Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

This is a review I sent to an online publication for consideration. I have yet to hear back and they have since posted what I believe to be their Piece on the subject, so I feel there is no harm in posting this (if, by chance, they post it, then I will take this down). The style is a bit different from what I post here as I attempted to conform to their house style.

This was written hours after a midnight screening and thus represents my immediate reactions. Upon further contemplation I realize I say much of the same things as other dissenters, such as the point that Ann Hathaway was almost a saving grace (although most complain she wasn't 'sexy enough'), the comparison to the crassness of Michael Bay, and that at least The Dark Knight had Heath Ledger.

It does not carefully consider the politics of the film (again: house style), which may be cause for another post down the line.



(Christopher Nolan / 2012)

In the latest Bat-film, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan concentrates his love affair with 80s urban thrillers: the helicopter skylines, the poverty-porn formalism, the smothering ominous tones, and the schizoid nightmare fantasies of xenophobic militiamen. It’s a tad presumptuous to claim that Nolan is actively fooling his audience with his pseudo Dick Wolf naturalism, but his brutalist architectural approach to drama feeds a ready-made audience apparently starving for self-aggrandizing seriousness—for Grown-Up versions of boyhood favorites; in video game terms, what amounts to the Mortal Kombat-ification of American pop culture*.

Whereas The Dark Knight had a handful of worthwhile features—the weakest performance of Ledger’s career and a superbly executed opener (although it should’ve been aped shamelessly from Zulawski’s L’amour braque)—Rises has none of the isolated pleasures that floundered in the previous films. While it’s only ten more minutes than Dark Knight, it manages to feel hours longer, exacerbated by the high dosage of pomposity that transforms the excitement of silent serial tropes and Lewis Carroll allusions into tasteless political sludge.

Ann Hathaway offers a fleeting moment of respite, disregarding her desperate performance and throwaway character, by reminding us that the lineage of the Bat-films is worthy of excavation, echoing Fulliade, Lang, Franju, and Melville—even Tim Burton—who understood that their worlds were phantasms and fabrications. Nolan’s Bat-verse, which is as plastic as Burton’s, suffers from its inability to acknowledge this humble fact. The insular set pieces of Batman’s ancestors implied vast, expansive universes, a talent that Nolan desperately lacks: his cities are devoid of culture—everything is a neo-classical bank or an anonymous corporate building, populated by grimacing white people and newspaper tumbleweeds.

The Dark Knight Rises is high Kitsch and damn near hilariously so. What makes Nolan a standout is his longer than average shot length, which to the imdb-generation means he’s patient, ergo more mature. He’s also better at conjuring a dense topical fog than say, Michael Bay.  His procedural formality has become the bedrock of the contemporary prestige piece, but whereas a director like David Fincher interrogates the anxiety of mystery and blows open the cracks in tightly knit yarns, Nolan’s modus operandi is to make every detail, every word, every cutaway refer to an eventual deus ex machina, effectively obliterating all sense of wonder that makes classic thrillers soar. This deadening process allows Nolan to pull his great switcheroo at the end—someone you thought was good is actually pure evil—and to catch you up to speed Nolan provides rapid fire exposition that doesn’t build upon the previous two-and-half hours of film, but rather rewrites it on the fly.

Yet Nolan’s celebrated aesthetic has paved the way for the ceremonial induction of previously derided genres into the role of official art and in turn has made maverick works such as Nevaldine and Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance certifiably avant-garde by comparison. You better bet your ass that this will win Oscars. And if it doesn’t, then prepare yourself for an angry mob more dangerous than the criminalized pseudo-Occupy ‘revolutionaries’ of the film itself.

* This is an abbreviation of a cultural analysis that I tried to articulate to a friend. Here is a more detailed description of what was meant by this: in the early 1990s as video games became much more common place (during the Super NES v. Sega Genesis days) there were two competing and iconic fighting games: Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. The former focused on style and a fluidity of movement and the intuitive immersion of the player. It embraced a hyper-stylized form and had a signature feel that has continued throughout the franchise's evolution. According to most 'gamers' I know, this is the preferred game for its quality and its timelessness (if there is such a thing in video games). Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, emphasized a sense of 'realism' that was tied to the specific moment in technology (it dates terribly) and has no discernible style other than an attempt to be as real and edgy looking as the current moment allows. Typically these games are clunky, ridden with glitches, and focused on 'adult' content such as gore, exaggerated female sexuality, and a gritty darkness. It seems arguable that there is a general trend in American pop culture that yearns for a type of seriousness to be added to fantastical properties typically associated with low culture (comic books, video games, certain genre cinema) and that this seriousness is often a rather adolescent obsession with the obscene realities that are censored in children's fare, namely drugs, sex, cursing, and violence. The desire to reintroduce these elements back into certain fictions has caused an overload or overemphasis on these things. This is coupled with a brutal, nihilistic view of existence as dirty and dark and filled with crime. I believe this particular desire has flourished in an age where art and style are not taught well (or at all) and thus a disconnect with the functions of art and the audiences they are intended for have widened, creating a dominant audience (that transcends class distinctions) that is ever more resentful of self-conscious or obvious stylization and demands a more 'realistic' and methodical formalism that is somehow not understood as being a style, even though it is (in my mind this is not unlike the disconnect Chris Hedges describes between the popular hatred of 'politics' and government and a worship of a military culture that is somehow not thought of as a branch of said government). Consider the 'darker' reboot of Spider-Man alongside the reboots of James Bond and Batman, or this curio that is frequently presented to me as a legitimate trailer for a new, more serious, Mortal Kombat film (notice how every fantastical element has to be accounted for and explained through some 'twisted' Law & Order psychopathology. The idea always seems to be to fix what was ruined by 'hacks' like Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, or Paul W.S. Anderson. Consider Edward Norton's professed need to undo the perceived silliness of Ang Lee's Hulk.


Two excellent pieces on this subject: Michael Sicinski's at CinemaScope and a roundtable conversation at Mubi's Notebook.

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