The Dark Knight Rises

Miguel Penabella | 4 January 2013

The Dark Knight Rises

Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012

“You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

For those of us who look upon Christopher Nolan as a hack director, The Dark Knight Rises comes along to both challenge and verify such a claim. The liabilities that anchor Nolan’s direction down are all present here – David S. Goyer’s murky politicizing, shoddy pacing, too many broad allusions and ideas in a single package, a lack of coherent human drama – and ultimately make The Dark Knight Rises predictably bloated and occasionally tacky. Nolan’s extensive array of characters undermines deeper characterization and genuine human drama in a vain attempt to construct an intricate network of ideologies within Gotham City, and The Dark Knight Rises’s lack of restraint also squanders the talents of an otherwise excellent cast. Yet despite the film’s fair share of misfires and creaky faults, Nolan still assembles a higher quality summer blockbuster than most, or at least one less relentlessly mind-numbing. As a filmmaker, Nolan’s complex approach of unraveling his stories has rarely failed him (see: Memento, The Prestige), and with his Batman franchise, he’s also developed a blockbuster dexterity that transforms these narratives into expansive and open-ended films. The Dark Knight Rises is grandiloquently cinematic in the most blockbuster of ways, with its bloated running time stuffed with grand ideas and memorable set-pieces to push the limits of what popcorn filmmaking can accomplish. Nevertheless, the film remains a fractured work despite its ambitions, with true artistry and narrative brilliance hindered under the limitations of genre. The Dark Knight Rises has a lot to say about class, self-sacrifice, hope, anarchy, order, and law, but all these ideas are crammed into a form that simply cannot hold these ideas in a tangible package. The limitations of blockbuster filmmaking (especially that of a comic book adaptation) force Christopher Nolan to focus on simple theatricality and brainless spectacle to attract any and all audiences, thus leaving its artistic merit incomplete.

Looking at Nolan’s Batman trilogy holistically, these summer blockbusters fit neatly into one unified whole in which each title represents an individual act in the larger story. Rather than as separate pieces, the collective Batman saga signifies Nolan’s storytelling talents at its peak. If his masterpiece The Prestige has anything to tell us, it’s that Christopher Nolan has mastered the fundamentals of a three-act narrative. With his Batman trilogy, Nolan translates The Prestige’s rules for a three-act magic trick into pure cinematic showmanship, thus aligning him with magicians-turned-filmmakers like Georges Méliès and their concern for wowing an audience with spectacle. In The Prestige, Nolan deconstructs a magic trick into three acts: The Pledge (introducing an ordinary act), The Turn (transforming ordinary into extraordinary), and The Prestige (tying everything up to make audiences believe in the magic). It’s no surprise that Nolan applies this basic setup to his Batman trilogy, offering his initial act with the straightforward Batman Begins before upturning the nature of law and order in The Dark Knight, spiriting away his titular hero at the very climax of the series. Thus, if The Dark Knight Rises were to fall under the narrative arc that The Prestige explains, bringing back a redemptive Batman would be the only logical conclusion. Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises includes plenty of visual references to rising and falling, mirroring the undulating narrative arc itself with its big-budget peaks and emotional downturns that bespeak Nolan’s mastery of narrative arrangement.

As individual films, however, the Batman films begin to lose their majesty. Before The Dark Knight Rises can even launch its caped crusade through the neo-noir pulp of Gotham City, we spend a ridiculously long exposition simply brooding about with a forlorn Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. The image of a downtrodden Wayne awaiting a redemptive comeback recalls the work of the landmark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, but devoid of any sense of mood. The opening scenes of the echoing halls of a lonely Wayne mansion lack the emotional weightiness of a man drained of hope; instead, Nolan merely tells, not demonstrates, this loneliness through Wayne’s trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) as a mouthpiece. Unlike Orson Welles’s depiction of maddening isolation in Citizen Kane (a film in which Nolan draws much inspiration from here), The Dark Knight Rises remains automatically contrived in its eliciting of emotions, simply telling rather than letting performance and mise-en-scène convey mood. Even after action begins to rise, the film still features an overlong running time with an excess of characters with separate backstories and motivations that vie to bring the film crashing down altogether. Christopher Nolan has no sense of economy with The Dark Knight Rises, electing such a big ensemble that each character arc transpires haphazardly throughout the film. As the plot wears on, many of his characters simply become one-note with the exception of a select few. Luckily, Nolan has a knack for offering imaginative characterizations of Batman’s rogues gallery, with Bane (Tom Hardy) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) delivering two equally superb performances.

