Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Wicked Witch Versus the Wonderful Wizard

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He looks the part–but can you trust him?

By Shawn Stjean

We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling.  Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.

Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair.  Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe,  of this pairing include:

-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films

-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend

-Eve and Adam

-Pandora and Prometheus

Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:

-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga

-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader  function this way.

The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level.  On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.

Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order.  This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers.  However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement  of the need for both. One without the other?  You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.

For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.”  The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases.  Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it.  For example, in Lakota  mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings.  The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.

(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists.  Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)

How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?

Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided.  Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.”  A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time.  But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats?  Everybody wants one.  As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.

There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender.  Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual.  The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.

Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity.   “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.)  Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”

Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future.  But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.

And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud.  Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens.  Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest.  We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth.  The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.

Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability.  Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus).  Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.)  Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard.  It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.

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Scary, yes. But wicked?

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Issues For Indie Writers: Complicating the Plot Structure of Your Story / Novel

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By Shawn StJean

Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details.  English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”).  In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax.  Credits roll.  And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time.  More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”

Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.

Reviewing briefly:

Act I—Exposition.  The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action.  This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves.  In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.

Act II—Complication.  30-40 more minutes.  Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.”  They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these).  But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak.  Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse.  Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis.  How do the characters react?  How does action lead to reaction?  What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge?  Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?

Act III–Climax.  Second hour.  A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle).  People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.”  True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level.  But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).

As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration.  As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.”  Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here.  To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:

 

1-War, children,

It’s just a shot away.

 

3-Love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away.

I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later.  Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level.  And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctrC9FtkmYA

If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose.  Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way.  But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals.  And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:

2-Rape, murder,

They’re just a shot away.

These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.)  But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred.  If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life.  It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.

Instead, the Stones have chosen another route.  Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women.  Rape.  These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses.  In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.

To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension.  In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city.  The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established.  However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself.  Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question:  How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time?  Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different.  Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example.  In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day.  Basic conflict.  He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet.  Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?

The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level.  It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act.  When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)

What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue?  First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential.  Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events.  This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely.  Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind?  What trials will represent and dramatize this best?  How will s/he have it worse than the average person?  What bits of key dialogue will support this plot?  Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme?  Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?

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A lot gets lost in those parentheses, but “Rising Action” or Complication provides the real enjoyment of a story or novel.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award time again: 2014’s Second Rounders announced

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By Shawn StJean

For many fledgling and Independent publishers and authors, Spring means CreateSpace’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel (ABNA) contest is in full bloom.  As many as 10,000 initial entrants in five categories (General Fiction, Romance, Mystery and Thriller, Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror) are cut to 500 for the second round.  These novelists have just been announced–check the lists to see if your book, or the book of a friend, appears on it: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

For Indie Writers, this contest represents the pinnacle of their ambivalence toward the traditional publishing establishment (hence the speeding bullet illo, above).  On the one hand, it’s a ruse for Amazon to locate and identify the best new talent, and lure them with the promise of an exclusive publishing contract with Createspace.  It’s free, and thus doubly enticing.  The exposure alone, for folks getting to the higher rounds, may be worth it.  And, oh yeah, prizemoney: enough to keep a frugal young writer from getting tossed out of the coffeehouse for another year.  On the other hand, there’s the inevitable crash of defeat and disillusionment when one doesn’t go forward: “It’s all politics, it’s rigged, my stuff is better than those lousy winners, why do I keep throwing pearls before swine, I’m wasting my life. . .”  Hey, that’s competition, Bub.  If you can’t stand a little flesh-wounding, get off the shooting range.  You’ve probably already discovered, or soon will, that you’re as much a book marketeer as a writer of books.

The third rounders (quarter-finalists) will be announced on April 14.  For now, hearty Congrats to all those moving forward, especially friend of the blog and the author of Tetherbird, Emily McDaid!  And for those who didn’t make the cut–just KEEP WRITING!

 

Palms: Poem by Shawn StJean

It’s been a long while since the inspiration for one of these breathed through me, but here’s a humble offering. I’m open to suggestions for revision.
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By Shawn StJean

Palms

Look at your the back of your left hand.
Take a good, hard scrutiny, with the eye you seldom use.

If you’re 20 years old, you may not spot a flaw.
Or, perhaps a small scar from a childhood wart removed,
Or a ridge from the time you punched a wall to demonstrate your anger.

If you’re 40, the veins may have begun their rise,
the skin may fissure a bit from countless scrubbings in dishwater,
and a finger may pale where a wedding ring once encircled it.
The joints begin to tighten now, and one night, a shooting jolt awakens you.

