Thursday, March 25, 2010

The 25: Batman: Part 1

((The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

I’ll be the first to admit that Batman doesn’t exactly hold up well. Batman is the nineteen eighties version of timeless meaning people wear fedoras and rubber bracelets. Though dark at the time Its Frank Miller meets Adam West vibe doesn’t really work now. Nicholson is too old, fat and hammy to make a convincing threat (what Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight made me realize is how amazing it would have been if Five Easy Pieces era Nicholson had taken the role). The fight scenes are static. There’s not a moment when Basinger is on film that isn’t literally painful to watch. And as the main man himself Keaton makes a stiff Batman and an anemic Bruce Wayne (The “Lets get nuts." scene is one of the most embarrassingly squirm enducingly bad scenes I’ve ever watched in a movie).

By most accounts Batman’s schiziophrenia comes down to Sam Hamm’s killer script, basically a filmed version of The Dark Knight Returns, getting watered down by the studio and producers, to something more “palatable.” As a consequence the movie is neither fish nor fowl. Juxtaposing scenes that truly get Batman (one of my favorites being the walk through Bruce’s “Hall of armor” seeing the elements he took from each suit) and the Joker (The nihlisitc lunacy of The Smile X commercial) with Alfred letting Bassinger into the batcave, and The Joker dancing to Prince.

And that’s the main problem with Batman, not so much that it’s a bad movie, but that it has a much better one just peaking through. Don’t get me wrong it has its moments (“MIRROR!”) The Joker’s first appearance executing Palanace, The finale, and the great mime massacre. But it fails to hang together. There’s zero cohesion to the movie, a sure sign of too many cooks. The problem can best be summed up with Nicholson. The greatest flaw of Nicholson’s performance is not its oversizedness, but its smallness, its pettiness. Unlike Ledger, or Hamill’s potrayls, or even Morrison’s and Miller’s written versions, There’s nothing larger to The Joker’s nihlism, despite his throwaway lines of being a homicidal artist. At the end of the day he’s just some guy who likes to kill people. Thanks to the vigorous rewrites he swings without warning from petty gangster to shades of the grand Nihlistic force that Ledger would make him.

While Batman Returns has enough of Burton’s intensity and perversity to make up for its flaws, his personality is somewhat diluted here. Batman is a graceless, unwieldy behemoth. It doesn’t help that Christopher Nolan came around and made the films look about as long in tooth as that one super racist Batman Serial that was made during World War II.

So why mention it at all? Why regard it as anything other then a sad relic of 80’s excess?

Because Batman made me realize one crucial thing at the tender age of eight…

Somebody made this.

Note that ever important singular (I was an auteurist from the beginning I’m afraid). Sure I must have been vaguely aware that there where people whose business it was to make movies. Not that I really was paying that much attention. There’s that great line in Sunset Blvd. where Holden says, “Are far as the audience is concerned the actors make it up as they go along.” And that is basically the truth. Most kids and probably a depressing amount of adults, give so little thought what goes on behind the camera no more thought then “The Actors make it up as they go along.”

Until you see something that make you realize that’s not the case.

I can still remember the second I realized someone was behind the camera. It comes during Nicholson’s raid on Axis Chemicals, right before his Joker transformation. As he escapes he smashes a few tanks full of anonymous chemicals and they explode into fever dream greens and crimsons. No chemical has ever looked that way in the real world. Ever. Someone chose to make it look that way.

Once that clicked, the film clicked, it added an extra dimension to everything. Like one of those stupid hidden 3D pictures it's something you can’t unsee. My mind had slipped into a different mode and I knew that this movie, and therefore every movie was a series of choices.

Choices made by someone.

And then it all clicked because I could see them leading from one to the other. The dutched (though I didn’t know that at the time) angles, oppressive shadows, the fetishic minutia of the moving parts that make Batman's Wonderful Toys, The grotesque balloon’s spewing more luridly green poison silhouetted against the night sky, all buttressed by the dark operatic score. It all fit together.

I wasn’t there yet. I didn't know who it was to give credit to, or assign blame, didn't know it was the director I should pay attention to. I couldn’t connect the prankish deliciously malicious tone of the Smilex commericial to the similarly subversive advertisements in Beetlejuice, nor could I relate Batman’s lonely isolated hero to Jack Skellington who I had encountered earlier that year. But I was on my way.

Because now I understood, that cinema was something deeper then I had thought it was. Not something made up as it went along. No, it was something made.


Unknown said...

I still really enjoy this film for what it is. And I have to respectfully disagree with you assessment of Nicholson as the Joker. While, sure, he does ham it up many times throughout the film, there are some moments of real darkness too, like the scene where he utters the famous, "Wait till they get a load of me." The menace in how he says that line and how he's shot in semi-shadow is pretty damn creepy.

Also, while Burton does draw a lot from Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT, the Joker's origin comes right out of THE KILLING JOKE which I always thought was pretty cool.

That being said, I'm glad that when Christopher Nolan took over, he seems to have been heavily influenced by BATMAN: YEAR ONE for BATMAN BEGINS.

Franco Macabro said...

Great post, and I agree with ya for the most part. This movie isnt perfect, but it isnt shit either.

This film was such a huge hit when it came out, I remember the "batman mania" that spread like wild fire! People had everything about batman! T-shirts, haircuts, comic books...everything.

I remember seeing it in theaters and being so excited by it that I thought "it IS the movie of the decade!" There was something about the music that got me, that scene where Bats is driving his car towards the bat cave. That scene got me.

But that excitment came because there had not been that many GOOD comic book movies...back then, comic book movies were hard to come by! They came once in a full moon! But Batman changed all that! After Bats...comic book movies suddenly became super hot!

Seeing this movie now, I see so many flaws, and so many questions pop up as I watch it. I certainly do notice many flaws in it.

The use of miniatures is noticeable in many sequences, specially those near the ending with the joker hanging from that helicopter...or the scene with BAtman flying on that Bat plane thing.

The scene wher Joker falls to his death is some terrible animation. But the film remains fun for me no matter what. You cant deny it has excellent production values even though some of the effects dont hold up.

I agree with you on the whole joker thing, after Ledger, we go back to Nicholson and he feels so cartoonish...I guess someone somewhere was bending Burtons hand to make the movie more like the T.V. show.

Still, I can defenetly see why this movie would influence anyone to love movies, its a great comic book film!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Your absolutely correct. Even if Nicholson's performance doesn't work as a whole he's certainly has his moments.

@FC Yeah I've seen some of the old video's of the Bat Mania stuff. Always fun to go look at 80's people losing their minds.

jini said...

a carelessly clicked "next blog" brought me to your page. what a pleasant surprise- as i am trying to learn more about films, your blog is absolutely a fortuitous find. i especially like how you are celebrating (?) your 25 years of life with such list. great job, a familiar stranger :]

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad to hear it Jini hope you stay around!