Jim Emerson, The Dark Knight, and other things that make no sense.

Who wants to talk about The Dark Knight for a minute?

A lot of chatter circulated in the movie-nerdist blogosphere last week concerning Jim Emerson’s video critique of the truck chase in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman epic. Much of the attention focused around Emerson’s notion that Christopher Nolan is overrated and/or awful as a film director, and also Batman.

I thought Emerson’s video was interesting, if deeply flawed, but I hadn’t planned to weigh in; way smarter people already had the issue very well covered by the time I arrived. As the articles poured in, however, In noticed one important piece of the puzzle that was being overlooked, a piece crucial to understanding the full context of the argument.

First, some background. Emerson is a critic and the founding editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com, and I’ve linked to him here ever since hanging up my net shingle. He’s a hyper-intelligent critic with strong opinions, and he occasionally drives me completely batty with rage. In other words, he’s a good read. Anyway, Emerson launched a new series of videos a couple of weeks ago, videos intended to dissect and analyze the craft of editing action scenes. For his first video, Emerson gave us this:

It’s long, I know. But it’s still The Dark Knight, and most people love that movie, so you should click.

Did you watch it? Pretty crazy, right? By the time Emerson is done, it’s like, holy crap is that scene hard to follow, or what? And since one of the laws of the internet is that any post involving Batman will have an equal and obstinate reaction, the anger began to build. Intellectual, persnickety, movie-nerd anger. We’re weird critters, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, Emerson’s video popped up at Devin Faraci’s BadassDigest, and the comments there led me to a fabulous three-part mega essay by Film Critic Hulk about the proper cutting of action sequences…

(By the way, do you read Film Critic Hulk? Because you totally should be reading Film Critic Hulk. He’s quickly turning into one of the most thoughtful and thorough critics on the internet, which is insane because he writes posts in all caps with broken English and his word count is apocalyptic. Still, awesome.)

…and then on Friday, the video gets totally BLASTED by Joseph Kahn, director of Torque and Detention. Kahn has a hard time finding ANY value in Emerson’s argument, which to me is a bit of an over-correction, because Emerson is definitely not all the way wrong. Emerson correctly notes several continuity errors, points out a problem with The Joker’s rocket aim, and correctly identifies a fairly muddy perspective glitch, where the Joker and Batman appear to be on a collision course, only to have Batman wreck into the wrong lane of traffic.

(Although one could argue that the cop repeatedly screaming “Look Out!” in the truck clears that problem up, but there’s still confusion in the cut.)

But, see, Emerson is also wrong a LOT. As Kahn notes, Emerson indulges in tangents about how HE would have directed the scene, a class felony in film criticism. He also sets up a slew of false arguments to fill gaps when there’s nothing to talk about, and it’s one of these arguments that I’m going to look at more closely.

One of Emerson’s big problems with the sequence begins at 02:50 in the video as Harvey Dent takes a seat in the back of the police van. We clearly see Harvey put his back to the passenger side of the vehicle while he shares dialogue with Rachel, just before the door shuts on him.

The very next shot we have of Harvey—and pretty much the only shot of Harvey we have for the rest of the sequence, a shot that Nolan returns to often—is this one:

Emerson argues that this is distracting for the audience because they can’t confirm where Harvey is sitting. Is he still on the passenger side? There’s no window, no context, and no establishing shot that confirms Harvey’s place in the van.

What Emerson is talking about is basic film language, the kind of shots that most moviegoers never notice, but if neglected can transform a good film into unwatchable junk. Basically, no single shot in any movie actually relates to any other single shot in the movie. Every shot in every movie is a snippet of disconnected time, and it’s how the shots are lined up next to one another that creates meaning for the audience. In this case, that second shot of Harvey could have been shot on a different day or in a different truck, or it could have been pulled from a totally different movie and jammed in there. It doesn’t directly confirm Harvey’s position in the space, and by itself, it means absolutely nothing. Emerson’s argument is that our minds are aware of this, even if we’re not, creating subtle confusion as our minds struggle to piece the action together in the background while our eyes constantly download new and sometimes contradictory information. It’s kind of like when you’re at work and you’re not done with Tuesday’s report, but then somebody drops Wednesday’s on your desk.

This is the first result for “semiotics” on Google Images.

What Emerson glosses over, however, is the inconvenient fact that this shot does NOT exist in a vacuum. If the truck chase was all the movie there was, as in the entire movie begins with the helicopter shot of the convoy, then Emerson’s right. Who is Harvey? Where is he sitting? What truck is he in? We’d have no way of knowing.

But that didn’t happen. Like 30 seconds earlier, the audience watched Harvey get into the truck and sit down on the passenger side during an important and memorable bit of conversation. THAT’s your establishing shot. Our brains didn’t reset when the truck started. Nolan relies on that earlier shot to make sense of this one. We already believe Harvey is on the passenger side of the truck, and the visual information in the shot reinforces our belief.

Let’s look at the image again.

Note that the camera shoots Harvey cheated to his left side, and that the truck’s light source shines on his right. Judging by the shadow on the wall, the light source appears to be positioned close and just above Harvey, which most of us would immediately (and probably subconsciously) assume to be some kind of ceiling or high light of the truck. Lights like that are usually placed in the center to maximize the lit area, and since Harvey’s right side is facing towards center, that means Harvey is most likely sitting, surprise surprise, on the passenger side, exactly where he’s supposed to be and where our minds already had him based on the earlier scene’s information.

