American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In "In the Cut Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)," I sought to pinpoint any and all possible reasons for the confusion I've always felt while watching part of an action sequence in "The Dark Knight." Some dismissed it as nitpicking (which is their prerogative), that criticism should be limited to looking at a movie in real time. But I felt I should go beyond the familiar critical generalizations ("Adjective!" "Adverbly adjective!") and try to locate precisely what I found disorienting and understand why I found it that way.
A few others, unfortunately, became confused about what I actually said or did not say in the 19-and-a-half-minute video, so I thought, for the record, I should publish a transcript to make it easier to reference. (Then I can just send links to those who misunderstand or misrepresent.) I don't write out a script for these essays -- I watch the movie, record what I want to say and then edit my remarks. So this, to the best of my ability, is an annotated transcription (with certain passages in bold for emphasis) of the narration in the finished video:
TITLE: "It's quite easy to over-cut a sequence: make it visually exciting and lose track of what is happening and who the characters are....
"Where you can't follow action, it's not just action, it's the whole movie you can't follow. Action is very difficult, it has to be very carefully planned and conceived."
-- Lee Smith, editor ("The Dark Knight," "Inception"), interviewed in The Australian, October 30, 2010
[More from that interview here.]
NARRATION: The thing is, what he's talking about there is, I think, one of "The Dark Knight"'s most painfully obvious shortcomings. Its visual grammar is a mess and sometimes that results in scenes that are just incoherent.
So, when I saw that quote about action from the editor of "The Dark Knight," I thought maybe I should go back and take a close look at one of the movie's most famous action sequences and look at it like an editor, and try to figure out what information was being conveyed, shot by shot, and what it was that maybe I was missing...
In the Cut
Piecing together the action sequence
Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)
TITLE: "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." -- Martin Scorsese
NARRATION: Spoken like a true filmmaker. Because when it comes down to it, a filmmaker has two tools to convey information visually: composition and cutting.¹
Ultimately, everything about the movie -- the characters, the story, the emotions -- all come down to what is inside the frame, what's left out of the frame, and the associations that are made between different shots, as they're all pieced together. Compositions, angles, camera movements -- they take on different meanings depending on their relationships to the other shots around them. So, something that maybe isn't in the frame, something outside the frame, or something that may happen in the cut between two shots, can be implied, depending on how the pieces are put together.
The big action/car chase set-piece in "The Dark Knight," where Harvey Dent is transferred from city jail to county jail, actually begins here with the Gotham Police, before any of the vehicles are in motion.
OK, so the ground rules have been set up: There's going to be a convoy and there's going to be no stopping. And even though we don't know where this truck is or who these guys are, we assume that they're eventually going to be part of the action.
... and fast-forward through the mushy stuff so we can get to the chase...
Harvey gets into the back of a police van and sits down on the passenger side, facing us. A few shots ago we saw a couple of guys in the cab of a truck, and now the visual orientation of this shot suggests that this is probably the back end of that same truck.
Now, this is our first look at the convoy, or part of it: a black police van followed by two cop cars. Again, we don't know, but we assume -- since this is the only truck we've seen -- that it's the one that Harvey's in.²
This feels like a reverse angle,³ which would mean that this guy [lone SWAT guard] is now sitting where Harvey should be.
I'm sorry, but the convoy has just gotten started but already I'm feeling a little bit disoriented. We're cutting away to these flat, static shots that seem to be floating in a vacuum, completely disconnected from the action. What we could really use right now is a simple, interior two-shot that would show us which sides these guys are sitting on, where the front and the back of the van is, and which direction we're moving in.
All right, at last we're introduced to all of our major players for this scene: a cop car, a large black van we didn't know was there before, the other black van, and two more cop cars. And a helicopter. And this is my favorite moment when the sound drops out.
This little bit doesn't seem to accomplish anything. And why would you cut away from the convoy just when it's getting going?⁴
The Joker shows up, as we knew he would, but his appearance is so brief it's not really very effective. It would have been much more ominous just to go straight into this next shot.⁵
Another minor quibble: the previous shot sets this up to be a POV shot, and it isn't a true POV shot -- if it were, it would have to be from three vehicles ahead of here. And that's not such a big deal. I only bring it up because the imprecision of Nolan's camera placement creates some much more serious logistical problems later.⁶
All right, the chase begins with one cop car, followed by this black SWAT van, followed by this van, followed by this van... and these two police cars.
Did I say two? No. In the next shot there are three... and a big truck in the other lane.
Now, the cut to this guy would imply that he's driving the first of the two or possibly three cop cars -- the one nearest the camera.
Bye, Mr. Expendable Anonymous Police Officer Guy. This is a pattern that's repeated throughout "The Dark Knight." We're introduced to people in close-up or medium shot, with no context, just a second or two before they're dispatched.⁷
Oh, wait, it looks like the truck took out the second of three cop cars. No wonder I was getting confused.
