Friday, May 2, 2008

In The Spirit of Rehashing

No sooner was I done noticing Speed Racer (ie, anywhere there are billboards in Los Angeles) then did the teaser posters for the next great live action cartoon reality retro trip sprout around: Frank Miller's adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit.

First off, Frank Miller is coming from all directions these days. Essentially he's been riding the name recognition of The Dark Knight Returns during the mainstream media attention given to Batman up to and including the 1989 movie, with mixed results.

Hollywood came calling for a Robocop 2 script, which got majorly watered down in the final film so much that Miller had it remade into a comic book years later. Then he remained in comic fans' good graces by drawing Sin City and 300 and some new, increasingly whacked out Batman comics.

Man, I really want to read that thing sometime.

A Batman vs Al-Queda project, reported but now seemingly on the permanent back burner, may yet accomodate Miller's new gonzo take on Bats with his latent awakening to Western Civilization's existential challenge. We'll see...but not if he stays as preoccupied with the goddamned motion picture business as he seems to be.

Robert Rodriguez's Frank Miller's Sin City. I never read the comics, but there were two unreality hooks that required viewing. Number one: almost shot-for-shot comic book adaption. Rodriguez made it known in nearly every publicity interview that as many actual panels as possible would be replicated in their original sequences, almost as though Frank Miller were directing. The dialogue would also carry over verbatim.

Numero two-oh: The near monochrome color would stay. This was a riskier move and a technical feat to boot, as nearly the whole movie was shot in front of green screens. Total CG immersion for the heightened reality effect. Speed Racer is essentially the psychedelic technicolor version of this aesthetic.

Ditto for Spirit.

The panels-in-sequence venture was a well-intentioned awkward misstep, a concession to the same nerd lobby that mandated a "serious" Batman. I don't need to read the original comic book material to tell that the sequence of images in a comic book does not translate fluidly to live action: panels of art can be lingered upon for the duration of the reader's choosing, movie shots move irrevocably forward. Sin City feels like a 2 hour montage for well-versed acolytes of the source material rather than a movie audience, much like Batman Begins. At least the script is retarded on purpose.

So far as the green screen cartoon aesthetic, the content of Miller's Sin City stories are so farcically violent and fetishistic that their imagery is often well replicated via CG trickery.

The thing that sticks in my craw is that like Speed Racer, the meticulous re-creation of animation and comic book aesthetics through post-production comes off as:

a) A hungry cry for the dead and rotting corpse of American animation, and -

b) An abandonment of in-camera action aesthetics, the best of which have achieved the kinetic thrill of the "comic book" aesthetic through old school analogue techniques like direction, production design, casting and screenwriting - Mad Max, Max Headroom, Escape From New York, the original Robocop and even Batman 1989 - a lot of these belong to the "near future" subgenre of sci-fi which deserves it's own definition article soon, and obviously peaked in the 1980s.

Heavens, the only 1980s film to attempt a literal comic book panel aesthetic was George Romero's Creepshow, which hasn't aged quite as well as I'd thought.

Comic book purity was such a selling point for Sin City that Rodriguez even brought in Frank Miller on set for consultation with actors regarding their characters. When he pushed for Miller's inclusion in directorial credit and the Director's Guild of America denied the honor, Rodriguez actually resigned so that Miller's name could be paired with his!

Then, in the interim between that and The Spirit, Zach Snyder adapts 300 into a mainstream hit using panels as storyboards. My knowledge to what extent and of how much success is nil since I haven't seen the movie or read the comic, but given Snyder's sole directing credit I suspect there's a bit less of the insta-panel-to-film stiltedness. Also allowing more breathing room is the inclusion of more COLOR.

Now given all this, is there any wonder Miller wants try his hand at sole directorial credit? His credentials basically guarantee warm nerd reception as long as he keeps things artificial.

As you'll read in a zillion fluff pieces, Will Eisner's 1940s comic book The Spirit was an unique blend of noir and superhero elements which through brilliant stories, deft humor and amazing art helped solidify Eisner's reputation as one of the masters of the medium. There is a good measure of egotism in Miller's appropriating this beloved material for himself, rather like Peter Jackson's dream project of remaking his all-time favorite film King Kong and we know how that turned out (badly.)

I've only read a couple Spirit stories but Eisner's art and storytelling are simply unforgettable. It's underwhelming that Miller should put it through the technical wringer and emerge with something resembling, well, more Sin City-esque tomfoolery. Either he was offered the property or the guy just has a raging hard-on for black and white noir cartoons populated by archetypes in goofy costumes. Or both.

How lousy does it look when he hops from building to building like fucking The Tick? It doesn't look real OR fake in a cool way.

Compared to any smattering of original Eisner art, the two mediums once again show their greatest strengths in their initial conceptions. Films may benefit from consideration of their aesthetics, but as with Speed Racer the reliance upon blurring the line between live action and animation (computer or otherwise) merely calls attention to the dearth of current excellence in either.

Progress, John Kricfalusi reminds us, was once taken for granted in our culture. Today our mainstream entertainment runs mainly on the fumes of what our ancestors managed to create before political correctness slowly began retarding our imaginations and post-modern relativism began eroding standards of hierarchical artistic competence.

Between adaptations and remakes, as The Onion put it, we may soon be running out of past.

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