Friday, October 24, 2014

A Horror Film for Halloween: ‘The Innocents’

To celebrate Halloween, many filmgoers will often search for a scary movie to help get themselves in the mood for a time of ghosts, goblins, monsters, children trick-or-treating, and adults partying in costumes they’ll regret wearing in the morning.  So, with Halloween only a week away, I’d like to recommend my favorite horror film for viewing, as something to help folks get into the Halloween spirit (so to speak): The Innocents, a black & white gothic ghost story from 1961. 

The Innocents is masterfully helmed by English director Jack Clayton, which is surprising since it’s only his second feature, following Room at the Top (1959), the celebrated “kitchen sink” drama credited with helping to launch the British New Wave.  Although The Innocents is based on Henry James’s famous 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, the movie is more directly drawn from a 1950 stage adaptation by William Archibald, also called The Innocents, from which the film gets its variant (and more descriptive) title.  Archibald also collaborated on the film’s script with Truman Capote (in a rare screenwriting stint) and with additional dialogue by John Mortimer. 

As I’ve said before, I’m not especially big on horror films, even though the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s spawned my youthful interest in film.  One of my reasons for not liking horror anymore is because the genre is based on fearing things rather than understanding them.  But I become intrigued when the source of the horror is within the protagonist — rather than being something external — because such stories encourage us to examine our concepts of identity and self.  So, although I probably wouldn’t sit still for a horror movie about a main character battling monsters, a film told from the perspective of a werewolf (The Wolf Man [1941, 2010], The Curse of the Werewolf [1961], etc.) or any other “resist the beast” protagonist would more easily grab my attention. 

Until very recently, I understood that a horror film had to contain some sort of fantastical or otherworldly element — the dead returning to life, humans transformed into other creatures, beings from other worlds, and so on — to qualify for the genre.  If a film’s story concerned only subject matter that could be found in the lived world — serial killers or the witchfinder generals of history, for example — then it wasn’t a horror movie.  Such a film might be a thriller or a frightening mystery movie, I thought, but an absence of any supernatural theme disqualified it as horror.  However, conventional wisdom now says that some films about deranged humans, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the typical slasher flick, or other scary movies with real-world evils, can now also be counted as horror.  Moreover, two silent films frequently categorized as horror, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both starring Lon Chaney, exclusively concern dramatis personae that are ostensibly mortal humans; the title characters’ deformity or disfigurement, things that can happen in the lived world, serve as the films’ only “terrors.”  So, I seem to stand corrected.  What does all this have to do with The Innocents?

Because Clayton’s film is based on the well-known Turn of the Screw, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the film’s driving force — as in its literary source — is the uncertainty whether the movie fits at all into my earlier definition of what a horror film can be.  Are the happenings on screen a supernatural story of ghosts that are “real” within the narrative?  Or are the happenings only the product of the protagonist’s repression-fueled imagination?  The Innocents never answers these questions in any unambiguous way.  I think that the film gives slightly more weight (but not too much) to the all-in-the-head side, but if more were done to enhance the real-ghost-story side, this would probably have made The Innocents look like a generic horror movie, which is something Clayton wanted to avoid. (He made the picture in response to the superficiality of Hammer Films’s popular monster movies, one of the most conspicuous worldwide examples of British cinema at the time.) 

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
The Innocents’ story concerns Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), an unmarried minister’s daughter approaching middle age in Victorian England.  Suddenly needing a livelihood, the inexperienced Miss Giddens accepts a position as governess to the orphaned niece and nephew of the absentee owner of a country estate (Michael Redgrave in a cameo).  Being a man-about-town and world traveler, and now saddled with the children upon the death of his brother, the bachelor uncle makes it clear that he does not want them in his life and that he is never for any reason to be bothered with whatever goes on at the estate.  Miss Giddens travels to the large country mansion, where she meets her grade-school-aged charges, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin).  The children are charming, but they also act disturbingly mature — at one point, Miles kisses Miss Giddens goodnight lingeringly on the lips — as well as secretive.  As the days go by, Miss Giddens (but no one else) sees two spectral figures, a man and a woman, appearing and disappearing on the estate.  She learns that the young governess who preceded her was in an abusive relationship with the uncle’s brutish valet, which included indiscreet sex throughout the mansion, and when the valet mysteriously died, the young governess drowned herself.  Without anyone else’s corroboration, Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the figures she sees are the ghosts of the valet and the young governess, who are trying to possess the bodies of Miles and Flora in order to continue their sexual relationship.  Miss Giddens takes it upon herself to exorcize the ghosts from the children by getting the young ones to acknowledge their (implied) past sexual abuse by the valet and former governess. 

