Friday, July 18, 2008

On "The Dark Knight"

I just saw The Dark Knight, (spoiler alert!) so my thoughts might be a bit scattered. But I think I can sum them up thusly: it's a very good superhero movie, but it's not a very good movie. As Geoff Klock notes on his list of favorite films, the best of the genre have yet to earn their spot on an undifferentiated list of great movies. Two fundamental problems kept the material from elevating the production to something more:

1) Its seriousness. Most of the characters in this film talk like incredibly earnest philosophy majors, and the closing sequence is actually the most egregious part in the way that it allows Batman to pontificate ('Harvey wasn't what Gotham deserved but it's what they needed. Batman isn't what they need but it's what they deserve.' Uh, come again?) over a steadily building score in the most melodramatic way possible. Relatedly, the Nolans seem discontent to allow us to figure out what the various characters symbolize: half the script seems to be devoted to discussions of heroes, villains, and the politics of representation. This is the stuff of academic papers - whose authors are notorious for their over-seriousness, naturally - not of action films.

2) Its pessimism. The scene with the boats aside, this movie seems to regard everyone with doubt and suspicion - Batman doesn't even trust himself. In a clever-if depressing-rewrite of The Killing Joke's conceit - where the Joker tortures Jim Gordon in order to prove that even the best of people can be broken - we end up realizing near the end that the Joker's goal has always been to turn Harvey, to show that even Gotham's 'white knight' could be corrupted. In The Killing Joke, the Joker is proven wrong; in The Dark Knight, he's proven right. And not only is he proven right, but Batman takes the fall and Gotham is left with its white knight crazy and dead and its dark knight a pariah. Super.

There's some redemption, though, in Heath Ledger - he's what makes this a very good superhero movie, if not a very good movie. I didn't initially think this would be the case - I disliked his look, especially the scars on the face and the make-up. But given the rave reviews, an anonymous commenter asked me just yesterday whether I was prepared to eat my words. And while I'm not sure that I necessarily have any to eat, since I was only commenting on his appearance rather than the performance that I could not have seen, I can say that I was surprised by the complexity of the character for at least three reasons:

1) He's actually exactly the character that I had described in those old posts as the one that I wanted to see. In one, I note that the Joker should be the ultimate hysteric, who makes a demand upon his foes to tell him who he is and, in so doing, becomes exactly the villain that they want him to be. The writing is particularly strong when we see the Joker go through the process of rewriting himself, as when he tells a different origin stories for his scars. This could easily lead to the same long-winded pseudo-philosophizing that I criticize above, but...

2) His counter-philosophy actually undercuts the rest of the film. When the Joker explains that he's the anarchy to the good guy's reliance on planning and order, he risks falling into their categories and neat little cosmology. Except that it's a lie - the Joker, true to his excessively Rube Goldbergian nature - explains this just as we're realizing that his every action has been directly or indirectly aimed toward driving Harvey Dent totally fucking nuts. The Joker isn't scary because he operates without rules, but rather he's scary because his obviously pathological dependence on rules reveals how every rule is arbitrary and our dependence on them equally pathological. (This is also why Dent's arbitrariness as Two Face is a nice addition, though it's far less developed.)

3) Lastly, he's funny, and a film like that needed more of him. He cross-dresses, cackles, and channels an evil Woody Allen in casual conversations. All of which seems fantastically appropriate.


Anonymous said...

Whatever. You wrote at least two posts before even seeing the movie about how WRONG Heath Ledger's interpretation was, speculating wildly on how the Joker was being portrayed based on nothing but surface image.

What a bombastic idiot.

neilshyminsky said...

anonymous/moron: Yes, I did blog about the Joker "based on nothing but surface image". Which I stated explicitly, in fact - in fact, I posted the pictures and constructed my blog posts as a reply to them - and which is no more or less than what the people who saw the same images and declared them to be awesome did. I never pretended that I saw the movie or knew that it would be bad, because that would be a ridiculous claim to make. And it's likewise ridiculous to suggest or imply that I did say such a thing.

And then I saw it on the first day anyway - which, unless I'm a masochist, would seem strange if you were right in saying that I said the film would be terrible - because I was reserving final judgment until I actually saw the movie. And while I still think that the Joker's vanity is a fairly integral piece of his character, I loved Ledger's performance.

