Monday, July 21, 2008

A Gotham in Trouble

Briefly: The Dark Knight upset and unnerved me more thoroughly than any movie since INLAND EMPIRE—not least because I wasn't really expecting such a brutal sideswipe into dementia and misery and the impossibility of justice, and not least because both films force you into such determined, relentless intimacy with these horrible grimacing masks of high-voltage terrorism and despair. Also, not least because, as a Chicago filmgoer, I had to walk out of this spectacle of Gotham eating itself alive and right into the city on the screen: creepy in the extreme. The Dark Knight's glories (ambition, scope, seriousness, sheen) and its lapses (protraction, editing coherence, subplot management) have been and will be well-rehearsed elsewhere. But let me go on record as saying what I haven't heard anyone else say: this movie scared the shit out of me.

And boy does Heath Ledger deserve whatever posthumous awards and nominations are coming his way, but let me again go on record as saying what I haven't heard anyone else say: he's not a supporting actor in this movie. The movie would be as hobbled without him as without Bale/Batman. He is a LEAD, and a brilliant one. Please consider him as such when you discuss him amongst yourselves.

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Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Finally, somebody willing to class Heath Ledger where he deserves to be. But, sadly, I doubt the awards bodies will follow. He's been hyped up already as Supporting and I'd be pleasantly surprised if they somehow went against all that hype, but I doubt it.

3:20 AM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

True, it'll never happen ... but thanks for seconding the motion!

8:46 AM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger Dr. S said...

You know, the *trailer* scares the shit out of me. I'm not sure I'm going to be seeing this one; my world might already feel precarious enough without any help from Nolan & Co.

11:41 AM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger Criticlasm said...

Totally agree--this movie unnerved me for several reasons, the first being the astounding work that Ledger does. It actually throws the work off balance for me. Once I write about it I'll send you a link.

12:00 PM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Something else no one else has said: I wasn't expecting this comparison point at all, but it's the movie The Departed wanted to be and wasn't.

And it wowed me extra in IMAX.

I hope this doesn't mean you won't be backing a Ledger nomination/win in the supporting category Nick. It may not be where he belongs (I'm not entirely sure myself: having seen it twice now, I actually think Eckhart has at least as much screen time as him or Bale, the three-way carve-up of their performances, and even the love triangle with Maggie, being part of that Departed echo for me). But you've got to know it's where he'll end up.

What I love in this whole dynamic, in response to criticlasm's point, is how Ledger is entirely there to throw the movie off-balance. It is totally outside your usual superhero comfort zone, in terms of the function of a villain, his completely wacko agenda and placement in the story. I'd argue he's neither "lead" nor "supporting", in a way, but "Best Actor in a Flamboyantly Destabilising Major Role" is sadly an Oscar category they have yet to invent. Plus, does it much matter? It's just fantastic work.

5:47 PM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...


i didn't think i'd have to read LEAD here when we're usually soldiers in arms about category fraud.

ah well.

7:37 PM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

and since when does hobbling a movie if you're not in it make you a lead. A lot of movies wouldn't be the movies they are (at all) with great supporting work?

sorry. natty is in a very bad mood due to Dark Knight fanaticism and conformity police.

7:57 PM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dr. S: I totally hear ya. I want to see the movie again to think through some of my interests in it as well as my reservations about it, but I really don't think I can. (More from me soon about your side-project: I have more ideas!)

@Criticlasm: Looking forward to that link!

@Tim R: Completely agree that the Joker is a huge monkey wrench in the usual, archetypal plot structure. That's probably true in the script, but the script and the direction still go for a "duality"/dialectic thing that Ledger's style and forcefulness completely exceeds: he really does get the chaos thing, but it's controlled chaos.

I won't call "foul" if he's commemorated as supporting here, since I at least understand the arguments (unlike some of the more egregiously wrong classifications of recent years), and I'm happy for whatever forms of credit accrue to his legacy after this performance. But yep, I do think Bale, Ledger, and Eckhart are all leads here, as nearly equal centers of gravity for the scene structures and for everything The Dark Knight is about. The Departed analogy is really provocative, and I hadn't thought of it at all, though there's a puerile, florid sort of (overcompensating) criminal joy that seems pretty key to what The Departed is chasing that The Dark Knight never comes within a timezone of. Even the Joker's too far out on a precipice of sadistic madness to share the kind of back-slappy, fistfuls-of-cocaine, fratboy thing that's somewhere in Departed's gene-pool. But that's my only point of hesitation: in every other way, I totally get you and will keep thinking about this.

