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From the Wire: An Internet Activist’s Film Criticism

From the Wire: An Internet Activist's Film Criticism

When you go to the blog of Aaron Swartz, the late co-author of RSS and co-founder of Reddit who apparently took his own life last week at the age of 26, the first piece you see is a lengthy dissection of “The Dark Knight.” Scroll down and you’ll find one on “Looper,” and another on “Batman Begins.” His archive includes older pieces on Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” and a speech by David Lynch he attended. Swartz’s many talents beyond the world of computer programming, it seems, included a flair for film writing.

Swartz, who allegedly committed suicide in the face of an impending trial in which he was accused of illegally downloading millions of academic journals, was keenly interested in government, economics, and free speech, and in his website’s bio he describes himself as “an author of numerous articles on a variety of topics, especially the corrupting influence of big money on institutions including nonprofits, the media, politics, and public opinion.” It’s that perspective that illuminates his take on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

His “What Happens in ‘The Dark Knight’” applies economic and philosophical concepts to the Caped Crusader, and demonstrates his clear understanding of film as well as academic theories:

“As we’ve discussed, in ‘Batman Begins‘ 1960s-style full employment and antipoverty programs lead to skyrocketing crime while in ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ 1980s-style tough-on-crime policies and neoliberal economics lead to a revolt of the economic underclass. The films are mirror images, one about the failure of liberal policies; the other about the failure of conservative policies. In this sense, ‘The Dark Knight’ is truly the final film in this nihilistic trilogy, documenting the hopelessness of anything outside that usual left-right struggle.”

Swartz’s analysis would make an ideal basis for a lecture to college students in an Intro to Economics or Intro to Game Theory class — he investigates “The Dark Knight”‘s plot and exposes all its intellectual underpinnings; Maroni’s warning to Batman that “The Joker, he’s got no rules. No one’s gonna cross him for you,” is, Swartz wrote, “a straightforward application of game theory’s Davies-Folk theorem: the rational thing is to seem irrational so your opponents can’t count on you doing the rational thing.”

Like any good critic, Swartz brought his own unique perspective to bear on the films he covered. It’s hard not to see that unique perspective, and to feel the tragedy of its premature loss, in his “Dark Knight” essay’s final words, which are too sad to excerpt here out of context.

Read more of “What Happens in ‘The Dark Knight,’” “How ‘Looper’ Works,” and the rest of Aaron Swartz’s blog. You can also read Swartz’s obituary in the New York Times and Rick Perlstein’s touching tribute in The Nation.

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