Auteurs and Authors, Books and Movies, Creativity

Batman and Me: On Tim Burton’s BATMAN Turning 25

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Tim Burton’s Batman came along the summer I turned eleven and awoke my creative soul.

Looking back, of course, it also introduced me to consumerism, just as Star Wars had done for the first wave of my generation only ten years prior: I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. Bob the Goon. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. A laugh-box that, to my great disappointment, looked nothing like the Joker’s in the movie. Mom also made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). There’s a picture of that somewhere, God help me. And, to this day, I still have a wooden fridge magnet I made myself at my grandmother’s house with the bat-logo painted in acrylic. I was swept up in the rising tide of what the media called “Batmania.” These days, we just call it fandom, which is, by turns, one of the great social movements of the twenty-first century or, more or less, a correct term for a marketing demographic.

Batman the movie brought with it a resurgence in the character’s popularity. He was in demand, and he wasn’t just for kids anymore. He was dark, he was brooding. He was Gothic. He was, in essence, Frank Miller’s nightmarish vigilante, a hero of the modern psyche. I remember the first time I saw the leather-bound collection of Miller’s Batman stories on display in the window of a Waldenbooks in 1988: The Complete Frank Miller Batman. Before this moment, as a kid, I had not paid much attention to anything called a “graphic novel.” I doubt I even knew what a graphic novel was back then, but here was a beautiful, black, adult-looking thing with pages trimmed in silver, and when I priced one, I was thrilled. Sixty dollars! Serious stuff. Had I ever paid sixty dollars for anything at that point in my life? Moments later, I overhead two twenty-somethings talking about how great the book looked on their shelves at home, and that, I suppose, was how my epic Christmas list started. I couldn’t pick the book up and flip through it because it was shrink-wrapped, and so the mystery of what lay inside was a tantalizing one. The reveal when I finally opened my copy was nothing short of a revelation: The Dark Knight Returns. Thirteen years later, I would place this book a reading list of influential fiction for my creative writing comps at Ole Miss. It was a book that taught me to take the fantastic seriously, to see the world not as a child sees it but as an adult, to look beyond the surface of a symbol and see the myriad complexities and contradictions at work within. I devoured it, read it and re-read it so many times the spine began to crack. There were other books that came along, among them Bob Kane’s somewhat questionable autobiography Batman and Me, a book less interested in truth-telling, you might say, than myth-spinning. But it was filled with full-color panels of original 1930s storylines, and at the time, those weren’t so easy to come by.

I began to draw around this time, too, at first just reproducing the character’s various poses in the artwork that permeated the culture. Eventually, once my parents started paying for lessons, I came to art for its own sake, not to create color-pastel reproductions of Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows and hairline but to make art as a fundamental expression of my own inner life. I never came to enjoy sketching as deeply as writing, which had come a few years earlier for me, but I did understand the connection between the two, the visual and the written: after all, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and Frank Miller had also written their stories. So Tim Burton’s Batman goes deep, I suppose, the whole phenomenon surrounding it, as well as the thrill of the film itself. Every year, as more and more Marvel movies come out, each more bombastic and labyrinthine than the last, each so determined to say something but clueless about what that something is, Batman grows more refined, more artful. Its chief pleasure stems from its timeless, mythic qualities: the city in decay, order out of chaos, the orphan hero. And beyond the superficial trappings of the merchandise I amassed and eventually lost or sold in so many garage sales, beyond its place as a touchstone of my childhood, it’s a flashpoint of creativity: the moment when I understood the difference between standing on the outside of a display window looking in and wanting to make art for myself.


A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2014.

Books and Movies, Elegiacs, Writers I Love

“The Film is a Poem…”

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The first line of Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, is the kind of opening line most writers wish they had written: “I was born inside the movie of my life.” It’s an elegant, humble start to the story of a writer who became the only movie critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. The only movie critic, it is said, that many people ever read. Well, for the sake of movie critics everywhere—and here I think Roger Ebert would agree with me—I hope that’s not true.

Ebert left behind a lifelong career of loving movies, a body of written work unparalleled, save maybe in the works of the great Pauline Kael, a body of work he planned to continue building even as his own body was failing him. I knew him through his writing, and I found his prose always to be warm, witty, and eloquent, even when he was being downright acerbic. His criticism I sometimes liked less, as he occasionally got his facts wrong, misremembering or misquoting. Still, he always had an eye for the loving details, as in his review of Star Wars, where he notes Luke’s landspeeder reminds him “uncannily of a 1965 Mustang.”

A decade ago, when I began watching movies in earnest—which only means, with aspirations to write about how and why they move me—I usually disagreed with Ebert’s overly generous, three- and four-star reviews of popular American films. His reviews of the great movies, though, I absorbed, so conversational and approachable was his style. As the years have gone by, I’ve mellowed in my own conversations, gotten more approachable myself when it comes to movies, and I see his work now in a different light. He was that rare and gifted writer who bridges the gap between his subject (cinema) and his readers (everyone). No small feat in a nation that still holds little respect for movies as art.

Tonight I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the greatest movies ever made about longing, isolation, love and loneliness. Ebert wrote this about it, in one of his finest reviews: “It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come—not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem—an elegy for the dead.”

It’s a fitting kind of mourning, I think, to revisit this movie tonight. Ebert has been an undeniable influence upon this blog, just as another writer I once knew, Barry Hannah, was of immeasurable influence upon my fiction. I once thought Warren Beatty’s achingly beautiful line—”I got poetry in me!”—might have been attributed to Barry, who spent some time in Hollywood in the seventies and worked with Robert Altman doctoring scripts. A friend chased that theory down and, straight from Barry’s mouth, debunked it. But it’s still the kind of line Barry would have written, probably wished he had, when he thought about it. And so McCabe & Mrs. Miller has always held a special place in my heart as the movie that reminds me of a writer who taught me, who teaches me still. Now, I guess, two such writers owe the film a debt.

In Life Itself, speaking of his own death, Ebert says, “What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’s theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.”

That list of memes seems like a thing McCabe might rattle off to himself, mumbling his heart out before a mirror, putting bullets in his pistol. Unlike McCabe, Ebert will be remembered for a much longer while, and he never mumbled.


A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2013.