Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Dark Knight and Middlemarch (Books - Middlemarch & Film - The Dark Knight)

One of my favorite creative exercises is bringing together the unlikely. The Dark Knight - the recent oh-so-bleak Batman flick - and Middlemarch - George Eliot's masterpiece of 18th century English village life - nothing to do with each other, you say? Try me. After a long day of school work, and cleaning up, and after about 10 days of having no bathroom due to renovations, the walls are finally done (though much else needs completing) but The Ragazzo and I decided to celebrate anyway with pizza and a movie. The Dark Knight had come in from the library. I have heard so much negative criticism of it - it's too long, it's too dark, Heath Ledger isn't Jack Nicholson... I decided to see for myself.

Not only would I say it is a well done movie, I think it really is the Batman for our time. Batman must fight a crazed terrorist who is willing to die, who seems to be motivated to do evil for the sake of it. A city despite its greatest forces seems brought to its knees by forces that seem to embody chaos. Sound familiar? My one qualified criticism, which I'll get out of the way up front, is that this Gotham was so obviously Chicago (I've lived in Chicago, so it was obvious to me). That distracted me a bit, but this film couldn't make the Tim Burton fantasy landscape kind of choice because it was going for a much more veridical sense of fantasy. It certainly did have some great sets for the interiors. In any event, now to address the criticisms I have heard from others. Too long - I didn't think so. A typical shoot-em-up Blockbuster would have developed the characters less, might have had fewer scenes between the wonderful Michael Caine and our Batman, Christian Bale, for example, and it would have probably ended with the "great tragedy." I'll call it that for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet. But that would not have been this Batman film, because this film isn't just about good versus evil, it is about consequences. The film would have had a hard time doing that in 2 hours and 10 minutes. Too dark? It couldn't have been much darker, I'll give you that, but what on earth do we make myths about if not our greatest forces of darkness. What was difficult about this film is that the darkness just didn't stop. It extended beyond the bad, bad guys casting its penumbra over what we thought we could count on as good. When it's not just the Joker wreaking havoc but the police, the D. A., Batman himself - what are we to do then? Then we have to consider whether we have any darkness within ourselves. Consequences. Then you have made a Batman film I am really interested in watching. The cast - Christian Bale always feels a little loopy to me. He seems to take himself very seriously, but that veneer seems to hide a kind of manic belief that I think really works, particularly in this Batman film. Michael Caine seems to have a lot of fun as the faithful Alfred. Maggie Gyllenhaal is thoughtful and a serious, like she's in an Ibsen play or something. I really liked that take on Rachel Dawes. She is a grown-up woman living in a dark world, having to make grown-up choices or she feels she will have waited too long. It was a Rachel, again, for our time. Everything does not have to be Sex in the City. But the stand-outs of the film are Gary Oldman, who must have the camera on him for 85% of the film, and he never stops being active inside. He is a man charged with keeping order in a crumbling world and plays quiet desperation in a way I really bought. Then there is Heath Ledger. No, he is not, Jack Nicholson. Thank god. Not that Jack isn't great, but the guy's still alive. They could have cast him if they wanted him. What is utterly menacing about this joker, is that he is so subdued. Even in his truly in-your-face-moments, he does go all the way, but he doesn't show off. It's dramatic but its not operatic. I thought this made him incredibly unpredictable and, therefore, scary. He had a different story about his scar for each person who would listen, but you could believe each one. This villain truly has no limits. Ledger wasn't trying to show you how far he himself was from this crazy man, the way Brad Pitt plays it in 12 Monkeys, he seemed to just quietly be trying to slip inside of him. It's not just a shame a young man like Ledger could not have lived a longer life, but his death seems our loss too. We can only wonder what this talented young artist might have created.

