Lone Believers

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Suspension of disbelief is a lost art among today’s moviegoers. Even in fantasy and adventure films, modern audiences scrutinize each scene with a taste for verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). And, sadly, this is the extent of their critical engagement. Deeper themes and messages are lost in the confusion of taste for artistic merit. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger fell prey to such an audience upon its release. The film is criticized for being too unbelievable when ironically its message is a warning against slavish adherence to realism.

Many complain about the film’s narrative structure. An aging Tonto tells the story of the Lone Ranger to a child in a 1933 San Francisco fairground. The young boy interrupts often, and young Tonto in the story breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge him. Realism audiences become nervous when unsure of what to believe. They want narrative authority. In the end Tonto’s story makes sense with the convergence of plot points, but details like the peanut bag (the boy gives it to old Tonto for young Tonto to later place in the grave of a ranger) emphasize that the main story truly is Tonto’s account and not an objective flashback of events.

And the theme of fantasy versus reality doesn’t stop there. Tonto, as a child, decides the white man who slaughtered his people is a wendigo, and he dedicates his life to finding justice. He is guided by visions and “the great father’s” plan, yet he is aware of his delusional state (he hopes the sound of the approaching scorpions is just another sound in his head). When he finally achieves his goal, he tells the murderer of his people “All these years I think you are wendigo, but no, you are just another white man.” The details of his belief weren’t important. The truth was in the strength of his faith and the destiny it gave him.

Likewise John Reid is guided, from convenience at first, by Tonto’s assertion that Reid is a spirit walker, one granted special powers for having been to the other side and back. After the disillusionment of his own faith in government to provide justice and correct its own corruption, he adopts Tonto’s outlandish perception in sincerity. “I am the spirit walker,” he affirms before attempting to shoot the gun from a villain’s hand on a faraway train. “I can’t miss.” And he doesn’t.

The story requires suspension of disbelief, perhaps most of all in the heroic and climactic battle on the trains. This requirement is nothing new for heroic adventure films, but The Lone Ranger’s audience complained that John Reid, who’d been away at law school in the east and hadn’t fired a gun in nine years was somehow still able to ride and use a whip and pistol effectively. Tonto’s heroics, too, appear effortless, as after stealing the train, he simply acts by providence, throwing silver that happens to lie next to him, using a ladder that miraculously lands him safely on a another train before shattering, and so on.

“How unbelievable! How unrealistic!” audiences cry. Tonto and The Lone Ranger become successful heroes merely from having faith in their destinies! They have certain skills, of course, but only when they acknowledge their individual responsibilities does fate propel them forward. Tonto sets out to atone for leading the white men to the silver near his tribe, and John Reid stops waiting for justice from a corrupt system and begins to enforce it himself. The film’s message isn’t that we should hunt wendigos or become masked vigilantes. The message is that how society sees us doesn’t matter, nor does how realistic it sees our chances or how useful our abilities. What is important is how we see ourselves. And when we couple that acknowledgment of individual talent and responsibility with a belief in something greater (be it justice, the Great Father’s plan, or whatever), our destinies will find a way.

The Lone Ranger isn’t a film for everyone, just as hero stories aren’t for everyone. They require faith in the universality of their metaphor. Our response to them is based on a willingness to see ourselves as heroes. They ask each of us how we see our place and purpose in the world. As though anticipating its own critique from an incurably realist society, The Lone Ranger ends with the young boy asking Tonto, “So, the wendigo, nature out of balance, the masked man, it’s just a story right? I mean, I know he’s not real, was he?”

Tonto looks down with a smile and replies, “Up to you.”

Comic Appeal

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In our image-centric society, graphic narratives are more popular than ever, but for all of their technical advancements the core of the medium remains unchanged, human-drawn stories about primary-colored heroes. The tradition even predates comics. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages featured brightly colored stories of saints in the margins for those who couldn’t read. In Ancient Greece, structures like the Parthenon featured stories of Greek heroes facing Amazons, centaurs, and giants in brightly painted metopes (sequential panels that ran along the top of the structure). Even in the prehistoric cave art of Lascaux and Altamira we find colorful depictions of humans overcoming physical obstacles of nature.

Beyond the story and the idea of a hero, the visual appeal is partly in the artificial nature of a drawn image. When we read about a person in words, we picture a real person. A false representation such as a drawing evokes the uncanny, a sense of familiarity beyond the familiar. The effect is increased over a series of linked panels that suggest movement without actually showing it. Readers are immersed in a new universe. They have an understanding of its occurrences but lack the moment to moment actualization of its time and place. The result is a subconscious sense of allure and probability just outside the reach of the logical mind.

The rest of the visual appeal comes from textual materiality, which is a scholarly phrase for the physical nature of the medium. Cave paintings were created on the uneven surface of rocks and painted in the brightest pigments available to show up in dancing, shadow-producing torchlight. The experience would have been different than looking at images on Google. Similar observations can be made for Greek sculpture and illuminated manuscripts. And comic books have their own distinct appeal through their unique materiality.

Bright primary colors were used when comics began for both ease of printing and to catch a reader’s eye. Consider the psychological effect of the colors seen on the first superhero, Superman. The blue suit causes a reader’s body to produce calming chemicals, inducing trust in the hero. The red cape, however, added to simulate movement, stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. And the effect of color doesn’t stop there. Virtually all color printing is done with yellow, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and black. All other colors are made up of dots of those four, the white of the paper, and a process in the brain that makes us see a merged color as the result. Visual scientists hypothesize that in printing such as comics this process in the brain also causes the illusion of movement. So in addition to the psychological effects of the uncanny artificial and mood inducing colors, readers experience the subconscious sense of movement on the page.

For the most part, these effects carry over to the latest innovation of digital comics. Whatever the pages may lose in the digital picture display, they gain in the reader’s ability to zoom in on panels and swipe back and forth. Our technology continues to focus on images because we are image driven beings. The appeal of visual storytelling has remained the same from cavemen scrawling on rocks to modern graphic novels. Whether you read a comic book today or enjoy or a virtual reality tomorrow, take notice of your physical and emotional responses to increase your appreciation of storytelling through a timeless medium.

Speaking Poetry

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Some people think poetry is a mystical art, that one either “gets it” or does not. As with any art form, though, poetry must be engaged on its own terms. A poem and a piece of prose may both be written in English (of French, or Russian, or whatever), but they are not written with the same language. Understanding a poem’s meaning is a matter of learning its distinct use of language, how its words operate beyond their meanings.

In prose, words are signifiers, often directly linked to an intended signified (the word cow, for instance, will refer to a bovine farm animal that gives milk). But in poetry, words can also serve as metaphors, small parts of a larger image, or to create rhythm and rhyme to deepen the greater theme and/or experience of the piece. They can even deepen the experience with their sounds more than their definitions.

Consider this short passage from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe: “…the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/ Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…”

The poem’s famous sing-song rhythm leads many to rush through the stanzas to reach the next rhyme. By slowing down, however, we can see the language at work between rhymes. Notice how the first line evokes three of the five senses with the words, silken, rustling, and purple. We know the feel of the curtains, what they sound like, and what they look like. And the words even model the sound for us.

Poe uses consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, here the “s,” to make the curtains audible. Read “silken sad uncertain,” slowly and aloud to hear the effect. It’s followed with the word “rustling” which is onomatopoeia, a word that imitates the sound it’s referring to. Read the whole line once more to hear the curtains moving through the very words that describe them.

The next line is a sharp change of mood. We jump from the gentle rustling of curtains to the terror they inspire in the speaker’s imagination. The quick rhyme of “Thrilled me—filled me” is trochaic (a stressed syllable, “Thrilled/filled” followed by an unstressed one, “me”). Pronouncing these words after the soft “s” sounds of the previous line gives the reader an abrupt up down, up down sensation. And it’s followed by the hard “t” consonance of “fantastical terrors…” This second line stands in stark contrast to the first. By reading the two together, the occurrences and their effects on the speaker are expressed through the same multitasking words.

This level of understanding in a poem doesn’t come from a first read, and until you gain practice, it won’t come from a second or third. Good poetry doesn’t give up all of its secret at once. That is the beauty of poetic language. But no one “just doesn’t get” poetry. Some just need the patience to encounter each piece of writing on its own terms. Look up The Raven, when you have time. Read it first for story if it helps, taking in the words at face value. Then read it again more slowly, unpacking each line to appreciate the effect the words create beyond their meaning.

