Wednesday, September 23, 2015
OnePeterFive: Why we hate beauty and enshrine ugliness
Steve of OnePeterFive invited me to expand my thoughts on the ideas behind the "papal chair" meme. Here it is: a diagnosis on why we hate beauty and enshrine ugliness. Gird your loins!
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Gotham's reckoning: Bane, Burke, and the French Revolution
Last month, I managed to nab the Dark Knight Trilogy "Ultimate Collector's Edition" Blu-ray set for a steal: lightly used for $35. I introduced my mother-in-law to the series, who hadn't seen anything Batman-related since the Adam West days, and had a blast all over again.
Those of you who've been around my blog since the beginning recall that my very first post was about Batman's themes, especially in response to The Dark Knight Rises's release in 2012. This latest reviewing took me back to that first experience of the film, a 3:30am opening night premiere at the largest IMAX theater in the region. The first scene: America's dumbest CIA agent loads a nuclear physicist and three terrorists, tied up with bags on their heads, onto a plane without bothering to look at their faces. As the plane is in mid-flight over the gorgeous Scottish highlands, the agent interrogates one of the men about their leader's plans. Even before he lifts the bag off the guy's head, we hear that voice. Where every other actor's speech was piped in left or right of the screen, corresponding to where they were standing in the shot, the mesmerizing voice of Tom Hardy's Bane seemed to emanate not from any conventional speaker, but from the floor itself, penetrating your brain until all you could think about was "the fire rises!"
Like any good Bat-fanatic, I ended up watching The Dark Knight Rises twice over in other theaters, but neither establishment's sound system gave the Bane voice the justice it got when I heard it the first time around. I have a friend who even refuses to watch the movie in part because he thought the voice sounded so silly and unthreatening... tragic, because Hardy's Bane manages to match the nigh-impossible feat of outdoing Heath Ledger's Joker as one of the most brilliant, terrifying, visceral villains to ever hit the silver screen. For the Modern Medievalist, it's not just the bone-crunching, death-dealing carnage Bane channels into every punch that makes him the icon of terror; for in the real world, a well-placed bullet stops a strong man just as quickly as a weak one. It's not even the possibility of Bane destroying civilization; the Joker sought to sow chaos and total anarchy throughout Gotham's streets, but for all his cleverness, I doubt Nolan's take on the clown prince of crime could sustain a perpetual cycle of madness over an entire city. The institutions of man (if not the police, then federal or military intervention) would eventually take someone like the Joker down with or without the Batman's help.
Bane stands apart because, where the Joker is content to rob a few banks and burn his pile of money to ash, Bane pulls a heist on Wall Street itself (or whatever Gotham's equivalent is called) and harnesses the entire Wayne fortune for his own ends. While Bane certainly doesn't have faith in the power of money or law and order, he doesn't just smash them (until the end, of course)--he rebuilds them in his own image and convinces an entire city to actually buy the deal. The Joker offered no pretense of hope, forcing society to take extreme measures against him if Batman failed. Bane brings about a worse evil: he strings people along with false doctrine and hope, both in Gotham and the prison whence he came, like a carrot at the end of a stick to corrupt and torment their souls.
Gotham: a microcosm of history
In the sewer under Wayne's armory, Bane exclaims, "I am here to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny!" As new head of the League of Shadows, he ties the trilogy together to an overarching plot which was neglected in the second film, The Dark Knight. In Batman Begins, Ra's explains that his league's mission was to restore balance to civilization:
"Gotham's time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham... must be destroyed."
As in the general course of history, the city of Gotham has had its periods of growth and decline, order and decadence, reaction and revolution. We know from Batman's comics canon that in its early years, the Wayne family, through successive generations of wealthy business owners and philanthropists, guided the city of Gotham to prosperity as a modern metropolis. Like the Medici of medieval and Renaissance Florence, the Waynes rarely held political office, but were always in the background, pulling the strings to secure the city's growth. At the opening of Batman Begins, during Bruce's boyhood, his parents help the city get through a recession by engaging in public works like the building of the monorail until their senseless murder by a lowlife. Ra's eventually reveals that the economic depression of Bruce's youth was actually engineered by the League to bring Gotham down from its apex of decadence and corruption, perhaps like the Protestant Reformers' whirlwind against the statues and shrines of the Renaissance Church. But the League's measures to destroy the city, which spurred scumbags like Joe Chill to hold the Waynes up for their money in an alley behind the opera house, also sewed the seeds for reaction: for a son to dedicate his life to ensuring his fate wouldn't be shared by anyone else in Gotham again--taking up the mantle of the Batman.
