June 22, 2009

On the Occasion of "Batman"'s 20th Anniversary

Well, whaddya know, the technical difficulties I alluded to in the previous post went and resolved themselves. So anyway: back in March I started but never finished reviewing the Blu-ray release of the "Batman Anthology". Since Tim Burton's Batman turns twenty on June 23rd, I decided to dust off what I'd written about it and post it here; the movie was kind of a formative experience, and this is my half-baked tribute.

You have to understand: in 1989, Batman seemed like a refreshing change of pace. Eleven years had passed since Superman, and, that film's sequels and spin-offs notwithstanding, there hadn't been another attempt to bring a superhero to the big screen on a blockbuster scale. Moreover, the public's image of the Caped Crusader as Adam West in tights no longer reflected any comic-book reality, if in fact it ever did. And let me tell you, waiting for the damn thing to materialize was excruciating: something about the idea of doing a Batman movie in the age of Spielberg sent adolescent imaginations, including mine, soaring, and on the basis of its director's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetle Juice, we were dying to see what it looked like. Then came the film's Godardian teaser trailer (no music, no voiceover--just clips compiled as if by free association), and we couldn't wait to see more.

Michael Keaton was really the film's biggest X factor, at least among those of us connected to the slow-trickling intravenous of hype in those pre-Internet days. It wasn't that we didn't like Keaton--with his tour de force performance as Betelgeuse, in fact, he'd renewed his cultural cachet--but that nothing about his dramatic turns in Touch and Go or Clean and Sober suggested he could pull off the debonair Bruce Wayne, while nothing about his shaggy, wiry frame suggested he could be imposing enough to play Batman. (It didn't help that Frank Miller had recently redefined Bruce Wayne as a goliath in and out of the suit in his seminal The Dark Knight Returns.) Coupled with Burton having just directed him in Beetle Juice, the choice of Keaton was implicitly lazy and nepotistic.

Batman buzz was so palpable you could barely see through it in the weeks leading up to the picture's June 23rd release date, and at the sneak preview I attended the night before it opened, it provoked a joy-buzzer response in the audience I can only assume was the same in multiplexes across the continent. Jack Nicholson's name was deafeningly applauded, while Keaton's was roundly booed (though not by yours truly). But Burton did a canny thing, I believe: our first glimpse of Batman is a rotoscoped image of his silhouette that looks very much like a comic book come to life; it didn't draw attention to itself then like it does now because, strange as it may seem, 2-D animation used to be a perfectly valid special-effects technique, but still I think it established a subconscious connection between Batman the icon and Keaton that made people more readily accepting of him in the role. By the time the actor uttered his famous "I'm Batman," any animosity had dissolved into foot-stamps of approval. Kim Basinger's name, for what it's worth, was met with a chorus of catcalls. I should add that women were in short supply at my screening; the one other line of Keaton's that went over like gangbusters was when, as Bruce Wayne, he told Basinger's Vicki Vale to shut up. In hindsight, it was kind of an ugly scene.

It's a shame that Keaton's stardom didn't resonate much beyond the '80s, but in a strange way this benefits Batman. The passage of time has not only relieved his performance of an extraordinary burden of proof (indeed, some viewers coming to the film for the first time will be completely unfamiliar with Keaton's oeuvre), it's also made him an indistinct symbol of celebrity that gives his Bruce Wayne a certain mythic weight. Keaton's work might be the only thing about Batman to outrun the eclipse of The Dark Knight. Take Nicholson, for example. Pauline Kael insinuated that having Keaton opposite him was interesting because it effectively pitted two generations of hipsters against each other, but in and of itself the casting of Nicholson, the reigning czar of mischief in American cinema, was too reflex for its own good, like Pierce Brosnan as 007. A mobster turned psycho-clown after swan-diving into a vat of toxic waste (we loved our toxic waste as an agent of transformation in the '80s), this Joker has an itchy trigger finger--he actually shoots-to-kill Bruce Wayne without a moment's hesitation--but he's oddly lacking in menace. Maybe it's the makeup: it petrifies Nicholson's face into the Nixon-mask equivalent of his familiar devilish grin, trapping him in a caricature of himself. The Joker façade had an opposite liberating effect on Heath Ledger, perhaps because he wasn't typecast in the first place.


