Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is that any way to review a movie?

Jim Emerson of Scanners has devoted several video posts to scenes from The Dark Knight in which he hopes to understand better why he dislikes the film and better explain it to those who would disagree with him. One scene in particular, the school bus escape from the bank, has been analyzed, studied and dissected in an attempt to achieve these goals. Some readers like the exercise while others feel it is overkill. I have nothing against a blogger obsessing over details, it is, in fact, what usually draws me in. I like it when I start to notice the same things being focused on again and again, whether it's a genre, a director, an editing style or a time period, by a blogger. It signals to me that they have a passion for the movies, a love of cinema, that cannot be sated by a general overview but by a veritable feast of forensic analysis. The posts by Jim signal that to me as well. It's clear to any reader who happens upon Scanners that Jim has a passion for the movies. But...

The Dark Knight posts keep bothering me. Why? I've made it clear that I didn't like the movie very much so why should I care, especially since the posts are concerned with "exposing" the movie's flaws? And yet, the posts bother me. As a budding filmmaker myself, a photographer and the husband of a successful painter I have my own ideas of what makes art work and how one should judge it. And I can't get away from the nagging feeling that you don't judge a painting stroke by stroke but as a whole. If I focus on the over sized hands and arms of the reader in Edward Hopper's Chair Car, I lose not only the feel of the whole work, but the point of art as well.

It's not about getting that human figure to be perfect in shape and size, it's about the idea the artist is expressing and that is gathered by taking the painting in as a whole, not breaking it down into digitalized pixels. This led me to imagine how one might do the same thing for a fairly celebrated film in American cinematic history, Citizen Kane. I thought it might be a tad difficult, but in actuality, it was rather easy. Given access to a DVD ripper so that one may use whichever scene one desires, anyone reading this post could probably do the same with just about any movie in existence. Let's begin.

First let's take this simple shot. It begins as an exterior shot in which the viewer sees Charlie Kane writing and Jed Leland sitting and dissolves into an interior shot viewing the same two characters from behind. Here's the clip:


Anyone who knows the language of film knows that shot is all wrong. It uses a dissolve for its transition from exterior to interior. When does one use a dissolve? Most often to emphasize the passage of time. When going from exterior to interior without a passage of time one simply cuts to the opposite shot. Okay, but what if Welles actually is implying the passage of time? What if he wants us to understand that Kane has been writing up against the window for a while now? It's still all wrong. Any director worth his salt knows that if one wants to use a dissolve to illustrate the passage of time with the same characters in the same location, then the characters positions must be moved around, for the sake of both aesthetic consideration and to not confuse the viewer. For instance, in the first exterior shot we would see Jed pacing in the background and Charlie sitting at a desk writing. Dissolve to interior as we see Charlie writing against the window and Jed sitting next to him. The passage of time has been effectively communicated. Watch this shot from Casablanca, made in roughly the same time period (within a year) of Citizen Kane. It's a two for one clip in which we first see a dissolve to illustrate the passage of time and then see an exterior shot of Ingrid Bergman on a balcony then an interior shot from the opposite angle as Humphrey Bogart opens a bottle of champagne. Here is the clip:


And there you have it. The dissolve and the exterior/interior cut demonstrated properly by director Michael Curtiz. Am I to believe that Welles was not familiar with this most basic syntax of film language? That he and his editor Robert Wise didn't understand the fundamentals of dissolve transitions? It's difficult to believe and yet there it is. When they were in the editing room, and they had the two shots before them, and knew they had to put them together, they chose to use dissolve for reasons unknown. I could argue from this single scene that Welles and his editor, Wise, were incompetent, or at the very least, poor visual storytellers. It wouldn't be true, but if I choose to isolate my criticism of the film to a series of single scenes, I could do so.

Now let's examine a different part of the movie in which the criticism goes to another criticism of The Dark Knight, heavy handedness. This writer in particular leveled that criticism against it. But look at this scene from Kane. Kane is reading his Declaration of Principles and while doing so is shrouded in shadow. How far down the educational chain would one have to travel (third grade, second, kindergarten?) before finding someone who didn't get the visual metaphor there? I've heard it discussed many times and equally praised. I've rarely if ever heard it mentioned how screamingly obvious it is, how closely it falls in line with amateur writing reaching for obvious metaphor. Here's the clip:


Now let's take a different tack: Visual clutter. The Dark Knight has been accused of this and few movies clutter up the screen like Kane. Is it beautiful or is it a mess? Let's take this clip of what I'll call The Eye of Susan. It's a transition shot from Susan's face at the picnic to a hallway in Xanadu. As the shot dissolves we see Susan's eye replaced with the eye in the stained glass. Here's the clip:


Kane is full of visual treats like this but if it doesn't go towards a better understanding of the story or character, if it serves no purpose, it's just clutter confusing the viewer with too much information. Upon listening to the commentary track of both Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich during this transition it was not surprising to find that neither mention it. Most people never do. Why? Because once mentioned, meaning must be discerned and what does it mean? That Susan who is now about to leave Charlie is all-seeing? That Susan is like artwork built into the house? Neither of those is very convincing and even if they were meant to show that, by this point in the film the relationship of Charles and Susan has been made clear to the viewer without the added clutter.

Finally, let's tackle the ending. Some, including this viewer, found the ending of The Dark Knight to be a bit ham-fisted. This same criticism could be levelled against Kane. Visually, it's beautiful, as the camera pulls back finally revealing thousands of crates awaiting disposal. But listen to the dialogue. It's a classic moment of "gee thanks for the sledgehammer over the head but I think we all got that without you saying it." Here's the clip:


Since this one is dialogue specific, and some viewers may not have sound available on their computer due to their work environment here is the transcript:

Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything... I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a... piece in a jigsaw puzzle... a missing piece.

Dialogue that, with some name changes, could have been lifted straight from a high school term paper on The Great Gatsby.

So there you have it. Citizen Kane is an incompetent mess of a movie. Hammy dialogue, visual clutter, obvious symbolism and baffling editing choices. It's a wonder this movie gets any play at all. Maybe if it weren't for all those Kane fanboys we'd never have even heard of it. What a disaster.

Just as it is important for the reader of A Christmas Carol to understand that Jacob Marley is as dead as a doornail, it is equally important for the reader here to understand that I love Citizen Kane and don't believe a word of what I wrote in the preceding paragraph. But if using individual elements to critique a movie is one's method, then one can elevate or destroy anything. It's too easy. I'd rather see a full review in which the entire movie is taken into account. If you're trying to convince me a movie is not worth my time based on individual scenes you have plucked from the whole then you're not going to convince me. Art is understood from a perspective of the whole. No one praises Van Gogh's Starry Night based on the church steeple alone. No one writes essays about the fourth star from the left. Those two things might get mentioned, especially the steeple as it occupies the center of the frame, but only in the context of the whole. Telling me the school bus escape doesn't make sense doesn't tell me The Dark Knight is a bad movie. It tells me that particular scene doesn't make sense. In the meantime, I've learned nothing about the rest of the film. I've learned nothing about the themes of the film. I've learned nothing about the story, the characters or the plot's development. In short, I've learned nothing except that the critic publishing the piece knows how to pick a scene out of a film to suit his or her purpose. That way lies sophistry. And that's no way to review a movie.