June 26, 2009

When Mikey Met Marty

This is far from being my favourite thing Scorsese's ever done, but it was only the second thing of his I ever saw (after his "Mirror, Mirror" episode of "Amazing Stories"), and it intrigued me enough to be a crucial gateway drug.

Our younger readers might not be aware of this, but there was a time when Michael Jackson videos debuted in primetime on one of the major television networks. It was always a peculiarly auteurist event, with the director--be it Landis, Scorsese, or Singleton--given prominent hype in supplemental promotions and behind-the-scenes material.

As for "Bad," Scorsese relished this opportunity to channel his inner Vincente Minnelli and appreciated as well that Jackson himself was footing the bill, which essentially meant there was no such thing as going overbudget or overschedule.

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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."

Technical Difficulties

Due to the interference of life and shit it will be an extremely lite posting week at the mothersite. I actually had a lengthy post planned to commemorate the anniversary of Tim Burton's Batman (it turns 20 tomorrow), but that and other plans have been temporarily scuttled. (I seem to have left it in my other pants, as my brother is fond of saying.)

In the meantime, what's everybody watching? I'm currently catching up with the second season of "Burn Notice", which has gotta be the quintessential summer show.

June 12, 2009

No Phones, No Lights, No Motor Cars

Below, the trailer for Shutter Island. Not the biggest Dennis Lehane fan, m'self, and not sure what's compelling Marty towards Massachusetts all of a sudden, but I'm looking forward. To paraphrase Michael Powell, the promise of a new Scorsese movie sweetens the whole year; this appears to be his long-awaited scratching of a Val Lewton itch, an even more overt horror flick than Cape Fear. Also, is that the ultimate cineaste title or what?

June 08, 2009

A Summer Place

Drew McWeeny posed a great question to famous friends and just posted their answers at his blog, and I'd like to ask the same question here: what's your favourite summer movie?

Drew of course meant "summer movie" as a kind of state of mind, in which case you don't have to limit your answers to this year's sorry crop. (In other words, don't say Star Trek unless it really epitomizes the summer moviegoing experience for you.)

Harry Knowles definitely had the right idea when he answered Big Trouble in Little China, but I think my personal pick would have to be Back to the Future (1985). I was 10, it was the capper to a day at Clearwater Beach in Florida, and while the theatre cooled me off, the movie got me hot and bothered. I exited the cinema into the inviting arms of a warm front with a secret: I wanted to be a filmmaker. We had McDonald's before and ice cream afterwards. I was in paradise.

June 04, 2009

Citizen Caine

Apparently David Carradine, 72, was found dead in a Thailand hotel room yesterday. Initially they were reporting suicide, but now they're saying natural causes.

It's a shame that the only really noteworthy thing he did after his Kill Bill comeback was piss off world-class crank Haskell Wexler at a screening of Bound for Glory, a highly evocative account of which you can find
here. On the other hand, I got the distinct impression from Carradine's self-penned The Kill Bill Diary that raconteurism was his true passion in later years; certainly, I feel his loss more deeply as a loose-lipped iconoclast than I do as an actor. Always had a vague fantasy of sitting down with him over stiff drinks and requesting the old stories like a jukebox, and maybe he'd pull out his guitar at some point while the ladies gathered round.

That's not gonna happen now.

June 01, 2009

State of the Union

Time to rip the band-aid off: while The Film Freak Central 2009 SuperAnnual is progressing nicely, I'm now thinking we won't have it out until August at the earliest. I do apologize for the delay, which I feel will be worth it. So far the manuscript is sitting at 500 pages (the 2007 Annual was barely 300) and growing into a more definitive portrait of the last two years in film with each passing day.

Obviously, if you still want to become a patron of the book, there's time.

But hey, we can finally announce who's writing the foreword: none other than Stephan Elliott, fresh off Easy Virtue and the acclaimed director of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Famous last words be damned, lots of good stuff in store for the mothersite and this blog in the meantime, so stay tuned.

Also, out of curiosity: anyone know which movie this month's blog header is from? First correct guess gets, um, bragging rights. I should probably turn this into a contest at some point.