17 January, 2009

The Man in the Costume: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Wrestler (2008)

My two favorite films of the past year have a lot in common, though one is a multimillion dollar blockbuster superhero sequel partly shot in IMAX and the other is a grainy, quiet character study that didn't even have enough budget to pay Axl Rose or Bruce Springsteen for song rights. [Numerous spoilers follow.]

Batman Begins established a Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) constantly on the run from the shortcomings of reality. The pampered son of a billionaire philanthropist, he inadvertently causes the shooting death of his parents because of his fear of bats. A corrupt Gotham City judicial system denies him any satisfaction from justice, while a plague of depraved poverty--of which his parents' killer was a victim--makes the simplicity of political misanthropy too complicated. He flees, leaving behind his unscarred, idealistic childhood love and his abundant inheritance, and makes his way to Bhutan, where he brawls with random criminals and thugs for no real reason.

From Ducard (Liam Neeson), a philosophical samurai he meets in the Himalayan mountains, he is granted the devices that will become his superpowers: deception--using smoke, mirrors, and mechanical wizardry to appear magical and superhuman; vigilant, dexterous fighting power; and an image, a persona to embody, a source of primordial fear. He becomes a bat, his own ultimate phobia, a terrifying force beyond his own control. Ducard also gifts him with a philosophy: in a mad world, one must draw a stern line between the good and the evil and act accordingly or risk becoming a part of the chaos.

Bruce accepts the superpowers and combines them with his father's wealth and technological resources to become Batman, complete with protective costume and highly evolved gadgets.

He rejects the philosophy.

In a world of accidental killings, senseless violence, crippling poverty, psychological illness, kangaroo courts, and hotheaded revenge, there is no distinct boundary between good and bad. The righteous-minded often behave horribly. To be ultimately good is to achieve the impossible task of rising above all ill behavior. To stop crime without instigating it. To deliver criminals safely to level-headed authorities who have been officially vested with the steady hand of justice (namely, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman)). To never kill, even when it would make things easy.

Bruce Wayne achieves this persona--frightening, stern, unstoppable, but pure. Like a Byzantine God with fierce eyes and an all-powerful palm raised both in benediction and admonition. But the task is immensely difficult, resulting in an expenditure of millions of dollars and dozens of bruises and scars. After being attacked by dogs in The Dark Knight, his confidant Alfred (Michael Caine) advises him to know his limits. "Batman has no limits," he steadfastly responds, to which Alfred warns: "But you do."

Bruce Wayne becomes secondary to his costumed crimefighter character. Bruce Wayne--celebrity socialite, billionaire playboy, womanizer, alcoholic, prodigal son--becomes the facade artificially concealing a personality that succumbs more and more each day to the unreality of a Batman superman. Friendships become impossible, his doomed relationship with childhood friend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) goes on indefinite hiatus, and the stakes continue to rise.

The cleverer criminals see Batman as a challenge to encourage them, chief among them The Joker (Heath Ledger--in the most captivating, horrifying, hilarious, and memorable roles of recent years, regardless of the fact that he's dead... his performance is no less stunning than Javier Bardem's in No Country for Old Men, though Bardem was spared all the reactive backlash simply because he's still alive), another man hiding behind an image and a costume. It would be mistaken to characterize the Joker as Supreme Evil contrasted to Batman's Ultimate Good; such simplicities would be antithetical to the complexities of goodness established in the first film. More accurately, the Joker is Chaos, opposed to Principle, and for the first time Batman's nemesis has the upper hand. Chaos is the natural order of things, the primeval soup from which all life, even principled ones, sprang. It is Principle that is artificial, forced, dictated, that must be actively fought to be preserved. Everything naturally decays into entropy, and even the plans of our complicated world with its manifold interests can be as destructive and insane as mere coincidence. As the Joker explains, in a moment of insight that proves he's not merely a nutty trickster:
You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
While Bruce Wayne runs and distances himself from the complexities of the world, the Joker embraces and emphasizes them.

Like Batman, the Joker is a costumed character. His severe facial scars could come from any meaningless or emotionally resonant event, but though he mocks the concept of villainous motivation--abusive fathers, jealous love, and whatnot--we never know anything about the original man, not even his name. His mismatched custom suit, his green hair, and his sloppy clown makeup all establish the idea of foolish, unstoppable anarchy, as comic as the Bat Man is frightful, yet infinitely deadlier. The conflict and the driving force of the plot becomes an ideological showdown in the strictest sense--which idea will prevail? Will Bruce Wayne discover who the Joker really is? Will the Joker succeed in unmasking the Batman?

Amidst this war is a third costumed character, and though his facade is the least realistic it is the most convincing, managing to win him an admirable lover, a democratically elected public office, and even the esteem of Bruce Wayne: Harvey Dent, who dons the role of the Ultimate Good, even though we've already learned that such cannot exist. An energetic, good-looking, and righteous demagogue, he trusts in his own goodness and heroism. Though some of his underlings vaguely refer to him as Two Face, we initially see little of his impurity. As District Attorney, he fights crime in court, openly putting his own name and life at risk while Bruce Wayne cannot. He has completely succumbed to his politician's charm, his inscrutable public image, convinced that his irresistible tenacity and ability to "make his own luck" will pull him through any tough spot.

