Friday, January 14, 2011

Spawn (Dippé 1997)

(NOTE: I will admit right now that this is less a review of the film Spawn and more or a discussion of Roger Ebert and his critical practice. Please keep in mind while reading)

Normally, I would not bother to ask my readers to read another critic’s review before reading my own (seeing as how most critics are better than myself). However, when the critic I am guiding you to is A) Roger Ebert, and B) he has written this review of Mark A.Z. Dippé’s 1997 film Spawn, I feel compelled to ask you all to read the work before launching into my own.

Now, allow me to be clear: I love Roger Ebert. He and Gene Siskel were among the first critics I ever bothered following, and I continue to do so in the case of Ebert. I respect his work without always agreeing with it, and even when I do disagree, he usually offers something to think about. Despite this respect however, there are two Roger Eberts that one might end up reading with any given review. The first, and most common, is the intelligent, well learned film scholar who can discuss and dissect a film with the best of them.

The other Ebert is the one who wrote the embarrassingly bad Spawn review I just asked you to read.

The review is not embarrassing because Roger Ebert liked the film: as bad as the film is, I have no beef with anyone enjoying it. Heck, I think the film so bad as to be brilliantly awful entertainment, what with Martin Sheen going off the deep end of “ham” with his performance, the bizarre turn from John Leguizamo, and Nicol Williamson ending his film career in the worst possible manner. No, what is embarrassing is the pains Ebert goes to try and justify his three and a half star review of the film, and his attempts to try and sound as if he has a working knowledge of the comic book medium. The review rings hollow, and highlights one of Ebert's downfalls in his critical practice.

Just take the first paragraph of Ebert’s review, that “Spawn is best seen as an experimental art film…[w]hat we have here are creators in several different areas doing their best to push the envelope. The subject is simply an excuse for their art--just as it always is with serious artists.” Putting aside the absurd notion that “serious artists” have little use for their subjects beyond using them as a pretext, Ebert basically asks the reader/potential viewer of Spawn to simply turn off their brain and admire the “pretty pictures.” And while I normally do not agree with such requests, I can at least respect the idea of someone admitting to doing so. They are at least being honest.

However, being Roger Ebert, respectable film critic 95% of the time, a request to "shut off your brain" would be, to say the least, odd. Or rather, odd to the audience he feels he is writing to. Hence, we get his dressed up version of the "turn off your brain" request, with reference to considering the film as an art film and to focus on the daring do of the special effects artists, who have apparently crafted a visual world that is, and I quote, "unforgettable."

Ok, fine, let us follow Ebert down this path for a moment and ignore everything except the visual effects, which includs computer animation, makeup, etc. Are they as boundary pushing as he claims? Is this world the filmmakers have created on the level of Metropolis and Blade Runner as he states? There is a simple answer to this:


This is not a “no” in the context of the fourteen years of effects work that have come since the film came out. This is a “no” that comes out of an awareness of what was capable at the time. This is a “no” that comes from a deep love of real special effects development, witnessed not only in Metropolis and Blade Runner as Ebert mentions, but from the following films that predate Spawn: Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902); King Kong (1933); Citizen Kane (1941); The Wolfman (1941); The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms (1953); 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968); Star Wars (1977); Superman: The Movie (1978); An American Werewolf in London (1981); Tron (1982); The Thing (1982); The Dark Crystal (1982); The Terminator (1984); Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988); The Abyss (1989); Terminator 2 - Judgement Day (1991); and Jurassic Park (1992). This is a “no” on behalf of Georges Méliès, Linwood G. Dunn, Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, Jim Henson, and Rick Barker, among others, who I would not blame for feeling insulted by the suggestion that Spawn’s effects work are anywhere near their achievements, or builds upon them.

Not only is Spawn not a boundary pushing film in terms of special effects, the quality of its special effects are a massive step back from what was achievable at the time. While the design of the Spawn makeup in the film is fine (not great: fine), the minute the film decides to use digitally created effects, which is often, the whole film goes to hell (no pun intended). Take a look at the following captures from the film.

Now, remember in his review of the film, Ebert compared these images of hell to the work of Hieronymous Bosch, who painted in the late 1400s. Below is an example of Bosch’s work.

