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Ten Years Later, “The Dark Knight” and Its Vision of Guilt Still Resonate

Ten years after its release, there is somehow too much and not enough left to say about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Its politics have been discussed ad infinitum. Its stylistic influence has become ubiquitous, then passé, then somehow aspirational; DC and Warner would kill to have a Batman like this again. Its impact on fan culture (the trolls, dear god, the trolls) is now more a problem for social scientists and psychologists than for film critics or entertainment journalists. It is the biggest hit of Nolan’s career and also the one he’s been trying to live down ever since.

The film, in case you’re wondering, still holds up — especially at a time when superhero flicks, with a few exceptions, have turned assembly-line anonymity into both an aesthetic and a transactional promise. Seen through today’s glut of pro forma blockbusters, The Dark Knight seems like that rarest of movies — a mass-market product that also happens to be a personal picture driven by genuine moral vision.

“What is the most resilient parasite?” we’re asked in Inception, the film Nolan made following The Dark Knight. The answer is, of course, an idea: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Nolan’s filmography both explores and embodies that notion; his characters are often obsessed with an idea, and the films are built as fugues around competing visions of those ideas. Nolan himself has said that The Dark Knight’s central idea was “escalation,” but I’m not convinced that’s it; that sounds like an engineer’s response to an emotional problem. It is even possible that the director, like most artists, is only half aware of what he created. Because after all those years, what stays with me is this: The Dark Knight is perhaps the most powerful exploration of guilt the modern American blockbuster has given us.

Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), was built around the concept of fear: Afraid of action, of facing his tragic past, and of, well, bats, Bruce Wayne had to both overcome his fears and exploit them. So he built the Batman persona, a figure who moved through the night striking terror in the hearts of his opponents. Meanwhile, that film’s villain, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), literally weaponized fear through a powerful toxin that plunged his victims into surreal visions of what most terrified them. In fact, that whole first movie portrayed a Gotham City ruled by fear — an idea that certainly carried weight in a post–9-11 world. At the time, American blockbusters were just testing the waters with evoking still-raw memories of the terror attacks, and Nolan’s Batman films were at the forefront of that effort. (Be sure to read R.C. Baker’s prescient look at The Dark Knight through a 9-11 lens.)

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In The Dark Knight, it is not fear but guilt that is dragging Bruce Wayne down. As the film begins, he’s already feeling the weight of having inspired masked copycat vigilantes instead of do-gooding idealists, thus making Gotham an even more lawless place. (“I’m carrying too much weight” is a line he actually utters early on, ostensibly referring to the heaviness of his armor.) In the figure of the heroic prosecutor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce sees a sort of salvation, and a way out of his guilt: Dent is the kind of brave, honest justice seeker that Batman had hoped would follow his lead. By placing his trust and support in this seemingly spotless crusader, Bruce hopes to be rid of his alter ego, thereby clearing his conscience and helping clean up Gotham once and for all. (“Gotham needs a hero with a face,” he tells Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, the woman he loves, who happens to be dating Dent — yet another consequence of Bruce’s actions as Batman.)

The three central figures of The Dark Knight — Bruce/Batman, Dent, and the Joker (Heath Ledger) — all have complicated, changing relations with guilt. Bruce is consumed by it, absorbs it. Dent, the ambitious man of the law, pursues it doggedly in others — so much so that he initially seems to refuse the help of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his major crimes unit, saying there are too many cops on it that he’d investigated when he was in internal affairs. Dent’s relation to guilt will change, of course. After the Joker kills Rachel and destroys half of Dent’s face, the lawyer will himself become a villain, the classic Batman baddie known as Two-Face. Bruce’s earlier words of admiration — “Gotham needs a hero with a face” — ring ironically: Poor Gotham can only ever seem to get savior figures with either no face or two of them.

The Joker, meanwhile, remains utterly free of guilt. He makes a mockery of the very idea: He gives conflicting explanations for the distinctive gashes on his face, each story seeming to play on some notion of guilt and psychic scarring. In one story, his dad punished him as a kid; in the other, he cut himself to make his disfigured wife feel better. Both stories are horrifying. Both are a joke. Right after he murders Rachel (among others) and burns off Dent’s face, we see the Joker in what might be the film’s most indelible moment, as he quietly sticks his head out of a speeding patrol car, letting the wind whip through his hair. Guilt, or rather its pointed absence, liberates him. (Compare that image with the one of Batman, lumbering under the weight of all his armor, a visual metaphor of a man almost crushed by his responsibilities.)

