Monday, August 27, 2012

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The Giant Leap

If you read this blog with any semblance of regularity, then you know that as a kid, I was fascinated by the American space program of the 1960s. My favorite astronaut was Alan Shepard, America's first man in space. Shepard epitomized fighter-jock cool; he was laconic, smirky, and unhysterical. He bore a resemblance to my uncle. And though he walked on the Moon as commander of Apollo 14, he's more closely identified with Project Mercury, whose members wore the impossibly sexy aluminum-foil pressure suits that still constitute the most imaginative thing NASA has ever done, transforming the space dreams of millions of kids into a waking reality.

Odd as it may be to say, the moon landings were of secondary fascination to me. With the exception of Apollos 11 and 13, the literature on the Apollo program tends to be wonkish and detailed, long explanations of rock samples and moon dust, incommensurate to the wonder of what had actually been accomplished (Norman Mailer's Of a Fire On the Moon, which tried to correct Apollo's hyper-scientific bent, is nigh unreadable). It's an untrue distinction, but the Apollo astronauts always struck me as engineers who happened into the greatest aerospace adventure of our time; the Mercury pilots were the G.I. Joes who, having survived sorties over Korea, having pushed the limits of sub-atmospheric flight, went the only direction they could: up, beyond the exosphere.

The exception to this fascination was Neil Armstrong. Bland, toothy, a vaguely porcine quality to his nose, Armstrong was the epitome of the Apollo engineer. Though he was a Korea vet, an elite test pilot, and the commander of Gemini 8, one of the most perilous missions of the space program, Armstrong never projected much evidence of the Right Stuff to the public. Never projected much of anything, for that matter. He was reserved, content to let his feats speak for themselves. If he had flown on Apollo 12 or 15, I wouldn't care much about Neil Armstrong. But he was the first, and that counts for everything.

And now he's gone. The world feels a bit more vulnerable today to the winds of fate and chance, as it's apt to when a hero passes. The effect is heightened in the case of Armstrong's death, because he took the first steps into a realm beyond our earthly corner, ventured the tiniest distance into the void. Aside from his immortal first words from the lunar surface, Armstrong's reports from the moon were clinical and workaday. (Moon dust, he said, "does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.") The real poetry lay in the grainy television images of the heavily suited Armstrong, 38 years old, slowly making his way down the ladder, carrying our wonder with him. Now he's gone before us again. This time, Armstrong won't be able to return from his journey and report on the things he's seen. But the wonder remains. No matter how mired we become in the trials of this world, Armstrong forever tuned some part of our consciousness to the stars and enlarged our lives by the smallest of margins, which is no small step at all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

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The Dark Knight Depresses

Late in The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s gloomy Batman trilogy, our hero (played for the third time by Christian Bale) finally makes some headway against his overmuscled nemesis, Bane (Tom Hardy), who has hitherto been kicking Bruce Wayne’s caped rump from one end of Gotham to the other. The change in momentum feels long overdue, for Bane’s Achilles’ heel happens to be located on his face, where any preteen fan could have directed Batman to strike: Bane breathes analgesics through a mask in order to suppress the pain caused by decades-old injuries (or so Google tells me; the film leaves the mask’s purpose vague). I wish Batman had seized upon this obvious weakness much earlier, thereby saving everyone the ordeal of Nolan’s portentousness. But the director is determined to tell his story, such as it is, subjecting the audience to two excruciating and confusing hours before a few well-placed punches bring Bane to his knees. Batman doesn’t hesitate to press his advantage, pummeling Bane while roaring, “WHERE IS IT? WHERE IS IT?” It’s tempting to think that Batman is inquiring after the whereabouts of the pleasure one might reasonably expect from a comic book film, but he’s actually trying to find the detonator to the nuclear bomb that threatens Gotham.

It was at this moment, as Batman tries to bludgeon an answer out of Bane, that I laughed for the first time during the film. Christian Bale’s bloated performance of rage aside, there’s nothing comic about the scene, but it’s rendered absurd in light of what precedes it. Bane has by now so thoroughly ravaged Gotham that a nuclear event wouldn’t make much difference in the city’s landscape; the film so zealously portrays destruction that it’s nigh impossible to believe that it suddenly cares about salvation, and what should be a climactic confrontation between hero and villain instead becomes an exercise in bathos.
To laugh was a great relief, because it meant that after two harrowing hours, The Dark Knight Rises no longer had any power over me. Viewing the film the day after the awful shooting at a screening in Colorado, I found myself casting an uneasy eye towards anyone entering the theater as explosions unfolded onscreen at crushing decibel levels. The plot’s endless supply of hostage situations flogged my nerves. I shifted uneasily in my seat when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) follows her shooting of Bane with a dig at Batman’s no-gun policy, a quip that received one of the loudest laughs of the night.

The topicality that the Colorado shooting foisted upon The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the film’s fault, but the bids for relevance that the film actually intends are only slightly less troubling. The saga’s previous episode, 2008’s The Dark Knight, used Chicago as Gotham, and while that city’s gritty mythos permeated the film, it functioned largely as a Generic American Metropolis. That barrier collapses in The Dark Knight Rises, which, while filmed in several cities, clearly means for its Gotham to be recognized as New York. The Empire State and Chrysler glitter in the skyline; we watch from the air as the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg bridges detonate sequentially; Bane shoots up the Stock Exchange; familiar storefronts (Saks Fifth Avenue, Jos. A. Bank), are readily seen. Even a scene filmed at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field does little to erase the fingerprints of our world: the Pittsburgh Steelers have become the Gotham Rogues (several Steelers make cameos), and billboards for Bud Light, Under Armour, and Doritos remain uncovered. The point is clear: Nolan wants us to imagine that the world engulfed in violence on the screen before us is the one we actually inhabit.

But to what end is all this resonance? Nolan’s trilogy has been celebrated for meditating upon post-9/11 America, but this is nonsense: The Dark Knight Rises is a trenchant political commentary in the same way that The Matrix is an eloquent religious allegory, which is to say it isn’t at all. Writing about The Dark Knight in 2008, Jonathan Lethem said that he “couldn’t shake the sense that a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real ‘takeaway,’ chaotic form its ultimate content.” Lethem’s words were true when applied to The Dark Knight, but one wishes he’d stayed his pen for four years, because his qualms are even more incisive when applied to The Dark Knight Rises. Its evocation of contemporary issues is not provocative and ambivalent but cursory and incoherent. The film introduces Bane in the context of a rendition mission that devolves into a confusing set piece; it holds up Commissioner Gordon as a virtuous spokesman for civil institutions, only to portray those same institutions as corrupted to the point of obsolescence; it broaches the election-year issue of economic inequality by alluding to the excesses of the French Revolution, hardly a helpful comparison.

Nolan wants his audience to think he has something to say about the state of the nation. There’s no other explanation for the angel-voiced boy that sings the national anthem in its poignant entirety before Bane blows up the football field. An attempt to get the audience to think about the things we hold dear strains to rise from the muck of cogitation, but this is very hard to do in the absence of detailed portraits of human beings who aren’t terrorists or moody superheroes. We only glimpse everymen in large, stereotyped groups: The Rich (wearing fur coats and pearls), The Poor (grubby flannel and denim), and, of course, The Middle Class (scared, holding children tightly). This vacuum of humanity leaves us to consider virtues like justice and equality in the abstract, which is especially frustrating given Nolan’s visual insistence that he is commenting on America in 2012. Nolan tries to compensate by dangling emotional bait in front of his audience—the bus of orphans stranded in Gotham as the A-bomb’s detonation looms, for instance—but these scenes are so brief and blatant that caring never seems like much of an option.

What we’re left with is an extended imagination of our own destruction. America may be facing decline; it may not be. Either way, Nolan, in taking our contemporary problems to their furthest illogical extensions, makes the case that our national situation is graver than it seems. In his incoherence, he offers no solutions; in his fetishizing of ruin, he gives the impression of thrilling to apocalypse. Even Batman, after saving the day (was there any doubt?), leaves the U.S. for a sunny European locale, and after three films’ worth of crepuscular wastage, I can’t say I blame him. What’s important, then, isn’t what The Dark Knight Rises has to say about Our Times, because it doesn’t have anything to say. That’s why I laughed as Batman worked so furiously to save a crudely realized and thoroughly broken city: the realization that the superhero has no cape, that all this violence imbued with such thematic seriousness in fact has no theme. There’s only the imagined devastation and our response to it. In my theater, and certainly in theatres across the country, the response was applause. The Dark Knight Rises has nothing to teach us, but we, as always, have much to learn.