Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Dark Knight - A Comment on Fear, Chaos and Anti-Terrorism Attitudes in Post-9/11 America

I just watched Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for about the 5th or 6th time, and it's definitely one of those stories that causes you to see something new on each of your first ten (or so) viewings. This time around, I noticed all the overt references to terrorists and the moral dilemmas inherent in the issue of how to respond to terrorism on one's home turf, which had somehow eluded me in the shadows of Heath Ledger's historic, Oscar-winning performance as The Joker, Nolan's cinematographic and storytelling mastery and the over-all geek-love for the ol' cape-n-cowl.

So this time around, I was really looking at what comments Nolan was making (along with his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan Nolan) on our modern world. Once you notice it, it really does stick out pretty palpably. For example, it's easy to say that the film is the story of a city - Gotham - under siege by a madman "terrorist" who calls himself "The Joker;" a man who has murdered several people around the city and is threatening to kill more until the Batman reveals his true identity. This, of course, would be a simple fix if Gotham didn't truly need Batman to keep his identity secret so that he could go on protecting them and living as a symbol of its citizens' right to live without fear. And now that freedom is being threatened - and people are living in fear. What do you do?

The scene that really stuck out for me on this concept was when Batman devises a sonar system utilizing every civilian cell phone in Gotham city as "a high-frequency generator/receiver" to give him ultimate control to see everything everywhere in the city. His trusted accomplice, Lucius Fox, says that the invention is "beautiful... unethical... dangerous."

I think the obvious allusion here (which, sadly, had escaped me until now,) is to the Bush-era wiretapping, email-reading and phone-monitoring that was allowed to occur under the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. A storm of controversy surrounded the act at the time of its passage and the concept that the government had allegedly granted itself permission to invade the private affairs and conversations of its citizens on the basis of anti-terrorism investigation, obliterating a few very important civil liberties that are essential to what many Americans call their "inalienable rights."

"This is wrong," says Lucius Fox.
Batman says, "I've got to find this man, Lucius."
"At what cost?" he replies.
Batman explains to Lucius that he is the only one who has control of this power, much like, under the Patriot Act, the President is the only one who has control over its civil liberty-invading powers.
"This is too much power for one person," says Lucius. "Spying on 30-million people isn't part of my job description."

Now ultimately, Batman knows this is illegal and unethical. But he believes that it must be used this one time to allow him to capture the terrorist that is plaguing the city. He tells Lucius how to destroy it after it has served its purpose and Lucius is happy to do so, which is all well and good for Gotham City. But it raises a very serious question for our real lives. Is it ever okay - morally justifiable - to invade the privacy of an innocent civilian with the hopes that it will lead to an ultimate justice? How can this power be misused and abused? - for inevitably, someone, somehow will abuse it. And what implications will that abuse have on the future of freedom in America? Is it the slippery slope that some would have us believe, leading our country to a point of vulnerability that will be its undoing? Or is it simply a necessary evil? - the ends justify the means?

And then there's the situation in the film where there are two ferry boats - one carrying civilians and one carrying prisoners - which have each been rigged with explosives. Each boat's passengers are given the detonator to the other's bomb. The Joker announces to both boats that if the passengers of one boat choose to detonate the other, their boat will be spared - but if no one uses their detonators, then The Joker will blow up both boats. It's a classic, diabolical "Joker-style" catch-22. But it's also extremely reminiscent of the Cold War nuclear proliferation conundrum between super powers like the United States and the Soviet Union; both have nukes to destroy the other, but whoever fires first may doom themselves. The Joker says he won't destroy that boat, but how can they trust that the detonator they hold isn't actually the one that will blow up their own boat? Mutually-assured destruction? Hmmm...

Ultimately, even though both sides weigh the pros and cons of "pushing the button", they both decide not to - no one wants that kind of guilt on their conscience, even if they do live through it. In the end, the passengers of both boats decide to have faith in the goodness of their fellow human beings and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, they don't give in to fear.

