Saturday, February 07, 2009

Masked and Anonymous

The tempestuous juggernaut of thirty-odd trillion fanboys continues to rage on over the fact that The Dark Knight failed to score a Best Picture nomination. My sympathies go out to them - I think Nolan's picture is superior to all of the nominated films, though I'm much more annoyed at the befuddling snub of The Wrestler. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about another film starring the Caped Crusader from way back in 1992: Tim Burton's marvelous, twisted fever dream, Batman Returns. Much less universally loved than Nolan's second outing, but for my money, the most fun and consistently interesting superhero movie ever made.

What is fascinating to me about the film is that most fans' criticisms are indeed exactly what I like so much about it - chiefly, that Batman isn't really the central character, he's really just another weirdo who dresses up in a costume and goes prowling around at night. His behavior is shown less as a duty to the citizens of Gotham City than an unfightable urge - a fetish, even - that he is powerless to stop. Given the success of 1989's Batman (a solid and enjoyable feature, if only that), Warner Brothers gave Burton the proverbial keys to the castle in directing the sequel. Having behaved himself the first go-around, this time he and Heathers scribe Daniel Waters fashioned a baroque tale of coded sexual deviancy; a work of deranged pop art that examines what a strange and kinky thing it is to be a masked vigilante.

It's not only the most debauched film that ever had a McDonald's Happy Meal tie-in, but also, probably, the most mature and psychologically rich film of Burton's ouvre. Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and the Penguin are not alienated schoolyard kids like Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka and Pee-Wee Herman; they are adult outcasts. Danny DeVito's wild, Pied Piper-like Penguin is a hedonist, sexually and otherwise, and a man who believes in his own life as a Dickensian underdog tale. Years of being surrounded by clannish fellow outcasts and circus folk, watching the beautiful people from afar, has given him the false impression that he will be able to fit in with them. Christopher Walken's Max Schreck, on the other hand, is a bully who seems to find pushing people around, male or female, to be a greater thrill than any sexual indulgence.

Bruce and Selina, on the other hand, are victims of deep-rooted repression. This is most obvious in Selina's case: a post-women's lib career gal who is still relegated to making coffee and enduring humiliation from her cheauvanistic male superiors. Her uniformally pink apartment is full of stuffed animals, dolls and other goody-two-shoesy knick-knacks. It looks like either a little girl's bedroom or somebody's grandma's house, but either way, a sexless purgatory. When Selina is literally pushed too far (out of a window, by her boss,) she is reborn as Catwoman: a Hyde/Id/Venus in Furs uberwoman who is the culmination of all Selina's withheld longings over the years.

The scene in which Selina goes berserk and destroys her apartment after her “rebirth” ranks with some of the best of Douglas Sirk: a pitch-perfect marriage of camerawork, editing, Danny Elfman's drivingly-maddening score, and Michelle Pfieffer's performance (indeed, she would never be this unbridedly perfect ever again.) Shoving her teddy bears down the garbage disposal and covering the walls with black spray paint, she searches through her closet for the only thing that isn't oppressively dainty – a black PVC raincoat – and begins to fashion it into her unabashedly dominatrix-styled catsuit. Her subsequent midnight prowlings include beating up a rapist, then berating his victim for her self-imposed helplessness, and whipping the heads off department store mannequins (man-made emblems of female domesticity) and disrarming a couple of mookish security guards (a symbolic act of castration.) Her ultimate decision to partner up with the Penguin to frame Batman seems motivated by little more than the fact that Batman appears to be the biggest, toughest alpha-male on the block.

As played by Michael Keaton, however, Batman is really anything but. He relies on his gadgets in this film even more than Adam West with his anti-shark spray, spending most of his screentime inside the Batmobile or seated at the Batcave's computer. Wheras Christian Bale played Batman as a singular-minded crimefighter for whom the Bruce Wayne persona was a mere put-on, Keaton is the opposite: a nebbish, shy doofus incapable of relating to other people. He puts on the Batman suit to make himself feel like a big strong man, but deep down, he is really just Bruce Wayne. This is why the relationship between him and Selina Kyle doesn't work out: because she is a true deviant, a creature of the night, and he's just a bookworm who pretends to be one because he is incapable of a normal romantic relationship.

