Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dark Knight Sinking

A while back the girls were off at a sleep-over, so Kim and I decided to go see the new Batman movie.  It was two hours or so of the latest in comic book hero mythology, dark and high tech, and to be honest I didn’t like it very much.

Oh, it wasn’t a bad movie, really, as those sorts of movies go.  Much of it was shot in Pittsburgh, at the same building on CMU’s campus where Kim did most of her graduate work and next to the Pitt building where I sang in the Heinz Chapel Choir.  Those pillars and stairs that the villain delivered his Russian Revolution speeches in front of, at the climax of the film?  The Mellon Institute.  It was nice that they didn’t edit out the soot on the pillars, the way they did in Hoffa.  Much of the Final Fistfight appeared to be in the lobby of that building, where I used to hang out with my friend Tracy when she worked there, before I met Kim.  The prison door that was supposedly across the street from it – they kept cutting away from the one to the other to give that impression – is actually around the corner and isn’t quite so heavily fortified in life, parking garages not being known for their need for high security.  This was a little disorienting, but still kind of cool.

The movie also had all sorts of Shiny in it for those who like gadgetry, and anything with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman can’t be all bad.  There were a few decent lines of dialogue.  Plus, for long stretches the camera was focused on Anne Hathaway, which is all I can really ask for in a film.  She may have even had some dialogue, now that I think about it.  I wasn't really paying attention.  The film had its high points, is what I’m saying.

And yet. 

It was muddled – there were long stretches of the film that didn’t really seem to go anywhere other than around and around, chasing its own tail. 

It kept trying to say Important Things but didn’t really have any coherent message.  Either have a message or don’t have a message – you don’t need to have one to have a film worth seeing – but pick one.

There were too many parts of the film that were only tangentially related to other parts of the film – in many ways it was more of a picaresque than a narrative.  Things happened and got resolved, and then more things happened and got resolved, and suddenly – BOOM! – credits.

And so on. 

But these are fairly common problems with movies, and I’ve enjoyed many a film that had one or more of these flaws.  The thing I really hated about the film, though – really, really hated – was the sheer overwhelming amount of consequence-free violence.

There’s a lot of it – from stabbings and drownings to a mass charge of armed men (and a few women) into the face of a mass of other armed men (and a few women).  For all the leaden preaching that Mr. Batman does about nonlethal weaponry, there was an awful lot of very lethal weaponry on display and in use in that film, plus a major plot element that rested on the possibility of a seriously lethal weapon being deployed and an entire sub-plot/backstory that hinged on the idea of awful violence being inflicted on others.

And none of it meant a damned thing.  Not to the audience.  And not to the characters themselves except when the key plot points called for it.

Nobody suffered, except a couple of major characters who were required to suffer in order to have plausible motives for inflicting more violence on others.  They did so with proper drama, and little or no actual effects on their persons beyond the acquisition of motives.

Nobody was shown injured, really, except one major character who needed to be on the sidelines for dramatic reasons.  He was well and properly sidelined, and spent the bulk of the movie with something very akin to what used to be called “movie cancer,” the sort of ailment that provides dramatic cover but doesn’t cause much actual suffering or keep the character from doing anything when they need to do so.  You could argue that the main villain spent the movie wearing the effects of violence on his person, but frankly that struck me as just a handy way for him to get to wear a mask too – a cool one, that made him seem so very deeply villainish.

Batman himself was treated very much like a rubber bone at a boarding kennel for most of the film – good lord, dude, whose girlfriend did you hit on to get this badly treated by the scriptwriters? – but was largely unscathed except when dramatically necessary, for as long as dramatically necessary and no longer.

And for all the bodily harm, death and chaos inflicted on minor characters by the bushel basket, nobody grieved.  This, more than anything else, is what bothered me – the sorry and thoughtless treatment of the minor characters, who were just so much chaff to be winnowed out.  Nobody missed them.  Nobody even noticed them – not, one suspects, even the characters themselves.  They showed up, violence happened to them, and they disappeared.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with movies that portray violence, not really.  Violence is a part of life, and in the US it is endemic – we have rates of violence in this country that outside of our borders you can generally find only in war zones.  If you’re going to make a serious film about modern American life – even if that film and the life it portrays is deeply fantastical, as with this one – you almost have to include some element of violence, real or threatened, or it just doesn’t seem natural.  I don’t have a problem with violence in films per se.

But it ought to mean something.

People get hurt.  People get killed.  Those people had lives, loved ones, jobs, responsibilities.  They were tied into a social fabric that has now been frayed.  Though not in Gotham, apparently.  Their deaths counted for nothing, meant nothing, affected nothing in the fictional little world of the film.

It doesn’t surprise me that the latest All-American malevolent loser compensating for his shortcomings by slaughtering the innocent with high-powered firearms chose to do so at a showing of this movie.  We glorify such losers in our culture, pious protestations notwithstanding, and he fit right in with the overall theme of the film: violence is cool because none of it means anything once the shooting stops.  It’s just empty action.

Except that it had consequences here in the real world, at least for the victims and those who cared about them.  That part was certainly different here.

There were no such consequences in the film itself.  People died and were forgotten as if they never existed.

I suppose you can argue I am making too much of what is, after all, quite literally comic book violence.  But that shortchanges the depth that can be achieved in modern graphic novels, the work that has been done on film, and the putative darkness that these new comic book films all seem to want to portray these days.  Darkness has consequences.  Darkness dwells on consequences.  This movie was not dark.  It was just poorly lit.

I’m rereading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series now, because I needed a break from the world as it is currently constructed.  I just started on Guards! Guards! – the eighth novel in the series and the first one to feature Pratchett’s best-drawn character, Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.  One of the things that endeared the novel to me the first time I read it was the dedication:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol.  Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered.  No one ever asks them if they wanted to.  This book is dedicated to those fine men.

Pratchett understood what the makers of Batman did not – that violence has consequences; that even minor characters have lives and loves and responsibilities, all of which and all of whom are affected by that violence; that not to show the consequences of violence is to glorify it and make it easier, more common and more acceptable.  It is after all the City Guard who suffers most in the Batman movie, but nothing is dedicated to them and their lives are simply grist for the mill, to be ground into dust as needed.

Violence on film isn’t degrading.  Violence without consequence, though, that is.


Eric said...

David, I have to say I disagree completely: I can think of reasons not to like the film (personally, I loved it), but the thing you focus on, ironically, is very much the point of the film.

To be fair, DKR can't really be taken as a standalone film, and taking it that way may dull or obscure the point. But taken as the last chapter of a trilogy, the driving force of the film is characters paying the price for the previous two films. Including the costs of the two major deaths in The Dark Knight. Especially those: the ghosts of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes haunt DKR from beginning to nearly the end. For that matter, Bruce Wayne is essentially an onscreen ghost, having spiritually died at the end of Dark Knight.

To be fair, it's a genre that has a lot of stylized violence. And to be fair, it's a bit of a loose thread in DKR that injuries discussed by a doctor in the film's first act (and necessitating a spiffy gadget seen only once) get forgotten in the second act, and further injuries suffered by the same character seem to heal too readily (though on the latter point, it has to be observed that the last half of DKR compresses a lot of time in an arguably confusing way: many months, at least, pass and are acknowledged in dialogue and in onscreen seasonal changes, but the scenes are assembled in such a way I don't think the audience feels the passage).

But I don't think it's fair to say the violence is "consequence free". True, DKR isn't Unforgiven or Seven Samurai, where consequence is the primary theme of the entire affair. But DKR is, nevertheless, a movie about the major characters finally reaping what they sowed in the first two movies (and especially the second). That may in itself make it a lesser film, and I don't think it's unfair to say that DKR is also less focused on one thing than the other films I just mentioned. But those would be different critiques, I think.

David said...

Fair enough, I guess - I saw the one with Heath Ledger in it (was that the first or the second?) but not the other one so I may have missed a few things.

But I stand by my point. Only Batman and the Commissioner suffer any kind of consequences, and those are quite attenuated. Bane is a contrivance, his boss is more so, and nobody else counted - they're all just fallout from the anguish of the main characters.

I felt bad for the cops.

If the point of the film was to focus on the consequences of violence, then either DRK was a very poorly made film indeed, as that did not come across at all, or I was a very poor fit for it as an audience member.

Eric said...

...or I was a very poor fit for it as an audience member.

Well... when you put it that way.... :)

I don't know if phrasing it as you do, "focus[ing] on the consequences of violence" is apt. The focus is on the consequence of choices. The people who pay are not limited to those who choose; e.g. the citizens of Gotham go through hell in part because of the decision Batman and Gordon make to lie for the greater good at the end of Dark Knight (the one with Heath Ledger).

Gotham pays for Batman and Gordon's lies, as do Batman and Gordon themselves; Blake pays for Gordon's lies; Alfred and Bruce Wayne pay for Alfred's lies. It's about hubristic deception, i.e. for thinking one is sufficiently wise to make decisions for other people without recognizing one isn't wise enough to bear that burden at all or foresee the awful ripples from such decisions. It occurs to me now--something I'd call brilliance on the part of the Nolan brothers (Christopher cowrote the screenplays to the second and third films with his brother)--that Rachel Dawes intuits this kind of thing and it's why she dumps Bruce in the second film, writing the letter Alfred destroys (an act that destroys Alfred and then destroys his relationship with Bruce).

I've noticed a consistent theme among critics who didn't it: that the movie failed to be things I don't think it tried to be. Most have directed at the film's politics, when I don't think it meant to be proscriptive at all (the plot is modeled roughly after the French Revolution, with Dickens as an explicit reference point (n.b. DKR even goes to the trouble of directly quoting Two Cities toward the end); the politics are descriptive, depicting a situation without unambiguously straightforward heroes (Batman is basically a fuckup in this trilogy of films, when you get right down to it: his girlfriend dies; the guy he tries to set up as his successor turns into a disfigured murdering lunatic and dies; his contact in the police department turns into a neurotic wreck; his nearest friend walks out; his freewheeling vigilante justice leads to an escalation of costumed freaks: a nihilist who nearly turns Gotham into a Lombardo-esque sociology experiment and an anarchist who recreates the Terror).

Your critique comes from a different direction. It seems lame to reply that DKR is a superhero film and they inevitably are casual in carnage: how many New Yorkers would have died in The Avengers, how is it Batman knows all those cars he blows up in The Dark Knight are empty, how many people would have been slaughtered during the epic earthquakes in Superman and battle royale in Superman II? Talking about the lack of consequence in these movies is one of those things that manages to be completely fair and invalid at the same time: I'm not sure anyone's yet made a superhero film that's subversive of the genre in exactly the same way Unforgiven subverts Westerns. That said, DKR is a subversive film with respect to its genre: nobody else has made a franchise series like this as a closed loop, with beginning, middle and end and a cohesive through-line and a payout where the main characters' heroic decisions reap such chaos and misfortune (I have to add, if it isn't clear already: you're supposed to feel bad for the cops). If it doesn't quite hit anyone over the head with "Violence is bad"... well... I have to say I don't think that's where they were going with the whole thing and that would have been a completely different film than what I think they were trying to make. Maybe a better one, I dunno, but definitely different.


Eric said...


I hope it doesn't seem like I'm trying to twist your arm into enjoying it. I think Nolan's made a brilliant and hard-to-top three-part epic. I guess I am hoping I can convince you, not to like it, but to realize there really is something there, even if you still think it sucks.

(I apologize for two-posting: character counters told me I was well under 4,096, but Google wouldn't let me post and I got tired of looking for syllables to trim. I really did try not writing a book this time.)

David said...

No problem on the two-posting. I like that you take me seriously enough to disagree and explain why in reasonable and constructive ways. Sometimes that takes some space, is all.

I never said the movie sucked – it was well crafted, had some decent dialogue, and gave Anne Hathaway lots of screen time (which covers a multitude of sins in any film, really). And I think you make a good point about the main focus being the consequences of choices made – not having seen the middle film (and not really remembering the first one except for a general sense of “wow, Heath Ledger was a really great actor”) probably left me on the outside looking in as far as what the movie was actually trying to achieve. As I said, I was probably a poor fit as an audience member for this film.

What I said was that there was an overwhelming amount of consequence-free violence in it, and that this bothered me.

I think my critique is more general than just this film, which is one of the points you made. I don’t like superhero movies in general because of their casual attitude toward violence. I don’t like most action films for the same reason (not all – some are very, very good at depicting the consequences of the action). I get tired of movies where it’s okay to kill people without consequence (and make no mistake – unless your character’s name was a good deal more specific than “Cop #4” or “Office Worker” there were no consequences attached to your murder). I get tired of television shows that do the same. Don’t even get me started on video games. It’s a general pet peeve, and this movie just was one symptom of it.

We love violence in this country. American culture glorifies and worships it. We exalt over the tools of violence, gleefully analyze the tactics of violence, and make heroes (or anti-heroes – not much difference on the ground) out of those who can deliver it wholesale. Fine. But we refuse to admit that there are consequences from this. The idea that there are broken lives left behind after all that pyrotechnic gee-whiz bang bang kill you dead long time action just never seems to be important. Not in real life and certainly not in popular entertainment. We are an immature and short-sighted culture that way.

Did you notice that for all the violence in this film, the one sex scene was very carefully choreographed to show no skin? Murder, okay! Nipples? Horrors! I think that’s bizarre.

So I will admit that DKR is just a scapegoat for my larger issue, and that it was – otherwise – a decent movie, with some depth in what it was actually trying to achieve. It wasn’t trying to be what I wanted it to be. I can understand why other people would love it – not everyone is as focused on that issue as I am, and if you take that issue out it was fine.

But I didn’t like it, and that issue is why. This is perhaps unfair, but so be it.

Eric said...

The violence was also choreographed to avoid bloodshed onscreen, and some critics have observed there's less violence onscreen than there appears to be in DKR (I'm reminded of the infamous observation that the shower scene in Psycho is far less objectively graphic than anyone ever remembers it as being).

As for American culture... well, we're kinda fucked for one reason or another. That isn't meant to diminish your observations, which I think are completely valid; it's meant to diminish my response, because I don't really have a reply to that particular. In part, I suppose, because I do enjoy violence in entertainment as much as I abhor it in life. Perhaps I'm skilled in keeping that kind of thing compartmentalized (my arrogant wish), or maybe I'm just hopelessly tainted and have less objectivity than I pretend (my rational fear).

David said...

I do enjoy violence in entertainment as much as I abhor it in life

There are times when I do too, and that bothers me. I was very careful to say "we" - as in "including me" - in my general complaint about American culture.

I think my feelings about the movie boil down to an elaboration on the general theme of "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like - and I don't like this sort of thing because X."

The fact that the filmmakers weren't really focused on X makes the failing mine rather than theirs, I suppose. It was a very well-made example of its genre, stretching it in certain ways and conforming to it in others. But still: X.

Next time we'll go see a comedy. :)