by Niles Schwartz
We’ve been reminded this week of how Tim Burton’s Batman, the Jack Nicholson/Michael Keaton box office smash that altered how a generation of moviegoers responded to hype and marketing, just turned 25. Discussing the Burton Batman has been quelled in recent years, thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with Christian Bale as the caped crusader, to say nothing of the campy and dreadful Joel Schumacher sequels (the first of which credited Burton as a producer) from the decade before that. Suddenly, this Batman is news again, and very much appreciated. In 1989 it inaugurated a renewed interest in comic books, the silly old Adam West TV series from the ’60s was suddenly back in syndication, and Hollywood studios had a fresh orchard of published ideas and characters from which to pluck and plant new franchises (the Superman series with Christopher Reeve had by this time died; and we don’t have time to discuss Howard the Duck).
Of course when we compare Batman‘s impact to how novelty characters have worked in the last 10 years, it’s a fairly limp resurgence. The first comic book movie, as I recall, to follow up was a straight-to-video Captain America. There was also a tedious television series of The Flash which could never get its pace in order and was soon canceled. Burton’s hotly anticipated all-star sequel, Batman Returns, had the indelible mark of its director, but the Wagnerian noir of the first film was replaced by fetishistic Gothic indulgences (personified by Burton’s grotesque–and doubtlessly personal–rendering of Danny DeVito’s Penguin) that could not excite the movie fanboys as much–in fact, it repelled some of them. Then you had The Shadow, The Phantom, Batman Forever, and finally Batman and Robin, which kind of crapped on everything, with a cherry on top. Batman did change hype and blockbusting (even in a summer when it was one of the few big releases that wasn’t a sequel–Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all released around this time), and Burton’s touch broke out of the MTV music video style that became trendy with Rocky III and Flashdance. But its impact is not as powerful as Jurassic Park would be four years later, Steven Spielberg once again (as he had with Jaws in 1975 and E.T. in 1982) setting summer movies on a whole new trajectory. Whereas Batman‘s environs are somewhat retro, an artful futurism groomed with the fabric of German Expressionism, with two loudly dressed men at its center, Jurassic Park heralds the future with new creations that quite literally gobble up the human caretakers, the filmmakers, to quote Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, “sparing no expense” in the spectacle, or as 1993’s other Spielbergian hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), says, it’s less about the work than “the presentation.” The tumult within Gotham City is rather intimate when set against the non-stop propulsion of Speed, tornado touchdowns in Twister, Independence Day‘s alien invasion, and Armageddon‘s catastrophic asteroid. The popular notion of the journeying hero–like Rocky, Luke Skywalker, Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Days of Thunder, Indiana Jones, or Batman–was, for a time (Harry Potter and Frodo arrived in 2001), replaced by extreme sound and fury (which is still here, yes, though at a kind of Ludicrous Speed kind of sound and fury).
Box office theory is not what interests me. It’s about this curious need to memorialize something. Batman is indeed enough of a landmark–whether you like it as a movie or not–to warrant some kind of heraldry. The big hype worked. Reviews were mixed, and still people went–repeatedly. Its hallmarks as a blockbuster stand apart from what we now typically expect. Anton Furst’s sets are their own character in Burton’s smokey world of clattering metal and acidic grime, where boiling chemical laboratories stand side-by-side with creaky 200-year-old cathedrals. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was always the scene stealer, but how odd was it–and perhaps how unfathomable now–to have a usually comic actor like Michael Keaton, far removed from a traditional portrait of sexiness such as you have now with Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, etc, playing the hero? Batman was an integral part of a specific generation’s growing up, and maybe another generation’s growing old (in 1990, Francis Ford Coppola complained how great filmmakers couldn’t get a movie made while Batman‘s producers, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, were given carte blanche–though the subsequent results were things like Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, and Last Action Hero). The issue is “anniversary writing,” really specific to the decades of the ’80s and ’90s, which has been incessant: Speed, Forrest Gump, Purple Rain in just the last couple of weeks. Even trash is given laurels, with pieces memorializing Troop Beverly Hills and the original Police Academy. The coming year will surely have some words of complimentary retrospect for 20-year-olds The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, 30-year-olds Amadeus and The Killing Fields, and then 40 years of The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, and Young Frankenstein. On the other hand, I’m not really sure if a silver 25 plaque will be handed down by struggling film writers to Driving Miss Daisy. You might have to pay us.
This isn’t bad. At least I tell myself that because I’m blummin’ guilty. Last year I spent a lot of time chewing on a pair of lengthy 20th anniversary appreciations (The Age of Innocence, Carlito’s Way), and, with regards to Batman‘s 1989, I’ve been mulling over writing down something having to do with that year’s other big superhero (with not even a fraction of the box office success, mind you), Baron Munchausen, from Terry Gilliam’s notoriously expensive flop–though, seeing how The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was released in March, and pretty much gone by April, it’s probably past its proper anniversarial deadline. Other 1989 films, like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Young Einstein, UHF, and No Holds Barred, I’ve already covered in my admittedly lame jokey April Fool’s pieces. But there’s a legitimate uneasiness here, when you can memorialize Police Academy‘s 30th year when there are so many older films, pre-1970, that have fewer viewers every year and start to become shades before evaporating from memory entirely. (Excuse me while I interrupt myself, but at the time of this writing I just saw a piece pointing out that The Notebook was turning 10 today; any lo! Fahrenheit 9/11! Though in all seriousness, when we finally get around to talking about Do the Right Thing, 25 this summer, the discussion will be enlivening and important).
