Thursday, February 19, 2009

Second Cousins: Christopher Nolan's Cinematic Offenses

In Mark Twain’s seminal essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (in my opinion the greatest piece of criticism ever written), he lays out the rules that separate good novels from bad novels, but Twain's observations are so pointed that I think we can apply it to art in all mediums--- the thin line that separates good art from bad art, the genius from the hacks, the talented from the un-talented; or, as it were, the cinematically literate from the illiterate. In his latest film The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan manages to violate several of Twain’s ‘rules’ simultaneously:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

As Jim Emerson has been arguing in a brilliantly pointed series of essays, there is simply something unsatisfying about Nolan's compositions, something unbelievable about the spatial dynamics within his frames. Batman Begins, which has a shorter average shot length (1.9 seconds to Dark Knight’s 2.6 seconds) feels far less disjointed. There is an organic flow between the shots, more appropriate matches on action, and the individual elements add up to a satisfying whole. I think both films are a little on the hyperactive side, but there is a fluidity to Nolan's first Batman film that is lacking in his latest. Personally, I find it difficult to get on board with The Dark Knight as a complete entity; the parts that work range from mediocre to excellent, the parts that don’t range from banal to embarrassing. To these eyes, there isn’t anything in The Dark Knight that is as visually dynamic as the first film’s scene in Arkham Asylum, nor as flawless a merging of form and content. The parts of The Dark Knight that I admire (certain images, the use of IMAX, Ledger's performance) feel isolated from the whole; like they stumbled in from a different, much better movie.

Some, on Emerson's website and others, have found his approach to criticizing this film perplexing. I for one find that kind of dialogue about this film, or the medium in general to be fascinating, and I find it most disheartening that people get outraged when the man simply requested that you, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, look directly at the movie. The art of seeing with your eyes. See past the labyrinth plot, the adrenaline pumping score, and look at what its images are saying. I'm not the biggest fan of Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight simultaneously smooths out some of that film's shakier qualities, while also inflating some of its problems to the heights of a Chicago skycraper.

Now, on to the offenses!

Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it

The Dark Knight is a film with what could at best be called a muddled morality. It has been suggested by some that the film deals in shades of gray to avoid the oversimplification of dealing in black and white. The world isn’t painted in strokes so clearly defined, y’see. I’m not entirely sure the film is as morally ambiguous as its proponents have suggested; at the end of the day, Batman is good, the Joker is bad, and Harvey Dent/Two-Face personifies the clash of these forces. I won’t deny that is somewhat of an oversimplification, that the film deals with the moral weight and implications of doing the right thing, but at the end of the day it doesn’t deviate from the standard “protagonist faces challenge” formula that has driven cinematic storytelling practically since its inception. In the best of the comic books, it could be interpreted that The Joker is the real hero and Batman the villain. There is no such moral flexibility in Nolan’s film.

The Dark Knight feigns nihilism and ambiguous morality but, due to the fact that it's a happy meal by its very nature, is forced to pull back the reigns on its philosophical convictions. It takes the concept of the PG-13 rating to its ultra dubious end, preaching thought while practicing the thoughtless. It's an ultra-pontificating teenage boy's movie, tailor made to pump the adrenaline of pubescents. Does The Joker present true anarchy? Of course not. He represents anarchy for the MTV-mindset; endless, heavy-handed preaching that doesn't amount to anything. He's not exactly Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, indulging his id at every passing moment. More like Tyler Durden Jr.

For all of his endless diatribes about chaos and anarchy, The Joker's plans are actually incredibly well thought out and suggest a hugely methodical individual. One of the film’s great ironies is when Joker asks Harvey Dent if he “looks like a man with a plan”, when the fact of the matter is he is a man with a plan, even if he doesn’t look it. Rather, like The Dark Knight itself, the Joker is supremely controlled while preaching, and projecting, chaos. Is Nolan an artist so in touch with his form that he deliberately made a statement on the nature of his methods? I’m not completely sure that’s the case. Rather, he distorts the Batman universe into turgid magical realism--- trying to mythologize and de-mythologize simultaneously. The Joker’s elaborate plans wouldn’t require so much logistical explanation if Nolan hadn’t tried to turn The Dark Knight into a Zodiac-esque document of process. If I have a problem suspending my disbelief with The Dark Knight, it’s because Chris Nolan so insists on grounding his film in reality--- again, reducing the Batman mythos to mere magical realism.

