RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 26: Anton Corbijn’s “Control” (2007)


Control


The Players…

Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Joe Anderson, James Pearson, Harry Treadaway and Craig Parkinson.


The Story…

A rock biography that attempts to chronicle the life and times of Ian Curtis, the late lead singer of Joy Division, the band that spearheaded the post-punk scene in the UK. Despite eventual success, Curtis’ troubled existence presaged his ending of his own life. Another mythos of a rock icon gone before his time. Tragic? Typical? Intriguing? Perhaps all three. Then again, maybe all rockumentaries are the things of idealism.

“I remember nothing…”


The Rant…

I know that inherently all blogs are narcissistic. We spin our tales, we spout our opinions, we reach out to an audience that are thankful for the right web hit that might sate our egos, which all too often becomes a maw that cannot be fed. I think it comes from our overly-rewarded extrovert culture in these our United States. Everyone’s gotta have their fifteen minutes…or else. Granted it’s not isolated to just the ‘Mericun way of living, but social networking was born nary yonder, and it’s mostly become a reflection of, well, us.

The Interweb allows us all the squishy luxury of having the bully pulpit to jet forth whatever we think, feel, opine and try to compensate for (like that field goal in senior year high school you tanked. Sorry) twenty-four seven. And by the by, I am not above such musings. For forty-plus installments here at RIORI, it’s been a low level version of LOOK AT ME! Hell, essentially that is what all blogs are all about. Yeah. Almost all of them are established to translate personal info into a public forum. RIORI is no different. Unlike a few other blogs—and put this on the record)—I am not exempt.

Just had to get that thing out into the air.

So in that vein, allow me to wax poetic about my salad days spent in college. Quit groaning. Don’t fear. It is relevant to this week’s installment. It’s a winding way however. Come, take my hand…

Like a lot of you folks who were fortunate enough to go there (or had no choice since the army was full), college was probably the equivalent of scales falling from your eyes. All to learn, the wonders and blunders of weed and booze, establishing new relationships—romantic and otherwise—being cut off from whatever bullsh*t high school universe you thought was the be all and end all. To quote Aladdin, a whole new world.

Perhaps you were down with athletics, or found some political cause to spray paint on your banner. Maybe you found a like-minded circle of friends to just hang with at the local bar or coffee house and chew over classwork and the like. Maybe you were a musician, a band geek (like me) and elbowed your way into a trio of goofballs consisting of two guitars and a bass in need of a drummer (this is the point where the blogger is waving his arms frantically).

Or maybe you were just a decent student. I was the last two. Well, the vote’s not in on the student part yet. For those lapping at the narcissistic part of this blog, I got a degree in English and Textual Studies from Syracuse University with multiple minors in Secondary Education, Writing and Continental Philosophy. Namely, I’m a well-educated bullsh*t artist, but one with a sheepskin! I guess that counts for something. Did I mention that I currently make a living as a line cook? Go Gen X!

Another thing that may have happened to you away at college: you might have had your musical horizons broadened. I certainly did.

My time away from home expanded my ears quite a bit. Back in high school being a member of the marching band, I was naturally curious about music. Mostly rock and roll, past and otherwise. My fave musicians at the time (and most still are) were U2, Rush, the Beatles (duh), R.E.M., the Police, the Replacements, the Who, Pixies and the Velvet Underground. With that playlist alone, I earned a lot of scorn, not to mention wedgies. The list indeed—and continues—to on and on.

Once in college, and also still a bando, I glommed on to my peers tastes in music via their recommendations, trading CDs (the original file-sharing protocol) or just catching a beat walking by an open dorm room (that’s how I discovered Swervedriver. Shut up). Being away from the insular cultural backwater that was my stomping grounds, I found myself free to dabble in a holy host of bands that were either unheard of, misunderstood or outright mocked by my unworthy constituents back at my old alma mater minor. I tell you, listen to the “wrong” thing back there and you were pegged as a geek before the term “geek” was en vogue. I used to get barraged with insults from fellow bandos—ostensibly students of music—for enjoying Depeche Mode, the Descendents and New Order.

…Segue…

Circa 1993 I got hip to said pop group New Order. Their latest release then was the Republic album. This may sound funny nowadays, but thanks to MTV I got into this band; NO’s video for “Regret” got some rotation. Being entranced and also being the anal nerd that I was, I sought out every album by New Order. Got ‘em all too, pre-iTunes (or Napster, come to think of it) on disc. Still have them kicking around somewhere. There was this handy-dandy music store a block down from my high school that sold albums at reasonable/pre-Sony Studios prices. They also would sell the geeky sh*t I got so caught up in. The owner sold CDs at a fraction of the then going rate, like nothing was sold for more than ten bucks. To put this into perspective, in the early 90’s you’d go to the mall and had to scrounge up at least 17 bucks for a new CD at The Wall. Again, this was early 90’s prices. Sadly enough, the place eventually closed down. Something about the owner cooking the books. I personally think the guy got squeezed out by the Best Buy that had sprouted up nearby.

Hey. Here’s a curious sub-story, apropos of nothing: I bumped into my German teacher there, a gentle guy who had his kid in tow. I had already scooped up my weekly CD, and quite literally bumped into him. He asked to see what I had bought. It was Lindsey Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle, still a fave of mine today. Apparently being a Fleetwood Mac fan, he approved of my purchase. I hated Fleetwood Mac as an ensemble, but Lindsey’s guitar work caught my attention, so there. Do you know how f*cking freaky it is being down pop culturally with one of your high school teachers? Learn that!

Anyway, in the background against the jeers of whom I figured were musical philistines, I think I heard a subconscious buzzing. There’s nothing wrong with liking left-of-center music. Recall again it was the early 90’s. Nevermind and Use Your Illusion I & II was the soundtrack for the better half of my high school tenure. I was a Rush fan. Still am. I disliked Nirvana. Still do. I had reached a quandary.

It’s at this point in my rambling that I thank my degree from SU.

I was taking this class called Surrealism. No, really. It was a legit class and part of the program I had to take to get the necessary credits. Regardless of the odd criteria, I stuck myself behind the desk. The class consisted of a lot of philosophy and politics on the concept of reality, or multiple realties, or what subverted reality. Right. This was an actual English class by the way.

Not to say that it wasn’t interesting. A small door was left ajar for some very weird ideas to stick in my mind. The class was essentially a symposium, and long, winding discussions and debates actually counted as assignments, designed to probe the minds of not only the students but the teacher as well. Example? I submitted a bulls*tting paper relating to a calculus algorithm to the prominence of Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces as social commentary aside of the UK political climate circa 1979.

