Sunday, August 31, 2008

Telluride #2: Amor fati.

by Ryland Walker Knight

a shock

Two very different films that linked up rather well before and after lunch yesterday. It's hard to compare them at first glance but there's something going on in that programming choice beyond the masculine masterpiece of old followed by a pretty smart contemporary comedy populated primarily with women. A quick reduction: Sternberg's phenomenal understanding of the cinema as material as much as medium gives his mise-en-scene a palpable quality of light (whites burn, blacks pool, smoke hangs dense), and amplifies the melodrama in ways you don't see now. Leigh's new film is just so full of affection (the camera pushes in close and stays there) for its characters that I could not resist its hilarious and stubbornly optimistic embrace of this world, which elevates its perhaps simple story. I was pretty giddy, and touched: both films subscribe to that notion that life is worth living, and loving, even when it gets ugly, despite the troubles of acting in the world (with other people, by its rules, as love). Both offer enormous generosity towards their characters, but each takes a different tack to profess the frequent failure but persistent drive to love everything that pushes lives forward: The Last Command is a tragedy structured around loss (of memory, of capacities, of meaning) that ends with a (rather triumphant and restorative) death while Happy-Go-Lucky is a comedy of manners, of sorts, structured around lessons about how to move within the world with productive, joyful creativity. Plus, Sally Hawkins is nothing but lovely, even when she's annoying, because her Poppy really seems to believe that there's good to do, even if it's just putting your smile into the world.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Telluride #1: A look ahead.

by Ryland Walker Knight

ari, looking

After a raucous eight hour drive complete with lunch stop in Paonia, I had time for the briefest of showers before our first Symposium function where, among other pleasantries, we were given our schedule for the weekend. Suffice to say, this looks to be fun. This morning and early afternoon are our pretty much our only free time so I thought I'd go ahead and detail what I've got in store ahead. And this is just a sliver of what the festival has to offer this year. Still, I don't think I'll be able to offer precise thoughts on all of this, but I'll give it a shot. Stay tuned.


Most of the afternoon will be spent with the symposium, talking to Ken Burns, Peter Sellars and Paolo Cherchi-Usai. Linda Williams said Burns and Sellars have something of a spiel to impart but she hope we'll be able to ask some questions, and that we'll definitely have the opportunity for good conversation with Cherchi-Usai. Given his involvement with Kevin's project, I hope I can ask him about the role of criticism in film history, and preservation, beyond the obvious "more eyes can't hurt" argument. After that there's the "Opening Night Feed" with the rest of the town. Tonight we get to see Waltz With Bashir (dig) and A Private Century (a series of short films by Jan Sikl about memory using amateur "home movies").

We get started early discussing films with the group before seeing The Last Command (Sternberg, 1928) before a quick lunch and an early afternoon screening of Mike Leigh's new film, Happy-Go-Lucky. In the afternoon we get to talk to one the festival's tributary David Fincher (others: Jean Simmons, Jan Troell, Richard Shickel) and Leigh before evening screenings of Youssou Ndour (a profile of the Senegalese musician and his plight to bridge an understanding of Islam outside "the fundamentalist monopoly of discourse surrounding [his religion]") and Innocence Unprotected, brought to Telluride by Festival Guest Director, Slavoj Zizek (this will be my second Makavejev in a cinema; that essay by Gary Morris is featured in the festival guide).

Another early morning discussion followed by the Indian film Firaaq, which Salman Rushdie has accompanied to help promote. Directly after that we get Laughing Til It Hurts, a group of silent comedies presented by Paolo Cherci Usai and his Pordenone Film Festival; this sounds like a real highlight. I hope there's time for a bite to eat before we hit the next film, With a Little Help from Myself (or, translated literally from French as "Help Yourself, and Heaven Will Help You"), from François Dupeyron, director of Monsieur Ibrahim. Our afternoon discussion features Dupeyron and his lead actress Félicité Wouassi first, followed by a conversation with Rushdie and Firaaq's director, Nandita Das. Sunday night ends with a screening of The Fall of Berlin, another Zizek pick.

