Amoeblog

Ghost Blogging: Ghost World Roundtable

Posted by Charles Reece, December 27, 2009 08:48am | Post a Comment

I guess I should've posted a link to the entertaining Ghost World roundtable that I participated in over at Noah Berlatsky's Hooded Utilitarian. A fun time was had by most, if not all. It begins here.

This American Strife: Animation from Chris Ware

Posted by Charles Reece, June 7, 2009 09:56am | Post a Comment
I finally caught up with the cartoons Chris Ware has been doing. I was avoiding them because of their association with This American Life, a show I hate. The narcoleptic punctuation of host Ira Glass makes me want to slap him on the back of the head. With the show's tempo, it's like being trapped for an hour with a bunch of Dave Eggers' readers in an elevator designed by Errol Morris. And the cutesy stories of irrelevance make a good argument for Maoism. Ugh. Anyway, here's some good artwork (sound is advisedly optional):







Watchmen (2009): Some Arguments about Design

Posted by Charles Reece, March 14, 2009 11:32pm | Post a Comment

The Impotent God Snake

I love discussing issues of time in comics and film, so Zack Snyder's Watchmen makes for a good opportunity to reflect on its relation to both media. I'll be returning to this sometime in the future. For now, I'm going to stick to a few problems with Alan Moore's conception of Doc Manhattan that the movie doesn't do much to improve on. There is one improvement, though, namely the Mjölner-sized hammer he has hanging between his legs, befitting a puny scientist resurrected as a god. Dave Gibbons merely gave him the statistical average. The Doc can create anything from anything else -- perhaps ex nihilo, if you believe in miracles -- and exists in all points in time simultaneously. One can't get more virile than absolute mastery of matter. However, even though he can still sexually please his woman, he's ontologically impotent-- everything already existing as it was/is/will be, independent of his will. His control of matter is constrained by the deterministic course of the world. Thus, the fact that we never get to see the hammer of the gods raised on camera is a telling sign of his lot in existence (as well as the failure of our last, best chance to see expensive CGI-porn). While Doc's attending the Comedian's funeral, he's shown to exist in Vietnam, where the latter murders a girl who's pregnant with this child. The girl, like the Comedian, is already dead to Doc, so he stands by flaccidly and "lets" the murder occur. When Doc voices concern, he gets a moral lecture from the most nihilistic of the bunch:


The Comedian elaborates on why Doc's relationships all turn to shit, but there's a metaphysical problem here. For example, Doc is shown doing some sort of research when he's first introduced (in both the film and comic), but what exactly is the purpose of doing research when he already remembers what he's going to discover? This is the same old theological paradox that exists for the monotheists who believe in an omniscient god and free will: either everything's determined, because the deity knows what'll happen, or people can freely choose, meaning the deity isn't all-knowing. Some theologians have tried some hoo-hah to get out of this dilemma by suggesting God exists outside of time, but that's a verbal game. Besides, even if this circumlocution worked, it most clearly doesn't here, since Doc is shown to exist temporally. He didn't create everything, but exists within a creation not of his choosing.

Regardless of the ending (the film's or the comic's), Doc's simultaneity makes the possibility of his being fooled by Ozymandias' plan impossible. Tachyon particles might cause some interruption in his temporal perception during the period T1 to T2, but once in T3, Doc's perception is back -- meaning that he should be able to "remember" his thoughts in T3 before T1 begins. A possible out for this narrative dilemma that wasn't used is suggested by the scene above, as well as the one where Doc and Laurie are on Mars, and he tells her the course of the conversation they're about to have. That is, Doc is cosmologically inert, unable to affect the causal chain of events. All he can do is watch and interact as fate has already determined. As he says, he's a puppet who can see his strings. Had the story consistently depicted him as the self-aware puppet, philosophical nerds like me could've suspended disbelief by saying he goes along with Ozy's plan, knowing of it from the outset, because that's just the way things are to be in the Watchmen's deterministic world. I suspect the reason Moore didn't go this route is because he still wanted to hang on to free will within the book. While rendering Doc's agency impossible, Moore used some Star Trek gobbledy gook in order to keep the surprise of philosophical libertarianism in play.

Wait, No Did Mean Yes?

Snyder's film eroticizes the attempted rape scene, making Sally Jupiter's eventual consensual sex with the Comedian more logical, if more morally twisted. Moore and Gibbons' take was as follows:


For the most part, as he does throughout the film, Snyder slavishly follows Gibbons' panels as a storyboard, but he adds a shot of Sally bent over a pool table, looking at the camera as if there's a part of her that's kind of disappointed the Hooded Justice enters to stop the rape. Now, any fan of Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, Blind Beast or, even The Collector isn't going to have his or her envelope pushed too far by Snyder's little transgressive gesture, but it's a bit surprising when it appears in a $130 million dollar superhero adventure movie. On the other hand, Snyder's conservatism (cf. 300) comes through in the way he sets up the scene: the kino eye ogles Sally's half-naked body -- in an off-Hollywood, Bettie Page kind of way -- just before Comedian enters, as if asking the audience, "What would you do?" This doesn't mean the film justifies Comedian's assault, but it does smack of the scenarists trying to add scriptwriting 101's narrative justification to Moore's more psychologically believable characters -- that is, subsituting a fictional whole for the latter's understanding of sexual desire as nonrational.

An Abattoir of The Mentally Challenged

You'd have to go pretty low on the professional critic foodchain to get one as predictable as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane. If he didn't fancy himself high-brow and have his predecessor's gift at turning a phrase, he'd be about as exciting to read as The Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. Without a hint of irony, his views favor what then-critic François Truffaut long ago sliced and diced as the "tradition of quality" (in "A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema”). Lane is, in other words, the perfect example of a snotty critic. Nothing wrong with snottiness, mind you, only when it's wrapped around middlebrow moralizing. Like with new money's taste in fashion, just because it's expensive doesn't make it worth wearing. Thus, if a film revels in its genre-ness, Lane isn't going to like it.  Such things aren't what people of imagined distinction are supposed to like.


Lane can't be bothered to think too hard about such obvious trash. Regarding Rorschach's line from the second panel above:

That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.) Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights. In the end, with a gaping pit where New York used to be, most of the surviving Watchmen agree that the loss of the Eastern Seaboard was a small price to pay for global peace.

The only thing Lane manages to get right is that "abattoir of retarded children" was written by an author trying too hard. However, the author is the diegetic Rorschach, not the realworld Moore. The line is supposed to be overwrought and funny, not give the audience (well, the target audience) something to quote like it came from Commando. Rorschach's mental life is confabulation, concocted from the jejune conspiracies of Ayn Rand and far right journals:


Rather than acknowledging the drudgery of an always postponed apocalypse, these millenialist types want a good end to history, one that only comes in stories, mostly geared towards children. While no more religious than Rorschach, Rand subsitutes his and the more literally inclined monotheist's fable for reality: "Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong" (from here). There is always an end. To admit otherwise would be a slippery slope to Hell, or some equivalent, such as Continental philosophy. Kitschy, purple prose is nothing if not pretentious, so what else should those pretending to have the final answer to everything write like? (That's why modernized English versions of the Bible don't work: the style doesn't match the content's seriosity.) Rorschach's life is his own version of an old children's radio show about a masked vigilante. Of course, he tries too hard -- that's the point. Fanboy, all too fanboy.

Moore's "commentary" on the character is, I believe, summed up at the end of the book where Rorschach's last hope at getting "the truth" out there is with the nutjob journalists to whom he sent his journal. Unfortunately, the humor is botched in the film due to its leaving the newsstand interactions (depicted above) out. The viewer doesn't get the feel for just how nutty The New Frontiersman is by showing a slovenly fat, possibly liberal guy reaching for the stack where the journal is lying. Like all on the far right, the threat of violence is all Rorschach has to get his point across. With him dead, that's that.

Of course, stuff has to get left out (and the often off-panel fight scenes have to be beefed up to a commercially re-spectacle level), but the major problem with the film is that it doesn't re-interpret what it leaves in. Instead, its fidelity to the included makes the whole movie feel like the comic, but with pages cut out. The big reveal of Rorschach's face, for example, loses a lot in translation without the minor appearances of his conspiracist secret identity month to month.


It's these hacked out lacunae that result in the final third of the film feeling like it was tacked on. As Night Owl II and Rorschach are investigating the cancerous deaths of Manhattan's known associates, they discover Ozy's business has something to do with the victims. Upon flying to his arctic hideaway to ask him about it, he tells them something like, "by the way, I just murdered millions of New Yorkers."

Speaking of The End, It's Nigh Ludicrous as Ever

Along with Alan Moore's name, this is the other most noticeable present absence:


For the smartest guy on the planet, Ozy's not much more than a brutish utilitarian, using the hedonic calculus as if it were one of those bones at the beginning of 2001. Regardless of whether he's fooled the world into thinking his New York holocaust is the act of invading alien squids (comic), or Doc Manhattan's playing the God of Abraham (film), there's some obvious flaws in the plan. While the plan in the comic plays to the xenophobia that exists in all cultures, bringing them all together multilaterally against the Big Other, it fails to take into account that after, say, 10 years of no alien reappearing, societies will go back to fearing each other. This is something like black nationalists and white supremacists postponing their differences until they've together vanguished their common enemy, the Jews. A few years of peace from a war that wasn't definite hardly warrants (from an utilitarian perspective) the killing of millions. And while the film's continuing watchful eye of a present God does away with the need to continually kill more people to keep the danger imminent, it's a bit hard to swallow that Russia's forgotten that God's an American. I'd say the movie ending probably works better in terms of plausibility, but the comic's ending has more of connection (aesthetic, formal, ideological) with the superhero genre.

Ah well, the story is more about power than any particular philosophical position or the logic of the plot -- another point about the comic/film to which I'll hopefully return. But I'm tired, so I'm going to shut up now.

OVERBITES, BELLIES & BIG BUTTS

Posted by Charles Reece, December 13, 2008 10:05pm | Post a Comment
One of my favorite comics artists, Dave Cooper, provides the artwork for a new music video, which looks great -- but I warn you, mute the sound:



Danko Jones - King Of Magazines from Bad Taste Records on Vimeo.

Which came first, the love of comics or the big butt fetish? Anyway, comics work doesn't pay for shit, so Cooper now does illustration work and stuff like the above.

Here are his comics in the 'el' series, all of them as good as pop culture ever gets. They're perverse in the best sense of the word [click to enlarge]:



Note that body conscious David Cronenberg wrote an intro to Ripple, so that should tell you something about Cooper's brand of humor. Some of his oil paintings [click to enlarge]:



Here's his new website, which doesn't have much on it, yet, so here's his old site. And here's an interview with the man by Patrick McKeown, another great comics artist who

Joker's Wild, or Batman Degree Zero: The Dark Knight (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 10, 2008 10:36pm | Post a Comment
The Joker


There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheel-barrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves ... -- Slavoj Zizek, p. 1, Violence

I just happened to start reading Slavoj Zizek's new book, Violence, shortly after I saw Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and found both to serendipitously complement each other. Zizek begins his book with the little tale of theft quoted above, which he uses as a grounding metaphor in analyzing our approach to violence. Too often we're concerned with its subjective effects (who was hurt and by what, i.e., what's in the wheelbarrow), rather than its objective status (the symbolic order that gives form and definition to the violent act, i.e., the wheelbarrow itself). For example, an anti-semitic remark doesn't constitute hate speech -- isn't violent -- for a Nazi who exists in a context where "the Jew" is defined outside of humanity, and thus moral concern. It is the functioning symbolic order that allows everyday people to exist in a system perpetuating violence on others without seeing how their own normality is defined by what it violently excludes. This is what the Joker is getting at when he says to Harvey Dent:
 
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
 
Sure, we (represented here as Gotham City residents) might see the gangbanger's death as violent, but always as subjective violence, an act by an individual on another individual, not as a sign that the cultural system itself is violent. The difference between the violence against a gangbanger and against the mayor is that only the latter is perceived to be a threat to the normal order of things, whereas the former is already written into the cultural bill as the price of doing business as usual. The Joker is an agent of chaos, because he's the embodiment of pure objective violence. That's why he assures Harvey that killing his girlfriend, Rachel (Bruce Wayne's love interest, as well), and leaving him horribly disfigured as Two-Face was "nothing personal." As such, the Joker's actions can only be read as chaotic, senseless, or just plain nuts. He doesn't put Gotham's citizens (including its criminals) through a series of terroristic spins on the prisoner's dilemma for personal gain, revenge or as the result of some childhood trauma -- he's an ascetic without a real history. Rather, his only goal and source of pleasure is in making his victims face up to the abstracted violent substructure around which their culture is configured. Sounding like Jack Nance and looking like he's spent time in A Clockwork Orange and Ichi the Killer with fashion tips from Malcolm McLaren, the Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism, with cracking make-up and a forced smile. He's pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and invisible visible. Regarding this invisible and "fundamental systemic violence of capitalism," Zizek writes:
 
