Monday, August 06, 2012

Monsters Crash the Pajama Party: DARK KNIGHT RISES, TARGETS

"And so, into this little tortured mind came the idea that that gun had been produced for use. And use it he did." --Hildegarde Johnson, His Girl Friday (1945)
"Gunman turns movie into surreal horror: 'This is real'" - News headline (Aurora Shooting)
"Those who see and are seen seeing are seen because they destroy. Recognized subjects are seen because they destroy and because they destroy what they see. Those who merely see have a lot of destroying to do before they can be seen seeing. - Jon Beller - The Cinematic Modes of Production (p. 279) 
"Monsters come out of screen! Invade audience!" - Promo 

Even without the the Aurora massacre casting its shadow, DARK KNIGHT RISES would be a lot to take in; shadows of Occupy Wall Street, terrorism, aging, irrelevance, environmentalism, and vigilante ethics all merge together in coded idolatry of the Kennedys and revulsion at the French revolution. Add Aurora's shooter--who opened fire at a midnight premiere showing of the film--and one allegory emerges from the rubble, Peter Bogdanovich's first film, TARGETS (1968).

Boris Karloff plays more or less himself as Orlok, old bogeyman who's lost his bogey because real life mass murderers are so much scarier than some old man in a robe with a candelabra walking along shadowy Corman corridors, he thinks. He gets a chance to test that theory when things get all post-modern during a confrontation with a Whitman-style mass murdering sniper who has opened fire at a drive-in showing THE TERROR (1963). Karloff/Orlok is scheduled to make his 'final personal appearance' there and when he figures out what's going on, he steps up to the plate with relentless big star authority.

Targets (1968)
 I watched my old DVD of TARGETS after a Sunday matinee screening of DARK KNIGHT RISES as an attempt to situate the post-modern metatextual meltdown of Aurora, and then to find the common ground between the Aurora shooter and the chaos of TARGETS' drive-in massacre finale with its honking cars and THE TERROR's thunderstorms erupting from speakerboxes, muffling the shots and making it difficult for word to spread between the cars, the killer firing out of a small hole in the drive-in screen (thus shooting from 'out of the screen' or facing the same way as the Aurora killer - who broke in, armed with teargas, guns, and with Batman-style body armor). From accounts of the Aurora incident, there was naturally some initial confusion similar to that in TARGETS, as a gunfire-racked action film full of masked armed monsters seems to spill right out of the screen, launching bullets into the audience in a random attack style that opens so many action films.  It's the sort of thing midnight spook shows used to do all the time in the 50s and 60s, as in MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY, presented in 'Horror-Vision' (which meant actors dressed like the characters came out from behind the screen at key moments)



If you watch some of the video footage shot outside the Aurora theater (above) during the attack you see just how disturbingly apt this comparison is; there is after all a lot going on at a big multiplex even at midnight, making the event seem strangely muffled; while wounded survivors file out of the building all bloody and red in the face from tear gas, there are enough people in Batman costumes standing around in the lobby, enough loud video games being played, that it's hard to think the blood isn't part of some fan tribute; the people aren't screaming and causing a commotion, they're wandering through the lobby like stunned, doped-out, half in-shock viewers who've just been traumatized by a particularly brutal horror film.



In deconstructing the tragedy in Aurora please note I mean no disrespect to the victims (or the violence in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin which erupted as I was writing this) but since the actual text of RISES involves random acts of political violence and random mass murder--and the subtext critiques America's love for guns and action movies, celluloid, tear gas, blood and torn flesh--it's worth noting the metatextual resonance. The real-life violence in Aurora was senseless and horrific, but there it is, and has to mean something in relation to the themes of the film, even if neither the shooter nor Chris Nolan meant it that way. It can't be an accident, even if it's totally random. One must find the metatextual kernel, the Rorschach blot of terror mustn't stay unlabeled, because no man is an island, no act ever isolated from its context. So perhaps this post is sort of like the cracked 'production for use' explanation Hildy dreams up for Earl Williams, the murderer of the 'colored policeman' in Howard Hawks' HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Williams' having been enthralled by a soap box preacher's sermon on 'production for use' relates perhaps to whatever the Aurora shooter gleaned from the America's own obsession with guns and violence, particularly in Arizona, where half the population has concealed weapon permits. Never using your expensive gun collection for anything other than target practice has to create some deep resentment on the part of gun nuts; they all, I theorize, secretly long for a zombie attack or commie invasion so they can board up their house and start blasting with impunity. If they should lose touch with reality via schizophrenia, or angel dust... then that attack may seem to have already happened, so anything you do is all right with God, and the talking dog next door.

