Raimi & Verbinski

I'm about as tired of writing the word "blockbuster" as you probably are of reading it, but I had an additional thought on the matter over the weekend, as I was watching Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End.

I know I'm supposed to scoff at the Pirates sequels, but I quite liked Dead Man's Chest, and though the third installment's a step down, I definitely ain't mad at it. Sure, it's too long, and too convoluted. But I still think Gore Verbinski's heart is in the right place. As soon as he dedicated five minutes of POTC: AWE screen time to an extended Tati/Jodorowsky riff, with Johnny Depp trapped in a surreal purgatory surrounded by hordes of crabs and multiple versions of himself, I decided to cut Verbinski a wide swath. I wish more of the movie had displayed that kind of invention, but it's not like the cleverness completely disappears. As flawed as POTC: AWE is, it struck me as fairly enjoyable overall. (At least I enjoyed it, as did my wife, and much of the roaring crowd in our sold-out theater.)

But I really don't want to touch off another "Pirates sucks"/"Lighten up it's just a movie" debate, or to get back into whether Hollywood only peddles schlock over the summer. Because even if the big studios do feed us junk, sometimes junk can be tasty, and sometimes–as I pointed out in my Crosstalk with Scott–junk can contain moments of singular flavor.

No, I'd rather argue that Pirates is not junk. It may be a lousy movie–I'll accept that argument, even if I more or less disagree–but it's not just, as Nathan Lee writes in his Village Voice review, "a delivery system for two kinds of special effect: those created by computers, and those generated by Johnny Depp." I believe that a genuine effort to delight–and not just subdue–has been made here. The movie contains the same kind of preoccupation with clockwork gags and bad guys accidentally doing good that's been part of The Verbinski Method since Mouse Hunt. Like it or not, Pirates does have a brain, and a soul.

The same can be said of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, another ungainly summer smash that I liked just slightly less than Pirates, but that I still respect for the fact that it's clearly a Raimi film, warts and all. Because while I was sitting in the middle of Pirates on Friday night, mired in another endless expository conversation, I suddenly realized that I'd still rather be watching this than Godzilla.

Yes, that's faint praise, but there's a larger context. Not so long ago, the big summer blockbusters were being helmed by the likes of Roland Emmerich, Chuck Russell, Stephen Sommers, Simon West and Dominic Sena–all middling technicians with no clear vision–and Michael Bay, a visionary with no finesse. The movies were frequently sloppy, ugly, and dispiriting. By contrast, Raimi and Verbinski make movies with personality, crafted with skill. Critics and film buffs may not like that personality, but they should at least appreciate that definite choices were made, by directors with a clear plan in mind. They've given us something intelligible to engage with.

It's like the difference between arguing politics with a newspaper columnist and arguing politics with a Jerry Springer guest. Both may be an exercise in futility, but at least the former will give you a chance to use your wits, if you choose to take it.

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I've got more to say on why even a questionable movie made by a recognizable auteur is preferable to middling homogeneity, but it's going to range into a discussion of music and clear a pathway that's going to take too long to explore properly at the moment. So consider this a prelude to a much fuller argument, coming later this summer. I even have a title: "Perfect Sound Forever: On The Formation And Evolution Of Taste."

Coming soon.

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