Saturday, September 5, 2015

Red Harvest and Dark Knight

I recently re-read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest for the nth time. It's one of my favorite books. For a great many years I've been a fan of such movies as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, whose plots feature a nameless protagonist of dubious uprightness who strolls/rides into a town rotten with corruption, plays the ringleaders against one another, using them to conduct a fiery, bloody purgation, and leaving the clean but significantly depopulated community to the survivors. Red Harvest is, as far as I can tell, the basic template for such films.

"Baxter's over there, Rojo's there, me right smack in the middle."
The nameless Continental Op comes into the dreary, corrupt "Poisonville" on a routine job, but when things go awry and an attempt is made on his life, he vows to open it up "from Adam's apple to ankles." And he does, pitting gangster against gangster in a war that escalates from shots in the dark to pipe bombs and machine guns, until the last pair shoot each other's guts out and the national guard is being called in to restore order. It's all so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

The Op describes his mode of operation to Dinah Brand, the goddess-muse-fury of Poisonville:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
In other words, he's an agent of chaos.

On the other hand, I'm an admirer of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. I'm not big on superhero films, but I like DC Comics, and Batman in particular. Always have. It's the fashion nowadays to speak rather dismissively of the Nolan films and of dark, gritty superhero films in general, and I get that – the style is hard to do right, and very bad when done wrong. But I tell you what, we'll be talking about the Dark Knight Trilogy long after all the others being made right now are forgotten. Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, etc., did something no one else has succeeded in doing: they made a single-focus superhero film series with a clear beginning, middle, and end – a complete plot arc – with no loose ends and no chance of continuation. And, what's more, they did something beautiful with it.

Really, the DKT is not best understood as a set of superhero films. They stand more in the realm of fantasy. I think of them as film noir meets mythology. I've commented before on the Man With No Name and the ways in which Batman fits that role. (Cf. The Man With No Name; The Dark Knight; The Harrowing of Gotham.)

Recently, though, just after having finished Red Harvest, I was watching The Dark Knight (which I do with embarrassing frequency), and I noticed something that I'd never seen before: its narrative structure is not unlike Red Harvest and its cinematic descendants, but Batman doesn't play the Op's role. The Joker does. Batman is one of the powers pitted against the others! Did I just blow your mind?

But look at it. The Joker has no name and no history. This is emphasized by Jim Gordon while he's in the holding cell at MCU. (In the comic books he had various backstories, which arguably is the same thing.) In his dialogue with Harvey Dent – one of the great scenes of film – he says:
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just... do things. [...]
I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." [Finger quotes!] Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! [Hands Dent a gun and points it at himself.] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
By the end of the movie, the three big gangsters are all dead, their money is torched with their launderer, the corruption on the police force is exposed, the national guard is called in to restore order, and Batman is driven out as a pariah. If the Joker had set out specifically to clean up Gotham, he couldn't have been more efficient.

Of course that's not all there is to the movie. For one thing, the Joker clearly did not set out with that in mind. He seems to want to establish a new order, the order, not of organized crime and police corruption, but of insane supervillainy. That he fails is Batman's victory; but that Batman and Commissioner Gordon have to base the new peace on a lie is the Joker's even greater victory.

The Dark Knight films are truly noir. They are consistently ambivalent about the role of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Consider, for instance, that in each of the first and third films, it's a Wayne Enterprises invention that threatens the city. And Batman himself is arguably to blame for the escalation in urban violence and the rise of the Joker.

At any rate, it's interesting to see the plot structure of Red Harvest appear as a subordinate component of a recent film.

No comments:

Post a Comment