#28: Joe Carroll, The Lord Voldemort of bad serial television

When it comes to staying dedicated to terrible television, I am a savant. I will, despite all indications to it being terrible, watch a show for at least one season. Because of this special dedication, I have watched such gems as Men at Work on TBS, Under the Dome, The River, and, of course, The Following. For the uninitiated, The Following pretends to be a serious show about a serial killer so charismatic he ends up with a cult. Because he really likes Edgar Allan Poe and has a British accent, or something? I really have no idea. But Kevin Bacon is involved as our hero, and it was created by the dude who wrote most of the Scream movies, so I thought it might be, you know, not completely moronic. I was wrong.

Charisma is, of course, a rather indefinable attribute. How one portrays it in a tv show must, in turn, be pretty much impossible. The Following tackles this by simply having people fawn uncontrollably over Joe; this means, as the viewer, we get no real understanding of the relationship between Joe and his followers, simply because the entire relationship is based on a charisma that cannot actually be felt. So, the show devolves into a really strange experience for the viewer: a boring dude who apparently likes to kill coeds expounds high-school-sophomore-stoner-philosophy about Poe and death, and this stirs the inner soul of a bunch of serial killer wannabes. Or something. And, in turn, they flock to him and do his bidding like lemmings, but we are supposed to see them as a terrifying group of “Anyones”: these people are everywhere and could be right next to you, aghast! Anyone, everyone, is a psychopath!

It should not be so easy to mock the basis of this show; instead, it should actually frighten the viewer. It highlights a near baseline human fear: with the possibility of any one person being evil, no one can actually be trusted. Unfortunately, instead of terror, we get incompetence. In order to prove the genius of Joe Carroll and his followers, the show elects to showcase the sheer stupidity of the F.B.I. Having one organisation be stupid does not create a scale on which the other side immediately becomes intelligent; instead, it reinforces the overall lack of intelligence of everyone involved and, thus, highlights, again, the failure of the writers to create an understanding for the viewer about why this person, Joe, matters so much. This is not just a horror show; this is supposed to be a meta-commentary on how the world functions: we are all obliged to fear that which we don’t know. If the show could successfully comment on that fear and how such fear rationalise judgment and bigotry, that would be exciting.

If you really want to understand The Following, then, you only have to read Harry Potter. At the end of the fourth book, Harry reveals that Lord Voldemort has regained his powers. Most wizards do not want to believe this because, if true, it means they can no longer trust the world as they wish to. The idea of evil here is not just demonic and otherworldly, but one of minutia: the day-to-day trivialities take on larger meanings–is that person acting in such a way because s/he’s evil or cursed? do I know my neighbor as well as I think I do? who do I trust with even the most mundane tasks? The terrifying aspect of such evil is that it [possibly] lies within the very people we consider ‘normal.’ Joe Carroll (Lord Voldemort) and his followers (the Death-Eaters) battle Kevin Bacon [Ryan Hardy] (Harry Potter), who not only is the main protagonist, but to further the Potter parallels, is actually scarred by Joe when Hardy interrupts an attempted killing, barely surviving, and thus shoots to fame for being The One Who Stopped Joe Carroll; the scar/survival in turn marks Hardy as ‘important’ to Joe and his followers–the necessary component of Joe’s games and the person for whom all evil planning must revolve around and whose death must be performed by Joe. The Ministry of Magic and the F.B.I. remain incompetent in almost all facets of resolving the issue, culminating in the denial of return of Joe/Voldemort, only to be proven wrong. There are evil insiders at all levels of the F.B.I. and others who have been coerced into helping (i.e., Imperius Curse). Here in season 2 we even have our own Hermione in Hardy’s cop cousin who actually provides most of the intellectual muscle Hardy needs to continue his pursuit for proof of Joe still being alive and his remaining, now under-ground, Death-Eaters (clearly, the Emma character is Bellatrix Lestrange).

The divergence is in our understanding of the central evil character and why he has drawn such people in his grasp. For Voldemort, people clearly fear him; they wish to act upon evil impulses, but in a way that demonstrates they do so for the purpose of winning favour from him. He gathers those to him who can benefit his singular ideal: to be the best, the most powerful, and to avoid death. Joe Carroll on the other hand draws people to him through a perverted notion of love and gift-giving; his speeches about death describe it as a gift that the murderer bestows upon the lucky chosen. This idealisation of death renders it much harder for the viewer to grasp the relationship between Joe and his followers. Voldemort falls squarely into our general understanding of the evil, power hungry demon; Joe Carroll’s evil requires us to get past the bad philosophy and worship to a far murkier, ethereal understanding of evil–his followers wish to commit crimes because he has cultivated their inherent sense of evil, but they do not commit them to appease him; they do so to prove their love and gain his.
There are two ways of looking at this:

1) J.K. Rowling successfully portrays the common understanding of evil to her readers, and, as such, creates a real villain. There are no ambiguities; evil people are drawn to the power of the utmost evil, craving power of their own, and willingly giving up some in return for the freedom to be evil. This evil is then undermined completely by love–in that Harry is protected from Voldemort by his mother’s loving sacrifice, as well as the fact that the insider who enables the good guys to know as much information as they do and who sacrifices himself for the good of the cause, Snape, did so for a life-long unrequited love of Harry’s mother. This fits inside our prototypical vision of how evil acts, and while it doesn’t challenge our understanding of evil’s possibilities, it makes sense to us as outsiders participating in the story–Voldemort isn’t just bad, he’s oppressively bad, driven by a desire to basically no longer exist within the confines of humanity. He’s at once both Other and the personification of the Id gone wild, which means he somehow is someone/something we can’t see as human and an example of our base humanity without confines.

2) The Following, in an attempt to create a more, let’s say, holistic version of evil, grinds against this ‘normalcy.’ The evil here is one built out of a desire to feel a sense of belonging that goes beyond a simplistic Collection of Evil People–it is, paradoxically, about the emergence of emotional connections between individuals who sense they fail to belong in the real world; they are not drawn to Joe Carroll because they fear his power; they are there because he grants them the space to be themselves. By going against what we have come to understand as the prototypical version of evil, this should be intriguing, a notion of evil with something to say. Unfortunately, the show has nothing to say; it just wants the viewer to be scared by the ‘unknown,’ and, in the end, that’s why the show disappoints.

The real discussion, then, should focus on how we, as participants in these works of fictions, psychologically respond to something we often consider so easily defined: ‘evil is bad.’ But what we consider to be ‘bad’ often morphs according to context, giving layers to the meaning of evil–the contextual understanding of an action creates an opinion, one which we don’t necessarily recognise as malleable, i.e., if I were to steal your data, that would be considered a criminal act; when the government does the same thing, that’s considered [by some] to be an act to preserve our safety. The act itself is the same; it’s our understanding of why the act occurs that changes it–it is assumed I would steal your data for personal benefit, whereas the government does it for protection. The idea that safety is, in fact, a type of personal benefit doesn’t register because that type of benefit lacks the key component of greed, at least on the surface. It’s within this schism that the Voldemort/Carroll split occurs: Voldemort is the data hacker, performing deeds for his own personal gain; Carroll is supposedly not doing this just for himself but because he wants to create a ‘safe haven’ for the psychopath misfits he cares for; it doesn’t matter that it’s a long con, just like it doesn’t matter that government data collection at this point has almost nothing to do with terrorist prevention, because the veneer of safety creates, contextually, the reason for specific actions.

My guess is people don’t inherently like the idea of evil being malleable; they want it to be concrete, a highly specific thing to point at and declare with utmost certainty, ‘that is evil, that is wrong,’ i.e., the Devil. Yet, we do this all the time: mass murder, bad; dropping 2 nuclear bombs on cities, okay because it was during a war, despite it instantly killing tens of thousands of people. We constantly create justifications not just for our specific actions, but for what those actions mean. This is why Joe Carroll is a closer reflection to what evil in real life is, philosophically (not necessarily in action), because the idea of evil constantly changes and/or adapts to the current situation, but Voldemort is an easier, and, thus, stronger, character; Voldemort’s vision of evil always remains concrete; we can, without hesitation, point at him and declare him bad.

What this means then is not that evil can be contextualised or rationalised, but that evil is determined by other people and their decision to either accept or deny the rationalising for such an act. This is the basis of the American model of the justice system: a criminal act is argued and other people–a judge, a jury–determine the context of the act according to a set of laws; the act itself, oddly, is less important than its place within the context of laws and other people’s response to an explanation for the act. Both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor will attempt to rationalise whatever happened within the confines of the decision they wish to get. The interesting aspect of all of this is how the job of being a defense lawyer has created an entire stereotype of lawyer and is almost entirely the reasoning behind lawyer jokes, complaints, etc. Their defense of perceived evil people means evil extends to them, despite, objectively, people knowing they are performing a necessary component of our justice system. Evil becomes a coat anyone can wear, even those whose job we inherently understand as needing to exist.

And, so, it seems what we really need is a devil. A devil, within all possible configurations and capitalisations of the ‘d,’ represents an extraordinarily concrete vision: a creature against the good of humanity. The notion of ‘good,’ of course, is a fluid and dynamic thing, which makes a devil so ingenious: it can be anything or anyone who obstructs us from our particular brand of good. Too often, then, the construction of evil starts with a simple pretext: fear–the fear that what we know as good has changed, is changing, or will change (fear, clearly, is an all-encompassing urge with no regard for the boring logistics of ‘time’). It would make me happier, mostly because it would help justify why I keep watching the show, if I could label Joe Carroll a devil. I mean, I guess he is, but his brand of evil bores. Perhaps Voldemort’s obvious association with Hitler and the Death-Eaters/Nazis/Muggles/Jews/Pure-Blood lists, etc., creates a tension surrounding a fictional character that, while purposeful, makes it much easier to forgive a fairly stereotypical villain. Voldemort, once you remove the concept of magic, is simply a narcissist suffering from a rather crippling dichotomy of self-hatred and ego; he just so happens to exist with a little extra flair because, you know, wizarding and such–green flashes, talking to snakes, whatever. His drama is a fantastical fiction. Joe Carroll on the other hand is supposed to exist, to be a person whom we, the viewer, actually worry may roam our reality.

As I sit here I realise what bothers me the most is this: Voldemort’s followers don’t love him; hell, they don’t even like him. They fear him and desire to be judged as good enough in his eyes. Carroll’s following has nothing to do with fear. I think this should be an interesting concept, but the show just sucks. It fails to explain why these people are drawn to him. Perhaps I’ve watched too many CSI and Criminal Minds episodes and what have you, and so I have that awful faux knowledge of killer psychology and crime scenes that these shows have concocted and have, thus, turned all of us into (bad) aspiring detectives, but my understanding is serial killers are pretty isolated individuals, not in the sense that they all live in the woods like the Unabomber, but that they cannot connect emotionally with people in a real way; their ego and narcissism prevent real human contact. The notion that a serial killer cult forms because of ‘love,’ then, makes no goddamn sense, and it especially makes no sense when the guy whose supposed to be the leader mostly seems like a whiny drama queen who thinks stabbing people makes him a god. Maybe I’m overthinking this and should instead focus on poor script writing and bad acting. But there’s no need to destroy my whole premise in one sentence. Maybe this is all some elaborate con and Joe plans on killing all his followers in some Jonestown like self-massacre. My guess is that with the introduction of a secondary serial killer group–Lilly Gray and Family–we’re going to have some convoluted situation where Joe rescues Kevin Bacon from Lilly’s band of merry killers because, of course, Joe and Kevin are destined for each other like some sort of horrible recreation of the Devil tempting Jesus and nobody other than the Devil gets to mess with Jesus like that or something and then Complex Conundrums start for Mr. Bacon: Stage 1: confusion; Stage 2: anger; Stage 3: overt resignation to the Joe/Mr. Bacon psychopath parallels already hinted at by Joe’s ‘teacher.’ [If none of this makes any sense to you, you’re probably much better off]. Maybe what this all means is that I want my evil with a dash of oxymoron–to fit safely inside the confines I already understand. And, maybe, really, what this all means is the best combination of ‘safety’ evil and challenging evil is Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal, and I just keep expecting The Following to figure this out. Alas.

#26: let’s rant about crappy movies: the Only God Forgives edition

Many keyboards have been wounded discussing Hollywood and its apparent desire to remake / redo / sequelise and prequelise pretty much anything and everything, leading to a derth in originality and quality. What this ignores, however, is that Hollywood [for the most part] makes their decisions based upon optimal return-on-investment factors. They keep releasing Fast and Furious movies because people keep paying to watch them. They aren’t releasing your brother-in-law’s ethereal portrait of the human condition which is, of course, super brilliant and deep, because people are not going to pay to watch it. There are times when such R-O-I decisions backfire–The Lone Ranger, say–and people take particular glee in seeing such movies fail, but, in truth, the glee derives from the cemented notion that most of these movies actually succeed. Hollywood, the bully, wins more than it loses.

The fallacy of the serious-minded-cinema-viewer is the assumption that Hollywood, the behemoth, wants to produce both critically and financially successful movies; Hollywood wants to make money, quality be damned. It’s the same reason we no longer just have the ‘summer blockbuster;’ all major movies are now pushed like blockbusters because blockbusters have the greatest chance to draw in consumers. Movie consumption has little to do, then, with your serious-mindedness, and has mostly to do with what will make you remove your credit card from your wallet and hand it to the person in the ticket booth. And, for most of America, that means Vin Diesel in fast cars and superheroes causing trillions of dollars in property damage.

I don’t know what makes a good movie; I think, in general, that is really the blame for all of this. I don’t think Fast and Furious movies are worth watching, but I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie. What does that mean? I think it means I have a particular bias when it comes to watching awful films. Horror, yes. Fast cars, no. But, what does it mean when people tell you the Fast and Furious series is good, that they find the movies compelling, entertaining, and–aghast–quality filmmaking? What do you say if a person were to claim the series contained his favourite movies of all time? Do you direct him to Gone in 60 Seconds and see if this cures him, or do you just nod and wonder how many times he has been hit in the head? And what do you say when this person asks you to tell him why the movies aren’t good. There’s the standard tropes: lack of originality, the ridiculous plots, the over-the-top emphasis on being a rebel = being right, etc., etc., etc., but when you break down your own favourite movies, how many of them fall into the same tropes, but in a way you feel confident in defending? I love horror movies because of the inherent simplicity in most of them, an almost calming certainty to how each will play out–sins committed, deaths to follow, escape for our main protagonist(s), possible-sequel-ending. They are a drumbeat to which I can detach myself from my ‘real’ life and allow to comfort me in its predictability. Everything in that list of certainties exists in the Fast and Furious series. There are also tons of horror movies that I can’t stand, mostly ones involving Rob Zombie, not because the drumbeat disappears, but because I don’t find them entertaining. So why would I give room for horror movies to fail that I will not to some other dreck?

The answer is simple: being entertained = a good movie. Now, we may enact some critical faculties, announce that a movie we liked isn’t actually ‘good,’ in the critical sense, but, in the end, the critical sense means absolutely nothing when it comes to entertainment. We, of course, want it to because otherwise what’s the point of having an opinion, but at its most base, entertained and good are the exact same thing. If you have enjoyed watching a movie, it means it was good. The critical assessment only exists later, once you have looked back on it, compared it to the canon, if you will. Did the entertainment also consist of enlightenment, did it force you to question the world in some way, did its entertainment reach a higher level beyond just enjoyment. But none of that actually matters when you are actively watching a movie.

That being said, Only God Forgives is a horrendous movie. I haven’t looked at any actual reviews of it, but I’m guessing its defenders will claim its deliberate pace showcases a deep, underlying message that cannot be articulated, or that its over-emphasis on hands has symbolic meaning that coincides with the slow movements of everyone involved, that somehow that hands are ‘hands of time’ ready to be severed as the world around us continues to move. My guess is there will be defenders of the limited dialogue, that the space between words hangs heavy with meaning, that all of these things coalesce as a buffer to the violence, a way of atmosphere melting into blood and death, a way to describe how, no matter how slow, our ends are always pre-determined: you will die. Your choices will still be the choices you made. Movement forward is inescapable. You cannot hold time. Etc., etc., etc. These people are wrong.

Only God Forgives is painfully slow to behold, its grating color schemes and over-reliance on contrasting noise with lack of movement not just an annoying quirk, but a serious flaw. Ryan Gosling’s brooding seems less psychopath-ready-to-deliver and more mentally retarded. The police detective is a sociopath, plain and simple. He chops of people’s hands, derives pleasure from torturing a suspect, including blinding him with needles then finishing the guy off by sticking another needle into his brain via his ear. All the moodiness of the movie is supposed to give way to great bouts of violent explosion, but, sadly, the violent explosions have not been earned by said moodiness; instead, the violence becomes the only parts of the movie worth watching simply because at least something is happening. The detective literally shuffles everywhere; at one point I thought my Netflix was lagging. This does not scream art to me; it screams I-wish-to-be-art.

The ponderous pace does, however, cover the fact that the movie really could be about 30 minutes long. There is nothing here when it comes to the plot: it’s kind of a revenge movie, but even the revenge is stupid. Gosling’s older brother butchers an underage prostitute. In retaliation he is killed. In retaliation to that, Gosling’s overbearing druglord mother demands revenge. As a viewer, are we supposed to want that? Are we rooting for revenge for a butcher of a young woman? There are inklings that Gosling is some kind of violence-savant, having fled to Taiwan or wherever the hell this movie takes place, after killing his father (at his mother’s request). In turn, his mother tries to weasel out of police punishment in Taiwan by declaring Ryan a psychopath. Revenge begets murder begets turncoat begets death by sword. The world of Only God Forgives is one of contrasts–silence/non-motion v. karaoke/violence, but those contrasts do not create tension, they create boredom. The heavy-handed symbolism reaches its epic point when Gosling comes upon the dead body of his mother, proceeds to stab it a couple of times, then nearly reaches his hand into her stomach. Of course his character wishes to reach into his mother’s uterus; of course he wishes he had never been born; of course his life is one born of violence and silence: he was never meant to exist. His mother had said so earlier, that she had been told to abort but didn’t. We are all but flashes of rage pondering our existence. Or something.

