Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Name Isss Vermin. (The Princess Bride)

“As soon as you’ve taken off the mask, all that remains is who you were originally. At least, we hope so. One can never be completely sure…”
-H.P. Lovecraft
The Dread Pirate Roberts (right) and The Princess Bride (left).
In many ways, The Princess Bride has haunted me since my childhood. It was always there in the background, waiting to be watched, but I never watched it. Oh sure, I had ample opportunity to watch the film, several long bus rides included someone bringing a copy for the kids to watch while the grownups were doing other things. But for whatever reason, I’d always fall asleep either shortly before it started or someway into the opening. The only bits I’d actually watch of the film were the third act (starting roughly around the point where Billy Crystal shows up) as well as a few assorted clips on YouTube.

Now that I’ve finally watched the film in its entirety, I can see what I’ve been missing. I should start with the thematically relevant parts before the film’s charms overwhelm me. For starters, at its core, The Princess Bride is a love story. This should be obvious what with the title invoking romance and what not, but the way the film goes about the romance is a bit off. Most films that tell stories of romance (even the ones with swords and magical creatures) have the relationship bloom over the course of the film.

The Princess Bride opts to not do that and instead have the falling in love happen over the course of a montage that can be summed up as “Buttercup orders Wesley around until she falls in love.” The quickness of this relationship and lack of set up beyond “man, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are hot” would ordinarily be resolved by having them share romantic dialogue over the course of their adventure, but instead most of its bickering and “OH GOD, RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE DO EXIST!” Sure, they declare their love for one another, and they do have chemistry with one another, but the way they act around each other seems as if they’re playing the parts of being in a committed relationship

Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. Even if you cut out the framing narrative of the story being read to the young boy, there’s a knowing artifice to the actions being shown on screen. The sets are a bit wobbly, despite the extremely well polished production design, the music is diegeticly extradiegetic (in that it only exists as part of the story and not in the “real” world), and the actors act extremely arch compared to other performances they have given. Not quite chewing the scenery (though Wallace Shawn does do that quite a bit), but rather they play into their archetypes. They’re quite aware that the story is a bit camp and flimsy.

So how does this tie into the relationship between Buttercup and Wesley? Well, their relationship is not so much out of love than it is longing. For large portions of the story one thinks the other is dead or their love must be sacrificed for the greater good. They have this ideal version of the other that is somewhat off of reality. We all have this of people we know, how we see them outside their heads. But we never get a sense of their interiority. It’s all from the distance of a young boy who doesn’t really care about the kissing bits and just wants to get to the swordplay already. It’s not so much that their true love is false, but that their true love is fictional.

I should probably bring up the original book at this time, as it does quite a bit to analyze the text of The Princess Bride. The frame of that story, rather than of a young boy being told a fairy tale by his grandfather while sick in bed, is about that same boy, now all grown up, looking back at that story from the perspective of an adult. It could be argued that there’s some similarity between my project and the original book. Certainly the actual comic I’m supposed to be talking about isn’t from my childhood, but Spider-Man was a major factor in it.

In many ways, Spider-Man was my gateway into comics. (Sure, I thought the films they made with him were fine, but I had an attachment to the character. I’m not entirely sure as to why Spider-Man as opposed to Batman or Superman, but whenever I was asked who my favorite superhero was, I’d always default to Spider-Man.) When I was in middle school, I would always go to the local library to hang out while my brother was at Karate. My parents probably just wanted an excuse to get me out of the house. When I was old enough, I would go to the Teen Section and pluck out a comic from the shelves. Sometime it’d be a Batman one or the X-Men, but the one that always caught my eye was this Spider-Man one.

It was a hardcover volume with a purple spine. It had this weird monster on the cover, this hulking black Spider-Man with his tongue sticking out like a tentacle. It was from a line called Ultimate Spider-Man, and it was called Venom. When I first read the story, I mostly skimmed the dialogue. I got the gist of what was happening, but I was really there for the fight scenes. But the images in the comic were so evocative: Peter’s dreamscape of murdering Uncle Ben, Venom electrocuting on the football field, that dark suit that seemed to be a never ending void.

I would reread the comic again and again, this time actually reading the story and finding it quite enjoyable for my mind. But more than that, I wanted to read more stories with Spider-Man and Venom. I would read the comics at random, based solely on where I saw them on the library shelf. Eventually, I got to this one story about Goblins that it took me a long time to realize was a huge influence on how I view Spider-Man. (But that’s for later.)

Eventually, I got around to looking up what people thought was the best Spider-Man story ever told. Indeed, CBR named it their number one Spidey story over the Ditko stuff that got me hooked in the first place. I’m of course talking about Kraven’s Last Hunt. (We still have a few more stops before we get there though, be we’re nearing that point.) The image that everyone would point to as the definitive image of the story was that of Peter crawling out of the grave. It would appear that he was only mostly dead.

