Friday, September 16, 2011

Analyzing Action

A film critic named Jim Emerson recently deconstructed an action sequence from Dark Knight and claimed that it violated filmmaking rules and spacial relationships. He thought the sequence was indecipherable and that Christopher Nolan, when it comes to action, is essentially incompetent. 

As gentlemanly as that sounds, the methodology he uses is inaccurate and misleading. I’m not out to destroy this guy, but his observations are so flawed it just can’t be left in the universe like that. With the internet being what it is, I'd rather not have this misguided laugh track become the Loose Change of film geeks. Plus, Emerson sounds like a prick.

I don’t have a problem of criticism. In fact, I love film criticism and think it is vital to the historical and cultural dialogue of cinema. Great criticism helps define our interpretation of art and is a canon of thought that shapes both future artists and audiences. A good critic is just as valuable to the cinema as the movies themselves, and I have learned as much reading as I have watching or making (note: criticism as in critical analysis is not always the same as "reviews").

However, there is a point where criticism is so flawed and the author is pontificating on an area that is so out of his area of expertise, he is basically talking out of his ass. That is Jim Emerson’s knowledge of film space and the “rules” he has regurgitated out of a basic textbook.

I am going to go over his major points and explain the flaws. I’m going to skip over as many “opinions” as I can as he has every right to hold them, however smug they may be. This would be things like his personal preferences of how guns should fire, marksmanship, or how characters should act. Instead, 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.

We’ll start with an accusation from him, and then my response. I’ve occasionally embedded snippets of his video.

INTRO: “A filmmaker has two tools to convey information visually – composition and cutting.”

This is old film school thought. It’s not even oversimplification, it’s wrong. It stems from the technological origin of silent filmmaking. Film began as “film,” literal strips of pictures moving through some sort of isolated gate that unified an image in sequential progression creating an illusion of movement. 

The addition of actually physically editing different strips created the idea of a “cut.” The delineation of composition and edits exists as a technical solution, but there is no conceptual reason why these two must live apart. The concept of a “shot” is a technical term that makes it easy to produce, but modern techniques like morphing and inverted blends can create cinematic ideas that are neither edits nor separated.

The idea that cinema exists “in the cut” implies that all filmmaking is based on some subconscious, comparative analysis of images. While the mind does naturally have a pattern recognition mode, it’s not the edit that triggers this. We are always doing this, in ALL ART, at ALL TIMES. In fact, as you get out of bed your mind is triggering a historical pattern response to orient you and make sure you don’t knock into your bedstand. It is not the placement of two images that creates the unique experience that is cinema. A typical motion graphics flash page on a website can fuck this concept in the ass.

Many of our old critical thoughts on the aesthetics of film are defined by the limitations of old technology and workflow. This includes sound, which was originally added as an afterthought and curiosity, but is as fundamental to cinematic technique as the concept of a “picture.” We again only separate because we must shoot sound separately from the picture, but this has nothing to do with the actual unit of a cinematic idea. David Lynch for one composes images with sound, and his images are inseparable from the audio.

As modern technology makes it easier and cheaper to access picture and sound and manipulate it, digital filmmaking will release our critical thinking from being so closely tied to shorthand production terminology, and reveal a purer cinematic ideal that is not afraid to embrace how we really experience movies.

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.

Now, Dark Knight.

CLAIM: Nolan violates the 180 degree rule, and this is confusing.

Emerson never explains why the 180 degree “rule” supposedly works. I have yet to read any precise technical papers on this, but it’s pretty obvious that as we tend to view images scanning on a horizontal plane during the course of a normal day - cars, lions and OJ Simpson will attack you from ground. 

As a survival mechanism, evolution has trained the human race to stare at the white’s of each other’s eyes to decipher danger and direction. Thus when someone on a screen stares left, we will instinctually look left to follow their eyes. A person then on the left looking right will reciprocate an interaction as our eye shifts to their direction.

However, Emerson has discombobulated this with action sequences, demanding that they strictly adhere to eyelines and a constant screen direction, as if once set they can never change (why not?). Even on an evolutionary level, the white-eye left/right instinct can be overridden. Stand on the ledge of a tall building and all you’ll look is down. Enter a cave of falling stalactites. Architecture, danger, and kinetics can change and reset where you look, and how you look. Action scenes can be solidly designed with this in mind, and it happens all the time.

Furthermore, Emerson confuses screen direction with meaning. An example is how he professes confusion over where Harvey Dent is sitting in the back of the truck. The sequence begins with Harvey walking to the back of the truck, and clearly shows him sitting on the passenger side. 

Emerson then claims he is completely lost as to where Dent is sitting for most of the action sequence because he is often “facing” the wrong direction in the chase. But Dent is an windowless contained space. 1) Part of his character’s perspective is to be isolated and confused to the outside world. It is ridiculous to flop around angles to match outside action as it defeats the subjectivity of his reactions  2) Yet the audience always knows he’s on the passenger side because 3) Nolan has chosen to constantly keep him framed on the identical right side to reinforce his positioning.

This is pattern recognition, and it overrides the 180 degree line. The audience cannot be convinced otherwise because Nolan locks it into their brains: Dent’s on the passenger side. And a character’s subjective perspective, how he feels about what he’s in, is something Emerson is tone deaf to in pursuing his eyelines.

Now I’m going to quickly analyze some of his criticisms:

CLAIM: “Again we don’t know but we assume since this is the only truck we’ve seen, that it’s the one Harvey’s in.”


Yes of course we know that’s Harvey’s truck because we’ve just cut to the “only truck we’ve seen.” Also, it has a fucking spotlight on it. He brings up a false question then answers it.

CLAIM: “This feels like a reverse angle which means this guy is now sitting where Harvey should be.”

Weird claim because by his own AXIS OF ACTION rules the cop is looking correctly from left to right, as the car is driving from left to right. 

And Harvey’s reverse pivots correctly.

CLAIM: “This little bit doesn’t accomplish anything. Why would you cut away from a convoy just when it’s getting going?”

This question of why we cut away isn't really a question but an opinion - an opinion of how he would have personally directed the scene. Very cute. But masquerading as technical analysis, the opinion shows shocking disconnect from the plot mechanics of the story. This obviously establishes the Joker is setting up his plan. Hitchcock himself stipulated tension is built by showing a ticking bomb to an audience at the beginning of a scene - instead of just randomly blowing it up. This scene sets the danger of the Joker as the timer and now the audience gets to anticipate his arrival instead of passively watching.


CLAIM: “The Joker shows up so brief it’s not really effective.”

Not effective? A guy in spooky white face and black eyes just popped out and kills a cop with a shotgun. What the fuck is he talking about?

CLAIM: “It would have been more ominous to just go straight into this next shot.”

Aside from ignoring Hitchcock for his directorial preference, this is where ignoring sound design would make you miss a wonderful detail: the shotgun blast echoes and raises the guitar hum in the next shot like an ear ringing. You still feel the Joker in the next sequence because you still hear him. This is sophisticated sound design working in tandem with the edit. All tools of cinema are at play here.

CLAIM: “A minor quibble, the previous shot sets this up to be a POV shot, and it isn’t a true POV shot. If it were, it would have to be three vehicles ahead of here...the imprecision of Nolan’s camera placement creates much more serious logistical problems later.”

Emerson just completely fucks this one up. There is simply no rule in cinema that states cutting to a person's face and eyeline automatically turns the next shot into a POV. In fact, it takes a lot of effort to convince the audience of any POV shot. It generally requires a hand held or steadicam feel amongst other signifiers. Establishing a POV from a car has a library of signifiers that clue the audience - namely is that there is a piece of the windshield to lock the viewer's position.

Furthermore, this is clearly a reverse master shot of the entire scene as the camera is placed higher than eye level and tracks in smooth, omniscient manner. One can only interpret camera meaning this poorly if your sense of visual aesthetics is completely broken.

On another note, the timing of the flame glow on the cop faces connects with the wreck as they pass. Emerson may not understand this, but that is a directorial choice that lead to a complicated rig of a moving car and special effect lighting. It is not a decision made lightly. Contrary to his assertion, Nolan’s camera and timing are methodical.

CLAIM: “Did I say 2, no in the next shot there are 3.”

He points out that in one shot there is an extra cop car in the back. This is obviously a continuity mistake in one shot. Shit happens. But you can clearly see they tried to edit around so that the third car is obscured quickly. In normal speed you really don’t see it. It is only seen for a couple frames before obscured by the lead car, and that microedit is the ONLY time it happens. This is precisely the type of editing fix that a filmmaker agonizes over to see what they can get away with but Emerson now uses a freeze frame as if the entire sequence is compromised.

CLAIM: “Where is this expendable guy?”

Emerson does have a point here (throw enough darts, I guess). This is the one beat where the action can legitimately be misconstrued. The guy is in the car in the front looking in his rearview mirror. Then the truck rams second car beside it, possibly insinuating he was in it.

However the solution is not to cut out the close-up as he implies (if he directed a chase sequence it would apparently never have a cutaway to any drivers). It needed a shot of the second car catching up to the truck to clarify, or the hit could have happened in his rearview mirror connected to his look. Or maybe not, it certainly isn't a deal breaker. But then Emerson fucks his point up with-

CLAIM: “We’re introduced to people in close-up or medium shot with no context, just a second or two before they’re dispatched.”

Context is highly relative by his terms. But adding reactions of drivers in multi-car chases is very common, humanizing, and not a sign of incompetence.

CLAIM: “You would think he would be looking in the direction he got hit, but wherever he is Harvey knows which way the van is traveling, why don’t we?”

Emerson makes a point that the truck got hit and Harvey faces the wrong direction for his reaction, but our critic has pulled a fast one. Using the same angle we use to establish Harvey’s seat in the truck, he actually turns first to his right toward the back during the hit, and then as he looks anxiously toward the drivers Emerson FREEZE FRAMES on his left turn, misleading the audience. Very unethical.

He then claims confusion as the editing violates the 180 degree line. But here is another example of how that “rule” is successfully broken. The action cut of Harvey being jolted is split with his head turn and the after shake of the SWAT drivers. The ACTION MATCH CUT clearly seams it together as the only thing we really react to is the impact. 

The simple question that must be asked is what happened in this scene? Truck hits SWAT. Harvey jolts. SWAT drivers react and keep driving, and we know they are driving the truck. This is very clear without Emerson’s obfuscation of the 180 degree line.

CLAIM: “If we think of this less as a three dimensional space than a two dimensional graphic space, like three flat comic frames, then the shots do make a kind of sense.”

He uses this completely random thought game to justify his argument that the sequence doesn’t make sense. But not only is film not two dimensional, it’s not even three. It’s got the fourth dimension of time, and like any mathematical equation the simpler the dimension the less you can solve. That’s why it doesn’t work in his freeze framed two dimensions, but works in our active moving four and allows to factor in kinetics like shock cuts.

CLAIM: When the semi hits the SWAT van, it flies into the river in the wrong direction.

This claim is inexplicable.

The sequencing starts with the semi hitting the van and pushing it to the right.

The driver is thrown to the right off the impact as the van turns right.

The semi twists into the next lane, acting as the force of the impact, to the right.

The van flies off into the river to the right.

It’s all correct. Emerson is just confused.

CLAIM: “Didn’t the SWAT truck and the other two trucks used to be where the semi is now? With the river on the right?”

Water is on both sides, as bridges over rivers are apt to do. This is just trolling.

CLAIM: The Joker shooting gun/bazooka sequence violates the Axis of Action and is confusing.

This adherence to this generic axis of action just doesn’t correspond to how we grasp images, especially in high velocity car chases. The reality is that each action sequence can have it’s own internal architecture in which a number of factors can influence how we perceive it. Just as much as standing on the ledge of a building would shift your awareness downward from left to right (making the axis of action up and down), factors like the actual shape of the environment can rearrange how we orient our screen direction.

In this case, this is very precise geometric construction where two cars are  driving down two narrow lanes, side by side, separated by a divider with columns that whiz by between them.

This helps orient us like standing on the the ledge of a tall building in that we are constantly calculating where our boundries are. The vice-like pathway also is abundant in movement reminders with passing background and passing columns in foreground. We clearly see how reversing shots between the Joker and SWAT drivers relate by the flipping movement of the backgrounds. If you only analyzed this sequence from a two dimensional axis of action, you would miss those four dimensional movements that frame each shot.

Then we factor that the semi truck looks very distinct from the SWAT truck, which reinforces symbolic, object, or pattern recognition (whatever you want to call it). 

The problem with a clinical 180 degree line technique of filmmaking is that ignores human memory, as if all we did were look at screen direction. If this were so, POV shots would never work. Instead, POV’s work off of association where the audience naturally interprets the shot as from within someone’s head. The human mind is powerful: it can decipher information from many different ways. Symbolic association is one that Nolan is very good at, and the sequence is confidently made.

In fact, there is an actual line cross that Emerson praises. When the Joker fires into the truck, he exclaims that the cop inside is finally linked to what side he is sitting on. The cut from outside (right to left) to inside the truck (left to right) is a line cross that would “confuse” which directions he is going in, but works because it is a MATCH CUT on the bullets. But Emerson thinks this finally clues him into where he is oriented – using the association the rest of us already use during the whole sequence.

Here, axis of action gives an overall sense of direction, but only as an overall pointer.

CLAIM: Emerson has recut a sequence in where Batman crashes into the garbage truck. He claims he has fixed Nolan’s edit and that it is better.

All because he misunderstands a shot where the Batmobile crosses under the moving camera to build acceleration. Objects get faster as they come closer to camera. This is just a variation of a car flying over camera mounted to a road.

Also, that editorial “fix” is ridiculous.

CLAIM: The Batmobile jumping over the car with the explosion has a continuity problem with a disappearing SWAT truck.

Nobody’s perfect.

CLAIM: He claims Salt is better directed than this.

Nobody's perfect.*

*Yeah yeah, I know. I should talk.


  1. Okay, solid points against Emerson (who is a very smart writer, by the way, and not deserving of being called a prick), but you don't argue the key concern - why you believe the scene is good and well-directed (if in fact you do).

    My position is, the scene, as action, is neither especially good or especially bad. And that it would have benefitted greatly from some wider master shots (but what do I know).

  2. The pompousness of how he belittles Nolan's technical competence is prickish, but that is just my opinion. He or you may in return cal me a prick. I don't care. As to the key concern, I wasn't arguing whether it was good or bad, I was arguing his main point - whether it was technically sound. As to personal preference, yes I like this sequence. Way more than that sequence from Salt which is essentially a television movie from 1995.

  3. Thank you for this 180º (ahem) turn of film analysis. Please know that Jim is actually a cool guy and is halfway right. Anyway this kind of film criticism is very constructive.

    PS. I'll take 'Torque' chases over Nolan anytime. They just have that beautiful kinetic and colourful quality, while Nolan is what you call "clinical".


  4. I definitely like that you struck down his insistence on treating the audience like robots. Most movie audiences aren't filmmakers and Nolan understands this perfectly. In fact, that's WHY he's such a successful director; he often foregoes orthodox filming techniques in order to create a more emotional impact. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Nolan's as good as everybody thinks he is. But Emerson picked a set of filmmaking "rules" that would work in his favor & discounted intuitive perception in addition to using, as you pointed out, some dirty tricks. I didn't like his approach to criticizing Nolan's work & I'm glad you stepped up to the plate.

    Though maybe a little less vitriol in the future? Emerson was certainly snide & less than good humored but you got more than a little petty here at points, regardless of how good your rebuttal was. Whether you care or not how people interpret that, it definitely won't help your case.

  5. Thanks. But vitriol is my natural state. Love me as I am, sir.

  6. Spacial relationships that are clear from edit to edit allow us to 'cross the line'. A great case is Kubrick's signature perpendicular crossing of a line during standing dialoge scenes like in the bathroom scene in the Shinning Sure the line is crossed but we get the oreintation because we have enough geometrical landmarks. Nolan uses a long lens a lot which deemphasises spacial relationships and in such a film space the 180 rule is more important (close ups between people is the most important application of the 180 rule IMO, just take a reverse shot from a movie, mirror it, and see how disorientating that is).
    I think That Kahn has willfully set aside any value that Emerson's videos have in order to place a perceived epic burn upon him.

  7. You addressed every single issue I had with Emerson's post.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this, and your next flick will certainly be getting my hard-earned cash.

  8. Beautiful piece. I was enraged by Emerson's "analysis" and "fixes", just the fact that he literally freeze framed on certain shots to prove how "technically confusing" they are is so ridiculous since absolutely nobody watches movies that way. If a scene works in real time then it works, and all "rules" make no matter

  9. I have to take issue with your analysis about the semi hitting the van. You claim it is correct because the action has rightward consistency in the frame. But let's add some real direction here.

    Assume the van is running along the bridge going north. The semi hits it from the east, pushing it west. (This is important: Van pushed WEST) Your analysis has it backward from the start, claiming it is moving "right", when clearly it is being pushed it its own left. If the truck is pushed to the west, we'd expect the driver's head to swing east toward the impact, or to the left of the frame. But you correctly identify his head moving the opposite direction, away from the impact and to the west, to the right of the frame.

    This would be like me pushing a skateboard out from under a mannequin and watching the head fall in the direction I pushed the board. Wouldn't happen.

    The van then goes off the bridge heading northeast, not northwest as previously established by Nolan.

  10. I've never quite understood Emerson's palpable dislike of Nolan's work, since The Dark Knight and Inception seem to be just the sort of smart modern action films that satisfy both critics and the wider audience with their well-made entertainment. That being said, he does have a few valid points - one of them being the direction the SWAT van is traveling when it hits the water, since it would seem to have completed a full 180° by the time it crashes into the river to fit the preceding shots.

    I always enjoy it when a person more knowledgeable about film than I am takes the time to deconstruct a sequence and offer his take, positive or negative, on the technical and artistic aspects of the scene. But what brought this discussion to the next level was your rebuttal, which clarified for me where Emerson was pointing out legitimate mistakes and where he was imposing his Nouvelle Vague-flavored sensibilities on a 2008 blockbuster.

  11. I too found the chase scene to be a little confusing when I first saw the film in IMAX back in July 2008, and many of the points Emerson makes reminds me of why. Whether the scene is 'correct', it feels a little off, so I have to somewhat side with him in theory, even if (as you point out) some of what he argues is factually incorrect. Having said that, what bothers me about the crux of the debate (not this essay, which is specifically about the scene itself) is the idea that we can't admit that The Dark Knight has some flawed action editing and yet still remains a great film.

    I personally don't go to Batman films for the action anymore than I read Batman comics for the action. It's the narrative and character interaction that makes the movie work as well as it does. Using 007 as an example, I'd rather have a solid film with bad action editing (Quantum of Solace) than a terrible film with terrific action scenes (Die Another Day). For what it's worth...

  12. This made my day. I think you're right, film criticism is essential and awesome, but a critic picking apart a sequence using arcane rules that he hasn't practiced himself deserves to have his ass handed to him. Great ass-handing!

  13. I mean - come on man. Calling the guy a prick, blasting apart 100 years of classicist film theory in a few you really think Nolan is reconfiguring a more advanced, contemporary cinema? Can you entertain the notion that maybe he's just a bit messy with his technique, and can you accept the fact that a growing number of film fans are expressing their distaste for his camera direction? Nolan fans are oddly cult-like in their devotion to the guy, and that surely inspired Emerson's nuts and bolts critique. Anyway, art isn't science, sure, but any good craftsman should display a coherent logic in their technique. If you think Nolan does that, fine. I think Emerson put some dents in your theory, even if he may not have sunk the ship. And your concluding comment about Salt is every bit as smug as anything Emerson says in his analysis. At the very least, Philip Noyce has been in the game far longer than Nolan.

  14. Do I think "Nolan is reconfiguring a more advanced, contemporary cinema?"


    But I think many filmmakers are doing that, and have been for a while. The technical craft of filmmaking has advanced beyond the general analysis of it, which in Emerson's version of it seems to be stuck in a time warp 30 years ago. This resistance to new techniques is a very strange attitude. I am not discarding previous film history or theory. However, cinematic film history itself is a little more than a hundred years old which is drop in the bucket compared to other arts. To assume our "rules" are solid and inflexible at this early point is prickishness.

    As to Kubrick, yes he tended to center pivot his compositions and deep focus lenses helped situate our architectural perspective. However, flat lenses do not automatically force us into counter-shotting on an axis to orient meaning. It's oversimplification and not demontsrated in practical use on a daily basis. The mind can deduce information from a much broader list of clues than just an axis. We're not idiots. I've already laid out the basics above so I won't retread here.

    As to this van issue. Sorry, I am correct. You are having a spacial problem in your own head. Let's proceed to call his direction NORTH as you wish. The camera aims SOUTH. The semi comes from the EAST and hits and throws the van WEST to the river. The bottom line is from the final shot on the river, the camera is still pointing SOUTH and the van is thrown WEST as the impact projected it. And this is not a 180 degree turn, only a 90 degree turn. The semi in the pivot shot swerved NORTH into the next lane. This is pretty simple.

  15. Salt sucks. One of the most boring action movies ever. Noyce has seen better days, and that sequence Emerson analyzed of Jolie on the bridge was 2nd unit shot farmed to Simon Crane. Yes. I know I'm a prick.

  16. I wonder what Adam West would think of this. If a Batman is fun, no one would bother nit-picking the editing. "The Dark Knight" is ridiculous on a human condition or cultural level. If Nolan doesn't want to deal with the goofiness of superheroes and wants "realism", then what is he doing directing superhero films? Riding the cool dark wave?

  17. But I think you're missing the point. Emerson isn't necessarily suggesting that all new techniques are inadmissable to film theory. I can understand your thinking that from his narration. But I think what he's saying is: I found this action sequence incoherent. Lots of smart people love this movie. I am confused because I too love movies and this is an ugly and poorly put together set piece in the middle of a huge critical/commercial hit. I am going to analyze it using some theories that exist in film literature (because the ones that DON'T exist can hardly be employed in my mission - unless of course I am attempting to introduce a new theory and want to use this scene to illustrate my invention - which I am not doing). Now, people can see very clearly why I might have found this scene confusing.

  18. "As to this van issue. Sorry, I am correct. You are having a spacial problem in your own head. Let's proceed to call his direction NORTH as you wish. The camera aims SOUTH. The semi comes from the EAST and hits and throws the van WEST to the river. The bottom line is from the final shot on the river, the camera is still pointing SOUTH and the van is thrown WEST as the impact projected it. And this is not a 180 degree turn, only a 90 degree turn. The semi in the pivot shot swerved NORTH into the next lane. This is pretty simple."

    You are not correct. If the convoy was moving north and the van was thrown west, then it should be heading north-west into the river. But it clearly isn't. If the road runs north/south, then the van goes into the water either heading south-west (which requires the viewer to assume the van made a nearly 180 degree change in point direction AND forward momentum) or north-east (exactly as I said above, which is an error on Nolan's part).

    Of course, none of this makes or breaks the film as a whole, but let's face it, the van impact and river crash defies logic.

  19. Michael, you now say the van should go northwest versus west? You're splitting hairs. And there is no fucking way the impact could throw he van northeast as you say could be an alternate shot. Northwest? Northeast? Which is it? Pick a direction.

  20. No, what I'm saying is that the only direction in which the van should hit the water is north-west, considering our establishment of the north/south layout of the bridge and the largely parallel movement of the van (with respect to that bridge) into the water.

    Watch the scene and tell me what direction the van is facing when it hits the water.

    If the camera is facing north, then the van went into the water facing north-east, which is wrong. If the camera is facing south, then the van went into the water facing south-west, which is wrong.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. "Plus, Emerson sounds like a prick" you should just change prick to to "super nerd with too much time on his hands," he's way to AV/Club to be a prick, just total quibbling dork.

  23. Michael, all the headlights on the freeway, including the semi, face us so the camera is clearly pointing south. Your argument is no longer about axis of screen direction and now mechanics of what angle you think a truck should hit the water. Bottom line is it projected westward and does not violate the axis of action. This is like arguing with a flat earther.

  24. That's what my point was always about. This series of impacts have no real consistency, just like Emerson said.

  25. No the problem with your original argument is that you didn't realize the camera was facing south on van/river shot: "The van then goes off the bridge heading northeast, not northwest as previously established by Nolan." Meanwhile, Emerson's argument blatantly ignores the spinning projectory of the van's impact, clearly shown by the moving-left-to-right edits, as an argument for a right-to-left camera placement. Both of you went over the rails, so to speak.

  26. The SWAT van going into the river is a mistake in direction, IMO, because it's quite a stretch that the van would head off in that trajectory when it was driving the other direction.

    Screen direction may be correct, but as an avid movie-watcher and educated cinematographer/editor myself, it has always felt wrong to me because of the trajectory of the van in relation to the road it was driving on just a couple shots earlier.
    If you watch the Focus Points on the TDK Blu-Ray, you'll see that they actually shot it the other way around, with the van head off in the proper believable trajectory. They flopped it in post, and I'm assuming it's probably for the reason you mentioned, that it maintains screen direction. But IMO, it did create a bigger problem than screen direction, and that's a very blatant continuity error. When a continuity error is that blatant, it's so jarring that it overrules screen direction. I think it would have been better to just leave it as it was, and use the change in screen direction as a shock edit.

    I agree with all your other rebuttals, though. Emerson made a lot of mountains out of molehills and often substituted his opinion for "rules".

  27. I think this is a fairly amazing breakdown of a critique which, respectfully, I believe is steeped in a lot, lot, lot of film theory without much consideration for the fludity and dynamism of a practical, visceral whole. Emerson and I admittedly butted heads when he was writing takedown pieces about Inception last fall, and fairly or unfairly he eviscerated me for suggesting that there might not be some objective standard by which films are rendered good or bad, effective or ineffective, as - even beyond any technical analysis of a film may venture - there is the ability or inclination of the audience to connect emotionally with what is happening or who it's happening to, and that will transcend any- and everything else. Certainly as with this it's his blog and he should write about what he wants, but I find that these sorts of analyses (anywhere) mostly exist as a prelude to the author saying, "...which is why I'm right in saying that it isn't good" or worse, "...which is why you are wrong to like this." The debate that spawned our disagreement was his contention that the opening of Inception used twice as many shots as it "needed," and therefore was poorly done. I can imagine the number of times you've faced down this sort of criticism, and can also imagine how infuriating it must be. But if there's something that can (and should) be said for Emerson's work, it's that even if you disagree or find it uninformed or inaccurate, I do sincerely believe there's a real interest in furthening and deepening the discussion that critics have about films. And that's enormously valuable to me, even if the greater value ultimately comes from an enormously informed, specific and personal response to it like the one above.

  28. Also, Detention is pretty amazing.

  29. If Noyce took a Hitchcockian approach to the pre-vis, then I reckon even though the action scene in question was shot by a second unit, it may still have been directed by him. I think it's a safe bet really.

  30. Ask Armond White:

    "Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a born filmmaker’s natural gift for detail, composition and movement"

    Just compare the scene in which The Batman goes into the night club to fetch Salvatore Maroni How bland is that scene actionwise? and I don't think the lens choice goes below 35mm (if that), is usually at 50mm or higher. It's all torso and no limb, if you will, like the fight scenes in Transformers 2.

    Even if people aren't aware of it they don't put together the world as much in Nolan films as a James Cameron film, for example. Not saying that Makes Nolan lesser - his strengths are obscene - but there's real value in the way the action is set up and visualised, and I think Nolan lacks that skill to a large extent.

    That skill is important. I think Nolan's shortcoming that stops him so far from ranking in the absolute pantheon is his world building skills only go far enough for the film, and no further, where as other writer/directors create worlds that fans are compelled to continue on with. I don't think, for example, that people will do much Inception fan fiction and I don't think there's enough fictional voltage to go in for a sequel. It's more like a short K Dick story adaptation than a world creation. I think that the way he shoots his movies is symptomatic of this shortcoming. I hope he grows past it.

  31. I really like this article. It states well why Emerson's points are mostly just kinda silly - EXCEPT the part about the van going in the river. As someone wrote above "The SWAT van going into the river is a mistake in direction, IMO, because it's quite a stretch that the van would head off in that trajectory when it was driving the other direction. "

    The way it is hit, it would either lose momentum and be knocked sideways (probably roll over actually), or keep going with less speed into the river ("north west" as it's referred to here, if we assume the van is going north). This is IMO the only thing Emerson had right - a quick edit showing the van spinning around (yet somehow getting momentum despite turning around about 150 degrees to the left) would have helped.

    But this is such a minor quibble. The van changing direction doesn't make the scene confusing or hard to understand at all, and it's certainly not something that makes this particular scene worthy of such scrutiny. For some reason, the scene does not work well, but it's not because of the ridiculous nitpicking Emerson brings up. I am not sure WHY it doesn't work (it feels dull), but it just doesn't.

  32. Van People, now we are no longer talking about screen direction and about your personal opinion of movie physics plausibility. 20 years ago I was in an accident that wasn't even a side swipe. The car came from behind and then slammed into my left side. The impact swerved my car exactly 90 degrees to the right and I front ended directly into the side divider. My car was totaled but unfortunately for fans of motorcycle movies, I lived. So I have no problem with the overall idea that force can push that van into that direction. Close enough.

    I also had my parents shot by a robber, and I dress as an animal at night to avenge their murder, one punch at a time.

    One of these two things is true.

  33. Hey Todd, you're spot on. While I find his analysis really flawed and at times, unethical, I do welcome discussion that puts cinematic language in the public discourse. On a basic level, it's entertaining for a film junkie like me. Obviously it's always better to read an insightful analysis than a ridiculous one. He either proves that current critical understanding of cinematic screenspace is antiquated, or the ones who are heard aren't necessarily the smartest but the smuggest. The stuff you guys do is important. I just hope you continue to check each other for high standards and call out flaws on both sides of the screen.

    And thank you for your kind words on Detention. A good part of the reward on taking a risk on a self financed an independent movie is to see if it will get reciprocated from the people who know most about movies. Very gratifying and worth the price of admission for me. Thanks.

  34. I appreciate the detail of your rebuttal -- but most of what you say are straw man arguments, since they don't represent what I say in the essay. You make it sound like I insist that traditional principles of film grammar (like POV shots, the 180-degree rule, axis of action, etc.) are hard-and-fast, inviolable "laws" -- when in every instance I point out that they aren't. They are conventions that have existed for a long time, however. It's dishonest to pretend that filmmakers and audiences should act as though they never existed.

    You begin by quoting me (accurately) that filmmakers have two tools for conveying information visually: the composition and the cut. Like it or not -- whether film is manipulated digitally or otherwise -- shots are still shots, frames are still frames, and compositions are still compositions. "The Dark Knight" is a film made up of shots and compositions -- and no "motion graphics flash page" changes that.


  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. Also, sound (which is perceived by the ears on its way to the brain) is not visual information. David Lynch works very hard to meld image and sound -- but he knows they are not the same thing. That's why he works so hard to achieve what he achieves.

    As I say at the very beginning of the essay, I have always found this sequence from "The Dark Knight" confusing. The purpose of the essay was to go back and look at it closely to figure out why. I did not say the sequence should be confusing to YOU or anyone else; I'm explaining what I find confusing about it and why. I did not say that Nolan's approach to action was "incompetent" -- I think it's absolutely intentional, and the worst thing he can be accused of is making flat and uninteresting choices. (Also I mention a number of touches I like, not that I'm buying into the "fair and balanced" myth.) I did not say I though "Salt" was a better-directed feature than "TDK"; I did point out the differences in their approaches to action in the individual sequences I chose to excerpt and examine. I did not say I had "improved" the collision with the Batmobile; I speculated that perhaps the head-on crane shot was at some point intended to suggest the Batmobile ramming and lifting up the garbage truck -- and I demonstrated how it would look in that context. For fun.

    (continued -- this site won't accept long-winded comments!)

  37. As for Harvey Dent in the van -- yes, I was having fun with that, too, but I did find it a dull and perplexing way of shooting the van interior. As I said, it looked like Harvey and the SWAT guy were simply sitting in front of a flat on a soundstage. When someone is shown getting into the back of a van and the door shuts, is it unreasonable to suggest that we see more than one wall of the van (including that door) from the inside? I don't think so, but it's another example of Nolan's one-thing-at-a-time technique. As I said, a simple two-shot -- perhaps facing the back of the van -- would have cleared up any and all potential for ambiguity or confusion in less than one second of screen time. Does that matter to you? Evidently not. I am only explaining why it matters to me. That's what critics do -- and I'm using the video essay to be a lot more specific than most reviews can be.

    (You completely miss my point about showing a cutaway to two guys in the cab of the van -- connected to the rest of the scene by the sound of the man explaining the convoy -- and the later shot of Harvey getting into the back. Why the stagey dislocation? Where's the shot that shows us THE VAN in relationship to the rest of the action in this scene? You don't care? I do.)

    In the middle of the video, I ask the rhetorical question about whether the techniques used in the film make it more exciting… or just more confusing? I don't answer the question (it should be obvious what my answer is) -- but it's something I hope all viewers will answer for themselves.

