Jonathan Romney peels off the surface of the pure grotesque and the beauty that is latex, to reveal what Dick Tracy is truly made of.
‘Everybody wants prosthesis foreheads for theiﬂ real heads’
‘We Want to Rock‘ by They Might Be Giants. Prothesis: that part of surgery which consists of supplementing deficiencies as by artificial limbs. teeth, etc.
Oxford English Dictionary.
he blockbuster film of the year -— and the first weekend‘s US box office takings of $221/2m prove there's no point arguing
- is Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. The film’s main selling point is that it features actors transformed by prosthetic make-up effects — vividly concocted by John Caglione and Doug Drexler — into grotesque caricatures of the human form: living equivalents of two-dimensional stylised gargoyles originally drawn by the comic strip’s creator Chester Gould.
The use of prosthetics not only to recreate cartoon figures but to create the look of an entire cartoon world is nothing new in the cinema — but it’s taken until now for it to seem perfectly natural. When, in 1980. Robert Altman announced his intention of making a live action ‘Popeye’, it seemed an inconceivable prospect, and sure enough, the film was a box office ﬂop. This was partly down to lack of coherence — for a start, you couldn’t make out a word Robin Williams was muttering under his plastic jaw. But it was also partly because there was something genuinely disturbing, not to say alienating. about these deformed figures touting false forearms and chins. inhabiting a stylised, dislocated shanty shack world. and parodying the human shape. Altman had promised to make a kids‘ movie, and effectively succeeded in creating an image of Hell.
If, ten years later. the cartoon universe of Dick Tracy seems a perfectly acceptable proposition, it‘s because enough happened in the 805 to make Hollywood Unrealism common currency. As both the action and horror genres gravitate ever closer to comic—book logic, there’s no longer any clear divide between the two-and three-dimensional worlds (although it took Roger Rabbit to drive the point home). From Pee Wee through Beetlejuice, to last year's Batman, director Tim Burton‘s commercial rise has helped make Comic Unrealism the ascendant mainstream form. In the horror realm. Freddy Krueger has presided over the transformations of phyiscal logic and the even more spectacular ones — stretching, melting. mimicking. imploding—of that one unassailable, immutable common denominator, the human body. Body transformations in horror were once possible only through patent camera trickery — the metamorphic dissolves of successive Doctors
. Jekyll, or of Cocteau’s Beast. That changed in the
805 with the bone-crunching, skin-splitting transmutations of The Howling and Paul Schrader’s Cat PeOple. Horror’s traditional stakes were reversed — the enemy outside was replaced by the enemy in the body. So-called ‘body horror’ became the dominant screen scare discourse ofthe decade, and the human body no longer held good as a reliable measure ofthe world.
All this makes Dick Tracy an appealing, but in no way disturbing or even anomalous commercial proposition in 1990. What makes the film altogether reassuring, in fact, is that it does reaffirm the human body as a measure ofthe norm, of sanity, of beauty. For at the centre ofits world ofphysical and moral corruption is the shining yellow knight played by Warren Beatty, a
10 The List 13— 26July 1990