When you’re 60, a lifetime of work tells tales: my index finger is grooved
Where a die grinder sliced through my glove, nor does the wrist bend all the way.
I’ve lost my thumbnail three or four times, and the knuckles all show the pure white of healing.
I once trapped the whole between a cylinder head and engine block,
And the pain of that mistake returned me the gift of greater patience.

If 80 finds you able, and your eyesight can work around the cataracts,
Your hand may now resemble the hook, the claw, the tool you treated it as.
It may pain you relentlessly, or at odd times go scarily numb.
The fingers no longer function as a family unit, drop things,
Shake when your blood sugar falls, or even when it doesn’t
And you often find it stretched out to take what’s handed you (“damn pills.”)

Now, turn it over.
The palm, at any age, retains the curious perfection of youth.
Unless you’ve lead a particularly hard life,
The callouses will soften with a few weeks off.
Even the two-inch scar I have from when a dog chased me through a swamp
Cutting across my lifeline perpendicularly
Stretches over only half the hand that was so much smaller when I was ten.

Strange, this is the side that works thanklessly
Rakes leaves, catches balls deftly, or plucks up a single grain of rice.
But, when asked, it can also trace the cells in flower petals
and the fingerprint registers stubble on an unshaven cheek.

The back of the hand keeps pace with the rest of the body’s shell,
the sagging stomach, the smile less often seen amid jowls and poor teeth,
the bending backaches. But the palm. . .
The palm indicates the interior life within.
It grows more supple and sure with use and age,
Mature, potent, like a strawberry that tastes of wine as its outer skin wrinkles up.

Now, raise your right hand next to your left.
If you’re lucky, you find inverse twins
That have toiled and wrought together, stitched and sewn,
grappled and steepled in prayer, applauded your daughter,
dug in the earth for worms, pulled an oar, and a bowstring.
These things, and the rest, tinkered your spirit into its better functioning.
Monk-like, I copy a line from another man’s pen:
The motorcycle you’ve worked on is yourself.

Put them, now, to their best uses: Stretch out your hands to whomever you meet, grasp theirs,

Firmly and Man-to-man if that’s your style, or lightly if so, but no matter.
Embrace palms, and when called upon, palm the back of another’s hand in communion.
Massage your friend’s bad shoulder, comb and braid her hair.
And grip tight again, entwine fingers for a long moment, and hold fast, whether your paths lead together or apart.
We’re, none of us, old enough yet to cross the street alone.

“Static”: Synthesizing Bad Reviews

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By Shawn StJean

Another one star review on Amazon, bringing the reviews of Clotho’s Loom there in, as the novel approaches a year since publication, exactly split down the middle (ignoring the five-star reviews that were taken down). Seven positive, and seven negative. I doubt you’ll find a more even spread, anywhere. And enough of a sample to signal a love-hate trend that may always continue.

So based on this uncanny balance, I’m awarding myself an official Most Controversial Novel of 2012 title. No, there is not a lot of sex. There is, rather, a lightning rod that brings together diverging assumptions over what good writing is in our culture, and is not.

Rather than present both sides–lest this be seen as a promotional piece–I’d like to re-consider here only the negative comments. As always, I’d prefer anyone contemplating buying the book to read the sample first. Positive reviews can be as equally misleading as negative ones. Though bad reviews tend to be shorter, and not particularly informative–often due to the fact that the reviewer has neither bothered to finish the book, nor bothered to say so. However, there are a few recognizable trends, and a gap between what I expected and what I’ve gotten (SPOILER-FREE):

I expected folks to have a bit of sympathy for a veteran who learned to hate war, yet got sucked in to fighting another one and endured a brutal moral crisis over it. I had in mind the entire generation of Vietnam vets that history has tried to forget ever since they returned home, not in a wave or to a mass welcome, but individually and isolated, and to mistrust and apathy.

By contrast, several readers have found Will Wyrd cowardly–though they haven’t said that directly. “Spineless” and “without a backbone” seem to be the preferred expressions for a sniper who eventually discovers he can’t follow orders, and (unlike most Hollywood heroes,) is not vindicated by unqualified success.

I expected readers would enjoy reading about a strong woman (co)protagonist who is neither a vampire succubus, werewolf, or derivative, but rather, a career woman facing more lifelike challenges at home and work–though I have rendered them in as dramatic a fashion as realism allows.

Instead, she’s barely been mentioned in the bad reviews. Perhaps I should have expected this, given the gender biases of our culture, and shortened her skirts/augmented her breasts. But this overlooking her to focus nearly every remark on the male really is shocking to me, given that 90% of the book-buying public are women.