The Dark Knight opens with a Gotham City in which Bruce's crusade against crime has been ongoing for several years. Ra's al Ghul has been defeated, the last dregs of the breakout at Arkham Asylum have been cleaned up, and gangsters flee when the Batman's signal floods the night sky. The mob, pushed to desperation as their cash reserves disappear before their eyes, turn to an "expert" to exterminate their hated foe once and for all: the Joker. As Harvey Dent says, "the night is darkest just before the dawn". Things must get worse before they get better.... and man, do they get worse. We never actually see that dawn Harvey alluded to until The Dark Knight Rises, which reveals that the framing of Batman for Dent's death bought a tenuous peace: outrage over the law's ineffectiveness empowered the government to pass the Dent Act, strengthening the police and denying parole for any of the hundreds of mobsters arrested by Dent's prosecution in the events of The Dark Knight for over eight years running. In a moment alone with Gordon, Officer Blake jokes that they'll soon have nothing left to do but chase down overdue library books. Little did they know that the security bought by the Dent Act was merely an armistice preceding the gathering storm of Bane's revolution.
The history of Europe, too, has its counterpart to Gotham's Dent Act. I earlier compared the League of Shadows and its rejection of both the corruption of Gotham and the benevolence of the Waynes to the Protestant Reformation. The challenge of the Luther, Calvin, and their thugs were eventually met in Rome by the Counter-Reformation. The popes put their building projects and nepotism aside (more or less) to convene the Council of Trent, reinforcing the Church's doctrine and institutions, matching the Luthers and Calvins of the north blow for blow with an army of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. The war of priests and preachers gave way, soon enough, to armies of soldiers and mercenaries, as religious tensions flared to intermittent warfare between Protestant and Catholic for nearly a hundred years: the Pilgrimage of Grace, the French Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years' War. In 1648, after German soil had been watered with the blood of more than 8 million dead, the kings and princes of Europe established the Peace of Westphalia. Its term established that territorial boundaries (lines on a map, if you will) were to be respected. Religious policies were to be determined by the maxim cuius regio, eius religio: whatever the faith of the local king or prince would be the established religion of that country, though minorities would be permitted to practice their faith privately at home or publicly within designated times and places. The pope and the leading Protestant figures both found anything less than total victory unacceptable, but the Westphalian system ultimately prevailed until, at least, the onset of the French Revolution.
Gotham is yours: Bane's Revolution
I hope it's understood that in no way did I mean to suggest that Nolan, Goyer et al. ever consciously thought to mirror the history of Gotham after western Europe's march to modernity... with one critical exception. Bane's takeover of the city was explicitly inspired by the French Revolution, and in particular, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. This is, after all, the book Commissioner Gordon reads from at the end of The Dark Knight Rises during Bruce's "funeral" (the Penguin Classics edition, to be precise!). Though, instead of the more oft-cited beginning, he reads snippets from the end:
"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss... I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy... I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence... It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Nolan's Bane, of course, ditches the lucha libre mask and the other fantastical aspects of his character in order to fit in with the Nolan vision of "heightened reality", but the most important characteristics remain: namely, that Bane is both physically and intellectually a match for Batman. Bane's nationality and even the prison he comes from is made more abstract for the film, with the added flourish of a background with the League of Shadows. (In the comics, however, Bane does eventually encounter Ra's al Ghul and eventually impresses him to the point where Ra's names him heir to the League and proposes that he marry Ra's daughter, Talia.) The greatest difference of any real distinction for us between comic and film is not how much muscle mass Bane has, but the villain's motivations. In 1993, Bane had grown obsessed with stories of Batman even while still in prison and dedicated himself to "breaking the Bat" simply to prove that he could. After realizing his goal, Bane was content to bask in a luxury penthouse over Gotham's skyline with a pile of riches and dominance over the criminal underworld.
For the film, it just wouldn't do for Bane to have such a mundane goal in mind. No, he was given the unenviable task of outdoing even Ledger's Joker in sheer terror. The Bane of 2012 had to be an idealist. Though his true purpose is to instill total despair and destruction, Bane finds it convenient to play the part of the demagogue to further his plan. He is no sans-culotte himself, but finds it easy to harness the rage of a million Madame Defarges against everything Bruce Wayne represents in Gotham: power, privilege, and wealth. He gives his call to arms on live television before the doors of Blackgate prison as though it were the Bastille: rightly or wrongly a symbol of the old regime's power to crush dissent.
"We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you... the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please. Start by storming Blackgate, and freeing the oppressed! Step forward those who would serve. For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city... it will endure. Gotham will survive!"
Bane harnesses the mob's anger for his own ends, but he doesn't actually believe in the rhetoric himself. On a personal level, every murder and execution Bane commits is cool, rational, and directed toward a higher purpose. Bane's last words to Dr. Pavel before snapping his neck are "thank you, doctor". The last thing Daggett, too, hears before dying at Bane's cusped, reassuring hand is "I'm necessary evil." He's not so well compared to the angry Madame Defarge or "The Vengeance" as he is to Maximilien Robespierre. Lest you think it's a stretch, I point out that the design of Bane's overcoat was a deliberate reference. Costume designer Lindy Hemming said:
"Chris Nolan thought there was an element about Bane that was of the French Revolution. There was kind of a romanticism about him, as well as being very bad. So I tried to combine the jacket with a French Revolutionary-style high-standing collar, which goes up and then comes back down."
