October 19, 2012

"I Got a Live One Here!"

 by Adam Sweeney

Batman (1989) - dir. Tim Burton

About hallway through Tim Burton's Batman, the Joker sits down to a meeting with his mob connections. He’s just gotten through killing his old boss over the set-up that turned him from Jack Napier to the Joker, and he is explaining to his audience that he is taking over as mob boss.

There is one man named Rotelli who sits at the opposite end of the table. He asks, "What if we say no?" in regards to the Joker's proposition of running the city into the ground. The Joker stands, seemingly gracious, and explains that he doesn't want a war and that they'll just shake hands. Rotelli seems a bit confused, but takes the Joker's hand anyway.

Suddenly, an electric buzzer is heard and Rotelli begins to shake. Turns out, the Joker had a hidden buzzer in his hand that electrocutes Rotelli where he stands. The Joker, finding humor in the situation, begins to sing an old show tune while Rotelli burns to a crisp in front of all his business partners. Once done, the Joker throws the now charred corpse of Rotelli back into his chair. He looks to the rest of the congregation of mobsters, tells them to think over his plan, and kicks them out.

This is where it gets dark.

The Joker is alone in a room with a blackened, smoky cadaver. He begins talking to the body, not just talking to it, but with it. This "conversation" leads the Joker to the conclusion that he must kill the rest of the people in the mob, while saying it was Rotelli's idea.

This is not the Batman TV series of the sixties. This is a horrific act, and yet, we accept it.

If you look at the Rotelli’s body, this isn't some wacky Tim Burton corpse (see Sleepy Hollow, Batman Returns). This is a burned body, not unlike one pulled from a car wreck.  What we just witnessed was an execution. I'm not entirely sure how this film got away with a PG-13 rating.

Maybe it was because of Nicholson's performance, juggling the funny with the downright insane. As an actor, his levity serves as a misdirection from the horror of the situation. You realize that he killed a man, that he electrocuted him and that he's intending to massacre the rest of the mob, but you still laugh. The things he says, the way he acts, his expressions. All of it lull you into this sense that you're not really seeing a murder. You're seeing a guy being playful with death.

Something else to take note of : a lot of the music in the film, provided by Danny Elfman, is upbeat and entertaining.  When it gets to the scene with Rotelli, it is incredibly dark.  The juxtaposition of the comic (Nicholson's performance) and the horrific (the music as well as what actually is occurring on scene) is brilliantly mixed.

So, what does this do to the audience? It establishes the Joker’s insanity, talking to a corpse, but also his brazen ruthlessness, killing a man in front of his allies. What makes the Joker’s actions so frightening is that, to him, death is just another stage of life, and should be treated with the same blasé attitude. To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker, he's just ahead of the curve.

If this scene was handled by any other director or actor, it probably would have come off as too dark, too grim because, really, this scene is directly out of a horror movie.

The Joker laughs off death because he has survived it already. He was dropped into a vat of chemicals and emerged from it a little the worse for wear, but relatively unscathed and, in many ways, stronger. Is Burton trying to tell us that death is not something to be afraid of? That we should start embracing it? It's entirely possible. The Joker certainly seems to think so.

Even the Joker's face resembles that of a grinning ghost, who mocks Rotelli for failing to cheat death (as the Joker has). At the end of the movie when the Joker falls from the building to his supposed death, the police come upon the crater the impact created and hear laughter coming from it. The Commissioner reaches into his pocket and pulls out his lucky deck of cards, an item that aided the Joker in his first escape from death.

Did the Joker cheat death a second time? The subsequent sequels never deal with that, though there is some speculation. What we do know is that the Joker jokingly embraces death, rather than fears it, a theme that features in many of Burton's movies: the horror mixed with the comic.

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