At least, that’s how my mind works. Emerson’s apparently works like this:

Emerson has other questionable points in his video, but I chose to highlight this issue of Harvey’s seating arrangement because I think it’s a symbol for what’s really going on here overall. I’ve been reading Jim Emerson for years. He’s a really, really smart guy and he analyzes film with a gumshoe-like attention to detail that’s often fascinating. He knows his shit, so he should also be smart enough to know that he’s standing on some pretty weak legs here.

Unless, that is, he’s got some other agenda.

Emerson’s name has grown in infamy since this video appeared online, but for those of us who have been following him for a while, this is just the latest chapter in Emerson’s strange obsession with Christopher Nolan. The truth is that has been grinding an ax against Nolan for years, and this video marks the moment where it’s finally starting to seem a little weird. If you scour Emerson’s blog, you’ll uncover pages and pages of anti-Nolan writings. This link goes to a page full of stories bashing The Dark Knight, including at least two articles about Emerson’s distaste for a 4 second shot of a school bus leaving a bank.

Eagle-eyes will notice that he hasn’t posted a Dark Knight article since 2009. That’s because he had something else to write about. My favorite part of this article is the insecure bit at the bottom where he posts Roger Ebert’s “permission” for people to not like Inception, as if that permission were necessary. A preemptive defense from Nolanites.

Here’s a “review” of The Prestige where he admits to having no interest in the film, compares it incongruously to Shyamalan’s Signs, then dismisses it just as he predicted.

And when given the chance to write about any director he pleases for an entirely different site, Emerson chooses a familiar target.

Dude just genuinely doesn’t like Nolan. That’s totally his right, of course, and as long as his criticism is intelligent and informed, bring it on. Nolan’s not perfect, and as a developing filmmaker, he needs all the puncturing he can get. How else is he supposed to improve if he’s drunk off his own myth?

Unfortunately, Emerson’s rants are starting to seem less like valid criticism and more the guy at the end of Body Snatchers, telling us to watch the skies. I know it must be frustrating for a critic to watch as a director he doesn’t enjoy is gradually canonized into movie sainthood, as seems to be happening right now with Nolan. It’s only natural for Emerson to feel like his education places him in the unique position of being able to make a stand, to turn heads in the public and get a little balance back into the conversation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before.

It reminds me a lot of Bosley Crowther.

If you read the Arthur Penn Project, you may remember his name from my post about Bonnie and Clyde. Crowther was the old school New York critic who didn’t like Bonnie and Clyde and couldn’t accept that the general public did. He never missed an opportunity to bash the film and went out his way to engage with his readers even as the mud he threw just found its way back inside his door.

The comparison isn’t completely valid. Emerson isn’t attacking from a position of power as Crowther was, and Crowther was demonstrably wrong while Emerson is arguably right to call The Dark Knight overrated (I love the film, but there is an argument to be made.) Emerson is also unlikely to have his career totally destroyed.

“Unless I feel like it.”

He may be in danger, however, of having his voice as a critic mean something less than it should. Emerson went out of his way to launch an ongoing video series with a drive-by attack at a film against which he seems to have some kind of vendetta. His attack consists of weak arguments and strawmen designed to give himself a victory hash on the scoreboard. Even the very basis of the argument could be considered a strawman, because it’s not as if people even watch Dark Knight for of the action. Didn’t we already know that Nolan’s strength isn’t in his action sequences? Didn’t we establish this with Batman Begins? The draw of The Dark Knight wasn’t the action, it was Heath Ledger’s performance and, yes, the tight storytelling, and the way the film presents these cartoonish characters in a more serious, palatable way that appeals to a mass audience who wouldn’t be caught dead at a comic book convention. Attack Dark Knight for its action? Might as well call Se7en a rotten film because you don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Emerson’s vendetta risks compromising his position as a critic. Armond White has written himself into the role of a contrarian so completely that his criticism carries no weight anymore. Like or dislike a movie, anyone who disagrees can just say “White just likes to be different.” Nobody takes his opinion seriously anymore. If Emerson keeps this up, he risks becoming “just that guy who has a hate on for Chris Nolan.” As soon as your readers don’t believe what you’re writing comes from a place of honesty, your value as a critic goes poof.

So let people have their Dark Knight, Mr. Emerson. You’ve made your point clearly, consistently, and persistently. Believe me, you’re on record, and if the world one day decides that The Dark Knight is the sloppy mess you believe it to be, then you’ll be vindicated, just like Pauline Kael was when she came down on the right side of Bonnie and Clyde. Do you hate the film? Then hate the film. Write your post and move on, because there’s nothing to be gained wasting so much time and energy simply trying to prove yourself right. There are plenty of other films in the sea.

Besides, if you want to analyze incomprehensible action scenes, you’ve only just begun to fight.

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  1. #1 by JC on 09/27/2011 - 6:58 AM

    And since this post, he’s written another entry about “realism”, that basically asks the same question he asked in the previous two entries about TDK. He’s certainly determined to the keep the ball rolling…

  2. #2 by James Nelson Smith on 10/10/2011 - 5:04 PM

    You were spot on with Quantum of Solace. I think it is even more of a shame because you can see that some really good driving stunt work is in that scene, but you’ll never know how good it is, because you can’t freakin’ tell what the hell is going on. I don’t know what anyone was thinking to let the editing job on that particular scene get by.

  3. #3 by ourladywar on 10/18/2011 - 6:40 PM

    I agree with James! Just watching that again made my stomach turn. Were we – the audience – supposed to be the guy in the trunk? Tossed around, unseen, and dizzy? If so, yes, great chase scene ;)

    Interesting to see the comparison between Emerson and Crowther on the heels of the Penn project. Kind of lends itself to there being no time-frame to… I guess this sort of cinematic campaigning that can sometimes run against a film-maker. It just keeps happening!

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