[M]uch more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. [Some stuff about Lacan's Real versus reality that I will spare you.]  We can experience this gap [between the reality of people and what's being defined as reality by the logic of capitalism] in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound" -- reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ... -- p. 12-3, ibid.

Stocks wouldn't keep rising for a corporation that exploits third-world misery if that repressed misery took on a subjective quality for the investors. For capital to keep growing, said misery has to remain purely objective, an abstract cost that's been symbolically excluded out of our day-to-day concerns. The Joker is the same unbounded desire that drives capitalism. Without any object or goal to satisfy him, he exists outside of our rational system and can only be stopped with violence. He can't be beat, however, only beaten, because the solution to the problem he presents is the problem itself: repression of systemic violence. (Batman once tried to reason with him -- understand him -- in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with miserable results.) At best, Gotham City can return to the status quo by forgetting him -- define him out existence as insane and lock him away in its local Id repository, Arkham Asylum. Or they could kill him, but Gotham's local hero of repression has only one rule: he doesn't kill.
 
The Batman


 
It is an enigma to me how a theologian can be praised because he has struggled his way to unbelief. The achievement that always struck me as most heroic and praiseworthy was struggling through to belief.  -- Karl Kraus, #421, Dicta and Contradicta

There's many parallels that Nolan uses to show Batman and Joker as two sides of the same systemic coin, with Two-Face serving as their dialectic. At a fundraiser being thrown for the still intact Harvey Dent by Bruce Wayne, the latter is shown throwing out champagne while pretending to drink it. When the Joker shows up at the party, he does the same thing, but stages the pretense for all to see. Bruce has to pretend to drink in order to hide his identity as the Batman and keep functioning within Gotham's high society, whereas the Joker wants nothing more than to lay bare all such pretenses. While the Joker has no determinate psychological beginning (he changes the tale of his scars with a change in victims), Batman is bound by his origin. Bruce would've never become the Batman without being from Gotham's wealthiest family. Conversely, Gotham needs him as a stopgap mechanism to continue functioning at all.  The city got the hero that it needs through an act of subjective violence on the Wayne family. In turn, Batman perpetually fights evil doers on a case-by-case basis, giving Gotham the illusion that something's being done about its pervasive corruption. As the always astute Dave Fiore says of the Caped Crusader:
 
All he wants to do is hang on. Exercise virtue and excise "corruption." Keep the money in the hands of the people that are already ("legitimately") rich, and the underclass in its place. The only "systemic" critique this concept is capable of generating is a law n' order screed against legal loopholes that allow the criminals to go free.
 
Bruce has to believe in his subjective cause, lest his whole origin be called into question. Just where do all those billions come from if not from the same rapacious practices of the real world's most successful capitalists? To help explain the Bruce/Batman duality, Zizek provides, once again, a telling example-- that of the liberal communist. The unbridled desire of capitalism is masked by the charitable communitarian deeds of many of its most successful practitioners. While remaining ruthless in their business practices, men like Bill Gates and George Soros find enlightenment and meaning by giving away much of their wealth to needy causes. The inspirational figurehead for the liberal communists is Andrew Carnegie, who gave away a good deal of his wealth to fund humanitarian causes while using a private army to suppress organized labor. Capitalism needs charity in the same way the Batman "justifies" Bruce Wayne's wealth.  Capitalism qua Gotham City creates the problems and then provides the repressive mask by which those problems are to be solved.
 
