Saturday, January 28, 2006

Brokeback: a Chick Flick?

Brokeback Mountain is being touted as an issues film of the kind that divides red-staters from blue-staters, and is considered likely to raise the temperature on debates about gay marriage and other related issues.

I haven't seen it nor do I intend to. Not because of its theme, or because of its political subtext. No, I'm avoiding Brokeback because it sounds like a chick movie. Consider: a movie about "relationships," with passions running high, emotions oozing all over the place, and at the center of it two hunky guys displaying all the "googly feelings" (my wife's phrase) that women wish their husbands and boyfriends would emit on a more regular basis. You think that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are going to show up on testosterone-fueled venues like SportsCenter or The Man Show? Unlikely; but they've already been on Oprah, the primary cultural authority on all things womanly in our land. And who wrote the original story? Yep, a woman. This is not a movie about gay men as much as it is a wish-fulfillment movie about men for women.

As for me, when I go to a cowboy movie, there better be lots of shooting (with guns), and hopefully the bad guy will wind up getting killed (guess I better not say "blown away"). Throw in some Indians, too, and if the love that dare not speak its name wants to be there, it can buy a ticket like the rest of us.

So, you ladies enjoy yourselves. Hey, what time's the Super Bowl?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Comic Books (i): Comics as Narrative

I'm a big fan of comic books, and I've bored many people by trying to convince them that comic books/sequential art/graphic novels are, or can be, high art in the same realm of creativity as books, drama, or films.

As narrative, books have one drawback, in that so much has to be described — the appearance of characters, the landscape, the setting. The writer has a lot of leeway in how much to describe; he can be impressionistic or very detailed, and a good writer can make these passages part of the whole experience. But some immediacy is necessarily lost, and the narrative flow is always in danger when description has to happen.

Films have the opposite drawback; although they are the most intense art form in terms of immediacy, they are unable to portray easily anything "below the surface" — characters' thoughts, back stories, necessary background info. They don't have to describe characters: there they are. But what are they thinking? That's one reason, I think, why "great books," which depend so much on the depth of information provided, often make poor movies. Only the principal actual events can be transferred to film (and this is my big beef with the Lord of the Rings movies — marvelous spectacle, but so much of the feeling of the "dark backward and abysm of time" and the historical texture of Middle-Earth was lost).

Graphic storytelling can evade both of these problems. The comics have always been closely linked to film in the way "shots" are set up, angles and perspectives shifted and varied, and color variations used as signifiers. But they're also linked to literature by the employment of the written word, which gives them a possible depth unmatched by film. We can tell what people are thinking, and this is a good thing to know for lots of stories; but we don't have to stop for 5 paragraphs for a description of the protagonist's clothes, or how the clouds looked that day.

Plus, to a degree unmatched either in literature or film, the reader can control the pace of the story. With a movie, you are in the director's hands, and you will see the story unfold at his rate, not yours. With a book, you can stop or slow down, or go back to repeat a scene, but there are no visual landmarks (e.g., "where was that conversation that, it now seems clear, provided crucial information for the scene now unfolding? Chapter 10 or Chapter 12?" or "wait, I thought John was the father, not the brother ... where's the place he was talking about the family?"). With comics, you can slide up and down the temporal scale with greater ease just by flipping back. (Of course, with DVDs, the experience of movie-watching is changing.)

Comics also have the advantage over movies of being able to engage in first-person narration. Movies do attempt this occasionally, as in High Fidelity with John Cusack (a pretty faithful version of Nick Hornby's book); but of necessity, the action has to stop while the actor actually addresses the camera (as Cusack did) or relies on voice-overs. But in comics, the first-person "voice" comes through the written word; when combined with the visuals, it works pretty well, as in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. (The movie, however, perforce had to become a movie about Pekar instead of a narration by Pekar. It worked as a movie, but was semiotically different than the comic book original.)

Of course, comics themselves have drawbacks. They have to be physically bigger than pure literature, so that the illustrations can have a proper impact; for practical reasons this tends to limit their size and length. (Jeff Smith's wonderful Bone, which I recommend to all lovers of fantasy, is the size of a telephone book.) Also, purely by the accidents of history, they have been associated with juvenile literature — superheroes, etc. Personally, I still enjoy the pure super hero comic (especially Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spiderman); but there are abundant signs that the genre is beginning to transcend its origins, even when it doesn't necessarily break away from them. (Alan Moore's Watchmen is a prime example.)

All of this is by way of introduction to a discussion of Steve Ross's graphic novel version of the Gospel of Mark, Marked, which I hope to talk about in my next post.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Past Watchful Dragons

I see from a recent catalog that there are several new books about the Chronicles of Narnia coming out. Well, let a thousand flowers bloom, as Mao once said; but I've always been a little amused by the number of books that are published "explaining" C.S. Lewis, that clearest of writers. Those who want to understand CSL are better off reading him than any of his commentators, however worthy.

