Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight: In Praise of the Middle Way

Andrew O'Heir, Salon's secondary movie critic who focuses on indie movies, is one of my favorite critics. David Ansen, Newsweek's critic who recently took a buyout to leave the magazine, is another one of the best. But O'Heir didn't like The Dark Knight very much, and Ansen's praise was less than effusive. Let's see what they had to say"

O'Heir: "And no matter how many people proclaim its awesomeness, it's also an incoherent, bloated bore from a director capable of doing much more interesting work."

Ansen: "You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn't be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not "Hamlet." Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun."

In other words, O'Heir doesn't know what Nolan is doing making The Dark Knight when he could be doing something "more interesting", while Ansen wants to know why Nolan is mucking about with a superhero movie that's also dark and problematic (aka, Hamlet). Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the middle way.

The middle way is the somewhat bland term I've finally settled on for describing how much of my favorite art work represents what many would call an artistic compromise and others would call not much fun.

On the one hand, you've got indie-meisters like Gus van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, brilliant, gifted, "genius" people who are off sitting somewhere in some tiny room devising no-budget movies with non-professional actors that will soon be viewed by approximately 17 people and hailed as masterpieces by those 17 people - aka Andrew O'Heir and his 16 friends. On the other hand, there are giant dumbasses like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich planning on spending $300 million of the studio's money in order to make $250 million back by convincing people that they really, really like giant explosions divided up by terrible acting and weak dialogue. These are the two options, and in the world of O'Heir and Ansen, our only hopes for quality are:
1. To just ignore the multiplexes and take our tiny depressing indie masterpieces as as good as its gonna get, with the knowledge that suicide looms in our future.
2.Hope the studio hack in question has more in common with Ridley than Tony and, if not, endure the fart jokes.

Obviously, there's another way. And with The Dark Knight, I think we're experiencing the fullest expression of the middle way I've ever seen. On the one hand, Christopher Nolan and his cast (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, etc) are indie stalwarts. Batman Begins is either the #1 or #2 money maker for all of those creators; they all specialize in deep, dark, and challenging works of art with limited box office potential. On the other hand, this is fucking Batman: it's a giant movie with enough explosions and gadgetry to make Bay himself proud.

I certainly wish Hollywood would wake up and realize that its only hope of survival is the middle way. Because the Gus Van Sant's of the world are gonna be fine; they'll keep making movies that cost $5 million and make $7 million and, voila, $2 million profit. But the Michael Bays of the world are extinct. People have more choices now. They don't automatically go to the movies. They can see explosions on their plasma TVs. There are TV shows now that offer genre fun with good dialogue, good acting, and good production values, so why go to the movies if all you're getting is the spectacle?

So the only hope is to call a master filmmaker, a non-hack, up and say: look, you can do whatever you want, as dark as you want, as weird as you want, and you can have Perlman or Downey Jr or Bale as your lead instead of Cruise or Hanks, and you'll have creative control and can write the script. But, you know, could you throw a few explosions in there too, for the kiddies, and maybe keep the whole thing at under 3 hours?

Now sure, you might say, but then we'd never have had all the Fellini and Bergman masterpieces. A true artist can only create a true masterpiece when totally free of commercial considerations, etc, blah blah blah, pretentious horse crap. And you might be right. But I don't buy it.

The Dark Knight is sure to be 2008's #1 money maker, and there will probably be a Batman Begins 3. But in between, Nolan'll probably grab Caine and Bale again and make another movie like The Prestige - something somewhere on the indier side of the spectrum. In other words, making a masterpiece in the superhero genre is not to sell out. It's not to ignore the possiblity of artistic creation. It's not to say that every movie Nolan makes must cost $200 million dollars and have as many stunts as The Dark Knight. It's just to say: there's an alternative to shilling straight dreck or pursuing completely unencumbered artistic freedom. And furthermore, if you were Fellini and you had just finished making the weirdest superhero movie the world had ever seen, nothing would prevent you from making La Dolce Vita and Amarcord before making The Weirdest Superhero Movie the World Has Ever Seen 2. And although I consider actually existing Fellini to be one of the handful of greatest directors who ever lived, middle way Fellini would be something to behold.

Hollywood, after years of having its crap swallowed whole by the audience, is finally realizing there are ways to make summer spectacle that's not garbage. Directors are finally realizing they can make movies that are both masterpieces and commercially driven, and still find time to make movies about Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding. Everybody in this scenario can be happy, except for people who suck at making movies and those who like to watch bad movies. They don't have much of a future. But that's ok with me.


Roger L. said...

Thanks, great post. And so obvious it seems too bad you had to point it out. How nice to have Nolan in charge instead of Schumacher, for example.

Roger L.

Graham said...

Hey, thanks for reading!

Seriously, these critics bash Nolan for trying too hard to make a "serious" movie, or for not making a "fun" enough movie.

You're right - the alternative is Scumacher. They'd prefer that?

Tadalafil said...

I don't know what Andrew O'Heir was watching, because honestly I have not watch a better film than Dark Night in the last ten years. He definitely was just looking for a excuse to critique this film...but buddy, this time you're completely wrong.