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Monday, July 21, 2008

I Believe in Harvey Dent...I Just Don't Believe in His Filmmaker!

I am writing not so much to analyze a film as analyze a culture wherein a combination of philosophical unsophistication, the power of advertising, and the sometimes desperate need to justify "escapist fare" has made it possible for film critics to fawn and drool over one of the worst films of the year, "The Dark Knight."

The first problem is that we do not here in Hollywood seem to know what profound is. To the extent that these critics could find Truffaut, Godard or Wenders profound, it's only because they heard that they are supposed to. Here is a Dallas critic's take on the profundity of the Nolan bros. script:

"The movie is almost Shakespearean in its fascination with the good and evil that resides within all of us. It suggests that the greatest challenge of life is not to reject dark impulses outright, but to learn how to control them so they don't overwhelm our loftier goals."

First of all, Shakespeare doesn't ever suggest something so crassly didactic. This in fact is the movie's most appalling trait. It purports to be a serious study of the chaos and indeterminacy at the heart of human Being, exemplified by the nihilism of the Joker, corruptibility of the "two-faced" idealist DA Harvey Dent, and Bush administration spy tactics of Batman. But the film does not have the courage to follow the Joker's clever lines about human hypocrisy to their conclusion. Instead, the scriptwriters write convenient closing speeches for Batman about 'the inherent goodness of people", and contrive a plot device with the most unrealistic account of the goodness of the common man since San Raimi made his apology for 9/11-ravaged New York, "Spiderman". It is a craven move, the kind of move that serious artists wouldn't let slip into their narrative, even drugged out on their favorite drug as most good artists tend to be.

As my friend Carter Wallace pointed out, the absurdity of pinioning justice on a 'noble lie' scenario becomes painfully apparent if you later on proclaim the inherent goodness in the average citizen's decision-making. The city is lied to about Batman and Harvey Dent, and we are supposed to think this move is noble. OK, we'll parce that out with Plato. But I won't accept for a minute that love, too, between best friends like Bruce Wayne and his butler, is assisted by noble lies. It's bullshit, and it calls into question all the more the filmmakers' slapdash theory of justice. Lying is the convenient plot device by which they resolve most of the dilemmas. Everyone's a liar except for the Joker. Harvey Dent is a great man, not a two-faced demon, and yet these two-faced filmmakers have him spouting comic-book villain lines 15 minutes after one of his noble speeches. If all it takes is a dead lover and physical trauma to become superevil, I guess all 9/11 victims should be locked up.

Thus, the so-called 'grey areas' of morality are not so grey after all. Harvey Dent's fall from idealistic crusader (more noble than Batman, to be sure) to comic book villian is comic in its simplicity, although critics love to talk about how this is the first comic book movie we can take as seriously as any real crime drama (huh? batman as crime drama? And comic movies have been serious since 1978, with Superman. Quite a few of them. As I recall the same critics attacked Ang Lee's studious "Hulk" for being 'too serious'). The moral dilemma for me is in the filmmakers' work--how can they show such vicious violence to a crowd coming to watch a movie about heroism? If they want to deconstruct the hero myth, that's fine, but they chicken out and throw in quite traditional comic book morality in the last half hour. For that, they are irresponsible to make the film so visciously real. At least the post-traumatic stress wrought by watching obscene violence in Scorcese's "The Departed" doesn't turn comic book on us in order to appease each substrata of the focus-poll audience. The audience doesn't know how to draw coherent meaning out of a film with a hyperreal tonality about a man dressed up like a bat, who is four times as effective as Achilles. And it's not their fault--no coherent theorist could do so. Rolling Stone's occasionally trenchant Peter Travers lioninzed the director for "bringing a gritty reality to a cartoon fantasy." That would OK if they didn't try to keep it cartoonish and fantastical in its convenient plot threads in the last 30 minutes. Of course this is the same reviewer who claims that "Eckhart earns major props for scarily and movingly portraying the DA's transformation into the dreaded Harvey Two-Face." Eckhart earns major props for movingly portraying the nobility of Harvey Dent, but the greatest actor alive couldn't movingly portray the shallow transformation the Nolan brothers came up with. The film encourages schizofrenic critical receptiveness, making the Joker's consistency a relief. We are thus induced to respect the sicko more than the two heroes, both of which are literally 'two-faced'. Add to that the fact that nobody exists or ever has existed like the Joker--one is not simultaneously that mad and capable of such exquisite self-control and planning. That's simply bad pscychology. Yet once again Travers praises the 'deft script" for refusing to explain the joker with recourse to pop psychology. True, but the effect is weakened by their explaining everyone and everything else with pop psychology.

