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Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. From Memento‘s Leonard to The Prestige‘s dueling magicians, the split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.

Gotham, still under the crush of rampant corruption and uncontrollable crime, maintains Batman as their shimmering ray of hope. But now the Caped Crusader has a powerful ally in elected office. Harvey Dent, the new DA (and romantic paramour of Bruce Wayne ex Rachel Dawes) may not appreciate the superhero’s tactics, but like Inspector Gordon, he will tolerate the effect the symbol has on the lawless. After a daring bank robbery in which a large sum of laundered money goes missing, Gotham’s avengers believe they can put the mob away for good. Desperate to keep this from happening, the mafia turns to two individuals to protect their interests. One is a Hong Kong businessman who is convinced he can retrieve and hide the cash. And the second is someone called The Joker, a facially scarred madman who has an easy solution to the problem. Kill the Batman.

Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.

While Heath Ledger will get all the print space (and rightfully so - more on this in a moment), it needs to be said that the biggest character arc belongs to Aaron Eckhart as future Two-Face Harvey Dent. When we are first introduced to the maverick DA, we wonder if the pretty boy blond with the pearly white wholesomeness can find the depth to delve into what makes this public official potentially lethal. When the change-over occurs, we are given plenty of time to recognize how desperate he will become. Aside from the outstanding make-up job which renders Dent a zombified version of his former self, Eckhart turns his rage into a pinpoint laser, focusing it on the one person he blames for turning him into a freak.

And speaking of villainous oddities, Ledger is indeed majestic as Gotham’s new threat. Gritty and grotesque, his face caked with rancid clown make-up, this is a Joker as spoiled fruit, a disseminator of destruction using his unusual looks to cover-up a serial killer’s aura. There is a careful cadence in the way Ledger speaks, an inferred thoughtfulness that contradicts his lax murdering ruthlessness. It’s easy to see why critics are calling for some manner of Oscar recognition. In a realm where evil is typically expressed via glorified grandstanding, this villain merely gloats as he gets down to business. When bounced off Eckhart and Christian Bale, Ledger creates a beautiful ménage a menace.

As usual, our hero brings his A-game, a complicated confusion that really humanizes the Batman. If he’s done nothing else, Nolan has expertly explained why one man with the world’s wealth at his fingertips would turn to a life of vigilante justice - and why he would continue on once he fulfilled his payback purpose. The motivation in The Dark Knight is even more multifaceted, involving a series of obligations, duties, threats, promises, protections, and consequences. Nolan never gives the character a break, and Bale brings the proper perspective to all aspects of the role. There is never a false note in any of the movie’s many twists and turns, and its all thanks to a capable cast (Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox included), as well as the man behind the lens.

It doesn’t take much to commend Christopher Nolan for what he accomplishes here. Not just for taking a pen and ink world and realizing it within the crime and punishment confines of our own. Not just for having the vision (and commercial clout) to deliver a 150 minute dissertation on the true nature of law and order, but also for taking the bigger risks within the material. This is not the Joker’s origin story. There are no vats of chemicals or mob boss vendettas to work out. This is not a gadget heavy stream of criminality with gags whizzing by as frequently as bullets. Instead, Nolan is out to make a kind of neo-noir, albeit one that avoids the shady ladies and half-drawn blinds that usually exemplify the genre.

As with any outsized vision, Nolan threatens to let everything spiral out of control. Yet just when we think his approach can’t get any broader, he brings things in close, awarding Bale and Ledger one-on-one’s that provide the heady buzz of a finely aged bottle of whisky. Like the great filmmakers he matches against, Nolan knows that there’s as much power in the little moments as the large. The Dark Knight has many of these narrative kiss-offs, sequences where characters can practically taste the bitterness on each other’s breath. It’s these incredible juxtapositions - the skyscrapers of Gotham stand-in Chicago vs. the claustrophobia of Wayne’s junkyard lair, the optimism of Dent’s initial drive vs. the dread in his need for revenge - that engages and overwhelms us. It’s what allows this film to transcend the summer season to become a stand alone classic.

Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of those experiences that, decades from now, will be viewed with the kind of crazed critical and cult revelry that meets such operatic opuses as Scarface or Goodfellas. It bests the previous incarnation of the Batman character because it never takes the substance as slapstick or cartoon. It guarantees that, whatever Christopher Nolan wants to do next, he will have the opportunity (and budget) to do so. And it will stand as one of the finest examples of human quid pro quo ever put on film. Everyone has two sides to their personality - the one they show to the world and the one they slyly keep to themselves. In the case of this amazing movie, there is only discernible façade…and it’s one of greatness.

She’d been away so long, I missed her return. It was only while attempting to organise my Firefox Bookmarks tab that I stumbled across new posts on Lou Reads. Prior, I’d not read anything new since January.

It’s good to have her back, and she’s apparently been reading a lot and quickly, so I’m hoping there’ll be fewer month-long waits between posts. Lou’s reviews are some of the best out there—funny, warm, smart, and, most importantly, aimed squarely at the reader as avid as Lou herself.

Check out her latest posts on Mary Roach’s Bonk, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, Geraldine Brooks’ March, and others.

Prolific Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written several books over the past decade about consumerism—which he for some reason prefers to call “the world of consumers”—hence the verbose title of his most recent book, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?—in what he has dubbed the “liquid modern era.” (He also dislikes the term postmodern, and this is his way of avoiding semantic arguments about what it precisely means.) There’s not much suspense about the question the title poses: The answer, as you’d probably guess, is basically no.

It’s a not a question you’d ask if you were actually optimistic about it. Bauman, while not as thoroughgoingly pessimistic as such past consumer-society critics as Jean Baudrillard, is still left dispiritedly positing utopian scenarios after laying out his grim analyses of our social situation—he calls it a “battlefield” in the introduction—which, in his view, technology is rapidly worsening. The characterological changes brought on by consumerism are accelerating, he argues, turning the democratic ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood into the diminished qualities of security, parity and networking.

In Bauman’s account—and it is a familiar, comfortable story to anyone schooled in leftist, Adornoesque social theory—the liquid modern world’s problems start when aspects that traditionally limited our possibilities in the world (religion, geography, class, occupation, family, ethnicity) gradually became less restrictive, thanks mostly to capitalism’s modus operandi of creative destruction. Things once regarded as more or less permanent or unmarketable were subsumed by the market, reified, branded, and made subject to neoclassical economic truths about privatization, rational choices, and marginal utility. No longer assigned a specific role in the community from birth, we are alienated, atomized, cut free as an individual, forced to make our place. This has tangible benefits, obviously, in expanding our freedom to act. But it also brought with it the scourges of insecurity and boundless responsibility. (This is Frankfurt school orthodoxy—not unlike Erich Fromm’s and Herbert Marcuse’s ideas about freedom, in Escape From Freedom and One-Dimensional Man respectively.) “As Alain Ehrenberg convincingly argues,” writes Bauman, who frequently selects choice quotes from other thinkers (one of the nice things about Bauman’s book is that it serves as a kind of index to recent theoretical trends), “most common human sufferings tend to grow from the surfeit of possibilities, rather than from the profusion of prohibitions as they used to in the past”—an insight he may have attributed to any number of behavioral economists as well. Overt coercion in the pre-consumerist world was replaced by the regime of flattering persuasion, which is just as coercive, only we feel like we are in control, volunteering to participate in it (we shop because we want to), making the meaningful choices (between the things supplied by the market to satisfy the needs it has trained us to adopt). “As Pierre Bourdieu had already signaled two decades ago, coercion is being replaced by stimulation, forceful imposition of behavioral patterns by seduction, policing of conduct by PR and advertising, and the normative regulation, as such, by the arousal of new needs and desires.”

At this point, I’m nodding in agreement, but none of this is new—this is more or less the case that all left-leaning thinkers have made about consumerism. It seduces us to control us, replaces the ideal freedom of citizens in the public sphere determining a future for society collectively with that of a a bunch of individuals free only to choose among doodads after having their brains filled with bafflegab.

