Saturday, July 12, 2008
It’s a funny thing about Batman Returns, I vividly recall my experience watching this flick for the first time. It was the summer of grade 6 (1992), and I was at my friend Mark’s birthday party. Sitting back in my theatre seat, I was seduced by the pitch-black images washing over me. The Penguin’s bile-dripping maw, Catwoman, all decked up in dominatrix-like vinyl, lashing the heads off department store mannequins, and Michael Keaton’s Batman, a lone (and lonely) figure gazing uneasily at both foes, his siblings in emotional isolation. It was a lot for an 11 year old to take in, and indeed I remember Mark’s younger brother being led from the theatre sobbing away. But having seen the film now, oh, probably 20 times I’ve found that it still haunts me. It’s a dark shadow of a film that entices us with its sinister beauty, while making us stare directly into our own insecurities and resentments. But, oh the magnificence of it all...
Has there ever been a more visually stunning blockbuster? I can’t think of much competition. With sets laced in artifice (and created by Bo Welch), and devoid of the mechanical ugliness of Batman ’89, Tim Burton’s follow-up presents Gotham as a wintry gothic paradise, where few people seem to dwell. Indeed, look at any crowd scene and you’ll be surprised how empty it is. Maybe to emphasize the sheer solitude of Gotham’s citizens. It’s a Penguin-eat-Penguin world, and we’re all alone.
Speaking of old Bird-boy, has there ever been a more pathetic arch-villain in a superhero epic? From the opening scenes, as we watch the disfigured young baby being tossed off a sad little bridge into that icy river leading into the cold, damp sewers we’re transfixed. His inhuman cries only increase the tension. Who’s the real monster here? The physically repulsive infant or the people that would discard him with so little compassion. As we watch him float through the sewer (in a virtuoso credit sequence), underscored by Danny Elfman’s mournful score, Tim Burton sets this character apart from any previous comic-book villain. When he finally appears, coughing black ooze, peering out through bars at a city that fears him, we have to ask a fundamental question: Is he inherently evil, or has our own lack of tolerance created him. Because of this, Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin is the most fascinating character in Batman Returns, and the reason that I revisit it so often. And what is with his violent sexual obsessions?
Surely Catwoman is cut from the same cloth, a meek and lost young woman who seems invisible to all those around her. Take a closer look at her introduction to the film and notice that Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina is never seen in close-up. Even the camera isn’t interested in what she has to say. But that night, when Batman saves her from that taser-wielding clown, something is awoken. The devilish smile that passes over her face when she shyly electrocutes her unconscious wannabe attacker? That’s her transition point, the glimpse into what lurks within. The assault at the hands of her boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), is only the catalyst for ultimately pulling those repressed emotions to the surface. Selina Kyle has been victimized by men all her life, and now she’s ready for payback. As Catwoman, she’s a walking, talking symbol of dominant female sexuality and control and she’s ready to roar. And what is with her aggressive sexual tendencies?
Putting it plainly, Batman Returns is a twisted journey into sexual desire and dysfunction, with Batman the neutral figure. Catwoman is in complete control of her sexuality, amused by her new-found allure and overjoyed with her ability to manipulate the minds of the men around her. Watch how she masterfully directs the Penguin’s character flaws, taunting his animalistic desires, and using him to help her sully the Batman’s name - the one person who is her equal. Observe that scene in which she seductively strokes her hand across his body, searching for the real man in the suit, stopping with her hand below camera range, a sly smile crossing her lips. Batman doesn’t quite know what to make of this, but he kinda likes it. And when, after he’s knocked on his back, she straddles him and tantalizingly licks him, we’re seeing the bizarre love connection between two eager participants. Call it sadomasochism if you like, but I see it more as two sexually repressed people finally finding liberation through a game of erotic one-upmanship. Now compare that with the awkward date scenes with Bruce and Selina out of costume. They’re uncomfortable and lifeless. These people need costumes and danger to be truly charged. They are star-crossed lovers in a reckless dance of death.