Again we discuss over breakfast before our last screening of Nicolas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, another pick by Zizek in his sidebar, "Neglected Noirs." The last official symposium activities are a noon seminar and Labor Day Picnic followed by a two hour block with Zizek to wrap it all up.


Again, the widget.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Throw a rock, board a plane. Fly that flag and sing.

by Ryland Walker Knight


Spent Tuesday in the sun with those guys and that girl; Wednesday is her birthday. The Yuba River was low but still perfect. I'm a bit burnt and worn out. I should be in bed. I need my sleep with all the activity to come this weekend. But, you know, fuck it. This little adventure should be a lot of fun. Definitely something new. Guess I have to come to terms with the fact that, since the TIFF schedule says it's hosting the North American Premiere, I won't get to see the new Denis; ditto Che. However, I'm sure there will be other high profile pictures. For instance, Lucrecia Martel's La Mujer Sin Cabasa is not on the TIFF docket; ditto Waltz with Bashir. On top of the new stuff, there will be Zizek to contend with (or let go and enjoy) and a bunch of fellow film fiends to meet. I still have yet to decide if I'll make the time to blog from Telluride but my guess is that I'll write a journal by hand (in some fashion) and transcribe the cool stuff for a longer essay, or some other form of criticism (dun dun dun), once I'm home. Seems like the only way when they say we'll be busy from 8am to midnight every day. And when I'm really tired, and I'm too jazzed to sleep, like now, I can settle into two books, among millions, every kid should read after s/he graduates college. I mean, de Certeau's is what every book should be called -- and it's not some new age mess; it's a thoughtful account of how we operate in all the systems big and banal that we encounter each day through (dig this) what he likes to call "a science of the singular." Then there's Burroughs, a man it's taken me some time to understand. I don't know if do, yet; I may soon. Returning-to-class Daniel understands, or claims to, and I grant him what he's related here. (See: it's about singularity, too.) As I get ready to fly into Denver, a city careening, I hope I find some Johnsons, and not Vampires, on my trip. I trust I will see both. As ever, I'm just hoping for a decent ratio around me and that I don't play Vampire too much, or (uh-oh) too often.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Leave it up to you. A reminder, an interlude.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Eternal Mocking Bird. Manny Farber, 1917 - 2008. UPDATED.

by Ryland Walker Knight

We knew it would happen sooner rather than later but even still this thuds in the chest. The loss of any formative giant will always hurt a sensitive and sentimental goof like me. Since I should be doing other things, and I'm sure plenty of others will write longer pieces full of insight and special significance, I'll just point you to one of the first, Glenn Kenny's concise, generous appreciation/obiturary, where I wrote this in the comments:

No other critic has left me feeling like a mote swirling in his or her refulgence. Indeed, it's rare to find any writer so lively, contradictory, and thoughtful; so readable and engaging; so endlessly giving in just one book of collected essays. He's helped me a ton. I imagine he will continue to help. Words like his don't disappear.

And he was a dope painter, too. I can barely write a post every week, let alone create other crap. I feel my size, and it is small. Miniscule.

To prove my size, and yours, here's some of his enormity, both in oil, both on board, both painted this decade. The top is called "Mocking Bird," from 2001; the bottom is called "Blades," from 2004.


UPDATE: All kinds of links. This is for me as much as you since most people who care have probably already read all these so far. As expected, David Hudson has rounded up a number of the appreciations, but -- surprise, surprise -- there's more; as I recapitulate a lot of his links, I hope to offer a few points of departure as well. And, as DH said, "So where to begin?"

