Saturday, July 26, 2008
The unhappy fascism of The Dark Knight
Down we go with The Dark Knight.
Jeez. I knew the Bush administration had shredded the Constitution, let our greatest enemy go free, left a great American city underwater, embroiled us in an endless, pointless foreign conflict, and led us like libertarian lemmings to the brink of financial catastrophe.
But I never thought they'd ruin the movies, too.
And yet they have - how else to read the stunning success of The Dark Knight, the viciously discombobulated Batman sequel that seems to want to ponder the moral consequences of Bush-like vigilantism, all while secretly feeding it?
Ah, I can already feel the fanboy wrath rising out of the blogosphere like some unseen cyber-tsunami. But before you begin firing off the "eat-shit-and-die" e-mails, my rabid batlings, just ponder for a moment that I'm as surprised to be writing this assessment as you probably are to be reading it. I went to the picture pretty sure I was going to enjoy it - I admired its predecessor, Batman Begins, quite a bit, as just about everybody else did, and I have a special place in my heart for the reversed narrative logic of Memento, the movie that put the director of both Bat epics, Christopher Nolan, on the map. Indeed, my only real beef with the new Bat series was that it had diverted (as our franchises generally do) one of our most interesting directorial talents - and some of our best actors, too - into what was inevitably an artistic dead end.
Now, of course, everyone else is doing their best to pretend - given the grosses - that somehow The Dark Knight is actually an artistic breakthrough. Meanwhile I'm seriously reconsidering that "most interesting directorial talent" assessment, because, just in case no other adult has clued you in, the movie is really bad. As in numbingly, do-math-problems-in-your-head-to-stay-awake bad. Bad as in "Makes Iron Man look like genius" bad. And almost all the problems with it can be laid at Nolan's door, beginning - but hardly ending - with the godawful script (which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan). You can tell, somehow, that the Nolans think they've styled an awesomely innovative Memento-like narrative structure for The Dark Knight, where like nothing is linear, dude. To which I can only reply: sure, nothing's linear - but awesome? Hardly.
The hopelessly enjambed "plot" (from which key points often seem to be missing) is designed as a series of puzzle boxes which open into each other: however elaborate the chase, however sophisticated the caper, it's always revealed as just another step in a larger game in which the villain - i.e. Heath Ledger's Joker - is one step ahead, anticipating everything, and somehow, without any apparent resources or skills, engineering truly staggering feats of mayhem. This is because, we're told baldly, he's the spirit of chaos, a kind of evil entropy eating away at everything and everyone. Only somehow at the same time this anarchist brings off feats of logistics that would put the best meeting planners to shame - he manages the abduction of the D.A. and his girlfriend from prison, then overnight wires an entire hospital to explode, followed by two passenger ferries. If you can sense from this contradiction that the Nolans' windy dialectic feels like a tour of Dick Cheney's brain pasted over a nasty amplification of comic book convention, then you're definitely on the right track to decoding The Dark Knight.
Which isn't to say that Heath Ledger (above) isn't brilliant as the Joker. It's true - he is, and weirdly, his tragic death somehow feels like an outgrowth of the film's morbidity, as if his overdose were just one last setpiece from the movie. I have no idea whether the actor's conception of the role came from him, his acting coach, or the Nolans, but whoever thought it up, it was a masterstroke - this Joker is the antithesis of every megalomaniac we've seen in every caped crusader epic till now. He's utterly un-grandiose - he has no secret lair, no hollowed-out mountain, no superpowers, no brilliant mind in a bald head, no doomed romantic charisma, no nothing. In fact, he's utterly repellent: sleazy, scarred, encrusted with sad-clown make-up (which should itself win an Oscar), obsessively licking his scarred lips as he shambles about in a broken-marionette palsy. He's a loser, literally a greaseball, and he knows it; but he's got a nose for sniffing out the flaws and faults in those above him, and in bringing them down - making them scarred losers, too - he finds his triumph.
The trouble with this conception, though, is that its potent child psychology is at odds with the political apparatus the Nolans keep trying to foist on it. Ledger's Joker is a pop Freudian horror, but the movie forces him to perform as a philosopher-terrorist factotum. And the fit's not an easy one. The Joker opens the movie by stating he wants Batman dead - but soon he's fascinated by his doppelgänger ("You complete me," he whispers in one memorable scene). This is all fine and good - only the Joker doesn't attempt to bring Batman down to his own level, or seduce him to the dark side; instead he tries to disprove his theses. I'm not making that up. Elaborately sadistic sequences follow which are designed as demonstrations of this or that jaundiced take on human nature. The whole thing's just weird - it's like watching Saw rewritten by Bertrand Russell - and makes no sense as either action or drama; by the finish, the Nolans are staging the prisoner's dilemma on Lake Michigan, with two passenger ferries wired to blow (one's actually full of prisoners; get the pun?) - but we're merely wondering who these people are, how they got there, and why we're supposed to care about them. That the sequence disses the democratic process and instead enshrines - yes - vigilante action only comes off as one last dumb insult to our sensibility. And another major gambit - the transformation of Batman's rival, a "white knight" D.A., into the hideous Two-Face - feels both intellectually cheap and dramatically strained: indeed, it's so underwritten that even the charismatic Aaron Eckhart can't make it work.
