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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SO THE DRAMAS ABOUT DRAMA

Todd Alcott, in the process of asking whether or not superheroes can grow up, makes this statement about the genre/supergenre of drama in films:

'Adolescent fantasies drive the entire movie business and have for more than a generation. "Grown-up" drama was once where all the money was spent in Hollywood, now it's the opposite: all the money is spent on adolescent fantasies, while adult drama must squeeze itself in where it can.'

While it's indisputable that "grown up drama" once occupied a more central niche in Hollywood, it's certainly nonsense to say that "all the money" was spent there, especially when one hasn't defined what one means by "drama."

A quickie definition is offered by Wikipedia under "drama:"

'The use of "drama" in the narrow sense to designate a specific type of play dates from the 19th century. Drama in this sense refers to a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy--for example, Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1873) or Chekhov's Ivanov (1887). It is this narrow sense that the film and television industry and film studies adopted to describe "drama" as a genre within their respective media.[5]'

So, though the word "drama" merely stems from the Greek "to act," it's come to be defined in an exclusionist fashion: if "drama" isn't this or that, then it's whatever's left. One could make much the same case with regard to genre-hybrids. Many casual critics would not define THE SEARCHERS and BLADE RUNNER as dramas despite those films' appeal to tried-and-true dramatic elements. Instead our casual critics would more readily categorize these examples as "a western" and "science fiction" respectively.

So again "drama" is colloquially defined by exclusion: "drama is whatever isn't tragedy or comedy or any easily-identifiable genre."

Returning to the question of where "all the money" went in old Hollywood, I again availed myself of Wikipedia, this time for a feature that lists box-office successes by year.

Going by the exclusionary definition above, I found that the 1930s-- the first decade to enjoy sound cinema-technology-- did not show a preponderance of dramas as box-office winners, at least going by the top ten each year (if listed). I would guesstimate that maybe about two top-grossers each year might qualify as "pure dramas," with the rest falling in different categories: musicals, comedies, the occasional thriller or horror film, and even exotica like TARZAN and KING KONG.

In the 1940s, however, I did see the kind of growth in the drama "genre" that Alcott refers to, though of course drama never occupied an exclusive position in that decade either. I didn't bother with later decades because the 1930s decade by itself proved the unworkability of Alcott's notion as a broad description of the early moviemaking biz.

So what this brief survey demonstrates is that, then as now, Hollywood only pursued drama when it seemed that drama sold tickets. Admittedly, when I surveyed the two most recent decades by year, "pure dramas" became even rarer in the top ten than they were in the 1930s, so Alcott's central thesis is not wrong: obviously modern films are geared toward a younger audience. But he was mistaken to claim that early Hollywood was as monolithically devoted to adult-oriented drama as he suggested, because the 1930s survey shows that even though the audiences may have been statistically older, they still liked a lot of escapism in their entertainment (not surprising in the wake of the Depression).

So did the growth of special-FX films in the post-1970s decades, which in turn brought in superhero films with a more sophisticated look, cause a dumbing-down of adult audiences that had previously been devoted to serious drama?

Or did that paradigm shift simply revive a fundamental liking for escapist entertainment that never really went away but frequently had to be camoflauged in various ways so that adult audiences could valorize each others' standing as responsible adults. ("See, BEN HUR's not just a big spectacle; it's about Christians and Rome and all that stuff!")

Food for future essays, methinks.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

THE GOAT WITH THE DIRTY FACE

"All right, fellas... let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."

So ends the 1938 Michael Curtiz film ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Though conceived as a rough sequel to DEAD END, which starred Humphrey Bogart, the narrative of ANGELS was pattered after earlier pictures made by ANGELS' male co-stars: James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. In some though not all of these earlier pictures (particularly THE IRISH IN US and CEILING ZERO), the two actors respectively portrayed the archetypes of the Scalawag and the Straight Shooter. Usually the scalawag was portrayed as far more charming and virile than the straight shooter, but at some point the scalawag had to get religion and become just as altruistic as his more sober brother, which some have seen as a 'taming' of the rebellious gangster archetype Cagney had helped pioneer in PUBLIC ENEMY, his breakthrough film.

