The Dark Knight Rises, Round 2

As before, profuse spoilers are to be expected.

After seeing TDKR again and also hashing it over with co-workers as the work week resumed, I think I’ve “digested” it a little more. It’s been interesting to see the wide range of opinions on the film, from one person who thought it was awful and that the Spiderman reboot was better, to perfect and the best of the series. I have to say I’m in the middle.

What it keeps coming down to, more and more for me, is the siege of Gotham. I think the movie has me up until that point. But when Bane starts to enact his master plan, the movie gets really fuzzy for me.

You have two rising (o-ho!) currents during this segment of the film: the tightening of Bane’s grip on Gotham City, and the fear and anger and convalescence of Bruce Wayne in the pit.

Side Thought: Ostensibly the pit is in Morocco? Because “deshay basara” is Moroccan Arabic for ‘He rises, he rises’. Makes sense that Morocco would produce the very French-sounding Talia al-Ghul and the indeterminately European Bane.

Side Thought 2: Despite it being way too high-volume in the mix, I actually really loved Bane’s voice.

So anyway, these are the two surging currents that give the film its manic midsection before things climax. Here’s where things get problematic.

1. The nuke. It’s just not a good plot device. It’s a giant ball with a glowing red timer, good god. A whole litany of terrible action movies have used this type of thing as a way of generating a sense of risk. I think the writers really slipped up here. The “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, which provided the inspiration for the destruction of Gotham’s bridges and the total abandoning of the city, did not require a nuclear bomb; in fact, it rather cleverly made it so the government was the one blowing up the bridges, rather than some force from within. This was lazy writing. The film did not climax when Batman makes his heroic decision to fly the bomb out to the ocean; it climaxed when Batman returns to the city, sets fire to the bridge and starts his counterinsurgency.

2. Occupy Gotham. Bane’s reason for using this equalization-of-resources rhetoric while keeping secret that everyone is going to die anyway? The punishment of Bruce Wayne, murderer of Ras al-Ghul. Really? That seems like adding a lot of risk to your plan just to torment one guy. I suppose there’s some aspect of punishing ‘the people’ and making a farce out of American society before blowing it up. But it never truly crystallizes that way. I never thought the film was particularly anti-Occupy. It’s not really particularly anti-anything. Nolan himself in a recent interview said they were just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck, and it really shows. Clean energy? No, it could be a bomb! Redistribution of wealth and resources? Careful, that could be violent and actually hurt people! Like… what?

3. “The people.” This has been one of the biggest problems with this trilogy. The Dark Knight did better at it than the other two and is just one more indicator of that film’s superiority over its older and younger siblings. The people are just a MacGuffin in these films. They get used as a kind of moral currency, but in The Dark Knight Rises they are rarely anywhere to be seen. We see the orphans. We see the cowering stadium audience. We see a rich guy getting dragged out of hiding and we see brief shots of these kangaroo courts convened by a known psychopath. Otherwise all I remember seeing is a couple seconds of the wealthy looking confused outside of their parkside apartments and some teenagers partying and Anne Hathaway looking sadly at a ransacked house. You don’t get to see what ‘the people’ are really doing or going through. The police are just sitting there eating, we don’t know what they’re going through either.

And why did people just go along with this? The guy who set this whole thing up clearly had a nuclear bomb and had murdered a lot of people. I suppose they could be cowering in fear, but why didn’t we see that? Were those kids partying in the apartment just taking advantage of a bad situation and looting/partying? How does Jonathan Crane’s dummy court deal with cases of rape and sexual assault, because oh I don’t know I’ve heard those can happen during massive societal upheavals? And perhaps most importantly, when someone threatens an entire city with nuclear annihilation, why does nobody have exactly that survival instinct described by the prison doctor — that fear of death — why does nobody in 12 million have that enough to fight back? Is this the film’s real comment on the American people? That we need wealthy protectors, we need a Bat-Dad who can beat up that bully Bane?

I don’t like to use the word ‘man’ when ‘person’ is more accurate, but in this case, “The 12-million-man MacGuffin” really rolls off the tongue. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Men. Sure seems like they are 90% of Gotham City’s population. And the film’s two female characters, to me, stole every scene they had, and yet were still not given their real due. They didn’t get enough development, didn’t get any character arcs. Talia al-Ghul’s character depends entirely on your having seen Batman Begins. That is literally the entire foundation of her character. We get this late reveal that she’s the determined child who escaped from a hellish prison, but it rings so incredibly hollow, especially because emotionally we’ve already registered that child as Bane and seen all the awful and horrific things Bane can do. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle was fantastic, and we don’t need to know a lot about who she was before, or her origin story, but it sure would have been nice to see her more mixed up in the chaos. Remember in The Dark Knight how every character was pushed to make some moral choice by the end of the film? Yeah, nobody has to do that in The Dark Knight Rises. For Selina Kyle it’s stay and fight or leave, and she stays and that’s well and great, but it’s serving the story. We have no clue what that does for her as a character, nor do we really grasp why she’d be running around with Bruce later on.

5. The Pit. Again, I’ve never seen a token back-breaking in a film before, but there it is. And what’s Bruce wrestling with in there, anyway? There’s no conflict, no struggle really. Just upward motion. He doesn’t wrangle with anything, not really. He’s angry. He fears death, OK. Here we go, jump! Aaand scene.

6. Christopher Nolan’s Manic Puzzle Box. This is, I think, a fair descriptor of his last few films. They are bombastic, gigantic puzzle boxes with many moving pieces and a manic, rising energy that never abates. Unfortunately, though this worked so well for The Dark Knight, it has a sense in The Dark Knight Rises of being an almost 3-hour-long montage rather than a film with particular sequences and movements. A siege is a slow process, Christopher Nolan. You can take your time.

7. The Moral Siege? Really, it keeps coming down to the siege for me. It’s the would-be moral center and thinkpiece of the film, and the film should have lingered there. It should have shown us long takes of Gotham under occupation, should have sent us deeper into the lives of the ordinary person, and most of us all, should have given us more to chew on about our socioeconomic realities, who we are as a people, where we are going. The siege was simply James Bond villainy in the end, with a comical bomb. And though I like the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne cares more about ‘the people’ in the abstract, from a distance, that’s never really played up either, especially as a counterpoint to Bane’s supposed liberation of the people. How much more powerful would it have been if people voluntarily followed Bane and denounced Batman? Then, the betrayal of Harvey Dent would have had more narrative weight. And the character of Talia al-Ghul could have been used in much more interesting ways. Even as a heroine.

These films have always set up a battle of ideas. Batman Begins had the most truly basic of all three: when the forest (Gotham, America, the American City) grows too wild, do you simply burn it down or do you fight to save it? The Dark Knight staged a much more in-depth interrogation of the moral fiber of the city and its hero. I’m holding up The Dark Knight a lot here, and it is the superior film, but it also suffered from the manic puzzle box thing at times. Only difference was it used that format to its advantage. In this one I feel like they just tried to shoehorn Batman Begins into the style of The Dark Knight and the result is a patchy mess. It was a film without a sense of identity. It pulled from headlines, it pulled from its predecessors. The one place it never really seemed to pull from was the natural creative ether. It was thrilling and enjoyable, but somehow it was not very fresh. It didn’t feel like the product of spontaneous creativity and intellectual probing or even a real sense of fun — the motorcycle chase early on is weirdly boring and devoid of affect — it just felt rote. Maybe we’re feeling the absence of Heath Ledger here, in a sense; maybe this is the effort to pick up the pieces from a story that lost its true star. That’s where Bane needed to be a kind of rogue antihero. I wanted to root for Bane. I wanted him to stage a real takedown of Batman. Rags-to-more-rags, coming from nothing, breaking the ultracapitalist Bat. But Bane did not embody any principles, not really. To be sure, the grievance against Gotham is real; we all know the festering metropolis, the American excess at the expense of the poor both domestically and on a much wider scale globally. But just trying to shake the Etch-a-Sketch is too easy. And this is why the siege is so problematic for me. Because that’s where the movie was about to fly and about to shine, and that’s exactly where the beating heart of it went dark.