But the Joker understands guilt, too, manipulating and exploiting it in others. Early on, he draws Batman out by killing the deluded citizens who, inspired by Batman’s example, have donned fake Batman outfits to fight crime, thus making the superhero responsible for their deaths. Later, he engineers Rachel’s fiery demise and puts Batman and Gordon in a position to be blamed for it, setting Dent against them. For his part, Dent seeks death as much as he seeks his now-perverted view of justice. Not unlike Batman, guilt consumes and drives him. But as with the Joker it unleashes him as well, for while Nolan portrays Dent’s downfall as tragic, he also hints that the potential for evil was always there: Two-Face isn’t a new name, but a snide moniker secretly given to Dent by the cops long ago; the “lucky coin” he’s always tossing turns out to have always been phony.

If Gotham itself was consumed by fear in Batman Begins, then it stands to reason that this time the city would be consumed by guilt. Almost. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham and its people seem perched on the edge, caught between light and dark, between compassion and complicity. The city becomes both the moral and physical arena against which Batman and his nemeses’ struggle plays out. The Joker constantly tries to turn the populace, and he comes quite close multiple times. He knows that the city is the path to Batman’s conscience, and to the extent that this supervillain has an ultimate goal, it is to bring the superhero down to his level, to break his spirit and to force him to violate his own code.

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In that sense, the Joker’s climactic scheme also represents his greatest manipulation of guilt. He rigs two crowded ferries to explode — one holds regular Gotham citizens fleeing the city; the other, prisoners being evacuated. The people on each ferry are given a detonator to blow up the other one, and a deadline by which to do it; if one ferry hasn’t exploded by midnight, the Joker vows to destroy both. He expects, of course, that one of the ferries — ideally, the one with the regular citizens on it — will choose to detonate the other. With that, every person on the surviving ferry will be alive but spiritually destroyed — racked with guilt at having allowed so many others to perish.

In order to stop this — and here we can see Nolan’s stated theme of escalation — Batman himself has to assume a whole new level of guilt. Obsessed with finding the elusive Joker, he has built an elaborate citywide sonar system by hacking into the cellphones of Gotham’s citizens. It’s a brazen invasion of privacy, and, as noted by many critics at the time, an unsettling echo of the Bush administration’s embrace of the surveillance state in the wake of 9-11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s perhaps telling that while Batman finds the Joker using this illegal sonar doohickey, it is not he who ultimately foils the villain’s plans, but the people of Gotham themselves: They finally refuse to kill one another. (Though let’s note for the record that the ordinary citizens do actually hold a vote on the matter, and a majority votes to detonate the other boat — in a movie released in an election year, no less. Parse that.)

We can see Batman’s guilt coming into sharp relief in the scene where Nolan introduces this mass surveillance technology. “Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous,” is how Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) describes the system, as he vows to resign upon seeing it. (“Spying on 30 million people wasn’t in my job description.”) Batman seems to understand this, somewhat — he says that only Fox has the key to use the system. But there’s something else going on here. In past exchanges, Fox has interacted mostly with Bruce Wayne. This time, however, it’s Batman he’s speaking to: Bruce is in full superhero regalia, complete with the bizarre raspy voice he uses to mask his identity, even though Fox obviously knows who he is. The duality between the Caped Crusader and his alter ego has been an ongoing theme in Nolan’s series, never more so than in the final installment in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), at the end of which Batman “dies” and Bruce Wayne lives. Here, Bruce presents himself to Fox as Batman so that his superhero persona can absorb the shame of what he’s done.

Nolan is, in effect, already setting up his finale with this scene. After the Joker has been defeated and Dent killed, Batman assumes responsibility for the latter’s victims, so that the memory of the crusading attorney can survive, guilt-free. During the stirring montage when Batman relays to Gordon that the cops must now turn on him (“You’ll condemn me. Set the dogs on me. Because it’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more.”), we see Fox destroying the surveillance system by doing what Batman had earlier instructed and setting off a self-destruct mechanism. The surveillance state is Batman’s great crime. He knows it, and has known it all along, and perhaps always planned to assume the guilt for it. When he tells Gordon to blame him for Dent’s crimes, he isn’t merely accepting blame for people whose deaths he did not cause; he is in fact punishing himself for his own breach of ethics and decency.

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Where then does that leave Gotham? The Dark Knight ends with the city living a lie, but seemingly out of the darkness. (At least for now, since The Dark Knight Rises would show the disastrous consequences of Gordon and Bruce’s duplicity.) And yet it’s hard to look at this movie, made at a time of violent divisiveness in the country over issues of surveillance, of complicity, of violence born of fear, and not see a snapshot of a society — not Gotham’s fictional one, but our own, real-life one — ready to plunge into the abyss of fragmentation, of self-serving chaos. Maybe that’s why Nolan’s film now feels so poignant. Today, it’s hard not to feel that humanity’s worst impulses have won, that those without conscience or shame were allowed to sow endless dissension, hatred, and cruelty, using our own sense of guilt against us.