The film follows the exploits of Bane as he fuels urban anarchy and class warfare within a crumbling Gotham City, capitalizing on the departure of Batman after the events of The Dark Knight. Amassing an underground army, Bane’s subterranean stratagem witnesses evil and corruption finally erupting to the surface, and like the aforementioned graphic novel on which this film is partially based, Batman must reemerge to address Bane’s chokehold on the city. Images of civil unrest from the French Revolution to more contemporary issues like Occupy Wall Street abound throughout the film, yet Nolan robs Gotham City of its grubby personality necessary for this kind of storyline. In Batman Begins, the city really looked oppressive, with the split image of a sparkling, aboveground financial sector and a dingy, underground slum betraying the class division that has brought about this conflict to begin with. With The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham’s locale switches from Chicago to Manhattan, and the humanizing portrayal of the working class Narrows cedes to the impassive skylines of the moneyed downtown. Bane’s reign of terror never truly looks as harsh as the status quo of the Narrows in Begins; in fact, the citizens of Gotham remain relatively tame throughout the film except for one kid who steals an apple. The underlying class struggle that Nolan implies never comes to fruition visually even though a film like Batman Begins reveals the director’s capacity to do just that. Frequent monologues appear throughout the film, noting the instability of the ruling classes like a popcorn version of Cosmopolis, and yet Nolan doesn’t offer an actual clash between the moneyed elite and the disgruntled but of mercenaries and police. For a film all about the disadvantaged, the movie poorly represents Gotham’s everyman as reactionary and reckless – less a political allegory and more just a demonstration of weak writing.

Only the chaotic kangaroo court scene presided by none other than Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) translates the imagination of the comics on the big screen, with an insane shot of the loopy tyrant towering over Gotham’s wealthy. The problem with Batman’s politics on law, order, class, and power lies in Nolan’s insistence on his films’ self-serious politicking that aims to condescend rather than instigate dialogue with its audience. Christopher Nolan’s films work better as straightforward heist films with intriguing characters, and discussion often revolves around just that. However, this film’s stubborn resolve for political relevance leaves The Dark Knight Rises problematic, as the filmmakers barely hide the underlying marketing ploy to capitalize on the past year of protest and revolution as movie-of-the-moment pretense. Instead, Nolan and his screenwriter David S. Goyer’s Occupy-inspired visual metaphors of haggard, class-conscious marchers serve as murky, propagandist allegorizing instead of worthwhile cinematic discourse. The film paints its populist movement under Bane as disruptive chaos that leads to rule by madmen, ultimately concluding in a realignment of the status quo under Gotham’s distant, moneyed elite and a (if Batman Begins has anything to tell us) crooked police force. Obviously, the dubious framing of populist movement as destructive mobocracy betrays the film’s awkward politics that couldn’t be any more removed from reality. Nolan continues his despotic portrayal of the torture-happy, secret surveillance-prone Batman (in the context of both post-9/11 politics and Occupy) with aplomb, ultimately concluding with his billionaire hero securing the very structure that preserves his wealth. Rather than reorganizing Gotham’s deteriorating political structure responsible for the city’s extreme wealth disparity, The Dark Knight Rises merely conceals the workings of politics and law in an attempt to restore the status quo (unlike a more levelheaded film like Watchmen, in which Alan Moore’s characters doubted the fabrication of truth and power). Instead, Nolan and Goyer’s anti-populist slant remains messily convoluted, and if were to extend Goyer’s Occupy rhetoric here, The Dark Knight Rises represents a kind of naïve fantasy tale spun for the 1%.

Bane’s declaration that he rules on behalf of Gotham’s impoverished serves as empowerment for a city devoid of hope. Such language indicates the French Revolution angle of the film more so than the Occupy imagery, with Nolan’s pathetic masses easily controlled by a Robespierre-like reign of terror. The Dark Knight Rises offers an unbelievably ridiculous solution to fix Nolan’s three-film politicizing, ultimately concluding with his kindly corporate billionaire donning his flying rodent latex once again as a symbol of justice (?). Frankly, the Batman films have always been extremely self-serious and cynically gritty to a fault, and David S. Goyer’s contradictory screenwriting worsens the entire ordeal. The entire film plays out like a revenge fantasy against Gotham’s fraudulent, moneyed elite who harbor no sympathy for the masses who live in crime-ridden slums; of course, the leader who champions the poor is Bane, the villain. Selina Kyle chastises the excessively wealthy to a seemingly understanding Bruce Wayne, and yet Batman upholds the structure that creates these irresponsible billionaires. Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) abhors the corruption of law and order within Gotham City, but Nolan chooses to fetishize the police force. The film’s shadowy hero advocates for justice and morality, yet operates outside the law with techniques that border on Guantanamo torture. Simply put, The Dark Knight Rises never has a solid stance on anything it presents – Nolan and Goyer seem unwilling (or worse, unable) to choose on a single point to center their narrative on.

