Film

The Incredible Hulk: Madly in Anger with You

With The Incredible Hulk ripping through movie screens in mind, Williams hunkers down on the couch with two silly, strangely stirring seasons of the TV show.


The Incredible Hulk

Distributor: Universal
Cast: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno
Network: CBS
First date: 1978
US Release Date: 2008-06-03
Last date: 1982
Amazon

The Incredible Hulk

Distributor: Warner
Cast: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno
Network: CBS
First date: 1978
Last date: 1982
Amazon

David Banner is as sweet and gentle and non-threatening a milquetoast protagonist as you'll ever find on television. This makes the contrast between Banner and his growling, grunting alter-ego all the more startling, sure, but it also frames the entire maligned and celebrated The Incredible Hulk series in a strange sort of Susan Faludi's Backlash context wherein Banner, sexless despite Bill Bixby's unsettling corduroy bulge, seems to have willingly neutered himself in order to better accommodate and navigate a post-Women's Lib world.

Clearly, though, Banner's surface enlightenment is just that; he is kind and caring not because of any personal growth or natural femininity, but rather because of his ongoing efforts at suppression. But at the slightest provocation, he unleashes the drunken, destructive ID that lurks in every man. Apparently, it is not envy that is green, but rather a sense of entitlement… though to be fair, Banner's hardly out of line in feeling entitled to walk down the street without being, to cite a random example, chained to a truck by the henchmen of a Voodoo Latina.

Evil witch doctor ladies notwithstanding, women are seldom the cause of Banner's scary tantrums. That honor falls pretty much invariably to Banner's fellow men, albeit less evolved men who have yet to adapt to a feminist world. These men remain abrasive and brash, ultimately suggesting that the mother's advice to simply ignore the bully will never feel as good as fighting back.

Indeed, it can never be a woman who pushes Banner's Hulk button, for Banner is inevitably working to save his (usually platonic) Woman of the Week, not in the manner of a knight in shining armor, but rather in the manner of an awkward, too-kind-for-his-own-good teen boy who's always there for the aloof and elusive girl he loves, but who will never know her love because he's not cool or handsome or -- dangerous – enough for her.

Or perhaps I'm projecting.

Whatever the case, the third and fourth seasons of The Incredible Hulk have arrived on DVD (synergy!), and if the two collections offer us nothing else, they give us Lou Ferrigno as an absolute wonder of adolescent power fantasy and clumsily defiant re-masculation, all wrapped up in a bad wig and green tights (in close-ups, you can actually see the seam crossing his toeless foot.) But even his raging Hulk poses no real threat; the worst he does to a given antagonist is pose menacingly at him for a minute, or maybe throw him across the room or something. Certainly this Hulk never punches people; at worst, he might crush an inanimate object. Edward Norton's computer-generated Putty Monster, by contrast, kicks a brash soldier across a field in the trailer for the latest Incredible Hulk movie.

The Hulk's apparent reluctance to reduce Bad Types to puddles of roadkill ostensibly proves Banner's overriding gentleness, but in reality all it shows us is the extent to which a literal-minded Hollywood was walking on eggshells in the 1970s.

Today, in a decidedly more daring, willing-to-offend television landscape, The Incredible Hulk would be a very different show. Banner would be an edgy, subtly taunting hothead, and his first name would once again be Bruce (in the '70s Universal demanded the change to "David" because "Bruce" was deemed "too gay"), and the whole enterprise would reek of knowing irony and postmodern posturing and clumsy, distracting tantrums of bad CGI. Today, The Incredible Hulk show would be like Lost if its only characters were Sawyer and the smoke monster.

Thankfully, there is of course nary a trace of CGI in the Bixby/Ferrigno Hulkverse. And what does it say about Hollywood's CGI tunnel vision that a bodybuilder in green make-up remains, 30 years later, the most resonant Hulk to grace a screen?

Now, having said that, my nostalgic affection for the Incredible Hulk television series is not so powerful that I can't spot its many comical flaws (glacial pacing, ridiculously contrived and formulaic plots, painful acting on the part of guest stars), but it is powerful enough that I find the cheesy, dated beginning sequence quietly haunting (in my defense, I was only three years old when the show was first broadcast.)

And now, looking to distance themselves from Ang Lee's pretentious yet stupid Hulk from 2003 (daddy issues and atomic Hulk dogs: together at last!), Universal is clearly targeting aging nerds like me with their ad campaign for the troubled franchise's cinematic reboot; in its ubiquitous promotional poster, a denim jacket-clad Edward Norton stares sadly at his feet with a knapsack over his shoulder. One can almost hear the faint strains of "The Lonely Man Theme".

For its first 60 seconds or so, the film's teaser trailer is similarly inviting, but then the Stay Puft Hulk and the even sillier-looking Abomination appear and the trailer devolves into the usual stupidhero stereotype nonsense we've come to expect (and which Norton reportedly fought to prevent.) I am reminded of my friend Kit's complaint about the ending of Iron Man: "Imagine if Unbreakable had ended with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis climbing into robot suits and soaring through the sky."

Honestly, who can't see that Tony Stark would have made for a more compelling movie than Iron Man? More to the point, who would dare deny that Bruce Banner would be ten times the movie that The Incredible Hulk is shaping up to be?

Meanwhile, these DVD collections practically are more of a Bruce Banner Show (or David Banner Show, rather); The Hulk makes an average of two brief appearances per episode (and keep in mind that there were fewer commercials 30 years ago; each episode is approximately 48 minutes long, versus the more typical 42 minutes of today's "hour-long" dramas.) And sadly, Season Three gets off to the rockiest start possible: "Metamorphosis" stars Mackenzie Phillips as a KISS reject named Lisa Swan who wants to sing folksy, earnest ballads but who is pressured by her sister/manager into engaging in increasingly gimmicky and dangerous stage theatrics involving electricity. (Her band's name? "Shock". Hoo boy.)

However, all is forgiven when a bitter producer slips LSD in Banner's orange juice, triggering arguably the strangest Hulk-out scene ever. I say "arguably" 'cause this is, at its heart, a pretty weird show; see Kenneth Johnson and Kevin Koster's painfully funny (if not as thorough as advertised) list of reasons Banner "Hulked Out" throughout the series.

Better by far is Season Four's two-parter, "The First" (vague memories of which troubled me for two decades), wherein Banner runs afoul of a man who'd transformed into a Hulk years before Banner's curse began; when said First Hulk destroys Banner's only hope for a cure, Banner is reduced to helpless tears, which remain on his cheeks even after he has changed into The Hulk. More effective than it perhaps deserves to be, this scene represents the most devastating moment in a reliably depressing series.

And for all the show's faults, it really does have a lot of heart. Bixby is especially endearing as the hapless but determined David Banner. He might strike today's more discerning viewer as toothless and dishwater dull, but such is Bixby's sweetness that the character's over-the-top wholesomeness feels almost earned. And Ferrigno, for all the Hulk's useless, impotent shows of strength, is still terrifying, in his way (it's easy to dismiss this Hulk with a laugh, but imagine how it would feel to have him angrily approaching you in your house late at night. Brr.)

It is 2008, and I am 31-years-old, and I have just spent a frankly unhealthy amount of time ingesting more than 40 somewhat interchangeable episodes of a dated TV show with uneven production values and almost magically bad acting, and yet I maintain that what I've just watched remains the greatest and most arresting onscreen representation of the Incredible Hulk character. Whether this will still be the case after I've seen Edward Norton's new film remains to be seen, but while the TV show's championship status owes as much to Ang Lee's film's crappiness as to its own strengths, it's still nice to see the show getting some love on DVD, even if it is just in an effort to cash in on the film.

One cannot in good conscience recommend these DVD collections to anyone not already familiar and enamored with the series, but to anyone who thrilled to Ferrigno's low-budget exploits in the '70s, these 40-plus, wildly uneven episodes are a fascinating time capsule and, if youʼll indulge a critique as simultaneously pretentious and stupid as Ang Leeʼs atomic Hulk dog-infested movie, itʼs also a surreal and intriguing extended metaphor for manʼs clumsy, half-assed attempt to embrace womanʼs changing role in the world.

Or perhaps I am simply projecting.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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