Where the moral landscapes are grey, the scriptwriters don't seem to intend it. Batman causes millions of dollars of damage to the city, allows a dozen or so people to die because he 'won't negotiate with terrorists' (can we say reactionary agenda?), and refuses to kill the Joker because that, we are told, is what good guys do. These critics who think this film is courageously brazen and complex in its moral spelunkings,as well as subversive of the superhero genre, do they actually condone this kneejerk falling-back on the oldest superhero convention: good guys don't kill? The Greeks would be horrified. If they want to explore real moral complexity, here's what a complex moral hero says: "In fact, if Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm" - Che Guevara. Hopefully Soderbergh will make Che more interesting than Batman (who is an astoundingly bad actor, by the way, once he puts on the mask). The Nolan brothers need to take screenwriting class from another set of brothers, The Wachowskis. Their hero in V for Vendetta is truly negotiating moral liminal ground, and he does indeed kill. The Nolans, conversely, also chickedend out at the end of the otherwise superb Batman Begins, when Batman says "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." Well, isn't that a nice and tidy way to keep the PG-13 rating and the comic-book parents paying?

Speaking of the killing, it is excessive. So many innocent people die in this film, it's a crime that it's not rated R. The only way to justify innocent deaths in a film is via serious grappling with the actual socio-economic injustices and challences of the civic enterprise, such as Blood Diamond. This film gaudily vaunts its ungaudy, gritty realism, but wants its cake and to eat it too: they're too afraid, as I said, to veer away from the superhero myth in the end. I say, if you want to make a superhero movie, then make one, like George Lucas does, or Tim Burton did in Batman Returns, a film so superior to this one Christopher Nolan should be penalized by serving Burton his coffee every morning for 10 years. If, on the other hand, you want to make a serious film about the darkness at the heart of human beings, don't conveniently dispense with the consequences of idealism run into the ground by force-feeding Harvey Dent ruthless villainous lines scarcely 10 minutes after he was delivering Erin Brockovich lines. And they say Anakin Skywalker's transformation was scantily developed?! At least Lucas took 3 movies, at a total running time of 7 1/2 hours, instead of cramming it into the last 30 min of a movie that already had a villain to develop in the Joker.

Two things in the film's defense: The joker has some brilliant lines, (and of course it's a brilliant performance, but I'm bored with talking about actors). Sadly these lines are cheapened and in the end left stranded, incoherent, unwoven into broad thematic layers, because the creators do not have the singular vision and committment that the Joker has. The denouement thus denudes the Joker's Gotham crusade of meaning, instead of allowing his verbal gems to cast far-reaching light. Indeed, it's hard not to respect the Joker more than we respect the filmmakers, except that he is a vicious killer with no ambition or scheme (unlike, say, Ras al Ghul in the movie that preceeded it). And in the end, this movie can't escape being like the Joker itself--brilliant in spurts but with no apparent ambition or scheme.

Which brings me to the 2nd thing I liked about it--the critique of money. Joker ridicules the mob bosses for being only concerned with money, instead of a message (although his message is a bit of letdown, philosophically: embrace the chaos. Stone did it better with Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers). More impressive, Harvey Dent the idealist DA corresponds to the socialist vision of careful altruistic planning. He thinks the the greed, selfishness and chaos of human beings can be controlled and amegliorated through effective political provisions and laws. Once he becomes Two-face (don't whine about giving away plot. If you don't know Harvey Dent is two-face, you have no business seeing a Batman film. Start with the Frank Miller comics) he becomes a capitalist, believing as capitalists do in pure chance as the last arbiter of real justice. Thus he flips a coin to decide everybody's fate. Here finally is a bit of courageous critique, especially coming as it does on the heels of the Joker's criticism of Harvey, Batman, and all other 'good guys' for being schemers. Idealists, then, are schemers. So, however, are filmmakers like the Wachowski brothers, who are not ashamed to present heroes with a shining, unflinching message. Their Speed Racer, (which was as anathema to the critic herd as Dark Knight is tonic), for an example of a movie that stays true to its comic surreality and joy without in the least falling in to fluff. It's a ruthless and unhip critique of capitalism. And it was not written by brothers assisted by the usual Hollywood screenwriting committee, but rather by brothers assisted by nobody and listening to noone, apparently, save for Herbert Marcuse, Baudrillard, and the masterminds behind Popmart.

As for HeathLedger, now I know why he got depressed enough to down such a dangerous cocktail of drugs--it was demoralizing to transition from a brilliant, coherent director like Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There") to this overblown hack, who makes Ledger exhaust himself in brilliance, only to flounder in a film without a vision to match either the Joker's or Ledger's.

From the L.A. Times review: "Can he live with what he would have to become to effectively fight the Joker and his spawn? Can he accept the unacceptable things that have to be done to be the hero? Can there be an ending to his story, and to this film, that creates a sense of closure, a sense of peace?" Yes of course, there can--this is Hollywood. All you have to do is create a noble lie and ignoble plot device to prove how good people are. Which is why it's so galling that critics think this film transcends Hollywood. It's mired right in the stink of it. Travers marvels at how Nolan "brings pop escapism whisper-close to enduring art. " Actually, he ruined the pop escapism with his violent realism, and ruined the enduring art with his pop escapist ending. Shame on him and his brother, who should go back to writing quality short stories.

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