Friday, April 29, 2005

Battlestar: Galactica - a thrilling transformation from fromage to homage

For the last few decades, the American entertainment industry has culled a reliable profit by asking, "What would it look like if we lost?" As computer generated imagery improves, each vision becomes more spectacular. If we lost to invading aliens, it would look like Independence Day. If we lost to a meteor, it would look like Deep Impact. If we lost to the weather, it would look like The Day After Tomorrow. In each case, the focus on visual effect is exclusive, while the focus on emotional effect is literally missing-in-action.

If these movies offer us spectacle without emotional engagement, they've at least succeeded at the first level. Television has typically failed at both - until now. The re-vamped (and I do mean "vamped") Battlestar: Galactica has spectacle and engagement in spades, creating in a few deft strokes a compelling portrait of contemporary western civilization brought low by siege. Series writer and producer Ron Moore says he wanted to merge two aesthetics - 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Black Hawk Down - and he succeeds with devastating effect. As for character, this being television, he shows no hesitation in employing emotional short-hand. But by paying reverent attention to "why" details, Galactica invests, and makes it pay off for the viewer.

A great deal of "why" attention is paid to the CGI, which, against the odds, is emotionally compelling stuff on its own. During the heat of the aerial/space battles, the camera is often "confused", seeking out a comprehensive reference point, then zooming in when it's been found. Galactica's sound-crew takes a similar tack: rather than the usual eardrum-shredding bombast of explosions with cymbal-clashing score (a la Lucas and Williams), Galactica has a muffled, underwater sound that conversely amplifies the sense of dislocation and physical threat. And drums are the only musical score - a tactic common to the recent spate of arty Shaolin movies (Crouching Tiger, etc.), but still an effective novelty in space opera.

Similarly, the Galactica "look" seems counterintuitive. Eschewing the usual suburban streamlining (Star Trek's tracksuits and McConsoles), Galactica is crowded with sweaty military grit, and utilizes a technology that is off-puttingly retro: the captain's intercom is a bulky phone, complete with corkscrew phone-cord. The reason for this is given early in the show. That it makes sense is just another pleasant "why" pay-off.

The cast of characters and foibles are standard-issue, and executed with attention paid. As with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the human element would be admittedly thin gruel without the proper meat of an actor with undeniable "presence". STNG had Patrick Stewart, but Galactica is blessed with two heavyweights: Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell - testosterone and estrogen personified. They wage a war of balance with each other, and with an enemy who is cunning, ruthless, sexy and ... confused? The Cylons are ciphers; on the face of it, their motives are inexplicable, but the snippets we get suggest a substantial iceberg of menace lurking beneath.

I've only seen the miniseries DVD, which lays itself out like an all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment fusion-dishes. I loved it. It sticks to the ribs and provokes unusual thoughts long after it's been consumed, which is above and beyond what you expect from even the best space opera, soap opera, horse opera ... heck, any opera. Highly recommended.

Endnote: the DVD's "bonus material" is slight stuff, but I was amused to see Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict, stars from the original series, chafe at the changes made by Moore & co. Hatch puts on a good face, but Benedict is prickly - he bristles when he's told "the new Starbuck is a girl" (his words). The original series, which only ran one season, was an appalling ball of cheese, difficult to enjoy even for its camp value. At what point did these veteran actors of television drama invest so much love in this ill-conceived, short-lived show? Interviews with their contemporary replacements demonstrate the expected professional zeal for the new project, but you have to wonder whether they'd care at all, should they be told 25 years from now that Galactica was getting yet another make-over.

And appreciation is due to my friend Scott, whose recommendation for the series can be read here.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Pete Dexter's Deadwood, Round 2

Publicly pronouncing your judgment on a book before you've finished it - if there's a faster way to look like a horse's ass, I'm sure I'll discover it soon enough. In my original review of Pete Dexter's Deadwood, I set up Wild Bill Hicock as the avenging angel, brought in to set right the scales of the Wild West. Unfortunately, he met his historic end just 12 pages after I made my prognostication, and there were 200 more to go.

