Dark Knight of the Soul

The Batman finale, plus Alyx Duncan and Dan Salmon

by Philip Matthews

The lonesome billionaire is in his fortress of solitude, high above the city. He hides – in cars, behind what he wears, behind his blank expressions. Outside, the city is disrupted. Protests, falling currencies, stock markets in uproar, an end to the usual order of things. People come and go, telling him things he needs to know. Who is his opponent? Is the threat individual or generalised or is it even the unavoidable force of history itself? Some men appear: “A spectre is haunting the world …”

That isn’t the plot outline of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the plot outline of Cosmopolis, the Don DeLillo novel that has become a David Cronenberg film. From book to movie has roughly spanned the 12 years between 1999’s Battle of Seattle and 2011’s Occupy movement – DeLillo seemed to draw on the former for background and ended up anticipating the latter.

What spectre haunts The Dark Knight Rises? Not the anti-capitalist one, despite appearances and some willingness – from critics and commentators on both the left and right – to find pro- or anti-Occupy allegory in the thing. Yes, viewers were primed for that kind of allegory because of the pointed use of some key dialogue in the trailer. That is Selina Kyle’s whispered lines to Bruce Wayne at a masked ball that looks like the last gasp of the entitled rich from something like The Leopard: “You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Was this going to be a superhero movie for the 99 per cent? No. Despite the mixed messages and the free-floating rhetoric, the bits of Robespierre and Dickens, the ultimate adversary – let’s assume we’ve all seen the film or can handle spoilers – is the same one as in the first part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 2005’s Batman Begins. That is, Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows, or League of Assassins. This group direct their global activities from hideouts in Asian mountains, like a conflation of every real or rumoured secret society from Hassan-i Sabbah’s assassins to occult traditions of Himalayan masters who intervene every now and then in human history to the most obvious recent one, al-Qaeda. In Batman Begins, Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne decries their ambitions and methods as fascist. But despite his disgust, more than a little of that fascism rubs off on him.

The League operates as a purity cult at war with western decadence. That means that the key line of dialogue in the third film is not what Selina Kyle says at the ball, but a less spotlighted line that describes Bane, the League’s hitman, as “the power of belief, the League of Shadows resurgent”. If evil is an idea that can be endlessly incarnated, so too can good – although in these films it’s a pretty ambivalent version of “good”. That’s the essence of Bruce Wayne’s repeated image of the hero as just a symbol or a mask, the mirror of the film’s idea of evil. That idea – power as an abstraction, a costume, a symbol to frighten the peasants and keep citizens in line – is the big achievement of The Dark Knight Rises.

Actually, I think that Mark Frost has it right. Mark Frost, co-writer of Twin Peaks, wrote on Twitter just last week that we “can stop watching superhero movies now, cause no one’s going to make a better one than Dark Knight Rises. Masterpiece.” He went on: “These aren’t cheap sequels, it’s a REAL worked out trilogy. Themes, arcs, resolutions.”

I don’t agree that the film is a masterpiece – for one thing, neither villain (Tom Hardy’s Bane, Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle) has the chaotic, raw instability that Heath Ledger so memorably brought to The Dark Knight – but neither does it have the near-traditional third-film tiredness (Return of the Jedi, Return of the King, Spider-Man 3 – take your pick). Mark Frost is right to say that it both completes a coherent, thought-out trilogy and should put an end to a mostly dreary and repetitive genre. It should yet it won’t, of course. But really, who needs another superhero movie after this?

More than anything, the Nolan Batman films have been about a tragic, elevated seriousness – the same seriousness you see in the non-superhero films Nolan made during the same period, Inception and The Prestige. Both of those films, The Prestige especially, were more daring than the Batman films, particularly in their complex distortions of cinematic space and time (Last Year at Marienbad was an influence on Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who often writes with him). Inception, The Prestige and the earlier Memento are cerebral films, puzzles – the fact that Nolan’s production company has a maze for a logo is often commented on – and some of that seriousness bordering on ponderousness has crossed over into the Batman flicks. If you think that superhero films should offer light relief from the burdens and compromises of daily existence rather than yet another creative depiction of them, then follow the New Yorker’s Richard Brody through the door marked Avengers instead:

“Nolan is a remarkably gifted engineer—he unifies production design and character, plot and theme, action and mood into a machine that keeps churning, for two hours and forty minutes, until its timer rings and leaves the door implausibly open for a sequel to the concluded trilogy. The movie’s unvarying tone of grim menace and stern purpose has none of the energy of even the most banal of science-fiction cheapies. There’s nothing over the top about it, no excess, no flash, no burrs that catch unexpectedly to the mind or the eye. Above all, there’s no danger that the film will be taken (rightly or wrongly) as camp, no danger that anyone will laugh.”

