Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why the chase sequence works, Jim?

        Jim Emerson has, in a wonderful and now famous dissection job here, analyzed why the big chase sequence in The Dark Knight doesn’t exactly work. But more than that, he does what a film critic ought to do, he inspires us to see and ask ourselves questions. Joseph Kahn has provided a fantastic and mostly technical rebuttal here, rightfully called Analyzing Action, and it has only made us smarter. Another essential read: Matt Schneider’s thought provoking essay on the same, titled in true IMDB-generation’s style – Malick versus Nolan.

        And being someoneone who loved the chase sequence, I would want to borrow some arguments from Matt Schneider, some from Joseph Kahn, and some from The Tree of Life, and document what my reactions were. I distinctly remember the first time I watched the chase sequences. Images have been burnt into my memory, and maybe some have been added. I would want to seek the liberty of drawing extensively from that experience, and my memory of it. At the same time I would want you to summon your memories too.

        The Dark Knight has been assembled like a juggernaut. Innumerable sources have stated that in different ways – some saying they get two movies at the price of one, to some saying it is extremely rushed and not pausing enough. I would say to both, fair enough. The thing is we need to bring that into context, and understand why the sequence works. As much as Jim's opinion that the sequence is mostly lazy and messy is to be respected, the very fact that it is mostly loved is something to be looked into. As in, despite all the apparent grammatical mistakes, we still have a chase sequence that is probably the most celebrated this side of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the champion in this category for me, followed closely by The Road Warrior).

        The sequence occurs at a time in the movie (middle) where the audience has already gone through the dramatic rigors of a standard feature length blockbuster. I wouldn’t waste our time on those details.

Cut to, the Chase:
First question: Where, and when does the audience get the memo that a chase sequence is right around the corner? Not when the Harvey tosses the coin, and that mushy music plays in the background. That is just the final dramatic moment, the dramatic contrast before the actual scene is about to come. We’ve seen that sort of contrast many times.
        So yes, as much as I can say, the viewer does not take that as the reference/orientation point. We’ve been trained to do that. An action sequence comes with its own establishing shot, and any changes made from a previous set-up are automatically digested.

        The action scene is established, and the viewer receives the memo with the shot of the convoy. A lower angle, and Nolan and DP Wally Pfister use a hell of a lot of low angles here, and the city leaves a distinct impression. Blue sky, blue van, blue buildings, it all is so striking, and yet there is no exhibitionistic streak on display. The cue, is the convoy on the move, which as thriller-genre convention has taught us is that whenever we’re a witness to a process that process is fraught with danger. And if the music goes silent, and the process (chopper sounds) takes center stage, we know for sure.

Cut to: The cop and a reverse angle of Harvey Dent. As I have said earlier, it is not a two shot as Jim suggests but two static shots, “confronting” each other. Had it been a two-shot, it would’ve provided for a sort of harmony between Harvey and the Cop, since they’re in the same image, and towards the same side. Two static shots with two human figures looking at each other strike a classis confrontational position, and this is how I felt even when I watched the movie for the first time. This is quite important, in fact very important, considering that Harvey distrust of cops is one of the film’s major points. Now, I wouldn’t claim that Nolan’s editing installs that idea within us at that moment with that shot-reverse shot routine; rather, what it does is plant a little feeling (idea?) in the subconscious that these guys are at the opposite ends of the imaginary table and not on the same side. That is what Harvey’s look suggests too, and here the film is working with classic montage, crisp carefully planned images and editing doing the thing for us. And yeah, it also sets up the space within.

