Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is one of those films I wish I could have seen three times before I wrote my review. As it is I only had a few hours to process the (insanely mind-bending) film before I had to turn in my review for Christianity Today. Because of that I want to share a few further thoughts I've been mulling over in the week since I've seen the film:
Rather than a recap/rant about the Oscars (which I did for Relevantmagazine.com), I am going to spend my post today exposing a much more urgent and insidious problem in the world of film criticsm: Ted Baehr and Movieguide.org.
If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ted Baehr, he is a highly suspicious, frequently self-aggrandizing figure in the world of Christian film criticism. His method of film criticism is of the “how many f-words and sex scenes” variety, and he has a very strange Christian=capitalist bent to everything he writes. For those of us who aspire towards a progressive, insightful, nuanced engagement with film from a Christian perspective, Baehr is a most discouraging figure.
It is especially frustrating that, over the past few weeks, he and his organization have been representing Christian film criticism at large by being allowed to write columns in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In these wide platforms, Baehr has played up his usual lines about how family-friendly, G-rated, pro-capitalist films make the most money, and are therefore the best films. If you read the articles, his logic is laughable and his points almost satirical; it’s tragic that this is the Christian critic who is getting the most national media attention.
Anyway, rather than mounting a scathing rebuttal to Baehr’s nonsense (which my editor at Christianity Today did in this insightful blog post), I think it will probably prove the point to just give you some choice quotes from the two recent columns that Baehr and his partner-in-crime, Tom Snyder, authored.
From the Wall Street Journal column, Baehr and Snyder write:
As in past years, films with strong pro-capitalist content -- extolling free-market principles or containing positive portrayals of real or fictional businessmen and entrepreneurs -- tended to make the most money. The hero of the biggest success of the year, "The Dark Knight," is a billionaire capitalist who, disguised as Batman, defends Gotham City and its residents from a crazed, anarchistic terrorist criminal. In "Iron Man," the second-most popular movie with American and Canadian moviegoers in 2008, a capitalist playboy and billionaire defense contractor stops working against the interests of America and its citizens and uses his wealth to defend America and its free-market values.
The box-office receipts of pro-capitalist movies, which also included "Australia," "City of Ember" and "Bottle Shock" (which extols the virtues of the California wine industry), averaged $152 million per picture in North American theaters. On the whole, they far outperformed movies with strong anticapitalist content. That group, with films such as "Mad Money," "Chicago 10" and "War, Inc.," averaged only $5.4 million per picture in North American theaters.
The moneymaking trend was similar for movies with explicit or implicit anticommunist content. That group -- including an "An American Carol," which mocks communism; "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," where Indy reviles communists and their impoverished ideology is exposed; "City of Ember," where a tyrant steals from the people; and "Fly Me to the Moon," about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- averaged $71.8 million at the 2008 box office in America and Canada. By comparison, movies with pro-communist content, such as "Che," "The Children of Huang Shi," "Gonzo," "Trumbo" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," averaged a measly $7.9 million in 2008.
And from the Newsweek article:
Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like "Religulous," "Adam Resurrected," "Save Me," "Wanted," "Hounddog," "Bloodline," "Hamlet 2," "The Love Guru," "Stop-Loss," and "Saw V."
Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, 2008 was the year that obscenity, sex and nudity didn't sell -- again. In fact, movies with no foul language, no sex and no explicit nudity earned much more money on average than movies with some foul language, sex and explicit nudity, or a lot of it, by 2 to 1 or more!
Dr. Baehr, I’m sure you are well-intentioned and yes, you are a brother in Christ; but do you really believe what you are saying? The way that you twist and distort statistics to make "your type" of films look the most successful is simply egregious. And seriously: do you think audiences flocked to see The Dark Knight and Iron Man because they featured billionaire protagonists? I mean, couldn't you argue that people were much more interested in seeing the Joker in The Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne? And the Joker is hardly pro-capitalist. He burned a pile of money!
Much has been made of how important these Beijing Olympics are for China—not for their economy (which hardly needs a boost) or for their patriotic morale, but for their PR on the world stage. Quite simply, the Chinese have an image problem, and they’re fiercely committed to spinning themselves in a better light.
But spin is increasingly easy to detect, and China—God bless her—is not doing a very good job of rebranding itself as a country of freedom-loving citizens of a democratic world.Rather, China comes across as a top-down, control-obsessed behemoth willing to do whatever it takes to present its ideal image to the world. Take a few of the examples from the opening week of the Olympic games:
- Opening ceremony deceptions: First came the news that some of the more elaborate fireworks we saw on TV were merely CGI effects, then came the juicier scandal that the cute pigtailed girl in the red dress who serenaded the worldwide audience was lipsyncing "Ode to the Motherland” because the actual singing girl (performing from somewhere off stage) was deemed too ugly (crooked teeth!) to be the “face of China.”
- Mysteriously teensy Chinese gymnasts: Suspicions abound about the ages of two of team China’s most talented female gymnasts, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan. Various recent press reports have placed the ages of the diminutive stars as low as 13 or 14, but the Chinese government has since submitted passports that “prove” their ages to be 16, making them eligible competitors. We can’t say for sure, but the obvious conclusion from this is that the government was more than willing to “adjust” the official ages of these young athletes whose participation in the gymnastics competition was integral to that ever-important gold medal.
