September 10, 2008
The old man smiled
Going backwards through this Batman thing, I finally caught Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It’s a duller film than The Dark Knight – strangely boring, impersonal, serious without being deep. The difference between the two films might be the difference between Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who play the same girl. But the film accidentally does something interesting with its Ra’s Al Ghul, the requisite villain. Anyone who ever read a lot of William Burroughs would have picked up that this Ra’s is really a version of Hassan I Sabbah, the legendary “old man of the mountains”, who kept an army of assassins and operated according to the motto – so fondly and regularly quoted by Burroughs – “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Ra’s cooks up a hallucinatory gas from flowers found on the slopes of his mountain much as the reality-distorting Hassan fed his killers hashish – indeed, the word “assassin” translates as “hash-eater”. Of course, an Arabic-speaking millennial cult that aims to purify the world through terror and fire isn’t the kind of story that Hollywood really wanted to tell this decade, which is why we got the not very Arabic-looking Liam Neeson as Ra’s, whose homeland now looks more east Asian, perhaps Tibet or Southern China (is there still a difference?). Which neatly connects Ra’s seemingly eternal “League of Shadows” group to another, even stranger story: the one about the secretly world-ruling Tibetan elders with magical powers, a myth that once lured everyone from the Theosophists to the Nazis.