First of all, I have to admit, I enjoyed The Dark Knight. I didn’t leave the theatre thinking I’d seen Oscar material–though, to be fair, I’m not particularly sold on the value of the Academy Award to begin with. I didn’t leave the theatre pondering the outrageous nature of the plot, either, though. Mainly, I left feeling a little sad that Heath Ledger had died. Freddie may not think that his portrayal of The Joker was really acting but I did. True, there is nobody on this planet that is quite like The Joker, or even remotely like The Joker, and therefore we have nothing to determine whether or not Ledger’s performance was truly genuine, or real, or acting–but we do have a host of other villainous performance to rate him against, and to my mind, Ledger played one of the creepiest, funniest baddies in modern cinema. It was a troubling performance. And if I could judge the entire film simply based on that performance, it would have been Oscar grade, if only because few Comic Book Villains have ever been done so convincingly.
Alas, as Freddie rightly points out, much of the rest of the film is simply not up to snuff. There are plot-holes aplenty, a supporting cast that rarely rises up beyond the mediocre, and far too much convention to satisfy. Months after watching it, I can’t really put my finger on a cohesive plot. I’m left mainly with Joker scenes, and Ledgers creepy, darting tongue and bulging eyes. I’m sure that’s what the handful of six or seven year olds who accompanied their parents to the showing I saw are left with as well, but that’s beside the point.
I think my initial lack of disappointment is a sign of my conditioning. After all, The Dark Knight was so much better than so many of the action flicks we see these days, perhaps my standards have just fallen. Perhaps seeing something with just one exceptional element is enough to sate me now. I’m not sure.
What I do know is that a number of things seem to have gone wrong in modern story-telling. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t have a television, so I watch virtually everything on a computer. Basically everything is available for online consumption now anyways. I rent movies through Netflix, as well as a number of television shows, many of which are available at their various websites as well. I’ve noticed a trend in many of these productions–from Heroes to Lost to The Sopranos. Often it seems as though the writers have as little knowledge of what’s going on as the viewers. Take Lost for instance. I’m quite convinced that the writers of that show went in with exactly one season’s worth of plot plotted out. Beyond that, they had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen next. So they substituted the long view for cheap thrills. They sacrificed a four-season-revelation for a series of smaller twists that piled up and made the entire series tangled and messy. They were able to get away with this by using the Theory of Spin, otherwise known as the Shamayalan Approach.
Essentially, plot takes a back-seat to spin. If the plot isn’t thought out far enough in advance, or if the writers hit a wall, then they come up with some spin or other, some gasp-inspiring twist, and then all is righted. If a character is killed off too soon, he can be resurrected through some inexplicable twist–like Dr. Malcolm in the second Jurassic Park book, who, it turned out, was only mostly dead. Crichton, apparently, found inspiration in Monty Python in his sequel’s miraculous revelation–a sad example of the literary world falling victim to the might of the Gods of Movie Rights.
What many of these writers and producers forget is the limits viewers are willing to stretch their imagination before all pretense of disbelief wears off. I think people want to be surprised by ordinary events that turn extraordinary, but to believe in their possibility there must be limits. We can believe in a Batman precisely because half the time, he’s just a man. We adore the weakness and ordinariness of our heroes, as well as our villains. We don’t crave impossible plots, nor do we seek out movies with dozens of fantastical twists. We want something very real, something very tangible, that for a brief moment transcends what we thought was possible. A movie I liked quite a bit that came out recently was The Constant Gardener. It had its flaws, certainly, but one of the things so enjoyable about it was the mediocrity of its leading man, Justin Quayle, who reluctantly became entangled in a conspiracy that, in the end, was too big for him to overcome. He brought the corrupt officials in his own Government down by sacrificing himself, after losing everything he cared about. And he was a man who cared about very little. Sure, there were twists in the film. There was betrayal, intrigue, even a fight scene or two. But one of the strongest twists was the failure of the protagonist to win outright. And it was all basically believable. The motives and capacities of the characters were all essentially what one would expect.
In the end, twists and special effects will only propel film so far. They are crutches that more often than not mangle the very projects they seek to enhance. It often strikes me that the very success and smartness of an indie film is probably due to its low budget, its reliance on creativity and problem solving in order to ever even materialize in the first place. How refreshing would it have been to see a new Indiana Jones that actually gave us a mystery, a few good laughs, and a happy ending. Instead we got aliens and a blitzkrieg of special effects to wash them down with. How wonderful would it be to have a good, straightforward Batman film, with perhaps only one or maybe two climaxes. Maybe Batman only has to chase the bad guys once, and rescue just one group of hostages. Maybe his nemesis finds his weakness and uses it against him, and our undaunted hero has to find a way to overcome his sudden flaw. What I want is a visceral, tangible struggle: man against man; man against himself; man against nature. These are the core conflicts at the heart of every story, genre be damned.
I leave you with this South Park clip to illustrate my point: