Monday, September 08, 2008

The Dark Knight

"A vision of the failure of our idealism before the inexorable tide of entropy... a Sartrean paranoia of no hope for escape, no possibly of exit... the dreamlife of mice in their sterile maze that is this sprawling microcosm of all of the miseries and suffering of the world."

"The failure of reason is the great bogey of this modern day... The dam's broken and you can't put the water back; and though it's not obviously an allegory for them, suddenly the film functions as stark reflection of our anxieties that we might be too late to save the planet, too uncertain of the terms to win the war."

"Midway through, I realized that the picture was genuinely upsetting me, that I was actually terrified by the places it was allowing its Joker to go. This Joker isn't carnival sideshow, he's not Jack Nicholson crazy--this Joker is cross-the-street crazy. The glittering beauty of it is that the character is scary because his madness is born of sadness and possibility."
-All quotes from Walter Chaw,


daveednyc said...

Methinks the critic doth gush too much... The "Best American film since Godfather Part II"? I would suggest that he see more films then.

As exciting and entertaining The Dark Knight was, it's still well within the hyperreality of the comic book world. To ascribe real-world ethos to what is essentially a fiction diminishes the film to the level of propaganda, which I highly doubt was Nolan and company's intentions.

It's like all those Matrix fanboys ten years ago who saw the "weight of the world" being borne on Keanu Reeve's shoulders. That it was some war cry against corporate dehumanization. Nah. It was a cool computer-slash-kung fu flick.

Kevie said...

I think he's talking about the subtext of the piece, not that it's trying to push a political/social agenda. I personally think that part of why a movie like that works is because it's relevant on some emotional level. Not that it's trying to send a message (which never works anyway), but that it gives you a space to work through an anxiety you're already feeling. Frank Miller used to say that superhero stories are a theater for acting out our political/social preoccupations in a grandiose way.

Obviously the action-movie chops have got to be there, but to hold audiences for two hours and multiple viewings, I really think it's got to cut into the collective psyche somewhat. A movie still has to be about something in order to propel itself through the third act.

As an example, look at Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Both had good action, good casting, and so forth. Iron Man was the one that caught the collective imagination, partly because it managed to speak to anxieties that are near to most of our hearts right now. It offered a morality play about the War on Terror in which the white American business dick manages to redeem himself and reclaim some moral high ground. It offered some small shred of hope that the innate decency of Americans might somehow save us from the messes we've made.

By contrast, The Incredible Hulk wasn't about anything, so no amount of slam-bang action could make it work.

daveednyc said...

This is a great topic (that's totally feeding my procrastination at work today...)

I agree that a film has to be "for something"; it has to elicit essentially our fear of death, which is the core of all drama (even comedy). That's the real subtext.

Chaw says "the film [DK] functions as stark reflection of our anxieties that we might be too late to save the planet, too uncertain of the terms to win the war." Those are HIS anxieties, not mine. Does that make the film any less impactful? Not really, which is why DK succeeds.

As for Iron Man, I haven't seen it, but the conceit that "It offered a morality play about the War on Terror in which the white American business dick manages to redeem himself and reclaim some moral high ground." (which I've also read elsewhere) illustrates my point.

I call it an eye-roll moment. Not because I disagree with the premise, but because it's a moralizing premise -- presenting an opinion of the external world (in this case, the War on Terror is bad, white American businessman is a "dick" for capitalizing on it) and then telling the audience that this is correct view. It's a cheat for any storyteller to do that.

The Matrix teetered on the edge of that pit, which is why it's just good fun. And why V for Vendetta, for instance, was completely unbearable. I know people who thought they were the greatest things since sliced bread, and that's fine. But it doesn't make them good drama. Why? Because there wasn't anyone to really give a damn about.

Another example comes to mind: Blade Runner. While firmly set in its own dystopia of polluted, sprawling decay, it was hardly a movie about environmental catastrophes or rampant development. It was about what it means to be human, and to give up one's humanity is kind of death. Eternal stuff that transcends prevailing winds of opinion.

(However, if it were to be made today, you can bet some global warming message would've been beaten into it.)

Or in a completely different genre, West Side Story, with it's obvious themes of racism, ethnic strife and urban poverty. Pretty heady, external-world stuff. Yet the strength of the story is whether these two kids, madly in love and meant for each other, will ever be free of all that shit. Or die trying.

Red Dawn is a film I recall responding very strongly to when I saw it in my youth because it's external premise fit my world view. (And still does, in some regards.) I mean, I thought it was fucking AWESOME when I saw it -- dudes in the Heartland grabbing their privately-owned guns and killing them some Commie invaders! I was totally "AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!" over it.

But I doubt I'd react to it the same now, because it no longer reflects my "anxieties" about the Cold War, Soviet militarism, etc. And the core story, about a bunch of kids trying to flee to safety, is glossed over to the point where there isn't as much drama to go on. It's a popcorn movie, and probably now full of eye-roll moments...

And I strongly disagree with Miller about superheroes -- if anything, they are theater for acting out our psycho-sexual preoccupations: will to power, violence, stoicism, repression alienation, etc. THOSE were the inherent strengths of The Dark Knight.

But if it's a pretext for a civics lesson, then I, for one, don't respond. Maybe that's why I don't dig superhero stories all that much...

The point is, audiences don't respond to situations as much as the motivations and actions of characters put into those situations. Because they're supposed to be us, writ large.