Monday, February 23, 2009

The Mythic Dimension of "Frost/Nixon"

The film "Frost/Nixon" is an interesting film to examine from the mythic dimension.

But first, myth is an incredibly charged word because it is used in so many different ways. The one thing I have learned in 5 months of Mythological Studies in grad school is there is very little consensus on what myth actually is. Suffice it to say, the common usage of "Myth is a lie or untruth", has so little validity in the reality of how myth is used that it is basically a nonsensical statement. That being said though, it is a common view held by a large amount of people. Let the mythic education begin.

For my purposes, myth is: thought that produces a narrative that includes opposites, paradoxically combining those opposites to produce a new understanding of how the two actually work together, and possibly create something completely new. This is a working definition that I am constantly re-thinking, but the dialectic that is created by myth is a very useful tool to analyze any narrative.

So - "Frost/Nixon". The mythic dimension became readily apparent in this film with the realization of the opposition of the two sides involved. The self-important, political heavyweight Richard Nixon, being interviewed by the gregarious, entertainment lightweight, David Frost. Physical and cultural opposites, their outlooks are from two different worlds. Nixon apparently only agreed to the interviews because Frost was seen as a pushover. The fallen president thought he had the platform on which to change his image enough to allow his re-entry into the political world. The powerhouse of Nixon's forceful personality is brilliantly portrayed by Frank Langella in an extraordinary performance in the film.

Michael Sheen as David Frost complements the Nixon force, however, by being just as forceful, just as determined, in a wonderfully understated role. The key in the film becomes a phone call that Nixon makes to Frost, in which the ex-president makes the challenge of the interview into a personal challenge. He claims, rightly for many reasons, that Frost is just like him. He also claims that Frost has no chance of besting him. Frost rises to the occasion because as determined as they both are, he knows there is a difference.

The mythic dimension, then, is in the meeting of the two worlds - the entertainment and the political, actors of two different stages, coming together at an incredibly important historical moment. The trust of America's people in its leaders was in meltdown. The political news was unable to even procure an interview with Nixon. If they were, it seems that Nixon would have been unable to admit he was wrong to such a force. His adamant personality suggests he would have held fast.

But when faced with his opposite, the change took place. His spirit was affected. With a newsman, the story, ultimately about admitting injustice and the emotions of a beaten down egotistical politician, could never have developed. Nixon's guard was down, he felt superior to his opposite, but the opposite is not superior or inferior - it is equal in opposing force. The conflicting emotions arose from having no choice but to coalesce in the middle of calm and fury. Truth, which is after all what confession is, arises when the paradoxical opposites are combined.

The guess is that Nixon's personal catharsis was good for him, mentally at least. But what did it do for America? Though the confession of wrong doing was needed by our country's people, it was a turning point of trust. By hearing the admission, there was no going back to trust. Politicians have always been corrupt, but the enormity of the President being involved scarred our ability to trust forever. It is a good thing to be wary, but also very tiring. The steady erosion of confidence that was publicly marked by Nixon's resignation has gone downhill since. Have we reached the turning point yet, in which we regain faith in what we suppose we have always stood for?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Jason Lutes "Berlin: City of Smoke"

One of my favorite comic artists, storytellers I should say, is Jason Lutes. He tells a story in comic form that is extremely cinematic, but has an extra edge because it is not film. It's a comic. His line is exact and his detail impeccable. I have been meaning to write about Jason's work for a while now, but always find I don't want to dissect it. I just want to savor it.

One of his most amazing pages is that of a clarinet player, broken down into many small panels. By the layout and the spacing between the panels, I could hear the music. I love his work. Here is a link to an interview I did with Jason a long time ago. I once had a dream of opening a comic art gallery, store and animation cinema.... (I'm not quite sure THAT dream has died yet!)

"Berlin" is an incredibly dense and intricate tale of the city of Berlin between World War 1 and World War 2. It is political, romantic, funny, scathing and heartbreaking. The first two graphic novels have now been released. The third will probably take another three years or so. Following is a brief video of him that I put up here just because I had never known what he looked like when I stumbled on this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Joseph Campbell Checks In...