*crickets*

Right. I didn’t get laid much.

That being said, my sucks-on-toast essay barely within the parameters of the syllabus deposit. It was later regarded as acceptable under the aegis of the course outline. I was expected to explain my obtuse piece of grade-gathering crapola to the prof with both a naïve and sh*t-eating grin. It passed. You’re welcome.

However someone else in that class one-upped me with the obtuse, but with far less manure. So much so that I caged her act later in the semester. Hers was all so simple, sans mathematical bamboozling. Something simpler about music and it’s reflecting social climes. Once I cleared the wax out of them, my ears perked up. I was a bando, after all. Did I mention that?

Due to the decay of memory I can’t recall her name. I can see her face, but…hell, let’s call her Samantha. I am forever in her debt. For her Surrealism project, Samantha had a neat—though now unfortunately outmoded—presentation about the post-punk music scene in the UK from the late 70s into the 80s  how it reflected…well, you know, whatever. She brought a portable cassette deck with her, and also a custom mixtape (for those of you born after 1995, check Wikipedia) of appropriate songs as cues during her readings. We all had a similar assignment involving going in front of the class requiring us to deliver some academic schpiel, utilizing some tech be it PowerPoint or a website or blah blah blah. Sam a low-tech opportunity to great advantage.

For one of the interludes, Samantha played “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division. I was intrigued. The metallic drumming, the fractured, skeletal guitar, the probing bass runs and of course, Ian Curtis’ sullen, intense voice. Sam educated the class, and especially me that New Order sprung from this band. I was agog. That cheery, danceable synth pop band was born from this moody music? Sam played a few more Joy Division songs. “Transmission,” “Disorder,” “Digital” and on. Trying to keep a long story short, she strangled my attention with JD.

I jaunted over to the indie music store, one free of any charges regarding questionable bookkeeping. Thanks to them, over two semesters I had purchased all of Joy Division’s albums. Their live recordings, the odds and sods, the bootlegs, the etcetera. When the box set came out in ’97…well, again, you get it.

I was enraptured.

In the newb phases as a Joy Division disciple, here’s a kicker: in 1997 rock photographer Anton Corbijn released his huge Famouz coffee table book. The thing was the size of an atlas, pregnant with portraits far and ranging from Sting to Peter Gabriel to John Lydon, and an intro by Bono to boot! I caught a glimpse of this bomb in a pile at the local bookstore. Naturally, being a U2 fan and recognizing Corbijn’s album covers, I cracked the binding. I sh*t you not but it opened to the page of Ian Curtis, singer of Joy Division, squatting on an amp, trying to enjoy a ciggie but hunched over oh so slightly and pinching the bridge of his nose as if warding off a headache. He looked like an elegant reject from Rodin’s studio. “She’s Lost Control” bounced through my head. The book cost fifty dollars. I didn’t have a lot of pocket cash. I bought it regardless with my parents’ “emergency” Visa (I also declared an emergency when Weezer’s Pinkerton went on sale). All in all, Famouz is still a favorite book of mine to thumb through, Curtis’ image not withstanding.

And for all of this, I have Sam to thank sharing my college days with opening my ears a bit wider.

At SU my three fave bands were Sugar, the Jam and Joy Division. As you may have guessed by now, Control is not about Bob Mould’s nor Paul Weller’s follies.

Let’s reel it in. To the matter at hand: the movie!…


Ian Curtis (Riley) is the epitome of lowly. He has a going nowhere education leading to a going nowhere career putting up with fellow nowheres on their way to nowhere. Maybe to the Midlands. As a youth however, he wished he was Bowie, a sexy, provocative pop singer. The idea never escaped his imagination, but would-be pop star dreams don’t pay the bills. A job as an unemployment counselor does, at least to the bottom line. It especially allows paying mind to what things could be. In any case, the nowhere is bearing down on Ian’s so-called life like a careening locomotive with only one track to guide it.

Well.

One night on a pub crawl, just to get away from the f*cking nowhere, Ian meets up with his mates. They’re jamming at their local watering hole with their going nowhere band. As the guitarist declares, “Everything’s sh*te.” Ian can sympathize; the music scene in Manchester is rather blah. The pop scene is stale, not unlike their lives. And there doesn’t seem to be an end to the boredom as well as the wastrels that barrage Ian’s work desk.

Ian gets an idea. He’ll take a shot at their singer. His friends laugh and balk at first. Ian figures, “No matter.”

Then the boys get a lead on a show at local Manchester Polytechnic. Some tosspots from London calling themselves the Sex Pistols are tearing up the stage. They see the sights and Ian, Bernie, Hooky and Stephen (Pierson, Anderson and Treadaway, respectively) realize their band needs to make some sound changes. Literally.

“We’re called Joy Division.”

Theirs is a mutant form of punk rock evolving from the warped Manchester backwaters, these four misfits. Their music is subversive, yes. But with undertones of grey, unlike the epistolary Pistols. Quite left of center, modestly catchy but barely approaching pop. A lot of the credit goes to the once starry-eyed, now determined singer Curtis. But his lyricist chair now has to spend the other half of his default life with the British unemployed: miserable, disenfranchised and f*cking broke, spiritually and otherwise. Or instead live the life as frontman for a new and fast approaching critically laudable band. Looks like there aren’t similar prospects available as Ian faces on the daily. This terrifies him. And who would it not?

But really, there’s this new band to consider; the office job just is something between gigs. It really might be his best way out. To be like Bowie, but better. To transcend all that rubbish. Oh, yes. He’s a recent family man; very un-rock and roll. He’s also a drinker; very rock and roll. He’s also a recently diagnosed epileptic, now on a regimen of pills (which he ignores). Not rock and roll, either. It seems that the waves and eventual riptides of life might become too much pressure than Ian can endure. So a choice has to be made. Is it either it being a pop star, a husband and father, a cripple…or a legacy…?


I have a lot to say about this film. No surprise there. Chalk it up to the narcissistic screed I opened this installment with, okay?

First, I sincerely don’t know why this film tanked at the box office. I mean it was expertly shot by an esteemed rock photojournalist; if you are uninitiated with Corbijn’s work, check out the cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree as a prime example. The man knows his way about cameras and rock stars. The movie has a solid story, with plenty of true-to-life interpretations (“You all forgot Rudolf Hess!”) expected in a docudrama, and pretty decent acting to boot. What more could one ask for in a rockumentary (a term I’ve always hated)?