- Suppression of protests: Don’t the Chinese know that the best thing they could do for themselves would be to allow very public protests to occur? An Olympic games is just not right without them. Everyone knows about the Chinese abuses of human rights, the Tibet debacle, etc. Thus, we all know that there should be throngs of protesters at these games. That there are not very many (at least visible to the outside observer) shows that China is up to its freedom-suppressing old tricks. Numerous reports have demonstrated that China will stop at nothing to keep news coverage of protests or dissenters from reaching the outside world.
Alas, the Chinese are not the smoothest operators when it comes to slyly manufacturing a skewed image of themselves. We can make fun of them for this, and be outraged, but the truth is they are not much different than any of us. Anyone with a Facebook page, blog, or Flickr account cannot really critique China for their heavy-handed image maintenance. We live in a day and age where the image or presentation of reality is more important than the reality itself (thank you Baudrillard), and China is just the largest and perhaps most clumsy offender.
All of this makes me reflect on reason #187 why The Dark Knight is the most relevant film of the decade thus far. It is all about this “truth distortion” spin zone—the civil importance of telling the public only so much truth and lying about certain things “for their sake.” Problem is, when you can see through these intricate PR spin maneuvers (as we can with China’s Olympics), the result is that we trust the spinner even less. Hopefully Batman will be a better spin doctor than Beijing is.
Some have accused The Dark Knight of being too much movie, and if there is any fault with this epic film, this is probably it. Knight is so absolutely full—overflowing, really—with ideas and provocations… it is almost too much for one movie to bear. As such, I’ve had a hard time deciding just what I wanted to say here about it. I could go on and on about Heath Ledger’s performance (which was spectacular, frightening, funny, disturbing, etc) or talk about the film’s striking resonances with a post 9/11, terrorism-stricken world (not to mention a presidential election year).
But as much as this film is about politics and terrorism and psychopaths and crime, it is also a film about ethics and epistemology and the questioning of the hero myth.
As the marketing campaign indicated it would be, Knight is chiefly about three men: Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent. Each has his own way of dealing with a world gone wrong. Batman compensates for his own emotional injuries by donning a mask to battle one city’s criminal underworld to whatever extent he can. The Joker compensates in a different way: by making things even more anarchic. Because he suffers from the world’s cruelty, the Joker makes everyone else suffer. And then there is Harvey Dent, the “white light” of Gotham who offers the city’s best hope for reform. Dent is an idealist, answering the insanity of the world by aggressively dealing in fixed binaries: good vs. evil.
In the end, the approaches of the Joker and Dent (Two Face) prove unsustainable. The Joker’s thesis that chaos necessarily reigns supreme because humans are irredeemably self-destructive is proven untrue in the film’s final setup, but this is no big surprise. The world is obviously not quite as malevolent as the Joker hopes it is.
What happens to Dent and his ideologies, however, is far more disturbing. Doubtless he is sincere about his desires to make things better for Gotham, but his sense of justice ultimately proves his downfall. He appeals only to himself for ethical jurisdiction, rather than any transcendent norms or guidelines. “I make my own luck” is his mantra early in the film, with his two-headed coin his symbolic way of mocking fate. But as the film progresses, Dent comes to see that his bifurcated moral lens is altogether arbitrary and unable to wield much authority over the complexities of morality and law. Having lost faith in “the good guys” by film’s end, Dent loses trust in himself. His coin becomes the two-sided, fate-driven determinant of crucial ethical choices.
This is, of course, exactly what the Joker wants: for Gotham to see that even its most “moral” hope is ultimately subject to the collapse of his unsupportable dogmas. But Batman will not let this happen, and herein the film’s most incisive commentaries come to fruition. Batman orchestrates a cover-up so that the public will not see Harvey Dent’s moral collapse. Taking on the mantle of the “Dark Knight,” Batman becomes public enemy #1 so as to maintain order and hope in a “for the greater good” sort of way. In the film’s beautiful (and tragic) final scenes, director Christopher Nolan’s point is hammered home: in a world as crazy as this one, sometimes deception is necessary to protect the world from itself. If the true ugliness of everything were revealed, perhaps chaos would reign supreme. We need examples, figureheads, Aristotelian moral guidance—otherwise we might give in to the worst within our selves.
This is a stark and disturbing conclusion, and it bothers me in many ways. I’m not sure if Nolan is arguing that this is how it should be (lying for the greater good) or this is how it is, but either way it is frightening.
It is immensely dangerous, I think, to protect our heroes from fallibility. The end of Knight suggests that letting the public see a flawed, morally (and physically) disfigured Dent would cause irreparable damage to the fight against crime. But isn’t it true that things would be even worse if later on people found out that Gotham authorities had covered up Dent’s failings, holding the wool over the public’s eyes to keep them gleefully ignorant? Though not a parallel example, the film made me think about Pat Tillman—how the government lied to us about the circumstances of his death to offer us a heroic figurehead who died at the hands of the enemy terrorists (turns out he died by friendly fire). How many other cases are there in politics where we’ve been deceived by a government who concluded it was in our best interest to not know the “full truth”?
