Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: E. Philipps Oppenheim's The Double Four

As The Double Four opens country squire Peter Ruff is summoned to Paris to meet with the mysterious old woman heading the titular organization, with which he has previously been deeply involved. At the meeting he finds the leader on her deathbed, from which she tells him that he is to be her successor--a charge he is reluctant to accept, though it is also clear that he has no choice in the matter. Afterward he is promptly set up in London as grandee Baron De Grost.

Over the course of the story we never get a comprehensive image of just what the origins, purposes and activities of the Double Four are, but it is quite clear that it was at least in part a notorious criminal organization, that it has since distanced itself from such activities, and that its primary concern is now espionage. By and large, this espionage seems to be conducted on behalf of the alliance of Britain and France, against Germany, and it is this which occupies Ruff's time--in particular, his successive battles with German agent Bernadine, the Count Von Hern.

The luxurious atmosphere, the genteel but ruthless and ultimately deadly duel between Ruff and Bernadine, are classic Oppenheim--and so are the plentiful melodrama, hokey plot twists and right-wing propaganda of yesteryear. Less familiar to me was the book's structure. A collection of short stories turned into a cut-up novel, the book is not just loose, but essentially episodic--between the first and last tales Ruff and Bernadine fighting out some issue to a conclusion, and then the book simply returning to them at the outset of the next battle. In fact, the order of several of the stories in the middle could have been rearranged without the reader's experience being compromised.

The fact that the book does consist of so many short bits was initially a bit jarring, so much so that I was tempted to charge them with being more thinly sketched than they should have been. (Like every other reader of my generation, I suppose I've simply--for better or worse--become used to taking my spy fiction in doorstop-length doses.) Still, it was a light, quick read with a pronounced retro interest, perhaps not so satisfying as The Great Impersonation but also suffering from less of that book's weaknesses as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)

I remember often thinking that the 2005 Fantastic Four movie was overcriticized. It was by no means ground-breaking--but it was entertaining enough as a lightweight, colorful crowd-pleaser.

The problem seemed to be that taking that approach with a superhero film was unfashionable at that time. In that relatively early phase in the comic book superhero movie boom, the more grounded look and feel, and more thematically involved approach of Bryan Singer's original X-Men, or Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (which preceded Fantastic Four to the theater by mere weeks), was, despite the colossal success of Sam Raimi's Spiderman, proving influential.1 (Indeed, it seems to have been important in selling the concept in those days.)

The Fantastic Four did not easily lend themselves to "grounded." The team's members (a guy with a stretchy rubber body, another who has turned into a rock-creature, stil another who turns into a creature of fire, etc.) and their interpersonal dynamic (as with Johnny Storm's obnoxious sibling-like relationship with the Thing), are singly and collectively flamboyant even by Marvel standards. And the Tim Story-directed, Mark Frost and Michael France-scripted version did not try to pretend otherwise. They created a movie that was relatively faithful to the original not just in its incidents, but its look and feel--and the opinion-makers objected to exactly that. (Arguably, this sensibility had its effect on the sequel, not least its depiction of Galactus.)

Of course, things have changed in the past decade. As the studios have relied more heavily on heaping helpings of the kind of spectacle that gets viewers to fork over the 3-D and IMAX fees, a flashier look and bigger action have become more prevalent--which are at odds with that more grounded approach. (Just compare Singer's far more flamboyantly science fiction-al version of Days of Future Past with his first X-Men film.) Meanwhile, after Nolan, after the new takes on Superman (which Singer helmed in 2006, and Nolan produced in 2013), after a great deal else, the darker, heavier approach has become banal--and excited something of a backlash, one expression of which was how Ant-Man became something of a surprise hit last summer ($500 million global), and praised precisely for offering something lighter.

Ironically, just as a faithful version of the Fantastic Four became an easier sell, the 2015 film version went in the opposite direction--going more grounded, ambitious, darker, and getting hammered for it by the critics, and at the box office.