From what I understand, artistic movies ask big questions, but what I also understand is big questions do not have to be boring. Sadly, Only God Forgives fails on all accounts, conflating violence with meaning, silence with depth, and, worst of all, symbolism with emotional development. If I’m going to watch a pschyo shuffle annoyingly slow and torment people, I’d prefer he was wearing a white mask and answered to the name Michael.

#25: a quick rant about Harry Potter

Despite being an adult, at least according to age, I enjoy reading Harry Potter. I also know there’s no real reason to act defensive about that because millions of adults have read Harry Potter. Not all of them can be total nerds. Or, perhaps, I’ve superceded their nerdom because G. and I elected to order all the Potters in hardcover in the original British editions. So, okay, we’re nerds. And as such, it makes me wonder if Draco Malfoy / Slytherins get a bad rap.

Consider: While the 4 houses all have their rivalries, Slytherin at no point has allies outside of itself. Such isolation has to make them defensive. Draco Malfoy expects to be in Slytherin because it’s his family’s legacy; however, how much of the legacy is derived from a stereotype that feel they must live up to? According to the books, all (ALL!) evil wizards and witches in the greater British area come out of Slytherin. I find this to be incredibly difficult to believe. It implies that only a specific type of person has the possibility to commit evil and overlooks the inherent intricacies of humans. Let’s say you are a Muggle-born first year, and just like Harry, you’ve never heard of / known about / had any inkling about the wizarding world, but unlike Harry you receive no information on the train to Hogwarts by others to indicate that Slytherin is the ‘evil’ house; the Sorting Hat elects to put you there because, when sat upon your head, it picked up a drive for power–a drive powered not by a desire to be ‘evil,’ but a desire to prove yourself in the wizarding world. This hypothetical person would then be cast as ‘evil’ by the rest of the houses, despite having absolutely no allegiance or standing inside of Slytherin, simply because of the stereotype of the house. This first year is then immediately put on the defensive, making him/her not only overwhelmed beginning his/her wizarding schooling, but also overwhelmed by the stance against him/her through no fault of his/her own. S/he merely showed up at the school, sat upon a chair, and waited for the hat to declare his/her fate, as it were. Slytherin, the snake house, consumes itself in a vicious circle of stereotypes and defensiveness.

While I understand the need for a (mostly) children’s book series to create ‘blocks’ of people in order to establish the Good v. Bad, I also think Rowling spends a lot of time working to the greater psychological understanding of her main characters. Even Draco in the last book gets some introspection–via other character’s looking at / hearing about him–as he grapples with his task of taking out Dumbledore. The struggle Malfoy goes through, both personally and physically, only highlights the cost of being in Slytherin: the expectation to perform evil because you are told that being in Slytherin means you have to live up to some kind of Higher Evil Purpose. Unlike Gryffindor, the House of Slytherin not only contends with other houses, it contends with the legacy of itself. Any teenagery acts–pranks, rebellion, combustible emotional outbursts, all things others do in the rest of the houses–are seen through a lens of horror; ‘THEY COULD BE DEATHEATERS, AHHHHHHHHHHHH,’ essentially. The most impressive character arc in the entire series is how Draco, after seven years of having to look at himself as a pre-destined monster, actually struggles with that destiny and eventually crumbles in front of it. We all want to glorify the resurrection of Harry because of his parents’ and other’s love, but Draco must deal with being an assumed evil wizard for seven straight years. How hard would it be to look at yourself with any real analysis when the rest of the school looks at you through that lens of assumed horror? He is throughout most of the series a caricature of his father, and, yet, by the end, he overcomes that. Of course he’s an annoying, snobbish git–he’s been handed a silver spoon, something that most people will always hold against him; the assumption is he doesn’t need upward mobility because he’s already reached the upper tier, the 1% if you will; yet what Draco most needs is the upward mobility of socialisation, a wide circle of friends who expose him to the world outside of the Slytherin stereotype, something that everyone else blocks him from achieving because of the stereotype. And, unlike any of the other main characters, he is not allowed to make mistakes; such mistakes become glaring announcements of his perceived evil.

