Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MORE OSCAR STUFF. The Dark Knight. I can see why this film was so popular with culture warriors -- it is quite literally insane. An endless series of moral double-crosses by brooding, butched-up quasi-characters is meant to demonstrate that humanity is so corrupt, yet deserving of salvation, that the heroic Batman must become a fugitive in order to preserve order. Of course, to make it work, a cosmo burg like Gotham City must be subjected to Iraq-style chaos at the hands of a terrorist who is also, in Heath Ledger's performance, a disaffected youth who hates his father. It's as if Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause became the scourge of humanity.

At least the action sequences are lucid, which has been a problem in the past -- contra Dennis Lim (and his excellent slide show), Christopher Nolan handles the smash-'em-up segments far better than some recent Oscar nominees. I could follow the fight scenes much more easily than the shifting attitudes of the filmmakers toward the proper placement of right and wrong. Sometimes the mob is mindless, and sometimes moral; sometimes we are encouraged to cheer the philosophy of total war, and sometimes it's just a ruse by The Joker to kill innocents. The logic, such as it is, is that of a hormonal comic book nerd convinced that everything is rotten and that a magical being could set things right, were it not for the interference of Muggles, for whom the nerd yet retains some affection when they're not yelling for him to come out of the bathroom already. This kind of fantasy has been much tried in our era, but with the possible exception of Tim Burton's moody and unpopular Batman Returns never gets anywhere near the Mabuse films of Fritz Lang, which for all their paranoia are more firmly based in what grown people would recognize as reality.

Ledger's a gamer. The Joker is one of the great creations of comic art -- a Lord of Mischief like Loki and Puck turned sinister. I still like Cesar Romero's the best: a real clown, as unmodulated and unaware of his affect as a funhouse gargoyle. Jack Nicholson was obliged to be more of a head case, but was still able to rise to the required mania and weave it into some dazzling filigrees. (I'm unfamiliar with Mark Hamill's well-regarded cartoon vocal performance.) Ledger, a more thoughtful actor, can't match their brio, so he makes his Joker a plain psychotic with a high tolerance for pain and a gift for getting into his targets' heads. It's a rigorously psychological performance, and he was right to go that way: you can imagine even a good actor playing the same hammy lines for pure affect and making a horrible botch of them. Ledger gets inside the Joker and lets the cleverness of his verbal inventions tickle him into rancid pleasure. His performance is at bottom as dour as the film, but much more serious. If he had to go out, this was a good way for him to go.

UPDATE. Comments on this have been especially good, even from CG. I have a strong prejudice against comic book movies (though when they make The Lockhorns orAndy Capp I'll be there opening day), so I'm not the best audience for this one. I was struck by Chris Wren's remark that "It's a man... who dresses up a bat... and goes around beating up criminals. That's all Batman can EVER be." I think he may be right, and that serves what may be this movie's purpose; all Batman's meaning is impressed upon him from the outside, making him the sacrificial goat for the sins of Gotham. But what are its sins? Not wanting to get killed? Thinking about sacrificing others before not going through with it? There's only one sin you can pin on them: not being Batman. It's an adolescent rejection and retribution fantasy with a $185 million budget.

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