Monday, July 23, 2012

Why So Serial?

With Heath Ledger dead and the Joker thus removed, the deck was stacked perhaps impossibly against Christopher Nolan to ideally conclude his Batman trilogy. The last film literally left him hanging and the character was such a wild popular success that his absence was always going to be felt whether the role was re-cast or the story re-tooled. I'm shooting this elephant in the living room now because it's not fair to judge the movie we have in theaters, The Dark Knight Rises, by what it now could never have been (nor is it fair to bring in the monstrous acts at the film's premier Aurora, Colorado, however salient the issues of citizen violence it raises may be). The movie simply is what it is. And what it is, is incredibly, if not quite terminally, problematic.

There's a great many plot developments I shan't spoil, but in essence: eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Batman (Christian Bale), blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, has disappeared from Gotham. Bruce Wayne has also retired from public life, and has sunk his fortune into what seems to be a half-baked fusion energy project headed by one Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). The police, thanks to new powers granted in Dent's name, have largely cleaned up the streets, such that cat burglar Selina Kyle (Ann Hathaway) is the worst of Gotham's worries. The going is so good that plans are afoot to get rid of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is looked up to by idealistic officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). All of this changes with the coming of Bane (Tom Hardy), a buff and gas-masked terrorist who plans to overthrow Gotham City's ruling order of compromised cops and parasitic rich.

This would be a lot for just a standalone movie to tackle, but in the story department Rises is actually pulling triple detail. Not only is it introducing new elements for it own story, it is also tying up loose ends from the last movie and re-establishing narrative and stylistic continuity with Batman Begins. As a result the pacing is noticeably slack, especially when compared to its predecessor, which--largely due to Heath Ledger's mesmerizing performance and Hans Zimmer's abrasive one-note Joker theme--was relentlessly paced and by the end left the viewer traumatized. 

Rises simply has much more to attend to, and so resorts to corner-cutting and rule-breaking that starts getting it into trouble. Although one never becomes unsure of what's happening, how it got there is decidedly less clear. Where did those motorcycles come from? How does Bruce Wayne return and where'd that Batsuit come from? The movie lacks the machine-like narrative precision of Nolan's most recent film, Inception, instead indulges hoary plot devices like a ghost, questionable character deceptions used justify a late plot twist, and a lot of happy, stylish coincidences. The Dark Knight fudged its logic too (the Joker's bombing schemes would have fizzled if the characters did not react exactly as they did), but this tended to be obscured because, again, that movie's structural chaos and sensory assault kept one from noticing.

The philosophical concerns of Rises are in a similar state of labored muddiness. Bane goes on with the logorrhea of an Ayn Rand character, about returning justice to Gotham City and punishing the corrupt rich, with explicit echoes of Occupy Wall Street. Yet his supporters are all thugs, no idealists except maybe for Selina, and it's all a sham anyway, a cover for his real plan--and I don't think I'm really spoiling anything here--to wipe Gotham City out entirely. This is a shame, because the movie is otherwise covering some interesting territory. The ending of The Dark Knight suggested that people needed a beautiful lie, e.g. Harvey Dent, to be inspired to goodness, but that idea is here completely exploded. Whereas Batman was previously the force that provoked an escalating criminal madness (the Joker), here the Dent myth creates a sham prosperity, a levee against Gotham's crime that will and does break. Instead of the order/chaos dichotomy that Batman's relationship with the Joker represented, Bane's overturning the status quo is the twin to Batman's vigilantism: they are both products of and solutions to a failure of public justice. This similarity seems to escape Nolan (perhaps because he spent the whole previous film arguing that Batman in fact made things worse), who instead settles for a much more optimistic and simplistic idea that erasing the past and starting anew will lead to a better tomorrow, as opposed to just beginning the same problems over again.

It's all grandiose, too much for its own good, but the film's superlative technical aspects keep it from bogging down too badly. Christopher Nolan has finally figured out how to direct visually coherent action sequences, so that the many battles going on, the Bane-Batman fisticuffs in the sewers in particular, can actually be appreciated. Pittsburgh, playing Gotham City, lacks Chicago's grittiness from the previous two entries, but in the movie's second half convincingly doubles as a Hobbesian failed state (I mean this as a compliment). Hans Zimmer's score uses much of what came before and is mostly effective, though without the straight madness of the Joker theme it does not have the same drive and at times feels less urgent than merely frantic.

The performances are typically great, but I'd like to single out Hathaway's Catwoman, who was certainly the biggest X factor of the piece. A lithe and playful anti-hero that serves as an effective foil to the largely dour and tortured Batman, she's a dependable ass-kicker and gives the movie some needed bounce in every scene she's in. She's also perhaps the most morally grounded of the characters, with a relatable sense of grievance and thwarted justice that is much more genuine than Bane's comic book-y posturing. She sells her character's ambivalence and development much more than one would think the script would allow.

