Batman Begins, But Never Ends

Jeri, the kids and I worked hard yesterday on the deck. I was so ridiculously sore today I wanted to just relax so we went to the movies, and saw The Dark Knight, the new Batman movie. I felt the abiding need, despite my usual lack of posting here, to relate why the movie ultimately really pissed me off. That doesn’t, by the way, mean I wouldn’t recommend it, or that there wasn’t a lot of it I enjoyed. Now that I have you thoroughly confused, dear reader, let me explain.

I love movies. But I have found of late there is a problem in the world of moviemaking. And it has to do with editing, and I’m not talking about technique. I’m talking about cutting a movie to tell a story of reasonable length, an art that I fear is lost on the movie world at times.

The Dark Knight has some good performances, and all the buzz about the late Heath Ledger’s Joker is well deserved, he’s that good. Nope, I have no problem with the acting; all the major roles are well acted by truly great actors. There are good, quotable lines, something I like a lot. Effects, good. Cinematography, ditto.

The movie is 150 minutes long, or thereabouts. It should have been about 45 minutes shorter. Instead of being satisfied with a few main characters it piles more and more on, each demanding their fair share of screen time. In so doing, however, it burns them off in an unsatisfactory way. I don’t want to post a spoiler here, but one character in particular, who could have appeared in another Batman movie later as a major character, is instead wasted by the outcome of the film.

To some extent I’m not sure if it’s the writing or the editing, but as I think about it, I think it’s the writing where the failure is. After all, movies cost way too much to overshoot tons of film on scenes that might well not be used.

I also hate false endings. You know, where you think the movie’s point has been made but like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, it keeps popping back to life. The Dark Knight has one and it’s annoying.

You know, I think in a way this is why I usually really like almost all Pixar animated movies. They have the story, they tell it, and do it in about 90 minutes or so. I’ve seen long movies that I’ve liked, usually historical movies like Gandhi or The Last Emperor. But 150 minutes of superhero make bad guy go boom? C’mon guys, tighten it up.

6 Responses to “Batman Begins, But Never Ends”

  1. Nathan Says:

    After all, movies cost way too much to overshoot tons of film on scenes that might well not be used.

    On that point, you’re wrong. Much like a fashion photographer shooting rolls and rolls of film for one shot, we shoot tons of stuff and we know not all of it will be in the movie. And I’m not just talking about doing multiple takes for each angle of each scene. Sometimes, I know exactly which scenes will get cut just from reading the script…other times when I’m watching them be shot.

    But on everything else, you’re exactly right. When one of these bloated-budget films is being shot the director gets everything he wants. Nobody is willing to say no…to just about anything. And when he’s got all of these brilliant effects and stunts and action sequences in the can, nobody’s about to tell him has to cut anything.

    Two points:

    1. I made similar comments about the new Indiana Jones movie. It could have been a fine movie…if they’d cut about 20 minutes of the camera staring adoringly at sets that didn’t make any f…ing sense in the first place. (I forget if this is an F-bomb free zone or not, so please excuse me if I transgress.)

    2. I was on the phone this week with an old friend who moved to L.A. almost 20 years ago, and the conversation made me realize that I’m really happy working in the niche I’m in right now…namely movies in the 8 to 15 million dollar budget range. Producers can and do say no to Directors. I don’t get sent off at a moments notice to change everything to accommodate the Director’s latest whim. We shoot, (mostly), what we planned to shoot.

    A normal to medium-budget film shoots about a 4 or 5:1 ratio of film to what gets into the movie. The blockbusters shoot twice that.

    And Bryan…you need to post here more often. Good stuff.

  2. Bryan Says:

    Nathan, thanks. And I know from what Jeri’s told me that you are in the movie business. I wonder, though, if you’d clarify something for me a bit more. I understand that lots of stuff may get shot that doesn’t get into a movie as you indicated – that you take shots from different angles, different emotional tones (“Ok, Denzel, now give it to me more angry” “OK, now more hurt” etc.), but I guess what I wonder is, do you shoot stuff that you (the director) think – “there’s no way this scene or (God help us) this whole plot line gets in” – but you shoot it anyway, from the get go. I don’t think that latter happens much, and that’s what I meant to comment on, but I could well be very wrong, and maybe that does happen when your last flick made $300M domestic, or perhaps you’re telling me it happens when you don’t have a studio or producer willing to say no, and so you just shoot like a maniac.