Even though the film’s politics are irreparably baffling, Nolan at least manages to get some of his characters in tiptop shape. Tom Hardy works total role commitment as Bane, conveying the villain’s terrific stature and violence with a visceral immediacy. Channeling the muscular monstrosity from his previous gig in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, Hardy doesn’t even need to illustrate his violence through kinetic action but by simply parading his physical stature. Nolan’s camera documents every inch of Bane’s goliath muscles, with oppressive shots from below idolizing his sheer body size. Nevertheless, Bane proves to be much more than pure visceral power because Tom Hardy conveys a colorful personality beneath the masked criminal. Hardy’s Bane swaggers and struts with poise, clenching at his vest and speaking with a calm, gentlemanly accent that makes the villain all the more terrifying. Radiating a cool self-assurance, Bane carries a jovial, almost inquisitive tone as he talks down to his characters (“And this gives you power over me?”), serving as a complete foil to Batman’s exceptionally gruff voice. Make no mistake, however: Hardy unleashes the character’s inner menace with formidable power, with his various close-combat fights against Batman conveying the pure sensory impact of every hit. Hardy knows how to fight (see: Warrior), and Nolan accentuates the visceral atmosphere of these bouts by toning down his music into a dark, echoing chamber of savage punches.

The franchise’s other newcomer Anne Hathaway delivers an outstanding performance as Selina Kyle, conveying the character’s duplicitous nature with a frustrated insecurity over her own ethics. Like the cat burglar she plays, Hathaway steals the show, avoiding a lousy, simplified approach to her Catwoman in favor of a much better developed accomplice to Batman than the Dawes character will ever be. Hathaway brings a mix of refined sexuality and charisma to the role, weaponizing her charm and cunning like the similarly leather-clad (and of course, well-written) Black Widow in The Avengers. Moreover, Nolan reframes the character with a tasteful style after the wreck of previous incarnations of Catwoman, never forcing the camera into weird angles to accentuate pandering sexuality. Instead, Hathaway’s character retains her allure and wit without resorting to condescending fan service; her own moral ambiguity bespeaks a well-written female character for a series in desperate need of one. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the lovely Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, an equally twofaced love interest for Bruce Wayne. Cotillard’s mix of beauty and talent has been well established in films like La Vie en Rose, Midnight In Paris, Rust and Bone, and even Nolan’s own Inception, but the overstuffed ensemble here confines her screen time to second-rate supporting role. Tate never truly comes across as a fully characterized figure, instead merely serving as a plot device in the last twenty minutes of the film just to bring the trilogy full circle. 

Marion Cotillard isn’t the only one who suffers from the overbearing ensemble that Nolan delivers, as the franchise’s trio of veterans – Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman – is relegated to the sideline with one-note performances. Caine admittedly delivers a rousing last bow as Alfred, especially when he breaks down in a moment of humanizing fragility towards the end of the film. Both Freeman and Oldman are earnest, welcoming faces, but Nolan awkwardly marginalizes these two actors with negligible functions within the overall narrative arc. The introduction of Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the series also proves narratively insignificant despite his likability as a hotshot young cop, ultimately concluding with the character as just another piece of plot device. Despite the unwieldy handling of the film’s disproportionate cast, Nolan has a half-decent crew that delivers a clean and polished product. Wally Pfister continues his gorgeous widescreen IMAX cinematography from Inception, with noir-inspired shots of crisp lines, tailored suits, matte surfaces, and muted colors that brilliantly convey a unique style. Numerous upwards shots and sprawling wide lens cinematography express the sheer spectacle of the blockbuster and the imposing nature of Batman’s villains, even if Nolan himself doesn’t quite understand how to maintain dramatic insight on his visuals (like the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, Bane exits abruptly from the series). Hans Zimmer’s wildly bombastic score also lacks dramatic intuition, instead preferring the overblown percussion that drowns out any sort of tension. Only the anarchic strings and chants of “Gotham’s Reckoning” and the delicate piano of Selina Kyle’s theme “Mind If I Cut In?” resonate with any cinematic clarity.

