Posts Tagged ‘The Dark Knight’
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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
The release of the final trailer for The Dark Knight Rises gives me as good an excuse as any to talk once more about the work of Christopher Nolan, who, as I’ve said before, is the contemporary director who fills me with the most awe. Nolan has spent the past ten years pushing narrative complexity on the screenplay level as far as it will go while also mastering every aspect of large-scale blockbuster filmmaking, and along the way, he’s made some of the most commercially successful films of the decade while retaining a sensibility that remains uniquely his own. In particular, he returns repeatedly to issues of storytelling, and especially to the theme of how artists, for all their intelligence and preparation, can find themselves lost in their own labyrinths. Many works of art are ultimately about the process of their own creation, of course, but to a greater extent than usual, Nolan has subtly given us a portrait of the director himself—meticulous, resourceful, but also strangely ambivalent toward the use of his own considerable talents.
Yesterday, I referred to my notes toward a novel as urgent communications between my past and future selves, “a la Memento,” but it was only after typing that sentence that I realized how accurate it really is. Leonard Shelby, the amnesiac played by Guy Pearce, is really a surrogate for the screenwriter: he’s thrust into the middle of a story, without any context, and has to piece together not just what comes next, but what happened before. His notes, his visual aids, and especially the magnificent chart he hangs on his motel room wall are variations of the tools that a writer uses to keep himself oriented in during a complex project—including, notably, Memento itself. It isn’t hard to imagine Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the original story on which the screenplay is based, using similar charts to keep track of their insanely intricate narrative, with a protagonist who finally turns his own body into a sort of corkboard, only to end up stranded in his own delusions.
This theme is explored repeatedly in Nolan’s subsequent films—notably The Prestige, in which the script’s endless talk about magic and sleight of hand is really a way of preparing us for the trick the movie is trying to play on the audience—but it reaches its fullest form in Inception. If Memento is a portrait of the independent screenwriter, lonely, paranoid, and surrounded by fragments of his own stories, Inception is an allegory for blockbuster moviemaking, with a central figure clearly based on the director himself. Many viewers have noted the rather startling visual similarity between Nolan and his hero, and it’s easy to assign roles to each of the major characters: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the art director, all working toward the same goal as that of the movie itself—to transport the viewer into a reality where the strangest things seem inevitable. While Nolan has claimed that such an allegory wasn’t intentional, Inception couldn’t have been conceived, at least not in its current form, by a man who hadn’t made several huge movies. And at the end, we’re given the sense that the artist himself has been caught in a web of his own design.
In this light, Nolan’s Batman movies start to seem like his least personal work, which is probably true, but his sensibility comes through here as well. Batman Begins has an art director’s fascination with how things are really made—like Batman’s cowl, assembled from parts from China and Singapore—and The Dark Knight takes the figure of the director as antihero to its limit. The more we watch it, the more Nolan seems to uneasily identify, not with Batman, but with the Joker, the organized, methodical, nearly omniscient toymaker who can only express himself through violence. If the wintry, elegiac tone of our early glimpses of The Dark Knight Rises is any indication, Nolan seems ready to move beyond this, much as Francis Coppola—also fond of directorial metaphors in his work—came to both to identify with Michael Corleone and to dislike the vision of the world he had expressed in The Godfather. And if Nolan evolves in similar ways, it implies that the most interesting phase of his career is yet to come.
I didn’t want to see Captain America. The trailer wasn’t great, Joe Johnston wasn’t exactly my idea of a dream director, and most of all, I was getting a little tired of superheroes. The fact that we’ve seen four major comic book adaptations this summer alone wasn’t the only reason. Ten years ago, a movie like Spider-Man felt like a cultural event, a movie that I’d been waiting decades to see. Today, they’ve become the norm, to the point where a movie that isn’t driven by digital effects and an existing comic book property seems strangely exotic. At worst, such movies come off as the cynical cash grabs that, frankly, most of them are, a trend epitomized by Green Lantern, a would-be marketing bonanza so calculated that an A.V. Club headline summed it up as “Superhero movies are popular right now. Here’s another one.”
Which is why it gives me no small pleasure to report that Captain America is a pretty good movie, and in ways that seem utterly reproducible. This isn’t a film like The Dark Knight, which seems like an increasingly isolated case of a genius director being given all the resources he needed to make a singular masterpiece. Captain America is more the work of talented journeymen, guys who like what they do and are reasonably skilled at it, and who care enough to give the audience a good time—presumably with the kind of movie that they’d enjoy seeing themselves. Joe Johnston is no Chris Nolan, but in his own way, he does an even more credible Spielberg imitation than the J.J. Abrams of Super 8, and to more of a purpose. If this is clearly a cash grab—as its closing minutes make excruciatingly clear—it’s also full-blooded and lovingly rendered.
As a result, it’s probably the comic book movie I enjoyed most this year. While it doesn’t have the icy elegance of X-Men: First Class, it has a better script (credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), and it’s far superior to the muddled, halfhearted, and overpraised Thor. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s the only recent superhero movie to manage a credible supervillain: in retrospect, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull doesn’t do much more than strut around, but he’s still mostly glorious. And it’s also one of the rare modern comic book movies that remembers that the audience might still like to see some occasional action. As Thor failed to understand, special effects alone aren’t enough: I’ve had my mind blown too many times before. Yet it’s still fun to see an expertly staged action scene that arises organically from the story, and Captain America has a good handful of those, at a time when I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to see one.
What Captain America does, then, isn’t rocket science: it’s what you’d expect from any big studio movie, done with a modicum of care, aiming to appeal to the largest possible audience. So why aren’t there more movies like this? Perhaps because it’s harder to do than it looks: for one thing, it requires a decent script, which, more than anything else, is the limiting factor in a movie’s quality, and can’t be fixed by throwing money at it. The more movies I see, the more I respect mainstream entertainment that tries to be more than disposable, an effort that can seem quixotic in an industry where Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earns a billion dollars worldwide. Like it or not, movies are going to look increasingly like this, which is why it’s a good idea to welcome quality wherever we find it. Because it isn’t enough for a superhero to be super anymore; he also needs to be special.