Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Franz Kafka's On Parables

Searching for short literary texts to discuss along side images from comic books, I seem to have come across more than a few parables, so I thought Kafka's On Parables a good thing to look at here. This is the text in full:
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
Parables are a major part of Christianity -- Jesus expresses his message through parables -- but they are double edged: in Mark 4: 11-12 Jesus says
Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
Read and re-read that passage: you will continue to bump your head against Jesus clearly saying that there are people who should not be saved, whose sins should not be forgiven, that he speaks in parables specifically to keep these people in the dark. Parables are to explain, but also to obscure; they are supposed to express the inexpressible and to be of help in daily life, but the inexpressible is of no help in daily life. This is what Kafka is interested in here. To win in parable is to express the inexpressible; to win in life is to made the parable useful. These are clearly at odds but are intended to be, by those who write parables, connected. Kafka, in looking at the relation between life and literature, rebukes the connection and keeps them at odds: make use of literature and you lose its mystery; keep the mystery and you lose practical application. And of course, for Kafka there is no way to solve the problem: either way, you lose.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Geoff Klock: Film Fanatic: Ocean's Twelve

Cherwell, the Oxford University student newspaper, has a weekly feature called Film Fanatic, in which someone describes "a formative or remarkable film experience." I was asked to contribute, and wrote 400 words on why Ocean's Twelve is my favorite movie. Go read it now.

Because of space limitations I had to pick a scene to stand for a device the film used over and over: I mentioned the silly heist, but there are two more (one by our team, one my a competitor); I mentioned the way actors play themselves, but didn't have space to mention the fantastic Eddie Izzard cameo (where he basically plays himself), or the Bruce Willis one, in which he does play himself (and has to endure Matt Damon saying he figured out the ending of The Sixth Sense); I implied the way the movie puts style over substance, but did not have time to mention the way the meaningless thieves' cant scene, the holographic egg and the Capoiera laser-dance scene stand in for the film as a whole in this respect; and I didn't get to mention the wonderful meta-narrative detail -- not unlike the "actors play themselves" thing -- that the whole "plot" of Twelve is set in motion by an "American businessman" on a boat -- played by Ocean's Twelve producer Jerry Weintraub (who also has a cameo in Eleven).

I tried to plug this blog in Cherwell, but my editor wanted the last line to say "Geoff Klock is the author of ..." To make matters worse he got the title wrong: the correct title is of course How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Futurist in Oxford

For those of you in Oxford, Brad Winderbaum's short student film The Futurist will be screening at The Oxford Film Festival on May fourth (9:50pm), fifth (9:10pm), and ninth (7:20pm) at the Phoenix Picture House. You can pick up tickets through the festival website. I will be at all three screenings, representing Brad, and may be saying a few words to introduce the film on which I am credited as a "production advisor." Time travel, romance, and superheroes: what more do you want. Be there.

I know that very few readers will have seen The Futurist film, but, because it is showing here in Oxford, I am going to blog about it anyway.

The Futurist is a superhero movie that subverts the conventions of the genre, but in an unlikely way. We have already seen superhero comics play with the themes of mere humanity (Watchmen), ethics (The Authority, Powers), fiction (Animal Man), and post-humanism (Morrison’s New X-Men). The twist in The Futurist involves the theme, common in the genre, of fate. Most superhero stories are either about our hero’s ability to thwart some kind of inevitable doom (Hellboy), or our hero learning to accept his place in some grand providential scheme (The Matrix). In The Futurist, Charles Guthrie finds himself arbitrarily slammed into a destiny that is his doom (the destiny in the film is anything but God-given); but, rather than escape it, learns to draw power from it: the knowledge of his arbitrarily destined death is the source of temporary but amazing powers.

