BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and the Skeleton Key to Cinephilia

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In some ways I owe my love of film in its current incarnation, nestled comfortably within an open-minded, pluralistic cinephilia, to Manny Farber’s seminal 1962 Film Culture essay, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,’ which hit a key ignition switch inside me when I first happened upon it a few years ago. My interest in movies was only just burgeoning—what was it, only one or two John Ford movies seen?—and my fresh-out-of-high-school-brain was not yet equipped for his sputtering, idiosyncratic prose, but the gist of the thing was apparent. Reject the frigid, official ‘masterpieces,’ and seek out what is disreputable and unpretentious—art that thrives on itself and not on its fore-sought reputation.

Farber’s piece arrives at auteurism slightly modified, and sings the praises of quite a few of the then-marginalized figures in Hollywood that Andrew Sarris would come to canonize only six years later in The American Cinema. Indeed, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art’ functioned for me in much the same way that Sarris’s book did for many of the cinephile critics who would follow in his footsteps, as a polemical call-to-arms that laid the groundwork for a particular way of evaluating movies. For Sarris it was the French la politique des auteurs, the identification of a director’s authorial personality in his movies, detectable on the level of visual style and recurring thematic obsession. For Farber it was something more eccentric but equally concerned with style—how the entering of a room or the tip of a hat takes on a certain gestural dynamism when directed by Howard Hawks, but never in the films of such critically sacrosanct figures as William Wyler or Fred Zinnemann.

It was then that I abandoned the ‘Great Movies’ approach to cinema, in which all that really needs to be seen has already been anointed by some critical consensus or academic canon. When the mind is no longer fixated on the superlative, curiosity is free to take over. Slowly I underwent a metamorphosis from masterpiece myopia into termite cinephila, burrowing in whatever direction I saw fit without heeding the culturally erected guideposts that sought to steer me back on course in the direction of the officially sanctified. Moviegoing, as I now practice it, embraces the lost sheep as well as the chosen few.

But this politics of preference hardly accounts for the vigor of cinephilia, which, insofar as it overlaps with cultism, is also a matter of excess adoration, of triumphantly elevating the unusual, the erratic, the much maligned. Let canons reflect not what is flawless but what is botched, rough-hewn, and personal to an over-indulgent fault. Be not afraid to prop up movies that eschew universal appeal in favor of some niche attraction. Compile lists not as all-encompassing must-sees mathematically organized in descending order but as proudly alinear zigzags through one’s personal, largely idiosyncratic pleasure centers. Never deny perhaps shamelessly nostalgic favorites in deference to some elusive standard of objective greatness.

My cinephilia, I have come to realize, is grounded in something as universal as what David Bordwell has termed ‘the adolescent window,’ the principle that art consumed in one’s youth continues inexorably to color our aesthetic proclivities. Now, there is a tendency among some serious aesthetes to guard against nostalgia, lest rose-tinted remembrance taint their otherwise unbiased, unflappable encounters with the arts. And there is undoubtedly something restrictive in sealing oneself off to a rich media landscape by wallowing in the same tried-and-true pleasures. But insofar as they form a rudimentary foundation for later critical maturation and eternally inform the rough edges, murky chasms, and far-flung miscellany of one’s taste, such formative films, books, television series, etc. can not be emphasized enough.

If in some ways I owe the current incarnation of my cinephilia to Farber, it is largely because he made me realize that my indebtedness actually reaches all the way back to my childhood, and that I owe my love of cinema in toto to Batman: the Animated Series, an early 90s cartoon series that let loose my infant imagination, unlocked the door to art appreciation in my adolescence, and continues to provide for me enjoyment that far transcends solipsistic sentimentality.

This is largely because Batman: the Animated Series is termite art par excellence. The story goes that series developers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, assigned by Warner Bros. to produce a Batman cartoon to tie into the recently released Tim Burton films, were delivered a golden opportunity to make exactly the series they wanted. Timm, who had worked his way up from K-Mart employee to Filmation animator to Tiny Toons story-boarder, had no prior experience in a position of such creative authority. Without much in the way of formal instruction and only minimal industry guidelines, Timm and Radomski were given free reign to build their Batman series from scratch. Modern day Gotham was envisioned as a 1940s period anachronism, sinister gargoyles mounted atop art-deco skyscrapers and everyone fitted in trench coats or double-breasted suits. Backgrounds would be painted on black as opposed to industry-standard white paper, the tone would be thoughtfully but not gratuitously dark, and the series would feature original orchestral music. Working fastidiously from a set of ingrained inspirations—pulp comics, 30s gangster movies, retro pop-art—with little heed paid to marketable franchise tie-ins or other obvious signifiers of ratings success or critical acclaim, Timm and Radomski embodied Farber’s ‘termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss’ artist to a tee.

