"So honesty is an act? And friendship? Business? Is anything real left?"
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
"I aint fit to live with no more. It’s just like a lynching…maybe they don’t use a knife on you, but they got other ways."
Nothing But A Man (Michael Roemer, 1964)
"It never occurred to you to try to work for a living?"
Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
It might be proper to say that it’s too early to fully measure the impact of The Dark Knight, but we all know that’s baloney. By the time it was released in its full Blu-Ray glory it was clear that this was a film to stand the test of time. It’s not that it made the superhero genre ‘respectable’ – respectability has never really been an issue for most fans – but that it synthesised the most grown-up (or at least, the most adult) aspects of Batman’s comic book mythology with cinematic influences that have been teasing the boundaries of genre for decades.
It’s generally assumed by self-identifying grown-ups that there’s something juvenile about genre. The ‘easy’ reliance on formulae appears basic, familiar, something to soothe the masses. When they deign to praise a genre piece, it’s on the basis that the author offers something ‘more’ than what the genre is generally capable of. Usually, it’s just as correct to call them excellent examples of a certain genre. (This trend is especially prevalent with comic books, or as they would be known, ‘graphic novels’. Every time a journalist declares the ‘coming of age’ of comics, you can hear a million readers giggle.)
The Dark Knight, then, is a superhero film, and a damn good one. In its cinematic DNA – I know that’s an awful phrase, but I love it – we can trace links to other films which share cross-genre themes that relate to storytelling in general and Batman in particular. In an attempt at brevity, I’ll try to illustrate this by looking only at the film’s first shot.
After Batman Begins ended with Batman swooping into the camera, The Dark Knight stays in flight, with the camera already in motion across Gotham’s Chicago skyline. This forward-momentum effect will be repeated in the closing shot of The Dark Knight and the opening shot of The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, it’s a strong visual element throughout the film, detailing as it does the battle of an ‘unstoppable force’ versus ‘an immovable object.’
The first and most obvious link in the chain is Michael Mann’s Heat, crime film of crime films, andprobably The Dark Knight's single biggest non-comic influence. Mann's melancholy urban opera lends Nolan its sprawling approach to the cat-and-mouse story, which touches a wide cross-section of a densely populated city. The aerial forward-moving motif is lifted directly from Heat, where Hanna (Al Pacino) and McCauley (Robert DeNiro) follow and surveil one another like a West Coast Batman and Joker. Then there’s the casting of William Fichtner as a corrupt money-man not dissimilar to Heat's Van Zant. And, of course, Heat too opens with a heist by masked men in large vehicles which descends into a bloodbath. The difference here is that, while in McCauley’s original plan no one gets hurt, the Joker intended all of the violence. Cruelly, the plan that worked is the one that factored in entropy. In both films, it’s the bodies that begin the central investigation.
An even more similar shot – an opening shot too, no less – appears in Psycho, horror film of horror films. The camera floats over Phoenix, honing in on (and through) a hotel window behind which Marion Crane is meeting her lover, and the seeds of her imminent crime are planted. The same motion by Nolan’s camera in The Dark Knight is in fact interrupted when its target window explodes. Hitchcock’s camera chose the story behind one window of many, and went inside – here the story is jumping out at us and demanding attention. Psycho introduced its own kind of chaos by killing the main character halfway through the story; The Dark Knight's own psycho, the Joker, is already upping the stakes, literally blowing into public space from the inside out. It's a strike against the urban anonymity that let Marion Crane escape to her doom.
Finally, there is a more recondite connection in the shot to a contemporary of Chris Nolan’s – Darren Aronofsky. In fact, Aronofsky is probably the most similar director to Nolan – born just a year apart, they both began with small-budget paranoid thrillers, graduated into cult hits and both have come to produce those mega-budget ‘cerebral’ blockbusters that grown-ups are so quick to praise. Aronofsky was even offered the director’s chair for Batman Begins.
Aronofsky’s first feature, Pi – released in 1998, the same year as Nolan’s debut Following – follows an obsessive mathematician, Max, searching for order and patterns in the universe. In one scene he plays the ancient Chinese board game Go with his mentor, Sol. Here is the conversation they have:
Sol: The ancient Japanese consider the go board to be a microcosm of the universe. Although at first, when it is empty, it appears to be simple and ordered, the possibilities of gameplay are endless. They say no two go games have ever been alike, just like snow flakes. So the go board actually represents an extremely complex and chaotic universe. And that is the truth of our world, Max. It can’t be easily summed up with math, there is no simple pattern.
Max: But as a go game progresses the possibilities become smaller and smaller, the board does take on order. Soon all the moves are predictable.
Sol (frustrated): So, so?
Max: So maybe, even though we’re not sophisticated enough to be aware of it, there is a pattern. An order. Underlying every go game!
Order versus lawlessness, harmony versus cacophony, control versus chaos. Sound familiar? Here we have the central conflict of The Dark Knight, embodied by Batman and the Joker. Unstoppable force, immovable object. What does this have to do with the opening shot? Let’s describe it fully.
The camera moves forward through the city, getting closer and closer to one building, which is all windows. Hans Zimmer’s tense, ticking crescendo brings us right along with it. While the camera is still moving, and a split-second after the frame has been entirely filled by the building, a window right in the centre shatters open.
Here is a picture of a Go board:
A grid not dissimilar to, say, a skyscraper? In Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, the city – the violent, busy, anonymising city inherited from Michael Mann – is the battleground for a game with serious stakes. Zimmer’s ticking is a countdown to the kickoff. The camera closes in on the building’s windows not in order to penetrate and find a story, but so that the screen itself becomes a Go board ready for the first move. In blasting the window open, of course, Joker has played his first piece, occupied one square on the board. The blank slate, the empty board, the city reflected in glass - it’s all been revealed as chaos once the game has begun. Batman’s task, then, is to find his next move.
I don’t really have a particular point to make here, but it’s nice to do some of this every now and then.
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Along with madness and sincerity, drunkenness is one of the most difficult states for an actor to accurately emulate. The particular physicalities of being drunk – slurred words, uneven balance, rough spatial estimates – in reality always amount to more than the sum of their parts. Attitude beats action in this regard. It’s not enough to trip over the chair because you’re stumbling; a drunk person will take a second try, or make the fall worth it, or at least make sure that the chair isn’t upset. A bad drunken scene can undermine an otherwise excellent performance, just as a good one can elevate a shambles. There are a few actors worth mentioning for their different approaches to the art.
The grandfather of onscreen comedy drunkenness is Chaplin, who made his name acting drunk on stage and then developed his craft in cinema. The Little Tramp’s already eccentric mannerisms take on a wild opulence when under the influence, and Chaplin spares no opportunity to showcase them. One AM is particularly memorable, where a plastered playboy desperately tries to get to his bed but is confounded by his elaborate furniture and decoration.
Chaplin’s biggest modern disciple is Jackie Chan, whose early hit Drunken Master portrayed cultural hero Wong Fei-Hung as a student of drunken boxing whose fighting ability improves with every beverage consumed. Drunken Master 2 takes this brilliant conceit to towering heights, where an inverse ratio of skill and cognizance turn Chan into a slobbering maelstrom of blind precision. His climactic takedown of the villain – involving industrial-strength alcohol – is the peak of martial arts comedy performance.
Dominic West and Wendell Pierce stand out for their drinking-buddy turn as McNulty and Bunk in The Wire. They both manage a wilful irresponsibility that perfectly complements the world of policing; despite the hangover, they’ll just never stop. Another notable drunken duo is Elliot and ET from E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, with a scene that would frankly be great drunk acting for an adult, let alone a child and a puppet. Jaoquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are respectively unstable and arrogant drunks in The Master, a film so soaked in dodgy homebrew that it glistens.
This year’s The World’s End tracks an apocalyptic pub crawl from Simon Pegg and co., but the film’s smugness and self-reflection can’t rival the drunken antics of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are at their best there; the hilarious drunken electro scene captures the bold and pathetic nature of the post-pub hour. An honourable mention should go to the entire cast of The Saddest Music in the World, many of whom plunge into a gigantic vat of beer at some point or another.
Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is drunken rage stripped of imprecision and imbalance. What’s left is the resentment, bitterness and liberty of the solitary alcoholic. A smaller but exceptionally moving lonely drunken scene appears in HBO’s Deadwood,where Brad Dourif, as the town’s doctor, roars a sad, whisky-fuelled lament to God. In a show where most of the characters are drunk most of the time, Dourif’s unrestrained anger over the Civil War forms one of the truest moments of inebriation.
