Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part II: Gotham as a Landscape

WARNING: I will spoil some shit. There will be extensive discussion of the plot. I am bad at keeping secrets when I engage in close readings. Just sayin'.

So we move on to Nolan's Gotham City, first in terms of portrayal, and then in terms of its relationship to the stories of Batman and the Joker, Harvey, Bruce, and Rachel. The last post mentioned the importance of shooting Gotham in a real city, a creative decision that gave the environment its believability. Christopher Nolan chose Chicago to represent this dangerous metropolis, which makes sense, since Chicago has long been an icon of urban blight and faceless concrete. The use of Chicago is especially fitting because the backbone of The Dark Knight is a story about crime and politics, and Chicago is the greatest mob city in the United States. Chicago's personality has a lot to do with Gotham's grittiness; however, Nolan's unique perspective on the environment makes it a city of its own, the same way his direction, combined with Heath Ledger's brilliant acting, gave us a Joker we'd never seen before.

As an access point, let's contrast Nolan's Gotham with his Hong Kong, where Batman goes to retrieve the smuggler Lau. Considering the viewer only inhabits Hong Kong for a few scenes, it's striking how vivid a treatment the city is given, and how effective a foil it is for Gotham. Hong Kong feels like it was bled out of a completely different imagination, as though Nolan hired a new production designer and cinematographer for that city. It's a city in the clouds, where Bruce and Batman aren't even seen on the ground. The tall buildings allow for sweeping shots of Batman in flight, and the extensive glass facades give an acrophobic anxiety to the fight scenes. Batman is a beautiful sight in such a pristine environment, but it only serves to remind us how alien he is to that city.

Gotham, by contrast, is shot almost entirely in low shots, looking up at bridges and buildings. In scene after scene, we peer toward the buildings from the streets and the sidewalks, and the camera is constantly caught between walls of brick and concrete. It's a petrified tunnel system that Lucien Fox's sonar device temporarily converts into a visual swamp, and even in the daylight, it always seems cramped. This city is defined by two visual motifs that I'd like to draw attention to: the tunnel/underpass, and the ravine of unbroken buildings.

The tunnel/underpass is by far the most prominent visual motif of Nolan's Gotham City. We first see Batman in a parking garage, facing the mob, the Scarecrow, and a small gang of Batman impersonators. This low-ceilinged horizontal expanse is where Batman seems to be most at home, and this might be part of the reason that it feels spatially similar to the Bat Cave, though it's not as well-lit. However, later scenes draw him deeper into the tunnels of Gotham. Two-Face's final scene takes place in what looks like a cavern, carved out in Gotham's concrete flesh. Batman also emerges from these labyrinthine shadows into Gotham sunlight in the film's closing moments – this is a key scene, and it's one that I'll return to later in this reading.

The other important motif in The Dark Knight is the canyon formed by the building faces, which extend the claustrophobia of the tunnels into the daylight above the earth. This formation was essential to the attempted assassination of the Mayor – as a sniper on a fire escape points out, the police seem useless and vulnerable when faced with the surrounding walls of windows.

These two motifs converge in the long chase sequence, when Harvey Dent is being transported by a SWAT team beset by the Joker, and Batman emerges to confront him. This scene represents the struggle over Dent's life... a conflict that eventually sublimates into the struggle for Gotham's soul... and in order to gain the advantage, The Joker draws Harvey and Batman into the concrete underworld beneath Gotham. This is the descent into Hell, the stage for the confrontation that determines the course of The Dark Knight. After they endure The Joker's escalating trials, the chase re-emerges into the shadow of the Gotham buildings, and again, the canyon formation asserts itself. In this canyon, air support is useless, and The Joker is confident in facing Batman directly, in the middle of the street, without flinching.

Of course, it's Gordon, returning from the dead, who traps The Joker at the end of the confrontation. There's certainly more symbolic significance wrapped up in this emergence from the underworld, but I don't think I have the time to fully analyze it. However, if you want another interesting portrayal of a city, rendered as a labyrinthine Stygia and shadowy home to the restless dead, check out Venice in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. It's surreal and haunting, and if you've seen The Dark Knight, it may remind you of a more magical Gotham City.

