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The Artistic Nightmares of Dark Knight Rises

by Brendan S. Carroll on August 2, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Courtesy of Warner Brothers)

Hyperallergic writers and siblings Brendan and Marisa Carroll recently went to see The Dark Knight Rises, the final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The gist of the last installment: After eight years of self-imposed seclusion, Bruce Wayne/Batman returns to the fray to save Gotham City from the “reckoning” imposed by a fearsome terrorist named Bane, who has the entire city under siege as a bomb ticks away. Wayne must also contend with a slinky cat burglar named Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), who is on the hunt for a device that will virtually erase her criminal past — and who will do anything to get it.

Below is the Carrolls’ spoiler-ish take on the film.

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Brendan: So a few weeks ago, we decided to see the movie on opening day. By the time we met at the theater, the story had broken about the horrific shooting spree in Aurora. Was the news on your mind the entire time we watched the movie?

Marisa: I’d heard the reports on the radio that morning, and there was an item about the city stationing police officers at movie theaters to prevent any copycat shooters. When I arrived at the theater, there were two cops standing outside, and a news crew reporting outside a van from across the street. I’ll admit, while we were watching the coming attractions, I felt some tremors of anxiety, but about an hour into the film, I was absorbed by the story being told on-screen.

The one time I was jolted back to reality occurred when an usher surveyed the aisle to my right with a flashlight. I wondered what he was looking for, and my mind jumped to frightening scenarios, to the chaos those poor people in the Aurora theater must have faced.

Brendan: Yes, throughout the film, I kept returning to the Colorado shooting: 12 dead, 58 people injured. What the fuck?

I kept thinking about the writer Don DeLillo. In his book Mao II, he talks about how terrorists have figured out a way to “dominate the endless stream of images” of the constant news cycle and wrest control of the story. A massacre at the midnight screening on the opening day of a summer movie? It seemed like the stuff of fiction. It was surreal.

In particular, I thought of this passage from the book, which was very prescient on DeLillo’s part. He writes:

“There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence … Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.” [Don DeLillo, Mao II, Viking Edition, page 41]

Marisa: It’s probably delusional of me, but the type of crime committed in Aurora that night — a lone gunman shooting up a movie theater — is not what I worry about living in New York. Even with memories of mass shooters Colin Ferguson and Bernie Goetz, in my mind that kind of violence happens in other places, more remote areas. Politically motivated terror, I’m more concerned about.

Brendan: The violence depicted within the movie speaks to those worries, especially in light of the story unfolding in a Gotham City that included sites in New York. For instance, there is a hostage situation that takes place in the Stock Exchange. During that scene, I thought, Why am I sitting in this theater—forking over almost three hours of my life and $13.50 — to watch indiscriminate killing happen in the city where I live? And yet, I was disappointed by the lack of blood and guts. So many extras shot on film, but so little blood.

Marisa: As you know, blood and guts are hard for me to take, unless they are hyperstylized to the point of seeming totally unreal. I’m thinking of a movie like Sin City, which is so gruesome and yet so visually gorgeous. There are at least three superhero movies set in New York this summer. I haven’t seen the Spider-Man reboot, but I did watch The Avengers. Midtown gets pummeled in that movie, reduced to rubble, but the destruction did not get under my skin in the same way that The Dark Knight Rises did. Despite how outlandish its violence is, there are certain elements that seemed dreadfully realistic — for example, the bridges to and from Manhattan being destroyed. Rather than haphazard destruction, we’re seeing premeditated, targeted devastation — spots that terrorists would choose in order to wreak havoc, I’d assume.

Still of “The Dark Knight Rises” (screen grab)

Brendan: Great point. New York is forever being destroyed on film. The scenes of a smoldering lower Manhattan in DKR brought to mind Joel Meyerowitz’s photos of Ground Zero in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. I wonder if Nolan was conscious of the parallels between his film and Meyerowitz’s series. There was a certain awesome beauty to those scenes, though — and the one where the football stadium implodes as a player scores a touchdown.

I felt very conflicted as I was watching them. The bridge blowups triggered me to recall 9/11, when I stood at the intersection of Warren and Chambers and watched the Towers burn, and later, when I was standing on the corner of Houston Street as the First Tower disintegrated. Your mind can’t wrap itself around the bigness, the terribleness of it — the ash, the smoke, the debris — and you’re left wondering how something so awful could be so eerily spectacular.

Marisa: The stunning opening sequence of this film — where the villain Bane and his band of terrorists commandeer a plane — also called back to 9/11. Is Nolan using these references as a way to “borrow” the shock and fear that people experienced during those events just to make his movie more unsettling? Or is he offering his viewers an opportunity to examine those feelings and cope with them? If the former is true, that strikes me as a very cynical — or perhaps unethical? — strategy.

Brendan: That’s interesting. Can you elaborate on this last point?

