by Robert Anton Wilson
from Magical Blend, #25, Winter 1989
Well I have finally followed the herd and tromped down to my local movie theatre to see Batman and I can tell you the the experience was not at all unlike Bad Acid. I had thought I was going to see another spectacular but empty “epic” in the Star Wars-Superman-Indiana Jones tradition of American “good clean fun” – a lot of mindless violence between cardboard cut-outs of “good” and “evil.” Instead, I found a film noir that looked as if the ghosts of Dali, Bunuel and Orson Welles had all had a hand in it, aided and abetted by Wilhelm Reich and a horde of estistentialists. It was as escapist as a split lip, and I think it’s the best film about the Reagan-Bush era since Carpenter’s They Live. You haven’t seen such shadows and overhead pans since the last time Orson Welles got enough money to make a movie the way he he wanted to do it, and the musical score (especially the organ solos) is alone worth the price of admission.
“It’s a study in dark and light,” Kim Basinger, the actress who plays Vicki Vale, said in an interview. “I represent light.” The remark is a bit of an understatement. In fact, Ms. Basinger has been garbed in white dresses, especially in the last third of the film, and is treated rather kindly by the (compared to the other characters, who all look ugly, or sinister, or a few bricks shy of a full load, or as if they had escaped from The Andalusian Dog) but she represents something less metaphysical than “goodness.” She represents the only point of sanity in a world gone psycho, the world of Iran-Contra, the pitbull and Morton Downey Jr.
Steven Spielberg, evidently miffed by the complaints that his technically superb films have no depth, has started to add levels of resonance; but all of his levels, as far down as he goes, are equally shallow.Batman goes as deep as Frankenstein or King Kong and will become, I am sure, as much a part of folk-lore and as frequently quoted as either of those masterpieces. Like all first-rate Hollywood films, it leaves you in perceptual confusion about whether it is a very good bad movie or a very bad good movie.
The film hangs on a few logical points that neither the comic book nor the TV series ever confronted overtly. Batman, we all know, wears black. But isn’t it usually the villain who wears black? Somehow, despite this, we have previously been persuaded to accept Batman as a hero. In spectacularly gloomy technicolor, however. Batman looks even more like a villain, in contrast to the gaudy multi-colored clown suits of the Joker, the erudite and poetic nominal villain who seems more like an unhinged concept artist than a criminal of any sort we can understand.
Bats, and man-bats, are associated with vampirism. The logo for the movie takes advantage of this; it looks like both the familiar Batman symbol and a vampire’s gaping mouth. The first thing we hear about Batman in the film, before we even see him, is that he sucks the blood of his victims. We mightexpect him to have a Transylvanian accent.
But wait – did I say his victims? Well, yes, that does seem to be the logic of the situation. The people Batman has killed before the film begins didn’t actually have their blood sucked (I think; you may have to see this film several times to be sure of anything) and they were all criminals, of course, but nonetheless, set against the towering, black, half-faceless, never smiling, totally sinister figure of Batman, the first thugs we see on screen seem victims as surely as a mouse seems a victim when a cat pounces on it. The hoods’ fear that their blood will be sucked seems altogether reasonable under the circumstances, in the world they inhabit.
We are obviously being seduced into a film that is devoted simultaneously to amusing dolts (the path to box office success) and subtly undermining the reality-grids of everybody in the audience with more than a half inch of forehead. The first shot sets us in non-linear space as surely as a Picasso painting or the famous three-minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil. Welles, in that classic shot, kept both his camera and his actors moving over three blocks of city streets, in so many different directions that we were jerked to attention, trying to figure out what was going on (and what was happening to the bomb we saw in the first two seconds). The opening shot of Batman is a bit shorter and has no actors, but the camera also careens madly through a set that totally disorients us. That is a warning of what is to come.
By the time we find we are in “Gotham” we also recognize that this nightmare-city is a cross between New York, Detroit and Dante’s Hell. Gotham is Orson Welle’s sleazebag Los Robles of Touch of Evil – all the grime, all the garbage, all the corruption, all the dirt, all the violence – but miles wider and (it seems) even miles higher. It is Phil Dick’s Black Iron Prison in VALIS, the mad universe where mankind has been confined by the Demiurge which is attempting to blind us to the Gnosis.
The first cop we see in Batman is both physically fat and morally corrupt, like the first cop we see in Touch of Evil. When Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Vicki Vale sit down to eat, they start at a table so long they can hardly hear each other’s voices, and end at a tiny table where they are practically nuzzling: a reversal of the famous alienation sequence in Citizen Kane. The film is replete with similar in-jokes for Welles addicts: tributes to the man who first discovered film could be noir . . .
