The Joke's On Us

joker_dark_knight.jpgBack in 1975, in a much discussed New Yorker profile, Pauline Kael noted Cary Grant's cinematic style could be labeled "pre-Freudian, pre-psychological acting-as-entertaining." She added that the star "was cast as Cary Grant, and he gave a performance as Cary Grant. It was his one creation." If you accept that judgment, then Heath Ledger is (or was) Grant's antithesis, which certainly does not make his films any better. While it would nearly be impossible to limit yourself to picking five Grant favorites (e.g. North by Northwest; Bringing Up Baby; His Gal Friday; Arsenic and Old Lace; Notorious), it's rather demanding to even come up with five above-par Ledger titles. After Brokeback Mountain and I'm Not There, the pickings start getting slim. But Grant was acting for over three decades and was part of the studio system; Ledger's career, although he'd been thesping for over 15 years, had just turned gold in 2005 with his turn as Ennis Del Mar, the mumbling, closeted cowboy hot for Jake Gyllenhaal. But now, with his take on The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight finally on view, we can really see the dirty deed his accidental death has done us. As the king of an amoral universe, as a purveyor of unrestricted evil for fun, Ledger's dastardly villain, attired as sort of a rotting Clarabell, has chosen his own damnation. He's jumped into an abyss he has dug himself, and he wants to pull us along. But not Batman. Batman: Why do you want to kill me? The Joker: I don't want to kill you. What would I do without you? Graham Greene noted in Brighton Rock that we live in "[t]his supernatural world that is neither good nor evil but simply Power," and this Power is what the Joker imbibes by the minute. "Can we be decent in an indecent world?" he asks with a decaying smile. "Of course not!" is the implied answer. That constructing this role placed Ledger into a massively depleting depression is now comprehensible. Jared Leto went through one for Requiem for a Dream. Ann-Margret went through another playing Blanche in a TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire, unable to shake off the role for months. Of course, there is really no comparison. Ledger is beyond mesmerizing here. Seeing him on an IMAX screen (the only way you should view The Dark Knight) is an exhilarating, yet highly frightening, exploit. Whether in drag or in pants, whether walking or hanging upside down, whether pushing a pencil into someone's head or threatening to a carve a smile into a face, his Joker always seems one baby step away from total chaos. It's no wonder no one is talking about Christian Bale's performance. It's wiped off the screen by Ledger's immense, lunatic energy. As for the film itself, expect visual vibrancy with lots of bangs, spates of quick editing, and a vision of our American urban life as a world of wretchedness that might possibly be salvaged by a sliver of humanity buried somewhere deep within us all. At times incoherent—I too often wasn't quite sure what was happening to whom—The Dark Knight still overpowers and is almost worthy of all the hoopla it's creating. (By the way, the film's finale is a great argument for forgiving Obama's turncoat vote on the FISA bill. If the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program can save us from the likes of The Joker, maybe monitoring our cell phones at the cost of our personal freedom isn't that bad an option.) - Brandon Judell brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.