Friday, March 25, 2016

EW #88: The Dark Knight (2008)

Eighty-eight is my very favorite number. I love the number eight to begin with, then eighty-eight doubles down on the lovely symmetry and orderly vibe of the numeral 8 while also taking the number eleven, another favorite, as a factor. So of course the universe would conspire to place Christopher Nolan's "serious" blockbuster The Dark Knight, a film about which I have decidedly mixed feelings, at the #88 position on Entertainment Weekly's summer 2013 Top 100 films list. Like the film itself, this coincidence, which surely is the outcome of several happy and unhappy accidents, nevertheless feels laden with portent.

My biggest problem with The Dark Knight is that I am not sure how morally responsible it is to make a superhero blockbuster film that purports to treat its subject "seriously," as if Batman existed in a world "grounded in realism," yet that seems so unthinking in its retrograde endorsement of conservative, pro-War on Terror, pro-vigilante ideologies.* It could be that the film's internally contradictory yet palpably right-wing messages are, as Jonathan Lethem puts it, simply a reflection of post-9/11 America's deep confusion about what or how to think about its own recent history:
In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. No wonder we crave an entertainment like “The Dark Knight,” where every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion.
I find these observations insightful. I agree with Lethem that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content" -- this rings true.

It's also true that, Batpod chase and Heath Ledger's performance aside, The Dark Knight is not much fun. As I have said before, I am a huge proponent of fun and comedy in blockbuster action movies, so all of Nolan's trilogy misses the mark for me on a certain fundamental level.

"Waaaahhh! They blew up my World Trade Cent-- I mean, my girlfriend!"

In his review of the recent superhero film Batman vs. Superman, A.O. Scott sums up another facet of the "serious blockbuster" problem:
Intellectual pretension, long an occupational hazard in the superhero business, has been elevated to a creative principle. Christopher Nolan is partly to blame. His “Dark Knight” entries in the Batman saga raised the genre’s allegorical stakes and dialed down the humor to an all-but-imperceptible whisper. Still, Mr. Nolan’s filmmaking skill — above all the coherence of his inky, cruel vision of Gotham City and environs — enabled those movies to carry at least some of their self-assigned thematic weight.
While some (including me) have questioned the coherence of Nolan's vision or at least of his editing and directing skills, I admit that on the level of production design and with respect to the overall look, feel, and tone of the world he evokes, his Batman trilogy is the most effective (if not affective) iteration of a "serious" (or, as Scott calls it, pretentious) superhero saga.* Nolan gets the broad-strokes, big picture stuff right.

In my original introductory post to the EW list, I described The Dark Knight as "as zeitgeist-y as it gets" and "surely culturally significant" but also noted that it is a technically and structurally pedestrian, even sloppy movie. I stand by that assessment. I think the film's two biggest weaknesses -- aside from its right-wing ideology** -- are:

(1) the technical failings, mainly the shittily staged, edited, and filmed fight sequences. I noticed that Nolan doesn't know how to stage satisfying fight scenes back in Batman Begins, where the shooting and editing of Batman's first battle at the docks is completely visually incomprehensible. The weird thing is, Nolan and co. actually got worse at producing these kind of sequences in The Dark Knight. The police convoy sequence has been eviscerated elsewhere by wiser critics than me, but I also nominate the final battle with Batman vs. the Joker and his dogs as being one of the lousiest, hardest to follow "action" sequences I have ever seen. Fuck that shitty sequence, except the part at the very end with the Joker hanging upside down, which is memorable and cool.

When I teach about chaos cinema to college undergraduates, students always ask "Couldn't this chaotic, fast-cutting, close-up-heavy aesthetic be intentional?" and surely it most likely is. The Begins dockside battle may be deliberately shrouding Batman in mystery, taking a subjective or expressionistic approach to the action, purposely never really letting us see him. I am theoretically okay with that, and appreciate it when, say, Kathryn Bigelow uses these subjective, incoherent techniques more sparingly in The Hurt Locker, but it feels out of place and disappointing in The Dark Knight. I want that convoy chase sequence to feel exciting and and look cool, but it's mainly a headache-producing hot mess. I want to see Batman, a superhero known for his martial arts prowess, fight. The climactic Dark Knight interior battle is so badly lit and incoherently staged and edited that I simply cannot tell what's going on at most points during that sequence. I hate that. To me, that's not expressively evocative, that's just bad filmmaking.

