Previous Film Syndrome

Weakening at last, Fiona and I trotted along to our local megagooglegigaplex to see THE DARK NIGHT, and against expectations, rather enjoyed it. As far as the weaknesses go, David Bordwell expresses it pretty-near perfectly in this post on his astounding blog.

What surprised me pleasantly was how visually coherent it was. BATMAN BEGINS annoyed the seven hecks out of me with it’s illegible, chaotic fight scenes, shot with a long lens on a wobblecam and edited by a crack team of epileptic speed-freaks with a digital bacon-slicer. Christopher Nolan, perhaps history’s most boring human, has droned at length about the purpose behind this “plan” — since he was introducing Batman to the audience and to the criminals he’s battering the lungs out of, he wanted a sense of not quite being able to catch how fast and effective this guy is. Nolan, as INSOMNIA showed, is a gifted guy with a weakness for the False Good Idea, as producer David Brown calls it (in INSOMNIA the F.G.I. was to cut very rapidly to give a sense of sleep-deprived Al Pacino’s disorientation. Of course the effect was headache inducing and indistinguishable from very poor filmmaking, causing me to wonder if Nolan was just trying to protect a bad central performance: was Pacino back on the sauce?). In BATBEG the F.G.I. was the assumption that we’d be more interested in getting a sense of the bad guys’ perspective than we would be in WATCHING THE ACTION in what’s supposed to be AN ACTION MOVIE.

What puzzled me at the time was how nobody seemed to mind: I can’t recall any critics mentioning this rather unusual, extreme approach (which pre-dates Paul Greengrass’s action fiascoes with the BOURNE series). I guess somebody probably did, but I read a bunch of reviews and was still surprised when I saw the movie. Theory: critics were so surprised at the film’s contrasting approach to the Joel Schumacher dayglo roller-disco BATMAN AND ROBIN, they shut down most of their faculties to prevent neural overload.

Fast-forward to right now, and scarcely a review fails to mention the incoherence of Nolan’s action scenes in DARK KNIGHT. Yet the film is not particularly fast-cut, by modern action movie standards, and only twice did I have any trouble following what was happening. (1) The truck chase, which has some impressive stuff but goes on so long it outlasted my ability to concentrate on BIG THINGS CRASHING INTO EACH OTHER and (b) a brief skirmish in Eric Roberts’ (Yay! Eric Roberts!) night-club, where the strobe lighting and a fairly clear Roberts’ POV make it obvious that the incoherence is an intentional effect, and I didn’t mind it.

What’s going on, of course, is the title of this post. Reviewers have caught up with their misgivings about the previous film, and are now pouring them over this one. Some filmmakers have actually said that reviewers ALWAYS review the previous film, although I think it’s at least as common for them to attack a current film for not doing what the preceding one did. I first noticed this when leafing through old issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin, and then elsewhere. Reviews of Richard Lester’s elegiac ROBIN AND MARIAN were kicking it for not being as funny as his THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. Turning to a previous issue, I found reviewers of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS smacking it around for not being as funny as THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Now, since M4 has a somewhat tragic ending, it’s just possible that this lessening of belly-laughs was intentional. Since ROBIN AND MARIAN has a totally tragic ending (maybe the original title, THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD, would have helped) and very few jokes, most of them early on, it should have been apparent that humour was less central this time round. But no. “Nothing to laugh at at all,” moaned Leslie Halliwell.

It should just be a warning to anybody looking at a movie, to look at it clean, without projecting another movie on top. I’m certain I’ve been guilty of this myself, but giving the syndrome a name, with a catchy abbreviation — P.M.S. — may help avoid it.

As for THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s far from perfect, but of course Heath Ledger is scarifically grand (you can see him thinking, Imagine if Brad Dourif had too much saliva…) and Aaron Eckhart, in his Two-Face mode, looks like Kirk Douglas cartooned by Basil Wolverton. Which is an agreeably eccentric choice in a film that seems to be at pains to avoid any trace of comic-bookiness.

17 Responses to “Previous Film Syndrome”

  1. I wasn’t as overenthused with THE DARK KNIGHT as practically everyone was. As remakes of THE BIG HEAT go, it’s well made. And Heath Ledger’s The Joker is a fine channelling of Lee Marvin’s psychopath. Though Glenn Ford in the Lang film wipes the floor with Christian Bale. And Aaron Eckhart is alright in the Gloria Grahame role, even if he is plainly no Gloria Grahame. Though this film misses Lang’s revolutionary ironism and has the Batman capture the bad guy without compromising himself whereas in the Lang film it’s only Gloria Grahame’s sacrifice that brings about any change.

    One thing I dislike about much of these comic book films is that they go over the hill in trying to be ”realistic” by being dark, moody, humourless. I’m not that crazy about that Batman TV show, but at least it was fresh and original in dealing with it’s material and the Pop Art Deco sets are immensely more creative and visually rich than the pseudo-noir trappings of this film.

  2. That’s a very nice comparison/analysis. “…even if he is plainly no Gloria Grahame,” — well, WHO IS?

    Cramming the whole Two-Face plot into that film was a definite mistake, I think, though it’s all quite well integrated (the film’s plotting is actually very smart). There’s insufficient time to develop him, and everybody knows two bad guys is a mistake — your left with no time for Batman. The rot started with Batman Returns, which is visually the best Batman and has great bad guys in terms of design, performance and one-liners (TOO MANY ONE-LINERS though), but suffers unnecessarily in coherence: impossible to work out what Catwoman wants, the Penguin’s plan changes every ten minutes, and again Batman has nothing to do.

    Somebody who wants to carve out a niche in film criticism might want to make a defence of the Schumacher films. Personally, they gave me a green and purple headache.

    I don’t see too many superhero movies pursuing the “realistic” vibe as far as Dark Knight does. It all works great except when you see Batman in a bright space, and then he just looks silly. Some level of stylisation is essential to make these characters at all credible.

  3. I was guilty of P.M.S. only last week when watching Burn After Reading, thinking “Well, it’s no Fargo, but…”

    It was much harder trying to compare it to No Country For Old Men, unless I was willing to go into the realm of the Grand Cosmic Joke, which at 10 a.m. with no coffee wasn’t totally feasible.

    Still, I eagerly await Aaron Eckhart’s appearance in The Gloria Grahame Story…

  4. Hmm, Aaron Eckhart as Gloria Graham, and WHO as Nick Ray?

    This could make a whole new post — cross-dressing movie star biopics. Bruce Willis as Mae West! That smirk! Those thighs!

    I’m… kind of looking forward to the new Coens. Kind of.

  5. Don’t.

    Burn Before Reading is smarmy, cynical crap. ie. typical Coens. Framing, compositon, camera movement and cutting mean nothing to these creeps.The only thing they care about is manufacturing characters and situations of marked stupidity in order to give audiences the “treat” of feeling superior to everything and everyone on screen.

    Missed the “all-media” of The Dark Knight (when to a Bastille Day reception at the French Embassy instead) and now Idon’t think I’ll go at all. I’ve never cared for Batman in any form, and superhero movies are what this culture gives an increasingly powerless public instead of human rights.

    And it asks us to pay for it.

  6. Missing ”The Dark Knight” is certainly not a big deal and won’t make any difference to anyone. The only issue is that people are making a huge issue about it being Heath Ledger’s last film(actually it’s Terry Gilliam upcoming film, “Imaginarium…” or something like that) and whatnot. It’s a good performance and like the first Batman, the film only comes alive whenever the villain takes centre stage.

    The thing about Batman is that it emphasizes the fact that Superhero films are essentially corporate entities and they defend essentially corporate interests. Like Batman is a billionaire by day and dedicates himself to crime fighting by night and basically uses shareholder funds to satisfy his Oedipal quest. With Superman or Spider-Man(I thought the third one was quite good) at least they are both outsiders and misfits and not annointed elites.

  7. Ah yes, the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, I wasn’t sure if that was going to be finished. Looks like 4 different actors are sharing Ledger’s role, so that may have made things easier. That Gilliam has very strange luck. I’ll ask him about it if I meet him this weekend, as seems increasingly possible.

    You’ve put your finger on the queasiest aspect of Batman, the rich guy who beats up poor guys. “Giving something back to the community.” This is one element the comics and filmmakers are always sure to avoid examining.

    I’d say the Coens have a DEFINITE interest in camera movement and editing (they edit their own films, although in fairness so does Michael Winner) but lack any interest in using those elements for anything other than cynical games-playing. Sometimes they allow the audience space to empathise with the characters even if the Coens themselves do not.

  8. Your previous film syndrome reminded me of that programme Channel 4 did a few years ago with the BFI totting up the number of tickets sold for films in British cinemas and adjusting for inflation. All throughout the programme (which in the end was just a lists programme, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh about its lack of in-depth critical analysis) they kept saying things like “surprisingly Thunderball is the most popular Bond film in terms of ticket sales”, without mentioning that perhaps the quality of the previous Bond, Goldfinger, might have helped inspire interest in the next in the series – a good example of viewers having previous film syndrome!

    Also the surprise appearance of the second Matrix film in the low 90s on that list inspired talk of whether the public liked that more than the first, without taking into consideration that the first film was a surprise hit that gained a big following on the then new DVD format and that a lot of people who wouldn’t have gone to the cinema to see the first were queueing up in anticipation of the second film (only to be sadly disappointed, but that’s another story!)

