Holy signification, Batman! (3)



Part 3:  At the risk of appearing redundant….

(Or: Appearances are deceiving – but then what?)

At the time the Batman television show starring Adam West was still in production, I did not like it very much.  First, although unnoticed by many at the time, it was visually very annoying, with loud color schemes, camera often at diagonal tilt, and an editing style that was overly rapid and too obviously manipulative.  It also boasted a blaring sound track, incoherent lighting design, gaudy clothes, ham acting, unbelievable narratives and absurd narrative structures.  Had it taken itself seriously, nobody would have taken it seriously.

But as it happens, that was my real problem with it – I took it seriously.  I was still young enough to read comic books without irony.  I wanted the real Batman, and Hollywood gave me a flashy, campy mess in his place.

Fortunately, irony is one of the most important discoveries for a maturing mind.  It was some years after Batman the Movie was made, that I at last ‘got the joke.’

As indicated, ‘the joke’ hinges on the principle of immediate redundancy: a sign is presented to refer to an object, but a second sign is presented with it.  The second sign points directly to the first sign, but also directly to the first sign’s object.  The second sign is presented so as to assure that the first sign will not be misread by any reasonable interpreter with the necessary contextual knowledge.  However, one having a reasonably good education should find this reinforcement very obvious (indeed, perhaps a little denigrating of one’s education).  Therein lies the humor of it: immediate redundancy is not only over-coding, it is overkill.

Think of a common traffic sign in the United States, the stop sign. Its shape and color form an ideogram of the legal requirement to ‘stop’ by it.  But it contains an immediate redundancy – the word “STOP” printed on it.  We hardly notice this, because we recognize that the image of the stop sign is intended to be recognizable to those not literate enough to read the word “STOP.”  But suppose stop signs were posted beneath another sign, reading:  “The sign beneath this is a stop sign.  You are legally required to stop here.”  And on this sign, the picture of a car screeching to a halt.  And beneath the stop sign, another sign, “The signs above mean that you are to stop here!” – with the image of a policeman handing out a ticket to a car’s driver.  Now this is all getting very silly.  But that is in the nature of immediate redundancy – it multiplies signs without increasing significance, which then raises the question as to the value of the original sign.  One benefit of the immediate redundancy of the common stop sign is that it reminds us that traffic laws are social conventions, and not divine commands.  This knowledge tempts many to ignore stop signs, sometimes at most inopportune moments.  But it also reassures us that we humans are in command of the laws we enact and agree to observe.

Batman the Movie is filled with signs pointing at signs pointing at signs.  Even the Batman’s costume is immediately redundant – the mask is shaped like a bat’s head, the cape shaped like bat wings – do we really need the silhouette of a bat in the yellow oval on his chest to remind us what the costume signifies?

Although it is frequently in the background of the film, one humorously repeated technique governed by the principle of immediate redundancy surfaces early in a manner we could expect from a film so self-consciously artificial: our attention is forced to it by a camera shot that has no other purpose.  Arriving at the scene of an attempted hijacking of a yacht (which turns out to be an optical illusion), Batman lowers a ladder from the Batcopter, in order to climb down to the endangered yacht.  The editing cuts to a shot of the bottom of the ladder, to which we find appended a black sign with white letters reading: “BATLADDER.”  Well, of course; what else would it be?

(This technique surfaces again in the 1980s film by director Alex Cox, Repo Man, in the guise of repeated use of generic consumer commodities; most amusing is a moment when Emilio Estavez digs some unrecognizable substance from a can labeled “FOOD” and eats it, remarking how good it tastes.)

As we might expect, immediate redundancy is used in Batman the Movie verbally as well as visually.  At a press conference, Batman tries to explain why he did not stop the yacht from being hijacked – or rather to explain how the yacht was actually an optical illusion – or rather to evade questions concerning the yacht, fearing that answers would cause a public panic.  (A melodramatic overestimation typical of Batman, to assume that loss of a single yacht would cause such a general alarm.)  (Although he can never tell an outright lie, Batman is a master of dissimulation; which apparently never involves deception?)  (One wonders why he would hold the press conference to begin with….)

As the press conference ends, a woman claiming to be a reporter from the Soviet Union asks an interesting question.  But first, it should be noted that this woman is actually the Catwoman, one of Batman’s fiercest enemies.  She’s wearing a disguise – she doesn’t have her mask on!  We learn later that this indeed the correct interpretation when, shortly after the press conference, one of her henchmen calls her “Catwoman” in a restaurant while her mask is still off, and she chides him for referring to her “true identity” in public.  However, loyal fans of the television show would recognize her as the Catwoman without her mask, because, in keeping with the principle of immediate redundancy, she is wearing apparel made from cheetah furs – that is, from the skin of a cat.

(Later on, still posing as a Soviet journalist, she appears all dressed in red; communists are notoriously poor at deception.  But matters get a little more complicated in the sequence where, as a journalist, she attempts to seduce Batman’s ‘alter ego,’ “millionaire Bruce Wayne.”  (The title “millionaire” is appended to the personal name more than half the times it is uttered.  We are never left in doubt as to the social status of any major character.)  Seducing Wayne, Catwoman as the journalist wears white – a color conventionally associated, in the West, with purity; when worn by women, virginity.  (Is this a visual hint that Catwoman has no intention to complete the seduction?)

But let’s return to the press conference.  The question Catwoman as journalist asks of the Batman is simply a request:  would he please take off his mask so should take a better photograph of him?

