Plain Damn Weird: an Appreciation of Frank Miller’s The Spirit
A Hollywood film opening at Christmastime would seem predestined to be the kind of mediocre, crowd-pleasing pablum frequently shoveled out to families for the holiday, or a last-minute Oscar nominee getting the red-carpet rollout. Instead, in 2008 we got The Spirit. Frank Miller is such a particular, yet visceral artist that, even if you hate the film, it seems almost specifically tailored to make you hate it. Whatever has been said about this film, nobody has suggested that it made concessions to the taste of the masses or the dicta of studio honchos. Frank Miller’s The Spirit is, for better or worse, Frank Miller’s The Spirit.
Frank Miller doesn’t believe in mistakes.1 When Robert Rodriguez took Miller on board as co-director of 2005’s Sin City (adapted from Miller’s comics), it temporarily cost Rodriguez his membership in the DGA, and the lion’s share of the credit for the film was consequently attributed to him. Miller then executive produced “visionary” Zack Snyder’s 2006 film of Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300. Even with his involvement publicized to win over comics fans pre-release, Snyder, like Rodriguez, snapped up the lion’s share of the credit. Let us not forget Miller’s decades-old foray into Hollywood: his abortive involvement with the Robocop sequels, neither of which was any good. Added to this is Miller’s reputation as an original American comics auteur. Fans feel that his heyday is long behind him, and that he tends to embarrass himself these days (that is, when he manages to hit a deadline). For a man who no longer believes in mistakes, his path to filmmaking has a lot of twists and turns.
The stark, high-contrast look of Sin City has been widely cited as the inspiration for the visual scheme of The Spirit (based on the work of Miller’s idol and mentor, Will Eisner). It certainly makes sense to assume that Miller’s decision to film The Spirit in greenscreen was directly influenced by his work with Rodriguez and Snyder, who both utilized the technique for their sumptuous movies. However, the specific noir atmosphere and compositions of The Spirit were directly invoked when many critics who had vaunted Sin City’s aesthetics contrasted the two films by naming Rodriguez as the clear talent in that collaboration, with Miller as his feckless hanger-on. This isn’t quite fair. Rodriguez repeated ad infinitum that Miller deserved the co-director credit due to the strength of his work on the page, and it’s worth mentioning again that the eye-popping dynamism of Sin City is directly rooted in the moody, angular compositions of Miller’s art. Indeed, the common criticism that Sin City was more cinematic, whereas The Spirit was static and muddy seems a bit misguided. Rodriguez’s film tend to possess a nervous energy of their own, owing at least as much to his on-the-fly style of shooting as his infectious, adolescent impatience with storytelling. Watching a Robert Rodriguez film is not unlike frantically flipping through the pages of a rock-em-sock-em comic book with unbridled urgency, drinking in the art, flitting a glance through the dialogue, and devouring the issue in less than 10 minutes flat.
The Spirit is an entirely different beast, much more languid and comfortable with the cartoon-like tics of its more outrageous moments; Sin City punctuated most of these with ultraviolence or rapid editing. During one of The Spirit’s flashback/monologues, Miller has his protagonist relate the backstory to a cat in a graveyard, cutting between a golden-hued youth and the tabby’s steady gaze. As the monologue drags on, Miller cuts back to the brick wall on which the crimefighter is leaning, and when he conversationally cocks his head toward the kitty, he finds that it has already split — presumably out of boredom. It’s a great, unsentimental moment that punctuates a sob story with self-aware (but not self-referential) humor. Sin City was too busy making with the bloodshed to feature moments like this. This isn’t a criticism of that film so much as it is an acknowledgement that whatever the similarities in technique, The Spirit demands a vastly different kind of appreciation; it functions in an entirely different world which breeds incredulity and amazed chuckles. As Rodriguez did, Miller depends upon his storyboards, drawing confidence from his skill as a visual artist. More than that, it’s an implicit trust in the strength of the material (no different from Rodriguez’s) apart from the fact that Miller is placing faith entirely in himself. Or, if not himself, in the mystic muses that guide his hand.
The Spirit’s visuals may not be as detailed as those in Sin City — although, to hear the animators tell it, the work was extremely scrupulous at the foundational level, with more and more details erased by expressive use of shadows and fog. The pacing allows much more time for the viewer to absorb the detail that is visible, and the immense labor that has been obscured by Miller’s chiaroscuro gives these compositions a robust flavor. Obviously rooted in his storyboards, the mannered visual approach includes a lot of static compositions, but moments of graceful fluidity as well, and his adherence to his pre-production panels doesn’t upset the off-kilter tone and physical dynamics of his players, all of which resembles that of a Saturday morning cartoon (this is not a pejorative observation). The range of tone available to an animated film has consistently been underutilized by live-action filmmaking outside of comedies. The tonal shifts of The Spirit put it more in league with anime, both in style and breadth. Japanese animation’s go-for-broke sincerity seems to have been instinctively cultivated by Miller, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with rounding out his filmmaking resume with animated live-action cartoons.
