Registering the Registry 2020: The Dark Knight (2008)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, it’s THE event movie of 2008, the superhero thriller against which all the newest installments are compared, the film whose neglect at the Oscars convinced the Academy to up the number of available Best Picture slots. It is, perhaps, too big a picture for a single article to adequately cover, much less an amateur column such as this. We’re gonna give Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight our level best, though, and forge on to see what takes can be slung that haven’t graced the internet a million times over. Keen!

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You know The Dark Knight. Statistically speaking, if you’re an adult with the slightest inclination to talk about movies on the internet or click an article discussing the same, you’ve seen The Dark Knight at least once. My normal function in this series, one of talking about films inducted to the Registry with an eye towards their thematic underpinnings or cultural importance, is practically moot here — Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies may well be the default setting for popular film discourse. We all know the basics of its importance: released amidst a wave of dark, realistic takes on old franchises, it rose to enormous levels of pre-release hype thanks to the success of 2005 predecessor Batman Begins, a wide-reaching viral marketing campaign based around the Joker makeup and scarred Harvey Dent campaign ads, and Heath Ledger’s unexpected death six months prior to release. Everyone was primed to want this movie above and beyond the standards of a simple Batman or superhero actioner, and thanks to this priming the movie became a success like few others. It did a billion dollars at the box office in the days when movies didn’t make that sort’ve money on the regular, went viral in every way imaginable, legitimized the superhero movie in the eyes of cultural commentators and general audiences alike, galvanized American studios to chase its success by imitating its obvious motions and tones, and still defines the cultural juggernaut of the Batman franchise to the point near every piece of Batman media released in The Dark Knight’s wake can be considered a reaction to it in some form or another. The movie nowadays has its hooks so deep in the popular culture, we likely won’t see casual film discourse free from millions who count it among their top five favorites of all time until my teenaged-on-release generation have gone geriatric, and even then I’m not so sure.

You’ll understand I’m in a minor quagmire, then, for I struggle to find an angle on The Dark Knight not worked over to the point of snapping, ground not yet trodden flat and bare. To tackle the movie by praising its acting is to breathlessly laude Heath Ledger where others have exhausted the oxygen supply on better words; to talk about its translation of a Batman who can compromise his morals and walk any anything other than uncritically victorious is to repeat the last thirteen years’ forum thread starting posts; to roast Nolan over his lacking command of action in an action movie or Bale for doubling down on his growly voice to the point of sounding like he needs a lozenge or thirty is to indulge plain laziness. Hans Zimmer’s score has received enough celebration for a lifetime, the Nolan brothers’ script is lousy with dog-earing from YouTubers’ essays on its relentless flow and gripping turns, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman and all the myriad supporting players will join Ledger in the ground before the world grows tired of reiterating just how brilliant they are. All my favorite parts — the dual introductions of the bank heist and the Scarecrow bust, the growing dread in the montage of death leading up to the Joker crashing Bruce’s party, the interrogation, the hospital explosion, the prisoner’ dilemma on the boat with Tony Lister stealing the movie through hardly five lines of dialogue and one swift motion — are basically everyone’s favorite parts. The Dark Knight as a moviegoing experience is almost nothing but “the good part”s, so those purpose-made to stand out will naturally recur across nearly all respondents. I write these articles in part because I hope to make a career of the effort, in part because I want to share in the joys of cinema with others, and in part because I find it intellectually stimulating to hammer out a fresh perspective all my own. With a movie THIS popular, THIS prevalent in film fandom and discussion and analysis, what is there for me to say not already jawed out until the jaws dropped off?

Well, there is one idea stuck in my craw, something I’ve meant to hash out for a few years yet always left untouched for fear of handling it badly: the notion of The Dark Knight as Bush era apologia. Popped into my head during the last proper watch in 2018, hasn’t left since. Hardly an ORIGINAL thought, considering anyone alive and cognizant at the time can see where the parallels come into play — authority figures both legitimate and off-the-books expand their prerogatives well beyond what is just and far past the boundaries of their jurisdictions until they provoke response in the form of a terrorist force who relies on the overgrown powers’ lack of understanding and easily destabilized order to hurt them until they feel there’s no chance for victory except through a massive violation of civil liberties that might not stop the real threat, and certainly won’t cleanse the corruption from their souls. All this, capped with a Gary Oldman speech about how the man who made the worst of those calls made them because they were awful but necessary, and his martyrdom will go on because he can take it and the people deserve someone so selfless as he. Broad strokes, the movie’s engaged with an aspect of the day’s political discourse, being the question of how far can those in power extend their reach in the name of order before it’s no different than destroying what the order’s meant to protect like those armed with guns and gasoline? Batman with his theatrical vigilantism, cooperation with corrupt forces, and gross misuse of surveillance technology, Bush and company with their poorly-justified wars, liberal application of immoral tortures, and… gross misuse of surveillance technology. Course, it’s a read dependent on real world terrorists being motivated by nothing save a love of anarchy rather than complicated geopolitical histories and human suffering, and you’ll never make the players map 1:1 to each other like, “Jim Gordon is supposed to be Dick Chaney,” but fiction need not directly reflect reality like a mirror to be informed by and engaged with the daily news, and it certainly sounds convincing to the right mindset when you lay it out all quick and dirty like this. Enough so to feel like as obvious a statement about the film as “the pencil trick is among its most memorable moments.”

T’ain’t exactly subtle.

Still, the obviousness of the read is what draws me to it like a magnet. Maybe I’ve looked in all the wrong places, but discussion about The Dark Knight’s conversation on when we go too far in fighting terrorism before we aren’t what we’d like to stand for anymore either dismisses it as getting too political about a Batman movie, or uses it as a starting known to bash on the film as conservative propaganda. The idea seems unexamined in my experience; certainly I’m guilty of sliding into such territory in the past, thinking to myself, “Well, Gary Oldman says Batman’s good because he did The Bad Thing for The Right Reason, and we’re supposed to trust him despite his character’s own moral shortcomings being as he’s Gary Oldman and he gets the last word, so…” and leaving it there. All this on the table, I believe the best direction for today’s Registry article is to break the picture down, look at what it’s actually saying about and doing with these ideas, and figure what conclusions everyone’s favorite movie actually reaches vis a vis fighting monsters/becoming one yourself. Seems an “American” enough direction for a film counted among those indicative towards the country’s collective culture and attitudes, and if we reach the same conclusion as the reflexive response outlined above, we’ll at least have done our diligence in considering on a deeper level.

First, however, there is one compromising factor we must note: this is a Batman movie. A very, very good Batman movie, but still a Batman movie. A Batman movie tied to a multi-billion dollar marketing campaign complete with action figures and branding on snack foods and Halloween costumes and its own roller coaster at Six Flags. A Batman movie which launched in tandem with The Brave & the Bold and would’ve launched alongside a tie-in video game had EA’s deadlines not been so strict. For all Christopher Nolan’s best intentions in examining the superhero movie and modern social power structures with a critical, cynical eye, end of the day he’s doing so with a Warner Bros. subsidiary’s most market-friendly franchise character, and as such there are hard limits on how harshly he can speak. Batman has to look cool when he goes after the bad guys, his actions need a layer of moral justification, and his crusade requires validation to some slim degree so the audience doesn’t question why they keep watching Batman films if Batman is such a bad person. The movie will never condemn the Caped Crusader and his allies half so harshly as they deserve, either for their own actions or those they reflect in real world counterparts, and I doubt film history’s finest could perfect the balancing act between “Batman maybe shouldn’t be doing this” and “It’s so cool when Batman folds this guy in half and drops that guy off a balcony to break his legs, this is gonna look BOSS in the ComicCon sizzle reel!” Just something to keep in mind as we press on.

Pictured: Batman engaged in extrajudicial action, but badass.

