then, I didn’t know the word, but in retrospect I can say that the characteristic of this apparition was that he was gaunt. And I mean Gaunt, like an anthropomorphic personification of the characteristic.

The reason he was like that, dear reader, is because he was designed that way. He was an evil maniac or whatever, but if Batman’s hand got to him, we knew it was over. Later, much later, as I would be going through my revival in comics, I understood that he needed this weakness; without it, he was too strong. I also understood that the gloomy environs were nothing more than a literalisation of the Batman’s innards.

I also understood that a superhero comic wasn’t just any old story, it was a mythos, a mythology endlessly told and retold, each time by a different fool, each time suffering from a newly thought up neurosis, what some would like to call a zeitgeist, if a zeitgeist could exist on a personal level.

See, we’ve been in the third act for a while now, for the third act is my return to comics, in June 2010.

And it is in this third act that I’ve suddenly come across a flush of some of the best novels I’ve ever read: a rediscovery of the beautiful intricacies of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a surreptitiously acquired second-hand copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, being so profoundly disturbed that I was punching the side of a bus for an hour after reading Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, and now… today! Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke.

Every interpretation I’ve ever seen of Batman has used the city to reflect the insides of Batman, and the Joker has always been this Gaunt Menace (another thing he’s the anthropomorphic personification of). Twenty two years ago, a man called Alan Moore, the very man who brought superhero graphic fiction to some iota of respectability with his seminal 1986 novel Watchmen, sought to re-imagine that trope, and in doing so bring to the forefront a few relationship dynamics that had always been simmering beneath the surface. Two years ago, an admittedly talented filmmaker and his brother re-imagined the same trope, and made the same statement with it, and were hailed as progressive genii for it.

Well, I don’t particularly mind the wrong person being hailed as the progressive – for it is a fact that it is the second much more often than the first to conquer new territory who is so hailed – and that’s without even taking into account the fact that he brought back vitality to a flagging yet unassailable genre in his industry.

No. What I really mind is that the hailed progressive was not a fraction of the real one.

See, both of them started with the same basic idea, however they may have framed it: what will happen if we give the Joker more power? Interestingly enough, both made exactly two major changes to the landscape of Batman.

The Nolan brothers, first they made the Joker a bulky, superhumanly strong nut job with big, beefy arms. Then, they castrated Gotham, as fellow blogger Stephen Russell-Gebbett once so ably noted in passing (if you don’t believe me, count the number of scenes that happen in the day with insane amounts of almost blinding light).

The Moore man, first he gave the environs to the Joker (look at the colour combination on the above shown page), and then he made the Batman vulnerable (making for a truly heart-wrenching climax).

See, both explore the same idea: that Batman and the Joker are aspects of each other. Yes, one does it in the world of allegory and one does it in the world of comics, but – as I’ve already said – comics are nothing but a mythos, an idealised, anthropomorphicised reflection of the real world; after the existence of The Killer Joke, The Dark Knight is no real achievement (except, and this bears repeating, in the particular cultural context in which it was made).

The Killer Joke has two sets, Arkham Asylum (which, I found out firsthand a couple of days ago, is named after something from H. P. Lovecraft’s world) and the Joker’s amusement park. These two sets, which appear the second after the first, are framed by the action of ripples, and the trickeristic play of light – deterministic, non-chaotic, yet unpredictable, action-consequence relations – and a joke, but there’s no use talking about that and spoiling it for you. The first humankind we see is the Joker’s hand… but it has spikes! The next panel reveals it to be a trick of the light on the Batman’s hand.

Arkham Asylum is the old comic-order, dark moody lighting. But lit by bright, harsh-bright, yellow. The amusement park is the same except there’s no shadow, and … details. This is a tableau infinitely more frightening in its dullest moment than anything the Nolanistic epic has to offer us, even including Heath Ledger dressed as a Joker dressed as a nurse throwing a tantrum that the bomb isn’t going off.

See, the problem with the film was that it gave its Joker physical strength, and a singular, expositioned motive; because, first of all, the Joker’s powers must lie in the mind, in the paraphernalia, in the visceral details that all but the Batman will miss, for otherwise he is a castrated Joker. Also, is there any villain more supple in nastiness than Iago, who has not one but three contradictory motives for being a bad guy, and is there anything more of an affront to the senses than a self-proclaimed Lord of Chaos? Assorted readers might think back to the sixth book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, whose eponymous Lord of Chaos proclaims himself so, but then they would be forgetting that that proclamation says as much about the character himself as it does about his position, unlike in the case of the Nolan’s Joker.

