Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Friday, November 25, 2011

Men Who Are Frozen: FOREVER YOUNG, CAPTAIN AMERICA, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Top to Bottom: Forever Young; Captain America; Matter of Life and Death
Is FOREVER YOUNG (1992, top) in its blessed ignorance of the 9/11 to come, a sequel out-of-time to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)? Taken together they form a Moebius strip: AMERICA begins with a psychedelic steampunk abstract version of WW2--replete with octopus swastikas--and ends with a de-thawing in 2011;  FOREVER YOUNG begins in 1939 and ends in the then-current moment, now our own past: 1992. Both film's stars death defy (Mel Gibson in YOUNG is a test pilot, Captain America is a commando) and both are deeply frozen in their (and our nation's) prime. One is motivated by grief, one by game self-sacrifice, but either way a part of what's best in the American mythic male is flash-frozen with them.


In this way there's also an echoes in both of Powell and Pressburger's A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946). Bombardier David Niven isn't deep-frozen in that one, but he does hang suspended between life and death in a frozen ice court/operating room after he has to jump from his burning plane without a parachute. Moments before he jumps he falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator with Bomber Command, trying to guide him in through the fog. Their chemistry in their scene is terrific -- they aren't really in the same scene at all, or even the same altitude, but they convincingly fall in love just the same. She loves his poetry-even-in-the-face-of-certain-death gallant sweetness (he dictates a cable to his mother to her) and when he asks if she's in love she notes "I could love a man like you, David." tears in her eyes "I love you, June. Your life and I'm leaving you." - And just like 'that' - they're in love - They're both in love with a voice, and with the pregnant mythos of the moment, a flame they agree has struck in this vast opaque fog-enshrouded darkness. In wartime there is no room for waffling and being coy. When love strikes, the victims don't wait to give it their whole selves but grab on tight in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity.

After surviving he washes up right on the beach where June is cycling home - no coincidence, as anyone who's been in love and found fate thrusting themselves together over and over has experienced. They recognize each other without even needing to hear each other's voice. Is it a dream? We soon learn he was not supposed to survive. His psychopomp lost him in the fog. The thought of having to die a second time and not be with June is too much for Niven to bear, though his the heavenly soul-bearer consoles him he may get to meet her again... when she's 97 and comes up to the heaven at least. If he had managed to get a different operator at BC, he might not mind dying at all. But 97... she won't even be the same person.

So the age thing comes up again. Men are forever young, but the women age, and you come to heaven looking the same age as when you died, so growing old on Earth isn't always the smartest course if you're vain. So the man puts himself into a nice mylar bag with a non-acidic tape on the flap, to stay in a crisp NM condition. In keeping himself on ice he avoids the long-term wear and tear that erases the youthful bloom from the woman. And what happened to the lady Captain America (Chris Evans) left behind in the 1940s, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)? I appreciate her hot Brit sass but unless I missed something in the credits, by the time 2011 rolls around, she's presumably wicked old, or dead.

In1992, meanwhile, Mel Gibson lives the geriatric-romantic fantasia. He races against time to find his old bitty. What was romantic in the early 90s becomes in 2011 not even worth asking about --a mere regret. Captain A. notes to Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (though Fury too, presumably was frozen since he fought WW2 as Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos), "I had a date." According to the Comicvine, Peggy Carter is "residing at the Larkmoore Clinic due to old age and possibly Alzheimer's disease."

You think Mel would have let that stop him?


Luckily for Mel's lovelorn pilot he starts to rapidly age soon after he's thawed from his (co-invented with George Wendt) cryogenic prototype. Thawing him, by accident, is a plucky young boy (Elijah Wood) who helps Mel reach his eighties right as he reunites with his lost love, who just happens to have a landing strip-sized front lawn. For Captain America, however, there can be no such strip and no such Wood. Seventy years is just too damned long to pick up the pieces. The next time a WW2 'greatest generation' member awakens from the ice, there will be so much distance between his waking date and WW2 that his lover will be long since turned to dust. And so it is on this past Thanksgiving I celebrated via CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER a country built on the urge to escape... from religious oppression, from time, from the ice (or into it) and, most importantly, from girls our own age.


