04/03/2021 – Donovan Was Right!

My introduction to the happy world of podcasts came in the mid-2000s, and it was supplied entirely by iTunes, back when computers were slow enough to mask how poorly iTunes ran on Windows (to this date). Off the very first podcast I ever heard, Slice of Scifi, iTunes would give me the old “You’ll Also Like” tab, which led me to Cinemaslave and then Genrebusters, The Greatest Movie Ever! Podcast and Fast Karate for the Gentleman. The last two are the only ones still active, with Fast Karate having technically released an episode earlier this year. “Active” rings oddly here, because I simply don’t know what happened to everyone else. If you’re a podcaster, either you’re active or you’re…? And that’s upsetting enough that I simply have to believe these people are fine and living their lives. Still, it’s the disappearance of the Genrebusters off the entire Internet that gets me the most. Those guys had such a different vibe, in terms of online discourse, something sort of West Coast but northern. Very laidback, but passionate all the same. I think sometimes we confuse passion for volume, and when I say “we” I mean “I.” Damn it!

As an example, to lead into every episode, the main host of Genrebusters, assuming he was recording alone and not with a cohost, will ask himself what he’s been watching recently, and for most people, this is not a promising question. But this guy will recount always very interesting movies, and even now I’m still working through the accumulated list of titles discussed on the show — mostly Hong Kong fare, Southeast Asia. All this reminiscing just to say: “What have I been watching recently?” and I’ve got at least one item which might be interesting. I don’t know what it is lately, but I’ve been in a receptive mood for movies, jumping from, “Oh, yeah, I’d like to see that someday” to “watching it,” which never happens. First up is Michael Mann’s lost film The Keep, which despite being notoriously unfinished (slashed to hell by the studios, the sound mixing is terrible), has a cult following — and I can see why. This, from the director of LA crime dramas like Heat and Collateral, is a horror-fantasy about a group of Nazis (and then an even worse group of Nazis, led by Gabriel Byrne) who occupy a Lovecraftian crypt at the edge of a Romanian village. They unleash a terrible demon (?) called the Molasar, whose eyes and mouth are red lights and otherwise looks like he’s been hitting the gym. Good flick, though not as gruesome as I’d hoped. If you like the first Hellboy movie or Wolfenstein, this is that sort of Nazi occult horror, plus gorgeous imagery and one of “those soundtracks,” like Blade Runner or The Last Unicorn, where it’s one artist (Tangerine Dream in this case) and intrusive. Also, a young Ian McKellen playing an old Ian McKellen.

And if you follow my logic, from Michael Mann to a Mannean, I just watched The Dark Knight, in its entirety for the first time in many years. “Who’s Donovan?” of the title, I hear you ask, and I envy you because you get to learn for the first time. Well, Donovan is a Batman fan — wait, wait, come back. Specifically, we do a podcast together, Questions: We Don’t Have Answers, and he’s a comics/superhero scholar who, for the record, went “meh” in response to the new Justice League movie. He’s long maintained that The Dark Knight should’ve at least been nominated for Best Picture that fateful Oscars, and I recently read a take on The AV Club that rendered the same verdict. Notably, the next Oscars expanded its nominee roster, perhaps then allowing the inclusion of District 9. The Dark Knight was the first movie I ever saw twice in theaters, and like the next handful of movies I did that for, I soon hated it.

Watching it just now, I was honestly surprised, and struggled to remember my fiery objections. Back in the day, it was “the film is meaningless!” and such was in the face of a movie that commanded a loud and annoying following. Now that the following has been swallowed by an even worse following (Snyderverse), and I’ve seen the Snyder Justice League, The Dark Knight looks like a gleaming gem. I’d always liked Batman Begins and liked The Dark Knight Rises immediately, but much like my irrational love for Revenge of the Sith, it’s because I vastly overvalue aesthetics. Batman Begins is borderline steampunk, but with enough East Asian influence to bring ninjas to Gotham City. Rises feels like an epic, with a big huge villain and a wintry urban apocalypse. The Dark Knight looks like Chicago, and clowns don’t measure up to ninjas.

I’d seen The Dark Knight long before I arrived at Michael Mann, who I took to instantly. Love Collateral, and Heat is great but admittedly overlong. I’ve had the Miami Vice movie sitting on my shelf forever. And now The Keep! This was also a time before I even liked crime dramas or gangster movies, before Breaking Bad and The Wire, so the shift from steampunk fantasy felt like stripping out genre. But I get what Christopher Nolan was going for, and there is an identity to this middle chapter, too. The clean slate favors a simmering tension, with people constantly out of doors to brace for the next disaster — it’s a startling picture of a city seized by terror. It would be Nolan’s next movie which introduced the much-maligned Hans Zimmer thing; the paranoid energy in The Dark Knight is underlined by an ingenious, tense sound.

And like Inception, it’s a smartly-constructed script, with sequences made up of cross-cut scenes of increasing tempo as the story unfolds, and even the over-the-top dialogue didn’t bother me that much. I mean, what makes Harvey Dent say, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and why does Batman repeat it later, around the time when Gary Oldman does the “hero we deserve” thing twice in a row? “But he didn’t do anything wrong!” the kid says, our proxy as we shed tears for the Batman. How could he take the blame for Two-Face’s murder spree, how could he say he’s not a hero? He is a hero! This is where the original “the film is meaningless!” comes in. Not only does the movie suggest more than articulate in its philosophical exchanges, it’s also a man’s story about a man which man who man man man. These are some cool men.

So my new appreciation for the movie, I suppose also bolstered by that flatline Joker movie, is a good benchmark for my maturing sensibilities. In 2008, a movie needed to have a gory robot scene in Joburg straight out of Halo to keep my attention (and wouldn’t until the following year) if it didn’t have some badass ladies. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy a lot of 2000s-era fare. I did like No Country for Old Men, but that’s right in the title — not even the possibility of a badass lady. In the action genre, it’s a toss-up, and there’s, like, one woman in The Dark Knight, and she gets blown up by a barrel. These days, I don’t really care. Action heroines are a strong preference, not a requirement, and I try — try — to bring my own clean slate to each individual film, which means assessing what’s there instead of what’s not there.

This is what I learned from revisiting The Departed for the YouTube channel last year and finally resolving my feelings about it. To my surprise, all of its many idiosyncrasies added up to an effective thriller. I was able to forgive its unjust Best Picture win by prioritizing “effect” over “meaning.” The Departed means nothing, leaves you with nothing, but in the moment, it’s exciting. The Dark Knight’s philosophical discussions are functional, and I appreciated that fact this time, instead of assuming they’d mass as a pang on the nature of the modern city. Big declarations are not always how movies achieve “purpose,” and The Dark Knight’s purpose for me this time was wholly satisfying. The climactic scene when Batman is using sonar to rescue hostages is an amazing action set piece. Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale’s voices go back and forth via electronic filter as we’re flowing through a digital blueprint of the building, and Batman is using his gadgets to take hostages out of the line of fire and pull trigger-happy police out of the situation. I still like that warehouse fight from the otherwise excretable Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but any action hero could’ve done that. This felt like a Batman scenario, because it was as much thinking as acting, and doing so very quickly. Good stuff — finally.

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