Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Comic Book Movies in a Comic Book World

An Spailpín Fánach yields to no-man in his admiration of 2002's Spider Man and this year's Batman Begins as highlights of the last three years of cinema. Both were tours de force of their genre, made with ultimate effort, commitment and vision by all the cast and crew. Each movie is tinged with flair, élan and genius, from the initial casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter and Mary Jane, the archetypical boy and girl next door in Spider Man, to Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson collectively realising in Batman Begins that really, this ain't going to be a subtle one, and adjusting their performances accordingly.

But while there is nothing wrong or misguided in being impressed by and thrilling to those fine examples of the comic book movie genre, it is a sad fact of our 21st Century that if the highlight of your cultural year is a comic book movie you're not really living the life of a fully rounded adult, are you? Paul of Tarsus told the Corinthians that when he was a child he thought as a child, he spake as a child, he understood as a child; but when he became a man he put away childish things. When An Spailpín Fánach, now going slowly but inevitably grey in hair and whiskers, is queuing up to see the new Batman movie, he has not put away childish things.

While the childish thing might remain the chief delight of An Spailpín Fánach, at least it does still stimulate. We mightn't consider Dr Johnson's well-made table great art as such, but we retain enough of the Doctor's critical apparatus to realise that a movie that pretends to be for grown-ups but is merely pretentious and mind-numbingly boring, such as the recent Assassination of Richard Nixon, is not the sort of table we'll be using in the dining room anytime soon.

Peter Biskind's recent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was a both a paean to the American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period that we may loosely understand as after The Sound of Music and before Jaws, a period that Biskind considers the golden age of American cinema, and a visceral condemnation of the cinema that came after it, which to Biskind is anathema. Biskind was well answered by Tom Shone's Blockbuster published two years ago, where Shone makes the point that a movie might be terribly worthy and made with great vision, but if nobody can sit through it for two hours without being their minds being numbed to the point of insanity by the sheer boredom and utter confusion of it all, it's probably missing a little as regards its entire aesthetic. The first requirement of any work of art is that the work must stimulate and not bore - can that really be said of The Conversation "by" Coppola, or of McCabe and Mrs Miller, "by" Altman, where the commitment to naturalism is so great that nobody can hear what's being said on the soundtrack? Perhaps when one talks about an artist's vision, we ought to distinguish between those visions inspired by the Muse and those visions inspired by the Marrakesh Express. Stoners are not noted for going the extra yard or completeness of vision.

But despite all of the forgoing, a recent appearance of the venerable US film critic Roger Ebert on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno made An Spailpín reflect that we may be over-doing it as a culture on the comic-book movie front. Ebert was complaining - rightly - about dumbing down and the infantilisation of movies. Only recently, said Ebert, he was inundated with letters and emails from people complaining that they couldn't bring their eight year old children to see a big summer release. "What about people whose mental age is higher than eight?" thundered Ebert. "Who's making movies for them?" All this met with roars of approval and "you the man!" from the studio audience.

Which is all well and good. Not only is it good for the culture to have adult themes explored at adult depth in the cinema, the studio audience reaction indicates that there is an audience hungry for this sort of thing out there. The only fly in the ointment - or bat in the belfry, if you like - is that the movie Roger wanted as adults only was Batman Begins. And if the kids can't go see the Caped Crusader, they're hardly going to be bowling along to some Bergman retrospective in the Screen on D'Olier Street either. Which means in turn that if the grown-ups are watching kiddy movies, then the movies watched by kiddies will be pitched at a still lower intellectual level again. Which then means that you can forget about reading your Spailpín Fánach anymore, because pretty soon cyberspace will be as empty as it was before the metaphorical apple fell on Tim Berners-Lee's head, and society will have gone back to cave-paintings. And that would not be a good thing.