Saturday, 4 June 2016

Na-na, na-na, na-na, na-na, Late Show..!

This might not come as much of a surprise, but for my taste, documentaries arguably represent the purest form of film. Drama, almost by default, strives to meet that same baseline level of realism, which I suppose is where my appreciation of faux docos, or Cinéma vérité stems. Like so many others, I count more than a few examples of (f)actual docs as being among my personal favourites. But in my experience, there always seems to be one that, for whatever reason, stands out, personally.

At some point during Friday the 16th June 1989, I watched a fuzzy VHS recording of a BBC doco my parents videotaped the night before, that I must admit, made quite an impression – the last installment in that current series of The Late Show.

Then at just four years of age, as far as documentaries go, this would likely have been the very first recorded especially for me, and I'm surprised I haven't spoken more about it until now – particularly, as to my knowledge, the episode in question has never been repeated. As with Ghostwatch, the production also found its way to the front cover of the Radio Times, incorporating a two-page article, with words this time from Jonathan Ross. And as with Ghostwatch, the article doesn't refer much to the programme at all, instead using it as a king of springboard as opposed to a focal point.

First, Batman – and quite the fan I was, as a kid. Which is pretty much why I'm sure my folks figured a TV Special based on the character might have proven interesting for me to watch, at the time. Plus, truth be told, I was into those kinds of retrospectives, even then. My first Bat Cape was a thing of joy, even if it was just a die-cut vinyl face plate stitched to a sway of black cotton. It blew my tiny mind that one even existed outside the comic book, let alone an entire rack, that icy morning at one of Blackpool's many outdoor markets.

If you weren't around to see it, 1989 was a crazy year for what (even those not) in the know refer to as, 'Batmania'. So much so, that the word itself seemed perfectly suited in conveying the kind of mass hysteria that followed in the wake of Tim Burton's seminal feature film, released that very same year. "That summer was huge. You couldn't turn around without seeing the Bat Signal. People were cutting it into their fuckin' heads." once uttered phonic flutist, Kevin Smith, who also admitted to quitting work the day the film was released in order to catch it at his local cinema.

Generally speaking, not very many people expected Beetlejuice star, Michael Keaton to be quite as good as he was in the title role. Co-star, Kim Basinger eloquently attested, "I got it immediately. There was just something about Michael that I could see as an orphaned child." Nicholson masterfully brought the house down as Jack 'Joker' Napier – those three principals headlining a truly awesome cast, a smorgasbord of Oscar-worthy production design, a truly unforgettable Elfman score, and a remarkably talented/young director in Burton himself.

So striking were both the visuals and performances, that even Napier's number one guy, Tracey Walter's eerie, Bob the Goon received his very own action figure with authentic Button Activated Power Kick™. I'm surprised that Robert Wuhl's likable everyman, Alexander Knox wasn't sculpted into a "Features Ten Classic Phrases!" talking doll, too – "Thanks for the tip, Duane.", Hello, Legs...", "He must have been, King of the Wicker People!", "... What a dick.", etc.

As seen through my impressionable, four-year-old eyes, I distinctly recall how Batmania, certainly at the time, felt like some wonderful, mass-cultural event – in which the now-iconic symbol evoked a kind of perpetual resonance. Somehow, this one elegant logo managed to comprise culture and counter-culture simultaneously. Consumerists seemed to dig it for its kitsch value, whilst disillusioned Gen X types heralded the black-on-yellow oval as being some kind of subversive icon – handy, when the closest thing to a Facebook Like back then was wearing a T-Shirt.

-The other day, my good friend Jackie even found this vintage bumper sticker from the film's supremely-orchestrated marketing campaign – nearly three decades later. Can you imagine the surplus of stock, worldwide?!

Having such a broad appeal, there must be so many valid and vivid dissections of the character, to boast just one single thesis. In purely my own terms, I enjoy the Lost Son of Gotham at his hypocritical and/or ambiguous best...

... A grafter who fights evil from the shadows. An army of one, who admonishes firearms, but is otherwise content to freely dispense life-threatening concussions and fractures, or pepper some ne'er-do-well's body with razor-sharp Batarangs. My Batman is an enigma, wrapped in a superiority complex, wrapped in a cape – and that's how I like him. A brooding, two-fisted, insomniac vigilante, just waiting for the night sky to illuminate with his signal, providing him the opportunity, or perhaps approval he longs for, to "Go to work".

During the doc itself, writer/artist of the profoundly un-sentimentalised, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, goes one step further on the tricky subject of defining such superheroic characteristics, by saying...

"It's almost a mistake to think of them as human beings.
You have to define the wish. And then, play it out."

Featuring a number of rare interviews with such renowned artists and writers as Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, the aforementioned Miller, et al, the doc, directed by Mary Harron – who coincidentally(?) directed a pre-cowled Christian Bale in 2000's delightfully devilish, American Psycho – sets out to chronicle the titular character's true-life origins and various legacies, by way of the intriguing framing device of a young boy, Michael (played by actor, Henry Power), as he discovers a veritable treasure trove of related memorabilia.


The doc opens dramatically, introducing the flashlight-wielding youngster, as he ventures into a dark basement (or cave if you will), brimming with Bat-trinkets. Approaching what looks to be a crisp reprint of Detective Comics #27, he reads...

"The "Bat-Man", a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrongdoer. In his lone battle against the evil forces of society... his identity remains unknown."

At that moment, a jump-scare of Keaton crashing through the film's Flugelheim Museum skylight smash-cuts, and what appears to be a hand-animated bat flaps its wings past the heavy bars of the basement window, glowing under the moon-lit sky. Startled, the kid reaches down to retrieve a lost Precious Thing – a fallen snow-globe containing a miniaturised New York City, caught beneath drifting shards of glitter suspended in fluid.

An excerpt from Duke Ellington's 1927 jazz tune, The Mooche segues into some stock BBC footage of Times Square – one of the very metropolitan neighbourhoods that inspired the Bat's own concrete playground of Gotham (having long been a nickname of sorts for NYC, before becoming an albeit fictional locale in its own right) – in writer/artist, Frank Miller's words...

"It's uh, New York City below 34th Street. And, it's a place where the buildings
are far too close together. Streets somehow vanish when you hit the rooftops,
so you can jump from one building to the next..."

Collectibles in their own right, the interviews as presented are most certainly for the time capsule. Utilising excerpts from the Orson Welles-performed, The Shadow radio series from 1937, the Lewis Wilson-starring Columbia Pictures serials of 1943, and even Adam West's breathtaking Batusi dance from 1966, no stone is left unturned in attempting to unravel the title character's motivations, and therein, our own lasting appreciation.

Admittedly, at one point, the otherwise taut narrative drifts into the murky realms of 80s-era, Punky, psychological guesstimation, by the skimming over of Dr. Frederic Wertham's infamous conjectures on comic books' supposed dire negative influences on the youth of yesteryear. Convincingly portrayed on-screen by satirist John Bird, he incredulously expresses his disdain to the rather bewildered-looking Michael, at witnessing male comic characters depicted as living together in large houses with flowers in vases. No, really.

Nevertheless, the academic slant proves amiably brow-swirling, even today. There seems to be a genuine effort in attempting to codify both the character and his motivations, in turn compartmentalising them into a plethora of varying topical contexts... That in being human, Batman's closest approximate superpower is in fact a super-capability to channel his inner demons into a kind of anarchic productivity... By representing the complexities of Society, positive female characters are often sidelined, as they are said to 'confuse' the youthful simplicity of the typical American Hero... The introduction of a vigilante streak in Batman was designed to counter the celebrity and popularisation of real-world gangsters... When depicted in a timeless world, coupled with restrictive censorship, this effectively nullifies superhero characters by putting them in a world that doesn't need them, thereby rendering their actions consequence-less... And so on.

