Friday, January 11, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: A State of Bat-Fusion and Huell Howser

Watching The Dark Knight Rises (now out on DVD) the other night, I flashed on a more precise understanding of what we mean by the term “comic book movie.”

I also understood a little more why these movies fail to enchant many critics and moviegoers, including me (who may find ourselves facing down the bizarre, mob-like, and depressing outrage of fan boys.)

First some background in the interest of full disclosure:

(Cue violins and weeping): I haven’t read comic books since I was a little boy, in the early 1960s. For a while, I recall, I had a large stack of them, mostly adapted from TV shows such as Zorro or Top Cat. I may have had a Donald Duck or two. And the Classics Illustrated adaptations of Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some of them belonged to an older brother.

Then, there came that summer day when my mother made me give them alllll away to a sick neighbor boy down the road. . . .

And I never saw them again . . . .

(End violins and weeping).

I’ve seldom looked at comic books since that tragic day. I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novel adaptation of the Batman comics in the late 1980s and admired its gothic-noir design and tone, but I felt no urge to read further and didn’t know why.

In 2010, a favorite author of mine, Peter Straub, working with Michael Easton and artist John Bolton, published The Green Woman, a graphic novel sequel to his novel The Throat, about a serial killer named Fielding “Fee” Bandolier. I read it twice. It was beautifully drawn and painted, drenched in hellish colors and unsettling shadows, but my head simply wouldn’t sink into it, I think for reasons other than its subject matter. (Serial killer tales have slid off my list of favorite reading adventures).

While watching The Dark Knight Rises the other night, I became aware of its extremely fragmentary design, of its loose story continuity and collage style.

The story of the struggle between Batman and evil Bane for the soul of Gotham City was like looking at puzzle pieces scattered across a large table and then pulled together in a semblance of order, but no more. Scenes related to each other without ever truly connecting. It brought to my mind both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and coming attractions reels.

Adapted from a comic book, The Dark Knight Rises plays just like one.

I found it a stuttering, sometimes exciting, sometimes irritating experience, like hanging with a large hyperactive child with expensive appetites and the worst case of ADD you could imagine. My interest kept flashing on and off. With only the barest plot tissue to connect the scenes, the plot was hard to grasp, and when I did get a handle on what was going on, the movie had leapt, swung, and crashed out of its frame into the next room, into another elaborate and jagged set piece.

I lost all sense of time. For example, for how long was Bane doing his Saddam Hussein on Gotham anyway? How did Bruce Wayne get back from India so quick? When he did get back from India? How did he get that fiery bat signal up on the Brooklyn Bridge so fast at the climax? Had it been there all along, just in case . . . ? It was a hell of a nice visual, but snarky grownups that we are, my wife and I laughed.

I know: It's not fair to ask these questions of a genre film like this. I didn't even ask them of Where Eagles Dare the first thirty times I watched it. But the fact the fact that I was asking them the first time suggests something was amiss--that I was not being engaged.

Even when it was supposed to be resting in a moment, The Dark Knight Rises seemed to be in an itch to jump onto the next hi-tech gadget or thumping fight scene. It seemed an expensive, beautifully designed jumble.

I can’t say I like movie experiences like that, but for those of you who do, I wonder, does what I say matter (beyond stoking your fury and resentment as I though I’d drowned your puppy)?

If you’re a lifelong comic book reader, stories told, plots explicated with colorful fragmentary images and balloonish dialogue is what you have come to enjoy and expect. The challenge to reading comic books and watching the movies they inspire involves a different set of perceptual skills than watching a more slowly cooked or paced movie, or reading a novel.

I confess it’s a challenge I don’t feel like taking on. I may not be alone either, even in the face of a half-billion dollars in domestic gross receipts.

Reading comic books, the eye jumps in and out of panel after panel while the brain has to catch up and make the connections, knit the fragments into something sensible. Looking at comic books and graphic novels, like The Green Woman (and I say “looking” because I didn’t feel like I was reading them), I sometimes wondered where I was and who I was with and when. The effect was like looking through a keyhole into an environment that was changing from one second to the next. I was disoriented, but it wasn’t a thrilling disorientation that I can find in good horror tale.

Some call The Dark Knight Rises dream-like (in the same manner as director Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a movie I really did not like.) But dreams have a mystery and airiness to them that gets lost when they become genre movies—dreams are eerie, unearthly, otherworldly, unmoored from gravity.

Comic books and movies might be dreams the teenage boy in all of us guys might like to have as we lay our heads upon the pillow, but given literal treatment on a big movie screen, they become like lead. Some movie—like Alfred Hitchcock’s and David Lynch’s—reflect and weave their ways into ours dreams. Comic book movies just yank them out into the world and diminish them.

I also didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises in other ways. Its somber pretentious air seemed irrelevant and unearned. True, we’re in the realm of Myths and Myths certainly have meaning, but when it delved into realms better suited for more grounded movies—for instance, the hearts-to-hearts between Bruce Wayne and Alfred the Butler about their relationship and whether the world is worth saving and life worth living—I smirked a little. It was supposed to move me, but I found it risible.

It’s hard to grapple with serious issues the way The Dark Knight Rises (and other films like it) wants to when all your hero has to do is throw a few Bat-knives, then jump into his Batmobile and run down his enemies. If you’re going to get that down-to-earth serious about stuff, why not deal with the practical issues Batman has to deal with, like going to the bathroom while wearing his Batsuit? Even a Jackie Chan movie makes more sense.

I like Christian Bale but he’s never quite made it with me as Batman. Like the movie, his intensity is too much for the material. And poor Tom Hardy, whom I liked very much in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is forced to spend nearly all this screen time behind that hideous gas mask, speaking with what sounds like Liam Neeson booming from a shower room. If he was even half the villain Heath Ledger’s Joker was, we’ll never know.

Huell Howser at the Pasadena Bunny Museum


My initial impulse the first time I saw Huell Howser on public TV a few years ago was to hide behind the couch.

As I gaped at this hurricane of cornpone enthusiasm, I remembered every embarrassing relative I ever had: Aunt Isobel who insisted on pinching my cheeks and talking baby talk, years after I had reached my majority; of garrulous, back-slapping, fast-talking Uncle Jack, who could be a little slippery with the truth sometimes; of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, ballooning with hot-air boosterism, colored with insecurity and desperation.

But now that Huell is gone, California has lost some luster.

Huell was hard to take at first, but our resistance was futile. We saw what was wondrous, sincere, honest, and endearing about him. There wasn’t a mean bone in him. Elizabeth and I took to calling him “Uncle Huell” and wondered about visiting some of the California places he so loved. (And I can’t wait to see the Pasadena Bunny Museum episode.)

I’m sure he actually enjoyed the various comic impersonations of him that appeared, including one on The Simpsons. He was much the soul mate of another full-stop TV eccentric, Julia Child.

As I learned later, though, we weren’t the only ones who found Uncle Huell a little much at times.

Last September, as we were strolling around the little Victorian town of Ferndale, in Humboldt County, I sensed I’d seen this place before. Sure enough, when we stopped by the drugstore, the cashier informed us that Huell Howser had featured Ferndale on the itinerary of his Road Trip series.

We were delighted to hear this, but the cashier shook her head ruefully: “He wouldn’t leave the cooks at the Blackberry CafĂ© alone,” she said. “They finally had to chase him out of the kitchen.”

I might have known  . . . .

Those cooks may be feeling a bit guilty about now, but they shouldn’t. I bet Huell understood. He was that kind of guy.

Thanks for everything, Uncle Huell. You too . . . were an example . . . of California’s Gold!

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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