(2) the film's lack of pathos or humanity, its lack of emotional resonance. This is director Nolan's biggest Achilles' Heel, one that can be seen across his whole movie career. The Dark Knight tells a (mostly) well-crafted story -- except that inexplicable part when Batman goes out the window after Rachel, leaving the Joker behind in a room full of defenseless rich people, a scene the film never resolves nor explains. Beyond that, the film's deeper ideas are usually interesting, even or perhaps especially when they seem contradictory. For example, the Joker claims to be an agent of chaos and Alfred calls him a man who "just wants to watch the world burn" but in fact his plans are incredibly intricate, precision-timed, and depend upon several amazingly lucky coincidences to boot (such as figuring out the exact route the police convoy would take or, once imprisoned, knowing how to time his two bombs beforehand without knowing when he would be interrogated). Yet these contradictions remain cerebral concepts, stuff other people (like Alfred and Bruce) talk about but don't really emote anything about. The Dark Knight never gets me to feel much of anything about any of these people, except the Joker and possibly Alfred. As Lethem reports of his Dark Knight viewing experience, "after the tide of contradictions had receded behind me I wasn’t stirred to any feeling richer than an exhausted shrug." Same here.

Of course, most every critic, positive or negative, agrees about the excellence of Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. Ledger's performance stands out so strongly in The Dark Knight not only because he was a world-class actor (see his moving performance in Brokeback Mountain if you don't believe me) fully committing to an interesting and entertaining interpretation of an iconic character. Unfortunately, it also stands out because so little of what happens in this film outside of the Joker carries any real emotional stakes. For example, we're supposed to accept that Bruce/Batman really loves Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but there's no real passion or romance there, just two characters reading letters in voice-over and insisting they love each other despite their lack of onscreen chemistry. (This was true when Katie Holmes assayed the role of Rachel in Batman Begins, too, though Bale and Holmes seemed to click a little better than Bale and Gyllenhaal do).

Anyway, all that said, if The Dark Knight possesses greatness, it is not only due to Ledger, though he is mainly responsible for making the film watchable. No, director Christopher Nolan deserves credit for committing to a vision for the world and character of Batman and then really delivering on that central premise, albeit at times clunkily. And if nothing else, The Dark Knight looks really good, and the opening bank heist sequence is just terrific, probably the best part of the whole movie.

I should add that I saw The Dark Knight three, maybe four times during its theatrical run in late summer 2008. Part of that is that the film was a major part of the cultural zeitgeist of that summer and fall -- it seemed to me like nearly everyone I knew (who were, admittedly, mainly English graduate students and Dungeons and Dragons nerds) saw and avidly talked about that movie then. It became a touchstone for discussing the meaning of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the fearful ramifications of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush Administration's dumbfounding invasion of Iraq and the lies Bush & co. told to provoke it.

I also saw The Dark Knight that many times because it maddened me, it bedeviled me, it bothered and unnerved me in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on. Despite my repeat viewings, I couldn't really figure out (until I analyzed it from a point of greater critical distance) what the film was actually saying about the War on Terror, the ethics of public surveillance, the role of torture in post-Abu Ghraib America, etc. I was puzzled. As Lethem says, "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway."

But maybe "morbid incoherence" is an appropriate tone to set for depicting Bush's America in 2008. Maybe in the end I do not object to The Dark Knight going on a list of "Most Culturally Significant" or at least "Most Culturally Revealing" films of all time. But on a "Best" or "Top" 100 films list like EW's? Probably not.

Director Christopher Nolan on the set of The Dark Knight

* In a 2015 interview Nolan explains his Batman concept this way: "you had Superman in 1978, but they never did the sort of 1978 Batman, where you see the origin story, where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film." Actually it makes me like Nolan more that he gives props to the 1978 Donner Superman film, still one of the best superhero blockbusters ever.
** That said, don't get me started on the total failed pile of crap that was The Dark Knight Rises (2012). You owe me those two hours and forty five minutes back, Nolan!

UPDATE 3/26/2016: Check out Lee Weston Sabo's brilliant analysis of The Dark Knight Rises, in which he accurately notes that the Nolan Batman trilogy's
lessons in Bush era heroism are apparent: it is all right to lie to the public if it is for their own good (and as long as you feel sort of bad about it later); true heroes are willing to let everyone hate them if it means they do not have to suffer any consequences for their illegal actions; and faking self-sacrifice is as good as actual self-sacrifice, especially when it means you get to be loved as a martyr and live a life of unburdened luxury.
Indeed so! And if you want to read an even more nuts-and-bolts take on what's wrong with Rises, focused primarily on its shitty-assed writing and (lack of) story structure, check out this excellent review.
*** See also my forthcoming post on the sinister ideological meanings of The Dark Knight. The short version: the movie is ultimately pro-War on Terror and pro-fascist.

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