incoherent blockbusters and the Dark Knight
I think it was Eagle Eye that finally broke me. I just can’t take any more movies that don’t make any sense. Not because that forgettable Shia Labeouf vehicle was particularly nonsensical– it didn’t make any sense, but it shares that attribute with most other major studio movies of the last ten years– but just because of the utter banality of its incoherence. Not just the fact that it didn’t bother with internal consistency or anything resembling logical motivations for the behavior of its characters, but that it doesn’t seem to recognize that a film should pretend to have those things. There was something stunning, to me, in its basic assumption that no one would notice or particularly care about little issues like gaping plot holes, wildly changing premises and characters who do things without any apparent motivation at all. The incoherence is a problem; the assumption that no one could care about incoherence is an insult.
But it’s not an assumption, unfortunately, that I don’t understand the filmmakers making. I remember shaking my head, watching Ocean’s Twelve, thinking “here is a movie that no one can believe makes sense”– hey, guys, I know we already stole the thing we need to steal, but let’s undergo an incredibly convoluted plan involving being thrown in jail and then sprung by one of our gang’s long lost parents, all for the sake of fooling the villains who, logic dictates, have no opportunity whatsoever to actually observe us undergoing this massively complicated plan that we have undertaken entirely for their sakes….
But I knew, at the time, that insult to the audience inherent in that level of narrative ridiculousness wouldn’t actually keep the movie from being hugely successful, and it was, and sent us all hurtling towards Oceans Thirteen. The makers of big budget spectacle have absolutely no reason to believe that they need to make movies that make sense in order to turn a tidy profit. Breaking news: the masses like lousy art; film at eleven.
So it’s not like I’m walking around outraged that, for example, our intrepid archeologist survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator in Indiana Jones: Geriatric Edition. (The makers of Frigidaire, I salute you.) I know that these movies never make sense. I just want the courtesy of both of us, moviemaker and moviegoer, pretending like we have some sort of relationship built on trust. It’s like a stripper flirting with you during a lapdance; we all know it’s bullshit, but we like to keep the pretense going. (Uh, or so I’m told.) I don’t need my intellect respected by Plastic Man or whatever else is the latest superhero blockbuster; but it would be nice for some vague moves to be made in the direction of respecting me.
Still, I know that looking to the blockbusters for consistency or logic is probably barking up the wrong tree, at this point. What saddens and frustrates me now is that it seems like the movie critics and awards voters are now demonstrating the same blase attitude towards plot oversights and changed premises that audiences have demonstrated for years. There’s been several movies that have been feted by the critics in the last several years that haven’t made a lick of sense, but I’m talking specifically here of The Dark Knight, a constant presence on year-end “Best Of” lists, and very often, number one with a bullet. And that, far more than the billions of dollars it’s made and will make, depresses me, the fact that some of our last cultural arbiters who are supposed to care about quality and not profitability have fallen for a movie that’s such an utter and shameless fraud.
The Oscar nominations have come out, and Heath Ledger has been nominated. Director Christopher Nolan and the movie itself, thought likely to be nominated, weren’t. Bear in mind that this is being reported as a “snub”, or even a “shocking snub.” Well, taste is subjective and opinion is free, but to me that’s sort of like calling Mike Gravel’s failure to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination a shocking snub.
Ledger is a favorite to win the actual award. Like everyone, I thought Ledger did a good job in his role, but it wasn’t nearly the kind of acting that I think we should be celebrating as among the best handful of the year. Certainly, his role as Enis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain was a far superior piece of acting, not least of which because Del Mar was a human character, not a cartoon supervillain. Yes, Ledger’s performance as the Joker was a standout performance, great theater, but not great acting, for the simple reason that no one is like the Joker. It’s much, much easier to perform a role when no one in the history of the world has actually been like person being portrayed. It’s much more difficult to actually portray a real human being, believably and movingly, and that, I think, is what we should celebrate.
Still, I can’t complain too much about Ledger’s performance being lauded. What bothers me so much is that so many otherwise bright critics aren’t calling the situation for what it is, a smart and entertaining performance in an insulting, stupid, nonsensical movie. I know that expecting the Oscars to be an arbiter of good taste is like expecting the the Gold Glove awards to be an arbiter of good defense: the process is ridiculous and frequently gets it wrong, but occasionally actually awards the most deserving. So the Oscar talk for Dark Knight and Nolan didn’t bother me too much. But when smart and discriminating critics get bamboozled by a movie that insults its audience at every turn, I just don’t get it.
