If you’re old as I am, then you’ve been around long enough to notice change. One of the most notable changes that we can point to is how and what we consume on television, and nowhere is this more apparent than within the Star Trek franchise. It’s true that technology has been accelerating, giving creed to Moore’s law, resulting in sharper pictures, more intricate special effects and bigger explosions. There can be no doubt that the age of digital is upon us. In terms of content, the 1960’s was a special time in that it was the era when people became widely aware of commercialism and consumerism en masse, spawning criticism from the likes of Warhol and Canada’s own Marshal McLuhan. But even if we were to jump ahead to the 1990’s where we were introduced to the Next Generation, and compare this rebirth of Star Trek to the latter follow up Voyager series, it’s pretty obvious that the studios were keenly aware of our shifting tastes even within this short time period. The Voyager series had more action, people talked faster, the scenes cut away quicker. Everything we loved about Star Trek was hyper charged and this trend continues today in the most recent Star Trek films.
Star Trek, of course, having lasted many decades is an easy reference but the same could be said for pretty much all media including the news, video games and comics. While the Silver Age comics were much simpler in tone and concept, where good guys would fight bad guys and win the day, today’s comics are much more complex, with deeper story lines that crisscross multiple titles with characters like the Punisher who is neither good or bad. Part of the reason is that people have become more literate about what they are being sold. The same tricks and repackaged ideas are not enough to grab our attention any more, which means that the producers of media need to create a spectacle. They need a louder voice, bigger, better, faster, harder, rougher and grittier material in order to be noticed. We need to be shocked into caring about what they have to offer. There is a whole social/philosophical debate about the desensitization of our senses and where this could all lead. It is one the fundamental arguments against stuff like pornography and takes us directly into a debate about our freedoms. It’s difficult to say who is leading who. Are the creators of media responding to our changing tastes for the sake of business, or is our tastes changing as a result of what we are being fed by the media? There is plenty of evidence to support both sides of the debate.
Frank Miller was one of those creators who was ahead of the game in many respects. Not only did he help to usher in the “dark” era in comics, he used comic book panels like storyboards and introduced cinematic sensibilities to the static page. He was already thinking of how his layouts could translate into live action by incorporating many familiar live action sequences into his comic pages. This was one of the key differences I noticed in Millers work when I first discovered him in the pages of Daredevil, which also may explain, at least in part, why so many of his stories have been adapted into live action. The other aspect to Millers work was his use of “poetry”. Yes, “poetry”… by which I mean romanticized moments that on the surface may seem cheesy but are actually very humanizing in that he presents to us stuff like weakness, desire, frailty or a characters thought process. We can deconstruct why movies like Batman vs Superman was a critical flop, but my two cents is that, among the laser blasts and big explosions, it lacks this “poetry”. The movie tries to be deep but is not able to connect emotionally. Many of today’s action packed movies have all the elements that the studios think we want, but without those quieter moments to separate, define and give meaning to those big explosions, it ends up being just one big blur.
By now, most of you have you binged through the second season of Daredevil. In season two, we get more of the same stuff from season one, including the famous hallway fight scene, now replaced by the new stairwell fight scene. But after ploughing through all thirteen episodes, the scene that I enjoyed most is from the end of episode 4. The camera follows a rain drop as it falls on Karen’s arm. Matt uses his finger to retrace the raindrop back up her arm. There is no dialogue but there is a lot being communicated here. Aside from looking visually artistic, this quiet moment builds anticipation and give us all the information we need to understand what is happening. It also reminds us of Matt’s keen senses despite being blind and pulls us in to an intimate atmosphere, adding impact to the eventual introduction of Elektra right after. It wasn’t exactly Alejandro’s Revenant, but it was a nice quiet moment among all the noise. It is moments like this that are scattered throughout Miller’s earlier work. It is moments like this that are often squeezed out in favour of big fight scenes, loud passionate dialogue and fast paced sequences. As much as I enjoyed seeing the Punisher and Elektra, I feel they could have been so much better if they talked less. If the audience could have been allowed to figure them out, rather than have the characters be explained. Perhaps I’m old fashioned or my design background has me longing for more “artisan” films. But if done right, ambiguity can be in the service of a story. If big and loud dulls our senses, implications can sharpen them as we reflect on the meaning of its subtext.
My apologies for a very disjointed write up this month. I simply wanted to praise the one scene from Daredevil, season 2, episode 4, which I though was stellar. But as usual, the academic side of my head tries to make connections in order to better understand how we got here… and ultimately, where we might be going. As part of our cultural landscape, I believe that current comic book related trends are indicative of much larger changes that are in motion. In short, we are living in exciting times.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai has created some of my favorite films. In this short for BMW, he demonstrates how ambiguity and subtext can be used to create a narrative. The music takes center stage and we learn about the characters from their behavior.