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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 20, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight

What does it mean when we say a movie is "great"?

For that matter, what does it mean when we say it's "terrible"?

For instance, I think Sense and Sensibility is one of the greatest movies of all time. Let's add to that list: Cast Away, You've Got Mail, The Shop Around the Corner, Far From the Madding Crowd.

I know more than a few guys who would look at that list and gag. To them, those movies are excruciating torture.

Here's another list of five of the greatest movies of all time: The Dirty Dozen, Godfather, Godfather II, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Stalag 17.

There's no shortage of women who would rather split a toenail than have to spend two hours watching any of these films.

Yet it's quite possible for most people to say, "Sure, that's a great movie, it's just not for me."

My wife takes my word for it that Poltergeist is a deeply moving, powerful, truthful, great movie. She will never see it, because it's a horror movie with children in jeopardy. But that doesn't mean she doesn't recognize the possibility of its being great.

(I, however, have seen Citizen Kane -- twice -- and I find it to be pretentious drivel. I think the fact that most of the cognoscenti call it the greatest film of all time is a demonstration of the idiocy of groupthink. And I don't even feel guilty about being so closed-minded.)

I once reviewed The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a great film. I did warn people that it wasn't for everyone, but when I went to see it a second time, a lady in the theater recognized me and made it a point to say, in my hearing, "That was the worst movie I've ever seen."

Why would I even argue with her?

Is it all just a matter of taste?

No, it is not. A movie can be measured as art; it can be measured as entertainment; and it can be measured as a social artifact.

When it comes to art, people who have seen a lot of movies, and have thought and talked and read and studied about them, feel that their opinions should carry greater weight than the opinions of the kind of ignoramus who thinks Citizen Kane is pretentious drivel.

When it comes to entertainment, everyone has a right to their own taste. If something bores you, then you weren't entertained, and it's fair for you to say, "That movie was terrible," because we all know that there's a hidden clause in that sentence. What you're really saying is:

"(If you share my taste in movies), that movie was terrible." And when you're talking to friends who do share your taste, you are absolutely right.

Reviewers usually place themselves somewhere between the art and entertainment position. We try to tell you enough about the movie that you can decide for yourself whether it will entertain you or not. But we don't mind telling you where we think the dial on the artimeter points.

The place where things get really ugly is when we start discussing films as social artifacts.

Here is a fact: Films don't just take up time, or anesthetize us. Films change us.

When we admit the possibility that a film can elevate us, then we must admit the antithesis: that film can debase us.

Whatever a film shows is now something that we've seen. It can numb us to experiences that are often repeated. Hear the F-word enough, and you stop noticing it. Ditto with the N-word. Ditto with the torture on 24.

Whatever a film shows ordinary people doing, with no one batting an eye, becomes normalized. Nowadays, it's taken for granted that couples in films will sleep together without benefit of marriage. But in the 1950s, "sex comedies" were all about how good people did not have sex, even when they really really wanted to.

Whatever a film shows the coolest, most powerful people doing becomes attractive. The undershirt industry disappeared almost overnight when Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and had nothing on but his skin underneath it.

These effects can be both conscious and unconscious -- either way, films can change us.

I single out film because it's the storytelling medium with the highest prestige in our culture. Novels come second in prestige, but lag far behind in the size of the audience; television has a far larger audience, but comes a distant third in prestige (though it's climbing!).

So when we see a movie, all of us evaluate it as entertainment, and many of us discuss it as art. Many of us also discuss films as social artifacts -- usually when we hate what we think they're doing to society. Almost none of us, though, realize when and how films have their greatest effect and pose the greatest danger.

A lot of people hated The Color Purple and The Passion of the Christ, the former because of how it depicted black males, the latter because of how it depicted Jews. They were afraid that both films would intensify or justify negative attitudes that already exist in the culture.

A lot of people hate movies that show nudity or casual sex, or use bad language, because they fear that these films will normalize these things and result in a society that has no modesty, no decorum, and no regard for the importance of marriage.

These fears are not misplaced. A single movie rarely has such a powerful effect; but when filmmaker after filmmaker puts out films with the same moral worldview, or offering the same kind of experience, eventually society does change.

These changes are often very serious, and sometimes have terrible results. Who knows how much film contributed to our current situation, where most children either never had a father, are missing one of their parents, or live divided between two homes?

