Dirty Pretty Things (Frears, 2002)
Though billed as a thriller (and with a DVD cover that suggests an 'erotic thriller'), Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things is actually a sociological 'problem picture' that uses sparse and undeveloped (not to be confused with 'underdeveloped') genre tropes to try to create an immediacy paralleling the desperate situations of its characters. Whether the thriller aspects are even remotely necessary is debatable, but thankfully they don't deflate the film's themes or detract attention away from the other aspects.
Like the people visiting the hotel at which they work, Okwe and Senay are in a state of transition, only on a grander scale. The hotel is a direct but not overstated metaphor for the country the two immigrants live in: they checked in for a while, but they're going to have to leave sometime. Neither are legally entitled to work, but legality doesn't mean much in the underworld the film depicts. Okwe is a kind of benevolent entrepreneur of this London underground, making rounds during the day to various locations, dispensing Amoxicillin for men who refuse to go to the hospital (out of embarrassment, perhaps) and other such gestures. Senay has an apartment, and she rents her couch to him, though he rarely sleeps as a result of some sort of root he chews on. At first she refuses to be there when he is, but eventually allows him. She loves him, but they're too busy surviving to develop a relationship.
At a point, Okwe finds a heart in a toilet. He begins playing detective, but in a muted, believable form. When he finds out that kidneys are being removed by an untrained person in the hospital in exchange for passports, it is just a simple revelation, not some Soylent Green-esque foolishness. Basically, the film has the shape of a thriller but doesn't indulge in it fully, to its benefit. Okwe was a doctor in Africa, but refused to destroy evidence and his house was firebombed, killing his wife. He was charged with the murder and fled, which is how he ended up here. As a physician, he is actually qualified to perform the operations, and is again approached to make a choice of doing the 'wrong' thing, with severe consequences if he doesn't (in this case, continuing living in fear of being deported and therefore arrested, and keeping Senay in the same situation). It is explained to him that Señor Juan gets paid, the donor gets a passport, the kidney's receiver gets a kidney, and everyone wins. But exploitation is still exploitation, and Okwe can't come to terms with being involved in it.
What he ends up doing is exploiting the former exploiter, taking Juan's kidney and selling it. He splits the money between him, Senay, and the prostitute Juliette. The doctor prescribed Juan a taste of his own medicine! (sorry). Anyway, this seems to be a triumph, but in the end Okwe and Senay must part. They whisper 'I love you" as Senay leaves on a plane and all that hokey stuff. Okwe has to go find his daughter in Africa, and at this point the film ends. It's assumed that they will reunite later, and live happily and things.
Dirty Pretty Things is a decent film. Nothing revelatory (immigrants can be exploited!?), and a bit dramatically blasé at times. Solid without being remarkable.
Capsules: Bird (Eastwood, 1988)/High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)
Bird (Eastwood, 1988)
Bird is commendable and interesting because it does not follow a standard biopic formula of rise to fame followed by fall to ruin. The film begins and occasionally revisits the fall, and we don't get the whole picture of the rise or plateau. There is a deterministic quality to this approach, as the beginning is not a tidy prologue on a death bed in which Parker says "ahh, I remember when..." and the film goes into flashback mode. We're thrown into the thick of it, and it's potentially disorentating and none of the film is wholly satisfying. Is life? When we see Parker playing sax to a cheering crowd, we don't revel in his fortune because we are painfully aware of the heroine coursing through his veins and of his eventual-made-inevitable demise. Given that Eastwood is an admirer of Parker's, it's strange but, again, commendable that he didn't choose a more hagiographic, or even favorable, approach. He tells it like it is, so to speak, and though this may incur a sense of detachment from Bird's supposed superb craftsmanship and musical ability, that detachment is precisely what is so effective and rich about the piece.
High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)
High Plains Drifter is Eastwood's early existential-Western masterpiece in which he largely reprises his Man With No Name role, though arguably in a more compelling context. In addition, the behind-the-camera Eastwood seems to be doing Leone (and, probably, by way of Siegel, given his respect and connections to that director) as best he can. And he can do it damn well.
The story is complex morally, to say the least. As Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote are the universal existential pop-culture icons representing the infinite struggle for an unattainable goal, the Man With No Name embodies the spirit of the phrase "the ends justify the means." Some of the things he does are downright brutal, and the viewer must confront the "why" of the matter. The paradox is, if retribution is "right," the Stranger sets everything right. He is a sole man for and against society, and yet still for himself. Sometimes, his actions are complicated simply by his unwillingness to explain himself. Should he explain himself to the world he finds, perhaps justifiably, distasteful? He is an oasis of specific coldness in a world of general, indifferent coldness, but at least his coldness is progressive. In Lagos (Hell), morality and the lives of its inhabitants stagnate as surely as those inhabitants faced with the whipped man's cries for help. And I won't even go into the end, which is damn cool if nothing else.
There is one scene that, in itself, seems undeniably misogynistic. The Stranger rapes a woman after dragging her forcibly into a barn. Again, there's a paradox: she approached him, and obviously wanted to fuck him, but treated him with hostility rather than admit it. Her behavior exhibits the antithesis to the Stranger's quiet forcefulness, directness, and consistency, and oddly they both get what they want even if the woman won't admit it. Again, his method is probably indefensible, but the ends are satisfactory by any reasonable morality. And, in a world that doesn't allow for gentle methods, a world that won't collaborate for a greater good, do the ends justify the means, especially if no other means would work? The question is posed but not answered by the film. As cliché as it is to mention, that's good art.
This film is staggeringly rich (excuse the hyperbole; it sounds good), and there's the whole redemptive-ghost-eye-for-an-eye aspect, and others, that I haven't even touched on.
Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948)
In many an American film from the '30s and '40s, the movie begins with a title sequence married with an orchestral swell of sometimes inopportune music. Preston Sturges' 1948 masterpiece begins the same way, except we see the orchestra. The camera slowly pans forward toward the figure at the center of the frame, the conductor, until the frame is enveloped in the darkness of his black tuxedo jacket. Is there a better statement encompassing the major function of the film to follow? Unfaithfully Yours has all the appearances of a, shall we say, "normal" film, but it knows that it isn't, and soon the viewer is hurtled to dizzying heights of darkness, intrigue, pathos, and, yes, hilarity. Sturges molds the Hollywood form by manipulating it from the outside.
The conductor feigns modesty, undermining his own contribution to the orchestra, when in fact he is an extremely egoistic man, banking on British superiority over American, his own intellect and wordplay, and his status as a famous and indeed passionate and talented conductor. He is also, however, insecure; the slightest suspicion sets him off, and is the crux of the picture. He is so aware, though subconsciously, of his unworthiness of his wife that suspicion of cheating becomes certainty, and he can't bear the thought of confronting the matter and so essentially casts himself in three different ways the situation may play out in another, lesser film. These three imaginary conclusions are characterized by the music he is conducting at the moment, and his anguish becomes a stimulus that makes his performance a sensation. He is the true performing artist, pouring his every thought, emotion, and passion into his work.
Linda Darnell as Daphne, his wife, is fantastic. In an early scene when Sir Alfred first suspects her and treats her harshly and totally condescendingly (when she threatens to see a movie rather than her performance, he remarks "culturally, it would suit you better," and other wholly vilifying yet witty phrases), the viewer seeing the film with the knowledge that she is innocent will feel extremely sorry for her. Yet, when she is playing the femme fatale, the secretive seductress, and other roles in Sir Alfred's imaginings, she plays them all to a tee. Daphne is an utterly good wife, faithful, helpful, and sweet. It is perhaps because she never gave Sir Alfred a cause to suspect that he takes so readily to the idea, and that he is so infuriated. That coniving harpy! Only she isn't.
The first time I watched the film, I was taken in by the first daydream sequence, and it was an extremely effective twist of the narrative. Just as I began to believe the perfect murder was committed (I don't remember if I was thrilled or not; I was probably unamused), I found out it was all a joke, and was ecstatic because of it. "All a joke" as in all to be reversed, but this is a thoroughly coherent, insightful, and moving insight into the male psyche as much as it is a riotous dark comedy. This second time, I was able to appreciate the subtle cues that what we are seeing is not, in fact, taking place. Because you don't know what is going to fly in a movie, you think "oh, turning that nob does make his voice sound like his wife's, I guess." But, of course, it doesn't, as we see later in a hilarious sequence of man wrestling technology in slapstick, a good ol' standby from Chaplin through Sturges/Harrison and on to Woody Allen.
