The Dark Knight continued: IMAX, family and horror

What, again? After not one but two other pieces?

Sure, why not. After all, I saw it again. And I might see it a fourth time. Might.

Sometime today or tomorrow The Dark Knight will crest the $400 million mark and become the seventh biggest moneymaker in American history. Uh, no, wait, the sixty-third. But it’s the thirty-ninth biggest film worldwide ever! Oh wait those dollars aren’t adjusted either…

None of my observations about the slippery nature of movie revenue are new and yet the fact remains that we’re still dealing with a conditional phenomenon rather than a true one. Conditionally it’s pretty stellar still; in American terms it’s the biggest money maker of the year and even with inflationary costs factored in it’s looking very likely to overtake the biggest money maker of the decade — Shrek 2, of all films (who knew? not me!). But the fact that it IS Shrek 2 helped underscore the curious sense of achievement at work — people aren’t talking about that film as some sort of mass era-defining cultural event still, and the fact remains that the same could easily be the case here.

An odd comparison leapt to mind today — Ministry’s Psalm 69. In a review of the album for my heavily quixotic 136 best-of-90s list (itself now a year away from being a decade old — good grief), I concluded said album, released in summer in a presidential election year, 1992, made sense for the rest of the time up through that campaign and then upon Clinton’s victory over Bush didn’t any more. Its glowering anger and sculpted rage, which I mainlined obsessively for five months, felt suddenly like hollow bombast.

Now, I’m not out to equate situations on an exact level here by any means. For one thing, The Dark Knight has hit on a cultural and subcultural level more universally than said album ever did and ever will. It makes me wonder how I’ll look at the film in the future, though, as well as how we’ll all look at it — as I’ve just said earlier today, I’m hardly out to assume what will be whatever actually happens in November, but regardless of what happens there how the film is digested and referred to further is also in the end impossible to predict.

One thing that is possible to predict, though, is that the chance to see the film in its ‘true’ format will be the most limited experience of all — via IMAX. One of the many technical points bantered around about the film is that Christopher Nolan actually shot a good amount of it using the IMAX camera and format, and since that has no real equivalent in terms of mass market consumption of movies otherwise, whether at theaters or with home setups, one has to actually see it in an IMAX theater to truly ‘see’ it. Or at least, so the filmmakers, Warner Bros and IMAX would love to have you believe (and IMAX ain’t complaining — as this news report notes, it’s received some major cash when only a short while ago things were not looking good for the company at all)

Nothing against the format itself, of course — IMAX is a gorgeous technical achievement and has been recognized as such for years — but until there’s a way to have one in every theater, ie the Twelfth of Never, going the big blockbuster route with it is going to have to be a self-consciously elite experience by default, determined by luck and how close one is to a theater that can show it that way. As it happens, I am lucky and I am close to one, so my friend Tom, who saw it with me on opening night at the Big Newport around here, went with me to see it again on the IMAX screen at the Irvine Spectrum last Wednesday.

We bought tickets in advance because we figured — rightly — that the massive attention and repeat buzz around The Dark Knight combined with the exclusivity of the format meant that this thing would sell out in advance. I’d be willing to bet this’ll stay the case for some while to come — even as the eventual attrition of screens takes its toll on the film in general, seeing it in IMAX will become all the more unique a prospect. It was also a way to pay gentle homage to how we both had seen Batman Begins there on its opening night in that same theater, though that of course was just done as a basic expanded projection of the letterbox format, striking but not a true IMAX cut.

So this third viewing was in many ways for me the calmest on the one hand — the contours of the story are now familiar and the beats starting to be remembered easily — and the most thrilling. Of all three showings this was the one geared in my mind towards appreciation of spectacle, and from the first shot after the murky smoke/Batman logo introduction — the stark, rushing closeup onto a skyscraper, only now expanded to actually FEEL like a skyscraper that we as an audience were charging relentlessly towards — I was lost in it.

Admittedly the back-and-forth nature of the camera frame was at points jarring, but not harmfully so, and in all the moments where I had figured from the first two viewings that the IMAX would be most effective — the huge swoops over and around buildings, down streets and over them — the sense of bottomless vertigo was readily achieved. I never felt sick or uncomfortable but I did feel a little disoriented, and I wondered how those who had not seen it before were taking it. I’m almost glad I didn’t see it this way opening night, as combined with the troubling feelings I was left with I might have done little but gibber.

Notably the final minutes of the film were shot in the format as well — nearly all of which are character close-ups, the final confrontation between Dent, Batman and the Gordons and the immediate aftermath. The effect was to render the conclusion operatic, something which I had always associated with some of the talk around Tim Burton’s first foray into Batman, referring to the confrontation at the top of the hyperGothic cathedral as the characters posed and fought over dizzying heights. Here instead the feeling was reversed — they posed and fought just as much, but in a generally understated fashion on a stable floor (albeit with a drop to the side), their forms and figures towering upon the screen. I say generally understated because the most nightmarish Dent moment in the film as Two-Face — his angry roar about what is ‘fair,’ shot to highlight his damaged left side — became even more so, his near-stripped-clean jaw almost seeming to dislocate from his skull.

That scene is foreshadowed, in one of the film’s slightly clunkier moments, when Dent taunts Gordon on the phone as the final showdown with the Joker approaches. If the line is forced, though, the impact has something to do with a point that I started to grasp after the second viewing and which the third helped to crystallize — when Gordon asks Dent where his family is, Dent responds “Where my family died.” Melodramatic, of course, but also suddenly illustrative of something as well.

As I’ve said before and will reemphasize, Gary Oldman’s Gordon is the calm, driven but not overdriven center of the films in many ways, the audience substitute but also, arguably, a societal one and — treading warily here, given the penchant for the autobiographical fallacy out there that I’m not immune to — one for Christopher Nolan as well. For this reason: Gordon is not merely a family man, he is, among all the major characters, *the* family man — and as a result the one with the greatest risk, the one who has the most to lose.

To explain a bit further — consider the major characters in the film and what is known of their families and relatives (strictly as it applies to this film and Batman Begins, I should note):

Bruce Wayne — quite obviously, orphaned
The Joker — utterly self-contained and origin-less, with multiple stories but no one ‘true’ one
Harvey Dent — unknown, apparently alone
Rachel Dawes — daughter of family friends of the Waynes but apparently alone now
Alfred — unknown, apparently alone
Lucius Fox — as with Alfred and Dent

…and then there’s Gordon — with a wife and kids.

Before going any further it goes without saying that there is convention at work here, namely most of the characters as they have been created and refined and developed over the decades before these films. Gordon’s family-man role is hardly new, neither is, say, Alfred’s seeming isolation. But Nolan and company, without expressly spelling out the differences between Gordon and the rest, nonetheless codify and present it that way for their films, and all the more strongly here — where in Batman Begins there was only a brief glimpse of Gordon’s family here there’s a series of scenes culminating in the final one.

In that there’s surrogate families and close relationships at work involving these characters, of course, then there’s much to unearth — Alfred and Fox’s paternal air towards Bruce Wayne perhaps most obviously — but it’s interesting that Dent consciously or unconsciously pushes the sense of family the most in the film as it rushes to its end, asking after Eric Roberts’s Mafia character’s wife before seeing him off, confronting the traitorous cop Ramirez who weepingly begs forgiveness because of her mother’s hospital bills, then to the taunting phone call to Gordon and from there to the final conclusion, which puts the issue foursquare in the center. If the Joker is the agent of random destruction then when Dent heeds his call to ‘introduce a little anarchy,’ he does so for the most part by causing or aiming to cause death or injury that direct affects those near and dear to the victims.

Back in my first piece, I found and quoted a bit from Nolan that I’ll quote here again:

“It was about the threat of anarchy. It was about anarchy being the most frightening thing there is. Chaos and anarchy in this day and age, and I think it is. It’s certainly the thing I’m most afraid of.”

His use of the term ‘anarchy’ in the screenplay at that point is quite conscious, and to have it play out as a series of threats to family therefore equally so — to explain the potential biographical connection a bit more, Nolan himself is very much a family man, married to Emma Thomas, his producer, and together they are parents to several children. I don’t think Nolan specifically sees himself in Gordon’s shoes by any means, but if, as has so often been said, parenthood changes one and gives one new perspectives, then in combination with his expressed fear of anarchy (itself hardly surprising as a fear no matter what one’s circumstance or own familial situation, of course) the intense fear and loathing in the final scene — the sense that Gordon and his family could be on the verge of irreparable damage — is, if it succeeds for you as a watcher in its goal, drawn in part from the fears of its creator. Not a deep conclusion, but one more visceral, close to the edge, than some, and also why it works where the final speeches, attempting but failing to find a solid resolution, do not.

When it comes to things close to the edge in general, though, the continuing explosion of commentary about the film from any number of angles, political, religious, social and more, has brought with it even more seemingly untethered responses. Not all, of course, and there’s everything from a National Catholic Register piece on the film as a whole (a standard, thoughtful enough positive take) to, today and on the wryly lighter side, a brief but to the point take on the VOICE OF DOOM (“He’s Bruce Wayne and he’s famous! He’s a millionaire playboy, he’s a man about town, and probably quite a number of people are in a position to recognize him. He has to disguise his voice!”) to plow through.

Still, there are odder bits out there — Eric Lucas’s column on what he sees as an undue canonization of Heath Ledger for the role, specifically because of a ‘beautiful martyr’ complex, makes some good points about the whole live-fast/die-young myth but doesn’t succeed for me because I really don’t look at Ledger’s performance in that light — I acknowledge his fate, who wouldn’t, but to repeat earlier points elsewhere, I just don’t see him in there, I see the Joker as presented.

However, the most disturbing thing I read recently involves the blog comment responses to Alyssa Royse’s piece “Business Lessons From Batman and the Dark Knight” — having been published via her Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog, it got attention, and like the earlier swarmings on writers like David Edelstein, it was angry, negative attention, in that she didn’t like the film. Not surprisingly, though no less troubling for that, said attention took on a vile, gender-specific note — the comments are there for the reading — to the point where Royse rather understandably locked down comments after a certain point and posted a follow-up item, “My First Death Threats — And They Weren’t From Batman.” To quote her:

I went away for the day, away from my computer at all, and came back to find almost 200 comments on that blog post, some of which requested that I be shot and raped. The most mild of them suggest that I need to go back to the kitchen and make babies.

….

But I’m not taking them down. People often ask me whether I really believe that women are held to a different standard, face bias and anger from men, are threatened, belittled and demeaned in the world at large. Ironically, I’ve always wavered. I’ve never really felt it personally. I’ve never known what it was like to be threatened this way. So now I know. And now I can say, “yes” to all those questions.

Frankly, I find this really terrifying – and occasionally amusing. And it certainly brings up larger questions. In an email from Natalee Roan (a kick-butt woman entrepreneur who dares to speak her mind and flaunt her gorgeous femininity,) “Couldn’t believe the comments, wow. Personally, I just wanted to say GOOD JOB. The sexist nature of the comments, written anonymously, really gives insight into what we don’t see….any one of these guys could be working alongside a smart, talented woman.”

It’s an intense feeling. Yah, that scares me. Is this really amongst us, lurking until it can seep out in the incredible cowardice that is anonymous blog-harassment? (Hmmmm, not so different that the vile way in which this kind of weak-minded hatred against women has always played out. Behind closed doors!)

A strong, brave response, and it should be rightfully praised. However, there is an irony. I haven’t actually talked about the original piece she wrote yet. In her own words, it’s meant to be a ‘silly fluff piece’ following in a larger series of what she calls ‘Friday fluff’ pieces, something which I’m sure most of the commenters (and myself) know little about contextually. I’m gathering it’s meant to be a classic blow-off-steam-with-a-laugh move at the end of the work week, though, and as such what she does in the piece is make a somewhat strained comparison between The Dark Knight as a poor film and the mistake of many start-up companies in general (in line with her regular writing work on the business world).

The straining doesn’t deserve the response it got at all, of course — not in the slightest. But in constructing her comparison, while she at no point actually says that the film was a bad *business* decision — she never claims that the film has flopped financially or anything equally unsupportable by the facts on that front — there’s still an initial sense that she’s claiming just that, something which the title of the piece does nothing to clarify. Quite honestly it took me a closer reread to see the truth of it myself; initially I was wondering what strange fantasy world Royse lived in where the profit intakes of it and, say, The X-Files: I Want to Believe had been completely switched. A lot of other people jumped to a similar conclusion and reacted — and we see the results, and they’re not pretty — but while their posts are indefensible, their initial confusion I understand.

Bemusingly, while in her response piece Royse barely addresses this potential source of confusion — and honestly I wouldn’t blame her for ranking it low on the priority list — she does offhandedly claim at one point that “looking at this blog as a film review is stupid.” This is disengenuous at best and a complete evasion at worst — of COURSE the original piece was a film review. She might have been making a larger point about the mistakes of start-ups and the like but she starts the piece out by saying “You know I hate a movie when I spend the interminable duration of it figuring out ways to lampoon it…” and doesn’t let up. There’s no reason why she should, but you know, call it a review as well as the object lesson you were intending, and stand by it.

The point is not to rake Royse over the coals; she’s had enough of that already. If anything I recognize, in a small and nowhere near as upsetting way, what happens when you try and say one thing, end up accidentally implying another, and then in trying to fight back pass off what you were initially trying to say as something else entirely. That’s just being human, and being a writer as well. But I think her response would have been all the stronger had she been able to balance an icy sarcasm on how nearly all the commenters missed her larger point with her other observations, while ditching the offhand ‘a review? of course it wasn’t!’ comment as unnecessary.

But blogs are blogs and we write on them to get our thoughts out, and we’re not always our own best editors. What, in conclusion, does this have to do with The Dark Knight? Well, maybe nothing — but I’ll let Royse have some of the final words, tying back to the film in a way that helps remind us, again, that its place right now is conditional and not somehow set-in-stone, and that there is no requirement at all to love it or even slightly like it — which we all should remember:

I am not a conspiracy theorist at all. But I have to wonder, really, what I did to deserve this? Is it because I’m a woman? I’ve read far worse reviews of The Dark Knight (from the New Yorker and other sites) and they were not threatened with death and rape and told to change their “pads.” Is it because I dissed Batman? Is it because I threatened the status quo, the borg-like mentality?

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