Cut to: The serene image of the convoy through the city, taking a turn. The Joker’s theme starts playing in the background, and everything is silent. We know that music is a sign of danger, or The Joker, because it has already been set up in the movie. I think this, and the next cut are one of the most brilliant images in the film, and rein in one of Mark Twain’s tenets – Say the exact word. This image has the exact angle, and it could be read as The Joker’s POV (in the final sequence, The Joker is watching the two boats from the top floor of a tower, and in Speed Dennis Hopper’s character is basically “looking from above” through his monitors.). The Joker is established here, even before he arrives. The background score is a monotone, like a note stretched. On a monitor, it would play a single line. And we cut to one of The Dark Knight’s finest pieces of filmmaking, and as I have said before I shall say again, the edit here has a terrific rhythmic quality here, Jim. This is, for me, one of those cases of pure cinema, the kind the aughties’ viewer responds to. Like departure from the predictable. This sudden spike is just pure joy, and that is my defense. As a matter of fact, Christopher Nolan uses this kind of sudden-tonal-shift quite a lot in the film. One might remember the volatility of The Joker torturing the Batman-impostor on television and its feverish tonal high is suddenly contrasted with a serene camera gliding towards the Wayne tower.
        What these few little moments also do is perform the function of a little breather, a respite, from the relentless information overload from the film, and as it turns out this serene convoy shot is the last moment before The Joker and the narrative engine take over.

Cut to: The next overhead shot sort of prepares us, and establishes the tension ahead. From here on, there are no overhead shots. It is a superbly designed reveal to, carefully taking us from serenity to explosion. It maps that journey. This simple overhead tracking shot with the fire at end of it reins a contrast, and as thriller mechanics go, it heightens our state of mind. Had the camera stayed with the convoy from the time of its establishment and tracking it to here, it wouldn’t have provided for any contrast, and we might have entered this action scene in a battered state of mind (caused by the relentless narrative engine), already looking around. The “action”, so to speak, would’ve started earlier. But with these two overhead shot, Christopher Nolan dissipates any resident exhaustion, and clears the air for any immediate action, thus providing for suspense rather than tension. With the truck-on-fire reveal, he reins in tension, and we directly cut back to ground level. The action scene has well and truly started. The information flow is on. We sit back in our seats, or for others, sit forward.

Cut to: This is the part Jim “edited” and analyzed out of the entire action sequence, but then THIS excerpt is itself not the action scene, and it is clearly not the one the audience or we viewers love so much, or thought was awesome. Its actual function is that of a primer of the set up for the little “battle” to come about. There’s no Hans Zimmer background score, and as much as I believe we viewers, at least for the first time, take a whole lot of mood from the tone and pitch of the score. That has been the traditional device, right from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to The Road Warrior, from the late 70s (blockbusters) to now. I mean, the background score has a most interesting distancing functionality, and the way the films do it is keep us at a safe distance where we are shown as well as given cues on how to feel. Without the score, we’re smack bang in the middle of the scene, with no aid, and we’ve mostly no idea “which direction” this all would go. The score gives us our bearings, without it we don’t very much to hold on to other than pure visuals. Nolan removes that cue, and we’re more or less in no man’s land, trying more to figure out what the hell’s happening. That is why Jim, most viewers are describing it as chaos. It sure as hell is, and just the same way we’re constantly latching on to pure visuals in The Tree of Life, accumulating moments and sensations without actively dissecting the composition, here we’re merely capturing movements. It is chaos, because it is intended to be chaotic. But not The Bourne franchise chaotic where we don’t even know what happened. Many other detractors are taking the chaos-filmmaking most literally, and that kind of chaos-making is very unimaginative. Because, even when we’re in the middle of such an event, like say a football match in a stadium (as opposed to in a television with commentary where the commentary is the cue), we know what’s happened but we don’t immediately register or index the chronology. We merely register the events, and our brain takes care of it later on, creating a completely new memory.
        Which begs the question – would Jim undertake a frame by frame analysis of The Tree of Life, where the whole movie is practically this, to understand it step by step. It would be something you know.
        This particular segment, which clocks around 3 min. in an action sequence of 10 min, is a stunner in that sense. It might not be a triumph as far as principal photography is concerned, but the way it has been edited does betray a certain strategy. What we register, and it all happens so quickly that we don’t even get to assimilate all the details is that we see -> truck crash car, crash another car, semi hits van, van into the river, The Joker makes an appearance (this is one impressionable image), The Joker shoots the car, shoots the van, Batmobile comes in between, explosion, tires screeching, bang, bang. We react to movements and register impact/shock. To people who claim that The Tree of Life would be the way movies will be made, here’s news for you – they’re already being made that way. It is the drama our decade of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass deserves.

