Saturday, December 24, 2011

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): a film for Christmas

It'll be twenty years and one month, approximately, after Tim Burton's second Batman movie opened when Christopher Nolan's third will roll out. Nolan's idea of a Christmas present to the moviegoing public has been a limited-release IMAX prologue to The Dark Knight Rises featuring his and actor Tom Hardy's interpretation of Bane, while the less fortunate can settle for a trailer that throws some of the spotlight on Anne Hathaway's turn as Selina Kyle. Some people have already chided Nolan for daring to stage a scene between Hathaway and Christian Bale at a costume party, as if the idea could only have been borrowed from Batman Returns. If so, it's probably the only thing Nolan will borrow from Burton's sequel. Watching Returns again for the first time in a while was a stark reminder of how different Burton and Nolan's visions are. The starkest reminder of all has probably been the year of hype for Rises. If a Batman fan felt that Nolan had one great task to do after his second film, that task would most likely be to give us his Catwoman. Yet Nolan has appeared far more interested in Bane, a preference he justifies (without disparaging or really saying anything about Catwoman) by his desire to give his Batman an antagonist actually capable of beating him up. I haven't been able to shake a feeling that Catwoman is an afterthought for him, and maybe even something imposed on him by the studio. Nolan keeps his cards close to his vest, however, and for all we seem to know about Rises much remains mysterious. Consider the speculation raging among comics fans that "Miranda Tate," the character played by Marion Cotilliard, must really be Talia, the daughter of Ra's al-Ghul and Batman's other great love interest in the funnies. We probably won't know until someone sees the finished film. My own view was that, had Nolan openly introduced both Talia and Selina Kyle in the same film, his film could have been an anti-Twilight, with fans of the two femmes fatales forming "Teams" to assert each favorite's superior worthiness as a Bat-mate -- though I must acknowledge that, for many comics fans, Batman's ideal woman is "None of the Above." In any event, Nolan has little interest in simply reproducing comics mythos -- no more than Burton had. His purpose has been to translate the Batman mythos into an almost-real 21st century context, which means going in the opposite direction from Burton. I could probably go on about Nolan, but I'm going to save most of that, and many of my thoughts about Batman and Catwoman, for next July. We have a film for Christmas to look at first.

Actually, I can't leave Nolan behind for the moment without questioning whether he'd ever want to set a film at Christmastime. By comparison, Batman Returns can be seen as the middle film of a Tim Burton Christmas trilogy, following Edward Scissorhands (in which immortal Edward assures Winona Ryder of a white Christmas every year) and the more obvious Nightmare Before Christmas. So there's probably more of a point to setting Returns at Christmas than there was for Die Hard, to offer at least one similarly set summer movie. While there's some of Burton's sometimes tiresome epater le bourgeoisie attitude in play, the most obvious motivation I can see is that Christmas is a season when lonely people are likely to feel lonelier -- an ideal time for the revenge tragedy Burton stages. At the same time, there's something almost subliminally blasphemous about Burton's Christmas story. Apart from the mockery of the Moses legend, Returns can be seen as pitting Batman against a collective, trinitarian antagonist -- three aspects of evil or sin.

1. The Father.

This is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), in name an homage to the star of Nosferatu, in image an homage to The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. A department-store magnate and aspiring energy monopolist, Shreck is "the man who runs things," Gotham City's "mover and shaker," a Langian supervillain with the power to lift the accursed subterranean into the light of day and cast souls from the heavens, as well as a concerned parent. Evil incarnate otherwise, Max is always ready to sacrifice himself to protect his son Chip, if only because the youth is his legacy, his only continuity after death. He's a pharaonic figure in the movie's mock-Mosaic context, but his menace is undercut by his underwritten role. Walken's dialogue is sometimes literally reduced to a shrug, and as with all the villains, Shreck is too often reduced to speaking flippant if not infantile one-liners that make them sound stupid rather than sinister -- his response to one taunt from Bruce Wayne is "Yawn." I've always felt that Walken could have done a lot more with the part if Waters and Burton didn't turn Shreck into a moron at crucial moments. His behavior at the climax defies common sense; having just learned the secret identities of both Catwoman and Batman, and having his life threatened by the former, he might be expected to sit back and let Bruce Wayne eliminate the main threat, and then blackmail Wayne into compliance with his power-plant plans and perpetual stoogery thereafter. Instead, he shoots Wayne, wasting a bullet that might have saved his life if aimed elsewhere. Maybe Shreck ends up weak just because he's a Langian villain in what is, despite appearances, not a Langian film, thematically speaking.

