Monday, August 11, 2008

The Dark Knight

On Batman, and My Relationship With Him

I’ve been umming and ahhing about Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking second Batman film since first seeing it at a preview screening on Wednesday the 23rd of July, spilling my thoughts in chunks on messageboards and wanting to write something coherent, cogent, for somewhere more permanent. Something all-encompassing. Something that captures the essence of the film as well as the film captures the essence of the… comic book? Character? Universe? Idea? Myth? Of course, I’m not going to write that (no one is, I suspect, because everyone’s reaction is unique), and every time I’ve c&p’d a chunk of a messageboard post into a gigantic Word document and sat down to ply it into something more, I’ve written myself and my feelings about the film out of the prose in an attempt to do something too big.

So let’s strip back.

The other night I watched The Dark Knight for the third time. I watched it in my living room, on my laptop, via a grainy bootleg .avi file seemingly recorded from a Mexican cinema’s projection room (I posit Mexican because the subtitles to the Hong Kong sequence were in Spanish rather than English; I imagine, though I know not why, that the whole film would have been dubbed for a Spanish audience – admittedly, as I type, I’m now thinking “was it a version specifically for Latino cinemas in America?”). My second viewing, after the preview mentioned above, was at a local, near-derelict Odeon on the Monday following its release. It was busy, uncomfortable, and populated by people drinking exceptionally large and lurid frozen sugar beverages.

The cinema experience at the preview screening was something else entirely; a full house again, but hushed in reverential excitement, a flurry of Batman t-shirts of various denominations, at least one young man in full Ledger-as-Joker regalia (and very few women at all); the sense of being part of a cultural happening, a shared experience. I remember seeing the audience cheer as Legolas felled an oliphaunt in one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings installments, but other than that my cinema visits have been… more inclined to feature me shouting at noisy teenagers during an X-Men film than feeling a frisson of cultural excitement.

After that first viewing I was left with a jumble of emotions and conclusions, pretty much all of them positive, and a strong desire to see the film again, as soon as possible. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that before at the close of a cinema screening; maybe Children of Men, which I will say now is my favourite film of this decade thus far, for context.

Much of the discourse I’ve seen or been involved in has involved talk of political allegory – specifically suggestion that Batman is analogous (in a positive light) to George Bush, that Nolan is a conservative film-maker with a conservative message. The thought hadn’t struck me, because I’m neither a crusading liberal nor a guilty conservative, so I’ve given it little thought. Mark at K-Punk, however, has torn the idea apart expertly, as he is wont to do – read his piece here.

Where to go now? The purpose of this blog is to enable me, and hopefully some other people, to write freely about whatever we want, as long as it is… cultural.

I had initially wanted to avoid writing about The Joker, and therefore necessarily about Heath Ledger, because many reviews of and think pieces on this film have taken the form of eulogies, reviews of the man, rather than reviews of the entire, fantastic spectacle that is the film. I was going to write, and in fact did write, a long, rambling, autobiographical introduction about my relationship to both cinema and comic books, and about the nature of comic book films (first film as origin, universe-establishment and training exercise with tacked-on villain & peril; second film as actual complete film; third film as overkill). But actually, who wants to read that? Even the vaguely interesting bit, the section about the arc of multiple-film comic book franchises, is self-evident to anyone who has watched all three Spider-Man films. Unless your name is Brett Ratner.

I will say, however, that though I love the idea of comic books, and have a shelf full of graphic novels from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men to Art Spiegleman’s Maus, the actuality always seems to disappoint. Todd Hutlock, former associate editor at Stylus and tame comic book geek overlord, may feel a little ill around about now.

I’m not sure what it is; maybe it’s Jim Lee’s fault – his spectacular seizing of X-Men in the early 90s, with it’s tiny-ankled, massively-mammaried heroines, and disgustingly muscled heroes (even Cyclops, who is a wimp!), has perhaps made me used to spectacle over plot or character, thusly making me crave plot and character all the more? More likely it’s the inconsistency with which I might buy a comic (i.e. never), meaning that my mode of consumption is the graphic novel by default, compounded by the graphic novel itself being an odd format. Watchmen works the format well, but was conceived with a strict arc and length in mind – well over 600 issues of Batman, plus dozens of other titles about the character, over more than 60 years, with countless reinventions, deaths, resurrections, replacements, etcetera, etcetera… how the hell does one keep up?

I love the idea of Batman, I love the aesthetic; pissed billionaire wreaks revenge on fallen city scum while dressed as a bat and doing ninja tricks and driving a huge, black car. But the graphic novels I’ve read – all the canonical works; The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, The Long Halloween – have left me feeling that something is missing. I want the platonic essence of the character conveyed to me, the ultimate story told, the ultimate aesthetic embodied, in a nice, neat package, and so far they have failed me. Arkham Asylum looks fantastic(al) but it is all atmosphere, no… narrative, all attempted insight with nothing to look inside. The Killing Joke is, as Alan Moore himself so perceptively realises, “not saying anything much”; what asks more questions is Brian Bolland’s excellent short story that is packaged at the end of the deluxe edition. The Dark Knight Returns relies on you liking Frank Miller’s artwork (and personality) which I don’t, particularly. I’m not sure who’s artwork I do like. The Long Halloween has a bit more meat to it, but still… wasn’t quite there. The artwork perhaps too flimsy, the supporting cast of villains, as ever, ridiculous – The Mad Hatter? Come on – and the plot itself too in thrall to other things and too lacking in its own actual substance. I have Miller’s Batman: Year One in the post; maybe that will do it.

Which is why I think I’ve invested so much in Nolan’s films. I’ve refrained from buying Burton’s original movie on DVD for years, a niggling doubt at the back of my mind saying “even at 12 you thought it was rubbish”. This suspicion was borne out when I finally succumbed and bought it second-hand via Amazon the other week – we watched it once, were dismayed at the pulpy campness, the unintelligible plot, the frankly daft Jack Nicholson performance, and the slightness of it all, that I sold it on the next day (for a profit). My memory of Batman Returns is that it seemed empty, like a soundstage Gotham City, like Dogville. I suspect, plot and villain wise, that it would eclipse the prior film; I’ve added it to our online rental list. I never watched the Schumacher films.

Christopher Nolan got me with Memento eight years ago; Insomnia I’ve only seen once, late at night, tired, but enjoyed it – but it’s a cover version, isn’t it? A training exercise to my pop-music-trained faculties. Batman Begins got me though, despite the fact that, surely, a comic book adaptation is also a cover version… Oh, what the hell. It had… the right ambience, the right approach, a smattering of realism and a smattering of physicality, and a smattering of psychological motivation, enough to make it seem… not real. But Platonic.

But this is all the kind of long-winded preamble I was trying to avoid.

I was going to write about the nature of The Dark Knight as a film very aware of both its status as a film and also of its status as a film derived from a comic book; and I still will. I was going to write speculation about Harvey Dent’s demise, about a third film, about Catwoman, about how much better Maggie Gyllenhaal was than Katie Holmes at crafting a three-dimensional, gutsy, gleeful, sexy character who didn’t simply exist as a catalyst for the men in the movie, even though, plot-wise, that’s kind of all she was. I was going to comment on Morgan Freeman as being, once again, little more than the ‘magic negro’, but doing it with such wit and charisma that he transcends that nasty little meme. I was going to talk about flipping trucks and exploding hospitals. Maybe I still will. And I was going to try and avoid talking about The Joker too much. But I can’t. Several people have told me that I’ve said perceptive things about The Joker. So… here… we… go…

The Film As Film, The Film As Comic Book
Actually, let’s talk about the nature of the film first.

