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Which features of the film would you consider place it as either mainstream or alternative?

To answer this question I have chosen to base my answer upon the film ‘The Dark Knight’, directed by Christopher Nolan. As one of the main spectacle blockbusters to come out in 2008, I thought that it would be appropriate to base my essay upon. I would class the film as mainstream for many reasons, and one of these being that the film had a very wide target audience; the film is an adaptation from a comic book, so there is already a strong fan base for the film. There is also the fact that there are fans purely of the other Batman films; however these are not prequels as they are from an entirely different series, with different directors. It was also very much so a family film, released on the 24th July 2008 it was released in the middle of the Hollywood blockbuster season, making it a must see for children and adults alike.

Another reason that the film would be based in the mainstream category is the fact that film cost approximately $185,000,000 to make. The filmmakers intended for the film to be a spectacle, focusing largely on the visual impact of the film. However, narrative and character development also played a large part, unlike most Hollywood blockbusters. This is evident through the characterisation of the Joker and Batman. Throughout the film we see differing sides of the two characters and spectators may well have sided with that of the Joker, a person who in real life people would not have found themselves able to condone their behaviour. However, in the world of the film it is possible for a spectator to find themselves forming an allegiance with them. It was also the first time in feature film-making that IMAX cameras were utilized”[1] It is often found that in blockbusters, the filmmakers are looking for some sort of excuse to try new technology, and this happens in this film, for example in the armoured car chase.

When looking at a film as a spectacle an audience would expect the spectacle to be seen through the following; costume, sets, locations, action, set pieces, sound, employment of new technologies, and editing and camera work, all of which is evidently been shown through The Dark Knight. It is these things that show the appreciation of the film’s surface quality”[2], and that The Dark Knight is very much so a visual spectacle, as to a spectator it is extremely aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore the film itself is an ‘event film’, as it was based on a comic book and has a large fan base already even before its release, it is expected of fans to show up in fancy dress etc to actually take part in the spectacle itself.

When looking at alternatives to Hollywood, they fall into various differing sub-genres. However, The Dark Knight does not belong to any other alternative heading; it is a mainstream blockbuster/spectacle. No other alternative cinema heading would be able to be logically applied to this film. Although the implications of the developments appeared to be that, in a society dominated by the mass media, popular culture is better able than avant-garde art to provide visual metaphors that reflect the problems and dilemmas of everyday life.”[3] For instance the fact the character of Batman himself represents justice for the people, he is not the law, nor does he abide by it, however he seeks justice whether or not people think that it be morally correct or not. Another key scene when looking at this would be where the Joker has sent the two ships out, each ship has a detonator for the other ship, and however one boat is filled with normal citizens and the other with convicts. The fact is that viewers expect the boat full of civilians to blow the other ship, though this is not the case. One of the more menacing looking convicts throws their detonator out of the ship’s window proclaiming that “You don’t wanna die, but you don’t know how to take a life. Give it to me; these men would kill you, and take it anyway. Give it to me. You can tell ’em I took it by force. Give it to me, and I’ll do what you shoulda did ten minutes ago.” This is not what a spectator member would usually expect from a criminal however this scene allows the view to question their own moral compass, as the innocent civilians are up for blowing the convicts up, but it is in fact the convicts who throw the detonator away first.

Another reason that this would be classed as mainstream is due to the casting. Stars and other well known names are used for all the main characters, which would not usually be the norm in alternative film-making. Actors such as Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman were all used in the film. Using stars in films is an especially good way for filmmakers to draw a larger target audience, and they cleverly use these actors/actresses as a marketing tool. Some of the main stars in the film also starred in some of the previous Batman films, so many people will have some sort of recognition with them and will be expecting certain things from them. Although these people were purposefully cast in order to make the film more successful, no one could have anticipated the death of Heath Ledger before the film’s release. And although it may not be pleasant his death worked as one of the largest marketing tools for the film, as people who may not have wished to view the film before, whether because it was a Batman film, the cast or the fact it was a blockbuster, fans of Ledger flooded cinemas in order to see his last performance.

When thinking of Hollywood/blockbuster films many people feel that they are made purely for the profit. However, regardless of genre and other factors of similarities you cannot deny the fact that Hollywood produces artistic products.”[4] As technology is advancing Hollywood are the able to have the chance to make bigger and better films, and this is evident in The Dark Knight, IMAX cameras are being used for the first time, the director Christopher Nolan wanted the film to be as big as possible, and it succeeded. For example aerial shots at (00:58) and (57:58) show just how expensive this film was to make, as it is highly expensive to use shots like these in films. Although many Hollywood films are similar in content, cinematography, cast, budget, genre etc the filmmakers do have to make each film different, Henry Ford could manufacture thousands of cars exactly alike; here sameness is a virtue. But every movie had to be different; otherwise the movie audiences would not appear at the theatres again and again”.[5] All blockbusters aim to be bigger and better than the last and it is this drive that makes audiences members want to go and see the next one time after time.

