Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Sin and Spenser

A few recent dips into the popular culture . . . .

In March, I went to the anniversary party at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, mainly to see relatives Lee Goldberg and Tod Goldberg signing there. Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels, was signing too; so I bought his most recent book, Cold Service, and had it signed. I then read it.

This was only the second Spenser novel I've read; and the first was back in the mid-80's. I therefore have little idea how much this one hews to or deviates from the norm for this extensive series. That said, this was a fun book to read. Reading Spenser and Hawk's witty banter, and the recurring bits about Spenser's rarefied tastes and Hawk's hidden intellectual side, is a hoot. But the plot is another question. The plot depends on the bad guys being breathtakingly stupid. We hear throughout the book that the Ukrainian nudniks our heroes challenge are bad dudes. They're nasty, they're ferocious, and they're relentless. Indeed, they decapitate one poor fellow who talks to Spenser and Hawk. One would certainly expect such implacable foes to track down Spenser and Hawk (particularly at Spenser's office, which we gather is not a hidden sanctum sanctorum) and shoot them. Yet the malefactors make no effort to do so, even after Hawk and Spenser boldly burst into the corrupt Ukrainian mayor's city hall, threaten him at gunpoint, and beat up one of his goons. Not only do the bad guys fail to take the logical step of attacking these potential threats, they also fall prey -- in Wile E. Coyote style -- to Spenser and Hawk's rather silly ploy to play both sides against the middle. Still, fun.

More fun is the movie SIN CITY, which my wife and I watched Saturday. I devoured the SC comics serials when they came out in the '90's -- particularly the first one, starring the indefatigable maniac Marv -- and had been looking forward to the movies since seeing the preview at the 2004 San Diego con. Director Robert Rodriguez enthused that it would be the most faithful comic book adaptation ever made. That it is -- although it does cut some bits out of the stories, and add others.

The effect is somewhat uneven. It works best when a particular actor ties into the ferocious energy of Miller's prose. The best example is Mickey Roarke's Marv, who spits out Miller's pulpish lines like he'd been speaking that way all his life. The worst example is an exchange near the beginning between Michael Madsen and Bruce Willis, marred by such stilted delivery you can imagine the two reading aloud from teleprompters just out of camera view. As for the attempt to shoot the comic as it looks on the page, that too works better in some scenes than others. The best scenes include the one of Marv staring up at a statue of the evil cleric, with what can only be described as Miller Rain (a close relation to Will Eisner's Eisenspritz) seeming to slice him apart; and several scenes with Bruce Willis as Hartigan, in which the balance of white and black is breathtaking. The scenes I did not like were the ones where comic book physics did not translate well to the screen. In Miller's comic, it makes perfect sense for Marv to spring into the air and hit a police car windshield with both feet. On film, it looks cartoonish, and makes the old suspension of disbelief pretty tough.

But overall, Sin City is a magnificently entertaining experiment in translating a comic book unadulterated to the screen; and I'm happy to see it tear up the box office in the midst of the early-spring doldrums.