Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Heroes We Deserve
I haven't had much going on here for the last few weeks--owing to a lack of interest in politics, a new hesitation to write much about New York City policy/politics, general malaise and occasional despair, and the shitty, soul-damaging performance of the Philadelphia Phillies. On those subjects, suffice it to say that I still think Obama's going to win (and that it won't matter much, other than the symbolically important rejection of Bush Republicanism), I'm pissed about the coming transit fare increases and a bit bemused at some of the early 2009 mayoral campaign proclamations, I don't know what to do with my career, and the Phillies are a garbage organization run by arrogant and clueless morons and represented by the alienated, the overwhelmed, and the overweight.

Probably the best thing about July has been the movies. I saw "Wall-E" a couple weeks ago, and have twice watched "The Dark Knight." I don't make a habit of attending G-rated movies, or any Disney-related fare, but Wall-E was getting such strong reviews, and my brother liked it so much, that I thought it was worth a look. If you haven't gone, do so: it's beautifully made, rarely if ever insults the viewer's intelligence (indeed, much less so than probably 90 percent of films made for grown-ups), and has a message more complex and nuanced than its attackers on the right have considered.

The premise of "Wall-E" is that in the 28th century, humankind has long since evacuated an Earth overrun by garbage, and is approaching the 700th anniversary of a "five-year cruise" through the solar system while robots clean up the home planet. But the job was too big, and all but one robot has broken down; meanwhile, the uniformly obese humans have been so coddled by disposable food and having every need cared for by mechanized service provided through a mega-corporation, Buy N Large, that most can't even stand up anymore--not that there's anything to stand up for.

Evidently, "Wall-E" offended the delicate sensitivities of the always-put-upon right-wing:

Shannen Coffin: From the first moment of the film, my kids were bombarded with leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind. It’s a shame, too, because the robot had promise. The story was just awful, however.

Greg Pollowitz: It was like a 90-minute lecture on the dangers of over consumption, big corporations, and the destruction of the environment. … Much to Disney’s chagrin, I will do my part to avoid future environmental armageddon by boycotting any and all WALL-E merchandise and I hope others join my crusade.

Glenn Beck: I can’t wait to teach my kids how we’ve destroyed the Earth. … Pixar is teaching. I can’t wait. You know if your kid has ever come home and said, “Dad, how come we use so much styrofoam,” oh, this is the movie for you.

Putting aside the absurdity of politicizing an environmental message--pollution doesn't know party--I think the viewpoint of "Wall-E" is considerably more aligned with classical conservative values than these blowhards realize. The movie played to me as a criticism of human complacency--an indictment of how individuals lose purpose when they start ceding autonomy over their own lives. Happily, some on the right seem to agree:

Another lesson missed is portrayed perfectly in Coffin’s claim that WALL-E points out the “evils of mankind.” The only evils of mankind portrayed are those that come about from losing touch with our own humanity.

A much wider range of evils can be found in "The Dark Knight," which is probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. Less a "superhero" flick than crime thriller and psychological investigation, it has a tragic arc and an ultimately despairing message, suggesting that any redemption is provisional and ambiguous.

I'm going to get into some spoilery territory here, so if you haven't seen the film yet and like to go in "cold" (as I increasingly do with movies), it might be best to stop reading.

It takes the better part of two hours for this to come clear, but "The Dark Knight" is really about Harvey Dent, the Gotham City district attorney portrayed by Aaron Eckhardt. Batman himself (Christian Bale), well exposited in the first film of the series, "Batman Begins," is something more than a plot device, but ultimately it's not his story. As the film opens, Dent seems to be the embodiment of what Batman, the vigilante crime-fighting alter ego of narcissistic billionaire Bruce Wayne, is trying to accomplish in his beleaguered city: a hero who can make things better for the public acting within the law, an idealist who is nonetheless effective. Dent is who Batman wants to be, a fact shown most clearly by the DA's romance with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce Wayne's oldest friend and love interest, and the embodiment of his hopes to enjoy a normal life after the struggle against crime is won and Batman can hang up his cape.

