Film: The Best We Can Do

Criticism, it seems, is a risky business. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, several reviewers who panned Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones received death threats via e-mail, along with sundry other communications of somewhat lower voltage. This one caught my eye: “The mere fact that you actually get payed [sic] to write movie reviews is the last shred of proof I need to rule out the existance [sic] of God.”

Not wanting to shake anybody’s faith, I decided I could live without seeing Attack of the Clones, but I went out of my way to catch Spider-Man. The tug of nostalgia proved irresistible: I have fond memories of reading “Spider-Man” comic books as a boy. More recently, I taught a course in criticism at a large Eastern university this past year, and I was struck by how many of my students were interested in writing about today’s comics and had smart things to say about them. Having praised Ghost World last year, I figured I should give Spider-Man at least as fair a shake.

On top of all this, I felt it was time to make a preemptive strike on snobbery. The other day, I gave a talk about movies to a roomful of priests, one of whom asked me if I reviewed only “highbrow” movies. Considering that I’d just showed them Comanche Station, a Randolph Scott Western, the question seemed a bit odd, but I happily explained that I liked and wrote about all kinds of movies. In fact, my guess is that I’ve spent more time watching popular movies than art films—and gotten more pleasure out of them, too.

What’s more, I really like good popular movies, as opposed to pretending to like them in order to seem cool, the way some highbrow critics and scholars do. Pauline Kael said more than her fair share of dumb things during her tenure as film critic of The New Yorker, but I couldn’t agree more with the following passage, which she wrote, astonishingly enough, in 1969:

The Thomas Crown Affair is pretty good trash, but we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy. If it was priggish for an older generation of reviewers to be ashamed of what they enjoyed and to feel they had to be contemptuous of popular entertainment, it’s even more priggish for a new movie generation to be so proud of what they enjoy that they use their education to try to place trash within the acceptable academic tradition.

Mind you, I frequently use this space to analyze what popular movies tell us about popular culture, but that undertaking doesn’t have anything to do with art. Nor should it. Most movies aren’t art, not in any meaningful sense, and that’s just fine with me.

Spider-Man definitely isn’t art. It’s a prime example of the sort of “event movie” in which Hollywood now specializes, a big-budget romantic adventure story designed to appeal to teenagers and marketed just like any other mass-culture product—Coca-Cola, say. All things being equal, I’d much rather have spent two hours watching something better or reading a book. Still, as event movies go, Spider-Man isn’t at all bad. It never bored me or made me laugh unintentionally, and the special effects are on occasion quite beautiful (I very much liked the scenes in which Spider-Man swings from skyscraper to skyscraper down the streets of Manhattan). Except for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I’ve never seen a big-ticket event movie that was so completely free of coarse language or sexual innuendo. The movie’s PG-13 rating is based solely on its portrayals of violence, which are sufficiently cartoonish that I can’t imagine them giving nightmares to any child above the age of ten or so.

These things are unexpected enough, but the most surprising thing about Spider-Man is the extent to which it is permeated with Christian symbolism, both explicit and implicit. When, for instance, did you last see a Hollywood movie in which a sympathetic character prayed before a meal or responded to grave danger by saying a heartfelt “Our Father”? Nor are these mere fripperies thrown in to soothe the suckers; rather, they are completely consistent with the tone and theme of the film. Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a teenager from Queens who, discovering that a laboratory accident has endowed him with superhuman powers, squarely faces the problem of learning how to use them responsibly. His archenemy, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), makes the opposite choice, going so far as to take young Peter up on the roof of a tall building and tempt him to do likewise, in the process using language unmistakably intended to recall the temptation of Christ.

I can’t remember whether the old Spider-Man comics incorporated this kind of symbolism, nor do I know whether Sam Raimi and David Koepp, the director and writer of Spider-Man, meant these touches to be taken seriously. Yet they certainly don’t come across as ironic. Indeed, very little about Spider-Man is obviously ironic or self-referential. It could have been made with the express purpose of introducing children to a wide range of traditional values, up to and including respect for their elders. At the same time, the movie shares with its comic-book source a keen sense of adolescent angst—Peter Parker is an egghead who is too shy to ask the girl next door (Kirsten Dunst) out on a date—thus preventing its old-fashioned morality from coming across as goody-goody.

So yes, Spider-Man is a movie to which you can safely send the kids, and even accompany them without sentencing yourself to two hours’ worth of agonized squirming. But I’d never pretend for a moment that it’s anything more than a piece of pretty good, morally unobjectionable trash, and as I left the theater, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is unobjectionable trash really the best we can hope for out of American popular culture circa 2002?

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, a book I judged to be a masterpiece not long after I put aside my comic books. I know better now, and I also know that there is a great deal to be said for pure frivolity. Man cannot live by master-pieces alone, not even bona fide ones.

On the other hand, take a look at this list of non-highbrow movies released a half-century ago: The African Queen, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Sky, Five Fingers, The Greatest Show on Earth, High Noon, Hangman’s Knot, Kansas City Confidential, The Lusty Men, Monkey Business, The Narrow Margin, Pat and Mike, The Quiet Man, Ride the Man Down, Singin’ in the Rain, and Son of Paleface. The only things these films have in common are that they were all made in Hollywood and that I happen to like them. Not one opened in an art house (though several are now regarded as classics and can be seen on museum series). If they are representative of what Americans regarded as routine movie-house fare in 1952, then what does that say about America in 2002? Nothing very good, I fear.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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