Thursday, July 31, 2008

Guest Post: Greg Barnhisel on The Dark Knight

RECENTLY, GREG BARNHISEL, A professor of English at Duquesne University, stopped by TWR to do a guest post on the John Yoo tenure fiasco at Berkeley. Now, Barnhisel is back with yet another interesting perspective on the unlikely intersection of conservativism and liberalism, this time, though, it's not about Yoo and Berkeley but about Hollywood and Batman.

by Greg Barnhisel

I don't really talk about movies in my own blog because, well, I don't really see movies much anymore, what with two small children. My wife and I do have a Netflix subscription and use it frequently, but because of the multitasking way we watch our DVDs--both of us working/surfing on our laptops, going to the kitchen, going upstairs to help a restive child fall asleep--I don't feel like I've immersed myself in a film when I watch it at home. I really tried a few months ago, when I took out David Lynch's Inland Empire, but I just don't think I'm able to focus on a film unless I'm in a theater (and even then I have to be reminded not to use the Blackberry). So I don't want to write about these films the way I write about books because in a sense it's not fair; unlike books, films don't receive my full attention when I see them on TV.

(Interestingly, this isn't the case with TV shows that I take out and watch--I give full attention to The Wire, The Sopranos, The Weeds, whatever it is; or, rather, I find it much easier to give them full attention. There must be a series of cinematographic and screenwriting tricks that a TV director uses to focus a home audience's attention that a movie director doesn't need to use. I'll have to check out Mad Men and see if it's similarly engaging.)

But after seeing The Dark Knight this week I just can't resist talking about the movie: not because the film itself was great, or horrible, or anything--it's a summer blockbuster about a superhero, enough said--but because Wall Street Journal writer Andrew Klavan argued that this film is a 150-minute panegyric to George W., down to the similarity between the Batsymbol and the Current Occupant's middle initial. Predictably, liberal blogs have screamed about this silly reaching of the Bush dead-enders for cultural relevance. Isaac Chotiner in the NEW REPUBLIC almost choked with disbelief, and the generally shriller and more Hollywood-centric Huffington Post attempted to rebut the argument that Bush = Batman by arguing that because Batman willingly accepts that he MUST become an outlaw to save Gotham, this proves that Christopher Nolan and the film are arguing that Batman's "enhanced" tactics of crimefighting and civil-rights violations were wrong all along.

The problem is that the Wall Street Journal is right.

There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society -- in which people sometimes make the wrong choices -- and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror.
In the film, Batman is confronted by the Joker, who is explicitly contrasted with the cartel of mafia gangs (ethnically stereotyped as sharp-dressed Italians, threatening African Americans, and swarthy lowbrowed Southeastern Europeans) that used to be the city's nemeses. The Joker represents an entirely new paradigm of villian: he is nihilistic, an "agent of chaos," pleased to bring evil for evil's sake and with no larger "goal" besides death. It's hard for me to see this as anything but an allegory for the post-Cold War period, when the "old" villains of Communism, dangerous but predictable and organized, have been supplanted by the "evildoers" of terrorism, whom conservatives consistently describe as being motivated simply by hate: "they hate our freedoms," "they love death." The Joker = Al Qaeda, and the Joker's ability to inspire the crazies of the city to join him and die in the process mirrors the Al Qaeda copycat phenomenon.

As with Al Qaeda, there is no negotiating with the Joker, for he doesn't want anything except the aftermath of the chaos he brings. (This notion, that Islamic terrorism is fundamentally autochthonous and self-perpetuating rather than a response to material conditions and a drive for particular goals, is most frequently advanced by those who use the term "Islamo-Fascism.") And because he is so unpredictable, so alien to the ordinary laws of human motivation, Batman and his allies (Gordon, the head of Major Crimes, and Harvey Dent, the paladin-like district attorney) must fight the war in new ways, using deception and the violation of people's civil liberties. As Dick Cheney said on September 16, 2001,

"We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will."

