Thursday, January 13, 2011

Glenn Beck is Right! or, My Obligatory Spider-Man Post

Glenn Beck saw Spider-Man, twice, & it doesn't surprise me too much that he lurved it. He's so obviously into spectacle: think of his beloved blackboards! Whatever his flaws, the man knows that entertaining the crowd helps to get your message across. So yep, he digs opera and he enjoys splashy Broadway musicals like La Cage aux Folles.*

I don't watch or listen to Beck's shows, so this is my first real experience with his straw-man M.O. At one point, he adopts a snooty, vaguely French accent that's meant to be a New York theater critic. Beck-as-critic has never heard of Bono, disparages rock music, and looks down his nose at comic books. Now I'm existential proof that theater critics can enjoy rock music & comics.**

But I also partly agree with Beck's point. For one thing, yes, there are Broadway musicals that rock out. But the genre's stylistic mainstream is still bemoaning how the Beatles edged West Side Story off the Billboard charts. The fact that we still distinguish rock musicals from … what, “conventional musicals”? says something. So does the fact that it took thirty years for punk rock to go from CBGBs to the St. James. And the genre has made few attempts, such as In the Heights, to assimilate hip-hop into its idiom.
And another thing: conventional American drama is still beholden to realism. At its best (like Ruined) it's socially relevant, a throwback to Ibsen; more often, it's domestic dramas like August: Osage County and Rabbit Hole. There are few successful shows that couldn't be translated easily into a movie. In the context of popular American dramas & musicals, a sci-fi superhero work of fantasy like Spider-Man really is alien.

I'm also surprised and impressed at Beck's reading of Spider-Man. He notes the that Spider-Man's powers derive from an atheist scientist's government-funded experiment, then points out that the Daily Bugle's demagoguery supports the scientist & condemns the superhero. Is the show as politically conservative as that? Despite reading the handful of reviews & talking to attendees, I couldn't say. Anyhow, regardless of his accuracy, by putting the show's content into its cultural context, Beck does the job of a critic. That's work that none of the (debatably premature) critics have done; they've mostly just lambasted the show for its dramaturgical problems.
My point is, resistance to Spidey within the theater community is a lot more complex than schadenfreude at the hubris of moneyed producers & starry creators. I have read intelligent theater critic takes Spider-Man down, pointing out valid flaws in the hopes that the critique might change the system, its tastes, & its tendencies. But (apart from Glenn Beck, of all people!) I haven't read or seen anyone celebrating how unconventional Spider-Man is or analyzing its content as well as its style. The circus of money and injuries have distracted us from asking some basic critical questions about the show and its context in the world and community.

Finally, lest you think I've turned coat and become a Glenn Beck booster, here's a final point. The asshole checks his text messages during the show! Then he shows the text message to your wife, so she can cackle at a dramatically weighty moment?! That's some shabby, juvenile behavior.

* Surprised at this? Nah. The show's parody of gayness is broad enough that a conservative can laugh at it rather than with it.

 ** Here's hoping I can write off my comic book purchases as work-related research this fiscal year!

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