The consigliere to crime lord Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), Jack Napier (Nicholson) usurps the throne of his old boss upon becoming the Joker and from this position of power hatches a plan to commit mass murder by tainting the manufacture of hygiene products with toxins that will cause Gotham City residents to laugh themselves to death. Disregarding the naiveté of Gotham having such a self-sustaining economy that all the city's toiletries are homegrown (this is very much a throwback to the '60s show), the filmmakers have conceived of fundamentally irreconcilable personalities in Napier and Joker. (At best, the narcissism of the former, who revels in his own reflection, gives way to the latter's desire for people to die in his image.) Blame a confluence of factors, from the inexorable influence of the TV series--presuming it's not purposeful homage, scenes with Joker sitting around his kitschy digs lamenting the existence of Batman to cartoonish henchmen uncannily evoke Cesar Romero's tenure in the role--to a writer's strike that forced a premature delivery of the script, to a certain complacency inspired by the presence of Nicholson, to Burton's notoriously poor facility with narrative.* In the comics, Joker is often portrayed as a failed stand-up comic driven off the deep end by the one-two punch of his family's slaughter and his having been the patsy in a sting operation, and I appreciate the revisionist urge in this case: not only is the psychology of this awfully pat, but that's also more emasculation than the Nicholson persona could plausibly absorb. If only Burton and company could've seen ahead to The Dark Knight's ingenious solution to the problem of telling the Joker's origin story: don't tell it. Instead, posit that Jokers are born not made. You can't satisfactorily explain cancer (not even the social kind), so why bother trying?

Interestingly, Batman hasn't gone totally stale. It helps that where it was once staking out territory as the next Tim Burton movie, it now seems almost nothing like a Tim Burton movie. I should clarify that I'm speaking mostly of aesthetics--Batman/Bruce Wayne is the quintessential Burton antihero: a sheltered orphan with a slight case of OCD; a quasi-Victorian romantic simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the big bad world outside his mad laboratory. (It wasn't Batman that defined this archetype, mind you, but Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.) And while this may fall under aesthetics, former Breck girl Basinger, arguably never more succulent (though she trembles like a scared fawn, which the clarity of Blu-ray brings into relief), is the original Burton Blonde; I've often wondered if Sean Young, the anti-Breck girl, had played the role as planned whether this particularly Hitchcockian fetish of the director's would've flourished to the point where he was pouring peroxide on dark-haired beauties like Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci.

But Anton Furst's production design constitutes the style of the piece, and there's little that is recognizably Burton-esque about it. "Of course, he screwed up the sequel by being himself, but that does little to dilute the ideological righteousness of the first," our own Alex Jackson wrote of Burton's more prototypical Batman Returns, and while I actually prefer that film to this one, the switch from Batman's Art Deco to Batman Returns' Edward Gorey-cum-German Expressionism recalls the jarring transition from the gothica of The Bride of Frankenstein to the Caligari backdrops of Son of Frankenstein. (Knowing Burton's tastes, he clung to this very analogy as rationale for his artistic relapse in Batman Returns.) Knee-jerk comparisons to the contrary, this Gotham City is not the dystopia of Blade Runner (although Burton, in a rare bit of quoting from a source other than classic horror, shamelessly cribs from Deckard's fights with Pris and Roy Batty for the bell-tower climax), mainly because it isn't prescient. Following the comics' lead in reclaiming Batman from camp by going back to the character's noir roots, the film is similarly reluctantly contemporary, yet these '40s affectations are far more oppressive on the screen than they are on the page, conjuring a Fatherland-style alternate reality in the context of which the sartorial anachronisms--all those fedoras--become less cutesy, the use of Prince on the soundtrack to the exclusion of any other artist feels propagandistic, and Batman and Joker come to typify the extremes of megalomania that blossom in fascist society. (Suddenly extra sinister: the one's ubiquitous insignia and the other's habit of gassing crowds.) It's a metropolis you can believe at once manifested Batman and was manifested by his subconscious, and it's sad that a mise en scène this evocative was never revisited.
* There is a story, not apocryphal (Burton himself told it in a 1992 issue of ROLLING STONE), of Nicholson asking why a shot had him running up a flight of stairs before delivering his line and Burton replying, "I don't know Jack, I'll tell you when you get up there."

