In the video essay series "In the Cut," critic Jim Emerson breaks down a key action scene from "The Dark Knight" (2008), annotating the onscreen action to pick apart director Christopher Nolan's editing choices.

When an action sequence goes bad

The first in a series of video essays about editing dismantles the convoy assault in "The Dark Knight"

Matt Zoller Seitz
September 12, 2011 10:13PM (UTC)

"There are plenty of ways to make a movie," writes critic and filmmaker Jim Emerson in an introduction to his video essay series "In the Cut," about film editing. "There are plenty of ways to make a mess, too. But sometimes when I and fellow critics and moviegoers complain of 'incoherence' in modern movies (particularly action sequences), some people say they don’t know what we’re talking about. This is an attempt to be very, very specific about why some of us get confused. What it boils down to this: we’re actually watching the movie."

That's an understatement. Emerson's epic video essay dissects the first part of a single action sequence in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" --  the Harvey Dent jail transfer that's interrupted first by the Joker, then by Batman. Emerson is trying to get to the bottom of why he found the sequence weak, sloppy and confusing.


It goes without saying that most viewers don't agree with Emerson's take. Nolan has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since his 2000 breakthrough "Memento," thanks to his glossy, emphatic style. But his films tend to make a lot of money -- especially "The Dark Knight," the third highest-grossing film of all time -- and he has an immense, extremely vocal fan base that doesn't take kindly to negative criticism of his work. The minute Emerson's piece went up, the comments thread arguments began, with some readers thanking him for demystifying the grammar of shots and cuts ("a great learning tool for people who are starting out with filmmaking and/or editing") and others blasting him for being an obsessive and literal-minded troll ("You seem to work awful hard at looking foolish").

We've reproduced Emerson's complete piece (19 minutes!) below. You can read Emerson's written explanation of what he's trying to do -- plus the complete, uncut "Dark Knight" scene and a contentious comments thread -- by clicking here. For more video essays about film editing and the visual grammar of action scenes, see Matthias Stork's two-part video essay "Chaos Cinema," the writing of film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, and Emerson's blog Scanners. To watch Part 2 of the series, a breakdown of a scene from "Salt", click here.


In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.


Matt Zoller Seitz

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