It's pretty easy to see why comic book fans don't like this version of the Caped Crusader: most people want to see their heroes doing the right thing for the right reasons, not Freudian weirdos trying to work out their sexual hangups. But I, for one, am fascinated by such explorations, if there's a gifted auteur like Burton at the helm. Christopher Nolan gave the fanboys the Batman movie they had been waiting for all their lives – a film that treated the inherantly ludicrous premise of Bob Kane's comics with the intricacy and nuance of a great detective thriller. But Burton opted instead to explore the twisted allure of masked crimefighting, especially among the more shut-in set. Rather than give the fans what they want, he held up a grotesque funhouse mirror to them, and needless to say, not many of them were comfortable with what they saw.


Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

RETURNS is one of Burton's better films, best seen as a twisted gothic horror film and not as a comic book film at all. Daniel Waters' script is definitely a part of this. Burton, as a rule, works well with a good script but does poorly with a bad script. He's a visual director and that's about it.

My big problem with Burton's approach though, is that he treats his characters like cliched ciphers unlike Nolan's approach which gives them the respect of real people. I think all good movies should treat their characters in a respectful way.

7:38 PM  
Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

I'm also surprised you call Burton an "auteur", it's easy to see him that way, but I don't anymore.

Really, he's not much different from Michael Bay in terms of how he works. Bay gets handed scripts, puts his slick, "awesome" sensibility on the finished product and it goes to theaters.

With the exception of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and NIGHTMARE, Burton does the same thing. The studio hands him scripts. He puts his "arty, gothy, dark" style on them and the film goes to theaters. His movies are not deeply personal and passionate like those of the filmmakers I admire like Kubrick, they are "personal" in a superficial, sometimes even shallow way.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Dr. Criddle said...

I don't deny that Burton has of late, Burton has been the studios' go-to guy for visually "gothic" yet thematically safe pictures, both good and bad. But I still feel he he fits the "auteur" bill, at least the way the theory was originally conceived of.

An auteur can be either a director who is something of their own brandname for a certain style of film, like Hitchcock Frank Capra, or a working artist who consciously or unconsciously was more responsible than anyone else for the overall feel of their films, like Douglas Sirk, Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder.

Burton may not be as great as those directors (who, working today, is?) but he is, for the most part, singularly responsible for how his films turn out, which cannot be said of someone like Michael Bay and other hacks. So, I feel he is still an auteur.

As far as the cliched ciphers go, I don't think there's anything wrong with ciphers. Bale's Batman and Ledger's Joker are clearly ciphers (though not cliched) for selfless heroism and anarchic chaos, respectively. But Keaton's Batman and Pfieffer's Catwoman, I don't see how they could be called cliched either. I mean, how many times have you seen S&M superheroes?

8:22 PM  
Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

Selina Kyle as depicted in RETURNS is actually a very rich, well written character. The vast majority of credit for her as a character, though, most likely goes to Waters and Phieffer, not Burton.

I don't see Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman, though, as a cipher. Michael Keaton's portrayal is very flat and uninteresting to me. He gets a chance to shine a bit in RETURNS, though, but never nearly as brightly as Bale does. Keaton's Wayne plays Batman out of a perverse sense of boredom and thril-seeking. He's a bored playboy who would probably be doing something else if he could think of something even more fun to do.

Bale's Wayne is a troubled young man who becomes Batman because he honestly believes that only through channeling his own rage into a persona can he take down Falcone's mob and take out Gotham's criminal element. He has a idealistic mission that Burton and Keaton's does. However, this persona soon becomes a beast of its own and his choices, so triumphantly made in the first film, come back to bite him on the ass through the Joker and later Two Face.

9:21 PM  
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5:30 PM  

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