Gateway Drugs: Cinephiles
Posted November 4, 2009on:
Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe that it took such long-lived American industries so long to get together. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the motion picture world devoted significant attention to comics, but after a few notable successes in translating iconic pop figures like Superman and Batman to the silver screen, Hollywood discovered that mining the major publishers produced a winning formula: (Moviestars + superpowers) x explosions = $$ (+/- a remainder of quality storytelling, character development, direction, etc…)
The trend continued to snowball through the 80s and 90s, until it came to be that the 2000s were so thoroughly dominated by adapted works as to be the first true “Comic Book Movie Decade.” Dozens of films were produced. Some of the managed to range from good to even great: Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman, Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man”, and two-thirds of the Spiderman franchise spring to mind. Others fell somewhere between bad and just god-awful: “Daredevil”/“Elektra”, “Catwoman”, not one but two stabs each at both the Punisher and the Incredible Hulk- I could go on for entirely too long to bother.
Still, the overwhelming majority of comic book movies this decade fell into a third category, amounting to nothing more than forgettable also-rans, straightforward re-treads of the same old Hollywood templates dressed up in capes for varying degrees of mindless viewing “enjoyment”: four installments of Hugh Jackman with sideburns, Keanu as “Constantine”, a pair of not-so-Fantastic 4s, three (THREE!) iterations of “Blade”, a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and- (shudder) even the defiled corpse of Watchmen…
So with the glut of comics-inspired fare producing far more output ranging from poor to mediocre, you couldn’t really blame a serious movie fan for thinking comics don’t have so much going for them. Hell, if the only non-superhero comic book movie I’d seen was “Wanted” I’d think it was a bankrupt form too. But the truth is, there’s a plethora of excellent films out there that your average cinephile will love, and source material that’s just as top-notch (and thus the perfect gateway drug…)
Sin City- There has been perhaps no more literal a translation of any comic’s complete aesthetic than Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City”, based on Miller’s eponymous series. In most cases, that’s a good thing, since usually the most damning trap that comic book movies fall victim to is to equate “comics” with “cartoonish”- over-the-top violence, outlandish character designs, and slap-dash CGI are enough to pass muster for most studios (and, sadly, audiences.)
But Miller’s Sin City already had an extremely cinematic style all its own, combining more action and noir touchstones than you’d find in Raymond Chandler’s closet to make a moody, stylish, hard-boiled world that’s as fun as Hell to watch- every second of which shows up on screen for the filmic adaptation. Add in some terrific performances from the exquisitely-cast rundown of Academy-favorites like Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, and especially Mickey Rourke (three years before The Wrestler heralded his return to mainstream respectability) and you’ve got the perfect popcorn companion, in movie or comic form.
Ghost World- You think comics are only good at producing popcorn flicks? Alright. How about a dourly comic stroll through suburban ennui depicted in the failing friendship of two teenaged girls? Can you believe Michael Bay passed on this one? Maybe the most low-profile comic book film ever, fans of the film (which stars independent film favorites Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and pre-starlet Scarlett Johansson) rarely seem to know that Daniel Clowes comic exists. But the indie spirit of film and comics are kindred, for sure, and the graphic novel as a medium shares celluloid’s capacity for conveying the ephemeral qualities of the human condition. Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 take on the comic is the perfect match for people who “get” films about people not really doing anything.
A History of Violence- If Ghost World shows the literary commonalities between film and comics, A History of Violence exemplifies how the addition of a new creative point of view can offer something different in the jump from page to screen. Yes, the movie changes some of the specifics of John Wagner’s most famous post-Judge Dredd funnybook, but it’s impossible not to appreciate director David Cronenberg’s thoughtful, slow-burning take on the film’s central tenets.
It’s also got outstanding performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris and John Hurt, all of whom bring a compelling and thoughtful depth to their characters. As such, “A History of Violence” arguably does a better job than its namesake of deconstructing comics and cinema’s shared convention of violence, and examining the emotional and intellectual implications that brutal acts really should have on real, living, breathing people.
Oldboy- The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes (and was Quentin Tarantino’s choice for the Palme d’Or), but even as a filmic property it remains unknown to most save for the truly hardened cinephile. But those who HAVE seen Park Chan Wook’s take on the disturbing (but really just plain bizarre) manga regard it as a film of the highest order. If the popular themes of revenge, love, and borderline-nauseating ultra-violence don’t reel in your movie fan pal, just tell them that it’s all in Korean. They’ll probably dig the subtitles.
American Splendor- Art imitating life imitating art. Chances are that any cinephile who sees Paul Giamatti starring as real-life comic book curmudgeon Harvey Pekar will immediately be drawn to the outsider-ish comic that inspired this Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Every bit as emotionally resonant and affecting as the film that bears its name, American Splendor’s slice-of-life stories themselves then another gateway drug, this time to the works of the litany of famous independent illustrators who have collaborated with Pekar over the years (including legendary underground weirdo R. Crumb and the Hernandez brothers, of Love and Rockets fame.)