Marisa: Well, it’s hard for me to articulate, I guess. We both moved to Brooklyn a few weeks before 9/11 . . . so I suppose I tend to be very sensitive or suspicious when associations to that day are used as material for mass entertainment. But tragic true events aren’t untouchable — obviously one of the powers of art is to tackle them, comment on them, transform them.

Brendan: Nolan does a great deal of borrowing in this film, not just from current events like Occupy Wall Street, but also from other films, like The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 and Escape from New York, to name a couple. The clash between the Gotham City cops and Bane’s mercenaries recalled the grand street-warfare sequences in Gangs of New York.

Still of “The Dark Knight Rises” (screen grab)

Still of “Gangs of New York” (screen grab)

Marisa: I thought of Gangs of New York too. When Bane’s minions loot the mansions on Park Avenue, as part of his reckoning for the rich, I was reminded of the Draft Riot scenes in Scorsese’s 2002 movie. The politics of DKR seem muddled to me, so I’m unclear if these references were meant to draw meaningful parallels between two historical protests (the Draft Riots and Occupy Wall Street), or if they were sheerly a cinematic homage to a moviemaker whom Nolan admires.

Brendan: Yeah, there were so many references to other films, after a while, I wondered if DKR was intended as some type of meta-film meditation on apocalyptic movies. It seems more like a pastiche, though. I was confused too, by the references to Occupy Wall Street. Who were the people who stormed the mansions? Were they criminals whom Bane releases from Gotham City jail? Were they the 99 percenters? If they were the 99 percent, were we supposed to root against them and in favor of the police who take back the sieged city at the end?

Marisa: I wasn’t sure which side we as the audience were supposed to be on. Later in the film, Nolan uses a Bat Signal to echo the “99%” light installation that Mark Read projected onto the Verizon Building back in November—which Read, at the time, referred to as a “bat signal” for the movement. Talk about meta!

So does that mean that ultra-wealthy heir Bruce Wayne is supposed to reflect the true spirit of the 99%? In this film, he doesn’t seem to enjoy his riches, does he? Wayne manor is like a haunted old mansion — the furniture is covered with sheets; piles of books are everywhere but not much else. For a billionaire, he seems to live an ascetic lifestyle these days.

Dark Knight Rises

Sunset Boulevard

Brendan: Bruce Wayne as long-forgotten film star Norma Desmond.

Marisa: Just a little less unhinged! But I liked Bale as a stagnant, mournful, and world-weary Batman.

Brendan: He was like a creaky-kneed ex-boxer in silk pajamas shuffling around his manor before being pulled back into the ring for one last fight.

Marisa: I also enjoyed the earnest, down-to-earth performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the rookie cop and Gary Oldman as the Commissioner. So you hadn’t seen the other two films in the trilogy before this one, right?

Brendan: Right. I came into the trilogy on the back end. As a result, I experienced a certain amount of confusion regarding the plot. I did not understand why people in the audience were laughing at the sight of Cillian Murphy, and each time a character mentioned the League of Shadows, I was at a loss. I had no idea what Commissioner Gordon did to sell out the city in the previous film.

Marisa: Well, I saw the first two films, and I thought there were a lot of holes in the script for this one too! I’m willing to suspend my disbelief enough to accept a billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight crime, but my patience ran out by the end.

There were setups that went nowhere; glaring logistical impossibilities; characters who were introduced, then summarily dropped …

Brendan: … and a superhero who takes the time to create a site-specific installation on the Brooklyn Bridge (the aforementioned Bat Signal) when his beloved Gotham is about to be blown off the map by a ticking time-bomb.

Marisa: The audience went wild for that one! I saw Batman Begins and The Dark Knight when they were in theaters, just the once for each. My memory of the first movie is very murky, but after the second, I wondered how the franchise could come up with a villain who could top The Joker.

In the opening sequence of DKR, we learn a lot about Bane and why we should fear him. He has on that nutty mask, for one thing; but he is also seemingly impervious to nerves or pain, and the apparent leader of a well-organized and well-funded group of fanatics. How did you find him as a villain?

Still of Tom Hardy as Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” (image via Warner Bros)

Francisco Goya “The Caprichos”

Francisco Goya “Yard with Lunatics” (1794) (via Wikipedia)

Brendan: First of all, I did not understand half of what Bane said. Was that intentional? To obscure his voice because his lines were so lame? Also, I was unclear why Bane and his men were willing to kill themselves to destroy Gotham City. Anyway, Bane was bad, but not bad enough. Yes, he murdered and kidnapped innocent civilians, blew up a football stadium, beat up Batman and held an entire city hostage, but still I wanted more. Maybe his devotion to another character softened his terribleness?

I wonder what could have made him more sinister. What could have made him more of villainous? You saw the previous film. What made Heath Ledger’s Joker so dark?

Marisa: The Joker was truly a menacing creation — he was hell-bent on destruction, loyal to no one and had a diabolical sense of humor that kept you on edge. It was also clear that he was 10 steps ahead of everyone else — it made him seem invincible. You should definitely see that film if you have a chance.

