Archive for October, 2009

The Week in Consumption, 10/26-ish

going up a little late. Life intervened!

Le Doulos Yet Another Jean-Pierre Melville gangster thriller about a man who might or might not have ratted out his friend. Now that I’ve seen about eight of these, they’re starting to get a little repetitive, even though they’re reliably charming. It’s neat to work backwards from Army of Shadows into these earlier films, because it helps me understand their connection to French political identity. Army of Shadows explicitly deals with French Resistance in WWII; his gangster movies seem like pieces of a massive allegory about French collaborators. There’s flashes of more contemporary stuff here too–one man runs past prominent grafitti about Algeria and the OAS–but the ruined hovels, the threat of being turned in, and vague ethnicity of the leads evoke occupied France.

Ashes and Diamonds On the last day of WWII, the Polish Resistance sends one man to assassinate the incoming Soviet puppet. Starring Zybigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean. His performance is a skeleton key to understanding how Eastern European men dress, behave, and carry themselves. I’m exaggerating, but it feels that way! There are a few great scenes in this, but the movie also made me very impatient.

Playtime This seems like the strongest of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot series, but maybe that’s just because I watched it on blu-ray. The film is divided into major set-pieces: the first takes place in two nearly-identical modernist buildings, as Hulot attempts in vain to navigate them; the second features a nightclub on opening night that’s sleek but falling apart at the seams. Instead of offering simplicity and transparency, modernism obfuscates and complicates. Mon Oncle presented us with glimpses of an older France, but it’s been thoroughly obliterated here.

Playtime is very enjoyable, but it certainly exercises the eyes. Many of the visual gags demand extraordinary visual acuity from the viewers. There’s one scene in which Hulot is looking for another man, who happens to be standing right next to him. Hulot spies him through his reflection in the glass window, takes the reflection to be the man himself, and begins to gesture to him. The other man, who makes the same mistake, gesticulates wildly in return. Hulot exits the building and walks over to where he thought the other man was, which is in fact an identical building housing different business . The whole thing depends on the audience picking up on these barely visible half-reflections.

The Earrings of Madame De . . . Max Ophuls’ film about a woman in a loveless marriage who begins an affair seems to take place in a world of its own. The central conceit is similar to his Le Ronde, but instead of love being passed around a dozen characters, it’s a symbol of love being passed around by four of them–much more economical. I’ve heard this film described as Wellesian, and there’s certainly the same care invested in objects and spaces that you see in Welles. I don’t really have a good handle on this movie, though, and I believe repeat viewings will illuminate it more.

Death of a Cyclist This movie was directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, who was Javier Bardem’s uncle. I don’t think it’s unfair to compare it to Hitchcock in terms of suspense, although the last third goes in a different direction. A man and woman, who carry on a love affair in an isolated hotel, return to the city and kill a cyclist in a hit-and-run. They tell no one, but an art critic in their social circle hints that he knows. There’s a lot of tense close-ups and coiled emotion in this one. Carlos Casaravilla is absolutely unnerving as Rafa Sandoval, the art critic who claims to know their secret.

Oliver Twist one of the more surprising David Lean films, as the Dickens classic is infused with expressionist strokes and weird camera angles. It’s almost as antisemitic as the book, featuring Alec Guinness (who had a Dickensian benefactor in his own life) with a horrific fake nose as Fagin.* I intended to kind of half-watch this while I worked on some other stuff, but I got pulled in by that storytelling magic.

*This doesn’t surprise me at all, but the Alec Guinness wikipedia entry is divided into two parts of equal length: Star Wars and his other movies.

Almond Butter I am using this to cycle off of peanut butter, and wow, it’s really good! I don’t know if I could eat it for days on end, like I do with peanut butter, but that’s probably not a good idea anyway.

