You never start with the head! The victim gets all…fuzzy

While a good friend of mine wrote about Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece in this week’s Sunday New York Times, I’m going to be concentrating on the piece just beneath it: “Art of Darkness,” Jonathan Lethem’s treatise on the political portents of The Dark Knight. Examining the film as “the tea leaves in the dregs of a political season’s cup,” Mr. Lethem draws parallels between Batman and our current president, as well as between Gotham City residents and the American people. While some of these parallels can be compelling, I feel that over the course of the article he succumbs to the tendency for the rational mind to create connections where there originally were none. In his own words, “A popular myth or symbol as resilient and yet as opaque as Batman has a tendency to collect and recapitulate meaning beyond a creator’s intentions.”

Lethem boils down the comparisons to a couple of salient points, the first of which being the comparison between Batman’s treatment of criminals and our own government’s treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Second, Batman’s invasion of Gothamites’ privacy in order to find the Joker is compared to recent wiretapping scandals and the USA Patriot Act. He writes, “The Dark Knight, with its taciturn and self-pitying vigilante, its scenes of torture, rendition and interrogation, its elaborately leveraged choices between principles and human lives, might offer a defense of the present administration’s cursory regard for human rights abroad and civil rights at home, in the cause of reply to attacks from an irrational and inhuman evil.” I will agree that Batman begins The Dark Knight as an individual who supports use of torture and privacy invasion in pursuit of the greater good, but two of the most important areas of growth for him as a character were his realization that torture won’t get him the results he needs, and that the power to spy on everyone is too much for anyone to wield responsibly. He states that, “Scene after scene presents a sensual essay in taking good-guy torture and a crumbling social and economic infrastructure equally for granted,” but I must question his understanding of the plot of the film. The two good-guy torture scenes (Batman brutalizing Joker in the interrogation room and Batman dropping Salvatore Maroni from a third-story fire escape) were complete failures on Batman’s part. He was unable to get a single piece of information from either subject that they weren’t already willing to give. He (and, until I read this article, I thought the viewer also) learns a valuable lesson: Torture is not a solution. I agree with Mr. Lethem when he says that “Torture evaporates our every rational claim to justice, and will likely be the signature national crime of our generation,” but he and I apparently saw two very different movies.

The differences between his perception of the movie and mine don’t end there. He writes that “No one in Gotham can remember a time before the town’s ruin, and the movie declines to hint at a way out.” Perhaps he has not seen Batman Begins? Gotham City has had a history of being prosperous and impressive. It is only in recent years that there has been a steady decline (immediately preceding the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, with a resurgence in crime shortly before Batman makes his first appearance.) Gotham is supposed to still be an economic powerhouse throughout The Dark Knight, especially after Batman destroyed the League of Shadows and their plans to cripple it economically at the end of Batman Begins. The Dark Knight was supposed to show a Gotham with two faces, one of a bustling and successful business center, the other a seedy underbelly of unchecked crime and corruption. If corruption is America’s growth industry, it makes sense that the most corrupt city would also be one of the richest.

A small point I wanted to bring up was Lethem’s reach to compare Batman to our current president:”Trace the bat-signal’s outline with your finger and it looks kind of like… a ‘W.’ Is it so?” No, it is not! If I had to compare bat symbols to letters, I would sooner say a V (as in For Vendetta) for the movie’s symbol and an M for this decade’s comic version. Perhaps it is a matter of perception, though.

Lethem also seemed to think very little of the movie’s plot progression and story construction. He believes that “In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, The Dark Knight echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance.” I would argue that there were only a few minor narrative gaps (such as the confusion regarding Joker’s whereabouts at Bruce’s fund-raiser party for Harvey Dent) that are nothing unusual for big-budget blockbusters. I know not of any “false depths” or where they were supposed to lead. As far as “bogus grief,” “stakeless” destruction and “faked” death are concerned, perhaps he simply did not connect to the story emotionally. Personally, I felt sympathetic grief for the characters who died, even for the one whose death was faked. I also thought the destruction had more visual impact than many movies (in large part because most of it was done practically instead of using CGI) though there were admittedly few repercussions for property damage. His overall estimation, that “I couldn’t shake the sense that a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real take-away, chaotic form its ultimate content” also raises my eyebrow. I thought the movie was quite coherent, except for the obvious and intentional monkey wrenches thrown in by The Joker.

I also think that Lethem missed the point of the boat scene. He claims “The Joker’s paradox is the same as that of 9/11 and its aftermath: Audacious transgression ought to call out of us an equal and adamant passion for love of truth and freedom, yet the fear he inspires instead drives us deep into passivity and silence.” The boat scene contradicts this in a major way. It is indeed the passengers’ passion for love of truth and freedom that keeps them from killing each other, and they are rewarded for their demonstration of resolve (or at least not punished for it.) I suppose you could argue that refraining from setting off the other boat’s bomb could be seen as passivity, but we need more of that kind of passivity.

He makes some amusing comparisons between The Dark Knight and our 24-hour news networks, arguing that “Every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion,” and that “All hope of conversation between the paranoid blues and the paranoid reds, all that might bind us together, is forever armored in a gleeful and cynical cartoon of spin and disinformation.” Not only do I agree, I applaud the cleverness of his milkshake metaphor.

Finally, I’d like to rewrite his last line because I fell it misinterprets the metaphor and doesn’t make sense given the source material. I think a change from “I have no theory who Batman is, but the Joker is us” to “I have no theory who the Joker is, but the joke is on us” would work far better.

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One Response

  1. Awww! You linked me! I feel so special!

    In other news, I completely agree with your assessment. What Batman did, even when he went so far as to tap into the telecommunications devices, he either allowed to be destroyed as long as the short term goal was reached (again, telecommunications) or failed in his operative if it was not on the up and up (the beating up scenes). If anything, I think the movie criticized the “do anything” mentality by stressing that there were and are boundaries we should not cross, even if we have the power to do so.

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