If my synopsis makes The Innocents sound like heavy going, it isn’t.  The thorny issues are only subtext that enhances the film’s inchoate sense of dread.  Released in the U.S. by Twentieth Century Fox in 1961, the movie needed to be passed by the bowdlerizing Hollywood Production Code, which had been faltering and liberalizing since the 1950s but which was still in force.  As a result, the sexual abuse is only insinuated, and some viewers contest whether any such abuse is part of the story at all.  But the implication adds to the idea that Miss Giddens is motivated by sexual repression. However, the Production Code’s approval slightly hampers the mood when, at one point, the children are said to be speaking in profanities, and the strongest language that the audience hears is when Miles calls Miss Giddens a “damned hussy.” 

The main reason why I’m recommending The Innocents is because this has been the only film I’ve ever seen to really scare me.  I first saw this movie on television when I was very young — in grade school myself, I think — and very much into monster movies.  Hearing that The Innocents was a horror film, I made an effort (in those pre-VCR days) to see it on TV when it was shown.  Back then, there was a certain formula that I wanted horror movies to follow: monster comes (back) to life; monster causes mayhem; monster is killed at the film’s conclusion (at least, in certain cases, until the next sequel) — a tidy way for a kid to mentally “control” whatever is frightening, don’t you think?  And most vintage horror films did indeed follow the life-mayhem-killed pattern.  One reason why The Innocents unnerved my younger self so much is because it not only didn’t follow the pattern, but it threw the whole pattern into question by problematizing the concept of what exactly a monster was. (Being so young when I first saw The Innocents, I didn’t consciously pick up on the pervasiveness of the film’s sexual themes, which, as I said, were muted to begin with.) 

Beginning with the sound of Flora’s a-cappella voice singing a mournful song of lost love and death over the Twentieth Century Fox and Cinemascope logos, The Innocents hints at haunting things to come, and it soon delivers.  Moreover, the film contains some of the most unsettling images (by cinematographer Freddie Francis) I’ve ever seen, but they’re not unsettling in any obvious way: even the most brightly lit scenes convey an air of menace.  To this day, the close-up of a bug crawling out the mouth of a decorative stone cherub stays with me as the cinema image that did the most to send chills up my spine.

Also crucial to the film’s effectiveness are the preternaturally precocious performances of Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the children, the “innocents” of the sardonic title.  With their well-behaved manners but their simultaneous ability to suggest a dark side, the youngsters balance on a knife’s edge between the adorable and the uncanny.  At the film’s beginning, Miles is away at boarding school but is expelled for hurting and swearing profanities at the other boys.  When Miss Giddens meets him, Miles is impeccably polite and well spoken, the very picture of good behavior — he couldn’t possibly be guilty of the accusation!  But he is evasive when she questions him about his expulsion, and he sometimes turns her queries back on herself with apparent adult-like cunning. 

Pamela Franklin as Flora, Kerr, and Martin Stephens as Miles

In scenes such as these, we get the idea that Miss Giddens’ visions may be the product of her repressed attraction to the uncle.  (Why else would the film hire a well-known star like Michael Redgrave for such a small role?)  But the characters of Miles and Flora are so schizophrenic, and the young Stephens’ and Franklin’s performances are so disquieting, that we might also think they are indeed possessed by demons.  (How could Flora foretell that Miles would soon be returning from school?)  By maintaining such a precise equilibrium between the psychological and the seemingly supernatural, The Innocents keeps us guessing — in an intriguing and entertaining way — what’s really going on.

And it makes for enthralling viewing for film-lovers in the mood for a horror movie, whether it’s Halloween or not.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Defacing Renée Zellweger

If you’ve been surfing the Web these last four days, you’ve undoubtedly had at least a glancing encounter with the negative buzz over Renée Zellweger’s new appearance.  You know that she attended Elle magazine’s 21st annual Women in Hollywood Awards on October 20, exhibiting a face that had obviously been retouched by plastic surgery, retouched to the point where it was virtually impossible to recognize the star of such popular movies as Jerry Maguire and Chicago.  The 45-year-old actress doesn’t seem to have had an enormous amount of work done — merely eyelid surgery, Botox injections, and a brow lift, according to one plastic surgeon — but the work that she did have done altered what was most distinctive about her face.  

I haven’t been following the controversy (if that’s the right word for it) very closely, but my takeaway is this: lots people on social media criticized her new appearance (many of whom, inevitably, used snarky and tactless comments), and others responded to these critics, blasting them for “shaming” the practice of cosmetic surgery per se.  Zellweger herself has responded in a way that neither confirms nor denies that any facelifting occurred.  However, the idea that she may not have had plastic surgery brings to mind clichés about bridges in Brooklyn.

