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Hey, Didja Hear About This Movie Frank Miller Directed? Jeff Watches The Spirit

Jeff Lester

Frank Miller has a small role in The Spirit, the movie he wrote and directed, playing a cop by the name of Liebowitz. Miller’s character dies about ten minutes into the picture; his directing career follows suit ninety-five minutes later. Counting me, there were twelve people in the showing I attended and four of them walked out before the movie ended. (Another one snored audibly when I passed him on the way to the head.) Since Miller considers himself a provocateur in the comics world, I wish I could say the four that left stormed out furious, but no: they left with the resigned air of people cutting bait, already figuring which multiplex theater they’d stop by next.

Me, I was busy trying not to succumb to the myth of linear filmmaking–the first twenty minutes had me convinced I was watching the worst movie ever made, the middle hour was tedious, and the last twenty were basically competent although already scuppered by everything preceding it. It was tempting to think Miller had gotten better as things went on.

[More–by which I mean “more amateur Freud than you can shake your father’s stick at”–after the jump.]

Although frequently dull, The Spirit never bored me: the pretty visuals, the constant shout-outs, and the fascinating smear of psychological subtext all kept me preoccupied. I guess that last is to be expected–most of my sub-rudimentary knowledge of Freud comes from Miller’s own comics, where I inferred the Oedipal implications of Daredevil’s origin by Miller’s creation of a female character with a parallel origin named Elektra. (And let’s not get into that sequence from The Dark Knight Returns where Bruce Wayne remembers the death of his parents in super slow motion, his mother’s string of pearls slowly breaking apart in panels separated by shots of Bruce Wayne’s horrified rictus–an evocation of ejaculation in the midst of all that death, the underlying childish Oedipal fantasy become nightmarish reality that causes the guilt that leads Bruce to punish himself with his heroic undertaking.)

So, I admit it. Until I’d seen the first leaked footage of The Spirit from SDCC, the trailers had me thinking Miller’s adaptation would be a canny bit of transference: he would adapt the character best identified with Will Eisner–his artistic mentor, sparring partner, father figure–and savvily usurp it. I figured that was why there were so many Millerisms in the first trailer (so many, many Millerisms) and so few Eisnerisms. To put this even more crassly: if Eisner was the father of Miller’s inspiration then The Spirit was the mother, and Miller was going to put it to Mom nice and good while all of Hollywood cheered him on. Either the movie would be a hit, and everyone would associate The Spirit–and The Spirit–with Miller, or the movie would be a flop, and the mother (and by extension, the father) would be ruined.

(Yes, yes. As Hibbs would say: “Lester, you have issues.”)

But the footage leaked from SDCC made me re-think things: oh sure, The Spirit and The Octopus slugged it out in what appeared to be an overflow of liquid feces–nope, nothing Freudian going on there!–but the banter, the cartoon sound effects, the vaudevillian slapstick…it reminded me, however faintly, of Will Eisner. (Kyle Baker goes on to underline this much more emphatically, and amusingly, than I could ever hope to, here.)

Long before the movie came out, I began hoping that Miller was trying to update Eisner’s Spirit for a modern audience and had tumbled to the idea that the closest analogue to Eisner’s oddball mix of noir and vaudeville, slapstick and sturm-und-drang, melodrama and high yucks, that the audience might know would be…Frank Miller.

Miller’s work–even his later work as a god-damned cartoonist instead of a writer/artist–isn’t Eisner’s, but you can see in the movie a bridge being made to carry Miller’s moviegoing audience of today to Eisner’s comic-reading audience of yesteryear. (That bridge, alas, snaps about ninety seconds in, and the remaining hundred and six minutes are watching the interesting shapes made by the wreckage splintering on the shoals.) For a guy who likes to have draw mustaches and Satanic van dykes on the faces of Jim Lee’s DC Universe, Miller turns out to be a more dutiful son in the pinch than I might have imagined.

Well, at least as far as the father is concerned, anyway. The one fascinating bit Miller adds to The Spirit mythos, at least as far as I’m concerned, is The Spirit’s relationship to women and his city. Although I’m not the best read Spirit fan in the world, I think Feiffer’s explanation in The Great Comic Book Heroes (for all the superheroes of the Spirit’s time) explains The Spirit’s relationship to women nicely:

Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did–but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to hep them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.

Instead of just a modified version of this tack, Miller’s Spirit is a man who is catnip for the ladies, but clearly can’t help flirting back. While proclaiming to love Ellen Doran (Sarah Paulson)–here, a surgeon who keeps sewing his semi-invulnerable body back together–he is haunted by the lost love he shared as a teen with Sand Saref (Eva Mendes, not nearly as bad here as in Ghost Rider, although I should tell you I consider that one of the worst performances in movie history), but capable of flirting with rookie cop Morganstern (Stana Katic), while having visions of the mysterious and thanatic Lorelei (Jame King), and still finding time to make time with Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), etc., etc. (etc., etc.).

Factor in The Spirit’s voiceover referring to Central City, his city, as a woman that needs him, referred to alternately as his lover and, yup, his mother. The Spirit says he loves women, and I’m sure Frank Miller does too, but then why in this movie is embracing a woman equated with embracing death, and a mother is equated with a couple of garbage cans in an alley? Although Miller offers up his props to Sergio Leone in The Octopus’s absurd sombrero in the opening (and the plaintive harmonica near the closing), the parts of The Spirit I enjoyed most–and were disturbed by the most–were when the movie played like Fellini’s done as an episode of the Batman TV show.

There’s shitloads of problems wrong with the movie, mind you: Miller spends so much time trying how to shoehorn Eisner’s work into a modern context (and it’s probably not a good sign that even though I could kind of imagine how the movie might play out on a comic book page by Eisner, I could imagine precisely how it would do so by Miller), he didn’t bother to shoehorn a good story into that. But where else can you see stuff like Samuel L. Jackson playing one scene in blackface, or an African American actor and Jewish actress romping around in Nazi outfits (I still don’t know what to make of the fact that The Octopus, delightfully jumping about and cutting henchmen in half for the hell of it, or dressing up as a Nazi or a samurai or a glam rocker whenever he feels like it, isn’t evil so much as pure unbridled id) or the weird sexual anxiety in a scene where The Spirit loses his pants while dangling from the edifice of a building in the shape of ram’s horns? (Yeah, where’d I get all that crazy Freudian nonsense from, anyway?)

That all of this still manages to be so dull and walk-outable is a testament to the world of difference between the pacing of a filmmaker, who must sculpt time, and a cartoonist, who must sculpt space (and then there’s the cartoonist’s use of their own chops as compared to a filmmaker’s use of their actor’s, which in the case of Eva Mendes is a very difficult task indeed, the woman being essentially chopless). While The Spirit is more or less terrible, it’s interestingly terrible, and even shows promise. With time, Miller could maybe make a movie that could be enjoyed even without the use of vicodin and animal tranquilizers. Hard though it may be to believe, I genuinely hope that, like the title character of his movie, Miller’s directing career is harder to kill than one would expect.

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