Well now where is this Mr. Expendable Police Officer Guy?
Ah, he was the first of the final three or possibly two cop cars.
Way over on the left, there's still one back there, though.
Meanwhile, in the back of the van, the laws of physics continue to taunt poor Harvey. His truck gets rear-ended, but he gets thrown against the passenger side. Or is this the back of the van? Or is it the front of the van? You'd think that he would be looking in the direction from which he got hit. But wherever he is, Harvey knows which way the van is traveling. Why don't we?
According to certain traditional rules of continuity, that last cut would imply that Harvey is now sitting on the driver's side. If Harvey and these guys [in the cab] are in the same truck and all we did was cut from the back to the front, then we would expect the camera to remain on the same side of the action. That's the old "180-degree rule. Think of it as if they were all in the same room, without the divider between them. When a shot like this [back of the van] is followed by a shot like this [front of the van], you don't expect that the camera has suddenly jumped across the 180-degree line of action.
But while "The Dark Knight" plays by some continuity rules⁸ some of the time, it doesn't do so consistently. Those last three shots are actually quite revealing. If we think of this less as a three-dimensional space than as a two-dimensional, graphic space like three flat comic book frames, then the shots do make a kind of sense. In Flat World, the armored van getting hit from behind simply means it got hit from frame left; Harvey, wherever he is, is knocked to the right; and so are the guys in the front. Think of it as sensation without orientation. Does this flipping between three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality make the chase more exciting, or just more confusing?⁹
There we are again: the absolutely useless SWAT van followed by police van followed by garbage truck followed by cop car.
We're pretty deep into the chase now and all the sudden the driver of this SWAT truck is featured in two medium shots spouting two cliches in a row. Things don't look good for him.
See? There are a few interesting things about this crucial shot. The cut into it reverses the action. It was going from left to right and now all the sudden it's going right to left. And then notice the positions of the trucks. The semi is hitting the SWAT van on the front passenger side. Right behind the SWAT van is the police van, and right behind that is the garbage truck, and maybe or maybe not there's still a cop car back there.
The doomed SWAT guy gets thrown against the driver's side window.
But somehow when the van goes into the river the passenger side is facing the water. And not only that but the truck is going in the wrong direction. Obviously, the semi came from the left in this angle, in which case the SWAT van would have had to have been traveling right to left. This is a mess in two or three dimensions.
The scene is cut fast in hopes that these things won't register. And you may not care about these lapses in visual logic. Or you may say, well, it's just a comic book movie. But your brain recognizes violations of spatial reasoning, even if you're not consciously aware of it. So, if you're not at least a little bit bewildered by what you're seeing, then you're just not paying attention.
It's weird. If the filmmakers are trying to involve us in a semi-realistic chase, why do they insist on distancing and disorienting us with these conspicuously nonsensical continuity techniques?
"Spectacularly incoherent!" -- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
"Unintelligible!" -- David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art
"Cusinarted spectacle!" -- Keith Uhlich, House Next Door
"A mess!" -- Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
"Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action." -- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
"It's always in a frenzy!" -- David Denby, The New Yorker
[repeat crash in slow motion]
NARRATION: I think they try to cheat the reversal of direction here by having the SWAT van hit that post and turn. And then they have this shot, and this shot (which makes no sense), all twisting the direction of the action around from left to right so at least it doesn't feel quite so jarring when the truck splashes down not only pointed in the wrong direction but actually traveling in the wrong direction.
That, however, is nothing compared to what this truck just did. Somehow it punched the SWAT van right out from in front of the police van and the garbage truck -- without disturbing their trajectories -- and then either retracted itself or continued all the way over into the now-very-short-convoy's lane and made a right-hand and/or left-hand turn so that the cement barrier is on its left. It feels like it should be going the wrong way in the convoy's lane, which is as impossible as any other scenario given what we've just seen. But, as it turns out, that's not where it is anyway.
You may remember this guy or maybe not. He only popped up for a couple of seconds. But apparently he's the one who's supposed to be driving this miracle truck. Now, if you do realize that it's kind of a shame because it undercuts a pretty terrific reveal of the Joker just a few shots from now.
Didn't the SWAT truck and the other two trucks used to be where the semi is now, with the river on the right?
One of the things that makes this chase so discombobulating is that it plays hopscotch all over the axis of action -- which is basically the old 180-degree axis but with both parties in constant parallel motion. So, every time there's a cut from one side to the other, the direction of the action is reversed. And that's OK -- maybe even unavoidable. But when it happens so fast and so often it can get not only confusing, but all the jumbled-up movement can cancel out any sense of momentum.¹⁰
Oh, and now: The real introduction of the Joker.
