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Posts Tagged 'Christian Bale'

Some thoughts on the Justice League rumors

Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.

A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).

After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.

Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.

Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)

I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.

Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.

By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.

From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.

To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.

Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.

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Addenda to Part the Third: Never before has so much been said about so little

It’s been close to a month and a half since I’ve had a chance to return to telling this story, and believe it or not, there have been a couple of people who have asked, “Hey, when are you getting back to that?” Of course, then there was maniacal laughter on the other end of the phone, followed by something that sounded like maybe one person being subdued by several, so you have to consider the source. Anyway, the last installment dealt with my religious formation from the end of my seventh grade year to the end of high school, approximately 1989-94. We’re effectively dealing with the years of my adolescence — messy years in any kid’s life, to be sure, and I’d rather this not turn into an after-the-fact tween confessional, but there are maybe some details worth talking about.

If I had to come up with a particular narrative arc to describe those five years of my life, I suppose I might call it a quest for community. I had a number of interests, and I tried to find ways of using them to make friends. Taking after my dad, I took up the guitar, first learning from him and then from a teacher, a great guy named Dave Head. I became a reasonable rhythm player, and I could learn the mechanics of other peoples’ solos pretty quickly, and so I tried to see what I could do about getting into a band. Can’t say it worked terribly well; bottom line is that I was neither cool enough as a person nor flashy enough as a player to be terribly attractive to anybody who actually knew what they were doing (plus I couldn’t exactly afford the highest end equipment). Eventually my teacher and I realized that being a rock guitar player just didn’t fit my personality — and part of it seemed to be that I actually had a teacher and wasn’t self-taught — and he put a piece of Bach in front of me and said, “Learn this. See what it does for you.” That marked my first step into the world of classical music, and my life was not to be the same. Anyway, I became acquaintances with some other band-minded musicians my age, and I got the impression that they respected my efforts and enthusiasm even if I wasn’t really up to snuff as a performer (or perhaps I have just wistfully constructed the memory of that impression), but it just wasn’t meant to be.

In January of 1990, winter trimester of my 8th grade year, my mom brought home a computer. It was an old IBM XT — two 5.25″ floppy drives, no hard drive, 128k RAM, monochrome monitor with no graphics card, and an internal 1200 baud modem, all running on PC-DOS 3.0 (as I recall — might have been 2.0). It also came with a printer — a Commodore 6400 daisywheel model that was larger and heavier than the PC and had something like a 6 characters-per-second output. The whole setup was a dinosaur even for 1990, but it had cost all of $100, and I’ll tell you what, I squeezed every last drop of value out of that $100. My first computer was an Atari 800XL that was a Christmas present in 1983, but I had never been able to quite figure out how to get the use out of that machine I wanted. The IBM, with all of its capabilities current to, well, at least 1985, I was able to still use in 1990 for word processing (even if it did take 20 minutes to print out a lab report), uh… word processing, and… well, word processing…

…but then I realized it had a modem.

In seventh grade, much like many other adolescents of my generation, I had read, and been captivated by, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. As a kid in “gifted programs” (whatever that meant) who seemed to have a hard time not being a target for others, obviously there was a lot of relatable material. Particularly fascinating, however, was the way that Valentine and Peter took over the world via some kind of anonymous electronic presence.

So when it was pointed out to me that the modem allowed me to use my computer to call up things called “bulletin board systems” — well, that just sounded like the coolest thing I had ever heard of. An issue of Puget Sound Computer User provided some phone numbers, and soon I was “Synthman” (just sounded cool) on Miranda S. Station, as well as “Demosthenes” (and that was the sound of everybody who’s ever read Ender’s Game rolling their eyes simultaneously) on The Centuriate Assembly and other boards. Here it was, a social (arguably) context where it didn’t matter what I looked like, whether I was awkward — it was entirely a matter of how I was able to express myself. And, while I had a bit of a learning curve about the etiquette and protocol of BBS interaction, I found I was able to express myself reasonably well.

My parents were not entirely thrilled; when the topic of BBS in-person meetups arose, it became a real conceptual problem for them and a bit of a catch-22 for me. These were largely high school and college people; I was in the 8th grade. “What could possibly be a good reason that somebody in high school or college would want to spend time with somebody your age?” was the barrier for them. The thing that was crazy-making for me was that they already knew full well that I had always tended to get along better with people older than me, but the entire idea of establishing any kind of basis for interaction independent of concrete external factors was completely foreign to them. It also meant that I was hearing concerns expressed about establishing online friendships for purposes of kidnapping and sexual abuse years before instances of these became national news. Anyway, eventually my parents relented, and it just became something that I was regularly involved with. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities in junior high, so BBS-land rather became my social circle. What in-person friends I did have in junior high seemed to follow me into the electronic realm; among this group is one Eric Rachner, a computer security expert and famous Seattle urban golfer. I remember going to his house and him showing me their Prodigy subscription; shortly after he came over to my house and saw what I was doing on various boards, he had written his own BBS hosting software.

My interactions on BBSes had a great deal of decisive influence on my musical tastes. My guitar playing took me down a path that included Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and lots of classic and progressive rock like Led Zeppelin and Rush (which also led to a brief dalliance with Ayn Rand in eighth and ninth grade); the BBS folks turned me on to Cocteau Twins, Lush, Gary Numan, the Smiths, et al. — everything a socially awkward young man needed in the early 1990s. Cocteau Twins in particular was my first foray into singing where there was an assumption that you weren’t necessarily going to understand the words, which was an important leap for me to take.

My taste in music also brought to my attention the Seattle bands that would eventually hit the big time — Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone (Pearl Jam’s predecessor), all right around the first wave of major label debuts hit from these acts (i.e., the first batch to be entirely ignored). I also recall the death of Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone’s lead singer) being announced on one of the BBSes I frequented by somebody who was a friend of his. I can remember doing a presentation for my ninth grade Social Studies class sometime in the spring of 1991 about Seattle music starting to get national attention; Queensryche’s “Empire” and “Silent Lucidity” were getting some play on MTV, as was Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”, but it was to be another six months or so before the hype would really hit with Nirvana’s Nevermind, so for the most part I remember a lot of vacant expressions on the part of my classmates during the talk.

My favorite Seattle band from the period was called Hammerbox. Right before I started my sophomore year of high school, I wandered into their Bumbershoot show, Labor Day weekend 1991, knowing nothing about them except that they were supposedly good, and I didn’t really want to go with my parents to see Tony Bennett. They were amazing. Carrie Akre was a great rock singer and had a stunning stage presence; I’m pretty sure that just about every guy who ever saw one of their concerts developed some kind of crush on her, and I was no exception. The songs were balls of energy that bounced through the Mercer Arena (a trope in their press clippings was that their sound was “whirling”), and all I knew coming out of there was that I had to find their CD, I had to see them again live, and I had to find some way to make Carrie fall in love with me. Well, I accomplished two out of the three; I was lucky enough to get to see Hammerbox a total of three times over the next couple of years, and I found their album. Carrie I would eventually meet and get to be at least friendly acquaintances with for a brief period in my early 20s, but, you know, by that point we had both moved on, you know what I mean?

