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Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise

So, we're having this wonderful discussion at Scanners about the moral dimensions of superhero movies -- mostly about "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Marvel's The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight." I was bringing up some things from 2008 and 2009 about how some see the Joker as a "nihilist" or an "agent of chaos" and how I see him figuring into the moral design of the movie, and somebody posted this comment:

I'm so confused. You've spent the better part of 4 years slamming the dark knight for not being a "good" film, even though you're now saying its chalked full of thematic material. So am I correct in assuming you like the themes it raises, it's that the execution was poorish? So it's ok to like the themes just not the way it's presented, or that they presented too obviously, sloppily. Please give me a straight answer. I want to understand your interpretation of the material once and for all.

OK! Now, on the eve of the release of "The Dark Knight Rises," is probably a good time to attempt to do that once again -- if only to remind people that, although I have written a lot about "The Dark Knight" and Christopher Nolan (including pieces on "Following," "Memento,"The Prestige" and "Inception"), my reservations about his work have been closely focused on two things, involving writing and direction. Here's my (slightly cleaned-up) reply to that comment above:

Yes, it's all about the execution. I hope I'll finally be able to clear up that confusion -- as I've been trying to do for four years. My dearest wish is that "The Dark Knight Rises" will be a mature masterpiece that fully deserves some of the praise "The Dark Knight" got but (in my view, for the actual reasons I stated) didn't deserve. In one of my very first posts* I said I thought "TDK" was more fun to talk/write about than it was for me to actually watch (even though I've seen it umpteen times to study it closely -- and to find out if maybe there was something I'd overlooked). And that's still the case. (Off the top of my head, I feel that way about "Blade Runner" and "Natural Born Killers," too, among many other movies. ["Prometheus," as well.]) From day one, my criticisms of "TDK" have been focused pretty narrowly on two things: 1) the writing (I think it spells out its themes too explicitly to be very compelling as drama, for one thing); and 2) the direction (I think the shot and editing choices are generally flat, clumsy and unimaginative). I've gone into a LOT of detail on many occasions trying to be very specific about those things (particularly #2) -- but, instead of zeroing in on individual points, some people chose to [see it as] the very opposite: a broad, generalized "hate" campaign, or a "vendetta" against "The Dark Knight" and Christopher Nolan. Which is ridiculous if they actually read what I wrote. As I've said repeatedly, I don't "hate" Nolan or the movie -- just some of those fans who (unlike you) only want to rant and rave because I didn't *like* something they did, regardless of the actual criticisms I tried to make very clear and specific. So, yes, thanks for giving me the opportunity to try again to clear this up. As I said, I hope Nolan takes what he's learned from making "TDK" and "Inception" and raises "TDKR" to a new level. He has the rare power, money and opportunity to do whatever he wants; I believe he can deliver.

Anyway, I kept revisiting "The Dark Knight" every once in a while to further elaborate on the precisely defined points I wanted to make, but felt were getting lost in the fan worship. In early 2011 I was asked to contribute a piece to MSN Movies about "the most taxing people in movies" -- and, reluctant to disappoint, I (foolishly) believed that maybe the "Dark Knight" mania had died down enough that I could, after three years, get straight to my criticisms. Not as a wild swipe against Nolan (though I should have realized some people wouldn't actually read my words) but to point out some easily documented patterns:

Let me say up front that I don't think Nolan is a bad or thoroughly incompetent director, just a successfully pedestrian one. His Comic-Con fan base makes extravagant claims for each new film -- particularly since Nolan began producing his graphic-novel blockbusters with "Batman Begins" in 2005 -- but the movies are hobbled by thesis-statement screenplays that strain for significance and an ungainly directing style that seems incapable of, and uninterested in, illustrating more than one thing at a time: "Look at this. Now look at this. Now look at this. Now here's some dialogue to explain the movie's fictional rules. Now a character will tell you what he represents and what his goals are." And so on ... You won't experience the thrill of discovery while looking around in a Nolan frame. You'll see the one thing he wants you to see, but everything around it is dead space.

But, of course, there are always going to be those who concentrate exclusively on the *like* or *dislike* because they think that's all that matters in the end. I don't. And I don't need anyone to *agree* with me; just understand that I'm describing what's important to me when I watch a movie. If it's not important to you, that's fine. There's plenty of room for different kinds of movies, and different kinds of movie-watchers. We can't expect everybody to want the same things (or get them) from every movie.

The truth is, I've defended Nolan against those who've criticized him for being old-fashioned for wanting to shoot on film, in real locations, preferring stunt work (he doesn't use a second unit for action) over CGI. And I think Kristin Thompson's observations about Nolan's use of expository dialog is ingenious. I don't personally enjoy watching it, but I'm fascinated with her idea of how it functions:

At that turning point, it dawned on me that Nolan has elevated exposition of new premises to the main form of communication among characters. Discussion of their personal relationships, hopes, and doubts largely drops out. As the Russian Formalists would say, exposition, usually given early on and at wide intervals later in a plot, becomes the dominant here. That's an unusual enough tactic to warrant a closer look.

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To put all this into context, please see the recent post I did about a single frame in Ridley Scott's "Alien," in which I wrote:

Look at the frame-grab above from Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979). I'm not making any high claims for it as a masterpiece of composition, or saying that it has great meaning in the context of the movie, or that it expresses anything typical/archetypal about Scott's style or values (aesthetic, moral). But it sure is a pleasure to take in. You've got the interplay between the right, left and center, the foreground and the background, each in its own space, but visually interrelated. The camera is in the operating room with Dallas and Ash, who are looking at their comatose patient, Kane, whose feet are at left, in a quarantine chamber (because he has a xenomorph hugging his face). In the background, through the window, is the rest of the Nostromo crew, anxiously waiting for news. That's right -- the entire (human) cast of the movie in one shot. [...]

This shot is a beautiful example of the antithesis to what I have labeled "one-thing-at-a-time filmmaking." The basic composition (roughly symmetrical with an opening in the center) is repeated throughout the movie, as befits a movie about violation, penetration and passages of birth and death. It also gives your eye places to wander, details to soak in. It allows you room to breathe. Throughout, "Alien" gives you ample opportunity to look around and admire the industrial/organic design of the Nostromo, and it entices you to notice nooks and crannies where threats might be lurking. (At the end, the alien actually melds and intertwines with the escape pod's ductwork.)

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Generally speaking, you won't find this kind of thing in Nolan movies. He's more of a montage guy than a mise en scène guy. He puts one thing at a time in his shots, and rarely depicts much interplay between various parts of the frame. (There is, however, that memorable moment in "Batman Begins" when a crook on the right side of the frame is looking for Batman out of frame on the right and backs up, so that the camera pans and brings the upside-down profile of Batman into the frame on the left. But that's a once-in-a-blue-moon exception.) Backgrounds stay in the back -- more like backdrops (especially in "Batman Begins"), with one important thing for us to look at placed in the foreground of every shot. Rarely does exchange between foreground and background action occur within a single shot. And even when two faces do appear in the frame at the same time (in widescreen!), there's hardly ever much meaningful interaction between them. We don't, for example, learn anything from watching one person react to what the other person is saying; we get individual cutaways or over-the-shoulder shots instead. Not that there's anything wrong with that (sorry), but I ultimately find it tiresome to watch. I know: Not everybody does. Let's take that as a given.

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But that's all in the past now. The greatest thing that could happen is that Nolan further develops his skills as a filmmaker. But... OK, I admit it. I'm a wee tiny bit scared. Maybe a little intimidated. What if I don't *like* "The Dark Knight Rises" all that much? I'm not going to lie about it, but even mixed reviews have been met with a barrage of hateful abuse (again) from gumbys and twits trying to keep critics from expressing non-party-line views on their their own blogs and RottenTomatoes and IMDb (yeah, death threats -- again)... from people who acknowledge they haven't even seen the movie because it hasn't opened yet. This, I would say, supports the Joker's contention about the citizens of Gotham (er, the Internet), after all: "They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster ... I'm just ahead of the curve." The haters, the flamers, as always, are well behind the curve.

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All of this has prompted RottenTomatoes, for the first time, to suspend user comments. Just for "The Dark Knight Rises." Because too many of their commenters behave like a herd of rabid sheep. RT Editor Matt Atchity told AP: "The job of policing the comments became more than my staff could handle for that film, so we stopped the comments altogether.... It just got to be too much hate based on reactions to reviews of movies that people hadn't even seen."

Monday, Atchity published a notice headlined ""The Dark Knight Rises" -- This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," in which he acknowledged that "minority opinions will be vehemently refuted" by knee-jerk commenters:

But I would like to leave everyone with a few final thoughts:

- If a critic often goes against the majority, but has well-reasoned arguments, it's unlikely we're going to ban them, at least not just for having a different opinion. We're not looking for groupthink here.

- If a critic abuses our trust by linking to something that's not a review, we will take action up to and including removing them from the Tomatometer. If a critic doesn't take their reputation seriously, then neither will we.

- We'll ban you for threats and hate speech -- we're trying to have fun here, so don't be a dick. And don't try and argue about your right to free speech -- this is a business, and we have the right to refuse service to anyone we feel like.

- We're probably going to move to a Facebook-based commenting system that doesn't allow for anonymity. You'll have to stand by your comments, just like a critic does. So you'll still be able to argue about a movie you haven't seen, but people will know it was you. (I know that won't make a difference for some people, but at least there may be some measure of responsibility).

I know that a lot of people will think we're overreacting, and I know my own breeding, sexuality, and intelligence will be called in to question just for daring to ask for some level of respectable debate. That's fine, I'm used to that (I have a show on YouTube, so come at me, bro).

But if I could ask everyone for one thing, it's this: don't be a dick. Even if you think someone else is being a dick. Just take a deep breath, step away from the computer, and maybe go for a walk....

As you know, I try to ensure that comments at Scanners focus on the movies, not somebody's speculation about why somebody else might say what they say, and refrain from misrepresentations, inaccuracies and outright personal attacks. Ninety-five percent of the time, that's no problem at all. Here's hoping it stays that way and we can keep the trolls at bay and have a worthwhile discussion of "The Dark Knight Rises" no matter what any of us may make of it once we see it. (I'm planning on a Saturday matinée, if all goes well...)

Meanwhile, at TDYLF, there's this:

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UPDATE (07/18/12): Rian Johnson ("Brick," "The Brothers Bloom," "Looper") tweeted this to critic Alison Willmore:

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That's funny but, seriously, I don't want to go back to the monolithic days of no comments. I want to hash over ideas and observations with people. I don't think trolls rule, or have ruined, the Internet. All that's clear to me, from my limited exposure to comments at IMDb, RottenTomatoes, YouTube and a few other places, is that there are lots of twerps out there who have web access and are too stupid to hold their own in conversation. That's to be expected. They're free to play in their own litterboxes. But they're not going to stop the rest of us from talking about movies or anything else, however we want.

UPDATE (07/18/12): A friend sent me the last two paragraphs of David Fear's "TDKR" review, with the assurance that there are no spoilers. I'll read the whole thing after I've seen the movie and written my own thoughts, but for now he reminds me of something else I'd like to add. Fear writes:

Allow me to drop my own mask for a second. When I reviewed "The Dark Knight" upon its release, I wrote that if anybody were capable of lifting superhero movies to the next level, it was Nolan. He was trying to make more than just a summer movie, and had devoted himself to an ideal: The genre can produce the equivalent of The Searchers, and such a thing would help raise these movies the way John Ford's film did for Westerns. (Why so serious? Because these films have the capacity to be taken seriously, just like their graphic-novel counterparts.) To paraphrase Oldman's weary Gordon, I still believe in Nolan; there may not be a more intellectually ambitious Hollywood director working on such huge mainstream, studio-film canvases. I hope the gajillion dollars this movie makes pave the way for the more challenging stories he has yet to tell.

I'm not so sure about the genre any more, however; there's now a sense that, with so much dough and fandom on the line, its conventions can constrict even the most creative artist. We may be able to get CGI fun out of the comic-book canon and even the occasional auterist work like Joss Whedon's "The Avengers," but my faith that a truly important piece can be gleaned from these tales of costumed champions has been broken. Maybe these big-budget superhero tales simply aren't destined to rise above a certain popcorn-movie level even at their most ambitious and morally ambiguous. Maybe better-than-average really is the best we can hope for.

As I replied to my friend, this points out a paradox that doesn't need to be a paradox, which is why I still have hope. As Fear himself said in his 2008 "TDK" review: "Nolan's sequel to 2005's Batman Begins internalizes the schism between serious aims and summer-movie duties. The problem isn't the admittedly jaw-dropping Sturm und Drang--this is Batman, not Bergman--but how the pummeling action rarely informs the psychological angst."

The problem is that some people make superhero movies that are fun "popcorn movies" and that's all they want to be. Nolan (in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight") has dared to aim for "thematically ambitious" superhero movies... that also, unfortunately, don't have a very rich or sophisticated cinematic vocabulary. There's no reason somebody can't make a serious work of art using a superhero as a major figure, a comics-inspired movie that's also a complex and resonant piece of filmmaking -- or that it can't be challenging and rewarding and fun and popular all at the same time. It just hasn't quite been done yet. (The Coens, for example, could do it and make it look effortless, but they'd have to deal with a mega-corporation that holds the rights to the characters and that could be difficult and restrictive. To do it their way, they'd probably have to create the superhero themselves, and they might consider that more trouble than it's worth.)

- - - - -

In fact, the very first thing I wrote about "The Dark Knight" was this:

It wasn't very far into "The Dark Knight" that the feeling first took hold of me: All this movie needs is a script and a director and it could be really, really great!

By the end I'd had a good time, and I already know I'd like to see it again. Maybe, I've been thinking, it's kind of like a good album that's been haphazardly sequenced, with a few lackluster (or even bad) songs and occasionally dumb lyrics, muddled arrangements, or klutzy production choices. But, you know, after a while you're willing to overlook the parts that don't work in order to enjoy the parts that do. At first exposure, those rough spots stick out and even hurt. Later on, you just accept them, get used to them, or even choose to ignore them.

Two and a half weeks into its theatrical release, is it still a sacrilege to believe, for any reason, that "The Dark Knight" is less than the greatest whatever ever? I sure hope not, because I wanted it to be great as much as anybody else. So, I front-loaded this post with my tempered impressions of "The Dark Knight" only to contrast them with the consensus opinion, which is, you might say, considerably more enthusiastic. [...]

I can get just as passionately engaged in trying to pinpoint and articulate what works (gloriously) in a movie I love, as I can in trying to pinpoint and articulate what's wrong or lacking (ignominiously) in one that I loathe, or even find mildly disappointing or tepidly enjoyable. A movie doesn't have to be good to be interesting, or worth talking about. Often I'll find the discussion, and the effort put into it, to be more exciting and illuminating that the movie itself. (See The Funny Games experiment.)

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