Oedipus Kent

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The Oedipal complex is an important aspect of the Superman mythos. Clark does not want to marry Martha or Lara—he doesn’t want to kill Jonathan or Jor-El. But by broadening the traditional Freudian analysis, we can discover the contrasting worlds and ideologies the character does encounter. We can better understand and draw meaning from what drives Earth’s adoptive last son of Krytpon. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie presents this aspect beautifully, though not many, at least on a conscious level, realize it.

Long before he becomes Superman, Clark is raised in Smallville, a rural Kansas town, and lives as an only child on his adoptive parents’ farm. He learns middle American values. Donner shows the Kents providing him with confidence and a bright sense of destiny, and visually, the light is always warm in Smallville, the sky always clear, and the landscape as vast and sunny as Clark’s future (count how many times you see people staring into the horizon, usually into a sunrise or sunset). This safe, nurturing childhood is Superman’s metaphorical mother. Its values, comforts, and ideals become the standard he strives for as he wrestles with the metaphorical father.

That father is the world he came from, the reality of his history and the powers, differences, and responsibilities it gives him. Donner shows this world call to Clark through a Kryptonian crystal (call it a phallic symbol, if you will, but only in that it represents the patriarchal aspect of the metaphor). Clark follows the crystal’s call to the arctic where it penetrates the ice to create the Fortress of Solitude, in the manner of the Kryptonian architecture from the film’s opening (more subtly phallic crystals). This redesign of Krypton and the fortress was Donner’s unique addition to the mythos, and it works so well because of the stark visual contrast to Clark’s Smallville upbringing.

The Fortress is cold, closed in, and monochromatic. But it is white and still bright rather than dark and gloomy because it is a place of knowledge and yet another path to Clark’s destiny. Donner has him stay there with the recorded consciousness of Jor-El for years, learning about his heritage, powers, and responsibilities. When he leaves, he does not return to Smallville. He settles in Metropolis, a city also with grand architecture yet a color scheme closer to Kansas.

Clark honors what he learned from Jor-El in the fortress. Yet throughout the course of the film, he progresses into his own decisions. The first is to reveal himself to the world. Jor-El accepts the choice, but Clark is still forbidden to interfere with Earth’s history. Of course he does, though, in the climax of the film when he turns back time to save Lois as well as the other earth quake victims. He couldn’t stand by with the power to save and do nothing. His feelings for Lois are human from his human upbringing, not those of a superior being. In that moment, he chooses to make his own destiny. It’s not a full rebellion. He honors Jor-El, his Kryptonian heritage, and what he’s learned from both. It’s rather a subtle assertion of priorities. Above all else Clark as Superman will serve as a human for humans, fighting for the safe, comforting acceptance that comes through “truth, justice and the American way.”

Superman doesn’t want to kill his father or marry his mother. Instead, and more profoundly, he overcomes restrictions of his metaphorical father to remain true to the ideals of his metaphorical mother. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie shows this aspect of the character better than any other film. It connects the character to an audience who has their own conflict between ideals and world realities and inspires us to fulfill our own bright destinies.

Art Matters

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Art and our response to it happens on a psychological level (and spiritual, for those inclined). Taking the time to see and think about a painting can provide ideas, impressions, and even truths about ourselves that can’t be delivered through more concrete fields such as science and math.

Consider the above painting by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. He painted and sketched numerous versions, sometimes calling it Madonna and sometimes, Loving Woman. Perform a search for the image and you’ll see how the versions vary in color, tone, and surrounding composition. One can imagine Munch trying to pinpoint a specific meaning, and then, having lost some of the painting’s appeal, backtracking in the next sketch before moving too far and having to correct it all over again.

Art critics are equally as varied in their interpretations. Most agree on the reference to the Virgin Mary, though, and that the subject is captured in the act of intercourse. In fact, the subject is situated so that we have the view of a lover lying beneath her. This is blasphemy in a reference to the Virgin Mary, but Munch has rendered his Madonna with as much quiet beauty and grace as a Fra Angelico or Botticelli.

The paradox is only magnified by examining the details of the painting. Rather than a saintly gold, her halo is a human red (passion and blood, love and pain). Her arms bent behind her back speak to submission, yet as she’s shown in a dominant love-making position, we might also see a pose of ecstasy. And finally her abdomen has been rendered with circular brush stokes, hinting at the womb within in. Therein lies the connection between our mid-coital subject and images of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation. Munch’s Madonna is also captured in the moment of conception, and if it is achieved through natural means there is no less of a heavenly light descending upon her.

