Friday, August 17, 2012

Wherefore Art Thou Scully?

The surroundings were all too familiar.  I found myself in a small, cramped office deep in the bowels of some old building.  It had two desks, one for each of its occupants.  There were several filing cabinets, and boxes upon boxes of files for which there were no room in any cabinets.  No room at the inn.  In one corner there was an old-school, carousel-style slide show projector and a small, beat-up pull-down screen, like the kind found in high school classrooms.  It was a relic from an earlier time.  A simpler time.

In the standard white ceiling tiles over one of the desks a multitude of pencils were stuck, lead-first into the soft foam.  Presumably, they had been launched at the ceiling out of boredom by the owner of the desk, missiles with direction, but no purpose except to kill time.  But time cannot be killed.  Only cheated.  In the time it took for those pencils to find their mark, entire civilizations rose and fell, galaxies were born and destroyed, and the agonies and ecstasies of a thousand generations were played out on the cosmic stage.

My eyes finally settled on a poster that had been hung on the wall amidst several bulletin boards loaded to the brim with newspaper clippings and other miscellaneous scraps of paper.  On this poster was a picture of a UFO -the classic flying saucer- and the words I WANT TO BELIEVE boldy emblazoned underneath in glowing white caps, perhaps the most inspiring four words ever committed to paper in any language.

Finally, I realised where I was.

I was in the basement of the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. 

I was in the office of the X Files department.

And I was alone with agent Dana Scully.

For any boy growing up in the 90's, there was perhaps no female sci-fi sex symbol more deeply ingrained in his consciousness than Special Agent Scully.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran a close second. (And if I had to pick, Counselor Deana Troi would probably have rounded out the top three.  Wait, Xena was pretty hot too.)  Perhaps it was Scully's good looks coupled with her unmatched intellect, brought to glorious fruition by the unmatched acting abilitiy of Gillian Anderson.  Perhaps it was the fact that she carried a gun and handcuffs, and could punish or detain you if necessary.  Or, perhaps teenage boys are just really, really horny.  Either way, I have no doubt that the hours of my youth spent watching Scully on The X Files was the origin of my lifelong fascination with redheads (for purely intellectual reasons).

I rarely remember my dreams, and even more rarely am I able to remain lucid in my dreams, but now I was (literally) in the middle of a straight 90's male teenager's wet dream come true.  I was in full control of my faculties, alone in my mind with a 90's sexual icon who I could bend to my every sexual whim.

Or so I thought.

It wasn't long before the illustrious Dr. Dana Scully turned around, voicelessly discussing some unsolved case with me, and I realized that I was not in complete control of my dream.  I was lucid enough only to know that I was dreaming.  And what a bizarre dream it turned out to be.  Everything about Scully was the same as I remembered from the show -the blazing red hair, the impeccably stylish pant suit, even the FBI ID badge- except for one, slightly minor detail.

Scully had a beard.

It was still Scully, and she was still a woman.  She also just happened to have a full beard.  And it wasn't like stuble or a five o'clock shadow.  It was a full-on beard, probably a couple weeks worth of scruffy growth and it was red.  Not exactly the same colour red as her hair, just slightly darker as beards tend to be.  And just like that my one shot at a single passionate night of wild love making with Special Agent Dana Scully instead turned into a contemplative examination of current Western ideals of beauty.

Just like that we were in a hospital.  Scully was now wearing medical scrubs and a white medical gown, and still silently speaking to me.  Or maybe she was making sounds but I couldn't hear them.  Her mouth kept making the forms of words, but without sound I had no idea what she was trying to communcate.

And still the beard.

I can still remember in the midst of my dream trying to reconcile the fact that despite the beard this was still Scully and she was still hot.  I remember trying to figure out why a bearded lady felt so natural in this universe I had created, especially since I was conscious of the fact that I was dreaming and I knew it was not genetically natural for human females in the twentieth century to sport full beards.  Yet here was a bearded Scully, and I wasn't disgusted, nor were there other characters pointing out the absurdity of it.  And I knew that in this universe a bearded woman wasn't unusual.  In fact, the strangest part of the dream was the fact that it didn't feel strange.  The remainder of the dream was spent with me trying to understand how the genetic and social norms (ie. women with beards) of both the dream world and the world I awoke to in the morning could somehow both coexist peacefully in my subconscious without seeming to contradict themselves.

When I awoke, I recall thinking how strange it was that I remembered my dreams, which usually fade long before the morning sun peeks out over the horizon.  It wasn't until about a day and a half later that the possible implications of the Bearded Scully Dream began to hit me.  Where else had I seen bright red hair and a beard paired together before?  Then the terrible thought occured to me:

What if my dream had not been a twisted fantasy about Dana Scully/Gillian Anderson?  What if it had actually been about some deep-seated homoerotic desire for Eric Stoltz?




The lovely Ms. Anderson...
...and the incomparable Mr. Stoltz.
I'm still not sure exactly what my dream was really about, or if it was really about anything at all.  Even if it was about Mr. Stoltz, I'm pretty sure I could do worse.  I'm also secure in the fact that my heterosexuality is still holding steady at about 85%.

Even so, I don't think I'll ever watch PULP FICTION the same again.

I've also been left with the following philosophical conundrum: Would a Scully by any other manifestation still  be Scully?  Was I dreaming about Scully with a beard, or was I dreaming about a beard that just happened to end up on Scully's face?  And if it wasn't Scully I was dreaming about, then who or what was it?  These are the questions that will plague my waking hours.
 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Battle Royale With Cheese

For a few individuals, notoriety is not a curse, but a gift.  Notoriety is a cruel mistress.  Some are broken under her stiletto heel, while others seem to thrive.  And there's no way to know where you reside on that scale until Fate's Dominatrix straps on her skin-tight leather outfit, straps you to a chair, slaps that weird leather mask with the zipper for the mouth on your head, and pulls out her whip.  When that happens, only two things are certain: 1) in this game, this is no safety word and 2) your life will be irrevocably changed from that point forward, for better or worse.

