Category Archives: longreads

Did the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?

One of the more intriguing things bandied about in the days following Heath Ledger’s tragic death last month was that the Joker — the comic book character Ledger plays in the upcoming The Dark Knight — killed him.

By this people didn’t mean that the Joker, a fictional character, literally killed Ledger, but they didn’t exactly mean it in a wholly figurative sense either. Rather, people seemed to be suggesting that Ledger was haunted by the Joker, unable to get him out of his system after playing him, and that this might at least partially explain his untimely death. In the words of John Brackett, “So did the Joker take over his mind and eventually end his life in a horribly ironic twist worthy of his green haired alter-ego?”

As more of the facts surrounding Ledger’s death came to light, the less people suggested that the Joker killed him. Yet, after reading Rolling Stone’s recent obituary for/appreciation of Ledger, I’m not entirely convinced it’s frivolous to ask whether the Joker might in some weird way be responsible for Ledger’s death. And if that is indeed the case, what does it say about the psychic power of fictional characters?

The following lines in the Rolling Stone piece seem to reinforce, if only subtly at times, the idea that the Joker killed Ledger:

  1. “He couldn’t seem to disengage; the inexactness bothered him.”
  2. “Ledger had no formal training, and there’s this to be said for acting school: it teaches you to approach a role as foreign, as a language you’ll temporarily speak. Ledger didn’t appear to have that. He needed to dig for (and inhabit) the part of himself that was the character. ‘Performance comes from absolutely believing what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘You convince yourself, and believe in the story with all your heart.’ It didn’t always shut off when a production did, and I think it ground him.”
  3. “As The Joker in next summer’s The Dark Knight, he will appear as a man severed from all connection. A ‘psychopathic, mass-murdering clown with zero empathy,’ is how he described it to the New York Times. On set, Michael Caine said the performance sometimes turned so frightening he forgot his own lines.”

I find these three quotes really provocative.

Interestingly, the article begins by mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’s heartfelt reaction to the news of Ledger’s death on Oprah.

Most people probably thought that Day-Lewis was simply being classy and emotional, and that he deserved kudos for saying what was really on his mind, for acknowledging something Oprah probably wouldn’t have mentioned otherwise. But maybe Day-Lewis’s reaction had more to do with the fact that both he and Ledger approached acting in the same way, i.e., they both sought to become the characters they played. Maybe Day-Lewis expression of grief had something to do with the kinship he felt with Ledger, not just as a fellow actor, but as someone who knows how hard it is to detach after inhabiting a character body and soul.

Consider, for instance, a recent profile of Day-Lewis in The Guardian which tries halfheartedly to debunk “the popular image of him, namely that, for all his extraordinary talent, he is a tortured genius, living the life of a recluse, reluctantly breaking cover once every few years to inhabit body and soul hugely demanding screen roles,” but in the end simply reinforces this view.

The article notes that for The Last of the Mohicans (1992), “Day-Lewis underwent rigorous weight training during which he added 20lb of muscle to his body. Not content with that, he also learnt to live off the land and forest, as his character would have done, by spending six months learning how to camp, fish and skin animals. By the end of his training he had built himself a canoe. He also carried a Kentucky rifle at all times during filming and learnt how to load and fire it while running.”

Likewise, for In the Name of the Father (1993), “Day-Lewis lived on prison rations to lose 30 lb and spent extended periods in the jail cell on set, while crew hurled abuse and cold water at him.”

For The Crucible (1996), “Day-Lewis went back in time. He stayed on a Massachusetts island in the film set’s replica village — without electricity or running water — planted fields with 17th- century tools, and built his character’s house.”

For The Boxer (1997), Day-Lewis “trained with former world champion Barry McGuigan, who said he could have been a professional: ‘He was in the gym twice a day, seven days a week for nearly three years.’ Injuries included a broken nose and a herniated disc in his lower back.”

For Gangs of New York (2002), “Day-Lewis hired circus performers to teach him how to throw daggers and trained as a butcher. He got pneumonia during shooting, initially refusing to have treatment or trade his coat for a warmer one.”