Dexter's Deadwood pulled me in, completely. Had I encountered another scene like the one I complained about, I might well have tossed it aside. But I suppose the benefit of being shocked and appalled so early in the book is that, so long as it doesn't result in a relapse of mental illness, the experience braces and compells the reader forward. I wanted to see justice done, but the true virtue of Dexter's prose was such that my concerns of vengeance were eventually secondary: I wanted to see what became of Charley Utter, Calamity Jane, and several other hapless, feckless characters who'd been presented to me in their filth and finery.

Calamity Jane: Dexter gives us a woman whose presence is nothing like the tough, beguiling (and recommendably sexy) character we see in Wild Bill's Ellen Barkin. Dexter's Calamity Jane is grotesque and pitiable - and the fact that she amounts to the latter is a testament to Dexter's skills as a novellist. Her appearance is as compelling and revolting as any street-person's (pretty much the condition of every frontier person we meet), but Dexter is careful to buttress her legendary presence with a perceived reality. Unlike Wild Bill.

Wild Bill Hickock's presence is immediate, larger-than-life (and yet shabby enough to be true), and then removed physically from the narrative. The rest of the novel lists and haws to recover from the loss, and we gradually discover the character of the people who surrounded him. Hickock's geographically distant wife, Agnes Lake, a gymnast and high-wire walker, doesn't enter Deadwood until the last third of the book. In her silent ruminations, we quickly see why Bill was such a beguiling presence for her, while he remained the maddening, self-obsessed celebrity that staggered drunkenly toward his absurdly glorified death. Everyone in the novel, it seems, has to recover.

Agnes speaks of falling from the tight-rope: "When you fall," she said, "the thing that presses to you is the newness. It's a new world, and nothing from the other world can save you. You're helpless again, like a baby, scared of loud noises, and you don't know what's serious and what isn't, because you don't know what it means." That sense of shock, followed by an inconceivable, yet incomplete recovery, is the engine that drives the book.

An excellent read. However, I still remain appalled at the early, horrific vision Dexter painted. And I'm happy to see, in an odd bit of coincidence, that Nick Hornby was similarly non-plussed with Dexter's Train. To quote Hornby (from the highly recommended The Polysyllabic Spree): "But in the nipple-slicing incident in Train, I thought I could detect Dexter's thumb on the scale, to use a brilliant Martin Amis phrase from elsewhere in Experience. It seemed to me poor Norah lost her nipple through a world-view, rather than through a narrative inevitability..."

Yeah. What he said.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Michael Chabon and the Art of Narrative Sleight-of-Hand

I like Michael Chabon - I'm a fan, in fact. Back before Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. took hold of it, I was one of those word-of-mouth bookstore employees that tried to sell a copy of Wonder Boys to every customer that walked through the door. I've made a point of reading his other stuff, too, even the wonkier material. I loved the first two-thirds of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (the closing act felt drawn-out and forced; as a corrective alternative, I'd recommend Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing. Vanderhaeghe takes on the same artistic concerns as Chabon - modern alienation, sexuality, personal mythologies, the spectre of the frontier, the personal toll of violence - and nails it. But he doesn't do comics). I've got Summerland resting on my computer, and look forward to reading it. But I'm suprised and a tad disappointed to read this.

That's the sort of error in judgement one expects from a younger man, someone who doesn't have a wife and children to answer to. Am I making too big a deal of this? Maybe. But the guy is capable of much, much better.

Some follow-up, here. Links from Bookninja.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

To quote Tom Waits: "Well, um ... I feel as though we should move right in to the religious material..."

Order. Men despise religion, they hate it and are afraid it might be true. To cure that we have to show that religion is not contrary to reason. That it is worthy of veneration and should be given respect. Next, it should be made lovable, should make the good wish it were true, then show that it is indeed true.

Worthy of veneration because it has properly understood mankind.

Worthy of affection because it promises the true good.
Pensees 46, Pascal, tr. Honor Levi


I have two friends with Doctorates in Philosophy. They have two very different takes on Pascal, and this Order in particular. One insists Pascal's angle on religion is emotional, that rational argument favors the atheist's camp, and Pascal, recognizing this, proceeds first to emotional argument. The other takes the Order at face value, and says Pascal asserts that the root of most atheism "isn't intellection, but feeling." Two friends, two different perspectives on Pascal, and God. (They do have one perspective in common: their advanced degree in Philosophy has less remunerative value than a Pizza Hut coupon.)

I am not an atheist, but I can definitely assert that the business of both religion and atheism is emotional, passionate and mostly messy. I'm disinclined toward argument - I grow quite impatient with it, actually - and believe that transformation is the higher value. Perhaps the first thing that needs to be transformed within me is my attitude toward argument?

Right, then: on to the religious material.

Belief and nonbelief are two giant planets, the orbits of which don't touch. Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief. That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible, see?), until eventually the data begin to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic can never be isolated and may not exist. Like holding a magnifying glass at arm's length and bringing it toward your eye: Things are upside down, they're upside down, they're right side up. What lay between? If there was something, it passed too quickly to be observed. This is why you can never reason true Christians out of the faith. It's not, as the adage has it, because they were never reasoned into it—many were—it's that faith is a logical door which locks behind you. What looks like a line of thought is steadily warping into a circle, one that closes with you inside. If this seems to imply that no apostate was ever a true Christian and that therefore, I was never one, I think I'd stand by both of those statements. Doesn't the fact that I can't write about my old friends without an apologetic tone just show that I never deserved to be one of them?

This is from the excellent GQ article, Upon This Rock, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I'm tempted to also quote his theory of why "Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself", but some things should be discovered by the reader. So many acute observations on the state of American christendom. Very funny, very moving, very perceptive. A printable version of the article is here. If you're a sucker for 23 click-to-see-next-page-complete-with-pop-ups, the official GQ site is here.

Here's an unusual re-consideration of gay marriage, by a self-professed libertarian. Link from Gideon Strauss.

Greg at The Parish, generates some worthy controversy by wondering if the suburban Mega-Church is even remotely biblical (in a good sense), here.

Yahmdallah at Third Level Digression has a guest posting - an insider's (read: "thoughtful Catholic") perspective on the new Pope. Worth the read, since it's becoming increasingly difficult to get past the ever-present outsider's perspective.

And finally, a note of appreciation to my friend Darko, at Verging on Pertinence, for recommending Peter DeVries' novel, The Blood Of The Lamb. DeVries' protagonist, Don Wanderhope, is born into a Calvinist household and undertakes a reverse Pilgrim's Progress. At least, that's the most tempting analogy to reach for (the publishers even do it for you, right there on the book flap). I think it has more in common with Pinocchio: early in the narrative, Wanderhope says/thinks "There is no God," then proceeds to fall into one foolish misadventure after another. In the novel's closing pages, he is transformed, terribly, into a real, live boy. I finished the novel late at night, weeping as softly as possible so as not to wake my wife. DeVries might grind his teeth at my summary, but I think his novel poses a legitimate question. Which is the greater blasphemy: the man who says in his heart, "There is no God"; or the soul-shredding spectacle of your child dying of leukemia?

The Blood Of The Lamb, by Peter DeVries is unfortunately out-of-print. I lucked into an affordable copy at one of my favorite used bookstores. You can try the usual on-line suspects, including Amazon, here.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Evolution of a "Comments" Policy

Google and Blogger seem, at the moment, capable of fending off spammers from the "comments" option. Still, every once in a while I receive something that gets me wondering. I just deleted a comment from my last entry. My impression was, the commenter visited the site, hit "comment", right-clicked "paste", then hit "publish". Too "personal" to qualify for "spam", but too impersonal to qualify as a comment = deleted comment.

Friday, April 22, 2005

My Wife Meta-References Jon Stewart & Dennis Miller

I'd heard that comedian Dennis Miller was no longer the ranter's poster-boy. I never warmed to Miller's annotated stylings, so I couldn't say whether or not he'd lost his grip on anything. I did think his coming out as pro-Bush was questionable. But I have friends who are pro-Bush, and they have my unflagging respect. The operative word is "questionable": they question me, I question them, and mostly we leave the subject alone.

Miller's appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show was, however, a sad, sad spectacle. Miller looked run-down and depressed, and even though Stewart generously gave Miller the floor, and cackled at Miller's every attempted quip, Miller - a stand-up veteran - struggled to claim it. When he finally worked up a head of steam, it got worse. He made some tired quips about global warming (Mordecai Richler did better), then endorsed oil drilling in Alaska by slagging Alaskans. Yeah, that's the ticket. If you can't blame Canada, fly to New York and pick on the largest state in the Union.

As if to prove that Miller isn't the only cat with meta-referencing abilities, my wife turned to me and said, "I feel like I'm watching Bobby Bittman on Sammy Maudlin."

Precisely.

Pete Dexter's Deadwood: The Western's Tradition of Inspired Contrariness

These last few days I've been reading Pete Dexter's western, Deadwood. I lucked across it in a used bookstore some weeks back, and picked it up because I'd heard it was the novel Walter Hill adapted in Wild Bill. I haven't seen that movie in years, but I enjoyed it enough to remember it and muse on Hill's original material, so, four dollars later....

It didn't dawn on me until several pages in that this is also the novel on which the HBO series is based. Like nearly everything HBO touches, Deadwood is being admired, fawned over, and greatly talked about. While I haven't yet seen the show, I've read some of the chatter, and my hunch is the series writers have taken Dexter's material and run with it in a very different direction than he ever considered (Hill certainly did). It's interesting that one book could inspire two very divergent creative visions. Hill meditates on the dark difficulties a man inherits when he becomes mythical, and throws in a little father/son Freudery. The HBO series seems to explore much broader terrain: the economics of human congress.

It's also remarkable that Dexter's book inspires anything at all, because it's nearly inspired me to put it down. I was given warning in the early pages that there was likely to be trouble: a secondary tier of characters revels in a grimy bit of cruelty. I thought, "Fine. The western frontier could bring out some shoddy behavior, it's true." 100 pages later, the same hapless dolt is subjected to another round, by the same villain, in a scene of brutality I really didn't need to read. If Dexter's principals were a shade less compelling, the book would now be sitting in my box of trade-ins.

What is it about the western that inspires contemporary writers to pull out the stops and wallop the reader? The master of this approach is Cormac McCarthy, who can't seem to stitch together the tiniest bit of subplot without embroidering it with blood and guts. I cut McCarthy a mile of slack, though, because his grotesque prose is such a treat. He wants to be the Peckinpah of the page, bellowing drunken stanzas, demanding for God to account. And like old Sam, he's developed a style that delivers.

Still, McCarthy's instincts are curious. If you were to read, say, Louis L'Amour, then jump to Cormac McCarthy, you might almost think McCarthy is being "corrective," except he's obviously not. He's being over-corrective. Draw a line of scale, and put LL at the one end, and MM on the other, because these are the two extremes in the western. And Pete Dexter, though he wobbles a bit, clearly wants to move his chair closer to McCarthy.

Most writers do, even a best-seller like Larry McMurtry. McMurtry claimed surprise when his Lonesome Dove characters were enlisted against his wishes to do a weekly TV show, after the novel had been (successfully) adapted as a mini-series. He said his novel was trying to remove the shine from the myth, not supply the next "Gunsmoke", but then he went on to pen a few more Lonesome Dove books. The man doth protest. Even if he'd left Gus and Call alone, his claim was inherently spurious. No writer takes on the western to de-mythologize; they do it because, in their heart of hearts, they worry that writing is for wusses, and hope a little of the western's mythological fairy-dust will rub off on them. If you doubt this, go ahead and name the first woman western novelist that comes to mind.

If anything, the impulse is to re-mythologize. Even with his fetish for gruesomeness, Dexter isn't challenging any of the western's traditional elements - he's relying on them. Dexter's shock-value seems intended to provoke two reactions from the reader: 1) horror at the terrible fate of this secondary character; 2) a thirst for vengeance, emphasizing the cool, heroic necessity of drunken killers like Wild Bill Hickock. Despite my distaste at this narrative overindulgence, it's a line of reasoning that's drawn me in. Dexter can sit back, arms crossed with satisfaction and declare, "See? The boat still floats!" Sure, Pete, I'm still reading - for now.

