Friday, January 18, 2008

Retention, or, The Art Form of the Comic

When I was younger, everyone around me quoted lines from movies as their contribution to good humor. Everyone would laugh in shared recognition of famous, and hilarious, lines from the latest Hollywood comedic blockbusters. Except me. You see, I never could remember any of these lines. I seem to have a retention problem, most noticeable when it comes to humor. If you know me, you'll realize I have never actually told a joke. When I try, I barely can get it out, and don't have the timing needed for succesful punchlines. But thankfully, I also don't use movie lines to try and get you to laugh.

Lately though I have been using lines of dialogue from "It's A Wonderful Life". I've even gone so far as to suggest, just as Tom Hanks touts the virtues of "The Godfather" in "You've Got Mail", that to any question there is an answer from a line of dialogue in Capra's masterpiece. But really, why does anyone want to do this? Use scripted dialogue in real conversations? Laugh because we recognize a line from a movie? Just because it was funny the first time around...

I consider it a masterpiece - a seamless film that works perfectly in so many ways, and I realize the only reason I can do this with "It's A Wonderful Life" is that I have seen it so many times. Without VCR's and DVD's, I never had the funny lines ready as a kid because I never saw things over and over. Even now, the majority of the films I see, I see once. Quality should be treasured, but there is more dreck than quality out there. Amazing images and characters stick with us, forcing us to remember, or lingering just close enough that we can recall them at appropriate times.

Similarly, there are few books I read more than once. There is always a new story to get wrapped up in. Sadly, it seems I have less retention of books than I do of movies. But there is only the image we create in our heads to associate with literary stories. The truly powerful works that remain with us are probably more so than those of cinema because the pictures are all our own.

Which brings me to the point of this post - comics, sequential pictures, with or without dialogue. The images and stories from comics seem to stay with me stronger and longer than either film or literature. I believe it's because of the personal nature of the art form - we are alone as we experience it. A movie can be shared, but we can be passive as the images roll. The written words of literature create images in our head, but often these slip away.

With comics, we turn pages at our own rate. We linger as long or as little as we like. And though we don't create our own images, we fuse the drawn forms with our reading of the lines. If the work gives us a personal reason to respond to it, the likelihood rises of our being able to remember and recall those images and storylines. I plan on writing more about comics in the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

La Perdida - The Lost One

After seeing the first few pages of Jessica Abel's "La Perdida" at a comics art exhibition in Chicago a few years back, I have been looking forward to reading it. It took a few years, but I finally read issue #1. Luckily, I just received the collected book as a gift and was able to read the entire story. In one sitting. Yep, it's that good.

And it's relevant to the examination of how fantasy worlds and the real world mix that I try to explore here. "La Perdida" is the story of Carla, an American girl who grows up without any understanding of the culture of her Mexican father. As she gets older, she becomes interested and makes her way, by means of some subtle subterfuge, to Mexico. She attempts to learn what she has been missing.

I would call Carla's expectations and hopes for what Mexico can mean to her the fantasy world. She has little knowledge of Mexico and does not speak the language. The story plays off the differences between her relationships with American expatriates and those she creates with various natives. With little knowledge of what to expect, she is unable to see that her Mexican friends, whose attributes come to be her embodiment of what it means to be Mexican, may not be the nicest people to hang out with. She judges everyone else against them, but does not always see that their lack of respect toward others may also be directed at her. Eventually events take place which show her that she was seeing the world only from one direction, unable to get beyond what her own hopes were.

It is hard to fault her for wanting her reality to conform to her thoughts, but easy to realize that she needed to be more discerning to get what she really wanted out of her cultural exploration. Abel's genius is that she made me feel sad for Carla at missed opportunities. Looking back, when her co-worker Luisa moves in with her, Carla could have gotten a healthier view of her new world. Instead of opening to a new voice, she pulls Luisa toward her circle of friends.

Though this is not really a work of the Fantastic, I feel that when culture meets culture, we are at a place where reality begins to push the boundaries into something new. That being said, I have to mention the revelation of the last page of this work. Carla is from Chicago originally, as am I. Abel draws various Chicago locations and uses the city for certain plot details in the framing sequences. The last page of the work depicts a street in Chicago with Asians walking in front of Asian restaurants. This colored my entire experience of the story before it. The search is universal. Carla may have been exploring her Mexican roots, but everywhere, everyday, there are people whose roots are behind them. They try to make sense of the traditions and cultures that led to their present. As well there are people who have moved away from their backgrounds, trying to make sense of new cultures and traditions.

When respect is given to all cultures, and when substance and meaning, instead of popularity and fleeting sensation, become the basis for new cultural traditions, I think we'll all be better off. Unlike Carla in "La Perdida", we should get to know a few different people before we make any judgements.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Golden Compass - The Book

Cinema, as a set of all films, contains a rather large, and loud, subset that we call Hollywood films. When we look for examples of great cinematic art, Hollywood has produced many films of profound value. All too often, however, and seemingly more often than not, they fail to produce great art because of economic reasons, including a simple lack of taking risks, which often is the catalyst for great art. Sequels are a good example of the expensive nonsense that too often is the product of Hollywood cinema. Just as incomprehensible are missed opportunities.