In just about every time travel movie there is the inevitable question the filmmakers try to keep you from asking: once you know your future, what happens if you do something else? If your variation changes your future shouldn’t that have been your vision of your future? Most films avoid the question by positing the vision as a possible future (Back to the Future 2), or by incorporating our hero’s knowledge into the vision of the future (in The Matrix the Oracle tells Neo not to worry about the vase he is about to break, causing him to break it). In the first case the drama is taking the path to the best alternate future; in the second our hero’s ignorance of his fate – an ignorance shared by the audience – means he (and we) never know what will happen next. In the world of The Futurist, something else happens: our hero and the audience know exactly what will happen; his destiny is both inevitable and perfectly clear, and he cannot choose any other path and no one can or will. Until that fateful day, he will never die.

And yet the concept is still engaging and dramatic, because it plays into the kinds of narratives we have seen before, though in a weird way. In a superhero film there is a certain amount of safety: without seeing the film, we know Superman will not die in Superman Returns. The Futurist plugs into our knowledge that our hero cannot die and makes it a plot point, finally providing a solid narrative reason for those all too common film moments in which the bad guys fire a hail of bullets at, say, Batman, but none ever hit him in the face. The mere presence of the Futurist guarantees that they will never kill him.

A fully thought through concept of Fate and an action sequence cliché would have spelt death for a lesser man, but not for the Futurist.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Frank Quitely and a detail from WE3

Near the end of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's WE3 #1 there is a tour de force sequence in which six eighteen-panel pages tell the story with minimal dialogue; the panels are made to mimic the views of a security camera hub, where a guard could look at each screen to see what is going on in a given room. There is a tiny detail in one of the panels that I wanted to point out here.

In the six panels I have grabbed we see Dr. Roseanne Berry exiting her lab (she has just been fired, basically); then we see the screen on which she was supposed to have saved the codes that would lock her beloved animals down for euthanasia (by not pressing "save" she ironically saves them from death, as they can escape); in the next panel she walks toward the doctors who are on the way to kill her animals, then passes them, then is stopped. If you look closely at the panel in which she is spoken to you will see tiny diagonal lines in the upper right and left hand corners (the right hand one is impossible to scan onto the computer from the graphic novel but it is there). These lines, the juncture of the floor and the walls, match up with the lines in the panel above: even though we read the panels in the order I have described panel 3 and panel 6 (in the six I have grabbed) are a continuous space: were the gutter removed we would see an unbroken hallway. This moment of spacial continuity -- the only one like it in six pages, and the only part of the six pages with dialogue -- is at the exact point someone tries to make a connection with her by asking if she is all right; it leads into the book's most moving dialogue: he tries to comfort her with "You know it's best not to get attached to things," to which she replies, "But isn't that the point of it all?" The spacial continuity between panels 3 and 6 emphasizes the human continuity between the characters at this moment.

Jamie Grant, the colorist on All Star Superman also did the colors on WE3. I have already blogged about Jamie Grant, but, because it was an old post, I didn't notice that he was kind enough to respond personally until today. Just click the link above, or use the archive to the right, to read what he wrote.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Franz Kafka's A Little Fable

I mentioned Gnosticism, transcendence, and Harold Bloom in discussing Charles Wright; Bloom discusses Gnosticism, transcendence and the following Kafka fable in Ruin the Sacred Truths, where he calls it "magnificent and appalling." Here is the whole thing:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid. I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
In the 1968 film The Lion in Winter Prince Geoffrey says to Prince Richard "What matters how a man falls," to which he replies "When the fall is all he has, it matters," which is a nice thought, but not Kafka's. Trapped in the prison world of the ancient Gnostics, changing direction, changing your fate, was supposed to provide freedom; for Kafka all that freedom amounts to is a choice of bad ends. What makes Kafka such a genuinely weird reading experience is how this grim outlook expresses itself as an odd sense of humor. We read Kafka's The Trial as a terrifying fable of our own inexpressible and unworldly guilt that we will never be rid of; as The Metamorphosis opens Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has been transformed into a ghastly giant bug, and as in a dream must figure out how he is going to get to work and continue living. This is the point, in school, when we talk about existentialism and the alienation of the twentieth century. But when Kafka read his work to his friends, he and they laughed so hard he had to stop reading to catch his breath. This anecdote, rather than philosophy, is a better thing to have in mind as you read Kafka.