The SCMS this year is being held at the infamous Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I couldnt help but feel the alienation (sorry, bad joke) as I walked around the enormous atrium, its giant columns rising up in overlapping circles, its glass elevators shooting up out of the shallow pools, and its busy guests wandering aimlessly from bad boutique to tacky gift shop. I wandered aimlessly until I found my room finally (it was on the first floor after all) and prepared for my paper. This was Thursday, the second day of the conference, which will go all the way through Sunday (more time is being give to those who were supposed to present at the conference last year, which was cancelled due to swine flu (or say they say)).
I presented on a panel called Comic Book Films and the Adaptation of Aesthetics. The panel was at 8AM, and, as those of you familiar with conferencing, I didnt sleep very well the night before, vainly worrying about how well the audience would react to my attempted incorporation of Deleuzes cinema books into my argument. I was therefore in somewhat of a daze as I looked up to see Henry Jenkins in the audience! Was this a dream? (Hes on the committee of a fellow presenter). I woke up, to say the least. I love the SCMS!
Bob Rehak, from Swarthmore College, presented a paper called Watchmens Frames of Reference: Digital Production Tools and the High-fidelity Comic Book Adaptation in which he used Zach Snyders adaptation of Alan Moores graphic novel to meditate on this new hyper-faithful attention given to source materials. Why do film-makers want to microscopically imitate each image in a comic book, to fully realize not the political or technological themes that a work like Watchmen engages with, but rather want to reproduce, with high fidelity, the object itself in a different medium. As Bob discussed, much of this has to do with the changing nature of film audiences, and the increasing influence of fan communities, who contradictorily want separate things in an adaptation. On the one hand, they want their treasured experience of the original work recreated in a different medium which has also given them many newer treasured experiences (The Lord of the Rings movies, well-received Batman movies etc.)they want a hybrid pleasure- the pleasure of the source combined with the pleasure of a new medium. On the other hand, they want the adaptation go beyond the source and tap into some of the themes, or problems that the original source tapped into. For Watchmen, for example, if the film is to remain faithful to the source, it must also pose the same trenchant critiques of power the original did. By choosing the logic of the former, the filmmakers sacrifice the latter, and fan audiences are ultimately let down, and the part of the audience with no familiarity with the graphic novel are baffled.
I presented on a similar theme, where I used the example of Zach Snyders adaptation of Frank Millers graphic novel 300, as well as Ang Lees Hulk, and finally American Splendor. I tried to describe the differences between what I see as three logics of adaptation, especially within the context of style. How do these films try to transform the style of the comic into a cinematic style, in order to, as Bob also pointed out, play to the fidelity that some of the audience wants, if not needs. What I really am interested in is how a temporal medium like cinema adapts a non-temporal medium like comics, from a static medium (still images) to a medium where change inheres in its form (the moving image). How is the style of time, the time is represented differently in comics language, adapted for cinematic representation? For 300, I argued that this type of adaptation is ultimately imitative, adapting only the surface qualities of the comic, and therefore this high fidelity is ultimately compromised. By being so faithful to the surface images, the adaptation actually ignores the style of time in the graphic novel. In Hulk, Ang Lee actually plays with comics form by imbueing it with cinematic montage and digital editing techniques. The filmic cut is complicated by the gutter (Scott McCloud for those comic nerds out there) as a cut between images. The film tries to adapt a style of time inherent to comics language and form itself, rather than any one specific comic. Lastly, and what I find most interesting is the adaptation of American Splendor, Harvey Pekars autobiographical underground comic series. The movie actually engages with the themes of time that the comic engages with, that is the relationship between recording media and human time- the desire to capture time with various recording media, whether it be documentary film, photographs, records (health records or music records) etc. I also tried to work Deleuze into this. Dont ask me how.
To round out the panel were two more presentations- one by Vincent M. Gaine, from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in which he argued about the political differences between Christopher Nolans Batman movies- the first being liberal and the second conservative (even neo-conservative?), and the other by Drew Morton, from UCLA, who talked about Winsor McCays evolving representations of space in comics form (which are quite amazing for those of you unfamiliar with McCay- hes probably most famous for the first animated movie, Gertie the Dinosaur, but also Little Nemo in Slumberland). I found Gaines most interesting point to be the liminality of the hero/villain in the movies, so that neither actually corresponds with a political philosophy, but rather only comes to manifest that philosophy at certain points. A liminal figure, Batman becomes neo-conservative in response to the Jokers, another liminal figure, own anarchism and terrorism. Drews exploration of the similarities and differences between early film and comics, with McCay as the bridging figure in both was also quite fascinating.
