Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Knight Club

I was discussing art with the Beautiful Competition over a lovely dinner of Italian food, pink Champagne and lemon gelato last evening (it's a difficult life, isn't it?) and we got on the subject of film. I've been thinking a lot about The Dark Knight lately, which I've reviewed before, as a cultural touchstone or artefact: that is, something that captures a certain kind of zeitgeist. I realized that I like Dark Knight for many of the same reasons I like another artefact film: Fight Club. They're excellent films to examine side-by-side.

Fight Club came out in 1999, and managed to capture the late Clinton-era zeitgeist in a way that no other film can claim. The notion of office workers, bored by their jobs and betrayed by promises that they would be ‘rock gods or movie stars' turning to small-scale domestic terrorism to show their dissatisfaction reflected a growing ennui among the young professional class. It was a film born from economic safety, a remote threat of real terrorism (can you imagine Fight Club being released after 9/11?) and a view that the villain is not only likable, he's something to which we might aspire as he's just an aspect of us.

Other images I associate with this time are almost straight out of the film: the pictures of the impotently-smashed windows of Starbucks' and McDonalds during the so-called Battle of Seattle WTO protests. Rather than striking at the true culprits, it's as though the anarchists decided upon direct action for direct action's sake, vandalizing franchises that represented something tangentally associated with the targets of their rage. They struck against the same coffee shops where they purchased their own tall skinny soy lattes, as if what they hated the most was something inside themselves.

Then consider Dark Knight, where a much more separated hero battles a villain who is more like a force of Nature. Bruce Wayne is the military-industrial complex, a do-gooding rich person who feels that the best way to alleviate crime is not to redistribute wealth or fund educational programs, but to physically beat criminals and purchase hotels by writing personal checks. His superpowers consist of nothing more than access to the latest military weapons technology that in turn fuels his vast personal fortune when he's not using it to hit escaped mental patients.

On the other side is the Joker, a literal wildcard who makes quite clear that he wishes only to cause destruction and chaos. He has no logical plan or reasoning – he is, by his own admission, a ‘dog chasing cars, and wouldn't know what to do if [he] caught one' – acting entirely on instinct. His villainy comes not from any rhyme or reason; in fact, it's difficult to even call it evil as it doesn't appear to be motivated by a need to cause harm other than the opposite of the established order. In a way, it's a perfect and safe Western dream: good people in the military-corporate network keeping us safe from forces of darkness that cannot (or we simply refuse to take the time to) be understood.

Don't get me wrong; I loved the Dark Knight but its overtones are difficult to ignore. It's interesting to compare the two films as far as what they indicate of the national mindset, what makes a ‘hero' and what's acceptable both for heroes and villains. In fact, are the villains actually us? How much are we like them? These questions are nothing new to comics or stories, but the ways in which the answers change are very indicative of how our mindset shifts, however subtly. In this case, I think it reflects a growing cynicism, that the ennui of the late 1990s was replaced first with a renewed optimism and faith in leadership, government and military which was the squandered and eventually taken advantage of, creating a reaction possibly more cynical than the previous one.

Oddly enough, it's not the heroes in these films that are the most accurate reflections of the times but the villains themselves. Tyler Durden's rage against the corporate machine manifesting as minor acts of terrorism and simple human empowerment with material denial is a perfect model of the aimless feeling of basic dissent we exhibited at the end of the 1990s. Clinton lied, but he lied about getting blowjobs. The economy looked pretty good. We weren't involved in any foreign wars, and had the full backing of NATO and the UN in Kosovo.

The Joker is us now, rage without focus, the anti-structure. Whatever's in place is bad, because it's inherently corrupt and probably going to screw us anyway. Piles of money in shipping containers? Just stuff to be burned, because hey, the guys at the top have been bleeding it out of the good citizen of Gotham anyway. And we should probably be punished in some way because we're complacent in putting these power structures in place to begin with. The commoners are as much to blame as anyone else, and it's better just to burn it all and start again.

It's hard to imagine a Joker smashing a Starbucks', but it's also hard to imagine Tyler Durden forcing commoners and criminals to face a prisoner's dilemma. And it's hard to imagine us accepting either doing those things, exactly because it would be so out of context of the times.


grey_zealot said...

Wow. Interesting perspective.

I haven't seen Fight Club. I need to.

I can't disagree with a couple of things, though.

In Batman Begins and in Dark Knight, as far as Bruce Wayne goes, they do hint at The charitable Wayne Foundation. One thing they haven't emphasized from the comics is that Bruce is smart enough to work both sides of the equation: Providing jobs through industry and doing charity work to tamp down crime from that angle.