Perhaps with another giant, J. Hoberman, we're lucky to still have writing on a weekly basis. Ditto Jonathan Rosenbaum, a sterling example for how (old) print critics can shift into the digital age. Or with Ray Pride's lovely, passionate notes. David Phelps collects some favorite passages, and Keith does, too, with Matt chiming in past the fold on the comment thread with some typically sensitive and smart words (I should say that it was Keith who insisted I read Negative Space in the first place, and boy was he right; thanks, buddy). Zach quotes "Underground Films" and lists Manny's top choices from 1951 to deal with his hurt. Karina Longworth collects some valuable links, pointing us towards, among other things, a San Diego PBS segment on Manny's paintings and an interview with Robert Walsh, who wrote the preface for a reissue of Negative Space, about Farber and his significance. Introducing Robert Polito on SF360, editor Susan Gerhard notes she heard the news from Telluride co-director Tom Luddy, who offered, "I can only say that Manny was a dear friend and one of my heroes, a great writer and a great painter." Jim Emerson tussles with some of the famous Termite-Elephant argument and so does Phil Nugent, if obliquely. Turning full circle, a commenter at Glenn's blog, Tony Dayoub, points us to Paul Schrader's short Untitled: New Blue, named after a painting Schrader bought from Farber, who helps us look with selected voice over passages accompanying a roving close up camera; there are more than a few dissolves. David Schwartz talks with Schrader about the news for Moving Image Source. Andy Rector says, "Thanks for the chew, Manny," and offers two paintings, while R. Emmet Sweeney promises more to come. Turn back the clock (as Rosenbaum did), and you can re-read Girish (2006), Duncan Shepherd (2006), Leah Ollman (2004), Franklin Bruno (2004), Doug Cummings (2003), Edward Crouse (1999), and Noel King (1999), among others. He will continue to be valued and appreciated well past me and you -- and with good reason -- so the best we can do is clap a few times, pour out some drink and maybe read a book tonight instead of watching a film. Or, if you are going to watch a film, try one you haven't seen from that 1951 list, I'm sure there's plenty there to choose from... And smile. There's a lot all around to get you giddy.

[Portrait, stolen from SF360, taken during the 2003 SFIFF when Manny accepted the Novikoff award.]

UPDATE THE SECOND: Girish has written a piece pointing to ten reasons he loves Manny Farber. He also points us to an online archive of that Donald Phelps collection in For Now magazine, which you can read here. There's a lot of stuff that got put into Negative Space but there's also a good deal of other stuff. Plus, it has great cover art.

For now

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thatches and blankets. Out of the Past and Nightfall.

by Ryland Walker Knight

[OR: "David Goodis at PFA so far." Nightfall played Thursday, August 7, 2008, as part of PFA's current Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis series, which continues this Thursday, the 14th, with a screening of The Burglars, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif. The series runs three more programs thereafter through the 23rd. I hope to offer some more thoughts next week.]


Eddie Muller specifically asked last Thursday's audience to not compare Nightfall to Jacques Tourneur's earlier proto-noir, Out of the Past, so I'm going to do just the opposite. In his introduction, Muller said that it's a fruitless comparison, that it would only do harm to the later film, but I think they make a fine pair precisely because they are so divergent (yet remarkably consistent). Made a decade apart (1947, 1957), both fear the city and its traps, both distrust people, both seek escape from the world. However, the paranoia of the former is eased, slightly, in the latter into circumstantial nuisance: Jane Greer precipitates an economy of lust, her come hither enigma lighting desire like a good femme fatale, whereas Anne Bancroft rather represents a haven, her curves safe and her eyes welcoming. Nobody owns the upper hand in Nightfall, really, over Aldo Ray's Art Rayburn/Jim Vanning -- he's fighting time, and the seasons, as much as the villain bank robbers -- while Robert Mitchum's Jeff Bailey/Markham, from his first encounter with Joe Stephanos (that sly, fey and lovely analog to Greer, Paul Valentine), finds himself trapped by history (his story), by people, by plots, by desire.


