Films of My Life - Batman and the Burden of Nostalgia (1989)

I originally wrote this post back in June, intending to publish it in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the release of the film. Rather than jump the gun on the deluge of similarly-themed pieces colonizing the web at that point, I decided to wait until the gun had already been fired, confiscated, and locked safely in an evidence room far, far away. -cs

The release of Tim Burton's Batman in the summer of 1989 was as much a flashpoint in my life as it was for the culture at large. I often point to it as my equivalent to Star Wars - the movie which fulfilled for me the same purpose that Lucas' space saga did for an entire earlier generation of future lifelong moviegoers, forging a clear path ahead towards an unshakable devotion to the form. And yet, thinking back on it, it is perhaps more accurate to say that my initial infatuation with the film was due not so much to its merits as a piece of cinema so much as an extension of my deep and unyielding adulation of all things Batman. I didn't watch the movie and fantasize about crafting something similarly spellbinding - I watched and dreamed about being the Dark Knight. When I went out onto the playground and tried to recreate scenes both from the film and from my own mental extrapolations, I wasn't exercising a burgeoning directorial muscle so much as I was desperately trying to craft a waking fantasy that was loftier and more satisfying than my at-the-time current existence. And certainly, when I go back and watch it now, I don't get much pleasure out of it as a movie so much as a direct conduit to a time of my life in which my only concern was how two sworn enemies could co-accept an award without engaging in spontaneous mortal combat. Indeed, rather than claim sole influence over what would eventually blossom into a deep, abiding love for the cinema - that more likely began in earnest with Jurassic Park a few years later, though even then it is arguable that I wanted to live in that world more than I wanted to craft one similar [1] - that initial viewing of Batman was so important because it bridged the gap between my own pre-existing obsessions and the interests of an entire culture.

Because make no mistake, Batman was a paradigm-shifting event both personally and culturally. The extent of the worldwide Batmania leading up to the film's release I mainly understand in retrospect, reading about it, because to be a kid at the time, there was nothing more natural in the world than to have the subject of the Caped Crusader hanging right at the edge of everyone's thoughts and conversations. Who wouldn't want a pair of Bat Nikes, a Bat Bank, the Bat Emblem shaved into the back of their flat-top? I remember the buzz surrounding the new, darker approach that Burton was taking with the material (I recall my mother reading a speculation in the local paper that he was wearing black because the Joker had killed Robin, conflating another recent cultural Bat-milestone. "Bye-bye, Robin," an older cousin taunted me, knowing of my affinity for reruns of the 60s television series in which the Boy Wonder had not only played such a pivotal role but had also provided me, in my more honest moments, with a more reasonable entree into the realm of super heroics [2]). There was even a segment on a national news show (I don't recall which) after the film's release in which pundits wondered aloud whether the moral sense of an entire generation would be warped by a film in which the hero wore black while the villain pranced joyously about in bright, flamboyant colors.

Truth be told, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of the release at the time – it seemed only natural that I would be going to a theater to see Batman and the Joker tangle on the biggest screen imaginable. I’m not sure why I went with my Aunt Rosie, though I do remember that she liked to on occasion give each of her nephews their own Special Day – an event that could only dream about being interesting enough to be as creepy as that name suggests. This was a little different, though - a motley assemblage of kids gathered for this hajj to the local drive-in, an assortment who exist as nothing more than faceless ghosts to me now, so completely obliterated were their petty mortal existences by the sensory affront I was about to withstand.

Except for her. I don't remember her name, her age, or even what she looked like. I only remember that she was older than me, and that she had sandy blonde hair. She looked like an adult through my eyes, but as I was only six years old she could have been as young as eleven or twelve. Perhaps she was just beginning to give off some subtle pre-pubescent emanation that would have roped in a tyke as oblivious and inexperienced in the ways of the heart as I was, but it may have been as simple as the plain fact that she was mean to me. She made fun of me for bringing along my Pee Wee's Playhouse toys, and in doing so, whether she knew it or not - whether I even knew it or not - she had enslaved me for the rest of the night. My life from that point on was dedicated to the twin purposes of trying to figure out how she could bring herself to be so cruel and, even more importantly, how I could convince her to change her mind.

