Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “The Dark Knight Rises”


At this point, I wonder if it’s even possible to separate today’s tragic events in Aurora, Colorado from any discussion about The Dark Knight Rises and simply analyze the film based on its own merits. If so, it takes a harder heart than mine, so before we even get started here let me say that my heart goes out to all the victims of this completely senseless tragedy, as well as their families and friends. In the days to come we can analyze the motivations, the warning signs that may or may not have been missed, and debate the proper courses of policy action to take in the wake of this absolutely senseless tragedy, and that’s all well and good — we still, and hopefully always will, live in a free society where the open debate and discussion about how best to address any situation, even and perhaps especially tragic ones like this, is not only absolutely appropriate, it’s absolutely necessary. So let’s remember that before we go and start calling people “anti-second amendment gun-grabbing liberal extremists” for merely suggesting that it might be a smart idea to figure out ways for guys like this accused suspect to not get their hands on private arsenals, and before we start suggesting that somehow various Batman-related movies and comics may have “inspired” the killer. If those are your views, fine, express them and have at it, but do respectfully, calmly, and in a mature fashion, please — assuming those who don’t agree with us are somehow “the enemy,” or placing a higher value on ascribing blame for a problem than on finding ways to prevent the situation from happening again, will only guarantee more tragedies in the future. But let’s all take a deep breath and let the police and various other investigative bodies do their work before we assume we know anything, much less that we know everything (or, at the very least, all we need to) about the situation. For now I think we can all agree that this kind of senseless violence represents an unconscionable act of cruelty and that there are no, and never will be, any justifications for it whatsoever.

And speaking of toning down the rhetoric and behaving like adults, can we also all agree that any online critic — be they “professional” or “amateur” — should be free to express reservations, even outright dislike, for this or any film without being subjected to harassment, personal attack, and even death threats? It’s just a movie, people, even if it’s a really big one, and there’s nothing in this world more subjective than one’s own reaction to and/or interpretation of a work of art in any medium. If people who have opposing views from our own on issues like gun control, public safety policy, and any others that may arise in the discussions resulting from today’s  horrific acts in Aurora are not our “enemies” — and, again, they’re not — then surely people who have differing opinions than our own in regards to a goddamn film aren’t, either. If you can’t wake up to what’s really important in life in the wake of an incident like this, then I genuinely feel sorry for you, but please — dial it all back a notch or shut the hell up if you’re absolutely incapable of being reasonable and level-headed. It’s all about perspective, folks — as in, keeping things in it.

All that being said, I don’t mind segueing into discussion of the film itself by stating immediately and for the record that I absolutely loved The Dark Knight Rises. I was, quite frankly, expecting to, but yesterday I got a bit jumpy. I had read various postings online about how the basic premise here amounted to “Batman comes out of retirement to save the 1% from having their wealth redistributed,” and leaving aside the fact that I find the politics behind such a plot conceit completely antithetical to my own, it just sounded like a pretty lackluster way in which to wind up one of the biggest series in film history and like Nolan was sacrificing inspiration for the sake of being overtly topical.

I needn’t have worried. Yes, the film can certainly be read in such a manner if you strain awfully hard to do so, but it can be read with a more progressive leaning, if such in your inclination, as well, to wit : yes, the principal villain of the piece, one ‘roided-out, breathing-apparatus-of-some-sort-wearing pseudo-revolutionary named Bane (superbly portrayed by Tom Hardy with a kind of chilling nonchalance that’s absolutely palpable) does, in fact, set about “giving Gotham back,” as it were, to the dispossessed masses for his own purposes, but it’s what those purposes are, and the way in which they’re revealed, that gives lie, in my view, to the whole “Batman as champion of the 1% taking on a guy who’s suckered the 99% into falling for him”  interpretation of the movie. I shan’t say anything too specific out of respect for those who may be reading this before they actually see it, but I will say this much : the fact that Bane is (apparently) a tool more for a rival to the corporate throne of Bruce Wayne than he is any “champion of the people,” and that even that turns out to be a ruse when it’s revealed that he’s bringing down Gotham for another set of reasons entirely, reasons which tie right back to the first film in Nolan’s series, are enough for me to dismiss both the conservative championing of this movie and the liberal hand-wringing over it with relative ease. In short, maybe we all need to learn to actually see these movies for ourselves before taking to the web and opining on their political content. And yes, I include myself among those I’m (mildly) castigating here.

All of which is not to say that Nolan (who co-wrote the script for this with his brother, Jonathan) doesn’t have an agenda here — it seems to me, quite clearly, that he does. And what, pray tell, would that agenda be? I’m glad you asked (okay, glad asked) — but first, a bit of background : back when Nolan first arrived on the scene with films like Memento and Insomnia, it was pretty commonplace to hear his work compared to that of fellow Brit-come-to-Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock. Some of that died down a but when he took over the Batman franchise and his career moved squarely into blockbuster territory, but like the so-called “Master Of Suspense” himself, I think our guy Chris has taken a perverse delight in having us all on a bit. Sure, his budgets are a lot bigger now, and he’s definitely able to pack a much bigger wallop, aesthetically speaking, than he used to, but underneath all of that pomp and circumstance, I still think he’s the same guy who lives to confound our expectations and use his work to comment, above all else, on itself.

If I haven’t lost you entirely by this point, and I sincerely hope I haven’t please allow me to explain : true, on the surface, a story that revolves around how Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale, of course, who turns in a performance here that’s incredibly multi-layered as he goes from broken to redeemed to more broken than ever to quietly triumphant, complete with physical changes to match), against the wishes of mentor/father-figure Alfred (Michael Caine, as always the beating human heart of the film and here displaying the type of range few characters with his limited screen time are ever even given the opportunity to sink their acting teeth into) comes out of a self-imposed eight-year exile spurred on equally by the threat of Bane and the mysterious allure of a fetching costumed cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway, never specifically referred to as “Catwoman,”  who knocks it out of the park here as sex-appeal-with-a-social-conscience — notice how she only steals from the well-off, and is even portrayed as being sympathetic to the surface level of Bane’s machinations, ultimately false as she knows them to be), aided as always by Morgan Freeman’s beleaguered-but-hardly-dead-yet-by-a-long-shot Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman’s ethically-conflicted-but-still-holding-out-hope police commissioner, Jim Gordon, an idealistic young Detective named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who embodies a kind of hope for the future every time he’s on screen), and a mysterious ally on his company’s board of directors named Miranda (Marion Cotillard, who’s fetchingly dangerous in her own, non-slinky-suited way), hardly sounds like it has the makings of being a truly personal directorial statement, especially when you consider that it’s got a $250 budget and a remit from the studio to keep hitting us with everything it’s got from start to finish.

And yet, that’s exactly what Christopher Nolan has delivered here. Yes, the action set-pieces are spectacular, the effects are out of this world, Wally Pfister’s cinematography is (as we’ve come to expect by now) absolutely breathtaking, and the metaphorical punches are precisely placed, perfectly executed, and pack one heck of a wallop. It’s all big-scale spectacle on a scale we’ve never seen before and backed up by brains, to boot. In short, this isn’t The Avengers, which can certainly be viewed on an intellectual level and with at least a degree of thoughtfulness involved should you so choose, but where such things aren’t necessary to fully enjoy the film. In a Nolan blockbuster, you’d better put on your thinking cap or you’ll be left in the dust.

It’s what all that thought and action, inextricably linked as they are, is put in service to, though, that really sets The Dark Knight Rises apart and reveals Nolan to be, and I say this with all due respect, a bit of a devious trickster under all that pomp and circumstance. As has been established, this film has more than enough red meat to either appease and/or infuriate both ends of the political spectrum as generally defined, and Nolan indulges himself on a scale so grand that it’s absolutely certain to provide ample fodder for both his detractors and admirers, and now, with all these pieces set, there’s nothing left for him to do but — sit back, laugh, and watch us all have it online, on television, at work, even around the family dinner table. Our reactions to how we view his movie will, in fact have already, mirror the conflict of ideals, as well as the grand-scale physical destruction, shown on screen (although, again, let’s keep it level-headed and in proportion to its actual relevance to our daily existences, please). I don’t think he started out this Batman series with the intention of it becoming The. Biggest. Thing. Ever. To. Happen. In. Movie. History. But, now that it is, he’s making the most of the opportunity and, like his predecessor Hitchcock, whose greatest character was always himself, and whose films ultimately functioned as self-commentary on their own creation and existence, he’s laid a masterfully-prepared, air-tight, $250 million dollar trap here, that once you’ve seen, you have no choice but to play into.

Some may call that cynical, and perhaps they’re right to a certain degree, but it’s cynicism with purpose, executed with almost pristine attention to detail. Even he ending, which I won’t give away, is a supreme act of self-referential commentary on where any future filmmaker could take this series, should they be daring/and or stupid enough to pick up Nolan’s gauntlet. It’s all part of an intricate puzzle designed to do nothing so much as reflect itself back upon itself , and us, once the last piece is in place, and nothing this truly audacious has ever, cinematically speaking,  been attempted on a scale this large before. Think David Lynch’s Inland Empire, only delivered on a level pretty much anyone can understand and appreciate, if not actually and actively like (although early indications are that most audiences really do love this flick), and you’ll have something of an idea of what’s been achieved here.

