Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tim Burton's Batman

Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Batman, Tim Burton's 1989 film. This came to my attention because Yahoo! News, which I read every day, being a man who likes to keep abreast of important current events, has positively deluged us with stories about it. (This is neither here nor there, but I sometimes wonder if someone (Warner Brothers, in this case) puts down cash for these stories. For instance, I recall seeing quite a few articles about the cast of Full House earlier this year. Not that I read them or anything.)

Anyway, the fact that Batman is a quarter of a century old has me feeling slightly dated, as it was my favorite movie when I was a teenager. I didn't see it in the theater, of course. We went to the movies only rarely, and never to see something as dark and violent as Batman. I was ten at the time. That Christmas I received the VHS tape as a gift from my Granny, but my parents wouldn't allow me to watch it until I was fourteen. Fourteen!

Why they singled out this particular film I'll never know. It did depict Antoine the Gangster being fried to a crisp by a joy-buzzer, but then again we sat down and watched movies with gun violence and nudity as a family. What makes it more ironic is that we got Big Top Pee-Wee at the same Christmas, and no one blinked an eye. Now, Big Top Pee-Wee is a sick, twisted little film, featuring Pee-Wee Herman, unsavory character that he is, happily two-timing away with some not-so-subtle, er, Hitchcockian imagery, his girlfriend winding up engaged to four acrobatic brothers, the Shim (half man, half woman) married to shimself, the ringmaster married to a little lady he keeps in his pocket, a reluctant pig-hippo romance, and various other things. But it was for kids, so no problem. That's the Eighties for you.

Well, being a parent myself now, I know better than to be critical of these little inconsistencies. The truth is, they (the A.P.s) probably did me a favor, because I was of an age to really appreciate Batman when I finally saw it. Once I did see it I watched it repeatedly, obsessively, almost, until it was displaced at the top of my list by The Road Warrior. (I guess I go for dark stories about loners and outcasts.)

What did I like about it? Not the plot, of course, because it's impossible to like (or dislike) something that doesn't exist. What drew me to it was partly the visual style, and partly the tableau it presents of a dark hero who is himself somehow a part of the chaos and madness he fights.

The portrait of Gotham is dark and apocalyptic, with city streets that look like something out of Piranesi's prison pictures. Its visuals owe a great deal to German Expressionism; the final scenes in the ridiculously tall Gothic cathedral are lifted straight from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The buildings, the news office, the Axis chemical plant – all seem drawn from some nightmare extrapolation of noir cinema, a black cityscape heaped upon itself by a confused, obsessed mind, akin to the urban imaginings of Proyas' The Crow and Dark City, or the sublime middle act of Phantom Lady (1944).

And as for the dark vision of Batman, well, I recall that people objected to it at the time on grounds of nostalgia, but in my opinion the darkness is part of his DNA. It's a far cry from the campy Adam West period, yes, but Batman existed before that. His persona originated at the beginning of the noir era, and his adventures have varied quite a bit in tone. I've mused a bit about Batman's role as the dark knight and its relation to mythology and the hardboiled school of literature; for instance, here, and here, and here.

Batman films have this tendency to subtly ask difficult questions about the role of heroism in an ordered society, generally leaving them unresolved. Burton’s vision of Batman standing before the neon Axis sign encapsulates this. Wayne Enterprises is responsible for creating (and losing) the microwave emitter in Batman Begins and the nuclear reactor in The Dark Knight Rises, while Batman himself is credited with the rise of the Joker in The Dark Knight as well as in the 1989 Batman.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker is, of course, quite entertaining to watch. He's a hoodlum turned mad supervillain but also a pretentious avant-garde artist-vandal. His acts of sadism and terrorism (the shoot-out at City Hall ("It's your uncle Bingo!"), the disfigurement of Alicia, the mass poisoning ("Love that Joker!"), the anniversary parade) are self-conscious pieces of performance art. In the museum desecration scene he and his goons "decorate" pieces by Rembrandt and Degas and other masters while pointedly leaving a Goya (?) intact. ("I kind of like that one, Bob.") It's darkly amusing that his appreciation of Vicki Vale's work parallels Bruce Wayne's; they make a number of the same comments regarding Miss Vale. ("Nice apartment. Lots of space.")

All that said, it's too bad that Batman is such a plotless movie. It's of a piece with Tim Burton's other works, which generally strike me as visually brilliant but spiritually empty. I never have cared for Batman Returns, though other people seem to regard it as the better film. It's just got too many cheesy parts. And the later, non-Burton Batman movies that came before the Nolan rebirth are too stupid to comment on, except to say that the batsuit should not have nipples.

Wingéd bat flies by night.

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