Or: Holy plaisire du texte, Barthes-Man!
The plot of The Dark Knight, like that of Batman Begins, is honestly kind of shapeless and waffle-y. And yet, as Memento proves, Nolan is capable of writing narratives that are drum-taught and mongoose-agile. Why is he churning out these behemoths? Why, despite the wafflage, are they so dang good?
To answer this, I’d like to take a minute to consider Batman as a piece of storytelling, to consider the properties of the tale as it’s told. You’re probably taking it as given that there are spoilers for The Dark Knight ahead. But I should warn you that there are also spoilers for Batman Begins, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Forrest Gump, the Superman comic books, and The Hunt For Red October. Be warned.
In his famous – for a certain value of “fame” – book S/Z, Roland Barthes strip-mines Balzac’s Sarrasine, wringing every scrap of meaning out of the text and classifying his findings into five narrative codes: Hermeneutic, Semic, Proairetic, Symbolic, and Cultural. The wikipedia definitions of these codes are pretty solid as of this writing (I mean, they could be “Taco! Taco! Taco!” by tomorrow), but they’re easier to understand when you see them in action. Like after the jump! Convenience!
The Hermeneutic code (henceforth HER) is composed of mysteries and enigmas: the questions that we keep reading to learn the answers to. At the beginning of Citizen Kane, the Hermeneutic code is activated with the question “What is Rosebud?” Throughout the film, whenever the reporter asks someone about Rosebud, the code is activated again, whetting our appetite for an answer. Finally, at the very end, it’s activated one more time when the mystery is solved (although this is optional). Or take this example, from The Hunt for Red October.
Ramius looked aft at the bluffs of the Kola Fjord. They had been carved to this shape millenia before by the remorseless pressure of towering glaciers. How many times in his twenty years of service with the Red Banner Northern Fleet had he looked at the wide, flat U-shape? This would be the last. One way or another, he’d never go back.
HER is activated by the statement “One way or another, he’d never go back.” Why won’t he go back? Inquiring minds want to know! But of course, we don’t really want to know, because that would make the book stupid. Imagine if the passage ended like this: “One way or another, he’d never go back. The reason he’d never go back was that he was planning to defect to Alec Baldwin.” Way suckier, am I right? What’s interesting is that it’s still suckier even for people who have already read the book. The reading mind likes to encounter “mysteries,” even when it already knows the answer.
The Proairetic Code (PRO) is composed of actions, the mechanical details of how the events in the story take place. (Note that the Proairetic and Hermeneutic codes, together, constitute the entirety of the plot.) A great example of a proairetic scene in a film is the heist sequence from Mission Impossible. It’s all actions, one after another, meticulously shot, and following a more or less causal logic. Of course, almost any scene has proairetic elements, but it’s not usual to have them placed so strongly in the foreground. In the Red October passage above, all you really get for PRO is “He looked aft at the bluffs.”
The Semic and Symbolic codes (SEM and SYM), are both about connotation. It can be very hard to tell them apart – even Barthes gets confused sometimes, in my opinion – and honestly when you’re looking at a text, there’s usually not that much to be gained from telling them apart. In The Godfather, oranges are a Symbolic code for death and violence, while guns (and less direct but still non-arbitrary signs, like Michael’s army uniform) are Semic codes for the same thing. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But what about the “Sicilian message” that Sonny recieves about Lucca Brazzi’s death? The association of fish with death is pretty arbitrary, but then again the fish is actually dead, and kind of grisly looking… more often than not, things will fall into this grey area. This particular instance is also a reference to Mafia traditions, bringing up:
The Cultural code (which Barthes abbreviates as REF, probably because CUL, in French, is Not Okay), is found in aspects of the text that refer to a preexisting body of knowledge. Any episode of CSI disgorges massive chunks of REF, both in the dialogue (“Using luminol, we found blood and semen on the Tilt-o-Whirl!”) and in the flashy montages of the actors doing Important Scientific Things in the crime lab to the haunting strains of Sasha and John Digweed. The references in both of these cases are to scientific knowledge, but the show is also heavy on REF connected to the hobbies of the victim and/or murderer of the week. For instance, if the killer is a hangglider, you can bet they’ll throw in some information about thermals, or the difference between rigid-wing and fixed-wing, or whatever it is that hanggliders care about. Interestingly enough, the body of knowledge that is referenced doesn’t have to be accurate, or even really exist. The technobabble on Star Trek is REF. So are all the references to elvish folklore in Lord of the Rings. Barthes found this to be the least interesting of all the codes, but it turns out to be crucial when we talk about The Dark Knight.