I'll make two exceptions to that generalization, at least as far as Narnia books are concerned. One is Paul Ford's Companion to Narnia, which is very informative and a fun read in itself (the author was a classmate of mine at Fuller in the 'seventies); and the other is Walter Hooper's Past Watchful Dragons (1979), now apparently out of print (and drawing outrageously high prices on the used-book sites). Hooper's book should have been read by the media types who talked loosely (and complainingly) about the "Christian allegory" in the Narnia movie. He quotes Lewis deftly on the subjects of allegory and symbolism, explaining the differences, and adds some value for Lewis-readers by incorporating some of Lewis's unpublished material (including a longish draft of what was to become The Magician's Nephew).

Hooper's title comes from something Lewis wrote about his purposes in writing the Chronicles.

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?

I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices, almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Unfortunately, for Christians and non-Christians both, Narnia is itself rapidly acquiring its own "Sunday school associations" (something that Hooper saw might happen and warned against) and the media dragons were out in full force, determining that no "religious Right" propaganda should pass unscathed. Hopefully there are more Christian artists out there who can make new stories that are dragon-resistant.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Women and Blogging Redux

Stephen Carlson calls attention here to the question of women and blogging in the legal profession. Ann Althouse also has a post on the same topic and prompted by the same article. Those who have followed the discussion about women and biblioblogging will note the similarities in the issues raised and the lack of clarity about what to "do" about the problem.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Long ago, in a far-away country, there lived a very old man named Abraham. He was so old that he was bent over with age and shuffled when he walked; and his long white beard nearly touched the ground.

This Abraham was known far and wide for his faith in God. He had never disobeyed the divine voice, even when it told him to do things contrary to all reason. Because of this Abraham was a special favorite of God.

Another remarkable thing about Abraham was that, old as he was, he had a little son. Isaac, as he was called, was his father's pride and joy. Whenever Abraham saw Isaac playing, his old legs wanted to caper with him and his wrinkled old face creased even more with laughter.

One night, after everyone had gone to bed, Abraham heard the Divine Voice again....

The next morning Abraham looked even older and his beard whiter than ever. He called his son Isaac and said to him, "We must make a journey to the mountain of God. And there we must make a sacrifice."

Isaac's eyes shone with pleasure. "And am I to go too, father?"

"Yes," said Abraham, "you must come with me."

Isaac ran, beaming, to tell the servants to make ready for a journey. And Abraham's legs this time did not ache to run with him.

The mountain of God was not far from their home, but Abraham's shuffling gait made the journey last several days. But at last, no matter how slowly the old man walked, they saw the mountain of God before them.

"Stay here," Abraham told the servants, "and we will come back by and by."

Isaac's heart was bursting with excitement and with love for his old father. But oh, how slowly the old man went up the mountain!

"Father," said Isaac, "where is the lamb for the sacrifice?"

"It is waiting for us on top of the mountain." And the two of them walked on together.

Finally, they reached the flat summit of the mountain of God, where the altar was. There Abraham made ready the wood, unsheathed the knife, and set a burning branch near him to light the sacrifice.

Then he turned to his son, fingering the knife with his gnarled fingers. And Isaac looked into Abraham's eyes; and despite his love, he was afraid.

But, with a sigh, Abraham lowered the knife. "No," he said, "this cannot be done. Without you, I cannot live."

Then he raised his eyes to heaven. "And without You, I cannot live."

He sighed again. "Therefore, O Lord, I beseech thee — let old Abraham die in Isaac's place. Do You need a sacrifice? Take me instead.

"But know this, oh my Heavenly Father — I cannot and will not harm the boy."

Isaac stared, astonished, as his old father began to try to climb up on the altar, and then he rushed forward to try to pull him down and off the stones. They struggled together weakly, the old man and the little boy, both of them weeping. Suddenly the Divine Voice filled the air around them, and they became still.

"Abraham," it said. "You have passed the test."

Then a great light shone around them, dazzling their eyes; and so great was the weight of that light that they were unable to stand and fell on their knees; but their hearts were filled with joy.

When the echoes of the Voice died away and their eyes had regained their sight and their legs had regained their strength, the father and the son rose and saw before them a slaughtered lamb burning on the altar. The two of them held hands and watched it for a little while, listening to the pop of the burning branches and the hiss of burning flesh. Then, turning around, they made their way down the mountain in peace.

UPDATE (1/9): I wrote this piece years ago and I don't remember the thought process that led up to it or any other concomitant circumstances. Therefore in a sense I read it as a stranger. But I am sure that I had no desire to set up my story as replacing the biblical one or as a negative comment on it. Rather I see it as a midrash, written by a man who loves his children dearly and whose faith is minuscule compared to Abraham's. What would happen to such a man who was tested as Abraham was? The answer — so I feign — is that God might still accept such a man, even in his failure, by receiving what he is able to give (love for his offspring and the desire, if not the ability, to obey God) and by supplying the sacrifice that the "unfaithful believer" (or the "disobedient servant") is not able to give.

I appreciate the comments, both complimentary and critical. Certainly I intended no irreverence. Looking back on the story, my main criticism is that it is too sentimental, a fault that the biblical writer avoided while remaining sensitive to the human emotions of his protagonists. Now there was a writer!