Thursday, November 16, 2006

Donald Barthelme's Review of Superman III

Donald Barthelme is a very weird short story writer very active in the 60s and 70s. I have quoted him already in a commonplace book entry, where you can get a feel for his bizarre prose. He also likes outlandish gimmicks -- in the middle of his novel Snow White there is a quiz/survey, with questions like "3. Have you understood, in reading to this point, that Paul is the prince-figure? Yes ( ) No ( )" and "5. In the further development of the story, would you like more emotion ( ) or less emotion ( )?" which is hilarious because you of course have no choice, the novel is already written (our lives having been already written is actually the theme of the novel).

In 1983 Barthelme wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "Earth Angel," a review of Superman III. He wrote it up as a question and answer thing, even though he was writing both sides of the dialog. It's quite fun -- especially in its parody of academic talk and Whedon-esque shifts of tone. Since virtually no one has read it, I thought I would print some samples from it here, pointing out what makes it so great. It begins like this:
Q: Do we really need a Superman III?
A: Clearly not.
Q: Yet it's here. Must be a response to something, some kind of need...
A: Financial exigencies undiscussable on the plane of the cultural slash aesthetic.
Q: To which we shall stalwartly adhere. Would you like to be able to fly?
A: I have always wanted to fly. In the air.
Q: A basic human yearn. To fly.
A: A conquering of dailyness. Whoosh!
The redundancy of "In the air" is quite funny, as is the shift from academic buzzwords to goofy childlike enthusiasm. I also quote like that "slash" is written out as a word, emphasizing how awkwardly professors speak: you would have to say "slash" to use the phrase "plane of the cultural/aesthetic" out loud.

On the subject of the women in the film we get:
A: The O'Toole is a high school inamorata of old Clark's, from back home in Smallville.
Q: Might the O'Toole's qualities be further commented upon?
A: Freshness. Simplicity. American beauty. Believability. Directness. A certain sexual smolder not entirely disguised by ricky-tick Smallville couture.
The conversation is smart, but they both go juvenile, calling her "the" because her name is a noun. "Ricky-tick" and "couture" in the same sentence is a classic Barthelme kind of thing. He knows how to find the humor in mixing very different vocabularies.

Wonderfully, after all the silliness, the review ends suddenly with a nice detail noticed:
Q: Is Superman III, then, the finest of the Superfilms, in your view?
A: Perhaps the second-finest.
Q: And the first-finest?
A: The first, I think. Or perhaps the second.
Q: You think the first might be the first-finest and the second also might be the first-finest?
A: When Clark Kent goes back to Smallville for his high school reunion, at which he re-encounters the grand O'Toole, the music playing, at one point, is "Earth Angel." I liked that a lot.
The way A avoids getting into another round of wordplay with Q by blurting forth this heartfelt observation is quite sweet and remarkable, I thought. You can find the whole review in Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme.

4 comments:

Josh said...

Bathos is really great for comedy. It is good to move from the highfalutin to the primitive. Besides short-circuiting the brain by forcing it to access data from two generally unlinked sites (typically resulting in guffaw-like processes), it is also good for reminding us that behind all that academic ballyhoo there's someone longing for a good fuck joke.

neilshyminsky said...

Only somewhat-but-not-really connected... I'm currently on a committee to organize a graduate conference, which through secret vote was determined to be 'Broke/n'. After which I had a good 5 minute discussion with someone about whether it should be pronounced as 'broke...uhn' or 'broke-whoosh!-uhn'. It seems, now, that we might just do away with the 'n' altogether...but I'm really quite partial to the 'whoosh!'

Geoff Klock said...

josh: well said.

Neil: That's hilarious.

Katrin said...

Smashing good time, really. Thanks for introducing him to me. I am ready to devour the link. Well the substance the link is linked to.