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The Joker -- Scorpio Rising?

Kudos to fellow "Phoenix" film critic Brett Michel for being one of the few ( Dave Kehr makes similar observations in his blog) to recognize the resemblance between Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” and Andy Robinson’s antic, anarchistic Scorpio in “Dirty Harry” (1971). Physical and stylistic similarities aside, they are basically the same in being domestic terrorists, sado-masochistic nihilists willing to kill the guilty and innocent alike in order to overthrow the status quo.

Nor does the comparison stop there, with Christian Bale’s Batman being a technologically enhanced, rich man’s version of Clint Eastwood’s blue collar Harry Callahan (Bale's Batman even talks with Clint's raspy whisper). Both heroes face the same dilemma -- how to protect society from evil without succumbing to evil methods? How to save civilization from savages without becoming savages themselves?

Why so popular now? In many ways 2008 is a lot like 1971. The country wants out of an unpopular war. The government employs questionable, potentially unconstitutional methods to fight terrorists (radicals and black activists in 1971; Al Qaeda in 2008) and other destabilizing forces. A Republican was running for president with a platform to continue the policies of the previous four years.

The biggest difference, though, has been the film’s reception. “Harry” was brutally divisive among both critics and audiences. Chief among the naysayers was critic Pauline Kael, who described the film as a "right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably simple-minded attack on liberal values" and as exhibiting "fascist medievalism."

But anyone criticising “The Dark Knight” would be taking his or her life in their hands, as notes “Globe” critic Ty Burr in a blog posting  in which he describes the almost desperate popular embrace of the film, making it the “pop tsunami so many moviegoers, primarily young ones, saw it as and needed it to be.”

Some critics, however have dared to resist the wave. Curiously, almost all of them are what might be called “Paulettes” (the term drawn from an “Illuminati”-like theory of contemporary film criticism I won’t go into). In short, these are critics strongly influenced by the opinions and style of the late, legendary “New Yorker” critic. Unlike Kael’s take on Harry, they don’t find “Knight” especially “trim, brutal, and exciting…” but as rather murky, incoherent and clumsy (I agree). They also brought to bear the typical Kael criticism that the film was too dark and punishing to be entertaining (I’d have to go along with that ,too). But it’s the politics that most recall Kael’s take-down of Harry -- they see the film as not so much a critique of “fascism” as an advertisement for it (True for “Knight,” but I think Kael misread the irony of “Harry.”).

Here are some examples:

David Denby, “New Yorker”

          “Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry, fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton’s original          conception for ‘Batman’ (1989), completing the job of coarsening the material into hyperviolent summer action spectacle… The narrative isn’t shaped coherently ‘The Dark Knight’ has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting        terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it.”

David Edelstein, New York Magazine

          “ ‘The Dark Knight’ is noisy, jumbled, and sadistic.”

Michael Sragow, “Baltimore Sun"

          “… confuses pompousness with seriousness and popular mechanics for drama. True believers may    buy into the gloom and doom of The Dark Knight, but many of us will ask, with the Joker, "Why so    serious?"”

Armond White, "New York Press"

          “Every generation also has the right—no, obligation—to question a pop-entertainment that    diminishes universal ideas of good, evil, social purpose and pleasure…. Appealing to adolescent    jadedness and boredom… the tone glibly nihilistic (hip)...”

Stephanie Zacharek, "Salon.com"

          "But "The Dark Knight" looks as if it were made from a messy blackboard diagram with lots of             circles, heavily underlined phrases ("Duality! Good vs. evil — in the same person! Kinship     between hero and villain!") and crisscrossing arrows that ultimately point to nothing." 

N.P. Thompson, "Movies into Film"

"The Dark Knight, with its sanitized, hollowed-out approach to the most outre violence, would seem to be the movie that Bush's Abu Ghraib America deserves "

Marc Savlov, "The Austin Chronicle"

     "Or so goes the nihilistic logic behind 'The Dark Knight,' a grim little parable on the wages of sin and the high cost of redemption... In short, it's a Batman for the new age of anxiety."

Marshall Fine, "Star Magazine"

          "Why do comic-book movies want to be serious literature? That’s the problem with this movie the    same way it was with 2006’s 'Superman Returns.' Instead of being exciting pop-culture entertainment that forces the viewer to take it seriously, the movie takes itself too seriously – and     misses the fun in the process."

It should be noted in fairness that Fine also wrote an adulatory book about John Cassavetes, a director whose films Kael loathed. So nettlesome were her reviews to the director, Fine reports in his book, that one time when they were forced to share a cab together, Cassavetes threw Kael’s shoes out the window.

Now, that’s a film critic.

 

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