To put it another way: We detonated the other boat. And we watch The Dark Knight now from a world where the bad guys won.

 

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‘Style Is a Difficult Word for Me’: Joe Wright on His Winston Churchill Drama “Darkest Hour”

Good news: Joe Wright is back. The director of Darkest Hour, which stars the evidently Oscar-bound Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his early days as prime minister, exploded onto the film scene around a decade ago with two beautiful, hugely successful works: In 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, Wright took what could have easily become prestigious, sober, tradition-of-quality literary adaptations, and infused them with a fevered sense of style and movement, and even dashes of surrealism.

His bold use of film form hinted at his eclectic inspirations: his parents’ puppet theater in the London borough of Islington; his work on stage shows with electronica bands; his music videos; and his own cinephilia. Later movies, like 2011’s Hanna and 2012’s Anna Karenina, expanded Wright’s style even further, though they didn’t get quite the same level of acclaim. Then he went the blockbuster route with 2015’s Peter Pan tale Pan, which…well, flopped. Mightily.

But with Darkest Hour, Wright has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map: taking serious, potentially somber material and reinventing it for the screen through intricate, inventive cinematic technique. (At times, it feels like we’re watching a musical, even though nobody sings in the film.) I spoke to him recently about his conception of Churchill, the perceived conflict between form and content, and how he finds the right actors to convey his curious visions.

 

I was not a big fan of Pan, and after the failure of that film, when I heard you were doing a Winston Churchill movie, I thought, “Oh no, Joe Wright’s wings have been clipped, and it’s just going to be a straightforward, play-it-safe biopic.” But then I saw Darkest Hour, and those opening moments with the camera swooping down on Parliament, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Well, Pan was a very interesting experiment for me. It was an experiment that didn’t go so well, but we possibly learn more from the things that don’t go well than we do from the things that do. And I realized after making that film that what really interests me — what I love, the reason I got into cinema in the first place, really — was cinematic drama. And hopefully that’s what I’m good at too. So, it’s lovely to be back making that kind of work.

When we think of Churchill, certainly in the U.S., he is a god. But you present a Churchill who nobody likes. He’s a mess, wracked by self-doubt. And it’s not like suddenly he isn’t and he changes. It’s that within all that self-doubt and all that turmoil and all that constant criticism and conspiring, he —

And you wonder why I wanted to make this film after Pan! [Laughs]

I’m glad you said it and not me!

Yeah, I mean that’s what happened. What I love about the story is that it’s about the importance of doubt in the search for wisdom, and the importance of wisdom in leadership. And so, when I first read the script, I knew that he wasn’t the popular choice. In Britain as opposed to America, we’re much more used to conversations about his failures and the policies that he got wrong, which are numerous prior to the war; he’d had a very long career before he became prime minister. But when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful humor. It made me laugh and it made me cry, and then it made me consider doubt as something really positive — which is kind of what I needed at the time.

You’ve talked in the past about your influences — your parents’ marionette theater and things like that — but I’m always curious about where you draw the line. At what point does style become too much, too burdensome? I love the fact that Anna Karenina was just awash in cinematic technique and elaborate, surreal set pieces. Here, it’s still quite present, but more subdued. How do you make that decision of how far to go? Is it just intuitive?

It’s partly intuitive. What happens is there’s an intuition, and then one goes back and examines the intuition, and almost tries to post-rationalize it. And if you can’t support it, then it’s possibly not the right idea, and if you can, then it is. “Style” is a difficult word for me because it denotes something surface, and I think I prefer the word “form,” and playing with the nature of cinematic form, and finding the correct form for the specific material. And so, at the time it felt to me that the kind of very Brechtian form, if you like — or Meyerholdian form — of Anna Karenina was the correct one for that specific story. With this, I wanted something that was more realistic. And I use “realistic” as opposed to “naturalistic” pointedly. There was a point where we had the shots tracking through the walls, we’re kind of cutting outside of the room or outside of the elevator with the telephone call to Roosevelt with the elevator going up, and I had to consider those very carefully and to make sure that there was substance behind those stylistic or formal choices. And I felt that they would convey the claustrophobia of the story, and so therefore they were justified.

Gary Oldman and Joe Wright on set.

Do you find that sometimes people distrust cinematic form when it’s too forward, or pronounced? I feel like it maybe changes and goes through periods. There was a long period I feel like when it seemed everything had to be gritty and handheld and down to the ground…

But it’s still an affectation, you know? I mean, that’s the thing about it. Naturalistic acting is as affected as any other form of acting, any other style of acting. And so my job is to find the nub of the drama and then express that in as cinematic a way as possible. I’m not interested in necessarily replicating the appearance of reality. I’m interested in expressing the essence of reality. And that means that it’s not necessarily, you know, vérité in style, but hopefully reaches an emotional truth. God, I sound fucking pretentious, don’t I? But that’s the way I feel about it, you know.

The scene on the subway — as I was watching it, I thought to myself, “This is a musical number.” The way that the movement and the action of the people around him develop. At first it’s kind of a cacophony, and then suddenly they’re regimented, and then they’re in unison, and then suddenly you cut to the little kid, and I really felt like I was watching a musical number. Even though they’re not technically singing, their interactions with Churchill are kind of structured like a song.  

Ha! Yeah. I guess there’s certainly some wish fulfillment in that scene. That scene didn’t actually happen, although it represents something that happened. And it also is representative of Churchill going to the people as he often did and seeking their counsel and so on, rather than just the counsel of the aristocrats. And so it felt like there was something slightly, as you say, musical about it. In terms of a wish fulfillment scene, that felt like the correct form.

You’re quite a cinephile as well. Before you make a film, do you go back to other films, other influences? Do you draw from other things like that?

After Pan I went back and I rewatched all the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. And so I had a kind of fresh relationship with my love of those movies. I certainly thought about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped with this film because of the claustrophobia and the shooting in pretty much one space. And Bresson is always an inspiration. I keep his Notes on the Cinematographer next to my bed when I’m shooting, and I read, like, one daily reflection each morning. I also thought of Downfall as well, which is a film I really, really admire. What worries me about being too referential to other movies is that there’s a kind of cannibalism that happens and they stop being true. What I’m always trying to achieve is a kind of human truth, really. So what I try to do more is be inspired by the details and the specifics of the place, the time, and the history, and the characters, and try and find an emotional response to time, place, and people. And then figure out the most cinematic way I can represent those things.

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In that context, what do you look for in an actor?

Casting is the most important decision a director can make, and I guess, having been brought up in a puppet theater, where the characters are designed on the drawing board, there’s an element of my casting process where I imagine the characters if they were a puppet and what kind of character would they be. What would they look like? What’s their essence? And that final question, though, becomes the most important one, and this does lead into Gary Oldman. You have a choice. You can either cast the person who looks best, or you can cast the person who has the right essence to convey that character. And all the research I did, watching film and reading, about Churchill, I felt like I began to see a man who had this incredible, almost manic energy, both physical and mental. And that intensity of energy was what I was interested in finding in the actor. Gary Oldman has that intensity, you know, as we’ve seen in all his great characters. They’re always very intense people. I cast Gary based on that latter concern — the essence of his intensity.

He strikes me as someone who does a lot of research.

Immense amount of research. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the great actors I’ve worked with — and even those I haven’t worked with, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep — is that the geniuses work really hard. And Gary spent four months working really, really hard in preparation. Every single day he’d be out back of the studio practicing being Churchill. I mean literally. And I find that extremely gratifying because a lot of actors, younger actors or actors who aren’t as good, think that inspiration is some kind of divine thing that happens — an almost romantic notion coming from the romantic poets. This idea that the inspiration is a divine gift that is bestowed upon you at the given moment and you will arrive and you will be brilliant. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. There needs to be that foundation in hard craft, and then you get on set, and then inspiration at last.

Ben Mendelsohn also strikes me as having quite a challenge here. The way he portrays King George at first as this meek, almost sniveling little character, and eventually he turns out to be the one who helps Churchill buck himself up — without ever losing his persona. That was a very interesting trajectory.

Yeah, he has a great arc, George. The problem with casting that character was that he’d been played with so much success by Colin Firth, and so any English actor would probably have been a kind of watered-down version of that, so I had to make quite a bold choice. And Ben’s always a bold choice, you know. He’s a bold man. But to have someone who wasn’t English, an Australian, play that role was really, really useful. Ben Mendelsohn is fucking nuts in the best way possible. He has this crazy energy that bursts out of him, and is irrepressible. And he arrives on set singing and shouting — good-humored shouting, and laughing, wild. Singing his breakfast menu, you know. Or very rude, very, very rude ditties. And very generous. And then you call “action,” and somehow all of that energy becomes concentrated into a kind of laser beam of focus, and it’s magnetic. And then you call “cut,” and the energy goes everywhere. Working with Ben was an amazing revelation. Also what was great is that Ben and Gary respected each other immensely, and really enjoyed each other, and so they were able to have some fun. And I think actors having fun is fun for an audience too.

