When you digest the Batman-themed conspiracy-theory YouTube videos that guerrilla film programmer Ernest J. Ramon unearthed for the Critical Paranoia 2: Dark Night Rising docu-compilation (screening again on 6/30 at the Spectacle Theater), you watch them as if your weirdest friend has got you baked — and assembled for you the maddest Bat-playlist.
In an introductory clip, an adenoidal voice enhanced by a booming Wizard of Oz–style echo effect claims that “Batman” takes his name from “Bat.” And “Bat” is the feminine form of the Egyptian word “Ba,” meaning “the element of the human soul temporarily submerged in darkness and suffering.” Onscreen, Batman’s totemic yellow insignia is juxtaposed against a constellation of stars. “This is why Batman’s logo is a giant image of the Milky Way,” the man says. “And that is why we project it onto the night sky.”
A harsh blast of white noise interrupts this amateurish astrological presentation. Ramon has changed the channel. Now we see an unnamed Unsolved Mysteries–style TV segment on the Mothman, an urban legend said to have visited the sites of impending disasters. An announcer tells us that the Mothman gets his name from “a local copy editor at the newspaper, inspired by the hit TV series Batman.” The Batman series in question is shown to be the campy 1966 Adam West–Burt Ward vehicle, and the copy editor, the newspaper, and the “local” town are not identified.
White noise again. The distinctive, silky-smooth voice actor Keith David (The Thing, They Live) talks about comic books and 9-11. You might think: Now we’re getting somewhere. There’s a History Channel logo in the corner, so if you block out Ramon’s cackling, you can make an educated guess about what program is being excerpted next. (Wikipedia suggests that it’s Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked.) But for now, you focus on David’s spiel: “Nobody could have imagined 9-11…unless they read comic books.” This transition is visually supported by a panel from an old Batman comic book, presumably from the Forties or Fifties. In the comic, Two-Face wonders aloud: “Blow up the twin towers? Possible, but what do I get out of it besides Batman’s death?”
Then you hear the voice of Frank Miller, the comic-book pioneer whose bleak, hysterical The Dark Knight Returns miniseries is now considered one of the most galvanizing comics of the 1980s. Miller insists that he submitted his script for The Dark Knight Rises Again, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, one day after 9-11. In it, Batman attacks a skyscraper by crashing his Batplane into it.
Before you can protest too much — Miller may be a war-hawk, but he has recently conceded that invading Iraq was a mistake — Ramon changes the channel.
Ramon is unpredictably fickle, and this isn’t the film you were expecting based on its cryptic trailer. Instead, you probably expected something like Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s documentary highlighting paranoiac preoccupations and styles of analysis in several conspiracy theorists’ readings of The Shining.
Unlike Room 237, Dark Night Rising doesn’t reveal the patterns in or personalities behind its subjects’ claims. Instead, Ramon disorients you with a barrage of soundbites that reveal the breadth but not the depth of its anonymous theorists’ anxieties: James Holmes, the Colorado Dark Knight Rises movie-theater shooter, is a “false-flag terrorist.” White noise. He was hypnotized by the government as a means of silencing Robert Holmes, a visionary mathematician and economist. White noise. James was not acting alone. Eyewitnesses saw tear gas dispersed from two different locations in the movie theater James shot up.
Wait, is this clip a segment from Fox News?
A news anchor tells us that a prison inmate (not visualized) talked to James Holmes, and was told by James (also not visualized) that psychiatrist Lynne Fenton brainwashed James.
Wait wait: Did he say Infowars? As in the Alex Jones–run website?
The Joker is likened to the Devil, an association that’s underscored by the playing cards the Joker dispenses in The Dark Knight. White noise. According to an inflection-less, robot-like narrator, Grant Morrison used tarot archetypes in his Batman comic books. ?
Wait, that last one is actually true. ?
White noise. ?
Heath Ledger played the Joker once. And there are Christ-like images in The Dark Knight filmed before Ledger’s real-life overdose. White noise. Heath Ledger was an Illuminati sacrifice; just look at these conclusive (but pixelated and hard to make out) early publicity stills from his last film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. ?
When Dark Night Rising ends, you’ll probably feel like you were just unproductively ranted at by a schizophrenic whose head is full of Glenn Beck–style provocateurs. These anonymous, tortured voices pose confusing, insensitive questions in the vain hopes of starting a debate that you really shouldn’t engage in. ?
Moreover, Ramon’s A.D.D.-fast pacing makes it impossible to tell if these (always disembodied) talking heads have actually happened upon secret messages embedded in Batman movies, TV shows, and comic books. Were there clues about the Sandy Hook shootings embedded in prop maps featured in The Dark Knight Rises? Is Newtown, Connecticut, a hub for satanic activity? Is the Batcave a modern analogue of Plato’s cave? If you think clearly about these questions, you can easily answer them: no, no, and probably not, no. But Dark Night Rising doesn’t encourage contemplation: It’s a hyper-edited horror film that only looks like a documentary collage.
No matter how sober you really are, you are guaranteed to be confounded by Dark Night Rising, since Ramon recycles already nonsensical raw material until it’s completely incoherent. In that sense, Ramon’s film functions in the same way that William S. Burroughs’s surreal cut-up novels and poems did. Like Burroughs, Ramon constructs a new, barely comprehensible narrative by repurposing parts of pre-existing narratives. The military, Batman, and Plato, too: All of these things are familiar, but none of them makes sense in the context of Ramon’s nightmarish free-for-all document. Don’t touch that dial, because there’s a lot more where Dark Night Rising came from. All you have to do to find it is start flipping channels.
Playing at the Spectacle Theater
10 p.m., Tuesday, June 30