Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Internalization of Quest Romance and Pop Culture

[Jason was talking about Claremont and the internalization of a conflict that was external in the Phoenix saga, and it got me thinking about this.]

Harold Bloom had this idea back in the late 60s called the Internalization of Quest Romance. It was a way of characterizing what happened to poetry around the time of Wordsworth: Wordsworth, argues Bloom, took all of the poetic machinery of epic poetry that culminated in Milton -- heroes, villains, battles, the quest for some object or person -- and made it internal: the conflict portrayed in post Wordsworth poetry is not with an external figure, but with whatever mental blocks are getting in the way of access to your own imagination, for example.

The problem with the idea, interesting on a lot of levels, is that I am not sure I want to deny a big internal world to Homer and Beowulf and Spencer, but still. Maybe it is just a shift in emphasis. I am going on memory with the Bloom as well, and I may be over-simplifying. Since both Bloom and I have that habit it is hard to tell who might be more at fault on this point.

But it occurs to me that the shift in emphasis from external conflict to internal conflict is maybe the key factor in what appears to me to be these major jumps in storytelling quality in pop culture, and a lack of this shift often the reason for dramatic failures. Pop genres are all about external conflict so they are not going to go as far as Wordsworth -- who can write a major epic poem where virtually nothing HAPPENS. In pop culture, internal conflict is set alongside external conflict to either make us care about the external conflict more by providing a point of emotional identification. Sometimes the internal conflict becomes so important that the external conflict is little more than allegorical window dressing for telling stories about emotional states.

The advent of the Silver Age: superheroes with internal conflicts, like the Thing on the Fantastic Four.

Star Trek vs Battlestar Galactica: the latter takes the former and makes the conflicts internal rather than external. Stories are about emotional conflicts between -- or often within -- people more than they are about space battles and space politics. One of the reasons the premise of Battlestar is so compelling is that there is so much personal responsibility for the external conflict: the Cylons (unlike in the original, I think) are the endpoint of our technology, technology that we abandoned, and since they look just like people -- since we may be Cylons without knowing it -- existential crises are huge.

The original Star Wars movies drew on sources like King Arthur and German legend that "predated" the Wordsworth shift so the conflict was mostly external, like Star Trek. Fair enough. But as pop culture shifted into fancy stuff with internal states, the prequels pretended the shift never happened, and so it felt like we were watching dumb kids stuff -- the Star Wars Prequels should have been to the Original Star Wars movies what Battlestar is to Star Trek.

Kill Bill gave us that external/internal shift between the two volumes: volume on is all sword battles and violence and the body count is huge. In volume two Thurman kills only one person, almost bloodlessly and the final "battle" is a conversation with Bill, who is repentant, nice, and an excellent dad. The "battle" is between the temptation to be a family again and the warrior's sense of duty to the mission, no matter what.

The Sopranos begins with Tony the Mob Boss seeing a psychiatrist -- the show takes the mob genre and creates the drama by emphasizing the internal over the external, Tony's emotional states over power plays on the streets. This is a show that often holds out the possibility of some big gun battle but finds all the real "battles" in Tony's home and his therapy.

Joss Whedon tells stories about Cute Girls who fight Vampires, but -- revising old vampire stuff -- he creates an emotional core by making the vampire stuff just allegories for high school conflicts, conflicts that are more often than not internal. A witch's curse makes Angel go evil after a moment of perfect happiness but this is really just a story about a girl who looses her virginity and then finds that her true love has just become this completely different person who did not care about it as much as she did and, having got what he wanted, blows her off.

Our own Streebo made a great Zombie film that I won't ruin for you, but it involves a shift of this kind.

The Wire is a big exception here -- that is a show that goes as external as you can go -- away from people and into systems.

I do not know if this is a good model for thinking about the evolution of pop culture, because I feel like you can go into anything from any period -- especially if you know some psychoanalysis -- and demonstrate how it was always already internal. Is the shift I am talking about more putting the internal conflict on the surface, where before it was merely subtext?


Voice Of The Eagle said...

"the Star Wars Prequels should have been to the Original Star Wars movies what Battlestar is to Star Trek."

I agree 100% - pop culture grew up and Lucas didn't. Hence the universal disappointment.

I would add the following: in the realm of Tolkien-inspired epic fantasy (the Professor is to the genre what Wordsworth is to poetry), George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire does this in relation to Lord of the Rings.

scott91777 said...

The Office does this in relation to all other sit-coms.

scott91777 said...

This actually reminds me of something we just covered in class which was the shift from Romantic Fiction to Realistic fiction... which would be, basically, that the conflict is not only internal but more subtle.

scott91777 said...

Actually, I just had a student turn in a paper that argues for the reverse of this in a review that he wrote of The Mist.

"Trying to inject depth into a movie about giant bugs and octopi that rip people apart is a bold idea, but it just doesn't work as well as Darbont may have originally dreamt [...]what Darabont does in the long run is to try to turn what should be 'movie' into a 'film'" (the overall paper laments that a what is,essentially, a good 'monster flick' is ruined by attempts to give it emotional depth... he also makes a good point about the designs of the monsters... and, yes, this is my star pupil for the semester... he's the kid with the Hardee's comment from last week)

Streebo said...

Thanks for sharing, Geoff. Thank you for the kind shout out.

Scott - is there any way you can post the rest of this paper about The Mist? It sounds intriguing.

scott91777 said...


That would be up to Geoff. Geoff, you want to peruse the paper? (I'll get the student's permission of course)

And Geoff,

Why did Star Wars have to grow up?

I mean, saying that the Star Wars prequels should have been 'internalized' ... isn't that kind of like saying "It was fine for Homer to write the Illiad as an epic poem... but the Oddessey should have been realistic prose fiction"?

Don't get me wrong, I would LOVE to see someone take the Sci-Fantasy genre of Star Wars to this next level... I just don't see why Star Wars had to do it.

Can't Star Wars just be Star Wars?

(and, yes, I concede that Episode I is terrible... but that has more to do with stiff acting, horrible dialogue and an obnoxious, perhaps even pseudo-racist alien character than in the approach to the actual story)

Ben Valpo said...

I'm new here (in fact, never posted anything anywhere), but I just have to comment on the Prequel thing: I personally LOVE the fact that episodes 1-3 are sort of blissfully unaware of any shift to internal in popular culture. In fact, if anything, they are determined to go backwards.

There's a sweet, if maybe somewhat perverse, symmetry to it -- they precede the original trilogy not only chronologically but also in terms of the development of popular culture. For example, compared to Han's pursuit of Leia, Anakin's quest for Padme can only described as banal, reduced to this kind of medieval troubadour worship. But viewed in this context, the banality sort of has a justification. It's the "yesteryear", "the simpler times", "the golden age", whatever you want to call it.

A twisted but satisfying way to enjoy movies that are admittedly quite poor. Now the sequels, those should not only be made but made awesome. I expect revisionary masterpieces. Internalized to the extreme. Yeah, it won't happen, but symmetry sort of demands it.

Geoff Klock said...

ben -- glad to have you start commenting. Keep it up.
I hope the fact that i am going to disagree with you here will not keep you from commenting in the future.

"A twisted but satisfying way to enjoy movies that are admittedly quite poor." This does not seem quite right. This is better: "the banality sort of has a justification" -- that's the problem. You can justify them sucking, but it does not make them suck less.

James said...

I would love some crazy Star Wars sequels with a dysfunctional ancient Luke. Get Aronofsky to do it the second Lucas keels over.