Monday, May 18, 2009

Mysteries and Origins and LOST, BSG etc.

Andy Bentley has been looking at the New Gods and I was struck by the lack of explanation from Kirby, at least as far as I know, about Serafin -- why is there a Cowboy in this cosmic bunch? I like the lack of explanation there. I have also been thinking about the LOST season 5 finale. I wanted to quote Anthony Lane's New Yorker review on Star Trek. I hated the review, but this sentiment was worth a discussion:

"A long range backstory -- a device that in the Hollywood of recent times has gone from an option to a fetish. I lost patience with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" once we learned of Willy Wonka's primal trauma (his father was a dentist and forbade him candy, so guess how he reversed that depravation?), and likewise, with Batman Begins, from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What's wrong with BATMAN IS? In all narratives there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and like plaintive children demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude's breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?"

In Dark Knight the only part that really works is the Joker -- and the Joker simply IS.


Jason said...

Guy's understanding of Hamlet seems a bit limited.

I don't mind a good origin, but it does have to fit the material. The "Chocolate Factory" thing truly is one of the worst examples of needless "origins" in modern cinema, if not the history of civilization. The idea that this impossible, reality-defying fantasia of sweets all stems from something as banal as a dentist-dad is criminally stupid and boring. It also demonstrates a filmmaker who doesn't even get the point of his own stuff. Later in the movie, Charlie says "Candy doesn't need an explanation. It's just candy!" and Willy Wonka smiles a knowing, "This kid gets it" type of smile.

Okay, so we're to understand that Charlie has just grasped the point of all this craziness ... that it doesn't need an explanation because it tastes so good (or thereabouts)?


That movie pissed me off.

Batman's origin -- strikes me as a little different, since him seeing a bat and being inspired by it has been part of the canon for over 60 years. All "Begins" did was change the chronology a bit. And the whole movie was just part of the classic comic-book tradition -- "Because you demanded it: The origin of So-and-So!"

hcduvall said...

I've always been annoyed at the tendency of Hollywood to personalize stories needlessly. Batman and Spider-Man were sparked by Crime, but in their respective movies you eventually discover the actual culprit of said senseless crimes, and they become sort of revenge stories instead of whatever of ideals thy might represent. Even in Batman Begins, the economic downturn of Gotham may have been Ra's a Ghul's illuminati plot.

That said, it's something that a good portion of the audience does reach out for. Filling in and explaining ambiguity is as normal part as trying to make sense of dreams or convincing one's self that George Lucas created mythology on purpose, we just all kind of want it to make sense. The clumsiness which such an impulse is usually fed, however, is how we end up with Phantom Menace and the like.

Christian said...

I still think the best Origin flashbacks ever created were in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's criminally underrated Nextwave. Just a quick panel or two of absolute nonsense, that actually works to flesh out the characters while still being crazy and nonsensisial as hell. From Special Bear to Techno-Organic Prolapse to Captain America's sexism, it's just fun.

neilshyminsky said...

There's more than the Joker just being the Joker, though - with the Joker, they turned the need to have everything thoroughly explained into, well, a joke.

(One that went right over the heads of a few people, even. I remember Ebert's review citing one of the Joker's "origin" stories, forgetting that he told more than one and that they were contradictory.)

neilshyminsky said...

And re: LOST. Yes, I could have done without ever meeting Radzinsky or Marvin Edgar Halliwax Candle. Aside from getting Daniel and Juliet killed (and, I guess, revealing Daniel's destiny to his parents), what did this season really accomplish? Especially since everyone else seems to have slid back into their old roles.

Stefan Delatovic said...

This is my pet peeve with the Spider-man films.

Every major villain is someone Peter is personally invested in.
All of the final battles revolve around him saving his girlfriend from death. It's an irritation that becomes maddening by the third film.

When Spidey puts the black suit on he fights Sandman and pummels him because the suit is making him bad. But! We've learned Sandman killed Uncle Ben, so Peter's reaction seems pretty reasonable in context, and it undermines the black suit storyline.

When you look back on the villains Spidey fights, he comes off as a selfish bastard who may well let crime pass unless it treatens him or his friends.

Just let heroes be heroes.

scott91777 said...

And, of course, let's not forget Wolverine... and I'm not just talking about the movie (and, now... the heartstopping origin of Wolverine's Jacket?!?!) But he's a character who's backstory has become so convoluted now that, even if his memory hadn't been tampered with, I'm still pretty sure he'd have trouble keeping it straight.

Also, like the Joker, Wolverine is a character who works better when he has no past, he just sort of is. I mean, you get hints here and there of what may have happenned to him but they serve only to lead to more questions about his past.

And, of course, as Patton Oswald has pointed out... there's the Star Wars prequels... the last time Geoff Posted it he the clip cut off the last part where he says something to the effect of "That's like instead of giving me Ice Cream you give me some milk, Ice, a bag of rock salt and some Vanilla flavoring"

I think with Spider-Man and Batman, it's a bit different... their origin stories are part of WHY we like them.

Jason said...

The shark-jumping moment for Wolverine and his "origin" was, I think, when they added the whole "memory implant" idea, dovetailing with the notion that Logan himself doesn't remember his own past.

Then it was no longer about the mystery of what makes this guy tick, as it was this giant crossword puzzle ... less about story and more about being a game.

Which I suppose could be fun, *maybe*, if the writers did a decent job of it. Instead it got more and more convoluted as time went on, and filled with tons of contradictory information. (Scott, good line about the memory implants!)

To see just how ridiculous it's gotten -- and read what must be the most impressively dedicated attempt by a fan to actually *solve* the crossword puzzle -- go here:

James said...

It's the Universe-shrinking in these retroactive origins that kills me. This aspect of the Star Wars prequels has been well-documented. In Wolverine (which I haven't seen) he crosses paths with Cyclops and Xavier (tangentially)... it'd be like Abrams having Kirk and Spock grow up in the same orphanage, or something. I anticipate a fair bit of this going on in Del Toro's Hobbit movie(s).

Streebo said...

The traditional superhero origin creates the common ground/everyman link with our heroes that helps us to sympathize with their plight and understand why they put on shiny tights and proceed to punch people in the mouths. Without the (generally tragic) touch points our heroes would be inhuman fascists that imposed their law on the world. Their origin is what helps make them heroic.

Wolverine WAS ruined by the revelation of his origin (which I haven't really paid attention to because I am holding out for when it is retconned back into a mystery). As noted above - Wolverine's mystery is part of what made him so appealing as a character.

Streebo said...

This argument of the shrinking universe amuses me - because it is essentially the exact same argument that drove Stan Lee and Spiderman co-creator Steve Ditko apart. Dikto's argument was that the Green Goblin should not be revealed as someone that knew Peter Parker - because life doesn't work that way. Sometimes enemies are anonymous strangers. Stan Lee thought that the Goblin should be someone that Peter knew to give the revelation more emotional weight.

Shlomo said...

I still like the theory (i think i read it online somewhere, and of course its now void) that Wolverine couldnt remember his past as a side effect of his super-immune system. This would be a great way of bringing a tragic side effect to what seems like a limitless invincibility. A real existential conundrum: Should he save the life of a random stranger, even if he has to sacrifice his identity--become a stranger to himself--to do it?

but obviously they would would also have to have a good writer to pull this off. otherwise it could get repetitive and lame fast.

James said...

"Stan Lee thought that the Goblin should be someone that Peter knew to give the revelation more emotional weight."

And he's right, obviously. The difference here is that the identity of the Green Goblin had been an Important Mystery in Spider-Man for months (years?), whereas C-3PO and Darth Vader, Wolverine and Cyclops, Yoda and Chewbacca... those are all complete, independent characters, who are in no way enhanced by the arbitrary conflation of their back-stories.

Mikey said...

All I wanted to point out was a kick ass example of this being done right and please forgive me if I go on to an unreasonable degree: Last Crusade opens with a flashback (we do not know it is a flashback) of some men in a typically Jonesian situation digging around in some underground tomb. We mistake the leader for Indiana Jones because he is wearing a hat. The rest of him is obscured. The reveal comes as he holds the treasure up to the light and we pause, our expectations confounded - wait, that's not Indy. Cut to River Phoenix as a boy scout looking on while his sidekick appeals to him by name. "Indiana," he opines. Oh, that's Indy. Neat.

