On Narrative Density
The Dark Knight Rises is a Hollywood blockbuster fascinated by narrative density. If director Christopher Nolan has become one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood, a director in the commercial bracket of Spielberg, Cameron, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott, this isn’t because he has dumbed down, but because he has wised up: more than most he wants to place the viewer in a relationship where their intelligence isn’t so much questioned as challenged. We might wonder whether this is real cinematic intelligence at work (Nolan is no Godard or Kiarostami), but as artificial intelligence goes, The Dark Knight Rises is a demanding enough piece of work.
Now there have been plenty pieces over the last decade or so analysing the contemporary Blockbuster, from Tom Shone’s chatty book of that name, to Geoff King and David Bordwell’s analysis in New Hollywood and The Way Hollywood Tells It, as well as Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s essays collected in Minding Movies. Here are writers all willing to speak well of a type of cinema often dismissed as contributing to the decline of the moving image, films that rely on spectacle, crashing and crushing surround sound, and suffer from being often caught in the commercial necessities of sequel serialisation. When Bordwell says in a round table discussion in Minding Movies, that “The Odyssey is a sequel to The Illiad, and the second, better part of Don Quixote is a sequel to the first”, it is to defend sequel cinema. Yet in the following article in the book, ‘Superheroes for Sale’, he attacks Nolan’s The Dark Knight, insisting on the repetition of gimmicky situations: “disguises, hostage-taking, ticking bombs, characters dangling over a skyscraper abyss, who’s dead really once and for all?”
But what is maybe most interesting about the Batman films and especially The Dark Knight Rises, is that such devices are given texture. If one places a device on top of another device, it is as if the cliché is diluted by density of information: by the film asking us to think more than one thing at a time. For example when Nolan uses the ticking bomb in The Dark Knight Rises, he does so while keeping other narrative elements on the screen as well. Instead of the film accepting the nuclear bomb that will soon go off as the only thing of narrative pertinence while characters fret over its danger, Nolan also throws in narrative peripety. Here we have a character one has assumed to be on Batman’s side, turning out to be the real villain, while whom we took to be the real villain happens only to be her partner in crime as he wishes he were also her partner in life. Marion Cottilard’s environmentalist Miranda is actually the young “boy” who escaped from a dungeon hell, where before we were given to assume it was Tom Hardy’s character Bane that was the hard as nails escapee. It is as if a James Bond film has been crossed with Oedipus Rex. Imagine a 007 movie where the love interest turns out to be the man with golden gun, and where numerous scenes of cross-cutting to save the world are interspersed with expositional explanations that include flashbacks, and you will get some idea of the density at work.This isn’t to say it is especially fresh: The World is not Enough does something a little similar. As Kim Newman in a recent review of a Dark Knight Rises says, seeing links between the two films, “Robert Carlyle’s Bond villain…turned out to be Sophie Marceau’s minion.”
And of course this density doesn’t initself make the film a great success, but if we are going to have sequels that ought to be admired, surely The Dark Knight Rises is worth defending because of the complexity of its story, even if these narrative convolutions might seem weak next to less dense but more complex moments of cinematic reversal, like those in Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. The Dark Knight Rises does at least have story density, where one of the criticism aimed at the blockbuster is that they have barely a story at all. As Justin Wyatt says in High Concept, “Perhaps the most striking result of the high concept style is a weakening of identification with character and narrative. The modularity of the film’s units, added to the one dimensional quality of the characters, distances the viewer from the traditional task of reading the film’s narrative. In place of this identification with narrative, the viewer becomes sewn into the “surface” of the film, contemplating the style of the narrative and the production.” Roman Polanski and Robert Altman’s films do so with minimal action surrounding the revelation and possess a thematic richness The Dark Knight Rises lacks. When JJ Gittes discovers Evelyn Mulwray slept with her father, and Marlowe that his friend Terry Lennox has played him, the films allow time and space for the revelation to sink in. Equally there is no need for flashbacks, since we haven’t been given unreliable flashback information earlier that now has to be reassessed.
In The Dark Knight Rises Miranda Tate explains to Batman who she really is, and so the film moves into flashback to show how Batman has erroneously imagined the wrong person: as we have been expected to have done. When earlier Tom Conti and others detailed the enemy the boy is to confront, they talk about a figure born in the shadows, a child who was brought up in this horrible dungeon. Bruce Wayne was a child of pampered wealth: how can he hope to defeat someone who was born in hell? Inevitably we would be inclined to think this is Hardy’s Bane. After all he is the villain creating havoc in New York, and the man who has dropped Wayne into this desert hole while he sets about destroying Gotham City. Even an earlier hint where the enormously wealthy Miranda announces that she was born poor isn’t entirely likely to have us guessing it is her, rather than Bane, Conti and co are talking about. The film does at least have a story, and a dense one at that.
What is most interesting here though isn’t the wrong-footing, but the placement of the revelation in terms of narrative density. There is a potential for affective dissonance, of the viewer fascinated by the revelation, but preoccupied by the nuclear bomb that is soon to go off. However, Nolan works this density of information without especially diluting affect by making the revelation and the bomb going off of course very closely linked. Miranda stabs Batman at the moment she reveals her past, and stabs him because she wants to stop him from halting the destruction of the city.
Like the peripety, the notion of actively reversing perspective is a frequent narrative element of contemporary cinema and closely associated to it. The general, narrative reversal is vital to The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Sixth Sense, while the perspectival reversal is central to A Beautiful Mind, The End of the Affair, Hilary and Jackie. Sometimes the latter films reverse perspective, but it wouldn’t quite be the same as saying they are peripeties. They don’t reverse the story, especially, just an angle on it. Here we take events to be one thing and find out that they can be seen from a different perspective altogether. While Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It and others have noted that unreliable flashbacks have been around for many years (a number of forties Hollywood films utilised them) what Nolan offers is a combination of narrative options used more or less simultaneously. It isn’t enough that he cross-cuts between numerous characters near the end of the film (between Joseph Gordon Leavitt’s police detective, Anne Hathaway’s super criminal Selina, Matthew Modine’s inept officer), since anything from disaster movies to multi-character studies like Magnolia and Crash have done that. It is that he does so during moments of great tension without every character contributing to the creation of this tension, and also offers character revelation whilst utilising flashbacks that counter our earlier assumptions. Bordwell is right to notice that Nolan is happy to use numerous narrative devices, but the Nolanesque resides in the density of their use.
As a Sight and Sound article by Jospeh Bevan notes, Nolan’s background is in literature rather than in film, and though he doesn’t write his own scripts (they’re often written by his brother Jonathan) he seems a more literary filmmaker than Spielberg, Cameron and co. More than most he counters a criticism often levelled at the big, commercial film: that it’s more interested in action than story, explosions over script. When King counters this accusation in New Hollywood Cinema by saying “narrative construction remains an important ingredient in the mix offered by even the most spectacular and special-effects-laden blockbuster productions”, he could have benefitted from the presence of the Batman films: the book was written in 2002. Some of the examples he gives seem so obviously to be serving the spectacle, films like Armageddon and Speed.
But The Dark Knight Rises sees story less serving spectacle than spectacle containing story. There are moments here that are almost parsimonious in their resistance to suspenseful action, evident for example in the scene where Batman escapes from the desert prison, a huge-well like structure that he tries to pull himself out of. Initially he does so using a rope, but others suggest that he needs fear to conquer the environment, and using a rope that can save him if he falls back into the pit removes this element. Nolan sets this up as a classic vertiginous encounter with the void, but then rushes through the sequence with hardly any attention to the potential suspense. A De Palma or a Spielberg would have worked in far more shots of the risks involved, and even a moment where the birds fly off from their perch is offered without much of a frisson. The director seems instead to want to rely chiefly on the narrative power over the sensuous expectations of the medium.
