I'm digging back into the vault for this one, an essay I wrote for a class I took on independent film. As I often did during my time in high school and college, I used the assignment as an excuse to write about something I was interested in, in this case, David Lynch.
David Lynch is one of the most distinctive voices in American film. A true auteur, his films build and expand on a set of core themes, and over the course of his career, his films have created a distinct universe. In virtually all of his films, Lynch’s primary thematic concern is the darkness that lurks beneath the shiny surface of personal dreams. In Wild At Heart, that is expressed through the conflict between the good, Sailor and Lula, and the evil world out to destroy their love. In Mulholland Dr., narrative subjectivity erases the idea of strict good and bad, instead exploring the way that a good person can be corrupted. By moving outside of traditional narrative, and exploring realities beyond the ‘real world,’ Lynch is able to extend his reach beyond the Manichean opposition of his early films, and explore the capacity for good and bad that is present in all of us.
David Lynch’s career has three distinct periods. In the first, stretching from his short films in the early 70s through Dune, he explored realities distinctly removed from our world. Eraserhead constructs a hermetically sealed universe that runs on dream-logic, totally removed from the typical patterns of human interaction. The film has a very surreal feel, and uses a variety of fantastic elements to create an alien reality. Dune again explores an otherworldly realm, this time a science fiction universe. In the film, Lynch returns to the surreal, paranormal elements of Eraserhead, but this time they’re more understandable, placed in a science fiction context.
Post Eraserhead, Lynch had been following the classic path of transition that moves independent directors from the fringe to the mainstream, and had Dune been a hit, he already had a sequel script in the works which would move him even further away from the esoteric indie world in which he began. However, the film’s failure prompted him to develop a more personal project, Blue Velvet. Elements of his first three films appear sporadically in his later movies, but it is only in Blue Velvet that we see the emergence of the personal themes and motifs that would define all his works that follow, particularly Wild at Heart and Mulholland Dr.
Blue Velvet is the first Lynch film to be set in a recognizable world, a seemingly normal, idyllic Midwestern suburb. In the film’s opening shots, we see stereotypical images of small town America, a fireman waving from a fire truck, a man watering his lawn, and most notably, a red rose in front of a white picket fence, backed by a beautiful blue sky. Lynch grew up during the fifties, and even though the film is set in the present day, most of the characters in the town are based on Lynch’s memories of where he grew up. The film’s soundtrack features numerous pop songs from the era, and the ending of the film seems to unironically endorse the notions of family and community that were so valued in the period.
The film opens with images of the town’s shiny surface, but as the opening montage concludes, the camera dives beneath the perfectly cut grass in to a crawling world of bugs and dirt. The film does much the same thing, exposing the world of extreme violence that exists on the fringes of the town. In the film, there is a clear division between this dream world of fifties happiness and the nightmare reality that Frank Booth inhabits.
Lynch, like Jeffery in the film, is fascinated by the darkness, however, he ultimately believes in the values of small town America. Sandy’s speech about the robins is critical to understanding his films that follow. Lynch may be aware of the underlying darkness, but in his films, he expresses a longing for the light. That dream is an important touchstone for defining morality in Wild at Heart and Mulholland Dr.
This dichotomy between a good surface and underlying evil is further developed in Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks, which focuses on a town that’s virtually identical to Blue Velvet’s Lumberton. The series begins with the town’s beloved first daughter, Laura Palmer, washed up on the beach, dead, “wrapped in plastic.” At first, Laura is presented as the wholesome incarnation of 50s values, the homecoming queen and girlfriend of the football team’s star, she does community service and is seemingly beloved by all in the town. However, as the series progresses, we find out about Laura’s dark side, and through exploring her death, observe the vast criminal underpinnings of this seemingly idyllic town. Much like Blue Velvet, the show simultaneously affirms the small town American dream and exposes the lies underpinning it.
Lynch made Wild at Heart during Twin Peaks’ first season hiatus. The film moves beyond the small town focus of the series and instead takes the narrative structure of a road movie, following Sailor and Lula as they journey across America. The film uses less mannered performances than the intensely sincere Blue Velvet, and the edgy violence prefigures the work of directors like Tarantino. Despite this, it’s a generally lighter film, with Lynch presenting a series of fun set pieces and not delving as deep into the heavy themes of his contemporaneous works.
The film maintains the fifties worldview present in his other works of the period. Sailor’s snakeskin jacket is a variation on the classic greaser uniform, and despite dancing to contemporary rock, what Sailor and Lula really loves is Elvis. The film makes more concessions to the present than Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. The fifties elements are a shared fantasy of Sailor and Lula, indicating their strong commitment to good in an otherwise corrupt world. They are much more sexual than Jeffery and Sandy in Blue Velvet, but both relationships function as an anchor, keeping the hero from drifting off into darkness. In each case, the male hero faces a trial of extreme violence that forces him to reassess his life and choose the domestic sphere over the temptations of evil.
The film’s structure is designed to create an us vs. them dynamic, with Sailor and Lula battling the rest of the world. In the film’s first half, Sailor and Lula are living a generally happy life, exalting in each others’ presence. Tension comes from intercutting their happiness with Marietta’s rage. This intercutting makes the viewer feel the same anxiety that Sailor and Lula do about Marietta’s pursuit. This concern is made visually explicit through Lula’s visions of her mother as the wicked witch. The presence of evil in the film extends beyond just Marietta. After being set up as the antagonist for most of the movie, she fades away towards the end, replaced by Bobby Peru, an extremely evil man. Much like Frank Booth, he represents unchecked appetites, and as in Blue Velvet, our good hero is tempted to follow his dark path. In Wild at Heart, all good stems from the relationship between Sailor and Lula.
There are many classical narrative elements in the film, such as the way “Love Me Tender” is set up and then paid off at the end. What puts it on the fringe is Lynch’s bizarre imagery and the loose, episodic narrative structure. More than any other Lynch film, this could viably be criticized as being weird for weird’s sake. For example, the Cousin Dell story has no relation to the rest of the film, and exists for no reason other than its own inherent weirdness. The same is true of the scenes involving the vast network out to stop Sailor and Lula. Over the course of many scenes, this group and its power are built up, but unlike in a classical Hollywood film, there is no payoff. These scenes are there primarily as a showcase for Lynch’s filmmaking talent, important for their own aesthetic values, rather than their connection to the overall narrative. Part of the reason for this structure likely comes from the fact that Lynch adapted the film from a novel, but regardless, it stands outside the mainstream.
The most beautiful narrative digression in Wild at Heart is Sailor and Lula’s encounter with the car crash victim. The scene does serve a narrative purpose, raising tension about their possible death, but primarily it is there to show the mystery and beauty of driving at night. Headlights illuminating yellow road lines as a car drives down the highway is a recurring image in many Lynch films. Combining this image with Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” creates an incredible mood, an atmosphere that overwhelms the story Sailor is telling Lula. When they reach the crash site, the smoke and blood seem otherworldly. As the girl is dying, we construct a life for her out of the broken pieces we see.
What happens has no direct connection to Sailor and Lula, but experiencing the crash with them draws us closer to the characters. We hear about the crash later in a news report, but its real purpose is just to exist in that moment, a dream that Sailor and Lula encounter before they drift off into the night. The scene recalls similar episodes in Lynch’s later film, The Straight Story. Lynch has no problem doing a scene that is tangential to the narrative, as long as it is worthwhile on its own merits. He has none of the classical Hollywood impulse to explicitly tie everything together, rather he allows us to make connections through our personal reading of the film.
This kind of loose narrative structure is likely a result of his creative process, a process he describes as “catching the big fish.” In building a story, he makes himself into an open vessel and ‘channels’ the ideas into a script. This process means that his films will be less strictly structured, but more full of ideas. In Wild at Heart, that’s manifested in the various surreal touches put in each scene, such as having an old woman dance through the end of scene 42. Because the film has a generally linear narrative progression and takes place in a stylized, but recognizable world, the elements of surrealism are present more in what is in the world than in the construction of the world itself.
Following Wild at Heart, Lynch’s renown dipped. A backlash against Twin Peaks resulted in declining ratings and cancellation. Lynch directed the series’ final episode, which, along with the subsequent film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, created a new set of symbols for Lynch to draw on, moving beyond the fifties homage period of BV/TP/WaH. During the series, Lynch developed the idea of the red room, an environment outside of time and space that Cooper goes to in a dream. As the series goes on, it is revealed that the red room is an interface between the white lodge and the black lodge, between good and evil. So, the clear division between good and evil is represented symbolically. For the first time in a Lynch film, we see characters from what appears to be our world cross over into a supernatural place outside of normal space-time. His subsequent films all feature extra dimensional beings or places designed to represent absolute good and absolute bad.
Fire Walk With Me marks the transition idyllic fifties inspired world Lynch depicted in Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart to a darker, worldview, in which the only escape from life’s suffering is death. Fire Walk With Me is designed to immerse the viewer in the world of Laura Palmer, and it is not a pretty world. We follow her as she is molested by her father, prostitutes herself and is ultimately tortured, raped and murdered. It was an abrupt break from the carefree violence of Wild at Heart.
The film marks a number of critical shifts, shifts that pave the way for Mulholland Dr. One is in the narrative structure. Dreams are a major motif in Blue Velvet, but the film unfolds in a fairly straightforward narrative progression. The same is true of Wild at Heart. Fire Walk With Me is more experimental, featuring a half hour prologue that has no narrative impact on the rest of the film, and a shifting chronology that allows the film to comment on events that occur much later in the series’ chronology.
The section of the film in which Phillip Jefferies recounts a story of various lodge characters is Lynch’s most experimental work, given meaning more by our reaction to the visual expeerience than by anything inherent in the narrative. The film’s climax, much like Wild at Heart’s, involves our protagonist being visited by an angelic presence. In Wild at Heart, the appearance of the Good Witch is a supernatural conceit used to bring us to a more traditional emotional closure. We can easily read her appearance as Sailor’s hallucination, and the reality the film inhabits is restored at the end. In FWWM, the walls between reality and dream are broken down. After dying, Laura finds herself in the red room, with Agent Cooper. She is visited by an angel and cries, coming to terms with her fate. The climax functions solely on an emotional level. One can use the series to piece together what Cooper is doing there with her, but Lynch is not concerned with giving any sort of definitive answer. He prefers to let the viewer find their own understanding of the moment. This is a strategy he will refine for Mulholland Dr.
The other major change for Fire Walk With Me is in the gender of the protagonist. For the first time, Lynch focuses on a female main character. The kind of suffering that Laura experiences is similar to what Dorothy Valens goes through in Blue Velvet; however, FWWM removes the intermediary (Jeffery) and directly engages with what Laura is going through. I would consider Fire Walk With Me the first piece of his ‘Women in Trouble’ trilogy, which also includes Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. All three films are devoted to exploring the subjective reality of a woman who experience deep pain on a journey through a variety of splintered realities. The follow-up to FWWM, Lost Highway, more directly inspires Mulholland Dr. It tells the same basic story, with a similarly structured subjective narrative. However, that film drifted further than ever from Lynch’s traditional fifties aesthetic, with a gritty nineties urban look and a soundtrack by Trent Reznor.
Mulholland Dr. began life as a TV pilot, and after not being picked up, Lynch was given the funding to expand it into a feature. Mulholland Dr. functions as something of a ‘greatest hits’ project for Lynch, merging virtually all of his trademark themes and visual tropes into one film. The movie starts by following a naïve Hollywood starlet named Betty, whose “aw shucks” mentality is decidedly out of place in contemporary Hollywood. She has come from a small town that is probably not much different from Lumberton, with the goal of making it in the movie business. MD represents a growth beyond the small town mentality that informed his earlier work. Lynch had grown up personally, and the Hollywood milieu was now his primary reference point. The opening parts of the film could be read as a reflection on Lynch’s own conflicted feelings about coming to Hollywood, struggling to maintain his initial optimism in a corrupt environment.
As in Blue Velvet, Betty finds herself drawn into a world of mystery, gradually discovering the dark side of this shiny town. In its first half, the film’s narrative resembles Wild at Heart, focusing on a good heroine in a bad world. Betty is talented and would be able to make it, if not for the forces of corruption out to stop her. We again see a vast conspiracy operating behind the surface of things, and Lynch uses this as an opportunity to indulge in flights of surrealism, such as putting tiny Michael Anderson into a full sized body suit. As in Wild at Heart, this conspiracy is less about narrative specifics than just the presence of a vast darkness out to keep our heroine down. The intercutting of the two groups allows Lynch to have an optimistic, happy protagonist, but still maintain a sense of menace. The first hour or so is structurally very similar to Wild at Heart, progressing the story of our heroine and the conspiracy equally, the menace of the latter hanging over the happiness of the former.
The first half also shares many stylistic similarities with Wild at Heart. Betty’s manner of speech is similar to the enthusiastic, fifties inspired language of Sailor and Lula. The influence of that period is most evident in the scene at the film set, which features a gang of period extras singing the classic fifties song “Sixteen Reasons.” There are moments of incidental weirdness, such as the sudden appearance of a creepy looking bum between the Winkie’s, or Adam’s encounter with the Cowboy. These scenes are used as an opportunity for Lynch to showcase his visual prowess and indulge his visual tendencies, such as the red curtains of Mr. Roque’s office and the flickering light of the corral.
The Cowboy seems to have access to some kind of supernatural power, and, as in other Lynch work, that power is signified by his impact on electrical systems in the area. Adam is skeptical upon encountering him, but as the latter part of the film reveals, he does seem in touch with a deeper power. The idea of other dimensional figures who move through the Earth emerged in Twin Peaks and continued in Lost Highway. This is a development from Wild at Heart, which featured odd, but earthbound characters. The exception is The Good Witch, though she could easily be read as Sailor’s hallucination, not an actual other dimensional being.
After playing the first half of the film with a traditional narrative structure, Lynch begins to warp the world, bringing the surrealism of FWWM or Lost Highway to the fore. As things unfold, we find out that the film’s first half is actually a fantasy constructed by Diane, a suicidal actress who has failed both professionally and in her relationship with Camilla, her former lover, now rival. In retrospect, it is apparent that the film’s first half is a purely mental construction. Yet, Lynch presents it without any obvious signifiers of subjectivity. Ironically, the film’s second half, which shows the ‘reality’ of what happened, presents events in a fractured chronology that immerses us completely in Diane’s mental reality.
This difference is evidenced most notably by the shot choice. The first half very rarely uses shots that express something outside of an objective narrative reality. In the fantasy world, Lynch uses classical film language. In the ‘real world’ segments, he uses a number of first person shots, such as Diane’s stumble towards her bed before the opening credits, or the blurring shots of the ceiling when she is crying and masturbating. Time transitions occur through shifting focus, meant to mimic the associative process of memory. These overt stylistic choices are different from the more restrained cinematography of the first half, or Wild at Heart.
The central turning point of the film is the Club Silencio scene, the transition point between the linear narrative of the first half and the fractured moments of the second half. The sequence contains nearly all of Lynch’s signature elements, such as red curtains, blue electrical light, musical performance, lip synching, 50s music and a moment of pure transcendence. When Betty cries, it is much like Laura in Fire Walk With Me, or the Polish woman in Inland Empire, she does not necessarily know why she’s crying, it is just this feeling that an emotional journey is at its end. The high-pitched, emotional female vocal over this is another Lynch trademark, with Rebecca Del Rio following in the tradition of Julee Cruise.
The scene is integral to the narrative, but it also functions as a standalone setpiece. The film’s main characters stop their forward progression to sit down and watch a performance. We watch that performance with them, marveling at it in the same way that they do. The sequence’s narrative function is to create a moment of epiphany, when the fantasy world Diane has built for herself crumbles. Yet, on the first viewing, no one actually knows this is happening. Rather, the scene is designed to present a performance that will affect the viewer in the same way it affects Betty. Like her, we are emotionally moved, but unclear exactly why. The emotion of the scene allows us to accept whatever comes after, helping the viewer move past an analytical approach, to accept a narrative progression based solely on emotion. More than any other sequence in his oeuvre, Club Silencio captures the mystery and wonder that makes Lynch films so special. By transcending traditional narrative construction, he is able to touch the viewer on a deeper emotional level.
After this scene, the film breaks with the mannered acting and fifties style of the first half to present a harsh, ‘realistic’ world. The contrast between Naomi Watts as Betty and her performance as Diane is startling, the wide eyed enthusiasm she had in the first half is totally gone. In these moments, we witness someone who has lost the dream of love that propels all Lynch heroes. In Wild at Heart, Lula and Sailor are both kept alive by their love for each other. When Diane loses Camilla to Adam, she completely disengages from the world and descends into darkness and misery, a misery we are immersed in through the subjective construction of the film’s second half. So, in Mulholland Dr., the film justifies the first half’s stylization by revealing that it is Betty’s fantasy.
So, Mulholland Dr.’s second half acts as a defense against critics who claim he indulges in weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Whereas the stylized, fifties style behavior was previously presented as straightforward narrative reality, it is now written off as only a fantasy. It is the equivalent of having Sailor wake up in prison, alone after singing “Love Me Tender,” a complete subversion of the narrative reality created by the rest of the film. What the film does is play out the dream of the robins from Blue Velvet as an extended fantasy sequence, then show how that dream was lost in reality. The same values are espoused, but Lynch is more nuanced in his distinction between good and evil. It is no longer a vast conspiracy that keeps our heroine down; it is her own capacity for jealousy and evil.
In addition, the structure makes it easier to justify the first half’s narrative digressions. Viewing all that happens as Diane’s fantasy gives added meaning to scenes like the two men at Winkie’s or the hitman’s botched murder. Knowing that Diane has made this reality, it’s possible to connect everything to her own mental problems. So, in addition to being an entertaining scene in its own right, the botched hit also indicates her hope that he failed to kill Camilla.
What makes the film especially challenging is that there is no clear in film explanation for what happens. The camera journeys into the blue box, and then everything is different on the other side. We never hear exactly why the person we knew as Betty is now Diane; rather we must use the fragmented events we do see as a map for constructing a narrative. In interviews, Lynch hesitates to disclose his own intentions in constructing the film. Rather, he encourages each viewer to find the answers on his/her own terms. That definitively places him within the art cinema mode.
By constructing the film in this manner, we have a different relation to the central human darkness than in Wild at Heart. Here, the second half of the film is designed to show the way that Diane’s jealousy has warped her from the good person she wants to be into someone who’s capable of having someone she loves murdered. In her fantasy, she is the victim of a massive conspiracy designed to keep her down. In reality, she just didn’t make it, and her guilt and jealousy overwhelm any goodness within. In Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Lynch presents a vision of love overcoming darkness, but in Diane, we see someone who has lost sight of that love. She has only herself to blame for what happens, and the cold reality she experiences is a contrast to the peppy fantasy world she created. Lynch moved from exploring the underlying evil in the outside world to exploring the underlying evil within us all.
In the film’s final moments, we see Diane haunted by the dream of what could have been. The smiling, happy old couple, the judges of the jitterbug contest that first sent her off to Hollywood are now menacing figures, plaguing her thoughts. In both this film and Inland Empire, homeless people are used to show the ultimate fear of failure for those in Hollywood. The bum here is who Diane could be, she is already ugly on the inside, having chosen to kill Camilla, and in her emotional spiral, she could easily become that person who lives on the streets. The bum releases his counterpoint, her ultimate hope for what she could be. It was the old people who inspired her to go to Hollywood in the first place, and now the loss of her dream haunts her to the point of death. This is a critical difference from Wild at Heart, in which Sailor has a momentary lapse in belief, but soon returns to the right path and goes after Lula. Diane has transgressed a line and lost her optimism, now that hope for a better world is a mocking, frightening thing.
Unlike the similarly challenging Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. was successful, and generally hailed as a return to form for Lynch. I would argue that is because the film foregrounds the same narrative and visual pleasures present in Blue Velvet. The film’s colors pop in the same way, much easier to watch than the darker pallets of the two previous films. Also, the film’s structure creates an easier to understand dichotomy between ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ than Lost Highway. There, identities shift in a fluid way, without easy explanation. MD, while constantly playing with subjectivity, is easier to divide into ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ segments. So, the structure turns the viewer into a detective, seeking the answer to the mystery. This viewing strategy is emphasized by the ten clues Lynch included in the DVD to guide viewers through the film.
The very idea of giving clues seems to go against Lynch’s primary motive, which is to create a cinema that is as reliant as the viewer’s interpretation as what is actually in the film, to give meaning. In talking about Lost Highway, he said that he had a specific idea of what happened, but he would never say what it is because that would deprive the audience of the fun of guessing. The distributor likely saw the clues as a way to assuage viewers who were confused by the narrative ambiguity. Of course, the clues are so vague, they will only give the viewer a context for exploring the film, not provide the final answer.
With the follow-up to Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, Lynch uses the same basic structure and motifs as MD, but spins them into an even more abstract narrative. Rather than shifting between two clearly delineated identities, Laura Dern’s character moves through a variety of realities, constantly shifting character and purpose. The basic plot is the same, showing the debilitating effects of L.A. on an actress, frequently equating acting with prostitution. The film’s finale takes place on the L.A. streets, with Laura Dern dying next to two homeless drug addicts. The camera then pulls back to reveal that this incredibly emotional scene was in fact a part of the film we saw Laura Dern involved with much earlier in the film. Initially, the scene in which Niki and Billy have sex, in heavy blue light, provides the moment of dimensional transition, but as the film proceeds, identities and worlds shift without clear delineation. However, the film still has the same themes at its core. The film ends with two women returning to their families, happy to be back at home after the lengthy surreal quest that occupied the narrative.
In the same way that Wild at Heart expanded on the 50s inspired thematic paradigm established by Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. uses the tropes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway to cement a new paradigm for Lynch’s films. He has moved beyond stories of corruption in small towns, to instead show the way that Los Angeles can corrupt innocent people, the way that the city of dreams becomes a city of nightmares. This is a logical evolution because Lynch himself has moved beyond small town life. He is part of the L.A. world he chronicles in Mulholland Dr., and now he is spinning the same fantasies he created about the place he grew up in the place he lives now. As always, he is interested in looking beneath the surface and playing out intense psychodrama in situations that are normally just accepted at face value. Where the camera once dove beneath the green lawns of a beautiful town to find the scurrying bugs underneath, he now looks past personal facades to explore the darkness present in individuals.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
I'm digging back into the vault for this one, an essay I wrote for a class I took on independent film. As I often did during my time in high school and college, I used the assignment as an excuse to write about something I was interested in, in this case, David Lynch.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
One of my most controversial posts to date was my negative review of Batman Begins, a film that was universally beloved by seemingly everyone but me and the couple of people I went to see it with. It was like I had seen a bad copy of the movie, since there was such a disconnect between my perception of the film and the way most people saw it.
But, as the hype mounted for its sequel, The Dark Knight, I too got swept up, and after getting out of work last night, I wandered up to Union Square to try to see the film. As I approached the theater, I saw a massive line of people stretching round the block, and I thought, I’m not seeing this movie tonight. I hadn’t seen lines like this in a long time, and the film does seem to be on its way to the biggest opening of all time. So, I headed back this afternoon to see the film at a 12:30 showing that was sold out by the time the film began. This thing is huge, and thankfully, I can say that I really enjoyed the film. Some of the flaws from Begins carry over, but most of the bad stuff from Begins is gone, and we’ve got the addition of one really interesting new character, and one all time classic character.
This movie, much like the original Tim Burton Batman film, is made by the Joker. Ledger is absolutely magnetic on screen, as a kind of possessed entity, incarnation of chaos itself. He doesn’t have an agenda or master plan, he’s only there to sow trouble, and show people how easily it can all fall apart. Batman shows that one man can change the world for the better, the Joker shows how one man can destroy it. And, like any force of chaos, it’s fun to watch him tear things down.
Unlike some other people, I don’t think Ledger’s Joker is a definitive take on the character, because the very nature of the character precludes a definitive take. I think he’s perfect for this film, in the same way that Nicholson was perfect for Burton’s Batman film. I still think the Nicholson performance is brilliant, but it would not have worked here. Both Burton Batman films go for an operatic craziness, which is very much about comic booky over the top images that don’t hew to real world logic. This film places Batman in more of a thriller milieu, a Michael Mann kind of world, and the Joker is believable as a person in this ‘real’ world.
