In the summer of 1989, I had just completed my first year at Columbia University, fresh out of the family car from Dallas, Texas. While some might say the winters in New York have gotten milder, the summers have not changed: it was miserably hot. I was living in a dorm room in Wien Hall, a block of Soviet-style student quarters in a tall red brick tower whose most exotic characteristics were its co-ed bathrooms and the private sink in each room. My diet was terrible: pancakes, hamburgers, coffee, soda, bagels, beer. I was not in a good place. The academic year had left me spent. I hadn’t slept much, with all the work, but my grades had nevertheless been poor. Most of my acquaintances (I had few friends) had left for the summer. The campus was thoroughly empty. At sunset, the expansive steps of Low Library, full during the school year, could boast just a few random, out-of-shape young souls hunched over unusually large slices of pizza (my other choice for dinner). The view north on Amsterdam Avenue, which seemed like a glittering slope of traffic lights and taillights leading down into unknown territory from September to May, now seemed like a shimmering tunnel into a bottomless oven. Dangerous. Out of bounds. Chaos. I was touchy, every second: the smallest thing could send me into a funk for days. Love, or anything remotely like it, was very, very far off. My Friday nights often began and ended with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, open until 9. That was my life. The city itself wasn’t much better off than I was. The crime rate, which had been escalating for the past few decades, was at an unusually high point. That spring, the Central Park Jogger incident had occurred, with all that event entailed, damage lasting for many years afterwards. The crack business was thriving: the corner of 94th and West End was known as “Crack Central.” The homeless population on the Upper West Side was large and often aggressive. In this climate, along with a bunch of other seemingly harmless summer movies, Tim Burton’s Batman opened in 1989, on June 23.
I wasn’t necessarily initially drawn to see the film. As a
high school student, I had watched mainly foreign films—Bergman, Fellini,
Truffaut—or older classics—The Wild One,
Streetcar, Psycho. In fact, I’d studiously stayed away from anything
that didn’t have a fair amount of cultural intellectual endorsement. Due to the
nurturing influence of a number of friends in high school, I’d cautiously added
certain American directors, most notably Martin Scorsese (whose frequent
lunches in the Columbia student center were a high point of the academic year)
and Woody Allen (ah, the pleasure of seeing Radio
Days or Hannah and Her Sisters at
the time of their release!). Something, though, got me to the theater, to see
Burton’s film: perhaps it was my love of Beetlejuice,
perhaps it was the concept of casting someone as schlubby as Michael Keaton as
a superhero; maybe it was the heat. But there I was. And, at the time, I
probably found the film quite entertaining, and funny: Michael Keaton was still
a relatively new talent to me. Jack Nicholson retained some of the mystery he
held for me after having starred in The Shining, Prizzi’s Honor, and Terms of
Endearment, all within one career. And Kim Basinger, was, for most 19-year-old
heterosexual males, still carrying the line of credit for titillation she’d earned in 9½ Weeks, however witheringly wrong-headed
that film might seem at this point. Watching Batman today is a bit like watching the 1970s Star Wars today: the good parts stand out, the bad parts seem
worse. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a remarkable figure, the work of an actor
pulling out all the stops, enjoying himself, and possibly scaring himself in
the process. Michael Keaton’s self-consciousness is still amusing, his mouthed
“I’m Batman” still an indication that this is, above and beyond its
A couple of things about the film, though, do endure. One
is, of course, its design. Burton’s Gotham/New York, as Anton Furst created it,
is a dangerous, gritty place, and at the time, it matched New York all too
well. Although, as with all of Burton’s films, you can practically see the
brushstrokes in his urban tableaux, you can still sense a seething energy in
the frame, as the old (the dilapidated look of the buildings, the pedestrians
in fedoras) brushes up against the new (the shiny look of the taxicabs). In
1989, Times Square was still a dangerous, seedy, unpredictable place; the risk
of being mugged there, if you were alone, was considerable. I remember being
palpably nervous when going there in broad daylight to get a fake ID (so I
could see a show at the long-departed King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut), so nervous, in
fact, that I gave my dormitory address as my home address for my “Official
Identification Card.” Avenue A, bordering Tompkins Square, was not for lone
travelers after dark, and really not much fun during the daytime either.
Williamsburg was barely a place, it was so dangerous. When I looked at the blue-black
hues of Burton’s Gotham, I saw a reflection of the city I both worshipped and,
from a Texan’s perspective, feared.
In addition, its Black-White-and-Gray Morality Play lasts. I identified with this aspect of it partially because of my own mental state at the time. I was blasted out from a year’s worth of reading everything from classics to Lolita to Mayakovsky to Marquez to Hobbes to Hume, lonely, freaked out, psychologically tired from combating the regular pressure New York puts on a novice. The world began to seem like one of extremes to me: either a day was good, or it was terrible. Either I was sated, or I was starving. Either I was wide awake, or I was collapsing. Similarly, the movie’s polarities are dramatic: Rich vs. Poor. Innocent vs. Corrupt. Happy vs. Unhappy. Past vs. Present. (In other words, it's a movie based on a comic book.) The movie isn’t necessarily simple-minded—these qualities dance around each other, and occasionally disguise themselves, in the film, but the manipulation we witness is writ large. There’s nothing complex about the way the complexity is expressed. Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he is tormented about it—and then, on the other hand, he isn’t. All of these sides of his character are openly stated. Similarly, the Joker’s complicated stance—a crook out-crooked by his more crooked boss, with a tremendous sense of humor (remember his sparing of the Francis Bacon grotesques in the museum? Or “I’m no Picasso”? Or “This town needs an enema”?)—makes him both malevolent and sympathetic, as with all the great villains of literature and film. His complexities, as with Batman’s, were broadcast on such a large scale that you would have had to have been asleep or deeply stupid not to have noticed them. So, my younger self, nursing the dogmatically snotty should-I-be-here feeling only a 19-year-old can pull off, sat in the theater, surprised at the degree to which I could relate to the film, and to its warped figures.
Things would improve: for Batman retellings, for Gotham, and for me. It would be hard to deny, in all honesty, that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, based as they are on a more nuanced telling of the superhero’s story, are more subtle, more multi-layered, more deftly filmed, more atmospheric, and possibly more profound than Burton’s version, or any of its sad successors; Batman Returns could boast the gifts of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, but the series did not progress well after that point (enough said). New York City looked up after 1989 as well; while David Dinkins’ mayoralty of New York was problematic on many levels, the crime rate was reduced, and with each successive leader, the metropolis has continued to change. Today, Times Square is a clean, well-maintained tourist depository; Avenue A is prime real estate territory and a dining destination; and many parts of Williamsburg resemble a suburb populated by Ivy-League educated hipsters who like drinking beer out of the can. And me? Well, my days became more well-rounded, the summers shorter; my sociability intensified; my mind grew; my urban environment became, rather than a vast zoo in which I was wandering without defenses, a complex place with which I would develop a relationship, much like an interpersonal relationship—and a place in which I would build a life. Nevertheless, I remember Burton’s film as a document of the summer of 1989, of a particularly odd patch in my own life, and as a film with a tremendous amount of, for lack of a better word, soul, with all of that word’s glories and imperfections.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.