Bait and Switch
Which we will do. Eventually. But not yet. First we need to talk about how movies in general, and Nolan’s movies in particular, usually put these codes into play, so that we’ll be able to see what makes The Dark Knight special. Figure and ground, people, figure and ground.
Your typical blockbuster depends heavily on HER and PRO codes. It’s very important that there be an overarching question that pretty much everything in the movie develops from (Will Bruce Willis stop the terrorists in time? Who is killing teenagers at Camp Misty Lake?), and it’s just as important that the little mechanical details of each event in the plot are clear, exciting, and easily understood. Every once and a while you get a film where HER is kind of weak: In Forrest Gump, for instance, the only real mystery is whether or not Forrest and Jenny are going to get together, which doesn’t have much to do with anything that’s actually going on in the film. Also, in some of the more frenetic examples of the Michael Bay school of filmmaking, the Proairetic code begins to break down. (If you can honestly tell who is beating up who at the end of S.W.A.T., I’ll mail you five dollars.) Still, these are exceptions to the general rule: in Hollywood, plot is king. The other codes operate too, of course, but they’re somewhat less important. Citizen Kane is full of SEM codes for wealth (to name a few: giant banners, parties, statues, opera, contracts, bank vaults). Rocky IV is full of SYM codes for the conflict between the industrial (Drago shooting steroids) and the agrarian (Rocky dragging logs through the snow). Or alternately, if you feel like making everything all about sex, between being the penetratee (Drago shooting steroids) and being the penetrator (Rocky dragging logs through the snow). The second interpretation is a stretch, I know, but the whole point of the symbolic code, for Barthes, is that the reader can connect anything to everything. REF comes up too, especially in procedurals (including CSI, but also any courtroom drama) and in comedies, where jokes often trade on stereotypes. For Hollywood, SYM, SEM, and REF are usually like gravy or icing. They’re a definite value-add, but they aren’t the main attraction.
Now let’s talk Nolan. His breakthrough movie, Memento, is almost entirely HER. A huge mystery is presented in the opening credits, elaborated upon throughout the film, and finally resolved just as the movie ends. Interestingly, the Proairetic code breaks down quite a bit, but this is justified by the character’s mental condition. After all, he often doesn’t know himself what causes a particular sequence of actions, so the fact that the audience sometimes doesn’t know either isn’t a big problem. It’s also interesting to note that some of the hermeneutic “questions” that the film asks never get satisfying “answers.” (What did happen to his wife, anyhow?)
The Prestige is also heavily slanted towards the Hermeneutic code. How did Christian Bale do that trick? How did Hugh Jackman do that trick? Which of them is going to win, in the long run? But once again, certain issues are left unresolved. (Did Bale use an unorthodox knot in the trick that caused Jackman’s girlfriend’s death?) And once again, the PRO is somewhat disturbed: a number of scenes involving the magic teleporting machine are so oblique that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. Most of the confusion is eventually cleared up by the end of the film, and it often turns out that the shot was deliberately confusing in order to set up a plot twist (in a sense, the breakdown of PRO creates additional HER). Still, for a glossy hollywood product, it had a surprising number of scenes that are kind of hard to parse.
Batman would seem to be the perfect character for a filmmaker so obsessed with secrets and mysteries. There’s the whole secret identity thing, obviously. He’s often thought of as the greatest detective in the world of comics. And several of his most recognizable villains have gimmicks based on the unknown: the Riddler’s the most obvious example, but I would include the Joker (a wild card, which can have any value), and Two-Face (to say that someone is “two-faced” is to say that they hide a part of their character). But surprisingly enough, Nolan’s Bat-plots are nowhere near as twisty and HER-laden as his regular plots. This is because Batman, first and foremost, is a comic book superhero, which changes the rules of the game.
At this point, Barthes’ codes start to overlap with genre theory. For Barthes, REF just points out areas of a text which draw their authority from outside sources, or which activate certain bodies of knowledge. A description of a woman that talks about her clavicle is going to feel different from one that talks about her collar bone, and for him, that’s as far as it goes. However, the text that talks about the clavicle is going to have some special significance – positive or negative, depending on a lot of factors – to a reader who knows something about medicine. And when it comes to Batman, we are all doctors.