Joker: Watch Dark Knight again. Yes, Joker wants to cause a lot of chaos. But, he does go through a lot of planning. He executes well-tought-out schemes and leaves room to improvise, which he does well. And his little speech to Two-Face in which he portrays himself as a simple wild dog obscures his motives: steering two-Face into doing what he wants.

Joker and Batman are two sides of the same coin, if you will.

Another Random comment or two: Bruce may be part of the military industrial complex, but he seems to try to keep the best and most dangerous weapons for himself 9and out of others hands.

Joker is used to working on the cheapside: Gunpowder and gasoline, and cellphones to detonate bombs remotely. Very real world.

Anyway, I really enjoy reading your perspective on these things.

BTW: Bruce pulling stunts like buying hotels outright: It reinforces his "surface identity" as frivolous playboy, while aquiring an asset he can use as "businessman Bruce' and possibly as Batman.

Beware focusing on surface details. They are often used as knee-jerk, emotional distraction.

Roger Whitson said...

Well, I generally disagree with your thesis because I don't like zeitgeist arguments. This is mostly because I don't believe in geist "spirit." I find the notion a too religious attitude toward history -- i.e. a recoverable spirit exists in the past that you can identify and articulate by literature, history, or whatever...it goes back to accessing the spirit via the medium of the book -- like one can be connected to the Holy Spirit via the Bible. Not that you can't talk about literature or film in terms of history, but the sense that a film or a text is made for one moment in history is actually what I directly confront in my dissertation. BUT, you make some compelling points.

First, a book that directly addresses one of your points: Nadine Klemens' IKEA Boys and Terrorists: Fight Club in the Light of 9/11. She argues that the interpretation of the book shifts radically after 9/11.

I think, perhaps, the more radical point that you almost get to in this post is that The Dark Knight is really the "sequel" of Fight Club. The photos say it all. What in one film is a lament of a lost masculinity and the fight against international corporate America becomes in the other its "uncanny" opposite -- the horror of mass terror and death. The unsatisfied masculine subject in Fight Club who blows up Starbucks takes it even further in The Dark Knight and starts killing people and performing violence for its own sake. So, the Joker is really Tyler Durden if he painted his face and wasn't reigned in by Ed Norton.

In Freud's terms, though these too are limited, the Joker is the id let loose; Batman is the embittered super-ego who is ultimately even more impotent than the unnamed Ed Norton character in Fight Club; and the only ego figure we have in the film is Two-Face, the only sense of psychic balance comes in the form of the flipped coin. In Fight Club, there is a detente between the two figures, an Ego formed at the end of the film after Ed Norton shoots his face and Tyler Durden disappears. In Dark Knight, there is no such detente. The Ego is dead; the Super-Ego is turned into a criminal (revealing its sadistic/masochistic side); and the Id is jailed. So The Dark Knight is Fight Club taken to the next level (metaphorically speaking) where the desire to reassert the masculine ego becomes a radical annihilation of the psyche. And I wouldn't agree with you. The Dark Knight indeed suggests that people can "keep us safe;" however, the more interesting point is that Batman can't do this without becoming a compromised figure: that is, without becoming a criminal no one can save us. My sense is that Dark Knight is a much "darker" (sorry for the pun) film than Fight Club, b/c the latter suggests a reconciliation is possible while the former film simply dissolves into shady surveillance and vigilantism descending into criminality. The only "hope" (Harvey Dent) is a myth constructed by a fundamentally corrupt organization in order to keep order despite the truth.

grey_zealot said...


Jason said...

Grey Zealot: Good points all. I did write this post from memory, and I'd forgotten the Wayne Foundation's mentions in the film and the Joker's planning - which was one of the things that impressed me the most the first time I watched it. You're right; he's clearly beyond just a simple animal operating on instinct, he's definitely got a plan and a goal. The end of the movie, where he's dangling above the building and he and Batman have the final exchange, Joker talks about how he's trying to simply expose that people are inherently bad and in a manner of speaking not worth saving (mind, I'm doing this from memory too!) but Batman replies with evidence that the Joker failed: the people on the ferries didn't actually blow themselves up like the Joker thought they would.

I think I over-emphasized the military-industrial complex a little too much in the original post; Bruce/Batman may be part of that, true, but only insofar as Captain America embodies all aspects of America: the good and, occasionally, the bad. But in the end, the 'good' is worth dealing with the bad. It's not a perfect comparison but it works.

BTW, glad you're blogging again!! I've been thinking very hard about the political post you asked about, and if I have time this weekend I'll try to do it then.

Rog: I can't agree with your 'spirit' argument, sorry. Zeitgeist is merely a useful tool to describe certain sociological movements within public attitudes at a certain time, and making a connection to the Holy Spirit from the Bible... is quite a stretch.

