Friday, August 22, 2008

The Dark Knight

I went to see The Dark Knight yesterday. It wasn't really a film I was dying to see, but I'd heard good things about it and the only other option was the new The Mummy action-hokum formula fest which I certainly don't want to see. I was expecting a good-ish film and a good-ish performance from Heath Ledger but imagined that a lot of the current busy heaping of praise on the film, and on Ledger's acting in particular, had a lot to do with that peculiar, slightly ghoulish, sentimentality that seems to overcome media-types in the wake of early death on the part of good-looking young actors. I still think that the quality of Ledger's performance has been a little hyped - but only a little. It is very good and so, furthermore is the film. It's nothing at all like the early 90s Batman film featuring Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Whereas that film was dark only in a cartoonishly dark sort of way and whereas in that film Nicholson hams it up to the rafters as a larger than life comic villain, The Dark Knight really is dark and Ledger doesn't play the Joker as a simple pantomime villain with extra-make-up.

Ledger's Joker is one of the most memorable film villains I've seen. What is it about his Joker? It's hard to say what's so affecting about it, but it has a lot to do with the physical postures and movement that Ledger uses to bring the character to life. The Joker slouches, round-shouldered, head pushed forward and downwards - it's a posture that suggests exhaustion or depression. There's a real sense of self-loathing and inner despair about the joker - but it's only implied and never brought to the fore. The other striking thing about Ledger's Joker is his physical awkwardness. He moves with a slightly uncoordinated jerkiness suggesting a kind of awkward self-consciousness - as if the Joker isn't quite at home, or doesn't quite belong, in his own skin. There's something about that awkwardness that is really chilling and which makes the Joker such an arresting, and memorable villain. There's something just right about it that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it's got something to do with a sort of paradoxical contrast between the character's evil and his outward appearance - in the same way that an evil clown is particularly terrifying (and the Joker, of course, is a kind of evil clown complete with flaking Big Top makeup and green hair). Making the Joker move like a difficult, gauky teenager somehow increases the wrongness of the character, making his appearance jarring or grating for the viewer. I wonder, also, if there's a sense in which the Joker appears to be possessed - he's not quite at home in the skin he occupies rather like a devil animating a stolen, captive human body.

There's a definite political subtext to the film - or, perhaps, more than one. The intended sub-text concerns political corruption. The film's Gotham City is a setting fit for a disillusioned post Iraq invasion America, tired of its political leaders. Politics is the preserve of a rich elite in Gotham City (and, here, interestingly Bruce Wayne embodies the corruption of politics). In Gotham City democracy is simply 'democracy for the money bags' - Bruce Wayne, the not so secret billionnaire, can effectively choose the city's political elite by throwing lavish fundraisers to ensure their future political success. The police department is riddled with officers on the mafia payroll. The film's 'white knight' - the honest, idealistic, campaigning politician played by Aaron Eckhardt, becomes (at the Joker's hands) a monster by the end of the film.

But there's something beneath all of this too, I thought. Something perhaps unintended, which reflects the political climate of US Imperial anxiety in the era of The War on Terror and of the rise of China. It's little surprise that one of the film's villains is Chinese - a money launderer - or that the plot involves a daredevil raid to snatch this villain from the hands of the Chinese state (which harbours him when he flees from Gotham). Here, Batman represents the right of America to do what it pleases - he is its clandestine might-makes-right operative seizing the wanted terrorist from the hands of those soft-on-evil foreigners (with the active complicity of Gotham's law enforcement authorities). Batman does extraordinary rendition. There are, furthermore, several striking images in the film which - surely deliberately - echo images of 9/11 and Ground Zero. In one shot, Batman crouches on a twisted steel girder in front of a smouldering wasteland in the aftermath of a large bomb explosion. Furthermore, it's noticeable that the villains are repeatedly referred to as terrorists in this film. The Joker and his helpers are set apart from the ordinary racketeering gangs of hoodlums and their leaders (whom the Joker steadily usurps). It's clear that the Joker represents a new breed of enemy for Gotham City - not like the ordinary thugs of before who at least acted according to certain rules of honour and certain principles of rationality. The Joker does what he does without motive. He steals money in order to burn it, he revels in chaos and destruction for its own sake. Doesn't he remind you of the American understanding of terrorists - those who attack America for unfathomable (non)reasons? And once we see the Joker as Al Qaeda it's easy to understand Batman and his shadowy co-conspirators within the Gotham apparatuses of state as representatives of/ allegorical ideological legitimation for, the US's clandestine war against its enemies. The Batman does what those in positions of democratic scrutiny cannot be seen to do. He acts with their secret blessing - even though, at the end, he becomes a hunted figure as those in authority have to be seen to disapprove of his unusual, illegal methods. Batman represents the political necessity for dirty state hands in the era of Empire. The film is on his side. We are on his side. He has to do what he has to do to beat the baddies. It's an unusual film - one which speaks to the inhabitants of an anxious superpower and those of its foreign vassals and tributaries. It speaks to those who can no longer pretend to be the squeaky clean white knights of the international stage, but who must believe the new 'disillusioned' illusion that the good guys have to get their hands dirty and occupy murky depths precisely in order to remain the good guys.


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