Friday, August 10, 2012

Verisimilitude Via Violence

Despite the chit-chat in nerd circles (of which I am most definitely a member), I waited until the second day of release to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” instead of being packed in a can with fellow sardines to catch the anticipated midnight showing. Like many others, I watched as the film took on another light, instantly infamous due to the actions of a violent young man who wanted all the world’s attention, and had no qualms about blood on his hands. To simply experience “the text” upon seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” would have been dishonest -- this film had inspired a very violent reaction from a disturbed mind, taking the lives of twelve innocent moviegoers.

To say the man, who will not be mentioned here, was not influenced by “The Dark Knight Rises,” which he had yet to view, would be inaccurate. Like many of today’s blockbusters, the imagery of the film had been plastered all over television and newspaper ads: Bridges exploding, a bruised and battered Bruce Wayne, missiles and gunfire, and a claw-faced terrorist villain. Furthermore, “The Dark Knight Rises,” as entertaining as it may be in a superficial sense, is part of today’s new Cultural Cinematic Relevance, where sequels, comic book movies and cartoons rule the box office and therefore the popular conversation. Films about adult subjects, films that even attempt to approach unpredictability, have been reduced to a “niche.” Whereas, apparently everyone likes Batman, if the record-breaking grosses are evidence enough. As surprising as “The Dark Knight Rises” can be during it’s extravagantly long runtime, the fans know full well that the toys go back in the box. The illusion of “spoilers” has never been more ridiculous than it is now, when films merely exist to set up sequels, television shows, and comic books -- you don’t have to see “The Dark Knight Rises” to see “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Regardless, it is the ephemera of Batman that does, and will always personally attract me to the character. The idea of a dark avenger with a flawed moral code, the larger-than-life villains, the opportunity for exciting visuals and propulsive, eclectic music (from Nathan Riddle to Danny Elfman to Christopher Drake, Batman inspires the best in certain composers), there’s much that I find enjoyable about Batman, and why I hope they would keep making films about the character. And perhaps it’s that ever-popular fantasy, the idea that you can solve problems by punching them into submission - Christopher Nolan’s movies, for a brief moment, hinted at another approach, but perhaps it was an illusion of sorts.

So of course the tragedy of those events in Aurora weighed upon my mind, but they did not deter my enthusiasm for the close to the “Batman” series. I was most excited by the insinuations from “The Dark Knight,” which in hindsight should have probably ended the series -- that evil is deeply rooted within corruption and incompetence of systems over the course of years, that Batman was poetically trapped in a Moebius strip of violence of his own design, and that Batman would soon have to make the choice between the needs of the many, and his own regretful self-preservation. These very concepts seemed contradictory not only to the many-decade existence of the character, but the notion of serialized storytelling itself. I was hoping Mr. Nolan would not put the toys back in the box.

Instead, a sense of self-loathing washed over me as the final credits rolled, and my thoughts immediately rushed to the shooter in Aurora. And I realized: yes, I get it. I got the pit of despair that he must have found himself inside when his psyche attached himself to the many violent moments of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I don’t believe in the necessity of the MPAA while this world still has, you know, parents, though I couldn’t help but label the images in the film far too intense and hostile for an idle and/or underdeveloped mind, particularly the thirteen-to-sixteen year olds directly targeted by the film’s commercial-friendly PG-13 rating (to say nothing of the adults who haven’t quite evolved past that age bracket). The images captured by Mr. Nolan’s canvass include ruthless, dehabilitating physical violence, the mass destruction of a major metropolitan city (sometimes New York, sometimes Pittsburgh, according to shooting locations), visceral looting and pillaging done by “common citizens” and the ritualistic hanging of cops from a suspended bridge.  As the old saying goes, when it comes to ratings, you can stab a breast, but you can’t grab a breast.

What was lost on me was the greater message, the one that you’re meant to take home, to make you question the world, to challenge you and improve your worldview as a human being. There are grays within Nolan’s Batman universe, no doubt, but it’s contrasted against the overt darkness of the film’s carefully-labeled antagonists. “The Dark Knight Rises” presents a “conclusion” to the series, though the greatest punishment goes to the colorful villains Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, the Joker, Bane and Harvey Two-Face. All had philosophies that seemed to be “challenging” to a certain movie going crowd, though none stood up to scrutiny, as all promoted viewpoints rooted in nihilism and faithlessness. They aren’t enemies, they are Villains, and there’s not a single moment where the similarly tunnel-visioned Batman, ostensibly our eyes and ears in this series, entertains their thoughts.