This brings us back to The Princess Bride. In many ways, these works are cousins of one another. Both play the part of a different genre when, at their hearts, they’re love stories. Both feature a Rodent of Unsusual Size that tries to eat the main character. And they both ask us a very similar question: How Does One Become Only Mostly Dead? We could chalk it up to narrative conventions in the case of The Princess Bride. The hero outmaneuvers the villain’s dastardly schemes and, when all seems lost, overcomes all obstacles. But Spider-Man doesn’t have that luxury. He’s not the hero of Kraven’s Last Hunt. At most, he’s a deturagonist. Is there another way Wesley could be mostly dead, one that could apply to Peter?

Certainly. Consider Montoya’s reaction to Wesley’s final death screams, the sound of ultimate suffering: “My heart made that sound when Rugen slaughtered my father.” The effects of the machine that caused those screams and subsequently his (almost) death don’t so much suck the life out of Wesley literally as they induce a state of emotional terror. The sensation one feels when someone close to you has been lost forever externalized into something that’s killing you. For Wesley, it was the machine externalizing his sense of hopelessness over finding Buttercup then losing her all over again. For Buttercup, it was her nightmares induced by her guilt over sacrificing herself to save Wesley culminating in an attempted suicide. For Peter, it was Kraven acting out his desire to die for killing a defenseless woman who wanted to die. And for them, the pair was too much, and they died.

And yet, these people held onto something, some sliver of hope, something that would push them to stay alive through their death. True Love. Peter climbs his way out of screaming “Mary Jane,” Wesley tells Miracle Max that he holds on because of True Love, and Buttercup doesn’t go through with her Jullietian fate because she hears the whisper of her love. This isn’t so much a case that love conquers all, love is fleeting after all. Rather, it’s the firmament through which our characters are able to change themselves through their trauma.

And what do they become once they get out of their Pit of Despairs? Well, I should save Peter’s for when I get to Kraven’s Last Hunt itself, but for Buttercup and Wesley, well they get to be a couple. Might seem like an anticlimax for some, they just run off into the sunset and live their lives together. No great change in personality, they just fought for their happy ending. Well, yeah. Sure the book says that they could all die at the hands of Humperdink’s men. And even if they do survive, the relationship was a bit flimsy and based more on lust than love.

But then, the read the author gives isn’t the actual text. It’s an abridged version of the book based on a father’s telling to a young lad who doesn’t think highly of the importance of kissing bits. So naturally the details about the relationship are skewed to fit such a mindset. Details that would be skimmed over to not alienate such a lad who would much rather watch sports than do his homework. Bits like the relationship seeming to go by so quickly as to skip over the important beats. Sure, some of the bits like the Queen packing and unpacking her bags are best left cut out of an abridged version, but the little details left out that imply bigger ideas, the things that make a story truly work, tend to be mistaken by many as things that ought to be cut to get to the fight scenes.

…If I actually saw this as a kid, I think I probably would have liked it quite a bit. It certainly itches the postmodernist/metafictional spot in my brain that flourished in my early teens, that even now influences my writing. But this film feels like the film I should have seen as a kid at some point or another. It’s the step I missed along the way of growing up. The influence that I never saw, but always knew was there… but always felt its presence.

No one chooses to be haunted, I know that much. And our ghosts take shapes and forms at once alien and familiar. I chose this film purely because it was one that I missed as a kid. I didn’t expect it to fill the themes of the subject matter so well. For at the heart of the romance between Spider-Man and Mary Jane, there too lies a knowing artifice. They play roles in their lives of Bugs Bunny-esque Trickster playing the part of a Superhero and the Party Girl who doesn't care about anything save her own excess. But unlike Buttercup and Wesley, we do know their interiority.

The masks they wear hide confused somewhat miserable people. Not broken by the world per say, but damaged nonetheless. We call the damage realistic, believing that’s all there is to them. And yet, more than that is a desire to move past from the damage. Their first instincts may be to repress, sure. But ultimately they try heal from what has happened to them, and come out the other end better than they were.

Some might say conclude from this that the mask isn’t real, but as an internet friend of mine once said “All fictions are equally fictional.” We’re all stories in the end; best we can do is to be one that helps someone be a better person than they once were. Even if that person is just us. Besides, they’re terribly comfortable. I imagine everyone wears them in the future. It would be inconceivable otherwise.
I always feel afraid, just the same as you. But I wear this mask every single day. And it doesn’t take the fear away, but it makes it feel a bit better. I feel brave enough then to face the whole world and all the people. And now you will, too.
-David Bowie
(Next Time: I’ve Walked Behind The Sky!)

[Photo: Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach Wedding Panic! Directed by Katsuyoshi Yatabe Script by Hiroyuki Hoshiyama]

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