In the Dark

Posted on December 26, 2008 by psu

It’s been a while since I went to see a movie. In fact, I think the last one I saw this year was The Dark Knight, a summer blockbuster to end all summer blockbusters. This was a popcorn movie with a difference. It was alleged to have a gritty and realistic style and was also taken seriously in the critical community as a movie with “mature” themes. After two and a half hours and change, all I remember thinking was that the film was too long and badly edited.

I was reminded of this on our annual Christmas drive to the ‘rents as I listened to the Fresh Air film critic muttering about his ten favorite movies of the year. It came out that he also did not enjoy the Batman movie and his comments reminded me of the many aspects of the film which I found annoying. I think the second biggest failing of the film is that Christopher Nolan does not know how to shoot action. In his first Batman movie he used the standard American crappy action director gambit of trying to fool you into thinking that something interesting was happening by shaking the camera a lot in random directions. This doesn’t make for good action, this just makes you ill.

I think all American directors of action movies should be forced to sit down and watch The Legend of Drunken Master over and over again until they learn how to choreograph a fight. In particular, they should pay attention to this fight which takes place under a train. Even in the cramped quarters and even though the combatants are using poles and swords, you can still see every move, every counter and every hit in an order which makes perfect sense. Watch and learn. I’m looking at you Doug “shaky hands” Liman, who directed the Bourne movies.

With that mini-rant out of the way, we can move on to the real problem with the movie. The real problem with the movie is that it plays the “dark” card for what amounts to cheap laughs. While doing this, it arguably wastes an astounding performance by Heath Ledger who almost single handedly makes the film interesting. Instead, the film just gets stupid and too long.

The problem with the “darkness” in The Dark Knight is that the film is nothing but darkness. It starts out dark, the middle is dark, the end is dark and the boring overlong coda is dark. But here’s the thing, if the whole thing is dark then there isn’t any reason to give a shit. For dark to be dramatic it must threaten something that we care about and in this movie there is nothing to care about. On the one hand there is a psychopath running loose in the city causing chaos and havoc. And on the other side, there is a psychopath running loose in the city causing chaos and havoc. It is to yawn.

The Dark Knight, like most adolescent popular entertainment (and, not coincidentally, most video games), is trying to sell you on the idea that “dark” and “mature” are the same thing. So if you just shoot your movie without enough light people will decide that you are a deep auteur, with a head full of interesting philosophy about the evil that lurks within the world. Unfortunately, constructing a bleak story that actually has emotional impact is a lot more complicated than this. Dark is not enough. You need the darkness to threaten something, and too often all we have are layers of darkness covering a great emptiness.

I found myself thinking about this again while watching a few episodes out of the first season of the AMC series Mad Men. I have to say that four episodes in I’m again feeling a bit duped by the people who like TV too much, but I’m going to give the show a bit more time, because TV shows sometimes take time to develop. After all, Babylon 5 sucked for at least two and a half whole seasons before it got decent.

Mad Men is another dark contemplation on the nature of man and society, and for now the reason it annoys me is that it wants me to feel sorry for characters who, for the most part, are completely unsympathetic. It seems to me that everyone on the show has created all of the problems they have on their own, and that the show would be more dramatic, and at least more interesting, if the pain were being inflicted on nice people instead of jerks. This is the same problem that we saw in The Dark Knight. There isn’t much to get excited about in a dark world populated by people you didn’t like anyway. You just end up rooting for the movie, or TV show to inflict pain on them. And when it does anyway, what have you gained?

Mad Men was, of course, on the favorites list of the Fresh Air TV critic, who also spent much of his time lamenting the death of scripted series TV in the current competitive climate. I have some sympathy for his position, although he sounded a little bit too much like the “hard core” gamers complaining about Nintendo. I think he misses the core truth about TV which is that the only programming that is really worth paying for on TV is sports. In sports you have the light and the dark playing in perfect harmony. The Celtics and the Lakers on Christmas day, and the Lakers winning because the Celtics didn’t play good defense, and because they got a lot of cheap calls down the stretch. That’s certainly more interesting drama than any script I’ve listened to this year.