Monday, July 12, 2004
THE NEW YORK TIMES. The Gray Lady. The paper of record. Alma mater of distinguished or, er, at least famous journalists like Punch "keep it in the family" Sulzberger, Howell "keep your mouth shut when I'm talking" Raines, and Jayson "keep the facts out of my way when I'm writing" Blair. Aerie of op-ed scintillants like Paul Krugman of the low forehead and high dudgeon, Maureen Dowd of the low IQ and high-society airs, William Safire of the low readability and high grammatical standards, and Bob Herbert of the low sense and high distortion rate. It's also the home base of critic Frank Rich, who came very close to saving the world from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, if only his cool objectivity about the film hadn't melted the keyboard of his Selectric before he said what he really thought. Thankfully, the equipment malfunction has now been repaired and he's just in time to tell us who should really be president, which is a very important service expected of all NYT movie reviewers. Guess who this highest of highbrow film critics thinks it should be: Spiderman!
That's right. We're taking up the cudgel for Part II of our InstaPunk focus on context. We're not as grandiloquent as yesterday's contributors, which is why it's so fortunate that we're discussing one of this week's entries in The New York Times. When the Times is involved, you don't have to define context or even mention it unless the title of the piece is "Context." The Times is the context. The major television networks don't pick what's news; they pick up the Times and read it right off the page. No wonder. The folks who write the paper of record are the best and the brightest in the business, as any one of them will tell you. That's why it must mean something when Frank Rich begins to tack in a new political direction.
For example, it seems that he's growing tired of the leadership of Michael Moore:
The Michael Moore explosion is now officially unbearable. It's not just that you can't pick up a Time Warner magazine without seeing his mug on the cover. Or turn on a TV news show without hearing another tedious debate about the accuracy of "Fahrenheit 9/11" - conducted by the same press corps that never challenged the Bush administration's souped-up case for invading Iraq. What's most ridiculous is the central question driving the whole show: Might a hit documentary swing the November election?
Frank knows it's not going to affect the election, because he's not going to allow it. He has something better to offer:
If you want to find a movie that might give a more accurate reading of the national pulse, it isn't hard to do: take a look at "Spider-Man 2," which is now on a pace to outdraw Moore's film and maybe every other movie this year - in every conceivable demographic. It may not be on the radar screen of the Washington pack busy misreading the electoral tea leaves of Moore's box-office receipts. No one is shouting about it on Fox. But with an opening five-day take of about $152 million - next to $128 million for "Shrek 2," $125 million for "The Passion of the Christ," $124 million for the last Frodo, $109 million for the last Harry Potter - "Spider-Man 2" is front-and-center for most everyone else.
It deserves to be on its merits, by the way. It's hard not to fall in love with "Spider-Man 2." It's not only better than any other movie based on a comic book - not the highest bar to reach - but also superior to all the other so-called franchise movies...
Why is Frank so taken with a blockbuster he would normally carve to ribbons? Because it suddenly reminded him of a feeling he hasn't had in quite a while..
Unlike the sunnier first "Spider-Man," which was conceived before the terrorist attacks, the new one carries the shadow of 9/11. The director, Sam Raimi, dotes on both the old (the Empire State Building in silvery mode) and the new (the Hayden Planetarium), on both the dreamily nostalgic (a fairy-book Broadway theater seemingly resurrected from an Edwardian past) and the neighborhood of freshest wounds (the canyons of Lower Manhattan). The movie is suffused with a nocturnal glow of melancholy that casts its comic-book action in an unexpectedly poignant light.
Melancholy. Poignancy. Something about 9/11. Some deep memory must be coming to the surface in Frank's great mind. But what?
In "Spider-Man 2," the writers seem determined to remind the audience that it is a civilization, not merely a crowd of extras, that is the target of attack.
Now there's a groundbreaking premise. The very foundation stones of the Times building must have trembled when Frank had this epiphany. Certainly he was shaken, because he then opened his eyes and saw, as if in a great Timesian vision, that Spiderman 2 was really this, well, this sort of really important almost, like, allegory that all of us lower folk might be able to learn from.