So in the end, does all this sound and fury pay off? Again, the results are mixed. As a standalone film it's kind of a mess, but in the context of the series as a whole it gets the job done in bringing everything across the finish line (the possibility of which was in grave doubt following Heath Ledger's death). The central issue of the trilogy, how crime and crime fighting have deformed Bruce Wayne's character, is fully explored and pushed to its logical conclusion--before the movie beats a slight retreats at the last moment, in a way I can't decide whether or not it's cop out. Though I question the details of how it goes about tying back in to Batman Begins, I'm glad it did so if only so that film, with its pulpy secret society wants to destroy Gotham plot, wouldn't seem like such an anomaly among the three.

It's a question of ends and means, one which the series has fixated on for some time now. Batman's existence, once implied and here made explicit, is essentially that "the rules were once a weapon and now have become shackles," and Batman was necessary "dig into the filth" in order for the police to keep their hands clean. This problematic logic--to hell with principle, you're going to have to cheat at some point to win in the end--The Dark Knight Rises subscribes to not just morally, but narratively too. The story cheats when it has too, and sometimes even when it doesn't. The end result is a conclusion that like its hero is successful, but qualified and compromised.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Damon the Dude

The Williamstown Theatre Festival opened last week with The Importance of Being Earnest, done in a Damon Runyon-esque Guys and Dolls aesthetic. I was assigned to do a piece about Runyon that ended up not being needed (and would have needed to be drastically cut anyway). I present it with little alteration.

Damon Runyon was a journalist and sports writer, who became best known for his short stories, which detailed the colorful lives of petty thugs, bookies, chorus girls, and other endearingly disreputable persons that populated the Broadway of Depression-era New York. His influence is tremendous, being as he was one of the first people to write at length about the criminal underclass.

More significant than just his subject matter was his portrayal of it. His Broadway stories were written in a dry and comically non-judgmental first-person voice marked by the absence of contractions and a near-total reliance on the present tense, with sentences generously sprinkled with elaborate half-authentic, half-invented street slang. Here is a representative sample, an excerpt from “Breach of Promise:”

Of course Judge Goldfobber is not a judge, and never is a judge, and he is 100 to 1 in my line against ever being a judge, but he is called Judge because it pleases him, and everybody always wishes to please Judge Goldfobber, as he is one of the surest-footed lawyers in this town, and beats more tough beefs for different citizens than seems possible. He is a wonderful hand for keeping citizens from getting into the sneezer, and better than Houdini when it comes to getting them out of the sneezer after they are in.

Personally, I never have any use for the professional services of Judge Goldfobber, as I am a law-abiding citizen at all times, and am greatly opposed to guys who violate the law, but I know the Judge from around and about for many years.

This comic voice--so distinctive that he is today remembered for the ‘Runyonesque,’ stage musical Guys and Dolls, though not a word of it is his--he used to deal extensively with gangster culture in his fiction.

Runyon was one of the first authors to do so. Among his peers were Strange Fugitive by Morley Callaghan and WJ Burnett’s Little Caesar. Both novels shone a light—harsh, to be sure, but a light all the same—on the shadowy world of mobsters, to an unprecedented degree. But where theirs was a gritty, realistic style, Runyon’s was a deadpan wit.

Runyon’s innovation was to make criminal life not merely comprehensible to Americans, but also entertaining. The setup for a story like “A Very Honorable Guy”a man sells his body to an unscrupulous doctor in order to pay off his debts because he would rather lose his life than his good name—would normally be cast as weighty moral dilemma. In Runyon’s telling, it’s a farce. The pact with the doctor is not an act of desperation, but sensibility, until it isn’t: after paying off his debts and winning the affections of his doll, the man, Feet Samuels, decides he doesn’t want to die after all and has to fend off the knife-wielding Doc Bodeeker.

The humor, a product of both the mundane take on its exotic subject matter as well as Runyon’s unusually and overly precise language, makes the rakes and harlots of Broadway recognizably and relatably human in ways that would be elaborated in pop culture in subsequent decades. Short is the distance between “Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you” and “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Just as significantly, by taking the criminal making it both comical and commonplace, Runyon implicitly elevated it while taking polite society down a peg. Much of the organized crime of the 1920s existed not in spite, but because of Prohibition’s preening, society-wide moralism. Runyon expressed this in his nonfiction as well, in his non-fiction. Runyon covered the investigations into both J.P. Morgan’s as well as Al Capone’s business dealings, and in the end found Capone the more sympathetic character. One may argue this goes too far, but the question remains: if mobsters were to be considered shadowy figures, it was only logical to ask, ‘whose shadow?’

Audiences responded tremendously to Runyon’s streetwise yarns. His newspaper readership resided north of ten million, making him one of the most popular writers in the nation, and his stories were adapted into more than twenty films. Such was his popularity that an appeal by friend Walter Winchell for money to research and treat the cancer that killed Runyon in 1946 resulted in the creation of a foundation that remains a leader in cancer research decades later. Though largely forgotten today, Runyon’s influence on the culture remains considerable, with a legacy that includes both crime dramas like Goodfellas and The Sopranos, and the afterlife of terms he invented and popularized, including ‘shiv,’ ‘noggin,’ and, naturally, ‘guys and dolls.’ He remains like the unnamed narrator of his short stories: rarely active, but ever present.