Dara

The Dark Knight Rises, Round 1

Remember when I said I was going to make a post full of spoilers? This is that post. Proceed with caution.

I don’t think I will see The Dark Knight Rises more than twice in the theater (I saw The Dark Knight 3 or 4 times). It’s good, it’s even great. Within the framework of what ends up being a fairly standard superhero plot are a lot of wonderful moments, wonderfully written exchanges, strong points of character resonance, scenes that made me cry, and of course, negotiations with the declining empire, with America (more explicitly on display in this film), with power and privilege that oppresses and shuns.

I’ve heard people say that this film is particularly anti-Occupy Wall Street. I was bothered by the way the film presents certain symbols of Occupy as machinations used by the villains to further a goal of genocide. Genocide is always used too lightly as a threat in films and frankly this one was no different. “A nuke is gonna kill everyone!” in films is too big a thing to raise, because films that dangle that never do much with the questions of mortality and frailty that such a looming and collective threat raises. Kind of a sour spot for me there.

Also never answered is the larger question of America’s reaction to Gotham City. It’s an oddly walled-off place, perfectly situated to blow up all the bridges and leave the people stranded on an island. What all three of these films have in common (as with all Christopher Nolan films) is that they are high-stakes puzzle boxes that thrill but, under scrutiny, reveal a set of pieces that don’t always interconnect. I think that when I see this film a second time, the seams are really going to show.

Nolan has this to say about the idea that Bane uses OWS-style ideology: “If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed.”

I think this kind of thinking is potentially problematic; what about the agency of ‘the people’? Unfortunately, as with the previous two films, ‘the people’ are a kind of MacGuffin. The soul of Gotham, the lives of its citizens, its freedom from crime and suffering, all end up seeming like the kind of affectless currency of so many other action films. And that was a disappointment.

There’s a kind of kitchen sink approach to the film, too. It balances a wide cast of characters with much greater skill than say, Spiderman 3, but nonetheless you start wondering which characters were ultimately necessary, and which overblown action sequences, and which MacGuffins. Does the threat of nuclear obliteration mean to add more risk, depth and tension to the mounting action and suspense? I don’t think it succeeds. And ultimately, Batman never really has to wrangle with his mortality. I’ve never seen a film dole out a token back-breaking, but here it was.

I realize as I’m writing about the film that there’s a lot of screws loose and a lot of holes to observe, but what I took away from it was nonetheless a very high, practically manic enjoyment of a Hollywood film. Being in true IMAX doesn’t hurt at all. But as for that real comment about capitalism, about empire, about the haves and the have-nots, about poverty, about the soul of a city and the soul of a people in the twilight of their cultural power… I really didn’t feel like that was necessarily addressed. When it was, it was often token, or sort of nodded at.

I would have liked if it Nolan could have put down his usual sense of escalating mania and actually shown us life in Occupied Gotham. We didn’t get to see that. A three-month convalescence from a broken spine in a dank prison pit for Bruce Wayne is basically an elongated montage that goes from physical decrepitude to total beefcake assbeatery. I don’t know what his struggle is when he’s in there seeing Gotham get torn to shreds. The emotional core of the characters is usually transposed with the emotional core of the film itself, and those should not always be the same thing. This film could have been leaner, more spare, more efficient. It should have been a lilting elegy; instead it aimed for the brassy cacophony of The Dark Knight.

On a totally different tack, although the Talia al-Ghul reveal was kind of rushed and perfunctory, I did really like the gender neutral ‘child’ sequences that set up the twist. I also enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt a lot.

What we’re left with, ultimately, is a big fat honkin’ Hollywood/Christopher Nolan movie, and it’s entertaining as all hell and get out, but it’s not going to stand up to much scrutiny, at least not at first blush. After it let out I was emotional, I kept saying to myself, “It’s over, it’s over,” and there was a sense of relief, a return to normalcy, because I am prone to obsession with things that feel like they are turning the screws that hold back the truth about culture, about where we are going, who we are, what our soul is meant to be as a people. But maybe now I can let it go; I can let one of my greatest obsessions die a peaceful death. Obsession is bad for the heart, it’s bad for the soul. Maybe this represents, for me, an ending of an old life, the beginning of a new one. At least until I meet some of my oldest friends to see it again tomorrow.

Dara

Batmannable

There are no TDKR spoilers in this post. The next one will have tons. Count on it.

Up early and ahead of things and I get that feeling of having come to the end of a track that terminates in the sea. Christopher Nolan’s Bat-saga has been looming over me for most of my adult life. I think about who I saw the first movie’s premiere with. Who I saw the second movie’s premiere with. In neither of those cases could I have predicted, nor would I have believed, that when the third movie came out I’d be seeing it by myself, but also firmly establishing a foothold of a life somewhere after fighting for the root to take to the ground for 2.5 years.

I’ve only ever tried really explaining my obsession with these films to one other person in great detail, and even then not quite enough. But the essential pieces were there: these films are operas for the end-times of capitalism and empire. I can no longer read Batman as anything but a late-stage capitalist, whose superpower is money, who is convinced that you can beat up capitalism’s problems — without any blood on your hands. I was glad for one of the early trailers that emphasized the particular “Americanness” of Batman, as he is a quintessentially American hero in ways that most aren’t. His trauma is the trauma of an entire society — the ordinary, day-to-day crushing grind that hurts the poor suddenly interfering with his rarefied upper-crust existence and unseating him from all of his notions of safety. Nolan’s version isolates something the comics may have obfuscated a little: Bruce Wayne is invested in this most American of cities, Gotham. He was raised to consider himself ego-synonymous with it, by a billionaire father whose name was on the city’s central spire, who acted as shepherd and guiding hand to its poor and disenfranchised. But in all his time behind the mask, I never saw Batman build a low-cost public transit system out of his own pocket.

These films were never really going to address capitalism on its own, or speak to systems that are the root causes of poverty and suffering. But they do constantly speak to the stagnation and decline of the American city, that greatest of experiments; and when you dramatize that decline, you can’t do it very well without invoking the economics of it all. And so you have Batman, the conservative, on one side, trying to preserve a status quo that never was. And you have this line of anarchists, freaks, scholars, thieves and avengers — these “mad people” — trying to unmask the city for the nuthouse it truly is, trying to cull the weeds.

You don’t need Hollywood to tell you about the writing on the wall. We all seem to live with a sense of burgeoning — a sense that things are coming to a head, that our civilization is sagging, overripe on the vine. But these films, these rousing films of a heroic masculinity, these adventure films of the late empire, have always been my shelter. And with The Dark Knight Rises I hope that shelter is finally cast off. I loved The Dark Knight because it turned that masculinity, that sense of manifest destiny, on its head. It turned inside out all the beloved notions of the action star, who is almost always a defender of extant systems. I don’t think this third film will achieve what the second did, but I do expect a last lunge at greatness. The franchise, like everything else, swollen past the point of relevancy. A years-long obsession, tapering out but finally getting to end with a bang. I just don’t think movies, big fat fucking Hollywood movies, are going to be the same for me anymore. Not because this installment will irrevocably alter things, but because of my own progression out of the hell I was born into, from which these tales of adventure were the only respite. Call it a birth into the world, a world that is its own hell. Myth and swan song all in one.

I’ve been moving away from these stories a long time as I’ve moved into my own body, into my own small experience, which is never so grand as anything on the screen. A part of me knows I’ve been fixated on this last film, this end of an era, out of sheer habit, out of a desire to put the past to bed and be done with it. When the first of these films came out I was 20, aimless and with no idea what kind of suffering and struggles were about to come my way. When the second came out I was on the precipice of an icy and jagged plunge into adulthood that almost killed me, so woefully crippled was I by the mauling of childhood. Now, what am I? I don’t know. I am an adult. I am part child. I am part monster. I feel like I live sitting on the lid of a pot that’s struggling to contain the still-boiling 20th century. I feel like I’m living in the twilight of mankind’s latest and greatest empire, but which after all is only setting the seedbed for the next. And all I want is to leave it behind, to forget the grandeur, to let it fade from my experience… and to celebrate my experience. To learn a skill for my unpracticed hands, to live, to love and smile and laugh. For the opera to end and the études to begin. I’ve always cared so much about America because I wanted to try to fit into it, but I already do fit in. I don’t always fit in well, but here I am. I’m alive.

Dara

Breach

The sudden intimacy of a new friend. To let someone in. The most terrifying thing. Not because I fear the change or the joy therepromised. But because I fear my own inability to set boundaries. To stop myself falling. To hold myself back from the brink. To give myself permission to rest, or sleep, or be alone. Drenched in metaphysical blood is a child-part of me that would rather send the world down into the crucible of hell than sacrifice its grasp on a connection. Even unto stifling. The same old patterns. You’ve seen this movie before. Say no when you want to say no. Keep your reserves. Do not tax yourself. No love should ever tax you. Love should refill your damn old coffers.

Dara

It’s Complicated

I’ve said it before, but I wish I could set my relationship status on Facebook to say “it’s complicated with myself.”

I feel like I’ve been bullied, belittled and bossed around my entire life, but never more than by my own hand. I feel like I have to do this to survive, to keep putting my Normal mask on every day. Even when life is good, it’s full of self-abuse and depression, disconnection and self-hate. I’m rarely present with myself or others; I make so few true connections, and I do not maintain them. Rather, I hide, because I’m in too much turmoil and pain to be seen for who I really am.

I become more and more aware of my body and my struggles with embodiment — and yet, my body seems in worse shape than ever it was. I keep telling myself there is a corner that I will soon turn, but I am also recognizing the way I cling to that piece of self-hype for dear life.

I feel like I need some kind of cold-water shock to my life, some kind of exposure therapy where I have no choice but to rely on my body, to be immersed in it, to trust it, to listen to it, to run and jump and dance and fly. But that life is just so far away from what I am living now. I want some strong and capable hand to take my hand, to lead me away from the injuries and abuse of my childhood, to lead me towards agency and capability, towards body-confidence and actualization.

More than anything I want to proceed with joy as my onus. Not fear and not pain. So at least there’s that; at least there’s knowing who I am. And knowing what I want.

All I really want is love. I want it to emanate from myself, I want to give it to myself and then radiate it outwards. At least I know what I want.

Dara

Bon Iver

I took myself out to see Bon Iver last night and was quite glad I did. Concerts are a challenging space for the bodily challenged, but the thrill and catharsis of the music is what makes it all worthwhile. I was really able to let myself relax my body and absorb the show, and that was a great relief to me. For the first half hour or so I was wound up very tightly, partly because I had just gotten off a particularly dicey work week, but I decided to let my hair down (metaphorically) and just enjoy the music and move however my body wanted to, and that was the most wonderful gift I could have given myself. The rest of the week had been really bad as far as bodily things went, and it was nice to have this one bright spot to put everything back in perspective. Going into the weekend I’m going to focus on cleaning up my space and getting myself feeling more prepared and oriented for whatever challenges the coming weeks can throw at me.

Dara