5/4/7. spiderman 3.


christopher funderburg

In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and Grindhouse will be broken out individually. This special extension covers Spiderman 3, which Funderburg saw shortly after the project concluded on April 30th.

<<click here for The Final 10 Days>>


    Special Extension

    5.4. Spiderman 3.

(35mm) midnight screening at the Palisades Mall. The 210th and final entry in this seemingly never-ending catastrophe.

I've been thinking about the idea of the "correct shot." I first had this idea a couple years ago when I was watching A Perfect World (as part of an Eastwood series we did at the JBFC piggy-backing on the release of Mystic River). In that film, there is a moment in which the kidnapped youngster attempts to escape from Kevin Costner as Costner attends to some business at a local store. At that point in the story, we know Costner's character is a bad guy in theory and most likely capable of violent/dastardly actions, but we haven't yet really experienced him as anything more than an eccentric loner with a bit of a charmingly dangerous streak. The youngster sees an opportunity to escape as Costner begins some awkward/suspicious interaction with the owner of the store. The kid slinks around the corner and tears off through a field beside the store.

In one shot: the camera tracks behind the child in a medium wide shot as he struggles quickly through the vegetation in the field. Suddenly, there is the sound of a gunshot. The child jerks to a halt and looks back in the direction of the convenience store. The camera continues to rush towards the child, finally stopping in a close-up of his concerned expression. There is a level on which that shot feels perfectly executed, a prime example of the craftsmanship for which Eastwood is frequently praised. On another level, the shot is utterly lacking in creativity: it is textbook – and that implies a standard text from which any studious director can generate a lexicon of camera movements and compositions. In other words, the "track behind the child, into close-up" shot in A Perfect World is the "correct shot" for that moment. Eastwood has studied his textbook and has determined that this shot (variations of which have appeared in countless other films) is the most stripped down, essential, and appropriate composition and camera movement for the narrative, emotional, and tonal information he wants to convey. And let me be clear: that moment in A Perfect World is entirely effective and deeply memorable, despite its total lack of originality.

And, I think, that this concept can be expanded somewhat: there is the "correct performance" (Meryl Streep being the Queen of actor-ly correctness), the "correct plot construction" (just ask Syd Field about Chinatown, another fantastic film), even the "correct special effect" (despite advances in technology, something like Raiders of the Lost Ark still has flawless effects). This idea of an abundance of "correctness" is ultimately the essential element of a successful blockbuster film – think about it: as large as audience as possible needs to be in agreement of the fundamental quality of a film to propel its blockbuster status, each little bit of "incorrectness" will alienate some of the audience (say, the cheesy performances in The Phantom Menace or the totally incompetent script for Pluto Nash) and that's why masters of the blockbuster form have such fundamentally sound technique and a seemingly innate understanding of this correctness: Steven Spielberg is not remarkable for his intelligence or originality, but for the absolute solidity of his craft - and the same could be said for Hitchcock; they are both directors who understand the right shot for the right moment to generate the right effect on their audience. And it works (most of the time anyway): embedded in the notion of "the correct shot" is effectiveness of said shot – if the "slow track-in on the silhouetted aliens looming in the distance" isn’t unnerving and foreboding then it is inherently not the correct shot.

Of course, the flip side of this coin is originality: when a filmmaker sets out to discover new ways of filming a moment, in the process unearthing a new technique to express some bit of narrative, emotional, or tonal information. Counterintuitively, the big summer blockbuster is also fertile ground for this approach: the most basic tonal effect of that form is exhilaration - and it's easy (and logical) to contort the camera through an ever-changing array of digitally enhanced spasms in order achieve a modicum of exhilaration in the hearts of the audience. Let's send the camera zooming through a wall socket and then suddenly stop time as our hero dodges a bullet flying just ahead of a loopy wake of sound-waves – that shot has literally never been done before! And it's no surprise that these kind of camera calisthenics are the specialty of folks like Michael Bay, the Wachowski brothers and David Fincher (and the wet dreams of lesser imitators like Brett Ratner and Len Wiseman).

So what does all of this have to do with Spiderman 3? Well, I walked out of the theater at 2:40am the most overflowing with child-like joy and exhilaration I have felt upon leaving a movie since I walked out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There is literally no way I could've more enjoyed my experience of Spiderman 3. But a couple folks around me seemed deeply disappointed. I read a slew of almost uniformly negative reviews the next day. Everyone I talked to seemed dissatisfied with the film, if not outright irate. I felt like was suffering from a cognitive dissonance, disconnected from reality. Could I really be so out of touch? No, it's the children that are wrong. Seriously, though, I genuinely couldn't fathom the genuine negativity surrounding the film. Granted, there are the normal vagaries of pop culture that send a popular artifact bouncing arbitrarily back and forth between esteem and backlash; but this didn't feel like normal backlash, this felt like genuine disappointment comparable to the completely understandable disappointment and disgust that greeted The Matrix Reloaded or The Phantom Menace.