One thing is certain: Films were definitely ahead of the curve, and their normalization of divorce, premarital sex, and nonmarital cohabitation were definitely ahead of the statistics.

If film does not lead people to behave differently, then how dare they charge for product placement?

Which leads me -- at last -- to two excellent films, Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight.

One of them is, in my opinion, dangerous; perhaps evil; certainly hypocritical in the extreme.

The other might, quite possibly, emerge as one of the greatest films I've ever seen, because of the depth and quality of its examination of profound and difficult moral issues -- and the way it shows good people doing Good.

But both of them are very entertaining -- to those who like that kind of movie. And I'm one of those who likes both kinds of movie.

Mamma Mia! is a chick flick. Sophie (the impossibly cute Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married. She grew up on a Greek island, where her never-married mom, Donna (Meryl Streep), barely keeps a hotel financially afloat.

Sophie happened to find the diary her mother kept during the summer when Sophie was conceived. From it, she learns the names of three men who might be her father. She sends letters, purportedly from Donna, to all three men, inviting them to the wedding.

All three men show up. Sophie tells them that she was the one who really invited them, but does not say why. Donna is furious that they're there and orders them to leave. One by one, each man comes to believe he is Sophie's father and promises to give her away at the wedding.

Sophie's fiancé (who is too cute to live) finds out that she invited the possible fathers and is furious that this big wedding is not about their marriage at all, but rather about her finding "who she is." "I thought our wedding was about who we are going to be together," he says (or words to that effect).

Spoiler Alert. In the end, all three men get what they want. One of them, who travels the world, gets Donna's friend who also is a writer and loves to travel and is something of a loner. Another, in a cheesy reveal at the end, turns out to be gay and has found true love with a creepy looking Greek. The other man was Donna's true love all along, and now that he's divorced, he can marry her like he meant to do in the first place.

So when Sophie cancels the wedding so she can run off with her fiancé to see the world (no mention of his plan of marrying in a civil ceremony on the mainland), Donna marries her true love instead. End of Spoilers.

Oh, and did I mention that they sing Abba songs all through it?

How good is this musical? So good that I, who came to hate Abba and all their music, mostly because of "Dancing Queen" and the abominable "Waterloo," actually enjoyed the music.

How good are the performances? So good that I, who detest almost all of Meryl Streep's performances, found her absolutely delightful and real and wonderful, as a singer and as an actress in this film. So good that Pierce Brosnan, who can barely sing, nevertheless sells his numbers by the very intensity of his performance.

As entertainment, as art, there is so much to love.

As a social artifact, this movie is so loathsome it almost gives me a rash. Here's why:

I can live with all the politically correct cant: You don't need to find your father to find yourself! I'm glad I raised my daughter alone, it was better that way. We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall! (Oh, wait, that was Joni Mitchell -- but the sentiment is there, all right.) Isn't it cute that Colin Firth's character turns out to be gay?

I can live with it because I've been numbed. But what I can't live with is the vile hypocrisy of it. Because, while the dialogue keeps delivering punchy little slogans for the elitist anti-marriage crowd (and all the pro-marriage sentiments are uttered by a naif who, at the end, changes her mind), this movie absolutely depends, for all its emotional interest and impact, on the audience's innate longing for love and marriage, monogamy and fidelity, babies and nuclear families with a mom and a dad.

In other words, they're having their cake and eating it, too. This movie has no point, it does not work, without the audience's commitment to the traditional (and, one might even say, culturally necessary) moral worldview.

And yet the movie pretends to be post-marriage and post-family.

The problem is that while coasting on tradition, Mamma Mia! is normalizing the civilizational deathwish of our current cultural elite. As a social artifact, it isn't worth scraping off of the bottom of my shoe.

I had a wonderful time watching it.

Except for the appalling moment when Colin Firth's character suddenly reveals himself to be gay. No, it's not because I'm anti-gay. It's because they trivialize and ridicule him and homosexuality. His developing relationship with a gay Greek man is never shown or hinted at -- it is revealed only as a punch line. As a joke. It's a slap in the face to all gay people.

Everybody else's yearnings, everybody else's personal agonies, everybody else's love story is worth at least a few moments of screen time. But homosexuality exists in this movie only to be laughed at. It's as if they're saying that the feelings of gay people are amusing, whereas the feelings of heterosexuals are important and deep and meaningful.

