Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Watchmen, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins

The scope of Watchmen (1986-87) is wide and ambitious. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, it encompasses the history of comic books and super heroes, 20th-century history and foreign policy, the Cold War, science, art, and popular culture. The world of Watchmen is an alternative America in the mid-1980s. Nixon is still president of the United States. U. S. defense policy depends on the powers of a super-hero named Jon (his super hero moniker is Dr. Manhattan), who is capable of destroying anyone anywhere in the world at any time.

Watchmen is clearly a product of the Reagan administration. Paranoia about increasing U. S.-Soviet hostilities, about nuclear war, and government repression are constant themes.

This graphic novel is composed of 12 illustrated episodes, interspersed with 12 narrative sections. The episodes were originally published as separate issues during 1986-87. The first few narrative sections contain histories of one sort or the other. Later in the novel they contain pertinent documents or excerpts from newspaper articles. Every narrative in the book is related to every other narrative. One sequence of scenes running throughout the book concerns a newspaper and magazine vendor on a street corner. He is fearful about the growing possibility of nuclear war. A young black man is usually present in these scenes, sitting on a street curb reading a comic book narrative about "The Black Freighter." Excerpts from what he is reading are mixed with the newspaper vendor scenes. (I realize that the term graphic novel is controversial. Even Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman object to it. But it is a generally accepted term designating a form of expression that is receiving increasing respect from readers and critics, and Watchmen is frequently included as a leading example of graphic novels).

The central plot of Watchmen involves a series of murders of former super heroes. In the alternative world of this novel, most of the super heroes are simply average citizens inspired by comic books to put on costumes and become vigilantes. A recently enacted law has made their activities illegal, and most of them have retired. Several characters become involved in trying to discover who is murdering the former heroes.

The characters of Watchmen clearly and dramatically distinguish it from most other comic book narratives. Character development is, I gather, an important element of graphic fiction. Many of the characters are relatively well developed. They have detailed histories, human problems, and complicated personalities. One is afflicted with impotence. Another has a difficult relationship with her controlling mother. They range all over the political spectrum. The most interesting character to me is Rorschach, whose difficult childhood left him psychologically scarred. When the other super heroes enter middle age and retire from vigilantism, he continues. Everyone fears him, regarding him as a psychotic criminal. But in the course of the narrative he proves to be the most interesting of all the super heroes, the most unwilling to compromise his principles, the most intent on discovering the mystery behind the murders. At a certain level, however, all these characters remain what they are: well developed, conflicted comic book characters.

The illustrations are detailed and full of visual information that advances the plot. They are intelligent and appropriate to the narrative itself. But they never rise above the level of standard DC Comics graphics.

"Who will watch the watchmen?" This question expresses a crucial theme of the novel. Watchmen explores the concept of a world where super heroes really do exist and considers what it would be like to live in a world where such beings have nearly limitless powers. Only two characters in the novel actually have such powers. One is Jon, a former nuclear scientist who was caught in an accident that essentially disintegrated him into atoms. He manages to reconstitute himself, and when he does, his powers are limitless. The other is Conrad Veidt, whose intellectual genius and limitless wealth allow him to build and do virtually anything he wants.

Readers must suspend disbelief throughout much of this novel. Of course, Watchmen is science fiction, which by nature requires one to accept the given premises and principles of the story. But science fiction also operates within the demonstrable laws of science. This novel sometimes expects you to accept facile explanations and justifications: for example, Dr. Manhattan's unlimited powers—nothing in the world of quantum physics remotely supports this notion. Another example is Veidt's ability to do many of the things he does, such as create an artificial life form that he teleports into the center of New York City. Limitless wealth will not allow one to do what science cannot accommodate. One might argue that Watchmen portrays an alternative world, a different America where such things are possible, but if the basic laws of biology and physics in such a world differ from those of our own, what relevance does that world have to this one? Or one can argue that Watchmen is fantasy or allegory, but either argument would seem to me a stretch. Or one might insist that in comic books anything is possible, but such an argument subverts if not refutes the links Watchmen draws with our own world, not to mention that this work clearly rises above conventional definitions of the term comic book.

There are slow moments in the narrative. Often very little happens from one frame to the next. Sometimes the effect seems to build tension, suspense. You have to put up with these. There's also a physical issue: the paperback edition of Watchmen that I read combines all 12 issues of the original series. To conserve space (I assume) many frames are crammed onto each page, and the print is small and sometimes difficult to read. (Maybe this is an old person's problem). The mere creation of all the frames that make up the illustrated portion of the novel is impressive to consider. The book itself is heavy. Watchmen devotes much time and space to giving us the histories of the costumed heroes, though in the end this really does not advance the plot—it's almost a kind of diversion. I suspect that the intensity and developing tension of the Watchmen episodes would have developed more effectively had I read the individual episodes as they were published, rather than all within a relatively short period of time.

Is Watchmen great literature?—Newsweek named it one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. The intricacy of the narrative, the interwoven subplots, the detailed, nuanced creation of the city of New York and of the heroes themselves—all of this is impressive. The novel has an encyclopedic quality, sometimes seeking to encompass everything—all science, all culture, all literature. Clearly the author is creative and intelligent. With a specifically dark and humorless vision he argues that in the end the only way to ensure world peace is to force it on humankind through tricks and deceptions that cost millions of lives.

I do not regard this novel as great literature. Certainly among comic books, among graphic novels, it may deserve iconic status. For me, despite the intricacies, there is a cold two-dimensional quality to its characters and plots and subplots. Despite their detailed lives, the characters in the end are comic book figures, lacking the substance and the grain that characters from real novels possess. We depend in Watchmen on the operating laws and limitations of the world it creates. It's separate from our own world, no matter how much like our world it may be. The fate of that world matters less outside the covers of the novel that contains it than it does within.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature, by Richard Gray

Richard Gray's A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature (Athens, GA: UGA Press, 2007) argues that Southern writers, rather than being influenced by previous generations, are in a dialogue with them—that their work is a reaction to, an argument with, in ways both explicit and hidden, the writers who came before. Gray brings to bear an impressive array of modern and fairly contemporary Southern writers, ranging from Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Wendell Berry to many younger writers. Gray is intent on demonstrating the diversity of Southern literature. He also seems wary of the Nashville agrarians, who seemed so relevant thirty years ago but who now at least in this discussion seem considerably less so.

Gray views Southern literature not in terms of a common ideology among writers but instead in terms of a fluid and sometimes homogeneous set of themes and reactions to cultural conditions. To say that writers often dwell on common themes is not to say that they make similar treatments of them. This becomes most evident in Gray's long and excellent discussion of Toni Morrison's dialogue with William Faulkner, whom Gray regards as the greatest of Southern writers. Gray resists the notion that Morrison was influenced by Faulkner (even though she wrote her MA thesis on Faulkner and Proust) and instead contends that in Morrison's work there is a dialogue with the Mississippi writer. As his two main texts in this discussion he uses Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Morrison's Beloved, which he regards as the two greatest books the literary South has produced on race and slavery. (I think the distinction between influence and dialogue here is largely semantical).

The sense of the South as a distinctive entity derives from how others perceive it as "other" and marginal and on the extreme verges of existence. Gray writes: "'Region' and 'regional' are here applied to an area that seems to exist on the extremest margins. They are terms applied by 'us,' the members of a dominant cultural group, to 'them,' some unfortunate lesser breed or area that was and is interesting precisely because it is so far from the supposed center of things" (63). "Those writers who call or see themselves as southern may have very little in common sometimes. What they do have, though, and have had in the past, is an inclination to define their 'southernness' against a national 'other'" (64). "The South, in short, any South, tends to be named and identified against the historical tide—even more against than other spaces or places construed as marginal" (65).

Gray's view of the American South is not rigid or monolithic. He sees the South as constantly involved in a process of change and development. He takes issue late in the book with a statement Walker Percy made in the early 1970s to the effect that regional writing in the South was dead. He suggests that Percy's pronouncement is based on an assumption that comes from within Southern culture, one that sees the South as fixed and defined and in danger of collapse as a result of outside forces. Southern writers, he suggests, should not be defined "from within that monolith." The "culture that, as a matter of self-identification, has defined itself as regional and southern has always been more mixed and fluid than this argument allows" (243).

Gray's final discussion centers on a group of writers who reflect the presence of a large Vietnamese population in the South. Some of these writers are white Americans—Robert Olen Butler, for instance—and others are themselves first-generation Vietnamese southerners, or more recent immigrants. Gray's identification in their work of themes he regards as Southern raises the question of what a Southern theme is—why is a particular theme—a fixation on the past, for instance--essentially Southern? Why is it not simply a human theme? Could any group of writers be picked up and plopped down in the South, with a similar group of Southern themes then emerging? To some extent such themes are basic to the human condition. The South defines the geographical region and culture in which writers explore these themes and from which they borrow elements of lifestyle, politics, religion, and place to clothe them.

The dialogue among writers that is basic to Gray's discussion may well be a dialogue that occurs as much in the minds of readers as within the works and minds of the authors. The more we as readers absorb, the more readily able we are to recognize links and disjunctions between and among the writers we read. Our construction of those links creates the cognitive context in which we read.

In addition to the discussions of Berry, Faulkner, Morrison, there are excellent discussions as well of Eudora Welty, Bobby Ann Mason's In Country, Yusef Komunyakaa, The Bondswoman's Narrative (written some time between 1855 and 1869 by a woman who may or may not have been named Hannah Craft), as well as African American and Native American writers in the South.


