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Almost Heroes

Poor, misunderstood Spider-Man, the most alienated teenage superhero of the 1960s, gets careful treatment in the summer's first aspiring blockbuster. Mildly cheesy but not overwrought, this long-awaited future franchise is a competent seat-warmer at the box-office table for the two weekends preceding George Lucas's Attack of the Clones.

As directed by Sam Raimi from David Koepp's script, Spider-Man recounts the tale of the fortuitous arachnid bite that transforms nerdy Queens high school student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) into a building-crawling, web-swinging, bullet-dodging crimefighter in a red bodysuit of his own design. The mode is action soap opera: Although this masked vigilante soon takes up residence on the front page of the city's tabloids, his most baroque entanglement is the long-running masochistic charade with the girl next door (Kirsten Dunst, sent back to high school after her grown-up debut in The Cat's Meow).

There's mood but no context. Neither the benign mystery-man remembered by the children of the '70s as Morgan Freeman's colleague on The Electric Company, nor the paranoid smart-aleck pride of Marvel comics ranked alongside Che Guevara and Bob Dylan in Esquire's 1965 college popularity poll, the 2002-model Spider-Man is a sensitive type—perhaps too much so to win over hardened partisans of Eminem and American Pie. Willem Dafoe, who plays the villainous Green Goblin, gives his paycheck a welcome campy edge, savoring lines like "You've spun your last web, Spider-Man," while literally taking orders from his metallic green Kabuki mask. Still, he's nearly overshadowed by J.K. Simmons's uncannily iconic impersonation of J. Jonah Jameson, the barking newspaper editor who served as Spider-Man's ongoing nemesis in the original comic.

2002-model Spidey, a sensitive type
photo: Columbia
2002-model Spidey, a sensitive type

Details

Spider-Man
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Koepp, from the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Columbia
Opens May 3

A Grin Without a Cat
Directed by Chris Marker
First Run/Icarus
Film Forum
Through May 14

ABC Africa
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
New Yorker
Cinema Village
Opens May 3

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Raimi, never afraid of a cheap effect, orchestrates some superb action set pieces. Spider-Man's swinging trapeze swoops through the concrete canyons of an entertainingly jumbled New York in pursuit of the air-surfing Goblin are nearly worth the price of admission. Indeed, there could easily have been twice as many of these agravitational acrobatic displays, one of which seemingly incorporates Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and it wouldn't have hurt for Raimi to slow down the ballet every once in a while, the better to present the spectacle of Gobby and Spidey hilariously voguing against the skyline in their Halloween outfits.

As the Peter Parker backstory recalls the white working-class Queens of another era, giving Marvel's greatest star the full Austin Powers treatment would have been pure Fun City, with a period Spider-Man haunting pop art openings, be-ins, and miscellaneous drug hallucinations. But that's another war. The current one is acknowledged when the beleaguered citizens of New York, some dangling above the East River, express their solidarity against Goblinistic terrorism: "An attack against one is an attack against us all!"


A vastly more elaborate '60s comic book, Chris Marker's three-hour A Grin Without a Cat looks back on that time of tumult from the perspective of the May 1977 breakup of France's Socialist-Communist alliance and, in a 1993 coda, from the vantage of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Worked and reworked, A Grin Without a Cat—which is now having its U.S. theatrical premiere, in 35mm with an English voice-over, just in time for May Day—is a movie of temporal striation. Marker assembles all manner of archival footage (TV reports, guerrilla newsreels, government propaganda, interviews) to create an all-over '60s. There are outtakes from other people's films, as well as material cut by censors. Marker begins by evoking Battleship Potemkin, and although hardly agitprop, A Grin Without a Cat is in that tradition—a montage film with a mass hero. Unlike Eisenstein, however, Marker isn't out to invent historical truth so much as to look for it. (The untranslatable French title, Le Fond de l'Air Est Rouge, is a play on words suggesting that revolution was in the air but not on the ground.)

A Grin Without a Cat recapitulates the received wisdom of the '60s and passes it on. The New Left found its inspiration in the post-colonial struggle—or what Marker cleverly terms "the Third World War." Vietnam was comparable to the Spanish Republic as an international rallying point; the Chinese Cultural Revolution was "the new 1917." The phrase "revolution within the revolution" explains both Mao Tse-tung's political rejuvenation and the split between romantic Communist guerrillas and orthodox Communist bureaucrats. For Marker, this opposition is exemplified by the now forgotten failed insurgency in Venezuela, although it is Che Guevara's doomed Bolivian adventure that gives the movie its English-language title.

In a symbolic sense, this same conflict was played out in what was then called the Metropolis. A Grin Without a Cat reaches its emotional peak with the hopeful New Left demonstrations that swept Europe in 1967. (A placard prophesies that "the workers will take the struggle from the fragile hands of the students.") But as felt in the tempo of the filmmaking, the tide turns in May 1968: A long, less than exciting section on the various strikes and committees of '68 culminates with the pointless attack on the annual theater festival in Avignon.

A Grin's second part surveys the reaction to the forces that had been released. The selective elimination of revolutionary vanguards includes the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the U.S.-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the repackaging of American protest as the televised Watergate hearings, and France's stultifying alliance of the left. ("The slowest party to de-Stalinize was then the quickest to de-Leninize," Marker's narrator says of the French CP.)

This synopsis scarcely does the movie justice. Marker has a genius for poetic aphorism and the documentary equivalent of the bon mot. It's typical that he would create a classification of footage shot with "shaking hands," or zero in on Fidel Castro's struggle with an immovable Soviet microphone. A Grin can also be willfully eccentric. Apropos of nothing, unless it's an inversion of his movie's English title, Marker interpolates footage of an impressively pagan Belgian cat festival—full of giant floats, puppets, and masques—into a series of public events marking the end of the left.

More impressionistic than analytical, A Grin Without a Cat is a grand immersion. Is it a tract without a thesis? Perhaps this Belgian digression, like the movie, celebrates memory itself—along with the cunning of history, a force that, Marker notes, "always seems to have more imagination than we do."


ABC Africa, Abbas Kiarostami's digital-video field report, is not unlike Chris Marker's earliest documentaries—a personal, self-reflexive travelogue that ruminates as much on the circumstances of its making as its ostensible subject. The first image shows a fax crawl across the screen: a UN agency inviting the Iranian filmmaker to make a movie on Uganda's 1.6 million AIDS orphans.

ABC Africa, which was filmed over 10 days, began as Kiarostami's visual jottings, but it has the conceptual heft of his finished films. The atmosphere of crisis recalls Life and Nothing More; the long shots from moving cars, as well as the interest in children, are present in his previous work. As in The Wind Will Carry Us, the urban intellectual arrives in a backward village characterized by its stubborn adherence to a shared mentality. Uganda's enlightened attitude toward AIDS prevention is established by prominent posters encouraging the use of condoms and government social workers who explain a strategy designed to care for the orphans. But what may be disturbing about ABC Africa is that it doesn't seem disturbing enough.

The emphasis in this surprisingly cheerful film is on the resilience of the living. The kindergarten atmosphere of kids staring into the camera, making faces, and jumping around is only somewhat mitigated by a trip to a hospital where a dead child is packed for burial in a cardboard box and bicycled off to oblivion. Kiarostami is most engaged by the long, seemingly spontaneous group performances his presence occasions. There's a Gauguin-esque aspect to these colorful spectacles. Although it's debatable whether they represent a utopian form of social organization, the numbers are well suited to the filmmaker's confident—at times brilliant—use of DV.

Fulfilling his mandate to make useful publicity, Kiarostami unavoidably expressed himself. In the most impressive sequence, the electricity goes out, and the movie continues in the dark. After five or six minutes the landscape is dramatically illuminated by lightning—a found metaphor that suggests the sudden flashes by which the artist learned his African alphabet.

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