Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Long Day's Journey into THE DARK KNIGHT. A Dissenting review.

When people ask me if the much lauded new Batman movie The Dark Knight is as good as the critics are saying I first ask if they liked Batman Begins. If they respond that they do, I assure them that they'll probably like the new Batman even more. If however they were, like me, disappointed in Christopher Nolan's first go-round with the caped crusader, then they will probably be equally unimpressed by the sequel which, in many ways, offers more of the same. While The Dark Knight is in most ways a more exciting, involving and thrilling film than it's predecessor, it also pissed me off more than Batman Begins and highlights the deficiencies in Nolan's interpretation of the character more acutely.

Memento was one of the greatest films of it's genre; more than a simple screenwriting stunt, Memento transcends it's M.C. Escher narrative gimmicks and uses it's plot to question deep and philosophical problems about human nature, epistemology, and the power of memory. Nolan's The Prestige, though less successful, was a film about illusions that itself was something of a mind-bending magic trick-though the thematic ideas raised never quite became actualized with the elegance that Nolan displayed in Memento. In any event he is certainly one of our most important and talented new filmmakers. But his take on Batman is all wrong.

Batman Begins was primarily a reaction to the so-campy-drag-queens-stayed-away aesthetic that Joel Schumacher employed in his two terrible Batman films, Batman And Robin being one of the worst big-budget movies ever made. Draining away all humor, color, and camp Christopher Nolan refastened Batman as an utterly realistic action film with "deep" Freudian overtones. Nolan was willing to "take Batman seriously" and fanboys swooned.

Bumping up the portentousness and length, The Dark Knight only furthers Nolan's tunnel-visioned agenda. If Batman Begins was a globe-trotting action movie with a kung-fu vibe, The Dark Knight is pure contemporary crime caper, more reminiscent of the Michael Mann oeuvre or Scorsese's The Departed than the other Batman films. And here is the problem: to play Batman with a totally straight face-to demand that the audience believe in the "realism" of the story is to siphon away all the mythic and larger than life undertones that sustain Batman in our collective imagination. Worse yet is that Nolan is not even playing by his own rules, fashioning a story that, upon even the barest scrutiny, is utterly ridiculous, confusing and plain unbelievable. Of course, stretching the credulity of an audience in a superhero movie is par for the course, what makes it a problem here is Nolan's bull-headed refusal to own up to this fact. Everything stylistically about the movie asks us to take what we see literally. But to do so is to believe in a confusing plot with gaping holes and all-too-convenient turns of events.

I guess I should be up front and say that I think the original Tim Burton Batman is the pinnacle of the genre: a stylish, funny, brilliantly-cast, popcorn picture that strikes a perfect balance between the silly and the serious. Burton's sequel pushes both those two categories even further making for a Batman movie that, while fascinating, was more about Burton than Bob Kane's creation. Burton, with Anton Furst and Bo Welch's invaluable assistance, created a whole world for Batman, one that was not exactly contemporary but not period either-it was as much set in '39 and '89. A dark, squalid Gotham City of Gothic Arches and expressionistic angles, it was a world where a Batman makes sense. Our hero was an extension of the unique urban mise en scene. Nolan's Gotham is a bland, non-descript realistic city (actually Chicago) where Batman looks like a non sequitur. In this environment it's hard not to feel that a man dressed as a bat is not just bizarre but downright stupid. As is a homicidal terrorist dressed as a clown.

Speaking of the clown, there is one bright spot in this movie and it's the one everyone is talking about- Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker. Relentlessly fascinating, Ledger dives headfirst into Nolan's rethinking of the character. No longer a demented comic prankster, The Joker has become a no-holds-barred terrorist with a nihilist streak. The screen comes alive whenever he is on. Stumbling out of a burning car licking his lips and grinding his yellow teeth, the image is hard to take your eyes away from. Ledger is a monster for the ages. Though his sense of humor is a only fit for an audience of one (he does have one sick and funny bit with a pencil) his lithe gait, and emotional unpredictability make him immensely watchable. Sadly, while Ledger performs admirably, Nolan's overall vision of the character suffers from the same problems that plague the whole movie. More a textual effect than a character, like Chiurgh in No Country For Old Men, The Joker is an idea actualized. Spouting lines that sound like fringe characters in Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, this Joker informs us of his ideological perspective at every opportunity. He's sounds like Max Stirner on a mean bender. As he tells one character, "I am an agent of chaos." Yeah, no shit. What's ludicrous is that there is no point, as there arguably is in "No Country," where the filmmaker pushes the character into that ambiguous realm where the audience questions his very authenticity as a "real person." Yet, looked at objectively, Ledger's Joker does utterly impossible things: single handedly take over the crime syndicate of Gotham, avoid any and all detection by the police (even though he's hardly, shall we say, inconspicuous), lay trap within trap and plot within plot-a matryoshka doll of scheming impossible to actually execute, (Oh, I see he planned to get caught only to escape by detonating the bomb he planted in the other inmates stomach beforehand. How very, ahem, elaborate!) and most egregious of all, he plants massive, massive amounts of explosives at relatively protected buildings and boats and no one notices! Even his total absence of back story is a testimony to a conception of the role that is more than human. One can but wish Nolan had the guts to create a whole world where this sort of character made sense. Instead, the gaps in the plot look like just that: gaps.