I'll check out Klemens' book - sounds like it basically says what I've thought - but wouldn't that reinforce the idea of an overall sociological shift after 9/11 (say, a zeitgeist?)

That's actually a really compelling connection between Tyler Durden and the Joker, one I didn't even think about. Do you think that in a way Batman acts as the Ed Norton foil for the Joker, and that his refusal to compromise (although I'd say he actually did compromise a bit with the whole 'cell phone sonar network' thing) is as extreme as the Joker's all-out id/anarchy?

Maybe that's what you were trying to say and I just got lost in details...

Thx for the comments guys!

Roger Whitson said...

Zeitgeist in German means the "spirit of the times," like Heiliger Geist in German means "Holy Spirit." Belief in Zeitgeist includes the idea that an age, as such, can be characterized by its "spirit" (it is self-identical and has a consistent [maybe singular] meaning that is determinable). This is why I connected it to a religious spirit, the holy spirit in particular. The notion of the soul or spirit rests upon the idea that it is the essence of a human being. The zeitgeist, or "spirit" of a particular time rests upon the idea that the spirit is the essence of that time. This is also why I argued that zeitgeist rests upon a certain meaning of religion and holy spirit.

So, it might be a tool, but only insofar as one lends a certain faith to the belief that time is a series of self-identical moments defined allegorically, which is similar to the belief in the soul or spirit. And I don't subscribe to that belief.

I also didn't say that I agreed with the book, just that it might be interesting for you to read. Furthermore, making a historical argument (i.e. that reading a text can change radically based on a certain change in the social imaginary tied to an event) isn't the same as expressing belief in zeitgeist. History might be a collective fantasy which is not self-consistent but is nevertheless consistently in a tension between competing accounts. And the discourse running through this tension (which transforms, itself, through time) could be what defines our narrated understanding of different events in time. So, 9/11 doesn't have a consistent character or spirit, but has an evolving meaning that is continually in the process of being narrated. And this also doesn't mean that "anything goes," because like any narration there are a set of rules.

So, my hesitation is focused more around the idea that history has a consistent spirit or character when I suggest that history is always in the process of revision within certain boundaries. This doesn't mean that it isn't real but that it is, nevertheless, not real in the same way that matter is real or air is real. It is real, but only as part of a mass psychological reality that is never complete or consistent (even though, at the same time, our desire for it to be both makes writing history possible).

And I'd agree with most of your analysis of the film, but I would suggest that Batman didn't compromise with the surveillance thing. The super-ego (which in Freudian terminology is the police agent) "watches" over and judges the ego. The id wants immediate, violent gratification, and the ego is the figure of compromise. My suggestion is that Ed Norton compromises when he shoots his face. He acts somewhat chaotically, and this compromise of his rational, judgmental self dissolves Tyler Durden. When Batman used the sonar, he was simply becoming more of a super-ego--indulging in the desire of most agents of order in fantasies of complete surveillance and complete control. I.e. if Batman can get a Sonar map of the entire city, then he can find the anarchic element, go to that element and eliminate it.

Between the Joker and Batman there is no compromise. That's why Two-Face had to be in the film, to show that in this world the only compromise is blind luck. Luck, in this sense, is the slimmest flip between the order of the super-ego and the chaos of the id. Now the Ego is usually the figure of compromise. "I'd really like that jelly doughnut, but I know that I'll gain weight." Or "Jeez, that girl is hot, but I love my wife." The "but" in those sentences is the imposition of the Ego who undertakes a complicated negotiation between our id (that girl is hot) and our super-Ego (I have a wife). Sometimes, the Super-Ego wins out "but I will gain weight." Other times, the Id wins out "maybe I can just have one doughnut and, really, I haven't eaten anything bad for a while." The Ego embodies this compromise between judgment and desire, and most of our conscious life (according to Freud) is lived in this precarious balance.

In Dark Knight, there is no compromise between total spontaneity/chaos/anarchy and surveillance/order/police state. Nor is any third alternative given to what seems to be a political false delimma. Two-Face can't negotiate, so he uses the coin as the ultimate figure of an atrophied Ego. So, if Bush said "you're either with us or against us," Two-Face would say "let me flip a coin."

Jason said...

Rog, don't lecture me, I know what zeitgeist translates to in English.

Is Casper the Friendly Ghost a Christian symbol because some English Bibles translate 'holy spirit' as 'holy ghost?'

Come on.

Roger Whitson said...

Listen, Jason, I'm sorry that you took that as a lecture. I didn't mean to strike that tone. I'm just trying to continue a conversation, but I guess that I can sometimes sound "lecturey" -- so I apologize if I sounded that way. I'm just trying to fully explain a concern that has been, in my experience, difficult to explain to other people.