At least, it was right up until we drifted through the drive-in turnstiles on a warm, humid Michigan evening. And as the darkness of night began to creep definitively across the sky, all of my frustrations and burgeoning insecurities disappeared as the screen lit up and Burton’s camera immediately began traveling through that ancient stone structure, Danny Elfman's instantly iconic score thundering through the speakers of a flaking, smoke-scented Oldsmobile. The icy tendrils of unrequited love which for the first time were beginning to snake their way around my heart loosened their grip as the inky shadows of Anton Furst's hell-spawned German Expressionist Gotham soaked their way into my soul. I was entranced from the moment the film began, wondering every time a white male face graced the screen whether or not it was the true visage of the secretive hero, loosed from behind the cowl. "Is that Batman?" I asked my aunt in distaste when a particularly paunchy countenance sneered its way across the night sky. "No, that's Jack Nicholson!" she answered with a tone that suggested embarrassment at having to identify one of the biggest movie stars in the world to her idiot nephew. 

The memories break down from there into piecemeal fragments. At one moment, I am sitting in the car, eyes glued to the screen; the next, I am stretched out in a lawn chair as mosquitoes buzz about looking for purchase upon my young unsullied flesh. I can place certain scenes from the film firmly within the context of that night, though for some reason they all occur towards the end. The Joker, celebrating atop a parade float as the crowd showers him with money (I was young, dumb, and didn't understand that he was in fact the one bestowing the riches to the greedy fools clustered around his poison-spewing balloons. "Why are they throwing money at The Joker?!" I asked in horror to a poor Aunt who had to grumpily swallow a portion of her daily Hershey bar in order to answer yet another stultifying query). At one point I went to either the concession stand or the bathroom, coming back right as Nicholson fell from the last rung of a flimsy rope ladder into the unfathomable blackness of death. 

And even as a Bat-worshipping kid, I couldn't help but feel sad as he did so. A fairly strong indication even at that early age of who Burton's narrative affections ultimately fell upon [3], to be sure, yet perhaps a more metaphorical sympathy, as I had myself plunged into a gaping emotional abyss from which I would not escape for quite some time. She had begun the evening by mocking me without mercy, yet by the end of the night she was rubbing bug spray on my pale, spindly arms, affecting great frustration with this idiot kid who was running around allowing himself to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Perhaps she was merely overcome with pity for this pathetic little boy who had accepted her barbs not with self-defense but with sad, open-mouthed incredulity, but naturally I chose to accept whatever mercy with which she performed the gesture as proof that she was warming up to me. She handled me much the same as one would an infant or an especially thick-headed and ill-behaved puppy, with a frustration that pushed up against but could not pierce the bounds of a genuine and unshakable sympathy.

It was my introduction to the two dynamics that would go on to be an essential part of my relationships with the opposite sex until I finally reached the heights of adult love: convincing myself that not only every little act of basic human kindness but the mere lack of outright hostility was in fact a sign of a woman's hopeless infatuation, as well as the keen use of my natural imbecility to gradually wear down the defenses of even the most ardently uninterested woman. And it couldn't have been a more appropriate confluence; Batman is a character perhaps more linked than any other to sexual frustration. A mopey loner, wronged by the world, who forsakes romantic involvement in service of a higher calling, he is the perfect flashpoint for geeks, nerds, and malcontents of any stripe who would like to believe that their separation from human interaction is equally noble. It's why they take him so personally - often times violently so. And I understand it. To paint Batman as a fascist power fantasy is only seeing part of the point - he's all about taking control of the misfortunes of life, no matter how quotidian, in order to fit them into the schematics of a higher purpose. His mission is, on the one hand, the ultimate re-purposing of personal tragedy into fuel for serving the greater good, even as he also provides a violently vicarious reaction to whatever one may chose to see as the evils of an unjust universe. It is in the mis-definition of both "tragedy" and "good" that his most ardent fans err to sometimes frightening levels, and yet it is not hard at all to see why he has become something of a patron saint for the trench coat and neck beard crowd. For a budding doofus who wasn't even sharp enough to know how insecure he was, he served as a dark totem, glistening in the night sky, the black of his molded rubber suit absorbing not only any available light but also the fears and trepidations which earlier that night I hadn't even known existed. For a young man whose father would leave later that year, he was a beacon of masculinity, the first in a series of surrogate fathers that he would seek out within the latchkey foster system of popular culture. It was not the first time I would find the release of my emotional pains within the healing glow of a cinema screen, and I think that there are large segments of my generation who never got beyond that, who continue to hold on to that and all other idols they discovered during the course of an era in which more and more children, either by neglect or economical imperative, were being raised by struggling single parents under the glow of the cathode ray and the flickering light of the cinema screen.

