Dark Knight of the soul-destroying
CINEMA; The evil of innuendo stalks Gotham City as Joel Schumacher delivers the latest, pun-plagued version of 'Batman and Robin'
Sunday 29 June 1997
Director Joel Schumacher was reported to have removed some of the film's more OTT elements after disastrous test screenings with American audiences. ("Mom, I don't want to watch this any more," was the considered response of one young viewer.) If this is a straightened out version, then the original cut must have been more camp than Liza Minnelli's knicker drawer. True, removing the ear-ring that Chris O'Donnell (Robin/Dick Grayson) wore in Batman Forever has made him look less like Wayne Manor's resident catamite, but Akiva Goldsman's script bulges with so much tongue-rolling double entendre that the cast look badly in need of a Barbara Windsor masterclass. For instance, "I'm not the marrying kind," is what George Clooney's Dark Knight tells Elle MacPherson (all at sea in the painfully pointless role of Bruce Wayne's frustrated girlfriend Julie Madison). "I know you're a confirmed bachelor," she replies, rather generously for a woman who's been dating the guy for a year, with never a reproach for all the time he spends in the cellar playing dress-up with young Dick.
Any superhero narrative needs a healthy shot of irony, but this film's knowingness knows no bounds: "So this is why Superman works alone," rumbles Batman, as the Boy Wonder gets obstreperous; "Cowabunga!" yells Robin, Ninja-Turtle style, as he snowboards down from the ionosphere and on to a Gotham rooftop; supporting villainess Poison Ivy (a worryingly poor Uma Thurman) even spins off a one-liner about her own plastic action figure (available now, and looking more like Alvin Stardust than Thurman). Goldsman's script offers itself as a compendium of wisecracks - every line seems to be vacuum-formed around puns of variable quality - but moronic elements get the better of genuine wit. Arnold Schwarzenegger's metal-braced villain Mr Freeze seems to suffer the most, denied a line without some cod reference to his Arctic inclinations. "Stay cool, Batman, heh heh heh," he chuckles, making his escape from the frozen furnace in which he's entombed the Caped Crusader. "Cool party, Batman, heh heh heh," he chuckles as he makes his escape from the Gotham society bash at which he's hijacked the legendary Wayne diamonds. "I'll help you grab your rocks," volunteers Uma. When the credits rolled, I searched in vain for a Talbot Rothwell name-check.
Clooney's Batman marks a departure from the depressive navel-gazing of his Keaton and Kilmer incarnations, and harks back to Adam West's more self-consciously ditzy TV interpretation. Rather than being a tormented loner, apt to stare moodily into the distance at the clang of a Batarang, the Caped Crusader now seems to be pursuing more domestic interests, and has set about assembling his own version of the Addams Family: Michael Gough, as Batman's batman, Alfred, irons the leathers and imparts the sort of platitudes only convincing from ancient British actors; Chris O'Donnell functions as a kind of rubberised Bart Simpson, present primarily to strop and spar with his elders and betters; Alicia Silverstone completes the foursome as Barbara Wilson (aka Batgirl), orphaned alumnus of "Oxbridge Academy, England", for whom her uncle Alfred has prudently provided a matching black fetish suit, just in case she elects to join his employers on their crime-fighting night job. "We're going to need a bigger cave," mutters Gough in the film's closing moments. If they regroup for a fifth caped crusade, expect the Dark Knight to confess to a life-long passion for interior decorating.
Ever wondered why there are no black characters in Woody Allen films? Well, all those missing persons seem to have turned up in love jones (15), a fresh, sexy debut by writer-director Theodore Witcher. Hollywood rarely allows African- Americans to do anything but shoot up, shoot cops and over-use the word "ho," so it's a scandalously rare delight to watch a group of black characters quote George Bernard Shaw, make omelettes, write novels and take their mothers out to lunch. Hell, the photographer- heroine Nina Mosley (an effortlessly cool Nia Long) rejoices in one of recent cinema's most desirable fitted kitchens. The plot pads around the on-off romance between Nina and struggling young writer Darius Lovehall (a likeable Larenz Tate). Complications arise with the intrusion of Nina's ex-fiancee Marvin (Khalil Kane), and Darius's desire to sit in his apartment - "the Batcave," strangely enough - and compose his magnum opus.