Batman: the Animated Series, taken as a whole, is a sprawling, experimental, consistently brilliant anthology. Though occasionally marred by bad freelance script contributions and shoddy outsourced animation (and some of the more ambitiously introspective episodes lamentably veer into White Elephant territory), it was more often razor-sharp in its creative intermixing of various old-fashioned sensibilities, in its smart, methodical storytelling, and in its acute evocation of atmospheric gloom. The first episode produced, On Leather Wings, was the big tone-setter for the series. Emphatically cinematic, it’s a rare example of televised entertainment that one recalls largely in terms of shots rather than scenes. The plot, about a giant bat creature terrorizing Gotham, is made in the great tradition of old Hollywood serials. Avoiding origin-story preponderance, it allows Batman’s actions and the rich visual context in which they thrive to stand in for decades of mythological backstory. The plot is slight, but the narration is dense, suggesting fully formed characters through the accumulation of off-hand gestures and subtly sketching a network of institutional relationships (police, press, Wayne Enterprises).

Soon after Alan Burnett and Paul Dini signed on as writers, the series came to develop a recurrent thematic focus, exploring with regularity the tragic undertones of psychological disorder. Many of Batman’s adversaries—Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and the Mad Hatter among them—originate as sympathetic characters defined by all-too-human desires. But when these desires become unattainable, often due to some cruel miscarriage of justice, the characters descend into mania and obsession. Batman rights the nominal wrongs—all evident crimes punished accordingly—but an ethical knottiness remains. When criminals are both victims and victimizers, plagued by rationally assessed conditions that drive them to irrational criminal behavior, justice becomes far more complex than a simple enactment of punitive measures. The edifying but far from reassuring takeaway of Batman: the Animated Series is that Batman wages a losing war against moral and psychological determinism. That he perseveres in the face of the perpetual injustice this entails is what makes him a hero.

Most important to the prefiguration of my current cinematic obsessions, Batman: the Animated Series expertly emulates a wide variety of old movie influences. The film noir and gangster flick borrowings are self-evident—the mob is a pack of tommy-gun wielding, Dan Duryea-like goons, the garbage-strewn streets are low on activity but high on silhouetted menace, and a dreary fatalism looms over Gotham like so many police zeppelins. But countless other genres are appropriated over the course of the series. A ‘machine menace’ two-parter riffs on Blade Runner while absorbing the visual vocabulary of 50s sci-fi. Beloved Paul Dini creation Harley Quinn helms a total of three screwball comedy romps (Harlequinade is a comedy of remarriage to turn The Awful Truth on its head). There’s black comedy (most of the Joker spotlights), some adventure serials (The Demon’s Quest, Avatar), and weird Western pastiche (Showdown). One episode, Mudslide, is even a kind of meta-referential torrent of old Hollywood lore (Psycho, Dark Victory, A Streetcar Named Desire are all obliquely name-dropped) channeled through a ludicrous plot that pays histrionic tribute to the grand movie melodramas of yesteryear.

My favorite episode of the series posits a dialectics of nostalgia and arrives inadvertently at one of the great truths that cinephiles hold to be self-evident. Beware the Gray Ghost is about a string of bomb heists inspired by the plotline of a forgotten TV serial starring Simon Trent (voiced by Adam West, of the old 1966 Batman series) as its eponymous hero, the Gray Ghost. Batman, who cherished the show as a young boy, seeks out Trent for help in apprehending the bomber (Trent has the series’ only surviving videotapes). For Trent, the Gray Ghost was nothing more than a lousy paycheck that has doomed him to a lifetime of typecasting. He’s bitter to the core until he learns of the effect that the series has had on Batman, whose childhood absorption of its simplistic good-and-evil morals played a large role in making him the heroic crime-fighter he is today. The mad bomber is finally revealed as the owner of a nearby toy shop, and he embodies everything wrong with media connoisseurship—the Gray Ghost serial is merely a collector’s item to him, a tawdry leftover from television’s past to be appraised for its retro value. Batman and the Gray Ghost make quick work of him.

For cinephiles, the most cheaply made commercial product churned out of Hollywood’s studio system has the potential for profound personal expression, and the most garish object of universal ridicule the power to captivate. The reduction of certain movies to retrofitted camp experiences, the intentions of their makers implicitly derided, often pains us to think about. Susan Sontag wrote of moviegoing as a pseudo-religious experience, and in bestowing reverence upon the medium we love, cinephiles willingly drop certain intellectual defenses and gleefully suspend our disbelief. And the effect is, every so often, transformative. Beware the Gray Ghost, on its own disreputable superhero cartoon terms, makes the point elegantly. In any montage that would include Gloria Swanson and William Holden sitting in awe of the silent films of Norma Desmond, or the movie counterparts of Terence Davies’ real-life sisters weeping before Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing, I would have to volunteer for consideration the shot of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne hunkered down in front of his TV screen with a bowl of popcorn, reliving his childhood in all its wide-eyed enthusiasm for the valorous exploits of his favorite costumed hero. – Stuart

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