Thursday, May 29, 2014

Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)

Part of the Michelle Pfeiffer blog-a-thon, managed from this site: Pfeiffer-pforever

(WARNING: plot points of Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) discussed in close detail)

"Life's a bitch; now so am I."

Those immortal words were first spoken on the big screen for the first time on 16 June 1992, and while they haven't exactly changed the world in obvious ways, they have in several thousand little ways, over the many years since. They've certainly stayed with me.

Batman Returns was meant to be Tim Burton's reward for making the 1989 Batman, a huge hit for Warner Studios. Where in the first film Burton felt the pressure and interference of the studio in directing a superproduction, this time he had carte blanche and it shows: the film has more--well, not coherence, you can't really say that--more consistency say, more evidence of a single consciousness' (Burton's) sensibility. If the plot isn't any more logical, the emotions do operate under some kind of satisfying system--Batman (Michael Keaton) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) share feelings that progress from mutual attraction to mutual aggression to mutually shared anguish--and the film has the dark humor and self-centered melancholy found in Burton's earlier work (Edward Scissorhands; Bettlejuice; his various shorts).

It helps that the script, started by Batman scriptwriter Sam Hamm, passed into the hands of Daniel Waters; Waters, who wrote a memorable female protagonist for his first big-screen feature Heathers (easily the best role dewy, dark-eyed Winona Ryder ever sank her teeth into) seem to have added all the best lines in the film, borrowed a plot from an old Batman TV episode about the Penguin (Danny DeVito) running for mayor, and turned it into acrid political satire about the struggles involved in winning control over a major American city.

Burton and Waters' script went further on paper, including a more elaborate campaign to discredit Batman (among others, an army of fake Batmans running about and raising hell) and digs at spin-off merchandises like Batman lunchboxes (apparently Burton, unlike Hitchcock, was unable to persuade studio bosses to nip the hand that feeds you). Waters' scripts are often toned down, rewritten (his original ending for Heathers had the school blowing up), which says something about how comfortable studio executives are with his work; fortunately, much of the dialogue he wrote for Pfeiffer survives.

"How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless?"

Pfeiffer first enters the film carrying coffee for her boss Max Schreck (Christopher Walken); she's Selina Kyle, Schreck's secretary ("assistant," she insists), and Schreck's attitude towards her is summed up with the following words: "I'm afraid we haven't properly housebroken Ms. Kyle…in the plus column, though, she knows how to brew coffee."

It's a withering attitude, made worse by how meekly Selina takes it all in, slapping her forehead and calling herself a "stupid corn dog;" when Schreck forgets his speech for a Christmas tree lighting, Selina hurries desperately to bring the notes to him and is assaulted by a clown member of the Red Triangle Gang, who holds her hostage with a stun gun at her throat. Batman knocks the clown out and leaves her without a word, to which she responds: "That was very brief. Like most men in my life. What men?"
Then we get the first hint of a worm turning: Selina picks up the stun gun and gives the unconscious thug a quick jolt.

Selina's first words upon entering her apartment are: "Honey, I'm home." Pause. "Oh, I forgot, I'm not married." She feeds her cat, Miss Kitty, all the while commenting enviously on the cat's active social life--apparently Selina's smart and witty, but also so lonely she has to provide her own repartee. Her answering machine furnishes further tidbits: a mother that nags her to call back and a boyfriend that on doctor's advice is breaking up with her "to be my own person now, and not some appendage" ("Some appendage," Selina mutters). Finally she hears her own voice, reminding her to go back to her office to do some more work.

"The party never stops on Selina Kyle's answering machine," she notes. If she's lonely that's because she's been beaten down living in the big city too long (it's not as if she had a choice; back in her home town, her lovingly asphyxiating mother is waiting for her to call back). She's not without spirit--she beats her boyfriend at racquetball*, speaks up (if timidly) to her boss, gives the odd psychopath a good jolt in the ribs--but these are like fading signs of life in an upright corpse. Batman came to her rescue but didn't even bother to return her greeting; he responded to her jeopardy, but refused to respond to her need.

(*Selina wonders "I should've let him win that last racquetball game," but it's not a question of letting some man win a ball game; it's the pathos of choosing a man so lame his confidence is shattered at losing to a girl)

Pfeiffer in these scenes is wonderfully game: she was always good at comedy, especially romantic comedy, and can even do slapstick (Into the Night; The Witches of Eastwick; Amazon Women on the Moon; Married to the Mob; The Fabulous Baker Boys; Frankie and Johnny). Here her huge blue eyes widen in dismay or terror at problems big and small (a forgotten speech; a boss' withering comment; a psychopath's assault), her shoulders slump in comic exhaustion ("you have to come all the way back to the office"), her feet spin and whirl and double on themselves to keep up with her hectic yet empty life. 