I expected people to have trouble accepting the ending, knowing that Americans prefer closure, and hearts-and-flowers affirmation.

What I didn’t expect was pretty clear evidence that half the readers aren’t making it to the ending at all, but many that do are resentful when they fail to understand it. Comments like “What was the point?,” “doom,” and “no resolution” leave little room for doubt there.

I expected quality of prose to matter; another mistaken assumption–perhaps my biggest.

But even for the “baddest” reviewers, one can sense the spectacularity of Clotho’s Loom’s failure for them: “Reads like complex history and literature,” “sensory overload,” and “it wanted to be mythology.” These are indeed some of the very qualities that other readers enjoy.

Oh, one final note: if your novel is long, that will only amplify people’s love or hate of it.

So based on my own, admittedly limited experience as a writer and educator for about 20 years, I’m concluding that we truly have reached the point at which some authors–me–will need to choose between what they expect from readers, and what the buying public expect of a novel. If you are, like me, one for whom those two sets of expectations stand on either side of a very wide chasm, you’ll need to either adjust your sights in toward conservative, commercial viability, or stick to your guns as currently zeroed.

Will my next book be different? Possibly. But as for my first novel, for better or worse, I wrote the book I always wanted to read. I wouldn’t change a word.
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Clotho’s Loom Awarded the IndiePENdents Seal

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By Shawn StJean

I’ve written briefly about membership with this organization before (currently there are about 350 of us on the rolls.)  Clotho’s Loom has been awarded the Seal for good writing–only the 40th seal awarded as of today.  This emblem assures potential readers that the book meets high standards in the categories of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting–essentially what one would expect from a book published by a large commercial press and found in a bookstore.

In order to earn this approval, a book must be voted up by three independent evaluators, so the process is much the same as that used by professional and academic peer-reviewed journals.

Although the literary merit of a work is not a criterion for earning a seal, one evaluator had this to say:”The author’s use of an extensive vocabulary and mastery of language serve to make Clotho’s Loom a riveting introspection into the lives of a man and a woman caught in separating circumstances beyond their control. The situations and the reactions of the man and the woman are brought forth in alternating chapters.”

I’d like to repeat my previous encouragement of independent authors to seek (FREE) membership in this vital organization, and volunteer some time to be an evaluator, or otherwise help the cause.  In this way we can aid the reading public in making informed decisions regarding the massive influx of work into the literary market.

http://www.indiependents.org/indie-seal-books.html

The Con of the Coin: Shouldn’t Batman Go Independent?

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By Shawn Stjean

One of the unsung virtues of independent film is that, as miraculous as any production seeing the light of day is in the first place, they rarely suffer from the Hollywood strain of sequel-itis.  Thankfully.  It seems that barely two, let alone three or more, entries into a successful franchise can bear the weight of sustained storytelling.  Give a series enough rope, and it will begin to show inherent contradictions, and self-deconstruct.  For the sake of coherence, I’ll confine myself mostly to the most fully realized of the three 21st century Batman films, The Dark Knight, while referring obliquely to its excellent predecessor, Batman Begins, and its pale follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises.  Together, a half-billion dollar story to make.

Since Batman’s first appearance in comics in 1938, readers have grown accustomed to a self-made hero, one who traveled the Earth learning from the best instructors, honing his body to Olympic-athletic condition, and his mind to that of a world-class detective.  In stark contrast to Superman, then, the Caped Crusader’s thematic popularity consists in the realization of the everyday potential of normal human beings. In the conclusion of the recent film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his position, his fortune, his butler and friend, and for a time, even the use of his body.  But, it doesn’t matter to police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman,) because of the symbolism: “anyone could be Batman.”  However, this sentiment runs counter to nearly all the major signs in the previous films–as Carmine Falcone rightly put it, Bruce Wayne is “the Prince of Gotham.” Christopher Nolan does not present us, visually or narratively, with a democratic hero.  Contrarily, this Batman is truly a feudal knight, in that he’s not only the inheritor of a seemingly endless fortune, but, like the military itself in any age, he relies far more on technology and its exclusivity than on human ability.  His adversaries (villains) are less fortunate.  In fact, THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT FALL ON A CONTINUUM OF GOOD TO BAD BASED ON THE LEVEL OF THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE WHITE, CAPITALIST SYSTEM.  The richer, the better; the less material wealth, the greater the evil.

