The viewer before encountering a work is torn between killing or worshipping at the altar of Author, and this tension grows stronger when the viewer is tasked with explaining why having seen it, a work did not succeed. It can go either way when the work is good- a work by a genius, or a work of genius? This is splitting hairs! Autopsy on the other hand requires something more considered, but ends up being just as messy. A misstep by a genius? Is that even possible? A deliberate misstep by a genius, then. Or opting for the other tool- a misstep of an artwork, or an artwork that we are reading incorrectly?
Roland Barthes decisively liberated audiences from the tyranny of the artist statement (that thing which taken too seriously pacifies audiences and renders the work dead from the moment it’s conceptualised) fifty years ago, and shortly after Stuart Hall kept Author alive so their take could be included in a larger network of interpretation. The reading of a work thus encompasses both ‘real world’ (authorial) information, and interpretive (creative) work on the viewer’s part. Geniuses rarely exist (and are predominantly a harmful myth), but a good many genius works do. The overlapping of perspective, of intention and interpretation, becomes appropriately messy when one considers that Raimi is probably a genius, and that Spider-Man 3 is boring.
Common readings of the work may well be incorrect, but there also corresponds a ‘real world’ cause and ‘artistic’ effect that is too convenient to ignore. Spider-Man 3 is a studio-ified facsimile of Spider-Man 1 and 2; a gleefully ill-advised reunion episode. Raimi following his notoriously awful experience with Crimewave, was forevermore sceptical of big budget productions where his Authorship could be taken away by those funding the project. In Spider-Man 3 he seemingly forgoes Authorship without a fuss- when the studio demands something, Raimi changes it, and when the studio suggest something, Raimi includes it. In signing off on their every idea he makes visible the demands of working within this environment. The viewer encounters other films which seem coherent and then she later reads of the behind the scenes conflicts involved. In eliminating conflict, Raimi eliminates compromise, and the art-destroying nature of studio demands rises to the surface of the piece.
Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are brilliant films made with major studio backing, which film-going masses adored. Hardly a ‘misunderstood artist’, Raimi’s contempt is not for ticket-buying audiences but for the forces which condescend and spoil what could otherwise be an amiable balance between artistry and popular appeal. Duplicating the iconic kiss scene from Spider-Man 1 betrays the audience watching the film as much as it does MJ within the film. Wherever money is involved, nothing is sacred. MJ becomes our proxy in the film, and Peter becomes Raimi. Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant responded aggressively to audiences, critics, and studios alike, Scott asking ‘is this more what you wanted?’ and yawning through the rhythms of Alien before getting where he wanted to go. The Velvet Underground’s Loaded is ‘loaded with hits’, which retain the band’s attention to craft. Spider-Man 3 is sort of like both. Raimi gets to a similarly jaded place through praise rather than criticism, having told the story he wanted to tell and then being encouraged to keep running with it, he asks, genuinely confused, ‘is it more drama? More love-triangles? More villains?’ and finally ‘more Raimi?’
On that final point this ‘anything goes’ practice allows for some truly weird shit making its way in- this is not simply a parody of studio perceptions of what audiences want (and of studio interference), but of Raimi himself. The director, through his film, performs as a clown. His success is again proxied in Maguire’s now insufferably confident Peter Parker, a figure who dominates the film’s narrative but is also made to be the least interesting thing about it. Routinely unappealing, he is the director proxy and we have to take his crisis both absolutely seriously, and with a grain of salt.
I miss the old Raimi, chop of the arms Raimi
I hate the new Raimi, the good mood Raimi
The infamous tap-dance is signature Raimi slapstick placed within a mismatched context and has the appeal of someone suddenly behaving completely at odds with the situation, alienating the people around them and making clear that they are not on the same wavelength, like an uncle suddenly getting up and dancing on the table during a serious discussion at a family get-together and responding only in animal noises when people request they get down. Why is he doing this? People are divided- does it signify some kind of torment in the individual that can only be expressed through parodies of joviality, or is the dancer knowingly wanting to make everyone uncomfortable through a kind of disconnected cruelty?
The only superhero films rivalling Spider-Man at the time were the ones being produced by Christopher Nolan- Batman Begins was praised for its appeal to non-comic readers through its Dark visuals, explicitly adult themes, and the grim self-seriousness of its delivery. Hype was building for The Dark Knight which dropped ‘Batman’ from the title altogether, Bale saying ‘this take on Batman of mine and Chris’ is very different from any of the others’. There is no such Serious Film anxiety in Raimi’s series which finds no conflict in handling pop-cultural significance with sympathetic attention to craft. Compare Bale’s and Nolan’s portentousness with the amount of times ‘Spider-Man’ is said throughout the trilogy- Raimi acknowledges and plays with the pop culture god. In Spider-Man a new cinematic language is forged- the director’s already hyper-kinetic styling makes its way into a world of comic frame angularity, rich colours, agility-based skills (perfect for slapstick), and necessarily vertigo-inducing swinging through cities. This is not the place to criticise Nolan’s un-comic, un-cinematic form, but its differences to Raimi can be understood comparing still images from a quick search.
Raimi believes/d in the ability of this hyper-comic film language to deal with the kinds of themes Nolan’s films boasted they were introducing to both comics and popular films. It is up to each individual whether they are more or less successful, but either way we find Raimi conflicted, and this dramatised in Peter’s struggling with first dark-Peter and then Spawn. Peter de-parting his hair and flicking it over his eye in a half-hearted gesture to then-fashionable emo is a knowingly dorky dad joke, and when Topher Grace arrives criticising Parker’s work as slapdash and eventually becomes Spawn, the joke is further extended to equate Nolan’s ‘serious film’ aesthetics with teen angst cosmetics. That Nolan’s films are blockheadedly hyper-masculine is crucial- Raimi’s joke is not at the expense of teenagers (his series is one of the great masterpieces of pop-punk cinema) but at posturing adults claiming and obfuscating human issues.
Through highs and lows the film drags and dives, taking on a similarly exhausting structure to Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. Its highs twinkle with saccharine epiphany and then tumble into melodramatic nowheres, to be ignored for long stretches while the film yawns through its requisite narrative diversions. Like Thirst the film through its very structure punishes and picks the audience up as it details the breaking down of a relationship and the crisis that this causes the individuals involved. It is the logical next step in the coming-of-age format that Spider-Man 1 initiated at the beginning of the decade- from knowing oneself to understanding oneself as a plurality, to losing oneself again. It is the formation, the bloating, and the bursting of the ego. There are not enough break-up films which manage this, and there is a similar deficit in music where break-ups are so often painted as simple blue sadness. Thirst, Spider-Man 3, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy all become the ugly, sweaty, slapstick truth of the break-up.
Spider-Man 3 deals with the subject of forgiveness in a straightforwardly human way, and is clearly bookended by a film that Raimi by all appearances cares deeply about. It is tempting to write about Spider-Man 3 as a cinema of alienation, and it is, but it also means more than that. Sandman is the film the director desired to make if a third part was actually necessary, and this is clear from not only the character’s arc and Peter’s arc in relation to Sandman, but in the haunting CGI ‘birth’ sequence which has the intangible grabbing at the intangible and then collapsing into itself, over and over again. It’s a tragic perversion of Bresson’s ‘haptic cinema’ where the viewer relates empathetically and feels the world through hands- here the viewer shares in the cosmic frustration of never being able to take a rigid form (Marko’s inability to become a father for his daughter, or even just a regular citizen following the stigma of incarceration) or ever tangibly hold onto anything.