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.


Anonymous said...

Some ramblings:

I must say that the film left me more than a little confused in a way. I absolutely loved the film. But the conflict between seeing the film as detached from current events and as a direct comment on current events was one which I could never resolve. I think it works sensationally as a stand-alone film, without drawing any connection to the real world (aside from a certain general nihilism).
But the film toys with so many issues that can be construed as being about terrorism and the fight against it (out of which the cell-phone element seemed to be the one that was most blatant), that I have a hard time coming to a bottom line about it's implications. The Joker is showing the hypocrisy of everyone, wants to show that man's natural state is chaos. Neither of these have to do with terrorism as we know it. And also, revealing hypocrisy is not an altogether undesirable thing. If anything, I think the movie could have done a better job at making a case for hypocrisies that are crucial to our functioning as a society, and those that are harmful to society. But that's just a small observation.

All that being said, I find that the movie taken at face value is a very visceral and moving experience. There were few movies this year that captured the ambition and the yearning for greatness that this one did, and I found that a most welcome respite from the Apatow/Marvel on-slaught of self-congradulation for being hip and ironic and doing their own thing (even though I'm quite a fan of Apatow). I felt a strong sense of storytellers wanting to tell a great story on an epic scope.

I do agree that the discussion of this movie has been quite limited...however, I also find, that among non-movie people, the movie stirred a desire to discuss more than just about any other. I had a long conversation with friends of mine -who generally dislike analytical talk of movies- about the question of The Joker's characterization, about how do we come to terms with the fact that we enjoy the psychopathy and murders of The Joker. It was one of the most fascinating discussions I've had about a film with my friends(and, incidentally, it's a topic that I have an impossible time coming to terms with). I don't think we've spoken so heatedly about a movie since we saw Fight Club a few years back.

Ed Howard said...

"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."

Very true, and I think one of the film's great strengths is the way it subtly critiques and diminishes its hero. It's the first Batman movie in which Batman's name doesn't appear in the title, which at first seems like a bit of marketing trivia but in the context of the film itself takes on greater significance. I think in this film Nolan is very ambivalent about the actions of his "hero." Some people have taken the film's ambiguity as simple confusion, and criticized it for not being more explicit with its political allegories, but I think Nolan's ambiguity is quite intentional. Far from being "pro-Bush," I think the film is intended to provoke thought about the costs of ethically questionable means in fighting crime or terrorism.

Ted Pigeon said...

John: I think you're right that this movie captures the collective pulse of much of the country, in that people who don't ordinarily like to actively reflect on or discuss movies seem to be so willing. I've noticed that quite a bit. Some of this is commercial influence, no doubt, but there is something intangible about it as well. It's as if the stars aligned for this movie to be the movie of the year, if not the decade.

Ed: Your comments nicely represent a concise critique of much of the discourse on The Dark Knight in that, even with pieces that aren't taking a stand on whether it's a good or a bad film, they still seem to be looking at the film as if it endorses X or supports Y. In other words, we're still caught up in the binary machine of right and wrong.

You're absolutely right that Nolan's exploration of various thematic threads and current policies is deliberately ambiguous. And I think he is insightful enough to know what he's dealing with in terms of source material. We've all been raised on stories of good and evil, right and wrong, etc., Comic book stories tap that collective desire, which is why perhaps it's so hard for some people to see a superhero film essentially that's about ambiguities, about not having answers.

What's especially interesting is the progression of these themes from the first film to the second. I believe that Batman Begins was a much more nuanced film (thematically) than it was given credit for -- and the beauty of it is that it really created a tension between desire for the myth of the hero and a disdain for it. Despite all the closure, precision, and overally optimism of the film by its end, it was made very clear that Bruce Wayne / Batman was headed down a path that would destroy him.

That's why this new film is so interesting. It seems to emerge from the first film's fusion of these disparate ideas. And I suppose it might represent a new level of the inferno, if you will, perhaps suggesting that Batman's attempts to do good, despite echoing a good moral journey, will only result in more destruction and chaos. Chaos, after all, is like gravity.

Batman's "rule" not to kill anyone is what's central to this whole premise, and it may eventually become his undoing. His notions of ethics seems steeped within a moral universe of good and evil, where there is an absolute order. But if the two film's thematic progressions are indicative of anything, it's that these ideologies simply don't work, and may actually result in more coldness and brutality.

As Noam Chomsky reminds, where morals are absolute, ethics are contingent. This notion seems to be the core of the two films so far. And that tension comes through in Bruce Wayne / Batman's journey towards being a moral protector.

Hmmm... there is much more going on in these movies. Thanks for the comments so far, guys! Hopefully we can keep this going.

Ed Howard said...

"His notions of ethics seems steeped within a moral universe of good and evil, where there is an absolute order."

One of the most interesting aspects of the film, which is to some extent drawn from the comics of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, is the extent to which the Joker and Batman mirror and feed off of one another. The Joker's moral universe is also absolutist, which is why he's continually posing his ethical dilemmas to Batman and Gotham's populace as either/or choices between good and evil. The scene with the boats has been much criticized as a too-obvious metaphor, and it's probably not a realistic portrayal of human behavior, but it does fit in with the film's underlying themes quite well. This scene is the only ray of hope in a film that is resolutely grim and pessimistic in its portrait of society -- and the hope in this scene emerges from the fact that the people on the boats reject the Joker's either/or, good/evil proposition. By refusing to make that choice, they're acknowledging that morality exists in shades of gray. This is something that few of the film's other characters understand, either as heroes or villains. Only Jim Gordon seems to recognize the costs of his outside-the-law dealings with Batman, and in the ending showdown explicitly takes responsibility for what happened to Harvey Dent.

The film's other characters seem trapped by their rigid conceptions of morality, and this includes the Joker, who overestimates the moral degradation of Gotham. The Joker's moral absolutism consists of a sustained attempt to make others like himself, to push others across the line that leads to pure evil. He succeeds with Harvey Dent, but fails in a larger sense because most people don't think in such absolutist terms. Dent's transformation does not bode well for the future of Batman, something the film strongly hints at. Nolan is positing that absolutist thinking is inherently dangerous, whether it's on the side of "good" or "evil." The Joker, Batman, and Dent have more in common with each other than any of them do with Gordon and the other citizens of Gotham.

This central trio thinks in absolutes, believing totally in their respective ethical formulations, and believing by extension that nearly anything is justifiable to uphold their conception of morality. In Batman's case, his absolute belief in his own goodness leads to his abusive interrogation techniques, spying on civilians, and in the end lying to uphold a false sense of order and goodness. This is all clearly meant to be resonant with real-world politics, of course, but not in any proscriptive way. The film leaves it to the viewer to find his or her way through these ruminations on morality and justice. Nolan never spells any of this out, and as a culture we're apparently so used to being spoonfed -- especially in summer blockbusters -- that our critics have proved incapable of parsing the film's thematic ambiguity.

Bennet said...

I thought it was interesting when you talked about the target audience of your Internet blog, hoping they were intelligent--I think in YOUR case, your target audience consists solely of people with 20 minutes of distraction-free time to spare in order to read your post word for word hoping to find the point as you hop from your opinions about the discussion of the film to your own discussion of the film, somehow forming a cohesive whole. You may want to consider using sub-headings, so less emotionally invested and less patient readers can figure out your main points in a minute or two. Although I do not mind your wordiness, per se.

I like that you have given so much thought to the movie, but as a movie appreciator as opposed to a movie critic, I think you could stand to be more forgiving of your cinematic experiences as they happen--allow yourself to enjoy the movie for what it is, not what you want it to be. In the words of the Beatles, "let it be."

Even if we concede that this movie could have the most disorganized, nonrhythmic narrative structure in history, but you shouldn't have these baseless expectations if those same expectations cause you to have a bad time for 2+ hours. There should be enough in this movie for you to have a good time, for your own sake.

Personally, when you are grasping "for what end" the movie sets up that the struggle of order against chaos, and what point it's making, I feel you are missing the point--the movie isn't trying to present a discrete, tangible opinion about Bush, something that can be reduced down to a thesis statement, it has bigger fish to fry: The film is merely creating a stage for a timeless struggle that is totally pertinent to the human condition as a whole, and, incidentally, to America in modern times. The Joker is seductive because his opinion, just like Batman's, is very real and very interesting--people are fine as long as it's "all part of the plan," even if the plan is horrifying. If 15 soldiers are going to die tomorrow, nobody cares (because it's all part of the plan), but if the mayor is going to die, everyone loses their minds. The fact that this character could be very angry at the world is not only understandable, it's something we all feel from time to time, which makes it all the more real and horrifying.

Anyways, even though I don't agree with every single point you made, kudos for writing such a thoughtful conversation-starter (it was more interesting to read than a lot of the reviews I have come across).

Bennet said...

P.S. I wanted to update my initial impression, I think some or most of my initial disagreement with you was due to me being in too much of a rush to figure out what you were saying (ironically!). I do not think we disagree as much as I first thought.

I think what I was saying about the film not having a reductive political statement was actually very similar to part of what you were saying, on my second read through.

I still stand by my subheadings suggestion, and also the film appreciation suggestion, but my most recent beef with the post after reading it again is what seems to me to be a sort of atheist-like wallowing in meaninglessness. As if there is no truth, and everything depends on subjective experiences and ideologies.

If you clear your mind of the past and the future and speak from the heart and your audience connects with you with a mind unclouded by prejudices and preconceived ideologies, the truth of what you are saying can be felt in that moment, if you look inside yourself and really ask how you feel about what it is you are hearing.

When you say that meaning depends totally on subjective interpretations, that does not ring true with me. Your mind is so addicted to hearing itself tear down meaning and saying that truth is unattainable and dependent on subjective factors, all of which are created equal (so don't bother trying to weigh and evaluate them), that you seem to have difficulty relaxing and experiencing something truly beautiful when it comes along (like this movie, for example).

In the words of my social studies teacher from high school, "some cultures are bad." The mindset that says what you think of something is totally dependent on and relative to subjective, meaningless factors is the same thinking that leads to complete moral relativism, for example.

I believe if you strip away all the cultural standards and subjectivity there is an inherent beauty, independent of the subjective, learned beliefs of the beholder, in works of art that should not be torn down by a mind addicted to skepticism and self-doubt.

Anyways, I mostly was feeling a bit bad that my first post was saying we disagreed when in fact I do not think you were saying something much different than my post.