Friday, July 23, 2004

The Secret Pleasure of Not Watching Catwoman

Today, some of my friends in an online chat forum were discussing and quoting critics on the Halle Berry movie Catwoman, which has drawn abysmal reviews from nearly every critic. Its Tomatometer reading is a remarkable 11%, which is to say almost 9 out of 10 critics reviewing it thought it stank. This is a level of awfulness to which most bad movies can only aspire. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other movie that ranked worse, and that would be Freddie Got Fingered.

One of my friends happened to mention on arriving that he was getting home instead of seeing Catwoman. "Yesterday I didn't go to see I, Robot," he said. "I'm not seeing a lot of movies this week." This put me in mind of something I had read recently; it took me a while to remember what it was, but then I realized it was a vignette by P.G. Wodehouse entitled "The Secret Pleasures of Reginald" (via ebook site BlackMask.com). The tale is about a fellow who spends a relaxing weekend not visiting a boring acquaintance...in detail.
"You don't understand. I do not mean that I am simply absent from Bodfish's place in the country. I mean that I am deliberately not spending the weekend there. When you interrupted me just now, I was not strolling down to Bodfish's garage, listening to his prattle about his new car."
It's one of Wodehouse's funnier short works, and I find it perfectly captures the spirit in which to consider rotten movies such as Catwoman—the great degree of pleasure one can derive from reading the reviews and then not going.

Why on earth did Hollywood have to mess around with Catwoman anyway? As many different versions as we've had already, it's not as if we really needed an entirely new one. What was the point? Wouldn't a film about Selena Kyle, cat burglar, be just as interesting? Heck, I could even stomach something about Selena Kyle, resurrected-and-brain-damaged secretary, from the Burton Batman movie. They didn't even go with the recent inner-city-prostitute comic book version, for that matter; this Catwoman seems totally new.

Catwoman has had many faces over the years. The funny thing is, the place where I was able to find the most information about the original Catwoman was in a piece of soap-opera fanfic that I found randomly by searching one day a couple of years ago—based on the Catwoman fantasies of the female half of a tempestuous soap opera romance. I wish I could find it now; I'd like to read it again but it's been obscured by a flurry of links probably engendered by the new movie, and other things. I can't even remember what soap opera it was based on (I think it was Days of Our Lives but can't be certain). Anyway, the point of the story was that the Catwoman fan was very annoyed by the then-current comic book re-envisioning of the Catwoman character as an inner-city prostitute who got beaten up, and the movie version whom she described (with more than a little justice) as "mentally ill." She went on about how the original 1940s version of Selina Kyle was a socialite with many redeeming and endearing qualities. Someday, I'd like to find a collection of those comics, just so I can get the "true story."

The Catwoman with whom I am best-acquainted is the Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series version—a wealthy socialite burglar involved in animal-cruelty causes as well as filling her own pocket. I quite enjoyed her appearances over the course of the show. My only complaint was that she was "outed" way too soon in that series; she ought to have been able to keep her secret identity and continue fencing with Batman for quite a while before they found out who she was. That being said, she was a fun character and very classy even as she broke into jewelry stores and the like.

The "mentally ill" Batman Returns version of Catwoman? Well, she looked nice in the suit, and was good with a whip...but she was Burtonized away from her roots (as was The Penguin from the same movie, for that matter—turning a debonair, prissy (albeit vertically-challenged) gentleman into a bestial sewer-dweller? Puh-leeze!), which were really the main things I had liked about the character. Catwoman was supposed to be a female Robin Hood on the wrong side of the law, separated from Batman only by her penchant for enriching herself at the expense of others—not this brain-damaged nutbar (who, nonetheless, did look good in a catsuit).

Let's also not ignore the fact that Catwoman was, from the very beginning, meant to be a foil to Batman—by turns an adversary, ally, and love interest. The original 1940s-universe Justice Society versions of Catwoman and Batman ended up retiring, marrying, and raising a family, for goodness sake. As a criminal, she has a certain darkness in her that makes her one of the only ones who truly can understand the darkness that drives Bruce Wayne. They really are meant for each other; they balance each other out. Even leaving aside all the other changes, the Catwoman movie apparently replaces Batman with some ordinary schmuck as the love interest—a bystander rather than a brooding hero. The equation is unbalanced.

To blame is the quintessential Hollywood adaptation-and-remake problem. Hollywood is run, by and large, by egotists, who can't bear the thought of putting all this hard work into adapting someone else's story...only to have that other person get all the credit for it since, after all, he's the one who really created it...the movie person just photo-copied it to the screen. They want to put their own stamp on it, so they can point to it and say, like that production studio logo that plays after some TV show credits says, "I made this!" They "mark their territory" so to speak—by piddling all over the original concept. So we get things like Catwoman, or like the recent proposed Superman remake script that completely altered Superman's backstory (and turned Lex Luthor into a Kryptonian, among other things). These changes often have no real reason or amount of thought put into them other than that they want to make it "different" from the original...as if "different" always means "better." For instance, the recent Sci-Fi Battlestar Galactica remake turned Starbuck into a woman for no real reason I could discern, and the producers said in interviews that they were intentionally breaking with the old Galactica because they wanted to.

It typically takes a degree of control by the original creator of the work (J.K. Rowling in the case of the Harry Potter movies) or someone extremely respectful of that original work (Peter Jackson for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam Raimi for Spiderman) to hew close to the spirit of the original—and even then there have to be changes just to make it into a film ("Organic webshooters? Yuck!" cry the Spidey fans).

You'd think that Hollywood types would have learned by now not to mess around with the goose or it'll stop laying golden eggs. Why make a movie about an established character or concept, ostensibly to attract people who like that character or concept—and then change it beyond all recognition? But they just keep turning out these turkeys. It makes me really disgusted with Hollywood sometimes—but then, I'm at least mildly disgusted with Hollywood most of the time, so maybe that isn't saying too much.

At any rate, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I can't think of a more delightful way to spend the evening than here at home, not watching Catwoman.