While the reception to The Dark Knight is generally favourable, bordering on ravenously positive, there are voices of dissent; many of these opine that the film is too dark, too long, too moral, too brutal (bordering on sadistic), and not quite as ‘intelligent’ as it posits itself as being. Much of this talk revolves around the idea that The Dark Knight is a watershed moment in “comic book films”, the instance when the genre comes of age, matures, transcends itself. I disagree, strongly.

Firstly, I don't think the film is anywhere near as brutal and sadistic as some people have made it out to be; yes moments are frightening and shocking and made me flinch, but... there is no gratuitous blood, no gore, no horrifically-prosthetic injuries (with one notable exception). A big part of this is the fact that the film is (in the UK) only certificated as 12A (PG-13 in the US), and the lack of gore is a pragmatic way of keeping an ostensibly ‘adult’ film available to (almost) all; in order, of course, to keep ticket sales up. But also because… Batman is at root a comic book character, and the vast majority of comic books, with some notable exceptions, are universally accessible and also universally acknowledged as unreal. The drama, the action, the violence portrayed within them has no pretensions to express reality; comic book art, whether by David Gibson, Jim Lee, Dave McKean, Frank Miller or anyone else, in any number of styles, has never strived for photo-realism.

This is because comic books are at their very essence unreal. Mutants do not exist; invulnerable flying aliens with laser eyes do not exist; giant green muscled gamma-ray-afflicted hulks do not exist. Even Batman, famously lacking in super powers; even Batman, just an ordinary human being, does not exist – a billionaire playboy dressed as a bat who happens to be an orphaned ninja with an array of technological devices and infinite resources at his disposal and who beats up criminals and solves crimes. As ‘brutal’ and ‘dark’ (there is also the question of what ‘dark’ means, and whether it has any point as a descriptor at all; but I don’t have the muscle to investigate that here) as some writers and artists (and directors) have made him over the years, from Kane to Miller to Morrison to Loeb to Burton (although, truth be told, Burton’s Batman was more camp, more theatrical, than some remember; and more flimsy, too), and now to Nolan, none of them have ever made him phenomenologically real, or even grounded him in reality; all his incarnations (caveat: that I know of) have had him patrolling a fictional city, even if that city has its roots in New York (or Chicago).

Films are also at their very essence unreal; even documentaries are mere portrayals of real life, moving images captured on film and edited to someone’s whim, without actually being real, never mind feature films. Citizen Cane is not real. Even films that strive to show things with as much realism as possible, be they directed by Ken Loach or Michael Haneke or anyone else, are, at heart, not real; unreal.

The Dark Knight, despite much talk of its gritty realism, is very aware of its unreality, in both its lineages, cinematographic and illustrative; from the physics of flipping an articulated truck tail-over-cab in a busy street to the idea of reprogramming mobile phones to operate as sonar devices to, importantly, critically, the fact that, for instance, in the scene where Batman interrogates, or perhaps brutalises, The Joker in a police interview room, one never sees a punch fully land, one never sees a drop of blood spilt or a bruise bloom on a cheek. OK, so perhaps the make-up prevents that last observation…

Three instances jump to mind to further illustrate the film’s awareness of its ontological nature; The Joker’s ‘trick’ with a pencil, Sal Maroni’s broken ankles, and Harvey Dent’s carnaged face. Each of these incidents is horrific, or would be if it were played with any amount of realism. In the hands of Haneke, for instance (I mention him because of Ned Raggett’s excellent essay), The Joker’s pencil trick would result in blood, in brains, in visual trauma. In the same hands, Maroni’s fall would result in splintered bone and torn flesh. But Nolan shows us nothing, and not because violence in his film, in his world, is childishly and irresponsibly without consequence; but because such pornographic use of blood, of pain, of human suffering, is unnecessary to the drama. The brutality, the horror, the drama of the violence in The Dark Knight comes not from how violent and how graphic they are, but from how dramatically they are played, from what we expect to be shown as an audience; from what we want to see, and flinch away from in case we do.

