Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cadillac Ranch

In the summer of 1984 I spent my days playing basketball, reading Stephen King novels, hanging out with friends, and mentally preparing myself for the daunting challenge that lay ahead -- senior year of high school. Then an event hit the popular music scene like an earthquake, the reverberations of which were felt even in my tiny midwestern town. June 4, 1984 saw the release of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" album. At the time, this album sparked a tsunami of critical praise and fan adoration for Springsteen. It was also the album that captured my attention.

However, I am a bit of a completist (pardon my creation of new vocabulary). When I like a singer or group, I do not simply acquire one of their albums. I feel that if I am to listen at all, I should be a loyal listener and hear everything they have to sing. It's part of the explanation for why I currently own over 90 Elvis albums. I won't start on my Barry Manilow collection. (If you are one of those people who can't understand why anyone would choose to listen to Barry Manilow, then I am afraid you are beyond help and must remain forever unenlightened.)

So following my introduction to "Born in the USA", I went back and collected Springsteen's previous albums and was surprised to learn that an album prior to "Born in the USA" was actually superior in my estimation. That album was "The River." On this album is a fascinating song called "Cadillac Ranch." Springsteen's success in part stems from his position as a musical storyteller for the common person. Through his music, he addresses, comments on, deconstructs, and all around revels in the mundane occurrences of everyday life. Whether its hanging out on the boardwalk, going to a dead end job, or driving around in a stolen car, Springsteen shines a light on the unsung men and women who inhabit America's towns and, in the process, teaches us all something about life.

The message of "Cadillac Ranch" is simple compared to most of Springsteen's other songs. It is a song about the inevitability of death. Yet this dire message comes through a rousing rock song with pounding drums and an infectious beat. It reminds me why I like the Gin Blossoms. Their music is fun, bouncy, pop - yet have you ever listened closely to the lyrics? Underneath that patina of rocker joy lie some of the most depressing lyrics this side of the blues.

The title "Cadillac Ranch" derives from a famous landmark in Texas. Resting in a wheat field along Route 66 is a row of ten Cadillacs buried nose first in the ground. It is essentially a Cadillac cemetery. This visual seems to have prodded Springsteen to pen a song about Cadillacs and death. A cursory listen to the song makes one think he or she is listening to a joyful ode to cruising in a Cadillac. A closer listen, however, reveals that the Cadillac in question ("Cadillac, Cadillac, Long and dark, shiny and black") is a hearse. Essentially the message of the song is that none of us will escape a visit to the Cadillac Ranch.

James Dean in that Mercury '49
Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline
Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

I believe this is a song in which the message of the lyrics cannot be divorced from the music itself. These dire lyrics when coupled with the upbeat joyfulness of the music tell us that even though we cannot escape a trip to the Cadillac Ranch, we can still enjoy the journey there. The inevitability of death does not nullify the enjoyability of life. Or in the more poetic words of Springsteen:

Eldorado fins, whitewalls and skirts
Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on eartth
Well buddy when I die throw my body in the back
And drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

My Top 15 Superhero Movies, #1-5

Well here are my top five. I feel very confident that all 5 of these movies deserve to be in the top 5 and I feel very strongly about my number one choice. Beyond that, though, many of these could be shuffled around within the top 5 and, in fact, I have shuffled them a bit myself before settling on this order.

5. X-Men 2

Although X-Men 3 might rise some in my admiration after a second viewing, I believe that this second installment in the series is easily the best. Whereas the first X-Men film was heavy on plot and light on action, the third film was light on plot and heavy on action. X-Men 2, however, got the balance between plot and action just right. The action scenes are top-notch, especially the opening scene with Nightcrawler, and these action scenes further the plot along.