As is Harvey Dent as an all purpose hope vessel who recalls John F. Kennedy, and more recently, Barack Obama. He’s the shining light, fighting corruption in a city where that act was once thought hopeless. The beginning of the movie seems designed to set up a world where Batman’s way is working, crime is down and things are getting better. But, that world can’t stay.
Harvey’s arc worked really well for me in the first half of the movie, before he became Two Face. Again, the film chooses to work in a realistic milieu, and his battle against political corruption works in that world. In fact, I’d argue his fight against the Joker works so well, Batman is rendered essentially superfluous in his own movie. If I had to choose one expendable character in the film, it would be Batman, who doesn’t really work in the film until the second half. The action sequence where he steals the guy from Hong Kong felt unnecessary, only there to give the film’s first act a boost.
The plotting surrounding the money and gang warfare is generally besides the point, so those scenes succeed and fall on their own merits. The ones with The Joker work as demonstration of just how crazy he is. The pencil moment is an instant classic, as is the scene where he burns money. That’s an essential one because it positions the character as an agent of chaos rather than a traditional criminal. He is Loki, the essential reflection of Batman.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really do much with the Batman character. An essential part of the Batman/Joker relationship is the idea that Batman loves doing his job as much as the Joker loves doing his. Here, The Joker feels that connection, he is completed by Batman, but you get the sense that Bruce has no real desire to be Batman, that it’s a duty rather than something he enjoys. That’s a valid take on the character, and I think it’s integral to the story they’re telling in this film. Batman is taken less as a person than as a symbol for the city to pour its hopes and dreams on. The white knight/dark knight dichotomy is executed really well on a thematic level, but it also means that the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is something of a cipher, who seems to change to suit the needs of the narrative.
Now, one could argue that the film is about The Joker, the agent of chaos, entering an ordered society and disrupting it. So, it would make sense that The Joker would have all the agency in the film, and everyone else would exist in reaction to him. But, because The Joker is the one doing everything, he is going to be the most interesting one, and when he’s not on screen, the film is nowhere near as strong as it is when he is there.
Personally, I would have liked to see some more of the spirit of Frank Miller’s ‘Goddamn Batman’ turn up in this film, and have Bruce simultaneously hating The Joker and sort of getting off on the fact that he’s got a worthy foe. I think that’s where the film gets caught between its commitment to realism and making a character like Batman work. Batman is on the more realistic end of superheroes, but he’s still a guy who dresses up like a bat and fights crime. When you see him in the shadows, the characters work, but when it’s a dialogue scene with two regular people and Batman, it feels kind of weird. Anyway, the realism means that we can’t really have a Bruce who enjoys fighting The Joker because this version of Batman is totally committed to cleaning up the city. He’s about the end goal, creating a sustainable order for the city, not the process. There’s some playing with the idea that he is addicted to being Batman, but I feel like the writing and Bale’s performance doesn’t let me really understand what the character is feeling. There’s so few moments of joy for him, for Rachel’s point about him not giving up Batman to work, we have to feel like he loves being Batman, and though they tried to convey that point, it just didn’t work.
The publicity for the film has cited Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns as an inspiration, but, apart from the title, I really don’t see many similarities between the works. Miller’s Batman is a revolutionary figure, he would have no time for an establishment politician, that’s what Superman would do, Batman is all about disrupting existing societal order and trying to build something new. Never is this more clear than in the call to revolution at the end of Dark Knight Strikes Again, as Batman strikes at heart of the military-industrial complex and tears it down in a glorious bit of social revolution. In that incarnation of the character, Batman is the agent of chaos, disrupting a corrupt social order. The films always cast Batman as a guy who’s trying to hold the city together, he’s order and the villains are chaos, which means the villains are always more interesting. Dark Knight Batman or Goddamn Batman are more interesting because they are fighting against existing social order and trying to inspire people to do something new. But, it’s also notable that in those Batman stories, Batman isn’t fighting a specific villain, he’s fighting a bigger societal ill. This is a film about The Joker invading Gotham City and causing chaos, you can’t have Batman trying to create more chaos to stop him.