Their treatment of their one gay character is as appallingly hypocritical as J.K. Rowling's announcement that Dumbledore is gay. Instead of making us know and understand the character as a gay man, we are slapped with it at the end, as if being gay were just an afterthought.

Because I oppose the legalization of "gay marriage," I am often attacked as a homophobe. But as a writer, I would never show such disrespect toward a homosexual character as to treat him or her the way Mamma Mia! (and Rowling) treated theirs. Having a gay character, for them, is merely an attempt to show how politically correct they are. In my fiction, having a gay character requires a commitment to treat him or her as fairly and deeply as I treat my straight characters.

Don't these writers actually know any gay people? I mean know them, as friends, as family members, as colleagues? I can't believe they do. Because if they did, they could never treat their gay characters with such contempt.

Now we come to The Dark Knight. This is a sequel to Batman Begins -- or, I should say, Batman Begins was created in order to set up this movie.

I remember when Frank Miller's comic book series called The Dark Knight Returns first appeared in the mid-80s. I kept hearing that this was what comic books were meant to be. I had little patience with superhero comics, but the word-of-mouth was so strong I bought the first issue and gave it a try.

I wanted to like it. But the drawing style was so dark that it was almost impossible to tell what was going on.

Obscurity is much praised by elitists, but I disdain it. The audience starts out knowing nothing about your story. It's your job, as a storyteller, to let them in on it. Any fool can create an unintelligible comic book; I can draw pictures that keep people from knowing what's happening. What takes talent is clarity.

Well, the movie The Dark Knight, while it has little if anything to do with Frank Miller's comic book series, suffers from a similar malady. The sound in this movie is so overproduced that dialogue is frequently swallowed up. Gary Oldman's dialogue is particularly vulnerable to this, and there were key moments in the story where it was impossible for us to guess what had been said, and therefore we had no idea what was going on.

What a needless mistake! Because apart from that, this movie is brilliant on almost every level.

Like Mamma Mia!, Dark Knight has an amazing cast who give the performances of their lives. The movie is written to allow Heath Ledger's Joker character to steal it, and steal it he does. There is simply nothing that Christian Bale, as Batman, can do about it -- except to play his own role perfectly, which he does.

The Joker is, truly, a satanic character -- or, if you don't like Judeo-Christian references, an entropic character. He has no goal except to break down the social order; he loves to mock and expose hypocrisy, but he hates sincerity just as much. Believing in nothing except his own longing for destruction, he tells stories about himself that all turn out to be lies; what the truth about him is, we never get a clue.

The Joker is also, however, impossibly deft. He claims not to plan anything, but somehow he performs logistical miracles, getting from one place to another in the twinkling of an eye, setting huge arrays of explosives in a hospital without anyone noticing -- he does the impossible routinely, and everything he does requires planning.

He also kills his accomplices willy-nilly, and yet (the biggest miracle of all), people keep working for him.

But setting aside the miraculous and the silly (this is a comic book movie, after all), what makes the film brilliant is, at heart, the writing. Director Christopher Nolan is credited as a writer, along with his brother Jonathan Nolan, with David S. Goyer getting a story-by credit as well.

The Nolan brothers have already proven themselves, with The Prestige, to have a gift for finding depth in the midst of sensational storytelling. But with Dark Knight, they bring to the fore some of the deepest moral dilemmas.

Spoilers Galore. There are two key moments in the film where the Joker poses terrible choices. First is the time when he puts Batman's true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and her new love, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), in another. Both are tied up, surrounded by explosives. Batman has just enough time to save one of them, but not both.

We are deliberately not told -- perhaps even misled -- about which one Batman is rushing to save. It is assumed -- because of the romantic conventions of American movies and comic books and western culture -- that he will save the girl.

But it has been established that Batman believes that Harvey Dent is a true hero, vital to the survival of Gotham City as a civil society. So his choice is, at least in his mind, between saving the city and saving the love of his life.

He chooses the city.

And this is the morally right choice. It is exactly the choice that parents make when they send their children off to war, or into the police force or the fire department. If anything, the love of parents for children is greater than the love mates have for each other. Yet, when the needs of the overall society -- the city, the nation -- require it, parents make the choice to permit it, even to honor and embrace letting their children go into harm's way.