There is a beauty in the contrast of this work and the influences from which it sprang. Try to interpret it, or render it, too specifically and it’s lost. This isn’t a piece about eroticism or blasphemy. It’s a piece about redemption and holy beauty in the human experience. We can add religious or humanist sentiments, but the pure idea can’t be codified or preached with language. Such communication is the realm and responsibility of art. It expands the mind/spirit and increases our capacity to experience more. Each work of art is a chance to encounter something bigger than ourselves. We miss that chance, as individuals and a society, when we privilege the tangible and concrete.

Joker Appeal

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What makes the Joker the most recognizable and popular super villain in American folklore? Technically he’s not even a “super” villain, just a human with no powers or altered abilities. He became a mainstay in the comics because of the striking visuals of his character design, but a sinister grin isn’t enough to explain the character’s longevity.

The answer is in how perfectly he compliments Batman as an antagonist. Most Nolan fans can quote Alfred’s line: “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” from The Dark Knight. And careful viewers of the film will draw out themes of chaos versus order and anarchy versus justice. The Joker’s appeal, though, runs deeper than Nolan’s focus on the foe to a conflicted Bruce Wayne.

A good villain must never think he’s a villain. Joker has no heroic delusions, but he does believe in his nihilistic philosophy to the point that he thinks it’s funny how society tries to define things like law and crime, good and bad, and so forth. Then he meets Batman who believes just as passionately but in justice, self-control, and hope. Batman isn’t funny. He’s a threat to the Joker’s worldview and needs to be broken.

Batman is a threat because there is an element of Batman in the Joker. As much as the villain would like to give himself over to nihilistic chaos, he still has the capacity to reason, and that faculty grows stronger with every elaborate plan he orchestrates against Batman. In Arkham City, a Joker thug can be overheard commenting on how Joker is insane one moment and then all plans and logistics the next. This has to be infuriating to the Joker whose struggle against his foe is strengthening faculties that make him more like his foe.

Even more twisted is that the same can be said for the Joker’s effect on Batman. Each time he goes up against the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman must embrace a small amount of chaos, the chaos of violence, the chaos of thinking like the Joker to foresee his next move and so on. The Joker is interesting because of the Batman he demands in his stories. The Dark Knight fighting the Joker walks a tightrope more than any other hero. He can’t kill, not even one who has slain and wants to still slay so many. But it doesn’t stop there. While battling the Joker, Batman must remember that the darkness he battles is first and foremost inside himself, the darkness the Joker is trying to call out.

This interplay is why the Joker, and Batman, have gained in popularity over the last decades. Modern society is nihilistic. It seeks to deconstruct values, traditions, and then deconstruct the ones it replaces them with the very next moment. Anyone who dares believe in anything can see the Joker in our culture, laughing and trying to discredit whatever we attempt to hold on to. In this sense the villainy of the Joker is more recognizable than ever, and the unique heroism of Batman against the Joker is necessary for a soul to survive.

Active Reading

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Many people roll their eyes at the thought of analyzing a piece of writing. They say things like, “I just like the story.” But if they experience a good story while reading, they have good writing to thank for it. Story is important. Being able to imagine and structure a narrative is an admirable talent. Writing, though, is the delivery of that story. Effective communication through written words is its own unique craft. Too many readers feel that enjoying the writing as well as the story takes years of schooling or some innate ability. But it’s only a matter of practice and active reading, paying attention to the choice of words and the manner in which they’re written. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s work, for example. Poe is known outside of scholarly circles for his fantastical tales. But look at the writing choices he’s made in the opening of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Start with big picture observations. The story is obviously in the first person (the narrator is telling us his own story). And he’s obviously “not all there” (hearing all things in heaven? earth? hell?). Knowing we’re inside the head of an insane man helps create a suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to make sense of the nature of the universe we’re in; we can just believe what the narrator says as 100% true to him, because he is insane.

Where Poe really shines, however, is in his use of repetition and rhythm. Always a poet, he ratchets up the tension and terror of the tale with the repetition of phrases and short sentence structures, relieved at greater and greater intervals by longer ones. Look for repeated words and the progression of sentence length in the following passage.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it – oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly – very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha!

