Against Purity

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , , , ,

Purity is pretty good for water and I suspect metallurgy, but I’m starting to think that it’s a waste of time when it comes to everything else.

Kurt Busiek recently Twittered (not recently, this essay is from a while ago -ed.), in a conversation with Colleen Coover: A story that readers hate but is in continuity is more valued than a story they’d love that isn’t. On a related note, I got into an argument with a friend of mine that began with a discussion of Whit Anderson’s upcoming re-interpretation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and somehow segued into a discussion of Sherlock Holmes, and about the purity of interpretation.

All of which leads me to ask: what exactly does purity give us, as audiences of art? What is the purpose of getting my knickers in a twist because I think that Watson’s portrayal in the Basil Rathbone version of Sherlock Holmes isn’t directly out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books? What does my aggravation over Keanu Reeves in Constantine actually serve?

Ideas, it seems, are best served when they’re interbred. Sherlock Holmes is the second-most adapted character in literature (after Dracula) – and he’s not just adapted straight out of the books. He turns up in comics, in movies, as a secondary character in all manner of literature. Holmes purists insist that Jeremy Brett’s interpretation in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the one that is most true to the original texts – but there have been innumerable adaptations before and since. Is it possible to say that it is actually the failure of these other media to interpret Holmes perfectly that contributes to his longevity? I think that it’s actually the interbreeding of one idea with another that actually yields adaptation and re-adaptation, that actually advances the art form.

Suppose, for instance, that someone did make a really terrible adaptation of Sherlock Holmes – one that completely abjured the original character. Let’s say, ah, someone had Sherlock Holmes fall through a time portal at Reichenbach Falls and wake up in the year 2249, and then solve crimes with the help of a Watson who was actually some kind of robot alien, and Microft Holmes who is a woman with a laser blaster.

Well, who cares? This crazy future space Sherlock Holmes doesn’t undo the books. It doesn’t rewrite them, or erase Basil Rathbone’s or Jeremy Brett’s movies. It doesn’t even erase your idea of Sherlock Holmes: the imaginary, platonic ideal of Holmes that you keep in your head (and that maybe, sometimes even the stories don’t quite jive with), that’s just whatever you decide it is. No number of terrible interpretations of it is going to hurt it. And, moreover, while terrible ideas might not be a desirable outcome in and of themselves, the thing about ideas is that they breed. Even bad ones can, with a few generations of intercourse, can turn out good ones.

Let’s look at, say, the number one most adapted character in fiction: Dracula. Here’s a picture of what you probably think Dracula looks like:

Bela Lugosi, with his slicked back hair and his opera cape. It’s iconic, yeah — and also not at all how Bram Stoker described the character. Stoker’s Dracula looked like the historical Vlad Tepes, with his huge nose, his Sam Elliot moustache, and also included the addition of horrible rat-fangs on his front teeth.

Our own iconic understanding of Dracula already radically departs from its source material — but moreover, Bram Stoker himself departed drastically from his source material: certain ideas, like the part about vampires casting no reflection, were made up whole cloth, without folkloric precedent at all. And the idea, despite not being original, or true, or “pure”, was so interesting that we just decided to keep it, and stick it in wherever we thought it was interesting.

Comics have been doing this for years, obviously, which makes it so interesting that it’s comics fans who are so conservative about interpretations. I suppose it’s right to say that Grant Morrison has finally sold me on his It All Happened theory of Batman: Batman has been interpreted and reinterpreted again and again in his 80-year history, and it is this capacity for reinterpretation that is the source of the character’s longevity. It is a hallmark of a great character that it is actually bigger than its creator’s conception: we wouldn’t criticize a version of Batman or Superman because they don’t jive with Bob Kane’s or Seigel & Shuster’s original vision. I’m not even sure those original visions are ever brought up in discussion at all. And not only that, it’s given us a host of secondary adaptations that are valuable contributions to the cultural canon: there are, for instance, a lot of folks who deride homosexual readings of Batman and Superman stories; but it’s those readings that led directly to Warren Ellis’s Apollo and Midnighter, who have subsequently become worthwhile, independent characters in their own right.