A castrated Batman, a castrated Joker… and you get a movie that is, even if well-directed, at its heart balless. And balless is one accusation that can never be laid at the feet of Alan Moore’s graphic novella.

In fact, it has, at its heart, one of the ballsiest movies ever made. Half an hour or so in length, it must be hand-animated, drawn by the same pair of Brian Boland and John Higgins who created the panorama that is this book, it must be in glorious 4:3 tall-screen, for this is the sort of paraphernalia that hangs over us, threatening to fell lest we do anything suspicious, the Joker ought to be played by the sort of voice we got to hear in those cartoons of yore, performed now without much laughing, the Batman performed by a Sylvester Stallone like voice except without the accent… and everything a but hurried, hiding away the secrets of the surroundings, exactly like in the book, in need of constant pausing so that it can only be truly enjoyed, again exactly like the book… and finally, sublimeness – even sublimation, if you should so wish – will be achieved.

Posted in Bolland, Brian (Illustrator), Book reviews, Books, Higgins, John (Colourist), Moore, Alan, Movie Reviews, Movies, Nolan, Christopher | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 13, 2010

Book CoverThe above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

First, it’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.

Second, there’s also a jab at hedonism in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this short book (just over two hundred pages long) and makes it one of the best I’ve ever read.

The above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

· It’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

“              A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.”

· There’s also a cynicism about hedonism somewhere in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this book.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Hammett, Dashiell | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

In Approval of Scottish Vikings

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 5, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

Poster

Movie: How to Train your Dragon, 98 min

Studio: Dreamworks

Written by Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Willam Davies, based on the book by Cressida Cowell

Story: For three hundred years, the Scottish-accented Vikings have waged a war with the dragons on their island. Hiccup, the son of Chief Stoick, is a wimp, and he realises that the dragons are actually nice creatures when he meets the phallus-shaped Toothless, a very-much toothed specimen of the most dangerous type of dragon and decides not to kill it. And they have the set of colour-coded sidekicks without which no Dreamworks movie is complete.

I’m starting to strike myself as perverse. Every time I go to a theatre to see a movie, I come out with an opinion that flies in the face of almost everyone else’s*. It is very annoying; you have to wonder whether you are really watching the same movie or whether the filmmaker made a special cut for you.

So, what brings on this latest bout of subjectivity phobia? How to Train Your Dragon. In 3D.

What is the unconventional opinion? It’s better than most, possibly all, of Pixar’s, and … this is a real whopper … it uses 3D more effectively than Avatar.

True, the movie is full of bored Hollywood cliché, but the cliché’s not just scattered about any which way like in most movies, but is used with such consideration and interleaved so carefully with the original and inventive elements like the colour-coding of sidekicks that it actually leaves us clamouring for more. This is very unlike the approach Pixar takes, which is either to use it to parody (Ratatouille, Wall-E) or pile it on till you get an indoctrination into mainstream Hollywood for young children (Toy Story and its sequel). This, I claim, itself makes it better than Pixar’s fare (with competition only from Up and Wall-E), but most of you won’t take it at that.

We have been brought to believe that Pixar movies have a level of humanity in them that other movies don’t. Let me tell you, that’s just poopycock. Personally, I’m totally a Jap supremacist when it comes to children’s movies, so let me tell you (with hyper-linked help from Stephen Russell-Gebbett, who convinced me of this in the first place) that Pixar’s movies are merely average in this respect. What about How to Train your Dragon? It’s not too far above Pixar in this respect, but above Pixar it is. This mainly comes from the character – yes, dear reader, the character – of Toothless. I like the way Stephanie Zacharek puts it:

He may be a dragon, but with his rounded paws and panther-shaped head, there’s also something of the house cat in him — he has the same proportions of civilized dignity and wildness, as well as a tendency to express his affection in offhanded ways. (Remember that regurgitated fish?) Toothless has black Naugahyde skin that makes you want to reach out and touch it; his glowing green eyes are mischievous and appraising but not wholly unfriendly. And he doesn’t speak, which means that Hiccup — and we — must read his expression, the tilt of his ears, the way he swishes his tail, to know what he’s thinking, and even then we can’t be 100 percent sure. Toothless has the one precious ingredient that’s missing from so many of Hollywood’s contemporary animated characters: an air of mystery. For once, instead of spelling everything out for us with constant chatter, DreamWorks has gotten the knack of leaving something unsaid.

