Triumph of the Gimps

24 July 2012

My review of the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – a film so unrelentingly fascist that it makes Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will look like an episode of Playschool.

“Every woman loves a Fascist/The boot in the face”, Sylvia Plath famously wrote in her poem “Daddy”, a disturbing work tracing her ambivalent attitudes to her German father and the Fascist inheritance of his generation. If this week’s events are anything to go by, Plath’s words seem definitive of the modern age. As in the 1980s, the decade of big hair, shoulderpads, brick phones, power lunches, exercise videos and Jackie Collins-penned bonkbusters, we’re as relentlessly obsessed with money, power, status, physical perfection and domination as we ever were. While the horrors of Syria’s totalitarian regime unravel daily in the papers, and the appallingly written Fifty Shades of Grey novel series (chronicling a woman’s attraction to a handsome millionaire who entices her into a sado-masochistic relationship) continues its dominance of the bestseller’s list, London braces itself for the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday, an event that draws inevitable comparison with the 1936 Olympics, in which the racist ideology of the Third Reich was showcased troublingly (albeit handsomely) in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films.

With this moral landscape in view, it seemed appropriate to go and see The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s grim, apocalyptic conclusion to his trilogy of Batman movies – a film so unrelentingly fascist that it makes Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will look like an episode of Playschool.

Movies based on comic book characters tend to be a bit fascist in any case, as their narratives are typically about superhumans displaying extraordinary reserves of strength and power, culminating in a pitched battle for world domination with a hulking specimen of evil. Culturally, these stories satisfy very old human needs for narratives about heroism, the struggle between good and evil, and the duality of human existence (since superheroes are often ordinary people with day jobs, struggling with their larger-than-life alter egos). Viewed more cynically, comics simply assert an unrealistic and dangerous obsession with the concept of a Nietzschean Superman (as with most things totalitarian, it sounds better in German: Übermensch), the crushing of the weak by the strong, and to play out violent fantasies of mass-destruction.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been praised for remaining true to the original spirit of the comic books, but for bringing a serious-mindedness, critical intelligence and (according to Variety) a “moral urgency” to modern filmmaking via his revival of the franchise. He’s supposedly the thinking person’s action and adventure director: making films that are dark, morally complex and thoughtful and thus capturing a smarter and more intellectual movie-going demographic. It’s true that Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are made thoughtfully and intelligently, and have a degree of psychological realism missing from most other films in the genre: in all three, there’s an attempt to show the psychological damage caused by engaging in violence and murder, which makes the inevitable shoot-em-up body count feel less disposable.

Even working within the formula of the superhero genre film, Nolan’s work seems intent on exploring something of the troubled world we live in and trying to characterise America’s state of mass panic and post-traumatic stress disorder in the decade post 9/11. And, somewhat impressively for a Hollywood director, he isn’t afraid of advancing plots that require a bit of intelligence and concentration to follow: from the opening, credit-less scenes of each film, he plunges audiences into a labyrinth of complex, interconnected and occasionally incoherent storylines. (Watching his films sometimes feels like sitting up all night with a caffeine-wired insomniac who’s bursting with continuous thoughts and ideas.) He’s also attracted an unusually lustrous cast of actors to work with, lead by the sublimely dishy Christian Bale – who, despite his chameleonic quality will always be for me Patrick Bateman, the grinning psychopath from American Psycho, the definitive study on the perils of unrestrained 1980s capitalism and the fascist fantasies of domination lurking in the shadows of the American Dream.

All of this should make me disposed to like Christopher Nolan and want to support his filmmaking. So, why then did watching The Dark Knight Rises feel like being repeatedly pummelled by a gang of Droogs, and left cowering like Winston in 1984 underneath the jackboot of some totalitarian power?

The critics, including the BBC’s puppyishly enthusiastic film geek Mark Kermode, have been lavishing praise on The Dark Knight Rises, applauding its “darkness” (which these days is supposedly a moniker of intelligence and craft), its seriousness of purpose and the sense of satisfaction of seeing the trilogy concluded without resorting to easy tricks. My only conclusion after watching it (apart from noting that I should stock up on migraine medication to decompress after listening to Hans Zimmer’s pounding War of the Worlds-on-speed score) was that film critics are a bunch of well-read masochists. The Dark Knight Rises might well be the breakthrough film in Hollywood where we realise once and for all that the relationship of filmmaker to audience is that of master and submissive, and that watching a Hollywood movie involves (metaphorically) spreading our cheeks and submitting to a three-hour gimp slapping until we learn to enjoy it.