1. Some of us thought the movies went a little too grounded--not least in the handling of the Dark Phoenix saga, which was not what the purists hoped, and which may just be getting a remake because of it.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Small-Screen Superhero Boom

Just as we have been deluged by Marvel and DC superheroes at theaters, so have we been on network TV. This past season the CW, an obvious candidate admittedly, had not just Arrow, but The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow--altogether, a substantial fraction of its prime-time line-up. FOX has Gotham. ABC has Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (which was followed by Agent Carter). CBS, stereotyped as stodgier, produced Supergirl (canceled here, though it has since found a new home on CW).

Unsurprisingly the list gets a lot longer if one looks beyond the bigger-named superheroes to more obscure or original figures, and the options afforded by cable and streaming. Alongside Gotham, FOX has the Sandman spin-off Lucifer. NBC gave Heroes another shot with Heroes Reborn (even if it hasn't worked out). Syfy Channel has Wynonna Earp. Netflix is serving up Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Playstation Network, Powers.

And of course, more children and family-oriented programming can seem to offer nothing but superheroes. Nickelodeon has The Thundermans and Henry Danger, while Disney XD has had Lab Rats and Mighty Med and now a merger of the two in Lab Rats: Elite Force, and its animated offerings have included a barrage of Marvel-based cartoons.

Today a fairly avid TV watcher, assuming their taste in superhero material (and their range of cable and streaming options) is broad enough, can fill their viewing hours with nothing but first-run superhero shows.

The reasons for the success of superheroes in this medium seems a bit less obvious than on the big screen. TV's smaller screens and smaller budgets mean that the big, flashy action that is the films' stock in trade at theaters is less of a draw. Still, the sheer popularity enjoyed by the concept would seem to have had some spillover effects, above and beyond the not unimportant direct spin-offs and tie-ins (like Agents of SHIELD). And small screen superheroes do share an advantage with the big screen variety that pays an even bigger dividend here--the format's easy accessibility in comparison with other kinds of science fiction, which are in fact less evident than they used to be (much-touted "peak TV" not having brought about some new boom in space opera, for example).

At the same time, it is worth noting the limits of the genre's success in this medium--a far cry from the consistently box office-topping performance it has had. (Not one superhero show made the Nielsen's top ten this season, after all, or even came close to it.) In short, science fiction and fantasy television remains in its relatively subordinate place in the market, far behind reality TV (Dancing With the Stars) and procedurals (NCIS, Blue Bloods) and nighttime soaps (Empire)--with the superheroes notably not counted among those rare exceptions that buck the trend to become mainstream hits (The Walking Dead).

The Enduring Superhero Boom

Again and again I have been struck by the staying power of the boom in superhero movies--up to eight movies a year, with this looking like the norm through 2020 if the production schedules of the big studios over the next four years are anything to go by.

Of course, there are those who would slight the significance of such numbers--like Scott Mendleson at Forbes. And perhaps it would not seem so significant if this were a matter of one year, or two, or three--but we got started well along this trend way back at the turn of the century, and it has just gone on getting stronger and stronger. Already we have amassed over three dozen major live-action feature films based on the best-known characters from Marvel and DC--as well as dozens more such films based on properties less well-known to the mainstream (like the works of Alan Moore, Hellboy, Wanted and Jonah Hex), and atop that, dozens more original creations based on the superhero concept (like Sky High, Hancock and the film version of the Green Hornet TV show).

Moreover, the profile of these films has gone far beyond the large number of movies made. One reason is their consistently high financial grosses.

Consider the list of top twenty all-time earners at the American box office. Of the fourteen that have come out in this century, six are superhero films--just shy of half the total.1

Naturally this has reflected and been reflected in their prominence at key moviegoing times of the year, Gitesh Pandya recently remarking that "This is the tenth straight year that Marvel super heroes dominated the first weekend of May." (Ten years of that strategic weekend dominated not just by superheroes, but by the Marvel brand specifically! Think about that.)

