by Niles Schwartz
This commentary on The Dark Knight Rises is not a review, but an attempt to tie in the film’s images and themes with how we have experienced tragedy in the last week; there are a few spoilers, so tread carefully if you haven’t yet seen the picture. A more detailed analysis of the film will follow on The Niles Files, where you can read a long piece on Christopher Nolan’s full body of work (up to Inception) here, and a piece focused on The Dark Knight and its Information Age themes here. Niles will be discussing the film this Thursday, July 26th at 11 pm on the Nite Show with Mischke on WCCO 830 AM and steaming live at WCCO online. You can hear Niles’ audio montages of The Dark Knight trilogy here, and a separate Christopher Nolan montage here.
Those who saw The Dark Knight Rises at exclusive preview screenings and the Thursday midnight premiere were witness to something that no longer exists. By Friday morning, the horrifying event in Aurora, Colorado of a lone, masked gunman opening fire on innocent moviegoers immediately changed the context of Christopher Nolan’s final installment in the revamped Dark Knight trilogy. The hype and expectation typically surrounding a weekend release – this perhaps the most anticipated summer blockbuster since its 2008 predecessor – evaporated. The public will likely process The Dark Knight Rises differently from what its architects originally designed. It is already an exceedingly grim – at times apocalyptic – spectacle, a rare mainstream movie event and hybrid genre picture that openly bursts with its director’s pessimism concerning institutions and human nature. This worldview, along with several images, eerily reflects what happened Thursday night, making for a film that cannot easily be dismissed as frivolous – or even rich and fulfilling – escapism.
The terroristic episode was immediately taken up by several film bloggers and columnists (in addition to socio-political commentators) before the events had any chance to deeply sink in, and I don’t mean to further exploit it. But I fear that any discussion of The Dark Knight Rises – and it is a film that wants to engage its audience in discussion – is doomed to be tied to James Holmes and his dozens of victims. It has also cast a shadow on the movies, tainting the sanctuary of images and dreams, where people collectively dream in the dark, privy to fear, anger, and pity, but nevertheless safe in their bodies, free to rise and roam when the lights wake them up. The movie I first saw, more than 24 hours before the shooting, was different from the one I saw two days later. The things that were intellectually abstract on Wednesday were disturbingly visceral on Saturday, the mechanical determinism and Will-to-Power of the film’s sociopathic masked villain more chilling. To either rave or dismiss the movie is insufficient. It feels incongruous listening to comic book purists complain about things that didn’t work, fan-boys bursting with reverence, or film snobs pointing out breaks in continuity and logical gaps.
Currently with The Dark Knight Rises, I almost feel like I’m dealing with something as delicate as Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), one of the first films based on 9/11. Of course there are differences, but I’m getting at the uncomfortable synchronization of urgently real-world experience with descents into dramatic entertainment and art, however realistic or fantastical. Commentators debated whether Greengrass’ picture was made “too soon.” Some alleged that his speculative verite cinema capitalized on tragedy. A strong legion of others lambasted it because they believed 9/11 was a conspiracy, and Greengrass thus a Bilderberg/Bush Administration puppet. It was risky to then engage abstractly with its content and themes, and that may be the case – for a while anyway – with the latest Batman endeavor.
But even in my initial Dark Knight Rises notes taken during that first screening, I marked how Nolan immediately injected a sense of imminent “Real World Terror” into his opus. I jotted down “Greengrass” and “United 93” in association with the hijacking prologue, where the “masked mercenary” Bane (Tom Hardy) takes charge of a CIA plane to hatch conspiracy and revolution, his followers devoted with a blind fanaticism akin to Greengrass’ terrorists. In both scenarios, the insurgents believe their assaults are righteous actions taken against decadent modernity. And now, as with other headline abominations such as Jared Loughner, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and Columbine, the chilling and twisted Nietzschean Will-To-Power waged against an indifferent and innocent collective is what one can, on a superficial glance, assign to James Holmes in reality, and to Bane in fiction. Both terrorists have become kin in how they command our attention on screens, an irony integral to The Dark Knight Rises, where news television becomes its own central character.