Yet there's that moment with the stun gun. She looks around to see if anyone's looking, then jams the instrument into the man's side, her face crackling with malevolent glee; it's as if the gun were wired directly into her pubis and she was taking unholy delight from the voltage. When she pulls the gun away she's totally bewildered, unable to believe she was capable of such an act.

An interesting problem for the meek and mild Selina to try and grapple with. You can almost hear the questions: "Who is this inside me, ready with power racquetball serves and stun guns? Why do I let all these men walk over me--when they bother to notice? Why did I leave home, where I’m oppressed, to come to the city, where I’m oppressed even more?" All interestingly knotty questions that would take most other movies the rest of their running time to work out; she never does here, unfortunately, because she's murdered that very same night.

"I don't know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier."

Selina's death is terrifying enough (Schreck pushes her out a high window, and in moment of Burton-style visual audacity we follow her all the way to the ground) but the scene with all the cats 'feasting' on her body--what is that? Resurrected life was not part of the Catwoman comic-book mythos (though Selina in the early comics suffered from amnesia caused by a blow to the head, which might be considered a kind of resurrection (later, the amnesia is explained away as faked, an attempt to give up her life of crime--yet another resurrection, in effect)).

Bast--a creature in the form of a cat, or a woman with a cat's head--was one of the most popular gods in Egyptian mythology; she was said to be a daughter of Ra, the protector of cats and of those who protected cats. In the Middle Ages, black cats were considered familiars of witches, associated with the Devil, and burned. Cats have a mystique, a sense of not being completely of this world, and are worshiped for it; at the same time their aloofness and unpredictability can be aggravating, even terrifying, and they're persecuted for that as well (to the medieval Europeans' unknowing regret--the massacre of cats led to a proliferation of rats, and helped bring about the Black Plague). The same can be said of women too, that they're worshiped for their beauty and mystique, and persecuted for their fickleness and duplicity (a dog's affection or dislike is readily apparent; a cat's--who knows who it likes, and for how long?).

Can we say that Selina, protector of a cat (or at least its caregiver), is possibly under Bast's protection? That Selina's Miss Kitty is a witch's familiar, calling on fellow cats and the the Devil to bring its mistress back to life? That the cats, sensing a fellow feline in distress, lent her their life-force? That Selina is a kind of put-upon cat who in extremis finds herself wielding the cat's most fascinating power, its ability to live out nine lives (to, in effect, survive eight deaths)?

Whatever; the upshot of all this is that Selina Kyle is reborn as the more powerful, less sane Catwoman. It's not a painless process; Selina comes home, recites her familiar line ("Honey I'm home. Oh I forgot, I'm not married..."), walking like a woman in a trance. She listens to her answering machine, relentless chronicler of her so-called life,and on the umpteenth message with ironic import finally cracks, screaming her head off, trashing her apartment, smashing the letters 'o' and 't' in a neon "hello there" sign ("hell here"); she threads wire through a needle and pulls together patches and gloves to create a cat costume, all hasty sutures and gleaming black vinyl.

Selina's already fragile psyche has shattered; in her attempt at recovery she's stitched together various fragments into a Frankenstein personality (talk about sewing as psychic therapy)--part avenging angel, part feline, part psychopath. Pfeiffer's eyes take on a wild glare, her lips red and moist and open, her voice part low purr, part barely controlled shriek.

"Mistletoe can be deadly, if you eat it." "A kiss can be deadlier if you mean it."

To make things more complicated, Selina shows up for work--to no small surprise to Schreck--and Batman, in the guise of Bruce Wayne, is finally expressing interest. Why? Bruce is yet another hurt psyche; as a superhero, he finds it more prudent to respond only to great need and extreme circumstances, otherwise he'll stop functioning altogether (from sheer exhaustion, for one). If Selina attracts Bruce, that may be because she's no longer entirely Selina but a stronger persona, one who--like him--has learned to cope with her various traumas in a not-altogether-kosher fashion. As Selina puts it later in the film "sickos never scare me--at least they're committed." Sickos apparently don't scare Wayne either.

Selina ventures forth as Catwoman; she encounters Batman; they fight. Catwoman's tactics are distinctly feline (distinctly feminine?): when Batman strikes her, she yelps  "How could you? I'm a woman!" Batman murmurs "I'm sorry," reaches down; she promptly kicks him off the roof, lashes her whip round his hand and, as he hangs by his arm, continues: "--I'm a woman, and can't be taken for granted." More witty banter, more innuendos, a savage thrust at a heavily armored midriff (Batman's vest is proof against bullets, but interestingly not against Catwoman's sewing-needle claws), and Batman finds himself accidentally flinging her off the roof. "I tried to grab you--save you--" Batman later tries to explain, to which Catwoman purrs "Seems like every woman you try to save ends up dead, or deeply resentful."

We've seen this sort of relationship before: two people mutually attracted the same time they're antagonizing each other, a storyline that was old back when Shakespeare used it for The Taming of the Shrew through the '30s screwball comedies up to Moonlighting in the '80s. To this classic formula Burton and Waters add masks, a shared case of borderline psychosis.

The additions are no small thing. When meeting each other as normal human beings, Selina and Bruce are politely civilized; when masked their true selves come out fighting. They're able to do more--kiss, caress, lather the other's face with saliva, share their most intimate details--disguised than they do undisguised, where a special news report or urgent phone call can cut short their lovemaking (it helps that Keaton and Pfeiffer were former lovers--they bring the physical ease and sexual chemistry they had in real life (what other actress would be so liberal with her tongue on an actor, no matter how famous?) to the big screen).

Then, of course, Schreck's costume ball--it's a brilliant conceit by Burton and Waters that the one time everyone is expected to don a mask Selina and Bruce wear bare faces. They talk softly, flirt gently. Selina reveals her reason for coming (to kill Schreck), and Bruce, shocked, tries to shush her; details slip from between their lips, and they recognize each other's true identity.

But it was already obvious; you just had to take note of the way the two were talking to each other, as if they had their masks on, their civilized veneer off. They needed to remember that their masks are off, and that they have to keep their discoveries from everyone else. It all becomes too much, at least for Selina; when Bruce asks her who she think she is, Pfieffer gives a wild, near-hysterical laugh and replies, tremulously: "I don't know anymore." It's a funny line, and you laugh when hearing it; then you look at Pfeiffer's face, see how lost she looks--a little girl who literally doesn't know which way is up--and the laughter dies in your throat.

"I am not a human being! I'm an animal!"

Arguably Batman Returns is a '90s variation on classic screwball, with this silly monstrous Penguin-Man getting in the way once in a while, but DeVito's Penguin is too memorable a character to easily dismiss. He's a grotesque variation on Charles Dickens' youthful protagonists, the little orphan grown to mutant proportions (he might have been someone Dickens thought up had Dickens lived in the 1990s and written for Hollywood). He represents unattractive little boys and their tendency to be abandoned by their parents, by friends, by everyone; his story gives us the pathos of people so utterly unlovable they can't totally be hated (Batman I suppose gives us the pathos of someone who hates too well to be able to love).

It's interesting to note, though, how the three main characters are treated, how their storylines unfold across the picture's running time. Each is a force of nature, with his or her 'familiars' (animal servants representing the witches' will, life-force, what-have-you) hovering about them, giving them a larger-than-life quality, sometimes influencing the outcome. The three storylines criss-cross, interlock, careen and bounce off of each other--Penguin's is the first to begin, first to end; Catwoman's is the last to begin and ends next; Batman's is perhaps the saddest, continuing to the next few wretched sequels directed by Joel ("I'm such a hack everyone and their sister for miles around can smell me coming") Schumacher. He is granted a new lease on life by the less visually talented, far less humorous Christopher Nolan.

If Penguin represents the fear of abandonment and Batman the thirst for vengeance, Catwoman represents the feline ability to attract and antagonize. The film records in gleeful detail the vexing appeal of cats, the ways we respond ambivalently to them, and by metaphor and imaginative imagery (a woman dressed as a cat!) respond to women as well. We've heard stories of cats burned, crushed, smothered, drowned, tortured, turned into steamed buns, of a hundred and one uses for a dead cat (there's a joke book from the late '80s)--of worse, much worse; it's not so much the fact that they're abused that's so unsettling as it is the variety and sheer cruelty on display. Likewise Catwoman, who in this film is dropped from a building, scorched by napalm, strangled by umbrella's crook, shot over and over again by gun, electrocuted by massive air-conditioning unit, leered over, abused, insulted and all around humiliated.

The film's not a cheerful depiction of the treatment of cats (or of women) but a strangely inspiring one, showing their strength and uncanny ability to survive, even thrive in the face of adversity. I don't think it an accident that after this film Burton wanted to do a spin-off sequel, this time focusing on Catwoman's character alone (would have been even nicer if Pfeiffer had been available). Catwoman / Selina / Pfeiffer may not have been the only memorable character in the film but she was arguably the most resonant, the one that most haunts our--or at least my--imagination, the one who left the sharpest pangs of, well, whatever. To quote one of the Penguin's best lines:

"Just the pussy I've been looking for!"

I can accept no other. 

2 comments: said...

I really enjoyed your review and even though I don’t enjoy Batman Returns as much as I did 20 years ago I still count it as one of my favourites.
At the time of its release it blew me away. I loved the approach to Batman, Burton’s exaggerations, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman (and her shoes), Danny Elfman’s operatic score, the girl falling into the gift box to release the colonies of bats, and the ball reminded me of Poe’s short story The Masque Of Red Death. The rotten high-society of Gotham parties inside while the world falls apart outside – until the inner and outer world mingle.

Noel Vera said...


Sad tho you don't enjoy it as much anymore (for someone who's less appreciative you sure remember the details). Mind telling us why?