Take Harvey’s face; the final reveal of his burnt features is horrific and shocking, but it is a comic book horror and shock. In a film more concerned with aesthetic realism (rather than emotional, motivational realism) there would be blood, pus, leaking sores and nastiness; instead it is portrayed like a Jim Lee illustration – anatomically fascinating but very obviously unreal. Compared to Heat, a film which Nolan obviously admires, and pays homage to at various points in The Dark Knight, this Batman film is tame; there is nothing even touching the unpleasantness of the discovery of Danny Trejo’s character beaten and tortured so badly that he is glued to his apartment’s floor with his own hemoglobin and entrails. When compared to a film like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, The Dark Knight is revealed as… not very brutal at all.

The combination of the particular approach to the CGI for Dent's face, the lack of blood (even the lack of exposed flesh – bar one early shot of Bruce’s bruised back, there is none), the clever cutting to prevent the audience seeing the impact of punches, etc, makes The Dark Knight one of the best translations of the comic book medium to film, and without needing the gimmickry of shots framed like comic book paneling or montages of illustrations throughout the title sequences. The Dark Knight is, though shot through with a degree of psychological realism, a fantastical film about fantastical things – costumed heroes and psychotic villains destroying cities. Watching it isn’t so much about suspension of disbelief, as it is about embracing the spectacle. It is a comic book movie, and it doesn’t need to “transcend the genre” – a comic book movie can be a great movie in just the same way that a Western, or animation, or comedy can be a great movie.

The Joker

The Dark Knight isn’t The Joker’s film; it’s about Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, each wanting to be the other but unable to be. Perhaps The Joker is a third path for how to deal with… whatever extreme circumstance caused him to be like he is, but really, for the purpose of The Dark Knight, he is little more than a narrative catalyst, a wanton, unchanging whirlwind that sears through the plotline accelerating the changes at the heart of other characters’ arcs without ever having an arc of his own. The most interesting thing to discuss about The Dark Knight, for me, beyond the moral quandaries, beyond the film’s place in the Batman canon, beyond allusions to Bush’s tenure, beyond technical achievements and box office records, is speculation about what The Joker’s arc might be, about what might motivate him

Ledger was awesome, this is a truism bordering on cliché at this stage; the timing of “Hi” as he sits at Dent’s bedside; the way he washes his hands before detonating the hospital; his physicality throughout; the lip-licking tic; the toss of his greasy hair as he stalks towards Rachel at Dent’s fundraiser. But beyond individual moments, the reason he was awesome, in my eyes, is that, despite the lack of back story for the character, he managed to make me believe that The Joker was a real human being, albeit one so monstrously damaged and frenzied that he exists not as a process, like real human beings, perpetually changing and evolving and forgetting and dying, but as a static moment of personality caught in time forever. Specifically as a death wish.

You see, The Joker lies, all the time – he lies about how his face was scarred (twice); he lies about Dent and Rachel’s whereabouts; he lies to Dent about not being a schemer (all he does is scheme); he lies to Gambol about being dead. I suspect that almost everything he says and does in the film is a lie or a scheme one way or another. The only three moments of truth, or of specific and personal emotional purity, that come from him in the film’s duration are, firstly, around the table with the mobsters during his introduction scene, when, accused of being mad, of being a freak, he says, a mixture of hurt and conviction in his voice, “I’m not; no I’m not”. Secondly, the suddenly quiet, seemingly slow motion shot of his escape in a squad car from the police station with Lau, as Rachel dies, and Dent burns, as he hangs from the window and closes his eyes to the freshness of the breeze, to freedom, to a split-second of the sublime, looking for all the world like a dog tasting the wind. Thirdly, prior to that shot, but more explicit in his motivation, is his utterance as Batman speeds towards him on the Batpod – “C’mon, c’mon, I want you to do it, I want you to do it, c’mon hit me”. My only conclusion is that whatever made him like this, whatever brutal event or tragic history or horrific realization, has left him wanting to die, but feeling incapable of killing himself. And so he projects that hatred outwards, and tries to destroy the world around him, each person he kills actually a brutally misjudged metaphorical suicide. But in that moment hanging out of the car window, like a dog, he’s free of whatever demons taunt him.