Gotham City


Reg
: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, pea... Shut up! -- Monty Python's The Life of Brian
 
Following Brecht, Michael Wood suggests Gotham City has to be a pretty miserable place if it needs Batman. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Gotham's repressed elements are always more on the verge of surfacing than in an average city, hence the reliance on a vigilante. On the other hand, like any capitalist center for civilization, there's going to be a good many people who are helped along, with all the repressive mechanisms in place to make their existence a fairly smooth one. People wouldn't have the time to earn doctorates and write for the London Review of Books about comic book characters without a certain level of bourgeois complacency. There is value, even a sense of existential heroism, in the Batman's Sisyphean struggle to return the city to a state of equilibrium (even if it's doubtful that Gotham has ever been in such a state). Gotham would cease functioning altogether if it could no longer hide the systemic violence that the Joker represents under Batman's mask of rationalization. The Joker's chaos might be "fair," but the have-nots wouldn't be helped in the slightest by reducing all the haves to their status. Therefore, Batman can't give in to the Joker's demand that he remove his mask in order to stop the latter's killing spree. This need to "keep the mask on" is demonstrated on multiple levels:

It's telling that the main criminal power brokers ultimately side with the uncorruptible (will to status quo) heroes Batman and soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon. Even Gotham's gangsters realize the Joker operates outside of their ratio-economic structure and has to be repressed. They choose Batman's law and order to a fellow criminal willing to burn their sole raison d'etre, money. The Joker is just plain crazy.  Crime wouldn't pay -- wouldn't make sense -- if the system of criminalization went belly up. What would be the point, for example, in being a drug dealer if all drugs were legalized? The criminal rationale is just as dependent as bourgeois comfort on the extant symbolic order.

In order to test the limits separating Gotham's law-abiding citizenry from its criminal underworld, the Joker rigs two ferryboats with explosives and gives the detonator for each to the other boat. On one boat are the citizens and on the other, a group of prisoners. If neither group chooses to execute the other by midnight, the Joker makes it clear that he'll blow up both. Batman manages to stop the Joker's ability to carry out the double execution before the deadline rolls around and neither boat has exploded, but why did neither group push the button? In the corniest example of his Eastwood growl, Batman claims it's because these people are "good." He wasn't privy to what we viewers got to see, however. On the criminal boat (a significant proportion of whose occupants were, in all likelihood, put there by Batman), a single black man cons his way into possessing the detonator, only to throw it overboard, determining the fate for all. Contrary to a popular religious myth, one lone martyr is hardly an argument for the good of all. On the law-abiding boat, the passengers take a vote, and overwhelmingly elect to kill the criminals. The button isn't pushed because of virtue, but due to a lack of resolve. Violence to restore stability is fine when done abstractly through a representative (an executioner or a soldier), but not when it takes on a personalized meaning. The "goodness" that saves Gotham's (or Batman's belief in Gotham's) dignity turns out to be cowardice.

Finally, when the Joker gives Batman the forced choice between rescuing Rachel (the girl he loves) or Harvey Dent (the white knight of supposed systemic change), Batman chooses the subjective. Because the Joker lied about the location of the two victims, Batman mistakenly rescues Harvey, while Rachel goes up in flames. The Joker has Batman's number. For all his scientific-detective rationality, all he really has to fight the problem of the Joker with are his fists. He continually pounds the Joker, to which the latter knowingly replies with something like, "you've got nothing on me." As I discussed with Iron Man, superheroes can only address systemic threats on a personal level. Their serialized nature requires such a palliative solution in order to heroically continue. (The one superhero story that does effectively address systemic change is the never completed fascistic-utopian Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.)  Bruce Wayne pays lip service to possible systemic change by funding Dent, but as Batman he puts his subjective interests first. Thus, like DC Comics' stockholders, he doesn't really desire a Gotham without a need for the Batman.

As a heroic figure of repression, Batman remains unchanged by the Joker's games of pitting objective violence against its subjective counterpart. Like the Joker, he'll just keep on keepin' on. Harvey Dent, however, is thoroughly contaminated. With Rachel dead and his face now horribly disfigured on one side (dripping pustular goo all over his suit), he becomes the stochastic angel of vengeance, Two-Face, meting out violent retribution with a flip of the coin. The only system of justice left to him is chance, where everyone's (even Gordon's kids') guilt or innocence is determined randomly. Can there be any doubt that the Joker has won? Rather than allow the truth about Gotham's corrupted hero get out, Batman takes the rap for Dent's crimes, further perpetuating the illusory hope that real change is just around the corner.  Batman is certainly the hero Gotham needs, but Two-Face is the one it deserves.
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