The people, naturally, clamor for this. Terrified and stupid, the populace of Gotham needs to be directed and protected by a Strong Leader--or, rather, a leader-cadre divided up between the admirable figurehead of Harvey Dent (in whom the People Put Their Hopes) and Batman, the man who is willing to get his hands dirty, making the sausage, doing the things that have to be done but which can't be exposed. These leaders know that they will ultimately return to the citizens their pre-Joker freedoms, but during the state of the emergency (Terror Alert Red?) they need to do things that they can't disclose. At one point, Batman figures out how to make every citizen's cellphone a kind of microphone and sonar imagery device all plugged into his central console, so that he--or his faithful lieutenant, Lucius Fox--can engage in simultaneous surveillance of every phone conversation and text message and have images of every point in the entire city. Fox is at first reluctant to wield this power, but Batman assures him that there is a safeguard against its irresponsible use: Fox's own conscience, and his trust in Fox to disable this useful but potentially dangerous technology as soon as the emergency ends.

I can't see how anyone, liberal or conservative, can see this as anything but a justification for the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" (warrantless wiretapping) and the "Total Information Awareness" initiative. The safeguards that had been in place (FISA courts) are no longer operational; we need this information NOW because there is a ticking bomb; you can trust us not to violate your liberties because we are good Americans.

The movie even sanctions torture. It's horribly violent, and although it doesn't engage in the stylization of violence typical of the Wachowski Brothers movies (V is for Vendetta) it makes it clear that even though the Joker desires violence and death (like "terrorists"), that can't stop us from using it for the greater good.

The final tentpole of this argument is the portrayal of Batman as a combination of Bush and Cheney. Like Batman in his muscled suit and "Wayne Enterprises," Bruce Wayne's military-contractor corporation, macho, martial, Bush on the aircraft carrier in his flight suit becomes an emblem of the irresistibility and sexiness of American military power and the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile Cheney, hidden in his undisclosed location, devises the strategies behind the scenes that will keep us safe. And while the population initially embraces, and even dresses as, Batman, as things get tougher the fickle public turns on their hero, sending his approval ratings from the 80s to the high 20s. Batman, though, knows that the fight must continue, that he must stick to his convictions even as the short-sighted citizens agitate for his arrest. In the end, after making clear to his team that he will be the scapegoat for the death of Dent, he is hounded from society. How satisfying Bush must find this! The hero, steadfast even when his fans turn against him, will never stop protecting us from evil, even when we are too foolish to understand that his extraordinary tactics are for our own good?

Or, as Klavan puts it,

Doing what's right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.

Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms.

Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don't always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.

The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them -- when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love.

When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, "He has to run away -- because we have to chase him."

That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.

Perhaps that's when Hollywood conservatives will be able to take off their masks and speak plainly in the light of day.
I think Nolan's been unmasked.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mad Men: Season Two

THE BEST CHARACTER ON Mad Men is not a man and is only a little mad. While the men do dominate the main text, the more interesting, more nuanced women, rule the roost of the subtext, effectively taking over what passes for the primary narrative. Joan Holloway, played exceeding well by Christina Hendricks, is the first character viewers see in the opening frames of the premiere of season two of the show, and she functions as a metaphor for all of the women torn between their dependence on and frustration with men.

Set in a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960 (last season) and beginning in February of 1962 (this season), Mad Men has garnered positive critical remarks for its portrayal of open sexuality and sexism in the office. Indeed, there is hardly a scene featuring a woman and a man in which either positive or negative sexual tension is absent. It's always there--sometimes ambiguously positive and negative--spilling over onto the floor and staining the fabric of the co-ed but not co-equal work place.

One of the themes is the effect that men and their decisions have on the women in their lives--whether they are lovers, wives, or colleagues. With almost no agency and even fewer options, the show's women are forced into perpetually reactive positions, sometimes with dire consequences. When Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)--one of the young women from the vast secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper--discovers that her one night stand with an engaged male colleague has resulted in her pregnancy, she makes what appears to be a shockingly unsentimental decision to give up her baby; a decision prompted largely by her promotion from secretary to copywriter. Similarly, Betty Draper (January Jones), the attractive and polished wife of the lead character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has all the right things and does all the right things but suffers from a perpetual ennui. She loves her life. She hates her life. She loves her husband and his salary. She hates her husband and his infidelity. But, what are her options? In a great scene from the Season Two premiere, Betty runs in to a former roommate who is now a call girl. There but for the grace of Don goes Betty?