In ANGELS Cagney is a gangster once again, but this time he and O'Brien share a checkered past. As kids the two of them were petty thieves, but during one attempted robbery, Cagney was caught and sent to reform school, while O'Brien, scared straight by his near-brush with the law, reforms for real and becomes a Catholic priest.

This "origin story" unfolds so quickly that one hardly has time to realize the subversiveness of the concept: the kid who goes to reform school is the one who becomes the gangster, while the escapee becomes the representative of a Law greater than the secular one that condemns his friend. And this dichotomy, born of a melodrama influenced by American Christian ethics, recalled to me of a more archaic ritual in which one is saved and one is sacrificed:

'Leviticus 16:8-10: "8and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza'zel. 9And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza'zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza'zel."'

To be sure, this sacrificial pattern isn't the sole narrative thrust of ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, but it is the most central one. The adult version of Cagney's character, the roguish but principled gangster, is sacrificed for the greater good at the picture's climax, while O'Brien's priest survives to use him as an object lesson for reforming young kids who might've followed his example-- though in that final line, the priest is quite aware that Cagney was set up for sacrifice by a factor as chimerical as not being able to run fast.

I was tempted at first to view Cagney as the goat who is sacrificed, but in a way he more resembles the one that's driven into the wilderness, taking the sin of society with him (i.e., the corruptions learned in reform school and jail). O'Brien doesn't die as does the Levitical sacrifice, but as a Catholic priest he does sacrifice the passions of normal life, and so remains outside society even while continuing to live within it, existing mostly to keep the ordinary denizens of society on the straight and narrow. So he lives on, but it's the one who passes out of society's bounds that ANGELS really venerates.

JOURNAL BELLES

(And just so I don't neglect my other old sparring-partners, here's a revised song I did for a messboard years ago)

Ohhhhh--

Journal Belles, Journal Belles,
Journal all the way,
Oh what fun it is to ride
A hobbyhorse all day,
Hey!

Journal Belles, Journal Belles,
The superhero's bane,
If you don't like alternatives
Then "fanboy" be thy name.

Slashing through Frank Cho
Giving Sim and Miller sass
Slanting Harlan's coverage
Got GAUNTLET on their ass!

Bashing Peter David
Made no one look too bright,
What fun it is to chide and sting
And start a great big fight!

Oh, Journal Belles, Journal Belles,
The patrons of the arts,
Too bad their current criticism
Is
Not
Worth
Six
Wet
Faaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrts--!

HEIDI'S SONG

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh--


Ms. MacDonald has a blog
Ee ii ee ii o
And on this blog she has some controversy
Ee ii ee ii o

With a sadist here and a pervert there,
Here a sadist, there a pervert,
Everywhere a sadistpervert,

Ms. MacDonald has a blog
Ee ii ee ii o
And on this blog she has more controversy
Ee ii ee ii o

With a "women's rights" here
And a "Dave Sim" there
Here a right, there a Sim,
Everywhere a womensimsright,

Ms. MacDonald has a blog,
Ee ii ee ii o...

Friday, January 23, 2009

HEIDI CONFUSES ME

"Okay, you people have me plum tuckered out. If we haven’t been “debating” men vs. women, we’ve been “debating” liberals vs conservatives, and now racial stereotyping? Except that the debate quickly devolves into the same 10 people arguing the same tired stuff over and over."

http://pwbeat.publishersweekly.com/blog/2009/01/23/soooooo-tired/

So I get that she's tired, but-- what else do people do on any messageboard but proclaim their opinions over and over?

There's no real meeting of minds on a messboard; the format mitigates against it. All one can get, however rarely, is an occasional insight that refines one's own views in a new light. As for views contrary to one's own, I doubt anyone's had any "road to Damascus" experiences on a messboard, so the likelihood of conversion is always pretty damn low.

