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The State of the Race: The Dark Knight Rises – Wouldn’t it be Nice?

Before the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I was having my usual battle on Twitter with the many people who like to tell me what the Oscar race is and isn’t about, namely that The Dark Knight Rises could never be nominated for Best Picture. Before the tragedy, everything was different. After the tragedy we face questions that will define how we go to the movies, what we think about the content and whether we can live with the reverberations. For me, it’s too easy to accept the plain truth, that The Dark Knight Rises, like The Dark Knight, was never going to be “an Academy movie.” Oscarwatching 101 tells you that the Academy does not go for movies based on comic books no matter how good they are, no matter how much money they make, no matter what kind of life-altering events surround it; if it doesn’t have traditional characters whose humanity is tested and then overcome, how can they relate? Are they really supposed to jot down their number one favorite movie of the year starring a guy in a bat suit? The plain truth, as every would-be prognosticator will leap over themselves to tell you, it’s not an “Oscar movie.” Or a favorite refrain, “it won’t happen.”

Glenn Whipp, starting his new Oscar column for the LA Times called The Gold Standard, has dived right into the film and how the tragedy might effect its Oscar chances. He brings up the Academy screening, so soon on the heels of the shooting. He talks to some Oscar strategists who mostly say that a non-campaign should be the campaign. And then there’s this part of the story:

Precedent, though, is not on the side of “The Dark Knight Rises.” No amount of “crowning achievement” or “let’s hear it for consistency” talk helped “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” win the series’ first best picture nomination last year. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won best picture in 2004, but the prior two entries in the series had also received nominations in the category.

The elephant in the room remains the Aurora tragedy. It’s difficult to gauge what impact the shootings will have in voters’ minds, though one consultant offers a fairly pessimistic take.

“Oscar ballots are statements,” the campaigner says. “Votes for movies like ‘Milk’ and ‘The Kids Are All Right’ reflect both the quality of the movies and what they’re saying about our world. Like it or not, for many people, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is at the heart of a systemic problem of Hollywood producing violence. Supporting that kind of movie isn’t a statement many academy members are going to be eager to make.”

I didn’t realize the Academy was in the business of awarding films that send positive messages about our culture. I thought, as they like to advertise with every press release, that their ultimate aim was to reward the highest achievements in film. But if they’re really only about the positive “upbeat” message, perhaps they ought to stipulate that, you know, like the Stanley Kramer Award does. Nowhere in the Academy materials do they denounce violent films yet we know from their history that they don’t warm to films unless they have achieved heaviosity. Usually, they reject violent films. Except when they don’t. When it’s The Godfather I and II, Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, and The Departed violence is accepted as part of a very good film.

Anyone who has seen any of the Dark Knight films know that it does not advocate violence, nor does it show a tremendous lot of it, certainly not more than most movies out these days — Scorsese and Tarantino’s films are far more violent. It isn’t the violent content of the film that is going to matter come Oscar time; it’s that this now provides an easy out for voters who didn’t want to vote for the movie anyway. The truth is that the best thing the film had going for it with Oscar voters would be “good will.” Without that, there is no impetus for voters to “hold their nose” and vote for a “comic book movie” when a guy wears a bat suit. People who have no faith in Academy voters having a brain in their collective heads will tell you that.

That is a quick and dirty way of shutting down the conversation fast. It won’t happen. End of story.

But. Kenneth Turan’s LA Times review puts enough gas in the tank for me not to be able to let go of it:

The impressive success of “The Dark Knight Rises” pleasantly confounds our notions as to where great filmmaking is to be found in today’s world. To have a director this gifted turning his ability and attention to such an unapologetically commercial project is beyond heartening in an age in which the promise of film as a popular art is tarnished almost beyond recognition. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which snubbed the trilogy’s first two films in the best picture race, finally got the message?

Wouldn’t it be nice indeed.

Deep down I know The Dark Knight Rises one of the best of the year, I know it’s time to finally reward Nolan and I have a hard time really accepting the big fat “no” sitting in front of me.

Something in me has always puckered when people tell me what can and can’t happen. The question begins to throb urgently: why not? Why can’t it happen? Who says it can’t happen? Who are these people? What are they doing voting on awards if they don’t know a great film when they see one? But it’s THEIR club, people will tell me. They vote for what they like and this film is too dark and it’s too violent and it’s about Batman. “It won’t happen.” Take your toys and go home.

On the other hand, why would anyone choose to shut down a conversation about something so worthy? I don’t believe in that; I never have. Somehow, sometime, I can get pretty close to being right when it comes time to predict how they will vote. But now is not the time for that time for that. Now is the time for conversation. Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. I also know that no amount of advocacy, no amount of convincing, no amount of money at the box office can make Academy voters vote for what they don’t like. I accept this. It’s my job to know this. But it’s also my job to shake the tree. So shake it I shall.

The Dark Knight Rises, despite the protestations by a disgruntled faction of the fanboy brigade, will go down easily as one of the 2012’s best. You can say, as many have, that The Avengers is the more palatable super hero movie — it’s the Platoon where The Dark Knight Rises is the Full Metal Jacket of superhero movies. But you are dealing with a one-of-a-kind in Christopher Nolan, someone who shattered the mold and has done things with cinema no other director working on such a grand scale has ever done. Despite it being a “superhero movie” it is richly developed with character. In The Dark Knight you had the Joker (I refuse to allow that name to be adopted by a sociopath who had no idea what he was talking about or doing, just that he knew a lot of people would be fish in a barrel at midnight) — a wonderfully subversive villain who was sympathetic, too. The same dynamic is captured beautifully in Bane in the Dark Knight Rises.

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is a scrappy heroin who doesn’t have to have a romance with any of the film’s other characters. Moreover, — SPOILER — Nolan is one of the few directors working in a male-driven genre, aimed at mostly men and boys, who then chooses to make Marion Cotillard the lead villain. This definitely rocked the very foundations upon which fanboy presumptions were founded. There are plenty of hottie villains, sure, thrown in as a plot device to turn on the hero and provide a little eye candy. But to completely put a woman in charge of the possible end of Gotham? Unheard of.

But it isn’t just that. How many articles about the Dark Knight Rises emerged that were about its themes? When was the last time so many people discussed a movie’s meaning online? We don’t usually do it because we don’t have to do it. Nolan has never lowered those standards to make more money. He has never dumbed it down. He always expects what directors of art house cinema expect — the audience to lean forward and think about what they’re seeing. Sure, many people took it at face value: it’s a Republican fantasy! It’s anti-Occupy! But of course, it wasn’t any of those things, not in any obvious way. How beautiful a moment in the ever-evolving relationship between movie goer and movie to have something to discuss like that.

If these Academy members were forty years younger they would welcome Christopher Nolan and the trail he’s blazing with wide open arms. But long lives lead to closed minds. Our priorities shift. We are no longer dazzled by that which we don’t readily understand. We want to be moved because we want to be take out of our misery. If a movie, like a great fuck, can make us forget out mortality, that is usually the kind of movie that we older people appreciate. But The Dark Knight Rises is a movie like that. The worlds Christopher Nolan has brought us into, while developing wonderfully alive and vivid, memorable characters may be a movie forever connected to a night when a lot of people lost their lives. It might always be remembered as the harbinger of the end all things civilized because that is where Hollywood has decided to lay blame. But the truth is a little more uncomfortable than that.

To honor The Dark Knight Rises, the Academy would have to take a brave stand against the random, violent attack on our church, the movie theater, the place we return to faithfully every weekend. How much more difficult to do that than to quietly turn away and bury this film with the unthinkable acts that surrounded it.