The rest of the cast fares moderately with Bale having almost nothing to do as Batman but growl as ridiculously as he did in Batman Begins . He has even less to do as Bruce Wayne. Just as Tony Stark is more interesting than Iron Man and Clark Kent's the thing that makes Superman enjoyable, Bruce Wayne should have a character to play that actually holds our attention before he dons the batsuit! So far only Michael Keaton has played a Bruce Wayne who is anything but bland. Aaron Eckhart is fine as Harvey Dent/Two-Face though the maneuvers in the plot that turn him into the villain feel forced, as does the bizarre, over-determined canonization of Dent at the end of the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes (as every single review is OVERJOYED to mention-is there some weird Schadenfreude going on here?) but the character is still a non-starter. Vicki Vale had more to do. Not to mention that the chemistry between her and Bale is utterly phlegmatic. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman add some gravitas to the proceedings but their characters are still only plot placeholders and mouthpieces for Nolan's thematic occupations. Neither are granted a life outside the narrowly confined cog they serve in the plot. Perhaps the best supporting performance is by Gary Oldman (what role can't this man play?) who imbues Commissioner Gordon with real sensitivity and dignity. He is the real heart of Gotham. Nestor Carbonell makes for a Gavin Newsome-esque mayor and it's a delight to see the underemployed Eric Roberts as a big shot wise guy.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight collapses under the weight of its own ambition and self-importance. If the moment to moment excitement of the action was stupendous the lugubrious hand wringing would be more forgivable but Nolan, as in Batman Begins, has little clue how to film an action sequence. While there is one exciting car chase sequence in the films middle and the bank heist sequences that opens the movie has some style (though of a kind not a appropriate for a Batman flick) most of the action is an over edited, extreme close up-ed mess. While Burton was never a Spielberg or Cameron when it came to action sequences, he nonetheless was able to give them a narrative clarity and perspective that was both fun and lucid. The finale of The Dark Knight by contrast is an incomprehensible, darkly light, tortuously organized set piece that, using his new batty echolocation powers, Batman saves various hostages, fights the cops (though hurting none of them), disposes of some fake Batmen and finally has a showdown with the Joker who, wouldn’t ya know it, is protected by a hitherto unseen pack of hungry Rottweilers. Half the sequence is shot in sonar and the other have in near total darkness. Needless to say it's anticlimactic-especially true since we have a further climax and showdown with Two-Face yet to come.

Confusing humorlessness, literalness and solemnity with profundity and seriousness of purpose, Nolan can't make Batman soar. In the end, for all its talk about justice, chaos, social rules and vigilante violence, the films themes are extremely muddy. The finale even implies that a noble lie is better than hard-earned or tough-to-swallow truth (and it doesn't even illustrate convincingly THAT point of view). Is that what Batman has come too, a dirge? A sepulchral morality play that can't even muster up a coherent lesson to teach? Is having, you know, "fun" at a Batman forever off-limits. Though Ledger sometimes breaks through the barricades stacked against him, with Nolan at the helm, those days are over.

In a final note, I want to say something that the rabid fans are going to get their panties in a twist about. It's easy to wonder: Why all the love? Why the knee-jerk approval and devotion to Nolan's conception of Batman? I don't want to disparage any viewer’s enjoyment of the movie for its merits. I am sure many people like and even love the film for the qualities in it, even if my take on those very same things garners the opposite reaction. I venture to guess however that the critical hosannas showered upon Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is largely due to a deep desire in comic book fans (or at least comic book movie fans, which is to say a majority of the American population) to have their hobby taken seriously as art and a equally deep desire in critics to have summer blockbusters at least attempt somthing resembling thought and art. Though anyone who pre-judges any work of art based on the stereotypes of its genre is a douche bag, it is nonetheless true that superhero movies are usually considered adolescent larks, comic books themselves neither legitimate as art or literature. While this attitude is unfair, the prejudice is widespread and not without some justification. By making a realistic, humorless Batman series and weighing it down with heavy-handed talk about "fear" "justice" and "chaos" the fanboys feel legitimized and the critics are simply grateful for the gesture. "See, all this comic book stuff isn't just for kids! Look how MEANINGFUL and SERIOUS it all is!" If fanboys have too much fun at a Batman movie it only reinforces the idea that Batman is something fit for a Happy Meal and if critics have to much fun the assume it can't be a good film behind all the frivolity. Approval by the chattering classes and the mainstream is something important to people, even though many deny any such thing. A movie like The Dark Knight begs to be treated as a "serious" work of art. What's ironic is that this desire is the exact thing that makes it fail.

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