ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

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All Clawed Up And Nowhere to Go


While it probably wont ever become a camp classic on the vaunted level of Showgirls, one never knows and in the interest of preserving Acidemic’s fine reputation as the pre-archeologist of camp (as in to unearth unburied camp) it’s only right to take a look.


 What instantly hurts Catwoman's chances as camp is Halle Berry's feeble performance. By contrast let’s compare her with the stars of two recent camp classics: Showgirls and Basic Instinct. What the director of these films, Paul Verhoeven instinctively knew, is that for camp to work, the answer must be yes to the question “are the women good role models for drag queens?” Showgirls’ Elizabeth Berkely and Basic Instinct’s Sharon Stone are all legs and ferocity: they don’t need cat powers to kick some six foot tall guy’s bearded ass. For Catwoman, the writing teams (replacing the singular sleazy vision of Joe Ezterhas who singlehandedly wrote Showgirls and Basic Instinct) cast mousy Berry as a mousy art director whose hippy attire and shy manner is assurance she never would have made it past the ground floor in a real life ad agency. The real catwomen were glamazonian Julie Newmar, or lightning in a cocktail glass growler Eartha Kitt – who proved you didn’t even have to be tall and statuesque to be an Amazonian dominatrix par excellence. Even though she'll be turning 78 in January, Kitt could probably still kick Berry’s ass.


Yeah, but Berry's character, Patience Phillips, has got integrity. You can tell because she whines to her portly cohort, “I was supposed to be a successful artist by now, instead I’m designing ads for beauty products.” It’s as if she had to sadly watch the second team of three screenwriters come in and revamp her character from artist to designer. But Patience Phillips is so mousy instead of catty you just want to feed her to your pet snake, if you had one, and I did, but it escaped into the sewer pipes, sort of like this film.


Catwoman is the directorial debut of a French CGI FX director, and for all its mindless, purposeless, swooping CGI tracking shots over fake CGI cities, to its CGI cats, its CGI smog, its CGI heroine, the film itself is not so much a “movie” as a very long FX reel, punctuated by the occasional product placement.   If Verhoeven’s Showgirls was really a Dutchman’s indictment/celebration of America, then Catwoman is director Pifoff’s--a French CGI FX director’s indictment/bastardization of the sleazy world of committee-scripted superhero high concept crap-feminism empowerment. It’s as if he’s choosing to wallow in the mire of empty-headed high concept nothingness, as if it will speak for itself as a high-gloss “Verhoevenesque” camp satire.


Yeah, Showgirls was camp feminism as imagined by bearded men with coke habits and million dollar tabs with Heidi Fleiss, but they weren’t afraid to portray the kind of feminism they wanted to see: Sharon Stone sticking that ice pick, A Joe Esterhaz stand-in getting the tar kicked out of him by a stripper in high heels, lesbian kisses: that’s real feminism as only the heirs to the Russ Meyer throne can portray! But leave it to a Frenchman to get camp so very wrong. Here the feminist icon can’t crack a convincing smile let alone a whip.


One thinks this might be a salvageable campfest after all once Patience for some idiotic reason goes out on the ledge outside her window to rescue a CGI cat, and this blandly handsome cop (Benjamin Bratt, basically playing the same bland cop boyfriend he played in Miss Congeniality) runs to her rescue. The next day he shows up at her office and sends her cliché’d Rosie O’Donnelesque office worker Sally (Alex Borstein) and little gay ferret other office worker Armando (Michael Massee) into a tizzy. His name is John Malone, which prompts Sally to start rhyming words with Lone… until she gets to bone of course - then she stops.  


Alas, the best this John Lone can do to get laughs is to look at her artwork and proclaim it “reminiscent of early Chagall” in the sort of blandly handsome cop voice that assures you he has no idea what that even means. Nonetheless, he does seem to have more teeth than Erik Estrada, and be full of enough of himself to fill three ordinary men, which makes him the perfect date for someone as incredibly dull as Patience Phillips and yet somehow she is afraid to commit, because you see…. She’s Catwoman.  


This manages to happen: she is chased through a factory by some tough guys and winds up being dumped through the CGI sewer, rolling up onto an island and getting breathed on by the same cat she rescued…. that amazing CGI cat. Now why our French director Pitoff felt the need to use a CGI cat is anyone’s guess, but as the budget for this thing was around a hundred million I doubt cost had anything to do with it. Maybe the director felt in his wisdom that a normal cat doesn’t look real to people anymore. Of course the fact that he’s really a CGI effect director and the wiz behind the primitive CGI in City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection probably has something to do with it.  