But remember that this kind of criticism – Nolan’s a cold technician, an engineer, even inhuman – is almost word-for-word what they used to say about Stanley Kubrick (“The numerous rapes and beatings have no ferocity and no sensuality; they’re frigidly, pedantically calculated,” Pauline Kael said about A Clockwork Orange; “It fails on the human level but succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale,” Roger Ebert said about 2001). Like Kubrick, Nolan makes films that seem autocratically organised and carefully designed, but unlike Kubrick, there is less variation from picture to picture, and not just because he recently wrapped a one-story trilogy.

Since Batman Begins, Nolan has constructed a world that stretches beyond the generic trilogy to incorporate Inception and The Prestige: there is a consistency of production design across all five films, and a feeling that Nolan has been putting together a company of actors (Dark Knight Rises actors Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cottilard and Tom Hardy have all appeared in Nolan’s non-Batman films). The cinematographer Wally Pfister has shot everything from Memento onwards.

Inception and the last two Batman films are about architecture and interior design as much as they’re about people or even story. As Joseph Bevan points out in a recent Sight and Sound essay, women are particularly marginalised – “Nolan’s women, it seems, are only to be longed for, mourned or mistrusted.” Again like Kubrick, Nolan is more interested in image than dialogue, and he mints some strong and lasting images in The Dark Knight Rises: the football stadium that collapses, the frozen river, the circular light source above the underground prison. Each image dwarfs the human scale and is terrifying and beautiful simultaneously (isn’t that the definition of “awe”?). In Inception, one highly stylised movie world seemed to open onto another and then another.

I can’t think of anyone else who has brought these kinds of values to the superhero movie. Besides, after the disastrous Batman Forever and Batman and Robin in the mid-90s, you can understand why it was so important to inoculate against camp. No one wanted a return to the Bat-nipples. A late adolescent seriousness is a small price to pay.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t just complete an arc that started in Batman Begins. It completes a process that goes back further, to the mid-1980s. At that point, there was some postmodern reconsideration of superhero comics generally and Batman in particular. Well, it seemed important at the time. There was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. Deconstruction of heroic values? Essentially, both stories investigated the point at which vigilante heroism slips into psychopathy, presenting a superhero as terrifying and unhinged as the traditional villains (from memory, the Joker-starring Killing Joke comic worked around a “which one of us is mad?” theme – or, at what point does a guy who dresses as a bat just strike you as a nut who should be locked up for his good and ours?).

Both comics were influential on the gothic look of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film even if Burton and that film’s writers weren’t up to the full deconstruction of heroic values that should have gone with it, and which were pushed further in Alan Moore’s disillusioned meta-comic Watchmen (that the director of a painstakingly faithful film of Watchmen, Zack Snyder, should now be rebooting the Superman story as Man of Steel shows that he didn’t exactly absorb Moore’s message). If that was the end of history for comic books, then The Dark Knight Rises should be the last superhero movie.

The idea that Bruce Wayne has sat out years in seclusion, keeping Batman away from the public, comes straight from Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. As does an air of ambivalence and depression, a sense that no one’s motives are clear, even to themselves. The murky darkness of the three Nolan Batman films feels psychological. Batman is barely seen and when he appears, he is remote, robotic, unlikeable (no one likes the voice Bale uses). No wonder most viewers preferred Heath Ledger’s Joker in the second film to Christian Bale’s Batman – the Joker acted on pure instinct, mocking the origin-story baggage that Bale’s character is endlessly dragged down by. You could go further: mocking the origin-story baggage that other superhero films are dragged down by.

In that second film, it was easy to pick up a War on Terror analogy. That was the standard response or reading. Auckland University law lecturer John Ip even wrote a paper called “The Dark Knight’s War on Terrorism”. His abstract went:

This article considers Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight, as a reflection on legality and security in the post-9/11 era. The article examines how the film depicts three specific counterterrorism policies associated with the war on terrorism (namely rendition, coercive interrogation and warrantless surveillance), and argues that none of the film’s depictions of these actions can properly be seen as endorsement of their Bush Administration-era equivalents. Accordingly, the film is better viewed as something other than an affirmation of the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism. Rather, as this article contends, the film is about the need for public resoluteness in the face of terrorism, and about the inherent limitations of relying on vigilantism. Therefore, unusually for a film about a superhero, the film is ultimately about reaffirming law, legal institutions, and popular courage.

