Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dark Knight

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

Christopher Nolan on the art of the reaction shot

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Director Christopher Nolan

Jordan Goldberg: In closing, what would you guys say you’ve learned through this experience?

Christopher Nolan: I’ve learned to get more reaction shots. [All laugh.] I’ve learned you can never have too many reaction shots to something extraordinary. Just on a technical level. In order to portray an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world, you have to really invest in the reality of the ordinary and in the reactions of people to him. That, to me, was what was fun about taking on this character because it hadn’t been done before. He is such an extraordinary figure, but if you can believe in the world he’s in, you can really enjoy that extraordinariness and that theatricality.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thoughts on a Dark Knight

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Let’s talk about scale. For much of the past decade, the major movie studios have waged a losing battle to keep audiences in theaters, while competing with the vast array of more convenient entertainment options available at home. Hollywood’s traditional response to the threat of new media has always been to offer greater spectacle, these days in the form of IMAX or 3D, with an additional surcharge, of course. But as the new formats bring us closer to the action, computerized effects push us further away. No matter how beautifully rendered a digital landscape may be, it’s still strangely airless and sterile, with a sense that we’re being given a view of more megapixels, not a window on the world. Even so immersive a film as Avatar ultimately keeps us at arm’s length: Pandora is a universe unto itself, yes, but it still sits comfortably on a hard drive at Weta. And for all their size and expense, most recent attempts to create this kind of immersion, from John Carter to The Avengers, fail to understand the truth about spectacle: large-scale formats are most exciting when they give us a vision of a real, tangible, photographed world.

This is why The Dark Knight Rises is such a landmark. Christopher Nolan, who cited the films of David Lean as an influence in Batman Begins, understands that the real appeal of the great Hollywood epics in VistaVision and Cinerama was the startling clarity and scope of the world they presented. It’s the kind of thing that can only be achieved on location, with practical effects, real stunts, aerial photography, and a cast of thousands. The Dark Knight Rises is packed with digital effects, but we’re never aware of them. Instead, we’re in the presence of a director luxuriating in the huge panoramic effects that IMAX affords—with image, with music, with sound—when trained on the right material on real city streets. As a result, it feels big in a way that no other movie has in a long time. Brad Bird achieved some of the same effect in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, but while Bird invited us to marvel at his surfaces, Nolan wants us to plunge us into a world he’s created, and he uses the medium as it was meant to be used: to tell a rich, dense story about an entire city.

Even more than The Dark Knight, this final installment makes it clear that Nolan’s twin obsessions with epic filmmaking and narrative complexity aren’t two different impulses, but opposite sides of the same coin: the massive IMAX screen, which surrounds us with images of staggering detail, is the visual equivalent of what Nolan is trying to do with the stories he tells. One thinks of The Last Judgment, of Bruegel, of Bosch. And his narrative skills have only improved with time. The Dark Knight had a great script, but it occasionally seemed to strain under the weight of its ideas, until it came off as two hugely eventful movies packed into one. The new movie doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but it’s also more confident and assured: we’re sucked in at once and held rapt for two hours and forty minutes. And Nolan seems to have gotten over his ambivalence about the character of Batman himself. He’s always been shy about the Batsuit, which served as a kinky reminder of the story’s comic book origins, but here, he keeps Bruce Wayne vulnerable and unmasked for as long as possible, until he becomes more of a hero than ever before.

This is, in short, something close to a masterpiece—not just a worthy conclusion to the best series of comic book movies ever made, but the year’s first really great studio film. And yet I do have one big complaint. I’ve spoken before about Hollywood’s weird obsession with secrets, in which it refuses to disclose simple information about a movie for no other reason than a fetish over secrecy for its own sake, when in fact the film itself has no interesting surprises. (See: Prometheus and Super 8.) The same impulse often applies to casting rumors. For The Dark Knight Rises, the studio adamantly refused to confirm who Anne Hathaway would be playing, despite it being fairly obvious, and did the same with the characters played by Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yet even at the earliest point in the film’s production, it was made very clear that a certain character was going to be appearing in the film—thus ruining the movie’s one big surprise. In short, Hollywood has no idea what a secret is: it routinely hides information to no purpose, but then, when it really counts for once, it reveals it in a way that utterly destroys the filmmaker’s intentions. And there’s no other living director whose intentions deserve greater respect and admiration.

Whither Whedon?

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Over the weekend, along with everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, my wife and I saw The Avengers. I’m not going to bother with a formal review, since there are plenty to go around, and in any case, if you haven’t already seen it, your mind is probably made up either way. I’ll just say that while I enjoyed it, this is a movie that comes across as a triumph more of assemblage and marketing than of storytelling: you want to cheer, not for the director or the heroes, but for the executives at Marvel who brought it all off. Joss Whedon does a nice, resourceful job of putting the pieces together, but we’re left with the sense of a director gamely doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt, which is an odd thing to say for a movie that someone paid $200 million to make. Whedon has been saddled with at least two heroes too many, as well as a rather dull villain—far better if they had gone with the Red Skull of Captain America—so that a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.

Still, once everything clicks, it moves along efficiently, if not always coherently, and it’s a bright, shiny toy for the eyes, certainly compared to the dreary Thor. It doesn’t force us to rethink what this genre is capable of doing, as The Dark Knight did, but it’s a movie that delivers exactly what audiences want, and perhaps a touch more, which is more than enough to deliver the highest opening weekend in history. And this, more than anything else, puts its director in a peculiar position. Joss Whedon has made a career out of seeming to work against considerable obstacles, and never quite succeeding, except in the eyes of his devoted fans. Buffy switched networks; Firefly was canceled before its time; Dollhouse struggled on for two seasons in the face of considerable interference. All of his projects carry a wistful sense of what might have been, and throughout it all, Whedon has been his own best character, unfailingly insightful in interviews, gracious, funny and brave, the underdog whose side he has always so eloquently taken.

So what happens when the underdog becomes responsible for a record-shattering blockbuster? The Avengers isn’t all that interesting as a movie—far less so than The Cabin in the Woods—but it’s fascinating as a portent of things to come. Whedon has delivered the kind of big popular success that can usually be cashed in for the equivalent of one free movie with unlimited studio resources, as if all the holes in his frequent shopper’s card had finally been punched. For most of his career, at least since Buffy, Whedon has had everything—charm, talent, an incredibly avid fanbase—except the one thing that a creative type needs to survive in Hollywood: power. Now, abruptly, he has oodles of it, obtained in the only way possible, by making an ungodly amount of money for a major studio. Which means that he’s suddenly in a position, real or imaginary, to make every fanboy’s dreams come true.

The question is what he intends to do with it. Unlike Christopher Nolan, he isn’t a director who seems to gain personal satisfaction from deepening and heightening someone else’s material, so The Avengers 2 doesn’t seem like the best use of his talents. Personally, I hope he pulls a Gary Ross, takes the money, and runs. He could probably make another Firefly movie, although that doesn’t seem likely at this point. He could make Goners. He could pick up an ailing franchise with fewer moving parts and do wonderful things with it—I hear that Green Lantern is available. Or, perhaps, he’ll surprise us. The Avengers isn’t a bad film, but it gives us only occasional glimpses of the full Whedon, peeking out from between those glossy toys, and those hints make you hunger for a big movie that he could control from beginning to end. For most of his career, fans have been wondering what he’d do with the full resources and freedom he’d long been denied—even as he seemed to thrive on the struggle. And if he’s as smart and brave as he’s always seemed, he won’t wait long to show us.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

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