Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Burn the money!

The most poignant moment in the new DARK KNIGHT movie is when the Joker (the late great Heath Ledger) sets fire to a giant mountain of money. The meta-textual similarity of this scene to the wasteful expenditure of the film's vast budget and its justification via huge box-office profit -- all for what amounts to a big loud explosion of nothing -- is eerily prescient. For DARK KNIGHT is really a big, loud, leftist version of DIRTY HARRY with our sympathies reversed. We can imagine Batman rushing in to save that burning money, cradling it in his arms and screaming to the sky: "Damn you, fire! Damn yooooou!" Meanwhile we look on in horror, not at the burning money, but because we realize the Joker is the only sane man in Gotham, the only "true" soul in this dark mess, the only one with inner Zen stillness and joi de vivre, the only one not hypnotized by their "life story." No matter how harshly he's screamed at (Batman growls and shouts until he's hoarse), the Joker never loses his mellow-gold cool; he's already at peace with himself and his mania. He's in the flow like one of those old drunken masters in the Shaw Brothers films, or Colonels Kilgore and Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Everyone else in the KNIGHT is, for lack of a better word, becalmed; they can't stop fretting about their possessions (and this includes wives and children - "my wife! He's got my wife!"), locked in identification with forms -- what the Buddhists call "samsara." The Joker stands alone, a Tyler Durden in a world of Ed Nortons; Che Guevara divided by Hannibal Lecter. What did Tyler say in FIGHT CLUB? "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything." What was it Kilgore said in APOCALYPSE NOW? "That smell, that napalm smell, smelled like... victory." Take out your notebook, Batman, and learn what your money can't buy.

Batman's business is saving lives but he spends vast oceans of money doing so, with high tech gadgets invented just for him to use once and then get bored with, and instead of moving into the cosmic flow he agonizes about issues of vigilante justice, like that boyfriend who spends all ten years of your relationship wondering if he's making the right decision. The Wayne billions are slyly subtextually depicted as liabilities as far as Wayne's personal growth, his maturity, his gentility; he abuses privilege as Wayne and worries he'll do it as Batman. Wayne takes whole ballet companies out on boat trips on the night they have shows to perform and then jets off on a plane in the middle of the ocean and strands them, bored and confused, with only Alfred to amuse them. It's the sort of "punishment" that might happen to a straying Norma Shearer in an old "faux-risque" MGM drama, while Wayne's the sort of lonely Forbes magazine guy that New Deal artists like Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz were lampooning back in KANE, showing them off for the confused loveless hungry ghosts they were.

Even in the gold-wearin' pimp age of MTV, how can we root for such a dour bling-o-holic as Bruce Wayne-cum-Batman? We're supposed to salivate over his helicopters, his yachts, his babes, his high-tech bat toys, but rather than a materialist fantasy of accelerated accumulation, Wayne lives with the dread and guilt of the rich and powerful, the fear the whole social construct he gets to roost atop and enjoy exclusively will topple out from under him, so he has to 'protect' the 'common man.' The rich often have this guilty guillotine-phobic need to pacify the proletariat and in Wayne's case it's sliced thin with the very flimsy rationalization that the high-tech doodads his company spends millions on are there to protect and serve the tired masses, not just to show off or be used for urban pacification.

One thinks of maniacs like Imelda Marcos, who claimed the impoverished Filipino people were all enjoying her massive shoe collection by proxy; or the U.S. military, employed as corporate goons in Iraq, there to serve the interests of Haliburton instead of the taxpayer. At least Tony Stark invents his own shit, and he does it to clean up his own mess... and he fuckin' drinks like a real man... and he don't mind killin'. James Bond is also cool because he didn't pay for all that cool stuff he's got, the British did, so what do we care? Meanwhile, Batman spends and spends on a one-man military build-up, then faints at the first sight of blood.

Anyway, with global warming what it is, shouldn't Batman be riding a solar-powered bat bicycle? I mean, if he really cared about the welfare of his air-breathing Gothamites, wouldn't his billions be better served buying and securing vast tracts of rainforest? Instead he spends his billions on weapons to enforce the status quo. In short, his billions are employed in the protection of his billions and nothing more. The Joker wants to teach the world to sing (or scream)--life and death are the same thing to the man beyond opposites--but Batman just wants the world to stay quiet, orderly. Just like dear old Charlie Kane, he only lets the people rock the boat if it's not his boat, but eventually it's all his boat, and so he outlaws rockin',  for the good of the people.

