And well, well, welly, well, well, isn’t that a nice bit of synchronicity? Here we were just talking about how to distinguish allegory from other stuff like it, and then along comes Dark Knight (I suppose I might as well go along with everybody else and call it “TDK”) to muddy the waters.
Or, actually…maybe not.
This is not going to be, as such, a movie review; however there may be spoilers anyway.
So what goes on here, that’s got everybody scratching so nervously at their elbows? Oh yes: Batman wiretaps, and the Joker blows up buildings — and vessels — with innocent people in them. So Batman does some stuff that George Bush has been known to do as well, and the Joker gets to be a stand-in for “terrorism” in general, all the way down from Osama Bin Laden to the jihadist hiding under your bed. By the way: BOO! Ha ha, bet I scared you.
Of course if it’s all intended as political allegory, then we’re pretty badly stuck. Because I think allegory requires a willingness to go all the way down the line of entwined reference to its bitter end, and TDK doesn’t offer us that: it only offers us a number of lengths which all together might go to the end, but won’t join up without some rather ugly and makeshift knotting…and even then, to make it to the end they’d have to sacrifice an empty space or two, and say “here’s where the rest of the rope would go, if we had any more rope.” For example: that imbecile at the WSJ can have his Bush panegyric in Gordon’s last speech, but only if he’s willing to overlook everything in the movie that undercuts its plausibility. And that’s an awful lot of undercutting to overlook! Everything from Batman’s failure to get good information through “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a double failure, since on the one hand angrily delivering a couple punches in the mouth before realizing the futility of it all doesn’t sum to torture no matter how you slice it, and on the other the Joker can’t be broken that way in any case, and torture or no torture still would give Batman unhelpful information — but more on that in a moment), to his willingness to create his own ad hoc system of checks and balances in the absence of a more legitimate regulation, to the fact that Batman can swoop into evil strongholds in other countries and pluck out exactly what he wants from them with chilling ease, like the very embodiment of Shock and Awe, like a scene straight out of Starship Troopers or (gak) the part of Spider-Man 3 where Peter saves Gwen…holy crap!…but then immediately finds that he cannot exert this matchless power without at once also creating an enemy that he can’t defeat by the mere exertion of unilateral action and Godlike ordnance/efficiency…
So, is that Bush-boosting? It seems not: cautionary tales about the unreflective use of power must sit rather poorly with old W.’s record, no matter who’s telling the story…and as for Shock and Awe being sufficient to skyhook up villains out of their fortresses in the first place, hey, remember that wicked scene in LotR where Frodo jams the Ring on Gollum’s finger and then boots the both of them into the volcano? “Happy…Birthday…To…YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!” “Aieeeeeee…! It hates nasty George Bushes…hates them, hates them…aieeeee…!” U! S! A! Uh….
Yeah. So that part alone would pretty much give the Bush-as-Batman “allegory” a great big hyperironic FAIL. And then of course there are the counter-explanations that practically overcome this crap just by standing there: because forget Bush-as-Batman, it’s actually much easier to have Bush as Harvey, when Batman considers laying down his fidelity to Gotham’s ongoing process of healing because he believes in Harvey Dent…but is that belief not betrayed at the very beginning, is it not a form of self-deception, is Harvey not after all just a little less than the man he seems? How he loves to flip that consequence-free coin, the poor bastard: but then in two massive explosions its fatal irony finally, inevitably catches up with him, and all illusions of his casually charmed life drain away. Oh, and then he reacts to it all by becoming a deranged villain, but shhh don’t tell the kiddies…
Or even, Bush as the Joker? Don’t be too quick to dismiss the thought: huddled around a table, evil co-conspirators fearful of losing their antique business-as-usual privileges sponsor a man they don’t understand, who says he wants what they want but actually just wants to send a message…just as the goons in the masks are induced to dispose of each other one by one, the joke ends up not just on them, but on all of us. Well, no less a moral authority than Rachel tells us that Imperators become Caesars in the end…and some men do just want to watch the world burn, don’t they?