Brendan: When I think of a truly sinister villain in contemporary cinema, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men comes to mind. Unlike Bane — but apparently like The Joker — he had no connection to people. As a villain, he was efficient, deliberate, smart and without remorse. I think his lack of remorse is what made him truly scary. He was not motivated by love, he was not motivated by a cause. He was not surrounded by cronies. He killed because he was a killer.

I believe that Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men refers to the coming storm. Selina Kyle mentions a coming storm too. Which reminds me: I was surprised by how much I liked Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.

Marisa: Me too! I was prepared to dislike her, but she was a slinky and savvy wise-ass here. Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns remains my favorite cinematic incarnation of Catwoman, though. She was more damaged, kinky and playful than Hathaway’s version. She worked the whip.

Still of Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. Credit: Warner Bros

John Singer Sargent, “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” (1883–84) (via Met Museum)

Brendan: Yeah, I prefer Pfeiffer’s BDSM-ish Catwoman to Hathaway’s opportunist. But Catwoman’s look in DKR was one of the visual highlights of this movie for me. The backdrop of Gotham City, which we seem to see more often at night, is filled with cool blues, blacks and grays.

Hathaway’s porcelain skin looked so beautiful against those tones. Her skin, it was like John Singer Sargent’s painting “Madame X.” And those red lips of hers — so very red. Each time they appeared on-screen, there was a suggestion of blood.

I also liked how Nolan treats the audience to a lot of aerial shots, giving us a vantage point of the city we rarely see from the ground. The tops of buildings, those skyscrapers, the glittering skyline. Those shots had the beauty of Yvonne Jacquette’s paintings of the Chrystler Building and Lower Manhattan.

Still of NYC from “The Dark Knight Rises” (screen grab)

Still of New York City from “The Dark Knight Rises” (Screen Grab)

Yvonne Jacquette, “Chrysler Building, Composite at Dusk” (1997) (Collection of Rose and Morton Landowne)

Marisa: Yeah, superheroes rarely stick to the ground floor. Their playground is the sky, their lairs are usually underground to help them hide their true identities. Their special abilities (or in Batman’s case, his gadgets) vaunt them to a higher physical plane that we’re not usually privy to, and the spaces they occupy are one of the factors that alienate them from mere mortals.

Brendan: I found the underground sequences (in the sewers on the city) visually interesting and effective, too — I thought of Goya’s black paintings especially.

Marisa: I’m jealous of your web of artistic associations! It adds a depth to the viewing experience that I’m missing out on! The lighting in the final scene with Bruce Wayne is shockingly different from these nighttime aerial and underground sequences. It reminds me of that Shelly Duvall line in Annie Hall: “The only word for this is transplendent!” You were very moved by it.

Brendan: I cried! It was too much. I can’t believe I got so emotional — even without seeing the first two films in the trilogy.

Marisa: I recently read a chapter in the book Moving Viewers by Carl Platinga about the movie Titanic. He argues that the promise of transcendent romantic love offered by that film was enough for viewers to find it “therapeutic” and even pleasurable — even after they had been subjected to watching hundreds of people meet their watery deaths. If I am understanding his argument correctly, Platinga believes that negative emotions prime the audience to feel subsequent positive emotions even more intensely. The trick for a film’s creators is figuring out effective strategies to achieve this brand of transcendence.

***MAJOR SPOILER ALERT****

I’d say that Nolan’s methods are canny in this regard. Batman saves Gotham from the bomb, so there is relief from imminent danger. Bruce Wayne turns over his manor for the care of orphaned boys, so we see Gotham’s rich doing their part to help the disadvantaged and improve class relations. Wayne and Selina Kyle are both given a clean slate to start their lives anew — and together. And a burgeoning superhero may continue Batman’s legacy (and perhaps the film franchise’s as well), leaving fans hopeful for more.

Brendan: I love your take on the conclusion of the film. Not only is it okay, but necessary to watch mass slaughter in order to experience the payoff of the transcendent romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. As soon as I saw the Wayne and Kyle together, bathed in that quasi-Mediterranean golden light, I forgot about the hundreds of dead in the film. I even momentarily forgot about the moviegoers in Aurora. I share this with sentiment with great hesitation, but it’s what I felt at the time.

Marisa: The audience we watched it with seemed enraptured by the end too — lots of spontaneous cheers and applause before the credits rolled.

Brendan: Yeah, despite the gaps that an 18-wheeler could drive through in the story, I recommend the film.

Marisa: If you decide to watch the first two, let me know.

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The Dark Knight Rises is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Anne Hathaway and others. It is playing in currently in theaters around the world.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    DADA.

  • http://www.zacdigitalagency.com/ Zachary Adam Cohen

    i mean, she should have watched the first two before, but otherwise a wonderful review.

    • http://twitter.com/_brendancarroll Brendan Carroll

      Hi, Zachary: Thanks for commenting on the review. Your point is taken. To clarify, I did not see the first two films in the series, but my sister Marisa did. OK. Be well.

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