Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ideas Man Sees An Action Movie: Nietzsche help us all.

I know you are all awaiting my reaction to The Dark Knight Also Rises with bated breath, but you'll have to keep the air bated for one more gasp whilst I make the following caveat:  I've seen maybe 3 action movies over the last decade and all on the small screen.  As near as I can recollect, this is the first time I've been to what I believe is called a summer blockbuster since 2001's disastrous Swordfish.  After that, I swore the genre off.  So my reaction to the movie might be purely physiological, the consequence of not having habituated myself to the noises and images that were thrown at me at a dizzying clip, lest I not notice the thinness of the story.

So I'll dispense with anything but the shortest review: The effects were cool, lots of shit got blown up, lots of famous actors acted so famously you didn't notice there wasn't anything approximating a genuine exchange between two characters anywhere in the movie, the requisite objects of lust were luscious enough you'd hardly noticed how unsexy the movie was, and any "message" was muted enough it won't interfere with your entertainment.

The truth is, I don't know much more of what to make of the movie than that.

I don't know whether it would be more correct to say

  • that Nolan produced a masterpiece of cinematographic crispness in the style that high end digital photography cum special effects permits OR that the images lacked any depth.
  • that said special effects were tightly and lavishly composed OR that they belied the lack of any other compositional considerations.
  • that the narrative at such a quick clip that it kept you constantly engaged OR that the plot induced such whiplash you didn't notice it didn't really hold together.
  • that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the left to attack Mitt Romney [actually no, pace Rush we can be pretty confident that's wrong] OR that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the right to create a caricature of Fox News's left-wing anarchist vaguely Islamofascist (and steeped in the rhetoric of the French revolution to boot!) lunatic.
  • that the movie contains a sharp critique of the paramilitarization of the police (with the corruption of the bloated Gordon police force at the beginning, with the allegations of people kept in prison without due process) OR that it celebrates the paramilitarization of the police (as the "true" protectors of the peace not only of the post-industrial city of consumption but also of the operation of democracy)
  • that (speaking of consumption) the movie is a clever commentary on the decadence of our own consumer culture OR that this "critique" was just a chance for product placement (See the rich getting thrown out of Saks! And with this 30% off coupon, you can look like a million bucks too!)
  • that the movie takes a pleasure (perhaps the only pleasure in the whole movie) that borders on pornographic glee in the technologies of the military-industrail complex (think of Catwoman molding herself onto Batman's oversized bike with its two gigantic cajones --- I mean wheels) OR reflects what is perhaps an equally pathological distrust of that technology, with the  specter of nuclear devastation and the ease that Batman's toys can be turned against us.
  • that the movie is a critique of the dangers of vigilantism OR that it is a vindication of vigilantism.
  • That the movie was Occupy Wall Street propaganda with its buffoonish, incompetent stock traders and board members who are the puppets of villainous criminals OR that the movie was a parody of Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, with its dystopian vision of the consequences of overthrowing the 1%, with its apparent belief that even though the 1% are the site of so much injustice they are also the only group that can fight against it (OR that the movie simply clumsily used a story of class warfare only kept in check by police force as a backdrop for what is ultimately a paranoid worldview, a worldview where the world is fundamentally and intractably unjust, where the various oppositions and contradictions in our society are intractable, where the only recourse to dealing with them is violent contest, where the winners inevitably perpetrate more violence on the losers and where the losers experience nothing but pain and desperation).  (As an aside, the movie is at its very sharpest when it makes this feature explicit, as for example when Bain explains that the reason why the prison from which the villain comes is the most painful prison of all is because the constant presence of the sun and open air invokes the hope of the outside, or when Alfred invokes for Bruce Wayne a peaceful life outside of Batman --- but even there not that the possibility of pleasure and joy are presented as lures to the haves and taunts to the have nots). 
  • OR that it was just mindless entertainment.

Still when, after the end of 3 hours of the cinematic equivalent of what would happen if bare knuckle boxing met WWE wrestling as my stomach unclenched (this more or less coincided with the audience's "spontaneous" applause at the big happy-ending reveal that I won't give away), I couldn't help but think about the sheer number of people there to see one of two late night showing at just one theater in a mid-sized city in the Midwest, people who in age (I would estimate I saw people aged from 4-90), gender, race, and apparent class were about as diverse as the city itself.  Tragedy, we all know, produces a mass effect of catharsis, which comes from the Greek word for purging.  I didn't vomit my popcorn and beer (You can buy beer at the movies now! Yipee!)  But my I did feel my stomach unclenching.  Did everyone else feel the same thing? Maybe it's that I have young kids myself, but I wondered how a movie like that (a villain with giant teeth, a weapon of mass destruction,  the threat of martial law taking hold in a banal American city) couldn't cause nightmares in a child (Ideas Boy, at 4, still has a very tenuous grasp on the line between reality and fiction, and although Ideas Girl is cognitively more sophisticated about such things I doubt she is emotionally).

With my physical reaction to the movie, was I abnormal or was I the norm?

You'll likely think I'm asking this question rhetorically.  You likely think I think I have the answer to the set of interpretive possibilities I list above.  I don't think that at all.  I don't even hew to a theory of meaning that would allow me to think I have the answer , since I think that under the right conditions of interpretation, and given the right context all of these readings (except maybe Limbaugh's) are possibly efficacious.

But whatever interpretation we adopt, a at least one conclusion seem warranted.  There's nothing new to it, but for me The Dark Knight Also Rises highlighted it in a deeply physiological way.  We as a society --- and I include myself --- are fascinated by violence.  It occupies us and, what's more, we allow ourselves to experience our fascination with violence collectively.  We seem to want to experience it together.   Why are we so quick to gravitate to stories where the only real motivators seem to be violence and resentment?  What motivates us not to share narratives of pleasure and joy in the same way?

I do think our willingness to collectivize brutality in this way has something to do with the collective paranoias we seem apt to indulge in. It's a shame, because any world, no matter how unjust, is still rich, is still beautiful.   It seems to me that in any world that  still qualifies as a world, there are always possibilities for joy and pleasure, the joyless applause of the audience at the end of a three hour study in resentment and revenge notwithstanding.

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