A filmmaker more interested in the sensuous over the narrational might have offered the scene without much purpose within the story but a great deal of purpose within the given scene. It may not have been especially imperative that a character escape, but the scene itself would be filmed with the maximum amount of suspense in relation to the risks involved. Instead Nolan asks us to see the scene’s importance as a building block of narrative rather than an exercise in cinematic manipulation. At a time when writers like King have to defend the blockbuster against the absence of story, Nolan gives us a scene that suggest a relative absence of manipulation on the basis that we are so engaged in the tale, and in Wayne’s need to escape the pit and save Gotham City, that we don’t want any time wasted on how he gets out of there.
This isn’t to indicate The Dark Knight Rises is a major work, nor is it to insist that a film downplaying manipulation of the set piece for the building blocks of narrative is always a good thing, but it does suggest that Nolan is a filmmaker who isn’t part of visual cinema that cares little for the narrational. When Bordwell says in ‘Superheroes for Sale’ that “since the 1980s, mass audience pictures have gravitated towards ever more exaggerated presentation of momentary effects”, Nolan seems to be doing something else, especially unusual perhaps considering that the Batman films are adapted from comics. What appears to interest Nolan are states that demand narrative working more than momentary effects, and so whether it is Batman Begins, Memento or The Prestige, what he searches out is epistemological unease over the set-piece tease. Nolan is not alone in this unease, of course, and if we’ve invoked De Palma as a master of the elaborate set-piece, the latter is also a director very interested in creating paranoiac feeling and volte face storytelling. Blow Out plays like a pulp version of All the President’s Men, Dressed to Kill reveals that the killer is a cross-dresser and none other than Michael Caine’s Dr Elliott – the very person the central character has been going to see psychoanalytically. Mission Impossible plays with people not being who they seem as they whip off a mask we’ve taken to be their real face only to reveal another.
Yet finally De Palma seems to be what we could call a ‘tease’ director, like Leone, like Argento, like on occasion Spielberg, and like of course, in his own way, Hitchcock. It is as if they are interested in a variation of dead time (of empty screen time), as sadistic time. They are happy to put the story on dawdle mode for the purposes of putting the viewer into a state of intense subjugation. In Hitchcock on Hitchcock the director gives an example of this type of suspense in his films. “Incidentally [in The Lady Vanishes] instead of creating suspense in the usual way by having the hero half raise the glass to his lips and lower it again and never quite getting down to drinking it, I did it by cinematic means. I had the glasses served and left on the table while the two go on with their conversation. But I still had to make the audience ask “when are those glasses going to be picked up?” So I photographed the whole dialogue through the two glasses in the foreground.” The dead time resides in ‘nothing happening’, but the sadism in the expectation that something will. Equally in the sequences on the boat in Jaws, when the three main characters shoot the breeze, Spielberg (who of course often goes for one spectacular scene after another) here, in one of his best films, leaves us wondering at what moment the shark will attack. When in the Hitchcock interview the interviewer asks, “there’s some doubt in my mind as to the exact distinction between suspense and chase”, one way of defining the difference is to see the chase sequence as fast-burn suspense; the example Hitchcock gives as slow-burn. It is often the latter that plays up the sadistic power of the filmmaker rather than the former, because though both subjugate the viewer, the fast-burn does so through action; the slow-burn through the weight of time rather than its lightness. It turns dead time into suspenseful time by denying action, but by containing also its very strong possibility.
