No punning title or reference necessary, not this time out. There are spoilers as this story progresses; this is your one warning.
Read the link to the newspaper report from the East Coast to learn the context, no need for this blog entry to add to the google hit count on results for its speaker. No need at all. I could say more about why I feel this way right now but it is not the place. Another time, if at all, though regular blog readers will guess why I feel this way at present, and maybe for some while to come.
I am not, I should say by way of introduction, seeking to do anything more than analyze my reactions to a film and to consider its contexts and reception. That’s been the case with all my blog entries on films that I see and talk about — look back just this month at me talking about Wall-E, at me talking about Hellboy II. That will be the case here. But its contexts include the personal and specific and I have mine right now, and others have ones closer to the bone.
So that statement, when I stumbled across that story, leapt out at me. A story of crime, of tragedy, of murder.
Of insanity, of pleasure, of laughter.
As posted the other day, I greatly enjoyed Batman Begins — for good reasons, which I outlined. Not a perfect film as I said but I felt an incredibly accomplished one, a reboot that worked, and that promised something which had not yet been delivered on film.
Some more context — Tim Burton’s Batman, almost nineteen years back, emerged when the comic world was in a fever over things like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. There was a will to believe that the film would be taking note of that four-issue vision of an aging Bruce Wayne in an eighties desolation — but it didn’t, really. At most superficially, but Burton and company had their own approach and if I can’t even bear to think about it now much, I enjoyed it a heck of a lot at the time. The path the films took after that point we all know, the impact of Batman Begins we also know.
Nolan of course was not interested in simply translating Miller to the screen either. He deftly borrowed hints from Batman: Year One and worked within a different context — to again borrow that quote from Roger Ebert I use in my Batman Begins thoughts, “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.” The language of cinema and the city was his to use, ranging from the visuals to the interactions of those in the public and private space, conventions and approaches to be employed as desired in service of the larger goals.
The Dark Knight continues this — in the first section of that story I linked you read this sequence:
How “real” are we talking here? When Nolan unveiled a six-minute Knight prologue on Imax screens last December (a twisty bank heist with a jarring Joker reveal), it was clear that his cinematic vision owes more to director Sidney Lumet than golden-age DC comics. You can feel the tension of Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon and Michael Mann’s 1995 drama, Heat. [NOTE — as has been noted for some time, the presence of William Fichtner from that latter film in the opening sequence is an intentional nod in Mann’s direction]
Nolan had an ally in [cinematographer Wally] Pfister, his collaborator on every film since the 2000 sleeper hit Memento. “When I was a kid, that bank heist scene in Dog Day Afternoon was real,” Pfister recalls. “It was that whole time around The French Connection and Bullitt and The Seven-Ups. That’s what Chris was going for.
Of course, as Nolan and Pfister would be the first to reiterate, said realism didn’t just happen in those films and neither in theirs. Planning, coordination, judging of what works and what doesn’t — to be ‘real’ required, requires, a lot of thought. But this is axiomatic and there’s no need to dwell on it on the technical front.
To be real on other fronts requires other plans and goals. It’s a story being told, of course — it’s not real at all. It’s being made up. One can make the choices one wants, and with the help of his brother Jonathan and with David Goyer, both collaborators of his and the latter a veteran of Batman Begins as well, Nolan settled in and created his story and his screenplay and did so with the obvious goals in mind:
* Make Warner Bros. a happy studio by making a lot of money — relative quality of the film being irrelevant, as ever.
* Quality however mattering in terms of things like word-of-mouth and repeat business and trying to attract as many people as possible in the first place. Bring out the tentpoles, once more.
Both of which are also truisms. They say nothing about artistic satisfaction or the sense of personal accomplishment. They shouldn’t. This is the sixth film in twenty years by a studio with a sense of a hot franchise property that in a time of continuing unsureness of what and how best to continue to make money to keep the machine going and the parties happening is not one to have the goose laying the golden egg be killed off. Nolan knew that and knows that, he’s no fool.
But Warner Bros. knew that Nolan had pulled something off pretty solidly with Batman Begins and therefore the money being put up for The Dark Knight was a likely investment. They had the core returning cast and crew. They had iconic villains making their first appearances. They had a replacement for the weakest acting link in the first film, hands down. They even had the inadvertant publicity from hell when one of the key actors died after completing his work.
And they had to have seen the final cuts a few times before releasing it. Nolan very well knew what he was making. So Warner Bros. knew what they were releasing.
