27 July 2012

CATWOMAN HISTORY

The much-maligned 2004 summer flop Catwoman, despite its reputation as being totally valueless, actually serves an extremely important function: it provides an easy answer to the question of what is the absolute worst superhero movie adapted from a DC or Marvel title in the 21st Century, thus keeping many bar fights between cinephiles from getting too much out of hand, and also providing a safety net for every person who ever directs a superhero movie for the rest of time: "Well, that completely sucked, but it was no Catwoman".

The idea for a feature film centered around DC's charismatic action girl anti-hero hed been around at least since the mid-1990s, when Michelle Pfeiffer declined to revisit the role she so brilliantly essayed in 1992's Batman Returns; from that moment, a Catwoman picture existed in many different vague forms, with many different connections to the comic book character, to the Pfeiffer creation, or some entirely new figure with the name and approximate history of one or both; the final judgment is that the eventual Catwoman we have is credited with story by Theresa Rebeck and John Brancato & Michael Ferris, and screenplay by Brancato & Ferris and John Rogers, but who really can say? It has the feeling of one of those movies that came into being because nobody wanted to be the one to stop it, and can no more be blamed on one writer or another than it can be blamed on the movements of the stars in the sky. I'll tell you who we can blame, though: who we can blame like a motherfucker, is the director Pitof, a visual effects artist (he worked on multiple Jean-Pierre Jeunet films) who was born Jean-Christophe Comar, and was able to direct three whole movies before they made him stop: shockingly, Catwoman is the second, meaning that a) he already, presumably, knew what he was doing, and b) somebody looked at Catwoman and said, "Okay, we'll give this man some of our money to make a picture".

There is not, I want to be completely clear, a good movie inside the Catwoman script that was filmed. But there was at least a way to mitigate it, and Pitof did not do that; instead, he found a way to make a film that was already doomed even worse. This movie isn't just bad, it's mean: bad in such systemic ways that even the smallest measure of joy you might otherwise get from it in bits and pieces are strangled by the bare hands of hectic action that can only be followed in a theoretical way, some of the worst CGI in any major comic book movie of the 2000s (there is a CGI housecat that will haunt my nightmares till I die, probably of cat-related suicide) and performances that run over the top and then right of the cliff. It is kind of exciting, really, how brutally overclocked this movie is, how paced like a jackhammer operated by a meth addict. If an action can possibly be stretched out over six disjointed shots, then by God, Pitof and crew found a way to make it take ten. There is a scene that takes place in a nightclub; it's thus a given that it is thus scored with a screaming techno throb that dives into your cerebral cortex and starts taking a mallet to the tenderest parts of your skull, but even worse, it has been lit with a crazy, actively disorienting strobe light effect that actively dislikes even the idea of continuity or fluid motion, turning the movie into several pinpricks of human writhting divorced of even the context of the human body. It's like a Euro-trash Sprite commercial.

Catwoman follows the lead of Batman Returns, in presenting us with a Catwoman who isn't just a savvy jewel thief (and, sometimes, ex-prostitute) who dresses as an animal because that's how you do in Gotham City (which may or may not be where the current film takes place - it isn't said), but a mousy secretary who gets the holy shit killed out of her after she discovers that her corrupt boss has a terrible plan to ruin everybody's lives for money, and is thereafter resurrected by the life energies of many cats, to become something of a feline spirit living in a human soul. In Catwoman, we find that neither Selina Kyle of the earlier movie (briefly glimpsed in a photograph in one shot), nor this film's Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is by any means the "first" or "real" Catwoman, but that Catwomanhood is a privilege stretching back to the days of pharaonic Egypt, and all Catwomans are simply avatars of the true Catwoman present in all women who want to be strong and free; it's kind of like the idea behind the post-Alan Moore version of Swamp Thing applied to Catwoman, so at least it all stays within the DC fold.