4. Batman

The first Batman film is single-handedly responsible for the rise of the modern superhero film as it exists today. It did this by taking its subject matter seriously and attempting to represent the contemporary comic-book universe accurately on film. Batman is called The Dark Knight for a reason and this film demolishes the campy residue left over from the dated Batman TV series. It presents a Batman who is tortured, dark, and on a mission of vengeance - in short, the Batman of the comics. Michael Keaton does a superb job in the role and Nicholson's Joker has become a classic cinematic villain.

3. Spider-Man

It pains me to put this movie third rather than second. I love Spider-Man and this movie captures the character brilliantly. Sam Raimi made a smart choice in presenting the story of Spider-Man primarily as a love story, which is not far off the mark. Raimi also reportedly resisted studio pressure to have Spider-Man kill the villain at the end. Spider-Man simply does not kill. Period. It is a violation of his moral code ("With great power comes great responsibility.") The only mark against this film is that the special effects in a couple of early scenes in the movie are not as seamless as they should be. The only thing keeping this movie out of my number one spot is the strength of the remaining two films.

2. Batman Begins

This film retains the same dark take on Batman the first Michael Keaton/Tim Burton outing used, but it sets the story in a more real world by removing many of the gothic and fantastical elements. By treating the origin story of Batman, this film is able to dive more deeply into the psychological underpinnings of the character. More than in any other Batman film, we get a clear sense of why Batman does what he does. The villains are capable and interesting without overshadowing the real character of this story. This is Batman's story from beginning to end and Christian Bale captures the brooding, psychologically scarred persona of both Bruce Wayne and Batman admirably.

1. Spider-Man 2

The superhero of superhero movies. One of the many things that distinguish it is that for all of the exciting action sequences, Sam Raimi never allows his film to lose sight of the story. As with Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 is a love story masquerading as an action film. The movie also remains true to the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man as the misunderstood, hard-luck kid unexpectedly blessed with superpowers. What has always made Spider-Man the most relatable of all superheroes is that Peter Parker is just an ordinary guy who struggles to pay the bills, maintain relationships, and live a normal life, but who finds that his extraordinary gift often makes accomplishing those very difficult. He is the ordinary everyman with an extraordinary talent. The villain, Doctor Octopus, equally holds his own in this film. Always one of Spider-Man's most iconic villains, here he provides the perfect alter-ego to Spider-Man: two science geeks granted great power who must decide how to use that power.

Well, that's my list. As with most lists, it is constantly in flux and I trust that the next couple of years will provide new superhero movies that would bump some of these off. And there are plenty coming up with great promise: Spider-Man 3, Wolverine, Fantastic Four 2, Ghostrider, and Iron Man, among others. It's a good time to be a fan.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

My Top 15 Super-Hero Movies, #6-10

10. Superman 2

The action in this movie, combined with the always intriguing plot of one who sacrifices everything for love, puts it a notch above the first installment. Compared, however, with the advances in technology today and the increased emphasis on producing superhero movies that have serious acting weight and profound ideas behind them, it does not hold up as well now as it did in the 80's. As such, I have very high hopes for Superman Returns as it is directed by Bryan Singer who gave depth to the first two X-Men films. I suspect that the new film, had I seen it already, would find a high place on this list. After all, Superman deserves to soar.

9. Fantastic Four

I know many people didn't like this movie, finding it lightweight and a little too campy. I, on the other hand, went into it with fairly realistic expectations and so found it to be a fun movie. Personally, and I may be wrong on this, but I think that a serious film of the Fantastic Four wouldn't work very well. I think the airy lightness of this movie works in this case. If you tried to do this with a Batman movie, however, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions - as was proven by a Joel Schumacher film that shall remain unmentionable.

8. Daredevil

Daredevil is Spider-Man's dark cousin - a combination of Spider-Man and Batman mixed together in a boiling cauldron with a touch of cat's eyes. If you go into this film expecting a dark treatment of the theme of vengeance, you won't be caught off guard. It is a movie that is probably not to everyone's taste, but I found it very well-done. The irony of a blind lawyer seeking justice as a vigilante is intriguing. Of course, the main reason to see this movie is Jennifer Garner's performance as Elektra -- better in her few scenes in Daredevil than in the entire Elektra movie.

