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:



video


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:



video


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:



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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:



video


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:



video


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.

81 comments:

bill r. said...

Great job, Jonathan. Those Dark Knight posts bother me,too (as does much of Emerson's writing, but I won't get into that), and not just because I happen to like the film. As you correctly point out, Emerson's posts prove nothing, which is kind of the core of my issue with the posts: he's trying to prove his opinion. Which is impossible, and arrogant, and condescending. He's treating the film as a math problem.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill, thanks. The posts on The Dark Knight feel like a stretch to me. When I start to feel that way about a movie in which I agree with the critic then I know something's wrong, at least with my perception. It wasn't until about two nights ago that I finally thought, what's bothering me is that this could be applied to any movie, even Citizen Kane. And then I set out to apply the same critical methods.

I like Scanners a lot and find Jim an engaging blogger so I'm not trying to criticize him unduly. I just find that, as you put it, movie criticism isn't a math problem. You cannot devise a proof for your opinion. I appreciate Jim using multimedia to illuminate his points, but here it feels like he's using the media to prove his points. And that's a different thing altogether.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I won't hammer on Emerson too hard, because I know a lot of people in our circle like him a lot, but he does have a tendency to grab a particular horse and ride it for months -- he does it in a more positive context, too, as seen in his almost endless series on No Country for Old Men. But in cases like that, obviously, it's not nearly as off-putting. His readers may wish he'd change the station, but at least his obsession is leading him to build something up. When his inclination leads him to a film about which he feels less positively, things start to get unfair, and can almost be boiled down to an extended, anilytical and scholarly version of "Movie Goofs". "See?? I found a mistake!"

I get the feeling he's about to shift his attention to Slumdog Millionaire, which I haven't seen, and may hate when I do, but that's the vibe I'm getting.

Neil Sarver said...

I agree, which isn't to say there wasn't something compelling about it as an idea.

But then there is something more complicated.

Now, focusing on the over sized hands in the Hopper painting does lose the point of the painting as a whole, but if I were a person who hadn't appreciated the painting to start out with, would it not be fair to begin and examination of what didn't work specifically in order to come to some understanding of what didn't work in the whole?

I'm not sure. I know we've come to a point where people point out nitpicks about movies and imagine that these dumb little sniggles are what's wrong with the movie instead of the real point which was that they'd already lost interest in the overall story by that point to the extent that they were instead watching for little points to nitpick rather than being swept off by the compelling value of the story.

So, I guess I'm torn on the value of this, or the potential value of it...

bill r. said...

Good point, Neil. So I guess the question is -- or a question is -- did Emerson every write a straight-up review of The Dark Knight? He may have, but I missed it.

Also, I don't know how to spell "analytical".

Ed Howard said...

I generally like Jim Emerson's site a lot, but I agree that these Dark Knight posts are less than convincing. As you proved very nicely, if you analyze any film at the level of isolated scenes, it's easy to pick out moments where the visual storytelling is maybe not as clear as it could be, where the choices don't make sense, where it's a little sloppy. That tells you next to nothing about the film as a whole.

That said, it can be interesting to analyze individual scenes in depth, in order to study how they convey the film's themes, how they relate to the whole, how the aesthetics of a single scene communicate an important idea or emotion in the film. But picking out technical flaws or "goofs" isn't nearly as interesting an act of criticism.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill, that's a good point I didn't really think of, that when it's positive it builds towards a better understanding of the film, when it's negative it seems like an analytical version of Movie Goofs. Usually the problems with a movie for me are in the overall presentation. I found a lot of the setups in The Dark Knight impossible as Jim did, but they didn't bother me. My problem had to do with what I perceived to be as a confused moral stance and taking itself far too seriously. Neither of those criticisms could be effectively demonstrated using clips. I also fully appreciate how one could find the moral confusion and seriousness of the film to be plusses so I also am past the point where I want to hammer the film and it's supporters, especially since you and Kimberly and possibly Neil are among its supporters and you three have my utmost respect.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Neil, I think that's what I was detecting in the posts that I couldn't quite put my finger on. That is, if you don't like a movie then you're going to start looking for little faults. If you don't like Hopper, then you're going to criticize his figures, as they are for the most part, always slightly out of proportion.

In reading Scanners comments, I've noticed that Jim has received this criticism and has accepted that it could be true. I'd be curious about the reverse. If you love a movie, how much of the ordinary is exalted in your mind to the extraordinary?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Ed, I think using video clips to critique a movie in the positive sense, that is, show what it does right or how it conveys a message, is of extraordinary value. But when it's done to illustrate the "badness" of a film it doesn't work nearly as well. There's not a film in existence that doesn't have a flub or a visual miscue somewhere in its running time.

And one thing that has me a tad confused - and remember, I don't like the film - is the criticism that Jim and others seem to be clinging to, that the film is visually incompetent. To me a visually incompetent film jars even the average, non-cinephile viewer. They know, subconsciously, watching it that it doesn't feel right. When the language of film is chopped up into little bits, it doesn't get past anyone. Well, there are plenty of well established and intelligent critics and bloggers who had no problem with the movie visually, including me! So I'm wondering if that has more to do with those detractors distaste for the film overall than with any actual visual evidence.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jonathan: Interesting post, but let me suggest that you’re approaching this from the wrong direction.

You’re looking at Emerson’s small posts as if he’s suggesting that if the finger has a hangnail that the body must be unattractive. Fair enough, perhaps, if you just focus on one of these posts. But actually Emerson is coming at this from the other direction. No, I don’t believe he ever wrote an official review. But since the film came out, he's made some pointed comments about its poor direction. (I don’t have time to go looking for the posts, but I remember reading the statements.) So essentially way-back-when he argued that the body is unattractive and now he’s getting around to defending the argument with some very specific examples.

Is it too much to just look at the bus scene? Perhaps. I thought it was an odd choice, myself, because I agree with Emerson that the direction of “The Dark Knight” is often poor, but the bank/bus scene wouldn’t be the top offender by a long shot. So, again, perhaps a poor example. But here's the thing: I don’t see anything different with what he’s doing here than with what any of us do in a text analysis. We state an opinion, and if we do our jobs correctly we follow it up with some sort of illustrative example. We can’t go through the entire movie, so we try to pick moments that illustrate the point.