Hm. Well…

A while back I said I swore off indie films (check out the Jesus’ Son installment), but the subject matter here naturally interested me, and it also fell under the auspice of The Standard. I still do believe most indie films are made with no real intention of making a profit, at least by Hollywood standards. Such films, by my research, at least accrue enough to cover the movie’s budget. Not Control. Granted, it had limited release. It did, however show at my local community theatre. I reside in the aforementioned cultural armpit of PA, where the stats of the local high school football teams are taken way too seriously, and local elections are decidedly not. To think that any iteration of Joy Division’s legacy came here…Well, that’s for another story. However, even with only a handful of screenings out there, some gains would’ve had to be made. This film garnered a lot of critical praise, but that often doesn’t translate into respectable box office sales. Even to compensate for the meager budget Control had.

To put it into perspective, not too long ago I was watching the indie—or at least under the radar—flick Nebraska with my father. Ol’ Dad’s got the streaming Netflix on his TiVo and wanders through whatever catches his eye on a given night (mostly foreign soft-core porn; God bless streaming). This inadvertently dictates what that evening’s viewing would be. I came over, crashed on the couch, and tuned in if only to watch Bruce Dern’s antics; he is a choice actor of mine, always playing charming, madcap characters. His portrayal in Nebraska was decidedly not madcap, but still charming, and his performance there garnered him his first Oscar nom for Best Actor as well as my usual respect. It was a good film. It had a wider release than the likes of Control. It got tons of critical praise. It did kinda sh*tty at the multiplex.

What I’m getting at is that based on relative example, my personal experience and me reading the numbers. Literally The Numbers. It’s a movie money website that gives one all the ups and downs financially of all, all, the movies out there. Its statistics are eye-opening to say the least. Again, there really isn’t a reason why Control failed to catch on around the indie circuit, even with minor promo from the media. It mostly ended up a “break even” kind of situation.

In sum, it was a failure.

I outright blame the subject matter. Not unlike my reaction to Sam’s presentation, you could either have been knocked out of your chair or knocked away from the theatre by this movie, purposely marching towards the exit with your head hurting. It’s not like (ugh) rockumentaries can neither be popular nor lucrative. Scorsese’s bio of the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light was both laudable as well as profitable, not to mention the granddaddy of all rock-docs, Woodstock. Then again, there was U2’s abortive Rattle and Hum, as well as the Germs’ history, What We Do Is Secret. Within the parameters of the musical, historical documentary/biopic—with all its nuances and attention to both detail and trivia—Control was ultimately a niche movie about a more or less cult band (at least here in the US). The target audience on this side of The Pond would be few and far between.

Ultimately, a good movie’s a good movie, regardless of how many ducats are gathered. Or fail to. Control is a good movie. It’s not a great movie. In some ways it’s pretty formulaic. Average Joe as aspiring rock star, with all the joys and pitfalls that come with that. But Control is a sturdy little film. It’s rock solid—no pun intended—in its execution, albeit familiar.

And as the star—our avatar—Riley makes for a serviceable Curtis, or at least who audience are to believe is the man. Riley doesn’t really look like Curtis, but is boyish as he was. In both appearance and youthful naïveté, Riley is quite good at emoting with his face. There are some actors typified by having stony expressions (e.g.: Wayne, Eastwood, Willis, etc). Riley, though not as well-known as most, Riley’s bright features work wonders for us witnessing him grow from clear-eyed to realistic to depressed over the span of the film. Specifically, as for getting a feel for the doomed frontman, Riley does the majority of his acting with his eyes. The world we see is his, both figuratively and literally. This world is very small in Riley’s eyes, but just over the horizon there could be something…else. Curtis the man was not iconic, but rather the anti-iconic. Typical working-class drudge in a city full of them. Like I said, typical rags-to-rags story of the man who might be king, if not for his drawbacks. It’s a formula, yes. But it’s a tried and true one, and for the most part, it works here.

Samantha Morton as Curtis’ wife Debbie is the true actor in this movie. She gives, as they say, “great face” albeit a tad fragile. She’s the one who has the range of emotions to draw on here, unlike some of the more wooden characters that populate Control. Debbie is timid, fragile and at the same time strong as the anchor that tries to keep Ian grounded. Her role as the constant reminder of his duties as family man and breadwinner first and being Bowie second is strong. From her performance comes the element of conflict that drives the story. And boy, as the story unfolds does the conflict do a number on our hero. Ian’s downward spiral starts early, but gradually, and Debbie is there to reflect all of it to us.

Of course the soundtrack is great. Riley’s voice is pretty good, too. I kinda feel that the actors were picked mostly for their musical prowess first and their acting—although serviceably decent—chops second. And they are playing their own instruments for the film too, which is nice. All too many rock movies seem to have the actors merely ape for the camera. As for the rest of the supporting cast, all have their needful parts to play. I find Anderson a standout. As Hooky, he plays the stalwart with belligerence and wry wit. As evidenced from his acrimonious and very public split from New Order, the real-life counterpart seemed rather aggressive, not unlike his lead basslines, a key component of both bands. His was the heavy, the tough bloke who could be seen as the flipside of the mostly gentle, somewhat timorous portrayal that Riley presented.

I could make a case that the the pseudo-mockumentary 24 Hour Party People could be a companion piece to Control. I mentioned that movie in the previous installment covering Tristam ShandyParty People did cover in brief the short, misspent life of Joy Division, especially the inner turmoil that plagued the early years of the band. That was a movie that had its tongue firmly in cheek, whereas Control plays out as a dark ride. However, like Control, Party People possesed the air of discovering music from the outside in, rather than the other way around as it is here. Again, in the self-important sentiment I relayed earlier, here’s a story. A confessional as may be.

When in college, I was with a girl whom I gained to be more adept with indie music than I. She loved the Pixies and also Rush as I did. She exposed me to Sugar’s single “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” I immediately became a Bob Mould disciple. She shined me on to Buffalo Tom, Tori Amos and others. She was personally a dead end, but as for musical broadening expanses, I thank her. Here’s the curious part: she never heard of New Order, and even less about JD. Not long after we had broken up, and I was hip deep in my manic music collecting, she politely confronted me one day and asked me to explain Joy Division to her. Not listen to, explain. She never heard the albums (but she eventually picked up their mediocre compilation Permanent). She was almost a bit miffed at not knowing a band that I more or less organically discovered on my own. At any rate, I played for her Closer. She didn’t like it. I think it’s great. A line in the sand was drawn. Did you ever notice how cagey we get when we’re into our pet bands about sharing close info on them; the stuff only you think should be known?

…Where was I going with this?

