Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Tim Burton: Batman Returns (1992)
Batman was indisputably one of the biggest box office smashes of the 1980's and director Tim Burton was given the lion's share of the credit (and rightly so.) When the inevitable sequel was produced the director was awarded a level of control and trust that is rare within the mainstream studio system. Burton could pretty much do whatever he wanted. The result: a truly bizarre and unique Burton blockbuster (emphasis on the Burton) that pushed the boundaries of the genre even as it failed within them. Batman Returns was a box office hit to be sure, but on a much smaller scale than the original. Perhaps audiences were turned off by the films glum tone or it's overly fussy and complicated plot. Unrelentingly psychological, Batman Returns is totally flaccid as an action movie; the director seemingly having little patience for the elaborate and repetitive choreography that such sequences require. Instead the film functions as a study in the mental instability of it's main character; a better title would have been Batman: Deconstructed.
Dualities are everywhere. Metaphors of masks abound. Gotham city itself is turned into a theater of Freudian psychodrama. When I first saw the movie I was put-off by the abundance of villains in the piece- there are no less than three. I felt my focus being pulled in too many directions. What I now realize is that these three figures represent different aspects of Batman's psyche; his fight with them is actually his internal struggle with his own demons. Indeed we can see these characters as the classic Freudian modalities of Id, Ego and Superego.
For the Id we have the Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot (played by a snarling, barking Danny DeVito, channeling Burgess Meredith by way of Cujo). A brutal monster, lacking impulse control as much as he does dental hygiene, the Penguin is Batman's primary foe in Batman Returns, but even more importantly he is Wayne's inner darkness distilled and given a fetid, abhorrent form. The importance of animal imagery is pronounced: the Penguin is not human-he knows he is a monster..."I am an animal. Cold-Blooded!" As the penguin says to Batman "You're just jealous because I'm a real freak and you have to wear a mask." Biographically however, the Penguin is Bruce Wayne's dark doppelganger. Born into privileged homes, both were "abandoned" by their parents at a young age-an event that defines each mans identity. At a press conference where he visits the grave of his parents, the villain declares them forgiven as Bruce Wayne looks on. But, their absolution is a publicity stunt. Bruce Wayne too has not forgiven his parents for leaving him; he represses his anger toward them by punishing the criminals who took them from him allowing his parents to stay innocent (which of course they were, but this about irrational emotion here), a fetish of their memory is what remains. But Wayne's Id, it's desire to confront the feelings of resentment, get an outlet with the Penguin. There is a caveat. Cobblepot can only exist fully as a vile, uncontrollable monster, literally dwelling beneath Gotham, just as Wayne's monstrous animal id hides in the recesses of his mind, or least in his Batcave. When the feelings rise up to the surface and show themselves, pandemonium ensues.
Wayne's Ego is the corrupt billionaire industrialist Max Shreck, played to smarmy perfection by Christopher Walken in a fright wig. This is the public face of Wayne: rich, charming and successful. The interesting thing about the addition of this character is that, along with completing the Freudian trifecta, for the only time in the Batman movies is Wayne's guilt regarding his wealth even alluded to, however elliptically. Though he wears no mask, Shreck is as duplicitous a character as Wayne-legitimate business man by day and corrupt robber baron by night. Though with Shreck the duality is almost totally submerged- his villainy a natural extension of his profession. As Michael Atkinson points out in his Village Voice review of "Batman Begins," the Batman movies have always ignored any possible connection between the squalor and crime in Gotham city and Wayne's profession as a ludicrously wealthy business man. Though this level of social commentary is not realized in Batman Returns (or any Tim Burton movie), it is at least alluded to with Shreck. (Also alluded to is the cinema of German expressionism where the lead in Nosferatu was played by none other than one Max Shreck. And the Penguin is pure Caligari. But this is all neither here nor there.)
Finally we have a truly fascinating character played by Michelle Pfeiffer (in her best screen performance): Catwoman. Burton's only true successful female character (until Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd) and his only foray into matters sexual, Catwoman is pure Super-ego. As Lacanian film theorist and philosopher Slovaj Zizek has often noted, the super-ego is not a moral agency. It is consuming voice that constantly and relentlessly bellows irrational demands on it's agent. Perhaps most interesting is Zizek's assertion that the Super-ego is connected deeply with the Id, the two aspects of the psyche being delicately reflective of each other. Norman Bates taking the corpse of his mother from the Super-ego attic to the Id basment is Zizek's example of a potent cinematic representation of this connection. In Batman Returns we can find another. Like the Penguin, but unlike Shreck, the Catwoman, like the Penguin (and like Batman for that matter) is an animal image.