Ah, but games without rules are so easy to play, and that’s my point: because that none of this aggressive pattern-matching really holds up only makes the frustrated intimation of allegory more spine-shivery…Batman doesn’t torture the Joker, but the intimation is there, and Batman doesn’t exceed Bruce Wayne’s limits or break his one rule, but the intimation is there, and it’s an exceedingly uncomfortable one to see lodged in the film’s symbolic representative of conscience. Consequently, if the WSJ fool strains to see easy vindication for Bush’s extralegal activities in that fact, he rather misses what it is: because by skipping over the payoff, and passing up the opportunity to let its audience be purged of pity and fear one way or another, the brothers Nolan are clearly not pursuing much in the way of resolution for anybody, much less the backslapping kind. Allegory? If it truly does not go all the way to the end of the line, how can it be allegory? No matter how intensively the theme of escalation is explored, it isn’t just how aggressively the ingredients get whisked together that makes a cake, it’s what the ingredients are that counts. Um, to reverse-engineer a phrase. And not to suggest that this film isn’t consciously riffing on the post-9/11 Bush era, because it for damn sure is, but after sixty years of comics that danced around and around the sophomoric crypto-Platonism of Batman and the Joker being a matched pair of opposites, partaking of and creating one another, we should be thankful that the Nolans chose to give us topicality instead of allegory, because that’s the way they finally vitalize this dynamic, by playing on our anxieties enough to make us search the thing for allegorical justifications and/or answers…but not find ’em, of course, unless we’re willing to join Harvey in the desperate binaries of tunnel-vision.
Kind of the point, really!
So we know where our friend in Wall Street is coming from, I guess. But, what about the rest of us? Is Batman “America”? Is the Joker “terrorism”? Is Gotham “Iraq”? Are you so sure? Careful, these interpretive schemes get more hostile to one another the more believable you choose to find them: because at a certain point in TDK, when all suggestions of restraint have exited the picture entirely (Shock and Awe!), a world is created in which Person A’s power can be used against him by Person B — because in a world without limits, power only conditions the environment, instead of controlling it. In other words power becomes everybody’s weapon, no matter who technically wields it, because it doesn’t even have to corrupt: so long as it connects. And this goes right back to the beginning, because this power isn’t even politics, just the shade of politics, the shell of politics, the trompe l’oeil of politics: note that in Batman Begins we were introduced to a Bruce Wayne who might have fallen out of Miller’s Year One, but actually didn’t, because instead of Batman and Gordon finding each other in a possibilistic environment of multiple options, BB’s Gotham offers us a more confined space in which Bruce Wayne is made emblematic of “his” city through acquiring a dual lineage that both reflects and expresses its own — light and dark, good and bad, historically entangled and psychologically conflicted, and it’s not just about the random gunman in the alley! The League of Shadows reaches up through the Sack of Rome all the way to Thomas Wayne and the reconstructive ideal of his modern era (how Dave Fiore must have shuddered — rightly — at its suggestion!); and after this ideal collapses, Bruce Wayne inherits the whole interlinked mess of powers and causes and consequences as habitat, a place where he must directly live. So his story is not just Gotham’s story too, but his personal psychological synthesis is identical with Gotham’s own one-and-only way out of the past…its only way out of a dismal predetermination. It’s a relatively simple story of large extrahuman forces that meet and contend within one man’s psyche in such a way that they cause him to look for answers outside it…and Gordon is the answer he’s driven to find, that weirdly untarnished half-pragmatist/half-idealist tightrope-walker, who somehow makes it all work. Again, Dave shudders! But the point of it all is that Bruce and Jim don’t just meet; they interlock. “There are good people here.” A small thing to say, but containing a whole world of implication: he might have said (to Gordon, not R’as) “you complete me.” So the salvation of Gotham is at once psychological and physical both, at once about Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, and everyone else in the story who seems the least bit nice…or conflicted!…and the nature of the salvation is that it gives people a chance, to be better than they are. Hey, it’s both handy and dandy, ain’t it? But that’s only because it is not, and never was, an open environment; it’s just a bit of “as above, so below.” It’s all carefully conditioned, made up of forces that meet, match, and lock, to produce an integrated meaning.
So in a way, also…it’s really quite safe.
