Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"cinematic" Michael Chabon

So my housemate and partner in crime (aka "Benjamin Greenfields") has been reading Michael Chabon this summer. Right now he's reading Kavalier and Clay and, as was the case with Noah Baumbach's "My Dog is Tom Cruise," he reads the funny parts aloud. I died laughing throughout chapter 3, the brainstorming session for superheroes.

However, I am annoyed with Chabon as I am annoyed with anyone who indiscriminantly uses the word "CINEMATIC." To describe a talented and ground-breaking comic artist, Chabon writes, "he joined three panels vertically into one to display the full parabolic zest of one of Superman's patented skyscraper-hops (the Man of Steel could not, at this point in his career, properly fly), and he chose his angles and arranged figures with a certain cinematic flair." (p.77) This kind of innovation, he dates at 1938.

I feel Chabon is putting the cart (cinema) before the horse (comics). Does Chabon mean the comic looks cinematic to a late 20th C eye, familiar with the cinematic techniques of various film industries of the past 100 years? Or does he mean it looks cinematic to the eye of the day? It would have to be the former. Comics didn't become popular in that period because they looked like movies - they looked better, more exciting, more mobile, more dramatic. Films, by comparison, were sort of doing "less" for the visual imagination than comics, or radio, in some ways . . . the cameras were less mobile than they are now and less mobile than the imaginations of the illustrators. For example, in the way of action and adventure, filmmaking in the US had achieved Chaplin's slapstick, and Tarzan and King Kong - which are all a little stagy and 2-D compared to good comics of the period. It's tough to date these things, and its all related . . but still.

Above: Action Comics #1 (1938) Note the 2 frames with canted "angles" above the buildings, the "extreme close up" of the insects. Uncommon in popular period filmmaking. Composition of baby with chair is more "cinematic" c. 1938, though the subject matter would have been difficult for film photography.

Do other people have this kind of trouble with the word "literary?" Does cinematic simply mean visual in its imagery? Iconic?

Modern Times (Chaplin, 1938) And this is the exceptional film with a lot of "action" in 1936, not the run of the mill comedy of people chatting, shot head on and from the knees up.

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) Now, that's more like it. Films followed quickly, but I'd argue they followed. A good example would have been the "exterior" crane shot that introduces Susan's nightclub.

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