Pras On World Films: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (and the Aurora shootings)


After seven years and two films that have pushed Batman ever deeper into the dark, the director Christopher Nolan has completed his postmodern, post-Sept. 11 epic of ambivalent good versus multidimensional evil with a burst of light. As the title promises, day breaks in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the grave and satisfying finish to Mr. Nolan’s operatic bat-trilogy. His timing couldn’t be better. As the country enters its latest electoral brawl off screen, Batman (Christian Bale) hurtles into a parallel battle that booms with puppet-master anarchy, anti-government rhetoric and soundtrack drums of doom, entering the fray as another lone avenger and emerging as a defender of, well, what? Truth, justice and the American way? No — and not only because that doctrine belongs to Superman, who was bequeathed that weighty motto on the radio in August 1942, eight months after the United States entered World War II and three years after Batman, Bob Kane’s comic creation, hit. Times change; superheroes and villains too. The enemy is now elusive and the home front as divided as the face of Harvey Dent, a vanquished Batman foe. The politics of partisanship rule and grass-roots movements have sprung up on the right and the left to occupy streets and legislative seats. It can look ugly, but as they like to say — and Dent says in “The Dark Knight,” the second part of the trilogy — the night is darkest before the dawn.

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. The final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which began with Batman Begins in 2005, deals explicitly with our contemporary political times.

The legacy of Dent, an activist district attorney turned murderous lunatic, looms over this one, the literal and metaphysical personification of good intentions gone disastrously wrong. (He looms even more in Imax, which is the way to see the film.) Eight years later in story time, Batman, having taken the fall for Dent’s death, and mourning the woman both men loved, has retreated into the shadows. Dent has been enshrined as a martyr, held up as an immaculate defender of law-and-order absolutism. Gotham City is quiet and so too is life at Wayne Manor, where its master hobbles about with a cane while a prowler makes off with family jewels (the intensely serious Mr. Nolan isn’t wholly humorless) and Gotham sneers about the playboy who’s mutated into a Howard Hughes recluse.

Batman has always been a head case, of course: the billionaire orphan, a k a Bruce Wayne, who for assorted reasons — like witnessing the murder of his parents when he was a child — fights crime disguised as a big bat. Bruce’s initial metamorphosis, in “Batman Begins,” exacts a high price: by the end of the second film, along with losing the girl and being branded a vigilante, Bruce-Batman rides virtually alone, save for Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Wayne family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), a fussy uncle with a remarkable skill set. It’s central to where Mr. Nolan wants to take “The Dark Knight Rises” that Batman will be picking up new acquaintances, including a beat cop, John Blake (a charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a philanthropist, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

Mr. Nolan again sets his machine purring with two set pieces that initiate one of the story’s many dualities, in this case between large spectacle and humanizing intimacies: one, an outlandishly choreographed blowout that introduces a heavy, Bane (Tom Hardy); the other, a quieter cat-and-bat duet between Bruce and a burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). After checking in with his personal armorer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce-Batman swoops into an intrigue that circles back to the first film and brings the series to a politically resonant conclusion that fans and op-ed bloviators will argue over long after this one leaves theaters. Once again, like his two-faced opponents and the country he’s come to represent, Batman begins, feared as a vigilante, revered as a hero.

Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), is one of the characters proficient in Occupy-style talking points in The Dark Knight Rises.

Informed by Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s resuscitation of the character in the 1980s, Mr. Nolan’s Bruce-Batman has oscillated between seemingly opposite poles, even as he’s always come out a superhero. He is savior and destroyer, human and beast, the ultimate radical individualist and people’s protector. Yet as the series evolved, this binary opposition — echoed by Dent’s rived face — has grown progressively messier, less discrete. Much of the complexity has been directly written into the franchise’s overarching, seemingly blunt story of good versus evil. It’s an old, familiar tale that Mr. Nolan, in between juggling the cool bat toys, demure kisses, hard punches and loud bangs, has layered with open and barely veiled references to terrorism, the surveillance state and vengeance as a moral imperative.