Despite a general broadening of horizons, widespread desensitization to concepts traditionally constructed as provocative, and technological and social advancements allowing for more open discourse, true artistic notoriety is still far from being an endangered species.  This is due in large part to two basic human urges: 1) the urge to take offence at almost anything and 2) the urge to rebel against authority or to construct our identity as opposed to the mainstream and so remain "unique."

Both of these opposing forces help explain the mystique surrounding BATTLE ROYALE, a little cinematic gem from Japan first released way back in that turbulent time known as the year 2000 (also known by fans of 20th century video games as the year of countless predicted forms of apocalypse and Flight of the Conchords fans as the time of the great robot uprising).  I'm not sure exactly what happened to delay the release of this movie in North America for twelve years.  The most commonly espoused story is that the movie was so violent and so disturbing that it's release was simply banned outright like gay marriage.  This is, in fact, the story I was told and the story I chose to believe ever since I heard about BATTLE ROYALE way back in 2002. 

It was a sort of romanticised vision of things.  I don't remember the last time I've derived so much pleasure from a movie I hadn't even watched.  For ten years I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of BATTLE ROYALE. First off, I was in "the know."  Few people on this continent outside of a select circle even knew the movie existed, so I immediately felt like I was part of something bigger.  I was in on some sort of cultural conspiracy.  I got the satisfaction that comes from the sense of superiority of knowing something a lot of other people don't seem to know.  I also derived satisfaction from being more open-minded and cognitively accepting of a broader range of artistic and philosophical pursuits than the oppressive, amorphous Authority that had banned this no-doubt stunning piece of cinema based on archaic views on depictions of sex or violence.  Third, the knowledge that Authority had banned this movie and was one literally one step away from organized, Nazi-style book burnings and fascist midnight rallies where names of suspected dissidents were bandied about like so many cans of Pringles and mob mentality had taken over as the townsfolk were whipped into a frenzy by their charismatic leader and encouraged to take up arms, grab their torches and go door to door, neighbourhood by neighbourhood on a witch hunt, dragging people from their beds and forcing them to swear undying and eternal allegiance to the Regime under punishment of extreme, sadistic torture and full frontal lobotomies gave me the feeling that I was on the side of Right and Good, armed with the blades of Logic, my loins girded with the impenetrable armour of Reason.      

Ultimately, the concept of BATTLE ROYALE allowed me to embrace my rebellious nature, at least inside my own head.  But maybe that's where it matters most.  Either way, for me the notoriety surrounding the film afforded an emotional outlet to stick it to The Man (in a totally non-gay way, of course).  Embracing this type of notoriety is a way to rebel against authority in a socially safe and acceptable way, much like people ride roller coasters to court death in a socially safe and acceptable way.

Earlier this year when BATTLE ROYALE was finally released in North America after all these years of perseverance, I felt a twisted sort of vindication.  Finally, the silent rebellion had broken the evil brotherhood of Hollywood censors and religious zealots that had conspired to oppress Artistic Expression, and were no doubt mere steps away from locking away artists who opposed the status quo in Guantanamo Bay with all the other terrorists and lost souls.  As I shelled out the money for the four disc collector's edition Blu Ray (what else?) I looked the cashier in the eye with pride.  He looked at me as he handed me the bag emblazoned with the letters HMV -the letters of freedom- and gave me a small nod as if to say "Well done.  Stay the course, brother."  And I, in turn, returned the gesture as if to say "Fuck yeah!"  It was then I realized the Nod of Approval had become the secret handshake of Western counter culture, a secret code to identify ourselves to each other in the open without drawing attention from the forces of darkness that sought to divide and conquer us in the worst ways imaginable.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that the reason for the delayed North American release of BATTLE ROYALE might have just as easily been due to something as mundane as disputes over licencing fees, a fairly plausible theory I read over at IMDB.  Another theory was that it was a form of temporal censorship, what with memories of the Columbine high school shootings fresh in people's minds at the time of this movie's release.

It wasn't until I finally watched BATTLE ROYALE that I realized A) how fucked up the premise of the movie actually is, and B) how much I have become desensitized to depictions of violence.  BATTLE ROYALE takes place in a distopian future (is there any other kind?) where each year a random class of high school students is chosen to compete in a no-holds-barred fight to the death.  The competition takes place over three days during which time you must kill your fellow classmates or risk being killed yourself.  And the motivation for killing your fellow students?  At the end of the three days if there is still more than one person left alive, everyone will be killed.  Before each student is sent out, he or she is given a duffel bag with rations and a random "weapon," which could be anything from an Uzi or a hand grenade to a pair of binoculars or a pot lid (which actually turns out to be a pretty effective weapon.)  To keep track of all the students, each is outfitted with a nifty and stylish electronic collar which contains a GPS and a microphone, as well as an explosive device powerful enough blow their heads off.  And just for fun, the secluded island where the competition takes place is divided into grids, and every couple of hours one of these areas becomes a danger zone where the electronic collars will automatically blow up just to keep the students on their toes.

Too revealing for a Bar-Mitzvah? 
What do you mean?
And yes, if that sounds familiar it's probably because there's a watered down version of the same story called THE HUNGER GAMES that is currently circulating through Western culture in both book and movie form.  I can't even begin to fathom the glaring inconsistencies of the fact that the same subject matter that was regarded as controversial in BATTLE ROYALE (whether it actually led to a ban or not) to be considered massively entertaining when presented in THE HUNGER GAMES in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster starring hot young Hollywood actors.  Needless to say, if you're not a 13 year old girl then BATTLE ROYALE is probably more your cup of tea.

It was about a month ago now that I first witnessed BATTLE ROYALE with my wife, and Ryebone who was safely duct taped to a kitchen chair following his shenanigans prior to watching THE EXPERIMENT.  I remember it was about halfway through and I made some comment about how the violence wasn't as extreme as I thought it would be, and how some big name Hollywood films were more violent, and I didn't get the controversy, until my wife pointed out to me that the premise was high school kids killing each other.  It took several minutes for that statement to sink in and then I realized what kind of demented psychopaths the Japanese really were.  When it finally hit me -kids killing kids- I felt like some strange fog had been lifted.  While BATTLE ROYALE wasn't the most sadistically violent film I'd ever seen (After watching ICHI THE KILLER I remember having to take a shower because I felt so dirty) the premise is really fucked up.

My friends?  They, uh, got lost. Yeah, lost.
And that's when the realization about my desensitization to depictions of violence hit me like a ton of bullets.  You'll notice the specificity of the language I use here when I distinguish between a desensitization to depictions of violence as opposed to a desensitization to violence itself.  This semantic differentiation is important to make, especially in the context of the ongoing debate about the potential effects of portrayals of violent actions in movies and video games on the minds of our citizenry, particularly children. 

Whenever an extremely violent act is perpetrated against some unsuspecting victims, these days there is a tendency in some advocacy groups and irresponsible media outlets to respond with a knee-jerk reaction, blaming various forms of artistic expression for the actions of the individuals who carry out these heinous acts.  I won't deny that our perception of the is influenced to some degree by the cultural context in which we exist, and there are sociological factors which contribute to cognitive development.  What I will argue, however, is that there is not a simple one to one, cause and effect relationship between witnessing depictions of violence and committing violent acts.  The distinction that no one seems to make is that while watching somebody's head get blown up in a movie I may calmly reach down for another handful of popcorn, witnessing the same thing happening on my front yard would most likely give me nightmares for years.  Watching violent movies has, at the most, desensitized me to violent movies.  For the vast majority of normalized people, making the distinction between fantasy and reality is not really as difficult as we believe it to be, and for the few individuals who have trouble making that distinction there's most likely a strong disposition to psychotic behaviour regardless of exposure to artistic depictions of violence.  Of course, I'm no psychologist, so don't take my word for it.

Despite the fact that at first glance BATTLE ROYALE may just seem like violence porn, there are actually several significant thematic elements at play.  The first is the Lord of the Flies paradigm, where free from the bounds of normalized social constraints people are more inclined to act on their "base" urges, and man's inhumanity to man, and yadda, yadda, yadda.  I mean, it's been discussed to death and there's really no new insights I can offer that haven't already been examined (however crudely) by millions of high school essays dating back to whenever Lord of the Flies was written.  (Well, I mean, I could offer new insights, I just don't feel like it.) 

The second major theme is the generational clash.  The whole point of the Battle Royale and pitting high school students against each other in a game to the death was in response to widespread dissidence among Japan's youth.  In the movie, there is a sense of social unrest, and a sort of youthful revolt as 800,000 students walk out of their classrooms, and teachers are getting stabbed in the ass with no real consequences.  So in order to curb the generational revolution before it starts, the government hopes to break the spirit of these youthful upstarts through displays of extreme violence, such as the Battle Royale, where they demonstrate their power by showing that they can actually make the youth turn against itself in a sort of Charlie Sheen-esque self-destruction.  While the theme of a generational clash can find relevance in virtually any historical period and any culture, I would imagine it would resonate more strongly for Asian audiences where respect for the traditions and elders of their society are held much more sacrosanct than here in the West.

On the other hand, there is a lot of enjoyment to be garnered from BATTLE ROYALE on a purely visceral level.  There are some pretty unique and gruesome deaths, and a great deal of fun "What the fuck?" moments.  The movie has a pretty good sense of itself, and there's some tongue-in-cheek stuff amidst all the seriousness of, you know, fighting to the death with your BFF.  Something I really appreciated was the running death tally after every death/series of deaths, which to me was both comical and quite helpful because with a class of some forty-odd students, it's a lot of murders to keep track of. 

School officials couldn't quite account for the low sales of the class pictures that year.
And as for my private little rebellion against authority, I'm kind of torn, because I was so in love with the idea of BATTLE ROYALE that I had never anticipated actually watching the damn thing.  I suppose the notoriety of the whole thing has been diminished now that the movie actually has been released in North America, but it still feels more like a fringe thing that not a lot of people here know about, so I suppose I can still slate my rebellious thirst.  However, this film will be one of the few where the idea of the movie and the movie itself both co-exist as separate entities, and I'll never quite be able to resolve the two.

Bottom line, BATTLE ROYALE is a great little gem to add to the collection, both in terms of quality and packaging.  It's a nice quirky, slightly esoteric film to impress your friends with, and a must-have for fans of Asian cinema.  I am also a fan of physical media collection, and I can always appreciate a nice package, and this four-disc set is nothing to scoff at.  It looks great, and feels heavy enough to use as a weapon should you ever be caught up in the middle of your own fight to the death.  Whether it be fellow students, family, friends, or co-workers, the BATTLE ROYALE Blu Ray box set will effectively meet your bludgeoning needs.  I'll give BATTLE ROYALE an 8/10 = One Creepily Silent Head Stalking His Prey on a (Mostly) Deserted Island


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Rising Prospects Amidst Pleas for the Apocalypse... Spoilers for Life. Deep Thoughts, Wounded Souls, and Freaks Like Me

**NOTE: EXTREME SPOILERZ APLENTY**

After waiting four long years for Christopher Nolan's third installment in his seminal Batman feature film franchise, I could hardly believe it when I finally found myself sitting in the theatre waiting for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES to start.  Not content to simply create the best superhero film of its time with BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan sought to redefine not only an entire genre of films but also to remind us that the term "summer blockbuster" did not have to be used solely in the derogatory.  With THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan  created some kind of strange, new hybrid that had the action, excitement, and scale of a blockbuster film but that was tempered with depth, substance, and integrity.  THE DARK KNIGHT was grand in the scope not only of its cinematic vision but also in terms of theme and philosophy.  It dealt with sweeping themes of morality, the nature of right and wrong, good versus evil, and self-sacrifice.  Amidst all the action and explosions (of which there were many), Nolan gave us a culturally significant piece of art that cut to the core of universal themes that humanity has been wrestling with since (*insert chronological hyperbole here*) with the insight and resonance usually reserved for ancient Greek dramas, Shakespearean tragedies, and certain HBO shows.  THE DARK KNIGHT was an independent art house flick with all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster without succumbing to the pretension of the former or the hubris of the latter.  It was simultaneously entertaining, emotionally poignant, and intellectually stimulating.  Nolan showed the world that it was possible to maintain artistic integrity (however you choose to define it) in as bloated and self-serving a medium as there ever was and to engage audiences both viscerally and cognitively.

In short, THE DARK KNIGHT was a game changer.

Of course the problem with THE DARK KNIGHT having been such an excellent film (if you consider excellence to be a problem) was that Nolan had set the bar so high that it was as inevitable as Icarus falling from the sky or getting laid at the prom that he could not hope to soar to those heights again.  He could get close, but how often does one achieve virtual perfection?  How could any movie, even another made by Nolan in the same universe, ever hope to match or even exceed the remarkably high standards he himself had set?  And as part of the audience going to witness this final chapter, how could I not help but compare THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with its predecessor THE DARK KNIGHT?  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -as with any text- must be considered in the context in which it was produced, and a large part of that context is derived from THE DARK KNIGHT (and, of course, BATMAN BEGINS).  There are some who would shy away from comparisons between the two cinematic titans, because they're "too different," like comparing apples and a completely different kind of apples.  Some would say it isn't "fair" to compare TDKR to TDK because TDK was so special and so unique that TDKR couldn't possibly measure up, but I say that it is not only fair but necessary.  How is it unfair to compare a Nolan-helmed, Bale-starring Batman film to another Nolan-helmed, Bale-starring Batman film?  What the fuck is unfair about upholding a standard of excellence?

Of course, most of this trepidation was the result of the fanboy (sorry, fanperson) urge to preemptively defend a piece of art that some feared might not live up to their incredibly high expectations.  It was rationalization at it's worst ("If THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn't as good THE DARK KNIGHT it's because almost nothing can be that good, so each movie has to be considered on its own merits.") which smacked of the self-righteous and a defeatist attitude as fans simultaneously hoped for an opus of epic proportions yet braced for some kind of vague sense of failure.  Success does funny things to people's brains, even brains that had nothing to do with it in the first place.  Unlike failure, it seems there are always people willing to help others bear the terrible burden of success.  Nobody ever wants to give Atlas a break.

I must admit to experiencing just a touch of that same trepidation mixed in with my excitement.  The concept of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as a film had become an exercise in What If's.  What if it wasn't as good as THE DARK KNIGHT?  What if it wasn't good at all?  What if Nolan succumbed to the (supposed) third movie curse?  What if Heath Ledger hadn't died before this trilogy was complete?  What if.  Going to see Nolan's third Batman film for the third time had become a mental exercise of trying to juggle all of my uncertainties and the doubts of lesser men that had begun to grow in my mind like so many tumours. (Yes, I know Arnold, it's not a tumour.  It's a simile.)  The real mental exercise then became letting go of all of that bullshit and just experiencing the movie.

And what an experience it was.

It's difficult for me to describe how I feel about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, even now, just over a week since I've seen it.  There's so much that's still uncertain.  The only clear emotion I can remember is the one on the drive home, which was an overwhelming sense of depression.  Not because the movie was terrible or because my expectations were not met, but because after witnessing something like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, everything else seems so dull and small and insubstantial by comparison.  It wasn't until after the credits rolled that I got the sense of what had really happened.  I had been washed away in some strange tide and dragged out into an ocean, a world almost too vast, too grand to comprehend or take in.  The depression washed over me as the tide receded and I was deposited back on the shore of this world.  I felt as though for those two hours and forty-four minutes my mind had been expanded in order to take in Nolan's grand vision, and then afterwards had retracted again, though not to its original scope so that I still felt like there was something missing, some empty part of me that had not even existed before, yearning to be filled again.

There was one thought I had on the hour or so ride home (the nearest IMAX theatre was over an hour away from where I lived, though I felt (quite rightly, it turned out) that this particular mission necessitated the extra travel time, baffling my wife who couldn't understand what was wrong with the theatre that was literally a two minute walk from our front door) that stuck with me.  The thought came to me unbidden (or perhaps bidden by forces beyond my perception) that beauty was the conscious or unconscious willingness in a specific instance to believe in the illusion of perfection.  It was the active decision to either overlook or accept a specific subset of imperfections in the face of otherwise overwhelming grandeur.  Beauty was the abandonment of what is to the possibility of what could be: ignoring what you know to be true in favour of what you hope to be true until, eventually, what you hope becomes what you know, or crumbles under the weight of disillusionment.  I shit you not.  These are the exact thoughts, verbatim, that ricocheted around the inside of my skull after watching THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  I knew at that moment that I had experienced art.  It was something substantial.  It was more than "just a summer blockbuster."  I can remember very few pieces of art that have actually inspired me into profound philosophical musings about the nature of beauty and art and my perception of the world as a whole.  This may sound like exaggeration or hyperbole, and to a certain extent it may be, but it is nonetheless still true.  Of course, it might also be argued that this thought was my own twisted form of rationalization for enjoying THE DARK KNIGHT RISES despite the "flaws" in the film that some people have pointed out and a desperate attempt to maintain the pedestal on which I have placed Nolan and all of his artistic endeavours.  I would argue to the contrary, however, I am not privy to the inner workings of my own psyche, so I could not argue the point with complete certainty.

One thing I am certain of, however, is that Nolan's Batman movies have, in my mind, become the seminal motion picture trilogy of our generation.  These films are game changers in the way that the original STAR WARS trilogy was a game changer, in terms of thematic significance, technological innovation, and narrative scope.  In fact, I would have to say that THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy supplants the STAR WARS trilogy's number one spot.  Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy is like the STAR WARS trilogy if A NEW HOPE was more emotionally engaging, and instead of RETURN OF THE JEDI there was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Part II which incorporated all the emotional catharsis and all the best parts of JEDI such as Luke's badassery and Leia in her slave girl outfit.  And then imagine that A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK I and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK II (THE EMPIRE RISES?  THE RISE OF THE JEDI?) were more coherently unified in terms of theme and narrative and you will only begin to understand the truly impressive nature of Nolan's monumental achievement.
And 1,2,3, and 1,2,3...See?  You'll be ready for the
big dance competition in no time

In fact, there were certain times where I felt the influence or the intertextuality between STAR WARS and THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy.  The way THE DARK KNIGHT and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK both ended on kind of a downer for our heroes.  In fact, in both of these second entries the bad guy seems to have the good guys on the ropes the whole time.  Both sequels also contain the only real love story in their respective trilogies.  In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES there is an early fight scene with Bane that is reminiscent of Luke's battles with Darth Vader in both EMPIRE and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  Bane and Batman battle along a catwalk overlooking a precipice as did Luke and Vader in EMPIRE, and like that movie, here the bad guy definitely had the upper hand.  Then in the same fight Batman hides in the shadows much as Luke does in JEDI, as their respective antagonists taunt them with bad guy shit.  Both protagonists feel the pain as Vader and Bane both wreak physical pain upon their enemies, though Batman/Bruce Wayne's punishment is definitely more severe.  A friend drew an interesting comparison between the way the rebels used cables to bring down the AT-ATs at the battle of Hoth and the way Batman used cables to bring down the Joker's transport in THE DARK KNIGHT.  The point here isn't to say that THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy owes a debt to STAR WARS and contradict my earlier assertions about the superiority of the former films over the latter, but rather as an example of how richly woven Nolan's narratives are with the cultural fabric of our time.

I have to mention here how fitting a character Bane was for the final installment.  Out of respect to the late Heath Ledger, and his performance of a lifetime as the Joker, Nolan's film doesn't even mention the Joker.  Some people get stuck on this point and are baffled that the Joker is not around.  In keeping with Nolan's themes of realism, I offer this solution:  Guantanamo Fucking Bay.  You really think the U.S. government is going to let a known terrorist hang out in a low security mental institution?  And as for no mention of him; how often do you hear about Osama Bin Laden on a daily basis now that he's out of the picture?  Suck on it.

Where THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would have gone were it not for Ledger's untimely demise is a source of endless and tantalizing speculation, however where it did go with Tom Hardy stepping in as Bane is as great a destination as any we could have speculated about.  Any worries the media stirred up about his voice were completely unfounded, and Hardy was both menacing and creepy in the role.  Some reviewers have talked about how hard it was for Hardy to "emote" as Bane, as if wearing a mask somehow detracted from the character.  That would be like saying Darth Vader was somehow less of a badass because his face was covered.  He looks menacing, he sounds menacing, and he... tastes menacing, I assume.

Not only that, but just like previous villains in Nolan's Batman universe, Bane was the embodiment of the theme of this film.  In BATMAN BEGINS Nolan's theme was fear, represented perfectly by both the Scarecrow (also with a nice cameo in TDKR, by the way) and Ra's Al Ghul.  The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT actually verbally evokes Nolan's theme of chaos, claiming to be its agent.  And in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES where the theme is pain, Bane both dishes out a great deal, but also suffers from chronic, crippling pain which is why he wears the mask that dispenses some kind of pain killer in aerosol form.

More than that, Bane was the perfect villain to round out the series because he really was the yin to Batman's yang.  Bane is basically what Bruce Wayne would have become had he decided to kill that peasant dude in the first movie that Ra's Al Ghul wanted him to execute.  Like Bruce Wayne, Bane was trained by the League of Shadows, though unlike Bruce, Bane was excommunicated for being too extreme.  Both Bane and Batman represent two extremes, two sides of the same coin if you will, and it cannot be coincidence that the design of Bane's mask is almost exactly the opposite of Batman's cowl, revealing his eyes and the upper part of his face while Batman covers the top of face and reveals his mouth.  This contrast really brings to mind classic battle of good versus evil.

And while THE DARK KNIGHT RISES does deal with timeless themes of good versus evil, it is also, like its predecessors, a very timely film.  Part of Nolan's genius is the same genius that permeates the art of The Beatles.  Even their seemingly frivolous pop songs about holding hands or a hypothetical eighth day of the week which now seem heavily (out)dated and so much a product of their time, have a certain timeless quality about them.  In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Nolan explores several culturally relevant themes that pervade the current Western zeitgeist.  One of the big themes Nolan explores is class conflict, where the exploited Marxist masses are put squarely at odds with the decadent, out of touch bourgeois, with clear battle lines being drawn.  This is clearly tapping into a sense of unrest in Western cultures that stems from societies evolving from an economic mosaic into a bipartisan scale with the two extremes -filthy rich and disgustingly poor- increasingly looking like the only viable options.  The erosion of the middle class at the hands of the self-indulgent, indignant, out of touch, economic elite, has lead to massive protests, the most famous of which so far has been the Occupy Wall Street movement, which, while accomplishing nothing, at least brought to light the growing sense of disparity many people are sensing.
That is one fine looking pussy... cat

Another response to current cyber culture is the Blank Slate computer program that Selina Kyle (AKA not Catwoman) is desperately searching for.  Basically the program is a digital holy grail that somehow manages to erase all digital traces of a person, essentially wiping out all record of their existence and, depending on the point of view of the target, is either an extreme inconvenience or, as the name suggests, a chance to escape one's past and start over fresh.  This, of course, taps in to contemporary concerns that have perhaps become most personified in social networking sites like Facebook, where every comment you write, and every picture posted of you no matter how compromising or scandalous is basically there for all of eternity for all the world to see.  More so for teenagers who grew up with Facebook and didn't consider the long term implications of posting pictures of themselves playing Rock Band naked with crude images of dicks drunkenly stenciled all over their exposed flesh with a felt tipped marker.  This generation of kids view social media in a totally different light than the generation of adults who will be running the workforce they will be stepping into.  The youth of today see social networking as a form of free expression and a means to engage with friends completely segmented from "the real world."  The current sense of things is that what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.  Not so for those mourning the loss of their youth and who live in a parallel world where terms like "responsibility" and "accountability" become not only creed and contract, but also (sometimes) necessary burdens born by a grim coalition of the unwilling.  Neither side is incorrect, but there is still the fear that an errant Tweet can kill a budding career just as surely as a .44 Magnum will blow your head clean off.


But unlike other narratives, Nolan's universe holds no easy answers.  The overthrowing of the 1% at the hands of the 99%, which seems like a Marxist wet dream finally come to glorious fruition under the careful manipulation of Bane, and seems like it should be immensely satisfying to watch, is instead unsettling and deeply disturbing.  While storming the castles of the wealthy and plundering their spoils would be extremely satisfying, and in many senses just, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES shows that mindless looting and anarchy are not as appealing as they might seem.  You unseat the wealthy and punish them, and what then?  The same is true of the Blank Slate program which erases one's past.  The question posed by this movie is not only what one might do to start over, but what one might do if one could start over.  There's no program to erase one's own memories.  What we do with our future is at least as important as what we have done in our past.  At what point do you have to put aside worries about your past and move on?

There are no easy answers.  I've read a lot of reviews, and one of the things that the detractors seem to not like about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is that it seemingly contradicts the themes of THE DARK KNIGHT.  I couldn't help but think that perhaps we had watched two different movies (has somebody already copyrighted THE DICK KNIGHT RISES?  Totally called it.  Pay up, porn peddlers.).  What I saw in TDKR was a continuation and evolution of the themes set out in TDK.  For instance there's Wayne/Batman's speech at the end of TDK where he says something along the lines of "Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough.  Sometimes people deserve more.  Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."  And then he takes the blame for Harvey Dent AKA Two Face's crimes so the criminals put away by Dent as Gotham's DA will stay in jail and not have their lawyers spring them on a technicality like the guy who put them there was actually a murdering psychopath.  Then in TDKR we are shown the extreme  to which the pendulum has swung as hardened criminals are being put away by the barrelful in Blackgate Prison and held indefinitely.  I believe one or more characters mention the violation of the inmates' civil liberties.  Again, tying in to the timeliness of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, this speaks to anxieties surrounding institutions such as Guantanamo Bay and the huge breech of civil liberties that was (and is) the Patriot Act.  Is a violation of civil liberties a necessary sacrifice to maintain law and order?  These are the types of questions THE DARK KNIGHT RISES evokes.

This is not a contradiction of the themes of THE DARK KNIGHT.  Sometimes people deserve more than the truth.  The corollary which Batman and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon never considered at the end of THE DARK KNIGHT is that sometimes people also deserve the truth.  For both Gordon and Batman/Bruce Wayne that delicate balance becomes ever more into question in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES even before Bane arrives in Gotham and the shit hits the fan.  Both Wayne and Gordon have had to bear the full weight of the lie that helped clean up the city.  For Gordon that meant losing his family who has moved away, and for Wayne his raison d'etre, and for both an extremely troubled conscience.  Bale and Oldman do a fantastic job of showing how this burden has eaten away at both of them, and both of their characters really feel like hollowed out shells of men.  Gordon seems especially troubled as he has to continue to heap praise on the man who was moments away from murdering his son.  This evolution from rewarding faith by lying for the greater good and the ends justifying the means to trusting that people are strong enough to endure the truth and bear the burden without breaking reflects an evolution in the characters and marks a shift from a more youthful idealism to the weary pragmatism of experience.  As people evolve, their needs sometimes evolve as well.  At the time of Dent's death it was important to reward people's faith, to give people hope, but as time and circumstances progressed it may also have become necessary to reveal the deception and (more importantly) the reasons for it, and trust that the majority of people would have seen the need for it at the time and allow them to move on.

And it is precisely this lack of trust that in part leads to Gotham's downfall.  Another so-called contradiction that critics point out has to do with one of the final scenes of THE DARK KNIGHT where two boats loaded with people -one with your average Joe Citizen and one with convicted felons- are rigged with a literal boat load of explosives and each boat has the detonator for the other boat's bomb.  The Joker informs them that whoever blows up the other boat first will live and if neither boat makes a choice then both will go boom.  Batman doesn't seem too concerned because he has faith in the people of Gotham, and that despite the Joker's assertion that given the opportunity there is no limit to how far so-called civilized people will sink:

"You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."

In THE DARK KNIGHT the Joker tries his damnedest, but in the end his hypothesis seemed to be disproved by the folks on the boats who resist his sociological mindfuck.  Like Batman, who endured the Joker's demands to reveal his identity despite his promise to kill people until he did so, the people on the boats endured the fear and chaos that the Joker attempted to spread.  For critics the contradiction to the courage of Gotham's conviction is how seemingly easy it is for Bane to break the collective spirit of the citizens of Gotham City where the Joker previously failed. 

Well, it wasn't that fucking easy.  It took eight years of apathy and complacency to erode the hearts and minds of Gotham's citizenry.  With the Joker gone and the Dent Act in place allowing the cops to tackle crime unfettered from the shackles of due process, Gotham became an extremely safe, comfortable place to live.  Eight years later, with crime rates at an all time low and growing socioeconomic disparity (which had been addressed in the previous two films) the city, much like Wayne and Gordon, was eroding from the inside out. The point made in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is that the people had not remained vigilant. It's the old cliche that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. So when Bane comes in and starts off with his Marxist rhetoric about liberation from the oppression of the socioeconomic elite after appropriating a nuclear weapon and trapping the bulk of the GCPD underground, it's no stretch of the imagination that mass panic and group mentality would lead to uncharacteristically criminal behaviour on a large scale. There is ample historical evidence of looting and rioting on a mass scale in the wake of a disaster. The Joker was right to a certain degree. When the chips were down low enough, civilized people were capable of falling, of committing the very crimes they themselves had endured. Indeed, the people of Gotham were "only as good as the world allows them to be." Whereas Joker's full on assault came up against the people's resolve to resist falling prey to the same temptations as their enemies, Bane brought on an assault, but also preyed upon weaknesses already present in the fortification. The Joker tried to manipulate through sheer chaos, where Bane used chaos and calculated manipulation.

(Since we're on the subject (sort of), allow me to respond to another criticism of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES which revolves around Bane's (and apparnently Talia's) plan to destroy Gotham City.  Some critics cry foul and ask why Bane just didn't blow up the city with the IND (Improvised Nuclear Device) instead of letting anarchy rule for five months or so.  Thankfully, this is an easy one.  It's the same reason Ra's Al Ghul planned to release the airborn toxin in Gotham in BATMAN BEGINS and have the city "tear itself apart through fear."  He wanted to make an example of Gotham (the "world's most powerful city" and an obvious metaphor for New York) for the rest of the world, to weed out evil on the ground floor, but also to reign in the hubris of the rest of civilization.  Just like they had supposedly done in Rome and Constantinople and London, the League of Shadows wanted to make an example of Gotham for the rest of the world.  So, in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the point of Bane's plan isn't just to break the spirits of Gotham's citizens (though it's a nice perk to help torture Bruce Wayne), but to demonstrate to the world how the spirits of any population can be broken.  It was a warning to the world to take heed of the corruption brewing beneath the surface and for other communities to take heed of their own arrogance when it came to letting evil fester.  So, yeah, it made total sense for Bane, who was trying to fulfill the legacy of the League of Shadows, to not only destroy the city, but also to first break its spirit, and break it for all the world to see to try and maintain "balance" in society.)

This is not to say that Bane was necessarily more badass or more intelligent than the Joker, merely that Bane was able to help fulfill Joker's prophesy.  After assaults by Ra's Al Ghul, the Joker, and finally Bane, there's only so much one city can take.  The themes in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES don't contradict the ones in THE DARK KNIGHT; they merely expand upon them, showing how even the steeliest of resolves can erode over time without the proper care.  The people of Gotham had lost their way.  Despite the public debate over the morality of vigilante justice that Batman's actions sparked and mixed public reaction, he had still become a symbol of hope and strength.  What Batman represented was the ability of an "ordinary" citizen being able to stand strong in the face of injustice and evil and even fight back and punch evil in the face a couple of times, or maybe give him a good kidney shot or break a few ribs.  In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES when Bruce Wayne is talking to Detective John Blake about wearing the mask, one of the reasons he gives is that "Batman could be anybody."  Assuming the identity of Batman wasn't just about Bruce Wayne concealing his identity for pragmatic reasons; the anonymity it created allowed people to see themselves in the role of Batman and feel empowered.  Another reason that the people of Gotham fell victim to Bane's manipulation was that they had lost that inspiration.  Batman was the immovable object to Joker's unstoppable force, but in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES the hope and inspiration that Batman as symbol represented was absent.  And the revelation of Harvey Dent's true actions (ie. murder death killing) is brought to light, the last remnant of hope is taken from the people of Gotham.

Thematically, this fits in with one of the overall themes of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy, the idea of rising after a fall.  In BATMAN BEGINS when a young Bruce Wayne falls down an old well, breaks his arm, and gets attacked by a bunch of bats, his father passes on this bit of wisdom: "Why do we fall, Bruce?  So we can learn to pick ourselves up again."  The idea of hope and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds.  When looking at Nolan's movies, and especially his Batman trilogy, at first glance they appear to be very dark, narratively speaking.  But if you really look closely and dig deeper, I think that overall his movies have a very positive if sometimes very grim message.  Yes, bad things are going to happen to you.  Yes, life might break you.  But in the midst of all that despair, it is possible to persevere, and to rise.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES offers a more complete answer to Thomas Wayne's rhetorical question.

Why do we fall?

So we can learn to pick ourselves up again.

And so we, in turn, can help others pick themselves back up.

One of the most striking images in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the view from the prison where Bane exiles Bruce Wayne/Batman after breaking (or at least severely injuring) his back.  In a brilliant callback to the well Bruce Wayne toppled down as a youngster, the defining feature of the subterranean facility where Wayne is imprisoned by Bane is a large circular shaft (It's so huge!  Can I touch it?) leading directly to the surface and, potentially, freedom.  As Bane tells Bruce Wayne why this is the worst prison in the world he explains that it is because of the hope that is dangled just out of reach of the prisoners, and "Without hope there cannot be true despair."  Once again, Bruce finds himself in a subterranean hell, only this time his father isn't there to help pull him out.  He has to climb along the uneven walls of the shaft himself to rise to the surface, a feat which only one other before him has laid claim to.  There is one more image as Bruce Wayne finally manages to scale the prison walls (oh, fuck off, you knew he would) that is subtle yet powerful.  Before he wanders out back towards Gotham, he tosses a rope back down the shaft so that Bane's other prisoners will be able to escape as well, a subtle representation of this ability to inspire others and lift them up with you.

Bruce Wayne must rise both figuratively and literally if he hopes to save Gotham from its most recent plight.  But, before one can rise one must first fall, and fall Batman does.  Bane breaking his back and torturing him with a live feed of the chaos and pain Gotham is being made to endure is only the last step on the way to the bottom.  Bruce Wayne/Batman has fallen both emotionally and figuratively since his last outing eight years previous.  Batman has disappeared entirely, and Bruce Wayne has become a Howard Hughs-style recluse who has nearly driven his family's company into the ground.  Again, an interesting parallel as in BATMAN BEGINS his father, Thomas Wayne, nearly bankrupted the company to fight the economic depression, and n THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Bruce has nearly bankrupted the company trying to develop a cheap, clean energy source (another modern, timely reflection on a current cultural anxiety).

(Just as an aside, I read a review of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES by one Harry Knowles of Ain't it Cool News fame, who was "profoundly disappointed" with the film.  One of his many ludicrous assertions was that Batman wouldn't go into hiding because his girlfriend died.  Again, I wondered if we were watching the same movie.  If he had paid attention to any of Nolan's masterpieces in between chowing down on fluorescent coloured snack foods and making love to his own, hairy palms he would have recognized that Bruce Wayne didn't just hang up his cape due to the death of Rachel Dawes (although, she was kind of the love of his life, so it would be understandable even if this was the sole reason, as he kind of felt guilty about not being able to save her).  He gave up the vigilante game in the -correct- hope that becoming the scapegoat for all of Harvey's crimes, Dent's untarnished memory would live on and have lasting positive repercussions in Gotham. 

He sacrificed his identity as Batman, and as a result lost a part of himself, for as Rachel astutely pointed out she wasn't going to wait around for Bruce because she knew that Batman had become such a large part of Bruce Wayne's identity, that he needed so much to be that person, that she wasn't sure he would ever be able to exercise the demon.  Bruce Wayne gave up being Batman, sacrificing a part of his life he perceived as so central to his perception of himself, because he believed that Gotham no longer needed Batman, and that his presence at that point would be more hindrance than help.  And that sacrifice clearly ate him up inside.  In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, it is made clear that at the first sign of real menace in eight years Bruce Wayne jumps right back in the saddle, despite the physical and psychological consequences and the emotional pleas from his butler Alfred (a surrogate father figure) when it looked as though Batman was coming up against a force more powerful than anything he had faced before.  So no, Harry, it wasn't "just because" the love of his life died horribly as he was attempting to save her that Bruce Wayne hung up the cape and cowl.  Bruce Wayne gave up something he loved, and the unrequited love between both he and Rachel and he and Batman nearly destroyed him.  Being the Batman gave Bruce Wayne true purpose in his life, and he willingly sacrificed that for what he considered to be the greater good.) 

Not only that, but Bruce's days as the caped crusader have exacted a harsh physical toll.  All the physical exertion and abuse he endured as Batman have lead to erosion of the cartilage in his knees, damage to his kidneys, and even the old noggin.  What did you expect with all the jumping, fighting and explosions?  In a nice reference to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the cinematic version of Batman has to wear a leg brace so he can function at full physical capacity.  All of this coupled with the fact the Bane was able to beat the shit out of Batman and break his back, in an even nicer reference to the Knightfall comic series, gave Batman a vulnerability that is severely lacking in other super hero films.  I've been wanting to pop in some other super hero flicks lately, but I'm really hesitant to do so, because after watching THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, I can't help but shake the feeling that they won't be nearly as engaging for me as they were before.  This was the first cinematic super hero narrative where I actually felt that the hero was in any real danger, or was capable of engaging in any real sacrifice. 

The most recent example I can think of is THE AVENGERS, where to save New York, and ostensibly the world, Tony Stark AKA Iron Man grabs a nuclear warhead and flies off into some kind energy portal into the darkest depths of space in this supposed act of self-sacrifice, and his suit starts failing and he passes out.  I think the conceited Tony Stark is supposed to learn some lesson about the sacrifice it takes to be a hero, and thus provide a character arc, and it works to a degree, but there was something that was missing here that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES captures perfectly.  And that is the presence of any true danger to the character.  I understand that there's an entire Iron Man movie franchise so they can't really kill him off, but in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Batman is ultimately not killed off, and yet there was still this undertone of personal danger like he could be killed at any second.  There was a humanity to Nolan's Bruce Wayne/Batman that is sorely lacking in any of Marvel's films that mostly has to do with that most human of experiences, death.  Nolan's Batman is imbued with a sense of mortality severely lacking in other super hero flicks.  And that shared understanding and fear of death helps the audience engage more deeply with the character and become more emotionally invested in the narrative.  In THE AVENGERS, we, as the audience, know that Iron Man, as the hero, probably won't die.  Watching THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we, as the audience, know that Batman, as the hero, probably won't die.  But we also get the feeling that he could.  And that makes him a more relatable character, because he's just like us.

For all the haterz (I think the "z" makes it look a lot more hip) I feel I must address the sense of realism that Nolan brought to his Batman universe.  Of course, as soon as you say you want to ground your super hero movie with a sense of realism, automatically a certain segment of the population is going to automatically start nitpicking all the things that were "unrealistic."  And while I feel that Nolan did a tremendous job of grounding a fantastical narrative with so much explanation and quotidian detail, as an audience member one must keep in mind that though the films are (key phrase) grounded in realism, they are also still movies which, as an art form, are representative and metaphorical.  Case in point, the scene where the released cops clash with the mercenaries and criminals on the streets of Gotham, two opposing forces running headlong into each other is probably not as great a strategy in modern urban warfare as it was, say, in the time of William Wallace, but it was visually powerful and representative of the clash between order and chaos.  Some may say that we can't have it both ways, but I say; why the fuck not?  I see no inherent artistic contradiction between a grounding in realism and metaphorical visual representation, and I don't feel that these forces are at odds with each other or that their coexistence does anything to destabilize the coherence of the narrative.

Finally, this brings me to the ending of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, which some might see as a cop out of sorts, but which really brings great emotional closure to the series.  You see, what some people don't understand is that Batman/Bruce Wayne did die in that explosion.  Yes, he physically survived, escaping, no doubt, in the proverbial nick of time.  But with his final act of heroism in Gotham City, the conflicted Bruce Wayne who had lived so long with the anger and guilt over his parents' death, who had lived so long with the rage and obsession of bringing criminals to justice and inspiring people, who had so desperately needed the persona of Batman to complete his identity, who had also so desperately craved some kind of normalcy and a life with the late Rachel Dawes, who seemed so hell bent in facing Bane that it seemed he was almost asking for death as a way to escape his demons, did die that day.  The man Alfred sees at the cafe is not the same Bruce Wayne.  This is a reborn Bruce Wayne, somebody who was able to exercise all those demons and who was finally able to get on with his life.

Ha, the joke's on you!  I've got ten thousand more where that came from.
And that's why THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy kicked so much ass.  It was able to entertain and engage on a variety of levels, from the crazy action sequences to the philosophical ponderings of the personal and societal costs of justice.  The themes of the three movies -fear, chaos, and pain- can be summed up in a single word, however they also invite all manner of discussion and discourse on their deeper implications.  And as for the question of whether or not THE DARK KNIGHT RISES measures up to the standard of excellence set by THE DARK KNIGHT, the answer for me is that both movies are easily on par in terms of narrative value, cultural relevance, technological achievement, and entertainment value.  After all that, you can probably guess that I'm giving THE DARK KNIGHT RISES a resounding 10/10 = One Bat-Masked Head Rising Above the Rest.  

One does not simply talk about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: one bears witness.  (I really liked this line, but didn't know where to stick it (yeah, yeah) so I awkwardly tacked it on the end.  Enjoy)