We had a great discussion afterwards, and, like Little Nemo, I returned to my sleepless dreamwalking through the halls until I found my next panel, on Immersion! I was quickly immersed into this dreamworld, mostly because the first presentation was on the Quay Brothers films (these movies are amazing for those of you unfamiliar with them) by Suzanne Buchan from the University of the Creative Arts. What she very earnestly tried to lay out was an analysis of the images, and objects used in these films in order to work towards an ethics of animation, or perhaps more specifically an ethics of the objects used in the creation of these animated worlds. In fact, the theme of this panel (it was titled What is Immersion) came to be focused into the question of how objects are used in order to immerse us- which has a deep history in aesthetic and art theory. Do we project ourselves into objects, and is this what is called immersion? The second paper was by Joshua Yumibe, of Oakland University, and was titled Color Space in Early Cinema. The paper examined this period of films, the cinema of attractions as Tom Gunning calls it (he was also in the front row!), and in particular how color was employed as a technique to further immerse the audience. He showed an amazing clip of an early film of the development of a caterpillar, through its pupa stage into a full-fledged butterfly. The butterfly was actually a woman flapping her wings as was revealed at the end, but the most important part was the changing colors of the film which were quite amazing. The leap here is of course between this kind of use of spectacular color (painstakingly achieved by coloring every cell) and, our most current pivot-point for debates about immersion, and the elephant in the room, Avatar. In the last paper, Robin Curtis, from Freie Universitat, Berlin, spoke about mimesis and in particular einfuhlung, the move to empathize with or into something (in this case it would be the moving image). She showed a clip that was taken from stock footage of Ingrid Bergman from the shooting of Notorious. The clip slowed down the image so that movement could barely be registered, but over the duration of the clip, she opens her eyes, and a tear even emerges, and then even returns to the eye. Robin argued that the film acts as a way to challenge our relationship to films of dead bodies (not of this body, but of the image of a body that is now dead), and the ultimate gap between ourselves and the corpse (the film was called necropty something- I cant remember), and the einfuhlung that attempts to bridge this gap (as well the impossibility of this). I had moved from dreamworld to nightmareworld. The panel ended with a response from Gertrud Koch, also of the Freie Universitat, Berlin, who tried to synthesize some major claims threaded throughout each of the papers.
I emerged from the alienated nightmareworld of the Bonaventure into the sterilized downtown financial district, where towers of banal bank offices rose up into the smoggy air (it was actually quite a beautiful, warm day). After lunch among the carbon copy investment bankers (who know how to eat- my lunch was delicious), I returned to the Bonaventure for my favorite panel of the day, Hollywoods New Lease on Life. Barbara Klinger, from Indiana University, spoke about the Aftermarket where she tried to revise the model of understanding film according to the changes that happen throughout their market lives. As an example, her opening image showed six different posters of Its a Wonderful Life. The movie, first released in 1946, has been re-purposed according to market forces ever since- according to pressures from the TV medium, the videocassette, re-releases, DVD, etc. The movies exist and evolve in their aftermarket, and this duration should be considered in our thinking of them. The next paper, by J.D. Connor, from Yale, had an awesome title: Why No One Want Make Hulk 2: Independence, Rebooting, and Industrial Reflexivity. Resonating with my own discussion of this under-appreciated and extremely interesting movie (interesting because its a total failure), J.D. argued that many of the new blockbuster movies contain moments where their own modes of production are referred to self-reflexively. He showed an image from Harry Potter 5 where Harry has to retrieve his prophecy from an archive and argued that this was an image of the film companys own film bank and archive- in other words, all those cans of film in storage at major movie studios. In putting these projects together, the film studios use the same formula- Spider-Man for instance takes an independent director, a popular super-hero, and some good-looking young actors and they spin it into a hit. Other film studios adopt this formula- and thus we have Foxs X-Men (with Bryan Singer), the rebooted Batman movies with Christopher Nolan for Warner Bros. etc. When Universal tried to use the formula for Hulk, Ang Lee tried to stray from the formula, which explains its critical failure. Ang Lee tried too hard to make an independent movie. It gets rebooted according to the formula with the Incredible Hulk and becomes much more successful. Most interestingly, though, are these self-reflexive moments where, for instance, Norton is shown a room where his blood has been synthesized and copied, so that the Hulks blood can be indefinitely used, in anybody elses body. This self-reflexively refers to the way in which Universal, who owns Hulk as a property, can use it as a formula to keep making more Hulk movies, using different bodies or actors etc. Lastly was John Lewis, from Oregon State University, who discussed the End of Cinema. Or rather, that this famous Godard prophecy is unlikely, as studios manage, extremely flexibly (and more efficiently than the collapsing recording industry) to maintain their revenue streams and stay in business, mostly by appealing to various youth markets.
Thats all for today- after this I was quite exhausted and needed to get my steam back for another long day tomorrow!