So, the uncertain status quo as we find it at movie’s open. Batman’s war on crime has proven successful enough to terrorize ordinary petty criminals into compliance at the sight of his mark on the sky, and the only work we see him undertake involves the big hit jobs on various crime families in Gotham’s underworld. Busting Scarecrow’s drug dealing at the same time as handling the Chechens who move product on the streets in cooperation with the Italian and Chinese mob type crimefighting. Though still officially a vigilante with a warrant on his head, any serious efforts towards his arrest have gone cold, and it’s an open secret Batman works in coordination with Gotham City PD with a big score in mind — he’s as much part of the establishment as Jim Gordon, and primarily concerned with taking out the sources behind a majority of crime in town. Track their money using federal-level tactics, identify the financiers through business at Wayne Industries, get everyone’s names and numbers lined up for a city-wide takedown from which there’s no recovery. True, there are copycats who’ve armed themselves in violation of his principles, and we see the Joker in completely unopposed operation just as Batman dominates his element, but they’re petty concerns, too small bothers for the people about to make their grandest, furthest sweeping gesture in the name of law and order yet. It’s maybe too big, too liable to spook desperate men into desperate action. Anything in the name of peace, though, and besides… they’re practically invincible.

Especially if they can break bread with the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. For his good looks, charming personality, and fabulous capacity for speechifying his perspective, there’s something uneasy about Harvey long before he’s warped and scarred. Something in the way he makes an effortless show of dispensing two-fisted justice at the witness stand in court when his life is threatened, something in the way he’ll front disbelief at GCPD’s cooperation with an outlaw like the Batman while expressing desire to get in on the loop behind closed doors, something about his confidence in that little coin he flips to make his own luck. The man seems a powerful ally from the go, yet also someone who can only sleep at night because he believes in the appearance of his own righteousness rather than living in confidence he IS righteous. Not to mention, in Batman’s private thoughts, just how close Dent’s cozied to old childhood friend and potential flame Rachel, a note of distrust born from something passionate beneath the sturm and batarangs. Still, if Harvey wants in, it’s better to have him than not, and the mob’s best money man just fled for Hong Kong with all criminal holdings and notes in tow. No time to worry about trust or ethics or consequences; Batman can jet out, recover the guy in a spectacular display of planning and skill, and dump him at the cops’ doorstep to lay the stage for hundreds of convictions Gordon can cram into a ludicrously overpacked courtroom under Harvey’s supervision. Mayhaps a gross miscarriage of justice, a towering example of empire and improperly wielded power reaching the heights of decadence, but we got ’em. A city so corrupt and dangerous as Gotham can now know peace, all thanks to some morally gray conspiracy mucking.

And then a body slams into the mayor’s window, dressed in Batman’s cowl and clown makeup with a noose round its neck. In all this, the Joker has taken advantage of the powerful’s arrogance, moved in the shadows they thought too unimportant to investigate, drawn resources and manpower from the crags of society left unguarded while they focused on the big picture, infiltrated the various mobs’ own power structures when their leadership was left in a holding pattern before the final sting. We the audience are privy to the whats and hows of his plans same as Batman — use his connections and coordination skills to kill high-ranking officials and engender an atmosphere of terror within the city, make Batman and the police desperate as they made the mob in order to force further escalation, demand impossible choices while inserting himself into their privatemost places of fortress and solitude. The whys, though, the motives he does his best to disguise behind distressing behavior and contradictory backstories and the revolted fear-response triggered at the thought of explosions and gunfire… they’re not so difficult to disentangle as he lets on. Joker, for his cruelty and insane manner, is remarkably adept at understanding people here, particularly those who want and seek and hold power. They’re predictable in their selfishness, easy to manipulate through their doubts, weak to the slightest insinuation they’re not unchallengeable masters of their fate. Every major quotable line Heath Ledger delivers about how people show you their cowardice in their final moments, how everyone loses their minds when things don’t go according to plan, how the strange and disturbed will only be accepted until they’re no longer needed, it’s all perfectly accurate and totally correct when applied to those who seek to enforce their will on the world by leveraging their already considerable influence to do whatever they like. There’s no way of knowing where Joker came from or where he’ll go when the jig is up, but in view of how perfectly Batman and company fall in line with his proclamations about human nature, it doesn’t much matter. Let the men on the wall who moralize about the necessity in doing violence upon whoever’s head they deem fit cast their hands about the world in violation of common decency long enough, and a jester will rise to make fools of them.

