Denby Makes Four

In the 7.21 New Yorker, there are two familiar but distinctively shaped impressions of The Dark Knight from critic David Denby — awed praise for the performance of Heath Ledger, and another lament (the fourth so far from a cultivated dead-tree critic) about feeling throttled and numbed-down into a state that of confusion and lethargy. I thnk it’s fair to say at this juncture that Dark Knight contrarians are now officially a mini-movement — Denby, Edelstein, Ansen and Thompson.

“The great Ledger…shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He’s part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He’s mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in Brokeback Mountain. It’s a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery.
“At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you’re watching him, you can’t help wondering — in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism — how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.
And here’s the scolding downer stuff…
“Many things go boom [in The Dark Knight}. Cars explode, jails and hospitals are blown up, bombs are put in people’s mouths and sewn into their stomachs. There’s a chase scene in which cars pile up and climb over other cars, and a truck gets lassoed by Batman (his one neat trick) and tumbles through the air like a diver doing a back flip. Men crash through windows of glass-walled office buildings, and there are many fights that employ the devastating martial-arts system known as the Keysi Fighting Method.
Christian Bale, who plays Bruce Wayne (and Batman), spent months training under the masters of the ferocious and delicate K.F.M. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a thing about it, because the combat is photographed close up, in semidarkness, and cut at the speed of a fifteen-second commercial. Instead of enjoying the formalized beauty of a fighting discipline, we see a lot of flailing movement and bodies hitting the floor like grain sacks.

“All this ruckus is accompanied by pounding thuds on the soundtrack, with two veteran Hollywood composers (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) providing additional bass-heavy stomps in every scene, even when nothing is going on. At times, the movie sounds like two excited mattresses making love in an echo chamber. In brief, Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry, fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton’s original conception for “Batman” (1989), completing the job of coarsening the material into hyperviolent summer action spectacle.
In other words, Denby “can’t rate The Dark Knight as an outstanding piece of craftsmanship. Batman Begins was grim and methodical, and this movie is grim and jammed together. The narrative isn’t shaped coherently to bring out contrasts and build toward a satisfying climax. The Dark Knight is constant climax; it’s always in a frenzy, and it goes on forever.
“Nothing is prepared for, and people show up and disappear without explanation; characters are eliminated with a casual nod. There are episodes that are expensively meaningless (a Hong Kong vignette, for instance), while crucial scenes are truncated at their most interesting point — such as the moment in which the disfigured Joker confronts a newly disfigured Harvey Dent (a visual sick joke) and turns him into a vicious killer. The thunderous violence and the music jack the audience up. But all that screw-tightening tension isn’t necessarily fun.
The Dark Knight has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it — while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next installment of the corporate franchise.”
This last graph sounds like it came from the same well as that rant I published last Tuesday (“Boom Fart, Whee! and Splat”), to wit: “The world is collapsing, descending into chaos, destroying itself with tribal warfare and asphyxiating itself with fossil fuels. And in a certain spiritual way, corporate Hollywood product is a part of this implosion/self destruction.”

27 thoughts on “Denby Makes Four

  1. Is it really important that we see how Batman kicks ass? He’s Batman! He kicks ass! The fact that it’s all done in rapid edited, shadowed and closeups just adds to the fact that he’s a well-oiled machine when he’s kicking ass.
    Oh, my God, did I just write that?
    Got to log off now… Mom’s calling down that breakfast is ready.

  2. ‘Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry, fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton’s original conception for “Batman” (1989)’.
    Since when was Chris Nolan seeking to maintain anything to do with Tim Burton’s “original conception” (unless you ever read The Dark Knight Returns, that is) of Batman? With either Batman Begins or Dark Knight? He wasn’t. He isn’t. Begins was a reboot, and a damn fine one (third act missteps notwithstanding).
    And as for continued drainage, I think Mr Denby will find that Warners pumped a hell of a lot more fantasy and comedy into Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, as a direct reaction *against* Burton’s apparently not comedic or fantastic enough approach. Result: franchise implosion and the hiring of Mr Nolan in the first place.

