Critical Breakdown: Film Grammar, Jim Emerson, and Joseph Kahn

Philip Noyce does indeed outdirect Nolan with Salt.
There's a bit of a back-and-forth going on these days between music video director Joseph Kahn and film critic Jim Emerson.  Before diving into the fray, I offer some context of what exactly is going on.
When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, Jim Emerson was one of the more vocal critics of the film, drawing largely on his assertions that Nolan and his cinematographer and editor (Wally Pfister and Lee Smith, respectively) don't seem to know how to piece together a coherent action sequence.  While this may or may not be true, it's a subjective opinion, and one that Emerson has backed-up.  Repeatedly.  For the record, I think some of his assertions about Nolan's capabilities, and certainly those of Pfister, ring a bit false, but that doesn't stop the fact that I agree that Nolan's films are all about exposition and actually show very little in the way of action, and that little bit is by and large not particularly interesting or dynamic visually, nor coherent upon second look.

In any case, here are some links to some of the things Emerson wrote about TDK then (use as you wish to fill in any gaps):
Under Cover of The Dark Knight
Stories Without Endings
The shorter, the Longer
Batman vs. the Zeitgeist
Critics Better Love The Dark Knight

Each of the above pieces map out an in-depth critical response to a film that, compared to other films from the same year, was probably underserving of such lengthy consideration.  But the sheer amount that Emerson wrote about why he didn't like certain things Nolan had done was not enough, and he was criticized constantly as simply being anti-Nolan, anti-TDK and anti-fun, despite the fact that he never says any of these things.  In fact, the most telling example that the opposite is in fact true is right in the opening of his first piece on the film, after he discusses his initial reaction:
By the end I'd had a good time, and I already know I'd like to see it again. Maybe, I've been thinking, it's kind of like a good album that's been haphazardly sequenced, with a few lackluster (or even bad) songs and occasionally dumb lyrics, muddled arrangements, or klutzy production choices. But, you know, after a while you're willing to overlook the parts that don't work in order to enjoy the parts that do. At first exposure, those rough spots stick out and even hurt. Later on, you just accept them, get used to them, or even choose to ignore them.
This willingness to work with a text like The Dark Knight is the bread and butter of true film criticism, and is self-evident in its goal, which is to better understand the film as a work of art, as a piece of entertainment, and as an historical and sociological object.  The purpose of film criticism should always be to enlighten and provide some perspective on a film.  As I said when I commented on Jim Emerson's follow-up to this whole kerfuffle, I wish more people understood that film criticism can (and often is for genuine critics and should be) much more than just saying whether or not you liked something and whether it's worth $10.

Thanks for hanging with me, but I think the above is somewhat essential information for understanding why I find this situation between Emerson and Kahn to be so maddening, interesting, crucial to critical discourse.  Now, to the task at hand: what IS all the fuss about?

Over the course of the past two weeks, Jim Emerson has posted a series of video essays about film editing and action sequences, picking apart what he thinks does and doesn't work shot by shot.  The first essay, "In The Cut: The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan", no surprise, details exactly what he found problematic with The Dark Knight and why.  Whether or not these things also bothered other people is inconsequential as to the project undertaken by Emerson as a purely subjective opinion on various things that stood out to him as he watched the film, and this sequence in particular.  It is worth noting that nowhere in the piece does Emerson ever say that he thinks the movie is bad, but that this is a poorly directed, shot and edited portion of it, and then he backs up what he thinks about it with things the filmmakers (editor Lee Smith is actually brought up directly at the beginning of the essay) actually said about the direction, shot composition and editing.  I'll let you form your own opinions on it, but I think the piece stands in conjunction with his follow-ups on Salt and Don Siegel action pieces as one of the best criticism anywhere in recent memory.

Enter into this Joseph Kahn, who makes an almost incomprehensible mistake right off the bat in his rebuttal to Emerson's critique: "I simply want to address points he explains as 'rules' – which are not. Basically, anything he states as a 'violation' is what I’m after here."  His basic assumption in tearing Emerson apart is that he literally believes that rules don't actually matter for a basic understanding of film action.  Take this quote: "Any analysis that views film from only from the prism of composition and editing, and excludes sound, has made a completely arbitrary line in the sand that does not reflect that actual totality of what you actually saw."