However, love jones does have its troubles: Witcher produces one of the film's few duff notes by choosing to stage his lovers' first meeting at The Sanctuary, a performance poetry club in Chicago. Darius lays it on thick with a toe-curling improvisation, "Blues for Nina", in which he croons of "injections of sublime erections" and his "distorted, contorted, metaphoric jism". Right, mate. Anyone who's ever been to an evening of performance poetry will know that it doesn't require pretentious smut to be a completely embarrassing experience. Fortunately, Witcher aids recovery with a keenness to pin his character's emotional lives to a black culture represented by figures like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and photographer Gordon Parks: the result is a sophisticated comedy of love, sex, marriage and infidelity that puts Ice-T-style ghetto cliches through a rather stylish mouli. We're light years from Blaxploitation, and even further from the suspect monocultural smugness of The Cosby Show: that seems like a smart place to be.
A very different essay on black culture, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (no cert), is also out this week. Isaac Julien's thoughtful study of Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist, activist and colonial theorist, is more of a D.Philm than a movie, and mixes conventional talking-head documentary with semi-dramatised gobbets of biography. Interviews with surviving members of Fanon's family, and luminaries such as Stuart Hall (that's the cultural historian, not the It's a Knockout presenter) offer the most engaging insights into the man and his work; the reconstructions are less successful and are beset by a Jarmanite minimalism that sometimes has the feel of filmed fringe theatre. The location work is more satisfactory: we see Fanon (Prime Suspect's Colin Salmon) having a fag with Jean-Paul Sartre, waltzing with Simone de Beauvoir, and caring for both the tortured and the torturers in war-torn French Algeria with equal compassion. Salmon plays his part with steely assurance, looking impervious to the contradictions that Julien's team of experts unearth in the life and work (most notably, Fanon condemned black women who desired white men as victims of a slave mind-set, whilst seeming to negotiate himself an opt-out with his own marriage to a white Frenchwoman). But Julien knows how to handle an intellectual dichotomy, and even manages to embody one or two in his film: for instance, whilst he credits Fanon with the notion of the sexualised, appropriative gaze - a favourite of film theorists and psychoanalysts ever since - he doesn't stop his own camera from ogling his actor's skin.
Frantz Fanon's release coincides with a welcome revival of Gillo Pontecorvo's revolutionary classic, The Battle of Algiers (18). The two films make a resonant pairing, and although comparison is unfair, the blinding clarity of the 1965 piece packs more persuasive punch than Julien's occasional lapses into obscurity. Pontecorvo brings the traditions of epic cinema into contact with guerrilla film-making techniques: the whip-pans and hand-held lurches of raw newsreel record scenes populated by more extras than David Lean could fit into a mile of plush cinemascope. The effect is startling, and made all the more provocative by the use of a mainly non-professional cast, who replay the roles assigned to them by events in recent Algerian history. Whilst Pontecorvo offers a kind of revolutionary handbook - terrorist techniques are reproduced with such pin-point accuracy that you half-expect "don't try this at home" to pop up in the subtitles - it's his attention to detail that prevents the film becoming tub-thumping agitprop for Third World revolution. We see women using purdah for murder, concealing guns under their yashmaks, and we see French troops opening fire on civilians. The camera sits in on French torture sessions as well as cafe-bombings perpetrated by the Algerian resistance: there's little romance or mythography here. Pontecorvo keeps the conflict in sharp focus, and makes one of cinema's best attempts at embodying real historical events. Thirty-two years have done nothing to corrode its passionate sense of justice or its stark sense of style.
Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.
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