  3. “The Dark Knight has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it …”
    This is what I find interesting. I have not yet seen The Dark Knight but when the buzz started, many said it would be the first really great allusion to post 9/11 in a “pop” film. Now, reading many of those reviews, most of them do not mention 9/11 allusions at all.
    Is it because such an analogy would make TDK a film that has a neo-conservatifve view on the war on terror? Batman Begins is/was certainly seen as a right-wing film in many quaters and it seems if anything, TDK would be a film that says that true evil does exist and sometime you need to confront it. Of course you may lose a little bit of yourself along the way.
    By not making any excuses for The Joker other than he likes to kill, it seems Nolan is getting away from the sort of handwringing that mars so many of these films. The complexity arises in the little loss of soul it takes to fight true unflinching evil.
    Again, I have not seen the film, but could the fact that it seems to be a war on terror analogy from the right and not the left be why so many people are not talking about this element anymore?
    The fact that it is Batman using the surveillance equipment I have read about would see, to put him in the America/George Bush position even if the film subtley critiques it. Based on what I have read though, ultimately Lucius says he will make an exception “this one time”.
    Again, I have not seen the flick, but am wondering if this subtext is why people are now talking less and less about these analogies. Kind of like how some people do not want to talk about the obvious left wing analogies in the wonderful Wall-E.

  4. I’m absolutely sick to the teeth of hearing, seeing, knowing anything about it anymore at this stage. It’s been shown to me, dissected for me and now analysed and reviewed for me and I haven’t even seen the bloody thing. This is what’s called saturation point, right? How is anyone supposed to maintain any level of objectivity in reviewing a piece at this stage? The level of blind, gobbling praise and derision for this movie is akin to the coverage Brangelina get for simply existing. It’s a superhero film; it’s not The Seventh bloody Seal.

  5. This is humorous, are you going to go to the trouble of pointing out the handful of negative, contrarian reviews for all of the mostly well-reviewed films this year? Or are you just letting us know that you’ve already made up your mind about this particular film before having seen it?
    Why don’t you see the film before playing into the contrarian “mini-movement?”

  6. Wells is incapabel of being anything BUT contrarian.
    He plays the anti-buzz game for every big movie released, and he plays the pro-buzz game for every small movie that fails to find an audience.
    He’ll cheer on the five people alive cheering on “Che,” and seek out the five people bashing “The Dark Knight.”
    It’s what he does, it gets him hits, and it gets people posting.

  7. While I don’t know Nolan’s political stripes, Batman Begins always struck me as a very liberal movie. The common thread was compassion and justice as opposed to vengeance and self-gratification. Much of Dawes’ philosophy involved forgoing the selfish wants of the individual for the good of the masses.
    And don’t forget, Thomas Wayne is a good person because he selflessly helps others and uses his money to better the lives of everyone in Gotham. His cheap train is a perfect example of philanthropy. It’s not complete charity because it’s not free to ride, but it’s cheap enough that anyone can use it and not feel like they’re getting handouts.
    And don’t forget that Rutgar Hauer is evil because he cares only about money and self-interested, so he’s kicked out at the end by the now progressive Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox.
    Even Batman’s vigilantism is presented as something that is selfless and meant to inspire the people of Gotham to feel safer and take control of their corrupt city. Batman does not kill and never harms the innocent, but yes he does walk that fine line in terms of being judge and jury. Any movie about a superhero must deal with that, but that doesn’t make Batman a right-winger.
    As for The Dark Knight, it’s true that the FISA issue comes up, but it leaves the issue opened-ended (it is strongly condemned, but we’re presented with a ‘ticking clock scenario’). minor spoiler starts…
    .
    .
    And yes, Batman commits an act of something strongly resembling ‘extraordinary rendition’. It’s more like rendition in the fashion that Clinton originally intended it when he (wrongly) allowed it back in 1998 (no torture, for one thing), but it still gave me the liberal heebie-jeebies. At the very least, it’s the kind of thing that would have caused an international incident in real life, but in the movie is never dealt with (one of several plot holes and bits that hurt the hardcore realism that Nolan is trying for).
    .
    .
    Spoiler ends…
    As for it being right-wing because the Joker is a motiveless killer, that’s just right-wing talking points (that liberals make excuses for every criminal and thus want to set them all free).
    Hell, James Gordon himself made a speech about that subject in an Ed Brubaker written issue of Gotham Central (a series that The Dark Knight cribs from heavily). Basically, Gordon acknowledged that it is fine to feel compassion for criminals who are simply messed up or make stupid childish mistakes, and we can certainly sympathize with their actions now and then. But in order for society to function, it still can’t be completely tolerated, so off to jail they go.
    I don’t recall Nolan feeling too much pity for Jonathan Crane or Ra’s Al Ghul or Carmone Falcone in Batman Begins. That Nolan presented Joe Chill as slightly human does not make him a tree-hugging hippie, nor does his presentation of The Joker as an soulless demon make him an advocate for the Heritage Foundation. It’s a complicated, messy movie that wrestles with big questions. I don’t think it completely aspires to any rigid political dogma.
    Having said that, the very end of the movie… (no plot-specific spoilers, I promise)… seems to justify something that I strongly disagree with, but we’ll discuss that next week when everyone has seen the film.