My only suggestion there is that both the notion of the Zeitgeist and the notion of spirit follow the same strategy -- that is, they each lend an essence to a certain structure. The soul/spirit is the essence of the human body while the zeitgeist is the essence of the times.

I would argue that your Caspar the Friendly Ghost analogy actually pretty apt. First, yes, there's a reason that Caspar exists in American popular culture, and that is because it comically appropriates (and somewhat domesticates) the tradition of Gothic literature and film. I seem to remember something about how the Caspar character was used in the 1950s to make Halloween (which was, before then, an anarchic and somewhat dangerous holiday where teenagers would prank each other) into something more centered around children. I'm not sure about that, but I think that many of the characters produced by Harvey Comics were domesticated versions of Gothic horror figures: one was a witch I think.

Secondly, Caspar is more of a spirit than a ghost -- and the Gothic tradition, and its domestication, does emerge from a certain Christianity (as does Geist, at least theorized through Hegel who was reacting to Christianity). Geist, interestingly enough, embodies both the notion of a spirit and a ghost. Geist means both in German. But, at least in the Gothic tradition, the Ghost is uncanny while the spirit is not. The spirit is something you believe in or you don't. I either believe that people have a soul or I don't believe people have a soul -- or I don't know, whatever, but the point is that the soul / spirit is something, an essence, that animates the body and is something to believe in. Back to Caspar. If you remember from the comics, some people can see him and talk to him, and others can't. So some believe in him and other's don't.

The ghost on the other hand, by being uncanny, is neither an object nor an essence. The ghost floats between existence and non-existence. It is embodied in that moment in the night when you hear a creaking and think "I don't believe in ghosts, but what if they did?" So, it is a return (of sorts) of a dead belief in the soul / spirit that appears in moments of uncertainty. How many times did you guys chase that ghost light (that wasn't the name, but I can't remember it) in undergrad? I don't think you simply believed in the ghost light, but you also didn't think it was something mundane or unreal. It hovered between belief and non-belief and was fascinating enough to try to film because of this hovering uncertainty. Gothic literature, likewise, becomes popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of a wavering belief in the spirit, the soul, religion, and God. The ghost is a half-possession or half-return of that belief.

So: back to Zeitgeist. When someone can characterize a span of time as having an essence, this is the argument wrapped up in the term "zeitgeist." My argument, at least in parts of my dissertation, is that history is now more characterized by the ghost than the spirit. That's why I talked about History as an evolving, tense, collective phantasy. History isn't out there, an object or an essence. Nor does it simply not-exist. I do believe in history, but I believe in history in the same way that I sometimes believe in the Ghost: as emerging in uncertain, uncanny moments. This doesn't mean that history doesn't exist, nor that it is impossible to talk about history, just that talking or speaking about history is more complicated than the Zeitgeist model.

Jason said...

Rog, sorry, I didn't mean to come off quite so snippy in my last reply. I'm out for the weekend and won't be back until late Sunday night, but I'll post another comment then to continue the conversation. There's an interesting language play going on here (German/English/Bible/etc.) that's actually kind of cool so I want to follow up.

Plus, I'm trying to see Dark Knight again so I can figure out if my original post was full of shit, because I was doing it from memory.

Roger Whitson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
grey_zealot said...

I don't think your original post was "full of shit". (And, again, I can't speak to anything about FIGHT CLUB.)

I do think Joker is a wild card, as he seems totally against any authority and enjoys violence.

Any authority, too. The opening bank robbery, we find out later he was deliberately hitting a mob-controlled bank. And apparently had done so before, in other cities.

Joker is murderous.

Jason said...

I've managed to arrange to see the film another time, so I'm actually going to write a follow-up post to this.

Rog: I'm frankly flattered this inspired you to teach the two movies together. Thanks!

GZ: The more of the movie comes back, the more I think you're right. He claims anarchy but he quite clearly has a plan. The last scene with the ferries and his speech to Batman about showing Gotham how awful people can be to each other (even though he turns out to be wrong - in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie!) clearly indicates he has an agenda - unlike Alfred and the bandit he fought in Vietnam (or wherever it was...)

Will post more later... thank you both for some really thought-provoking feedback!

grey_zealot said...

Cool. Looking forward to your post.

Um, Jason? I kinda deleted my blog(s) again. Did it before I'd read your "glad you're blogging again comment.

I'm flip-floppin' all over the place about trying to blog again.

But, I have more to say on DARK KNIGHT myself, as well as other things. Rather than "pollute" your blog anymore, I'm gonna restart a blog (or two).

Mind if I invite you again?