Swamp Thing 3.13: The Birth of Tragedy

Welcome back to another episode of What Doesn’t Make Sense in the First Twenty-Five Minutes of Swamp Thing, my personal quest to puzzle out what the hell anybody is talking about in this movie.

Just to be clear, I am fully aware that the abyss is gazing also into me. I’m becoming the confusing, nonsensical and poorly-lit creature, muttering biology words in the corner of my crowded laboratory. Someday I will be free of this lab scene, but not today. Not today.

We’ve reached the moment when Harry Ritter, the incandescently furious project field supervisor, peels the skin right off his face and reveals himself to be — ta dah! — the Amazing Arcane, Master of a Thousand Disguises, operating in Ritter’s stead for who knows how long.

“No, Dr. Holland, not Ritter,” he says. “Ritter, poor fellow, is long dead.”

That’s all we ever hear about Arcane’s cockamamie infiltration scheme, just that Ritter is long dead, and now Arcane wants all of the project’s notes pertaining to the magic green potion please, or he’ll shoot people.

So I’d like to take a look at what could possibly have motivated Arcane to do the thing that he’s doing in the specific way that he’s doing it.

First, let’s consider the phrase “long dead”, and how long Arcane has been cosplaying as Ritter. You wouldn’t say that he was “long dead” if it was just a few hours ago, or if you took his place yesterday. I’d say to describe somebody as “long dead”, it must have been at least a couple of weeks.

So Arcane has been on the spot, operating as Ritter, for at least two weeks, and from what we’ve seen, being Harry Ritter is a high-energy job. You don’t just say to yourself, All right then, I’m Harry Ritter, and take it easy for the rest of the day. If you’re Ritter, you need to charge around, scolding everyone and barking instructions. Just keeping up with your glowering schedule is a job, all by itself.

And the purpose of all this mishigas is to keep tabs on Alec’s progress and undermine the security system, so that you can stand here in the lab, with your hired goons, at the moment of the breakthrough. That’s actually a pretty reasonable plan.

Except… why do you need the unmasking and the goon squad?

You are universally accepted as Harry Ritter, project field supervisor, one of the five people allowed in this room. You are in charge of the security, up to and including the wall safe with the notebooks. You are the one person in the entire world who could get as much information on this project as you wanted, at any time.

Ritter could have strolled into the room and said hey guys, what’s happening?, and Alec and Linda would have told him anything he wanted to know. Alec was excited and proud, and he’s kind of a motormouth. You could ask him any question, and he would be thrilled to give you an entire lecture in response.

And while your mercenaries were out there shooting all the guards, Cable was running out of the lab to specifically invite you to come and see what happened. “Ritter!” Alec said. “He’s got to be told right away. I want to see that bastard’s face when he realizes we’ve done it!”

And yet — as soon as he takes that bastard’s face off, and reveals himself to be a different bastard — Arcane acts like he can’t access any of his Ritter memories. Later on, when he’s rifling through the pile of stolen notebooks, he realizes that the last entry was written two weeks ago, which means they’re missing the final notebook.

But when he was Ritter, he had a hundred opportunities to count how many notebooks there were, and note which is the current one. Even if he didn’t want to ask questions that might make Alec suspicious, Ritter could have gone into the lab late at night, when everybody else was asleep, and read as many notebooks as he wanted.

You’re the leader of the project, you’re in charge of security, and everyone is terrified of you. What have you been doing, all this time?

Also: they just made the dramatic breakthrough, literally four minutes ago. How did Arcane know that this was the day to invite all his friends over for potluck? The bad guys were already disabling sensors and killing people with pocket snakes when Linda discovered that the new batch of formula was explosive.

And, even more urgently: why are they interrupting the experiment right now? Alec just realized that the formula could make dead floorboards sprout with life a minute ago; he hadn’t even had the chance to stand up, when all of a sudden the mercenaries piled in. Any new ideas that flashed upon him could have been recorded in that notebook, if Arcane had waited another fifteen minutes.

But this is movie logic, red in tooth and claw. The film wants to present everything happening at once, all the events tripping over each other, so that each plot point feels fresh and immediate. And there’s a ticking clock on the audience’s patience, because we’re currently twenty-five minutes into the movie, and the monster is still five minutes away. They can’t waste any more time running up variations on the formula; we want to see a guy explode.

“What is best for you is not to be born,” Arcane explains, quoting Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. “Not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is to die soon.”

Now, I have to admit it’s been a while since I really came to grips with The Birth of Tragedy, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a how-to book. But if that’s what gets us to the end of act 1, then sure. Let’s die soon.

Tomorrow:
3.14: Mister A


Footnotes:

Attention, brilliant commenters: I want to write a post where I talk about how terrible I think Louis Jourdan is. I know that some people think he’s great in this movie, but I can’t figure out what they actually like about his performance. Can anybody make a case for Jourdan’s Arcane? I’m not concern trolling; I honestly don’t know what the good points are.

Tomorrow:
3.14: Mister A

Chapters

— Danny Horn

32 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.13: The Birth of Tragedy

  1. I can’t get passed the expression on that kid’s face on the Hugo box. It’s as if he’s thinking, “Yeah, like I’m gonna play with this piece of crap for more than five minutes. Thanks a lot, Aunt Harriet.”

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I don’t remember Hugo at all from the Sears Wish Book catalog, source of all cool toys. I think if we had seen it, my buddies ‘n me would’ve mocked it relentessly. So glad that our parents were with-it enough that we had Star Wars and Micronauts figures and toys. We’d have been bored with Hugo before we got to disguise #85.

        Does anyone remember Hugo from when he was new? Was this a big thing somewhere else?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I realize that it’s all a matter of personal taste, but I found Louis Jourdan as Arcane to be genuinely sinister and creepy and loathsome. In my opinion he perfectly nailed the portrayal of an utterly self-absorbed narcissistic sociopath. Honestly, Arcane in Swamp Thing is everything Lex Luthor should have been in the Superman movies, but wasn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, it’s too bad they didn’t come up with some reason why the bad guys had to move at this point. Everything is sufficiently fast and loud that it the senselessness of it doesn’t stick with you for long, but it is a flaw.

    I did laugh out loud when the mask came off and it was Louis Jourdan. At this point in his career Jourdan was so terminally low-key, such a walking advertisement for Valium or whatever sedative he hooked on, that the idea of him as Harry Ritter was hilarious.

    I wouldn’t say that his performance in Swamp Thing is exactly good, but I was always happy to see him on screen. Fast and loud covers a multitude of sins, story-logic wise, but it does get fatiguing after a while, so I was glad they would occasionally dedicate a part of the screen to his quiet, inert image.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. He is very, very laid back; to the point you wonder why he came up with such a Rube Goldbergian scheme to begin with–he doesn’t seem like the take over the world type, at all. More like the lazy brother of the supervillain who just wants to piss off to Fiji and get drunk on the beach while everybody else explodes.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Maybe once he took over Ritter’s body, Arcane’s simple plan turned into a full Field Project Management routine. It’s what Ritter would have done. Embodying Ritter, he couldn’t stop it from happening.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. > Can anybody make a case for Jourdan’s Arcane?

    Are they confusing this role with the villain he played in Octopussy? That’s probably not a good movie either, but people have a fondness for James Bond and it’s fun to think about a movie called Octopussy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No.
      It’s NOT a good movie.
      Imagine Louis Jourdan, in his French accent, shaking his head and sadly saying, “Octopussy, Octopussy, Octopussy.”
      Pretty much sums up the whole movie.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, even earlier. Martin Landau had it down to a science in the late ’60s on Mission: Impossible.

        Wow, I just learned something new!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. First thing I thought of. The reach down to the side of the neck, the cut to the reaction shot of the deceived onlookers, then the cut back to Landau pulling away the FAKEST rubber mask and looking triumphantly at the suckers.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. It’s been so long since I’ve watched this movie, I don’t remember much about Jourdan’s performance. At Dick Durock’s 1991 Q&A I attended, a fan asked Dick about working with Jourdan. Dick’s response was “the epitome of class.”

    That may be why he was cast. His patrician elegance brought some dignity to the proceedings. That provided a sharp contrast with most of the rest of the film. Sort of like his Columbo episode where the contrast between him and rumpled, earthy Columbo is supposed to be more amusing than it really is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, he basically brought European elegance to the Carolina swamps. Everybody else is sweaty and chasing cooper’s diggers and finding glow in the dark blow ’em up formulas, and he strolls in and starts ordering the peasants around because that’s his God given right. All that’s missing is a glass of Champagne.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s weird, Danny; we are on some bizarre wavelength together, because I was thinking exactly what you wrote right as I started reading this post.

    The Elaborate Plan of the Supervillain has a long, proud, ridiculous history in entertainment, to the point where it’s a basic requirement of anyone aspiring to be one.

    You must invest ten times the money, time, equipment, personnel and planning into your scheme than you can possibly hope to get out of a successful conclusion.

    You must overthink everything, yet somehow leave huge blank spots where “logical course of action” should really be slotted in.

