ss_blog_claim=17cc6e1d8cd65fdbdc8a677d66b74513 ss_blog_claim=17cc6e1d8cd65fdbdc8a677d66b74513

Monday, September 22, 2008

I'm Not There and The Dark Knight: When Blockbusters Become Art and Art Becomes a Waste of Time

I have moderately schizophrenic tastes in film, a fact that is borne out by my viewing choices this weekend: I'm Not There and The Dark Knight. On the surface, these films have nothing in common, but it struck me that The Dark Knight's two leads, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, were also two of the stars in Todd Haynes' rambling rumination on celebrity, genius, and the fluidity of identity. Of course, this is the kind of random detail that is fun in a game of Trivial Pursuit or a late-night drunken conversation ("And Kennedy had a secretary named LINCOLN!"), but ultimately seems meaningless. That having been said, the two films cover surprisingly similar ground and the two actors offer performances that raise interesting questions.

As everyone knows by now, I'm Not There's gimmick lies in a combination of identity play and stunt casting: rather than hire one actor to play Bob Dylan, Haynes hired six, each of whom took over responsibility for a separate aspect of Dylan's public persona. The most famous of these was Cate Blanchett, whose androgynous "Jude Quinn" caught the singer after his transformation from folk star to hipster hero.

While Ledger and Bale's performances were less lauded, they were more transformative. Bale's "Jack Rollins" begins as the shy and retiring public persona that Dylan presented during his early folk performances, evolves into an unwilling cultural hero, and ultimately becomes a self-proclaimed born-again 1970's prophet. Similarly, Ledger's "Actor" is all about portrayal of self: he is tasked with showing Dylan as a man who plays a part for the screen, for a wife, for children, and for friends, yet whose forays into the development of an actual identity are always too small, too pathetic, and too delayed. While Bale's Rollins is heavily reborn into a variety of personas, Ledger's Actor seems to constantly shift depending on his audience and the exigencies of the moment.

The thing, though, is that for all of Haynes' thoughtful writing and impressive casting, his film ends up being a somewhat shallow and disconnected view into the life of a man whose willingness to transform often made his audiences wonder if he had any real identity at all. Haynes wanted to make a movie about the development of self; instead, he produced a vision of the identity dreams that a self-obsessed Dylan might have had at different points in his life. Rather than produce a universal vision, the director created a trifling curiosity, of interest to Dylan obsessives, Dylan himself, and almost nobody else.

By comparison, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight pairs Ledger and Bale as two men for whom the battle between the individual and the iconic has reached operatic proportions. Bale's Batman is a man who, in his search for decency and light, has surrendered himself to darkness. He has become a vision of evil and, by the end of the film, has given into his most reactionary and evil impulses. Ledger's Joker, by comparison, is a character whose quest for identity has dissolved into a mass of shifting genesis tales and instinctual actions. If the Batman is man absorbed by role, the Joker is role defined by whim. Both ultimately find their respective ambitions simultaneously aided and thwarted by Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, a true white knight who ultimately becomes comprimised by the savage politics of his city. In his emergence as a representation of the division between good and evil, order and chaos, Dent physically embodies the struggle at the heart of the narrative.

This is heady stuff, especially for a blockbuster comic book movie, and Nolan doesn't pull any punches. His Batman uses "enhanced interrogation" techniques, makes decisions that get people killed, and employs sophisticated technology to tap into every cell phone in Gotham. In short, his quest for order and decency, like contemporary America's attempts to deal with terrorism, often carry a price in terms of his own stated goals. More to the point, can anyone--even a caped crusader--trample freedoms in the quest to defend freedom?

On one side of the Dark Knight/I'm Not There equation, lies a blockbuster movie that prods its viewers to ask fundamental questions about the nature of human identity, the requirements of freedom, and the cost of celebrity. On the other side, there's a self-indulgent, rambling, borderline-incomprehensible foray into the imagined navel-gazing of one of America's foremost poets. If the role of blockbusters is to entertain and the role of indie films is to make us think, then it's worth asking why Christopher Nolan is stuck carrying the entire load.

No comments: