Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1920's Batman: Arkham After Midnight

Last week I posted Parts 1 and 2 of Andre Perkowski's collage of what a 1920s silent Batman film might have been like, and here's Parts 3 and 4, a two-part narrative heavily inspired by Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. I conducted a lengthy Q&A with Perkowski and posted the results below.

First Part of Arkham After Midnight

Second Part of Arkham After Midnight

Tim Callahan: What's your process? How do you make these shorts?

Andre Perkowski: Digital dowsing. A random, chance-based flicking around on the timeline of the source material. If anything catches the eye, I cut it out for possible use later. Flicking around like this, you can get a frame from the first 5 minutes, a second from the middle of the film, and a bit of the ending jumbled up together very quickly. This can turn up interesting connections between the apparently divergent shots... our brains want these cuts to make sense, and they are trained by a lifetime of television to absorb images and weave a narrative around them. If you're willing to suspend your disbelief a bit and go with the oozing mood of it, it all seems to flow together as part of a whole... the oozing mood is a big part, the magic of sound welded to image is what really makes it pop and flow together. They may have been silent films, but they did have some old biddy wailing away on the organ.

I usually have a list of kinds of shots or actions I'm looking for, and haphazardly go through many films in a row just clicking around randomly until I get more than enough. Then I'm left with a big pile of seemingly disparate clips, I organize them by character and location... or sometimes they organize me, as some things just stick out and edit themselves.

TC: How much did you add to the found footage, besides the title cards? Did you add any special effects (and how did you get that Bat-Signal)?

AP: The bat-signal is untouched from 1926's The Bat. A flashlight and a moth cutout of some sort used as a calling card for the title character, but still fairly similar and you can see that image nestling in the early Batman comics crew's mind, burrowing into their brain and being regurgitated back later subconsciously. Or maybe they just plain swiped and re-appropriated it for a totally different purpose like I did.

I considered adding some creepy b&w 16mm and Super-8 stuff I shot initially, but then reconsidered and thought it would be more entertaining and less clumsy to stay roughly in the right time period. There was tracking stacking at the bottom of the 49 serial footage so I added some vignetting to mask it, trimmed frames here and there to compress scenes and give it a choppy print effect. "Cut-up, slow down, speed up, run backwards," as William S. Burroughs summed it up. I tried not to use too many jarring digital effects as the CG title cards were bad enough.

TC: Why did you make these Batman films?

AP: Pure experimentation and summer holiday pleasure, as a break from working on my supposed "real" films that take years and drag on forever. This one was just an idea had walking back from seeing The Dark Knight, how would I have shot it? Being a retro freak, black and white for starters. 1939. Pulpy. Shadowy. Uncomfortable, itchy, and filled with throbbing industrial noises and wind. A bit of Lynch, a dash of Welles, a clove of Guy Maddin. Not having much money, it'd have to be non-sync sound film. Now we're getting a bit too excited so the real world kicks in: its DC's baby, the thought of making a "fan film" seems vaguely disreputable despite my own total lack of a reputation, and I have my own malnourished film toddlers to take care of! So I filed it away in the "hmmm" section. Until a few days later when I remembered The Bat and Conrad Veidt's proto-Joker. Insert light bulb and exclamation mark over head, dissolve to one long weekend of crazy editing/collaging/cobbling... there it is. I had such a huge amount of fun making the first short, turned up lots of great unused material, and seemed to entertain a decent amount of people in a short time as opposed to my usual er, peculiar stuff. So why not make a serial with what's left and put my disorienting 3 A.M. mark on the character before moving on? Cheaper than processing 16mm film, anyway. I agonize over that enough.

TC: But why Batman, exactly?

AP: So it all comes full circle. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson took a certain amount from some of these films to create their good old-fashioned enduring icon and his adversaries. The Bat is pretty obvious: sure, the character is a burglar in it. But he also travels around buildings with ropes, has a Batsignal, and dresses up like a giant bat to scare people. Hmm. Does that ring many bells? The Joker's look in the early comics looks pretty much like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, and they have cited the film as well. Combined, shuffled, and rewritten, it seemed to work quite well and made this man laugh, anyway. Besides, Superman didn't have many pubic domain film influences. Metropolis doesn't count, alas it isn't PD. The German Expressionist mood lends itself really well to Mr. Wayne and his personal problems.

TC: How did you develop new stories out of bits and pieces from unrelated films?

For the first one I knew I had to tell the origin story, so I'm riffing off of the Kane/Finger version and adding my own idiosyncratic spin and made-up vintage dialogue and syntax that never quite existed... being limited to 4 or 5 minutes in The Bat where he actually exists made it pretty easy to work around it.

Marv Wolfman enjoyed it, then it looks like his writer side kicked in with: "Boy it would be interesting if a story was possible, but as you said, copyright and all that." Yeah, I thought. Ah well. Then the next day took it as a challenge and thought, well - why not give it a try. Could be fun to make a little story arc with cliffhangers... of course, I was almost legally mandated to have them since I had already used up all the footage in The Bat and didn't want to bore people by repeating it. So its off to sampling the Batman and Robin 1949 serial, cropping and carefully cutting it right to the very frame JUST before Robin appears. Its a shame to lose the 20s look and attempts at aging and vignetting digitally always look fairly corny, but at least now there's a huge pool of material of the hero to use... now what does he do? For the followup, I knew I wanted to stuff it with all sorts of freaks, monsters, and villains since there are so many
interesting creations in these early films. So there's my location sorted out, as there's that one lax security place in Gotham that seems to have a nice population of freaks, monsters, and villains. Also makes it easier to link prison, asylum, or just hallways from many different films to somewhat create the illusion that it's one place. These are the kinds of meaningless tasks I set for myself in the summer to stay out of the humidity and avoid thinking about actual work. I just confined myself to one month to do them all and then move on before the barrel gets scraped a bit too much.

TC: As a Batman fan, what particular incarnations of the character have you enjoyed?

AP: Almost all of them at different points in my life. I grew up with daily showings of the '66 series, hit the comics, was vaguely disappointed (and then so repulsed I opted out entirely) by the movies, stopped following most comics from 1993-2008 or so. Lately I've been digging out old boxes, cackling at the serials, and have really enjoying the quirkiness of those '39 to mid '40s Bob Kane/Bill Finger stories. Cook them all up together and there's the result ready to be scraped off your monitor.

TC: What do you think about Morrison's current Batman run?

AP: I loved Arkham Asylum, the influence dribbles all over the serials and I wish I could make such gorgeous collage paintings. Morrison's fun references were like taking a pen and checklist to my bookshelves at the time, so what's not to love. I think it holds up a lot better than a lot of Miller's hilarious patchwork right wing drool-covered rants, so when I heard about this fabled current run a few weeks ago over something inexplicably called a "German Breakfast," I ordered some after being befuddled in a nice way by the recent bits. Clearly there's an intricate lysergic backstory that needs absorbing.

TC: You said The Dark Knight movie started you thinking about manufacturing these silent versions of yours, but what are your feelings about that film?

Great big gobs of summer movie fun and an enjoyable air conditioned escape from your friendly local urban hellhole. Nice to see Chicago, city of my windy nightmares twisted just so into Gotham. Must've been meticulously exhilarating to make. Properly pitched acting except the inexplicable moments of pro-wrestler outbursts from Bats. Sounded like those taunts they'd do between matches in front of a brick wall... "I'm gonnnaaa get youuuu Jokeeeer and I'm gonna shooow you that Hacksaw Jim Duggan is gonna ta-" Etc etc. When he rants about good in that voice I'm vaguely uncomfortable. Maybe some sort of pitchshifted/fx-ed Radio Shack cowl-based whisper would've worked better.

TC: What projects are you working on for the future?

AP: There are screenings and associated strangeness for my double feature of Ed Wood Jr. adaptations this year, Devil Girls and The Vampire's Tomb. Two early features finally forced out into an uncaring world. Trailers can be had at YouTube: Terminal Pictures and there are no men with huge furry ears in them that I know of, and I've checked. In theory there might even be DVDs for them along with my real epic that'll have grad students eyes a-straining to footnote about one day, "I Was a Teenage Beatnik and/or Monster for the Literal Underground!" I'll have info on that page about dates/cities as well as a site that'll pop up about 'em.

There's a ridiculous Super-8 feature length semi-surrealist ode to bad 80s kung fu being wrapped up in the editing department entitled A Belly Full of Anger that is just...beyond words. I know what you're probably thinking, but the truth is: even stranger. With voiceover cameos by Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theatre and Trace Beaulieu of Cinematic Titanic/Mystery Science Theater 3000. So we have the theatres and the theaters covered. I just need another pile of film transferred for that and it can be pretty expensive to do it right. Hence the frustrating delay leading me to playing with title cards! There's a trailer for that as well on the youtube page along with 124 other videos or so. I don't sleep much.

Then I have to edit yet another backlog feature, a grimy industrial noir entitled The Man Who Couldn't Lose shot in B&W 16mm/Super-8... how do I describe that one? The mood at 2am around that stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike heading out of NYC when it suddenly gets all Blade Runner-y on you... smoke, stink, grease, and discolored quasi-darkness lit by blinking lights cutting through toxic fumes.

As if that's not enough, there are piles of sketches, faux trailers, and shorts to edit, plus an endless documentary on fringe filmmaking with all the folks I've stumbled into or admired. So until this editing work is done I'm not taking on anything new until next year, probably. Unless I suddenly decide walking back from the new Woody Allen movie that I have to retell Annie Hall using a magic lantern.

Being a no-budget underground filmmaker mostly working with hideously expensive (for me, anyway) filmstocks due to a profound loathing of digital video, I work in spurts and like a painter. A very disorganized, very eccentric painter. Picking up one canvas, tossing another aside, trying to rescue one months later. If its my money, my debt, my pain, why not? I figure if I ever get sucked into more commercial work full-time instead of occasional dabbles and quick retreats, I'll cherish these years of futzing around with whatever I wanted to with no limitations but money, actors aging, and sanity. On second thought, please assist me in selling out right now and I'll helm a Solomon Grundy direct to video movie.

1 comment:

sjstedwick said...

Great interview, Timothy. Take it from me, he can go non-stop Firesign Theatre-mode on you and rattle off endless surrealist loops instead of answering questions about film-making. No offense, Mr. Perkowski. Everybody loves endless surrealist loops, except interviewers holding pens.

How are comic book fans taking this project, anybody want to comment? I don't know much about but Batman, don't get the in-jokes about the villains beyond Joker, but love the music and mood.