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Critical Consensus: Mike D'Angelo and Keith Uhlich on 'The Dark Knight Rises,' Christopher Nolan, and Batman's Next Move

By Mike D'Angelo, Eric Kohn and Keith Uhlich | Indiewire July 20, 2012 at 11:52AM

Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich joins freelancer Mike D'Angelo (The A/V Club, The Man Who Viewed Too Much) to discuss "The Dark Knight Rises" and other aspects of director Christopher Nolan's career. They conclude by exploring where both Batman and Nolan may wind up next.
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Dark Knight Ledger Bale

You made a case against Nolan's direction of "The Dark Knight" for his "now you see it, now you don't approach," arguing that Nolan indulged in "avert-your-eyes sadism." Is "Dark Knight Rises" equally culpable of this charge?

UHLICH: I do believe "Dark Knight Rises" is as guilty of its predecessor's "avert-your-eyes sadism," perhaps even more so. Most kills in a Nolan film seem designed around garnering a PG-13 rating (see here Bane's numerous neck breaks, always cut right before the killing twist, or Matthew Modine's death scene—now he's standing, now he's not!). The issue for me is that none of those deaths makes much of an impact—you don't necessarily have to show everything in grisly detail, but you do have to feel for it to be justified. Otherwise it's just stick figures being cut down, and I do think that's a form of sadism—a denial of feeling, of emotional suppression through blunt-force action, in which many big-budget blockbusters trade nowadays.

D'ANGELO: It's amusing that you characterize Nolan as "a magician who wants to show you how the trick works," since one of his greatest films, "The Prestige," is explicitly about magicians and ultimately concludes that there is no trick -- we just desperately desire one.  Granted, the man is no poet, but until recently he had a remarkably deft way of constructing philosophical arguments within ostensible genre pieces.  My beef with "Dark Knight Rises" is that he's no longer making an effort to encode those ideas in the movie's DNA.  They're just grafted onto the Batman mythos willy-nilly, calling undue attention to themselves.  And he's so intent on either drawing jejune current-event parallels (I AM CATWOMAN. I DO WHAT I HAVE TO TO SURVIVE. I AM THE 99%.) or creating fanboy-ready spectacle that he's forgotten how to seduce the audience, which apparently just wants to be bludgeoned anyway.  Dispiriting.

Selina Kyle's entrance gave me a glimmer of hope, actually. Hathaway isn't really playing Catwoman the way Pfeiffer did, but that initial encounter with Bruce Wayne demonstrated some of the brazen larceny-as-foreplay dynamic I love in old Hollywood movies, and I briefly thought we might have an actual movie rather than a pyrotechnics display-cum-thesis. But even that relationship speedily turned turgid.  I don't insist that a comic-book movie has to be fun, at least not in a jocular, wisecracking sense -- a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" might well be awesomely grim and depressing (and indeed I'm a "Sin City" defender).  Just give some thought to keeping me awake by a means other than Zimmer's pounding score.

I will say I'm glad I waited a day and saw the film in IMAX. Unlike 3-D, that's a bonus technology I can get behind -- even if he'd used it exclusively for establishing shots, it would have been worth the surcharge.  There's a real feeling of being engulfed by the image that rattles the lizard brain.

One of the things that's interesting about your responses so far is that you both make an effort to place Nolan's take on Batman within the context of previous movie versions of the characters. And yet I think the case could be made that "Dark Knight Rises" isn't really a Batman movie the way these earlier versions were. For much of the screen time, Batman remains (Is this a spoiler? I guess any plot information could be interpreted that way, but at this point I'll just say fuck it) off-screen. At times it feels like Nolan is making a spin-off about Gotham City in which Batman is a key character among many. It's detailed enough that one could expect to see the struggling young writer of "Following" -- which, Keith, you should definitely check out for scholarly purposes if nothing else -- because everyone in Nolan's world inhabits a version of his gloomy take on Gotham even before he took on the property.

Keith, I love that you bring up "Mask of the Phantasm" since Bruce Timm, creator of the animated series from which that television movie emerged, also created a hugely engaging environment with his Gotham (and over the course of a much longer period than all three Nolan movies combined, to boot). Timm's series (which was recently discussed in a recent video essay for Press Play) drew on film noir and other gothic traditions as much as it did on vintage Batman storylines. However, people still talk about it in terms of how it related to other takes on Batman. It seems like every conversation about one Batman must also take into account the countless other versions of him.

So how much does hype color your expectations for these films? When you went to see "The Dark Knight Rises," what kind of assumptions did you bring to the table? Have the aggressive (and apparently effective) marketing tactics for the movie ruined the possibility of a pure viewing experienced unhindered by what audiences already know about Batman and Nolan's approach to the character?

UHLICH: To Mike first: I'm fairly certain you recognize that my calling Nolan "a magician" was an intentional mention-it-without-mentioning-it invocation of "The Prestige," which many—perhaps you too?—have described as Nolan's most personal work. It certainly felt that way to me when I watched it. And I absolutely, utterly loathe that film for the conclusions it reaches, which you aptly describe as "there is no trick—we just desperately desire one." Each of us can call the "trick" what we will. For me it's related to faith and spirit, not necessarily in the Godly sense, though that theme certainly does resonate for a lapsed Catholic like myself who still maintains some level of belief (in cinema specifically and humanity overall). At the end of The Prestige I felt utterly defeated as Nolan seemed intent on pummeling the belief out of me. There is no trick. There is no God. There is no magic. Just an endless supply of self-same meat-bodies to be buried forever out of sight (I think it was Clive Barker, an artist I love, who said, and I may be paraphrasing: "We are graveyards of our former selves." I wish the final reveal in "The Prestige" had that kick.)

'At a certain point, we have to accept that none of us experiences the things we experience in exactly the same way.'

Perhaps I have to give Nolan credit for, as you say, encoding these ideas in the movie's DNA. Clearly "The Prestige" made me feel something, but I absolutely rejected those feelings because they don't correspond to what I've come to believe about movies, about people, about life. I believe in the magic of movies; Nolan, to me, denies it—trusting only in the coarsest mechanisms to make his mostly facile points. I might acknowledge him as an artist for whom I just don't share an affinity (for some reason, Michael Haneke springs to mind as an exemplifying bête noir). The larger problem is that I just don't think Nolan's very good at what he does. In every way, he's a mediocrity. I actually find it pretty hilarious that he's become a figurehead of the "shoot on celluloid" movement, when his movies (even his gargantuan IMAX frames feel small to me) are antithetical to everything celluloid can achieve. If Nolan's the ne plus ultra, then film can't die soon enough.

At a certain point, we have to accept that none of us experiences the things we experience in exactly the same way. And we have to allow for those differing responses. I wouldn't want to take this conversation in a direction where I'm actively denying the pleasure and profundity that you get, Mike, from "Memento," which I'll just pass over with a simple "didn't do it for me." (How many films do each of us have for which we are effusive in the face of others's indifference?) Similarly, though it well-nigh astonishes me that the estimable Scott Foundas ecstatically compares the final movement of "Dark Knight Rises" to the baptism murder finale of "The Godfather" in his recent Film Comment blog post, I would never call out his enjoyment of the film as being in any way false. (It's very clear that it isn't.) The same goes for any reader and/or viewer who genuinely sees artistry in Nolan's Batman trilogy, and in his filmography overall. It's the quality of the opinion and the discourse, not the slant of it, that matters.

Unfortunately, the quality of opinion is often trumped by the quantity of response. And perhaps this is a good segue into Eric's questions about hype, expectation, and assumption. I'll start by saying that Batman is my favorite superhero, has been since childhood and still is to this day. There's something about how malleable he is as an icon that appeals to me—he can be camp in the way of the Adam West TV series (and even the Joel Schumacher films), self-serious via Nolan's takes, pure darkness in the Frank Miller sense, kind of a pop-art party pooper via Burton, a tragically lonely figure in the animated series and "Mask of the Phantasm." I think my favorite Batman story remains Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke," which captures The Joker/Batman relationship with a perfect mix of unflinching horror and the-abyss-stares back ambiguousness.

All this to say that I have a history with Batman—certainly not to the extent of most comic readers (I haven't kept up past my college years), but I know I brought that experience in with me to Nolan's film. Additionally I also carried in the experience of the previous two Nolan movies, and I should mention here that I rather liked "Batman Begins" when I first saw it and retain some affection. "The Dark Knight" I thought a debacle (even Heath Ledger, whose performance is very Best Supporting Actor in its lip-smacking obviousness). I actually watched that film twice so I could examine the differences between the regular theatrical prints and the IMAX version (to the latter, about all I saw was a lot of unmotivated toggling between aspect ratios) and it was a pretty defeating two views that resulted in what I think was a strongly worded, but fair takedown. That piece occasioned a sea of vicious comments—a few posting my home address and calling for my death (I don't know if I deleted them or not as I gave up moderation after a certain point)—and a few stand-alone Internet posts from colleagues (both pro and con on the piece, all well-argued) that had me retreating into my shell.

So yeah, I gots some baggage. But I also know that I have the ability to give each movie I see a fair shot. There's no evidence I can offer other than my work and my word. It's up to each reader to determine for themselves the veracity of what I say. All these calls for objectivity make me cringe. We are all products of our subjective experience, and also of the market forces that push on us and that we allow into our lives. (I believe that Mike tends never to watch trailers and other promotional material. Myself, I seek things out—always have, potentially always will.) I don't really believe in purity of experience: To "Dark Knight Rises," I brought a knowledge and childhood love of Batman, an overall distaste for Christopher Nolan, a discomfort over the vitriolic reaction I'd received for lambasting "The Dark Knight" and which I saw happening again to several colleagues who panned the latest entry, a general curiosity that I have for each new addition to cinema (an ever-evolving art form), and a belief that all my knowledge and assumptions could be upended in surprising ways.

I can't tell you how depressing it was that I got exactly what I expected.
 

Next page: What happens to Batman now?

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, Keith Uhlich, Mike D'Angelo, Batman, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan, Anne Hathaway, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy





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