Furthermore, bro in the hat is some cheap mercenary explorer stealing artefacts for rich assholes (we know this because River Phoenix says "that belongs in a museum" - possibly part of the reason Jones also hates filthy Nazis later in life with all of their purloined antiquities).

Anyway, suffice to say, chase ensues, in which we get the origin of the fear of snakes, the whip and - hilariously - Harrison Ford's chin scar. Villain wins...this time. Villain also perhaps senses a kindred spirit and a life of regret, wondering about what might have been had he not sold his services to the highest bidder (echoes (foreshadows?) what both Jones boys, junior and senior, accuse Nazi-collaborators of doing later in the movie).

Villain puts the hat on Indy's bowed head as a consolation. (Totemic induction/passing of symbolic baton blah blah shuttup George Lucas). "You lost today kid, but you don't have to like it." Words to live by, maybe.

It's adult Indy who raises his head from under the hat, as we cut to the present day and Jones in some typically ludicrous situation getting his ass stomped (as usual). In fact, it's in pursuit of the same fop with the same treasure we've just seen him lose moments before thirty years ago. We've cut from the scorching heat of the desert to the middle of the ocean and a huge storm. Tenacious, that Jones. And clearly living with the healthy disrespect his unnamed precursor instilled in him in that scene a few minutes/long ago (along with headgear). He's getting beaten on but that a smile?

Point being, it's about a lot more than an explanation of where he got the fucking hat. It's about character and kick ass moments of cinematic quintessence. But it's also totally about the hat as well, done in a totally great way. I wouldn't go so far as saying shit is deep, but this is good, confident stuff, and although I haven't seen the Wolverine movie I'm sure it comes across as utter shit by comparison.

Jason said...

I do remember liking that "Indy" sequence, but it reminds me of another type of -- as James put it -- "universe shrinking." For all the fun of that sequence, when I see it all laid out like that, I'm thinking ... wow, *every* single aspect of Indiana Jones was born during that same day? Good thing he didn't get malaria that day and was bed-ridden, he'd be a totally different person 20 years later.

It's a sort of temporal universe shrinking at work there. It's one of the things that annoyed me about PROOF, a play that won like every prestigious award there is for plays to win. It's an engaging story, but throughout the first act we see three characters (a woman, her father, and the father's former student) come together, and they reminisce about various moments from their past.

Then in Act Two, we flashback to a single day from the past, and *all* the stuff they talked about pretty much all happens during that one day. I don't know the effect the author was going for, but for me it seemed ridiculous, because why -- in none of their reminiscences -- did anyone note, "Yeah, those two things actually happened on the same day, coincidentally enough"?

Mikey said...

What I was really getting at wasn't about the nature of 'universe shrinking' itself, which I often find a little precious, but rather that it's more forgivable in Crusade because it's done with craft, humour, and heart. It serves and adds to the character as well as being a kind of pop cultural shorthand ("these are the important moments that formed the character you know"). As opposed to operating as a pointless checklist, or filler. While it may be a series of knowing winks to the audience, it's got purpose.

I haven't seen Proof but that sounds to me more like straight up dramatic licence - a contrivance, maybe, but a necessary and common story structure (see also the equally ridiculous sounding Slumdog Millionaire). Of course, that doesn't make it any less annoying or ridiculous, but then, it's always going to sound ridiculous on paper.

In terms of practicality, it's a neat way of telling a story. Similarly, Indiana Jones is a fictional character who can literally be created in a single formative day - both within the narrative and in the minds of his creators. Plus, having all the events happen in a day, within ten minutes of the film's time, is expedient, but that doesn't mean it can't be done well.

In short, I think it's more to do with the quality of the universe being shrunk and how the shrinking's done in terms of craftsmanship. I could tell you where I got my jacket, but that doesn't mean it's interesting.

scott91777 said...

By the way, everyone knows Hamlet wasn't breast fed... that's part of his problem :)

scott91777 said...

Speaking of Indy and origins, let's not forget "We named the dog Indiana"