A Critique of Jim Emerson’s Recent “The Dark Knight” Critique

Posted by @ 1:30 pm on September 21st, 2011

You’ve probably seen by now film critic Jim Emerson‘s critique of a certain action sequence in The Dark Knight (2008). Many, many people forwarded it to me; they probably also forwarded it to you.

Now, I have said many mean things about Mr. Nolan in the past. But I actually disagree to some extent with Mr. Emerson’s analysis. (Maybe I just disagree with everyone?)

So allow me, if you will, to defend my buddy Chris Nolan.

First things first. I don’t think that The Dark Knight is “a great film,” but I also don’t think that it’s a bad film, either. I think it’s “an all right film,” plenty watchable enough, cathartic and entertaining enough—and very little else. (I do take some issue with what I perceive to be a certain somber nihilism on Nolan’s behalf, but that’s another matter.) I’ve seen it a few times now, and even watched it again recently, along with Batman Begins (2005) (which I would argue is a bad film).

But let’s not argue about that now. (I will, if people want, write separate posts about Nolan’s Batman films, and rest assured that I will be writing something rather long and critical next year when The Dark Knight Rises assails us.) Let’s focus instead for the time being on Emerson’s critique, and why I think it’s…somewhat misguided.

So second first things first. I rather admire Jim Emerson as a critic—I have, for instance, fully enjoyed his Opening Shots Project, and anyone who names his blog after a Cronenberg film is fine by me. I also think that this new In the Cut Project, taken in the abstract, is pretty awesome (even if I keep mistaking it for an ongoing analysis of that weird Jane Campion movie). Watching a sequence slowly and analyzing it, in voiceover—and what’s more, doing it in order to teach others how to watch and analyze cinema—that’s totally, totally great. (I also like to think that it’s inspired by Mike Stoklasa.) Add to all of this the fact that Emerson name-checks William S. Burroughs, Stan Brakhage, and David Bordwell while doing it—terrific stuff.

Furthermore, I agree with many of Emerson’s criticisms of The Dark Knight. The first appearance of the Joker in that sequence, for instance, isn’t necessary, and serves only dissipate tension. Emerson’s critique is thorough and well done, easy to follow, and even occasionally funny.

So what’s my complaint?

It has to do with the assumptions underlying his analysis. Let’s look first at what Emerson is claiming. His thesis seems to me to be: Nolan and his editor (Lee Smith) aren’t using continuity editing, and that makes the action sequence incoherent.

The first point is incontrovertible—and Emerson amply demonstrates it—but I’m not sure that I agree with that second claim, so let’s start there. To be sure, the sequence doesn’t make sense according to the standard Hollywood realism. But is it incoherent? Impossible to follow? I hardly think so.

What happens in this sequence? The Joker ambushes the police convoy that’s transporting Harvey Dent. He does this by means of ramming things with a garbage truck and a semi truck, and by shooting various vehicles and people. Along the way, he takes out a bunch of police cars and a SWAT truck. Then Batman shows up in his Batmobile and the battle is joined.

I don’t think it’s that hard, really, to follow that line of action (broadly speaking). Even the particulars of the sequence are not all that confusing: the semi takes out the SWAT van. The Joker fires rockets at the convoy. Batman takes out the garbage truck. Of course, Emerson is exactly right when he says that the sequence plays hopscotch all over the axis of action, and he’s right when he points out how police cars appear and disappear, and he’s absolutely right when he says that it’s hard to tell which side of the police van Harvey Dent is sitting on (both sides, it would seem).

But a larger question looms: do those details really matter? In other words, if this sequence were shot and edited according to the principles of standard continuity editing, would the sequence be easier to follow? Yes, to some degree. But would that matter? Would that make The Dark Knight a better movie?

I’d argue: no. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt that critics like Emerson would like it any better if it were. (I know that my complaints with the film transcend the coherence of its action sequences. Along the same lines, my criticisms of Inception weren’t rooted in Nolan’s failure to follow established shooting and editing conventions—far from it!)

What's more, Emerson stopped well before he got to the sequence's best moment: when Batman flips the semi over—which was, despite my immense dislike for Christopher Nolan's filmmaking, FUCKING AWESOME. Not as good as when the semi charges off the overpass in "Terminator 2," mind you—but still pretty fucking cool.

My second problem with Emerson’s argument is perhaps more serious. As noted, Emerson amply documents how Nolan and his friends did not use continuity editing; this point is indisputable. But that then begs the question: are they therefore using some alternative system? Emerson, despite the thoroughness of his analysis, never asks that question; rather, he applies the metric of continuity editing to the sequence and finds it lacking. This strikes me as somewhat unfair—reminiscent, to some degree, of dismissing an abstract painting for not representing.

Indeed, Emerson asks at one point, “Did they take all the footage and throw it up in the air?” Obviously, no. The sequence has its own logic, even if that logic is muddled—I mean, it does convey meaning, somehow. Emerson knows this, and even occasionally hints that he can see some alternative logic at work—for instance, when he points out the “twisting cheat” involving the semi truck as it bashes the SWAT van into the Chicago Gotham River.

Now, I’m not about to sit down and look for logic in Nolan’s sequence, because I like to think that I have better things to do with my time. But that question—what logic is at work here (if any)?—is entirely relevant to Emerson’s critique. Without getting too deep into it, it seems obvious to me that Nolan’s sequence is much less concerned with spatial integrity, and much more concerned with SHEER VISCERAL IMPACT.

Once more, for feeling.

Is this good? Bad? The first steps of some new way forward? The end of great cinema as we know it? Hell, I don’t know. But I do think that Nolan was, in this one film, in this one sequence, pretty successful at something—at least in terms of IMPACT. Credit is due where credit is due.

Meanwhile, a more important question is taking shape: despite Emerson’s critical assumptions, does it automatically follow that Nolan et al. should have used continuity editing? No, I do not think so.

For various reasons, over the past ten years (if not longer), Hollywood has been gradually moving away from the gospel of continuity editing. That obviously bothers many more traditional—one might say more conservative—film critics. And I don’t entirely disagree with their lament: on some level, Hollywood is abandoning a large portion of its artistic craft. (The best account I’ve seen of this so far is David Bordwell’s, in his 2006 book The Way Hollywood Tells It.)

But the current situation is what it is, and it leaves us with some interesting lines of thought:

  1. Why has Hollywood changed the way it works?
  2. What system or systems (if any) are its directors now using?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that new system or systems?

I would love to hear Christopher Nolan’s account of why he made The Dark Knight the way that he did, and what narrative conventions he followed, or thought he was following. And I would love to see a critic of Emerson’s caliber tackle these pressing issues, rather than simply chastise Nolan for not using continuity editing. Or, to put it another way, I’d be much happier with the argument (should someone frame it this way) that the system that Nolan did use (if any) is not as good as continuity editing, for reasons X, Y, and Z. But Emerson isn’t making that complete an argument.

Me, I don’t think it automatically follows that filmmakers should use continuity editing. It’s just one set of narrative conventions, with numerous advantages and disadvantages. Insisting that filmmakers always do things a certain way—whether explicitly or implicitly—limits film’s ultimate artistic potential. (Formal limits may facilitate the creation of great art, but they may also result in hackneyed, formulaic movies. Craft is a double-edged sword.)

As Emerson himself says in his video, “There are lots of ways to make a film, and lots of ways to make a mess.” I agree. But he hasn’t convinced me yet that Nolan has made a mess—or that the way he made his film is not, in fact, a way to make films.

(Of course on some level, you please must understand, I can’t believe that I’m writing all of this. Chalk one up for intellectual integrity? Or sheer orneriness…)

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