With my recent posts on what is required of each of us in today's world, and specifically in our country in crisis, I thought I would add a few quotes from Joseph Campbell. It seems to me his work is almost completely ignored by mainstream America. It's been awhile since he spoke so voluminously about myth and its importance, but I detect little to make me think any of his ideas have sunk in to general consciousness.
From Thou Art That, New World Library 2001:

"The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth - that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbors, in our enemies, in all of us." (p. 107)

"People feel panicky at the thought that we might all have something in common, that they are giving up some exclusive hold on the truth." (p. 110)

As I firmly believe in his ideas, it is disheartening to see that if anyone acknowledges his work at all, it is so often heaped on the pile of "New Age". More to come on this, for sure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Myth In America

One of the myths of America can be situated in a cultural dialectic. The idea anyone can succeed by working hard, and even grow up to be president, is one mythical American storyline. On the other side is the idea of America as a melting pot, sustained by a unity of diverse people, working together for a common good. These are opposing ideas because one speaks to the goals of individualism while the other speaks to the social collective.

How do we see these stories working in history? Capitalism is an ideology of the individual and has been instrumental in the growth of American interests and wealth. An argument can be made that all business decisions are initiated by someone who wants to succeed and become wealthy. The pride of America, on the other hand, is that we go to work every day. Our immense economic growth was made possible by a varied workforce successfully manning large projects that created the American superpower.

How do we see these stories working now? What is good for one individual is not necessarily good for that same collective of people. Our current economic downfall points out the problem with greed, when the individual’s ability to get wealthy is allowed to run amok with disastrous consequences for others. The collective then develops it own seams. It is hard to be concerned with your neighbor when yourself or your family have unexpected crises.

But the beauty of myth is that it is dialectic. Our stories, contradictory and paradoxical, contain the truths allowing both to work together. In recent weeks, we have seen the success of Barack Obama as he became an unlikely president. And in the midst of our economic meltdown, we need to heed our historic President’s call to action: to stick together, to work together and to create change where it is needed. If we as a people accept smaller gains for ourselves when our neighbors are also gaining, we become the truth of our American myths.

As the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Unless the myth can be understood – or felt – to be true in some such way as this, they lose their force.” For a renewed success of American values, we must understand our myths to be true. We must recognize that both myths oppose each other unless we ensure they come together in each individual. America’s success as a country should be judged by its strength in individuals that care for each other and strive together. When one wins, we can all truly win, as long as we actually believe it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Coraline in 3-D

CORALINE is well worth seeing if only for the modern 3-D technology that makes it sparkle. There are other reasons though.

3-D throughout the years is the film industry's number one gimmick. They pull it out every decade or so, claiming things popping out of the screen will "Amaze you!" As a kid, I saw a western 3-D movie. It was called "Comin' At Ya" (get it?) and featured a really lousy film with effects such as bullets and arrows shooting out toward the audience. This could explain many things, perhaps, but it doesn't explain why 3-D remains a money-maker. This was a really bad film.

Whatever the new 3-D technology is, the joy for me is that it isn't limited to making things pop out of the screen. The new technology (accessed with a nice pair of black sunglasses, not a flimsy cardboard blue and red novelty) has depth. The screen went inwards, as well as out. It was a joy to look "into" the movie.

What came to my mind was the old Fleischer Studio's Popeye cartoon effects. Back in the day, Fleischer used actual sets on a turntable and animated Popeye and the other characters in front of the revolving backgrounds. There was depth to such classic longform cartoon features as POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR. They were some of the most interesting cartoons and some of the most luscious.

The world of CORALINE is luscious squared. Depth, whether in production design, art or 3-D effects, simply gives us more world to get lost in. The neat thing is, with the whole movie in depth, the things that pop out of the screen are less in quantity but far more magnificent in quality. And Coraline's world, created by the prolific genius Neil Gaiman, is a whole lot of fun. This Other world, the more chaotic side of Caroline's internal childhood, is a very interesting and creepy place. The depth of the 3-D effects perfectly mirrors the depth psychology of the world behind the door that gives Coraline everything she thinks she wants, but knows is probably not the best thing for her. The buttons sewn on over people's eyes might be a big hint!