Imagine living your teen years knowing you were supposed to become a specific type of person. In movies, the audience is often set up to feel empathy for the character who doesn’t want to become the lawyer, the doctor, the ‘serious profession’ that his parents want / demand him to become; in Dead Poet’s Society this point gets hammered home by the kid who wants to be an actor shooting himself in the head when his father pulls him from school, demanding the son pursue the serious profession the father wants for him. We are to feel sadness for the son and shame for the father. In this case, we hold it against Draco that he wants to become his parents; yet, in general, is that not realistic? Don’t most of us want to impress our parents? Of course we go through rebellious phases, but that doesn’t mean we abjectly desire to disappoint them. When Draco confronts this dilemma in the final book, he loses weight, he loses sleep, and he confides his fears to Moaning Myrtle. His social circle is so incomplete that he actually has to find comfort with a ghost in a girl’s bathroom. Imagine, again, that you have no one to actually talk to; imagine your psyche as you grapple with who you are at 17 and are convinced the world, on all sides, is against you–from Slytherin, the assumption that he is too weak to perform his assigned task and live up to his destiny; from everyone else, the assumption that he is a Dark Wizard looking to wreak havoc on all of them. The world for Draco is such a cold place, he finds comfort in a person killed by the very embodiment of his house, a basilisk. In not holding it against Draco that the Serpent of Slytherin killed her, Myrtle is the only person who shows him compassion. That has to be psychologically damaging to realise almost no one out there shows a willingness to just listen to him. And, lost in all this, is the immense pressure he’s under with his task to kill Dumbledore–not because, you know, Dumbledore, but because the fate of his life and his family is to be determined by his success or failure. It is an actual life or death situation for him. And nobody shows any care.

Okay, his mother does, but we have no insight into the family dynamic, in terms of how much weight his father and mother each have in leading Draco; the assumption, though, has to lean towards his father having the power because of how much Draco solely references him in previous books. Second, I realise Snape constantly asks Draco to let him help, but we also find out that Snape is a double agent whose true mission is to continue his guise until he can release Draco from his task by performing it himself, as determined by Dumbledore and him in prior meetings. Essentially, Dumbledore allows Snape to make Draco think that his task has been completed, further scarring Draco even as Draco has elected to not death-curse Dumbledore; Draco believes he alone is responsible for killing Dumbledore and that Snape did so just to ‘help’ him. Again, imagine the psychological cost of believing you’re responsible for the death of the ‘greatest wizard in the world,’ when you weren’t even sure by the end that you wanted to follow through on the task [Also, how do we know Dumbledore is the greatest wizard in the world? There is much to be said about the blatant exceptionalism expressed, something that I’m sure could align with the former British Empire notion of self / colonialism and current Unites States assumption of superiority. Hogwart’s basically stands at the center of the wizarding world according to this, with no indication of the (I guess, possible) globalisation of it. We get a Tri-Wizard tournament, but that only includes two other schools, both from European neighbours].

In the real world, there is a cultural and political battle over how to handle poverty / crime. While approaches to solving the dilemma differ, the goal remains the same [sorry, I have to insert here: would there be a way to make a documentary about this using Led Zeppelin music, as in The Goal Remains the Same / The Song Remains the Same?]: to create upward mobility–to move people into better schools, better jobs, better environments. The fight people have, however, has to do with stereotypes: that poor people are lazy; that some groups are somehow ‘more prone’ to crime; that people believe they are entitled to free handouts rather than working their way up the social spectrum. Such stereotyping ignores reality because the stereotypes are often self-fulfilling prophesies: the stereotype prevents a person from serious consideration when that person attempts to better himself. Schools lack funding, educational divides become gulfs, better jobs get harder and harder to obtain, environments continue to wither as the jobs and schools get worse–destiny, if you will, becomes a version of survival, not mobilisation. And, while Draco obviously has the benefit of being part of the 1%, and while he relentlessly takes pleasure in announcing it, his personal character has no social spectrum to move in. As he grapples with his supposed destiny, his only friend is a dead person. Imagine.

#20: I finally watch the Dark Knight Rises

It is not a highly supported argument, in terms of the general fan, to say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is not a good movie. However, the fact is the movie is not particularly good when considered as a single entity; instead, it is an overly-reliant-on-twists Explosion Spectacular Revenge Story by way of Lifetime Movie Network. [A second] However, as a rebuttal, Nolan’s determination to consider the psychological costs of what it means to wear a mask throughout the trilogy as a whole means Rises still has the ability to mean something. [The third] However, in the end, Nolan’s failure to truly address this psychological layering in this last Batman episode is what ends up rendering this as that Revenge Story and why the movie actually fails to deliver on the promise that seems so readily available after the first two movies.

When considering the psychology of masks, most people assume a mask has entirely to do with Hiding and Protection; strange as it may appear on the surface, these two terms can be mutually exclusive: Batman hides his identity, whereas Superman protects his by pretending to be much weaker. In the real world, a person may hide his identity to protect himself—the Witness Protection program, say—or, in a far more common trope, a person may use the protection of never having to identify him/herself to become an internet troll, and, thus, the mask most used today is the computer screen.  For Christopher Nolan, however, in the Batman trilogy, the mask is not about H&P; it has everything to do with cultural projection, an interesting twist on how we—the viewer, the community of viewers, society at large—think of ourselves.