Still, the testosterone is just a little too rich, and I wonder if the HBO series isn't a success because its writers have adroitly recognized just that. If I read the critics rightly, they seem to think it's Little House On The Prairie, with balls. And that sounds like a concept I could get into.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Stephen Frye's Bright Young Things

Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies happens to be my favorite from his ouevre, so I was prepared to dislike Stephen Frye's film adaptation, Bright Young Things. I eyed it on the shelves of our small-town video store. The owner had clearly made an unusual gamble, but that didn't mean I had to. Ebert, or Roeper, gave it a thumbs-up, but not both, which can be a troubling sign for the video consumer. I dithered, then passed over it for Garden State, or Vera Drake.

My friend Scott finally tipped the scales for me, recommending it and calling it "pretty". My wife and I watched it last night, and since neither of us fell asleep, I can confidently give this DVD our "two thumbs-up". It is very pretty, and Frye is resolved to stay true to the book - to a point. Anyone brave (or foolish) enough to wrestle Waugh to the silver screen quickly encounters a terrible difficulty: the most compelling character in any of Waugh's novels is Waugh's authorial voice. The principals in VB are lamentably named, and demonstrate either an affable cluelessness, or a determined cruelty, or some combination of the two. They are duly manipulated by an omniscient narrator whose loathing for his characters isn't quite on par with his loathing for himself. "Vile bodies" is a sentiment never voiced in the book; it occurs in parentheses, presumably in Adam Symes' weary, hungover brain. But after witnessing one seemingly inconsequential suicide, and determining the set course toward an obvious "dramatic" demise, the reader can be forgiven for presuming the sentiment belongs to the author.

It is a rare director that can persuade his actors to invest in a dyspeptic comedy. It's even rarer for such a film to turn a profit. Frye isn't stupid, so it is interesting, then, to watch him roll up his sleeves during the film's last 20 minutes, and make the effort to turn in a happy ending. It sort of works, if you aren't married to the book. And if you are, you'll still enjoy the delirious and destructive machinery of indulgence you know, in your heart of hearts, will inevitably lead to Adam Symes' complete impoverishment.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Convergence of the Hippie & the Redneck

The long-hairs in the small town of my childhood were often indeed alarming - particularly the young men. And it wasn't because they threatened the status-quo with a "Peace & Love, Everything Is Groovy" mindset; they threatened it with psychotic, self-gratifying thuggery. In my youngest years, my impression of hippies was closely aligned to their portrait in the original "Dirty Harry" movie, a concept that took years to mature into something a tad more forgiving.

I've spent a great deal of time mulling over this generation that preceeded me, and had forgotten just what frightening spectres they once were. It all came back to me when I read this Reason piece by editor Jesse Walker, about the merging of the Hippie and the Redneck. In our town it wasn't at all uncommon for young male "backsliders" from the Mennonite faith to be violent drunkards, with a fondness for wacky-tabacky. What was new was the hair. Freaky, man.

Link from ALD.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Another Reason Not To Subscribe To The Atlantic...

... aside from its habit of being woefully late in its in-depth analysis of American foreign policy. The Atlantic has announced it will be dropping its monthly fiction feature in favor of an annual "fiction issue". On the face of it, I'd say this is actually a laudable strategy, but the NYT says that while the fiction ish will be for sale on newsstands each August, "Subscribers to the magazine will have access to its contents online but apparently will not receive a printed copy."

Whaaa...?!

I'm addicted to on-line reading, but I am adamant about one exception: I will not read fiction unless it is on the printed page. There are two modes of reading, speed reading and submersive reading: I would submit the majority of people who still read fiction do it to submerge. And while submersion might be possible with a computer monitor, it is difficult and, frankly, not recommended. It's murder on your posture. You crane your neck forward, squint, hunch, breathe differently ... not good. If a particular fictional piece is available only on-line, I will print it out and read it elsewhere. But if I were still an Atlantic subscriber, I would be very peeved at this bit of news.

Their choice of ficition is another matter of contention, but I've already squawked about that.

NYT link thanks to Bookninja.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Fraser Stone

Fraser Stone has updated its website. Steve Fraser, artiste and friend, has a unique eye as well as an unerring instinct for structural integrity. Prospective patrons in Southern Ontario, Michigan, or New York are well-advised to seek him out now, before he and his rates vault into the stratosphere.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Sin City — It's Miller Time

It's interesting to locate the critical dividing line on the recent Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez film, Sin City. The movie seems to elicit the same sadistic chuckles of approval or clucks of moral disappointment that The Good, The Bad And The Ugly did 30 years earlier. In the former libertarian camp we have Roger Ebert, whose critical mantra "It's not what a film is about, but how it goes about it" permits him to give Sin City precisely the same rave he gave The Passion Of The Christ. And among the latter blue-hairs in the back pews, we have Anthony Lane, whose sigh over Sin City's emotional and moral vacuity is but a weary echo of his outrage over Mel's Passion. Reading these guys, it sounds to me like the movie hews closely to the Frank Miller comics it's based on.

Having seen neither movie (yet), I'll go out on a limb and suggest that as film directors, Miller and Mel have quite a bit in common, beginning with a deleterious obsession with things Catholic. But where Mel is the ardent convert, an ultra-conservative late to the fold, wielding his aesthetic like a truncheon to brow-beat viewers into the Kingdom, Miller is the raving heretic, throwing open the windows of the sanitarium and coughing in the patients' faces — brow-beating viewers in the opposite direction. With precious few exceptions, Miller's comics depict Catholic priests as shrunken, dissipated connivers, and Catholic nuns as gargantuan, hate-driven viragos capable of inflicting terrible physical humiliation (somewhere in FM's childhood, the boy must have run afoul of Miss Clavel). In nearly all of Miller's work, but especially in the Sin City books, the heretic heroes pummel, blast and dismember a barrage of holy fathers and sisters — behavior seemingly made acceptable because his priests and nuns are presented as willing co-conspirators in an enormous, corrupt regime.



Catholic authority is but one of Miller's big obsessions: others include pneumatically enhanced women with cold, cold hearts, cynically manipulative conservatives, bleeding-heart liberals, a docile and easily-duped public, malicious flying imps (often in the form of automatons), drapey trench-coats and Chuck Taylor sneakers. Miller has become that uniquely American phenomenon: he turns a profit with his public self-indulgence. His worst material is like bad heavy metal, with its tedious excesses and a head-slapping lack of self-consciousness. Conversely, his best material is like good heavy metal: it knocks you on your ass.

Some 20 years ago, when Miller still had an editor to answer to, he delivered the work he will be best known for: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Dark Knight is tightly scripted, meticulously penciled and inked, has worthy literary pretensions, and is single-handedly responsible for the current deluge of comic books on the big screen. Corruption at the highest level, moral dis-ease, the tension between anarchy and fascist totalitarianism and the desperate heave to transcend all these mortal conditions are played out with a giddy ferocity. In tone and physicality, Batman resembles Clint Eastwood's avenging angel of death, William Munny, during Unforgiven's final act.



Until the final act of Dark Knight, however, Batman more closely resembles Eastwood's The Man With No Name during his feebler hours. Batman was a bit too eager to come out of retirement, it seems. He takes a physical beating that would kill a dozen men; toward the end of the saga's early chapters, he limps about with mashed lips, missing teeth, while clutching broken ribs or an abdominal wound in his sagging costume. The man has lessons to learn before the demi-urge within can tower over the bad guys (including a gormless Superman), and the chief lesson seems to be: if the world is unimaginably corrupt, your methods of subversion have to be unimaginably extreme.

The Dark Knight Returns was an incredible success, and vaulted Miller into rock star status. I dabbled in comics before Frank Miller; once I recognized him, I turned the corner and became a collector. I dug the way his figures swept out into open space — often the white space between panels — with an ethereal grace, or the way they'd bunch up like a clenched fist, ready to explode. His heroes were never merely challenged or tried: they were fed into the crucible, feet first. Torment, humiliation, agony, resurrection and violent triumph — the movies weren't delivering this stuff, not as deliciously as Miller was.

