Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Scaramouche

I continue to look at Kill Bill's influences to argue that Tarantino's allusions are not swipes, but interpretations.


[Big sword fight in a theatre. 18th century. They fight on a balcony railing at one point and out guy jumps off the balcony on a rope and comes back. At another point he falls off and fights from there and climbs back up. You can see it here:


[Thurman fights Johnny Mo on a railing of a balcony and jumps off and jumps on again using impossible wire fu stuff. You can see a lot of it in the trailer


Scaramouche is a 1952 adventure movie starring Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, and Janet Leigh, directed by George Sidney. It takes place just before the French Revolution. They wear wigs and stuff, though the way everything is shot and given the actors it all looks very American. A bunch of scenes are shot in Golden Gate Park and you keep expecting to see the bridge. In the movie the bad guy kills Steward Granger's best friend in a fencing duel. (The duel, the Internet Movie Database tells me, takes place in the same spot they landed the ship in Star Trek 4; given Tarantino's Star Trek love I bet he knew that). Granger is not good enough to get revenge so he runs away to train and get revenge later. He is being hunted by the bad guy's henchmen, so he hides in an acting troupe as Scaramouche. Scaramouche is a 17th century stock clown character (the name means "skirmish"). If you are anything like me you know Scaramouche primarily from the Invisibles (if I am remembering that correctly), and of course Bohemian Rapsody's "Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango."

Anyway. After being kept apart by the women in Granger's life, among other things, they finally get to do battle here at the theatre, and it is a whopper. The two minutes above come from this climatic scene. But in the end it turns out they are BROTHERS if you can believe it, and so they don't kill each other. As a plus this means he is not brothers with his enemy's fiancee, who he loves, and who he thought for the movie was his sister, so they get married. Eleanor Parker, who he ditches even though she is obviously better looking than the brittle Janet Leigh, hooks up with Napoleon in the final out-of-nowhere gag in the movie. It is pretty fun in a campy sort of way, mostly because you cannot believe how good looking Eleanor Parker is. It is John Kerry's favorite film (he named his boat after it), which says a lot about him, and why we do not call him President Kerry. IMDB is fun.

Similarities are there -- the fight on the balcony railing. The fight while trying to get up from the railing. The leap off the balcony railing and then back on. In Scaramouch he uses a rope but Thurman, drawing on Kung Fu powers, is simply lighter than air. As usual, Tarantino sort of says "My hero is better than your hero. She does not need a damn rope." Tarantino outdoes Scaramouche in part because he can draw on fighting genres George Sidney had no access to, including wire-fu. And of course as a modern person one cannot help feel that Scaramouche's huge fight scene is a little bloodless for such an epic sword battle. Tarantino is happy to oblige us here.

The big villain in Scaramouche is figured in Kill Bill as Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88s -- like the big bad in Scaramouche a man in charge of other men, but unlike the big bad in Scaramouche merely a mini-boss. Tarantino reduces the earlier film by having the climatic battle be only a small part of his bigger battle at the House of Blue Leaves.

The climatic fight scene in Scaramouche goes on for a full 7 minutes and is pretty impressive. It is said to be the longest fencing scene on film. The Kill Bill connection is strong but hardly a lock. For me the key piece of evidence is not so much that it is another revenge movie for Tarantino to allude to, so much as it is a famously long and multilevel fight scene involving the theater, the balcony, the lobby, the seats, backstage and then onstage. You will recall that The House of the Blue leaves involves a dance floor, stairs, a balcony an antechamber and a snow covered garden. Tarantino targeted this for use in his film because he is out to outdo, and this is standing in his way. The famous length and complexity of the fight explains why it caught his attention when his more usual allusions, especially in The House of the Blue Leaves, is to horror, westerns, kung-fu and samurai fare. By alluding to Scaramouche he reminding you of the earlier movie so you remember how long and complex that fight scene is -- and then realize that The House of Blue Leaves is much longer and more complex.

A small housekeeping note. I have added a new label to the Kill Bill posts: The House of the Blue Leaves. I am going to try to focus on this scene for a while, as I feel like it would make a good stand along chunk if I ever needed one of those.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Master of the Flying Guillotine

I continue by look at stuff Tarantino was maybe thinking about when putting together Kill Bill. My idea is that he is not stealing this stuff. He is alluding to it as Milton alluded to epic poetry. To re-interpret and to surpass it.


[The opening. The master walks and this modern music plays. He flying leaps out of his house and takes out this sort of half sphere basket on a chain weapon -- the inside of the basket has spring blades. He circles it in the air a few times before throwing it at some practice dummies. The basket lands on their heads and when he pulls it the heads come off. You can see it here:


[In the House of the Blue Leaves GoGo swings her bladed ball weapon in a circle before throwing at Thurman.]


[In the fight with the Crazy 88s Lucy Liu gets away, and the same bit of music from Master plays for like a few seconds as she leaves]

The Master of the Flying Guillotine is a 1975 Chinese movie, a sequel to The One Armed Boxer. In the One Armed Boxer The Master's two disciples are killed. In the clip above The Master, who is also blind, has just learned of their deaths in the opening scene and breaks out the titular weapon. He heads out to get revenge, which he begins by just killing random one armed people. So even though he has the title role he is the clear bad guy. Just to give us lots of fun stuff to watch in act 2, The One Armed Boxer is attending a Martial Arts tournament, where lots of guys from different countries are fighting. And some of the martial arts involve basically super-powers. The dude from India has extendable arms, like 10 feet extendable (and I have this vivid memory of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, or some such arcade game where you could fight as an Indian dude with extendo arms). The whole movie just sort of stops in act 2 to pair up fighters we have never seen before for awesome and ridiculous duels. And then the Master fights the one armed guy, who can walk on walls and the ceiling by "controlling his breath," and is defeated by him.

This is one of the best movies I have seen thus far as part of the Kill Bill project, and I totally recommend it, if you don't mind frequent decapitation. If you enjoy frequent decapitation, then bonus for you.

I had heard for years that GoGo's weapon is from The Master of the Flying Guillotine. They both have spring loaded blades and are both on chains, so you get the great whooshing noise for the warm-up, and the throw-and-pull-back move. They are both weapons for bad guys. There is a bit of a link there. But the weapons are pretty different too, and I don't really think there is a huge link between Go-Go and the Master of the Flying Guillotine.

Undeniable however is the use of the music in the second Kill Bill clip above. That is the Master of the Flying Guillotine theme music, which you can hear in the Master clip above. The music is by the early 70s band NEU, who Wikipedia tells me is retrospectively considered a founder of Krautrock, and split off from Kraftwork. They ran out of money halfway through making their second album. To make up for the lack of material they remixed their earlier single called "Super" and Wikipedia tells me this is considered an early example of a remix. It was this remixed song, now called "Super 16," that was used in Master of the Flying Guillotine, and then in Kill Bill. But Master of the Flying Guillotine did not bother to license any of the music it used, including Super 16. Kill Bill of course did secure legal rights.

Some interesting material here:

1. As we often do with these allusions we again see reversal. Master of the Flying Guillotine is the story of a master getting revenge for the death of his disciples; Kill Bill is a disciple getting revenge on her master, though to be fair Bill mixes the role of Master (and not Thurman's only master) with Lover and Boss.

2. As we often do with these allusions we see displacement: the One Armed Boxer becomes the One Armed Sophie Fatale, who the bride dismembers in front of Lucy Liu.

3. Master of the Flying Guillotine reference justifies a Kill Bill sequel, as it features both a one armed martial arts expert AND a blind martial arts expert. It is not coincidence that Tarantino leaves the one armed Sophie and the blind Darryl Hannah around for a possible next installment -- Darryl Hannah even gets a question mark over her name in the second round of closing credits in volume 2, in stark contrast to the lines drawn through the other members of the VIPER squad. It is not so much that Tarantino is serious about another movie with these characters, but the idea that a martial arts movie is part of a franchise and that many stories can be told in that world is part of the tradition he joins here. So he is not going to just kill all the antagonists off cleanly.

4. The music is used to link Lucy Liu to the Master of the Flying Guillotine. They are both powerful deadly bad guys who will be fighting for the loss of a disciple.

5. Tarantino is often accused of stealing from other movies. But with this allusion he actually reverses a theft. Master of the Flying Guillotine stole the music. Tarantino pays for it. Nearly 30 years later NEU gets the check they should have gotten from The Master of the Flying Guillotine from Kill Bill.

6. Kill Bill is often defended and attacked on the ground that it is a kind of remix of other movies. So it is interesting that here Tarantino alludes to one of the earliest examples of a remix, a kind of stylistic forerunner in the pop culture landscape.

What makes these last two allusions especially interesting is that they feature the kind of "allusion chain" we saw with Milton. Milton alludes to Virgil and Homer THROUGH Dante in order to get us to read the figure of the leaves differently. Tarantino alludes to NEU THROUGH Master of the Flying Guillotine to position his remix to correct a mistake -- a theft -- in the earlier movie.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Uncanny 444 (#4 in a four-issue limited series)

[A while back Neil was looking at Claremont's return to the X-Men, a series in four parts. He sent me the first three together, but the fourth a bit later -- and I totally missed that last part. So to give Neil the time I thought he needed I ran Jason Powell's Best Of series. Then when I decided to bug him about where he was with that fourth part, I discovered what happened. Sorry about the confusion. Here is the last of Neil's posts about Claremont's return.]

Before I talk at all about the interior of the comic, I wanted to address its cover. Where the other three comics that I’ve written about are given either standard team shots or dramatic battle poses (or, in the case of variant covers, both) – the stuff deemed appropriate for (re)launches and stories that are ostensibly epic in scope – this one is subdued and whimsical. It’s just Nightcrawler’s looping tail, and Claremont’s name is just one of the several in the bottom corner. There’s no hoopla surrounding this second return to Uncanny, and it seems that the comic is better for it.

I noted, ambiguously, at the close of the last entry that Claremont pieces his voice back together by the end of X-Treme X-Men, and carries that confidence over to Uncanny when he returns one last time. (Well, ‘one last time’ as of this writing, anyway.)

Perhaps most interesting is Claremont’s ‘creation’* of the XSE over in X-Treme, and subsequent decision to carry the concept over to the core books. (Along with more or less the same team that served as the X-Men in X-Treme. It’s a messy transition, since Claremont had to hastily resolve the tensions that originally drove the two teams apart in the last issue of XXM, and does a poor job here of explaining why some characters leave and join the XSE. Cyclops’ and Wolverine’s interaction to this effect is particularly weak.)

(* ‘Creation’ in the sense that the XSE had never existed in the mainstream MU, but Bishop worked for the XSE in the alternate future from which he came. Claremont is shows a lot of willingness to play with the toys that others added to the X-sandbox in his absence – even the stupidest ones, like Azazel. Though, now that I think about it, the issue of Nightcrawler’s parenthood is addressed only in the form of a joke – and this is probably as it should be.)

But there’s an even more important difference, here: it feels like Claremont is actually having fun. The first issues of “Revolution” were weighed down by the expectations that Claremont was feeling, and the first issue of X-Treme tried too hard to justify its own existence through painful exposition. This second return to Uncanny, on the other hand? It opens with a baseball game, and one that quickly devolves into a surprisingly and convincingly tense moment. And it should be added that this isn’t because a Sentinel crashes the party, or anything, but emerges in an entirely organic fashion between two people that were bound to butt heads. (Four words: Rachel pitching. Emma batting.) This is precisely the sort of character stuff that Claremont has always done so well.

I realize that I’ve done hardly anything to address the pictures that accompany Claremont’s stories – and when I do, it’s mostly to dismiss them as crap. Not so with Davis who, in the Rachel-Emma scene, does a wonderful job of playing up the fun and nonchalance before obliterating it: his Emma Frost looks homicidal, his Rachel positively eerie. Jason has noted in a lot of places that Claremont seems especially driven when he’s collaborating with a gifted artist, and I can only assume that the same effect is in evidence here.**

(**Just once, though, just once, I would like someone to look at a picture of a baseball game, of how the players line-up on the field, before attempting to actually draw people playing it. Because it’s clear that Davis probably has some kind of idea or visual references for how they should stand, but no idea where they should stand.)

As compared to the first issue of X-Treme, Claremont also manages to fit a remarkable amount of story and character stuff into the standard-size space. Even the obligatory scene-setting stuff is made interesting. The baseball game is an amusing, if a bit vacuous, way to establish the two factions within the X-Men, and in addition to the Emma-Rachel showdown Claremont and Davis get a chance to show that they can do more subtle emotions, too. When Emma brushes off the fight with the comment to Cyclops that “Rachel’s but a child. [whispered:] Who never should have been born,” Wolverine replies, to no one in particular, “Guess some folks have all the luck”. Davis reinforces the disconnect between the two by boxing Wolverine off in his own panel, despite the fact that he is literally standing beside Emma. (And so this wonderful scene also serves to answer Cyclops’ earlier, awkwardly staged question to Wolverine about why he would join Storm’s team.) Likewise, Sage’s surveillance review could easily be cluttered with tedious narration about who these people are and what they’re doing, but Claremont and Davis cleverly juxtapose scenes like Bishop silently leaving flowers at Jean’s grave (and, amazingly, they give us enough credit to realize that it is her grave, because we don’t actually see her name) with Scott and Emma “conferencing” in the dark in his office.

There are also a few call-backs to earlier Claremont eras that deserve mention. (And, unlike X-Men 100, where Claremont reuses the space station location but to little effect and even less purpose, these ones are meaningful.) First, Claremont puts Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler together in a Danger Room scene in order to make it clear that, a) yes, these three 80s favourites are the core of the team once again, and b) even if there are only three of them, and even if the comic has seemed fluffy up to this point, they are dangerous as all hell. Second, Storm’s articulation of the team’s mission – “The first generation of mutants needs to take responsibility for their heirs” – has a particular irony to it, insofar as this was X-Factor’s original purpose and that same mission was rebuked ferociously by Wolverine and Storm at the time. (I cover this period, briefly, in my own blog post.) It’s an interesting shift from the earlier version of Storm, in particular, but hardly a surprising one – Storm has been so badly mishandled since Claremont first left her that the days of proactive mutant-liberator/terrorist Storm have long since been forgotten and would seem wholly out of place. (Which is a shame, but...)

Third on this list, although we don’t yet know it in this first issue, Claremont is also returning to a storyline that he had to abort and re-write the first time around – The Fury. What inklings we do get of the story are brief but ominous and wonderfully wrought. When Sage asks Brian Braddock whether the X-Men can stop by, his two-panel response is off-screen. Which wouldn’t be all that weird, I admit, except that in one of those panels we see a rotary phone, front-and-center – and the receiver is still on the hook. It’s one of those things that’s subtle enough that you might miss it the first time, and then you get goosebumps when you look it over again and realize what they were trying to tell you.

One of the reasons that my brief series ends here, though, is that Claremont doesn’t really sustain this level of excitement or nuance. Davis leaves after barely more than half a year and Claremont seems to flounder a bit, playing to what I would imagine he perceives to be the desire of his readers or his artists and doing things like writing self-consciously decompressed stories that don’t play to his strengths. (His “24 seconds” in UXM 467 is particularly egregious, as the story is meant to cover exactly that length of time and you can read it in about twice that.) He leaves after only 30 issues, in the middle of a storyline that gets wrapped up by Tony Bedard, no less, but which he’ll kinda follow-up on when he takes over Exiles. That’s a partial victory, I guess, but it’s a long way from the promise shown in this first issue of his final run on the X-Men.

[I would also like to add that “The first generation of mutants needs to take responsibility for their heirs” is also amusing insofar as Claremont is returning to the X-Men to take responsibility for his heirs who have done all kinds of things since he left.]

