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Idea IS the format

The occasional downtime of Daniel W. E. Light

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Friday, 7 December 2007

What doesn't kill you makes you... stranger

Not many people can claim to have written 10,000 word dissertations based primarily on Batman. I am one of relatively few. Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Grant Morrison's ARKHAM ASYLUM were alongside Alan Moore's WATCHMEN and Neil Gaiman's BOOKS OF MAGIC as the subjects of the long essay I submitted as part of my English Literature degree. I can't remember the exact title - only that it was a contrived but sincere attempt to understand the peculiar social, political and cultural context that gave rise to a rash of quite brilliant graphic novels through the 80s and 90s, of which these are only four.

The dissertation as a whole is lost now. By the time I'd scanned in my quite glorious selection of full colour appendices, harnessing the extent of the Edinburgh University Library computing facilities, the document as a whole was immovably large. The cost of printing a single copy was so substantial I had to ask a girlfriend of the time to send me money in the post. I submitted the one hard copy to my faculty, and the one soft copy was customarily deleted from the library file system a month later. Ask me today and I'd happily see my degree severely downgraded in exchange for a copy, but that's academic.

I saw the 7-minute opening sequence of the new Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT, at the London IMAX this afternoon. Warner Bros screened it seven months ahead of release for an agency of journalists and marketers, followed by a Q&A with one of the producers. On account of my excessive fondness for cheese and wine my colleague and I left an opulent Christmas lunch in Soho with 15 minutes to get to the Imax on the South Bank. We ended up running the length of Waterloo Bridge dragging our laptops and arguing over who was Batman and who was Robin. We eventually collapsed into our seats at the top of the ludicrously precipitous auditorium just in time to see the first few frames beginning to roll.

It starts with a slick bank heist, organised by some guy who thinks he can take a share without turning up. "No wonder they call him The Joker" quips one of the gang. No prizes for guessing who has the last laugh.

Straight away you know you're a long way from Jack Nicholson and some hare-brained henchmen clowning around in an art gallery. A LONG way. This is more Michael Mann than Michael Keaton, a polished set-piece reminiscent of the rhythmic and precisely orchestrated bank job in HEAT. I'm also reminded of Roger Avary's KILLING ZOE - the robbers' masks serve to disguise them, but also expose the grotesquely amoral creatures hidden within. Here each of the gang falls principle to the old adage that there's no honour amongst thieves until only the Joker remains. Heath Ledger's Joker is the clown you have nightmares about, scruffier than Nicholson's, more viscerally scarred inside and out.

A flurry of further glimpses of the new movie follows, culminating with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) on a Gotham rooftop destroying the Bat Light with a fire-axe. Then it's over. I haven't calmed down. I'm breathing heavier than I was when I sat down.

The Q&A starts. Pretty soon I hear this word. Hyperrealism. I heard it a while back, from our Second Life architect, describing the style he used on the Die Hard builds. Wikipedia tells me that "Hyperrealism has its roots in the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, the simulation of something which never really existed. As such, Hyperrealists create a false reality that is a convincing illusion; one based upon a simulation of reality.”

This is Nolan's Batman. If he hinted at it in BATMAN BEGINS, it looks like he's got it figured now. Gotham is not some accentuated gothic fantasy shrowded in perpetual darkness - it's a real city, in a real world, one in which 'convincing illusions' can be all the more compelling for being framed within a familiar context. This is a world in which Batman and The Joker are not agents of the simple binary of good and evil, but complex individuals operating outside the law, connected by fate, driven by torment and alienation.

The comic world is all the richer for an established tradition of reinvention and reinterpretation, and few series have lent themselves so readily to such radical re-envisioning as Batman, not just for his own depth and complexity, but for that of his nemesis. Bryan Singer's Lex Luthor wants real estate. Nolan's Joker wants to sit back and watch a city burn. He might be robbing banks now, but something tells me he's not just in it for the money.

Disclosure: My employer Picture Production Company works for Warner Bros Pictures International marketing their theatrical film releases. However, if you honestly think anything I've said here is coloured by this fact, you don't know me from Adam West.


posted by Dan Light  # 11:14
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