Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A Scene to Remember: The Fundraiser Party Scene (The Dark Knight, 2008)

© Warner Bros. | Source: Batman.wikia

Despite the recent boom of comic adaptations in the cinematic universe, comics are a medium that have received little academic attention. That is because comics are still tightly linked to excessive action scenes, performed by men in tights, who are usually endowed with superpowers. Comics open up worlds that are distinctly different from the real one – worlds where spider bites lead to superpowers, mutants rescue or destroy the planet and your car may actually be an extraterrestrial being that becomes a humongous autobot when necessary. Comics and superhero stories in particular provide their readership with escapist fantasies that allow them to leave behind their daily lives and immerse themselves in the fantastic story world. If this is what gives comics their charm, however, then why did Christopher Nolan choose to ground his Batman adaptation The Dark Knight (2008) so firmly in reality?

In both the comic book and the film, Gotham City plays a role that exceeds that of a mere location. Although depicted in different manners, the city has a symbolic value that is one of the key themes in the Batman series. There is no Gotham without Batman and no Batman without Gotham.

The urban space is one of paranoia and fear. That is true for the gothic-noir Gotham of the comic books, with its archaic manors, grim gargoyles and dark, steamy alleys and also the Art Deco, modernist city of the Nolan films.

To create a sinister, oppressive mood, the comic relies heavily on noirish elements, such as the famous striped pattern of venetian blinds, which are borrowed from the cinematic genre of film noir. Colours, sharp angles and abstractions also play a major role for the tone of the comic book. A purple night sky or yellowish green alleys defy the laws of realism, but help to enhance the readers’ reaction to the scene. Or the way in which Batman’s shadow is drawn like a living, writhing thing, emphasises his demonic side. He is like one of Gotham’s gargoyles who protects but also frightens Gotham’s citizens.
© DC | Source: Batman - The Long Halloween p. 310

The Gotham City in the comics is a purely fictional place, while films, unless they fully rely on computer animation, have to use actually existent places and transform them to fit their needs. Unlike most other Batman films, The Dark Knight was not filmed in New York but in Chicago because Christopher Nolan wanted his film to be as realistic as possible and since Chicago does not have such a plethora of easily recognizable landmarks and building as New York does, there was little need for digital alteration: 

“It's that pressure-cooker, street-smart sense that makes Chicago a real — instead of manufactured — Gotham.” – Richard Moskal (Director of Chicago Film Office)

Unlike the comics, or even earlier Batman movies, Nolan’s The Dark Knight works with realism. His Gotham could be any modern metropolis and is not distinctly fictional. The film does not shun from showing that Gotham is not reduced to its nightlife, but plays with dualities – dark and light, good and evil – to augment its claim to realism.

The play with dualities is especially prominent in the scene in which the Joker crashes the fundraiser party Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s Dark Knight, gives for Harvey Dent who is Gotham’s White Knight. Just have a look:

The movement of the camera, when it follows the Joker through the room, is unsteady and therewith underlines the instability of the Joker’s psyche. When Rachel tells him to stop, he circles her like a predator and puts his potato peeler to her face. And when he does, the camera begins to drive in circles around them and creates a feeling of vertigo and sickness that mirrors what Rachel must feel. 

The background is blurred out and switches between showing Gotham’s two sides: the bright lit party room with Gotham’s high society, an anonymous, faceless crowd, too afraid to move or stand up against the group of criminals. And then outside of the window we have Gotham’s skyline with its modern glass skyscrapers all doused in darkness and reigned by fear, corruption and crime – the crime that has now invaded the ballroom. The way this scene is made up, with the rotating camera and the background alternating between light and dark reminds of the half-burnt coin TwoFace tosses in order to decide about fate. And it is not the only decisive scene in the film that is made up this way.

© Warner Bros. | Source: Screenshots The Dark Knight
The silhouettes of darkened skyscrapers, like those beyond the window, are typical symbols of modern urbanity. They represent progress, energy and dynamics, but also irrationality, constriction and peril. Despite the fact that Batman possesses the newest technology and sufficient financial means, he is nonetheless no match for the Joker’s unpredictable insanity and his battered potato peeler.

Gotham is a dark city, ruled by crime. It is a frightening place and to get that mood across, the comics and the film utilize very different means. 

Being a solely visual medium, the comic book works with estrangement and uses symbolic icons that have a negative connotation – steaming alleyways, dark, imposing mansions, graveyards and a dark colour palette. 

The film deliberately refrains from drifting into a too stylised set up. By taking one of the most realistic heroes in the comic universe and putting him into a realistic setting, Nolan goes against the strategy of the comics. He not only focuses on Gotham’s dark side, but also shows it by day, when it appears like any ordinary city. Instead of creating fear by estrangement, he counts on the fact that the familiar will create an equal or even greater reaction, because it is relatable, at some point even believable and accordingly all the more frightening.

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