Or: “When Strikes…The Napoleon Of Three Septembers And A January!”
Let’s hope this one turns out pretty darn good.
You know, I rarely think about dream movie projects anymore. Somehow, in this era of great power and little responsibility I have come to dread them instead of yearn for them. Well, age and care will educate even the most committed ignoramus: so many things I yearned for have come true in the worst way, I’d have to be deaf and blind not to know that bringing a dream to life is often the easiest way to wreck it. When I was seventeen, I dreamed of a swing revival, of all things: suits and civility, and old-timey cocktails.
And we all saw how well that turned out, didn’t we?
So, no knock against any of the current comics-inspired movies and animated programs, many of which are of excellent quality, but outside the comics world: no, in general terms I don’t yearn to see someone make a movie of this or that beloved book. I feel lucky to have got the extended version of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship Of The Ring, absolutely. But I didn’t ask for it; long before it came out, I’d stopped asking for things like that.
Well, mostly, anyway.
Until the death of Nigel Hawthorne, there was still one beloved book that I yearned to see as a movie. Maybe that was because the whole theme of the book was about the successful bringing-to-life of dreams, I don’t know. Probably it was. Now that he’s dead, I can’t imagine wanting it any more: he would’ve been too perfect for it, and I can’t tolerate the idea of substituting for him, even just in my head.
The book? G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon Of Notting Hill…and the perfect role for Nigel: England’s jokester King, Auberon Quin.
You do not know how beautiful I would’ve made it. You really don’t. Terry Gilliam, step aside: it would’ve been glorious, and Nigel would have taken home bucketfuls of awards for it.
And that’s all done now. But still: the perfect, apocalyptic reflexion of a Chestertonian movie is something we might fruitfully meditate on. I once dreamed of movie versions of my favourite books, but that’s only because any movie is a dream, already: a slick, feverish reinscription of oneiric logic over the things of life, that makes them glisten in the half-light. The essential character of every movie is a premonitory one, if you stop to think about it: far more than even a stage play, a movie controls sight in such a way that it drags the viewer’s perspective through (as it were) a diamond. The crystal facets of space, the interior flaws of time: one is absorbed into them.
And then sweats their meanings out, soaking the sheets.
Hey, is this a good time to talk about how much I liked Ang Lee’s Hulk?
I guess not. Okay, onward then! To Chesterton, and his famous love of paradoxes. For him, absolutely nothing in the world was more natural than finding essences in their opposites; so naturally he didn’t see the dreams of fiction (of fantasy) supplanting reality, but instead saw “reality” as completely hollow and unprovable until anointed by the fictive element. By the imaginative element: before which, in the Chestertonian scheme, reality softens, quivers, and inevitably falls into new courses against its will. Through his typically bold (and well-argued) inversions, material facts and objects were made the true abstractions, the true ephemera, as the most nebulous intangibilities were proven the very source of solidity.
And it doesn’t matter what he was doing it for. What matters is that he arrived at all the conclusions of my old English professors about seventy years ahead in advance of their arguments being launched. Nothing can be real without also being true, but truth can exist independently of reality; in fact sometimes the most unreal thing is even the truest.
Some alchemy, eh? Everybody wondered what happened to it, after it disappeared from the test tubes and the boiling beakers. They never suspected it went into letters.
That’s where it went, though!
Where the powers of the Philosopher’s Stone are a much better fit, if you want my opinion. The Napoleon Of Notting Hill does indeed turn “lead” into “gold” — in fact that’s its whole objective, as fiction. As fiction that talks about reality, by talking about fiction…
Hmm, haven’t we heard that line somewhere before…?
Like, hasn’t Neil Gaiman made an entire career out of bellowing it from the rooftops?
God bless Neil, that’s just what he’s done, and he’s done it extraordinarily well. I think Chesterton would have heartily approved of the paradoxical shifts and softening viewpoints embedded in Sandman, and its revelations of how an underlying dream-logic supports reality’s structure. “This never happened,” cries Puck in amazement as he watches the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “but it is true!” Well, what else would a fictional character say, upon encountering a play about (as we commonly understand it now) the experience of going to the theatre? It’s actually a wonder his head doesn’t explode.
But importantly, Gaiman isn’t merely drawing on Chestertonian paradox and postmodern lit-crit in Sandman; he’s drawing on comics, too, and in comics the high priest of bringing dreams into reality (Winsor McKay’s midnight snacks notwithstanding) is Jack Kirby. And this is what I wanted to get at! Because construing Kirby as a descendant of Chesterton seems an impossibility at first glance, and yet the more you look at it the better sense it makes.
Only, with a twist: because unlike Chesterton and Gaiman, Kirby’s fantasies were not reflexion (as a movie of Napoleon or the story of Emperor Norton would be…boy, talk about your premonitions! It’d be like The Painting That Ate Paris!), but they were revision. They were retcon, if you like: because everywhere Kirby went, he sought to subvert the traditional signifiers and tropes of his genre in an effort to free them for other uses. Mythological uses, of course! Which is to say, psychological uses. Therapeutic uses, really, as this is how all fiction and fantasy operates. The landscape of Kirby’s imagination is of course positively littered with gods, but they are all (aha!) new gods, new generations of gods, more befitting the mythological/psychological/therapeutic needs of what Kirby believed was a terminally future-shocked new generation of readers. Which is to say: dreamers. Here is his revision in a nutshell: Ben Grimm for the Golem, Black Bolt for Christ, Captain Victory for Krishna, Galactus for Yahweh, Reed Richards for Apollo — Kirby re-envisions them all, re-dresses them in obscure and allusive clothing, and sends them off into the recesses of the human brain, the recesses of the mythological imagination, in the hopes of changing what dreams are. So, this might have been a world where Apollo and Krishna got shoved aside, where by now no one had ever heard of them; and is that so inconceivable? Back in the Sixties, as Kirby moved into full engagement with his mature storytelling concerns, the concept of counterculture paved the way for those concerns to be more happily taken inward by his readers — tune in, turn on, drop out…make new, was the order of the day. Turn dreams to reality, but first find new dreams that you would like to see, instead of the stagnant stuff that clogs up the ancient psychological gutters of the Establishment. Envision a new past, a new present, and then a new future: let the apocalypse — that means the revelation, Road Warrior fans — explode the tiredly formal continuity of boring daily meanings with a POP, and let it all be changed. Let it all always have been changed.
This is what Chesterton does, only without the sci-fi visual flourishes.
What Gaiman does, without the clever (so clever!) Catholic prosyletizing.
My argument: Kirby is the missing link — the tidal surge? — that connects them.
And out there somewhere, as yet beyond sight…the silver reaches of the estuary…
We can’t see it, but we can already smell it, I think.
But what do you think, Bloggers? Is it, as I claim, a Topic In Fantasy?