This jester’s damned good at it too, considering how the second act plays out. Bruce exposes his pining for Rachel before the Joker’s eyes numerous times over, a childhood passion turned liability by his inability to accept the possibility she might just care for someone else. Gordon’s sacrifice play to save the mayor involves letting his family think him dead for the sake of another sting operation, the emotional fallout of which falls upon Batman’s shoulders. People continue to die until the Joker’s tendency to only directly target either the powerful or those who align themselves with Batman is abandoned in an eruption of a highly destructive chase complete with carelessly fired RPG rounds. Most tellingly, threats against Rachel expose Harvey’s worse side, resulting in him kidnapping and terrorizing a schizophrenic with manipulated odds, a breach of ethics garbed in dirty righteousness so disgusting that it takes Batman’s announcement of his giving in to Joker’s demands for Harvey to do anything half so noble as claim to be the Batman himself, and even this is done to keep the Caped Crusader on the streets, to extend the fight in defense of their unjust positions yet longer. The film’s most iconic scene is effectively Batman engaged in police brutality (per the Joker’s manipulations, of course, but Joker isn’t the one wailing on an unarmed prisoner BEFORE he knows there’s a time limit), and his decision to save Rachel instead of Harvey reveals the great Dark Knight as a man whose crusade was only ever about exercising his personal interests beneath a façade of flimsy morality. Rachel dies, Dent is disfigured, the Joker flees, and all those who positioned themselves as necessary forces for good are exposed as weak, corrupt, breakable fools who went too far and never once considered the consequences until they were caught in the full maelstrom. Even the film’s best trustworthy source of guiding wisdom, Alfred, closes the act by choosing to lie about Rachel’s true feelings and advising Master Bruce on the only way to halt this madness: to burn it all to the ground. Joker’s mid-movie rampage, in effect, delivers him complete and total ideological victory.

If Joker were to stop here, vanish off the radar and leave Gotham reeling, we could believe he practices what he preaches and struck a decisive blow against the dishonest and deceitful who sit atop society. The city’s white knight is consumed by rage over failure, both his own and from his trusted allies, his soul’s public-facing just half as safe from the flames of his anger as the dry bills in a pile of money are from the fire licking at the gas-soaked stacks. None within the police department can never trust one another, the inter-department coordination they built exposed as a matter of convenience, held together only by the promise of expanding their activities to hit forever harder. All those who survived Joker’s infiltration of the crime families are free to reestablish themselves amidst a city whose civil servants are in disarray. Batman is shattered, as a symbol and as a man, with no sane resource to regain control over his life. Those who say Joker was right about everything would be right themselves if the movie stopped here. However, just as those he torments believed their own lies about the need for their every poor choice to maintain the order’s integrity, so too does Joker believe his own philosophy about the inherent corrupt nature of ALL humanity. As such, his tactics shift. The only remaining sport in hurting Dent or Gordon or Batman is prodding Dent’s darkening thoughts into action and seeing what happens for kicks; he cares about the Two-Face rampage he inspires only as an after-dinner mint atop his previous plotting, so we in turn must regard it as necessary character work that’s irrelevant to our central analysis. No, the Joker’s real goal in the third act (and by extension the key to understanding the film’s perspective on how we should view and treat those who misuse their power for the “greater good”) is the expansion of his destructive swath to break the souls of every last Gotham citizen, and in making this overreach he fails just as his enemies do.

