Tag Archives: epic

Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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The Avengers, Batman, and superhero auteurs

I don’t talk about film news that often, but there’s been a nexus of superhero movie headlines that I couldn’t ignore. Recently we’ve had both directors and release dates announced for The Avengers and Batman 3: Joss Whedon and May 2012 for the former; the returning Christopher Nolan and July 2012 for the latter. So, why don’t we ponder for a moment the ramifications of these announcements?

One big reason I usually don’t talk about film news is because there’s so much speculation and industry politics involved; to be honest, it gets pretty boring. I don’t especially care about the financial angle, and therefore tend to ignore Variety-style announcements about budgets and contracts and so on. But this is big news, on a cultural level. And it’s especially interesting because of the contrast between these huge, highly anticipated projects. Whedon’s Avengers movie will be the final result of a giant, corporate engine turning out a half-dozen superhero movies to set it up; it’ll be the full realization of Paramount/Marvel’s ambitions, and filmmaking on an epic scale.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s Dark Knight follow-up will still be the mainstream of a corporation, in this case Warner Bros. But it looks like it’ll be based much more in the decisions of creative individuals, namely Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan. I might be oversimplifying how much of a binary this is, especially since I have no idea how much of an authorial imprint Whedon will leave. But this much I know: Whedon will be picking this project from where Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Joe Johnston, and Kenneth Branagh left off. Nolan came in and revived a disgraced franchise through the strength of his talent and ideas. If you can’t tell, I find myself increasingly drawn to Christopher Nolan, and how well he’s maintained his creative integrity while directing big-budget action epics.

I’m not too well-acquainted with Whedon’s work, but the man’s admittedly a nerd deity and one-man sci-fi/horror empire. Still, I’m very curious about how this will translate into working on Marvel’s franchise-defining mega-project. To sum up: this news raises lots of questions about the place of the director in superhero movies. Questions that interest me as a fan both of superheroes and auteur cinema. Like comics, superhero movies have often been classified as below art simply by virtue of their subject matter, and I think Nolan’s helping to change that by taking Batman very seriously, and by giving his films the qualities you’d expect of any good/great movie. The Dark Knight had solid – sometimes extraordinary – performances, a labyrinthine narrative of anarchy and revenge, and some amount of thematic weight. This is the blockbuster action movie striving toward something higher.

So expectations are understandably high for Batman 3, as well as Nolan’s upcoming Inception. I’m skeptical about whether The Avengers will achieve similar crossover success, but anything could happen. Mainly I’m impressed by the sheer coordination necessary to get this project into the air. By the time it’s released, it’ll have 6 different feature-length origin stories behind it, so it’ll have a lot to live up to as well. And with such a huge, diverse ensemble… well, this movie should ample opportunity to become a sprawling chaotic mess. I won’t deny it: I love an enormous, well-told story. I love small, personal stories better, but I can’t resist something if it’s overwhelmingly huge, like the LOTR and Star Wars trilogies. Batman 3 will probably have a monopoly on intelligent, brooding superheroes in 2012. So come on, Whedon: dumb or not, impress me with a story so nerdy in flavor and epic in scope that I’ll have no choice but to enjoy it.

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Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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Evil corporations and sprawling epics

I stopped at a McDonald’s today, ate a double cheeseburger, and pondered the unholy alliance of corporate fast food and automotive culture present in the existence of the drive-thru. It’s really an insidious mixture, because it so perfectly combines all these supposed virtues – speed, convenience, low price – allowing for total instant gratification. Hell, I’m sure there’ll soon (if not already) be one-window drive-thrus so we don’t have to do all that pesky waiting for them to prepare the food and serve other customers.

Glossy iconography for a monolithic institution

So why do I complain if it’s so damn easy and useful? 1) Because I’m a total fucking malcontent. And 2) because as I was saying to myself while walking out of the restaurant, corporate America wants to control what we eat, buy, think, and believe, and wants us to pay them in order to be controlled. We shell out our money and are given a one-size-fits-all vision of how life should be lived. McDonald’s, Disney, Walmart, whoever else – all allied, loosely but vertically integrated, in an effort to make money and simultaneously establish their values as the hegemonic norm for America (and by extension/globalization, the world!). I mean, seriously, it’s possible to receive Disney toys in a Happy (happy, dammit!) Meal from a McDonald’s located inside a Walmart. This is looping multiple levels of corporate control over our lifestyles; this is the belly of the beast, in the belly of the beast… in the belly of another beast.

