Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


Hula-Hoops Along The Razor's Edge

You walk the razor's edge: on one side lies madness and on the other lies death.
Buddhist teaching

The Hudsucker Proxy: let me tell you about it. It's a lavish smörgasbord of tall cityscapes, wide office interiors and wood-panelled, hallowed halls of commerce and greed, while still retaining a little office desk for the good-hearted working man. Every inch of every shot is a salute to architects and interior designers who have constructed and adorned sky-scrapers throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s; a showman's pastiche of line, colour and shade that identifies the overwhelming grandeur of the great cities of North America, before they got dirty with smog.

And into this grandeur walks Daffy Duck as a rather young Jimmy Stewart. And he enters as Porky Pig exits at speed to the pavement. Then Daffy meets John Barrymore, played masterfully by Elmer Fudd. And, as Daffy's suspiciously given Porky's old job, a computer-morph hybrid of Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn enters and makes a serious attempt to steal the show. But that's not likely as anybody who has ever performed or been animated in a Warner Bros. production prior to 1962 makes an appearance in one manifestation or another and does their little bit for the glory of nostalgia.

Now, have I told you what The Hudsucker Proxy is about yet? No? Each decade since the beginning of film has created a celluloid myth of how it wanted to see itself. Hudsucker takes these romantic, rose-coloured mirror images and composites them into the late '50s; that time when innocence was about to be lost and naivety about to give way to a realisation that corruption had infested the American dream. But don't worry, you're here to enjoy yourself. The Hudsucker Proxy is a light-hearted fantasy that brings new dimensions to the experience of urban, suburban and city-life conventionality, that encourages miracles in a world where there aren't any miracles to be found. It revitalises the vain but desperate belief in the impossible dream, so you can sleep soundly at night. This film is a reminder that the secret to happiness is not to understand one's place in the scheme of things. And it's not trying to kid anyone that it's anything other than fantasy - fantasy about a time gone in every way but memory. And it's not even an accurate memory at that. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have seen The Maltese Falcon for the first time back in 1941? No you can't, unless you were there, so don't try. You can't recapture the magic of cinema past - especially of the Golden Age - unless you resort to the fantasy employed in The Hudsucker Proxy; the re-interpretation of images and icons of a by-gone era, and the attempt to make them as fresh as the experience was back when it was fresh. Hudsucker is a fiction of a time-back-when, seducing one into world-that-never-was.

This is the wonder of film illusion: inviting the audience to imagine a place that never was and making them believe, even for a brief moment, that such a place exists or existed - it's fantasy in action. And though it may sound fanciful and simplistic, so is the formula for the Mandelbrot Set. Like many a fractal, Hudsucker is an intricately constructed chaos from which a spontaneous simplicity must emerge and, like the Mandelbrot, Hudsucker consists of levels of a familiar strangeness from no matter how close or far one looks. Maybe a good story should come across as turbulent. After all, we are there to watch the swirling eddies and currents in the wake of destiny. And in Hudsucker's case, Death and Father Time are doing a bit of water skiing atop the foam.

But hey, have I told you what it's about? It's about the Coen brothers (and Sam Raimi) capturing and collecting the cinematic moments they loved and re-presenting them in a tightly-bound package in order for you and I to share in their pleasure and excitement. This film salutes sixty years of romantic comedy with the dazzling virtuosity of Orson Welles and Bugs Bunny. It's a comedy of errors and inevitabilities displayed with cinematic artistry; a superb whimsy deftly spun from rich dialogue, lyrical and glib, with a modicum of supreme wit.

But I haven't got around to telling you what it's about yet. I guess if I am forced into a high-brow interpretation of this live-action version of "Mail Room Daffy", then I'd have to say that it's making the simple but true statement that we're all mad. The hero is mad, the support players are mad, and we the audience are more than a little nuts too. Man, we're loony tunes; out of centre field; walking around as if we've just been slapped in the face, asking everyone "Hey, what gives?" We lost it when we became Big City Folk; over the decades the big cities snuck up and shouted "Boo! You're all a bunch a morons to let things get so out of hand."