Aren’t we also witnessing a form of extraordinary rendition at the start of the third movie, as prisoners are captive on a CIA plane, high above who knows where? The plane is soon hijacked and destroyed by Bane, as part of his initially shapeless war against the west. In this war, some of the language will be explicitly anti-capitalist, as noted (Bane occupies and subverts Wall Street and asks whose money is being stolen), some of the language will put you in mind of the French Revolution, but at other times, there is simple nihilism: he wants to blow Gotham up, not liberate its people. Or do both, somehow. Or dress one up as the other. I’m not surprised that a few have been disappointed. Try Aaron Brady at his blog at the New Inquiry, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Dark Knight”. His frustration comes through loud and clear.

I agree that any attempt to find a coherent political position in the new one will only leave you confused. Nolan’s not peddling a message or offering a commentary on the news, but he is making deliberate references to actual recent events, no question. In the end, interpretation matters and not the solution, if there is one – this film and its two predecessors are the rare superhero films that are deep and rich enough to support sustained interpretation (as against, say, the cartoonish Avengers which set a scene in Germany for the sole reason of signposting that it was about to “say something” about Nazism). The best way to approach this piece of borderline fascist art is, ironically, to democratise it: what it’s about and not about is up to you. I’m not as cynical about Nolan’s methods and intentions as the film scholar David Bordwell, but I like this anecdote and think it applies:

I remember walking out of Patton (1970) with a hippie friend who loved it. He claimed that it showed how vicious the military was, by portraying a hero as an egotistical nutcase. That wasn’t the reading offered by a veteran I once talked to, who considered the film a tribute to a great warrior.

It was then I began to suspect that Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of different ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate.

July/August is traditionally International Film Festival season, right? It has been since time immemorial. Alongside the films you feel you need to see simply to keep up your end of the conversation (Amour, Holy Motors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, maybe On the Road, maybe The Cabin in the Woods) this year’s haul also has a unusually good line-up of New Zealand films. New Zealand documentaries especially or, in the case of Alyx Duncan’s remarkable debut feature, The Red House, a film that lives on the fascinating borderland between the documentary and the essay.

The red house of the title is on Waiheke Island, which is framed as an only slightly threatened nostalgic paradise of bright sunshine, healthy mangroves and clean beaches. Veteran peace activist Lee Stuart lives there with his Chinese wife Meng Jia. Lee muses in voice-over, on the nature of mangroves, on his relationship with Meng Jia (“Even now, our understanding does not come in words”), while Duncan’s camera keeps its distance but pays attention to the simple details of living.

Family business takes Meng Jia back to China. Twenty years away from China is “a long and slow time”. Time slows in the film. Eventually, Lee follows and – through him – the film observes the science-fiction landscape of China’s rapid development. While Lee muses on communication and the difficulties thereof, Meng Jia shares her oracular dreams.

The film doesn’t tell us that the pair are Duncan’s father and stepmother and that the essay genre implies that parts have been scripted by the film-maker. Whether events, conversations and memories are “true” or not is hardly the issue, though – it’s not a cop-out to say that there is a poetic truth. The Red House is an imaginative and sensitive account of a relationship as it negotiates grief, change and passing time (I’ve not seen Amour yet but there may be correspondences), and beyond that, you sense a daughter’s idealised view of her father: a portrait of dad as a gentle soul who rescues trapped insects and battles property developers.

Dan Salmon’s documentary Pictures of Susan is more conventional than The Red House but no less moving. The now middle-aged Susan King stopped speaking at the age of four and while we never learn whether she was given a formal diagnosis, it became clear that she has autism. New Zealand’s education and health systems of the 1950s had no idea what to do with autistic kids like her – and there is a clear sense that her schooling made things even more difficult – but as Salmon’s attentive portrait shows, her large and close-knit family never stopped accepting her. In their clannish way, they even celebrated her: with her blank affect and profound silence, she is both absent from their social world and the centre of attention.

During childhood, drawing became Susan’s mode of expression and she drew obsessively. Wisely, her family never threw the pictures out and an archive grew under the house, eventually numbering in the thousands. There may be a lesson in that for too-tidy parents.

If drawing is expression, is it also communication? That’s a harder question. Susan is
unable or unwilling to tell us. As Salmon moves chronologically through the story, he makes use of the extensive King family archives (not just drawings, but home movies and photos). Other members of the family are on hand to scrutinise the pictures, looking for recurring themes and images like a small army of art critics. And then the real art curators arrive, with news of interest in Susan’s work from so-called “outsider art” galleries in Sydney, New York and Belgium along with willing buyers. Suddenly, Salmon’s story is both more complicated and more fascinating. The art world’s values, motives and requirements are complex at the best of times – once you hit the realm of outsider art, they become trickier still.

THE RED HOUSE had its world premiere at the Auckland International Film Festival on July 29 and screens once more in August. Both THE RED HOUSE and PICTURES OF SUSAN screen in the Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch festivals in August.