    Meanwhile, the essay -- arrogant and assholish as it may be -- is there for anybody who wants to see and hear what I actually did and said. I mention the filmmakers' concern with "photographing real objects, including actors and miniatures, in real space," and conclude: "We can see how [this "TDK" sequence] does what it does. The question is: What's the result? How do these stylistic choices enhance or diminish the impact of the movie? There are lots of ways to make a film. And there are lots of ways to make a mess. For every choice -- and there are thousands upon thousands of them that go into the making of a feature -- there are advantages and there are trade-offs. But in the end, all that matters is what's in the movie and what isn't."

    In the final credits is the statement "all mistakes are my own." I stand by that, too. But, despite what you claim, you're arguing abstract opinions. So, please: What are the (new? revolutionary?) techniques Nolan uses here, and how do they make it a better, more exciting action sequence for you?

  38. Interesting rebuttal Joseph (too informal? Mr Kahn?) I followed the links here from Drew Mcweeney over at Motion Captured, and on the strength of his recommendations and this blog, I'll be checking out your movies.

    I've only watched part one of Mr Emerson's critique, but I never had a problem with the chase sequence; as is oft-mentioned, I do think that Nolan has a problem with shooting/editing fights, and I found a later sequence in the Dark Knight quite jarring (specifically, where the cop goes to beat the Joker up in the police cell, and the subsequent cut to the Joker holding him hostage; to my armchair-critic mind, it felt that there was too much of a change around there to have it happen entirely off-screen).

    Still, an awesome debate. I look forward to watching your movies.

  39. God's teeth it's a movie about a billionaire in a robot bat suit who uses cellphones as sonar. Who gives a toss about the direction of a van in one shot? You know what that shit is? Nolan's awesome use of non cgi elements such as miniatures for this sequence, messy real world physical production. Thats why all three times I saw this with an audience they erupted in applause by the time the semi flipped. They believed this sequence. And what I'm guessing is that post miniature and camera car shoot the only place they could stage a ridiculously expensive IMAX shot of a Swat van driving into a river off a real city embankment it was at that place provided by the city and they made it work in the edit. That's all you see the same trickery and illusion that comes from how wildly imperfect all physical production is no matter how prepared.

    Even though Joseph Kahn refused to go on a podcast where a lowly pleb like me would be on, too, he's absolutely right here Emerson. Your arguments are routed in subjective internal notions you have of what works (the reedit bit was beyond stupid). And you havent seen all the raw footage of what was shot here. Nor did you try to match 3 units and a miniatures unit. Your theory shows such a lack of pragmatic knowledge about actual filmmaking that it renders most of what you say pointless.

    Maybe there was a two shot of the swat van interior. Maybe for some reason it didn't work in the edit. Maybe they didn't want to spend 300k rigging a swat van with removable walls to get angles you would think better. Have you ever tried to shoot inside a 15 square foot cube on 35mm? You assume the camera can and should be put anywhere.

    I grew up reading some of your smart observations in Seattles The Rocket. Your notion of Back to the Future being the ultimate amalgamation of Reagen fantasies was brilliant. But in this you come across like the guy who did those funny star wars prequel reviews except not as funny or smart.

    And Salt... Try Greengrass Bourne if you're really going to go there. After all despite being genius it's more responsible for more hackwork in the past decade than any other movies.

    Kahn ultimately wins by observing your lack of interest in the fourth dimension and pointing out where your nitpicks are just that.

  40. Also don't quote Edelstein's Dark Knight review. That guy thinks How Does She Do It is better than Drive. Anyone with an academic background in film studies and a grasp of objective notions of film grammar knows that's just fucking stupid.

  41. Emerson, let’s be clear, you’re backtracking. You now claim your analysis was purely subjective when you essentially constructed your argument on a twenty minute lecture on objective film theory and grammar. You then claim that the rules you use are not locked axioms yet you explicitly, graphically ridicule Nolan when he violates any of your conventions. You claim you weren’t charging Nolan’s action direction as incompetent – just other words that start with an “i”: indecipherable, imprecise, illogical. You now confound that implicit accusation by acknowledging it as an intentional stylistic choice, as if intentional stylistic choices can’t be incompetent (of course they can). You now even deflate the technical formalism you used to attack Nolan with as just your “personal” viewpoint, meanwhile taking great lengths to bully pulpit pullquotes from other critics to support your thesis. You even claim your re-editing of the Batmobile sequence didn’t insinuate improvement - that it was just a correction of a flawed design “for fun.” You haven’t posited anything new here that I haven’t already covered in the rebuttal, and I don’t see any testimony from you that this continuing this dialogue will be anything other than circular and dishonest. Worst of all, you think Salt rocks.

    And you can’t take that back.

  42. Oh, I thought you were serious. Your response is another mess of logical fallacies, distortions and meaningless pontifications. You haven't responded to my question -- What are these techniques Nolan uses and how do they make the film more effective or exciting for you? -- or to a thing I said, in the original essay or in my reply. The best you can come up with is a childish, petulant: "Worst of all, you think Salt rocks. And you can't take that back"? As someone once said about Ann Coulter:"You just make this shit up." Now I understand your critical vocabulary: rocks vs. sucks. Sorry for wasting my time.

    From your point of view, I suppose I was backtracking -- backtracking from what you said I said, not from what I actually said. That's not a matter of opinion; it's all right there in the essay. But you're more interested in winning your imaginary argument in your head than facing what's in front of your face and having an actual exchange of ideas.

    Another quote directly from the essay:"What does all this prove? That 'The Dark Knight' is a lousy movie? No. We've only looked at one part of one action sequence. There's a lot more to the movie than just the action. What it proves is that this photorealistic IMAX action picture plays fast and loose -- sometimes -- with certain narrative filmmaking techniques that help make action understandable. At the very least, when you hear someone say that the action was incoherent or hard to understand, you should now know exactly what they're talking about."

    Well, not you, but maybe some of your readers who are capable of more than fanboy exclamations.

  43. What you don't seem to realize is that Jim Emerson, as far as I can tell, has never claimed to be in strict adherence to the techniques and conventions passed down over nearly a century's worth of filmmaking and writing about film. If he was, then he'd likely hate some of the films he actually loves, like "Un Chien Andalou," which definitely toys with some of the most basic of film grammar to great effect.

    Rather, what I see Jim doing in his criticism is applying these rules to what he sees and then tries to account for how that works in or against the film's favor. Essentially, if Jim were to see a film that "broke" some "rule" regarding "how films should be made," he would a) determine how the film goes to breaking this "rule," and b) whether or not doing so is ultimately in the film's favor. He does not claim that we should all watch films in this way, just that this is the way he sees it and that what we do see we can break down and analyze.

    In this context, regarding "The Dark Knight," Jim feels that the convoy chase is ultimately incoherent and messy, and not in an immersive way, but in a way that pulls him out of the film. Therefore, he goes in to examine why this is against his own beliefs regarding how films should work, which incorporates the conventions of film narrative he cites; and against how the film is presenting itself, which, in the case of "The Dark Knight," as a feasibly realistic action-drama in spite of its comic book origins. And the results are plain to see in the video essay, which highlights just exactly what choices were made regarding this scene and whether, from Jim's perspective, they work for or against the film. From Jim's perspective, these choices are detrimental to the film, and he's explained repeatedly why and I won't make this any longer by explaining his explanations.

    You, on the other hand, seem to greatly enjoy this scene. The problem is that you have not gone to any lengths to demonstrate how the scene works from your perspective. You instead take Jim's argument, misrepresent it in a variety of ways (including as if it's from out-of-touch, conservative old fart), and posture as if you're the one that's intelligent and insightful. For instance, not quoting why exactly he feels certain parts of the scene (the cut from the convoy as it gets going to the SWAT officer -- it's not necessarily a matter of the 180 degree axis in this case, but that he interprets it initially as a reverse angle when he feels a two-shot would be less confusing. It's not technically incorrect, but it could work better otherwise). There's no insight here, just grandstanding and the mistaken belief that disagreeing with people means you should call them "pricks."

    I'm going to add here that I'm not here to put words in people's mouths but to offer a third perspective on the whole affair. Both Kahn and Emerson are free to tear apart my comment so long as they actually look at what it is I've written -- which I'm sure Emerson would do at least.

  44. Man Emerson really does come across as a tool, at first I just disagreed with what he was arguing, but after his responses to this he really chides me.You could literally take any action sequence from ANY movie and do a similar breakdown and criticism. And using the same dishonest techniques Emerson uses even make Raiders chase look rediculous. I really don't see the point of these sorts of things, there's a reason these action scenes aren't slowed down and frame grabbed, they work in MOTION.

  45. "Worst of all, you think Salt rocks."