It’s obvious that what we’re looking at, assuming I’m measuring the demographic correctly, are the films of our own lifelines, and in remembering those moving pictures we’re struggling to remember the consonance and reason of our lives and relationships. That’s kind of the allure of motion pictures anyway–the alchemy of taking something still and lifeless, and through a magic spindle and light, resurrecting it. It bridges on a kind of religious longing for the eternal, or as Martin Scorsese remarked, “The reality is, for people who create anything…you always want to be remembered.” There’s something vain and Promethean about it all, but natural and very human. The library’s microfiche set aside by Internet and a collector’s rarities now in the widely graspable realm of YouTube, our nostalgia is coddled and nurtured. The instinct for solipsism thrives with this annotated moving archive at our fingertips. The memorializing process is a constant sacrament combating the instinct to forget, “Do this in memory of me” intoned every week as in the Christian Eucharist or a steady and consistent prayer regiment. The link back is preserved, not with bread and wine, but He-Man ads and Jem movies.
The link back to our own lives, anyway. Batman‘s 25th birthday reminds me less of the film (I would not see it for another few weeks–and then see it again and again and again) than how the bat symbol was splashed all over that morning’s Star Tribune, with photos of fans who waited in long lines to catch the first showing, many of whom were wearing the tie-in t-shirt. I was reading that paper while in a car with my grandfather and uncle, as we were going fishing that day at Lake Mille Lacs. The general impression of the time is vague with calm suburban settings bathed in warm sunlight and unspoiled and somewhat idle innocence, if somewhat bothered by the noise of domestic turbulence, the stridence of which (manifested in an alcoholic stepfather) I was able to compartmentalize with the help of Nintendo, VHS movies, baseball, and the bower of my basement. The 20-year anniversaries of Forrest Gump and Speed take me to the clutter of high school with its more unstable launchpad for the future, nomadically moving around with my financially strapped immediate family, the drudgery of spending my weekends doing a paper route, heightened sexual awareness with incensed ardor for a long held crush, political and religious ideologies vying for power, and a crippling diagnosis of diabetes (though really the summer of 1994 was about finally getting the Twin Peaks VHS box set). The fall’s releases of Natural Born Killers, Quiz Show, Ed Wood, and Pulp Fiction coalesced to make a ripple of raucous teenage disillusionment, anger, and countercultural throwback fascination brewing in my callow self. If you could inch over to the subsequent year with Seven, Strange Days, Casino, and Heat, in conjunction with the death of that same grandfather from the 1989 Mille Lacs fishing trip along with ever-amping sexual/existential anxieties, the warm summer glow of 1989 gives way to a sense memory of cloudy skies and stark coldness. Maybe the movies got better in proportion to how shitty life felt (the movies I wanted to see certainly seemed to shift from the summer to the winter months). Going back and remembering them, in reading or writing, is a covert tool for trying to figure out how these tracks were all set, working out the equation from the sum of right now, 2014, with the still unfathomed x and y variables in the problem. What the hell happened there anyway? Why’d these vines grow in these directions? Memory is erred, but the movies reliably play back the same angles, music, cuts, and stories every time–even though our impressions and memories of them are also malleable.
And because they link back to something that’s ultimately more personal than public, and so transcending the categorization of simply a look-back appreciation, film writers will reflect about these movies they love and remember without incentive (unless, again, we’re dealing with Driving Miss Daisy or something). This calls to question about the movies before our time, and why the anniversary-piece culture rarely strays beyond the 1970s–or, even within a recent time frame, why it’s centered on popular Hollywood films. It’s a Throwback Thursday parade of images, fitting for a time when the big weekend release is the third sequel in a franchise based on a toy product from the 1980s, and when studios and fans work to bring consilience into their fantasy universes, conjoining franchises (Captain America, Iron Man) into mega franchises (Avengers, the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman), an Age of Voltron where our toys can all shamelessly come out of the trunk and have mega wars, not unlike South Park‘s beautiful consideration of nostalgia, “Imaginationland.” Much as I’ve been accused of hating fun, I enjoy smothering myself in the amniotic fluid of lost time, spending too many minutes on YouTube looking at old commercials and TV shows from before the responsibility of an identity set in. It’s like basking in that warm, adolescent glow of 1989 again, when the question of God’s existence wasn’t a burden (Santa Claus was more of an issue), Hulk Hogan was unbeatable, and the Minnesota Twins could win the World Series–twice! The Impossible had a lovely reign in the time before student loan debt, rent, insurance premiums, credit scores, the uncertainty of talent or vocation, slackening metabolism, or pressures of romantic adequacy.