The Nolan Batman films are about men who have devoted themselves to symbolism, or an alternative and transcendent persona, to escape the prison of reality, the demons of their consciousness. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) believes his theatrical deception as the crime-fighter “Batman” will make him invincible, “more than just a man.” Bane similarly notes how no one cared who he was “before I put on the mask,” though he adds, “It doesn’t matter who we are,” in reference to the hijackers. “What matters is our plan.” The Identity assimilates with the Ideal, and so the masked comic book characters of movies – as designed by Christopher Nolan anyway – are analogous to demonic true-life “freaks,” seeking a new morality and path, a place elevated and removed from the banal, a Kierkegaardian “suspension of the ethical.” One could relate this to Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche’s Over-Man, Yukio Mishima’s failed attempt to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 (ending with his ritual suicide), and an ugly assortment of true-life killers. There’s a recurrence here of outcasts who wear masks (Mishima often wrote about masks), covering up their shame while becoming new mythopoetic beings. Nolan’s Batman is a Faustian hero, damning himself by achieving immortality through the magic of another identity; we should notice how the opera young Bruce Wayne watches shortly before his parents are gunned down, and fateful path set on its trajectory, is Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne/Batman longs to be off the grid entirely. As a recluse simply marking time, he longs to be free from the two personas he has mastered in social performance, the playboy millionaire and vigilante hero. Like Gotham City, history has been unkind to him, and he is burdened by loss: his parents were killed when he was 12, and his lifetime love, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, Maggie Gyllanhall in The Dark Knight), was incinerated in an explosion hatched by nihilism’s emissary, the Joker (Heath Ledger). Identity is a prison, as spatial and temporal placement is mapped, as by the sonar devices in the second film, or the digitized records in the third. There is no exit. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a lustrous wildcard of alternating personae, comments on the cycle of History Rendered as Data: “There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Everything we do is collated and quantified.” The “Holy Grail” for a cat burglar like Selina is a computer program dubbed the Clean Slate, which has the power to erase one’s existence: nothingness becomes freedom, a new kind of mask and transcendence.
The alternative disappearance – and mask – is the contaminant of an ideology or passion, which makes me think of the existential murderers that haunt us in real life, people who have crossed a threshold into Dionysian madness and ecstasy, blotting out reason and compassion. Life is pain and loneliness, and an ideological system or plan becomes the mechanism to rise above one’s humanness. A recently-released video shows James Holmes, a gangly and awkward high school student with plans of studying neuroscience, mentioning an ambition to explore our illusions so as to see how people can transform the past in their subjective experience of the world. How can we not connect the neuro-philosophy the power of subjectivity to his staged spectacle of murder, deliberately set before a movie screen projecting those illusions as art?
That’s the danger of Nietzsche’s (or, for that matter, Emerson’s) philosophy of self-aggrandizement, in both individuals (like Holmes) or societies (Nazi Germany). I’m not sure if Holmes ever read the 19th century German philosopher, but one can detect the same sickness in him seen in other would-be “Over-Men,” whose misappropriation of Nietzsche and his dangerous prescription of living dangerously led to acts of terror. That lure is central to Nolan’s trilogy, which begins with the troubled Bruce Wayne going East, into the mountains, and finding Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, an elite group of “Over-Men” who have conquered their fears, mastering their minds and bodies. As the Nietzschean man “becomes a destiny,” Ra’s al Ghul’s prescription makes one more than a man: “Legend, Mr Wayne.” Liam Neeson’s appearance as Wayne’s mentor (and the first of his several surrogate fathers) recalls Nietzsche’s, who also dwelled in the mountains. And though his words are (perhaps necessarily) a facile adaptation of the philosopher’s, the connection between the two figures, fictional character Ra’s al Ghul and world-altering man of ideas Friedrich Nietzsche, is firmly established when the mentor insists that the element standing opposed to “Fear” is “Will.” Ra’s al Ghul works to help Bruce accept “the truth,” which is an unpleasant truth. Finally, the last challenge for Bruce Wayne is to conquer his pity and compassion, which is also the final hurdle for Nietzsche’s Over-Man. This separates the Master from the Slave, and in the wrong hands becomes murder. But even though history is a nightmare for Bruce Wayne (the trilogy begins with a traumatic childhood memory from which Bruce suddenly awakes), his sense of loss and pain is something he projects onto other people, driving him to aid the helpless. The loss and pain of Ra’s al Ghul, involving a beloved wife who was taken from him, is overcome by the eradication of feeling, wishing that the person one loved had never even existed. His Will to Power, separating him from the rabble of humanity, is his escape and consolation.
The principle villain of The Dark Knight Rises, Bane, is a metaphor for this ideological escape from human suffering. He has endured callous punishment, inflicted upon him as an orphan raised in prison. The mechanical apparatus over his mouth feeds a healing gas into his body, his reformation making him immune to lingering scars, while also presumably giving him superhuman power: he is inhaling existential steroids, the building blocks to a cyborg creature who is pure Will, commanding and controlling space with his reconfigured bodily strength. He acts on the unbending directives of his plan to launch a New Era, completing the ambition of Ra’s al Ghul.
Bane’s appearance also hearkens to several legendary movie villains: the xenomorph of Alien, Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, and Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. But Nolan, admirer of Star Wars, also makes him an allusion to Darth Vader (the bald, scarred head; the reverb of a transformed voice; the scene where he beats Batman nearly to death is certainly inspired by the initial encounter between Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back). Darth Vader is the former Jedi who, as George Lucas’ hero Joseph Campbell interpreted it thus, aligned himself with “the machine,” his fall from grace analog to an individual’s devotion to the “System.” The Machine, as technological apparatus or governmental structure, is an escape, a blinding salvation that keeps its followers shrouded in the dark, where Lies are Truth for notions of a “greater good,” and Ends justify Means – of both systematic dishonesty (like the myth of Harvey Dent, perpetuated by Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon to enact severe crime reforms), or Bane’s purges of terror.
But the fanatical devotion of Bane and his followers, in addition to the existential bad-faith of Gordon and Bruce Wayne, demonstrates how the machine is a shackle. The casting of Aiden Gillen as a CIA agent who becomes one of Bane’s hijacking victims is not random. As Nolan admitted how the casting of William Finchter in The Dark Knight (as one of the Joker’s first victims) was one of that film’s many tips-of-the-hat to Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat (the key structural model to the film), Gillen’s presence alludes to his role as Mayor Carcetti in David Simon’s television landmark The Wire, another epic about a city (Baltimore) that thoroughly examines the cybernetics of an increasingly mechanical system perpetuating its own corruption. Trying to explain his lies to the idealistic cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Gordon can only say that “the structures are shackles,” the theme of The Wire, and one of the themes of Nolan’s trilogy.
It is then appropriate that Bane is essentially just one more pawn in a larger scheme of restoring “balance” to a corrupt world, another cogwheel in a larger apparatus. But this “machine,” the kangaroo court scenes so reveal (presided over by Cillian Murphy’s lunatic Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, from the first two films), has no “end-game.” Like with the French and Soviet Revolutions, it begins to eat its own tail, the new world order instituting a system more malignant than its predecessor, something alluded to as Nolan’s riot sequences evoke Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1927), a tribute to a revolution that the great Soviet filmmaker would come to have grave doubts about in later years, his unfinished Ivan the Terrible being both an homage to and secret criticism of the despotic Stalin. As with the Kubrickian themes of technology in The Dark Knight Rises (the central pulp plot element has to do with a world-saving energy generator that is also a nuclear bomb), salvation/creation and damnation/destruction co-exist too closely for comfort. Light is always giving birth to darkness here, with continuity breaks between day and night, and power outages.
The symbols of dueling – and co-existing – good and evil collide on the grand canvas of televisual saturation set against covert grass-roots obliqueness (the chalk-graffiti of Batman symbols scribbled onto walls: the silent revolution). And maybe this is where we return to Aurora’s relationship to as cultural consumers. The massacre was itself a hijacking of the movie, forever altering and misshaping it, deeply cutting a wound that will remain. But the evil iconography of the shooter, his face and colored hair increasingly ubiquitous on television and computer screens, grows more powerful, and viewers become addicted to the flickering sensate of non-stop media covering madness.