OK. So I loved the movie. But...

Gaiman originally wrote the book "Coraline" as a young adult story. I believe it was originally written to feature a girl as the hero. I have not read the book, but I'm pretty sure this is correct. Coraline was a character that would save the day because, yes, girls too can be heroes. Gaiman is like that. He writes female characters as well as he writes males, one of the interesting abilities of so many male writers of the fantastic. But as I said, I never read the book. However, I did read the recent graphic novel (i.e. giant comic book with quality binding) by Gaiman and drawn by the magnificent P. Craig Russell. There are some interesting points, considering the differences between movie and comic.

I have written of comics here before. The intimate connection between reader/viewer and the work makes it my favorite narrative art form. I get to go one-on-one with the material, let it go directly into my brain. I can linger or move fast. Whichever is right for the story as I am perceiving it. So, yep, I also like the "Coraline" graphic novel a whole lot. But there was a change between the comic (which I am guessing is closer to the book) and the movie which made me like the movie just a little bit less than I should have.

In the book, as intended by Gaiman, Coraline is the hero. It is her story to win or lose; it is the young girl who will either save the day or lose her family. All her. And we admire her for it. MOVIE SPOILER AHEAD:

In the movie, a new character was created - a young boy. He's a nice enough boy, but Coraline pretty much outwits him most of the time. And then - he adds key help at the end with the final defeat of the Other that comes to get Coraline. The boy sort of saves the day. I was saddened. Coraline showed ingenuity in the comic, that flowed directly from her female identity. She doesn't need a boy's help. That was the point of Gaiman's little story about a young girl named Coraline. The boy doesn't ruin the movie, but it dampens the point a bit. If you never read the story, I guess you would never know and would not be bothered. No wonder they don't promote comics at the movies!

Here are some links: P. Craig Russell is one of comics most refined and beautiful artists. I highly recommend his adaptation of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. It looks like it is available in two graphic novel volumes.

Neil Gaiman Fantasy writer extraordinaire. I think the Father in the Coraline movie may have been based on Neil himself.

Here is the Coraline movie website. And here's Wikipedia's article on the immortal Fleischer Studios. If you want to find out about "Comin' At Ya", well, you'll have to surf the web yourself. I'm hoping nothing comes up...

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The John Doe Clubs

In one of Frank Capra's cinematic masterpieces, "Meet John Doe", the citizens of the United States band together in local John Doe Clubs. Based on the "little guy", it mostly consisted of neighbors discovering and talking to each other.The clubs found after talking together they were all more likely to get along and actually help each other.

Ah, sweet, naive Frank Capra, thinking that people actually do get along when they know each other. Thinking people will lend a hand to somebody that needs that hand. "Capra-Corn" is what the critics deride his views as - sheer nonsense, nostalgia for times that never were. But the critics can be wrong. "Capra-Corn" isn't backward looking or romantic idealism. It was a call to action, a pointer to the future and a hopeful suggestion: help that guy over there because he may be able to help you or someone else later on.

And even if you don't need any help, ever, that guy may just amuse the heck out of you, do something silly, or artistic, or just plain fun, that will make your life richer, stronger and more optimistic. And in the words of Violet Bic, another Capra character from another classic, " What's wrong with that?"

The John Doe clubs go through a period of bitter disenchantment, but rally as the neighbors that had banded together realized they actually liked each other and were better off helping out than staying home alone. Call me an idealist (or a fool) but I think what this country needs right now are John Doe Clubs.

OK - I'll be honest - I'd rather call them something else, but it has to be corny. Obama's Economic Stimulus Parties just isn't very appealing. I'm bad with titles, so suggestions are welcome. But here's the thing: the bitter taste of contempt from the last uber-administration lingers in our country. After all the inauguration excitement, the talk of working together, a country renewed in spirit by the idea that someone will be leading us in the true spirit of America, that every single one of us matters, regardless - the politics of our country are stonewalling everything. In this I include both parties for different reasons - I'm not writing to call anyone out.

But President Obama is correct when he says America is in a jam and it will take everyone to help get it out of that jam. I have already had two family members lose their jobs and have friends in the same boat. And those that have jobs don't get too excited about going to them. The fear that grows into a knot in your stomach when you lose your job actually shows on your face. I've seen it. We all need to help everyone we know. And everyone we need to know.

