Many years ago, when I was near the end of my junior year abroad, my friend S. told me a story he had heard, a story that severely disturbed me, although then, as now, I suspected it might have been an urban legend:
S. knew a boy, or knew of a boy, who had gone in to take his A levels. A levels are quite a big deal in England -- they're like the SATs, if the determination of where you would go to university depended only on your SAT scores. This boy was depressed, and he felt sure he was going to fail his A levels, which meant that, as far as he was concerned, his future would be ruined. So when he got to his desk at the testing hall and the proctor told people to begin, this boy took two of the pencils he'd brought to write his answers with, stuck them up his nose, points first, and WHAM! he slammed his head, and the pencils' other ends, down as hard as he could on the desk. And he killed himself.
I have never forgotten this image. EVER. Normally when I tell grotesque or revolting stories - as I frequently do - the incidents of revulsion or grotesquerie have long since ceased to have an effect on me, or at least the only way they affect me is by giving me a certain tiny sadistic pleasure that I'm grossing out other people. But when I tell this story, I always still feel my gorge rise just a little, and my mind wince and turn its face away.
For a very long time, I thought this pencil da fe was a unique idea, although whether unique to the boy or to the original tellers of the story I didn't know. But tonight I went to see The Dark Knight, and it turns out that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, who wrote it, had a version of the same idea, because their Joker does something very similar (although with the pencil point facing down). And there in the dark theatre it had precisely the same effect on me as that image in S.'s story still does.
The movie was good, if not great. And Heath Ledger was very fine, although in my opinion much stronger in his first scenes than in his later ones. His Joker was a fully realised character, and was somehow also fully character, so that interaction with plot weakened his effect. Thus, as the plot progressed, the character became less rich and fulfilling. Ah, well, it was still a good performance to go out on.