Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fight Knight Round 2

Recently I wrote a blog post comparing The Dark Knight and Fight Club, and Roger and GZ both gave me a run for my money (in a good way) in the comments. The essence of the original post was:

Both Fight Club and The Dark Knight are cultural artefacts, capturing something essential about the sociological contexts in which they were made. Fight Club features a vaguely anarchist anit-hero that attempts to overcome a similarly vague sense of ennui through various small acts of terrorism (and in the end, detonating a series of empty buildings of credit card companies.) Dark Knight's villain is a far more sinister psychopath, who thinks nothing of taking innocent lives in a quest of seemingly senseless rage.

After the discussion from the last post and having had the pleasure of watching The Dark Knight again since, I think my prior conclusions may have been wrong, specifically about the Joker's motives and what that means.

Understand: the Joker is an unreliable narrator at best, and his story does change based on who he's talking to. When speaking to the gangsters, he puts things in the context of money and power. When he's talking to Harvey Dent, he becomes the 'dog chasing cars.' His 'how I got my scars' story changes every time he tells it, and in the end how he got the scars isn't important, because his motivation doesn't necessarily stem from a logical (to us, if not him) reaction to something in his past. There's a habit of trying to assign meaning and motivation to characters based on past experiences, and there's a good deal of scientific evidence to back up why we do this; even over-the-top real-life sociopaths or serial killers like Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy have troubled pasts, events that influence their later descents into madness. No doubt the Joker had similar experiences, but the film pointedly decides not to explore them, as the point is more than his plan is somewhat more motiveless. If anything, whatever he experienced separated him so greatly from reality that his view of humanity is of a species no better than animals, where the rules of civilization are just lies constructed over the massive id lurking beneath the surface.

This is most obvious in his conversation with Batman at the end of the film, but the pivotal moment comes before, when the Joker is talking to Batman in the interrogation room. Batman has but one rule: no killing. But, the Joker tells him, he'll have to take one life to save another - either Rachael or Harvey will have to die (and indeed, one of them does.) But this isn't Batman's choice per se, it's more of a Sophie's Choice moment. That one will die is inevitable, and Batman's finger isn't on the trigger - he just decides who will die (incorrectly, it turns out, but nevermind.)

Rewind even further to the beginning of the film, when Bruce and Alfred are talking about Rachael. Alfred asks if Bruce will have him (Alfred) followed on his day off. 'If you ever took one I might,' Bruce quips. 'Know your limits, Master Wayne,' Alfred responds seriously. 'Batman has no limits,' Bruce replies.

Except he clearly does have a limit, and that is what the Joker is trying to push. His murdering cops and innocents (and innocent cops) is nothing more than a function of trying to get Batman to break this last limit. Harvey Dent was relatively simple to turn into Two-Face, but Batman's single principle turns out to be far harder, and it's clear that this fascinates the Joker. If anything - 'we're going to be doing this forever,' as he says, is his motivation. His various plots may be nothing more than ways to get at Batman and make him break, because if he can do that then truly everyone is corruptible. Harvey was Gotham's 'White Knight' in public and it was important that he not fall, despite privately doing so, and conversely Batman could be the 'Dark Knight,' tarnished when he needed to be, because in the end the only people to whom it matters whether Batman is a killer are the Joker and Batman himself. This is, in a way, the 'point' of the film but it's worth clarifying here.

So while Tyler Durden is anarchy and action for the eventual sake of liberation and being constructive (in his view, anyway), the Joker has no such noble pretensions; in fact, his ultimate goal doesn't concern people at all, but merely Batman himself as a kind of plaything for the Joker's own amusement. So what does that say about us, that our villains have reached a point where the events in their lives that influence how the ended up no longer matter, where their motivations are personal and a body count in the hundreds is quite literally collateral damage? I could make some meaningless political connection, or try again to connect it to the military-industrial complex, but I don't necessarily think either would be correct or honest. I just don't know. Instead, I'm going to leave the question open; Fight Club didn't make sense to me in its sociological context until several years later, and I reckon that The Dark Knight will be similar.

So watch this space in five years' time for an additional post on the subject.

1 comment:

Roger Whitson said...

hmmm...interesting rejoinder. This inspired a lot of thoughts in my head.

First, I would have to say that applying a psychoanalytic approach might be useful here. I think the Joker and the Batman form competing sets of desire systems that are nonetheless linked in some essential manner. This is the horrible reality that the Joker wants to prove to Batman: that they are essentially the same--yet not necessarily in the way the Joker thinks.

Consider this from Slavoj Zizek's essay "Kant and Sade: the Ideal Couple":

"Of all the couples in the history of modern thought (Freud and Lacan, Marx and Lenin…), Kant and Sade is perhaps the most problematic: the statement "Kant is Sade" is the "infinite judgement" of modern ethics, positing the sign of equation between the two radical opposites, i.e. asserting that the sublime disinterested ethical attitude is somehow identical to, or overlaps with, the unrestrained indulgence in pleasurable violence. A lot-everything, perhaps-is at stake here: is there a line from Kantian formalist ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason? Is there at least a legitimate lineage from Sade to Fascist torturing, as is implied by Pasolini's film version of Sal√≥, which transposes it into the dark days of Mussolini's Salo republic?"

Of course, Zizek ultimately argues that this is reductionist and it is, in fact, Sade who is Kant -- not the other way around:

"Lacan's point, however, is the exact opposite of this first association: it is not Kant who was a closet sadist, it is Sade who is a closet Kantian. That is to say, what one should bear in mind is that the focus of Lacan is always Kant, not Sade: what he is interested in are the ultimate consequences and disavowed premises of the Kantian ethical revolution. In other words, Lacan does not try to make the usual 'reductionist' point that every ethical act, as pure and disinterested as it may appear, is always grounded in some 'pathological' motivation (the agent's own long-term interest, the admiration of his peers, up to the 'negative' satisfaction provided by the suffering and extortion often demanded by ethical acts); the focus of Lacan's interest rather resides in the paradoxical reversal by means of which desire itself (i.e. acting upon one's desire, not compromising it) can no longer be grounded in any 'pathological' interests or motivations and thus meets the criteria of the Kantian ethical act, so that 'following one's desire' overlaps with 'doing one's duty.'"

So, translating this into Batman and the Joker -- the Joker does have a constructive goal (though what defines constructiveness is based upon what the Joker wants, namely Batman compromised). But in order to get to this goal, he is precisely not the anarchist we might initially make him out to be. For the Joker, it is a duty to form an opposition to order. Yet the opposition of order is not always chaos -- or at the very least, chaos must form a plan an order to oppose order. "It's all part of the plan."

But, at the same time, Batman (the one who has limits) also must be the one without limits. Kant indeed becomes Sade just as Sade becomes Kant. Following one's duty obsessively is pathological, yet following one's desire likewise exceeds pathology. By having to be without limits (he doesn't kill yet he can be the one who is made into the murderer of the cops Harvey kills), Batman paradoxically makes limits. By having a plan, the Joker anarchically shows he has no limits.

So, perhaps the new ideal couple is Batman and the Joker?