His Girl Friday (1944)
And this not the first time 'real' murder has mixed with the movies in a very uncomfortable way. There was all that gang violence that erupted at screenings of his 1979 film, THE WARRIORS:

"If someone comes to a movie with a gun, who's at fault?" asks Warriors' film editor David Holden. Someone did just that at a drive-in showing on the night of February 12 in Palm Springs, Calif. and killed a teenager. Some 165 miles away, on the same night, an 18-year-old bled to death in a darkened theater in Oxnard, Calif. after being knifed by an unruly gang. And three nights later a Boston high school student was murdered outside a subway station, allegedly by two young men who had just come from the film."  -- (People Magazine) (see my piece "Manhattan Sinking Like a Rock")
The question of who's at fault has still never been answered, but Peter Bogdanovich had already the writing on the wall and over 40 years later the craziness of his white-clad sniper finds an even more horrific expression.

The bland new breed of bogeyman in TARGETS isn't a gang-banger or orange-haired schizophrenic but a young man named Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), who is still something of a 'nice' boy, with a big normal man smile for the world. But things aren't right under the surface: he and his wife still live with his parents and sleep together in his old room, an extended family shoved into a nuclear suburban space. We see a scene of Bobby and his dad bonding over shooting some cans out in a field, demonstrating their excellent aim, and talking of a hunting trip, so clearly this is how Bobby Thompson sees becoming a man, a head of the household, eventually getting out on his own--with a gun. Of course that's conjecture too. Bogdanovich leaves the man's motives for his random violence deliberately vague.

To jump back to Aurora it's worth mentioning that two of the people who escaped the theater that night were a marine couple who, having ducked out as soon as they smelled the gas, and helped save a few others from going in, were compelled to come back a few nights later to see the rest of the film (the shooter came in after the first 20 minutes of the film had elapsed, through the fire exit, first tossing tear gas canisters up the aisles):
Don and I had decided that it was vitally important to go back as soon as possible to the movie theater and finish watching The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter’s intent was to cause fear, injury, and death. We escaped injury and death. Whether it was due to luck, fate, our military training, or all three, we’ll never know. But we both refuse to let fear consume us. We refuse to allow this one madman to injure our minds and spirits the way he tried to injure our bodies. If we let fear overtake us and prevent us from living bold, authentic lives, the shooter—and other murderers like him—wins.
I love the rhetoric in that quote, because it sounds so much like the dialogue of DARK KNIGHT, a grand statement of principles. By seeing RISES, it implies, one is taking a stand against those who would prevent them from living bold, authentic lives. Of course this can't actually be true in any literal way.  Seeing a film wherein people get shot through to the end can't be more 'authentic' than the real life act of being shot at. But the letter does illuminate the way 'real' violence, as we perceive it when it's happening around us or to us, in the moment, seems more unreal and dream-like than the violence onscreen. The military training of this couple saved their lives since they were familiar enough with tear gas and guns through their basic training and service overseas that  their feet carried them out faster than most of the audience, who didn't have the response deliberately built into their reflexes, but I can only imagine being an Arizona suburbanite, a bit sleepy from waiting around for hours past bedtime to catch this screening, and now, just when it's getting good, this nonsense. It was probably, some thought at first, just some kids sneaking in from outside and setting off smoke bombs and firecrackers to get people to run out of the theater so the kids could grab the vacated seats. That's probably what I would have thought. Having never been to war or boot camp or fired a gun more than a few times. I doubt I could have shaken off my complacent, hypnotized film viewer veneer in time to save my own life (see my piece on the '70s Savagery Switchpoint'  here). In Israel or Iraq I bet you they'd be on their feet and outside in seconds, and six armed guys or girls in the theater would return fire, but in the U.S., even those with concealed weapon permits aren't going to bring their gun to a midnight movie.