Jim, your question - How do these choices make it so good?
        If we remember the action sequences of Bullitt (where suspenseful music again becomes silent to take us in the middle of the chase) and The French Connection, where cameras mounted on cars, and cars colliding into cameras were done with the precise intention to remove all theatricality and rein in realism. The motivations here are basic Jim, to make this centerpiece feel real. But then, those chases had two cars, and here we have 3 cars, two vans, one garbage truck, one semi, and one tank. Again, how can so many vehicles feel realistically crystal clear and precise? I can see these motivations hanging in front of the filmmakers, and their adherence to basic clarity where audiences know what happened.
        In fact, to Jim's point regarding 2/3 cars, I distinctly remember being confused, not consciously, but merely getting the sense that, something is not right. What I was asking wasn’t why the car is behind, or why there is an extra one, but I rather asking why there seem to be more vehicles (simply, more vehicles) than the one that started the chase, and I remember getting the feel that there might more stray cars here over and above our convoy.
        And regarding the van in the river. It does obey the 180-degree rule, as Joseph Kahn suggested, when it takes the impact and moves to the right, and then the driver is pushed to the right, and then the van dives into the river right-ways. It is the question of plausibility here, and yes, I would agree that another cut of the motion would’ve made it clearer. But in there, in the moment, it doesn’t feel wrong. I distinctly remember this image from my first viewing, and on the big IMAX screen, there is a depth to it that is lost on a computer monitor. My memory is of a camera angle 30 degree from the bridge towards the incoming chase (facing south, north being the direction the convoy’s headed). That is because the screen is wide enough to envelope you, and because the length of the bridge goes beyond, a quick cut as this feels (and it can only feel) that the bridge is towards us, and the angle is more acute than even 30 degrees, and the truck is falling perpendicular to our vision.
It makes it good because it feels quick and frank without any theatricality. It feels dangerous because The Joker’s end of the bargain seems to terribly effective. I mean, Tuco said – “when you shoot, then shoot, don’t talk”. We don’t talk here. Just plain bang bang. Not that The Joker gang is successful and efficient, but that, in those three minutes, where cars and vans are eliminated within a couple of moments of each other, we get the feeling that we’re in a spot of bother. The film has already killed Gordon, and we’re in a heightened state at this moment. And precisely because things accumulate so quickly, we feel this could be it. Until the Batmobile shows up.
        So this primer Jim, and it reaches an end where the Batmobile explodes. We also get a visual aid here, when The Joker stops the truck and wants to drive. There is a “change”. The chase sequence will start above. All the vehicles exit the bridge.

        And that is when we get a bearing, where The Batman sort of comes and saves us, and provides clarity to the proceedings. The score is precisely started with the arrival (or birth) of the Batpod, and it suddenly gives us relief, and is also an awesome moment. As Stephanie Zacharek said, a movie being awesome doesn’t necessarily mean it is great. But then, action sequences have always relied on such a moment, a wow moment, where audiences would be stunned, united and forced to applaud. I think everybody cheers when the Batpod is born. From here on, the sequence acquires the theatricality, the exhibitionism we tend to associate with blockbusters, thanks to The Batman. We know he is control, as he rams through glasses and walls and traffic. He is the hero, and through clever usage of contrast, Christopher Nolan and team have created the illusion that a great chase sequence has been experienced.

        I hope that explains our viewpoint, and why we find it engaging. I thank Jim, because now I have gained a greater appreciation for this particular sequence. But more importantly I thank him for asking us such questions, and making us better viewers. I guess a great film critic is one who inspires us to answer interesting questions, and after this exercise I say he's one. Thanks Jim.

1 comment:

Sinistar said...

Great analysis. But you still don't get Nolan's sadistic, demonic drift. ;)