Part 1: Redundancy is so ironic
(or: Reading a reading of the movie title “Movie”)
I have long thought that there is much to be learned from popular culture, as long as we don’t allow our aesthetics or class-biases to get in the way. Those who treat popular culture with contempt, or patronizingly, fail to recognize that this attitude subverts any attempt at objective assessment of popular culture. And without some objectivity, reason has no claim to either criticize of judge, it cannot form an argument or a proposition. Knowledge will not ‘submit’ to us, it must be submitted.
‘High’ culture or ‘low,’ sub-culture or criminal culture, much can be learned from even the most egregiously offensive cultural phenomenon; if nothing else, then how not to duplicate it.
Of the Saturday morning cartoon shows developed by Warner Bros. studios, among the most interesting in the 1990s was an animated version of a ‘live-action’ film series derived from an inanimate illustrated narrative periodic magazine about a well-to-do crime fighter with a taste for apparel in imitation of flying rodents. But this remark is but segue into our real discussion:
There have been now four efforts to realize a cinema narrative with, living actors in performance, concerning the comic book hero Batman (copyrighted and trademarked by DC Comics). The first, in the 1940s, developed as a serial, or series of interconnected narrative episodes released to theaters weekly. There was a highly respected, well-budgeted feature length film in the 1980s, directed by the respected Tim Burton, which led to several sequels, that last dissolving into embarrassing self-parody. Recently, Christopher Nolan, another critically respected director, helmed three Batman films with enormous budgets, fashioned stylistically after the Return of the Dark Knight illustrated novel of the 1980s.
Most people have now forgotten that, between the serial of the 1940s and the Tim Burton film, there was a one-off theatrical film developed out of a then-popular television version of Batman narrative. It was made as an understandable effort by Twentieth Century Fox to capitalize on the success of the television show. The film, appearing in 1966 and starring Adam West as the renowned ‘Caped Crusader,’ was titled Batman: the Movie (to distinguish it from the television series). Leslie H. Martinson is credited with direction. But Batman: the Movie, unlike the other attempts to bring the character to live action cinema, is a comedy; and as the humor of the film originates from a principally verbal wit, the primary author of the film should really be admitted to be its screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Composed with a low-budget television sensibility, Batman: the Movie won no Oscars, and is destined for nobody’s Hall of Fame. The direction meets minimal standards of acceptable film-making, as do most of the film’s other technical endeavors. However, aesthetically, the minimum is not quite good enough. The film looks shoddy, not much better than the TV sit-coms of the day. As for the acting – well, the dialogue is enunciated clearly. Although, to be fair, this was probably intentional. ‘Ham’ seems to have been included in every character description. The script – but that’s where things get interesting. However unsatisfying as cinema, the film, as a deployment of signs, is a mother-lode to be mined for cultural significations.
The first sign that we are embarked on a comic adventure through the the significations of its culture, is the movie’s main title. I have described it as “Batman: the Movie,” but the colon, which is proper to this usage, does not appear on screen. Instead, the movie opens simply with the words:
– a freak of grammar.
But there more to it than that. The word ‘Batman’ is presented in an almost ideogrammatic fashion. The original comic book character has a costume with a yellow oval on the chest; within the oval is a black bat, or rather the outline figure of a bat’s head and wings. In the title of the movie, the oval is presented, but where the wings should appear, we find the word ‘BATMAN’ – however, this is presented in letters shaped to conform with the outline of bat wings. Above this word, as in the emblem on the comic book character’s chest, we should expect to find the silhouette of a bat’s head, except that isn’t there, not even in outline. Instead, we find the cartoon head of the comic book character.
Alongside this design we find the words “the Movie.”
“Batman the Movie” is a verbal construction that is somewhat familiar to moviegoers today, and has been since the popularity of Star Trek: the Motion Picture in the early 1980s. So we miss the fact that this grammatical freak was a very unusual construction in the 1960s (Batman the Movie may be the first film to use such a title). However, its use in the Batman movie conveys what is most importantly obvious about that movie, although now less noticeable than intended at the time of its release.
But we will start with that oval:
The word ‘Batman’ we recognize as the name of the character. If he were in the vicinity, we would call his name, and he would answer the call; the name as statement signs: ‘Batman is here’ if only as a sign.