The “shaming” brouhaha raises once again the issues of how society views the aging female body in general, and of Hollywood’s adoration of the youthful female body in particular.  Observers “shame” Zellweger’s new appearance, and her defenders shame the shaming.  The defenders ask what a Hollywood female star past the first flush of youth, a star who hasn’t been seen on the screen for quite some time, must do to keep her career afloat.  And the discussion unearths the entangling root issue of women’s objectification by men.  Anne Helen Petersen writes in BuzzFeed:

Hollywood is horrible to aging women, broadly, but it’s particularly horrible for women [such as Zellweger] whose images are rooted in a youthful form of themselves. It’s not just Lindsay Lohan, in other words, who has to struggle with expectations pinned to a much-younger version of herself. That’s why Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon keep playing variations on the same roles, praised for their apparent agelessness, and why Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman struggle to reinvigorate their stardom. Indeed, the most flattering form of praise for a longtime female star isn’t “Look at their varied and complex career!” but “[Insert Star Here] Doesn’t Age!” ...
The last time we really “saw” [Zellweger on screen], she was [her youthful] image. Now she’s labeled a distortion of it, even though, in truth, it’s society’s reaction that’s the dark mirror of our expectations — not Zellweger’s still beautiful face. 

However, without contradicting the insightful observations that several writers have made about the predicament of female stars in Hollywood, and what this says about the predicament of women in the larger society, I think this focus on “shaming” cosmetic surgery overlooks the obvious.  I think that Renée Zellweger’s surgically altered face has become such a big story precisely because she looks so radically different.  In particular, the surgery removed her face’s most distinguishing characteristics — especially her hooded eyelids and full cheeks — which gave her on-screen persona its unique personality.  Instead of Zellweger’s familiar attractive-in-a-slightly-quirky-way face, we now see a sculpted face lacking any truly special features.  Yes, as Petersen says, Zellweger is still beautiful, but she’s beautiful in a bland, uninteresting fashion.  She looks more like Daryl Hannah than the Renée Zellweger we’ve all come to know and appreciate.  

By altering her appearance so drastically, I feel as though Zellweger defaced a national treasure, a treasure that would not have been defaced by time, a treasure now forever gone.  I get the idea that a lot of other moviegoers feel the same way, and that is what touched off the social-media frenzy, much more so than criticisms of plastic surgery in general.  This isn’t a matter of shaming.  It’s a matter of mourning.

Remembrance of things past

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dan Savage: Halloween Is America’s Carnival

Halloween costumes from Victoria’s Secret

The fact that I’m posting something about Halloween more than a week before the event says something about the higher profile that the unofficial holiday has acquired over the last decade or two.  From what I can tell, decorations for Halloween — images of jack o’ lanterns, ghosts, black cats, cobwebs, etc. — are adorning places of business almost as long before the holiday itself as those for Christmas, another indication of Halloween’s importance.  But despite the ubiquity of spooky iconography in all of the decorations, Halloween’s newfound prominence seems to derive from adults being able to dress in extravagant costumes that they would never wear on any other day.  In particular, Halloween allows women the opportunity to flaunt their sexuality more openly, and the holiday’s ultimate symbol now appears to be the plethora of revealing and/or suggestive — the adjective “slutty” is frequently heard — women’s costumes that are available to buy.  This shift from spooky to sexy strikes me as the main reason for the holiday’s recent greater standing, at least among single adults. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over the pros and cons of women’s sexy/slutty Halloween outfits (for the most part, I’m pro), so I won’t add to the opinions already out there.  But Halloween’s new emphasis on sex looks to me like America’s back-door (so to speak) acquisition of something that the country has heretofore lacked but which is observed in much of the rest of the world: Carnival, country-wide celebrations “which mark an overturning of the norms of daily life.”  The best-known example of Carnival is its celebration in Brazil, but most other non-English-speaking countries take time out of the year to overlook the rules of social decorum, such as Fasching in Germany and Fastelavn in Denmark.  During these occasions, adults can show off their inner lives, which often means masquerading as their secret selves and unleashing their libidos (putting the carnal in Carnival).  Here in the States, Mardi Gras, confined exclusively to the city of New Orleans, was as close as we got.

