Thursday, July 26, 2012

Which Gotham Need Be Saved?

Aaron Brady's new review of The Dark Knight Rises has many spot-on moments, but perhaps none as pivotal as his dissection of why standard political reads of films often miss the point:

"This is not to say, of course, that a movie doesn’t put limits on our ability to read it in different ways. It manifestly does; The Dark Knight Rises is not, I can say with full confidence, a critique of Bain Capital. Movies are broadly polyvalent in some respects and they are more narrowly polyvalent in others, which means that some kinds of readings are plausible (“Batman is a fascist!”), and some are not (“Bane is Mitt Romney!”). So the way you figure out where the limits are is by looking at what ends up on the screen versus what doesn’t, the way the movie starts with a range of conceivable narrative choices and selects from them. To put this another way, a movie’s politics are not to be found in the material of the narrative itself, but in the constraints which the material onscreen puts on the kinds of narratives we can tell about it. Certain stories are plausible, and others are not; certain modes of reading and identification become plausible while others get shut down.

"So is it “liberal”? Is it “conservative”? Both, a little. But more importantly, “liberal” and “conservative” are already both modes of narrative constraint, political just-so stories that define the limit points of what is politically thinkable and narratable. And by narrating the movie in the space between these two ideological poles, as the material of the film suggests we do, we descend into a political reality in which there is nothing but the incredibly narrow space separating liberal from conservative, a world in which there is no alternative. There is enlightened liberal capitalism of the Keynesian New Deal variety and there is the Hobbesian world of predatory Ayn Rand capitalism. This restaurant serves both kinds of Capitalism, the kind with “rights” on the side and the kind with “liberty” on the side.

"This point is important because, of course, there are two programmatically disavowed alternatives in play: leftist revolution and reactionary fascism. And not coincidentally, these are the two obvious narrative possibilities which, by all accounts, should be in play, but aren’t: the latter because the cops (and Batman too) are essentially selfless, modest, and recoil from unnecessary violence; the former because the mass population of Gotham not only lacks a political consciousness but barely even exists at all."

Brady singularly defines Bane as a stand-in for Occupy, and it's hard not to see that as illustrated in the examples that he gives, but it's a big stretch to ignore Bane's bad guy expository giveaway strategy.   As pointed out in the comments section of the aforementioned article, Bane's puerile revenge fantasy is to reproduce his own torture from his time in the underground prison and project that experience onto Gotham.  He insists that the worst hell on earth is one given just enough hope to think that escape is an option. Bane's intent is to hijack the revolutionary idealism of Occupy and exploit it by using his well-fuded social mobility obtained through Talia and Daggett.

It'd be easy to read this as an object lesson against reterritorialization, particularly as enacted at the hands of the free market capitalist democrats.  "Hope" was an obvious buzzword from the democrats, but, unlike radical republicans with the Tea Party, few of them really ran with the opportunity to exploit the goodwill afforded Occupy.  That Bane is really only able to operate with the support of Koch Brothers like funding further complicates the politics of his populist rhetoric. 

Yet, the notion of hope with little potential of escape resonates perhaps more with the notions of capitalist realism and disaster capitalism than a citizenry oppressed by the burden of statism and taxation.  One can think of no more fitting a scenario than an economy in constant crisis to manifest a suppressed people being badgered into complicity by the constant brief indicators that "things are starting to turn around"/"home buying is going up"/ "more jobs are on the horizon"/ "the economy is picking up steam" while the proportion of inequity continues to rise and the potential to break through class barriers diminishes. 

The problem is that this world is not the one Gotham lives in before Bane arrives.  Pre-Bane, Gotham is completely without hope, convinced of the futility of fighting their assigned roles within the class hierarchy.  It is only when the revolutionary arrives that "hell on earth" is even possible, assumingly because it allows people to question their station without actually being able to alter it.  One could argue that the film believes that it's violent revolution, with its tribunals and terrorist bombings and inevitable descent into totalitarianism, that renders false hope, that causes people to ignore their ethical sanctity in the interest of social justice as blind fundamentalism.  It'd perhaps be easy to make this case if you knew what the hell Gotham felt about Bane and his anonymous cronies, who all bafflingly seem to be American blue collar workers.

Brady cites a passage by Abigail Nussbaum which states: "Bane claims to be acting on behalf of the city’s underclass, and establishes a policy of violent persecution against the upper classes…we are kept entirely in the dark on the question of how the people of Gotham feel about this.  Do they support Bane?  Do they oppose him?  Do they think he has the right idea but the wrong methods?  Are they, as seems most likely, divided between these options according to their social status in the pre-occupation world?"

It seems silly and cartoonish to think that people would all of the sudden place unresticted faith in someone, even someone with appealing rhetoric, who just blew up large parts of their own city, likely massacring scores of friends and family members in the process (the "greeted as liberators" strategy).   Yet, Bane's revolution seems to have been given some relish by many onlookers gleefully looting the homes of the rich and dragging them from their luxury apartments. But, as the Brady article indicates, this is not some grandiose attempt to pain the masses as cynically motivated by greed and untrustworthy; it's left ambiguous by way of indifference.   Still, that the city is ruled under fear and an iron fist crushes all insinuation that this is actual and not forced revolution.  The lack of social action either for or against seems to indicate a collective impotence that can only be overcome by the brute force of statist violence. 

Yet,  even after the good guys seem win, their resolution is not even palace revolution, it's a complete restoration of the old social order.  Wayne Enterprises, which built the frickin' singular unauthorized weapons reactor that held all of Gotham hostage and produced the CEO that masterminded the entire coup, is fully operational at film's end and rethinking ways to rebuild its empire.  No trial. No prosecutions.   Selina Kyle is properly domesticated, her quip about the rich getting to "live so large and leave so little for the rest of us" is negated by her entryism into the world of living large vis a vis her luxury European vacation. Bruce Wayne revives his mild philanthropy, which really is the only outcome of any note for any of Gotham's permanent lower echelons, proving that through it all money really is the only power through which social change can be enacted and illustrating that the defeat of income inequality is a pursuit that can only be overcome through the consent of the entitled.