Monday, July 28, 2008

Transcendental Meditation

Over at Scanners Jim Emerson has entered into the fray over The Dark Knight and discussions of genre brought up by A.O. Scott of the New York Times. I'm not here to get into that discussion but rather use it as a jumping off point for some thoughts I've long had about genres that The Dark Knight fray brings to the forefront quite well. I purposely did not read all the comments on the Scanners post because I wanted to come at it fresh without multiple opinions already clouding my views but I would like to hear from Ken Lowery on this if he reads this because I noticed he was one of the commenters and he has a good background with comics (as far as I know). Of course, this isn't just about the Comics Genre (or Superhero Genre or whatever it may be called) but mainly so.

In all the discussion of how great The Dark Knight is (I have not seen it yet) the one thing that keeps gnawing at me is the equation of "seriousness" or "heavy moral ambiguity" with greatness in the comic book genre. To my eyes, this is belittling of the genre in and of itself by the very people who support the genre so wholeheartedly in the first place. One thing movie critics and historians pounded into my head again and again in all those formative years of reading everything about film I could get my hands on was that the subject matter does not affect how great a movie is. So just because Gandhi contains very serious subject matter and has an noble lead character does not mean it is a better film than The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant because that film is "just a silly comedy." But by pointing to the "serious" and "deep" aspects of The Dark Knight as the reasons for its greatness the inadvertent argument emerges that if a comic book genre film does not go "all serious" it can't be great. Thus the earlier works of Richard Donner and Tim Burton just weren't serious enough and thus do not merit high praise.

This is the same baloney argument I've fought against since my love of film began all those many years ago. And not just with film. Take the Beatles for instance. How many times has someone argued for their greatness based on string quartets, octets and guitar solos recorded backwards? Wow, terrific, but I base their greatness as a rock band on things like I Saw Her Standing There, not Eleanor Rigby, and when someone insists on going in the opposite direction they're saying you can't be a great rock band if all you're playing is, uh, you know, rock.

And so it goes with genre in film. You can be a good sci-fi movie (Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Apes) but you can't be Great with a capital "G" unless you get weighty and heady and ponder the existence of intelligence in the universe (2001: A Space Odyssey). And that's not to say I don't believe with all my heart that 2001 is a great movie, I think it is, just that I tire of it being exalted above some of the more excitable genre examples from the fifties that are truer in spirit to the genre. And that's the problem, they're true to the genre and we all know if you stay within the genre you're doomed as far as the historical record of merit is concerned. You must do something different to be great. There's even a term for it: Transcending the Genre.

Well I'm here to go on record that for the most part, if given my say, I want my genre films to stay firmly planted in the genre from which they sprang. Not because I want them to be limited but because I want people to start appreciating them for what they are and stop thinking that genre is unimportant unless everyone starts emoting from the balcony. I believe staying within the genre makes the film more challenging in many ways. For instance, in a comic book film one is already starting at the incredible disadvantage of literally dressing their characters for the part. Michale Corleone wouldn't have to figure out who was with him or against him in the comic book world because everyone would already have the appropriate costume on. So instead of fighting against that and writing characters who operate in shades of grey while walking around with their "Villain" labels attached to their head why not play with the fact that it's so obvious instead? It's not as "deep" but that's what makes it harder. Watching the original Superman (1978) and it's sequel Superman II (1980) it's clear that no one is trying to confuse or challenge the audience as to whether Clark, Lex and those three cheerful sorts led by Zod are good or bad. We know what they are and the two movies revel in this and become great examples of how to make a genre film without stepping outside the rulebook once.

Look, I can appreciate wanting to do something different and take your characters in different directions. My problem is not with the filmmakers, it's with the critics and fans who insist genre films must merge with Ibsen before they are to be taken seriously. Do what you want with genre by all means. But when it's done don't tell me it's better than the rest because it left the confines of the genre. Praise 2001 through the roof, but don't try to convince me it's great because it doesn't have Charlton Heston, Rod Taylor or Gene Barry. Keep it up and eventually we'll lose the fun of the different genres altogether as everyone elbows to become the next Eugene O'Neill of Horror or Anton Chekhov of Action/Adventure. And if that happens I've only got one thing to say and I learned it from the genre school of dialogue:

"We finally really did it. You Maniacs! You blew it up! Oh, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"