And the Penguin? He hates women. All of them. Yet he craves their touch, and hates himself for exposing that vulnerability. Watch how Shreck is only able to convince Penguin to go along with his plans after promising him “unlimited poontang”. Or how he luridly eyes his poor image consultant (Jan Hooks). It’s hard to tell whether he wants to sleep with her or murder her. Maybe both. Or watch the viciousness with which he strikes the vapid Ice Princess with that sharp batarang. He expels his hatred for the humanity that turned on him through misogynistic fury. The scene where Catwoman (“Just the pussy I’ve been lookin’ for!”) finally declares her disgust for him is equally telling. His turn from lust to spurned anger to homicidal rage is frightening and gripping. For a character so violently driven by sexual desire, it’s amusing that Penguin is the only one who never has his needs at all met. His final scene, where he fails to kill Batman because he grabs the harmless umbrella, the definitive manifestation of his own impotence? Or perhaps sometimes a parasol really is just a parasol...
It’s these subversive themes that make Batman Returns so entertaining and memorable. Sure, there are thrills, such as Batman’s street fights with the Red Triangle Circus Gang, the rooftop scuffles with Catwoman or the Penguin’s penguin army (roused with the most wicked ode to Patton ever put on screen). But they are accentuated with the dark erotic themes that color the rest of the work. Is it at all curious that Penguin plans to have an army of bird shower phallic missiles down on the people of Gotham, after deliriously ordering them to blow Gotham’s citizen’s “erogenous zones sky high”? Or that Batman can only escape a tight spot by altering the Batmobile into giant phallic symbol, that then shoots down a narrow alley way? Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he attached the shot of a train going into a tunnel in North By Northwest, and I suspect Tim Burton did here too...
But oh, how gorgeous it all is. There’s a sweeping model shot, zooming through Penguin’s remote Arctic World hideout that is hypnotically dazzling. Or the art-nouveau look of Max Shreck’s department store, with its all-seeing Cat orb clock staring ominously over the clueless citizens below. Also, the icy remoteness of the Penguin’s hideout, where in an unforgettable scene following Cobblepot’s dreadful, pitiful death, a small band of penguins guide his lifeless body into the dark depths of the sewers. It is a mournfully affecting moment that exemplifies why Batman Returns is the most artistically wonderful Bat-film of all: It embraces its themes through poetic and imaginative ways, instead of literality. Tim Burton, in the spirit of the Penguin, has glanced upon the acceptable concepts of blockbuster entertainment, shouted “Burn, baby, burn!”, and delivered an open wound of a film, which favours childhood hurt, adult sexuality, repression and personal isolation. And he’s done it all with a sick smile and an artful understanding of black humour. No wonder Warner Bros. didn’t invite him back for round three...
Best Batman Dispatch:
Blasting a fire-breathing clown with the Batmobile’s rear flamethrower.
Selina giving Shreck a truly charged kiss.
Runner-up: Penguin biting the nose of a smarmy image consultant.
Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Lines:
"Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it..."
"You know what, I mistook me for somebody else. "
Best Villain Lines:
“I am Catwoman, hear me roar!” – Catwoman
“Meow!” – Catwoman
“You think you can go fifteen round with Muhammed Shreck?” – Max Shreck
“You don’t really think you’ll win, do you?” – Penguin
“Gotta fly!” – Penguin
“I played this city like a harp from hell!” – Penguin
Best Iconic Bat-shot
Bruce Wayne, alone in his study, rising purposefully as the reflection of the Bat signal fills the room.
-Max Shreck's name - Taken from Max Schreck, the star of the classic horror film Nosferatu.
-Paul Reubens & Diane Salenger, stars of Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as Penguin's parental units.
-Bruce scolding Alfred for letting Vicki Vale in the Batcave. A favorite fanboy pet peeve.
-The famous "Wilhelm Scream" audio sample when Batman hurls Penguin's thug over a railing.
“Eat floor! High fibre!”- Batman, possibly channelling a Joel Schumacher Bat-flick.
