Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Selection(s) of the Month: Watchmen, Peanuts, Terry Gilliam, and the Futurists


Todd Seavey.com Book Selection(s) of the Month (March 2009)

A. With the Watchmen movie coming out this week — and our Debate at Lolita Bar this week pitting two comic book editors against each other — now seems like a good time to examine (A) one of the most acclaimed comics of all time and (B) the visionary director tasked with adapting Watchmen for the screen. I mean, respectively (A) Peanuts and (B) Terry Gilliam, whose plans for a Watchmen movie unraveled long before the Zack Snyder version was organized. (But I will link right here within the next few days to my Reason review of the Watchmen film, a screening of which I’ll see today.)

B. Why think of the Peanuts gang at a time when the Watchmen — often credited for convincing people superheroes aren’t just for kids — are poised to conquer popular culture? (The two sets of characters are merged above in a pic by artist Evan Shaner.) I think of Peanuts now partly because, like the book about Gilliam discussed below (and some other Book Selections over the past three months), copies of five very early (1950s/early 1960s) Peanuts anthologies were given to me by Dawn Eden during one of her periodic house-cleanings (so once more, my thanks to Dawn). Partly because, as a graphic designer who was in charge of packaging Peanuts collections once observed, they are one of the few things in our culture that seem equally beloved by people of all ages, social strata, and intelligence levels. Partly, though, because the Peanuts are arguably every bit as dark as the Watchmen.

I mean, sure, the Watchmen are fighting largely in vain against inexorable conspiracies and a tragic, flawed human race (the fetish art of one of Superman’s co-creators, pointed out to me by Caryn Solly, would have seemed right at home in the Watchmen’s disillusioning world) — but Charlie Brown’s world is so miserable that when he writes to his pen pal, he goes on for several lines about having no friends, pauses for a moment in the third panel, and then adds a P.S. saying simply “P.S. Everyone hates me.” He’s our protagonist, and still everyone hates him. These strips have to have been great consolation to all manner of loners and misfits over the years, not to mention anyone who went through the often cruel, absurd, and wretched first decade of life with eyes open.

My father would jokingly chastise me for watching Peanuts TV specials when I was young, since they were so “depressing,” and he’s right, of course (I’m still not that big a fan, but the animation was arguably an improvement over the original printed material, adding elements, such as the music, that seem inseparable now from the total Peanuts package). Sometimes, though, frankly admitting that we live in an unjust and potentially depressing universe is much more reassuring than carrying on with the brittle pretense that everything works out for the best. You see what happens to Charlie Brown every time he lets Lucy convince him she’s not going to pull the football away.

C. It isn’t that hard to imagine a sighing Charlie Brown growing up to be the grey and downbeat Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) of Terry Gilliam’s grim but funny sci-fi parody of bureaucracy, Brazil. And as shown in The Battle of Brazil by Jack Mathews, which happens to have been published by a company I used to work for (Glenn Young’s Applause Books), Gilliam’s own conflict with the Universal Pictures bureaucracy turned his life into a nightmare resembling something from the film.

Discussing it all years later with author Mathews, the studio executive who became Gilliam’s biggest headache (calling for cuts and other changes to make the film more audience-pleasing) unintentionally summed up the basic conflict quite well when he pointed out a piece of Gilliam’s production company’s official stationery, which says “Poo Poo Productions” and features a cartoon of a man shot in the buttocks with an arrow, causing the exec to ask “Who does business this way?” (and causing Gilliam to laugh until his face turned red — this is, after all, a man who got his start working for Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman). A laserdisc was eventually released containing multiple cuts of the film, among them the studio exec’s version and Gilliam’s “final final” director’s cut. Similarly, Mathews’ riveting book contains the script with annotations explaining where changes were made to keep the studio — or Gilliam — happy.

Of course, it’s easy for creative folk — and people who simply prefer thinking of themselves as creative folk — to side instinctively with Gilliam, but keep in mind (1) that Gilliam’s films, while ambitious, are hardly perfect (I think he shares Tim Burton’s problem of picking brilliant projects and then shooting and pacing them as if they’re some sort of awkward outtakes from a failed Turkish remake of a Sid and Marty Krofft show), (2) that he seems to have a habit of getting into some sort of trouble during production (witness his notoriously-collapsed Don Quixote film), and (3) that you aren’t the one with tens of millions of studio dollars riding on how audiences react to the film. As Gilliam — like Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and Watchmen writer Alan Moore — is well aware, the annoying, oppressive things in life are often systemic problems that can’t be rooted out by simply identifying a villain, tempting as that maneuver is.

D. Another tempting maneuver — one favored by many punks, anarchists, fascist brownshirts, and others — is simply to smash things and start over. That was the Futurists’ naive plan, exactly one hundred years ago last month, and as wrong (and profoundly unconservative) as those artists and poets were, they certainly sound like a harbinger of all that was to come over the next century. Saturday, I went from an exhibit about the Futurists at the Museum of Modern Art to that American Tea Party protest against government spending and then to another museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to see an exhibit on trade and culture surrounding ancient Babylon, recommended to me by Michel Evanchik. The Futurists would not have approved of my day.

They were opposed to the very existence of museums and sought to replace veneration of the past with celebration of newness, speed, machinery, war, and, yes, even fascism. Part of the reason I favorably reviewed Jonah Goldberg’s book on fascism is that he reminded an over-simplifying left that the Nazis, far from being retrograde conservatives, were revolutionaries who (like many intellectuals a century ago) thought that smashing bourgeois society was a necessary first step to creating a bold, adventurous, truly modern culture.

The Futurist Manifesto, from a Februrary 1909 issue of Le Figaro, was read aloud the weekend before last at MoMA (and distributed in hardcopies scrawled by people with a mental disorder that makes handwriting and word recognition difficult). I can only hope that some in the audience were made uncomfortable by the way the Manifesto combines tropes that are now considered avant-garde “common sense” by most pretentious museum-goers with tropes that are straight out of Mussolini and profoundly un-p.c. To wit:

Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed. We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman. We will destroy the museums, the libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

You know, there’s a passage that sounds a lot like that in Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, where he sits on the beach and envisions a wonderful world in which everyone smashes all the works of civilization every morning — and if I recoiled from that passage, seeing incipient socialism/fascism in it, most respectable highbrow liberals would call me crazy or uptight (and lest I seem to be calling conservatives sane, let me add that you get equally perverse old-school apocalypticism from religiously-inspired works like the mercifully-ended Left Behind series). The Futurists, much like de Sade, knew better than to think that destruction would lead to a new politeness — and yet their energy and audacity have influenced things that undeniably work on an aesthetic level and add to our culture, from the comics of Grant Morrison (who also owes a great deal to Alan Moore) and punk and Brazil’s industrial dream sequences, to the audience-surrounding 3D acrobatics of the De La Guarda theatre troupe (as my fellow theatre-goer Janet Harvey, herself a DC Comics veteran, once noted).

The really disturbing thing, though, is that the Futurists remind me a bit of my friends L.B. Deyo and Michael Malice (the former loves Nietzsche and climbs skyscrapers, the latter despises museums and music created before the year of his own birth) and even my boxing- and struggle-glorifying arch-traditionalist girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer.

As a utilitarian, I just want everyone to be happy. Is that so crazy, given the alternatives?

P.S. One more Watchmen note: Since the writer of the comics, Alan Moore, is so keen to distance himself from the movies made of his work, I will say little about him in reviewing the movie for Reason, but I can’t resist sharing the paragraph from Wikipedia about his Personal Life, given here in its entirety:

Moore was born in Northampton, England to brewery worker Ernest Moore and printer Sylvia Doreen. He lived in a very poor area, and was expelled from school in 1970 at the age of 17 for dealing LSD, later describing himself as “one of the world’s most inept LSD dealers.” With his first wife, Phyllis, he had two daughters, Amber and Leah. The couple also had a mutual lover Deborah. In time, Phyllis, Deborah and the two children left Moore. On May 12, 2007, he married Melinda Gebbie, with whom he has worked on several comics. He currently lives in Northampton. He is a vegetarian, an anarchist, a practicing magician and occultist, and he worships a Roman snake-deity named Glycon.


And speaking of puppets (which Glycon was widely known to be even back in the day despite a handful of followers gathering to see him “manifest” nonetheless), not to mention Peanuts-sounding charactrs and dupes, next month’s Book Selection(s) entry (on April Fool’s Day) will include Kermit the Frog, among other wisemen — though I was taken aback once when I saw an interview with Kermit in which he said he wasn’t bothered by his colleague Snoop Dogg being a pornographer. I wonder how the Nation of Islam, which Snoop apparently supports, feels about it, though? Iz dat legizzit wit da Nation? And perhaps more importantly, as I am not really a prude, how does Kermit feel about the Nation of Islam?


Christopher said...

The name of Gl*con shall never be written in full.

Interestingly, “Brazil” and “Lair of the White Worm” are two of my favorite films.

Todd Seavey said...

And speaking of bureaucracy tales, I think I (honestly) forgot to show up for jury duty last week, and I’ve almost never missed an appointment or deadline in my life. Freudian slip? If I am not incarcerated, more blogging tomorrow.

P.S. Speaking of Lair: Annie Lennox, Sigourney Weaver, Tilda Swinton — androgynous, hot, and _Scottish_ (or Scottish-descended — which may also be true of Andie MacDowell, though I haven’t checked). Coincidence? Discuss.

Todd Seavey said...

And you know, actress Amanda Donohoe, who played the villain in Lair, (a) played a bisexual lawyer on _L.A. Law_ (though she is not Scottish — merely English and of Irish, Russian, and Swiss descent), (b) appears on a list of Celebrity Atheists, and (c) always reminded me of Sarah Douglas, who played beautifully androgynous villain Ursa in _Superman II_, so it’s all connected.

And the original book _Lair of the White Worm_ was written by Bram Stoker, you know. So the vampires are connected to all this as well.

Christopher said...

In fact, when I first saw an episode of _L.A. Law_ with Amanda Donohoe in it (playing a lesbian), I remember having some strange feeling she was going to bite the woman she was about to kiss. I had indeed seen her in _Lair…_ some years before but hadn’t consciously made the connection.

David said...

Is there a version of “Brazil” out there that doesn’t sound like it’s being muffled with a sofa cushion? The crummy sound depresses the hell out of me whenever I see that otherwise wonderful film.

Todd Seavey said...

I believe it was Pee-wee Herman who in one scene described a sound system as being so good that you can even hear British films on it.

I feel similarly depressed watching Julien Temple efforts such as _Absolute Beginners_ — and he has his own Gilliam/Burton mixture of ambition and flaws, come to think of it.