Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Spirit (2008)

When Frank Miller, the graphic novelist who created Sin City and 300, was asked why he wanted to direct the film adaptation of Will Eisner's groundbreaking comics series The Spirit he said that despite his own hesitations he "didn't want anyone else to do it." If anyone was going to screw up The Spirit it was going to be Frank Miller, and screw it up he has, with enthusiasm, aplomb, a tin ear for dialogue, and a seemingly total lack of knowledge of the cinematic medium.

It is a disaster for sure. Maybe it was doomed to fail. The Spirit was often a super-hero strip in name and mask-wearing protagonist only. Eisner dressed The Spirit in a blue suit, hat, and gloves and only tossed on a domino mask as a concession to superiors to who demanded a costumed crime fighter. The book, which was syndicated and inserted into newspapers throughout the country from 1940 to 1952, could vary wildly in tone and style from one week to the next: a dark piece of pulp might be followed by a whimsical Christmas tale or a bleakly ironic fable. As Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction to DC Comics' collection The Best of the Spirit, "The joy of The Spirit was not in the words, nor in the pictures, but in the smoothness and the brilliance and the willingness to experiment of the storytelling."

Miller's movie bears none of these things, but how could it? A movie could never sustain the number of different genres and moods that Eisner's strip encompassed, could never experiment that freely with pacing or composition. As Eisner's talent as an artist grew, The Spirit became less about mystery or adventure and more about the storytelling potential of the comic book medium itself. It's "pure comics," in the way something like Rear Window might be called "pure cinema." If you ask me — and yes, I'm perfectly aware that you haven't — The Spirit is far more suited to an eccentric, anthology-style cable television show than a blockbuster-style super-hero movie.

But that is precisely what we've got in the form of Frank Miller's The Spirit. Now The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) doesn't just dress like a super-hero, he's got the powers to match, including the ability to heal injuries, even mortal ones, with incredible speed. His arch-nemesis, The Octopus (Sam Jackson), who never appeared on panel in Eisner's comics, shares The Spirit's healing factor, which permits the two to engage in lengthy and utterly meaningless fistfights. What is the point of a fight in which there can be no winner because neither combatant can defeat the other? I have heard The Spirit and The Octopus' fights compared to Looney Tunes cartoons because of the way the two break toilets and bathtubs over each others' heads with no effect and because Miller layered Splats! and Zonks! and other ridiculous sound effects into the audio mix. But Looney Tunes ran 5 minutes; The Spirit runs over 100. Even the greatest Looney Tunes episode would have been repetitive and exhausting at that length.

The Octopus has something to do with the Spirit's immortality, and also something to do with a heist involving an old childhood flame of his named Sand Sarif (Eva Mendes). For reasons that are unclear, he's also got something against eggs. Maybe a bad experience at a Denny's? He's also got Scarlett Johansson as an eager sidekick who appeases his need to dress in outlandish outfits including a samurai get-up and later a full Nazi uniform. As anyone who saw Sin City can tell you, the samurai and swastika fetishes are Miller's not Eisner's.

But, then Miller directs everything like a fetishist: too into his weird little quirks to consider how they might play to someone who, say, doesn't find it innately hilarious to dress as a samurai and throw ninja stars at bald Italian guys; too focused on personal details to observe that they combine into an imperfect whole. He's filled the movie with gorgeous women and disregarded their performances in order to more scrupulously photograph their buttocks. He's jammed his screenplay with dialogue, some of it quite agreeably peppery, but he's so in love with his writing that he's incapable of excising even a single word of it. Characters don't talk to one another but rather towards one another, as if battling one another in a monologue recitation competition. Yes, the film noir movies Miller is making botched homage to involved plenty of snappy dialogue, but the screenplays of films like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past are so precise. The characters don't mince words and they know when to shut up. There is a line between banter and blather, and The Spirit crosses it early and often.

The green screen filmmaking technique used here as in Sin City is such that you can actually film actors at two totally different times and composite them into a scene -- in Sin City, for instance, Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood have a convincing fight scene even though the two never shot a frame of film together. Whether or not that's how Miller shot his actors, The Spirit feels discontinuous in a way Sin City never did, as if the stars all shot their scenes in different places at different times, even sometimes in different eras and different movies. Sarah Paulson as the loyal girl friday character, is endlessly earnest in her role; meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson talks like Jules from Pulp Fiction in Nazi regalia, and fires enormous cartoon guns (another Miller hallmark) while jiggling like Stallone in Rambo III.

I feel like I've outlined a lot of what is wrong with The Spirit, but still feel I've come up short in adequately describing the totality of its dreadfulness. One scene provides the nutshell moment. The Fuhrerpus is on yet another of his wackadoo runs about cloning and immortality and whatever else. He's kidnapped the Spirit, and even though he finally has the key to killing him, he starts talking to him instead of doing the deed. The Spirit, tied to a chair, openly begs him to shut up and get on with it because he's boring him to death. If the characters onscreen are openly acknowledging their boredom, can you imagine what the audience is feeling?

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