Stories like these make me think that maybe Ledger couldn’t leave the Joker behind as well as Day-Lewis seems to be able to leave the characters he plays behind. Callous as it may sound, if the Joker really did have something to do with Ledger’s death, it actually makes me even more interested in seeing The Dark Knight.

Cigarettes Are Sublime

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There’s a great scene in Definitely, Maybe in which the characters played by Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher bump into one another in a convenience store and flirtatiously debate the merits of Marlboro Reds versus American Spirits. Reynolds’s character can’t believe Fisher’s character pays a couple dollars more per pack for “natural” cigarettes. Fisher’s character counters that Marlboros contain additives to make them burn faster; thus, although she pays more per pack, each of her cigarettes lasts longer so she ends up paying less money in the long run. Skeptical, and more than a bit intrigued by her joie de vivre, Reynolds’s character agrees to an impromptu “smoke off” outside the store. Outside they light up at the same time and continue their flirting. Reynolds’s character loses the contest when his Marlboro Red burns down before her American Spirit, but he wins an opportunity to accompany Fisher’s character to a party that evening. It’s her birthday and her boyfriend has stood her up. She’s looking for a date and he quickly agrees to accompany her.

What’s noteworthy to me about the scene – other than the chemistry the two actors have – is the role cigarettes play in it. That is, cigarettes help bring the two of them together. They also lend the scene an erotic charge. It’s as if time has stopped and these are the only two people in the world. When Fisher’s character coolly blows smoke out of her mouth and seductively gestures with her cigarette, she’s arguably more appealing to Reynolds’s character (and to us as audience members) than she would be if she were sans a cigarette. As Richard Klein writes in Cigarettes Are Sublime, a wonderful, nearly 200-page apologia for the beauty and benefits of cigarettes,

For many women, at certain moments, lighting a cigarette is the socially countenanced mode of signaling hostile or aggressively sexual feelings aroused by the intrusion of another subjectivity. In circumstances when a man might display anger or come on to her, a woman will often light up, summoning fire and smoke, jabbing with the tip of her cigarette between nails or teeth. That explains why, among women, smoking began with those who got paid for staging their sexuality: the actress, the Gypsy, the whore. Such a woman violates traditional roles by defiantly, actively giving herself pleasure instead of passively receiving it. Lighting a cigarette is a demonstration of mastery that violates the assumptions of feminine pudeur, the delicate embarrassment women are expected to feel, or at least display, in the presence of what their innocence and dignity are supposed to prevent them from desiring. A woman smoking may be thought to be less “feminine” because more active, aggressive, masterful, but she is not therefore more “masculine” – in her own eyes or in those of many men; she may in fact be more desirable because she appears to be more free. (117)

Scenes such as this one, of course, can be found in lots of movies (e.g. The Big Sleep [1946]), but they seem less and less common. It’s significant that the scene is set in 1992, before the present anti-smoking campaign in the United States really took off. Though I don’t smoke, scenes like this one almost make me want to. No wonder some people bemoan Hollywood’s glamorization of smoking. Still, as Tom Chiarella’s recent and fascinating Esquire piece “Learning to Smoke” suggests, I am not alone in wanting to do something that movies make look so cool, if only for a short while.

Rambo (IV)

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Some thoughts on Rambo (2008) — or as Alex Muniz calls it, Rambo IV — on this, the day after I first saw it.

In his review of the film, A.O. Scott notes that Rambo’s name “is sometimes still used, perhaps a bit unfairly, as a synonym for revanchist, go-it-alone militarism.” Note the parenthetical “perhaps a bit unfairly,” for Rambo’s politics — and for that matter the politics of Rambo franchise — have always been more a bit more complicated than most people think.

Stallone maintains that Rambo himself is apolitical, and suggests that Reagan is the reason everyone thinks of him as an essentially conservative, reactionary character:

Rambo has always been apolitical, but once Ronald Reagan, who I admired, stated, “Rambo is a republican.” In some reference to Rambo and Gadhafi in the ’80s, that sort of sealed my fate and since then Rambo has always been equated with America’s military aggressiveness, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rambo is a solitary creature, not part of any military machine.

In short, according to Stallone, Rambo is a loner, a warrior.

