“Frozen” and the Limits of Narrative

If you’ve spent much time around me the last few months, you’ll know that I’m a bit obsessed with Disney’s Frozen.  I am something of a self-anointed apostle of the film, telling anyone who’ll listen that if they haven’t seen it before, they need to betake themselves to the cinema or the video store forthwith.  I usually get a few raised eyebrows.  Sure, Pixar may have removed the stigma of “kids’ movies” and made it OK for adults to get excited about them too, but Disney?  C’mon.  Well, with 2009’s Tangled, Disney substantially closed the quality gap between their own animated fare and that of their recent acquisition Pixar.  With Pixar having clearly lost their way in recent years with universally-maligned Cars 2 and mediocre Brave and Monsters University, those of us who had enthusiastically embraced the idea that “kids’ movies” could be a medium of thoughtful and beautiful film were left casting about for a successor.  With Frozen, Disney Animation rose to the occasion, producing what is surely its finest film since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and one which easily could hold its own against the creations of Pixar’s golden age (2001-2010)—indeed, in terms of sheer visual beauty, it far surpasses them.  Perhaps most remarkably, Disney succeeded in re-invigorating the form of the children’s animated musical, a form that had long since been left for dead in the brave new world of computer animation, producing a mixture of fun comic relief songs, heartfelt arias, and impressively-crafted duets, which, far from marking mere musical interludes within a film that didn’t really need them, played crucial roles in moving the plot forward. Read More

Why Read Fiction? (And How?)

On an email list I am a part of, someone recently raised a series of questions about Christian literary criticism—essentially, how can we be good readers but at the same time critical readers?  or do we have to be critical readers to count as good readers?  Must we theologize about books in order to be good Christian readers, or can we simply enjoy them for what they are?  In response, I offered a brief account of the phenomenon of fiction, and what we should be looking for when we read it; a friend suggested I adapt these thoughts for sharing here.  (Almost everything I say here about fiction, I should add, could equally apply to film.)

First, I tried to address the worry of how one can can give oneself over to the fictional world as a Christian.  If the author might try to lure you in unacceptable and immoral directions, you must maintain detachment, allegiance to your Christian commitments.  On the other hand, such detachment—filtering everything you read through your worldview categories—can get in the way of actually hearing what it is the author is trying to say.  I wonder if this is indeed altogether a unique problem of fiction, as many people often imply, or rather a feature of all good reading.  My recent reflections on “intellectual empathy” (see Matthew Lee Anderson’s original articulation of the concept here, and my follow-up remarks here) lead me to think the latter.  To read any author fairly and justly, sometimes we need to be able to enter mentally into the universe that he is working from, to imaginatively adopt his starting points and see from that standpoint why he values what he values.  There is always a certain detachment in this, since we are not really leaving behind our commitments, but precisely because we are so confidently grounded in them, we can imaginatively bracket them out for a moment, knowing that they’re not going anywhere.  But although the intellect can perhaps abstract in this way, the will cannot.  I cannot, for the sake of argument, make myself temporarily love a position I take to be falsehood. Read More

Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

Warning: Major spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What then of The Dark Knight Rises, to which I have already alluded so many times?  Although it is not my main interest here, I should not, given our consideration of the “Atonement” at the end of The Dark Knight, omit to mention the Christological resonances which echo throughout the film.  As mentioned above, although The Dark Knight appears to end on the decision to buy peace at the cost of a lie, there remains the possibility that the deception is only temporary, that Batman will rise from his self-imposed “death” to receive public vindication and become the true savior of Gotham.  The very title, The Dark Knight Rises, suggests just such a resurrection motif, and as the film unfolds, this motif is reinforced by so many gestures that it could not be mere coincidence.  Before such resurrection, though, the symbolic death of exile accepted at the end of The Dark Knight must be consummated with a true defeat.  This comes at the hands of a mysterious and inhuman denizen of the underworld who lives in eternal torment, serving only himself after being cast out of the order to which he belonged (in case we didn’t get it, he identifies himself early on in the film as “the Devil.”).  Batman is betrayed into the hands of this enemy by a Judas of sorts.  His back is broken and he is left for dead in a deep pit that is repeatedly referred to as “Hell,” from which he will watch Bane terrorize and destroy his now-unprotected people.  After being told to “Rise,” Batman succeeds in escaping this prison on his third attempt, and returns to Gotham, where he reveals himself in secret to his followers, and then defeats Bane and his cohorts, liberating Gotham from their clutches and receiving his vindication as the city’s savior, not its enemy.  At the end, he disappears into the air, presumed dead by many, though he is not in fact, and he lives on as the city’s symbol, having returned to them hope and the possibility of justice.  Indeed, he leaves behind him a dedicated disciple, who, it is hinted in a Pentecost-like scene (when John/Robin is surrounded by the bats in the cave), will take up his mantle and carry on his legacy. The correspondences are far from perfect—for instance, the first Judas turns out to be an ally in the end, and it is an earlier ally who is revealed as the true Judas after Batman’s return to Gotham; and the “Ascension” at the end functions more like another “Atonement,” since it appears that Batman is in fact giving up his life, rather than merely disappearing to another place.  And there are any number of ways in which Batman is not very Christ-like (though it is notable that all the way to the end, he keeps his “one rule”—even Bane is killed by another, not by him).  Nolan, it seems clear to me, is playing around with the Christological symbolism* to a greater extent than we find in other superhero films, capitalizing on its mythic potential and ability to highlight other themes he wishes to emphasize, but it is not meant to serve as the fundamental locus of meaning even for The Dark Knight Rises. Read More

Judgment and the Crisis of Legitimacy (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 3)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as mention of plot elements from The Dark Knight Rises, though not major spoilers.

I ended the last segment by remarking on the fundamental ambiguity about Batman’s vocation in relation to Gotham—is he still a vigilante, a private avenger, or has he really become somehow a public agent of justice?  As we shall see, this reflects a deeper ambiguity about Gotham itself—is Gotham a community capable of enacting justice, a community which Batman may represent in some way?

It seems like Batman wants to have it both ways.  He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them.  He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted.  He wants to hang up the mask and cape,* but is repeatedly forced to take them up again.   Read More

Judgment: Public and Private, Finite and Infinite (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 2)

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Memento, but NOT The Dark Knight Rises)

We ended the first installment asking why Rachel’s admonition to Bruce in Batman Begins that revenge is “never the same” as justice should always hold true.  What if the public system of justice is broken, and only the private individual can set wrongs right?

Here we can turn back to O’Donovan for illumination.  The proper object of judgment, he says, is a “new public context, and in this way judgment is distinct from all actions that have as their object a private or restricted good.”  Harvey (or Wayne at the beginning of the trilogy) might contend that they do have the public good in mind, however much it may appear to be a mere private vendetta.  But in any case, this is not enough for legitimacy: “A political act with political authority occurs where not only the interests of the community are in play, but the agency of the community as well.”  Why is this so important? 

“Political judgment prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces, each construed according to the differing perceptions and emotions of individual agents.  This is necessary because the dissolution of the common world into mutual incomprehension is always possible.  The alternative to public judgment is not no judgment, but private judgments, multitudinous and conflicting, frustrating each other and denying everyone the space of freedom.  ‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25).  A private person acting only on his or her own behalf could not establish a new public context, and so could not perform an act of political judgment.  The private act of vengeance, even if it is intended to serve the common good, is not done ‘on behalf of’ the community.  There was a popular story-line used by more than one author in the heyday of the detective story, which concerned a public-spirited individual resolved, in a spirit of disinterested justice, to settle society’s unpaid debts by killing off its unpunished murderers.  The pleasing paradox in the idea was that the objects of this disinterested justice inevitably became victims rather than executed criminals.  Such informal dealings could never give society what it needs in response to crime, which is judgment.” (23-24)  

This “popular story-line” is of course one construal of Harvey Two-Face’s determination to hunt down the corrupt cops who colluded with the Joker’s schemes.  Such a resort to private judgment, “construed according to the perceptions and emotions of an individual agent,” cannot in the end remain a judgment according to truth, as Nolan is keen to show us. Read More