But Bauman turns an interesting corner. He cites philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of society as not a limit on our selfishness, as Freud, for instance, claimed in Civilization and Its Discontents, but as a limit on our boundless ethical responsibility to our fellow humans. “Using the vocabulary of Levinas, we may say that the principal function of society, ‘with its institutions, universal forms, and laws,’ is to make the essentially unconditional and unlimited responsibility for the Other both conditional (in selected, duly enumerated, and clearly defined circumstances) and limited (to a select group of ‘others,’ considerably smaller than the totality of humanity and, most important, narrower and thus more easily manageable).” Society may be not the force that stops the Hobbesan war of all against all, but “an outcome of tempering their endemic and boundless altruism with the ‘order of egotism.’ ” (It’s like bizarro Ayn Rand.) That altruism—that feeling of ethical responsibility to others—is an impossible, crippling burden. Only by curtailing it can we accomplish anything. But in doing that, we also curtail the spontaneous impulse Levinas believes that we have to trust and help others. And possibly we curtail the source of life’s meaning.

The way consumer society allows us to escape from that responsibility—its innovative method, perhaps—is to train us to fix it on ourselves. “Responsibility now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘You owe this to yourself,’ as the outspoken traders in relief from responsibility indefatigably repeat), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, such moves as serve well the interests and satisfy the desires of the actor and stave off the need to compromise.” The celebration in consumer society of individualism and our “right” to convenience mean that we have a duty to free ourselves from having to consider other people’s needs—and the market works to supply us the tools to avoid impinging human contact. It sells us ways to avoid having to deal with other people and the hassle they represent. “The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course),” Bauman explains, “a kind of empty space of which the liquid-modern consumer, bent on solo performances and solo performances only, never has enough. The space consumers need and are advised on all sides to fight for can be conquered only by evicting other humans—and particularly the kind of humans who care for others or may need care themselves.” (This ties in another subject Bauman has written about frequently: the systematic exclusion from society of the victims of the Holocaust.)

Along with that championing of individuality and training of responsibility on ourselves instead of others comes a newfangled responsibility for shaping and projecting our own identity, which used to be dictated entirely by our circumstances but is now subject (seemingly) to our control. As a consequence, we are now all required to continually fashion our identity and project it in social symbols, which are supplied by the language of consumer goods and brands. In order to keep the consumer economy dynamic, the meaning of these symbols are constantly in the process of redefinition, and we adapt our identities to follow suit, let our identities function as brands for ourselves. What Bauman doesn’t mention, but is sort of implied, is that in making identity formation a never-ending process, consumer society sells that process as pleasurable. Actually, it probably is in fact pleasurable—it makes real life into a kind of daydream in which we can impersonate anyone and fantasize freely and openly, playing pretend games in public. And when you embrace novelty as an end in itself, it becomes a need easily (albeit temporarily) gratified. If you’re a dog who likes chasing your tail, you’ll never want for entertainment. The point is that pleasure comes not in some final achievement of the right identity, but in the multiplicity of identities always available to us, and the freedom we feel in swapping them out. If we were easily satisfied, it would take a lot to motivate us as workers (we could just sit in the park and watch butterflies rather than work overtime to buy a flat-screen). Not accidentally, our consumerist refusal to be easily pleased, to demand more, is routinely portrayed as a positive trait, a testament to our superior discrimination.

Bauman argues that we all are forced to become pseudo-artists, with our identity as our chief work, a kind of temporary installation in our own bodies. At the same time, any continuity between identities is discarded, leaving us living through a series of discrete moments in which it is possible for us to be anything. Bauman argues,

What follows is that the sole skill I really need to acquire and exercise if flexibility—the skill of promptly getting rid of useless skills, the ability to quickly forget and to dispose of the past assets that have turned into liabilities, the skill of changing tacks and tracks at short notice and without regret, and of avoiding oaths of life-long loyalty to anything and anybody.

As individuals, we need to embrace capitalism’s creative destruction at the personal level, seizing upon a moment’s given opportunities with no recourse to past or future inclinations or sentimentalities. The most important aspect of that flexibility is the ability to forget—to believe that we have always been at war with Eurasia. Skirts have always been knee-length. Crocs have always been stylish.

The institutionalized contempt for continuity encourages us to replace friendships with the network: “relations set by and sustained by network-type connectedness come close to the ideal of a ‘pure relationship,’ one based on easily dissolvable one-factor ties, with no determined duration, no strings attached, and unburdened by long-term commitments.” What this gives individuals is “the comforting (even if ultimately counterfactual) feeling of total and unthreatened control over his or her obligations and loyalties.” Of course, if you control obligations, they aren’t exactly obligatory—they are voluntary. That is what conceals from us the larger dimensions of our cultural obligations.