In “The Dark Knight Rises” Mr. Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother The last of Christopher Nolan's trilogy pits Batman and a brute villain posing as a revolutionary.Jonathan, further muddies the good-and-evil divide with Bane. A swaggering, overmuscled brute with a scar running down his back like a zipper and headgear that obscures his face and turns his cultivated voice into a strangulated wheeze, Bane comes at Batman and Gotham hard. Fortified by armed true believers, Bane first beats Batman in a punishingly visceral, intimate fist-to-foot fight and then commandeers the city with a massive assault that leaves it crippled and — because of the explosions, the dust, the panic and the sweeping aerial shots of a very real-looking New York City — invokes the Sept 11 attacks. It’s unsettling enough that some may find it tough going.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after The Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living a reclusive life at his mansion alongside Alfred (Michael Caine). The movie is the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

Watching a city collapse should be difficult, maybe especially in a comic-book movie. The specter of Sept. 11 and its aftermath haunt American movies often through their absence though also in action films, which adopt torture as an ineluctable necessity. Mr. Nolan, for his part, has been engaging Sept. 11 in his blockbuster behemoths, specifically in a vision of Batman who stands between right and wrong, principles and their perversions, because he himself incarnates both extremes.

Mr. Nolan has also taken the duality that made the first film into an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it. Gordon believes in its structures; Bane wants to burn it all down. And Batman? Well, he needs to work it out.

Batman’s enemy in The Dark Knight Rises is the brutish Bane (Tom Hardy), who delivers a beating that sends Bruce Wayne back to the gym.

So will viewers, explicitly given the grim, unsettling vision of a lawless city in which the structures of civil society have fallen, structures that Batman has fought outside of. In a formally bravura, disturbingly visceral sequence that clarifies the stakes, Bane stands before a prison and, in a film with several references to the brutal excesses of the French Revolution — including the suitably titled “A Tale of Two Cities” — delivers an apocalyptic speech worthy of Robespierre. Invoking myths of opportunism, Bane promises the Gotham citizenry that courts will be convened, spoils enjoyed. “Do as you please,” he says, as Mr. Nolan cuts to a well-heeled city stretch where women in furs and men in silk robes are attacked in what looks like a paroxysm of revolutionary bloodlust.

If this image of violent revolt resonates strongly, it’s due to Mr. Nolan’s kinetic filmmaking in a scene that pulses with realism and to the primal fear that the people could at any moment, as in the French Revolution, become the mob that drags the rest of us into chaos. Yet little is what it first seems in “The Dark Knight Rises,” whether masked men or raging rhetoric. Mr. Nolan isn’t overtly siding with or taking aim at any group (the wily Bane only talks a good people’s revolution), but as he has done before, he is suggesting a third way. Like Steven Soderbergh in “Contagion,” a science-fiction freak-out in which the heroes are government workers, Mr. Nolan doesn’t advocate burning down the world, but fixing it.

He also, it may be a relief to know, wants to entertain you. He does, for the most part effortlessly, in a Dark Knight saga that is at once lighter and darker than its antecedents. It’s also believable and preposterous, effective as a closing chapter and somewhat of a letdown if only because Mr. Nolan, who continues to refine his cinematic technique, hasn’t surmounted “The Dark Knight” or coaxed forth another performance as mesmerizingly vital as Heath Ledger’s Joker in that film. The ferocious, perversely uglified Mr. Hardy, unencumbered by Bane’s facial appliance, might have been able to dominate this one the way Mr. Ledger did the last, but that sort of monstrous, bigger-than-life turn would have been antithetical to this movie’s gestalt. The accomplished Mr. Bale continues to keep Batman at a remove with a tight performance that jibes with Mr. Nolan’s head-over-heart filmmaking.

After repeatedly sending Batman down Gotham’s mean streets, Mr. Nolan ends by taking him somewhere new. That’s precisely the point of a late sequence in which he shifts between a multitude of characters and as many locations without losing you, his narrative thread or momentum. His playfulness with the scenes-within-scenes in his last movie, “Inception,” has paid off here. The action interludes are more visually coherent than in his previous Batman films and, as in “Inception,” the controlled fragmentation works on a pleasurable, purely cinematic level. But it also serves Mr. Nolan’s larger meaning in “The Dark Knight Rises” and becomes his final say on superheroes and their uses because, as Gotham rages and all seems lost, the action shifts from a lone figure to a group, and hope springs not from one but many.

THE IMAX DIFFERENCE, BLOCKBUSTER SIZE:    How ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Makes Use of IMAX

In 2008 the director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” the second in his trilogy of Batman movies, introduced some audiences to a character not before seen in the franchise, or any studio narrative feature until that time. But that character wasn’t on the screen. It was the screen.