For years, the slide of major motion pictures into green screen hegemony has been decried by film lovers (including me). The problem is that a patently inauthentic background animation does not have the tactility or bear the evidence of handicraft as the matte paintings and front projection of yesteryear. Most computer generated backgrounds look like what what they are, and the efforts of filmmakers to convince us of their veracity are vain at best, or downright embarrassing at worst. Films like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, or (based on the footage released thus far) James Cameron’s Avatar are not different in practice from the likes of Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dave McKean’s MirrorMask, Sin City, or the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer. The difference is that the latter films openly acknowledge the insensate nature of the CG, and explicitly use their digital techniques as a thematic and stylistic maneuver.2 Their success is debatable, but the fact is that many ostensibly “live-action” films rely so heavily on computer animation that they might as well be called “animated live-action cartoons.”3 CG tech does raise the possibility that computer effects can be used instead for psychological impact as much as verisimilitude, and the aesthetic concerns of the filmmakers may be less toward maximizing the clarity and realism of unrealistic feats of imagination, and more towards providing variations on traditional techniques. The use of technology needn’t be progressive in order to be effective, and for all his rep as an innovator in the comics medium, Frank Miller is nothing if not an old-fashioned storyteller.
Not that anybody is accusing Miller of being progressive. His portrayal of women has always been notoriously problematic, and The Spirit certainly fanned the flames of the torches held by his critics as they stormed the gates with howls about shameless misogyny. Women in The Spirit are beautiful, and they adore its fedora-capped hero with moist, pouty lips, glistening eyes, and tender flesh encased in thin fabrics that stretch the boundaries of propriety. Yes, the Spirit has himself a harem of dames, and the only one who seems to mind is Plaster of Paris (who frees him from a trap, then stabs him through the chest, as any self-respecting Franco-Spanish assassin should). Miller loves the female form, and has never connected his open admiration with bashfulness. Together with Bill Pope (his director of photography), he caresses their faces and bodies with Golden Age lighting and velvety shadow, a series of flawless goddesses who have willingly submitted themselves to Miller’s will.
The trouble critics have had with The Spirit’s parade of eye candy — as well as their apparent supplication to the roving flirt of a protagonist — is well-documented. What’s fascinating is how the loose, fragmented nature of the plot is linked thematically to the vixen parade and the fecklessness of the hero. As often as the Spirit is depicted in heroic poses, beating, crushing, and electrocuting bad guys with supernatural prowess, he is far more often depicted as a bumbler. Two of the Spirit’s strongest assets are his determination and sense of duty, but a third — pure, dumb luck — is most important. Causing most of the complications and problems he must then unravel, the Spirit is basically incompetent, and it is his incompetence, not the machinations of the wily Octopus, that thwarts him night after sleepless night. Miller lays it on so thick, it’s impossible to miss. During the title sequence, the Spirit somersaults between rooftops and sprints across power lines, only to trip and fall off of a ledge in mid-gritty-voiceover. Later, the Spirit’s old flame (now a master thief), Sand Serif, pushes the Spirit out of her upteenth-floor hotel window, and he has his pants around his ankles before he manages to extricate himself from the gargoyle edifice that (luckily, natch) snared his trench coat. The falling motif repeats itself throughout the film, given its most explicit voice when Police Commissioner Dolan gives a speech about how close the Spirit is to tumbling off of a cliff. The Spirit may claim dominion over the peaks and valleys of his beloved city, but it’s the women in his life who keep his feet planted firmly on the ground and, more often than not, pick up the slack.
In fact, the cool, professional confidence of the female characters is offered as a direct counterbalance to the lively, but largely fruitless acrobatics of our crimson-tied hero. The Octopus is only thwarted in his initial attempt to steal the blood of Heracles (which will supposedly render him immortal, as opposed to merely invincible) because of Sand’s determination to steal the relic with which it’s paired. The Spirit is able to find the Octopus’s underground hideout solely because rookie Officer Morgenstern does the detective work to figure out a key clue. Once lured into the hideout, the Spirit only escapes the Octopus’s clutches because of the afore-mentioned Plaster of Paris. Apparently, she only frees him because she wants a personal kill, as opposed to a paid job. Even the evil Octopus would be adrift without the invaluable aid of Silken Floss, his able assistant who must occasionally remind him about his dwindling supply of henchmen. Then there’s Lorelei; Death herself. Just as the Spirit resists her siren call to the Great Beyond, so he likewise resists a serious relationship with any of the women he so frequently entices, only to vanish once more into the night in search of justice.
All of the women are gorgeous, but considering the pervasive opulence of Miller’s vision, maybe the male gaze of The Spirit isn’t simply wallowing in a bevy of handpicked beauties. Maybe instead of saying that “all the women are gorgeous,” saying that “all women are gorgeous” hits closer to the tenor of Miller’s obsession with the female form. Exoticizing femininity isn’t progressive, but here it’s balanced by a sense of absurdity of the male ego. Rather than misogyny, you might call this “anti-feminism,” in the sense that it runs a parallel track to female self-empowerment, defining female power in genre terms with a sense of male awe, much as Tarantino has done in his last few films. Perhaps it is fetishistic, but the inability of Miller (or his protagonist) to understand women on their own terms dovetails with the aura of mystery clouding the every recess of the film’s geography.
Perspective is key. From the start, the narrative is arrested by the Spirit, who exists in shadows, like snow hovering over the waters, perpetual death — hence, Central City is presented likewise. A grim, luscious gotham of stunning contrasts and ambiguously textured haze. Even when he’s not onscreen, the Spirit’s presence defines the way we see the story unfold. A spirit is intangible, elusive, almost an article of faith, something indefatigueable and Promethean that holds people together. He gives people hope, purpose, drive, and opportunity. As it turns out, the female characters are the ones who do the work, and they are bound together by this “spirit;” they are manifestations of the city, which is gendered, of course: the City is She. It isn’t the Spirit who saves Her; She saves Herself.
The free-form storytelling of The Spirit, can therefore be understood as part of a peculiar worldview, in which discrete elements occur simultaneously, sometimes overlapping, and eventually right in the end, bound not only by the tactile ether but also by the determination of various characters to muddle through and somehow make sense of it all. Even though the presence of the Spirit links the characters, they do have lives and motivations outside of their relevance to his portions of the plot. As it happens, the women are more of a tapestry than a parade of eye candy (although they are certainly that, too), their threads woven together by force of will and residence in the confines of so fickle a city.
This extends to the nature of greenscreen storytelling. Without ever interacting with it — or even necessarily with each other — the actors inhabit a world they can’t see, taste, touch, hear, or feel. They can imagine it, but it exists during filming only in the mind of the director and the digital artisans he employs to bring it to life with the miracle of technology. It’s an entire universe built on implicit trust, with the whims of the primary filmmaker holding it all together, even if he is entirely dependent upon the talent and motivation of all those under his direction. Mistakes will find their way in, but if the creators are sincere enough, those mistakes can serve the film, rather than impede its impact.
The Spirit’s minor fluctuations in tone are unified by the ephemeral consistency of the aesthetic. The Octopus’s psychedelic, samurai-style disposal of some underlings (cinched by the sound of a juicy apple being bitten into); a purse-snatcher (and subsequently, the purloined purse) running straight into the Spirit’s waiting fist; the investigative technique of ass-recognition yielding results when shown to a dwarf; the cloning of a henchman goes awry, turning him into a foot with a tiny head. Miller’s eccentric indulgences are unexpected and welcome detours, but more importantly, they are the natural phenomena of a universe where things like that can and do happen.
The big question is if Miller’s vision of this universe if compelling and unique enough to make visiting it worthwhile. That may depend on whether or not moments of surreal lunacy, near-camp hardbitten monologues, sultry, emphatic music, and the glorious spectacle of Sam Jackson turned way past eleven is your cuppa joe. After all, the definition of fun is quite elastic.
Only a fool or a madman would make the argument that if you watched and hated this film, you just didn’t get it, or that the arcane magic of postmodern criticism has produced this, the infallible key to unlocking its hidden secrets. No. What I’m suggesting is that appreciating The Spirit requires something of a temporary paradigm shift, in which it’s possible to enjoy something truly “visionary” — something fanciful, not presently workable, impractical, unreal, imaginary, purely idealistic and speculative — for its own sake. Something that may be the dream of a fool or a madman. The word “visionary” has been bandied about incorrectly so much of late that it was truly refreshing to see a film from a major studio that bore the imprint of a sedulous romantic for whom the baroque, retro conventions of film noir and Warner Bros. animation could simultaneously be a celebration of style and the psychological potency of genre entertainment. You don’t have to believe that Miller intended all of this thematic cohesion when he scripted and storyboarded the film. All you need to do is consider for a moment the validity of Miller’s belief that there are no mistakes in art. If you can believe that, then The Spirit is the work of a demented master; all of it must work somehow, and the freedom that comes with the willing suspension of disbelief is a liberation of the senses. This way, when the City screams, you’ll be able to answer Her call.
Provided, of course, that some invincible mad scientist doesn’t surreptitiously smash a toilet over your head.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- He says so, in so many words, in a featurette included on the DVD release of The Spirit, his first solo (and probably last) foray into feature film directing. ↩
- Especially Speed Racer, which emerges upon multiple viewings as a flawed masterpiece. ↩
- The degree to which they’re convincing may lead to thematic problems similar to that of the recent spate of “docu-horror” films, but no major film from the last decade is anywhere near that stage. ↩