A muddled puzzle: The Dark Knight Rises

27 04 2013

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Nolan works firmly in a mainstream blockbuster mode, yet his films have not proven ephemeral. Other summer spectacles behave like flash events: they shatter the cinematic discourse for a weekend and are quickly forgotten. The hypothetical latest from Michael Bay is harmless. It may offend good taste, but it will not organize an idea around itself. It will have no serious supporters, and it is not a claim to a certain kind of moviemaking. The only way to appreciate it is to accept it as mindless action – thus, condescending to it – or receive it as some sort of abstract art, all clashing metal and blurred movement – thus, deconstructing it to the point of it being unrecognizable. Nolan, on the other hand, has an established fan base.  He’s held in esteem as an intellectual mainstream director. His scripts are praised as being beautifully conceived. When Inception came out, the lengthy – presumably decades-long – gestation of its script was mentioned in reverent tones. “So much work went into it…” Nolan’s films are not only puzzles, they’re commentaries on their own cultural dissemination. They are made for discussion, for nitpicking. They ask to be solved.

Watching the films, we can almost guess what will happen next. And then we guess incorrectly, but so do the characters. Nolan places us, the audience, in the same maze as the protagonists. We discover things alongside them, or so we think, but then Nolan complicates the bond between our perspective and that of the main players. In Memento, the flashbacks – or what function as flashbacks – might or might not be trustworthy. The final reveal in The Prestige might not actually expose what we – and the protagonist – at first thought it did. The solution to the magic trick might be another magic trick. Even Nolan’s workmanlike, practical visual aesthetics contribute to this tormenting gamesmanship. We know to doubt Guido’s memories in Fellini’s 8 ½, or Humbert Humbert’s novel-length confession in Lolita, because both are obviously artificial and fictionalized. That is, Guido and Humbert are unreliable narrators (Guido doesn’t technically narrate anything, but the camera’s gaze always channels his subjectivity, even entering his dreams and recollections). Meanwhile, the sober and even dull images in Nolan are the opposite of creative and playful. Whatever game the script is playing, the camera wants none of it. Except it does, and we should doubt what it shows us as much we do the fantasias of Fellini and Nabokov. Like the butler in a whodunit, the camera hides its involvement under a façade of nonchalance.

Whether or not this gamesmanship is interesting, I leave for others to debate. Nolan movies, with the exception of The Prestige (and, to a lesser extent, Inception), have left me personally unimpressed. More involving than the films are often the cinephilic discussions about them. A new Nolan movie is always another chance to discuss the Nolan question. All his films confront and involve us as spectators and are, in part, about our spectatorship. His Batman franchise is no different. Its central theme is how Batman – among other public figures – is seen and interpreted by others, by society at large, by us. The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight are about looking at Batman, about what he inspires as an icon. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire behind the Batsuit, constantly manipulates what people think about his alter ego. The fate of Gotham, Batman’s city, hinges less on what Batman actually does than on what everyone thinks he might, can, or will do.

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As The Dark Knight Rises opens, we find Wayne secluded in his mansion. He has determined that Batman should exist as a symbol of hatred in order to conceal the sins of the formerly heroic, ultimately depraved and vengeful, Harvey Dent, and so perpetuate the latter’s symbolic value as the political hero of Gotham. With Batman’s villainous legacy established, Wayne retires the Batsuit into the shadows of his hidden cave. Gotham needs a democratic politician like Dent for a savior, not a vigilante like Batman, who, by his very existence, signals profound social, structural, and institutional imbalance. So goes Wayne’s logic. But the well-meaning conceit starts to crack, and Batman must reestablish his role as ambiguous protector. Meanwhile, the terrorist Bane electrifies the city, encouraging an uprising ripped straight from the French Revolution. He rouses up the oppressed masses and beckons them to topple the wealthy elite. But Bane, of course, is a dishonest preacher. He talks to the common man about social equality, but all of it is a calculated stunt.

In The Dark Knight, The Joker was a more honorable villain. He risked his life for an anarchic and brutal ideal. He didn’t seek power so much as an effect in the hearts and minds of the people of Gotham. He lied about his past, his methodology, and his goals, but he followed through with his convictions. If The Dark Knight is superior to its sequel, it’s because it confronts two men deeply committed to their symbolic value, Batman and The Joker. In Rises, meanwhile, though Batman continues to negotiate his mediated social image, Bane is not at all interested in making a venerable icon out of himself. He wants only to divert attention from his real aim, which is the total obliteration of Gotham. His talk about enfranchising the masses is a stalling mechanism,  designed to cover up a different symbolic gesture, which is not even Bane’s to make. His stated ideology is a ruse, and the worldview he actually responds to and is subservient to doesn’t come into play until the movie’s conclusion. Yes, this surprise twist links back to Batman Begins and ties together the entire trilogy, but at the cost of leaving Rises limp and dry. For most of its running time, we are witnesses to a battle of wills and symbolic power between Batman and Bane, until near the end, when Bane reveals himself to be a distracting mirage and we realize the previous battle has quite explicitly been a waste of time.

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Nolan’s Batman movies are like highways, spaces of transit. What’s interesting is not what they say, but what they cause others to say after watching them. All films do this, sure, but most great films contain universes within them, make us wander in their folds, while The Dark Knight Rises, by comparison, is a thoroughfare, after which we emerge into swamps of endless discussion. Its confused political agenda twists matters further. In Rises, the rich are first vilified until revolution is justified. But then the anarchists led by Bane are corrupt and evil, while civilization is saved by a caped crusader and thousands of cops. It’s a reactionary, right-wing fantasy. The film muddles its ideology and feeds perplexed post-screening debates about its meaning. Selma Kyle, as Catwoman, presents a third position, contrasting both Batman’s and Bane’s. She is in favor of revolution and against the Police State, but also against the excesses of Bane’s revolt. Hers seems to be the film’s stance, and as it is, it’s rather ineffectual. Unable to realize any proposal of her own, she is left to pick between extremes – anarchists or cops – and then disappear. Her loner personality precludes her, of course, from generating any larger social movement, so that her decisions affect only herself. Yes, she helps to save the people of Gotham, but only by reinstituting the traditional order, which promises change but no profound structural transformation. She stands for nothing but her own personal connection to Batman. An indeterminate character for an indeterminate film.

Furthermore, the lack of cinematic poetry in Rises, its tendency to cast characters as mere talking heads for political bullet points – a trait unfortunately inherited from its superior prequel –, and its dearth of effective world-building – beyond the margins of the plot and dialogue, there is little to see in the surrounding environment; as a comparison point, we might point out how, in something like Blade Runner, the plot and dialogue, though important, are often overshadowed by the thick atmosphere of future Los Angeles, of the environment where dystopic themes are contained – not only make Gotham a dull and dreary place, but prevent us from doing any intellectual searching of our own. Unable to find, as I’ve said, any concrete political message, which might send us away from the cinema and into the streets of political change – if anything, the movie warns against such an impulse –, we remain, instead, sitting in front of the screen, attempting to reflect on what we’re seeing, and finding Gotham empty and vapid. We can’t really move around this environment, imaginatively-speaking, and so we can hardly find personal answers to the questions posed by the film. We can only compare and contrast the words uttered by the talking heads, a process which does have some interest, but only of a limited type (especially because, being shackled to their political bullet points, the characters are not well-rounded, profound human beings either). So, when the credits roll, we turn into talking heads ourselves, discussing the contradictions of a disheveled popcorn flick. The Dark Knight Rises, then, is a clap in a silent room, a loud hanszimmered clap, and we all turn around to look, finding nothing but the need to ask what it was.

— Guido Pellegrini

Twitter: @beaucine

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