And suddenly, I've realized that a major theme of The Dark Knight is "enslavement to fear". Go ahead - watch the film again and see how many overt references there are to fear; being free from fear, the power of fear, manipulation by fear...

In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Americans were filled with fear; fear of more attacks, fear of death, fear of chaos, fear of war, and fear of a life unlike anything we've known up until now. This fear caused them to vote certain ways, act certain ways, say certain things and essentially freak out. The famous words of a long-past President were brought up a lot in those days - as a reminder - "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I could argue that The Joker knows this. But he also knows that the people of Gotham have forgotten it; they don't live their lives according to this noble truth. And perhaps he finds it hilarious to dangle the city's biggest fears in front of their faces and watch them scream in horror.

Truly, The Joker is a creature without fear - "an agent of chaos," as he puts it. He happily puts his life on the line, rigging himself with grenades as a threat to his enemies, pushing the barrel of a pistol to his own forehead and handing the trigger end to Harvey Dent in a lesson about introducing chaos into the world, or even laughing maniacally when Batman causes him to flip head-over-heels and plunge 400-some feet off of a downtown skyscraper toward his death (only to be wrangled by the bat-arang at the last minute and hoisted back up). The Joker has no fear, which would be a fairly healthy gift were he not also a criminally-insane, homicidal maniac and completely void of human compassion. His lack of fear is rather dangerous to others, but his points ring true.

The Joker tells Batman how he sees the people of Gotham:

"To them, you're just a freak... like me! They need you right now. But when they don't, they'll cast you out like a leper. See, their morals, their code - it's a bad joke. It gets dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you - when the chips are down, these 'civilized' people... they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."

The Joker may be right. "When the chips are down," he says, the people of Gotham will react to their fears, out of desperation. "These 'civilized' people," - these Americans - will turn on one another out of fear and a survival instinct, vote emergency powers to their leaders, disabling their own protections, the laws that ensure their freedoms, and soon... "they'll eat each other."

But Batman wants to help Gotham realize its potential for good (especially if it's through an unmasked hero like Harvey Dent). The ferry boats don't try to kill each other; they don't fall prey to the Joker's tricks. Gotham is growing and under the purity of the glow of the Bat Signal, they find the strength to "endure" (as Alfred puts it). It's a happy ending for Gotham - they're showing signs of nobility, compassion and great humanity. Someday, they city may no longer need Batman, for there may come a day when their fears no longer put them at the mercy of terrorism.

Perhaps, someday, all of America will be so brave.

P.S. I guess fear has been on my mind a bit lately. Earlier today, I watched "The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington D.C., hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - (a rally held in opposition to the fear-mongering, hate-mongering and mostly ignorance-mongering FOX News Corp.-funded rallies hosted by Sean Hannity, Bill O'Rilley and Glenn Beck and mostly focusing on the concept that fear is a manipulation tool and that we ourselves - and not the media - must have control over our fears in order to maintain sanity.) Jon Stewart gave a great speech about this. Watch it here:

And last night, I stayed up pretty late watching a Netflix movie called
Defending Your Life, whose premise was that, in the afterlife, we are all judged in a trial to determine if we've progressed enough to move on to the next world or if we must go back to Earth to learn more about overcoming our fears. Fear, in this movie, is what keeps the "little brains" on Earth, whereas the "Big-Brains" - those who use more than 5% of their brains - progress and go on to a much more wonderful world. In fact, here's a clip featuring the film's writer/director/star Albert Brooks as "Daniel" and Rip Torn as his lawyer in the afterlife, "Bob."

Friday, October 15, 2010

That Facebook Movie - Review

Okay, so
I'm a bit late on the bandwagon, but I just saw The Social Network. And like most reviews, I have to give it a thumbs up, too. Now, I certainly had to ask myself how much of that positive review is based on all the positive hype it's already been given by the media as well as the public; how much influence did that all have on my liking it? Maybe a little, but I also don't think it'll be my favorite movie of the year - I liked Kick-Ass and Inception more, for example. But there are a few things that made this film quite unique amongst its brethren films this year and which make it worth blogging about.

The film is the story about the inception of the most popular website in the world... as of right now. It was so strange to see that the story begins in 2003, a mere 7 years ago. I grew up watching movies like Apollo 13 or Almost Famous that recounted a moment in America's past in which the story begins decades ago. This film practically takes place here and now. It'd be nearly impossible to distinguish 2003 from today in this film if it weren't for the references to MySpace, Friendster and Napster as the popular websites of the day. Fashion, music and historical events are not relevant or eluded to in the world of 'The Social Network'. For all intents and purposes, this movie takes
place almost entirely in the present moment.

David Fincher won't be winning an Oscar for best director for this film. And why not? Because he simply did his job perfectly well - he told the story clearly and succinctly. No flash or flair, no crazy gimmicks or elaborate set pieces. Just a good story told exceedingly well - and that rarely wins Oscars. After earlier successes with Seven and Fight Club, and - to a lesser extent - Zodiac, Fincher seems to have matured and focused his craft down to the simplicity that a good story requests of its director. No single shot, camera movement or creative edit in this film is noteworthy or memorable enough to comment on it now - only the characters and the performances their actors offered, and the faithfully-captured takes they performed. The film is a textbook example of efficiency. Think about it - to tell a story with so much dialogue about code-writing and algorithms, and at the same time to make it this intriguing to the viewer takes decades of experience on top of a polished talent as a storyteller... and probably the help of a great screenwriter, too.

Which brings me to Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter from TV's The West Wing and such films as A Few Good Men and Charlie Wilson's War. I'm starting to really get to know Sorkin's voice from his films, and more specifically, from his characters. He makes bold moves with his characters, who's real-life counterparts would dispute as wildly inaccurate, to which I can only imagine Sorkin responding, "Yes, but a story about the real you would be much more boring." It seems a bit of a shit-storm has already come and gone about the inflammatory creative liberties Sorkin and Fincher took on the real-life story, but that's their job: to make it entertainment! And Sorkin's characters are given powerful dialogue. In the opening scene, our hero's girlfriend has just dumped him and she scorns him with the film's mission statement:
"You're going to be successful, and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."
Sorkin spends the rest of the film proving her point and motivating his character to disprove it, resulting in 2 hours of here-and-now meta-drama revolving around law suits, broken business partnerships and friendships, and an unwittingly-cannibalistic chicken... all because of a little heartbreak. Ain't that just how it is? (Click here to read some of the more memorable lines from the film.)

Before diving into the analysis of the story itself, I'd also like to say that I think it was a brilliant decision to team up with Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) for the films musical score. He, along with composer and some-time Reznor collaborator, Atticus Ross, created a score that was timely, subdued, but perfectly poignant in the right moments for this film. Some great moments include a scene I'd dub "The Sean-a-thon" and the Rowing scene on the Themes river (a beautifully-shot and edited little sequence that could easily have been for a Timex commercial). The music masterfully mixes a hint of the digital in a sea of the emotional.

Now, the story, as you will know whether you've seen the film or not is about the creation of the social networking site, Facebook, by Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg - a socially-inept but creative computer programming wizard, as played by up-and-comer Jessie Eisenberg, who, over the past 5 years, has worked his way from total obscurity to leading-man Oscar-buzz-worthy performances in just a handful of films. We follow Zuckerberg and his best friend Edwardo Saverin (and the Best Supporting Actor award goes to... Andrew Garfield, who is best known as... well, the next Spider-Man) as they spin a wheel of lies and brilliance into a golden thread tainted with treachery and greed. Zuckerberg is the bane of the existence of three fraternity brothers, including the Winklevoss twins, (amazingly and surprisingly played by one actor, Armie Hammer - I had no idea!) who accuse him of stealing their idea for an exclusive social website. Spoiler Alert: They're not totally wrong.