When Alfred finally leaves the performance and tries to carry out his plan of murder, everything goes wrong. Everything. It seems inarguable that this slapstick sequence outstays its welcome, but you either revel in its excess or you don't. It and I most certainly do. Rex Harrison is no Chaplin or Keaton, and that is precisely why the scene works. Sir Alfred is a man utterly unprepared for slapstick. There is no grace, no elevating of a quarrelsome chair or a falling lamp to an art resembling ballet. He is a normal guy, stumbling over stuff, throwing a roulette set through the window (thinking it's a phonograph, of course). And to think, this guy has a superiority complex. In his mind, the perfect murder is a piece of cake. Obviously, he was wrong.
His wife comes home, and she is sweet as always to him. As he chastises her for no particular reason, she follows behind him and picks up his trail of clothing and objects. This is not her being subservient because she's a woman, but her being genuinely caring and helpful. Sturges creates in her an independent female that has teeth when she needs them, but she loves Sir Alfred, and there's little question that he loves her, even if he plots her demise or other forms of undoing.
Unfaithfully Yours is at once a wonderful insight into just how stupid the male gender can be, and how despite the fact that the woman is often viewed as the one inclined toward emotional judgements, the man is frail in the light of his own. It is in addition a film that toys with movie conventions and, fittingly, when the couple is inevitably reunited in love, the sentiment (though far more earned and genuine than many films that could end similarly) is overlooked by a group headed by Daphne's wisecracking (and, in ways, polar opposite) sister. With this as a counterpoint, "A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, then you were born, my love" doesn't seem to be overdoing it. It seems just about right.
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Imagine you were held at gunpoint by a seven year old. This seven year old makes you do exactly what he tells you to do, and though you suspect he will not shoot you, you must do as instructed because it is not worth the risk. Later, you learn there were no bullets in the gun.
This would likely make you feel cheaply manipulated. So does the Exorcist. This film approaches scares in the way the chase scene in The French Connection approached speed. When Friedkin makes you want to think a car is going fast, he makes the camera go fast. The mechanism and the effect are one in the same. In the Exorcist, what you see (or hear) is what you get. And we get an utterly vapid subtext to boot!
The soundtrack is not complex, but it is damn loud; the early scene with the plethora of pickaxes made me think "this has Sound Design Oscar written all over it." Sure enough, I was right. The effect of this, er, technique has is that your visual perception is restricted to the image in front of you (Max Von Sydow and the pickaxe workers you see), whereas you hear all the pickaxes off screen as if a mic were attached to each. This creates a certain spatial awareness and a sense of objects residing outside the frame, but in a very brute manner. This is utilized throughout the film.
Similarly, we explicitly see needles penetrating skin, because that's, like, creepy. Everything is exploited to create a hightened sense of fucked-up-itude. A man enters the house, says "a guy died," and leaves. This man's death is an expendable but strong plot point, yet it's delivered in the same brutish (I guess that term is proving useful for me today) manner as everything else. I believe it is shortly after this that the possessed child crabwalks down the stairs. Just because we needed another jump scare. Similarly, the child's head can spin completely around, but this is not mentioned when proof of possession is demanded. A psychiatrist could fix that right up.
The idea seems to be that the possession is an affirmation of faith by negation. The mother and girl both seem indifferent to religion. The doctors and psychiatrists keep suggesting non-supernatural methods of dealing with the situation, those bloody heathens. The poor conflicted psychiapriest even doubts that a possession is in fact taking place. I guess, to William Peter Blatty, it takes an occurence that NEVER HAPPENS to prove the validity of faith, apparently Catholic faith. So, if you are thinking about taking up religion, keep an eye out for little girls with scarred faces projectile vomiting green bile. That's how you know your prayers were heard.
On top of this, all the demon/Satan(?) does is cuss and talk about promiscuity. Both of these activities are evil and should be avoided at the price of your soul. Teh Blatty has spoken.