But as Americans, we don't stop there. Even in our new safely-escaped-to haven we know that to be free and safe and cozy we must go deeper still, up the tinsel-and-celluloid palm trees, into the pulp novel of the cocoanuts and comics, into 3-D and Cinemascope, ever searching for a new excuse to get out of the house over the holidays, to escape from prying parents, screeching spouses, needy, nagging children, loud neighbors, lack of air conditioning. The theater is where we escape on those horrid summer days when our AC gives out. Is it not so? Freezing ourselves, as Americans, in film, becomes the new sky-diving, the new crack, the new Coke, good as a quart of bourbon and a W.C. Fields tape. You just drink and watch until Fields' double vision quadruples, and when you wake up technology and changing tastes and inflation have altered the landscape so drastically you may as well be on Mars.... hangover averted.


In all three of these 'frozen man' films it's hard to scrape together even one worthy bad guy to compet with the real enemy: time. Hugo Weaving's Red Skull works towards RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets WILD WILD WEST/JONAH HEX-style world archeological domination as best he can, but since he kills his own Nazi overseers how bad can he really be? He's more into world domination than genocide, so is he any worse than, say, Stalin?

Captain America of course can't understand that kind of high-end politics. His very name and uniform color was always a throw-back to the dawn of comic books, the 1940s, when nearly every superhero tangled regularly with the Axis, including: Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, Captain Blackhawk, and so forth, and the colors of their uniforms needed to be bright and distinct from the backgrounds for the crude newsprint color printing process. In order to preserve his generic 'every man superhero' quality for modern times-so he can magically do battle alongside the Avengers--without making him seem hopelessly square (ala DC, rather than hipster Marvel), he needs a reason he didn't lose his integrity, the apple pie gleam. But it's a cop-out. He froze because he couldn't develop a sophisticated approach to relationships, political and personal. He was still working up the nerve to hit on Peggy before a chance to sacrifice himself bravely came along and let him off the hook. "Phew!"


And seriously, does anyone really love Captain America? No. He seems like he was created by some drab civics committee to deflect flak about juvenile delinquency. Comic book fans in the 1980s loved, as I did, the Fantastic Four when drawn by Kirby or John Byrne. We loved the X-Men as written by Chris Clarendon. We loved Frank Miller's stint with Daredevil, but Captain America (I presume since I never read him, even though I had a complete run of The Invaders) could never get too dark. He stood for something, and thus seemed wooden, like a support rod for a tomato plant.

And some might say that--in the modern light of things--the baroque steampunk version of WW2 is, in vaguely disrespectful, 'too soon'. In the 1940s comics it was okay to give Nazis gigantic death rays, but it seems now to diminish the true heroism of the men and women who fought and/or died in that war-zzzzzz. And when I see villains wasting time staring at glowing green or blue power sources I begin to think of Red Sonja (1985). Man, I knew that comic fairly well, too, and I really wanted that movie to be good. But it wasn't. Each bad scene and haircut (they gave her a mullet for god's sake) stretched time to tedium where freezing oneself to get to the end credits faster seemed to be already happening, but in a botched version where we're conscious the whole time. Red Skull fares only moderately better in that regard. Red does not mean hot in these cases.


Like Captain America, Red Sonja even as a comic character seemed exist solely to indulge some base instinct (patriotism as the last refuge of the sexually frustrated). Perhaps it is the mark of pure quality when the motivation for a character's creation isn't embarrassing in its committee-conscious contrivance.

On that note, a little background: In the summer, in the early 80s, as a sulky 13-16 year old, I used to put my feet up on both sides of the central air vent in the corner of my room, letting my crotch cool from the blasts of arctic frost while reading all the above comics in my bean bag chair, as well as all the DC war titles like The Unknown Soldier, Sgt. Rock, All-Out War, Weird War Tales, and Enemy Ace. What I mean is, I never had time to have a child thanks to permafrost sterility. And all my old real life crushes and lost loves now since aged into dreadful moms and withered forty year-olds. It's enough to make me wear a beard, and a mask of a younger man to cover my too-late completely blushless mummy skin. If I freeze myself until their grandchildren are over 38 is it skeevy to hit on them when I am woken? These are no longer just the concerns of 140 year-old hunk vampires, but of cryogenic America, a country built on the freedom to defy authority, natural aging processes, time, space, heat, humidity, and the lessons of history. 

Freeze me, then, Big Red Sonja Skull, so I can miss Christmas and airport anxiety and just magically get to the time when that AVENGERS movie is finally released... as an eye drop of digitally encoded biotechnology that lets me dream it in 4-D. Freeze me, December, and let me remember a time when I, too, felt human... and 22.

When I was 22, I had a very good year.

Prepare the blue ray and let's pull this spinning plastic disc planet to a stop. But.... wait...
Lois Lane crawls through the bushes,
looking for her Indiana Jones blue pill, but
there is no blue pill. That's what no one told Neo.
The blue pill was a sugar placebo.
There never was a choice of not burning in blushing bushes of idiot reject hell.
Every decade spent hiding in the cold, reading comics while we slowly froze our sperm just postponed our spasmodic initiation,
and now, alas,, the girl we finally worked up the nerve to ask to the prom is too old to dance,
and long since crumbled to dust, or worse, become your mom.

Xmas is coming, son, the least you could do is hit pause.

6 comments:

  1. Just to bring you up to date, a recent issue of Captain America -- it came out about the same time as the movie -- opens with Peggy Carter's funeral. And as you may know from your research, Cap's currently dating Peggy's niece Sharon, who's been on-again, off-again with him since he thawed out. I offer this comics geekery as a public service.

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Wilson, for this update, as it provides me with needed closure, and an answer to my question about skeevishness. Captain America is to Humbert Humbert as Edward Cullen is to Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon,

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  3. As re: Captain America comics, the character was invented by Kirby and Simon and when it came time for his Silver Age revamp, it was Kirby again. The King is bar-none A-#1 visionary of mainstream superhero comics, even heads above psychedelics-and-ritual-magick superstars Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

    Anyhow, that theme of the nation's frozen heart/man out of time/eternal do-gooder spirit is overlaid onto Cap with his thaw-out in in '64, a surprise injection of naïve Golden Age heroism into More Complicated Times... and yet he's a seasoned battle veteran of WWII. Can even a jaded '60s teen think those brave fighting boys and their horrible war quaint? Maybe! Or maybe his '40s comics were, but Kirby needed something back that was being lost in the gleeful, crazy Silver Age. Like The Last Airbender (also frozen in an iceberg, he for 100 years!) or R2-D2 (mute witness to every decisive battle for generations), he's both a kid and an absurdly old soul. Does anyone love Captain America? Dunno, but in a way he's the Great Warrior Saint heart of the Marvel mythos. Unfrozen Steve Rogers becomes a rallying flag ideal for the effed-up superpopulace around him.

    There's an interesting (imagined?) thread running through FIRST AVENGER, then, about war hero vets as propaganda tools of the power elite: shoved down our throats and fawned over during war! Packed in ice and made legend of Our Lost Ideals during peacetime! Hauled back out and pressed into service when the next war rolls around! Maybe one doesn't love Cap so much as pity him.

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  4. Thanks for the updates Chris! You raise some interesting points about rallying and propaganda too. It's a terrible burden to be the walking talking equivalent of a bald eagle wrapped in an American flag. But then of course he becomes very limited in his actions. If he gets drunk and punches out a bunch of Arabs in an issue, for example, then in the morning realizes they were on our side and still refuses to apologize and just goes on a guilt trip bender, would that be art or treason?

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  5. I've had the dubious pleasure of watching Captain America twice. Overall I found it okay, just the usual modern heavy-handed comic book tale, filled with cgi and a juvenile storyline treated with the seriousness of a Proust adaptation.

    What I found the funniest is that we were presented with a 1943 in which no one smokes! Ah, how I love 21st Century PG-13 Hollywood revisionism! I mean, they recreate the '40s through cgi, they get the wardrobe vintage, but then in their haste to appease the PG-13/Mothers Against Everything market they blot out the fact that people smoked like chimneys back then.

    I kept flashing back to Casablanca, a film FROM 1943. That entire film is swathed in cigarette smoke.

    Not saying that Cap should've fired up a Lucky Srike before going into combat, but his buddies in the Army should have been toking away.

    Hell, even the friggin NAZIS didn't smoke in the film!!

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  6. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few more years they did a cigarette-free version of Casablanca, CGI-ing all the smoke and cigarettes out of the film, and replacing them with, say, pencils.

    I didn't notice the lack of smoking but you have to remember too that in the original comics from WW2, there wasn't too much smoking - it was a bad thing for the kiddies (imagine the Lone Ranger smoking!) and smoke was hard to color in their cheap early printing. So on the front that it's technically a kid's movie, the not smoking doesn't bother me (Sean Connery smokes but Roger Moore doesn't as Bond...at least as I recall... reflecting that change as well)

    I forget how old CA really is - I just assume he's a far back as the Sub Mariner and Human Torch in those first Marvel Comics - like that one that's the most valuable comic ever printed. Marvel #1.

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