Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"They told us we would be superheroes"

The power of Fight Club was rooted in its claim that "They told us we would be superheroes and rock stars. They lied." The move argued that men had been emasculated by a culture of Ikea tables and women, a culture that encouraged passive consumerism over ACTION and CONFLICT -- the kind of action and conflict embodied best in genre fiction, and codified in Robert McKee's Story.

Frank Miller, in his introduction to an anniversary edition of Dark Knight Returns, talks about how the inspiration for that book came from an imaginative need for a Batman older than he was, older than 29 (as Batman is traditionally assumed to be -- though now Morrison has him at 35). Miller's Batman has much in common with Bruce Willis in Live Free Die Hard, and Sylvester Stalone in both the new Rambo and the new Rocky and even John Locke on Lost -- older, we have a psychological need to know there is some kind of action hero role model always out ahead of where we are now, so that it is not too late for us, if we have gotten to 29 and are not yet Batman.

Shows like the Sopranos, the Wire and even the Venture Bros. -- in spite of the major differences between them -- respond to this same imaginative need in a different way. The power of genre stuff such as the mob movie derive from the power fantasy -- but in the Sopranos this is less about the power to kill at will or accumulate vast sums of money. The quintessential Sopranos scene for me is the one in which Uncle Junior's cancer doctor starts ducking his calls because of a possible bureaucratic hassle with a medical board. Tony Soprano can simply show up on the golf course and intimidate him into being available and supportive of his uncle in a way the rest of us can only dream, as we sit waiting in emergency rooms or on hold with insurance companies.

And yet these little victories are short lived on the Sopranos and more often than not, the show, like the Wire and the Venture Bros. shows us a world of frustrated expectations, lives that do not turn out as the movies promise. Being a mob boss comes with serious stress disorders of the type that would dog any corporate leader, and the same kind of midlife crisis. A lot of fun has been made of the midlife crisis -- the flashy car or motorcycle, the toupee -- but it comes from a very real and very basic existential dread (even if they would not articulate it in these terms), the feeling of coming too late, of being too small compared to the giants of the past, real and imagined. You needn't wish you were a mob king, rather than climbing the corporate ladder, because at the end of the day, they have a lot in common.

The Wire's exploration of the corruption of related systems -- rather than people -- cannot be overpraised. Part of the power of the show is its vision of the world as corrupted far beyond anything we could do about it: we have the jobs we wanted, but we do not have the resources to actually do the job effectively. The quintessential Wire scene is the one in season three when Herc tells McNulty that he saw Barksdale (whose name he cannot remember even though he worked the case) driving around free -- we followed that case for a full year, and now 18 months later he is back on the street. Part of the sympathy the show generates is based in the same kinds of frustrations the viewers have in their own lives in their own jobs, no matter how small.

The Venture Bros similarly shows how the Dr Venture is both in the shadows of the titans of the past -- his own father, rather than Tony's metaphorical Godfathers of history and fiction (though Tony does have the shadow of his own biological father too). Like Tony, Dr Venture has to rely on pills to survive building on the sepulchers of the past. Dr Venture is also caught in the bond of absurd bureaucratic rules dictating, for example, the terms of his conflict with his nemesis. Hatred, something assumed to be natural and direct, is mediated and directed. The Monarch has to goad Dr. Venture's brother into trying to kill him and his men so he can then go after Dr. Venture -- he has to have revenge for lethal force as a motive, otherwise he has to leave him alone.

These shows create a really interesting middle ground between our genre-fantasy wish fulfillments (we want to be like them), and sympathetic identification (we are like them).


brad said...

First of all: Fuck yeah.
Second of all: When I turned 29 I thought about Miller's DKR intro and realized that my entire life has been spent trying to maintain the state of mind I had as a kid. To a large degree, I think all of my choices have been focused on building a life where everyday I get to do the equivalent of playing with action figures on the basement floor of my parents' house.

scott91777 said...

First, I nominate this for Best of the Blog. Is this something you're working up for something else? New book? The Power of Kick-Ass Old Dudes!

Secondly, since you mentioned Rocky Balboa.... going back to your discussions of the power of clips. Something similar happenned to me with that movie; I happenned to catch the last 15 minutes or so of Rocky Balboa on TV one day and, you know what? That was ALL I needed to see... I got the whole story right there: Rocky is old and wants to prove to himself and his son (and the world) that he can do this one last time. The younger fighter respects Rocky, but isn't going to go easy on him, just as Rocky respects the younger fighter and won't go easy on him either. In the end, the younger fighter is the winner but Rocky still wins because, like in the original, he went the distance, and because he proved to himself that he could still do it one last time.