Superstar Justin Timberlake plays Napster founder Sean Parker as an overconfident millionaire playboy who's facade of perfection is on the cusp of its inevitable crumble. He steps in to help Zuckerberg and company realize the full potential of such a radical idea as Facebook and he is first worshiped and then villainized all within an hour of screen-time. His character slowly pulls a believable "180" without ever coming across as evil or mean. I credit this more to Sorkin than Timberlake, although J.T. does his job well.

That's the plot in a nutshell. But the real meat of this film comes in the character study of Mark Zuckerberg. Is he really the nerdy, introverted and manipulative sociopath that the filmmakers have portrayed him as in real life? Does it really matter? For just another film-goer and Facebook-member like myself, I will probably forever see Jessie Eisenberg in my head every time I hear the name "Mark Zuckerberg" in the news, so this is the image that will prevail to the public. And the character was made deeper and more interesting to watch this way. It would make sense that someone with these particular personality traits, combined with the super-powers of divine computer programming skills and the ability to read social structures as mathematical algorithms, would have not only the ability to create the world-wide phenomenon that is Facebook, but the balls and the greed to pull it off. And yet, as the film's initial statement about Zuckerberg's asshole-ishness is again addressed at the end, it's all fueled by something else... something to which any of us can fall prey: desire.

The film ends without ending, for the story is still going on as we speak. Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world, Facebook has over 500 million members in over 200 countries world-wide, is valued at over $24 billion and undoubtedly, the real-life drama is still raging on behind closed doors. The film ends almost unexpectedly, with loose-ends still not tied up, relationships still unstable and lawsuits yet to be closed... and rolling the credits in the midst of such tension reminds us how ├╝ber-present this situation really is (as well as situations like it that we may know from our own lives).

As clean, simple and everlasting as it all appears to the general public from this side of the Facebook main page on our computer screens, one thing I took away from this film is the reminder that nothing lasts forever. Not MySpace, not Napster, not friendships nor fortune. Not Facebook. Not glory. The only constant in the universe is change. And perhaps its only fuel is desire.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Blog of a Different Color

Okay, it's been a long time. A really long time. I don't blog anymore.

And it's weird, because I used to do it a lot - once a day for a while there. But that all changed when Facebook came along. Now, instead of having to dole this lengthy, wordy, time-gobbling paragraph at you via a blog page, (which is shoddily put together by a guy who has no idea how to make a real and unique blog all his own,) all I have to do is shorten it to a simple statement, slap it on my status update on Facebook and wait for the comments to roll in.

But, you know what I learned in the year or so of blogging that I did and the ensuing year or so when Facebook all but obliterated it? I learned that I have almost nothing to say that is worth much of anything. I have opinions and all that, but who cares? They're just mine. I can tell you about my day, review a movie or an album, comment on some recent news, but... so what? It all means nothing to you - my experiences are not helping you. Apparently, they were barely entertaining you. So, it seems that the blog just ain't where it's at. I'm really writing this to see if I even remember how to write a blog.

I think, if I were to ever get back into blogging, I'd have to align it with some sort of a more direct and specific message - maybe preach about my convictions and my beliefs. Maybe blog about real life lessons I've learned and how I learned them and how you can apply these lessons to your life. Maybe I can make this soapbox big and sturdy enough for standing upon once again.

Hmmm... interesting thought: "Be original." Why didn't I think of this sooner?

Okay, so, let me think about this for a while. I'll come up with a list of topics that I might want to tackle and I'll be more organized and thoughtful about the posts I make from now on. I can get pretty deep and philosophical when I want to - those of you closest to me know this. So maybe I can put it to work on a blog better than it could ever be expressed on good ol' Facebook. Whatdyathink? Here goes nuthin'...