Thursday, 24 July 2008

Poor little Batman, always stating the subtext in self-hatred (HAS SPOILERS)

I was very impressed by The Prestige, with its terrific, carefully built atmosphere, odd characters who made selfish but intriguing decisions, a winding story that had interesting undertones throughout, that went beyond plot mechanics, it's a film I would consider one of the best mainstream films in the last few years, especially on rewatching.

The Dark Knight is a disappointing film in comparison. In an undemanding level it works as entertainment. As a Batman fan from childhood onwards, there were many pleasures, from seeing Batman at work, some of the Joker's schemes with their sick humour, Gary Oldman underplaying as the one sane man, especially seeing two-face done sort of right. These are basically moments of pulp influence, that you can watch in the film, that kicks into another level at a few moments.

Problem is that the film takes itself very seriously in a way that drains, both in continued sense of entertainment, and in working of the director's ideas, that a serious film-maker should avoid. Every good moment usually returns to an uninteresting talky base, a large proportion of the film made up of scenes shot in flat distance, always with the city in background, getting old because the city was never staged dramatically. Distance is used, then dull back and forth coverage, rarely engaged visually by its own dramatic space, to let actors wander around the set and actually suggest character. They mostly stand still, locked by stiff staging. The direction felt uncomfortable in using dramatic visuals to tell the story.

I noticed this film was talky because the talk was extremely bad generally. It was unfortunate as The Prestige, while not having great dialogue, did have a sense of pace, kept the pretentious musings to a minimum, had fun with them. Good dialogue usually tells the story. But this film's dialogue tells you exactly what the characters want, without elaboration. Everything is subtext explained so that characters cannot dodge what they mean, show what they are through action, indirect communication, even in silent close-up. Never happens as there is more subtext to explain away.

Talk is bad especially with Batman. He's a dull, paternalistic psychopath who won't shut up, give sense of character nor say anything a learning-disabled adolescent wouldn't think. Essentially if your lead character is a bit thick, it really ruins a lot of the pleasure, especially if the film-maker doesn't notice it, or finds it profound in some way. What's worse is that he is defined through the dialogue, very rarely in interaction, that you never get a sense of darkness, or craziness, interior monologue or even a man thinking, so the sense of him being dramatically real in this world is lost, not to mention the reason why he does any of his actions. There's never a sense of a guy crazy enough to dress up as Batman. There are dramatic moments, where he has to decide whether to give himself up as being Batman, or he has to deal with the death of his love, that he does nothing, in action nor reaction within a series of scenes that defines the character as a person. It was a one-scene cliche, talk subtext of his pain then move on. Such a horrific treatment for the lead character, who has a tendency to be sketchy anyway, that leaves the film with a gap in connecting with the centre of the film and to lay groundwork to actual themes.

This film manges to make Christian Bale, a very good actor who can do crazy, seem like he's channeling Adam West, but without the intentional humour. But he does seem to be unconsciously in love with Harvey Dent, so there is gay subtext, which helps and is always nice to see in a Batman film. At the end, the interaction feels like moronic, repressed ex-lovers bitching to one another and not a serious study of morality, which I think is what the film-maker's intended. Most of the other actors come out a little better but no-one is defined as they lack purpose in drama, are moving plot point to plot point.

Everyone talks like children. There's a marriage proposal that's painful, is so basic, so soapy, that I was disgusted. Even the Joker has dull dialogue, is more idiotic the more he talks. The first time he's threatening but the more he speaks the more everything sounds repetitive. They are using The Killing Joke as a source, which has terrific Joker speeches, not in a terrific for a comic book but just terrific bits of madness, yet are not using the scenes in the film, which is a waste. Ledger does best in the film, does get the character, is a genuine threat always, is one of the few actors who use physicality to define character, in the way he holds himself, but is over-used as he really has nothing to say that isn't post-adolescent. I had enough of him halfway through the film, even though he's another villain I genuinely like. Things picked up towards the end, with his schemes to escape prison and to mess with the swat teams but what he had to say remained dull. Jack Nicholson was actually a more interesting version, had character oddities in dialogue.

With such an extensive running time it manages to miss major dramatic opportunities, from the psychological creation of two-face, which is a little sketchy, to the way Wayne interacts with the world, to the human reaction to the joker's schemes, extends the film for the sake of action, leads to sequences that bloat the film, which is about half an hour too long. There's a lot of sequences designed to showing Batman toys that simply don't give story. Some of the casting of supporting actors is bad, a finale section on boats ruined by both casting of actors who are bland and indistinct, having modes of dull scared or dull noble, to an outcome which is sentimental and lacking in real-world character defining actions.

Despite so much time wasted on action it tries so hard to be serious, define itself as being in the real world, to lay those genre influences and stretch them, redefine the comic book genre in a serious context. But the characters are written as defined in broad strokes, cannot connect to their visual world. As a crime story, unlike great modern crime, like Heat or TV's The Wire, there are no actual characters to propel the story, just mood. So the charge of watching an interesting character in the underworld (metaphorical but also subtly physical in urban landscape in the crime genre), making difficult choices, showing intent, going with or against intent, is missing. There is no charge as the scenes are either fun action that lack story or are unintenionally funny scenes that are entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

The film ignores the wonderfully absurd aspect to the characters as tries to treat it seriously. It but comes across as a film ashamed to be what it is, to define itself seriously to what it is, which is a comic book movie. It's kinda like the Road To Perdition, another film with nice visuals that was kinda moronic for a lot of the time, because a lot of comics are moronic. But as with any story, done with the proper respect for the imaginative qualities, of playing visuals to action, you can get something great from it. But this film lacks that imagination, in tone and detail.

This sounds a little more rough than I feel. I did think it was fun but it was just stupid, not the great film made out in many reviews. It was a quality drop from Nolan's previous film, which made me think of him as someone with potential. I hope he stops with this one as to me he's wasting his time on something that he's always pulling away from.

Despite his narrative flaws, Tim Burton did a lot more with these characters, psychologies, their situation, with the visuals, small details.. I think the 60's Adam West series was more true to its own ideas. Heresy maybe but I simply dislike films that aren't true to themselves, are ambitious, are "literary" yet simple-minded to the point of being ignorant of human nature, not engaged by the potential of material.

Til next time, same bat-time, same bat-channel

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