Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Son Of At The Movies

In reference to difficult source material, folks often say that something is "unfilmable" -- be they massively dense tomes like The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses, transgressive and controversial texts like American Psycho or Lolita, or books which are simply too recondite in their execution, so rooted in the medium of prose, to make for an easy adaptation, a la Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief or The Lord of the Rings. But all of the books I just mentioned have one thing in common: they were all the subject of motion picture adaptations at various points.

Nothing is unfilmable. If the last 100 years of film history have proven anything, it's that there is no text so slippery that a clever filmmaker can't figure out how to hammer it into a two-hour-long cinematic framework. Clever in this context can be pejorative or complimentary -- if you're discussing Mary Harron's underrated, subtle adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' shocking tour de force, it's definitely a compliment. If you're talking about Peter Jackson's thunderingly obvious adaptation of Tolkien's fantasy series, well, clever is not necessarily a good thing.

(The best Lord of the Rings movie will always be the one that plays in my head when I actually read the book. Also, movies rarely replicate the kind of ambiguity that can be found primarily in the source text: this is one area were Harmon's film excelled, in terms of making an honest attempt to import some of the stranger effects of Ellis' combative prose onscreen. In adapting Tolkien, however, Jackson never made a single creative decision that rose above the glaringly obvious, with the end result of pasteurizing a prickly and at times frankly unpleasant reading experience in the service of making a movie that could sell a lot of toys. Which was by no means a surprise, but it doesn't mean I have to care about the finished product.)

So it's not like The Spirit is unfilmable, not by any means. But the prospect of The Spirit film fills me with not a little disgust, far more than that raised by the looming specter of seeing Dr. Manhattan blow up Vietnam real good on a screen near me very soon. A Watchmen movie was inevitable, really. It was only a matter of time. But The Spirit wasn't inevitable, and I find myself sad that it has been made. Because The Spirit is important. It's far more important than Watchmen. It's one of the great works of English language comics, with all that that implies -- it's a foundational work.

If Will Eisner had had a time machine, I bet he would have
gone back in time to slap his younger self for this shit.

But it's also incredibly problematic in all the ways that "classic" texts have always been problematic. The issue of race is never far from the reader's view, not until Ebony White is gradually phased out of the proceedings. A great deal of the strip is poor-to-mediocre. Much of the strip was actually done by other people (which isn't an aesthetic judgment, but it makes talking about the work as Eisner's creation problematic). There's just so much of the damn thing: at last count, 26 giant DC Archive editions. That's more Spirit than most people, even comics aficionados, probably even most comics historians, will ever feel the need to read. And at it's best, the strip defied categorization, mixing what could only be called virtuosic, playfully metatextual storytelling with a sincere, unvarnished humanism. It was more than the sum of its plot points or characters. In fact, I don't think it's very controversial at this late date to say that the Spirit really worked in spite of its ingredients. As a crimefigther, the character's only real claim to fame was getting the living shit beat out of him on a regular basis. He had no powers, his motivation seemed to be little more than that fighting crime might be a worthwhile way to pass the time. (Oh, he did have an origin, obviously, but his origin was always perfunctory, much like Superman and Batman's origins were in the beginning, just an excuse to get the super-hero on stage with some rudimentary motivation to push him in the direction of the plots.)

The point being, the Spirit is a complicated strip, the reasons why it was so important might not be readily apparent to anyone not already familiar with the form, and the chances of a Spirit film totally missing the mark are pretty high. Especially if you give the film to someone who, while certainly one of Eisner's most vocal admirers, is also almost equally famous for not really "getting" Eisner at all, or rather, understanding the most superficial qualities of the man's work while consciously eschewing, well, everything else. Eisner himself made no bones about this fact, despite his apparent friendship with Frank Miller. (This, while unfortunately, only an excerpt of a longer piece, is a nice snapshot of the tension between the two men, and the slightly facetious mindset that seems to orient the two creators so closely despite their obvious differences.) Gary Groth sums up the difference in attitudes succinctly:
Aesthetically, they share virtually nothing in common. Miller has expressed himself mostly through the trappings of genre — crime, superheroes, occasional forays into sci-fi — whereas Eisner very purposefully eschewed genre after he ended The Spirit in 1952, and even did his best to skirt genre within the Spirit stories. Miller loves to juggle the outsized pop-cult trappings of sex and violence, the more outrageous and in-your-face the better; Eisner's forte had become domestic melodrama and generational sagas where physical violence is conspicuously absent. Miller enjoys pushing boundaries and causing offense (if that's still possible); Eisner has striven for legitimacy among a rarefied cultural elite and frowns upon vulgarity. Miller considers himself more of a popular entertainer; Eisner considers himself a serious artist. Eisner is by temperament or calculation utterly genteel; Miller sees himself as a controversialist and a rebel with all the license that goes with that.

Among Eisner's shortcomings, an inerrant amiability is foremost: the same restraint that keeps many of his later works grounded by an extremely sincere brand of sentiment - that some would call mawkishness - is evident throughout the Spirit. There's nothing "extreme" about the strip at all, and in fact, the protagonist's occasionally bumbling, definitively middle class approach to adventuring was as close to humble in conception and execution as you can imagine a costumed adventurer ever getting. Moreso considering the adventurer's costume is nothing more than a blue suit and domino mask.

I am fairly confident that my fears will be fulfilled when the film is released. Frank Miller has done nothing in his career that indicates he has either the ability or temperament to eschew his own aesthetic prerogatives, even for the sake of hewing closer to the (literal and figurative) spirit of someone else's work. The movie will, of course, have no impact on the strip itself. There are no Spirit collections rocketing up the charts in response to the movie trailer, no 300,000 print runs being drop-shipped to retailers across the nation. The Spirit had already faded from the national consciousness a long time ago, along with Captain Marvel and Plastic Man and Pogo, once ubiquitous cultural brands now essentially the province of hobbyists and academics. So, while for that reason it's hard to imagine very many people coming to the strip as a result of the movie, it doesn't help that the tone put forward in those trailers is so diametrically opposed to the actual tone of the strip.

I could be wrong. I'd love to be wrong. But Frank Miller has spent the last twenty years trying his damndest to turn himself into a living caricature, and an avatar of the way comics' worst and most excessive impulses have been gradually repackaged as a new paradigm in pop culture. It's really just shiny, exploitative shit being shoveled with enough energy to convince the audience that there might actually be real calories, when in fact it has the nutritional content of Cool Whip. The man is a hack, and the only reason he's being allowed to direct The Spirit is because his ideas - deformed, malnourished and derivative as they are - have been proven to make serious money. Given the chance to take the plunge into directing a movie of his own, he chooses instead to tarnish a dead man's family jewels.

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