Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including the comedy Web site, comicwonder.com.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf considers the blockbuster "The Dark Knight."
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
I've seen police officers trying to subdue a person on PCP, or Angel Dust, and crack cocaine. Wasn't Rodney King suspected of being on PCP, and that's they why they felt justified in using "every means necessary" to stop him?
There's the story of the mountain climber who was pinned down by a boulder on one arm, no water, and after three days he used a pocketknife to cut off his own arm at the elbow to free himself. And another of a young man, who got his arms caught in a hay baler, tore both arms off at the shoulder, and he walked back to the farmhouse to get help. Astonishing stories of what people are capable of under stress.
I bring all this up because I am trying to wrestle with the slightly implausible parts of the new "Batman" movie. I know it's a movie and I know it's based on a cartoon, but the attempt here is clearly to ground it in a reality that we all can recognize, even if we have trouble accepting it.
If they succeed in doing this, then you are not only startled when the monster jumps out of the closet but you are frightened deeply because you have had confirmed once again that there really is a monster under the coats in that closet down the hall near your Mother's room. The image is so vitally close to being true that it awakens something in your unconscious and it haunts you until you can put it back to sleep again.
Batman, the hero, survives, even thrives, because he has remarkable equipment and technology at his disposal. The Joker survives with nothing more than a little knife and massive amounts of adrenaline, or some chemical, pumping through him. A semi falls on top of him and he shakes out a crick in his neck. He is brutally beaten and he laughs, asking for more. His henchmen are beaten or killed and he finds more volunteers. He does seem to have a plentiful supply of explosives and a means to cart them unseen around the city, but it is questionable whether he even has a home. He feels very much like a gifted street performer or street persona. He accomplishes seemingly miraculous tasks and I accept them as plausible because he is grounded in a reality all his own.
The Joker is not motivated by revenge, or hatred, or money, or even a childhood trauma. He does tell a story about his father and another about his mother, but both seem, in the style of the trickster or joker, designed to hint at the truth while simultaneously obfuscating it. His own explanation is the best; he is like a "dog chasing a car." He won't know what to do with it when he catches it.
Heath Ledger makes it all work because he does a really fine piece of acting. We will never know if it would have appeared as riveting if he had not died, naked, in the bed of a friend, trying to catch a little shut eye.
The screen goes a little leaden when Ledger is not on it. It seems as though Batman is no match for this Joker. But Christian Bale has a much harder job. He is a man trapped in an identity of his own choosing, but still a trap. And it is literally a trap, of rubber or steel or what ever the costume is supposed to be. As his manservant, Alfred, notes he can't even move his head to look over his shoulder. He is loose and funny when he is Bruce Wayne. But even that identity is a lie of misdirection to cover the hero identity the way Don Diego is a lie to cover for Zorro.
The closest we get to the heart of Bruce Wayne is in Michael Caine's affectionate asides about him and Morgan Freeman's devotion and appreciation. Or possibly when he turns and walks away from the camera. In the scenes with Alfred (Caine), the camera is on Caine, with just a bit of profile of Christian Bale. The same is true of the scenes with Morgan Freeman. The director, and Batman himself, denies us entry to his true self. The Joker begs, insists, and has tantrums if we don't enter him completely.
I think the movie is a little overweight in the plot department. I don't want to spoil it for the four people who have not seen it yet, but there are at least two places that feel like an ending and yet back it comes with a new threat.
Someone asked me if I thought the James Dean syndrome would apply to Ledger, if he would become iconic. But Dean made three unique and even great movies with A-list directors and died before the last one was even finished. Ledger has made many movies, some of them forgettable, few which will make anybody's list of 100 Best. So probably not. But, it's a great performance. He makes the movie revolve around him. And you are uncomfortable whenever he is around. What does it say about us that a villain, a terrorist and a monster, is the most interesting character in popular fiction so far this year?
The other thing that raises this film above many of the other superhero movies, and there are so many, is that it really does open up some interesting and difficult themes. Not themes about God or death, but about personal responsibility and about a culture that needs a villain, needs to feel on the brink of disaster in order to feel like it is working.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.