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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

July 24, 2012 8 comments

I need to start with a short explanation of why I’m not going to comment directly on the Colorado massacre. This is a review blog and not concerned with real-world tragedy or the politics of gun control. The only relevant issue is briefly to consider whether writers and those who make films or television programs should be held accountable if people act out what they have read or seen. I’ve long been sceptical of any link between a person reading about specific behaviour or viewing that behaviour on a screen, and the decision to act it out. Since the introduction of the printing press, there have been millions of books from cultures all around the world in which people have been described engaging in a wide range of activities. When we add in films and television programs, and widen the boundaries of taste, we can observe an extraordinary diversity of human behaviour. At moments like this, we’re prompted to ask whether people exposed to depictions of violence become violent but that rather ignores the more general question of cause and effect.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Arthur (Michael Caine) enjoying a quiet moment

 

Abuse or aggression in the home is said to shape a child’s upbringing and make him or her more likely to be aggressive in the future. Naturally not all victimised or abused children become aggressive or abusive when they grow up. But some do. During their subsequent trials, the tendency to abuse others is said to be behaviour learned by experiencing how authority figures act. In other words, the socialisation process involves effects from the relationships within the family and the home environment, the interaction with authority figures, the pressures from peers, and a host of other factors. No-one would pull out a single episode in a television series such as Criminal Minds and blame it. Indeed, the problem in designing scientific research into whether there’s any link between violence observed and violence in action, is that showing people stimulus material and trying to measure their reaction takes the stimulus material out of context. Books, films and television do not exist in a social vacuum. Is it to be suggested we should not see news of the shooting in Aurora because this may incite copycat shootings? Every day, the news and comment media carry supposedly factual reports of criminal activity and other acts of social deviancy. There are tens of thousands of books which contain fictionalised versions of what we can imagine protagonists and antagonists doing to themselves or others. We should not censor the information that flows through our culture, nor seek to blame those who originate any individual item in the discourse as a whole. Indeed, news from Aurora would be a positive force for good if everyone focused on condemning the violence and discussing how public policy can be changed to reduce the chances of it happening again. The less violence is glorified and the more the peer group disapproves its use, the less the use of violence is seen as justified. If there are no rewards for the use of violence, there are fewer incentives for people to be violent.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman enjoying the ride

 

At this point I need to start talking about The Dark Knight Rises (2012) whose contribution to this debate is equivocal. Making a vigilante into a hero plays a dangerous social game. In some senses, it’s showing society taking a positive benefit from the activities of a man who never feels constrained by the usual social conventions. For more than one-thousand years, laws have tried to steer people away from individual action, outlawing blood feuds and criminalising revenge. We have been persuaded the peace and order in society is the greater good and surrendered our individual rights to the law enforcement agencies and the courts. In the film, the Dent Act has been used to deprive alleged criminals of due process. They have been locked away without a right to a fair trial on the facts, and without a proper process for sentencing. In terms of civil liberties, the cure has been worse than the disease. More importantly, the policy is based on the lie that Batman wrongly killed Harvey Dent and so represents the worst political expediency in action. Ironically this gives Bane some moral justification for leading a revolution and storming the local equivalent of the Bastille to release the prisoners. It’s just unfortunate that many of those released are dangerous and probably deserved to be locked up indefinitely. The later scenes showing the revolutionary courts in action mimic those set up by the Committee of Public Safety in France during the Reign of Terror and set up the power of the quote from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens at the end. It pays the framers of the Dent Act the complement of imitation. Both sides are completely arbitrary in their oppression of those they dislike.

Bane (Tom Hardy) strictly business before pleasure

 

Against this background, we need to understand the roles people play. Daggert (Ben Mendelsohn) is the ultimately corrupt politician who uses his position to advance his own fortune. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the honest cop who feels guilt that he allowed the agenda to get out of his control. He knows the means do not justify the ends. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has opted for crime as the means to achieve her ends, but is wise enough to understand there have to be limits and ways to find redemption. She makes a pleasing counterpoint to the self-absorbed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who can’t ride down the street on his new bike without breaking half-a-dozen traffic laws every block. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) represents a single-minded focus on the belief that humanity must somehow rid itself of corruption whether through projects to deliver low-cost energy to Gotham City or other ways. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the voice of the young generation. Tired of being marginalised and victimised by older placeholders who have no accountability when things go wrong, he wants to get things done even if he ends up killing a few people on the way. But the most interesting figure is Alfred (Michael Caine) who gives a performance of great power as a paternal Everyman. He wants the best for young Master Bruce but not at the expense of Gotham City. When Batman distracts the police from chasing Bane and inspires mayhem, he shakes his head at the price society must pay for indisciplined interference. Would it not be better for Bruce Wayne to be actively involved in using his vast financial resources to help Gotham City out of the mess? Indeed, in Batman Begins (2005) the terrorist organisation called League of Shadows executed Bruce Wayne’s father because his philanthropy was so effective in stabilising the community. Alfred becomes disillusioned and leaves Bruce Wayne, the man he has loved as his own son. We are encouraged to see Bruce Wayne as losing his moral compass. He wallows in the arrogant delusion he can solve all his own problems (and those of Gotham City) by putting the suit back on.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman — tag team for good

 

Bane (Tom Hardy) is all business. He’s not showy or extravagant. His initial entry into the city is as a fixer for Daggert but, of course, he’s not a mere criminal. Nor, indeed, is he a true revolutionary. He’s a nicely complicated man who finds himself driven to destroy Gotham City. This understated performance makes a nice counterpoint to Batman’s more extravagant and flamboyant style. Whereas Bane lumbers around looking as if he’s just spent the night sleeping in his sheepskin jacket, Batman has to turn up on novel motorbikes or in futuristic flying machines looking dapper in his body armour. Bane is brutal and effective. With no knee or elbow joint in full working order, and with eight years of inactivity behind him, Bruce Wayne punches with the authority of a schoolgirl. Bruce Wayne overreaches because he believes in the myth of his own invincibility. He therefore has to learn what’s most important to him as his life lies in ruins. That the ending shows nobility of spirit is confirmation that he was, at heart, a good man. Alfred is justly proud of him.

 

However, I fear the film itself is not a complete success. As a piece of narrative fitting into the format of a trilogy, it’s a masterpiece. I see Christopher Nolan and his bother Jonathan Nolan who jointly wrote the screenplay, allowed a full novelisation by Greg Cox. I suspect it all works rather better on paper. The key difficulty is the need for the action to reflect the passage of at least five months. If a filmmaker is relying on the tired old device of the bomb counting down from 10, we only have a few seconds to watch the hero decide to cut the blue wire. This used to be exciting. But when the countdown is measured in months, it loses its dynamic force. As we watch Bruce Wayne rebuild his body, everything connected with Gotham City is fudged. How do all these policemen survive underground? Where does all the food come from to keep the population alive? How are water and power supplies maintained during the winter? And so on? Although the CGI of the flying bat is quite impressive in the final sequences, it was something I admired at a technical level more than found exciting. Oh dear, I was saying to myself, Gordon’s got himself into another of these silly script situations where he drops the gizmo and gets thrown around the inside of a truck like an action man toy. It’s all been seen before. Yes, it’s put together with all the skill we would expect of Nolan but. . .

 

Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a very impressive film and because it thoughtfully addresses some very interesting ideas of contemporary importance about our reaction to criminal behaviour in general and terrorism in particular, it deserves to reach the widest possible audience, i.e. it’s not just a fanboy comic book film. But you shouldn’t go expecting it to be non-stop entertainment in the wham/bam style of blockbuster cinema. It take its time and, in the end, this gives the film more emotional depth.

 

Inception (2010)

The world continues to throw up the occasional marketing campaign to stimulate curiosity. I enjoyed the recent Batman films so going to see Christopher Nolan’s stand-alone science-fictional effort, Inception (2010), seemed a good idea. Every now and again, it does me good to run with the herd, to remember what it’s like to jump off a cliff with all the other lemmings.

So there I am, comfortably installed in the cinema — amazingly only the one trailer for Harry Potter, no ads. Thank God for longer films! Shame about the Potter. And so, in the best of the racetrack jargon, we’re off and running.

About fifteen minutes into the film, I register a discussion about perceptions in a dream. Cobb, our hero, asks his architect how they arrived at this particular place in Paris. She cannot remember. There’s a discontinuity. I am immediately triggered into comparing the medium of film with dreaming. Because of the time limitations, directors cut between one scene and the next, leaving it to the viewers to fill in the blanks. We are well trained, always being prepared to infer the missing events. So dreams are also discontinuous as the subconscious flits from one set of narrative elements to another. I begin to wonder whether any of what we are watching is intended to be “real” or is it all to be a dream. I am further reinforced in this speculation as the idea of multiple levels in dreaming is introduced and discussed. Then the game is completely exposed when Cobb is trying to escape in Mombassa and runs down an ever-narrowing passageway.

Perhaps I am too old to be watching young film-makers try to say something new.

In this instance, I can identify two good things about the end-product. Even though it’s not terribly original, I like the logic of the plot. Having decided which of the possible stories he’s going to tell, Nolan is very disciplined, carefully setting out his ground rules, and then watching them play out to the end. Overall, I think it goes on for about twenty minutes too long. There’s just too much repetitive shooting and explosions, particularly in the third level where the snow looks pretty even though the action is tedious.

The second good thing is the quality of the cinematography and design. Some of the dreamscapes are impressive although, again, the zero gravity sequence goes on too long.

But there’s a real problem. I think the best way to explain it is to remind myself of the number of exciting games I have watched. When you spectate, particularly as a player yourself, you are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow of the action. Although there’s always satisfaction in watching any game played really well, nothing beats the raw emotion of empathising with the winner and commiserating with the loser. Any good work of fiction, whether on the page, on stage or the screen must encourage us to suspend disbelief. It may not be real, but the director hopes we will empathise with the key players.

The mark of a great film is the way in which it captures and holds our interest. We must want the key protagonist to win, or not to lose too badly. The difficulty with Inception is that it’s like watching over someone’s shoulder while he or she plays a video game. I can stand this for a few minutes but, with little turning on the outcome, I’m rarely involved. It’s different if I’m the one playing. Then, regardless whether my level of performance is good or bad, it’s my effort and, as a competitive soul, I dislike losing to some stupid machine. But all I was doing this afternoon was watching Nolan play a first-person shooter game. It had great visuals and Zimmer’s music was the usual atmospheric pomp, but I was not involved. These were not real people. At best, they were projections of the subconscious mind. In a sense, it did not matter which actors happened to be on the screen at any one time. They were merely going through the motions necessitated by the plot. On three occasions, individuals were asked to make a leap of faith. I could not do it. I wish it were otherwise, but Inception (2010) is a film you admire for its technical virtuosity but forget because it had no heart.

As always, I can pick winners for this won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.

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