Nolan’s grim, muddy grey Gotham and cast of humourless furrow-browed protagonists suggests that totalitarian rule is inevitable, and our only remaining choice in this panicked post 9/11 age is to which version of totalitarian rule we want to submit to. The line between superhero and fascist dictator is always a question of degree, and Nolan appears to want to save Batman from mindless thuggery by playing up his emotional backstory  as a lonely orphaned aristocrat and slight social autistic, his personal relationships (especially with Alfred his Cockney butler, played hammily but with charm and feeling by Michael Caine) and his ongoing existential crisis about his double life as a masked gimp with a winged car.

At the start of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has retired Batman and hobbles around his mansion as a Howard Hughes-like recluse, his life bereft of purpose, and his knees bereft of cartilage after one too many racy martial arts sequences in earlier films. Through various plot convolutions, he’s sent into physical and spiritual exile from which he must find Zen-like reserves of courage and strength to enable him to re-emerge as The Batman. It’s an impressive attempt to flesh out and ennoble the character, especially as played by Bale who projects aristocratic hauteur and vague unlikeability even as he effortlessly embodies the aesthetic ideals of a movie-star superhero.

But after what feels like an eternity of self-reflection at the bottom of a hole, I couldn’t help but feel that this was just pseudo-intellectual padding to fill in time before we could get down to the real business of the film: guys in muscle suits riding around in huge machines, shooting each other with huge guns, and blowing a lot of shit up. It’s in these moments that the filmmaking suddenly becomes cleaner, brighter, more urgent, and when we finally see our way out of the complicated haze that the rest of the film exists in. You can almost hear the producers breathing a sigh of relief as the film dispenses with the pseudo-intellectual clap-trap and get back to the commercial imperative (guns, explosions, body horror) that sells movie tickets.

I’ve never been into shoot-em-up movies, but it was especially uncomfortable watching prolonged scenes of gun violence in The Dark Knight Rises only 48 hours after the news of the Colorado gunman killing 12 people and wounding 58 others at a midnight screening of the very same film. I don’t hold with associating the massacre with the film, or blaming gun violence on the influence of cinema, which smacks of the worst kind of short-sighted knee-jerk reaction thinking. That being said, it did make me wonder whether there’s anything to be gained, for me or for society at large, to watch filmed entertainment of people being killed in a (mostly) consequence-free environment when we can instead turn on the TV news and see massacres on a daily basis.

The most frustrating aspect of The Dark Knight Returns is its serious-minded but somewhat ham-fisted attempts to tackle “big themes” about power and responsibility and tap into the post-9/11 post-recession Zeitgeist. From the opening scenes of the film, Gotham City is dripping with resentment for the idle monied (as personified by Bruce Wayne), and Selena Kyle uses her Catwoman persona to do a little redistribution of wealth via jewellery heists, upbraiding Bruce in a purry whisper about the unfairness of capitalism and warning about the revolution to come. “How long do you think all this can last?”, she purrs into Bruce’s ear on the dance floor of a high-society charity ball. After a little verbal sparring, she continues: “There’s a storm coming. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, ’cause when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”Later, when Bruce tells her that he’s gone bankrupt but can still keep his house, she responds acidly that “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us”. It’s the wittiest dialogue of the entire film, deliciously delivered by Anne Hathaway, and guaranteed to be more memorable than most of the plodding expositional dialogue delivered by the other actors (especially Marion Cotillard, a normally fantastic actress who’s deathly dull here).

The storm that Selina prophesises is lead by Bane, who leads a guerrilla campaign that, in its early stages anyway, looks remarkably similar to the Occupy movement. He and his thugs storm the Stock Exchange and disable its computer system, in between terrorising a few bullish traders and taking them hostage. It’s an oddly filmed sequence, designed to show the horror of armed vigilanteism, but also to allow the audience some vicarious thrills at seeing arrogant stockbrokers get their comeuppance.  Later, Bane makes a series of speeches – outside City Hall, in the rubble of a football stadium he’s just destroyed – in which he speaks of giving Gotham City back to the people, using rhetoric drawn almost directly from the Occupy movement (and from the Bolshevik and French Revolutions before it). Critical to Selina/Catwoman’s motivation is the sourcing of a computer chip which will allow people to delete their financial records (and, presumably, all debt) and return to zero, an alluring piece of magical thinking to all those in debt, which echoes the real-life efforts of celebrity hipsters like Bono to try and get 1st World countries to cancel 3rd World debt.