In fairness, no other trend of recent decades can really compare with this.

Inevitably I have wondered "Why?" audience interest has been so consistent, and the answer seems to me the genre's not just affording a basis for the kind of flashy, action-adventure spectacle that only science fiction and fantasy can offer, but one more accessible than high fantasy, space opera or even contemporary science fiction of a more intellectually rigorous type (like the recent trickle of movies dealing with artificial intelligence). The audience does not have to cope with sophisticated premises (even The Avengers a slightly plotted film with an astonishingly generic MacGuffin), or with elaborate world-building (everyone lives in New York City). It is required to process much less information, and cope with much less in the way of the "alienation effects" Darko Suvin recognized as a significant feature of the genre--especially given how familiar the superhero concept (and many of the characters appearing in these movies again and again) have become.

Part of its appeal would also seem to lie in the intensely individualistic aspect of the genre, again at odds with so much of the rest of science fiction. Our attention is fixed on a single character with a distinctive appearance and powers rather than an intricately connected cast of less visually distinct types in the manner of so many disaster films--and still less, the fate of the world, much more often referenced as a reason for the goings-on than explored. (And of course, that individualism carries over to superhero teams like the Avengers, X-Men and Justice League--typically agglomerations of spiky personalities rather than harmonious groups.) And if anything, this is reaffirmed by the record of those ambitious films that have been less well-received (like Watchmen, a much more demanding, estranging film).

In short, the films give audiences what they usually find most engaging about science fiction (flashy FX), minus the brain-work. And if anything, the fact that the more successful among them are so concept-light--that the concept is relatively marginal to their appeal--may be helping to make the inevitable repetition of the broader ideas more palatable than they otherwise would be.

1. This list is, of course, not adjusted for inflation--but this is perfectly appropriate in this case as this is all about how large they have loomed at the box office in recent years, rather than a discussion of their all-time standing.

Reconsidering Watchmen

I would not account myself a particular fan of Zak Snyder's work, but his film version of Watchmen has always struck me as grossly overcriticized.

Frankly, I thought it one of the best superhero movies ever made--perhaps the best of the "darker" superhero movies made so far.

Naturally I had occasion to think about why my response was so different from "everyone else's."

Early on it seemed to me that the film received the opprobrium that it did for its being more adult than the usual fare, and subversive of genre expectations, and its particular political edge--all of which made it a tougher sell to a mainstream which judged it by the old stereotypes about the genre that most of the films made to date have reinforced.1 Of course, devotees of the comic also seemed unsatisfied, many making much of the liberties the film took with the resolution of the story (which I thought minor, and in some ways an improvement)--but it seemed easy enough to chalk this up to an excess of purism.2

Perhaps more important, there is the kind of intellectual demand that Watchmen made on its audience--its concern with the "bigger picture," its associated sheer burden of information-processing, and in a deeper and subtler way what Darko Suvin, drawing on Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht, called "cognitive estrangement." This is, after all, a movie that, true to the original comic, gives us an elaborately worked-out alternate historical timeline (brilliantly depicted in those opening credits) terminating not in the present but what is from today's vantage point the past (the 1980s). It is also explicit in putting at the center of its plot what it might mean to be a superhero not in Stan Lee's version of New York but in the actual world we have known, the differing philosophies of its various heroes, the posthumanity of Dr. Manhattan and the problems of domestic and international political life, not least energy scarcity and the threat of a third world war.

The result is that Watchmen is concept-rich, concept-dense and genuinely wide in scope--far, far more so than we normally get in superhero movies, science fiction movies and our movies in general. Even if they have not read the comic, a really hardcore genre fan may be able to take all this in stride, and even enjoy it (certainly this was one of the things I liked about it), but to the mainstream this was unfamiliar and generally unpalatable, and even those who may be used to such things in print are, understandably, less accustomed to getting them on the big screen. The poor response was therefore as predictable as it was unreasonable.

