For the first entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Whenever we choose to rank things we choose to polarize people. After all regardless of our metaphysical beliefs concerning value the way we determine so many aesthetic decisions is based on our preferences. We could refer to the experts to settle any disagreement but not only do they disagree amongst themselves about so many things but we (the vulgar) heartily find ourselves in disagreement with them constantly. I even started this project partially because I think Ebert's ten greatest films list is poor (though I do think he is a brilliant critic and a very intelligent man). So how will my judging be any different form anyone else's? Why should anybody care? I offer you two answers to this question. The first answer is simply that nobody should care; I can be and in fact am in many regards a moron. The second answer (which maybe less truthful but I like much better) is also simple: Pure Cinema. Allow me to explain.
One thing that many people seem to forget when watching movies is the very nature of the medium. A question that I always found hauntingly appropriate to this discussion came from arguably cinema's greatest villain: Hannibal Lecter. In one of the later scenes of the film Lecter tells Starling something very important.
"First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?"
I don't know much about Aurelius myself, except that he wanted Russell Crowe and not Joaquin Phoenix to rule Rome when he died. Which turned out to be a smart decision since Russell Crowe won best actor that year at the Academy Awards. So he seems like a smart guy to me. Let's take his advice.
So when we look at film what is it that we see? Well what was film originally? Did it have sound? No. Did it have music? Sometimes it was played live but generally no. So then film is inherently a visual medium. If film can exist without sound and even color then at its core it is a simple form of visual story.
Film is visual. But it has become more than that. Film scores have gotten so good that we even buy them and listen to them without the films. Film scripts so well written we quote their lines to make each other laugh or to impart an important truth. But remove everything else and what we have deep within the soul of cinema is visual storytelling.
I do not remember the first time I actually heard the phrase Pure Cinema. I'm sure it was in a DVD extra somewhere. I am fairly certain it was the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DVD I purchased at the beginning of High School. During one of the documentaries somebody was talking about how there is no music in Butch and Sundance. At least not during the actual film. There are three musical interludes that have only music and no dialogue. So during all the dramatic parts of the film there are no cues to tell you how to feel about anything. All the information is conveyed visually or by the actors. I don't know very much about George Roy Hill as a director outside of his two masterpieces with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But whoever was speaking in the documentary said that Hill strongly believed in something called Pure Cinema. I didn't understand what that meant. All I knew was that it somehow related to music in film.
I think when I finally began to truly understand this concept was after my father bought Rear Window on DVD. This film was sort of a sacred thing in our home for long before High School. I was raised to believe that there were few if any directors better than Hitch. This belief has only grown stronger as I have become older. But while so many people will comment on the sophistication and dry wit that is so prevalent in all of Hitch's work, or even his ability to create such leering suspense that remains suspenseful so many years later what Hitchcock understood probably better than any director was that film is a visual means of telling a story. One of the DVD extras on Rear Window pointed this out to me. Just look at the beginning of Rear Window. The entire physical, emotional, and historical setting for what is about to transpire is conveyed in a few brief shots. Not a word is spoken. For another good example of this watch the first few minutes of Rio Bravo.
Pure cinema is truly the mark of greatness when discussing films. That is why I can never consider such well-loved films as Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption to be truly great. They are popular. They are intelligent. But they are not pure films. Both of these films are absolutely crippled by its reliance on voice over narration. Without the narration the films convey almost no information. They tell almost no story without their words. I have no problem with narration that adds to the quality of a film but these two films are essentially monologues with images attached to them. All About Eve or To Kill a Mockingbird or even the Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King are dependent on narration at certain points in the story because the information is too complex to be shown. But if you took out those pieces of narration the films would not really be any worse for wear. They would still be good films.
What Nolan's Batman films have accomplished is the most compelling visual characterization for a character ever in the history of Cinema. Everything you need toknow about why Bruce Wayne decides to become who he becomes is conveyed to you visually. Batman has what is probably the most ridiculous costume of all the mainstream comic book characters. He dresses like a bat. In the comics the primary reason he does this is because fate has ordained him to. But in Nolan's world it is absolutely essential to his character that he does so.