The crown of acting drunk, though, has to go to Freddie Frinton. Frinton is known for one performance only – the eighteen-minute single-take 1963 TV sketch Dinner for One, which remains unknown in many countries but has bizarrely become a New Year’s tradition in others. Frinton plays James, ageing butler to the even more ageing Miss Sophie, who insists on having her 90th dinner party despite all the guests having died some time ago. It’s thus up to James to raise and drink each of their toasts, and he gets progressively more intoxicated with each course. Frinton’s performance, clearly influence by Chaplin, is a tour-de-force of physical comedy. He captures the various degrees of drunkenness – the more incapable he is of doing the job, the harder he works to do it. He proceeds with roundabout logic and doomed determination in a performance that is only successful because it is so recognisable to anyone who’s been under the influence.
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As a result of saying it can show anything, cinema has abandoned its power over the imagination. And, like cinema, this century is perhaps starting to pay a high price for this betrayal of the imagination – or, more precisely, those who still have an imagination, albeit a poor one, are being made to pay that price.
Weimar Germany was a period of huge contradiction. The ‘shock of modernity’ that thrust the country into rapid technological progress also delivered unforeseen economic crises. The machinery of rationalization was celebrated by many, including Hannes Meyer, who in 1926 wrote that ‘the straight lines of mechanical and scientific provenance’ were offering ‘palpable proof of the victory of human consciousness over amorphous nature.’i Progress was facilitated by scientific knowledge and mastery, offering routes to an ordered and liberal democracy. The advances of modernity, however, were received with ambivalence by some (it was this very democracy, after all, which saw the Nazis to power). Freud, whose theories typified much of the attitude of scientific ‘knowability,’ in 1931 called the treatment of German prisoners ‘a necessary expression of the brutality and the lack of judgement that govern our civilization today.’ii Though there was a significant upheaval of the conservatism of the Imperial era, the conflicts of Weimar Germany can’t be simplified as unfettered progress. The period has been described as one of sexual liberation; Richard McCormick, in particular, has argued for its emancipatory sexual politics.iii Of course, this idea is complicated by Foucault’s analysis of sexuality, which argues against a discourse of repression and that the frameworks of ‘repression’ in fact ‘installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy.’iv
Romauld Karmakar’s Der Totmacher (1995) depicts the conversations between serial killer Fritz Haarmann and Professor Ernst Schultze, which formed the basis of the state decision to execute Haarmann. These conversations engage with the contradictions of crime and sexuality in the Weimar era; Jay McRoy has given a compelling Foucauldian reading of the ways in which the film ‘links the socio-political mechanics of power with the creation of the deviant and, by extension, normalizing subjectivities.’v Here I will examine the film’s depiction of the processes of sexual subject-positioning, and its relation to crime and sexuality in the Weimar Republic. As a film structured around the collision between two figures apparently on opposite sides of legal, mental, and sexual spectrums, the film is concerned with precisely how those boundaries are established or transgressed. Olaf Möller has argued that the film’s basic set-up, in which these two men bond despite the discrepancy in their roles of power, depicts ‘civilization as essentially contradictory.’vi These contradictions, however, are part of the apparatus of power; it was figures such as Schultze, representative of the ‘medico-sexual regime,’ who sustained the viability of what Foucault calls the ‘truth of subject in the other who knows.’vii
Z is for Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
The outrageously prolific Tsui Hark has been keeping Hong Kong cinema popular and bankable for the past three decades, producing technically innovative action films with international appeal. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is one of his earlier films, and still perhaps his most striking. A fantastical Imperial China is the setting for this colourful, frenetic quest to defeat evil and bring peace to the land. Slapstick martial arts are combined with magnificent special effects to do justice to the bizarre stories fuelling Chinese mythology. It’s like a comic book brought to life; every costume, movement and set is bursting with imagination. Amidst it all is the effortlessly cool Brigitte Lin, giving grace and style to the enigmatic Ice Queen. Zu is a dreamlike, dizzying and constantly entertaining martial arts classic.
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Y is for Yi Yi
Veteran Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s final film seems to ask a question relevant to himself, his audience and his characters: what is the purpose of a camera? This intimate, unhurried epic then distills the question to simply what is the purpose? At least that’s what the members of the Taipei family at the centre of the film are constantly asking themselves as they navigate the quiet crises of everyday life. Composition and pacing haven’t been this precise since Ozu, giving an achingly poignant portrait of family life. Yang seems to be insisting on the value of art and observation – cinema can engender empathy and understanding, literally showing us what we have no way of seeing otherwise. This is elegantly illustrated by the eight-year-old boy who despairs that no one can see the backs of their heads, so goes about photographing them. Yi Yi approaches life gently but with a deadly serious sense of purpose and testament
Further viewing for Y: Yeelen
X is for Xala
The upheavals of colonial handovers in Africa created potential for a new wave of bold African cinema, though this promise was not always supported with the necessary resources. The most famous film to come from the post-colonial period is Ousmane Sembéne’s Xala. Opening with the expulsion of a foreign government, the film then shows the inability of a Senegalese elite to overcome corruption and European dependence – manifest in the main character’s literal impotence with his third wife. Xala is playful, and very funny, yet straightforwardly articulate in its outrage. Figures of authority are ridiculed by juxtaposition with the deftness of those they betray. It’s an important film because it manages to translate anger into an accessible story representative of common struggles, anxieties and passions.
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W is for Wings of Desire
Ageless angels watch over Berlin. Their is job to testify to human experience, but from a higher plane they can’t really understand how it feels to exist in corporeal form. Wim Wenders’ classic film is about urban networks of desire, knowledge and the desire for knowledge. The city’s inhabitants are made whole in their loneliness, defined by their needs – for food, music, coffee, conversation, and being seen. One of the angels is frustrated by his lack of these needs, so he falls to earth and falls in love. He meets Peter Falk, bleeds, rubs his hands together to make them warm, smokes a cigarette, makes a sound that echoes and realises that death is a small price to pay for a life of such sensation. A film full of wisdom, which provokes thought and feeling in tribute to real life.
Further viewing for W: Window Water Baby Moving, When the Levees Broke, Walking
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V is for Les Vampires
Tracing conventions and trends through the DNA of film history will inevitably throw up some key influential texts which have, directly or indirectly, helped dictate the course of cinema. Louis Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires is the mothership of the thriller genre, whose influence is still felt today. A winding plot follows the eponymous criminal gang whose sinister activity runs deep into the Paris underworld. What sustains the film’s power is how truly dark it is – episodes contain decapitation, corruption and devilish disguise as the scale of the Vampires’ organisation is revealed. Musidora is especially frightening as the murderous Irma Vep, who was the inspiration for the excellent 1996 Oliver Assayas film of the same name. A perfectly thrilling document of crime and conflict in Paris from one hundred years ago.
Further viewing for V: Vertigo
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U is for Upstream Color
A film every bit as esoteric as its title suggets, Upstream Color is the second effort from filmic factotum Shane Carruth. The plot moves through body-horror, romance and mystery, following the anti-meet cute of Kris and Jeff, two people with trauma in their past and an unusual psychic connection. The characterisation and performances are outstanding, but Carruth structures the narrative in a sort of free association style, using incidental sound effects as stepping stones or literally going beneath the characters’ skin. If the film asks for a little surrender of doubt from the audience, the reward is an immersive, visceral tour through the rhythms of growth and decay. This is a film that can’t be seen from a distance – Carruth submerges you like a pebble at the bed of a river. His delicate, attentive camerawork and droning soundtrack seem intended to overwhelm the senses. Like the mysterious organism at the centre of the story, you’ll feel like you have passed through a living system.
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T is for The Tree of Life
Like most earnest people, Terrence Malick is easy to ridicule. Over the course of his unique career his style has become increasingly ethereal, the camera often seeming to float in the air over forests and fields while characters stand mumbling profundities. The Tree of Life spares none of this potent ambition – this is a film about Life with a capital L. The origin of the universe is woven into small town life in Texas; what remains is an exploration into how we come to learn the ways in which we exist. It’s been dismissed as pretentious, but that seems unfairly disparaging for a film that pays such loving attention to the sensuous experiences of spectatorship. Light, colour, sound and movement have rarely been utilised to such rapturous effect. Malick loves the universe, and appears to be trying to capture God on film. He sees it in a shadow, a father, a nebula, a dinosaur, and a death. If he pulls it off, it can remind the audience to love the universe too.
Further viewing for T: This Is England, The Thin Blue Line, Tropical Malady
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R is for Rumble Fish
“Even the most primitive of societies has an innate respect for the insane.” These words, spoken in Mickey Rourke’s boyish hush, typify the youthful energy at the heart of Rumble Fish. The story of sibling rivalry and street gangs isn’t original, but Francis Ford Coppola gives such attention to every beat of the film that it becomes a symphonic experience. The characters’ slang, the roar of the city and Stewart Copeland’s unique soundtrack all build an immersive soundscape of wound-up frustration and time running out. Thankfully for a filmmaker dealing with Youth In Trouble, Coppola eschews social realism for heady expressionist noir, soaking the anonymous cityscape in the flights of everyday queerness in young life. Rumble Fish shows us a difficult world of rough surfaces and fugitive beauty.
Further viewing for R: Roger & Me, Robocop, Rushmore
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