Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Murder Your Wife

seen on TV @ TCM

Wow, where to begin with this one?

Let's start with the simple stuff. Folks, most people who choose to become a professional cartoonist do it for love, not money. It is not a career that puts its practitioners on Easy Street, and never has been, at least not without ancillary merchandise. There's a scene in How to Murder Your Wife where Jack Lemmon's character Stanley (Stan Lee?) talks to either his editor or his lawyer (I forget which) about merchandising, but this is long after the movie has established him  - from the opening scene, no less! - as a jet-setting celebrity with a Manhattan town house, fancy clothes, and a friggin' butler. All of that was the result of his work on the strip alone? Are you kidding me?

The hell of it is, Stanley didn't even need to be ridiculously wealthy for this story to work. Charles (as in Schulz?), the butler, could've easily been a next-door neighbor, or a brother. Stanley could still be a successful cartoonist while living in a comfortable apartment or even a small house in the suburbs and it wouldn't affect the story's premise. To suggest that a cartoonist in 1965 could be as affluent as Stanley without the benefit of ancillary merchandise really strains credulity - but let's accept it for now.

Stanley's commitment to fidelity in his "Bash Brannigan" strip is certainly commendable. I'm not certain how common it was for cartoonists in the mid 60s to use photo reference in their work, much less to shoot their own, costumes, props and all, but as someone who has studied commercial illustration, I can vouch for its importance. It's not cheating if you use it the right way; as a supplement, an aid, not as a substitute. (Here's Exhibit A on how not to use it.) Stanley takes his own pictures, so charges of plagiarism wouldn't apply in any case.

Stanley marries off Bash after he himself gets married (accidentally), and the strip radically changes from an action-adventure piece into a semi-autobiographical domestic comedy. This sort of change isn't too far removed from what happened to Blondie (which gets briefly name-checked). Long before she became the prototypical suburban housewife in a domestic family strip, Blondie was a single 20's-style flapper girl, and Dagwood was a rich kid whose parents gave him crap for dating a "lower-class" girl. She used to be the funny one and Dagwood the straight man. After they got married, the strip changed into something closer to the version we know today.

As an artist, you have to be careful how much of your life you put into your work. I've done comics that were either completely or partially autobiographical, and once it came back to bite me - hard. With this blog, I make conscious choices about what to reveal about myself and what not to reveal. It's a fine line to walk.

I don't think Bash Brannigan started out as an avatar for Stanley, but he eventually becomes one. When I created City Mouse while living in Columbus, the reverse happened: he started out as a cartoon version of myself and evolved slightly apart from that into something seperate. He was still grounded in my experiences, however, my perspective as a big-city East Coast dude transplanted into a smaller, Midwestern town. And now, of course, he's crossed over into the film world as a result of this blog. He has a flexibility that Bash seems to have as well, and like City Mouse, Bash's experiences reflect that of his creator. I'm perhaps more willing than Stanley to let my character have more of his own life.

The remarkable thing about this shift in the Bash strip is that not only does it work, it's purely the result of the artist's whim, not subject to audience demands or editorial demands for anything different (e.g., giving a popular supporting character a bigger role). Editorially, Stanley has a great deal of creative control. To exercise such a change without much resistance from his syndicate is unusual. I mean, if you look at the  older strips in your newspaper, you'll see that they tend to rely on predictable patterns, and have for years. It takes an outside perspective, like the "Garfield Minus Garfield" meme, to shake things up. But Stanley initiated the shake-up himself and it worked.

Also, it's unclear how much lead time Stanley provides himself. Usually, strips are made weeks in advance so that the artist has a "cushion" that he can lean on if he gets sick and can't draw for whatever reason. Stanley's Bash strips seem to go to print within days of their creation, which would make him a drawing machine - and that's in addition to shooting his own photo reference AND developing it himself AND still finding time to go to bachelor parties and meeting girls who pop out of cakes!

Now about that marriage. The movie goes out of its way to sell us the idea that marriage in general is not all it's cracked up to be, framing this notion within the context of the eternal battle of the sexes. Well, if marriage ain't so great, then why do we as a society place so much value on it? Can it really be as simple as women hoodwinking men into it? God knows we men go to absurd lengths to impress women, but Murder would have you believe that we men value our freedom even more. Nothing in the film addresses this paradox head-on; it prefers to dance around the issue, or side-step it altogether. We never see Stanley struggle with his feelings for the Italian girl he marries. We never see him doubt his commitment to the bachelor life, which he upholds so stridently.

The misogynism gets packed on in such big heaping doses (funny doses, it must be said) that it's easy to write it all off as satire, a wild exaggeration of reality. But look at this: it's a recent article from the humor site Cracked called "5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women." Does this movie still seem like an exaggeration?

The Italian girl is never named. She conveniently starts off speaking only Italian. We never get inside her head. She leaves Stanley after she thinks he wants to kill her (he only did a storyline in the strip about it), but then mysteriously returns to him for no stated reason. And the one assertive female character gets publicly humiliated by her own husband in the film's climax. Non-PC humor is fine, but this is really pushing it!

There's a point in the climax where I thought Stanley would tear down the concept of marriage altogether and say that it's not and should not be for everyone, but it never happens. Too bad, because it's a message worth saying. Still, the question remains: is marriage worth all the trouble we go through for it?

There's an acquaintance of mine who's about to get married, but if her Twitter feed is any indication, the preparation for the wedding itself seems to be driving her nuts. I wonder: if she could choose to live with her man (whom she absolutely loves and adores) forever, without going through the motions of the marriage ceremony and the wedding and all that, would she? I suspect I already know the answer.

I think about the gay civil rights movement and the struggle for marriage equality (which President Obama has proudly shown his support for). There are legal benefits that come from  marriage that are a vital part of this fight, but more than that, gays want the right to marry because they see that straight society places a high value on it and it's one that they're being systematically denied due to discrimination - and that makes them feel like second-class citizens. Again, we ascribed marriage with such a value, yet if Murder is any indication, it's almost as if we don't really believe in it ourselves.

And the movie doesn't even have the courage of its own convictions. In the end, Stanley gives in to married life right after making a big public speech denouncing it. I'd rather he remained unrepentant in his attitude than cop out so meekly, him and Charles both. (I looked for some sign of Ho Yay between the two of them - it would explain SOOOOO much - but didn't quite find any.) What would Will Ferrell or Zack Galifianakis do with this material, I wonder?

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