The Dark Knight, Denby and Dargis

"At times," David Denby writes in The New Yorker, "[The Dark Knight] sounds like two excited mattresses making love in an echo chamber". Faint praise indeed. He continues, "In brief, Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry, fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton's original conception for "Batman", completing the job of coarsening the material into hyperviolent summer action spectacle." Denby goes on to note, as so many others have done, Heath Ledger's performance, but he cannot call the movie "an outstanding piece of craftsmanship". He ends his review by noting that though the movie "has been made in a time of terror... it's not fighting terror; it's embracing and unleashing it - while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next installment of the corporate franchise.

Denby's review is curious, not least for its reluctance to laud a movie that has been widely acknowledged as one of the summer's critical and financial successes. Manohla Dargis' New York Times review called the movie "pleasurably moody," and went on to write of the movie's closing half-hour: "This big-bang finish - which includes a topsy-turvy image that poignantly suggests the world has been turned on its axis for good - is sloppy, at times visually incoherent, yet touching. Mr. Nolan, you learn, likes to linger in the dark, but he doesn't want to live there." She closes her review by noting that the movie's grim intensity takes it away from the playful gothic of Tim Burton's 1989 film (for the NYT review, look here) and towards the original Bob Kane comic and Frank Miller's later stories. In some ways, Dargis and Denby echo each other - their sense of the grim vision at work here - but it's interesting to see how widely the two reviews diverge.

My own response to the movie is ambivalent. It was not, to be sure, a perfect movie. But the poetry, fantasy, and comedy that are no longer a part of the movies were never, as Dargis notes, a part of the original comics and graphic novels (or at least, they were not a part of the original comics in quite the same way), and to require Burton's visual imagination of these most recent two films is to miss how closely these most recent two movies hew to Frank Miller's masterfully dark graphic novels in the 1980s. It is also, I think, to miss the return to graphic novels as source material. Witness the continued production of Frank Miller graphic novels. If anything, this return to graphic novels as source material speaks to a renewed appreciation for the genre.

But returning to the motivations behind Denby's curious review. Some clue, I think, might lie in Denby's own idiosyncratic approach to reviewing. A couple of years back, I found a copy of James Agee's selected criticism and commentary from his time as a movie critic during the 1940s. David Denby's introduction to the volume is brief, but I think it's illuminating of both Agee's criticism and Denby's own attitude towards his own work. In some ways, it might also explain Denby's hesitancy about The Dark Knight. To quote at length from Denby's introduction, he writes:

When Agee switched to movies [after writing the text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men], the same issues of authenticity and the observer's moral relation to the subject and to writing about it reappeared. At times he felt something that would be inconceivable in our voyeuristic age: an acute sensitivity, at times discomfort, in relation to the people on the screen, whether actual or fictional. He wanted an honesty and plainness of attitude on the part of the artist; he wanted an audience that was curious, critical, and pure. He had not the slightest doubt that movies represented "the grandest prospect for a major popular art since Shakespeare's time," and he insisted that the special strength of that art was photography, which combined with sound, was capable of capturing "the paralyzing electric energy of the present tense." He was not naive: it wasn't "realism" as an aesthetic mode that he desired so much as a respect for reality, and he sensed that respect could be attained in fiction and in fable as much as in documentary.
Denby goes on to note Agee's revolt against the overcomposed studio effort, and his general distaste for the complacency of the major studios at the time. Looking back on Denby's own review, it seems clear that the grounds for his disapproval are the corporate nature of this production. It is something which Dargis notes as well in her review, and I suppose it is to be expected that a movie with a budget of upwards of 100 million dollars would not risk a great deal for the sake of art. Beyond that, though, Denby's review seems to suggest a kind of sadness at what this movie might have been.

And what it might have been hinges on Heath Ledger's Joker. Ledger's voice surprised me when I first heard it on screen: I had half-expected Jack Nicholson's high-pitched sneer, and Ledger's deeper and far more supple voice was disorienting. This was not the villain I had expected to hear. Yet thinking about this issue of voice, it makes sense that Ledger's voice was so supple. In the original Batman, Nicholson's face had been fixed in a perpetual smile, something cartoon-like, almost melted into place. Ledger's face, like his voice, had nothing of that fixed quality. Nicholson's Joker had a story to his face, a set of motivations. Ledger's Joker, in contrast, had stories that fit the moment: a violent father, a wife who didn't love him anymore. This Joker is a Joker without rules.

In the end, though, this is a movie with rules, whether they be the moral rules the movie ultimately endorses or the rules of the corporate sequel (though without Ledger's villain, one has to wonder where they go from here). Denby's review suggested, quite rightly, that the movie would have profited from not being so bound up in those constraints, but it's interesting that Denby does not speculate on why this movie might or might not be important now.

Dargis cautions against watching The Dark Knight too closely against the backdrop of 9/11, though one wrenching image of firemen silhouetted by flames almost demands it. Against the backdrop of terror - both within the movie and without - I wonder precisely how this movie manages to capture the paralyzing energy of the present tense. Its appeal is not simply in its set-piece fight scenes nor in its new flashy gadgets. Caught as we are between economic gloom and a Presidential election, what does it is say if this movie - and its incredible commercial success - is a referendum on our present tense? Is it, as one might say, an argument for rendition and secret prisons, insofar as terrifying times demand terrifying heroes? Is the Joker (almost as rich a villain as Milton's Satan) representative of who we might be?

A last, haunting note: What does it mean to fall for a film, in Dargis' words, that "makes room for a shot of the Joker leaning out of the window of a stolen police car and laughing into the wind, the city's colored lights gleaming behind like jewels"? That image, more than any other from the movie, has stayed with me. The score and sound effects - Denby's mattresses making love - had been silenced, and it was simply Ledger's Joker on screen, not a care in the world, nor a care for it.


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