It may take awhile before everyone is able to fully appreciate what Nolan’s achieved here — hell, we’re still debating Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre decades later — but that’s all part of the plan, as well. This is self-contained, self-propagating, self-constructed, self-sustaining genius (a term I never use lightly) of the highest order, and the most accomplished act of thoughtful pranksterism in movie history. Tomorrow, I’ll be seeing it again — and I bet Chris Nolan isn’t surprised in the least.

 

13 responses to “Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “The Dark Knight Rises”

  1. Pingback: Quick Review: The Dark Knight Rises (dir. by Christopher Nolan) | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Reblogged this on Trash Film Guru and commented:

    Darn proud of this piece I wrote for Through The Shattered Lens website. I think it’s the most cogent analysis of the film available online, even if I do say so myself.

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    • I’d give it two thumb’s up if the option was available for just comparing Nolan to Hitchcock. A comparison that’s not too farfetched or something born out of hyperbole.

      People look at Hitchcock now as an auteur and one of the great masters of cinema, but people tend to forget or gloss over the fact that pretty much all of his films are genre films. If Hitchcock was transported to this day and age I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up trying his hand at directing a superhero film or three.

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      • He’d certainly be a perfect fit for the genre, as Nolan’s work here proves. This is essentially a Hitchcock superhero flick — and a very good one, at that.

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  3. Pingback: Mass Murderers and Media Coverage « two men enter . . .

  4. “…comparing Nolan to Hitchcock. A comparison that’s not too farfetched or something born out of hyperbole”

    Sir Alfred Hitchcock directed films for 50 years, starting in the silent era of the 1920s, and outlasted all sorts of film fads to remain popular on both sides of the Atlantic (back when that actually meant something). “Hitchcockian” has long been part of the everyday cinematic lexicon. I can’t recall anyone using the term “Nolanesque”.

    Cast your minds back to the middle of last decade and ask yourself: was “Batman Begins” hailed as some sort of masterpiece? No. Actually, as I recall it, the film was pretty much seen as just another reboot to a serial that had been done several times before. It played the cinemas, made the requisite Big Bundle of Dollars that it would’ve made no matter who directed it (your Aunt Edna could’ve made this a hit–EVERY “Batman” film is box-office dynamite, no matter how awful the critics find them), then shuffled its way onto DVD and cable. The reintroduction of The Joker (by far the most popular arch-villain in the Batman world), as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, and the fact that his performance hit cinemas several months after his demise, made the film extremely popular. So much so, that people mistook popularity for genius, and retrospectively hailed every film that Nolan ever helmed as the Work of God, whether he deserved it or not. And that tradition has since continued, thus leading to (frankly ludicrous) comparisons between Nolan and Hitchcock.

    I kid you not, I can scarcely remember what happened in “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” (and I watched both in the cinema, not as a bootleg download on somebody’s mobile telephone). And because I’m old enough to remember the ’80s, let me tell you, there was a similar level of hype surrounding Tim Burton’s “Batman”. But because people were a little more measured in their praise 20 years ago (people showing ANY kind of restraint in the 1980s–hard to believe, I know), and due to the fact that period from the late 1970s until the late 1980s was (and always shall be) The Golden Age of the Hollywood Whiz-Bang Action Blockbuster, folks had a tougher measuring stick in those days. Consequently, people enjoyed “Batman” for what it was back in the day, but many years since, you ask people from the 1980s to list the best Whiz Bang Action Blockbusters from the decade. I guarantee you that “Batman” hardly rates a mention when put up against the formidable franchises such as “Superman”, “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, et al.

    Seriously, if Christopher Nolan is the next Sir Alfred Hitchcock for recycling an ancient comic book character in a trilogy of CGI-laden popcorn flicks, then I’m pushing for Sam Raimi as the next Orson Friggin’ Welles.

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    • Mark, nobody’s comparing the scope of Nolan’s career to that of Hitchcock’s. There’s just no way he’s earned it yet. What I’m saying is that the aims that Nolan is going for with his films are similar to what Hitchcock aattempted to do with his. It’s a comparison of their styles, not the llongevity or impact os their careers. And it’s not like Nolan’s the first to try and emulate Hitchcock by a long stretch — he’s just been the first to do so on this big a scale and with this big a budget.

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  5. Great review my friend. Many critics made a lot of the 1% angle. You’re absolutely right though. You have to strain to really see it. To me, Bane’s movement was more about creating anarchy. By isolating the cops and unleashing the prisoners, he more or less incited chaos. The anti-rich babble was I think Bane’s way of stirring the pot and his sabotaging of the stock market ultimately was just an means to get his hands on Wayne Co. Besides, what was the point of all that talk if in the end his goal was to blow the city up anyway? And Batman’s return to the city wasn’t so much him protecting the 1% but restoring order. In the end, I think Tyler Durden did more for the redistribution of wealth than Bane ever did.

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    • I see what you’re saying absolutely, my friend, but I do have to single out a mistake you — and, let’s be honest — society in general makes when we make the term “anarchy” synonymous with “chaos.” The two are very different things. “Anarchy” basically means a society based only on interactions and exchanges between others that are entered into voluntarily by all parties involved. It’s too simple to even think of it as “no government,” as it also means “no bosses,” “no hierarchies,” and “no concept of ‘power’ whatsoever.” On the other hand, “chaos” means, well — chaos. Quite clearly Bane was never interested in “anarchy,” and “chaos” was his goal. Followed by destruction, of course. “Anarchy” would actually be a threat, perhaps the ultimate threat, to any social construct such as that which Bane was setting up, and frankly I wonder if a state of “chaos” isn’t a necessary precursor to “anarchy” taking root, since “anarchy” is probably what would advance out of a chaotic system when it became clear to all involved that things just weren’t working out. Also, your observation about Batman’s ultimate authoritarian purpose is pretty much spot-on, and Nolan’s authoritarian stance is probably, in my view, best exemplified by the scene with the phalanx of cops marching head-first into the unruly mob of Bane supporters. Quite clearly, with none of the ambiguous multiple meanings that we can read into other scenes, Nolan has set this one up to ensure that all the sympathies of the audience are directed at the authority figures, as personified by the cops. This is a million miles away from the view of cops taken in films like, say, “Smokey And The Bandit,” or “Convoy,” where the cops are bumbling idiots that we’re clearly designed to laugh at and, frankly, hope for harm to come to.

      Sure, it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges when we discuss “Smoke And The Bandit” and “The Dark Knight Rises” in the same sentence, but I think it’s illustrative of a general trend in supposedly “liberal” Hollywood to shift audience sympathies in a more authoritarian direction over the last couple of decades. Outlaws were portrayed as being heroic in everything from westerns to Kestone Kops-style comedies to gangster films to even horror movies (think of the general anti-authoritarian stance of Romero’s “Living Dead” films, for example) since the earliest days of cinema, but that trend has certainly shifted, Even today, when superheroes who supposedly “act outside the law” are all the rage, it’s worth noting that they’re always on the side of law and order. Granted, this isn’t limited to movies, but is widespread all over popular culture — songs like C.W. McColl’s “Convoy,” upon which Peckinpah’s previously-mentioned film is based, deal with murdering cops in a flat-out joking manner, but a couple decades later they damn near crucified Ice-T for talking about killing cops in his infamous “Cop Killer” hip-hop song. And now? Shit, Ice-T is playing a cop on TV. There’s definitely a trend going on here that’s unmistakable, and which, to my mind, is a bit disturbing. Not that I think joking about killing police officers is a laughing matter by any stretch, but portraying authority in positive terms more or less all the time, as is done these days, is both unrealistic and speaks to our society’s general overall subservience to those who would wield “authority” over us in ways that those of us with a more naturally anti-authoritarian bent find more than a tad disturbing. “Everything’s okay now that our self-appointed rulers” — who, it should be pointed out, got Gotham City (and the real world) into the economic mess that made the rise of a faux-populist demagogue like Bane possible — “are back” marks this particular sequence as the most overtly right-wing one in the film, in my view, but everyone who was concentrating — or, as you point out, straining to concentrate — on the whole 99%-vs.-1% comparison seems to have missed it.

      But, like I said, I think even that is just a part of the larger game that Nolan’s playing at here. There are times when he’s overtly authoritarian in his directorial viewpoint, and times when he’s either less so or completely the opposite altogether, and setting us all aflutter with debate over this is his real intention, and was mimicked on screen in the chaos that overtakes Gotham City. Nolan wants to get us all at each other’s throats in order to both reveal things to ourselves about ourselves, as well as to make the ultimately self-referential nature of his film come to light. It’s a cinematic prank of epic proportions, using his own film as commentary both upon itself and the various reactions he knows it will engender.

