Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Yes, Dark Knight

I just came home from watching The Dark Knight. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were parts though that I felt were rushed. Where it seemed that a scene had been stripped to its bare minimum in order to keep things flowing and moving. So characters end up talking to each other in ways which are way too concise and compact, its as if (even if they are good actors) they nonetheless appear like robots speaking one after another. Its always a hurried mixture of surreality and unreality watching this sort of thing, because of the way it unintentionally might reveal that in our own lives, when we speak in ways which are perfectly witty, perfectly timed, is there some sort of matrix at work as well? Editing our lives to create that illusion of discourse moving smoothly along?

Other than this sort of thing, which is understandable, since they were struggling to squeeze as many story elements from as many different Batman storylines as possible, and somehow make all of them fit into 2 1/2 hours.

But this is a small criticism, I was still very much entertained by the film. Gof ya-hu gui'. Pi'ot i bida-na Si Heath Ledger. Ledger surpassed all my expectations in terms of darkness, creepiness and insanity. Without spoiling anything specifically, he was in my opinion a terrifying Joker.

But impressing me in this regard, isn't too difficult. My first memories of Joker aren't very terrifying at all, but come from Caesar Romero's version in the old Batman tv show. Let's face it, surpassing Romero's portrayal of Joker in terms of fright isn't difficult. The scariest thing about that show was probably the tights.

Jack Nicholson's Joker was much more fearsome, and a great character. This Joker was comfortable with violence and teased out the Joker's macabre detachment to people, their existence to him as mere toys to be thrown at each other, to produce momentary enjoyment.

Heath Ledger took this even further, and went beyond Nicholson's Joker who despite his veneer of insanity, was so at his core a typical villain in terms of acquisition of power and money and the creation of a sarkar/familia to consolidate and formalize his control. Ledger's portrayal had elements of this, and was brought out through negotiations with and the take over of gangs. But he built upon this, by also portraying the Joker as someone who acted as if his identity lay beyond these basic human drives to build, to defend, to conserve, to procreate, etc.

What this version of the Joker proposed himself as is drive itself. For Joker, all of these other gestures that mark human life are nothing but masks that cover over the violent force of life itself. The curious looks that the Joker constantly has in The Dark Knight are not simply an act, but are part of the position from which he deals with the world around one, at the edge of the human, on the border between humanity and inhumanity.

From this position all the actions of building, conserving, saving, remembering, considering, they all appear like little toys, childs play-things. These are the weaknesses of "normal" people, that he sees as curious or bemusing, but are also levers through which he can manipulate and experiment. That's what The Dark Knight brings out in sometimes obvious ways, the most sublime version of insanity is not someone who is "crazy" in an erratic, useless and unreasoning sense. It is instead this mixture of first: bewilderment and curiosity. The detachment from "normal" life that makes the most simple acts of self-preservation or social interest seem so foreign and unreal. And second: a mampos kalaktos scientific type of reasoning, that sees normal life as a scene for experimentation, for the playing of different basic human social/sustainable drives against each other.

What separates the Joker from other sociopaths with similar cold and cruel logic his willingness to submit his own mortality and life to the play of these "human" experiments. Whereas anyone can display this ability to treat humans as nothing but chess pieces, play-things or objects to be studied or made use of, Joker gives up the self-preservation drive and therefore himself as part of the game. In multiple ways throughout the film, the Joker allows himself, his life, his safety to be caught up in the chaos he has created. Not for heroic reasons, or even out of desperation, but simply because his own life is just one more possible variable for violence and chaos.

The political theory of sovereignty and society that we find in Hobbes' Leviathan, is built upon the premise that humans hold more precious than all else their lives, and that in order to have that thing be set beyond the chaos of everyday life, they will give up their collective freedom. The Joker however rejects this sort of guiding assumption of life and gleefully submits his life and the life of all others in Gotham into chaotic experiments that he creates.

But, by accepting both this position of pure aggression and disruption and suicidal acceptance Ledger's Joker is very adept and capable of pushing what are given to be natural limits, the sainted edges of a current order or even the ideas of order and balance.

In the movie this is brought out in relation to Batman, as the Joker tests the limits of Batman, hoping to push him over the edge, to break the sometimes ridiculous moral clauses he sets for himself (no killing), which so long as he clings to, enable him to continue to violent vigilante career. There is of course a paradox here when this sort of superhero/super villain theorizing takes place. Joker and Batman represent two sides of the same coin, both exceptional violent figures which either maintain or disrupt current norms and rules. Yet while on the one hand the Joker wants to keep Batman alive as his balance, as the force that drives him to keep up his campaign of terror, he nonetheless also acts to not kill Batman, but kill the position he occupies. By continually pushing Batman in hopes of getting him to kill, he is also hoping to break the productive deadlock they share.