Actually, for the time being, forget Venice. Christopher Nolan is building on a complex, very American history when he renders this gritty, noir Gotham City. Dennis O'Neil, a writer and editor of the Batman comics, said that "Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November" (see the Wikipedia article for the citation). It's worth noting that this remark was published in 1994, just before Rudy Guiliani became Mayor of New York and started cracking down on petty crimes and reducing urban decay. O'Neil is talking about the bohemian New York City of twenty years ago, and he's talking about the parts of the city where students and working-class residents were living. Gotham's business district is the cramped, cynical Wall Street of the 1980's; its residential areas are the East Village and Lower East Side apartments, the downtown church steps where panhandlers spent (and still spend) their nights. New York and Gotham have always been a bit enigmatic and intimidating.

This is the city Nolan has sketched for us, a vortex for Batman's vengeance and retribution, an underworld so overwhelming that it makes his heroism seem futile. In Nolan's lucid portrayal, however, Gotham isn't just a setting. It's also a theater for mythical characters and a lynchpin in their relationships. This relationship between the city and its inhabitants is what I'll be addressing in my final post on this topic. Tune in next week, kiddies, because we're coming into the home stretch.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part I: Comic Book Film Cities

I think we can generally agree that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger have created a goddamn masterpiece, and even though Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t really provide the magic that made it happen, they certainly pulled their weight. Everybody’s been talking about The Dark Knight, and there’s a reason for that… it’s an unmatched piece of cinema work, not just a great comic book film, but a great film in general. Disguised under the action, this is a film driven by the psychological confrontations, and it takes on the power of an epic suspense thriller, a la The Game or Primal Fear. It matches, and even surpasses these movies, because the villain is so powerful and terrifying, and because it develops its psychological relationships throughout a whole host of characters, rather than simply between two or three. I hope it’s the first comic book / action movie to win a really important Academy Award.

There’s going to be a lot of talk about it, though, so I’m going to try to look at it through a specific lens. Rather than replicate the many orgasming movie critics and drooling bloggers, I’m going to try to analyze Nolan’s fine piece of work by way of an implicit “Other,” an almost Godlike character who appears in every scene, but who isn’t acted by anyone famous, and who doesn’t even appear in the credits. This character is Gotham City itself, and in the next three blog entries, I’m going to discuss its portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Note: there may be spoilers in the next couple blog posts. There aren't really any in this one, though.


Gotham, as geography and community, plays a critical role in The Dark Knight. The character of the city is at stake in all of the major conflicts – Harvey Dent as a political hero who loses his faith, Batman and The Joker gambling for the city’s soul – and its geography provides the murky character of Nolan’s raw noir vision. The Joker’s fragmented nihilism may warrant a postmodern psychoanalysis, and the Dark Knight’s vigilantism may beg for a moral and ethical debate on justice and authority in a chaotic world, but a comprehensive analysis of The Dark Knight has to start with a look at Gotham City, the stage where these characters are developing, and (as I’ll explain later) a keystone in their strained relationships.

Fictional cities as the central figures in comic book films: however rare and quirky this sounds, it’s actually something that’s already come up, and something that’s going to be coming back up again soon. Give me a moment on a tangent, please… I’d like to talk about Frank Miller.

Frank Miller actually wrote the comic book The Dark Knight Returns, which is the landmark use of that nickname. His comic, published in 1986, was Batman’s ticket out of the blue suit and bad effects of the old Batman comics and television show. It was about Bruce Wayne returning from retirement to fight crime as an old man, and the psychological and ethical demons he had to face in a new era of crime and cruelty. Miller’s series established the gritty, violent image that Nolan is now working with. Within Nolan’s plot, the copycat Batmen may even be an homage to the imitators in Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. However, aside from this homage and the similarity in tone, the plot of Miller’s 1986 comic has nothing to do with Nolan’s film.

Miller created another comic title, independent of the DC mythology, entitled Sin City. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve seen the movie. It’s notable in this discussion because out of all the comics in the history of the medium, Sin City might be the most concerned with representing a city’s soul. Miller’s Sin City comic books were all about the urban environment, its decay and madness and corruption, and the characters who flourish within it… the narrative itself was fragmentary, and almost incidental, alongside the city that gave it its unity.

