Monday, January 19, 2009

2008: My Year in Movies, Part 3 (Part 1: Manny Farber and My Dark Knight of the Soul)

A semi-free-associational, six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon, reliance-on-patchy-memory look at every movie I saw in a theater this year

Instead of haranguing people for not holding the exact same opinions I do, I'll attempt to just speak for myself here.
… Painter/critic/teacher/carpenter Manny Farber died in 2008 at the age of 91. "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," probably his most famous essay (deservedly, though it undeservedly overshadows his other great pieces), could very well be partially adapted to express my own problems with The Dark Knight. This is presumptuous on my part, I admit. I have no evidence that Farber watched Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie, and I can't say for sure what Farber would have thought of it. An unpredictable, original thinker whose opinions never stayed fixed (he only reviewed a few films a month because he believed in watching them dozens of times before writing about them and then rewriting and revising his reviews multiple times) and who often used pejorative terms as compliments and complimentary terms as insults, Farber was one of the hardest critics to pin down. Nevertheless, I will hijack his terminology and describe The Dark Knight as White Elephant Art pretending to be Termite Art. Farber describes White Elephant Art as what happens when "the private voice" of an artist "is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great contained works." These pleasures are "usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece." This artwork, then, "becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist's signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today's esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art." Termite Art, on the other hand, is "good work" that "usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Termite art concentrates on "nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed." On the other hand, "(m)asterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies."
Taking Farber's words dictionary-literally rather than in the squirmy, wriggly spirit I think he intended, one could make the argument that The Dark Knight is eating its own boundaries and avoids the first two of the "three sins of White Elephant Art": "1. frame the action with an all-over pattern, 2. install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and 3. treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity." However, Nolan's second Bat movie merely appears to avoid these first two sins because it is so poorly framed and edited. Its screenplay all-over-frames the action and fixes every event, character, and situation in a very tightly controlled, simplistic role. Meanwhile, Nolan's frenetic, disorganized framing and cutting make it impossible to tell what's happening spatially, creating a continuity of discontinuity, a formless form, that gives the illusion of an exciting experience without actually providing anything at all, squandering the small pleasures Nolan showed in Memento. It's a lumbering, overlong yet bizarrely fleeting beast loudly professing its artistic worth and political/cultural importance, but this political importance is calculated to appeal to libs and neo-cons alike, again creating a continuous discontinuity, a content-less content, a formless form, an elephant disguised as a termite. Wall Street Journal columnist Andrew Klavan: "There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand." Michael Dudley of the Institute on Urban Studies: "The Dark Knight takes the viewer on a sometimes traumatic but ultimately redemptive and humanistic journey towards a post-9/11 ethic." This muddle happens when you spy on innocent, private citizens, just once, to catch an evil-doer, and then destroy the device, letting freedom ring once again. This dark knight in shining armor is a uniter, not a divider.
A quote I enjoy, from film critic Dave Kehr: "Both the ferry boat and the wrong-rescue scenes are typical of “The Dark Knight”’s strategy of setting up impossible, “Sophie’s Choice”-like moral dilemmas for its hero, and then resolving them through sleight-of-hand: in a bit of reverse racism, a scary-looking black man steps up to make the tough moral choice that a wimpy-looking white guy is unable to handle; Batman arrives to rescue his girl friend, only to find that the Joker has betrayed him (!) and switched locations. In both cases the hero gets to look fine and noble while he wrestles with issues that are then resolved with no moral cost to him. I agree that the movie is not triumphalist, but triumphalism is hardly in style at this point in time. Instead, it substitutes the dark romanticism of the misunderstood outsider, who takes on the sins of the community the better to redeem the poor saps who will remain forever ungrateful to him — a slight improvement over a ticker tape parade finale, but still a self-flattering, adolescent notion."
On to the formal stuff: Another one good one from Kehr about the circling of the actors with the camera that pretty much happened goddamn constantly in The Dark Knight (though I don't share Kehr's distaste for Robert Altman): "As an aside, I’d just note that the “circle the principals” move Larry [one of the commenters on his blog] describes has become as ubiquitous in contemporary films as the zooms of the 1970s – to me, it’s just another sign of lazy direction, like Altman’s slow zooms in on a single figure in one of his clothesline ‘scope compositions. You see it in romantic comedies as well as action films. The other night I was watching a tiny Poverty Row picture – “A Shot in the Dark,” directed by Charles Lamont for Chesterfield (1935), and at the moment one character tells another that an apparent suicide was anything but, Lamont dollies about 90 degrees around the latter, just enough to suggest that something fundamental in his view of/relation to the world has changed. In this context, it’s an expressive, even subtle device – but a whole film shot that way expresses nothing more than the director’s lack of confidence in his own material, his gnawing need to “punch things up” and “keep things moving” for today’s restive audiences. My sense for some time has been that the two principal emotions expressed by Hollywood films are anger and self-pity, both of which are spectacularly on display in “The Dark Knight.”"

More of the film's formal confusions are being talked about by Jim Emerson. Read them by clicking here.

