Dec 9, 2022·edited Dec 9, 2022Liked by Anna Rettberg

I would be interested to know the screenwriting process as well, to me it feels like they didn't care about coherent arcs, suspense or anything like that, but instead, they tried to put as much stuff in as they could to give the film a chaotic vibe. Since there's a carnivalesque atmosphere it made sense to me that things were not super tight, but I would not praise that as good screenwriting. On that particular instance, I felt it could be compared to Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space", with three different villains, changes of tone, etc. I like that kind of stuff so it didn't bother me, but I'm not sure they were telegraphing it enough to make it obvious.

On a thematic level, the timing is great for watching the film, I think parallels can be made between the Catwoman's origin story and Jeanne Dielman. I have no problems watching a character peeling potatoes for 3 and a half hours, but I think the portrayal of Selina in Batman Returns is very good as well. You see how there was no consideration for her in the meeting at the beginning, she's threatened by her boss (and the weird lighting emphasizes that), she's attacked in the streets by a thug, and you see her doing domestic tasks (sewing). Obviously, it goes faster than in Jeanne Dielman, but the staging is very effective and made the point of social alienation very clear I think.

The music is brilliant too. One thing I noticed that was very interesting is that they used a harp for the Penguin motif and the Penguin mentioned the harp in the dialogues ("I played this stinkin' city, like a harp from hell!"). So it's a direct reference to the way motifs are used for characters. It's a little bit counter-intuitive to think about the harp as dark, but it can be and Elfman took his inspiration from Mahler and Shostakovich. Elfman was also inspired by Schnittke and Bartok for Catwoman's music. And there's a chord change in the Batman theme that comes from Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. I'll find the clips and put that in another comment.

All in all, I really enjoyed the film. As you said, it's also very elaborate on the visual side. The sewer scenes made me think of Fellini, with the clowns and the penguins, it had a very carnivalesque, surreal vibe. But yes, the writing is a little bit puzzling.

Expand full comment

Yeah I think the problem with the writing is maybe just that it doesn't commit to any particular direction, so it just kind of feels "stuck". Had the screenplay eschewed any traditional structure and just been about carnival-esque chaos, that might have worked quite well for this movie. But because it was sort-of chaotic, but then sort-of also trying to be about a clear series of character arcs and events that lead up to a climax, it just kind of went nowhere.

I would say that this trend sort-of continues throughout the Nolan Batman movies as well, and perhaps arguably "The Batman" too (which we watched on the club). The first Nolan Batman (Batman Begins) was a fairly clear and concise plot that made reasonable sense. But the second and third ones felt not dissimilar to Batman Returns: there's a whole lot of scenes, but none of them really line up, and the endings feel unsatisfying just like Batman Returns.

I suppose it might come down to the fact that people expect a superhero film to have a superhero ending, and all that, so it may not be possible to be like "look man, this is a slice-of-life superhero film, some stuff just sort of _happens_" etc., etc. Which makes me wonder what that kind of thing would be like :) The closest thing I can think of to that would be maybe "Midnight Special", but it's not really the same thing.

Expand full comment
Dec 10, 2022·edited Dec 10, 2022

That's what I felt about Batman Returns too. I have seen the first Nolan Batman but not the other two so I can't tell, but in general I am not a huge fan of his work.

For Batman Returns, from Tim Burton's visual influences I can tell he knows Fellini, who deliberately played with story structure and ended up with movies that felt loosely connected and unresolved. I don't know, maybe Tim Burton felt confident that the visuals would be enough so he did not mind a script that was not super well written. The intro scene looks like Citizen Kane, he has German expressionism influences throughout, etc. In my opinion, the directing and the soundtrack are phenomenal so I can imagine that could have been their thought process.

Expand full comment
Dec 9, 2022Liked by Anna Rettberg

The music in Selina's apartment is very similar to Bartok 1st quartet. The dynamics are not the same, but you have the same drone at the bass (cello in the quartet and harp in Batman's score) and high pedal notes at the violins.

Batman: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=246

Bartok: https://youtu.be/QRIv-F6EkZg?t=357

Just before when Selina falls from the window, the influence is Schnittke, with clusters and trills. Elfman is a fan of Schnittke, the theme of Beetlejuice is very similar to Schnittke's piano concerto. On a thematic level, Schnittke was also interested in the carnivalesque and mixing of styles so it fits very well with Tim Burton's sensibilities.