Does this mean that the bus scene is the smoking gun? Well, no, unless all Emerson is trying to prove is that The Dark Knight had at least one scene that might have been directed with more clarity. (Though, again, why he didn’t pick something from one of the impossible-to-follow fight scenes is beyond me. Because that’s where there’s oil in the ground.)

Still, I don’t think we should look down on this effort simply because Emerson didn’t go through the entire film scene by scene; that's unrealistic, and we don't hold text reviews to the same demands.

As for the idea that “criticism isn’t a math problem.” Well, to some degree it is. I mean, no, I don’t agree with the idea that just because Emerson could have thought of a better camera angle that it means that Nolan’s direction is a failure. The math problem should be: “Does the scene, as directed, have the intended effect?” If it does long division to get there, does it matter? I say no. But that's me.

The other way criticism is a math problem is to the degree that one attempts to back up one’s analysis with evidence. In other words, "show your work." If you say that you love or loath any film, you’re going to tell me why. Well, that’s what Emerson is doing here. And (without rereading it), I wonder perhaps the biggest problem might be that his post relies to much on someone having read his previous comments on The Dark Knight, which have been revealed here and there at Scanners.

Personally, I’m more charged up about the recent allegation that “Slumdog Millionaire” is the worst directed film of the year. I’m not saying Boyle’s film is a masterpiece. But worst of the year? That’s a pretty bold statement to not back up with more evidence, me thinks.

Sorry for the ramble. To be clear, you raise some great points here. The style of analysis Emerson is using has to be done with care, and maybe that's where he's made his mistake.

bill r. said...

If you love a movie, how much of the ordinary is exalted in your mind to the extraordinary?

My guess is quite a bit, at least in my case. I have no doubt that I did that recently with Gran Torino. There is a very small, throwaway, nothing moment in that film that I absolutely love beyond reason. If I told you what it was, you'd probably think I was crazy even for remembering it, let alone thinking so highly of it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Well, there are plenty of well established and intelligent critics and bloggers who had no problem with the movie visually, including me! So I'm wondering if that has more to do with those detractors distaste for the film overall than with any actual visual evidence.

That last comment – left while I was writing my ramble above – reminded me of something that I meant to say: Jonathan, I know you’re not a fan, but I think in part what Emerson is arguing against with his analyses is the idea that “TDK” fanboys keep offering up all over the Web: “What do you mean TDK was poorly directed? You just don’t like the movie! Look at all the box office records it set. You just have a vendetta against comic book movies!” Etcetera.

I know that you are not saying that above. But I think, for better or worse, that’s the kind of mentality Emerson is attempting to respond to. And one of the things I thought interesting, which he referenced in his last (?) post on the series, is how so many TDK-lovers had a habit of objecting to a critic’s putdown without offering any sort of contradictory evidence.

In other words, if you told me “Gran Torino” is a great film, I’d offer just for one the cringe-worthy scene near the end where the police tell the priest he has to leave with them as evidence that it’s either poorly written or poorly directed or both. Would that mean I’ve “won” the argument? Heavens no. The conversation would have to go on. But what I wouldn’t do – or what any of your readers wouldn’t do – is respond to a statement with the equivalent of: “Nuh-uh. If you don’t like my movie, you must have a vendetta against it!” Or vice versa.

So, again (and I’m rambling once more), perhaps Emerson should have framed his analyses better. Because what I think he’s trying to do is say: “Look, you people have said it’s impossible to find fault in TDK. So now I’m going to just pick a random scene to show you where fault can be found.”

And, let’s remember, he did this exercise by asking people to comment. So it’s not like people didn’t get a chance to argue their side. Anyway, I’ll shut up now.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jason, that's a great overview of the situation. I don't agree that working your way in (starting off stating the body is unattractive and then focusing on the details like a hangnail) is either effective or honest. In other words, the most beautiful person in the world (like me or Bill) can have a hangnail so focusing on the hangnail doesn't prove or back up anything. The sum of art is greater than its parts which is why I always approach films from an emotional standpoint even though I have been criticized at times (on forums mainly) for not being analytical enough. I believe too much analysis misses the forest for the trees.

Now, I do enjoy pointing out technical triumphs and special moments in films that move beyond the expected but when discussing why I don't like a film I prefer to go with the overall theme and execution to explain why. To begin detailing specific moments misses the point.

For example - Let's say the bus scene had not shown the bus fall into perfect line with the others, not shown all the dust, etc. In other words, let's say it was done to Jim's liking. Now, does that mean Jim now likes the movie, if all poorly directed scenes are technically corrected? No, it probably doesn't mean that but Jim has put himself in the position where he should now be satisfied with the film. I on the other hand have not. If all "technical" flaws are "corrected" I still don't like the movie based on it's moral confusion and self-importance. I haven't based my dislike on technical imperfections. Too many detractors have.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill, I can hardly wait to see Gran Torino now just to know what moment you're referring to. But it reminds me of the "have you been talking to me this whole time" moment from Tropic Thunder I mentioned last week. I have no idea why that throwaway moment has endeared itself to me so much.

Ed Howard said...

Jonathan, I agree with you about the "visually incompetent" criticism. Most films, even great ones, use visual "cheats" that might not really make sense if you break it down and think about it shot by shot, but that pass by mostly unnoticed when one is watching the film. And I think it's safe to say that most people have no problems following the bus scene when it's onscreen: it's totally apparent what has happened. No one's sitting there scratching their heads wondering what just happened. For a short scene that's not too important in the grand scheme of things, it does its job. Could it have been done better? Sure. But would the movie really have been improved tremendously if it had been? Most likely not.

bill r. said...

Yeah, but that moment in Tropic Thunder has a specific intent: to be funny, and it succeeds. This moment in Gran Torino isn't like that. I mentioned the moment to my wife last night, and her reaction was "That's nice, honey." And she also really liked the movie.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I maybe didn't read Emerson as closely as some, but my understanding with the scene of The Joker exiting the hospital was to show one part of The Dark Knight that worked well.

The film fell apart for me when Batman saved Vickie Vale or whatever her name was while The Joker is still menacing the guests in Bruce Wayne's penthouse. The film cuts immediately to another scene without any account of what happened with The Joker and company, Wayne's guests, or Harvey Dent locked in the closet.

I didn't hate The Dark Knight but felt by the end of the film that it was overlong rather than epic. Visually, The Dark Knight was for me rather ho-hum compared to the Frank Miller co-directed Sin City, not to mention two comic book style films, Darkman and Robocop.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Ed, that's one of the things that I think Jim has me curious about and I should have asked him in the comments there: Was he actually bothered by that scene as it unfolded? When I saw the film, I do specifically remember thinking, "Well that's ridiculous. God couldn't have planned out that kind of perfect timing," but nevertheless it didn't bother me and I certainly didn't see anything wrong with the camera angle as the bus pulled out. It is a classic tight shot that expands to reveal the big picture. It's been used from Gone With The Wind (shot the ends on the tattered flag) to Touch of Evil (tight shot on bomb to larger reveal of car and town) to All the President's Men (tight shot in Library of Congress to larger reveal of research materials on desk) to probably a few hundred other examples. That shot is one of the basics in the film language arsenal. So I'm at a loss as to why he has a problem with it and the clips have not helped my understanding of it.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill, so even your wife thinks you're crazy. That's not good.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jonathan: Good follow-ups. And I think you do a great job of pointing out why the bus scene isn't a terrific example of what Emerson is trying to argue. So in that sense, I agree with you. I just don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. What he's trying to do here, I'm in agreement with, in theory.

Actually, Peter just makes a better point: I'm also bothered by the random cutaway from the dinner party. What happened there? Didn't Batman go back in to kick some ass? Wouldn't Joker continue to threaten? I hate the way that scene ends. Not enough to hate the movie, which I quite like, thanks mostly to Ledger and a smart application of the score. But if I were pointing out flaws in the filmmaking, that would be one I'd start with...not the bus scene.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Peter, with this part:

The film fell apart for me when Batman saved Vickie Vale or whatever her name was while The Joker is still menacing the guests in Bruce Wayne's penthouse. The film cuts immediately to another scene without any account of what happened with The Joker and company, Wayne's guests, or Harvey Dent locked in the closet.

I see what you're saying but in that scene I simply felt it was understood what happened. The Joker sent Rachel out the window to occupy Batman and then took the opportunity to get the hell out of there. Thus nothing more happens to the guests or Dent. I don't think a filmmaker need show us every excruciating detail of what the characters are doing if the audience can put the pieces together for themselves. In this example, I think the audience understands what happens.

I haven't seen Darkman in years and forgot about it. I'm putting that thing in the queue.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm at a loss as to why he has a problem with it and the clips have not helped my understanding of it.

That's the smoking gun. Just like the film should be about the ultimate effect more so than the mechanics of getting there, criticism should be about getting to a conclusion that seems linked to the evidence (regardless of whether you agree with the conclusion). If Emerson has made an argument that doesn't seem to support his conclusion, the exercise has failed.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jason, I was typing that last comment as you typed yours but it goes to the same scene so I think it applies. I get what you and Peter are saying, I just think it's not necessary to spell it out to the audience.

Geez, I'm starting to sound like a fan of this film aren't I?

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, you are starting to sound like a fan. In this case there's no "right" or "wrong" in the reading of the dinner party scene (your argument is a fair one). But I think even you'd agree that the dinner party scene would make for better evidence of potential "poor direction" than the bank/bus scene. That's my only point here.

Jason Bellamy said...

BTW: WTF?

I've left about 8 comments here today and no Fox. Are we really the same person?

Neil Sarver said...

Yeah, I think Batman Begins, which I liked a lot, and a lot more than I did The Dark Knight, suffers from similar troubles in direction, but works, for me, in spite of them. On the other hand, as I've stated, I think the action in Death Race is very efficient and well put-together, and yet the movie is fairly dull overall.

Ultimately, my issues with The Dark Knight are well covered here, but there's a self-importance that isn't earned through context and story and demands it through over-obvious cries of expositional dialogue explaining its own importance. It also gets way too flaccid in the last 30-45 minutes and I found myself tired and a little bored through that. The trouble with it isn't that it is a comic book movie, but rather that it doesn't want to bother being a comic book movie. It seems to want to be "better" than that, and, in doing so, misses being as great as the genuinely great examples of the genre.

bill r. said...

But I think even you'd agree that the dinner party scene would make for better evidence of potential "poor direction" than the bank/bus scene.

Even I would agree with that, and I'm an actual fan of the film.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Generally, yes, the filmmaker should not have to spell things out for the audience. In the case of The Dark Knight I felt a scene or a piece of exposition was missing. Based on the way The Joker was previously presented, I would have expected him to take advantage of the situation and at least made a mess of Wayne's penthouse and the guests. This is why cutting to the next scene did not make sense to me - all previous scenes indicated that The Joker's exits are accompanied by some form of havoc.

Ed Howard said...

I think everyone, fans and detractors alike, agrees that the ending of the dinner party scene is a real WTF moment. I mean, I loved the film and even I was baffled by that. So I'd certainly agree with Emerson more fully if he was dissecting that scene; I'd have no argument to refute him if he was ripping apart the directorial choices there. But it's still just one scene in a film that, as a whole, works really well for me.

Also, Neil makes a very good point that speaks to the opposite phenomenon: "On the other hand, as I've stated, I think the action in Death Race is very efficient and well put-together, and yet the movie is fairly dull overall." If one is so focused on technical details, what does one do with a film that is technically proficient, even well-constructed, and yet doesn't add up to anything more than that?

Ed Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Bellamy said...

If one is so focused on technical details, what does one do with a film that is technically proficient, even well-constructed, and yet doesn't add up to anything more than that?

Ed, you mean "Benjamin Button"?

Just kidding. Well, only sort of.

Marilyn said...

Without an overall review, I think these potshots are relatively meaningless. A poor sequence must be put in context, build a larger case. As I've said before, while I realize cinema is a visual art, it is one that is married to performance and literary arts. To look at the visual effects of a narrative film (this does not apply to abstract cinema or what I call audition pieces) in isolation is only really useful for those teaching about the visual aspects of the film. That's a film school exercise, not a review of an entire movie.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Neil, I think you sum up my feelings on the film. I've previously stated them here but you save me the trouble of restating them. That is pretty much how I feel. As a result, I wouldn't use any technical arguments especially since, as you say, many films are technically perfect and yet still lacking something.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jason, Neil, Bill, and Peter - You're right about the dinner scene but it didn't bother me very much.