And of course one of my biggest complaints is that practically by virtue of living where I am, I’m forced to participate in this system I disagree with so passionately. Sure, I can grumble about hating cars and fast food that pickles the human body, and stores and gas stations and all of it, but nonetheless, I pretty much have to drive, and I have to eat; I’m just lucky I don’t really have to buy shit from department stores that often because, well, I don’t. But still, I think it’s all bullshit. We’re coerced into so damn much by the environments we live in. Escape is a dream worth having. One problem I think about a fair amount is corporate control of the media.

In one informative (but frightening) scene in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick points out that the MPAA represents a select group of major film studios, and goes on to show that each studio is owned by another, larger corporate overlord: companies like GE, Viacom, News Corp., AOL-Time Warner, and of course Disney. Then he reveals that between these corporations, they own about, oh, 95% of the American media. As Deep Throat said in All the President’s Men, “follow the money.” A quick search on Google turns up, for example, this quote from the CEO of Westinghouse, who in 1997 owned CBS:

We are here to serve advertisers. That is our raison d’etre.

Raison d’etre being, of course, the French for “reason for being.” So it’s all about ads, selling, getting you to buy, but you can’t just buy a product – you’re also buying ideas and values. On a related note, in the course of some random research earlier, I read that a certain Star Trek slashfic called “The Ring of Soshern” was, in fact, circulated illicitly in a practice called “samizdat” (meaning “self-publishing”) in the USSR until 1987. This means that some Russians in the ’80s decided to risk legal repercussions in order to let others read early Trek fanfiction. And I find this kind of fascinating. Regardless of the nerdy and pornographic Kirk/Spock content of the story, the fact is that someone cared about a story being told, a story that managed to cross the Iron Curtain, and that someone undermined governmental authority over the media in order to tell it.

I think that on a microcosmic level, this is a great example of the human drive to share information. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, information abhors captivity; it’s like a genie (a surprisingly apt comparison, what with knowledge’s ability to grant wishes and change lives) and dammit, it does not want to be cooped up in a bottle. I think I remember the Bible’s Book of Revelation having a warning at the end, which I found via Wikisource.

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18-19

What I think this amounts to is an early kind of license permitting the reader to reproduce the material, so long as nothing’s added or taken away. See, intellectual property is even addressed in the Bible. And it says lo! do not fuck with the original text. So my point so far? Look out where your media is coming from, and who owns it. Create original content and stay free.

Yesterday I had a little discussion about video games as a medium that made me think, about the contrast between video games, comics, film, and prose. Hell, might as well toss poetry and theater in there, too – the point is that these all intersect and overlap in such worth-examining ways. Questions like, how is it created; what senses does it engage; what stories can this medium communicate at which the others fail? We know about, say, unadaptable novels: how, for example, Ulysses takes such advantage of the formal abilities of the novel that its story can’t properly blossom in the wildly different context of film. And it makes me think of not only how, for example, identity, time, sensory perception, etc. are conveyed in each art form, but also how this affects what kinds of stories different artists tell. How someone who’s incredible well-skilled at filmmaking, or instead painting, or whatever, might gravitate toward a particular subject matter simply because of the limitations and possibilities inherent to their medium. I think it’s an interesting question.

And, naturally, I want to take a brief look at these issues through the lens of the epic saga I’m currently reading, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Through his constant allusion, Gaiman plants himself in the midst of a global literary heritage – he reworks Greek myth, Shakespeare, Milton, and more; in Fables and Reflections, which I just finished, his story reaches out to touch on the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the adventures of Marco Polo, and the city of Baghdad under Caliph Harun al-Rashid (to use Wikipedia’s orthography, which is only one of many). I wonder if Sandman‘s ability to communicate grandeur (of, for example, Hell, the Dreaming, al-Rashid’s Baghdad, just to name a few) pictorially might contribute to its ability to nonetheless keep everything under the sweep of the massive, greater storyline – described once by Gaiman as “The king of dreams learned one must change or die, and then makes his decision.”