Dan Savage
I thought of writing something about Halloween as America’s version of Carnival, but once again, I’ve been beaten to the punch.  In an article from 2009, “Happy Heteroween,” sex-advice columnist Dan Savage compares Halloween not only to Carnival but also to gay-pride parades, viewing the holiday as the heterosexual version thereof.  So, I thought that I would use this blogpost to link Savage’s entertaining account, which also explores some of the controversies that result in Halloween’s new change from the sinister to the sensual.  I hope that you enjoy the read.

Oh, and if I’m not too early — Happy Halloween!

From a 2013 episode of ‘Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell

Sunday, October 5, 2014

‘Gilmore Girls’

The dramedy Gilmore Girls (2000-07), which debuted on the late W.B. Television Network 14 years ago today, was a favorite show of mine.  I watched it loyally from its second season (I got hooked by its lead-in to Smallville) until its series finale five years later.  Ten years ago, I even bought the first three seasons on DVD, but I ended up not watching them as often as I thought I would.  I knew that Gilmore Girls developed a devoted following, but I was unprepared for the Internet’s explosion of excitement when the series was made available for streaming on Netflix at the beginning of this month. 

Thanks to this welcome cyberspace hullabaloo, I was inspired to watch my Gilmore Girls DVDs for the first time in a long while.  And I was pleasantly reminded of why I like the show so much: its cozy ambience, its superb cast, its witty rapid-fire dialogue, its fully realized characters.  I’m now happy to be reacquainted with the series.  It feels a bit like catching up with a good friend after a long absence. 

Lauren Graham as Lorelai (left)
and Alexis Bledel as Rory
For those who don’t know, Gilmore Girls follows the day-to-day travails and triumphs of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), an inn manager in the (fictional) town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut.  Lorelai’s wealthy mother and father, Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann), live very well in Hartford’s high society.  Years ago, they groomed Lorelai to be a part of that world, but she was too much of a free spirit to belong in such a conformist, repressive environment.  When she was 16, Lorelai became pregnant, and after the birth of her daughter — also named Lorelai but who goes by the nickname Rory — she ran away from home to get away from her controlling parents.  As the series begins, Rory (Alexis Bledel) is now 16 herself (making Lorelai a very youthful 32) and an excellent student accepted to the prestigious (and very expensive) Chilton private preparatory school.  Unable to afford Chilton on her own, Lorelai goes cap in hand to her parents.  To get their estranged daughter and grandchild back into their lives, they loan Lorelai the money on the condition that she and Rory have dinner with them every Friday.  These dinners become the locus of most of the story-driving tensions from episode to episode. 

Lorelai’s life in the quirky town of Stars Hollow includes her managing job at the Independence Inn and her occasional romantic relationships, especially her will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with hunky local diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson).  Meanwhile, the episodes also chronicle Rory’s days in the equally repressive and controlling environment of Chilton (and after she graduates, Yale University), particularly her ambivalent association with her frenemy Paris Geller (Liza Weil).  Another story line concerns Rory’s on-again/off-again relationships with town good boy Dean Forrester (Jared Padalecki) and city bad boy Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia). Gilmore Girls’s hook is the wisecracking, pop-culture-referencing rapport between the whimsical Lorelai and the more down-to-earth Rory, a relationship more like sisters than mother-daughter.  When selling the series, creator Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched a show where a mother and her daughter were best friends.

Because Gilmore Girls is decidedly woman-centered (a number of commentaries credit it for passing the Bechdel test with flying colors), I’m not surprised that — as in the days of the show’s first airings — its following is mostly female.  In the years when the show was on the tube, I would surf the Web for Gilmore Girls discussion groups.  In all cases, the cyber communities were overwhelmingly populated by fans with XX chromosomes.  This was fine, but their on-line discussions tended to be limited to the romantic relationships on the show (the favorites among the fans were Lorelai-Luke and Rory-Jess), which didn’t leave much room for discussion of the show’s other merits.  If I had first heard of Gilmore Girls through these discussion boards, I would have thought that the series in question was nothing more than a soap opera.  Also, popular culture at the time (e.g., Saturday Night Live sketches) seemed to harbor the idea that male viewers of Gilmore Girls were mostly gay and equally fixated on Lorelai’s and Rory’s love lives. 