Based on the book, the movie version of "The Golden Compass" missed too many opportunities to make an artistically visual, and poignant, cinematic statement. Changes made to the film, and scenes that were left out, created a typical Hollywood thrill ride, when the possibility existed to create a vision of the Fantastic that would make people think and remember.

If you plan to read the book and/or see the movie, be warned - this is a SPOILER ALERT.

Philip Pullman's novel, "The Golden Compass", reads simply and straightforwardly. Written for a young adult audience, credit is still given to the reader's intelligence. The simplicity of the language does not eliminate the visual detail that Pullman infuses in his world. He attempts to use that detail to explore the larger issue of the nature of the soul. The core of this exploration is the beauty of the relationship between Lyra and her daemon, Pan. I suspect the author's view may be that a person grows up when they choose who they want to be. Hopefully they are given every opportunity to allow themselves to choose freely and intelligently. "The Golden Compass" is the first of three books. I would expect the second and third books to fully expound on the author's beliefs. But the first is a satisfying whole, even though it ends in the middle of a tragedy, with earthshaking events taking place around Lyra.

The movie would have done well to attempt relating the author's story in the same visual detail and with the same emphasis on the relation between the girl and her daemon. Unfortunately, the film is strictly Hollywood. It takes no real chance at creating art or memorable ideas, but simply provides standard Hollywood thrills. As my previous post is testament to, it succeeded. It's a visual treat - but it could have been much more.

First, the film makes Iorek the polar bear the most important character after Lyra. The Hollywood choice is obvious - the bear is huge and exciting to see in animated form running through the icy landscape. The trailer is based on that image and creates the feeling of the Hollywood spectacle. If the book had been followed, Lyra's daemon Pan would have been the secondary focus. The story would be drawn down and inwards. The relation between a girl and her soul, as they learn about the world and attempt to come to grips with it, would be the focus of the storyline. By elevating Iorek to a higher status, the thrills become more important than the revelations that cinema can give us about the human condition. Escapism wins out over revelation at much too high a rate in Hollywood.

Second, the film twists the book's events out of order, including leaving off the pivotal and explanatory ending. If Iorek was to be made more important in the film, his battle with the renegade king makes more sense to be positioned in time as it is in the book, the last episode before the actual ending. It seems to me the cinematic bear vs. bear fight was moved to take place before the rescue of the children from Bolvangar simply to allow a sprawling battle to take place at the end of the film. This seems to be the requirement of a large budget, Hollywood fantasy film. "Can't end one of those fantasy films without a big battle at the end," I can hear the producers say as they procure the money needed to finance such a film.

The ending of the film was strange to me, but it is truly puzzling after reading the book. The film has no conclusion to explain all the questions that arose for me while watching it. The book elegantly answers enough questions at the end so that we understand what has gone before and completes a story, while still maintaining our interest in getting further answers if we choose to follow Pullman to the second book. The film does not address or explain major plot points - the Dust, what exactly Lyra's place is in the story and again, why the daemon/human relationship is so important. An opportunity to make a unique film was pushed aside to make a typical film that could be marketed to the "young adult fantasy film audience".

The last difference between the book and movie that I will address refers back to the visual detail of the book. The movie has the great visual effects that money can buy, but the choices of what to show seem amazingly safe. Here is why the art of cinema, which should be perfectly suited to the amazing worlds of the Fantastic, is lacking in many Hollywood productions. I would expect the production teams on films like this to be the best in the business. And I would expect their business to be the ability to push the envelope of what we see on-screen by making visual statements worthy of the imaginative scale of their source materials. And even though the scale, and budget are large, I would expect these artists to be the ones that could successfully pull off telling the smaller story of Lyra and Pan. Somehow, they are not allowed to attempt that lyrical exploration of the soul. The evidence is a character and a scene that is eliminated from the movie.

In the book, the witch Serafina Pekkala has a grey goose for her daemon. We do not see the goose in the film, which I believe to be a major mistake. By showing the actual witch herself, the focus is again taken off the daemon/human relationship. But Pullman describes the goose with such majesty, and anyone who has truly seen the various geese of our world will understand, how it is a shame we do not get this character on the screen.

That may sound silly or unimportant to a viewer, but the scene eliminated from the film is probably my favorite in the book and is Pullman's best work. Lyra and the grey goose free several ghost-like images of animal daemons from cages, where they have been locked up after being forcibly separated from their children. The eloquence, horror and hope of the scene are beautifully described by Pullman, ending with the grey goose coercing all the ghostly forms to take on the shape of small birds and follow him, escaping through the air to some place they can be tended to.

As I read that scene, I wondered how the eloquence of such visuals, as well as their relevance to the deeper themes of the story, could be eliminated from the film. If I were the production design and cinematography teams on that film, I'd sure like to take a crack at bringing that to life.

The day when Hollywood is consistently able to bring eloquent versions of the imaginative stories our authors dream up to the big screen seems to be a day that is very far off.