Summer Movies: 'Dark Knight' And 'American Teen'

Scott Simon talks to film critic Desson Thomson about movie archetypes and how they're portrayed in two very different films: the latest Batman flick, The Dark Knight, and American Teen, a documentary about teenagers and the roles they play, or try to escape, in their small-town high school.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We're two-thirds the way through this summer now and two weeks into the hoopla over the biggest movie hit of the season, part two of the updated Batman franchise, "The Dark Knight."

(Soundbite of movie "The Dark Knight")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER: (As The Joker) You've changed things. Forever. There's no going back.

SIMON: For a closer look at this hi-tech, huge budget blockbuster and also at a different kind of film that opens in August, we've invited Desson Thomson to our studios. Most recently, he was film critic for the Washington Post. Desson, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. DESSON THOMSON (Former Film Critic, Washington Post): It's great to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: You wanted to talk to us about "The Dark Knight" and also a documentary that's opened, which sounds totally different, but you're going to make the case there are some similar themes.

Mr. THOMSON: Yes.

SIMON: And that's "American Teen."

Mr. THOMSON: Correct.

SIMON: What do these two films have in common?

Mr. THOMSON: They have in common a sense of archetypes that we live by. In the case of "The Dark Knight," the archetypes are more heroic and stark and obvious, hero and villain. But in "American Teen," these are very real, kind of social labels that we've all lived by in high school and recognize: the geek, the outsider, the jock, the cheerleader, that sort of thing. What "American Teen" does is show very real people who are walking around with these labels. And what's fascinating is sort of watching, you know, what - the divide between who they really are and that sort of social label they carry around. Which, I think, can resonate for a lot of us.

SIMON: To fill in that - because "American Teen" is clearly not the better-known film. But it brought a lot of response at Sundance, I understand. Now, it follows half a dozen students through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana.

Mr. THOMSON: That's correct. Yes.

SIMON: That's the storyline.

(Soundbite of "American Teen")

Unidentified Actor #1: She's probably the biggest drama queen in Warsaw.

Unidentified Actor #2: Smart, popular, attractive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actress #1: All through high school, I've heard that she is the biggest bitch.

Unidentified Actress #2: Maybe I am.

SIMON: Do you learn in the course of the film that the slogans we hang on each other in high school have some merit, or is there surprise?

Mr. THOMSON: What's great about the movie is that it does all of that. It shows just how much those kind of labels define us and also distort us. So we meet someone who is supposedly the geek, and we find out that he is actually a very romantic, relentless pursuer of finding love and quite at odds with what we think of as a geek, who would just sit alone at home feeling sorry for himself, playing computer games.

(Soundbite of "American Teen")

Unidentified Actor #1: So do you want to go see a movie?

Unidentified Actor #2: Do you want to do anything anytime soon?

Unidentified Actor #3: Are you busy tomorrow?

Unidentified Actress #1: I'm supposed to work tomorrow.

Unidentified Actor #4: If I had a girl, I don't feel like I'm such a nobody. I am not going to let anything stop me.

Mr. THOMSON: So what we're seeing is that we are one thing, and yet we are not one thing.

SIMON: Now, is one of the achievements of a documentary like this the fact that - if you spend a prolonged period of time yourself, let's say, a year, half a year with a group of high school students, the changes can be so incremental, you almost don't notice them, it's like putting your finger in a pot of warming water. But on the other hand, a two-hour or whatever it is film that condenses it, allows you to see the changes in people a little bit more boldly.

Mr. THOMSON: That's magic of the editing room later. It's what Nanette Burstein did, that's the director of this film. She followed many characters, many more than are in the film. And she, in the editing, realized whose story lines were really working. So this is a retroactive look, as it were. So obviously, over a year, you get to see the high points, you get to see the patterns, you see the jungle for the trees. And that's what we see in this movie. It's very illuminating.

SIMON: Let's talk a bit about "Dark Knight." Like everybody else hasn't been talking about "Dark Knight," but I know you've got some reflections. Now is this a film that raises the archetypes of good and evil but sometimes flags them in the same person?

Mr. THOMSON: Yes, precisely. And what's fun about it is watching the good in a villain and the villainy in a hero. That's the fun of most of these comic book type of movies.

(Soundbite of "Dark Knight")

Mr. AARON ECKHART: (As Harvey Dent) I've seen now what I have become to stop men like him.

Mr. THOMSON: In this movie, particularly, they have a character played by Aaron Eckhart, who is the public prosecutor, who is portrayed as a completely vanilla hero.

SIMON: This is Harvey Dent?

Mr. THOMSON: Yes.

SIMON: OK.

Mr. THOMSON: And he - over the course of this movie, through circumstances I won't reveal for those who actually will go to see the movie, becomes an evil person who is bent on revenge. So we watched the process of a hero actually turn into a complete villain while the Joker and Batman, with their kind of mixture of good and bad, look on. So it's a nice little Molotov cocktail of good and bad.

SIMON: So in a peculiar way, the most surprising character, the one who you think is the most normal.

Mr. THOMSON: Yes. Precisely. And in the way, that's - he is fascinating because he is the one closest to us in the audience. He is the one that's an actual citizen, as opposed to the Joker and the Batman, who are grotesques or extremes of good or bad. So we don't really relate to them. We watch them as cartoons, practically. But this one, you know, he could be us. It's what makes it sort of fun to watch.

SIMON: Film critic Desson Thomson in our studio. Thanks so much.

Mr. THOMSON: Thank you.

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