And, as for depth, consider this. The original Vikings, when they decided to fight the dragons, took them at first impression. Hiccup, the saviour, the messiah who can look past that, calls his dragon Toothless, because when it first opened its mouth to him, it looked Toothless. He realises fast enough that this is not the case. While the Vikings are bigoted and can’t look at the dragons – an important lesson in itself –, Hiccup works it from the other end; he makes an equally dangerous assumption – that they are harmless – to start off with (and, like the original Vikings, his assumption is also based on observation). This is why the end is so important. In the end, he realises that they are as human as he himself is, and gets some retribution for his wrong assumption (this last twist is almost poetic, I honestly don’t think children should be shielded from sad poetry by the likes of Wall-E). And, unlike in Up, what is destroyed in the end is not just the most immediate manifestation of the wrongness in the world but the root of the problem, a mindless brute. Let me say that again: this movie goes to the root of the strife and hits the damn thing there. In it, the wrong isn’t just some one thing, but an attitude of mindlessness. Little in Pixar is as simply… human as this. Of course, How to Train your Dragon is still a long way away from My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away – or probably even the TV series Inu Yasha –, but then you can’t beat the Japs at movies. Just can’t. Not possible.

And you know what else is awesome about the Japs’ movies? They’re in 2D. Glorious, beautiful two-dimensional vistas, which are content to just simulate the third dimension rather than botch it up like the technology of these Americans, for it is in vistas that 3D technology fails (as it is destined to in pepetuity) most strongly. We may find, in cinema, two forms in which we are shown vistas: with a foreground, and without one. Without one, the movie looks like it’s in 2D. Strain as you might, our simulation of the third dimension, combined with the loos of depth vision at distances, is good enough that a real 3D vista looks no different from a 2D one. I’m not alone here; my friend, who just saw Avatar last week, said that the 3D effect ended at the same time as the nature documentary. So, our perception of the third dimension has much to do with depth. Now imagine a vista with something in the foreground. This sort of thing is oddly reminiscent of those old movies with painted backgrounds. We have perfectly round objects (ever noticed how people, even the real ones, in 3D movies are so round in the third dimension?) in the foreground and this 2D-ish thing in the back. This is because of the immense distance in between the two layers where there’s nothing, which makes the frame look like a Museum exhibit.

However, as long as we have 3D, I much prefer movies like the case in point where almost everything stays behind the screen (except bubbles) rather than ones in which things come outside and play cruel tricks with your peripheral vision. But, even apart from that, it is notable how much the 3D participates in the storytelling here, it makes jokes, it arranges things in pre-ordained ways, it simulates obstacle courses, and – most notably in one of the movie’s two most memorable shots, a tracking shot starting from behind the nose-diving dragon and going over its back to the front, letting all the serrations hit us (the other is a cameo of Finding Nemo) – it actually makes points. In Avatar, the 3D was just one grandly unmemorable part of the spectacle. I remember the latter in 2D (and I’m told it actually plays better in 2D) but the former is imprinted in my mind dimension for dimension.

But How to Train your Dragon doesn’t have the best 3D I’ve seen in movies. Here, again, the Japs win: for the best 3D I’ve seen in cinema comes in Tokyo Monogatari. Maybe other, unseen Ozus as well. What I’m saying is: if you have to go to the theatre, watch Dragon. Otherwise, watch an Ozu. Or, you know, just stare at the brilliant mise-en-scene on display in the following shot, at how, when you scan you eyes across it, they actually seem to change their focus.

*Since April last year: I thought Dev.D needed to be much longer, I enjoyed Watchmen though I found it patchy – beautiful and dull in turns –, I found Monsters v/s Aliens (also a DreamWorks picture) hilarious even if poor in every other way, I found Harry Potter 6 to be a good action movie but its darkness so juvenile as to be almost cute, I disliked Kaminey (apart from the climax), I found All the Best sneakily intelligent – and funny –, I found both Avatar as well as The Hurt Locker mostly bleh, I thought Avatar made bad use of 3-D, I thought LSD wasn’t very original at all, I found Where the Wild Things Are to be a beautiful and inventive movie, I thought Iron Man 2 (for all its dramatic problems) was unexpectedly subtle and thoughtful, and now this. My only close-to-conventional opinions are about Up, Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds, and I think the last is significantly better than Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

Posted in DreamWorks, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »