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Suggested Reading List: The Dark Knight—Take 2

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Suggested Reading List: The Dark Knight—Take 2

The Dark Knight is the most entertaining blockbuster of the summer, which still doesn’t mean it’s any good. OK, that’s hyperbole (it’s a lot of good, the most start-to-finish aesthetically pleasurable comic-book blow-up I’ve seen in god knows how long), but still a justifiable description given the film’s freakishly ardent advocates. I can’t recall, of recent, a smoother, more all-encompassing tent pole that makes fuller use of its budget: duplicitous, psuedo-hits like Zodiac (which no sane person would expect to be a box-office sensation, hunky Jake Gyllenhaal or no) or Miami Vice (unbeatable franchise value defeated by terminal artiness—that’s an endorsement, by the way) don’t count. Nor does Spiderman-2, my none-too-idiosyncratic pick of the comic-book litter: big, obvious themes done with absolute skill, sincerity and narrative smarts.

The Dark Knight is a seductive film, easily the most technically adept movie Christopher Nolan’s ever made, but it’s as unsettled and uneasy thematically as a latter-day work by Lars von Trier. That it can be argued over so angrily is both its strength and its weakness. Action sequences aside (everyone seems to agree they’re shit), this is one hypnotic piece of craft. But means and ends don’t add up.

Let’s set aside unavoidable compromises. The first presentation of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as Two-Face is as contrived as possible: our big-jawed, blond-haired hero transformed into a ravening monster, presented in the most distancing ways. Obviously Two-Face isn’t going to be some gory bogeyman horrifying you with bloody combat veins in evidence: Christopher Nolan may have gotten away with a lot for (approx.) $200 million, but he plays by the rules. No R rating here: once his head rolls from one side of the hospital pillow to the other, Two-Face is a cartoonish creation, half-WASP/half-Jolly Green Giant. These are the compromises of commercial filmmaking, and though I wish Nolan hadn’t kept the presumable revelation of Dent’s true face in such phony suspense (similar to the script’s big herring re: Commissioner Gordon), there’s no way out of it. I also can’t be much bothered by complaints that much of the film is about the brute, visceral sadism of the impulse for revenge, the consequences of which are neatly kept off-screen; bloody reprisal is simply not an option.

My problem with The Dark Knight is a variant of my objections to Dogville and Manderlay (whether through praise or damnation, except I’m not on either side in this case because I enjoy thorny problematics). Von Trier makes it easy on you: he presents blatantly allegorical situations where the conclusion is grimly, deterministically pre-ordained, then drops his condemnation of human nature (exposed as vile, opportunistic, fundamentally self-preserving and—more importantly—self-justifying in ways that are, to the privileged viewer, blatantly hypocritical). He never abandons his blatant viewpoint; the situation is manipulated, but the viewer isn’t. I don’t buy what he’s saying, but at least von Trier makes it clear that everything’s artificial.

What Nolan does is trickier. First, he presents a Gotham City that seems real: whenever I saw a Gotham City police vehicle, I had to scan the side carefully to make sure it wasn’t just an NYPD squad car I was misidentifying. The Dark Knight presents its CGI/helicopter shots as overt, dazzling trickery, separate elements distanced from the rest of the film; puncturing of verisimilitude is never really an issue, and most of the film is by far the grittiest, most live-action superhero movie I’ve ever seen. But as far as plot, Nolan wraps himself in a cloth of graphic novel excuses: whatever’s implausible is a convention of comic books, and hence above criticism. Complaints about plausibility can be deflected as complaints about genre convention, which obviously the critic hasn’t bothered to engage with, doesn’t understand the background of, is too much of a snob to admit liking, etc. Then Nolan makes his final move: he tries to wrap a statement about real human behavior, deterministically set-up through comic conventions, around the whole.

This is what I think of as the <em>Lord of the Flies</em> fallacy (if you like that book, you may want to stop reading now): set up a series of fundamentally fantastic circumstances that force the worst out of people, then claim it’s a universal truth. In essence, The Dark Knight is a moral duel between Batman (who, like Anne Frank, fundamentally believes in mankind’s better instincts) and the Joker (who believes human morality is a social construct that falls away whenever anonymity and a chance to evade shame is available). In the battle between the two, Batman wins against seemingly insurmountable odds. With every Death Wish instinct telling the conservative, non-criminal refugees to blow away the criminals in the battle of the boats, they blanch out; someone has stood up for their better soul, proving mankind’s fundamental goodness asserts itself no matter what.

The Dark Knight strives to keep Batman in the most ambivalent light possible until the very end, when it’s clear that he’s made the best possible choices: not perfect ones (Nolan is canny enough to insinuate that there’s no perfect moral outcome where all casualties are avoided), but the ones with minimal collateral damage. At film’s end, Batman has preserved the maximum number of lives, given the circumstances. And Batman isn’t equivalent—and definitely hasn’t “led”—to the Joker; in any case the Joker was set up, unequivocally, at the ending of Batman Begins. Here he’s basically Anton Chigurh by other means—except where Chigurh offers each of his individual victims a chance at self-definition and appreciation of life, the Joker likes to perform mass social experiments. But they’re both uncontrollable, motivationless agents of entropy, walking metaphors for whatever.

And that’s my problem: The Dark Knight pretends to offer up real human problems, but it’s just a clunky allegory, and not a particularly sophisticated one at that. Nolan—though taking great strides behind the camera—simply must stop making his characters say things like “Sometimes the truth isn’t enough.” Is this an action movie or a big-budget remake of Memento? Nolan’s movies (all of them, aside from The Prestige, too complicated to be blatant about anything) revel in the simplistic appropriation of philosophical problems recycled as trite dialogue; they should give audiences a suggested reading list on the way out. Ironically, for a film touted by fanboys, this is easily Nolan’s most Nolan-like film yet.

[And yes, it’s extremely entertaining. Crazy fanboys give me a break, huh?]

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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