Tourneur didn't seem capable of making a dull image, even in the almost-bland patches of Nightfall's location exteriors. Part of this may be due, simply, to the print and its upkeep, although the picture has a less striking, more television-grade contrast/construction than its predecessor with fewer set-ups and less glamor. Yet an early dolly retreat, to make way for a bus that fills the screen, is a signature, subtle Tourneur move; and in the day for night interrogation sequence at a derrick field, the flat light does not take away from the compositions. Everything lays at an angle. Even direct, 90-degree frames sit uncomfortable with objects thrust in on a slant, fudging perspective. Tourneur's world is acentered and fluid, despite its classical trappings, the termite auteur par excellence, littered with odd interstitials to syncopate the mise-en-scene. While more pronounced in the earlier film, the more modest later work still rests uneasy, growing out of the performers as much as the technique. Aldo Ray's hemmed posture and choked voice work at odds with his broad Navy body. Anne Bancroft can't quite get comfy and fades into the picture, another prop, almost; something else Ray has to carry. As the go-nowhere villians, Brian Keith and Rudy Bond play off each other so well that it's easy to forget all the other calm-crazy instantiations of other heist duos; Keith, especially, uses that laconic distance to genteel effect, rounding a square character as much as possible.

What I find most curious through the first two weeks of the David Goodis series, situated firmly in the middle of cinema's century, is how often things end well. The series opened with Dark Passage, Goodis' splash project. A Bogie-Bacall film directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage opens brilliantly, almost exclusively in first person point of view shots, keeping Bogie off screen until he has reconstructive plastic surgery to hide his identity (a San Quentin break-out) until he can prove his innocence, or simply flee for good, as he winds up doing. It's a pretty goofy film, to be honest, but its leads' charisma and chemistry buoy the plot and help sell every melodramatic turn, including its aw-shucks ending, as some kind of idea of what it takes to make your future, to make your dreams real, even if it means forsaking your past. I had to skip the second picture, The Unfaithful (unfortunate since it sounds compelling), and I'd seen Shoot the Piano Player before (a fine, smart picture), so I next caught up with the series with Nightfall. It seems to really do Steve Seid's program justice one should go ahead and read a Goodis or two, but my final weeks of school prevent too much outside reading (I'm slow and swamped), so I feel I'm only getting half the picture. Adaptation is an interesting, demanding process that seems shaped as much by studio demands as authorial concerns, at least in this early phase.

Nightfall is a meager thing, and as Seid's pre-screening read from the novel suggests, plenty was left unfilmed -- in particular because of its black and white film stock -- sticking to the plot and little else; however delightful those brief asides with the Frasers are (James Gregory and Jocelyn Brando are the most theatrical actors in the piece, clearly relishing their screen time), the passages operate as exposition, not color. And that's the biggest difference between this later film and Out of the Past: things breathe more in the darkness of the earlier work, each set (and each set-piece) another layer of story, mood, complication. By contrast, Nightfall looks more open, more blank, and allows for more projection; for a film named after night, there's a lot of day, a lot of white. And yet, it's another source of indetermination. The threat in Nightfall is precisely the chance that those empty spaces will be filled by guns and violence, that the wide white blanket at the close has buried things is untenable. Aldo Ray says he wants to keep the money company at the film's close but we don't get to see him and Bancroft and Gregory surround the satchel. It sits solitary, the lone dark spot in a bright field. The music plays triumphant, conclusive, but the image is stark and forlorn. Ray's Vanning/Rayburn may be exonerated and free to start life over with his new bride but it feels undercut. Or, the picture may simply be saying it's a first step; night will fall again and cover this once more. As we may remember from the beginning, the night brings artificial lights that isolate. Indeed: what will Vanning/Rayburn return to? Will he adopt this new name for good, as he tells Gregory's Fraser? Who is he now?

