There was a time when we just let people make movies.
A script would be written, a crew and cast would be assembled and everyone would go off and film. Meanwhile, posters would be printed, trailers cut and announcements made, and when the film was complete everyone would go to the cinema to see it, and the verdict of the critics and the public would be handed down in due course.
This is not the way things happen anymore. At least, not where mega-blockbusters are concerned.
The first part is more or less the same, but we don’t seem satisfied with looking at posters and waiting anymore. Now everyone’s got a camera in their pocket at all times, and everyone wants to be in the know, and news travels fast and suddenly we’re living in the age of the Spoiler Alert.
I’m not complaining about this, mind you. I’m an entertainment journalist, specifically a science fiction entertainment journalist, so I make a good portion of my living on people who sneak onto film sets and take pictures. It’s OK that it happens. People are curious, the internet is instant content creation and those two things go hand in hand. But an unfortunate side effect of this relatively recent phenomenon is the sudden ability to comment on films from afar as they’re being made.
I’m speaking specifically about the storm of interweb editorializing that has surrounded every facet of Christopher Nolan’s final Batman opus, The Dark Knight Rises.
Now hold on, fanboys, because I’m not about to chastise you for having a vocal opinion about what you see on the internet. I happen to think that’s by and large a good thing. But let’s examine this more closely for a moment. With a few exceptions, film (and television, which I consider a subset of film) is the only artistic medium in which we do this, in which we’re now able to see bits and pieces of a much larger work in progress – out of context and without any real sense of presentation by the artists themselves – and then opine at length about them even as the artists continue on with their work. Please note that I’m not speaking about official publicity images, which are an inevitable part of a film’s PR machine, but all the leaks that stream out of every major set these days. If a filmmaker on a big-budget flick with a major star dares to shoot outdoors, someone is bound to be there with a camera to see what they can find.
This is not to say that it’s a sin to do this, but think about it compared to the way other art happens. No one was storming into Picasso’s studio while he was painting Guernica to tell him that his lines just weren’t working that day, or barging in on Dickens to improve his grammar in crucial sequences of Great Expectations. No one was peering down from a rooftop with a telephoto lens while Scorsese was shooting Goodfellas either, but now it’s so common that new photo leaks from one flick or another wind up on the ‘net virtually every day.
Again, I am not condemning this behavior, because I know what it means to be a fanboy chomping at the bit for the next installment in his favorite franchise, but consider where this has gotten us with The Dark Knight Rises. People don’t like Anne Hathaway, or the way she’s dressed. They don’t like Tom Hardy’s costume, or his voice. They don’t like the supposed plot that’s leaking out, or the way Gordon sounded when the teaser trailer made its way out into the world. And hey, maybe they’re right about all of those things, but this is a movie we’re talking about.
Movies don’t work like other art forms work. Or at least, they don’t anymore. When a painting happens, one guy sits in a room with a canvas and paints and works until it’s done, then brings it out and shows everyone and lets them judge how they may. When a movie happens, hundreds of businessmen, technicians, designers, craftsmen, actors, extras, cooks, drivers and other important people get together for a few months and all contribute in one way or another, then a few of them sit together in dark rooms and cobble it all into something that they hope makes sense, and then it gets sent out into the world. And these days, in between all of that, there are guys with iPhones trying to record the cool bits and put them on the internet before anything is cobbled together in any cohesive way.
Which brings me to the real point of all of this, the actual “defense” that I referred to in the title.
The Dark Knight Rises will come out next summer, and some of you will hate it. There’s a chance that most of you will hate it, and there’s even a chance that I will hate it, much as it pains me to think about that. It could be the most epic mess in the history of superhero filmmaking. Everything the internet naysayers have said could be 100% right.
But guys, the damn thing isn’t done yet.
Movies are collaborations, but they’re not random assemblages. If they’re done right, they are cohesive, seamless works of art. Just because that one picture you saw of that one guy doesn’t look too great, or that one voice you heard didn’t sound so cool, doesn’t mean that after hours of re-takes and post-production it won’t look amazing. It might still be crap, but a key part of experiencing a film is experiencing it as a whole. It’s like those people who say they didn’t like The Godfather and then admit they turned it off before the scene with Michael and the cop in the restaurant. If you didn’t finish it, you didn’t see it. And if you just saw a clip some dude took and put on YouTube, you definitely didn’t see it.
A few years back Warner Bros. gave a guy who’d never made an action movie before the keys to their biggest action franchise, and he made Batman Begins, a great superhero film that relaunched the franchise Joel Schumacher sunk. We thought it couldn’t get any better, and then we got The Dark Knight, the greatest superhero film I’ve ever seen and quite possibly the greatest film of 2008. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing every feature film Christopher Nolan has ever directed, and in seven films he’s never made a bad movie. Not all of them are truly great, but all of them are solid, enjoyable, complex films that are evidence of tremendous talent. How many filmmakers can say they’ve made seven solid movies in a row, more than one of them good enough to be called masterpieces? It’s an exclusive club.
And now, after two improbably great Batman flicks, he’s making his last hurrah, and the backlash against many of his choices along the way has risen to cacophonous proportions in certain corners of the internet. It’s understandable, really. We loved the first two so much that we really, really care about what happens to the third one. We want this franchise to stay alive, and we want Nolan and Bale to go out with a bang, and a good many of us have doubts. That’s OK.
But a film is a singular experience. It’s something you’re meant to take in all in one bite. You can make all the judgments on internet leaks you want, but at the end of it all Christopher Nolan and his post-production team are going to go into those dark rooms and they are going to sculpt the footage they’ve gathered into the film Nolan wanted to make, and he’s going to roll it out and show it to us, and there’s not a damn thing any internet rant (not even this one) can do about it.
If The Dark Knight Rises turns out to be a creative failure, it will be the most luxurious, over the top, balls to the wall creative failure in the history of movies, because when a great filmmaker makes a bad movie he at least makes sure it’s epic. But the only way we’ll know for sure if it soars or sinks is to see it in its entirety, to let Nolan place his complete vision in front of us and, for better or worse, allow us to judge.
The speculation won’t stop, ever. Not for this film or any other. We’ve crossed a line into this era and we’re not turning back. That’s fine, but after seven films and two utterly astounding Batman movies, Christopher Nolan has earned the right to make the film he wants to make and sink or swim with it. There was a time when we just let people make movies. We never will again, but for someone who has done this so well for so long, we should at least grant a measure of respect.