    You must form a bond with your target (romantic, friendly, or professional) that is much stronger and more intimate than is needed, to the point where your minions start muttering “why don’t you just MARRY him” after your daily rant about how you WILL steal that formula or the universe will pay.

    You must manifest said bond by hanging around your target wearing elaborate disguises that most people wouldn’t even think of, much less execute, such as full face latex masks worn in triple digit heat and humidity for weeks on end.

    You must spend weeks and weeks sabotaging equipment and experiments that either are totally beside the point of your actual plan’s needs, or actively destroy crucial aspects of them.

    Lastly, you must be French. At least, for this caper; it’s essential.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. “such as full face latex masks worn in triple digit heat and humidity for weeks on end”

      Not just this, but has there ever been a lifelike mask that you can just rip off in one piece without taking half your real face skin with it? From everything I’ve seen, removing latex masks and appliances from the face requires nearly as much time as applying them in the first place. You need to carefully dissolve the glue and peel it off little by little. And then I’m sure apply plenty of cream and moisturizer to keep from looking awful with flecks of glue and latex hanging off you.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes! Apparently the actor who played Gimli the dwarf in the LOTR movies didn’t have much facial epidermis left by the end of shooting–he had terrible reactions to the latex, the glue, and the solvent. That stuff is hardcore.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. There would be a difference though. It wouldn’t be good, but I think it matters whether you want to ever wear it again. Ripping it off wouldn’t be good for your face, but it might be kind of possible if you’re totally destroying the mask and don’t care.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Which brings to mind the ridiculousness of the masks in the 1975 David McCallum ‘Invisible Man’ series.
        The mask he wore of his own face (because the character was permanently invisible) included full eyeball contact lenses and false teeth as part of the mask and yet he could just pull it off and pop it back on again in a moment!

        Like

  7. Goddess, I got a laugh from your summary of the Excessively Elaborate, Subtextually Erotic Evil Scheme!

    Even someone as science-sharp as Danny would get flustered after weeks of wearing a latex head mask in hundred degree humidity. Having to bark orders at nitwits so you can… um… so you can later steal the notebooks you could have stolen any time.

    Yeah, this really is dumb.

    As for, why show up right then?
    Maybe then Sensor 3 warning triggered some kind of alarm light or something out in the swamp. So Arcane went to the Swamp Science Room to disable the control panel or distract the scientists and keep them inside there. Or something.

    Some other Arcane reason.

    Maybe he was too engrosed in the first phase of tactical planning: that Ferret would be able to say, yes that is a snake in my pocket, because I’m unhappy to see you.

    Hey, the movie sets ’em up, I’m just knocking ’em down.

    “How did Arcane know that this was the day to invite all his friends over for potluck?”
    (*Bring Your Own Bullets)
    1 Alec lectured everyone yesterday on how he was SO close and the next day might be when he actually does it!
    2 Arcane read the notebook entry last night – 35 pages of Alec boasting about how great the breakthrough would be, and he’ll write down the formula tomorrow, after he proves it works. Sleepy after a hard day of fake yelling and meaningless infiltration, Arcane drowsily dropped the notebook under his bed. This morning, Alec couldn’t find the current notebook in the lab. But a breakthrough from a genius like him deserves a fresh notebook anyway, doesn’t it?
    3 The most likely in this movie’s world: Arcane knows that with a Science Babe on staff now, to fix ultrasonic stuff and inspire the gentlemen scientists, a breakthrough can happen at any time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Having Jourdan as a villain was unexpected. I only knew him from “Gigi” which is a million miles from the swamp. Having a villain with a French accent rather than Russian or German may be the least stereotypical thing about this movie. The DC Database says Arcane was Romanian so maybe Ray Wise would have been a better choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My fondest memory of Jourdain is in Octopussy. He’s trying to get away in a twin-engine prop plane with his henchman. Bond has magically hitched a ride on the exterior. Jourdain tells the henchman, “Go out there… and get him!”

    Jourdain always exuded classic elegance. Here he’s trying to take over the world (I guess), but he never rises above the level of remonstrating with the waiter over the proper temperature of a pinot noir. Maybe that’s the barbiturates talking, but it comes across as preternatural cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Arcane’s finest moment (or at least Louis Jourdan’s) came when he took a break from wearing other people’s faces and scheming maniacally to hang out with plush toys to sing cartoon and kids TV songs with Judy Garland. (Not sure if the relevant link will go through, but trying)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Judy singing “Popeye the Sailor Man” is at least as unexpected as the mask reveal. Jourdan was a good sport. And a good dance partner.

        Liked by 1 person

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