But, not for long. Because to finally integrate the contending forces of the psyche is always to render a new kind of power for the individual, and Bruce Wayne as the Spirit of Gotham can’t help but have it, so he can’t help but exercise it. But let’s all just breathe a prayer of thanks that when it finally came time to show how Batman deforms the world around him, and creates the Joker as a (swallows hard) mythological opposite, script, performance, and direction come together to make sure this is not a quasi-mystical Cosmic Necessity, so much as the simple, concrete tally of cause, effect, and agency. We all get to see how it happens, and ditch the goopy Gotterdammeristic crap in this instance even if unfortunately we do pick it up later for Gordon’s final speech. Short form: power conditions the environment, therefore to understand how the environment has been conditioned is to gain access to power. The Joker gives us powerful echoes of Rorschach, here: “your hands; my perspective.” (And more on that in a moment, too!) The chance to be more than what you are, given just one movie before, is now taken…and Lord, just look what happens when that shit goes down! Batman proves absolutely unstoppable, irresistible, with Godlike power…and so he is not stopped and not resisted, but something (from his perspective) far worse happens, which is the opposite of “being stopped”: he elicits a complementary force instead of a countervailing one — not an immovable object to his irresistibility, but yet another irresistibility.
All nice and neat, and handy and dandy, for sure…in the comics. But this is a movie, and more than that a movie deliberately (I take it) carefree about touching raw nerves. Untidy stuff! That power begets adversaries, that control is an illusion, that some sort of tarnishing is finally necessary, and you’ve only got so much time to figure out how that necessity might be negotiated. “You” meaning Batman, Gordon, Dent, etc., naturally..but also, though saying this sort of thing does, I admit, get a bit tiresome after a while…you, yes you, the audience member. Well, especially if you’re American. I’m not, so it’s not nearly as untidy for me as it is for you. I can sympathize with the Joker (if sympathize is the word I want) much more easily than you can, probably — or, um, at least not more complicatedly. Or…
You know, a thing that might be said here is that we may be just a little too used, in these days, to admiring the “integrity” of killers. I mean, maybe that’s a value that’s implicit in much of our popular entertainment, even as we strenuously reject the idea that we approve of it even perversely or occasionally (or accidentally) in real life. Ya think? And maybe we feel a little let down by our admired fictional killers of “integrity” because they are rarely (actually) honest enough characters to fully evidence the “integrity” we impute to them…and maybe, finally, that’s what makes them palatable to us, even as we despise them for it. Maybe? I mean, maybe it’s all a bit mixed-up, eh? That bit I said, there? A little mixed-up? And yet the filmgoing and TV-watching audience seems to want some very peculiar things from their thugs and villains, these days. Once upon a time, if you were playing Password and someone said “Satanic monster…?“, you might very well have instantly responded “Harry Lime!“, but those days do appear to be gone, as best I can make it out. Heck, Bill Maher lost a show for saying it. “V For Vendetta” reviewers were embarrassingly careful to point out that they did not believe it, or condone it…like anyone cared, but still they went to great lengths. However say this for Ledger’s Joker, he’s a killer with that exact kind of impolite integrity that overturns all the applecarts, and shoots the milkmaid, and then looks you right in the face and asks you what you think. A monster, to be sure. But honest, even if not in “a good way”. Eric Roberts, with his smarmy smile (and didn’t seeing him here fulfill some sort of expectation, weirdly enough?) may be contemptibly egoistic, but the Joker isn’t…and the referential scheme of the movie can’t fail to make us a little nervous about that fact. Oh no, are we about to go the way of Bill Maher? Funny: if these new Batman movies are about anything at all they’re about resisting external definitions… and here they do touch on allegory, finally, and not just in the way of the picture’s motto (“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger“), but in the way of audience-relation: so what are we to feel, and whose vocabulary are we to use in talking about it? Or are the two the same, really. Or is there any difference anyway. Hey, don’t underestimate topicality, folks! It may not have the strategic heft of allegory, but it’s tactical, it moves fast, and it makes its point: by beggaring perspective, which beggaring, along with fear, is the Joker’s strongest weapon. And may I just drop in this tangential note, that for the life of me I can’t understand why you folks down there allow crucial words and ideas to be ceded so easily to your worser halves for alternate interpretation, as though allowing them conceptual room to maintain their own delusions was somehow serving your interests in opposing them? My favourite of these concessions up ’til now was the sneer-quoted “progressive”, so laughably nonsensical an expression anywhere outside the U.S., a word which simply translates as “I do not really understand what I am saying”…but I gotta admit, I’m loving the “Dark Knight as paean to Bush” thing even more. One could have a bit of fun with this…Bush is Harry Potter! No, wait, he’s Gandalf! No, Bruce Willis! Aw…
So many kinds of paint, to dash on that wall.