There are so many decisions that make such little sense–hey, the Joker has just caused massive death in Gotham, he’s the most dangerous criminal ever, and has fought the Batman to a standstill; let’s leave him in an interrogation room with a single, fat, middle-aged unarmed cop, because, hey, what could go wrong? We’ll do that instead of, oh, I don’t know, locking the goddamn door. There are so many plot holes and dead-end narrative alleys– Batman goes flying off of that roof to save Rachel, and we cut away, leaving the obvious question as to what insane murderer the Joker did after they left; shrug his shoulders and say, oh well, can’t find Dent, let’s leave? What did Batman say to himself? I saved the girl, let those richies at my party fend for themselves? There is the incredibly bald-faced “we need Batman to be on the run for the sequel” moment at the end where, for some reason, someone needs to be blamed for the deaths of some crooked cops and criminals, the public is going to be up in arms to find the killer, and it has to be blamed on someone (lest Dent’s shining example be sullied by exposing the truth). There’s the corollary to that bald plot manipulation, where Batman chooses to blame himself for these crimes, rather than the insane murderer who has just killed half of Gotham. There’s that stuff.
But I guess what bothers me the most is the fact that the Joker, the “agent of chaos”, can plan so many far-flung and convoluted plots to such intricate and perfect detail that everything breaks just so and leaves him exactly with the situation he’d hoped for. This kind of overly intricate and impossibly perfect plan is a staple of movies, lately, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that these plans always involved trusting people to have precisely the kinds of reactions you want them to have. In the real world, it’s really hard to get people to behave exactly as you expect them to behave. But the Joker, again and again, hatches extraordinarily complicated schemes that require people to decide to do exactly what he expects them to do. In the micro sense, this involves a goon standing in exactly the right place to get smushed by a bus. In the macro sense, this leads us to the bizarre climax of the movie, where the Joker proves his point that people will kill each other by loading two ferries with explosives, ferries that the authorities have loaded with people to evacuate Gotham… ferries the Joker knew would be used for evacuation, and further knew would be divided between civilians and criminals because, well, he’s Nostradamus, or something. For an agent of chaos, boy, the Joker believes in a deterministic universe.
A lot of people have tried to defend the movies elementary inconsistencies and plot oversights by simply saying, again and again, that the Joker is an agent of chaos. It’s quite frustrating, actually. I mean, look, I suppose you can populate a movie with a character that constantly does things that make no sense and chalk it up to the fact that the guy is crazy. But that doesn’t change the motivations of every other character in the movie, and I personally can’t jibe calling a character an agent of chaos when his M.O. seems to be to devise incredibly intricate and well-executed plans.
The other big defense I have heard is the idea that this is just a fun summer movie, and you should just let go and enjoy the ride…. Well, look– I like spectacle as much as the next red-blooded American. And I am, in many instances, willing to suspend disbelief. But suspending disbelief doesn’t mean that you allow a movie to constantly change its own premises whenever it suits the filmmakers’ needs. You can have a movie with cold fusion, and I’ll suspend disbelief, but you can’t constantly change what cold fusion is or does and expect me to play ball. And you really shouldn’t make a movie where, when you consider the motives of the various characters in the film, and how those motives change given the now inevitable M. Knight Shyamalan-style twists in the movie, none of it makes a lick of sense. I’m not looking for Rashomon in every summer blockbuster. I’m looking for movies where characters do things because they have reasonable motives to do so.
Nominating a movie like the Dark Knight for an Oscar, after all, or putting it on your ten best list, is to exactly deny the idea that it is “just a summer movie”. When you praise a movie on equal terms to the best movies of the year, you are putting that movie on the same intellectual level as the best movies. They don’t have to deal in the same themes, they don’t have to have the same strengths, they don’t have to be as cerebral or philosophical or dramatic. But they do have to live up to basic dictates of intelligibility and consistency. Otherwise, we might as well just make two sets of lists, one for movies worth taking seriously and one for films not worth it.
A lot has been made of the fact that movies today now seem totally divided between smart and dramatic arthouse movies that open on a small number of screens and make little money, and big, dumb blockbusters that open everywhere and make kajillions. What I don’t think people realize is that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you make a different set of intellectual standards for blockbusters as for “serious movies”, you’re exacerbating the problem. Like a lot of people, I’d like to see the return of the big, smart, serious spectacle. But I’d settle for just smarter, more consistent blockbusters. Jaws, I feel confident in saying, doesn’t have a bunch of glaring plot holes or weird contrivances. Big movies can be better, but for them to be better the critical classes have to call movies out when they don’t make any earthly sense. And that means leaving a movie that has as much disdain for coherence or intelligence as the Dark Knight has off of the Best of lists, and out of serious Oscar contention.