Superheroes: Batman Returns

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Like Batman, Batman Returns presents three protagonists, almost the same protagonists as the previous movie — a deformed freak of a gangster (this time the Penguin), a blonde who’s crazy about bats (Catwoman subbing for Vicki Vale), and Batman himself. In addition to its three protagonists, it offers an antagonist from outside the traditional Batman world — a ringer, if you will, in the form of businessman Max Shreck.

It would be great to report that Batman Returns takes all of these worthwhile, interesting characters and weaves them into a single, unified story, but it does not. Instead, it presents two separate stories, each compelling in its own right, and kind of sutures them together like the irregular chunks of vinyl of Catwoman’s bodysuit. As this is an unusually complicated narrative with three separate, competing plot strands which actually take place in utterly different genres, let’s separate out each character’s storyline and examine them one at a time.

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Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 2

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So: to review, here is the overall structure to Batman:

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Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 1

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Batman has an interesting agenda: the screenplay wants to keep its title character mysterious and elusive for as long as possible.  Both Batman and Bruce Wayne are presented as cold, remote and unreachable.  "Why won’t you let me in?" asks Vicki Vale, as well she might.  Bruce Wayne takes a long time to emerge as a protagonist in Batman, and Batman takes even longer.  For the longest time, Bruce/Batman is pursued, tangled with and drawn out, with the effect being to turn him into a kind of mythological figure, or even a fetish object.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Well I have to admit, this was a pleasant surprise.  I mean, as pleasant as a movie about people getting their throats cut could be.

I sat down to watch this movie, knowing only that it was a musical, composed by Stephen Sondheim, an artist whom I rarely think about, some sort of black-comedic Victorian revenge drama, directed by Tim Burton and featuring a cast that promised a Pirates of the Caribbean/Harry Potter smackdown, with a guest appearance by Borat.

First I was surprised by Johnny Depp, who gives his most sincere, honest performance ever in a Burton movie. Whatever he’s doing in Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’m sure is amusing to someone, but I’ve never quite understood it myself. But here he’s just smashing, committed and balanced and strong. Then I was surprised to learn that I like his singing, which in this movie reminds me of a record I have of David Bowie singing Brecht.

I also like Helena Bonham Carter in this movie, although I have a lingering question with regards to her choices as an actress. She made her name playing period roles in Merchant-Ivory movies (and their imitators), and then about ten years ago, around the time of The Wings of the Dove, suddenly seemed to make the decision that she wasn’t ever going to play another high-buttoned collar part again in her life. No, she decided, she was going to spend the next decade playing slatterns, psychos and witches. Which, more power to her, but there’s something about a beautiful, refined, obviously strong woman like her playing a character as bizarre, needy, manipulative and amoral as Mrs. Lovett. It’s my understanding that Angela Lansbury played the part on Broadway a million years ago, when she was merely “old” and not “as old as dirt.” Which seems to make a lot more sense to me — Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett shouldn’t be young, robust, good-looking people who could attract anyone in London, they should be broken, over-the-hill, ruined, bitter people who’ve been around the block more than a few times (Sweeney, in fact, arrives from having traveled around the world). We’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Lovett has loved Todd since before his wife and child were taken from him, which has to be at least fifteen years, but Mrs. Lovett in this movie doesn’t seem to be that much older than Todd’s daughter.

Alan Rickman, however, blew me away, as did Sacha Baron Cohen, who managed to get all kinds of levels of play into his few scenes.

I have no idea what, if anything, has been changed to get the play onto the screen, but they did a terrific job. The plotting keeps the story engrossing, suspenseful and surprising, the production design is extraordinary (as it generally is for a Burton movie) and the hairdos alone should make it a lock for the makeup Oscar. And not just because they are clever (although they are), but because of the way they are actually integrated into the scenery around them — they look as though they were not meant to merely reveal character, but to be shown as a symptom and product of their environment.

And then there’s Burton’s direction, which, well, it seems strange to say it, but I think this is the best work he’s done. I’ve enjoyed plenty of Tim Burton movies in the past, but there was always some weird distancing thing going on, some kind of glibness or archness or lack of depth that always made them seem a little hollow. This movie, like Depp’s performance, seems honest and deeply felt in a way that a “deeply felt” movie like, say, Big Fish did not. To put it another way, I always knew that Tim Burton was a great artist, but this was the first time I felt like he had actually gotten in touch with the human side of his art as well as the technical side.

Which I guess sounds weird, because it’s hard to think of a less human, less organic construct than an almost-sung-through musical about an insane barber and how he slaughters people to feed a grudge. And yet, as my wife said about half-way through the movie, “It’s really good that these people all got together to make this,” because it’s hard to imagine another group of people understanding the material as well as this bunch.

Todd and Lovett, of course, make two more wonderful addition to this year’s unrivaled crop of movieland’s murderous capitalists, in addition to There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh, Eastern Promises‘s Russian ganglord and Michael Clayton‘s homicidal corporate climber. The fact that all these roles have not only appeared in the same year but have been nominated for Oscars has got to say something about the state of our Union.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A charming fairy-land of playfulness, whimsy and possibility, and the interior of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a richly realized, imaginatively produced meditation on art, creativity and irrationality, and how those unpredictable, untameable, wild qualities can be used to make a lot of money. In this regard it is a summation not only of Tim Burton’s career but of the movie business in general.

Early on in the movie, a story is told about Willy Wonka building a chocolate palace for a vain Indian prince. Wonka warns the prince that the palace won’t last, but the prince disdains his advice; eat his beautiful palace? The idea is absurd. Sure enough, the palace melts and the prince is left with nothing. This anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the story — Wonka built the palace to be consumed and destroyed, but the prince wants it to stand as a tribute to his own extravagance. Wonka knows that the power of his art lies in the fact that it will not, cannot last; the prince demands that the art last forever.

More on this later.

Charlie wants to get one of the golden tickets that will admit him entrance to the mysterious, magical factory — that is, he wants access to the creative center, the act of creation. A budding artist himself (he’s built a model of the factory out of deformed toothpaste caps), he seeks the locus of inspiration. Since Charlie is a desperately poor child, how shall he obtain this ticket?

The other children get their tickets through a variety of methods: Augustus Gloop gets his because he naturally eats a great deal of chocolate, Veruca Salt forces her father to enslave his factory workers into unwrapping millions of chocolate bars, Violet Beauregard gets hers seemingly through blind determination to win, and Mike Teevee gets his through “cracking the code,” using a complicated formula to determine where the next golden ticket might appear. Of these approaches, Augustus’s seems to be the most innocent and related to the natural function of chocolate (that is, to be eaten); Augustus’s problem seems to be that he enjoys his natural state a little too much.

How shall Charlie get his ticket? His parents buy him a bar for his birthday, but there is no ticket there. So parental love, generosity, legacy, inheritance — those won’t get Charlie what he wants. His grandfather gives him money from a secret stash, his last money in the world, to go buy a bar, but that bar contains no ticket either. So faith and lack of caution won’t work either. No, Charlie gets his golden ticket through sheer dumb luck — he finds a ten-dollar bill in the street (in England, but let’s set that aside for now), and buys a bar from the first newsstand he comes to. He uses no system and has no determination — he’s not a “special child,” he is not blessed. As Willy Wonka says when he meets Charlie, “Well, you’re just lucky to be here, aren’t you?”

After getting his golden ticket, after achieving his entry into the heart of inspiration, Charlie is tempted to sell out. His family, he reasons, could get thousands of dollars for the ticket, he shouldn’t be so foolish as to trade a day of inspiration for months of sustanence. His grandpa George sets him straight, tells him that money is the most common thing there is, they’re always printing more of it, but the golden ticket is rare and precious, almost unique, and so Charlie narrowly avoids losing his inspiration for something as banal as comfort.

The first stop on the tour is Wonka’s own center of creation itself, a virtual Garden of Eden of candy (the Eden parallel made explicit by Violet greedily snatching a candy apple off a tree — and lest we forget, “inspiration” means to have God breathe into you). Wonka, like God, invites the children to eat anything they want with one exception. Set free in Eden, Mike Teevee destroys as his father (who bears an uncanny resemblance to renowned subway vigilante Bernard Goetz) looks on helplessly and Mrs. Gloop is seen stealing what is being given away for free.  Augustus breaks the one rule set down and gets expelled from Eden.

This is the third time I’ve watched the movie, but only the first time Johnny Depp’s performance made any sense to me.  This time around, I was struck by when his speech is fluid, when he has trouble expressing himself and when he actually must rely on pre-printed cheat-sheets to say something.  Since Wonka makes and sells candy for a living, it is assumed that he is a wholesome, child-friendly man, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. 