So, here's why I think most people hated the film while I loved it with a sincere and uncomplicated passion: first and foremost, it makes no attempts at "correctness." This can be utterly disastrous in a blockbuster: the performances in this movie are knowing and good-naturedly humorous to a point verging on camp and then they casually shift gears to highly emotive melodrama. Both work equally well – Tobey Maguire's goofy take on bad Peter Parker is genuinely hilarious and his scenes of heartbreak with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson are genuinely heart-breaking. James Franco goes from torturously revenge-obsessed villain to puppy-dog lovable amnesiac to hard-bitten, reconciled ally. And every phase of these performances, in and of themselves, works just as it should. But tone-shifting and knowingness are two notoriously "incorrect" choices for performance (and, furthermore, for narrative structure) – think how often you read a review that condemns a performance for being "all over the place" or "inconsistent." Meryl Streep's characters are always assiduously unified, impeccably accented and committed with complete seriousness to surface veracity (even when in comedic role). Her performances are models of consistency, even if they are seldom in the naturalistic mode. The characters in Spiderman 3 are not particularly "realistic" and they certainly aren't committed to surface veracity or unity. They seem to be intentionally inconsistent.

Look all over this film and you'll be hard-pressed to find any "correct" choices, from its sprawling, messy story structure to its constant shifts from comedy to melodrama (as well its thoughtless blending of the two - such as in the French restaurant/ aborted proposal scene) to its frequently simple shot compositions to its over-reliance on extreme coincidence (plot-wise) to its complete lack of respect for the "reality" of the world – this film isn't working from the textbook of craftsmanship or from the philosophy of manic invention (save in its generally well-regarded action sequences) or even from some melding of the two. What we have here is a full-on Sam Raimi film. If you like Raimi, you will like this film. It overflows with his screwball aficionado's love of physical gags, groan-inducing puns, and scattershot, goofy, good-natured comedy. As with vintage Raimi like Evil Dead 2, his approach to stylistics is more gleeful than violent, more about antics than action, more about madcap camera movements than smugly clever shots or special effects innovation.

The movie is fun, pure and simple – it's not about the serious psychology of Batman or the puerile faux-grittiness of Sin City or overblown art direction or fidelity to unjustly venerated source material or any of that other complete bullshit associated with comic book movie culture. And it is so much fun! But let me also say that part of the fun is watching the emotional dominoes of the melodrama fall into place: melodrama is not about realistic relationships and believable situations, it is about the heightened sense one feels towards one's own emotions and relationships – it's the dramatic re-creation of a somewhat ridiculous and embarrassing inner truth, not an outward verifiable truth; melodrama is about one's inevitably overblown sense of self. And, in that sense, Spiderman 3 is an unusually perceptive melodrama. Of course it's all rendered in an unrealistic shorthand! But have you ever seen Written on the Wind or Magnificent Obsession? They’re not exactly settings which Meryl Streep would've flourished – if anything, her approach to performance would've ruined them.

Peter's break-up with Mary Jane is painful and sad, his growing arrogance is pathetic and misplaced, his reconciliation with Osborne is poignant. It all works, if you're not determined to police it for realism. And I say all of this not as some after the fact justification, but from a very sincere place: Raimi's style and personality were totally submerged beneath the diligently executed blockbuster machinations of Spiderman and Spiderman 2 (which, I should add, were also great summer bockbusters) and I walked out of the third part of this trilogy feeling like I had just ingested a work of singular insane originality, a work moving to rhythms completely unheard by other Hollywood Blockbusters, a film so on its own page, so lovable and strange and heartfelt and complex that I wondered why every giant blockbuster couldn't surprise and entertain and confound and shimmy and shazam like Spiderman 3.

But the answer is simple: because they wouldn't make enough money. We inexplicably live in a culture in which we are expected to treat junk like Lord of the Rings as though it is a worthy and serious film with many valuable ideas (cloaked in magical metaphors and noble language), a place where a brainless and tedious monstrosity like Star Wars is treated like the apex of something, a country where Steven Spielberg is without irony regarded as something more than a salesman hawking dubious wares like the innocence of childhood, ease of moral clarity and the power of imagination. For God's sake, Christopher Nolan's morally idiotic, painfully self-serious, completely mediocre Batman Begins was widely praised by critics of all stripes. And maybe that's Spiderman 3's problem: it doesn't think it's creating a mythology from important universal psychological constructs or uncovering dark aspects of the human psyche or acting as a parable for our troubled times or that it's brilliant and remarkable for swooping its camera around the four corners of the earth. It's just a story about a boy who fucks things up with a girl, fights with his best friend and is infected with a mysterious alien symbiote. It's charming and funny and good-natured and the fight scenes zing and the special effects are awesome and it's just fucking heartfelt and bizarre and goofy, dammit! This movie made me feel great. And it makes me sad and confused that it didn't have that effect on everyone else.


home    about   contact us    featured writings    years in review    film productions

All rights reserved The Pink Smoke  © 2010