Shoddy pacing and an overblown narrative arc further contributes to The Dark Knight Rises’s lack of coherent cinematic drama, with Nolan’s reapplication of the hero’s journey via Wayne’s ordeal at the Lazarus Pit-esque prison receiving poor dramatic treatment. Nolan uses this segment to interweave backstory and develop Bane’s chokehold on Gotham City, but the lack of a truly cathartic reawakening leaves the entire segment gracelessly handled. Bruce Wayne’s ultimate revelation at the prison – a sort of concession on the relationship between fear and inner drive – proves useless and anti-climactic towards the latter half of the film because Batman never applies this teaching, instead preferring sheer strength and explosive action over human resolve and sharp intellect. The entire sequence feels like a lazy montage to slowly build anticipation for the explosive finale to come, emphasizing the true interests of Christopher Nolan and his crew. But let’s be honest, audiences flock to Nolan’s films for his big spectacle heists because they are incredibly entertaining. Although the director hasn’t matched the quality of his forbearer Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider), heist-inspired moments like the ambitious opening sequence and the stock exchange attack magnificently employ Nolan’s knack for big-budget spectacle. Just don’t praise him as a particularly thoughtful filmmaker.

Nevertheless, the last twenty minutes of the film halfheartedly challenges the liabilities of Nolan’s direction to admittedly worthwhile results. Although Nolan completely ruins Bane’s humanizing backstory with a cute one-liner from Selina Kyle, I’ll concede that the actual plot twist caught me off guard. That a film as overblown as The Dark Knight Rises can still muster up surprises attests once again to Nolan’s ability to focalize his narrative around something to divert attention away from the real magic at work. The film gives many indications of Miranda Tate’s true role throughout the film (including a terrific cameo from Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul), but like The Prestige explains, we want to be fooled. Even Batman’s final disappearing act and his reemergence right before the triumphant closing credits harkens back to The Prestige’s three-act teachings. Nolan even gives a fairly lengthy and clear paper trail detailing Wayne’s steps to anonymity with Selina Kyle, completely refuting fandom’s obsession with labeling Nolan as “ambiguous” or “subversive.” As for a logical explanation of the simultaneous, unrelated disappearances of both Wayne and Batman… let’s not think about it and just enjoy the scenery, shall we?

The unrestrained three hours of The Dark Knight Rises features a convoluted story that introduces too many big ideas and too many new characters without any sense to slow down and unravel coherent human drama. Even when Christopher Nolan hints at deeper emotional resonance underneath his popcorn spectacle, the film overflows with a cacophony of a billion things happening all at the same time, leaving the entire ordeal uneven and messily executed. While the film is certainly an entertaining piece of blockbuster filmmaking, Nolan and Goyer’s stubborn insistence on political subtext and social relevance sours the cinematic experience with superficial understanding and contradictory stances on its issues. The Dark Knight Rises signifies Nolan working at his most grand scale, and yet despite the exemplary organization of his jumbled parts into a somewhat unified whole, the film still lacks a dramatic coherence that would elevate the Batman trilogy above mere popcorn filmmaking. Thus, underneath the claims of gritty pop realism and pseudo-intellectual commentary on the ongoing global financial crisis, The Dark Knight Rises remains mere fairytale.

“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask…”

Notes 7

Introduction to The Directors Series – Christopher Nolan

Miguel Penabella | 21 July 2012

Darkness plagues the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, from the recent hate speech on Rotten Tomatoes from users angry with numerous critics’ negative reviews to the even more recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. But why specifically Christopher Nolan, this frequently applauded director hailing from London who since 1998 has released a total of eight films? Nolan is undoubtedly an important filmmaker, but not necessarily a masterful one, and each and every title in his filmography warrants deep critical analysis. As for the zealous fans who suspended the user comments section of Rotten Tomatoes, their narrow-minded fury against any dissenting critic stems from Christopher Nolan’s ascension to such godly heights, a designation bestowed on him from Internet culture. The issue of Internet groupthink mentality is one issue, but the far more distressing news from Aurora and the motivations behind the deeply mentally troubled James Holmes have complicated the issue of critical discussion even further. He, like many other filmgoers, recognized the status of summer blockbuster as a “movie event,” precipitating the emergence of larger and larger midnight screenings, pre-release forum debate and hungry speculation, and the media blowing such events out of proportion. Nolan’s statement shortly after the disaster reframes the cinema’s vital role in all these events, highlighting the complex nature between filmgoers and the movies itself. “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”