And let’s talk about the Bat-imitators, because they’re a source of anxiety too, pathetic stand-ins for the audience members themselves. Oh, we are deep into — just whisper its name — fascism here. Except, is that length of rope any longer, does it stretch any farther, than any oher length? Is Batman, is identity, making the environment worse, instead of better? But without Batman’s struggle for identity we’d all be dead, wouldn’t we? It’s a juvenile complaint, and it’s disposed of so easily…by the time the detonators are in the passengers’ hands, is anyone thinking of the Bat-groupies anymore?…because it’s a facile way of approaching that old comics standby: is Batman crazy? Is he a fascist?
Stupid questions, once the Joker comes around, and try that on for some allegory…
And are there some things in this movie that ought to make one gasp? No more than there are things in Robert Redford movies that ought to make one gasp. Or, in that old Denzel confection “Siege”? American films of the pre-9/11 era, stretching as far back as you’d like, weren’t prescient, they were simply observant: because these are now, and were then, and probably always will be in the future, the tensions that shape/threaten the country. If allegory is a way of reading, then TDK seems half-intent on making a mockery of the attempt to allegorize for such simple ends — of course the film is simple, it’s very simple, it is not complicated and it is not new…in its very beginning there’s a recognition of a sort of fictional-villain “business-as-usual”, that then gets blown: the criminal gang robs the bank, but who are the good guys? And if we don’t know who the good guys are, then who are the bad guys? You see it’s the simplest thing in the world, but the 9/11 anxiety makes it complicated, makes this extraordinarily simple thing hard to parse…makes it challenging for the viewer. “Your hands — my perspective.” So who’s locked up with whom, after all?
If I can well understand the Republican desire to neuter TDK’s more challenging messages (power makes its own adversaries, control is an illusion, etc.), I can just as easily understand the queasiness felt by those who’ve been fighting the far-right Republican crypto-coup attempts of the American government (okay, Canadian too) for the last twenty years to see the signifiers of social conscience adopt ethically-questionable methods. Now, we feel strongly, is not the time for this. But it’s as bad on one side as it is on the other: when the mobsters make common cause with the Joker, they end up repudiating the conventional rah-rah-ism of American “threat from outside” movies, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend and we are all Americans together deep down no matter our faults…but that’s just a lot of bushwah, this movie says. The Sopranos are exploded as easily as the Godfather films: none of these men, none of these attitudes, are protagonistic — they are well past their best-before date. Consider the comical irrelevance of Eric Roberts’ face-in-your-face smirk: good luck, bro. It’s all over. You just don’t have the jam to be a character in this drama.