The imitation “Small World” robot puppet number, meant to herald the arrival of Wonka, backfires and melts down as it invites the guests into the factory.  It’s an imitation “Small World” number because Wonka is trying to match his public image as a children’s entertainer, a la Walt Disney.  It melts down because it cannot disguise the fact that he is not.  It’s notable for being an introduction to a character who, of course, turns out to not be part of the introduction.  Wonka is happy to put on the show, but it does not occur to him that he would actually be introduced by his own introduction.  That would make too much sense, and Wonka is not capable of making sense.

Little Wonka says makes sense in any practical sense of the term, and that is of course the point, or rather the pointlessness.  (“Why is everything in this factory completely pointless?” complains Mike Teevee.  “Candy doesn’t have to have a point,” answers Charlie, “that’s why it’s candy.”)  I am reminded of conversations I’ve had with artists where I’ve tried to get them to give up the secrets of their work.  They can rarely explain why they chose one concept over another, get vague and visibly uncomfortable when pressed, and either completely shut down (as Wonka does several times in this movie) or else start reciting reams of incomprehensible theory they remember from art school (which is what Wonka has the cheat-sheets for).  Wonka doesn’t have a scheme or a formula or a plan; he just is. 

(The most controversial aspect of the movie is its attempt to “explain” Wonka, which Burton and Depp put over in the most ironic, eye-rolling terms possible.  “Okay,” they seem to be saying, “we’ll give you ‘meaning,’ but we’re not going to mean it.”)

Several things in the movie stick out amid the elaborate production design and the sumptuous photography.  First is the performance of Deep Roy as every Oompa-Loompa in the movie, which is both a triumph of special effects and a triumph of acting, insofar as one quickly accepts the idea of thousands of Oompa-Loompas living in the factory and quickly forgets the fact that they’re all being played by the same guy.  Second is the makeup, which seemingly transforms several of the characters into something a little more than plastic and a little less than human.  Third is the trained squirrels, another special-effects triumph and the result of thousands of hours of squirrel training.

A couple of winters ago, the artist Christo finally got to install his “Gates” project in Central Park for two weeks in February.  He had been trying to get it installed since 1979 and finally succeeded in 2005.  There was a great deal of resistance to the project (over 25 years of resistance, in fact), both before it was put up and afterwards.  I remember walking through Central Park amid the gorgeous, inspiring, completely pointless saffron banners, and being accosted by a total stranger, an older man who was furious, furious that this artwork had been put up.  “Why couldn’t they use the money for something useful?” he demanded to know, from me, for some reason.  To which I said “What does it matter?  It was his money, he can do what he wants with it.”  “Yes,” said the man, “But we have to pay for it!”  To which I said “But we don’t have to pay for it.  Christo used his own money to put it up, paid all the workers to maintain it, and will pay to have it taken down.  In addition, he’ll pay to have the park restored to its previous condition and make a large donation to the Central Park Conservancy.  In addtion, the tourists coming into the city to see the piece will bring more money in, so not only are we not paying for it, we’re in fact making money off it.”  But the man would not be placated.  He knew, he knew that Christo had to be making a fool out him somehow, that there had to be some kind of a scam to it, one doesn’t just spend millions of dollars on something as pointless as, as this.

I walked on through the park and came to the Sheep Meadow, where hundreds of New Yorkers and tourists roamed in a state of weird, elevated giddiness.  The park had been transformed into a wild playground of irrationality; the Gates, finally, didn’t “mean” anything at all.  If anything, they removed meaning from the park; they were a meaningless hoot, a shout of joy in the chill February air (I wonder if it’s symbolic that Charlie visits Wonka’s factory on February 1st, literally the middle of winter).  Three years after 9/11, New Yorkers defied depression with an embrace of the exuberantly irrational.  Like the palace Wonka made for the Indian prince, “The Gates” didn’t last long, by design.  If it had stayed around forever, or had been brought back for an encore, it would defeat the purpose of the piece, which is to be transitory and as sensual as a bite of chocolate.  To keep “The Gates” around would be to want to have one’s cake and eat it too. hit counter html code

Beetlejuice, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

WARNING: Massive spoilers.

I rented these three movies to study their approaches to production design, but ended up watching them for a completely different reason.

