5 December 2012
Batman and the staircase paradox
If you are like me, unable to resist the charms of a well-oiled blockbuster and of a Kevlar-cast superhero, you must have seen Batman. You liked the beauty of the show and/or you are left weary of its oppressive atmosphere, you enjoyed the sophistication of the special effects and/or you rejected the surprisingly reactionary ideology of the film, you swooned over the muscular silhouette of the bat-man and/or you mocked Marion Cotillard’s acting.
But without a doubt, you must have had a taste of the dark appeal of the setting – from Manhattan / Gotham to the the depths of infernal sewers. You must have reasonably been impressed by the mysterious topography of the underground prison in which Bruce Wayne will vegetate for a while, waiting for his spine to mend and for his motivation to pep up (whoops, sorry for the spoiler but it’s excusable).
In truth, this so-called prison reminded me of many memories. No, I am not an obscure renegade who would have endured the obnoxious atmosphere of a forgotten jail. No, I did not learn how to swan dive to escape a life of misery by closing my eyes and listening to the Voice of the Force in me (hmm no, I’m confusing things here...). But that prison, I visited it – I visited its twin sister at least.
Matter of fact is that Batman’s obscure cell is in reality a Rajasthani cell – the prison scene in Christopher Nolan’s last opus was indeed shot in India. Specifically in Jodhpur, the blue city with its overhanging and magnificent Mehrangarh fort (which can be seen in one or two shots).
In Rajasthan, water is scarce... Men therefore have to dig very deep wells, equipped with numerous staircases on all of their walls – outlining this incredible geometrical architecture. These wells are called baoris. Surprising, is it not?
I find quite fascinating this repetitive game of light and shadow where sunlight hangs itself and where one’s gaze loses itself... It brings to my mind those optical illusions of the endless staircase – the Penrose steps, pictorially immortalised by Escher.
The Penrose steps is a trompe-l’oeil construction intended to make tangible the concept of the impossible object: a way for the observer to be confronted to the limitations of his brain and wonder about the flaws in our perception. Are the steps going up or down? Are they concave or convex? The human mind, spending its time bragging about its smartness, finds itself completely disoriented. This play of illusions has inspired many works of fiction, including – how interesting – Inception, whose film director is the same as Batman’s. Mr Nolan, do you have some hidden obsessions?
In Inception, the explicit reference to the Penrose steps is the metaphor of the film itself: a plot within a plot which results, through endlessly-renewed loops, in a vertiginous perception of infinity.
In Batman however, it is less about a clever thinking on the scope of mind games through the lens of dreams than a more classical metaphor of redemption. No Kafkaesque anxiety because of a disappearing reality and of disintegrating reasoning – but a moral challenge to be undertaken. Not a cinematographic staging of one’s conscience in its existential dimension, but rather a focus on the moral weight of guilt. Christopher Nolan is maybe a British citizen, but with Batman, he has fully incorporated the principles of the Hollywoodian philosophy: the hero falls, but stands up again. The staircase makes one feel dizzy, but actually leads to somewhere. The well is deep, but opens up to the sky... The way out is there, almost inaccessible, but not nonexistent. One just needs to believe in it to reach it. Heaviness of the fault, light of grace, Batman is a digest of the American psyche: believing in oneself is eventually what is important – and, more or less implicitly, the faith in a superior and benevolent intangible entity.
Nolan undoubtedly knows how to stage a show. But after Inception, Batman in the end appears more trite, less exciting. I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to drop Christian in favour of Leonardo.
If all of this did not give you enough reasons to watch Inception again, take 12 minutes of your time to watch this beautiful short film by Spaniard David Victori called La Culpa (WINNER Your Film Festival - THE GUILT - A Short Film by David Victori (LA CULPA)) – which received an award at the “Your Film” YouTube Festival, selected by a jury of prestigious film directors of the Venice festival (including Michael Fassbender and Ridley Scott in particular). Less visually stunning, it shows again the theme of the infinite staircase which puts the main character in an absurd situation of a quest for vengeance – in effect a moral tale, but smartly using the principles of fantasy films.
Happy viewing! And don’t get lost in a space-time loop...
Author of the initial text in French and of some of the photos attached: Hélène Marlaud
The translation is mine once again.
For a translation of another text by Hélène Marlaud and for the reason why I’m sharing this here, head to the bottom of that other post.