Monday, July 21, 2008

On Violence and Restraint in The Dark Knight


I don't want to take exception too stringently with Keith Uhlich's angry, opinionated takedown of The Dark Knight from The House Next Door, one of my favorite daily blogosphere stops. He's entitled to his opinion, and some of the fanboy brush-offs of his review have been hilarious in their stupidity and short-sightedness. I disagree pretty intensely with most of his feelings about the film, but much of what Uhlich says is hard to argue with because it's so subjective and personal, intimately connected with his own visceral responses to the film. Do Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine spout "gloomy old man platitudes?" Does the film's dialogue possess the "solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit?" Is director Christopher Nolan "a high-minded con artist — the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite?" Is the film a case of "shallow artistry" at work? I didn't think so, but any defense of such vague, rhetorical argumentation would basically have to boil down to a game of "yes it is"/"no it isn't," so I'll leave the review's more high-flown language alone, for the most part.

I also don't think that The Dark Knight is a perfect film, and I don't want to quell debate over the film's merits. The fanboys flooding the comment threads of every negative review with variations on "you suck" do nothing for film criticism in general or the discourse about this particular film. Quite to the contrary, I think Nolan's film is complex and ambiguous, susceptible to multiple readings that include the negative ones, and I find it a worthy subject for further discussion. I hope there will be more negative reviews like Uhlich's, provided they stimulate more intelligent conversation. Consider this my own humble contribution to that discourse. I want to take exception, primarily, with one aspect of Uhlich's argument that I think is particularly off-base and deserving of greater scrutiny than the knee-jerk name-calling that flooded into the original review's comments thread. The relevant passage is quoted here:

For a movie purported to be so, well, "dark," The Dark Knight spends a more-than-noticeable amount of time turning its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates. There's an early scene where The Joker holds a mob boss at knifepoint, telling a made-up backstory as to how he got his facial scars. The buildup is suitably intense, but Nolan whiffs the follow-through by having The Joker's mouth-slitting finale occur offscreen. It's the pencil gag all over again, only rendered ineffectual, monotonous, the "now you see it, now you don't" philosophy injected ruinously into the film's aesthetic fabric."

There something, let's say, interesting about a critical perspective that simultaneously lambastes a film for being "sadistic" while also criticizing the filmmaker for not showing more onscreen violence. This contradictory criticism aligns Uhlich, ironically, with that peculiar breed of fanboys disappointed in the film's PG-13 rating, thirsting for Saw-level blood-splatter and gore. The film itself has little patience for such base urges, and the violence in the film is depicted with an economy and tact that communicates the horror of the Joker's actions while never satisfying the desire to ogle his atrocities firsthand. This isn't flinching away from horror, it's tastefulness, a quality that has long been absent from mainstream filmmaking, and a quality that Uhlich doesn't seem to miss. Conditioned on one bloody violence-porn fantasy after another, have we really come to a point where we feel compelled to criticize the rare film that depicts violence without splattering the screen with it?

In point of fact, the film never "turn[s] its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates" in any real sense. Nolan's quick cuts away from the Joker's bloody actions do nothing to dull the impact of those actions, which are brutally felt in the imagination and the intellect. In the scene mentioned in the above quote, Nolan builds up the tension to an almost unbearable point, emphasizing the feel of the knife blade in the corner of the mobster's mouth, holding this moment for an uncomfortably long amount of time, cutting away only when the Joker finally does the inevitable with a flick of his wrist. Are our imaginations so limited that we need to actually see the act in order to feel it? Judging by the reactions in the packed theater when I saw it, the moans of horror and sympathetic pain, I think Uhlich underestimates modern audiences. In fact, it may be that an old chestnut that some may have thought was outdated — that seeing an act of violence is never as horrifying as imagining it — still has some life in it after all. There was a time when filmmakers were praised for such restraint, for doing as much with what's not shown as with what is. In another negative review of the film from Salon, Stephanie Zacharek makes some fairly misguided comparisons between Nolan and Alfred Hitchcock, but at least she appreciates the film's tact in its treatment of violence, even while failing to understand that this is one of the few areas in which her comparison holds true.

The film's treatment of violence is given further complexity by the way that Nolan handles DA Harvey Dent's transformation into the divided Two Face. For a film that supposedly flinches away from violence, The Dark Knight addresses Two Face in a startlingly head-on manner. Dent's appearance in the second half of the film is profound evidence of the impact of violence on an individual human life. Dent's plight, given real emotional heft by both the screenplay and Aaron Eckhart's sensitive performance, is externalized in the violence done to his face, and here Nolan confronts the horror with raw physicality. This is not the cartoonish, outlandish Two Face of the original comics or, Heaven forbid, Tommy Lee Jones. The right side of Dent's face is a mess of raw, exposed muscles, bone, and nerves, making it impossible to ignore the character's origins or the violence done to him. This is not the impersonal blood and guts of Saw, but a deeply felt document of the effects of violence on both external appearance and internal persona. If Nolan had flinched away here, if he had hedged in showing the grisly violence done to Dent in order to make him become Two Face, then I could better understand Uhlich's criticisms about Nolan's supposed squeamishness.

79 comments:

Culture Snob said...

I loved the treatment of the pencil, and I was less enamored with other exercises in blood-avoidance in the interest of a PG-13 rating, because it sometimes seemed less like an artistic choice and more of an economic one.

That said, if I were to ascribe politics to the movie -- and I will, eventually -- one of its aims was to show the stupidity of the ratings system by pushing the boundaries of PG-13, following its explicit rules: minor cursing (I believe there was none here), minor nudity (none here), and bloodless violence. Nolan almost seems to want to punish parents who bring their seven-year-olds to this.

As for Keith's review, it seemed to me viscerally contrary, a violent reaction to nearly universal praise.

T.A. said...

I don't think Keith's review is as negative as many people believe it to be. Many of his criticisms I felt were quite accurate and reflected how I felt about the film. Unlike someone like Armond White, I didn't hate the film, yet I will not lavish the praise heaped upon it by many critics and voices on the internet that borders on the hyperbolic (and I don't mean this blog, because I found your review to be quite measured, unlike some review sites, Ain't It Cool, for instance). I found myself to largely be unaffected by the whole picture. I grew tired of the Joker's morality plays with their denouement, a reenactment of game theory and Two-Face's conclusion, while interesting, would have been better saved for a third film.

I couldn't help but compare The Dark Knight to the animated Batman series of the 1990s. Yes, I am aware that the cartoon featured a different medium (cel-based animation), was seen on a different media delivery system (television), and for a different audience (elementary school kids returning home in the afternoon, like I was). What Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski could accomplish in 22 minutes--given its morality, storytelling, and expansion of the Batman mythos- far exceeded the bloat of Nolan's recent picture.

Ultimately, what amazed me about The Dark Knight was that I found Batman to be such an unsavoury, hypocritical, even somewhat megalomaniacal character that I found myself identifying with the Joker because, as amoral as he was, he remained principled and true to his convictions. I still think the plotting was bloated and haphazard while the "message" of the film was maddeningly reductionist in its worldview, so I can't help but find the praise for its ambiguity intriguing, although I disagree with such a viewpoint wholeheartedly.

Nonetheless, I commend you for engaging with Keith's review in such a way that is lost on most of the people who have left comments on his blog.

Hayden Tompkins said...

"quick cuts away from the Joker's bloody actions do nothing to dull the impact of those actions"

NO KIDDING.

I was squirming in my seat during the first 'knife' scene because I knew what was coming.

Keith Uhlich said...

Hey Ed-

Thank you for commenting, and cogently at that.

If I may: My problem is that I don't think Nolan is being tasteful. I think he's being evasive, across the board.

I'm not calling for more gore on screen nowadays, nor am I asking for less. I approach movies with the sense that each and every one of them reflect a unique perspective and have varying requirements as to what works in their particular purview. I called DK an exercise in "avert-your-eyes sadism," which was, structurally, meant to rhyme with the paragraph you quote and imply not so much that the audience is averting its eyes as Nolan is (and thus attempting to trick his viewers into doing the same).

Take that scene in question with The Joker and Gamble. The buildup is terrific, but then Nolan cuts to a reaction shot of the henchman flinching (and none-too-convincingly, from my perspective) while the score gives one of those "stingers" meant to make us jump out of our seats, a Pavlovian signal that The Joker has slashed the knife. Gamble then just more or less disappears: you see a blur fall out of frame, but not even the aftermath of his face. There's no suggestion or implication in this scene, only - I would argue - an evasive cutaround designed to offend as few as possible. To give us a shallow impression of horror.

Building off of Stephanie Z's Hitchcock comparison, I think Hitchcock understood how to both show and imply. (Further, I don't think he was ever, ever tasteful. That's what makes him so great. Tastefulness is cinema's bane.)

I find Nolan's visuals (here as in Memento as also somewhat in Batman Begins, though not to a very bothersome degree) thuddingly literal. There's no depth to them beyond "what you see is what you get" (or "now you see it, now you don't"), and this calls more attention to his calculations to achieve the shallow effects he desires.

For me, this is more offensive than the Saw movies, which at least have the honesty to wallow in their calculated bloodshed (doesn't mean I like them any more). And I think DK grows very conspicuously out of the culture of Saw and Hostel, except it's puffing up the effects to the emperor's clothes level of high art and mass palatability.

(Would that I felt the human drama you experienced with Two-Face, but he came and went so damn quickly that he became nothing more than a kick-ass special effect -- not to mention a roll-the-eyes surface vs. underbelly metaphor. All the movies have gotten him, my fave Batman villain after Joker, consistently wrong.)

This all leads into another issue: the assertion from both yourself and Culture Snob that my review is angry, viscerally contrary, and a reaction to the praise.

Let me clarify: I have no qualms with anyone finding worth in The Dark Knight and I never will. I'm glad people feel passionate about it (as I do from my perspective), even as I do see a very distinct line in the reaction to the film between thinking and unthinking love. For the moment, I've been struck by a lot of the latter and very little of the former, which doesn't necessarily mean that the non-thinkers overwhelm, more that the the thinkers have better things to do with their time than impugn my usage of a thesaurus.

I understand you may find my arguments vague and rhetorical. I think they are clear and direct. This doesn't so much exemplify "yes it is/no it isn't" or reflect an "agree to disagree" impasse as it does illustrate the breadth of human experience. That, in counterpoint to the generally homogenized "vox populi" reaction to DK (film and reviews both), only reinforces my general faith and belief in humanity. I have nothing to be angry about.

Anonymous said...

Good response to Mr. Ulich's review. I like the film a lot despite what felt like hacked editing. Being a regular reader of HND, I like to think that Mr. Ulich's a classier guy than to be specifically asking for more gore, but I think I know what he means.

The particular scene mentioned where the Joker taunts the mobster with a knife failed for me not because we didn't see the knife do it's thing, but because there's not enough suggestion to end the scene. What I mean is there's an intense build up...and then what happens? Am I being asked to believe that the single gash across the face, the mouth/cheeks no less, killed him instantly? There's no scream or at least reaction from the rest of the gang? In this case it feels less like restraint and more like the end of the sequence is missing, or Mr. Nolan didn't know how to end it (at least in keeping with the PG-13 rating [14A in Canada I should add]). The menace is there but suggestion of the outcome isn't. I remember the audience reacting with sighs of relief or confusion.

With the pencil scene everything we need to know to make the scene work is there, the speed makes it shocking (and well, where else have we seen this?). I don't see restraint here aside from not giving us a gratuitous 'money-shot'.

The editing was very choppy in general, sometimes it worked to its benefit, other times it was frustrating. I don't think any of it would stand without the wall-paper music score hiding the cuts(any thoughts on this?), but somehow the final product mostly works and was very exciting.

P.S. what was with the way they were lighting Maggie Gyllenhaal's face? It was very unflattering.

Matt Dupont

Anonymous said...

whoops, I mean 'Uhlich'(sorry). Looks like his response goes over what I just posted except more eloquently...oh well

M. Dupont

matt prigge said...

Keith –

One reason Nolan doesn’t dwell on the gory effects of the Joker’s actions – apart from the studio-imposed need to keep this expensive beast at a PG-13 – is that the Joker himself is not particularly interested in gore. His interest is in scaring people, and the scary part of the cheek slit scene is the long, anguished build-up (with that nerve-wracking atonal score backing it up) not the slice. The slit itself is almost beside the point, except insofar as taking Gamble out in such a menacing fashion is meant to scare the shit out of his heavies, which Nolan focuses on instead.

Throughout the Joker is more interested in stirring up trouble than in the violence itself. He’s not interested in money. He’s interested in anarchy, and violence is just a means at achieving anarchy. “It’s all…part of the plan,” he purrs, and the truly scary part of the Joker – even more than his pencil trick or his bullshit backstory monologues or his cheek slits – is the complete social chaos he creates. In your review you mention the shot of him in the police car, soaking in the hysteria. YES! He doesn’t get off on a mere cheek slit but on having turned the city upside down. There’s a reason the final image we see of the Joker is him (with the camera upside down, not him) cackling like never before on having fucked up the city (and its mob), psychologically destroyed its “White Knight” and turned its “Dark Knight” into a rancid, ethics-violating vigilante.

And on a more visceral level, the film’s lack of dwelling on gore only makes the somewhat belated view of Dent’s scarred face that much more stomach-churning and emotionally galling.

(And before you get to it, the fact that Nolan bathes the scarred half of Harvey Dent’s face in darkness during most of his final scene is not another “evasion.” Nolan wants to remind us that this is, still, Harvey Dent, once the hoped-for savior of the city, and this is how far he’s fallen.)

Also, could you kindly explain how TDK has anything to do with Hostel or Saw, because I personally am not seeing it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Great post, and refreshing to see someone argue Keith's analysis rather than accuse him of an agenda, or worse.

I agree with much of your analysis, but I side with Keith and Anon when it comes to the scene with Gamble. As Keith says: "Gamble then just more or less disappears: you see a blur fall out of frame." Like Anon, I wonder: Did he die from a slashed face? Did he die from a slashed throat instead? Or did he not die after all and yet made no noise whatsoever when he was thrown to the floor (having been, or perhaps having not been, sliced and diced)? We don't know. And the confusion obliterates what until then is "almost unbearable tension."

So I agree that you've spotted an arguable contradiction in Keith's no-gore/still-sadistic argument. But I agree with Keith's analysis that in this instance Nolan "whiffs the follow-through."

I don't think "The Dark Knight" needed gore. But it could have benefited from clarity. The pencil scene isn't actually gory. There's no blood. But it's crystal clear and absolutely horrific. It creates the biggest audience reaction of the film, as it should. Likewise: For all its blood, there are scenes in "No Country For Old Men" that skip the gore and yet leave no room for doubt (Chigurh's boot check after his visit with Carla Jean).

I commend Nolan for not going the route of "Saw" torture porn, even in the lesser form often exhibited by Scorsese and Tarantino. Still, it's disappointing to see him ace the stunt and wobble on the landing. Inserting Two-Face into the story too fast and too late is in my opinion another instance of this.

Ed Howard said...

Hey Keith,

Thanks for taking the time to respond, I know you've probably taken a lot of heat for this review already. Just to be clear, I liked that your review was passionate. Whether you intended it or not, it does come across as a bit of a polemic, and that's fine -- you clearly had a very intense reaction to the film, and you convey your dislike very eloquently. I also meant my first paragraph to be an acknowledgment that, basically, it's very hard to argue one's experience of a movie against another person's experience. People are different, and a lot of your review, for better or worse, boiled down to subjective impressions that would be hard to precisely argue one way or the other. That's why I focused on one particular idea in my response.

I can only say I disagree with your interpretation of the scene with Gamble. I don't see it as evasive, especially because the scene is so viscerally effective. The audience still feels the violence done against the mobster, even if we don't actually see it happen. If Nolan had wanted to downplay the violence, he could've just as easily done so, but the scenes of the Joker's violence economically convey the swiftness and brutality of his actions. In fact, in the scene with Gamble, the murder is committed so swiftly that it only enhances the tension in the later scene with Maggie Gyllenhaal, which clearly is meant to mirror the earlier scene. Because of the similarity in setup, and the quickness of the Joker's attack in the earlier scene, this scene is frankly terrifying, creating an expectation that anything could happen at any moment. This is the nature of the Joker's chaotic violence, and the disjunctive editing enhances this impression of random brutality, intensifying the audience's fear and horror rather than avoiding it. I don't think the film's overall impression of the Joker as an unpredictable force of evil is compatible with the idea that Nolan has "averted his eyes."

Matt - I agree with you that the editing in this film is sometimes a problem, although it mostly bothered me in the film's more restful moments. There's a scene where Batman's walking into a bank vault, the camera starts outside the vault looking in and then abruptly cuts 180 degrees to an angle from inside the vault; it was really jarring. There were a few moments like this that made me think that Nolan sometimes didn't do enough coverage and had to make do with odd patchwork assemblies like that.

On the other hand, I would say the blunt quality of the editing in the scenes of the Joker's violence work with the nature of the character. The Joker is a random force, driven by whims, and his violence happens swiftly and abruptly, a lot of fear building up to a few split-seconds of motion.

Ed Howard said...

I also have to agree with what Matt Prigge says: "One reason Nolan doesn’t dwell on the gory effects of the Joker’s actions... is that the Joker himself is not particularly interested in gore." Yes, I was trying to get at this as well. The film does an excellent job of communicating the Joker's mindset, his complete indifference to human life. It's not even that he wants to kill, it's that he just doesn't care -- he's way more interested in the chaos he creates. This disinterest is contrasted against the deeply felt violence done to Rachel and Harvey later in the film, which emphasizes the consequences of the Joker's brutality.

Culture Snob said...

Regarding my previous assessment that Keith's review was "viscerally contrary" (which he obviously disagreed with), I should note that there's nothing wrong with being contrary. But I think the ferocity/passion of his argument undermined the argument itself, and was partly responsible for the (often moronic) response. Equal and opposite reactions and all that.

Jacob said...

This contradictory criticism aligns Uhlich, ironically, with that peculiar breed of fanboys disappointed in the film's PG-13 rating, thirsting for Saw-level blood-splatter and gore. The film itself has little patience for such base urges, and the violence in the film is depicted with an economy and tact that communicates the horror of the Joker's actions while never satisfying the desire to ogle his atrocities firsthand.

The film also needs to appeal to the 17 and under crowd too.

Jacob said...

Wow, two jacobs in one thread. Weird.


Good review-review, Ed. I also wrote a (far less polished) response to Uhlich in his comments thread. It attempts to criticize more the generally "subjective, personal, and visceral" tone of his attacks, and (what I perceived as) his disguising them behind slick rhetoric as indisputable fact.

"Good heretics are important. Mr. Uhlich has written a rather heretical review of The Dark Night, which stands out as an apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon that reviewing aggregates (such as Rotten Tomatoes) have posted for this film. He criticizes the movie, and Nolan’s direction of it, as “now you see it, now you don’t,” “trickster philosophy.” What does he mean by this? The style of subversiveness is, ultimately, only as good as the substance it contains. Without some sort of support, some sort of content to his criticisms, a review bears no analytical or critical substance.

His review has received a bevy of unfavorable and uncomplimentary comments, many of which were non-specific and ad hominem. With a welter of defamations towards Mr. Uhlich’s chosen profession, his intentions upon seeing the film, and his verbose writing style, it seems that the content of his review has hardly been touched upon by the vast majority. Consequently, there have been several meta-comments on this trend, this alleged intellectual shallowness on the part of the critic’s critics, this inability to engage in rational discourse. But I would like to briefly respond to Mr. Uhlich’s review itself.

“Two images to begin….

A nighttime shot of the Gotham City terrorist known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), his head stuck out the side window of a swerving and careening police car. … this is the power of cinema: to put us in a headspace other than our own; to focus our attentions to a finely honed point; to experience, for lack of a better descriptor, the sheer bliss of being alive, even though the world burns.

Nolan and company's previous Bat-tale, Batman Begins, is similarly infected with such verbal diarrhea (the word “fear” hasn’t been spoken so much since David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune), but it has a purposeful sense of momentum that occasionally treads the sublime, such as when Batman races his poisoned l’amour Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) back to his underground lair, the sequence climaxing with the Batmobile arcing violently, gorgeously through a waterfall—a sanctifying romantic impulse melded seamlessly to a shopworn race-against-the-clock scenario. …

Nolan fancies himself a magician, but he’s more of a high-minded con artist—the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite. If he occasionally stumbles upon an indelible image (aside from the one noted above, a scene where the two-wheeled Batpod does a wall-assisted 180-degree turnaround gave me giddy shivers) it’s quickly subsumed by his more frequent tendency toward Cusinarted spectacle. …

The Joker again, just entered a roomful of Gotham City mobsters. He sticks a pencil into a table and says he’s going to perform a magic trick. His devil-may-care bravado angers the men around him, and one of them (who might as well be wearing a “Disposable Henchman” placard) steps up to take down this lisping, pancake-and-mascara dribbling fop. Barely missing a beat, The Joker grabs the gangster’s head and rams him, face down, on the pencil. In the blink of an eye, both man and writing implement bounce out of frame, never to be seen again (almost as if they were never there). It’s the ultimate punchline because there’s really no joke, just a madman trickster’s truth: now you see it, now you don’t.”

If it seems odd that Mr. Uhlich appears to focus so much on style to the disregard of substance, that’s because it is odd. So if it seems difficult to respond to the actual content of Mr. Uhlich’s review, that’s because it is difficult. Though there is inevitably a dollop of internet anonymity contributing to the less-than-polite, less-than-punctilious responses to his review, I’d like to suggest that the lack of content in the responses is largely due to a lack of coherent content in the review itself. Mr. Uhlich’s review is mostly bloated parlance and worthless allusions, and what little content there is, consists of a) criticizing the film from an aesthetic standpoint in a most superficial and cursory form, so as to clumsily segue into b) completely meaningless criticisms of the film’s philosophy--of both its pretensions and its frivolity, its certainty as well as its ambiguity. If it seems like his accusations contradict each other, that’s because they do contradict each other.

So what is Uhlich’s criticism, stated concisely? My thesis is this: I have no idea, and neither does Mr. Uhlich. I paraphrase Christopher Hitchens when I say that I’ve heard Zen kōans uttered with more coherence. Uhlich is truly two-faced: he’ll criticize the movie for its dearth of ambiguity (he quotes for truth: “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegel’s ambivalence and ambiguity.”) and in the next moment for its excess thereof (“Nolan’s themes—his beliefs—are too muddled to be read with any sort of certainty”). He also attacks Nolan’s joker (and ignores Ledger’s), saying “for Nolan, he can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown.” But Uhlich also sees this Joker as too much of an absolute, a “metaphor laden golem.” He makes a problem where there isn’t one, ignoring the obvious Joker which the movie presents, indeed an absolute: of the sadistic, of the psychotic, of chaos. How would Uhlich have Nolan make him? We get no positive philosophy on film throughout Uhlich’s review--aside from some ethereal nonsense about experiencing life, which never turns into a cogent point.

“Now you see it, now you don’t.” This is Uhlich’s catch-phrase, a pointless attempt to encapsulate his vapid criticism into catchy aphorism. But in reality, there is little which we can excavate from the disastrous collapse of the expository essay that is this review. Apparently, the aesthetic was to his distaste: he found the action scenes confusing, and more things needed to rotate (what?). This leads, somehow, into a criticism of Nolan’s “philosophy,” which Uhlich attempts to make both glib and murky. He presents the first criticism as a set of self-evident truths (which is a bit odd, considering that the classical style is clearly not his strong point). The second set, apparently, also need no support--he just says that it’s like The Matrix (a comparison he got, apparently, from some non-existent anagrams), or he declares that two face rips off a character that came decades after him--and voila: it is so. Oh, and let’s not forget the countless and tepid monologues, which completely overpopulate the movie. Apparently, I was incapable of being annoyed by these because, unlike the superior intellect of Keith Uhlich, I was lulled into complacency by the good-on-paper cast. We've seen that, occasionally, his criticisms can be promoted from incoherent self-contradictions to condescending, unsupported nonsense.

Further promotion can be given to the remaining criticisms: not incoherent or baseless, but instead oblivious to the vagaries of cinema. He is the first reviewer I have seen criticize a movie for being subtle about its violence and gore (apparently Psycho was engaging in the same sort of “trickster philosophy” by not showing gore or blood in its prototypical shower scene). He bemoans plot devices, of all kinds--if it’s even slightly unrealistic, then it shouldn’t have happened, even if it’s essential for the plot (if only Nolan could learn from that paragon of realism: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). He finds Gyllenhaal’s Rachel, despite directly confronting the Joker, a pathetic damsel in distress. One, or no examples suffice to provide more than enough support for his paltry and overstated objurgations.

I don’t think Mr. Uhlich came into the movie planning to hate it, or secretly loved it but wanted to go against the grain. I think he disliked the movie, but had trouble articulating why. It’s not hard to imagine why someone would hate the movie: it’s not flawless--but its explicit faults are fairly simple and easily stated. The action scenes were, occasionally, confusing. I think Hollywood has yet to find a good medium between realistic but confusing (like this movie, or the Bourne films) versus easy-to-follow but uninteresting (like the new Indy movie). But this isn't just Nolan's problem. Other problems: Batman went unconscious from falling off a skidding bike, but not from falling several stories off of a building. Gylehaal is a “butter-face.” Gordon’s monologue at the end was a bit over the top. And, of course, some movies just don’t affect us as intended, and lose us entirely--usually for personal and ineffable reasons.

But Mr. Uhlich could not suffice to write a mediocre review of the film that he hated for (ultimately) emotionally and arationally motivated causes. He needed intellectual, refined, and classy reasons for hating the movie. He just couldn’t think of any. Some people have noted that they hated his review, but were impressed by his writing style. Others have criticized him for his love-affair with the thesaurus. I disagree with both, his vocabulary is neither exceedingly impressive nor blatantly excessive. The problem with Mr. Uhlich’s writing, from my perspective, is that it’s sophistry. You take a predisposition against something, you find yourself unable to rationalize, reify, or articulate your distaste in the manner you’d prefer, so you mask your lack of content with a scathing and slick rhetoric. Never stating your points clearly or strongly, they flit around your essay like annoying mosquitoes, occasionally biting, then darting away before they can be swatted out. Trying to be more honest, and reconciling your non-rational disposition with the movie’s actual merits and demerits, will result in a more unbiased, less reactionary piece of writing that will be more satisfying and helpful to the readers of your reviews. I’d be curious to know what you think the role of the movie critic is--I hope it’s not just to annoy people by pretending to articulate the ineffable, and disguising it as substance. That would really be “trickster philosophy.” Now you see substantial criticism, now you don’t.

If you think my criticism is misplaced, and my suggestions pretentious and unwarranted, then I offer you this challenge: clearly articulate, without hiding behind recondite rhetoric, what you are trying to say in this review. What does "now you see it, now you don't" REALLY mean? What is the nature of Nolan's trickster philosophy? What does this even mean? You seem to be perturbed by a movie that makes its characters metaphors or symbols for something greater. Why?"


What's confusing to me is that Keith would not respond to my attack on principle, saying it would be like defending "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (I think he begs the question by making his analogy with a masterpiece). However, he was more than willing to defend his review from your criticisms. The only difference I can see is that yours was a little nicer, and primarily dealt with one point in the review-- the "now you see it, now you don't."


I agree with those saying the editing in the mouth slitting scene was problematic-- it just cuts away: did he die? How? But that was more of a confusing mistake than anything else, and to utilize it to criticize the entire movie's aesthetic and philosophical framework seems just pretentious to me.

Keith Uhlich said...

I'll leave it to Michael Tully to address the torture porn question.

And Jacob, my so-called slick rhetoric is not indisputable fact. I write confidently, but never as if it's the final word. The conversation is ongoing...

Keith Uhlich said...

And to Jason Bellamy: I really like your use of the word "clarity." I think that gets at what I look for from movies, and not only in the technical sense.

Jody said...

Reeling over here from the (usually wonderful)HND, I find - to my delight - both calmer and deeper waters and proof that 19-year-old Jacob (for that is the infuriatingly tender age given in his profile!) is guilty - thank goodness for small mercies - of the small sin of vanity. For reposting his magnificent counter-wallop to the troublesome review!

Jacob - that was wonderfully effective writing. It fully deserves a second showing.

As an older broad with little loyalty to the source material, I had some fairly straightforward reservations about the movie. But the complex symbiosis of the Batman/Joker relationship was absolutely extraordinary. (Othello & Iago kept flickering at the corner of my mind - although maybe that's a silly thought. It's enough, anyway, to prompt a second viewing - my first time ever for a just released movie.)

Jacob said...

Thanks Jody. I wasn't trying to be vain, I just couldn't get the perma-link function to work in the comments thread, so I figured a re-post would be less annoying than a link to his article with directions (go to second page, scroll down 1/3 of the way, click your heels together...).

And Jacob, my so-called slick rhetoric is not indisputable fact. I write confidently, but never as if it's the final word. The conversation is ongoing...

I suppose I'm sort of beating a dead horse here: but I just don't see strategies like calling the joker a "spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh" (and then not defending or elucidating) much of a conversation stimulator. This type of thing is turgid obscurantism, not a clear discussion starter.

andrew tracy said...

Oh, Jacob II, you found your way over here from the HND thread... sigh. Must say I'm not surprised to learn of your age via Jody - for all the vileness tossed Keith's way about his erudition (mainly by the peanut gallery, it's true), your various contributions positively reek of a clever young fellow overloading on the verbiage. Not to worry - pack a few more years on and I'm sure you'll winnow the bloat down somewhat.

A certain Anonymous on the HND thread (7/21, 4:05am) already pointed out the shaky foundations for your much-vaunted takedown of Keith's review, so I'll merely point out the latest false problem you've aired here:

I just don't see strategies like calling the joker a "spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh" (and then not defending or elucidating) much of a conversation stimulator. This type of thing is turgid obscurantism...

Physician, heal thyself, says I.

Contra your claims, Keith is indeed elucidating something here: his valid contention that the filmmakers conceive the Joker as a purely conceptual, allegorical figure. Nor is this observation necessarily negative or critical towards the film, removed from the overall context of the review. Keith is describing how the movie functions in regards to one of its major characters. Judgments of that function do follow - and that's what a critic inevitably does - but first off he did the necessary groundwork of accurately describing that which he's judging. Nothing turgid or obscure about it. And it certainly doesn't seem to have stopped any conversation, as the whole damn thing has now migrated over to this site and begun anew.

Jody said...

"I wasn't trying to be vain..."

Jacob - I sort of knew that, really. I was just tweaking you out of petty, boiling envy!

(I just hope the debate continues - it's gripping stuff.)

Jody said...

Contra your claims, Keith is indeed elucidating something here: his valid contention that the filmmakers conceive the Joker as a purely conceptual, allegorical figure.

Fighting words, andrew tracy!

I hotly disagree.

I don't remotely see how you can unpack Keith's phrase "a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh.." to discover your version (above) of the apparently intended meaning!!

I haven't the foggiest notion what Keith is specifically trying to convey, or how humanity has spawned this horrid offspring or why the nasty sprog is also "literally" a sickness in addition to representing the sorry product of forgetful coupling on some metaphorical & cosmic level.

For all Jacob's youth - and I have kids his age, who are - naturally - incredibly perfect and all that! - but I have to admit they do not have his eloquence, not remotely - he is surely right.

Keith's writing - at least here - seems to me almost gleefully obscure.

Jacob said...

"Oh, Jacob II, you found your way over here from the HND thread... sigh. Must say I'm not surprised to learn of your age via Jody - for all the vileness tossed Keith's way about his erudition (mainly by the peanut gallery, it's true), your various contributions positively reek of a clever young fellow overloading on the verbiage. Not to worry - pack a few more years on and I'm sure you'll winnow the bloat down somewhat."

I'm not exactly sure it's a good idea for you to accuse me of a wordy style when you're attempting to defend Keith's review.

That contention notwithstanding, could you give an example of me "overloading on the verbiage?" (Aside from "objurgations"-- but I really wanted some alliteration there.) I thought my response had a couple of phrases that weren’t really thesaurus-y, but still effective ("Mr. Uhlich has written a rather heretical review of The Dark Night, which stands out as an apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon that reviewing aggregates have posted for this film." Eh? Eh?)

"A certain Anonymous on the HND thread (7/21, 4:05am) already pointed out the shaky foundations for your much-vaunted takedown of Keith's review"

You mean this one?

http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/2008/07/trickster-heaven-two-faced-hell-dark.html?showComment=1216627500000#c7807115958034936131

"I'm 3/4 through a 22oz arrogant bastard."

Sounds unflappable.

"I’m going to have to bail here as I find myself disagreeing far too often to continue this for another five paragraphs."

Hmm.

I'd actually wanted to respond to his (and another's) criticism, but, as you know, Keith closed the thread. I'll respond to his strongest point, which relates to your point.

His:
"You’re reading a “problem” into his writing where there is none. Uhlich bemoans that Nolan can’t leave the Joker as strictly a character but must also turn him into a metaphor. He notes this in both quotes you've cited (you cut the one in half): For Nolan, he can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh. Keith is consistent here."

Yours:
"Contra your claims, Keith is indeed elucidating something here: his valid contention that the filmmakers conceive the Joker as a purely conceptual, allegorical figure. Nor is this observation necessarily negative or critical towards the film, removed from the overall context of the review. Keith is describing how the movie functions in regards to one of its major characters. Judgments of that function do follow - and that's what a critic inevitably does - but first off he did the necessary groundwork of accurately describing that which he's judging. Nothing turgid or obscure about it. "

My contention is/was threefold (admittedly, ill-articulated):

a) The Joker is just a sadistic, psychotic clown. He is also symbolic. Keith acts as if these two are mutually exclusive, as if one vitiates or ruins the other. But then he…
b) …refused to back it up, like so many other of his points. Why is it problematic that the joker is symbolic? Is it poorly executed? I don’t believe it is. Keith disagrees. Good: now defend this…
c) (this point not stated the first time around) …instead of resorting to vacuous, stylized, pomp. “He has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh.” My challenge is extended from Keith (who stands on principle, not responding to criticism—unless it’s by Ed, apparently), to you: articulate and elucidate what the point is here. What does this nice sounding phrase mean? And defend it. You claim that the defense—"judgments of that function"—follows, but his next few sentences involve an equivocal comment on the Joker’s nurse disguise (described, of course, with the most obtuse, abstruse allusion-- instead of directly), and a criticism of Joker's "lame" exit (again, undefended).

And it certainly doesn't seem to have stopped any conversation, as the whole damn thing has now migrated over to this site and begun anew.

But notice what the conversations are about. Aside from my review, the conversations have been about the one or two things that Uhlich said that were not obscure: the violence "trickery" and the Chigurh anachronism. When the only discussion-engendering thing you've written are the minor points, your writing style isn't clear. "Gleefully obscure" is indeed an accurate descriptor.

Jacob said...

Jody: I'm flattered! I'm glad you and others have found my criticism helpful.

I agree it's a good debate. Some have criticized the commenters for attack Keith's review instead of defending the movie. I think this is valid. I would love to write a review of the movie itself, but I need to see it again. Plus I'm not a critic, so it would just be a fun rhetorical exercise-- and if I'm going to engage in one of those, it might as well be about something I'm better acquainted with: like Keith's review. Oh, and the whole point was that his review was so murky that there was no criticism to attack and therefore nothing in the movie to defend. I couldn't point to stuff in the movie and say, "No, this was well-executed" because I found little substance to disagree with-- just the overall sentiment.

andrew tracy said...

Jacob (and Jody),

funny enough, you singled out the very phrase of yours ("apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon...") that first made my eyes roll. I certainly understood what you were talking about - doesn't mean it was effective.

I have no intention of fighting out Keith's review point by point - he don't need it, I don't wish to do it, and you clearly have no intention of giving any ground on your predetermined opinion. I'll stick only to the one point I made previously, and here provide the entire sentence from Keith's review:

For Nolan, he can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh.

There you have it, all in one sentence (plus colon). "Spoiled bastard child etc" might be a tad flowery as a turn of phrase (apologies Keith!), but it puts the point across clearly: that Nolan Inc. have inflated the character to explicitly symbolic levels. (This is not merely a subjective opinion: listen to all those dreary "agent of chaos" monologues Ledger gets saddled with near the end.)

And then Uhlich provides a judgment on the use of this symbol (rather than just dismissing it as pretension):

His overall plan is foiled, but his cackling cynic’s view lingers on, driving those Gotham residents left standing into secrecy and/or seclusion. In a better movie, that note of desperation would resonate far beyond the borders of the screen, but here it remains at a cold, notional distance, just another of Nolan’s trickster philosophies -

thus linking that observation to the overall thrust of his review, and his feeling about the film as a whole.

There is little that is muddy about Keith's review, and the one thing that was - his complaints about the unglimpsed violence, which seemed to be complaining about the lack of gore rather than criticizing the filmmakers for including this (cheaply sanitized) ugliness in the first place - he has thankfully cleared up in his response to Ed; a valid criticism which Keith duly responded to.

Jacob said...

"funny enough, you singled out the very phrase of yours ("apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon...") that first made my eyes roll. I certainly understood what you were talking about - doesn't mean it was effective."

See, I liked that. I certainly didn't have to open up my thesaurus to construct it... it's not overly-wordy... it wasn't intended to be ill-understood (you seem to vaunt your comprehension of it)... what's the problem?

"but it puts the point across clearly: that Nolan Inc. have inflated the character to explicitly symbolic levels."

That was never under dispute. My question is: why is this problematic? You also still haven't actually explained what the phrase means. Jody articulated it better:

"I don't remotely see how you can unpack Keith's phrase "a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh.." to discover your version (above) of the apparently intended meaning!! I haven't the foggiest notion what Keith is specifically trying to convey, or how humanity has spawned this horrid offspring or why the nasty sprog is also "literally" a sickness in addition to representing the sorry product of forgetful coupling on some metaphorical & cosmic level."

"And then Uhlich provides a judgment on the use of this symbol (rather than just dismissing it as pretension):

His overall plan is foiled, but his cackling cynic’s view lingers on, driving those Gotham residents left standing into secrecy and/or seclusion. In a better movie, that note of desperation would resonate far beyond the borders of the screen, but here it remains at a cold, notional distance, just another of Nolan’s trickster philosophies - "

I never claim he doesn't provide a judgment--indeed, what could be more judgmental? "In a better movie..." Excellent point: this device doesn't work because it was in a bad movie. Not just begging, but pleading, groveling for the question.

Yes there's judgment, but there's no defense. That's what I'm asking for. He starts off with a recondite rhetorical flourish--one you have yet to parse out--follows with a pointless allusion, and justifies with--no justification at all, just a "self-evident" statement.

"There is little that is muddy about Keith's review, and the one thing that was - his complaints about the unglimpsed violence, which seemed to be complaining about the lack of gore rather than criticizing the filmmakers for including this (cheaply sanitized) ugliness in the first place - he has thankfully cleared up in his response to Ed; a valid criticism which Keith duly responded to."

You've accidentally italicized "valid" there-- waitamminut... are you suggesting that my criticisms aren't valid? Almost missed that. Oh, you.

"I have no intention of fighting out Keith's review point by point - he don't need it, I don't wish to do it, and you clearly have no intention of giving any ground on your predetermined opinion"

That's a little premature: that was my first chance to respond. Oh, and, you know, I'm actually correct. But I should be more flexible. I just hope it comes with the years!

Anyways, I've got acne cream to apply and beer bongs to chug. I look forward with excitement to that day when I, too, can dismantle arguments with the same aplomb and condescension ("your various contributions positively reek of a clever young fellow..." Really, andrew?) that you have. Maybe you could teach me!! (See beginning of post... I eagerly await your reply and sagely advice!!)


I'm not sure why you think it's appropriate to be so sanctimonious or condescending. If you want to argue the merit of my, or Keith's, points, then you could start by being a little more thorough, and a little less haughty. I'm clearly not being absurd, since I've had several people commend and defend my post(s). Why you think it's self-evident that I'm just stubborn and immature is beyond me. You have yet to defend the clarity of Keith's review, and the baseless nature of his accusations.

Ed Howard said...

There's probably some material of substance I need to respond to here, but for now just a quick entreaty that everyone remain civil and refrain from the namecalling and insults that ruined the comments thread at Keith's original review. I don't want this devolving into another troll-fest overnight. I'd much prefer that these comments develop towards more of a substantive discussion of the film's merits and faults. It's a rich and complicated film, let's treat it that way. Thanks everyone for commenting so far.

Cde. said...

"I'm clearly not being absurd, since I've had several people commend and defend my post(s)."

And clearly there was nothing absurd about the torrent of commenters ignoring the content of Keith's review and simply calling him a moron; after all, hundreds were in agreement!

Look, Jacob, I'm younger than you are so I'm not going to be condescending because of your age. Frankly though, I can understand why people are growing tired of your criticisms, because it seems to me that they have less to do with actual problems in Keith's writing than its failure to conform to your own taste and demands.

In calling the Joker a 'spoiled bastard child bred of humanity's indifference; a literal sickness made flesh' Keith is suggesting that he is an allegorical figure representative of the decay of society. To me this is very clear. Frankly, constantly asserting that it means nothing isn't really getting us anywhere. His argument is also clearly stated: in the context of the rest of the film, the connotations this carries with it are not clearly felt. I agree with you that Keith's argument is actually not clear as day, but does it need to be? Why does he need to 'defend' this point? How many other critics of this film went extremely in-depth in their analysis and explanation of every assertion that they made? What about the positive reviews? Keith's writing makes its point and carries an argument before moving on, which makes sense, considering that this is a brief review considering the level of analysis which Keith makes. Again, for myself and others the point is made with enough clarity and serves its purpose to promote thought. In your opinion the article would be better i this point was complained, but this is a subjective argument, and not a requirement of Keith's writing.

As for your other points, I would also point to the comment on your post put forward on THND on 7/21 at 4:05, which pointed out several factual, not subjective, problems with the review of Keith's review (!!!) that you posted here and in that thread, such as the fact that the examples you provided from his review were quite clearly misrepresented or misunderstood. You called Keith's quotation of Dave Kehr's comment "quoting for truth" and then depicted him as "truly-two faced" for contradicting himself a few lines later. You seem to have missed something crucial.

"On his personal website, critic Dave Kehr gives an astute reading of the film’s politics, calling it “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegel’s ambivalence and ambiguity.” He goes on to posit Nolan and the film as something of a George Bush apologia, but I think this is granting The Dark Knight more of a concrete ideological interpretation than it deserves. The very fact that Kehr ends his critique with a question (“Is he suggesting…?”) implies that [my note: in case it wasn't clear to you, Keith's own own perspective here] Nolan’s themes—his beliefs—are too muddled to be read with any sort of certainty."

There is no contradiction in what Keith wrote. He did not 'quote for truth'. Uhlich brought up the comments of Dave Kehr and then pointed out his own personal opinion, which was that the film is too thematically muddled to make out such a clear political position. Either you knew this and were deliberately lying about the content of Keith's review, or you need a serious lesson in reading comprehension, because this is basic stuff.

Mr. Anonymous at 4:05 made a good point about the dishonesty of chopping Keith's comments in half and misrepresenting them out of context in order to create another contradiction that wasn't there. I find insulting the way you casually dismissed what he had to say earlier on this page, quoting some comments intended as humour with which he ended his comment to present him as an idiot so you could avoid dealing with his serious points (such as your own dishonesty), without making any attempt whatsoever to answer many of his arguments. If you are above everyone else and have no time to answer them, then why do you expect others should have any time for what you have to say? The arrogance is unbelievable.

The fact that your tirade against Keith's review so deliberately misleads those reading suggests that your dissatisfaction has less to do with technical problems you see in it and more to do with your disagreement with his verdict, and that you are grasping at straws to discredit him. If this is in fact not the case, you would do well to be more honest in your approach.

I would like to echo the sentiment that, rather than being doggedly devoted to picking Keith's review apart, you should instead compose your own response to the film. Another perspective on any film or piece of art contributes to our depth of understanding of its worth as well as to the general discourse surrounding the work. I can understand why Andrew Tracy called a lot of your criticisms invalid, and would agree with him about when you have mislead to sell a point, but perhaps a better descriptor would be 'inconsequential', or if I'm feeling harsh, 'worthless'. Saying that "this review says nothing and contains no content or real arguments, so I have no idea what it is saying, therefore it sucks" adds nothing to the discussion of The Dark Knight, and is clearly untrue, given the way that the discussion inspired by Ed's blog post has been carried out. How would that be possible if Uhlich's review had no arguments or content?

Ed was able to grapple with this content and write a cognitive, rational response to an issue he had with Keith's review. His complaint was valid (and worthy of response) since it actually delved into this content rather than denying its existence and it didn't misrepresent the original review. The two disagreed, but they were able to discuss the points of this film intelligently. In your denial of any substance in Keith's review and attempts to render it incoherent you have only helped steer the discourse surrounding the film away from intelligent commentary. Adding your own perspective in the form of a review would give back, but you don't want to do this since you have only watched the film once. The lack of extreme in-depth analysis that displeased you in Keith's review can perhaps be explained by the fact that he too had only watched the film once when he wrote his review, yet rather than using this as an excuse not to say anything, he still at least tried to contribute, and through his writing was able to promote discussion and analysis of The Dark Knight. When you don't seem to have attempted any analysis and one of the only things you felt worthy of noting about the film is that "Gylehaal is a “butter-face” it seems like the real reason why you won't contribute a review of this film instead of this pointless nitpicking is that you don't have anything worthwhile to say about it.

cde. said...

With all that said, it would be hypocritical of me not to add my own comments to the discussion at hand.

I agree with those saying Nolan's averting of his eyes to the moment of violence isn't so much a problem as his complete lack of even suggestion that any damage has occurred, which seems like a betrayal of the incredibly intense and discomforting build up.. The rationalisation for this from Ed that this is because the Joker is not interested in violence is interesting, but it rings false because to me this film isn't just a step into the Joker's frame of mind for two and a half hours. It's just as much...actually more about the fear that the Joker creates in people than it is about the character himself, so for that reason at least suggesting the frightening destruction the Joker inflicts upon his victims would be much more appropriate.

Ed is right in that the rapidity of the Joker's attack on Gamble does his scene does make his later menacing of Rachel more tense, but I think if we had earlier been shown a clearer idea of what was potentially coming it would have been much more so. Furthermore, there's no reason that Gamble's attack can't be swift AND contain the suggestion of bloody results.