This being a superhero story, the citizenry of Gotham are not often afforded a chance to speak for themselves outside the context of their reactions to the latest grand move in the game of their lives played by those who loom above. Their ordinary function is the cowed, frightened masses who need a savior, the people who scream in the background or shout out a teary demand for someone to DO something at most, and the movie has laid the groundwork for your average person to be quite terrified indeed. Across the third act, the madman terrorizing their city drives the police force to squabble amongst their own as those with vulnerable loved ones contemplate gunning down innocent men in exchange for safety, a prominent public servant tears across town like he’s in Death Wish slaughtering those he was told did him wrong with a dark twist on his dishonest luckmaking, and their champion in black kevlar finally decides a city-wide breach of privacy is an acceptable step for even one night if it means catching the Joker — a choice which disgusts the film’s other moral center, Lucius Fox, to the point of breaking ties with Bruce. Batman and his allies have lost as much as they can lose without giving their lives, their actions a scrambled panic to regain control and do whatever they can manage in the moment until the step too far. It’s to the point their actions in the finale may well not count as the true climax. Once Batman’s in the skyscraper where Joker’s holed up, it’s only a matter of doing before he saves the hostages, reaches the top, and stops the clown — we’ve seen him Being Batman across the entire movie, it’s a practical certainty he’ll win the fist fight and capture the villain. While he plays out the final motions of a game whose purpose was defeated the moment he cared more about winning than doing it right, the people aboard those boats rigged to explode are given their chance to do what few if any other superhero films think worth consideration. Split across the two extremes of Gotham society, the well-off and the criminal, their position as Joker’s final targets after Batman is laid low reveals, I think, the true question of The Dark Knight: amidst an environment of terror, when leaders and heroes and icons of all we stand for are revealed as liars and killers and lesser men who could never sleep at night if they didn’t call the unjust just, can we the people remain good?

Or, simply, could you kill a faceless other who supposedly opposes you with their entire being, wipe them from the face of the earth with a press of a button, if it maybe meant you get to go home tonight? Parallels, huh?

Compared against the answer given through choice, I cannot now conceive the closing Gary Oldman speech as something meant to say Batman or Bush or anyone in power’s actions were righteous or acceptable. Backed into a corner, surrounded by pressure to save their skins at the price of their souls, with every opportunity to vanish into anonymity or pass the buck to someone else, it is beyond vital not a soul aboard the boats chooses to kill the other. By this juncture, we cannot say there exist no circumstances under which our titular hero could reliably do the same, for he has proven himself someone driven by desire to to protect what’s precious to HIM before what’s truly RIGHT. For Tommy Campbell and Tony Lister to take the detonators in their hands, knowing full well they could turn the key and sacrifice countless unfamiliar faces to live another day and never have a single person in the room blame them or identify them as the one to do it, and rebuke the notion so completely is for the film to argue your average person is nothing like what the Joker prescribes. Sure, there’s darkness and doubt present in their thought processes (plenty people aboard the civilian boat vote in favor of killing the prisoner boat, and each group comes closer to turning the key than anyone could find comforting), but push comes to shove, that shallow, partnership of convenience, compromise your ideals to-get your way, stab your fellow man in the back and sleep soundly this very night mentality is only commonly found in those who seek power and control without limit. Gordon and Batman can agonize over the what ifs and wherehows should the people learn what truly became of Harvey Dent; we know by now their line about hunting Batman because Gotham’s people DESERVE their Dark Knight is only further illustration of the corruptive nature in their influence and actions, one last bit of self-justification in view of the staggering, irrecoverable loss that is seeing Harvey for who he truly was. THEY’RE the ones broken by this revelation, THEY’RE the ones projecting the all-dissolving nature of the tragedy on everyone else, the ones concocting a need for Batman’s continued existence and further lying to preserve the order what slipped from their hands. It strikes me as less apologia than, “Of course these men are seeking to reframe their actions as necessary; they couldn’t live with themselves otherwise.” The people, the majority, those simply looking to live without mastering the world, they can face down the worst a personification of terrorism as simple, uncomplicated nihilistic anarchy can offer, and know they’d rather die than take a life and look themselves straight on in the mirror for years after.

