On Monday night at the Alamo Drafthouse I caught a screening of GUN CRAZY, the influential low-budget 1949 B-movie starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall as a pair of bank-robbing lovers on the run. If you don’t know Dall, he was a Ben Affleck lookalike who starred in two minor classics in about eighteen months and then barely acted again—the other classic being Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE. If you don’t know Hitchcock, then I really can’t help.
On Tuesday I caught a little bit different film – Zack Snyder’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, a zillion-dollar kryptonite hunk of an event movie hurtling toward Earth for months. Your superhuman strength to resist it has probably already weakened. The film also stars a noted Ben Affleck lookalike – in this case, Ben Affleck.
GUN CRAZY was made on a budget of about eighty-five cents. It runs a brisk eighty-five minutes—hey, that’s a penny a minute!—because they probably only shot about ninety minutes of film. To stand out, it relies solely on the gusto that its creators can huff and puff into it. Its big innovations were all those nutty shots from cameras mounted in the back seats of moving cars – including its celebrated three-minute one-take bank robbery scene. GUN CRAZY was likely the inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote, that to make a movie all you need is a girl and a gun. It was almost certainly a main inspiration for his masterpiece PIERROT LE FOU. And if you don’t know who Jean-Luc Godard was (and still is) …. oh, just forget it.
If this sounds like I’m about to launch into an old-fogey barely-knows-his-Gotham-from-his-Metropolis man-they-don’t-make-em-like-they-used-to stemwinder about how all the money in Hollywood can’t buy you heart … Well, if the cape fits …. But the thing is, I genuinely went into BATMAN V. SUPERMAN wanting to write that other column – the one about how films are the same whether they are made for eighty-five zillion dollars or eighty-five cents, that movies of all shapes and sizes succeed whenever terrific artists invest their heart and soul and vision into a project they feel passionately for. I could have written that review, and I really wanted to, because that’s what I believe. But man, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN didn’t give me much to work with. At least not at first. At least not for a while.
I sat there watching the beginning of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN wondering one thing: how could you possibly make a comic book movie that is this joyless? The first comic moment comes somewhere in the third hour. To succeed, superhero movies need either giddy adrenaline or dark intensity. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN chases its tail for the longest time without achieving either one. No one (other than Jesse Eisenberg as the hairiest Lex Luthor imaginable) seems to be having fun at all. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN comes across as just a string of beautiful, vacant images (and image without emotion is death).
And that’s what BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is for the first two hours, image without emotion. No joy. No love. No hate. No fear. Just a big cheese block of meh. The only emotions available are grief and sympathy, the grief and sympathy that you feel for the several musicians who must have died recording the nuclear-decibel score. But just as the string section starts the third hour of pounding cellos into parts of your head that you didn’t know existed, something vaguely miraculous happens. Somehow in the last half-hour, when we finally get to some actual Batman v. Superman action, the movie bangs into life. The images are so painterly, and the movie finally becomes a comic book sprung to life from the pages, with a joker sense of reality. And for about twenty or thirty minutes you get to think … eighty-five zillion dollars, eighty-five cents … it’s all the same when terrific artists give us their heart and soul and vision.
In between my screenings Monday and Tuesday I dreamt that a family member and I were domesticating tigers. I don’t remember much of the dream except the intensity of those orange-and-black streaks and the sharpness of the teeth involved. Snyder’s visual style is often compared to comic books, especially early in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN the solitary images look like comic book panels. But I’m happiest when Snyder dwells on exaggerated objects, where it seems like an over-real dream. Unlike 300, it takes Snyder a long boring while to get there. But BATMAN V. SUPERMAN finally gets there. And I was at least pleased or relieved by this.