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Savage Knight at the Opera

by Chris Randle

When the title character first appears in The Dark Knight Rises, staggering rather than triumphantly leaping, it’s as a distorted reflection. The film’s other intimations of ambiguity prove to be far less memorable. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman charms me in spite of its shambolic flaws, because the disparate elements – Anton Furst’s anachronistic production design, the parallel Prince/Elfman soundtracks, Michael Keaton’s wry resignation, Jack Nicholson’s lascivious camp – achieve a certain idiosyncrasy, flecked through operatic pulp that’s aware of how ridiculous either lineage can be. If a John Waters character gave up on scandalizing the norms and resolved to just slaughter them instead, it might sound like Nicholson’s Joker: “Now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives.” When the “homicidal artist” spares a Francis Bacon painting from his henchman, recognizing a kindred blemish, I still laugh, partly because the moment seems ever more alien from the current wave of superhero movies. Velázquez reinterpretations, gas that makes you laugh yourself to death – neither interests a director like Christopher Nolan.

This film makes it increasingly clear that Heath Ledger’s own brilliant invocation of the character was an aberration within Nolan’s Batman trilogy – within the same movie, really, given that The Dark Knight eventually reveals his climactic plan to be moral parable rather than flamboyant spectacle. Before that tedious business with the twin ships, however, he’s the man shorn from context amidst a convoluted mythos, who delights in improvising his origins. Ledger successfully wriggled out from under Nolan’s boy-intellectual compulsion to imbue every line and action with solemn significance. Grant Morrison often writes the Joker as “super-sane,” suggesting that no one adapts to the capitalist metropolis better than a mercurial sociopath. He also thrives in any screenplay where conversation otherwise involves people exchanging aphorisms and maxims. Without that autocritical incongruity, watching The Dark Knight Rises sometimes feels like being held at mounted-cannon-point by a party’s biggest bore.

As when forced through entire backstories next to the salsa, there are distractions. The plot follows the same techno-espionage mode as Batman Begins – influenced by Denny O’Neil, who co-created the integral Ra’s al Ghul character – but eschews its unbelievable contrivances and ludicrous doomsday weapon (I did hear Carl giggling at the casual “this is now a nuclear bomb” announcement). When he’s not making habitually frenzied cuts, Nolan produces a few striking images: explosions blooming across Gotham City; Batman flickering through darkness towards a mercenary; Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane settling into his metier as the new regime’s show-trial judge, cheerfully dispensing aribitrary executions from the summit of an unhinged, paper-heaped bureaucracy. There is also, depending on one’s tastes, the rival spectacle of Anne Hathaway’s fickle, witty Catwoman and Tom Hardy’s supermassive Bane (rewriting the etymology of “tank top”), though Nolan invariably consigns the few women to chocolate bar roles (© Margaux Williamson, 2012).

(Can we talk about how fucked up it is that Catwoman, after gulling and robbing various rich men in a quasi-romantic partnership with her female accomplice/companion, suddenly gains a new reverence for property rights + desire to date Bruce Wayne upon stumbling across this photo of a nice blonde family in their ransacked home? And how I’m not sure Nolan consciously intended any of those implications, because he understands sexuality or women or general human behaviour in similar terms as that guy who asks permission to “play devil’s advocate” at every college seminar?)

Of course, the film’s grim politics hardly end there. The Dark Knight Rises is not a direct critique or allegory of Occupy Wall Street: the script was written a year before that movement erupted, and Bane’s rhetoric, a melange of economic populism and unsubtle George W. Bush quotations, is an admitted ploy. He wants to annihilate Gotham City, not collectivize it. Yet this disingenuousness only makes the resulting scenes more reactionary, a Reign of Terror that plays out like a slasher movie – just replace the gleeful schadenfreude with dour admonishment. The citizen uprising against corrupt oligarchs descends into venal, murderous rancor immediately, as if Gotham is full of would-be Berias; later, we’re invited to cheer on a long column of cops (or, given the director’s tendencies, nod gravely) while they charge towards the revolutionaries. Nolan is too cowardly to show any of those working people who used to be redistributing fur coats among them, but it still felt appallingly fascistic. The cringing deputy commissioner even rediscovers his sense of Man-Purpose by firing wildly into a mob, at last crumpling upon the snow as some Haymarket pieta.