Right. Discovering music from the outside in. A message—more like a subtext—in Control is about discovery. Mostly from within. Riley demonstrates his character more or less shoulders his way into the music scene. Sure, he’s a Bowie nut, but the persona on stage is decidedly not Bowie. If you ever get a chance to see archive performances of JD, you can watch Curtis virtually channel his epilepsy into his frontman skills. Riley follows music from the outside in, and Corbijn’s once again solid eye for catching rock ‘n roll on film does not waver. Let’s face it: the best technical aspect of Control is the cinematography.

Corbijn is a photographer, and his cinematic eye reflects that. The framing is understandable Corbijn. Everything is deliberate and centered. No space is wasted, and a lot—I mean a lot—of the close up shots are designed to place the actors’ faces squarely front and center. Simply put, everything is tight, almost claustrophobic. There are virtually no panning shots, another reflection of Corbijn as photographer, and what there is of them are rather angular and affecting. There is a real nifty scene where the boys are watching the Pistols perform for the first time. Every actor has a unique facial expression, distinguishing each of their inner emotional gears a’turnin’. You can almost see the lights going off in their collective heads.

Seeing that Control is a bio, it comes as no surprise I’ve been harping on that the acting and portrayals are the guts of the movie. The atmosphere is thin, verging on (perhaps) deliberately nonexistent. The nascent, final delivery of atmosphere only comes at the end, (SPOILER ALERT!) and depicts a tasteful suicide scene, as any. Sigh. Like I said, the story is a familiar one, almost a pigeonholed folk tale. Still, though plain, the acting is durable enough to make Control compelling enough to see how the story unfolds, even if we as the audience knows how it ends. They key is how it gets there, and the undercurrent of doom is well-conveyed by our cast of simple, but effective actors.

Apart from the messages of discovery and loss, Control ultimately offers a kindly, practical glimmer of what it’s like to be a “rock star” minus the assumed bangles and beads. At heart, the film is a journey. One of two marriages. One with Ian and Debbie and one with Ian and the band. And perhaps a third: love of an ideal. Despite the well-tread plot and solid, but somewhat hollow acting, Control does its best to dignify the old-as-time story of fallen hero. It’s tasteful, honest and colorful at times (despite Corbijn’s trademark black-and-white imagery). It rocks and it rolls, and it’s not an embarrassment.

Oh yeah, one last thing. Remember that comment I made years ago about boosting Samantha’s act? Let’s just say that Ned’s Atomic Dustbin makes a very poor example of the seeds of the “Madchester” scene being sown. No matter. I’d always enjoyed the Stone Roses but never liked—but it would have been smarter to cite—the Smiths anyway.

Okay. Show’s over. You can quit throwing beer cans now.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but be warned. This is more or less a cult film about a cult band, at least outside of Britain. Control is one for the fans, but it’s also a good introduction to the band. It’s there if you want it.


Stray Observations…

  • “So you really looking for a singer then?”
  • 24 Hour Party People had better ringers for JD, but these guys act a tad better.
  • On the contract scene: yes, they all signed in blood, that’s on the record. But guitarist Bernie Sumner (nee Dicken) went by Bernard Albrecht during his tenure with JD. Right, commence tossing your beer cans this way again.
  • “Up the continental with the rental.” The endless drudgery of being on the road; there’s no real glamour here.
  • Peter Hook and Stephen Morris are one of the most underrated rhythm sections in pop. They’re up there with Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, Mark Sandman and Billy Conway of Morphine and McCartney and Ringo, for that matter.
  • “I told her.” Ugly.
  • Is that why the prophetic “Auto-Suggestion” is such a long track?
  • “I’ve taken my pills.”
  • As a gateway, I recommend JD’s Unknown Pleasures album, their compilation Substance: 1977-1980, New Order’s Substance: 1987 and Low-Life. Y’know, if you’re curious.

Next Installment…

Start rubbernecking. Witness Los Angelenos of all stripes Crash in on each other’s lives.


Advertisements

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 25: Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” (2005)


Shandy


The Players…

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Raymond Waring, Dylan Moran and Keeley Hawes.


The Story…

This postmodern mockumentary chronicles a valiant yet hapless attempt to make a film adaptation of the autobiographical The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, a complex 18th-century tale by English writer Laurence Sterne. It’s a movie about a movie that can’t be made into a movie but tries anyway. Art marches forward.


The Rant…

I don’t know where I got my sense of humor. No wait, I do. But first I know it didn’t come from my family (unless you can count that due to them being the endless brunt of my antics), nor did it come from watching many sitcoms, especially those from the last decade (sorry, Family Guy). Or books for that matter, not really. Okay, to fair if you count Dave Barry then, yeah.

But note I said many sitcoms. There was one that really tickled my fancy: Night Court. Perhaps a lot of you Gen Xer’s remember it. It was a program rife with wacky situations, demented characters, zany antics and, of course, witty dialogue. I did and still do quote that show offhandedly in my everyday talk. Not that anyone these days get any of the references. Something about a show that takes place in ostensibly a very serious setting—or be it taking place after hours, when all the rats come out of their sewers—and plays out like series of Marx Brothers movies on blackies really made me laugh. I guess I learned to appreciate absurdity at an early age.

There were also two other TV series that smacked my funny bone around. In middle school I got turned on to Monty Python, much to my parents’ chagrin (they didn’t get it. They didn’t let me hold the remote control when it came on PBS. Or on MTV, oddly enough). But I got it. It was finally in college that I figured out what their schtick was all about: Brits being very serious about being silly. A tough line to toe. That dry British humor paired with how to not be seen, dead parrots, a cheese shop with no cheese and, of course, Vikings singing the praises of Spam I found riotous. And like a lot of other geeks, I endlessly quote that show, too. Sure, it can get annoying at times—especially if you’re trying to watch Holy Grail again and someone won’t stop narrating the lines verbatim along the bloody thing—but funny is funny, and is always the perfect steam valve to release the social tensions of our demanding and demented culture.

Finally, the third TV show I was enraptured with was Fox’s Comic Strip Live. It was that network’s answer to Saturday Night Live. Whereas the competitor’s show dealt in sketch comedy, Strip was all about the comedians. It was an hour of about five comics doing their bits in front of a mike, an audience and nothing else. It turned me on to stand-up (I even tried comedy myself at local open mikes, with mixed returns). Thanks to Strip, by extension, the acts turned me on to what are now my fave comics to this date. George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Henry Rollins (yes, him) and Lenny Bruce I credit to my obnoxious, ever-developing sense of humor. Granted none of those guys were ever on Strip, but the show got my mojo humming about hearing and learning more.

