Making a spectacle of montage: Christopher Nolan picks up where the Russians left off

Discussed: What makes cinema unique? / narrative incoherence in "The Dark Knight Rises" / an argument for Eisenstein's cinema over Bazin's / the importance of montage in Christopher Nolan's films / the musicality of montage

Has there ever been another great art so persistently mis-apprehended? I refer not, of course, to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises—which is by no measure great art, and by some measures bad art—but to the cinema itself. And I avoid the term misunderstood deliberately. It’s not that the cinema has not been understood, in some fashion; it’s that the terms on which it is grasped are so often the ones of least significance. So much of the contemporary dialogue around cinema—and especially around blockbuster events, like The Dark Knight Rises—is tuned to the wrong frequency.

An audience may ask any number of questions to decide the worth of a film. Is the narrative coherent? Are the characters believable? Do I find its politics acceptable? But a great deal of contemporary critical discourse tends to neglect those questions most fundamental to apprehending film; like, is this really cinema? Does this film instantiate, in some notable and compelling way, the qualities of cinema as art? The issue here is not one of enjoyment, but of understanding the fundamental criteria that delineates cinema as a unique art form.

The fact of the matter is: a bad movie can also be great cinema.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, this year’s blockbuster conclusion to his Batman trilogy, is, in ways both obvious and numerous, a bad movie. It is dramatically inert, visually indecipherable, and deeply malformed on the level of narrative. But it is all these things in a manner that is entirely consistent with the qualities, both good and bad, of Nolan’s other blockbuster productions. And this makes it valuable.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has a handy summary of Nolan’s faults. The most common complaints about Nolan’s films, he writes in a conversation for Notebook, are that:

(1) they have a shoddy grasp of space and time, despite always being centered around chronologies and intercut action; (2) they use political issues and reference-points and take contradictory stances on them; and (3) most of them use personal traumas and public tragedies as plot points, but have no sense of the emotional.¹

¹ Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “The Big Murk: A Conversation Around Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” Notebook, 27 July 2012.

The second point here, I tend to feel, is an issue with Nolan’s plotting more generally. He is apt to feed his audience contradictory narrative information.

The Dark Knight Rises is guilty of all three. Nolan’s grasp on space and time in this film is just as shoddy as ever. Many moments have the appearance of the director absent-mindedly disregarding the normative ways in which cinema establishes the spatial and temporal conditions of a scene. The film’s central villain, Bane, is shot away off-screen by Catwoman in a flurry of action occurring over a matter of seconds, and then disappears from the rest of the film. Where did he land? What is his condition? A typical narrative approach would be to visually establish the final resting place and fate of a film’s villain—characters might even discuss their satisfaction with the outcome—giving the audience the opportunity to soak up this narrative turn. Instead, Bane’s absence from the screen registers as a matter of some confusion.

The politics are equally tangled. Bane instigates an Occupy Wall Street-style uprising against Gotham’s one percent, and the film’s hero is an eccentric billionaire who dresses up in order to mete out beatings to the proles. Nolan throws in these visual and thematic resonances with contemporary politics, but fails to make anything coherent out of them. The plot presents difficulty as well. Taking the time to map out the logic of Bane and his mistress Talia Al Ghul’s plot against Gotham is beyond my means. I suspect it is impossible. Hold an entire city hostage for six months, and then blow it up anyway? Disguise yourself in order to have sex with the man you have sworn vengeance on, to no apparent end? Imprison that man in an unsupervised prison half a world away, so he can watch his city’s downfall on a shoddy TV? Make of all this what you will.

The emotional content is similarly confused. Bruce Wayne fakes his own death—devastating his oldest companion, Alfred—specifically in order to expose that ruse to Alfred months later but also deliberately never acknowledge him. No one remotely sensible would do this ever, and so it is difficult for a remotely sensible person to be emotionally satisfied.

The logic of all this presents us with difficulties because it is not the logic of the classical narrative film, but rather—as I shall assert—it is the logic of montage, and montage is the essence of cinema.

² André Bazin, What is Cinema?, trans. H. Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press 1967, p. 46.