“Why does blood and torture and anguish still excite us? We thought that by making [the superhero] world more violent, we would make it more “realistic,” more “adult.” God help us if that’s what it means.” — Grant Morrison
Read that link to get one writer’s brief take on the original comic book sin of the eighties, Anglophone version, if you like, but the quote almost says it all in terms of the disenchantment that set in after a certain point. Alan Moore’s feelings are discussed via paraphrase as well — and the fact that he wrote the introduction to the original trade paperback of The Dark Knight Returns is worth noting.
It is a common story, of hindsight and of insisting that others missed the point, and the skating around the question of hypocrisy, unintentional or otherwise (elsewhere on ILE a thread regarding the forthcoming Watchmen movie includes this brief comment from elsewhere: “i like alan moore gettin worked up about racism and homophobia when most of his funnybooks are filled with well-meaning misogyny” — though it’s also interesting how something further in that very comment adds a further layer of irony). To say that this has affected film as well as comics is an understatement and requires far more space and time than I can devote to it here.
But of course it’s such a potent issue because the stakes are so high — about life and death, about violence and pain, ‘blood and torture and anguish.’ This decade has hardly lacked for it, no decade has, no decade will. How those stakes are addressed, how certain interpretations of that kind of address in artistic form take on roles of their own, new statures, becoming part of the canon — it’s no less powerful for being familiar in subject and in the shape of the debate. What is appropriate and when (‘adult’ versus non-adult, say).
It bubbles below surfaces, collects, spreads. It’s one of those issues that is omnipresent, eternal, at once always in focus and not always on our minds. It is contextual itself, by country, nation, state, community, ‘society.’ It takes on no one form. And this again is a truism.
And so in the context of July 2008 (a contextual date, given shape by a Mediterrenean society and a Middle Eastern religion) there appears for general public consumption The Dark Knight.
“That is precisely why I made the film….the viewer pays for it, as you say, with having to think about it, his role as a viewer and as an accomplice in the action. I often say those who watch the film to the end, they obviously needed it, and those who leave early did not need it….This is the method of the film, to show the viewer how manipulatable he or she is.” — Michael Haneke on Funny Games
I have not seen Funny Games, either the original German-language version or the English language remake. I have no interest in doing so. I do not imagine I will do so. What I have learned of it through discussion with others and in reading pieces about it, such as the interview linked above, is of interest insofar as I have a general if not constant interest in the idea of what one creates, how one creates it, how one engages with a potential audience and how one feels about that audience.
The particular terms of that contract in Haneke’s case do not interest me, however much it might be interesting in general to view things like the ‘rewind’ scene (for some, I understand, his most facile and obnoxious move; for others, his boldest). In part — not entirely, I must emphasize, but in part — I would say it is because it was oversold to me beforehand — having not seen the original or heard of Haneke by name before word of the remake of Funny Games came out, the fact that I was being told that it was a movie about audience manipulation in the context of what an audience wants in terms of violence, among whatever else was being discussed, meant that it was essentially spoiled for me but also that what was spoiled sounded singularly uninvolving. This is the message? Then why should I care? And a smug pat on the back for my dismissal of it.
I don’t go out of my way to view movies that portray violence. I often enjoy the ones I do see. I don’t need Haneke to tell me that this could be problematic. And a further smug pat. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And on this past Friday night I go see The Dark Knight.
“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.” — Christopher Nolan
It’s the Internet, therefore there is anarchy out there. I’m not afraid of it, but I am observing it right now, and have for a couple of days.
The rage is palpable in some cases. The hate, the loathing. It’s directed against critics who didn’t like it. It’s directed against Nolan and company for making it. It’s directed against each other, it might even be directed against the self more than once.
So what, one should understandably say. What else does one expect — it’s a film, it’s high-profile, and people will be divided. We’ve all seen it before and we will all see it again. Another contextual constant.
There’s been a little something more, though. Just. Not enough to suddenly say that some sort of major step has been made. Very easy for me to oversell, I need to resist the temptation to do so but it’s pretty hard.
Amid the complaints and praise for the acting, the editing, the music, the pace, amid all the discussions of minutiae and the trash-talking between franchise fans, a dark thread, sensed in the questions about what children might think, about how people reacted to certain scenes, about what stuck with them in the memory the most. Unease.
There is context here too — the most important. If this had ‘just’ been a crime procedural film of the kind Nolan and collaborators often refer to, this context would not exist. But it’s the Batman, the Joker, Two-Face. Gordon, Alfred, Fox. Gotham.
There’s a million reviewers out there all saying similar things — how it’s the film that shows comics have come of age, how it’s more mature. Cast your mind back to that Grant Morrison quote above, though. Then ignore that angle and debate and terminology entirely.