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      • Even so, I do not feel that comparisons between Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan are in any way justified. It’s apples and oranges. Maybe Nolan (and his many supporters) would like to think he’s trying to do what Hitch did, albeit on a monster budget, but even if this were so, there’s a difference between trying and succeeding.

        Also, I don’t see how Nolan getting a “bigger budget to play with” is at all relevant. These days, big budgets seems to decrease the demand for audience imagination. All those whiz-bang special effects (that are so often all too obviously special effects) and having everything spelled out for you in gigantic letters. I believe that “The Prestige” at least demanded that audiences did a little bit of thinking for themselves. Films such as “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” were as subtle as whiskey-fuelled Fourth of July celebrations in the heart of Texas. So many Nolan fanatics talk about his “intelligent, thought-provoking themes” that set him apart from others of his ilk. “Intelligent, thought-provking themes” don’t cost money.

        To follow on from a different issue posted above, Ice-T first played a cop in “New Jack City”, which actually predated the whole “Cop Killer” firestorm, hence the fact that Ice-T has played law enforcers at numerous times in his career signifies little if anything about the ostensibly increased “authoritarian attitudes” of Hollywood. When questioned about this supposed irony around the time of the whole “Cop Killer” business, Ice-T said that as a actor, you have to try to play a character that’s very different from yourself. Also, it’s not as if Ice-T has made a career from playing “Dirty Harry” or anything.

        A better example would be Ice Cube, who always came across as the angriest man in hip hop music 20 years ago, and earned rave reviews for his performance in “Boyz N the Hood”–essentially replicating his hip hop persona on celluloid. But that’s all it ever was: a persona. N.W.A. was a marketing ploy, an image, one that was sent up wonderfully in the Chris Rock vehicle “CB4”.

        What really makes me shake my head is that today, know-nothing social commentators lump all aggressive-sounding hip-hop together as “gangsta rap”, despite none of these individuals advocating a “gangsta” lifestyle. The bulk of mainstream hip hop performers are what Ice-T himself would call (from his book “The Ice Opinion”) “rich urban capitalists”. The irony is that despite fronting as “rebellious” (or at least being sold this way by the record companies), rappers such as Kanye West and Eminem represent the “1 percent” discussed in previous posts. The maxim “Gold brains, not gold chains!” fell out of vogue years ago. I would say that in today’s society, the mass worship of greed is a bigger problem than authority figures always being seen as positive entities. People will sell out one another in the single beat of their twisted little hearts to be part of that “1 percent”.

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        • I agree with your pints on greed, but think you’re missing the correlation between greed and authority, their relationship essentially being a symbiotic one — the authoritatiran power structure is in place, after all, to essnttially protect and expand the interests of the greedy folks who have risen to the top of the economic ladder. As to your points about money, movies, and thoughtfulness, I would agree — generally, big-budget “blockbuster” crap is pretty stupid stuff. And Nolan’s work is, in fact, extremely un-subtle. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think he’s trying to do what Hitchcock consistently did with his films, though — namely, use them as tools to comment both upon the works themselves, their creator, and their creator, while playing the audience liek a fiddle. You can argue about whether or not he succeeded — and an argument seems to be what you’re here for, with all due respect — and that’s fine, but saying that Nolan’s doing trying to do the same thing here is a completely legit angle to take on the film, and one you’ll probably see more of in the days to come, as I’ve seen some other commentators out there starting to pick up on this meme now (not that I claim to be the first, by any stretch, it was probably said by others in relation to DKR before I did, I just hadn’t seen any reviews that took that angle myself even though they were probably out there). So, if the Nolan-Hitchcock thing gets you as riled up as it seems to, I would suggest keeping your blood pressure medication handy, as you’ll be seeing more of that sort of thing both in relation to this film, and, I’m sure, subsequent Nolan efforts. Again, one can easily compare a filmmaker’s (quite obvious, it seems to me) intentions without comparing their styles or career longevity, etc. For a guy who apparently appreciates subtlety such as yourself, that shouldn’t be a tough distinction to grasp.

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      • Excellent comment/analysis. Would love to see a post devoted to how you see this “general trend in supposedly “liberal” Hollywood to shift audience sympathies in a more authoritarian direction over the last couple of decades.”

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        • Thanks, it’s probably worthy of an essay of its own sometime, suffice to say, it seems apparent to me that as the years have gone on, our sympathies as an audience are being directed away from loners, rebels, outlaws, etc. and towards authority figures such as cops, the military, etc. Even when we’re give a character who operates “outside the system,” like a Batman, it’s always somebody who does so in order to fight for the same “values” the authority figures represent.

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