Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dark (K)night

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (August 01 2008)

The most striking thing about the new Batman movie, now smashing the all-time box office records, is its emphasis on sado-masochism as the animating element in American culture these days. It must appeal to the many angry people in our land who want to hurt others, even while they themselves feel deserving of the grossest punishments. In other words, the picture reflects the extreme depravity of the current American sensibility. Seeing it all laid out there must be very validating to the emotionally confused audience, and hence pleasurable, in all its painfulness.

The rich symbolism in this spectacle represents the tenor of contemporary America as something a few notches worse than whatever the Nazis were heading toward around 1933. We like nothing better than to see people suffer and watch things get broken. The more slowly people are tortured (including the movie audience) the more exquisite the pleasure derived from the act. Civilization offers no consolation. In fact, its a mug's game. Thus, civilization is composed only of torturers and their mug victims.

Gotham City, the setting for all these sadomasochistic vignettes, is a place devoid of comfort. (The suburbs are missing completely.) Even the personal haunts of "the Batman", aka zillionaire Bruce Wayne, are hard-edged non-spaces. His workplace (cleverly accessed via a dumpster) is an underground bunker the size of about three football fields with a claustrophobic drop ceiling and a single furnishing: the megalomaniacal computer console that is supposed to afford him "control" of the city, but which appears to be, in fact, a completely impotent sham piece of techno-junk, since it can't even outperform a $300 GPS unit in locating things. By the way, Hitler had a brighter sense of decor in the final days of the bunker. Bruce Wayne's personal apartment is one of those horrid glass-walled tower condos beloved of the starchitects, which, in its florid exposure to everything external practically screams "no shelter here"!

At the center of all this is the character called "The Joker". Judging by the reams of reviews and reportage about this movie elsewhere in the media, the death of actor Heath Ledger, who played the role, adds another layer of juicy sadomasochistic deliciousness to the proceedings - we get to reflect that the monster on screen may have gotten away, but the anxiety-ridden young actor who played him was carted off to the bone orchard before the film even officially wrapped (and therefore deserves extra special consideration for America's greatest honor, the Oscar award, while the audience deserves its own award for recognizing the lovely ironies embroidered in this cultural phenomenon.)

The Joker is not so much as person as a force of nature, a "black swan" in clown white. He has no fingerprints, no ID, no labels in his clothing. All he has is the memory of an evil father who performed a symbolic sadomasochistic oral rape on him, and so he is now programmed to go about similarly mutilating folks, blowing things up, and wrecking everyone's hopes and dreams because he has nothing better to do. He represents himself simply as an agent of "chaos". Taken at face value, he would seem to symbolize the deadly forces of entropy that now threatens to unravel real American life in the real world - a combination of our foolish over- investments in complexity and the frightening capriciousness of both nature and history, which do not reveal their motivations to us.

By the way, forget about God here or anything that even remotely smacks of an oppositional notion to evil. All that's back on the cutting room floor somewhere (if it even got that far). And I say this as a non-religious person. But the absence of any possible idea of redemption for the human spirit is impressive. In the world of "the Batman", humanity at its very best is capable only of being confused about itself. This is perhaps an interesting new form of dramaturgy - instead of 'good versus evil' you only get 'befuddlement versus evil'. Goodness has lost its way in the dark night of the American psyche, as might be understandable considering the nation of louts, liars, grifters, bullies, meth freaks, harpies, and tattooed creeps we have become. The best we can bring to this predicament is the low-grade pop therapy that passes for thinking nowadays in educated circles. Any consideration of the heroic is off the menu here. We can't ask that much of ourselves. It's too difficult to imagine. Meanwhile, The People - that is, the citizens of Gotham City - literally banish even the possibility of heroism from town at the end of the movie - they take an axe to it! - perhaps indicating that they deserve whatever befalls them or, shall I say, "us".

A few other striking elements of this spectacle deserve attention. One is the grandiosity that saturates the story elements, and the remarkable impotence of it all. The Batman possesses every high-tech weapon and survival implement ever dreamed up, yet they avail him nothing - except a lot off sickening leaps off skyscrapers and futile hard landings on car roofs, shipping containers, sidewalks, and other human carcasses. I doubt the writers/director Chris and Jonathan Nolan consciously aimed to depict good old American ingenuity as utterly valueless in the face of chaos, but that's the effect. Otherwise, everything in the Batman's world is overscaled and out-of-whack from the size of Bruce Wayne's fortune (what an executive package his Daddy must have made off with, and from which investment bank?!), to the energy expended in so many car chases and explosions, to the super-sized doom-worthy towers of the gigantic, soulless city.

Finally there is the derivation of all this sadomasochistic nihilism out of a comic book. How appropriate, since we have become a cartoon of a society living on a cartoon of a North American landscape, that the deepest source of our mythos comes from cartoons. We're so far gone that real human emotion is beyond us. We're too far gone - and even without shame - to care how this odious movie portrays us to the rest of the world. It is already making a fortune out there.


My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

Bill Totten


  • Gotham is portrayed as a town full of sheep who can only be saved by some fearless leader in whom they all have to believe in the same way that Germans believed in der Fuhrer. There is no community, just huddled masses yearning to be saved. And who will save them? Maybe the District Attorney, by prosecuting criminals? But no, he can't prevail against the evil Joker, so it has to be a super-wealthy guy who is the head of a massive weapons manufacturing company, and who moonlights as a gadget-driven crime fighter. He also apparently holds the purse strings to the D.A. guy (and the film has no problem with that), so let's face it, folks, Mr. Super Wealthy holds the fate of the city in his heavily-armored hands. To justify this monster, we need a greater monster, just like Cheney needs bin Laden. That's where the Joker comes in. Mr. Super Wealthy even develops a system for spying on every single square inch of space within the entire city, all justified by Mr. Joker, since he's so very, very bad. In short, this film should be offensive to anyone who believes in our Constitution's Bill of Rights. As for the drama, the plot is full of holes you could drive a Batmobile through, which the film does again and again, filling plot problems with gadgetry as needed, which is all of the time. I saw this on an IMAX screen and the aerial city views were fantastic; hence the 1 point in my rating. And Heath Ledger was very good at portraying a psychotic criminal, but unfortunately having a character with completely insane behavior tends to liberate the plot from sensible constraints, and so "what happens next" trumps "why did it happen" just about every time. My view seems to be in the minority, but if you saw this and liked it, after reading this, please ask yourself why. One more thing: Quite apart from its politics, I honestly thought that it was a bore.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:29 AM, August 09, 2008  

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