Thursday, July 26, 2012

on the prospect of American reviewers reacting to a Batman film made by a British filmmaker

I've read some odd political readings of The Dark Knight Rises in the last week.  A Salon reviewer stating that Nolan advocates fascism is what I'd expect from Salon, and an equally silly reading of The Dark Knight as a defense of the Bush administration's war on terror is equally inane.

The end of Nolan's 2008 film has by now been revealed to be an ending that was supposed to disturb us.  Batman and Gordon choosing to lie to Gotham about Dent's mad killing spree and mutilation as a result of Joker's schemes should be troubling.  Gordon and Batman desperately attempt to stop the Joker from killing more people and in capturing the Joker what should have been Batman's greatest victory up to that point turns into a horrifying, miserable defeat. In fact a great deal of the plot for this year's The Dark Knight Rises is predicated on a recognition that Gordon and Batman in utter desperation do all sorts of wrong and ill-advised things in their attempt to contain and stop the Joker.  It's good that Joker's reign of terror ends but it comes at the cost of lying to the public about Gotham's white knight, who was only Gotham's white knight for as long as he could make his own luck.

Gordon and Wayne both suffer for their advocacy of a lie about Dent's reputation. Bruce Wayne goes into hiding and seclusion.  After being angry with her husband for faking his death Barbara Gordon would be more horrified to hear her husband, year after year, extolling the greatness of the same Harvey Dent who tried to kill her son.  In a snarky comment from John Daggett to assistant commissioner Foley we hear that Gordon's wife left him and took the kids to Cleveland. Gordon's committment to a lie to keep hope alive in Gotham has cost Gordon his marriage and family.  The idea that The Dark Knight could be read in any way as a defense of the war on terror is an implausible reading by now.

But what that reading highlights is a problem in American film reviews to frame the work of a British filmmaker in terms of American cultural narcissism.  Sure, people want to compare Superman to Jesus because that way we can say the Man of Steel has a christological appeal or an appeal beyond being the embodiment of what we want America to be.  I'm sure it's possible for people to just admit that Captain America is what some people would like America to be.  But Christopher Nolan is not an American.
The impulse to seize upon an artifact of pop culture that is out and about right now to make a social or political or doctrinal point for which one needed no pretext is always alive and well.  In the last week or so I understand there was a bit of blogging about 50 Shades of Gray, whatever that is, and a 13-year old book got cited as a counterexample of some sort.  If the book is more than a decade old and is used in a commentary about something that is afoot right now then it's possible that whatever an author's point was could have been made without resorting to a book more than a few years old.  For that matter it may be the author was making a point that ultimately had no need to use a recently published work of fiction as a pretext to make a particular point.

Which is to say that many attempts at a political commentary or interpretation of Nolan's Batman films have nothing so much to do with Nolan's actual films as the pre-committments of American reviewers who have to insist in advance that Nolan advocates fascism or a defense of Bush administration policies  and practices in the war on terror.  Here's a news flash for some people, never underestimate the obvous.  To say that a work of art is informed by something is not the same thing as saying that that work of art is about said same thing.  I propose that Nolan's films are well-informed by the war on terror and a dread of terrorism and financial inequality but not necessarily about them.

We live in such polarized times that people want to read Batman in socialist or fascist terms.  As I've written a little regarding Bruce Wayne in Batman: the animated series, he may be a billionaire but he can be considered the ideal "one percent". He does battle against criminals of every sort as Batman but as Bruce Wayne he works with Lucius Fox and others to provide jobs and opportunities for people.  In Nolan's film Bruce Wayne insists that some of the profits of Wayne Enterprises go toward funding orphanages so that the orphans of Gotham can have a place to live. Determined efforts to read one's own offenses and agendas into a pop culture artifact withstanding we know that liberals and conservatives and anarchists and so on will seize any and every pretext to talk and write continuously about these things.  When all you have is a hammer, after all.

Now clearly I love writing about superhero stories and can find interesting things about how superhero stories delve into the human condition.  What I hope we can do is to interpret what stories are saying themselves.  In the field of biblical literature the terms exegesis and eisegesis are relevant.  The former term describes a process in which we determine what the author intended from what was actually said in the text.  The latter term refers to reading something of ourselves and our concerns into the text which, in turn, is presented as backing up a conclusion we have reached in some way that is tangential or even completely independent of the text.

All that is to say that a good chunk of the social or political commentary on Nolan's Batman trilogy, as yet, comes off more like eisegesis than exegesis.  A great deal of it is simply American pontificating about what Americans were going to keep debating in an election year.  If The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2013 or 2011 then various insipid stunts left and right would be less popular.

Twenty years ago an older guy I knew warned me that "These days there aren't liberals or conservatives any more. The parties are being dominated by radicals and reactions who don't want to meet at any common ground. It's going to make getting anything done impossible." He told me that in previous decades Democrats and Republicans would differ on things but they shared enough in common to get things done.  This, he feared, was no longer going to happen.  By extension, I'm going to toss out the idea that in an election year radicals and reactionaries can seize any excuse to talk about what they were already going to talk about.  Pop culture becomes a pretext for propaganda as it always has and likely always will.

