Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: william faulkner

Via IO9, a link to a Moviehole interview in which Robert Downey, Jr. trashes DC and The Dark Knight:

My whole thing is that that I saw ‘The Dark Knight’. I feel like I’m dumb because I feel like I don’t get how many things that are so smart. It’s like a Ferrari engine of storytelling and script writing and I’m like, ‘That’s not my idea of what I want to see in a movie.’ I loved ‘The Prestige’ but didn’t understand ‘The Dark Knight’. Didn’t get it, still can’t tell you what happened in the movie, what happened to the character and in the end they need him to be a bad guy. I’m like, ‘I get it. This is so high brow and so f–king smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.’ You know what? F-ck DC comics. That’s all I have to say and that’s where I’m really coming from.

Now first, it’s worth noting it sounds incredibly tongue-in-cheek.

But as I noted in IO9’s comments, I don’t think that makes it necessarily less true.

I noted just after seeing the movie that I hadn’t terrifically enjoyed it. I don’t think I actively disliked it, mind you, because I thought it had a lot of strengths and I thought I could see what it was going for, which I admired. Much of it had a very noir feel. Anyone who’s read my collection (as always, free here) probably picked up that I enjoy noir, as two of the stories are noir. I think the best thing Billy Faulkner ever wrote was The Big Sleep and that was because Chandler did it first, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is among my favorite movies.

The thing about The Dark Knight as noir was that Nolan nailed the atmosphere but not really the conflict, which caused the writing to suffer. I can quote The Big Sleep off the top of my head–

“I don’t like your manners.”
“And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

But not so much The Dark Knight.

I think it was a little too dark, especially when Batman Begins had some nice, humorous touches (Morgan Freeman ftw [and: get well soon!]).

But I think my biggest problem was with the Joker. I’ve seen people cite the Joker, as a character, as the thematic counterpoint of Batman/Bruce Wayne, but he’s in fact not if solely because he has neither motivation nor backstory. The reason Bruce Wayne/Batman works is that we know how and why Bruce Wayne took up his cowl. We know his personal inciting incident (the death of his parents), and why he does what he does. We in addition know that he constantly wrestles with his own anger: witness the moment in Batman Begins when Wayne sneaks a revolver into the courtroom but then decides not to use it.

We know nothing of the sort about the Joker. Not where he came from, not why he does what he does. We don’t know why he paints his face. And most importantly, we don’t get any sense that he wrestles with his demons like Wayne does, or even that he has them. If we knew that he wrestled with them at some point and gave himself over to them in precisely the way Wayne refuses to, it might be effective. But we don’t.

“Agent of chaos” is one-dimensional characterization and lazy motivation at best and insulting at worst. At first I tried to view the Joker as a trickster-esque character, but he’s not that, either, because the trickster is amoral, beyond morals, lives by a slightly different moral compass than the rest of us but still has that moral compass. It’s why Jack Sparrow works so well. Total embodiment of the trickster archetype. And true, we don’t know his backstory, either, but we know his motivation, or, if we don’t, at least realize he has some.

Because of that lack of motivation, because it’s never clear what the Joker wants (he seems to start out wanting to kill the Batman, but it later turns out he feels the Batman “completes” him and seems to want to challenge Batman, which he never really does), the movie suffers. Especially in the final half-hour or so when every major character has an existential speech about the nature of good and evil and herodom so that they can telegraph to the audience everything the movie itself could not. The final half-hour of The Dark Knight may well be the most egregious example of telling over showing, lazy filmmaking, expository speech, and handing all your major characters philosophy theses as dialogue because you don’t trust what you’ve just made to stand on its own I have ever seen.

Oh, and after having seen Ledger’s performance, I still think Nolan missed a huge opportunity in not casting Christian Bale in triple roles as Bruce Wayne, Batman, and the Joker.

Caught this article on the New York Times site this morning. Seems to be a day or so old, and it’s supposed to be about a movie that takes place in academia, but the article seems to be about how strange it is for a fiction writer to work in Hollywood, and what a difficult time of it said fiction writer would have.

I actually get that, at least considering the author in question, one Mark Jude Poirier. I’ve never actually heard of Poirier, but he’s apparently got two short story collections and two novels under his belt, and he studied at both the University of Iowa and Johns Hopkins, both of which have renowned writing programs, though the article doesn’t mention what Poirier studied. It does mention what Poirier writes about, to some degree:

His published writing, which also includes a second story collection, “Unsung Heroes of American Industry” (2001), and a second novel, “Modern Ranch Living” (2004), is distinguished by good, dry jokes, a fine appreciation of messy families (he is one of 11 children), a tremendous affection for teenagers and losers, and a strange fascination with amusement-park rides. Only the last is missing from “Smart People.”

I could see why that might not work in a movie, or at least might become one of those pointless, “character-driven” pieces that inevitably come up for Oscars. Rafferty uses this dichotomy, though, to make some blanket statements:

But mostly nothing happens, except in the sense that novelists and short-story writers understand. For them moving a character from not knowing that he’s unhappy to sort of acknowledging it qualifies as a pretty momentous event.

And that may be why so few writers of fiction manage to succeed, or even to be minimally comfortable, in Hollywood. There was a time when the studios, hankering for prestige, would throw money at well-known literary figures and set them to work on projects to which their actual talents were almost risibly irrelevant: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, among others, all did their stints and went home, for the most part, baffled. (Playwrights, with their expertise in dramatic construction and ingrained audience-pleasing instincts, usually fared better.)

These days Hollywood — even “independent” Hollywood — doesn’t frequently come calling on novelists of any literary stature. John Sayles, who directs his own screenplays, has had a productive career, and Richard Price and Larry McMurtry get work too, but it’s a short list. Producers care less about prestige than about marketable stories, and what in the world do fiction writers know about stories?

The fact that “not knowing that he’s unhappy to sort of acknowledging it qualifies as a pretty momentous event” for many current writers of short stories and novels is I think, for the most part, why some many current short stories and novels suck worse than a gaping chest wound and are crappier than a sewage treatment facility.

I can’t argue with Rafferty’s list of writers of the golden age, nor with the quality of their output; I’ve often said that the best thing William Faulkner ever wrote was The Big Sleep, and the thing about it was that Ray Chandler had already done all the heavy lifting for him. Most successful novel adaptations weren’t written by their novelists; The Shawshank Redemption was written by Frank Darabont, and Jo Rowling hasn’t touched any of the Harry Potter scripts (well. Except to approve them). There are a few writers I can think of who do both successfully: Alex Garland (The Beach), David Benioff, and Neil Gaiman are, roughly, it, but the thing about them is that each seem to have an understanding that, for stories to work, something must happen and someone must change.

If nothing happens and nobody changes, is it really a story?

Or is it actually just a handful of competently composed sentences, told by idiots full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing?

I’d argue most fiction is the latter, nowadays. Which I suppose makes Rafferty right, in his way, but for all the wrong reasons.