We know of course that Batman’s mask is his chief deception.  Reviewers and critics find such moments of identity deception fascinating, psychologically; but we won’t go down that trail.  What interests us here is the way Batman successfully explains his refusal of the request, in a manner that evades all the psychology that reviewers and critics might find fascinating about it.

To be plain, Catwoman’s request amounts to this:  “Would you please reveal your secret identity?”  That’s implicit.  But Batman makes it explicit.  He refuses to reveal his secret identity because, he explains – to do so would reveal his secret identity.

Both the innocent Batman and the dumbfounded audience are relieved from the embarrassment of this tautological faux pas by Batman’s friend, Police Commissioner Gordon, who argues that such a revelation would ruin Batman’s ability to act as a crime-fighter – which on reflection actually makes no sense at all – Why don’t all police officers wear masks?  It isn’t like Batman is operating undercover.

But the damage is done.  Batman cannot reveal his secret identity because revealing his secret identity would reveal his secret identity.  As George Burns frequently remarked, “Say goodnight, Gracie.”  (Her usual response: “Goodnight, Gracie.”)

As Morse Peckham argues in Explanation and Power, the principle of cultural redundancy is enforced in order to maintain ideological coherence in a conventional system of signs.  Signs are encountered so frequently, their references are assumed true, as vouchsafed by familiarity.  This is a spurious assumption, but one sees the psychological advantage in it.  A world of signs held constantly under suspicion, interpretation always delayed by doubt, would actually prove intolerable.  Whatever the significant status of a stop sign, stopping for it is preferable to anxiously wondering if there’s some hidden agenda implicit in its presentation.

But there does come a cost to pay.  Immediate redundancy ironically  destabilizes the very assurance the redundancy per se seems to offer us.  If signs reinforce themselves too frequently, they risk discovery as essentially content-less conventions, or as having an object of reference of much less importance than the signs had seemed to promise.  The Batman of Batman the Movie is not a master crime-fighter – he’s a clown.

The Batman of the comic books (at least of the ’50s and ’60s), was a sign of a deadening uniformity of character, meaninglessly over-coded cultural redundancy, and conservative values unredeemed by any practical application beyond the illusory world of Gotham city, the comic book’s sanitized reduction of the sprawling, messy New York City actual people lived in.  All Batman the Movie did was point that out.

But to discover the bad faith of a sign is to discover the possibly  adversarial, possibly duplicitous, agenda of those attempting to signify with it.  That is, the cultural redundancy can no longer reassure us, and thus loses its power to stabilize cultural responses.  We no longer trust those deploying the signs; we no longer trust the signs.  And while one certainly learns to live with such a situation, negotiate it, compromise with it – a condition of total trust can never be re-established.

Wikipedia page (with excellent plot synopsis): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman_%281966_film%29

Internet Movie Database page:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060153/

My original review there:

Off the Bat-wall, Robin!
Author: (winner55) from United States

First, let me say that I hated the Batman television show of the 1960s; and watching a couple of episodes played on cable TV a few years back convinced me this hatred was justified. The TV show is garish, overly cute, badly put together, using a remarkably unsteady camera technique displaying all the worst qualities of “cinema verite” and none of the good. The essential joke – that the show was a parody of the old Batman serial films of the 1940s – only indicates what an overly-determined over-kill of banal humor the show actually was; surely the audience didn’t need more than one or two “cliff-hanger” jokes before getting the message, that the old serial formula for cliff-hangers was inherently absurd. But the TV show lasted (if I remember) 4 years.

Batman the Movie is a different kettle of fish entirely, despite the fact that the film uses many of the same writing and the same film-making techniques of the TV show. The primary visual reason for this is that the unsteady camera-work has been suppressed. The film looks like a trashy drive-in B-move of the late 50s, but at least it never gets “psychedelic” as the TV show clearly attempted. Further, although the film remains a parody of cliff-hanger serials, there are only a couple jokes directly about cliff-hangers; and we know that the film is really going to end, unlike the TV show.

For me, what really works to make this film different than the TV show is that it is not simply a parody of the serial film, it is a satire on the American culture that produced the serial films – a culture of profound paranoia and equally profound – and absurd – optimism. Indeed, if one listens carefully to the dialog assigned to the villains, one discovers that it is this very optimism that they really loathe. What offends them about Batman is not that they cannot defeat him, but that he absolutely refuses to entertain the notion that he can be defeated. So their real goal, throughout the film, is simply to defeat Batman – to put an end to hope. If they can make a few bucks as well, all the better.

What this means of course is that the villains happen to be more like the audience than Batman could ever be. It’s not that the intended American audience of the film wants to destroy hope; but beneath the overtly expressed optimism of American ideology, there runs a profound cynicism. Most Americans (now as in the 1960s) believe that things appearing to be good, can never be as good as they appear. For the audience of this film, that’s a suspicion; for the villains it’s an article of faith. This identification with the villains allows us to laugh at Batman, by laughing with the villains, as much as allowing us to deny this evident identification itself.

There’s no point in saying this is a good film (it’s not); one cannot even comment on the acting, since ham is intentionally the order of the day. And because it is an intentional satirical parody (that frequently works) one cannot say it is “so bad it’s funny”. It has no genre to belong to, and so there are no standards of taste one can apply to it. The closest recent analogies I can think of are a handful of films produced at Troma. Neither Batman nor any of the Troma films are constructed to persuade or seduce viewers to their respective causes: either one gets the joke, or one does not.

I did, so I enjoy this film. My suggestion is to see it at least once, if only to discover whether one likes it or not.


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