Forgive me for making a few gigantic leaps at this point, but we should get on with it. Firstly, big cities are like madness: they are what you make of them and what they make of you. Secondly madness, including madness spawned of the big city, manifests itself in the complex cracks that dismember our large and apparently civilised societies. Thirdly, it can manifest itself in the form of up-dated mythologies and, as we know, mythology is full of heroes, especially larger-than-life heroes. In The Hudsucker Proxy the hero is a naive-but-nice simpleton who the gods favour in his pursuit of success as defined in the Big City manifesto. It is not long before he is battling greed and fear for his very soul. As with all good stories, the fight wavers back and forth - as part of the eternal cycle of things - while the gods await the outcome.

The mythological battle of The Hudsucker Proxy is played against a background of straight-lined Art Deco. Hudsucker is brimming with Art Deco, but turn the lights off and the city changes form; the atmosphere grows thick and foreboding, and in response the lines of the city change and shift to a straight-lined Gothic. It becomes a place where creatures of a different nature lurk; creatures that thrive in the darkness. The darkness is manifested out of the shape of the buildings, streets and alleys; it becomes the city of Gotham, the home of the Dark Knight. And his Big City is introduced marvellously in the opening moments of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

But hold it! It's a cartoon! I didn't come here to see a Batman movie only to find out it's some Saturday morning kids' cartoon. The nerve of these filmmaking guys. They dish up two monstrous, live-action-hero adventure movies with big stars and big sets and special effects and things, and then they have the impudence to fob us off a with cartoon. I might've been pissed if it hadn't been the best theatrical presentation of Batman to date. But it was. Indeed, the opening titles with Shirley Walker's fantastic score let you know immediately that something remarkable is going on here - something missing from its non-animated counterparts. And what's that? Mythology, my dear friend. What Batman: The Movie and Batman Returns sadly lack is what gives heart and soul to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Batman is one of the great heroes created in the twentieth century, possibly the greatest. He is one of the few fictional characters of this century to transcend his original story-telling confines and become a mythic icon. The animated Batman - both the series and the movie - shows an understanding and respect for the Batman mythos. Its creators have understood that what comprises the Batman of mythology is more than just the man; it's the world in which he resides, and that world is the city of Gotham and it's people. Gotham is the Big City. Like the city of Hudsucker, it's an architectural synthesis of mid-century North America, but as Hudsucker's is a retrospective city, Batman's Gotham is a retro-future city: a futuristic megalopolis evolved from the romantic visions of past decades. This aspect of the Batman world is a key to the whole 'Bat' thing.

The Gotham World's Fair in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an important location, and the two ways in which we see it reflect Batman's psyche. First we see the past operating in all its pageantry, pointing the way to a bright future and a belief that Batman is not required. Then we're shown the present; a state of decay and abandon, home to the Joker (as beautifully voiced by Mark Hamill). Time has revealed the corruption and given reason to Batman's need to save Gotham from itself. The transparent illusions of innocence and ignorance, and the false dreams of futures bright, are shown up by the reality of Batman's foreboding presence.

And Batman is close to being nuts. The Big City's desperate hope for a saviour creates a virtual madman; only a madman can handle the manifestations of Big City corruption. This is made all the more poignant by a superior, intelligent telling of the transformation of young Master Bruce to the Dark Knight that no live-action film has dared match. It even portrays Bruce Wayne's sanity as a disturbing split-personality complex in a manner that makes the live stuff look a bit childish. Indeed, the 'birth' of Batman - played almost entirely on the face of Alfred - is likely to be one of the most striking moments in Batman's dramatised history.

It may be that the mythology of Batman, which is what gives him and his stories any credibility, is simply much more effective in Phantasm because it is in animated form. Animation allows certain short-cuts and simplifications in story-telling, and Phantasm does not avoid exploiting these. If it is the case that animation brings out the mythology in a manner that live action cannot, then Batman is simply better-off animated - on a practical level, that simply is the state of things.