But back to the idea of 'authentic lives' --- why is it so easy for the digital sound, massive crowd scenes and swooping CGI of Gotham City under siege to resonate as authentic but not the actuality of a 'real' in-theater attack, which conversely resonates only as a surreal nightmare? Maybe because movies start at a certain time, and the placards for no talking, smoking or cell phones, the darkening of lights, the playing of the theater chain's theme music all work like Pavlovian hypnosis to prepare us to submerge into the realm of a group waking dream. But when a madman opens fire in real life where are the Pavlovian triggers to warn us, to signal to our reptilian brains to disengage from heightened relaxation and into fight or flight? The theater is generally one of the only places outside of our own homes where we feel, if only for an hour or two, secure.


In TARGETS the surreal disconnect when movies step out of the screen is fortunately the killer's problem not the audiences. In the big climax, when Bobby sees Orlok advance on him in 'reality,' while at the same time sauntering towards the camera on the giant drive-in screen, he panics and shoots at both, and thus runs out of bullets faster and so Orlok's life is more or less saved. This event makes Orlok realize that the banal new face of evil isn't scary as much as pathetic. He realizes his crazy doctors in black velvet suits working in cardboard dungeons don't need to be scary for real - they are the comfort food of scary. And the world needs comfort, to paraphrase SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

But I wonder if Nolan feels the same way. He seems to need to justify the idea of a rich orphan in tights and a cape. He wants to make an 'important' picture about the 99% but he still needs to factor in superheros, gadgets and villains. Half the movie goes by with Wayne and his butler and Commissioner Gordon talking about how important it is that the cape be worn, as if the film is afraid someone will laugh at it instead of with it, like some jocks will sneer at old Batman as he flies by and crush his iron spirit. But what Nolan doesn't understand is that we can accept a guy in a bat costume easily as long as he's onscreen. Offscreen he's just a nerd. And nerds aren't a threat.... r-r-right?


Wrong. We don't need civics lesson sermons to think of Batman as 'important' to Gotham. The more you try to make a superhero 'realistic' the less realistic he is. For example: I have lived in New York City since 1993 and inhaled some white dust  during 9/11 and there was nothing noble or heroic about it as a bystander (rescuing people or being rescued was different I'm sure). For me and my friends at least, it was just surreal, like a Bruce Willis movie came down and swallowed us whole. We thought the world was over, and here we were with nowhere to go or idea of safety, so we went out and got ice cream. I didn't get the full emotional weight until I went to my uptown AA meeting which had always been rich with cops and firemen -- and half their friends and co-workers were gone. If  Batman had raised his hand in that meeting and started croaking sanctimoniously about how this beautiful city must be saved because the people need a hero and blah blah we would have shaken our heads in disbelief the way Jebediah shakes his head at Charlie Kane thinking he can "make them a present of liberty."


And that's why on some level--within the context of the film and not in any real life anti-American way way---Bane becomes the real hero of DARK KNIGHT. His posh Germanic nasal accent makes him continually hilarious--he's the Arnold Schwarzenegger body with the Jeremy Irons as Claus Von Bulow voice, and even if his whole shebang turns--SEMI SPOILER--out to be a dead ringer plotwise for a certain Bond movie co-starring Sophie Marceau, and is structured like an inverse version of V FOR VENDETTA--END ALERT, Bane's got natural charisma and oomph that contrasts with Wayne's morose state of Hughes-ish retirement and preference for natty ethics lectures over light-hearted capering.

As for the rest of DARK KNIGHT there's the feeling of constantly counting down to some big event that never quite lives up to the momentum and gravity of the build. "The storm is coming" as Cat Woman (Anne Hathaway) says, and for awhile we can really feel it, as if the stretch of time in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS between when Lecter first snatches the paper clip to when he 'unmasks' in the ambulance is stretched out to an hour length. But after that, RISES loses its momentum and gets stuck in the sand, no longer SILENCE but HANNIBAL.