Patience-Catwoman's particular job is as art director for a major cosmetics company, Hedare, and her corrupt bosses are George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), a husband-and-wife team on the outs since he is having an affair with the new dumb model face of the company, right after ousting his wife from her 15-year tenure as primary model. This is all right on the eve of the introduction of their new product, Beau-Line (which is pronounced at least three ways by different people over the course of the film), an age-reversing cream with a nasty side-effect: use it too long, and your skin becomes addicted, and if you stop using it, you turn into a melty-skin zombie sort of looking creature; use it for even longer and your skin becomes like granite. Patience is killed for finding this out by accident; as Catwoman, she fights to keep Beau-Line off the market, but is framed for the murders of Hedare scientist Slavicky (Peter Wingfield), and then of George Hedare himself, since it turns out, contrary to what we're initially led to believe that George himself was just a puppet in the hands of the evil, image-obsessed, beautiful and granite-skinned Laurel, a twist that undoubtedly shocked the three people in 2004 who saw this without knowing anything whatsoever about Sharon Stone.

I can't stress how awful this feels when you're watching it: the idea was very obviously that since Catwoman is a girl hero, they better make a movie about girl stuff; hey, girls like make-up, so let's make her a crusader for safer make-up. This is the same reason that when they decided to make a girl version of the He-Man toy line in the '80s, they included hairbrushes and changeable outfits, and made She-Ra a princess instead of a barbarian warrior. Yes, Catwoman is always, pointedly, a female-issues superhero, but usually this involves things like mauling rapists, not having dazzlingly ill-structed fight scenes with evil beauty supply executives. Supergirl was more authentically feminist than this. If nothing else, it serves as a harsh reminder that just because a film passes the Bechdel Test, that doesn't automatically mean it's empowering to anybody who watches it, particularly when it puts Berry in such a tiny outfit that seems so likely to fall off entirely if the wind switches, or if she breathes too quickly.

Honestly, I have to be thankful for that; if not for the colossal absence of tact with which Pitof's camera ogles Berry, there would be absolutely nothing pleasurable about Catwoman whatsoever. Not its criminally musty, stupid plot; not its whirlwind of cartoon performances, which for the men range from "cartoon Euro sleaze" to "nobly constipated", and for the women range from "slutty" to "sluttily evil"; not its leaden Klaus Badelt score, which drones on and on without ever providing a single memorable note; not its terribly overwrought action pieced together in the idea that as long as there are enough cuts with enough titanic crashes on the soundtrack (at one point, a shirt falls off a hanger with that *kshing!* noise that movie samurai swords make when you pull them out of the scabbard), you will think that it is exciting and riveting instead of clumsy. I think that, in the particular case of Catwoman, nobody has ever thought that. This is about as much fun as slamming your own face with a frying pan, and at least as far removed from anything published by DC Comics.

4 comments:

dfa said...

I think this film became something of a cult favorite for teenage girls. At any rate, I had a crush on She-Ra as a child, so that may be worse.

Thrash Til' Death said...

In my and my friends' regular Bad Movie Night, this film stands up alongside Highlander 2 as one of the more fruitful riffing exercises we've ever undertaken. A particularly inexplicable moment comes in a scene when Stone gives a press conference where the images of her head purportedly being projected simultaneously in the background clearly have different coloured eyes. How does that even happen!?

Shalen said...

I disagree with nothing you've said about Catwoman; it's She-Ra about whom I have a bone to pick. She and He-Man are both barbarian warriors AND oddly disconnected royalty (he's Prince Adam, remember).

I loved those dolls with their badass swords and shields and, as I was a seven to ten-year-old girl, I also loved the real hair. I mean what was the alternative there? The rigid plastic helmets they gave the He-Man figures?

True, some of them were canonically without much agency, but that's because Glimmer was the designated dumbass in distress, not because she was female. I'd argue the show, and toys, were neither more nor less silly ( and awesome) than their male counterparts, and I'm sad so many fewer were ever made.

Zev Valancy said...

Good news! A new Pitof film is in the works! Starring Billy Zane!

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1843318/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_1