Bruce Wayne DJ scratching a CD
Success As A Batman Film:
3 out of 5
Success As A Film:
4.5 out of 5
Friday, July 11, 2008
For younger generations, 1989’s Batman is often considered an overhyped film that’s well past its best-before date. This might be true, as I will discuss later. But it was a time when the Dark Knight took mainstream culture by storm. The newspapers reported everything from sequel rumours, to the massive ticket line-ups and even the Bat-haircut craze (Which involved shaving the Bat logo into the back of your head. It was a short-lived fad...). Burger King commercials that blared the arrival of the Bat-burger and Bat-shake. It was an exciting time to be comic-book geek and film-fan. So, as we all know, the movie was reasonably successful, but how does it stand now?
As a time-capsule, it’s invaluable. Sitting down to watch it is an immersive experience that immediately transports me back to my 9-year-old self. I cringe at the Joker gleefully blowing holes in Boss Grissolm or giving a fat mobster a tracheotomy with a quill pen. I thrill at the Batwing eclipsing the moon or Batman punching the smile off Joker’s face. But it has to be said that, under closer analytical inspection, Batman has a lot of problems. The dated matte shots are well past cheesy and the lack of visceral action is problematic, the romantic storyline between Bruce Wayne and reporter Vicki Vale is DOA. As well, the film has very little drive; it meanders pleasantly from twisted scene to twisted scene before arriving at an ill-fitting climax.
And yet, the picture enchants me still. Why? I think it is because the film is one of the most entertaining collages of ill-fitting parts I’ve ever seen. Batman is a movie made of endless great moments. Yes, they do not quite add up to a complete whole, but it’s hard to complain when we’re having so much fun. There’s just far too many classic scenes for it to be anything less than a joyously amusing spectacle. The Joker’s sadistic and satirical commercial which mocks the superficiality of cosmetics ads? Brilliant! The greatest Batmobile of all time's destructive charge through Axis Chemicals? Exhilarating! Joker’s cruel parody of the Macy’s Day Parade? Wickedly funny! Batman standing on the bell-tower, solemnly looking down upon his dear city? Magical...
I think that the atmosphere of the film is the key-ingredient in its enduring popularity. Many critics have called Batman a study in film noir aesthetics, which is true. But rather than trying to be truly nourish, Batman almost feels like a perversion of what we’ve come to expect from that particular genre. The characters act like they are intimately familiar with film noir, and almost seem to be playing dress-up. Take Knox, the crime reporter. Robert Wuhl has the fast-talking beat-reporter thing down, but despite his wardrobe, he seems contemporary. Almost like he knows that he’s a character in a noir-throwback. The beautiful sets, by Anton Furst, twist the classic shadowy cityscapes of noir into an industrialized world of ugliness. Recall Axis Chemicals, with its gaping maw dome, the seedy surgery clinic where Joker impatiently rips away his bandages or the sinister cathedral towering over the dozens of scurrying Gothamites (Ever notice how under-populated this film is?). They are seductively repulsive; we’d hate to live near them but gaze upon them in mesmerized fascination. Who engineered this city?
The characters are equally interesting. Jack Nicholson’s Joker, honestly the star of the film, is a brilliant construct. Foregoing the random psychosis of the comic-book character, Nicholson, hidden behind a frighteningly gleeful death-mask of a grin, makes him a darkly romantic figure, whose internal logic seems based on the artistic and ironic instead of the mindlessly vicious. His kills are a study in the blackest humour, and we can be forgiven for chuckling along with him. He isn’t a scary character, but he holds our attention because we want to like him no matter how pathetic he thinks we are. Even his death robs us of true catharsis, as he still winds up getting the last laugh. Tim Burton casts his Joker as the ultimate performance artist, a man willing to sacrifice anything in the name of irony-soaked artistic expression. He could almost be seen as an expression of the relentless energy which thrives within Burton himself.
