Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip

This was a while back, but 366 Weird Movies published another piece of mine, on an obscure documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip. It's a pretty cool, out-there kind of movie.
Frank Cooper’s account of Black River Falls, above, may be little more than a publicity blurb, but in Marsh’s film, it represents something much larger. It is an image of the town and an image of small-town life as a whole, an idyllic fiction created and taken as a faithful reflection by those who identify with it. It is a broad meta-narrative, a reassuring script – a framework to give larger meaning to many small lives and arbitrary circumstances. This is a category of “image” that Mitchell barely touched upon… the reflexive mental image called a self-image, which gives identity to both the individual and (by custom and consensus) the collective. Unfortunately, as the citizens of Wisconsin discovered in the late 1800′s, this self-image is a fragile thing, a glass castle on a precarious perch, and its destruction can be catastrophic.

-- The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip, published in 366 Weird Movies

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises and Mechanical Filmmaking

I am deeply ambivalent about The Dark Knight Rises, and that's more frustrating than it should be. This is from a guy who thought Batman Begins was refreshing, and The Dark Knight was the closest thing we've had to a masterpiece of comic book movies. Also, I like Nolan enough to have thought about which is his best film, and I've decided that it's Inception... a puzzle box wrapped around a vivid emotional core that debunks every talking point about how Nolan is a "mechanical filmmaker" who doesn't understand human feeling.

While I don't think Nolan is a mechanical filmmaker, I think that The Dark Knight Rises is an example of mechanical filmmaking. Or, to put it more precisely, it's film engineering, rather than organic filmmaking, and the result is a collection of calibrated gears and interlocking parts that add up to empty clockwork.

I think it worked out this way because Nolan was trying to recapture the power of The Dark Knight, but by identifying that film's many merits, which originally evolved organically, and trying to reproduce them intentionally, he lost sight of his third movie as a whole. It's an easy mistake to make, especially for a director who's controlled and calculated and cerebral. Unfortunately, in this case, he basically relied upon his targeting mechanism and it caused him to miss the target. That's a Luke Skywalker reference, in case you didn't catch it.

There were a lot of things that were great about The Dark Knight... like any serendipitous event, they sprung up spontaneously and he captured them all in the emulsion. The principal merits:

1 - An extreme, visceral, compelling villain with endless depths to plumb, and an actor at the top of his game, digging deep into the role.

2 - A compelling side-character who toed the line between hero and villain

3 - A broad, open-ended theme of human nature and the power of the symbolic hero as a way of purifying the corrupt human soul

4 - Political references that were somewhat timely, but not forced (cell phone surveillance, for instance)

5 - A couple major twists that radically altered the trajectory of the plot, involving betrayals and sudden shifts in loyalty

6 - The sense that Gotham City, as a macrocosm for its citizens, is sort of a character in itself, a populist gothic metropolis with a sinister underside

Those six things fell together so perfectly in The Dark Knight. It was a film that revolved around the slow rise and payoffs of two major action sequences, each with two or three parts: the lengthy introduction to the Joker and Gotham's underworld, proceeding through a series of plays and counter-plays that plateau with Gordon's "death"... the first major ascent and climax as the Joker chases Harvey Dent through Gotham, gets caught, and escapes while Rachel Dawes is killed... another tense, extended low-key sequence, as Harvey is corrupted and The Joker lays plans for a final showdown... and the climactic battle sequence, the fight for Gotham's soul in the rooftops, on the river, and at Gordon's home. Nolan orchestrated the whole thing like a grand symphony, tuning and conducting the rises and falls until every demand of the viewer was sated.

Those six things are all there in The Dark Knight Rises. The problem is, they're rushed together, glued into a kludge of ideas and sucker-punches that doesn't seem to have any rhythm at all. Tom Hardy almost makes Bane genuinely inspiring (I didn't really mind the voice much), but he's undercut by the need for a cheap twist at the end of the film. Anne Hathaway does justice to her role as Catwoman, but she is sabotaged by the populist theme and the conventional crisis-of-conscience device, which undermine her integrity. Nolan gets caught between the closely-linked wheels of the populist Gotham and the timely Occupy references, and he doesn't end up fleshing out either idea sufficiently. The Batman-as-symbol theme is draped over this whole structure, but it never reaches a moment of real clarity, as Nolan is caught up in the need to make Batman a traditional action hero and Bruce Wayne a winking playboy survivor.

This is the basic failure that motivates so many of the further complaints about TDKR. The plot is full of holes and the motivations are often indecipherable, because each character was trying to fit into a grand mosaic of elements that just weren't left any time to fall into place. Because Nolan was trying to get so much stuff in, the film felt rushed, even though it was a full one hundred sixty minutes. It could be reverse-engineered and put back together much more organically, and you could probably still keep most of the writing and plot developments... you would just have to extract a few threads to give the rest more space to breathe. You'd need to let go of some of the abstract ideas, some of the Occupy references and current-event set-pieces, and you'd need to give more love and attention to Bane, Selina Kyle, and Catwoman... those characters need space to stand on their own, to make decisions that seem meaningful within their particular moral arc.

Even without the substance, you can see the plot engineering going on. The fights between Batman and Bane occur at the correct times... right in the middle, and at the moment of maximum crisis... but they have no soul, looking less like tactical encounters and more like games of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Bane's build-up is hasty and obscure, but we're good at responding to Nolan's rudimentary cues, so we know he's supposed to be terrifying and malevolent... but even as we buy into his evilness, we're cheated out of a gratifying defeat, because the guy is just blasted off-screen by a battery of guns. And it's a lovely setup that Bane treats Gotham as a doomed revolution, so yes, we want to experience Gotham as a chaotic locus of resistance poisoned by a petty tyrant. But that experience never gets fleshed out, because we don't spend any time among the citizens of Gotham. It doesn't look like a police state, nor like London during the 2011 riots. It just looks like a bunch of cleared streets, a big controlled set for furtive encounters between our protagonists.

The moments with Bane, Selina Kyle, and Scarecrow make it worth another viewing some day, and I want to congratulate all the actors for bringing these clumsily-scripted characters to life. But I'm eager for Nolan to make another film for his own edification, because this one is his biggest stumble, in my opinion. Nolan knows the art of cinema, but I think, by acting as an engineer in this last entry, Nolan neglected his role as an artist.