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: [intro material]

I should have put an explanation of my process in introductory posts to the Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion series. I have been getting a lot of Internet questions about it so let me briefly sketch out how I am doing this.

To begin with I got a PSC-CUNY grant to study the allusions in Kill Bill. So that is where this got started.

Googling "Kill Bill references" will get you to several sites which list off movies Kill Bill references, including The Kill Bill References Guide, The Internet Movie Database, and a Kill Bill References YouTube Channel which shows you clips from all kinds of movies. There is even a Kill Bill Casebook. The Kill Bill Casebook seems especially just sort of thrown together from Internet message boards, and often includes claims like "some have seen a connection here to The Beyond," leaving you to sort out who the "some" might be, and what the presumed connection is.

These are great resources, but tend to mostly just list stuff. And once the game is started people jump in to say that any similarity between anything in Kill Bill and anything in any other movie is a reference. Case in point: the Wesley Snipes movie Boiling Point. Someone claimed a link on the basis of a gun hidden in flowers being like the gun in the cereal box in Kill Bill. The gun hidden in flowers is common enough. But I watched it anyway. No surprise, there was not a connection. But my process has been to fill my Netflix que with any movie anyone has claimed as a link and see for myself what is going on. And then every time I start one of these movies I Twitter about it, and say what the claimed connection is. Often if there is no good connection the movie is still reasonably fun.

So that part of the process is not adding anything new to the talk about Kill Bill. What you are seeing on Twitter is raw, and often fruitless, research. What you are seeing here on the blog is a kind of first draft, in somewhat random sections. That, I hope, is original work -- sketching out in more detail than I see elsewhere WHY Tarantino alludes as he does.

There is a larger question about why not just do this silently and not show people stuff as I go, stuff that is often very uncooked, but I wanted to give this process a go. I thought it might be fun. Once this is completed, which is going to take at least a year, I will take the blogs and work them into an essay, or essays, or even a small book.

It is hard for me to imagine this as a print work though -- it is very dependant on seeing the clips. But it is equally hard to imagine an online publisher willing to deal with the copyright tangles. I will also use it for presentations at conferences and at school and maybe elsewhere. But right now I am honestly not thinking that far ahead. Right now this is a fun hobby, akin to playing with model trains in the basement.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: White Lightning

I continue to blog about Kill Bill's relationship to the films that influenced it. My theory is that Tarantino does more than swipe. He alludes, as Milton does in Paradise Lost, to re-think, to interpret, and ultimately to conquer.


[Burt Reynolds breaks out of prison and this tense music plays. Not sure how to describe it. The loss of the clips is going to really kill us on the music front.]


[That same tense music plays as he escapes from the sheriff. ]


[Thurman looks around at all the Crazy 88s who have her surrounded and the same tense music plays.]

White Lightning is a Burt Reynolds movie, where he plays "Gator" McKlusky, a character I knew only from the end of the eighth episode of Archer where he insists that he looks just like him. White Lightning has a very Dukes of Hazard feel -- Burt Reynolds is a southern troublemaker who is really good at racing cars around small towns, and there is an overweight sheriff (played by Ned Beaty) who chases him around and whom he eventually tricks into driving his car into a lake. But in this movie, the sheriff drowns in that lake, proper revenge for drowning Burt Reynolds brother in the swap in the opening credits. So like Dukes of Hazard if Dukes of Hazard was trying to be a drama.

Burt Reynolds is in jail at the start of the movie and, when he learns his brother is dead, he attempts a break out in the first clip I have shown. That does not work and so he agrees to go undercover and take down this corrupt sheriff who is bootlegging. Turning rat goes against everything he believes in, but this is the only way he can get revenge. Eventually the sheriff figures out Reynolds is against him and catches up with him in the second scene I have here, which is near the end of the film. He chases him but Reynolds tricks him into that lake. The end.

Kill Bill links fall into three categories. First there are those genre cues, like the Tokyo of tiny buildings. Tarantino may not be taking that from a particular movie. That may just be one of those things that a lot of movies do. Then there are the more specific shots where he seems to be more clearly invoking another film, like the opening of Citizen Kane. Then there are things like this, where the connection is not arguable. The RZA used music from White Lightning in Kill Bill. Licensed it and everything. Burt Reynolds was thanked in the closing credits because of that.

It is bizarre to hear the music in White Lightning, as it seems sampled from Kill Bill. This sort of like an effect Harold Bloom calls apophrades, the return of the dead: "the uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor's characteristic work." That is going too far maybe, but the idea is there. Once you hear the second thing, it seems like the second thing must have been the first thing even though you know better. I get this especially when I see live action interview with the voice actors of the Simpsons.

It is mentally impossible for me to shake the feeling that the actors here are lip-synching, trying to trick me into thinking they have the voices of characters I know from the Simpsons. Hank Azaria's Moe impression seems dead on, but I cannot process it as anything other than an impression of a pre-existing Moe.

This is one of the effects of great art. You believe it is the primary thing, even though, rationally, you know better. Examples abound. There is no such thing as "The Unconscious." You cannot prove it is there with a scientific instrument. It was just an idea Freud invented. But Freud is so good you feel like he discovered it, rather than invented it. (This claim really may be going to far, but I am leaving it in).

The incorporation of music from White Lightning in Kill Bill is probably nothing more than the RZA saw the movie, remembered that awesome music, then decided he wanted it in Kill Bill years later. But a couple of things stand out when you know the context.

1. In the first clip the mood music transitions into something much more goofy. The RZA also has it transition into something much more goofy, though differently goofy.

2. In White Lightning the music is used at first as part of an escape attempt that will fail. So part of what we should read into this music choice in Kill Bill, and part of what we can see if we are looking for it, is Thurman feeling like she needs to escape, and realizing that this is not possible. The music does the work that lesser directors would rely on voiceover narration to accomplish. "At that moment, I felt like I had gotten in over my head and wanted to escape, but I knew it would not work."

3. The second time the music is used in White Lightning it is again Reynold's escaping the clutches of the law, but this time he WANTS to be followed, because this is where he will get his revenge. Crucially at the end of the chase scene he will appear to have escaped the Sheriff, but will dramatically return to taunt him and get him to keep going -- to his death. So this is also the music that starts his final, deadly, and successful confrontation with man he will revenge himself against. Thurman, like Reynolds, is looking for revenge for the murder of a family member (Reynolds' brother; Thurman's daughter who she believes to be dead), and Thurman, like Reynolds, gets this music at the start of the sequence that will end with her opponent dead.

4. There is something kind of comical and appropriate about the fact that when the music is paying for Reynolds the second time he is taking refuge at a home for unwed mothers, and is surrounded by pregnant women in the same way Thurman, taking revenge for being attacked while pregnant, us surrounded by killers.

5. Notice also Reynolds, in the second clip, has a damaged eye -- something that will come up a few times in Kill Bill, and once in the House of the Blue Leaves as she plucks an eyeball from one of the Crazy 88s. This eyeball plucking starts the black and white sequence the clip above is from. So the pattern of

a. Eyeball Damage,
b. White Lightning Music,
c. Transition to more goofy music
d. Revenge for the Death of a Family Member

is the same in both films.

Most importantly, the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill is swirling with STUFF: so far we have a Hitchcock silent film, a Japanese monster movie, and a 70s movie about bootlegging in the south. Upcoming will be references to Bruce Lee's whole career, samurai movies, horror movies, and Spaghetti westerns -- and more. It is starting to feel like the whole history of film just gets collapsed into this insane sequence. Chronologically the House of the Blue Leaves is Thurman's first fight and it feels like she battles the whole of cinema history AS A FUCKING WARM UP. The ground must be cleared for Tarantino's hero to even get started.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jason Powell's Top 20 Claremont X-Men Comics, part 5 (of 5)

[Jason Powell finishes, FOR NOW, his epiloguing to his look at EVERY Claremont X-Men issue from the initial mega-run. BUT, if you enjoy Jason Powell's writing and/or Claremont, and god knows you do, you should continue to check this blog on Tuesdays, because we hope to have an exciting thing for you soon; and in the mean time we may be offering more Powell Claremont blogs to tide you over till that THING arrives. Anticipation! Mystery!]

Per some folks’ request (hi, Jeremy), here is my top 20 favorite Claremont X-comics. (Today.) Note: I’m going chronological, not with a ranking.

PART FIVE: 1988-1991


Uncanny X-Men Annual #12, 1988

Maybe this is a cheat, because this issue has two great Claremont stories for the price of one. And both are illustrated by Art Adams, which is awesome.

The first one is pretty straightforward – an all-out action story that hearkens back to the Claremont/Byrne days. But it’s doubly cool because – having been published after the Bolton Classic X-Men backups, in can actually incorporate elements of said back-ups, thus cementing those Bolton stories in the X-Men canon. This one is a great payoff for the Claremont loyalists.
Meanwhile, in glorious contrast to the un-self-conscious romp of the first story, the b-side here, “I Want My X-Men” is gloriously meta-texual, and looking at it 22 years later, one realizes that it was remarkably prescient. Via the media-parody character Mojo (created by Adams and Ann Nocenti), Claremont is mocks the commercial exploitation of the X-Men franchise. As I said in the original blog entry: ‘… Mojo creates one X-Men spinoff after another. Note that in 1988, the amount of X-Men spinoffs could still be counted on one hand. Though the writing was on the wall, the franchise was still relatively contained, and would not proliferate to absurd levels until the 1990s, soon after Claremont quit in frustration. Though he portrays himself as martyr in “I Want My X-Men” (albeit a whiny one), the fact is that Claremont – with this story – correctly sees where the franchise is heading. In the images of Mojo as he magically whips up one spin-off team after another – throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks – we see the future of the X-Men: a franchise that has become the victim of its own “excess success.” Once the hottest thing in comics, the X-Men line is now a bloated parody of itself, as Marvel overstuffs the shelves with “... X-Men after X-Men. Mutants without end ... skinny X-Men, fat X-Men, giant X-Men, tiny X-Men, musical X-Men, dancing X-Men, X-Men fish, X-Men insects, chimps in X-men costumes, X-Men mimes ... midget X-Men, X-Men made of straw or brick or mint chocolate ice cream! Each group of X-Men more boring, more tiresome, more ... malodorous ... than the one before ...” Claremont saw it coming, all along.