26 comments:

Alex Jackson said...

A lovely review. I've seen this movie more times then I can count and the review still got me to see things that I hadn't seen before. Like the partial way that it fits into Burton's oevre and the point about Gotham's self-sufficient economy.

In other news, Year One is so terrible that not even Armond White likes it.

jer fairall said...

Seconded. Fantastic piece. I constantly fear that this Batman, already somewhat contentious in the first place, will be all but forgotten in light of Nolan's well crafted yet overstuffed (imho, of course) entries, so this was quite exhilarating to read.

A 20th anniversary memory: Seeing Batman upon its release necessitated an hour long drive out of town (the one we lived in had recently shut down its single, decrepit theater and it wasn't until after we had moved away that they'd gotten around to building another one), which my whole family made that Friday night. Upon arrival, we discovered that all showings on all screens had been sold out hours before the first one even began and, having made the trip all the way there, we settled for Honey I Shrunk The Kids instead. Pre-movie Roger Rabbit short aside, I sat through the film sneering and petulant, bummed for perhaps the first time ever that I was sitting through some lame kiddie movie instead of something culturally important and cool. (I was 10.) Wasn't until a good month later that I finally got to see Batman, which, of course, then proceeded to thoroughly unnerve and scare the shit out of me.

Bill G said...

Walter's Transformers 2 Review: Totally Awesome.

Patrick said...

Batman is the only movie I can remember coming out of into a see of people for the next show, half of whom wanted to know how the movie was. I grinned and said, "awesome", and they grinned back. Nice memory, that.

Patrick said...

"It suggests that the evil robots have perfected Terminator technology in the manufacture of a gorgeous slut-bot (Isabel Lucas), who, before trying to kill the returning Sam (Shia LaBeouf) with her go-go-gadget tongue, is humiliated by having heroic Autobot Bumblebee money-shot robot semen all over her face."

er... what?

"He also hates the Transformers as a cultural relic, having them fart and piss and shit and, in a fairly embarrassing moment in an embarrassing film, sport a pair of giant testicles."

Okay, this has got to be a joke, right? Otherwise I can already picture the discussions I'll be having with the film's inevitable defenders ending up with me blowing my brains out.

Aside: why is a dolly called a dolly?

Anonymous said...

Walter's Transformers 2 Review: Totally Awesome.

Fuckin' aye.

Anonymous said...

A dolly was originally applied to contrivances made to resemble a doll in some way, and around 1900 it occurred to someone that small wheeled platforms looked like a doll (in comparison to trucks and wagons) to be called dollies.

Patrick said...

Thanks!

Also: not as good, but also good, a Transformers review by Mark Kermode
here

Jefferson said...

I had read about the Deceptitestes in some very early preview footage, and I thought it had to be a joke. But I'm not sure why I thought that, given that Michael Bay is so ridiculously willing to offend that it's actually kind of boring now. And that's the threat he poses.

Patrick said...

And I have already talked to three people about this shit in Transformers who told me they didn't care, it's probably mostly just the little bots, and they're funny, they only want some 'splosions...

I'm sure people *would* go see "Ass: the Movie".

Alex Jackson said...

Michael Bay says that he is going to retire from big-budget action movies after this. Thoughts?

Bill C said...

I have trouble believing Bay, or at least picturing it.

(Thanks for the kind words by the way, Alex/Jer.)

Jefferson said...

Regarding Batman, I think you've hit on something with the city design. Gotham really was the third lead in that movie, and Anton Furst's suicide was a serious blow to the sequel (assuming he would've been involved) and a loss to the industry. Look again sometime at Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves. Beautiful stuff.

I remember really loving the opening credits sequence, with the swooping Elfman music (his one good trick after "Dead Man's Party"), while the camera traced the contours of a giant what-the-fuck-is-this-thing? I thought we were exploring the Batcave -- turned out it was just a logo. The best iconographic bait and switch in film credits history.

Dan said...

Michael Bay says that he is going to retire from big-budget action movies after this. Thoughts?

That reminds me of George Lucas announcing on the commentary for his revisionist THX-1138 DVD that he was going to focus on low-budget art films now that he was "done with the Star Wars universe." I guess his good intention should be applauded. But it's not like it's eve going to happen...

Jefferson said...

i09.com characterizes T:ROTF as a pure dadaist revolt against story. It's a great review.

Patrick said...

Someone just told me that he would, ion fact, watch "Ass: the Movie".

Walter_Chaw said...

Ah, fan mail.

Great piece, Bill - want to read the your takes on the rest of the first four...

"The thing I think you fail to realize about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is,
it's just entertainment. Nothing more nothing less. It's a popcorn movie. It's made
to be mindless. There's no deep meaning behind it. You like most critics are looking
for more then what there is. You have to suspend belief. This is not an Oscar movie,
nor was the first Transformers. And I dont think Mr. Bay was looking for that kind
of movie. The cartoon was every bit as outlandish as the movie and it is a beloved
show. You talk about the racism in the movie, but are you offended by the comedic
racism in other movies? What's you take on Blazing Saddles? Yes it's in a different
context but it is still racism. And it's an entire movie about racism. You talk
about the exploition of Megan Fox, but how many countless movies having shown the
same type of sexuality and the movies have been loved and fawned over by critics
such as yourself. I believe people bash transformers
and movies like it because you somehow think you are above it. I think you believe
you are above Mr. Bay. I realize it's you job to give your opinion on the movie.
I'm just expressing my opinion about your review. IT FUCKING SUCKED!!!!!! Thank you
very much

Mike
pitino4pres@yahoo.com

Seattle Jeff said...

The funniest part of that note is when the guy asks Walter if he ever takes note of racism in other films.

Jefferson said...

Yeah, racial caricature is WC's one blind spot. I mean, you keep waiting for him to say something mean about Jar Jar Binks and he's all, "Dude, so he slipped on poo, so what?"

That note scans exactly the same as at least one other missive that FFC's posted here, probably about the last Transformers abortion. What's the percentage in defending the indefensible? And if critics don't matter, why send them e-mail?

Patrick said...

You know, that's what I don't get. Okay, you primarily want an action film. You don't care about film, per se.

But why don't you have the self-respect to demand good movies? Why are you content with *bad* action films that are just frenetic, nothing else. Why don't you say, "fuck that, of course I can compare T2 and T4, and T4 is just not good enough?"

I mean, especially with high-budget films like Transformers, the public can make a difference. Scary Movie only needs to recoup a couple of million bucks, but Transformers is expensive as shit. Don't see it and Bay won't make another one.

Dan said...

Transformers 2 is beginning to sound deliciously, temptingly bad. Why do the worst movies always inspire the funniest, creatively-written reviews? People should just keep quiet about dreck like T:ROTFLMAO.

James Allen said...

Alex wrote:
In other news, Year One is so terrible that not even Armond White likes it.

Ha! Aptly put, Alex, as Armond likes Transformers: ROTF

The opening paragraph is tremendous stuff:

"Why waste spleen on Michael Bay? He’s a real visionary ... Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more proof he has a great eye for scale and a gift for visceral amazement."

More proof?

Anonymous said...

one of the comments on that review:

'Michael Bay is a rarity because he knows how to film action scenes without making them completely hollow, yes I'm looking at you Jason Bourne and The Dark Knight. He manages to create sentimental imagery, yes, images that are linked to feeling, instead of vacuous frames that are typically disguised with rapid cutting, which is the action movie convention. But it is all in due time before Bay is recognized as one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the 21st century. Bay is basically Samuel Fuller Junior, not John Frankenheimer's illegitimate son, but I just hope the French don't claim him before we come to our senses and see his genius.'

Paul C said...

That I09 review of Transformers 2 is freaking hilarious. My favourite bit:

"Imagine that you went back in time to the late 1960s and found Terry Gilliam, fresh from doing his weird low-fi collage/animations for Monty Python. You proceeded to inject Gilliam with so many steroids his penis shrank to the size of a hair follicle, and you smushed a dozen tabs of LSD under his tongue. And then you gave him the GDP of a few sub-Saharan countries. Gilliam might have made a movie not unlike this one."

That part gave me one of the biggest laughs I've had in ages.

Anonymous said...

So here's something I never knew- Megan Fox once showed up as an extra in a club scene in Bad Boys. After being told they couldn't have her sitting at the bar or holding a drink, Bay had her stand, bikini-clad, under a waterfall. She was 15.

Anonymous said...

yes i totally agree!