What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Tuesday starts in Chicago. We are stuck in traffic on the way to O’Hare in the thickest fog. My son, who is in preschool, recites the planets and minor planets in order of distance from the sun at increasing volume. The flight is terrifying: first the takeoff into the fog, and then some bad turbulence, which the plane hits while I’m trying to take a piss in the aft lavatory. Then, finally, Los Angeles, which in fact resembles a parody of Los Angeles. I deplane and, upon exiting the jet bridge, am greeted by the sight of a barefoot first-class passenger in an upward lotus pose. I am taken by an Armenian cabbie to the wrong address, and then to the right address following an argument (in Russian) in which we agree to share responsibility, though it’s definitely his fault. After checking into my hotel in West Hollywood, I try to finish my review of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them in a nearby Starbucks, only to find myself completely surrounded by comedy writers.
I am here for a junket, and the next day or so is mostly a farce. My room key is demagnetized several times. I have to be picked up from the Chinese Theater by the one Uber driver who has never heard of the Chinese Theater. I see a film I won’t write about until next year. I show up to an interview with a director looking terrible. I am inexplicably recognized by strangers. My driver back to the airport is a very nice man who is still committed to the swing revival of the 1990s, and we listen to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Richard Cheese. And then, I am on the plane, on the long flight back to Chicago. I decide to watch A Bigger Splash on my little seat-back screen, due mostly to professional obligation, because I haven’t liked any of the other Luca Guadagnino movies I’ve seen. There, while I am pressed up against the window next to a mom and dad who continually check in on their teenage son in the row ahead, something unexpected happens: I get completely sucked into this manically overdetermined not-quite-thriller about the romantic tensions and suspicions of the rich and decadent.
I am taken with the Ralph Fiennes record producer character’s goofy dancing, his thinning hair, his long story about the recording of the “Moon Is Up” drum track for the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. (This monologue, I will later learn, was fact-checked by the Stones themselves before filming, a piece of trivia that I have to admit is kind of impressive.) I like how the film makes Tilda Swinton’s famous rock star more vulnerable by making her more remote and largely mute, and the fact that she is actually the least mysterious persona in the film. Perhaps against my better judgment, I am swept up in the incessant attack of Guadagnino’s camera, which strikes every room and character from as many angles as possible, through zooms, abrupt dollies, and point-of-view shots. I am reminded of something I’d once heard said about Michelangelo Antonioni, who made many movies about comfortable people in crisis: It wasn’t that he liked the rich, but that they simply had more time to spend on the kind of problems that interested him. For the life of me, I can’t remember where this statement came from, but it has stuck with me for years.
It strikes me now that it could be applied to anything outside the ordinary: to monsters, to superheroes. Or maybe it’s on my mind because the flight from Los Angeles was long, and I thought it was as good a time as any to revisit Batman Returns, which for some reason was also available as an in-flight selection. A.A. Dowd and I talk about this film with surprising frequency, because we are both about the right age for it to have been a formative experience; Tim Burton was probably the first director I could name. But I haven’t seen the film in many, many years, and it is somehow even weirder than I remember. (Also, I don’t think I realized until now that Christopher Walken’s bewigged Max Shreck was supposed to be a parody of Donald Trump, though a quick check of reviews and newspaper articles from the film’s 1992 release confirms this was the consensus at the time.)
Batman is barely in the first 45 minutes of the film, and so much of it plays as a morbid black comedy, contrasting the grotesquerie of the Penguin and Catwoman and the fascist architecture of Gotham with the relative wholesomeness of Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight. Revisiting Batman Returns also means revisiting the first indelible sequences of my life as a movie viewer. This is the scene where Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) wrecks her dumpy, all-pink apartment, and I still find it just as mysterious and unsettled. The shots of Pfeiffer drinking a carton of milk and spray-painting a black line down her living room wall have been burned into my mind. The other sequence that obsessed me as a kid was Arnold Schwarzenegger arming up on the beach before the climax of Commando. These are both erotic transformation scenes. I’m not sure what that says about me.