Peter said, This is why cutting to the next scene did not make sense to me - all previous scenes indicated that The Joker's exits are accompanied by some form of havoc.

That's true as well and I didn't take that into account. I agree that Jim would be much better served using this scene but even so, how would it go to demonstrating anything other than a poor choice for ending that particular scene?

Jonathan Lapper said...

To look at the visual effects of a narrative film (this does not apply to abstract cinema or what I call audition pieces) in isolation is only really useful for those teaching about the visual aspects of the film. That's a film school exercise, not a review of an entire movie.

Marilyn, you're right, it's like dissecting a sentence or paragraph from a novel as a way of exposing it as a poor piece of work. Breaking down the grammar may be useful in a writing class as an example of how to do or not to do something but not as a critique.

I feel Jim is using this in lieu of a review and that's where I think he's going about it the wrong way.

Marilyn said...

He aspired to be Kevin Lee.

bill r. said...

Ultimately, the dinner scene didn't bother me all that much, because you can reasonably assume what happens. That doesn't mean Nolan wasn't sloppy here, but if a weak moment in a film can be explained logically, I tend to let it pass. It's when weak moments change the course of the story in a way that tighter storytelling wouldn't that I begin to have serious problems.

Jonathan Lapper said...

He aspired to be Kevin Lee.

Hey that reminds me, my Billy Bragg Power in a Union video got removed about four days ago. I thought it was funny, being a video about the power of the worker and using a song by Billy Bragg, an artist who has expressed that he has no problem with bootlegs or downloads. I mean, of all videos, that's the one that gets nixed. Oh the irony. Apparently Warner Music Group was not amused, or moved by my Labor Day video.

Jonathan Lapper said...

That doesn't mean Nolan wasn't sloppy here, but if a weak moment in a film can be explained logically, I tend to let it pass.

Yes, I agree. It's just not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. None of it gets to the real reasons, such as though discussed by Neil and myself, why one might dislike the movie or why one might like it. It's just technical nitpicking.

Jason Bellamy said...

None of it gets to the real reasons, such as though discussed by Neil and myself, why one might dislike the movie or why one might like it. It's just technical nitpicking.

Wait. That's a dangerous conclusion. If Emerson didn't respond to the scene for any reason, that's a valid reason. If the cuts take him out of the film, they do. No different than if a movie fails because of its story or acting or anything else.

If the charge is that Emerson is nitpicking, then he's nitpicking. But technical nitpicking is no different than any other kind. If you've ever raved about a movie by talking about a great camera angle or movement, then you've liked a film based on its technical approach. Thus you're just as free to dislike it based on its technical approach.

This is kind of my point: All the time we talk about movies we love and we mention specific scenes or performances. These smaller units are evidence of a larger feeling. Likewise, if I tell you I love "The Fountainhead," I shouldn't have to read you every sentence but should be able to find sentences that illustrate what I love about it. You wouldn't call picking out those segments I like a useless critique, so the reverse shouldn't be considered useless either.

Underneath it all, I see two things here: (1) a misconception about how Emerson is approaching this project; (2) the idea that technical decisions are of less importance than, say, story, screenplay or acting.

The first one is probably Emerson's fault; he should frame his arguments more clearly. The second one I just disagree with on principle.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Wait, that's a dangerous conclusion.

I hope I didn't hurt anybody. But seriously, you said, "the idea that technical decisions are of less importance than, say, story, screenplay or acting."

If that is your conclusion than the blame lay with me. I have certainly made it seem that way but I am not saying that technical details are of no less import. I use technical details myself when praising a film and when panning it.

I guess my point throughout has been that I don't see what Jim is doing with the bus scene as having anything to do with a further understanding of the film. It seems disconnected from the rest of the movie and doesn't form a cohesive criticism of anything except that the classic tight to wide shot used since the days of Griffith is somehow suddenly unacceptable when used in a movie that one does not like.

That's what I'm seeing here. I know Jim, like me, does not like the movie but he's critiquing things that I don't find persuasive as to the movie's quality one way or the other. Like if I said I didn't like Superman. Why? Because the nuclear warheads are clearly shot in front of a rear projection screen. Huh? What? What the hell's that got to do with anything? The rear projection shot, just like the tight to wide shot, is a staple of most movies made up until CGI was introduced. It's a type of shot and neither here nor there as to the movie's quality. The bus scene doesn't reveal anything. Maybe it all comes down to the fact that the bus scene is just a poor example to start with.

Jason Bellamy said...

I hope I didn't hurt anybody.

Nope. I mean, I feel like I've been hit by a school bus. But from this camera angle, who can tell?

But seriously ...

OK. This last post has me feeling that we're on the same page. I thought we were midway through the conversation, and then that "real reasons" comment made me wonder.

I'm witcha.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jason, I think you've brought excellent arguments to the table and made me rethink my position several times. I've enjoyed the give and take of the debate.

Neil Sarver said...

Yes, I've enjoyed this quite a bit. There certainly elements to both sides of the argument with which I have sympathy.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Yes, I can see a little bit more now of what Jim was attempting, though I still don't think it was done in the most advantageous way for his argument.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Film criticism should be the beginning or continuation of a discussion rather than the final word.

Neil Sarver said...

I agree with Peter.

Except of course when it criticism by me. In that case it should be the final word. Like Moses come down from the mountain to decree the quality of any given movie.

Jonathan Lapper said...

No I'm the final word. And that's final!

bill r. said...

I win!

jim emerson said...

Hi Jonathan:

I agree with Peter (above): This was my attempt to have a meaningful discussion about this movie, which since the day of its release has been discussed almost entirely in vague generalities ("It's great!" ("No, it's incoherent!" "No, it's great!"). I thought the best way to make my points about the film was to show a piece of the movie, look at it closely, illustrate my point of view, and open it up for discussion. I put the evidence right on my site, where everybody could see it, replay it, and talk about it in detail -- so we all knew what we were talking about. I learned a lot from the experience, too. (And I must point out when I said the bus escape shot felt cramped to me -- I was right: Turns out the image had been cropped for 35mm and DVD, which is the way I had seen it.)

