Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saving the World vs. Keeping It Personal

In the first Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr., one of the most famous characters in British literature was updated to a man who solves mysteries with skills as martial as they are mental, and in this version he saves England from a diabolical scheme to destroy Parliament.

In the latest version, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he saves Europe, at least for awhile, from total war.  He even states at one point that Moriarty's effort to start a multinational war in order to corner the armament's market would cause the "collapse of Western civilization."

What does that leave for Holmes to do in the third installment other than save the entire world?

This is a problem with the Hollywood cinema influence on popular narratives.  The inclination is to constantly "up the ante."  If you read the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they do not build in intensity.  They are episodic.  Each story contains its own pleasures with little regard with what came before it.  The same could be said of television series about detectives.  We watch to see them solve the puzzles.  We watch to enjoy the machinations of their minds and the quirks of their personal relationships.  We do not watch for them to do MORE than they did the week before, to solve bigger crimes, to take greater personal risks, etc.

The same cannot be said for movies.

I have been in enough creative writing workshops to know that this need for greater risk can be found  in places other than Hollywood.  I have been in such sessions when people have suggested that a short story's protagonist needed to have "more at stake."  That is, the story's dramatic intensity needed to be increased or a character's motivation needed to be given more focus by creating more for a character to lose if his or her objective was not realized.

This can be productive.  But it also can lead ultimately to having EVERYTHING at stake.  And it can be hard for the audience to identify with EVERYTHING, especially once that means the entire world.

The first time I was conscious of this was while watching Blade in 1998.  In that film, Wesley Snipes's character was battling vampires who sought to conquer the world.  Arg, not that cliche, I thought.  I cannot relate to the whole world.  I cannot be emotionally involved with that.  I may live on Earth, but saving the whole world, ironically, does not strike home for me.  (We are not talking real terms, here, such as working to stop climate change; we are talking about fictions.)

This is what Bram Stoker got right with the end of Dracula.  While our band of heroes is trying to keep the creepy Count from invading England and creating a blood-sucking army there, they seem most emotionally invested in saving Mina from becoming a vampire.  They may feel patriotic love for England, but they feel personal and immediate love for Mina.  Stoker kept it personal.  He kept it human.

One could say that Steven Spielberg did something similar with his remake of War of the Worlds.  The protagonist's goal is not to save Earth but to protect his children and, at some level, to win their respect and prove to his ex-wife (and himself) that he is trustworthy.  The process of saving the world is the backdrop for that human-scaled drama.

There are plenty of interpersonal dynamics in Game of Shadows -- the developing friendship between Holmes and Watson, Holmes's effort to save Watson from Moriarty's murder attempt, the attempt to rescue their Gypsy friend's brother from Moriarty's scheme, the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty -- and they tend to be rewarding.  But the main spring driving the film's narrative machine is the effort to stop Moriarty's diabolical plan.  And the stakes there lay outside of the interpersonal, so increasing the stakes for the next film risks moving further from the human and immediate.  Ultimately, I believe, this constant desire for MORE and BIGGER can make films LESS satisfying.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ve Haf Vays of Making You Talk Funny

Folks have talked before about the Hollywood phenomenon of having ancient Romans speak with British accents.  There is a logic to this illogical representation.

Classic American films about ancient Romans often were intended to be "classy" by Hollywood standards, and Americans long associated High Brow theater with British accents, and because of associations with Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar in particular.

"Who shtole ze decalz offen mein Rubik's Cube?"
While watching Captain America: The First Avenger recently, I thought of a related question.  Disregarding the host of things puzzling about that film -- its understanding of physics, human motivations, and narrative logic,  to name a few things -- its use of haphazard German accents made me wonder: Do American characters in foreign productions speak those languages with American accents?

The film is set during World War II, and the Nazi characters speak their lines with German accents.  This is true when they are speaking to the American characters in English and when they are speaking to each other in what we assume would be German. 

I switched the language setting to French and watched some scenes.  I could discern no difference in the accents between the Americans and the Germans in French, although in the English original there is clearly a difference.  Do French-speaking audiences not have trouble believing the German characters are German when they speak with French accents?

But Captain America was produced by Americans with an American audience in mind.  What about a German production?  Do American characters in a German film speak in German with an American accent? 

Spay-kan zee doytch, y'all?