I always frankly assumed Heidi started the kind of controversies she describes to help hype her board, which I regard as a quite legitimate marketing strategy. I even wrote a little song about it a few days before reading her "So Tired" post.

Maybe I'll post it tomorrow anyway. No time now.

THE LETTER KILLETH THE SPIRIT

Hmm, my 100th post, and I can't think of anything better to do than finish up the thoughts I said I'd get to the other week:

"I'll come back to these matters of authorial integrity and misprision in another essay soon"

I'll start by saying that despite my avowed critical stance on modes et al, I'll admit that I possess, as much as most fans, a knee-jerk desire to see the Thing I Like In Comics be faithfully rendered in another medium. It's certainly not a desire confined to fans, as attested by the legions who raise the cry: "The Book Was Better Than the Movie." However, there are different variations on faithfulness. According to II Corinthians 3:6:

"The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth LIFE"

On one messageboard I encountered a couple of fans who expressed their preference for the first professional audiovisual adaptation of THE SPIRIT, a 1987 TV-movie written by frequent comics-movie scribe Steven deSouza and starring Sam J. Jones as the Spirit. I saw the movie once, and as I recall, it was far closer to be a letter-faithful adaptation of Will Eisner's work than the Frank Miller film.

And yet, it was also pretty forgettable for me, except that I recall that Jones had a creditable turn as the masked crimefighter, and that some of the visual set-ups were borrowed from Eisner panels. Still, I don't think that particular letter-faithful rendering was especially true to the spirit of The Spirit. (I'll try to make that my last pun on the word.)

Now, the 2008 film is more like Eisner seen through the unique lens of another significant comics-artist. It's not letter-faithful in the least. But is it "spirit-faithful?"

I think that in a few scenes, it is. For instance, Miller made his version of the hero supernaturally resistent to injuries in imitation of certain Eisner sequences where Eisner had the hero survive being hit with objects that ought to have given the Spirit a concussion at least.

Now, some fans' readings of the Spirit would privilege the feature's more nuanced moments, but there's no question that though the Spirit was never meant to be a "metahuman," Eisner did revel in slamming the hero around through walls and such, all with the aim of creating reader sympathy and identification-- and maybe with an artist's love for inventive fight-choreography. Eisner's SPIRIT was never as dominated by the use of violence as the work of Frank Miller has been, but the feature made a definite appeal to the reader's enjoyment of same. In the 2008 film's first major fracas between the Spirit and the Octopus, wherein hero and villain batter each other back and forth like an equally-matched Tom and Jerry, Miller succeeds in putting across both the intensity and some of the comic feel found in Eisner's donnybrooks.

I would also say Miller succeeds in terms of evoking the other great kinetic constant of Eisner's feature: the sex. Again, Miller's version of sexual thrills is much more intense than that of Eisner, but contrary to some of the expectations prior to the film, I don't think Miller made every hot Eisner babe into a Sin City prostitute. His Silken Floss is a goof, of course, but not because of making her a prostitute, while both Sand Saref and Plaster of Paris are presented as formidable females. Ellen is a dull "reality-principle" female, but face it: she was dull in the comic too.

But the way Miller does betray the original "life" within the Eisner feature was by failing to evoke good melodrama. Contrary to the opinions expressed by Gary Groth in his Eisner obit, Eisner's greatest strength was not humor but melodrama, which he Eisner could play straight (the original Sand Saref tale) or for fun (paging "Young Doctor Ebony.") In the segment that retells the early years of Denny Colt and Sand Saref, Miller pretty much botches the feeling behind that simple but evocative melodramatic setup, and because of that failure, the film's raison d'etre doesn't come together. If it had-- well, I might even have bought into the bit about the blood of Heracles.

Misprison, I argue again, is inevitable. Kenneth Branagh's most faithful adaptation of Hamlet is still Branagh's Hamlet, not Shakespeare's, and some of the worst renditions of classics have been done by people who claim they want to do a letter-perfect version of the original. It's because of this fundamental principle of misprison that I don't take it so seriously when one adaptation travesties an original. Sometimes, as with KISS ME DEADLY, you get two interesting works out of it. Sometimes you get a work far less rewarding than the pulp original, as in the cases of both Kubrick's THE SHINING and Losey's MODESTY BLAISE. Sometimes Shakespeare did great in his adaptations of old legends (HAMLET) and sometimes, not so much (PERICLES). But I'd rather watch even a failure that got a few things right, like Miller's SPIRIT, than a passionless letter-perfect rendition of anything (say, Tom Cruise's incredibly-tedious VALKYRIE).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

THE SUPER SEX WAR

In Bob Hughes' commentary for SUPERMAN IN THE FORTIES, he notes that part of the character's appeal was that he was "a Personality." And I agree that Siegel and Schuster did succeed at imbuing their star with a persona that was inspired by earlier heroic icons (Tarzan, Douglas Fairbanks, myth-heroes like Heracles and Samson), but managed to have its own unique appeal. However, within the five volumes-worth of stories in SUPERMAN CHRONICLES-- which gives one a chronological look at every aspect of the feature's narrative development save the contemporaneous comic strip-- there's hardly anyone else in the feature who possesses any "Personality." Even by the standards appropriate for action-melodramas, Siegel's villains and victims all seem like the equivalent of theatrical spear-carriers, who exist merely to heighten the gloriousness of the hero-- with one exception.

In terms of narrative Lois Lane, being stuck in the middle of a sexual triangle comprised of herself, the hero and the hero's secret identity, was in the same position as the lady loves of earlier heroes like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. However, there were some differences in the precise persona evoked. I confess I have not read the original prose adventures of the latter two characters, and am dependent on knowing only the cinematic adaptations (as I suspect may've also been the case for Siegel and Schuster)-- but in any case, I suspect that even back in the 1930s few people would've know the names of the female leads in the Zorro and Pimpernel sagas. The movie-versions present the audience with women who are "holding out for a hero" as they scorn the wimpy secret IDs of the main heroes, but the ladies don't seem to have any significance, any personality, independent of the heroes. They are the prizes for which the hero strives.

Lois Lane is different. In ACTION COMICS #1 (June 1938), she is only introduced after Superman has resolved his first two cases: saving a woman and a man from a a false murder charge and then saving a woman from an abusive husband. She's first seen at Clark Kent's workplace, grudgingly agreeing to give him a date after implicitly having turned him down many times. The two of them go out dancing but are interrupted by a tough gangster who takes a liking to Lois and tries, with several buddies to back him up, to shove Clark out of the picture. Lois, a typical spitfire type, repulses the gangster with a slap and storms off in a taxi after expressing disgust at Clark's unwillingness to fight. As with Zorro and the Pimpernel, Superman's rationale for his alter ego's cowardice is to protect his altruistic mission, though the first two heroes have a better excuse in that they are merely skilled mortals surrounded by powerful and hostile regimes. Superman's masquerade is a bit more counter-intuitive, since he is as a god in mortal disguise, who can and does frequently thumb his nose at cops and armies in the early stories. Not surprisingly, critics like Jules Feiffer and Gerald Jones have commented on the apparent masochism of Clark Kent's self-abasement-- but though this is a pertinent notion, it's incomplete as stated.

Lois is the key. Lois is not just a frail flower in need of rescuing, as had been many romantic leads before her, but a heroic Personality herself. She does need rescuing over and over-- so much so that eventually the trope was ripe for parody-- but it's only because of Tyrant Biology, not because she is incapable of heroic grit herself. She's demanding with Clark because she's demanding with everyone, in accordance with another 30s persona publicly nurtured through the cinema: the tough-minded lady reporter. Unlike her later incarnations early Lois possessed no real martial skills, though she was occasionally known to take a poke at this or that thug. But the lady reporter's attempts at heroism aren't viewed as ridiculous, though on occasion she might be judged foolhardy. Admittedly, there are many minor stories where Lois' role is reduced to spear-carrier status, but the number of times that she did show admirable gumption demonstrate that Siegel deemed her a Personality in her own right.

Gerald Jones points out that ACTION #5 (October 1938) is the first time the hero really starts performing Herculean feats: holding up a broken trestle so that a train may safely cross it and blocking a flood of waters from a broken dam to save mere mortals from doom. But this ode to super-masculine power starts out with the declaration of a gender-war between Lois and Clark. Lois (described as being consigned to writing "sob stories" in #1) tries to get her editor to let her cover news of the breaking dam. He refuses her because she's a woman, giving Clark preferment (his reputation for wussiness being forgotten). Lois sends Clark on a wild-goose chase and then rushes into danger in order to prove herself with an eyewitness account. After Clark's editor fires him (temporarily of course), Clark uses his super-powers as an equalizer to catch up to his curvaceous competitor (If Lois thinks she's going to scoop me, she's badly mistaken!") However, by saving the train-- which Lois happens to be on-- Superman makes it possible for her to reach the dam, even while he's busy trying to hold back its torrent. Superman rescues the ambitious lady reporter from the flood and blocks the flood by toppling a mountain into its path, but then he faces a real challenge: a grateful woman, implicitly aroused by his masculine performance. He accepts her kiss after some initial reluctance, but then takes her back to the nearest city with a rejoinder that may not be entirely a joke: "I've got to bring you back to safety-- where I'll be safe from you!" Ironically, his maybe-joking protestation of fear is counterpointed by Lois confessing that she's gotten over the fear she had of him in their first few encounters, and professing her love. Naturally, Superman escapes her attentions with a cavalier wave that some deem sadistic toward his secret rival, but then returns, as Clark, to receive her scorn for not being the he-man that Superman is.

ACTION #6 (November 1938) also contains a brief sequence in which Lois tries to manipulate Clark while Clark lets himself be apparently manipulated while laughing up his sleeve; it ends with Lois trying to pin the hero down once more while he leaves any future meetings "in the hands of fate." Then, jumping over a number of spear-carrier tales, we come to NEW YORK WORLD'S FAIR COMICS #1 (June 1939). The bulk of this story is of little interest, until the last pages, when Lois becomes positively aggressive in her pursuit of the Man of Tomorrow. When the hero leaps clear of a crowd of well-wishers, Lois impulsiveness jumps on his back so that he carries her away. Superman's response is a bizarre one: he performs an aerial somersault in the hope of scaring her off. Lois' response once they land is far cooler than the hero's: she suggests that they do it again (which may be the closest the couple would ever get to having sex in that era). She kisses him again. He escapes, though his flustered condition is much more evident than it was in ACTION #5. And just as he did at the end of #5, his return to the Clark identity once more insures him the wrath of Lois' biting tongue-- which I assume Feiffer would judge yet another manifestation of masochism; better the biting tongue than the Toothed Vagina...

ACTION #22 (March 1940) is the first part of a two-part story which is best known in that the second part introduces Superman's most durable foe, Luthor. The first part, though, is noteworthy in that it's the first time Lois becomes jealous of another woman's attentions to Clark, the "worm" Lois supposedly despises. Indeed, the other woman is the first character in Superman comic books (again, not addressing the comic strip here) to share Lois' "LL" initials: an actress with the doubly seductive-sounding name of "Lita Laverne." Those aware of the Superman mythos will recall how characters with the same alliterative scheme proliferated in later years: plain old "Luthor" finally acquired the given name "Lex," etc. In any case, though Laverne isn't much of a character (the actress moonlights as a spy for foreign powers), she also resembles Lois in being ambivalent toward Clark throughout the story for reasons the plot doesn't really explain. Clearly, she's simply a version of Lois recast as a straight villainess, and thus a continuation of the sex-war.