2. The Son.

I remember reading an interview in which Burton confessed to being frightened as a kid by Charlton Heston's transformation from prince to prophet in The Ten Commandments. It's not hard to see Batman Returns as the byproduct of that primal fear, as its top-billed villain, The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is a child cast upon the waters, only to return with an agenda of biblical revenge upon his fellow firstborn. As a manufactured hero and candidate for mayor (a trope borrowed from the 1960s TV show) Oswald Cobblepot arguably becomes a kind of antichrist, with Max Shreck as his satanic sponsor. Early versions of the script established Shreck and Cobblepot as brothers, but the writers made the right call by turning Shreck into a kind of substitute father figure for the malevolent mutant. Burton's vision of the Penguin is a drastic departure from the dapper, fussy figure of the comics. You can dress him up to look like Dr. Caligari, but he remains an animal, cold-blooded but comically randy. Waters writes contradictory dialogue for him, sometimes utterly vulgar, sometimes verbally pretentious, that seems appropriate for Burton's stated theme of duality -- maybe Schreck pales in comparison because there's no real duality at play in him.

In any event, the Langian Schreck is eclipsed by Cobblepot, who despite his Caligarian formalwear is a classic Lon Chaney Sr. villain -- the grotesque outcast with a grudge against society and an occasional hint of a soul. There's not much hint of a soul in Burton's Penguin, but the director does make him an object of absurd pathos throughout, never losing sight of Cobblepot's desperate desire for acceptance (and sex) while reminding us that probably only the penguins ever really loved him. De Vito gives a performance worthy of Chaney, working the suit and the makeup for all they're worth. Even though he was certainly cast for his physical attributes and abrasive persona, he succeeds in making Cobblepot a distinct personality, or at least an ideal embodiment of Burton's dualist-animalist vision.

3. The Holy Ghost.


A few weeks ago I bought the Japanese ghost story Kuroneko during a Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection sale. I haven't watched the film yet, but the synopsis was a twenty-years late "a-ha!" moment. In Kuroneko a mother and daughter are raped and murdered by marauding samurai, but are revived by -- you guessed it -- cats licking their wounds. In the Japanese film, apparently, it's clear that the the women are undead, animated by cat spirits but retaining their human memories. We can assume that Burton, Waters or Sam Hamm either saw this 1968 film or were aware of the cat-spirit concept from Japanese folklore and applied it to Selina Kyle. Michelle Pfeiffer's character is an even more drastic departure from her comics template, since the movie's Penguin is at least still the leader of a criminal gang. Burton's Catwoman is an all-out avenger, even pausing before her campaign against the Shreck empire to play vigilante, if only to rebuke the victim-to-be for being a version of her own former mousy self. Burton seems uninterested in crime as such, the nearest thing to a conventional criminal in Returns being the businessman Shreck. But his approach allows him to cut to the quick in the matter of Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. He can dispense with the questionable notion that opposites (criminal and crimefighter) attract. As Bruce Wayne himself says, he and Selina are essentially the same. His tragedy is his failure to realize that their exact sameness makes a happy ending impossible. They're both "split, right down the center," but the split makes it impossible for either, despite Wayne's own desperate proposal, to go home to a fairy-tale castle together -- leaving aside the likelihood that Selina doesn't even belong on this earth, that her kingdom is no longer of this world.


In a way, neither does Bruce. His commitment to his avenging path had already cost him a lover before Returns even starts, and it has left him a kind of living ghost -- not the strutting playboy Christian Bale has portrayed -- brooding in darkness before the Bat-Signal stirs him into action. His romance with Selina belies his claim that his romance with Vicki Vale failed because she couldn't accept the "two truths" that define him. Selina comes to understand them all too well. If anything, she's split more profoundly than Bruce, as her crudely sewn and instantly fraying costume illustrates. After indulging a cruel streak we'd seen even before her trauma, she interrogates herself in a shop window, asking, "Why are you doing this?" In the end, she sees no choice but to do it. When she says she couldn't live with herself if she accepted Bruce's proposal, does she mean only that she can't accept leaving Shreck alive or, worse, that she doesn't deserve the happy ending Bruce self-deludingly offers? A supernatural reading of Returns would require her to follow through and destroy Shreck, that being her sole mission on earth as the wrath of God. An animalistic reading of the sort that Burton preferred at the time -- Selina as essentially a cat -- wouldn't be inconsistent with the supernatural reading of her as a cat-spirit. The dualistic reading is tragically pessimistic about the possibility of harmony between any two people. A part of each of us yearns for it, but another part always seems to want something else. That's why Bruce ends the first Burton film alone atop a tower while Alfred chauffeurs Vicki below -- and why Selina ends the second equally elevated and equally alone (in a late yet appropriate addition) while Bruce rides dismally in the limo. Christmas only heightens the pathos, but Burton's refusal of reconciliation, his insistence that love can't conquer all, makes Batman Returns an anti-Christmas movie, as might befit a June release -- unless indulging your pity is your idea of a holiday exercise.

Christopher Nolan's great project has been to modernize Batman, to release the character from the grip of retro sensibilities. If the beloved animated series that began shortly after Batman Returns seemed to lock Batman in a film-noir world, albeit with superscience enhancements, Burton's sequel looked further backward to the sensibilities of silent cinema. Apart from some early CGI (including a well-publicized "stunt Batman" for flying scenes) and a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Returns may as well be eighty rather than twenty years old next year. It's a monumental relic of the era of massive handmade sets -- Bo Welch's cityscapes are an improvement on Anton Furst's Oscar-winning abstractions. Too much CGI in the intervening generation gives me an even greater appreciation for the craftsmanship on display here. Danny Elfman's music should be making the transition from dated to timeless any year now. He was practically a musical genre in his own right for a while, if not a cliche, and the Returns score remains one of his best. Speaking of The Ten Commandments, did anyone else ever notice a similarity between Elfman's four-note Batman motif and Elmer Bernstein's Wagnerian opening notes (DUH, duh duh-DUH!) for the DeMille film? Finally, I can't leave the subject of Burton's Batman without doing justice to Burton's Batman. Cating Michael Keaton was a casting masterstroke, making clear that Bruce Wayne would not fight crime primarily with brute force while investing the character with that tense introspection of which comedians are often capable. I also happen to think his Returns gear is the best movie Batman costume to date. Keaton is the actor least burdened with clunky one-liners here, and his scenes with Pfeiffer in and out of uniform are extraordinary. The "two truths" speech is especially good and Keaton leaves an enduring impression of a deeply troubled, if not disturbed, yet essentially good man -- despite Burton's neglect of Batman's traditional code against killing. It's too bad that Keaton never got many acting opportunities afterward. I've never bought the idea that he or Bale have been eclipsed by their more flamboyant co-stars, and despite all the attention I've given to his antagonists Returns is still essentialy a film about Bruce Wayne, what defines him and differentiates him from his apparent peers, and why he'll remain as we found him here.

Returns is still my favorite Batman movie (Nolan's Dark Knight is the runner-up), sometimes in spite of itself. Waters's clunky dialogue pales in comparison to the screenplay's awkwardly edited chronology. Consider this: Selina Kyle has to go to Max Shreck's office at night to prepare the paperwork for Shreck's meeting with Bruce Wayne the following morning. That night, Shreck throws Selina out the window and she becomes Catwoman. The next morning is when Shreck stages the kidnapping and Penguin's rescue of the mayor's baby. We see Bruce Wayne watch news reports of the event. Penguin is set up at the Hall of Records to research his parentage, and one night a now-suspicious Batman cruises past the place. In another daytime scene Cobblepot visits his parents' graves and talks to the press. We see newspaper coverage of the scene. That night, presumably, Catwoman makes her first appearance to save a woman from a mugger. The following morning is when Bruce Wayne finally arrives at Shreck's office. Between the night of Selina's "death" and "next morning," an unlikely minimum of four days have passed, and it was probably quite a few more. How hard would that be to fix? For a long while, and maybe still, narrative wasn't considered Burton's strong suit. Returns often moves forward by laborious contrivances. Why, in the middle of a fight with Catwoman, does Batman remark that "mistletoe is deadly when you eat it?" The answer is that Burton needs a way for Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle to discover each other's secret identities at the same moment, and the mistletoe couplet (answer: "A kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it") provides that. This is not a well-made plot, but the payoffs often justify the contrivances. The Max-querade Ball scene, where Bruce and Selina are the only guests not wearing masks, yet are unmasked to each other via the mistletoe couplet, is a poignantly devastating moment, no matter what it took for Burton to get us there. Burton's purpose was to give us visual and emotional spectacle, and against the odds he succeeded on both counts.
Compared to Nolan, Burton had what now seems a healthy reticence toward making Batman relevant to the contemporary world. Burton's Batman films are unrepentant fantasies unbound by any reality principle. Nolan has done great things with the concept, but he seems to sacrifice a lot of its potential in doing so. The two directors have profoundly different notions of what Batman is all about, and that's bound to influence each man's notion of what Catwoman is all about. For Nolan, time will tell and the clock is ticking. Burton has set the standard, but let's reconvene in seven months and consider this all again. For now, come what may, Merry Christmas and goodwill toward men ... and women.

Straight from the source -- WarnerBrosPictures presents the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.

No comments: