Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Riding the Rumor Mill: Four Johnny Depp characters as The Riddler

So people are talking about casting choices for the next Batman, and there have been three noted... but there's only one I really feel like talking about. Here's a hint: he's not blond-haired, and he's not 62 years old.

The answer: Johnny Depp as The Riddler, the casting choice that tha Intarwebs seem most certain about. Do Depp's qualifications... his flirtations with Tim Burton and Disney, his hybrid status as a mainstream indie actor... give him the clout he'll need to play the Riddler? To answer this question, we'll have to look past the tabloid hype and explore more fruitful venues: the characters who have defined Depp as an actor.

There are four.

1. Sweeny Todd as The Riddler

This anti-hero might be the first character that comes to mind when you think of Depp as the Riddler, but I personally wouldn't be too interested in seeing Nolan take this direction. Sweeny's Riddler would be sentimental and sociopathic, vengeful, and overall, too measured and balanced. Tortured super-intelligence that overwhelms sympathy and leads to a callous disregard for human life? Yawn. Already been done.

2. Jack Sparrow as The Riddler

Jack: spritely, charismatic, unpredictable, and clever in unexpected ways. If you could pull this one off, you could make The Riddler seem more like a hero than a villain... a rogue vigilante wannabe whose only evil is that he's got a personal (or even professional) vendetta against Batman, who's simply getting too much attention. I doubt it will happen, and I'm not even sure I'd like it, but why not make your villain loveable for once? It would be a neat trick.

3. Willy Wonka as The Riddler

This Depp seems most pertinent to The Riddler. We can easily see Depp turning the character into a giddy recluse who has vast resources and complete control over whatever he can draw into his domain. The strange pedophile streak, the utter lack of simple social skills, and the glaring, unsettling eccentricity... if there's any way to convince the fans that Depp is the right choice, it's by pointing them towards Depp's creepy, sad, patriarchal Willy Wonka. Unfortunately, this character already resembles the Joker a little too much. We need something besides manic violence to allow The Dark Knight to grow.

4. Edward Scissorhands as The Riddler

This is the key role, my friends. It may sound unlikely, but what better way to evoke both sad sympathy and disgusted fear than to bring back the pathetic slouch of Depp's most tortured role? If The Riddler was actually an idiot savant... a pitiful and pitiable dog at society's heel, whose capacity for calculated, violent retribution is the only thing keeping his personality together... a character who geniunely fails to fully understand the damage he causes to Gotham City... then we'd really have something interesting.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jesse's Survey of Great Films: No BotD Required

Remember I mentioned my desire to fill out my film background? That quest is still underway, and I'd like to pause with the topical posts for the moment and reflect on my progress. In the interest of this blog, I'm going to list all the iconic movies I've seen, and I'm going to try to tell you, in as few words as possible, why each of them is great, and why I feel its place in this quest is justified.

Fistful of Dollars (1964) - How's it feel to sit through a film where a corrupt city totally destroys itself because of one lonely outlaw, and finally to see that main character walk off into the sunset, still a mystery to us? I think it's a good way to experience the transience and instability of the savage, mythical Old West.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) - A true showcase of personalities, framed, contrasted with one another, and revealed in the complexity that makes them so poignant. There's no way to do this except with the present combination of brilliant writing and flawless delivery.

Casablanca (1942) - The atmosphere of Casablance brought volume to the sense of time and place, giving a presence to the historical politics... moreso, however, the characters made the story seem eternally topical, and they showed that history is lived, rather than simply remembered and represented.

LA Story (1991) - LA Story was nice as a RomCom, but more than anything, it's the story of its director's creative genesis: in Steve Martin's strange plotting and jarring pacing, you can feel the quirkiness of a new director, but in his unpredictable characters and convergences, you can feel the spontaneity and passion of a young artist's hands just touching the clay.

Basic Instinct (1992) - Basic Instinct was an intense film because it drew me into the obsessions of its characters: when Nick finally decided to play Catherine's game, I was scared for him, but I was also genuinely excited to see if he could meet her challenge. It helped that the film refused, from the first scene, to make any promises to us.

The Hunger (1983) - Any time you get bored with the slow, ambiguous gravity of this film's emotions, you should just stop for a second and appreciate the lush beauty of its set and atmosphere.

The Searchers (1956) - This film was basically a jewelry case for John Wayne. The rest of the characters were pleasant set-pieces, over-acting and complimentary. Wayne was a frightening, awe-inspiring mythical hero, complete with the flaws and alienation required to get the job done.

Intolerance (1916) - I have trouble seeing past the production quirks of old movies, but I simply couldn't help stopping every so often during Intolerance and appreciating the light, the geometry, the flawless aesthetic perfection of its key shots.

The Wild Bunch (1969) - This was one of my favorites. On the surface Peckinpah's movie is all brooding savagery, but underneath, you can find all the brotherhood and nostalgia of the mythical Old West (and presumably of the military life that Peckinpah came from).

Escape from New York (1981) - Snake Plisskin was a one-of-a-kind antihero, and after following him through his journey into danger and redemption, we still never connect with him enough to predict him. Again, the rest of the characters are set-pieces, right along with the insane sets themselves.

Blue Velvet (1986) - David Lynch has a strange way of making the bizarre seem mundane. His bright, flat key lights and primary colors distract us for a while, and then, all of a sudden, Lynch's bizarre sexual and emotional revelations pull us back into the visceral world of flesh.

Gone With The Wind (1939) - Gone With The Wind was a beautifully-plotted film about a cast of fascinating characters building lives together without ever really recognizing or finding one another... like leaves circling on a blustery day (note the parallelism). Also, I saw three or four scenes in this film that have been referenced DOZENS of times in more recent movies and television shows.

Stroszek (1977) - I finished this movie thinking I didn't get it, but it stayed on my mind for days afterwards, and I eventually realized that all of the surreal and meaningless details had come together to create a weird, compelling world of beautiful but tragic confusion.

Fast, Cheap and Out Of Control (1997) - I'm still not sure I could tell you what this documentary was about, but I think that was part of its genius: it was a uniquely empty space for an intertwining set of motifs and explorations that were channeled through the obsessions of its four protagonists. Brilliant in a very micronarrative kind of way.

Pretty Woman (1990) - Was this an amazing film for the romantic plot, or was it great because of all its subconscious complexes and wish-fulfillment brilliance? It's really a good movie, for serious, among the better rom-coms, but it doesn't really become fascinating until you mobilize your psychoanalysis and gender studies to eviscerate it.

Say Anything (1989) - I'm actually watching the commentary track for this as we speak. I'm a big fan, as it turns out... it was a film full of good people, confused about their own relationships and emotions, and improvising their ways through the consequences of their decisions. This is very much how I remember my suburban adolescence.

Lost In Translation (2003) - Coppola encapsulates a short, fiery, hopeless relationship and frames the themes that should by all accounts make her famous: loneliness and alienation in an artificial world, and the glimpse of hope provided by fragments of understanding discovered in total strangers.

Marie Antoinette (2006) - Like Lost In Translation, this is a film that explored its themes deeply, without ever bringing them above the level of atmosphere and aesthetic. We could tell from the direction that Marie Antoinette was a normal girl who had an artificial world erected around her, intended to protect her, but ultimately isolating her from the world that was bearing down on her.

So I've seen all of Sofia Coppola's body of work, and I've touched a whole range of genres, directors, and eras. Coming up next, I've got a couple more Sergio Leone films, another David Lynch, and Fellini's 8 1/2. Down along the line, there's a ton of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, because those two seem to have produced about a thousand "classics" each. So many films, so little time... stay tuned for further journal-style records of cinematic experience.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part III: City, System, Character

WARNING: more spoilers, and also considerably more random and rambling than the previous two posts on this film.

At the outset of The Dark Knight, we flash from an enigmatic burning texture to an elevated agoraphobic helicopter shot, descending into the city through the rooftop of a mob bank. This is one of the most sweeping, open shots of Gotham we're going to get in Nolan's film. Through the course of the story, we will explore the pits and tunnels of Gotham’s urban wasteland, and ultimately, in the final scene of the film, Batman will emerge from these tunnels into daylight. Here, in the finale, he is exposing himself and leaving his native element, shedding the shadows for the harsh light of public ridicule. This formal device -- beginning the film with an entrance into Gotham, and then ending it with the exit from beneath the streets -- goes a long way toward showing how critical this urban landscape is to Christopher Nolan's vision, and how integral the city is to the characters who inhabit it.

So I guess I lied in that last post. Gotham isn't only shown from beneath in The Dark Knight. Like so many critical assertions, this one buckles under scrutiny, and I have to account for a few key scenes where Gotham is envisioned from above, rather than from below. One of these is the final showdown with the Joker, which takes place in a skyscraper overlooking the harbor. This scene may be elevated, but it's still labyrinthine and tangled in shadows, and almost subterranean in this way. Whereas Tokyo involved bright sunlight, flight, and lots of exterior shots, the skyscraper showdown in Gotham was played out on the ground and in the construction rubble between floors, and the height never seemed to matter much.

The other elevated scenes in Gotham were rather different. These are not Batman's territory... we only see Gotham from above, in open spaces and bright lights, when we're watching Bruce Wayne, looking unresolved and anxious from his penthouse windows. The scenes where Bruce is most himself, in all his tortured uncertainty, are the ones at the tops of buildings, in open spaces and bright lights. Such is the scene where he is escorted by two women into his apartment, such is his helpless moment in an apartment building overlooking the Commissioner's funeral... and such is the long pause where he overlooks Gotham through his penthouse windows and ponders love and responsibility.

The difference between Gotham from above and Gotham from within is an apt analogy for the difference between Bruce Wayne as an alienated playboy, kept at a distance from the world he cares so much about, and Batman as the bad temper lurking in the back alleys of the urban environment. The fragmented setting foregrounds the main character’s fragmented existence, his need -- as Gotham’s self-proclaimed adjudicator -- to have both a wide perspective in framing the law, and a strong fist for enforcing it.

Of course, Gotham isn't simply an analogy for Batman's struggle to uphold the law. It’s also the keystone at the heart of this struggle, and as such, it has a pronounced role in the battle between Batman and The Joker.

By the middle of the film, The Joker begins to foresee that he and Batman will become locked in struggle that can’t be resolved. The Joker calls himself and Batman "an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object," and this observation demonstrates his intuitive understanding of the eternal struggle between them. In fact, by the time he utters this line, The Joker no longer even cares to kill Batman, even going so far as to protect his adversary's identity. In the interrogation room, when The Joker informs Batman that he depends upon him to be his foil and his mortal foe, the dynamic of their relationship changes immensely.

Okay, so Batman refuses to kill the Joker, and the Joker has decided not to kill Batman. They're not technically "mortal" enemies any longer... what's left for them to fight over? When two opposing forces reach equilibrium, a third element needs to complete the system and mediate between them, and in Nolan's The Dark Knight, this third element is Gotham itself. The Joker wants to rule Gotham’s streets, and as his social engineering games attest, he also wants to rule its soul and its psychology. Batman’s sworn role -- to protect Gotham's citizens from crime -- implies a pledge of loyalty to Gotham, and a pledge of faith in its humanity. When their conflict can no longer be resolved directly through death or defeat, The Joker and Batman turn Gotham into the rope in their tug of war.

Batman's writers don’t always make this three-part "eternal struggle" structure explicit, but we all understand it intuitively, as part of our knowledge of Batman himself. As long as the Dark Knight is out there, he needs the Joker as his essential adversary, and these two personalities need a system within which to carry out their exchanges. This system is Gotham, and it will always be Gotham... just as they fight over order, and hope, and humanity within the city limits, so Batman and The Joker are also permanent features of Gotham’s landscape. They could never join Spiderman in New York. They just wouldn't work here, in these provincial neighborhoods -- and could Gotham City ever exist without Batman and the Joker wrestling over it?

Christopher Nolan captured something about Batman and the Joker that could have slipped by another director, but that’s indispensable to the mythology that he was building upon. He built not two, but three strong personalities -- Batman, the Joker, and Gotham City -- and by leveraging these personalities, he did due justice to the legend of the Dark Knight.