Kahn is making a valid argument before this about the expansion of technology and a further development of film theory based on that, including thoughts about experimental film and digital frontiers, but he seems to be negating a couple of basic facts.  First, Christopher Nolan is not engaged in a non-classical project.  He is totally disinterested in experimentation, and he is certainly no Stan Brakhage.  Second, composition and editing still contain the most basic fundamentals of film grammar, no matter what the aim, and given how well much of The Dark Knight isn't nearly as problematic as this single sequence, it seems that Nolan, Pfister and Smith know what they're doing and how they're going about it.  

Despite Kahn's correct assertion that these basic rules are not always what you need to focus on when engaging a film as text, the fact remains that TDK is a film that adheres in every regard to classical style and narrative logic.  He brings up the straw man argument of David Lynch somewhere in this rant about the "arbitrary" nature of Emerson's assumptions that a film should follow these well-established rules of film grammar only to forget that Nolan isn't even trying to do what David Lynch does.

Apparently Kahn is of the school of filmmakers (and they are out there - I dealt with them in my undergraduate days as well as now) who think that what they are doing is in no way tied to the basics of filmmaking as understood by hundreds of theorists throughout the world, and who get really upset at the notion that someone would try to read their film as something other than what they envision it to be.  The problem with that thought process is that the reason these rules developed is as much physiological as it is technical.  The human brain logically connects ideas and visual information in specific ways that helped the development of film grammar along its way, not the other way around.  

We are biologically predisposed to making certain assumptions and processing information in a certain way when watching a film, or looking at a painting, or any other work of art.  The fact that art exists that challenges those assumptions is irrelevant, because as pre-eminent classical grammar formalist David Bordwell has consistently pointed out: the exception to the rule proves that the rule does in fact exist.  Otherwise, why would anyone even try to say that what Nolan and his production team are attempting has nothing to do with what the critic is talking about?  The logical breakdown in the thought process here is staggering.

Kahn also makes a valiant attempt to correct Emerson as to his thoughts on what is going on in the sequence, but the further discussion of the SWAT van/semi-truck incident just serves to open up even more questions of spatial relationships.  Where is the truck that hits the van coming from, for instance, if the other side of the "bridge", as Kahn calls it at one point in his comments, has water on the other side.  And if it's not a bridge, but in fact is meant to convey a lake-side underground roadway (as it really exists in Chicago) then how does his reading/rebuttal of Jim's criticism of the shot make any sense whatsoever?  Even the counterpoint to Emerson serves to further distinguish how confusing the shot choices, composition and editing are in these scenes.

All in all, the rest of Kahn's arguments are wrong because his essential argument is that rules don't matter.  They do, and there are reasons.  I haven't delved into all of them here, but I would encourage anyone interested in them to do a little bit of reading on the subject from time to time.  This goes especially for Kahn, who doesn't seem to recognize film grammar even in the projects he shoots himself.*

You can read Kahn's remarks here.
Also, please check out Jim Emerson's follow-up with annotations on his text here.

*As must certainly be the case given that he doesn't even believe they exist or should be followed or indeed ever are by anyone because of a practical reason other than adhering to some ancient assumptions about what they should be doing.

Note: Above photos are taken from Emerson's posts. I just really like Salt, so that's why it's relevant.  Noyce DOES outdirect Nolan, even if I don't think Salt is an equal affair to TDK overall.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Congratulations on writing the most boring and confused article on the Dark Knight ever written. What else should one expect from someone who enjoys Salt?

matt said...

Thanks. I'm glad you thought my article was confused and boring. I wasn't really writing about The Dark Knight, but about an aspect of some critical discourse on continuity editing, but, you know, feel whatever you like.

matt said...

I'd also like to point out that just because I may believe that Salt is a film that is better edited and shot than The Dark Knight doesn't necessarily mean I like one more than the other. The notion that one can't believe one thing simultaneously with the other is totally absurd. I'd actually like to see you make a case as to how it isn't better composed and edited, but no one on that side of the argument seems to be interested in making that case.