Dent begins to work with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in another terrific performance marred slightly by the moments when his English accent breaks through), the police lieutenant who has been working with Batman to expose and shut down organized crime in the city. But he's troubled by Gordon's practice of working with cops of dubious integrity--many of whom Dent had unsuccessfully investigated in an earlier job. This is in some ways the most important turn of the plot: Gordon leans heavily on his team, but their corruption ultimately is disastrous for Gotham. At the behest of the Joker (Heath Ledger), the brilliant criminal hired by the mobsters to kill Dent and Batman, crooked cops abduct both Dent and Rachel, putting them in mortal danger; the police and Batman can save only one, and it winds up being Dent--who is mutilated in an explosion.

He goes mad with grief and rage, and emerges as Two-Face, another vigilante whose concern is not the protection of the public but vengeance, as dictated by chance (the flip of a two-headed coin, one side of which was charred in the explosion that burned away half of Dent's face). In the end, he is subdued--but his reputation, and the aspirations of Gotham, would be ruined if the public found out about his crimes. Batman, with Gordon's reluctant acquiescence, agrees to take the blame for the murders Two-Face committed, allowing Dent to be remembered as a hero and martyr. He is "Gotham's White Knight," leaving Batman in the darkness.

I don't know if many others would characterize the movie in this way, probably because of the ferocious power of Heath Ledger's performance--the last of his career--as the Joker. Without question, Ledger steals every scene in which he appears: he's such a force of nature, and such a perfect foil for Batman, that you almost can't help sympathizing with him. The filmmakers made a conscious decision to show the Joker fully formed, rising to power over the criminal community, rather than furnishing him a backstory: the script includes a winking allusion to this, as the character offers varying explanations as to how he got the facial scars he covers with white makeup (referred to by an accomplice, more accurately, as "war paint"). Like Batman, he's human in his abilities and somewhat more than human in willpower: and he adheres to a moral code--"no rules"--in some ways more absolute than Batman's own.

In a traditional superhero movie, the morality of the good guys--the notion that conformity to an affirmative moral code is a strength, not a weakness--would prevail in the end. Not here. Though the Joker is captured (not killed, which I'm sure was a conscious choice with an eye toward bringing the character back in future films; with Ledger's demise, I hope they choose not to go this route), and his most appalling attempted crime is foiled, he's not defeated. Compromised from within by the corruption of Gordon's unit, traumatized by the searing pain and emotional tragedy inflicted upon him, finally swayed by the Joker's explanation of his own motivations, Dent was turned into a monster--a third force of nature.

But, the filmmakers suggest, corruption can't take root in barren soil. There's an earlier scene in which Dent, still heroic, seizes one of the Joker's subordinates, sticks a gun in his face, and begins flipping his coin to determine whether he'll shoot the man or not if he doesn't reveal information. We know that it's a two-sided coin--that the threat is a bluff--but the henchman doesn't, and neither does Batman, who dissuades Dent by telling him that the man is a paranoid schizophrenic and pointing out that Dent's tactics, if exposed, would undermine his prosecutions of the mob. The scene reinforces the message of an earlier conversation between Dent, Rachel, and Wayne over dinner, in which Dent spoke up for Batman's vigilante actions: just as Wayne wants to be Dent, Dent wants to be Batman. (Later, in a ruse to draw out the Joker, he "reveals" to the public that he is, in fact, Batman.)

Certainly I'm not the first person to point this out, but recent movie heroes--even superheroes--have worn their flaws on their capes. I suppose this reflects public tastes in a cynical time: with our national leaders exposed as liars and torturers, and our most prominent celebrities with their flaws on display every day, maybe it couldn't be otherwise. But bad times do seem conducive to good art; it was true in the '70s, and it's true today.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Disney certainly wants to tear down corporations...? That line of logic is mindboggling.