What was exciting as a suggestion in “Batman Begins” was that the League of Shadows had polluted Gotham’s infrastructure, the suggestion being that lowered expectations and administrative insecurities would be the city’s downfall -- the fallacies of man, not the machinations of popular blockbuster filmmaking. Except here we are in “The Dark Knight Rises,” where aside from our main characters, superheroes and super villains plus cops, no one really has a line, and the fate of these voiceless “innocents” lies in the hand of that ever-popular MacGuffin, the bomb that’s about to explode©. Batman leaves the city limits (escaping from “certain death,” natch) and we’re to assume that, after decades of preparation, the League of Shadows is defeated in a massive scrum in the streets with the Gotham PD, and they never threaten the city again. Thus, Nolan gets the ending he desires, closure for the story of Bruce Wayne, and the public gets what it craves -- the tease of an ongoing story and the flattery that comes with recognizing the source material, as Robin prepares to be the next man to climb into the bat suit.

The questionable intentions of Nolan’s trilogy-closer (as well as the politics, which defenders have called “observational” in lieu of “shapeless”) hit me hardest, however, during the sequences of violence. The opening brawl between Batman and Bane is a recreation of a battle between the two of them in the “Knightfall” storyline, and in both itinerations, Batman is far outclassed, and beat to within an inch of his life. Of course, my major discomfort with this sequence is that I’ve grown up with Batman, I’ve watched the movies and TV shows, and read the comics. I experience zero joy in seeing him dismantled so thoroughly, given a beating that surely would result in brain damage. As Batman’s possibly-unconscious head lies against the ground, eyes closed, Bane delivers two more forceful blows, creating the visual of his metallic mask caving in, not unlike a human skull. Bane then takes Batman over his head and delivers his spinal cord into the musclebound villain’s knee, crippling the hero. Points for fidelity to the source, but at what price?

Later, Bane takes control of the city, setting off a series of bombs that splinter the streets of Gotham and sever all ties with the mainland, turning the city into an island. Using mostly practical effects, “The Dark Knight Rises” uses these sequences to make it look as if Hell is swallowing the city whole, annihilating Gotham’s infrastructure in some of the most realistic explosion effects ever put to film. During the tragedy and loss at the heart of “The Dark Knight,” there remained that propulsive, exciting energy that made you sit up, and wonder how our characters were going to survive. In “Rises,” as Bane declares martial law over a city pulverized by raw force, my stomach sank. I’m not certain if that was the visceral nature of Nolan’s editing and directing this sequence, or it was my discomfort in seeing such evocative, upsetting images. To have been a New Yorker on September 11th is to gaze askew at these sorts of things.

What’s unfortunate, and somewhat sickening, is that at this point, Batman is marginalized, away on another continent. Our eyes and ears to this tragic event are merely the cops, some of who remain unfazed, some who merely take this disaster as an immediate call to action. How are the people reacting to this tragedy? How do the regular citizens of the city act towards the masked killer who just decimated the city, snapped a man’s neck in front of their eyes, and blown up the mayor? The same man who taunts Bruce about how he’ll use “hope” and generate some half-hearted rhetoric to mask his actions as class warfare? This is a crucial point: Bane using crowd-pleasing, anarchist political language to fuel the people, and not once do we see the (expected) response of, “This guy is a terrorist and he’s full of garbage,” or even the, “Let’s side with him, I like this sentiment” point of view?

Nolan, naturally, seems addicted to the adrenaline rush of showing us scenes of absolute desolation, murder, riots and casual violence. But he hides the natural human reaction, and obscures even the most troubling moment: the cops, who have been trapped underground (don’t ask) for five months, emerge and engage in an all-out street brawl with assorted convicts, League Of Shadows operatives, and the random (how many?) rioters and looters. As we move away from the action, we’re meant to assume that, in the middle of this ugly, lawless battle (probably the most significant moment in the entire storyline, if we’re an onlooker from another city), the cops trade in protocol for some broodthirsty punch-ups with goons. And, of course, win. Does Nolan show us the aftermath of this vicious donnybrook? No, but when we return to Gotham, we see the city’s cops have thoughtfully erected a statue dedicated to Batman. Which says everything you need to know about what Nolan thinks of the violence towards the silent people of Gotham.

Weeks later, I caught a screening for another franchise picture, “The Bourne Legacy,” an adequate, unnecessary extension of the “Bourne Identity” universe. With the action serviceable, and the plot less so (and that’s the order they come in, with regards to this), it’s difficult not to view the film as Jason Bourne Dinner Theater. Yet another installment of appealing, nondescript avatar of violence on the run while skilled character actors yell coordinates from a control room, this time in a post-Bush environment. The film, directed by Tony Gilroy, is not without it’s pleasures: you might think Jeremy Renner is a Streisand, but he’s a quietly compelling mixture of Tom Cruise (driven, diminutive) and Charles Bronson (battle-weary, sarcastic), while Rachel Weisz wears a pair of glasses that makes her resemble a young Isabelle Adjani, ignoring the fact that her role in the narrative is to do and say anything requested of her by our brooding lead.

The most affecting sequence in the film, however, barely advances the plot. Weisz’ character is a scientist in charge of ensuring the meds taken by all super-super secret agents are of the right dosage, though she spends her days in labs quietly, professionally arranging medications for a program she does not question. Because of the events of the last film in the series, however, the shadowy organization behind this soldier-enhancement program is attempting to cover up loose ends and eliminate any relationships with outside sources, particularly specific pharmaceutical organizations.

Somehow, this means that there’s some sort of built-in trigger inside a mild-mannered lab coat played by Emmy winner Zeljko Ivanec. Once he gets the main scientists in the same room, he calmly enters. No one notices him, and the propulsive score drops out, as he begins to walk to each corner of the room, shutting all doors and carefully removing the handles. Not a single person in the lab realizes something’s amiss, but as soon as the doors are shut, Ivanec’s character removes a gun from his pockets and begins to coldly execute each person in the room, one by one. The soundtrack of the sequence are screams of agony, thick gunshots, and shoes banging against the floor in futile attempts to stay alive.

The scene lasts a good five minutes, and it’s a testament to Gilroy’s skill that it’s an upsetting, exceptionally tense moment in the picture. But “skill” cannot be the bottom line of a scene that serves little purpose to the narrative other than to shock and disturb the audience, simply to establish that Rachel Weisz has now become a target. In a bubble, this moment is excessively unpleasant, ending with Ivanec’s own suicide as entering policemen watch, and keeping the viewer on their toes for the next hour. But it is not in a bubble, and an already-disturbing moment is accentuated by the realization that the shooter from Aurora probably engaged in the same passionless murder, the same silent resolve, the same caustic, laidback eliminating of people as “assets.” Of course there’s nothing in the film proper to give the scene an added context, save for the idea of the rogue corporations at play twisting the facts of the event for media consumption. In other words, following up the vicious executions with nihilism.

Maybe it’s the advancement of new technologies, or the twenty four hour news cycle. I don’t know. Maybe this, maybe that, who cares? I’m never going to stop going to the movies proper -- in fact, I probably have significantly more bloodlust than the average audience-goer, particularly with my own personal collection of horror and action films. Right now, however, it feels like filmmakers such as Chris Nolan and Tony Gilroy are trying to recreate the reality of violence in their films in ways previous filmmakers had not, and the only element to gain from that is their hopes that the audience finds it familiar. Unfortunately, it is familiar, and I wish it were not. 


  1. This is much more aggrandising speech than you normally use (and no, I don't mean that in a good way). Perhaps you thought it was necessary when tackling such a high profile feature that has been so prominent in the news, but you're on the verge of sounding like Armond White here (in style I mean, since naturally you don't share his obnoxious Nolan-incites-violence rhetoric regarding this film).

    You seem to tone it down for your Bourne Legacy feature. Still I'm not sure what "unnecessary" is supposed to mean here. Terminator 2 was "unnecessary" right up to the point where it turned out to be really good. If Bourne Legacy had been a really good film it would not have been "unnecessary". The idea of tying the main character in with story elements from the previous movies seemed like a good idea, not least since Jason Bourne never seemed to get much more than a glimpse behind the curtain in regards to what was his old agency was really up to.

    "you might think Jeremy Renner is a Streisand"
    - I might WHAT??? I don't even know how to take that. Jeremy Renner - Barbara Streisand. You say you EXPECTED me to make some connection between these two???

  2. The Bourne Legacy is unnecessary because it's a further extension of a story that has now ended. Legacy brings nothing new to the table, it doesn't make us want to learn more, it doesn't even necessarily re-evaluate our view on the earlier films. It's a placeholder.

    The Streisand reference is a joke, originally made by Paul Rudd in The 40 Year Old Virgin while watching The Bourne Identity.

  3. This is exactly what I've been waiting to hear about Dark Knight Rises - the confusion in regards to the masses. We are to take it on faith that people cow in the sight of the fall of social structure? I experienced a devastating natural disaster that led the down at heel to rape, loot and destroy whatever they could touch. I live in a city where the evidence of the destruction is still present - abandoned homes, spray painted with giant crosses that say "Gas Off - Dead Inside." I lived in a Martial Law state, so I can relate to the speed of destruction. When people think no one will find them, because everyone's gone; they do what they will. They become animals. But even through all of that, people still fought back. People still stood guard with shotguns to shoot looters on sight. But I guess that's what makes movies "make believe." To instill in the audience a sense of helplessness, take away their sense of logic all the while invoking memories of death and destruction they experienced in their own reality... to blur the lines.

    And yeah - a Striesand is a great way to describe him. Overrated, underrated fabulous and jittery. You should coin the phrase.