I thought that Gilmore Girls’s reputation as a show with an almost exclusively female and gay-male audience was a huge disservice to such a well-crafted and searingly insightful show.  Despite Gilmore Girls being undeniably estrogen-powered, there was no reason, I thought, why my fellow heterosexual men couldn’t be equally spellbound by the series and rid it of its undeserved reputation as a “mere” chick show, as a show primarily about romantic relationships, tugging heavily and blatantly on the heartstrings.  With its fully fleshed-out characters and its keen, nuanced glimpses into the machinations of social hierarchy, among other elements, Gilmore Girls was so much more than that.  (Obviously, it’s a statistical probability that the series must have had many other straight male viewers, but we seemed to be M.I.A. whenever the show was discussed by the media.)  So, on one of the Gilmore Girls discussion boards, I posted a satirical piece about straight men being excessively stigmatized for liking the show.  I titled what I wrote (drawing upon Gore Vidal’s neologism for heterosexuals) “Grims for Gilmore Girls,” which I’d love to repost, but the discussion board has vanished from the Internet, and I can’t find a copy of the piece anywhere nearby. 

The third Gilmore girl:
Kelly Bishop as Emily
Anyway, one of Gilmore Girls’s most perceptive elements was how it portrayed upper-middle class life as downright Machiavellian: the rich (i.e., the world of Richard and Emily Gilmore) were always manipulating someone in order to acquire or preserve whatever piece of turf was at stake.  One episode that emphasized this was “Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom!,” in which the otherwise amiable Richard cold-bloodedly screws over his business partner in order to save himself from bankruptcy. In fact, the premise of the entire series (a recalcitrant Lorelai compelled to have weekly dinners with her frosty parents) was an effort by the elder Gilmores to manipulate their estranged daughter back into their lives.  I wanted to write something on this aspect of the show, but someone beat me to it, and did a very nice job.  In New York magazine, Lilly Loofbourow has written an article titled “What Gilmore Girls Gets Right About Money and Love,” in which she insightfully details the characters’ intertwining of economics and affection: “Money is rarely [only] about money in Gilmore Girls; it’s about coercion, its about power, but it’s also about creating financial channels for love where other methods have failed.”  The piece is a refreshing change from the ubiquitous fan-authored Internet odes about how Lorelai and Luke should get married, or about how dreamy bad-boy Jess is, and I enthusiastically recommend it. 

Michael Winters as Taylor Doose
Thinking of the show also reminded me of the number of times during its production that I bumped into cast member Michael Winters, who played Stars Hollow busybody Taylor Doose, at my local diner and made small talk with him.  The weekend after the first broadcast of the episode “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?,” I ran into him at a local restaurant and we had a brief conversation about the episode.  He spoke highly of its director, Kenny Ortega

At the same diner on another day, I also ended up sitting at a table next to Alexis Bledel.  She munched on a salad and never took her eyes off her laptop, which she viewed with an increasingly consternated look on her face.  She appeared as though she were reading bad news on the display.  Had she looked more relaxed, I might have gone up to her and told her how much I enjoyed Gilmore Girls.  But since she didn’t look happy, I gave her space. 

Bledel and Graham reunited in 2010 for an ‘Entertainment Weekly’ photo shoot

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls.  It’s been too long.  And I’m glad to see that a TV show with crackling dialogue and such well-drawn female characters is still so fondly remembered and can generate such enthusiasm and excitement. 

Gilmore Girls, Interrupted:  Since so many viewers were disappointed by the show’s seventh, and last, season (the only season without Sherman-Palladino), especially its awkwardly retrofitted series finale, the aether has swarmed with rumors of a Gilmore Girls feature film that would conclude the saga of Lorelai and Rory in a more polished manner, closer to the way envisioned by its creator.  After luxuriating in all of the buzz about Gilmore Girls’s new availability for streaming on Netflix, I hope the Powers That Be in Hollywood copper-boom and such a movie soon sees the light of day. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Left Turn on Green Arrow

I was just in time to be too late.

That’s what it felt like, anyway.  I had just started buying a fascinating superhero comic-book title, only to discover that the first issue I bought was also the last issue: the title, as the magazine itself announced, was being discontinued.  This bit of information aggravated me no end because it was, to me, the best comic book I had ever read up to that time — and it remains one of the best today.

The year was 1972, and I was 12-years old.  Before then, I had bought comic books sporadically, but I never really collected them in any serious fashion.  I grew up with superhero comics and never remember them not being around me.  I guess any kid would be intrigued by the idea of a superhero: we were learning how to get along in a world that we barely had any control over, while these costumed crime fighters could bend that world to their own demands (via their super powers) and were often praised for it in the end. 

I was also drawn to comics because I drew myself — drew pictures on paper, that is.  In these three-color ink-and-paper stories, I saw the kind of rendering of the world that I wanted to achieve in my own drawings.  In fact, my first ambition as a kid was to become a professional comic-book artist.  So, by the time I turned 12, I had decided to collect comics in earnest — I decided to collect comics with an eye towards studying them as a means of eventually entering the profession myself.  (Like today, the two major companies in superhero comics back then were Marvel and D.C.)  And one of the first comics I bought with this new purpose in mind was the D.C. publication Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89. 

