Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Harrowing of Gotham

I've been meaning to write a bit about The Dark Knight Rises. I've mentioned that I seldom go to the movies. This is mostly because the theater sends me into sensory overload, but also because I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere. We do have a movie theater, but it's a little scary, and seldom shows the kinds of movies I like to see. For Batman I braved it, though. I was quite overwhelmed by the film; I even drove all the way to the city to rewatch it at a Nice Theater.

The critical response to it at the time was positive but a little on the tepid side. Certainly the film has its faults. The plot is ungainly. There are noticeable holes and contrivances. More annoyingly, it tries too hard to conceal the true identity of the Miranda Tate character, almost to the point of dishonesty. If you want to spring a surprise on the viewer, you have to do it honestly. We all know that actors can act like anything they want, but real people in real situations can't, and there are some psychological obfuscations here that amount to miracles. Not fair. You have to lay everything out on the table. If the viewer guesses it, fine. It won't matter if the story is good enough. A story that depends on withholding information is a weak story. A great director, like Hitchcock, will actually underscore whatever it is the protagonist doesn't see, use it to ratchet up the tension, and then still somehow shock the viewer.

So the film has its faults. But it also has great beauty—a rich and gloomy majesty—and I don't think it got enough credit for that at the time. For one thing, Christopher Nolan clearly has great integrity as a director. He refused to bow to the scourge of our times, the 3D format. He also (I've read) refused to film digitally as a point of craftsmanship. CGI effects were used sparingly, preserving a sense of exhilaration wholly lacking from various eye-popping extravaganzas. (Peter Jackson, I'm talking to you.) Nolan actually used miniatures, life-size models, and sets. What a concept!

The Batman movies are generous movies. They give us more than they have to. They are far more beautiful than we have any right to expect of a superhero movie. Every shot in The Dark Knight Rises is artfully arranged; it uses stark chiaroscuro and an almost monochromatic palette to powerful effect.

Part of the problem with the reception of The Dark Knight Rises is that the film really sits better as a myth or a fantasy than an action adventure. Symbolism abounds. As fire was a motif in The Dark Knight, so is ice a motif in this film. It begins with the image of the bat encased in cracking ice and ends with the city surrounded by a river of ice like Dante's Cocytus. The climax takes place on a snowy morning in the dead of winter, when Batman returns from the dead—the underworld—and sets the city free. The typology of the film places it squarely in Northrop Frye's "mythos of summer": romance.
The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero. We may call these three stages respectively, using Greek terms, the agon or conflict, the pathos or death-struggle, and the anagnorisis or discovery, the recognition of the hero, who has clearly proved himself to be a hero even if he does not survive the conflict. A three-fold structure is repeated in many features of romance—in the frequency, for instance, with which the successful hero is a third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt. It is shown more directly in the three-day rhythm of death, disappearance and revival which is found in the myth of Attis and other dying gods, and has been incorporated in our Easter. (The Anatomy of Criticism)
In The Dark Knight Rises we see this threefold structure in multiple ways, from Bruce's three attempts to escape from the pit to his defeat by Bane, disappearance from Gotham in its hour of need, and return at the last minute. Bruce/Batman even has a kind of sacrificial role, like Attis: he was the scapegoat driven out of the city at the end of The Dark Knight, while at the end of this film he immolates himself as a nuclear holocaust, delivering Gotham from its long darkness and winter.
The central form of romance is dialectical: everything is focused on a conflict between the hero and his enemy, and all the reader's values are bound up with the hero. Hence the hero of romance is analogous to the mythical Messiah or deliverer who comes from an upper world, and his enemy is analogous to the demonic powers of a lower world. The conflict however takes place in, or at any rate primarily concerns, our world, which is in the middle, and which is characterized by the cyclical movement of nature. Hence the opposite poles of the cycles of nature are assimilated to the opposition of the hero and his enemy. The enemy is associated with winter, darkness, confusion, sterility, moribund life and old age, and the hero with spring, dawn, order, fertility, vigor, and youth. (ibid.)
Ultimately, the foe is the dragon—leviathan—identified with the sterility of the land and the impotence of its king. There's an almost mystical feeling in The Dark Knight Rises that, though things may seem all right on the surface, the city is sick. What is it sick from? An ingested lie. Bruce Wayne is sick too, and from the same malady. The decay of the city and Bruce's senility are one. The unsettling peace won at the end of The Dark Knight wasn't a real peace. The lies have to be exposed and bear their fruit before true healing can come. Bane himself shows that he understands his role when he calls himself "necessary evil."

I do like Bane considerably. He's an urban Lord Humungus, brutal yet articulate, a composite of countless revolutionaries leading men into deeper darkness, the warlord of a city cut off from the outside world by forces of the state like the Duke in Escape from New York. But he isn't an antagonist you can really feel much enmity toward. As he himself noted, he isn't the real foe. The real foe is the knot into which Bruce's life and the life of Gotham have gotten tied, the labyrinth in which they've gotten lost.
In the folk tale versions of dragon-killing stories we notice how frequently the previous victims of the dragon come out of him alive after he is killed… Hence the symbolism of the Harrowing of Hell… Secular versions of journeys inside monsters occur from Lucian to our day, and perhaps even the Trojan horse had originally some links with the same theme. The image of the dark winding labyrinth for the monster's belly is a natural one, and one that frequently appears in heroic quests, notably that of Theseus… In many solar myths, too, the hero travels perilously through a dark labyrinthine underworld full of monsters between sunset and sunrise. (ibid.)
This last may serve as a template for the narrative arc of the trilogy. Bruce journeys through the underworld from the day he falls down the well and is attacked by bats. The bottleneck prison of The Dark Knight Rises is a kind of huge, nightmare version of his well, and the crazy Escheresque labyrinth of the pit is an image of the maze in which he's been lost since he was a boy. His escape is a harrowing—he drops the rope behind him as he leaves—and so is his liberation of the police imprisoned beneath the city.

Then, as day dawns, the dark knight fights alongside the police at last. The city is set free—aptly described through a famous passage from A Tale of Two Cities quoted at length in the movie—and Bruce, dead now to Gotham, is liberated to live a life of obscurity in the sun.

It is a beautiful movie, a dark masterpiece.