Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Supermans I and II and the Virtue of Aesthetic Forms

I almost certainly saw Superman as a kid, but I didn’t really remember it beyond certain iconic scenes and shots I’d seen since (“Who’s got you?!”). I watched it again recently; I enjoyed it a lot. Mostly I was moved and charmed by Reeves and Kidder: it really captured her sense of total wonder at him, which translated into my experiencing the wonder of him. “Superman”! A beautifully nice super man who flies and is so good! Magical, if it actually lands.

I also found the movie silly, maybe inevitably; I buy that Richard Donner deserves credit for making the film more serious and less silly than it might’ve otherwise been (and thereby clearing the way for Singer, Nolan, &.) but it still reads to me, now, as a bit goofy and campy.

I happily continued on, however, and watched Superman II, forgetting about the fact that there are different versions: one by Richard Donner and one by Richard Lester, the latter being the theatrical release after some Hollywood creative differences stuff between Donner and the films’ producers, the Salkinds. So I stumbled into the Lester version, and I was totally appalled. It’s a slapstick trivial mess, tonally very different from the first film and much less successful. The magic of the relationship between Lois and Superman, which really has elements of myth about it in the first movie (flaws and all), is brought down to a telenovela level of interest and complexity. Any rules about Superman’s abilities go out the window: he can just do anything (e.g., project giant red energy net “Superman S”s from his chest). All the corny gagsy bits with the pedestrians in the street, muttering funny things during the super-fights and losing hair pieces. It’s awful; upsetting and awful.

I sorted out the version thing and re-watched the Donner version, kind of suspecting that I might be overdoing this and wasting my time. I also watched the bonus features, which include an interview in which he tears up a little when he talks about being taken off the films, and about what might have been: how Lois and Superman’s relationship could have grown, in particular. Watching his version, I found that I was almost immediately captured by the same sense of lost history. The Donner cut of Superman II is a stronger movie than Superman. It integrates with the first narratively and stylistically in a deeply satisfying way – which is to be expected, since they were made as an integrated pair. Most of all, it builds on and enriches the Lois and Superman connection. This is due, again, in no small part to how just awesome both Reeves and Kidder are; the scene where she shoots him was the screen test, and they’re still both awesome. Its quality is mostly in the overall construction and tone of the film, though. By engaging me in those characters and that relationship, the film drew me into its wonder and epic-ness and I gave me a world that looks mostly like my own with a few notable exceptions. It’s a place that I, like Donner, am sorry I didn’t get to go back to more.

I’m choosing to write about this Lester/Donner version thing because I see it in terms of a problem of large commercial feature films gone wrong, which is in turn a facet of many failed creative efforts: a sense of not-thingness, of being just the aggregation of a bunch of creative workstreams, incentives, and market demands rather than the product of a vision. In addition to the fact that I personally found many of the elements of the Lester version annoying, the whole thing simply failed because those elements didn’t fit together to create an integrated whole. They were overlaid on Donner’s foundation, and none of it sat together at all. I don’t think this is a necessity of commercial film, by any means: Pixar makes movies that are very coherent and vision-y. I thought a nice thing about Avatar was how it also avoided this; say what you like about the script or facile political commentary, Avatar definitely has thing-ness: it’s the product of a unified and coherent vision and fits together as such.

When you sufficiently degrade the thing-ness of a thing, it becomes an insult to its category. I’m thinking of books now, particularly business books. Many of the books I had to read in business school were not really books; I don’t mean the textbooks, of course, or essay collections, which were naturally compendia and meant to be such.  I mean things that were supposed to be “books” in the sense that we generally conventionally mean it: long-form prose with an aesthetic, logical or narrative through-line. Things that are together with themselves. Even crazy books, books that are formally nuts, have this: Naked Lunch has it.
This is not to say that these non-book books contained no good content; being smart or elevated or “good” is not the essential quality that makes a book book. But piecemeal things put together with absolutely no regard for form are in important ways not “works”. I think that’s the key: with absolutely no regard for form. This may stem in part from biases I developed in grad school, but a total alienation from the integrity of aesthetic form seems to be to blame for a lot of aesthetic clanginess.

That’s all I’ve got on this. I think the upshot is to really be sure you get the Donner version if you ever watch or rewatch Superman II

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