Reflections on The Dark Knight Rises

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises for many reasons, not the least of which is Hans Zimmer’s ominous and expectant musical score.  Like the preceding entries of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the film is rich with the timeless tensions we face both as individuals and as a society. And though some have denied it, it can be read as a social commentary relevant to the divisions that rend our world today. Here are some observations on my part.

Rebuking Revolution

One strand of Rises’ plot sees Gotham City, a self-contained symbol for society, undergo the trial of revolution. There is a scene clearly meant to evoke, in a twisted way, the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution. We also witness the workings of a kangaroo court, another French legacy replicated by Marxists and other would-be world changers.

On facebook I’ve seen at least one anarchist express a sense of betrayal and disappointment with Christopher Nolan for what he saw as a manifestly reactionary tone. Yet, the varied dispositions of Gotham’s denizens, from apathetic to licentious, continually tease the viewer with the idea that Gotham might not be worth saving.  This tension, as with the previous films, is at the crux of the narrative itself. Rises certainly airs out the ugliness and excess of revolution, but it is not authoritarian agitprop.

The Thin Blue Line – Campus Observations

For any Hollywood production, it’s refreshing when the police are not the all-out bad guys.  Of course this makes for an awkward tension with cinema’s core consumer, the disaffected adolescent male. But just as Batman puts himself on the line to do what is necessary and right, so it is good that self-indulgent audiences get a dose of reality as to who and what holds civilization together.

One way I survive working on a liberal university campus is listening to podcasts. The other day I had to get new ear buds for my personal player, so I traversed the student union to reach the campus bookstore.  Signs every few feet admonished passersby to not block physical access to the unions’ various businesses.  Last winter, Occupy had done just this to force a closure of U.S. Bank’s campus branch.  Where services were once transacted, only a dim, empty room remained, pocked by outlets sprouting unused cables.  “Direct action” is good at tearing down, not building up.

The posted signs attest to our litigious society, where personal responsibility has been completely outsourced to superfluous fine print warnings. The larger civilizational failing is that the campus administration, out of fear of seeming heavy-handed, allowed a group of kids to shutter commerce and diminish the vitality of the campus.  And then there is the needless lawsuit that followed.

As if these signals of decline weren’t enough, the very headphones which I purchased were branded “Riot,” with a cartoon depicting dozens brawling in mayhem, not unlike the criminal vs. cop melee at the climax of Rises. Also included in the packaging were stickers and a spraypaint stencil with which to vandalize one’s environs and allay whatever sense of self-righteousness and alienation one’s music might produce.

Despite these dire signs, there is still hope.  On the same campus can be found a quiet, green spot where parents walk their small children.  Once, I spied a bicycle cop stopping by one mother and son.  The boy instinctively hid behind his mother’s skirt.  The policewoman produced a small candy for him, and some words were exchanged.  This kind of scene is the hallmark of civilization: parents passing healthy attitudes onto the next generation.  In case you missed it, cops are there to serve and protect us.

Who is the real hero?

As with the previous two films, Rises tracks two parallel crises: that of Bruce Wayne, and that of Gotham as a whole.  Bruce must confront his own doubts and limitations to prevail, but each of the city’s citizens must also.  At one point, when hope of outside deliverance appears lost, Jim Gordon proclaims the city must be saved from within.  Powerfully revealed in the course of the film is the idea that even small virtuous acts by ordinary citizens can have outsized consequences.  As dark, tortured, and brutal as the film is, the viewer cannot escape the boy scout ethic–a confident, selfless, and felt moral responsibility–at the drama’s core.

Much in this lavish, blockbuster epic points to the ineffable nature of morality, the “oughtness” we feel and the volitional nature of doing good.  Ultimately, nothing is determined but what we will.  It’s rare and good when we can get a hint of this in a summer action hit, as we did with The Avengers.  To be sure, we get this in spades in The Dark Knight Rises.

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Two revolutions

Cogit Duck #4

You may have learned that “The Protester” is TIME’s 2011 person of the year.  This pronouncement strengthens a strange notion stretching as far back as the Wisconsin state capitol protests of February.  Back then, sleeping bag-toting proto-Occupiers were the first Americans to insinuate a connection between themselves and Tahrir Square.  In so doing, they cast their own struggle in the light of the French  Revolution.  But why would they trade the glorious vestige of the American Revolution for the deeply troubled tradition of the French?

The twin revolts left such disparate legacies because of the drastically different situations of their respective peoples.  We learn from an invaluable resource that the colonial Americans, under decades of relaxed British rule, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and privilege.  On average, they were several inches taller, better fed, and enjoyed greater freedoms than their British counterparts.  Their corner of the New World was unencumbered by the class distinctions that hung over Europe.  The missteps of Crown and Parliment that soured Americans against the empire were insignificant and brief in comparison to the privations the long-suffering French endured under the direct rule of an inept and illiberal monarch.

The ball of class struggle started to roll with the heads of the French aristocrats over two centuries ago, but a different force was unleashed just a few years earlier in America.  That revolution was deeply conservative in nature.  The French in their revolt sought something new, unprecedented, and decisive, but the American rebels wanted to preserve the prosperity and privilege they had already gained.

Since those heady days of the late eighteenth century, the French model has been a catalyst for the radicalization of desperate masses.  The American project may have been the first decolonization movement, but the class dynamics we see in Old World power struggles are alien and tangential to the American experience.  No mind-numbing mantras should ever convince us that downtown Portland, Davis, or Des Moines is anything akin to the dire streets of Cairo or Damascus.

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