1940 was also the year when Jerry Siegel submitted the never-published "K-metal" story in which he would've ended the triangle by having Superman reveal his dual identity to Lois, which would've ended with an equal partnership that might have eventually led to the marital status the characters currently enjoy. Since Jones has provided a detailed study of that story (spiked by DC, who preferred the status quo), I refer the curious to his account. But also in that year comes my last example of Lois' status as a character of heroic proportions, for a tale now titled "The Construction Scam" (SUPERMAN #6, Sept-Oct 1940) concludes with Clark saving Lois' life by infusing her with his Kryptonian blood. At the end of the story Lois not only makes a full recovery but adds that "I feel stronger than I've ever felt." It's been suggested by some fans that Siegel might have pondered converting Lois into a "Superwoman" via this transfusion, perhaps for a spinoff feature. Perhaps here, as in the K-metal story, Siegel was trying to give Lois a more substantial role than that of imperilled maiden; one in which she too could participate in the super-powered fantasy (and maybe be a more tenable sex-partner than your average mortal woman). If such was Siegel's intent DC must have spiked that too, for from then on Lois would go on displaying her lady-reporter gutsiness but still needing to be bailed out by a man. This would lead in time to Lois becoming dingy enough, in some stories, to pitch herself off a building in order to make Superman save her, even when he was nowhere in sight.

This, then, is why Feiffer's notion of "the Man of Masochism" is not quite complete. It overlooks the fact that since in those days the characters could never be married or exchange more than kisses, the sadistic/masochistic byplay was not simply a metonymic substitute for sex (metonym: "this is put for that") but a metaphorical evocation of sex (metaphor: "this is that"). And I'd further argue that the conceit wouldn't have worked as well as it did without Lois being a demanding spitfire of a woman, a Beatrice fit for a super-Benedick-- even if both characters would become somewhat blander over time. Arguably in later eras the metaphorical sexcapades took other forms, such as giving both of them numerous clones of one another with whom to enjoy short-lived romances-- Lois getting with some other caped swain, and Superman hooking up with some other lady with alliterative "LL" initials. But all of these were just reiterations of the sex-war in new terms, and of a never-overtly-consummated hieros gamos between a woman of Earth and a man from the heavens. And that symbolic substrate is one of the aspects that still makes the early Siegel-Schuster stories valuable despite all of their other deficiencies.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

SPIRITUAL LEGACY

This isn't a direct follow-up to my last post, but rather another segue to a question posed on a couple of messageboards:

Did Miller's mishandling of the SPIRIT property ruin a golden opportunity for comics-outsiders to find some appreciation for the Eisner SPIRIT comics?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: It's been almost a full twenty years since Tim Burton succeeded in making the BATMAN franchise marketable as entertainment for adult filmgoers. (Yes, he stood on the shoulders of giants and all that, but his success does mark a paradigm shift.) Arguably this adaptation may have helped some outsiders to the comics-medium appreciate the kinetic and visceral appeal of the Batman character, and view comics as possessing some merit beyond whatever merit was appropriate to simple kidstuff.

But aside from the origin-story of the Batman-- liberally used in the '89 film-- what do modern outsiders know about the corpus of outstanding Batman-stories, after these twenty years? After four films either by Burton or influenced by him, and two by Nolan-- not to mention a couple of animated TV serials-- what does John Q. Public know about the specific texts of the Batman corpus? Of "Robin Dies at Dawn," of the Englehart-Rogers run, of "Hush?"

Not a thing.

And I don't care if Miller or anyone else had somehow succeeded in making a successful SPIRIT film for 21st-century audiences; the same fate would have befallen the whole corpus of Eisner's 60+ year-old stories, as well as any recent renditions of the character.

Years ago (going on memory), Neil Gaiman wrote an essay in which he wondered whether or not the storytelling language of comic books was literally hard for "comics-outsiders" to take in. I don't believe that the language itself is difficult, but that within this culture of the United States, most audiences simply don't have any motivation to make the effort beyond whatever they may've read as kids. In contrast, in the US one may be a good or bad reader of film's storytelling strategies, but a cultural consensus exists here that It Is Important to Know That Language (or at least bits and pieces of it). No such consensus exists for comic books, and without such a consensus the closest "honoring of the canon" we're likely to see will be in Sunday-supplement articles, in which a journalist has cobbled together, purely for his article, a basic summary of Significant Moments in the Batman Oeuvre.

Nor do I think the situation is any better for artcomics. A few comics-outsiders may be more comfortable buying DAVID BORING rather than BATMAN, but I get no sense that the canon of Clowes has become a cynosure either, even within the more circumscribed realm of the High Art Crowd.

Years ago Dave Sim advised fans as a whole (by which I think he meant both mainstream and artcomics fans, though I'm not sure) to stop waiting for that bolt from the blue that would legitimize comic books in the eyes of the outsiders. I agree that the bolt is never going to come, and would add that even whatever legimitacy has come to the medium in recent years has been slow and steady, like Aesop's turtle.

But one bad movie won't significantly help or hurt that progress. And even if the SPIRIT had been a great film, I think the legacy of Eisner would remain confined to those of us who have already gone apeshit about the medium's multifarous forms.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

SPIRIT A LA MODE

The title is not meant to suggest that Frank Miller's SPIRIT film is better enjoyed with ice cream, but that, whatever failings the movie has, it occupies its own distinct mode and should be judged on the terms of that mode.

A lot of cyber-ink has been spilled with regard to how Miller allegedly betrayed the spirit of the original Eisner, uh, Spirit. But it should be noted that what Miller did is nothing new in the world of Hollywood, where almost any original work can and probably will be rewritten. One such adaptors reminisence went as follows:

"I wrote it fast because I had contempt for [the work] ... I tell you [the author] didn't like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn't like me."

On the face of it, this sounds like one of many, many Hollywood tales of an unscrupulous hack tearing apart the precious work of some misused author, right?

However, this quote (sourced in Wiki under the name of the film adaptation) comes from respected scripter A.I. Bezerides, and the book he was rewriting was Mickey Spillane's 1952 Mike Hammer novel KISS ME DEADLY. Bezerides' script, directed as a film by Robert Aldrich in 1955, was only modestly successful in its day, but in succeeding generations filmhounds came to view it as a classic film noir. And yet, anyone who's read the original novel, as I have, cannot question the validity of Mickey Spillane's response to the work of Bezerides and Aldrich, for the film KISS ME DEADLY is entirely a travesty, and very nearly a satire, of the original work.

Now as a pluralist I respect the best manifestations of every mode of creativity, as I addressed here in respect to the concepts of "subtle" and "gross" modes. In that essay I explained that I considered a "subtle" work like DESIGN FOR LIVING to be no less worthy than a "gross" one like WAYNE'S WORLD. (By the same token there are certainly any number of works that are bad with respect to their modal potentials-- say, off the top of my head, 1939's IDIOT'S DELIGHT for the subtle category and AUSTIN POWERS 2 for the gross one).

By this logic of modes I have no problem in appreciating both the original Spillane novel and the satirically-flavored adaptation of it for the 1955 film. I deem both to be classics with respect to their modal potentials.

And yet--

One is a travesty of the other.

Does I mean to suggest that Miller's SPIRIT, even if it was as much a travesty of its original source as the script of KMD THE MOVIE was of its original source, was as good in its mode as its source material was?

In a word, no.

But the point is that-- it could have been.

In other words, though Miller's SPIRIT isn't good in itself, it could have been as good in its mode as was KMD THE MOVIE, or many other examples I could name.

I'll come back to these matters of authorial integrity and misprision in another essay soon--