    Not that I have a dog in this fight or anything, but that's a lie. In his Part II of In the Cut, Emerson calls Salt "preposterous"...hardly a ringing endorsement. But even if he did love it, dismissing a critic on the sole grounds of liking one film over a more popular one is a childish tactic reserved for the fanboys over at Rotten Tomatoes.

  46. Thank you for having no dog in this fight by calling me a liar and a childish fanboy. He brings up "preposterous" as an an example of how to sell unrealistic action beats successfully through conventional film grammar. He uses Salt as a specific counterpoint to Dark Knight as an example of a great action sequence, which is preposterous.

  47. That's right: he compared ONE action scene to another ONE action scene, and you declare that this somehow means he thinks Salt "rocks" when in both videos he made it clear that the In the Cut series had no intention of judging a film's overall quality...they're only deconstructing certain sequences.

    And once again you give no reason for why it is so awful (in fact, you call it the WORST of his contentions) that Emerson holds the car chase in Salt in higher regard than the chase sequence in The Dark Knight. Based on the maturity level of your responses, I'm not holding my breath for one.

  48. This can all really be broken down to something very simple:

    The Nolan scene is comprised of a series of individual event shots, while the Noyce scene is based around compositional perspective.

    Whereas Nolan shows one thing at a time to create velocity through editing, Noyce often shows multiple things to create tension with foregrounds and backgrounds.

    It's two different approaches. Noyce is more classical. Nolan more modern.

    It's Nolan's lack of perspective that confuses people and is the primary germ for Emerson's analysis.

    However, I will say this -- in terms of general cinematic approach, Spielberg would've shot it using Noyce's methods. Which, in my opinion, are actually much more difficult to achieve from a camera standpoint. And nobody shoots action better than Spielberg.

  49. If Emerson finds ANY sequence in TDK confusing, then he probably finds the famous clip of Andy Warhol eating a burger confusing too.

  50. Dear Mr. Kahn,

    First of all, let me preface this comment by saying that I have no idea who you are. Therefore, a quick internet search revealed to me that you are the director of several music videos, some of which have been lauded by MTV, and have directed two feature films, neither of which I am familiar with. Based on this, I assume that you have some proficiency in filmmaking, albeit for a certain demographic.

    On the other hand, I am well-familiar with Mr. Emerson's writing on film of all kinds, and have followed his work for years. Although I may find myself disagreeing with his takes, I am generally attentive to the reasons why we may differ.

    Now, a little bit about myself. I study cinema for a living, I treat cinema as part and parcel of art history, and engage with cinema in as rigorously theoretical and technical ways as possible (just like any object of study is treated). Although I certainly have likes and dislikes, I do my best not to conflate them. This often differs from more popular film criticism, which tends to include both personal and impersonal reflections. Therefore, I will say that while I enjoyed "The Dark Knight" as a benign way to spend 2 hours or so, I found it extremely difficult in the sense that it consistently violated long-established rules of cinematography. But wait! Many violate these rules (Godard to take an easy example). True. But they violate it while simultaneously creating something else that possesses an internal logic. Nolan does not. Hence, at least from the point of a student of cinema, Nolan's work was rather a bit of gibberish. (Continued)

  51. 2. POV/line of sight: Yes, it is in fact a fairly solidly established convention of editing that cutting to a person's eyeline sets up a cue for the immediate successive shot to be "from his perspective."

    3. Film is very much two-dimensional. The third dimension is caught within its two dimensions (as depth) while the fourth dimension is entirely experiential (duration). Spatiality in a two-dimensional space is precisely why conventions exist. And why confusion erupts when that internal logic is violated randomly, as Nolan tends to do.

    4. SWAT van flying in wrong direction: Here's why this is not only confusing, but improbable. 1. Semi hits SWAT, forcing SWAT to turn hard right (bearing in front of the Semi) while the semi charges forward 2. Force of collision would, by normal physics, push the SWAT into a roughly horizontal position (the SWAT would be skidding on its tires at this time) 3. As a result of the Semi's mass and speed, it is almost impossible that the SWAT would immediately right itself to face forward as it does when it flies off into the river.

    5. The actual location where that sequence was shot is in Chicago. You're welcome to check it out in order to realise why, despite a bridge having water on both sides, that shot is physically impossible.

    6. Your argument essentially praises Nolan for making use of Eisensteinian montage. To which I can only say that I hope you shall take some time to research the ways in which Eisenstein conceived of montage, and how it has been implemented through decades of filmmaking. If, after that, you are able to still support your claim that Nolan is in fact utilising Eisensteinian montage appropriately, I'd love to see that argument.

  52. Throughaframe, the reason you had to research me to gauge my filmmaking relevancy is that I chose to engage Emerson without positional authority. I try to minimize arguments based on who’s job is more valid, as in practice I find that means very little. I know almost nothing about Emerson or any of the people who post here but it doesn’t matter. It is the quality of their thoughts and logic of the subject at hand that matter to me. You have pointed out that you are a serious academic, meanwhile assuming my music video background relegates my proficiency to a young demographic.

    However since credentials seem important to you, I studied both cinema studies and production at New York University. As all cinema students, I’ve read the major works of film school darlings like Bordwell, Sarris, Bazin, and on this last point see this criticism of Nolan as a push toward a new reductionist form of Bazin’s objective reality. We give lip service to Godard but most modern critics with their insistence on continuity, deep focus screen space, and complete technical invisibility of the camera demands a pre-New Wave form of cinema. So we can cross academic cocks if that turns you on.

    To your points:

    2. You are simply incorrect on POV as this “rule” of yours is broken constantly. You are insisting that all close-ups on faces are setting up eyeline shots, but any number of factors can manipulate the meaning of that shot including sequencing (the shot is reactive), subjectivity (the shot is internal), non-diagetic inserts (Lynch), and most simple of all, overall context. This reductive attitude to “technique” does not grasp the complexity, malleability. and nuance of cinematic form in practice.

    3. Your assertion that film is two dimensional is fucking stupid. Yes it is projected against a flat two dimensional surface, but the artform is composed using a third z space. Just because it is not “real” z space doesn’t make it valid in one’s head. Otherwise if we treated imaginary z space as invalid, mathematics would come to a screeching halt. And how exactly do you “catch” a third dimension within two? Did you create some new form of alien geometry no one has ever heard of? As to your contention that the fourth dimension is is cinema. We don’t watch films in freeze frames, we watch them in movement.

    4. I’ve already discussed the SWAT van.

    5. Let me get this straight. I need to quote you on this: “The actual location where that sequence was shot is in Chicago. You're welcome to check it out in order to realise why, despite a bridge having water on both sides, that shot is physically impossible.”

    Weird point. It doesn’t matter how that bridge exists outside screen space on Google, they are not presenting Chicago. They are selectively arranging select views of Chicago to build a wider fantasy tapestry of Gotham. How the bridge works in real life outside of screen space is irrelevant to the filmmaker’s constructed reality. It’s called cheating a location. You do know they didn’t actually blow up the White House in Independence Day?

    6. I take offense with your implication that I am somehow too stupid to recognize Eisensteinian montage. Name dropping Eisenstein isn’t brain surgery. You can even look up on my twitter account that two days before I posted my article, on September 13, I actually tweeted to critic Devin Faraci this:

    "Nolan’s narrative style is based on Eisenstein montage. All his films are parallel action/ conceptual cross cut exercises. It actually works in that chase sequence."

    As to proving he is using it “correctly”, this is exactly the absurd quasi-formalism Emerson spouted that ignores cinematic advancement. Eisenstein laid the groundwork for montage theory, but the technique and application has mutated over 90 years. Do we stop referring to him because his innovations have been integrated in new ways them did not conceive of? Your insistence on supposedly being an academic shouldn’t mean it goes hand in hand with being a Luddite.

  53. Really intelligent and insightful Mr. Kahn, as well as his opponents.

    No one can argue that you shouldn't like "The Dark Knight" etc.
    But let's go away from Hollywood for a moment and pick two other commercial titles from 2008. Can we please agree that in terms of exhilarating spectacular chase "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" and in terms of dark depraved chase "The Chaser" are light years ahead of Nolan?

    Seen those marvelous achievements? Is it any wonder then that we are weary of exec-darling Nolan's status of "modern auteur" while genuinely great directors like Kim Ji-woon reach better results with a fraction of his budget. And with conscience about the consequences of violence and destruction.

    Btw I liked "Inception", because there he admits that math cinema is meaningless and finally has some fun at the expense of his fanatic followers - win! Regards.