We see in the very first scene of Begins how deeply his fear of Bats has been pressed upon his psyche. First he is playing with his best friend. He is full of joy and excitement. Then suddenly his perfect world is shattered with a painful frightening fall that breaks his arm. He will associate all of these things with what is about to happen to him. Bats envelop him in the darkness of the hole. But even more telling than this about the necessity of the cape and cowl which he will adorn himself with nightly in the future is what will happen next to young Bruce. His fear of Bats kills his parents. Not really of course. A poor desperate man killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. In a sense Gotham City killed them. But not Bruce. But that is how he feels. As they watch the Opera Bruce is overcome with his fearful associations with Bats. If he had been stronger. If he had not been scared of Bats his parents would still be alive and Bruce will never forget that. Later in the film after he has received the means to fight for Gotham he returns. In so many ways this city represents his failure as a man. Everything he has ever done wrong in life is associate with this city, yet he still desires to save it. To fight for it. And how does he do that? When he returns home he goes into the cave of his childhood. Essentially his descent into the cave represents the probing of his psyche. He has to make peace with his fears. So he descends and lets the Bats envelop him. He is afraid. He never stops being afraid. But he has learned to control his fear. He has learned to control his hurt over the loss of his parents, over his own mistakes and become a man. But in order to do that he clothes himself in the very symbol of his weakness and makes evil fear that which he fears himself. The rest of the film is of course wonderfully realized as well. Upon its release I think many people realized that comic book/superhero films would never be the same. The film just took itself too seriously to be thought of as juvenile anymore. It presented a world too much like our own to be ignored.
The Dark Knight is one of those Godfather Part II, Empire strikes back things. Everybody knows the sequel actually surpassed the original in artistic achievement. But artistry is not the only mark of greatness. The Dark Knight gave us a further expanded world. It took everything we loved so much about Begins and gave us even more. Ledger's performance as the Joker is already iconic. Partially because of his death but mostly because his performance was iconoclastic. He destroyed all previous incarnations of the Joker. When you destroy the old icons new ones musttake their place. And Ledger's has done that in spades. An IGN reviewer said recently the fact that Ledger will never be able to reprise this role is one of the most tragic events in cinema history. And I think we can all agree on that. But this is not what makes the film great. Ledger is only a very important piece of a much grander puzzle. He exists to tell us more about the central character. A hero is judged by the strength of his villains no? And what we see in this film is every heroic character rising to the occasion except eventually for Dent. He has been hurt so badly he cannot be rational any more. But Batman has been scared by these same events even more deeply and yet he persists until the very end of the picture. He is even willing to give up his innocence so that the city will not fall into despair.
Nolan's Batman truly is one of the greatest heroes in cinema history. He stands alongside heroes like Atticus Finch as being truly noble when it truly counts. Like all truly great heroes he is not a hero. He is in fact a Servant. Near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird a lady says to Jem, in order to comfort him, that some people are born to do our dirty jobs for us. Atticus Finch currently stands at the top of AFI's list of heroes. I am confident that when the list is updated Nolan's Batman will either replace him there are come very very close.
These films are marked by great artistry. Nolan is a voracious visual storyteller. He uses great economy and poetry in his films to convey his stories. Visual story telling impacts us deeper than so many other forms of communication. In the last scene of Knight Gordon tells us exactly who Batman is with words. But his words would mean nothing if we hadn't seen Batman be everything Gordon says about him for the last two hours. Also Nolan is still conveying the story visually even during this small monologue. He shows you everything Gordon is saying right up until the very last shot where Batman ascends into Blinding light, reminiscent of Jesus' return to Heaven (in the future I dedicate an entire post to Christology in Nolan's Batman films). I will leave you with Gordon's closing remarks:
"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now... and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector... a dark knight."