@Nathaniel: Whoa, grouchy! We may not agree on this, but is it really fraudulent to think of the Joker role as a co-lead? I concede that it's not quite fraudulent to seem him as supporting, though I think the case is strongly for lead. I basically think he's Effie White, or better, Velma Kelly: you can see both arguments for the scope of the role, but she's perennially a lead at the Tonys (and the Globes), and only bumped down by Oscar because everyone knew CZJ wouldn't win up top. Maybe watching all these old 30s movies is making me more frustrated about how thoroughly the Supporting classifications have drifted from their initial design of honoring truly from-the-sidelines work (in this case Caine, Freeman, Gyllenhaal). I take your point about the "hobbling" point, but I mean it pretty strongly: yes, it would hurt Chicago enormously to lack Mama Morton, but Chicago could barely be or do or say anything it is or does or says without Velma (esp. on stage), even if Roxie is an even "leadier" lead. As you know, I think people are way too addicted to the "there can only be one lead" thing, and I just want to make a strong argument for the logical implications of The Dark Knight's triangulated character relationships. (I think the same should have been true for No Country, incidentally: Josh Brolin may be the "leadiest" but TLJ and Bardem aren't "supporting" him or the movie so much as leading it along in their own ways, often inheriting large and anchoring parts of the film, like Ledger does here.

And Tim, you're right: this is all jejune in the face of the power and creativity of the actual work, performance and film.

9:54 PM, July 21, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i get ya with the lead structure of THE DEPARTED as comparison... (though i'm inclined to view that one as a two lead film, with the twin moles doing the double lead duties)

sorry i was way grouchy.

i've just trying valiantly not to be soured on this movie by the extravagance of the vitriol greeting anybody who doesn't bow down.

I liked it. There's some genius stuff in it (Ledger, a few shots here and there) but it's also riddled with sloppiness --those scenes that end without explanation, cheap red herrings and the sloppiness of small details like a yacht full of russian ballerians who all look like playboy bunnies. I guess Nolan has never seen a real life ballerina --they just aren't the T & A types.

5:45 AM, July 22, 2008  
Blogger Colin Low said...

How apt that No Country for Old Men has been mentioned, since I'm raising it in lieu of The Departed as another movie that aspired to what The Dark Knight achieves: The Joker sets aflame the money that Anton Chigurh tracked down, and has a grandeur and true arbitrariness to his killings to which Chigurh never comes close; Gotham City is less a country for Hollywood veterans like Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman than Texas was for Tommy-Lee Jones; a loved one dies almost simply for having been loved; and Bruce Wayne is an almost-reluctant protagonist of his film, strung along in the wake of the unexpected repercussions of his initial attempt to do something right. Even the motif of the fatal coin-toss is repeated (though Dark Knight pales to No Country in at least this respect)!

I have more nascent thoughts on The Dark Knight, and hopefully they'll find their shape in words, although -- as you have alluded to, Nick -- I doubt my upcoming repeat viewing of the movie will clarify my thoughts. It's such a primal experience that intellectualising its glories almost seems to diminish them.

8:06 AM, July 25, 2008  
Blogger Colin Low said...

I'm surprised at you, Nathaniel. Category fraud is a problem when a lead actor is hailed as a supporting one, not the other way around. To rail against it is to be a stalwart defender for supporting actors, whose work of crafting a full character at the edges of someone else's story is difficult enough without having to compete against those actors for whom the script casts a spotlight. And The Dark Knight hands itself to Heath Ledger on a platter, requiring him only to live up to its demands: it starts with the Joker; each story turn and conflict reflects another facet of the Joker; and even after the film has left him dangling (literally), the face-off between the three other principals of the film is due to the Joker's instigations. He's even more of a co-lead in The Dark Knight than Meryl Streep was in The Devil Wears Prada (and you awarded her the FB Gold Award as a lead), since there are some scenes in the latter movie that digress into Anne Hathaway's circle of insipid "friends".

And sure, at least Meryl had the title role of her film, but Shylock didn't have it in The Merchant of Venice, and yet his dark, flamboyant malevolence so thoroughly pervades the play that he's an undeniable co-lead to the similarly outcast Antonio -- in a contemporary reading, anyway. But couldn't you envision a different ideological era in which the Joker is the downtrodden champion of the audience, and Batman a superficial lead, misguided and hypocritical, in the same way that the Holocaust has irrevocably coloured our interpretations of Merchant?

4:44 AM, July 27, 2008  

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