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  55. I read the article and it seems there’s two schools of thought to the process of what makes sense vs taste (America-where there’s room for many opinions), but what didn’t make sense to me is a picture of OJ in your blog. Did I miss something?

  56. Regarding the SWAT van: You present no counter whatsoever.

    Regarding cinematic advancement: I have never, in Luddite fashion, suggested that one must still hew to Eisenstein/Kuleshov standards. However, what I am saying is that certain conventions are practically intrinsic to cinema, and to flout them demands that the rule-breaker come up with an alternative paradigm that actually maintains a logic of its own. Nearly all action scenes use some kind of montage; they have to, given the speed of their unfolding. This is precisely why, as stated earlier, an internal logic is essential in this unfolding; it is so easy to create a mess of space (see, for example, any action scene in the latest Transformers film). Evolving technique is fine, but creating a mess is less admirable.

  57. Your comment system is extremely inconvenient, as it seems to have randomly deleted a comment I had to break up into two parts. At any rate, I shall attempt to restate what I had earlier:

    Regarding POV: If you'll re-read what I said about POV conventions, you'll find that I certainly allow for the systematic violation of this convention. Keyword here is 'systematic.' In this sequence, the same context you so love sets up a faulty cue. First cut: overhead view of convoy. Second cut: eyeline-level profile shot of passenger cop. Third cut: (implied) assumption of cop's perspective onto flaming wreckage. Given the speed of cutting, if in fact you refer back to the principles of montage, I'm not sure you could come up with any other inference than to assume that the shot of burning wreckage here, in this context, is nothing other than the passenger cop's visual line of sight.

    Regarding film's dimensionality: I have no idea why you seem to think I claimed film does not possess a third dimension. In fact, what I said was that this third dimension is caught, or framed, or implied, within the two corporeal dimensions it already possesses. The film strip and the screen surface are both 2D, however it is possible to imply a third, space, within the image formed via their interaction. Hence why it is possible to play with the implication of this space, and hence why it becomes of paramount importance that a high-speed cutting sequence maintain an internal logic to the implied space, otherwise it risks disrupting spectatorial orientation. As to what you said about freeze frames...well, the play between still and moving images, the paradox of cinema arising as a durational experience out of still images...that is exactly what makes possible things like the last shot of The 400 Blows, or the entirety of La Jetée, etc.

  58. The absence of my response generally means I’ve already explained my position. It neither concedes nor declares victory - just that my take is clear and instead of talking in circles, I would rather to do something more productive like eat a burrito.

    Your POV logic equation is still off. The third shot could have easily reverted to a bird’s eye omniscient shot and the audience would not think the cop was flying. You’d make a terrible editor.

    You are confused as to exactly how three and four dimensional space work. The fact that the image is projected against a two dimensional surface has no bearing on processing or manipulating the illusion of three or four dimensional space. The technical flatness of the screen has no bearing on mise-en-scene. It’s irrelevant.

    Not sure what your freeeze frame rebuttal to my statement that we watch movies in movement means. Even a freeze frame in a film is in four dimensional motion, as it timed and finite. Even when we watch freeze frames in films, they are not frozen.

    I agree that there are intrinsic conventions and alternate paradigms must maintain their own logic. But we steer into subjective territory because from my perspective, with your illogical reads on screenspace, edits, mise-en-scene, and dimensions - it is possible your understanding of conventions is faulty to begin with.

  59. Not to throw more petrol on the fire but...

    Emerson is wrong about the van in the river ... he presumes that the van is being pushed into the river from a right angle in his analysis (even tho he himself states the van is hit on its corner) but the shots between the impact with the swat van and it entering the river CLEARLY imply that the van is spun into the river from the impact on the front right corner (the passenger door we see on the river shot is the one the truck collided with).

    the truck hits the front corner of the van - and is turnng to the right as it does this (and continues on to the road after the collision) forcing a counter clockwise rotation from the van and forcing it into the river passenger side out.

    not that it matters a jolt - the dark knight is a great movie despite some odd moments. Forget the swat van - explain passing round pens and paper and doing a ballot on a boat seconds from being blown to smithereens!

  60. Or that the entire concept revolves around a billionaire running around town dressed as an animal fighting crime by beating up one criminal at a time. And we're arguing the whether a van's arc is realistic plus or minus 30 degrees?

  61. Obviously we are. Regarding the SWAT van:
    I made a graphic that illustrates what i understand to be the position of the people who say the scene in Dark Knight is wrong:

    As someone else above said: The scene was shot with the other direction and flipped in post.
    The van hitting the water as fast as it does in the scene and having turned about 150 degrees before that would be a completely different case than Mr Kahn's accident which he described before.

    Generally speaking:
    Some of the complaints by Emerson are justified, many more are not. The scene could have been shot more clearly, but it works and is definitely not confusing (apart fron the SWAT van crash - it always takes me out of the film in a WTF manner). I am also one of the apparently few people who like Nolan's "cold" and distanced direction. Almost the same case as with Fincher.

    One great misconception by Emerson:
    The way i inderstand it, the 180-degree rule uses an imaginary line between two (or more) people interacting. So when the Joker shoots at the van, this line is NOT the direction of travel (as Emerson says). It's a line between the Joker and the van. This line is never crossed when the camera is outside the van. The shots inside the van are shot from the other side of this line, but it works because this was established with the shot of Dent sitting down in the van.

  62. You know what? For the record, I never came in to defend the plausibility of any of DK's action sequences. As i stated before, that falls into subjective opinions I am trying to avoid and not actual cinematic poetics. The bottom line is the van does not cross the axis of action, contrary to Emerson's claim. When you actually do have a strong axis established like two eyeline matches, you would be surprised how often the matching reverse is cheated on the set. Actors will literally be shot on reverses looking way off where they normally would in real life to counter eyelines. This shot was obviously flopped because it made sense in the the mise-en-scene and paid off the axis, therefore satisfying most viewers. Whether the van can actually do that, or Batman can land on his back after falling 60 stories, feel free to fire away at each other on that. Not what I'm here to talk about.

  63. You are right of course.
    I just wanted to illustrate the issue. And i didn't cheat on the arrows in my graphic like you said before in a now vanished post. The arrows are VERY CLOSE to the scene/ shot. I stand by that.

    Apart from this shot i think we (the people posting here) are on the same page: Emerson is much more wrong in his assessment of the scene, than he is right.

    "you would be surprised how often the matching reverse is cheated on the set. Actors will literally be shot on reverses looking way off where they normally would in real life to counter eyelines."

    I'm not surprised, its done in almost every scene. I do it too. The reason can be a new camera position, that is changed so you can see something in the background - after a lens change for example. Or the camera(-team) doesn't fit into the set so you fake the shot and the eyeline.
    The point is: it works if it FEELS right.

  64. I really don't get the reason why Emerson has a problem with the little "insert"-scene of Joker killing the cop.
    I just don't get that.

    Also: Does anybody else think that "In the Cut Part III" is pointless?

  65. jack_north, your illustration precisely maps what I was trying to say above. Thanks.

  66. It's interesting to note that your default position on nearly every issue is "the opponent is mistaken/confused/illiterate," whether that be Mr. Emerson or anyone else.

  67. False argument. I agree with many comments. I have nothing to add on the ones I agree with. I naturally comment on the ones I disagree with with.

  68. As somebody who thought the dark knight was a mess both narratively and visually, I was glad to see the development of a discussion like this, although I'm not sure why Emerson chose the car chase, which was probably the best and clearest out of all the action scenes in the movie.

    The biggest problem I have in terms of visual confusion is with the closer shots of batman himself in action. I understand that what Nolan is going for is to make batman unpredictable and terrifying, that we don't see clearly what he does - bad guy wanders around, big dark shape swoops down in a flurry of cuts in which *something* happens, badguy incapacitated - and that is supposed to show us what it's like to be stalked by batman. I just found it really unsatisfying, especially the attempt to mask the lack of coherence with obtrusive sound design.

    I won't pretend to be basing this opinion on any knowledge of film theory - I just wish that Nolan and co. could find a way to successfully convey the power and menace of the characters' physicality without having to 'cheat'. It's one thing to show a scene from the perspective of the victim, but showing us even less than that is just mean. Look at the scene in the garage near the beginning of the film. There's large guy in a bulky suit sneaking around a parking lot in front of a group of gangsters looking in every direction. We don't see how the guy is hiding, where he is that these guys, looking around 360 degrees, are constantly unable to see him. When we are shown the environment in which the scene takes place, there is nowhere for such a person to be hidden. Yet offscreen it is created, a magical closet that characters can step in and out of when required. This closet is used constantly throughout the film, to annoying effect. All the shots of batman appearing and disappearing don't make me think 'wow, how badass is that'. They make me imagine ridiculous visions of batman hiding behind filing cabinets just so he can leave the police station without anyone seeing him.

    There's an awesome shot at the end of the garage sequence, where batman jumps off the balcony of the garage, slamming down into the van. That's how his actions should be filmed all the time, clearly showing the movement and consequence. That shit makes him look powerful. More of that next time please, less camera-shake/loud noise/magical offscreen closet shenanigans.

  69. JA, I like your train of thought. Here is the Kahn Logic (TM) take on why Nolan shoots Batman’s melee fights so ambiguously: the costume is ridiculous. Who fucking puts a cape in the back of bulky armour? Nice way to get killed.

  70. This article kicks major ass. I remember watching the Emerson analysis and thinking "why is this guy confused", half the times. The other half, he was just too technical and I was like "oh well, I guess he's right, with all this 180 talk". Loose Change, indeed (great comparison!)

  71. Just my two cents about the whole van thing...
    It was always a WTF moment for me, and after reading all the arguments, looking at the the graph in jack-north's post and rewatching that part of the scene repeatedly (as well as even queing up the blu ray feature) I figured out what was uncomfortable about it... It was the camera move. I can buy that the van was spun around. I've never seen a Mac truck ram full speed into anything, but I have seen enough crashes to know that some crazy stuff happens that would seem impossible based on physics.
    However, if you watch, the camera's action is what throws it off. The camera is still pointing southbound (if thats what we're calling it), but instead of moving northbound (backwards essentially), it is now moving southbound towards where it was pointing (forwards).
    However, I'm not sure keeping the original shot (non post fixed one) would be better. It fixes the problem that the camera would now be moving in the right spatial direction, but the flow of action would be off and viewpoint would be off. Its a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenerio. And I would bet my ass that they spent a lot of time on that one shot in the editing bay and decided that flipping it would be less confusing than using the original composition.
    As for the rest of the arguments regarding the scene. Both make good points, but regardless of theory, I'll side with Kahn in saying the scene made sense to me....that is aside from the Van. Damn you van!

  72. I guess The Incredibles never got a wide release in Gotham City.

    It is a ridiculous costume. However, if the new batman film has a ridiculous looking but steady shot of batman just straight up punching someone in the face, I will be happy.

  73. @J.A.:
    Nice point about the garage scene. The whole scene feels strange when you think about it... Scarecrow! Wait, what?

    i think you are right about the camera movement being the problem that probably made them change it. I had the same idea when i thought about why they would take the effort to flip the shot. Someone should recut and re-flip the shot to check it out. Hmmm...

    @Joseph Kahn:
    "Hiding the costume" may be a good point. Though there are other ways to do this than fast editing. Especially on your second batfilm. I never had a problem with Nolan's fight scenes, but i don't think they are outstanding.

  74. Well Done Mr. Kahn. Thank god somebody took the time to counter In The Cut.

    I saw TDK in IMAX multiple times, and every audience cheered and gasped through the truck chase....tell me how the 180 rule matters when the audience is lost in the excitement of the scene? Emerson's mechanical analysis of editing and composition shows a complete lack of understanding when it comes to storytelling and practical filmmaking.

  75. Well done, Joseph. Emerson is hopelessly confused on things that are perfectly clear.

    I don't get what's so bad about admitting you're wrong, Emerson. You thought that Dent's position in the van was confusing. Now, you can see that it didn't fool anyone, but you managed to be fooled.

    And my goodness, all the things Kahn says about how you get clarity of the action with directorial decisions (such as cutting to the Joker shooting a cop, which you never address) is a very good take down of your myopic view. Plus, as Kahn points out, you criticize some imaginary violation of the 180 degree rule in the van, yet favor it when the Joker shoots at the van with the automatic pistol.

    I don't get what the big deal is about people just admitting they're wrong. I was wrong about the adoption of digital cameras when features started being shot on them. Big deal, you're wrong, and your analysis comes from a very misguided place. It shouldn't be embarrassing to say, but it seems you've got a lot of pride staked on this. And you kind of lie about saying how you recut the tumbler hitting the garbage truck just for fun.

  76. Emerson's comments never really made any sense: neither logical nor emotional. He was just ranting away about what he would like to see. Why doesn't he make his own movie???

  77. I think the idiot assertion here is that there is only one way to cut a movie - the "right" way, and everything else. If you are making a movie with Steve McQueen in the 1960s or 70s, then you're doing it the right way. If you are making a movie today, you are doing it the wrong way (yes, I realize he put SALT in there as a good example, but still... overall, the original article smacks of the typical elitist film journalist who has never set foot in an editing booth, or storyboarded an action sequence)

    Someone near the beginning of the comments demanded there should have been more wide shots. I thoroughly reject this notion. There are several wide shots and even birds-eye shots at the beginning when they are going through the city. But when they go into the tunnel, there are no more real wides. That's on purpose - it's a tunnel bridge, its claustrophobic. This convoy is being surrounded - Harvey's stuck in a small box like a sardine in a can. IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE TIGHT! The absence of wide shots reinforces this.

    Anyway, Emerson clearly has a Nolan grudge - if you check his Vimeo site, he criticized an earlier scene in the same movie when Batman and the girl fall off the side of a building. Because there are more than two cuts, and a shot of the car they are about to land on, he concludes it is a bad sequence. He suggests the 1978 SUPERMAN has a better falling scene (again, if it was made in the 70s, its a better action movie - that's what I learned at film school). He than has the audacity again to "Re-cut" the sequence as only two shots, and suggests he's "fixed it."

    I wouldn't take anything he says seriously.

  78. Hi, I watched his video thinking 'no, that makes, THAT makes sense too...' making me feel stupid, as a film maker AND as a viewer, that I was apparently missing something that a lot of people seem to have noticed and I didn't.

    I know I'm not the smartest guy in the world but it totally does cut together and he is defo a prick.

  79. I don't really hate Emerson I do think he has points from time to time but the heart of almost every arguement he makes seems to be: this movie would be better if only I were directing it.

    Also in scrolling through some of these comments I think I saw someone criticizing Mr. Kahn based on his film credits rather than his written arguement. If this is the game we are going to play has anyone looked on Imdb for Jim Emersons credits? Because he does have one film writing credit:
    It's Pat!
    Maybe we should be thankful he is only writing about movies and not for them.

  80. I just want to know then, if as you point out, the semi truck impacts the SWAT vehicle at a 90 degree angle, and they're on a bridge with both sides having water on them, how the truck gets enough speed up from taking up all lanes of traffic, to knock the van into the river, and then can maneuver into the lane while still chasing the other van, and also where it came from in the first place if there is just water on the other side. Do you really not see where the shooting and editing in this sequence not only doesn't adhere to basic continuity grammar, but also makes no sense even with how you argue that it does?

  81. okay - I will concede one thing - I actually sat down and watched this sequence from the original movie at home last night (actually, I put it in and started with the opening and just damn near couldn't make myself skip ahead because the movie is so AWESOME!) - anyway, I think the portion shown in this video does cut well - but I'm surprised Emerson didn't continue his criticism to the rest of the sequence, because I think there are some bad cuts later on during the Bat Pod sequence. The sequence of him driving through the mall features several unconnected shots back-to-back that are pretty jarring - and later on the road, there is a total jump-cat as he turns into an alley that is just plain awful. Not to mention the Armored Van completely disappears once Batman starts the chicken match with the semi. And there are a handful of shots of Joker and his buddy looking off to the side of the semi and smirking at something that we never see.

    Alls I'm sayin' is, if people think the underground part is bad - the above ground part is much worse.

    Still a frikkin' epic movie, though!

  82. Kahn is right.

    And the "You think Salt rocks" line was just a funny comment to end a rebuttal on a lighthearted note.

  83. The audience cannot be convinced otherwise because Nolan locks it into their brains: Dent’s on the passenger side. And a character’s subjective perspective, how he feels about what he’s in, is something Emerson is tone deaf to in pursuing his eyelines.

  84. there is a point where criticism is so flawed and the author is pontificating on an area that is so out of his area of expertise, he is basically talking out of his ass. That is Jim Emerson’s knowledge of film space and the “rules” he has regurgitated out of a basic

  85. I love your videos so much. Just saw the one you did for Kylie and it had me near tears.

    (Oh and I can't believe you're only 43. You're my new role model)

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