It’s impossible to read this prose and not hear the quick and slow, loud and soft ravings of a madman. The tension is in the writing, it evokes a visceral response from an engaged reader that serves the content, the experience of the story. Poe calls this the “unity of effect.” The next time you read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or any other story, do it with a highlighter and appreciate how careful writing can convey and add to a great story.

Second Coming

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One shortsighted critique of Superman Returns claims the film tries too hard for iconic imagery, neglecting the action of a hero fighting super villains. But this view misses the thematic significance of that iconic imagery and its deeper significance to Superman in general. Rather than bludgeon his characters with punches and his audience with empty Christ-figure symbolism, Singer utilizes Atlas imagery that encompasses Superman’s place as a Christ-figure.

Instead of playing super fists, Routh’s Superman is engaged in the more important task of saving people. He is shown over and over again lifting and carrying people both literally and symbolically. Kitty even sings “He’s got the whole world in his hands” as Lex first reads of Superman’s return. But it doesn’t stop there. The film asserts that along with saving people, inspiring them to save each other is Superman’s mission on Earth. His first act of heroism after he returns is to fly up and save an airplane full of people. He spends the film instilling hope, being the savior people are “crying out for,” and in the end, as he drifts in the water, dying from the Kryptonite shiv in his back, Jor-El’s voice-over tells him “Your leadership can stir others…” Cue Richard and Lois “flying” over in their own plane to, this time, save the savior.

What does it say about our concept of heroic behavior that so many need explicit conflict to be appeased? True heroism is in giving of our selves, lifting others up and being the example that inspires heroism in others.

The Trickster

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In his book Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde describes the wily archetype from mythology as one who blurs boundaries. This definition plays into my own analysis of the various divisions in the American Monomyth. In my Constructing American Heroes course, we explore the Frontiersman who expands boundaries, the war hero who defends them, the detective who restores them, and so on. But there is something other worldly about the trickster’s role of blurring boundaries. It’s as though through the static we can catch a glimpse of some truth on the other side of understanding. When we try to focus, though, we lose it and crash hard back into the practical concrete.

We encounter this principle when deeply moved by a song or piece of art, or maybe when we’re rapt in the escapism of a favorite vacation spot. If we return too often, the magic fades, giving way to familiarity. Hyde describes the phenomenon in terms of the view while traveling on a train, “Each thing seems all the more declarative for its swift arrival and departure. From a moving train I don’t see the opaque weave of the real, I see the more expansive view the shuttle gets as again and again the warp threads briefly rise.”

In mythology, we need charming tricksters to inhabit the in-between. Take Peter Pan, for example. The roguish adventure seeker at the cusp of, but refusing to enter into, puberty speaks to the like desire in the human experience. But add too much realism, and he becomes the worse kind of selfish villain. Make him a responsible role model for children, and he loses his fun. There is a truth that lies only in that intangible blurred boundary.

So how do we ever really experience the trickster then? By recognizing that he’s not the only archetype. We fully relish art, escapism, and so on, then throw ourselves equally into the other parts of our lives and being. We thrill at trickster’s blurred boundaries, then expand them, defend them, restore them, and start all over again.

Super Friends

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I love this Steve Rude piece that serves as a cover for the Gibbons/Rude World’s Finest. Superman, confident in the warm and safe sunlight, stands atop an eagle (justice) and sends forth doves (peace). Batman stands at night in front of the artificial rays of the Bat signal. It shines in the same manner as the sun that surrounds it on top and bottom. Batman as a hero is a subtle balance which many writers and artists fail to keep, plunging him into the darkness of an almost antihero.

With the composition of this painting, Rude shows Batman to be carrying on the same work as Superman, only at night and in nighttime forms. For Batman, the eagle of justice is a gargoyle, Gothic protector against “a superstitious lot.” His doves are bats, winged creatures able to move in the dark. Batman and Superman aren’t so different. Rude shows them to be unified by light. Superman radiates its warmth by example, and Batman shines it into the neglected corners of a dark city.

Some of us are more inclined toward Superman. We like the “sun” and feel led to share its warmth. But others, and even all of us at some time or another, have Batman moments in which we need to confront a darkness that simply won’t respond to warmth. In those moments, it’s important not to succumb to the darkness we’re battling in the absence of the sun. Remember that you’re still shining the light, even if sometimes it’s the bat signal.