Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Myth, Commerce, and Art in Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

[An excellent guest-blog from Mitch!]

A couple of Sundays ago at the Foxwoods Theater, the Greek spider deity named Arachne kissed Peter Parker and asked, “Can you ever forgive me, Spider-Man?” Then, her immortal curse finally broken, she ascended into a pulsing cosmic projection of stars and simply blinked out of view.

So ended the run of Julie Taymor’s infamous, inscrutable, universally derided, dangerous, eccentric, and enthralling train wreck of a musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The 75 billion dollar money pit will return to Broadway for a June 14 opening, with many of Taymor’s more eccentric flourishes cautiously excised. Arachne’s mythological credentials are an apt example of the weighty theatrical pretension Taymor has smeared all over what could have been – and perhaps SHOULD have been – a by-the-numbers adaptation, so it is fitting that she, as Taymor’s in-story stand in, should ask for poor Spider-Man’s forgiveness; only it turns out she doesn’t need it. Healthy box office receipts suggest that the Spider-Man brand has survived Taymor’s bewildering machinations, and by the time the new movie comes out next year no one will give a second thought to the stylistic apocalypse he has endured (and inflicted upon others) in her version of the musical.

Which is actually kind of a shame to me, because even though it’s certainly a failure on practically every level, Taymor’s variation is the first purely artistic revision of the character in a long time.

Many mean things have been said about Turn Off the Dark, but few of its detractors have noted that it is at least genuinely fearless. And like with Ang Lee’s Hulk movie or Frank Miller’s Spirit movie, the utter lack of caution and external meddling is refreshing, even if the whole thing feels a little misguided. And it does. Much of the show seems to takes place in the space of a fever dream, where leaps in logic are common and events occasionally occur beneath Inception-like layers of illusion – Arachne uses her illusion-weaving talents to make Spider-Man believe a team of super villains have destroyed the world, but in actuality everything is totally fine. This seems to occur for no other reason than to prompt Spider-Man to first loose faith in himself and then regain it later. It doesn’t help that the super villains are introduced in the mode of a fashion show runway. All of this is justifiable, considering that Arachne is an illusionist (or “the only artist working today,” as she says on Taymor’s behalf), but makes a mess out of the stakes of the show. At other times, Taymor and co seem to have their story priorities confused. For instance, an entire song is allocated for Flash Thompson and the bullies to pick on Peter, but the only scene we get establishing Peter’s relationship to Uncle Ben and Aunt May is inter-cut with a scene about Mary Jane and her abusive dad.

Before I go any further I should point out two things. The first is that for a number of reasons, Spider-Man is an omnipresent figure in my own personal mythology. Despite this I have absolutely no emotional connection to him. Only a clinical, perhaps sadistic curiosity in how much he can endure as a piece of intellectual property. Something like Turn Off the Dark is exactly what I’m talking about. In the same way that Batman can be in the Frank Miller comic, the Brave and the Bold cartoon, the Christopher Nolan movies, and a porno parody of the Adam West show, Spider-Man, as a character, can appear on my infant son’s bib AND in a live stage show where he is seduced by an ancient spider deity with a shoe fetish without being wholly compromised. Spider-Man endures. This is mystifying to me. This durability just isn’t there in other licensed characters, I’m thinking of like Shrek, for instance. Hell, Green Lantern probably won’t even come out of his own straightforward movie adaptation unscathed.

The second thing is that I am also a theater critic, but not the sort of critic who usually has any business reviewing a multi-million dollar Broadway musical. I typically review non-linear, experimental performance arty things in small black box theaters downtown. In this case, I needed to speak up though, because Turn Off the Dark is just a few quirks away from a typical off-off-broadway performance piece, only with an inflated budget and a widely recognizable central property.

Being a theater person, I can see what Taymor is up to. As someone who probably never read a comic before, I suspect the only way she could wrap her head around the idea of Spider-Man was to think about it in terms of Greek mythology. Because if there is one thing we pretentious theater people love, it’s Greek shit. So what we get here is Spider-Man (and to another extent the “super hero” in general) as modern mythology – not necessarily a new idea, but one that Taymor runs with and never looks back. Contemporary manifestations and discussions of fate, obsession, the drive for immortality, and determinism litter the script, with mixed results. For instance, a discussion about free will is confused because one character thinks they are talking about the movie, Free Willy – a joke so adorably bad that you can’t help smiling about it.

So with that, I return to my previous statement, which might seem a little dramatic – that Taymor’s revision of the Spider-Man story is the most significant, purely artistic rendering of it in a long time. But if you look at every “new” version of Spider-Man in the past couple of decades and consider only the reason for each version, it becomes clear that each one was motivated only by sales or marketing. The “Ultimate” version of the character, for instance, was a successful attempt to bring in fresh readers. All the animated series and movies were in essence extended advertisements for licensed products. This is not to say that a significant amount of artistry and vision didn’t go into each of these adaptations, just that the motivating force behind them was commercial. I like the comic writer Dan Slott, but when it comes down to it his job is to write the most safely bankable Spider-Man book he can, so that people continue to buy and talk about the book. This is the jaded truth about Spider-Man, his real secret identity: Spider-Man is a mechanism that exists only to make money.

