November 6, 2012

The Dark Knight that Saved Cinema

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Oscar viewership is down while summer blockbuster incomes are up, a casualty of an increasing divide between elite and mass cinema. The Oscars no longer reward films that are commercially successful, and movies with commercial success are rarely worthy of awards and positive critical recognition. Whether this is symptomatic of a more inequitable American society or the product of producers tailoring films for either award ceremonies or box office buckets, these two types seldom reconcile.One series has bridged this gap and risen between the divide like a gallant cavalier: The Dark Knight trilogy. Christopher Nolan’s gloomy rendition of the popular DC Comics hero has grossed a total of $1.8 billion  and achieved an overall average of 88.6 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The series is both critically and commercially successful and breaks multiple divisions in the industry.Like many others in the film community, I believe that The Dark Knight (2008) is the strongest of the three. Cornell Cinema already featured Batman Begins (2005) in October and will be screening The Dark Knight tomorrow and Friday. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) will follow, running December 6 to 8.Of all these screenings, you should not miss this week’s showings. For this review, I had to revisit the amazingly cinematic film on a small-screen, glitch-prone computer, and I can assure you that the choice to bear the cold weather to go see this movie through Cornell Cinema’s projector is one you will not regret. The Dark Knight is a landmark achievement in sound, cinematography and performance that deserves a grand theater.Christopher Nolan is the director of this film, and his ability to combine complicated plot lines with shocks and suspense is unrivaled. He is the shaman of modern cinema, and The Dark Knight permanently solidified his reputation. Despite its mass appeal, the plot is still complex and needs a magician like Nolan to present it clearly. His Batman, played by an always-keen Christian Bale, is an inversion of most superhero clichés. Beneath his arrogance and anti-social tendencies, Batman reveals an intricate hybrid of altruist and anti-hero. His fight to rid Gotham of its multiple mob families is aided by the squeaky clean District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who (spoiler alert) gains an equally intricate Manichean complex of killer or savior and uses a coin toss to decide between the two. From this pairing of Dent and Batman, the complications arise. The two are both vying for the love of Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and as she deliberates between the two heroes, so does Gotham City. Dent acknowledges that “Gotham needs Batman,” while Bruce Wayne (the true identity of Batman) pledges to quit, saying that “Gotham needs a hero with a face” (referring to Dent, a more public figure). The two show the different faces heroes can wear: one opportunistic and agreeable (Dent) and one dark and unpredictable (Batman).However layered these two are, a superhero movie is only as good as its villain. Heath Ledger’s Joker is tops. Although he is the antagonist, he guides this movie and watches over it like a ubiquitous gargoyle, always introduced by a creeping violin slide in the remarkable score provided by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. His monologues, mixing nihilist philosophy and sardonic humor, add gravitas to the film, but his most remarkable input is his sinister persona. His erratic and ingenius attacks allow Nolan to resuscitate the action with many surprises. From hanging a Batman impersonator from Gotham City Hall to crashing Commissioner Loeb’s funeral in police uniform, the Joker always finds a way to show up and ignite chaos.Bane, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, and the Scarecrow, the offender of Batman Begins (with a cameo in the other two), do not reach the level of mastery and anarchy that the Joker does. The two movies the other villains haunt pay the price for it. Both are subpar in comparison.The latest, The Dark Knight Rises, also flaunts a not-so-inconspicuous political agenda. From Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman making a plea for gun rights (“I don’t know if I’m as enthusiastic about the whole ‘no gun’ thing as you are”), to Nolan’s usage of Ayn Rand imagery (the ‘escape hole’ for the oppressed at the bottom of the pit), to a villain who stands for anti-capitalist revolution, to a ‘police riot’ that clearly references the Occupy Movement, Rises espouses a severely right-wing attitude. In a series that can be cherished for its near universal viewership, the film’s language is much more divisive and emblematic of a comparably schismatic election four months after the film’s release.

I plead with you to watch this movie in a theater. Modern day entertainment provides us with so many opportunities to divide: Some of us watch on small screen computers, some on 72-inch LCD screens. Some of us take it with a grain of left-wing bias, some with a spoonful of right-wing partiality. Some of us watch for the Oscars, some for the popcorn. Inevitably, however, we are watching the same product. I think you’ll be surprised to revisit this series in its full cinematic splendor, and I think you’ll be comforted to watch a movie that makes our divisions disintegrate into unanimous cringes at a common villain and united applause for a common hero.

Original Author: Henry Staley