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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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Batman rides a horse and Joker gets away

It sucks to only have Internet access at the library, it sucks more to have to drive around a lot, and it sucks most when those two factors together prevent me from blogging for a week. So, to make up for the suckiness, I am finally here blogging again. So, where to start with what’s happened lately? I saw It Happened One Night and Bride of Frankenstein at the Edina Theater’s 75th birthday celebration, and won a $10 iTunes gift card for correctly identifying Ernest Thesiger as the actor who plays the ghoulishly immoral Dr. Pretorious in Bride. Of course, that gift card is next to worthless, since what am I going to buy through iTunes that I couldn’t just illegally download with the press of a button? Oh well.

Also, several days ago, my portable DVD player stopped working. I bid farewell to my ol’ Nextplay 7″ after 1 1/2 years of good service, and have since ordered a $92 Audiovox 9″ portable DVD player. Will it work better? Will it work at all? For the answer, I must wait till it arrives in the next 2-10 days. I really, really like using portable DVD players. They’re intimate, cozy, personal, and generally functional. I’ve watched several hundred movies on them since I received one, miraculously, in a raffle at our high school graduation party. I just wish they had longer life spans. Hopefully Audiovox (a somewhat more reputable electronics purveyor than “Nextplay,” whoever the fuck that is) can go some length toward restoring my faith in portable DVD players’ longevities. If not, maybe I’ll just buy a cheap, non-portable player and start using a TV for the screen. Either way.

Also in the past week, I read two Batman graphic novels: Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical, best-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Both were interesting in their own ways. With Dark Knight Returns, well, I liked the boldly noncontinuity stance of the book: none of this really happened, but it could; the Joker really dies (and has a laugh doing it); nuclear war shuts down non-Batman law and order in the USA (?!?); oh, and Superman fights Batman, for real. Superman kind of wins.

A beautifully iconic cover for an icon-shattering graphic novel

I guess it kind of reminds me of another “what if?”-type story I read years ago: 1963’s totally ridiculous Superman Red/Superman Blue, where some weird Kryptonite experiment leads Superman to split into two people, who then, um, erase all evil or disease anywhere on earth, restore Krypton, marry both Lois Lane and Lana Lang, and live happily ever after. The word “absurd” doesn’t quite cover it. And so, even though Dark Knight Returns may make a lot more sense, it still shares a little of that “continuity be damned, we’re plowing forward” spirit; this is one of many possible futures. And it’s a dark, gloomy future, too, which helped, with Watchmen, to create this new conception of superheroes as often unhappy, deeply imperfect people. We find Bruce Wayne, 10 years after retiring his cowl, watching a Gotham City on the brink, or even the verge. Jim Gordon’s retiring, a gang called the Mutants are raping and mutilating civilians, and Harvey Dent’s supposedly been “cured.” Naturally, the situation has only one answer: the despondent Bruce, increasingly alcoholic, must return to the streets as an old man and remind everyone that crime doesn’t pay.

It’s a damn well-told story; constant news coverage is superimposed over battle sequences where Batman often remarks that he’s not as young as he used to be. Questions of vigilantism, terrorism, and constitutional rights are brought up; we get a new Robin and a new police commissioner, both female; and politics messes up everything – Superman alludes to events preceding the novel akin to Watchmen‘s Keene Act, and an unnamed, folksy, Reagan-like president plays an important role in negotiating with the Soviets and refusing to comment on the Batman situation. Ultimately, the book says, this is a new, hypothetical world that doesn’t really have room for superheroes. It’s harder to manage with a cape in the middle of the Cold War. I don’t think it works as well as Watchmen when it comes to being a self-contained work of art, but its greatest accomplishment is as one more reworking of a big, dark, winged myth. Also: the indubitable Crowning Moment of Awesome in a book that even has Oliver Queen shooting a Kryptonite arrow at Superman’s heart? Batman rides a horse.

Batman rides a horse.

On the less-awesome side, I didn’t really see the need for the younger characters’ Nadsat-like, unexplained slang – shiv, billy, etc. All it really did for me was make half of girl Robin’s dialogue incoherent. But who am I to talk? I’m not Frank Miller.

On a radically different side of Batman, we have Arkham Asylum, which I found even better than Dark Knight Returns. It’s illustrated by Dave McKean, which means it’s pretty much unlike any comic book you’ve ever read (unless you’ve read something illustrated by Dave McKean). It fluctuates between photorealistic faces and hands and maddening meshes of prose and picture, and Batman’s costume becomes an impressionistic blur in this most serious of houses. McKean’s labyrinthine art works works well with Morrison’s arcane writing, drawing on Jung, Crowley (both of whom are met by Amadeus Arkham in the book), tarot, mythology, and more. Like Miller’s Batman, Morrison’s is flawed and vulnerable, but whereas Miller concentrates on the long-term effects of crimefighting, Morrison zooms in on Batman’s perceived psychosexual hang-ups: he’s terrified of physical and sexual contact (he reacts violently to Joker’s playful gay-baiting and fears Clayface’s infection); he’s emotionally frozen and unable to sustain a relationship. He’s also petrified by the idea that, like the homicidal maniacs he’s put away in Arkham, he might also be crazy.

A phobic, paralyzed Batman rejects the Joker's suggestion to "loosen up, tight ass!"

This is the basic premise of Arkham Asylum, and it’s carried out more like visual poetry than a straightforward superhero comic book. While Dark Knight Returns sees Batman flying, driving, and riding all over the place, becoming a force of law and order in the face of Armageddon, Arkham Asylum involves more battle with inner demons like the loss of his parents than with the reconceived rogues gallery that surrounds him. It’s impressive how effectively Morrison’s psychoanalytic approach to Batman, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and others fits with McKean’s abstract, oneiric, mixed-media artwork: we get a demonic, wide-eyed Joker celebrating April Fools’ Day for all its worth, a burnt-out pedophilic Mad Hatter, and the father of the serious house, Amadeus Arkham, who succumbs to its mentally degenerative atmosphere after the death of his wife and daughter. It’s a multifaceted exploration of madness in its many incarnations, and the tale of one (Bat)man’s arguably successful battle with a world gone mad.

Two-Face lets fate make his decisions in Arkham Asylum

Overall, it’s a somewhat difficult book – much understanding of the plot and themes has to come from intuitive impressions, since between McKean’s vague style and Morrison’s grounding in esoteric mysteries, every panel has a number of meanings. Perhaps ironically, it’s also the best-selling graphic novel of all time, a fact which Morrison attributes to the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. It’s a very interesting book which you can certainly read over and over, seeking new clues and new signs of madness.

That’s all the Batman graphic novel reviewing I have for the moment, but I hope to return to the library to blog maybe tomorrow or the day after. Potential topics: outsider art and music, more Jack Chick, another favorite movie. We shall see.

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