Academic journal article CineAction

Secret Identities: The Superhero Simulacrum and the Nation

Academic journal article CineAction

Secret Identities: The Superhero Simulacrum and the Nation

Article excerpt

There is a sequence early on in Matthew Ogens' 2007 documentary Confessions of a Superhero in which one of its principle subjects, Christopher Dennis, sitting on a worn couch in a Superman costume, says, "I like to consider myself to be a historian of Superman and the keeper of artifacts." The moment is central to the film, which is a study of Dennis and three other performers who portray superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard and hustle tourists for tips. This shot of Dennis echoes the film's poster art, dvd cover, and dvd menu guide, in which he is lying on the same couch as if in mid therapy session. As with the film's title, the viewer is cued that this is a moment of potential insight into the mind of a fan who perhaps pathologically over-identifies with Superman, especially as portrayed by Christopher Reeve (Dennis bears a faint resemblance to the late actor). The image, along with an assortment of attributes expected of cinema verite (hand-held camera, direct address) promises the revelation of truth that is the domain of documentary film. Prior to Dennis making the assertion about his relationship to Superman, we see a series of shots of him donning his Superman costume in his modest apartment, which is crammed with a plethora of Superman merchandise. While images of Superman in a variety of incarnations (trading cards, coffee mugs, figurines, posters, curtains) dispassionately look on, Dennis squeezes his scrawny frame and flaccid belly into a skin-tight Superman costume. Ogens briefly cuts to a close-up of an ashtray festooned with butts beside a gift shop trophy that says, "Hollywood Hero of the Year." The irony is heavy, though Ogens seems to suggest that self-awareness is Dennis's Kryptonite.

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The sequence articulates the manner in which Dennis sees himself and desires to be seen and how Ogens emphasizes the apparent disparity between self-image and how Hollywood tourists and the film's viewers might be inclined to see Dennis. Dennis asserts his cultural authority over Superman as a text, in fact writing himself onto the cultural palimpsest as another iteration of super-textual density that nourishes his sense of identity. What Dennis sees and what he wants others to see is superficially at odds with the inclination to view him as the proverbial troubled fan, the aficionado who takes his devotion to a particular strand of pop culture "too far." This moment is so compelling, however, because rather than negating Dennis's authority, it compels the viewer to confirm it. It is a moment of truth insomuch as it underscores the mediated nature of truth and the liberating potential that comes with wholly embracing a version of reality that speaks to you. This is the power of the mediated superhero body reconfigured by the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking. The visual and visceral excesses of blockbuster superhero films are here remediated as a comparable excess conveyed via the body and the narrative context in which we are asked to read that body. Dennis wants us to read him as a certain kind of hero in relation to images of Superman, drawing upon familiar narrative tropes of sacrifice and the recognition of ourselves in his alterity. Ogens' deployment of reflexive documentary techniques actually reinforces Dennis's perspective rather than invalidates it. The viewer is brought closer to Dennis by virtue of the disparity between the ideal and the image, not despite it. In relentlessly pointing the camera at Dennis, and Dennis's unblinking response, his humanity emerges intact. Rather than allowing the viewer the cathartic distanciation of the freak show, Confessions expands upon a cultural familiarity with and attraction to the superhero in order to suggest that the very instability that the superhero impersonator (and indeed the superhero) indicates is an assertion of a plurality essential to a postmodern American identity.

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Writing of the documentary subject, Michael Chanan notes, "Being filmed is to give up your own authorship of yourself. …

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