Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Nought

Far more disturbing than the heat and the sight of women in black Spoon T-shirts during Pitchfork Music Festival was the new Batman flick, The Dark Knight. Because of time constraints, my compulsion to scatter thoughts hither and thither through the Internets, and sheer loss of nerve, I've avoided writing at length, but since I'm reading and hearing very few critical views from my own generation about the Holy Grail of comic book adaptations (David Edelstein published an intelligent demurral last week) I just couldn't fight it anymore.

As a fan of X-2, most of Iron-Man, and the Richard Lester-helmed bits of Superman II, I don't balk at comic book adaptations. But now that it's a genre as respectable as the western once was, directors try to inject sonorities that the material really can't support. It amounts to an unintended condescension towards the material: comic books aren't serious enough on their own, so they must be longer, more violent, and allude to The Secret Sharer for extra thematic heft. As the culmination of this approach, The Dark Knight confuses darkness with seriousness, portent with drama, homilies for soliloquies, tell for show, and sadism for violence. I can't remember the last time a movie shook me so much. Talk to fans, though, and they assume that since a film "disturbed" them then it must be worthy. Some porn is disturbing, but no one would confuse it with art; and make no bones about it -- The Dark Knight is porn.

A large part of the problem is Christian Bale, who can't compensate for writer-director Christopher Nolan's disinterest in his character; it's as if Nolan relied on the audience's collective memories of the Batman they know from the comic to fill this vacuum. Bale's never been so cruelly exposed as an actor. He's best when his chiseled hauteur convinces us that subtext is an indulgence for plebes (think American Psycho). If we don't accept the tension in Bruce Wayne/Batman -- an urge to yield to the evil he fights -- Nolan's ideas crumble. I never read the comic, only gotten a sense that Wayne's an insufferable cad. I totally wish Nolan had had some fun: filmed more scenes of Bruce Wayne boning Playboy cover models and sucking champagne from between their titties. But Michael Keaton suggested some depth: in Bale's hands he's Anakin Skywalker as the dead tree in Dagobah. It should be clear that I don't mind violence in movies, but bad faith offends me, especially as I get older and I lose my tolerance for gin and bloodletting. If you're going to film a scene in which (SPOILER) the Joker slams a punk into a sharpened pencil, you better make damn sure that the context is morally ambiguous enough to mitigate the sadism. But I can't expect a movie whose fight scenes remain as incomprehensible as its predecessor's to understand context. The Dark Knight doesn't realize it simply has to stop, so frantically does it assemble explosions, lacerations, and threats to women and children. For Nolan, motion denotes progress. He isn't resourceful enough as a director or writer to tease the ambiguities without relying on daft speeches.

The Dark Knight uses violence for kicks and thrills, as if the You Complete Me stuff between Harvey Dent, the Joker, and Batman provided a moral carapace for Nolan's dick-pulling. I don't like how in scenes with the two ferries the movie teeters on nihilism, then timidly pulls back. Then, in a scene whose racial politics -- hell, its politics, period -- are inscrutable, a dangerous black felon does the good deed that his white pussy counterpart can't find the courage to perform. Nolan's point is clear: it takes a man acquainted with evil to understand what's at stake. He wants it both ways: he mourns the loss of man's capacity for goodness, yet can't give goodness the space it deserves without cooking up a way for the good man to soil his hands -- all the while making the metaphorical soil on those hands kinky and thrilling. It reminds me of what Pauline Kael once said about Flashdance: Nolan is like a sleazo putting the make on you.

As for Heath Ledger...what can I add? He's as good as you heard, and a pity that Nolan left him performing this Stalin-esque scourge by himself, without an antagonist worthy of him (the Joker's Tati-esque sashay in a nurse's gown while a hospital disintegrates behind him is one of the movie's few imaginative bits of poetry). While it's possible a character like Edmund haunted Shakespeare's sleep -- how couldn't he? -- the playwright also created three-dimensional portraits of decency (Cordelia) and tortured consciences (Gloucester). If you think King Lear allusions are pretentious, keep in mind that it's as high art that The Dark Knight has been received by fans. Nolan is frightened of his own creation, though, and this can't be right.

14 comments:

Ian said...

No disrespect (obviously), Alfred, but the repeated contentions I'm seeing from people, whether they liked the film or not, that it's more "serious" or "dark" or whatever than a comic book - even a mainstream, super hero comic book - are just plain wrong. For better or for worse, The Dark Knight is by far the Batman movie that is the closest to how comics are now and have been for a good ten or twenty years.