Then there is the second dilemma. This time, the Joker has manipulated an incredibly stupid government and population into sending out two ferries. One of them is loaded with convicts, the other with ordinary civilians. Only when they are out on the water, beyond rescue, does the Joker reveal his nefarious plot.

Both boats are loaded with explosives (again, the Joker has everything planned even though he claims not to). And each boat is equipped with the detonator for the other boat's bombs. The Joker's deal? If the people on one ship choose to blow up the other, then their ship survives. But if neither one blows up the other, both will be blown up by the Joker at midnight.

Are we having fun yet?

The civilian passengers insist on a democratic vote. Ultimately, they vote to blow up the convicts. This is not as heartless as you might think. Even if the voters were willing to die rather than kill someone else, don't they have a responsibility to act to save the other innocent civilians on their own boat? They can look around and see the women and children that we are expected to save -- and by blowing up a bunch of convicts, they can save them. How would you vote?

The convicts, also, seem to be all for blowing up the civilian ship. But the warden and the guards are able to keep things under control.

So there they stand, with the authorities holding the detonators, with votes taken (or implied) -- and nobody does anything. On the civilian ship, one man finally comes forward and says, "I'll do it, give the detonator to me." And the captain does.

Likewise, on the ship of convicted criminals, a big, dangerous looking black convict looms over the warden and says, in effect, "You have the courage to die, but not the courage to take a life." Then: "Give it to me. I'll do what you should have done ten minutes ago."

And the warden, spineless as the captain on the civilian ship, gives the detonator to the convict.

Whereupon the convict takes the detonator and throws it out of the window into the river. Yes, that's exactly what the warden should have done with the detonator -- immediately upon getting it and being told the dilemma. But it took one of the prisoners to do it.

And on the civilian ship, the man who thought he could press the button to kill hundreds of convicts -- aka "human scum" -- sets the detonator back in its box. He can't do it. (This is the slight cheat, by the way; there are plenty of people who could, and it is a morally defensible act, unless you're a Quaker.)

Still, this dilemma -- kill the other guys or you all die -- is a powerful one. And the thing that's most interesting about it is that the script does not leave the choice up to the hero. Batman had to make the first choice -- and then live with the consequences. But his only role in this second instance is to get to the Joker and stop him from blowing up both boats. End of Spoilers.

In the midst of an action movie, these writers had the guts -- and the trust in the audience -- to set up serious moral dilemmas and then show unconventional choices.

Throughout the movie, the Joker keeps telling Batman, "Look, your choices have killed people. Look how many have died!" What the Joker ignores -- what he lies about -- is the simple fact that it is he, the Joker, who is doing all the killing, and Batman none of it.

Still, the Joker is able to persuade one character to join him -- and even then, the writers play fair. We have seen the seeds of brutality in this character already.

There are so many good performances in this movie that it is impossible to mention them all. Even in relatively tiny parts like Reese, the would-be blackmailer (Joshua Harto); the uncooperative schizophrenic (can't find the actor's name); and the son of the new police commissioner (Nathan Gamble -- it kills me that he's probably too old to play Ender Wiggin), they have cast outstanding actors who give superb performances.

Unlike the last three Star Wars movies, where fine actors give the worst performances of their careers, under Christopher Nolan this great cast gives some of the best performances.

But this is also true of Mamma Mia! When I love a Meryl Streep performance because it's so real and generous, you know something miraculous has happened.

I love good chick flicks. I love good comic book movies.

But I despise art that pushes our society toward self-destructive beliefs and practices.

And I honor art that encourages us to make the tough, brave, self-abnegating choices that make civilization possible.

The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! are both "good" movies in the sense of art and entertainment.

But The Dark Knight is, as a social influence, a Good movie. And Mamma Mia! is, most definitely, not.

Through the art we make and experience and admire, we shape and reshape ourselves and our society, over and over again.

These movies are the seeds of our self-creation. Be very careful which ones you take into yourself and care about and believe in, and which you flick away like froth, rejecting the message that it tries to give.

I am encouraged, just a little, that on the opening weekend, the Dark Knight grossed $158 million and Mamma Mia! grossed $27 million. But that has far more to do with genre than with any judgment on the part of the audience. What matters is how much the viewers internalize the messages of the two movies. And that is decided one by one.

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