Sunday, August 29, 2010
James Batman (Artemio Marquez, 1966)
Artemio Marquez's James Batman (1966) is, to put it kindly, bizarre; the print is barely legible, from a poor VHS transfer, apparently, and if it wasn't for the subtitles I would probably still be trying to decipher what they're saying to this day.
Beyond the technical difficulties, it's a turgid affair that moves in stops and starts--a funny setpiece here, and there, separated in between by dull bits of business (gun fights, fist fights, car chases, flat expository bits, so on and so forth), not to mention a bizarre melodramatic moment where the heroine (Shirley Moreno) pleads with her father (Ven Medina) not to destroy the world (complicated--don't ask). Marquez isn't known for his storytelling craft; when asked to cobble together a film he does so haphazardly, like making a sausage, fat and gristle stuffed in between the meaty bits.
That said, the meaty bits are nothing short of inspired. Batman is called before an international league of nations (they don't quite call it the United Nations, and anyway the meeting place isn't in New York, but in what looks like either a government building or a bank lobby) to stop a "dangerous organization" called CLAW (a more vivid acronym for a villainous organization than Ian Fleming's less substantial-sounding SPECTRE). The league isn't content with just Batman, however; they call in James Bond as well, and both heroes stand side by side, full to the brimming with alpha male bravado. "We have a dangerous assignment for you," the league chairman tells the two heroes. "I'll do it--I'm all about danger!" "No, I'll do it!" "No, I'll do it!" "No, I'll do it!"
"It's an organization capable of destroying the world," the chairman informs them. "He can do it." "No, he can do it." "No, he can do it." "No, he can do it."
The scene is funnier when you know that Rodolfo V. Quizon (a.k.a. Dolphy) plays both Bond and Batman, thanks to the trickery of a good, old-fashioned optical printer (no digital nonsense for these people, no sir).
There's a lovely bit where Batman and 'Rubin' (Boy Alano) slide down their fireman's pole into the Batcave. Batman orders Rubin to fetch a black suitcase and lay it on their worktable; he opens it, takes out a package, carefully unwraps it to reveal boiled rice. With two fingers he scoops up the rice into his mouth. "Needs flavor," he decides; from a pocket in his utility belt he produces cherry tomatoes. Rubin crosses to the chemical laboratory and whips up a clear mixture in an Erlenmeyer flask, pours it into a ramekin. "Vinegar" he explains; Batman slaps him upside of the head. "Idiot," he says; "you can buy some from the corner store for a nickel."
Bond doesn't have anything comparable save for the scene where he's liplocked with a girl in bed; somehow the girl manages to produce a handgun and fires into Bond's belly; she keeps firing, but the bullets only seem to inflame Bond's desire (turns out he was wearing a bulletproof vest). Bond is uncomfortably aggressive here; one might say overly earnest to the point of attempted rape. Dolphy's reading of Bond seems not at all far from mine (and, I'd say, that much more honest): basically a misogynist, a man who hates women, and an unredeemed bastard.
I'd mentioned Marquez's lackluster direction when a scene wasn't supposed to be funny, or sexy, or exciting; when things come to life, though, so does his filmmaking. High-angle shots, low-angle shots, shots that swoop in on their subject, all cut together with remarkable fluency. Even the actors catch Marquez's spirit--jumping onto railings, hanging off of buildings, charging down one driveway after another to give the impression of an actual car chase. On occasion someone will swing and miss, and you would catch that miss clear as sun in a cloudless sky, but even that is a kind of left-handed compliment; at least with Marquez you can see the choreography well enough to know when a blow just missed. With other Batman directors (Christopher Nolan, can you hear me?) the shaky cam is so shaky, the editing so wretchedly slapped together you couldn't tell if they're fighting, much less exchanging blows.
Do I prefer this Batman? It's funnier, though sometimes not by much, which is saying something--I've always suspected Nolan of being humor-challenged, or wit-impaired, and Marquez in his inconsistency can be as bad. One can make a case for inventive Asians appropriating and subverting two Western pop icons, but the Batman and James Bond storylines don't really mix, don't really accumulate momentum or metaphoric power, and don't really subvert the meaning behind these icons beyond an occasional de-pantsing (well, there's Bond's aforementioned attempted rape, but that's dropped the second it becomes disturbing).
When the jokes do connect, however, it's like nothing on Earth--Monty Python meets Bob Kane meets Ian Fleming meets Rodolfo Quizon (a.k.a. Dolphy) meets the inimitably hit-or-miss Artemio Marquez, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, I dare you to find a moral lesson in all that. Wonderful stuff--difficult to follow at times, but worth putting up with for the more demented moments.