But it's the cutaways that I still find most fantastic. There's an endearing, hand-crafted approach to more graphically-represent the various points and arguments made throughout. A large mock-up of Two-Face's iconic coin slowly turns before us. Tiny, card gravestones lay beside vintage figurines, marking the untimely passing of their namesakes – "Batwoman, 1956–1977, Killed by the League of Assassins"... "Catwoman, 1940–1953, Died peacefully in her sleep", among one or two others.

A number of 'womanly' Bat Gadgets are also faithfully recreated – including Batwoman's Teargas Perfume Atomiser and Charm Bracelet Handcuffs. A small Robin doll is depicted resting within a miniature, open coffin – in addition to a stylised, life-size version of his iconic costume hanging inside a glass-fronted wardrobe. And who could forget the now-classic shot of a tear-a-day, paper calendar, freely spilling its pages to denote time passing.

Supporting Duke Ellington's opening track, additional music includes Robin actor, Burt Ward and Frank Zappa's singular collab, Boy Wonder, I Love You, which still has the power to raise even a hint of a perplexed smile today – and charmingly, just a few bars of Burt Bacharach's score from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, played over a clip from a vintage home movie perfectly capturing a sunny, Batman-themed birthday party.

A silver thread of what I can only presume is library music (no single composer is listed in the closing credits) balances both timeless and electrosynth in perfect measure. The sound of the doc certainly provides a considerable amount of character, with the pieces used both well chosen and well placed. They even find time for a snippet of the late Prince's, Batdance.

The soul-pounding Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) from Verdi's Requiem can also be heard over an operatic illustration of Batman roaring in rage over Robin's lifeless body.

On that subject, the film curiously takes a moment to acknowledge the apparent pervasive 'unpopularity' of said sidekick, and how the character's shocking death in 1988's, A Death in the Family saga might even be more culturally-significant than tonal juggernaut, The Dark Knight Returns.

Several speakers from the film are sadly now no longer with us, giving their words even greater heft – including artists and designers, Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, and Anton Furst, to name but a few. Fred Finger, the son of co-creator, Bill, also speaks on his late father's behalf – reported to have sadly passed away just a few short years later, himself.

It isn't long before we get to the nub of the matter – the new Tim Burton movie, and this doc is clearly intended to coincide with its release – on the one hand, riding the wave of Batmania, whilst on the other, providing an Internet-less platform to pour over its global appeal.

Structurally, at this point, there is certainly a sense that the story is building to a conclusion. As to whether Keaton's Batman is considered by the filmmakers as being some kind of (then-)modern day pinnacle, or merely the epitome of the character for that particular era (I would say, the latter is more likely), it is perhaps better left to the viewer to ascertain. If there is a vertex to the proceedings, it may be that in creative terms, the less seriously (or perhaps, truthfully) you take these kind of fantastical characters, ironically the more they tend to suffer from a narrative standpoint. Critic John Powers, offers...

"By the time we reach the Batman of the movie, Batman has actually gone
through lots of transformations, and the interesting thing with the movie
will be to see whether or not they actually keep the 80s sense of him,
or make him into [...] the ultimate policeman of the status quo."

Over some final words from the originators as introduced from the opening, a hefty price-list for a handful of particularly rare, antique comic books fades in (which fascinatingly, now seem positively dwarfed by their current reserves), serving as a gentle reminder as to the appreciable value of art, and how easily the very same can become denigrated if packaged within something considered a throwaway form.

We return to the basement setting, where young character, Michael is called upstairs by an older female voice. When he glances away from the comic book, the memorabilia has vanished before his eyes... leaving just a lone Bat Signal projected onto the plain brick wall, as he departs. It's a strangely melancholic moment that to this day, elicits for me a genuine nostalgia.

And there you have it. Suffice it to say, it has been many years since I last saw the film in its entirety (sadly, our home copy lops off the first minute or so), though in my memory, remains very much a high watermark – particularly so during the making of Behind the Curtains. I have long regarded it as a prime example of BBC documentary film-making and researching, and would genuinely thrill to see it repeated some day, in full.

I don't know the origins of The Late Show: Batman Special. If anyone out there reading this happened to work on the episode, it would be Bat-tastic to hear from them. Yes, I just said that.

Until then... try not to have sleepless nights.