Strangely enough, one of the more intriguing interpretations of mask psychology occurs in the aptly named The Mask, a Jim Carrey vehicle that also helped introduce audiences to Cameron Diaz. While it’s easy, and correct overall, to see this movie as just another way for Carrey to act a loon and perform as many impersonations as could be thought of, at its core it asks an important question: Who am I? For Jim Carrey’s character, Stanley Ipkiss, the answer has two parts; on one hand he’s a mild-mannered man who just wants to be loved, on the other, he’s apparently a wildly outgoing man capable of seducing women through sheer will—the Superego and the Id. What we learn while watching, however, is that neither of these two presentations are truly who Stanley Ipkiss is; both are, in their own ways, masks he uses to create a version of himself he believes is most necessary; as the “nice” man he can prevent himself from taking risks that may hurt; as the “mask” he can take whatever risks he wants without any consequences because the masked Stanley is merely a cartoon, a non-reality that eliminates any possibility of hurt. The breakthrough (shallow as it may be) for him is discovering he can win Diaz’s heart by being a combination of the two.

Nolan has long dealt with the idea of identity of self versus the projection of self. In his early movie Memento, with Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a type of short term amnesiac trying to track down his wife’s murderer, we have a narrator who must cope with knowing exactly who he is but is physically incapable of remembering what he does for longer than a few minutes. He literally has no idea who he is in the present moment. Instead of a mask, he covers himself with tattoos, things he has determined to be essential to his identity. The movie is shot in jarring fashion, unraveling backwards, each cut a way to reinforce the memory faults of the clearly unreliable narrator. What we know of Shelby is learned by way of a phone call he is having that acts as the Plot Developer, but we eventually learn that  Leonard has no idea who he is talking to; as such, how much of his story can we accept? The audience is privy to a host of possibilities, including Shelby being an escaped patient or being used to murder people for a dirty cop or purposely setting himself up to commit murder out of anger or some combination of those. By giving no clear indication of the answer, Nolan dares the audience to come up with it—Do You Know Who Leonard Shelby Is? could have been a pre-Facebook meme that considers an important facet of living in modern society: do we know who anyone is and if we can’t answer that question,  does that means nobody can answer that question about ourselves? And suddenly things start getting complicated.

In the later films, The Prestige and Inception, the complications associated with identity aren’t just investigated but are completely unraveled. In The Prestige, for the sake of art Christian Bale’s twins dedicate themselves to being one person, maintaining the illusion through actual physical disfigurement; what is witnessed is far more important than what is true.  Hugh Jackman, in turn, finds a way to clone himself, the ultimate mask in reality, only to kill off the extra version of himself for the sake of “magic;” more troubling to the viewer, though, is the question that never quite gets asked: Who is getting cloned? Is the original Hugh still in existence, or is each clone a copy of the previous clone, and, if so, how real is he? How real could he be? And is there any more obvious question to ask of Inception than, what the hell is real? Isn’t the very idea of entering into someone’s dreams a harrowing violation of self? Are we at any time any more “unmasked” than when we dream, but does that make our dream-selves more or less real than our awake-selves? Of course, Nolan elects to only leave the top spinning as an answer.

Considering this strange fascination with identity and its role in determining what reality is, it should be no surprise Nolan wanted to work on the Batman reboot. While the trilogy has been praised for gritty-ing up the comic book genre, in truth it should be most praised for pushing the layering of mask psychology to previously, in comic book movies at least, unexplored levels. What Nolan has been most interested in each movie isn’t so much the cost of being Batman but the cost of self-understanding. Ask yourself the following question, if you were a citizen of an actual Gotham City, who would you consider more real, Batman or Bruce Wayne? The obvious answer is Bruce Wayne; he was actually born, his existence has been determined through various governmental channels that we understand, he has a history that can, to a certain degree, be traced and understood. Batman, on the other hand, has none of those attributes.  Yet, there is very little of Bruce Wayne that matters to you, average citizen that you are, whereas Batman may have a direct influence on your day-to-day life; Batman exists as an actual being creating change in your city; Bruce Wayne is an abstraction, a money sign that roosts over the city in general.

