I feel the occasional need to watch the latest serious movie du jour in order to keep myself up to date on what passes for deep thinking in certain corners of culture. To this end I went to the movie theater to watch Christopher Nolan's latest comic book movie, Dark Knight. I should admit that I would have seen this movie regardless, because I find comic book movies entertaining. It's an adolescent weakness, but one I see no harm in occasionally indulging. The fact that the movie is being taken seriously by almost every critic that I have read and almost every person I know who has seen it only added another dimension to my overall assessment. I enjoyed the movie. I liked looking at it the way I liked looking at a video game, Metal Mania on VH-1 Classic, or something shiny. I recognize it as something generally bad for me that for some reason I want to have, and so I let myself have a little from time to time. Politics aside, there is nothing wrong with eating at McDonald's every now and then, provided that you eat reasonably healthy the rest of the time. The problem is that you can never put politics aside altogether, because our collective cultural values are so confused that many people have a hard time telling the difference between guilty pleasure and deep thought.
Does it sound like I'm overstating it a bit? Read the reviews for this movie. I'm not going to quote anybody, I'm just going to point you to metacritic.com and acknowledge that Dark Knight is the highest rated film currently in theaters. People are taking this movie seriously. I don't expect at this point that anyone will even be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar besides Heath Ledger. He's winning it; everyone knows it. Rather than bash apart critics on a case by case basis, I would like to refute the general arguments made in favor of this film. When you go to metacritic, note that every reviewer struggles to find a different way to say “It's action-packed and it makes you think!” Who says that talking points are strictly for political punditry? I take no issue with the “action-packed” label, but here are the reason that I don't believe it “makes me think” and more than whatever Jessica Alba or Ashton Kusher plan to unleash upon us in the Fall.
It's dark. That's what they keep telling me. The psychological depth is surprising. It takes you places you wouldn't expect. I did not have this experience. It is darkly lit; I'll admit that. One of the actor's is trying his hardest to show you how depraved he is with every breath (more on this later) Is it some new depth of dark that hasn't been covered by Silence of the Lambs, Schindler's List, Pulp Fiction or a million other overrated entertainments? What is new about this darkness? The really good guy gets corrupted by the mental anguish of personal tragedy and becomes a really bad guy? The other really bad guy seems to sink into deeper evil every time he's on screen? No matter how hard the hero tries to do the right thing, and have it all work out perfect, people get hurt (even the people he loves!)? This is not new territory folks.
Since I brought up the crazy character let me say some things about Heath Ledger's performance of the Joker. I'll do this by way of expanding upon previous examples: Like Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Travolta and Jackson (and Jack Nicholson's performance of the same character), Ledger's Joker is decisively and wholly one thing and one thing only. (I'll grant you that the aforementioned Travolta and Jackson a touch more nuanced in Pulp Fiction.) Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow from Batman Begins was far more interesting, because he was multi-dimensional. To be totally dominated by one personality trait has long been considered good acting. Everyone seems to love Slingblade, Rainman, Scent of a Woman, Tom Hanks and pretty much anything in which an actor lets a handicap, mental instability or sexual preference utterly define his character. Why this is considered good acting is beyond me, and anyone who watched Heath Ledger hoist upon his shoulders that sappy parade clichés that was Brokeback Mountain and turn into a watchable film through the sheer force of his performance, should be ashamed to praise him so highly for the Joker. You know why Ledger was great in Brokback? - because he was a real person. He was complex, confused, difficult to relate to and difficult to understand; he was everything in that movie that he was not in Dark Knight. It is not at all the same kind of acting. It is the difference between making yourself vulnerable and hiding behind a facade.
While I am on the subject of acting, it seems a good time to point out that there is nothing new there either. Michael Caine is wistful, melancholy, British and prone to giving speeches in conversational situations. I think I have seen that before from him. Morgan Freeman is wizened, bemused and black and speaks mostly in pithy, folksy rejoinders. Again, a pretty familiar role for him. I trust I do not have to catalogue the performances to drive home the point. Actually I do not remember any acting in this film – no behavior, no communication, just a lot of people saying lines at each other at varying volumes. It is difficult to call it dialogue since what they are doing, rather than talking to one another, is telling the audience where they are at in story, where they are going next and how they should feel about it. There is certainly nothing new in that, the the level of speech-making achieved is a peculiar Nolan trait. In fact, I think Gary Oldman speaks exclusively in speech-making mode throughout the film. Certainly he provides us with the Nolan trademark at the end, when he summarizes everything that happened and explains why it happened. I don't know why Nolan thinks this is interesting. I find it to be insulting, and I wonder how it fails to cross Nolan's mind that we get it and got it a long time ago and there is no need to hammer the point home at the end of his inevitably overlong movie.
4. What Oldman is ostensibly summarizing, like Bale and Liam Neeson before him in Batman Begins and like Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, are the film's deep thoughts. My argument against this would be that any time the movie needs a character to remind of what all the deep thoughts are, they probably aren't that deep. Art does not work that way. It does not make profound arguments and then summarize them for you. Art does not provide you with deep answers, it merely asks deep questions and leaves it to you to figure them out. There is nothing new and deep in Dark Night. It is just a repackaging of the cultural zeitgeist: “Sometimes the good guy has to be the bad guy. In order to help the people he has to be willing to let them treat him as an outcast.” How old are we? If Nolan had found a way to critique this, to comment upon, perhaps the film would approach some depth, but articulating it is not deep, not new and not interesting.
Just a few other things that are exactly like ever other movie you have ever seen:
1. Editing and score. I'm putting these together because they are so ingrained in our consciousness, that most viewers take both equally for granted, unable to imagine how different a movie would really be if the shots were longer and the music was done away with. If Dark Knight had an average shot duration of thirty seconds and couple shots that went on for several minutes and if it had no mood music, no orchestral swells to let you know how to feel, then we would have something new on our hands.
2. Kids and dogs. Let me talk for a moment about suspension of disbelief. How old are you? Are you about the age of the people in Dark Knight? Are you somewhere between thirty and sixty? If you are younger let me tell you, people in that age range have children. The only person with children in this movie, (and I mean the entire movie; find me another kid!) is Gary Oldman's character. Unlikely, and actually a bit disgusting when you consider that the only reason these children are in the film is to pull at your heart strings in a moment of tension. They certainly aren't characters. Watch some Hollywood movies and pay attention to the way children are used. Unless it's a kid's film (a problem unto itself) children are used in this emotionally manipulative way as something for the adults, the characters who matter, to care about. For whatever reason, it is difficult to imagine a world in which people of all ages have personalities. Animals suffer the same fate as kids. Those readers who live cities know that there is a guy walking a pit bull or rottweiler around every corner. Surely you know some people who own pets? Maybe you even have some of your own. But animals don't exist in movie worlds unless they are guarding or attacking something. The reason why is simple enough, but it reveals a great truth about mainstream movies that is that even the smallest dose of reality will unhinge the fake world the movies create. Cats just cannot act. They wander about when you are trying to shoot a scene, distracting the would-be viewer from the plot, the actor's face or the carefully constructed mise en scene. I do not want to get into this too much here, but this is a fundamental problem with our culture. We regard our art only in terms very basic, material wish fulfillment. The fantasy must be maintained and anything that threatens it is excised.
Even if you accept it for what it is, you have to hate the turning of Two-Face. Let me get this straight: You want to take revenge. Your girlfriend has been murdered and you are willing to kill the person or persons responsible. So the guy who killed her comes to you, puts a gun in your hand and holds it to his head, but you don't kill him, and you do go on to kill a bunch of other people who played really, really minor roles in her death, because the murderer gives you a speech about embracing the chaos. That is some slick narrative right there. That's a leap of faith that would make Kierkegaard blush.