The danger and deception of holding our leaders and heroes to too high a standard is never more evident than in the church today. Time and time again the church is made to look foolish because of fallen leaders (Catholic priests, Ted Haggard, etc) who—because they have been painted as incorruptible moral exemplars—do immense damage to the overall legitimacy of Christianity. If we are more about hiding sin than dealing with it, why would anyone look to our gospel for any sort of relevant, reconciliatory truth?
Whether it is a letter than we burn to protect someone from the truth (as Alfred does with Rachel’s letter to Bruce), or a surveillance technology we use in secret “for the greater good,” we must sacrifice full disclosure—The Dark Knight seems to suggest—for the sake of order rather than chaos. Though I agree that things are complicated (morality especially), I’m not sure that protecting people from the dark truths in the world is the best course of action. We need heroes, yes, but not heroes that are too perfect.
I read an essay once by Jenny Lyn Bader that described the transformation of heroes in American culture over the past fifty years, and I think it is instructive here. She argued that our “larger than life” heroes have proven less and less relevant in a world in which life is now larger. Because we now realize that the good guy/bad guy split is a reductive approach to life, we have to look beyond superheroes to more everyday, imperfect yet admirable role models, though it may prove more difficult:
A world without heroes is a rigorous, demanding place, where things don’t boil down to black and white but are rich with shades of gray; where faith in lofty, dead personages can be replaced by faith in ourselves and one another; where we must summon the strength to imagine a five-dimensional future in colors not yet invented. My generation grew up to see our world shift, so it’s up to us to steer a course between naivete and nihilism, to reshape vintage stories, to create stories of spirit without apologies.
In Knight we see the polarities of naivete (Dent) and nihilism (Joker), and how Batman tries to forge the gray middle ground between the two. In the end I’m not sure how I feel about what Batman has become, though I suppose that is how we are supposed to feel. On one hand his is a story of spirit without apology—a man willing to bear the weight of hatred and “be the villain” in order to truly be the hero. But I also don’t feel completely comfortable with his willingness to deceive the public—to keep them from the horrific truths that he is somehow uniquely able to bear. It is a dangerous thing to designate oneself as somehow more capable of dealing with truth than the “average Joes” of the world. Dostoevsky could tell you that. So could Shakespeare. And if Batman continues down that path, he’ll become in truth the villain he is now only pretending to be.
I fully expect that when The Dark Knight tallies its opening weekend haul on Sunday, it will rank among the highest grossing summer blockbuster openings of all time. Sadly it will join the company of lots of blockbuster bilge—such $75M+ openers like The Da Vinci Code and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. But there have been a number of certified summer blockbusters that have also been really, really good films. In honor of them, here is my top ten list of the best summer blockbusters of all time.
10) Braveheart (5/24/95): The grandaddy of three hour historical epics, Mel Gibson's Braveheart was the rare summer blockbuster that went on to win oodles of Academy Awards.
9) Superman Returns (6/28/06): Though Brian Singer's superhero film underperformed at the box office, I think it hit all the right notes. There is a somber beauty to this film that is revealed upon each subsequent viewing.
8) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (5/24/89): This third installment in the Indy franchise may not have made as much money as this year's Crystal Skull already has, but in terms of summer blockbuster qualifications, I think The Last Crusade fits the mold most.
7) Forrest Gump (7/6/94): Another rare example of a summer film that beat the odds and won awards six months later. Tom Hanks' iconic role made for a perfect summer film: a chronicle of postwar Americana, complete with war, love, and comedy.
6) Back to the Future (7/3/85): The awesome first installment in the Back to the Future franchise was a stunning sci-fi adventure like no other. Crispin Glover steals the show.
5) The Sixth Sense (8/6/99): This late summer sleeper hit gave birth to the "shocking ending" trend in contemporary cinema, as well as introducing the world to M. Night Shyamalan. I still remember the thrill of seeing this movie for the first time in the theater, having no idea what was coming.
4) Jaws (6/20/75): Jaws invented the summer blockbuster. It was the first film to use a simultaneous nationwide release (in hundreds of theaters) and saturation marketing. It also caused millions of beachgoers everywhere to think twice about getting in the water.
3) Jurassic Park (6/11/93): This film ushered in the CGI/Digital era of blockbuster filmmaking with a thundering roar. I still remember seeing this epic adventure film twice in the movie theater that summer, and being utterly terrified as a 5th grader.
2) Independence Day (7/2/96): This is the ultimate summer movie: a combination of star power (Will Smith), aliens, doomsday destruction, and patriotism. And the special effects were pretty great for the time.
1) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (7/3/91): The ultimate white-knuckle summer thriller. Every minute of this action-packed film is adrenaline-fueled. It also introduced never-before-seen digital effects that made that liquid metal villain all the more menacing. Here's hoping next summer's Terminator: Salvation will take its place high on this list as well.