Written, directed, and produced by John Sayles, Honeydripper (2007) is set in 1950s rural Alabama. It begins as one of the slowest and least convincing films I've seen in a while, though gradually it gathers momentum. One issue I have with the film is historical accuracy—a question of representation. I do not know enough about rural African American life in Alabama in the mid-20th century to judge the realism of this film. It does show that life was hard for rural blacks: they are always scrimping to get buy, many of them work in the cotton fields or other menial jobs, including domestic work for white people. The local sheriff (played by Stacy Keach) seems to have complete control of the county, especially of the African American inhabitants. He arrests them when it suits him and puts them to work in a local cotton field and in general asserts demagogic authority. Unfortunately, he looks and acts so much like the Buford T. Justice character portrayed by Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit that it is difficult to take him seriously. Other characters in the film are not so stereotypical. All the African American characters are individuals. The film in some way reminded me of Idlewild, a stylized and in some ways fantastical portrayal of rural African Americans in the South, but Honeydripper is not a musical and it is more deliberately realistic.

There are many melodramatic aspects to Honeydripper. The main character, Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is struggling to keep his juke joint (the Honeydripper Lounge) afloat as he loses business to another juke joint nearby that features more contemporary music that appeals to young folks. Purvis' place features traditional music. We see in the film that Bertha Mae (Mabel John) is performing at the Honeydripper, but virtually no one is there to listen to her. She is a blues singer in the 1930s style of someone like Bessie Smith. Tyrone wants to be loyal to Bertha Mae, but he also wants to keep his business afloat, so he makes plans to replace her with a performer from New Orleans known as "Guitar Sam." He hopes Guitar Sam's popularity will help him pay off his debts. Tyrone is a former blues piano player himself who many years before engaged in a knife fight that apparently ended his performing career. He is married to a pious woman named Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who is on the verge of declaring her faith to the local preacher. Their daughter, China Doll, has a weak heart. And so on. Tyrone owes money to everyone and is on the verge of becoming desperate.

Danny Glover seems to be going through the motions in this film. He's flattened and depressed throughout most of the early scenes, weighed down by debt and a distanced relationship with his wife and worries about his business. He shows little energy until towards the end, when he concocts his scheme to save the Honeydripper. Does he have any other source of income? He's supposed to be a fiercely independent man. The sheriff recognizes the fact. Tyrone berates his wife for working for the white wife of the white mayor. Yet he doesn't hesitate to go to the white sheriff when he needs a favor, and even enters into a business arrangement with him when he believes it will save the business.

One of the problems with representation in this film is the apparently middle-class lifestyle of Tyrone and his family. Even though he is deeply in debt, his wife and daughter dress well, and they don't seem to be impoverished. Where does their money come from? Purvis doesn't make enough from the Honeydripper to pay his debts. His wife works as a maid and earns little income. Everyone in the film dresses in relatively clean and nice looking clothes, though they live in shacks and appear to have limited means. What am I missing here? Is the film inaccurate or idealistic in representing the lives of the characters in this way, or is it simply suggesting that what money they have goes to dressing suitably?

Tyrone's daughter China Doll is a glimmer of light in this film. So also is Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.), a drifter who passes through town and is arrested by the sheriff as a vagrant and put to work in the cotton fields. Sonny and China Doll are drawn to each other right away. Sonny also claims to be a singer, and when Guitar Sam doesn't show up on the day he is supposed to play at the Honeydripper, Tyrone hires Sonny to impersonate him. Sonny plays an electric guitar with an old-fashioned amplifier and speaker. In a sense his music represents the passing away of old traditional musical forms represented by Bessie Mae (who actually dies in the course of the film) and the newer forms that replace them. In the final scene we discover how well Sonny can play and sing (the actor himself is a modern-day bluesman). What the scene seems to suggest is that newer musical forms—electric and modern though they may be—continue and revitalize the traditions they replace.

In the end, the film comes to life. But it takes quite a while to get there. The moment itself is a kind of stereotypical cliché: music solves all the problems of these happy African Americans down on the old Southern farm. Just start playing the piano and strumming the guitar and dancing and all those trials and tribulations fall away. If that seems offensive, perhaps it should. The logic of the scene, as much a relief as it is, is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film, or with reality, either.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Man on Wire

Man on Wire (directed by James Marsh, 2008) recalls Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in New York City in 1974.

One of the film's great achievements is how it portrays Petit—not as a stuntman, or a fanatic, or a demented man intent on destroying himself—but rather as a singular individual with an unusual talent and a unique ambition. Petit says in the film that as soon as he read about plans to construct the World Trade Center in New York City he conceived his dream of walking between the two towers. Petit is shown as obsessively and even monomaniacally devoted to the pursuit of this dream. He enlists friends as accomplices in his scheme. He trains on a wire suspended across a field. He draws diagrams. They argue over strategy. They sometimes seem to give up. They fly back and forth across the Atlantic and scout out the World Trade Center, its stairways and entrances. They plot as if they are going to rob a bank or a museum, but their true goal is something quite different, something loftier. (Where he got the funds to pay for this scheme the film never mentions).