Tarot Sport This is the new Fuck Buttons album. Someone on a message board called it “kinda samey more ravey less screamy” which is a perfect six word review. Lots of eight minute tracks with dance-friendly tempos but undancey rhythms. It’s more consistent than Street Horsssing but it loses something I can’t define in the process. I guess I just miss the noise. It’s similar to releases by Boredoms and Dan Deacon this year, and I did pump out a few job applications while listening to it, so it hits that inspiring/uplifting/propulsive demo pretty well. There’s some tribal flirtation going on too, but I’m more ambivalent about that aspect.

Childish Prodigy Kurt Vile’s latest collection of songs. It’s been raining every day for the past two weeks, and his fuzzy reverb feels like another layer of clothing. I’m not sure that there’s any actual tunes here yet. As a vocalist, Kurt Vile is Mick Jagger gone to seed. This music makes me feel like I’m in a Jim Jarmusch film.

Cerebus: High Society, Church and State I & II 1500 pages of glorious comics. I’m rereading my comics collection, trying to pick up tips on how to write and draw better. Cerebus is an incredibly cynical work about an anthropomorphic aardvark warrior who tries his hand at religion and politics. The plot is Byzantine in more ways than one, as Cerebus tries to take the reins in a city-state crushed by poor credit and under the thumb of a divided church. There’s a confusing number of characters, often introduced in passing, who become incredibly important rather quickly, then disappear for fifty issues. Some of this is just good suspense, and some of it feels more like the creator’s stalling the main plot to keep the comic coming out on time.

Even though it’s got this weird medieval setting, the comic also comments extensively on its own position on the margins of comics and the margins of American culture. Cerebus is from the uncouth north, and strives to make himself central to the workings of the metropole. Similarly, Cerebus came from Canada to challenge to the comics industry in the 1980s. So we often see Cerebus squabbling with parodies of comic book characters (The Thing, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Captain America, Moon Knight, Wolverine) and jousting with icons of pop culture (thinly veiled versions of Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde, the Rolling Stones). Neither Cerebus nor Cerebus could ever gain an economic advantage against its foes.

Creator Dave Sim shares many of the flaws of his lead (megalomania, misogyny), a problem which would become more extensive and explicit in later work. But these 75 or so issues are one of comic-dom’s great achievements: page-rattlingly funny, inventively designed, populated with sharp characters who feel vivid and present.

The Week in Consumption, 10/19

Each week I look back on the things I consumed. Was I entertained? What did I learn?

Miss Julie Directed by Alf Sjoberg, and starring Anita Bjork. Miss Julie is based on the August Strindberg play, which is a long kitchen conversation between the lady and her servant Jean. Julie has just broken off an engagement, and considers running off with Jean on a may night. The movie departs from the play in providing us with extensive flashbacks on Julie’s life, and adds the tempestuous physical presence of the other servants. It can be a little too on-the-nose about class, and the entrapment of the rich. In one scene, Miss Julie watches out her window, paired in the frame with a bird in a cage. But in return we experience a master class. in expressionist filmmaking. Key scene: Julie and Jean discuss their dreams, while in the background, they come to life.

Wings of Desire Directed by Wim Wenders, and starring Bruno Ganz. An angel watches over Berlin, and listens in on people’s thoughts. Soon, he falls in love with a circus performer, and gives up the angelic life to be with her. I quite enjoyed the rhythm of the first hour or so of the film, which is almost entirely made up of angels listening to other people. One set, a large open library, is particularly striking. The film spends very little time on the central “romance”, but I’m just fine with that–it’s not a straightforward romance, and the final scene suggests the angel becomes human simply to help the acrobat with her art. It’s weird to see Nick Cave pop up, as a vital plot point. It’s doubly weird when our angel meets Peter Falk, and we learn the truth about the actor’s past. Fun discovery: 5 or 6 lines from the film turn up in the Dirty Projectors song “Stillness Is the Move” although I’m not quite sure why or to what end.