If Batman is, as I think, an anarcho-surrealist attack on the conventions of mass market melodrama (which it pretends to follow with owl-like solemnity), it is especially interesting to how the “hero” and “villain” react to the charge that they are mentally unbalanced. The Joker (Jack Nicholson in another Academy Award performance) is first told he’s crazy, by an associate, when he unleashes a particulary eldritch and inhuman laugh after killing a rival gangster. With the sweet reasonableness that is always alternating with his total mania, the Joker asks sagely, “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”
In fact, Joker’s crimes move slowly from rational felonies for profit into surrealist outrages and something like the Halloween pranks of an especially cunning and nasty child. Yet he laughs like hell continually and may be considered in the process of trying to cure himself of the traume inflicted when Batman, that merciless one-man lynch mob, threw him into a vat of chemicals.
Batman (Michael Keaton) has an even more interesting rationalization for his own insanity. With an almost Pythonesque touch, the film has him, as Bruce Wayne, start to confess his double life to Vicki Vale. He stumbles and hesitates, looks embarassed. She says she will understand. Kim Basinger’s delivery (as Vicki) suggests that she thinks he is going to tell her he’s half-Gay or likes to wear ladies panties or something of that sort. They are interrupted, and only after several other scenes does she discover Bruce’s real secret. “But that’s abnormal” she cries at once–the only voice of sanity in the film, as I’ve said. Indeed, transvestism and/or homosexuality certainly seem like reasonable lifestyles, probably even to a Falwell, compared with Bruce’s compulsion to dress up like a bat and commit murder and/or mayhem on people he thinks deserve “punishment.” (Is this really a Feminist film in disguise? Is Vicki, as the only point of sanity in a mad world, the walking refutation of the mad machismo of both the nominal hero and “villain”)?
At this point the logic of the film seems to undermined the logic of the original Batman myth; but not quite. Bruce
Wayne has answer to Vicki’s charge to abnormality:
“What’s ‘normal’ in a world like this?”
And that has always been, of course, the logic of surrealism. After World War 1, the surrealists hung toilet bowls in sculpture shows and painted things like Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone precisely to force everybody to ask, “What’s normal in a world like this?” Punk Rock and Heavy Metal today are still asking the same question. In a world where the govern ment is telling us “Just say no” while telling its favorite coke dealers “Just fly low,” dressing up like a bat and taking the law into your own hands makes as much sense as painting Campbell soup cans or making a movie that simultaneously glorifies, challenges, satirizes and (with Swiftian irony) rationalizes a vigilante with a fetish costume . . .
The moronic Bronson and Stallone “one man above the law” films glorify vigilantism with the logic of right-wing para-noids. Batman both challenges that folk fascism and poker-facedly “defends” it on the eminently Existentialist grounds that in a universe without morals or meaning everybody has to create their own reality and take responsibility for it.
All in all, Bruce Wayne/Batman makes more sense than George Bush, Oilie North and the rest of Ronnie Reagan’s Guns, Cocaine and Assassinations Glee Club. But so does the Joker, and that is the really subversive message in the darkest of all film noir nightmares.
“You created me,” Joker says to Batman in the climax; and indeed Batman did dump the poor, deranged chap in toxic waste and start his mania rolling.
“You created me,” Batman replies with equal passion; and indeed Joker shot Bruce Wayne’s parents which started his mania growing.
Both Batman and Joker are partly right, in linear causality, but neither is as totally right as he imagines in this nonlinear universe. There hasn’t been such a poetic Jungian moment on film since the four sadists came out of their castle, at the end of Bunuel’s Golden Age, and each one of them looked exactly like Jesus Christ in popular art.
The weed of crime bears bitter fruit, the Shadow once told us; but this dark film tells us the Wheel of Karma has Strange Loops. Batman created Joker, and Joker created Batman, and Gotham created both of them. Who created Gotham? Either Man or God, or both of them, and if this is what Man and God have done, what is left to believe in? The Joker, after wrecking an art museum, decides to preserve one painting, by Francis Bacon. Like the poetry of his best lines (and he gets all the best lines), this seems to imply Joker understands the universe he’s in better than Batman does.
It could only be more pointed if Francis Bacon had painted, instead of a slaughterhouse, Ronnie and Nancy grinning wholesomely, with a thousand dead Nicaraguans sprawled behind them, and the Contras packing the cocaine for Oilie.