Needless to say the work of those folks were and still are not the hit in Columbus. Still, regardless of what Middle America—which is not a place but a mindset, by the way—deems funny, I understand what a sense of humor is. Humor is the most sophisticated of emotions, where fear being the most basal. Saying that, comedy is at its best when it draws on the fears of the audience. Lenny Bruce calling out his audience as being a bunch of crackers, goys, n*ggers, sp*cs and slants (due to social sensitivities, I’m not sure how’s the best and appropriate way to edit racial slurs. Forgive me, I’m not really a racist; I’m an American) and then asking them to punch him is meant to be funny. But not really. Remember in Mel Brooks’ History of the World when Bea Arthur asks Brooks, “Have you bullsh*tted today?” There you have it. I do it daily. Blame John Larroquette and Hicks and Carlin.

And for this particular film dissection, blame John Cleese too…


When I first heard about Tristram Shandy it was on the old, dependable NPR affiliate. You know, public radio movie reviews that exclusively cover obscure, art-tastic and often self-consciously pretentious flicks that no one has ever heard about and maybe only a handful will actually see, myself included (I’m such a geek). Its premise wedged a couple of questions into my brain. One, who’s Tristram Shandy? Sounds familiar, though I don’t know from where. Isn’t that a cocktail?

And two, what the hell’s a “cock and bull story?”

I actually looked that part up. According to my resources, a “cock and bull story” widely means “a ridiculous tale” or the American counterpart, “a shaggy dog story.” Those are the casual definitions. The source of this term stems from two British taverns in the 18th or 19th Centuries. Both taverns, dubbed the Cock and the Bull respectively, were down the street from each other. Like most bars, they had their regular clientele. Occasionally, with being DUI not a real issue back then since there were no cars, patrons from either tavern would “have a row” in the street. Trouble brewing. In any case, a “cock” and “bull” story related to the notion that neither of those two animals would or should ever associate with one another. Only trouble and/or nonsense would occur. In sum, a “cock and bull story” roughly translates to “bullsh*t.” The current polite definition is “a fanciful tale.” Sounds like trademark British politeness if you’d ask me. If any of you have ever staggered out past closing time from your favorite watering hole and seen the usual folderol that pukes out onto the street, well, you get the idea.

Part two: Who was Tristram Shandy? Nobody. A character cooked up by writer Laurence Sterne more or less reflecting his life and times. Sort of a jovial flipside to Jack Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining. Meaning, the author was unaware, at least on vestigial level that he was writing about himself. Or perhaps not. In any matter, the book was supposed to be a spoof on the self-aggrandizing bios on other privileged lads whose lives are much more interesting in their minds rather that in reality. In other words, Sterne was bullsh*tting the readers. It was all a grand joke, wrapped up in stuffy British bowdlerized idiom. What possessed Winterbottom and Coogan to make a film adaptation about this lark are beyond me.

I’m gonna forgo the usual synopsis here, because this film is virtually plotless. The premise is simple enough. Director Winterbottom and star Coogan are trying to make a movie adaptation of Tristram Shandy. Steve Coogan stars as Tristram Shandy, and his father Walter Shandy, and as himself. He also acts as the film’s narrator. Coogan kindly takes us under his wing and escorts us around the sets, introduces cast members as well as crew (are those really the crew members? I’d like to think so, but then again Shandy winks and nods a lot) and tries to convey what is going on in both the film and the efforts everyone is making to get Shandy to celluloid. That’s all. Well, there’s a lot of witty banter and Coogan and company fluffing themselves up like peacocks to make damn sure that the audience knows what a big deal it is to make this icon of a novel into a grand cinematic event.

It’s all bullsh*t. And that’s the point.

The movie has a deft intertwining of story, commentary, drama, meta and, well, more meta. Some history too. But it’s all spun together in this throwaway style that if you’re not in the proper mood, you’ll just get frustrated and kill the Blu-Ray player. You need to keep your attention close in this Moebius strip of a movie. I call it that because everything seems to wrap around everything else, and the movie goes nowhere. But is this the point? Is this part of the humor? I mostly found it frustrating.

Shandy however does appeal towards my Monty Python-esque sensibilities. Witty, angular, quite British and painfully self-aware. In fact, self-aware is the very blood that courses throughout the film. Without it, as far as I’m concerned, there would be no film. There barely was to begin with. Again, veers. Like Python, the humor here is very dry. If you’re not into that sort of humor it won’t register. There’s also a lot of that meta-humor I’ve been poking at; a lot of throwaway lines and comments that hint to the audience, “This is all bullsh*t, y’know.” It’s all snicker-worthy and very clever, but clever doesn’t not compensate for Shandy being a film about nothing. Was that the point of the novel? I never read it. I was almost grateful for Coogan’s presence as Coogan, him breaking the fourth wall at random intervals to keep the audience in the know about what the f*ck is going on. By the way, is the commentary by Coogan for the audience’s benefit or the director’s? Everything is so scattershot and winking that’s it’s nigh impossible to tell where the film ends and the joke begins. Maybe that is the joke. This is British humor we’re dealing with here. Like Python, Shandy is only laugh-out-loud in key moments, the rest of the time it’s just snickers.

I found what was curious is that Winterbottom and Coogan collaborated on a similar film structure in 24 Hour Party People, a kind-of sort-of biography of music producer Tony Wilson. He was well known for promoting a lot of now legendary bands from Manchester, England. Coogan portrayed Wilson and acted as narrator, too, often breaking the fourth wall. The gimmick to that film was actual people from the Manchester music scene made cameos and commented on the action around them, having lived it and giving their version of the story. That and the film worked. It was all very entertaining and dare I say educational. The whole breaking the fourth wall and narrating worked very well for Party People, as did the humor and—for lack of a better word—whimsy.

Why did it not work for Shandy? Two things: there was no real story, and this kind of humor is not stand-alone funny. Party People had a more-or-less straight, linear progression. There was nothing of the sort here, and that being part of the humor (the Moebius strip again) just resulted in a lot of banging one’s head against a wall. Granted that Party People was not a comedy, not outright, but it was a sort-of documentary about an aspect of Britian’s pop cultural history, not unlike Shandy. Unlike Shandy, Party People was firmly about something, and humor was used to accent certain scenes within context. In Shandy, the context keeps shifting. That was the nature of the book and its eventual film adaptation. There was next to nothing to hold onto, save Coogan, and he was f*cking with the audience the entire movie, which was supposed to be the style of humor. Despite all the Python I watched since childhood, I couldn’t stop scratching my head.