Lord of the Flies The film version, directed by Peter Brook. You all read it in middle school, and the film is extremely faithful to William Golding’s novel about boys trapped on an island during World War III. Apparently the relationships between the actors mirrored that of the characters, which Brook took as “evidence” that Golding was right after all. About what? To my eyes, Lord of the Flies seems like a terrible allegory of politics, but a pretty solid one about gender and age. Favorite part: the film opens with a series of stills about the third world war, done in the style of Chris Marker’s La Jetee.

All That Heaven Allows Not my bag, but I can see why people go wild for this stuff. It’s another pairing of Rock Hudson with director Douglas Sirk, with Jane Wyman as the lead, Cary Scott. A widow begins an affair with her gardener, facing gossip and reproach from her grown children and the town. The shots are meticulously composed in suggestive ways, and Hudson really sells his Thoreauvian nonconformity. My favorite sections all involved Cary’s daughter Kay, who views everything through the cold prism of fifties social science. She finds it difficult to turn that critical gaze inward, however, and evaluate her own prejudices. Surely there’s a lesson here, too, for all the psychoanalytic critics who descend on Sirk.

JCVD I wish this was so much better. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, and starring JCVD as himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. One monstrously entertaining and hilarious open, on a film set, in which JCVD does a long, exhausting, and poor take of an action scene, for an uncaring director. One neat little set up, in which JCVD enters a bank, seems to shoot from inside, and starts making demands over the phone. But the movie gets slow and boring when it takes the time to explain how he got involved in a bank heist in the first place–which doesn’t really deliver us anything we wouldn’t guess from the beginning. Save one extended monologue from Van Damme, in which he is lifted above the set and speaks directly to the audience about his struggle, the movie has nothing to offer in its second half.

Mala Noche Gus Van Sant’s first film, starring Tim Streeter as Walt Curtis, a liquor store clerk who pursues a young latino and ends up involved with his friend. There’s some vivid high contrast black and white, and some indelible shots, like when Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) sticks his head out the car window, and the street lines reflect in his sunglasses. It’s a shaggy dog story, with higher stakes, as Walt offers Johnny’s friends money to sleep with him, looks for him all over town, takes in (and begins a halting relationship with) Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge). The comparison/contrast between gay and latino Portland isn’t easy to make, which is as it should be.

Le Gai Savoir One of Godard’s least comprehensible films, I’m betting, made right when he was diving head-first into Leftist waters.  Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto take over a tv station during May ’68, talk about the revolution, and talk about the revolution in language, man. Long collages of Godard’s handwriting and magazine advertisements follow. I’m out of my depth with this one, though maybe not for long, thanks to . . .

Everything is Cinema -a biographical guide to Godard’s films, by New Yorker critic Richard Brody. I’m only about 300 pages in, which represents the first 13 or so feature lengths. Brody’s claim is that the later films are much better, despite the loftier reception for his early work. I have yet to test this myself. Brody does expertly guide readers through Godard’s 60s films, demonstrating how Godard’s incredibly consistent themes still managed to refract French intellectual and political culture while also staking new aesthetic ground. The most engaging sections argue that Godard’s aesthetic project had inherently political consequences. The big question I have, after reading this, is why Brody isn’t top dog at the New Yorker–he’s light years better than David Denby and Anthony Lane.

Woman in the Dunes Movie of the Week! Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel. A teacher and amateur entomologist falls into a village’s trap, and is forced to live at the bottom of a dune with a woman, shoveling sand for the rest of his life. The movie takes its sweet time getting us to that point, but gives its characters’ emotions a chilling immediacy. The central conceit is enormously elastic–just think of any task you’re required to do, day after day, for the rest of your life–but I’m shocked at how well it made me feel that sensation of entrapment. I’m surprised at the places my imagination took me as I considered myself in that man’s place.