Taymor was certainly out to make money with Turn Off the Dark, having invested some of her own in the production, but clearly aimed much higher than mere blockbuster commercial success. Otherwise, why not just redo the first Spider-Man movie straight down the line? The flying and technical spectacles of the show, which despite the highly publicized difficulties are truly stunning to behold, would surely have been enough to make lots of money. Why not just do the “canonical” Spider-Man story? This must have occurred to Taymor, because she has a lot of fun with it in the narrative. Four characters known as the “Geek Chorus” narrate the story, debating throughout which of Spidey’s escapades warrant inclusion in their definitive Spider-Man story. Her conclusion seems to be that there is no definitive Spider-Man story – only an infinite number of riffs on a core myth. “Did Peter Parker have a special destiny or was he just like everyone else?” one of the Geeks asks, a question I have heard real-life geeks mull over. Taymor’s Geek’s answer is funny, pointing out the futility of such discussions: “He was more like everyone else than anyone else and that’s what made him special.”

Taymor has a stand-in in the Geek Chorus as well, in the form of the Geek’s only female member, Miss Arrow. At one point Miss Arrow casually invents a new villain for the story, a horrendously stupid robot-looking character called Swiss Miss, who is apparently some kind of mutant Swiss Army knife with breasts (played by a male actor, no less). “You can’t just make up a new villain, ” the other Geeks say, appalled. “I just did,” is Arrow/Taymor’s sneering response. She is obviously willing to kill a few fatted calves and break the pre-established rules to get to something new. Even Uncle Ben’s immortal line “With great power comes great responsibility” has been streamlined into the more ballad-friendly “Rise Above.”

Aside from Swiss Miss, the aesthetic is typically pretty immense and spectacular. In one scene at the beginning Arachne’s spider-girls swing back and forth on tapestries to weave this HUGE web out of fabric. It’s simple, but beautiful aerial choreography that goes on just long enough for you to appreciate it. Again – NOTHING to do with Spider-Man, but man did it look good. The cityscapes, which zoom in at hard, dynamic angles or open up out of each other like pages of comic books, and Spider-Man’s interaction with them, are equally impressive. The cast is mostly serviceable, with the exception of Patrick Page, who plays the Green Goblin as a vampy southern drag queen chicken-thing. I know how it sounds, but you really can’t take your eyes off of him. The music by U2 has gotten worse press than it deserves, I think. It’s fairly standard musical music, which always sounds the same to me unless it’s really, really good.

Overall, the experience was worthwhile, and trying to wrap my head around all the problems with the show led me down a lot of fun mental rabbit holes, like does the intent or motivation behind a piece of art really matter? The second Spider-Man movie, for instance, was made purely to make money and sell toys, but it still turned out pretty great. Turn Off the Dark was made to say something new about Spider-Man, to push the limits of theatrical staging, to consider the Super Hero in the context of Greek mythology, and a dozen other admirable goals, but turned out to be, at best, a parody of its own botched designs. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair.


hcduvall said...

Forgive me my typos. And probably a bit of terseness--I clicked preview once and lost everything once.

This may make my whole reply foolish, but I admit I didn't feel like paying to rubberneck, so I didn't see it, but it in the well covered rounds about the production, it seems the nub of it may have failed didn't get mentioned.

From all accounts, (and there's an affectionate to Taymor review on Slate from a bit back) its not just that Arachne was the focus who articulated the ideas the most, its that the story was told via her, and Spider-Man kind of an oblique presence. His cache has withstood all that, but the fact that the story that doesn't need Spider-Man, didn't go unnoticed. Which is to say, it doesn't sound like her vision included Spider-Man and he was incidental beyond inspiring certain set pieces.

I don't think a connection to the character is necessary at all, but Spider-Man as intellectual property whose appeal is translated to pure revenue is kind of a bloodless way of talking about a character whose appeal and durability for decades has more to do with artists and yeah, more craft commercially oriented, making creative work, than dint of marketing. He's not Ronald McDonald. There's real affection there, and therefore real expectations from the audience that went unfulfilled. Taymor's apology shouldn't be for Spider-Man, or even Marvel, it's for the disappointed them.

On an artistic plane, I can think of all that JMS Spider-Man is a Spider-Totem business; Warren Ellis's Batman/Planetary crossover with revolving universe Batmen; and a glum admissions by the Fantastic Four in Neil Gaiman's 1602 (covers by theaterish Scott McKowen) about being trapped in a story; as three stories that deal with similar themes explicitly, but those all had the benefit of people steeped in not just the workings of mythology, but specific stories. To the uninitiated like Taymor, usually that's an editor, but then, the appeal of hiring someone and letting them loose is tantalizing (and a touch self-aggrandizing I bet). I don't think its a coincidence that of the other two works you mention, the other interesting work is Ang Lee's Hulk, and was greenlit by Marvel. They'll try things...they only get back to you if you make money, but they'll try it.

Jason said...

Mitch, what a fantastic review!

Anonymous said...

finally, something to break up the tedium of this Miltonic Illusion business.

errant razor said...

Unfortunately, this review doesn't satisfy. It does a good job of laying out the fundamental problems of this production, and the complete lack of understanding and appreciation of the property it's licensed. But it's a bit too apologetic for my tastes. Those fatal flaws are summed up in that "With great power comes great responsibility" is replaced with "Rise Above."

It's the surface version of what you might get from someone who wants to (or is stuck with) putting on a Spider-Man musical, without anything that makes it particularly Spider-Man in its execution.

Taymor had a show she wanted to do. Some pathos she wanted to espouse about the philisophy of myth-making and storytelling. Spider-Man became a convenient property to bolt onto it to get it made.

The result is an utter failure.

Super Laundry Bag said...

"Spider-man Turn Off The Dark" will "Rise Above" the negative comments by reviewers because of it's wonderfully talented cast and crew. I did like the fact that the reviewer does mention that it does introduce the new trends in modern Broadway musical theater. I am looking forward to seeing it again for a third time on May 14th. Go get'em tiger!!! Professionally, Super Laundry Bag (PR/Guest Relations/Official Guardian Angel)