Does anything in the images from Spawn seem remotely worthy of Bosch’s work? The visions of hell in Spawn look about the quality of a Full Motion Video Game (FMVs) cut scene from the same era, which were often made with vastly less money and resources than available to the filmmakers of Spawn. Granted, the playback of such FMVs were in low resolution, but that was because of the computer limitations of the time.
Allow that to sink in for a moment folks: the special effects "wonders" that Ebert seems to love are on part with those in low resolution video game footage of the 1995-1999 era.

Of course, maybe Ebert was referring to the morphing effects in the film. The thing is, even if these were what Ebert was impressed by, Spawn A) did not pioneer the effect, as it appeared at least two years previous in the slightly-better-than-Spawn film Mortal Kombat (1995) (and yes, I am well aware that I am saying a Paul W.S. Anderson film is better than Spawn), and B) Mortal Kombat did these morphing effects far better, as did the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. And even the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

But I digress. The key point here is that in no way, shape or form can Spawn be considered for the value of its special effects as Ebert points towards, let alone be mentioned in the same breath as films that legitimately pushed forth the development of special effects. This bizarre-at-best attempt at giving a sense of “legitimacy” to his enjoyment of the film is the kind of deranged statement that would have killed the authority of any lesser critic. In the case of Ebert, this failed attempt at trying to give Spawn a historical and cinematic significance comes across as little more than an expression of class anxiety and vanity: he enjoyed a film he views as being trash, and therefore must justify it both to himself and his envisioned readership. This class bias becomes all the more apparent in the manner Ebert appraises the film's narrative, and what it tells us about how he envisions the comic book medium and its readers/creators.

Certainly, there is not much of value in the storyline of Spawn, and the film suffers from the same problem the comics of the character suffer from (at least the ones I read from early in the run): good ideas with no idea what to do with them. The film merely suffers from the added problem of following the same, lame ABC plotting used by every writer who has misread Joseph Campbell's work as a rule book for writing, and the film never bothers to delve into the psychology of its protagonist Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) the "spawn" of the title. Characters make idiotic decisions because the plot tells them to, and tries to get by on the assumed ignorance of the (1997) audience on several topics. For example, you would think that a top CIA agent might realize that destroying a computer monitor will do nothing to stop information from being sent over the Internet. Not in the universe of Spawn.

Given this shoddy writing, one would be able to forgive Ebert for being dismissive of the film's narrative. Indeed, his criticism that the story is rather a sentimental piece of work is completely correct. The problem though is that Ebert assumes that not only is the quality of storytelling in Spawn is the same quality of storytelling in comics, but that this quality is what comic book readers crave and writers strive for. What else can be taken away from such statements as " in comic books, and movies spawned by comic books...[w]hat matters is style, tone, and creative energy"?

The entire manner in which Ebert treats comic book creators, readers and the medium in general is filled with contempt, and his review Spawn is this contempt written loud, and in near complete ignorance of the medium, its history, and its capabilities. Which again, would be fine if he would admit as much. Instead, we get to witness Roger Ebert's laughable at best attempts at trying to sound as if he is some authority on the comic book medium ("origination story"? Please stop trying to class up our terminology) to his assumed audience: the "literate" types who do not read comic books. For Ebert, the comic book reader and writer is some alien life form, caught up in their own little world in which “real” art and “real” writers do not come into, and hence will not read his reviews. Again, I ask how is one to take a condescending statement such as "I am sure there will be some who get involved at the plot level..."? We know who you are talking about Roger. Or rather, who you think you are talking about

Yes, the comic book reader and writer are strange illiterate aliens to Mr. Ebert. Never mind the existence of Alan Moore, who’s philosophical ponderings were what interested Ebert so much in Watchmen (2009). Or J. Michael Straczynski, a long time writer of comics and animated television who also writes films such as Changeling (2008). Or Neil Gaiman, one of the greatest living fantasy writers working today across pretty much all media, whose defining work might just be his epic Sandman series. No, these aliens known as comic book fans and writers care not for narrative, but merely “style, tone, and creative energy.”


When you get right down to it, Ebert's review of Spawn is little more than the worst of Ebert's critical practices rolled into one review: written in ignorance, utilizing assumption and stereotypes over facts, and trying too hard to either justify his enjoyment of the film to either his assumed readership, or to himself. Probably both. It is a review that tries too hard, and had Ebert simply admitted to liking the film rather than reaching for flimsy reasons to justify that love, no one would have really cared.

There is no shame Mr. Ebert in admitting you loved a trashy movie, be it ironically or seriously.

There is no shame in your loving Spawn.

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