    What I see in this Batman flick is that it was indeed bloated beyond the point of my tolerance; and I fault it for being planned that way from the word processor to the editing room. Some might call the film “rich” and I suppose that might well be a matter of taste. But for me, it was like butter-flavored butter…pretty damn buttery.

    The latest Indiana Jones flick didn’t seem bad to me, but I can understand someone feeling that way, and I know a lot of folks didn’t like that movie. Me, it tickled my nostalgia enough to get over the flaws. My other example of bloat are the 2nd and 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The first one (beyond all reasonable expectation) was a decent popcorn chomper; the last two were, to me, interminably long and ultimately, boring.

  3. Jeri Says:

    I did really like the movie. I enjoyed the dark character arcs – I don’t like superhero movies that candycoat it all because the original comics were very dark indeed about what Batman’s life was like.

    I also think Christian Bale is the best of the Batmen – and Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman and Maggie Gyllenhaal were pretty awesome as well. The writing, too, was very snappy.

    I think that the editing was sloppy – there were too many slow, slow shots that should have been sped up to improve the pacing of the movie, the director was too vain about his own imagery.

    And, like Bryan, I am a fan of the simple single-climax movie, rather than the faux-ending – whoops, hang on to your popcorn, we’re gonna give you yet MORE story and another climax and ending pasted on, more bang for your buck!

    It was a good movie. It could have been a great movie. For that, I am sad.

    I saw the first preview for The Watchmen though – and that looks like it could be pretty darn fabulous. Or horrible. It could go either way. ;)

  4. Nathan Says:

    I’m not entirely sure how to answer your question Bryan.

    When I worked on State of Grace…a really terrific movie…the last scene in the script had Sean Penn on the aft deck of an Irish merchant ship sailing out of NY harbor. No one but the director ever thought it would be in the movie and the Producers told us to just ignore it.

    The Director kept talking about it in meetings and nobody ever expended a single moment of effort toward making it happen. The movie does not end with that shot because we never shot it.

    OTOH, there are scenes in a script that actually seem like a good idea at the time and they get shot, but sanity reigns during the editing process. I think the blockbuster sequels are run by people who just say, “The first one made so much money, we’d better trust the Director to do it again.”

    The plain fact is that nobody knows what will or won’t work and when they give up on making decisions, you get movies that include every idea anybody had and nobody willing to put their foot down about cuts.

  5. Bryan Says:

    Nathan, fair enough, it just basically sounds like my perception of the economies of shooting may really only apply to tightly budgeted filming. But, my main comment that the film was too bloody long and the fault’s in the writing and editing still stands. And Jeri’s right, it’s too bad, because then you lose some of the impact of a bunch of really, really good actors doing a great job.

  6. Eric Says:

    1) I thought the movie was pretty brilliant. One point in particular I’d disagree with is the faux ending–Knight only has one if you think the movie is about Batman and one particular antagonist; if you take the movie as being about another character’s fall from grace (with Batman being sort of the comparison/contrast to that character), the movie has only one ending. I hope I’m not giving too much away, but one of the nice things about the movie, in my opinion, is that there’s a neat little bait-and-switch where the conflict you think the movie is about turns out to be sort of a red herring–someone is a catalyst for the conflicts that occur within and between all the other characters, a force of change that doesn’t change. Just saying.

    2) Another reason for the extra shooting, at least in smaller projects, is coverage: e.g. a good friend who makes short films has found himself having a hell of a time editing one of his current projects because he didn’t shoot enough–there are some magical things you can do in editing if you have the raw material to work with, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Even on larger projects, quite a lot gets done in editing–some folks even will say that editing is where a movie actually gets made. Sometimes you can go back and get the footage you need later–but not always: money is a factor and so is the availability of cast members, sets and locations.

    Footage from an unused scene can often be repurposed.

    3) I just thought the new Indiana Jones was bad. Spielberg should have said “no” to Lucas more, but he didn’t; you get the feeling he gave up, threw his hands in the air and just said, “Whatever, George, whatever.” Or maybe it’s just me–maybe I felt stupid when I discovered all my childhood Cold War fears of apocalypse were misplaced since my family had a freaking refrigerator, so why the hell was I afraid of a nuclear war, huh?