Chris Nolan seems to underline the hyper-commodity fetishism of Wayne's world, offering a sly socialist critique even as he fulfills his conspicuous consumption fantasy obligations to the producers and advertisers (Alfred is always interested in knowing what of Wayne's many cars will be taken out for drives. "The Lamborghini, sir?" he says, all a quiver). Things get worse when the letter-of-the-law debating starts choking up the narrative like exhaust fumes. As Nolan illuminates the tricky balance between good and evil, rich and poor, left vs. right, he seems split on the viability of arbitrary lines in the sand, such as when Wayne's weapon designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) takes a sudden high moral ground over the use of some spy software. Batman meanwhile risks the lives of countless civilians during his reckless chases after Joker and his mob, blowing up buildings and crashing through cars - but he'll swerve out of the way, totaling his fancy hog and six other cars, a mailbox, and some street poles, to not run down Joker, because that would be wrong. What? Dude, you probably killed thirty people in that chase, so get over it! Talk about handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500...

All this just makes Joker's homicidal glee look more and more admirable and honest, but even he is stuck with a lot of SOPHIE'S CHOICE'S REVENGE-style booby traps to spring. Does a franchise as proven as the caped crusader really need to borrow so heavily from the SAW films? But no matter, Ledger's Joker is so comfortable in his tailored purple tweeds, so free of any moral quagmire, that you can't help rooting for him and all his Colonel Kurtz-like "slug crawling a straight razor"-style clarity. What Wayne needs to do is get some blood on his hands, get his slug ass up on that straight razor. Maybe he should go kill his next steak instead of just ordering from a safe internet menu. Maybe we need to put Bush and Cheney in a room with some detainees; make them pull the trigger in person for a change.

Adding to the meta-text, before the previews was a public service announcement warning kids against smoking marijuana. It was the one where this kid is wearing about 50 t-shirts with silkscreen slogans like "Burnt out" which he gradually peels off as he gets more and more "clean" off the weed... until he's free! FREE!

The idea that altering your consciousness and expanding your perceptions and horizons through direct experience of a thing (rather than the parentally-approved contempt prior to investigation!) is bad while the ad that came on right after this anti-marijuana sermon involved the bland antics of a bunch of high school kids dancing to a cover of "Don't you forget about me - Hey Hey Hey" in the school library (ala BREAKFAST CLUB) whilst bedecked in the fall line-up from JC Penney. Thus is "indirect experience" of a thing continually fostered on the public as superior to the thing itself: you condemn the drug culture until it's sanitized, put in a museum, and can be enjoyed retro-actively through pastiche tribute. Hey hey hey, and you walk on byyyy na na na na na!

This is how the Batman justifies his petty morality too... and how the church operated in the Middle Ages, where anyone who sought direct spiritual contact instead of going through the church was burnt at the stake. In Gotham City, all enjoyment has to be done through Bruce Wayne, otherwise he'll give you such a CGI-enhanced beating! It's for your own good, but he'd never kill you, or anyone else, because that would be wrong -- unless of course it happened through collateral damage, i.e. it's not murder if the camera didn't catch it.

Dude, if you're gonna do a public service for anything threatening these kids... how about getting your head out of the sand and doing more promos for childhood obesity? Then again, those are really just more Indy 500 speeding tickets, as you can see below:

Uh huh.... if this is the "sane" America we're defending, I'm voting JOKER... on WEED! Put the coke back in coke and stop kibitzing, America! Life is too short to worry about lengthening.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Caveats aside, you have just pegged The Dark Knight as the anti-Iron Man. Iron Man being the most perfect expression yet of American ethos, circa 2008: remember when Bush said you could defeat the terrorists by shopping? Well now you really can!

    This is probably the best reading of The Dark Knight, asides and all, of seen all summer. Can you cross-post this at Bright Lights After Dark?

  3. Nolan and Co. certainly drew on a Miltonic Satan in crafting the Joker..

  4. Anonymous05 July, 2012

    Joker is sane! Even my English teacher who over interpret authors wont go that far.

  5. In an insane world, the sane man seems mad. And as Bela Lugosi once crowed, as he was torturing all his friends with Poe torture devices in THE RAVEN, "I'm da sanest man dat ebber lived."

  6. I feel Batman dark knight is the best ever made


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