Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Dark Knight Also Rises

(Christopher Nolan, USA, 2012)

If you ever want to know what it's like to be in a cement mixer for just under three hours, then go see The Dark Knight Rises.  You won't be disappointed.  

That's my blurb, because (not to be too old-fogeyish about it) my strongest reactions to TDKR were almost entirely physical; it's an audiovisual barrage of a film, and the near-constant fusillade of images and sounds nearly led me to upchuck my brunch.  I left the theater as if in the throes of a bad caffeine experience, shaky and disoriented.

I don't mind admitting that I have very little stake in the contemporary Superhero Franchise Pic.  Mostly, these movies are by adolescents for adolescents, and while they can be fascinating in what they reveal about our culture's collective Id, they rarely contain much else that's worth talking about.  Films of this stripe are mostly just silly, and TDKR is no exception, although it tries very hard to be one. 

Nolan does have chops; let's not deny him that.  As evinced by such pulpy gems as Memento and The Prestige, what makes him tick is deception, and his best stuff resembles the hokum of the magic show.  He favors the quick surprise, the shocking reveal, the elaborate ceremony of misdirection.  In TDKR, it's no different - Nolan works at least two steps ahead of the audience, keeping us guessing as to what the hell's going on, and then - because his hands are faster than our eyes - out pops the hidden card.  All of this doesn't add up to much in the way of story or characters, but it has a certain gee-whiz appeal.  TDKR is a grab-bag of set pieces that range from the risible to the bewildering to the pleasantly satisfying, and that's just fine, if that's what you're into.

I like a little more substance, story-and-character-wise, and if a film has some ideas behind it - visual, psychological, moral -  well, that's just icing on the cake.  TDKR offers almost none of the above, really, but it does make for a pretty fascinating lens through which to view the culture.  The movie has caught a fair amount of flack (and not insignificant praise) for it's alleged political stripes.   While the consensus among smart people seems to be that the film's politics are incoherent at best, my impression is that they capture rather perfectly the current level of mainstream cognitive dissonance.   It's the same thing you'd get from Time magazine, roughly (or, really, any other mainstream publication, whether ostensibly liberal or conservative):  the pageant of democracy, with a tacit reinforcement of oligarchic values.

It's all there:  you've got your billionaire playboy, flawed yet ultimately triumphant.  He's the only one, finally, who is capable of saving the day, of cleaning up the messes left by lesser mortals. Throughout the film there is much talk about how badly the rich have been behaving, but any popular or democratic corrective is imagined as doomed to lurid catastrophe - hence the kangaroo courts, the looting of the Park Ave apartments - all within hours of Bane taking Gotham hostage with the less-than-wholly-original device of a thermonuclear warhead.  You've got the laundry list of Good Causes - Sustainable Energy, Justice, Transparency, etc: noble, lofty goals that seem always to be just out of reach, and perhaps that's for the best, since in the end, the People don't quite appear to be deserving of them.

I don't think any of this is particularly thought-out or deliberate on the part of Nolan or anybody else.  Like most large-scale entertainments, it emerges from and reinforces the same ideological stew that we all swim in.  Nolan, like an unfortunate number of popular artists, doesn't have much of a political sensibility - which is to say that he is mostly unaware of the politics that he tacitly endorses.  His ideas, such as they are, reflect the mainstream, which is shaped by the same PR/Advertising industry that sells Swiffers, Reality TV, and political campaigns.

All of which is to say that by my lights, TDKR is a mightily naive film.  What it says about contemporary USA culture isn't very flattering, but it's nothing new or unexpected.   But why leave things on a down note?  It's possible, even probable, that one can walk away from TDKR with a sense of optimism, if considered one way.  The fact that the 1% - 99% divide is discussed at all is a  very recent development in mainstream entertainment, and yet another sign that OWS has had a lasting and positive effect on public discourse.  Of course, as previously mentioned, in the film it doesn't amount to much more than issue-checking; all of the "concern" that is drummed up over very real societal problems is mostly there to add a veneer of real-world gravity to the ludicrously trumped-up plot and cardboard characters.  But the fact that it's there at all, an expression of genuine elite anxiety, is heartening to me, as I think it should be to anyone who hopes that things will get better in the Gotham we are all now living in.