One feels in Nolan’s work this interests him less than many directors with whom he could be compared: the density of narrative that so fascinates him doesn’t allow much space for slow-burn suspense, so scenes like the dungeon prison escape are hastily realized. Equally, much of Batman Begins concentrates on the motivation behind Batman’s move from being Bruce Wayne to Batman. Nolan might not be much of a psychological filmmaker next to a Bergman or a Rohmer, but within the context of the action film he is willing to give a surprising amount of time over to justifying a character’s decisions. Even Anne Hathaway’s character in The Dark Knight Rises is constantly given lines that play up the idea she is a class warrior more than a criminal, and one of the fascinating elements of The Dark Knight was the complexity of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
However, someone might insist that the point of an action film is that it succeeds or fails on the basis of its set-pieces, and the most striking example in the film comes at the beginning, a sequence shot on a plane using a great deal of live action rather than CGI, and finally more impressive than the later scene where a football stadium loses its pitch and its players as various bombs go off, leaving the fans as horrified onlookers. The latter is a very fine scene, but lacks the set-piece magnificence of this earlier one. Yet if the former sequence is stunning, nevertheless one can also watch it and understand why a Hollywood producer can say of Nolan that he is a “cold guy who makes cold films” (according to a Daily Telegraph interview with Nolan by Will Lawrence), and this might lie in the nature of Nolan’s manipulation. One can admire the sequence on the plane, but we cannot pretend Nolan creates identificatory suspense in the process. He provides us with a villain but no hero, and the scene serves to set up the villainy and ingenuity of Bane, but doesn’t make us care at all about the people whose lives he removes. It is in the tradition of the Bondian pre-credit sequence, a set-piece opening to set in motion the tone of the film, but usually Bond films include Bond in the scene. Part of the coldness we might perceive is the manipulation without identification in this sequence, and the identification without manipulation when Wayne escapes from the dungeon prison.
However it would be unfair to say that the airplane sequence has the same level of gratuitous irrelevance as scenes in Speed, Independence Day, Godzilla and so on, where one has empty buses crashing into empty planes and the most peripheral of characters becoming ciphers of suspense for the purposes of another action sequence. From Nolan’s perspective, what he would be doing here is an inversion of what he does in Batman Begins: he is creating motivation. In the first film it is for Bruce Wayne’s emergence as Batman; in The Dark Knight Rises, for his reappearance after years in grief-stricken retirement over his great love Rachel’s death. Wayne is the only person capable of taking on Bane. The set-piece serves Nolan’s notion of narrative density. When he says in You Tube interviews about The Dark Knight Rises that he feels under far less pressure than people might assume because he knows he has a strong story to go into the production with, he seems determined to counter the sort of criticism often levelled at the big-budget film.
We’re arguing though that it isn’t so much a strong story but a dense one, and even this opening sequence is probably more complicated than we would usually expect for a scene-setter. There are moments where we’re as confused about the events as most of the characters involved, so that we don’t even share a sort of epistemological empathy with Bane. What do we mean by epistemological empathy? It would be where we might not care for the villain, but we do at least share a clear understanding of what he wants and how he is going to get it. It is a point Francois Truffaut makes in his book length interview with Hitchcock. “It isn’t necessarily identification, but the viewer becomes attached to Perkins [in Psycho] because of the care with which he wipes away all traces of his crime. It’s tantamount to admiring someone for a job well done.” Truffaut is talking about generating fellow-feeling for a villain, and Nolan doesn’t quite do that for Bane, since he is there to create the space for Batman’s return. We need less to know exactly what is going on in this sequence than know that Batman will have a very formidable partner when he once again takes on criminal behaviour in Gotham City. Nolan follows Hitchcock’s idea that a good story needs a good villain, but he doesn’t feel the need to create empathic identification with the villainy. A more character-driven director might; just as on the flipside a more spectacle-driven director would play up the event. Nolan seems to say that it needs to be spectacular but not at all empathic as he wants to set his story in motion, and creates a good reason why Batman will come out of retirement.
If one claims that The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s best film, one does so aware that this will be taken as facetiousness, but should be seen more as appropriateness. Memento was viewed as a great film by some, and Inception a challenging one. But maybe Nolan’s gift is for telling big stories well, rather than psychologically subtle ones too broadly. Films like Memento and Inception are metaphysical films where the question of reality gets thrown into dispute, but if Nolan is no Bergman or Rohmer when it comes to motivation, he isn’t Alain Resnais either when it comes to raising pressing questions about the problem of being and time. He is instead no more and no less than a gifted entertainer, and from this point of view The Dark Knight Rises illustrates a filmmaker working neither below nor above his talent. If he continues to make blockbuster films rather than smaller, ostensibly more challenging works, he will be leaving more insightful and probing filmmakers to work the Indie vein, and will be doing what he does best: moneyed spectacles intelligently put together.