The film would also be classed as mainstream due to the theme of violence. Mainly complaints were made by people saying that it should have received a higher rating by the BBFC as it was only rated as a 12A, which caused controversy amongst many parents who did not wish for their children to view the film. Thus meaning that anyone above the age of 12 could view the film with adult supervision and that under 12s would be permitted if with an adult. However, there is never any blood on screen throughout the entirety of the film itself. It is this that makes it a more mainstream film, by not showing blood onscreen, the filmmakers are allowing the film to reach a wider audience.

The film displays spectacular action sequences”[6] and this is one of the main things that The Dark Knight is about, showing the action to the best of their ability. It is the action throughout this film that makes people glued to the screen. The budget is also a main factor in this, considering that the film cost $185,000,000 to make, the filmmakers were able to afford, any special effects that were necessary or wanted, this would not usually happen in alternative films, as many alternative filming methods have very low budgets, and the directors may only get to work with what they can get their hands on at the time.

The music also plays a key role in The Dark Knight, and the reason I feel this should be included, is based upon the fact that it has been composed by Hans Zimmer; A German born composer who is responsible for many of Hollywood’s most recent hits. He provided music for The Pirate’s of the Caribbean films, Pearl Harbour, The Da Vinchi Code, Black Hawk Down, King Arthur, Angels and Demons, and most recently Sherlock Holmes.

The action film/action blockbuster is at once the most contemporary, the most visibly relevant to present day Hollywood filmmaking, and also the least discussed and least well defined”[7]. People don’t like admitting to the fact they enjoy mainstream movies anymore, it is the hegemony of the people that believe that Hollywood are only producing films to make money, however The Dark Knight defies this generalisation, based upon the fact it is directed by an independent stylised director. They also fail to take into account the basic fact that its conventionality is the very reason for its creativity.”[8]

Another factor that makes The Dark Knight stand out as a mainstream film is the use of special effects throughout the film. However director Christopher Nolan is not fond of using CGI, and so tried his very best to use the practical alternatives where necessary. With regards to the Joker within the film Nolan felt that “when you’re dealing with an anarchist, somebody who is dedicated to chaos, the most visceral way of representing that is an explosion”[9], so that he did. All the way throughout the film many explosions can be seen, and it is Nolan himself who tried to keep them as ‘real’ as possible. He believes an audience can tell the difference between something being done practically and something which has been done using CGI, and so therefore chose to limit the amount of CGI he used within the film, unless it was absolutely necessary due to health and safety reasons. Nolan wanted the film to have more explosions than ever seen in any other film, as he thought this was the key to the Joker, and believed that it would make the audience feel like anything could happen in the film. Take for example the hospital explosion where the Joker is walking out, Nolan wanted to do this explosion for real and did this to the best of his ability. They allowed the explosion to stop for a second as Heath Ledger is walking away from the building, and turns round in surprise, just as the audience will, thinking that something has gone wrong. However, this is not the case and the explosion continues, leaving the audience feeling disconcerted.

Another factor which also makes the film mainstream is that it presents universal themes to its audience. The reason being that if the viewer has a character that they feel they can connect to throughout the film, whether it be the hero/protagonist or the villain/antagonist, or any other character for that matter, there is someone they feel that within the film they have a similarity to, further interpolating them into the diegetic world of the film. Whether you feel that you are more connected with Batman or the Joker, it does not matter, the fact remains that if you do share views/outlook you will enjoy the film more based on the fact that you have someone else that feels the same as you, offering you a feeling of comfort and fulfilment, this would also be considered as a form of escapism. It remains that escapism can also be used as a device for criticising reality and the present state of society,”[10] which can be seen throughout the film, as the battle between justice and the people is ongoing in The Dark Knight.

To conclude the mainstream category would be the best to define The Dark Knight. The reasons stated in the above contribute to making it so. Essentially reasons why it could not be categorised as an alternative film made it a fair argument. Research provided key factors into the reasoning of why The Knight is a mainstream film. Using a modern film was necessary as a more passé film may not be classed as mainstream now to the current generation of cinema goers. The Dark Knight was possibly the mainstream blockbuster to have been released in 2008, therefore it was relevant to be used in this essay.

  1. The internet movie database. 2009. The Dark Knight. [online] [accessible online at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/ [Accessed 1 December 2009].
  2. Neale,A.,2000. Genre and Hollywood, Routledge. London.
  3. Diedre Pribam,E. March 22, 2004. Cinema and Culture: Independent Film in the United States, 1980-2001. Framing Film: The History and Art of Cinema. P33.
  4. Neale,S.2000.Genre and Hollywood. Routledge. London.
  5. Neale,S.2000.Genre and Hollywood. Routledge. London.
  6. Langford,B.2005.Film Genre Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.
  7. Langford,B.2005.Film Genre Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.
  8. Grant, K. Ed., 2005. Film Genre Reader 3. University of Texas Press. USA.
  9. HowStuffWorks, Gerri Miller. The Dark Knight Stunts & Special Effects [online] (Updated 2009) Available at: http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/dark-knight2.htm [ Accessed 6 December 2009].
  10. Grant, K. Ed., 2005. Film Genre Reader 3. University of Texas Press. USA.