Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spider-Man 3 (with meandering introduction)

I'm feeling a bit burnt out on even the idea of Letterboxd right now. What seemed like a Goodreads for film has seemingly taken over my life and writing. Most of my writing has appeared there in the past year or so, and while it's been a boon for my prose and critical eye, the social aspect of the site has unmoored me from my island of solitude here at the blog. I've said before I write for myself and LB started as a place for me to further hone my skills. I didn't expect I'd accumulate >900 followers and enter into real friendships with other users. I also didn't expect I'd become thirsty for "likes" on my reviews, but here we are. I'm frustrated with myself for wanting those likes, those numbers, as if they're a reflection of me or my taste or my writing.

At the same time, paradoxically, I'm frustrated with the fickle nature of the site; just as popular Goodreads reviewers opt for the middle, as do LB users. On the whole, they seem to prefer one sentence reviews, snark and sharp claws over lengthy analysis or digressions. This isn't, of course, limited to LB, but to criticism as a discourse. Ebert's negative reviews were always more popular than his encomia. I resist posting one sentence reviews, or at least, I try to avoid it, preferring a handful of paragraphs over Wildean bon mots.

This weekend, I felt a bit of sting. I wrote what I believe are two strong reviews of Death Wish 2 and Death Wish 3 and they have garnered little attention (7 and 9 likes respectively). Subsequently, I wrote one sentence reviews of Star Trek Into Darkness and Magnum Force (10 and 7 likes respectively). Admittedly, popular films will generate more activity as users are more likely to have an opinion about the film, not that I only review unknown films (far from it; I do enjoy my cinematic trash).

Yet, I write the above paragraph and I shake my head. When did I become enamored of popularity? When did I confuse quantity of visits/likes with my own self-worth? I'm embarrassed with myself. I know better. Just last year, I wrote about writing for myself. I concluded my state of the union would be:
I will labour at my prose, at my thinking, at praxis. I will labour at cultural objects because they give me pleasure, because thinking and writing give me pleasure.
And yet, here I am, whingeing about how few likes I've received for slightly-above average analysis and prose. What then to do?

Should I import my data from LB and painstakingly post all the good reviews on my blog? Should I continue to toil in the fields of LB, hoping to one day reap some measure of validation from strangers? Should I shift my "brand" and write only snarky one sentence reviews (which, I'm not even that great at)? I'm not sure. For now, I'm taking a smidge of a break from LB. Here, then, is a review of a film I watched yesterday.

Spider-Man 3

I've written at length about two previous Spider-Man films, here and here though I have not written much about Sam Raimi's wondrous trilogy. I picked up the Blu ray set for 15 bucks as I had been jonesing for a bit of the third one for awhile, which I saw in the theatre back in 2007. The critical consensus puts the third film down as being a bit overstuffed, not as focused as the previous two, and a bit too silly in places and a bit too dour in other places.

Since 2007, I have staunchly defended the two scenes which have traditionally been the target for the most amount of scorn: Peter walking down the street shooting finger guns at women and the jazz club scene. Critics of these two interrelated scenes have pointed to how silly they are, how the tone breaks immersion, how the viewer cringes with embarrassment. Of course, the Internet loves/hates anything to do with cringing. Here, from a subreddit about cringing (the only time I'll ever link to Reddit):
I think it was intentionally cheesy. Sam Raimi loves his cheese. The problem was that it was just too weird and silly, especially at the point in the movie when it arrived. It broke all tension and damaged what was supposed to be a halfway serious character arc. There's lots of problems with this movie, but one of them is that this scene doesn't fit. It might have worked in another film, maybe, but it didn't work here.

The reason, I think, why people have a hard time telling if this scene is supposed to make him seem cool or be silly, is because it's such a strange tonal choice for this film, and at this point in the plot.
This is one of the only reasonable posts in this thread about the scene. Most people strain themselves to hit higher and higher heights of hyperbole, calling it a "steaming pile of crap" while another user calls it, I kid you not, "Easily one of the biggest disappointments of my life." The user quoted above does a great job articulating that which bothers people about the two scenes: the tonal whiplash. What is a serious downturn for the character, Parker at his lowest and most aggressive, hurting the ones he loves in petty attempts at revenge, is deflated by the silliness of the sequence, including a close up shot of his mouth as he whispers, "now dig on this." How does the scene fit into the logic of the emotional arc if it veers so wildly from the tone surrounding it, viewers might ask themselves.

My answer, and the reason why I love the two scenes so much, is because they get at the truth of the character of Peter Parker. Lots of people applauded Captain America: Civil War for "nailing" the character of Peter so quickly and efficiently in only two scenes: a dorky enthusiastic motormouth. Admittedly, Tom Holland's performance as Peter is excellent, but the emotional labour he carries is minimal compared to that of Tobey Maguire's over three films. The truth, which Sam Raimi understands in his bones, better than any subsequent superhero film, absolutely, is that Peter Parker is a dork who will never fit in and will never succeed because to do so would betray what makes him work as a character. Peter walking down the street and pointing finger guns at women appreciates just how out of touch he is. The black symbiote, written in this film as amplifying his negative tendencies and aggression, operates like alcohol does: showing us the truth of this person and this person, Peter, is an absurd dork who genuinely thinks women would like this behaviour. At the end of the scene, Peter walks into a clothing shop and buys a black suit. We can assume the shop chose the suit as it fits well and is relatively stylish. The scene ends with Peter doing an absurd dance, complete with pelvic thrust in front of the entrance, with two embarrassed women trying to walk past him. Nothing in any other Spider-Man film will ever capture the cluelessness and naive optimism of Peter better than this single scene. I adore it. Peter's lack of rhythm, his obliviousness, his dangerously naive positive outlook on the future: all amplified by the suit, but still the essential truth of what makes Peter Peter. He will never be cool, never be comfortable, never be satisfied, because he carries the burden of responsibility, the burden of being Spider-Man.

