“Show, don’t tell” is one of those things that gets pounded into your head in all avenues of creative writing, but especially in film school. The idea behind the mantra is that it’s better to convey information (exposition, facts, character, anything) visually than to state it outright. First, it lets the audience piece it together on their own, making the result more satisfying. Second, explaining things (especially character) often comes off very contrived. Third, in film (and this is an article pertaining to a film) visuals are usually quicker, and much more efficient. Fourth…stating things outright is really easy, and it pays to do things the hard way sometimes.
“Show, don’t tell” is also a reductive way to approach material and severely limits what can be accomplished with strong dialogue. It’s an important lesson to learn and practice when you’re starting out, because young writers tend to let their dialogue run on and on, with little attention paid to what the scene will look like (what will these people do while they talk?) or even if the dialogue’s all that good. And good dialogue does more than sound realistic – it has to accomplish.
Which brings me to The Dark Knight, a film so endlessly discussed since its release that writing about it now is almost pointless. Almost. The great majority of the populace has declared it – on one level or another – a masterpiece. I heard from more than a few people I know, people who see their fair share of films, that it’s the best movie they’ve ever seen, or one of them. And I suspect they love it for, and in spite of, many of the same reasons several critics have rallied against it.
“Nolan—though taking great strides behind the camera—simply must stop making his characters say things like “Sometimes the truth isn’t enough.” Is this an action movie or a big-budget remake of Memento? Nolan’s movies (all of them, aside from The Prestige, too complicated to be blatant about anything) revel in the simplistic appropriation of philosophical problems recycled as trite dialogue; they should give audiences a suggested reading list on the way out. Ironically, for a film touted by fanboys, this is easily Nolan’s most Nolan-like film yet.”
-Vadim Risov, The House Next Door
“But then it hardly matters if The Dark Knight’s dispiriting view of a city at war with itself doesn’t hold together, not when you have Morgan Freeman (as Wayne Enterprises liaison Lucius Fox) and Michael Caine (as stalwart manservant Alfred) spouting gloomy old man platitudes about the culture of surveillance, and everyone else monologuing ad nauseum about various and sundry long, dark teatimes of the soul.”
-Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door
“On paper, the morality play is intriguing, but a lot of the dialogue should have stayed on paper (I can imagine a study guide: ‘The Joker tells Batman he can’t fight chaos because he has too many ‘rules.’ Do those rules ultimately help or hinder Batman in his quest for justice?’).”
-David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Is the film talky? Absolutely. The question is whether or not it goes overboard. I suspect critical complaints about the Nolans’ tendency (the screenplay was written by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who is increasingly showing himself to be Christopher’s secret weapon) to let their characters analyze the films as it unspools comes from a place of “well…what’ll we do?” If the characters tell you what the movie’s about, there’s little left for a critic to do.
Now I know that really, really speculative, but as critics are being told more and more that they’re useless (there was a string of them for awhile, but it’s been awhile since the last firing…I wonder who’s next?), I think it’s a point worth bringing up, and in all fairness, I’m hoping to get into the business of professional critique myself, and I’m not crazy about the idea that the career I’m aiming for may be a dead one in the next decade or so. Anyway, some of their points are well taken – as with Memento and The Prestige, the Nolan brothers are convinced that ending on a monologue to sum it all up is the way to go. At first it kind of feels right, because the movie’s so damn sprawling and epic that it feels like you need a second to just kind of let it all register before the credits (or, in this case, the title), but then I remember The Godfather, as epic and sprawling a crime film as has ever been made, just ENDED. It had one great final scene, which The Dark Knight also has, and then the door’s closed.
But when a movie assaults you with this much dialogue and self-analysis it’s then the critic’s job to look past it and figure out what isn’t said, or what’s only briefly touched on. Another aspect of the film that was noted in even the most orgasmic of positive reviews was the lack of Batman in the film, which is even more ironic considering, in 2005, Christopher Nolan spoke at length about how confused he always was that the films that preceded Batman Begins spent so little time with the hero and so much time with the villains, when the hero was clearly the most interesting character. But I think it’s to Nolan’s credit that he didn’t stick with this. Not only because Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Heath Ledger give better performances than Christian Bale, but because it then doesn’t give the Nolans an opportunity to explain away the best concept the film has going for it – the story of a superhero who can’t save the city.
Before The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 was the best superhero film to me. First, because it had the first compelling love story in the history of the genre (and that’s a personal thing; it works or it doesn’t, and it worked for me). Second, and more importantly, it showed the toll being a superhero takes on Peter Parker. But at the end of the day, Peter pushes past this and succeeds. The reason (one of them) The Dark Knight is better is that Batman doesn’t succeed, not really, and in the places he does, he does so only barely. Peter Parker never really had to struggle with the very essence of Dr. Octopus, he just had to struggle with those damn arms. Batman can’t even figure out how a man like The Joker could exist. The Dark Knight acknowledges that one man can’t save the city, which makes the toll it takes on that man all the greater.
Another common critical complaint is that the film is just relentless in its pacing – it very seldom stops to breathe and hold on a shot for very long. In many ways, that’s summer moviemaking, and I think there’s good reason to develop the critical eye to take in a shot in the time allotted, but even I was trying to catch my breath. I mean, the film just MOVES. But it felt like more than just the need to cram a ton of plot into the running time (debates about how much of that plot was necessary are for a different time, but I for one like that we saw Batman dealing with stuff other than the Joker). In fact, the pacing felt very deliberate. It gave a greater sense that Batman is overwhelmed by this force he finds himself up against. He got into this to fight mob bosses, and now he’s up against something he can barely comprehend. In other words, if these are the sorts of things that sprung from his crusade, was the crusade really worth it?
I know this isn’t entirely subtextual analysis, and that the film does bring this up from time to time, especially in a few of the discussions between Alfred and Bruce, but it is a little frustrating that this concept wasn’t explored more, especially since the method to do so was available right from the start (the gang of Batmen with shotguns and hockey pads). On the other hand, leaving issues like these out in the open makes it a more interesting facet of the film, insofar as, hey, at least it’s something to talk about.
Along similar lines, The Joker, who on the surface seems like the most over-explained of the characters, actually has more going on under the surface than many are giving him credit for. Yeah, he pretty relentlessly explains himself and his motivations – that he hates planning (which we know is a lie), that his ultimate goal is to unleash anarchy, that he and Batman need each other, and other such gibberish that fanboys have been debating on message boards since the birth of the Internet (and I’m not knocking it; I spent my fair share of time doing just that).
What excited me most about the character is that this was the first time I saw a Joker who made a choice. There’s no definite Joker origin story, comic-book-wise, but the one thing that we’ve always “known” is that he’s a guy who fell into a vat of acid that made him insane, bleached his skin white and his hair green and curled his lips. It’s a serviceable origin story, if extraordinarily typical at this point (why are so many comic book villains motivated by chemicals or technology gone awry that drove them to madness?). What’s so frightening about The Joker in The Dark Knight is that, at some point, he clearly MADE A CHOICE to become The Joker. Maybe he really is crazy…but maybe not.
In the interrogation scene, The Joker has a throwaway line where he says, “What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers?” He could be referring to the heist that opened the film, but I think the reasons for his emergence so close to that of Batman’s are more than coincidental. I get the feeling that this is a guy who lived in Gotham, was a low-level thug, and was inspired by Batman. If this is a guy who sets aside all his own needs (bearing in mind that no one really knows Batman is unbelievably wealthy) for the greater good, what if somebody set aside all their own needs just for the sake of evil? “All you care about is money,” The Joker tells a mob boss, “This town deserves a better class of criminal, and I’m going to give it to them.” This certainly makes The Joker insane, just not in ways that are immediately evident. Except that he apparently cut up his own face to make a smile (how has nobody floated that?). Throughout the film, I kept getting the sense that The Joker, whoever he is, had finally found his calling (“I like this job, I like it!”).
And ultimately, THAT’S why the film fits so well into the filmography of Christopher Nolan, which at the same time makes it a really, really good film – it’s about people making impossible, even insane choices, and we as an audience are left to decipher the toll those decisions take. In Memento, the film isn’t about a guy without short-term memory looking for his wife’s murderer. It’s about a guy so hopeless that he chooses to trick himself into doing this again and again. The Prestige isn’t about dueling magicians – it’s about two guys, twins, who lead an impossible double life, sacrificing everything, all for the sake of a magic trick. “Oh, you think I can live like this? You think I bloody enjoy, living like this?” It’s about the sacrifices they, and Robert, make for the sake of wowing an audience. In both cases, for most of the film, the plot isn’t about that. What makes each film worth a second viewing isn’t to look for the clues that lead to the twist ending; it’s to see the film under that new lens, knowing what it’s really about.
The Dark Knight applies this retroactively to Bruce Wayne. He made a decision to dress up in a costume and fight criminals outside the law, but he probably didn’t think it’d go this far. Most superhero stories assume the main character is taking up the job forever, but Nolan’s Batman thought he could just come in, clean it up, and go back to his regular life (such as it is). Now he’s grappling with costumed villains, imitators, and still his regular job of taking down mob bosses continues. At the end of the film, Batman chooses to become the city’s enemy, an insane choice that makes for interesting discussion that will be eliminated when the sequel hits, be it from the Nolans or not (and I’m not completely convinced that Christopher Nolan’s in it for another).
So again, the film becomes about CHOICE, and one’s ability, or not, to deal with those choices. For the record, the film’s wildly far from perfect. The Joker’s schemes become increasingly implausible in their execution (aside from apparently rigging two ferries to explode, he somehow knew one would contain prisoners and the other innocent civilians?), Christian Bale threw himself on autopilot, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is almost as bad as Katie Holmes in a role only slightly more crucial to the story (Rachel becomes a necessary device in the downfall of Harvey Dent, but love stories are a huge weakness for Christopher Nolan and theirs was as unconvincing as you could expect). But it is an extraordinarily involving film; I couldn’t help but be caught up in it. As great as Heath Ledger is, and his performance deserves all the acclaim that it has and will continue to draw, I was stunned by just how great Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart were, and they’re two actors I like in nearly everything. Gary Oldman especially; to me, he’s almost the best performance in the film. As David Bordwell points out, “Ledger’s performance has been much praised, but what would count as a bad line reading here? The part seems designed for scenery-chewing.” By contrast, Oldman has little to work with but does everything with it. The film could’ve used a more assured hand aesthetically, and I could write another three pages on that alone, but compositionally it’s a huge leap forward for Nolan, although it lacked the deft touch for editing he showed in Memento and The Prestige.
But as I’ve tried to get across, it is an incredibly fascinating film with a lot in it worth discussing, and I think it functions particularly well as a deconstruction, which the superhero genre was primed for (and will have to continue to be hungry for, if Watchmen is as successful as it looks to be).
Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com
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