Zombieland – What fun. Most zombie movies are about zombie metaphors. Zombies stand in for mindless consumers or the proletariat or whatever, and we judge the survivors based on their success or failure at distinguishing themselves from zombies. This is a movie about what it means to be a survivor–what the zombies are doesn’t matter. Zombies are simply other people, and Zombieland is about loneliness, and what we’re willing to risk to lose that state. I think the Rules for surviving zombieland, which flash onscreen at key points, were a little too MTV, but they did create tension for the rest of the film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – I think this would have looked gorgeous in the theater, but at home I just didn’t care. David Fincher’s adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story is, yeah, about what it means to grow up in a body you don’t like, and how it feels to be born out of time, but I don’t think this movie actually has anything to say about that except, “it sucks, but you learn interesting things.” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), starts old and grows young, then wanders around the world with little motivation except to meet up again with Cate Blanchett. There’s some cute stuff where the film makes little references to the cinematic culture of the time it’s taking place, but not enough to forgive the movie’s listlessness. The frame story, in which Hurricane Katrina threatens to wipe out Blanchett’s character as she’s dying in the hospital, is pointless.

Danton Andrzej Wadja’s retelling of a main conflict following the French Revolution, cast as an analogue for Poland’s suppressed Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Gerard Depardieu stars as the revolutionary icon who calls for Robespierre’s Committee on Public Safety to stop going after people with guillotines. As Danton, Depardieu is relentlessly charismatic, pulling the center of the screen towards him. Wojciech Pszoniak, as Robespierre, is better, telling you everything you need to know about the man with a mere look. I enjoyed the political intrigue, and the characters are kept from being stock hero-and-villain types, but the film loses momentum after Danton’s arrest.

Bible verses from The Life of the World to Come

I’ve been listening to the new Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, and it’s predictably driven me back to the Bible. The connection from passage to song is at times direct, but at other times quite oblique. The whole thing is gorgeous. The album marries verses about unity and obedience to a musical approach which honors a radical subjectivity. Whatever brief notes and contextual cues I’ve added below are thanks to the Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Ed. The mistakes are my own.

1 Samuel 15:23

King Saul says he followed God’s orders, but he didn’t follow them to the letter. Samuel received the word of the LORD, who was displeased. Here Samuel shares that news with Saul:

“For rebellion is no less a sin than


and stubbornness is like iniquity

and idolatry.

Because you have rejected the word of

the LORD,

he has also rejected you from being


Psalms 40:2

Psalm 40 addresses giving thanks to God. Just like the previous passage, Psalm 40 addresses how it’s better to be obedient than to find your own idiosyncratic way to serve God.

He drew me up from the desolate


out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

making my steps secure.

Genesis 3:23

Having disobeyed God, Adam must leave Eden and work to sustain himself:

Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

Philippians 3:20-21

Philippians is a call for unity, with examples of those who gave up personal gains for the greater good. Paul exhorts the Philippians to envision themselves first and foremost as a heavenly community:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Hebrews 11:40

In this section Paul draws upon Old Testament examples of faith. Again the focus is on unity, since their struggles and rewards are our own:

since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Genesis 30:3

At this point, Rachel is still barren; she’ll be pregnant with Joseph by verse 23, however.

Then [Rachel] said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.”

Romans 10:9

Paul is once more breaking down distinctions in practice and arguing that Christianity is a big-tent religion. The test for salvation is simple, even if it is not simple to pass:

because  if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

1 John 4:16

John the evangelist (or followers) comes to this point in his refutation of various “Jesus deniers” who question his status as God in the flesh. But we know this must be so if we look to the Spirit:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Matthew 25:21

From the parable of the talents (and this is said to the slave who had acquired five additional talents). This is another parable about how we should comport ourselves knowing of God’s imminent arrival.

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ ”

Deuteronomy 2:10

This passage is a brief reference to a race of giants which had once inhabited Moab but had been conquered or displaced by others:

The Emim–a large and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim–had formerly inhabited [Moab].

Isaiah 45:23

This passage predicts that Cyrus II of Persia will defeat Babylon and thus allow for Israelites to return home. The larger message is that God’s hand is shown in the playing out of historical events

By myself I have sworn,

from my mouth has gone forth in


a word that shall not return:

“To me every knee shall bow,

every tongue shall swear.”

