“I don’t know if cinema can save the world. But if it can inspire you to think about things, then it’s not just popcorn. I’d like to do that until I turn grey.” – The Daily Telegraph’s SUNDAY Magazine, 4 July 2010. Claire McCarthy, director of “The Waiting City.” (She doesn’t say what shade of gray.)
I didn’t find an equivalent quote from Tim Burton, who directed “Batman Returns,” but then I didn’t look all that hard. I wasn’t comparing quotes, but the content of the two movies, which I happened to watch one after the other. I didn’t know about this week’s release of a group of three Batman movies -- not this one, which seems to be quite different. Batman the Rorschach inkblot.
I’m thinking this “Batman” and “The Waiting City” are about the anxiety of having children, not that there aren’t an enormous amount of terrifying things to think about: abortion, sterility, defective babies (possibly related to world pollution), the influence of class, and what if you don’t live long enough to raise them? These are not unrealistic issues, all eminently worth thinking about. The two movies take very different approaches.
The defective baby in “Batman Returns” is “the Penguin,” who bears a rather uncanny resemblance to Bar Jonah, the Great Falls cannibal too grotesque even for Tim Burton.
Penguin is born to a high-class family who abandons him. (He seems evil as well as deformed.) In a way, Batman’s parents “abandoned” him by dying. Both characters have enormous power and wealth, but Bruce Wayne is able to step in and out of his monstrousness though he hardly has a normal life. (He’s a “good” monster who helps people -- “bipolar”?). The movie then shows a corporate huckster who tries to sell the Penguin respectability.
Robin is dropped. (The screenwriter, according to Wikipedia, designated him a “totally useless character.” Hmmmm.) Instead of a boy sidekick, now Batman has an ambivalent relationship with Catwoman, another rubber aficionado. So alongside the anxiety about babies, there is a continuum of variant humans as defined by society, There is no normal, unless you count the butler. Bruce Wayne is half-normal and, as Batman, outside normal limits enough to tempt a psychoanalyst. The Catwoman is defined as psychotic, ”fetishy,” but sexy. She goes in and out of her bipolar identity because of physical trauma. She is supposed to mock society's idea of womanhood, even as it reinforces it.
The Penguin is a sociopath, totally defective and repellant, though he’s dealing with a lot of human-looking sociopaths. Then there is the corporate mogul, the Christopher Walken character, who has no excuses except greed and whose industrial pollution may have mutated the Penguin, which makes the industrialist WORSE. The Penguin is at least loved by his community of freaks and birds. (I couldn’t help but notice that the casting of the city “fathers” echoed Mitt Romney’s appearance and manner. Everyone is white, even the Penguin.)
So these characters are “pot handles” or chessmen to use in thinking about what a “normal” person is like in the highly unreal urban setting of Gotham where so much business is done in the underground, though some manage to rise above it all to the penthouses.
Now the another movie. “The Waiting City” is a little bit “magic realism” (called “mystically infused” in the promotions) but much more about returning to ancient cultures than about individuals. The key couple are a man and wife who have come to India to adopt a baby. They have swapped social roles: she’s the driven lawyer, he’s the artistic slacker. Very modern, very American. India, in the form of their hotel steward, confronts them with his traditional family and village. (His name is Krishna. Look it up.) He begins to interact with the couple because of the woman’s missing luggage; then he comes to understand that she is “barren.” She’s a little rocked that he is sympathetic but frank. “You really lay it on the line, don’t you?” she says. Indeed.
The baby is mysteriously never quite ready to go. In the waiting time the onion gets peeled until we are close to the kernel (spoiler coming) -- that the woman is NOT barren and she knows this because she has been pregnant earlier but aborted because her husband had gone off into an unstable, improvident, consuming frenzy of drug-taking and all that. Now that he has recovered, she can’t get pregnant for no discernible medical reason.
India presses them into elemental life, closer and closer, both the good and the bad, the gorgeous and the sordid. Krishna takes the couple to his home, the couple gets drawn into a festival based on the goddess of motherhood, and the woman finally immerses in the Ganges, fetid as it may be, and has a vision. The man connects with the music of India which draws him back to life and energy. A beautiful female musician is not a sexual rival to the wife, but a music pilgrim who cares for nothing else. In the background is always the orphanage which strongly suggests Mother Theresa, which inspired the plot in the first place after McCarthy had visited her.
When the couple has been pressed so hard that they are almost ready to abandon the project, everything is made clear. (Spoiler follows.) The baby they want and are willing to undergo personal transformation to “have” is dying. The orphanage had hoped that if a well-connected, wealthy modern couple took the baby girl, they could get her good medical care and save her life, though she would be chronically ill forever. But the final step is the death of the baby. The couple mourns deeply, regaining their relationship. One feels sure that now the woman will be able to become pregnant again, that the true fertility problem was the broken loving union of the progenitors.
Some people interpret my practice of watching a movie every evening as an evasion of life, while accepting my writing as a valuable thing to do -- a participation. (Besides it might turn a profit.) But they are mistaken. (Especially about the profit part!) It’s very possible to just passively sit in front of the television, being entertained and letting one’s thoughts ramble. But it’s just as possible to make it an interaction, even a challenge. Of course, it’s a huge help to have the director’s comments on the DVD and also to have access to reviews and the ability to look up stuff like Hinduism on the Internet. This kind of active watching often powers the writing, as you are witnessing at this moment.
There’s a new Batman sequel coming out. (Always!) It will change the terms of the discussion if only by re-casting the main characters. In some ways, “The Waiting City” is a sequel to Jean Renoir’s “The River,” which I saw in 1951 when I was twelve, at that time of life when one stands on the shore, waiting to be swept into the action. It marked me deeply with the conviction that movies are not idle, but rather deeply moral, quite apart from Mother Theresa. “Mystical infusion” is the quality of a culture, not a person.