Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Heath Ledger & Hollywood Clout I wouldn't normally post something like this—I'm none too keen on celebrity culture—but I wanted to note that I find the passing of Heath Ledger unaccountably saddening. Many an underreported (and likely undeserved) panegyric will echo through the media in the days to come, but few (if any) will address much more than the personal nature of this tragedy for those who knew him well or our hypothetical loss as consumers of contemporary cinema. But how hypothetical is our loss? Depends on how powerful the lost actor or actress is. Consider other selective stars who, like Ledger, leveraged their clout such that they only appeared in films they believed in: Had Johnny Depp died at 28 (in 1992), he would be remembered as Private Gator Lerner, Wade Walker, Officer Tom Hanson and Edward Scissorhands. In 1986, the 28-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis would have starred in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View. A 28-year-old Ralph Fiennes would be remembered as the "star" of a made-for-television movie about Lawrence After Arabia (1991). Now consider all the movies that would not have been produced had these three not thrown their weight behind the pet projects of talented directors. Where would Tim Burton be without Depp? Would Scorsese have been able to reestablish himself after Casino and Kundun had Day-Lewis not unretired to star in Gangs of New York? Would Harry Potter ever hit the screen had Fiennes not committed to play Voldemort? (Maybe.) Point being, the loss of talent with little clout (River Phoenix) has no real impact on what movies get made, whereas losing talent of Ledger's clout alters the Hollywood landscape. There will be no more gay cowboys. (There would have been none had not Ledger signed on. Studios were not feeling favorable to Ang Lee after the smashing success of Hulk.) The fate of the film Ledger was currently shooting, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, directed by the infamously hounded Terry Gilliam (who never would have brought Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to screen had it not been for Depp) is darker today than yesterday. Movies already being as bad as they are, I can't help but wonder whether much of my inexplicable sadness is explicably selfish: I would love to've seen what Ledger could've forced the studios to release. Now I never will.
Alan Moore's Watchmen: The Rhetoric of Heroism in a MAD World (The following is a collection of rough notes for a class I'm guest-speaking in on The Rhetoric of Heroism. The intended audience is a group of freshmen composition students. Just something to keep in mind.) During WWII, superheroes fought Nazis. Superman and Captain America took time off from fighting masked novelties to put a whipping on an evil all the more disturbing because all the more mundane: people obsessed with the desire to remake the world in their image and according to their ideology. To your left is Captain America smashing Hitler. To your right is Superman punching a tank. (Because the most effective way for the American government to deploy someone with the ability to melt cities with his eyes and wilt fields with his breath is to send him out with the grunts and have him punch tanks. But I digress.) That moment in our cultural history has passed. As proof, I offer the sad decline of Frank Miller, who not but two decades back put the darkness back into "The Dark Knight." In 2006, Miller decided to revive the tradition of American heroes fighting alongside the American military by sending Batman off to fight Osama bin Laden. His idea was widely reviled. What could one man dressed as a bat accomplish against a worldwide jihad movement? How could Bruce Wayne single-handedly forestall the coming of the Caliphate? The answer was obvious to everyone but Miller, who by this point had become a caricature of himself. All the bold strokes of cinematic excess on exhibit in the two recent films of his work—Sin City and 300—seem to have dulled his critical faculties. (To this day, the publication status of Holy Terror, Batman! remains unclear.) A contemporary audience, composed of people like of you, would mock the absurdity of Miller's nostalgic vision. As gratifying as it might be to see Batman deck bin Laden—there is no small joy in seeing Captain America land a solid hook to Hitler's jaw—as a statement it would be nothing short of perplexing. Why would Batman, the perpetual outsider, act in league with the United States government? As is obvious from the panel on the right, that role is better served by someone without an adversarial relationship to authority; by someone who believes it is his duty (and pleasure) to serve the land that adopted him, however pragmatically, as one of their own; by someone, that is, like Superman. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, that is precisely what Miller did. To your left are panels from The Dark Knight Returns in which the American flag morphs into the "s" on Superman's chest. Miller could hardly be less subtle. However, the threat facing the nation in 1986 is far different than the one facing America today, as I will discuss in more detail shortly. For now, it is enough to say that the role of the hero in modern society has changed, and the book we'll be discussing this next week,...

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