Real Action

By Matthew Cheney

Seeing Christopher Nolan's movie Inception got me reflecting on his previous summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight, a film I vehemently disliked when I first saw it in the theatre, though I slowly warmed up to certain scenes and elements on repeated viewings. I didn't have any passionate feelings about Inception, finding it entertaining overall, though oddly unimaginative in some ways, but I don't expect to come to any resolved feelings about it until I've seen it at least once more. Nolan, whatever his faults, makes films that deserve multiple viewings.

I'm not sure I have any resolved feelings about The Dark Knight even after watching the whole film three times and certain scenes at least ten times. I don't mind. I keep coming back to The Dark Knight because it bothers me, and it bothers me in a way that few other films do. On the whole, it's a good sort of bother. It shakes up some of my aesthetic certainties, the things I think I know about my own taste and proclivities.

This shaking up is most pronounced with the tour de force chase scene through the streets of Gotham (actually Chicago). While at first I agreed with eminent film scholar David Bordwell's belief that "Nolan's action scenes are clunky and distressingly casual in their composition and cutting. He is much better at mind games than spatially precise physical activity," I have come to see that my dissatisfaction with many of Nolan's action sequences is not that they are the result of a failure of skill (as "clunky" and "casual" would imply), but rather it stems from a different sense of realism than Nolan's.

Nolan's choices for composition and editing are specific and deliberate. He and his crew think of themselves as realists, and they worked hard to keep the shots in the chase scene somewhat longer than the shots tend to be in action movies these days. Nolan is also averse to slow motion, a typical tool for action movies to make their biggest effects more impressive—slow motion for some films works like italics in some novels, adding emphasis and drawing the viewer's attention to a particular moment. Even action sequences that don't use slo-mo are often edited to give multiple views of big stunts and effects, lengthening them well beyond the time they would take in reality. Nolan and his editors also eschew this technique, preferring, they have said, to show the action as it would actually happen. Indeed, because Nolan prefers actual action to computer-generated effects, much of what we see is, minus some post-production smoothing, pretty much what the camera saw.

And that's the problem. We as viewers are turned into cameras. Instead of making the camera subjective, we are made objective in what we see. The questionable "realism" of this becomes obvious if you think about what it feels like to be in a tense or perilous situation. Time slows down or seems to expand. Senses are altered. Perceptions shift.

It's possible that viewers who enjoy Nolan's approach to filming action are able to experience such shifts in perception through his techniques, and I can't speak for those viewers, because my own experience is entirely the opposite—the action no longer feels like action, but rather like something distant, something utterly divorced from my own nervous system, an object to behold rather than an experience to feel.

Compare this to the first action scene (the robbery of an armored car) in Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat, a scene that I expect influenced some aspects of Nolan's chase scene in The Dark Knight, much as I expect certain elements of the bank robbery scene in Heat influenced Nolan's opening bank robbery scene. (Casting William Fichtner as the bank manager was probably no accident, since he plays a crucial small role in Heat, as well).

Mann is another director concerned with realism, though in different ways from Nolan. Mann is famous for the authenticity of the weaponry in his films, for having his actors train intensively for their roles, and for careful attention to the details of his settings. This realism in the planning and execution of his films is in service to an impressionist aesthetic, an odd combination, but an effective one for the sorts of films he makes. Mann's movies ultimately attempt a kind of realism of feelings rather than a realism of representation.

The staging of the armored car robbery is classical in many ways—the viewer always knows the relationship of the vehicles and actors to each other, and all of the actions have a beginning-middle-end structure: we see the tractor trailer get ready, we see the armored car coming down the highway, we see the ambulance blocking the road, we see the tractor trailer approach, we see the armored car stop for the ambulance, we see the tractor trailer through the driver's-side window of the armored car, we see the tractor trailer hit the armored car, we see the armored car tilt and slide toward the car dealership lot beside it, we see the cars in the lot get hit, we see the armored car slide to a stop, and, finally, the only movement is a ribbon falling from a banner above the car lot, a grace note highlighting the sudden stillness of the scene.

This is quite different from the chase scene in The Dark Knight, where despite the careful camera angles and relatively long takes, it's often difficult for the viewer to know exactly where every vehicle is in relationship to the others. I expect it's exactly this sort of thing that David Bordwell thinks is not spatially precise, and he's right about that, though I'm not sure it was really Nolan's goal to be spatially precise. I expect he wanted to insert some confusion into the scene to replicate the confusion of the characters—it is, perhaps, his only attempt to add subjectivity to the sequence.

The armored car scene in Heat is both spatially precise and occasionally subjective. We spend enough time with the characters to know who is in what vehicle. We see inside and outside the vehicles during and after the action, a choice that encourages us to feel our way into the events. We hear the shockwave from the explosion that opens the back door of the armored car, and we see the windows of the cars around it shatter from that shockwave. (The editing shows the rear door exploding twice; it may be double charges in the explosive, or it may be a technique to heighten the action, to linger on the explosion.)

Nolan often cuts away from the effect of the action, instead choosing to focus on one of the protagonists of the scene. It's all climax, no denouement. This, too, is a deliberate choice—his chase scene, for all its excitement, is not about the small characters, but rather about, primarily, the Joker and Batman. Michael Mann is more of a humanist, and his work consistently shows a concern for the effects, both physical and emotional, of the violence he portrays. We get the thrill of beautifully choreographed action scenes, but we don't get it for free. We see the armored car guards all banged up, their ears bleeding, eardrums exploded from the shockwave. We see the fear and bewilderment in their faces.

That's realism. Nolan is, to my mind, held back by the conception of realism that he cherishes. The Dark Knight may be objectively realistic in many of its shots, but it is not remotely realistic in its plot—the Joker has supernatural abilities for placing lots of explosives in exactly the right places in no time at all, for instance. Because one of his primary goals was to fill the movie with more explosions than any other in history, Nolan needed the Joker to have this ability, but it's silly to pretend that "realism" just means taking the time and spending the money to actually blow up the hospital rather than do it with computer imagery. Or that "realism" means showing the world as a camera sees it.

I'm not sure "realism" is much of a goal in and of itself. It can be a useful technique in concert with other techniques, or in service to a certain type of vision, but there are plenty of reasons to compromise it. For me, some of the best moments of The Dark Knight are ones that give up on the concept of objective realism, or at least don't make it primary—who can forget the Joker sticking his head out the windows of various vehicles, feeling the air, tasting the unbridled freedom he seems to think he is an agent for? It's a moment of impressionism, even surrealism, a moment that conveys far more than any of the rapid action sequences.

Or, more likely, that's just my taste asserting itself. I love those moments in the movie, just as I love a scene early in Michael Mann's Public Enemies in which John Dillinger's friend and mentor Walter Dietrich is shot during a prison escape, and Dillinger holds Dietrich's hand from inside a speeding getaway car while Dietrich is dragged along the ground, his eyes slowly admitting death, his hand going slack in Dillinger's, and the camera holds on this moment, until the hands slip away from each other and we follow Dietrich's body to the ground.

In reality, Walter Dietrich died long after John Dillinger. But that's another type of realism, another reality, far from the world of movies, for the world of movies makes its own reality. From that reality, though, we can look back on our own, and it is in those moments of lengthened time and subjective action that I find myself feeling most alert to a world beyond the frames of celluloid. As every science fiction reader knows, to get closer to reality, sometimes you have to leave it far behind.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.