Sunday, May 28, 2006

Announcements 2

Two quick announcements:

I have an essay on story structure and Veronica Mars coming out in a BenBella Books' Smart Pop collection. I will let you know when it comes out.

For those of you in Oxford, The Wadham film society is screening Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, in which Johnny Depp, an accountant lost in the Wild West of 1851 is told he is the reincarnation of William Blake. Guest stars include Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, and Robert Mitchum in his last film appearance; soundtrack by Neil Young. A fantastic and weird movie. Because the film is an example of what my thesis calls an imaginary biography, I will be introducing the film, and giving a short paper afterward on parallels between Jarmusch's strange portrayal of Blake and Blake's strange portrayal of John Milton. 9 June, Moser Theater, 8pm.

And a quick teaser: upcoming blogs (since I have a few in the can) will include discussions of All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, the song Fault Lines by the Mountain Goats (a three part blog), and the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon (a four part blog).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cherwell X-Men: The Last Stand Review

[This article has been edited because the links no longer work -- see below. ]

Because I was asked to review X-Men: The Last Stand for the student newspaper I got to attend a preview screening in a posh mini-theatre (no commercials, no previews) at the London Fox headquarters. The seats were very comfortable, and I considered reviewing them instead, just to keep things positive. Click here to read my one star review-attack of X-Men: The Last Stand.

I have to say I was shocked to discover that the film was not panned by The New York Times, The Onion AV Club, or The Village Voice. I suppose it is possible that my usually good radar could be off here, but I doubt it.

[I have reprinted the original article below.]

X-Men: The Last Stand

By Geoff Klock

Unlike the first two admirable Bryan Singer X-Men films, Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand is wretched. It packs all the mistakes found in the Matrix sequels into a mere 104 minutes, leaving no time for even a single salvageable moment, or line of dialogue. The posters, stylishly designed, are much better than the movie.

The plot of the third X-Men film revolves around a so-called mutant cure. The stress between super-powered mutants and normal humans explodes into war as the American president threatens to “de-power” mutants with a new vaccine. Ian McKellen’s Magneto gathers mutants who refuse to see themselves as diseased and leads them in battle. The X-Men – the mutants dedicated to harmonious living between mutants and humans – are torn down the middle, many tempted by a “normal” life. To complicate matters, the unbelievably powerful former X-Men Jean Grey is back from the dead, and psychotic. There is nothing essentially bad about the idea for the film; there is everything wrong with its execution.

Ratner veers between ham-fisted control and no control at all. My audience laughed as Patrick Stewart’s Xavier suddenly launched into a big, sudden, absurd explanation of Jean Grey’s survival and her split personality. A mutant who can sense other mutants might as well be code-named “Plot Device Girl.” Shades of Barbarella and Flash Gordon insinuate themselves into serious moments, such as a beautiful topless winged mutant boy in jeans who poses the camera, before jumping out of the window in defiance. The film wants awe; it has a pinup that looks, in the long shot, like a seagull. Characters repent for no reason, and speak cliché after cliché (at one point, two in a row). Famke Jansson’s Jean Grey, the film’s sex symbol, is made to look terrible when she is evil, which is most of the time.

Even the film’s blockbuster effects amount to nothing. Magneto violently relocates the Golden Gate bridge so he can get to, and then attack, a small island off the coast of California; one wonders why he couldn’t have just flown, chartered a ferry, or even just destroyed the island with the bridge and been done with it. Magneto throwing cars is not enough, and so his mutant lackey bizarrely sets them on fire first. A film like Charlie’s Angels 2 can use mess to its advantage, wallowing in gleeful insanity, but X-Men 3 is just a badly told story.

The film’s attack of its own characters is perhaps most disturbing. Though there are small loopholes, the emotional impact of the end of the film involves life-changing violence to no less than six main characters from the first film. That’s bad enough, but no first-year student filmmaker would make Ratner’s appalling mistake of leaving two of these major character moments completely off screen. Words alone cannot express the badness of this film. It has to be seen to be believed, but it shouldn’t be.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Charles Wright's Metaphors of Ink

I had wanted to post my advance review of X-Men 3 today, but I have to wait until the paper says I can print it here, or until I can just link to it.
Suffice to say the movie was attrocious, Matrix 2 and 3 bad, which is as bad as bad gets. In the meantime: poetry.