Again, I find it necessary to stress The Dark Knight is limited by the fact of what it is and who financed the production. Batman’s worst acts must look appealing, his speeches on how he and his have weathered the storm with their integrity intact must sound convincing, his identity as a hero who can always find his way back to the straight path has to remain unblemished. When he commits so flagrant a miscarriage of justice as spying on every Gothamite to find the Joker, it is simultaneously a comment on how he cannot be a superhero without ceding his moral standing and an exercise in “Look, we did the eyes on the cowl all white like on the comic page!” The movie was never going to SPEAK so harshly about its characters as I do here, and indeed considering it in context of the whole trilogy only does the notions I outlined serious disservice — hard to say Batman wasn’t necessary when the previous movie presented Gotham as under assault by an eternal ninja cult and their weirdo Fear Train, hard to say the average person’s character is incorruptible when it merely took a different terrorist with a strange gimmick to make the population show its true colors. I do, however, maintain the validity of this reading by virtue of the picture’s overall high-impact qualities, the singular nature of its pound-you-in-the-face filmmaking that contributes to its status as perhaps the internet’s favorite film of all time year after year. One can handily only watch The Dark Knight and come away with a complete cinematic experience, no need for a predecessor or follow-up, and the intensity Nolan infuses across the entire picture is never higher than when he’s ticking away the seconds to midnight as those engaged in the prisoner’s dilemma search their hearts for anything to guide them away from acting like their supposed heroes. These moments are visually communicated to matter more than whatever Batman’s up to in surrounding shots, the relief when Lister throws the detonator out the window and Campbell realizes he simply can’t do it lands with a heavier impact than Gordon venerating Batman in the closing sequence. All the heroics Batman accomplishes here are only mitigations of problems the movie openly acknowledges he caused, all attempts to still paint him as a good man soaked in the bias of a flawed one seeking validation; the courage and strength shown in the boat scene trump anything Christian Bale acts out in his batsuit. It’s the more entertaining thriller to watch Batman run about with sonar-goggles and engage in three-way stand-offs against former allies; that the people choose to not replicate his worst mistakes says more than all this regardless.

Perhaps the last thirteen years have revealed any notion the American people can remain good and whole and true when our leadership is corrupt and dishonest as terribly naïve. Mistrust and hatred and willful detachment from reality to perpetuate hostile views against those declared subhuman or saboteurs has become far more prevalent than these traits should be in a stronger loving society. Our leadership has coopted the language of the common youth to present themselves as relatable and undeserving scorn, all while sacrificing untold chunks of the American experiment to corporate interest and ideological divide. It is easier now than then to be complicit and comfortable with atrocities simply because it is harder to stand against them, easier to believe those who say they won’t burn your half of the world when it’s all equally flammable. The civilized people will eat each other provided the chance to live comfortably in the shadow of those who hoard mounds of power with each passing day. In view of all this, I think it worth remembering the Joker is only right about those who seek and cling to power; the rest of us, the disenfranchised masses(those genuinely so and not looking to cloak themselves in the status to disguise their bigoted beliefs), we are not so readily corrupted, never so inclined to let another suffer for our convenience, at least not when we live right. We must make this known in our words and deeds on a daily basis if it is to remain true. Those who would ascribe the sins of violent leaders to our character (or worse, embrace them as our own) are those who wish to see the world burn in the first place, those who’d rather see it all turnt to ash than not get an enormous piece of the pie for themselves. In a word, we have to be better, not go through life as if it only makes sense to live without rules. The Dark Knight may be just a Batman movie, and hampered by all that implies, but it is a Batman movie in which the world’s greatest detective is less capable of holding true to his ideals than two ordinary men who chose to spare others when their lives were on the line. THAT’S the kind of heroism we need and deserve, not the corruption of silent guardians and watchful protectors who’re only out to soothe their own conscience. Live to that standard, and you’ll never live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

(I know I lamented the impossibility of an original perspective on this film — indulge me my little closing cliché.)

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My apologies for the long delay — the prospect of writing all this down proved exceptionally intimidating, and I had some questions to work out on doing this whole writing gig healthily besides. We’re all wrapped now, tho, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the matter? You got any hot takes on The Dark Knight? Disagreements with my perspective? Lemme know in the comments below, and keep your eyes peeled for our next installment. It’s another example of post-9/11 American cinema, one directly engaged with the War on Terror compared to Nolan’s allegorical approach. From 2008 (wide in 2009), Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal team for the story of Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie as part of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and the strain of their experience in The Hurt Locker. Being a mainstream Oscar winner, you can fin the film for rental and purchase at all the usual suspects, or stream through Peacock if subscribed. See you in two weeks!

(Oh, and catch me at some point in the upcoming week as a guest of Brian and Dan of The Goods podcast while we discuss Hedwig and the Angry Inch!)

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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