Which Way Forward For The “Batman” Movie Franchise? Take Three : Setting The Tone


 

They just don’t draw Batman like that anymore, do they? These days, he’s a “ripped” steroid freak in a high-tech suit of armor who’s usually either thrashing someone to within an inch of their life or brooding silently. Ever since Frank Miller’s legendary Dark Knight Returns story — which, I’ll grant you, is still probably the single-best Batman story ever — he’s been getting increasingly somber, morose, and violent. Miller himself even portrayed him, essentially, as a child-abusing psychopath in All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder. The films,  Joel Schumacher aberrations aside, have been getting increasingly darker over time, as well. People thought Tim Burton’s Batman flicks were a little too dark, so Warner went to Schumacher for a “course correction” that fell flat on its face, and then Christopher Nolan came along with the most popular, and darkest, cinematic version of Batman yet.

Then came the midnight premier of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.

I would argue that even before that tragedy, this whole “increasingly dark” thing had run its course, but now I think a change in tone is positively essential. Which is not to say that Batman should ever go back to the light-hearted goofiness of the 1960s TV series. Modern audiences like a Dark Knight who is — well, dark. But I think the right tone was struck in books like the one pictured above, by the legendary 1970s Batman creative team of writer Denny O’Neil and artist extraordinaire Neal Adams. Their Batman was a serious, determined, perhaps even obsessive guy, but he was as much a man of intellect as of action, and at the end of the day he was a hero first and foremost, and could always be counted on to do the right thing. I think modern audiences are ready for that again after seeing Bruce Wayne essentially degenerate into basket-case status by the beginning of Nolan’s third flick, only to heroically redeem himself at the end. Let’s pick any new series up from that point — not storywise, mind you, but tonally.

To be a bit more specific about what I have in mind — think maybe a little more Michael Keaton and a little less Christian Bale. I liked Keaton’s take on the character — you felt like he was a decent guy at heart who just had this fundamental inability to resolve a gaping hole left in his life by his parent’s murder and had enough money and free time to channel that pain in a really — well — weird  direction, but would give all that up for a normal life in a heartbeat if he could just, ya know, figure out how to. Keaton;s cracking of the Joker’s poison code in Batman was also one of the few instances in any of the 1989-and-onwards Bat-films where we actually saw the Caped Crusader putting to use something that his name has always been, and always should be, synonymous with, namely his detective skills. I think it would be a great step in the right direction to see the next version on Batman on the big screen be just as at home in the Batcave’s crime lab or poring over information on its super-computer as he is kicking ass in a rainy alleyway.

I don’t think there’s any need for Schumacher camp, much less 60s-style uber-camp, but by all means, you can lighten things up a bit and still give us an essentially dark and mysterious character. 1970s Batman was pretty much all about that. And any Batman that’s going to “work and play well with others” in the inevitable Justice League movie DC’s cooking up will have to be at least a little more of a “joiner” than Bale and Nolan’s take on the character was.

To that end, I propose giving Bruce Wayne some actual friends apart from Alfred, a love interest who doesn’t get murdered, and an actual social life that’s not an OTT front from his crime-fighting activities and nothing more. But I promised to stay focused, and will get a bit more into the details of that tomorrow, as I examine the relationship that I think should be at the core of the next bat-series, and how it ties back into the rooftop scene from The Long Halloween that I started this whole thing with. I’ll also be getting into why I think a trilogy should be the plan for the next series from the outset — I know, I know, I said one thing at a time, but trust me, the “two” topics really are one and the same. In the meantime, of course, if you think I’m barking up the wrong tree with those whole “tone down the darkness a notch” stuff, now’s the time to say so!

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What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: Eddie Macon’s Run (dir. by Jeff Kanew)


Last night, as morning slowly approached, I curled up on the couch in my comfy Hello Kitty bathrobe and turned the TV over to the Retro Channel, where I watched a film from 1983.  The name of that film?  Eddie Macon’s Run.

Why Was I Watching It?

The short answer is insomnia.  The long answer is that, when I checked the guide to see what was on TV at 3 in the morning, Eddie Macon’s Run was the only film listed that I had never heard of before.  Since my life’s goal is to see every single film ever made, I knew I would have to watch this mysterious Eddie Macon’s Run at some point so I figured, “Why not tonight?”

What Was It About?

Eddie Macon’s running!  Okay, well, there’s actually a little more to it than that…

Eddie (played by John Schneider, who has appeared in countless SyFy films) is a nice, blue-collar guy who finds himself wrongly imprisoned in Hunstville, Texas.  During the prison rodeo, Eddie manages to escape and soon, he’s running down to Mexico where his wife and son are waiting.  Kirk Douglas plays the cop who chases Eddie across Texas.  Whenever Douglas shows up on screen, we hear a saxophone playing on the soundtrack.  Scenes of Eddie thinking about his family are accompanied by country songs that, the credits reveal, were sung by John Schneider.  Yes, it’s that type of film.

What Worked?

To be honest, the main thing that worked for me about this film is that it was shot on location in rural South Texas.  That’s the same part of Texas that my mom grew up in and whenever I would bug her to tell me a story about when she was “my age,” the stories always took place in South Texas and I always enjoy seeing it in films (even if that film, as in the case of this one, goes out of its way to make South Texas seem like the 9th circle of Hell).