I understand why bill r. would feel it's an attempt to "prove an opinion" or treat a movie as a "math problem" -- and that's one way of looking at it -- but this was an experiment, using the unique properties of blogging technology, to give everybody a chance to talk about what was right there, on the screen, in the movie. Some people didn't like my choice of example. Some thought my approach was arrogant (and I think my tone sometimes was, because I became so frustrated with those who responded as though the subject itself was simply the idea of disagreement -- something that has little or nothing to do with the practice of actual film criticism).

I may, or may not, respond to your specific examples over at my place. For now I'll just say that comparisons are tricky. You may make them for particular reasons, but not for the ones I would. It can end up being apples and oranges...

bill r. said...

Hello, Jim.

Er...no offense? Too late for that?

In all honesty, I like the idea of using the technology in the way you did, but maybe your focus is a little too narrow. Maybe expanding the idea to encompass an entire scene would have gotten your point and intent across better. Just an idea...

Krauthammer said...

I know this conversation has kind of died down, but it's fascinating and I couldn't leave without leaving my two cents.

First, I do like Jim Emerson in general and I wouldn't have found any of the film blogs that I frequent now unless he had linked to a SLIFR quiz a few years ago, so I can never really dislike him. However I have started to going to his blog less and less, and it's stuff like this that's been doing this.

The problem isn't that he's using technical aspects to critique the film, I'm actually more interested in that than almost anything else, but nothing that he's done has convinced me that it's really a bad shot, it may not be the BEST shot for the situation, but it's a perfectly fine one. I had some problems with the directing, although I generally like Nolan, but that wasn't one of them.

I don't think that the whole technical "nitpicking" thing is a bankrupt idea though. If I wanted to critique Transformers, for example, I would start out on how terrible I thought the movie was, incomprehensibility, ect. Afterwards I would show a clip of the movie, say, the actual battles, and then further complain about the editing techniques. I would think this is perfectly valid, the point is not just to nitpick, but to show that their are enough nits for it to be called an infestation.

Krauthammer said...

Oh god, now that you are actually here my comment looks all impersonal and mean. Sorry.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jim, thanks for taking the time to check out the post (Bill's such a jackass isn't he?).

As I wind through the comments here I've noticed a few things. One, there's this, written by me to Jason: Jason, I think you've brought excellent arguments to the table and made me rethink my position several times. I've enjoyed the give and take of the debate.

Jason did indeed make me rethink my position and I admit, I did this exercise as a way to understand my position. It's why I blog. And Peter is right, which is why I feel I'm closer to understanding this than I was before. I still think you used an example that didn't work for me but if it worked for you then I guess that's all that matters.

I didn't think you were being arrogant at all by the way. I think we all are in agreement here that we would like to see you discuss the penthouse scene instead as it would be harder for a fan to rebutt. After all, Bill, who is a fan, even said the scene had a messy, incomplete conclusion.

As for using the technology, it's one of the things I love about blogging. Instead of saying to someone, "Well I could do that to, with Citizen Kane," I was instead able to actually do it. I know it's apples and oranges, but I wanted to show how that kind of exploration could be misleading. I don't think yours is by the way but I would like to see a deeper analysis of what you felt was wrong perhaps using several examples that also deal with character and story.

Thanks again for stopping by.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Krauthammer, I like Jim too, a hell of a lot. I wrote this in the second comment of the thread: I like Scanners a lot and find Jim an engaging blogger . I hope everyone, including Jim, hasn't gotten the idea that I don't like him. Scanners is the first movie blog I ever read and I still read it regularly.

And throughout this comment thread I have conceded that this is indeed a useful way to critique a movie if done correctly. I think my main problem was the schoolbus scene didn't feel like the right scene to do it with which I've said several times here today. I'd like to see Jim tackle some of the other scenes that have more than f/x snafus working against them and have character problems as well (like the Joker leaving the penthouse without wreaking havoc).

Fox said...

What's "The Dark Knight"?

Krauthammer said...

What's "The Dark Knight"?

One of those newfangled "superhero flicks" you know, with "biff" and "pow" on the screen and themed villains and cotton candy colors.

It stars cat-guy or puma-person or some such rubbish. I dunno. Doesn't look any good.

jim emerson said...

No offense taken. Those other aspects of the movie (character, dialog, thematic development) are absolutely worth addressing -- and many of them I did address when the movie was first released in theaters (and I linked to them within my newer posts). When it came out on DVD I took the opportunity to look closely at individual images and sequences, and the ways they were put together, that had bothered and/or confused me when I first saw the movie. (No, these posts were in no way to be considered comprehensive treatments of the entire film, or "reviews" of it -- that's exactly the approach I was trying to move away from. One approach does not negate or replace the value of the other.)


What I found was that the more narrow and specific I tried to make my criticism of this one shot, the more people got distracted from what I thought I was trying to say, which was: Look at all the things this shot brings up. Consider which are important to you and which are not, and why. I gave my own reading(s), but basically I was trying to look at it as an action spectacular and show why it was less spectacular than it might have been. I tried to show exactly what I thought worked and didn't work in that bus escape shot, and it had everything to do with style and camerawork -- only incidentally to do with plot. There's a lot going on in the shot (framing, camera movement, soundtrack, choreography of vehicles). Why not look at it closely and examine what is suggested by all the directorial decisions that went into it -- from the yellow taxis to the addition of schoolchildren's voices on the soundtrack? That's a valid form of criticism -- and a really exciting one for me. Why not look at the use of color and the use of perspective in the Hopper painting, or the church steeple and the arrangement of stars in the Van Gogh? Those are key elements of the compositions. (The difference there, of course, is that the "TDK" posts weren't considering a still frame, but movement over time, and the style is photorealistic unlike Hopper or Van Gogh, so I don't think Jonathan's particular comparisons are quite valid.

OK, just a couple more notes: The "Citizen Kane"/"Casablanca" dissolves are doing completely different things. One is repeating a visual pattern that's established in the opening sequence of "Kane": a dissolve acting like a camera movement to take us from outside a window into the room behind it. The other is a traditional lapse in time, to another time and place.

Also, Jonathan, I'm not sure what it is you mean to say about the "Declaration of Principles" and Kane in shadows when he reads it. That's a complex and ambivalent scene, I think, a mixture of idealism, megalomania, foreshadowing of betrayal. And, if I recall, it's Jed's memory -- filtered through what he knows came later.