Batman: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=200

Schnittke: https://youtu.be/uLLjwf9yuuQ?t=182

Beetlejuice: https://youtu.be/oZktSPrGSck?t=38

Schnittke: https://youtu.be/E8IwbnmJ_8M?t=496

The Penguin's harp theme uses low register of the harp. There are many passages like that in Mahler and Shostakovich, that's what they used when they wanted to go really dark.

Batman: https://youtu.be/FLLa0OXJIP4?t=24

Mahler: https://youtu.be/tY1un5Iquus?t=3510

Shostakovich: https://youtu.be/fdpx2sWo0hk?t=3765

And the Batman theme with the chromatic modulation: https://youtu.be/LN3OLxHTq98?t=31

Schoenberg: https://youtu.be/2jzizAzTEDk?t=3559

I'm not 100% sure it's the exact same modulation, I would have to check, but it goes from minor to major on a chord that is not in the same scale (so it sounds brighter all of a sudden.)

Expand full comment
Dec 9, 2022·edited Dec 9, 2022

Just a note for the Schoenberg video, the music theory specialist who did the video complains that this particular modulation is so used that it has worn off. Maybe it's true for other scores ( as an example Hans Zimmer tends to repeat himself a lot from film to film, and he also repeats the same chord changes often), but in Batman Returns it works very well and the whole score does not feel generic at all to me. The youtube video explains in detail the modulation so it's an excellent reference, but I think he overgeneralized a little bit there...

I rewatched some scenes to find the excerpts and the scene where Selina trashes her apartment is as good as it gets. The music, the pacing, the camera angles, the acting, everything works perfectly, it's great cinema. I'll give a few pointers on what I'm seeing that I find interesting.

The scene starts with contre-jour lighting, and when the character turns on the light her expression is surprising:


Tim Burton breaks the 180 degree rule and places the camera at a low angle for a destabilizing effect, just when you hear "mother":


When she opens the wardrobe, the view is from inside, which is also a surprising effect: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=373

The doll's house shot is similar to the shot in Citizen Kane where the camera moves back from the snow globe. The thematic idea is the same, there's a breaking of fantasy. Honestly I think it's even more impactful in Batman Returns, it's super well made.

Citizen Kane: https://youtu.be/-r0b_XeRkG4?t=140

Batman: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=398

This shot is also very unusual and very expressive, you don't see often a close-up with a low angle like this: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=448

And to describe the flow of the editing a little bit, the first shot when the character enters the apartment is held longer (it looks a little bit like the scene in Psycho when the character looks for a place to hide the money.) Then the editing is quicker. I think the whole scene is just incredibly well-made.

Expand full comment

I really appreciate your deep dives into the movies we watch!

The music references are very interesting... I’m a huge Mahler fan and I feel like I often hear cues from his symphonies in film scores, but I totally missed this one!

I agree, the scene where Selina trashes her apartment and becomes Catwoman is really well done. It’s definitely one of the best scenes in the movie.

Expand full comment
Dec 10, 2022·edited Dec 10, 2022

I'm glad to hear that and it's a lot of fun for me to write as well! I'm learning a lot from your conversation, I don't mention it all the time but I notice much more details since the beginning of the movie club. As a few examples, I watched Pulp Fiction the other day and I saw that the dissolves between the scenes are much smoother than those of Paths of Glory, the dissolves between shots are really long in the intro scene of Mulholland Drive, etc. So I try to contribute with the same level of detail and complement with music.

The cue for Mahler is difficult to notice in Batman, Mahler uses the harp only for a couple of bars at a time. I have a friend who is harpist so I started paying more attention to those passages.

Another influence in the movie is Prokofiev. Elfman mixes childlike mood with darkness the same way Prokofiev does (as an example using glockenspiel in minor).

Batman: https://youtu.be/mVYPpqK5BNk?t=324

Prokofiev: https://youtu.be/VoKSyrs7InM?t=1914

Maybe just to wrap up, I rewatched the scene and I noticed the camera was not following the actress for the shot when she grabs the plush toys, the camera was fixed on the toys until she grabbed them (so it's more startling). Also there's a shot where the character goes off-screen, throwing stuff behind her. That's the kind of camerawork that Ozu would do. I think the scene shows that Tim Burton thinks with visual metaphors, he makes it feel like it's a natural language for him.

Expand full comment