To Each His Own Vomitorium

Posted by on December 29th, 2009 at 12:39 AM

Over the Christmas weekend I went to see Sherlock Holmes: Master of Kung Fu and had a pretty good time with it.  I had no great objection to the wicked liberties taken; the Grenada TV series has rendered any faithful adaptation superfluous until there’s a Holmes to match Jeremy Brett, and it’s not Robert Downey, Jr.  (Five years ago who would have foreseen a day when Downey would be the big star and Jude Law the sidekick?  There are no second acts in American lives, but there are re-writes.)  One must note however that it is yet another manifestation of the vomitorium of our time.  That is to say, the cultural phenomenon that seems perfectly natural as it happens but will prove a retroactive embarrassment when the archaeologists dig it up.  (Unfortunately reality just doesn’t know when to leave a lovely metaphor alone.  Wikipedia informs us that the Roman vomitorium was not a room devoted to binging and purging but a passageway into the amphitheater where Romans watched slaves hack each other to death or wild animals eat followers of unpopular religions.  Truly, folklore does the Romans an injustice.)  A child of the Baby Boom can only cringe at the narcissism and cynicism of the movies he set so much store by in his youth, and the self-incriminating amusements of the Greatest Generation have been much in discussion here lately.  The vomitorium of the present day will be its mania for remaking every beloved classic of the past into its own image, as if the original were somehow defective and had only been waiting for an advanced civilization to do it right.  We had a prime example a year ago in the film adaptation of The Spirit, Frank Miller’s gift to schadenfreude.  Miller seems to have approached the project, without any compunction at all, like a hot new creator who’s been assigned to revamp a moribund character from the back catalog, the way one might approach a new version of say Omega the Unknown.  Now, what should be said about this is that this is exactly what the studio that gave him the job expected, that if he had directed a faithful adaptation they would have felt betrayed, and that they were disappointed only in their belief that Miller had a handle on what the public wanted to see.  My impression of what Will Eisner’s attitude about this would have been is that he was finished with the Spirit on a creative level well before the original run finished, that his first concern would have been providing for his family, and that therefore he would have approved of anything that got a movie made.  Further, while a good movie could have been made from The Spirit as Eisner wrote and drew it, and certainly a better movie than what Miller made, it’s highly doubtful that there would be a large audience eager to see it.  At least 90% of the appeal of The Spirit lies in how it appeared on the page in Eisner’s hand, and this is precisely what cannot be put on screen.  There seems to be something terribly foolhardy in this practice of stripping a classic of everything but its name recognition and revamping it for the perceived tastes of the moment, accompanied by the ritualistic insistence on the faithfulness of your approach and how the original author would approve.  It seems to me that the more classic the source material you’re plundering the more likely you are to appear foolish in comparison.  Making the dubious assumption that not appearing foolish is a criterion, of course.

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One Response to “To Each His Own Vomitorium”

  1. Tom Crippen says:

    “the self-incriminating amusements of the Greatest Generation have been much in discussion here lately.”

    The Greatest Generation was the GIs, meaning the parents of the baby boomers.

    The post’s point reminds me of when I watched a behind-the-scenes featurette for Van Helsing. The Van Helsing writer/director, who looked like a cheesburger, said he sat down to the job by asking himself “Why not make Van Helsing new, young — different?” And of course what he had in mind was just … well it makes no difference.