Tom Lutz, by contrast, in his wonderful book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, sees Rambo as a liminal figure:

Rambo was an ambiguous hero, of course, not the tough John Wayne type … or the neotough Clint Eastwood. Rambo straddled the cultural conflict between the peaceniks and law-and-order forces, a hippie Green Beret, a decorated macho killer with long hair and antiestablishment anger: when the [first Rambo] film opened in 1982, Variety deemed the film itself “socially irresponsible.” Rambo’s position on the margin allows him to act in ways unavailable to the men around him, men in more obviously proscribed social roles. He knows no fear and feels no physical pain, but sobs and moans and cries out his emotional woe. Unlike the Greek hero who is expected to cry because he is heroic, Rambo earns the right to violate the macho prohibition against crying (as does Stallone’s previous character, Rocky) through his heroism.

(Of course, one could argue that the Rambo of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988) is more conservative than the Rambo of the first film, but even in these films it’s not quite as cut and dry as people make it out to be. In Rambo III, for instance, Rambo fights on behalf of the Mujahedeen!)

In his aforementioned review, Scott brushes aside questions about Rambo’s politics by suggesting that what’s really important is (1) the quality of the films and (2) how similar Rambo is to the archetypal male characters found in Westerns and Samurai films, two genres with considerably more status among the so-called chattering classes than action films. Scott writes:

The first installments in the cycle were better films than polite opinion might lead you to believe. At the time their politics made some people nervous, but to dwell on Rambo’s ideological significance was (and still is) to miss his kinship with the samurais and gunslingers of older movies.

My point here is to suggest that Rambo (both the character and the movie franchise) deserve to be taken seriously. To its credit, the New York Times published an article titled “Tough Guys For Tough Times” a couple weeks ago that I blogged briefly about. The article unfortunately perpetuates some of the one-dimensional thinking that I have tried to complicate above by including Rambo in a list of the “leading action symbols of the Reagan era — with all their excess, jingoism and good vs. evil bombast,” but it at least tries to make sense of why, two decades after Rambo III, Rambo is suddenly back.

Sociological and cultural reasons aside, the obvious reason, of course, is so Stallone can cash in on his second-most successful screen persona before he gets too old. I wonder, however, if Stallone just wanted a crack at directing a Rambo film? Maybe he thought he could do better than Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos, and Peter MacDonald, the directors of the first three Rambo films, respectively.

Did he do better? I don’t think so — the characters are paper thin even by action movie standards, the Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore was a little too one-note for me, and action set-pieces aren’t particularly clever, save perhaps for the scene were Rambo dispatches a group of bad guys with his bow and arrow while a well-armed team of mercenaries cowers on the hill above — but Rambo is still a fascinating film for all sorts of reasons.

I was surprised, for instance, by how critical it was of missionary/relief work. The white bourgeois Christian group from Colorado that engage Rambo to take them into Burma are presented at best as naive, at worst as contributing to the destabilization of the region by sticking their noses in other people’s business. “Go home,” Rambo tells them at one point. A case probably could be made that the movie is actually anti-Christian. It certainly seems contemptuous of humanitarian efforts, religiously based or otherwise, which is odd considering that one of Stallone’s reasons for setting the film in Burma, at least according to his comments on Ain’t It Cool News, was to draw attention to the injustices there.

Military intervention is hardly presented in a better light. The mercenaries are just as incompetent as the missionaries. In the world of the Rambo movies, the only solution to a problem is Rambo. Anything short of Rambo is doomed to failure.

Yet as critical of the movie is of missionary/relief work and military intervention, it also falls into the trap of presenting the Burmese people (both the good guys and the bad guys, I thought) as non-white, primitive “Others.” Whatever light is shed on the problems of Burma, it’s overshadowed by the implicit message that whatever is going on over there in the jungle isn’t something “we” (read: white Americans) have to worry about, unless of course, we’re stupid enough to try and help. For this reason, a case probably also could be made that the movie is racist.

Some might read all this ambivalence as a deceptively sophisticated problemization of American foreign policy, but I don’t think I’d be that generous. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it confused, but I will say it’s complicated, which is what the Rambo franchise ultimately is, despite people’s attempts to reduce to something that’s anything but.