Christopher Miller watches films so that you don't have to.
The Dark Knight
Saul Bellow's Augie March says that he will "go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way". I'm quoting this because I have my own questions about film that a lot of film criticism doesn't seem to want to answer. (Pauline Kael is an exception here.) Like, how much of a visual medium is it? How much should the eye be allowed to take precedence? We all know about the heft and swing of dialogue but there are other less tangible things that make for a great film, I think.
Christopher Nolan has a keen eye for colour and scale. For beauty, too. Everything in The Dark Knight, you feel, has been thoroughly seen. There's a moment right at the beginning when the camera pans over the top of a cluster of tall buildings. You get their weight and height and then, suddenly, one of the windows is shattered. It comes exploding outwards and it feels genuinely shocking, like a violation. Elsewhere, the colours, the night-time blues and blacks, are telling you things about insecurity and melancholy. But what – no really: what? – does all of this add up to? I found the whole thing terribly frustrating.
Because, in one sense, it's a good film. It has the slickness and the confidence of something like Skyfall. The action sequences are choreographed with such precision that, if you were a little less cynical than me, you might find yourself becoming slightly breathless. You also have Gary Oldman giving it loads of queasy earnestness and, crucially, Heath Ledger, who is fantastic: truly terrifying. What you get with Ledger's Joker is a huge sociopathic appetite. His pain is obvious but, by now, it's also irrelevant. All you can do if you see him coming is duck or run away. But it's a sleight of hand, all this. Right at the heart of the film, there's a gap. And this makes me want to rephrase my question. Can a film be a great film when it's a kind of feedback loop; when all that it appears to refer to is itself? I think what I mean by this is that everything feels like a plot device. The emotions don't seem like real emotions so much as cogs in one giant wheel. In Fellini's Nights of Calabria, the main character is a prostitute. There's what feels like the film's central set-piece (not unique, this, in Fellini) in which huge crowds make their way to a religious site. At one point, the camera hovers above them and it's nothing, really; it certainly doesn't compare to the pyrotechnics of your average blockbuster. But what matters is the emotion. Calabria is bewildered but hopeful, even though she doesn't entirely know what she's hoping for. There's a close-up of her, squeezed into the crowd, and she's almost crying and then she starts to chant along with everybody else. She wants to be saved, even though she knows, deep down, that this isn't going to happen. She wants to be included in the great mass of humanity that we have already seen and you're rooting for her, that's the thing. Batman was high up over Gotham City. The Joker had him by the throat. What's more, the Joker had a detonator; he was going to blow up a ferry full of people. But what I was thinking was: that sheer drop has to be CGI. Onwards and upwards.
Christopher Miller is a teacher of film studies and a movie bore.