What does this say about our treatment of cinema? We’ve come to the point where media and Internet culture have heightened anticipation and loyalty to a single director to almighty levels, with many fans simply eschewing any form of critical scrutiny in favor of groupthink mentality. Both the Rotten Tomatoes fiasco and the Aurora shootings provide a sobering account on the potential for human barbarity (one cruelly mental, one destructively physical) and its relation to the negative impact of cinema culture. The former signals the dysfunction of critical thinking and the latter reveals the distortion of cinema as perceived by a mentally disturbed individual, perhaps even reflecting a greater pop culture decay. Nolan’s role in all this disorder has to do with his contribution to the cinema: a fixation on cynicism packaged for commercial consumption, or over a billion dollars worth of morose spectacle for impressionable, jaded post-9/11 audiences. So let’s rethink our perceptions of Christopher Nolan and introduce some healthy and amiable dissent. Having watched all his films, I disagree with his de facto role on Internet boards as a bizarrely godlike savior of the cinema. His films are surely nothing terribly new and groundbreaking, nor are they instant masterpieces from an innovative, cinematic genius. 

I do however, think of Christopher Nolan as a capable modern filmmaker, gradually approaching the role as a worthwhile artist. Many audiences and critics are giddy with delight over Inception and the conclusion of his Batman trilogy, but I want to view him with more honest dissent. Fans of Nolan often shout down eloquently argued dissent like a defense mechanism to defend their cherished director, or perhaps even more distressingly, simply overlook and ignore such nonconforming reviews with passive action. Christopher Nolan and his crew forge undoubtedly polished and efficient products, but whether or not such a director has potential for auteur status remains open-ended. Often exploiting the 21st century proclivity for dark, gritty antiheroes and the gray areas of ethical thinking, Nolan tends to sidestep a personal voice in favor of frustratingly detached motion pictures. Sometimes, the director executes his identifiable aesthetic and nuanced narratives well, and sometimes his works are muddled in condescending politicking as to lessen the worth of his craft. 

He’s not the second coming of Christ as the blunt, ubiquitous praise on forums almost seem to suggest nor is he as visionary as his forbearers whom he owes great debt to: Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and so on. However, his films do register with the stylish fluidity of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville than anyone else, channeling his particular brand of contemporary cool, sharply dressed characters, well-oiled drama, and brilliantly cut crime action. Admittedly, Kubrick’s style rubs off at times, namely in Inception’s practical effects and overall aesthetic and The Dark Knight’s brilliant opening sequence that amalgamates elements from Kubrick’s The Killing and Michael Mann’s Heat. Over the course of his career, Nolan has forged an identifiable oeuvre with well-organized films populated with diverse, talented cast and crew. Combined with his traditional cinematography shooting on film, tightly controlled ellipses, and an economical means of presenting style and story, Nolan has an undeniable gracefulness about his films even when his events onscreen present controlled chaos, not unlike a rising fire. 

In the interest of heterodoxy, my critical reviews for Christopher Nolan’s films will not be intellectually censored for the sake of universal appeal. I do enjoy watching Nolan’s films, but the seriousness of the intellectual conversation he posits often comes off as pompous and shallow, and such issues will be heavily discussed in my upcoming evaluations. I’ll be starting off with his Batman trilogy, easily the most elaborate of films to talk about before analyzing his early mainstream successes in Memento and Insomnia. Finally, the Nolan special will wind down to my personal favorites: Inception, Following, and the criminally undervalued, often misinterpreted masterpiece that is The Prestige. But going back to the continually developing tragedy that is the Aurora shooting, these dark days also reveal humanity’s resilience in the face of affliction and sorrow. Despite all the violence, people will still line up this weekend for the chance to enjoy each other’s company in the midst of the big screen, revealing the reverse face of film culture: its unique power for recovery, uniting people in the darkness.

Notes 2

The Column – On Movie Trailers

Miguel Penabella | 18 July 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.


Last summer I compiled a list of striking film trailers that can really leave quite an impression, for an analysis that deconstructed why these trailers were so effective (article found here). Looking back on it, I completely ignored actually defining and laying out what a good movie trailer actually is in theoretical terms; I just jumped straight to examples with only a minor introduction at best. Simply put, a good movie trailer should garner anticipation for a film without giving the entire plot away. Perhaps it can announce the main struggle of its protagonist, but it shouldn’t illuminate the entire conflict over the course of its rashly edited two minutes and fifty seconds set to a Hans Zimmer-derived BRMMM horn from Inception. Recent trends in trailer development and this summer’s fanboy-packed roster of blockbuster titles (The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, to name a few) have greatly changed this dynamic. Rather than titillating audiences, studios have simply decided to placate the burning loins – er, win the hearts and minds – of its near universal audience demographic. To satisfy such a ravenous fan base, trailers have gone above and beyond what they’re meant to accomplish, now giving enough crucial footage to piece together the entire plot of a film. When considering the sheer amount of full-length theatrical trailers and television spots released for just one film (Prometheus has over a dozen promotional videos), eager fans can likely hypothesize how a finished movie could play out in so-called “trailer breakdowns.” And they did.

This investigation doesn’t even include the number of extended trailers released for some films, which are basically entire scenes directly spliced from the film and grafted together with some music and titles slapped on at the end. The recent Amazing Spider-Man movie had so much footage circulating around that the forums and boards were packed with fans who excitedly speculated on certain characters and plot points to the point where many have lost interest in actually seeing the movie in theaters altogether. And if people come away with that sentiment – that the trailers have given them all they need to be satisfied with – then the studios have failed miserably. But what exactly initiated such a growing trend? Surely the fans share the primary blame for willingly sitting through a half hour’s worth of promotional material, but do these spoiler-packed movie trailers reflect trends in the cinema as a whole? I discussed J.J. Abrams twice in my “Deconstructing Movie Trailers” article, talking about the merits of his Cloverfield (which he produced) and Star Trek trailers. Rather than resorting to the typical montage of scenes that trailers often do (sometimes giving too much plot information away), Abrams prefers a calculatedly mysterious tone for his promotional footage, giving a flash of a name – “Enterprise” on the Star Trek teaser – or even a cryptic money shot like the decapitated Lady Liberty in Cloverfield. These are great tactics for early teaser trailers meant to incite discussion, but these trailers don’t give enough way for substantial theorizing of the entire plot of the film (unlike Prometheus’ rapidly edited montage of shots which doesn’t discriminate in using imagery from the final act).

Nevertheless, summer blockbuster titles contain even longer running times, and this factor seems to justify spitting out a two minute and fifty second trailer with shots from nearly every single scene in the film. As for me, I’m perfectly content watching only – and I emphasize that “only” – the initial teaser trailer and the first theatrical trailer, unless of course another trailer happens to roll on by before a feature presentation I watch in the theater (This is how I came to watch the fourth theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight Rises when it played before The Amazing Spider-Man). Which brings us to the bigger root of the problem – the audiences. Rather than exercising some self-restraint, fanatical hordes of people with access to the Internet flock towards any new piece of footage they can get their hands on, even if it’s an international trailer dubbed in another language. The boards don’t help either, as the trailer breakdowns often extinguish any excitement for an upcoming film, leading to hypocritical complaints of trailers ruining the entire plot of a film. Here’s the thing: you’re not meant to watch all twenty trailers released for a film, and if you’re going to argue that studios consciously released all these trailers with easy access for anyone willing to watch, then I suggest you get off your self-entitled high horse because studios don’t personally attend to your every whim. Don’t blame the marketing campaign; blame yourself for intentionally becoming a nosy detective to fulfill your fanatical needs.

Studios aren’t ruining the films for you; the hungry fans who participate in overly obsessive guesswork in the forums spoil the films for themselves because they dedicate so much time to unwarranted pre-release analysis. Trailers aren’t meant to sit in the front of your mind for weeks’ worth of deliberation and hearsay; they’re meant to slowly burn in your unconscious, slowly building excitement rather than cathartically exploding the entire narrative of a film in a Big Bang of Comic-Con internet fan culture. To movie studios: if you want to sidestep the fans who ruin the films altogether, I suggest the brighter half of the Prometheus marketing campaign – the viral advertisements. Because these clips are constructed with footage not included in the film, very little (if any) plot points are revealed, but these ads do enrich the mythology and mystique of a film. Just look at the wondrous “David 8” video, a piece of advertising brilliance that could even make for a great short film. To the hardcore fans out there: it’s perfectly fine not to watch all twenty theatrical trailers, television spots, international trailers, teasers, viral videos, featurettes, production diaries, etc. Watch only one, maybe two.