    That programme underlined to me that it is dangerous to generalise psychological reactions an audience has and qualitative worth of a particular film from looking at the amount of money it took at the box office, whihc is what that list show seemed intent on doing throughout (even down to not factoring in the way people might (or will most often) see films in other places than a cinema such as on television or DVD, as well as the internet and the various giveaways that take place on it!)

  9. I prefer Michael Winner. Especially The Mechanic.

    As for Ol’ Mush Mouth, his performance in I’m Not There suugested he was beginning to discover acting — something that can’t be said of his twitchy-slug turn in I Broke My Back Mounting Him (aka. Back Street mit sheep.)

    I don’t understand this new generation of prescription drug junkies at all. Everyone should mknow by know that Vicotin is not only more addictive than heroin it’s more destructive.

    But being legal that salient fact is going to be rigorously ignored.

    An Winona Ryder is NOT Anita Pallenberg.

  10. LMFAO at “Broke My Back Mounting Him”. I think Ang Lee’s films may be among the worst photographed of recent years, ie night scenes that amount to running black leader through the projector. Fiona: “It’s too dark! I want to see them shagging!”

    Prescription drugs don’t SOUND as much fun as illegal ones. I prefer music, personally.

    Colin, that’s a brilliant analysis, and might also explain why Ghostbusters II didn’t do well: in the first film all the laughs were in the trailer (and censored for TV) and so the belated sequel was largely ignored by people who felt vaguely cheated the first time. Although, looking back on it, Ghostbusters is kind of enjoyable just because it’s so beautifully photographed.

  11. BTW, speaking of beautiful photography, just in from the new print of Lola Montes and it’s ASTOUNDING! Very little “new” material (a few scenes here and there are longer — plus the complete last shot) but the color is not to be believed. Nothign remotely like it in the history of the cinema.

    Moreover, while this is the Marcel-approved French version there remains a lot of German in it. Walbrook and his aides speak German to each other, while he and Carol chat in French (as would be logical.) Ustinov occasionally goes into German as well, Would love to see the other improved print but speaking as someone who has been madly in love with the film since 1963 when I saw it for the first time at the New York Film Festival I AM IN HEAVEN!!!

  12. FANTASTIC. I saw an unrestored print about five years ago in the Edinburgh Ophuls retro and felt a lack of sharpness that I KNEW wasn’t meant to be there, although it was still very beautiful. Hope I get to see this on the big screen. Every version I’ve seen has mixed languages like few films, other than Eight & a Half. Actually, it feels like an influence on Fellini, big-style.

  13. Fellini and Ophuls are spiritual brothers. They both love the circus and understand what a profound metaphor can be made of it.

  14. ————————-
    BTW, speaking of beautiful photography, just in from the new print of Lola Montes and it’s ASTOUNDING!

    I read about it on the ASC digital magazine preview, it’s supposed to be the first time the film exists as Ophuls intended it to be. The film’s mutilation broke Ophuls’ heart. His next film was to be a biopic about Amadeo Modigliani(that was made later by Jacques Becker).

    ”Lola Montes” is my favourite of Ophuls. An example of a final film that rather than complete or conclude a filmography looks like it’s mining into new territory.

    They both love the circus and understand what a profound metaphor can be made of it.

    Yes but they both deal with the circus differently. With Ophuls the circus metaphor is heavily(even cruelly) ironic whereas with Fellini there’s a sense of spectacle and even something joyful in that.

  15. ———–
    As for Ol’ Mush Mouth,

    I don’t know Heath Ledger personally and for all I know he may have been a *beep*, but there’s something to be said about courtesy for the recently departed. Sure he drugged himself of like hundreds of junkies who barely get a blip in a newspaper while his death is some kind of spectacle but that’s not something that he can be held against.

    I thought Heath Ledger was fine in ”The Brothers Grimm”. His death at a young age isn’t as big a loss as James Dean(who died in an accident that was in no way his fault) but dying at a young age is sad nonetheless.

  16. Someone recently told me Ledger’s performance in Brokeback was so good it basically fooled him into thinking he liked the film. While sadly I dind’t like anything about Bros Grimm (some nice design, perhaps) he was a fine actor. Fiona insists he shouldn’t get an Oscar, good as he is in TDK, since it’d blatantly be a necrophile gesture: Batman villains don’t get Oscars! Certainly Pfeiffer and DeVito would have been equally deserving.

    I think, the Oscars being the “self-congratulatory meat parade” (to use George C Scott’s fine phrase) that they are, it would be entirely appropriate to do something stupid like this. It’ll give the actresses in the crowd a chance to vent their tear ducts.

    I just typed “rear ducts” by mistake — Freudian or what?

  17. […] and came back to bite me with the incoherent set-piece fights in BATMAN BEGINS (which I mulled over here). I liked THE PRESTIGE a good deal, but had a nagging feeling that the last shot could have […]

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