I bring up Sin City in order to discuss the film, rather than the comic book itself. The approach to production in Miller’s Sin City film was innovative, but ultimately flawed, and Nolan’s Gotham City immensely surpassed it. As much as it’s an interesting concept to create an imaginary city from scratch, you can’t find the city’s soul on a green-screen sound stage. This represents a fundamental failure of Sin City: whereas Nolan’s Gotham is labyrinthine and claustrophobic, Miller’s Sin City is flat and small. Where Nolan’s Gotham is dark and gritty, Miller’s Sin City is textureless and artificial. This was an unacceptable side-effect… if your book is about the soul of the city, you won’t get what you’re looking for in a composited environment.

I fear the same problem from Miller’s upcoming film, The Spirit. Again, The Spirit is about the character of a city… the tagline for the movie is, “My city screams. She is my lover. I am her spirit.” The trailers and promotional material give the sense of a city that’s defined by an anonymous hero and a twisted maze of sexual tension. Unfortunately, they also give the sense of a city that’s created in Adobe Illustrator, rather than discovered on the urban streets.

Nolan’s Gotham, by contrast, is a place of texture and atmosphere. It’s the inky black urban sideshow that we look for in all our post-industrial gothic punk settings, from Vampire: The Masquerade to Crime and Punishment. It’s the perfect stage for a confrontation over ideals and humanity, a Nietzschian abyss where even a mythical hero can see his faith slip away. This city has character… and I’ll be discussing it in my next entry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wall-e and Authorship: Pixar's Career as an Auteur

So Wall-e is the... what... ninth Pixar film? If you read my last post, you'll know my opinion of it... that it's a new level of craftsmanship on Pixar's part. Now, we've all seen artists who developed their skills to transcendent levels over the course of their careers -- Picasso's periods, Shakespeare's writings -- now we have a new artist (if you can call it that), the animation studio that's going to define the cinematic experiences of a whole generation, and it seems as though they've yet to peak.

Before this, Pixar's filmography was probably defined by Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo. Toy Story made them famous and put them squarely ahead of their competition, and Monsters Inc. was their introduction to big-time at the Oscars, being nominated for Best Animated Feature, as well as three other awards, and winning Best Original Song (beating out all the live-action soundtracks that year). Finding Nemo was Pixar's clincher, the film whose characters and storytelling defied all the expectations of the critics. The Best Animated Feature award was the crown on Pixar's ascending head.

Pixar's other films, movies that everybody adored but that didn't quite change the landscape of media, include The Incredibles and Ratatouille... both of these could have taken that coveted Best Animated Feature award, but Finding Nemo just happened to be the earlier project. Wall-e might indeed be the next definitive movie in Pixar's oeuvre, not only because it had the immaculate craftsmanship of Finding Nemo, but also because it experimented with style and boundaries in such a way that it seemed to be a new experience, even for the seasoned Pixar fan.

Has anyone else noticed the strangeness of treating an animation studio -- Pixar -- as if it's a single human being, an author with a unified creative vision that sculpts the animated masterpieces we see each year? Nobody seems to have taken notice of this phenomenon, but it's definitely something new. In the past, any noteworthy film was attached to a director's name, and that film's artistic vision was credited to that director. This is the essence of auteur theory, and a cornerstone of Hollywood's celebrity marketing pitch: see the new Hitchcock / Kurosawa / Cronenburg / Woody Allen / Cohen Brothers film this summer, and return to the world of an artist you've fallen in love with.

The problem with this approach is that every film is a collision of hundreds of different talented people. The film industry is massive and evenly distributed over too many disciplines to count, and in every film, you can find the hand of a director, a cinematographer, a production designer, an effects supervisor, and a thousand consultants and lackeys. Maybe you don't actually like David Fincher... maybe you just happened to like Zodiac because he worked with Harris Savides, and so the photography direction was exceptionally brilliant.

In this sense, as strange as it sounds to treat Pixar as an individual auteur when it's actually a whole collective, it might actually be a more honest way to look at authorship in cinema. After all, even though the staff changes, there's a good chance that most of the principal personalities... concept artists, production designers, photography supervisors, and head writers... are carrying across from movie to movie. We can see the development of a company, and the streamlining of its vision, as we watch each successive triumph on the movie screen. We can stop pretending it's just one guy with a camera and some friends from acting school, and we can see that these things are the product of a vast, synchronized creative/corporate process.

As long as I trust that there is still room for the auteur in film... for people like Werner Herzog, who really do involve themselves deeply in every step of the process... then I'm also happy to treat a great company with the same respect I would give to a great artist. Artist, company, single, multiple... we're so over those binaries! This is the future!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Silence and the Lens: Innovations in wall-e

First of all, I will join the chorus of voices praising Wall-e, Pixar's newest offering. Those of you who watched Cars may have thought the company was finally in its decline (I had no such thought, because I haven't seen any Pixar film since The Incredibles). Wall-e should have proven you wrong -- the studio is still at the top of its game.

Even the best Pixar films... The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo... were simply excellent films. Since they revolutionized 3D animation with Toy Story, Pixar hasn't really managed any kind of true innovation. Like any good artist, they've simply been developing their motifs and honing their craft, building a body of work that demonstrates a commitment to their art. Wall-e, however, may actually represent a break with this trend. It doesn't just feel like an excellent film... it feels like a groundbreaking piece of work, maximizing and ultimately transcending the style that Pixar has been developing.

It's hard to identify exactly why this is true. After all, the film follows certain Pixar formulas to the letter. It's a journey of self-discovery undertaken by personified non-humans endowed with exaggerated but deeply sympathetic personalities, created with computer animation, and appealing to a wide age range by way of simple emotional cues. What makes it such a fantastic movie?

Perhaps the reason Wall-e is such a brilliant piece of cinema is that it wrestles with a number of formal and narrative boundaries at the same time. Though it might go unnoticed by the casual viewer, the actual technical treatment of the film is actually rather groundbreaking... aside from the obvious adoption of live action video, the film also introduces certain tropes of camera-work, like depth of field and real-world positioning, to simulate the actual craft of cinematography. They discuss this in the fourth section of this article, and in the middle of this video.

This seems subtle, but it has a profound effect. The use of realistic angles and tropes from the perspective of cinematography makes the world seem more present, and more evocative, than the previous primary-colored universes of Pixar have been. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer that Pixar consulted, has turned the virtual camera into something closer to a real one, and just as his shots through the reeds made us feel like we were actually on the prairie in The Assassination of Jesse James, so they made us feel the reality of a deserted, post-apocalyptic Big Apple in Wall-e. Don't mistake this for a novelty... deferral to a real-world cinematographer is a powerful new idea in computer animation.

Of course, just as it pushed this formal convention, so Wall-e expanded its narrative dimension, as well. Forsaking dialogue, the storytellers gave us characters that communicated almost entirely in gesture, so all their semantic messages were pared down to the simplest possible sentiments. This probably has something to do with the earth-shaking effectiveness of the pathos and sentimentality in Wall-e. This is not a lazy love story -- just as the world shines through Deakins' camera lens, so the characters' emotions pour out of their rudimentary movements and gestures, and the audience is able to appreciate Wall-e as an iconic sentimentalist, the most childish, desperate kind of romantic, whose love can drive a whole sequence of universe-spanning events.

In my rush to show how Wall-e was a unique moment in cinema, I've picked it apart for innovations, and I'm in danger of losing sight of the work of art itself. The political message of the film -- something that apparently has conservatives all tweaked out -- is below remark, doing little beyond supplying a premise and giving the film some topicality. It's not a film about humans destroying their world, nor is it about the heroic merit of rediscovering your humanity and returning to your home. The film is really a simple love story (rendered in brilliant non-verbal storytelling) set in an empty, hopeful world beyond the reach of human trivialities (rendered with the help of a visionary virtual lens). The innovations do what innovations must do in order to avoid becoming gimmicks: they vanish into the texture of a story whose power becomes the defining feature of the work of art.