It doesn’t take long before you realise that Batman Returns is not a typical Hollywood Summer movie. It’s not any particular incident (though the Penguin does eat a cat in the first five minutes), more the way the camera corkscrews through the marzipan topography of Gotham City, accompanied by the gothic extravagance of Danny Elfman’s score. It has a close-in sensuality that isn’t altogether pleasant, a chocolate cake sickliness. It comes as no surprise to learn that the 33-year-old director, Tim Burton, spent much of his time on set consuming Pop Tarts, a particularly icky kind of children’s sweet. Batman Returns is a pop fairytale devised by a boy genius, a helter-skelter comic-book version of La Bele et la Bête. At $80m it has got to be the most expensive art movie ever made.
There is a tendency among critics to automatically dismiss any film which does well at the box office, particularly a sequel, as mindless pap. Batman Returns took more in its opening weekend in America than any other movie, but it has few of the ingredients of a conventional Hollywood blockbuster. “Haven’t you heard?” says Tim Burton. “There is no plot.” Rather, it is something new and strange, a multi-million-dollar art movie.
In the past ten years or so a very peculiar thing has been happening in American movies—the avante garde has taken up residence in Hollywood. A number of contemporary filmmakers have succeeded in parlaying their quirky, idiosyncratic sensibilities into mainstream commercial success. At a glance, the list includes Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, the Coen brothers, David Cronenburg, Michael Lehmann (whose debut feature, Heathers, was written by Daniel Waters, the writer of Batman Returns), and first-time directors Barry Sonnenfeld (formerly the Coen brothers’ cinematoprapher) and David Fincher.
A typical Hollywood art movie is a black comedy set in the American suburbs where dark, unconscious forces are constantly threatening to disrupt the fragile security of the petit bourgiousie. All these directors revel in the inadvertent surrealism of small-town American life, its goofy, unintended aesthetic. They share an art-school fascination with the unselfconsious kitsch of Middle America. If the dizzy lovers of Hollywood’s screwball comedies always ended up in Connecticut, the crazed inhabitants of these avante garde whirligigs never seem to leave Ohio.
In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—the seminal film of the genre—Kyle MacLachlan’s discovery of a discarded human ear leads him to uncover the warped adult sexuality behind the white picket fences of Lumberton. Sexual fetishism is never far from the surface of Batman Returns either. Michelle Pfiefer’s Catwoman is a whip-cracking dominatrix—her black rubber cat suit was designed by a New York sex shop specialising in bondage gear. In one of the film’s many erotic set-pieces she straddles Batman on a rooftop and licks his face, or rather, his rubber hood.
Where Hollywood’s avante garde directors depart so radically from more conventional filmmakers is in their attitude to story. Unlike Europe’s art-house auteurs, they don’t neglect to include a strong story-line, but it’s handled more ironically than in the standard Hollywood fare. The plots of multi-million-dollar art movies are always so melodramatic, so overblown, you’re left in some doubt as to how seriously to take them. They deliberately over do it so you won’t think they’re trying to put one over on you, let you know that they know your’re too sophsiticated to be taken in by this. Yet typically, just when you think you know how to handle it, the director will bowl you a googly, like the moment in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild when Melanie Griffith gets out the handcuffs. Suddenly, you’re not so sure it’s a put on after all.
It is this ambiguity which is the hallmark of the Hollywood art movie. They are pitched unsettlingly somewhere between camp and straight, certainly not serious, but not completely farcical either. The advantage of working in the Hollywood system is that audiences think they know what to expect—it’s a comedy, right?—but come away far more shaken up than if they’d been prepared for something weirder.
These movies haven’t always been commercially successful. In the medium budget range, films like Dead Ringers and the Raising Arizona have performed sufficiently well to recover their costs, but more expensive outings, such as David Lynch’s Dune or Michael Lehman’s Hudson Hawk, have proved box-office disasters. It was only the success of The Silence of the Lambs and, more recently, The Addams Family, which convinced Hollywood that there was a mass audience for what it likes to call “the dark side”.
With the exception of Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s previous films have done so well at the box office he is Hollywood’s fourth most commercially successful director. Indeed, were Tim Burton’s films any less profitable, and were Batman Returns not a sequel with a guaranteed audience, a 33-year-old director would never have been entrusted with an $80m budget and given a free hand. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Hollywood system has not proved inimical to art.
The most impressive thing about Batman Returns is that, having established such a high standard of wit and imagination, it manages to sustain it practically all the way through. (The rocket-propelled penguins on the movie poster exemplify the left-field inventiveness of the film’s humour—and you thought penguins couldn’t fly!) The first Batman movie was thrown off kilter by the outsized performance of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, but this time round Tim Burton seems fully in control.
Of course, it has its faults. Burton’s attitude to the story is a little too cavalier—he seems to lose interest in the plot before we do. In addition, there isn’t enough variation in the pace—it rattles along with the same dizzy intensity from start to finish. This leaves you feeling faintly dissappointed, as if you’ve been deprived of the climax (Batman Returns is one long multiple-orgasm).
But if you’re prepared to put your expectations to one side it is a hugely enjoyable ride. If a film studio was like a giant train set for Orson Welles, for Tim Burton it is the whole toy shop. He takes a child-like glee in building these weird, complicated sets—and then blowing them up. (It’s not just the cigars which explode in Batman Returns.) Everything about it has the same pig-out, super-abundant gorgeousness—it’s a Pop Tart masterpiece. This may not be Hollywood at its conventional best, but it is surely Hollywood at its most original.