Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight (of the American soul)

Why are people flocking to see The Dark Knight? Sure, I know - Heath Ledger’s death, a clever advertising campaign, and the general herdishness of the herd all play a role, but... do people actually enjoy this experience? Why? It’s a profoundly well-crafted and generous movie, to be sure, spending a great deal of time, considerable expense, and the efforts of a remarkably skilled cast and crew to tell its story - unlike the idiotic and contemptible Iron Man, the previous blockbuster hit of the year - but does ANYONE, critic or lay, actually emerge from The Dark Knight feeling that this is an experience worth recommending to others?

On what basis do they arrive at that valuation? Someone explain it to me, for I am vexed. Is it somehow consoling to certain viewers - American viewers, say - in its implicit messages that state-sanctioned vigilantism, torture, surveillance, official lying to the public, disregard for due process - cf. the Joker’s spiels about just wanting his phone call - and other such relevant evils are all necessary evils, and that American virtue, however troubled it may be, however questionable its recourse to such methods may render it in the public eye, is still virtue, and will eventually be recognized as such (even if not in the course of the film?).

What, then, of the persistent grimness of the film, its hopeless, joyless, ultimately enervating slog from one terrible situation to the next? If the purpose of the movie is indeed as it appears to be, to comfort and console us that “we” are the good guys - just as our hero and primary source of identification in the film remains a good guy despite all - what is also served by making “heroism” such a bleak, thankless affair? The film simultaneously appears to tell us that everything is okay - we’re still good people; and that the world itself is terrible and will remain so. (The crude game theory situation that the film crafts involving two ferries, given the choice to blow each other up, is little consolation; neither ferry destroys the other, but both come so close as to nullify any inspiring platitudes about basic human goodness; we are required to contemplate just the opposite, for far too long, for such a message to be the ultimate result). This is a remarkably hopeless film, an ugly, dark experience. Who could have ever expected it to be a huge hit? Who would think audiences would be so masochistic?

Truth is, the experience of watching The Dark Knight left me talking to the friend who accompanied me about the Deep State, MK Ultra, and the vested interests of the very rich and powerful. I was forced to paraphrase another friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, more than once, since I lack my own language for such things. The film appears to be a remarkable feat of propaganda, both reassuring us that the US government is, all appearances to the contrary, doing the right things in the world since September 11th, and sapping us of the will to do anything at all to try to change things as they are. Its ultimate effect would appear to be that of encouraging passive consumerism and depressed, despairing acceptance - there’s not much else to feel as you slump out of the theatre, drained and tired. It arrives at such a place so skillfully that it is nearly impossible to me to accept a Chomsky/Herman sort of “free market” analysis - that the ideology of the wealthy engraves itself in such a text as if writ by an invisible hand, the better to manufacture consent and so forth; the film so thoroughly, consistently, and cynically works to deplete and pacify its viewers, to numb them and disempower them even as it appears to “entertain,” that I can only conclude one of two things:

1) that it was designed to do such by some vastly evil force with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo; it is a deliberately and finely crafted act of propaganda, that carefully reads the current political climate and injects exactly the sort of message that both the mass audience, and their owners, are craving right now, to allow things to continue as they are. IF there exists a cadre of powerful, wealthy, malignant "rulers," behind the scenes, and IF they had a propaganda wing, a film like this would SURELY be their crowning achievement; if they didn't produce such a thing, they would at the very least feel jealous of - and indebted to - those who did. I mean, if I wanted to control the minds of Americans and get'em to vote Republican (or such), The Dark Knight would be how I'd do it, no doubt about it. I bet George W. Bush himself can derive consolation from this film, seeing himself as a "misunderstood hero."


2) that it was cynically designed as a money-making vehicle by people who figured that this is the sort of shit that Americans need and want right now; it exploits and agitates American bad conscience, and offers a self-punitive, self-pitying palliative - “a cure for what ails you” - simply because the filmmakers figure that a lot of people will buy it. Everyone hates us, but we're still the good guys: now go back to sleep.

In either case - snake charming or snake oil - there is not the slightest thought in my mind that The Dark Knight’s design was ACCIDENTAL. (Apparently the previous Batman movie by Nolan had Batman square off against a cave-dwelling terrorist; I didn’t see it, but imagine that I would feel much the same about it). In the first scenario, it’s designed to have a political effect, and the resultant blockbuster payday is secondary; in the second, the payday is the point. I suppose we could craft a third scenario, combining elements of both, but in any case I cannot but see this film as an extremely smart, calculating, and self-aware move. Who is making the move, and to what end, is not strictly relevant: it’s scary as fuck, and deeply objectionable, either way, as is the fact that most critics will surely come nowhere close to acknowledging any of the above.

At this point, I find myself seriously entertaining the thought that there IS a conscious Mind War afoot here, perferring it to the thought that ultimately it was all just about the money. Grandiose evil is less depressing than mundane: hence the argument that conspiracy theorists are “comforting” themselves with their theories. Is this film really just an indicator of how cynical Hollywood can be? How sad and dull, and how scary; I have more respect for the DTES' crack dealers than I do Warner Brothers tonight.

What an experience I have had at the theatre this evenings, friends. Why is this film a hit? It's a dull, relentless, "one-ordeal-after-the-other" celebration of NOTHING, a boring, grim, nihilistic burp of sloth, cynicism and despair. THIS is a superhero movie?

Hey: if you saw and enjoyed The Dark Knight, can you explain what the hell you got out of it to me? Because I don’t get it in the slightest.


Allan MacInnis said...

A reviewer who does my heart good in regard to this film - tho' I've questioned his judgement elsewise - is Armond White:

Anonymous said...

Considering the last Batman movie starred a badguy with a distinctly persian sounding name who'se plan was to somehow drive a subway train into a financial building as his big bad deed, and we didn't hear a single critic mention suspicion at this, are you at all surprised at the way this film has been received?

Allan MacInnis said...

I didn't watch the last Batman film, so the cowardice (?) and/or failure of analysis (?) that the new film is being greeted with *IS* a tad surprising to me; not VERY surprising, but - a tad. Mostly it's shocking for other reasons - not because I don't expect such things, but because I haven't lost the capacity to be outraged by them; it's constantly startling and upsetting to see how degraded the state of criticism is...


Allan MacInnis said...

A useful article:

Thanks to Dan Kibke for the link...


Ross Birdwise said...

a different perspective on the argues that it is not as conservative as you say it is...