Instead — if you have seen the film — ask yourself this — did Christopher Nolan, perhaps unconsciously, succeed where Michael Haneke failed?
So, The Dark Knight.
I’m already planning on seeing it again in the theater. Maybe even a third time, depending.
No, it’s not perfect. I don’t think I really have perfect films, I’m sure I did at one point, but that’s understandable enough. Some criticisms I’ve read just made me more excited to see the film.
Others I agree with. The pacing does seem too strangely drawn out towards the end at points. The very final speeches appear to strain to provide a point of closure (more on that later as well).
Others I understand but don’t agree with — Christian Bale gets a lot of those, and a lot of it has to do with the VOICE OF DOOM. But I was fine enough with that in Batman Begins and I really have no problem with it here. If anything, its intentional artificiality is necessary in the world Nolan has created — if the effect is to be ‘real’ then Batman communicating with any number of people in the voice of Bruce Wayne is a problem. Bale also gets complaints that he is a blank, both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman, and as Wayne both ‘in character’ in public and in the private moments. But this bothers me even less — the first film did all the setting up, and what others see as flatness I see as cool control and internal despair hinted at rather than splayed out. He is a decentered titular character, though, certainly — and this isn’t new even in Batman films (never forget that Jack Nicholson got the lead credit in the 1989 film — rewatch the opening minute if you don’t believe me) — but I think it is effectively done here.
So there are the criticisms to note, yes.
And what a film, what a film. WHAT a film.
I’m trying, for once, to avoiding dragging out all the adjectives. They all seem insufficient, down the line. The film is just that good. My faith was rewarded, and it was faith — I had a trust in Nolan and crew and I was not only not let down but had my expectations smashed.
The comments and thoughts I’ve left on ILE and elsewhere, upon reviewing, barely say anything, so in some respects I find myself wondering how best to approach this. A checklist? A scattered list of observations? A general ‘look, really, GO SEE THIS’ post, even despite the fact that as noticed I don’t think this film ‘perfect’?
There is continuity, certainly. If Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine don’t have much to do then they do it very well in roles that are necessary if thankless, though not without quiet reward — Freeman’s moral dilemma towards the end is the weakest one of the film (strange considering that in ways it most clearly addresses a larger dilemma in current America than anything else in the film) but he makes up for it with a great line delivered to a scheming accountant. Caine, meanwhile, for all his Michael Caineness verbally, has his best moment in a visual shot towards the end, a deft script suggestion that is gently played out. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, nails Gordon so well that my belief circa Batman Begins that he could anchor a film on his own as the character isn’t changed much at all — and if he’s saddled with the forced concluding speech, one flash-forward moment accompanying it makes up for it all, an iconic part of the Batman mythos destroyed at his hands. And there’s a great one-scene cameo by Cilian Murphy as the Scarecrow, because why not?
Of the newer actors, besides a perfectly serviceable pool of names such as Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall and more besides, all of whom deal with the movie and setting as if it was ‘just’ a crime drama and therefore help sell it all the more, there’s the bigger name of Maggie Gyllenhall (a fine job, I like her as an actress well enough, but it’s less about her character than what happens to her character) and Aaron Eckhart, who can only seem to play WASPy professional types — no complaints there, he’s the William Hurt of his time on that front and as such while it’s impossible to look at him without thinking, “Hey, it’s Aaron Eckhart,” that makes him perfect for Harvey Dent both before and after his transformation into Two-Face. More on his character in a bit.
Technically there’s little to add that hasn’t been explored in much more detail — still haven’t seen this in IMAX but I’ve little doubt it’s just that spectacular in it, there was enough of a rich feeling visually to start with, hyperclean surfaces and deep black shadows and more. Serviceable enough visual effects when needed but mostly done in camera when possible (check the first Nolan link above for more). Hans Zimmer and James Michael Howard are two studio pros who know exactly what they are doing when it comes to the music and if their best trick is obvious it is still a killer trick, a one-note motif that clearly signals imminent threat — a cliche by now in many other hands but deployed here with can-do effectiveness.
Special notice for the editing in particular — in combination with the camera work, easily the two most crucial things about the film, and if not perfect (as noted above, the structure and pace starts to give towards the end — nowhere near as badly as the Indiana Jones movie did, though), the amount of times that scenes relied on the quickest of cuts to end on moments of sudden tension, unease, panic or something equally unsettling only ratcheted up a tense movie’s impact all the more. Again, as with the music, the wheel not reinvented, but used to the best of its considerable ability.
And more can and should be said. But two things left to talk about in detail for now.
“I personally had strongly mixed emotions about this film. While it was a little bit too violent for my tastes, it wasnt until a certain scene that made me literally burst into tears. But there is a backstory.” — a poster on the LA Times Hero Complex blog
What do people want out of a movie? What do people want out of a script? A story?
As Nolan says, he makes movies that are funny to himself at least, and unintentional humor (or not) of the Batvoice aside, plenty of funny moments in this one. The source of many of them can be guessed but that’s for the final section. But there’s a variety of humor styles deployed, from the visual gag to the wry understatement to even the kind of joke that would have worked in the Schumacher Batmans but still works in this one too — think of the scene where the judge counts off the absurdly high amount of collective charges and the camera cuts to a courtroom packed with seemingly nobody but defendants and lawyers all protesting at the top of their lungs. It’s not a laugh a minute movie but it has its ways of relieving things around the corners, even if it’s Gordon and Wayne exchanging a bit of ‘hey how ya doin’ talk following an intentional smash-up towards the end of the film.
It’s all needed because as time goes on — and as the character that laughs the most starts to laugh louder and louder — the grimness builds. And we come back to Nolan-as-Haneke-analog…maybe.
It doesn’t hit you over the head at first, or so I think. In retrospect it does a bit. You realize that the opening scene worked, if it did for you, for the sheer glee of realizing how the Joker set up each of his accomplices and then got away with it all scot-free. You wanted him to succeed, a crime that after all was against what was clearly described as a front for the Mafia, and where only small time criminals were killed otherwise. The deaths were all meant to entertain.
And they did, I was entertained. I’d guess we all were.
And slowly but surely the bodies piled up.
On ILE, moonship made this comment:
here’s another thing we’re suffering through: movies where people casually shoot each other without warning….a lot of times during the dark knight i was like “oh for god’s sake, will the director please stop having hapless beat cops get shot for no reason”.
Hapless beat cops indeed. And small-time criminals. And vigilantes. And bystanders. And high civic officials. And not all for no reason…perhaps?
When Gordon’s character ‘dies,’ his is the one that is most milked for dramatic impact, pushed to the limit. Its audaciousness is another thing you realize in retrospect — he’s not even Commissioner Gordon yet, how could he have been killed? But then, why not? And that’s what I was thinking of the whole time until his return, that he was really out — why not raise the stakes some? I didn’t question it at all — that death made a certain sense. And then he came back and all was right with the world…for the moment.
But before that time is when things first began to clearly take shape in my head as to what was going on, when Harvey Dent individually confronts and is on the verge of taking the life of a suspect in the Gordon slaying. On the surface level, this is exactly the kind of thing being talked about for the most part — the articulation of what is justice, of what kind, how is it done? The discussion between Batman and Dent at that point is, essentially, necessary formula to drive the plot further. It’s not about a Macguffin — the plot IS the Macguffin.
This can overstate, to put it mildly. My lens is my own, after all. Yet consider — from that point forward I felt strongly that the movie even more clearly aiming to have its cake and eat it too, the blackest of black jokes when it came to death and loss. The ways it did so were manifold — the major ‘real’ death in the movie, Rachel’s, is blunt, a raising of emotional stakes that again drives the plot forward, meant to be accepted. But while that happens, the Joker breaks out and bodies are everywhere. The mayhem builds up further, the threats get more convoluted. The Joker threatens to destroy a hospital unless a man is killed by a random citizen in sixty minutes. Attempted killings, kidnappings, bombings, fear. Victims caught on video. Macguffin…again?
Then we hit the boats. As my friend Tom said to me, “The buttons have to be wired up to their own boats.” But we didn’t get that, no explosions at all. The Joker is rather disappointed.
I was disappointed.
One reason could be, to quote an ILE post, “the Joker’s “social experiment” towards the end and the decision the people come to (and the way they come about it) is oddly reminiscent of the type of upbeat, populist messages you might expect from the Spider-Man movies during scenes where the masses get involved in the film…why’s [Gotham] such a sewer if everyone (including convicted murderers) are really saints?”
And I wasn’t feeling particularly saintlike right then. I wanted a ship to go down. Maybe both.
Everything felt a little more nightmarish from that point on in what remained, to the point where I was fully expecting…wanting…Dent as Two-Face to murder Gordon or a family member in cold blood in the final sequence.
That was not a pleasant feeling. And I’d be willing to guess I was far from alone in expecting that, even wanting it.
So what, it’s only a film, a fictional story about a melodramatic situation that looks realistic but is not real — not everyone reacts this way that I did nor is there any reason why they should. My supposition about what is going on might only be that in the end, at most unconsciously intended, maybe. Yet the slow grind of the story towards the conclusion, towards the overt statements between Gordon and Batman at the end — did the Joker win or did what Dent stood for before his fall maintain its resonance, can a violent impulse be tempered? — seems only to drive towards a parallel and overarching conclusion — is this what the audience wants? what I want? what you want?
Because after all, if Dent had lived in this version of the Batman story, he would go on to cause more death and slaughter in the next movie, presumably, and didn’t the audience want that story to continue? With a kind of suddenly self-conscious horror, I realized I expected that continuity, I wanted that — and I didn’t get it. Nolan knew that going in and saw it through, and he would well be aware of what kind of reaction that would generate, understatedly if not overtly — that fanservice wasn’t on the agenda. There was a larger agenda at work.
So why so serious indeed. But consider the quote that started this section, consider the opening quote I listed and linked up top, consider that which I alluded to at the start which regular blog readers over the past week would know about.
Haneke couldn’t get me interested in his games. Nolan, on the other hand, had me played from the start, and I won’t be the only one.
And that leaves one last thing to talk about.
The elephant in the room. The Oscar talk, the real death. The posthumous worship, the exploiting without being seen to.
I had no real opinion on Heath Ledger at all. I hadn’t really seen him in anything. Bits, pieces…he’d yet to do a movie that made me go “Man, I really need to see that sooner rather than later,” and yes that includes Brokeback Mountain. Some part of me still remembered about ten years back, going “Roar? What kind of a stupid name for a series is that?”
When it was announced he was going to be the Joker — hey, I was fine with it. No preconceptions, let him be the Joker. And so it went from there, and things trickled out as they would — spy photographs of the makeup, formal promo shots, audio snippets, initial trailers…worked for me, caught ’em as I did.
And we all know what happened next.
You can talk about people disappearing into roles, but for me, the Joker WAS Heath Ledger’s role just because I had nothing else to compare it to — other Jokers, surely, but not other Heath Ledger parts. And unlike Aaron Eckhart, I didn’t look at the Joker and think “Oh right, Heath Ledger,” which was of course the whole point, the makeup, the scars, everything else.
There’s already a backlash to the Oscar talk and there’s going to be a backlash to the backlash. The only thing to do was to come in and see if he pulled it off.
And now I think of moments, on top of moments, on top of moments.
The pencil trick, of course. Knocked everyone flat. (Horrified laughter — entertainment and death.) The first speech about the scars, the broken pool cue. (Again, horrified, etc.) The videos. The disfigured bodies. The literal lip-licking enjoyment of it all. The masochism, the taunts, the pauses and the uncaring about all that which one might normally care about, in the world of Gotham at least if not the real one. The phone call.
The nurses’ outfit. That WHOLE scene, down to him toddling out into the street just…walking that way in that dress. And then when you expect him to do the ‘every film’s done it’ bit of him just moving away from all the mayhem, it misfires, he turns around and gets frustrated and pissy. Nolan and company’s conception but that was Ledger on screen.
And then something which I remembered vividly and which others did as well — to quote a public take on it from ILE:
Best scene (shot, I guess) in the movie: without a doubt the Joker riding in the police car, hanging out the window, mugging for nobody, then silently closing his eyes and taking in the air. Fabulous.
Another friend called it ‘disturbing…and lyrical.’ Rightly so. Free of dialogue, free of nothing but the kind of impulses that tie together things on so many levels — the power of speed, the snubbing of authority, the sheer solipsistic glee in wanting it all to come down and fail in a sprawling mess — something about it is lyrical, recognizable. When Nolan said he feared anarchy up above, he also knew that he wanted to make it look great.
The Dark Knight is arguably all about beginnings and endings both. Some characters begin and end in it, Harvey Dent most obviously. Some just end — Rachel Dawes on a rooftop, speaking with all the time she has left, cut off in mid-syllable. Origin stories are told and/or final moments are overseen. And the Batman’s origin story was already told, and Gordon’s, and Alfred’s, and more.
The great exception: appearing in medias res, no beginning, no fixed point of entry or reason or rationale, changing his story as he pleases, offering little explanation beyond words that the character seems to say only for his amusement, laughing with delight at each pounding fist Batman gives him, ending his story literally hanging in the air, neither here nor there.
One reason why the very ending doesn’t quite work for me is that it is that it felt like there had to be an ending, a punctuation, some kind of flat reassurance and summation. Perhaps unavoidable. Heath Ledger didn’t have to worry about that with this character, and the last image nearly everyone will ever have of him now, cackling and held at bay by gunpoint, swinging back and forth above an abyss, seems like a permanent stasis worth staying in.
It was only a movie, after all. And yet, again, context.
I had fun.