But if you'd actually like to keep talking about this, try including a name or something, 'kay?

(Okay, so I lied about ignoring you. But I can't resist mocking trolls who pop up on here to insult me and can't back it up with anything substantive.)

Anonymous said...

If all of the plots the Joker cooked up were just scenarios he devised to cause more chaos,often times which the outcome didn't seem to matter to him, did he really lie then? He'd set something up then watch it play out in the most chaotic way possible not grasping for control the way the others in his speech were trying. Even in the main plot to mess with Dent his main goal was to show the people not even the most noble people will live up to society's rules when the cards are down, which would set up an environment ripe for chaos because they had lost any faith they previously had that things could work out.

I just mean is he really a liar when he says he had no plan , when the plans only goal is to create and environment fit for chaos ?

A Match Keel Kiwi said...

(the names an anagram, it's niftier than anonymous, and the above is not me).

While You are being truthful you seem to have a tendancy to tread dangerously close to things you don't want to say that might make you look stupid. by the way, calling anonymous a moron might not be a good call to ignore the trolls.

One thing I really liked about ledger's character, he definately did it right, "joker's wild." I actually did like the scars though, a much needed improvement since jack nicholson played the joker

neilshyminsky said...

kiwi wrote: "While You are being truthful you seem to have a tendancy to tread dangerously close to things you don't want to say that might make you look stupid."

So I "seem" to come "close" to saying what "might" make me look stupid? Um, okay, if you say so. (Personally, I think that I seem to come close to maybe sounding almost too neurotic.)

The 'anonymous/moron' bit, btw, was because another anonymous poster in response to a different Batman thread (who I believed to be the same poster, but maybe it wasn't?) cleverly named himself 'youmoron'. So i thought it would be cute to refer to him as 'moron'. This is how i use trolls to amuse myself - it's an acquired taste.

And anagrams? Oh, man, I hate anagrams and name games...

Andrew said...

I pretty much agree with many of your statements. I enjoyed it and think it's a great Batman film... But not a great film in general. Every time a philosophical point is made, the writers followed by beating us over the head with it a little more. Nothing was left for us to pick up naturally. It's like everything was forcefully spoon fed to us because it's assumed that we're too intellectually retarded to grasp it on our own.

Heath Ledger makes every moment count and is the reason for most of the film's success. I had concerns about the Joker suddenly being nothing more than the product of some willfully applied make-up at first. His acting of the entire psychology of the character, though, completely convinced me that, in the end, his make-up doesn't matter. The character is the Joker, for better or worse, regardless of having normal skin tones.

I have to say that Harvey/Two-Face going off the deep end didn't totally convince me, as it should have. If he turns out to have survived, stuck in Arkham for a later film, I hope they go back to develop his mind further. It just felt a little too much like a token "well, he's sad and gone crazy, wanting everyone to suffer". There's a pattern in Nolan's two Batman films in that some great villains seem to be terribly underused in some ways.

Really, it's the writing that doesn't hold up in this chapter of Batman. The casting choices and acting work is completely stellar. Someone else wasn't doing their job well enough though.

(Oh, and while it morally works well - that Bat-Sonar stuff during the climax... Yeah, that sucked like a cheap, late 90's James Bond knockoff)

neilshyminsky said...

andrew: I wouldn't be terribly surprised to see that Harvey survived somehow in the next film, especially given that the Joker was clearly supposed to return. But for all the impressiveness and complexity of the Joker, you're right - Harvey seemed a bit simple. (If he does return, I hope that they work in the Harvey/'Big Bad Harv' split.)

Oh, and the sonar thing? You're right, it was cheap. I hate how Batman is played as some sort of gimmick-master, like, as you say, a James Bond knock-off. Bats is supposed to be able to out-think his opponents, rather than out-gimmick them.

Anagramsci said...

good stuff Neil--I very much like your interpretation of the Joker--which dovetails very nicely with my lament over how perfectly he functions as a foil for the reactionary political philosophy that I see at the core of the film...

hadn't thought of Ledger's Joker as a knowing participant in that game--but it works well, and it strengthens my interpretation of Batman, Dent, Gordon, Nolan et al as the real villains of the piece--so I'll take it!


omar karindu said...

Hope this repost isn't too douchey, but I was looking forward to a back-and-forth with you on it:

think you may have fallen into one of the movie's ambiguities in your analysis of the Joker's methods and means --I read the character as one who banks on contingency, not as a master planner for whom the corruption of Harvey Dent has been the game plan all along. In fact, I'd argue that the movie devotes much time and energy, and, yes, much exposition and explanation to the idea that the Joker is Batman's equal or superior in tactics but is absent anything one might term a strategy.

Think of his request for half of the mob's money, which he burns after receiving his share: yes, it might be read retrospectively as what he calls it in the moment, a way to make a point. But observe his actions in the relevant scene -- he burns the money and demands that the Russian mobster before him deliver his point and cede control. And then, frustrated
at the mobster's refusal, he kills the only reliable witness to the "point" he's making, and never bothers with the rest of the game. (His gang is made up of Arkham escapees and small-timers with zero credibility, after all.)

Or take the boat dilemma. When the outcome he banks on fails to occur, he's perfectly ready to blow up both boats and cede the ostensible point in favor of simple destruction. Moreover, if he's already won by corrupting Dent into a murdering lunatic like himself, it's a point already made, a bomb, if you will, already detonated.

Most of the long-term motives are assigned to him by Jim Gordon and Batman, both of whom are repeatedly shown to misunderstand the Joker precisely because they seek motives in his actions. It's Gordon who declares that the Joker wanted to be captured so he could kill Lao and let the police know of the Dent/Dawes trap, but for someone wanting to be captured he certainly devotes much time, energy, and ammunition to what seems an utterly earnest effort at killing Dent in line with his original threat. What do we assume he'd have done had he gotten to Dent at Wayne's party? Or if one of those bazooka rounds had hit?

Likewise, it's Batman, not the Joker, who treats Dent's corruption as if it were the game all along. But the Joker's own boast is ambiguously phrased itself -- is he telling Batman his master plan, or is he telling Batman that the "social experiment" and its failure are alright because something else will work instead? Does he plan to reverse the addresses in advance to damn Dent, or does he know that the death of either or both will pain the Batman and give him soem last knife to twist should the worst occur down the line?

Recall also that the Joker claims to have been fooled by Dent's confession at the film's midpoint -- how can his kidnap scheme have been worked out in advance of his relaizing the truth? The shifting origins he relates, the double-bind tricks, and the nonchalance with which he carries out secondary attacks on the boats and the hospital when his short-term goals fail to pan out suggest to me a man who not only cannot be trusted, Sure, he wires explosives into a henchman, but in this film, is there anything he doesn't wire to explode for the sheer, sick fun of it? Or any reason that the phone call couldn't have been made from outside jail rather than in it?

We're conditioned to expect the villain's boasts to be true and his schemes to explain every lesser action by genre conventions and by our own tendency to seek overarching structures as a way of ensuring the coherence of our interpretations. But so much of the film, again, is devoted to showing us Batman, Gordon, Dent, and the mob -- in short, every single active character save the Joker himself -- as assuming deeper logics and strategic goals only to be stymied endlessly when something else turns up as the actual joke.

We tend to think of Alan Moore's Joker, or his V or Ozymandias when we work this way. All of them, in their ways, have a kind of metafictional omniscience, all desperately trying to be the authors of their stories. Save V, of course, they fail in one way or another: Gordon does not go mad, and Ozymandias's meticulous planning is necessarily and infinitely vulnerable to that same contingency that lends Dr. Manhattan a perspective on life. And V, of course, recognizes in himself a fatal inability to master the anarchy he wishes to bring about. But in The Dark Knight, as your mention of the Joker as the ultimate hysteric might suggest, we have a villain who invites and then frustrates authorship by others, endlessly trying to force others to construct moral universes which he then tears down with brutal ferocity. Indeed, that endless destructive cycle seems to be his only real point in either of our interpretations.

