Twisting the Knight Away

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:

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

4 thoughts on “Twisting the Knight Away

  1. I really wish people would stop saying this about ‘Lost’ … the writers had an arc planned out before starting the first season (the basic events, the ending, etc.), and then a lot of leeway in how they got there.

    And this happens all the time, with Tolkien for example (he knew loosely what the ending of LOTR would be, but made things up as he went along; you know, creativity, etc.) David Chase didn’t have every single plot revelation in the Sopranos planned out in 2000, and yet no one holds this against him, right?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. Actually, Paul, while the acting and dialogue and all that was quite good in The Sopranos, I felt that the overall plot–the multi-season plot–was rather flimsy. Not as flimsy as Lost, though. Lost may have had some over-plot that I’m just missing, but to me it seemed that the writers were impatient, introducing us to the Others much too soon and then floundering, uncertain what to do next. In an effort to create dynamic characters, they have instead created a cast of haphazard, inconsistent characters who rarely act out of consistent motive or even sensible self-motivation. I was quite enamored of the first season, but after that the show has lost me, no pun intended.

    I think what I left out of the above post is the inability of writers these days to exercise patience. A good plot should be sustained to the breaking point. Take the Office for instance. Season Two was much too soon for Pam and Jim to kiss. I think of an earlier show, Northern Exposure, which exercised far, far more restraint and kept that sexual tension running between its two leads much, much longer.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. @E.D.: Ah, but why should the writers be any different from their viewers and, like, everyone else? (I mean, I know why they ought to; but they’re not exempt from the epidemic speeding-up and loss of patience our culture is going through.)

    I don’t think I’m going to suddenly articulate it in a comment at 3 a.m., but it has seemed to me for a while that there’s something else behind the sort of across-the-board suffering so many people cite in storytelling of recent years. Like, it’s harder to put together a good story than it used to be for, uh, reasons that have to do not just with the media of production (better special effects to distract us, the suits’ demand for faster delivery of the product, etc.) but also with our cultural psyche, if you will.

    As a person grows up, they demand more complex stories, moving from fairy tales to Harry Potter to Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren or what-have-you. And we see this culturally, too—we’ve gone from Donna Reed to The Brady Bunch to Arrested Development. So it doesn’t seem unfeasible to me that we might have reached a point where a large number of us—nowhere near a majority, but a large number—want more complexity from our stories than many storytellers can provide, in the sense of their inherent ability and in the sense of their practical ability to deliver the content to us.

    I also think there are just certain shifts that have made some long-reliable forms much less so. I mean, cell phones have rendered a lot of thrillers simply unworkable. But anyway, I’m just ruminating.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. I think those are extremely valid points, Josh. I have pondered this before, in a number of ways, in how not merely the stories themselves, but the means of telling them have impacted the way we hear those stories, and learn from them.

    I think perhaps culturally we have sped things up to such an extent that we haven’t learned how to incorporate patience into them–for instance, a show like Heroes. The writers rightfully felt that to keep audiences around (since so much competing media is luring them away) they needed a good season finale. And they provided one for the first season. But what they didn’t do was figure out how to make that finale just one small finale within a larger framework. Instead they took an almost season-by-season episodic approach, whereas what was truly needed in such a show was a mounting plot, wherein one finale leads to the next, in a coherent manner. I would maybe cite the first few seasons of the X-files to show how this can be done well; and conversely, the last few seasons to show what not to do…

    In any case, I think that our technology and media is maturing faster than we are, and it’s a problem, but I have no doubt that someone will find a way to right it. Look what Pixar did for Disney movies….

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *