Jonathan Lethem Week(s) Continues; Did You Hear the One About ‘The Dark Knight?’


Jonathan LethemLeethem!—is the object of pretty much round the clock obsession here at Sound of the City. Combine that and our other bourgeois tastes—the New York Times, comic books, criticizing The Dark Knight for being a subliminal fascist vehicle of the terrifying new world order—and a Lethem op-ed on a Sunday when we have nothing else to do will occasional spark an orgy of coverage. Not to be outdone by this, SOTC film correspondent Benjamin Strong now weighs in, and in the defense of the common man no less: “Lethem risks blaming the audience for the fucked-upedness of our movies,” notes Strong, “and I don’t think that’s fair.” Let the bacchanal continue.

Credit: David Shankbone

Jonathan Lethem contributed a thoughtful op-ed piece to Sunday’s New York Times about belatedly viewing The Dark Knight after a “long summer spent laboring in the salt mine of a novel-in-progress.” Lethem argues that “morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content,” and concludes that “[i]f everything is broken, perhaps it is because for the moment we like it better that way.” Lethem is as accomplished a writer on film as he is a novelist (c.f. his essays on Star Wars, The Searchers, and John Cassavetes in The Disappointment Artist). He possesses an unparalleled gift for adhering his personal history with a movie to his analysis of it. But this time around, I wonder if Lethem’s cultural reading of the movie isn’t skewed by his own experience.

The Dark Knight is indeed incoherent—literally so. During its action sequences in particular, it’s often impossible to discern what is happening on the screen (was it me, or did Batman just batkick Alfred?) and it doesn’t help that the plot itself is convoluted without being compelling—it’s not as if anyone in the audience over the age of five is worried whether Batman will make it. And yet director Christopher Nolan’s antic, artless visual style really is just the latest Hollywood fashion. Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Supremacy—last summer’s blockbuster analogue to The Dark Knight—was similarly hard to follow, despite being a dumb routine spy thriller.

The Dark Knight has grossed $522 million domestically as of last week, according to IMDb, but is the film’s box-office success, truly a sign of its zeitgeist appeal, as Lethem implies? Let’s not forget that there was an unprecedented marketing campaign pushing this brand and that the untimely death of Heath Ledger was, among other things, an unexpected PR coup. Or as the New York Press‘s Armond White wrote upon The Dark Knight‘s release, “There hasn’t been so much pressure to like a Batman movie since street vendors were selling bootleg Batman T-shirts in 1989.”

Lethem, who as usual writes like a dream, is spot-on in suggesting that The Dark Knight‘s moral confusion suits our times. But so too do the cynical corporate artists who foisted this ugly, pernicious example of pop trash on us.