EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, Press Play debuts a new genre of video essay we are calling In The Cut. These video essays will zero in on a crucial scene in a film and they will deconstruct, study and evaluate it for its technical merits and its cinematic effectiveness. Given the recent arguments emanating from this site and others about the state of action filmmaking, Press Play contributor Jim Emerson felt compelled to produce a series of three In The Cut video essays. When taken cumulatively, these commentaries explain once and for all what a successful action sequence looks like and how such a scene should influence the viewer. His forensic analysis of the truck chase from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is Part I of these essays. Part II is Phillip Noyce’s Salt and Part III is Don Siegel’s The Line Up. We have included the full uninterrupted sequence from The Dark Knight so the viewer can compare Jim’s analysis with the finished product.
By Jim Emerson
Press Play Contributor
There are plenty of ways to make a movie. There are plenty of ways to make a mess, too. But sometimes when I and fellow critics and moviegoers complain of “incoherence” in modern “snatch-and-grab” movies (particularly action sequences), some people say they don’t know what we’re talking about. This is an attempt to be very, very specific about why some of us get confused. What it boils down to this: we’re actually watching the movie.
When, for example, we’re shown someone gazing intently offscreen and there’s a cutaway to something else (that appears to be in the vicinity), we assume (having familiarized ourselves with basic cinematic grammar over the years) that we are seeing what they are looking at. But that’s not always the case. Why? I don’t know. I find many directorial choices in contemporary commercial movies to be sloppy, random, incomprehensible — and indefensible.
This essay takes a long, hard look at roughly the first half of the big car and truck chase sequence from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, set on the lower level streets by the Chicago River. It stops, starts, reverses, repeats, slows down… taking the sequence apart shot by shot. The idea is to look at it the way an editor would — but also as a moviegoer does. We notice lapses in visual logic whether our brains register them consciously or not. I found this sequence utterly baffling the first time I saw it, and every subsequent time. At last, I now know exactly why.
Anyone who has participated in the making of a movie, whether a D.I.Y. project or a Hollywood studio picture (I’ve been involved in both kinds of productions), can tell you about the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of planning, shooting and editing a movie. Surely the use of large IMAX cameras for this segment of The Dark Knight made the filming more of a challenge. Problems that could have been easily fixed on a film with such a huge budget (removing that phantom extra police car with CGI, perhaps) were also no doubt complicated by the IMAX process. And to the filmmakers’ credit, they decided against using CGI for the actual stunts, using real vehicles, miniatures and explosions instead.
In the end, however, all that matters, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese, is which pieces of film wind up in the picture and which are left out (intentionally or otherwise). And then, to quote the great actor Sir Edwin (John Cleese) on all those words in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” you’ve got to get them in the right order.
P.S. If you want to see how this part of the chase sequence appeared in the “Dark Knight” script, click to view these .pdf pages.
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