Last season, the feeling of being trapped, of being confined within a system and the anxiety and frustration that elicits was the sole domain of women. But, now, it's 1962, and last night's episode suggests that in this season such emotions will cross the aisle and sidle up to both genders. The surprising use of Frank O'Hara's small but revolutionary collection of poems Meditations in an Emergency is a bellwether both for the characters in the show and, for the viewers who know the book, for the audience itself. O'Hara's funny, iconoclastic, non-poetic book of poems signals the end of what Tom Brokaw has called "the Greatest Generation" and heralds the beginning of what we now know as "the Sixties." What this means for Draper and the rest of the men at Sterling Cooper (read: typical white Republican men in America) is that all of the easy assumptions he has been making about gender roles, capitalism, equality, and progress, will soon butt up against the century's most revolutionary decade. Like his wife and his former secretary, he, too, will feel passed by, out of control, even paralyzed.

Alessandra Stanley argues in The New York Times that Mad Men "became such a critical hit last summer is that it glows with amused nostalgia for a lost but not-so-distant era."

I disagree.

In fact, TWR was the first to argue that Mad Men's real draw is the dialectic between nostalgia and interrogation. It's wrong and simply too easy to claim the show uncritically sentimentalizes the 60s. Rather, the show reminds us how lazy and perhaps even how dangerous facile nostalgia might be. At a time when Americans find nostalgia for a plurality of eras, Mad Men might just prove to be its generation's Meditation in an Emergency.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Obama: This Time, The New Yorker Cover

NO ONE WAS PREPARED for the friendly fire caused by the recent New Yorker cover—certainly not Barack Obama and his army of over-prepared staff. But, the hardest bullets to dodge are the ones coming from your own side. With friends like The New Yorker, well, who needs friends?

Right now, The New Yorker needs a friend. Anger over its confusing cover is the talk of the town because of its seemingly stereotyped rendering of the Obamas. In case you haven’t seen it, the cover renders Obama as a Muslim and his wife Michelle as a camo-wearing gunslinging mercenary. The two are fist-bumping in the oval office where an American flag burns in the fireplace right beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

But, the question is, what, exactly, was The New Yorker’s misstep? Or, was there even a misstep? Is all of the drang an actual sturm? Or, is it merely a summer shower along the campaign’s dusty, mud-raked trail? Though the reaction to the cover has been tempestuous, the truth is, cartoonist Barry Blitt played fast and loose with sensitive semiotic images that became unusually strong cultural lighting rods.

The main problem lies in the ability of images to communicate through association and their inability to communicate through articulation. If there had been some sort of caption, or if the cartoon’s title “The Politics of Fear” had somehow accompanied the cover, readers might have been better prepared to read the image as satire. But, too few semiotic codes exist in the piece to help readers look at the cover through the lens of caricature; so instead, many saw it as commentary.

Blitt’s first mistake here was to incorporate too many factual details, a classic faux pas that often gets in the way of satire and parody. Guilty of what I call “shuffled signification,” Blitt jumbles authentic events that actually happened (like the fist bump) with fictional fears (like Obama’s Muslim roots), making it unclear if the artist is warning readers or mocking them. Similarly, the burning flag evokes rumors that Obama won’t salute Old Glory or wear the flag lapel pin (a canard put to rest, ironically, by the recent cover of Rolling Stone), while Blitt drapes him in African garb that looks too much like the clothes he wears in the oft-posted photo. Again, since Obama did pose for a photo in traditional African clothes—that is no urban legend—the cover sends mixed messages about its stance on rumor versus reality, fact versus fiction.

The staggering speed of the responses—by liberals and conservatives—is a testament to how electric these images are. “Despite the defenses by New Yorker staffers,” writes J.S. on the blog SemiObama, “and a pretty good online presence, I don't think they were prepared for the New Media reaction to [the cover], the nature of instant analysis, and response storm that follows every political and cultural development, especially in this campaign.”


Obama’s smartest reaction would be to laugh this one off. It would not only prove he is a savvy reader of complex texts, but it would also diffuse the shock value of all of the rumors, rendering them as ridiculous to everyone else as they are to The New Yorker. But, our culture has not yet gotten enough distance from incendiary images like a flaming flag or a portrait of Osama bin Laden to enable us to look through our associations of those images. The semiotics of the cover are so charged, so flammable, even fire-proof Obama can get burned.

Monday, July 14, 2008

American Icon: Obama

LAZINESS PREVENTS TWR FROM a full post this week (deadlines, pregnant wife, deadlines), so we offer instead a link to Monday's San Francisco Chronicle in which the TWR founder has an op-ed piece on Barack Obama and popular culture.

You can read it here: American Icon

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


TWO TELEVISION EVENTS LAST night had quite different but equally memorable effects on the staff here at TWR, and it reminded all of us here at the headquarters why everything seems that much lamer post basketball season and post The Wire.

The first was the lead story on ABC News with Charlie Gibson, who announced right away a special edition with limited commercials and only one sponsor. That story was a report on physicians who are now prescribing drugs for children with high cholesterol and featured a skinny but healthy smiling boy who had been taking Lipitor to keep his cholesterol in check. According to his mother, he is on a strict diet, but only Lipitor worked. At the end of the segment, which looked at many sides of this controversy--though exercise was not one of them--I made the comment to my wife how ironic it would be if the sole sponsor for the newscast was a pharmaceutical company.

Imagine now not surprised we were when the one commercial for the program featured a new anti-cholesterol drug that combines the benefits of Lipitor. As one of the commenters on the Website noted, ABC is notorious for running drug ads, but last night's example seemed to indicate the show's main underwriter may have been involved not simply in the lead story but perhaps also in advancing a pro-medication treatment for illness at the expense of other options.

The second less egregious transgression involved the finale of The Bachelorette, a show I watched off and on this season. Romance, dating, and love all carry the unenviable burden of contrivance simply by their ubiquity in history and culture. Add in network TV, careful and considerable editing, and shockingly engineered dating scenarios, and there is almost no possibility for original, authentic emotion.

I marvelled last night as I do every time I watch this or The Bachelor at how many cliches the contestants rely on to convey awesomeness.

This is no coincidence.

I'm not convinced that the cliches are simply a result of the limited vocabularies of the contestants. I'm certain that if these people were experiencing the very same emotions off camera and not part of a show, they would express themselves in very different ways. But, nothing is self-generated here; it's all arranged, organized, and packaged, which seems to generate a commensurate articulation. The expanse of their emotional atlas, the cartography of their romantic journey, has to fit in a palm-sized sound byte, and one of the only ways to do this is to oversimplify, to cliche (a new verb I just invented). So much is circumscribed, Jason and Jesse and Dionna have to express through non-expression. They say "It was amazing," or "it blew me away," or "I've never felt this way before," because they and we know these are code phrases for really big emotions.

When contrivance meets contrivance, they make a smart couple but not smart viewing.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Soundtrack of Summer: Alive or Dead

LOYAL TWR READER AND former journalist Mike Spencer, now of Spencer Investigations (TWR was cleared of all charges), wrote in with one of the better questions of late:
We no longer have a summer soundtrack. The movie Summer of Sam brought me back to childhood in the late 70s. Songs in that movie were anthems of the time. We have no anthems. We are so splintered and divided musically. I think Weezer might be the only band still crafting pop. Perhaps pop, or music for the masses, ended with Nirvana.
TWR surmises the plurality of music and the end of public listening are the main causes of the end of the summer soundtrack. In the 70s for sure and even into the 80s there were only a few genres of music, and most of it could be heard, potentially, on most stations. Granted you might not hear The Ramones or R.E.M or Talking Heads on every station, but between MTV and Rolling Stone, it was pretty likely you would at least come across these bands. Additionally, there were fewer bands out there, fewer labels and no CD burners. Radio dictated the soundtrack of summer.

Now that we have iPods and iTunes and satellite radio, there are no musical commons, no clearing houses for the convergence of catchy hooks, free time, and making out. Even MTV and VH1 seem passé.

To Spencer's point, then, where goeth the summer song?

Apparently, the new vetting mechanism for our summer/fall/winter/spring soundtracks are TV commercials. Yael Naim's "New Soul" is about as close as we're coming right now, or, perhaps Coldplay's "Viva la Vida," and both of those songs found their springboard on Apple commercials. So, maybe part of the problem is that we no longer have soundtracks but entire media tracks--our lives are encased in images, sounds, and digitization, all of it fractals and fragments produced by others but consumed by us.

But, perhaps the best explanation for the slow sleep of the summer soundtrack is not technological but sociological. With more diversity comes more diversity. With culture on demand, musical homogeneity feels so 1988. Maybe the lack of a common summer song that seems to embody a time, place, and moment is proof that at least some measure of heterogeneity has finally arrived.