The Dark Knight Rises


The question of course is, does “The Dark Knight Rises” live up to the hype? Absolutely. Christopher Nolan has maintained his intensity of focus and delivered a serious, dark, engagingly exciting movie. As everyone by now knows, it’s the end of his trilogy. Bane, the (weakest) nemesis is another masked man, wearing an appendage that suggests he’s a quasi-human thing that’s not quite of this world and hasn’t as yet worked out how to process oxygen into his lungs. He rounds out the trilogy by being the last member of the League of Shadows, that tribe of anarchists we first met with Liam Neeson; and –natch – he’s out to destroy Gotham, for which I guess we should read the world/western civilization… or America as the Americans would like us all to think.

We first encounter Bruce Wayne as Howard Hughes type recluse, bent and walking like an octogenarian with a cane. Batman has been blamed for the death of Harvey Dent (Nolan presumes, accurately I assume, that we’d all have seen the last movie where Harvey Dent wasn’t the heroic chief of police the deluded Gothamites believed but the dastardly Two-Face) and, in a two-fingered gesture to Gotham, has retired from crime-fighting

It’s Bruce Wayne’s discovery of a cat burglar, Anne Hathaway as the breath-taking Cat-Woman, that seems to peak his interest enough to begin to ease his physical pain and self-imposed imprisonment. For much of the movie, Batman (or the Batman as he’s referred to) manages to miraculously recover from being kicked, dropped from heights and stabbed, with incredible ease. Must be a bat-power type thing. Such recoveries all seem a bit far-fetched for a movie that takes itself so seriously. But the recovery from being an 80 year old cripple to a muscled 30 something after meeting Anne is, well, something I could well imagine.

Nolan uses Cat-Woman in a variety of ways, apart from being the jolt that Bruce needs. She’s a choric figure who lectures the billionaire Bruce. “There’s a storm coming…” she says, channeling the 99% against the 1%. She warns that all the people like him who have left so little for the poor and have taken so much for themselves, will soon be facing a reckoning.

And it comes in the guise of Bane whose attacks on the city are visualized not just by the dramatic destruction of the arteries that feed into the city (its many bridges) but by his ravaging of the wealthy. We see them being kicked out of their luxury apartments, as Bruce himself is from his extensive Wayne Manor.

But Bruce isn’t kicked out by force, rather it’s by the same sort of complicated financial maneuvers (master-minded by one of Bane’s white collar cohorts) that have kicked millions out into the streets in the real world. The indifferent and decadent 1%, cocooned into a belief that their status quo of wealth would never end, is replaced by another 1% – of pure evil.

It’s as though, Nolan seems to be suggesting, they’re one and the same thing.

The movie’s long – over 2 and ½ hours; and the central segment, when financial chicanery takes center stage, drags it down a bit. But once the Batman is back in fighting mode, armed with his incredible flying, riding machines (“it’s not a car,” he tells Cat-Woman), Nolan finally segues away from his high-minded morale’s and gets back to some nice low-kicking action.

As to the hype that the last of the trilogy sees the death of Batman, I won’t spoil the party by revealing anything. But, there is a nice little soupcon of delight when we’re introduced to Robin. Just another thing to look forward to.

 

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“Invisible Art” the exhibition


There is an exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery now, called (appropriately), “Invisible. Art about the Unseen. 1957-2012”

Well, what will they think of next!

The initial response to going to an exhibition of invisible art – featuring lots of blank canvases, an empty room, a plinth cursed by a witch and a fascinating maze of unseen walls, perceptible only by wearing a device that buzzes when you walk into one of them – is that it must be a big con.

It is an impeccably curated show with intelligent notes and an obvious awareness of its need to deal with perplexity and cynicism. But are they really serious? Ain’t it all a big joke. There’s certainly a lot of humor around: Maurizio Cattelan – one of the more interesting and engaging conceptual artists around – exhibits an Italian police report of his own report of a theft of an invisible painting. It’s a wonderful documentation of bureaucratic absurdity.

But is it art?

So, here’s the deal: Arthur C. Danto – one of America’s foremost art philosophers – pointed out in his analysis of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box cubes (where you can’t tell the difference between the object and the real thing) that the philosophical resonance of what Warhol had done in his transformation of reality was the assertion – confirmation really – that you can’t tell art just by looking at it.

Marcel Duchamp was there a hundred years ago when he upset a lot of folks by exhibiting an urinal in a gallery, thereby changing forever the sanctified image of art as pretty works lovingly created. Because art really isn’t about mimesis – imitating reality – it’s about the provocation of thought. Materiality and visibility are only a means to an end. (Indeed, this show comes at an interesting moment. On the same day I saw it, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, who run the Large Hadron Collider, proclaimed that they’d confirmed the – invisible – identity of the Higgs bosun. Hey, if science can be orgasmic about the invisible quantum world, what’s the big deal with art being equally excited about stuff you can’t see?)

Even before Duchamp, Hegel had noted that art shared with philosophy and religion the purpose of focusing the mind on what he called a “comprehensive apprehension of truth.” For him, art was not an illustration of a truth but an embodiment.

And as I rushed past countless other galleries and exhibits to get to this one, in search of invisible art, I was only able to do so by rendering all the others I noticed but did not see, equally invisible. And that’s the thing isn’t it. Most of us look at art without really thinking a lot about what we’re looking at. The reaction is so often a sensuous one; a response to engaging forms and colors. Well here’s are that’s all about the thinking – it relieves you of the burden of having to look

Tom Friedman – one of the artists in the show – has a framed, empty fold-out which is actually an erased image of a Playboy centerfold.

Think about it: The Playboy centerfold is (maybe ‘was’ is a better verb) the icon of male voyeurism, sexual exploitation and economic success built on fetishizing tits and ass. Its erasure is a wonderful statement of denial and rebellion against a set of values – from the West’s body fixation to issues about how wealth is made. It is also in a sense an erasure of history.

Indeed, much of the exhibition is a delightfully cheeky slap at the investment mentality that defines the art world of today. How do you sell a work of art that’s just an empty room, laden though it may be with philosophical signification? (Of course that’s the focus of Yazmina Reza’s wonderful play, “Art”, which centers around the purchase of an all white painting, for $40,000 by Serge, one of the three characters.)

To get back to Warhol: his works nowadays fetch for, God knows how much – $1M? $2M? maybe $10M or more? But were I to create a painting in every way identical to that of a Warhol, or even to what Warhol might have painted, designed to replicate exactly the same emotional aesthetic response I’d hazard that it’d be worthless.

For the aesthetic experience of art isn’t just about our response to what we see – to visual stimuli – but to our appreciation and understanding of a world of cultural and historical phenomena that surround the painting like an invisible nimbus.

In the exhibition, there’s a plinth by Warhol. It’s a blank cube next to which he stood – to infuse it with his aura of celebrity. My worthless imitation of Warhol would lack precisely this: his aura of celebrity; the fact that it was touched by his hands.

It’s a fundamental side of art we respond to, but don’t see.

It’s invisible.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Gianni Motti has a series of works done in invisible ink. So it’s not as though the work doesn’t exist – it simply doesn’t exist to the naked eye. Mere invisibility is not an ontological negation of existence. For existence doesn’t need the “ocular proof”, like the tree’s sound in the forest. Motti’s invisible paintings challenge you to respond to the idea of the art, it’s philosophical point of view, not its sensuous execution.

All in all, a fascinating exhibition.

But that’s just what I think

The Amazing Spiderman


“The Amazing Spiderman” is, in a word, “amazing”. It’s not so much a rebooting of the franchise but an intelligent and engaging re-imagining of it. Peter Parker’s transformation from nerdy foil to various bullies is less about the serendipity of being bitten by a spider, but more about his own curiosity and, almost, fate. Director Marc Webb (pause a while to take in that appropriate name) brings on the skills he honed on the delightful “500 Days of Summer” to present us with a Peter Parker who doesn’t have the brawn to cope with bullies, but certainly has the fearlessness to evolve into a superhero. He’s cool enough to warrant the attentions of Gwen Stacy, the love interest, as Peter, not as Spiderman. His transformation is really a hugely exaggerated rite of passage into adolescence. It’s the adolescence every skinny youth would have loved – from gawkiness to transcendence. It’s a moment captured nicely when he confronts his uncle’s would-be murderer and flaunts his super powers on this hapless knife carrying thug.