I never saw her again. I don't even remember on what terms we parted. I seem to recall that she left before the second feature even started, and I’d like to say that’s why I just couldn't bring myself to sit through the entirety of Police Academy 6, and why I told my Aunt that, of course, we could leave for home even before we knew whether or not Harris and Proctor would fall to their deaths from that precariously-hanging window-washing platform. 

I may have been disingenuous when I downplayed the film's importance as a piece of cinema outside the mere realm of general Bat-adulation, because looking back on it as I write this, it's hard to argue against the contention that a significant part of my reverence for movie-going as more than a mere event, as rather a borderline-spiritual communion, is rooted in this experience. When we go to the movies, especially when we go with other people, we take the surrounding experiences into the theater, or out to the drive-in, with us. They float into the air and get caught in the stream of light from the projection booth, splashing across the screen and filtering back into our minds, only now amplified by the Technicolor razzle-dazzle of the Joker's purple coat or lurking in the deep shadows of Gotham's back alleys. They are carved in silver and etched permanently upon our souls, like the smell of our favorite book or the fresh, raw emotions upon first hearing a particularly meaningful song at the exact right time. The movies are not only a means of experiencing the dreams of other people, but of living our own through those visions in a way that we are ensured to not only never forget them, but to carry their amplified effect with us always.

And yet, much like my feelings for the actual film have become muddied and critical even as I find it impossible to separate from the overpowering devotion I held for it for so long, the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than that.

I’d like to say that I re-watch Burton’s film to remember what it felt like to fall in love, young love at it’s freshest, for the first time, but that’s not true. If I ever think of her, it is because she gives me something concrete to hold on to, a single grain of sand around which I can spin the memory of that night in which my relationship to an art form changed forever into a pearl that I can hold onto forevermore. Her essence does not hang over the ensuing summer spent collecting Batman trading cards or lugging a plastic grapple gun within a hand-me-down bank pouch just in case I needed it. By the time we left, she had already receded into a faint memory, dim and flickering like that far-off projector bulb as we drove home. When I re-watch the film today (rarely in its entirety), I yearn not to go back to that dusty patch of oil-stained grass, but to crawl inside of back lot sets which became an extension of my wildest imagination and wander around within a time of my life at which I was first struck by the power of film to create what felt like a very real, tangible world.  It was neither the girl nor the movie itself that would place its ultimate hold on me that evening - it was that same projected light, the one that had burned through me and scorched away the emotional residue of the surrounding experience and transformed it from a burden into something pure and transcendent, which I would begin to chase for the rest of my life.

It is without question a testament to the inherent power of the cinematic experience that my love for a film that I don't much care for anymore became inextricable from my memories of a girl that I don't even remember and who no longer bears any emotional weight on me whatsoever, yet it is even more telling that each has become an emotional signifier not for the other so much as for the experience itself. Any urge I have to go back and visit that point in my life is a desire to re-witness for the first time a movie that has gained significance mainly for the ripple effect its viewing has had on me over the course of the last twenty-five years. It is the ultimate emptiness of nostalgia, which has become the great plague of my generation – the longing for a past that has been created entirely within your own head by all of the ensuing experience whose value has been neglected by constantly focusing on a time before it all happened and which ultimately pales in comparison to the falsified memory.

