Is “The Dark Knight Rises” a Western?

Well, of course. In fact, it’s a very specific western—a remake in a way of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist classic Unforgiven. It even has Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role. Even though he wears a bowtie rather than a cowboy hat, and is an inventor of weapons rather than an accomplished rifleman, he still plays the sidekick, partner, and best friend (and/or only friend left) to the film’s avenging hero.

As is the case with Clint Eastwood’s Bill Muny, Bruce Wayne has gone into early retirement. Several years removed from his killing days, Muny lives on a family farm, raises pigs and children, with the pigs giving him the most trouble. Several years removed from the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne shambles around his mansion, walking with the aid of cane. Both Muny and Wayne are the worse for the wear, age and rust taking the edge off their skills. In the earliest bit of action, Muny ends up getting kicked and beaten into unconsciousness by Little Bill. The same thing happens to Wayne, who thinks that his combat skills will enable him to take out the villainous Bane.

As Lee Clark Mitchell has pointed out, the beating scene, in which the hero is initially vanquished by his foe, is an important convention of the western, because the beating provides the prelude for the drama of the hero’s recovery. Only after he has been beaten to a pulp, suffered, and endured a slow and painful convalescence (usually with the aid of a Good Woman, although neither Unforgiven or The Dark Knight Rises follows that element of the convention to the letter) can we fully appreciate the hero’s show of will power that results in his dramatic recovery and eventual heroic return.

And my goodness does The Dark Knight Rises take this element of the western—the beating and recovery scenario—and run with it. Or, not really run with it, but slowly drag it out over the length of the middle third of the film. And I should mention two things here: 1) I didn’t love The Dark Knight Rises—it was well made, and I didn’t hate it, but I don’t think I will see it again. I found it overly long and ponderous. And parts of it annoyed me—but maybe that’s just superhero fatigue). 2) From this point on, spoilers follow. So if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now!

Beaten near to death by Bane, Wayne is secreted away in a hellish prison, where he is forced to watch telecasts of all the havoc Bane is visiting on Gotham. Ban has transformed Fox’s energy creation device into a nuclear bomb (and it’s too complicated and a bit too silly to go into how this took place, but see above about superhero fatigue—here we go again, another doomsday device). He also has to put up with whispered advice from two other prisoners (the first thing to go in prison, it seems, are the vocal cords) about how to heal himself and how to escape. Only one other prisoner has escaped—presumably Bane (but there’s a twist that I won’t go into). Part of the torture of the prison is the illusion of hope offered by an open dome, which allows the prisoners to glimpse the sunlight above. The other part of the torture is having to listen to the enigmatic wisdom of other prisoners (or maybe that was just torture to me). Anyone who climbs the inside of the dome and makes it to the opening is free. We see several scenes of failures, and, one of the disappointments of the movie is that it took me about two seconds to figure out the secret of getting out. All the prisoners have a rope tied to them, presumably to catch them when they fall (although it primarily serves to pendulum them into the side of the wall). Take off the damn rope! I kept wanting to scream at Bruce Wayne. After about an hour of film time, he finally takes off the rope, and what do you know, he makes the final leap to freedom.

And now it’s time for him to go after Little Bill. Or Bane. Or whoever it is that has the button that will trigger the nuclear device and destroy Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises is also reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, or, as DKR might be retitled, The Man Who Didn’t Kill Harvey Dent The Way Every One Thinks He Did. In the previous film The Dark Knight, Harry Dent and Bruce Wayne played out the Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne roles from the classic western. Harry Dent, the politician and lawyer figure, achieved posthumous fame for getting rid of the Joker and saving the day. Like John Wayne, the ‘Bat Man” was the actual hero of the day, but not only does he not receive credit for that heroism, he’s blamed for killing Dent. Like his partial namesake, Bruce Wayne disappears into seclusion. After the Stewart character reveals the truth about what happened, the film ends with the famous lines, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and the true story is left out of the newspaper (although not unrevealed, as anyone who has seen the film has just watched the facts unfold).

The Dark Knight Rises similarly wants to have it both ways, but it does so in a much clunkier fashion. The ambivalence about western (or superhero) legends, the revisionist elements of both Unforgiven and Liberty Valence, the self-conscious commentary on the genre itself that we see in those two western films, DKR seems to want to do something similar, but I didn’t think it worked very well. The Dark Knight, the second in director Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films, did a much better job of registering the cultural ambivalence of the moment, capturing the uncertainties of the war on terror. How far should we go to protect ourselves from a madman bent on destruction? Is it okay to tell a lie in service of a greater good? DKR seemed to pull away from addressing that dilemma other than to give it lip service every now and then.

The political point of view of The Dark Knight Rises has already taken up a lot of space on the internet. As Russ Douthat observes in “The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,” “after watching the final movie’s faux-revolutionary villain appropriate the themes and exploit the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement in order to launch a 21st century Reign of Terror, I don’t really think the saga’s rightward political tilt can be denied.” That both the western and the superhero genre in general have  traditionally suggested a “rightward political tilt” is not exactly news, either, although the western, as a genre, seems to have developed an ability for political ambivalence and ambiguity that superhero films perhaps have not. However, as Douthat also notes (and his article provides a good overview of various political interpretations of the film), both leftward and rightward leaning takes on DKR have misinterpreted and overstated the case. Nonetheless, while watching The Dark Knight Rises‘ baseball cap- and hoody-wearing “thugs” run amok over Gotham, I kept thinking of all the peaceful Occupy protestors in the real world—and of the infamous moment where a passive and peaceful seated protester was pepper-sprayed by security.  That version of the Occupy movement doesn’t make it into DKR.

As is often the case with westerns, pseudo-westerns, quasi-westerns, or whatever we want to call DKR, I found myself thinking of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and of the advice Tuco offers his would-be killer, “When you have to shoot, shoot—don’t talk.”  To put this in superhero terms, “When you have to push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition, push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition–don’t talk.”  And, yes, the Villain, with the Bat Man on the ropes, pauses for a long conversation, supplying both exposition and motive (there’s way too much explanation of both in the dialogue of this movie), and, of course, gives the good guys time enough to implant a device on the bomb that blocks its detonation. Granted, the bomb is going to blow up anyway, button or no button. “You only bought yourself ten minutes,” the Villain tells Bruce Wayne, but ten minutes is as good as ten hours in superhero time.

The best part of the film is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (the alterego of Cat Woman), who is a pleasure to watch every moment she is on screen. Unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, she isn’t burdened by the necessity to enact Heroic Masculinity, to Suffer like a Man Must Suffer in Order to Be a Hero. As a result, she brings the only note of fun and enjoyment in this otherwise ponderously serious adventure. And she doesn’t have to perspire as profusely as Wayne—the visual signifier of the Great Agony of his Manly Struggle. So, she looks fresher, and she has a twinkle in her eye, and an acerbic wit to her commentary. In Selina Kyle, the film had a potential hero for the 99%, if it had chosen to go in that direction, light on her feet, athletic, acrobatic, and daring.

One final note on the western elements of The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of the film, the Bat Man even rides off into the sunset—albeit, a sunset of his own creation. The soon-to-explode nuclear device is towed out to sea and away from Gotham, and the direction is east rather than west, but the explosion is as much sunset as sunrise, artificial and manmade though it might be, and it signals what the sunset often means in the western—the cowboy hero is moving on, leaving behind the town he has just protected but knows he will never really be able to fully join.

Breaking Bad- Hazard Pay

In this episode, we had two great references to the West. First, Friday Night Light’s Jesse Plemons appears as Todd, a member of a crew of insect exterminators. Just as Walt and Jesse are about to start a cook in a house that’s been closed for extermination, Todd points out the nanny cam. I believe he will play more of a role in later episodes.

Near the end of the episode, Walt watches his stack of money disappear, because Mike needs to pay hazard pay to a variety of people, including Gus’s former employees. Mike tells Walt, “You may have shot Jesse James, but that doesn’t make you Jesse James.” It’s nice to see great western outlaws mentioned as Walt descends further into a world beyond laws. However, Walt will never possess the charisma of many onscreen outlaws. At this point, his downfall would be a satisfying thing to watch, because of the way he treats everyone around him. When Walt questions the reasoning behind Mike paying off the employees, Mike says, “It’s just what you do.” For Walt, there is no code. At the end conclusion of the episode, Walt mentions Victor to Jesse. Victor was the employee who was killed by Gus with a box cutter. Walt is starting to understand the other motives Gus may have had in running his business that way.

Scarface also makes an appearance in this episode. Possibly as a way to advertise for AMC’s Mob Week. However, it also shows the nightmare visions of Skylar. Skylar breaks down in front of Marie. There appears to be no place for her to turn. 

Walt also manipulates Jesse into breaking things off with Andrea. At one point, Walt sits on the couch with Brock, the kid he poisoned. Jesse now has nobody else besides Walt.

 

 

Longmire: Beautiful Thing

Well, I have to give Longmire points for audacity. In the most recent episode, “An Incredibly Beautiful Thing,” Longmire re-works the most classic (or most clichéd?) of melodrama scenarios—the beautiful heroine tied to a railroad track by a nefarious villain. The only thing missing is a handlebar mustache for the villain to twist.

And, to give credit where it’s due, Longmire makes it work quite well, upping the ante with a dozen heroines rather than just one (although, most of the women are there voluntarily—only one is tied to the tracks). The women have also taken poison, so they are unconscious as their fate approaches in the form of a freight train bearing down on them. This ups the suspense as well, as Longmire and his deputies rush to remove all the women from the tracks before the train arrives.

This is all put into motion by John Pyper-Ferguson, or rather, by Leland, the cult-leader character that Pyper-Ferguson plays. I continue to love the casting in Longmire, as they often bring forth some of my favorite actors from westerns past. Like Gerald McRaney (who played Branch’s father in the previous episode) and Jim Beaver (who just appeared in the premiere of this season’s Breaking Bad), Pyper-Ferguson is a popular character actor who seems to pop up in almost every television show on the air at some point. Western fans will remember him as one of Little Bill’s deputies in Unforgiven (one of the few who survive), and fans of the sci-fi western comedy Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr. will remember him as Pete (who had a particular fondness for his “piece”).

On a side note, I’m continuing to read the Longmire novels by Craig Johnson, and just started noticing references to Vic Moretti as a brunette. In “8 Seconds,” I was puzzled by a comment that Vic’s husband made, something along the lines of “I’m just starting to get used to you as a blonde.” My only guess as to what that meant (since we haven’t seen the tv character as anything but blonde) is that it’s a reference to Vic of the novel, acknowledging that the blonde Katee Sackhoff is playing the character in the tv series.

Madrigal, Breaking Bad

According to Walt, there is gold in the streets of Alburquerque and it’s just waiting to be scooped up. In this episode, Walt is in full intrepid miner mode and takes steps to relaunch the meth making business.

Most of the episode’s best scenes center around Mike. At the start of Madrigal, Mike attempts to relax with a movie and a beer, but Mike can’t stay out of the action no matter how hard he tries to separate himself. He’s called into be interviewed as part of the DEA’s investigation. Hank mentions that Mike left the Philadelphia Police Department under dramatic circumstances, but we don’t know what those circumstances are. Hank attempts to use the money in his granddaughter’s name as a means of getting Mike to talk, but it doesn’t work. We also get to see Mike playing with Kaylee, his granddaughter. I always enjoy the scenes that create even more sympathy for Mike.

In one of my favorite scenes in the episode, Lydia, one of Gus’s employees, meets Mike in a diner. However, she doesn’t understand how to order a drink in this kind of establishment. She goes through a list of teas that they simply don’t have. Lydia wants Mike to kill the 11 people on her list who could possibly link her and Mike to Gus. Mike declines, but Lydia hires someone different to do the killing. Near the end of the episode, Mike nearly kills Lydia with her daughter in the next room-a scene that contrasts against the earlier moment of Mike playing with Kaylee. Instead of killing Lydia, Mike uses her to get more chemicals for the cook process.

The episode’s opening also deserves mention. We see a Madrigal employee sampling different flavors of dipping sauce, things like Cajun Kick Ass and Franch, a combination of French Dressing and Ranch. A team of chemists eagerly await his verdict. Instead he’s called out because the police force is here and he ends up killing himself in the bathroom. The sauce scene is a humorous departure that ends in Breaking Bad style violence. The show’s ability to move between those areas is one of its greatest strengths.

Longmire 8 Seconds

The most recent episode of Longmire spent some time at a rodeo, chasing down a suspect, a bronco rider, who, it turns out, ends up being just a dick, and not a murderer. The episode has been getting a lot of discussion on twitter because it begins with a sex scene involving Katee Sackhoff’s Vic and her husband (who also, it turns out, ends up being a dick), although, it’s not so much as sex scene as one of coitus interruptus—as Vic is called away by dispatcher Ruby. Vic’s husband is mentioned, but doesn’t seem to appear in the novel series, so it was interesting to see him cast in the series.

The plot of this episode was a pretty standard mystery, with a little bit of rodeo thrown in. What was most interesting about the episode (in addition to a partially clothed Sackhoff) was the introduction of a new character—Barlow Connally, father of Branch, son of Lucien. As far as I know, this is a character who is not in the novel series (at least, through Junkyard Dogs, I haven’t encountered him). As with the casting of Peter Weller as Lucien Connally, Longmire is again pulling out the heavy guns with this bit of casting, with Gerald McRaney, late of Deadwood as the villainous capitalist George Hearst.  For a manipulative patriarch and (seemingly) general son of a bitch like Barlow Connally, they couldn’t have cast a better actor than McRaney for the part, especially as he brings to it a little bit of extra menace for Deadwood fans with a long memory.

It seems like Barlow is more intent on having his son beat Walt in the election for Sheriff than Branch is. Thus far, Branch has seemed like a generally nice guy, and his role in the action of the series has seemed a contrast with his obnoxious political posters, and perhaps this episode explained why that was the case—that he is being pushed by his father into taking on Walt.

Having introduced Peter Weller’s Lucien in the previous episode, I was ready for more of that character! Alas, he doesn’t make an appearance, and there simply wasn’t enough of Henry Standing Bear either.

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Ray Bradbury and the American West (CFP)

The Tucson Bradbury Chronicles: Mars _is_ The West

Edited by Gloria McMillan

Although this essay collection is keyed to the fact that Ray Bradbury spent a formative teen year in Tucson, Arizona, that impressed his young mind, largely shaping his metaphorical Mars, we are interested in broader issues and perspectves about Ray Bradbury as a bridge-builder and boundary-crosser.

He took up issues only now gaining something like a full airing. “I See You Never,” (The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 1947) is perhaps the first story in an American literary magazine taking up the plight of undocumented Mexican workers in the US.

In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury worked on the tough post-colonial issues of what a frontier colonial culture does to an old indigenous culture.

Bradbury also had insights that have influenced our space program’s methods and philosophy, due to his emphasis on the unintended epidemiological consecuences of space exploration. Our local Tucson astronomical community The University of Arizona launched the first mission to Mars administered by a public university. A copy of  The Martian Chronicles was aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander, making it the start of the first public library on Mars.

Our working group envisions an anthology of chapters from various points-of-view and disciplines. We will have historians, astronomers, cultural and literary theorists, local essayists from the science fiction creative writing community, film scholars (Bradbury’s works have famous film adaptations), cultural astronomers, and one artist.

Please contact Gloria McMillan for a further discussion on bringing this book to publication and your possible contribution to this collection. The University of Arizona Press is interested.

Your input is very welcome at this stage!

Sincerely,
Gloria McMillan at glomc@dakotacom.net

Live Free or Die, Breaking Bad Season Five

“All hail the king” is the marketing tagline for this season of Breaking Bad. After defeating Gus and exposing his other face, Walt is filled with hubris. Saul and Skylar fear him. Mike must deal with him and Jesse doesn’t know the truth of what his partner has done, but has no one else left in his life. For me, the best moments in the season five premiere were the opening scenes of the episode. Walt goes into a Denny’s and uses his bacon to form the number “52.” In the flash forward, we see a weathered version of Walt celebrating his birthday solo. He has a fake identity and a New Hampshire driver’s license. The camera hovers on his car’s New Hampshire plates. Live Free or Die, the state’s motto, sets up the tone for this run of episodes in which there is very few options.