At last, some visual information that relates these strange cutaways to inside the van with what's actually going on in the outside world. Until now, these guys could have been inserted here from some other movie, for all we know. But now we know that the SWAT guard has his back to the Joker's truck on the driver's side of the van. in a better-executed action sequence, that kind of information would have been clear and consistent from the beginning.
Yes, and poor marksmanship is a feature of just about every gunfight in the movies. The Joker could hit the side of the van with a handgun, but a bazooka? No. He blows up the cop car in front of it. Of course, he is the Joker, so maybe he meant to do that, just for laughs.
Sic Transit Expendable. This time we cut to him after he's been hit but before he's been eliminated.
I want to take this opportunity to point out that what we're talking about here is not just dumb little continuity errors like headlights that are out in one shot and back on in another one, or even a car that puts itself back together for a few frames after it's been partially exploded. When the action is whizzing by this fast, those kinds of things don't really make much of an impression.
What's more troublesome, as we've seen, are the violations of spacial integrity between elements within the frame or between shots. And then there are just matters of plausibility, like why, if you're being shot at, you wouldn't try to move over into the lane that's farther away from those who are firing at you.
But more annoying are stupid little tricks like this one: The Joker sees something up ahead. It's the Batmobile on a head-on collision course. The cutting reinforces that they're headed right for each other.
[Police van SWAT passenger says, "Look out!"]
We know this guy can't shut up, but why is he saying "Look out"? And why is the camera zooming¹¹ toward the Batmobile and craning over it?
Yes, the Batmobile was headed straight for the Gotham Police van for some reason. At least he got it to move over into the other lane. And now we know that final phantom police car has given up the chase.
Very little of this chase is in the version of the script that Warner Bros. published for Oscar voters. But it does have the Batmobile ramming into the garbage truck, which makes me think that at one point the footage may have been meant to go something like this...
At least then this angle makes sense and we understand which lane Batman's in. And the high-speed traveling crane shot makes sense, anticipating the Batmobile smashing under the garbage truck.
So, what does all this prove? That "The Dark Knight" is a lousy movie? No. We've only looked at the first part of one chase sequence. There's a lot more to the movie than just the action. What it proves is that this photo-realistic IMAX action picture plays fast and loose -- sometimes -- with certain narrative filmmaking techniques that help make action understandable. At the very least, when you hear someone say that the action is incoherent or hard to follow, you should now know exactly what they're talking about.¹²
Now, that's kind of interesting, the way that the collision over on the Joker's side is cut in with this swerve by the Batmobile. I don't know exactly what it means, but it creates a kind of kinetic energy.¹³
OK, one last big blow-out. Watch closely.
Now, that's a pretty cool stunt: The Batmobile jumps over this little car and blocks the bazooka-fire just as it's being shot at Harvey's van. The only problem is: Where is the van now? It was right there, just a little bit ahead of the car, when the Joker fired. It's now someplace up ahead. So far up ahead that it's passing another car.
It's times like these when I'm watching a movie that I think: Did they just take all the footage they had and throw it all up in the air and then stick it back together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up? Are we meant to look at this as abstract motion, like an IMAX Stan Brakhage movie?
Or is it, as the filmmakers have said, more concerned with realism -- photographing real objects, including actors and miniatures, in real space?
We can see how it does what it does. The question is: What's the result? How do these stylistic choices enhance or diminish the impact of the movie?
There are lots of ways to make a film. And there are lots of ways to make a mess. For every choice -- and there are thousands upon thousands of them that go into the making of a feature -- there are advantages and trade-offs. But in the end, all that matters is what's in the movie. And what isn't.
- - - - -
¹ Some have said that digital techniques have made it possible to create images that are not shots and that don't rely on editing. This, as they say, is a distinction without a difference -- and is certainly nothing new. Shots can be morphed, stitched together or otherwise manipulated, but they are still shots (framed compositions in motion that last for a period of time). Even a movie that is edited to appear as one seamless, flowing shot (like "Russian Ark") is still made up of shots, compositions and digital transitions, even if they don't appear as straight "cuts." Dissolves, fades, wipes, irises and other transitions -- digital or not -- are also variations on/combinations of the two basic visual elements of composition and cutting.
² The reason I keep bringing up the truck is because the movie doesn't bother to simply show it except in these disconnected pieces. And in the next shot we're introduced to another van we've never seen before, so that throws all these assumptions into question. Yet another example of the flat, simplistic "I-can-only-show-you-one-thing-at-a-time" style that makes so much of this and other Nolan movies so tiresome to watch.
³ Because we cut from a right-hand angle outside the truck to a left-hand angle inside. That's all. It's naive or disingenuous to suggest I'm insisting there is some hard-and-fast "rule" against cutting from that angle to this angle (or any angle). But the flatness of the shot and the lack of bearings inside the van makes it feel needlessly confusing to me. It would be so easy to eliminate that confusion with about a second of film from another angle, as I suggest. (And, yes, this IMAX sequence was shot on film -- not that it matters except to those who would nitpick the use of the word "film.")