It can be done.

Notes 0

The Column – Money Never Sleeps: On Fixing the Global Financial Crisis

Miguel Penabella | 27 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.


I once took an economics course, but most of that time sitting in lectures either witnessed me browsing Reddit or reading music reviews off Pitchfork. Naturally, I suppose I’m more than qualified to speak on the global financial crisis and potential approaches with which to solve such a quandary. I have to admit, I’m completely oblivious to the various G-20 summits held around the world and I have no idea what the term “hedge fund” means, but I do enjoy reading Bloomberg Businessweek and I did actually pay close attention in my Asian studies class, the syllabus of which focused on late 20th century and 21st century contemporary global issues ranging from glocalisation to critical media theory. By no means am I supposing that what I have to offer to economic discussion carries a profoundly intellectual, even mildly thoughtful weightiness. What I do hope is for an amusing spiel of a column that may or may not instigate some kind of appreciative consideration, or even an amused grin on one’s face.

Ever since the major turning point in 2007 when the global financial crisis and recession became an immediate thing within our society, global think tanks and politicians have been squabbling on how the bloody hell to go about solving the problem. I for one oppose austerity measures in Europe and champion the tried-and-true rules of elementary economics concerning expansionary fiscal policy. An increase in government expenditures and a cut in taxes will increase aggregate expenditures and real GDP growth, thus gradually lowering the rate of unemployment and balancing the budget. That’s the old route taken directly from economics’ fundamental level, and that tends to work in 20th century politics. Unfortunately, the 21st century has complicated the issue, what with the Eurozone, more recent changes in the Glass–Steagall Act, globalization, so on and so on. The truth is, people will hesitate in investing in such an unstable economic atmosphere no matter how safe it may seem; political mudslinging in the upcoming election and media spin will likely exacerbate already build-in anxieties for the future. On the other hand, people will also doubt the integrity of the banking system, especially considering how interconnected the world’s economies have become due to our incessant championing of the virtues of globalization. With vital countries on the brink of economic collapse (specifically Greece, Italy, and Spain), the thought of their failures causing a catastrophic domino effect on a majority of the European Union, and unavoidably, on the United States warrants uncertainty and anticipation lest people’s savings and pensions disappear should Greece ever implode from all the chaos. 

Even more distressing is how flawed our banking system operates, because if people decide to begin taking out their savings in a nice about-face to the global financial sector, then the entire industry would crumble. No matter how much we loathe the overpaid, underhanded Wall Street money machine, they’re here to stay simply because they’ve written themselves into the global financial system in such a way that their removal would sink economic conditions even further. And because unmitigated economic globalization has now become central to economic thought, the complex interactions within the market and its contribution to gross domestic product becomes a bit fuzzy. We’d like to spend more money in an effort to appease our government’s push for investment and consumption to stimulate the economy once again, but that’s not taking into account the actual goods produced. Because the manufacturing sector of developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have been outsourced to areas of cheaper industrial labor, namely developing countries China and India, buying imported goods only stimulates their GDP. Truth is, a majority of the goods we purchase are produced overseas, and this factor confounds the conversation on how to stimulate the economy once again.

So what does the cinema have to say about the global financial crisis? As history tells us, no other industry during the Great Depression in America prospered quite like the film industry. Granted, there were a number of theater closures and flops, but the classic, monopolistic studio system of RKO, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox continued to make money all throughout the Depression to the point where the Supreme Court allowed these monopolies to exist because they were so vital to the economy. Hell, even a company as significant as 20th Century Fox emerged in the midst of the Depression in 1935. Clearly, if an industry that produces nonessential goods/services can subsist and even flourish in an era where entire populations waited in soup kitchen lines, the film industry can thrive in this era’s recession, right? For the most part, the 21st century has shown that cinema is recession resistant, but not necessarily recession-proof. MGM tanked in 2010 when it declared bankruptcy, but in the context of the modern movie industry spectrum where dozens and dozens of growing companies exist (and not just the five major studios back in the 1930s), MGM’s failure comes as no surprise. Even as one monolith lays low in a slow recovery process, numerous other studios are rising to take its place: Lionsgate (The Hunger Games), The Weinstein Company (The Artist, The King’s Speech), etc. People will always turn to the cinema as one of the cheapest sources of escapist entertainment because of the medium’s role as mass entertainment. An increasing number of films are being released with each passing year, and the top earners are already surpassing the billion dollar worldwide gross mark, regardless if the numbers are adjusted for inflation or not.