Man on Wire is a study in the personality of the people involved in the event, a chronicle of the steps they took to achieve their goal. It's also a celebration of the improbable and wondrous feat Petit amazingly pulled off. The film treats that moment, the culmination of the film, as a miraculous instant in time. The film is specifically a celebration of Petit himself, the young Petit. Even the older Petit, thirty-five years later, seems to stand in awe of his younger self.

As Petit's collaborators talk about their role in the event, they are often overcome with emotion, especially as they talk about the walk on the wires itself. They often seem incredulous over what they did—how they eluded guards and policemen in the Twin Towers, posed as workers in the building, hid under a tarp on the top floor when a guard passed through, used a bow and arrow to shoot a leader line from one building to the other.

When he takes his walk, Petit is so high in the air that that he is barely visible from the ground. Several of the men who helped him rig the lines took still photographs, and these are prominently featured in the film. The motion photography is of a barely visible figure—standing balanced on the war, sitting, reclining—remote and untouchable.

The film is narrated in retrospect, from a vantage point thirty-five years after the event it chronicles. Many of the major participants in Petit's walk—his girlfriend, fellow companions, Americans who decided to help him—are interviewed, and the film shows them both as they were in 1974 and as they are today. A few reenacted scenes, using actors, depict preparations for the event. Everyone expresses awe over Petit’s walk—his conspirators, the policemen who took him into custody, the manager of the World Trade Center. For most of them, once the wire walk was done and Pettit and others were taken into custody, that was the end of their relationship. He soon broke up with his girlfriend and lost touch with the friends who helped him. Everyone seems to accept the change as an inevitable consequence of the celebrity the feat brought him.

Never in the film is the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers mentioned. But it is there nonetheless, always implied, a future memory. Occasional images summon it up—a wafting slip of paper blown through the air, an airplane passing behind one of the towers. And the consequence of a mistake by Petit would have brought him plummeting 1400 to the ground and his death, another disquieting reminder of that day in 2001.

Man on Wire won the 2009 Oscar for best documentary, as well as numerous other awards.

Young at Heart

From the first scene, in which a 92-year old woman enthusiastically croaks out the song "Do I stay or do I go," by the Clash, Young at Heart (2007) is enjoyable and charming. It's about a group of old people, ranging in age from 72 to 92, who meet together to sing popular music. They give public performances at various places, including a prison where their performance of Dylan's "Forever Young" (immediately following the deaths of two of their members) brings hardened inmates to genuine tears. They also tour Europe and the United States. The performances aren't remarkable, but the performers are. For the most part the members of the troupe are and always have been amateurs. The point of the film is not that once they get together and practice long hours they discover hidden talents. Instead, the point is that at an advanced age they still brim with enthusiasm, vigor, and passion. They're not ready to lie down and die either, though in the course of the film, several do so. The film is dedicated to the 92-year-old woman of the opening scene, who died shortly after the production was completed.

I am of a divided mind on this film. It did charm me. On the other hand, I wondered whether the laughter it often evoked was exploitative. Was the film asking me to recognize the humanity in these old people, or was it encouraging me to laugh at them because they are old and doddering? I'm not sure there is an easy answer.

Lessons of Darkness

Lessons of Darkness (1992) is a Werner Herzog documentary about the first U. S. invasion of Iraq. This film differs from two other Herzog documentaries I have seen—Grizzly Man and Encounters at the Edge of the World—in that the director's narration is not prominent. Instead Herzog relies on the weight of images of carnage and destructive, often presented in a repetitive way intended (apparently) to make and emphasize his point. One problem with this film is that you have nothing with which to compare the images of destruction—what were these scenes like before U. S. bombs began to fall? An occasional point of reference by which to measure the bombs' impact would help. (Admittedly, some of the images are self-evident: cratered landscapes, blasted, shredded tanks). In particular Herzog focuses on images of the Iraqi oil fields—in the opinions of many the reason for both U. S. invasions of that country. When the U. S. attacked Iraq in 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered oil field facilities blown up, so that thousands of gallons of oil poured out onto the desert or went up in flames. Often in Lessons of Darkness you believe that you are looking at the sky's reflection in a lake, and only gradually do you realize that the lake is full of oil, not water. There is, at times, a bloated portentousness to this film that Herzog usually manages to avoid in his best work.

The imagery in this film has a deadening effect. More narration might have helped. Too often I was reminded (with the encouragement of the musical soundtrack) of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1982), but in that film repetitive, rhythmic motion synchronized with Phillip Glass music had a mesmerizing impact that this film lacks.