7. Batman Returns

Almost spoiled by the Penguin, but then redeemed by Catwoman. And any movie with Christopher Walken is a plus. Unfortunately, though, Batman himself pretty much plays second fiddle in this one.

6. X-Men

The first film in this series benefits greatly from Bryan Singer's attempt to approach the movie as a relatively serious take on prejudice. The opening scene set in a German concentration camp sets the tone well. Although the film is a little light on action as a whole, it is carried forward by an engaging plot and the even more engaging Wolverine as played by Hugh Jackman.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My Top 15 Superhero Movies, #11-15

First, a few ground rules. I have excluded animated films from the list, although had I chosen not to, then The Incredibles would not doubt have made it. Likewise I am excluding made-for-television movies which regrettably knocks the two-hour pilot episode of The Flash off.

So here is my list of the greatest superhero movies in ascending order.

15. Hulk

This movie represents the anguish of unfulfilled promise. All the pieces appeared to be in place: a well-respected, artistic director (Ang Lee) and a solid cast of Oscar-nominated actors in service to one of the most well-known and intriguing superheroes in the marvel pantheon. Where did it all go wrong? It seems to me that Lee's artistic instincts got in the way of this one. His attempt to film the movie as though it were a comic book, complete with a paneled layout, did not work for me. I find it needlessly distracting. The saving grace of the film are those scenes when Bruce Banner is Hulked out. Although some criticized the movie's special effects, I found the Hulk himself to be riveting. Unfortunately, the movie drags whenever the Hulk is not on screen.

14. Batman Forever

I love the Batman character and am quite fond of this film as a whole, but certain features conspire to keep it near the bottom of the list. First, this film represents the beginning of the downward trend for the Batman franchise due to director Joel Schumacher's decision to move the franchise into a campier mode, eventually culminating in his next Batman movie -- a film of which we shall never speak. Second, the film wasted a couple of potentially outstanding villains. I like Jim Carrey, but the film could have exploited his role as The Riddler in a better way. Likewise Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Two-Face is such a multi-faceted (pardon the pun) villain that he is wasted in what amounts to little more than a supporting role. Finally, the scene at the end where Batman decides that he is Batman not because he needs to be, but because he chooses to be, is a violation of the very nature of the character. What makes Batman interesting is the desire for vengeance that drives him and, at times, almost consumes him.

13. Blade

Not your traditional superhero, Blade is a part human, part vampire, hunter of all that is Undead. I could attempt to wax eloquent about the metaphorical use of vampires in horror movies throughout the century, but the fact is that what makes this movie work are the intense and seemingly non-stop action sequences.

12. X-Men 3

Another example of a new director taking over an established franchise and moving it in a different direction. In this case, Brett Ratner does a good job of sticking with the ongoing story line, but he largely removes from the film the underlying angst and dramatic tension that made Bryan Singer's first two attempts so effective. The metaphor of the X-Men as representative of the outsider, be it racial, social, sexual, etc, was employed subtly and to great effect in Singer's movies, but here is made too obvious. Some of the action sequences are outstanding, but the film ultimately adds up to little more than action scenes linked together by plot contrivances.

11. Superman

The first Superman movie was great for its time, but the special effects don't quite hold up as well today. Gene Hackman does a fine job as Lex Luthor, but the whole villain angle here comes across as somewhat campy, thus robbing it of full resonance.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Golden Age of the Superhero

I owe my fascination with comic books to ice cream. My father owned the Dipper Dan ice cream shop (a playful nod to the Dapper Dan hair treatment that is the pride and joy of Everettt McGill -- a connection I never made until a recent viewing of O Brother, Where Art Thou) in our local mall. One evening when I was twelve, he was leaving the mall after work and stopped by the dumpster. The book store owner had thrown away a huge trash bag full of comic books -- rather than returning entire unsold comic books to the distributor, the practice was to rip off the cover and return that for a refund. So my father brought the bag of cover-less comics home and my brother and I had a fun week pouring through all of them.