The widely successful Harry Potter series has earned $7,706,147,978 in the course of a decade, which is still greater than the total grosses for 24 James Bond films or 7 Star Wars films (including that animated one that nobody remembers), proving that even in the midst of the worst part of the economic crisis, the cinema will prosper. And let’s not forget the flourishing newcomer that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose six films have entered into the pop culture consciousness as one of the surefire moneymakers at the box office. People go to the movies even when food needs to be put on the table and mortgages need to be paid because these troubles simply vanish in the dark, air-conditioned palaces where recession woes cannot enter. Movie theaters are the purest form of bread and circus to appease unruly masses – the junk food of the lobby paired with the bright, Orwellian screens looming over passive audiences. There are a number of exceptions to the rule, however, as some films also reflect social realities to comment on modern times. The critical and commercial results that come out of these films reveal significant insights on how many Americans feel about the political/economic topics implied within, and these results speak a lot about our current social atmosphere.

One recent example is Oliver Stone’s flop back in 2010 with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a film that features the iconic Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (Michael Douglas) returning to the screen. While the film may be a sequel to a high profile title, box office returns have resulted in a much talked about failure amongst the film community. What Stone failed to anticipate was the worsening financial crisis and the tarnished image of Wall Street, and the film’s depiction of moneyed figures representing the corporations/financial institutions that played a major role in our current economic malaise simply alienated audiences. In contrast, 2010’s surprise hit The Town won over critics and audiences with its premise of populist everymen from a working class background combating the forces who’ve plagued the economy in the first place. Director Ben Affleck portrays his characters as bank robbers on surface level, but in the context of the financial crisis, a heist film as this pretty much serves as a middle finger to the banking system itself. Then there’s the Occupy-tinged Coriolanus and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and you can see for yourself the vast majority of America sympathizing with working class woes and shunning the corrupted institutions that brought down the economy to begin with.

The populist-minded mood of filmgoing audiences couldn’t be farther away than the current American government, which many critics have derided as a “Wall Street government.” Indeed, such big names as Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke (the latter of which is our current one) have been plagued with controversy over their support for Wall Street names. And let’s not forget Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner (the latter of which is also our current one), both of whom have worked in Wall Street and thus, to many Americans’ populist eyes, view them simply as out of touch with everyman misfortunes. What the government needs to recognize is its constituents’ disproval of Wall Street and major corporations – having them onboard may perpetuate our continuing financial crisis. Instead, as Mr. Smith reminded us back in 1939, even an earnest common man can make it to Washington. Added to this prospect the current “We are the 99%” movement of Occupy, the masses are beginning to reawaken to more direct action against less than stellar government policies.

One last consideration on the global financial crisis: world markets. I’ve brought it up numerous times before, and I’ll bring it up again. Globalization has changed the face of international relations, and if developed countries are to pull through an economic downturn, leaders absolutely must turn to developing countries. These emergent powers drive economic growth, specifically the much talked about BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. In the realm of the cinema, the popcorn blockbusters of the summer have proved time and time again that overseas box office grosses are vital for considerable ticket sales – especially China. Men In Black 3 grossed over $75 million in the country, a considerable return that exceeds any other national audience besides the United States. Just like in the economic realm, reception from overseas markets remains absolutely vital if consumers in America are reluctant to spend money. As a result, many films have received international financial backing such as the upcoming Iron Man 3 and Looper (both from DMG Entertainment, a Chinese studio) and even production company Legendary Pictures have created a Chinese offshoot studio Legendary East and partnered with Huayi Brothers Media Corp. to release The Dark Knight Rises.

In conclusion, the most straightforward way to help the American economy would be to cater to China’s whims. After all, refusing to admit that the country isn’t a credible superpower would be a step towards doom, and of course, we want to avoid a Cold War-esque manufacturing race because we’ll surely suffer for it. So then, I suggest taking a step away from Wall Street and looking across the ocean to brighter prospects that lie beyond the horizon: for the greatest good of economic recovery, we should all probably watch The Dark Knight Rises then.

Notes 1

The official trailer for The Dark Knight Rises: Catwoman is part of the 99%, Bane gets a voice, and the Skyrim trailer chanters return.

Notes 0

News Feed [volume 1]

Miguel Penabella | 9 August 2011

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Notes 3