The cover of ‘Green Lantern’ #9 (1961)
I was already familiar with the superhero Green Lantern.  An intergalactic green-masked, leotard-clad do-gooder, Green Lantern fought science-fiction nemeses who endangered the Earth, and he did so with a “power ring” that could … well … that could do anything.  One reason why Green Lantern was never my favorite title before then was because, with only a few paltry exceptions, there wasn’t anything that his ring couldn’t do.  The usual Green Lantern adventure had the hero fighting some equally super-powered foe, and it was only a matter of time (i.e., by the end of the story) before G.L. would have his power ring shoot a green beam of light that could take absolutely any form and use it as a way to defeat his adversary.  The stories didn’t contain much suspense because the all-powerful abilities of the power ring could, in the end, do whatever was needed to vanquish the super-powered foe. 
‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89 (1972)
But Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was different.  This was the twelfth issue that D.C. had paired G.L. with Green Arrow, a mortal superhero whose only “power” was his skill as an archer shooting scientifically equipped arrows (in other words, Green Arrow was Batman with a quiver full of gadgety shafts instead of a utility belt).  So, the idea of teaming the near-omnipotent Green Lantern with a partner sans superpowers appealed to me: Green Arrow’s governance by the known physical laws of the universe leavened the contrivance of Green Lantern’s power ring. 

With a story titled “…And Through Him Save a World,” this comic book was unlike any other I had ever read up to that time.  The featured heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, were both costumed crime fighters, but they didn’t fight some similarly powerful super villain.  Instead, the antagonist of the story was a human vandal with a radical environmental agenda, an injudicious but well-meaning activist whose anti-industrial mischief angered the blue-collar workers whose jobs he imperiled.  The story evoked the pressing real-life issue of environmental pollution, making the flawed activist/vandal a sympathetic character.  To put it mildly, this wasn’t your average superhero adventure.  Woven into this story was an obvious but intriguing allegory of the biblical crucifixion story, comparing the vandal’s tribulations with the passion of Jesus Christ — and equating the need to save ourselves by reversing our pollution of the environment to the Christian idea of “saving” ourselves via the forgiveness of sin. 

The concluding pages of ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was an eye-opener, a compelling sample of a comic-book title definitely worth collecting.  However, it was also, it turned out, the last issue of the title to be published for some time.   The adventures of Green Lantern and Green Arrow were to continue as a back feature in the comic The Flash, a back feature that ended up running for only three issues. 

In other words, I had just missed out on an incredible string of superhero stories.  For the previous eleven issues (#76-87, not counting a reprint), Green Lantern/Green Arrow, starting in 1970, had taken Green Lantern, a costumed hero known for his otherworldly exploits, and immersed him in the dilemmas of this world.  And the stories would usually raise some current social problem seldom encountered in superhero stories.  For the first time in superhero comic books, a title made a sustained effort to be relevant regarding current events of the day, to evoke social dilemmas faced by us non-superheroes in the here and now. 

Denny O’Neil in a recent photo
The writer who authored the twelve social-problem Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues was Denny O’Neil, who was given the task to revamp Green Lantern’s image in the face of slumping sales.  He hit upon the idea of using serious social issues in the comics by drawing on his past as a journalist.  As O’Neil put it, referring to the team it would take to produce the new Green Lantern comic:

We would dramatize [contemporary social] issues.  We would not resolve them.  We were not in the polemic business.  I was smart enough to know enormously complex problems couldn’t be dissected within the limitations of a 25-page comic book and humble enough to know that I didn’t have solutions anyway.  Still, I cherished the notion that the stories might be socially useful: I could hope they might awaken youngsters, eight- or nine-year-olds, to the world’s dilemmas and these children, given such an early start, might be able to find solutions in their maturity.  My generation, and my father’s, had grown up ignorant; my son’s didn’t have to.  Maybe I could help, a little. 