1. Movies are less often forgiven for being political in something other than a clearly right-wing way when they are of the big, popular type.
2. Connecting the faked threat to the world with Dr. Manhattan rather than space squid, for example, made for a tighter story--while avoiding elements that would have looked very hoky on the big screen.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim

The career of E. Phillips Oppenheim can seem an object lesson is how hugely popular writers can fade into utter obscurity, while relatively little-read auteurs come to enjoy an enduring fame. In his day Oppenheim was a titan of the publishing industry—enough so as to get away with immodestly dubbing himself "the prince of novelists."

Yet today he is so little known that, apart from seeing him mentioned in Moonraker (and just as quickly forgetting him that first time I read the book) I never heard of him until I started digging into the history of the thriller genre--and even after that I wound up having to work out how he fits into it for myself. Not only is it the case that one can roam the Internet for a very long time without finding a really worthwhile review of even his least obscure books, but (as David Stafford pointed out) even scholars whose business it is to know about people like him generally don't seem to have done their job here.1

That said, just how did he fit into the genre's history? Fleming's mention of him in Moonraker affords a clue. The reference occurs as Gala Brand (the one Bond girl Bond doesn't get to bed) considers the book's hero:
Well, at any rate she had put [Bond] in his place and shown him that she wasn't impressed by dashing young men from the Secret Service, however romantic they might look. There were just as goodlooking men in the Special Branch, and they were real detectives, not just people that Phillips Oppenheim had dreamed up with fast cars and special cigarettes with gold bands on them and shoulder-holsters.
Phillips Oppenheim, one of the first writers to take up the modern spy story in its formative years at the start of the twentieth century, can safely be credited with having brought to the genre the glamour with which it is associated. Rudyard Kipling's story of Kimball O'Hara's wanderings through India in the company of a Tibetan holy man has color and charm, and Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands gave us our first "clubland" heroes in Carruthers and Davies . . . but neither is exactly a tale of high living. By contrast, in a book like The Double Four (1911) the international intrigue is thoroughly set within a world of Edwardian luxury--of well-staffed mansions and chauffeured motor-cars, of fine dining and nights at the opera, where it seems everyone is wealthy, titled or a celebrity, and often all three, and there is about the whole a sense of his offering the reader a glimpse of those high and seductive places virtually certain to be forever beyond their reach. Likewise, he afforded the reader a style of conflict characteristic of this kind of glamorous tale, in which hero and villain dance around each other in recurring meetings mixing murderousness and gentility (quite apparent in that novel's duel between Peter Ruff and Bernadine).

All of this, reminiscent of the sorts of adventure that had usually been set in safely distant historical periods (like Dumas' The Three Musketeers), carried through the genre tradition to Fleming's distillation of it in the '50s when he created his stories.

Striking, too, is Oppenheim's affinity for Gothic touches, on full display in what is perhaps his best known book, The Great Impersonation (1920). We get a protagonist given up for dead who has curiously and belatedly returned from the tropics, and may be someone other than whom he claims to be; we get a mansion with a mad woman in it, and haunted woods outside it. (And this, too, seems to have carried through the British spy novel tradition to a greater degree than appreciated, all the way up to Fleming's novels, which can appear surprisingly saturated with it, particularly in You Only Live Twice.)

Of course, all this sort of thing is more of interest from the standpoint of the genre's history than as an indication of his books' value as an actual reading experience--and it has to be admitted they have their limits there. It is not for nothing that the spy novels by writers like Kipling, or Joseph Conrad, or W. Somerset Maugham, have been so much more enduring. The books were conceived as shallow entertainments, and were not always well put together on that level. (The plot twists are often laughably hokey--as with the final reveal of who the protagonist is and how he came to be where he is at the end of Impersonation.)