John Schneider, all hot and sexy here, gave a surprisingly good performance.

Kirk Douglas, meanwhile, didn’t really give that good of a performance but my God, that man could grimace with the best of them.

A kind of youngish John Goodman shows up for about 2 minutes and the whole process of going, “Oh my God, is that John Goodman!?  I think that is John Goodman!” provided a nice break from the film’s general monotony.

What Did Not Work?

This is one of those films that, though it was filmed in Texas, was obviously made by Yankees.  As such, the movie is full of actors who were obviously imported from up north and who are painful to listen to as they attempt to recreate the accents of South Texas.   

The film, itself, moved about as slowly as the sun going down over the flat plains in North Texas.  Seriously — for a film that featured nonstop running and Kirk Douglas finding about a hundred different ways to clench his jaw, Eddie Macon’s Run sure was boring.  There’s a scene where Eddie is menaced by two ranchers and I swear to God, it seemed to last for a few hours. 

It also quickly became apparent that the only way for the film’s plot to be believable was for every single character in the film to be a complete idiot. 

“Oh My God!  Just Like Me!” Moment

Eddie eventually meets the niece of the governor of Texas (played by Lee Purcell) and she agrees to help Eddie run because it’s “just a slow Wednesday.”  That’s totally why I would get involved with an escaped fugitive as well.

Lessons Learned

Give me a couch and put me in a Hello Kitty bathrobe and I’ll watch anything.

 

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine


VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

In most cases it’s fairly reasonable to think of the ZX Spectrum as a secondary system for game music. It didn’t seem to have the capacity of the Commodore 64, and a lot of the game themes that ended up there were toned down takes on C64 originals, attempting to emulate the SID sound as closely as possible. But the ZX Spectrum did have its own unique if seldom exploited flavor, and over the course of three years one ingenious artist in particular would develop that into a brilliant new chiptune style to rival anything produced for the SID.

Some time in 1985, or perhaps a bit earlier, Mike Follin scored a programming job at Insight Software. Mike passed the soundtrack of what would be his first commercially released game, Subterranean Stryker (Insight, March 1985), down to his musically inclined younger brother Tim, who thereby got his first taste of programming. The result was fairly simple–little more than an amateur doodle–but for a 15 year old kid with no prior programming experience it was a pretty sound start. Insight Software were satisfied enough to keep Tim Follin around, and over the next year he familiarized himself with the sounds of the ZX Spectrum.

What he probably didn’t do was familiarize himself with the sounds of Rob Hubbard. What emerged from Tim Follin’s early experimentation on the ZX Spectrum was a sound all of its own. Agent X (Mastertronic, 1986) was heavily influenced by progressive rock, a feature which would characterize Tim’s work across multiple decades and platforms, but its uniqueness rested on his productive employment of the system’s excessively distorted tones. Rather than viewing the distortion as an obstacle blocking the path to quality arrangements, Tim Follin made it an essential and intrinsic feature of the music.

Agent X didn’t appear out of nowhere. Follin’s sound steadily improved during his short stint with Insight Software, such that on Vectron (late 1985) you can definitely hear a rough draft of things to come. His better works also coincided with his first real job. Follin was hired by developers Software Creations in 1986 (they developed all of the Mastertronic games I’ll be featuring here); he was no longer tailing his brother and composing for spare change. The compositional quality understandably improved in turn.

Tim Follin’s ZX Spectrum sound was unlike anything heard on the Commodore 64. It was a sort of post-rock prog shoegaze madness before any such notion formally existed, meant to be blasted at maximum volume, encasing the listener in a wall of sound. Future Games (Mastertronic, June 1986), my personal favorite on the system, was a far more intelligent piece than Agent X. The way the song slowly builds up into a glitch-beat explosion at 2:06 is a tremendous feat given how little Follin had to work with. The song essentially ends unfinished at 2:31, but I think that can be forgiven in light of what all he accomplished here.

I think a lot of this style is the product of Follin’s own originality, and fairly unprecedented in its day. Certainly outside influence on some of the progressive rock elements is self-evident, and in an interview probably dated to 1999 or 2000, the original of which is now lost, Follin acknowledged that he was exposed to a lot of Genesis, Yes, and Rush growing up. But the shoegazey layer of static and especially the glitch beats are features I don’t start to identify in other musical scenes until some time later. It’s not like he was listening to Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares at home.

Agent X II (Mastertronic, 1987) was a good deal more accessible than most of his previous works, featuring a bluesy groove and plenty of rock and roll soloing, but noise was still the glue that held it all together. I think it’s pretty telling that when Tim Follin programmed the Commodore 64 port sound–Agent X II and Scumball (Mastertronic, 1987) were his first attempts at C64 composition–he wrote an entirely new set of songs. Follin based everything he wrote around the instrument with which he wrote it, and however much other artists were trying to make the ZX Spectrum sound like a C64, these were two different animals.

Chronos (Mastertronic, 1987) is probably his most famous ZX Spectrum theme, and understandably so. Technically, or so I gather from the comments I’ve read, it is his most outstanding effort on the system. I don’t know enough to recognize technical skill in chiptune programming when it slaps me in the face. But I think the music speaks for itself. Tim Follin was to the ZX Spectrum what Rob Hubbard was to the Commodore 64, and it was only his first of many legacies.