Knowing this, Nolan presents an interesting thesis: Batman is the real Bruce and Mr. Wayne is the mask he wears. In Nolan’s mind, Batman and Superman have far more in common than just capes.  Mr. Wayne is a caricature of the Rich Playboy, easily able to have people believe he has absconded the Russian ballet on a whim or, more importantly, people believe him so incapable of committing to justice there is no chance he could ever be confused with Batman. Mr. Wayne is Batman’s most vital mask. As such, it is clear that the greatest cost of being Batman is not the physical risks but that at no point is the real Bruce able to be anything more than what other people need him to be; for Gotham he is Batman; for Batman and those closest to him, he is Mr. Wayne; Alfred knows of the two masks, and he clearly hates both. What must it mean to the human psyche to never be anything but Another in all situations and then to have the closest person to you desperately want you to give all that up?

This is, to put it bluntly, some deep shit to take on. We currently reside in a society where the ability to craft a self on multiple social media platforms means a person can have as many “selves” as s/he can come up with; the limits of our self-creation are whatever parameters our moral and / or imaginative guidelines determine for us. As such, Reality, as most of us most likely understand it, has very little to do with the world around us, and far more with how we project ourselves into that world. The dilemma of this is that such projections have nothing to do with reality, in a completely objective way, because self-reality is created by beliefs. Consider the response to the Guns-In-America debate: on one side, people assume gun control is necessary in order to prevent tragedies; on the other side, people assume tragedies are an inherent part of modern living, and, as such, they must take protective steps. Neither side can refute the following statement: Guns are designed to kill. What they do refute is the belief of how and why that gun is wielded. In essence, reality is arbitrary because its construction is one of billions of personal projections all seen as having the right to exist.

Therefore, the very idea of Who Am I means parsing through an incredible amount of internal and external stimuli. The fascinating part of this Batman trilogy is that it actually reflects much more on celebrity culture than anything else. Obviously, political overtones—extradition, due process, war on terror, etc.—are the things given most attention, but Nolan clearly, on purpose or not, has an understanding of the Cult of Celebrity, and this understanding feeds directly into the Idea That is Batman: if you are a celebrity who are you except that which the audience has decided? The question Who Am I has far less meaning than Who Do You Declare Me to Be. Batman / Mr. Wayne, even as Bruce himself struggles with the idea of Mask can be nothing more than what Gotham thinks of him. This is beaten over the movie audience’s head at the end of the second movie where Batman elects to be the villain in order to save Harvey Dent, in order to create a hero out of nothing, because Batman and James Gordon know that the objective reality of the moment has little to do with the projected reality the people will need. It becomes much easier to believe, despite all previous evidence to the contrary, that the abstraction in the mask is concrete evil, somehow existing as both specter and physical.

Such reductive thinking is no different than standing in line at the grocery story reading cover stories on the (incredible amount of) magazines dedicated to the lives of celebrities, giving its viewers and readers insight on the lives of people who the normal person only understands in a one-dimensional way—celebrity—brought to us by way of the ever astute “insider.” We, as the audience, may never truly believe what the magazines state, yet we cannot help but to include any statements into our “knowledge” of said celebrity. Combine this mentality with the internet where websites exist just to proliferate the grocery-store-line magazines and give people a chance to comment on these celebrities, and difference between rumor and reality no longer exists. The reason Mr. Wayne can supposedly run off with the Russian ballet, as stated to earlier, isn’t just because people believe it is possible of him but also because it verifies the opinions of him the people held. The reason LeAnn Rimes apparently deserves to be publicly destroyed in some modern version of the Scarlet Letter, to have each tweet, interview, picture, and PR move dissected for its layered and hidden revelation of her Horribleness, is because doing so enables people to continually reinforce their moral opinion of her. LeAnn cannot be anything other than The Woman Who Stole A Man, in the same way that Mr. Wayne cannot be anything but The Spoiled Rich Bastard, and in the same way that by the end of The Dark Knight Batman cannot be anything but The Unhinged Vigilante. There is no self but the one projected upon them by outside forces.

And this is why The Dark Knight Rises fails. Instead of continuing to build on the turmoil created by having no self but the one projected on him, we get a movie that at its core is about a woman fucking a man to fuck him over. Meanwhile, an epic opportunity to explore the layers of masks, self, reality, and projection are lost when very little actually occurs between Bane and Batman. Yes, Bane breaks Batman’s back, but even the backbreaking fight could be seen as merely creating a way to further complicate the twist of the Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter being revealed. Bane is the Batman the ending of The Dark Knight implies; he is the unknown masked terrorist, enacting justice as he sees needed, regardless of actual laws. In some parallel universe, Bane and Batman could easily reverse roles and nothing would be different. For Nolan, who so closely examined the idea of self in the first two movies, to ignore such fertile territory just to bring back Liam Neeson for a brief cameo and to give the viewers a “surprise” goes against everything that he previously established. It is sad, really, that the trilogy should end on a twist and a surprise because it could have been much more; it could have been a chance for Batman to look into the mirror and tell us what he sees.