That would be Imax, a vast screen that can be as tall as an eight-story building. Though the name is popularly used to refer to screens, it is primarily a format involving special cameras and large-scale film, and before “Dark Knight” it had been known best for short documentaries about ocean life and space travel. Mr. Nolan shot parts of “The Dark Knight” using Imax cameras, with 30 minutes of such footage making it into the final film. When those images were seen in an Imax theater, they filled the screen from top to bottom with a giant, high-resolution image.

Other directors soon followed. For the 2009 “Transformers” sequel, “Revenge of the Fallen,” Michael Bay included over seven minutes of Imax-shot footage. And Brad Bird’s 2011 installment in the “Mission: Impossible” series, “Ghost Protocol,” included about 25 minutes of Imax-shot scenes.

Mr. Nolan’s latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” — he says the film, due Friday, will be his last in the series — features 72 minutes of Imax footage, currently the most any studio film has used. The rest of the movie is presented in 35 millimeter, a squatter, more rectangular look that may be likened to letterbox. The film freely changes format from scene to scene, but viewers who look closely may notice one transition in particular: a gate slams down, and the screen goes from standard to Imax within the shot.

“The sharpness and the depth of the image, projected onto those enormous screens, is simply the best quality image that has ever been invented,” Mr. Nolan said by phone from Los Angeles.

How does that quality translate to the big screen? And in what ways is the difference noticeable? Take a look at these stills, above, from “The Dark Knight Rises,” from a scene in which Batman (Christian Bale) returns to Gotham City after a self-imposed exile, better to understand Mr. Nolan’s enthusiasm.

The image was shot in Imax, but the smaller still represents what audiences will see in a 35-millimeter print at a standard multiplex. Batman’s right hand is cropped out at the bottom of the frame, as is much of the smoke and fog above the buildings at the top. The sprocket holes (for the projector) are on the sides, running four per frame, with the soundtrack vertically to the right of them.

By comparison the Imax version of the frame is about 10 times larger with 10 times the resolution. Greater detail makes it in the shot, like the smoke and fog, and also more vivid-looking extras. To allow for as much screen space as possible, Imax runs its film through the cameras and projectors sideways, with the sprocket holes — 15 per frame — at the top and bottom instead of the sides. And the audio track doesn’t appear on the film print, but on a separate program that is synced to the projector. All this makes for more surface area on the frame to create a denser, sharper image.

To grasp the image clarity, consider a home HD television screen with 1,920 pixels of horizontal resolution. An Imax frame, meanwhile, has a resolution upward of 18,000 pixels, said David Keighley, chief quality officer for Imax, who spoke by phone from Los Angeles.

“It helps make the audience really feel like they’re in the picture,” he said. “It’s also very bright on the screen because there’s a tremendous amount of light that can be projected on that large frame. The Imax screens are almost twice the brightness of regular screens.”

The size of the Imax image is 40 percent taller than “The Dark Knight’s” 35-millimeter moments. This difference can best be seen in Imax theaters where the movie will be projected on film, not digitally — there are a few more than 100 such sites worldwide — and that’s the only way to see the Imax material in its boxy fullness. (In digital Imax theaters the screens are more rectangular, so the scenes shot in the larger format will expand only 21 percent more. And regular theaters will show the Imax scenes in a cropped version, like the image at top.)

The Imax cameras can be noisy and cumbersome, and they only shoot three minutes of film at a time, but Mr. Nolan drew on lessons he learned from “The Dark Knight” about how to modify and move more freely with them, including mounting one on a Steadicam system.

In determining what to shoot in Imax Mr. Nolan began with the biggest action scenes, like the prologue, which includes Batman’s return from exile and a midair scene on a Lockheed C-130. But for nonaction shots he and his cinematographer, Wally Pfister, played it by ear.

“We always carried at least one Imax camera through the run of the show,” Mr. Nolan said, “so then wherever we felt a scene would lend itself to Imax, we could decide on the day to go and put that camera in. And we wound up using it more and more.”

The format is drawing more interest in Hollywood. The sequel to the “Star Trek” reboot, directed by J. J. Abrams, and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” from Francis Lawrence, will include portions in Imax. Other films may be put off by the complications with the cameras.

But Mr. Nolan is a believer. “When you’re talking about this large-scale studio filmmaking, the size of the camera is pretty irrelevant compared to the massive difficulties and the massive resources you’re wrangling on a daily basis,” he said. “And so having this extra image quality, giving the audience the best possible technical look at what you’ve shot, is the obvious thing to do.”

The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh; costumes by Lindy Hemming; produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Rove; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

WITH: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle), Tom Hardy (Bane), Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox).

THE AURORA SHOOTINGS.  WHY THERE ? : We can’t blame The Dark Knight Rises for the Aurora shooting. But we also can’t ignore the parallels between Christopher Nolan’s grim world and our own.  (from SLATE MAGAZINE)

The scene is almost unimaginable in its terror, and in a horrible way, cinematic:  In a crowded movie theater at midnight, a man dressed in black, wearing a gas mask and carrying multiple firearms, bursts through a door, first throwing a canister full of noxious gas and then firing randomly into the crowd. The murder and chaos taking place onscreen leaps, impossibly, out of the fictional universe and into the real one. What would have been happening in the movie at that moment? It was 10 or 15 minutes in, eyewitnesses say—had the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, the masked, black-clad terrorist Bane, already launched his terror campaign against Gotham, or did his initial assault on the city coincide exactly with that of James Holmes on the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colo.?

It’s only been a few hours since most of us heard about the mass shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, and the news about the event is still scattered and confusing: eyewitness cellphone videos, police-scanner audio, and casualty counts that remain under revision. But we know that a 24-year-old white man from San Diego decided it was a good idea to arm himself to the teeth, dress like a paramilitary vigilante (again, the details are still hazy, but I’ve seen mention of camouflage pants, a bulletproof vest, a riot-gear helmet) and go kill 12 people in a multiplex, wounding 59 more.

Don’t blame the movie,” reads a sober post at Indiewire, and at The New Yorker, Anthony Lane reminds us that, however tempting it may be to draw parallels between the actions of the shooter and the murderously anarchic villains of the last two Batman movies, “no film makes you kill.” They’re right, of course. Remember all those infuriating, sententious op-eds about the pernicious power of video games in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, as if prying the joysticks out of American teenagers’ hands was more urgent than prying away their guns? Positing a direct causal relationship between the representation of violence and its real-life manifestation is reductive and, ultimately, lazy—it gives us an excuse to wring our hands about moral decay and cultural decadence while ignoring the practical policy decisions that enabled the horrors of Columbine and now Aurora (two Colorado towns whose pretty names—the flower, the dawn—will now ring permanently hollow).

But this isn’t a think piece, it’s a feel piece, a quick, instinctive burst of anger and revulsion and despair at this morning’s news. And in between asking why? (we’ll never know, probably) and how? (that one’s easy—if you want to shoot people in America you can always find a way) I can’t stop asking a third question: why there? I can’t get away from the fact that this act of violence took place—with, from the look of it, considerable advance planning—at an opening-night midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that (like the rest of the trilogy it concludes) envisions modernity as a lawless dystopia where just such a thing might happen. In Christopher Nolan’s pitch-black vision, no communal cultural event is safe from potential invasion by marauders: The movie’s most spectacular action scene involves a packed stadium of football fans watching in horror as Bane and his army blow the field and everyone on it sky-high.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes movingly of how shocking it is to imagine the space of the movie theater turning, in an instant, into a place of terror and death: “We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.” But what about when the vision we choose to surrender ourselves to is, precisely, one of a world ruled by vigilante violence and random acts of terror? Nolan’s Batman trilogy has proceeded on the assumption that what happens on the screen in some way reflects what’s happening in the world, that fantasy and reality are mutually permeable—this is what makes his movies function as political allegories, if at times muddled ones. Why shouldn’t we assume the reverse is true as well—that the grim, violent fantasies we gather to consume as a culture have some power to bleed over from the screen into real life?

I’m not suggesting that the young men of America are being brainwashed by Christopher Nolan into going on Bane-style killing sprees. Nor am I arguing for censorship or bowdlerization or any increased degree of interference with the content of entertainment. But James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two. To discuss the meaning and motives of his crime, of course we have to at least talk about why he might choose The Dark Knight Rises as a backdrop (and possibly a template) for whatever private fantasy he was enacting. And maybe there should also be conversations about what it means that the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men, and what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men. All I know is that, when I heard the news about the Aurora shootings, my first thought was very clear and very scary: “Of course this was going to happen sooner or later.”


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