Uncanny X-Men #236, 1988

This is part two of the original four-parter that introduced the concept of Genosha, a mutant-slave state. This was the ultimate expression of the “mutants as persecuted minority” metaphor, at least in Claremont’s run. Never was it more brutally conveyed, and never did the X-Men seem more perfectly placed, politically. The X-Men are truly morally outraged here by how they see their own kind being treated, and they genuinely become freedom fighters here.

Issue 236, titled “Busting Loose,” is the best of the story’s four chapters. What I said in the blog: ‘Ultimately then, “Busting Loose” has all the trappings of a conventional superhero story: There are evil masterminds, people in trouble, a city buried under moral corruption – and a bright, primary colored superhero who emerges toward the end to take care of everything. Claremont’s genius is in both complicating and enhancing all of these story beats, making the danger harsher, the morality murkier, the heroes more troubled – then clothing it all in a real-world allegory. With its powerfully realized antagonists, morally outraged heroes, breathtakingly designed setting, superbly complex character dynamics and surprising political astuteness, issue 236 is a true triumph on the part of Claremont and company. In some ways, “Busting Loose” is the apex of Claremont’s creativity and expression on the Uncanny X-Men series, a peak blend of intelligence, action and drama that few X-Men issues before or after would match.’


Uncanny X-Men #242, 1988

This and the next issue – parts of the “Inferno” crossover -- are actually the only times in Claremont’s run on “Uncanny” that all five of the original Silver Age X-Men are active protagonists. Indeed, they are more or less the heroes of this story, while Claremont’s team (the “Outback” lineup at this point) are mostly portrayed as demonic villains. Part of why I love this issue is just that continuity-geek aspect of it: It’s also the only time that Claremont has the “old” X-Men actually appear and fight the “new” ones. (It seemed to happen twice in the early Claremont days, but in one case the Silver Age team turned out to be robots; in the other, they were telepathic illusions.) The fight is quite excitingly rendered too, by Silvestri and Green, who were an underrated art team on the series.

I also love evil Madelyne Pryor here. Maddie probably qualifies as one of my “comic-book character crushes,” and while the “Goblin Queen” transformation was a bit of a travesty (done to make Scott look good by comparison), Claremont gives her such a righteous rage here that I find it a little bit intoxicating. She’s such a force of nature here, confronting characters with their own hypocrisies even as she attempts to kill them (or in Havok’s case, seduce him).

Like Uncanny 137, this is another one that I always think of as being like a Greek tragedy, particularly the “brother vs. brother” stuff with Havok and Cyclops. More on that in the original blog entry here:

Indeed, “Inferno” has many parallels with “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” The one is in many respects a sequel to the other. “Dark Phoenix” is regarded a classic while “Inferno” is considered one of the worst X-Men stories, but I think they are both fantastic. Indeed, there are some ways in which I find “Inferno” superior. But most rewarding (for me) is in looking at how the two stories play off of each other.


Uncanny X-Men #275, 1991

And we gotta get a Jim Lee one in there. This is perhaps another cheat, as it is a “double feature” again. And once again, one part is a bright, shiny action story that is content just to revisit the glory days (this time going all the way back to Claremont/Cockrum, and the Shi’ar and Starjammers stuff). That’s all well and good (in fact it’s beaucoup fun), but the other half is where the real gold is: Magneto and Rogue vs Zaladane in the Savage Land. This of course has its roots in Claremont/Byrne as well. But the emotional core of the issue – Magneto – is all thanks to Claremont’s vision of the character. This is the climax of his character arc under Claremont, as Magnus renounces his “heroism” phase without returning to villainy. It is here that Magneto – like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight – becomes “too big” for comic-book distinctions of morality. He is simply too complex for that. This is Claremont’s last genuinely moving issue of X-Men.

And there you have it. Jeremy, I hope you enjoyed it!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: War of the Gargantua

I continue my look at scenes of Kill Bill and scenes from other movies that influenced Kill Bill. My theory? The relationship between the two is more complicated than a mere swipe or homage. Tarantino alludes to movies in Kill Bill as Milton alludes to epic poetry in Paradise Lost: to comment, to revise, to think, to interpret. The Kill Bill label below will take you to more posts in this series.

[Japanese people freak out during a monster attack. The city looks totally fake. Monsters attack.]

[Thurman's plane lands in Tokyo. Out the window the city looks completely fake. You can see it in the trailer



"No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence ? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate selfconscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people. One of our most charming painters went recently to the Land of the Chrysanthemum in the foolish hope of seeing the Japanese. All he saw, all he had the chance of painting, were a few lanterns and some fans. He was quite unable to discover the inhabitants, as his delightful exhibition showed only too well. He did not know that the Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere."

Oscar Wilde would have enjoyed the hell out of Kill Bill, not the least because this scene in Kill Bill illustrates so fully what Wilde was talking about above. Uma Thurman does not land in Tokyo. She lands in the IDEA of Tokyo. Tarantino's IDEA of Tokyo. Thurman is basically flying into a new movie here, leaving the world of a knife fight in suburbia for Samurai craziness (yes I know the battle with Fox occurs chronologically after, but I am talking about how we experience the movie). And so the buildings she flies over look like miniatures, as they do in the monster movie above. Of course Tarantino's IDEA OF TOKYO is the Tokyo of monster movies like War of the Gargantua, not the Tokyo that any actual Japanese people live in.

(As a side-bar, this is also what the Simpsons do every time they visit another country -- they visit the IDEA of the country. On the flight to or from Japan they experience what the pilot calls "some mild Godzilla related turbulence." This is why it was so silly that Brazil got mad at the Simpsons for talking about the horrible monkey problems there: I think Brazil's objection was there were no monkeys at all there? Anyway, the Simpsons writers were not going to base their comedy episode in well researched facts about Brazil. The comedy comes from them bumping into every ignorant stereotype, the joke being that the you go halfway around the world and it is EXACTLY what you expected: the reverse of the painter Wilde describes. Also side-bar in the side-bar: The Simpsons Go to Japan features one of my favorite lines in the series: Homer complains he doesn't like anything Japanese and Marge says "You liked Rashomon" and he snipes back, "That's not how I remember it.")

In War of the Gargantua many of the buildings look like miniatures because they of course ARE miniatures. They have to be because their monsters are just actors in suits, and this is how they are going to make them look huge, and topple buildings. There are better ways to achieve this effect now, of course, but here, as elsewhere (e.g. some of the blood-spray effects) Tarantino WANTS the tech from movie history. Here he goes farther because he wants it like this just for pure STYLE. "He did not know that the Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art," writes Wilde. Tarantino Tokyo buildings look miniature NOT because they are going to be knocked down, but because he wants to establish a STYLE, to distinguish the IDEA OF TOKYO he is using from the real tokyo EVEN THOUGH HE WILL MIX IN SCENES OF THE REAL TOKYO WHERE HE SHOT ON LOCATION. You have to enjoy the insanity of how fake the Tokyo Thurman is landing in looks, even though the actress will in a moment be shown in the real Tokyo. I have mentioned before that Tarantino alludes to movie history in order to present himself as the culmination of the tradition. The counter example is instructive here: Roland Emmerich's Godzilla used the best tech of the day to tell his story and now it is just one more junky monster movie. Tarantino is thinking about the history of movies, including that history in Kill Bill, and so he BUILDS upon the past, he is informed by the past in a real way, where Emmerich just sort of says "Hey here is that Godzilla movie you wanted."

"No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist," says Wilde. Tarantino's take on this is to see things are they are IN MOVIES. To embrace the way other artists saw, to accept their distorted reality as part (though obviously not the whole) of his movie. This is why it is inappropriate to ask, for example, how Thurman was able to spend hours and hours in Buck's truck in the hospital parking lot having just left his mangled body in the hospital. Did no one find him, or go looking for her? Are the POLICE after Thurman? This is not reality. This is a world where they will let you carry a samurai sword with you on a plane. The police showing up to arrest Thurman during her fight with Lucy Liu would be more surprising than the fight being interrupted by a Godzilla attack.

"If you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere." This is clearly Tarantino's process. Except the work of Japanese artists he absorbs is in monster movies.

Finally, part of what Tarantino is doing with the miniature looking Tokyo is drawing attention to the battle between Thurman and Liu as a kind of epic attack of two giant forces, not unlike the fight between the Gargantua that comes just after the clip above. Like the monsters, they are the larger than life -- larger than Tokyo -- figures battling it out and leaving scores of Japanese wounded and running and screaming for their lives. (in the House of the Blue Leaves). So in addition to the more obvious fusion of Samurai and Cowboy in the Thurman-Liu battle, you also have the fights between giant Japanese movie monsters in there. The house of the Blue Leaves fight is where ALL of the influences come together, and it is going to take FOREVER to talk about because there are so many things being alluded to in very quick succession, including as we have seen, Hitchcock's The Lodger and War of the Gargantua. But we have made another dent.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Jason Powell's Top 20 Claremont X-Men Comics, part 4 (of 5)

[Jason Powell continues to epilogue the hell out of his epic look at Claremont's X-Men.]

Per some folks’ request (hi, Jeremy), here is my top 20 favorite Claremont X-comics. (Today.) Note: I’m going chronological, not with a ranking.

PART FOUR 1986-1987


New Mutants #40, 1986

When Claremont turned Magneto into the new headmaster for the New Mutants, it didn’t always work. (I think Scott Lobdell commented in the “Comics Creators on X-Men” interview book that there was something horrible in seeing Magneto folding laundry.) But the story here is right on: Magneto fights the Avengers, who refuse to believe that he has reformed. I think that by the mid-80s, Claremont must have been pretty immersed in his private mutant universe, as he seems to relish the idea of taking down Marvel’s mainstream heroes down a peg. Captain America and company come off as terribly smug and sanctimonious here, and it’s quite a joy to see Magneto (and the New Mutants, particularly Illyana) take the team down. There’s a quite wonderful moment when Magneto points out the Avengers’ hypocrisy, them having accepted the formerly villainous Sub-Mariner among their ranks yet refusing to believe that Magneto could reform. Captain America points out what he believes to be a key difference: With Namor, there is a precedence for heroism, as the Sub-Mariner actually fought against Nazis in World War II. Magneto’s reply – informed by his own history with the Nazi regime – is dryly perfect: “How fortunate for him, Captain.”

People have theorized that part of the X-Men’s popularity was due to their status as the outcasts of the Marvel Universe. Since comics fans themselves often feel like outcasts, it was easy for them to identify with the X-Men, and certainly must have felt empowered by the glamorization of the characters. This particular issue of New Mutants – with its group of teenage misfits rallying around a powerful leader to defeat and humiliate a group of smug authoritarians too blind to see how very wrong they are – surely must be a quintessential example of this phenomenon. I mean, I like to think I am reasonably well-adjusted and integrated into society, but I still want to cheer when I read this one.