  8. Scott,
    “As for it being right-wing because the Joker is a motiveless killer, that’s just right-wing talking points (that liberals make excuses for every criminal and thus want to set them all free). ”
    Thank you for your thoguhtful response, but I must say that your interpretation of BB is every bit as filled with left wing talking points. That liberals care and are compassionate but conservatives only care about money and vengeance. You fall into your own trap so to speak. Your interpretation allows for nuance for the left, but none for the right.
    You should go onto some conservative film sites like Dirty Harry’s Place. Conservatives love BB because it shows you can be a private capitalist and do good. You do not have to be greedy or just rely on government handouts. Indeed the good in Gotham comes from private, not public funds. Similarly, the notion that sometimes you do have to fight crime and sometimes evil is just that…evil.
    Again, I appreciate your thoughts and the fact that you laid them out civily, I just do not see how Batman can be perceived in any way as a liberal character. Even the notion of vigilantism seems to bring inherently in it a certain amount of a conservative ethic of law and order. He can still be a complex vigilante, but he is still a vigilante nonetheless. To say he is a liberal vigilante to me seems to be a bit of an oxymoron like saying the ocean is wet dry.
    And is it really only talking points to say liberals always make excuses for evil. Really? Is it really just a talking point to say liberals do not believe in any absolute right or wrong, good or evil? If that is a right wing talking point than it is one that left wing films and directors play into willingly all of the time.
    Anyway, I look forward to seeing the film and thanks for your thoughts.

  9. Fair enough, but I suppose what I meant is that Batman Begins is ‘stereotypically’ liberal. Do conservatives believe in compassion, the good of the many, and charity? Of course some of them do, maybe even most of them.
    But, at point blank, if I told you about a film that was almost communist in its devotion to the good of the masses, that preached compassion, charity through wealth, and good deeds, and allowed for even muggers who kill to be granted a token of humanity, most people would tell you that it’s from a liberal point of view.
    Is that fair to the conservatives who do believe in these things? Not really, but then it’s just as unfair for liberals like me that any movie that deals with strong family bonds, hard work and determination, and personal responsibility is often labeled conservative, as if liberals don’t like those things too.
    I suppose we could agree that both parties have allowed the other side to paint the opposition as lacking in certain values (ie – liberals aren’t patriotic and conservatives are greedy).
    Again, you’re correct, in retrospect, that I committed the same error as I accused you of doing. Thank you for giving me the chance to clarify myself. I greatly look forward to seeing your thoughts on the movie in the next week.

