Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight, or On Craaaayzeh

One of your correspondent's least favourite words is "random". "Oh, the humor was so random". "He was saying the randomest things". "He's a terrifying character because he personifies random chaos".

Bullshit. Unless expertly handled, "random" is just aimless, meandering shit. Bill Murray at the height of his first-wave career wasn't random, he was attuned to exactly the frequency he wanted to be and that's why his comedy was funny. Karl Pilkington, similarly; a bald simpleton saying scattershot things oblivious to their inflammatory nature wouldn't be funny unless the totality of those things added up to hint at some sort of overarching worldview that was worth paying attention to. Random does not equal funny: this is why, say, Matt Groening is still more respected by people above the age of 20 than, say, Seth MacFarlane.

"Random" doesn't automatically equal "scary" either. John Doe of Se7en or Hannibal Lecter are the least "random" characters ever. Again, their terror is in their otherness, the sense that they're speaking from another level of being. A level which all makes complete sense to them, but that's hard to reconcile with ours without violence. Sure, randomness can be scary - that's why we have the CDC, after all - but for every terrifying unchartable disease vector, there's ten dozen mediocre movies on the DTV shelves featuring actors labouring under the misapprehension that all they need to do to be scary is to leer unpredictably, and directors who's allowed - or requested - this approach. Play the odds, fella. It's not worth it.

The character of the Joker has always been prey to the Fallacy of Scary Randomness. He's a clown! He kills people! Why would someone do such a thing? He must be an agent of randomness! And so any number of comic book stories featuring the character have done stupid random stuff with him, and occasionally it's mildly unnerving, and mainly it's embarrassing.

The way Tim Burton's movie got around this was by making the Joker not "Crazy Insane" so much as "Artist Insane". The world for him was a huge canvas to be painted on with blood and ammo: he was unfazed by violence and determined to express himself. What was he about, what exactly would he be expressing? Well, shit, he was Jack Nicholson, that was an easy blank to fill in.

Whereas Heath Ledger's Joker is purposely given no centre whatsoever. He's all embarrassing humming and murmuring and unpredictable outbursts: Raph Feinnes' interminably slow-imploding Spider character given a gun and a shot of adrenaline. In case the actor is unable to capture this uncentred dithering-with-a-passion, he's given several speeches that outline, at length, just how Representative! Of! Chaos! the character is. But being as being watchable was never really a problem for Ledger (even when he was stuck with as dopey and underwritten a character as this), such speeches just come off heavy-handed, thematising instead of dramatising. Well golly, you're an agent of chaos you say? You represent anarchy you're telling me? It's lucky the dialogue is here to point this out in language just this plain, or I might have mistaken you for a character with a purpose.

Really, the whole thing - Ledger's unbridled chaotic swagger, Eckhart's quixotic orderliness - is just unfortunate because it's already been done so often; but notably, not nine months ago by The Best Movie of the Year. Bale may look into Ledger's eyes and say - in, honestly, who told him this was a good choice, a voice like Vin Diesel playing Elmer Fudd - "you are all alone in the darkness, is it not frightening to you?"; and it may be all very moody and well-shot and crackingly-paced (Dark Knight's greatest skill is in having a half-dozen things going on at any one time; its setpieces aren't just scenes, they're multi-event symphonies of tension); but Javier Bardem can get all that across in a single reaction shot, without needing several pages of Theme Of Movie dialogue to get across what it is we're meant to be investing in these characters.

All that said, it should be mentioned that (1) your correspondent liked Spiderman 3 a lot, so he obviously doesn't know what he's talking about; and (2) he would eagerly watch another movie of this length featuring these characters or others in their vein, which is lucky, given the de rigeur unfinished ending of this movie.

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