And I would not say that dissolve of Susan is a "mess" or "cluttered" just because the stained glass window has intricate patterns. As you say, it's a simple dissolve -- and a match dissolve on the eye. I don't recall anything like that in "TDK." I'd say it's "messy" in other ways, though -- as in action/chase sequences where you don't know where the participants are in relationship to one another from shot to shot. That's something I'd argue is crucial if you're trying to build suspense in a chase sequence. Maybe Nolan was trying to so something else, but what? Again, we can disagree about what the sequence accomplishes, but first let's look closely at what it actually does, not just the impressions we took away from it. I don't think that's unfair or unreasonable.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jim, I've probably caused a bit of confusion with the Citizen Kane clips. I was simply trying to make the point that one could use almost any clip from any movie and work it for or against their opinion of what makes a good scene. I don't actually dislike any of the scenes I highlighted, I was just playing devil's advocate.

However, I was not playing Devil's Advocate blindly. So for the Declaration of Principles scene, I have always viewed casting Kane in shadow as he reads his principles aloud as an obvious visual way of saying, "He has no principles. He's in the dark on this because they don't actually mean anything to him." Obscuring a character physically who is stating their principles does seem a bit obvious to me, and not very ambivalent.

And I don't think the character of Kane is remarkably different depending on whose memory it is. I think Mankiewicz and Welles wrote the character of Kane, then divided up his story among the characters for flashback sequences. At least that's how it feels to me. Bernstein is his most beloved acolyte and his memories don't serve Kane any better than anyone else's. In fact, he's a jackass to Thatcher in Bernstein's memories and to Leland.

The "Citizen Kane"/"Casablanca" dissolves are doing completely different things. One is repeating a visual pattern that's established in the opening sequence of "Kane": a dissolve acting like a camera movement to take us from outside a window into the room behind it. The other is a traditional lapse in time, to another time and place.

Just because a movie repeats a visual cue doesn't mean it is used correctly. The earlier dissolve in Kane takes place outside his mansion as the light source is replaced in his room. The dissolve works there as not conditional to time passage because the light fades in the exterior view then comes back up in the interior view. Without a dissolve there I think the shutting off of one light and turning on of another might have made it seem like we were now in a different room than the one we were looking at. Therefore, I think a dissolve, slowing fading down one and bringing up the other, aided the viewer in keeping the time and place in their heads. I don't personally believe the office building exterior/interior shot is repeating this but I may be wrong. What is the point of the repeat? Kane dies in the first one and his story begins. Now we're at the point where he has a newspaper. Why repeat the motif here? What does it mean? It seems like an unnecessary dissolve to me.

As for the Casablanca dissolve that's my point in the piece. It's used as a time lapse between two different places and times. That was my point, that that is primarily the use of a dissolve transition, not going from exterior to interior, but for the passage of time. I was saying that Casablanca's usage makes sense, Kane's does not.

As for Susan's eye, well, that was pure baloney on my part. I think that shot is wonderful. I was just trying to think of something I could use in relation to too much going on visually and that's the best I could come up with.

Now then, since I haven't done a lot of commenting on TDK since I saw it so late I should clear up for you that I did not like it for most of the reasons you didn't. This for example, I'd say it's "messy" in other ways, though -- as in action/chase sequences where you don't know where the participants are in relationship to one another from shot to shot. That's something I'd argue is crucial if you're trying to build suspense in a chase sequence. Maybe Nolan was trying to so something else, but what? I think is quite accurate. I hope you don't think I was trying to mount a defense of TDK with this piece. I was just trying to critique your method of critiquing it. Which gets us into head-spinning meta-critical posting.

That's what this post was all about: critiquing your method of critiquing, for better or worse. I said in the post but it bears repeating, I love Citizen Kane and was using it because it's such a shining example of moviemaking. And I've had a very informative time of all this. I think I'll engage in more meta from now on.

Jonathan Lapper said...

The difference there, of course, is that the "TDK" posts weren't considering a still frame, but movement over time, and the style is photorealistic unlike Hopper or Van Gogh, so I don't think Jonathan's particular comparisons are quite valid.

And before I forget, I think the analogy stands. I realize its not a frame you're considering but a whole scene but at the same time I'm not considering a single dot of paint but a whole "scene" (the steeple, the star) of the painting. My analogy there was simply to say that the work as a whole should be taken in first then deconstructed piece by piece later. However, as you have indicated in your replies here, you did in fact discuss the work as a whole first and then began your deconstruction. My mistake in missing that.

MovieMan0283 said...

Just to jump in here, like a vulture on the mostly-devoured corpse, I don't have much to offer on The Dark Knight, which I enjoyed, but whose direction was rather pedestrian and occasionally sloppy.

However...

"And I don't think the character of Kane is remarkably different depending on whose memory it is. I think Mankiewicz and Welles wrote the character of Kane, then divided up his story among the characters for flashback sequences."

While the flashbacks are roughly chronological, there is a definitely different feel to each segment. For the most part, Kane is presented as a crusading, admirable, lovable guy in Bernstein's recollections - you may have noted an exception but (as you said of Emerson's technical criticism) I think it's mistaking the part for the whole. Indeed, one of the elements of Kane I've always enjoyed is the way the memories are colored by the people remembering. For all the discussions of this or that trick Welles has used, and for all my affinity to formalism (little in evidence on my blog for a veriety of reasons) it's always been Kane's screenplay which has engaged me the most.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Movieman, it is a great screenplay, no doubt. I guess I'm saying I don't see radical changes between the memories like one gets with Rashomon, more of a very slight difference. I still think Mank wrote the script straight through, with Houseman keeping a watchful eye on him, and then did minor tweaking to make Kane fit the memory of the teller just a bit, but I don't think it's overwhelming.

However, that doesn't mean it's pointless. Here's what I think is important about the flashbacks: they don't, in my opinion, present a very different picture of Kane each time because I believe it's mainly an omniscient narrator. For instance the first wife isn't in on the interviews and yet we get the breakfast table scene recounted in a flashback, a scene no one could have witnessed. But they give the speaker (Susan, Jed, Mr. Bernstein) a chance to "reveal" themselves to the viewer through their comments to Mr. Thompson. And I think that those bits are invaluable to understanding the characters and story.

Rick Olson said...