  10. Scott,
    Thanks again. I will repectfully disagree with your opening statement thought. I actually think if you take out the word communist (which only brings oppression to people), most people would not necessarily think that film is liberal. Liberals would because that is how they see themselves. But put in generic enough terms, such a film could be considered by many to be Christian or Catholic…or something else entirely.
    What I was getting at was the ideology of the film and ideology by definition deals with the more extreme and/or ridgid components of a belief system.
    Hence as a capitalist multi-billionaire who thinks good/justice should be done through personal or private means Batman seems to fall into the more right-side of the ideological spectrum. Even moreso with he positive relationship with Gordon, where liberals ideologically see the police as no better or worse than criminals.
    Nevertheless, thanks for your thoughts and I’ll look forward to a larger discussion when we can talk spoilers.

  11. It’s funny how out of the “contrarians” of THE DARK KNIGHT, two of them (Ansen, Thompson), both liked the movie to a certain extent…
    How come there isn’t a post about Michael Phillips and Richard Roeper praising it as one of the best (if not the best) comic book adaptations of all-time and one of the best movie of the year?

  12. I don’t know who here said Bale’s performance reminded them of McGruff, but that nailed it on the head – this is the SAME issue I had with his performance in American Psycho. Bale leaves me cold – lame American accent. So, fuck all the Bale lovers. I’m not joining that bandwagon.

  13. Denby typed: …this movie is grim and jammed together. The narrative isn’t shaped coherently to bring out contrasts and build toward a satisfying climax. The Dark Knight is constant climax; it’s always in a frenzy, and it goes on forever.

    Sounds a bit like real life…and this is supposed to be Batman in the “real” world, no?

  14. While I don’t know Nolan’s political stripes, Batman Begins always struck me as a very liberal movie. The common thread was compassion and justice as opposed to vengeance and self-gratification. Much of Dawes’ philosophy involved forgoing the selfish wants of the individual for the good of the masses.

    And don’t forget, Thomas Wayne is a good person because he selflessly helps others and uses his money to better the lives of everyone in Gotham. His cheap train is a perfect example of philanthropy. It’s not complete charity because it’s not free to ride, but it’s cheap enough that anyone can use it and not feel like they’re getting handouts.

    And don’t forget that Rutgar Hauer is evil because he cares only about money and self-interested, so he’s kicked out at the end by the now progressive Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox.

    Even Batman’s vigilantism is presented as something that is selfless and meant to inspire the people of Gotham to feel safer and take control of their corrupt city. Batman does not kill and never harms the innocent, but yes he does walk that fine line in terms of being judge and jury. Any movie about a superhero must deal with that, but that doesn’t make Batman a right-winger.

    As for The Dark Knight, it’s true that the FISA issue comes up, but it leaves the issue opened-ended (it is strongly condemned, but we’re presented with a ‘ticking clock scenario’). minor spoiler starts…
    .
    .
    And yes, Batman commits an act of something strongly resembling ‘extraordinary rendition’. It’s more like rendition in the fashion that Clinton originally intended it when he (wrongly) allowed it back in 1998 (no torture, for one thing), but it still gave me the liberal heebie-jeebies. At the very least, it’s the kind of thing that would have caused an international incident in real life, but in the movie is never dealt with (one of several plot holes and bits that hurt the hardcore realism that Nolan is trying for).
    .
    .
    Spoiler ends…

    As for it being right-wing because the Joker is a motiveless killer, that’s just right-wing talking points (that liberals make excuses for every criminal and thus want to set them all free).

    Hell, James Gordon himself made a speech about that subject in an Ed Brubaker written issue of Gotham Central (a series that The Dark Knight cribs from heavily). Basically, Gordon acknowledged that it is fine to feel compassion for criminals who are simply messed up or make stupid childish mistakes, and we can certainly sympathize with their actions now and then. But in order for society to function, it still can’t be completely tolerated, so off to jail they go.

    I don’t recall Nolan feeling too much pity for Jonathan Crane or Ra’s Al Ghul or Carmone Falcone in Batman Begins. That Nolan presented Joe Chill as slightly human does not make him a tree-hugging hippie, nor does his presentation of The Joker as an soulless demon make him an advocate for the Heritage Foundation. It’s a complicated, messy movie that wrestles with big questions. I don’t think it completely aspires to any rigid political dogma.