But I am stumped for an answer.  I cannot think of a foreign film with American characters speaking in the audience's language.  If you know of some, please offer some titles in the comments below.

Thinking about these German accents made me think about Realism.  When American writers and editors changed the way they wrote fiction in the mid- to late-1800s, they did so because they wished their literature to be more like real life.  William Dean Howells, one of the grandfathers of American Realism, wrote: “Let not the artist, then, endeavor to add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it."

Some of these writers thought they were writing life without embellishment, without a "turn" and a "twist."  But eventually most came around to understand that Realism was itself an affect, a method not for presenting life as it truly is but for tricking the reader into believing this.  The Realists accused the Sentimentalists and Romanticists of being artificial, too contrived... unrealistic... in their plots and in their narrations.  But Realism was also an artifice, a man-made thing created to fool the senses of the audience for its enjoyment and edification.

Escorting George Lucas's money to the banking planet.
Using German-accented English to represent German speech is somehow more realistic to an American audience than having the characters speak in American English, regardless of how this does not reflect what would actually be happening.

It is like the roar of TIE fighters in the Star Wars movies.  In deep space, there is no sound.  But watching silent spaceship dogfights does not create enough sensation of movement and danger for the audience.  So, to make it seem "more real," the sounds are added. 

The German accents and the sound of spaceships are used not because they are true to reality, but because they are more realistic -- they fool us more pleasingly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tell Me What You Mean, Pepper-Spraying Cop!

Somewhere, U.C. Davis Lt. John Pike, otherwise known as The Pepper-Spraying Cop, is probably smiling.  Or at least breathing a sigh of relief.  His 15 minutes of fame seem to be just about over.  There are fewer Pike spottings on the Internet now.  He is being voted off Meme Island.

Photo by Louise Macabitas.
But not after having been placed in thousands of images from great moments in history and great works of art.  A sampling of the latter can be found here, where the corpulent cop has been placed in works ranging from Futurama to Heironymous Bosch.  The Washington Post has run a collection of them, too.  At other sites, and among friends on Facebook, etc., I have seen the images of Pike being placed in famous photographs.  I have been interested in seeing the narrative and symbolic logic that influenced these mashups of a lone campus cop and images from history and art.

As I looked at them, I wondered, "What does Pike mean?"  In semiotics, we look at signs and how they work in systems.  No sign has meaning by itself.  It has meaning in relation to other signs.  So, how does Pike function as a sign within a system of other signs?

These signs work in ways obvious and not so obvious.  Pike could not signify "power" if there was no sign of "non-power."  His signification of "power" works, in part, because the students are present as the subject or target of his power -- placement in space also signifies power relationships, with the higher position signifying greater power than the lower position.

The pepper spray has special signification of state-sponsored authority and even inappropriately applied coercive power, thanks to recent events.  It had this potential before Pike doused those students, thanks to Anthony Bologna of the NYPD, who weeks before had sprayed women at the Occupy Wall Street protests.  These women were not violent, not threatening anyone, and had been placed behind a police barricade.  After that, pepper-spray images at OWS events became almost common.

It is easy to see then that the sign of "pepper spray" was part of a system.  Any image of it being used was going to be related to other images of its use, and it was going to be placed in context of them.

From The Woeful Office blog.
We could look at many things in the image and place them within other signifying systems.  For example, Pike's apparel.  He is dressed in black.  He has a dark helmet with a shield over his face.  He is wearing boots.  His apparel resembles the riot gear we have seen in other OWS images, and at some level the viewer attaches, rightly or wrongly, connotations of the violence from those images -- Oakland, let's say -- to Pike.  On a less practical level, his apparel resembles another notorious figure, also known for bullying: Darth Vader.

When people started extracting Pike from the original image and placing him into other images, we could see some "slippage."  When a sign is removed from a system, it loses some of its meaning.  And when it is placed in a new system, it gains new meaning in relation to the signs that now surround it.  However, even though a sign is removed from a system, some of its original meaning clings to it -- like a cloud of pepper spray -- and influences its meanings in the new system.  In this regard, despite the slippage that occurred, I was impressed with the consistency of the meaning of "Pepper-Spraying Cop" across the Internet and through his many iterations.

In some images, he was used as a sign of the power of the state trampling on the rights of the people to express themselves.  This was most cogently communicated in an image of Pike spraying the freshly signed Declaration of Independence.

In other images, Pike is the sign of the Punisher, the force dishing out punishment for those who misbehave.  Such as this Peanuts image.

These images would resonate with those whose sentiments lay with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and those who were outraged as his actions that day.  In other images, he becomes a sign of something more generic, less overtly political.  He becomes a sign for "inappropriate response."

For instance, he can mean "a lack of sympathy."  That is what I took him to mean in this image, where has been inserted into Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.  Not that I ever truly understood that painting, but I have always felt the woman in the foreground is in some kind of distress, perhaps needing to get to that house in the distance.  Rather than help her, Pike blasts her in the face with pepper spray.   

Despite the changes from his original context, Pike still functions in some similar ways -- as a sign of power and as a sign of power misapplied.  My first effort at creating a pepper-spraying cop mashup worked along the same lines.  I placed him in an image by Dorothea Lange from the Great Depression.  In my image, Pike is a sign of state power being used to control the downtrodden and powerless rather than help them.

In many images, Pike becomes a sign of "killjoy," a general disapproval of those having fun.  A friend of mine tried his hand at creating a Pike mashup.  In the video of Pike's notorious pepper spraying, someone being overly dramatic can be heard saying the students are "children" that Pike is mistreating.  So Bill Genereaux in his blog, TechIntersect, created the image of Pike spraying children on a picnic.  The children are not misbehaving.  They are not protesting or challenging the authority of the state.  But that does not free them from Pike's wrath.

I would say that Lt. Killjoy seems to be the dominant theme, more so than overtly political images.  When Pike is inserted into famous works of art, he seems to function there as a sign of disapproval of fun, especially naked fun.

One of the first images I saw was of him in an Eduoard Manet painting, The Luncheon on the Grass.

I want candy!
Notice how Pike ignores the men and sprays the woman, who happens to be nude.  We could say that in more than one way she functions as a sign of "vulnerability."  She is the female among men, and in Western traditions the "female" functions as the sign of "vulnerability" (all of CSI: SVU is based on this premise).  She also is marked as "vulnerable" because she is nude, and especially since she is nude among clothed men.  (Even without the addition of Pike, this painting has always struck as me as really, really strange.  Though I didn't complain when it was cribbed for the cover of Bow Wow Wow's 1982 album The Last of the Mohicans.)

These dynamics were at work in my second attempt at a Pike mashup.  An idea that came immediately my mind was to insert him into Henri Rousseau's famous painting, The Dream.  Some of this inspiration simply came from my memory's catalog of images featuring a person who is facing in the right direction to be sprayed by Pike's canister -- and images in which Pike's actions would be inappropriate.  But perhaps at some conscious or unconscious level, my use of Pike followed the dynamics I just described -- he is spraying a woman who happens to be nude (vulnerable + vulnerable).  The woman in The Dream seems less vulnerable than the woman in Manet's painting.  In some way, she seems to be in control of the events in the jungle; she does not seem threatened by the lions in the grass.  Yet, I have Pike spraying her and not the lions.

In some images, Pike signifies something less sinister or aggressive.  Sometimes he signifies simply "pest," more El Barto than evil.  For instance, in the Futurama image (an animated gif) mentioned above, a tiny Pike sprays Fry in the eyes, causing him to squint.  In that image, very little of the original meanings of the sign "Pepper-Spraying Cop" are carried over.  There is little or no connotations of power relationships, for instance.  In fact, the size=power dynamic is reversed.  Fry is larger than the cop, so he should be more powerful.  But the cop's implied ability to evade that power, as small pests frequently can do, mocks that power.  And mocking power is not what Pike's image communicates elsewhere.  While some viewers may chuckle at the Futurama-themed image, it gains little traction in the public imagination; it does not resonate strongly or widely, as measured by how much it gets passed around by e-mail, Facebook shares, and the like.

"Shoo, cat!"
While I have seen several of these Pike the Pest images, I have seen very few Pike the Hero images; that is, very few images of Pike spraying his pepper appropriately.  In fact, I played with inserting Pike into another Rousseau image, The Sleeping Gypsy.  This time he sprays the lion.  In this mashup, Pike would be a hero, scaring away the lion from the vulnerable gypsy.

Sorry, Lt. Pike.  That just does not make sense to me.