Hammerbox, by the way, was a great cautionary example of what could happen to a Seattle band. I still maintain that the self-titled C/Z Records debut is one of the best releases of any local artist from that period; “When 3 is 2” should have been picked up as a radio-friendly hit for the same reasons that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, and Carrie should have been somebody that the label realized could have been a gold mine. They signed with A&M Records, Soundgarden’s label, released Numb, their major-label debut, in 1993 (complete with a redo of “When 3 is 2”, clearly recognizing its potential as a breakout hit), and… well, and nothing. No MTV play, no airplay, nothing. Part of the trouble is that Numb sounded like somebody had tried to make a Nirvana record with Carrie behind the microphone, and even “When 3 is 2” came across as overproduced in all the wrong ways, as though the producer and engineer had completely misunderstood what made the song work both onstage and on the first album. Everything that was distinctive about the band’s stage presence and live sound had been sort of run through a grunge filter, and as a result there was nothing to distinguish the album. It’s sad, because the songs that are on the album were great live; on the CD, something just didn’t work the same way. By 1994 the band had broken up, and Carrie went on to form another band called Goodness… where just about exactly the same series of events happened, beat by beat, right down to the major label debut that should have been a smash but went nowhere because clearly the A&R guys had a completely misinformed picture of what they were selling. Girl just could not catch the break that she should have. Hammerbox had a very brief reunion about 8 years ago or so, but it doesn’t seem to have been meant to be.

In 1991, I started my sophomore year at Inglemoor High School. For the most part, all of my junior high friends were heading off to Woodinville High School, so I was faced with starting afresh, for better or for worse. As it worked out, this problem largely solved itself. For some reason that was never made clear, the schedules we had received in August were tossed out and completely reformulated right before the beginning of the year, which left me with some unexpected blanks in my day. In a move that turned out to be pivotal, I decided to take a bunch of English electives, which meant that in the fall I took both Speech and Drama, and in the winter I took Journalism. The combination of Speech and Drama did much to bring me out of my shell; I found that I could speak in front of people without really caring what they thought, and I also found that I had some ability to be onstage.

I auditioned for the fall play, a 1920s period piece from the 1950s called The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by William Inge (perhaps best known for the Warren Beatty film Splendor in the Grass). Much to my surprise, I got the part of Sammy Goldenbaum, a key supporting role, and what do you know? Suddenly I had a social circle, suddenly I had something to do after school, and suddenly I had something that I seemed to be good at. Dr. Chumley in Harvey followed in the spring, as well as the “Best New Actor” award from the drama club. Journalism, as it happened, was also something I turned out to be good at, so for my junior year, Advanced Drama and the school paper were both rather foregone conclusions.

Junior year was very busy indeed; PSATs, newspaper, and lots of shows. Clement in The Wisdom of Eve, Norm in Present Tense, Stuart in The Enigma, and then in another pivotal happenstance, Doody in Grease!. Short version there is that I knew a musical was coming. I hadn’t sung since elementary school, but I figured I had two options: try to sing and maybe get a role, or not try to sing and definitely not get a role. As it worked out, I was the only guy, besides the kid who was the foregone conclusion for Danny, who was able to hit Doody’s high notes in “Those Magic Changes” without looking like he was in pain, and I could play the guitar. As for the high notes, all I can say is, I didn’t know they were supposed to be high. It was a positive enough experience all around that I decided to do choir the next year, which became another pivot point, and I won the drama club’s Best Supporting Actor award that year.

Still another pivot point was my decision to tag along with Woodinville High School on their trip to the International Thespian Society’s high school festival at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, June 1993. We didn’t really have the money for me to go, but I was bound and determined to make it work. I participated as fully as I could in the fundraising, and particularly since I was the only one doing that fundraising at my own high school, I was able to do pretty well. It all worked out; I went, had a ball (as it were), and even came back with my first girlfriend.

Here I should note that just because I was in theatre and had a social circle, it didn’t automatically solve all of my awkwardness. Our theatre crowd at Inglemoor wasn’t made up of The Beautiful People in the first place, and we all had our eccentricities, to say the least. Even in that context, I was a late bloomer, and kind of tended to be The Nice Guy Who Was Everybody’s Friend rather than anybody who girls might look upon with interest beyond that. I certainly had my share of girls I was interested in, but it was plain that it just wasn’t reciprocated. There was a lot of fumbling on my part my junior year with respect to The Girlfriend Issue, and it was all very frustrating.

A practical point is that I didn’t drive; I had taken driver’s ed the summer after my sophomore year, but Dad was very strict about the parameters of me practicing; short version is that unless he was the one in the passenger seat with nobody else in the car, I was not to be allowed to practice — he did not want me driving with my mother under any circumstances, for reasons I’m still not certain I understand. Anyway, because — as I’ve suggested — he and my mom were enduring their own circles of hell around this time, that meant he did not generally have the energy or presence of mind to allow me to drive, and the few times that he did, he argued with virtually everything I had been taught in class. His fear turned to anger so rapidly in those rare occasions that it was not an uncommon outcome for us to be pulled over with him screaming at me while I was sobbing. I almost failed the class itself because he refused to let me practice outside of class; his argument was, “We’ve paid for them to teach you to drive. If I’ve signed a check to relegate that responsibility to them, why is it still my responsibility to let you practice on my time?” The behind-the-wheel instructor (a kind gentleman, even if he was somewhat bewildered at my situation, named Vance Spangler) eventually realized what was happening, took pity on me, and started spending extra time with me outside of class so that I could pass the behind-the-wheel portion. For several months after the class was over, Dad and I had a ritual; I would go with him somewhere, ask if I could drive, and he would say, “No, not today.” If I asked something along the lines of, “If not now, when?” he would get mad and say, “When I think it is the right time. You driving is not at the top of my list of priorities right now, so drop it. I’ll let you know when you can practice.” There came a point when finally he said, “I want you to forget everything you learned. If we’ve satisfied a formality with you taking the class, fine, but I will be the one to teach you how to drive.” I thought that was a sign that we would be practicing more often, but it wasn’t, and before long he moved back to Alaska anyway (I’ll get to that). As I have said, this was a very difficult period in our lives at home, so this all has to be understood in that context, but it was what it was, and the practical effect was that I was The Kid Who Always Needed A Ride. Not exactly something to endear one to members of the opposite sex.

My not driving, incidentally, led to one of my more infamous goof-ups with the newspaper. Through Say Anything… and Singles, I had become somewhat enamored of Cameron Crowe, and was inspired to try to get an interview with Hammerbox for the school paper. I wrote letters to both The Rocket, the local rock weekly, and C/Z Records, trying to see what I could come up with. Turned out the person I connected with at The Rocket was the girlfriend of Harris Thurmond, the band’s guitarist, and she sent me a Hammerbox press kit as well as put me in touch with Harris. Harris and I talked on the phone several times, he was more than amenable to the idea, we set a date and a time, I found a photographer who could also drive, and we were set.

Except that I, the non-driver, had no idea how to get where we were going. I had assumed the driver/photographer would, since she spent a lot of time in Seattle. She assumed I would know how to get there. I had an address, and that was it — in 1993, long before the days of GPS or Google Maps or high schoolers having cell phones or things like this.

After about an hour and a half of driving around downtown Seattle, it became clear we weren’t going to find the place. When I got home, I tried calling Harris, I explained to his answering machine what happened as apologetically as I could, begged for a rescheduled time, and… yeah. Never heard from him again. “Getting Hammerboxed” shortly became a new expression amongst the rest of the newspaper crew.

Anyway, I was talking about my somewhat late development on the girls front. Somehow in the run-up to the Muncie trip (as Anna Russell might say, “D’you remember Muncie?”), I befriended a nice Woodinville High School girl who was on the tech end named Michelle. There was a level of mutual attraction, the week in Indiana turned out to be a good context for that to be investigated, and there it was. It wasn’t to last very long, but she has remained a good friend throughout the last twenty years regardless, so I guess it couldn’t have gone too horribly badly.

So, I was starting up my senior year as Drama Club president, editor of the school paper (getting Hammerboxed and all), and I had a girlfriend finally. I was getting ready to start what seemed like would be a triumphant last year of high school…

…and I got knocked down a few pegs, and I found myself going in a totally different direction by the end of the year than I thought I was going at the beginning.

That summer, Dad got an offer from a friend of his in Alaska to come work for his family’s bank in Anchorage. I have said that 1986-1993 represented years of hell for our family. This represented, more or less, the end of part of that hell for Dad. His attempt at being a small businessman in the suburbs of Seattle had gone nowhere fast since the rise of big box office supply outlets, to say nothing of Costco, and he was spending 70+ hours a week just trying to not sink too quickly. He had contemplated other options over the years (including the one he eventually took in 2003, Arizona), but could never quite bring himself to pull the trigger on what it would take to make the move. He had let go all of his employees, he was doing absolutely everything himself (except filing, that was my job), and there was no real way for it to get any better. As he said later, his friend lured him back to Alaska with one word: “Saturday.” He couldn’t get out of there fast enough; he closed up the shop as quickly as he responsibly could, and in September of 1993 he left for Alaska, marking the last time he was a regular, everyday part of my life. My mom and I stayed in Seattle so that I could finish high school; it was brutally difficult for both of us, but the options were between bad and worse. Staying was hard, but leaving would be harder.

In the fall, there was good news and bad news on the theatrical front. We were doing another musical, West Side Story, and I had my sights set on Riff. I knew there was no way I was going to be cast as Tony (that already seemed to be intended for the guy who had played Danny Zuko), since I wasn’t a good enough singer, but if I approached Riff as an acting challenge, then that could work. I was also enamored with Russ Tamblyn at the time — I had gotten into him thanks to Twin Peaks, and had become really impressed with his multitalented work in West Side StoryFastest Gun in the WestSeven Brides for Seven Brothers, and so on. Well, I got the part, but I also got totally shut out of the fall play — a student teacher was directing that one, and she decided she wanted to go with a cast that didn’t consist of the “regulars”. Well, fair enough, but it was the first time I hadn’t been cast in something in two years, and it stung a bit, to say the least (particularly when, late in the game, I was asked to be on standby for one of the roles when that particular cast member got a bit flaky).

I started Concert Choir at the same time, and it became very obvious to me very quickly, between that daily experience and West Side Story auditions, that I was well behind where I needed to be vocally. So, I started taking voice lessons from the guy all of the great singers in choir and in the musical were with, Dennis Kruse. No, we couldn’t really afford it, it meant giving up guitar lessons, but the choir director not only was able to get Music Boosters to pick up part of it, she herself paid for a chunk out of her own pocket. We made it work.

It was in this context that I was quite unwise with my heart for the first time. I won’t go into this story too terribly much (it’s boring, it’s exactly the kind of “tween confessional” nonsense I don’t want this to turn into, and I don’t really want to tell those kinds of stories about somebody who has a totally different life now), but I’ll just say that the main problem was that I fell in love with a voice and not a person, my surrounding circumstances were such that they constituted an emotional vacuum, and as a result the person to whom that voice was attached wound up getting the full force of my attempt to fill that vacuum, which was far more than she should have been expected to handle. It was a mistake that wound up being far more painful before, during, and after its making than really should have been the case for a high school relationship, but there we are. Under different circumstances, I would have been better equipped to keep what was going on in perspective, but that wasn’t what I had to work with at the time. Έτσι είναι ζωή (Greek for “C’est la vie”, which is French for “Life sucks, get a helmet”).

(Somewhere in here I finally got my driver’s license. Didn’t do me a heck of a lot of good without a car, and that was still a few years away.)

The upshot of that, though, was that opera first came onto my radar. This girl was being primed big time for the opera world, and my thought was, “Well, if she can do it, I can do it.” I sometimes gloss this by saying that I got into opera to impress a girl, which is not entirely untrue by any means. Thing is, I wasn’t really an obvious candidate vocally for that kind of thing — I had, effectively, an actor’s singing voice. I could carry a tune well enough to get through musical theatre, but I didn’t have the clear, clarion instrument that theoretically one should have if they want to be on the operatic stage. I wasn’t a “natural voice” by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I kept at it, and little by little I got better. Opera, I thought, would be the perfect melding of the things I was trying to be good at, acting and singing — so what if I didn’t know anything about it and had never been to one? I could act, and I was learning to sing. If I could get better and keep getting better, then it would be workable. Everything else was just detail. Somewhere in here I got admitted to Western Washington University; it was the only school I had applied to (being broke sort of made the whole exercise of applying for colleges moot), it was where we had talked about me going since sophomore year, and while the looming Alaska move meant that its advantages of location and being in-state were called into question if not eliminated entirely, I figured hey, what the heck, I’ll do a double major of theatre and music. No problem, right?

Being newspaper editor, by the way, was a disaster. Short version is that I was doing too much. Concert choir, jazz choir, theatre, voice lessons, school paper — I just wasn’t able to be the guy who could stay and put the paper to bed no matter what. The teacher who was the advisor later told me that he had had that concern from the beginning, but he figured if anybody could successfully keep all the balls in the air, it would have been me. “All you proved is that nobody can do all of that, which isn’t your fault,” he said, but he asked for my resignation anyway, and I was smart enough to know that retreat, at that point, was the wiser part of valor.

West Side Story went well, but some of us got stupid and decided to ruin closing night by replacing the fake profanity in the script (“…when you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan…”) with the real words. It was my idea, the impetus came from me, and I’ll totally own that; it was a dumb, dumb, dumb stunt, even moreso since the superintendent of the school district was in the audience that night. A two-day suspension and six hours of Saturday school later, and it was evident to me that things like that really weren’t as cool as they seemed when you were thinking them up.

Even so, I got cast as Charlie Baker, the lead role of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, the very last play of my senior year. It almost didn’t happen (after the West Side Story incident, the principal wanted to make not casting me a condition of allowing the play to go forward, since she had concerns about its subject matter to begin with), but it did nonetheless. All I will say about it is that it, in my own estimation, it was the best performance I ever gave anywhere in anything, and I won the drama club’s Best Actor award that spring. Unfortunately, the audio levels of the videotape were set too low, so there is no way to get anything useful out of it and you’ll simply have to take my word for it.

I also had a curious experience that year going to an open call for the role of Robin in what was then being called Batman 3. If you ever see the name “Mali Finn” in the credits for a movie as the casting director, well, I met her, I still have her card, and I even got a callback (which was the same night as the winter formal, but there you go). They wanted an unknown, they wanted somebody who could be believably street smart, and presumably they wanted somebody who was going to be shorter than Michael Keaton (who was still attached to the part of Bruce Wayne at that point). Well, I was unknown, at least (I’m a good 3 inches taller than Keaton), and of course it didn’t get any further than that, but it’s one of the cool things that I can say happened to me in high school. Obviously, since they ultimately went with Chris O’Donnell (over, it was rumored, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale), I’m inclined to believe that they were never seriously looking for an unknown to begin with, but who knows.

