Friday, November 30, 2012

Batman Returns: Jingle Hells, or Blogman Returns

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it seems fitting to talk (finally) about Batman Returns. It may not be the weirdest or most frightening entry in the alternative holiday genre, but it definitely qualifies as a fun alternative to the standard offerings of Rudolph, Frosty, Ralphie, and George Bailey that you see all over the place this time of year, and it's definitely the weirdest, messiest, Tim Burton-iest title in the Bat's filmography. Heartwarming family fare this ain't.

In fact, you might consider this part of a trilogy of films produced by Tim Burton that deal with Christmas from an outsider's perspective. The others are quite a bit more sweet-natured and heartwarming - those being, of course, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Yes, I know Henry Selick actually directed Nightmare.) Burton may as well be a denizen of Nightmare's Halloweentown, since his aesthetic is all ghoulish whimsy and "normal" people really aren't his cup of tea - as demonstrated in his chipper yet biting satire of suburbia in Scissorhands.

Sandwiched in the middle of those bizarre confections is the grim and grisly Batman Returns, which is really terribly nasty in its parody of America's holiday traditions (and thus, of course, unexpectedly wonderful). Rather than ask the question of how this twisted concoction made it to the summer blockbuster season in the first place, we'll just focus on the terrific accompaniment from Danny Elfman.

'Tis the Season for Infanticide

Danny Elfman is on board with the bent anti-Christmas mission from the very beginning, providing a delightfully, dementedly cheerful accompaniment for the opening sequence of the blueblood Cobblepots dumping their deformed penguin baby into the river. A lovely wordless chorus of children cheerfully la-las its way through the off-kilter "Birth of the Penguin, Part 1," (Track 1) rather like a more charming chorus did in Elfman's own Edward Scissorhands the previous year, not to mention John Williams' more conventional employment of children's voices in a mainstream Christmas movie like Home Alone the same year. But of course, neither of those was accompanying an attempted child murder in the middle of a grotesquely landscaped expressionistic zoo.

Of course, the fun and games don't last for too long, and Elfman shifts gears as we watch the Penguin's bassinet float, Moses-like, down the sewer tunnels and he kicks the main Batman theme into high gear ("Birth of the Penguin, Part 2" - Track 2), more expansive and contemplative than we've heard it before - a pipe organ kicks in to back up the grandeur of the theme and the children's voices take on a more ghostly tone as we pause to reflect on how the Penguin's own deprived (and depraved) childhood mirrors the life of our orphaned protagonist, Batman.

The Penguin, the Cat, and the Circus

Once again, Danny Elfman layers the music of the Batman with psychological complexities befitting the outsized neuroses of the main characters of the film. The Penguin gets a stately, though slightly unstable march befitting his girth, his aristocratic heritage, and his grotesque theatricality. Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously rebellious creation, gets a bag full of mewling strings in a rather obvious, but still effective reflection of both her newly adopted feline identity and the mental problems that may have arisen from a nasty knock in the head. Each of these themes has its place to shine in the soundtrack: The Penguin's march is stated with full weight and solemnity (not without a bit of mockery, though) in "The Cemetery (Track 5)," and a tragic reprise in "The Finale (Track 15)," while Selina Kyle's alter ego has a chance to emerge in full force with the two-part "Selina Transforms" (Tracks 3-4).

Conveniently, these two themes intertwine quite nicely throughout the film as the Cat and the Penguin's paths and plots cross. The real thematic glue of the whole score, however, is the carnival music that surrounds the Penguin's team of henchmen, the Circus Gang. The Elfman/Burton aesthetic has always had an element of the circus about it, even when the subject doesn't directly relate to circuses. Just as carnivals and circuses always seem to be hiding an undercurrent of a bizarre counterculture, Elfman's scores hide psychic darkness under layers of bustling, bouncy frivolity, starting as early as his scores to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. In Batman Returns, he pulls out all the stops* with contributions from a calliope, hurdy-gurdy, and other typically festive carnival instruments to accompany the mayhem of the truly disturbing Circus Gang.

Gleeful Murder and Crypto-Fascism

The tracks "Batman vs. the Circus (Track 7)" and "Wild Ride (Track 9)" push the carnival sound to the forefront of the action, and even Batman himself seems to get lost in the insanity of the mood it creates. Batman is a more misanthropic, disturbed, and violent character in Batman Returns than the already-dark Batman. During his fight with the Circus Gang, he even dispatches an evil clown with a bundle of dynamite in the trousers and a swift kick straight into the sewer - with a sickeningly cheerful grin on his face, to boot.

I was among one of the many people who thought this infamous scene went a bit too far with the Batman character, since his widely-known chief rule is never to kill. Some people argue that there's no conclusive proof that Batman himself did the killing, but that seems to me a little like Tom Cruise's hit man in Collateral insisting that he didn't kill his victim, the bullets and the fall out a window killed him. It's splitting hairs at best. The best explanation I can find is that it's all part of a larger satirical agenda to the film, though. The Gotham City of Batman Returns is a menacing, crypto-Fascist caricature of a system gone horribly wrong (thanks in part to Bo Welch's fabulously forbidding production design), a corrupt society that may not be worth saving. The fact that the police force of the city willingly partners with a non-accountable and apparently homicidal vigilante is a big clue that maybe what's wrong with Gotham isn't really the threat of super-villainy perpetrated by freaks in giant duck-mobiles. (That's to say nothing, of course, of the machinations of Christopher Walken's Max Schreck, the true arch-villain of the piece, who's a respected captain of industry.)


But, back to the score. Batman's own music gets twisted in multiple directions as well, cast in its typically heroic mode for many of the hero's more urgent pursuits in his various Bat-vehicles. However, there's more of a sense of menace about Batman's music this time around, too. Chorus and organ accompany the Bat's appearances on many occasions, sounding particularly manic in the final reprise of the main theme as the credits roll ("End Credits," Track 16). The question of whether Batman is a real hero or just a psycho with body armor seems to be answered unequivocally by both Burton and Elfman as the latter. Batman is a psychological bane for Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns. Bruce seems like a nice guy who genuinely wants to do some good in his out-of-costume scenes. Batman, his obsessive alter ego, actively gets in the way of Bruce Wayne's life here, and Elfman's music comments delightfully on that aspect in the track "Sore Spots" (Track 8). Romantic music is continually interrupted here by the themes for Batman and Catwoman respectively, as Bruce and Selina Kyle's fumbling attempts at foreplay wander over each other's wounds from their costumed combat.


To put a bow on this whole soundtrack, let's go back to the holiday parody theme. Even as the film's opening turned a happy family Christmas into a horrifying crime, later scenes continue to subvert happy holiday traditions. Actual sleigh bells come into the orchestration in "The Rise and Fall from Grace" (Track 11) as Batman is framed for the murder of the Ice Princess, who gets shoved off a building to light Gotham's grand Christmas tree, releasing a swarm of bats as her corpse flips the switch. The holiday fun continues with "The Children's Hour" (Track 12), one of the more frightening reversals of Christmas cheer ever put on film - instead of a jolly fat man bringing gifts to children on Christmas eve, we get an army of rocket-armed penguins and a terrifying train traversing the city to kidnap children (driven by the wonderfully weird Vincent Schiavelli, I might add), on the orders of a deranged, obese maniac. Ho-ho-ho! The track actually opens with the Penguin's theme rendered in music-box-like chimes as the kidnapping train makes its rounds, before blending into more overtly sinister music and fanfares heralding the coming of Batman and leading to "The Final Confrontation" (Tracks 13-14, repeating a track name that Elfman loves to use for nearly every score for a film that features such an ending confrontation).

Thank goodness that Warner Bros. saw fit to give Tim Burton free enough rein on Batman Returns to make it into the warped winter wonderland it is, and set Danny Elfman loose with a budget and creative license to whip up the vastly expanded and thematically deepened palette of its score. They would come to regret their decision, despite the film's box office success, and threw Burton over for Joel Schumacher's day-glo Bat-travesties of the late '90s. These days, an anomaly like Batman Returns probably wouldn't happen, as closely and vigilantly as entertainment companies guard franchises like Batman. Christopher Nolan's brilliant Batman trilogy is another small miracle considering this fact, but something as odd and idiosyncratic as a Burton Batman would probably be focus-grouped into a bland and boring mess by today's marketing-obsessed studio culture.

Meanwhile, we'll always have the lovely little Christmas gift of Batman Returns to warm our wretched little hearts. And God bless us, every one.

*Actually, you could say that Elfman somewhat more literally pulls out all the stops with much more liberal use of the pipe organ in Batman Returns than in its predecessor.

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