Alongside its wishy-washiness and spatial incoherence, the latest Batman movie suffered from a dreariness and grimness that the mass audience who mostly loved this movie found easy to overlook. I enjoy dark films, but this one was just depressing. There was no joy, no humanity, just a depressing series of deaths and injuries and brooding and pity. I may be over-sensitive this year (the four deaths in my family in 2008 have caused me to react more emotionally to various cultural blop-glop than I'm wont to do), but, my sweet lord, what a joyless film. One of the only moments of actual pleasure I experienced watching the movie was the conclusion of the car chase, when the front wheel of Batman's motorcycle bounced off a wall. There's a fine superhero spin on the neo-noir of LA Confidential buried in this muddle somewhere. Maybe Curtis Hanson or Walter Hill should have made it.

Though I am of the opinion that people are going a little too nuts about Heath Ledger's performance, I found his Joker a rare bright spot in this gloomy over-stuffed piece of thing, alongside the movie's real winners: the art directors and makeup artists. Ledger gave the proceedings a humor, darkness (as opposed to dreariness), lightness (in movement), and fixed presence lacking in the rest of it. I loved the moment when he stuck his head out of the window of his automobile like an old dog and the soundtrack cut out for a few seconds and when he walked down the street in broad daylight in a nurse's uniform in the seconds before the hospital explodes. He was a very, very talented actor among a peer group of generically pretty dullards, and his death is a River Pheonix-style waste. Unfortunately, I spent most of the movie wishing that Ledger's Joker could be removed from Nolan's film and placed in Tim Burton's. Why did I have such a different experience from most of this movie's massive audience? Why do I like the stills from the movie so much better than the movie itself?

Excerpts from the 1962 Farber essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" were taken from the 1998 Da Capo Press reprint of his 1971 essay collection, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies.


Plop Blop said...

This really sums up how I felt about The Dark Knight. I really enjoyed the film while I watched it, but as I thought about it, it really seemed empty. A lot of complex issues are presented and then sidestepped. I would have been fine with a movie that discussed the lack of an easy answer to these questions, but The Dark Knight presents the questions and then makes it seem like it resolves them without doing anything, really. I think that's the secret to it's success, that it seems to tackle all of these tough questions without actually dealing with them at all.

As far as the zeitgeisty thing goes, I also agree. I feel like I'm being made to feel that I'm somehow "out of the loop" for not giving a shit about a lot of the culture that's being put out these days. I've felt like a moron at dinner parties because I brought up some piece of art, that I really like, that wasn't "significant" right now. I love reading BoingBoing, but goddamn, that, and things like it, are not the end all of human experience. Just because something doesn't have an obvious connection to the "now" doesn't mean it's not a legitimate piece of culture or art. Now I'm just rambling, so I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

I thought the batman film was okay. As in, it was a bit long, too damn loud, and I was often bored with the violence. But I felt it was an authentic piece of batman work. As in, the film captured what was interesting (and yes adolescent) in the comic about a rich guy that beats up criminals. It (like the Batman comic of yore) took the super-hero concept from juvenile (truth, justice, america!) to adolescence (Is wailing on people the best way to improve things?). I find it odd then that critics (not you) who review this film, treat batman and his brand of good, because necessary, fascism is about Bush and 9-11. Sure, the batman story works here. But it might work when applied to WW2 you assholes. Batman as a story has been around for goddamn 70 years. Great that it makes us think about Bush and our most recent brush with human brutality. But shouldn't we be able to abstract or generalize past the last 8 years.

Also contra the critic, I thought it was somewhat nice that the Joker character made all Sophie's choice senarios irrelevant. Thats right. No lesson. No moral choice. Just a bunch of shit that can emotionally cripple people. That is what I think "evil" is all about. Better senselessness in destruction then the Kill Bill satisfaction nonsense.

Also, the last few posts have been great.

Dr. Mystery said...

Thanks for the fine comments, Plop Blop and DCS. DCS, I have to respectfully disagree. I think the director, Christopher Nolan, meant to evoke our last 8 years, and hijacked the Batman story as a way to appease mainstream critics and rake in commercial cash at the same time. I also agree that true evil is not about lessons or moral choices, but just random and senseless horribleness, but why set up a moral choice in the first place if you don't want to deal with the ramifications. And the moral choices were Batman's, not the Joker's. I also strongly prefer Kill Bill to The Dark Knight, because Kill Bill is adolescent in the right way. Tarantino's a director with a real sense of visual space, editing, momentum, and coherence while Christopher Nolan can't direct an action scene to save his ass. It's impossible to tell what the fuck is going on spatially in any action scene in his two Bat movies, which I think is a major problem, an even bigger problem if it's intentional. Kill Bill is fun, The Dark Knight is ponderous.

Dr. Mystery said...

I do want to add that there is one thing we can all truly agree on:
Hollywood Hot Tubs 2 is the defining film of our generation.

Plop Blop said...

I just wanted to add that if there is one thing that was done well in the film it was the overall character of the Joker. This is the first time I've experienced the character as actually frightening. This is because of what both of you have mentioned above, the fear of the unexplainable and unpredictable. The film kind of hammers this into the audience, but I think that this aspect of it is effective. An asshole that punches you and steals your money is not as terrifying as an asshole that punches you for absolutely no reason. I really thought that it was great how the Joker kept telling different origin stories about himself, commenting on how we all crave simple, direct explanations for terrible things. But, like many of the other complex issues brought up in the film, this idea isn't really explored, just presented and then tip-toed away from as the complications of the plot take over. The interesting, and well done, Joker elements get washed out by the rest of the film.
I may have to watch this movie again.

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