So far, so good: there’s much to admire about Nolan’s channeling of contemporary anti-capitalist sentiment to fortify and add nuance to a film about goodies and baddies in capes. But where Nolan takes it after that is quite baffling, suggesting that his politics aren’t as liberal or reactionary as we originally thought. Bane’s campaign isn’t about liberating the people: like most comic book villains, he’s a violent psychopath who’s bent on mass destruction. Under his control, Gotham City descends into a vigilante state, with mock trials of “enemies of the people” and sacking of wealthy homes that recalls the French Reign of Terror and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Nolan and his gifted cinematographer Wally Pfister draw extensively from Lean’s film of Dr Zhivago in these scenes, even setting Gotham under seige in the snow and recreating a bloody siege that’s clearly modelled on Lean’s staging of a bloody riot between Cossacks and peasants. The Zhivago referencing isn’t just a cineaste’s affectation – it fortifies Nolan’s view that all revolutions, regardless of their noble intentions, will inevitably descend into violence and end up establishing a worse regime than what went before.

This view of left-wing revolution is unromantic, but pretty realistic, as borne out by most of the failed experiments in Socialism in the 20th century, almost all of which ended up as totalitarianism. In the case of Nolan’s film, that leaves the “goodies” with two remaining options: to submit to the authority of the State (represented here by Gary Oldman as the only uncorruptable cop on the force) or to the authority of a frostily unemotional superhero wearing a cape and a mask. Some commentators on the film have gone further, arguing that The Dark Knight Rises is in fact a paean to social conservatism. In an interesting article in the Guardian, Mark Fisher writes that the film’s apparent anti-capitalist messages “is only allowed within limits”. He continues:

The Dark Knight Rises draws clear lines: anti-capitalist comment (of the kind that [Selina] Kyle makes) is fine, but any direct action against the rich, or revolutionary moves towards the redistribution of property, will lead to dystopian nightmare…. it’s tempting to read The Dark Knight Rises as an allegory for the attempts by the elite to rebuild their standing after the financial crisis – or at least to preserve the idea that there are good rich who, if suitably humbled, can save capitalism from its worst excesses.

The sustaining fantasy of Nolan’s Batman films… is that the excesses of finance capital can be curbed by a combination of philanthropy, off-the-books violence and symbolism…. the new film demonises collective action against capital while asking us to put our hope and faith in a chastened rich.”

Nolan adds to this an interesting layer of dom-sub power play that wouldn’t be out of place in a Vauxhall S&M sex club. Perhaps I’ve read too much Freud, but it was this final instalment that made the most convincing case for Batman as a snotty, self-pitying middle aged gay man who can’t pull the guys like he used to, and who becomes enthralled by the appeal of a dominant Daddy figure. Again, and again, and again, Wayne/Batman is repeatedly gimp-slapped by Bane, a villain in a gas mask and a fur-lined WWII bomber jacket that almost out-gays Batman’s very gay rubber gimp suit and mask. Bruce/Batman, like the long-suffering audience, learns that life is painful and that the best – if not the only – option is to take the pain like the bitch he is, get on his knees (ignoring the pain in his cartilage) and serve his higher power.

Much as I’d like to applaud Nolan for his seriousness, it mostly just plays as grandiosity and pomposity, punctuated by some entertaining but offputting excursions into pulpy camp. The more I look at The Dark Knight Rises, the more that Batman-as-a-prissy-queen theory works. Bruce/Batman certainly seems more turned on by being smacked around by Bane than he is exchanging camp one-liners with Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman (whose subtle, sultry and deliciously deadpan performance is one of the few unambiguous pleasures in the film, as is the sight of her leather-clad booty kicking some serious ass). His hissy fit when Selina rifles through his jewellery drawer and tries on his Mummy’s pearl necklace is worthy of a great drag diva. And don’t even get me started on the (ponderously long) middle sequence where Bruce spends ages trying manfully to scramble out of Bane’s mighty orifice. I’m being tongue-in-cheek, of course (particularly if it’s Christian Bale’s butt cheeks under discussion), but it’s no more preposterous than the film itself.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, I’d advise skipping the cost of an IMAX ticket and heading down to your local leather bar, where you’ll see steroid-pumped muscle marys in Batman and Bane gimp masks growling “I will break you” as they beat each other up, before going home to redecorate their own Wayne Mansions. If the future of the world is designer gay fascism, we’d all better get used to it.

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