Such ambiguity turns differently in Out of the Past. For one thing, it's sexier. From the lateral camera moves to Jane Greer's neck, from the abyss shadows to Mitchum's passive ire, this film is about as desirable as possible. It's plain gorgeous. Only Roger Deakins seems to shoot darkness this well in today's Hollywood productions. Which is another reason Muller's right to warn against comparing these two. It's just not fair. However, there's a nice dissonance to draw out, a tidy dichotomy between the clutter of things forcing action in circumscribed contexts (Mitchum's a detective caught between people, and later a mechanic, a profession spent under and inside things-spaces-systems) over against drawing out a map on the blankness of the world (Ray's an artist working in water color who cannot remember crucial (spatial) facts, which is a characterization of him as an actor as well). But that's not all. You could just as easily talk about how the films figure emergence (of the past, of memory, of violence, of desire) or repression or sacrifice or actualization or disclosure or lies. And, of course, all those are related. For this is an art of relationships. An art where it matters that Mitchum sits across from the cinema but never enters, only hears it, and lets it score his first encounter with Greer's Kathie Moffat. She's an illusion from the get go. After all, nearing the close, she says it herself, while wearing what looks like a habit: "I never told you I was anything other than what I am: you just wanted to imagine I was." It's a sick joke: Look all you want, I'll keep drawing back; in fact, I'm barely what you want. But, heck, we know she's only luring us in again, right along with Bob, there. Indeed: I want to go there sometimes. And I'll go. And I'll get out alive. That's the fun, right?

See a companion image essay: There's a world out there.

Trailers de Oliveira. Selections from the "Talking Pictures" series.

by Ryland Walker Knight


Organized by BAMcinématek last spring (read Dennis Lim), Pacific Film Archive began its hosting of Manoel de Oliveira: Talking Pictures last Saturday with Voyage to the Beginning of the World, which I was unable to attend because two of my dear friends will be leaving America for an extended period at the end of this week and we had a send off pool party in Sonoma County. It's next in my Netflix queue so I hope to catch up with it this week, maybe offering a few more words and accompanying pictures. I did get to see Aniki Bobo on Sunday, and found it delightful, but I don't know what else to say for it now; I was much more impressed, or taken with, the accompanying short, Hunting, a black comedy allegory full of equal parts fun and terror. But that's all I got right now. For now, in lieu of more words, here's some assorted trailers and clips I found on youtube. I can't understand the Portuguese, but I can tell these are striking images.

Doomed Love, August 24th.

Francisca, which I will miss on August 31, as I will be in Colorado.

Non, or the Vain Glory of Command will be introduced by Randal Johnson, who has written the first English-language book about Oliveira, on September 10th.

Clips from The Divine Comedy, September 17th.

Christopher Columbus: The Enigma, September 21.

Belle Toujours, September 24th. (Yes, I understood this one.)

Abraham's Valley, the closing film on September 28th.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

I ain't scared of you motherfuckers!

by Ryland Walker Knight

look here
[October 5, 1957 - August 9, 2008]

I knew Bernie Mac had the odd disease sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in tissue, most often in the lungs, since 1983. But I did not know he was hospitalized last week. His sarcoidosis brought on pneumonia and, although he was apparently responding well to treatment, Mac passed away this morning. I can't claim to be his most devoted fan but I always dug his catch phrase and his candor and respected the hell out of him for a marriage that lasted his whole adult life, from age 20 to today. Plus, you know, he was funny as fuck. Finally, while not over the moon, I'm with Armond White when it comes to Mr. 3000, which I saw for the first time on cable television after moving back to Berkeley in January 2007. It surprised me with its warmth, and its curious interest not in glory but decency -- and it's not ham fisted, however slight it may be -- where race is not ignored but handled with intelligence, and comedic smarts. But Bernie Mac didn't get famous for sensitivity. In fact, it's his fearless desire to speak on shit, whatever it is, however he wants -- politeness be damned -- that makes his comedy work. It's not quite crude but it certainly isn't "tasteful" by any stretch. I wish I had a better thesis on comedy and its worth at this point but I do know that there's plenty of value in great comedic satire, as most stand up is, that gets lost when things get "serious" and tend towards the leaden. It's part of why I like those Pirates movies, why I value Wes Anderson. (There's an attention to language, and how we all use it and how it often fails us, that brings out laughter; timing a pause in speech says just as much as a good cuss word.) Hell, that's Armond's argument for Mr 3000 over Before Sunset (but I'd say he's missing out on what else Linklater's film has to offer). However, it need not just be satire. There's love in great comedy. It's what people often call "humanism" (a term I've yet to embrace), I think. Bernie Mac loves those kids he promises he'll whoop. Bernie Mac loves his wife. Bernie Mac loves America. And America, rightly, loves Bernie Mac. Or, it did for a time. (Pop culture shelf life is a bitch.) I hope he keeps getting loved. There's no reason he shouldn't be loved. Here's some reasons why:

