Friday, 25 July 2008

On ruining it (x-posted, painfully, teaspooon by teaspoon) The oddest complaint I've read about The Dark Knight is that its use of a philosophical stalwart, "the trolley problem," makes the film predictable to a certain tribe of cinematic sophisticates—as if all summer action films employ classic ethical problems and director Christopher Nolan's execution was simply sloppy. High-minded as they're meant to sound, such criticisms reveal the basic ignorance of the folks who mouth them: the purpose of stripping the problem of all context—of discussing "five people" or "a fat man" instead of "your Aunt Eloise" or "your dog Phil"—is to remove as much emotionally-charged information as can be removed from the larger ethical concerns under considerations. Nolan deliberately presses against abstraction, dressing these bare philosophical bones with the accoutrements of character, then enlivening the situation by placing these characters in jeopardy. Knowing the various moral, ethical and political arguments about the trolley problem doesn't ruin the experience of The Dark Knight any more than knowing how to play chess ruins your appreciation of an elegant endgame. (Unless, I suppose, you're a fervert partisan of one proposed solution and Batman's decisions disappointed you, in which case, take it up with him.) If you want an example of too much knowledge ruining something, consult the Star Wars cycle—or whatever its legions call it—as George Lucas' decisions to prequel robs the only three decent films of all dramatic effect. Consider the first-time viewer who decides, quite rationally, to begin watching the whatever-they-call-it with Episode I. In it, he learns Anakin Skywalker is quick-tempered but fundamentally decent-hearted. In Episode II or III—I've only watched them once and am not in a position to research fine points at the moment—he learns Anakin Skywalker fathers twins, one of whom is whisked away by some senatorial aide or whatever, the other to a small desert planet. I'm probably punting the details here, but it's only because I don't care they're irrelevant. My point is future viewers of Episodes IV won't wonder who Obi-Wan really is; won't be surprised in Episode V when Vadar is revealed to be Luke's father; and will consider Vadar's redemption in Episode VI a return to form. Lucas hasn't added to his legacy, he's added spoilers to the only part of it worth preserving. A more interesting example comes from Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas, which comes from the "Death by Water" sectioned of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland: Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passes the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you Do you consider its titular allusion a spoiler? For those who've read the novel, did it diminish your enjoyment? Or is it obscure and/or clever enough to keep...
Teddy in tights? (x-posted.) As the premier Dark Knight poster ’round these parts, it has been demanded of, er, falls upon me to draw your attention to an interview with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale in which the pair reveal their Batman is based on Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.* In the interview, Bale admits to confusion when the Nolans — brother Jonathan co-writes Christopher’s films — insisted he read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt before they began principle photography on Batman Begins. Nolan then explains (and I paraphrase): Batman’s not as unique as people think. Grant Bob Kane’s Gotham is New York and Batman has a direct historical precedent in Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., had been one of the city’s preeminent philanthropists — having found and funded the New York City Children’s Aid Society, the Met, and the American Museum of Natural History, to name a few of his charitable works — and died in a way Morris contends traumatized his son: suddenly, from a cancer whose existence he’d hidden, and mere hours before Theodore returned from Harvard. In 1884, his beloved mother and wife died in the same house, on the same day. A bereft Roosevelt set out for the Dakota Territory shortly thereafter. He spent his time in the hinterlands learning how to be a proper police, then applied those lessons when he became president of the New York City Police Commissioners in 1895. Like Batman, Roosevelt employed bleeding-edge technology into his crime-fighting: under his watch, telephones were installed in precincts, bicycles were deployed on beats, and various criminal identification systems, like Bertillonage, were monkeyed about with. Nolan’s statement resonates with many a recent discussion about the Roosevelt’s legacy vis-a-vis the current administration. If Bush-is-Batman and Batman-is-Roosevelt, logic demands that middle be distributed and then it’s case closed, verdict delivered, suit settle, put a period on it already: Bush-is-as-Batman as Socrates-is-mortal. The which-president-is-more-Airwolf-Batman debate aside, Nolan’s decision to craft Batman’s appeal after Roosevelt’s is ridiculously savvy, inasmuch as it speaks to that most cherished (if post-dated) primal American myths: self-invention. In Batman Begins, the young Bruce Wayne isn’t some spectacular physical specimen; in fact, he’s thin, fragile, and perpetually frightened. Nolan’s direction reinforces this: he’s either in tears, bed, or the bottom of a well in every shot. Even Bale’s adolescent Wayne, returned from school for Chill’s parole hearing, buries a wisp-thin frame beneath layers of clothes as if to prevent circumstance from buffeting his head into a doorknob. The first act of Batman Begins plays directly into the Roosevelt mystique, i.e. the frail boy who refines his body into a weapon. The first film ends, then, much where Morris’ Rise does: his reputation established, his name to be reckoned with, but his future uncertain. Where does this self-made man fit in the political machine in which he’ll have to function? What compromises must he make? What ideals must he betray in order to act upon? I can’t do much in the...

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