It’s real hard to critique Shandy. Perhaps “analyze” would be a better term. You end up picking this thing apart like the turkey the day after Thanksgiving, looking for the good parts leftover. Problem is that whole “Moebius strip” thing. If the movie doesn’t go anywhere (and that may very well be on purpose), no manner of scrutiny is gonna satisfy the basic need of storytelling. There’s no conflict, just a bunch of witty one-liners and absurd sight gags. Not much meat left on the bone. That and in the final analysis, all that ribbing, although funny, just gets grating after awhile. “Cloying” would be the operative word here.

Nevertheless, despite the setup appealing to my pleasantly abrasive sense of humor, I found myself the one who ending up chafed. And the hell of it is I can’t figure out whether or not all that circular humor was done on purpose or not. I respect Shandy for it’s gall; for what it attempted (whatever it was), and for Coogan and Winterbottom in trying to make this a film. But it didn’t make a film.

Did it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? I’m gonna relent it. Again we have a struggle: clever, arty film or a big middle finger to the audience? YOU DECIDE.


Stray Observations…

  • “I’ll show you the cock in a minute…heh heh.”
  • Is the act of scurrying about everywhere an aspect of British light physical comedy? If so, it works.
  • An Asian guy with a British accent. Recalling my earlier difficulties, there’s sumpin ya don’t see ev’ry day!
  • “Meat curtains?”
  • Always, always wind the clock.
  • “That was gonna be a sitcom.”

Next Installment…

“And she turned around and took my by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost Control again’…” A bouquet to whomever recognizes the lyrics.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 24: Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” (2008)


Spirit


The Players…

Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria and Scarlett Johannson (…again).


The Story…

Rookie cop Denny Colt returns from the beyond as The Spirit, a hero whose mission is to fight against the sinister forces alive in Central City. But what are truly the “bad forces” in his angel, the City? Does he invite them, culture them, or thwart them? Or is it all three? Perhaps it’s all just a memory…


The Rant…

I’ve been a scholar of Will Eisner. So has Frank Miller. I’m a fanboy. Also Miller. I’ve never met Eisner. Miller has. His failure. I still got my fanboy worship imagination goin’ on. Miller has met the god, politely danced on his name with jolly-jollies and carried on. With a laugh. I laugh, with courtesy and respect, as when I page through Eisner’s book in all their guises. I get a chuckle, a wow and a smile. I think Miller cackles in jest. In sum, I dislike Frank Miller. I respect him and his work. But I believe, as a poor-ass fanboy, I respect Eisner more.

Here’s a story. More like a philosophical musing…

When I was in college, one of the quintessential 90’s bands came to town. They were the Mighty Mighty BossTones (quit laughing), an esteemed (at that point in time) ska/rock band that offered big sounds and danceable beats to any dissociated youth that wanted something other than their dad’s Damned albums. At my alma mater, slightly before they broke through, I caught their gig in the most diviest dive bar this side of Nome. The sound quality sucked. Puke drunk frat-heads kept trying to get on stage. When the guitarist drove the neck of his axe into the ceiling, well, the show was over. One by one the band queued out through the back door, like a soup line, shamefaced but not really bummed that the gig had been blown. I of course sought autographs.

Here’s the tale from that fateful night. I had hard time gathering the autos from each of the band members. Before the show kicked, the players were mingling with the bar crowd. Remember, they had already been signed and had a few respectable albums in the can. What rock band does that, even at a club gig? At the time I was dabbling in playing drums. Never went anywhere, but for every show I caught, from Frank Black to Buffalo Tom I always caught the band’s drummer’s scribble as if I would absorb their skills. At the time of the show, and maybe as it still is, one Joe Sirois was the BossTones’ skinsman. He had crucial realm. A nice sharp sound like Topper Headon (I’ve been a big Clash fan since middle school). I had to nick his signature. I watched him not unlike a stalker as he quaffed longnecks and shot pool with the locals to kill time before the show. He was a diminutive fella, looking like a younger, friendlier Joe Pesci from GoodFellas. I recall as watching him play pool that he had the tendency to shake hands with his opponent at every and any opportunity with each shot. I guessed he was feeling buzzed. Nevertheless, the pool games went away and the show had to kick. He shuffled his way towards the dressing room and I cornered him. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Mr. Sirois, can I have your autograph?” I extended the flyer I stripped from a telephone pole. His eyes fluttered. As if by radar, a clutch of drunken patrons encircled us and demanded autographs too.

A guy said, “Yeah! Sign my flyer!”

His friend said, “Mine too!”

Their lady friend turned her back to us and shouted, “Sign my shoulder!” She had a BossTones sticker on the back of her jacket.

Sirois looked at me, aghast, wavering his beer like a censer and exclaimed, “Wow! No one ever asks me for my autograph! Sure, sh*t, I’ll sign anything!” And he proceeded to sign anything that resembled a flat surface with the fervor of a junkie en route to an orange grove.

Point?

Don’t pay your respects to your idol without regarding respect of the legacy. In the case of a band, nodding your head to the so-called minor, “unappreciated” elements of the group may result in the best results possible. The lead singer always gets the lions’ share of the attention, but the audience always bounces to the rhythm. The best of the whole may result from the strengths of the few. Minimalism minus ego makes for a purer form. Put your ego aside believing it to be tribute might result in a better art. Another way, Dicky Barrett was an arrogant ass. Frank Miller follows this archetype. And I failed to see what all the hoopla was over The Dark Knight Returns when it was so obvious Batman was heading that way (thanks to Miller’s derisive schism with Marvel after his amazing run on Daredevil) anyway.

So who was Will Eisner? In sum, he created the comic book. An unsung master of the art form, more so a guy who invented the modern comic book format, as we know it today. Before Eisner, it was just pen-paper-words-lather-rinse-repeat. Yawn. Thanks to Will, we have depth of perception and stream of story from panel to panel smacking of the important words-and-images, show-AND-tell function that makes comic books so great. The daily funnies offer lots of bouquets to Eisner. In short, he was the most influential artist in his medium after Walt Disney (C’mon. even he had to have a rival).

Again, what’s my f*cking point, and what does it have to do with comic book movies? Well, if you’d read the aforementioned, and follow with the folderol, you can mend the disconnect…


There’s trouble afoot in Central City. It seems there’s always trouble afoot here. The kind of trouble that the cops can’t handle alone. Whether it be purse-snatchers, killer thugs, gangbangers or the occasional scheming villain with a flair for spectacle, sometimes it’s a little too much for Central City’s Finest to handle.

That’s when you need a man with connections. Or in this case, no more connections.