 

 

 

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Paranoia Is a Groan-Inducing Business Drama at Odds With Itself

From its opening lines of voiceover narration, Paranoia makes you groan. “We belong to a generation that watched our dream get stolen from under us. Used to be that if you got good grades, you got a good job. . .” It’s a pat bit of righteous indignation—part Fight Club, part a million other pseudo-rebellious big-budget Hollywood films whose insights and social commentary are easily dismantled. (Exactly who was once “guaranteed” a good job as a reward for scholastic achievement?) Director Robert Luketic, working from a screenplay by Barry L. Levy and Jason Dean Hall (adapted from Joseph Finder’s novel), rallies hard to get audiences to identify with Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth), an entitled, unlikable peon at a high-tech company. Adam longs for money and power to escape his wrong-side-of-the-tracks origins. After he blows a pitch meeting before Nicolas Wyatt, his company’s powerful CEO (Gary Oldman, in extra-crispy villain mode), Adam is fired, and retaliates by running up his company credit card before it’s cut off. Wyatt forces him to work off his debt by infiltrating the powerful tech firm of Wyatt’s archenemy to steal plans for a game-changing new phone. Adam secures his new job with laughably unlikely ease, and then unwittingly plays his role as dupe for two powerful men. We’re supposed to cheer as he swims with sharks, but this is a film at odds with itself, wanting to be a 99 percenter rallying cry but wallowing in and fetishizing 1 percenter accoutrement at every turn. And though we are living in a fear of a National Security Agency planet, the film squanders the opportunity to say anything about navigating a hyper-surveilled life that James Bond (or Jason Bourne) films haven’t already said much better.

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White Riot at Webster Hall

In the 15 years since the White Stripes formed in Detroit, Jack White has run with the fame offered to him by his namesake group’s candy-colored branding and simple, yet bludgeoning take on the blues. He has delved into side projects like the sprightly Raconteurs and the sultry Dead Weather; he has worked with legends like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson; he played Elvis in the 2007 cutup Walk Hard; he even somehow managed to retain his dignity while going the reality-TV route, using his extensive collection of Americana as bargaining chips on an episode of American Pickers.

He has also had a bit of fun with the media, from floating the story that he and his former Stripes bandmate Meg White were once siblings (they’d actually been married, with Jack taking her name for professional purposes) to his latest stunt, where his vinyl-exoticist outfit Third Man Records released a thousand-copy run of singles via balloon. The records—flexidiscs, actually—were stuffed into helium balloons and set free from the label’s retail outpost in Nashville. “Statistics for similar balloon launches show a recovery rate of approximately 10 percent,” the announcement said, “so it’s quite possible that less than 100 of the 1,000 records launched will ever be discovered.” That the stunt took place on April 1, the day that so many lesser pranksters would merely threaten such a move and hope to reap the publicity rewards, seemed like an extension of the joke—White winking at the world, saying, Yes, I’ll do this. Just watch me.

The song on the flexidisc was the grimy “Freedom at 21,” taken from White’s first solo album, Blunderbuss (Third Man). The bitter, spat-out broadside rips into a woman who is more into modern conveniences and present-day hedonism than the day-to-day realities of a relationship with another human being. (The titular “freedom” isn’t the sort that one is granted when one is deemed old enough to drink in the U.S.; instead, it’s a “21st-century” brand that allows someone to walk all over a partner while being completely oblivious to doing so, thanks to the pair of shiny beeping gadgets taking up all her attention.)

That’s one of the more fiery moments on Blunderbuss, which, when compared to White’s other projects, seems downright subdued. This isn’t to say it’s inferior to his other work, though; if anything, the grounding makes the blues underpinnings come to the fore even more strongly. There’s a crying-sky grayness permeating the whole affair, one that even his singular yawp can’t completely ward off. (The color scheme for this album is based in the shades of blue that telegraph imminent clouds.) It’s full of lyrics that, even when seemingly recounting moments of happiness, are tinged with the opposite emotion; the title track is a slide-guitar-accented lament about an illicit affair handled clumsily that draws scorn as a result. Where the White Stripes’ work mostly brimmed with unbridled joy that was playfully childlike even at its most sinister, Blunderbuss‘s musical triumphs are smaller and more adult. “I’m Shakin'” tempers its hip-thrusting bloozy bluster with a reminder that Delilah led to Samson’s downfall; “Weep Themselves to Sleep” brings to mind a late-night-bar riff on the Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” with sweeping piano runs that pour out of even the tinniest speakers. (One suspects that White wouldn’t entirely approve of his album being heard through the low-quality amplification supplied by the combination of digital encoding and a laptop; such is the curse of our modern age.)

Blunderbuss might be subdued in the context of White’s career, but on Friday night at Webster Hall, he showed that he can still get fiery—the show was split into two parts, and during the first half, an all-woman backing band (known as the Peacocks) supported him while during the second, an all-male band (dubbed Los Buzzardos) backed him up. Bathed in blue, he kept the crowd in check. While both sets were undoubtedly energetic and studded with gems from all over his catalog, the show’s latter half felt looser, like it could have stretched into the night easily had the venue not had its weekly dance party scheduled to storm the gates as soon as the early-evening crowd had exited. (One curious wrinkle came near the show’s end, when White introduced the individual members of Los Buzzardos by name—a courtesy not extended at the end of the Peacocks’ set, despite the backup singer Ruby Amanfu serving as the night’s Most Valuable Supporting Player with her sinuous vocal counterpoints to White. The bare-bones “Love Interruption” was a particular highlight, with Amanfu’s harmonies giving extra oomph to White’s already-gut-punching observations on how love can completely wreck someone.)

The show was a bit anomalous from Webster Hall’s normal fare; it was part of the American Express–sponsored Unstaged series, in which the financial-services company pairs a musical artist and a director for the purposes of streaming shows on the music-biz-YouTube offshoot Vevo as they happen, and chopping individual songs’ performances into bite-size bits for later consumption. White’s show was lensed by Gary Oldman; previous entrants in the series have paired the Canadian anthem-bearers Arcade Fire with the surrealistic Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam and the synthpop standard-bearers Duran Duran with the singular David Lynch.

Webster Hall was, as befits a sponsored event headlined by one of the rock world’s bigger names, pretty crowded, and the sight lines supplied by Oldman’s take on events—which was streaming from well-placed screens hung around the balcony—transfixed a couple of my fellow concertgoers who were stuck behind either too many people or audience members who were too tall. Their fixations on the crystal-clear displays provided a marked (and likely unintentional) contrast to White’s fetishistic view of the vinyl format and his on-record disdain for the way technology can detract from the experience of being in the same place as someone and vibing off them. That those people still appreciated White’s sweat-drenched output, though, was probably what mattered in the end.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Bear You Have It: Kung Fu Panda 2 Charms

Mighty martial-arts panda Po (Jack Black) may still be portly, yet in every other respect, his Kung Fu Panda 2 is a fleeter, funnier beast than its 2008 predecessor. The complicated emotional ramifications of adoption are the prime focus of this follow-up, which concerns Po’s quest for identity and inner peace, goals that are maturely posited as only attainable through confronting, and then letting go of, the past. Po’s search for self takes the form of a showdown against Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a genocidal peacock who murdered Po’s birth parents, and who’s now determined to conquer China with the use of a fiery cannon. That modern weapon spells potential doom for the ancient art of kung fu, and the saga that it spawns—marked by Black’s buoyant vocal performance—is amusing and exciting. With bouncy animation augmented by not-terrible 3-D, and a rollicking spirit reminiscent of the films of Jackie Chan (who returns to voice Po’s Furious Five comrade, Monkey), Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s sequel delivers a bevy of superpowered set pieces that are dexterous and delirious, as well as tonally confident. As fists and feet fly, wisecracking humor flows naturally from the combat, lending this assured adventure a self-deprecating lightheartedness.

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The Book of Eli: Kicking Ass for Jesus

The fourth film from directors Allen and Albert Hughes, The Book of Eli centers on the Christianity that was at the margins of their previous films—hypocritically misused by Bokeem Woodbine’s bush-crazy marine turned pulpit-pounder turned stick-up man in Dead Presidents, and the sanctimonious grandparents in Menace II Society.

“I don’t think God really cares too much about us, or he wouldn’t have put us here. . . . Look where we stay at.” Thus spoke Menace‘s O-Dog, referring to Crenshaw Boulevard, not so different from Presidents‘ Vietnam and ’70s Bronx, and From Hell‘s Whitechapel. In The Book of Eli, the whole world’s a blasted ghetto. It’s 31 years after the scorched-earth apocalypse. As in The Road, The End has terminally desaturated the world’s palette. Only a few tattered product placements have managed to survive. On the road since Year Zero, Denzel Washington’s Eli has become an expert at using his wickedly quick machete arm to ward off roving bands of highwaymen from his precious cargo: the last copy of the Bible.

The other copies have been destroyed as taboo, since religious conflict inspired the nuclear holocaust. That’s not impossible to believe, though it taxes credulity that a fragmented society that can’t dig freshwater wells has managed to destroy every other copy of the most ubiquitous book in the Western world, undoing all of the Gideons’ good work. As does the disciple Eli attracting Solara—a badly miscast Mila Kunis, who looks like she’s spending a semester abroad in the post-apocalypse from her fashion school’s co-op program. As does Eli’s zoning out to his iPod during night watches in the hazardous wasteland (a twist-ending revelation makes this particularly ridiculous).

It’s water and a battery charge that lure Eli down the Main Street of a repopulated ghost town. The Hugheses play up the spaghetti-western element, as Denzel’s Stranger strolls into a saloon owned by Gary Oldman, the town’s corroded, lizard-like first citizen. Carnegie is one of the few survivors, like Eli, old enough to remember the lost world. His saloon is the lobby of the abandoned movie theater that he has made his headquarters. Accordingly, he’s interested in resurrecting lost forms of mass mind control—Oldman is introduced reading a biography of a great cinephile, Mussolini. It’s with cynical messianic intent that he’s been scouring the countryside for a Good Book, which sets up a showdown with true believer Eli.

The Hugheses once had a black-comic sense to match their comic-book horror impulses (every line of Menace is a potential inside joke). Here, that sense is evident only in a roadside stop-off with some unhinged survivalists, an elderly American Gothic couple played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. This opens into a firefight showing off the Hugheses’ other strength, their allegiance to uselessly beautiful tracking shots, here scuttling in and out of a besieged frame house as it’s shot to pieces. The rest of the rote splatter-violence has Denzel whirlwind lopping off heads through philistine hordes, sequences only good for insight into what PS3 games the Hugheses were playing in pre-production (screenwriter Gary Whitta’s previous credits are, aptly, in video games).

It remains to be seen how the clergy, often overeager to accept tribute from popular culture, will receive this gory simony. Nobody reads Pilgrim’s Progress anymore, so I guess you take it where you can get it, but The Book of Eli‘s plastic parable isn’t much more advanced than Insane Clown Posse theology. Eli eventually summarizes a lifetime of scriptural study as “Do more for other people than you do for yourself”—an idea hardly unique to Christ—while an ending that combines Fahrenheit 451‘s Book People and Malcolm McDowell in an insupportable mustache seems to downplay the importance of Eli’s cargo.

Eli himself resoundingly fails to follow the Good Samaritan’s example when witnessing a roadside hijacking; the most that can be said is that he remains chaste without visible effort. Our hero is mostly an Old Testament smiter of the wicked, finally—unless I forget when Christ said, “You lay that hand on me again and you will not get it back” at the Garden of Gethsemane.

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The Pleasantly Mediocre Planet 51

Like E.T. in reverse, this pleasantly mediocre CG animation tale lands an astronaut on a distant planet whose green, four-fingered, newt-ish inhabitants are living in an innocent, 1950s-style state of development. Fearing the brain-eating “humaniacs” they see at the movies, the Planet 51ers naturally view spaceman Chuck (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as a monster—except timid green teen Lem (Justin Long), who saves Chuck from the mob: “Mom, can I keep him?” Handsome doofus Chuck is a chip off the Buzz Lightyear block, but Planet 51 lacks the Pixar polish (particularly in its writing)—still, it’s not a bad knockoff. The alternate-reality, Cold War–era design is cute: towns laid out like crop circles; women wearing beehives neatly coiffed above their antennae; and saucer-shaped cars wobbling inches from the pavement. Sounds picture-perfect, but before the alien can go home, Lem must thwart a paranoid general (Gary Oldman) and win the girl next door (Jessica Biel), which means that Chuck must act as his preeningly unreliable life coach. Fortunately, many chases and pratfalls attend their journey. The biggest laughs come from a neighborhood dog, modeled on the beast in Alien, that pees acid, and from the robotic six-wheeled NASA rover that’s strongly reminiscent of WALL-E. An awkward European-American co-production, Planet 51mainly succeeds at reminding you of all the better movies that inspired it.

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Film

American cinephiles know Alan Clarke best as the director of Elephant, the film that provided the title—not to mention the formal and emotional strategy—for Gus Van Sant’s ethereal meditation on Columbine. Clarke’s Elephant (1989), which depicts a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland with a provocative combination of suspense and affectlessness, in turn took its title from novelist Bernard MacLaverty’s characterization of the Troubles as “the elephant in our living room.” Elephant was Clarke’s final film; by the time of his death, at age 54 in 1990, he had been unleashing hordes of elephants into British living rooms for more than two decades. Working mostly for the BBC, he gravitated toward pugnacious characters and prickly subjects that his employers often found unpalatable. Van Sant has paid the most direct homage, but Clarke’s influence is extensive: Two of his stars, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, directed features that owe a lot to the man they call Clarkey, and you can detect his imprint in films as disparate as Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Harmony Korine’s Gummo.