Looking back, the most lasting victory of the marketing mania in support of Burton's film may very well be that it created a sense of love and reverence for a movie that, in hindsight, does not at all deserve it. While Jaws and Star Wars had shown little more than a decade earlier that movies were capable of making more money than anyone would have previously dared to imagine, Batman was not only the first great pre-sold blockbuster, but the first true instance of film as corporate synergy - Batman was a product that spanned multiple consumer platforms, and the media frenzy surrounding the film's release assured that his parent company was going to make so much money that they're still blowing it on lousy Superman movies. The best to assure this windfall was to make it very clear that the only way for a nation of impressionable children to consummate their love of this character was to buy anything and everything that had his symbol stamped onto it, and the only way for parents to make dreams come true and inspire lifelong loyalty was to buy into the myth of a role model both unrealistic and completely unsuitable. The ultimate example of a cunning corporate strategy tapping into something that the public genuinely wants, the studio managed to sell us back our own genuine love of something, even while the film hit all the right buttons at the exact right time for a generation that was just beginning to come of age. It's why I asked for a fucking Bob the Goon action figure for Christmas, or why I seriously considered buying this jacket. It's why I still have a soft spot for the movie even though to sit and watch it today can be frankly somewhat of an endurance test. And it's why so many people continually refuse to let go of the things that meant so much to them in the past - because they are irrevocably linked to that demilitarized zone in which childhood begins to cede its innocence to the mental, physical, and emotional ravages of puberty; because, maybe, it represents a piece of unfinished emotional business or a time when things were less complicated. Or perhaps it’s simply because it takes them back to the moment at which we as a generation fell head-over-heels for something, at a time where we were just beginning to get a sense of what that really meant, and we want to protect that against the eventual realization that the object of our affection, so perfect for us at the time, wasn't all that worth it and that maybe it's best to just leave it behind and move on. But a lot of people resist because the investment in the property is too high for us to ever discount, and so we live our lives forever in cultural debt to our own manufactured past.

It was this loop that helped cement the model that I set for myself on that muggy summer night of chasing a mirage that I had created in my own head, crawling back towards a sense of self-worth that I had voluntarily given up upon even the slightest (and most likely unintentional) provocation, and consequently investing and forfeiting the entirety of said worth in service of that Sisyphean emotional task. And because it was a model that was created entirely in retrospect, looking back upon a memory that was just as impossible to live within as the fantasy world that I was watching on the screen, it took a long time to finally break it. And yet, thanks in large part to the pains and humiliations that force one ahead down the long, tangled path of emotional development, you learn that life conforms to neither fantasy not expectation.You learn where to find true heroes and role models. You learn that real love is about finding someone who makes you feel worthy despite your faults rather than a desperate need for someone who can validate your emotional neediness. 

You grow up. And you accept that letting go of those things is not a forfeit to adulthood so much as a victory over static immaturity. That nostalgia can perhaps be a nice enough place to visit as long as you are doing so in the spirit of touching base with some long-lost part of yourself in order to contextualize where you have come and give a sense of what emotional foundations you are moving away from as you push forward.

- cs

[1] Though dog-eared notebooks containing my early drafts of The Aquarium would say otherwise.

[2] And speaking of which, I keenly remember watching an episode, perhaps around this same time, in which the cliffhanger involved Burt Ward getting swallowed by a giant clam (uh huh), and wondering if maybe this was the point at which Robin's life was ended. The more I think about it, the more that the vague knowledge of Jason Todd's murder hung over my early life like a grim shadow and probably played more than a small role in the development of my sense of mortality, but that's the subject of another essay entirely.

[3] Though I was admittedly very over-sensitive to death in films as a young child. For quite a while I believed that the only way to portray someone dying onscreen was to kill them in real life, and so would witness each cinematic fatality with a combination of respect and sadness.