Sunday, August 10, 2008

American Pyscho (or what would Susan Sontag think?)

Not one to miss out on the cultural zeitgeist (if there is such a thing anymore) I went a few weeks ago one hot summer afternoon to see Batman, oh I'm sorry "The Dark Knight". It's always a relief to escape into a Dionysian-like stadium of air-conditioning and Laz-ee boy seats in the summer to watch a major motion picture and "Knight" certainly qualifies. It's been hard to escape the media blitz surrounding this film in large part because of the infotainment media (and, the public's?) ghoulish fascination with the death of Heath Ledger. The semi-glee with which entertainment reporters asked the cast members of this movie about "Heath" (a true testament of super fame is when you just become one word, "Madonna", "Jesus", "Nike", "Brangelina", "Heath") was discomfiting at best. One couldn't help but wonder if James Dean had it right all along? I thought of him and his motto of live fast, die young, leave behind a beautiful corpse every time I saw yet another poster of the Jihadi Joker staring out from the side of a building.

The film is all it promises to be: a dark, rollicking, action packed, thrill-a-minute ride but I couldn't help but find it a nasty piece of work. I agree with cultural theorists who say that no art is ever made in a vacuum (and if it is, it's usually pretty awful) and this picture, in particular, seems to feed on the queasy paranoia and fears of this surreal era. In some ways, it's a perfect parable of the Bush years but I found it hard to tell if the filmmaker wanted me to root or hiss for Batman. Still for better or worse, the anti-hero is still a hero. So our hero is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire vigilante willing to go to questionable lengths to keep the citizens of Gotham safe. The storyline infers that he has to because the government, the justice department and the local police force are too corrupt and incompetent to do the job. Even the new hotshot D.A, Harvey Dent, with his Spitzer and RFK-like intensity is no match-up for the sheer dementia of the Jihadi Joker. There are refrains of Dick Cheney's "you gotta go to the dark side" because the rule of law is a thing of the past, monsters have to be dealt with accordingly and to deal with one, you must become one in this cinematic fairy tale. Plus the scenes of catastrophe that thuddingly unfold one after another is this film and the mangled response of the police in particular hits a little too close to home. The view of government as essentially useless should be disturbingly familiar as it's been the prevailing philosophy of our ruling party. There were moments, in the film that I couldn't help but think of Naomi Klein's book "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism". Granted, this particular billionaire, Bruce Wayne's private security apparatus is altruistic in nature (he's out to protect the innocent and his hot ex-girlfriend) unlike the super rich that Klein describes in her book who pay for services that they think will keep them safe, everyone else be damned.

The flipside of this is that "Batman", err, Mike Bloomberg, no sorry, um, Bruce Wayne aka the Dark Knight is not bound to follow any rules or any laws, for that matter. He can go to a foreign country and abduct escaped criminals (remember when the CIA went to Italy and threw "the bad guys" into blacked out vans and they were transported to secret prisons?). In this case, our man, Batman, flies into Hong Kong under cover of night to get a ruthless accountant who is, of course, Chinese! I love that bit of casting which feeds into our western paranoia that the Chinese are taking all our money and have no morals or ethics. Movie villains are nothing if not a reflection of a culture's xenophobia. As the movie climaxes and the Jihadi Joker constructs greater and greater theater of destruction our hero is forced to take action and use his superior technology to spy on all 31 million of Gotham's citizens. Even this action disturbs his moral conscience, a trusted adviser played by one Morgan Freeman. Poor Morgan Freeman, ever since the Shawshank Redemption he has been doomed to play a thin facsimile of Nelson Mandela in almost every movie he has been cast in i.e. a black Saint with no real purpose other than to be a foil for the white guy's tolerance and goodness. (He must be a hero since he's got Morgan Freeman on his side!). Ultimately, Batman's invasion of people's privacy does have its consequences and Nelson Mandela resigns but it also has its rewards: it leads Batman to the Joker. The lesson here: spying might be questionable, kids, but in times like these, clock ticking, it's also a necessity. Holy Peepers Batman!

After two and a half, admittedly, expertly paced hours of sociopathic, sadistic scenes of destruction, I had, had enough. I can appreciate the skill of the filmmaking and some of performances and, yes, I am talking mainly about Heather Ledger who actually infuses his character with deeply grounded pathos - think Commedia delle Arte meets method - but utterly believable! You know: acting. Unlike Christian Bale, who plays it so by the book, gravelly voice (check), stiff upper chest (check), faraway stares (check), he comes off as utterly one dimensional which is fine, it's a comic book character. But, he's also a humorless snooze which becomes tiresome after two hours as does watching endless scenes of destruction. I was ready to get out of the Laz-ee boy seats and return to the hot, muggy streets after the Joker blows up a hospital. I know the filmmaker posits that the Joker simply wants to see "the world burn" but it's hard to watch this blockbuster if you actually read and consume news regularly: the world is burning. Lastly, for years, I have been regularly forced to hear Western neo-cons whinge on endlessly about the jihadi "worship of death" but as I watched "the Dark Knight" I had to wonder if, we really have any right to lecture anyone about civilization and democracy when this is the entertainment we eagerly make, celebrate and consume.