But I don't believe that's the case. The argument is flawed in the fact that the mythology of this animated Batman is derived almost entirely from dialogue and characterisation and, in contrast to the non-animated epics, every aspect of this production is concerned with the story at hand. It never loses sight of the fact that what we are watching is indeed a tragic tale. What we see is respect for the characters, respect for the story and, above all, respect for the mythology.

It is a general rule that you can't just make myth happen. Too often it is tried and usually without question, and often without mercy, it fails (Mad Max 2 is one of the rare exceptions). Superman has come close a few times, but the Christ analogies that often encourage it have also tripped it up. Superman The Movie almost got there at various moments, but as soon as they saw a potential, they lost it. The same occurred with the brave but unfortunate The Crow.

The Crow is a film that has a lot going for it - more than many movies with similar concepts and intent. It's a credible manifestation of modern trauma and psychosis, in fact more successful at achieving the symbolism and representation than Tim Burton's Batman world attempts to lay before the ignorant audiences of Big City cinemas. Lavish with dirt and rising damp, The Crow displays refreshing vistas of the slow-rot that creeps into contemporary dreams. Through its attempts - not necessarily successful - at fluid motion and ceaseless dynamics The Crow becomes an atmospheric seduction into dark but tantalising realms of modern fantasy; a good looking nightmare-cum-dreamscape of a mutated Big City simulcra. Even more credit is due to the striking and highly effective use of sound and music. The Crow is based on James O'Barr's comic of the same name, and is seemingly inspired by Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Both comics have been taken to heart by a stream of popular culture with an expressed interest in 'alternative' directions in popular music. The Crow's use of well-chosen pieces from this musical sub-culture, intertwined with Graeme Revell's soundtrack, creates an energetic, driving soundscape and unique cinematic experience. It helps capture the attraction (sometimes approaching the sexual) of being close to something dangerous. At times it's almost darkly omnipotent, like aspects of the gloomy pseudo-religions which comprise the fun naivete and pretence of the Gothic movement.

But while a dark heart lies at the centre of the audio/visual experience of The Crow, the film as a tale - and therefore as a whole - is virtually devoid of heart. The Crow hits the target almost everywhere but where it counts. But to be fair - The Crow is ambitious; it's trying to create or at least capture modern, urban sub-culture - pop-culture and Big City myth. But then that is why it largely fails. It's a deliberate act of myth creation in the mode of Batman, but what they forget is that Batman is a fluke which the recent films have exploited. No one tried to mythologize Batman, at least not until it had become deserving of the honour. Good and effective mythological story-telling does not come out of mythological constructs; mythology is not iconography.

By trying, and trying too hard, The Crow shoots the runway. But then, the film's creators may well have overshot it because of the death of Brandon Lee and, for the same reason, probably cannot come round and try again. In fact Lee's death may have more to do with it than that. His death - and the violent manner of it - took on almost mythical proportions, largely due to his father's mysterious death (recently brought to the fore with the very entertaining and worthwhile Dragon: The Legend of Bruce Lee). It seems likely that The Crow was then deliberately promoted as more of a mythical event than had been originally intended; we'll never know. But, despite its obvious failure, I like to think positively about The Crow. Although it's a journey that fails to reach its destination, this doesn't detract from the path it chose to take.

So, to bring this instalment to an end: there are two secrets to successful mythological creation. The first is not to try; just do, and maybe, unpredictably, it might become something (probably much later on). Indeed, it's still not too late for The Crow. It would be wrong to totally write it off, as it would have been wrong to write off the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics. The second secret is that if you do go ahead and try, then don't make it overt. Good Guys running around in their snazzy black get-up beating the shit out of Bad Guys in their own interesting wardrobes does not automatically cut it. Mythology isn't obvious, it's under-lying. It lays itself under the carpet, and when you walk across it your feet feel the comfort of universal truths.





Originally appeared pp. 63-67, Eidolon 15, July 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of Robin Pen.


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