Nolan's avoidance of this was apparent to the point of ludicrousness. In the scene of Gamble's...death? Mutilation? It's not clear what happened there, but Nolan averts his gaze so much from the aftermath of the Joker's attack that what has happened is confusing.

-too
-joker's not interested in violence
-threats to rachel

cde. said...

Ehh, I put down some notes so I knew what I wanted to say when I typed that and forgot to remove them. Oh well.

Jody said...

Nolan's avoidance of this was apparent to the point of ludicrousness. In the scene of Gamble's...death? Mutilation? It's not clear what happened there, but Nolan averts his gaze so much from the aftermath of the Joker's attack that what has happened is confusing.

cde,
A fascinating comment, but taken in tandem with some of the similar thoughts aired in the "torture porn" review Keith approvingly linked to - there's an argument here that while your analysis is valid - your conclusion - and those of Keith's reviewer - are desperately unfair.

It's as though you're objecting to the consistently, exasperatingly cartoon nature at the heart of the violence in the film?

Why are the doubters like you so certain Nolan et al weren't aiming for precisely the live-action-with-a-cartoon-flourish effect that annoys you?

I'm not at all nimble about analyzing classic comic book culture - but I do remember how the gory reality of knife cuts and gun shots used the exist outside the frame.

Aren't you describing the essence of cartoon violence? Which Nolan has so cunningly translated to big screen live action here - with singular cleverness?

(To an extent, you and Keith are also almost parroting the ancient anger of priggish parents when they thundered at their cartoon-enraptured kids: "that's not how it happens in real life, you know!! You can't just turn the page and carry on - and don't even think about jumping off the garage roof wearing a bat cloak!!").

Cde. said...

"Why are the doubters like you so certain Nolan et al weren't aiming for precisely the live-action-with-a-cartoon-flourish effect that annoys you?"

Probably because of the "look at me I'm a serious film about serious themes" dialogue that everyone in this universe delivers. The film begs to be looked at as something more than a cartoon, so why should I give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here?

To tell the truth, I would have liked it if the film had taken more of a cartoonish approach. It is, after all, about a man who dresses up as a bat and fights a clown, so all of this 'realism' highlights many of the leaps in logic (and believability) the film takes. Nonetheless, all of this would be forgivable if I thought it really worked on a basic storytelling/aesthetic level. I don't really feel it did, but rather that, as (I think it was?) Denby said, it keeps the pace up by jolting the audience with brutality.

Which brings me back to the topic at hand. I don't need to literally see the blade slicing through a cheek and a blood spray, but I just feel that given the (again, decidedly non-cartoon) atmosphere of the film and the intense build ups as the Joker menaces his victims, Nolan should have given more of, at least, a suggestion of what had taken place. For me, the build-up was horrifying, the audience is ready to flinch, but we saw so little that I didn't. And yes, the man suddenly slumping to the floor confused me. The Joker's monologue suggested a cheek slitting, but the collapse suggested a throat slitting.

Jody said...

cde

You ask, most recently: The film begs to be looked at as something more than a cartoon, so why should I give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here?

Because the flaw you detect - the oddly deadpan whimper with which many of the film's violent scenes conclude - is - in the main - artistically consistent.

And, if we agree there is some consistency to the technique noted - we might further decide (fairly) this is evidence of the director's deliberate intention.

And if our objection to the effect of the intended technique is that it both recalls, and provokes an examination of, the vacant sadism of the original comicbook source - I'd say that's a plus point for Nolan!

Hasn't he rather cleverly defamiliarized our assumptions about live action versions of the classic batman cartoon?

(I do accept I'm about to disappear up my own rear end with these comments!)

lizvelrene said...

I just want to agree with the comments on the wildly inconsistent editing of the film.

It just felt rushed, not in a headlong and purposeful sort of way, but in a careless way. Take the scene where Batman dives after whats-her-face (I'll just call her Maggie, her character really wasn't much) off the building. We go with him down the long fall and stay with him at the bottom as he and Maggie chat. But meanwhile, what the hell's going on at the penthouse??? You mean to tell me the Joker just shrugged and said "oh well" and left? Did they take the elevator and just walk out? And they never searched the place to find Harvey hiding in a closet?

That's not a huge plothole, but they could easily have shown one little shot of the Joker looking out the window. It bugged.

I enjoyed the film a lot, but there were definite pacing problems that I think will be more clear with future viewings, when people aren't carried away by the hype.

Jacob said...

"In calling the Joker a 'spoiled bastard child bred of humanity's indifference; a literal sickness made flesh' Keith is suggesting that he is an allegorical figure representative of the decay of society. To me this is very clear. Frankly, constantly asserting that it means nothing isn't really getting us anywhere. His argument is also clearly stated: in the context of the rest of the film, the connotations this carries with it are not clearly felt. I agree with you that Keith's argument is actually not clear as day, but does it need to be? Why does he need to 'defend' this point? How many other critics of this film went extremely in-depth in their analysis and explanation of every assertion that they made? What about the positive reviews? Keith's writing makes its point and carries an argument before moving on, which makes sense, considering that this is a brief review considering the level of analysis which Keith makes. Again, for myself and others the point is made with enough clarity and serves its purpose to promote thought. In your opinion the article would be better i this point was complained, but this is a subjective argument, and not a requirement of Keith's writing."

You start off with a good point (you explained that phrase well, I don't know why andrew was unwilling to), but I think this gets a bit equivocal. He doesn't need to defend his point because other reviewers might not have? You should know that's not really fair. And I really don't think my point was subjective or wishy-washy. To merely insist that the Joker's symbolic status is problematic, as well as describing it in such loaded terms-- I find this completely unfair. The mere fact that the Joker is symbolic of society's decay (I think even this is limiting him) tells us nothing good or bad, yet the picture that Keith rhetorically paints insists that Nolan's execution is hackneyed nonsense. We have no reason to believe this aside from Keith's visceral reaction.

"As for your other points, I would also point to the comment on your post put forward on THND on 7/21 at 4:05, which pointed out several factual, not subjective, problems with the review of Keith's review (!!!) that you posted here and in that thread, such as the fact that the examples you provided from his review were quite clearly misrepresented or misunderstood. You called Keith's quotation of Dave Kehr's comment "quoting for truth" and then depicted him as "truly-two faced" for contradicting himself a few lines later. You seem to have missed something crucial."

If I have, then it's hardly apparent (I didn't respond to anonymous here because it seemed presumptuous to drag that argument into this thread). Indeed, he's not quoting Kehr because agrees with his every word, but he presents the "stripped of ambivalence and ambiguity" quote as an "astute reading." Then he says Nolan is too ambiguous. I suppose that, if we're generous, this isn't necessarily a logical contradiction: perhaps Nolan's film is too ambiguous, while still being less ambiguous than Dirty Harry? Perhaps we're dealing with different types of ambiguity? But then there is still a problem (and I'm still not deceptive or fallacious), because Keith doesn't clarify this apparent contradiction, and as I've argued, his content is poorly expressed.

"There is no contradiction in what Keith wrote. He did not 'quote for truth'. Uhlich brought up the comments of Dave Kehr and then pointed out his own personal opinion, which was that the film is too thematically muddled to make out such a clear political position. Either you knew this and were deliberately lying about the content of Keith's review, or you need a serious lesson in reading comprehension, because this is basic stuff."

Now that's at least as dishonest an intepretation. He disagrees with Kehr's Bush interpretation, but nevertheless calls his above quoted ambiguity criticisms "astute." If you're going to criticize me for misrepresenting what's there, you shouldn't do the same.

"Mr. Anonymous at 4:05 made a good point about the dishonesty of chopping Keith's comments in half and misrepresenting them out of context in order to create another contradiction that wasn't there. I find insulting the way you casually dismissed what he had to say earlier on this page, quoting some comments intended as humour with which he ended his comment to present him as an idiot so you could avoid dealing with his serious points (such as your own dishonesty), without making any attempt whatsoever to answer many of his arguments. If you are above everyone else and have no time to answer them, then why do you expect others should have any time for what you have to say? The arrogance is unbelievable."

I think this is a bit overboard. I did indeed tease andrew for calling anonymous's criticisms so brilliant, when he clearly hadn't done a very thorough job. I then went on to defend the main relevant point. Like I said above, I didn't want to pull the entire argument into this thread if it wasn't actually relevant. I wasn't trying to cover up my own dishonesty, or pretending I was above everyone.

As for this quoting out of context business: I sliced quotes to make them fit better into the comparative sentences. I wasn't trying to distort. If I had thought I was distorting his sentences by taking the meat of them, I wouldn't have done this. But, quite frankly, you've failed to show that anything I did was really misrepresenting. Whether he was quoting for truth or just commending astuteness, Keith was undeniably agreeing (in some capacity) that the movie was unambiguous. He then goes on to accuse the movie of being muddled. I'm not making an inaccurate or misleading description: this is what he did. I'm sorry if it seemed like I was being deceptive-- that honestly wasn't my goal.

"The fact that your tirade against Keith's review so deliberately misleads those reading suggests that your dissatisfaction has less to do with technical problems you see in it and more to do with your disagreement with his verdict, and that you are grasping at straws to discredit him. If this is in fact not the case, you would do well to be more honest in your approach."

Like I've said, I wasn't trying to be dishonest. As your alternative attempt at summarization shows, it's not always easy to represent other's writing (and it gets harder when they're unclear--as I would argue Keith is). I think I've brought up substantial problems with his attack, and I think the only responses have failed. He provides little to no support for his attacks on the film's a) philosophy and symbolism, b) aesthetic. Furthermore, his attacks on the film's philosophy appear to contradict themselves, with no obvious way of reconciling the contradiction.

"Adding your own perspective in the form of a review would give back, but you don't want to do this since you have only watched the film once. The lack of extreme in-depth analysis that displeased you in Keith's review can perhaps be explained by the fact that he too had only watched the film once when he wrote his review, yet rather than using this as an excuse not to say anything, he still at least tried to contribute, and through his writing was able to promote discussion and analysis of The Dark Knight."

I don't understand this as a defense. You think it's better to wing a test when you haven't studied, rather than taking it another day (if that's an option-- in this metaphor, it is). The fact that Keith attempted to write a review after only one viewing, I think, is a very large fault, and probably responsible for many of the problems I've attempted to evince. I'd rather he (or anyone) not contribute until they were able to do so in a meaningful manner, with legitimate defense for their accusations. This is all I've ever been saying, and I think you're over-extending yourself by attempting to accuse me of being dishonest or duplicitous. I very explicitly did not try to attribute dishonest motives to Keith-- while others were accusing him of just trying to go against the grain, I was insistent that this was his legitimate distaste, just poorly justified.

"When you don't seem to have attempted any analysis and one of the only things you felt worthy of noting about the film is that "Gylehaal is a “butter-face” it seems like the real reason why you won't contribute a review of this film instead of this pointless nitpicking is that you don't have anything worthwhile to say about it."

Not until the second viewing!

I don't think you're really discrediting me much when you accuse me of not reviewing the movie itself. I'm responding to an attack on the movie, not the movie. I write about things I'm well-acquainted with, and I think others probably should too. If this is me disliking things because of their "failure to conform to your own taste and demands," then I suppose I'm guilty. But I just don't see it as a valid contention that I am obligated to defend the movie itself. And you don't either, apparently, since you're fine with Ed's review.

Oh, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is very much a butter-face.

"And clearly there was nothing absurd about the torrent of commenters ignoring the content of Keith's review and simply calling him a moron; after all, hundreds were in agreement!"

Alright, you've got me there. (Though, I think it's a little different when hundreds of anonymous people call Uhlich gay, from when I write a polemic that gets accolades from intelligent people like Jody.) I was just frustrated by andrew's condescending tone.

Jacob said...

"There's probably some material of substance I need to respond to here, but for now just a quick entreaty that everyone remain civil and refrain from the namecalling and insults that ruined the comments thread at Keith's original review. I don't want this devolving into another troll-fest overnight. I'd much prefer that these comments develop towards more of a substantive discussion of the film's merits and faults. It's a rich and complicated film, let's treat it that way. Thanks everyone for commenting so far."

Sorry ed! I was frustrated by andrew's condescending tone, which was unwarranted.

zac said...

you really touched on something that struck me as off from the moment i first read keith's review, which is that, in some ways, keith's feelings about the movie are just as irrational as the defensive fanboy "omfg ur dumb" type comments it induced. it seemed to me like keith made a curiously high number unsubstantiated grand statements like those you quote in your first paragraph. i by no means want to accuse keith of not putting a lot of though into his review, but, but a larger number than i was comfortable with of his criticisms were of a personal, visceral nature. maybe that's the point of the review, but i wonder if he could have made that more clear.

Jacob said...

cde: It's just occurred to me an alternative way of articulating my complaint, in light of your criticisms. You attack me for not responding to the content of the movie, or of the review, but instead blindly (and dishonestly) insisting that there is no content in the review, thereby giving myself the easy way out. I'd like to explain that the reason my attack on the review was so scathing is this: I would have loved to talk about his criticisms of the film, and how I disagree with them. However, I felt that his style made this very difficult, because once one attempted to brush off the rhetoric and parse out the content, there was little to discuss. This was frustrating, because I did indeed want to disagree and argue about his claims. Since I felt this was unnecessarily difficult--because there were few articulated and justified claims--I attacked the source of this difficulty: the equivocal nature of his criticism.

You point to other responses (ed's) as a model example of a valid response to keith's review. I'd like to note that his response actually hurts your argument:

"I disagree pretty intensely with most of his feelings about the film, but much of what Uhlich says is hard to argue with because it's so subjective and personal, intimately connected with his own visceral responses to the film. Do Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine spout "gloomy old man platitudes?" Does the film's dialogue possess the "solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit?" Is director Christopher Nolan "a high-minded con artist — the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite?" Is the film a case of "shallow artistry" at work? I didn't think so, but any defense of such vague, rhetorical argumentation would basically have to boil down to a game of "yes it is"/"no it isn't," so I'll leave the review's more high-flown language alone, for the most part."

He then disagrees with an important, but more minor part of keith's review, again showing how difficult it is to debate and respond to the bulk of it. This seems to be in exact accordance with what I've argued. You claim that:

"Saying that "this review says nothing and contains no content or real arguments, so I have no idea what it is saying, therefore it sucks" ... is clearly untrue, given the way that the discussion inspired by Ed's blog post has been carried out. How would that be possible if Uhlich's review had no arguments or content?"

Well, that's your answer. The only discussion of keith's review has been about the (very) few clear points that were given. The bulk of the review has had no response-- because there's no response to give: "any defense of such vague, rhetorical argumentation would basically have to boil down to a game of 'yes it is'/'no it isn't.'" This frustrated me. If you head over to the cooler, I've responded to the content of a review that actually had content. http://coolercinema.blogspot.com/2008/07/no-laughing-matter-dark-knight.html

Jacob said...

And onto the movie itself.

Nolan's avoidance of this was apparent to the point of ludicrousness. In the scene of Gamble's...death? Mutilation? It's not clear what happened there, but Nolan averts his gaze so much from the aftermath of the Joker's attack that what has happened is confusing.

I completely agree with this being a confusing cut. My suspicion, contra jody, is that it was just poorly done, probably because they only had violent footage for that scene, but when they realized that they could make the film PG-13, and this was one of the few cuts left that needed to be removed, they didn't have anything good to replace it with.

What I disagree with is using this lone example to critique the entire film as an exercise in avert your eyes sadism. This is the one lone example that comes to mind of Nolan hiding something. The pencil bit, I thought, was flawless and could not have done better (the audience reaction seemed to suggest this was the case). To me, this is just such a clear example of a lone flaw, and not an indicator of some deeper Nolanian aesthetic-philosophical framework, that I think it's silly to conflate it.

"Probably because of the "look at me I'm a serious film about serious themes" dialogue that everyone in this universe delivers. The film begs to be looked at as something more than a cartoon, so why should I give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here?"

Comics are pretty full of this sort of thing. This is why the monologues, though just a tad excessive, were excusable: it's a comic book film.

"And yes, the man suddenly slumping to the floor confused me. The Joker's monologue suggested a cheek slitting, but the collapse suggested a throat slitting."

Again, I agree. It's not terribly implausible to me, however, that a knife starting at the corner of the mouth, pulled abruptly to the back/roof of the mouth, could go into the brain. But this is certainly confusing at the moment. Just not a deal breaker, in my eyes.

Globular said...

Blame the MPAA for censoring Nolan and The Jokers follow through with that smile carving.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Ed, quite a dust-up, and thanks for the thoughtful reply to Uhlich's article (even if I largely agree with Uhlich). Nope, the pencil's not a big issue for me--always thought it was a cunning attempt to keep a PG 13 rating. I've more of an issue with as Uhlich points out Nolan being thuddingly literal. He's not bad, the movie ain't either, I think, but he just hasn't quite convinced me I should be excited.

Noel Vera said...

I might add that Dent's face was impressive not so much for the raw flesh, but for the crispiness. I've done steaks on cast iron pans that had that kind of texture.

That realism is troubling, incidentally. You get Law and Order style police procedural, then some guy in black Kevlar (with titanium weave) jumps out of nowhere, flapping a cape. Perhaps Nolan needs to deal with that issue a little more, if he decides to do a sequel (I actually think for the sake of his growth as an artist he should move on).

Strangely, Joker seems less silly--at least with him we're allowed to laugh.

Kevin H. said...

If you were frustrated by Andrew's condescending tone, Jacob, be aware that it was probably in response to your own rather arrogant assertions about Keith's review, its lack of content, and everyone else's failure to satisfactorily respond to your rigorously logical attack on it, although one commenter did manage to successfully argue several of your points before giving in to the too demanding requirements of time and length (though not without an unfortunately rude parting remark, which again he probably thought you deserved). Truth be told, you frequently phrased your arguments in a relentlessly haughty (though some might stretch to say "self-assured") tone, which did little to endear you to the person you were criticising (or the people taking his side), so it's no wonder you were having trouble getting many satisfactory, non-hostile responses: you shat on his effort and then asked for further clarification. Why on earth should he give you the satisfaction?

That early air of (unintentional?) disrespect seems to have flown (in favour of a more reasoned, amiable discourse), so there's no need to reprimand you for it further (please, everyone, let's put the bad blood behind us), but take note of the fact that much of the chilly response you're getting can be chalked up to your original post's hostility, even if it was unintentional.

As for your argument itself: I think there's a foundational difference between your and Keith's respective approaches to writing (as well as making sense of a film experience) that gets in the way of any further discussion. Where you write for clarity of meaning and aim to construct your arguments logically, Keith works to reproduce his emotional responses verbally and often makes use of a metaphorical style that's poetic in nature rather than rigorously direct. This "clarity/artistry" divide seems to be the root of your disagreement: Keith refuses to argue logically and you refuse to extrapolate meaning from his poetic evocations. There's meaning there, I assure you -- you just have to wring it from the artfully and rhythmically arranged prose.

Ultimately, because the piece is more a reflection of Keith's experience of and reaction to TDK, it helps to have enjoyed (or in this case "suffered") an experience similar to his own before coming to his review and looking to make sense of it. This certainly doesn't do much good for the (seemingly vast) majority of film-goers who've fallen in love with Nolan's latest, but all I mean to suggest is that, for someone like me, who had a powerfully negative response to the film from start to finish, Keith's review fully and accurately reflects my own responses and dissatisfactions, and I had no trouble understanding its content, which seems pretty palpable when you're coming from the same place.

But how about a brief example of how one might wring content from the "artfully arranged prose" with which I credit Mr. Uhlich. Let's take the most hotly contested phrase in the review (at least as indicated in this thread) and see what we can make of it.

"For Nolan, [the Joker] can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh." (Emphasis mine.)

The key to unpacking writing such as this is to let all the associations and reverberations in the words and their relationships bubble up to the surface, instead of focusing on their literal, logical meaning and criticising them for their obscurity. Once you allow for metaphorical rather than strictly logical value, the passage becomes something easier to parse.

Keith says "spoiled" because the Joker is selfish, self-centered, and willing to sacrifice other people (even their very lives) to his own capricious and diabolical interests. He's also a "bastard child" because he is the unintentional and un-asked-for product of "humanity's indifference", which we can understand to mean "apathy": a growing carelessness towards our fellow beings -- even towards the planet on which we live (or on which we "feed") -- that points to an emotional and spiritual void in our lives, an inability to find meaning in modern existence, which leaves room for the kind of meaningless conception of life the Joker's antics hinge upon. This is the very root of his nihilism.

As for the final phrase, it might be easier to understand its meaning when rendered thusly: "a literal sickness-made-flesh". This reading identifies the Joker as the physical manifestation of an overwhelming societal apathy, the result of a growing indifference to daily life that has begun to reveal ceratin stark, nihilistic "truths" about human nature and society (e.g. their inherent meaninglessness in the face of flagging moral and spiritual core values). We might also read it simply as "literal sickness" (i.e. humanity's growing moral/spiritual/emotional emptiness) "made flesh" (i.e. manifested in the physical person, personality and philosophical attitudes of the Joker).

In addition, it should be noted that Keith qualifies his entire statement with the assertaion that, "For Nolan, [the Joker]...has to be something of a spoiled bastard child [etc.]" (emphasis again mine), indicating that what follows is only a rough approximation of what the Joker seems to be meant to represent, since what he is exactly is inseparable from the film proper, precisely the sum total of the scenes in which he appears, or even the complete running time of the finished work (something impossible to keep whole either upon reflection or during analysis). Keith is admitting his interpretive limitations (or anyone's, for that matter) with a simple turn of phrase built right into the statement of his interpretive effort. Like he said, this isn't the final word: feel free to take issue with his opinion.

Next, I want to interpret Keith's implied value-judgment in this same passage. Here it is again to refresh the memory:

"For Nolan, [the Joker] can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh."

This can be interpreted several ways, but I'm going to assume (given the style and diction) he means this: "obviously the Joker is a sadistic psychopath in clown make-up -- and Nolan sure isn't about to argue -- but this isn't enough for the (co-)writer-director, who belabours the character's allegorical significance so heavily that he ultimately drains him of something essential." And, for my part, I think that "something" is the immediacy, the vitality and even the believability that Nolan seems desperate to inject into the Batman franchise, given his efforts here to emulate the gritty realism of Michael Mann's Heat, etc. For all his attmepts at realism, the characters and situations in TDK are allegorically "cooked": simply means to an end instead of ends in-and-of-themselves.

The Joker isn't a well fleshed-out individual, or even a fully developed character, but merely a cog in an ill-fitted allegory that is less concerned with realism than its surfaces would like us to believe. Is he an interesting allegorical construct? Damn right! And I think there's more truth to the philosophical ideas he espouses than most viewers are comfortable admitting. In fact, that's one of the reasons I kinda dislike the film: the Joker is too potent, too despairing a presence to go unchecked, and the Nolan's do nothing to leaven his nihilistic outlook, whether formally or content-wise, thus rendering the film almost utterly, relentlessly bleak. But this is a tangent that can and should be pursued at a more appropriate time (like when I'm fully awake).

Keep in mind, when I say "well fleshed-out" I don't necessarily mean "explained" or "provided with a backstory," but rather rendered convincingly as a unique (and inspired, if depraved) individual, whose speech isn't entirely made up of (sometimes stark, sometimes unlikely, often strained) philosophical declarations and challenges. It would go down smoother, draw less attention to the film's schema and ultimately make the character more threatening and less aggravatingly symbolic if he were better individuated. (Ledger goes a hell of a long way to making this a non-issue, but the script only lets him go so far....)

In your last two comments (and I'm specifically addressing you again, Jacob), you complain that Keith's review is too vague and subjective to argue logically. I would agree. It's an opinion, an evocation of his film experience, an expression of his personal biases, preferences and standards of evaluation, and at the same time a value-judgment of the film in question. What else could be expected of a review(er)? Even if he made any claims to rational objectivity (which he doesn't) each of his arguments would have to be founded on premises coloured with subjective bias. Take the long-examined passage above: Keith suggests that moving too far into allegorical territory on the axis of realism vs. symbolism (given the surrounding circumstances relevant to this particular film) is a fault because it results in a narrative and characters that serve an ideological function rather than a natural or organic function. If you disagree with this basic premise (and under these specific circumstances), then the review starts to fall apart and you're back to your initial statment of impasse.

Ultimately, we can very rarely "reason" about art successfully and everything inevitably returns to the subjective response that initiated our desire to reason about its origins in the first place.

A parting shot, just to show I'm listening: if you look up "apocryphal" in the dictionary, I think you'll find that it doesn't much suit your purposes when you describe Keith's review as "an apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon...." Alright, so you're playing cleverly with the relationship between "apocryphal" and "canon", but let's look at this more closely.

As an expression of his own personal emotional response to TDK, there is nothing to suggest that Keith's piece is either fictious or erroneous: I think we can safely assume he is being both honest and sincere. Furthermore, unless he had someone add to or elaborate on his work surreptitiously, we must conclude that his authorship of the piece is unquestionable, its authenticity undeniable. So unless you mean to suggest that Keith's review is somehow related to certain questionable books in the Old Testament.... You get my drift.

As for the "unanimously laudatory canon": any body of response that can be described in these terms has to be considered dubious at best and possibly even suspect of conspiracy.

Cde. said...

Thankyou, Jacob, for responding amiably and intelligently! I'm sorry if I seemed a little hostile before.

Moving on to what's been said...

I don't think Uhlich necessarily agrees at any point with what Kehr says. He calls Kehr's reading of the film 'astute', but according to the first dictionary result through Google (heh) it means:
"Having or showing shrewdness and discernment, especially with respect to one's own concerns."

Astute is not synonymous with correct or accurate. Keith thought that the comment was interesting (as evidenced by his use of the word 'astute'), but disagreed andpointed out that he personally disagreed, finding the film's themes "too muddled to be read with any sort of certainty."

The other example I was pointing to in Mr. Anon's post to point out what I saw as dishonesty in your comment was the one going around about the 'for Nolan, [the Joker] can't just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to...' line being turned through editing into a contradictory statement with the idea that the Joker is a symbolic figure when it really wasn't. That's all said and done, however. To add something new, I am pretty sure that in saying "for Nolan the Joker has to be this" he was saying that Nolan is not merely satisfied with this depiction, not that such a depiction is to the detriment of the film. Therefore, I see no contradiction there.

You're right, Ed too found it difficult to find material in Keith's review to respond to but I liked that he was willing to talk about the substance of the review and the film, which I can now see you are as well.I did find your initial post to be somewhat arrogant, but I see my assumptions that you didn't want to really discuss were wrong.

Oh yeah, I like Maggie Gyllenhaal! But my point before was that it didn't seem you were interested in talking about the substance of the film itself, again, which you've shown to be incorrect.

The funny thing about everyone who called Keith Uhlich gay to offend him is that he actually is. What an insult! What a progressive world we live in!

I think Kevin H got in in one when he spoke about the stylistic differences between your apparent preferred style of criticism and Keith's. I intended to allude to this in my earlier response near the beginning when I spoke about the reviews "failure to conform to your own taste and demands", but Kevin described this with a lot more clarity and eloquence.For me, someone who didn't much like the film, the ideas in Keith's writing rang true, but I can understand why they don't (or even seem incomprehensible) to others. They are certainly based on his own personal, visceral response to the film but again, that's his style of criticism.

Regarding the 'it's a comic book film' defence of the film's self-serious dialogue, I don't think that exonerates the film. I think this is pretentious and trite in comics and pretentious and trite in film as well. Just because something is true to its source material doesn't mean that is automatically a good thing or that any flaws that arise as a result of this faithfulness should be ignored or can't be helped.

Cde. said...

Oh, and I agree that we don't literally see throughout the film the exact same style of 'cutting away when the violence hits' that we do when the Joker attacks Gamble, but I think what Keith was getting at (and I agree with this) is that the film in general likes to unsettle us with a build-up before pulling away from showing consequences (or stepping away from the matter entirely).

Ed Howard said...

Kevin H said:
"The Joker isn't a well fleshed-out individual, or even a fully developed character, but merely a cog in an ill-fitted allegory that is less concerned with realism than its surfaces would like us to believe... I think there's more truth to the philosophical ideas he espouses than most viewers are comfortable admitting. In fact, that's one of the reasons I kinda dislike the film: the Joker is too potent, too despairing a presence to go unchecked, and the Nolan's do nothing to leaven his nihilistic outlook, whether formally or content-wise, thus rendering the film almost utterly, relentlessly bleak."

This is very interesting, and though I find myself agreeing with much of what you say, I had the near-complete opposite reaction to most of it. Yes, the Joker is a distinctly allegorical creation, as is Batman, as is Two Face. The trio fits together quite neatly, like cogs in a machine, indeed. Nolan uses them, especially the Joker, as points in a triangle of good and evil, order and chaos, with Two Face occupying a pivotal position between the two extremes. It's to that end that Harvey Dent is the film's most human and compelling character, a good but ordinary man trapped between two self-appointed avatars of good and evil. I confess I'm not too sure what exactly is wrong with using a character allegorically, especially a character like the Joker who has traditionally served this same function in the comics. It's not enough, to me, to point out the character's function and lack of human specificity -- he's meant to be a somewhat abstracted philosophical force.

I also agree with you that the Joker's philosophy has some cunning appeal to it, and this is one of the things that makes his character so uncomfortable to watch. I think audiences instinctively understand, even if they can't articulate it, that the Joker is so disturbing and unsettling because he actually has something of a point. This, too, is true to the Joker: he should provoke nervous laughter and uncomfortable thoughts. What he's trying to do in the movie is very similar to what he did in The Killing Joke, aiming to drive ordinary people mad with his acts of violence and terror. The film does little to contradict his assertion that we're all a few steps away from such madness and cruelty, and this too is intentional. This is a bleak film because, I think, the Nolans have a rather bleak view of our society right now. The society represented in this movie doesn't take much of a push to start throwing away their morals and boundaries, just as the forces of law and order quickly resort to illegal and unethical methods when put in a tight spot. It's a film about the fragility of social order, and for this reason the Joker is largely unchecked philosophically. There are slight rays of hope, in the form of the people on the boats, and the fact that Batman blows up his surveillance equipment after one use, but these are relatively minor, hollow victories for morality and order. The film is definitely bleak overall. Again, so?

Jody said...

Kevin h.

Keith couldn't have asked for a more generously effective second than you in this duel. (That is, Keith vs. the world!). Seriously, your analysis was terrific.

You write, however: Ultimately, we can very rarely "reason" about art successfully and everything inevitably returns to the subjective response that initiated our desire to reason about its origins in the first place.

This is only generally true if the critic seems to assume his readers are basically an unreasonable mob of truculent dummies.

It is the critic's job to at least persuasively clarify his or her personal insight - not simply to browbeat the audience with a string of joylessly peevish observations.

I don't imagine I'm unusual as someone who first demands of a determinedly iconoclastic critic: "amaze me with what it is that you saw and I did not see".

Overall, Keith seemed to fail this test.

Or should I say that Keith seemed to fail "something of this test"?!!

Because maybe you'll very generously read into my use of "something" everything you managed to divine from Keith's use of the word!

Once again, Keith's much quoted phrase: "For Nolan, [the Joker] can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh."

I actually agree that it makes sense to translate Keith's meaning just as you did: "And, for my part, I think that "something" is the immediacy, the vitality and even the believability that Nolan seems desperate to inject into the Batman franchise, given his efforts here to emulate the gritty realism of Michael Mann's Heat, etc".

If only Keith had typed "something" like that in the first place!

Cde. said...

Jody,
I think Keith doesn't aim to satisfy the demands of that test in his criticism, though, but rather to artfully explain his perspective of watching the film. Once again, two different schools of thought. For someone like Keith, talking 'logically' about the film is useless, since most of your thoughts are truly subjective and based upon personal biases and visceral reactions, and for people like you and Jacob, writing as he does utterly fails to convince of the veracity of his opinions or why you should take them seriously. I get it, but for that reason I don't think that line of discussion can go much further.

Kevin's bolding of 'something' was just for illustrative purposes when he dwelt upon it. This makes sense based on what he wrote, since according to his argument a Keith Uhlich review is thoughtfully constructed so that every word carries a meaning that adds to the idea or emotion he is trying to express.

'Joyless, peevish observations' is subjective, and I don't agree, but I can understand where you're coming from.

Anonymous said...

Matt Dupont said...

(Sorry I don't have a user ID, I'm not a regular blogger and am unsure if the trend will continue for me.)

I'm glad we're back to discussing the film! In part anyways…

One thing I'd like to bring up is my problem with using Mann's 'Heat' as a standard of "gritty realism" when attempting to dismiss 'The Dark Knight', which I'm seeing a lot of in these circles. Mann's film is more macho fever dream than the comparison allows for and I think TDK follows this. 'Heat' is far too slick and overblown to be gritty or realistic as is TDK (minus the slickness). Nolan's film might be a few more steps removed from the "real" world than 'Heat' due to the inherent comic book eccentricities of the material, but 'Heat' is still an attempt to lift the crime/heist/procedural (whatever you want to call it) genre picture to something "more". All of the "high-minded" aspects are still as forced. 'Heat' has a ton of heavy dialogue: how many times does Deniro give his "Heat" speech (explicitly hammering in the significance of the film's title no less!)? Perhaps 'Heat' is a more personal film by a far more seasoned vet, but I guess all I'm trying to say is that serious tone and no-bullshit action does not equal realism even if it does feel more "grown-up". I believe we know this, but I think we're getting lost in the "masterpiece" discussion which is a terrible way to discuss a film (at least one this new).

I write this fully aware that Nolan invited this comparison by citing 'Heat' as an influence. In this I think he captures Mann's tone quite well (in the opening heist at least) and fever-dream pitch while still being original, even if the craftsmanship isn't as polished, I don’t remember ‘Heat’ being this much fun..

As for the Joker's dialogue, it's heavy and pretentious, but I'd say it's at least as fun in a ham-fisted way as everything Rutgar Hauer says in 'Blade Runner'. In fact I'm thinking a comparison to 'Blade Runner' is more fruitful as far as the film's "reality" is concerned, but I'll have to chew on that one a little more.

If you don't have a taste for genre ham, hyperbole and theatrics than I can see how this film wouldn't work. Seems like this film’s epic qualities are rubbing some the wrong way for reasons that are difficult to articulate.

At least this film is very rich in its flaws and fun to discuss.

Kevin H. said...

Jody,

If Keith had to write as much as I did to explain and justify each sentence of his review, we'd still be reading it today instead of endlessly arguing its perceived merits and failings. : )

I also disagree that my comments regarding reason (and its limits as a means of aesthetic evaluation) imply that unreasoning dummies are the only ones who can find value in the (artful) description of a subjective response. In some aspects of life (such as faith, love and, yes, emotional responses to art) reason can be a limiting process rather than a clarifying one -- a crutch used to prop up an intelligent fool, or a ceiling that restricts the growth of a soulful thinker. Many discoveries exist outside of reason. But most of this is beside the point. Really, I think we should just stop harping on Keith's review and keep running with some of the other ideas that have come up in the discussion: things that actually relate to the film itself and not just the response of a particular individual.

One more issue: as cde. (nearly-almost) pointed out (and thanks for the assist, sir ... or madam?) you have conflated two different uses of the word "something" in my (lengthy and laborious) write-up. Keith wrote: "...something of a bastard child [etc.]," which I interpreted as a qualifier in relation to his further statement; and I later wrote: "[Nolan] belabours the character's allegorical significance so heavily that he ultimately drains him of something essential," before going on to define for myself what this second and distinct "something" was.

But perhaps this careful book-keeping is little more than fussy pedantry: essentially, we understand one another well enough to get by. : )

And thanks for the kind words, by the way. Always nice to hear.

Ed,

I hear you, but I'm going to disappoint you by limiting myself to a few quick points before gracefully bowing out of this comment and trying to get something genuinely productive done with at least part of my day (though I'll certainly be back for another peek later).

As Armond White wrote: "Dent says, 'You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.' What kind of crap is that to teach our children, or swallow ourselves? Such illogic sums up hipster nihilism...."

TDK, for me, is an endless litany of such grim, despairing platitudes, though the Joker tends to cut through some of this verbal torpor with an aggressive incisiveness (too bad it's still mostly just grim rather than revelatory). If all this bleakness were leavened by some other aspect of the production (its visual artistry or formal design -- which includes composition, editing, arrangement, music, etc.), or if Nolan offered us some basic, emotionally gratifying thrills, or even the barest whiff of transcendence to balance the Joker's cruel insight, I might not find it such a joylessly peevish affair (to borrow Jody's phrase).

As it stands, the film's ugliness is overwhelming, its willingness to cover us in it is degrading (Two-Face threatening a kid with a gun to the head, are you kidding me? -- in the midst of all this brutal despair dressed up as comic-book mayhem?) and the Joker's powerful consciousness is like a slap to the face: this is a figure given an almost Hamlet-like ability to cut through the veil of socially constructed "reality" but with none of the counter-balancing self-criticism. Where Hamlet is paralyzed by his nihilistic insight (frozen not by indecision, but as a result of his cognition of the banality of action), the Joker finds glee in the assertion of human nature/society's emptiness. Unfiltered, this view of life is too potent to fling at us in a piece of pop-culture entertainment: it is dishonest and even dangerous due to its extremity (though few seem to take it quite that seriously).

Certainly its status as "entertainment" doesn't prevent it from being serious or from having something important to say. But as is, TDK has very little of import to tell me, in my humble opinion. And, ultimately, isn't Nolan's relentlessly bleak vision of this comic book world and its moral bankruptcy -- offered to us without the ballast of any kind of uplift or surface joy -- an example of the very kind of "push" the Joker is talking about?

(Addendum: Nice dissection -- or is that evisceration? -- of the Heat/TDK/realism argument, Matt, and the inherent fallacy in its unspecified, broadly stated use. You're quite right, in large part, but I still think the criticism holds if developed more carefully. I'll have to come back to this, since I'm already way overdue to get out of this comment, but let me just say that I wildly disagree with your comparison to Blade Runner: a film so overtly stylized through every fibre of its make-up that any attempt to connect it with TDK's drab surface realism is doomed to fail. Also -- and here's food for thought -- consider that both Heat and Blade Runner have a powerfully redemptive [even rejeuvenative] current running through them. That alone should be enough to get the argument started....)

Jacob said...

"A parting shot, just to show I'm listening: if you look up "apocryphal" in the dictionary, I think you'll find that it doesn't much suit your purposes when you describe Keith's review as "an apocryphal addition to the otherwise unanimously laudatory canon...." Alright, so you're playing cleverly with the relationship between "apocryphal" and "canon", but let's look at this more closely.

As an expression of his own personal emotional response to TDK, there is nothing to suggest that Keith's piece is either fictitious or erroneous: I think we can safely assume he is being both honest and sincere. Furthermore, unless he had someone add to or elaborate on his work surreptitiously, we must conclude that his authorship of the piece is unquestionable, its authenticity undeniable. So unless you mean to suggest that Keith's review is somehow related to certain questionable books in the Old Testament.... You get my drift.


Had to respond to this part first. I was not using "apocryphal" in the sense of spurious, but in the sense that the surrounding words (like "canon") clearly suggests: "of or resembling the Apocrypha” (Webster).

The "of" was that of analogy with "canon." We can see how this works with the definition of Apocrypha:

"a: books included in the Septuagint and Vulgate but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament — see bible table b: early Christian writings not included in the New Testament"

Generally, the Apocrypha of the New Testament are extra writing which are not included in the canon with the four gospels, often because they go against the church approved interpretations, and they weaken attempts to form a coherent consensus for Christianity and Christ.

My analogy scaffolds itself upon this understanding of "apocryphal": Keith's review was an aberration in the otherwise consensus-filled canon.

"As for the "unanimously laudatory canon": any body of response that can be described in these terms has to be considered dubious at best and possibly even suspect of conspiracy.""

Exactly, my review was starting off sympathetic. It was not meant to be an insult that Keith breaks the trend. But while I have no problem with negative reviews, as I go on to say, I do have a problem with this one.

"If you were frustrated by Andrew's condescending tone, Jacob, be aware that it was probably in response to your own rather arrogant assertions about Keith's review, its lack of content, and everyone else's failure to satisfactorily respond to your rigorously logical attack on it..."

What's this in reference to? I don't remember bemoaning the lack of intelligent responses-- the only thing similar was when I complained Andrew and anonymous weren't being thorough. But this was after (and a response to) andrew's condescension.

"Truth be told, you frequently phrased your arguments in a relentlessly haughty (though some might stretch to say "self-assured") tone, which did little to endear you to the person you were criticising (or the people taking his side), so it's no wonder you were having trouble getting many satisfactory, non-hostile responses: you shat on his effort and then asked for further clarification. Why on earth should he give you the satisfaction?"

See, though I think this is probably correct in terms of explaining the response, I don't think my review's scathing tone was terribly over the top-- primarily because I was just matching Keith's tone! My "self-assured" "shat" was not at all different from Keith's attitude towards the film. Anything that can be said about my condescension or rudeness towards Keith can also be said about him towards Nolan. And if he can write in such self-assured tones, I see no reason why I can't. The only difference (as I noted before) is that Keith is a critic, so it's his job, while my criticisms are a hobby. But that's hardly a deal breaker.

"That early air of (unintentional?) disrespect seems to have flown (in favour of a more reasoned, amiable discourse), so there's no need to reprimand you for it further (please, everyone, let's put the bad blood behind us), but take note of the fact that much of the chilly response you're getting can be chalked up to your original post's hostility, even if it was unintentional."

No, it wasn't quite unintentional (though I remark later it was at least slightly excessive). I have no problem with anyone responding to my tone ill-favorably, as long as they are not defending Keith's similar tone in the same breath.

"As for your argument itself: I think there's a foundational difference between your and Keith's respective approaches to writing (as well as making sense of a film experience) that gets in the way of any further discussion. Where you write for clarity of meaning and aim to construct your arguments logically, Keith works to reproduce his emotional responses verbally and often makes use of a metaphorical style that's poetic in nature rather than rigorously direct. This "clarity/artistry" divide seems to be the root of your disagreement: Keith refuses to argue logically and you refuse to extrapolate meaning from his poetic evocations. There's meaning there, I assure you -- you just have to wring it from the artfully and rhythmically arranged prose.

Ultimately, because the piece is more a reflection of Keith's experience of and reaction to TDK, it helps to have enjoyed (or in this case "suffered") an experience similar to his own before coming to his review and looking to make sense of it. This certainly doesn't do much good for the (seemingly vast) majority of film-goers who've fallen in love with Nolan's latest, but all I mean to suggest is that, for someone like me, who had a powerfully negative response to the film from start to finish, Keith's review fully and accurately reflects my own responses and dissatisfactions, and I had no trouble understanding its content, which seems pretty palpable when you're coming from the same place."


I suppose my accusations seem less or more credible depending on how your phrase it--whether stylized articulation of visceral, ineffable responses are a particular genre (as you argue), or whether they're just poor exposition (as I argue)--the validity of his and my criticism will significantly hinge on this critical perspective.

But I think your description above, while clearly meant to defend Keith, unintentionally disparages such a style. If a piece of writing simply has previously sympathetic readers nodding and previously unsympathetic reading shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders—even if this is the intended goal—then I think this is bad writing. This sort of essay should make me reflect on a new perspective on a movie, a perspective I was not previously privileged to. I saw few capable of that after Keith’s review, and still now, we have people who disliked Batman defending him, and people who enjoyed unable to countenance his arguments. If I’ve already disliked the movie, then reading a review simply to get a cathartic pleasure in witnessing my distaste articulated in pretty words seems pretty pointless, even base.

”In your last two comments (and I'm specifically addressing you again, Jacob), you complain that Keith's review is too vague and subjective to argue logically. I would agree. It's an opinion, an evocation of his film experience, an expression of his personal biases, preferences and standards of evaluation, and at the same time a value-judgment of the film in question. What else could be expected of a review(er)? Even if he made any claims to rational objectivity (which he doesn't) each of his arguments would have to be founded on premises coloured with subjective bias. Take the long-examined passage above: Keith suggests that moving too far into allegorical territory on the axis of realism vs. symbolism (given the surrounding circumstances relevant to this particular film) is a fault because it results in a narrative and characters that serve an ideological function rather than a natural or organic function. If you disagree with this basic premise (and under these specific circumstances), then the review starts to fall apart and you're back to your initial statment of impasse.

Ultimately, we can very rarely "reason" about art successfully and everything inevitably returns to the subjective response that initiated our desire to reason about its origins in the first place.


I think you touch on a good point (one that echoes the final paragraphs of my response to Keith), but I think you overextend it. Just because taste starts out with subjective foundations, does not mean we can’t talk about movies in rational terms. The foundations might be non-rational, but we tend to converge in agreement (or at least in "agree-to-disagreement") when we move to foundationals, allowing us to rationally discuss how a movie connects to these foundationals. Keith’s problem wasn’t starting with subjectivity: the key is to be clear on our subjective standards, then articulate how a piece of art does or doesn’t live up to those standards. My problem isn’t when a reviewer states they didn’t like this-or-that: then we can agree to disagree (cde doesn’t like comic-book-ish monologues—and that’s fine). My problem is when a reviewer doesn’t articulate or defend how a movie fails to live up to those subjective standards: why is the movie pseudo-philosophy like the Matrix, instead of touching on genuine philosophical themes artfully? His defense of this statement is to mock the anagrams of the Matrix (“one/neo”), but there’s nothing of the like in TDK. This suggests to me that his style—as with any style—is a bit more than articulated emotion: it does, ultimately, desire to justify its claims. But this is an excellent example of how poorly it does so.

Ultimately, I must insist that I object to your “artistry/clarity” dichotomy in writing. I think any writing needs both, and we all acknowledge that (even Keith), at least subconsciously: we need to see some sort of case being made, and not just rhetorical articulations of how something made us feel. I think it gets pushed a little closer to the artistry side when we’re discussing, well, art—but there still needs to be a cogent argument. Writing meant to have supporters cheer in visceral agreement is little better than propaganda, in my eyes.

"For Nolan, [the Joker] can’t just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity’s indifference, a literal sickness made flesh." (Emphasis mine.)

The key to unpacking writing such as this is to let all the associations and reverberations in the words and their relationships bubble up to the surface, instead of focusing on their literal, logical meaning and criticising them for their obscurity. Once you allow for metaphorical rather than strictly logical value, the passage becomes something easier to parse.


I think you’ve made an impressive interpretation of the phrase, and how it pertains to the movie, which, I think, vitiates my objections towards that phrase having little or no content. However, I believe my other objections still stand. Keith assumes that the Joker’s allegorical and symbolic status nullifies his power, menace, or effectiveness as “a sadistic, psychotic, clown.” I don’t see why he can’t work as both (just as, for instance, Chigurgh was both a very real terrifying villain, as well as symbolic), and its presumptive for Keith to state this as a problem in such loaded terms, with no justification.

”This can be interpreted several ways, but I'm going to assume (given the style and diction) he means this: "obviously the Joker is a sadistic psychopath in clown make-up -- and Nolan sure isn't about to argue -- but this isn't enough for the (co-)writer-director, who belabors the character's allegorical significance so heavily that he ultimately drains him of something essential." And, for my part, I think that "something" is the immediacy, the vitality and even the believability that Nolan seems desperate to inject into the Batman franchise, given his efforts here to emulate the gritty realism of Michael Mann's Heat, etc. For all his attempts at realism, the characters and situations in TDK are allegorically "cooked": simply means to an end instead of ends in-and-of-themselves.

The Joker isn't a well fleshed-out individual, or even a fully developed character, but merely a cog in an ill-fitted allegory that is less concerned with realism than its surfaces would like us to believe. Is he an interesting allegorical construct? Damn right! And I think there's more truth to the philosophical ideas he espouses than most viewers are comfortable admitting. In fact, that's one of the reasons I kinda dislike the film: the Joker is too potent, too despairing a presence to go unchecked, and the Nolan's do nothing to leaven his nihilistic outlook, whether formally or content-wise, thus rendering the film almost utterly, relentlessly bleak. But this is a tangent that can and should be pursued at a more appropriate time (like when I'm fully awake).

Keep in mind, when I say "well fleshed-out" I don't necessarily mean "explained" or "provided with a backstory," but rather rendered convincingly as a unique (and inspired, if depraved) individual, whose speech isn't entirely made up of (sometimes stark, sometimes unlikely, often strained) philosophical declarations and challenges. It would go down smoother, draw less attention to the film's schema and ultimately make the character more threatening and less aggravatingly symbolic if he were better individuated. (Ledger goes a hell of a long way to making this a non-issue, but the script only lets him go so far....)”


See, this is the exact sort of justification I would have loved to see in Keith’s original review. Even a dash more of this sort of clear argumentation would have made his review infinitely more satisfying, less frustrating, and above all, more intelligent-response-engendering.

I thought the Joker was incredibly believable as an individual throughout. I thought he was a character first, a symbol second. Perhaps I see allegorical scaffolding less readily than you and Keith, so what was artfully insisted for me was overbearingly declared for you and him. I just found him far too terrifying and immediate (largely thanks to Ledger) to ignore long enough to sit back, thinking “here goes that preachy symbol again.”

I suppose it would be hard to discuss this without another viewing, but I disagree that most of Ledger’s lines were strained philosophical challenges. Much of his dialogue seems to be there for nothing else but character development (the fake backstories, for example). And if there is this tendency in the script, then I think Ledger completely overcomes it with his acting, giving the Joker plenty of personal, individual quirks and mannerisms to make him an individual—a madman criminal—first, a symbol second. Ledger completely convinced me and immersed me with Joker that interacts and inhabits his surroundings seamlessly.

Oh, I also found the possibility of prescience and insight in the Joker’s worldview to be quite clever and haunting, but not overly so. You and Keith appear to completely disagree here, since he believes the Joker’s cackling cynic’s view does not reverberate beyond the screen, and you think it does so far too much. I would again note that it’s odd for Keith to complain about the Joker as a symbol not reverberating, considering he didn’t even think he should be a symbol.

---


I think that’s everything, sorry for the long post. I would like to comment that I found your insights quite helpful, and respond to anyone criticizing this conversation for being about Keith’s review: at least for me, this conversation has been extremely helpful, allowing me to practice my own argumentation, rhetoric, and writing, as well as learning about and discussing other such styles. It's also kept very closely to a good discussion of the movie.

Jacob said...

I don't think Uhlich necessarily agrees at any point with what Kehr says. He calls Kehr's reading of the film 'astute', but according to the first dictionary result through Google (heh) it means:
"Having or showing shrewdness and discernment, especially with respect to one's own concerns."

Astute is not synonymous with correct or accurate. Keith thought that the comment was interesting (as evidenced by his use of the word 'astute'), but disagreed andpointed out that he personally disagreed, finding the film's themes "too muddled to be read with any sort of certainty."


I think you're straining here, especially if you look up "shrewdness" (discerning awareness/acumen/accuracy, according to Webster) and "discernment" ("grasping the obscure" ibid). The structure of the paragraph made it quite clear, to me, that he was commending the Dirty Harry comment and disagreeing with the Bush apologia. If anything, a better excuse for the apparent contradiction is that Kehr meant "ambiguity" in a good way, and Uhlich meant "muddled" in a wish-washy way. But that's hardly a defense.

"The other example I was pointing to in Mr. Anon's post to point out what I saw as dishonesty in your comment was the one going around about the 'for Nolan, [the Joker] can't just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to...' line being turned through editing into a contradictory statement with the idea that the Joker is a symbolic figure when it really wasn't. That's all said and done, however. To add something new, I am pretty sure that in saying "for Nolan the Joker has to be this" he was saying that Nolan is not merely satisfied with this depiction, not that such a depiction is to the detriment of the film. Therefore, I see no contradiction there."

I was never arguing Uhlich was making a logical contradiction, only that he was making a problem, a false dichotomy, where there need not be one. As I've said before, there's nothing inherent about making the Joker symbolic that makes him less individual or immediate. Kevin has disagreed with an articulate couple of paragraphs, but this only lends support to my argument that Keith's original comment was abstruse and ill-defended.

I think Kevin H got in in one when he spoke about the stylistic differences between your apparent preferred style of criticism and Keith's. I intended to allude to this in my earlier response near the beginning when I spoke about the reviews "failure to conform to your own taste and demands", but Kevin described this with a lot more clarity and eloquence.For me, someone who didn't much like the film, the ideas in Keith's writing rang true, but I can understand why they don't (or even seem incomprehensible) to others. They are certainly based on his own personal, visceral response to the film but again, that's his style of criticism.

Yeah, as I tried to defend in my response to Keith, I found Uhlich's style to be less of a genre choice and more of a poor exposition. I think he should've seen the movie more than once, and added a little (a lot) more defense to his points. But I suppose I've said that already.

Regarding the 'it's a comic book film' defense of the film's self-serious dialogue, I don't think that exonerates the film. I think this is pretentious and trite in comics and pretentious and trite in film as well. Just because something is true to its source material doesn't mean that is automatically a good thing or that any flaws that arise as a result of this faithfulness should be ignored or can't be helped.

I'm not sure if I agree. I'll have to mull that over.

Jacob said...


I also disagree that my comments regarding reason (and its limits as a means of aesthetic evaluation) imply that unreasoning dummies are the only ones who can find value in the (artful) description of a subjective response. In some aspects of life (such as faith, love and, yes, emotional responses to art) reason can be a limiting process rather than a clarifying one -- a crutch used to prop up an intelligent fool, or a ceiling that restricts the growth of a soulful thinker. Many discoveries exist outside of reason. But most of this is beside the point. Really, I think we should just stop harping on Keith's review and keep running with some of the other ideas that have come up in the discussion: things that actually relate to the film itself and not just the response of a particular individual.


As I said above, I've actually found the discussion about Keith's review quite insightful, too, since it's a good chance to talk about the nature of art and criticism, emotions and reason. I wouldn't want that to stop.

I disagree partially with your comments above about reason having little place in art and emotions, but I've already explained that in my above post.

As Armond White wrote: "Dent says, 'You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.' What kind of crap is that to teach our children, or swallow ourselves? Such illogic sums up hipster nihilism...."

It's anything but clear to me that the movie whole-heartedly endorses this view, especially as something we should be "swallowing" (and that "oh, the children" provocation is just trite), because Batman himself does not succumb to this platitude (not actually--the movie isn't also empirically relativistic, at least). And what's "hipster" about this nihilism? I think these are perennial questions. Just because it's too dark (you raise some excellent points in that regard) does not mean it's shallow in its bleakness. If the movie is insightful then it's insightful, whether that's depressing or not. There are still good men left over at the end--Gordon, Alfred, Wayne, Fox--and we get hints they are relatively incorruptible (or at least not a coin-toss away from corruption). It reminds me of Thucydides' History: a bleak, hopeless humanity, with a few good souls (Pericles, if I'm remembering correctly) that seem to redeem it from complete nihilism. Certainly if a 400 BC historian can espouse such views, then Nolan should be able to do so without being accused of "hipster Matrix pseudo-philosophy."

consider that both Heat and Blade Runner have a powerfully redemptive [even rejeuvenative] current running through them. That alone should be enough to get the argument started....)

Certainly not the director's cut of Blade Runner. Is the original version redemptive?

Jason Bellamy said...

Damn. Miss a day of comments and it’s hell to catch up.

I’m glad to see the conversation has come back around to discussing the film (which isn’t to imply that Keith’s review, Ed’s response and other counterpoints weren’t worth dissecting). I was compiling a mental list of comments I wanted to leave, but it got jumbled somewhere along the way as this commenter quoted that commenter. And at some point I had to skim. So forgive me if I fail to further the conversation.

I think the comments by Kevin H (7/24, 2:44 am) turned things in the right direction with the paragraph beginning: “The Joker isn't a well fleshed-out individual, or even a fully developed character, but merely a cog in an ill-fitted allegory that is less concerned with realism than its surfaces would like us to believe. Is he an interesting allegorical construct? Damn right!”

Because for a while there, Jacob was right: people were arguing whether Keith’s assessment of the Joker was accurate but failing to argue Keith’s assessment of the effect. Maybe I missed it, but Jacob probably could have helped get his point across by making the comparison he made recently, which I was thinking of the entire time I was reading this discussion: Joker vs. Chigurh. I don’t want to speak for Jacob, but I imagine he’d say that if you take offense to the Joker’s heavy symbolism (above individual character) than you’d better take equal offense to Chigurh, who is arguably even more symbolic and less developed on individual character terms than is the Joker.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea here: I enjoy the hell out of both the Joker and Chigurh, heavy-handedly allegorical though they might be. Somewhere along the way, someone made a great point (might have been Kevin H in the same argument) that Ledger’s amazing performance almost makes up for the faults of the script. I agree. On that note, I think the problematic scene for the Joker – much as I enjoy it – is the one where he compares himself to a dog chasing a car. I’ll take a wild guess and assume the same scene probably led to Keith’s opinion that the Joker is too allegorical. And I see that argument. Because by comparing himself to the dog, the Joker is demonstrating a hell of a lot of lucidity for a guy who is so crazed.

“The Dark Knight” as a whole has a problem of telling instead of showing. To use the instance above, it would be more effective if another character described the Joker in those terms, or if we walked out of the theater using that comparison to explain the Joker. Instead, the Nolans, worried we won’t catch it on our own, illustrate it explicitly. (Unrelated to the conversation here, one of my problems with the film is that it constantly tells us that Harvey Dent is the white knight of Gotham, a symbol of hope for the citizens, but we don’t actually see the love…from anyone beyond Batman, the mayor, etc., I mean.)

Overwhelming though it is, this has been great conversation. And I’ll join the ranks thanking Ed for writing the post that offered this forum. I really don’t want to do anything to fan the flames of the mild-level sniping that has occurred here already, but I will say this in defense of Jacob (who, for the record, I don’t know from Jacob II). My review of “The Dark Knight” was critical, but in response he has left comments that were contemplative and open to opposing opinions. See for yourself, if you want. My point is simply that we all get away from talking about the good stuff when we resort to age cracks and other putdowns. There, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Not to come off like a shameless self-promoter – or to do anything to halt this conversation – but I posted some observations on the Batman/Bush parallels in “The Dark Knight.” I’d be curious for reactions from this readership, should you have time to take a look.

Kevin H. said...

Oh dear god...

Jacob, you're indefatigable. I haven't the freedom to stay up until the wee hours this morning to compose another lengthy reply (though it seems a mockery to use the term "lengthy" next to that mighty behemoth you left behind) and I don't know if I'll be able to properly contend with all that you've written across three (3!) separate comments, but I'll do my best to pop in with a few words whenever the opportunity arises (if other people don't relieve me of the necessity).

For now (I'm heading to bed) let me point everyone towards another interesting (if meandering) conversation of TDK over at Dave Kehr's blog:

http://www.davekehr.com/?p=59

A lot of indirectly related auteurist talk, but some of the comments are pretty fine, and I would specifically recommend scrolling down to dmohr's remarks on 07.21.08 @ 9:44 pm to find a striking evocation of the kind of disgust Nolan's gloom-mongering can engender.

Lastly, I just want to mention that your high quality of discourse, Jacob, has definitely encouraged me to refine my own standards, and I think you're forcing everyone to write more clearly and more to the point in each and every response made to you. As long as you leave the snark hanging up (and I think you've shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that you don't need it, and, indeed, thrive in its absence), your arguments can really shine.

G'night, all.

Jacob said...

Kevin:

Oh dear god...

Jacob, you're indefatigable. I haven't the freedom to stay up until the wee hours this morning to compose another lengthy reply (though it seems a mockery to use the term "lengthy" next to that mighty behemoth you left behind) and I don't know if I'll be able to properly contend with all that you've written across three (3!) separate comments, but I'll do my best to pop in with a few words whenever the opportunity arises (if other people don't relieve me of the necessity).


Eek! For a moment, I thought you were mocking me, but I see you're just surprised (or at least, that's what I extrapolated from your complimentary tone at the end).

As for indefatigable: yeah, sorry about that. I think you'll see that they aren't too large: I put some very long quotes of yours in there, which extended the length. Also, one of them was in response to cde, not you. But yeah, this sort of thing is essentially my bored-at-home hobby (better than video games, I guess). So I end up writing some long responses on my day off in the summer.

Lastly, I just want to mention that your high quality of discourse, Jacob, has definitely encouraged me to refine my own standards, and I think you're forcing everyone to write more clearly and more to the point in each and every response made to you. As long as you leave the snark hanging up (and I think you've shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that you don't need it, and, indeed, thrive in its absence), your arguments can really shine.

Thanks! Yeah, snark is a powerful and dangerous tool, and it's still unclear to me when (if ever) it's good to use it. When faced with heated disagreements, there's often a part of me that wants to let a Christopher-Hitchens-esque tone emerge and transform my writing into amusing polemics. But the rest of the time, I try and stay as clear and rigorous as possible. I still need to learn a good balance between the two, if indeed one can be struck.


Jason:

On that note, I think the problematic scene for the Joker – much as I enjoy it – is the one where he compares himself to a dog chasing a car. I’ll take a wild guess and assume the same scene probably led to Keith’s opinion that the Joker is too allegorical. And I see that argument. Because by comparing himself to the dog, the Joker is demonstrating a hell of a lot of lucidity for a guy who is so crazed.

“The Dark Knight” as a whole has a problem of telling instead of showing. To use the instance above, it would be more effective if another character described the Joker in those terms, or if we walked out of the theater using that comparison to explain the Joker. Instead, the Nolans, worried we won’t catch it on our own, illustrate it explicitly.


I think this is a fair problem with the film, but I think you're conflating it a bit. Let's look at that one instance. I would understand your criticism if the Joker was spouting some out-of-place monologue at Dent about his philosophical and symbolic status, but I found his "dog chasing cars" comment to flow quite naturally into the discourse and situation. It doesn't merely exist to re-inforce the Joker as a symbol, it's also functioning in the scene and plot: he is (if I recall correctly) explaining to Dent why he did what he did to Rachel, so as to (as we later find out) manipulate him into villainy--to turn Dent against the world, instead of just against him.

I think that, in general, if the philosophical framework is being piggybacked upon actions and dialogue that exist for reasons other than such a framework (such as plot, character, etc.) then the film doesn't expose it's allegorical skeleton in an egregious manner. We see this in those pedagogical monologues, which again, I only (partially) excuse because it's a comic book film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jacob: The Joker's comments do serve a function. And Ledger pulls that scene off nicely. And the analogy is an absolutely perfect one that fits the film. But, again, the effect would be greater if the Nolans could have delivered the same message through a different character. I actually like that scene. But when I look at it from Keith's perspective, that's a scene I zero in on and see where the Joker somewhat steps out of his own skin to speak for the movie's themes more than himself.

Jody said...

Just to echo appreciation of the way this thread has turned (including the recent links & not least of all "young" Jacob's graceful arguments).
I'm actually going off line for 4 days - a brief holiday - which I find unusually vexing timing only because of this thread!).

Kevin H. said...

Some quick provocations (but try not to allow their brevity to imply hostility or disdain):

“Anything that can be said about my condescension or rudeness towards Keith can also be said about him towards Nolan. And if he can write in such self-assured tones, I see no reason why I can't.... I have no problem with anyone responding to my tone ill-favorably, as long as they are not defending Keith's similar tone in the same breath.”

But Keith didn’t march over to Christopher Nolan’s house and slip a copy of his review in the mailbox. He aired his grievances with TDK in an open forum and you attacked him (not just his method) on his own site. The difference is one of direct vs. indirect assault on a subject. This might inspire cries of “hypocrisy!” and I will admit that Keith’s tone is perhaps equally unjustified, but where he was responding to an emotional experience in emotional terms (this is the way the film made him feel), you were responding to his lack of rigour with a petulant and offensive tone that added little rigour or validity to your own argument. And dammit-all if this line of thought isn’t leading us back to the subject of art vs. argument, intuition vs. reason ... but I swore I would be brief (and I need to be), so I’ll move on

(Oh, also: “shat”, in this instance, is just a past tense conjugation of the verb “to shit”, which I was using ironically for emphasis -- though I admit it’s difficult to create a jestful tone in the midst of all this careful and rigorous display of reason. : ) ["smilies" help, of course])

***

“If a piece of writing simply has previously sympathetic readers nodding and previously unsympathetic reading shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders—even if this is the intended goal—then I think this is bad writing.”

It’s certainly your prerogative to think so. I’m not so sure this is the case, however, (or the intended goal), since I’ve offered Keith’s review to several other fans of TDK, each of whom found something of value in the piece, whether simply an observation of a perceived failing they hadn’t considered (lots of off-screen developments and unexplained action) or a less enamoured take on the Nolans’ modus operandi (eliding visible displays of “offensive material” while openly pimping an atmosphere and tone of viciousness and despair -- or, “now you see it and now you don’t,” if you prefer : ) ).

“...and still now, we have people who disliked Batman defending him, and people who enjoyed [it] unable to countenance his arguments.”

But this isn’t going to change! Even with the best, most well-reasoned and rigorous assault on or defense of the film few people are going to switch camps in response, and I suppose this isn’t even the point: we’re simply all sharing perspectives, arguments and feelings, not necessarily asking to be held to the rigid requirements of academia. Alright, so you’re specifically implying that Keith’s arguments (or lack thereof) fail in the face of a positive response to the film, but this is simply not true, as my lengthy analysis of a single sentence has shown: there’s plenty here to expand on, Keith just doesn’t have time to elaborate endlessly on every point he’s making -- we can do that for ourselves, whether or not we agree with him.

***

“I think you touch on a good point (one that echoes the final paragraphs of my response to Keith)...”

Re-reading this thread last week, I was surprised to discover that most of what I’ve written is just a rehashing of points, perspectives and attitudes that have already appeared under different guises above. I’m a little disappointed that so much time and effort went into re-stating what I might have simply quoted for ease (also, I appear much less original and inspired upon reflection...), but whattaya gonna do, right?

“Just because taste starts out with subjective foundations, does not mean we can’t talk about movies in rational terms.”

I agree with the line of reasoning you’ve developed in this paragraph and might even hold it as something of an ideal in terms of accurately outlining the basic rules of argumentation. On the other hand, I also know that maintaining this caliber of discourse is exceedingly difficult and time-consuming, even with the simplest of subjects. Contrary to popular belief (in this thread, anyway), I tend to be an intuitive, emotional thinker, incredibly lazy when it comes to rigorous argumentation because I know how difficult it is and I tend to be a stickler for details: I can very rarely let a point go unstated and usually spare the reader nothing in my attempts to articulate an idea once I get going. But I also get turned around and easily confused, lead off-track by endless series of tangential developments and indirectly related thoughts, run off course by a side note (like this one) that hopes to clarify something that I could probably do without, but who knows what a fellow like Jacob might make of an off-hand remark. But let that be.

There’s only so much time and energy we can devote to things (I’m already running way over my intended word count this evening) and as I said before, even the most carefully developed argument leads to ... well, further argumentation -- particularly when the subject is art or experience -- so at some point, why bother with the nitty-gritty when the largest statements get you to essentially the same place, and in less time? (Though less to the satisfaction of those who disagree, admittedly.) I’m not advocating for this approach in general (far from it, I’d like to think), but when the subject of argument is the new Batman movie and, like me, you don’t see much value in the thing apart from a few key performances or effects (etc.), why spend days (instead of hours -- though still long hours, I should point out) carefully and rigorously reasoning out the foundationals? Essentially, you’re asking for more than what's required and more than most people are willing to give, I think, and if you really want to get to the bottom of the film then instead of badgering Keith about his own failings, correct them by addressing the film yourself (something you’ve only attempted rather glancingly -- though, to be fair, your last few posts have been the best and most full in this regard). We can all agree, it’s hard to argue a film’s inherent quality.

Now that I’ve effectively thrown brevity to the winds...

To continue: really getting to the bottom of TDK takes virtually the same amount of energy as getting to the bottom of just about anything, which requires getting to the bottom of ourselves, our world, even life itself. The same depth of knowledge, rigorously developed philosophical outlook, carefully outlined standards of evaluation, deeply felt and emphatically embraced core values (personal, political, spiritual, etc.) -- all of these things are required elements ... and who the hell has succeeded in mastering any of them? Buddha? It’s an ongoing, life-long process, and many people no doubt think that the latest Batman film isn’t a valuable hub around which this development should revolve.

This doesn’t mean the same is true for you, but again, I think you’d be better served by pursuing your own argument (or prooking others to feed you with further grist for your mill -- which, come to think of it, is still a pretty selfish manoeuvre, since one finds oneself simply waiting to pounce on the comments of others ... but how else does one learn? -- ugh!) than harping on Keith’s poetic evocations (which you so deeply disdain).

Christ -- I think I’ve officially spent more time bemoaning the time spent on rigorous argumentation than I have engaging in it. A paean to my own intellectual laziness! Even more hypocritically, I'm engaging in precisely the kind of dialogue I'm railing against. Is there no end to this madness?

(Mostly, I think we’re just throwing up a whole lot of smoke screen to the real issue -- is the film any good? -- both with lengthy, well-reasoned comments about comparatively minor issues, and with haphazard, roundabout blatherings such as this.)

***

(Brevity, brevity, brevity, he chanted.)

***

“I think you’ve made an impressive interpretation of the phrase, and how it pertains to the movie, which, I think, vitiates my objections towards that phrase having little or no content.”

So you see my point... : )

“However, I believe my other objections still stand.”

*sigh* No doubt they do, but I’m sure I could develop a simply smashing argument as to why they, too, might slip for one reason or another (instead of merely waxing inelegantly on the difficulty of doing so -- though many of my comments make at least some headway in this regard).