Keaton’s Batman is even stranger. His dialogue consists of disjointed mutterings and awkward silences. His Wayne isn’t really a playboy, he’s a man clawing to escape the skin that envelopes him. The cowl is his release, and only way of feeling in control. Keaton, a controversial choice at the time, is very good at playing the discomfort of Bruce. He’s shifty, with a weird nervous energy yearning to escape. As he speaks little, Keaton lets his eyes and body language do the talking, and they say far more than words could. Even under the burdensome garb, he seems commanding in his stillness. His Batman isn’t a hyperactive ninja; he only needs to strike once, with purpose. And yet Keaton lets some vulnerability creep in, such as the beaten down exhaustion of Batman’s ascension to the cathedral’s higher sanctum, or taking on the trio of Joker’s toughs who dwell within (How’d they get there?). He’s the hero we’d never want to be, an angry, self-hating man who can only release steam through reliving past tragedy.
The supporting characters are of varying quality. Vicki Vale, as I said before, is a wash-out. Kim Basinger relies far too much on screaming and frantic behaviour. Though to be fair, she’s let down with a poorly written character that isn’t even given the opportunity to be surprised when she finds out Wayne is Batman. Wuhl’s Aexander Knox is a bit more interesting, as he acts as the audience’s voice within the film, commenting on the irony of each event. The actor is a lot of fun, but his disappearance during the second act is unfortunate. Also, isn’t it strange that these two intrepid journalists lack any knowledge regarding the city’s biggest success having had his parents murdered?
Jack Palance gets to gnash his teeth and play up his image with his gang-boss character Grissolm. It’s a fun little performance that benefits from familiarity with the actor’s back catalogue. Less endearing is Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. He’s a pointless addition to the cast, emphasized as being important in the early scenes, but forgotten shortly after. Similarly, Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon is weakly handled. Gone is the driven professional who reluctantly sides with the Bat. Here, he’s something of a buffoon. A wasted opportunity, as his relationship with Bats is a key theme of the comic books. Michael Gough is a great Alfred, however, and he makes the most of his handful of moments. Although his character, like Gordon, deserved more screen time.
The greatest supporting character, who deserves infinite credit, is Danny Elfman. His score elevates the film far beyond its quality-level. "The Batman Theme", yet to be outdone, is absolutely majestic, sending chills of excitement up my spine every time it is played onscreen. As well, his Joker theme and Batmobile/Axis Chemical Attack compositions are positively energizing.
These strengths that I’ve mentioned are what elevate the often clumsy writing of Batman to a level of near greatness. It's the quintessential mood movie, in that if you are susceptive to its charms, you’re willing to overlook its flaws. And while it is far from a perfect representation of Batman’s world, it is a hypnotic journey into the imaginations of its creators, as well as the shadowy souls of its characters. Joker’s famous utterance of “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” was fitting, as Batman blew our minds back in ’89, and still continues to do so nearly two decades later.
Best Batman Dispatch:
The back-hand punch that Batman delivers to an unsuspecting gangster in the Axis Chemical set-up scene.
Best Villain Dispatch:
A toss-up: Napier’s deadly farewell to the crooked Eckhardt, or his amusingly blasé execution of right-hand man Bob the Goon.
Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Line(s):
“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”
Best Villain Line(s):
(All delivered by Joker)
“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
“I make art until someone dies.”
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
“Wait’ll they get a load of me.”
“This town needs an enema!”
Best Iconic Bat-shot:
The closing shot of Batman on the top of the bell tower.
The Bob Kane-signed “Bat-Man” on Knox’s desk.
Bruce And Vicki’s soppy chat about their “perfect world” in the Batcave.
Success As A Batman Film:
3.5 out of 5
Success As A Film:
4 out of 5
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Howdy y'alls. Just wanted to let you all know that there won't be a new review this week. No, not due to my somewhat well known laziness, but rather due to the preperations taking place for this upcoming event on "Pop-Culture Episodes"!
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back, I mentioned that there would be an upcoming event on here called "7 Days Of The Bat" taking place before the release of The Dark Knight. Well, I never forgot and indeed have been rewatching a number of Bat-films, taking notes, and typing up retrospectives for the most well-appreciated (and despised). Plus, there will be a more personal (read: less quippy) essay that will close the whole shebang.
So, keep an eye open this Saturday for the first installment; a revisit to now distant 1989 when Michael Keaton ruled the omniverse.
See you then.