You could always listen to the villain instead. Heath Ledger’s voice was central to his Joker, skipping along in harlequin steps (“you’re a freak…like me!”) before clenching with terrifying fury. The original Bane is a smart brute, hulking yet calculating, and Tom Hardy magnifies that one good idea by giving him tones marvelously jaunty and genteel. His threats glint inside oblique mockery. (The film’s one politically astute line comes from Hardy’s hidden mouth: told mid-attack that the Gotham Stock Exchange holds no money, he sneers, “Then why are you here?” Invisible capital!) Along with the voice, there are moments of unnerving gentleness, as when Bane strokes his erstwhile employer’s shoulder, about to brush him from existence. Would I misread to wonder if Dark Knight Rises, a film very much in the paramilitary mode of 21st-century superhero adaptations, presents this costumed tenderness as another sign of evil? Why does Nolan think that a reactivated urban-assault prototype (formerly the Batplane) hovering overhead is a more comforting sight? Standing outside the theatre afterwards, Carl groused: “I don’t go to a Batman movie to watch people dodging missiles.”

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Filed under chris randle, comics, movies

Tuesday Musics: “Drone Operator,” by Jon Langford

by Carl Wilson

Above: Earlier art about unmanned flying things by Jon Langford.

I wanted to share this song with people from the moment I first heard it at Jon Langford’s concert in Toronto on Saturday night, and thankfully Joe from Mechanical Forest Sound – with his characteristic reliability – recorded it and has posted it.

Listen here.

Langford’s show at the Horseshoe was a three-part affair, opening with a Welsh miners’ choir and closing with Langford’s long-standing collaboration with Toronto’s own The Sadies (they started with one of my favourite songs by Langford’s landmark band, The Mekons – “Memphis, Egypt” from 1989’s Mekons Rock N Roll – “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late …”). But this tune came from the middle set by a mini-version of Langford’s Skull Orchard band, with Jean Cook on violin and Jim Elkington’s fluid acoustic guitar leads.

It’s a protest song on an extremely timely subject, the ever-expanding American use of drone planes for targeted assassinations – at least, sort of targeted, as the song’s eponymous protagonist, the “Drone Operator,” tries to explain away at one point: “It didn’t look like a wedding/ It really wasn’t my call.” (The way the Obama administration minimizes civilian casualties in drone strikes, by the way, is essentially to redefine anyone within range of the hits as a non-civilian.)

What I find most compelling about the song is its ever-shifting perspective – a highly unreliable narrator who shrugs off several skins and prevents the song from ever taking a comfortably stable point of view on its subject. It opens with what sounds like the voice of the balladric everyman, the sort of humble farmer or working stiff you might find in a country song or in “Witchita Lineman” or in Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars” –  but rather than being merely the victim or object of larger forces, this one is their tool, their willing and perhaps even thrilling vector. His humility is gradually replaced by classic hubris – “I’m like a god with a thunderbolt” – which then itself falls apart into what seems like a kind of drunken defensive shame, and then takes a final sleazy left turn into interpersonal threat.

The last move not only “brings the issue home” and the song full-circle, it suggests the other dark side of the drone technology, the possibility of its use for domestic surveillance – and not only by police and intelligence forces, but out of mail-order catalogs by possessive husbands and jilted stalkers.

Langford’s willingness and ability to play this creepy part to the hilt is a blessing of his punk roots, and makes the song far more devastating and sharp than the standard folkie-pacifist, didactic denunciation. And the way the music swerves out from its standard Celtic-western form between verses into the slightest hint of a Middle Eastern melodic oscillation, like an oud or an ululation, reinforces the theme of the invisible threads between “there” and “here” – that what is happening to those targeted in “the tribal lands” is happening, in insidious reverse effect, to the people sitting behind the consoles, the people who give the orders, and the people who pay their salaries (but were never given a vote on this) – a pervasive grid of alienation and intimidation, a multidirectional field of remote control.

DRONE OPERATOR – Jon Langford

I’m not really a soldier. I’m more likely to die

By car wreck or cancer than the eye in the sky

That follows them home, right into their window –

And they never know. They never know.

 

When I was a young boy I played all the games.

Straight out of grad school, someone gave them my name.

So I stumbled into a job with good pay.

Through traffic and construction, I drive in every day.

 

So don’t call me a coward, I know what is allowed –

I’m like a god with a thunderbolt sitting on a big white cloud.

I’m a drone operator, with targets to scan.

I sit drinking coffee, with one eye on the ground in the tribal lands.

 

Yeah, I’m a drone operator – I am part of the team,

While I study my monitor, wipe some dust from the screen.

It didn’t look like a wedding, it really wasn’t my call –

When it all was over, I went to a bar, drank beer and watched basketball.

 

Can I get you a drink? Yeah, I’d do it all again,

To stem the flow of body bags the politicians find so hard to explain.

But please don’t complain. There’s no pain, no pain.

When this bar is closed, I’ll follow you home, I’ll follow you home …

In through your window. You’ll never know.

You’ll never know. I’ll follow you home.

 Follow you home.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, Tuesday Musics