I guess I should be thankful that the younger priest did not survive to scream "hallelujah!" and realize he was wrong to doubt, but the surrogate isn't much better. He takes the demon into himself and flings himself through a window, echoing the earlier murder and killing the demon's host (himself). Self-sacrifice in a film attempting to vindicate belief in Catholicism, yawn. Even worse, on a human level we feel nothing. This young priest's loss of his mother and death, Von Sydow's character's death, the suffering of Regan and her mother, all provoke no sympathy. The film is so utterly mechanical with its "I punch, you flinch" mentality that all feeling has been drained from it. Despite the fact that Fathersonholyghost comes out on top, there's not even a feeling of adoration toward the supposed God. Even the film's faith is a conceit.
Night And Fog (Resnais, 1955)
Night and Fog is not a documentary. It is, actually, a film that is utterly convinced of its own inability to document or take any meaningful action. This is a retrospective essay and a dirge all at once.
The film is obsessed with deceptive surfaces. The building plans for the concentration camps being made for their unwitting victims. Crematoria that look like normal buildings. Sick sites of cruel human experiments disguised as clinics. The infamous shower-rooms-as-gas-chambers that fooled the prisoners and the whole world alike. Like the filmmakers, like the viewer, the world stood by, inactive. The Nazi and holocaust machines were built, turned on, and operated all without any one doing a damn thing, for far too long.
The shots of present-day ruins of concentration camps are likewise permeated with an inability to comprehend, recreate, empathize, or do anything. "It is useless to describe," we are told, "what went on in these cells." "If you must know," we are told, the only signs of the gas chamber victims are the marks their fingernails left in the concrete ceiling. The narrator voices our inability to comprehend. No, we are stuck here with a painful memory that, toward the end of the film, we are told is slowly drifting away, being covered up. "It is useless to describe," but the film doesn't believe that. These present-day shots are yet another example of a deceptive surface: while we are horrified by the past, we delegate it to the past. We are convinced that these ruins represent not the end of physical buildings and lives, but of the mentality behind them. We are, in essence, in danger of repeating our mistakes because we don't acknowledge the deceptive surface. Just like before.
Filmmaker, viewer, past, and present are implicated as variably incapable of or unwilling to take action concerning the holocaust. This gives an emphatic quality to what is not documented. As we try to make sense of these past events, and fail, there is only one course: to try to apply them to the present. And that's what Resnais would have us do.
The difference between something like this and Schindler's List is that the latter does not admit its inability to comprehend and recreate. It amounts to, at times, "wow, this sucks, huh?" and smacks of exploitation despite the respect the filmmakers may have and display. It also undermines the horrors by focusing on a drop-in-a-bucket positive event. In the end, it glosses over what Night and Fog implies with the force of large mallet to the face when you're not looking. We cannot (and should not) hope to see the fingers clawing or the head's being shaved, but we have the nail marks and mounds of hair to prove that they did happen. The trick is not letting it happen again, and these deserted camps stand as monuments to the necessary, however painful, memory, so long as we also remember that they could very well be built again if we assume they won't.
Tokyo-Ga (Wenders, 1985)
Tokyo-Ga is a film with no point; it is a search for something that may be lost. Wenders travels to Japan to discover the world portrayed in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The result is an experience variably introspective, superficially concerned, philosophical, pessimistic, reverent, ironic, alienating, and inclusive.
Early in the film, Wenders remarks that he wishes one could film as one sees, just to observe without trying to prove anything. Wenders does just that in much of Tokyo-Ga: we watch children play baseball, adults watch baseball or play pinchinko, people swing golf clubs, craftsmen making wax food dishes, and trains come and go. Wenders rarely makes value judgements: he acknowledges that Ozu often portrayed the Japanese fixation on golf ironically, as most Japanese will never play on an actual golf course, but then marvels at how the sport has been boiled down to a perfection of movement, the standard goal of the sport (putting a ball in a hole) entirely forgotten in the act of swinging. The point of the game is gone, much like Wender's idealization of filming as one sees, and much like Tokyo as is portrayed in the film.
