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Cosmic Struggles of Cultural Proportions  

2005-06-18 16:54:18|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Cosmic Struggles of Cultural Proportions


By CARYN JAMES
LIFE is complicated enough without having to keep track of "Star Wars" mythology, in its infinite nerdiness, or the history of Batman. (Now he's campy, now he's not.) But the darkly psychological "Batman Begins" is a summer fantasy film for people who don't like summer fantasy films, and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" - well, what can you say except at least it has an idea in its head.

Both films concern how heroes and villains take shape, and they include astonishingly similar transformation scenes that hinge on a life-changing moral question: to behead or not to behead?

In "Batman Begins," Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is urged by his mysterious mentor - part spiritual adviser, part ninja master - to behead an enemy who is at his mercy. When Bruce refuses, he is on his way to becoming the heroic Batman, complete with a black mask and cape.

In "Revenge of the Sith," Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is urged by his mysterious mentor to chop off the head of his enemy, Count Chocula - sorry, that's Count Dooku - and does. That is his crucial turn toward the dark side, and soon he's the villainous Darth Vader, complete with a black mask and cape to call his own.

The films' conflicts are not simply about good guys and bad guys, or even good versus evil, always the elements of broadly framed fantasies. With spiritual overtones, and an emphasis on an eternal struggle between equally matched forces of darkness and light, the films suggest a kind of pop-culture Manichaeism. And as crowd-pleasing movies so often do, they reflect what's in the air, a climate in which the president speaks in terms of good and evil, and religion is increasingly part of the country's social and political conversation.

There are similar Manichaean echoes in lesser-known movies that have come and gone (the recent Keanu Reeves disaster "Constantine" ) or are coming up (an ambitious Russian fantasy trilogy that begins with "Night Watch"). But "Batman" and "Star Wars" reveal most clearly that the zeitgeist lurks in apparent summer fluff.

None of these quasi-spiritual films assume that some people are simply bad seeds. Their premise is that good and evil are warring in each of us, and that an individual must consciously choose darkness or light. The first part of "Batman Begins" is so astute and engaging as it deals with Bruce Wayne's transformation that it hardly seems like a Batman movie at all.

A needlessly guilt-ridden Bruce, having witnessed his parents' murder on the streets of Gotham, later decides to study criminals in order to defeat them. This lands him in prison in Bhutan, a setting that evokes a generic Himalayan mysticism. Released from prison, he encounters the urbane Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who trains him to be part of the League of Shadows, a murky group that believes justice involves the balance of good and evil. "You have learned to bury your guilt in anger; I will teach you to confront it," Ducard says, recognizing the dueling forces in Bruce.

Part of the film's topicality and sophistication comes from the way it addresses another element of our time, fame. Ducard offers Bruce a chance to be, as he says, a legend, putting everlasting goodness and fame on the same lofty plane. That's a lesson Bruce carries back to Gotham and refers to when he turns himself into the anonymous Batman. His moral choice not to murder his enemy may make him heroic, but his costume makes him eternal. "As a symbol," he says, "I can be everlasting." (Batman is endlessly replaceable, like Lassie, but that's probably not what he meant.) Batman becomes a symbol of justice for Gotham, in an apparently endless struggle; the film's circular structure suggests that the Manichaean battle continues (if only in a sequel).

Because "Batman Begins" wears these ideas lightly, they never interfere with its raucous action. But the entire "Star Wars" series has become ever more ponderous, burdened by its moral weight and its leaden dialogue. Some in that series's far-far-away galaxy believe that Anakin was born to bring balance to the Force. And like Bruce Wayne, Anakin Skywalker has to confront his own dueling nature. "You have hate, you have anger, but you don't use them," Count Dooku taunts him during their life-changing battle.

Urged by his evil master, Palpatine, to kill Dooku, Anakin says, "It's not the Jedi way." Yet he violates his own conscience by taking his light sabers and slicing off Dooku's head.

The film's present-day allusions are just as heavy-handed. There was a flurry of attention to Anakin's Bush-evoking line, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," but less notice for a blunt line from his wife about unrest in the galaxy, "This war represents a failure to listen."

And despite the series's devotion to the epic struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force, chronologically the saga wraps up with a neat happy ending. In Episode VI, "Return of the Jedi" (for those of us still attached to Earth, that was the third "Star Wars" movie, from 1983), Darth Vader is restored to goodness when he kills Palpatine to save the life of his son, Luke.

But that's hardly the end of "Star Wars" and its Manichaean influence. Although the "Night Watch" trilogy is based on a series of Russian novels, it has definite "Star Wars" overtones. Fox Searchlight is banking so heavily on the Russian series's appeal that the company plans to release the entire trilogy, even though the first movie won't arrive here until later this year at the earliest. (The second installment, "Day Watch," is being made now, also in Russian; the third, "Dusk Watch," will be filmed in English. Fox came into the project only in time to change the language on the third.)

The first film, "Night Watch," is a visually arresting 21st-century vampire movie, filled with subways and cellphones along with the undead. Some of its people are Others, described as "soldiers in the eternal war, the struggle between dark and light," and there will come a special Other to "change the balance forever," pretty much like a Russian Anakin Skywalker. Each of the Others has to choose the dark or light side freely. "I am not a killer," says Anton, the vampire-hunter at the center of "Night Watch" as he makes the moral choice that his pals Bruce and Anakin faced before him.

When "Night Watch" was released in Russia last year, it quickly became the highest-grossing film in that country's history. It's hard to predict how an action-fantasy with subtitles will do here, but its eternal battle between good and evil is simple to translate, and its language is familiar from statements like this: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name." Those words weren't spoken on the planet Tatooine, but by President Bush at West Point in 2002 (considering the lag time of movies, practically yesterday). By now, whether the real-life rhetoric of good and evil reminds us of the movies, or the other way around, is probably impossible to guess.
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