Extremely articulate, undeniably witty and unabashedly sexual, the Catwoman is the Super-ego run amok, having totally discarded all pretense of social normality. Her first big battle with Batman occurs, appropriately, on a rooftop, just as the Super-ego sits at the highest level of subjectivity. Catwoman is also the nexus of Wayne's central neurotic predicament for she, unlike the Penguin or Shreck, is constantly fighting with her dual nature, the madness of her psychology displayed in the films most memorable scene where Selina destroys her pink-hued apartment and transforms into Catwoman. When she kills Shreck in the films dark final scene she finalizes the death of her and Wayne's Ego, preferring instead to remain the animal that she has become. And though the Penguin dies in this same moment, he is thematically returned to the subconscious, hidden in the sewers of Wayne's mind. Batman's attempts at reconciling his psychic traumas have been unsuccessful and even destructive. There seems little hope that Wayne will ever move beyond his schizophrenic predicament. Though he has once again saved Gotham, this, the real central conflict of the film, is not a setup for, as the Catwoman says, "A Happy Ending."
With Catwoman Burton also dabbles in sexual politics. Selina Kyle is a highly gendered character when we first meet her. Passive, pathetic, soft-spoken and sexually inert. "Hi Honey I'm home..oh that's right I'm not married" is her lament upon every return to her feminine apartment. Her lack of a "man" troubles her and at the same time defines her. Catwoman is a Betty Friedan nightmare, a dangerous castrating creature of menace powered by rocket fuel estrogen. With her S&M get-up of shiny pleather and her sybaritic line deliveries that practically echo Mae West-this Catwoman is more vagina than pussy.
As one can imagine, Bruce Wayne gets lost in the shuffle. The whole movie being a
representation of his psyche, Wayne is even more of a cipher here than he was in the first film. The few moments of character development allowed the talented Mr. Keaton are in relation to his budding romance with Selina Kyle, a duality again mirrored by Batman's more overtly sexual and violent meetings with Catwoman. The slight humor Wayne displayed in the first Batman is blunted even as the movies tone verges farther toward the whimsical.
Though Batman Returns is a far less comic film than it's often witty predecessor, it's mise en scene has a far more macabre frivolity. Returns is, in every way, more Burton's films than Batman was and his signature touches threaten to overtake the whole movie, for better or for worse. After Anton Furst committed suicide during pre-production Burton turned to his Scissorhands collaborator Bo Welch for production design. If Furst made Gotham into a mysterious expressionistic cesspool, Welch turns the city into a Transylvanian carnival. Color is everywhere, pronounced all the more by the surrounding darkness. Equally abundant is white snow. Setting the story at Christmastime has to be a sick joke of some sort; it adds nothing to the plot.
Burton's always been more Gorey than gory and in Returns his penchant for curlicue trimmings kills the sense of dark menace and urban blight that epitomized Furst's Gotham. It's no wonder that Batman battles a gang of demented circus clowns; who else to populate Burton's circus of Hell? With all the clowns running around in the white blankets of snow the mood can get deciedly Cirque Du Soleil. Also ratcheting up the sideshow aura is Danny Elfman's score which, although featuring some of his best work (Selina's transformation again is a highlight), is nevertheless oppressively heavy on the creepy-yet-innocent choir of "ooh's and laah's" that Elfman finds so fetching. In almost...every...movie. Burton, always afraid to have a moment on screen without oppressive musical accompaniment does nothing to reign him in. The original Batman hinted that Elfman could become the new John Williams, with Returns he negates any such ambition; he is simply so wrapped up in his own sound that that is all he, and the audience of a Tim Burton movie, can hear.
Obviously, Batman Returns is an interesting movie--much more so than almost anyone gives it credit for, including myself until I started thinking about it. Playing as it does on complicated psychological and sexual issues, a box office fallout was inevitable. It's important to remeber that though that, out of the shoadow of the previous iteration, Batman Returns was still amazingly successful. Perhaps the name brand recognition was still hot enough to secure an impressive release, or perhaps the films themes were subtextual enough to not sink the whole thing under the weight of it's own metaphoric import (see: The Hulk, dir. Ang Lee). Whatever the reason, the movie made a lot of money but it's comparative failure to the earlier Batman I can't help but to believe came about by it's somewhat serious engagement with the issues that I have noted in this review. The result was one of the more disappointing entries in the now tirelessly burgeoning genre of Superhero film, but one of the greatest (though flawed) entries in Burton's oeuvre. It's without question a film worth watching again.