Like I said, though, there is no "Evil" and there is no "Good," and any statue built in such an image rests on a crumbling foundation. When the Joker's chaotic momentum prods at him, killing his love, dismantling his trust, and shedding his ideas of goodness and justice, Harvey Dent embodies another chiaroscuro 50-50 split--chance, neither good nor evil, just one or the other. Formerly a control freak, he now becomes a manic livewire, the madman Two Face, reducing all complexities to a mere coin toss. Heads you live, tails you die, regardless of mitigating circumstances.

Chaos is animalistic, natural, and extremely easy. Supreme Goodness is an impossible illusion, blind to circumstance. And the Principled Life, cognizant of chaos yet striving toward an idealistic good, is extremely difficult. In the end no clear winner emerges, as questionable means--burnings of letters, invasions of privacy, rewritings of history--are used to achieve honorable ends. The end of The Dark Knight is as complex, thought-provoking, and bleak as the world it highlights. An upright life in today's world is extremely difficult, but we just know it to be right.

In The Wresler, my favorite film from 2008, two more costumed roles emerge as means of running from and dealing with reality.

Little is known of Robin Ramzinski (Mickey Rourke) before he became Randy "The Ram" Robinson, muscleclad wrestling superstar known for the crippling "Ram Jam" finishing move. The slightly effeminate name evokes a Polish immigrancy, as does his quiet, respectful attitude outside of the ring. All we know is that in the ring, in his neighborhood, and at his Acme discount superstore job, he'd much rather be known as Randy, an All-American, testosterone-fueled, heroic man's man.

Twenty years ago, in the heyday of professional wrestling, The Ram was a headlining act on Pay-Per-View, his showdown with The Ayatollah (a foolish "villain" in the wrestling world, surrounding by "evil" 80s Iranian imagery, yet really a black used car salesman) garnering millions of viewers and attendants. Now he's a scarred, crumbling hunk of meat, addicted to steroids and painkillers, living alone in a trailer home and barely making rent, working at a deli counter on weekdays, and hawking his souvenirs in church basements on weekends amongst other decayed wrestling superstars lugging around their catheter bags and canes. Occasionally he headlines in poorly-attended fights, which have become increasingly bloody as the audiences have grown accustomed to Mortal Kombat and My Bloody Valentine 3D.

These fights are staged. Supposed arch-nemeses respectfully offer up choreography ideas while rehearsing finishing moves. The victor is known beforehand. Each stage of give and take is plotted for maximum audience suspense, and a man who attacks Randy (and himself) with a staple gun addresses him as "sir" minutes later, in the back room.

The world is theatrical and completely artificial, but within it Randy--the All American with the former good looks and the boyish charm--is a superstar for his audience. A force of Supreme Good against the evil Ayatollah. The epitome of masculine strength. "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N Roses accompanies his entrance parade as thousands give him a screaming, enthusiastic standing ovation. Millions fondly remember particular cage matches, certain meaningful speeches. It's soap opera for boys, but it's influential. In the ring, there's no divorce, estranged parenthood, drug addiction, poverty, or minimum wage. There's just strength and weakness, and The Ram possesses only the former.

Given that dichotomy, it's easy to see why Robin Ramzinski would lose himself entirely in the facade of Randy Robinson, yet one thing from the real world holds him back: a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who happens to be the love of his life.

Cassidy, with her revealing skirt, shiny earrings, abundant makeup, and flirtatious, forgiving voice, is the moneymaking exterior of Pam, a single mother trying to make ends meet. We see only the desensitized, beautiful sex object for the first few scenes, lighthearted even as perverts take advantage of her, always on the prowl for hardearned money. When Randy finally meets her outside of the strip lounge, we see a completely different woman--protective, rational, stand-offish, and--as Randy awkwardly puts it--"clean."

Pam embraces the facade that many women must endure in this man's world: the easygoing hooker. Unlike Randy, however, Pam does not lose herself in Cassidy, nor would she ever dream of it. Cassidy simply pays the bills; Pam is the real person--the mother, the lover, the human.

In the end, the two halves of each character fall in love with the other, though which half loves which is questionable. Pam seems to love both Randy and Robin, and Robin seems to love both Cassidy and Pam. Unfortunately, Randy can't accept Robin and the world he comes from. For him, the only world worth living in died two decades ago, when WrestleMania for the original Nintendo system was the only game worth playing and ACDC and Axl Rose were the only options on the jukebox. The ending is bittersweet and unforgettable.

The Wrestler and The Dark Knight are easily my two favorite films of 2008. The former needles into your heart and brain with phenomenal acting, a touching screenplay, a realistic, precise direction by Darren Aronofsky, and a wonderful closing song by Bruce Springsteen. The latter is a superbly-directed, action-packed thrill ride with a great support cast and a fantastic, timeless story that explores morality, justice, and chaos, all important themes currently. The former has yet to receive a wide release and the latter has been seen by everybody; I recommend you see both immediately.

Batman Begins
d: Christopher Nolan w: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
(Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson)
9/10

The Dark Knight
d: Christopher Nolan w: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
(Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart)
10/10

The Wrestler
d: Darren Aronofsky w: Robert D. Siegel
(Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood)
10/10
(Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei)

1 comment:

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