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.
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