Use the right word, not its second cousin

This is strictly a matter of taste, but I still think it needs to be said. I can't help but feel that, as a director, Nolan doesn't understand the lyricism of images. Every scene--- good, bad, or indifferent feels over before it really began. We could apply that to the film's shot-by-shot visual syntax; every image--- whether good, bad, or indifferent feels gone before it even had an opportunity to register. When the film came out, the most oft-cited of these offenses was the quixotic image of Ledger's Joker dangling his head out of a police car window after his escape from the Gotham Police Department. Again, this is one of the moments when the film's visual language completely crushes its oral language, and all of the themes that Nolan had been handling through his bumbling, ineffective writing style is perfectly expressed through image. But blink and ya miss it! Again, the film is in such a hurry to rush to flick to the next page of panels (that's what the audience paid for, dontchaknow) that it refuses to slow down and enjoy the sights.

Eschew surplusage

This one needs no explanation. Even supporters of the film acknowledge that it’s overwritten. Every character has at least one monologue--- in some cases, several. There isn't a single theme that isn't touched on at least fifteen times through heavy-handed dialogue. Allow me to quote the great David Bordwell (who, thankfully, is not one of the film’s aforementioned supporters):

Then there are the mouths. This is a movie about mouths. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Given Batman’s cowl and his husky whisper, you practically have to lip-read his lines. Harvey Dent’s vagrant facial parts are especially engaging around the jaws, and of course the Joker’s double rictus dominates his face. Gradually I found Maggie Gyllenhaal’s spoonbill lips starting to look peculiar.

The expository scenes were played with a somber knowingness I found stifling. Quoting lame dialogue is one of the handiest weapons in a critic’s arsenal and I usually don’t resort to it; many very good movies are weak on this front. Still, I can’t resist feeling that some weighty lines were doing duty for extended dramatic development, trying to convince me that enormous issues were churning underneath all the heists, fights, and chases.
Like so many films these days, The Dark Knight suffers from being overwritten. I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense that it establishes its themes through dialogue rather than image, dialogue is a perfectly acceptable tool for thematic expression. Rather, The Dark Knight is mostly unconcerned with providing us with alluring images, reverting to a standard and boring shot/reverse shot aesthetic. This is tragic because in certain, fleeting instances the film manages to visually evoke the themes the dialogue distracts from. Nolan has incredible set design that brings to mind Blade Runner or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he does absolutely nothing with it.

He establishes these labyrinths, but doesn’t use them to express any kind of character psychology or emotion. Rather, he reverts to staging all of his dialogue with characters facing each other, doing his tired rendition of shot/reverse shot. This is when the shitburger script is suddenly thrown into center stage. I'm not picking on the technique in any way, I'm saying Nolan's use of it (as with most techniques he employs) is tired and lacking (and I believe deliberately fashioned to be so--- I just feel it was a mistake). Cinema is supposed to give us faces, emotions, and towering imagery, but Nolan thinks providing a sense of wonder and painting a bleak portrait of a dystopic society can't go hand in hand; A.I., anyone?

In his review of The Fountain¸ Matt Zoller Seitz expressed frustration that the film took what he called an “express train to profundity”. In other words, we’re not told why we’re supposed to care about the events and characters on the screen, we’re just told that we’re supposed to care. I feel that The Dark Knight takes a similar approach, constantly reminding us how serious the actions unfolding are, and how much dramatic and thematic weight they carry. It’s shamelessly self aware to the point of pretension. The House Next Door’s Keith Uhlich told me part of his problem with the film is that the film’s characters are symbols first, and the character’s themselves second; and he’s right, the film reduces its characters to clichéd literary types, which gets in the way of any emotional attachment we might have had towards them. There is nothing tragic about the fall of Harvey Dent, because he’s just a personification of the struggle between Batman and The Joker instead of a living, breathing entity. Nolan's cold, calculated, pseudo-intellectual approach to telling this story subverts the human drama brewing beneath the surface.

