“Dark Knight” of Hollywood ‘s Soul GrassTopsUSA Exclusive Commentary
By Don Feder

Editors’ Note: This is an edited version of Don Feder’s commentary on the “Dark Knight.” Used by Permission. 

“The Dark Night,” sequel to “Batman Begins,” is the most disturbing movie I’ve seen in ages — and, believe me, I see a lot of movies: the good, the bad and the hideous.

It’s not because “Dark Knight” is graphically violent (violence has become the sine qua non of action films), but because it’s sickeningly sadistic and nihilistic to the point of howling-at-the-moon madness.

In other words, it’s pure Hollywood .

“Dark Knight” is the summer’s smash hit, breaking all records for an opening-weekend box office. Audiences are flocking to see it, like dodo birds moving toward the edge of cliff. Parents are bringing children, which should qualify them to have “moron” stamped on their foreheads.

People who smoke around their kids are treated as social pariahs. People who don’t use children’s car seats are indicted for gross negligence. Parents who buy their children toy guns are charged with warping delicate psyches.

Yet nothing is said of those who expose their children to a film in which a pencil is rammed into a gangster’s eyeball, a bomb is sewn into a man’s stomach and a crusading district attorney has half of his face burned away, leaving a skull, unadorned by flesh, partially exposed. This is about as innocent a summer pastime as taking the kids to a slaughterhouse and urging them to grab a mallet and join in the fun.

I’ve seen films where the violence was more graphic. In “Wanted,” still in theaters, bullets exit head wounds in slow motion, like comets with tails of blood and brain matter.

But “The Dark Knight” positively revels in suffering. The Joker’s is a Nazi death camp guard on overdrive. His signature is a permanent grin carved on a victim’s mouth. Like a gourmet at a banquet, he savors each morsel of agony wrung from anguished innocents.

He’s a virtuoso whose instruments are knives, bombs and pencils (nothing as impersonal as a gun for him). He is relentless and seemingly unstoppable.

The Joker exists to kill, maim, mutilate and inflict psychic pain. Other than creating chaos, he has no motivation — not greed (he burns a mountain of money to prove his disdain for wealth), not power, not lust and not revenge.

The movie may be called “Dark Knight,” but it’s the Joker who dominates the film. He has the eye-catching make-up (a punk Emmett Kelly, Jr.), the antics (tongue flicking over dry lips like a reptilian harlequin) and the memorable lines.

By contrast, the hero is monochromatic. Bruce Wayne is an anguished billionaire, an Armani empty suit, who can barely work up a good grimace. In Batman drag, he’s as stiff as an accountant at a funeral. It’s the Joker who’s hellish fun.

But typical of Hollywood ‘s hypocrisy, “Dark Knight” wants to have it both ways. Intermingled with scenes of pornographic violence, there are moments of preachy piety, as when District Attorney Harvey Dent (who becomes Harvey Two-Face) says, “You either die a hero or live to see yourself become a villain.”

One of the few critics to get it right was Chris Tookey, who wrote in the London Daily Mail : “It’s grimly sadistic. It doesn’t fight terror, it embraces it. Ledger becomes, in a curiously twisted way, the moral centre of the film, and this makes ‘The Dark Knight’ an unintentionally sick spectacle, pretending to justify law and order, but in reality celebrating violence and chaos.”

I’m there — except for the “unintentionally” part.

In the end, justice of a sort prevails. The Joker is captured (to caper another day?). All it costs the hero is the death of the love of his life, the loss of the man he most admired in Gotham City (Dent), after he’s been turned to the Dark Side, and the destruction of his reputation. Batman is no longer seen as a crime-fighting vigilante, but a cold-blooded killer every bit as depraved as the criminals he stalks. Virtue is punished and evil gets its giggles before being hauled off to the loony-bin.

“The Dark Knight” gives a nod of the head to good-vanquishes-evil. It winks, leers and fairly drools at anarchy and nihilism.

This they call entertainment. But, like other forms of cultural corruption, it has consequences.

Heath Ledger was so messed up by his performance (getting into the Joker’s character) that he suffered from insomnia. Ledger used six different prescription medications, including the elephant-gun painkiller Oxycotin and anti-depressants like Valium and Xanax. He ended up dying of an overdose in January.

His co-star, Christian Bale (Batman), has played a succession of violent roles, including a serial killer in “American Psycho.” Shortly before the European premiere of “Dark Knight,” Bale was taken into custody in London for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister. He admits to suffering from depression and insomnia. According to friends, the 34-year-old Welsh actor has trouble controlling his anger. Ya think?

Yet Hollywood insists that cinematic violence has absolutely, positively, undeniably and reliably no connection to the real thing.

All of those graphic scenes of torture, decapitation, severed limbs, geysers of blood and bullets trailing brain-matter have no effect on adolescent (need one add the clich “impressionable”?) males — the motion picture industry absurdly maintains. Children leave the Multiplex after viewing Saw 37 with a beatific smile on their lips looking for a church choir or a Salvation Army band to join.

Advertisers (including Hollywood ) spend billions annually to influence human behavior, and then have the chutzpah to claim that what’s shown on television or in the movies has no effect on the way people think and act.

Why did the school shootings that plague the nation accelerate at breakneck speed in the 1990s? From 1968 to the end of the ’80s, there were 9 such tragedies in the United States . Since 1991, there have been 40.

There were plenty of guns, drugs and psychosis in America in the ’70s and ’80s. What those decades lacked were “Natural Born Killers,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” (1 and 2) “Saw” (1,2, and 3), “Fight Club,” “Sin City” and their clones.

In 1999, after the Columbine massacre, then President Clinton (who raised millions from the Hollywood crowd) proposed a Federal Trade Commission investigation of whether the entertainment industry targets children in advertising violent movies and video games — like a question exists in the mind of anyone outside of studio PR departments.

There are studies up the proverbial wazoo linking cinematic violence to aggressive behavior in children, including those conducted by the Surgeon General, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and U.S. Attorney General.

This is not to say there’s a direct, cause-and-effect relationship. Obviously, most consumers of ultra-violent movies never murder, maim, assault or torment small animals. And whatever the influences in their lives, people are still responsible for their actions.

But, like the ceaseless drip, drip, drip of water on a rock, cinematic violence has a cumulative effect on our culture — wearing away inhibitions, altering attitudes and desensitizing audiences to real-world suffering.

Hollywood has a morbid fascination with death and destruction. Its penchant for ultra-violence is said to be a commercial calculation — a lure to draw adolescents on which the box office depends. While this is certainly a factor, money may be the most innocent motivation for blood-drenched cinema.

Having given up on God, Hollywood is on an endless quest for a substitute. Violence confers God-like power on characters — the ability to dispense life and death.

Since the late ’60s, writers, directors and studio executives have been infatuated with the anti-hero. Hollywood is fixated on characters who are uninhibited and out of control.

Like the Joker, it revels in destruction for destruction’s sake — exploding buildings, crashing cars, jack-knifing trucks and bullet-riddled bodies. If the universe makes no sense — other than making no sense — then why not worship brute force?

Listen to Hollywood ‘s alter ego, the Joker, explaining his modus operandi to Harvey Dent (lying in a hospital bed with his fianc dead and half his face burned away): “Do I look like a man with a plan, Harvey . I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans. The cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey ? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just ‘do’ things. I’m a wrench in the gears. Yours, theirs, everyone’s…. (People with plans are) schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

That’s not a psychopath in badly smudged clown make-up speaking from a padded cell. This is reality, a la Hollywood .