People sit in pinchinko parlours, alone in numbers, watching balls fall and hoping to win. The piles of pinchinko balls and the piles of golf balls are very similar, visually. Though these people are sitting next to eachother, they seem willfully isolated. Similarly, Wenders himself is isolated both by language and by the fact that he is holding a camera. At the beginning of the film he remarks that, if he had not made the film, he would probably remember his trip to Japan better, and we can see why: when you hold a camera, it is a wall. You are burdened with not only the need to observe, but the need to observe skillfully, meaningfully, cinematically. There is no assimilation, you are marked as an outsider looking in. The remarkable thing about Ozu's cinema, then, may be that it is so inclusive. One is very consciously on the outside looking in, but in an Ozu film the outside is a beautiful place to be.
The only thing holding Wenders' film together seems to be chronology. He spent an entire day watching men make fake food dishes from wax for display in front of restaurants, and this takes up a good chunk of the film's 91 minute running time. We watch, though, and we are forced to contemplate why. Then, we are forced to contemplate why we are forced to contemplate why. After all, why must everything have a point? Because it is a recorded image. But why must recorded images have a point? The film is very conscious of its actions, what the recording of images does to the images. They are no longer reality, in most cases, and the reason Wenders is in awe of Ozu is that his films, moreso than any other director, do seem real. However, there is only scant evidence of that reality left in Tokyo; it seems all has changed.
We do get a glimpse of that beauty, that simplicity, when Wenders interviews an actor and cameraman for Ozu. These are scenes ripe with nostalgia, as we can only look back to find what the Tokyo-Ga seeks. The only direct signs of Ozu's filmic beauty are anecdotal ones from the sets of Ozu films. The interview with the cameraman has a stunning emotional arc, and the power lies entirely within the words and face of the man speaking, and the camera's unflinching gaze. Wenders speaks the translations himself, and since Japanese seems to be a slower language (that is, it takes longer to say something in it than in English), there is always a pause before each series of statements in which we are watching a face and hearing a language we don't understand, and are forced to contemplate the image, to scour the surface for what lies beneath the surface. The essence of cinema, one could say.
Herzog shows up for a while, and gives a monologue about how finding potent, relevant images is nearly impossible in the modern world. This was in '85, and he's been doing a good job since then, but the proliferation of information and the nullifying of an image's power is a crucial concern for those crucially concerned with art and society. Chris Marker shows up... kind of (interesting side note is that Chris Marker directed an excellent, excellent documentary [titled A.K.] on another great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, the same year that Tokyo-Ga was made, on the set of Kurosawa's Ran). He doesn't show his face, though he is a creator of images himself. It's as if he wants to contribute to the zeitgeist by creating, but doesn't want to be a part of the zeitgeist himself. Though Herzog makes a rant about the non-potency of the image, he is seemingly powerless against his compulsion to create them himself. These men are part of the problem, if only in search of a solution. A fascinating dichotomy in a film full of fascinating dichotomies, digressions, observations, and insights.
Tokyo-Ga really is a unique creation. It is a film about Wenders' journey and insights concerning a man, not about the man himself. The man himself, though, was concerned with an entire culture. As such, the palette of the film is limitless, and it certainly takes advantage of its wide open space. The film meanders, and it's all the better for it.
Funny Games (Haneke, 1997)
Funny Games is a film that is both profoundly disturbing and utterly ridiculous; the audience is caught in the middle of the psychological reality of the violence portrayed and the highly visible construct of the film and its manipulating mechanics of viewer expectation and desire. The title refers to the morbid, sadistic games played by the two men in the film that would be psychopaths if they were people, but they're more like jesters bred from the film itself, commenting upon it, looking out of it, utterly aware of it, and at one point controlling it (as a vicarious means of directorial manipulation and entrance into the narrative). The title also refers to the director's relationship with the audience and the audience's relationship with the film.
The film functions as a provocation, but one with a very definite purpose: Haneke wants the viewer to examine his relationship with media violence that is portrayed as "acceptable," to acknowledge his implicit advocation of that violence, and to experience a different kind of violence, one that he very much should feel terrible about. I don't know if any one could enjoy Funny Games on a visceral level, but if you do, you damn sure better feel guilty about it.
This is a triumph of structure; every piece compliments every other, but there are deft strokes scattered throughout that highlight and define the over all theme. When told they "can't do this," the only response offered by one of the perpetrators of violence is "Why not?" These are two beings that don't abide by the very basic restrictions of society, those immutable assurances that we take for granted in reality. In most fiction, these lines can be crossed without batting an eye, but Haneke's psychological realism doesn't let the audience of the hook here. Later, when asked why they are doing what they're doing, the family (and, of course, the audience) are told various lies, such as that they're drug addicts and need to rob for their fix, that they come from broken homes, and that their lives were too easy and they're struggling under the "weight of existence." These would make three nice plots for other films, and three nice artistic alibies for any filmmaker who wanted to get his rocks off with bloodshed. Of course, there is no justification for Funny Games' violence: the family is being tortured because they happen to be in a film, and the director decided they should be tortured. This is the case with any film, and Haneke's argument is against any artist or audience that wants to wipe their hands clean of the violence they create and enjoy.
At one point, a killer gets food from the refrigerator and we hear a gunshot. At this point, the viewer must make a choice: which family member does he hope has died? Chances are, we hope it isn't the child, so naturally it is. If a parent had been killed, there would be a sense that there is still a chance to move on; after all, parents generally don't outlast a child. But, most devoted parents would probably tell you, the worst thing that can happen is to lose a child, and Haneke manages to make the viewer feel the plethora of emotions consisting of outrage, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, and an overall unwillingness to exist. Any one who wants to make an argument for Funny Games being mere violent exploitation with maybe a spattering of voyeuristic "guilty by association" need look no further than here to see there are definite repercussions for the violence, and brilliant examination of media experience aside, these are human beings being confronted with inhumanity, and you'd have to be a jaded individual indeed to be unmoved and unempathetic. Disgust is reasonable, and necessary, but the film is not vulgar in an intellectual sense.
At this point, the film seems as if it can, and should, go no further. But still it goes on. At one point, the mother grabs the rifle and shoots one of the perpetrators. But, Haneke keeps reminding us through the two men, there are rules to abide by. He refers not just to their sadistic ventures, but the rules of the film. In this film, the family loses the bet, and so the killer grabs the remote and rewinds for a do-over. This represents, then, a directorial decision: Haneke thinks "why not let her fight back?," but then realizes he is not being faithful to his concept, and rewinds. But, he lets the audience see this, and its reversal, so there is a glimpse of hope, followed by despair, and laced with sick irony. This is also a direct comment on our media saturated culture, as we all love to rewind, pause, turn off things we don't like. But when someone thoroughly despicable has the same power, and we are powerless, how would we feel? Well, we'd feel like we're watching Funny Games. In the supplemental interview on the DVD, Haneke says that audiences cheered and clapped at the woman's defiance, and then saw the rewind... and realized they had applauded a murder, and that they'd been thoroughly manipulated by the film. Bravo, Haneke.
Haneke has perhaps the most insight into how his audience will react to what happens on screen, on a psychological level, than any other director I've come across. He even bests Antonioni's Blow Up in this regard, or Carpenter's uncanny knack for projecting the camp value in his creations over time. Take, for example, the scene in which the mother is forced to strip: we are only shown from shoulder up. It is unlikely that any one doesn't expect, even secretly want, to see a shot of her body. This is not a sexual impulse, but one born of natural curiosity and our history with the film, as we don't expect any punches to be pulled. Yet we don't get what we expect, and we're left with an unfulfilled impulse that we have to come to terms with: we expected, maybe even wanted, to be spectators to this woman's degradation. We would've been repulsed, surely, but we felt compelled toward the repulsion.
This is a film that, unfortunately, has and will be misunderstood by many. It could probably function on a level as a horror film, for those that like their horror to disgust and frighten and no more. It's a very inappropriate but necessary irony that Funny Games can be used as fodder to feed the same impulses it finds so direly abhorrent. I would love to pull the rug out from under any one who views the film in this way, but I wonder if accepting the film at face value is a sign that it's too late.
Batman Returns (Burton, 1992)
If Tim Burton has a strength, it is conceiving and crafting an elaborate misé en scene, and Batman Returns is a wholly more garrish production than its predecessor. In some respects, it takes its silliness too far, and doesn't go far enough with its more pertinent themes. As such, it never rises above summer movie territory, albeit with a few smart laughs ("Lay off the constitution, it's Christmas"; "Sickos don't bother me, at least they're committed"), but for a minute there it gives the ol' college try.
Burton's bone to pick with corporate crime and irresponsibility, like Batman, returns, this time embodied by Walken's Max Shreck (a cinephilic nod to the actor who played not-Dracula in Murnau's Nosferatu, a film in the German expressionist tradition from which Burton seeks inspiration for his aesthetic). This remains relatively unexplored though, culminating in a brief but foiled plot to lead the first borns of Gotham's citizens into a pool of toxic waste Pied Piper style. This isn't the only thing overshadowed by the two psychopathic villains, though, as Batman seems peripheral to them as well.
It seems that Burton purported to create a sincere tragic figure in Penguin, but it's only half heartfelt. Penguin was abandoned at birth for his deformity, floated down a sewer, and unbeknownst to his parents found and raised by Gothan's burgeoning intersewer penguin population. Penguin is unique in the narrative as he is the one character in whom you get what you see, and he keeps reminding us by pointing out Batman's mask. A true outsider, unlike the other two cartoony tortured souls in the tale, who are not often taken seriously enough, the result being we spend too much time laughing at the zany psychopaths.
Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selena Kyle are similar in their dual natures. Bruce needs Batman as a practicioner of vigilante justice, in general Batman mythos because his parents were murdered, filling him with a sense of obligation to society (this causality is, as far as I remember, not mentioned directly in Burton's first Batman flick); Selena needs Catwoman as an outlet of sexual aggression and proto-feminist militarism. If there is an aspect that is stimulating in the film, and one that the film would most benefit from developing more and being less afraid of, it's its sexual politics. Instead, the film straddles the line between exploration and family friendly entertainment.
Selena and Bruce play cat and mouse (the sceenwriters would've worked that into the script if they had a chance, I'm sure) in and out of costume, and both modes of interaction are sexually charged. After slapping the head and hat off a bourgeoisie female mannequin in a department store with her dominatrix whip and then reminding two security guards who confuse their pistols with their pricks that they're overpaid, Catwoman bests Batman in combat only to fall off a roof and be saved by the big bad (bat)man. They then embrace under mistletow, and Catwoman goes so far as to grope his batmobile. This parallels Penguin's own fondling earlier in the film, and he is on a tangential though less direct socio-sexual odyssey himself. Selena is reversing the inferiority bestowed upon her by her position as a secretary to The Man, which she self-deceptively referred to as an "executive assistant" career. Penguin eventually comes to terms with gender equality when he plots and indiscriminate massacre, even shouting "the sexes are equal." Not subtle, but that should be expected... this is a film in which Michael Keaton dresses in a bat suit.
The Batmobile (not the one in Bruce's pants) eventually resembles the one in Bruce's pants, though theoretically larger and blacker, when he avoids cops by stripping the sides of the car and fleeing through a damp, moist corridor. Okay, I'm just speculating with the adjectives. Anyway. He speeds through the sewers in his phallicar to stop the yet-asexual Penguin from doing his Passover thing, and the four crazies all congregate here. Bruce points out that him and Selena are similar, acknowledging that they are both hiding behind masks representing ideas, and that they could live together. Selena says she'd like to live in his "castle" just like in fairy tales, but she "couldn't live with herself." This is a strong feminist statement, obviously, seeing through the fairy tale bullshit and shunning it. She then seemingly commits sui/homicide with Shreck.
The Batmobile bursts through a snow formation, and its symbolic nature can't be mistaken (my chronology of the climax may be out of order, by the way) and stops Penguin. The penguins' missiles all go off, possibly signifying male destruction to equal out the male victory that is Batman's triumph. I think it's definitely after this that the above mentioned Selena stuff happens, but I'm not going to backtrack now.
So anyway, in the end Bruce is being driven by Alfred and tinks he tees a puddy tat. He did, he did tee a puddy tat, as Selena survives. Bruce picks up a stray cat, presumably left by Catwoman, and then closes the film with the line "Good will towards men... and women," the pause signifying a glance down at the cat. What is is that spurred this alteration of the phrase to give it a more unbiased effect?
Selena's gift of pussy. Burton, you're an inspiration to feminists everywhere.