Tuesday, January 12, 2010


It's not easy to link the death of the great filmmaker Eric Rohmer at the age of 89 to the decision by Sony Pictures to cancel production on Spider-Man 4 but here goes.

A key aspect of Rohmer's work is, simply, that he and his films were French. I'm not just speaking of the wonderfully discursive, vitally alive accomplishments of his work, but the actual physical existence of the films themselves. That is to say, they were produced in a country in which financing for modestly-budgeted work is relatively easy to come by, and the role of the artist is creating his own work is seldom questioned.

I tried thinking of an American equivalent to Rohmer, not in actual content, of course, but sensibility, a director who could be counted on to trust character over story every time. And I couldn't really come up with anyone. The contemporary filmmakers who immediately came to mind, like Alexander Payne and David O. Russell and Richard Linklater, are, to varying degrees, still slaves to...well, I was going to say "formula" but that wouldn't be fair. It's a different sensibility we have in America. Even our finest artists still have commercial instincts. It's bred into us.

But no matter how diligently one tries to blend art and commerce, commerce always wins. Consider poor Sam Raimi. Those of us who admired--Did I say "admired"? I meant "loved with an unreasonable passion"--his modestly-budgeted Evil Dead films couldn't wait for Raimi to hit the big time, to be given the time and budget to follow his muse wherever it would take him. We endured the for-hire crap he turned out for the big studios, like the Kevin Costner vehicle For The Love Of The Game, assuming somehow he'd be allowed to speak in his own voice.

So when Raimi was given the Spider-Man franchise at the start of the decade, it seemed like a dream come true, a perfect match of director with pulpy, slightly goofy material. And Spider-Man was a decent enough movie, if a little overly cautious. But with Spider-Man 2 Raimi knocked it out of the park, creating a nearly perfect example of big-budget commercial craftsmanship that was also infused with his own off-kilter sensibility.

Naturally, both of these movies were smash hits, and should have had studios eagerly lining up to give Raimi his head, to let him make whatever he wanted to make. That didn't happen, though; instead, he agreed to make Spider-Man 3, by all accounts an unhappy experience for everyone involved, and a movie that was clearly marked by corporate interference on every level. (Can we get some more conflict in here? Can we have a bit less emotion? We need more action! And can it be dark and, you know, edgy? Because the Hot Topic demo likes edgy. But not too dark--we don't want to lose the kiddie market...) When released, following a promo campaign that reportedly cost as much as the film itself, Spider-Man 3 had a record-breaking opening weekend, but it fell off pretty quickly after that, because audiences mostly were indifferent.

But despite Sony's shabby treatment of him, Raimi soldiered on, signing on board for Spider-Man 4, and immediately encountering the same corporate mindset. Raimi's notion was to tell an interesting story involving compelling characters, but the studio again only wanted to cram in as many marketable elements as possible. The studio won, of course: The film was shut down, Raimi was off the franchise, along with Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and all the actors and creative personnel who had spent the last decade filling Sony's coffers. The franchise will be, in annoying Hollywood-ese, rebooted--a younger, "edgier" Spider-Man for a new generation, or some such.

And yes, we're talking about movies featuring a guy swinging through Manhattan on webs, which are about as far removed, aesthetically and intellectually, from Eric Rohmer's exquisite dissections of the human heart as it's possible to get. But it's also the difference between America and France: In this country, Rohmer would probably get fired from his own movie.