Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bambrick on Batman

Devin Bambrick wrote to share some thoughtful comments about "Batman Begins:"

Rachel has assured me that you won't be as bored by this as I feared
you would, so perhaps against better judgement, a young film-buff
wearing one of his two Batman t-shirts (seriously) composes a bit of a
minority judgement in the case of Christopher Nolan's Batman for a
well-respected movie mom.

First, you advised those who enjoyed this to see Batman Forever. I
have trouble seeing that flick as anything but a neon-tinged attempt,
with the requisite gosh-wow starpower, to sell Happy Meals to
snotnosed children (I was one of them, I still have the entire Batman
Forever set of Pogs). But kudos on the Frank Miller recommendations.
I'm heading to the MLLL as soon as I get back to Portland.

Personally, I loved the 60's Batman work. The 1966 movie version is
hilarious (if not maddeningly long--but I guess that's the sixties
for you), and I love Gorshin's Riddler--the absurdity is pitch

But Batman Begins is something different. It's something children
shouldn't see. Sure, if we are talking MPAA semantics, it doesn't do
much in the way of swearing or bloodwork. It just wasn't made for
them. We knew that when Darren Aranovsky was briefly attached to
direct. And the last action sequence is a bit of a yawn-fest. It's
clear Nolan's strength was in atmospherics, something you've noticed
quite well in your review (and how cool was that Hong Kong set!?). So
when things get to exploding, it got to be boring. In fact, all the
action sequences were underchoreographed, stealthy affairs of quick
camera work. It was an action movie without the action. In fact,
Batman Begins has more to do with Kill Bill, comic books, and martial
arts films than any other Batman movie. Because seventy one million
dollars be damned, America just got fooled into seeing a movie about
stoic philosophy, justice, and the very existence of superheroes.

When I stepped into my nearest megaplex, I didn't "check my brain at
the door." I don't believe in doing that with movies ever. But I had
to do something else I did with Troy and Lord of the Rings and Star
Wars. I had to gird myself with the understanding that this movie was
going to be told in epic language. Speeches would be improbable,
themes would be drilled into our heads, and imagery would be clear and
iconic. Batman did this. But here's the thing: it did it better than
any movie I have ever seen.

When I came out of the theatre, I told my dad "That was awesome. So
perfect." He looked at me, incredulous. "Really?" Astounded. Well,
Nell, take it from me. Parents just don't understand. But after
reading epic poetry and big tragedies all year, it'd be pretty silly
for me to call Batman on specifics. (why exactly did these Shadow cats
need Bruce Wayne? Why does a pretty boy from a rich family fight so
well in prison brawls with dudes who did way harder stuff than
stealing some Wayne Enterprise sprockets?)

I disagree with your villain analysis. While Batman surely had some
good ones-- Egghead, King Tut, Two-Face-- Begins put the focus where
it needed to be: the genesis of a legend. As for too many, I thought
it was the screenplay's attempt (which I thought brilliantly
conceived) to complete the requisite ramping-up of a superhero in a
shorter time frame. While Spiderman had his little wrestling scene and
his minor successes at the beginning, told via near-montage, Batman is
thrust right into the main conflict--his training is realizing it's
bigger than the crime boss and then the Scarecrow. But really, the
villain is there to challenge Batman's mission. It's a movie about
morals, really just hacking away at the Batman myth and succeeding
surprisingly well in justifying his existence. What about society's
role in crimefighting? Is the superhero simply revenge? Wherein lies
the human aspect? The brilliant dialogue between Katie Holmes and Liam
Neeson is played out throughout the movie (and thank God, not in
flashbacks or overdubs! Enough is left to the audience. The only
pandering imagery is the repetition of Batman's trauma, and that seems
reasonable) We didn't get this level with Tobey's webslinger. We were
so busy mired in CG crap that we didn't get the cool discussion of
superheroism. And here's my point, finally. Batman Begins doesn't skip
to what Neeson's character calls the theatricality of superheroism.
Sure it does that fine. The gadgets are awesome, the icon-creation is
riveting, and the imagery is absolutely beautiful, but this is a
questioning movie, meditative. It's a reconsideration, not a slick
Burton-does-Planet-of-the-Apes style reimagining. But the Batmobile is
slow and clunky, the action scenes don't deliver the Zap! Whoosh!
Bang! we've come to expect.

Katie Holmes delivers the most important line (unfortunately she comes
off as annoying rather than passionate and wise like her character
demands) when she tells Bruce that Batman is the real him and Bruce
Wayne is the costume. Exactly! David Carradine's monologue from Kill
Bill, anyone? Here is the thematic examination we need! And the theme
of fear is so well executed, from the bats to the chemical weapon
threatening Gotham. In fact, there are hardly any wasted lines. They
are all perfect comic book philosophy, pop art's intellectualism. If
it doesn't have a huge "oh my God, that's so deep" ring to it, it's
probably a perfect goofy quip from someone or other (probably Caine).
I guess one really just needs to allow oneself to get into this stuff
to enjoy it. It's the same with goofy martial arts flicks. The stuff
is all discount Stoic philosophy, packaged for the stoner and the
twelve-year old. It requires getting into. Which is why I was wholly
interested while that ten-year-old behind me talked through the flick.
But when I left that theatre into the blinding light of a June parking
lot, I wanted to be right back in that dark place with Batman.

Anyways, I'm sorry for completely geeking out on you there. Perhaps
you can forgive me with time. Oh and I really liked Cilian Murphy, but
to each her own.

Here's my response:

My dear Devin,

I loved your email. I wish I had enjoyed the movie as much as I
enjoyed your discussion of it. Can I post it on my blog?

It seems to me that you raise three key issues, and I will address
them sequentially.

The first issue is the origin stuff -- does it provide depth and
texture and context or is it some "are we there yet" distraction on
the way to the good stuff we really care about? We are basically in
agreement there but you come down a bit farther to the left on that
continuum than I do. Yes, I am glad to see how Bruce Wayne becomes
Batman, especially because, as you so Kill-Bill-esque-ly know, it is
really a story about Bruce's becoming his true self -- he is taking
off layers, not putting them on. And all of that connects him more to
the bad guys than to his fellow good guys. His attraction/repulsion
relationship to evil is part of what makes him such a compelling
character. You think all of that was handled better than I do -- I
guess I would like to have seen more choices by Bruce than the usual
origins-style stuff of here's your suit, here's your car, here's your
martial arts boot camp. So, I appreciated it, but not as much as you

Second is what for want of a better term we'll call "production
design." I'm a Tim Burton girl, which is why I liked the look of the
Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson "Batman." But I liked this one a lot,
too (I grew up in Chicago and loved the architectural nod to my home

Third is where we part company the most decisively. All of that good
stuff in the first category really has to pay off when he has his
first major confrontations with bad guys, and for me, that didn't work
at all. I didn't think any of the villians were worthy -- I wanted
bad guys as tortured and demented and unnervingly twisted as Batman is
at his core.

Thanks for a fabulous email, which made me think more deeply and
appreciatively about the movie. Keep letting me know what you think
about the movies you see.

All best, Nell