Relative newcomer, Englishman Andrew Garfield (part of that new crop of English public school boys who seem to have decided that acting’s better than banking) carries off the part of the shy/awkward/confused teenager who grows into a kind of web slinging maturity, with great aplomb. His emotional arc, like the entire movie is very convincing.

No less so, his love interest, Gwen – Emma Stone. We last saw Emma as the heroine and narrator of “The Help”. She, like him, is a bit of a nerd. The director lets you in to where the chemistry arises.

Equally engaging is the baddie – Dr.Curt Connors, once a partner to Peter’s dead father, and who (like all baddies) is an obsessed scientist working for a faceless company – Oscorp. He’s a Jeckyl turned Hyde as he morphs from man into New York (always damn New York. Why don’t they pick on, say Miami) destroying lizard. Connors is Rhys Ifan, who you may remember as Hugh Grant’s skinny friend in “Notting Hill”.

There are many really stand-out scenes in the movie – apart of course from the wonderful web slinging flying feats (that actually work nicely in 3D). Parker recognizes his own super strengths and speed first by inadvertently destroying his bathroom, his computer (the keys stick to his newly sticky fingers) and thrashing a gang of hoodlums on a subway car. He kicks the daylights out of them, all the while astonished by what he’s doing and apologizing profusely to them as he beats them up. But the first real expression that he’s a genuine hero not just a web crawling vigilante comes in a stunningly well realized scene in which he saves the life of a kid trapped in a flaming car. We know it’ll come out well, but Webb builds the tensions as grippingly as Spielberg did in a (not dissimilar) scene at the beginning of “Jurassic Park” two when a trailer is tipped over a precipice.

So, all in all, by far the best of the summer blockbuster lot. We await with anticipation the conclusion of the Batman trilogy…and of course the return of Bourne

Upon Re-reading Julius Caesar


I re-read Julius Caesar recently. There’s been much talk of it in the press, what with an African take on the play being presented as part of the 2012 celebrations here in London (where all of the plays will be presented over this year).

This play is ostensibly about freedom v servitude, with the idea of Rome linked in with the idea of democratic freedom v Caesar and the potential of servitude and tyranny. But really at its heart it’s an exploration about how we judge people. It’s not just about how character – who you are – influences behavior, but about how our judgment of people’s characters influences our own actions toward them. After all, the central point of the play is that Brutus judges that Caesar’s character is such that the latter is predisposed – by his character – to becoming a tyrant. (Egged on by Cassius), Brutus has the presumption to assume such supreme self-confidence in the rightness of his judgment that he joins the conspirators (Cassius, it is pointed out is simply envious of Caesar) and kills Caesar.

That’s it. A great leader, loved by his people, is murdered because the central character, who we’re continuously told is a noble man, and who himself tells us that it was all about his love for Rome (“not that I loves Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”, decides that this leader will eventually turn dictator. This is Bush and Blair attacking Iraq in case Saddam might get a WMD. It’s punishment in advance of the crime to stop a crime being committed.

As with all his plays, Shakespeare lays out the themes and layers of the play in the opening scene. In it, two Roman tribunes, Flavius and Marullus (later executed) are berating a group of party minded citizens en route to rejoicing in Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome. Here is the political dynamic presented to us: the crowd (which is consistently presented as feckless, inconsistent and stupid) is solidly pro the all-conquering Caesar. These tribunes on the other hand present the anti-Caesar faction, fearful as is Brutus and the conspirators, that he “… would soar above the view of men/ And keep us all in service fearfulness.” Notice Shakespeare’s use of the future conditional, “would soar”: it is Flavius’ presumption of a future that he converts to an incontestable reality.

Later we see the same future conditional kind of argument from Brutus’ own lips. Referring to the fact (that Anthony makes much of in his crowd turning speech on Caesar’s funeral) that Caesar was offered the crown three times, and three times turned it down, Brutus doesn’t come to the conclusion that the facts show that Caesar doesn’t want the crown but that, despite it all, “He would be crown’d:/How this might change, there’s the question”

Shakespeare balances this human, potentially flawed reading of character with divine/mystic visions of the future. Immediately after the opening scene, a soothsayer appears to present his case to Caesar: “beware the ides of March”. Caesar is warned about the future on multiple occasions, including by his own priests whose divinations foretell his doom.

So here we have Brutus and the conspirators foretelling a future of tyranny and the deprivation of freedom based on an analysis of character and a foretelling of the future based on mysticism and signs. The difference is that mysticism cannot influence action: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves..”

Caesar himself we see fleetingly and he doesn’t make our job any easier. He’s a nasty, self centered, arrogant shit. And it is this arrogance, his sense of invincibility that leads to his own doom. He dismisses the soothsayer – “…he is a dreamer; let us leave him” as he later dismisses his downbeat priests and his wife. He is his own enemy. This supremely egotistical person cannot envisage that anyone can harm him. Even when he astutely judges where danger lies (with Cassius): “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whiles they behold a greater than themselves;

And therefore are they very dangerous”… he is still blinded by his invincibility.

The eponymous hero is only in a few of the scenes of the play; and in the same way that we, the theatre-goers look on at how the principal characters judge each other, we too are only offered snapshots of information. We too have to judge whether Brutus’ judgment on Caesar and the action that results is a noble – for this, read ‘moral’ – one.

We’re certainly told in no uncertain terms that the source of Brutus’ (perhaps mistaken) judgment is morally sound . Anthony sums it up well:

“…the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general-honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.”

But the end result of such a judgment, presaged by nature itself when “there is civil strife in heaven.” when, “graves have yawn’d and yielded up their dead”, is disastrous.

Despite Anthony’s nice words, and the honesty of Brutus’ intentions, Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt about the on-going fallibility of the latter’s judgments, starting from the first when he is seduced by Cassius (who cannily reads his character to the extent that he can play him to his own end) who Brutus presumes is as noble as him.

He screws up by letting Anthony (a) live (“he can do no more than Caesar’s arm/When Caesar’s head is off…”) and (b) speak to the crowd when Anthony eviscerates Brutus’ arguments about Caesar’s ambitiousness.

He’s a disaster after the murder in the field of battle. His guilt leads him to fantasize about meeting the ghost of Caesar. Then he accuses one of Cassius’ colleagues, Lucius Pella for taking bribes and then compounds a scene of sheer nervous breakdown hysteria by accusing Cassius as well:

“…You yourself

Are much condem’d to have an itching palm”.

He then back tracks on it all and blames his hysteria on the death of his wife… for being “sick of many griefs”

All this after his most monstrous misjudgment that turns the battle against them,

“O

Cassius, Brutus gave the word too early

… we by Anthony are all enclosed.”

Anthony may have called Brutus the noblest Roman, but a more fitting epitaph is perhaps Cassius’ parting words,

“…O hateful Error

Melancholy’s child…”

Only Anthony, the consummate politician, consistently misjudged (as a mere “masker and reveler”) rises above all this character analysis as a source of action and sticks to action based on situation and politics. Like a master politician, he dissimulates with the conspirators to persuade them to give him a pass and then reads the thuggish crowd to turn them to his own end, with the result that pretty much all the conspirators (even Brutus’s wife, Portia) kill themselves, reflecting Brutus’ wry commentary (before he too runs on his sword):

“O Julius Caesar, thou are mighty yet. Thy spirit

Walks abroad, and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails.”

All this, theoretically in the name of freedom.

The first words after the murder are Cinna’s”

“Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead”

Brutus, bathing his hands in the steaming blood of Caesar’s corpse calls to the conspirators to…

“…walk we forth…cry

Peace, freedom and liberty”

It all sounds like any politician’s spin campaign. For really this is an abstract sort of freedom; an academic discussion among Roman senators obsessed by their own power and the fear that Caesar might constrict it. True freedom is of the sort that occurs when Pindarus, Cassius’ slave is finally and truly liberated (by killing, at his behest, Cassius). He says:

…So am I free…

Far from this country Pindarus shall run

Where never Roman shall take note of him.”