Monday, February 16, 2009

A Dark Knight Indeed pt. 2

As promised, here is the second half of The Dark Knight. Be warned, it’s another long one despite my best efforts.

To understand why the Dark Knight is so important, we have to return to the concept of breakage, and its significance in the comic medium. The fragmented presentation of comic books: the gaps between boxes on a page, the disjuncture between text and pictures, between each issue in a series: is it’s greatest point of potential. The breakages allows readers to fill in the gaps on their own terms, drawing them into the world more deeply than other media, for while Film utilizes the same sort of closure, the transition between one cell to the other happens too quickly and purposefully for us to be consciously aware of it.

To a limited extent, The Dark Knight translates this same fractured quality into the film medium. Indeed, the structure of TDK’s plot shares more in common with a typical limited series than it does with other comic book movies, including Batman Begins. Further more, the short quick cuts in fight sequences resemble the blow by box composition of a comic book fight. And do you remember that huge panorama as Bats prepared to jump off the skyscraper in Hong Kong? That was totally a centerfold. I believe this sort of fractured presentation will become increasingly popular in the future, (especially when you consider that the internet features a comparable type of fracture to comics, with its windows and mix of text and images) and given the widespread popularity of The Dark Knight, it will serve as the most effective vehicle to influence other film-makers

In addition to its technical aspects, both the acting and the casting in The Dark Knight are superb. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman don’t break new ground but they give great performances. Maggie Gyllenhall is every ounce the ‘Rachael Dawes’ Katie Holmes was and more. I wish Nolan and Goyer knew how to write women better so she could have had more screen time, and more interesting things to do than falling out of windows. Aaron Eckhart is also at the top of his game, and he really brings a new level of depth and significance to the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character. It’s a shame that his performance has been so over-shadowed, and that he spent the second half of the film with that ridiculous make-up which was more ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ than it was horrifying psychopath.

My critique of Bale’s Batman can be summed up best by this video clip. Before the next movie roles around, (and you all know it will), I really hope Good Sir Gravelthroat has a chance to hear Kevin Conroy’s voice acting in Batman: The Animated Series. Nobody else will ever balance growl, bellow and brood so beautifully.

Then there is Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Like all great character performances, Ledger makes The Joker instantly familiar and distinctive. His drawn out, strangely affected pronunciation, fraught with cheek licks and lip smacks is as chilling distinctive as Hannible Lecter’s reptilian mannerisms, or even Darth Vader’s asthmatic deep breathing. But what really makes him impressive is how he evolved the character. The ever-changing “let’s put a smile on that face” story is a brilliant homage to the character’s inconsistent origin in the comics.

In short, Ledger gave the most memorable and influential performance of the year, and he should be up for Best Actor as opposed to Best Supporting. I realize that the full title of the awards is “Best Actor in a Leading Role” and “Best Actor in A Supporting Role,” but that is not how people refer to them, or how they are thought of. Best Actor is considered the most powerful male performance of the season. By contrast, Best Supporting Actor is thought of as the best nonessential role that elevates quality of the film. And I actually believe that this arrangement is completely appropriate.

The problem is that the Academy is developing a habit of mislabeling antagonists as ‘Supporting Roles’ when they want to honor two leading performances. In some cases, this is an appropriate classification. But can there be any doubt as to whether Anton Chigurh was a leading role, or if The Dark Knight was as much about The Joker as it was about the titular hero? The academy does it do avoid controversy. It is a lazy, half-assed attempt to appease audiences who would cry foul if their candidate walked away empty-handed and it compromises the critical integrity of the Oscars. Best Supporting is effectively reduced to a runner-up ribbon that cheapens the performances of its recipients, and the guy who walks off with the Best Actor Oscar should be humbled knowing he was spared some of the stiffest competition. Worst of all, actual supporting roles worthy of merit now have no hope of taking home an Oscar.

Then there is the lack of a best picture nom. Honestly, if a movie featuring so much technical innovation, an all star cast and one of the most memorable and influential performances in years can’t even contend, what does it take? From what I have observed in the past, winning a best picture boiled down to two main criteria:
1: You have to be a big budget production that employs half of Hollywood.
2: You have to be a timeless story with universal appeal.

In the past few years however, a few international and independent films have taken home top honors. Films with minimal budget’s and star power which manage to become critics’ darlings, because they prove that film can be more than literature made easy. Consequently they tend to be ‘harder’ to watch and less popular. Don’t worry I’m moving on. Films whose stories fall within the realms of para-literature, (Comic books, Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy; you know, nerdy shit) straddle these two approaches to Best-Picturedom. Though their themes are broadly accessible, their obscure trappings prevent universal appeal, and they are usually too commercial for the critics to enjoy. Therefore they must satisfy themselves with make-up and special effect awards.

The academy made an exception for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy because A) Tolkien’s work is regarded as the highest example of the fantasy genre and B) the movies’ cast and production values fulfilled criteria 1 several times over. The original Superman movie also managed to take home best picture, because it was the first superhero movie, based on the first super hero. Being the first is worth quite a bit. Having the one of the most memorable score from Hollywood’s best beloved composer didn’t hurt either. Interestingly, I have to admit that music was one area where Dark Knight fell rather flat for me.

Despite that shortcoming though, I couldn’t help but feel that Batman deserved to compete for best picture. Then again, even if he did, I would not want to see him win. You see, Slumdog Millionaire, is the best picture of the year. But I’ll talk about that next time

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