⁴ An example (like the ending of "The Prestige," [spoiler alert!] in which you don't actually see all the duplicate drowned doubles in the glass boxes/coffins), of why I find Nolan such a lackluster showman. Until I stop-framed this, I wasn't even sure this was the Joker with the gun and not one of his similarly face-painted henchmen, it happens so fast. And when I realized it was, I wondered why in the hell we needed this. Do we need to see where the garbage truck came from? Of course not. Do we expect that the Joker will show up during this sequence? Of course we do. Why does Nolan tip his hand so soon? What a waste of suspense.
⁵ The most common criticism thrown at critics is: "Well, how would you have done it?" But they don't really want critics to answer the question because they don't like to get that specific. In this case I feel strongly that the scene would have been better without this premature appearance by the Joker, and I explain precisely why. You're free to disagree for whatever reasons you have, but I say my version is, absolutely, better. Anyone is allowed to watch a movie and say what they think was done badly and could have been improved upon. Later, though, when I question a certain traveling crane shot and suggest how it might have been originally intended to be used, I am pointedly not suggesting -- as I am here -- that my interpretation is superior. I am being specific about what I find to be incongruous about the shot. I find the stunt to be an annoyingly misleading little "trick," but by this point the movie has shown such disregard for the viewer's intelligence that I don't much care. Again, disagree -- tell me why you hate my interpretation and why yours or Nolan's is so much better -- but (as we'll see later in the transcript) don't put your words in my mouth.
⁶ One of my favorite objections to this observation is: "Who says when you show someone looking off-screen that the next cut has to be their POV?" To which I say, "Show me examples from mainstream films -- or even the last few minutes of this film (the shots of Harvey and Rachel near the door of the van; the SWAT cop and Harvey in the van; the cop approaching the Joker's truck and getting shot; the cops in the lead of the convoy when they spot the burning firetruck...) when this is not the case. It's called an eyeline match and, to paraphrase Carrie White's mom, every mainstream narrative movie has them. In the previous shot here we see the light from the fire flare up on the passenger's face; when we cut, his vehicle is past the fire. Again, I'm not saying the cutting has to be so exact, but it's worth mentioning because of the sloppiness that comes later.
⁷ Someone asked why I used the term "dispatched." Because they're not always (necessarily) killed, but the movie doesn't really care enough about them to ever cut back to them again to find out what happened to them. I found this trite device particularly grating in "The Dark Knight" -- overdone to the point that it became morally objectionable.
⁸ The 180-degree rule is known as "the 180-degree rule" (you can google it), but I wish I hadn't used the term "some continuity rules" in this sentence because some people have assumed a "rule" is only defined as an inviolable law, rather than a commonly used guideline (as in "rule of thumb," or "the customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc."). Others simply deny the very existence of grammar in film.
⁹ I originally had the sentence, "That's up to you," after this question, but I thought it was too obvious, so I just left it open-ended. Maybe I was wrong. I don't answer the question because it's one each individual viewer can answer for him-/herself.
¹⁰ I tried to explain what I meant here, but I think I confused things by using the term "axis of action," with regard to the comparative direction in which vehicles in parallel lanes are moving, and trying to distinguish between that phrase and the "180-degree rule," which some have pointed out would better describe the eyeline matching in reverse angles of the people in the vehicles, looking across at each other -- like, say, the Joker and the passenger SWAT in the police van. But what's confusing to me aren't the eyeline matches but the rapid reversals of the direction of movement within the frame -- especially when the police van itself is shown going right-to-left and then left-to-right in the space of a few shots (because the camera position briefly switches from the inside lane to the outside lane). Also, there's the action of the foreground (pillars) and background (seen through the windows of the van and the open side doors of the semi), which, if the camera is moving along with the vehicle, appears to be going in the opposite direction. Nolan frames so many of his shots so closely (and at nearly 90 degrees to the action) that this in itself becomes disorienting.
¹¹ Poor choice of words on my part. I don't mean "zooming" as in the use of a zoom lenz; I mean speeding toward the Batmobile. The brief re-cut is an attempt to show how slight re-orderings of shots can change perceptions -- as I mentioned in the intro. Some have accused me of arrogantly trying to claim that my version is "better." I didn't do or say that. But if that's the way you insist on reading it, there's nothing more I can do. If the shoe fits...
¹² This is yet another statement of what I'm trying to accomplish with the "In the Cut" series. I chose this example for Part I because I found it confusing and so did a number of my colleagues.
¹³ Please note that this moment I single out for praise is not an example of classical Hollywood continuity grammar. It works for other reasons.
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