(Digression: Miller's kinetic aesthetic has proven extremely difficult to translate cinematically, because his movement either defies or exaggerates gravity. He borrows heavily from the Shangri-La films, but uses drape-like clothing to add to the drama of the printed page in a way that, until the advent of digital film-making, was impossible to capture. Think of the trench-coated Neo, dodging bullets in the Matrix. Or think of Mr. Incredible purposely leaping off a cliff and falling for half-a-mile before catching a palm tree that flings him gymnastically to the next level. Prior to this we had Rambo, impaling himself on a towering evergreen.)

As good as The Dark Knight Returns was, it was only the launching pad for his best, most controversial project — Elektra: Assassin. Miller took the unusual step of teaming up with artist Bill Sienkewicsz, a man whose conceptual approach was hallucinatory, borderless and garishly, oppressively colored. Collaborating board by board with Sienkewicsz, Miller cooked up a story that played like a Road Runner cartoon envisioned by Hieronymous Bosch. As with Road Runner, Elektra is the ostensible hero of the series, but she is something of a cipher, and the villain chasing her becomes the story's true moral center — which poses a serious problem. Garrett is a government operative, a certified psychopath employed only because he's been physically tinkered with: several limbs are artificial, giving him powers he is incapable of dealing with responsibly.

He chases after Elektra, brandishing bombs and guns and lethal Rube Goldberg devices, all of which boomerang on him. With every foiled plot, he loses more of his genuine self, until the only thing that isn't artificial is a portion of his head. With this compromised instrument, he is able to reach two crucial realizations: he has fallen hopelessly in love with his nemesis, a woman whose cruel streak exceeds his own by a grotesque margin; and she herself is chasing after bigger fish — in this case the Antichrist, a charismatic demon-possessed Democrat set to unleash nuclear annihilation once he gets into office.

If my summary sounds comic, the true effect of the book has to be experienced to be believed. At the time (Reagan's second term in office), it did a good job of rattling my cage, and a bunch of other people's, too. It fueled several loud calls for censorship, which Miller's publishers promptly used in their promotional materials. I suppose you could say Miller excelled at the "how" of what his material was about. Guess who's narrating here (Hint: it's not the guy holding the head):



And what was it about? Same old same old. The world is a scary place; the political and religious powers that be are corrupt beyond imagining and wildly out of control, tainting the well-intentioned when they aren't abusing them outright; and only extreme subversion can possibly curb their grim direction — momentarily. Elektra: Assassin is a tour de force that should not be read at too tender an age, or before going to sleep.

Following Elektra: Assassin, Frank Miller's Sin City books seem almost like an afterthought. By now his characters go through the paces. Everything has the Frank Miller look, which never gets boring, but it decorates the trademark Frank Miller plot we've come to expect. It amounts to maladjusted behavior in a shiny package, which at least has the courage of its thin convictions. Miller knows you didn't buy Sin City, or pay admission to see a movie like The Patriot, because you want to see a man find his soul: you spent the money to see some fucked-up shit, and he delivers. If it doesn't scare you the way Elektra: Assassin did, it's because Miller no longer needs to put everything on the line to get your money. Sin City is the equivalent of the last 12 albums by the Rolling Stones, or the last seven by AC/DC: the eleven herbs and spices are all there, but the nutritional foundation has been processed into near non-existence. It's junk-food for the soul — a little of it shouldn't hurt you, but you're arguably better off without it.

If that last declaration places me amongst the blue-hairs, so be it. Hey, I like junk-food, too, but I'm at the age where I have to limit my intake. And let's be honest: that age is any age. Youthful readers who wish to quibble should try this little exercise: hold your own Robert Rodriguez film festival, starting with El Mariachi, Desperado, the three Spy Kids movies, and concluding with Sin City. When it's over, step outside and take a long, deep breath. Look around you, or talk to your neighbor for a few minutes. Then return to your darkened TV set, and see if you don't feel — just a little — like Morgan Spurlock after eating a month's worth of McDonald's.