“Keith assumes that the Joker’s allegorical and symbolic status nullifies his power, menace, or effectiveness as ‘a sadistic, psychotic, clown.’ I don’t see why he can’t work as both (just as, for instance, Chigurgh was both a very real terrifying villain, as well as symbolic), and it’s presumptive for Keith to state this as a problem in such loaded terms, with no justification.”

I agree: the Joker and Anton Chigurh bear certain striking similarities. Each of them serves some allegorical purpose in their respective films and each one bears more resemblance to a symbol than a person (though you disagree on this point), but...

...I don’t think I have it in me to keep going at the moment: the only person I have to blame for taking the wind out of my sails is me, but I can see that we’ll never be finished. So much to say and so little time: I could develop an entire post to the Chigurh/Joker comparison, but I’ve just convinced myself of the exhausting nature of the exercise. Maybe I should try to more rigidly adhere to point form. Maybe I should just stick to arguing specifics instead of getting distracted by the larger (indefinably vast) issues of deep reasoning...

Have you ever read Harold Bloom? He does something similar to Keith (though I might be stretching in the comparison), particularly when discussing the authors and the works that he admires most: he offers an endless stream of broadly interpretable statements, backed-up by stand-alone examples that rarely get into the nitty-gritty details -- almost as if he’s above that form of argumentation and so is the work (and I think he’s often got a point ... unless you disagree with his reverent attitude). The intent, usually, is to direct us towards the numinous qualities of the work, the sublime nature of the accomplishment that generally exceeds our ability to contend with it (with depths that escape our capacity to comprehend rationally), and to inspire in us the same kind of awe the work awakens in him: a secular religion of art, in a sense.

In Bloom’s case (particularly his stuff on Shakespeare), this reflects a reverence for the very aura of the artwork -- not a close reading, per se, or even remotely a “deconstruction” -- and he writes around the entire experience of the work, evoking the whole instead of the part (though of course he must talk about things with some specificity), but he trusts in his opinions and he does little to convince the reader of his correctness: that’s simply assumed as a jumping off point. If you want to know “why”, you have to reason it out for yourself. But beware reason’s tendency to reduce that which it confronts, I think -- this is perhaps the key motive for Bloom’s avoidance of detailed argumentation in pursuit of the numinous: the work should remain too large to be encompassed by humankind’s reason. It extends beyond it, into the depths of experience, awe and wonder -- again, a kind of secular religion.

But anyway, I’m mostly just running ‘round and ‘round the same old issue and I should probably stop myself, but each new idea heralds some new development or desired avenue of thought.

Not this time, though.

I’ll come back to the Chigurh/Joker comparison, perhaps. For now, this sloppy mess has gone on long enough and I’ve got to get to bed, unhappy in my inability to remain coherent and exact (I think composing the reply in an outside application probably lead to a more personal [read: indulgent], less accommodating style, but the refresh rate on the comments page is becoming horrendous and I usually edit and re-read a great deal, so...). I’m not much looking forward to another sally into this thread either: “One idea at a time” should be my motto, perhaps. It worked for that first post, right?

Kevin H. said...

Well that was regrettable. Is there a delete button?

I probably should have just gotten it out of my system and then abandoned it instead of posting it, but there's a kind of resignation involved once so much time has been invested: you have to post it or all that effort feels wasted. It's usually wasted anyway, since revealing your personal commitment to navel-gazing can do little to improve public opinion of either yourself or your argument, but how to walk away from some four pages of (even scattered and half-formed) argumentation...?

I've started some notes on a TDK/No Country comparison, so hopefully I'll have something more to contribute in a day or two. Do me a favour and try to ignore the swirling ramble above, will you? It can be summed up thusly: "Don't do what I just did."

Thanks.

Jacob said...

At your (apparent) preference, I'll also try to be brief, only addressing the major points, and/or the ones on which we significantly disagree. If you feel I've missed something important, let me know.

"He aired his grievances with TDK in an open forum and you attacked him (not just his method) on his own site."

Well, he attacked Nolan himself as well, calling him a con-artist among other things. I also tried to avoid attacking Keith, instead sticking to his writing. Near the end I attempted to analyze the state of his review by guessing at his motivations, but that wasn't really meant to be an attack. So: this might be nitpicking, but I didn't see them as terribly different, which is primarily why I wrote in such a tone. Had I been responding to a polite argument for something I disagree with, I would have been extremely civil. I tend to match the tone of the person I'm disagreeing with, regardless of the recipient of said tone.

"Alright, so you’re specifically implying that Keith’s arguments (or lack thereof) fail in the face of a positive response to the film, but this is simply not true, as my lengthy analysis of a single sentence has shown: there’s plenty here to expand on, Keith just doesn’t have time to elaborate endlessly on every point he’s making -- we can do that for ourselves, whether or not we agree with him."

Hmm... I think this might be a bit of a stretch. There is a difference between waxing endlessly on every point, and defending them in the least. You've shown how that phrase at least had a claim embedded within (though something still feels wrong to me about it...), but there's still no defense of the embedded claim whatsoever. The last two paragraphs of his review, I think, are the best example of this. It's one thing to argue that taste is subjective, but that doesn't mean the vague insistent claims that constitute the final paragraphs amount to legitimate criticism. Just because rationality has a debatable place within the artistic sphere does not mean that justification itself should be shed altogether, like some obsolete but irrelevant adornment. In those final paragraphs, he literally just insists that Nolan does this badly, that badly, and then insists that it's because it's a bad film. He concludes by insisting that the "wearing-allegory-on-the-sleeve" approach of TDK (shared by most good comic book films) is just bad. I need more, and it's not (I think) unreasonable to ask for it.

"On the other hand, I also know that maintaining this caliber of discourse is exceedingly difficult and time-consuming, even with the simplest of subjects.

Indeed. But I don't think this excuses the style that you and Uhlich are propounding.

"There’s only so much time and energy we can devote to things (I’m already running way over my intended word count this evening) and as I said before, even the most carefully developed argument leads to ... well, further argumentation -- particularly when the subject is art or experience -- so at some point, why bother with the nitty-gritty when the largest statements get you to essentially the same place, and in less time?"

I don't see them as getting you to same place, in the same time. I might disagree with a good, thorough, and disparaging analysis of art, and this will lead to good discussion. But I can't dialectically disagree with an emotional gesture at a piece of art, a caviling, fervent gesticulation towards some ineffable badness. I appreciate your anecdotal evidence of others who enjoyed his review, but I can only deal with the impressions and arguments I've seen. And I far prefer the more rigorous style, and I don't think this is just blind preference.

"(Though less to the satisfaction of those who disagree, admittedly.)

Exactly. Except this satisfaction is nothing trivial (nothing for parenthesis), it's the satisfaction of reasoned dialectic versus emotional back-and-forth. And I think the satisfaction of those who agree is also a bit more base than it would be in a less emotional review.

"Essentially, you’re asking for more than what's required and more than most people are willing to give"

Not at all, I think you're misunderstanding my argument. I found the (largely negative) review at the Cooler quite good, and it engendered better (though less populous) discussion. It was not some scientific case, just a review with specific critiques, instead of bland professions of "this didn't work because it was a bad movie."

"This doesn’t mean the same is true for you, but again, I think you’d be better served by pursuing your own argument (or prooking others to feed you with further grist for your mill -- which, come to think of it, is still a pretty selfish manoeuvre, since one finds oneself simply waiting to pounce on the comments of others ... but how else does one learn? -- ugh!) than harping on Keith’s poetic evocations (which you so deeply disdain)."
...
(Mostly, I think we’re just throwing up a whole lot of smoke screen to the real issue -- is the film any good? -- both with lengthy, well-reasoned comments about comparatively minor issues, and with haphazard, roundabout blatherings such as this.)


Well, as I've insisted and will continue to insist, I find this meta-discussion on the nature of art criticism very interesting as well, and I don't think either of us needs to be ashamed of having it (unless ed objects to our use of his forum). Keith's review is a good segue and a good example for such a discussion, though it's certainly taken more of a beating than (even I think) it deserves.

I actually saw the movie again, so, if I get a chance, I might a write a review as promised. I don't actually have a blog, so it would be a bit awkward to start one just to write a review just to prove a point, and I think almost everything I would say has been interspersed throughout these comments. We'll see.

"Have you ever read Harold Bloom?"

He introduces the edition of Don Quixote I'm reading. But I don't read introductions. That being said: I think works like those of Shakespeare and Don Quixote are the sort of things you can talk a bit less rigorously about, because there are a lot of assumptions going onto the table: for instance, that they are masterpieces. I think the role of the critic is different from the role of interpreter.

"I've started some notes on a TDK/No Country comparison, so hopefully I'll have something more to contribute in a day or two. Do me a favour and try to ignore the swirling ramble above, will you? It can be summed up thusly: "Don't do what I just did.""

Welp, too late for me. Brevity's hard, as you can see. Glad I have a sympathizer (well-- empathizer).

As for Chigurh/Joker comparison: don't do it for my sake, though it certainly seems like a worthwhile venture on its own. My main point wasn't that they aren't different, but that it's bad writing to make such unspecific attacks as "allegory=bad" when there are so blatantly (apparently) similar characters that are (pretty uncontroversially) not bad. Whether they ultimately are so similar is certainly an issue, but it's tangential to my (...tangential) point: complex issues and controversial criticisms must be defended, at least a little.

Kevin H. said...

I can't help thinking we should remove this dialogue to another forum (since we've digressed rather extensively from the original discussion), but I don't know where else to suggest. I suppose the two or three or half-dozen of us still checking in periodically can continue to do so over the coming days (weeks? months?), but eventually the thread will have to expire in toto. But to keep it burning just a little longer...:

"Ledger completely convinced me and immersed me with Joker that interacts and inhabits his surroundings seamlessly."

The performance is only one layer of the character -- and in this case the best one, I think. Ledger's performance is so meticulous, so filled with assertive movements, tics and mannerisms, that he creates a convincing illusion of fullness. But I think this mostly acts as smokescreen for the paradoxically over- and under-written part. Over-written in the sense that there's simply too much expository dialogue dedicated to his plots, plans and philosophical outlook; and under-written because the character isn't allowed any real development or fullness -- or, for that matter, any impact apart from his initial one: his committed belief in the meaninglessness of life and society -- its quaint little rules and its fragile systems of order -- and his gleeful flouting of the same, proving their empty, illusory nature. There is no other depth to his character or his philosophical presence.

"...[Keith] believes the Joker’s cackling cynic’s view does not reverberate beyond the screen, and you think it does so far too much."

Hmm ... this is the impression I've given, that's true, but in the context of the film and its artistic achievements/limitations, I think I'm in line with Keith's attitude: since the Nolans do little to either temper or expand upon the Joker's definite insight (his unfiltered contact with one kind of philosophical truth), they undermine his effectiveness ... and the film's effectiveness as a whole as a result. The fact that TDK is also about 30 minutes too long, its major impersonal climax (the ferry-boat dilemma) ends with an unconvincing whimper, its personal climax (the showdown between Dent, Gordon and Batman) ends similarly, neither villain's arc is resolved satisfactorily, and the film itself concludes on a note of unresolved failure doesn't help matters either.

That parenthetical phrase I used above -- "given these particular circumstances" -- actually encompasses a huge swath of both the movie and the viewing experience: all the little details that we rarely have time for in broader argumentation. Given the particular circumstances of this film, imo, the Joker fails to resonate because he is too hollow a construct. And it is this unrelenting hollowness (of his presence and his worldview -- the fact that his terrifying truth is rendered so bleakly, so directly, so unrestrainedly and without balance) that I find so objectionable. This character should frighten us, yes, but he should also enlarge us, and I don't think there's enough resonance in his rendering (and in the film in general) to achieve that. (Of course, this might only apply to me -- and Keith, I guess, and maybe others of a similar mindset -- because who's to say whether or not the character fails to broaden the awareness of folks such as yourself? Who am I to deny his impact, right?)

"I would again note that it’s odd for Keith to complain about the Joker as a symbol not reverberating, considering he didn’t even think he should be a symbol."

I think you interpret him too literally (or too narrowly -- one way or the other). Keith complains about the belaboured quality of the film's symbolism: it isn't that the Joker is at all symbolic, just that he's far too heavy-handedly rendered. And, truth be told, I think this has more to do with Nolan's choice to employ a style of "surface realism" (instead of a "heightened reality" or some other elevated form), which automatically inhibits audience suspension of disbelief by asking us to accept the given reality as a basic reproduction of our own. With a more elevated visual style, the grand allegorical structure and sometimes laughable comic-book foolishness might merge more easily and become less distractingly out of place. (I would expand further, but must move on in an effort to get to bed before dawn.)

"I've actually found the discussion about Keith's review quite insightful, too, since it's a good chance to talk about the nature of art and criticism, emotions and reason. I wouldn't want that to stop."

Happy to oblige (and thanks for returning the favour). : )

"It's anything but clear to me that the movie whole-heartedly endorses this view, especially as something we should be "swallowing" (and that "oh, the children" provocation is just trite)..."

The fact that Dent is effectively foreshadowing his own doom (and that the film, again, does little to counter or "cast into relief" the truth-value of his statement) lends itself to the grimly deterministic atmosphere that White is reacting against. Also, I don't think his "oh, the children" lament is quite meant to be taken at face value. He's aware of the triteness inherent in the implication, which is why he amends it with a louder, more assertive refusal to accept the film's despairing attitude. Also, what kind of crap is this to accept into our pop-cultural consciousness? I certainly don't think it's a useful advance....

"...because Batman himself does not succumb to this platitude (not actually--the movie isn't also empirically relativistic, at least)."

Not in terms of its intended content, perhaps, but I'll continue to beat the near-dead horse by complaining that Nolan's formal approach ("surface realism") reduces serious concerns to comic-book foolishness, elevates comic-book mayhem to the utmost seriousness, and ultimately aligns itself with the Joker's worldview, shattering core moral values in the wake of its "order vs. chaos" dichotomy. If that isn't some kind of "relativistic", then I don't know what is.

"And what's 'hipster' about this nihilism? I think these are perennial questions. Just because it's too dark (you raise some excellent points in that regard) does not mean it's shallow in its bleakness. If the movie is insightful then it's insightful, whether that's depressing or not."

I've gone some way to addressing these issues above, but I'll add this statement: despite the sharpness of the writing, and the Joker's obvious penetration, the filmmaking renders much of the material simply banal, and that's why it's "hipster" nihilism instead of a deeper philosophical investigation of the same. There's insight here, but I don't think it's much capitalized on outside of an initial rush of discovery and a few cheap gags and effects.

"It reminds me of Thucydides' History: a bleak, hopeless humanity, with a few good souls (Pericles, if I'm remembering correctly) that seem to redeem it from complete nihilism. Certainly if a 400 BC historian can espouse such views, then Nolan should be able to do so without being accused of 'hipster Matrix pseudo-philosophy.'"

Nice reference! (Seriously.) Of course, if Nolan were an early Greek historian (or even a modern-day socio-anthropologist / historian / etc.) we might not judge him so harshly. As an artist, however, and working in this particular medium (something of an amalgam of all the others), more is required than simply pointing these things out. They must be developed in a way that does more than batter and assault the audience -- preferably, they should enlighten and expand. If you found this to be so, then my argument is somewhat poorly constructed and defended, it would seem, but I still think there's less here than is collectively assumed....

"Certainly not the director's cut of Blade Runner. Is the original version redemptive?"

Whether or not you agree with Scott's assertion that Deckard is a replicant (and I'm of the mind that none of the existing versions of the film resolves this issue unambiguously), the final roof-top confrontation between Deckard and Roy is sublime in its resuscitation of the former's humanity and its affirmation of the latter's potential for the same (lost almost in the very moment that it's found).

...

Goddammit, am I tired. I've got to stop doing this to myself!

Anyway, there are a few ideas to tide you over in the absence of my TDK/NCfOM comparison, which you now claim (heart-breakingly) isn't needed. (And I was just going to destroy TDK in light of NCfOM's formal control and all-around brilliance. : ) )

I've got a few jotted notes, but nothing that would stand up to particularly rigorous argumentation (which I know you're very capable of), so I think I'll either keep developing it for a bit, or I'll eventually just give in and post it un-polished, just for conversation's sake.

Jody said...

Kevin h,
Wonderful comments in the main (though I've never much cared for critics who loftily wave their pale hands towards the "numinous" in literature. I prefer a more rigorous - a more dogged - exposition of how they identify what is "numinous", personally.)

In the end, re: TDK, I see artistic success at precisely the point you find failure.
Specifically, when you write of Ledger's Joker: This character should frighten us, yes, but he should also enlarge us, and I don't think there's enough resonance in his rendering (and in the film in general) to achieve that.

Isn't your demand here fearfully old-fashioned? Your implication is that art has a duty to edify ["enlarge"] its audience? It's as if you insist that you and I come away from our experience of the Joker both wiser as well as frightened/dismayed/distracted.

The fact that Nolan & Ledger have provocatively denied us the intellectual satisfaction of knowing who the Joker is or why he does what he does is - for me- a triumph of the film & the performance. I found myself delighting in the Joker's mordant awareness that he was both fanning and frustrating our curiosity on this score.

A character originally conceived as grotesque cartoon foe of a dark cartoon hero surely has no right to make such slithery demands!

So, it's my opinion that Nolan has actually played very fair with us, the audience. When you complain "there's simply too much expository dialogue dedicated to [the Joker's] plots, plans and philosophical outlook..." I see these same scenes as proof that the Nolans were fully in control of their creation.

Again and again, we are given all the information we could fairly demand - the Joker in control, the Joker as prisoner, the Joker talking to himself, the Joker lecturing the dark hero, the Joker playing to the gallery...in order that we should, surely, end up "knowing" his character. But we don't. (And that provided me, in the multiplex audience, with plenty of satisfyingly infuriating take-home "resonance", thankyouverymuch!).

Which is similar - though not identical - to the effect of Iago's magnificently wicked final taunt to the audience and his judges at the nosiy conclusion of Othello: "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know...".

Anonymous said...

McKee said...

I've been following the popular reaction to TDK and its negative reviews with great interest.

I googled "dark knight analysis" and then "dark knight criticism" and stumbled upon this fascinating exchange. Having read through, I'd like to chime in on one or two points.

I'm well impressed by all of your superb arguments and perspicacious elocutions, so I shall endeavor to follow suit.

1: The Joker as symbol or allegory:
I would like to point out a distinction. There is a difference between a character written AS a symbol, and a character who, within the context of the story, chooses to adopt a symbol or allegorical persona as their new identity.

Now, I would argue that the characters in TDK all fall into the latter group. Bruce Wayne has a backstory, and character. He chooses to become Batman, which is nothing more or less than a symbol of fear and justice. Batman per se has no backstory or character. It has been commented on that when suited up, Bruce Wayne is rendered opaque and inscrutable.

The concept of "escalation" and the close kinship between Batman and the Joker imply that a similar process is at work in Batman's nemesis. The Joker, I contend, is not written so much as an "ex nihilo" symbol, but instead as a character of indefinite background who has followed in Bruce Wayne's footsteps. The Joker was once a man, who for reasons unknown, has chosen to adopt a symbolic persona, and has done so in a way that establishes a clear rivalry between himself and Batman.

Firstly, Batman has a secret identity, and struggles to maintain a balance in the double-life that he leads. The Joker's secret identity is truly only a secret origin, since that name and personality have been forever abandoned and forsaken. In this way the Joker is an escalation, and "one-ups" Batman with his total transformation and dedication. The absence of a background highlights the fact that whereas Bruce Wayne is struggling with his commitment to Batman, the Joker has pushed all his chips forward, and has dared to undergo a total transformation.

It is debatable whether or not this commitment lends the Joker an advantage or not, but clearly it gives the Joker a position from which to attack Batman's character and fractured identity.

All of these elements are supported in TDK. I know that, in the end, it is a small point, but I believe it lends common ground and foundation to our debate.

In a nutshell: The Joker is not a character who is intrinsically "hollow", or devoid of background,
or a symbol created "ex nihilo" to satisfy plot requirements.
Instead the Joker is a character (much like Zaphod Beeblebrox) who has chosen to hollow himself out, annihilate his previous identity, and become a symbol to parody and overpower Batman's.

In his comic book representations, the Joker delights in his obscure and unknown past. This lack of background is one of his defining characteristics, and certainly cannot be laid at Nolan's feet. It is story appropriate, and character driven.

2: What does the Joker symbolize?
So many reviewers quote the Joker when he proclaims himself to be an agent of chaos, or a dog chasing a car. These reviewers, so help them, actually use this as evidence to assert that, in the movie, the Joker represents the forces of chaos and anarchy. For shame. Don't they know that the Joker is a consummate liar? Why, oh why, would you ever rely on the Joker's words to give you insight into his character?

I would like to remove forever the notion, generally agreed upon by popular misconception, that the Joker is an agent of chaos.

But I'll cease ranting. What sort of force does he represent then, if not Chaos?

Surprise and Realization. This is the essence of any good joke. The punchline causes you to re-evaluate the beginning of the story, surprises you, makes you laugh because it is unexpected, sharp, and shocking. The Joker elevates these moments as goals in and of themselves, and for him they are more real and more lofty than notions of justice or peace or security.

Destruction and Amaterialism. The Joker likes to destroy things that others find precious. Their money, their heroes, their bodies, their identities. Why? Because its funny. There is a venerable theory about humor, long before comic books, that a joke must always be at someone's expense. If there is a joke, there must also be a butt.

Subversion: Humor has long been the weapon of the discontent. Comedians are given freedom to say appalling things for the sake of entertainment. They make their careers by "going places" with their words that no one else thinks to go, or dares to go. When humor is concerned, nothing and no one is safe. Most especially not the establishment.

I don't see chaos in any of this. do you?

In my mind one of the biggest flaws of the story is that the Joker tells Harvey that he has no plan, and Harvey actually believes him. Over and over again, the Joker proves he is a man of meticulous forethought and planning, a student of human nature who can predict in which direction people will jump.

In fact, he is very much an agent of order! He delights in crafting elaborate set-piece experiments, challenges, trials, decision trees. He uses these devices to test any and all that he can.

I'll leave further speculation as to the purpose of these "imposed order" experiments for later. I believe I'll wait to see if this thread catches any fish.

Kevin H. said...

Thanks for the reply, Jody. At least three of us still hacking away, then....

"I prefer a more rigorous - a more dogged - exposition of how they identify what is ‘numinous’, personally."

Well that’s the problem, really, isn’t it? How do you rigorously, doggedly define that which extends beyond our capacity to articulate? Beyond our ability to hold the whole of it together in our minds? The pertinent definition of "numinous" is: "surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious: that element in artistic expression that remains numinous." The whole problem is that you can’t simply identify it or explain it away and move on: it remains outside the scope of rational comprehension and can only be alluded to, hinted at, encountered intuitively, emotionally, ephemerally. To attempt to break it down using reason is to dismantle it and reduce its potent evanescence to something merely tactile. (Which is why it's always more difficult for partisan's to expound on their views: the very act of explication is a kind of diminishing of the revered object.)

"Isn't your demand here fearfully old-fashioned? Your implication is that art has a duty to edify ["enlarge"] its audience? It's as if you insist that you and I come away from our experience of the Joker both wiser as well as frightened/dismayed/distracted."

I was kind of expecting this assertion to crop up eventually (because I recognize that my demands do indeed run in this vein), but I’m not sure it’s as highfalutin as all that. For me, the film says: “The world is a meaningless shit-hole, democracy is a comical, placating illusion, and truth isn’t worth a good goddamn when we’re basically on the cusp of world-wide collapse. Do you see this? Do you see it?! See?!!”

Yes. I do. Thanks for pointing that out, TDK.

What value is there in this experience (in which I include all the "particular circumstances" already outlined in various parts of the discussion)? None for me, thanks. I’ll take a little hopeful ambiguity or genuine artistry over this kind of clunky fear-mongering any day.

"The fact that Nolan & Ledger have provocatively denied us the intellectual satisfaction of knowing who the Joker is or why he does what he does is - for me - a triumph of the film & the performance. I found myself delighting in the Joker's mordant awareness that he was both fanning and frustrating our curiosity on this score."

Shakespeare provocatively denies us the satisfaction of knowing who Hamlet is or why he does what he does and his triumph continues to resonate to this day (whether on the page, in the theatre, on film, or in the endless array of secondary texts devoted to the subject). I find plenty of delight in Hamlet’s mordant awareness that he both fans and frustrates the curiosity of everyone around him (on stage and in the audience), and yet I take little pleasure in the Joker beyond the surface impact of Ledger’s performance. Where lies the difference?

I think, in part, it’s in the respective depth of commitment to exploring the Pandora’s Box opened by Hamlet and the Joker’s insight into hidden truths (as well as the respective methods, which I've already harped on a great deal with respect to TDK). Where Shakespeare makes this the essential focus of his play (in which the revenge tragedy arc is merely a clothesline on which the rest hangs), the Nolans use it as a kind of buttress (though perhaps a central buttress) in a complicated plot made up mostly of action-adventure tropes. The calculated contrivance of most of the Joker’s games (which supposedly lead us to the discovery of his deeper truth) simply aren’t that convincing, and the way Nolan attempts to manipulate our emotions (particularly in the frustratingly unrewarding ferry-boat sequence) shows something of a (probably unintentional) affront to our intelligence.

And note that even in Othello, where Iago’s insidious nihilism effectively destroys the title character, his wife, and most everyone else in the play, there is a recognition, a genuine encounter with the deep, dark danger of the truth that is, for us -- perhaps paradoxically -- an enriching one, even in its despair. In TDK, the only thing lost is any real sense of truth, moral or otherwise: all has been demolished by the Joker’s rampage, but no one (apart from Dent) really pays for it (and Dent is left to wither in his banal embrace of faithlessness, denied even a throw-away anagnorisis) and everything is hastily wrapped up neatly in a lie so that the populace is ultimately protected from “the truth” and we’re comfortably set-up for the third instalment in the franchise. How unenlightening.

Alright, so not every film should have to tackle its themes using a classical model, but if you’re going to dip into themes of classical significance, probably best to pay some heed to the kinds of dramatic rituals (and the kinds of structures found therein) that have recurred rather consistently throughout some 3000 years of western history (or what have you). The Nolans play a bit fast and loose, here (probably forced to make too many compromises with studio bosses looking to protect the bottom line) and I think the inherent lack of real stakes in the action-adventure genre conflicts with the extraordinarily high stakes of the Joker’s deeply nihilistic view of life.

I should point out, however, that I like what you’ve written in defense of the film in those last several paragraphs and I appreciate your take and your explanation as to why the film resonates with you. That’s interesting to me, despite the fact that I just can’t relate.

***

"[Bloom] introduces the edition of Don Quixote I'm reading."

Here's a strange coincidence: I'm in the middle of Edith Grossman's tranlsation myself. I don't know if I want to get going on Quixote in the middle of this nominal discussion of TDK, but it's worth remarking that Grossman's work is pretty damned good, and definitely compares favourably to Rutherford's translation (the only other one I've read) in terms of tone and rhythm. I prefer her casual embrace of gentle archaisms (mixed with similarly gentle modernisms) to his rigid refusal to allow "your grace"s or "my lord"s to encroach on the characters' believability to a modern audience. What posh, says I.

Anyway, great book (and a delightfully pertinent example of a work that uses satire and playfullness to undermine the target genre, even while hewing to certain related genre tropes -- ultimately, the book ends up yielding greater rewards because of its refusal to take itself seriously: it lets the audience do that instead...).

And where the heck did you come from, McKee? What, are you just trying to make this more difficult? : )

(I should point out that any literary or dramatic specialist would be cringing at our lax and poorly differentiated use of terms like "symbol", "allegory" and "metaphor". We're definitely not capitalizing on the kind of specificity that might allow this discussion to proceed deeper into the artistic and philosophical particulars, here. Intersting attempt to chance that, of course, McKee, but I don't have the energy to proceed any further this afternoon ... or the time, quite frankly. Yikes, am I an irresponsible layabout or what?)

Jody said...

A quickie from me too - (four days of holiday washing to do on top of proper work; like kevin h, I'm scolding myself for being so ruinously distracted here!).

But, yes- as kevin also asks - what the hell, McKee!!!

That was brilliant. Gosh...

Kevin - you are making total - and wonderfully provocative - sense here. And I promise I won't say "mordant" again, if you erase "numinous" from the debate:)

Back when I've thought some more!

Kevin H. said...

Couldn’t stay away, hang it all.

In the last paragraph of my latest post, "chance" should read "change". With that out of the way....

McKee:

Having read your comment more thoroughly (instead of glancing at it almost unconsciously while editing my most recent ramble), I must credit you with the most clear, precise, and convincing explication of how certain characters actually function within TDK’s larger design. Very compelling reading. And the way you’ve persuasively reconciled the Joker’s confusing relationships with both "Chaos" (which he claims to represent) and "Order" (which he obviously relies on for his extensive planning) by relocating our understanding of the character from his words to his actions -- just fantastic stuff.

While none of this prevents the filmmaking from remaining sub-par, in my view (nor does it ratify the mismatch between formal expression and content expressed), this defense of the Nolans' narrative infrastructure forces me to re-evaluate their writing. For the first time, I feel as though I’ve lost my footing in this debate. Hrum-Hoom!

One thing I’d like to clarify (and I’m just as guilty of muddy conflations here): you argue that the Joker "chooses to adopt a symbol[ic]...persona as [his] new identity" -- with which I fully agree (and thank you for this insight) -- rather than being "written AS a symbol." I’m not sure we can entirely affirm such a clear distinction though. Certainly, what you’ve written goes a long way to burying complaints of the Joker’s wordy exegeses, but the relationship between author(s) and character, character and self is still fraught with complications.

Moreover, I think it’s important to note that many of the complaints regarding TDK’s allegorical design have more to do with its shaky attempt to draw connections between Batman and America, the Joker and global terrorism, Dent and lawfulness/justice, etc., than with the Joker's identity as a symbolic agent of chaos (which you've essentially justified). This shaky allegorical framework is tenuous at best and probably specious. (See Adam Nayman’s review for a brief take on this theme, or David Walsh’s lengthier analysis at wsws.org, which criticizes the film’s apparent ignorance of and lack of concern for real-world social circumstances, even while it trades on a [phoney? superficial?] investigation of "current issues". Yes, "it’s just a comic-book movie," of course, but if this is indeed the case then "why so serious?" we may well ask....)

Jody:

I meant no criticism of your use of "mordant", above, and neither did I intend to mock you by emulating your phrasing. Just wanted to illustrate how connections might be easily drawn between TDK and Shakespeare (which you began in your last post) and then explore why such comparisons ultimately fail (in my view). I’m not convinced I’ve put the issue to bed entirely (is this even possible?), but I took a crack at it, anyway. As for “numinous”: the word only appeared in relation to another of our many digressions about art, analysis and reasoning. It’s not really a lynch-pin of the central debate, but if you want me to stop using it, I suppose I can oblige. : )

Alright. Really gotta get the hell out of here again.

Jacob said...

Keith, McKee, and Jody: Good stuff. I've haphazardly taken quotes I felt compelled to respond to, in no particularly order or regimen. Sorry. ;)

"But I think this mostly acts as smokescreen for the paradoxically over- and under-written part. Over-written in the sense that there's simply too much expository dialogue dedicated to his plots, plans and philosophical outlook; and under-written because the character isn't allowed any real development or fullness -- or, for that matter, any impact apart from his initial one: his committed belief in the meaninglessness of life and society -- its quaint little rules and its fragile systems of order -- and his gleeful flouting of the same, proving their empty, illusory nature. There is no other depth to his character or his philosophical presence.

I was thinking about this on my second viewing, and I must insist: any lack of depth we ascribe to the movie must be done very carefully, so that we do not risk imposing our own impressions of limitations or narrowness. I think the risk is greater in TDK than in other films, since a great deal of (what appears to be the) underlying philosophy is articulated explicitly, by the characters. But I think that it's unfair to declare that that's all their is, because that's all that's been stated. I think McKee stated it well:

"So many reviewers quote the Joker when he proclaims himself to be an agent of chaos, or a dog chasing a car. These reviewers, so help them, actually use this as evidence to assert that, in the movie, the Joker represents the forces of chaos and anarchy. For shame. Don't they know that the Joker is a consummate liar? Why, oh why, would you ever rely on the Joker's words to give you insight into his character?

Perfect. Though I disagree that the brilliant interpretations that McKee subsequently give are mutually exclusive with the simpler "agent of chaos" interpretation, I think they show that just because the movie wears some allegory on its sleeve, does not mean there's not a great deal going on under the sleeve.

In my mind one of the biggest flaws of the story is that the Joker tells Harvey that he has no plan, and Harvey actually believes him. Over and over again, the Joker proves he is a man of meticulous forethought and planning, a student of human nature who can predict in which direction people will jump.

This I actually do disagree with. I think the Joker gives the illusion of a planner, but only because he essentially turns other people's plans on their heads. Now, one could argue (I think convincingly, and I think you suggest it) that this does indeed make him an agent of order, because turning other people's plans on their heads requires him to have a sharp understanding of human nature, in order to predict these plans.

...so maybe I don't disagree. Or, at least, (in a sense) he's both: he doesn't plan or order, but he certainly understands plans and order with a level of clairvoyance and shrewdness that is indeed preternatural.

I was kind of expecting this assertion to crop up eventually (because I recognize that my demands do indeed run in this vein), but I’m not sure it’s as highfalutin as all that. For me, the film says: “The world is a meaningless shit-hole, democracy is a comical, placating illusion, and truth isn’t worth a good goddamn when we’re basically on the cusp of world-wide collapse. Do you see this? Do you see it?! See?!!”

Yes. I do. Thanks for pointing that out, TDK.

What value is there in this experience (in which I include all the "particular circumstances" already outlined in various parts of the discussion)? None for me, thanks. I’ll take a little hopeful ambiguity or genuine artistry over this kind of clunky fear-mongering any day.


This may be where we get to the numinous apex of artistic interpretation, but this isn't what I got from the movie. Particularly the end, where Batman flees and commissioner Gordon monologues:

Gordon: [we see Alfred burning the letter from Rachel, as the music crescendos into a hopeful gesture] ...but sometimes truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

A "tough-love" sort of message, but not hopelessly bleak. The movie is telling us that the Joker was wrong, even if just a little. For the Joker, there is no faith to be had, and it certainly won't get rewarded.

"But the Joker can't win," Batman says. For me, the movie ends on a note that unambiguously rings: the Joker didn't win. Not quite. There's something, I would argue, "enriching" about how this plays out, though I'm having trouble articulating it.

I wish I could expand on this in a less puerile manner, but I'll have to think it over. I have no idea how McKee came up with such insightful interpretations-- I never can get a good grasp of the inner-goings-on of a work unless I have direct access to it.

"Where Shakespeare makes this the essential focus of his play (in which the revenge tragedy arc is merely a clothesline on which the rest hangs), the Nolans use it as a kind of buttress (though perhaps a central buttress) in a complicated plot made up mostly of action-adventure tropes. The calculated contrivance of most of the Joker’s games (which supposedly lead us to the discovery of his deeper truth) simply aren’t that convincing, and the way Nolan attempts to manipulate our emotions (particularly in the frustratingly unrewarding ferry-boat sequence) shows something of a (probably unintentional) affront to our intelligence.

And note that even in Othello, where Iago’s insidious nihilism effectively destroys the title character, his wife, and most everyone else in the play, there is a recognition, a genuine encounter with the deep, dark danger of the truth that is, for us -- perhaps paradoxically -- an enriching one, even in its despair. In TDK, the only thing lost is any real sense of truth, moral or otherwise: all has been demolished by the Joker’s rampage, but no one (apart from Dent) really pays for it (and Dent is left to wither in his banal embrace of faithlessness, denied even a throw-away anagnorisis) and everything is hastily wrapped up neatly in a lie so that the populace is ultimately protected from “the truth” and we’re comfortably set-up for the third instalment in the franchise. How unenlightening."


These are some of your best arguments, so it pains me that I haven't read Othello (spent too much time on A Midsummer Night's Dream, which, obviously, isn't great for a discussion about TDK).

All I can say, then are two things.

a) As above, don't be so convinced that the film just brings these issues up so as to hammer us over the head with them. I think that's limiting the film, instead of showing the film's limitations.

b) This may be the point (as you hint, I think, when talking about studio execs) where it really is unfair to hold the action-comic film to such lofty standards (such as Shakespeare). Indeed, much of the Joker's status is not put out there to be sublimely explored, but instead to set up some kick-ass action scenes-- as well scaring me more than most pure horror films do. Such is the genre, and the mainstream film industry. I commend the Nolan's for even attempting to grapple with these issues, so I can't, in fairness, attack them for not pondering them as deeply as, say, Shakespeare.

Kevin H. said...

"Keith, McKee, and Jody: Good stuff."

A minor error, but the only Keith to comment in this thread hasn’t contributed for nine days. : )

"I've haphazardly taken quotes I felt compelled to respond to, in no particularly order or regimen. Sorry. ;)"

Finally wearing you out, are we? Welcome to the damned club, brother. And congratulations for holding out as long as you did. (Longer than the rest of us, certainly.) I’ve been doing the same thing since my second post! : )

"I was thinking about this on my second viewing, and I must insist: any lack of depth we ascribe to the movie must be done very carefully, so that we do not risk imposing our own impressions of limitations or narrowness."

I fully agree. In fact, this is precisely what I was advocating for in regards to Keith’s review, a phrase or two of which I so carefully expanded on in my first comment. How strange of me to turn around and deny the film the same privilege... All it takes is a person like McKee to come along with his (or her?) wickedly perceptive analysis to illustrate just how far I’ve managed to stick my foot in my mouth regarding the significance and design of these characters. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel unrewarded by the film experience, but yes, I shouldn’t be so quick to equate my perceptions with some kind of (non-existent) objective reality. Thanks for keeping me grounded -- both you and McKee.

"Gordon: [we see Alfred burning the letter from Rachel, as the music crescendos into a hopeful gesture] ...but sometimes truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

"A 'tough-love' sort of message, but not hopelessly bleak."

I see what you’re getting at and recognize that most fans of the film must certainly find some hope (or some sad, melancholy irony) in its conclusion, but I see a larger conflict between Gordon’s assertion (juxtaposed with Alfred’s action) and the broader political implications the Nolans have invited us to read into the work. Batman has utilized brutal interrogation methods, illegal and dangerous vigilante tactics, and unethically invasive mass surveillance (among other things) in pursuit of his ends. Clearly, this is meant to draw some attention to the very real and very current socio-political circumstances in which we find ourselves living.

Despite the fact that I believe these topical allusions to be ineffectual and even absurd (given the comic-book fantasy blockbuster context), they are unquestionably designed to be provocative, meant to direct our thoughts towards their "real world" significance (I think the film fails in this as well, but let that be, for now). In this context, the assertion that "sometimes the truth isn’t good enough," or that "Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded," has a disturbing -- even nasty -- aftertaste. Isn’t Gordon saying, "we need to protect the people from the truth (or "known facts") in order to maintain their faith in a false, manufactured, fantasy idealization of some kind of 'American Dream' (in the case of Gotham’s populace -- 'Rachel's love', in the case of Bruce Wayne)"? If anything, I’d like to think the film is being viciously critical of this notion, instead of holding it up as some kind of comforting ballast to all the preceding darkness. But even so, this doesn’t save TDK from disappointing (in my view).

If the film supports Gordon, I find it dangerously (if indirectly, or even unintentionally) supportive of the Bush administration’s constant manipulation and exploitation of public opinion and political knowledge/awareness. If the film hopes to be critical of his and Batman’s plan, I find it unconvincing, first of all, and ultimately banal in its constant assertion that hope is fled and that only failure and compromise remain. Blech.

"I wish I could expand on this in a less puerile manner, but I'll have to think it over. I have no idea how McKee came up with such insightful interpretations-- I never can get a good grasp of the inner-goings-on of a work unless I have direct access to it."

I feel the same way (and rarely find myself blessed with "direct access" to any such governing principles or what-have-you).

Most interactions with art lead to some kind of confusion and/or ambivalence on certain points, and there are always details that remain irreconcilable to our conception of the whole, that force us to admit certain hypocrisies inherent in our opinions and attitudes. An analysis like McKee’s is striking in its clarity and cleanliness, but even a thoughtful and rigorous fan like yourself, having just seen the film for a second time, can’t quite resolve the feeling that there remains something limiting within its scope -- not quite up to the unique and messy experience of the film itself.

"These are some of your best arguments, so it pains me that I haven't read Othello (spent too much time on A Midsummer Night's Dream, which, obviously, isn't great for a discussion about TDK)."

Heh. : ) (I don't know, though: see Theseus' remarks on generosity to messengers and players who bungle their intentions with poor speaking or performance. You might get some mileage out of that.)

As to Othello, any Shakespearean tragedy will do, I think, because they all incorporate a character (or several) whose encounter with "truth" leads him or her into some kind of abyss out of which he or she cannot (or chooses not) to climb. I almost feel as though these plays encourage us, by allowing us a glimpse of this "truth" -- even if only for the briefest moment -- not to concentrate too hard on the nature of existence, or focus too directly on the implications of our own mortality, because it will inevitably lead us to a sublime awareness that is also, at the same time, a certain doom. One of Hamlet’s final wisdoms (applicable more to the audience than to him, since he’s already too deeply immersed in the numinous realm that lies beyond the veil of socially constructed reality -- whew!) is his "answer" to his famous and (ironically) immortal question, "To be, or not to be".

"Let be," he says.

The tragedies illustrate the consequences of seeing too deeply into life’s secrets, even while they bring us closer to these secrets than almost any other artworks in the Western tradition. They reveal the tragic costs of this encounter with truth and create even greater resonance in the viewer by allowing the characters to recognize the nature and circumstances of their fall as well, forcing an identification between character and audience that heightens the emotional impact of the discovery. These plays show it to you, where TDK sort of skirts around the edges -- an oddly cagey manoeuvre, since it’s tackling some of the very same ideas. Going "all the way" with the philosophical despair but refusing the usually attendant, arguably necessary recognition ... I think that’s a fault. Maybe it’s a stylistic one instead of a narrative one (i.e. everything is set up on the page, but muddied in the execution), but whatever the case I’m just not down with this movie.

"This may be the point (as you hint, I think, when talking about studio execs) where it really is unfair to hold the action-comic film to such lofty standards (such as Shakespeare)."

Yeah, I was starting to see it that way myself. Forgive it its excesses because -- hey -- isn’t an excess of ambition better than an average and conventional comic-book movie? I’m not sure. I’d rather see something try to fulfil a given set of intentions more honestly (whether in pursuit of simple entertainment -- not an ignoble goal -- or other equally difficult-to-achieve effects) than play "mix-’n’-match" with several sets, trying to reconcile incompatible aims within a single, overly ambitious work. (Especially when it reconciles them so clumsily -- if at all -- in my view.)

I am perhaps being unfair in the comparison to Shakespeare (you’re right: who else compares?), but the Nolans’ Joker opened this can of worms, so I’m just going with my instincts and calling it as I see it. Yes, I'm revealing my own particular background and learning, preferences and biases -- out of which my emotional response to and analysis of the film has grown -- but what else can I do, right? That's how human experience works. (To the Nolans' unfortunate disadvantage, in this case. : ) )

Jacob said...

[To McKee:] "For the first time, I feel as though I’ve lost my footing in this debate.

Ouch. I shall strive towards these standards.

"A minor error, but the only Keith to comment in this thread hasn’t contributed for nine days. : )"

Er... Kevin.

"I fully agree. In fact, this is precisely what I was advocating for in regards to Keith’s review, a phrase or two of which I so carefully expanded on in my first comment. How strange of me to turn around and deny the film the same privilege..."

Then again, how strange for me to deny Keith's review the same privilege. (In my defense, my original comment on his review was meant to be a bit of a polemic to incite people to attempt to explain just WHAT he was talking about-- a task no one was really up to until you came along.)

Okay, I'll get to the rest of this on Sunday or Monday, I have weight to cut (wearing the plastic bag right now) and a tournament to go to.

Jody said...

kevin h.

I vow to do my best just to cover one of your points. You write re: TDK's real world allusions:

Despite the fact that I believe these topical allusions to be ineffectual and even absurd (given the comic-book fantasy blockbuster context), they are unquestionably designed to be provocative, meant to direct our thoughts towards their "real world" significance..

I agree.

The topicality of said allusions appears far more than coincidence - yet trying to wring some enduring political truth from them doesn't produce anything of great value - as far as I can see.

However because I didn't remotely expect to be fed cunningly subversive real-world political insight or social truths - or to be slipped any sustained Bush-for-Batman apologetics! - this didn't really trouble me. Putting it less flippantly, I mean I noticed the provocative parallels with real world events - but I did not feel philosophically short changed.

These real world allusions never purchased my initial admiration for the film.

And to dwell on them reduces one's appreciation of the whole film to an impotent splutter.

I don't know if you recall at all vividly the 1968 movie of Ian Fleming's kids' book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Because there are scenes when adults in the audience are deliberately invited to see parallels between fascism - and the "demented" king of Vulgaria. Vast Third Reich-style red & black banners decorate the castle courtyard; this considerably darkens the king's lunatic hatred of all small children - and the frantic attempts of the quaking townspeople to keep the despised junior population hidden from the authorities in cellars, especially from the sinister final solution of the Child Catcher.

But the movie goer who seeks to rummage through these discrete allusions for a sustained analysis of Hitler as the covert agenda of an escapist fantasy film about a flying car is, frankly, gonna look like a twerp.

And I have to say, Kevin - after following your prompt to read David Walsh's review of TDK on the World Socialist Website, Walsh is your copper-bottomed twerp!

Walsh scolds the Nolans (and I paraphrase) for having insufficiently important life experience to say anything socially meaningful; worse, he can't even bring himself to fully describe the plot of TDK -interrupting himself, when he details the original cartoon back story, to snap that it's just "too silly to go on..."!!

I grant that Walsh makes a case - as you do - that, ultimately, the topical allusions are intellectually ineffectual. But he does not make the case that, ultimately, the film should be judged a success of a failure chiefly on that basis alone. (To be fair to me, I also read other Walsh reviews. He brings - unsurprisingly, I guess - the same mealy mouthed objections to other non-realistic movies. Writing (leadenly) of "Casino Royale": "It is especially ironic that the “terrorists,” or at least their agent, should be carrying out acts of sexual torture. As we know, the American and British military and intelligence forces, and their allies, are the leading experts in this field". Chew on that, 007!

No, I don't mind niche market reviews. I've even been a rabid socialist myself at times!
But one needs political tunnel vision, I think, to genuinely approve of Walsh's film criticism approach!

McKee said...

McKee says...

First of all, I'm honored by your warm acceptance of my comments! I ought to assure you all, that I have no particular insider knowledge of this movie's infrastructure.

In fact, I'm afraid I'm going to have to join many of you in being baffled by the TDK's many bizarre omissions, unexpected cutaways, confusing action collages, and overall narrative messiness.

I've seen the movie several times, and I am always impressed. Yet, I walk away somewhat muted, pensive, unconvinced. There are many legitimate criticisms to make, but the cavalcade of events, impressions, and distinct roles in TDK pulls a shroud over EVERYTHING. Good and bad both seemed to be buried under a welter of conflicting impressions.

So I have more random observations I'd like to share, but no umbrella under which to place them. I'm hoping that we might (someday) be able to collate and condense our collective impressions into something like a succinct "take" on the movie.

On to the show:

The Joker represents Terrorism?

One positive point about the movie: It provokes thought on the subject of terrorism. Its common knowledge that terrorism, in and of itself, is merely a method and means to an end. I won't bore any of you by writing out a definition of terrorism here. Much like pornography, terrorism is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. There are many possible motivations behind a given terrorist act: political ends, monetary ends, religious ends, etc. Hollywood, in my opinion, often defers to a popular conceit: the terrorists hate America. An easy example would be the Scharzenegger flick, "Collateral Damage."

What is the terrorists' plan? What are their demands? Why here? Why now? Because the terrorists hate us, they hate America, they hate freedom. Beyond that, no further information or detail is needed or given.

The way typical action movies go, noone complains that the terrorists are not fully fleshed-out characters with backgrounds, families, feelings, misgivings, and faith in the afterlife.

These villains are cardboard cut-outs, usually. They have no background because we don't need to know. After all, they're terrorists, and unconvincing ones, to boot. They never existed before they were devised by a screenwriter to commit acts of cruelty shortly before being blown up. A movie terrorist is just a living doll, much like what you may have seen in "Team America: World Police"

Enter the Joker. Like many other movie terrorists, we see a man with no back-story, no identifiable past, and no motivation that we can identify with directly.

The surprising twist is that this is not an oversight of the screenwriter at all, but instead a foundational characteristic of the Joker's role, having elected this persona for himself.

It prompts the audience to compare/contrast this terrorist with others they may know, on screen or off. Do real world terrorists have a sense of humor? Are they as good at what they do as the Joker? Is a true terrorist certifiably insane, or not? Does one need to be insane in order to be a terrorist? Does it even help? Do real terrorists "want something"?. Can they be bought, or do they just want to "watch the world burn?"

The Joker, I still contend, does not fit perfectly into this terrorist archetype, although people throughout the film (even the Joker himself!) consistently pidgeon-hole him into it. Which raises yet another question: How important is it to understand terrorists and the crimes they commit?

I don't think that TDK purports to answer these questions, nor to I think it should. To do so is to commit squarely to propaganda tactics. Instead, the film simply invites us to compare/contrast a highly fictional, stylized, idiosyncratic, idealized version of terrorism with our existing ideas on the subject. Is there cognitive dissonance? I can say, speaking at least for myself, that there was. And that is a good thing.

Coming up in future posts:

1.Batman represents Homeland Security?

2.TDK taxes my suspension of disbelief: Nolan gives the Joker too many free passes

Kevin H. said...

I think I might be just about done with TDK (though I look forward to reading anything else you have to say about it, McKee -- fascinating stuff) because I can no longer seem to find the time (or muster the motivation) to maintain even the lowliest level of intelligent discourse on this subject. I'm all argued out.

I can't leave you hanging, of course, Jody, so I'll do my best to address what you've written, but I think I might admit defeat in the face of any further argumentation.

To begin, this comment from McKee is highly relevant to what follows:

"I've seen the movie several times, and I am always impressed. Yet, I walk away somewhat muted, pensive, unconvinced. There are many legitimate criticisms to make, but the cavalcade of events, impressions, and distinct roles in TDK pulls a shroud over EVERYTHING. Good and bad both seemed to be buried under a welter of conflicting impressions."

Probably the best summary of TDK I can imagine: both admiring and "unconvinced", "impressed" and curiously unsatisfied; the sense of confusion arising from the film's swirling surface effects is one of the central elements contributing to my negative response.

You remark, Jody, that the topical allusions were indeed relevant and provocative, but also limited in their effectiveness and not particularly central to your positive film experience. You weren't expecting to find convincing political arguments and don't fault the film for failing in this regard. I wasn't looking for convincing political arguments either, but I saw TDK gesticulating wildly in various directions and wondering what the hell it was trying to accomplish. I've read a few comments elsewhere in admiration of the film's "centered" approach (i.e. advocating neither "for" nor "against" anything in particular), claiming that the unbiased presentation of politically piquant subject matter is, in-and-of-itself, valuable. I find the whole effort muddled and unsatisfying (as per McKee's summary) and wish they'd either been clearer in their purposes or less eager to toss in references willy-nilly.

The comparison to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an interesting one because, even without having seen it, I can imagine several key differences between these two films and their respective approaches to politically charged material. Firstly, CCBB is a self-acknowledged fantasy film intended for young audiences, which means the "stakes" involved are probably a lot less dramatically inflated than those of TDK (whether within the diegesis or in the outside world). Essentially, CCBB isn't all trumped up about its significance and serious intent where TDK ... umm, is.

Secondly, the reference to fascism in CCBB is likely clear and concise and intended as a kind of warning to viewers (conscious of its relevant overtones or not) against tyranny and blind descrimination. It is not intended as a "sustained analysis of Hitler," etc., but a dramatically effective shorthand that gains (humbly theatrical) impact from its real-world relevance. TDK gains very little from its inconsistent and sometimes outright bizarre political hot-button-pushing and utilizes none of it in pursuit of clarity or dramatic effect. (Whatever dramatic effect is achieved by Batman's vicious "interrogation" is dulled by the film's general bloodlessness and the Joker's seeming imperviousness, etc. If this hadn't been retroactively pitched as a topical allusion, I would likely be less inclined to criticize the scene.)

Finally, CCBB probably has a humility and implicit awareness of its "limitations" (as a fantasy film that aims to please with its whimsy) that goes down a lot smoother than TDK's self-serious fear-mongering. The latter seems inclined to terrorize audiences with its grim evocation of our desperate times, flagellating us with our own spiritual fatigue and growing sense of doom. It strikes me as pretentious and unnecessarily bleak, in a manner that fails to offer much insight. Better if it had gone with the openly fantastic approach and made fewer implicit claims to "relevance" and "seriousness".

The strange irony, as I see it, is that you would have me pay less attention to the topical allusions (essentially rendering them "unimportant" in the interest of achieving viewer satisfaction) even while, at the same time, taking the surrounding action-spectacle plot, character relationships and philosophical thematics deadly seriously in order to match the film's tone. How do I achieve this?

You can't brush away the film's clumsy politicisms with a reference to a late-'60s kids film and still maintain that the film deserves serious consideration as a philosophically-charged drama. At least I don't think you can. And this is my over-arching issue with TDK: it wants us to take utterly seriously that which it devotes the majority of its weighty attention (relationships, questions of philosophy, black reflection of the zeitgeist, character arcs/deaths, etc.) and entirely unseriously the rest of its super-hero-movie tropes, back-handed political allusions and other such genre conventions and standard Hollywood-isms.

In fact, half the time I think it gets its signals crossed and wants us to do both at the same time, dismissing the comic-book tom-foolery even as we admire and exalt the psychological insight and philosophical weighty-ness communicated through said tom-foolery. You just can't mix-'n'-match like this as whimsy dictates. This is why certain of the most successful and "serious" works of art draw attention to their artificiality up front: they force us to reflect on the medium and the tropes through which the story is told, instead of 1) stupidly ignoring the fact that their central character is wearing a cape, and 2) trying to convince us that we should shit our pants in the face of the Joker's demolition of morality.

I've rambled too long.

In brief defense of David Walsh: I admit, I probably could have written his review for TDK before it came out. His rigid adherence to a socially and politically conscious approach to art pretty much discounts a postive response to most everything H-wood has to offer. This is indeed a limiting bias in terms of his available spectrum of response to big-budget product, but I would argue that Walsh is consistently pointing out a far more limiting bias within Hollywood itself: the total ignorance of real life and genuine social circumstances the world over.

He complains of TDK's silliness because it is silly and it fails even at the most basic level to engage with current social realities far more worthy of investigation that Batman's physics-defying, jumbo-tire motorbike. I might agree with your dismissal of Walsh if there were a greater supply of relevant, socially conscious artwork in the North American market -- which would perhaps lessen the need to lash out at big-budget action fests such as TDK -- but this kind of bloated enterprise represents the majority of H-wood profits, pretty much to the exclusion of thoughtful, intelligently rendered, socially or politcally conscious art.

Obviously, we can't center this particular discourse around TDK entirely, laying the blame for the film industry's general ignorance and superficiality at its feet (it's a volley against the core values of the entire movie-making industry), but here's a relevant question: why the hell should TDK be at the center of our cultural discourse right now? Aren't there healthier, less reactionary, less anxiety-inducing, more informed, more carefully articulated and, most significantly, more important sources of enlightenment re: the state of our times?

Okay, so there's little way to engage with this argument and I've slipped from point-specific criticism into gassy polemicism, so I guess I'll leave off. I'd highly recommend reading some of Walsh's more postive reviews, which, although few and far between, tend to be very rewarding in their socio-historical/-cultural insight. My only complaint is that he goes out of his way to criticize Hollywood fare and only occasionally offers full-length reviews for the majority of his year-end favourites. I wish he'd write more about the films he admires, but there's aways something to be gleaned from even his most dismissive reviews, despite the fact that they come from a very particular bent. If anything, he's biased in favour of life, and only the least socially conscious readers could find his views utterly without merit. (And his writing is no more leaden than the kind of stuff with which we've already pumped this thread full. : ) )

To Jacob: don't sell yourself short: your arguments have definitely been agressively incisive (and a challenge to respond to), but you have to admit, McKee altered some of our most basic assumptions about the characters and their structural design. Essentially, while we were arguing over a call of "safe" at thid base, McKee kinda re-defined the playing field. (And I still haven't quite managed to absorb this new view into my perception of the film...)

McKee,

Carry on.

Jody said...

Kevin,
Betcha can't help checking back just once!

I just want to blow you a big (chaste) kiss. It's been a pleasure debating with you and you've observed, intuitively the delightful etiquette that has bubbled up here between those of us left here with (truly commendable) stamina.

I think we can all creep away neither bloodied, nor unbowed.

You wrote:

You can't brush away the film's clumsy politicisms with a reference to a late-'60s kids film and still maintain that the film deserves serious consideration as a philosophically-charged drama.

I understand entirely.
(In fact, your whole last comment was terrific).

I still feel the film deserves serious consideration as a philosophically-charged drama, however, because of the characters. Okay, because of Ledger.

I also feel, once again, that McKee is a really impressive. Wish I knew where he or she regularly comments!

I only have one thought.

Movie terrorists, like The Joker, and real terrorists (take your pick) tend to be exasperatingly eloquent AND impossible-to-pacify - in "realpolitik" terms - in their statements of grievances.

Here, I am allowing a statement such as "because we hate America" as being eloquent, and impossible!

Hollywood has further long been wise to the concept of the diabolically playing-to-the-gallery terrorist. (cf, Alan Rickman in Diehard - the first? - when he just gleefully makes shit up about his prissy political demands - when all he wants is money. The audience is permitted to understand, I think, that Rickman's character is at least serious about wanting the money?).

As Mckee says, the Nolans have taken away the Joker's underlying motivation (because his character IS his MO).

I still haven't seen the movie again - yet - so I'm not sure I do know (yet) what it is the Joker is consistently serious about. That's what will take me back. (I cracked it where Iago was concerned, and I'm not yet ready to give up on the Joker!).

Jacob said...

"I've read a few comments elsewhere in admiration of the film's "centered" approach (i.e. advocating neither "for" nor "against" anything in particular), claiming that the unbiased presentation of politically piquant subject matter is, in-and-of-itself, valuable."

I guess this is my instinct too. You seem to be sure that, when it comes to allusions, the film is (to borrow Jody's phrase) mealy-mouthed, and not just reasonably ambiguous. I see nothing that makes this obviously true. Muddled and inconclusive are not identical.

"In fact, half the time I think it gets its signals crossed and wants us to do both at the same time, dismissing the comic-book tom-foolery even as we admire and exalt the psychological insight and philosophical weighty-ness communicated through said tom-foolery. You just can't mix-'n'-match like this as whimsy dictates."

I just don't see why not. This seems like standard form for any comic book/comic book movie, and I see TDK doing nothing egregious or particularly grievous in this regard. There would only be a conflict, as far as I can see, if the movie required realistic action for its insights to mean anything. For instance, if a movie hinges on a baseless stereotype or inaccurate portrayal of some entity, in order to say something about the effects of that entity, then there's a problem. But if the silliness of the action is unrelated to the philosophical insights, then one probably doesn't weaken the other.

Kevin H. said...

You're right, of course, Jody -- I couldn't stay away entirely (but thanks for the fond farewell, nonetheless). : )

Jacob: How was the tournament? What was the tournament? And why have you come back to haunt me with your brutally well-reasoned criticisms? (These latest posts of mine have been genuinely sloppy, haven't they.)

"You seem to be sure that, when it comes to allusions, the film is (to borrow Jody's phrase) mealy-mouthed, and not just reasonably ambiguous. I see nothing that makes this obviously true. Muddled and inconclusive are not identical."

Since the film failed to win me over early in the game, I'm much more readily inclined to read it negatively -- and the converse is true for you. I was also speaking broadly and generally here, I admit (something you've warred against throughout, and rightfully so), but I have no real intention of getting any nittier or grittier. We view the film differently based on our different total experiences. Suffice it to say that rather than serving the film itself, directly and in a self-contained manner, I feel as though the topical allusions are intentionally, wilfully directing us outside the diegesis and into the real world. Unfortunately, once we get there, the complicated reality makes nonsense of the superhero fantasy and I find myself puzzled as to why the Nolans would work so hard to undermine that which they seem (on the surface) to take so damned seriously. This constant static between the film's various parts and the larger world defeated me.

Alright, one example: Batman's surveillance tactic does not create a genuine ethical dilemma, for all the film would like us to believe it does. No one's privacy rights are actually infringed upon here because the Dark Knight is effectively using the technology as an elaborate tracking device (and not as a kind of "wire-tap") with which to catch the Joker. No one is harmed by its use (ethically, morally, physically or otherwise) and there isn't even the possibility of this occurring because Batman is a friggin' superhero and the whole episode is merely an action-adventure movie conceit -- a flashy method of catching the bad-guy. How can this possibly relate to the real world? It can't, and the only reason we acknowledged it as an "ethical dilemma" in this context is the fact that Morgan Freeman tells us so. If you like the movie, you buy it; if you don't, it's all a bit too muddled to accept. "Muddled" and "inconclusive" might not mean the same thing, but one person's "inconclusive" is another person's "muddled" ... or something like that. No?

"This seems like standard form for any comic book/comic book movie, and I see TDK doing nothing egregious or particularly grievous in this regard."

You know, re-reading the relevant passages in my previous post, I think I've argued almost precisely the opposite of what (I think) I mean. In fact, asking us to take the action-spectacle with a little salt, while presenting at the same time a series of recognizable and well-observed psychological or philosophical insights is precisely what I've advocated for in other posts throughout the discussion. Weird.

So what the hell did I mean....

I think, instead of arguing that the film has mixed desires (it doesn't: it pitches everything at the same tonal level and wants us to take everything seriously, whatever the difficulty of doing so and whatever the latent contradictions therein) -- in fact, it's the fans and defenders of TDK who fit this description. Christopher Nolan puts just as much emphasis on the goofily straight-faced (if spectacular) actions scenes as he does on the deeper nihilistic revelations of Ledger's Joker, effectively throwing balance out the window in pursuit of ... "authority"? "Credibility"? Some other related notion? Anyway....

It's TDK's supporters (such as Jody -- sorry Jody!) who argue that we can mix-'n'-match with the component parts, choosing what to "take seriously" and what to ignore, in spite of the film's rampant tonal sameness. I suppose we do this kind of thing for every film we admire (those little "hypocrisies" I've mentioned before), but I guess I'm just not willing to compartmentalize in this case, when so much of what's onscreen offends my sensibilities, whether formal, aesthetic, dramatic, moral or otherwise.

Whew! So there's 600+ words more to follow my assertion that I'm done arguing about this movie. : )

Keith Uhlich said...

A note here that I'm grateful for the discussion my review and Ed's response has inspired in this thread. If I don't join in more in-depth it is due, mainly, to the fact that I feel I've said all I have to say about The Dark Knight and that numerous professional duties prevent me from doing so besides. Would that it were a more interesting movie to me, which isn't to say that it shouldn't be discussed by those with the desire.

I'll reiterate that I create none of my work to stop a conversation, and whatever my judgment on the worth of this particular movie, I'm glad to see it, and the responses to it, inspiring spirited, intelligent, and passionate debate.

Jacob said...

"How was the tournament? What was the tournament? And why have you come back to haunt me with your brutally well-reasoned criticisms?"

http://www.nagafighter.com/batb08_home.asp

I won a samurai sword!

"Since the film failed to win me over early in the game, I'm much more readily inclined to read it negatively -- and the converse is true for you."

Honestly, I'm beginning to think that a great deal of our disagreements boil down to this-- which is unfortunate, because it contradicts my previous arguments about subjectivity. Ah well.

"Alright, one example: Batman's surveillance tactic does not create a genuine ethical dilemma, for all the film would like us to believe it does. No one's privacy rights are actually infringed upon here because the Dark Knight is effectively using the technology as an elaborate tracking device (and not as a kind of "wire-tap") with which to catch the Joker. No one is harmed by its use (ethically, morally, physically or otherwise) and there isn't even the possibility of this occurring because Batman is a friggin' superhero and the whole episode is merely an action-adventure movie conceit -- a flashy method of catching the bad-guy. How can this possibly relate to the real world? It can't, and the only reason we acknowledged it as an "ethical dilemma" in this context is the fact that Morgan Freeman tells us so. If you like the movie, you buy it; if you don't, it's all a bit too muddled to accept. "Muddled" and "inconclusive" might not mean the same thing, but one person's "inconclusive" is another person's "muddled" ... or something like that. No?"

Ah, yes, I took this quite a bit differently.

First and foremost, I see the surveillance scenario as an exploration into the nature of Batman as a hero, and only secondly (almost incidentally) as an allusion to modern surveillance concerns. We are told repeatedly that Batman "only has one rule." Yet this becomes unclear when he's unwilling to use the surveillance tactic more than once. Why should he be so tentative? I see it as a concern about power: as strong as you make the good-guy vigilante, it seems like this will just result in a more powerful villain. Freeman insists that this is "too much power for one man," a statement that's giving a bit more impact considering how tied together the status of batman and the status of emerging counterpoints (such as the Joker). We've seen it suggested that the creation of "Batmans" is largely interconnected with the creation of "Jokers." By augmenting Batman's power, we must worry about similar parallels: what are the reverberating effects of giving Batman this much power? Does this actually solve anything? I see the surveillance episode as yet another instance of this. (At least the Joker remains low-tech. Imagine what happens when the next villain is a billionaire like Bruce Wayne.)

As for it not being an ethical dilemma because "no one's privacy is effectively being violated" or because "it's the hero who's doing it," I think a) these concerns only really sting if we consider the situation as ONLY a privacy problem, and not a power problem (as I have above) and b) these concerns seem like excuses that could be used for a great deal of privacy violation. I thought the point of this scenario is that, while we can make utilitarian excuses about privacy violation, it's the principle of the thing: it's still not his right (or anyone's right), so it is morally bad, and our paltry excuses are just rationalizations. It's similar to the boat scenario: I saw it remarked on one blog that "of course it's better to blow up a boat, since of course it's better for one boat-full to survive than both die." Yes, if we reduce these ethical situations down to callous utilitarian arithmetic, perhaps they don't seem like the most nuanced scenarios-- but that's because we reduced them.

I guess I'm ultimately advocating-- not that we mix n' match how seriously we take what Nolan's doing--but that we take our interpretations with the appropriate level of seriousness. I've argued elsewhere the absurdity of the Bush apologia interpretation-- if we invent similar interpretations just so as to disparage them, then we're not really criticizing the movie fairly.

Thus, I'd say we should take the allusions to the real world--NOT as saying something deep about current events (nothing obligates us to)--but instead as obvious familiarities which can be used to say something deep about themes within the film.

As for Nolan's inconclusiveness versus murkiness: perhaps it is an invisibly fine line. I just see him as presenting these obvious allusions so as to make us reevaluate our knee-jerk reaction to them, without wanting to say anything too definitive about them. You, I assume, see him as attempting to present a definitive view, but failing to do execute it in a coherent manner. I've seen nothing that really persuades me this latter analysis is correct, and obviously, the converse (inverse?) is true for you. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

I think Nolan tries to have it both ways in this film. Both Batman and Superman are such staples in America for kids (even four and five year olds sleep in Batman and Superman pajamas) that it's tricky to make a "realistic" Batman film that fits into the parameters of PG13. I do agree with "culture snob" who said the blood avoidance "sometimes seemed less like an artistic choice and more of an economic one." Agree. It seems to me (and did throughout the film) that Nolan was straddling the fence in the name of economics (not artistry.) Stand up and choose...with your Batman, make a decision. If the movie (looks like a trilogy now) is for everyone, then please truly make it for everyone (which includes elementary school-age boys who will watch it)...otherwise make it an adult film that's complex enough, that includes characterization with enough depth that kids won't even be interested. Then make sure the marketing is to the correct demographic. Whichever is chosen. As it stands now, Nolan with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight has made no decision. It IS as if he wants to taunt the father sitting there with his elementary aged kid in TDK (hey, the film is PG13)...technically speaking. But it's not.

Anonymous said...

way too late, of course.

But I cut and pasted McKee's first comment (with full citation!) to Metafilter last night - in a lively thread about the Joker as arch nemesis. They're a tough crowd there, but McKee's thoughts are reaping bouquets - which is only right and proper!
Jody Tresidder

Anonymous said...

I knew this would happen - I'm adding to a dead thread!

Jacob,

You wrote: Thus, I'd say we should take the allusions to the real world--NOT as saying something deep about current events (nothing obligates us to)--but instead as obvious familiarities which can be used to say something deep about themes within the film.

I agree - and you're thinking like a structuralist - that is, you're restricting your comments to the tensions within the work itself. Excellent!

I was initially troubled by the - as I saw it - awkward shout-out by Morgan's character to real world concerns about excess surveillance. That, however, comes from assuming Nolan has been inexplicably clumsy and political. Bad move.

It works much better, I think, if I affect no interest about the extra-textual "message" here.

It is indeed "just" a warning about Batman's misuse of power within the film - since Morgan, at least, knows the Joker exists to goad our uneasy hero further and further to defeat/contain him. Thus the two - Joker and Batman - do indeed complete each other.

(And if you want to get geopolitical, the way each terrorist outrage justifies edgier and edgier actions by the good guys...).



Jody Tresidder