Incidentally it's Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman who saves the movie, with flexibility, roundhouse kicks, gigantic pointed heels (which she uses like Elektra uses sai) great eyeliner, and a flair for one-liners rare in this genre. As did Heath Ledger before her, she figured out how to vibe with Nolan's gloomy urban studies project and still have a good time. She reminds us that what made the 1960s TV show so amazing was that we were always secretly rooting for the hip villains. Batman and Robin were hilariously square and anyway it was just endless fisticuffs and letting the other side get away either by not chasing them very hard or letting them keep their utility belts even after tying them up and subjecting them to that week's cliffhanger deathtrap. That sense of droll sportsmanship was removed for the original Tim Burton remake and never returned, replaced now by a doom metal depressive version of a metropolis, where courage and honor and pain and blood are endlessy debated in low, hissing whispers as pounding tribal drums vibrate the theater into submission.


The surreal meta highlight for me, seeing the film this afternoon in a dingy black shoebox theater at the edge of Prospect Park, was the momentary silence amid the din of thundering, booming percussive soundtrack, the momentum which has been slowly increasing for the last hour suddenly stops and it's just a child singing the Star Spangled Banner at some sparsely attended football game. The whole incessant countdown of Bane's evil plan of citywide rising up from the sewers of unemployment, lost boy syndrome, and toxic repression, is go, and the rockets red glaaare / bombs bursting.... and in the silence of just this kid singing suddenly I looked around and up at the round dimmed lights above and around me inside the shoebox and there was a sound like a radio or some other movie maybe blasting behind us, and around us, and it seemed like it was playing in the stadium onscreen and for a moment the film loomed forward and swallowed us like an inverse 3-D.

And it felt like all America was clued into this same movie screening; this overpopulated urban sprawl of a nation always one step away from opening fire on itself had found its Stalin/Lenin/Robespierre/Humongous from THE ROAD WARRIOR combination, and he was funneling the whole 99%er rage thing into super expensive action sequence about to erupt that spew real grime and black resinous urban dust all over Brooklyn. The rupture between inside and outside the screen had come-- and I remembered the same 'this is it' feeling of surreal disconnect I had on 9/11, the smell the ozone and burnt chemicals of the falling wisps of gray insulation that rained down on Brooklyn Heights as we looked over the river at the smoky plume. This is it. This is the moment 'reality' is absorbed into the movies, never to return.

Actually in a weird synchronistic turn of events, the actor who plays Klaus, I mean, the Humongous, or toe-cutter, is Thomas Hardy, who was set to star in MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD.... as Max. But it stalled... two years ago. This apocalypse, sshhhhh, never happened.

What a puny plan.
Just walk away
Like 9/11, however, once the plan is in motion and the rockets' red glare comes up in RISES, things never really add up to a full-on 'change' in our perceptions of civilization; the screen shrinks back to a far-off rectangle and Bane's whole plan to create a mini people's revolution for a few months before nuclear annihilation never really makes a whole lot of sense. Does he think the world will be inspired by this little experiment in street thug utopianism when it inevitably ends so harshly? And didn't someone do just this to Manhattan around thirty years ago, cut off the escapes and turned Manhattan into a thug-run state prison, and then they sent in someone named Snake Plissken to save him, since if he didn't the world would be destroyed by nuclear war?


Actually RISES and ESCAPE are a lot alike in more than that respect. Both have heroes with boyish faces who talk in whispers like they're trying to be super tough (don't forget that, like Bale, Kurt had been a child actor), and both have the same great premise: Manhattan with the power out as a criminal utopia, and both spend an hour leading up to some big promise of a huge apocalyptic adventure that never pans out. At least one takes itself seriously enough to not take itself serious at all. And that one has Black Moses.


DARK KNIGHT instead has Morgan Freeman, and prefers being about becoming old and established and suddenly dreading the dirty unkempt youths clamoring at the gates. "The world belongs to the young -- let them have it." says Orlok in TARGETS. Like Wayne hanging up his mask, Orlok surrenders the keys to horror's vehicle to the bland mass murderers like Holmes, Whitman, Huberty, and Bobby Thompson while Wayne lets Gotham turn Batman into a villain to protect the reputation of Two-Face. "I'm to old for play acting; it's not fun anymore," Orlok repeats, as his assistant, agent, and Bogdanovich himself as a writer, try and talk him out of leaving. As Orlok gets drunk he sound like Bruce Wayne arguing his justification for hiding out to Alfred, and looks a little like Alfred.


