Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Psyche of Gotham

DVD Notes: “Batman Returns”

In Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel to the initial instalment in the Warner Bros.’ Batman series, starring Michael Keaton as Gotham City’s chiropteran custodian, Burton and his writers give us three separate villains: the domineering and greedy tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken); the trust-fund miscreant, penguinly-constituted to an indeterminate degree, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito); and the wily vixen, posing as the diffident secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). But this is not the unwieldy overcrowding of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (with the unsavoury threesome of Electro, The Green Goblin, and Rhino); rather, when Batman is added to the mix, it’s the staging of an eerie fantasy, a ménage à quatre, complete with leather and psychosis. Imagine, if Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, had swathed herself in skin-tight red latex, contorting and unfolding in all imaginable directions, how much good it would have done for the morale of the endangered citizens of New York, not to mention the stamina of Peter Parker.

Each of these unambiguously nasty pieces of work shares with Batman/Bruce Wayne the trait of a dual personality. Shreck’s case is simple and miserably common: he has the businessman's smiling and charming public persona for the people of Gotham, but ruthlessly plots capitalist thievery from them in his board room meetings. Meanwhile, in the less genteel parlours of Gotham City, Cobblepot prefers to travel under a mononym: Penguin. Where Cobblepot (a scam) is an unfortunately misshapen, yet tender and benevolent man, Penguin is a coarse, lecherous, avaricious crime boss, more fiendish fowl than foul human. And Selina Kyle, when she finds herself hors de combat due to a forceful act of Shreck’s (not the usual one you’d expect a CEO to foist upon his secretary), instead of taking a sick day, assumes a feline alter ego, endowed with eight lives to spare. She calls her doppelgänger Catwoman, fixes sharp nails on to the gloves of her new, shimmering black leather suit, and prowls the night in brilliant red lipstick, condescending with equal disdain upon greasy male criminals and their helpless female victims.

The delight of Batman Returns - a delight characteristic of the work of Tim Burton - is the sense we derive of a preternatural mythology, an other-worldly setup of archetypes and emblems, rich not only in peculiarity and eccentricity, but also in dark (but not contemptuous) comedy, and a transcendence of the devisings of plot and character to create something like visual poetry. Burton understands that the distortion of reality - making it look and sound different, and casting alternate shadows and lights on various aspects - is not, in art, a perversion of life. Artifices and abstractions, as far removed as they are from the actuality of everyday life, can help an artist relate great truth, and lead to keen personal expression, which is really why we make and view art at all.

Take as a prominent example the sets on which Batman Returns was filmed. All the buildings have sharp, non-realistic angles, and are tall, dark, severe, and looming. Lights and shadows are cast strongly and evocatively, and the camera makes no effort to hide the bizarreness of the created world. It's clear that the model of Gotham City is New York City, and it's simultaneously clear that Gotham is a distortion of New York, emphasising the darkness and menace of a heavily populated city, while deliberately omitting any sunny parks, tree-lined avenues, jazz and art scenes (as is proper for a superhero movie, the only nightlife is a masked ball), and spicy, ethnically diverse urban life. The purpose of this design, however, is not merely to establish a mood and an atmosphere; the sets are part of Burton's larger design, which includes the makeup, acting, music, and the images on the screen, to reveal subjectivity - to make physical the elements of his characters' psyches.

The effect with the sets is taken further by the obvious fact that everything was shot on a sound stage, inside a building. It conveys a feeling of claustrophobia, of being stuck, inescapably, in one's circumstances. And the circumstances in which these characters find themselves stuck are not issues of a political, financial, social, or sexual nature (though these problems are certainly encountered and involved), but in the problem of their own selves: they're stuck with their split personalities, their obsessions and compulsions, their overwhelming drives and urges, and the growing disconnect between themselves and reality; and these tensions grow stronger and more jarring throughout the film, until all three villains as well as Bruce Wayne (admittedly to varying degrees) approach psychosis. Two of them escape outright mental illness by dying. The other two are left, respectively, to flutter and to pussyfoot over Gotham indefinitely, with psychopathy constantly lurking just around the corner.

I'm unsure as to how much of himself Burton reflects in his heavily expressionist film, but I'd be willing to bet it's more than it initially appears to be. His partner, the actress Helena Bonham Carter, has remarked that the makeup he applies to his actors, with their pale faces and deep-set shadows around the eyes (further illustrations of the soul's tensions), is unconscious self-portraiture, and it's not unlikely that his set designs and what he elicits from his actors and from the frequent composer for his films, Danny Elfman, is devised similarly. One gets the sense - watching Batman Returns, as well as Edward Scissorhands, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, and Alice in Wonderland - that Burton's efforts have consistently been to represent and to demonstrate his own map of the mind. Burton is no Freud, and his analysis is nowhere near as complex nor as universal, but, like many filmmakers throughout the 20th century, he follows Freud in showing his abstractions and contours of the psyche through a narrative, through something like a mythology. And, in a move that has proved as fruitful as entertainment as it has as an illustration of an idea, he has linked psychotic imminences to unfulfilled sexual desire, and sensual discontent. What better way to show Cobblepot's constant confounding than by laying the sleek, sultry Catwoman across his bed, beguilingly licking herself all over, shimmering in tight, black leather, continually just out of reach?

What Burton is not skilled at, here as elsewhere, is action set pieces, and when Batman must fight a swarm of Penguin's henchmen, it's run through with minimum fuss and interest, with Batman throwing a single punch to incapacitate each of them, and at one point quickly throws some gadget that knocks them out one by one. His Batmobile is filmed without any awe or wonder at its ingenious design and devices, and fights and the occasional murder (except for the first one) are dished out without much thrill or spectacle. Perhaps these were all already dealt with in the first film, and the filmmakers saw no point in flinging at us the usual action movie tropes a second time. It's no large matter, however, with the rest of the film providing such glee and vitality in its darkness.

I've not seen the two Joel Schumacher entries in the Batman film franchise (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin), nor Burton's original film, Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as The Joker, but my hope for when I do watch them is that they revel in the Dark Knight's tale's inherent fantasy and comedy, and that Schumacher manages to evoke something like the lucid, deliciously brooding, fascinatingly negative poetry sparklingly present in many moments in Burton's film. Christopher Nolan certainly doesn't.

Batman Returns is available on DVD.

Batman Returns is directed by Tim Burton; written by Daniel Waters, based on a story by Sam Hamm and Waters; music by Danny Elfman; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Bob Badami and Chris Lebenzon.

STARRING: Michael KeatonDanny DeVitoMichelle PfeifferChristopher WalkenMichael GoughMichael Murphy

Catwoman, the sleek, postmodern update of Ian Fleming's Pussy Galore

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