Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

TSDSUFR EC004

Falling for Bacall

Recently some Twitter friends and I were recalling a few of our favorite old Bugs Bunny cartoons from the ’40’s and ’50’s, the kind they used to show on Saturday morning television but which, sadly, most kids today do not know.  For example there was the one where Bugs stood in for his colleague the Easter Bunny, with the bratty kid loudly and incessantly demanding, “I wanna Easter Egg, I wanna Easter Egg!”  Another classic involved Bugs playing the fiddle and calling a hoedown for two barefoot and clueless backwoods brothers intent on shooting him, with the pair ending up going off a cliff, as Bugs’ opponents often did.

And then there was the one that introduced a very young Billy Boy to the mystique of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89.

In “Slick Hare”, a cartoon short from 1947, Humphrey Bogart comes to a supper club in Los Angeles run by Elmer Fudd, and insists on being served rabbit, “or else.”  Hilarity ensures, with Bugs Bunny dashing about the restaurant avoiding capture, along the way running into a number of recognizable Hollywood stars of the era, and at one point even doing a superb Carmen Miranda impression.  At the end, when Elmer admits that the rabbit cannot be caught, Bogie relents and says, “Baby will just have to have a ham sandwich instead.”  Realizing that Lauren Bacall – a.k.a. “Baby”, Bogart’s nickname for her – was the one asking for rabbit, Bugs immediately changes his mind and offers himself up to her on a platter.

When I first saw this cartoon I must have been about 5 or 6 years old.  I had no idea who “Baby” was, only that she must have been a very beautiful woman indeed, to make Bugs act the way he did.  As I grew older and saw films like “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, and “Key Largo”, I came to understand why not only the rabbit from Brooklyn could fall head over heels for the girl from The Bronx, but so could a future President of the United States from Missouri.

There are a few famous 1945 photographs of Harry Truman playing the piano at The National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., with Lauren Bacall perched atop the piano.  It was both a publicity stunt for the new star, and something to bring Truman more into the national and international public eye, shortly after having becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth Vice President.  In the pictures, Bacall’s long legs are draped seductively over the side of the piano, with Truman smiling and looking somewhat nervous.  Understandably, when the photos came out Bess Truman was furious, but two months later FDR was dead, and the Trumans had other matters to concern them; meanwhile, men still went on falling for Lauren Bacall, wartime or not.

Because indeed, who could not fall for her?  The former model with the sharp wit created a kind of archetypal relationship with Bogart, which even today my friends talk about, longingly.  Beyond the obvious physical attraction going on, there was a snappy, clever back-and-forth between the two of them that many of us, I daresay myself included, would love to have in our own relationships.  It might not always be sweetness and light, but my goodness it would be great fun.

Despite her long career in Hollywood, compared to many of her contemporaries Bacall did not make as many films as she might have done.  She was picky about the roles she took, and made it a point to try to raise her children as best she could.  She also viewed the theatre as the natural home for the serious actor, and succeeded as much on the boards as she did on the silver screen.  As a result, there is not a huge back catalogue of Lauren Bacall films for you to study, and truthfully most of her best roles were shot many decades ago.

Yet I think that rather than any single performance, Lauren Bacall’s legacy is the epitome of a kind of sexuality which differed significantly from the “bombshell” variety, which so often leaves little to the imagination.  If one may use such a phrase in connection with a great performer, Lauren Bacall was the definition of “smoking hot”.  From the first time she slinks onscreen in “To Have and Have Not”, asks, “Anybody got a match?”, and lights a cigarette, if you were a thinking man, or even just a man with a pulse, she had you hooked.

Lauren Bacall was beautiful, she was sassy, and she had a voice like a purring lioness – a generation later she would have made a great Catwoman –  but she was also smart.  She was a woman who was not going to let you get away with anything, just because you happened to be a man and she happened to be at a loose end at the moment.  She expected you not to take her or yourself for granted, but to be the best part of yourself, knowing when to be a man and take charge, and when to hold back and give her some room.

With Bacall’s passing, there are very few actresses left from the old studio system days: Olivia de Haviland, Maureen O’Hara, and a few others are still with us, but they have not acted in years.  Bacall however, was working almost up until the end, her husky voice still possessing the ability to set men’s hearts a-flutter.  She was probably the last of the great, smoldering film seductresses from the era of our grandparents to leave us.

So henceforth it will be our duty, gentlemen, to not only show the kids things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, since no one else will, but also to explain to them that they’ll find out who “Baby” was…when they’re a little bit older.

Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944)

 

Fangs of Steel: Is Dracula the New Superman?

The camera arcs slowly as we watch a man dressed in a shiny suit, making his way along difficult terrain.  His exorbitantly long red cape flaps in the wind, billowing out behind him like a sail.  We see him smash his fist into the ground until the surface cracks, just before he leaps into the sky and flies away…surrounded by a flock of bats.

No, this isn’t a story about the love child of Superman and Batman. Rather it’s the trailer to the forthcoming film, Dracula Untold, which purports to tell the legend of Vlad Dracul, the 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (part of modern-day Romania) known as “Vlad the Impaler”, and his transformation into the legendary vampire “Dracula” of the eponymous Bram Stoker novel.  The film will be premiering in U.S. theatres this October, and this is the first glimpse audiences have had of the project. As a friend commented in conversation about the trailer, “A LOT of bats. Bats everywhere. Far too many bats. You saw the bats?”

The film has been some time in the making, and did not finish as it began.  Alex Proyas, creator of dark films which fall into the broad category of sci-fi/fantasy, such as “The Crow”, “Dark City”, and “I, Robot”, was originally set to direct.   Proyas would have been a natural to explore how Dracul became Dracula, a subject which was presented but never fully explored in Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish but messy 1992 film version of Stoker’s novel.  Sam Worthington, an actor well-known to many in geekdom for his roles in films like “Avatar”, was set to star as the bloodthirsty prince.  In order to lower costs, Universal later ended up binning Proyas and Worthington, and sought out a new director and star.

Enter Gary Shore, an Irish director who has never filmed anything on this scale before, being known primarily as a director of indie film shorts and television commercials.  And in place of Worthing we have another “Avatar” alum, Welsh actor Luke Evans.  Although he has a far longer cinematic resume than Shore, Evans has never had to carry an entire film of this size, even though he has played a host of both lead and supporting roles in sci-fi/action/fantasy films like this over the years.

For both director and star the stakes on such a film are fairly high.  Shore has no track record at the box office to draw upon, and no string of previous films that have been the subject of university lectures and fanzine articles, so he’s not going to ruin his reputation if he fails.  On the other hand, if he does fail, he probably won’t get another shot: the fact that one instantly thought of Zack Snyder’s first trailer for “Man of Steel” on seeing this particular trailer is a bit worrying, even if many of the other scenes look interesting.  Evans, who is a rising commodity in filmdom at the moment, certainly looks more like a dark and dangerous Slavic warrior than does the laddish and wide-eyed Worthington, who would have been woefully miscast in the role.  Yet if he fails to draw the attention of sci-fi fans, he may not be offered another opportunity like this for a long time.

There’s also the rather prickly question of how you deal with the invasion of Christian Europe by a Muslim empire in a 21st century film.  Are we going to see a watered-down, politically correct view of the West vs. the East, such as in recent films like “City of God”?  Are the Ottomans going to be kept at arm’s length as a fairly faceless foe, talked about but not examined close up, so that the film doesn’t even have to address the issue of militant Islam?  How is the underlying conceit of the story, that in becoming a vampire Vlad is making a pact with the Devil, going to be treated given the fact that historically speaking, the real Dracul was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who not only founded and endowed dozens of churches and monasteries, but enjoyed good relations with a number of Catholic rulers, including the popes?

With the superhero genre definitely in the ascendancy right now, it’s not surprising that a studio would greenlight a vampire movie that looks like a superhero film.  Right now vampires are not as hot a commodity as they were a few years ago, during the “Twlight” era, but on the whole they are a reasonably safe bet at the multiplex.  Of course, by trying to turn the story of Vlad Dracul into “Fangs of Steel” or “Bat/Man Begins”, one wonders what will we end up with.

It could be that we will have another roided-out, CGI version of a sword-and-sandal picture, rather than a historical examination of the life of a truly fascinating and complex figure tinged with some fairytale elements.  Or it could be that we have a real development of some of the ideas about obsession and damnation from Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel, albeit in a fantasy setting.  Or it could be, which is probably more likely, that we get spoon-fed another dose of moral relativism, in which it turns out that a formerly squeaky-clean Kal-El and an undead creature in league with the infernal are both considered to be equally morally ambiguous.

That being said, will I still go see it? Probably – but I’m keeping my expectations fairly low on this one.

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming "Dracula Untold"

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming “Dracula Untold”