Landscape with Missing Overtones is the first poem from Wright's Buffalo Yoga. Here is the whole thing:
The sun has set behind the Blue Ridge,
And evening with its blotting paper
                                                               lifts off the light.
Shadowy yards. Moon through the white pines.
Wright is a very "bookish" poet and often likens nature to writing. The central two lines here combine simplicity and ingenuity wonderfully;
the metaphor works perfectly even though the colors appear in "negative": blotting paper (white) is the night sky (black) and the light (white) is figured as ink (black). The title poem of Buffalo Yoga has another extraordinary ink metaphor:
A poem is read by the poet, who then becomes
That poem himself
For a little while,
                            caught in its glistening tentacles.
Figuring a poem as having tentacles seems like a bad metaphor at first glance — too much a stretch, weird for the sake of weird — until we remember that tentacles primarily remind us of squid and octopi, two creatures known for producing ink, the stuff of poetry.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Cherwell: Film Adaptations of Superhero Comics

[This article has been edited because the links do not work. See below.]

I wrote as short essay for Cherwell, the Oxford sutdent newspaper, on film adaptations of superhero comics. Click here to read the article.

Originally, there was a different introduction that had to be cut: here it is:

SFX magazine recently published a conversation between two of the best recent X-Men writers, Mark Millar (Ultimate X-Men) and Joss Whedon (Astonishing X-Men). Millar said that the most common error for writers on the book was mistaking The X-Men for an action franchise when it’s basically a 75 million pound TV soap opera. The mistake applies to most superhero comic books, and becomes more dramatic when those comics are turned into movies. The forms are opposed on more than one level, making adaptation a tricky business.

[EDIT: The link to Cherwell does not work any more I have reprinted the article below.]


Like poetry, superhero comics are supported by a small but loyal readership. While people may read a novel or go to the movies occasionally, if they read poetry or comics they do so obsessively or not at all. Film adaptations of superhero comics are important because they represent both comic books and comic book fans to the outside world. The OC includes an exchange in which Ryan, covering for Seth Cohen and needing an excuse, tells the girl Seth likes that Seth is at a Star Trek convention; appalled at being portrayed as a nerd Seth cries “couldn’t you at least have said an X-Men convention.” What appeared to most viewers as insignificant banter resonated for comic book fans who silently thanked Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films, for shifting the culture just enough to make the X-Men register with the public (however subliminally) as cooler than Star Trek.

Because the major superhero comics have been running for decades a series of canonical plots have been established. These plots get reworked every couple of years in comics, freshly outfitted with new twists and turns. Just as every generation needs a new translation of Dante, every X-Men fan needs a new version of Wolverine’s return to the people that made him what he is. Mark Millar gives us Ultimate X-Men: Return to Weapon X. Grant Morrison gives us the sublime New X-Men: Assault on Weapon Plus. Bryan Singer gives us the second X-Men film, which, alongside the second Spiderman film, is the finest superhero adaptation there is. Singer gets that what is needed in adapting superhero comics to the screen is not faith to a particular comic book story, nor is it heretical invention; what is needed is the same process that works most often in the comics: translate an old story for a new audience.

The original Superman films are wonderful, but dated now (we are only a few weeks away from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns). The first X-Men and Spiderman films lacked money. Unbreakable was a great attempt at adapting the idea of the superhero to film, but it lacked fun a sense of humour. Batman Begins, also lacking those qualities, attempted to re-imagine Batman’s origin, but the wretched Shumacher films knocked it out of its proper orbit, making director Christopher Nolan fear the road of excess which is the path to a good superhero story; it was a re-imagining void of imagination. The Hulk had excess and good intentions, but little more than bad CGI and an attractive Jennifer Connelly remain in my memory. Of Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, and The Fantastic Four we will not speak. X2 is a good story, well told.

Superhero stories often require lumbering exposition, as goofy (but charming) origin stories need to be justified to modern audiences; the Fantastic Four, for example, get super-powers when they are bombarded by “cosmic rays” from space. And the comics aren’t designed to end, so films that go for a solid ending misunderstand the form. It is thus no surprise that the best superhero adaptations have been self consciously middle stories like X2 and Spiderman 2, both of which get to start without an origin story and get to end with some cliff-hanger material (though only X-Men fans will see the hints of the Phoenix in X2); the upcoming X-Men 3 may be designed to cap a trilogy, which could be bad news.

On the whole, however, the proper adaptation of superhero comics will be in the future. The power of television has grown exponentially in recent years, rivalling the cinema on so many counts; Smallville is the first hint of what will come, I think: the serial adaptation of a serial genre. Until then we can content ourselves with progressive television made by writers who, instead of directly adapting superhero comics, are powerfully influenced by them in their own creations: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Carnivàle, and even The OC. The people who created these shows grew up on comics, and have all written them recently as well. Adaptation, a form of influence, goes both ways.