Infected with the amazing CGI cat breath, Patience is reborn as Catwoman, able to climb around on walls (just like a real cat!) and possessed of a fondness for raw fish and clothes that would seem outré in a Duran Duran video. A trip through the world wide web leads Patience to the discovery that she is now part of an ancient lineage of cat women that extends from ancient Egypt  right up through early twentieth century French brothels.  


Now here is where it seemed like one of the six writers who worked on this was planning to delve into some sort of theme about African American identity. Patience ultimately decides to deck herself out in a mix of ghetto-fabulous and faux Egyptian cat ears. One could read it as the all-consuming desire to find the historical locus of “power” behind being a black female, ala say Beloved or The Color Purple. But ultimately another problem here is motive. The original Cat Woman was a bad guy and these writers don’t want to make her just another avenging superhero, so she seems morally neutral through most of this, except that, (yawn) she doesn’t kill anyone. So what is she going to do with her powers? She wanders through a jewelry heist, gives the jewels back, but keeps a diamond necklace, hits up a disco bar and cracks that whip, battles Sharon Stone, plays hoops real good against John Lone, saves little Frankie on the ferris wheel, you know, grrrrrrl stuff. 


In order to get the real skinny on her cat class and cat style, Patience drops in on little Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy), the owner of the magical mau cat who infected/revived her with that amazing breath, at her country cottage located in the middle of the thriving skyscraper city (is there anything CGI can’t do?) Ophelia regails Patience with tales of cat derring do and tells her (in a voice disturbingly like that of the dwarf lady in Poltergeist) that being a cat woman is to be “docile yet aggressive; nurturing but ferocious” and “cat women are not contained by the rules of society.” She also assures Patience she has inhuman reflexes and total confidence – “you spent a lifetime caged,” she adds, implying that now she is free.


This is a very interesting notion, for in the traditional narrative arc (which here is more like a swan dive), Patience’s notion of life as a free de-caged, re-clawed black cat involves basically upping the bling-bling quotient on her wardrobe, giving some “brown sugar” (to use Sally’s racist phrasing) to her cop-toothed boyfriend, being so ballsy as to go into a bar and order a no-vodka White Russian and then take over the dance floor, and to spray beer from a really high-powered keg all over her neighbor’s too loud stereo. 


Interestingly, bad girl skin product tycoon Laurel (Sharon Stone, channeling the spirit of Susan Cabot in Roger Corman’s Wasp Woman) takes full advantage of Patience’s lack of boundaries and frames her for all sorts of murders. In her enthusiasm to prove her mad skills, Patience is rather clumsy; she’s so busy posing—right knee forward in a crouch, chin lowered, eyes looking up through her cat mask, lit from below, body covered in gold glitter, hideously garish red lipstick—that she’s fairly easy game for a real model (and ex-dominatrix) like Stone. In fact the only time I woke up in the movie was when Laurel started beating the crap out of Patience with a big steel rod. Alas, it only went on for about five minutes.


There is one important, especially cringe-worthy line of dialogue in the film, when Patience mousily gives herself up to Lone and is cooling off in jail he asks her why she did what she did if she didn’t want to and she says, “I’m a woman, Lone, I’m used to doing all kinds of things I don’t want to do.” If there is any sort of pro-feminist subtext in this wretched commercial for bad CGI effects and bargain basement bondage gear, this is that subtext: Even when given cat powers. Halle Berry doesn’t know wt to do with them except strut around on rooftops. The comparison is obvious to how white people see the suddenly rich rap stars on MTV Cribs who spend all their money on giant gold teeth or Ferrari beds with televisions that pop up out of the hood, or gold plated jacuzzis in their ski lodges even though none of them ski. The character of Sharon Stone then in framing Patience for all these crimes just seems like a typical carpetbagger or gold tooth salesman. Patience is so used to “doing things she doesn’t want to do” that she doesn’t know what to do when she finally doesn’t have to do those things. It’s an interesting aspect of our culture where our superheroes find it so hard to give a shit about truth, justice, and love for their fellow man that the best they can do is move some product, not drink or smoke, and make sure they don’t actually hurt anyone for real. After all, cat women should be able to be bad while still setting a good example, right? Right, Miss Paralyzed-with-fear-kitty-kat pretending to be free, now put on your shaafety goggles and crack that whip!


by Erich Kuersten 8/10/04


c. 2004 Acidemic

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244