Friday, 27 July 2012

Initial verdict on The Dark Knight Rises: Very Return of the Jedi. It's not nearly as dark or accomplished as its predecessor, and it descends into maddening silliness at times, e.g. every time Bane "opens" his "mouth." More on the politics, as well as some general comments of the spoiling variety, from someone the Washington Post contacted as a "Batman expert," can be found below the fold. Let me preface this post by noting that I'm extremely fond of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and have written extensively about the thematic and technical accomplishments of both: Batman Begins I (horror) Batman Begins II (scene structure) The Dark Knight I (interrogation scene) The Dark Knight II (benefit scene) So I don't want to read any comments about how someone with a doctorate in English Literature would be predisposed to disliking The Dark Knight Rises because, if anything, the opposite is true: I've studied Christopher Nolan's films and am intimately familiar with the hallmarks of his style. Now that that's out of the way, I'll be blunt: This is easily the least accomplished film in the trilogy. Batman Begins is the most structurally sound (in narrative terms) and thematically coherent of the three: Nolan orchestrates his narratives such that they advance forward in time, indepedently, as they build Bruce Wayne into a believable character. The Dark Knight is structurally and thematically chaotic by design: Nolan can't seem to decide which scene belongs where (but cuts to it anyway) and is so indecisive about the film's argument that I can plausibly claim that it's all about dogs. But that structural and thematic anarchy is acceptable in a film that belongs to the Joker: form follows content and the both are better for it. The Dark Knight Rises shares its immediate predecessor's commitment to structural tumult and thematic incoherence but lacks a compelling motivation for doing so. The charitable version of this argument would go like this: Nolan's narrative is disorganized because Bane claims to be committed to an ideology very similar to the Joker's. The only problem with that argument is that it's not true: his heart belongs to a fascistic order that values discipline and loyalty above all else (the League of Shadows) and the plan he carries out requires military precision. He protects the nuclear device by moving it and two decoy convoys around Gotham in a coordinated fashion. The device is ultimately lost because he adheres to the plan so rigidly that Gordon and his cohorts are able to create a map that tells them when and where each convoy will be at a given point in time. The Joker's plan? It doesn't even make sense. But The Dark Knight can be forgiven its formal incongruities because the resulting confusion enhances the experience the film. If a sequence seems make no sense it's because the Joker's lost the plot. If nobody appears to know what's going it's because nobody knows what's going on. Lest this seem unnecessarily abstract, let's consider an example of the interpretative...
The Dark Knight Rises is not a conservative film. At least not in the way that conservatives think it is. Christian Toto contends that "everyone not blinded by liberal ideology" can see that The Dark Knight Rises is critical of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that the film is therefore "downright conserative." There are two significant problems with his claim: logically, it is not necessarily true that any cultural artifact that's critical of the Occupy movement is conservative; and visually, the optics of Bane and his followers don't correspond to those of the Occupy movement. The logical problem is easy enough to dismiss: I can criticize the rhetoric and tactics of the Occupy movement without being instantly transformed into a conservative. The visual problem isn't that much more complicated, because this is what Bane and his followers look like: I would like to ask Toto and John Nolte and every other conservative whose claim that the object of the film's critique is the Occupy movement is predicated on obviousness whether the heavily armed fatigue-garbed lot pictured above look more like this: Or this: I would like to ask them to examine these images closely and count the number of raised weapons in the first and compare that to the number being raised in the second and the third. Then they can tally up the number of bandoliers and re-purposed fatigues and wrapped heads there are in each of these images and compare those too. If they possess a shred of intellectual honesty they'll have no choice but concede that Bane and his cohorts more closely resemble Afghan mujahideen from the 1980s than Occupy protestors from last year. Toto claims that only those "blinded" by ideology could fail to recognize the similarity between the people in the first and second images. But it seems to me that only someone who is actually blind could be convinced that there's a greater correspondence between the first and second than the first and third. There's a solid reason that Bane and company more closely resemble the mujahideen than the Occupy protestors: they're from the same part of the world. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne being recruited in a Bhutanese prison and then scaling the Himalayas to train with the League of Shadows. The prison pit in The Dark Knight Rises is located near the northern Indian border with Pakistan, and the majority of those imprisoned in it aren't chiroptophobic American billionaires. That Fu Manchu mustache sported by Ra's al Ghul belongs to a tradition of racist caricature of people who come from China and Japan and India. The geographic and narrative cues align with the visual to demand that the League of Shadows be seen as an old school Oriental menace whose politics amount to whatever-frightens-white-people. Only in this last sense can the projection of conservative politics onto The Dark Knight Rises be understood: the only thing the League of Shadows shares with the Occupy movement is an ideological commitment to frightening white people. That both are successful says nothing about...

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