Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bloody Stages Strike People as Serious

In keeping with the rule that hates damnnear everything it reviews, critic Matt Zoller Seitz has trashed seemingly every film with comic book source materials, chiefly Iron Man and Iron Man 2, but spanning all the Spiders, Supers, Watchers, X's, and Hulks we've seen in recent years. Along the way, he put his position as a contributor at peril by giving limited praise to a few films, including The Dark Knight and Batman Begins because

they were true to the dark (at times ugly) essence of their source material. And they were confident enough to disgorge raw data at a stock-ticker pace and expect viewers to keep up.
In reply to all this, Amanda Marcotte has posed an interesting question:
Seriously, what accounts for this knee jerk assumption that sad is more artistic than happy, that tragedy is deeper and more interesting than comedy? My experience in the world has often been the opposite---sometimes you can say and do more with a joke than by trotting out sadness or darkness. Nor are the two mutually exclusive. I’m a big fan of dark comedy, and I think that “Iron Man” pulled that off better than most superhero movies, which veer more from light to dark. Stark wasn’t a hero’s hero, and that was by far more interesting than whatever the hell Superman’s paternal heartbreaks are.
She is right to say Superman Returns was a piece of crap, and that Iron Man was, well, at least watchable, but I digress.

There's a fair question here, one with applicability beyond the critical reception of superhero films, but first I think it's useful to notice the elision that stirs "artistic," "tragedy," "deeper," and "more interesting" into a uniform batter that contrasts with "comedy," "joke," and "happy."

Both comedies and tragedies can be dark, though tragedies are definitionally so while comedies vary from whimsical to deepest black. Jokes are present in tragedies -- the gravedigger of Hamlet was brimming with jokes, albeit as comic relief. "More interesting" and "artistic" are, of course, matters of critical judgment, and as for "deeper," there's the rub.

So much depends on what "deeper" is. If it means something like "serious," then this goes to the formal boundaries between that which is comic and that which is tragic. Tragedy deals in serious themes in a forthright manner; comedy deals in serious themes in an ironic, subversive, indirect, or playful manner.

In this sense of "deeper," Othello would be "deeper" than Much Ado About Nothing* even though both concern the travails of communication, suspicion, rivalry, jealousy, and related hazards of love. Much Ado plays up the farcical and light-hearted possibilities of these subjects, mostly, while Othello draws out the graver, bleaker side.

If "deeper" is taken to be "dense with meaning," then I call a draw. Critics can and do find layers of depth in comic works from Quentin Tarantino, and meanwhile find them lacking in the tragically-atmospheric fare of Michael Bay.

The maddeningly simple answer might be that tragic works, when they're good, are credited as being weightier in their treatment of subjects and themes because they present them that way. Othello aims to shows people coming to ruin and dying in a more or less true-to-life fashion, as does The Dark Knight. Whereas Much Ado About Nothing and Iron Man submerge the menace and heartbreak in showers of wit and whimsy. There will be blood, but not on the stage, and that matters to the reception of the work.

Maybe this is all just tautology and bias, but if so, I am content to stand with Cormac McCarthy in sharing it:
His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death." Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."
I couldn't take Henry James either, but Michael Bay doesn't even rate as strange.

* I realize I have just thrown the academic specialists in theatrical comedy into a fist-shaking rage, but I even more firmly realize that none of them will ever read this shit, or if they do, they deserve what they get. I spit on you, academic specialists in theatrical comedy!


Paul P. Mealing said...

I know we've been discussing this on Larry's blog, but I thought I'd go to the source.

It's very subjective of course - I actually like Bryan Singer's Superman Returns - it's the Superman movie I would like to have written, but that probably says more about me than the movie. I'm one of those who believes it fits better as a sequel to the second Chris Reeve movie than the third Reeve movie.

But actually I didn't log on here to discuss Bryan Singer (I'm a fan).

I think you've touched on something here. It's not the genre that determines the quality of the story, it's the story. I've only discussed 3 movies on my blog in the last 3 years: Man on Wire, Watchmen and Up in the Air; they couldn't be more diverse, but they all have philosophical themes in my view.

Comedies can be subversive and satirical - Australian comedy is very subversive - I dont' know if you've heard of Barry Humphries' Dame Edna. Eric Bana started off as a stand-up comic, believe it or not.

Anyway, it's a good post that generates so much discussion.

Best regards, Paul.

Dale said...

Paul, thanks for the comments -- always welcome. I have heard some of Dame Edna, and I have even caught some of Eric Bana's stand-up act. As I recall, he was not bad!