Showing posts with label Pop Culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pop Culture. Show all posts

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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

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Traction Recommends

In lieu of a full post, I'm just going to offer up a few things I've enjoyed in the last week:

"The Curious Case of Curt Flood," now showing on HBO. Curt Flood, the Cardinals' center fielder during their 1960s dominance, has often been demonized for challenging baseball's reserve clause, a feature of all major league contracts that forbade free agency. Flood paid dearly for this decision, and this documentary is an affecting look at how one man essentially sacrificed his well-being for a principle. As Gerald Early says in the film, others tried to challenge the reserve clause before Flood, but only Flood made it a moral issue.

"Connection," by the Rolling Stones. From their overlooked album Between the Buttons, "Connection" is a deeply catchy song about a landslide of troubles. We all know the feeling, but rarely does it make us want to tap our toes like this.

James Wood, "Madness and Civilization," in the July 4th New Yorker. I tend to disagree with Wood's broad focus on aesthetics, but I'm continually awed by his close readings. This essay, about the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, is criticism at its best. It doesn't matter if you've read Krasznahorkai's works (and who among us has?) or not; Wood's thorough reading is a deeply felt exploration of one of Krasznahorkai's epigraphs: "Heaven is sad."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

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Not for Kids

Those who know me well can be forgiven for assuming that my aversion to Pixar films is a function of snobbishness, borne from the same reservoir of status-mongering that ensured I heard my first Lady GaGa song more than a year after she'd been shocking and annoying and exciting audiences everywhere. But this is not the case.

Catching up on my New Yorker reading recently, I encountered Anthony Lane's article about the company, in which he nicely gets to the crux of why in the last three or four years I've serially declined to see Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Cars, or Toy Story 3, despite resounding endorsements from people whose taste I respect:

"To put the matter baldly: as a frightening proportion of supposedly grownup movies have reverted to the childish, so a disarming proportion of supposedly child-friendly movies have found friends in an adult audience," Lane wrote.

Or, as a friend of mine put it after I'd cried my way through Up (it was another friend's birthday and I was loath to refuse): "Wow, Pixar, taking a hard look at the human condition."

In its first ten minutes, that film dealt with sterility, the death of a spouse, and profound disillusionment, among other heavy themes, and I hated it for doing so. Pixar films, to me, are tragedies hiding in a Trojan Horse of childish wonder. Yes, they have happy endings, but they allow the disappointments of adult life to seep into childhood in a way I find painfully jarring. The reviews of Up, for instance, gave me absolutely no warning of the buzzsaw that would be taken to my heart as the theater's hush was lanced by the plaintive whine of a girl saying,"Mommy, where is the baby?"during the scene where a distraught woman receives the news of her inability to have children.

I'm prepared for some hard truths when I sit down to watch a film from Wes Anderson or Terence Malick or Martin Scorsese, but not when I'm settling in to watch Tom Hanks lend his voice to an animated (in more than one sense) toy cowboy. To critics and parents, this seems to be the pleasant surprise of Pixar films: they don't just throw little comic bones to adults, but actively court their attention and consideration. But childhood seems most valuable for its innocence; we cherish it as a time apart from the compromises and responsibilities of adulthood. To be sure, the cocoon is not total. Children often have an inarticulate awareness of small sadnesses and defeats, and capturing the world through the strange lens of childhood has its place in art. But what troubles me about Pixar is that it only intermittently takes the child's point of view, tending to favor fundamentally adult approaches to its subject matter, the cinematic equivalent of choosing The Catcher in the Rye as a bedtime story.

The more profound components of Pixar films tend to go over the heads of younger viewers, yes, but, as Pixar films like to point out, kids are smarter than we give them credit for being. Consider the girl who asked her mother where the baby was: what do you think they talked about after the film?

Friday, November 19, 2010

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Coming Together, Before the Break

We recently watched A Hard Day's Night for my creative writing class, and I was really taken by its smart and sweet take on being young, the aspect I tried to pursue in the following critique. 

Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) is a period piece in the best sense: it is a product, not a prisoner, of its time. It endures not because it has aged well, but because it has hardly aged at all. The film had an immediate commercial purpose that it fulfilled and subverted at the same time. It showcased the Beatles' music, yes, but it also gave them their first chance to define themselves at a time when the cultural powers that be had written off the group as a degenerate fad to be sold and discarded. Lester's respectful and smart treatment suggests that he knew what he had on his hands, and out of the film's local context sprang a tale of youth's endless struggle with age.

The struggle here takes the form of the Beatles' gestures towards independence as their embattled manager herds them towards London for a television appearance. They play hooky, speak irreverently, and make eyes at girls—anything to have a bit of fun in the midst of their confining fame.

And the antics never go beyond fun; the rebellion is fundamentally innocent. Their subversion doesn't yet have the apocalyptic feel of the culture wars. When the group runs out of rehearsal, it's to romp in a field, not to drop acid. This is insolence in the mold of adolescent acting out, a bid for freedom based on the naive hope that it will bring an end to responsibility. The audience knows the Beatles will make it to their gig, and the band members themselves never seriously consider skipping out on their fame. As their manager tells the imperious and ridiculously-sweatered studio director, "Don't worry, they're good lads, they'll be back."

Rather than nihilistic stonewalling, the Beatles content themselves with satiric subversion. In the film's smartest scene, the group is fed to a pack of hungry reporters. Lester intends the metaphor literally, alternating shots of the Fab Four answering questions with grotesque close-ups of reporters' mouths chewing the hors d'oeuvres repeatedly denied the Beatles. Their witty answers defy stereotypes, even as they work within them; they refute all labels by pretending to embrace them. When asked about his hobbies, John scrawls something in a notebook and shows it to a female reporter, whose eyes widen in horror. It's obvious to the audience that John isn't a threat to the village maidens, but the reporters just don't get it, no matter how plain the Beatles make it for them (Reporter: "What do you call that collar?" Ringo: "A collar"). A Hard Day's Night is an establishment project that went straight over the establishment's head, a wink behind the adults' backs to the youths that were making the Beatles a phenomenon.

However, it's a wink that leaves room for love. The satire is sharp but never mean, for it's often turned against the Beatles themselves (Ringo's ostensible marginalization within the group is a running gag). The film is an appeal not only to the young in years but also to the young in spirit. Paul's grandfather, affectingly played by Wilfrid Brambell, is an unlikely accomplice to the group's escapades. This sharp but generous satire is the film's genius, but also the source of the poignancy that 46 years have lent the film: within a year, the burgeoning youth movement would begin to rumble with violence and bitterness. A Hard Day's Night captures the last stop for amity. Soon, the Beatles would be into beards and drugs and songs like "A Day in the Life" and "Helter Skelter;" not so long after that, John would be dead. But Lester gives us 90 minutes within which the Beatles are forever young, and for 90 minutes, we're young with them.