Monday, August 9, 2010

The Dark Knight

Dir. Christopher Nolan

The problem with retrospective criticism is obvious. A film's value is dynamic. It changes over time based on a number of variables. Of particular interest here is how the quality of the films that follow it in the director's oeuvre might adversely affect an otherwise accomplished feature. For me, no two films better emphasis this dilemma than Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and his follow up, the turgid Inception. Two years ago The Dark Knight so thrilled me that I went to see it in theaters a half dozen times. I fondly remember weeks of infatuation and discussion amongst peers. Since that time, I have tried to embrace an unyielding critical eye that will righteously recognize superficiality; not simply looking past but looking through. I admit that on occasion I have overcompensated. In my youthful attempt to aggressively assert my opinion, I may have treated some films more harshly than they perhaps deserved. I failed to exercise the discretion and rectitude I have come to respect in many of the critics I follow. I am still, it seems, in the anti-navel gazing stage of my development as a film critic.

Which makes reanalysis that much harder. Inception so negatively influenced my opinion of Christopher Nolan that I was persuaded to reevaluate what I loved so much about The Dark Knight. Much of what I initially enjoyed is still present: the orchestration of spectacle, the convincing use of archetypes as mouthpieces for oppositional philosophies, Heath Ledger's still awe inducing performance. What crops up though, which cannot be excused as projection of doubt, are various flaws which detract from the pleasure of analytical examination. Though Nolan, with the assistance of his brother Jonathan, manages to write sophisticated monologues that inform like a college lecture on the fundamentals of philosophy, he largely fails to write many characteristically human interactions. Case in point: Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes strained relationship is certainly not helped by a noteworthy lack of humanity in their conversation. As Bruce Wayne has to constantly conceal his alter ego, so too does Nolan sometimes inexplicably conceal fulness of being beneath an exterior shell of fractured identity. Though we are meant to sympathize with Bruce Wayne, the viewer is often at odds with Wayne's lack of genuinely sympathetic characteristics.

There is also the inevitable complaint about the film's structure and lack of a distinct climax. The film prefers incident over arc to power its narrative. Though, as in Inception, each setpiece heightens the film's overall intensity, the dead air between them tends to suffocate rather than extend the drama. By the end, the hazards of the film's numerous action sequences are fully divorced from the emotional drama that initially propelled them. The intensity is inexhaustible but its impact is deadened by Nolan's decision to make the whole back half of his film a climax (sound familiar?). The irony of the bathetic consequences of such an adrenally influenced decision is somehow base and transcendental. Motivations are expository and relatively clear though not necessarily simplified. Nolan designs a complex polemical web with The Dark Knight and rigorously avoids resolution of ontological dissonances. This lack of resolution is the fundamental characteristic that keeps the film from disappearing into the void of sterile action cinema. It is also the film's most well deserved plaudit.

Nolan should be lauded for taming his wild horse of a film though the fact that he is responsible for its bad behavior slightly diminishes the accomplishment. Though The Dark Knight's conclusion doesn't quite hold water it is nonetheless comforting to see a director willing to put his reputation at risk both intentionally and inadvertently. Throughout the film, Nolan juggles chainsaws and swims with killer sharks; knowing full well that his solipsism may cause him irreparable harm. If anything was evinced by Inception it was that Christopher Nolan has a dangerously high opinion of himself and his films. While that film took fewer risks than The Dark Knight and resulted in a notably smaller pay off, it cemented directorial traits one could have chosen to identify or ignore in The Dark Knight. Interviews with Nolan elicit empirical levels of conceit, misplaced confidence in his base knowledge of the world and stubborn artistic inflexibility. He is amiable but vaguely puerile in his conception of how movies should be made.

A good friend pointed out that Inception is a highly enjoyable movie to watch but does not hold up under close scrutiny. I second this notion. As for the The Dark Knight, it fairs far better but is still best enjoyed viscerally rather than academically. The film captures an insular and microcosmic world that bears more than a slight resemblance to our own. Nolan supplies his film with a largely empathetic populace: confused, naïve to the complexity of the law, bigoted and self-righteous. That so many words are minced in reference to “the people” conveys directorial accordance with the film's assertion about the unnerving lack of facility for the principles of democracy to effect change. For a film so enthusiastically involved with diametrically opposing pairs, it is disheartening that this conclusion exists without opposition. Inception left me with little hope that Nolan fully appreciates or even recognizes this subtextual insinuation. In the end we are left to wonder if the reason why Inception was such a bloody mess was because Christopher Nolan amputated himself in some indelible way with The Dark Knight.

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