    Having said that, the very end of the movie… (no plot-specific spoilers, I promise)… seems to justify something that I strongly disagree with, but we’ll discuss that next week when everyone has seen the film.

  15. Fair enough, but I suppose what I meant is that Batman Begins is ‘stereotypically’ liberal. Do conservatives believe in compassion, the good of the many, and charity? Of course some of them do, maybe even most of them.

    But, at point blank, if I told you about a film that was almost communist in its devotion to the good of the masses, that preached compassion, charity through wealth, and good deeds, and allowed for even muggers who kill to be granted a token of humanity, most people would tell you that it’s from a liberal point of view.

    Is that fair to the conservatives who do believe in these things? Not really, but then it’s just as unfair for liberals like me that any movie that deals with strong family bonds, hard work and determination, and personal responsibility is often labeled conservative, as if liberals don’t like those things too.

    I suppose we could agree that both parties have allowed the other side to paint the opposition as lacking in certain values (ie – liberals aren’t patriotic and conservatives are greedy).

    Again, you’re correct, in retrospect, that I committed the same error as I accused you of doing. Thank you for giving me the chance to clarify myself. I greatly look forward to seeing your thoughts on the movie in the next week.

  16. I don’t quite understand some of the new critical fondness for Burton’s “Batman” in light of Nolan’s new franchise. As I remember, Burton’s films were virtually plotless and took extreme liberties with the source material just to satisfy his own perverse imagination (like the Catwoman in “Returns” being brought back to life by cats licking her — please). I think all the Batfilms before “Begins” were drubbed by the critics, and pretty rightfully so. Even Burton’s original just doesn’t hold up, and Nicholson’s chubby, buffoonish Joker is no match for Ledger.
    “The Dark Knight” is not a perfect film, but it is a great, riveting, terrifying genre effort. It strives to be and frequently is something much more than just a comic-book movie or mindless feel-good summer “ride.” Now some critics complain that they wish it was more of that? Some of these guys, I swear, would say the sky is red just so that they could still position themselves as the “cool kids” who don’t go along with the crowd.

  17. it’s funny, i wonder how much of this is an IMAX issue. i saw it in Sydney on the big screen yesterday and found it hard to bracket, and i’m a 29 year old filmmaker not a geriatric critic. filmmakers put immense effort into framing shots and on that size screen you really don’t have a sense for the frame, you’re just lost in the middle of it. and when it cuts as hard as it does… well, the effect can be overwhealming and not in a good way.
    i loved the film still, loved it’s ambition and complexity but my one mark against it was it’s lack of control. i’m seeing it again on wednesday in a movie theatre to see how different the effect is.

  18. I fully expect to enjoy the movie a little more when I see it in a regular theater next week (or at least sit at the very back of the IMAX theater). The IMAX effect was truly wondrous, but it did make it harder to really comprehend every nitty-gritty detail of a very over-complicated movie. Let me know how it goes for you on Wednesday.

  19. Can’t wait for the movie.and I will send it to my friends on ~~~ TALLMEET .COM ~~~~..I find many friends there and I share my life with them..many people there upload their nice pics there..

  20. I fully expect to enjoy the movie a little more when I see it in a regular theater next week (or at least sit at the very back of the IMAX theater). The IMAX effect was truly wondrous, but it did make it harder to really comprehend every nitty-gritty detail of a very over-complicated movie. Let me know how it goes for you on Wednesday.

  21. Left the screning last night, ran into a colleague in the lobby, I didn’t even ask if he’d seen the movie or what he thought. He quickly volunteered this gem: “I don’t want to hear who the hero is or isn’t or what makes a hero or what makes evil or what the difference is, for as long as I live.”
    Well, er, ah, yes, there actually is a line from a Syd Field writing manual in the middle of the film, about “immovable object versus unstoppable force.” But I figured that was for those ambitious fans who wanted to access the Cliff’s Notes simultaneously with the action aerobics.
    In unrelated news, Nic Roeg sent me a fascinating note that contained this interesting critique of the current Hollywood film scene: it’s not “youthful” enough.
    Did I say “unrelated?”

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