Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The (sort of) Genius of Batman
I'm dealing with some aesthetic conflicts. I've a post in the works condemning some aspects of the postmodern aesthetic such as "camp," yet I've been watching the Batman TV series pretty often this summer, and liking it. In his book Genius, Harold Bloom declares (he's always declaring things), "The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity." I tend to agree, and I argue that way in the anti-postmodern post. Camp works by exaggerating the mediocrity of things for a laugh, but also in order to draw attention to the marginalized mediocrity it lovingly pokes fun at, and ask why it is marginalized to begin with (which is a threat to "high art"). Unfortunately this often goes overboard, and becomes plain old bad taste, which I can't handle. I will, however, grant Batman an exception from my disdain even though some of the show is in bad taste. I have to, since some aspects of Batman's camp are hardly a testament to the preciousness of mediocrity, but just plain good and funny ideas.
The things I enjoy about Batman are the little things. The things which won the show its initial popularity are the things committed lovers of awful camp would bring up as why they dig the Caped Crusader -- they praise the false genius of the shocking colors, the garish costume designs, and the stylized acting (stylized acting can be funny and is usually handled much better on Star Trek). The catch phrases of the show are another type of camp -- "Holy x, Batman!" or "...inside stately Wayne Manor," always repeated the same way, like the stock footage of the Batmobile leaving the cave. These things, along with the repetitive storylines and similarly motivated (and mostly unintelligent) villains, become a formula. The formula was funny for awhile, but camp alone can't carry a series. Batman lasted only three seasons.
The best Batman episodes stick to the formula, mostly, but do things within the formula that are interesting. As Batman might say, "The devil is in the details, Robin." Or, the glimmer of genius is in the details. (Because the main event is always the same.) To give a few small examples, I'll tell you about the show I saw last night, about the villain "the Mad Hatter." He was out to steal the 12 hats (and 12 living bodies) of the 12 jurors who sent him up, and Batman's cowl was to make a baker's dozen. This would be a double prize - getting a rare hat (his obsession) and learning Batman's identity at the same time! The Mad Hatter didn't use this discovery to his advantage though, which was funny. Because the Mad Hatter really was mad, he had no plans for extortion. He was simply going to grind up Batman and turn him into hat felt, so he could wear him ... as a hat.
What I loved about this episode in particular was the dialog. Some of it was funny because of its subtlety. When Batman finally figured out that the 12 hats belonged to 12 jurors, he exclaims:
"How could I have been so stupid!?"
Robin, showing no emotion under his little mask, offers up some dubious consolation:
"All in all Batman, you've been pretty busy."
HA! I don't know exactly why, but I thought that was hilarious. What the hell does Batman do besides fight crime? Bruce doesn't have a day job, that's for sure. And the fact that they had to feed the question "What comes in dozens?" to the super-Bat-computer to figure out who the 12 hats belonged to... that's just priceless. The duo normally deduce all sorts of impossible things from random clues, but in this scene they became super-dependent on the mounds of technology around them -- but not dependent on over-acting, thanks to Robin. Some scenes could gain a lot of humor if they would suddenly switch to subtle line delivery instead of their typical exclamations. (I'm glad I saw this on Chicago's MeTV channel, because a YouTube search just showed that TV Land cut the end of this scene out for time! The whole thing's uncut here at 5:23.)
Another round of funny dialog came when the Mad Hatter was explaining his scheme to his girlfriend/assistant Lisa. She worked at a millinery so she was probably a little mad too. Every time he explained a piece of the plan she would coo in her sexiest voice about how great that was -- only she used the most unexpected words. "How whimsical!" that the Hatter wants to kill twelve people. "It's positively merry!" that Jervis is going to have all those hats. And "How waggish!" that he will steal Batman's cowl to boot. When Jervis shows Lisa his felting machine and explains how he'll be wearing a Batman hat (made out of Batman), she lovingly calls him a "pixie." Yes, a disgusting, felt-poisoned pixie topped with a flesh hat. Throughout the episode, whenever the Mad Hatter goes on and on about his mad scheme, one of the henchmen keeps interrupting him, "When are we gonna eat!?" I have no idea what that was supposed to mean, but the repetition of it was excellent.
Back in the Batcave, the technology that Batman and Robin had come to depend on was all sporting its ever-changing labels. Everything is labeled in the Batcave. I'm surprised the duo don't label their wardrobe: "CAPE." "TIGHTS." "FLOPPY SHOES." Some of the labels around the Batcave are funny because they are a mile long: "GIANT LIGHTED LUCITE MAP OF GOTHAM CITY." Because we needed to know that it's made of lucite? And we couldn't tell it was giant. Some labels are funny because they are meaningless: "INTERNATIONAL FREQUENCY DETECTOR." (This label was sticking up into the frame so we couldn't actually see what the detector looked like... imaginez-vous!) And the best labels are funny because they are completely unnecessary, and thereby make a self-reference to the labeling frenzy: "TELEVISION." So we're not that far off from a label for "CAPE." This was the first season, and they're already making fun of themselves as dutiful agents of camp.
If you look at the backgrounds (before they became awful paper cutouts with Tim Burton lighting shining on them in season three... mediocrity breeds mediocrity), there are always labels hiding, and some help us understand the story. Or, more likely, they help fill holes in the poor reasoning of the formulaic writing. When the Mad Hatter had a French artist (who spoke French in the show -- they must have some culture in the Batman writers' corral!) seal Batman in plaster, there was a helpful sign on the wall: "SUPER FAST HARDENING PLASTER." This explained why Batman couldn't get away from the stupid plaster. If it hadn't been for that darn "super fast hardening plaster" sign, he could have just wiped it right off.
I was trying to imagine the labels working in a cartoon and I don't think they would. Not in a busy looking cartoon like The Simpsons, and not in any cartoon I worked on where machines were a part of the backdrop. There's just too much to look at. It works with Batman because you're not really looking at Batman all that closely since he always looks the same. The only cartoon I could think of that labels might work in (and they might actually use them) is Roger Ramjet. I'll have to write about him next. He is some camp and all genius.
Speaking of camp and its kissing cousin kitch, I'm watching Frasier while I'm writing this, and Niles just butted in on my Batman reverie with some related commentary. Lilith just announced she's getting married in Las Vegas. Niles responds:
"Isn't that delightfully kitschy! Since this is your second marriage you're poking fun at the institution by having the ceremony in the tackiest place you could possibly choose!"
By the way, have you ever seen Batman type a search string into his microfiche sort of machine? (I didn't read the label because I was watching him type. WHACK! SMACK! POKE! FUMBLE!) Check that out. It's campy. But it's funny too.