Bane’s power comes less from his physical strength than it does from his formidable staging of a revolution for the camera-eye, and his ability to make microphones a weapon mirrors Charles Chaplin’s Great Dictator, in which the dictator inflicted mechanical audio on citizens, and to whom microphones bended at will, as if Tyranny and Media Technology were one and the same. Some audiences have complained about Bane’s lack of clarity (“What did he say?”), but I can guarantee that Nolan, a formal puzzle-master and disciple of Kubrick and Mann (themselves inspired by the Soviet formalists), has intended this, much as he intends the day to instantly become night when his Caped Crusader finally makes an appearance 45 minutes into the narrative: like his dream invaders in Inception, the filmmaker transforms reality at his will, the point being that the artist is himself a kind of imagistic despot. The opposite side of that manipulation is regurgitating and repetitive media. The maze of technology and informatics destroys clarity in favor of the ambient fuzz, as all human interaction is based on performances and duplicity; when Bruce Wayne finally gives in and allows himself to be close to another person, in this case the wealthy and beautiful Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), it’s significant that the power at his castle shuts off. Bane, meanwhile, controls the camera angles, and we should notice how selective his “cutting” is: we don’t see “the people,” so often addressed, charging the streets – at least not until after his Agit-Prop has been properly fermented. But the charge of cinematic montage manipulates us. We’re trapped in the gravitational pull and subliminal messages of sound and vision. Elsewhere in the picture, several characters experience Batman’s return after an eight-year hiatus as we do: on a screen, albeit on a television with the subheading, “The Return of Batman?”
The screen is our emissary of Hope and our Torture, spellbinding either way. And just as news from Aurora makes for a 24-hour spectacle feeding into an unmerciful voyeuristic sadism that pangs as much as it might thrill, numbing us to the heart-wrenching reality of an imminent situation involving real people rather than stirring our compassion, Bane’s chief instrument of torture on Bruce Wayne is to set him in a dark prison, where a gigantic screen relays images of hanging bodies, heartbreak, and explosions. His body broken, Bruce Wayne is trapped in front of a Clockwork Orange horror show that has now, with this movie, become more tragically resonant with the theme of “the spectacle of fearsome acts,” to quote Bane’s cinematic predecessor, Bill the Butcher.
As the box office numbers have taken a backseat to the never-ending news cycle, we ask ourselves what the coverage of Colorado is about. Human empathy? Ratings? A hidden lust for blood, lured by the atrocity exhibition? The Dark Knight Rises is about illusions being shattered, “the truth having its day,” as the loyal and loving butler Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it. Some, like John Blake, lose faith in the “shackling structures” that had hitherto employed them. But both Blake and the imprisoned Bruce Wayne turn away from the screen and decisively choose action, taking leaps of faith to cross an impassable bridge and escape an unbeatable prison.
Nolan’s last film, Inception, had the theme of “ideas” being the most resilient parasites, and in other Nolan pictures we see the detriments of one’s commitment to an obsession (the theatrical magicians in The Prestige) and systems designed to give life meaning (Memento) and justice (Insomnia). The difference, and unexpected optimism glimmering through his Batman Trilogy’s otherwise prevalent nihilism, is how Bruce Wayne’s quest for transcendence through symbolism must include a sympathetic attachment to other human beings, respecting their space in urbanity’s tumultuous chaos. I understand many viewers will not see The Dark Knight Rises because of the Aurora incident. But the shielding and mournful glow of whatever it is Bruce Wayne has grown into, assimilating with his fears and altruistically devoting himself to a populace perhaps unworthy of his care, is a genuine inspiration, a hope through a technological postmodern wasteland riddled with nonsensical noise. Even if it is an inchoate hope, with every fall, Nolan’s Dark Knight persists, as we must, ascending, falling, and rising again.