In the comics, the Joker's role in constantly provoking Batman is far more visceral and has a much longer history. In Batman: The Killing Joke, after crippling Barbara Gordon, kidnapping Gordon himself and forcing him to view naked photos of his bleeding and suffering daughter, the Joker is arrested by Batman. As the Caped Crusader moves in on the Joker, he tells the following joke:

"There were two guys in a lunatic asylum and one night they decide that they don’t like living in an asylum anymore. They decide that they’re going to escape. They get up to the roof, and there just across a narrow gap, they can see the rooftops of the surrounding town, stretching away into the moonlight, stretching away to freedom. The first guy jumps right across with no problems. But the second guy hesitates and doesn’t follow, he’s afraid of falling. The first guy then gets an idea, he says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings and you can walk along the beam and join me!” The second guy shakes his head and says, “What do you think I am crazy!? You’d turn it off when I was half-way across!'"

Ultimately, given their roles in society, they are two inmates in the same mental asylum, in the same padded room. Interestingly enough, the ways in which they define themselves and are defined might appear to be distant and clearly-defined, but is very close and very fragile. Separated by the smallest of gaps, which can be surpassed with the beam of a flashlight.

Unfortunately, I can't go into this too much because I don't want to spoil the film. But needless to say they are far more similar than we are led to believe, and that is why Batman's refusal to kill is so interesting and yet at the same time so meaningless.

But to take this away from the specific relationship between Batman and the Joker and instead focus on the wider role that Joker plays in terms of pushing the limits of society or revealing its frailties, its fictions and its arbitrary nature, there is one scene from The Dark Knight that I would like to mention.

While speaking to another character in the film trying to convince him to join him in his quest to create chaos in Gotham (guess which one?), the Joker discusses the schemers of life and the schemes of life. The schemers are those people who work actively and exist to prop up the current order. The schemes are those orders, those rules, those norms that give the things around us particular values and meanings and therefore skew our life towards different feelings or normality and exceptionality. The Joker in his "pitch" says that when a gangbanger gets killed or a truck full of soldiers dies, nothing much happens, no one really cares, because those deaths are part of the scheme, they are understood as part of the rules. There is an ebb and flow of violence and value and so it swirls and collects around some bodies and is repulsed from others.

But, the Joker continues, go out and threaten a hospital or a school and suddenly people act as if its the end of the world! The first reason for this is because its simply against the rules. The body of a gangbanger is one which society deems as waiting for violence, waiting for the justice of a society to be carried out against it. The soldier, awaits a similar fate, albeit with a different social value assigned upon to its death, but it is still a body which is marked by societies scheme for possible violence.

One way of thinking about these schemes, is the sort of cartography or map of violence and security that each creates. Just as certain bodies are marked for death, others are marked for life, and this goes for institutions and spaces as well. Some are marked as secure, as spaces where death is tamed, put at bay, where chaos it mitigated and decimated. Others are sites where violence can be applied, where chaos is allowed, expected, where there is not supposed to be any stability, security, prosperity. As I'm typing this, Born on the Fourth of July is on tv, and that genre of film, the returning veterans trying to find peace or tying to find a home is an example of how these neat maps, these schemes get skewed. What the returning veterans often does in these sorts of movies and also in life, is bring the violence, insecurity, trauma from one space into another. Both the community that the veteran returns to and the veterans have feelings of being betrayed. They have feelings that the scheme they relied upon isn't living up to its bargain, isn't doing all that it is supposed so, that the rules aren't being followed.

According to the rules, the violence stays over there, it remains on the battlefield, I can honor it and know of it in the abstract, but it does not belong here, it has no place here. This narrative of betrayal is enacted in order to maintain this illusion that this place is fundamentally one of order, peace, life and safety, and that when that which feels like an anathema is present, it must have come from somewhere else. Its presence here must violate some natural principle.

That is the reaction that we see throughout the First World in response to any sort of violence or atrocity. A reaction that indicates that this has come from somewhere else, it does not belong here, it cannot happen here! We saw this very clearly after the September 11th attacks, where the response from almost all Americans was an innocent and self-protecting, "How could this happen here!??!?" It was not a reaction that this should not happen anywhere, but rather that the grand scheme of things has marked this country as a space where this should not happen, and it is the most horrific violation that this rule should be broken. Terror has a way of revealing the illusions of a society, by making the institutions or figures which appear as the rocks or the sources of order as weak, helpless, arbitrary or ordinary. The September 11th attacks revealed that the United States was not a castle that sat high above the rest of the world, on a hill, safe in its prosperity, free from all the violence it exports, but that it was just another nation, just another member of the world, a culprit and a victim. But at the same time, terror also has the ability to reinforce the most base and unthinking ideas.

Interestingly enough, it was this dispelling of illusions, this revealing and mocking of the schemes of everyday life that create the illusions of superiority or safety that stuck with me most after leaving the movie theater and pondering what I had seen. I was surprised however, that after witnessing so much violent unveiling of power and unsettling of a society, my first thoughts of another example of this were of a comedy. And not just any comedy, but a British comedy, whose cast is primarily mildly unattractive old British men, Yes, Prime Minister.

