Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
I've been trying to imagine a conversation about a movie that would include the argument: "Well, you only point that out because you liked the movie." Or, "You wouldn't have noticed that if you didn't already like the movie." In response to all the stuff I wrote last year about the many moments of brilliance in "No Country for Old Men," I don't recall anybody saying, "Well, you wouldn't have liked that if you didn't like the movie."
But that's more or less what some are saying to me about "The Dark Knight": "You didn't like that because you didn't like the movie." I can understand where some of it is coming from: People feel defensive when they've enjoyed something and somebody else criticizes it; maybe they don't want to examine that experience closely -- although that has always been the purpose of this blog. The closer the better. I didn't expect to win friends and influence people by attempting to get specific about why I found "The Dark Knight" a lightweight entertainment, but also a letdown. It may seem like I'm just trying to justify my dislike; you might otherwise think I'm trying to discover the source(s) of my dissatisfaction. I don't think that's dishonest, or a waste of time, but if you do, please feel free to skip to a post in another category!
I also put people on the defensive by "going negative" prematurely, which added injury to insult. Maybe I let that silly "Love TDK -- or else!" threat get lodged in the back of my brain and it's been subconsciously gnawing away at me for the last month, I don't know.
So, in my little fantasy world, here's the kind of discussion I imagined being able to have about "The Dark Knight" -- starting with, and concentrating on, the last shot of the opening sequence in which the Joker's bus makes its getaway from the scene of the bank robbery:
I would ask readers to describe the shot, how it works, and what information it conveys. Then I would weigh it with my reading of it, and why I think it is less effective, less exciting, than it could -- and, in my view, should -- have been. Stupidly, I later went back and "updated" the original post with a negative quotation from somebody else's review (which I felt summarized criticisms I'd voiced myself months ago). And that pissed people off.
In my follow-up I mentioned some elements in the shot that I thought called attention to themselves, and not in a good way: the tight framing at the beginning that kept us from getting a good view of the damage the bus had caused when it smashed into the bank doors; all the dust that swept off the Joker's bus onto the busses behind his; the traffic signal in the foreground that turns red and may or may not have interrupted the flow of busses; the sound of schoolchildren added to the soundtrack... things like that.
I pointed out a few things I like about the shot, too: the way it takes us from the claustrophobia of the bank into the larger city (you feel the Joker disappearing into the streets); the yellow taxi cabs mirroring the busses in the other lane.
Some people wrote in with their own criticisms of the shot. Others said, in effect, "Yes, I see what you don't like about it but that didn't bother me." Quite a few said: "You are a nitpicker who hates this movie and just wants to spread his hatred!" Hardly anybody said: "Here's what I think is really great about this shot!"
It's the latter response that I would have most appreciated. I can tell you, specifically, what I don't like about "The Dark Knight." Where are the fans who want to articulate, specifically, what they find so enthralling about it? Describe a shot, a movement, a sequence, a dialog exchange, a facial expression, a gesture, a color -- something that gave you goosebumps or that put a lump in your throat. I know, it means making yourself vulnerable, but if we don't allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the movies we fall in love with, then why watch them?
Look at it this way: I recently wrote that, although I haven't seen very many superhero movies that I thought were satisfying as movies, I think they should be taken seriously. Just because they are fantasies, or based on comic books or graphic novels, or feature masked heroes with special powers (or, at least, special outfits), doesn't mean they should be dismissed as something less than, say, a Jane Austen adaptation or a gangster picture.
That means giving them the same critical consideration as other films, too. So, if I explain why I feel that "The Dark Knight" falls short as a movie -- not "just" a comic book movie, but as a movie -- consider it a form of tough love.
I've been told by a few commenters here that I don't know how to watch a comic book movie, that implausibilities are to be expected and ignored because that just goes with the territory. But every movie maps out its own territory, builds its own world, writes its own rules. The Batman we see in "The Dark Knight" is noticeably different from, say, the one Adam West played on the 1960s TV show. I didn't feel the Batman of "The Dark Knight" belonged in the same world as the movie's Joker. I'm talking about the portrayal of a flesh-and-blood crimefighter versus an "agent of chaos." It's explained, but I didn't believe it. On the other hand, I don't recall being bothered by implausibilities in 1978's "Superman" (yes, I love it when he turns back time by reversing the Earth's orbit -- it's a supremely romantic gesture) or Tim Burton's "Batman Returns." They were different worlds.
So, to encourage enthusiasm, here's a moment I really, really liked from "The Dark Knight": The Joker toddles out of the hospital in a nurse's outfit (I do wish he'd left on the wig) like a wind-up Devil Doll. Even in broad daylight (like the opening of the movie), he's as absurdly demented as ever. I kind of wish it was all done in one shot. The first piece has him coming out the door; there are three consecutive cutaways in the middle, perhaps to compress (but why do we care about the reporter in the gray suit getting on the District 22 bus?); and then the goofy detonator glitch and the climactic explosion are in the third and longest shot. Maybe it would have felt too long as a single piece (and it doesn't appear there were opportunities for retakes). I also like the openness, simplicity and spacial integrity of the image. You feel like you are standing right there with the Joker when the hospital goes up. It's an act-closer/payoff moment (like the bus getaway, or the long-ish take of the Joker escaping with his head out the cop-car window), and also a kind of palate-cleanser before the next movement....
Anybody got problems with that?
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.