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The Spirit (2008)

by on 2010/10/03

Ah, the Autumn:  that time of year when a middle-aged geek’s fancy darkly turns to thoughts of B-movies, monsters, film noir, and sci-fi . . . at least this geek’s does.  Fortunately, to the Normals of the Western world, the month of October is essentially the 31 Days of Halloween, when these fancies are tolerated, if not embraced.

Recently my friendly neighbourhood goth and I had settled ourselves down for such an evening’s entertainment when she suggested dryly, “Sometimes the wrong choice of movie can ruin an evening.”  And I responded, “Geek vs Goth . . . let us ruin our evenings so you don’t need to.”  To our reactions, you could say, The Spirit truly moved us.

Ironically my hopes ran high for this unpopular piece.  I disagree with the Critics and Masses often enough that I hoped for a secret success.  Of its content I knew it was inspired by Will Eisner’s classic crime-fighter comic; of its style I knew Frank Miller was at the helm.  Given my affection for the look of his recent collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, Sin City, perhaps his newest effort would be the one to marry a style I enjoyed with a substance I preferred.  Unfortunately, as with other auteurs of the pop culture canon, it would appear that Miller, left to his own devices, is probably too much of a . . . something something.

In a recurring (and soon-tiresome) motif, Central City figures as one of The Spirit’s many damsels in distress.  “She” is disturbed by a conflict between a mysterious femme fatale, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), and criminal kingpin, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson).  The development of its narrative involves less plot dexterity than it does character archaeology.  The titular Spirit, formerly cop Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), wrestles with amnesia, is guided by visions, assisted by vixens, and forever struggling to weave together the threads binding him to the major players.  Those players come and go . . . or they come and stay to no significant end.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  The rapid-fire developments are less incomprehensible than uncompelling.  The overriding question is:  can your eyes keep you happy if you disconnect your mind?

Of course the satisfaction of your eyes will relate directly to your appreciation of the movie’s obvious artifice.  The filmmaker’s desire to transmediate comic book tropes works well in some instances but not as well in others.  For all the iconic visuals on display, I tripped over an undue share of jarring edits.  The style is strong, but hardly fluid.  To transport a comic’s strengths to a new medium is enviable; to bring along its limitations is not.  The overall picture is a kind of duotone live-acted cartoon.  I don’t dislike it per se . . . it’s not dissimilar to others I’ve enjoyed:  Zack Snyder’s 300, Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the aforementioned Sin City.  The approach is so idiosyncratic, however, that it demands better content for its sponge to become a monolith.  Richard Linklater managed a more successful such marriage in his interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

The Spirit is not all empty imagery but it just as well might be.  Packed past the rafters with over-the-topisms, Miller revels in shallow patter, goofy slapstick, eggs, and toilet gags.  Well, guess what?  A prison needs more than dollar store ornaments to get me hooked on its Nutraloaf.  His movie represents a sort of antithesis to Monty Python.  It doesn’t understand how to combine the bawdy and brains in any effective way.  References to Lorelei, Electra, and Oedipus do more to impart pretense than personality.  And its exploration of the hero/villain relationship is best left to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable.

Really, where were the characters?  As Harvey Keitel explained so memorably in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”  The depth of these caricatures was limited to the labels on their clothing, or the copy on their promotional posters.  When an amnesiac protagonist blunders his way past a succession of fetishistic Aunt Sallys . . . well let’s just say we’ve discovered a strange interpretation of the James Bond archetype — all the women should want him; all the men should want to be him — embodied in a character that makes X-Men’s Scott Summers seem comparatively dashing and complex.  Here’s a tip for storytellers in any medium:  simply telling the audience a character is attractive, intelligent, or otherwise formidable does not necessarily make it so.  It’s hard to believe this visually-driven vehicle got the “show don’t tell” rule wrong.

So, given all these issues, why a second star?  Because The Spirit is one well-presented movie.  The visuals, for my tastes, are never less than interesting.  Yes they pop with a stark simplicity, but I prefer Miller’s bold strokes over the hyper-reality of a Shoot ’em Up or Crank entry, any day.  Further — or perhaps deeper — the score by David Newman feels like a new interpretation of Bernard Herrmann’s work.  While never as overt as the visuals it supports, the music (if you will excuse the pun) does more to infuse its world with spirit than any portion of the script.  In fact I’m quite sure the film would make more sense as a feature-length music video than in its current state as a clotheshorse for cliches.

In a latter year of university, I was required to study various television series, and to identify those elements commonly found in their “average” episodes.  This movie feels like a labour based on the results of such a study, one which mimics so many sources so mechanically it has become an empty parody of itself.  Even an awareness of its own craft is less clever than too clever by half.  There is far less entertainment than exercise here.  The Spirit is sound and fury signifying meh.

* *

Rated PG13/14A for language, nudity, and violence.

108 minutes

  1. Gru permalink

    I wish I had written this.

    Your friendly neighborhood goth.

    • Hacker Renders permalink

      Your comment was the catalyst that made me want to write it.

      So, in a way, we both did.

      In a way.

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