A Couple Of Short Notes From The Habitrail

Bah. I’m out of rhythm on this blog thing. Being sick for all of July has really sucked all of the life out of my summer.

Anyway, during all of the long, hacking, coughing, miserable month of July, I did manage to see a couple of movies.

1) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I must explain, before I go on here, that I was really looking forward to this film — and also dreading what might be done to it. I love the Seth Grahame-Smith novel on which it is based. I will admit that it actually took me a few chapters to get into the book — Grahame-Smith goes for a slow, elegant build, playing gracefully with the reinterpretation of familiar events and images from Lincoln’s life until the full horror of the connection between US politics, the slave economy of the south, and the vampire menace is finally revealed. The sense one has of being let in on a terrible secret is an important feature of the book, and it makes the otherwise absurd premise not only plausible but engaging. Grahame-Smith’s narrative involves the reader (via the device of a contemporary first-person narrator exploring Lincoln’s diaries and other documentation) in an act of discovery.

The film could have been done that way. In fact, if I had been the one pitching an adaptation of this book, Lincoln himself would only have appeared in illustrative flashbacks representing diaried events. The real protagonist of the film would have been the contemporary narrator (suitably fleshed out and given perhaps a little more detail), engaged in a search to determine the truth of the shocking and thoroughly bizarre story he’s been given. The build to the horror of slavery-as-vampire-farm-scheme and corrupt governance by human collaborators would’ve been the point of the narrative arc, and I might have invented some further consequence that brings the historical menace into the present.

This is not, however, what was done with the film.

Instead, we got a big, loud, absurd, occasionally brilliant but usually tedious action movie in which Abraham Lincoln (well played by the perfectly cast Benjamin Walker) kicked a lot of vampire ass and a lot of other characters on screen wasted my fucking time (and theirs, no matter how well they often did their jobs) in underwritten and ill-connected scenes. It had moments, this film — but not the right ones, and not enough of them.

Not that I minded the ass-kicking, of course.

2) The Dark Knight Rises

Look, let’s keep this simple: I’m on board with everyone else who thinks that Christopher Nolan has consistently raised the bar for superhero movies with his Batman films. He’s made three thoughtful, well-shot, well-constructed, well-acted, and psychologically/politically/
philosophically challenging movies, and I’m pretty damn grateful that he did it. I liked this film, and I’m probably going to see it again in the theatre and then buy it on DVD.

I also think that while they have had their problems (none of these films is ever going to pass the Bechdel test, for example. See also: Alfred as Mr. Exposition), all three films do an excellent job of providing a window into a way of thinking about the symbolic value of the heroic that’s entirely worthwhile.

I’ve seen some comments about the (alleged) political agenda of The Dark Knight Rises, but I have to say that imputing a stereotypically conservative message to this film misses the point. So, by the way, does imputing a stereotypically liberal agenda. Nolan made no bones about it, and said so quite often — Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is the source and structure of the DKR narrative. The eulogy at the end is the last thoughts of Sydney Carton on the way to the guillotine, for crying out loud. Y’all really need to go read your Dickens. This isn’t about simplistic representations of contemporary politics. Go see Frank Miller (*cough*300*cough*) for that shit. Nolan isn’t Frank Miller, even if they do share a character in Batman.

Dickens neither condemned nor glorified the French Revolution. He made consistent use of the dualities that he started the book with — it’s all twos, it’s all complementary opposites, and it’s not an accident. The Revolution was, if we follow Dickens, both necessary and inevitably ugly. For every revolutionary triumph over the oppressors there is a dark consequence (the Terror to come — there is always Mme Defarge), but even the darkness is not permanent, and the new grows out of the destruction of the old. No figure is unambiguously good, no good deed goes unpunished, and no wickedness goes entirely unredeemed. Nolan’s Gotham is Dickens’ Paris, rendered oddly, still playing with dualities. Batman/Bruce Wayne is both Darnay and Carton. The powers that be in Gotham are corrupt, but so (ultimately) are the ones who overthrow them, even if the overthrow might to some degree be justified. Yet even those complicit in the corruption can overcome it (Gordon, whose wonderfully complicated moral position in all three films is worthy of individual study all by itself, and Foley) without falling prey to a further and worse wickedness.

This isn’t about condemning protest or valorizing authority — it’s about the very complicated world in which justice often fails, but sometimes triumphs in the dark, unknown. That’s exactly the world Batman occupies (and has always occupied, in Nolan’s work).

Also: There was a lot of ass-kicking in this one, too. It  was awesome.

P.S. More of Nolan’s approach to Catwoman, please!


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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