So is there anything I am missing out on from NOT watching the other 2 hours or so of the movie?

Voice Of The Eagle said...

If you need me I'll be under the bed...

Streebo said...

Great post, Geoff. Kudos for linking Fight Club to the Venture Bros. Only the nefarious Dr. Klock could accomplish such a task!

This topic reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Ed Wood - which I am going to misquote because it is not listed on under the quote section of the IMDB.

Ed Wood laments that "Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 24. I'm almost 30 and I haven't made my first picture yet. . ."

Mikey said...

Geoff - GOOD post. But. So what? I don't ask this aggressively, nor mean it in the flip way it appears. It feels like there should be more. As is, it's a great observation.

Of course, there's no reason, especially on a blog, that a great observation can't simply be just that.

Geoff Klock said...

Mikey -- I had that thought myself. But I posted it anyway. My hope was that once it was up, I would figure out why my mind was running along these lines. I very much treat the blog as a forum for half-formed thoughts. At it's best, you are seeing first drafts.

Mikey said...

Well - there's no reason EVERYTHING has to be IMPORTANT. ALL THE TIME. (What you might call "Dark-Knightis").

Some things can just be left to stand. Or refrigerated a while for the flavours to mingle.

Still - it seems like it could definitely go somewhere as part of something larger. But then, this blog is valuable for the self-imposed conciseness of the Remarks.

Mikey said...

Oh, and wanted to add this.

Tom Spurgeon posted on his blog asking people to summarise what Watchmen is about. Here. Matthew Craig’s answer is my favourite. And it actually chimes nicely with this post.

Matthew Craig:
1. Watchmen is the ultimate mid-life crisis

2. Watchmen is the ultimate mid-life crisis, only instead of a Ferrari, you buy Armageddon.

3. Watchmen is the ultimate mid-life crisis, a counterpoint to the coming-of-age story, in which the characters ask what kind of man they have become, and where -- if anywhere -- they go from here.

4. Watchmen is the ultimate mid-life crisis: like Fight Club, but with giant blue balls.

neilshyminsky said...

The undercurrent running through here, as well, is one that runs parallel to - and often intersects with - the collapse of institutional capital-M Masculinity. It used to be that the mid-life crisis struck after retirement, when men no longer knew how to make themselves useful - now middle-aged and older men rarely actually "retire" and young men can rarely look forward to having a single career after which they can collect a pension: hence, the quarter-life crisis (which I think Miller was already feeling in the DKR example) that strikes before you even start your career. Existential dread comes with your BA or BSc, rather than with your retirement party.

I think that bringing masculinity into the discussion, too, ups the stakes a bit: to discuss "wish fulfillment" (whether with respect to us as viewers wanting to be like the characters or the characters wanting to be like someone else) is to imply that the sympathies or desires of these are misdirected (they "wish" when they should aim lower) and can be corrected. But when we talk about Frank Miller's relation to Batman or Tony Soprano's relation to Don Corleone in terms of masculinity and manhood, we're forced to contend with social and familial expectations that are already overdetermined by the time they (and we) become conscious of their existence. It doesn't matter that the image we have of masculinity or our fathers or Batman is a fiction - in fact, their divergences with reality makes matching their example that much more difficult.

Mikey said...

Neil - have you read David Savran's Taking It Like A Man? I find the masochism aspect a great hook, if not an entirely convincing thesis.

Or, from a related angle, White Men Aren't by Thomas DiPiero?

neilshyminsky said...

mikey: I've read both, though I read the DiPiero one much more closely. The hot take on (white) masculinity these days seems to be in suggesting a new way to make sense of 1) how they're pained and 2) how that pain can be made useful. Which is often interesting, but also sounds like plucking a variation on the chord over and over again.

And I think you're right to say that they're often great hooks that aren't wholly convincing. I've mostly been very utilitarian about the 'masculinity crisis' writings - pulling stuff that works for me and ignoring much of the rest. I'm going to be spending the next few months going over the stuff in more detail and determining exactly what I can get behind fully and what I'll have to consider to selectively pilfer but otherwise ignore.