I had other interesting run-ins with show business; our drama teacher also worked for one of the big casting agencies in Seattle, and she would try to find opportunities for her students where she could. I read for a couple of commercials, and also read for a part in a movie we weren’t told the name of, but a couple of years later I was sitting in the audience for Mr. Holland’s Opus and realized I was watching the very scene I had read in the casting office. None of these came to anything; the one thing that actually happened was getting to work for three days as an extra on the movie Mad Love with Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, and Matt Lillard. (Don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in got cut. Still, you can see a bunch of my friends very prominently in several scenes.)

My dad flew back from Alaska the day before my high school graduation. We did some packing up of the house. The next day, I graduated high school. The day after that, my parents flew to Alaska together, and I spent the night in the house by myself. The day after that, movers came, packed everything, and put it on a truck to Anchorage. I also had a voice lesson that day; out, at long last, came a voice that was clear, strong, had even vibrato, and extended up to a high E flat. Dennis got up and gave me a hug, saying, “I think you left your kid voice at the graduation ceremony.”

That gets me through high school graduation, so I’ll stop there. As I said before — after that, things got complicated.

I should add that I would have never survived the high school experience without some excellent teachers who made it a point to take an interest in me and care what became of me — some in big ways, some in small ways, but all in important ways. Dennis Kruse, Laurie Levine, Judy Filibeck, Sean Burrus, Tim Curtis, Bob Engle, Hjalmer Anderson, Dave Head, Bob Stewart, James Wilson, Vance Spangler, and Sheri Rosenzweig are all the main teachers I think of; thank God for all of them.

Thoughts on Inception or, Christopher Nolan and Cobb salad

I’m not going to write a conventional review of Inception; I think the movie is stunning, and I strongly encourage everybody to go see it. That’s about as much of a “review” as I want to write; what I’d rather do is discuss what thoughts were provoked by it.

I will say this once:

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN INCEPTION, SINCE A VERY THOROUGH DISCUSSION OF SPOILERS IS TO FOLLOW. I WILL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT THE PRISONERUSUAL SUSPECTS, SHUTTER ISLAND, THE PRESTIGE, MEMENTO, FOLLOWING, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS, AND THE DARK KNIGHT, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We clear?

I’ve seen Inception three times now; I saw it at the midnight showing last Friday morning, again Friday night, and again Tuesday morning. It’s one of those movies where you want to take people to see it and be there with them while they experience it for the first time. I think maybe The Usual Suspects was the first movie like that for me; I took different people to see that, all because I wanted to be there when they saw the falling coffee cup and realized what it meant. Christopher Nolan has become the the guy who makes that kind of movie for me these days; Memento and The Prestige were both movies I happily did repeated viewings of with different people, and two summers ago, as reported to some extent here, I did the same thing with The Dark Knight.

Now, one of these things — The Dark Knight — is not like the other, at least at first glance. Suspects, MementoThe Prestige — these are just all “twist ending” movies, right? The whole point of the movie is the ending you aren’t expecting, and there’s not really anything to them beyond that? Well, there are those who might argue that, sure. The question becomes, how do these movies stand up to repeated viewings? I have never bothered with The Blair Witch Project since the one time I saw it in theatres, because that’s the kind of movie that, for my money, really is just a magic trick that would probably show its strings upon seeing it again. The twists of Suspects, Memento, and The Prestige are such that you have a fundamentally different sense of what the story is actually about the second time around, and it’s a question of whether or not that different story is interesting. Is the story of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze (depending on how you look at the story) conning Agent Kujan as interesting as the story of Agent Kujan trying to figure out what happened at the pier? Is the story of Leonard Shelby setting himself up to murder John Gammell, both as revenge for being used by him and as a way to give himself closure, however briefly, over the death of his wife, as interesting as the story of Leonard trying to solve a murder mystery in an incapacitated state? Is the story of three magicians essentially living out large-scale versions of their own tricks in pursuit of their craft as interesting as the story of the rivalry between two magicians leading to a mysterious death?

And for me, the answer has always been, unequivocally, yes. Verbal/Keyser becomes a fascinating character on subsequent viewings — little gestures and facial expressions take on new meaning, and while you realize that he’s taking Kujan on something of a ride, you also come to the conclusion that some of it has to be true. It’s particularly unsettling if you conclude, as I do, that he’s telling the truth about having killed his own family. The ways in which both John Gammell and Natalie manipulate Leonard to their own ends, but also in which Leonard consistently manipulates himself, suggest that what Leonard really is in his damaged state is a loaded gun, and it’s just a question of who’s going to get to pull the trigger. One of the rewards of multiple viewings of The Prestige is understanding exactly why Borden figures out the goldfish bowl trick so quickly and why Angier doesn’t get it, to say nothing of seeing just how clever Christian Bale’s performance actually is, and that he very clearly differentiates between the two twins.

Particularly given my experience with Memento and The Prestige, I did my best to stay as ignorant as possible about Inception from the time I heard it announced until when I walked into the theatre for the first time — but it didn’t escape me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was named “Cobb,” the same name given to the antagonist in Following. What would it come to mean, if anything? Would “Cobb” be nothing more than Nolan’s “Spota”? Or was there more to it?

The opening shot of Cobb sprawled and sputtering on the beach suggested even more of a connection to Following, since a very similar image plays an important role in the opening of that film as well (and as it works out, in both movies you don’t find out what these images actually mean until much later). About an hour into seeing it the first time, I started to become convinced that where the story was leading us to was the revelation that Mal was right, that she had escaped the dreamworld by throwing herself off the building and Cobb was still stuck, and that all of her manifestations were actually her entering Cobb’s dream to try to rescue him. Perhaps she was a “forger” as well, and that was why Saito echoed her line about a “leap of faith”. I prepared myself for this ending, expecting a montage of clips at the end that would replay some of Mal’s appearances with additional “behind the scenes” information presented, showing how they meant something else than what we, the audience, thought they meant at the time. I figured that even though I had figured it out, Nolan would be able to present it in a way that would make it work and that would be up to par with the rest of his work.

Can I tell you that I was really happy to be wrong, and that I was completely unprepared for the last five minutes of the film, much less the cut to black on the spinning, but wobbling, top? The “twist,” insofar as there was one, was really about Cobb’s soul and less about plot mechanics or where amongst the various levels of reality he actually was, and the final bit of ambiguity — the top’s losing stability, so it has to fall, right? Or does it? — is just enough to leave the audience with closure on Cobb’s emotional journey (the real story in the first place) even if you can argue until the cows come home whether or not he’s in the “real” world. It’s like the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, except that by the time audiences could see a cut of Blade Runner where the origami unicorn meant what Ridley Scott intended it to mean, they were already prepared for it to mean that. I’m not sure anybody was expecting the top.

An assertion that some reviews I’ve read have made is that, with DiCaprio in the leading role, there are uncomfortable similarities with Shutter Island. I don’t disagree necessarily that there are parallels, but I also think the claim is misleading. With Shutter Island, I knew from reading the reviews that Teddy Daniels would turn out to be crazy; the only question I had watching it was just how this would unfold. Dom Cobb’s issues have to do with his dead wife, much as with Teddy Daniels, and Shutter Island makes you question the “reality” of what you’re seeing, but that’s just about the extent of the similarities. Cobb isn’t crazy, and there are far more levels of reality-bending at play in Inception than in Shutter Island. Shutter Island really is a “twist ending” thriller, whereas Inception is an emotional and psychological drama playing out in the framework of a caper movie. If you go into Inception expecting it to be Shutter Island meets Dark City, you will be expecting a much different movie than what you actually get.

Something the two definitely have in common, however, is that Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a knockout performance in the lead role. I hadn’t been all that interested in him before a couple of years ago — I noticed Russell Crowe in The Quick and the Dead but really couldn’t care less about Leo; Romeo + Juliet and Titanic were neither fantastic nor offensive performances, as far as I was concerned; I remember Gabriel Byrne a lot more than I remember him in The Man in the Iron Mask, and I hated hated hated The Beach. Then I saw The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and Body of Lies in reasonably rapid succession, and realized he had developed into a fantastic adult dramatic actor. As a friend of mine put it, he’s no longer an ingenue. He captures Cobb’s guilt and regret and makes them compelling, while still being able to sell us a “master extractor” at the top of his game.

I might suggest that DiCaprio is somewhat unconventional for Christopher Nolan as a leading man; Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are both classically good-looking man’s men; Guy Pearce, Christian Bale, and even Jeremy Theobald (at least in spots) all have kind of a drawn, chiseled quality the way he photographs them — not necessarily meaning that they’re ripped (although certainly Pearce, Bale, and Hugh Jackman are), but rather that there’s a particular air of cultivated masculinity about each of them, especially in the face. DiCaprio doesn’t really fit into either category (although Cillian Murphy’s Fischer fits in with Pearce and Bale), and he definitely doesn’t have the rippling muscles that Nolan takes pains to show us with Pearce, Bale, and Jackman. He starts to assume an air of something like the latter category when he’s “Mr. Charles” in level 2 of the dreamworld, but it’s clear that it’s an act, or a “gambit” as the movie explains. In any event, even if DiCaprio isn’t exactly doughy, he is more of a physical Everyman than Nolan has given us before (except maybe with Al Pacino, although even then, c’mon, it’s Al Pacino).

Thematically, Inception is very much a development of what Nolan has done before; as I’ve noted in earlier musings, there are recurring motifs in his work, and they’re all here. Fischer’s need to resolve his feelings of letting his father down mirrors Bruce Wayne’s struggle in Batman Begins. Domestic tragedy, time being messed with, people leading multiple lives with multiple identities (or even multiple people sharing an identity), the overwhelming desire to simply go home to one’s family, a hidden place where one is hiding the truth from everybody, often including themselves — and, curiously enough, agonizing leg injuries have started to pop up, starting with Angier falling through the trapdoor in The Prestige, Batman dropping Maroni in The Dark Knight, and now Mal shooting Arthur in the kneecap. In fact, in a lot of ways, Inception is a reworking of some of Memento‘s story, with even a repeated visual quote (the view of the wife lying down but shot so that she’s oriented vertically, since she’d be parallel to the person whose point of view is providing the shot), except that it’s the wife with the damaged mind, and Cobb is aware of his own role in Mal’s death, making revenge a non-starter, and the Cobbs have children, whereas Leonard and his wife did not — giving Cobb something else to live for, a meaning to his life beyond Mal’s death that Leonard didn’t have. Leonard describes his condition “like waking, like you just woke up”, and goes to great lengths at one point in the movie to construct a scenario where he will wake up and think he’s still in his own home — essentially the same idea as Inception‘s “dream within a dream”. Not only that, but John Gammell’s constant insistence that Leonard doesn’t know what reality is, that he’s “wandering around, playing detective” prefigures Mal’s speech to Cobb that “you don’t believe in one reality anymore”. Of course, a key difference here is that Mal’s wrong… right?

There are also interesting similarities to Following, too, beyond the name “Cobb”. Both movies are about a long con, but one can also draw lines of connection between Inception‘s Cobb and Ariadne, at least at the outset, and Following‘s Cobb and the Young Man. In both cases, Cobb is the master taking the apprentice under his wing, and the first dreamshare training sequence with Ariadne, with Cobb explaining how people populate their dreams with their subconscious, has a curious parallel to Cobb in Following breaking into the first apartment with the Young Man, and explaining how people’s things in their apartment reflect who they are. Cobb tells Ariadne that if they design a safe, the dreamer will automatically fill it with their secrets; Cobb tells the Young Man that “everybody has a box… that’s sort of an unconscious collection… [that] tells something very intimate about the people.”

It also seems to me that the concept of a “totem”, something by which one keeps track of reality, is everywhere in Nolan’s films, even if he hasn’t named it before. In Memento Leonard has his “system,” his photos and his tattoos. In Batman Begins there are the arrowhead and his father’s stethoscope. In The Prestige it is Borden’s ball. In The Dark Knight it’s Harvey’s coin. They also appear to have varying degrees of efficacy — Leonard’s “system” doesn’t work at all, for example, but Borden, at least one of him, seems to keep it together pretty well. (By the way, on the third viewing I noticed that Ariadne is madly fiddling with her totem on the plane at the end, as the camera pans from Arthur across to her. It’s a nice touch.)

Something else that strikes me about Inception is that it is a surprisingly low-tech movie. The technological conceit of dreamsharing is pulled off through compounds fed into the bloodstream via tubes in the arms leading from a gadget in a suitcase, rather than slick-looking headpieces that jack into the brain. There is one computer in the whole film, a rather chunky looking laptop; we only see two cell phones, and they’re barely used at all. Beyond that, tech isn’t really a factor, like at all. Professor Miles writes in what look like Moleskine notebooks, for heavens’ sakes.

To be honest, I argue that Inception isn’t even science fiction, any more than The Prestige is. Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction is that the technology, or what he called the “conceptual dislocation” of the world in the story from the real world, must “result [in] a new society… generated in the author’s mind” (From a 1981 letter printed as the preface to “Paycheck and Other Classic Stories”, PKD). There’s not really anything of the kind in Inception; you have a particular technological conceit that facilitates the story (Cobb dealing with Mal’s death) but is not itself what the story is about. Dick’s stories are usually all about how the “conceptual dislocation” creates a new world, with that “conceptual dislocation” being what drives the story forward. PKD’s version of the story would ask the question, “What would the world be like if this were possible?” and use Cobb’s emotional journey as the way of answering that question (if we’d even get Cobb’s emotional journey — Cobb would probably be named Wheaton or something like that and be an unhappy minor bureaucratic functionary who just happened to accidentally press the button on the machine at the wrong time); Nolan, by contrast, uses Cobb’s emotional journey to drive the story forward in Inception, not the technology. We don’t really see how this technology changes the world. The same applies to the The Prestige, at least Nolan’s film of it.

A criticism I hear of Nolan that baffles me is that his work is technically brilliant but cold and emotionally uninvolving. I just don’t get that at all. I find his movies highly emotionally involving; I fail to understand how anybody could see the vertical-lying-down shot of the wife in either Memento or Inception, or Angier’s attempt to drown himself in the sink in The Prestige, or the memory of Thomas Wayne with young Bruce and the stethoscope, or Harvey Dent waking up in the hospital and finding the scarred coin, and be left cold. Perhaps those are losses that one must be able to reasonably fear sharing themselves in order to be able to relate. I suspect that the familial losses experienced in Nolan’s movies are the very ones by which he himself would be devastated; certainly there is an allusion to his own personal situation in Inception when Cobb says that he and Mal “were working together” (Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, is also his producer), and we see another co-worker couple destroyed by their professional association in The Dark Knight (Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes). I wonder if there will be one down the road where the protagonist loses his child (present, but handled rather indirectly, in Insomnia).

So what’s the deal with the name “Cobb,” anyway? In Following Cobb is a smartly-dressed, violent thief who is ultimately long-conning the unnamed protagonist, and who disappears at the end leaving no trace of his existence. He’s nothing like Inception‘s Cobb… well, except for the part about the smartly-dressed thief pulling a long con, and I guess Inception‘s Cobb is violent at times, although only either in the context of a dream or when his life is in danger. Maybe Nolan is pulling some pieces from his early work and reforging them based on the artist he is now. Maybe “Cobb” is just a name; maybe it’s a reference to The Prisoner, a work that strikes me as likely having had an influence on Nolan (particularly since he was supposed to do a big-screen adaptation up until about a year ago). Cobb was a character in “Arrival,” the very first episode, a colleague of Number Six’s who had been brought to the Village only to commit suicide. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that his death was faked, and he was working with the Village all along. Anyway, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just one more thing to talk about endlessly.

So far, Nolan seems to going onward and upward. He’s the most exciting and interesting Hollywood filmmaker working right now, as far as I’m concerned, and while I can’t wait to see what he does next with Batman, there’s part of me that is even more interested to see what his next original story is like. (Although — I’ve said it before, but while I like the work Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have done with him, I really hope he finds a way to work with David Julyan again as the composer.) Is he the next Kubrick? You know, I really don’t care — so far I’m plenty happy with him just being Nolan.

Τι κάνω;

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand the end of week 3 of a new semester has been reached.

I’m having fun with Modern Greek thus far; given that much of what has been covered is stuff that hasn’t changed much from Attic usage (with the exception of pronunciation), I’m having, shall we say, a relaxed time of it. The prof says that he will start getting together with me and the other grad student to pick up the pace a bit, so that we can jump to the fourth semester next term, skipping the 150 and 200 level classes altogether. This doesn’t altogether depress me; the class so far certainly has been hardly anything about which I would lose sleep, but it would also be nice to untether myself enough from the pace needed by a freshman who after three weeks is still struggling to read the alphabet so that I feel like my own time is being spent wisely.

Modern Greek has also opened up a new possibility for me; in my ongoing quest to not have 30+ graduate credits just sitting as an unusable blob on my transcript that won’t transfer anywhere, I’ve brought up the possibility with my Greek teacher of doing a Masters in West European Studies, looking at the Greek diaspora in places like Germany and examining issues of religious identity and so on. He was supportive of the notion, and is reviewing my personal statement. I have to say, I’m not totally in love with the idea, but I’ve got half of the coursework done, I’d be able to finish in about a year, and it is something in which I’m legitimately interested. If I leave IU with a Masters in a field that isn’t directly related to where I go from here, I’ll at least leave here with a Masters (and keep up the pattern started with my undergrad), as opposed to a boatload of credits that nobody will care I have and won’t transfer anywhere.

The demographic makeup of the class is interesting; I’d say it’s about 3/4 Greek-American kids. I can’t tell if they’re trying to (re?)connect with their heritage, shooting for an easy A after years of Greek school growing up, or just want to be able to talk to Yia-Yia.

We use “Greek names” in class. The professor originally suggested Ριχαρδός, which is just “Richard” with a Greek masculine ending added, but thinking about it, I decided to go with a name that had the same meaning rather than the same sound. “Richard Barrett” roughly translates to “King Troublemaker” (I’m not kidding, although it depends on which part of Europe your particular Barretts are from — it can also mean “hatmaker” or “fortress”); in Greek, according to my friend Anna, that can be rendered more-or-less as ο Βασίλης Ταραχοποιός, and thus I am now called in class.

(By the way, Anna has some interesting observations which are perhaps not entirely unrelated to some I have made before. I have a hard time relating fully to either person she describes for various reasons, but have certainly encountered similar people myself. The convert friend sounds like he’s exactly the kind of guy who needs to hear The Divine Liturgy in English. Anyway, her post is, as is typically the case with Anna’s blog, worth reading.)

I have finally started the notes for Hansen and Quinn Unit III; I hope to have them in done in a week or so (once I’ve got a particular writing assignment done this weekend). If you’re waiting for them and have that particular unit staring you in the face in class — well, I’ll do my best.

(And perhaps next week I’ll finish translating the Meyendorff article, too.)

If you recall a rather cryptic post from a couple of weeks ago, I’ll add only that another very interesting (and positive) dimension has emerged from this set of circumstances. More to come once it happens.

A couple of completely random bits —

I bought a treadmill about a month and a half ago, and except for days I’ve been out of town and two somewhat exceptional evenings, I’ve been good and have used it for a half hour every day since it was delivered. I watch episodes from the various series making up the DC Animated Universe; including stretching, I usually manage to watch two episodes in one shot. I started with the second season of Justice League (when it became Justice League Unlimited); since that season ends with what is, effectively, the chronological end of that universe, it seemed only fitting that I move on from there to the show that started it all, the very first season of Batman: The Animated Season. All I can say is, it never ceases to amaze me how good these shows are on an extremely consistent basis — and as much as I think Christian Bale has become the definitive live-action Batman, there is no question in my mind that Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman of any medium. (You know what I’d love? Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to write the script for the next Christopher Nolan Batman. It’ll never ever happen, but just imagine…)

Anyway, it keeps me excited about exercising. It begs the question what I might do when I’ve burned through them all — but hey, I’ve still got the season box sets for Babylon 5. That’ll keep me busy for a few months once the Timmverse goodness runs out.

After an interesting reference to their singer on a particular celebrity blog I read, out of morbid curiosity I bought the eponymous first studio album by the so-called “Brechtian punk cabaret” act the Dresden Dolls. I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back, and this is certainly within that tradition; the artists involved are definitely talented and creative; nonetheless, I can’t quite figure out if it’s my cuppa or not. I may give Amanda Palmer’s solo album a shot and see if that convinces me; at the very least, the companion book sounds intriguing.

OK — have a good weekend. I’m needing to get some sleeping done, some writing done, and some birthday parties done by Monday; let’s hope.

Something I don’t usually do…

I’ve kept my comments here restricted to a few general categories — more to the point, there are a few things I’ve avoided talking about. I don’t talk about politics here (although perhaps some stances are indirectly discernible), I don’t generally blog about what I do at work (mostly because that would generate an even smaller number of readers; I work a desk job, and there’s not much to say), I don’t say much (with some exceptions) about my personal life, and I don’t for the most part do things like movie reviews.

Well, this isn’t going to be a movie review, exactly, but it’s going to be about movies, and it’s going to deal with, in large part, a movie you had a statistical likelihood of seeing this last weekend if you bothered darkening the door of your local movie theatre at all between midnight last Thursday and Sunday evening. (No, shocked as you may be, I’m not talking about Mamma Mia!)

I’ve been a Batman guy for a loooooooooong time. There was a little Brave and the Bold digest my mom brought me home once when I was probably about five and home sick; it collected this neat little Batman vs. Deadman story which was drawn by Neal Adams — “You Can’t Hide From a Deadman,” originally printed in Brave and the Bold #86, Oct/Nov 1969 — and I was hooked ever since. It was still a few years yet before I started reading comics regularly, but I remember coming in on the tail end of Batman: Year 2, reading Ten Nights of the Beast, The Killing Joke, and A Death in the Family when they were first printed (The Dark Knight Returns I came to about three years late or so just ’cause it looked kinda ugly to this ten year old when I first saw it on the shelves — let’s face it, I was just too young to get it), and I was definitely at the movie theatre on 23 June 1989 for the first night the Burton/Keaton Batman was playing, which I saw three times that summer while it was still in the theatres. A tick over nineteen years later, maybe not much has changed.