Bauman implicitly likens this situation to the notion of “groups of belonging” and the conditions of exclusion that set up the parameters of the Holocaust. The illusion of control may mask our obligations to play the game. The coercion to be a consumer is experienced generally as freedom (our ideology’s accomplishment), but if you resist it, you run the risk of social exclusion—not on a stateless-person-headed-to-concentration-camp level, but moving in that direction. “All of this may be intuited,” Bauman writes, “from the dark premonitions that haunt them at night after a busy shopping day—or from the warning that goes off when their bank account falls into the red and their unused credit reaches zero.” To be without credit takes on multiple meanings—you become worthless as a human being.

This is a roundabout way of point out that in a society where purchasing power is how we experience freedom, being poor means being very unfree. In other words, poverty really sucks, moreso than it did when society was less open. (Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation explores this simple truth at length.) The poor, and those who are sympathetic to them, or nostalgic for old roles, or repulsed by the identity shuffling were expeced to relish, perhaps “do not view this life as a kind of life that they themselves, given genuine liberty of choice, would wish to practice.” But these people obviously need reeducation. “Those who go solely by what they believe they need, and are activated only by the urge to satisfy those needs, are flawed consumers and so also social outcasts.” If you aren’t worried about keeping in tune with the zeitgeist, you are seen to be expressing some kind of contempt for the socially-agreed-upon way of being happy.

It is often said of such people that they are indifferent if not downright hostile to freedom, or that they have not yet grown up and matured enough to enjoy it. Which implies that their nonparticipation in the style of life dominant ... tends to be explained by either ideologically aroused resentment of freedom or the inability to practice it.

If they only loved freedom a little more, they wouldn’t be concerned with how the system is basically rigged to assure that they will never be regarded with dignity in the public sphere, that they will always seem helplessly out of touch. Their fashion backwardness seems to justify their social exclusion, as we are invited to see how they manifest their identity as an expression of their own poor opinion of themselves. “If ‘to be free’ means to be able to act on one’s wishes and pursue the chosen objectives,” Bauman notes, “the liquid-modern, consumerist version of the art of life may promise to all, but it delivers it sparingly and selectively.”

So what do you do if you don’t want to include yourself in the consumerist economy, you want to preserve an ethical code, but you don’t want to risk living as a semi-persecuted outcast. Do you “go live in a jelly jar”?  Bauman’s text doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. He urges that we become better educated in the sorts of things I was taught in civics class—fundamentals about the how politics works and so on—and that we become citizens instead of consumers. But it seems that in order for that to happen, citizenship will have to assume some of the technique of consumerism—it will have to be able to generate the personal, individualistic pleasures we have come to expect from consumerism and which we now regard as the guiding purpose of our lives. We need to make the pursuit of happiness an explicitly political matter once again.

The sad, depressing story of a city of four million people minus an indie scene from the Houston Press.  An insane incident of police over-reacting in ‘06 to a club show didn’t help but John Nova Lomax’s well-documented research points to more problems: “mediocre bands, terrible radio, second-rate venues, poor public transportation, killer sprawl and a diverse populace of mildly paranoid, cynical souls.”  Not to mention some eye-opening info about how diversity may not always be what it’s cracked up to be.

I think I see the light coming to me, coming through me giving me a second sight . . . So shine shine shine Shine shine shine shine shine shine

I Think I See the LIght, Cat Stevens

Those who make it a living to co-exist with me may be surprised to hear this (since it is a rather well-kept secret), but as a rule, I am a rule-governed machine. Although officially I do not abide by people and structures and situations of control, when it comes to the peripatetic act, I adhere to – nay embrace – nostrums and dictums and aphorisms and folk wisdom and humble rules of thumb.

You have read a few in this blogspace over the years, perhaps; things like: “making do” or “listening to the sounds between the notes” or “reading the signs” or “any picture tells multiple stories”. All good bits of advice to keep in mind as one traverses the world’s many nodes and paths.

And now here’s another one for you all (the walrus was Paul—no, just kidding—here goes, for real):

“when traveling, travel light”.

 


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