I had a few other issues with the film. One of the major ones was the nonsensical plot development with Gordon supposedly dying, then just coming back from the dead for no apparent reason. Why didn’t they let his wife in on the plan? But, more importantly, why do this narrative development at all. I thought it was a bold move to have Gordon die, then all of a sudden he’s back and that inexplicable happening meant that when Rachel actually died later in the movie, I wasn’t sad, I was thinking, “so is she really dead? I guess so, but who can say for sure?” Once you decide that dead doesn’t mean dead, once you screw around with the audience’s trust, you can’t go back. It doesn’t kill the film, but it’s a really stupid choice that exists for no real reason.
Another issue is more general, and that’s some finale problems. I think the film really peaks with The Joker/Police/Batman chase on the freeway. It’s a fantastic action sequence, The Joker teetering on the edge of that truck, the Ewok trick on that helicopter, all leading to the amazing moment where the truck flips on itself. The Joker stumbles out and we’re finally going to get our big Joker/Batman confrontation, alone on this huge city street. That’s great stuff, and the action sequences at the end don’t really top it.
For one, I have some issues with the Two Face character. I think the makeup looked a bit unbelievable. It was cool, but in that universe, it just didn’t work. And, I think the whole leaving it to chance thing, while integral to the archetype of the character, didn’t really work here. It was pushing it, but I could see Harvey deciding to take things into his own hands after what happened to him, but I find it hard to believe he’d have so much ‘fun’ doing it. I guess the point is he was infected by The Joker, but I think it would have been more thematically effective to cast him as a deformed version of Batman, who isn’t going to work within the system anymore, he’s going to kill rather than just capture. Basically, taking the idea that the system is broken and he doesn’t want to work within it anymore.
I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the film featured a surprising number of scenes that seemed quoted directly from the previous 90s Batman films. The whole choose the girl/sidekick conflict came right from Batman Forever, the ending battle with The Joker hanging upside down from a huge building and Batman holding him up, and the attack on the Mayor while he’s giving a press conference about keeping the city safe were exact pulls. And, the whole "You're a freak, like me" exchange is exactly what The Penguin says to Batman in Returns, only there the comment is actually integrated into the psychological makeup of the character, here it's thrown out there to tell us something that's not really evident in the film itself.
The film’s final act runs into some problems. The whole sonar goggles thing seemed basically pointless, and I think they lost sight of the core character conflict for too long. The lengthy sequence with the two boats was thematically relevant, but hard to engage with emotionally because we don’t care about these people. I suppose it was meant to be the real defeat of the Joker when nobody would pull the trigger, a demonstration that the city still had order, but it only worked thematically, not emotionally.
But, the return to order is rarely as interesting as throwing everything into chaos. The best shot in the film was The Joker hanging out of a police car, wind in his hair, an image that summed up everything that was going at that moment in the film. Even the Joker in nurse outfit, which could have just been goofy, felt strangely menacing.
But, the film’s final scene was kind of a letdown. With The Joker off the board, we get the hostage situation with plot devices 1, 2 and 3, aka the Gordon family. They are ciphers, used as a shortcut so the film won’t have to build real, emotionally credible characters to threaten. And, it bothered me that they used Gordon’s son as the central kid, why not throw the fans a little nod and have Barbara Gordon, his daughter, be the one whose faith in Batman is vindicated, setting up her eventual transformation to Batgirl in the future.
It would have also given us another female presence in the film. Rachel is also pretty much a cipher, it’s totally a man’s world here in Gotham. Part of what I love so much about Batman Returns is the way that it’s a meditation on female subjugation in contemporary society. She’s the most explicitly feminist superhero in cinema to date, and when you look at a film like this, it’s clear that women don’t typically have a place in the genre world. It’s his interactions with Selina that make Bruce a more compelling character in that film, and integrate the personal life and the professional life in a way that this film doesn’t.
I think there’s too many issues with the film to call it an unqualified masterpiece, but I still loved it. I think Ledger was brilliant, absolutely captivating whenever he was on screen. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was also great, pre Two Face, and the pounding, moody score did a great job of building atmosphere. I still don’t think much of Bale’s Batman, but the film on the whole was excellent.