Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dark Knight/White Heat: The Architecture of Gotham City

Somewhat belated and after the fact but here, in a slightly different form and with added visuals, is my review of The Dark Knight, currently also to be found in the new issue of Icon.

(Gotham City, still from Tim Burton's Batman, 1989. Sets designed by Anton Furst)

Batman’s Gotham City is a dystopian mirror image of New York. In both Frank Miller’s comic book and the earlier films of Tim Burton, Gotham is appropriately Gothic; a steaming, creaking metropolis full of dead- tech. It is a retro-futurist nightmare, an outlandish conflation of Hugh Ferris meets Alien.

So what to make of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which situates Batman explicitly in the contemporary city? The opening shots swoop through Gotham's towers, but they are familiar corporate skyscrapers, less extraordinary than the ones currently going up in the Middle East.

In both The Dark Knight and Nolan's earlier film Batman Begins, there are still elements of the Gothic lurking in Batman's cyber punk style costume or his monstrous Bat Mobile. And, with his cracking and peeling makeup, The Joker looks like a recently dug up version of The Cure’s Robert Smith. But this is where the visual similarities with recent incarnations end.

(Skyline of Gotham City as designed by Lex Luther, DC Comics)

According to DC comics' fictional narrative of Gotham, the city is redesigned at one stage by Superman villain Lex Luther. Luther, showing a Modernist streak when it comes to urban planning, replaced the Art Nouveou and Art Deco skyscrapers with glass and steel ones. It is this Gotham that is evoked in the Dark Knight. In fact, Nolan's Gotham City is a digitally enhanced Chicago and not New York at all.

(Knebworth House, used for exterior shots of Wayne Manor in Batman, 1989.)

Chicago is the city of the mob and of Mies Van Der Rohe, a potent mix of the clean cut and the corrupt. In the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne lives in a penthouse apartment rather than the gothic Wayne Manor, and there is no Bat Cave. Instead, Batman works out of a fabulous space that with its vast backlit suspended ceiling and concrete walls is a cross between a corporate office and a contemporary art gallery.

(Bruce Wayne's Batcave, from The Dark Knight, 2008)

The architecture throughout is clean-cut and corporate. The city may not be exactly friendly, but it is familiar, no longer anything to be scared of. What does have the capacity to scare us though is that this carefully ordered world might succumb to anarchy. Far from representing the city itself as chaotic, The Dark Knight plays on our fear that chaos could come to visit. And in this sense the film can be seen as either hopelessly reactionary, preaching a Bush era fear of so-called terrorist states, or as something more complex and ambiguous.

(Map of Gotham City, DC Comics)

In The Dark Knight, it is the ordinariness of Gotham City that is meant to terrify us. Here, Gotham represents a well ordered city that could easily be reduced to smouldering rubble. The city in the Dark Knight may look familiar but the gothic darkness hasn't vanished. It is there in the shadows, an endlessly possible flip side to the shiny optimism of Modernity. This doubling occurs throughout the film: in the character of Harvey Dent, Gotham's White Knight and in the brilliant scene where two boats - one full of innocent civilians and one full of criminals - have to choose whether to destroy each other.

The film suggests that it is impossible to design out darkness. It is a product of our own desire, and a nightmare lurking in the same places that also give us comfort. It is not an alternative world so much as the dark side of our affluent lives.

(Still from The Dark Knight, 2008)


Jimmy Stamp said...

Great article! I remember an interview about his movie 'Shadows and Fog,' where Woody Allen says something to the effect that civilization comes to an end at night. Stores are closed, our imposed behaviors and conventions are gone, and we're left out in the wild. I think there's a lot of truth to this idea and during The Dark Knight (the dark night) the Joker exploits that weakness in man. That eternal fear of the dark and threatening return to a more primal nature.

On a slightly different note, there was a great Batman miniseries, Destroyer, that was published around the time of Tim Burton's first movie. The plot revolved around an architecture student turned mad-bomber who, like some sort of Bizarro Howard Roark, destroyed buildings that were hiding great works by gotham's original Gothic architect, Cyrus Pinkney. It was a terrific story, although one that was essentially used as an excuse to make the comic book Gotham look like the Tim Burton Gotham, and therefore somewhat more accessible to new readers.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think I did read something about the storyline of revealing the original architect's buildings. There was also some sort of plague was there not that wiped out much of Gotham prior to Lex Luther's rebuilding of it? It's all very convoluted and arcane. I love those cross-comic connections though!

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