Classic X-Men #7b, 1986

Ah, the Classic X-Men backups, illustrated by John Bolton. Some of Claremont’s best X-Men stories, these. Issue 7 introduces us to a Hellfire Club run by normal humans. Sebastian Shaw has worked his way into the inner circle, but the other mutants – Tessa, Harry Leland, Emma Frost, and another female mutant, called Lourdes – are still on the outside. But an attempt by the Club’s chairman, Edward Buckmann, to eradicate mutants with a new batch of Sentinels changes things. Shaw initiates a coup, and takes over the Inner Circle, thus leading to the Hellfire Club status quo we all know and love, as introduced in X-Men 129.
These back-up stories are a great example of Claremont’s ability to be economical when needed. Here’s what I said about this one: ‘There’s a fantastic bit of dialogue toward the end of the Sentinel sequence, when Shaw’s lover, a mutant named Lourdes, dies from wounds received during the fight. It begins with a fairly standard cliché: As she starts to fade, she flashes back to a happy time in her life, and wishes she could be there again. She then looks at Shaw and says, “Oh, Sebastian ... why does Buckman hate us ...” Shaw’s reply: “Fear. Of what we are, and what we represent.” And then he adds, “Now, I’ll give him cause.”

From a sentimental flashback to a gently plaintive indictment of the villain’s racism, to Shaw’s surprisingly pragmatic response, to a chilling set-up for the story’s final act. … And it all happens in just a few lines. The flow is fantastic, and a great example of Claremont at his absolute best.’


Fantastic Four vs. The X-Men #4, 1987

What worse name could there be for a touching, heart-warming, character-driven drama than “The Fantastic Four vs. The X-Men”? But there it is. The title teams do fight, both in issue 2 and issue 4, but the whole series is built on emotional moments, not physical ones. The series is actually packed with psychological drama -- another example of Claremont economy, as in terms of page count this story is not that long – and everything pays off beautifully in the fourth and final issue. I’ve read it many, many times, and it always makes me cry. I mean, literally cry. Beautiful, heartwarming stuff.


Classic X-Men #12b , 1987

Another twelve-page Claremont-Bolton collaboration, which lays out large parts of Magneto’s back-story. Magneto is Claremont’s greatest single achievement as writer of the X-Men – by far his most fleshed-out, most three-dimensional characterization. And this is one of Claremont’s best Magneto stories, although it is trumped by …


Classic X-Men #19b , 1987

This is my single favorite X-Men story, ever. I’ll just link to the full write-up.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Black Rain

I continue to explore the theory that while, yes, Tarantino does seem to have a lot of bits in his movies that look like bits from other people's movies, this is not swiping. He alludes as Milton does -- to comment on the history of a genre and to figure his film as the culmination of a grand tradition.


[Samurai sword wielding motocycle gang cuts off Andy Garcia's head while Michael Dougles watches helpless. You can sort of see it here: ]


Lucy Liu's samurai sword weilding motorcycle gang heads to the House of the Blue Leaves. You can see it here:]

Black Rain is a 1989 Ridley Scott movie about a very macho American hero played by Michael Douglass who goes from NYC to Japan to deliver a prisoner, a prisoner who escapes immediately upon arrival. He and his partner, played by Andy Garcia, stick around to capture the guy, and in the scene above Garcia gets murdered by a samurai sword wielding Japanese motorcycle gang led by their escaped prisoner.

I am not going to lie. I do not have much to say about this. Samurai sword wielding Japanese motorcycle gangs in both, I guess. Protagonists that want revenge also.

Tarantino, if he is thinking about this movie at all, makes two small moves, ones he will make over and over.

First, he revises the story he is drawing on by having a woman replace a macho male.

Second, he revises the story he is drawing on by taking something that elsewhere would be a full length film, and compressing it to a sequence, generally improving it. That compression and improvement is key. It allows Kill Bill, like the blob, to absorb a host of films and film genres. Like the blob, he grows more powerful and unstoppable every time he does this. Like the highlander every victory lends him power. Every time he can do in 15 minutes what someone else does in 2 hours, and do it better, he wins. And he beats a whole lot of people at this game when he plays.

When you say Raging Bull is a good movie, one of the main things you are implying, unless you qualify, is that it is good for a boxing movie, or good for a sports movie, or good for a realistic drama. You don't mean to say it is a better movie than Scott Pilgrim. Because you want to compare apples to apples, and whatnot. So when Kill Bill alludes to these movies, it opens itself up to a wider range of comparisons. You can imagine Kill Bill as a kind of mutant hybrid super fruit -- you may want to compare apples to apples, but Kill Bill has elements of many fruits and so you can safely compare it to apples AND oranges AND bananas.

And of course Kill Bill is a much better movie than Black Rain, and almost all of the movies it alludes to. So when you say "Kill Bill is a great movie" you mean more than when you say "Black Rain is a great movie," because Kill Bill OWNS Black Rain and OWNS many movies that Black Rain would never be compared to, such as Navajo Joe. In part this is because Tarantino comes late in the tradition and can draw on many movies made AFTER Black Rain, but specifically Tarantino is simply more audacious than Black Rain. He sees a larger landscape and believes he can conquer it.