Humans do not run in packs. They form social circles and erect strict hierarchies, but the desire to live in a pack is either openly denigrated (witness every teen film), contextualized into a culturally acceptable substitute (witness every team film), or mocked as pure atavism (witness Buffy). But as Cesar Millan never tires of telling us, dogs are pack animals by instinct and acculturation: they are born into a litter and socialized into a pack. That being the case, their relationship to merely social animals (like humans) is necessarily vexed because the typical human family lacks the structure and numbers of a pack. The position of "pack leader" in a household featuring one or two dogs and a number of humans must (according to Millan) be created artificially. Whether this canine psychology is accurate or not is beside the point: its history is firmly embedded in the naturalist narratives and their various scions (literary and visual) that Millan unwittingly draws from.
All of which only prefaces my actual argument here: Christopher Nolan thought the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight spoke to 1) the uneasiness of the human-canine détente and 2) the assumed applicability of canine cultural formations to human social hierarchies. Trying to process this, I run into the problem of excessive familiarity with both the film and the near-infinite iterations of man-animal sociobiological binaries such that I cannot, pace Beckett, find a form to accommodate the mess.
Here's what I have so far:
The Dark Knight opens with images that indicate membership in either a pack or a family. Each of the bank robbers in the opening sequence wears a mask bearing a grotesque version of one of the seven dwarfs (as indicated in what I believe is an officially sanctioned script):
That would be the Joker carrying his Bozo mask ... and Bozo is not one of the seven dwarfs. The other criminals are all given names of canonical dwarfs (Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy, etc.), but the Joker is a clown outsider who might (but given his subsequent actions, clearly does not) fit in. The Joker belongs to the correct clan (clowns), but the wrong family (seven dwarfs). Only "family" may be precisely the wrong term: I'm not sure (and research refuses to relinquish) whether the seven dwarfs were kin or clan. Their analogues' willingness to slaughter each other at the Joker's behest would seem to indicate that their bonds were of the "You like crime? I like crime too!" variety, but given the tired convention that "the loyalty of a crew is inversely proportional to the size of the score," I have reservations. Either way, the film opens with an image of organized disloyalty by a coordinated group that ideally works in unison (i.e. a pack). This would be a dysfunctional pack.
Nolan then introduces us to a functional one:
This is the human-canine (or pack-to-pack-leader) relation we have come to expect: that Chechen criminal may be sadistic psychopath, but he's also a beloved pack leader even though he cares for his dogs in the same self-interested sense that Michael Vick cared for his: they will receive affection so long as they do his bidding to the death. Were it not for the fact that these dogs were loyal to their Chechen master, this bit would mirror the pack-to-pack-leader relationship the Joker established in the previous scene. The Chechen gangster is more than willing to turn these loyal servants loose in service of a Pyrrhic stalling, and these dogs are more than happy to oblige. This would be a conventional pack.
Nolan spends the rest of the film toying with the relation of a pack to its leader, but the end result is a lot of toying to no real argumentative purpose—unless, given the historical function of the Joker as a character, that inconclusiveness is its own argumentative purpose. The Joker clearly wants to lead a pack: he recruits low-level thugs via tryouts, and when humans inevitably fail him, he plays leader to the imprisoned Chechen's pack. Here he is setting them on Batman:
When he steals a police cruiser, he feels compelled to stick his head out the back window and loll his tongue in the wind like an old beagle. When he later confronts Harvey Dent, he claims to be "a dog chasing cars [who] wouldn't know what to do with one if [he] caught it."
Does Nolan wants us to believe this is true, despite the fact that it patently isn't? After all, the previous quotation is preceded by the Joker asking, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?" The film seems to want us to believe that he doesn't, even though it entirely consists not, as the Joker claims, of him spoiling the plans of so-called "schemers" (the police, the legal system, the mob, the Batman), but of those schemers reacting to and trying to foil the Joker's implausibly elaborate plans. The matter of the film's ideological coherence, then, rests on whether you believe Nolan is complicit with a deliberately self-deceptive Joker here or not.
I go back and forth.
Note: this post is clearly pretty drafty. I publish it because 1) someone asked me what happened to my promised post about the film and dogs and 2) I noticed I hadn't published anything in a week. I'd say I'm not sure how that happened, but I do. More on that later.