Here is a roundup of my contributions to PopMatters so far this year:
My latest “Worlds in Panels” posted earlier this month. I reflect on what reads like a radical narrative break between Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU):
At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), which includes TV and film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been formally disbanded and many of its agents have been forced underground (sometimes literally) and Maria Hill has taken a a job with Tony Stark. Until opening up Uncanny X-Men, it had not occurred to me that these events also represented the first major disjuncture between the comics and the company’s growing film and television franchise.
I went to see the Godzilla reboot yesterday with Anne-Marie and A, and we all enjoyed ourselves, especially A, but I do have a few critical thoughts and feelings to share.
- Director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, and their collaborators in special effects, get right one of the essential points from the original kaiju movies, which is that many of these “monsters” are sympathetic characters. Most of what they do, they do not out of malevolence, but simply as a result of their natures: they mate and breed, hunt and feed, and fight other animals that they see as threats or rivals. People are largely irrelevant, which may be what also makes them terrifying even as you can also sympathize with these creatures simply trying to survive and reproduce.
- I also appreciate how the new design for Godzilla references the classic “person in a suit” while also updating the character for contemporary aesthetics and expectations. There is one shot of Godzilla where he takes in a big breath and exhales that prompted A to remark that he looked like a person, which to me, was just perfect. The “humanity” of Godzilla is important to acceptance of him as something other than just a “monster.”
- Like others, I thought about Pacific Rim (2013) a number of times during this film, and, on the whole I enjoyed last year’s movie more. I found the creature designs to be more interesting, and, I suppose, I also liked the spectacle of having the giant robots as well as the giant monsters (although as A pointed out to me, the kaiju in Pacific Rim are alien while the ones in Godzilla are terrestrial). Mostly, I think that my reaction here has to with the difference between remaking an existing work and creating something new from familiar material. Guillermo del Toro made something new and the larger universe of his film is richer and more interesting than that of the new Godzilla.
- Another important difference for me was the fact that Pacific Rim featured two people of color (Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and Rinko Kinkuchi’s Mako Mori) in the principal cast, while Godzilla defaults to the far more common young white male and his white family for the primary human characters. Indeed, even though the story starts in Asia and Japan is given a central location in the narrative in a nod to the source material, somehow a white American (or EuroAmerica) family has narrative prominence in Godzilla. Anne-Marie also made the good point that the primary family relationship, and loss, for the white guy protagonist in Pacific Rim (Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket) is a brother, not a wife and kid or even a parent. This is a less common dynamic for these kinds of films.
- For me, the most interesting, and underused characters in Godzilla are Ken Watanbe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins’ Vivienne Graham. The story of Serizawa’s decades long pursuit of Godzilla seems more interesting to me than the monster/disaster movie spectacle we get at the end of his pursuit. As far has Hawkins goes, I’m not sure that her name is mentioned once in the film or that we are told that she is also a scientist. But she seems to be Serizawa’s partner in the search and I want to know more about that (I gather that this is the focus of the prequel comic). Both Watanabe and Hawkins are charismatic actors who draw your attention when on screen, and I was more compelled by them than I was by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Elizabeth Olsen did not have much to do, but I am interested to see her as the Scarlet Witch now).
- Obsession with Godzilla is also a narrative through line for James Stokoe’s “The Half Century War” mini, and, honestly, as far as contemporary re-imaginings of this story goes, it is hard to do better than what Stokoe did with that book (I wrote about the way that Stokoe adapted Godzilla for comics, particularly his roar, for PopMatters).
- I left the theater with an uneasiness over the reworking of the origin story which removes American culpability for creating the kaiju as a result of the testing of nuclear bombs in the south Pacific. The original Godzilla (1954) picked up threads of anger and resentment among many Japanese for the American use of nuclear weapons in World War II and the subsequent occupation. This is also an important reason for Godzilla being a sympathetic, even, ultimately, a heroic, character: he, too, is a victim of the American bomb. There is a brief acknowledgment of Hiroshima in the new film between Serizawa and Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), but that only served to remind me of what has been lost in the new telling in terms of being a critique of American militarism and nuclear weaponry. Now, at worst, the American deployment of military and nuclear force just seems stupid or ineffectual rather than existentially threatening to ilife as we know it (I am drawing on Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters, University of California Press, 2006, for the gist of this interpretation of the original Godzilla).
As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.
My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.
I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.
Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.
Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.
First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.
Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.
Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.
Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.
I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).
Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.
Yesterday, my newest column posted at PopMatters. I look at narrative closure in relationship to Marvel’s comics and the films in The Avengers-related films.
Despite the number of critics who will bemoan the lack of originality in Hollywood, pointing to the endless stream of sequels, remakes, and adapted works, only the Bond films come to close to mirroring Marvel or DC comics in their historical depth and density as an ongoing series, but even this comparison only works in relative terms. In 50 years, there have been 25 Bondmovies. For any one of Marvel’s ongoing series, it would only take two years, plus one month, to generate the equivalent number of issues, and depending on publishing schedules, that level of output might be achieved in closer to a year.