Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From a Letter of John Keats's [negative capability] (Commonplace Book)

Henry Jenkins wrote one of those essays that make me nuts.* Pirates 3 is just no fun. No theoretical machinery is going to begin to justify even a single one of its egregious mistakes, such as the one pointed out by Fraction in the comments to yesterday's post, that Chow Yun Fat fails to kick any ass as a pirate.

In the essay Jenkins writes "The secondary characters [in Pirates 3] rely heavily on what my former student Geoffrey Long likes to describe as negative capability -- they are well enough defined that we can imagine who they are, what they want, and why they are doing what they are doing, but much remains for the audience to flesh out from their own imaginations."

Does he really think I should be satisfied with my imagining Chow Yun Fat kicking ass as a pirate? To quote the fellow audience member who responds to Lisa Simpson's gushing "you have to listen to the notes she's not playing" -- "I can do that at home." And for free I might add.

I am unclear from that quote if Jenkins knows his former student is cribbing from the poet John Keats. But we know he is, so lets take a look at the best prose thing Keats's wrote, in a letter of 1817:

"At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -- Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium [innermost and most secret part of a temple] of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

If you, as they guy in charge of Pirates 3, fail to provide the pure spectacle of Chow Yun Fat kicking pirate ass -- Beauty in its purist form -- then you do not get to claim, or have someone claim for you, John-fucking-Keats as a patron of your film's junky stupid badness.

[Apparently when I said in yesterday's comments that I was going to let the whole Pirates 3 thing go, I was not telling the truth. But NOW I am letting it go.]

*[thanks for the link Mikey: you inspired today's post].


Jason Powell said...

Geoff, how 'bout this. Rather than go into a futile discussion of Pirates 3 (as you said, it's hard to argue "it's incoherent"/"no, you're wrong, it's coherent"/"no, I'm right, it's not"), can I ask you to clarify your assertion that even the first one was "not that great in the first place"?

The reason I'm surprised to hear you say this is because of the numerous times you've alluded to screenplay structure (you mentioned it in your praise of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane and I think you said it was the focus of your Veronica Mars essay as well). The first Pirates had a textbook screenplay structure. I've seen the first one three times now and remain impressed with how well it holds together. Do you not agree?

-- Jason

P.S. What if I'm not a kung-fu movie fan and don't really care about Chow Yun Fat's ass-kicking abilities? Then can I like Pirates 3? (Ah ha, I wasn't telling the truth either ...)

Geoff Klock said...

Well, the first one is ok, but it is Johnny Depp and Johnny Depp alone that bring the thing to this level where I could get excited about it. It is kind of a shakey ground for future movies. I remember thinking that the first film was just too long -- the only scene I can remember as an example of this is when Elizabeth's father fights a severed hand in his office while the fight rages outside. The joke I did not think was great, and the scene was unnecessary. I remember it as the example of it being only a so-so movie with an amazing character. BUT I have not seen it in years and could be dead wrong about this. I also remember thinking the underwater undead pirates was brilliant -- really thinking through the whole concept.

Thinking about it some more the thing that was weak in the first film was how forgettable the two main characters were -- when 2 started I was like -- oh yeah, Orlando Bloom is in this. I can't call a movie great with such bland protagonists.

And though you backed off of your point let me answer it anyway -- just casting Cow Yun Fat as a Pirate is an implicit promise to your audience that he will kick ass. When you break that promise you insult the audience.

Remember how the first Matrix ended with the words "I am going to show them a world free of machines" (or something like that) and then the third installment failed to deliver. Just WRONG.

Jason Powell said...

Good points all. Agree about the dad fighting the hand. The only thing I didn't really like about the first one was the dad, which was why I really didn't question him dying in the third. Let the old bastard go!

Good call on the underwater/undead thing -- it's one of the things I thought was great. I also loved Sparrow's trick at the end of stealing the coin so that he could be undead too. Perfectly set up and well-executed.

I also enjoyed the dialogue in the first one. There's a great bit early on when Sparrow's in jail. One of his cellmates says, "I've heard stories about the Black Pearl. They ravage entire towns, they don't leave any survivors!" and Sparrow responds, "No survivors. Hm. Then where do the stories come from, I wonder."

Sparrow has a lot of good little lines like that, kind of puncturing holes in other people's melodrama -- and they're part of what made me love the movie.

Also clever, I thought: The use of the storehouse of rum on the island where Jack is stranded. It serves a nice dual function. The reveal that it's there at all exposes Jack as being full of sh*t and all-talk. And then it's also used by Elizabeth to start the fire that gets them rescued. It's another good structural aspect of the film, I think: That this plot point can also operate as a character point. There are other examples as well.

Anyway, thanks for humoring/indulging me, Geoff. I may indeed be wrong about "Pirates" -- but then, hey, Grant Morrisson was wrong when he said every Beatles song ever written contains no more than five chords, and look how much we all love him. :) (Ironically, one guy who probably DID use only five chords or less on every song he wrote is Kieth Richards...)

Also, the Matrix comparison seems unfair. Pirates 1 didn't end with Bloom saying, "I will show you a world in which Chow Yun Fat kicks a lot of ass." It's hardly as integral a "promise" as Neo's final line of the first Matrix movie. (Good point there, though...)

Finally, any thoughts on Geoffrey Rush? I'm a character-acting junkie myself, so for me the promise of more of Rush saying "Arrrr" (which is the promise implicit in his entrance at the end of Part Two) is worth twenty promises of Chow Yun Fat hitting people. I mean, it all depends on what you like, doesn't it, mate?


Darius Kazemi said...

That's funny. I actually know the student that Henry is quoting.

Marc said...

Amen on the Jenkins essay, Geoff. That post drove me nuts, too--a perfect condensation of everything that's wrong with cultural studies, from its forced anti-establishment tone to its fear of criticism. I also love how Jenkins asserts that anyone who didn't like the film must not have understood it (naturally! How else could they dislike it?) while selectively framing all critical reviews within the stupidest of objections. (Every halfway interesting commentary on PotC 3 I read observed there was too much Jack Sparrow, not too little.) Perhaps most perversely, one of his few tepid complaints is about "the somewhat politically correct impulses of representation and inclusiveness" in the pirate crews--this in a franchise that features cannibal Indians and magical negroes (in both black and Asian varieties), none of which merit a word. He's so busy confirming his thesis about how Hollywood assembles its franchises that he forgets to evaluate the end product. God help us if all academic criticism of popular culture is converging with this.

Streebo said...

I haven't made the effort to see Pirates 3 as my girlfriend dragged me to the second one and then got mad at my complaints about it. I'm looking forward to seeing Stephen King's 1408 instead as word from the horror circles is that it is one of the best King adaptations since The ____________. Insert your own title there because someone always argues that any given film was not a good adaptation.

It's a rather funny synchronicity that I was reading Jenkins' review of Geoff's superhero book just this weekend and found myself thinking, "which book did this guy read?"

Mikey said...

Aw shucks, first time I ever inspired a blog post. Without wanting to go on too much:

I think your assessment is spot on actually - it's easy to get caught up thinking about (in this case) fan cultures and what they take from and make with movies, comics etc. But you risk losing sight of if the movie was, y'know, any good.

To my mind, I thought the first Pirates was a good little movie, that didnt necessarily need its world and mythology expanding. It suggested well enough on its own the milieu that Jenkins gets into, but had a surprisingly strong script, an internal logic and some great set pieces. The appearance of Barbossa at the end of the sequel, my favourite character from the first movie, at pretty much the exact moment I'd decided I wouldnt need to see the third, meant I pretty much had to. Much like Spidey 3, 'conflicted' is I guess the word to describe how I felt when I left the theatre. And annoyed. (Your review of Spidey 3 pretty much summed up my feelings on that as well - 'Peter Parker does not play piano' being kind of the crux).

I've never had the time or patience to catalogue and correlate all the essential data of any film or comic universe. With the latter - read comics for long enough and it just happens, is largely intuitive anyway. And as for the former - not what I go to the movies for.

But then, to make up for it I've been watching Billy Blanks movies all week, so. (The world you can build around the two movies in which Blanks and Rowdy Roddy Piper team up to fight crime is ace).

Roger said...

booyah! Such stupidity, and from Jenkins! Wow, makes you wonder about all that fan culture stuff making English Departments suck. I'm usually a fan of Jenkins, and my dissertation is on Romantic figures in pop culture, but this essay just gives cultural studies a bad name. If you want to use a great idea like negative capability in a kitschy context, at least do it right.

Geoff Klock said...

Jason: I remembered something else about the first pirates that got on my nerves -- Depp grabbing the coin was great, but then the duel was between two immortal guys, so there was nothing at stake, becuase neither could be hurt by the other.

The Matrix comparison was unfair, but I was free associating. Sorry about that.

Geoffrey Rush is great, but I think it is jot just "what you like" -- I think Chow Yun Fat has too kick ass by virtue of being Chow Yun Fat.

Darius: really? that's weird.

Marc: dead on, man

Streebo: THAT is the Jenkins who reviewed my book! I did not figure that out. thanks for telling me. That makes so much more sense now.

Mikey: Billy Blanks movies? Scheesh

Roger: I have more confidence in you in a cultural studies dept because you know Romantic poetry. It will defend you from bad bad things.