All of this brings me back to my point about Kurt Busiek and his comic, and how the idea of “continuity” or of “real” Batman stories is just so completely absurd. “Continuity” is just an arbitrary editorial decision — some stories “count,” some don’t. But what do they count as? None of them are real, all the stories are fictional. Accepting DC’s editorial policy in terms of what stories constitute the “real” character of Batman is neither more nor less valid than just making up your own idea, and counting the stories that you like. DC’s editorial board didn’t invent Batman, and we don’t really care about the inventor’s opinions, anyway. And DC’s ownership of Batman is just a legal technicality; they own the reproduction rights—they don’t own the actual idea. The idea is, ultimately, bigger than any law governing its usage; it’s humanity’s idea, part of the cultural collective, and it’s that scale, and its “imperfect”, or say rather “variable” reflections in the individual minds of every reader or movie-goer, that give it its enduring quality.

This isn’t to say that all ideas are good, obviously. Saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer could and probably should be interpreted in ways beyond the scope of Joss Whedon’s original intention isn’t the same as predicting that Whit Anderson is going to do a great job (although she might; weird things happen in the world). And saying that Morrison’s idea of assuming that Silver Age Batman is actually the same person as spooky 90’s era Dark Knight Batman isn’t necessarily the same thing as everything that Kevin Smith did in Widening Gyre is implicitly good. The problem, for instance, with the famous “bladder spasm” issue I think really has less to do with the incident itself (which, okay, sure, plausible) and more to do with how painfully forced the story is that leads up to it.

If ideas do have intercourse with each other, then the idea of “purity” has got to have about the same value as purity does with regular intercourse — it speaks of inexperience and timidity, of a tendency towards the inbred. Let’s instead debauch our ideas, encourage them to have filthy, filthy relations with each other, in every way, with every partner, wherever they can. Let’s have them be depraved and dirty and above all robust; infinitely diverse, evolving constantly.

  1. Sam says:

    Until you got the Mycroft Holmes thing wrong (The female future cop was a Lestrade), I thought you were winding us up intentionally:

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    I’m glad I don’t like Kurt Busiek that much as a writer, because this is the second recent instance of him saying that just annoyed the hell out of me.

    (The other one was this:

  3. Perhaps the problem is a sort of “uncanny valley”.

    If you wander far away from the nebulous cloud of canon, you detach completely. At that point, you can one of two directions, I think: You break further away and create original characters and settings and give a “tip of the cap, guvner” to the originals in a few clever lines and plot elements, or, you can stay in this uncanny valley where the link to the original work is constantly, bleeding obvious, but key elements are so different as you leave you bewildered and annoyed.

    Your hypothetical time-warp Holmes, by breaking clear of the setting entirely but staying in continuity (generally) with the original, makes it through this uncanny valley.

    As a ludicrous example, suppose I created a depression-era Irish detective named “Prufrock Colmes”, with a protege’ named “Professor Batson”. I would either need to make it sufficiently original and surprising that you see the connection and think, “Hah, that’s clever, it’s an Irish Sherlock Holmes”. Or I make it so unoriginal and derivative, with a story right out of Doyle but which is otherwise well-executed, that you want to take me to court for trademark infringement.

    I felt that way about A&E’s Poirot series when my wife first introduced me to it. As I began to appreciate the differences — not to mention the crackling quality of the writing and performances — I realized it was more homage than rip-off. Poirot and Hastings borrow liberally from Holmes and Watson, but do not cling so close to the originals that one is constantly hammered over the head with the resemblance. But the way Christie has written them as a tribute is clear.

    Similarly, I could use the precise names, setting and style of dress of the original characters but turn Holmes into a part-time cage fighter and full-time womanizer, and Watson into a prancing version of Oliver Wilde that uses Watson’s original conversational constructions. Lestrade could be a former gangster who became a bobbie and then a detective by blackmailing a cabinet minister. He and Holmes patrol the underworld, shaking down enemy gangsters, and framing them for crimes with elaborately constructed ruses if they don’t pay up. Maybe it’s even a damn good story.

    See what I did there? We’re back in the uncanny valley, because I used the names and places that are familiar to you, but mixed them into a most unpalatable dish. You would wonder why I didn’t just write an original story with original characters, rather than pretend like my story was in the Holmes continuity and constantly remind you of the Holmes connection. It would be like serving cheddar and salsa on top of a crisp fried tortilla. It has some superficial similarities, it is delicious, but it tastes entirely different, and you’d wonder why I didn’t just give it a different name like “nacho” in the first place.

  4. I just realized I bunged the last paragraph:

    “It would be like serving cheddar and salsa on top of a crisp fried tortilla and calling it ‘pizza’. “

  5. braak says:

    Sam: check that entry a little more closely. Also, bear in mind that 2249 is in the twenty-third century, not the twenty-second.

  6. Sylocat says:

    I can’t help but point out that Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t take the franchise nearly seriously enough to make a “purity” dissection worthwhile anyway…

  7. braak says:

    A valid point, though grounds for a wholly different discussion: it’s rarely the authors who are the ones who are up in arms about this sort of thing. Bob Kane didn’t spend the sixties flipping his shit over Batman, so far as I know. (Maybe he did, though.)

    In any case, it doesn’t much matter; no one is less qualified than authors to comment on their own work.

  8. I was just thinking how confused my creative state must be. I entirely agree with this post, but yet my ideal goal would be that historical fiction films and TV shows be, well, non-fictional. Or at least as close to history as humanly possible, otherwise we have a world full of Pillars of Earth and Braveheart. Now are those films horrible? No, but they are escapist fantasy masquerading as history. The best ones serve the same purpose science fiction does: a parallel to re-examine contemporary reality. The mid-ground ones (Rome, Tombstone) inspire us to learn the history and evaluate the modern era on that basis. The worst ones (Braveheart) encourage us to ignore history and embrace mythology. Where does this lead? For one, a slavish devotion to “freedom” which somehow easily ties into American exceptionalism all with a highly entertaining waterfall of blood. Because brutal murder and warfare is entertaining.

    In reaction to that, I want to tell real historical stories. Not realism or realistic stories, but real ones. The actual story of the volunteer firefighters who died keeping London from burning during the Blitz (that is a film already, which starred the firefighters themselves–Fires Were Started or I Was A Fireman). Documentaries are far more informative, but rarely as emotionally substantial when dealing with those long since dead.

    Now, of course, that puts me on the dogmatic side of purity, with which, by default, I disagree. In my defense, historical fiction which leans into fantasy does tend to err on the side of sentimentality, which makes for a less compelling story, whereas those approaching historical fact will not have the best structure, but might just be the most powerful means to convey a story, or a time, a la Zodiac.

  9. braak says:

    I don’t think your creative state is confused, so much as I think we’re kind of conflating two different things here and talking about them as though they’re one: historical accuracy and realism. Or, maybe I shouldn’t use “realism,” because this isn’t a question of style, it’s a question of emotional honesty. Maybe Realness is a better word.

    See, I think the problem that you’re describing isn’t the fact that movies like Braveheart depart from historical accuracy, so much as they take advantage of that departure to tell morally simplistic, highly-mythologized, and ultimately weakend stories. It’s true that a strict adherence to historical fact would necessarily yield a more nuanced, “messier” story, in which motivations are unclear, Ultimate Good is never found, and there’s no one we can definitively peg as the Bad Guy. But it’s not true that a departure from historical accuracy necessarily means that we have to end up with a story that is purely escapist fantasy.

    I think that, ultimately, the quality of historicity (that is, a work of art’s resemblence to established history) is actually fairly superficial. Whether or not Braveheart or Pillars of the Earth are problematic because of how they “masquerade” as history is a different question. Obviously, if everyone realize that the appearance of historical fact is a superficial characteristic, and that “realism” is just a style, as easily adopted by lies as by anything else, then there’s not really any danger here. I think that’s part of the reason why it’s so important to recognize fantasy as simultaneously “Real” and as distinct from the “real world.”

    This ultimately gets us into the question as to how responsible an artist has to be with regards to how people will interpret his work. If I know The Life of John Henry makes no pretension towards historical fact, but I know that my audience might not necessarily realize that, how big a disclaimer do I need to give them?

  10. […] the opening lines of Chris Braak’s “Against Purity,” I felt pretty certain I knew where the piece was headed. If the tags “Batman” and […]

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