Alfred Soto said...

Sure. But I'm judging this as a movie. This was ineptly handled "dark" material.

Simon Crowe said...

Thank you for this post. TDK and the hype surrounding it seem ridiculous to me on pretty much every level, the film is morally incoherent and structurally unsound. I linked to you and shared thoughts here.

http://crowesmostlymovies.blogspot.com/2008/07/dark-knight.html

patrick said...

kudos to the makers Dark Knight for their record breaking opening weekend... it's no wonder there's talk of another one coming out ASAP

The Manthony said...

"Art" vs. "porn" is never a good look, dude. You may have found this trash unpleasant and want to knock down the more pretentious fanboys, but a lot of this ("The Dark Knight uses violence for kicks and thrills," "For Nolan, motion denotes progress," "so frantically does it assemble explosions, lacerations, and threats to women and children") sounds like you have a problem with trash period. And judging by your hunger for champagne and titty, I doubt you really do.

Alfred Soto said...

No way. If it was trash with a mildly provocative subtext like Iron Man and X-2, I'd be cool with it.

The Manthony said...

Then don't pull this self-righteous bullshit about it being "porn" instead of "art" if your problem is taste and craft.

Alfred Soto said...

I'm reviewing it on its own terms, bro. The thing aims to be taken seriously as art; it fails; instead it titillates. If its taste and craft are suspect, and the movie just aims at sensory excitement, then it's porn.

The Manthony said...

What does taste and craft being suspect have to do with it being porn, though? Is porn sensory excitement that you don't enjoy? respect? approve of? It's obviously not porn because it FAILS to titillate.

Alfred Soto said...

A film whose heroics pale besides the kinky threats of knife damage, Aaron Eckhart's deformed face in extreme closeup, and explosions has a lot less on its mind than The Duality of Man. If the drama's limp beside the scnes of violence, then it fits my definition of porn. We're supposed to accept Nolan's themes or whatever because the violence underlines them. Whether I'm titillated is beside the point: it doesn't change what the movie is.

The Manthony said...

So do DePalma movies that you remember more for the kinetic set pieces than for the "heroics" or "drama" porn? Or is the taste and craft not "suspect" enough to earn it that term? Would you call it "great trash" in these cases or something?

And how can you say the film "aims to be taken seriously as art" in one sentence and then say it "just aims at sensory excitement" in the next? Even if you think Nolan has no idea how to achieve art, he's clearly not aiming JUST at sensory excitement. Shouldn't the term porn be saved for movies that LACK artistic ambition, rather than those that merely fail at it?

The movie is praised for its pretensions while actually grabbing the audiences on a baser level, and that kind of middlebrow esteem deserves mockery. But if your problem has to do with the lack of a "mildly provocative subtext," (nice choice of phrase, "mildly provocative") there's no reason for you get pious about the fact that the movie has a lot of trashy juice. That's NOT what's wrong with the movie.

Alfred Soto said...

The DePalma films I like best(Dressed To Kill, Blow Out) are far more than a collection of great set pieces, as you well know. Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta go places that Bale and Gyllenhaal don't.

As you said in the last graf, its pretensions make clear that TDK aims to be taken seriously as art, AND Nolan wants sensory excitement. Lord knows the two aren't mutually exclusive, but he's no good at the art and not much better at the sensory excitement; he's using monologues and hospital bed speeches to give a patina of respectability to a series of incoherent set pieces, kinda how Return of the Jedi (and most of the Star Wars series) heaps Charlie Chan-level ontology atop spaceship chases and lightsaber duels, which is where the creators' hearts reall lie.

Dude, you're assuming I have something against trash, and that's not at all what I'm saying, as any number of film/music posts and reviews I've written here have shown. I don't pretend to have the art vs trash divide figured out when even Kael didn't (her great sixties essay fudges the differences between enjoyable trash, trash "transformed," and just unmitigated crap). We're arguing over nomenclature. Essentinally, TDK is trash that asks to be taken seriously as art.

The Manthony said...

You're damn right we're arguing over nomenclature! Your nomenclature is bullshit and forcing you to sound a lot more priggish than you are, and that's why I'm hounding you. "TDK is trash that asks to be taken seriously as art," had you said that, would have been met with a mere "yup."

Disco Vietnam said...

None of that was right