Of all the different super-heroes I read about, the one that most captured my imagination was Spider-Man. I began collecting every Spider-Man comic book I could get my hands on and have continued that habit to this day. Of course, it made it a whole lot easier when my mother bought the book store that was across the hall from Dipper Dan. Those were the days -- sitting in our book store reading comic books and then taking a break to walk across the hall and get free ice cream.

I have no patience for high-culture snobs (Is that transition rough enough?). The distinction between high culture and popular culture (often termed "low culture") is rather artificial. Popular culture has the ability to move, engage, and challenge its audience in ways that sometimes transcend that of the designated high culture. A concert of classical music no doubt connects with its audience in a profound way, but even that pales in comparison to U2's ability to spark something akin to a revival among an audience that is singing along to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." When Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) holds weekly Shakespeare readings at his home for the cast of his show or when a show like the Gilmore Girls can mix knowing references to Marcel Proust and Xuxa without catching a breath, the veil between high and low culture becomes awfully transparent. I believe in the transparency of that veil. It is one of the reasons why I choose to teach readings in ancient Greek literature while wearing my Spider-Man ties. (Unless, of course, it is approaching the Super Bowl at which time I wear my Steelers tie -- or if its finals week in December when my Grinch ties seem more appropriate).

This post began as my attempt to provide a lame academic commentary on X-Men 3. We were going to discuss metaphor and the cultural role of tolerance. Yet it appears that my train of thought has taken me somewhere else. In the last two decades we have seen the rise of a new genre of film - the superhero movie. Some of these are far better films than just about anything you will find languishing under the gaze of the high culture snobs (the foreign and independent films). Others, alas, not so much. So I think for my next few posts, I am going to rate in installments of 5 (with brief comment) what I consider to be the fifteen best superhero movies. I hope you will be interested in checking some of them out - just don't forget to bring the ice cream.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Jesus of the Gospels or the Jesus of the Church?

I came across an interesting passage in the C. S. Lewis biography I have been reading. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Lewis was a thorough-going atheist who strongly resisted the biblical depiction of God and particularly of Christ. As he began opening his mind to Christianity, he started to read the Gospels and was surprised by the depiction of Jesus he found there. The Jesus he encountered there was not at all the Jesus the church and society had led him to believe could be found there.

Most Americans today, even more so than the Europeans of Lewis' time, operate with a faulty perception of Jesus. This misperception grows out of gospel illiteracy and is perpetuated through the depictions of Jesus we find in films and television. But make no mistake about it, popular culture is not at fault here. The primary source of this misperception is the church itself. Christians have bought into and perpetuated the idea that Jesus was all about love, forgiveness, and compassion. Love, forgiveness, and compassion are absolutely true representations of Jesus, but they are only part of the picture. When Christians talk about Jesus as their "friend," "buddy", or "big brother," they turn him into little more than a divine Mr. Rogers ("Jesus is my neighbor").

We operate with a watered-down version of Jesus because we don't read the Gospels completely and carefully. As Lewis found out, the Jesus one meets in the Gospels is a Jesus with an edge. He can be harsh, uncompromising, and , frankly, terrifying. I'm just flying off the top of my head here, but it seems to me that whenever people encounter Jesus in the Gospels, they experience one of four responses: joy, confusion, anger, or terror. Some of the parables that Jesus tells are extremely violent (this says something about how violence functions within fictional stories, like parables, and raises certain questions about how one should evaluate the portrayal of violence within popular culture -- but that is a post for another day).

I don't know why we prefer to hide behind our stained glass, Sunday School versions of Jesus rather than the Jesus of the Gospels. Or maybe I do. Perhaps we don't want to face the fact that fear may be just as accurate a response to Jesus as is joy.