Yes, Prime Minister (1986-1988)and its predecessor Yes, Minister (1980-1984) are by far my two favorite British comedies. They follow the career and relish in the hysterical and sad naivete of Jim Thacker, who in the first show is a cabinet minister and in the second show becomes the Prime Minister of Britain. Thacker is someone who foolishly believes that he is in government to make change, to improve lives, to tell the truth, and he is constantly held in check and twisted into ridiculous knots by his staff, most prominently Sir Humphrey. Hacker is a dreamer, an oblivious personality, who cluelessly comes up with grand designs or fantastic ideas to fix the problems of society, which from the perspective of the staff and the bureaucracy are ludicrous and need to be stopped!

Sir Humphrey often acts as the all-knowing white knight of the government, as he deftly articulates the way things are, the way things have to be. He stands up for the prevailing "schemes" of life, describing them, defending them, playing that most essential role of any government, to protect the way things currently are. The longest running gag has to be the joke about who really runs the government, who really control and runs the country. Any idea that the Prime Minister of a country is in charge is shattered every few minutes through exchanges like this.

Bernard: But he's the Prime Minister!
Sir Humphrey: Yes indeed he is Bernard. He has his own car, a nice house in London, a place in the country, endless publicity and a pension for life, what more does he want?
Bernard: To govern Britain.
Sir Humphrey: Well stop him, Bernard.

In this role however, the comedic and satirical aspects comes into play as that which he reveals as necessary and crucial things to protecting the public, protecting the nation, are articulated not as natural or coherent, but rather empty, illusionary, boasting their own comical insanity. That's the depressing and funny paradox that regularly comes out in the episodes. Humphrey is so invested in protecting the status quo, and does so by constantly talking about it, and enforcing a logic to it, but as he does, he reveals how very fragile it is, how very arbitrary and meaningless it is.

My favorite sections come from talk about defense policy and the military. Although everyone knows that a nation needs some form of "defense" it is interesting how expensive, ridiculous and often times pointless, the shape that defense in the First World has taken, and how wrapped up in certain political and economic schemes that shape is invested in. In the Yes, Prime Minister episodes "The Grand Design" and the "Ministerial Broadcast" they take on this illusionary and convoluted shape of defense policy, in discussing nuclear war and an ambiguous and very expensive defense program called "Triton."

In "The Grand Design" Prime Minister Thacker comes up with a fantastic idea to cancel the expensive Triton project and instead funnel the money into more conventional military programs, and bring back conscription. Sir Humphrey responds with his usual blustering incredulousness at the cluelessness of Thacker, and his imperviousness to reason, precedent and the way things are supposed to be. In discussing why this Grand Design of Thacker's cannot take place, one of the existing defense programs Polaris, in which British submarines carry American missiles.

Sir Humphrey: Polaris is a ramshackle old system, the Soviets might easily develop a multi-layered ballistic missile defence system which could intercept Polaris.
Jim: By when?
Sir Humphrey: Well, in strategic terms, any day now.
Jim: By what year, precisely?
Sir Humphrey: 2020, but that's sooner than you think.
Jim: And are you saying that this nuclear defence system would stop all 192 Polaris missiles.
Sir Humphrey: Well no, not all, virtually all, 97%.
Jim: So that would leave, about five bombs that would get through.
Sir Humphrey: Precisely, a mere five.
Jim: Enough to obliterate Moscow, Leningrad, Minsk ...
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but that's about all!
Jim: I should have thought that was enough to make the Russians stop and think.
Sir Humphrey: But its not fair! With Triton we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe!
Jim: Why would I want to obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe?
Sir Humphrey: Its a deterrent!
Jim: It's a bluff, I probably wouldn't use it.
Sir Humphrey: Yes but they don't know that you probably wouldn't.
Jim: They probably do.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know you probably wouldn't but they can't be certain.
Jim: They probably, certainly know that I probably wouldn't.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they're probably certain you know you probably wouldn't they don't certainly know that although you probably wouldn't, there is no probability that you certainly would.
Jim: What?

Or in the next episode, "The Ministerial Broadcast," Sir Humphrey, continues this line of unraveling through a discussion of what societal purpose "defense policy" serves.

Sir Humphrey: Bernard, what is the purpose of out defence policy?
Bernard: To defend Britain.
Sir Humphrey: No Bernard, it is to make the people believe that Britain is defended.
Bernard: The Russians?
Sir Humphrey: Not the Russians, the British, the Russians know it's not. Its for all our simple ignorant people shuffling in and out of houses, buses, factories and the cabinet room. The aim of the defense policy is to make them feel secure.
Bernard: But if there's a better way?
Sir Humphrey: Bernard, we have a magic wand, it is called Triton. Nobody understands anything about it, except that it will cost 15 billion pounds which means it must be wonderful. Magic! All we have to do is write a check and then we all can relax. But if people in government start talking about it, you know what will happen?
Bernard: What?
Sir Humphrey: In the end they'll start thinking about it. They will come to realize the problems, the flaws in reasoning, the nation will get worried, agitation, questions, criticism. Change.
Bernard: Change?
Sir Humphrey: Change.

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