Jonathan -- I wasn't party to yesterday's comment stream, they always seem to happen when I can't spend time on the computer, but a few observations:

First, I really like shot and scene analysis. I like to see how the choices the director/sound-designer/cinematographer etc. makes conveys the message, even if it's a message they did not intend. It's why I've done it several times over at my place.

Second, I thought you did a great job of it, and hope you do some more. You're pretty good at it.

I don't think the scene in the shadows is as complex in intention, at least, as Jim makes it out to be. What's up there on the screen -- i.e., "the art" -- is another matter.

Third, when will "The Dark Knight" die? Can't we just admit it was a flick many folks liked and some didn't, and let it go? Discussion about it always devolves into the same well-worn ruts. I appreciated Jim's original posts because at least they didn't travel in them quite so assiduously.

Great post.

Rick Olson said...

did I really just say "assiduously?"

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thanks Rick, I'd like to do more and expressed the desire to do so in a comment not yet posted on Jim's response post on Scanners.

I think using a scene from a movie is very helpful and this whole exercise has made me excited about the prospects of doing more, both in forms of metacriticism and simply analyzing scenes from movies to gather information and understand the art better.

And The Dark Knight is pretty much dead at this point I think. It will be overrated for a while, then the backlash will underrate it for a few years, then it will be rediscovered and overrated by a new generation of bloggers 20 years from now and then finally it will settle in to it's inevitable place as a good, solid action movie that some liked and others did not.

Jonathan Lapper said...

did I really just say "assiduously?"

No, you wrote it.

Arboghost! said...

I'm coming late to this discussion and skipping all 66 comments (well, except Bill's initial one, because I'm drawn to Bill R. like moths are drawn to wool coats) to say that this is the very kind of wide perspective criticism I love. It's broad-minded and honest and in this case hammers home its message with Bugliosi-like precision.

And you want to give up blogging.

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?

Okay, in this case you are as naive as a fucking 2 day old baby. Grab 100 people off any street (well, not any Manhattan street) and I doubt if five of them would get that subtext. Your point is well made to us, but I think that kind of shadowing goes over the heads of most moviegoers.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Arbo, I'm glad you liked it. I don't think Jim liked it very much but I understand where he's coming from (it does feel like an attack which it wasn't intended to be). And as I said in my yet to be published comment on the post Jim did about this post at Scanners, it was all just an exercise, a way to show that one could take any movie and "expose" it's flaws through careful picking and choosing. But I think a few people actually thought I was attempting an honest takedown of Citizen Kane.

Okay, in this case you are as naive as a fucking 2 day old baby.

Waaaaaaa!!!! Waaaaaaaa!!!! Seriously, though, I prefer the term "toddler." Maybe I am being naive, I don't know. Principles, cast in shadow... seems pretty obvious to me but maybe to a non-cinephile it doesn't and works on a subconscious level. Doesn't matter though, I think it's brilliant either way, despite my put-on in the post.

Rick Olson said...

No, you wrote it.

Same thing, my friend.

Also, I think that if Emerson didn't like it, he should grow up. Part of the blogging thang is riffing on other peoples' posts, and if one bothers you, you have every right to say so.

Just wait till you see what I write about your horrible abuse of that cinematic classic, Citizen Klute. I've already petitioned the International Society for Self-Important Cinephiles (the ISSIC, if youb must know) to revoke your junior cinephile badge. And you were doing so well, too.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Actually, Jim, if you're reading this, that's just Rick joking. Boy, he's a jokester.

When I say Jim didn't like it, I meant I don't think he really agreed with the conclusions but he's definitely okay with anyone taking him to task on something.

And you know there are many young cinephiles out there who will use this post as proof that Kane really is a bad movie. I hope they don't but I have a feeling they will.

Anyway, you can have my badge. I've joined the newly formed Society of Erudite Film Elites. We spend most of our time talking about how so many people are fooled by that fraud Renoir. Being elites, we know better.

Arboghost! said...

When you're done taking Jim to task, can you take me to Walgreens? I'm about out of gingko.

bill r. said...

I'm drawn to Bill R. like moths are drawn to wool coats

In her wedding vows, my wife said that she was drawn to me like "flies to shit", which, at the time, I considered the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to me. But now Arbo throws out this "moths to wool coats" thing, and I'm positively swooning.

Rick Olson said...

When I say Jim didn't like it, I meant I don't think he really agreed with the conclusions but he's definitely okay with anyone taking him to task on something.

Oh, ok. That's actually been my observation, as well.

In that case, I WAS kidding, Jim.

PIPER said...

Dammit,

I came to this party way late. Fox is passed out in the corner and Bill has eaten all the cashews from the Chex Mix.

This is really a wonderful post. I know you've gone back and forth on your stance, but I respect it.

I myself am a big fan of scenes in movies. I often find myself revisiting a movie, not for it's whole but for it's parts. And for that reason I use scenes to elevate a film rather than to expose it's ugly parts. But that's not to say that can't be done.

For example, Gangs of New York is a mess of a movie. But damn if that scene with Day Lewis sitting in the rocking chair wrapped in a flag isn't one of my favorites of all time.

Anyway, what bothers me is all the chitty chatty about The Dark Knight. It was an entertaining film. I enjoyed it with my son and some friends and the popcorn was good and not too salty. The fact that people have elevated this film to the level that they have, to debate its merits other than to say it was a good or a bad blockbuster, is a statement about the state of film in general.

To argue for why it was brilliant or a failure seems like a waste of good quality time. Time that should be spent on films more deserving.

bill r. said...

I myself am a big fan of scenes in movies

I agree, scenes in movies are great.

Time that should be spent on films more deserving.

But what if...oh, never mind. No way am I getting sucked into one of these again.

Jonathan Lapper said...

To argue for why it was brilliant or a failure seems like a waste of good quality time. Time that should be spent on films more deserving.

I know what you're thinking Piper: Revenge of the Nerds. Don't worry, I'm on it.

When you're done taking Jim to task, can you take me to Walgreens? I'm about out of gingko.

I've got some extra gingko I found on the floor the other day. You can have that.

Bill, flies to shit, moths to wool - you must feel like the most adored man on Earth right now.

Rick, I'll take you to task later. And that's no joke! Or is it?

PIPER said...

If you could do another post like this about the pantie raid scene in Revenge Of The Nerds, it would be much appreciated.

If you're going to Wallgreens, I need some Emergen-C. Raspberry please.

bill r. said...

And a big bag of heavily discounted Christmas candy. Also, if they have any DVDs that feature 14 Lee Van Cleef movies on one disc for three dollars, get me one.

Ezra said...

About the Joker leaving the party:

In the original script, there is a brief scene showing the Joker leaving the party, immediately after Batman goes out the window. The Joker is seen to muse to his goons something to the effect of, "would Batman jump out the window for just anybody?"

As we know, they cut it. A wise decision, imo, because although it would have cleared up the question of "what did the Joker do at the party after Batman left?" which apparently was irking some people, it only re-iterates information we already have. Clearly it was written with the intention of making it plain why the Joker switched the addresses of the places where Rachel and Harvey were kidnapped to, i.e., that the Joker suspected a relationship between Batman and Rachel, but we already have that information. The Joker figured it out based on what he saw at the party, and we saw everything he saw, so we ought to have been able to figure it out as he did.

Stephanie Zacharek criticized that alleged plot hole, and also the movie's decision not to show Rachel and Harvey being abducted. Her claim was that not showing their abductions was an example of "slipshod" filmmaking, which I suspect Emerson would agree with. But it seems to me that this abduction scene would have been essentially filler, boilerplate. There's no room for any character to make a choice in that scene if they had shot it, so it couldn't be anything more than the sort of time-wasting that in many movies constitutes something like fifty percent.

That brings to something I liked about the Dark Knight from a story-structure standpoint, and why I think those who complain about it being confusing are missing the point. TDK seems to go considerably beyond normal in removing absolutely every scene that is not 100% essential. The cost is that it becomes harder to follow. What I think Zacharek is really saying, when she says the decision to leave out the abduction scenes is "lazy," is that not every piece of information was spoon-fed to her ahead of time. For instance, at a number of points, we the viewers don't learn facts until after the characters do, which is the exact opposite of 99% of movies, where the audience always knows more than the characters.

Also, practically all action movie revolve around a single "scheme." Goldfinger wants to blow up Fort Knox, for instances, and the entire movie is devoted to Bond trying to discover and then foil this one scheme. That gives it a basic unity. The Dark Knight isn't like that. Instead, it's unfolds as a series of cause-and-effect decisions. There's no easy unification point, no one scheme to keep events linked. This gives it that messy or chaotic feel. This messiness had nothing to do with the Joker being some "agent of chaos"--the same plot structure, the series of cascading decisions, could be made to work in any movie. (For instance, "Ronin" works much the same way, except it has a macguffin for a unification point.) Anyway, the point is that TDK did some unusual things, especially for an action movie, which many critics did not seem to appreciate.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Ezra, I don't know if you got a chance to read through all the earlier comments (I know there are many and they're long so if you didn't I understand) but when the Joker exiting the penthouse without explanation was brought up earlier I replied:

I see what you're saying but in that scene I simply felt it was understood what happened. The Joker sent Rachel out the window to occupy Batman and then took the opportunity to get the hell out of there. Thus nothing more happens to the guests or Dent. I don't think a filmmaker need show us every excruciating detail of what the characters are doing if the audience can put the pieces together for themselves. In this example, I think the audience understands what happens.

So I agree with you. Whatever problems I may have with TDK that scene isn't one of them. I think it's understood what happens and don't think Nolan needs to show us.

And it does not have a unifying plot point you are correct. My problems had more to do with its heavyhandedness. It took itself very seriously but the dialogue felt hammy. It didn't match the weight of the characters. Everyone spoke in high-school level profundities instead of the kind of reflective exploratory dialogue many aspects of this movie demanded. If they're going to take themselves so seriously then should have the characters better equipped to handle it. That was my main problem. It wanted to be a serious exploration of ethics in a time of war or crisis but threw out little aphorisms instead of producing a real conversation between characters on the subject. All in all, I think it missed the opportunity to be the great movie that so many think it is.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ezra: Good thoughts. I agree with you that Zacharek’s quibble (as you’ve reported it) doesn’t amount to “slipshod” filmmaking. But comparing what they didn’t show at the end of the party with what they didn’t show of the abduction seems like apples an oranges to me, because those plot exercises work differently.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a romantic drama: A guy has fallen in love with a girl and shows up at her doorstep to tell her. In the scene, the girl opens the door and finds the guy soaked head to toe. Now, we never watched him go out in the rain without an umbrella, but we can deduce immediately that’s what happened. So we know that he’s willing to walk through the rain for this woman, and then we watch as the motivation for the scene is fulfilled: the man professes his love to the woman.

Now let’s imagine the same guy, only this time we see him in his apartment before he decides to leave to tell the girl he loves her. He opens his front door and realizes it’s raining. He goes back inside, and he discovers that he doesn’t have an umbrella. And now the scene ends. Well, what does he do? Does he go through the rain to profess his love? Does he decide it isn’t worth it? Does he just pick up the phone instead? If we never see him get to the woman’s doorstep, the character’s motivation for action isn’t fulfilled.

So, back to The Dark Knight. The point of the abduction isn’t the procedure itself, it’s the result. So we don’t need to see the abduction any more than we need to watch the guy walking umbrella-less through the rain, so long as we see him on the doorstep. But in the party scene, the motivation of the Joker is to find Harvey Dent. He arrives at the party. He torments people. He doesn’t find Harvey Dent. Then Batman shows up. Batman’s motivation is to stop the Joker. So the Joker throws Rachel out of the window, and temporarily rids himself of Batman. Then the scene ends. The Joker’s motivation hasn’t been resolved. Batman’s motivation hasn’t been resolved. Since the movie has informed us that these motivations are What This Scene Is About, when the movie cuts away without resolving either of those mini-plotlines, it inspires a “Wait, what the fuck?!” reaction that momentarily takes us out of the drama.

I don’t disagree with your characterization of the Joker’s multi-scheme (or anti-scheme) plot. When you look back on the scene, does it need a resolution? No. Not really. But as it unfolds, the lack of a resolution comes off strangely, almost as if a clip of the action is missing. It’s as if the film showed Alfred searching around Gotham in order to ask Bruce Wayne a question, only to have the film cut away before the question gets asked.

Does this lack of motivation fulfillment bring down the film? No. But does it break the continuity of the dramatic tension, at least momentarily? Well, it did for me. Just sayin'.