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What Community? #50: The future is now. In Dubai.


In the space of 17 years (pix from 1990, 2003, 2007), Dubai has become not just significantly developed but developed to the point of sci-fi parody. Follow this link to see more of the crazy stuff already built and planned to be built. I feel like I have to research this now. And possibly go there. There should be some kind of document besides still photographs. I don't want to say any more before I know more. But, shit. This is like Blade Runner with less fires and androids. Except, of course, there are plans for automated systems galore, too, like a subway system larger than NYC's MTA all run by machines. Good luck not getting killed by a train that won't stop because you've got your stupid foot caught in a door. Also: Dubailand? All kinds of blasphemy. Who the fuck live there? Who the fuck will move there? To work at Dubailand? Understatement: This is wild. --RWK [Cross posted on freeNIKES!.]

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Poem for Mad Men, season two.

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there'll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

Why should I share you? Why don't you get rid of someone else for a change?

I am the lest difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

Even the trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don't I? I'm just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes -- I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they're missing? Uh huh.

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me happy, but I cannot keep them still. If only i have grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I would sta y at home and do something. It's not that I'm curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it's my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as they sky must be above the earth. And lately, so great has their anxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.

Now there is only one man I like to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality: you are inexorably approaching. (How best discourse her?)

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. Now am I to become legend, my dear? I've tried love, but that holds you in the bosom of another and I'm always springing forth from it like the lotus -- the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it:) or like a hyacinth, "to keep the filth of life away," yes, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department, that greenhouse.

Destroy yourself, if you don't know!

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you've set. It's like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

"Fanny brown is run away -- scampered off with a Cornet of Horse; I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho' She has vexed me by this exploit a little too. --Poor silly Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her. --I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds." --Mrs. Thrale

I've got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I'll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don't want me to go where you go, so I go where you don't want me to. It's only afternoon, there's a lot ahead. There won't be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.

Monday, August 04, 2008

We burned the forest down. The Dark Knight, back and forth. Part Two.

hit me

[This is the second part of a rather lengthy email conversation between Jennifer Stewart and Ryland Walker Knight. The first part can be found here. I think there's plenty to continue with after Jen's second response (some things I'd challenge, again, finicky for particulars as I am), but I don't want to keep posting about a film I'm not so certain earns even this much digital ink, much less all the rest that's been, ahmn, generated, when plenty of other, better movies make less money and are seen by even less people but deserve to be seen by everybody because I think they can inspire, too -- and provide even more (substantial) uplift. Also: I didn't give Pirates this much public attention last summer, and that/those movie/s are way cooler, way more interesting. So, as I said before: we encourage more conversation, so long as it's civil. That's what this movie's about, right? Civility in an insane, unstable world of terror? Something like that. Also, again, for redundancy's sake: There are
spoilers throughout. Consider yourself warned!]


Well, well, Jen,

First of all: there's nothing wrong with being affected by a film. I'm not trying to advocate for my experience (in lieu of yours or others) by any means. But I am curious why it's this film -- even, why these films? I don't think I can answer that, fully, nor do I think you really want to dive in deep (in public) into what motivates or attracts you to activating this kind of response; nor do I think it that appropriate, per se, for our aims here. Your investment, however, exposes the straw man of my first missive. It's easy to fall back on issues with Nolan's filmmaking style. After some more careful thought I've come to realize that while I felt a charge at the close of the picture, sure -- it's nervy and long and loud -- my resistance boils down to the fact that I wasn't as immersed in the story as you were, which manifested itself in my gripes with the action scenes.

I still have problems with Nolan's approach to action, but let me first get into your invitation to talk story. The Dark Knight is a fairly straight forward scapegoat myth. For all this talk of it being dark, it's a pretty hopeful film. I think that's why it's such a big hit: unlike those silly Spiderman movies, Nolan's commitment to "realism" really gives the film gravity, which makes the lows that much lower (others say darker) and the highs that much higher. What I've come to realize is that the things I find dark and troubling about the picture are not what's in the story, or how the story is told, but how Nolan points his finger outside the story, the film, through all those cultural signifiers like wiretapping and terrorism. I just don't know if its politics are as right on as the myth framework makes them out to be. And, of course, I think this claim to "realism" is dubious given Nolan's odd mise-en-scene.


However, Nolan's timing is pretty great, which busts up my prior attacks. If his action sequences are not about movement (doesn't seem to be the case; most of the screen is a dark wash), then they could easily be about timing (he edits not on movement but on impacts and explosions), or, more broadly, about time. Things collide and splinter and fly based on certain speeds in these set pieces. Think of Batman jumping in front of the bazooka, and that mack truck flipping; think of the opening heist's precision. This plays on a thematic level, too: all the Joker's tests, indeed plans, are structured around countdowns. He puts the city on the clock. This gets at finitude. What's complicated about this is that for all his talk of chaos, for lack of rules, the Joker is following one of the biggest rules, and setting a concrete rule, of the world. He laughs at Batman: "It's only a matter of time before you break your one rule." Like you said, Jen, Joker overestimates his understanding of the impulse to do good in the world, thinking time is the best pressure cooker tool. Perhaps this film is arguing that time can work for you as much as against you. Perhaps it is about circumstantial ethics after all. Or, perhaps, this kind of generous reading misses the boat completely by getting away from the power of the myth underlining all this silly action film phenomenology-ontology-hermeneutics.

I don't know. I don't quite think so. I'm still intrigued by how this film, and Fincher's and PTA's, are the ones that activate your intrigue in personal limits, but I don't know what that has to do with time other than how those films figure time (and its loss in Fight Club, in TWBB), but I think it has a lot more to do with myth (even though the two are related; myth seems to stand outside time). I guess what I'm saying is our reactions so far seem to say more about us than they do about the film. Except you've out done me: not only were you moved by the film, you came up with a reason that made sense: all that empty space as indicative of the moral peril of the film. All I can counter is that I find that much more effective, and convincing, in other films about this scapegoat myth; most immediately in something like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (This entails a complicated argument but I'm thinking Rene Girard thanks to talking with FRG, so: cf. "The Unity of Violence" section for a brief gloss.)

But I don't want this to turn into a pissing match. That doesn't get anywhere. What I mean is that I think the lie in Liberty Valence seems darker, and more emotional, to say it comes with more weight and consequence than the lie in The Dark Knight -- all of which may be a product of the construction of the films. And, for me, that starts (but doesn't stop) with the female anchor for these two tales. I didn't buy the love stories of The Dark Knight precisely because I didn't buy that a woman like Maggie Gyllenhaal (as written, as acted, as lit by Wally Pfister) could precipitate that kind of love triangle. Vera Miles may not have that much more to do in Ford's picture but she certainly looks and acts and is motivated to be that kind of woman. And here I go again making unfair comparisons. It's funny: every time I sit down to think about what it is I dig about the picture I come up with other problems I have with it. Maybe I'm thinking too hard about it -- or too harsh. Maybe I'm just not being honest enough with myself. Maybe I do need some theory (affect, time-image, etc) to get at what I dig on a visceral level. Maybe I just had some fanboy in my heart fighting to be heard and I can't listen. Maybe I need to see it in IMAX to really just let go and let it throw me around. What do you think?

the r. knight

prison hurts
free as a bird, now


I hope I earned that generous response you gave, my man. Truth be told I'm scared to say much more about TDK, because it would risk more sympathetic invitation which may or may not come off. I think you're right about the story's ability to grip me but let you slip. Somewhere therein is the answer to your question, why this film. I could say more about why this kind of story - or a movie that dealt as it did with these ideas of identity and civic faith - did grip me, but as you suggested, that's probably at best interesting to you in a non-public conversation between us. Indeed, there's a whole dimension of film experience available only to friends in dialogue.