But the real thing that makes the film a Batman for our time isn't simply the terrorist parallels, but the notion of consequences. This is played out on multiple levels. There is Batman himself, who must agonize over concealing his identity, since it is the one thing the Joker wants (we will not give in to terrorists). Ironic since he conceals his own. There is a "good" character who turns "bad," when pushed to his limit, but I won't give away which character that is. There is one scene in which two groups of people - one mostly prisoners and their keepers and the other ordinary citizens of Gotham - must decide if they will blow the other group up to save themselves. That gets at the very meat of this film - what are we willing to do to save ourselves? for goodness sake, the prisoners on the boat are even dressed in the orange outfits we saw in every picture of Guantanamo. That's what makes this our Batman. This film asks - when terror strikes - who do we become? That is the true chaos faced in this film, our sense that we always know what is right goes out the window. If we are to search our souls there is probably a part of anyone of us that could be pushed to the limit and the joker wants to know where that limit is in each of us. That is why he is a force of such tremendous potential evil. Real chaos is when no one, not just the bad guys, but no one is regulated by a sense of right and wrong.

And that is where I find a parallel with George Eliot's Middlemarch. Eliot is interested in nothing so much as how choices are played out as consequences, except that her canvas is the 18th century village. I lay down in bed last night at close to midnight, after having watched a three-hour batman film, and written a homework assignment for several hours, and cleaned up the apartment, and not a book on my current list did it for me. I am enjoying Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air, but I have just started a 50-page chapter and I did not feel like non-fiction. I am not really enjoying either The Seance or The Locked Room that much, and then I saw Middlemarch. Which Matt and I were supposed to have been reading together and somehow we both slipped off the path last fall. Well, I'm back...Matt? In the chapter I read last night, I had to really come in for a landing in terms of pacing after The Dark Knight. Oh the pleasure of those swathes of words, that flow across the page like country paths.
That, entering into Lydgate's position as a newcomer who had his own professional objects to secure, Mr. Farebrother should have taken pains rather to warn off than to obtain his interest, showed an unusual delicacy and generosity which Lydgate's nature was keenly alive to.
And, so, here is the question facing Lydgate that is the subject of this chapter. Should Lydgate, the new physician in town who is interested in forwarding his scientific research (for the betterment of mankind, of course) elect to the chaplaincy the man whom Mr. Bulstrode, the banker, supports? This is the banker who has just become interest in supporting Lydgate's work. Or should he vote for a kinder man and a better preacher, to whom some Middlemarchers object for his playing billiards? If he should be seen to support a man some think immoral, will those people patronize his practice? But if he is seen to be Mr. Bulstrode's yes-man, will they respect him?
It went along with other points of conduct in Mr. Farebrother which were exceptionally fine, and made his character resemble those southern landscapes which seem divided between natural grandeur and social slovenliness. Very few men could have been as filial and chivalrous as he was to the mother, aunt, sister, whose dependence on him had in many ways shaped his life rather uneasily for himself; few men who feel the pressure of small needs are so nobly resolute not to dress up their inevitably self-interested desires in a pretext of better motives. In these matters he was conscious that his life would bear the closest scrutiny; and perhaps the consciousness encouraged a little defiance towards the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners, and whose lofty aims were not needed to account for their actions....

On the other hand, there was Tyke, a man entirely given to his clerical office, who was simply curate at a chapel of ease in St. Peter's parish, and had time for extra duty. Nobody had anything to say against Mr. Tyke, except that they could not bear him, and suspected him of cant...

But whichever way Lydgate began to incline, there was something to make him wince; and being a proud man, he was a little exasperated at being obliged to wince.
Questions of consequence are the stuff of great fiction and great theater - Macbeth, A Winter's Tale, Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein, To Kill a Mockingbird, Anna Karenina even screwball comedies, think of Philadelphia Story or Bringing up Baby - what are these all about if not consequence? Not comfortable, to be sure - but involving and worth spending time in. These works of art are the exercise we give our conscience in a realm where we don't have live with the consequences so that, when we do, we have had some practice . That is one of the great values of art, in my opinion.


Anonymous said...

I am quite impressed at your bringing these two narratives together. This is what great art does, I think, it brings us to the table for an ongoing and multi-faceted discussion.

Ted said...

Thanks, Verb. I always think that disparate multiple narratives come together in people all the time, so why not in people-created works?