And of course, Oppenheim's books have dated, in style and content. They are slight in their handling of the organizational and technical detail that for many is an integral part of the spy story's appeal, and those who have felt Fleming's books were disappointingly short on action (as I did when first coming to them) would find these even less impressive on that score. There is, too, the steeping of the tales in the headlines and prejudices of the day--standard to the genre, of course, but managed with differing levels of aplomb, and clumsier here than in many another tale. In The Double Four, for example, one episode's big reveal concerns what really caused the sinking of the Maine, which cannot but have a different and lesser impact on today's reader (with the event more distant and the mystery more or less cleared up), while the tales are replete with the cliche of the Edwardian version of right-wing hysteria. Time and time again we get a scheming and bestially aggressive Germany, a decadent and perhaps unreliable France, pacifists and socialists as foreign-controlled traitors poisoning the body politic with their creed, and an England saved in the end by its amateur gentleman-adventurers (material a contemporary reader is apt to find either grating or ridiculous).2

Still, if Oppenheim is trashy, he does not waste our time pretending to be anything else, and he is not without his measure of skill. His knack for atmosphere makes his evocations of high life and Gothic absurdities far more effective than they would be otherwise, while his ability to keep us turning the pages puts that of most of today's bestselling writers to shame (admittedly, a reflection of the fact that writers in his day were allowed to be brief). And the result was that while I looked at his books for research reasons, I ended up enjoying them a good deal more than I had expected.

1. This was in his 1981 Victorian Studies article "Spies and Gentlemen." As far as I can tell, however, things haven't changed much since, Oppenheim (and the others to whom Stafford referred) not much more likely to get acknowledged.
2. Admittedly, this is one case where things haven't changed very much.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The End of the Action Movie?

Looking at Hollywood's run of product recently I find myself wondering if the action film genre has not seen its best years already--and is in terminal decline. I mean, of course, not movies with action, but movies that are structured around a multiplicity of elaborate set pieces which provide their principal interest.

This may sound like a very odd thing to say given their extreme predominance at the box office, greater than ever before. (Compare any list of the highest-grossing films of the past decade with that of, say, the '90s or the '80s.) But it is worth remembering that that kind of ubiquity often comes only very late in the life of an art form.

Let's trot out that same three-generation genre life cycle theory John Barnes offered up way back in his Helix article I've cited so many times just one more time. (You can find the quickie version here.)

I think it can be said that the action movie as we know it started with the Bond films of the '60s. They established the essential pacing and structure for such films (give people a bit of action even before the story gets started, make sure they get another something every few minutes, etc.), the basic range of types of set pieces (frogmen fighting it out underwater, ski chases with the bullets flying, even ninjas) and the manner in which it has since been standard to photograph and edit them (the heavy use of short takes, close shots, jump cuts, exaggerated sound effects and the rest).

Successful as the Bond films were, early imitation of them tended to focus on their most superficial features (secret agents, gadgets, never mind how all this was put together). Filmmakers were rather slower to adopt the deeper techniques. However, the field had definitely arrived by the late '70s, and was a Hollywood mainstay by the '80s--which, naturally, led to a much more intensive exploitation of its possibilities.1 In the course of this some territory was exhausted (the silly finale of Rambo III spoke volumes about this), and the genre moved on to other, more fertile soil. Over the course of the '90s the "mundane" cops and commandos and paramilitary plots that epitomized the field during that decade (Rambo, Die Hard) gave way to science fiction and fantasy characters and themes (and practical effects to computer generated imagery) not simply because of changing tastes (important as these were), but because this was the only way to provide something new, and certainly the only way to provide something bigger than what had come before--super powers, alien creatures, fantastic vehicles.

A generation on it seems plausible that we have arrived at certain, intrinsic limits. The tendency to keep scaling action movies up has already mooted the whole idea of the disaster movie, because every action movie (the typical superhero movie, for instance--Avengers, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World) is for all practical purposes a disaster movie by the time the final, city-wrecking showdown is underway. Meanwhile, the continued intensification of action sequences through ever-quicker editing has produced increasing incoherence. (Remember when Michael Bay movies were actually novel enough to warrant reviewers noting this?)