Our neighbors, just as the John Doe Clubs realized, are just like us. Really. Maybe not in every way, and maybe they get you mad sometimes, but they are alive. Just like you. Isn't that enough?

So to the Democrats who think they can use the new administration to get theirs, just as Cheney and his cronies did the last eight years, I say "straighten up and fly right". You are owed nothing. You get paid to work for all the members of the non-existent John Doe Clubs. To the Republicans, whose antics seem to say they will block anything, enough. Time for new ideas. I see a Senator complaining the President isn't listening to him, screaming, literally, on TV. Well - call him. Seems to me he'll take your call.

And for all of us, take a hint from Capra. Simple pleasures -of family, friends, food and music - are really what matters. The CEO's we all complain about? Take a lesson. Don't envy their wealth. See it for what it is - excessive. Money cannot buy happiness. What it can buy is food, education and some fun. I believe in the new direction our new President believes in. But I also believe it comes from us. One act at a time. One day at a time. It's not easy. But it is the only way.

Friday, February 6, 2009

CHE - Parts 1 AND 2

A few months back I saw "The Motorcycle Diaries", the film about Che Guevara's early twenties in which he took a motorbike trip around South America. He left from his homeland of Argentina with his best friend. Their aim was to have some fun basically, though as doctors, medical students really, they did have some serious intentions. They planned to visit a leper colony and talk to a distinguished physician there. It was an interesting enough movie that it led me to read the book, which is actually the diary of Guevara from the trip.

Yesterday, I finished watching "Che", Steven Soderbergh's two-part, almost five hour film about Guevara. I am glad I read "The Motorcycle Diaries"!

Part One is a film about Guevara hooking up with Fidel Castro to bring about the coup in Cuba. It seems Guevara was the tactician and inspiration, while Castro was the leader who took on the responsibility of the whole action. With a large number of rebels, they advance on government troops. The final part of the film is an almost street-by-street, and literally wall-by-wall, account of the taking of the final town before the rebels were able to take control of Cuba. With little plot other than miltary tactics, the film is bogged down in itself. While ephemerally interesting at first, my interest began to lag. By the time the final invasion was being shown, I realized the only thing I had learned, other than how to take Cuba by force, was that Che greeted every soldier individually, by name, as he looked them straight in the eye. That was an insight that passed quickly though. I must admit I was glad when it ended. I wondered if I would actually watch Part Two.

For the sake of artistry, and because I have some interest in the man I met in "Motorcycle Diaries", I watched the second half. And I will say that if you have any interest in Guevara, you have to watch both films. The second is set in Bolivia, where Guevara goes to continue the revolution. He leaves Cuba behind to a Castro that is living off the fat of that land and hardly embracing "the people". But Che, whether he saw that or not, plans to lead the Bolivian peasants against their government. Where Cuba was such a success, at least for Che and his intentions, Bolivia proves to be the exact opposite.

The amazing problem is that he has so few rebels with him. It is hard to understand what he actually expected to do with a group that seemed to top no more than thirty at any time. His ability to greet his troops personally and look them in the eye served him well here, though it did not go as well for those soldiers. Guevara is the leader here. There is no Fidel Castro to take any heat or make any decisions. Guevara, whose lifelong problem with asthma really rears up in Bolivia, has no business attempting what he attempts here.

These two halves - one of great success and one of abject failure - make Soderbergh's opus a film well worth watching. There is an overall biographical arc, an assessment really, that can only be attained by setting each half against the other. But I would suggest reading the "Diaries" also. The film gives us little background or characterization of the famous revolutionary icon. From the book, I knew that his goals were formed by seeing the native Indian populations of South America living in cultural splendor, but economic destitution. He had good motives.

But the film shows that when those same Native Americans are coerced to help rebels, they get nothing in return other than government troops harassing them. The very people he wanted to help wanted nothing to do with such violence and harassment. There must be better ways to change the world, but those ways may make results harder to achieve than violent revolt.

Che had good intentions, but it seems it was really a wasted life and wasted talent.