Dark-ness

SPOILER WARNING! Don’t read the second part of this post if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight yet! It will spoil things for you.

I base this post on two recent thoughts or notes:

  1. Being out of the pop culture loop has almost no down side.
  2. I wonder how dark is too dark.

1. Pop Culture Stinks

Sitting in the theater before and during the previews ahead of “The Dark Knight” today reminded me of why I don’t miss having a television. I think I remember seeing just one preview for something that looked at least interesting, though only potentially so. Everything else seemed like a waste of time. The trend amongst the films coming out these days seems to be acting more “European”, if you’ll permit a rash generalization. By “European” I mean covering topics and using a viewpoint that previously I had only really seen in material for some foreign films. I suppose the domestic “independent” film scene also has some of those qualities, so perhaps it’s just a mainstreaming of that. But it just seems really negative, and simultaneously celebrates and trivializes some of the worst aspects of our society.

One concrete example: I remember a preview for a movie that I think was called “The Women” which made it seem like somebody’s husband having an affair was just some juicy piece of gossip, most significant not for being and symbolizing the death of trust in a marriage, but rather significant because it can be talked about amongst “the women.” The implications are really lame: a) adultery’s no big deal, everyone does it (I even thought that their reference to “the other woman” in the preview seemed reminiscent of Latin American usage of the term la otra—and if relations between men and women in this country become more like those in countries twisted by el machismo then we have stepped backward indeed.) and b) all women worth paying attention to have nothing better to do than gossip with each other and treat the lives of their fellow suburbanites as mere spectacle: entertainment, nothing more. Oh wait, I think I’ve seen that idea somewhere before….

So, popular culture is dumb. Next on the agenda…

2. The Dark Knight’s Darkness

I liked Batman Begins better than The Dark Knight. Of course, part of that is to be expected, for, as the Alfred observes in the film itself, things are darkest right before the dawn, and The Dark Knight is mighty dark indeed.

It is probably no accident that this film, like many others in recent years, has a lot to say about the West’s confrontation with terrorism. It’s a movie about fighting evil without becoming evil. In a blatant reference to the Bush administration’s domestic, warrantless wiretapping, Lucius expresses serious reservations at using hijacked cellphone networks to spy on essentially all of Gotham city. The Joker, because he isn’t motivated by what’s expected to motivate him (money) but rather by a macabre sense of art or fun, is in a way himself an embodiment of Islamic terrorism, which is a set of people not motivated by the usual forces of capitalist-globalization, but who are rather driven by something dark and twisted (extremist Islam) that we have difficulty understanding. The Joker even approximated jihadism by using human beings as a delivery vehicle for explosives. Could it have been intended metaphor that the bombs’ positions were inside rather than outside the bombers’ bodies?

I was fascinated by the parts dealing with the idea of the “noble lie.” (Other not so noble deceptions included dressing hostages as goons and impersonating police as a means of assassination.) Alfred burns Rachel’s letter telling Bruce that she’s going to marry Harvey; Jim Gordon fakes his death in an attempt to protect his family; Harvey turns himself in as “the bat man”; Batman takes the blame for Harvey. This last deception emphasizes the importance of an ideal or a symbol of good to motivate coherent efforts against evil, whereas if would-be do-gooders become overly convinced the wickedness of their fellow-citizens, they may resign themselves to being engulfed by the evil around them. The film also emphasizes, on the other side of the coin (pun intended?), the immeasurable damage that can be caused by the corruption of a leader in a fight against evil.

As for darkness—or should that be dark-ness? not the lack of light, but a persistent dark mood—the Joker, and Batman, and Gotham, and practically everything in the movie is dark, almost to the point of being black. The Joker’s personality is believable enough to be disturbing, with stories of an evil alcoholic father carving a smiley face in scars into his son. I find much of this upsetting because it points in the direction of true, rather than cinematic, evil. Has the Joker ever actually hurt anybody? No. But have people been abused in vicious ways that could almost be described as creatively cruel? Yes. There are people who are twisted to the point of applying their creative energies to seeking ways to cause suffering; this, at least as much as if not more than terrorism, is an evil that must fought with vigor.

The gruesome disfiguration of Harvey Dent reminded me of that of Anakin Skywalker—both physically and also morally/thematically. I can certainly accept such events as part of a story (Johnny Tremain, anyone?), but I have a hard time seeing those things portrayed on the screen. I guess I’m just sensitive to maimings and disfigurations! Anyway, those things generally reduce my desire to see the film again.

Overall, The Dark Knight was more violent than it needed to be, and it was more unhappy than it needed to be; but in a way that gives me a great appreciation for a film that’s willing to confront the fact that the world is violent and unhappy in many ways. The murderous escapades of psychotic serial killers and the strategies of mysterious extralegal vigilantes might not be part of my everyday life experience… but the need to overcome fear, to do right in opposition to wrong, and to be vigilant against corruption of the self while fighting against external evil most definitely are. The Vigilant Vigilante: fighting evil without, and within!

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