Beginning with the hero himself, among Batman’s other problems, he must contend with vigilantes inspired by his own image, but without his vast resources for support.  They masquerade and attempt to bash criminals in home-made versions of his high-tech body armor (developed at Wayne Enterprises from scratch—a very conservative estimate might put this suit, rubberized muscles and all, at one-hundred thousand dollars.)  When the real McCoy rescues one of them and warns him to stop, the humiliated imitator angrily demands “What gives you the right?”  Batman’s reply: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  Two resonant lines of dialogue, which might paraphrase: “If you’re not privileged with a Batmobile, Batcomputer, and a combat-surgeon-turned-butler for a nurse, your only right is to be safely escorted to your day job.”  In a world where we can suspend our disbelief over the constant jumping off rooftops, Batman’s later, willing destruction of his own bat-radar system to satisfy the ethical demands of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,) a priceless and unique invention which merely invades the privacy of citizens on cell-phones, is among the most unbelievable premises we are asked to consume.

Next, the film conjures and disposes of a half-dozen minor villains, not coincidentally all minorities/of ethnic descent: Gambol, a black gangster-type; Lau, a Chinese mathematics wiz; Maroni, an Italian Mafioso; and the Scarecrow, a homosexual readily identified by visual cues.   This leaves the struggle for power in Gotham City to be fought exclusively among white patriarchs.  Harvey Dent, a conspicuous (“White Knight”) if unpedigreed double for Bruce Wayne, has half his body burned by the Joker, and thereafter adopts a two-headed coin, scarred on one side, to decide whether to support good or evil in any case.  The suggestion here is that money is morally neutral, depending on its use for its value.  This is, in fact, a luxurious position.  To quote Oliver Stone’s black corporal, King, from Platoon, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.”  Director/Writer Nolan insists Dent suffer a more tragic demise than the other rogues: a clean-cut, politically ambitious, right-wing, upper-middle class WASP, he deserves better.  What a waste that, because of partial immolation, he should turn his back on a career as agent for law-and-order.

And lastly, the poor folks.  How did such an anarchist as the Joker (Heath Ledger) come to be?  He explains to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his wife had been attacked and her face disfigured: “We got no money for operations,” so the husband mutilated himself  in sympathy.  Rejected in horror because of his inability to provide the conventional solution of plastic reconstructive surgery, he turns to destruction (“Dynamite is cheap,”) and crimes like extorting the mob–“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  But he does do it for free, and the glee.  If Batman stands for defense of the established order, the maintenance of the status quo, the Joker stands–archetypally, and in this film–for chaos and the rejection of systems.  He amasses his loot into a Marxian unfinished pyramid—the apex missing  (a figure familiar to film buffs from Blade Runner, and which represents the base power structure of working proletariat supporting the upper classes by their labor, further oppressed by the military, church and schools, and the government) which he proceeds to burn down, to the horror of the assembled spectators.  Once captured, the police find no labels in his clothes (no Armani or Gucci or even Bill Blass as Bruce Wayne would own.)  He’d apparently like to hide his true identity, but he’s also refusing to support the marketplace—very un-American.  And as a white man whose face has been reinscribed in bleached “whiteface,” (thus only “playing” white,) his “evil” seems very non-specific: the robbing of banks and demolition of a hospital, not to mention murder—none of these is as bad as his betrayal of capitalism.

As for the later sequel, neither Ra’s al Ghul, Thalia, nor Bane shows any interest in established wealth–when not pursuing utter chaos and destruction, they redistribute property and power to the lower classes.  This third entry redresses the subtextual racism of its predecessor, but amplifies the classism: Socialism=Evil (and false socialism=even worse.)  Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, who issues Bruce a dark, Marxist warning about “liv[ing] so large, and leav[ing] so little for the rest of us,” seems more interested in stealing a new identity and start for herself, which she eventually gets—again, by accepting proprietary Wayne Enterprises tech–and becoming Bruce’s traveling companion, essentially “selling out.”

The three films not-so-subtly endorse the values of consumer capitalism by casting their hero in the role of billionaire by day, and. . .what do you know?, billionaire by night.  This Batman is the sum of his parts: the toys, the cave, the computers, the vehicles.  His most worthy adversary, a working class victim of an industrial accident incarnated as a grotesque clown, by his refusal to buy into bourgeois principles even with unlimited wealth in his grasp, is written off by everyone as insane.  After all, who would burn a giant stack of money but a madman?

Because indie films, like the productions of self-published authors and unsupported artists of all types, are not themselves “sold out” to the formulas and packaging of the marketplace, they can “afford” not to promote the dominant cultural values it patronizes.  Meanwhile, Hollywood, always quick to imitate its own success, and with no public outrage or boycott of $10 seat prices, exacerbated by the intermixture of TV-type commercials with its theater trailers, continues to chronicle for us the adventures of another billionaire industrialist: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who got his start as a crusader against stereotypical Arab terrorists.

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