Officer Denny Colt (Macht) was shot down in the line of duty, protecting the city that he loved. But he didn’t die. Instead he went off the radar, into the shadows, still keeping abreast of all the nefarious deeds going down in the city. He adopted the mantle of “The Spirit,” the guy who could get things done when others can’t. In this case that means the police, who are often hampered with the usual cop things like procedure and paperwork. Not Colt, not as the Spirit. Using his wit, grit and a few helpful hookups with his inside man, Detective Dolan (Lauria), the Spirit defends the city without having to answer to anyone. No bureaucracy. No due process. Nothing but fists and brains to get the job done. Jobs no ordinary cop could tackle.

Jobs like the matter of the Octopus (Jackson).

The Octopus is a jack-of-all trades kind of villain. Relishing violence and power, and always the bane of the tenacious Spirit, the Octopus has cooked up a plan that finally, finally will rid him of his opponent. That and have the city fall right into his hot little hand. More of a fist, and an immortal fist at that.

The Octopus seeks a vital serum called the “Blood of Hercules.” Instead of a mindless ransacking of points on the map to acquire his quarry, his quest becomes more of a business transaction. With his trusty and shrewd femme fatale secretary Silken Floss (Johannson) getting his back (and who very well may be the true boss of the operation), The Octopus makes his way across the city and dell to find the sources of this fabled serum. What is curious is the source of this life-giving elixir may not be at some point afar. Perhaps it may lie in the bowels of Wildwood Cemetery.

Where The Spirit’s not-so-secret lair resides…


A few months back, I was faced with the daunting task of covering a movie that I did not want to do. It was Push, and that sci-fi, espionage, supernatural boondoggle which appeared to have been edited via Cuisinart was so impenetrable, so sloppy, so stupid that I was fool enough to watch it twice in case I didn’t “get it” the first time. I was moron. Not to brag, but I have two and half degrees from esteemed houses of learning. This illustrates that despite a college education, I seem to continuously peck the switch on the right, get shocked and ignore the switch on the left that gives out the alfalfa pellet. The Spirit is one side of this particular test.

Guess which one?

I could not sit still watching this movie. Not that I was arrested by its tension. It more was akin to driving way too long and becoming increasingly aware with each passing mile how much my rear was aching. My eyes kept drifting or rolling up into my head. My attention wandered, only to have it rudely yanked back to the screen to witness another scene of ridiculousness. Unlike the antics in Push, I could follow what was going on in The Spirit. I just didn’t want to.

The Spirit’s execution is an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s a very stylish movie, echoing Miller art and his way with a word. Stylish is the watchword here, not unlike both Miller’s and Eisner’s work. But quite unlike Eisner’s work, Miller plasters this creation with overwrought noir atmosphere, pointless artiness that distracts rather than engages and a goofball plot that would feel more at home in a Hanna-Barbara serial than a crime fiction vehicle. The thing reeks of Miller having his fingers in way too many pies, trying to simultaneously prove his mettle as writer/director and hammer home how vital the legacy of the Spirit is, a comic book hero that only fellow comic book heads care about, let alone have heard about. I understand that Miller is trying to do Eisner’s work some justice, but he overloads it with his ironclad storytelling methods creating a mélange of clichéd crime noir paired with (pointless) supernatural undertones. In short, Miller let himself get carried away.

Not that an artist dabbling in cinema will almost always fail. Although less well known from his painting, Dali was a filmmaker of some repute, so that says something. And although I haven’t seen it, I’ve been told that Miller’s collaboration with pulpy director Robert Rodriguez’s adaption of Sin City is quite the film; proof that the style and execution of a comic book film can be the epitome of art and commerce in the genre if the creator has a direct hand in the making of the movie. For example, think how much better the first Fantastic Four movie might have been if both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were on the sidelines giving orders. It might have worked. However with The Spirit we have two problems in trying to bring the comic the screen in this instance:

  1. Will Eisner is dead; and
  2. Frank Miller has quite the ego.

Well, maybe not so much an ego. Call it hubris. I’m willing to wager that since Miller was a disciple/friend of Eisner—also learning a few things from the master—and Miller’s Sin City was a success, that Hey! I can make a movie too! I already got the go-ahead from the original source, and boy howdy shucks Rodriguez shore made it look eazy!

Bzzzzzt! Wrong. Tell ‘em what he’s lost, Bob.

What makes The Spirit notable is what it’s lacking, rather than what substance it possesses. It’s very hard for me to separate myself from the knowledge and affinity for Eisner’s work on the page and its eventual warping on the silver screen. First and foremost, Eisner’s work was crime noir, yes, rife with femme fatales, gritty street violence and obscure mysteries that only an outsider like the Spirit could tackle. But the Spirit was an average guy, not some supernatural, super-powered vigilante like the movie implies. In fact, adding a lot of mumbo-jumbo robs the character of his appeal. A large facet of the Spirit’s personality was later channeled by another cinematic action hero: John McClane (in the first Die Hard anyway). Bruce Willis’ everyman cop was smart, tough and yet vulnerable. He used his brains as well as his gun to try and rescue his wife, thwart Hans and get the f*ck out of Nakatomi Tower in one piece. And he got the stuffing kicked out of him in the process. In the funny books, the Spirit used his wit, his fists and his cunning to get the job done. He failed almost as often as he succeeded, and he got the snot beat out of him a lot. He lost as many fights as he won. You gotta be down with an underdog hero like that; American audiences practically live for the underdog.

The superhuman claptrap that Miller surrounds the Spirit with in his re-interpretive vision is not only superfluous, but also utterly stupid. The Spirit of the movie is no underdog. He’s the guy that can do anything, always on top of his game, always the hero. And that’s it. He’s the hero. And no one questions it. I wonder if even the majority of movie going audiences questioned it. I sure did, and not just because of my understanding of the comic book character. Any hero, movie or otherwise, who’s the hero just by being the hero isn’t the hero. He’s a cipher. There’s no room for emotional investment with a character like that. Gussying up a blank slate character with fantastical gunk does not an engaging personality make. Ever.

I’ve established that there is the element of Miller’s signature “grim ‘n gritty” style to this film. It’s unnecessary and comes off as kind of campy. The Spirit I recall was measured, shambolic and tongue-in-cheek mixed with police procedural and human drama. The original Spirit had a spritely sense of humor, not an on-the-nose one like Miller’s. Subtlety and nuance? There’s nary any of that here. Not on Miller’s palette. It’s all style and Miller trying to shoehorn in what he thinks the Spirit should be, which appears to be a supernatural cop with a lot of posturing and madcap violence.