A teacher once taught me this simple precept, you can say whatever it is you want about a text if you can actually defend it from the text itself.  He was talking about interpreting poetry and literature and it's a ueful rule of thumb.  Many a review and commentary on the new Nolan film seems to work from a pretext which is then retroactively applied to the "text" of the film.  Sometimes those things are amusing to read but I don't take O'Heir seriously when he asserts that Nolan's Batman trilogy advocates fascism any more than I take seriously the assertion that Nolan has defended Bush's war on terror.




5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I've read some odd political readings of The Dark Knight Rises in the last week. A Salon reviewer stating that Nolan advocates fascism is what I'd expect from Salon, and an equally silly reading of The Dark Knight as a defense of the Bush administration's war on terror is equally inane."

Whilst it would indeed be silly to suggest that the film promotes fascism, I don't think it's beyond reason to suggest, as the review below does, that it's set in a rather aristocratic world:

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/24/the-dark-knight-rises/

Especially given the Nolan's brothers various public pronouncements the following sentence rings true on multiple levels "The problem is that the Nolan brothers don’t just want a story about the self-realization of powerful individuals – they want a story with a theory of politics."

chris e said...

Further to the above comment (for some reason posted as anonymous), I'd take exception to this sentence:

"All that is to say that a good chunk of the social or political commentary on Nolan's Batman trilogy, as yet, comes off more like eisegesis than exegesis."

Which kind of assumes that the script was created ex-nihilo - with the possible inclusion of a few facts about human falleness.

In reality every director is working within their own cultural settings. Of course there are always films in every era that are just 'stories about humanity', but as superhero films are ostensibly less high-art already, they usually trigger a directors neuroses about grand narrative.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I think Henry gets at what superhero films attempt but do not necessarily succeed in actually grappling with politics in ways that make sense for people in the US. That Nolan's Batman trilogy shows people within aristocracy, more or less, battling over the future of how to guide Gotahm is not at all surprising as a narrative move for a British filmmaker to make in telling a story about American characters.

I think that part of the appeal specific to Batman as pop iconograph is precisely its vision of Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family as an ideal "one percent". If there will always be super-haves and have-nots what kinds of "haves" do we want influencing the fate of a society. In this respect a superhero story like Batman may be a modern equivalent to apocalyptic,where hyperbolic language is employed to give cosmic significance to what in lived life were more mundane occurences.

I agree that the aristocratic element is necessary to a reading of Nolan's Batman trilogy. This gets at what I think would be a more plausible approach to the films. I don't think the story was created out of nothing but for better and worse the Nolans and Goyer worked with a pop mythology with elements that are already in place. As various comics authors have noted in the contrast between Superman and Batman, Superman is the farmer's kid who goes to the big city whereas Bruce Wayne is the heir of old money with an industrial legacy.

What may make Nolan's Batman films come off as "fascist" for some reviewers is the simple acceptance that some form of aristocracy will guide politics in some way. It is this cultural and political presupposition which may make it dicey for a British filmmaker to completely grasp the significance of how Americans perceive and deploy one of their own pop culture icons.

I'm hazarding a theory that the Nolan Batman trilogy can be interpreted as precisely a battle among aristocratic groups within Gotham of various forms about what their role should be in guiding Gotham. That Americans don't like to think that our society is guided by aristocracies in any way is understandable but that may be precisely why that troubling presupposition on the part of the Nolans and Goyer about how a symbolically American society works might be a useful talking point.

chris e said...

"I think that part of the appeal specific to Batman as pop iconograph is precisely its vision of Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family as an ideal "one percent". If there will always be super-haves and have-nots what kinds of "haves" do we want influencing the fate of a society."

and yet .. even with this ideal "one percent" Gotham still isn't a place than any of us would necessarily choose to live in.

Yes, there are certain elements of plot that are driven by the comics, but to a large degree these are fairly tangential to the narrative of the film. This is easy to see if you ask yourself which elements directors are most likely to pay attention to. By contrast, superhero aficionados are likely to find plenty to nit pick.

As Henry says; it's fairly rare to have drama that is explicitly concerned with the musings of an elite over which grand narrative to sell to the public.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'm wondering if Henry's actually right about the rarity of that, though. As an explicit drama, yes, as an interpretive lens through which contemporary critics and scholars read the past it's axiomatic.

And it's not as though stories of various elites debating what the populace ought to embrace never came up in Dostoevsky novels, for instance.

At another level a drama of groups of elites in conflict over what grand narrative to present the populace can be seen as a central concern of the Old Testament as a whole. Conflicts among educated and aristocratic groups about what grand narrative the people should subscribe to may not be nearly as rare as we'd like to think. Of course this proposal has devolved into armies of liberal scholars debating which vested interest was spinning what document how to the point where little discussion of the text itself may go. But framing biblical literature as a clash between elites over the grand narrative presented to the populace is axiomatic in huge swaths of biblical scholarship, isn't it?