Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dark Synthesis

The Joker first entered my consciousness four decades ago when I watched the third week, ergo the fifth and sixth episodes, of the original Batman series on ABC. Because they had rather wisely started the show with The Riddler, followed by The Penguin, and only then tackled Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker, I didn't realize just then that that this super villain sat at the top of the pyramid, that ever since he was created in 1940 by (arguably) Jerry Robinson, he's been the one to watch.

While co-writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan and his co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer (co-story) and all the money and technical expertise imaginable certainly gives The Dark Knight plenty to look at, its their interpretation of the Joker, as channeled and conjured by Health Ledger, that's the clincher for seeing it. There hasn't been a better Batman story put on the screen, no matter the flaws anyone might find in this one, and it's because their Joker has given them the handle for synthesizing so many relevant aspects of the Batman canon stretching all the way back to that first appearance in Batman #1, and synthesizing so much of the post-9/11 terror that runs under our American life since that day in 2001.

The artistic success of The Dark Knight, the thing that makes it so unnerving and hard to come to grips with, is this ripping anxiety, this unstable world where bigrigs flip ass-over engine and buildings collapse in hell-on-earth flames, and The shadowy Batman may be the cause of it all.

As the end of Batman Begins made clear, this new hero's success caused a breakout at the asylum (Arkham, to be exact) as the most psychotic criminals of all wanted their fair shot at this new crime-fighting freak. So in the post-9/11 world, where many of us have long had questions of blowback for global military, C.I.A. and economic hitman-style U.S. actions both well-intentioned and not-so-much, the question becomes whether the center can hold at all. Batman is supposed to right all wrongs but in Nolan's vision, it's too big a job for any one man. Or two, as the tragically well-meaning District Attorney, Harvey Dent, provides momentary service as well.

The trick of this movie is that Ledger's Joker is the smartest, wiliest, savviest, most committed character in the movie. Like Keyser Soze, he does the things nobody else would have the guts to do, or could even think to do. He doesn't care about money, he doesn't care for power in the traditional sense. He's only interested in chaos, a kind of major league asshole Situationalist who's Theater of the Absurd is 100% reliably always a Theatre of Cruelty. Each and every one of his larcenous, homicidal "pranks" is a social experiment, much like the 9/11 bombings didn't bring down Western capitalism as it created interpersonal panic.

Genre pictures generally have the duty of both satisfying the traditional expectations and trappings, but twisting them just enough that the formula feels refreshed. Genre pictures that stand astride and ultimately transcend their genres have to do more than twist, they have to turn the genre on its head -- satisfy us that they know their stuff, then burst the bonds in dazzling ways.

The Godfather
is more than a gangster picture -- it's about the depths of family loyalty. The Matrix is more than a sci-fi film -- it questions perception and reality. The Dark Knight is more than a superhero movie (and no one in the movie has super powers, albeit some movie magic) -- it's actually an uber-powered crime film asking how can you ever expect to clean up a world where human nature breeds new criminals faster than terrorists after a mosque attack.

Much of the picture plays as a series of heists, starting with the bravura bank robbery (with full nod to Michael Mann's Heat) that sets the tone for the unexpected. And this is where the IMAX experience kicks in as well. If you're fortunate enough to have access to an IMAX theater near you, reserve your ticket several days early, as they are selling ahead and selling out for the primo evening and weekend shows. I can imagine the movie playing in IMAX as long as in the regular theaters, as it's a unique, new experience. The screen officially opens up for six action sequences, but there are a number of unheralded establishing shots, aerial cityscapes both day and night, Hong Kong and Gotham (Chicago), that add such edgy grandeur to the experience.

So you feel like you are right there in the bank as the guns go off and Ledger shows up, first in a mask, the other big subtextual theme to the movie. One of the first shots is a man, maybe the Joker, standing on a street corner, his back to the camera, waiting for the criminal pick-up as the camera glides down to the clown mask dangling from his hand. Ledger's Joker's face is a mask, of greasepaint over scars, a mocking attempt to mask his own hideousness, the fractured but somehow more honest doppleganger for the billionaire with the rigid cowl. But it's what he says, licking his scars like a wolf, that scare the most, his knowing dissection of human behavior, flipping the pathologies of the good guys against themselves in a more credible way than previous filmed Jokers. It's the grit of the movie working for it, as when the Joker makes good on his word of making a pencil disappear.

I can't imagine how the vertiginous motif of the film translates to the regular aspect ratio, as all the skyscrapers scraps and escapes, the graceful dives through glittery cityscapes, seem crucial for the film's scale, it's desire to burst free of genre by any means necessary. The widescreen ratio works well for things like the homage to Stanley Kubrick in the underground Batcave, a spacious, mostly vacant, laboratory lit by wall-to-wall white panels above. It works for some of the scenes with Christian Bale in Bruce Wayne mode and either Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes or Aaron Eckhardt as Harvey Dent. But it puts you into this disturbing picture in an intoxicating (like absinthe) way when it goes full square eyeball-filling screen.

The biggest shock about The Dark Knight is that this is the most relentlessly downbeat huge budget Hollywood movies ever made. The Godfather was warm in comparison. That this most famous of superheros, the one with whom it is so much easier to identify than the supernaturally powered visitors and mutants, is the vessel for such a pessimistic portrait of urban civic life (almost like a comic book Wire) is strange combination -- again, a synthesis -- of events.

So what's the zeitgeist this time?

If, as Sir Michael Caine (Wayne's butler Alfred in the movie) has been quoted as saying, "Superman is how America views itself. Batman is how the rest of the world views America,” then maybe the success of this movie, directed for an American conglomerate by an Englishman, means America is somehow interested again in how the world views us, not just in how we impose our will upon the world.

Then again, maybe, like Joker and Batman alike, we're just drawn to fiery chaos.

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