(Many thanks to David at GreenCine for the nod to my earlier reflections on questions of control and loss of control in the up-coming Sandler vehicle Click and other works. In the following discussion, I explore related questions of power, difference, and annhiliation in two current movies).
Released a fortnight after An Inconvenient Truth, David Guggenheim’s apocalyptic documentary about global warming and melting ice-caps, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion contains, at a crucial juncture, a joke about two penguins:
Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin says, you look like you're wearing a tuxedo. The second penguin says, what makes you think I'm not?
Garrison Keillor (playing a version of himself, “G.K.”) (re)tells this joke to a mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen), explaining that every person who hears the joke inevitably bursts into laughter. Madsen’s character listens with utmost seriousness, and replies that she is not a person, but an angel.
One of the funny things about jokes (as Stephen Colbert has vividly reminded us with his riotously unfunny speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner a month ago) is that they presume, reinforce, and sometimes challenge certain assumptions about the identities of communities and their implicit boundaries. This question of the relationship between community identity and a dialectics of recognition and alienation, in turn, is a central concern in two otherwise rather dissimilar recent movies: Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (both released in the past two weeks).
Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is an homage to Garrison Keillor’s legendary NPR radio show by the same name (to avoid confusion, throughout this discussion, the former will be marked will be marked with italics, and the latter with quotation marks)—and consists of a fictional last performance after the Fitzgerald Theatre (the radio show’s home) has been bought out by a group of investors intent on turning it into a parking lot (the investors are represented in the film by the ominously-named “Axeman” [Tommy Lee Jones]). Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (the final installment of the trilogy begun in 2000 under Bryan Singer, and based on the Marvel Comics series), meanwhile, similarly features a unique community of “mutants” faced with the prospect of annihilation by the invention of a “cure” which would correct their mutant “X gene” (this “cure” for mutancy is initially advertised as a voluntary treatment, but the X-Men correctly fear that it will be imposed on them against their will).
One of the distinctive aspects of the embattled communities in each of these films is that their members straddle an invisible boundary between a mundane and an imaginary/performative space. Most of the characters in PRC, for instance, have both real identities as well as the fictional personas which they assume on the “PRC” soundstage. Similarly, most of the principle X-Men are identified alternately by their “real” names (e.g., Jean Grey), and their “superpower” mutant name (e.g., “Dark Phoenix”). The “extinction” which both of these communities face, therefore, is not the literal death of its members (though both films do feature several prominent deaths of individual characters), but rather the systematic erasure of the mark of difference which distinguishes these communities from the larger, “normal” world they inhabit. After the “PHC” radio show is closed down, for instance, the performers would merely lose their jobs and have to reenter the “regular” work-force. Similarly, the threat posed by the new “cure” in The Last Stand is not that it would kill the X-Men outright, but rather that it would erase their distinctiveness and convert them back into ordinary Homo Sapiens.
Given these concerns with the nature and limits of community, it is significant that at the heart of both films lies a dialectical opposition between two paradigmatically liminal characters. In PHC, for instance, Virginia Madsen’s angel of death, Asphodel, symbolizing the impending death of the “PHC” radio show as a whole, is evocatively juxtaposed with the very pregnant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph)—who struggles ceaselessly to ensure that this (and every) performance goes off without a hitch. Both characters inhabit a crucially interstitial space within the drama, in the sense that each moves freely through both the embedded “PHC” sound-stage as well as the actual PHC film-set, only intermittently visible to the other characters. While Asphodel’s invisibility derives from her spectral identity as an angel of death, Molly’s is somewhat more ironic, in that her ostensible authority as stage manager is starkly contrasted by the impunity with which G.K. and the other performers cavalierly ignore her continual exhortations to get ready or lower their voices (she is repeatedly seen standing in the background, clipboard in hand, scowling silently at them in frustration).
In The Last Stand, meanwhile, a similar pairing of opposites can be found in the opposition between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Jimmy (Cameron Bright). Jean Grey, a character who appeared to die in the second X-Men film, here returns from the dead as the “Dark Phoenix,” possessing (and possessed by) unparalleled powers—powers so strong that, if unchecked, they have genuine apocalyptic potential. Phoenix’s near omnipotence, meanwhile, is precisely opposed to the strikingly effeminate Jimmy (known as “the Leech”), whose mutant power lies in its ability to negate the power of other mutants (why this unique power does not, at the same, negate his own power-negating power, however, is never explained). While Phoenix’s omnipotence poses a threat to civilization as we know it, Jimmy/Leech’s power (or, to be more precise, his powerlessness) potentially spells doom for the mutant community itself, since it is from the antibodies in his blood that the so-called “cure” has been derived).
All four of these characters are threatening not only on account of their actual powers, but more importantly because they each occupy a quintessentially liminal state—a state which, in Victor Turner’s words, lies “betwixt and between, a fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities.” Both Jean Grey and Asphodel, for instance, have literally returned from the dead, the young Jimmy seems almost sexless, and the very pregnant Molly symbolizes the literal possibility of new beginnings at the precise moment of the show’s symbolic “death.” (In addition, as Eileen points out, Molly is played by Maya Rudolph, who is known for her sexually and racially indeterminate roles on Saturday Night Live.)
The liminal status of these four pivotal characters—and the degree to which that very liminality parallels the symbolic or literal threat which they each pose to the communities they represent—reproduces in miniature the degree to which the liminal nature of the communities themselves represent a symbolic threat to the larger society within which they are positioned.
This symbolic threat is only implicit in PHC (but could perhaps be teased out of various remarks “Axeman” makes about the show as he is watching its final performance), but is manifestly evident in The Last Stand. For instance, the political furor in the film which follows the announcement of the development of a cure for mutancy obviously parallels contemporary debates over a “cure” for homosexuality. Indeed, as “Josef K.” argues at Different Maps, this queer reading can be extended to the film as a whole, insofar as the mutant identity
is clearly sexual - the symptoms of mutation begin at the onset of puberty, the issue is caused by a wild x-chromosome. Furthermore, this identity is clearly also queer sexual. In X-Men 3, one dramatic thread concerns the inability of the character Rogue - because of the special nature of her powers - to have a physical relationship with her boyfriend. Another telling scene occurs when Magneto (played by the gay actor and activist Ian McKellen) visits an underground Mutant community to recruit for the Brotherhood of Mutants. He delivers a short speech, and then is immediately confronted by three characters who then demand of him why he is not tattooed - the reference here is to the fact that solidarity in gender politics is often signaled by an outward, extrinsic sign/mode of dress that is able - because of its very contingency - to denote a queer identity while at the same time leaving open the question of what a queer identity exactly is.
Both mutants and queers are, under this reading, perceived as threatening because, among other reasons, they present hegemonic society with an uncanny reflection of itself—similar, yet at the same time disturbingly different.
A similar phenomenon of uncanny mirroring could be found when, early last year, a German zoo provoked considerable controversy among “gay groups worldwide” after its announcement that, in an attempt to get its endangered Humboldt penguins to reproduce, it would introduce four additional female penguins to try to break up the male-male pairings which had developed among the zoo’s male penguins (the German case is an ironic reprise of a similar incident in New York a few years earlier).
The German gay penguin controversy, furthermore, was just the beginning of a very eventful year for penguins. Luc Jaquet’s immensely popular (and critically acclaimed) documentary The March of the Penguins (2005) was followed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath’s box office smash, Madagascar (featuring a quartet of resourceful penguins making a zoo-break). One quality which both movies shared is that they, and Ken Korman observes, “each succeeded, on its own terms, by making animals seem human.” Indeed, as David Denby writes in The New Yorker, March of the Penguins “yields itself so readily to anthropomorphic readings that it’s hard to say where bird ends and man begins.”
This ironic pairing of a documentary about real penguins and an animated movie featuring computer-generated penguins, meanwhile, was replayed again at the end of the year. Following the release of The March of the Penguins on DVD last November, the media reported two separate cases of stolen baby penguins. On December 17th, a rare baby jackass penguin was stolen from a zoo on the Isle of Wight, apparently a copy-cat kidnapping inspired by reports of a similar theft from the New England Aquarium the previous month. The twist, however, is that the earlier theft ostensibly being copied was actually a hoax.
Just as the anthropomorphic penguin in G.K.’s joke, in PRC, may or may not have been wearing a tuxedo, similarly this pair of stolen penguins (ironically mirroring each other, not to mention the March of the Penguins documentary) suggestively straddle the divide between reality and fantasy. The literal theft (whether actual or imaginary) of the infant penguins, in turn, evocatively parallels the degree to which the penguins’ image has been imaginatively appropriated within popular culture (e.g., the imaginative appropriation which leads us, for instance, to see live penguins as if they were wearing a tuxedo or, as one suggestive review of The March of the Penguins posited, to see actual penguins as if they were computer animations). This act of appropriating natural images for human (cultural) consumption (and not just any natural images—the jackass, Humboldt and emperor penguins are all on the verge of extinction) evocatively reproduces the central gesture of consumptive extermination at the heart of both PRC and The Last Stand (i.e., the capitalistic conversion of the Fitzgerald Theatre into a soundstage, or the use of a mutant’s own antibodies to erase the distinctiveness of the mutant community as a whole).