Wednesday, 06 April 2011

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Batman is always Beginning again (I never thought I'd dip back into this well, but then life happens and there you go.) Heath Ledger notwithstanding, I think it's fairly obvious that Batman Begins is the better of recent reboots. Nolan structures the first film not around an admittedly ingeniuous performance, but around a modified classical dynamic, by which I mean, he abides by his Aristotle. It opens with the most incentive of incentive moments—a boy watching his parents murdered before his eyes—then proceeds to a classic peripeteia*—that moment of reversal when the boy who witnessed his parents' murder decides to forsake revenge and fight all crime instead the responsible criminals. It need not bear mentioning, I don't think, that the deus ex machina, which Aristotle would otherwise despise, in this case fits within "the unity of action," because it has "an air of design" that's well-nigh indisputable. The real crux is the film's anagnorisis—or "revelation" in the I-murdered-my-father-made-kids-with-my-mother-sense—which occurs at a time Aristotle would've approved of, but not in the way he'd prefer. You'll remember that, early in Batman Begins, the recently returned Bruce Wayne takes his horny butler's advice and invites some models to go swimming in a restaurant with him: Nolan's use of a medium-long shot there is deceptive, as these aren't really women so much as beards: I'm not saying they're all legs and hair, the cropped medium shot notwithstanding—but for the purpose of the plot, Nolan certain reduces them to as much. (We're just going to skip over the scene of them skinny dipping, you know, for the kids.) The point is that these women are props, mere things Alfred suggests Bruce Wayne should acquire should he not want to be discovered as the Batman. So, then, anagnorisis avoided ... except: The love of Wayne's life can't even look at him—and not just because I caught bad capture. She's just watched him escort two soaking models from a hotel she's about to learn he bought, so she shouldn't want to look at him. But when she does, he makes a plea: Which you can tell, because he's wearing his best "plea" face, insisting that he "is more," whatever that means ("I'm the Batman") but also because previously Nolan kept him, however blurrily, in frame with Rachel Dawes when she spoke: But when he needs to say something? The camera centers on him and her dark hair turns into an inhuman column: In this shot-reverse-shot sequence, he's clearly the focus. Granted, he may be out of focus on the reverse shots, but he's still recognizably him, whereas when the camera flips, she becomes another dark image plastered on a theater wall. The irony of this portrayal is significant, though, as she's about to utter the most important words in the film: "It's not who you are underneath," she tells him, "but what you do, that defines you." Note that from the beginning of this exchange to the utterance of this line, Nolan's moved from a medium, to a medium close-up, to a...
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How do you take your average orphan and turn him into a lunatic in a fetish-bat costume? The Joker, of course, has a theory: But his version, from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, is only technically correct. Bruce Wayne did have "one bad day," yes, but it was different from the "one bad day" the Joker had: The difference could be that wives and children can be replaced—for tax purposes, if not in our hearts—whereas birth-parents cannot, but while that's true, that's not the most significant difference. The most significant difference—the one that, despite not knowing the secret identity of the Batman, the Joker deeply understands—is that "one bad day" is far worse when, instead of being told of a death secondhand, you witness it yourself. Hence, his plan: The Joker could have chosen to abduct Barbara Gordon off the street and dump her in the river, but instead he waited until Commissioner Gordon visited her apartment, because he knows that losing someone you love is one thing, but witnessing that person's death causes psychological trauma of a far greater intensity.* In short, without knowing that Bruce Wayne is the Batman or how he came to be the Batman, the Joker knows exactly how to make a Batman: make the victim watch. Lest you think that either the Joker or myself are pushing this argument too far, consider the visual history of the Batman's formative moment. It was first represented in Detective Comics #33: There's almost a duo-specific word-picture relation coursing from the first panel to the next. The text of the first declares that "[t]he boy's eyes are wide with terror and shock," and the second depicts the boy's eyes, wide with terror and shock. The focus, textually and visually, is on Wayne's eyes. On what he sees. The second, and first fully fleshed out, representation occurs in Batman #47: How significant are the young Wayne's eyes in this panel? They've been isolated from his head and framed with anger. It's not the "one bad day" that changes Wayne into the Batman, because there was "something about young Bruce's eyes [that] made the killer retreat," and that "something" consisted of a combination of awful accusation and eidetic memory, though even that is not enough to transform the owner of those disembodied eyes into the Batman. (Many a poor soul has witness many a beloved one murdered, after all.) But there is "something" to those eyes, as here they are again in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One: They have, I grant, been shoved back in his head, but they're still isolated in an extreme close-up. Miller and Mazzucchelli follow Batman #47 in having young Bruce's eyes directly address the readers' so that they might see what Joe Chill sees above. Only not. Chill's already fleeing in Year One, so the attention of those eyes is even more focused on something outside or beyond the frame, almost as if Wayne seeks communion through eye-contact with an unseen audience. "You understand why I had to become this," those eyes seem to plead. But no matter how...

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