And he is like a dog; in the video with the fake Batman he literally barks the phrase “Look at me!” with the surprising ferocity of a dog turning on the savagery unexpectedly. Dent describes him as a mad dog, and aims to take down those who set him loose. Dogs are important to the whole film, actually, something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere; at the start Batman is mauled by a dog, triggering his need for a new suit; at the end The Joker guards himself with dogs; at another point he threatens to feed the Russian to his own “pooches”. Unless it’s a canine buddy movie, dogs don’t tend to feature in your average film, so what do they mean here? All I can think is the adage trotted out whenever a domestic canine turns on a child – there is no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners. If The Joker is a dog, and imagery and script suggest we are meant to think of him this way, then who or what is the owner that made him bad?

The answer, of course, is Batman.

So much written, and the big question, “what is The Dark Knight about?”, left unanswered. Barthes would say “it’s about whatever you think it is about”. Nolan himself has said it is about “escalation”, about moral choices. Many have said it is about Harvey Dent, held up as a beacon, as a symbol, as something he resolutely is not, and held up so much, invested in so strongly by fearful, panicked men (Batman and Gordon) that he breaks (with a little help from his friend).

I think it is about Batman, about taking the ideas and aesthetics that compose the character and his universe, which include all of the above, and more, and making them… as near to concrete as they can be. Platonic. Or nearly. Good enough for me.


louis said...

Great piece; as I said on the ILX thread, you more or less have the characterisation sussed. As for the moral universe of the movie, of course it was unrealistic, with the lawgivers in panicked thrall to larger-than-life comic-book characters, but this is the essence of the genre movie: a coherent fiction. So aptly-bound were the roles of Batman, Dent and the Joker that the movie, despite its many tangents, never felt disparate; for me at least the experience was not so much formulaic as serial, like an extended and superbly-made TV show.

As an aside, a second viewing of Children Of Men is long overdue.

SwissToni said...

interesting, thoughtful post. Love the point about dogs, and I've not noticed that anywhere else either. I haven't read the k-punk article yet, but I was interested by the way that Nolan flirts with a Guantanamo Bay / Abu Ghraib style world where anything is acceptable in the War on Terror. The end justifies the means, even if the means is a mass invasion of privacy and the beating of prisoners... but in the end I felt he backed away from that... but it's always one of the more interesting things about Batman that he walks that line, that he is prepared to step outside the law and to inflict his own kind of justice on the world. He's a vigilante, and all of the things that means. Nite Owl in Watchmen is supposedly modelled on Batman, but often he has echoes more of Rorschach. Anyway. Good film. Enjoy Year One. I'm busy re-reading my way through Dark Knight Returns and the Long Halloween. Love it.

Right, off to read K-Punk.

Whatever you do, don't read Cosmo Landesman's review in the Times. Idiot.


SwissToni said...

(him, not you)

Sick Mouthy said...

Haha, sadly I've already stumbled upon Cosmo Landesman's error-ridden and wrong-headed review for The Sunday Times - its bizarre adolescent spat at Guardian readers, not to mention it's sheer self-righteous idiocy, has probably put me off buying The Sunday Times ever again (even though I don't really read The Guardian).

Interestingly my new kitten is also called Cosmo; he too often shits in the wrong place.

louis said...

Cosmo Landesman is a well-established twonk. Avoid.

David A. said...

Found this via ILE, and I just wanted to say how weird it is that I too noticed the dog motif (Nick, you forgot the part where Joker says: "I'm just a dog who chases cars -- I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one" or words to that effect) and I also thought of Children Of Men (before reading this post where you also allude to that film) which similarly employs a canine theme throughout. I wanted to mention it, although I don't really know what it signifies (loyalty to humanity, perhaps?).

David A. said...
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