Batman and His Problems

July 28, 2008

Everyone just loves the new Batman movie. After only two weekends in theaters, The Dark Knight is the #1 movie of all time according to imdb members. Critics have been gushing with glowing reviews (though the New Yorker or A.O. Scott beg to differ). The movie’s success is evident, it is the fastest to gross over $300 million domestically. Heath Ledger is even generating Oscar buzz… but with all the hype aside, the best I can say of The Dark Knight is that it’s a “superior superhero movie”, which is pretentious-filmspeak for “the hype’s total bullshit”.

The “superior superhero movie” qualifier should be elaborated. The Dark Knight features a very competent cast with a remarkable Heath Ledger to go along with a cool chase, some neat cat-and-mouse scenes, and some Stygian Gotham atmospherics. Seeing it on an IMAX screen is definitely and all-encompassing (and loud) experience. What’s interesting about Dark Knight (and what everyone fawns over) is how it questions the superhero genre itself within a “post 9/11” context. But that’s all it does. It questions and questions and questions as loudly and succinctly at every possible moment. Writers Cristopher and Jonathan Nolan bring up just about every liberal post 9/11 talking point: Torture! Wiretapping! Due Process! Just let the Joker make a phone call! All of this makes for a story that’s richer than usual. Only all these hot-button topics dissipate as Batman does what the genre invariably tells him to do.

The dissipation problem is more than thematic. The movie frantically weaves in and out of scene without giving each a sense of cohesion or closure. As a result, scenes with dramatic potential get the same slap and dash treatment as unnecessary exposition. There’s an entirely absurd Hong-Kong mission where Batman comes off like some glorified American James Bond. In spite of all the razzle dazzle, the final confrontation between Batman and Joker reminded me of a time I went flaccid during intercourse. You’d imagine that a $185 million dollar budget would afford some script editors… But no… Even Two-Face’s little coin flipping trick is a pallid replica of Anton Chiguhr’s.

I have always had issues with superhero movies. I just can’t accept a superhero world and the myth of exceptionalism that the genre bases itself on. In the proud American tradition, the superhero world presupposes a simple good versus evil polarity, which The Dark Knight questions without betraying the assumption. The superhero itself is equally problematic. A superhero is the sublimation of the human entity into a weapon, into an instrument of order and security. The apotheosis of the superhero requires that the individual leave behind his real identity in order to become an abstracted citizen, a symbol of a man, an image (The Dark Knight uses all the batman imitators to briefly toy with this idea). As a symbol, the superhero is essentially a fetishism. In the case of Bruce Wayne, whose “superpower” is his wealth, he spins amazing technologies out of thin air, a batmobile here, a wire-tapping infrastructure there… as if Batman and Lucius Fox built it all themselves. No one expects a superhero movie to discuss labor. After all, the superhero must be divorced from his material reality to be super. Such distinction is clearly only allotted to the exceptional, while all other hard-working citizens must depend on this symbolic exception.

Just as Batman is a symbol, so is the Joker. They mirror each other (another idea that the movie brings up to little consequence). That the Joker is the most compelling character in The Dark Knight attests both to an incredible performance by Heath Ledger and to the staleness of the other “human” characters. The Joker is a non-entity. Unlike Batman, he has no human context, no mask, only a grotesquely painted facade, making his unmotivated acts of destruction all the more palatable for its symbolism. The Dark Knight becomes the Joker’s movie. He gives the best lines, diabolically catalyzes most of the action, and brings Batman’s entire moral universe into question. Is Batman doing more harm than good? Has he brought Gotham down a road of no return? Perhaps this will be answered in the third installment. But by the end of The Dark Knight, even the Joker becomes problematic.

The problem is not that the Joker’s acts of destruction are a symbolic challenge, but that the movie insists that the Joker is a terrorist… After the movie, I remembered Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

This is the spirit of terrorism. Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs to the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives by ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of the real, which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight into the symbolic domain, where the rule is the rule of challenge, of reversal, of escalation. Thus, death can be answered only though an equal or superior death. Terrorism challenges the system by a gift that the latter can reciprocate only through its own death and its own collapse.

As exceptional symbols, both Batman and the Joker enjoy a quasi-omnipresence and an unlimited supply of resources. Although Batman has everything money can build at his disposal, the Joker uses real, functional structures (the domain of labor). In using these structures, the Joker becomes a truck driver, a nurse, a soldier -and always a terrorist. Therefore the Joker, the symbol of unmotivated chaos, the non-entity, is also the symbol of terrorism. And as such a symbol, terrorism becomes depoliticized, it is no longer a reaction against the dominant order or calculated political violence. It is reduced to being evil, to being the unreasonable and unmotivated desire “to watch the world burn”, and to being only vincible with weapons or superheroes.

This new batman movie posits fundamental questions about itself, and for a second, the entire superhero framework appears absurd. But that’s only for a second. Maybe these limitations are placed by the genre. How much of Batman would the studio’s allow to be deconstructed, torn from its roots and set on fire?If I ever decide to make my own superhero movie, I want to create a dashing hero experiencing all sorts of superhero adventures, blowing all sorts of shit up… there’ll be chaos and destruction… but at the end, the superhero confronts an angry mass… guerrillas? workers? students? only to be swarmed and killed, dismembered, torn apart. The antithesis of the American-brand exceptionalism: the “super power” of the collective.

– s

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An Ivy League Theory of Value

July 26, 2008

Fassbinder’s fabulous 1981 film “Lola“, tells the story of a small town singer/hooker (Fassbinder lifted the premise from “The Blue Angel” starring Marlene Dietrich), who goes after a reserved and untainted building commissioner after a corrupt contractor (and lover) remarks that the new commissioner is “no man for her”. By seducing the commissioner, Lola is reacting against social exclusion and oppression by seeking to affirm her “true value” through the melodramatic vehicle of “true love”. Granted, Lola and the commissioner fall in love and get married, but Fassbinder is perverse at heart. During the last scenes, the corrupt contractor buys a short honeymoon with the freshly married Lola by giving her the whorehouse she worked in as a wedding present. “You’re an expensive mistress”, the contractor quips. “That’s how it should be”, retorts Lola.

The big irony of the film is that Lola’s successful quest to reaffirm her worth amounts to a mere increase in exchange value. Lola just became more expensive, that is her empowerment.

In the new issue of “American Scholar”, former Yale English Prof. William Deresiewicz presents a stinging and insightful critique of the elite Ivy League education system and how it breeds an upper crust mentality of exceptionalism and entitlement. On the one hand, Deresiewicz laments a system which he calls “anti-intellectual” for pushing normative ideas of intelligence, work, and society, while eschewing independent intellectual development and individual choice. Being smart isn’t the same as being intellectual.

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. […] We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

On the other hand, Deresiewicz believes the self-congratulatory bubble of elite institutions is a reflection of American socio-economic conditions. How different is the atmosphere of grade-inflation, extensions, and constant counseling at elite institutions to the padded lives of the wealthy, where they can always count on family money, connections, rehab and spiritual voyages to India to get themselves together? Meanwhile, public universities are entrenched with rigid bureaucracies and inflexible technocrats…

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point.

Deresiewicz’s disenchantment is summarized in the following quote:

But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

But how inextricable is education from “the class system”? Is it that surprising that a school such as Amherst or Yale, whose endowment is funded by capitalists, would seek to train future investment bankers and politicians? Perhaps this disenchantment comes from the expectation that an “elite” institution would be mass producing young Darwins and Marxes and Sartres, but even such expectation presupposes that educational institutions are essentially social factories. As Baudrillard put it, an educational system aims “at remodeling an ideal nature from a child”. What “ideal nature” exists that isn’t defined by a dominant paradigm?

As astute as Deresiewicz social-economic commentary is, he speaks of the class difference between elite institutions and public universities only in terms of their differences, as if an i-banker from Amherst working 80 hours a week for Bear Stearns isn’t stuck in a life of subordination, supervision, and deadlines. Classes are separated by their position relative to the means of production, not simply by annual income. Chris Rock once joked, “Shaq is rich, but the white guy who writes his check is wealthy“; while elite institutions are spawning the ruling class of tomorrow, that can’t be said for all of us. A diploma from Yale isn’t an automatic ticket to upper-classdom, we’re still expected to sell our labor just like a middle-manager from Ohio State or a factory worker in Sri Lanka. This idea of a meritocracy espoused by “the elite” is an illusion at worse, a petty reward at best. Exploit yourself so that you one day can exploit others. What empowerment then does an elite institution give us? Ask Lola. It just makes us more expensive.

– s