Monday, December 29, 2008

Not So Blithe Spirit

Comics fans have a descriptive phrase for an artist who's talented with striking individual panels but weak at the more workmanlike skill of panel to panel storytelling: "All splash, no story." Splash refers to those initial full-page panels at the beginning of an issue that may or may not be directly connected to the story within, but whose main function is simply to catch the eye.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this.

The Spirit (d. Frank Miller)

Will Eisner's The Spirit is a seminal work in the history of comics.

Wait! Non-nerds! Come back! I promise I'll tie this in to stuff you might care about.

Ahem. Anyway, Eisner's Spirit ran as a separate supplement to the Sunday funnies in newspapers all across America from 1940 to 1952. It is not a coincidence that that was the same time that crime dramas in the movies evolved into film noir. Eisner's work was influenced by the cinema, and exerted a great deal of influence on the cinema. Think chickens and eggs.

His Spirit existed in a morally ambiguous generic city (Central City) where criminal grotesques ran rampant, women wielded their charms like switchblades, and the hero was a dead man, mysteriously reborn.

Is it any wonder that Sin City auteur Frank Miller would gravitate to this material?

As reimagined in Miller's Spirit film, Eisner's Spirit disappears and is replaced by Miller's own very distinctive vision. The look of the film is pure Sin City; so much so that this might as well be considered a sequel. Fans of that previous Miller effort -- in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino -- will recognize the style, with it's high-contrast black and white augmented by splashes of lurid color.

And that's the beginning of the problem. Eisner's Spirit is not Sin City. That style, so striking in the earlier film, is completely out of place on this material. The Spirit cries out for a genuine hard-boiled noir treatment, not this computer-doctored fantasmagoria.

When Rodriguez first attempted to convince Miller to let him take a crack at bringing Sin City to the screen, he promised the cantankerous artist that he was not interested in doing an adaptation of the graphic novel. Rather, he had it in mind to translate the work from one medium to the other, preserving the artist's original vision as much as possible. Miller suffers from no such bouts of humility. Eisner's milieu gets tossed out the computer-generated window and what appears on the screen is pure Miller.

And it's a mess. Miller is a fine -- if limited -- film stylist, but he clearly has no idea how to direct actors or stitch together a story on screen. What we get is a jumble of images and would-be cool lines. And exposition. Oh good God in heaven above, do we get exposition. I saw this movie a couple of days ago, but I bet somewhere the Octopus is still explaining his incoherent plot to the bland hero. Death didn't stop him. Why should the end credits?

Gabriel Macht is the title character and he brings to the role all the substance of a masked store mannequin modeling the latest in fedoras and power ties. Also on hand are Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson, decent actresses both, but completely at sea, lost in Miller's lashings of graphic flourishes and nonsensical dialogue. I can't really blame any of them. I don't know that Olivier stuffed inside DeNiro and channeling the ghost of Sarah Bernhardt would have had much of a chance to forge a recognizably human character in the midst of all this hogwash.

The only member of the company who even hints at making The Spirit work in any way shape or form is Samuel L. Jackson. He obviously has an affinity for over-the-top genre material -- that's the only excuse I can think of for his presence in Jumper -- and he attacks his villainous role with exactly the kind of high-energy relish that it demands. But in the end, even he is defeated by the shear volume of dunderheaded explanations the script crams into his mouth.

If Frank Miller is going to continue to pursue film direction, he needs to either hook back up with Tarantino and Rodriguez and let them handle things like story and dialogue and acting, or he needs to go audit a few courses at the USC film school. This is one comic book artist who could do with a trip back to the drawing board.

1 star.

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