Regretfully I have not yet seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but I'd be interested to hear how the same kind of myth is told in a way that invites comparison and evaluation with TDK. The myth part sounds right to me, but the scapegoat part sounds a little insufficient. Part of the myth in TDK is the implied logic and consequences of the unique position Bruce Wayne afforded (quite literally) himself. He created an essentially anonymous identity in order to operate outside the law, yet ultimately in the name of justice. So already we have an uncontained excess jeopardizing the balance of the original system (as Rachel corrected Harvey about what happens when you "elect" someone to hold the privilege of power outside democracy: you create a Caesar and power is never restored to the demos). With Batman working for, but outside, the Law, one problem is that the Law gets too dependent on Batman's advantage of being unencumbered by due process (Batman is conveniently if not cheaply able to secure Lau's *ahem* extradition).

Another problem is that other versions of oneself (anonymous figures outside conventions of institutionalized morality) start popping up, the only difference being, these don't necessarily embrace the pretense of working for Justice. As Joker says, Batman completes him. Or he's just too fun to get rid of. The film sees Batman desperately wanting to hand over the power of (re)scaling justice to a properly elected hero. But Joker gets to Harvey Dent first. Here's where I could develop my earlier thought that, ultimately, TDK asks what a face is. The Batman myth is about the consequences of abandoning faith, that justice can be done by the faces its institutions make available. Harvey Dent, an elected DA, restores that faith. But Batman has already caused the jeopardy that ultimately corrodes Dent. Joker wanted Batman to reveal himself: it was only a matter of time before someone operating with Batman's logic exposes the easy vulnerability of his contradiction (you can't be outside the law yet simultaneously constrained by it. All Joker's talk of chaos is that rather simple point). The Dark Knight, then, is a proper Tragedy. Batman isn't scapegoated so much as revealed, and perhaps redeemed. He accepts responsibility by taking the previously unseen truth his masquerade allows: an explanation of moreso than resistance to the corrosion of Justice.

I'm not sure what to say cinematically about all this - the story as such is just that. Hence all my discomfort looking for ways to speak critically of being gripped by the story, for I suspect cinematic quality and story quality are somewhat irrelevant to each other (someone less gentle than I might mention Revenge of the Sith to you here....). In terms of how TDK uses its images to play out this story? Well, it's written plainly on each of Batman and Joker's, and Harvey's two faces. Harvey becomes the anguished split Batman ignored: the reality of only half a sanctioned face. Upon first reveal of the special effects Nolan chose for Dent's face, I was actually a little disappointed (ugh, skeletor face? How cliche). But now I like it more as a symbol of pure erosion as well as revelation: what makes a face (facade) appealing includes concealment, lest those ligaments be seen sufficiently as their own gruesome alternative. This is what Joker was attempting to reveal about Batman: he is just a gruesome enabler, of weakened justice garbed in the masquerade of its Knight.

Thanks, Knight, for making me think a little more. As for my own redemption, there's other films like The Darjeeling Limited, and There Will Be Blood, which aren't really about their ostensible "stories" but which occasion nothing less than an equal pleasure. To wit, perhaps part of my esteem for TDK is that it was totally convention narrative cinema, and I'd forgotten how much pleasure is still possible therein (hence identifying Fight Club as my antecedent).

My trouble is that I am much less confident trying to be a film writer outside the conventions of narrative cinema. Though I haven't given up yet.

swoop solo