Orlok's little tantrum is in a way as detrimental to those around him as Wayne's feeling of irrelevance, or Sullivan refusing to make any more comedies while people are starving in the world. Orlok doesn't realize that we've never been really scared by films like THE TERROR, rather they serve a purpose similar to Sullivan's Ants in Your Plants of 1939, or the 1960s Batman TV show; they actually reduce terror through a kind of camp filtration. We recoil from the mundane reality of true horror; we wince to see how Bobby's clothes and family home furnishings even match the industrial white/gray of the industrial silo tower from which he first opens fire on passing commuters, reflecting him as the ultimate product of banal American conservative conformity. Bobby's mass murdering rage is a result perhaps of feeling trapped in the kind of beige neo-realist movie Sullivan wants to make, the kind Orlok thinks would be scarier than his Victorian Gothic Poe adaptations. What Orlok, Wayne, and Sullivan doesn't see from their upperclass vantage point is that people like Bobby Thompson are already walled-in, buried alive, beyond help, THE PREMATURE BURIAL or Madeline Usher writ upon the dry-wall and beige house paint of suburbia.



And the flairs of conscience, his need to protest his own craft's irrelevance in TARGETS, mirrors Bobby's trying to confess his feelings of dread to his family. Neither can escape their destiny, Bobby's family can barely move their eyes away from the comedian on TV as he tells them of his dread, nor can Bogdanovich and Orlok look away when watching THE CRIMINAL CODE. When Orlok fnally gazes down at the face of the new banal evil he's been fearing, he's not impressed. His rage over this interruption of his film overwhelms any fear of being shot and he advances on Bobby like he truly is the kind of unstoppable killer Bobby only pretends to be 'at  movies.' Bogdanovich films Karloff looking down in rich dark shadows, his face menacing, the bullet graze on his forehead ignored, and suddenly he's the looming monster he was in THE CRIMINAL CODE (1929), which he and the director Peter B. watched--drunk--on TV the night before.


If we can learn a lesson from either--or both--DARK KNIGHT RISES and TARGETS it's that in the end, the celluloid always wins. The intended victims must go back to finish watching the movie with no further 'real life' interruptions, or else live inauthentic lives. Whether it's a super-expensive three-hour tour of guns and sound and urban studies-signifying fury, or just a super-cheap Gothic faux-Poe AIP Corman production like THE TERROR, the show must go on. And in a world full of banal chaos and unlimited ammo, the old monsters with their caves, castles, bats, spiders, science gadgets, high-tech motorcycles and swanky bullet proof bat armor-are our only true defense.


Of course I see it all through my own life lens, as someone who has THE TERROR on blu-ray and loves it to death even though he knows it pretty much sucks. My mom decorated our house growing up in the same damned beige and sickly pale greens of the Thompson house in TARGETS, and I climbed the walls like an entombed Usher before I learned to escape into the deep shadowy colors of whiskey and 60s horror movies on TV. I survived thanks to Karloff and thanks to Vincent Price and thanks to Julie Newmar, and Howard Hawks, and Tom Fergus as Claude in OVER THE EDGE. I didn't survive because of gritty urban neo-realism--ugh! who needs it?--or movies too mature for gaudy capes and ray guns. But if angry young hotheads of the future can similarly escape thanks to Anne Hathaway and Thomas Hardy, can avoid going postal by one more viewing of their favorite DC superhero, then Frank Miller and Bob Kane be praised, even if it means that things are so weird out there that the urban grit of neorealism has seeped into our escapist universe and the screen will eventually widen until its edges can no longer be discerned and CGI will be bleed into our 3-D grungy suburban wasteland of world like the soul bled into the flesh of Ahab as he stays home from the sea to catch White Whale Week... only on the Discovery Channel. Thar she blows, right after this message. 

7 comments:

  1. Another great piece! Kudos to you, Sir!

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  2. An inspired comparison. Aurora seemed like a sharp, bloody exclamation point to a week that had already unleashed a certain madness in the form of the crazed threats launched at reviewers who dared criticize Rises in the days before release. There was an air of apocalypse about the picture in many minds, though in the end the trailers and commercials evoked it more effectively than the film itself. But the mania seemed like more than what we should have expected from fanboys. Did it seem that way to you?

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  3. Thanks Doug! And Samuel - I didn't know about the crazed threats but it's certainly interesting. There definitely is an air of apocalypse about it which makes me wonder just would happen if a real life Bane stepped out of the stadium shadows. But the problem (not in the trailer) with the film is that it's this big build up to a revolution and then nothing much happens except rich people being kicked out of their 5th avenue apartments and jails being liberated. DW Griffith did a better job of actually evoking a citywide 99%er revolt in 1922's Orphans of the Storm.

    I was re-watching Escape from New York last night and it felt similar -- there's this great premise ---ooh the bridges all blocked and tunnels flooded and NYC is a giant blocked in lunatics-running-the-asylum prison.... and then... it never quite takes off, never quite measures up to the promise of all this prefacing.

    I can't help but think a lot of it has to do with 2012, and the feeling even if its all just pop culture hysteria, that 'a storm is coming' - which Rises taps into. I'm wondering now if these crazed threats you speak of have ever been delivered to 2012 naysayers in the media, those status quo skeptics who would suggest all the militia and lone nut efforts to fortify their underground shelters is just a waste of time.

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  4. "Just a waste of time," summed up the whole movie to me. Not just mine, but everyone on screen - except Anne Hathaway - seemed really exhausted from the first frame on. This is another well done essay, and the comparison between the realities of Targets and DKR (does the lack of "Batman" in any of the titles betray Christopher Nolan's kind of being embarrassed with these movies or are we just out of Batman Titles?). As much of a horror as the Aurora massacre was/is, the US averages 20 mass shootings per year. None of them make any sense, no matter how hard we try to assign reason to them, they happen in colleges, high schools, political rallies and now movie theaters. It is weird that the two military veterans seem to consider finishing watching this movie to be on par with having survived a massacre. I can't help but wonder if they got their tickets comped.

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  5. You cut to the cholesterol-plugged heart of a lot of the political anxieties and psychoses surrounding this movie and its post-9/11 shadow in ways I wasn't able to in my upcoming BLFJ review, in which I got a little too hung up on Nolan's condescending attitude towards his source material, including both "silly" Batman comics and film noir. John Carpenter seems a good point of comparison, as a conservative pulp director with a sharp sense of kitsch (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a designated classic, but GHOSTS OF MARS surpasses it in my book), while Nolan may be even more conservative - even neo-conservative - and with no sense of kitsch whatsoever.

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  6. There is a "Final Destination" vibe to the Aurora massacre that I am surprised hasn't been drawn on for Panic Signs articles. Charles Whitman's Austin rampage was on August 1, 1966, resulting in his shooting 13 people (including two children and a pregnant woman) and wounding 32 others, after having earlier that morning stabbed to death his wife and mother, making the total he killed 16 and 49 victims, including himself. Had he snapped and taken to the tower 48 hours earlier, things would surely have been even more horrible. The Adam West BATMAN movie had its world premier in Austin on Saturday, July 30, preceded by a parade featuring all the stars, all the vehicles, and the street in front of the UT tower completely flocked with children turning out to see their heroes. Whitman left a note requesting he be autopsied and his brain examined - that he couldn't help himself and knew he was doing wrong. A brain tumor was found and its influence on his actions are still being studied (Eagleman, INCOGNITO; The Secret Life Of The Brain, 2011). Imagine if that tumor had flipped his switch, pulled that trigger, on Saturday instead of Monday? Aurora in 2012 would have been a repeat of Austin 1966. So, will there be a TARGETS remake in 2015? (and not to be too douchey, but Charles Starkweather was the BADLANDS influence mass murderer, Charles Whitman was the ex Marine sniper influence of TARGETS). There are no dots to connect, but these Bat Maniacs seem connected by some kind of thread, if you squint just right when you read Wikipedia.

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  7. Thanks Johnny, I made the change above... Whitman, man. It's hard to keep these Charles-es straight. I had FORGOTTEN about that Batman premiere connection! I surely would have added it, had I remembered, so I'm glad you did. Thanks for all your other important addendums, which help widen the scope of what I was aiming for.

    And Lee, thank you brother. Good point about the conservative aspect of Nolan... it's funny how the name conservative doesn't fit thinking of all the millions involved in the production, vs. a 'liberal' like Carpenter's economy. I've been watching all the old Carpenter classics since seeing Dark Knight, like I'm trying to correct some damage.

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