The Dark Knight echoes outward

[EDIT: Folks, please take it as read that if I’m talking about a movie from here on in on my blog I’m almost certainly spoiling at least some of it. If not all of it.]

My earlier piece on the movie, if a bit lost in some of the personal stuff I’ve dealt with recently, has gained a fair amount of readers and bits of praise, such as Ian Mathers’ kind comment. But it’s only one of a new horde of pieces coming out due to things like this:

“The Dark Knight” sold an estimated $75.6 million in tickets at North American theaters from Friday to Sunday, according to Warner Brothers. Among other records it delivered the best second-weekend gross in recent Hollywood history.

“This picture has really taken on a life of its own,” said Dan Fellman, Warner’s president for domestic distribution.

…“The Dark Knight” has sold $314.2 million in tickets domestically in its first 10 days of release, a record. The film is still rolling out internationally.

Numbers are a mug’s game — everything from general inflation to rising ticket prices to much more conspires to make recent box office smashes look bigger than they are — but even the kind of self-congratulatory flackery which always comes into play like this can’t hide the fact that the movie has touched a nerve. I ended up seeing it again on impulse Saturday night — more about which in a bit — and my showing was almost totally sold out, while there was a lengthy line for the next available one when I left. Still early days yet for some of the more airy predictions (easily beating the Titanic record? c’mon, folks) but one thing’s clear — there’s huge repeat business already (I know several people who have caught it multiple times like myself and/or are planning on further) and it’s being more openly and immediately talked about in conversations I’m in or in casual ones I hear at work or elsewhere than any film like it in quite some time.

And this has played out onto the blogs and elsewhere, and to link everything would be superhuman. There’s just too much to note, but I’ve stumbled across a few worthy of attention. Among some recent takes worth your time — not because I agree with them all, I should note:

Alfred Soto’s ‘The Dark Nought,’ which articulates many of the specific concerns I felt upon initial impact and then extends this into a negative take rather than a positive, a fully understandable approach. The flamewar in the comments reflects, if at a distinct remove, the kind of pouncing going on vis-a-vis critics like David Edelstein and Joe Morgenstern. Edelstein’s understandably haughty response didn’t entirely do him much good, frankly (his brief footnote on Kit Kittredge actually reads much better as an implicit counterargument, even if it brands him as a spiritual heir to Sydney Pollack more than he might guess), but he, as does Alfred by default, at least realizes what century he’s living in and communication medium he’s being most read on, whereas Morgenstern and his friend Patrick Goldstein, whose story I’ve linked, confess to surprise and bafflement. A little late in the game there, guys.

Then again even I can be taken by surprise by the obvious too — namely, that despite the fact that the country is happily ready to see the back of him, the current president has not defenders but his own slavering fanboys who will not hear a word against him. Still, there’s something amusing about the rats still on that sinking ship, and to what lengths they’ll twist anything current in pop culture to help themselves out. As a prime example, consider Andrew Klavan’s ‘What Bush and Batman Have In Common,’ an already notorious and deeply hilarious Wall Street Journal piece that, in attempting to engage the movie’s broadest strokes as simultaneous text and subtext, becomes a paean to a vision of Bush that I honestly thought nobody was damn fool enough to believe in anymore. (Mind you, this hijacking of current memes of interest for larger points is hardly limited to the right, as Spencer Ackerman’s own treatment of the film makes fully clear. Commenters on Ackerman’s response to Klavan spell that out clearly enough, but Ackerman’s original jab to Klavan still works: “…try not to prove my points about the inability of conservatives to conceive of national security beyond the complexities of a cartoon.”)

In marked contrast, Thomas S. Hibbs’ ‘Christopher Nolan’s Achievement: The Dark Knight’ is a far more readable conservative meditation on the film, which surprised me greatly appearing as it did in the often-bemusing First Things, one of those journals that professes irritation that philosophy and political and social developments can occur outside of a religious structure instead of everyone always paying attention to them. But Hibbs knows his film noir — and his Nolan in general, elegantly demonstrated in the first couple of paragraphs — as much as he does his moral and philosophical inheritance and addresses them all in a way that avoids the pitfalls of Klavan for the most part even though he skates towards the edge of it more than once. Instead, Hibbs does what few writers seem to have done so far, namely tease out the moral quandary of Bruce Wayne’s character as central as opposed to only focusing on the Joker as lord of hideous misrule, and does so in a way that while essentially paraphrasing and justifying Gordon’s concluding speech in the film instead of analyzing it allows for Wayne’s possible collapse in the future, that rightly appreciates that the film does not truly end a story but provides a pause because the form requires it.

Finally, Tom Ewing’s ‘Bruce Wayne, Auf Wiedersehn’, in his as-ever inspired fashion, looks both at the film a bit but also places it in two larger contexts well worth remembering. The first is one that is widespread if a bit buried in the commentariat mix online, so credit to Tom for digging it out: what he terms the ‘retconned disappointment’ in the pre-Nolan Batman films of the last two decades, reaching back not only to encompass Schumacher’s grotesqueries but Tim Burton’s first two smashes, despite the fact that both received much praise and love at the time. I addressed this (and admitted to it) briefly in my own piece (“…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…”) so it’s good to read a more comprehensive study that recaptures the anticipation, excitement and widespread satisfaction with the first Burton film in particular and how it differed from Frank Miller’s near contemporary redefinition of the character. This in turn allows him to address his second larger context, namely what’s happening right now in the comic version of the Batman story, with Grant Morrison’s “Batman RIP” arc playing out and what it means to the character and to the idea of the ‘Proper Batman.’ Put it all together and end on a great Superman riff and you have Tom at his very best, drawing together a slew of connections and swiftly analyzing something more thoroughly than most can manage, with deft wit at work from sentence to sentence.

As for myself, I was hanging around on Saturday with my friend Matt Maxwell — you owe it to yourself to check out his marvellous comic Strangeways — as we were both guests at the Saturday wedding, having known Chris for many a moon. Matt hadn’t seen it yet so one thing led to another and while we couldn’t catch an IMAX screening — sold out and then some — there was a regular screening we could catch that was about to start. Matt’s own reactions to the film, if he chooses to write about them, will be up via his blog link there and/or elsewhere so I won’t speak for him, but he seemed to be about in the place I was after I first saw it — massively entertained, aware of things that didn’t quite work, and a little shell-shocked. And Matt’s a wonderfully sharp and cynical guy so to see anything like that happen to him is an honest surprise.

As for me? The sheer unease with which the first showing left me had by default changed — since I knew the story now, there wasn’t anything for me to expect or not expect on that front. A different experience, as with any rewatching, and it allowed me to focus on more of the film’s details this time out.

What I think was the biggest change lay with the quieter performances now standing out all the more strongly. Arguably this was about everybody in comparison to Heath Ledger but some work was still just there, nothing more — most obviously Morgan Freeman and to a lesser extent Michael Caine. But Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart’s work, especially in their joint scenes but not limited to them, felt much stronger; if anything Oldman might yet prove pivotal for the entire arc of whatever kind of series of films this turns out to be in the end. Over on ILE, Roz made a cogent comment: “I love the subtle change in his character between the two movies – the weary idealist cop now newly-energized and given a purpose. The old Gordon could never have jumped to the Mayor’s defense the way he did, dude could barely operate a Batmobile.” It gives the final sequence with his family, Batman and Dent (if not the still awkwardly phrased final speech) much more heft than I first appreciated, and by keeping everything about the character toned down — strong but understated, as can be sensed in the sparring with Dent in the latter’s office near the film’s beginning — he glides through the movie with comfortable ease (while playing a clearly not entirely comfortable with himself character, even!) as well as necessary, logical intensity that matches the beats and points of the script.

Perhaps in keeping with this, Ledger’s best moments now clearly included the most dialogue-free parts — his drawled “…Hi” to the injured, bed-ridden Dent, his humming to himself during the chase sequence, as if following his own internal soundtrack, and as I’ve talked about before and elsewhere, the sublimely unsettling ‘puppy leaning out of a window’ moment. To repost the still I put up last night:

Lost somewhere inside

What I’d remembered from seeing it the first time was the serene sense of the Joker at his happiest and wordless — and this right after having killed a number of different people at the police station, not to mention Rachel Dawes’s death. ‘Disturbing but lyrical,’ to quote a friend again. This time around the sonics of the scene had a stronger impact — sound muffled and distanced, music (if there was even music?) at its most minimal, a couple of tones. In motion and in the film, it captures a sense of release and freedom that feels, more than anything else, perversely American — isolated, speeding, free. As Matt mentioned to me after the film, Ledger’s accent is one of a twisted Midwest, centered somewhere, out there, but with no vocal anchor here it’s fully decentered and let loose — the ‘dog chasing after cars’ that the character soon describes himself to Dent as being.

Yesterday in the LA Times this fairly ridiculous piece ran, which I recommend for entertainment value if nothing else. Its theme can be simply summed up as ‘gosh isn’t it interesting how there’s this highbrow and there’s this lowbrow and people enjoy both!,’ with a dollop of paranoia about standards and canons. Friend Anthony pulled out this part for scorn and I don’t blame him: “If the marketplace is left entirely unfettered, we’ll lose a lot of what we consider valuable — not just J.S. Bach and John Coltrane but shows such as “Deadwood” and nonchain bookstores.” The substitution of ‘we’ for ‘I’ or ‘some of us’ is the crux, and my own summation of where the article ended up was ‘yeah, let’s have an embracing-all culture and let’s codify a new canon that does it right with sophistication so we can feel good about ourselves.’

It shouldn’t’ve surprised me at all, then, that the new canon proposed towards the end would expand to include this:

What I’m talking about — what I hope the demise of rigid hierarchies is leading us to — is a flowering of work that draws on the whole range of culture but with a genius of structure and sophistication as well….It’s what I expect to find when I see ” The Dark Knight,” which, let’s not forget, was made by Christopher Nolan, an outsider (and literature student) whose first masterpiece, “Memento,” was a bizarre personal vision made with very limited connections to the Hollywood mainstream.

It’s the flowering of the ‘at last comics are MATURE’ point of view run cartoonishly rampant, something that mistakes the compendium of impulses and interests that are part of one’s life and thought with an approved set of keywords that legitimizes rather than describes — the ‘outsider,’ the ‘literature student,’ with ‘sophistication.’ It’s not out to describe Nolan or The Dark Knight, it’s out to make oneself feel okay for liking both in the first place. It’s as much an attempt to claim the film for something as Klavan and Ackerman’s pieces were, and succeeds just about as well, becoming a vehicle for axes to grind or hobby-horses to ride.

The Dark Knight doesn’t exist in a vacuum but it is potentially well on its way to becoming an isolated touchstone, a Silence of the Lambs to Batman BeginsManhunter (an inexact parallel on many levels but nonetheless appropriate enough). Only time will tell.


4 Responses to “The Dark Knight echoes outward”

  1. Eve Says:

    “and this right after having killed a number of different people at the police station, not to mention Rachel Dawes’s death.”

    Hey, jerk face, spoiler alert notice next time, maybe?

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Tsk tsk. (In that I’m kinda surprised you hadn’t seen it already!)

  3. Eve Says:

    Sorry, I have other things to do then go see a movie twice a few days apart. 😉

  4. Thomas Grimm Says:

    Sticks and Stones Eve…”jerk face”? Really now.

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