I have a deep, open, and abiding love of
crap pop culture. This is neither as bad as it could be nor as much fun as you might imagine. On the one hand, I never have to be evasive about adoring Jennifer Love Hewitt (not counting her records, here, I’m not that demented). On the other, I spend way too much time defending Avril Lavigne. On the gripping hand, a modern life without oooh-ahhh cheesy special effects and all that goes with them is like summer without ice cream: your tongue may not know just what’s missing, but something sweet and sticky isn’t happening quite right. In a well-tempered life there’s even room for Starship Troopers.
I spent 15 years or so mostly without a TV until December of Noughty-3, when my friend Seth had enough of my amiable cluelessness (“Ellen Degene-who?”) and gave me his old set, complete with DVD player and VCR. I still don’t receive TV — maybe I do, actually, I’ve never tried it out — but the DVD thing has won me over utterly. Extras and features fascinate me. I once spent an entire rainy weekend watching every single bit of the Joy Ride DVD, which is not as easy as it sounds. Some day I hope to see everything in those damn Lord of the Rings extended editions, like if nuclear winter hits any time soon. So: kid in a candy store.
Leave your brain in neutral long enough, though, and it starts to rub out as smooth and featureless as the butt cheek it might as well be. The mass market likes its messages in easy bite-sized chunks, the better for the mass-marketed to slurp them down in the millions. There may be subtext and subtlety, of course. You can tell by noting the large flaring HERE THERE BE SUBTEXT and SUBTLE MOMENT AHEAD beacons that illuminate their hastily-erected hides. Most of the indie market doesn’t do much better, since it aims in the end to penetrate the mass market, if perhaps via an unusual orifice. I’m not saying this is bad or good; it is what it is.
Then once in a while you smack into a movie that won’t give up its gifts unless you stay with it all the way down. Once the components were piled up and powered, I picked up Spider, a David Cronenberg production that had an eyeblink release here in the States.
Spider is a hard movie to like. It’s exceptionally acted (an unhealthily-thin Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as the averbal “Spider” Cleg; Miranda Richardson does wonders in two roles double-cast for thematic reasons as well as the usual showcase ones; Lynn Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne and John Neville are all terrific in supporting roles) and glacial in pace. It frustrates and falters and frets. Sometimes it gets stuck and won’t move. It’s headstrong and unreasonable and stubborn. It’s adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel of the same name, and it’s tiny and tattered and something of a chore to watch. “This is the kind of well-made movie you wish well but you don’t particularly wish to see again,” said USA Today, getting it very right.
But hey, I saw Cronenberg’s Crash, I can take it (in the middle of Crash my girlfriend announced, “Those people have a lot of butt sex, don’t they?” and it came out much louder than she intended; there was a small and heartfelt smattering of applause in our section). The story is bewildering and mysterious, but I can go there. Some of the characters slip pretty far to inconsistent extremes, but given the bland overall anomie the drift beats an odd rhythm against the strange chittering pace of the film. I watched it, took it in, watched the featurettes, and put it back in the Still-Working-On-It section of the shelf, where it stayed until last night.
Dead tired I was, and for whatever reason I decided to polish off the director’s commentary track. So I settle down with a nice beer, slip in the DVD, and click on through to the other side. Half an hour in — Cronenberg hardly pauses, and he stays pretty focused on the action on the screen — I see that I didn’t understand this movie at all. I mean, the boat sailed and I was looking at land wondering when the train was coming in. The plot doesn’t change that much, but for the rest … it’s as if you asked me how Madame Bovary was and my confident answer was “Good, it was written by a French guy.”
Part of what makes Spider so alien is Cronenberg’s assumption that the viewer will be willing to watch the film and then come back to it a second and third time to undo the layers. He gives you early actions that mean nothing until you’ve seen the climax, not merely as foreshadowing but as firm steps along the story path. It’s not the fashionable trickstering of films like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, but a narrative designed to draw you in as a navigator, ready to chart your own way through unknown waters. It’s uncompromising, it’s unrealistic, it’s anachronistic and it’s thrilling. It’s downright literary.