Because there’s something else going on. And it’s maddeningly simple, it really is! Oh, the elbow-scratching and eye-wiping of the reviewers and the commentators, JESUS CHRIST! It’s simple; so simple that you just can’t see it. It is right there, but you are not looking at it, which in itself is a testament to the Nolans’ skill. Man, look how this all comes together: I said before that TDK was less lurid than Batman Begins, except of course I did not at that time mention the one spectacularly lurid element of TDK, which stands alone for a reason. So we can look at it, of course! But, did you not notice? No pain medication? No skin grafts? No nothing anymore! And did you never wonder, while watching the movie, why they didn’t save Harvey Dent for Batman Repeats? I’ve heard they intially toyed with the idea of realistic burn-scarring for Harvey (ye gods!) before deciding no, Jesus, that’s just too much, that’s a ticket to like an X rating or something (do they even still give those out?)…and of course they made exactly the right decision, because to see Harvey’s face for the first time — and for fuck’s sake pay attention now — is to fall into the uncanny valley like nobody’s business, to see it is to feel luridity take hold for real. It’s just like, I mean it is just like, Chesterton’s “The Napoleon Of Notting Hill” — the world fractures, fatally. Everything comes true. Everything comes undone. “What have you done with my humour?!” “I assure you, sir…I haven’t got it.” “Hahahahahahahaha…!” Good God, y’all…get with the program. Batman changes his mask, to “interrogate” the Joker, becomes less real, less human, less comprehensible…becomes black beady eyes in an inhumanly cramped face, becomes that thing that the Scarecrow saw…and holy jumpin’ catfish, is he the one who interrogates, in that scene? Because there’s only one guy answering any questions in it. Let me just say again that this is all super-simple stuff; this is all easy as vegetable pie. This, what we think we’ve been waiting for, because in this movie Batman changes to become that most horrifying of imaginary prospects to ever be made flesh…the superhero. Yeah: suddenly we are not dealing with Guy In Suit anymore, we are dealing with Masks Taking Over…and you can see the Joker loving it, as he creates the superheroic world in the real world, that creation that must shock, stun, scare, FREAK OUT. Oh, forget Watchmen, folks; this is Watchmen, when Batman goes into the Joker’s cell, when Harvey turns his face around in the hospital bed. This is the superhero movie as horror movie, when the four-colour images leap frighteningly to life all of a sudden. “Realistic” Bruce Wayne’s opposite is an Un-Person by the laws of cinema, and yet more a person, more a character, by that very lack; Bruce Wayne’s ascension to identification with his purpose and his place is unbalanced here in more ways than one, you know, and yet men do not see it…foolishly, because it is right there in front of their faces. Look at this Joker, actually look at him! He is capable of anything from any Batman comic there ever was. He could be a homicidal Bugs, if he wanted to: he could dress up like a girl bunny, and make that fit as easily with “realism” — that is to say, with historical entanglement and causal conditioning — as the grim 90s bullshit of cutting people’s faces to make them more like him, oh him, oh by cracky let’s all worship at the altar of him, wherein is located the understanding of him…
But: that action’s not so easy, thank God. Because this isn’t a comic. The man (and he is a man, the way Ledger plays him) blows up hospitals, too. And yet the mobsters never come, as they would in any other possible version of this movie, to Gordon for help, just like Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser pigeons just stop being on-scene even conceptually once Batman goes out the window to save Rachel. Let’s not clown around: the Joker doesn’t kill those people. That’s a whole different movie. Those people don’t die. But, just like the random mobsters, they don’t live, either. They’re just a cut-scene, and they don’t count. Look, look again, look: that scene is just a little cage for the main character dynamics, and once they go on out of it it isn’t even a cage anymore…isn’t even a broken-out-of cage, it simply ceases to exist, ceases ever to have existed. Super-simple stuff, I am telling you. It literally could not be any simpler.
But unfortunately, that’s just what the Joker says, in this movie: that it’s as simple as it is. So dare we look at things head-on, as they actually are, as they actually for real line up, in moviemaking simplicity? We fucking well dare not, you bastard. What, are you trying to get us all fucking killed, or something?
And hey: that thing I mentioned before about the way Heath Ledger was sitting in the police station, when Gordon gets promoted? He was sitting like he was wearing clown shoes.
Even though he wasn’t. And what in the hell could be a more private joke than that?
I’ll tell you what’s a more private joke than that; and look out, because this isn’t allegory either.
America may become a “failed state.”
It could happen.
And thus, if I may be permitted a further digression, is it not an almost unbelievably fortunate happenstance, in light of the times, that Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is being re-issued now? Let’s all get down on our knees, and thank whatever Gods may be, for that! Because it’s a damn good corrective, and in fact we need one right now. Because, where were we? Arguing about whether or not the Joker stands for “terrorism”? Motherfucker, the Joker is right — this shit won’t stand up, no matter how you prop it up.
And thank your lucky stars it isn’t an allegory!
Because if it really was…well then we’d all be in for a real world o’ hurt, wouldn’t we?
Well, that’s all the disjointed thoughts I can scribble down for now, Bloggers. Hope it all added up to something!
And now you may return to your labours.