Green Arrow in ‘More Fun
Comics’ #91 (1943)
One way O’Neil dramatized the issues was to give Green Lantern someone to argue its other side.  O’Neil chose to pair G.L. with Green Arrow in the stories that he wrote.  The writer chose the green-costumed archer (his outfit a nod to Robin Hood) because, in the D.C. pantheon of superheroes, Green Arrow (who first appeared in More Fun Comics #73 back in 1941) was only a second-tier figure who never really gained a following of his own, the way Superman and Batman did.  Usually appearing in the back pages of other heroes’ comic books or as just another member of the Justice League of America, Green Arrow had never really developed his own personality; he was something of a non-entity.  O’Neil decided to change his characterization to, in the writer’s words, “a lusty, hot-tempered anarchist to contrast with the cerebral, sedate model citizen who was Green Lantern.  They would form the halves of a dialogue on the issues we chose to dramatize.”  Where the magazine had previously been titled Green Lantern, O’Neil made the virescent-clad archer a co-star and changed the title (at least on the cover) to Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

Neal Adams
Another reason why the G.L./G.A. series grabbed my attention was because it was illustrated by my favorite comic-book artist, Neal Adams.  I had become interested Adams’ art ever since his late-1960s work on the D.C. character Deadman and the title The Brave and the Bold (which teamed Batman with a different superhero every month).  I was impressed by the hyper-realistic (for comic books of the era) look of the characters he drew: where drawings by other comic-book artists maintained a highly stylized or somewhat simplistic rendition of their characters, Adams’ lifelike illustrations made an effort to reproduce proportions, facial features, and gestures like those seen in the real world.  “If superheroes existed,” Adams is reported to have said, “they’d have to look the way I draw them.”  No argument here.  But Adams also viewed his characters on the page from cinema-like angles, unusual for comic books at the time: extreme high angles, extreme low angles, extreme close-ups, and everything in-between.  Every so often, he would even play with the sequencing of panels, sometimes having a drawing beginning on one page and continuing over onto the next.  All of these are familiar conventions in comics these days, but they were quite unusual at the time.  Adams’ involvement in the G.L./G.A. series is one more reason for my continuing interest in it. 
From ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #76 (1970)
The first G.L./G.A. story (issue #76) observed the law-enforcer Green Lantern coming to the defense of a portly middle-aged man being roughed up by another man on the street.  G.L. intervenes on the middle-aged man’s behalf, sending his assailant to jail.  But shortly afterwards, the brash, excitable Green Arrow — clearly on the side of the underdog — informs his by-the-book colleague that the man he rescued was a slumlord, and the man he sent to jail a soon-to-be-evicted tenant.  After viewing the miserable conditions of the tenement, G.L. realizes that upholding the law doesn’t necessarily serve justice.  In the end, the slumlord is arrested for his underworld connections and for trying to have G.A. murdered.  The final pages conclude with the archer making a speech strange to see in a comic book at that time: after evoking the assassinated Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, G.A. says, “Something is wrong!  Something is killing us all!  Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!”

As a social-problem story, Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 isn’t exactly compelling.  For one thing, the narrative’s motivating problem — the slumlord evicting his impoverished tenants — is never really addressed: the slumlord is delivered to justice because of his underworld connections, not because he is a slumlord; and the tale leaves the fate of his hapless tenants unresolved.  Also, the 20-plus-page comic book doesn’t have the room to develop the characters in a truly satisfying way, so they still come across as stock figures.  But for a mainstream superhero comic book of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this was startling stuff.  Confronting a super-powered hero, one used to battling villains from outer space, with very real terrestrial problems brought an unusual social consciousness into an art form usually noted, at the time, for its lack of worldliness.  This made Green Lantern/Green Arrow seem a bit surreal.

But, alas, the relevance and realism — and awards — that O’Neil and Adams brought to the title didn’t rescue its sales figures, and it was discontinued after two years.  After I bought my first issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow (the last one to be published), I did what I could to get my hands on #76 and those other eleven previous issues, not an easy thing to do back in those days before comic collecting became the relatively high-profile activity it is today.  It took a few years, but I eventually acquired all eleven by the time I was in college.  By then, I had given up collecting comic books as a hobby, and I aspired to achievements other than drawing them.  But the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series of the early 1970s continues to fascinate me because of O’Neil’s infusion of social problems into superhero stories and because of Adams’ excellent artwork.  Fortunately, their twelve issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow have been critically praised in many quarters as the greatest run of superhero stories in comic-book history, and they have been reprinted numerous times over the intervening years.
A ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ reprint edition from 1983
Furthermore, Denny O’Neil’s transformation of the character of Green Arrow from a non-entity to a cantankerous liberal firebrand has made him one of the more popular and dynamic superheroes in the D.C. Universe.  In 1976, the comic title Green Lantern/Green Arrow was resurrected but without the socially conscious themes.  When the title switched to solo Green Lantern adventures, Green Arrow moved to his own solo stories, one of the most notable being the adult-oriented limited series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters in 1987.  Today, Green Arrow can be seen as the main character in the popular CW series Arrow. 