The oval was (according to the fiction) a personal choice of the character, his emblem, his self-presented non-verbal sign of himself. When it is seen on his chest, he no longer needs to be called, he has already answered any possible call, the emblem presents itself as immediate sign of identification, it could be said to say, ‘Batman is here,’ without him having to utter that.
In the movie’s opening title, the head appearing above the word ‘Batman’ with letters shaped as wings, is a true icon. It is pure duplication of the cartoon Batman, and thus represents all that we might expect of his presence, were he here with us. It says to us, in effect, ‘Batman is here,’ without that being uttered.
(In fact, since the comic book character is a cartoon, and this is its exact likeness, the likeness might almost be said to be that character, immediately present. However, this appears in the title of a ‘live-action’ film, not the comic book, so the figure cannot be the character, only its icon.)
What we have here is a graphic presentation of the principle governing much of the presumably humorous significations of the film. Seen through the prism of a perspective especially designed for reading signs, the main title image of the word ‘BATMAN’ presented in Batman’s oval emblem and mounted with the icon of the cartoon character’s head, reads:
*Batman as Batman is here as BATMAN*
– which is, of course, a ridiculous over-emphasis of the character’s symbolic representation as title to the movie.
The principle at work here, serving the rhetorical function of irony, I would like to call immediate redundancy: the immediate presentation of a sign appended to another sign, where both signs refer to each other and yet also refer to another object.
In the present instance, the word ‘BATMAN’ refers to the comic book character represented iconically above the word; but the image also itself refers to the character, but also to the word as proper name, ‘Batman.’ And both are enclosed in an emblematic oval which is itself recognized as symbolic representation for the comic book character, for the iconic image, and for the word as proper name, ‘Batman.’
So, uh…. Is Batman here yet?
Actually – no. Because, in the title, beneath this representative construction is the additional notice: “the Movie.” This is where the film begins charging into humor through irony, by announcing its own artificiality. We will not be in the presence of Batman, we are in the presence of ‘Batman the Movie.’ The combined signs of the title tell us so.
Again wearing our sign reading glasses, we can read the main title thus:
“‘Batman as Batman is here as Batman’ as the movie you are watching.”
But since both the filmmakers and we already know that we are watching a movie, we should recognize that the message is really decipherable as:
‘The movie “‘Batman as Batman is here as Batman’ is here as the movie you are watching” is here as the movie you are watching.’
What a tangled web of self-reinforcing signification is woven for us here!
I suppose some inattentive English professor is going to complain that I am being redundant in this interpretation of the title. Of course I’m getting redundant, how does one explain a theory of redundancy without getting redundant?
Of course, the question is, would the audience to the film translate the film’s title presentation in this fashion?
The answer is, they wouldn’t need to, their brains would do this rapidly and automatically (although there would need to be some prior training in cultural norms of significance to interpret). We are always wearing sign-reading glasses – they’re called eyes.
What the audience would have been expected to recognize and articulate is the irony in a movie the title of which asserts the artificiality of its presentation. It should be remembered that at the time, a title of the form *X: the Movie* – where X is the title of a work of fiction in another medium – television, books, or in our day computer games, etc. – was quite rare. We no longer see irony implicit in such construction because we have become familiar with it. But consider the problem in terms of the title including reference to the medium of original presentation: “Batman the Television Series: the Movie.” But of course the television series was developed as a parody of the comic book. No, let’s be precise: The television series was intended as a parody of the old ’40s serials based on the comic books. So, for maximum irony, the theatrical film should have been titled “Batman: the Comic book: the Serial: the Television Series: the Movie.” But that would not fit well on the newspaper advertisement.
So the audience of the time – the fairly hip, culturally informed audience the film was targeted at – would be expected to recognize the self-referential nature of the title and the artificiality signified, and the comic irony implied, to which it was expected to respond. They would know that they were not there to indulge the illusion that they were participating in the adventures of the title character; because the title character of the movie is – the movie itself. Which is wholly consistent with the “Pop-Art” aesthetics that were in vogue in the culture of the time. So we’ll get on to the discussion of that culture next.
“Holy cultural crisis! Can Batman the Movie save Cultural Redundancy from the clutches of Irony? Or will it get ‘ironed’ out into a mere strip of film? Find out next episode, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”