The Big Murk: A Conversation About Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises"
by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Adam Cook, Mike Archibald and Josh Timmerman
The Dark Knight Rises: a big pop-cultural event, the epicenter of a tragedy that has (unfortunately, inadvertently) become 24-hour news cycle fodder, an illustration of what is (and isn't) meant by the word "ambitious" in today's Hollywood, a much-anticipated sequel to a film that's popularly seen as the superhero-flick-to-end-all-superhero-flicks, a major talking point in the ongoing discussion of what film criticism means to audiences at large. It's easy to forget that it is, first and foremost, a movie. And as a movie, it happens to be a mess—long, loud, and full of seemingly contradictory ideas and plot threads.
In the following exchange, Adam Cook, Mike Archibald, Josh Timmermann, and I try to make sense of the film, its politics, and its director.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: Positives first. I liked the first half of the film the most. It has all of these different threads of intrigue going on: Jim Gordon hunting criminals down drainage pipes, Bane putting together his master plan, Bruce Wayne living as a doomed-romantic recluse in his mansion, Selina Kyle's burglaries, corporate skulduggery. I like the crazy-quilt way in which Nolan uses IMAX, switching aspect ratios shot to shot. I like the Revolutionary Tribunal-style courtroom scenes with Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow presiding as judge, even though the narrative context within which they appear leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I like the image—almost Monty Python material—of policemen living in sewers, huddling together, keeping their uniforms clean for the day when they can step out into the daylight again and arrest people. In other words, I like the silliest, cartooniest, most out-there things about the film. I like the detailing. The grand design is a totally different matter.
The three most common complaints about Christopher Nolan's movies that you're likely to hear are: (1) they have a shoddy grasp of space and time, despite always being centered around chronologies and intercut action; (2) they use political issues and reference-points and take contradictory stances on them (this point applies only to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises); and (3) most of them use personal traumas (more often than not, Nolan's "dead wife" motif, which appears twice in The Dark Knight Rises) and public tragedies as plot points, but have no sense of the emotional. I think Nolan's best movies are the ones that turn points 1 & 3 into strengths; to me, the appeal of The Prestige, my personal favorite of his films, rests in its which-story-within-a-story-is-being-told? spatial slipperiness and its coldness. In The Dark Knight Rises, however, all three of these points are liabilities.
Since it's specific to Nolan's Batman films, I'd like to start with point 2: the politics. I know that for some people, the ending of The Dark Knight was a big problem; it appears to celebrate surveillance and the necessity of lying to the general public for their good (through the Joker / Batman / Harvey Dent narrative thread) while at the same time preaching about the general goodness of people and the ability of a group to make the right decision (the "two boats, two detonators" dilemma).
The Dark Knight Rises is even more self-contradictory. The images of this film are constantly cancelling each other out. There is Bane's attack on the stock exchange, while plays out as an Occupy-era revenge fantasy—and yet, of course, Bane is the bad guy. Group solidarity is celebrated (the marching policemen, for example) and many jabs are taken at wealth and business, yet the hero is a lone billionaire. Batman operates outside the law, yet law enforcement is fetishized. Scarecrow's revolutionary court is presented as a sort of nightmare—yet it rightly convicts a slimy villain. You have the suggestion (which I actually think is a smart move on Nolan's part) that The Dark Knight's "print the legend" ending was a bad idea—and yet when the Joseph Gordon Levitt character essentially repeats the same "lie to give them hope" move late in the film (to a busload of orphans, no less!), it's presented as the right thing to do. Every image seems charged for maximum political impact—with references to the images and words of the French Revolution, fascist Italy, the Bush administration, the War on Terror, the Occupy movement—but there is nothing like a coherent ideology. Nolan strikes me as either apathetic—using whatever ideology fits for any given scene—or politically schizophrenic.
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