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Pulpy Fictions: Batman: Gotham Knight

There are vast differences between the three mediums of Batman.

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Pulpy Fictions: Batman: Gotham Knight

There are vast differences between the three mediums of Batman. In print, he is an icon, a brooding detective who tries to steep himself in realism but is always drawn into the fantasy realm of the DC Universe; in live-action, he is forever straddling camp with Adam West drinking milk, Michael Keaton scowling in a rubber one-piece, and Christian Bale convincing us, genuinely, that anyone can use his family’s fortune for a personal vendetta. But it is in animated form that the Batman mythos has become legendary. In a Dark Knight companion piece akin to The Animatrix, Warner Brothers today releases Batman: Gotham Knight, a six-episode omnibus featuring different teams of American writers and Japanese production houses, all to produce—well, it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to get out of this.

Prior to Christopher Nolan’s reformatting in Batman Begins, the finest interpretation of the Dark Knight was Batman: The Animated Series, which originally aired from 1992-1995 before returning in a slightly varied form from 1997-1999. Here, the edged noir look that Bob Kane made famous came to life: Batman was a large, hulking figure who flew through 1950s inspired landscapes mixed with retro-futuristic planes, robots and themes. B:TAS even presented sly nods to longer term fans, such as having Adam West guest-voice the fictional Gray Ghost, who, it was revealed, inspired Bruce’s design of the Batman; or the Cagney-esque episode, “It’s Never Too Late,” when a mob boss losing the gang war is asked by Batman to turn over on another boss, all the while going through the motions of classic Catholic guilt. And then there’s the Emmy-nominated “Heart of Ice,” which introduces Victor Friese/Mr. Freeze into the Batman universe. It’s also responsible for ret-conning the character of Harley Quinn—who had previously never existed—into the actual DC Comics due to her popularity.

B:TAS proved what could be done with the limitless imagination of a comic-book universe, all the while paying dues to the obvious noir, horror, fantasy, and pulp influences. One week Batman could be battling the Joker, the next an episode could focus on the Gotham City Police Department and Detective Harvey Bullock (originally a corrupt cop in the comic who then became the hard-nosed, gruff stereotype we’ve come to love).

B:TAS is an incredible work of art. Batman: Gotham Knight is an awful attempt at cashing in on a franchise and little else. It begins with Have I Got A Story to Tell You, a take on the episode “Legend of the Dark Knight,” where four kids—all skateboarders, natch—assemble in a warehouse and begin chattering about the Batman each of them saw: at first he’s like a vampire (modeled after the Elseworlds character of Batman vs. Dracula, Batman: Red Rein and Batman: Crimson Mist), melting into the ground and moving at super-human speed; then he’s a variation on the Man-Bat, followed by a description of an armored man-in-suit; and, finally, he’s the bleeding vigilante that is more human than he’d like the population to believe.

Story’s art cues and visual style more than make up for the entirely uninteresting plot. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the even more uninteresting Crossfire, in which two Gotham City Police officers begrudgingly accept Batman as a necessary evil for fighting crime—an especially helpful viewpoint when they manage to park their car between two opposing gangs during a fire fight.

Field Test is another case where the art makes up for the storytelling deficiencies. Helmed by Hiroshi Morioka and produced by Bee Train, the company responsible for such anime titles as Noir and Madlax, it starts with technobabble about magnetic fields, but then perfectly showcases how Batman, after he discovers a way to make himself impervious to bullets, co-opts his multi-billion dollar company in order to finance his personal vendetta. Of course, being Batman—and thus the personification of White Man’s Middle Class Guilt/Obsession—he quickly learns that when you have bullets flying everywhere but at you, someone is bound to be picked off.

In Darkness Dwells is a simplistic showcase for Studio Madhouse, still riding high off the success of Death Note, in which Batman fights Killer Croc and Scarecrow. It showcases how the GCPD are reluctantly working with the Dark Knight and gives a possible origin for Croc in the Nolan series, but that’s about it.

Working Through Pain is the weakest of the six, despite having impressive production values. It’s a morality tale that opens with a gunshot Batman hiding in the sewers, struggling to remember his training from an Official Indian Mystic (aka Cassandra) who once taught him that fear is the mindkiller, spice is life, and to ride sandworms or something. Quips like “pain exists in two forms: exterior, that which we cannot control, and interior, which we can,” cut like a knife, especially when you realize this was written by Brian Azzarello. Bruce replies that of course he’s researched the techniques—since he is The Goddamn Batman after all—but Official Indian Mystic counters: “What of the spiritual nature?”

After an extended montage, Bruce beats up some people and Official Indian Mystic relates this bit of wisdom: “Your pain is leading you down the path of destruction.” Meanwhile, back in the sewers of Gotham, the bullet-wounded Batman is waiting for Alfred to find him. In the meantime, he’s gone bat-shit crazy and begun digging through the garbage, finding a small arsenal of guns just lying in the trash. One by one he picks them up and cradles them in the sorriest attempt at symbolism since Crash. Once Alfred finds him, even he’s weirded out by what Batman is doing and says, “Sir, give me your hand.” Arms full of guns and clearly trying to tie this thing up, he mutters, “I-I can’t.”

Luckily, the omnibus ends with Deadshot, another Studio Madhouse production, which opens with Bruce Wayne day-dreaming about his favorite topic (his parents’ murder) before realizing he doesn’t like guns for the three-hundreth time that morning. But it eventually brings up the most interesting aspect of the Batman mythos, as he acknowledges the seductive power of a gun and how it feeds into and breeds the character of Deadshot, an assassin-for-hire introduced in a sequence that puts Golgo 13 to shame.

Yet while the episode is once more impressive on the visual level, it’s treading no new water with the character or the series. Which is basically how Gotham Knight acts: a modern undertaking on an old series, one that implies that an anime visual style is more relevant nowadays and not at all re-hashed from B:TAS. It’s clear that Warner learned its lesson with the overextended Animatrix, only releasing six animated shorts here. But they feel impossibly underwhelming when you take into account all the other animated DVDs you can find featuring the Bat. In total, only Bee Train’s submission truly stands out.

Oh well, here’s hoping the real film (coming next week) isn’t nearly as disappointing.

John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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