The capacity for epic storytelling is itself, interestingly, the subject of a Sandman story, “Calliope” (available in volume 3, Dream Country), named for the muse of epic poetry revealed to have once been Dream’s lover. The story has her kept captive for decades by a once-famous author, then traded off to the up-and-coming Richard Madoc, who rapes her repeatedly because, well, she’s a muse, not a person. The story, I think, broaches two aspects of writing: one is the willingness to sacrifice virtue for creativity, as with the Faulkner quote, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” which I first saw in reference to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and saw again in the Sandman Companion. The flip side of that is the pain of the writer’s block; Gaiman describes his personal vision of hell as “staring at a blank computer screen without being able to think of a single believable character, a single original story, or a single thing worth saying,” so I’m guessing he sympathizes somewhat with Madoc’s initial dilemma.

The captive muse Calliope - art by Kelley Jones

In any case, this makes me digress even more and consider the nature of the “epic” itself – Homeric, Miltonian, by Virgil or his pupil Dante, a popular genre for millennia, which has carried over, now, into comics and film. But while an epic poem can be like Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – i.e., virtually endless – film is more constrained. So we have 3-4 hour sagas like, among the most well-known, Ben-Hur, Intolerance, or Gone with the Wind. In general, I tend to prefer my movies precise and localized rather than grandiose and overblown, though I can’t deny there’s some appeal in being able to create a story that large. Maybe, in this regard, The Sandman shows an advantage that comics as (usually) a serial format hold over films, most of which are created as single-unit works meant to stand on their own. Yeah, there are film series, but I think it’s rare for a director to accomplish the same kind of breadth and continuity in a series of films that Gaiman does, or Dante or Homer. Consider one of the most ambitious of all film epics: Star Wars. Originally described by Lucas (as I recall, around 1980) as a planned 9-part series, the first 3 films successfully form a single story arc, and the prequel trilogy does fit coherently into the narrative, despite endless quality issues. Or, I suppose, we also have The Godfather and Lord of the Rings, although the former works best as a two-part epic; maybe LOTR deserves the hyperbolic, wide-reaching praise it received just for accomplishing what it set out to do – faithfully tell Tolkien’s long, ambitious story in film form.

Interesting to note that longer-form, single-narrative film projects like the Godfather trilogy have only become common and popular since, well, the ealry ’70s. I’ve long wondered about the history of film series themselves. Sure, there was the Universal horror cycle (e.g., Frankenstein, followed by Bride, Son, Ghost, etc.), there was Toho’s Godzilla series, there were the Thin Man movies, but in general each of these series resulted from the decision to tack on a sequel to cash in on the original, rather than a preconceived, limited storyline like The Godfather, whose sequel is the first one I can find to include the number “2” in it (now a universal practice).

So I guess my point is that epic storytelling is very worth looking at, partially because the longer form allows for longer emotional build-ups (like Rhett and Scarlett’s neverending love affair) as well as the ability to, well, just pack in more: more events, characters, detailed information, contrasts, to achieve the desired effect and get everything they want across to the audience. I think the epic can also be linked to the desire for spectacle; Intolerance, for example, was once marketed with a list of numbers: the total extras, the dimensions of the Babylonian palace, etc. It’s like standing back to gaze at a skyscraper. It’s enthralling just that it’s so big in the first place, that it doesn’t topple under its own enormity. The Sandman, I think, succeeds as an epic on all these counts. Even in the 6 volumes I’ve read, barely over half the series, Gaiman’s crammed in an astounding amount of erudition, cosmic speculation, intriguing characters (some of whom only feature briefly, at least so far), and stories within stories within, ultimately, the extreme scope of the meta-plot of Dream deciding to change or die.

So, I think I’ve managed to successfully explore a small part of what makes up medium specificity and the epic as a whole; at the very least, I got some point across there. I guess I’ll conclude by directing you to this shudder-inspiring AV Club article about the upcoming G.I. Joe movie; it’s pretty obvious and clear that when the Paramount executive says “We want audiences to define this film,” he means, “We want audiences to pay to see this film and not be warned away by intelligent critics.” And so, as I was saying earlier, watch out who’s producing what you’re watching or reading, because odds are good that they don’t have your best interest in mind.

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