I’ve also been a Christopher Nolan guy for a good bit. I saw Memento three times when it was in theatres, and keep in mind that meant, at least for the first couple of times I saw it, driving about half an hour to the arthouse which was playing it. I talked it up to whomever would listen, took friends to see it, bought David Julyan’s score CD, bought the DVD (both versions), and so on. I bought (and quite liked) Following when it came out on DVD, and while for various reasons had to miss Insomnia when it was in theatres, I’ve enjoyed it on DVD since (but, truthfully, it remains the one I’ve seen the least number of times — maybe that’s nothing to lose sleep over?).

For me, getting to know a director’s work is getting to know what kinds of themes interest them, what kinds of images they consistently use, what they like to do with structure, which actors they re-use, who scores their movies, what kind of pattern they’re continuing (or establishing) with new works, and so on. To put it another way, a director is always infinitely more interesting to me when there is something more I can get out of one of their movies by placing it in the context of the rest of their work.

Which brings me to The Dark Knight. There are major spoilers to follow from The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento, Following, Insomnia, and The Prestige, so do read at your own risk.

I’ve seen it twice now; I was lucky enough to get in on the viral marketing IMAX ticket giveaway, only because I live in a market where two hours after the site went live there were still tickets available (although only just — I was 164/170), and thus saw it 50.5 hours before most of the rest of the world had a chance. I also saw it again (in IMAX, natch) last Friday night. I’ll get the easy stuff out of the way first: some movies are overhyped. A couple of well-edited trailers, a flashy marketing campaign, and a couple of glowing early reviews can all add up to a disappointing experience in the actual cinema because in the end, it’s “just a movie” and doesn’t cure cancer. The Dark Knight is not this movie — it is every bit as good as you’ve heard, and gets better on repeat viewings. Everybody brings their A-game, be they in front of the camera or behind the camera, be they in a big role or a small role, and they craft a crime epic for the ages along the lines of Heat or The Departed or L. A. Confidential. This isn’t Tim Burton’s self-aware, dark-but-comic freakshow; this isn’t Joel Schumacher tweaking your nose. And — I say this as somebody who saw Iron Man twice and who thinks it was absolutely terrific — this also definitely isn’t Jon Favreau’s bright, flashy, action-adventure story in which A Flawed But Ultimately Good Man Learns Something While Wearing A Costume. The Dark Knight takes the idea of a “comic book movie” and elevates it to a whole new genre and a whole new level of filmmaking; you’ll either like that or you won’t (I’ve read some reviews that say it’s pointless to try to elevate source material which is absurd to the core to the level of Hamlet), but if your reasons for not liking a movie like this have to do with the title character being dressed as a bat rather than wearing a shirt and tie, that’s really your problem, and not that of the filmmakers.

One thing about the story – two years ago, when the title was revealed and Nolan said it was “quite important to the film” (http://www.batman-on-film.com/batmovienewsarchives48.html), I immediately understood it to be a double entendre with “the dark night”. Putting that together with the recasting of Rachel Dawes rather than creating a new character (seeming to point to the need for somebody in whom we were already invested emotionally), I believed from that moment on that Rachel was going to be dead as a doornail by the end of the film. Sure enough. If the rumors are true that Rachel was originally supposed to be Harvey Dent in Batman Begins until there was a studio note saying “We need a chick in the pic, stat”, then that was a great way for Nolan to take it and run with it.

Okay — I haven’t said anything new there. You’ve probably read a dozen reviews which have said something similar, so I’ll move on now to what I really want to write about.

The Dark Knight keys off of several important ideas set up in Batman Begins; definitely that of “escalation,” established in the closing conversation in BB between Gordon and Batman, but also very much the repeated line, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” as well as the notion that Batman isn’t just Bruce Wayne in a mask; it is in fact who Bruce Wayne actually is.

And as bleak as people are saying it is, the two important things with which you’re left at the end of the movie are a) nobody on either boat pressed the button and b) Batman did not let the Joker fall to his death — a correction of a huge misunderstanding on Tim Burton’s part nineteen years ago, and a clear indicator that Batman has decided that “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” is no longer a clear enough line in the moral sand, not when your enemy has no rules whatsoever.

All well and good. However, looking at it through the lens of Nolan’s other work, bigger themes start to emerge. Much has been made of how much Nolan likes to play with time, but that’s really window dressing, a story-telling tool rather than a theme (and it’s telling how, as he has matured as a filmmaker, he’s done it less and less). Identity, on the other hand, has been a key question in his movies from the get-go; Following and The Prestige study characters who deliberately take on other identities but then find that they can’t just simply go back to normal when they’re done. The narrator of Following turns himself into somebody who seems slick and clever and affluent, emulating Cobb as much as he can at Cobb’s own encouragement, but in doing so he makes it impossible to prove that Cobb ever existed and/or that he’s not, in fact, Cobb — which was, of course, “all part of the plan” in the first place. Angier and Borden in The Prestige both are leading double lives (I’ve always thought it was particularly clever of Nolan to cast as his leads actors most famous for playing superheroes, and that it added a fascinating subtext to the film), and must maintain the “act” at all costs, to the extent that their lives are quite dependent on it. In trying to figure out each other’s magic tricks, Angier and Borden are actually solving the problem of who the other person actually is.

Memento‘s Leonard Shelby, on the other hand, is an examination of how our natural identities depend on how we experience time and form memories — if we can’t, we’re slaves to external sources of information, never able to trust our own instincts about who we are. As a result, Leonard can never stop mourning the death of his wife, because his own perception of time (or lack thereof) can never provide any distance from it. It will always have just happened for him.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight bring many of these concepts together. Bruce Wayne, as depicted by Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and David Goyer, has assumed at least one identity (if not two, counting the “playboy Bruce” persona) which changes him and those with whom he interacts permanently. At the same time, the whole reason he does so is because, to a certain extent, he can never get past the trauma of losing his parents, because the one way he knows to heal, revenge, has been taken from him — and he realizes it won’t necessarily do what he hopes for anyway. One way or the other, he’s permanently emotionally stuck, much like Leonard Shelby, and this drives him to take on the dual persona (which is itself an interesting inversion of Bale’s character/characters in The Prestige, Borden — two men having to lead one life). To apply Memento‘s questions, then — can Bruce trust his own sense of who he is? Is the Batsuit really a message he sends to criminals, or a message he’s sending to himself, much like Leonard Shelby’s tattoos? To apply The Prestige‘s questions, can he stop being Batman without causing himself, to say nothing of others, harm?

Several of the films deal with familial loss; Memento and The Prestige both with the loss of a wife under circumstances which are left ambiguous, Batman Begins obviously having the murder of parents as a pivotal point (but also has Ra’s Al Ghul talking about taking vengeance for a murdered wife), and The Dark Knight has the murder of Harvey Dent’s fiancée as a major engine of the plot (while also showing Gordon’s wife mourning his death in the line of duty). All of these cases are motivators for vengeance, but in The Prestige in particular it’s clear that Angier’s lust for revenge eventually wanes, and he continues out of the sheer momentum of hatred — “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret,” he spits out halfway through the movie. Looking forward, perhaps we can surmise that Bruce Wayne eventually faces the danger of being Batman just to be Batman, with no particular purpose driving him.

One can draw a line of connection between Dormer’s corruption in the name of catching the bad guys in Insomnia to what Gordon and Batman choose to do at the end of The Dark Knight; if it can be proven Dormer planted evidence even once, then it calls all of the convictions to which he’s contributed into question. In TDK, if Harvey’s spree as Two-Face is made public, their efforts to fight the mob will have been entirely in vain. Bending the rules to make the criminals pay is a slippery slope in Nolan’s universe, one with very real consequences. Even if everything ostensibly turns out all right, somebody will have to pay the piper — and sometimes it’s the wrong person.

(By the way, Nolan has mentioned that Aaron Eckhart was looked at for Memento. I think one can look at Eckhart’s Two-Face for a glimpse of what he might have been like as Leonard Shelby. I think that was a career-defining performance for Guy Pearce, so I wouldn’t have it any other way, but Eckhart would have been really interesting in the role. Different from what we got, but definitely interesting.)

In terms of recurring visual motifs — there is always a “lair” in Nolan’s film, a location where the main character’s dark secrets are hidden and their true identity may be found. This goes all the way back to Following, where The Young Man takes Cobb to his apartment under the ruse that it’s somebody else’s (and of course Cobb knows what’s going on immediately). In Memento it is the basement of the abandoned building where Jimmy Gantz’s body and Leonard’s real clothes have been left. In Insomnia it is Finch’s cabin. In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight it is the Batcave (or its temporary replacement). In The Prestige it is the theatre basement where all of Angier’s “prestige materials” are kept. More often than not it involves “going down” someplace; I will leave others more qualified to speak about Jungian psychology to discuss the implications of the “descent” into the place where one keeps secrets, potentially even from oneself.

Breaking of legs is something which has shown up twice in a row now — Angier falls through a trapdoor and the cushion has been removed, shattering the entire limb from the looks of the brace he’s put in, and Batman drops Sal Maroni from a height which is just enough to break his ankle (although Nolan is far more subtle about showing Maroni with a cane later than he is with Angier). Being a year and a half out from a broken ankle myself and still recovering to some degree, both of those moments make me squirm each time.

Casting is an interesting point — Nolan doesn’t quite seem to have the “stock company” of David Mamet or, to a lesser degree, of David Lynch or Tim Burton, but three films in a row now have starred Christian Bale and Michael Caine. To some extent, Bale, Guy Pearce, and maybe Following‘s Jeremy Theobald, too have a visual continuity I can’t quite explain — distinctive faces which wear woundedness well, maybe. Bale and Pearce definitely have a carved-out-of-wood quality — and I don’t mean that in a bad way — to their facial and bodily structures (harder to say with Theobald). Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are somewhat the opposite — classically good-looking men who you want to like and have be the ostensible good guys (which, naturally, is what makes their characters more interesting when they turn). Mark Boone Junior has had significant supporting roles a couple of times, Theobald showed up in a bit role in Batman Begins, and Larry Holden is quite the chameleon, going from L. A. lowlife Jimmy Gantz in Memento to the dapper D. A. Finch in Batman Begins (as well as having a bit in Insomnia). He gets really interesting performances out of people, be it well-established character actors like Joe Pantoliano or Andy Serkis or people harder to define, such as David Bowie — who, by the way, I really wished would have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nod for Tesla. He was onscreen for all of ten minutes, maybe, but he owned every frame in which he appeared. I’d love for Nolan to find a reason to cast Carrie-Anne Moss again — her appearance in Memento is still the most interesting thing she’s ever done, in black vinyl or out of it, as far as I’m concerned. (Probably, since she’s being cast in “mom” roles now — at all of 40! — she would be out of the running for a future cinematic appearance of Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Maybe she could play Selina’s mother, Cougarwoman?) Gary Oldman disappears so completely into the role of Gordon that it’s hard to tell if Nolan is actually giving him any direction or if he’s just getting out of the way.

So — back to The Dark Knight for a moment. What’s ahead? Where can a third Batman movie potentially go Or, to put it another way, what in the world do they do to top this one? And I think the answer is, they need to not bother trying. They need to go in the opposite direction and do something smaller, grittier, more – dare I say it – intimate. Maybe even something which feels more like a stage play than a movie – I don’t know, something more like Memento (and maybe even with David Julyan scoring rather than the Zimmer/Howard team, good as it is). They’ve set it up well to go in that direction – Batman is on the run (although presumably Bruce Wayne is not, since his being outed was prevented), his relationship with Lucius is strained (if not severed entirely) so that he won’t be able to just go to him with gadget requests anymore, and so on. Somehow he’ll have to repair what the events of The Dark Knight have broken, but that’s going to require operating on a smaller scale for awhile, I expect. Robin could work within this thematic framework, but it seems unlikely they’d go that way. Presumably in a third movie we’d be able to return to Wayne Manor, which itself could thematically represent some sort of shift back to the status quo.

In terms of what this means for a villain – hard to say. I would say that the Riddler could work on the thematic level – possibly something like Saw, only, y’know, worth watching. I’d be really surprised if the people at the helm wanted to revisit the character. Hard to say. I wonder if maybe somebody like Talia wouldn’t work, perhaps continuing her father’s efforts? It would certainly tie into what’s come before, and with Batman as a reluctant outlaw, there would be the element of temptation for him to join her on several levels. Catwoman could be done easily within the rules of Nolan’s universe, but I doubt Warner Bros. wants to go anywhere near that character for awhile.

(Here’s an idea – what about a Gotham Central TV series set in the Nolanverse between TDK and film #3 — The Dark Knight Returns??? — ? If Batman is having to be in hiding to some extent, then he can just be a vague, undefined presence to some extent who doesn’t have to directly appear.)

(Which reminds me – having watched the Gotham Knight DVD a few times now, too, I’ll say that presumably, Anna Ramirez was used instead of Renee Montoya because the powers that be didn’t want Renee Montoya to wind up as a dirty cop. That said, “Crossfire” now makes less sense as a result, not more – unless the point was to make her fall be even tougher for those who figured she was just a generic Montoya stand-in. Also, the Goyer segment doesn’t exactly jive with what we see of Crane at the beginning of The Dark Knight, but at the same time, Gotham Knight appears to also forget that Wayne Manor burned down during Batman Begins, so it’s not an exact match anyway.)

(I will also note that I think the Joker could be recast. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. Nolan would just have to do what he did this time, which is find the best actor for the job.)

(Okay, enough with the parentheticals.)

(I mean it.)

Maybe the biggest clue is in the final scene. It’s clear that Nolan and co. regard the Batman/Gordon relationship as the moral foundation of the particular stories they’re telling. That may seem obvious, but I think it’s very much underscored in the last scene of TDK, which is a clear counterpoint to the last scene of BB. For example –- Gordon telling Batman “thank you” and him replying, “You don’t have to thank me” seems to be very much a reference to the last line of BB, and in general both scenes function to wrap up the moral point of the preceding story and establish what the guiding principle will be for the next one. Given that, as much as escalation was the driving force of TDK, can we surmise that Gotham learning to accept the hero they need will be the plot engine of the third film?

Enough for now. I have plenty to say about all of this, but this is already quite long. I’ll come back to it another day, maybe.


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