Not omit necessary details

This is strictly on a plot level, but it’s certainly one of the film’s problems. One of the notable things about The Dark Knight is its labyrinth plot; always moving, always driving forward, never slowing down for a beat. It's really quite relentless, and one feels that Nolan did an extreme amount of tightening up on the finished product. I think he cut out so many part's that don't work, that necessary plot details are simply excluded! When the film was released, many people had expressed confusion as to exactly what in the hell happened during the Harvey Dent/Rachel Dawes kidnapping scene, and their confusion is strictly a result of Nolan's bumbling. The Ramirez family, who is essential to the plot of the Dawes/Dent kidnapping, isn't introduced to the audience until after the fact. Again, I tend to not mind plot holes, and indeed would prefer a film not allow its visual expression be bogged down by semantics, but The Dark Knight puts such an emphasis on its arranged sequence of events that it's a fair criteria for judging it.

The film wants to be grounded in reality, yet all of The Joker's plans--- all of them, are so lacking in logic it's a shame Nolan didn't have more fun with the concept. I mean, of course The Joker arranged for a line of school buses to drive past the bank at the EXACT MOMENT he was pulling out of it. Of course he managed to put a cell phone-bomb inside a convict's stomach in a jail cell. Of course he has connections on the inside that allowed for the Dent and Dawes to be kidnapped while he was being apprehended. Of course he can rig an entire hospital with explosives, disguise himself as a nurse, and waltz right into the District Attorney's private hospital room. Of course he can call a talk-show that doesn't have a call-in format.: he's the fucking Joker, man! In the image of Ledger in a nurses uniform, calmly walking (and dancing a little) away from the piece of orchestrated chaos he's created, the film finds a bizarre, surreal, cheerfully inspired piece of insanity (without a doubt my favorite kind of insanity). Nolan relishes in it (or at least, he relishes in Ledger relishing in it), and this personable moment highlights the lack of personality the rest of the film has (doesn't have?). If the rest of The Dark Knight had thrown caution to the wind so gallantly, I think it would have been a far more effective film.

Avoid slovenliness of form, use good grammar & employ a simple and straightforward style

This is really the heart of what I'm driving at with this post. Nolan films as so many film makers of his generation do--- information contained in individual shots, rapid cutting, etc... There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and there is more than one way (there are infinite ways, perhaps) to put together a film, but that doesn't mean there isn't a right way and a wrong way. His supporters have argued that he deserves a best director nomination--- for what, exactly? (though I'll contend he did a better directing job than Howard, Fincher, et al) From where I'm sitting, Nolan's style is a more refined version of what Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass; it's more elegant than usual blockbuster fare (though never reaching the poetic heights of Spielberg, or even Del Toro), but at the end of the day it's still an MTV-aesthetic, only The Dark Knight plays it in a deliberately somber, dreary manner. It wants so bad for you to take it seriously.

Many have complained about the fight scene in the nightclub, which I'll contend is just downright incomprehensible. But I certainly don't think that's the only example of Nolan's poor directorial choices; take a much simpler scene (in terms of logistics), like the one where Gordon arrests Eric Roberts' character, Maroni (click for larger versions of the screenshots).

The scene begins with a shot of Harvey Dent being interviewed on television. Harvey Dent points off-screen, which is a fairly common (and effective) device for preparing an audience for a reverse shot. I certainly think it's probably the most effective directorial decision in the scene.

This lovely creature is one of Maroni's thugs. As I said earlier, I think this is easily the most interesting cut in the scene, in the sense that it actually works for preparing the audience for the shot to follow. Sure, we're in the 21st century and audiences can 'read' unusual cuts with a fair amount of ease, but that doesn't mean spatial relationships and dynamics should be completely ignored.

Cut to another individual shot of the character of Maroni. We're probably about 30 seconds into the scene at this point, and we still haven't seen a wide shot of the space we're inhabiting. Nolan is in such a rush to pound the next piece of inane, plot driving, thematic hammering piece of dialogue into the audience's skull that he ignores simple, effective directorial choices that could have better fleshed out the drama of this scene. After that first cut, this short sequence is a series of one baffling decision after another. Both times I saw it, it took me out of the movie completely.

This is more or less how Nolan stages all his dialogue and action set pieces. Whether it be individual shots of characters reciting dialogue or individual shots of characters punching or chasing one another, Nolan seems to not be interested in giving the audience a clear concept of where objects and characters are in relation to one another. In a film of this ilk, I think that's tantamount to developing a sense of tension and excitement, as well as a more economic way of developing character relationships and dramatic arks. (what does the way the character's are positioned in the frame say about their relationship to one another?)

Anyway, the shot immediately following that last one of Maroni (the shot shown above is the last frame before the shot cuts) shows Gary Oldman entering the restaurant.

¿Qué? Considering the frenetic pacing of the preceding 40 minutes or so, for all we know the cut to the entrance to the Gangster's Hall could be an entirely new scene beginning. Nolan used points, glances, and gestures effectively during this scene, so I'm confused as to why he would have Roberts looking in the opposite direction to where Oldman is entering. I, for one, found the cut to Oldman's entrance completely jarring. He used close-ups when he should have used a wide shot, and wide shots when he should have used close-ups. It's only after Oldman's entrance that we have even the faintest idea as to what the setting of the scene is comprised of. Simple, effective staging like the following image from Batman Begins is virtually absent in The Dark Knight.

While I think Begins is still a little chaotic (an ASL of 1.9 seconds equals lots of cutting no matter how you look at it), I still think Nolan manages to pull it off, for the most part. Batman Begins is more simplistic, but it's also more effective as a complete entity; which is a shame because, on paper, The Dark Knight seems like the better film (not to say it's script is any good). It's more ambitious, takes on more mature themes, and takes the form of comics seriously (and, no, I don't think that's one of the film's problems at all, you can applaud the concept and still deride the execution). I'm not trying to pick on The Dark Knight in any way, as I admire it in many respects (and enjoyed my two IMAX viewings of it), I just think it is one of those works that really illustrates the difference between a well directed movie and a poorly directed movie. It's a very fine line, and while Nolan is certainly ambitious and has a refined visual sense, I don't think we should mistake that for a discernible visual style. Do all the images serve necessary plot, narrative, and character functions? I certainly don't think so--- most shots exist to solely to give the characters a chance to recite the next piece of heavy-handed, convoluted dialogue that doesn't assist character and thematic development, but rather gets in the way of it.

In spite of all my misgivings with it, I still really do kinda like The Dark Knight. In a loose way, I enjoy all the Batman films (I'll even watch Mask of the Phantasm if I catch it on Cartoon Network), so The Dark Knight, being easily the finest on-screen pairing of comic books' most iconic rivalry (coming from a Superman-man) fits well into the canon of Batman films. It ruminates on iconography in a unique way (the way Batman and the Joker are more playing roles in the world's stage than battling each other), as well as highlighting the psychological depth of the Batman universe. I think it tries too hard to reach those narrative ends, but I appreciate the attempt.

But it's also something else, besides a Batman movie; a genuine, true-blue, out of left-field pop culture sensation. In that sense, it's representative of the way we tell stories in the 00s, so it's an important film, too. I think a closer look at the film's narrative syntax and subtext can tell a lot about the way movies are made today, and what they mean to us. Though, regardless of any problems I may have with it, there's little doubt in my mind that it's better than all of the Best Picture nominees. Put together. Times infinity. Plus one.

My original review of The Dark Knight can be found in the October Issue of Bergen Community College's "The Torch", available online here, page 11.

Some days...


Abu said...

This is simply the most pompous review I have ever read... Odd considering that the author lacks any real knowledge or appreciation for modern storytelling.

Ryan Kelly said...


Emma said...

Yes this movie really worked well even beyond my expectations. Overall quality of this movie is just awesome. I became so excited whenever I read or heard about this movie. Thanks for writing and sharing this excellent review.
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