The Spirit‘s not all sh*t, though. As with almost all cruddy movies—comic book adaptations or otherwise—there are a few diamonds in the rough. Take our lead, newcomer Gabriel Macht. He has the delivery right. He speaks his lines with perfect conviction. Despite the throwaway lines and bad jokes, Macht nails it. His body language is terrific; Miller’s Spirit, despite his myriad flaws, gets the feel of the dialogue right, even if there are a lot of turkeys. Miller wrote the script after all, and although there was a charming goofiness to the comic, there was never such a broad yet blunt style like we see here. Is this an attempt at irony? Deliberately corny? Self-effacing? Again, Macht had the conviction and magnetism to delivery his lines, verbally as well as physically as the comic hero did (with a few variations reflecting Miller’s id), and was pretty convincing with very few smirks. What I mean is Macht did a very good job of convincing the audience that he was the Spirit, if only hampered by the weight of too much stylistic indulgence I’ve been moping over for the last thousand years.

On the flipside, we have Sam Jackson as the Octopus. Sam Jackson is…Sam Jackson. Riffing on Jules and riding that coattail for the past 20 years (I’ve always enjoyed Jackson in the movie where he played the angry, black guy). His Octopus is a demented, clownish, leave-no-setpiece-unchewed cackling supervillian as mental as the Joker, with even worse one-liners. Note to Jackson: hammy is not synonymous with funny. Jackson throws himself into the role, ranting, raving and frothing as only Sam Jackson can. And always often does. It’s his bread and butter, or at least what his legions of fans expect of his method. Hell, I’m willing to wager shouting and frothing are all they expect. Jackson’s Octopus not menacing as the Spirit’s nemesis, and despite all his wanton murdering and violence, he ain’t terribly fiendish either. Jackson is a one-man Merrie Melody short, and that gig gets tired fast—just like most of his schtick since…ever.

His Octopus is a major left turn from Eisner’s vision, which also robs the Octopus of his menace and mystery. In the comics, the identity of the Octopus was never revealed. Doing so here echoes of my small gripe from the From Hell installment. Giving a face to the menace, ergo “solving the case” robs the potential of mystery, suspense and simply the wonder  fulfilling a sense of imagination. Not everyone wants the curtain to be drawn back. This problem was another product of Miller’s hubris. Either that or the was some glitch in what the test audience reported they wanted to see. I trust neither.

As I was saying, the Octopus of the comics was always a mystery. Not once in over fifty years of regular publication did we ever see his face. All the Octopus ever was was off panel, a pair of gloves and sinister dialogue. That’s it. And it worked. Actually, it’s worked in a lot of movies that make the antagonist all the more wicked by cloaking them in mystery. Perfect example? The shark in Jaws, or Michael Myers for like ninety percent of the first Halloween movie. Sometimes not drawing back said curtain can lend a lot of tension; fear of the unknown and all. I’m thinking Sam could’ve been taken a lot more seriously as a bad guy if he was taken out of spotlight and simply uttering his nefarious schemes and pithy thoughts on revenge behind a veil of shadow. Just a thought.

It’s not just Jackson’s role that’s over the top. About everything here is in your face. Subtlety and nuance are lost on Miller’s script. Everything is too fast-paced. Miller plays fast and loose with the source material, which is his wont. Reinterpreting comics has been his manna, and I’d say half the time it’s been pretty good. But then for certain directors (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Rafelson) there’s a style, a feel that makes it their movies. You know you’re watching a damn Kubrick movie because it exudes this feel of a Kubrick movie. The Spirit has feel for style all right. Right down your gullet. Someone should tell erstwhile auteur Miller that subtlety does not equal weakness and nuance works better than neon signs.

I committed a crime with The Spirit that I have done with maybe two other movies here at RIORI: I didn’t watch…refused to watch the entire thing. I tried. I really tried. About two-thirds of the way through I got up, yanked the disc out of the machine, slapped in the envelope and marched that thing out to the mailbox at 2 in the morning to make sure the postman would be damn sure to receive that envelope the next day and get it away from me as fast as f*ck as possible so the next disc would arrive sooner. Am I shamefaced by this act of surrender? Look, I had to stop the film or else my frontal lobes would have collapsed like a pair of balloons in a meat locker. It was an act of self-preservation. Really.

The Spirit is lacking in character, lacking in subtlety, and lacking a decent story for fan or not to rally around. It is an overstylized exercise in unchecked monomania in so-called tribute and unbridled id. I know I am hopelessly biased here, but from watching oodles of movies—more than any sane man should—I know my stripper from the paint. Remember the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that came with Batman & Robin? Would have I liked The Spirit better if I wasn’t versed in the legacy of the character? Well, here’s something that happened the day after I sent the DVD back home to momma:

I was regaling my comic book guy Jeff about the pitfalls of The Spirit, noting to him that maybe I was particularly disappointed, if not downright upset by the film because I was well acquainted with Will Eisner and his Spirit. The liberties taken by Miller I felt with the campy drama, the broad humor, pointless indulgence in style, the Looney Tunes like action and a generally weak script—all of it chafed me and insulted Eisner’s work. The damned thing just failed to hold my attention. I asked him if that didn’t know much about the Spirit that I did, would I have liked the movie better? I mean, the Spirit is no Batman or Spider-Man, pop cultural institutions (that, in fact, owe almost everything to Eisner’s work) that even non-comic book heads have heard of. Would have I dug the picture more if I didn’t know anything about the Spirit?

His answer, “Well, if the movie didn’t hold your attention, then what more could be said?”

Thanks Jeff, for reminding me of that.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. A sad comic book adaptation if there ever was one. And it didn’t even hold my attention (not in a good way, at any rate). Standard crime numero uno.


Stray Observations…

  • I think the guy at the end of the line at the opening scene is the writer, director and disciple of Eisner, Frank Miller. As was the cabbie, as was the beat cop, as was…
  • “Shut up and bleed.”
  • “Iger Street.” A tribute to Eisner’s partner-in-crime (so to speak), Jerry Iger.
  • “Toilets are always funny!” No. No they’re not.
  • Another carp/point about the Octopus in the movie versus the one in the books. In the comics, the Octopus never got his hands dirty. He’d let his thugs and sycophants pull off the heists while he reaped the rewards of his ill-gotten games. There’s a lot to be said for a bad guy operating on brains alone and know that power means not having to respond. Read: Michael Corleone.
  • “Someday I’d love to do your autopsy.”

Next Installment…

Steve Coogan and friends bring us Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story…What the f*ck’s a “cock and bull story?”