The short version is that, when King Louis XVI was put on trial for treason after attempting to flee the country, Robespierre came to the conclusion that "desperate times called for desperate measures": in order for the new Republic to live, the king had to die, despite Robespierre's personal opposition to the death penalty... or, as Bane put it, it was necessary evil. In turn, by 1793, he concluded that a reign of terror had to be applied to preserve the common good and save the Revolution from being reversed by its enemies. Indeed, properly applied, terror was merely the fast-tracked application of justice. It was never anything personal against those doomed to die. In his own words:
"Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."
Of course, a strong parallel can also be drawn from Robespierre and the Terror to Ra's al Ghul and any one of his plots to purge civilization of corruption, both in Batman Begins and in his various comic incarnations. Bane meant it when he said, "I am the League of Shadows! I'm here to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny!"
Batman: the Burkean hero
Many of my, err, left-leaning friends like to characterize the Batman as a fascist who keeps the people of Gotham down by perpetuating a broken system: criminals break out of Arkham, and all Batman does is throw them back in the revolving door, only to break out and kill a dozen more victims, making a mockery of the Dark Knight's rigid adherence to his no-killing rule. This is ultimately the Bat falling afoul of bad writers or, perhaps, the nature of comics themselves. To keep a continuity running for years or decades, the villains have to break out of prison over and over again so that DC can sell more stories and more comics. The Nolan films, on the other hand, are safely in the confines of a defined story arc. Batman doesn't feel the need to save Ra's al Ghul a second time, when the monorail careens into the parking garage in front of Wayne Tower at the end of Batman Begins. Once the Joker is in custody at the end of The Dark Knight, he (presumably) has never been able to bust out ever since.
In the hands of a good writer, Batman isn't a useful idiot for a broken legal system. He respects the rule of law in general, but has no qualm with acting above the law when it falls short; whether it's running a few red lights during a high-speed chase in the Batmobile, or attacking cops when they get in his way of acting for the greater good. As Bruce Wayne, the unofficial prince of Gotham, he'll also use his influence behind the scenes to get worthy men in political office, find jobs for the able-bodied, and give charity to the not-so-able. If Bane is Robespierre, Batman is Edmund Burke.
Burke was a member of the House of Commons in Britain during the French Revolution. In 1790, though he was a Whig (the liberal party at that time), Burke came out with a scathing attack, Reflections on the Revolution in France:
"What sort of a thing must be a nation of gross, stupid, ferocious, and at the same time, poor and sordid barbarians, destitute of religion, honor, or manly pride, possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter? I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal."
Of the British system, by contrast, with its tradition of common law and gradual evolution, he wrote:
"Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete."
Although we now see Regency Britain as an avowed enemy of the French Revolution, it's important to point out that Burke's fellows in the Whig Party were rather supportive of the Revolution at first. Burke came out with his Reflections even before the execution of the King and Queen, the Reign of Terror, the massacre of the Vendee, and the foreign wars. The Tories, meanwhile, didn't wholly trust Burke, either because earlier in his career, Burke supported the American side of their revolution in the colonies, emancipation and civil liberties for Catholics, and spent years trying to get the Governor-General of India impeached for judicial murder and other crimes during his colonial administration. His unpopularity among both parties for seemingly contradictory views caused him to resign from Parliament. As there's no greater praise to be had on earth than the ire of Karl Marx, it's worth citing the communist author's feelings about Burke's loyalty to his conscience over party lines:
"The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois. 'The laws of commerce are the laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.' No wonder that, true to the laws of God and Nature, he always sold himself in the best market."
One can easily imagine Edmund Burke at the charity gala early in The Dark Knight Rises, scoffing with Bruce at the luxurious assortment of food on the table while the city suffers. Nonetheless, being born in the Regency Room or driving to the party in a Lamborghini isn't the evil. The sin is in refusing to fulfill the responsibilities attached to power and privilege: using your gifts and virtue to better your fellow man. Noblesse oblige.
When the screen goes to black and the credits roll, the average moviegoer walks away with the lesson that Batman became a hero for sacrificing his name, fortune, body, and his whole life for the sake of his city. And while that's all true, the casual viewer might miss a greater significance: that Batman also inspired ordinary men to be heroes with him. The best counter to Bane and the League of Shadows's designs is not anarchy or even enlightened despotism under Batman's mailed fist, but the co-operation of virtuous men. Good government. Civilization.
At the final film's climax, Batman has finally regained the trust of law and order. Captain Foley, who has spent Bane's revolution hiding behind his wife at their townhouse, wakes up from complacency and leads the Gotham police, clad in full dress, in a march toward Bane's heavy guns and certain death, all to give Batman a chance to strike. He gets mowed down by a Tumbler in the execution of his office, sprawled over the pavement with all the symbols and badges of his station like a fallen soldier in a romantic painting looking back to the Napoleonic wars. Batman hasn't destroyed a corrupt government. He's restored faith in good government and redeemed the western civilization that the League sought to overthrow. In death, Captain Foley realizes Burke's unheeded lesson on unchecked evils such as those which arose in France, which is often misquoted as "evil triumphs when good men do nothing" but remains substantially true below:
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