This doesn't address the tonal problem highlighted by many people. To this I say, the tonal whiplash is intentional. Raimi's entire trilogy is filled to the brim with asides, weirdness, odd camera movements, and cheesiness, a loving cheese, an adoration of the sheer lunacy of comic books, which only Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have captured. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics were awash in weirdness and pathos, a genuine love for the characters they depicted, a universe in which even a villain named The Spot or Morbius can be figures of sincere pathos, tragic figures caught in circumstances beyond their control. The great example of Spider-Man villain is of course The Green Goblin, both Norman and Harry Osborn. The protagonist and the antagonist quip while they fight, do silly things, look silly even, the comics are soaked in sympathy for their plight, even simultaneously condemning their actions, which sums Peter's attitude to the villains just as much. Consider in the first film when Peter brings the dead body of Norman back to the Osborn house. He hides the Green Goblin's identity from Harry, appeasing the final wish of the villain and father. No matter how silly these characters, a giant man made of sand or a man in a Halloween costume, the silliness hides a deep respect for their tragic origins. The silliness is an integral part and Raimi knows this.

Raimi will deflate or cut the tension throughout intense scenes using a gag or a throwaway line. During the climax, with Mary Jane in serious peril, two villains operating together to humiliate and destroy Peter, his best friend unwilling to help him, Raimi still cuts to a mini-drama of comedy of J. Jonah Jameson trying to buy a camera from a little girl to get photos for the Daily Bugle. The silliness helps deflate the tension, just as a good gag in a horror film does. Tension doesn't work as a straight line easing upwards, but as a series of peaks and valleys. Raimi captures the tonal whiplash of comic books, the sincere operatic highs of tragedy with the lows of simple gags and silly costumes. Consider the moment when Gwen Stacy replicates the upside down kiss during the key-to-the-city ceremony. We know MJ is at her lowest and Peter's ego is close to its biggest. Restaging this kiss will mean a betrayal of MJ, but Peter does it anyway. Just before doing so, the crowd urges them on. Raimi cuts to a lone dissenting voice, a little boy crying, "don't do it, Spider-Man!" Once they kiss, the boy retches. This moment of comedy shares the same space as MJ's hurt and anguished face. These moments can exist together because this is a universe of contrasts, both in colour and in tone. This is a universe in which a man made of sand can make poor decisions because he feels he must but can still be forgiven.

While Spider-Man 2 is much more focused than the third, focused in both content and in theme, Spider-Man 3 extends the previous film's interest in bringing Peter down to reality, reminding him of his humanity and his responsibility to the world. The third film is about facing our mistakes (letting the burglar get away, accidentally shooting an innocent man, confusing vengeance with atonement) and learning from them. Only Eddie Brock opts for annihilation instead of atonement, though, as Peter is a figure of grace, he still offers Eddie a moment for forgiveness. I still tear up when Peter apologizes to Harry for all that he's done, even though Peter is ostensibly the victim of the Osborn's insanity. Likewise, I tear up when Flint Marko (underwritten, admittedly) tells Peter he's not asking for forgiveness, but asking for Peter to understand. What Flint doesn't know is that Peter will always understand. But for Aunt May, Uncle Ben and his heart, Peter would have been these same villains. But for a strong sense of responsibility, Peter would have made the same mistakes. Instead, he chose differently.

No matter how many more Spider-Man films they make, none of them will be able to capture Peter better than these three films. Everything has been said about the character and everything else will be a stale repetition.

Which isn't to say Spider-Man 3 is perfect: the Venom stuff is superfluous (while still thematically appropriate); Flint Marko is underwritten (we never a sense of how Flint feels about anything other than his daughter); I've never thought Rosemary Harris worked as Aunt May; this New York City is astonishingly white. But the film is never boring and Raimi's choices almost always work despite the circumstances of studio meddling and a tight schedule (the reason for his departure from the planned fourth film). Also, Bill Pope's cinematography is gorgeous: the black and white flashbacks, the film's shifting colour palette (as Peter falls further away from his friends and the family, the palette moves closer to teal than the omnipresent orange; with the end of the climax, dawn breaks, letting a bit of orange light back into the palette). Raimi and Pope's camera move around with a balletic grace, understanding instinctively that the same old plane won't cut it for a character unmoored from the banality of gravity (the rescue of Gwen Stacy, done in only 7 or 8 shots, captures perfectly Raimi's intuitive grasp of how Spider-Man moves through space). I love Spider-Man 3, even with its flaws. In fact, like Peter, I should love it because of its flaws.

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