Maybe it’s anniversary-spike season because summer’s all about the lost glow of youth. Goddamn, summer meant something back then because you had three months off. Three months of idle time, with your meals and entertainment paid for, while you could just pursue what you wanted, in parks, baseball fields, alleys, pools, libraries, with pen or paint on paper, or cameras and computers. Basically what every adult dreams about while wasting away in a cubicle or office (and why should I complain, considering I don’t have children, which I’m sure would make those summers even more ineffable?). Some recent “summer movies” locate and study this yearning without sentimentalizing or trivializing it–The Tree of Life from 2011, Moonrise Kingdom in 2012, and this summer, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
There’s a cosmic, Dantean quality to those films, hacking their way between the confusion of Right Now–for either audiences or characters–and the fermenting patterns of the past, where the circumstances of our origins, reiterated constantly throughout the inhabitants of The Divine Comedy‘s canticles, lead us to the haphazard distribution of Fortune, setting incontinent and selfish drives at odds with virtue and measured intellect. Following the fixation on the past is a sublime progression–not triumphant, but aching and deeply felt, as reflected in Tree of Life‘s reconciliations on abstract shores, Moonrise Kingdom‘s “Cuckoo Song” conclusion, or throughout most of Boyhood‘s last act, particularly a final shot in Texas’ Big Bend that for me seems directly tied to the starry-longing endings of Dante’s three canticles. Linklater, whose Before trilogy is one of the most interactive of film franchises as its audience has grown a full 18 years with the characters, wanted to capture the chapter stops of development in motion, shooting Boyhood over the course of 12 years as its central character aged to a college freshman, the trinkets that receive their anniversary allowances–pop music, video game systems, communication technology, haircuts, and movies–measured in real time, before nostalgia (or embarrassment) can retroactively settle in. There’s a subtle prayer in these movies that meditates more on an attachment to a particular bookmark in time–be it a dinosaur bone, flooded beach, or Harry Potter book release party–and looks for something more total, beyond biographical circumscriptions, ageless. We wander and, whether we’re satisfied or not, we wonder. Instead of pleasure, these three films conclude with an insoluble ache and awe.
Maybe rampant sequelization has made the problem of memory easier to organize, if, as in Linklater’s Before movies, still impossible to articulate with certainty. A generation grew up with the same young actors in the Harry Potter franchise, but the myriad directors at the helm makes for a rocky and inconsistent Potter marathon. For nearly 15 years, Peter Jackson has grouped together his Lord of the Rings with his still-in-progress The Hobbit, but the plastic quality of the new trilogy’s visual effects, in addition to the strained storytelling, prevents the pieces from fitting. Most defining is Star Wars, which will ultimately be comprised of three separate trilogies with linking story arcs, each one reflecting the blockbuster aesthetics of their respective release dates more than each other–George Lucas’ attempts to cushion this with special edition revisions usually seen as glaring errors in judgment (and as a beautiful testament of Boyhood‘s wonderment of time and culture, the main character and his father briefly discuss–years before the recent Disney/J.J. Abrams project–the possibility of another Star Wars, post Revenge of the Sith, concluding that it won’t happen). Meanwhile, Batman‘s 25th year features Michael Keaton returning to a major film role with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, playing a deranged actor who, in saner times, portrayed a winged superhero and now wants to reclaim his past glory.
We can’t let the past go–as long as it’s our past. Remember when George Lucas himself tried to get out of the business of sci-fi/fantasy, bankrolling original films while working out his own personal nostalgia? There was American Graffiti, yes, but also Lucas’ influence on Coppola’s Tucker (1988), a great film that flopped (itself part of a nostalgic transaction with Paramount, so that Coppola would do another Godfather), and then the little remembered screwball homage Radioland Murders (1994). Star Wars has seemed ubiquitous since the mid-1990s, but I can remember a time when it was basically forgotten, or neatly cataloged in fans’ VHS libraries (Roger Ebert criticized Mel Brooks’ 1987 spoof Spaceballs by pointing out how “it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for Star Wars satires had been completely exhausted,” this four years after Return of the Jedi; Ebert’s sentiment now reads as an audacious remark, accurate though he may have been at the time). The briefest scent, though, of Star Wars’ re-emergence instantly roused old fans out of stupors and triggered the drooling Force gland. I recall reading a magazine’s short summer preview of Radioland Murders, concluding that it was probably nothing of interest, then adding with a plea to audiences, “But Star Wars 4, 5, and 6? Be nice.”
We weren’t nice–and we still got Star Wars 4,5,6, and even though they were disappointing, we all saw them and now can’t wait for 7,8, and 9. Which is fine, until I sit abstracted, do the math, assemble memories from 1983 to 2014, and realize, with frowning melancholy, how intolerably short life is and seeing the same movie, again and again, to relive the past is tantamount to hearing “Happy Friday” before the weekend and seeing hordes of empty and unrecoverable work weeks flying away.