Taken together, Clarke’s work from the final decade or so of his life, a period that coincided with the Thatcher years, constitutes a bellicose postpunk yowl. Blue Underground’s essential boxed set compiles four of these pulverizing dramas, starting with Scum (1977), a juvie-prison scrum starring Ray Winstone, defiantly remade for theatrical release in 1979 after the Beeb banned it (both versions are included). Clarke famously muscled his male actors to animalistic extremes. Roth got his first break as a savagely articulate skinhead in Made in Britain (1982), and Oldman played a yuppie family man high on the fight-club thrills of football hooliganism in The Firm (1988). As eloquent as Clarke was with the argot of imploding masculinity, the 40-minute, near-Bressonian Elephant dispenses with all macho posturing. (Blue Underground’s box unfortunately omits the junkie-tedium classic Christine and the military-patrol quasi-doc Contact, both valuable companion pieces to Elephant.) Set in a grim, emptied-out Belfast of cavernous warehouses and expansive parking lots, Elephant stages, minus context and clarification, one killing after another. Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.

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Screen Test 2002

This year’s Stuart Byron Movie Trivia Quiz again strives to raise the bar of cinemanic savoir faire above the redoubtable cheat resources of the Internet (much less an easily accessible book or video), an effort that grows more strenuous every year. The deadline: Friday, July 19. You can mail your entry to the Voice offices or e-mail it to mikeatkinson@prodigy.net. The prize: a $250 gift certificate at the bookshop or video store of your choice.


Being There

1. In what films did each of these landmarks first appear?

(a) World Trade Center

(b) Watts Towers

(c) Vietnam Veterans Memorial

(d) Sydney Opera House

(e) Seattle Space Needle

(f) Angkor Wat

(g) Berlin Wall

(h) Guggenheim Museum

(i) Empire State Building

2. Name 10 American film critics who have appeared in fiction films as characters other than themselves. (Peter Bogdanovich, having authored mostly profile pieces and interviews, doesn’t quite count.)

3. What two actors or actresses appeared in the most Alfred Hitchcock movies (not including Hitchcock himself)?

4. What’s the connection between Errol Flynn and François Villon, Vincent D’Onofrio and Napoleon, and Diane Lane and Lucretia Borgia?

5. In which films did these actors drink these brands of beer:

(a) Gary Oldman, Harp

(b) Jeff Bridges, Guinness

(c) Robert De Niro, Rolling Rock

(d) Dean Stockwell, Pabst

(e) Jim Carrey, Penn Pavel’s

6. Name U.S. senators and/or representatives who have acted in films while they were in office; two points a piece.


The Vanishing

7. From which Little RascalsOur Gang short was Spanky’s blackface masquerade as Buckwheat routinely cut from television prints since the ’60s?

8. What musical image was excised from À Nous la Liberté by René Clair himself?

9. What Soviet classic lost a sequence of a nude woman grieving for a murdered lover to the censors?

10. What contemporary auteur’s film bears no credit for its malcontent lead actor, whose voice was later dubbed by another member of the cast?


Come and See

11. Who penned the contemporaneous Berkley paperback novelization of Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now (1956)?

12. Name three writer-directors who wrote—or at least took credit for writing—their own movies’ novelizations.

13. Name the film in which:

(a) Gérard Depardieu pisses in a man’s mouth

(b) Ernest Borgnine chases a desert mirage

(c) Marlene Dietrich wears a blond Afro wig

(d) Jean-Paul Belmondo paints his face blue

(e) Nick Nolte extracts his own tooth

(f) Robert Mitchum digs up a toy gun under a porch

(g) Myrna Loy walks out on William Powell

(h) Johnny Depp gets murdered in bed wearing a Walkman

14. What’s the longest word that can be spelled using one-letter movie titles?

15. In what live-action films were these artists’ visuals co-opted:

(a) Joel-Peter Witkin

(b) Damien Hirst

(c) Francis Bacon


Freaks

16. Name five silent features—maybe music, but no dialogue, narration, or live sound—made after 1939.

17. What’s the longest film ever to receive an actual theatrical release (i.e., it was shown theatrically more than twice)?

18. What fur company financed Robert Flaherty’s Arctic trip to make Nanook of the North?

19. List three of vintage exploitation dean Dwain Esper’s four known production or distribution company names.

20. Who was the earliest female avant-garde filmmaker in the United States?