Thematically, the idea of the Joker as a villain who not only refuses to assume success or develop true strategies except on the fly makes a lot more sense to me: Batman's order, the Joker's chaos, and Dent's splitting the difference. It transforms the kidnapping dilemma into a demoniacal improvisation late in the game, and the conversation with the unforeseeably disfigured Dent at the hospital that's about to be blown up anyway into a terrifying bit of opportunism. Note the way that conversation ends -- with the Joker letting Dent flip a coin for his life. Dent comes around to the Joker's way of thinking, after a fashion, but that very way of thinking leaves outcomes to randomness and is satisfied with wreaking havoc.

Ledger's delivery adds immensely to this effect, with a cadence and enunciation that wobble and twitch their way towards becoming a sentence, as if each word might at any moment slip free of its initial intent and become another. Even his gait suggests a body trying to go in every direction at once and settling on one only as and when it proves the mos attractive to a given instance of the joke-as-death-drive, as what I relate below to Beckett's risus purum. And how is the Joker's "victory" with Dent thwarted in the end, however partially? By Batman's own decision to adapt to hideous circumstance and become an outlaw, a man warred on by the order he wishes to champion and, earlier, to represent.

Whether this is Batman's victory in overcoming the limit which made him unable to work the Joker out, or the Joker's victory in forcing Batman towards a tactics that perverts his strategy, seems to me a far richer interpretation of the denouement than one of deterministic pessimism.

neilshyminsky said...

anagramsci: Sounds interesting - I'll check it out in the morning.

omar: I don't quite have it in me right now to give you the response that your message deserves (or is it the response that your message needs? *rimshot*) but I really like your closing remark - the question about whether Batman wins some small victory or cedes a moral defeat in adopting a decidedly more Joker-like strategy.

I suppose that part of the problem in reading the Joker is that you can always use various bits of dialogue in order to undermine other bits of dialogue - unless we refuse to take anything he says or does at all sincerely, every interpretation that relies on the Joker's ability to give an honest account of himself (at some point, if not most points) is vulnerable to the same criticism.

Or maybe I just need to reorganize some of my thoughts on a Freudian Joker in order to get it all straight. (When I first made the comparison a year ago, psychoanalysis was a lot fresher in my mind - I was reading 'Totem and Taboo' at the time, I think - and I haven't really touched it since.)

Anyway, I'll look at this again in the morning and see what I can add.

neilshyminsky said...

omar: I like your emphasis on contingency, but wonder whether it can be made to work with the idea of a master plan. I think that it's entirely possible that he had an end goal but realized that the component pieces were largely interchangeable - he kills the witness to the burning of the money, but it wasn't an absolutely necessary gesture and he can just as easily make his point some other time.

(Maybe I'm just not remembering too clearly, but he never explicitly drops this plan, does he? In any case, it seems almost unnecessary - the deference that the Joker's shown in prison would seem to indicate that no one is willing to oppose him.)

I think that you're right to say that we're conditioned, as the audience of a crime movie and as sympathizers with Gordon and Batman, to look for motives in the villain's actions. And the Joker's non-origin story illustrates the possible futility of this point beautifully - as it does the hysterical aspect of his personality - when he adjusts the details of his scarring with each telling. (An amusing aside - Roger Ebert, at the very least, either missed how the story or chose to treat its first telling as the 'true' one, and explains that the Joker is motivated by his abuse as a child.)

Maybe, to run with the Joker's own metaphor, he's looking to introduce some wildcards into the game with a general end-point in mind but no certain way of reaching it. And so he decides that it's better to leave Dent broken but alive than finish the job, and makes no attempt to escape once he has compromised Batman's standing by forcing the hero to disarm the SWAT team. It's a chaos of sorts, but it still feels awfully deliberate. He may bank on contingency, but he also seems to anticipate and plan for chance - even in those situations that we would think he could not foresee, he reacts quickly to put something new in place - in a way that Batman and Gordon cannot.

(Incidentally, does anyone else wonder which side of the coin came up when Dent decided to let the Joker leave? Because it occurs to me that it could have very easily been either one. Keeping in mind that the coin was a trick coin in the first place - that the flip was a show because it would always just confirm his decision - it's also possible that the Joker would live in either case, isn't it?)

omar karindu said...

Genre was a thought that also occurred to me, especially given the Joker's final speech. Batman, Gordon, et al. want to live in or author a (graphic) novel. a moral tale in which the city is reclaimed and justice restored to the fallen world; the Joker wants live in serial comics, where he and Batman can "go on like this forever."

In terms of teleological history, the "heroic" characters are looking for a messianic epic; the Joker exists in the bad end of Walter Benjamin's messianic violence, violence of pure means. (Achille Mbembe has coined the term "necropolitics" to consider this as a mode of sub-Saharan African political history.)

I agree that the film's Joker anticipates and plans for chance; as I said, he's a master of tactics, but his strategy, a you seem to point out. is simply to abolish the conditions that make strategies coherent or possible. If we are talking of "Totem and Taboo," the Joker wishes to be in the world after theprimal murder but before the compenations of ritual. That is, he likes to inhabit the Kristevan border of abjection, to be amid what she terms and titles Powers of Horror. Dent, in his turn, becomes one of Kristeva's "monsters of abjection," his coin's faces a sort of abjecting machine which enacts the uneasy bounding decision that solves the crisis of abjection...but like any machine, continually reiterates an operation until the things rejected and the things absorbed are indistinct from one another.

Abjection, we should recall, has the corpse as one of its icons; it stands with the remnant, the cathected, spent remainder, an impermeable evidence of the death drive's ferocity. The Joker and his impossible and shifting -- indeterinate -- origins place him as a self-made "abject." Dent produces objects. And Batman and Gordon, perhaps insidiously, have as their final aim the production of subjects from the abject of Gotham. In them, Freudian subjectification verges on biopolitical production, that is, subjectivation as subjection.

neilshyminsky said...

The genre point is a good one and again points back to Moore's 'The Killing Joke' - the opening scene in which Batman begs Joker to end the back-and-forth games that they play because one or both of them will eventually have to die. The joke, of course, was that the game was even on at that very moment, as the Joker had already escaped. (And this kind of linkage is probably also why I'm tempted to read 'The Dark Knight' in relation to 'The Killing Joke'.)

Abjection is one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when I think of the Joker too, so much so that I often dismiss it as too easy or banal to be useful. But also because I'm not sure that a "self-made abject" works - it's a paradox of the sort that sadomasochism poses for Deleuze, a self-contradictory amalgam that seems impossible for the very fact that the two terms negate one another. The Joker as the abject of Batman works, of course, but so easily that, as I said above, I'm tempted to dismiss it as too obvious. (So does Batman as the abject of the Joker, naturally, and that interchangeability makes it a wee bit more appealing.)

I also like the idea that Dent's coin is an "abjecting machine", which I think works in relation to my question about which side came face up when he let the Joker live - and whether it's possible that it could have been either side, as a way of showing the permeability of the border that constructs the (false) border between subject and abject. (Of course, Dent's coin was always already a trick coin that produced the same result regardless of the side it landed on. I wrote originally that the Joker's plans - or tactics, I suppose - manage to pervert how we see ostensibly ordered plans, and reveal their implicit or unrevealed pathology. Maybe this is also true of Dent and the coin, and his psychological break only seems abrupt because we dismissed his pathological reliance on it as cute and harmlessly superstitious.)

And lastly, you wrote: "Batman and Gordon, perhaps insidiously, have as their final aim the production of subjects from the abject of Gotham." This nicely solves the chicken-and-egg dilemma of Batman and his rogues, doesn't it? The question of whether the existence of Batman produces the Joker or the reverse? It allows you to answer "both": the Joker is abject to Batman's subject, to which Batman responds by recognizing him as such but troubling the relationship by redefining the borders that separate them and reorienting/refashioning himself as a different sort of subject - by recasting himself as abject to Gordon's subject and so troubling the very foundation of the Joker's own motivations. (If we can can call this sort of primal relationship a motive, as such.) And this is what makes the film's conclusion a victory of sorts. (Even if it is painfully overstated and the score is particularly overwrought at this point.)

Man, I would've loved to see how the Joker's response played out in the third film.

Chris said...

I thought it was a really good film.
Shame Heath ledgers dead, I don't think the character would have been totally absent from the next one.
Would also have been nice if they filmed it all in Imax (though they did manage to break 1 of 5 Imax cameras... in the world - woops!)