Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part II: Gotham as a Landscape

WARNING: I will spoil some shit. There will be extensive discussion of the plot. I am bad at keeping secrets when I engage in close readings. Just sayin'.

So we move on to Nolan's Gotham City, first in terms of portrayal, and then in terms of its relationship to the stories of Batman and the Joker, Harvey, Bruce, and Rachel. The last post mentioned the importance of shooting Gotham in a real city, a creative decision that gave the environment its believability. Christopher Nolan chose Chicago to represent this dangerous metropolis, which makes sense, since Chicago has long been an icon of urban blight and faceless concrete. The use of Chicago is especially fitting because the backbone of The Dark Knight is a story about crime and politics, and Chicago is the greatest mob city in the United States. Chicago's personality has a lot to do with Gotham's grittiness; however, Nolan's unique perspective on the environment makes it a city of its own, the same way his direction, combined with Heath Ledger's brilliant acting, gave us a Joker we'd never seen before.

As an access point, let's contrast Nolan's Gotham with his Hong Kong, where Batman goes to retrieve the smuggler Lau. Considering the viewer only inhabits Hong Kong for a few scenes, it's striking how vivid a treatment the city is given, and how effective a foil it is for Gotham. Hong Kong feels like it was bled out of a completely different imagination, as though Nolan hired a new production designer and cinematographer for that city. It's a city in the clouds, where Bruce and Batman aren't even seen on the ground. The tall buildings allow for sweeping shots of Batman in flight, and the extensive glass facades give an acrophobic anxiety to the fight scenes. Batman is a beautiful sight in such a pristine environment, but it only serves to remind us how alien he is to that city.

Gotham, by contrast, is shot almost entirely in low shots, looking up at bridges and buildings. In scene after scene, we peer toward the buildings from the streets and the sidewalks, and the camera is constantly caught between walls of brick and concrete. It's a petrified tunnel system that Lucien Fox's sonar device temporarily converts into a visual swamp, and even in the daylight, it always seems cramped. This city is defined by two visual motifs that I'd like to draw attention to: the tunnel/underpass, and the ravine of unbroken buildings.

The tunnel/underpass is by far the most prominent visual motif of Nolan's Gotham City. We first see Batman in a parking garage, facing the mob, the Scarecrow, and a small gang of Batman impersonators. This low-ceilinged horizontal expanse is where Batman seems to be most at home, and this might be part of the reason that it feels spatially similar to the Bat Cave, though it's not as well-lit. However, later scenes draw him deeper into the tunnels of Gotham. Two-Face's final scene takes place in what looks like a cavern, carved out in Gotham's concrete flesh. Batman also emerges from these labyrinthine shadows into Gotham sunlight in the film's closing moments – this is a key scene, and it's one that I'll return to later in this reading.

The other important motif in The Dark Knight is the canyon formed by the building faces, which extend the claustrophobia of the tunnels into the daylight above the earth. This formation was essential to the attempted assassination of the Mayor – as a sniper on a fire escape points out, the police seem useless and vulnerable when faced with the surrounding walls of windows.

These two motifs converge in the long chase sequence, when Harvey Dent is being transported by a SWAT team beset by the Joker, and Batman emerges to confront him. This scene represents the struggle over Dent's life... a conflict that eventually sublimates into the struggle for Gotham's soul... and in order to gain the advantage, The Joker draws Harvey and Batman into the concrete underworld beneath Gotham. This is the descent into Hell, the stage for the confrontation that determines the course of The Dark Knight. After they endure The Joker's escalating trials, the chase re-emerges into the shadow of the Gotham buildings, and again, the canyon formation asserts itself. In this canyon, air support is useless, and The Joker is confident in facing Batman directly, in the middle of the street, without flinching.

Of course, it's Gordon, returning from the dead, who traps The Joker at the end of the confrontation. There's certainly more symbolic significance wrapped up in this emergence from the underworld, but I don't think I have the time to fully analyze it. However, if you want another interesting portrayal of a city, rendered as a labyrinthine Stygia and shadowy home to the restless dead, check out Venice in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. It's surreal and haunting, and if you've seen The Dark Knight, it may remind you of a more magical Gotham City.

Actually, for the time being, forget Venice. Christopher Nolan is building on a complex, very American history when he renders this gritty, noir Gotham City. Dennis O'Neil, a writer and editor of the Batman comics, said that "Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November" (see the Wikipedia article for the citation). It's worth noting that this remark was published in 1994, just before Rudy Guiliani became Mayor of New York and started cracking down on petty crimes and reducing urban decay. O'Neil is talking about the bohemian New York City of twenty years ago, and he's talking about the parts of the city where students and working-class residents were living. Gotham's business district is the cramped, cynical Wall Street of the 1980's; its residential areas are the East Village and Lower East Side apartments, the downtown church steps where panhandlers spent (and still spend) their nights. New York and Gotham have always been a bit enigmatic and intimidating.

This is the city Nolan has sketched for us, a vortex for Batman's vengeance and retribution, an underworld so overwhelming that it makes his heroism seem futile. In Nolan's lucid portrayal, however, Gotham isn't just a setting. It's also a theater for mythical characters and a lynchpin in their relationships. This relationship between the city and its inhabitants is what I'll be addressing in my final post on this topic. Tune in next week, kiddies, because we're coming into the home stretch.

1 comment:

George said...

I wrote a psychoanalysis of the character Joker. I think you'd like it: