Sunday, 24 February 2008

Journal #5: Retro-writing Origins in Light of Shklovsky

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras
Journal #5
Retro-Writing Origins in Light of Shklovsky
[Comment: Plot spoilers of Wicked, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Casino Royale follow.]
Some characters have reached legendary--perhaps even conventional--status in the modern public consciousness: Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, the Wicked Witch of the West, James Bond. There are others that are perhaps older and more lasting, such as Robin Hood, Frankenstein, Dracula, and their kin. However, I select these five for very specific reasons: within the last half-decade, movies or books have been released that detail the origins of these iconic figures. George Lucas released the prequel trilogy to Star Wars to explain the origin of Darth Vader and to remind people that Darth Vader is a tragic villian and not a stand-in for Evil. Batman Begins details the development of the Dark Knight to rejuvenate (and thus rewrite) the franchise. Wicked, by Gregory MacGuire, chronicles the life of the Wicked Witch of the West--from different points of view. Casino Royale introduces a new Bond actor and simultaneously introduces a new Bond, this one with a history. I have not seen the new Superman, but I suspect it's similar.
To me, the real treasure of these is not just the new perspective gained, though this is certainly an important part. The best part is to see the iconic elements that make up these characters slowly emerge. The end of The Attack of the Clones gives us the loss of Anakin's hand and the beginnings of his cyborg identity, which culminates in his finally donning the mask at the end. Vader's transformation is rushed, but in Wicked the elements slowly drop into place--first the crystal ball, then the slippers, then the hat and broom, then the castle, then the monkeys. Similarly, Casino Royale only gradually introduces these elements: the 007 status, the Aston Martin, the tuxedo, the martini, the distrust of everyone, the famous introduction, and the theme music.
This only works, of course, because the audience already recognizes these iconic elements and anticipates their arrival. As in Aristotle's tragedy, the audience knows how it's going to end; the enjoyment comes from seeing the process. The re- or retro-writing of origins alters our understanding of the character and thus surprises us. But it also works in an opposite way; the gradual introduction of the props and characteristics we recognize is a re-assertion of the familiar; at first, we are slightly uncomfortable with the knowledge that the character before us is so different than the character we know him (or her in the case of the Witch) to be. Thus I was slightly uncomfortable with Casino Royale because the look and feel of the film is so entirely different: Bond was sentimental, committed to Vesper, and not a super-spy at all. In the last scene, though, all of the required elements return--the suit, the callousness, the introduction, and the them music--to satisfy me that, yes, this is a Bond movie. Thus while Shklovsky[1] is correct that art defamiliarizes, it also satisfies when it confirms, and it is most effective when it combines these two techniques.
1] This does seem like name-dropping, I know. Shklovsky is a thinker we frequently discussed in class, so I felt it was fine in this assignment to drop him in without preamble. Shklovsky was of the Russian formalist school of literary criticism, and he suggests that literature defamiliarizes the reader; by presenting the reader with a new and shocking perspective on a familiar object or institution, Shklovsky argues that literature changes our understanding of the world and "pricks" our consciences.

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