Of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow was published back in the days when comic books weren’t as varied as they are today.  Back then, all comics (at least as far as I could tell) had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and thus had to contain family-friendly content (otherwise, they would need to switch to another format, like Mad and Creepy).  With the burgeoning of a post-adolescent readership over the decades, comics began to include more adult content and edgier material, with some titles eschewing CCA approval altogether.  And after the early 1970s, the proliferation of shops specializing in the sale of comics and graphic novels has created different book formats and a different marketing environment than when the 7x10 three-color newsprint magazines were relegated to one corner of the drug store or the 7-11.  With today’s wide variety of “funny books” and graphic novels, a title like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, among comic-book aficionados, would have a harder time standing out from the overabundance of choices.  But I’d like to think that the current environment of comic books as a serious medium for adult readers was shaped in part by Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s startling juxtaposition of otherworldly superheroes confronted by urgent real-world problems — even if we former youngsters haven’t, as Denny O’Neil hoped, grown up to solve them.  

Trailer for the CW series ‘Arrow,’ based on the Green Arrow

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I’ll Tell You How Many More

When the people who “demand a plan” start showing up at the polls and voting with greater motivation than those concerned about government agents taking them away to a FEMA concentration camp, we’ll see some sensible gun laws. But as long as the latter vote with great intensity while the former are ho-hum about voting (remember the Colorado recall election of 2013?), we might as well get ready to make that next list ... and the one after that ... and the one after that ...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Blonde vs. Brunette

On this for-all-intents-and-purposes last day of summer in the U.S., I wanted to write about something fun.  One of my most clicked-on blogposts (although I don’t know how many clickers actually stick around to read it) is my one kvetching about Rachel McAdams dying her naturally brown hair blonde.  (And I haven’t seen her wearing blonde hair recently, so — who knows? — my article may have had some effect!)  Since brown hair versus blonde seems to be a popular topic, I thought that I would write another post on that theme.  (Disclaimer: I don’t intend to imply that women are reducible to their appearance; this blogpost is not meant as a celebration of objectification.  I hope that covers my tukhus.)

Recently, I stumbled upon this two-year-old article that backs up my predilection for women with brunette hair over women with blonde hair, an article waggishly titled, “Science Don’t Lie: Dudes Dig Brunettes over Blondes.”  Its author (a fellow male) goes on to list some female celebrities that he reckons better as blondes or brunettes.  I’m happy to say that the writer, considering 17 female celebrities, finds their brunette manifestations preferable to their blonde ones a clear majority of the time.

Jessica Alba in ‘Dark Angel’ (left)
and ‘Into the Blue’ (right)
I agree with most of the author’s choices, but as I said in my McAdams post, I do have my exceptions.  I honestly think that Cameron Diaz and Renée Zellwegger look better as blondes.  I think that Jennifer Lawrence looks good either way.  And I wish that the article had included Jessica Alba, who clearly looks better as a natural brunette than as an ersatz blonde (Dark Angel beats Into the Blue every time!) and for many of the same reasons as Rachel McAdams.

Emma Stone: not a natural redhead,
but she ought to be
While the article includes Emma Stone, it only considers her as blonde contra brunette, and it finds her more becoming with brown hair.  I think that Ms. Stone looks infinitely better as a redhead.  In fact, that hue of hair suits her cuteness and coloring so well that I was a little crestfallen to learn that red isn’t her natural hair color.  According to the Huffington Post, she was born blonde and only started wearing her hair a more carmine color when producer Judd Apatow wanted her to alter her locks for her part in Superbad (2007).  Anyone who appreciates female beauty is left to wonder why Apatow made a better call for what color Emma Stone’s hair ought to be than Mother Nature did.

XiXi Yang: before (beautiful) and after (not so much)
And while we’re on the subject of all things crinal, Chinese American television presenter XiXi Yang has recently begun dyeing her naturally black hair a light brown.  I don’t think this hair shade is in the least bit flattering.  It might be because the color is a tad too close to her somewhat apricot skin tone, so that the hues of her look all slather into each other.  Her appearance is enormously enhanced by the contrast of her black hair’s delightful darkness juxtaposed with her much lighter complexion.  I look forward to the day that she ditches the dye and goes back to black.

A beautifully buff and brunette Brooke Burke
bids so long to summer!  (She’s not mentioned
in the blogpost.  This is just an excuse to post
a picture of her.)

Oh, well, so ends my last post of summer 2014 on a note of frivolity.  I hope that everyone in the States (and in the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter) betakes themselves outside and enjoys the waning days of warm weather.  And have a good Labor Day!