Gotham’s Subconscious Violence
I spent three hours in a packed movie theater last night waiting to see The Dark Knight Rises. Rotten Tomatoes’ statistics would show that many of you did too. If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to pick out what sets this Batman trilogy apart from every other superhero movie. Sure, the acting is great, the screenplay is well-written, the soundtrack causes me to leak unhealthy amounts of spinal fluid. You could go on for days talking about cinematography, lighting, and the films’ spectacular ability to avoid nearly every cliché that ruins other big-budget hero movies. But really what makes the trilogy great is the use of architecture. The city serves as much more than a back-drop for action-packed fight scenes and touching dialogues; Gotham is the films’ greatest character, and their most terrifying villain.
Gotham, of course, is not a real place. So how do you film on-location in a location that does not exist? Director Christopher Nolan felt that rendering a city of that size using computers would have cheapened the viewing experience, and would frankly be taking the easy way out. Instead, he stitched Gotham together using pieces of the world’s great cities. In an interview, Nolan stated, “Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.”.To film the third movie alone, Nolan shot in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Pittsburgh, and Glasgow. He takes special care to make sure the movies don’t feel like any one city, but rather a mixture of many. Most wide shots stop just before the tops of skyscrapers so that they are nearly unrecognizable. It’s often hard to figure out which city he’s using at any given moment. One minute, our hero is flying his bat helicopter thing in front of what is clearly downtown L.A., while the next shot features the unfinished One World Trade Center. And when the camera gets down to street level, location becomes nearly impossible to discern. The result is that Gotham feels completely real, but at the same time manages to escape the details of any one location, and therefore is its own city. But while this technique successfully transports the viewer into an incredibly realistic alternate universe, the effect of Nolan’s city-melding can be much darker than simple escapism.
Think about how you dream. Your subconscious builds its worlds in much the same way that Nolan builds Gotham. The environments are never concrete, each element taken from different places in your memory. The result is a landscape that shifts and contorts with the changing action. You may recognize pieces, but the whole is always something more, something new. When your mind chooses the good bits from your memory, pieces from places you like, the result is an amalgamation of different areas of your reality. But when it chooses the bad bits, the feeling is entirely different.
It’s clear to me that Nolan knows this, because at times, Gotham is terrifying. This collage of urban textures begins to get under the viewer’s skin, even if he or she isn’t aware of how the scenes were made. As Gotham rapidly sheds and regrows its many layers, it takes on a monstrous and terrifying anonymity. And that’s what makes it such an unstoppable force.
Nolan has created a city that like its greatest hero can become anything it needs to be. And in many cases throughout the series, Gotham eagerly shows its dark side. When prompted about his films’ use of architecture during an interview with Wired Magazine, Nolan said,
“I’m very interested in the similarities or analogies between the way in which we experience a three–dimensional space that an architect has created and the way in which an audience experiences a cinematic narrative that constructs a three–dimensional -reality from a two-dimensional medium—assembled shot by shot. I think there’s a narrative component to architecture that’s kind of fascinating.”
The towers of Gotham seem to rise and fall depending on the tone of the scene, becoming taller and darker as the mood intensifies. The viewer is subjected to a constant and unrelentingly violent barrage of angles and mass. The characters are often dwarfed by the city they are trying to save; the scale of the city often feels too much for one man in a bat suit to tame.
Scale is arguably Gotham’s greatest weapon. The weakness that plagues all other of the trilogy’s villains is their status as a human being. They are at the end of the day one amongst millions. But Gotham is both the millions and the few. It can stretch to envelope everyone that inhabits it, or shrink to taunt one character more personally. Nolan plays a sinister mind game with Gotham’s size. He makes it feel that no matter how far out the camera pans, there is still more of Gotham lurking out of view. Even the widest shot in the third film feels like only a glimpse. The city can feel infinitely tall and vacuous as in this shot…
…dark and oppressive (even in broad daylight) as in this one…
…or as if the weight of an entire city hangs directly above one’s head.
Nolan has a way of using the urban landscape that no other director (or architect, for that matter) can match. He’s aware of the ways that a city can shape and drive our daily lives, and that when tweaked in just the right way, what was once an average city street can become a place of terrifying subconscious warfare.