Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight: Bummer, or, No Country for Old Self-Righteous Billionaires

I'm not sure at what point it was, somewhere around the first ten minutes of the film I pretty much guessed I wasn't going to like it much. Perhaps it was the entrance of the Joker into a co-op style mob meeting, where the black gang works on id and lobs middle school ideations of mob talk at the fool who robbed their bank. As the movie progresses the Joker becomes less of a character and more of a Camus cliffnote (and by note I mean one) on the absurd. How does law and order act in a world where law and order have to be created, but don't necessarily exist?

And here is where the film's central thesis, if there was any, kind of bugged me. Instead of the Joker being a product of his environment (which isn't quite necessary but kind of becomes so due to the strictures placed by the film's allegorical intentions), the environment becomes a product of him, nothing more than an abstract cipher with the potential to unleash every force of good's inner evil out of a sense of pragmatism and ticking bomb philosophizing. And there it was, the downfall of society and government at the Joker's hands weren't examples of an inherent flaw in the system, or the institutions meant to keep it in order, but said institutions' inability to deal with an anomaly that their previously benevolent structuring was now unable to harness.

If I heard right The Joker believes that all mankind are inherently evil, that there is no order, that man creates a false sense of morality to cover up its dirty underpinnings, and instead of everyone being a rough gem they're really pieces of coal that need to be thrown back into the mines. In that I think I'm giving the film too much credit, because they do to anarchy the same thing corporations with a finger on punk's pulse line have, or the government with a fear of its loss of power over the public faith did, mainly strip the idea of a society with no established institutions of order and turn it into a nightmarish floodgate for chaos at every turn. So then anarchy is chaos that happens when the good guys have lost their ability to take care of you.

This is the same problem I had with the film No Country For Old Men's central thesis, that there's a "rising tide" of new kinds of violence, unexplainable by the present's conception of the human clockwork. Society being undone by a new kind of sickness for which no precedent existed. I say the film because it left out many of the book's thematic underpinnings, mainly that Chigur's sociopathy was a powderkeg that reminded the sheriff and Llewelyn of the point in their lives that they realized it was a meaningless mass of sadistic chaos, respectively, world war II and vietnam. Acts of unbridled brutality that stripped them of their comrades and left them walking ghosts without an explanation as to their existence. The book might have kept to the point that violence was becoming less understandable anomalies, seemingly alien inventions of torture. I disagree with it there, too, because it was governments that introduced the guillotine, it was governments that introduced the iron maiden, mutilation of the flesh in unrecognizably bizarre ways is nothing that rapidly developed only in recent times, it has historical precedence.

But at least the book understood that historical precedence. The film's nihilism was undeserved, it just launched a cipher on a bunch of seemingly good characters and watched them crumble in baffled exhaust, remaining essentially good, but powerless in the face of amoral chaos. The film left out the thematic backgrounds of the characters, and Llewelyn's conflict with identity, which would have better explained their loss of humanity, something that was lost before Chigur. The Sheriff didn't believe a law existed, was dumbstruck as to his own position. Chigur was just a reminder of that. In the movie he's just a pat plot device.

And despite Heath Ledger's showstopping, clamorous performance as a psychopath able to coldly rationalize his lack of rationality, that's all he is, "a new breed of villain." At first I thought the film was a showcase of libertarian realism, close to Frank Miller's threads of Randian jingoism, that the job of the state is best left in the hands of well armed capitalists, but as the film progresses Harvey Dent becomes a mantle of the law's ability to curb all of society's unwanted elements, and restore order to what was once good, as if Gotham, unlike the rest of the united states, wasn't built on exploitation and slave labor.

Yeah, it's a comic book movie, but it makes explicit parallels between Gotham law's fight against The Joker and post 9/11 America's fight against terrorism. "If we cave in to the Joker's demands, then terrorism wins." Much of the police force is demoralized, placed in compromising situations that require they make realpolitik decisions, perhaps Sophie's Choices, in order to make it to the next round of sadism. Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne's one man military defense contractor, is forced to wiretap on Gotham's 30 million people with phone lines so that Batman can catch his Bin Laden figure, The Joker. Lucius warns he'll resign, but he's willing to break the law just this once, to catch this uncompromisingly and inexplicably evil brand of villain.

There is no explanation for the Joker. Before slicing victim's faces into smiling scars resembling his own, he gives fabricated explanations as to the reason for his, either an alcoholic father or loss of human spirit in the face of tragedy befalling his wife, possibly poking fun at the audience's need for an explanation of the character's motives. But if that's the case the film might as well poke fun at itself, as it's first film spent two hours setting up the motives for Batman. And stripping the Joker of any psychological explanation as an example of nihilism or unexplainable phenomena is a poor excuse for plot development.

As a result the allusion is flawed because the film only picks up after 9/11, as if there was no historical precedent for the waves of terrorism in the supposedly civilized parts of the world. As if the United States and various other European countries didn't build themselves on the exploitation and expropriation of peoples they felt were inherently inferior, because of some racist genetic hogwash. That 9/11 wasn't a response to decades of pillaging other people's natural resources, destroying liberal governments because they got in the way of private business interests essentially paving the way for opportunistic fundamentalists with an equally fervent opposition to godless communism.

In that way the film ends up being somewhat of a rationalization of all the fucked up things run through congress in the light of the war on terror, a humanizing portrait of all those who were compelled to do such things by a new, unprecedented, unmitigated evil. If they decided to be P.C. and make Harvey Dent black the film could have doubled as an ad for Obama. The government having been bought off by corrupt private elements, Dent was going to make a sweep that would change that. Though if they did do that, then his convoluted story arc in which he himself is eventually dehumanized by the joker and his political idealism reduced to a parable about the dangers of revenge (hello Batman parallelism!), people might not vote for Obama because his hope would be revealed to be an empty slogan by a comic book film with faux-philosophical pretenses? I don't know, either way, the film was discomfiting and disappointing in that regard.

Sure, there was a sequence in which the prisoners are revealed to be as equally humane as the bloodthirsty civilians on the opposite ferry when they both have a chance to detonate the other for their own safety, but the foil for the act came when one of the civilians wasn't able to get his hands dirty, probably because he was used to batman doing it for him. That both boats came to the point of possible detonation means the overwhelming choice was to blow up the other boat. Either way, it was only for Batman to be able to point out that human good triumphs over sociopathic evil, and not everyone is a freak, an unmanageable anomaly like the Joker.

Side note, I just read The Killing Joke for the first time, and Christopher Nolan claims that was his inspiration for the character's portrayal in the film, handing Ledger the one-off as preparation for his role. It was written by Alan Moore and his assessment of it years after publication is unusually apt when comparing it to the film's version, saying it was "clumsy, misjudged and [devoid of] real human importance." That, "at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker - and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters."
Either Nolan didn't pick up on that or thought Alan Moore was an uppity old coot. In light of that quote, though, "why so serious?"