All three are, of course, Tim Burton movies. And all Tim Burton movies are about a collision between the “real world” and an irrational individual, whether that individual is Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington or Tim Roth’s character in Planet of the Apes.

I started with Charlie then worked my way backwards, for no particular reason.

I had no trouble recognizing Willy Wonka as the typical Tim Burton protagonist, the artist who cannot live alongside society. He builds himself a world of his imagination, shuts out the “real world” and eventually loses himself inside his creation. He is saved by the intervention of a child who shares his passion and reconnects him with society, but on their own terms. At the end of Charlie, pointedly, Charlie’s family and their house has been moved inside the chocolate factory. Willy Wonka has not, after all, rejoined society; rather, he has brought a family into his own demented reality.

Charlie is, of course, most handsomely designed, but then I wonder. The design of Batman was, in 1989, such an all-encompassing, overwhelming shock that it pushed aside a number of narrative problems that the movie has. I wonder if, fifteen years from now, Charlie will look like Batman looks today.

Because Batman looks, well, it doesn’t bad, but it does look really dated and really, really cheap.

Ridley Scott mentions that he had it rain all the time in Blade Runner to disguise the fact that all his streets were backlot constructions. Tim Burton didn’t take his thinking that far, or else he wanted to emphasize his sets’ artificiality, because boy they look artificial. What in 1989 seemed like a design triumph now looks cramped, overstuffed, cheap and fake. The extensive miniature work looks obvious, mismatched and awkward, Jack Nicholson’s makeup looks crude and unforgiving.

By the standards of today’s superhero movies, the plot makes very little sense. The Joker has no plan, he just tries a bunch of stuff. Batman almost kills him, so he decides to poison Gotham City. He falls passionately in love with Vicki Vale for no particular reason, then destroys some art, then stages a parade, where he plans to gas thousands.

Beloved characters with fifty years of history behind them, like Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, are turned into stock Hollywood types with no affinity for the originals, while ciphers like Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale and Bob the Goon are given major screen time. (I have never read an issue of Batman with any of these characters in them.) By the standards of something like X-Men or Batman Begins or Spider-Man or Sin City, there is very little respect for the source material at all.

But as a Tim Burton movie, Batman works reasonably well. The design is extensive, but doesn’t look particularly Burtonesque by today’s standards. Batman looks nothing like Corpse Bride or Sleepy Hollow or even Batman Returns.

So I watched Batman feeling a little disappointed, but then I watched Beetlejuice and it all fell into place.

Beetlejuice, aside from being the comedy version of The Others, is, amazingly, almost the same movie as Batman. The title character is, essentially, the exact same character as The Joker, with the same sense of humor, the same unbridled lust and even a similar makeup job. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis have to rid their house of Beetlejuice just as Batman has to rid Gotham City of The Joker. Burton even cast Michael Keaton in both films, and it’s as if Batman and the Joker are really just two sides of the same personality. Bruce Wayne is also Batman, and is also the Joker. Bruce Wayne can’t deal with society and so becomes Batman, but his anger and self-loathing surfaces as the Joker and his nonsensical destruction.

There! If that’s not dimestore Freudianism, I don’t know what is. Excuse me, I’m going to go smoke a cigar while driving a train through a tunnel now.

Beetlejuice and the Joker (and, I realize now) Willy Wonka are all irrational creatures. (There’s at least one of these characters in every Tim Burton movie, but these are the three I watched today.)

Joker’s plans may be scattershot but Beetlejuice’s makes no sense whatsoever. Beetlejuice wants to get out of some kind of purgatory (represented by Alec Baldwin’s tabletop town model). It is explained that he can only get out if you say his name three times. Then it turns out he’s able to get out anyway. Then it’s revealed that he can only get out if he marries a living person, so he decides to force marriage upon Winona Ryder. Similarly, love seems almost beside the point to Batman/Joker’s plans, and positively repellant to Willy Wonka.

These movies are all about the irrational. When people ask Willy Wonka about his absurd creations, he responds as if he doesn’t quite understand them himself, as if he’s as amazed as you are at their existence (either that or he responds as if they are the most rational things in the world and you are an idiot for questioning him). Wonka’s creations (in Burton’s movie anyway, it’s been a while since I read the book) don’t make any sense, they simply are. As Charlie says in the movie (I’m paraphrasing) “It doesn’t have to make sense, that’s why it’s candy.”
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