The question of how to define cinema is found in its most productive form—for me at least—in the theoretical tête-à-tête between André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein. The contest, here, is at heart an argument about which formal moves express the essential character of cinema. For Bazin, essential cinema is found when a film has straightforward respect for the unity of space and time in the photographic image.²  The photographic image, so Bazin contends, shows the thing itself, as no other art has done before. The subject of cinema—be it narrative, or thing— should properly be articulated through steady, lengthy takes, generously wide angles, and long depth of field, allowing the thing to simply exist before the audience, with minimal optical interference. A sequence of shots should serve to elucidate the subject of the image while preserving its consistency in space and time, never contradicting it. Montage, which has as its central capability the juxtaposition and scrambling of the photographic image and the distortion of space and time, is, for Bazin, the anti-cinematic process par excellence. But it is this very same process that Eisenstein holds to be the essential character of film: cinema is literally the “art of juxtapositions.”³

³ Sergei Eisenstein, “The Montage of Film Attractions,” in The Eisenstein Reader, ed. Richard Taylor, trans. Richard Taylor and William Powell, London: British Film Institute 1998, p. 36.

The most durable thing in Eisenstein’s theory is his conviction that montage is the quintessential way in which cinema can arouse an audience’s attention and feeling; the method no other art can reproduce. No other art can structure its content with so fine a control of the measurements by which it unfolds itself in front of the audience, with so fine a control on the distribution of narrative or thematic information, and the duration of their stay as the object of the audience’s attention. Montage is the equation by which the affect of cinema on its audience is calculated, and it is—or can be, when employed properly—so rigorous and strong, that the audience is thoroughly fertilised by the meaning of the piece, and united in shared experience. David Bordwell refers to this as “ecstasy”: “the most exalted experience that art can offer its spectators.”⁴

⁴ David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1967, p. 192.

But, perhaps due to their association with Eisenstein’s Marxist, Soviet milieu (Eisenstein’s statements as to the political significance of certain types of montage now appears to us as rather passé), the “montage-ist” position is in some ways out of favor in contemporary discourse about cinema, restricted to discussions of the avant-garde, or the obsessions of die-hard cineastes. Whenever I hear a film addressed in terms of the coherence of its plot, or the believability of its characters, of whether X could really happen, or whether Y would really act in such a way—any critical discussion, in short, that concerns itself solely with the ins and outs of the world of the film and its narrative—I know that the spirit of Bazin lives on. The affective capabilities of montage, now that they have been so effectively colonised by advertising, are more likely to seem to us some sinister tool of influence.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, despite the aforementioned ways in which it is a bad film, finally clarified for me Nolan’s central set of formal concerns as a filmmaker, which is the resuscitation of montage as the building block for the audience’s experience and enjoyment of spectacle. His major deficiencies as a filmmaker are all explicable, if not forgivable, in light of this larger concern.

His three most recent films, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, and The Dark Knight, represent the fullest exploration of this project. Each of these films is formally built on cross-cutting disparate arenas of narrative action into lengthy montage streams. These long montage sequences are both the basis of Nolan’s storytelling generally and, during periods of narrative climax, are a core component of his strategies for fulfilling the blockbuster paradigm’s obligation to spectacle.

The final acts of these three films are each played out across three or more locations and feature a diverse range of characters. Nolan aggressively intercuts these disparate strands to generate in the audience the sensation of experiencing a single unified event. But this is not the kind of event which could be captured by the Bazinian photographic image—some discrete event in space and time—rather, it is a narrative climax occurring over an entire territory—a city, a many-tiered dream-world— and it can be articulated only by the method of montage.

The climax of The Dark Knight Rises is nothing less than a city-wide uprising, with the resources of Batman and his sundry companions arrayed against the forces of Bane and Talia Al Ghul, with a nuclear bomb somewhere in the middle. Nolan distributes various narrative functions to each character—Batman has to beat up Bane, Jim Gordon has to find the bomb, John Blake has to save a bus full of kids, or whatever—and sets them bouncing around and off each other, advancing his climax along multiple threads and multiple locations.

His method is the same in his previous two features. The climax of The Dark Knight has Batman trying to beat up the Joker; while Gordon heads up a SWAT team; while Lucius Fox does something with tracking technology; while Harvey Dent goes on a murderous rampage; while boatloads of citizens decide whether or not to blow each other up; and so on. Nolan’s most extreme version of this climax, in Inception, has Dominick Cobb’s team of dream infiltrators pursuing a diverse range of objectives over three distinct territories—an arctic base, a plush hotel, the streets of LA—which are temporally and spatially nested inside each other.

Nolan’s approach is to wind all these strands up tight and then let one spring loose—in Inception, this is Cobb’s final journey to face his deranged dream-wife; in The Dark Knight, this is the face-off between Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent; in The Dark Knight Rises it is Batman’s final sacrifice over the ocean. He collapses these threads together to form a narrative resolution, but the substance of the climax of these films is in the audience’s experience of these multiple narrative strands being stitched together in montage.

Nolan’s intensive use of this form is an attempt to capture and direct the attention of the audience, to fertilise them with both narrative sympathy and visceral sensation. He is aided, in these three films, by the use of the most directly affective soundtracks yet employed in his career, composed by Hans Zimmer (collaborating with James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight). The scores of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises return again and again to pounding rhythmic refrains, which echo across and stitch together the disparate montage ingredients. In Inception, this is the deep bass BRAWMP-BRAWMP familiar from the trailers—apparently, according to Zimmer, an appropriation of the opening beats of Edith Piaf’s song “Non, je ne regrette rien.”⁵ In The Dark Knight Rises, it’s the tribal-esque chant of the Moroccan phrase deshi basara (rise up), which is the recurrent theme of the villain Bane.⁶

⁵ Dave Itzkoff, “Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score,” New York Times, 28 July 2010.

⁶ Kara Warner, “‘Dark Knight Rises’ Chant Rooted In Real Language, Hans Zimmer Says,” MTV, 25 July 2012.

Montage is an innately musical form—Eisenstein had a tendency to describe various methods of montage in musical terms; of tone, and metre, and rhythm—and the development of montage sequences in a film is generally structured and accentuated by the unfolding of its score. Steady rhythmic pounding is an innately affective ingredient in music (I hope this statement is uncontroversial), and its use by Zimmer and Nolan serves to intensify the affective capabilities of montage, to carry the audience to ecstasy, as tribal drumming may once have done.

⁷ Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” in Film and Theory: An Anthology, eds. Robert Stam & Toby Miller, Oxford 2000: Blackwell, pp. 229-235.

Contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are typically marked by their emphasis on the delivery of some spectacle. They are, to follow from Tom Gunning, cinemas of “attraction”; reveling in their ability to show something.⁷ This is now usually delivered in the form of some digitally rendered wonder; cars transforming into robots; enormous armies of orcs or elves; the exotic fauna of Avatar. But in a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, the Hollywood spectacle form is enlarged from the mere presentation of visual stimulation, into the delivery of visceral experience, via montage.

Both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises do feature moments of pure visual spectacle—such as the flipping semi-trailer, and the exploding hospital in The Dark Knight, or the masses of policemen marching against Bane in The Dark Knight Rises— but they tend to be practically accomplished. Inception, certainly, has its fair share of digitally rendered spectacle, but Nolan has a tendency to fold these images, as he does in the Batman films, into his montage streams; they might punctuate a sequence of shots, rather than being the subject of that sequence.

Compare this to Steven Spielberg’s style, which is to generate an entire sequence around the revelation and visual appreciation of some spectacle. Recall the dramatic close-ups of Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s faces, just before the dinosaurs wander on screen in Jurassic Park. Nolan rarely clues his audience in to the advent of some notable shot in this way. The raison d’être of his mode of spectacle is not the shot, but sequence; not the word but the sentence; not the image, but the experience.

Part of taking cinema seriously as an art-form means accepting that films will not always satisfy on certain familiar levels, even as formal qualities determine that film’s merit. This is a problem all art forms face, for example the complaint directed at abstract expressionism that “my kid could paint that.” But the economic conditions of the consumption of film, and especially Hollywood blockbusters, make this especially difficult. With our investments of time and money upon entry to a film, and a general aura of popular anticipation of the thing, we are accustomed to having our desires and expectations fulfilled in pleasurable, familiar ways. But good films do not always satisfy the conditions of cinema as art—be that montage, or something else. And formally accomplished cinema does not always satisfy as entertainment.

This is not, I hope, going to be taken as an argument that Christopher Nolan is some unheralded avant-garde genius. I have tried to explain how I think certain formal aspects of his technique are operating, and how they fit into the lineage of cinema history. I have tried not to pass comment on whether I find his technique especially skillful. I have called his montage affective, but it is not necessarily effective. Although their inner structures make it possible, whether or not The Dark Knight Rises or Nolan’s other blockbuster induce ecstasy, is, I suppose, a private matter between the films and their audience. It is the fact of his technique that is significant here. Nolan advances a robust, ambitious, and consistent formal program, and it is a contemporary take on a historically auspicious but critically neglected style. This is, I think, a reasonable definition of good art.

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