Remembrance and Retrospective : Ian Holm and Joel Schumacher
Normally we don’t do obituary pieces here. Geek culture is huge enough that we’d never run anything else. But when two icons of geek cinema depart, not just within a week, but within three days of each other, it’s kind of mandatory that we address it. Besides, I have a thing or two to say about both careers.
Ian Holm, age 88
Sir Ian Holm’s career is the easier place to start. There’s no bones about it, his most memorable role in geek culture was that of Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist hobbit from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. And well he should be remembered for it; not only was it the role he committed to for the final years of his career through four different films, but he filled the role of Bilbo with a heart and soul that few others could have done.
He also gives us the most startling and unexpected jump scare in the whole damn franchise:
Damn. Didn’t even know he could do that, did you? Well, for members of an older geek generation, we got introduced to Ian Holm in a completely different context: As the synthetic android science officer Ash from the 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien.
Ash is a curiously dispassionate character who plays it very cool, until it turns out he had secret orders to bring back the xenomorph sample at all costs, even to the point of betraying the crew. Then they discover this little plot twist, in a movie that’s practically riddled with them.
Alien is one of your present author’s top ten favorite movies of all time, for being both one of the most perfect science fiction films and most perfect horror films ever made. We’ll have to do Alien justice in our pages someday, but here we have no time because almost on the heels of the launch of the Alien franchise, Ian Holm next became a canon member of the stock actor’s troupe for director Terry Gilliam. That started with his turn in the all-too-often-forgotten cult classic Time Bandits (1981) as the emperor Napoleon:
Skip over some more of Ian Holm’s remarkable career because we’re a geek blog, after all. Next comes a movie that needs no introduction here, once again with Terry Gilliam. This time as Mr. Kurtzman, the mousy, paranoid, and neurotic boss of the protagonist in Brazil (1985):
Mr. Kurtzman is the kind of boss we might all find ourselves just barely tolerating in modern dystopias. Demanding, gutless, bad-tempered, and helpless, he rides Sam Lowry’s ass like a Sopwith Camel, even popping up in his dreams. As much as I already ranted about Brazil before, there’s still always more to say about it.
And speaking of blockbuster cult classics that we can never get tired of talking about, here comes another essential film in geek cinema, 1997’s The Fifth Element, which we also need to do justice someday. In a cast bursting with offbeat actors playing characters that resemble cartoons come to life, Ian Holm managed to carve out a distinctive corner for himself as the unlikely priest Father Vito Cornelius:
Ian Holm this time was stuck within the constraints of the script, being one more babbling goofball in a universe that seems determined to provoke Bruce Willis. But he still manages to pull off a couple moments of dry humor, especially when he keeps getting arrested later.
There is of course far more to Ian Holm’s career, even on the science fiction / fantasy front, but these are arguably his parts in some of the biggest blockbusters in speculative fiction. We have a whole other shoe to chew here:
Joel Schumacher, age 80
This is the controversial one of our two-name memorandum. Director Joel Schumacher is most (but not best) remembered for his double-film turn directing movies in the midst of the Batman franchise: namely, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).
Look, we’ll go ahead and get it out of your system right now. Here is your catharsis, those of you who hated this period of Batman movies, with the Nostalgia Critic spewing as much vitriol as he could, with extended cast help:
There, are we done being mean now? Good.
Refer back to my epic Batman essay and some of the points I made there, such as the fact that 1960s Batman was actually what people wanted then: Campy, goofy, and made for kids. Joel Schumacher did indeed do exactly what the studio asked of him, and set out with a clean conscience to do what he thought was the right thing. And then he crawled and begged forgiveness anyway for what was largely never his fault.
As you might be tuning in from my previous essay, I was ready to stand in the pillory right next to Joel Schumacher even before he passed on. So I’ll say it out loud now and take my bullets: I think he did the right thing! I think he had nothing to apologize for. I’m glad the toxic, insecure fanbase which took over Batman later was held back for a couple movies. Joel Schumacher had Batman asking his audience to chill out and let the universe revolve around something besides themselves for one minute. From 2008 onward to the Incel wankery of 2019’s Joker, which threw away the hero altogether because it was never about him, Batman fandom plunged into the Narcissistic mirror of its own self-obsession. Earlier entries in the franchise were about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. Post-2008, the movies have been about nothing but being a safe zone for the meanest, most vitriolic trolls. Someday Batman will be a challenging figure that makes people think again.
But as I said in my previous essay, each generation gets to have its own Batman. That’s his job.
So yeah, after all the crap people have thrown at Joel Schumacher for 23 years, I just threw back the first handful of crap in that paragraph. I feel we owe him that much. Give it a few years and people will start blogging “Was Batman & Robin really THAT bad?” No one will remember I asked it first.
Lest you think that geek culture and Joel Schumacher part ways at the boundary of the Bat-franchise, we have a couple forgotten spots on his resume to visit.
Like Schumacher’s directorial debut, 1981’s barbed social satire and science fiction comedy, The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Now, I realize this movie isn’t hailed as a masterpiece either, but give it a minute. The movie is satirizing compulsive consumer society, women’s diminished role despite their liberation protests, and sensation-hungry media. It’s an acidulous, pitch black comedy of the sort that’s generally better received in other decades. Similar to Network (1976), a lot of this movie’s themes resonates right now.
Unlike Ian Holm, Joel Schumacher’s greatest film triumphs lie well outside what we can even stretch to define as geek culture. Namely, Schumacher founded for Generation X the other half of the Brat Pack canon, alongside John Hughes, with St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). Closer to the beating bloody heart of geekdom is 1987’s The Lost Boys, being about vampires (so to speak), but not exactly big stakes.
Ironically, the movie Schumacher is most favorably remembered for today was Falling Down (1993), another social satire only this time people got it! What the heck was the problem before or after is anybody’s guess. One more spot of sci-fi worth mentioning is 1990’s Flatliners, albeit suffering from Julia Roberts poisoning. There are many more movies in Joel Schumacher’s directing career that are relatively well-received, including a couple John Grisham adaptations, but we’ve wandered a stout distance from geek fandom even here.
Look, I’m not out to defend Schumacher saying every foot of film he shot was golden. He had flaws. But I can hardly see where he deserved the crucifixion he got over his whole career. Even when films he directed earned back 3x and even 4x their budget at the box office, critics savaged him to shreds and fans were still lukewarm at best. Even Batman & Robin came out in the black, so it isn’t a quantifiable flop no matter how much everybody cries about the costumes. OK, ew yucky nipples, can we move on now?
Anyway, Ian Holm and Joel Schumacher! Hell of a couple talents each in their own way, and I probably shouldn’t do memorial posts anymore.