Three years ago I wrote that
It strikes me that this sort of action film may be approaching a technical plateau as Hollywood bombast bumps up against the limits of human nervous systems, and of filmmakers' creativity . . . that one simply cannot go bigger, faster, flashier or more intense to any effect worth achieving, while the inventiveness of the application may be running into diminishing returns.
Nothing I have seen since then has made me revise that opinion--while the level of inventiveness within this limits has waned. For all the giant budgets and all the frenetic technical activity it has been quite a few years since the last time a major action movie offered anything really new--a fact only partially concealed by the tendency to show the same old thing in 3-D and I-MAX formats so important to Hollywood profits this past decade.

I think, for example, of the major genre events of recent years. Watching Skyfall it struck me that while the film was full of competently staged, entertaining action, in contrast with not just the classics of the '60s but those predecessors announcing the series' return after a longer-than-usual absence, it failed to deliver a sure-to-be-classic set piece of the kind that befit the occasion. (Even Casino Royale had that parkour bit!)

I seem to have been virtually alone in that opinion--but this was not the case with Episode VII. This was, after all, a follow-up to two trilogies which had each revolutionized the special effects field, made with the expectation that this would launch a whole new mega-franchise for its new owners, and perhaps also be the highest-grossing film of all time. However, as John David Ebert noted in his review, the earlier "sense of visual innovation" as it stands. (Indeed, this even drove him to say nice things of the prequels--and Lucas' own, alternative ideas for Episode VII.)

Meanwhile, the prospect of innovation originating in the more narrative aspects of these stories seems dim due not just to the film industry's attachment to the same old IPs, but the rooting of action-adventure in genres which appear thoroughly played out after as much as a century of use (like the spy story or the comic book superhero genre), an issue that goes far, far beyond Hollywood. The sorts of trailblazing works that open up new territory to exploitation by artists--to put it bluntly, those works that found new genres (or even subgenres) for writers to work in--have been very scarce as of late all across the media spectrum.

1. Prior to that point what we got were apt to be crime dramas with an occasional set piece--like The French Connection (1971).

Defining the Novel: The First Few Pages of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe

Those who offer a straight answer about just "What is a Novel?"--beyond its being a "book-length" work of prose fiction--are (as previously pointed out here) apt to point to three qualities distinguishing the modern novel in the narrow sense from other kinds of long prose fiction, not totally unprecedented, but previously relatively rare, and much less likely to appear together in combination:

1. Its centering on the life of everyday, middle class persons, who had in pre-modern times received much less attention of this kind from storytellers, much more inclined to offer chivalric epics, royal tragedies and comedies of low-life.
2. What we might term a pseudo-documentary quality to the proceedings, which are supposed to appear realistically detailed in a straightforward fashion rather than conspicuously embellished and ornamented in the fashion of a romance or a picaresque.
3. An individualistic and indeed intimate approach to the tale, peering into an individual's private life, and even their innermost thoughts--which may not be limited in the manner of an occasional Shakespearian aside to the audience, but part of the "normal" way of telling the story.

You can find all these in the brief preface to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, the first two in particular specifically referenced. As he remarks, it is "the story of . . . [a] Private Man's Adventures in the World," while "The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness . . . The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it." The third is implicit in these, but becomes apparent soon enough when we turn the first page and hear the protagonist relate his upbringing, his aspiration to go to sea, his dialogues with his parents about this idea--in the course of which dialogue Robinson's dad also gives him a long lecture about the great virtues of "the middle state," into which he was born, for which he seemed destined, and which his father also thought most likely to make him happy.

Of course, the tale takes a more exotic turn than Robinson's settling down to the cozy bourgeois existence his father intended for him, but these fundamentals of the story define what follows nonetheless.

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