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Hope for Pop Culture

I'm back after a couple weeks of meditating on the amazing things I learned at the Anglican Way Institute, and waiting for all the new thoughts to settle into some kind of disciplined order. I will be starting a series of posts here called "I'll Take the High (Church) Road" tomorrow, I think, focusing on issues like sacraments, liturgy, apostolic succession, sola Scriptura, etc., from my new Anglo-Catholic point of view.

But first, on a lighter note, I wanted to state that I have regained a bit of my faith in pop culture. In fact, I have a lot more faith in pop culture. Exactly how much, I'm not sure. But it has showed itself capable of producing glorious things, and worthy of being redeemed by the kingdom.
I have been inspired by two recent developments: Coldplay's new album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends and the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. I downloaded the Coldplay album on Sunday evening and have probably listened to it ten times since (and that's all after 4 PM, because I work all day). The Dark Knight I saw last night and my head is still reeling in bewildered wonderment.

I won't make a fool of myself by trying to say too much about either, since I don't know enough about film to try and be a film critic, and I know far less about music. One thing I can say, though--if there is anything worth spending money on this summer, these are.

Viva La Vida takes two or three listenings before you warm up to it, but once you get a feel for what's going on, you quickly realize you are listening to a masterpiece. It is a true album, a seamless work of art full of rich variety, good fun, and melancholy beauty. The title song is, I think, Coldplay's best ever, and I've been addicted to quite a few Coldplay songs in the past. The album is deservedly becoming one of the best-selling releases worldwide in recent years.

The Dark Knight was...I don't know how to describe it. Flat-out amazing. Mind-blowing. The mark of a good movie is when you forget entirely you're sitting in a movie theater with hundreds of smelly people eating popcorn, and the only thing you experience is the movie itself. In the two-and-a-half hours of Dark Knight, only twice maybe did my attention snap out enough to be aware of my surroudings, despite the fact that I was sitting hunched over on an uncomfortable soda-stained step because there was no room for us in the seats. Another good mark is if you're speechless at the end. I sure was, and pretty much the whole theater was. The movie was dark, brutal, unrelenting, with an insanely complex, frenetic plot that kept you glued to the screen the entire time. Rays of hope were few and dim, but it was not a movie of despair. Batman, archetypal as he is, was convincingly human and tormented, as was Harvey Two-Face also. Everyone's said it already, but I will say it again--Joker was freakishly, surreally good...and terrifying. Best villain bar none. And the nightmarish postmodern nihilism he represents is as chilling to the mind as to the senses. The movie is profoundly thought-provoking, and I don't think you have to read corny symbolism in it to see some really serious issues in play. For example, as lame as it sounds to mention it, the Christ-symbolism of Batman at the end was profound and jarring to a remarkable extent. But I won't say more. I'll just post Peter Travers' wonderful review from The Rolling Stone:

"Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies. The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's absolute stunner of a follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins, is a potent provocation decked out as a comic-book movie. Feverish action? Check. Dazzling spectacle? Check. Devilish fun? Check. But Nolan is just warming up. There's something raw and elemental at work in this artfully imagined universe. Striking out from his Batman origin story, Nolan cuts through to a deeper dimension. Huh? Wha? How can a conflicted guy in a bat suit and a villain with a cracked, painted-on clown smile speak to the essentials of the human condition? Just hang on for a shock to the system. The Dark Knight creates a place where good and evil — expected to do battle — decide instead to get it on and dance. "I don't want to kill you," Heath Ledger's psycho Joker tells Christian Bale's stalwart Batman. "You complete me." Don't buy the tease. He means it.

The trouble is that Batman, a.k.a. playboy Bruce Wayne, has had it up to here with being the white knight. He's pissed that the public sees him as a vigilante. He'll leave the hero stuff to district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and stop the DA from moving in on Rachel Dawes (feisty Maggie Gyllenhaal, in for sweetie Katie Holmes), the lady love who is Batman's only hope for a normal life.

Everything gleams like sin in Gotham City (cinematographer Wally Pfister shot on location in Chicago, bringing a gritty reality to a cartoon fantasy). And the bad guys seem jazzed by their evildoing. Take the Joker, who treats a stunningly staged bank robbery like his private video game with accomplices in Joker masks, blood spurting and only one winner. Nolan shot this sequence, and three others, for the IMAX screen and with a finesse for choreographing action that rivals Michael Mann's Heat. But it's what's going on inside the Bathead that pulls us in. Bale is electrifying as a fallibly human crusader at war with his own conscience.

I can only speak superlatives of Ledger, who is mad-crazy-blazing brilliant as the Joker. Miles from Jack Nicholson's broadly funny take on the role in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Ledger takes the role to the shadows, where even what's comic is hardly a relief. No plastic mask for Ledger; his face is caked with moldy makeup that highlights the red scar of a grin, the grungy hair and the yellowing teeth of a hound fresh out of hell. To the clown prince of crime, a knife is preferable to a gun, the better to "savor the moment."

The deft script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, taking note of Bob Kane's original Batman and Frank Miller's bleak rethink, refuses to explain the Joker with pop psychology. Forget Freudian hints about a dad who carved a smile into his son's face with a razor. As the Joker says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stranger."

The Joker represents the last completed role for Ledger, who died in January at 28 before finishing work on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's typical of Ledger's total commitment to films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain and I'm Not There that he does nothing out of vanity or the need to be liked. If there's a movement to get him the first posthumous Oscar since Peter Finch won for 1976's Network, sign me up. Ledger's Joker has no gray areas — he's all rampaging id. Watch him crash a party and circle Rachel, a woman torn between Bale's Bruce (she knows he's Batman) and Eckhart's DA, another lover she has to share with his civic duty. "Hello, beautiful," says the Joker, sniffing Rachel like a feral beast. He's right when he compares himself to a dog chasing a car: The chase is all. The Joker's sadism is limitless, and the masochistic delight he takes in being punched and bloodied to a pulp would shame the Marquis de Sade. "I choose chaos," says the Joker, and those words sum up what's at stake in The Dark Knight.

The Joker wants Batman to choose chaos as well. He knows humanity is what you lose while you're busy making plans to gain power. Every actor brings his A game to show the lure of the dark side. Michael Caine purrs with sarcastic wit as Bruce's butler, Alfred, who harbors a secret that could crush his boss's spirit. Morgan Freeman radiates tough wisdom as Lucius Fox, the scientist who designs those wonderful toys — wait till you get a load of the Batpod — but who finds his own standards being compromised. Gary Oldman is so skilled that he makes virtue exciting as Jim Gordon, the ultimate good cop and as such a prime target for the Joker. As Harvey tells the Caped Crusader, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Eckhart earns major props for scarily and movingly portraying the DA's transformation into the dreaded Harvey Two-Face, an event sparked by the brutal murder of a major character.

No fair giving away the mysteries of The Dark Knight. It's enough to marvel at the way Nolan — a world-class filmmaker, be it Memento, Insomnia or The Prestige — brings pop escapism whisper-close to enduring art. It's enough to watch Bale chillingly render Batman as a lost warrior, evoking Al Pacino in The Godfather II in his delusion and desolation. It's enough to see Ledger conjure up the anarchy of the Sex Pistols and A Clockwork Orange as he creates a Joker for the ages. Go ahead, bitch about the movie being too long, at two and a half hours, for short attention spans (it is), too somber for the Hulk crowd (it is), too smart for its own good (it isn't). The haunting and visionary Dark Knight soars on the wings of untamed imagination. It's full of surprises you don't see coming. And just try to get it out of your dreams."

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