Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dark Before Dawn

There's a principle in criticism called "The Incoherent Text" (first coined by critic Robin Wood). That principle holds that one of the dominant storytelling modes in film is one in which several conflicting ideologies are in place such that the resulting contradictions render the movie in question incoherent (and narratively null). The classic example that Wood cites is Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickell is simultaneously reviled and exalted. I couldn't help but think of Wood and the incoherent text as I watched The Dark Knight Rises (2012, directed by Christopher Nolan), which builds on the previous film's dalliances with fascism by attempting to subvert that fascism while simultaneously embracing it. Like its predecessor, it seems to have bottled something of the zeitgeist without really understanding what any of it means. Or maybe its makers just don't care.

Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent's legacy--built on a lie concocted by Commissioner Gordon and Batman--remains intact but shaky. The Harvey Dent act keeps high value prisoners in Blackgate Prison without any allowance for parole (or due process, it seems). The Batman hasn't been seen since Dent's death. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, wallowing in the loss of Rachel Dawes the way he raged at the death of his parents. Into this milieu comes the terrorist, Bane, who is building an army of the underclass, the wretched refuse left behind by Gotham's affluence. Also new on the scene is the cat burglar, Selina Kyle, who encounters Wayne at a charity fundraiser while robbing him, and piques his interest in life beyond the walls of Wayne Manor. Selina is after more than just Martha Wayne's pearls, it seems. She's stolen Wayne's fingerprints. Commissioner Gordon, for his part, chafes at the lie that's built his peaceful Gotham, while young hotshot cop John Blake confronts Gordon about the Batman (who he doesn't believe is guilty of the crimes attributed to him). Bruce Wayne's company isn't doing so well, either, having invested in a new fusion technology that Wayne shuttered upon realizing its potential as a weapon of mass destruction. Environmentalist/tycoon Miranda Tate is interested in that technology and is pursuing business with Wayne Enterprises. This all comes unraveled when Bane makes his move. A daring robbery at the Gotham Stock Market opens the game, flushing Batman into the open and bankrupting Bruce Wayne. After a disastrous confrontation with Bane, a broken, hopeless Bruce Wayne is interred in the prison where Bane was born. Meanwhile, Bane seizes Wayne's energy project (complete with a Russian scientist who can weaponize the thing), blows the bridges into Gotham, traps the police in the city's sewers, and holds the entire city for ransom. The ransom doesn't matter to him, really. He's intent on finishing the work R'as Al Ghul began in Batman Begins by wiping Gotham City off the map. In the mean time, he creates a land of do as you please, in which the social order is inverted, where the only law is the kangaroo court presided over by The Scarecrow, and where John Blake runs a dwindling resistance. Batman, it seems, is needed more than ever...

The most obvious difference between this film and its predecessors is its reliance on the events of the previous movies. Where The Dark Knight and Batman Begins are both standalone narratives, this film is unusually dependent on the events of the previous two films for its plot. The return of the League of Shadows and the legacy of Harvey Dent both occupy the film's first ten minutes. The first scene is Commissioner Gordon eulogizing Dent, the second is an elaborate, James Bond-ish set piece in which we meet Bane as he's plucked from an airplane. The film calls back to other specific images and plot points from the previous films, too, including the first film's mantra about why we fall ("In order to pick ourselves up"). The well at the beginning of Batman Begins finds a visual rhyme in Bane's prison, which is an open pit. Rachel Dawes haunts the film in pictures, while Dent haunts the film in occasional flashbacks. A viewer new to the series might find themselves lost in these references.

Bane is a fearsome figure (as he should be, based on the character one finds in the comics). Brutal, hulking, hidden behind a mask that obscures his lower face. Bane is a master tactician and he's more than a physical match for Batman, especially a Batman with eight years of rust. It's hard not to watch Bane's takeover of Gotham and not regard it as a kind of demonic parody of the Occupy movement. The film makes this explicit in its early scenes with Gotham's elite living high on the hog at charity benefits that don't trickle down to the ground level. For all his good intentions, Wayne's infusions of cash to Gotham's needy are no longer making it to the orphanages. The arc of this film's moral universe finds the underclass being just as predatory as the 1% once the social order is inverted, taking as its model, perhaps, the French Revolution (which the film explicitly references) or the Khmer Rouge. This element of the film tends to reinforce The Dark Knight's worldview in which fascism is a necessary evil. In other parts of the film, it seems like it deconstructs that film's Bushism. If I were deeply involved with the Occupy movement, I might find this insulting, actually. On the flip side of this: I took the previous film to task for valuing propaganda and constructed ideological worldviews over truth, and I find myself surprised and delighted that this film asks similar questions. The big lie that Gordon and Batman construct at the end of the last film are part of the cause of the mayhem in this one. This film also begins to question Bush-esque legislative initiatives like the Harvey Dent act, which seems like a version of the Patriot Act, with its endorsement of indefinite detentions without recourse to due process. The politics in this film are hopelessly muddled. An incoherent text, indeed.

This might all be kind of smug in other hands, but for Nolan, it's part of the puzzle, a puzzle he takes in deadly earnest, like it's a chess problem. I don't know that it's profitable to view Nolan's films as films so much as one should view them as puzzle boxes. For some reason, they remind me a bit of The Lament Configuration, the demonic puzzle box in Hellraiser. That might just be me. Certainly, Nolan remains blissfully ignorant of what a film director's primary job actually is (he blocks the actors and camera), though this film is an improvement on previous films. The geography of scenes is clearer in this film, there's less reliance on chaos cinema for its action scenes, and there are scenes where Nolan breaks out of his tendency to move his plot along by having lone figures in the frame giving speeches. Oh, there are still fucking soliloquies in this movie, don't get me wrong, but Bruce Wayne actually dances with Selina Kyle while she delivers her big speech. I suspect that the clarity of this film's action scenes stems from practical necessity, given that most of them were shot with bulky IMAX cameras that don't lend themselves to the chaos cinema aesthetic. The relative clarity of this film can also be attributed to the fact that this is a more sunlit movie than its predecessors, with great whacks of it--particularly its action scenes--set in daylight. Still, speechifying remains Nolan's substitute for visual narrative, in spite of this film's improved formal competence and visual clarity, and the way this film handles the passage of time is borderline incompetent, particularly during one of those daylit actions scenes I mentioned.

This works better as a comic book movie than the previous film. The Dark Knight was a seventies noir thriller in disguise. This film expands its canvas into the realm of fantasy. The Dark Knight Rises is more reliant on the mythology one finds in the comics. The plot of the film is a conflation of three different Batman stories, all famously collected as graphic novels. The main narrative of Batman's encounter with Bane comes from Knightfall, the narrative surrounding a Gotham cut off from the world derives from No Man's Land, the overarching story of a Batman returning after an eight year absence is from The Dark Knight Returns, while huge chunks of the Nolan-verse's mythology in general is cut and pasted whole from Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's Batman stories from the 1970s. The ending of the film echoes The Dark Knight Returns, as well, with its end of a legend elegy. The whole assemblage works surprisingly well, given that there are plenty of places where the seams should show. There are plenty of specific call-outs to the comics that were absent in the previous film: John Blake's given name, for instance (it's not John Blake), Selina Kyle's assistant (Holly Robinson), Bruce Wayne's romantic dalliances, the film's hidden villain, etc. This is a more fan-friendly film than the previous movie, and I won't say that that doesn't make me happy, because it does.

I'm also pleased that the characters they've chosen from the comics--particularly Anne Hathaway's version of Selina Kyle--are mostly spot-on interpretations. This film has an understanding of Selina's moral ambiguity that eludes previous versions. Nolan wields a pretty good cast in these roles, too. In addition to the returning regulars, you get pretty good work from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, and Matthew Modine. Admittedly, there's a familiarity with this cast if you've seen Nolan's other films. He's not particularly adventurous with his casting choices once he establishes an actor in his repertory company. Anne Hathaway is the major deviation for Nolan, and she's a better Catwoman (the name "Catwoman" is never spoken in the film, by the way) than any other actress who has played the role. If there's a reason to see the movie if you don't give a hang about all the other Bat droppings on display, then she's it. I love her first scene with Bruce Wayne, in which she modulates her voice from her cover to her real identity. It's almost a parody of Christian Bale's infamous Bat-voice. She plays the game to perfection in this movie, and when push comes to shove, when she's required to show her true colors at the end of the movie, it's a crowd-pleasing moment. She looks good in the catsuit, too, though the heels they've got her in are fucking ridiculous. I think the movie even knows this given one of the gags it riffs on them. Still, the sexism is unfortunate, as is this film's inability to pass the Bechdel Test even though it has the on-screen resources of character and actress to actually do it. Be that as it may...

Bane is closer to the comics Bane than I expected, too, though I do wish that they'd cast him to ethnic type instead of casting Tom Hardy (a fault compounded with the fact that they've whitewashed the film's hidden villain, too). Hardy is good, though, in a role that requires him to emote with his eyes. He's more a physical presence than a character in some scenes, which is appropriate, too. This movie is aware of the degree to which Bane is an anti-Batman and reflects that in its choice of how to represent his visual image. The mask that Bane wears covers the exact spot where Batman is revealed. It's an interesting visual inversion for a character that, unlike Bruce Wayne, came from nothing and rose up through the same combination of will and ruthlessness, only to a deeper and more terrifying degree. Bane is mercifully given his due as one of Batman's most effective enemies through the inclusion of his signature image, when he breaks Batman's back across his knee. This is a depiction that manages to completely erase the horror that Joel Schumacher made of the character in Batman and Robin, which is laudable in and of itself.

I mostly had a good time with The Dark Knight Rises, but a lot of that is attributable to the romantic elements of the movie and the way that it ends. It's such an unremittingly bleak movie for big chunks of its running time that the lightness of its ending is kind of heartening. It's a crude technique, but chiaroscuro is always an effective technique for manipulating audiences. While I was watching it, I was willing to be manipulated, so I shouldn't be complaining. I do wish it had some kind of handle on what Batman's true motivation is, though, because Batman's motives in this film are as murky as its politics. The Batman origin isn't sufficient to explain the character in this movie. Nor are the events of the previous films. Does this film's ending provide some kind of catharsis for Bruce Wayne? I can't really tell. I think it does, but if it does, then it completely demolishes Batman as an archetype. It's one of the film's deeper mysteries and one of its central incoherences.

As a final note, I have to admit to squirming in my seat whenever the film dropped a hint as to its hidden villain (whose identity I knew going in). This is a film that hides this mystery in plain sight and it's kind of fun if you know it's there. If you don't know it's there, then the film turns on a terrific plot point at the end. Nolan does love his puzzles, and this one is worthy of Poe.


cinemarchaeologist said...

You seem to have enjoyed it well enough, but from your description, it sounds absolutely horrible. Like BATMAN BEGINS, another story as embarrassingly stupid as anything found on the old Adam West series, told accompanied by a lot of ripping off superior moments from comics that are galaxies better than it (thus spoiling those moments for potential future--and better--productions).

I was so put off by BATMAN BEGINS that I didn't even bother with THE DARK KNIGHT, in spite of the hype (and still haven't seen it). The plot of this one actually sounds a lot like BEGINS.

BEGINS gave me a strong impression that those behind the camera were entirely contemptuous of the material; that the film was their version of trying to do the best they could with what they regarded as basically rubbish, throwing in a handful of "cool" moments lifted from the books as fan service. That incoherency you describe sounds as if it comes from the same place. It's incoherent and doesn't commit to anything because the filmmakers simply don't care enough about it to commit to anything.

Could I be on to something?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, JR. If you didn't like Batman Begins, then you will absolutely hate The Dark Knight Rises. The two are more similar to each other than they are to The Dark Knight. I get what you mean, too. The notion that these are "realistic" and "gritty" films is absurd on its face. I mean, they have a faux serious tone, but under their surface the whole thing is ridiculous. But that's Batman for you. I mean, Batman's whole MO is ridiculous, like using a nuclear weapon on a mugger. Batman's paraphernalia cost billions, which he more profitably could put to use by funding more police, enacting anti-poverty programs, etc. Instead, he stops crimes one at a time, one criminal at a time, pissing into the ocean. Really, Spider-Man's motivations, his masochistic wallowing in guilt, are infinitely more believable than Batman.

Chris Hewson said...

Well these types of superhero films are 'gritty and realistic', but they always have to have some degree of unrealism, otherwise Spiderman would just be a guy running around NY in a red suit gunning down muggers with a pistol! haha!

As for superhero films being called fascist (something that annoys me to no end) why do you consider that to be true?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Here's the thing, I don't generally care about the fascism inherent in the ubermensch at the root of the Superman movies or the X-Men movies. Those movies and comics don't really engage with fascism in any meaningful way, though there are certain iterations of Superman (not in the movies) that DO flirt with it.

The Batman movies (and Watchmen, for that matter) engage the ideas of fascism head on. Batman is a kind of fascist ideal: a Randian superhero whose wealth places him above the law, who dispenses justice on the poor and the mentally ill from a place of high privilege without accountability to any authority but his own code of conduct? Whose necessity is justified by various evil "others" who threaten nebulous terrorist acts, but who wouldn't exist except in opposition to Batman? Oh, that's a totalitarian wet dream. Vigilante justice, in which the rights of the accused are ignored (for instance, the right to face one's accuser, the right of privacy, and protection against searches without probable cause) are one of the hallmarks of a fascist system. But even so, why do I take the Batman movies to task for this even if I give, say, the Zorro movies a pass (Zorro, after all, is basically the template for Batman)? Simple: The Batman movies are having a dialogue with fascism in the subtext, and it's not just the Nolan films that do it. Take a close look at the decor of Batman Returns. The public art in that movie's Gotham City is all based on Nazi monumentalism. There's an awareness (for want of a better term) of the ideas underpinning the Batman myth even when it's not overt. But it's overt and troubling in the Nolan films. The second film's universal surveillance society--the thing with the cell phones--is Orwellian. The tools Batman uses: enhanced interrogation (torture), rendition, the big lie propaganda, these are all the hallmarks of a fascist society, however well-intentioned. Batman is building a personality cult, too, which is also a hallmark of fascist leadership.

I think the most recent Spider-Man film puts its finger on this quite nicely when Captain Stacy absolutely lays into Spider-Man as an untrained amateur whose motives are personal rather than inspired by justice and who is a threat to the regular function of law and order. Spidey, I would suggest, is not a particularly fascist figure precisely because he has an awareness of this (or because he learns it). He's not at the top of the heap, he's not imposing his will on the city by fiat, as Batman does. He doesn't really want to be a superhero and it's usually more trouble than it's worth for him. I think The Dark Knight Rises has something of this narrative to it, too, but given how deeply Bruce Wayne is tied up with his alter ego, I don't find his abdication of Batman in the end very convincing.

Barry P. said...

Congrats Vulnavia! You've been selected for a Liebster Award (no pressure)! http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2012/08/one-small-step-for-movie-blogs-one.html I didn't see a direct email address on your blog, so I thought I'd let you know through this medium.