Ezekiel 7 (and the permanent efficacy of grace)

Ezekiel wrote during a period of extended resistance to Babylonian rule, when many were worried about Jerusalem’s fate under their oppressors (spoiler alert: Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 586 BC). Ezekiel predicted this, and after it came to pass, predicted its restoration.

I’m not formatting this one–too long!

The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to the land of Israel: The end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. 3 The end is now upon you and I will unleash my anger against you. I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices. 4 I will not look on you with pity or spare you; I will surely repay you for your conduct and the detestable practices among you. Then you will know that I am the LORD.

5 “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Disaster! An unheard-of disaster is coming. 6The end has come! The end has come! It has roused itself against you. It has come! 7 Doom has come upon you—you who dwell in the land. The time has come, the day is near; there is panic, not joy, upon the mountains. 8 I am about to pour out my wrath on you and spend my anger against you; I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices. 9 I will not look on you with pity or spare you; I will repay you in accordance with your conduct and the detestable practices among you. Then you will know that it is I the LORD who strikes the blow.

10 “The day is here! It has come! Doom has burst forth, the rod has budded, arrogance has blossomed! 11Violence has grown into a rod to punish wickedness; none of the people will be left, none of that crowd—no wealth, nothing of value. 12 The time has come, the day has arrived. Let not the buyer rejoice nor the seller grieve, for wrath is upon the whole crowd. 13 The seller will not recover the land he has sold as long as both of them live, for the vision concerning the whole crowd will not be reversed. Because of their sins, not one of them will preserve his life. 14 Though they blow the trumpet and get everything ready, no one will go into battle, for my wrath is upon the whole crowd.

15 “Outside is the sword, inside are plague and famine; those in the country will die by the sword, and those in the city will be devoured by famine and plague. 16 All who survive and escape will be in the mountains, moaning like doves of the valleys, each because of his sins. 17 Every hand will go limp, and every knee will become as weak as water. 18 They will put on sackcloth and be clothed with terror. Their faces will be covered with shame and their heads will be shaved. 19 They will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will be an unclean thing. Their silver and gold will not be able to save them in the day of the LORD’s wrath. They will not satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it, for it has made them stumble into sin. 20 They were proud of their beautiful jewelry and used it to make their detestable idols and vile images. Therefore I will turn these into an unclean thing for them. 21 I will hand it all over as plunder to foreigners and as loot to the wicked of the earth, and they will defile it. 22 I will turn my face away from them, and they will desecrate my treasured place; robbers will enter it and desecrate it.

23 “Prepare chains, because the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence. 24 I will bring the most wicked of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to the pride of the mighty, and their sanctuaries will be desecrated. 25 When terror comes, they will seek peace, but there will be none.26 Calamity upon calamity will come, and rumor upon rumor. They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as will the counsel of the elders. 27 The king will mourn, the prince will be clothed with despair, and the hands of the people of the land will tremble. I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”

The Week in Consumption, 10/12

Here’s a brief list of the things I’ve consumed in the past week, with notes.

The Children Are Watching Us -Vittorio de Sica’s breakthrough, not quite neorealist yet. A married woman continues an on-and-off affair, but we experience it through the eyes of her child. Very short, cameras obsessed with tracking directional movement–all pays off when the kid runs away, buy a train ticket, and almost gets hit by a train.

The Virgin Spring – Ingmar Bergman returns to the 13th century and displays the clash of teutonic and christian value systems. When a man’s daughter is raped and murdered while traveling to the church for Matins, he discovers the killers staying as guests in his own home and enacts vengeance.

Katamari Forever – The fourth game in the series is a greatest hits collection. Rules are the same: you roll a sticky ball around, picking up objects as you go. Sometimes the camera can be aggravating. The new levels can’t hold a candle to the old ones, but speaking as someone who doesn’t own the old ones, it’s nice to have them packaged together like this. I’ve found all the cousins and presents; still striving to reach 100% of the collection.

