Friday, July 25, 2008

Jokers at the Gate: Batman and Barbarians

Before I reflect on some 9/11 resonances of both the new Batman movie and the opera WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, I'd like to celebrate a couple of comic book covers that feature the characters who drive this latestBatman movie. One is the Joker, who first appeared in 1940 and was a grim, scary, implacable murderer with ironic humor, and the other is Two Face, the once-good District Attorney who decides to be good or evil depending on the flip of a coin. Both characters went through years of being campy, comfortable figures before they were resuscitated by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams. It's Adams' art you see in these pictures.

When, within twenty four hours, I encounter the image of "barbarians at the gates" in the summer's blockbuster hit movie and in an opera by Philip Glass, is it coincidence, or a sign of the times? Both THE DARK KNIGHT and WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS explore a question that has troubled our national imagination since 9 / 11: Do we have to break our own laws to defeat those who respect no law?

In the new Glass opera WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, with libretto by Christopher Hampton from a 1982 novel by J. M. Coetzee, there are literal barbarians at a literal gate. The main character is a Magistrate on the frontier of an unnamed empire who takes it upon himself to return a barbarian girl to her tribe after she has been maimed in cruel interrogations by his superiors. He believes the officials' fears of invasion are based on manufactured reasons or misunderstanding; and he believes, in any case, that an emergency does not excuse injustice.

In the new Batman movie DARK KNIGHT, it's another magistrate, District Attorney Harvey Dent, who refers to barbarians at the gates. Arguing with Bruce "Batman" Wayne about the need for a vigilante to protect the population, he tells how the Roman Republic would grant emergency powers to a vigilante until peace was restored. It's a nice touch here that Batman himself reminds him that Caesar was that vigilante, who became a tyrant. Dent says, "You either die a hero, or live to see yourself the villain," and the rest of the story develops that idea. By the end of the movie, Batman has re-focused his efforts to sustain the official good guys.

In the opera, we never see the Barbarians except as noble outsiders, so the deck is stacked against those sun-glassed, shiny-weaponed officials of the empire and their counter-offensive. But the magistrate himself is an ambiguous character. The sun-glassed Colonel tells him more than once that the two of them are the same. How? It's not entirely clear, but we do learn that the Barbarian girl, far from being grateful to the magistrate, was in fact frightened of him. "You were always somewhere else," is how another character puts it. "She never knew what you wanted from her." We've seen how his care for her bandaged body gradually eroticizes. Does the libretto mean to suggest that both magistrate and colonel, as representatives of this empire, know only mediated versions of the barbarians? The sunglasses are a clue that both representatives of the empire have trouble with their vision.

In the movie, we have barbarians all right, led by The Joker, a character who has embodied chaos since he was created for a dime comic book in the 1940. (The man who drew that first image of the Joker admires this latest incarnation of the character as closest to the original Link to interview. ) This is the most grim Joker of all that I've seen on screen, yet he remains fun to watch for all the old reasons. His clown face and quips are so incongruous with his violence (as with the horrific little action that follows the line, "Watch! I'll make this pencil disappear!"), and gratuitous spectacle -- exploding hospitals, choreographed assassins, a pyre of cash. He enters the debate between Batman and Harvey Dent, too, arguing that law cannot beat someone who simply disregards all laws, all codes, all plans. He dares Batman to kill him.

It's a debate that the Joker loses. More than once, he tells Batman, "You are alone." Everyone is either cowed or corrupted; all you have to do is mess up their plans. Yes, some try to stand up to him: "copycat" citizens in Batman suits and an elderly man at a party both tell him to his face, "We don't have to be scared of you." He pulls out his knife and sends them off. But we also see his grandest plan foiled because people in the end do not act in the frightened, self-preserving way that he expects, and Batman is able to tell him, "You are alone."

No doubt the directors of the opera and the movie want to resonate with our 9/11 world. The first image in the movie is an aerial approach to the glass facade of a skyscraper. The Joker is called a terrorist, and his arsenal includes military weapons and, several times, improvised explosive devices. We see crowds heading for the bridges and ferries to get out of town, as they did on 9/11. The opera focuses on hooded detainees and what officials are now calling "enhanced interrogation techniques."

I checked blogs to see if anyone else saw the Batman movie as a 9/11 movie, and I ran into a long conservative blogger's analysis of the movie as an allegory, with Batman being George W. Bush, using force outside the usual law to deal with the emergency of motiveless terrorists. I think that's pretty far-fetched.

But, while one works in big images and sharp contrasts, and the other explores a small personal corner of this problem (with Glass's elegant, atmospheric music providing contemplative tropes that expand the simple action), both works reaffirm what I've taught students for 28 years now: Have faith in the law, and stick to it, or the enemy has already broken down your gates.

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

Commenting on my own article: Here's something by A. O. Scott in NY TIMES (July 24, 2008), in an article asking "How Many Superheroes Does it Take to Tire a Genre?" He writes:

But in both cases, as soon as the main character is suited up and ready to do battle, the originality drains out of the picture, and the commercial imperatives — the big fight, the overscaled action extravaganza — take over. “The Dark Knight” has some advantages from being the second movie in a series, with less need for exposition and basic character development, and its final act is less of a letdown.

Instead the disappointment comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then ... spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in “The Dark Knight” does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.