Hmmm. Did I leave the iron on? Christian Bale entertains some deep thoughts.
Elsewhere, however, Eckhart holds his own - even against Ledger - while old pros Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman coast home on canny underplaying (true, Oldman does more than that, although he's undone by the final scenes). But then there's Christian Bale - and, I hate to say it, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both are excruciatingly out of their league; Gyllenhaal tries to be smart, not just "spunky," but she comes off as a judgmental wet blanket who never connects with her batfriend, her boyfriend, or, worse, the audience: I suppose at this point it's giving away no secrets to say that her character is burned alive midway through the movie, and that no one in the audience sheds a tear - or even gives her incineration a passing thought. As for Bale, he's as hammily zen as ever, all recessed pretension and second-guessed gestures, Robert DeNiro by way of Tom Cruise. He (almost) carried Batman Begins through his looks and physique, although he did look a little silly in that mask - here, however, the mask is his friend, as it saves him from direct comparison with Ledger; all he has to do in their encounters is cock a bug-eyed stare and whisper. Elsewhere he just seems lost, as if the word problems the Nolans were posing were too hard for him. Rarely has a tortured soul looked quite so dull.
And just to stick a final fork in this dark bird, I do want to point out, once and for all, that Christopher Nolan can't stage action - the cardinal sin in any superhero franchise, IMHO. Comparisons between The Dark Knight and far more stylish (if equally pretentious) baubles like Heat go way beyond mere critical malfeasance and probably qualify as outright lies. Much of the violence in The Dark Knight is literally undecipherable -as in, Nolan has invested himself so heavily in his dark, chaotic vision that you can't even see what's going on. (And that really isn't an artistic statement. If you want to experience moral and physical chaos, revisit the brightly-lit opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.) There are, it's true, a few thrillingly vertiginous plunges from skyscrapers in Chicago and Hong Kong - in which all seems lost until Batman spreads his black wings, a neat little metaphor for the sensation you guess the movie is groping for generally. And indeed, you could make the case that the Hong Kong vignette, which contributes little to the movie as a whole, still stands as a pretty good action sequence. There's also a neat trick where a semi goes vertical before slamming into the pavement. But these moments are overwhelmed by the sheer incoherent welter of the rest of the picture's supposed showstoppers.
Ah, and a postscript - can we please stop pretending this movie is any kind of honest meditation on our national situation post-9/11? True, pop always deflects political concerns to one remove; but it shouldn't actually distort its correspondences, should it? Yet Ledger's (and Nolan's) Joker has little to do with Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, or really anything but the hermetically sealed world of adolescent angst. The terrorists America faces are not in love with "chaos" per se - they are trying to harm us for rather obvious political reasons. You may think those reasons are illegitimate, and that the murder of innocent civilians is evil - and you may feel at the same time that we have the perfect right to prop up some dictatorships in the Middle East, while overturning others; fine.
But you can't pretend our terrorists appeared from nowhere, like the Joker, with no back story or history, and no formal grievances, and are simply maniacally bent on destroying "our way of life." Or, for that matter, that responding to terrorism forces any sort of moral dilemma on us. We're not being led to "the dark side" by anything other than our own propensity to go there, and the vigilantism of "Batman" has nothing to do, really, with Guantánamo, or our timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, or anything else. The whole muddled metaphor the Nolans are conjuring here, with its many renditions and interrogations, is idiotic; their pop Götterdämmerung is preposterously dumb. And while the Nolans seem to see the public sphere as utterly compromised, they give the corporate sphere practically a free walk - after all, what is Bruce Wayne but a capitalist avatar, swooping down from his penthouse to circumvent the law and restore economic order to a land he rules via technology? Come to think of it, there probably is a way to explore 9/11 via the superhero matrix - but Hollywood probably wouldn't risk $150 million on it, and the paranoid Nolans wouldn't be the right men for the job, and shame on everyone for pretending they are. What they've rather cynically manipulated instead is something quite different - at the screenings I attended, the kids had already learned Heath Ledger's hysterical little laugh by heart, and would cackle it back happily at the screen whenever he appeared. It was like listening to one psychopathology call to another. There was certainly no question who their hero was.