The Burmese Harp –  A fairy tale version of Japanese involvement on the Asian mainland in WWII, but a gentle, enjoyable one. A japanese company is captured in Burma as the war draws to a close. One member is sent on one last errand before joining them at a prison camp. As he heads south, the death toll weighs on him, and he goes from impersonating a buddhist monk to becoming one.

(fake) Sausage & Spinach Pie – Mom made this for me last night. It’s pretty good, except the spinach overwhelmed the other ingredients. Mom says this wouldn’t be the case if we used real sausage, but I won’t fall for tricks like that.

Badlands – Terence Malick’s first film, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Somehow even trash is made to look beautiful in this. Two young folks go on a killing spree across the West. This movie also unleashed Carl Orff’s orchestral piece “Gassenhauer” on an unsuspecting public, who would later hear it in films such as True RomanceRatcatcher, and Finding Forrester.

The Lovers – probably my least favorite from Louis Malle, who’s becoming one of my most favorite directors. Jeanne Moreau plays a young mother living in provincial France, who dreams of Paris, excitement, and other men besides her husband. Movie picks up considerably when her car breaks down and she accepts a ride from a young archeologist. Of course, they fall in love. I was very surprised by the ending!

Mon Oncle – the second of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot series. Hulot finds employment at his brother-in-law’s rubber tube processing plant, and spends time at his sister’s Corbusier-on-steroids house. Great sight gags, and the film really builds suspense by showing you how every piece of the house works, and then making you wait for Hulot to break them all.

General Idi Amin Dada – incredible documentary about the Ugandan dictator. It’s kind of like The Office, if David Brent had also been a mass-murderer. The most incredible scene, for me, is the cabinet meeting in which Idi Amin runs through his seven extremely basic principles for doing the job, and mentions, oh by the way, don’t do what the foreign minister did. The foreign minister is sitting right there, like a frightened woodland creature, and the narrator informs us he was found dead two weeks later.

Embryonic – My expectations are low again, so it’s time for the Flaming Lips to exceed them! I’m only one listen in, and it’s hard to digest, even if the songs are of a piece. This is a return to the pessimistic lyrics and sunless fuzz of their early 90s work. I don’t really have much of a foothold in it yet, but I want to.

Berlin: City of Stones – the first collection of Jason Lutes’ comic book about Berlin’s political, social, and cultural upheavals in the late 1920s. He excels at big things, like making you recognize the potential paths that history did not take, and he also excels at small things, like illustrating eyebrows. I’m not super-involved in his characters’ lives, but that’s not so important.

Repulsion – 90% of the chilling, creepy stuff in this movie is the suffocating camera angles. Catherine Denevue plays a London denizen who cracks up when her sister leaves town on holiday. It’s hard to feel all that involved in Catherine Denevue’s character, who remains a cipher. I just wish she had more of an imagination when it comes to fevered visions. My favorite trick was seeing the rooms of the apartment expand and contract. Obligatory current events note: how is it that a director who’s dealt thematically with rape in so many movies, with a lot of detail and sympathy to the victims, become a rapist himself?

Christmas in the Heart – This one comes down to, no surprise, how you’re feeling about Bob Dylan’s voice. The musicianship is impressive–but it’s not like we’re lacking top-notch recordings of the Xmas standards. He’s also not fussing much with the words. So how much pleasure do you get when hearing an gruff crone attempt to be cheery? It’s not much for me, but I’m betting it increases with company.

World’s Finest Battle to be my Role Model

Who’s the better role model, Batman or Superman? This question may be painfully irrelevant to your life, but it’s integral to mine. These two great heroes represent two approaches to a life’s work, even though they share similar goals. They’re my version of the fox and the hedgehog, or maybe each has found a different way to be the fox.

