Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Terrorism, Criticism, and Opinionism: Observations on The Dark Knight
With the influx of discussion about The Dark Knight on the internet these past several weeks, I have deliberately avoided a written reflection on the film. While I normally praise the networked approach to film criticism that blogging enables, the explosion of dialogue over Christopher Nolan's film has left me rather cold about the prospects for critical dialogue via digital media. Of course, it's disconcerting to see such prominent expressions of outright negativity and blind opining, from Rottentomatoes to the comments section of Keith Uhlich's review of the film at The House Next Door. But how ever easy it is to point out extreme examples of this rhetoric, singling out the worst cases often invites (even encourages) one to gloss over the ideological undercurrents of the larger practice, ultimately to validate and re-inscribe those underlying trends while losing sight of them.
My disenchantment with the discussion about The Dark Knight extends well past these often-disgusting negativities to encompass the overall state of critical mud-slinging about the film. On the film's release, the journalistic film critic community nearly unanimously annointed it as one of the finest studio pictures in years, comparable even to sequels like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back. Comic-book audiences and general moviegoers echoed those sentiments. (The film has already crossed the coveted $400 million mark in just 18 days.) The massively positive response felt destined, what with the allusions to contemporary American political landscapes and the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who delivers one of the most memorable performances in years. It only seemed appropriate that critics and audiences would stand in solidarity in praise of the film.
Unfortunately, the effect has been devastating. The few dissenters were verbally crucified, with commenters demanding that these reviewers provide explanations and "evidence" for their purported mis-readings of the film. Those with less than positive perspectives provided no more or less evidence than those who liked the film -- they just happened to be singled out and raked over the coals because of those views. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted in the comments thread in Keith's (very good) review of The Dark Knight, what makes this all so scary is not that some commenters were downright vitriolic, but the collective mentality that smothers differing perspectives as if they are not allowed. At times this behavior borders on robotic uniformity, and it's worrisome.
Framing this within the larger discussion about blogging and digital discourse depresses me most. There were some two or three hundred responses to Keith's review, which is almost exponentially more than your typical response to blog posts, even the more controversial ones. We blog writers would like to think there is a silent majority of intelligent individuals reading our posts, but the overwhelming prominence of these naysayers may point to a very say reality that without commercial support, little will come of this experiment. This may signify that blogging or digital communication will eventually become just another corporate commodity with no such ability to influence anyone outside already established camps (e.g. film bloggers).
Equally disappointing was the "serious" discussion that's followed in light of the initial explosion of opinionated sneering on the film's initial release. Almost mirroring the tidal wave of uniform hatred expressed toward those who voiced discontent about The Dark Knight, a small band of determined, well-meaning critics / bloggers launched a counterattack on the film, as if to tear it down from the pedastol on which it has unrightfully been placed. I can't say I've read all of these reactions, but one thing I noticed in many of them was a homogeneous perspective -- ripping the film's formal elements, inept storytelling, and shallow allusions to post-9/11 America. Meanwhile, so few actual inquiries into the film have been attempted and we've instead found ourselves in an ideological and cultural struggle for commercial and/or intellectual superiority. These discussions almost never had anything to do with the film at all. The Dark Knight just happened to be the point through which all these lines of behavior and reaction passed through.
The majority of what I've read about The Dark Knight has not revealed anything worthwhile about the film. Seldom have I encountered pieces in which individuals have reflected on the immediate experience of the movie, its cultural significance, tonal qualities, or thematic relationships. Perhaps the discourse surrounding the film reveals rather than informs the state of culture than.
With the critical and popular responses to the film falling into such a bland pattern, it's now become obvious that a shift away from opinion and towards questions is more relevant. If we rendered ourselves incapable of discussing the film in terms of rateable quality or good-bad judgments, there might be a more varied perspectives. I would never discourage someone from having an opinion, it's basis for which we form those opinions that I would like to see expand. Then our opinions become more nuanced and interesting.
That said, the most interesting pieces about The Dark Knight that I've read were posted relatively recently (notably Rob Humanick's review at The Projection Booth and Ryland Walker Knight's email dialogue with Jennifer Stewart spread over two lengthy posts at Vinyl is Heavy), and I suspect that may be because we've had a little bit more time to digest both the film and the whirlwind of coverage about the film.
I saw the film just once about three weeks ago. So I'm finding it hard to review it in the same capacity as some others. It would also be relatively inconsequential, since thousands have dissected and analyzed the film's significance and plot points over and again. The last thing I would want to do is add my own judgments to the stockpile of opinions about The Dark Knight, suffice to say that it was endlessly intriguing and not at all what I expected. Which is probably why I am so disappointed with the dialogue both in print and online about the film. Nevertheless, there were some things that struck me about the film that are worth exploring in more detail.
I'll start with the "post 9/11" connections. After reading countless posts and articles about the connections of the film's events to Bush-era politics and post-9/11 American life, many of which very interesting, my inclination is to consider these claims in relation to the specific narrative relations in the film. There are countless allusions to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with images of videotaped torture, as well as a scene in which Batman uses cellular surveillance to track down the Joker. The film makes these allusions very explicit indeed, but to what end? I think the film is far too hazy to simply situate these blatant connection within pro-Bush :: anti-Bush or pro-war :: anti-war schemes. Christopher Nolan no doubt wants viewers to think about these issues, but that doesn't necessarily mean he endorses the actions of his protagonist, or, for that matter, that the film should be a 1:1 comparison to current world events.
On that note, why does Batman and Gotham have to represent something, a la Bush or America? We have connections between the fictitious world of the film and the non-fictitious world in which it is set. But that doesn't mean we have anything tangible. Besides, the "real" world we live in is anything but real, come to think of it. We all have our own perceptions of it, and our engagement in it depends on those perceptions. Who's to say what is fictitious and what is not? If we must ground our criticism in Jungian cine-psychoanalytic approaches, then perhaps Batman and Gotham represent the harsh collision of the fiction and the supposed real world. The Dark Knight could therefore be depicting the collapse of social order under the weight of our obsessions with myths, heroes, and villains. Our desire for these things is insatiable, perhaps because they help to narrativize and streamline the chaos and absence of meaning.
Batman Begins (2005) dealt with these relationships head-on. It speechified too strongly about its themes of fear and justice, among other things, but it balanced its construction of myth and reality so effectively that they bled into each other to become each other. The film made known immediately that it was happening in a world like our own, that it would be less cartoony and comic-book-y and more something that could potentially happen. The action was down-and-dirty; Bruce Wayne made a believable arc to becoming Batman; and Gotham City felt like a real city. Interestingly, the film contrasted this move toward realism against the building desire and purported need for a hero. It romanticized the hero myth. Aesthetically, thematically, and structurally, the film was a blurring of gritty realism and mythmaking, both grounded in and taking flight from the everyday.
The Dark Knight all but leaves this world behind. Entrenched in city politics and the corrosion of social orders, it seems to be moving farther away from the romantic vision established in the previous film. I will have to see it once or twice more before I begin to really delve into the possibility that The Dark Knight is a result of the schizophrenic unity of Batman Begins. But I initially perceived the aesthetic discontinuities (from the first film to this one) as a deep flaw; Gotham is more open, glassy, and overall more cool in tone-- nothing like the Gotham from Begins. Moreover, Batman is hokier this time around. He stands out in an otherwise serious story about the injection of paranoia and chaos into a society. Unlike in Begins, this film seems to fully take place in a more "real" world controlled by fear, where it has become nearly impossible to feasibly envision a hero.
The Dark Knight never achieves the sense of aesthetic flow of the first film. Narratively and aesthetically, Nolan is intently focused on something larger than individual moments or scenes. What that larger something is, I don't know. It would be easy to criticize it for too explicitly manipulating the many elements it has in motion, moving so quickly from one moment to the next and rarely fixating on a pure moments. Plot-wise, so much transpires in the course of the film that there appears to be no narrative rhythm at all. Whether this was Nolan's intent is not really what's important, but I will admit that I found the experience of the film very disorienting, while watching it and in retrospect.
At the heart of this estrangement is Heath Ledger's Joker, who just about takes over the film. His presence makes such an impression that all else seems to fade into the background -- whether that's the aesthetic design or character plotlines. Ledger embodies a void as a man who (some have argued) is the antithesis to the symbol that Bruce Wayne set out to create in the first film. Where Begins represented sound structural precision in developing the evolution of that symbol (The Batman) into an inevitable union of man and symbol by the end, Knight is only interested in the effects that Man as Symbol (The Joker) can have on a society. The Joker has no connection to the human life around him beyond that of maneuvering within the corrupt infrastructures of society and government. He passes through legal systems and defies physical possibility simply by being everywhere and anticipating Batman's every move. Many accounts have situated the Joker as the terrorist to Batman's America, but this is overly reductive. He does not represent a terrorist or terrorism, but is instead both a man and an idea, a manifestation of collective fears and a deeply buried desire for any figure that is both a person and a symbol, even if he is an agent of chaos. There is something attractive about him, which is the real focus of the film. The closing narration explains that Batman is the "hero Gotham needs," but not the one it wants. The Joker may be both the villain the city needs and wants, which is why his presence comes to swallow up the film much like he does the city.
Whether you consider The Dark Knight great, a masterpiece, or "flawed" (whatever that means) will more likely depend on your ideological relationship with its narrative form and aesthetic content. Some will inevitably try to isolate variables of the film to support an argument, but the film (like any) is about the movement and interaction of all of its variables. They are constantly in motion. When I initially saw the film I was extremely disappointed, not just because it failed to live up to my expectation based on the first film, but because it felt rhythmically out of kilter. On more reflection, I've been consistently more fascinated with the movie and all of the things that eluded me on that one viewing. But the impassioned of commentary and debate has distanced me from it to the point that I didn't want to write about it, or even to think about it. But I've since come to understand that The Dark Knight cannot stand by itself as other movies might. It is deeply embroiled in a cultural landscape --both internally and externally-- that the film and what it signifies have become so intertwined, like man (Bruce Wayne) and symbol (Batman) it depicts.
Now that may be a worthwhile starting point for a more relevant critique of the film.