This is a world worth saving, but the superhero who can save it is no Superman. He's a bookish nerd racked with guilt and self-doubt. "With great power comes great responsibility" is the central tenet of his faith, passed down not from God but from his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). He takes it seriously. Spider-Man wants to vanquish evil, but he doesn't want to be reckless about it. Like the reluctant sheriff of an old western, he fights back only when a bad guy strikes first, leaving him with no alternative. He wouldn't mind throwing off his Spider-Man identity entirely to go back to being just Peter Parker, lonely Columbia undergrad. But of course he can't. This is 2004, and there is always evil bearing down on his New York.
Do you see where he's going here? He detects something deeply meaningful and relevant to our current state of affairs. Yes, there's trouble and evil in the world. It lurks and it's powerful, so powerful that it even threatens New York (symbolized in the movie by New York -- pretty subtle, eh?), and it has to be battled, but how? What kind of person do the genius scriptwriters and Frank Rich want us to be looking for? Why, someone like the reluctant sheriff in an old western (here symbolized by a comic book superhero so that it won't be too obvious -- art, you know). This is starting to get heavy. H-E-A-V-Y. This is the point in Rich's piece where we could feel our ignorant American synapses starting to fire, raggedly at first, not unlike the engine of a rusted '47 Dodge pickup, but stronger with each new drop of wisdom from Rich's pen. Eventually, even we could see that he wants us to rethink what kind of president we should have. He should be the kind of guy who has a secret identity but isn't happy about it, who has an obsession with putting on red tights and swinging like Tarzan through the jungles of evil that beset us, but humbly, like an awkward adolescent. And reluctantly, like a, er, reluctant western sheriff. Yeah. That sounds right. Frank leaves nothing to chance, though. He wants to make sure that even the dumbest of us get what he is talking about:
The extraordinary popularity of this hero on America's Fourth of July weekend might give partisans on both sides of the political race pause. As a man locked in a war against terror, Peter Parker could not be further removed from the hubristic bravura of Bush and his own cinematic model, the Tom Cruise of "Top Gun." There's nothing triumphalist about Spider-Man; he would never declare "Mission Accomplished" after a passing victory, and his very creed is antithetical to the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. But neither is he a stand-in for John Kerry. Whatever inner equivocation he suffers over his role as a superhero, he stops playing Hamlet when he has a decision to make. Nor does he follow Kerry's vainglorious example of turning his own past battles into slick promotional hagiography.
It's okay to fight back against evil, but when you do that, you can't do it right out in the open, as if you were leading a country or something. You can't make a big deal out of anything that's accomplished in the fight. You have to do it the way you would if your life could be ruined by someone learning your secret identity, but you still have to be decisive, like a, er, reluctant western sheriff or comic book superhero. You can't be too masculine about it, though. You have to have doubts. You have to have hurty parts. And a softer side. Maybe someone like Hillary. But definitely not someone triumphalist like Bush or vainglorious like Kerry. It just wouldn't do to fight a war against evil by coming right out and fighting that war boldly and in the open. You have to do it in the shadows, in disguise, without asking for any support from the populace, and only after the evil has already launched another attack. You have to do it like Spiderman. Hey, do you suppose Spiderman is available?
So should we all order our Spidey for President bumper stickers? Maybe, but there's also a chance -- we figured this out after a lot of blockhead talk like us blockheads do all the time-- that Frank Rich wasn't actually suggesting Spiderman for president. It seems possiblle, anyway, that what he was after was using the incredibly deep and subtle symbolism of Spiderman to help us look at Bush and Kerry in a new way. In a new, you know, context? So that we'd be able to see some things we could never have seen without a little inspired help.
And you know what? We were right? When we went back and finished reading the rest of the article, Frank practically came out and said it, proving we weren't so dumb, after all:
Whatever light "Spider-Man 2" may cast on the dueling, would-be heroes of the presidential race, however, it is not going to change the dynamic of the election any more than "Fahrenheit 9/ 11" will. But if it or any movie cannot move an election, its box-office triumph shows us something about those who will be doing the voting.
"Spider-Man 2" is an escapist movie that serves as a rebuke to what its audience wants to escape: a pop culture that is often too shrill and an election-year political culture that increasingly mimics that pop culture. It gives us a selfless hero unlike any on the national stage, and promotes a credo of justice without vindictiveness.
This year that appears to be the heretofore missing formula for capturing a landslide mandate in red and blue states alike.
Thank you, New York Times, for Frank Rich. Thank you, God, for the New York Times. Think where'd we be without such a powerful lantern to light the way.