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Batman is always Beginning again

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(I never thought I’d dip back into this well, but then life happens and there you go.)

Heath Ledger notwithstanding, I think it’s fairly obvious that Batman Begins is the better of recent reboots.  Nolan structures the first film not around an admittedly ingeniuous performance, but around a modified classical dynamic, by which I mean, he abides by his Aristotle.  It opens with the most incentive of incentive moments—a boy watching his parents murdered before his eyes—then proceeds to a classic peripeteia*—that moment of reversal when the boy who witnessed his parents’ murder decides to forsake revenge and fight all crime instead the responsible criminals.  It need not bear mentioning, I don’t think, that the deus ex machina, which Aristotle would otherwise despise, in this case fits within “the unity of action,” because it has “an air of design” that’s well-nigh indisputable.

The real crux is the film’s anagnorisis—or “revelation” in the I-murdered-my-father-made-kids-with-my-mother-sense—which occurs at a time Aristotle would’ve approved of, but not in the way he’d prefer.  You’ll remember that, early in Batman Begins, the recently returned Bruce Wayne takes his horny butler’s advice and invites some models to go swimming in a restaurant with him:

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Nolan’s use of a medium-long shot there is deceptive, as these aren’t really women so much as beards:

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I’m not saying they’re all legs and hair, the cropped medium shot notwithstanding—but for the purpose of the plot, Nolan certain reduces them to as much.  (We’re just going to skip over the scene of them skinny dipping, you know, for the kids.)  The point is that these women are props, mere things Alfred suggests Bruce Wayne should acquire should he not want to be discovered as the Batman.  So, then, anagnorisis avoided … except:

Batman begins00070

The love of Wayne’s life can’t even look at him—and not just because I caught  bad capture.  She’s just watched him escort two soaking models from a hotel she’s about to learn he bought, so she shouldn’t want to look at him.  But when she does, he makes a plea:

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Which you can tell, because he’s wearing his best “plea” face, insisting that he “is more,” whatever that means (“I’m the Batman”) but also because previously Nolan kept him, however blurrily, in frame with Rachel Dawes when she spoke:

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But when he needs to say something?  The camera centers on him and her dark hair turns into an inhuman column:

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In this shot-reverse-shot sequence, he’s clearly the focus.  Granted, he may be out of focus on the reverse shots, but he’s still recognizably him, whereas when the camera flips, she becomes another dark image plastered on a theater wall.  The irony of this portrayal is significant, though, as she’s about to utter the most important words in the film:

Batman begins00147

“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, “but what you do, that defines you.”  Note that from the beginning of this exchange to the utterance of this line, Nolan’s moved from a medium, to a medium close-up, to a close-up on Rachel Dawes.  He’s not letting the words carry the weight here alone: his camera’s actively abetting in the creation of their significance.  Just in case you didn’t catch how her words diminished him, Nolan lets his camera hammer it home:

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Batman begins00178
Batman begins00178

He reverses the cut-pan into Rachel’s face with a slow-cut-pan away from Wayne’s.  The audience has been convinced of her importance by the camera’s movement towards her.  It’s been convinced of his insignificance by it’s movement away.  But!

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Extreme close-up of a glove being put on!

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And of personally autographed toys being picked up!

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Followed by a long shot of a “car” being driven with anger!  THIS MAN WILL NOT BE DIMINISHED!  Nolan knocked Wayne down above, but as the film proclaims, repeatedly, people only fall to get back up.  But “getting back up” isn’t enough for this genre.  Wayne must GET BACK UP, which entails all the criminals being set free, a poisonous gas clogging the air, and every cop in Gotham already having been deployed and incapacitated.  Because this is what it takes for the Batman to GET BACK UP:

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“HELP!”

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“WE HAS NO MORE HELP!”

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“WAIT!  THE FOCUS JUST RACKED SO THERE MAY BE SOMETHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN MYSELF BEHIND ME!”

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“WHAT IS IT?”

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“YES.”

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“COULD YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC?”

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“NEVER MIND.”

At which point, Aristotle’s very happy about the way the plot’s coming together, but we’ve not yet had a moment of sublime anagnorisis. It’s all well-and-good that the Wayne-Gordon-Batman relation is being sewn up, but that’s neither who you are underneath nor what you do that defines you.  If only Rachel Dawes was stuck on that island—

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Excellent!  Maybe with that kid from earlier in the film, too, to wrap it all—

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Even better!  Good thing we cut from that medium shot on her to that close-up on him, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see the pain in his face when he says “Batman will save us.”  Because he won’t.  It makes narrative sense, but Aristotle would roll if Batman literally dropped from the sky deus ex machina-style and saved these two from the island of unlocked prisoners—

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WHAT?

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Those were Bat-thighs, descending from above, like a Greek god, to save this child and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life.  Total coincidence.  It’s not like he’s about to—

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BATMAN SAID WHAT?

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“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.”

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Someone has anagnorisis face, and rightly so, because it’s been a long time coming.  All the close-ups on the faces should’ve alerted the audience to the fact that a revelation was on its way, as there’s no reason to resort to so many in a row if the audience isn’t supposed to key in on faces.  Plus, all those humanizing close-ups make the following sequence all the more moving.  First, a very brief long shot, which breaks the rhythm of the close-ups:

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It also interrupts the conversational rhythm with the abruptness of his flight, emphasizing, yet again, that the Batman is very fast.  But it also adds to the melancholy characterizing the following long shot:

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The little boy he’s just revealed himself to be is alone in the sky, delving into certain pain and possible death, for reasons which the audience knows as well as Dawes.  And he’s doing so alone.  I know italicized-worthy-alone from different circumstances, but in some respect, so do we all.  Even if we don’t, though, Nolan frames this final image in a way that makes any and all final leaps sink into our chest irrespective of whether we’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have to make them.

When I say film’s the most manipulative meduim out there, folks, I’m very rarely kidding.

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  • latinist

    I know perfectly well I’m being pedantic here, but I can’t help it: your use of the phrase “classic peripeteia in this context has actually caused Aristotle’s ghost to rise from his grave, visit me, and demand that I make a comment. A peripeteia, in Aristotelian terms, is NOT NOT NOT when you start doing something, then change your mind and do something else. It’s “the change of an action into its opposite.” If Bruce Wayne tried to avenge his father’s death, and his attempts somehow led to his own death, or to the murderer getting off scot-free, THAT would be a peripeteia. Tragedy is about actions, not people; peripeteia is a change in the nature of an action, not a character switching from one action to another.

    • SEK

      That was a geek shout-out to the wrong chorus, I just didn’t want to tag it with a “spoiler alert.” Needless to say, one of the options you suggested up there obtains, but I’ll say no more.

      • SEK

        (Shorter: Blame Grant Morrison for my comment, but it is accurate.)

  • Lea

    Good lord, there’s a reason they invented blog post jumps.

    I have nothing else to add, so I’m basically an asshole, but jeezy creezy…

    • SEK

      I’m guessing you read this on an RSS reader? Because there’s a jump right before the first frame, as is my Jew-bandwidth-wary-wont.

      • Lea

        Nope, I come right to good old fashioned site, and there was no jump when I first saw the post – whole thing was on the front page.

        Now there’s a jump.

        Weirdness.

        • SEK

          You must’ve checked right after I previewed or somesuch. Since all those images go back to my personal site, I’m really careful about how many I display on the frontpage of this much-more-widely-accessed one.

          Thanks, though, for the heads up.

          • For the record, I initially saw all the images on the frontpage as well. It was nuts.

            • SEK

              That’s really strange. I usually leave one or two images above the fold, but since my first visual rhetoric post here — in which I used up a month’s worth of bandwidth in a little less than a day — I’ve been incredibly careful (or, less charitably, cheap) when it comes to images on the front page. I hope it was just a momentary glitch, otherwise this post is going to cost me. (It’s fine when viewed in RSS readers, though, because they cache the images from the feeds and reproduce them on their dime.)

  • Law Prof

    You might be stretching things with your discussion about how “[Dawes] becomes another dark image plastered on a theater wall.” In each shot, the level of focus/blurriness on both Dawes and Wayne (as listener), as well as the percentage of the frame containing the listener, appears virtually identical to my untrained eye. The reason that Dawes appears to be a “dark post” is simply that she has below-shoulder dark brown hair that has some body. Wayne is more prominent in the shot just because he has short hair (so you can see his ear and neck) and a white shirt collar. If she had had blond hair, or an “updo” she’d be more prominent.

    (I suppose that Nolan could have chosen her hairstyle and dark dress just for that shot, instead of an “updo” with earrings. But she has a similar hairstyle for much of the movie, I think.)

    • SEK

      You’re not wrong: Katie Holmes has dark hair and Nolan’s using a conversational over-the-shoulder shot/reverse shot there … but the effect, especially on theater walls, is that the screen’s cropped. As you say, if Nolan didn’t want that effect, all it would’ve taken was an earring, which makes me assume he wanted it … or was lazy, but I doubt that.

  • bob mcmanus

    Captures need to be brightened up for these purposes. We are not in a pitch black theatre watching on a 30 foot screen.

    • SEK

      I’m not going to disagree with you, but I don’t have a quick and easy way of doing so. It takes Photoshop an hour to load on my desktop and another three to alter any image, so unless you’re willing to start a fund, which project I wouldn’t oppose …

      • bob mcmanus

        Freeware VLC Media Player is what I use

        Plays DVD’s and everything else;has every sliding control desirable inc brightness and contrast;does snapshots in png and jpg. But maybe I am not understanding the process, i.e., why Photoshop? To get size right?

        I have a directory full of clear caps.

        • SEK

          That’s what I use as well, and I have the brightness setting at its highest. I just mentioned Photoshop because (1) I could lighten the images in it, if I could run it, and (2) maybe some kind soul will come across this comment and be moved to buy me a new computer. Mostly, though, (1).

          That said, are they really that dark? They come across fine on my monitor, but if it’s a significant issue, obviously, I’m going to try to correct it.

          • Guest

            They’re fine.

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