High and Low

So last week, I filled in at CBR’s Comic Reel for a few days. Some of you may remember I wrote the article on a daily basis for two-and-half years. On my last day of the fill-in, I used my endnote to comment on the following quote from director David Cronenberg.  Nextfilm asked him if he’d ever make a superhero movie and this was part of his response:

A superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal, and I think people who are saying, you know, “Dark Knight Rises” is, you know, supreme cinema art,” I don’t think they know what the f**k they’re talking about.

Now, while The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems, I can’t help but notice a fairly antiquated notion in this quote. “It’s comic book. It’s for kids.” Now, if he had said he finds superhero comics to be adolescent, that’s actually a fair opinion. Let’s face it, that’s what the superheroes are.

e.g. B’Wana Beast

But the comic format itself is anything but childish. It can be a pretty sophisticated form, hiding serious topics in disarming and charming illustrations to prove a point. It has no limits in terms of budget, content, or style. Even “serious films” can grow out of comic books. I may not like Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Road to Perdition, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d call it “for kids.” There’s also this movie called A History of Violence based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. It concerns a small-town coffee shop owner who happens to be a running from the Mob. No monsters, superpowers, or capes to be seen. Oh, guess who adapted the comic into a film?

Also, nary an intestine.

He may have just misspoken about the whole form being childish, but I doubt that. I also doubt that he remembers or cares that one of his film began its life as a comic. Y’know, “for kids.”

Earlier in the interview, Cronenberg had this to say:

I don’t think they are making them an elevated art form. I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape. I just don’t think it’s elevated. Christopher Nolan’s best movie is “Memento,” and that is an interesting movie. I don’t think his Batman movies are half as interesting though they’re 20 million times the expense.

“Elevated” is a dangerous word. In the Reel, I interpreted “elevated” to mean “serious import.” Lots of filmmakers like to play the High Art vs. Low Art game with a major studio picture always placing just slightly higher than cowshit. I want to be charitable to Cronenberg because he made some great movies that I don’t think people could rightly call elevated.

e.g. Scanners

Last week, I wrote, “Should every movie be ‘elevated art?’ I honestly don’t think so. Big budget motion pictures should entertain primarily and not leave you feeling cheated at the end (e.g., ‘Die Hard’). Should they try to contemplate the human condition while punching aliens and Nazis? Sure! That’s what the best movies do.” I still stand by that, and if Cronenberg was using “elevated” in that context, than he’s being dishonest to himself and flicks like “The Brood,” which, while moody, atmospheric, and oddly revealing of the human condition, still come down to psychically birthed dwarf children bludgeoning a teacher to death with some building blocks and tinker toys.

No, seriously.

So what else could “elevated art” mean? I suppose there’s the technical prowess a filmmaker can bring to his work, or the seamless way he or she can sneak powerful emotions into scenes via a great rapport with the actors. It could be as grandiose as the immaculately planed compositions of Kubrick, or the curious flubs left in All the President’s Men. All that shit be elevated and though Dark Knight Rises is nowhere near as good as its predecessor, director Christopher Nolan is damn near the only major studio filmmaker even trying to be elevated in craft, theme, or narrative.

Being in the world of trash cinema, comics, horror, and fantasy, The Satellite Show is rarely concerned with the pedestrian and dare I say outdated Twentieth Century notion of High Art. We save that sort of culture for something meaningful like food and wine. It’s so odd to encounter a filmmaker still thinking in that way that I first read the Cronenberg interview with considerable disbelief. He, of all people, should know that High Art — such as it is — rises from the gouache artforms the intelligentsia always dismisses offhand. The novel was considered a “woman’s form” (back when poets could say shit like that) when it first appeared. The motion picture, in its infancy, was either pornographic or nothing more than Thomas Edison shocking an elephant. The comic book, held in stasis by the strictest American censorship to ever befall an artform, is only now growing into the sort of legitimacy the novel and film have enjoyed for (over) a century!

So yeah, when people say comics are just for kids, it gets my dander up. More so when it comes from the mouth of a man who made his bones making horror movies.

Considering how long Cronenberg has been in the game, I wonder if its just a madness that befalls the elder statesmen of the profession. They lash out at the things they don’t understand and curse the young people for being young. Hell, I’m not fond of the young people, too, but you don’t see me calling them childish.

Even when they’re clogging my roads with their skateboards and their pot-smoking, codsarnit!

And ultimately, Cronenberg tempered his comments by saying he wouldn’t automatically rule out a superhero flick. “The problem is you gotta… as I say, you can do some interesting, maybe unexpected things. And certainly, I’ve made the horror films and people say, ‘Can you make a horror film also an art film?’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, I think you can.’

A superhero art film? Mr. Cronenberg, let me introduce you to some friends of mine:

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, I'm Just Sayin, Nerd Alert, Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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