July 21st, 2008

What If?

I haven't seen the new Batman film, though I plan to go soon. And I only saw Batman Begins once, when it was playing in theaters, and was underwhelmed, in light of all the good reviews it had gotten, though that might have something to do with the fact that I had spilled copious mounds of bad "nacho cheese" on myself. But I've spent enough time reading about the film on the internet, including here on LJ, and talking about it with those who have seen it that I'm starting to think that both films need to be reconsidered along the lines of an auteurist approach to cinema.

While Christopher Nolan has been praised for making the films more serious and thoughtful than their predecessors, the trend has been to see his work on them as the equivalent of what Steven Soderbergh did with the Oceans 11 series, a way to have fun and make money while taking a break from challenging filmmaking. What if that assessment badly misses the mark, though? What if the Batman films were an integral part of his ouevre, a continuation of the theory-made-flesh ingenuity that made Memento seem so fresh when it came out?

Memento shares with Nolan's debut feature Following a meditation on the way in which a sense of purpose and, with it, identity is constituted over time. And it shares with his 2002 remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia and his 2006 period drama The Prestige a pronounced concern with what happens when individuals push themselves to the outer limits of their own self-understanding, a nebulous region where moving forward may mean forgetting what brought them there in the first place.

Perhaps the Batman films take this emphasis on identity and its potential undoing and restage them as a mass-market spectacle, not only in order to make massive amounts of money -- though that's surely the studio's chief goal and one that Nolan must share, up to a point -- but as a way of self-reflexively meditating on the relationship between genre and character. Batman, as Batman Begins made clear, is so single-minded in his pursuit of a specific goal, revenge, that he rejects any path that seems to delay its achievement. His monomania deprives him of the capacity to register the multitude of possibilities in negative relation to which his identity has been constructed.

Isn't that also the dilemma of the filmmaker making another Batman picture, with such tight constraints on everything from storylines to fashion that there is little room for maneuvering? In choosing to start a new Batman series, Nolan was like someone who starts playing a video game in which the potential to veer off mission is severely circumscribed. There might have been freedom to do things differently, but it was assuredly a little freedom in the sense that Jacques Lacan means.

Bearing all this in mind, wouldn't it make sense if the identity crisis facing Batman in The Dark Knight was founded on the realization that he is trapped in a role that verges on the flatness of caricature, one which by definition excludes all but a narrow spectrum of feelings and actions? I'm not sure, from what I've heard, that this is what happens in the film. I'll find out tomorrow. But, even if it's not overtly the case, I'll be looking for ways in which this problem is invoked by other means, such as the film's secondary characters. Right now, though, I'm going to go watch Batman Begins again in preparation.