Thursday, July 19, 2012

How do you solve a problem like The Dark Knight?

"They may be drinkers Robin, but they are also human beings, and may be... salvaged."

Adam West's Batman was a wonderfully pompous stuffed shirt. Christian Bale's Batman is somewhere between long-term trauma victim and violent vigilante. How times change, eh?

I have so far managed to avoid all spoilers about the soon to be released The Dark Knight Rises. For their part, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan have been playing their cards very close to their chests.

I have enjoyed both of the recent Batman movies up to a point, but, over the past few days, I have managed to convince myself out of looking forward to TDKR. I can already see the levees beginning buckle under the pressure, but, come Friday, the sluice gates will be opened and the cascading hype and critical adulation of a million newspaper articles, Twitter comments and Facebook posts will wash away any and all negative comment.

I would be very surprised if TDKR is not the biggest box office hit of the year. Even some of the least credulous people I know, invoke its name with a querulous tone. But I have not the heart to tell them what I really think.

Dare one hope that the film might live up to the hype? Are not my reservations those of a truculent fanboy who has had his fingers burned one too many times?

There is a grain of truth in that, but it is not my main point.

Do you remember when mainstream movies were fun? Actually fun. Not part of a mass marketed, fast food affiliated promotion machine, but actually capable of invoking a sense of genuine childlike wonder, of proffering an invitation to willingly suspend one's disbelief.

Maybe I am looking back through rose tinted specks, but before Hollywood hit upon its present formula of superheros and sequels, there was a space for proper storytelling. Films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Goonies and ET, among many, many others, promised young people a world of mystery, adventure and humour. That tradition of what have become films for a 'family audience' is continued today by the likes of Pixar, and, in a clumsy and illiterate manner by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Then there was a quite separate realm of moviemaking reserved for adults, not in the sense of sex (although that might be part of the appeal), but in the sense of a story that addressed adult issues and offered the more discerning viewer something to sink their teeth into, even as they sat back and watched a crackerjack story unfold. Examples of the later might be All the All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, The French Connection, The Godfather...These were certainly not made for children, but they were not stilted agitprop or European art cinema either, they were part of the mainstream American tradition of spinning a good yarn. 

In the 1990s, a strange thing happened. Films that were once intended for a limited audience of grown-ups started to merge with the family friendly blockbuster format to create the bloated behemoths that now clutter up our multiplexes, of which TDKR is just the latest example.

Arnold Schwarzenegger came to fame in the 1980s, starring in series of violent action that made more money on home video than they ever did at any cinema - Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Predator and Total Recall. This was new. Schwarzenegger was the poster boy for a certain type of hyperbolic action movie that had not excisted before the advent of VHS and the fact that he pulled it off with so much more style than any of the other wannabees that followed in his path meant that by the beginning of the 1990s, brand Schwarzenegger was big business.

At this point in his career, he returned to the character who had made him famous and the decision was to have fateful consequences. The Terminator has been a popular cult movie, talked about and passed around between the sorts of oddballs who used to watch Alex Cox present Moviedrome on BBC2. It was a B-movie, scorned by the mainstream. But from small seeds do mighty acorns grow and from so called muck and trash and garbage does Hollywood take most of its best ideas. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release and would go on to break box office records around the world. However, full admission into the maintream required that Schwarzenegger round down his few remaining sharp edges.

The result was a movie with more car chases, less (graphic) violence, less horror, less threat, less of a sense of menance and a creeping sentimentality that would come to replace seemingly all other forms of emotional engagement in mainstream cinema in the years that followed. Even though Terminator 2 was not a movie made for children, it was mercilessly marketed towards them - the action figures were advertised between Saturday morning kids cartoons and images from the movie featured prominently in children's comic books - and it shared the simple-minded morality of the most condescending kiddies fare. This odd muddying of the waters is directly related to the thoroughly confused state of affairs we enjoy (or otherwise) today, where all the big blockbusters seem to want to appeal to both children and adults at the same time.

TDKR is obviously not supposed to be taken seriously (it's Batman!), yet The Guardian and elsewhere want to tell us what it 'says' about the current 'state of the nation' - and for the sake of appearances or some sort of cod pseudo-scientific reason, people are supposed to pretend that any of this actually matters. Of course, it is a film for children (it's Batman!), yet it will undoubtedly feature prolonged sequences of (probaby quite sadistic) violence.

America no longer seems capable of making serious films or fun films, when what they once excelled at were films that did both. Hollywood didn't have the poetic yearning of Akira Kurasawa, or the 'mind forever voyaging' style sensibility of Andrei Tarkovsky, or the tragi-comedic melancholy of Frederico Fellini. Hollywood told stories, and it used to tell them rather well. It used to make films for both children and adults in a way that dared to appeal to a smaller audience; now that everything it makes costs US$100-plus, appealing to a smaller audience is no longer an option. Now it makes films that are inherently ludicrous (in itself no bad thing), but which trumpet their own seriousness and leave little room for humour, wit or an individual point of view. Inception is clearly supposed to be serious because nobody smiles. Even the trailers for TDKR are overflowing with portent.

Whatever happened to movies that are meant to be fun?


Post a Comment

<< Home