Still Reppin’ is a bi-weekly column that looks at films playing the Boston area’s repertory theaters, universities and museums. Movies considered will range from silent-era epics to undistributed millennial-era indies. A guide to the cities screens, written for all local film-watchers — but particularly for those tired of the digitized monotony of the contemporary superhero-sized multiplex cinema.
Consider the Penguin. In Tim Burton’s Batman Returns—playing this weekend as part of the Coolidge’s midnight program, and later this month as part of the Brattle’s program of “alternate” Christmas movies—he sports an idiosyncratic character arc. Born deformed to a wealthy Gotham family, he’s rejected and cast into the sewer, to be raised by the creatures that serve as his namesake. Via relatively standard political shenanigans, he leverages the underworld, rises from the depths, and eventually becomes Mayor, thus regaining the prestige his parents deemed him so unworthy of. Twist is, you can take the boy out of the sewer, but… politician or not, Penguin still leers at women like a stray at a burger joint’s dumpster, still gobbles down fish like popcorn, still can’t stop coming up with master plans to eradicate humanity in favor of our aquatic betters. The Penguin of Returns can’t—maybe shouldn’t—repress his own proclivities. And that brings us back to Burton.
Now 56 years old, Tim Burton has directed 17 full-length features. His latest is Big Eyes, opening later this month, is about Margaret Keane, a painter of children’s portraits (all with anime-character-sized eyes,) whose husband took credit for her work. Burton struggles to find an entry point into the material, resulting in his least distinctive film since Big Fish: Save his characteristically steady-handed blocking and a few bravura uses of CGI, Eyes could have been directed by any 20-something hack out of film school. It’s lacking what Burton’s best pictures sport in spades, that being a kid-messing-around-in-his-sketchbook energy, at once perversely sexual and caustically haunted. Big Eyes doesn’t have any kink.
But Batman Returns is all about it: Gotham lies in the balance while a cruel lady domme, a sensitive daddy domme, and a twisted sadist—the first two dressed in elaborate leather getups, the latter cosplaying as a proto-Christian Grey—have a three-way fight to see who’s most powerful. And the dialogue is absolutely filthy, as brazen with its barely veiled innuendo as a pre-code romantic comedy. “Well, that was brief,” Kyle quips, her initial encounter with Batman having been cut short before she could even fire off a round of foreplay. “As with all the men in my life.” Later on, once she’s donned her leather getup, she turns the tables, and verbally castrates a couple of security guards who’d they’d let their guard down to hit on her. “You men,” she scoffs, “always confusing your pistols with your privates.”
It’s hard to focus on much beyond the verbal barbs or symbolically loaded combat, as Burton’s approach to storytelling is often episodic, more like comic-strips than theatre or literature (see also: Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee, Dark Shadows.) First we see the Penguin (DeVito) discarded by his parents, then the rise of future-Catwoman Selina Kyle (Pfieffer) through the ranks of Max Shreck’s (Walken) corporation, and from there we catch up with Batman (Keaton) for a short while (though it bears noting – to prove the point about the episodic structure – that he hardly appears in the first 40 minutes of his own movie.) Then the film builds toward Penguin’s plot to destroy society, via rockets strapped to penguins… who are working under his radio-operated mind-control device? It’s quite absurd, all played for the strength of the visuals provided, and never for plausibility, psychological or otherwise. Burton hasn’t written a full-length script in his 30 years in the business. He’s not a storyteller, he’s a dreamer of lunatic imagery.
And oh, what lunacy. Burton uses the ragtag plot of Returns to lead us into all sorts of oddball set pieces and visual set-ups. How about the Catwoman and Penguin’s duel: Rather than pull arms on one another, she pops his prized bird into her mouth in the left of the frame, while he holds a knife to a kitten’s throat on the right. Or when Penguin kidnaps Max Shreck (who’s named, it’s worth noting, not after someone from the comics, but after the star of the F.W. Murnau’s silent expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu,) and Burton travels with them to the underworld, where Shreck’s locked up in a cage as Penguin prances about with a multi-colored umbrella, the whole of it looking like a Disney scene on drugs.
What elevates Burton above other wannabe-surrealists, though? Nearly three decades into his career, it seems clear that the longtime studio filmmaker excels at blending the standard mode of commercial filmmaking with his own barbarous tastes. His misfires—Planet of the Apes (pictured), Big Eyes, and the rest – come when he fails to fully skew the design of the film to his own grotesquely expressionist ends. Which he does, to magnificent effect, throughout Returns. Check out the introduction of the adult Penguin, for example. Burton shows only his point-of-view at first, forcing us to identify with the evil bubbling up from below onto the city’s surface, furthering the moral complexity of the character’s origin – what is that, if not Hitchcockian? Then look for the art-deco stylings and emphatic camera movements that accompany Penguin’s run for Mayor, pure Wellesian maximalism.
That’s what Burton provides, imagined worlds aimed at Hollywood’s classic modes, that then land a mile askew. He’s a populist filmmaker (occasionally) making commercial pictures singular by smuggling in the influence of disreputable forms; paperback sci-fi novels, cartoons, B-movies, soap television, comic strips. He’s a classicist obsessed with low-art, a traditionalist gone gothic, and perhaps never moreso than in Batman Returns.
BATMAN RETURNS, COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, 290 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. FRI 12.5 – SAT 12.6, MIDNIGHT. $10.25. FOR TICKETS, VISIT COOLIDE.ORG.
BRATTLE THEATRE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. MON 12.22, 4:30, 7:00, 9:30PM. FOR TICKETS, VISIT BRATTLEFILM.ORG