Superman wants to protect Metropolis, and by extension Earth. In order to do so, he performs a variety of actions using a variety of skills. Few tasks are impossible for someone with super-strength, flight, x-ray eyes, and wintry breath. He’s also smart as a whip. As Clark Kent, intrepid reporter, he obtains the information needed so Superman can be at the right place at the right time. Journalism is a great job for Superman, because he can move from one subject to another when needed. Although he’s often pitted against universe-level threats, no task is too small. Superman will prevent car accidents and rescue kittens. He makes Metropolis secure, but he also cares for its well-being. Superman is an illustration of unlimited power giving unlimited effort, without compromise, to improving everyone’s lives.

Batman has a similar goal. He wants to protect Gotham City. But Batman’s more of a one-issue guy. Most versions of Bats don’t give a damn about the poor kitties–crime seems to be the unrelenting focus. You get the feeling Superman cares about the environment. Batman? He owns a giant corporation and filled a cavern with computer equipment. But the narrow emphasis on crimefighting paradoxically requires Batman to have a wide scope. He’s the world’s greatest detective, and one of its best human fighters. He knows Gotham’s physical layout, its population, its politics, and its economy better than any historian. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne has taken a career path that ably assists his goals. Business is about integrating myriad products and services under one brand and marshaling intelligence to predict future outcomes. The goal of bringing down the Joker et al spurs Batman to learn and prepare.

Unwittingly, I think I’ve been following Superman’s model. I flit from one subject to the other. This has been a serious problem for me, since I am not Superman. When I was a teenager, I would study architecture for a while, then modern art, then music–and I’d move from one to the other quickly. This must have infuriated my parents, who encouraged me to pursue new interests, but must have gotten tired of my lack of focus. Couldn’t I make up my mind and settle on, say, crimefighting?

In college, a favorite teacher could leap tall subjects with a single bound. I’ve done my level best to do the same, but it’s not working. I wasn’t fit to touch the hem of my peers’ garments. Many have hopped from school to school or career to career and made it look easy. So I redouble my efforts, and in the process, retrench. Right now I’ve given up on grad school (in part because I couldn’t focus on one subject), and I’m trying to do a million things at once: find a job, improve my writing, learn economics, study style and usage manuals, pick up film grammar, and create comics. I’m doing an ugly job of it, and I’m worried it’s turning me into a Lex Luthor: I resent the Supermen among us, and lock myself in foolish contests to eventually outdo them.*

*by the way, this totally sounds like the kind of argument Lex Luthor would make, which means I should probably re-examine it.

Maybe Batman is the better role model. He’s a real human being, albeit a talented one, who has a clearly defined yet ambitious focus. Crimefighting serves as his “in” to a diverse knowledge base. I wonder if having that end goal serves as a better motivation for acquiring that knowledge. For instance, I could fumble around with microfiche throughout college and grad school, but I never really learned how to manipulate it with precision until I wanted to examine some old comic strips. I bet it’s the same way with Batman: if he keeps crime alley in the front of his mind, he can develop an immunity to the strongest poisons.

Of course, taking on Batman as a role model provides a whole other set of challenges. Batman is not friendly. Sure, he’s trying to be a walking deterrent, but his standoffish demeanor is also fueled by his intensity. Batman also seems to inhabit some morally grey areas. Usually things turn out ok, but in Batman’s world, people also become disabled. People die. (Of course, a good lot of them come back to life.) These tragedies reflect Batman’s character flaws as well as the brutality of his enemies. Lastly, I’m worried about what happens when you dedicate yourself to Just One Thing. If trying to be like Superman turns you into Lex Luthor, what if trying to be like Batman turns you into The Joker?

Of course this whole argument could be off base. DC characters tend to shape their destiny, and the World’s, with relative ease. Superboy punched his way out of obsolescence. The Flash outran death! In the Marvel universe, characters are much more in thrall of universe-level distortions, and the big planners (whether they be Professor X, Nick Fury, or Dr. Doom) tend to fall down a lot, and learn to work with the given situation instead of shaping the future. Or maybe I should become an adult and stop looking up to comic book characters. Just kidding there. But I don’t want to be innocent bystander #2 in my own life.


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October 2009