Geoff Klock ( is the author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

From Henry David Thoreau's Walden

I am not a big fan of Henry David Thoreau -- Ralph Waldo Emerson is the real center of American letters -- but I adore this story, from the conclusion to Walden:
We read that the traveler asked the boy if the swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had. But presently the traveler's horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, "I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom." "So it has," answered the latter, "but you have not got half way to it yet." So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society.
Thoreau has been investigating origins, literally and metaphorically plumbing depths, in his return to nature, and in the conclusion he boldly suggests, with a joke, that the search for origins may be dangerous. This is not the claim of "post-modernism" and deconstruction that there are, properly speaking, no origins, no solid base on which to ground opinion, values, even fact: Thoreau suggests that there IS a center that can be relied upon; it's just that we can't get to it, or can't get to it safely.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Quick Announcements and Housekeeping

For anyone in Oxford: The Oxford International Film Festival has changed The Futurist times: it is now playing Friday 5 May at 9:10pm, Monday 8 May at 10:30pm, and Thursday 11 May at either 10:00pm or 10:35pm (I have found two announced times for that day). All screenings will be at the Phoenix in Jericho. I will certainly be doing a short introduction at the Friday showing, and may be introducing it at the other two screenings; I will certainly be at all three.

For anyone in Oxford: I will be speaking about Anne Carson's Sappho (from chapter seven of Imaginary Biographies) at the Twentieth Century Work In Progress Seminar on Monday of 3rd week (8 May 2006) at 6:15pm in room 10 of the English Faculty Building.

For anyone at Balliol: I will be speaking at Doug's Lunch on "The New Superhero Comics" on Thursday of 3rd week (11 May 2006) at 1:00 in his room at Balliol.

For anyone at Oxford I will be speaking about John Ashbery (from chapter six of Imaginary Biographies) at the Graduate Seminar Day on Friday of 8th week (9 June 2006).

Anyone who would like this blog emailed to your in-box when I put it up here, send me an email.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Joss Whedon's Buffy and Angel: The Wide Angle View

Joss Whedon has the most persuasive and stunning vision of evil in all of popular culture. To begin with, Whedon's evil is a positive evil, by which I mean that it really exists in-and-of-itself rather than being merely the absence of good, as it is in Dante (where Hell is what you get when you can no longer apprehend God). It is also not at all like evil in C. S. Lewis's Christianity, where Satan merely thinks he is evil; in the grand plan of God's benevolent design Satan's rebellion and temptation of man has its part to play, and thus, in the long run, his "evil" is in the service of good. For Whedon evil is pervasive and fundamental: as Holland Manners tells Angel, the world runs because of evil, not in spite of it. As Buffy and Angel end our heroes face primordially evil antagonists that cannot be destroyed (though their representatives can be harmed): the First Evil and the Senior Partners live forever, though Caleb, the Uber-Vampires, and the Black Thorn are killed. And though there is lip service to the powers of good, it is ultimately empty: the ancient women who watched the watchers are useless and tacked on in the second to last episode of Buffy. On Angel The Powers That Be are distant and weird, communicating through cold and dangerous representatives, and the terrifying Jasmine reveals herself to be one of them. Angel makes clear that in resisting evil we define ourselves, which is good for us, but has nothing to do with the cosmos. In order to fight evil, Whedon's characters, who don't call on the powers of good because there are none, harness evil to fight evil while trying not to lose their humanity: Slayer powers are essentially demon powers and, in season seven, Buffy rejects more power because it means less humanity; and Angel, of course, is a vampire with a soul, who, in Angel season one, refuses to become human because it means he won't be able to oppose evil with the same force. The soul, in Whedon, is so poorly defined as to be essentially meaningless (though on the surface level it makes for great drama): characters with souls do evil (Buffy's dying childhood friend from "Lie to Me"), and characters without souls do good (Spike). Evil, on the other hand, is defined clearly and extensively over seven seasons of Buffy and five seasons of Angel.

What I find less persuasive in the Buffy and Angel universes however -- though it doesn't really bother me as ultimately it plays little part in most of the actual episodes -- is Buffy and Angel's desire to be merely human: Buffy wants nothing more than to live life as a normal girl free of Slayer responsibilities and Angel's fondest wish (though he signs it away when he thinks it no longer matters) is to fulfil the prophecy in which the vampire with a soul is granted his humanity (Angel and Spike even go so far as to fight over this prize). Though Spike comes back as a network demand, notice the two characters that don't make it though the Buffy series finale are both not human. Whedon, of course, draws tremendous power in injecting a vital, human element into fantasy and horror genres (and the sci-fi and western in Firefly and Serenity); superhero comics, however, have made strides in thinking through the consequences of post-humanism (as I discuss in my essay on the X-Men here). It will be interesting to see if Whedon's future work in the superhero genre (Astonishing X-Men, Wonder Woman) will ever be effected by this. But as long as he remains a genius, it won't really matter -- he is, after all a master storyteller rather than an master philosopher, as he himself admits on Firefly's "Objects in Space" commentary (though without the word "master," obviously). Long Live Joss Whedon, is my thinking.